Thursday, March 17, 2016

Hard Conversations: Playing Chess Esther Style

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Purim 2016

Anyone who has initiated a difficult conversation knows that moment just before, hand hovering above the doorknob, trying to discern what exactly should be said to gain the desired outcome. Rehearsed lines feel empty, and a chasm yawns between what we know must be said and the zone in which we don’t know what will happen next. It is this moment that is captured in the crucial conversation of Megillat Esther.

The scroll of Esther loves conversations. There are sixteen of them in the scroll (twelve of which are with the king), and each one lasts for no more than two or three exchanges. These exchanges resemble less dialogues and more moves on a Chess board, deft strategic movements in a longer campaign. Fittingly, the game of Chess came to us through Persia, the Persian "Shāh Māt!” - Persian for "the king is helpless" - is our “Check Mate”. Like chess, in the Game of Esther the king is weak, the queen versatile, and the early moves end up determining how the end game is played out. In the crucial campaign, a pawn named Harvona makes a fateful move, while and the opponent is caught trying to capture the queen…
The longest conversation of the book is the exchange between Mordechai and Esther which takes up the bulk of Chapter Four. Mordechai begins in commanding mode, forcing Esther out a defensive position and into engagement. Esther pushes back, fortifying her protective stance. Mordechai then plays his trump card, getting Esther to switch from passive defensiveness to full offense. But when she does enter play, it is on Esther’s own terms. The chapter ends with Mordechai doing “as Esther commanded” (read the full dialogue here).
As someone who hates playing chess but loves reading the chess column in the newspaper, I’d dare to summarize the five-part conversation into three crucial moves. One leitmotif recurs in them, evoking the key theme of the Megillah.

Move 1: “And Mordechai Knew”
The Chapter opens with Mordechai “knowing”:
And Mordechai knew all that was done.
Mordechai ripped his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes.
He went out into the midst of the city,
and cried with a loud and a bitter cry (Esther 4:1)
וּמָרְדֳּכַי, יָדַע אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה,
וַיִּקְרַע מָרְדֳּכַי אֶת-בְּגָדָיו,
וַיִּלְבַּשׁ שַׂק וָאֵפֶר;
וַיֵּצֵא בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר,
וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדוֹלָה וּמָרָה. (אסתר ד:א)

Like God at the beginning of Exodus, Mordechai knows. Now he is in search of his Moses to redeem the people from their oppressor. We later find out he has a copy of the edict itself, and perhaps even some inside information from the corridors of power regarding how this decision was made. We’re not surprised: Mordechai is, after all, the epitome of the court Jew, the insider. Just as he knew before that two of the King’s guards plan on assassinating him, so now he “knows” when it is his nation that is about to be killed.
Mordechai’s response s intense: he dresses in sackcloth, paints his face in black ash, and lunges straight for the palace square – a place which is a second home to him, but in which it is well known court protocol that one many not enter in such provocative and dishonorable garb.
What is Mordechai thinking? Is this a political move of demonstration in the public square to appeal to the ruler to change his verdict? Is this a religious act, fasting and mourning, appealing to the King of Kings to do what he did in Egypt so many generations ago? Or is this perhaps a mortified Mordechai who realized that his own stubborn insistence to not bow down before the King’s new darling vizier has now doomed his entire people. Is proud Mordechai now penitent?? We don’t know, but Mordechai does.
One person, however, doesn’t know. Esther. Hidden in her harem, shielded from the news and masked from any association with the Jewish people, she’s described as enveloped in a world of courtesans and eunuchs, oblivious of the world around her. International headlines and backroom politicking are beyond her, but Shushan fashion and court protocol make their way to her room instantly. When reports of Mordechai’s severe break of protocol (or civil disobedience) reach her, she is hysterical (to be read with full Freudian and critical feminist evocation), and immediately demands to know “what is this and on what this is?” Her reaction suggests that perhaps Mordechai was not trying to impress neither King nor King of Kings, but rather was aiming at his niece, the Queen. He knew, and he knew she didn’t want to know, so he found the best way to grab her attention. But now that he has it, well, now what??

Move 2: “Everybody Knows!”
Mordechai commands Esther to go to the king and beg to him on behalf of her people. He is asking the world of Esther – to reveal that which she has sought to hide, to interfere in the matters of the court, to turn from a pretty face into an advocate of a minority whose execution has just been ordered. But Esther’s response does not dwell on these issues. They key words in her response to Mordechai’s knowledge is another sort of knowledge:
“All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, know, that whosoever, man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death…” (Esther 4:11)
כָּל-עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְעַם-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ יֹדְעִים, אֲשֶׁר כָּל-אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר יָבוֹא-אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל-הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִקָּרֵא אַחַת דָּתוֹ לְהָמִית, לְבַד מֵאֲשֶׁר יוֹשִׁיט-לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת-שַׁרְבִיט הַזָּהָב, וְחָיָה; וַאֲנִי, לֹא נִקְרֵאתִי לָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ--זֶה, שְׁלוֹשִׁים יוֹם... (אסתר ד:יא)

Mordechai might know something about his people, but in the process he forgot what “everybody knows”. Even Herodotus knew that about the Persian King (Herodotus I 99). Did Mordechai not notice that this empire works on adherence to strict protocol? Does he not recall that Vashti was killed because of her disobedience? Esther sees no point in getting killed in the process.

Move 3: “Who Knows?”
Mordechai’s final move on the chess board is a fascinating one. If he’s read his Bible well, he knows that prophets and messengers in the Bible never accept the mantle of leadership and action lightly. Moses, Jeremiah, Gideon, Ezekiel – they all pushed back when God told them to step up. God’s response is always to invoke his own knowledge (“Before you were born I knew you”, or “here is the sign that you shall know that I am with you”). But Mordechai takes a different approach. Something has changed. From acting out of a place of certainty (“Mordechai… commanded her to go to the King…”) he invokes a place of doubt and uncertainty:
“Who knows if for a moment like this you reached greatness” (Esther 4:14)
וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ--אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת
Who knows indeed. Mordechai’s words can be accepted by Esther when he offers not knowledge and certainty, but rather recognizes the uncertainty. There is no clear calling, there is no pre-destiny. Who knows. Once that is embraced, action can be taken.
Mordechai’s winning move on the chess board is an indecisive one, and in that lies its power. From here on in Esther takes over the board, leading a complex strategy that only she understands, thinking four steps in advance and setting into motion a play that will lure Haman into a trap that will end with his demise. Who knows if she would have succeeded if other things hadn’t happen by chance (or covert miracle). What is clear at the end of the chapter is that by surrendering herself to the uncertainty, and being willing to accept the worst case scenario of her actions, she can eventually prove that indeed, there was a calling to her rise to greatness.

“Who knows” מי יודע remains the cri de coeur of the Book of Esther. It is the modus vivendi for life in exile. Not necessarily the exile of the Jewish people, rather, it is a world in which God is in exile, certainty is in exile. Knowing is not enough. Accepting the fact that all our actions are “who knows” moments is the one that can allow us to reclaim agency and change the status quo. We might even find out why we reached greatness after all…

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Esther Now: A Call to Read the Megillah, 2016

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Purim 2016

Chapter Four. A man walks through the city streets, wearing sack cloth and ashes. His entire people have just been sentenced to death by the Grand Vizier. They are to be killed in a day of public violence - in an empire that prides itself on its multiculturalism. And in a twisted way, it is his fault. A long, bitter scream emits from his mouth.
Chapters Eight & Nine. The same man walks through the city streets, dressed in blue sash and organdy, himself having become the Grand Vizier. He is celebrated by all, much loved and appreciated. This time it is his people who will be performing the public violence, killing all those who sought to destroy them. 
And we celebrate all this in two days of costumes and noisemakers. No wonder Martin Luther declared that Jews “love the book of Esther, which so well fits their bloodthirsty, vengeful, murderous greed and hope.” (“On the Jews and Their Lies” 1543)
Luther’s anti-Semitic criticism of Esther and of us, her people, is ridiculous and chilling, precisely because Esther is a tale of power and powerlessness writ large. Esther is unafraid to play out two pathologies of power: the pathology of total disempowerment of a minority vulnerable to violence in Chapter 4, and the pathology of total power turned into minority-inflicted violence in Chapter 9 (thank you Yehuda Kurtzer for this succinct distillation). These two chapters make battle in our public discourse constantly: are we living in Chapter 4, the year is 1939, and an Iranian Haman is out to get us while world leaders are busy getting drunk? Or, alternatively, are we living through a new version of Chapter 9, with Jewish power reigning like never before both in our majority-land and our minority-empire, allowing us to get away with questionable moral actions in the name of self-defense?
And just like that, this silly children’s fable has pulled us into dealing face to face with our deepest, darkest fears. Be it violence, power, exile, sex, gender, drink – Esther lures us in with its fancy costumes and silly pranks until we find ourselves talking about the most pivotal issues. As I am in the process of writing a cultural commentary about the Scroll of Esther, its becomes increasingly clear to: Esther Now.

Esther Now
More than the grand tale of leaving Egypt, more than the human moments of Abraham and Sarah, more than the grand visions and rebukes of the Prophets, it is Esther that is the most relevant book of the Bible.
Esther Now because it is the book of Jewish power and politics, and of Diaspora and disempowerment. It is the book of getting a seat at the table – and the prices we’re willing, or unwilling, to pay for that seat. It’s the book where the personal is the political and the political is the physical. It’s the book of gender, identity, political violence, sexual violence, success, individualism and calling. It is also the book of unknowing (but that’s for next week’s essay).
Esther Now because hers is the last book of the Bible, conceptually and chronologically; the scroll that bridges between the God-infused world of the Bible and the God-vacant world of our reality. No wonder the Rabbis read it as a “second Sinai”. It is the closest Biblical book to our contemporary reality. “We are all servants of Ahasuerus now” (Talmud Arakhin).You are free to read God into the tale if you want, seeing providence and prayer and calling as real agents in the world, but even then, you are a servant of Ahasuerus.
Esther Now because we are living through the tale of the greatest Jewish Diaspora to ever exist, in an empire of 50 states with its political pageants and Jewish courtesans. That other Jewish Diaspora, with its 127 states, places a funhouse mirror through which we can reassess ourselves.
Esther Now because the story is a farce, a parody, a carnivalesque fast paced streaming series of beltway politics of the type that has become so popular of late. But it is through farce that elephants in the room can be unveiled.

Who will Esther 2016 Be?
Arthur Szyk drawing himself with Haman
Each year, Purim invites the pundits to compare the current political reality to the story of the megillah. Last year it was all about Iran, with its Persian echoes. This year its going to be the Presidential Candidates (although I’d love to see a thoughtful comparison to the Supreme Court, contrasting Shushan’s farcical court of seven advisers who “know all rules and regulations” and who step in when a dispute arises between the bodies of power in the Capital to the nine wise-people of DC (oops, eight…)).
Theoretically, DC couldn’t be further afield from Shushan. If anything, DC is Shushan after Mordechai’s rise to power. Of the four (current) front runners in the presidential campaigns, one is Jewish, the other sees zealous support of Israel as a central tenant of his faith, and two have Jewish sons in law. We’ve never been closer to the king, who himself celebrates Jewish rituals in his home.
On the flip-side, we’ve also sensed how a surprising candidate out of left field, touting ego, money and race-baiting can turn a whole empire on its head. We’ve felt the chilling realization that it can happen here too (but not in Canada). Perhaps as minorities, our situation is more precarious than we are willing to admit to ourselves. Maybe Chapter 4 is not just history, perhaps it is a most probable future, if not to our minority than to those around us.
On the flippity flip side, perhaps it is in our unprecedented and quite sudden power that the greatest threat resides. Not the threat to the Jews, but the threat of us as Jews, or our brethren, using power to make others cower, bow and prostrate.
Flip side again, perhaps this attempt to translate a 2000 year old political metaphor into contemporary reality is a futile experiment.  Let’s stick to a close textual reading, and see what we can make out it. It is those close readings that remain real in the long run, even as the political envelope keeps going topsy turvy.

All this should be sufficient to say that Esther merits a close reading this year, one which I hope to share with you in the coming weeks. To be continued…

Friday, January 29, 2016

Finding the Authority Within or How to Survive Advice from your Father in Law

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Yitro 2016

“I need not expand on the importance of the theme of authority. Few are the educated people who can exist without depending on others, or develop a truly independent opinion. One cannot overestimate the power of people’s lack of internal decision making and their craving for external authority. The incredible rise in frequency of neurosis we see around us since the power of religion has been decimated serves as a measure of this.” (Sigmund Freud, Opening Lecture at the Second Psychoanalytic Conference, 1910)

This week’s Torah portion is all about authority. Its second half tells the quintessential moment of Jewish authority: the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It’s a hierarchical model of authority if ever there was one – with the Law given from up high and forced on the nation. The Israelites accept wholeheartedly, bowing their heads to Divine Authority, saying: נעשה ונשמע - We will perform and we will hearken. That’s at least how one strand of our tradition tells it. For Freud, it is the moment of the inhibiting Super-ego being crowned over the id and ego, a heteronomous power which if internalized properly will bring out the healthy and productive individual. It is a tale of human yearning for external authority.

Discussions of the trouble with external authority abound. But the story of Sinai is prefaced by another tale of authority; one which puts a spotlight on our relationship to our own, internal authority. The juxtaposition makes a claim: before we establish the role of external authority, one’s own sense of internal authority must be met face to face . This psychological exercise is played out by the quintessential underminer of authority: the parent-in-law.
Yitro, Moses’ father in law and Priest of Midian, comes to visit his son-in-law’s band of runaway slaves in their desert abode. Before leaving, the seasoned priest teaches his entrepreneuring young son-in-law a lesson in systems. Seeing Moses overburdened “from daybreak until sunset” by those seeking the ear of the leader, he advises him to create a multi-tiered human justice system which can transmit God’s word to the people without over-burdening the sole prophet. It’s a lesson in the move from charismatic leadership to bureaucratic leadership, as Max Weber will call it centuries later. But what is actually going on is Yitro calling Moses out for not recognizing his own authority, and not recognizing that the “locus of control” to his situation resides in himself.
This is how the little family spat is described in Exodus 18:

Now it was on the morrow:
Moshe sat to judge the people,
And the people stood before Moshe
from daybreak until sunset.

When Moshe’s father-in-law saw
all that he had to do for the people,
He said: What are you doing to the people!
Why do you sit alone, while the entire people must stand before you from daybreak until sunset?

Moshe said to his father-in-law:
It’s the people who come to me to inquire of God!
Whenever they have some legal-matter, it comes to me –
I judge between a man and his fellow
And make known God’s laws and his instructions.

Then Moshe’s father-in-law said to him:
Not good is this matter, as you do it!
You will become worn out, yes, worn out,
Not only you, but also the people that are with you,
For this matter is too heavy for you,
You cannot do it alone!
Rather, listen to my advice…
(Exodus 18:13-24)

וַיְהִי, מִמָּחֳרָת,
וַיֵּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה,
לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-הָעָם;
וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה,
מִן-הַבֹּקֶר עַד-הָעָרֶב.

וַיַּרְא חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-הוּא עֹשֶׂה לָעָם;
וַיֹּאמֶר: מָה-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה לָעָם?? מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה יוֹשֵׁב לְבַדֶּךָ,
וְכָל-הָעָם נִצָּב עָלֶיךָ מִן-בֹּקֶר עַד-עָרֶב.

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹתְנוֹ:
כִּי-יָבֹא אֵלַי הָעָם, לִדְרֹשׁ אֱלֹהִים.
כִּי-יִהְיֶה לָהֶם דָּבָר, בָּא אֵלַי,
וְשָׁפַטְתִּי, בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ;
וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת-חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹהִים, וְאֶת-תּוֹרֹתָיו.

וַיֹּאמֶר חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, אֵלָיו: 
לֹא-טוֹב, הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה, עֹשֶׂה.
נָבֹל תִּבֹּל--גַּם-אַתָּה, גַּם-הָעָם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר עִמָּךְ:
כִּי-כָבֵד מִמְּךָ הַדָּבָר, לֹא-תוּכַל עֲשֹׂהוּ לְבַדֶּךָ!
עַתָּה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, אִיעָצְךָ...
(שמות יח יג-כב)
One is enticed to read Yitro as the stereotypical conniving father-in-law: first, he spies on his son-in-law at work. Then he takes license to criticize his practices: “What are you doing?? Why are you doing it alone, and causing all these people to wait for hours??” When Moses gets all defensive (“I didn’t ask for this, they started it…”), Yitro turns to outright criticism, and finally to the sharpest weapon of the in-law: Let me give you some advice…
This is how Rabbi Hayyim Ben Attar, one of the most attuned readers of dialogues in the Torah, reads the discussion between them: “Moses heard in Yitro’s words a criticism, as if he is forcing them to only adhere to his judgement, and not to others” (Or haChayim Exodus 18:16).
Of course, the contentious reading of Yitro and Moses’ relationship is not necessarily so. We’ll never know what tones (and undertones) filled their conversation. But as the experienced High Priest teaches Moses how to run an organized religion, he also names something about Moses’ insecurities.
A basic adage of organizational psychology claims that if a dysfunction in a system is perpetualized, it’s probably because it serves a need for all parties involved. As we view the long line of Israelites waiting on Moses’ word from morning to night, it is clear what need this is serving: like New Yorkers who love to wait in line for the “best food in town”, Moses is the only authority in their eyes, the all-powerful savior from Pharaoh, and they want to receive truth, leadership and guidance from his mouth only. But what need is this burdensome dysfunctional system serving for Moses? Why does he need an external review in order to change the dysfunctional system he allowed the Israelites to create around him?
I’d suggest that Moses doesn’t change the authority structure not because he actually enjoys being the sole authority, but because he feels deeply equivocal about the authority invested in him. He doesn’t feel empowered to hand it to others because he can barely admit that he is holding it himself. True, he’s exhausted, but this too serves a need: His loudly portrayed exhaustion shields him from having to take action beyond that which is already on his plate. (Thank you to David Levin Kruss for this point. I would have thought of it myself but have simply been too exhausted and overworked this week to do so…).
The dysfunctional system created around Moses allows him to continue to locate the “locus of control” in his life outside himself. First it resides with God, then with the Israelites; never with Moses. He doesn’t see himself as holding any authority, but simply serving external referents. That is a sure way to achieve exhaustion, but also to avoid recognizing one’s own power and responsibility, one’s internal sense of authority. Yitro supplies Moses with the wake up call that forces him to take the reigns.
I find Moses’ discomfort with his new found authority very relatable. The stage of life between 30-45 or so (or 80 in biblical terms) shoves us into all kinds of new authority roles which are not simple to embrace (even as we crave them). A parent who disciplines their child, the employer who fires and hires, the supervisor sending others on complicated and risky task. Truly recognizing and wielding the “authority vested in us” is no simple task, as it forces us to come to terms both with the burden of power and with the recognition of its boundaries  Often, it requires an external event - a conflict or failure or critical voice to bring us to terms with how much authority we actually do wield. Many people hold an unjustifiably inflated sense of their own power and authority, but equally pernicious are those who hold an unjustifiably deflated sense of their authority.  As the Prophet Samuel says to King Saul, before firing him: “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel!?” Saul’s inability to recognize the burden of his own authority causes his downfall. Perhaps it is the fact that Samuel was no Yitro…
A big part of coming to terms with our own authority is recognizing what is actually being asked of us in our new role, and the mixture of projections and actual needs that people bring to us. The brilliance in Yitro’s advice to Moses is not in the judicial structure he suggests, but in the way he allows Moses to see what he, Moses, brings to the table, and in that way come to terms with his authority:

Listen to my advice, so that God may be-there with you:
Be-there, yourself, for the people in relation to God. You yourself should have the matters come to God;
You should make clear to them the laws and the instructions,You should make known to them the way they should go, and the deeds that they should do;
But you – you are to have the vision to select from all the people: men of caliber, holding God in awe, men of truth, hating gain; You should set them over the people as chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens, so that they may judge that people at all times.
So shall it be: Every great matter they shall bring before you,But every small matter they shall judge by themselves. Make it light upon you, and let them bear it with you.If you do thus in this matter, when God commands you further, you will be able to stand, and also this people will come to its place in peace.
Moshe hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law, he did it all as he had said. (Exodus 18:19-24)
עַתָּה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, אִיעָצְךָ, וִיהִי אֱלֹהִים, עִמָּךְ;
הֱיֵה אַתָּה לָעָם, מוּל הָאֱלֹהִים, וְהֵבֵאתָ אַתָּה אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים
וְהִזְהַרְתָּה אֶתְהֶם, אֶת-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת-הַתּוֹרֹת;
וְהוֹדַעְתָּ לָהֶם, אֶת-הַדֶּרֶךְ יֵלְכוּ בָהּ, וְאֶת-הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּן.
וְאַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל-הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל יִרְאֵי אֱלֹהִים,
אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת--שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע;
וְשַׂמְתָּ עֲלֵהֶם, שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים, וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת, וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, בְּכָל-עֵת.
וְהָיָה כָּל-הַדָּבָר הַגָּדֹל יָבִיאוּ אֵלֶיךָ,
וְכָל-הַדָּבָר הַקָּטֹן יִשְׁפְּטוּ-הֵם;
וְהָקֵל מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְנָשְׂאוּ אִתָּךְ
אִם אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, תַּעֲשֶׂה, וְצִוְּךָ אֱלֹהִים, וְיָכָלְתָּ עֲמֹד;
וְגַם כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה, עַל-מְקֹמוֹ יָבֹא בְשָׁלוֹם

וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, לְקוֹל חֹתְנוֹ; וַיַּעַשׂ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אָמָר.

Yitro helps Moses differentiate between what only he can give, and what other fine people can do. He helps name the values and traits needed to do some aspects of Moses’ job (caliber, awe, truth, hating gain), so that they can be delegated to others, while highlighting the ways in which Moses is irreplaceable, the things that only he can provide: “the matters that come from God”.
We often undervalue the very things we are best at, those skills and powers that come to us most naturally. This makes sense, since that which comes naturally to me requires very little effort –and therefor I underestimate or overlook its value. It is in all the ways in which we fall short, all the skills that require enormous effort and concentration that we attribute a high value to, thus making the half empty glass of our skills feel much more important.
Yitro helps Moses recognize that it is him that they are seeking, not just God; he helps him see his own voice and importance in the system, helps him make that which is projected on him and his own internal self assessment more congruent. He thus allow Moses to loosen his grip on the untenable system that he allowed the Children of Israel to create around him. Once Moses can come to terms with his own internal authority, he can begin the work of truly bringing God’s matters to the people.
The fact that the people weren’t really ready for it, well, that’s a whole different Torah portion…

Friday, December 25, 2015

Reclaiming the Brotherhood: Facing Homegrown Misanthropy

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | VaYechi 2015

For a few weeks now I’ve been meaning to write about my ancestor, Levi. The mythical father of my own tribe of Levites, he’s been rearing his head a lot lately. Together with his brother, Shimon, Levi is the first Child of Monotheism who unsheathed the indiscriminate sword of vengeance. In the killing of all the men of Shechem, Levi is the mascot of twisting the demand for justice and security into an isolationist and vengeful approach. He trademarked the claim, in avenging the rape of his sister Dina, that deceit and butchery are justified in the name of brotherly solidarity (“Should our sister then be treated like a whore?”). Together, Levi and Shimon hold the patent on turning Abraham’s covenant into a veil for violence.
And they’ve been accruing quite a lot of royalties lately. Each week Levi’s fingerprints appear on more and more news stories: in the religiously justified violence and extremism from various children of Abraham, but also in the increasingly isolationist approach of populist politicians. You know it’s a Levite isolationism when it condones butchering in distant camps while keeping the home camp closed and pure… Finally, for those following the latest wedding fashions in extreme-right-wing Israel, in the appalling – but not unfamiliar – call for revenge and violence from my own relatives.

As I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do amid this tidal wave, I’ve been thinking about Levi’s father, Jacob. Grandpa Jack’s weak response to his children’s misconducts is infamous. First, his lack of response upon Dina’s rape by Shechem, then his tacit approval of Levi and Shimon’s request that all of Shechem’s town circumcise themselves, and finally his repudiation of their actions, which is focused on the political ramifications with would-be allies and neighbors (“You make me reek among the settled-folk of this land!”), and not confronting the actual violence and lying involved.

At the end of his life, from the safety of his deathbed, he returns to Levi and Shimon’s actions. In the midst of this week’s Torah portions blessings to all his other children, Jacob issues the following curse:

Shimon and Levi - such brothers.
  Wronging weapons are their ties-of-kinship!
To their council may my being never come,
  In their intimacy may my person never unite!
For in their anger they kill men,
  In their self-will they maim bulls.
Damned be their anger, that it is so fierce!
  Their fury, that is so harsh!
I will split them up among Jacob,
  I will scatter them throughout Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי – אַחִים! כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי. כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר. אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז! וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה! אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:

A Star of David and the Hebrew word ‘Revenge’ are spray-painted on the walls of a Palestinian home which was burned down by arsonists on July 31, 2015 in the Palestinian village of Duma, near Nablus (Zacahria Sadeh/Rabbis for Human Rights)
Nachmanides explains that Jacob’s resounding curse functionally cuts them out of Abraham’s inheritance, giving Shimon and Levi no independent share in the land of Israel (probably reflecting the fact that neither tribe had their own land in Biblical Israel). They are to be kept scattered among their brothers due to their “fierce anger”, “harsh fury”, and their “Hamas”-like ways (“Hamas” חמס in Hebrew, “deceitful wronging”, is the same verb used to describe the crimes of the generation of the Flood). For they “caused the name of God himself to be desecrated as people will claim that a prophet of God caused such hamas and robbery”.
But Nachmanides also zeroes in on the first word of the curse: Brothers. אחים:
Simon and Levi – Brothers” – Some understood this as Jacob at first seemingly giving them credit, describing them as brothers to the core, believers in fraternity. For their hearts were passionate over the fate of their sister.
I imagine Shimon and Levi’s ears perking up as they hear their father honor them with the title which they self-identify with so strongly. “Yes, we are brothers indeed. In a family where solidarity fell apart time and again – we were the loyal ones, weren’t we?” But then his compliment turns into repudiation: if that is brotherhood, may my legacy have nothing to do with it; may my being never become associated with this version of fraternal intimacy.
Today, I hear Jacob’s curse as a desperate plea. Please, may these powers that I have unleashed into the world not take over what the name of Jacob/Israel will become. May the family that I fathered not become smothered in brotherly fundamentalism. May such “Brotherhood” (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, GOP, DNC) not become synonymous with the project of Abraham. Jacob’s curse is not a prescribed destiny, it is a charge to the rest of his children: make sure that Levi and Shimon’s ways do not come to define what being a Child of Israel means. In a twist, he turns the fraternal charge from one of violent protectionism and vengeance into one of watchful moderation, engaged repudiation, brotherly intervention to mediate the fury and anger when they arise.
Why do I return to Levi in confronting these dangerous, disgusting and disheartening trends? Precisely because Levi is my relative, he’s my backyard, the symbol of homegrown extremism. Framing this violence as coming from my own family is a way of taking responsibility for it. Not liability, but responsibility. Levi symbolizes the challenge of confronting homegrown hatred and homegrown violence.

I do so in repudiation of the fact that so much of the discourse in response to recent events has focused on othering those we disagree with, distancing ourselves from any relationship with those who take the name of our religion/nation/story in vain and desecration, and ignoring the fact that there are values at the core of this hatred that must be engaged and countered. Hiding behind words such as “radicalization”, “fundamentalism” or “populism” is a way of creating a chasm between ourselves and those “others”, and in so doing washing our own hands from any association. Levi reminds me that what we must repudiate while engaging. Study the motivations and implications, then truly rival their ideology, from up close and personal. Not let them claim the values, dreams and names which are actually our inheritance. Not let them define what Jacob’s path is in our eyes.

As one Bronfman Fellow said to me this week at the end of our joint Mifgash Shabbaton of Israeli and American Bronfmanim: This weekend I understood how  for my parents and grandparents the mission statement of the Jewish People was “I am seeking for my brothers”. In response to the Holocaust, the plight of Soviet Jewry, the insecurity of Israel, they felt that fraternity called upon them to fight for Jews against their joint enemies. But today we live in the opposite reality, not of Jewish disempowerment, but in deep Jewish privilege and power. For me, she said, “I am seeking my brothers” means that I must not be silent - for my brothers faces have changed. I must seek them out and call them out – and I must do it first, for they are my brothers. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thankful for My Portion: Thoughts on Entering, Exiting and the portion of the Bronfmanim Community

Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKanah would pray when he entered the Beit Midrash (=House of Study) and when he left, a brief prayer.They said to him: What is the nature of this prayer?He answered: Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me; and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion. (Mishna Berakhot 4:2)

Rabbi Nehunya has been on my mind. In the last three weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of entering and exiting and everywhere I went, I taught this text. Three weeks ago at our Ten Hour Israeli alumni seminar in Tel Aviv. Two weeks ago with our North American Alumni Board members in Boston. Last week in Arizona, Becky and I got to study it with Adam Bronfman (and our tireless board president, Dana Raucher). Last night – already back in Jerusalem – it was with my virtual journal group of 2015 Bronfmanim. In each place, the teaching resonated differently, but the questions were the same. I feel so thankful to be a part of this varied and spread out community and to be able to study Torah with people united by their thirst for learning, for intentionality and for community.
As a Thanksgiving gift, I wanted to share with you some thoughts about this text (here it is in a sourcesheet format, in case you dare share it at your table). And as my own personal moment of Thanksgiving, I want to share some unabashedly promotional snapshots from the Bronfmanim community which have inspired me these last few weeks. As Paris and Brussels, Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, New Haven and Chicago, become ever more complicated places, I return to the power of the Bronfman community to serve as an antidote to polarization, a breath of inspiration amid cynicism, a model for a community of nuance amid disagreement.

On any given day, we find ourselves entering and exiting a variety of locations and contexts. In each place we have a different role to play, a specific responsibility, a different amount of power we can wield. We might even hold different names in each context (friend, father, boss, student, employee, client, daughter…). We move between these contexts constantly, and sometimes - like a whisper only we can hear - the context is switched and our role becomes entirely different than the one before it. In this decade of smartphones, our contexts keep switching and overlapping in faster and faster succession. We are constantly entering and exiting.
But then Nehunia ben haKanah stands at the doorway, and pauses for a brief prayer. “What is the nature of your prayer?” they challenge him. “Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me; and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion.”
I’d suggest Nehunia’s prayer is a call to intentionality as we enter and exit our various contexts. He’s warning us about the detriments of not noticing the context that we’re in, not being aware of the role, responsibility, and power that we wield; of the name we must answer to. His solution for himself was to create short moments of intentionality, kavana, and tefilla. He allows his hands to shake a bit, before entering a role of power and responsibility. Let no mishap happen because of me. Then, upon exiting, he brings his hands together in thanksgiving and appreciation, ensuring that next time he enters, he recalls the goodness and not just the trepidation.
Nehunia’s personal prayer is metonymic of the entire project of Mishna Berakhot, the tractate from which this aphorism is taken. Berakhot is a calling to live intentionally in the world, and it offers a unique formula, which one could call “The Secret Structure of Jewish prayer”, but I prefer to call it: The Art of Sandwich making.
 Berakhot encourages us to sandwich our experiences, trials and tribulations with brief prayers. “Before one enters a city, say one prayer. As you leave the city, say one prayer”. We are called to say a blessing before eating, and four blessings after. So too with waking and sleeping, with learning, with seeing an old friend. We even say blessings before we say blessings, and say blessings after we’ve said blessings. Sandwich upon sandwich upon sandwich.
Yet before it became a ritual murmuring, it was a call to intentionality. A note to self: be wary of the power you wield. A reminder: be thankful for our portion. I’d like to enter all my contexts the way Nehunia enters the Beit Midrash.

Learning, Service and Reciprocal Kindness
The last two words of Nehunia’s prayer deserve an extra focus. He gives thanks, acknowledgement – a noble and universal sentiment – but not for his destiny, or calling. Rather, for his portion. As he leaves, he demarcates an area which is “his portion”. The language is interesting: “portion” acknowledges that what he has is part of something larger than himself, that he is simply a part, a portion, of a grander scheme. Yet on the other hand, it is undoubtedly his. “My portion”. May my portion be among those that are thankful for their portion. merely my portion, yet it is mine nontheless. Even if I never get to see the whole.
This past month I’ve been lucky to experience many such moments of thanksgiving; of seeing that portion that we at the Bronfman Fellowships have received in the world. They are the outcome of the hard work of our amazing team; of the trust, thirst and care that you - our community - invest in it, and of the fruition of Edgar's vision which Becky and I have been lucky to call our portion. And it feels both entirely new and as old as the most cliched Mishna in our tradition.  Our portion stands on three things. 
When eighty busy Israeli Bronfmanim in their twenties and thirties take two days out of their lives to re-immerse in deep face to face conversations, or when fifty college students cram into a room at ten o’clock on a Friday night because of a thirst to engage in a kind of study too rare on their campuses – our portion is one of true learning, Torah Lishma.
When ten friends drive three hours in the desert to console a Bronfman alum they hadn’t seen in years as she buries her estranged father surrounded by strangers – our portion is one of Gemillut Hasadim, reciprocal kindness and support.
When Israeli and North American alumni board members come together across time zones and language barriers to discuss with seriousness and enthusiasm how to allocate money that you entrusted in their hands, and to discuss whether to support projects in communities distant from them geographically and ideologically, yet that they care about deeply, our portion is one of Avodah, service and social responsibility.
As I exit this month of Bronfman busyness, I pray that these moments illuminate something on your end as they have in mine. In a world of many mishaps, I give thanks for a community that helps me regain faith in learning, service and communal support. As clichéd as that sounds, sometimes faith in clichés is what the world needs more of. 
Happy Thanksgiving

רַבִּי נְחוּנְיָא בֶּן הַקָּנֶה הָיָה מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּכְנִיסָתוֹ לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, וּבִיצִיאָתוֹ תְּפִלָּה קְצָרָה.
אָמְרוּ לוֹ: מַה מָקוֹם לִתְפִלָּה זוֹ?
אָמַר לָהֶם:בִּכְנִיסָתִי - אֲנִי מִתְפַּלֵּל שֶׁלֹּא תְּאַרַע תַּקָּלָה עַל יָדִיוּבִיצִיאָתִי - אֲנִי נוֹתֵן הוֹדָאָה עַל חֶלְקִי.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Being Abraham’s Child in a time of Human Darkness

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Lech Lecha 2015

“Suddenly, from Ur Kasdim / the Father of Multitudes

Shined forth like a star / to illuminate the darkness.
You deferred Your anger / When you surveyed his deeds."
(Poem for Yom Kippur Avodah service, 7th Century)

As the children of Abraham continue to find themselves killing eachother this week, from his birth place in Ur Kasdim, through his chosen home Beer Sheva and all the way to his final rest place in Hevron; as droves of his children are forced leave their homeland, making their way to Europe in tents and encountering his other children in their steady homes; I’m asking myself what it means to be a child of Abraham in our generation.

Meir Pichadze, Georgia-Israel
Many Abrahams
Tell me who your Abraham is and I’ll tell you what kind of Jew you are. Or Christian, or Muslim…

Is your Abraham the knight of faith, who binds rationality and morality on the altar of God’s love? Is your Abraham (and Sarah!) the generous host of a tent open to all four corners of the world, or the aged traveler who has taken upon himself to wash the feet of all weary travelers? Perhaps your Abraham is Maimonides’ Socratic philosopher, seeking the truth until he finds the One God? Or is he the moral prophetic voice who was chosen in order to “teach his children… paths of justice and compassion”? Is your Abraham the blinded visionary, manipulated by competing loves to wives, God and children? Or is Abraham the meticulous Halakhic man, who intuited Jewish law long before the Torah was given at Sinai?
Like Alexander the Great’s empire, Abraham’s legacy is too great to be inherited by any one person or position. It is forever divvied up into competing lands. God’s name for him has proven true: Abraham is not just Av-Ram (Great Father), but Av-RaHam - אב המון גויים – the father of a multitude of nations. Indeed, in his personality and lore he himself is multitudes. The gift of the Hebrew vowel, ה"א, in his name is the gift of multitudity (new word?). Perhaps we all are multitudes, we simply haven’t been given as many tests (opportunities) as Grandpe Abe to allow our multitudes to shine.
In Me’a Shearim one can buy children’s books about Abraham according to your Ultra Orthodox sect. In one Abraham is dressed as a Lithuanian yeshiva student, in another he dons the garb of a devout Hassid. In the PJ Library version he looks somewhat suburban (somewhat less popular in Me’a Shearim). One can scoff at the anachronisms of Abraham’s portrayal, but I believe being Jewish means telling about myself a story that begins with Abraham, and that portrays my life values and dilemmas as illuminated by Abraham and Sarah’s lives (and, like real family, without covering their blemishes either). Retelling our parent’s stories as a way of uncovering our own.
The great thing about Abraham’s story is, it has no clear beginning. No one knows what caused God to appear to him one day and command: Lech Lecha, “go forth”, or “go to yourself” as the Zohar reads literally. Is this proof that God’s grace is random, falling on a person without prior warning, as Paul described it. Or is there a backstory that the Torah leaves out, leaving us to imagine, retell, fabricate – and through the work of midrash to weave ourselves into the fabric of Torah.

Human Darkness
Thank God, the Torah does not begin with Abraham. Our story begins with the birth of the world, and of humanity, and while this week we begin zooming in to the narrow story of Abraham’s family, a Jewish posture in the world must always be rooted in the larger human story. The sad news is the early chapters of Genesis reveal humanity in our bleakest vulnerability and violence.
In this reading, I’ll be following a 7th century Hebrew poem, called “You Established,” אתה כוננת. The poem, which is included at the bottom, is repeated today in the Sephardic Avodah service for Yom Kippur.
You established the world
from the beginningYou founded the earth
and formed creatures. […]But they broke the yoke
and said to God “Go Away!”Then You took away your hand
and they withered instantly like grass.
From Adam to Cain, from Nimrod to Noah’s generation, humanity breaks away from God and his word, breaking the yoke and yelling: “Go away!” I used to read this as a moralistic tale telling me that I as a Son of Adam am weak and insubordinate – and must therefore bend my will to my teacher and whatever book of religious law she was making me feel guilty for not keeping. But hidden among the lines of the narrative is an opposite reading of the story. Yes, human beings ARE prone to violence and insubordination, but God was complicit here. When they yelled “Go away!, he indeed left them. You took away your hand / and they withered instantly like grass.”

Human and Soil: Adam and Adamah
For ten generation, from Adam to Noah, the soil is damned and infertile. Apres deluge God declares: “I will never curse the soil again on humankind’s account; since what the human heart forms is evil from its youth.” The soil is freed from paying the price for Humanity’s mistakes (until the industrial revolution, I guess) and Noah becomes the “first man of the soil”. Grapes grow for the first time since Eden, but God does not return to humanity. Like a parent livid with his children’s behavior, God decides to stop tearing the house down on their account, but never calls them again. No one really expects human beings to behave otherwise, so what good would consequences have. “Go away, you say? Fine!” And so for another ten generation, a god-less world.
It could have remained that way forever, until –

Suddenly, from Ur Kasdim / The Father of multitudes

Shined forth like a star/ to illuminate in the darkness.
יָחִיד אַב הֲמוֹן פִּתְאֹם כְּכוֹכָב  
זָרַח מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לְהָאִיר בַּחשֶׁךְ
כַּעַסְךָ הֵפַרְתָּ  בְּשׁוּרְךָ פָעֳלוֹ
What did Avraham do that was so sudden, so illuminating? How was this star born, and what light did he bring forth? The Torah never tells us. We’re left to our own midrashic devices – smashing idols, philosophizing in the marketplace, generously hosting, fervently believing, building a powerful couplehood with Sarah despite barrenness, or perhaps going on the journey even before being called to do so.
Whatever it is, it got God to pay attention. You deferred Your anger when you surveyed his deeds. We don’t know if Avraham was even trying to get God’s attention. I’d like to believe he was just doing it in order to illuminate the darkness he found himself living in. That’s how starts usually begin to glow. Whatever it was, it soothed God’s anger. It allowed God to believe in human beings once again.
Here then is a vision for Abrahamic religion: shaping people and communities that inspire God to believe in human beings anew. How far we are from this vision. Being a child of Avraham is acting in a way that gets God to believe in us again. Being Avraham’s child is acting in a way that gets human beings to believe in themselves again. Not waiting for God’s cues, or anyone else’s for that matter. Simply taking action and alleviating the darkness, the dryness. From Ur Kasdim to Beer Sheva, from Jerusalem to California.
Shabbat Shalom,

You established the world from the beginning
You founded the earth and formed creatures.

When you surveyed the world of chaos and confusion
You banished gloom and put light in its place.

You formed from the earth a lump of soil in Your image
And commanded him concerning the tree of life

He forsook Your word and he was forsaked from Eden
But You did not destroy him for the sake of the work of Your hands.

You increased his fruit and blessed his seed
And let them flourish in Your goodness and live in quiet.

But they broke the yoke
and said to God “Go Away!”
Then You took away your hand
and they withered instantly like grass.

You remembered your covenant
With the one who was blamesless in his generation (Noah)
And as a reward You made him a remanant forever.

You made a permanent covenant of the rainbow for his sake
And in Your love for his fragrant offering You blessed his children.

Suddenly, from Ur Kasdim
The Father of multitudes
Shined forth like a star
to illuminate in the darkness.

You deferred Your anger
When you surveyed his deeds.
And when he was old
You looked into his heart.

(אתה כוננת, “You Established” Poem for Yom Kippur Avodah service, 7th Century, translation Swartz and Yahalom edition, pg 70)
אַתָּה כּוֹנַנְתָּ עוֹלָם מֵרֹאשׁ
יָסַדְתָּ תֵבֵל וּבְרִיּוֹת יָצַרְתָּ

בְּשׁוּרְךָ עוֹלָם תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ
גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אֹפֶל וְהִצַּבְתָּ נֹגַהּ

גֹּלֶם תַּבְנִיתְךָ מִן הָאֲדָמָה יָצַרְתָּ
וְעַל עֵץ הַדַּעַת אוֹתוֹ הִפְקַדְתָּ

דְּבָרְךָ זָנַח וְנִזְנַח מֵעֵדֶן
וְלֹא כִלִּיתוֹ לְמַעַן יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ

הִגְדַּלְתָּ פִרְיוֹ וּבֵרַכְתָּ זַרְעוֹ
וְהִפְרִיתָם בְּטוּבְךָ וְהוֹשַׁבְתָּם שָׁקֶט

וַיִּפְרְקוּ עֹל וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָאֵל סוּר מִמֶּנּוּ
וַהֲסִירוֹתָ יָד כְּרֶגַע כֶּחָצִיר אֻמְלָלוּ

זָכַרְתָּ בְרִית לְתָמִים בְּדוֹרוֹ
וּבִזְכוּתוֹ שַׂמְתָּ לְעוֹלָם שְׁאֵרִית

חֹק בְּרִית קֶשֶׁת לְמַעֲנוֹ כָרַתָּ
וּבְאַהֲבַת נִיחֹחוֹ בָּנָיו בֵּרַכְתָּ

טָעוּ בְעָשְׁרָם וּבָנוּ מִגְדָּל
וַיֹּאמְרוּ נַבְקִיעַ הָרָקִיעַ לְהִלָּחֶם בּוֹ

יָחִיד אַב הֲמוֹן פִּתְאֹם כְּכוֹכָב
זָרַח מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לְהָאִיר בַּחשֶׁךְ

כַּעַסְךָ הֵפַרְתָּ בְּשׁוּרְךָ פָעֳלוֹ
וּלְעֵת שֵׂבָתוֹ לְבָבוֹ חָקַרְתָּ