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Posts Tagged ‘Reconciliation’

Parshat VaYetze: Jacob and Lavan, Israelis and Palestinians, the Mount and the Mosque

Posted by rabbiart on November 25, 2014

In his beautiful work of Torah interpretation (Torah of Reconciliation) Rabbi Sheldon Lewis describes the mutual non-aggression pact constructed by Jacob and Lavan. “This is reflected in the narrative in several ways: there are two stone markers, two meals, two place-names, the deity is twice invoked and by separate names” (p.83).

Implacable enemies decide to coexist peacefully.  “The naming of separate deities together seems especially noteworthy.  The peace into which they enter seems cold, but it is solemnly undertaken” (p,84) . Lavan says to Jacob, “May the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor – the gods of their fathers – judge between us.” (Robert Alter translation p. 175).

Professor Alter comments on this verse  and specifically ‘the gods of their fathers’ “These words… must be a gloss, perhaps occasioned by the discomfort of a scribe or editor with the exact grammatical equation between the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor in Laban’s oath”.

Two gods, two place-names, two markers, and a great deal of discomfort on the question of equality.  Now we are getting somewhere.

It is impossible for me to read this story and not immediately think of the ongoing dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Or to be more precise, Jewish Israelis and Moslem Palestinians. Two gods, two place names, two buildings (the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary), two claims to the land, two names for a certain, distant day in 1948. This list feels like it might be endless.

This week in Israel a bill is being debated that would make changes to the Basic Law.  It would elevate the status of Jewishness and lower the status of all non Jewish aspects of the State of Israel. Jews are arguing over this bill. Nu, what else is new.  Some say this is a great idea that simply expresses what Israel is – the homeland of the Jewish people. But others say it is a terrible mistake, both in its intent and in its timing.

The story in our Parshah concludes with a ritual covenental meal, characteristic of treaties in that era.  Jacob calls to his ‘brothers’, they eat bread and stay there the night.

וַיִּקְרָא לְאֶחָיו לֶאֱכָל לָחֶם וַיֹּאכְלוּ לֶחֶם וַיָּלִינוּ בָּהָר

Since Lavan does not leave until the next morning, and because Rashi comments on ‘brothers’ to read it as ‘his friends that were with Lavan’, and believing it inconceivable that Lavan’s minions but not Lavan would have partaken of the meal.  So they sat down and ate a meal together. Nobody went anywhere until the next day.

As my friend Suleiman said to me recently in Israel “There are good people on both sides”.  Undoubtedly this is true. Sadly, we must admit there are bad people on both sides as well.

According to the text, there is no way to look at Laban as a “good guy”. Yet Jacob was able to make a pact with him and so avoid conflict and bloodshed, even though his beloved Rachel was in fact a thief who had stolen something precious from her father. Without this pact Jacob would have been caught between the rock (of Lavan’s enmity and pursuit) and the hard place (of Esau coming at him with 400 men).  With it, he is able to put his dubious past behind him, and find reconcilation with his brother.  (We’ll save examining the dots over the word for another time).

Given the sad and threatening resurgence of antisemitism around the world, I have been thinking lately that “We are all Israelis”. What Israel (painting with a very broad brush) does affects Jews in the diaspora. What diaspora Jews do has the potential to powerfully affect what happens in Israel.  Most likely, the best we can hope for is a mutual non-aggression pact with the people who also have a claim to The Land. But that would most assuredly be better than what we have now.  And it is certainly a teaching that we can learn out from this week’s Torah portion.

Let me end where I began, with a snippet from Rabbi Shelley.  “In the Torah’s culture, which is so wary of any deviation from recognition of One God, the inclusion of a pagan deity seems remarkable. It is a testimony to the appreciation of what it takes to be a peacemaker. (emphasis mine).  Agreeing to naming a pagan god is not judged badly when the result is peace.

Yirtzeh HaShem we can learn to share, and maybe one day we will have a meal where we are definitively breaking bread with our brothers.

Shabbat Shalom

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Parshat Breshit – In the Big Inning

Posted by rabbiart on October 15, 2014

It’s baseball playoff fever here in the Bay Area.  The A’s fell to Kansas City, but the Giants are looking like a team of destiny, as they took a 2-1 lead last night on – of all things – a walk off error!  Our Rabbi is a huge Giants fan; I’ve never heard him mention the A’s.  Coincidence (as they say) I think not.  On the other hand, in the blueprint for the world as designed by HaShem, there is no such thing as luck, and really, we have no evidence that she gives a hoot about sports, other than – perhaps – that players not get injured.

My Uncle Sid (alav haShalom) ran away from cheder early in life and returned to the active fold late in life, becoming a pillar of his shul and a minyan regular.  It’s from him I learned to translate בְּרֵאשִׁית as “in the Big Inning”.  The customary translations are “In the beginning” and “when beginning”.  The former aligns with the theology that the earth was created out of nothing; the latter aligns with the idea that HaShem organized what was already there. Professor Robert Alter (The Five Books of Moses) renders it as “When God began to create” but doesn’t explain why he chose that particular translation.  The Chabad translation of the first two words of the Torah – בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא – renders it as “In the beginning of God’s creation {of the world}”.

Regardless, the creation of the world is certainly the Big Inning to begin all Innings.  The game is not yet over, although reading the newspaper makes one feel that it is most certainly in extra innings.

Even a cursory reading of the Torah reveals that it tells two stories in one. The story of how the world is, and the story of how the world ought to be.  Or as R. Shlomo Carlebach is reported to have said “The Torah is a commentary on the world, and the world is a commentary on the Torah”.

Regardless of the reader’s understanding of how the Torah came into existence, I believe that we can all agree that it is a living document that speaks to us in every generation and addresses the most issues of our times. For proof we need look no further than Rashi’s opening comment. In it Rashi asks and answers the question “why doesn’t the Torah begin with Shmot 12:2, which is the first commandment specifically addressed to the Jewish people?”. He answers, that, since HaShem created the world, HaShem may give the lands of the seven nations (what is now modern-day Israel) to whosoever HaShem chooses.  This is the answer, Rashi says, that the Jewish people should give whenever the nations of the world accuse us of having taken the land by force.

The argument over this tiny portion of the Earth continues to this day, with more and more European nations (who don’t exactly come to this conversation with clean hands) accusing Israel of exactly that – appropriation of land by force and conquest. The exploration of that debate will have to wait for a different post, but there is no doubt that the Torah has much and will have much to say on this topic because without question “It’s Alive”.

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, in his wonderful book Torah of Reconciliation makes some wonderful observations that illuminate what the Torah has to say about this argument and the terrible darkness that seems to be falling on much of the world, especially in the Middle East.  In his beginning (p.39) he writes “Peace Comes with the First Light”, referencing the verse from Isaiah (45:7) that has become (in slightly modified form) the opening sentence of the morning service.  Later on (p.49), Rabbi Lewis, referencing Rashi, states that Reconciliation is Fundamental to Creation.

As we begin anew the cycle of reading the Torah, may we (and all the peoples of the world) be blessed with understanding that (quoting Rabbi Lewis on p. 51) Teshuva is integral to the world, a world which is “unthinkable without a way to heal relationships that were in tension or were completely broken”.

Refuah Shlemah  to us all.

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