Posted on

A Moral Faith

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlach

Not much good happens to our Patriarch Jacob in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4—36:43). Insinuation and accusations have caused him to escape from Laban’s house. Unlike his first hasty departure 20 years earlier, however, this time he is not leaving empty handed. He is rich, head of a large family and in charge of many flocks and herds.

But whereas when he left his first home, he was bold and unafraid, this time Jacob has to face his worst fears.

Youth is confident of its own strength. Youth believes in its own power and invincibility. Nothing like life to teach you a lesson in vulnerability.

About to cross the river that divides between exile and home, between his past and his future, Jacob has to face some mysterious being. It’s unclear whether this being is a demon or angel. In the middle of the night the difference may not be all that clear. In any case, the two wrestle all night long. At some point the stranger wrenches Jacob’s hip socket, but Jacob refuses to give in. Even as dawn alights, the struggle continues.

Finally admitting defeat, the mysterious being is forced to give Jacob a blessing. “You have struggled with men and divine beings and have prevailed,” says the spirit, and he bestows on Jacob a new name: Israel.

But Jacob’s struggles are far from over. He now has to face his brother a worse adversary—his brother Esau, who is coming towards him with four hundred armed men. Fearful for the safety of his family, Jacob cajoles, pleads and bribes Esau before the two finally part, each going his own way. This time bloodshed was avoided.

Sometime later, with Jacob and his family encamped outside Shechem, Dina, Jacob’s only daughter, wanders away from the camp. She is seen by the prince of the city, also named Shechem, who seizes and rapes her. Falling in love with the girl, Shechem sends his father to ask for Dina’s hand in marriage.

Jacob is silent, but his sons are enraged. Demanding that all the men of Shechem be circumcised, they wait for three days. Then two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, attack. They kill all the males of the city, who understandably are unable to defend themselves, and take all the women, children and possessions for themselves. Jacob is horrified by their actions, but he is silent when his sons retort: “Shall our sister be dealt with as a whore?”

Not long after this terrible incident, Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, dies as she gives birth to Benjamin.

Jacob has had to face life with all its unhappiness and suffering. Yet what he does next is a true testament to his inheritance and legacy: He returns to Bethel and builds an altar to God, reaffirming his faith in the God of his fathers.

In view of all his suffering, this act may be difficult to understand. When he left home years earlier, Jacob was bold enough to question God: “If you fulfill your promise to bring me back home safely,” he says in response to God’s promise of protection. “If.” It isn’t doubt or uncertainty that motivate him. It’s youthful arrogance.

Now, however, even though he is filled with fear and doubt, Jacob responds not with cynicism but rather with faith.

In rising above his personal tragedies (there is yet one more to come), Jacob shows his greatness. Past experience has taught him how to fend for himself. He learned when to fight and when to sue for peace, when to make alliances and when to set boundaries. He has learned that it’s possible to pick up the shattered pieces of life and carry on with one’s duties and responsibilities. He has learned how to draw blessings from even the most dire situations.

But possibly the most important lesson of all came after the terrible events at Shechem.

The rape of Dina was not only a personal act of violence. It was also an attack on the legitimacy of Jacob’s family and household.

Simeon and Levi reacted as people did in those brutal days. They defended their sister’s honor; they upheld and restored their family’s legitimacy and integrity.

And yet, they committed an atrocity.

Yes, “the fear of God” kept the family safe from further attacks, but for Jacob there was something much deeper at stake here. So far, his struggles had been with others. Now Jacob had to face his own conscience. Mass murder, no matter how some viewed it in those days, was unacceptable to him. Vengeance exacted on the guilty and innocent alike was something that to his core he believed was wrong. The lessons he learned as a child yet were to care for the weak, the sick and injured. What his sons had done was contrary to everything he ever believed.

In accepting the role of Israel, the father of a nation, Jacob agreed to follow higher standards of ethics and morality. That is why at this point in his life, despite all the tragedies—or perhaps because of them—he fulfills his vow. In Bethel, Jacob builds an altar to the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Sarah and Rebecca, the God of Israel.

In the last few weeks there have been many attacks on the life and legitimacy of Jacob’s progeny, the People of Israel. Terror has taken the lives of men, women and children throughout the Land of Israel. Yet, true to the teaching of Jacob, the State of Israel has acted in accordance with Jacob’s moral teachings.

I remember when, nearly 20 years ago, a terrorist blew himself up near Dizengoff Center, at the heart of Tel Aviv. Thirteen Israelis between the ages of 13 and 82 were killed in that terrible attack. I remember precisely where I was when I heard the news. I was a rabbinic student then, and I was sitting in the sanctuary of Hebrew Union College; it was the middle of morning services. I rushed out to call my family in Israel—thank God they were all safe. But when I returned to my seat in the sanctuary, I felt rage such as I had never felt before. I was shaking violently, to the point where a friend who was sitting next to me had to put his arm around me to calm me.

Though, somehow, services continued, my heart and soul were not in the prayers. Slowly, my rage dissipated. But it did not disappear; instead, it turned to hate. With all my heart and soul, I hated. This was the fourth such attack in nine days. In that span, 60 Israelis were killed by suicide murderers. I just couldn’t take it any more. Above all else at that moment I wanted revenge.

Yet even as I struggled with my emotions, something else arose from deep within me. It was an understanding, a lesson. Better than ever before, I truly understood why the Torah and the ancient rabbis forbade blood vengeance. It was Jacob’s lesson which at that moment resonated within my soul.

Israel’s raison d’etre, its cause and the foundation of its existence, is this moral lesson: That punishment must be restricted to the guilty; that mass retaliation is abhorrent in God’s eyes.

Terror strikes indiscriminately. Terrorists aim to spread pain, suffering and destruction as widely as possible. No matter how great our rage, however, we must not give in to the instincts that would drive us to respond in kind. To be Israel means that we set a different God before our eyes. Our God is a God of justice, not of revenge, of compassion and morality, not bloodlust and cruelty.

We do best homage to our patriarch Jacob when we follow this teaching. I only hope and pray that we and the rest of the civilized world will continue to follow it.

Posted on

Walking With Abraham, Standing With You

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

On the other hand, Abraham’s belief, which he stubbornly held on to, was that there was only one God, a just and compassionate God who wanted people to be like Him: just and compassionate.

The different beliefs led to two very different—and in many ways opposing—lifestyles. What Abraham was looking for was a place where he could live and worship freely, without fear of persecution.

People have been fleeing persecution, seeking liberty, for as long as humanity has existed. In fact, America was founded upon this principle. The social and political system that was created here is a democracy, guided by the principle that we, the people, have the right to participate in the selection and running of our government. Our democracy enshrines freedoms we hold sacred, holy.

Elections in a system such as ours never result in a unanimous vote. In a democracy, it’s a given that there will be different opinions and dissenting views. Elections are often divisive; all you have to do is look at what’s happening in our country today. A mere fortnight after one of the ugliest election in people’s memory, you can see people hurling insults, pitching hate at each other. In the media, among ourselves and even within families, people are unfriending one another, refusing to speak to one another, going as far as to cancel Thanksgiving family dinners because of the election, and who supported which candidate.

Democracy is not perfect. In fact, Winston Churchill once stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But democracy is still the only system that allows us, the people, to have a voice, to place a person in office or take them out of it again. So far, this system has been more successful than all the others. Economically, socially, culturally—in every possible way, democracy has provided us with untold opportunities. It has granted us the greatest number of freedoms and rights. It has worked well—though not perfectly—for nearly 240 years now.

Still, what happened last week has left many of us in a state of shock and disbelief. In poll after poll, we were led to believe in a different outcome. For many of us, this election was to be an affirmation of principles we believed in, that we worked hard for, and that took decades to accomplish. But instead, we saw a swing in the other direction.

As a result of this election, there have been demonstrations, protests, marches and rallies. We have also seen and heard mean and ugly words. Symbols of hatred have been popping up in neighbors’ yards, in mailboxes, in the social media. One of the most common of these symbols is the swastika, a fearful symbol that to the Jewish people has special, ominous meaning, as it represents death and destruction, reminding us of the Holocaust, the most terrible disaster our people has endured in the last 2000 years.

But it isn’t only Jews who are seeing these signs of hate. All minorities—Muslims, gays, Latinos, African-Americans, immigrants—are feeling threatened by a wave of hatred and intolerance.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, reports that since the election, there have been close to 500 incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation. In the larger picture, 500 isn’t a huge number. But the cumulative effect has been to strike fear in the hearts of millions more. These hateful acts have been taking place at K-12th grade schools (!), on university and college campuses, in places of business, private homes and public houses of worship. Even if we don’t experience the hate ourselves, television, the papers, the social media, all make sure we become witnesses to it.

One thing that we have learned from Abraham, the first Jew, the first recorded refugee from persecution, is that we are all responsible for one another. Throughout our 3600 years of existence the Jewish People have learned that, in order to survive, we must be there for one another. The legacy that the Founding Fathers of our country—all followers in Abraham’s footsteps—have left us, is that if America is to remain the Land Of The Free, we must be there for one another whenever we see acts of injustice, hatred, violence and intimidation.

Like yet another Abraham, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who fifty years ago marched in Selma, Alabama, alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King, arms linked to show support for those whose felt intimidated and disenfranchised, we too need to let all people—individuals and groups of all genders, races and beliefs—who are filled with fear, who see the hateful signs and words and know all too well what they mean, we need to let them know that we are there with them and will continue to be there for them. No individual, no group in America today need feel that they are alone. WE STAND WITH YOU. No one should feel afraid of his or her neighbor. We still believe that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the most important rule of humanity, and we must stand up and defend it whenever we see it threatened.

Father Abraham heeded the call to leave his homeland. Despite his standing in the community, despite all the contributions he made to his society in religion, business, art, literature, and philosophy, Abraham felt unsafe in his own homeland. And so he left all he knew and began his journey. It’s a path we still find ourselves on today: A journey toward a land and a time when all people, in all their marvelous diversity, live in peace and harmony. We don’t know when we will get there, but if our way of life is to survive, we cannot stumble and fall out along the way.

May our communities be strengthened by our pursuit of justice and compassion. May our nation continue to be a shining beacon for all who feel oppressed and persecuted. And may we all become messengers of hope, carrying forward the task of making America the great nation that it is and can be. May we see the day when all people shall walk free, tall and unafraid, and may this day come soon. Amen!

Posted on

Who Is The “You” in Tetzaveh

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Tetzaveh

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You shall command,” Exodus 27:20-30:10) is unique in that it is the only parasha in the Torah since the birth of Moses and with the exception of the book of Deuteronomy, which is told almost exclusively from Moses’s perspective, in which Moses’s name is not mentioned once. The use of the second person pronoun has been addressed by rabbis since the third century and possibly even earlier. Some explain it as a harsh response by God to the “You” used pointedly by Moses to remind God of His responsibility toward the People of Israel, the People God had created and chosen. “You talking to me?” God seems to ask; “How about you and what YOUR responsibilities are!”

The Chassidic Lubavitcher Rebbe has a softer interpretation. By using the familiar “you,” God bypasses the formality of calling Moses by name. It’s all about relationships, the Rebbe teaches.

Still, the question remains open. Why bypass the pattern the Torah uses so frequently, “And God spoke unto Moses, saying…”?

By traditional understanding, the Torah was given to Moses directly by God; the “you” therefore needs no further interpretation. To whom else would God be addressing these words?

The rest of the portion seems to bear out this understanding. The subject matter is mostly the clothing of the High Priests and his fellow Levitical priests. Moses receives instructions for the preparation of the High Priest’s clothing. The ornate nature of the weave, the expensive materials, the gold thread and precious stones and gems used for this outfit, are of the same pattern and mold as the materials and patterns used for the Tabernacle. The holiness of the Mishkan, God’s dwelling-place among the Israelites, extends all the way from the innermost Holy of Holies, to the outermost garments worn by the priest. Clothing may not make the man; yet it must have been difficult for the High Priest to distinguish between God’s holiness, encased by the Holy Tabernacle, and his own importance, encased by similar designs, forms and materials. Gems on his breastplate, gold stones on his shoulders, a golden diadem on his head—how easy it must have been for the High Priest to be carried away by his own self- importance!

It’s a lesson easily adapted to our own day. At almost-daily awards shows, popular media stars model the most lavish outfits, the most expensive accessories and the most costly jewelry. In their own eyes, and in the eyes of many of their followers, that qualifies them to give voice to outrageous thoughts and opinions as though they were the very words of God Himself. Sporting blue contact lenses, Famous Person Tila Tequila recently called herself “an Aryan Goddess.” Another popular media star, Kanye West, waxes exuberantly about his own superiority. And Presidential candidate Donald Trump, notwithstanding the many business ventures he has failed in, describes himself as being good—if not better or even best—at just about anything he touches and does. A true Midas, that.

It is easy to let the trappings of power go to our heads and turn us—in our own minds at least—into something greater than we truly are.

At CNN’s New Hampshire Democratic Town Hall, my friend and colleague Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett recently directed a pointed question at Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton: “How do you cultivate the ego a person must have to be the leader of the free world and the humility to know you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the President has to be responsible for?”

In her eloquent and appropriate response, Hillary Clinton did not place herself above or even alongside God. Rather, she explained that prayer and devotional readings sent to her by spiritual advisors keep her balanced.

The recognition that we are not gods, that we are fallible and prone to the excesses of ego and exaggerated self-worth, are essential qualities for any leader. If we are to remember the purpose for which we were elected or appointed, if we are not to be blinded and swayed from the goals set for us by the people we are supposed to represent, we must also understand that we are merely human beings, all flesh and blood, all equal under the clothing we wear and the masks we put on.

Perhaps this is behind the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teaching regarding God’s use of “you” instead of addressing Moses by the name we know him by. A name, regardless of how good or royal, is no more than a handle. It’s a superficial symbol, an arrow pointing towards someone. “You,” however, is a direct address. It reaches all the way to the very core of a person’s being.

Still, without a name there, we can be excused for wondering. Is it Moses that God addresses?

On the one hand, of course it is Moses. On the other hand, the “you” that God speaks to is you and me, the ordinary people whose responsibility it is to appoint or elect our leaders. It becomes our charge to remind them—as many times as it takes—that behind the trappings of power resides a mere human being, as fragile and flimsy as anyone else. None of us has the one and only answer, the one and only right way. It is only by working together, with each of us fulfilling his and her role in life and society, that we have a chance to solve the many issues and problems that face us at any given moment in history.

“You” may refer to Moses, to a wise and kindly rabbi, or to a child who perceives that the king’s new clothing is no more than his birthday suit. Ultimately, the “You” in “You shall command” is each one of us, commanded to remember and remind one another that, underneath it all, in God’s eyes, we are all equal, all deserving of the same rights, all of us equally worthy of equal dignity and respect.