Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Known: Vashti's Story

(I wrote this poem on the occasion of my synagogue sisterhood's Vashti's Banquet.  It references a number of biblical and midrashic sources, as well as commentaries, including modern, on Vashti and her story.)

 I am known
you know
from the pen of men.
Ink's indelibility
forever staining my name,
co-opted for the sake
of an agenda that was not my own.

I am known
you know
according to the Scroll
named after that other
more known
who replaced my throne
next to the king
whose desires I would not entertain.

I am known
you know
for my inaction,
condemned for my not doing.
Denied a voice, a verse,
a claim to my own fate,
to carve out
my own words.

My own story –
intoned by the voice of others -
no full due is credited me.
I am simplified,
made insignificant.

It is the will of the eunuch,
the ultimate powerless,
so threatened by me,
who writes and seals
my censored story's supposed end.

Not even my husband,
most powerful in the land,
schemed to punish me,
to banish me
from his kingdom.
Only remembering me
to know his need for another,
in his bed.

I am known
you know
this day
in circles of sisters
who praise my refusal,
who elevate me,
coronate me
a new queen:
of self-determination,
an exemplar of justice pursuit,
and yet a victim
of my own untimely circumstances.
Still story known by names
I never claimed for myself.
Still victim,
Still used,
with others twisting,
diminishing my story and me
to simple straightforward
for their own purposes,
not mine.

My story, my name
not mentioned even 10 times,
in Esther’s scroll,
has echoed and beckoned for generations.
My story, my name
has been recorded
recounted, re-written,
for ages.

Midrashic ink flowing with the colors
of boiling blood and cool deep sea.
Did you know,
I am known
by the Babylonian rabbis
as a goat-tailed, scaly-skinned whore?
The symbol of their exile’s source,
So detesting of my rule,
my power, my story-
they imagined me a monster.[i]

Though not all
despised me so.
Did you know,
I am known 
by the rabbis of Israel
as a source for their pity?
They told of how their Mighty God
Watched over me, took me in,
saved me time and time again
from life’s cruelties and crushing force.

So listen as I tell you
that there is more to my story
beyond the twists and turns 
of one chapter of a scroll.
Not inactive or reactive,
but determined and willful.
Not pure evil or good
but dimensioned and full.
Not so easily fit or forced into
a simple, bowed up box.

So might you entertain my desire,
this new night of feting,
to tell you my story more full
than you could possibly know
so that you might
know me better?

You see I was the daughter
of a great Chaldean king,
whose own fate was sealed at a feast
when I was but a girl.
A chandelier cut from its chains
landing upon my father's brains
in front of my very eyes.
Chaos erupting in the drunken room
I found my way to the newly crowned king,
who pitied me, took me in,
married me to his own son,
the prince who would one day be king,

Entertain the fact that
I myself did entertain
my fellow unknowns
at a fete of women,
a grand banquet,
in the palace of non-other than the king himself.
And know that this celebration
was no proper ladies affair.
Said to rival the licentiousness of my own husband's desires
my fete was set in the innermost rooms of the castle,
just under the nose of the king and his men,
So brazen and emboldened was I.[iii]

But before you bedeck me
in ribbons and jewels,
call me "equality's champion,"
know too that in my chamber
I took great pleasure in demanding
my own maidservants, Jews as they were,
 serve me on their seventh day.
And I preferred them without their clothes,
only their trays and washbasins in hand.

Do not seem so surprised,
measure for measure[iv],
I never asked
to be your role model or revulsion,
Neither Beauty nor Mystique,
neither least or most desired queen.

Know this:
They will tell of my execution,
they will write of
the eunuch’s perverted desire
to have my head presented
and served
on a platter
at the seat of the king.
Some will speak of the king
strangling me himself
In his drunken rage,
Fires so burning inside.[v]
But they do not know,
No one does,
Where I abide.

The throne upon which I now sit
I whittled and carved myself
from craggy crystals, thorny roses,
And knotted roots from brush that grew
out of the Chaldean sands of my Babylonia.
For I sit enthroned
in the echoing halls
of the banished,
of the monster-ed,
of the simplified,
of the misunderstood.
Our stories left unfinished,
our fates un-written,
our red-ribbon hauntings,
our legends, our standings
not fully known
to any soul.

So dine and revel
this night
in my own banquet’s tribute,
but do me the honor
of judging me
for yourself.

Not by the story
you knew or
you wanted,
but by the fuller tale
that you now know.

I am known.

[i] TB Megilah 12b
[ii] Ester Rabbah 3:5 and Midrash Panim Acherim B:1
[iii] TB Megilah 12a-b
[iv] ibid, Rashi
[v] Esther Rabbah 4:9, 12, Leviticus Rabbah 12:1

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Character Counts: Cookie Thievery and Idolatry

(The following is my sermon from Shabbat Ki Tissa)

The Cookie Thief by Valerie Cox*
A woman was waiting
At the airport one night,
With several long hours
Before her flight.
She hunted for a book
In the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies
And found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book,
But happened to see,
That the man beside her,
As bold as could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two
From the bag between,
Which she tried to ignore
To avoid a scene.

She read, munched cookies,
And watched the clock,
As the gutsy “cookie theif”
Diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated
As the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice,
I’d blacken his eye!”

With each cookie she took,
He took one too.
When only one was left,
She wondered what he’d do.
With a smile on his face
And a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie
And broke it in half.

He offered her half,
And he ate the other.
She snatched it from him,
And thought: “Oh brother!
This guy has some nerve,
And he’s also quite rude,
Why, he didn’t even show
Any gratitude!”

She had never known
When she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief
When her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings
And headed for the gate,
Refusing to look at
The “thieving ingrate.”

She boarded the plane
And sank in her seat.
Then sought her book,
Which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage,
She gasped with surprise.
There was her bag of cookies
In front of her eyes!

“If mine are here,”
She moaned with despair.
“Then the others were his
And he tried to share!”
Too late to apologize,
She realized with grief,
That she was the rude one,
The ingrate.  The thief!

Does this story resonate?   Maybe we haven’t been a cookie thief, but perhaps we laid on the car horn those extra three seconds just to make the point of how wrong that other driver was for cutting us off, only to realize that they had the green arrow and we actually had the red light?  Or maybe it happened when, in a ridiculous disagreement with a boss, or an employee, or a student or a teacher, or a child, or parent or a sibling or partner, we just knew we were right and the other was wrong, so we chose to belittle our counterpart because of how ridiculous their perspective or opinion was, only to come to see that they, in fact, were right all along?  
And the sad truth is that, just like in the Cookie Thief, often by the time we realize how wrong we were, it’s too late.  The cookies have already been eaten, the other driver has driven off, and the person we belittled has walked away.
And so I wonder: what is this tendency that drives us to perceive of ourselves as right and others wrong, to see ourselves as blameless victims and the others as purposeful offenders?
Well, let’s take a look at this week’s Torah portion, to see if it can offer us any insight.
The portion details arguably our ancestors’ worst moment in the Torah – the sin of the Golden Calf.  You know the story: after not seeing Moses for a long time (he’s been up on Mt Sinai with God getting the remainder of the commandments), the people determine that they need a visible connection to the Divine and call upon Aaron to build them a golden sculpture of a calf. Aaron obliges and in a frenzy, our ancestors bow down and worship what they’ve created.  It’s the #1 no-no in the book – idolatry, but they don’t even realize they’ve done anything wrong until the moment they see Moses come down the mountain with the stone tablets in his hands. And by the time they realize just how wrong they are, it’s already too late. 
What’s of note in the story, however, is not what the people do, but rather, what drives God to respond.  You see, while our ancestors are busy worshiping their idol, God becomes enraged and plans to wipe the people out.  But here’s the interesting part - what offense does God cite to justify the punishment?  Idolatry, right?  Wrong.  The text reads: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people.  Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them so I will destroy them.”  The Israelites may have committed the crime of idolatry, but for what does God want to punish them?  Not their sinful act, but for a quality of their character, or in this case, the lack thereof - their stiff-neckedness – their obstinate nature.    
One of the late 19th century Mussar rabbis (Mussar being the ancient Jewish practice of character cultivation) Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel writes about this seemingly strange response from God.  “From here we see that a defect in character is even worse than a defect in action – more serious even than a grave sin like idolatry.”1 According to Finkel, character flaws are more serious than sinful acts, because they alter who we are at the deepest level, as the divine image in us is damaged in the process.2 The eating of the cookies, the long blow on the horn, even the cruelties to other people – those are just the surface results of a much deeper problem.  It’s why the Cookie Thief story’s ending resonates so deeply.  When we get so caught up in our pride, our own perceived infallibility, our own insecurities, our own stubbornness, we actually become that which we are so quick to condemn. I imagine you’ve heard that the characteristics and behaviors we find most repelling in others are actually insights into those qualities we dislike in ourselves.   It’s why even Maimonides teaches that we don’t just repent for our deeds – we must repent for our negative character traits as well.  The trick is, fixing faulty character traits proves a lot harder than apologizing for our bad actions.3
Mussar tradition defines stubbornness as an inability to alter one’s opinion.  But even stubbornness in and of itself is not a root problem.  As it happens, stubbornness is actually a symptom of an even greater character flaw – a lack of humility.
From a Jewish lens, humility is a tricky concept that doesn’t just mean being modest.  Rather, humility is the quality that stands between conceit and self-debasement.  As Mussar teacher Rabbi Alan Morinis puts it: “Humility is not an extreme quality, but rather, a balanced, moderate, accurate understanding of yourself that you act on in your life.  Arrogance [or stubbornness] has an insatiable appetite for space.  It claims. It occupies.  It sprawls.  It suffocates others…The opposite extreme is self-debasement.  Shrinking from occupying any space whatsoever, it retracts meekly inside itself….[but] whether we see ourselves as nothing or as everything, we are still pre-occupied with the self, and both of these traits are, therefore, forms of narcissism. In Jewish terms, they are two variations on the theme of idolatry.”4  Idolatry isn’t just something we demonstrate externally with sculpted forms and images.  The idols can actually be inside of us –hubris or meekness in some ways – idols more dangerous than the golden calf.  Morinis again: “Without humility, either you will be so puffed up with arrogance that you won’t even see what really needs some work, or you will be so deflated and lacking in self-esteem that you will despair of being able to make the changes that are lit up so glaringly in your self-critical mind.”5 Complicated stuff.
But all is not lost.  We don’t have to throw up and hands and declare: Once a cookie thief, always a cookie thief.  Rabbi Shai Held points out that just as bad character can yield bad action and then that bad action can feed back into our bad character in a vicious cycle, the opposite is true as well: “Good character is manifest in good behavior, and good behavior in turn helps instill good character.  If you want to train yourself to be more compassionate, for example, start by doing compassionate things.  Compassionate character yields compassionate behavior, which in turn deepens compassionate character, and so on in a virtuous cycle.”6 
I love this idea of a virtuous cycle.  It’s the cultivation of virtuous cycles that leads to teshuvah around the otherwise vicious cycle of character flaw.  Morinis challenges us to do the following: “…ask yourself this: Do you leave enough space in your life for others, or are you jamming up your world with yourself? Or is there space you ought rightfully to occupy that you need to stretch to do? Your answers are the measure of your humility.”7  And if you have work to do on this, start with an action.  Identify an area where you have space to relinquish or to take up, and try to cultivate something different.  If you tend to dominate conversations, take a step back and consciously try to listen.  If you tend to stay silent, challenge yourself to speak up and contribute.  And then do it again.  And again.  These little acts add up over time in a virtuous cycle to change not only the way we are perceived, but more importantly, the way we are. 
Shabbat Shalom

* Many thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Slater for sharing "The Cookie Thief" with me and my IJS cohort.
1 R. Natan Zvi Finkel, Or HaTzafun, “Kashyut Oref”,p. 187 – as translated by Rabbi Shai Held in his Dvar Torah on Ki Tissa 2014
2 R. Shai Held explores this idea extensively in his Dvar Torah on Ki Tissa 5774
3 Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:3)
4 Morinis, Every Day Holiness. P. 50.
5 Morinis. 46
6 R. Shai Held, Dvar Torah Ki Tissa
7 Morinis. p. 54.

Friday, January 3, 2014

What Judaism Can Teach Us About New Year's Resolutions

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, the first directive is given by God to the entire collective of the Jewish people: to observe the first Jewish month.  “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”  This moment, the first time God instructs the Jewish people collectively, marks the official beginning of Jewish time. Not that our ancestors weren't observing time before.  But this moment initiates the beginning of our ancestors marking time according to their own collective narrative, their own collective history and story.  At this point, for our ancestors, time begins again. 

Usually, we wouldn't read parshat Bo until early to mid-February, but the oddities of this Jewish calendar year have presented us with a powerful opportunity to read parshat Bo the same week as we observe the secular new year, the same week that we begin counting secular time again in the annual solar cycle.  So I got to thinking: if Chanukkah could help inform the way we experienced Thanksgiving this year – there was that whole Thanksgivukkah thing a while back -  then perhaps parshat Bo might have something to inform our experience of the secular new year as well.

There is an interesting difference in approach to time between our western, secular culture and Judaism, and that difference is really easy to see when we compare the words for month and year in English and Hebrew.  In English, the word month originated from a word that meant moon and year originated from a word that meant season. We can easily understand how the words evolved, and their roots make sense.  They are, after all, concepts of time and their etymologies source to the same time concepts.  But these words in Hebrew prove quite different.  In Hebrew, the word for month is chodesh.  The root of chodesh isn't tied to the moon or seasons or even to time.  Its root literally means “new.” And the Hebrew word for year, shannah, is connected to the root for “change.”   It is extremely instructive that the Jewish lens on these basic units of time moves us out of the surface definitions of these words and takes us into the deeper concepts of renewal and evolution.

We, as humans, of course, resonate with this connection of time and change or renewal – just think about those New Year’s resolutions so many of us make, implied in each the hope and yearning we have to make changes in our lives, to make new and renew our lives, our actions, our choices as a way of marking the beginning of a new year. 
The trick, of course, is that New Year’s resolutions aren't always so easy to keep.  It’s why the first week in January is always so crowded at the gym, but by the time you reach February, that big wave of newly resolved and well-intended people has petered down to just a little ripple.  Our human desire to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, although commendable, proves notably difficult in actuality to accomplish.

This is where that first directive of marking the first month or chodesh comes to offer us a powerful insight. 

Let’s think back to the point at which God instructs our ancestors to mark the first month of all the months of the year?  It is not delivered when the people cross the sea once they are free, when they have left the constrictive oppression of Egypt and the new era of living free has actually begun, but rather, while they are still slaves, still dwelling in their mud shacks in the land of Goshen.  They will be freed – it will happen at the end of the portion, but when they receive this designation to mark the first of the months, it is a moment when they are still living amidst oppression, a moment while they are essentially still living in their past.  And it is in that place of the past, before the apex moment arrives, that our ancestors are told to start over. 

To put it in our secular New Year equivalent, it would be to start going to the gym on Dec 17th, instead of waiting to start until Jan 1.  When should we change our behavior, when should we begin again?  Jewish tradition teaches that we don’t have to wait until the “right time” or when we feel everything is perfectly aligned.  We begin again in the midst of the chaos – in the murky middle.  We begin the practice and cultivation of change while still actively familiar with the situations and behaviors from which we are trying to move away.  Because to believe that an arbitrary marker of time will somehow wipe away the place from where we've come, the struggles and setbacks of the past, well that, as we know, is the stuff of good marketing campaigns, but certainly not of reality.

We are told to start counting Jewish time at a liminal moment poised between the great journey from slavery to freedom, from exile to return, from constriction to release. And that is not just the journey our ancestors took, it’s the journey of each of our souls, every year, every month, every day.

Ultimately, Judaism doesn't really care all that much about our secular new year’s resolution.  If we make one, great.  But if we find we don’t keep it, we don’t need to wait around until the next year to try again.  The opportunity to change and renew doesn't just come around one time a year, or even one month a year, but rather, any day, any moment, all the time. After all, Jewish tradition teaches that God renews the work of creation every day. 

There’s another funny Jewish confluence with the secular year this week. The beginning of the month of Shvat – think Tu b'Shvat – was yesterday, January 2.  Shvat is the month when we are told that in Israel the sap begins to rise in the trees, stimulating new growth internally, new growth that will soon yield deeper roots, new sprouts and blossoms.    May this day, this month, this year, be a year of deepening roots and new growth for us all.  And if not Shvat, then Adar, and if not Adar…well, you get the picture.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Noah's Silence: A Jewish Take on the Government's Shut Down

(My sermon from this Friday night)

I think it’s fair to say it’s been a difficult week.

Unbelievable, yet real events have led up to and continue through our Government’s shut down, leaving so many throughout our country and even beyond in a state of increasing peril.  Whatever your view of politics, we can likely all agree that the current state of affairs in our country is not a good one, as our land these days seems flooded, so to speak, by elected leaders and power players whose interests are so focused on their own side’s voice and needs that they are willing to drown out the voices and needs of everybody else, if they deem that such behavior is what it takes to “survive.”  There is no interest like self-interest after all.

It’s an eerie coincidence, seeing that our Torah portion this week details the famous story of Noah and the Ark.   10 generations after God created the world, the Torah tells us that “lawlessness” filled the earth, as corruption overtook the actions of mankind.  Fed up, God decided to flood the whole thing and essentially start over.   But God saved one man, Noah, along with his family, and 2 of every animal.  Why Noah?  Because as the text says, "In his generation, Noah was a righteous man, and he was blameless.” 

Do you see anything odd in that phrasing?

Whereas at first, we assume that Noah was an all-around fabulous, outstanding human being, when we look more closely, we see that he may have been a good guy, but only relative to the other people -‘in his generation” – who as we know, were not of the highest repute. Midrashim – ancient stories that help to answer questions otherwise unanswered in the Torah text itself - go to great lengths to emphasize just how bad the people of Noah’s generation were.  One particularly disturbing midrash teaches that the people of the generation were so corrupt that they expressed compassion through means of cruelty.  To quote it: “When God raised the depths of the waters over them, and they saw that the fountains of the deep threatened to submerge them, what did they do? They took their own children and placed them into the depths, pressing them down mercilessly.”[i] Essentially, in order to assure their own safety, one generation was willing to sacrifice the needs, no really the lives, of the next.  Pretty awful stuff.  You can imagine that winning the competition for “all round good human being” in Noah’s generation was not so challenging.  

So what was it about Noah that diminished his status from a righteous man in every generation to a righteous man only in his generation?  Let’s think back to the story.  God sees a world so overcome with evil that a decision is made to end to it, and then to start over with Noah and his family.   God informs Noah of the plan, and Noah dutifully and faithfully constructs the ark.  Noah is nothing if not obedient.

Do you know that throughout the entire story, from the time God asks Noah to build the ark- to the actual deluge itself – to God making a rainbow, promising never to wipe out all existence again – Noah never says a single word?!  He is literally the most silent main character in the Torah.  Sure, he follows directions well.  He’s dedicated too.  One story even suggests that Noah never slept for the year the ark was afloat because he was too busy tending to the needs of his family and the animals with him on the ark.[ii] But regarding the suffering of those around him, Noah is surprisingly unconcerned.  According to the brilliant Aviva Zornberg, Noah’s indifference becomes clear right from the start“…in a process that begins with planting cedars that are to provide wood for the ark, so that they may become a topic of general conversation and lead to the rebuke and repentance of his contemporaries.”[iii] So instead of seeing his guaranteed safety as insurance enough to try to reach out and help the others around him to avoid suffering, Noah keeps his head down, focussed on what he perceives as the task at hand.  He accepts the status quo, and does what he’s told, nothing more and nothing less.  One Chasidic scholar[iv] teaches that the reason the Torah says that “God shut Noah in the ark” instead of Noah walking in the ark and closing the door behind him is to stress that, although Noah was saved by the ark, it also represented a punishment for Noah’s self-concern –with God serving as the guard that shuts the door behind a prisoner in jail. 

There is a strong lesson for all of us in this.   We learn that righteousness is diminished when we are not open to the suffering of those around us, as was the case in Noah's generation.  It follows that if we are not aware of the world around us and the needs of others in our midst, we too risk being shut out.   We may not be directly or personally impacted in the immediate wake of any danger, but the conditions of the world in which we survive will undoubtedly affect us all at the end of the day.

If we merely accept the situation in the world around us, its corruption, its dangers, its suffering, and spend all of our time building our own proverbial arks to shield us from the inevitable impacts of these problems on us, that doesn't make us bad people – but it also doesn't make us righteous or holy.  And since the whole purpose of Jewish living, not just living, but Jewish living is to bring righteousness and holiness into the world, well, then our obligation to others around us is clear.  We Jews don’t ever have luxury of silence, of not speaking out against suffering and injustice. 

But I want to be clear about one more thing. On a universal level, Abraham Joshua Heschel couldn't have said it better when he declared, “Some may be guilty, but all are responsible.”   Let’s be clear: If, in order to achieve our own well-being, we somehow cause added suffering to another, we fail not just as Jews, but also as human beings.

It’s interesting to know that next week’s Torah portion raises up another character that is called righteous.  And in some ways, places him in an eerily similar situation to Noah’s.  This time, it’s not the entire world that that God wants to destroy – just the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, since the behaviors of the inhabitants of the towns have deteriorated to a Divinely intolerable rate.  When God tells Abraham of the plan, Abraham responds differently than his Octo-great grandfather Noah.  In the face of God's willingness to wipe out an entire population, Abraham does not just accept God's decision.   Abraham stands up and argues, questioning the justice of God’s judgment.  In complete opposition to Noah’s self-interest and apathy toward the other, Abraham puts his own life on the line by engaging in a disagreement with God, concerned completely in upholding justice and mercy for the other.  This is one of the reasons that Abraham is righteous unconditionally, not just relative to his generation.  

There is something else that Abraham and Noah have in common.  Both are described as walking in relation to God.   The Torah tells us that Noah walks with God, but Abraham, Torah teaches, walks before God.

What is the difference between walking with God and walking before God?   Walking with insinuates keeping pace with.  Walking before, on the other hand, means going beyond that, standing up for what we know to be right, and making our best attempt to see that justice in a given situation is upheld before it is too late.  

If we follow Abraham's model, walking before God, speaking out and acting on behalf of what is right is not something we do only with a guarantee of success.   We are commanded to seek out justice, to bring righteousness and holiness into our world, regardless of the outcome.  There is no fine print disclaimer stating that the offer is only valid if we feel our actions will really make a difference.  The expectation is that we do the right thing, go above and beyond, regardless of how daunting a situation is, simply because this is what Jews do.  We don’t have the right to say, "The situation is so horribly beyond repair that anything I do will make no difference, so I will instead do nothing."   From a Jewish lens, the end result is not nearly as critical as the means by which we walk in the process.  Noah may have been the progenitor of humanity after the flood, but Abraham is called the first Jew. From a biblical perspective, there is a fundamental difference between what it means to be human versus what it means to live Jewishly.  And the fact that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all root themselves not to Noah, but to Abraham, well, that should be a source of great hope for us all.

Shabbat Shalom.

[i] Tanhuma, Noah 7 as described in Aviva Zornberg’s The Beginning of Desire, p.57
[ii] Zornberg, Aviva.  The Beginning of Desire. P. 60.
[iii] Ibid. p. 58.
[iv] Aharon Shmuel Tamaret