Saturday, December 19, 2009

Miketz: Behold!

We dream of the past, they dreamt of the future.

In this parsha, Pharaoh has two dreams that puzzle him, and his butler recommends an interpreter that he met in prison two years earlier, Joseph. Joseph appears, interprets the two dreams about upcoming seven years of good harvest years and then seven years of famine and Pharaoh, like everyone else before him, spots Joseph as someone who is deeply capable, appoints him ruler over all but Pharoah, with the power to organize things so that they’ll all have something to eat. After seven years, the famine hits and Joseph handles it well, with the exception of a rather disturbing episode during which he exploits the peasants’ hunger to steal their land but…we won’t talk about that now.

People come from all over to ask Joseph for food, including his family. The brothers don’t recognize Joseph and in this parsha, the dance between Joseph and his past begins, as he tests his brothers to see what manner of men they are, and, I think, examines his own heart and motivations. The story concludes in the next parsha with forgiveness stemming from Joseph’s belief that this was all set in motion by God so that Joseph could save his family and, we can read into it, to eventually get all the Hebrews to the crucible of slavery and the dessert and thus to Sinai so we can receive Torah. Yay.

In the Torah, when there’s a dream, this word appears:

Translated in this context, as Behold. Hinei! Behold! A dream!

If I’m sitting with you and say, hey I had an amazing dream last night you might, to my face, say, oh cool but inside you are more likely to say, please don’t tell me please don’t tell me, because a dream is never as fascinating to the listener as it is to the teller, alas. Which is too bad because a dream is so interesting, biologically, psychologically and spiritually. What is a dream? A neurologist may tell you it’s a series of random images thrown up during sleep that your brain needs to make sense of and so it turns it into a story. A therapist may tell you that the images your brain chooses are windows into past traumas and current anxieties. But to the ancient Hebrews, a dream is prophecy, literally every image is a coded message from God and really important, fully worth of a Hinei! Because God knows the future and has chosen to show it to you.

We dream of the past, they dreamt of the future

Now to the rabbis of the Talmud, a dream without interpretation is a wasted message from God, a letter unopened. Rebbi Hannina ben Yitchak saw a dream as un-ripened fruit, the unripened fruit of prophecy. Only by explaining the dream could it ripen into a fruit worth eating, a prediction of the future. And as it turns out, most of us are not qualified to interpret dreams accurately, nor should they because a dream, properly interpreted, will come true. Sfarno believed that the knowledge to intepret is a function of b’tselem elohim, of people being made in God’s image. We cannot look God’s truth in the face directly, but because we are made in God’s image, we can channel it through our dreams and see it there.

So in Torah and Talmud, if God wants the interpretation known so the dream isn’t wasted, God may choose someone like Joseph to interpret it correctly. The sages say only competent interpretation creates reality but, as someone who lives in a world of Fox News, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, I only wish this were so. Incompetent interpretation creates reality all the time. But I digress, back to Joseph.

I think we can look at the entire story of Joseph as a dream, properly interpreted.

Behold, Joseph dreamed.
And told his dreams to his brothers and father
But he did not interpret those dreams
And if it had ended there
Things might have turned out very differently.
But Jacob the aging Wrestler understood and interpreted
And gave him a striped coat
And so the dreams came true
The story commenced

And one day he saw his brothers again
He was a lord
And they bowed down to him
And he understood,
He had dreamed the story
And it had been explained
The cycle was complete
And no need to be bitter
And they embraced. And they wept. And they ate.

And what was it all for?
To save the family from starvation?
To get them to Egypt
so they could become slaves?
so they could escape?
So they could meet God at Sinai?
Or was it just for the story?
It’s a good story.

Rabbi Hannina says the unripened fruit of prophecy is a dream.
And Rebbi Avin says the unripened fruit of heavenly wisdom is Torah.

And I say the unripened fruit of truth is the story.

In English, the word dream speaks about what we do during REM sleep but it also is about what we aspire to for our future, the stories we tell ourselves, personal and communal prophecies. We dream of the past, they dreamt of the future but I suggest that we embrace the ancient sense of dreams and look to our future, and dream of what is to come.

And I wish for us all that we choose our stories and interpret them properly through our words and our actions so they will come true and change the world for the better, and may we all see whatever happens as part of a larger story so we can forgive and not be bitter and weep and embrace and eat, just like our illustrious and probably fictional ancestor, Joseph of Egypt.


Friday, December 11, 2009

A Shabbat Prayer

So, this is what happened.

On the way to shul
Shabbat morning
I run into Max, also on his way there
And I walk with him.
We get to the corner, the light is red but there are no cars to be seen, I start to cross
Max doesn’t.

I walk back to him, puzzled. The light turns green, he crosses.
You don’t jaywalk? He smiles.
This is New York, everyone jaywalks.
Not on Shabbat? I ask.
That’s it, Max says. Every day we rush rush rush, on Shabbat, when the light tells me to slow down or stop, I slow down or stop.
I get it, I say, fantastic. love it!

And I try it on the way home that afternoon.
How fun, a new minhag.
All Walk signs, the little white walking man,
Until I get to the corner,
Two blocks from home.
Don't Walk.
There’s no traffic in any direction.
And the Don’t Walk sign is a palm print, a red hamsa.

Stop, says the hamsa. It’s Shabbat.
Meditate on the moment, you are stopped, no future no past, rest here on the corner of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue in Park Slope Brooklyn, rest, rest…
I stop.

It’s driving me insane.

There’s no traffic! What am I waiting for? This is soooo not New York,
I'm supposed to move forward whenever I can,
not stop when I can go.
And I can go!!!

Only a few more seconds I’m sure.

Friggin’ hamsa, where’s the little white walking man. I want the walking man. People are walking past me, they must think I’m hurt or crazy, just standing on the corner, no traffic, stopped. Damn you, Max!

But I said I would stop so I’m stopped.
So I look around. I see the leaves on the sidewalk. I hear the sounds of Brooklyn Saturday afternoon. Some kids are shouting at each other. Across the street a couple walks together, bumping each other as they move, friendly bumps.
I’m breathing.

A dog barks. I like dogs.

I’m resting.

Leaves on the sidewalk. Huh, look, a nice kind of rust colored one, lays next to a maroon one, looks good. Reminds me of the curtain on the Torah Ark.

Nice day. Here. Just here. Not going forward. Not going backward. Shabbat.

Oh no, the light is green, there's the little white white walking man.
Too soon!

I go on.

Blessed God of My Ancestors, Inventor of Shabbat, thank you for the stopping and the not stopping.


Monday, October 5, 2009

A Prayer of Having and Not Having

Baruch At Yah, Eloheinu Ruach Ha Olam
We had a lot and now have not so much, had little and now have even less.
Or We had enough and now enough isn’t enough
Or we never had anything.
Or We used to not care about whether we had things, which is a lot easier when you have things to not care about.
So now what to do? I suppose we pray.

Hopes have been dashed, plans have been changed. We never really could plan but we thought we could and now we know we can’t and it breaks our hearts.
So now what to do? I guess we pray.

We followed the rules and lost anyway. We didn’t share what we had when we had it, or we shared but shared too little
Now it’s lost jobs, dull jobs, low paid jobs, any jobs, middle-aged and can’t get hired, retired and have to go back to work, young and can’t get that first gig.
I assume we pray

Pray for what? A winning Lotto ticket? Sleeping pills? Closed eyes and fingers in our ears, singing la la la la la, don't want to see, don't want to
So pray:
Ineffable and Eternal One-ness, whether you can help or no, I’m praying for it anyway. Help it to get better, help us make it better, help us fight back, help us all.
Wait, no, I’m not praying for the greedy and the cruel. Let them get their own prayer. This is ours.

So okay, I prayed. Now what to do? I’m hungry.
Bite into a ripe fig.
Into the tight black-green skin, the soft pink sweetness and the white seeds, the beginnings of life.
Well, maybe not this particular fig, thwarted. A mere metaphor.
And pray again.

God, Yah, Ruach, Ein Sof,, ineffable eternal connecting whatever:
Shanah Tovah.
And thank you for this luscious ripe black-green fig.

Monday, September 7, 2009

If, then

Ekev means, IF, as in “If you do obey these rules and observe them carefully your God will maintain faithfully the covenant made on oath with your fathers.”

This parsha is basically an algorithm. If this, than this. Rabbi Lippmann tells me that this is the origin of the name Jacob, the ekev can mean heel, as in Jacob holding on to Esau’s heel at birth, then supplants him. If Esau, then Jacob. If this condition is met, this this result will ensue. For every action, there is a reaction.

This entire parsha is about God’s reaction to Hebrew actions. Do the right actions and the rewards are many. The land of Israel, prosperity, happiness. The parsha even cites God’s resume as proof, goodies already received: freedom from slavery, water and manna in the desert and my personal favorite, after walking for forty years in the desert, no swollen feet. Clearly, this is a God who knows how to deliver. And punish. If you don’t obey commandments then you will lose everything. Live stock will die, mothers will be barren, plagues, famine, all the bad things that can happen will happen. If, then.

So if God is If and people are then and Judaism is about how Jewish people mold that action, so what are the actions that God requires? Here’s the basic plan, Ekev 10:12, in Robert Alter’s translation, “And now, O Israel, what does your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, paths, to love him, and to worship the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being, to keep the Lord’s commands and His statutes which I charge you today for your own good?”
So there it is. We are required to Fear, Walk, Love, Worship and Keep.

Fear God, Walk in God's ways, Love God, Worship/Serve god, Keep God's laws

Fear. What does that mean, Fear God? I fear many things but God isn’t one of them. God isn’t some inexplicable divine being looking to punish me personally. I fear random acts of cruelty, I fear unemployment, I fear loneliness, I fear lack of meaning, I fear death, but God? God is an abstraction, most of the time, or God is Ultimate Connection, That which is Before, During, After and not In time, God is beyond my petty ability to comprehend, how can I fear that which is so completely and utterly beyond what I could ever hope to understand but which I firmly believe is not a being, not something that takes a personal interest in me, not something that wants to punish and reward me and yet, during the silent Amidah, I pray to that God. I do. I don’t want to, I don’t think I’m every going to get an answer, but I pray to that god who rewards and punishes. Go figure. Plaut translates this word not as fear but as revere. And somehow, fear and revere, turn into respect for me. Healthy respect. Hmm.

Walk. Walk in God’s way. What way, the way of the torah, Derekh Torah? I’m not sure that’s God’s way. I don’t think God, whatever God is, is Jewish, but my way is Jewish, if I walk that path, will God, whatever that is, see I’m headed in the right direction? Kindness, Healing, Compassion, I try for those, is that the way. Yes, but also all these obligations and laws. Does God really care if I wear tzitzit or eat bacon? I mean, really? Really. The Jewish way, the way of my people, a lasting way, often a good way, but is it God’s? and if not God’s, then whose? The American Way? The Kolot Chayeinu way? Do I walk the Kolot Chayeinu walk, and when I do, is that godly? Or is it just loop thinking, us sitting around congratulating ourselves on how clever and good we are.

Love. Love God. Again, too abstract. I love my friends, sometimes I love my family, I love my pets, I love vintage costume jewelry, I love Lost and Mad Men, I love Brooklyn. I love to learn, I love to laugh, I love Kolot Chayeinu. When I love all these things, because all these things are God, if they are, do I love God? Or must I obey these commandments to love God?
Worship. Worship God? That sounds like idolatry, to my modern self, like worshipping crossed sticks, or Zion, or Baal or America Love it or leave it. Golly, I don’t begin to know where to go with that. I don’t even know what it means to worship. What is that? Like the way I felt about the Beatles when I was nine? Or is if blind faith, complete belief? My first reaction is to scorn blind faith, but if I think about it for even a second I realize I have blind faith in a zillion things. I believe my computer will work, the TV will come on, that the internet exists. I have no real actual idea how any of these things work, but I believe they will work and most of the time they do. I believe in the shining ideal of America. I know much of the time it’s a farce, but dammit I believe in it, I do. So if I can believe in technology and America, why can’t I believe in God? And maybe I do, I think I sort of do, actually. But with all my heart? All? The mind boggles. Part of me aspires to that. But it seems beyone possibility or maybe even to be desired. And yet, there’s a part of me that knows, I have been in God’s presence, I have been in the overwhelming Is and Was and Will Be for a secnd or two, and I know it’s there, I do know it’s there, but worship it? Worship? The very essence of God’s presence is that it just…Is. that’s not something to worship. Worship separates you from God, I think.

Keep. Keep God’s laws. I keep human laws, mostly. And I think Halacha is made by humans, but I don’t keep those. How do I answer to these rules which can seem so arbitrary and absurd, how can I keep God, or my conscience, or my community, or myself, from punishing me when I’m too lazy or indifferent or bored or angry to even think about a way of life that has served my people for thousands of years? How do I fear, walk, love, worshp and keep as an individualist mindful progressive Brooklyn Kolot Chayeinu Lippmanner Jew?

Weirdly, I find that the more I learn Jewishly, the more I want to explore these obligations and perhaps, maybe, find an individualistic progressive Brooklyn Kolot Chayeinu Lippmanner Jewish way to obligate myself, to walk the Derekh Torah.
What are the obligations? What are the choices? What does halakhah mean for me? Do I imbue the legalistic requirements with meaning, do they already have all the meaning they need and I just need to discover it? Do I have the discipline for those obligations? If I don’t, would I if I believed it to be derived from revelation? Would I, if I immersed myself in a community where they are followed without question? Is there any universe that exists where I would actually choose that life?

Hell no, and yet. If then.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fruit Flies

A Prayer for Birkat HaChammah

God: Eternal, Infinite, Awesome, and Vast Unknowable!
Is/Was/Will Be
That which is before everything I think of as real was here.
That which is now whether I understand it or not.
And that which is left after all that I think will last forever is gone.

The fruit fly lives a lifetime in a day and says its Shabbat prayers every half hour.
We get our three score and ten and we say our Shabbat prayers once a week.
The sun lives billions of years and we say a prayer on its behalf once every twenty-eight years.

So Eternal….how often do you say your prayers?

Speaking of which, God, if I haven’t mentioned it before? I'm really scared. I need something to hold on to, something really big and solid
But also small enough for me to comprehend.
So this morning I gratefully pray with the sun, precisely because, like me, it is not eternal.

It just looks that way to us fruit flies. Amen.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Vayigash - Then Judah approached Joseph

In the first part of Vigash, Judah begs Joseph not to punish Benjamin because of the pain it will cause their father who has still not gotten over the loss of Rachel’s other son. This causes Joseph to break down and confess who he is to his brothers.
When Joseph sends his brothers back home to bring Jacob and the entire family back to Eqypt so he can take care of them, he says to them just as they are leaving, according to your Plaut translation, instead of Bye Bye, have a nice trip, he says, “Do not be quarrelsome along the way.”

Do not be quarrelsome? What is that about? They’ve had this great reconciliation, everything is hunky dory love fest, and by the way, don’t fight on the way home? I love this. This line justifies the whole parsha for me, this line is as human a line in the Torah as I have ever read. I love you and all is forgiven and no fighting in the car! Does Joseph know his brothers, or what?
Now Rashi, according to the Jewish Study Bible, says that the plain sense of this line, do not quarrel amongst yourselves, is that the brothers should refrain from blaming each other for the sale of Joseph which would eventually make them resent Joseph.

But Robert Alter takes a different tack, he translates this line as, “And he sent off his brothers and they went and he said, Do not be perturbed on the journey.” Perturbed? Another translation says, Anxious.
Alter explains, “there has been some dispute about the meaning of the verb here. It is occasionally used in context that associate it with anger and so many interpreters have imagined that Joseph is warning his brothers not to yield to mutual recrimination and perhaps fall to blows on the way home. But, says Alter, the primary meaning of the verb is ‘to quake’ or ‘shake’, either physically or emotionally, and it is the antonym”, the opposite, “ of being tranquil or at peace. Alter thinks it more likely that this is Joseph reassuring his brothers that he won’t take vengence on him.
I…don’t think so. Like I said, Joseph, he knows his brothers. He knows how they react to stress. Those guys, when things are weird or go bad, they panic.

When Joseph threatened the brothers’ sense of superiority, they panicked and threw him in a hole. When Jacob went into continuous mourning, they panicked and continued the lie. They panicked when famine struck their land, when the Pharaoh’s viceroy took a bizarre interest in them and when that viceroy accused them of theft.
I know all about panic. My mother’s father was well to do. In the 1920’s he owned what was then called a department store in Western Pennsylvania. They had cars, they took vacations, his oldest child was in college and the youngest, my mother, was pampered in every way. Then, in 1932 during the Depression, my grandfather lost his business and he and his family went from having everything to having absolutely nothing. My grandfather panicked and he killed himself. He shot himself. And the person who found the body first was his eleven-year old daughter, my mother. My mother never really recovered from this and, through her, neither have I. She lived in a continual state of panic or panic-induced depression most of the time I knew her.

This current economic crisis has me in a panic. I am unemployed and I see no sign of getting a job any time soon. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying. And I’m not just panicking for myself. I’m worried about the the well being of my friends, my family, my community, my country, Israel, the world, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, everywhere. Global Warming, paying off my credit cards, bailing out the auto industry, rockets in Southern Israel,. I mean, c’mon! I want to lash out, I want to punish someone, I don’t know who and I don’t care! I’m freaked out! Aren’t you?
But then I think about my grandmother. She was one tough cookie. After her husband’s death, she picked up her kids and moved back to Queens where she was from, and she started a business installing and servicing laundry machines in apartment building basements. She started with one machine and by the time she died I 1966 she was well off and had started a business that her son and son-in-law kept going for many years. I went to college on those washing machines. My grandmother survived and flourished.

So I know, I assume, I will get another job, eventually. Barack Obama is going to be president soon and he will get done what needs to be done.

Joseph, when he matures, is calm and a thinker always guided by his principles and his brain. When faced by catastrophe he survives and flourishes. Even at his most emotional moments, when he sees his brothers after so many years, he plans and he tests and he doesn’t act until he is sure that they, in the person of Judah, are truly sorry for what they did and that they are ready for his help.

Intellect and heart don’t work when they are separated. Joseph as an intellect alone is not enough. Later in the parsha, when the free peasants of Egypt beg him to feed them during the famine he logically and horrifically turns them all into serfs. Judah as a feeling man is not enough. His anger at Joseph’s youthful arrogances and his love oforhis brothers stop him from helping Joseph when he needs it the most.

So Joseph cries when he sees his brothers again and when he makes himself known to them. And he cries when he sees his father after so many years. He feels deeply, and acts on those feelings, but not impulsively and not with anger and hate. And it is Judah’s intellectual realization that he most take responsibility for his own actions that finally sets off the catharsis that allows this family to come to resolution. It is when Judah approaches Joseph, when the calm of one brother combines with the emotional action of the other that they are returned to their true future and our covenant with connection. It is their duality that allows us to become one.