Change My Mind – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5782

Has anyone ever offered to “pray for you” because they sincerely believed you were going to hell for being Jewish and not following their beliefs? It happened to me in Texas. Or maybe someone of another faith has come knocking on your door trying to spread the “good word”? It’s frustrating enough when someone insists that their way is the right way, but even more so when it’s about religion. I love Judaism (I’m a rabbi, after all), but that doesn’t mean I think Judaism is for everyone or that it’s the only right answer.

In 2017, Rick Gervais, famously an atheist, had a fascinating and friendly debate with devout Catholic Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. As a point to challenge Colbert’s belief in God, Gervais retorts, “So you believe in one God, I assume? Okay, but there are about 3,000 to choose from. Basically, you deny one less God than I do. You don’t believe in 2,999 gods. And I don’t believe in one more.”

In other words, who’s to say that they are absolutely right when it comes to religious belief? As a rule, Jews don’t proselytize. We don’t seek to convert others to Judaism. Like me, this is one of those Jewish facts you’ve probably known your whole life. This is why it puzzled me when, as a teenager, I saw representatives from the local Chabad standing on the sidewalk outside my public high school on Friday afternoons trying to teach the boys how to put on tefillin. I also clearly remember going up to them one week when I was feeling very brave, having my own tefillin with me, and showing them that I could do it too.

What was Chabad doing outside my public high school? They would argue that they weren’t proselytizing because, of course, they wouldn’t ask people of other faiths to put on tefillin; instead, they were trying to help other Jews fulfill the obligation. If that’s true, though, why stand outside the public high school? Why not stand outside a synagogue before daily minyan

Perhaps the answer is found in this week’s Torah portion. We read from Parshat Chayei Sarah, which makes the transition from one generation to the next. Beginning with Sarah’s death, we learn about Isaac and his courtship with Rebekkah, the list of Abraham’s descendants, and the death of Abraham and his burial at the cave of Machpelah. Through it all, the family continues to push their way from experiences of loss and grief into the next chapter of life.

As Abraham is trying to find land for burial and also a wife for Isaac, we read in chapter 24, verse 2: “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth . . .” By using the phrase “the God of heaven and the God of earth,” our midrash suggests that Abraham was bringing awareness to the fact that God does not only rule in heaven, but also on earth. Throughout this passage he refers back to the fact that God rules both in heaven and on earth.

So what does this have to do with proselytizing or not proselytizing? Midrash teaches that Abraham was the first individual to recognize this and to try and teach it to others. However, Abraham didn’t go out looking for others to join him on his journey of following God. He didn’t go out and preach to everyone of God’s truth. Rather, he shared this special connection, this special teaching, with those in his circle whom he knew needed to hear it. He looked for others who might already share this belief and tried to bring them all together. For example, when he looked for a wife for Isaac, he wanted someone who already shared this belief in God to make their community that much stronger.

I don’t think either Ricky Gervais or Stephen Colbert were actually expecting the other person to completely change their viewpoint. Similarly, Chabad’s presence outside my high school wasn’t about converting anyone to something that they didn’t previously believe. While that public act might make some people uncomfortable, that public act also reminded the Jews who were there what it means to be Jewish and what it means to have community. Likewise, Abraham also wasn’t out to change people’s minds; he was hoping to bring people closer together in love and faith. May we work to live in a world where we’re not trying to change people’s beliefs to match our own, but instead, strengthening our own circles so that we all, in turn, strengthen each other.

Now See, Hear – Parshat Vayera 5782

One of the hardest parts in switching to what is now a commonplace Zoom lifestyle was not being able to really see people. Yes, we mostly had our cameras on during meetings and services, but only seeing someone from the neck up isn’t really seeing them. So much of what I use in conversation comes from watching body language, watching subtle movements and shifts in others, and being fully present with another person. I’m just as guilty as the next person of occasionally being “checked out” when a meeting is online. If I’m not on a walk, where there are fewer distractions, it’s much too easy to check and answer emails or help a kid with a project. I wanted to be fully focused, but sitting and staring at a screen all day long didn’t really allow me that focus I needed. So in other words, not being able to completely see people has also made it difficult for me to completely hear them.

I know I’m not alone in my inability to be fully focused, or fully listening, when something else is calling for my attention. One reason I know this is because it’s actually at the center of this week’s Torah portion. In this week’s parshah, Vayera, we learn a version of this lesson as well. Here’s the recap: Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael. Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God asks that he offer up his son, Isaac.

When Abraham and Isaac are on the walk to the mount for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, there is stilted conversation. Isaac repeatedly asks questions based on his observations. “Where are we going?” “Where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham’s answer is consistently, “God will see to the sheep” and “He saw the place.” Whereas Isaac was taking in the world around him, likely because he was fully focused on the experience, Abraham’s focus was somewhere else, perhaps hoping and praying that God would intervene and call off this test. Abraham wasn’t watching his son to see how to really comfort him; instead, he was focused on God. 

This is not to say that as a monotheistic people we shouldn’t focus on God; rather, it’s a subtle reminder that Judaism, parenting, and life in general are about being present. After this incident, Abraham and Isaac don’t really speak to each other again, not that you can blame them. But I can’t help wondering if that would have been different if Abraham had been fully present with Isaac, listening to him, to really see him and to answer his questions, share wisdom, and let him know he was loved, despite this challenging ordeal. 

What I’ve learned about Zoom is I’m not able to be fully present unless I remove the distractions.  When we listen to each other, when we can really see each other, not just in a tiny window at the top of the screen while we mindlessly scroll Facebook or answer email, but in the full screen (large box, so to speak) that’s how we build relationships and move forward with one another. May we continue walking into 5782 with presence and focus on the things that matter. 

The Big House – Parshat Lech Lecha 5782

As a college student at the University of Michigan, some of my best memories were in the Big House. (The “Big House” is the nickname of Michigan Stadium.) Saturdays in the fall in Ann Arbor are an experience like none other. There is an electric energy around the city, and deep-rooted traditions abound. As a college freshman, I received a single ticket in the end zone about 50 rows up. I sat with a group of fans who had become family with one another, as they’d had the same seats for nearly three decades. This was “their house.” The stadium, while regularly the largest live crowd watching a college football game on a given Saturday, felt homey and familiar. It certainly is the “Big House” as it united each of us as Wolverines for those four quarters of play, unless you were rooting for the other team, in which case . . . boo!

With an attendance capacity of more than 100,000, it’s easy to see why it was nicknamed the “Big House,” but it always led me to wonder if this “house” was also a home. At what point does a house become a home? Is it enough to be a gathering place? Does one need to feel a connection to it? Is there some uniting cause that represents the house? While I certainly never slept in the Big House, I do still count it as one of the many homes in my life. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we are first asked to consider what makes a house. This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha. In Parshat Lech Lecha, we are finally introduced to Avram and Sarai – later Avraham and Sarah – who become the great patriarch and matriarch of the rest of our narrative. We learn that Avraham follows God with full intent, without questioning, and that Sarah goes with him. God tells him to leave his home, leave the only house he’s ever known, and go to a place he knows nothing about. He’s following God’s voice and taking a leap of faith.

As this parshah begins, we read the verse “Go, take yourself, from your land, from the place of your birth, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I’m struck by the notion of the specifics in saying “from your father’s house.” Of course in the ancient world, people were identified as coming from this family or that family. And since families generally lived together, it would make sense to specify “from your father’s house.” But why from the “house” instead of simply “from your father” or “from your father and mother”? Later, we see the word bayt (house) used to talk about places of study, like “the house of Hillel” and the “house of Shammai.” What does it mean to use “house” as your identifier?

In recent years there’s been a shift in how we identify ourselves and others. For example, we’re normalizing the use of identifying pronouns like she/her or they/them on name tags and Zoom IDs. However, Hebrew is a gendered language, and as such, it makes it much harder to move into a non-binary identity system. One prominent example comes from when we use our full Hebrew names. The traditional formula is your name, then son or daughter of your parents’ names. We use this on Jewish legal documents for weddings, and we use it when we’re called to the Torah for an aliyah. But, what happens when something other than that binary distinction is preferred?

One way we’ve addressed this is by starting to use mi-bayt, which means “from the house of,” in place of “son of” or “daughter of.” What makes this an appropriate fix? For one, it goes back to the Torah; we are all from the house of Abraham and Sarah in one way or another. Also, your “house” is the one of your choosing. It can be the house or family you grew up in, or the house you’ve made with your own family. It can even signify a global house (a “big house,” if you will). Mi-bayt olam means “from the house of the world,” and that certainly applies to all of us. 

What you consider a home or house may look different from everyone else’s. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we all come from somewhere, whether your “somewhere” is a specific block in a suburb or the whole planet, but even more important is the somewhere you make for yourself. 

The Two of You – Parshat Noach 5782

The phrase “nature versus nurture” seems to imply that there’s a struggle between these two factors. It suggests that one needs to win out over the other. I disagree, though; I think we can be influenced by genetics and by our surroundings at the same time. I believe each of us becomes a mix of these two individuals: the one with innate traits and the one with learned behaviors. Take the story of Noah, for example.

This week we read Parshat Noach. This second section of text in the entire Torah takes us through the story of the flood, building the ark, saving his family and the animals, sending out a dove, and God’s promise to never do this again. We learn of the generations of Noah and how humanity moved on to create the next piece of the narrative, the Tower of Bavel. After the Tower of Bavel, we see that the nations are scattered, and then the Torah quickly covers the 10 generations between Noah and Abraham, where the rest of our biblical history takes off.

As the second parshah of the Torah begins, we’re met with a peculiar linguistic construct. The text begins, “This is the line of Noah. Noah was blameless in his generation.” The oddity comes with the repetition of the name Noah. After all, any English teacher would suggest it could’ve been more efficiently written, “This is the line of Noah, who was blameless in his generation.” However, as close readers of Torah, we understand that words – especially repeated words – are meant for emphasis and deeper meaning. So, why repeat the name Noah?

What if, in fact, the names refer to two people instead of one: the person who was born as Noah, and the person whom Noah chose to be? They aren’t literally two different individuals, but it’s the idea that Noah had to make a choice about who he would be, especially when you consider the world around him. He could be without morals or values, or he could be kind and upstanding. Based on the rest of the verse and what we know happens later, it appears that he made the choice to be an upstander.

Reading this parshah close after the High Holidays is our yearly reminder that how we act in the world is up to us and not where we come from. We are not fully defined by the generations before us. Instead, like Noah, we are fully capable of doing the hard work to change patterns, hold ourselves to higher standards, and make our example the one that future generations want to follow.

The Blame Game – Parshat Bereshit 5782

Like lots of children, I had an imaginary friend when I was young. In fact, I’ve written about this friend before. His name was Petey, and he was a ghost. This was before I had a sibling, so in those years as an only child, I could be a bit mischievous on occasion. I know, shocking, right? I have a vivid memory of messing with the clean, folded clothes in my dresser drawer and my parents asking me who did it. I answered innocently, “Petey did it.” How could they blame me, perfect little Eve, for the mess? It was the perfect story: this ghost who could not be seen by anyone but me was the ideal scapegoat. Eventually, Petey became the joke of the family when things would be misplaced or accidents would happen. “Just blame Petey.”

While this worked as a laughable family mantra, it’s not exactly a great lesson as we work to create a world of responsibility for actions and deeds. The real lesson is as old as time, and apparent in the Torah. This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah. We are wowed with the story of creation, especially the time and care God put into creating each day, each being exactly as God wanted. We learn about the first people and their experience in the Garden of Eden, including how they learned to build, grow, and be together. The Torah continues with the story of Cain and Abel, the first sibling rivalry gone terribly awry, and the very real consequences put into place after each of these events. At the very beginning of the Torah, we’re also introduced to God as the parent, creating life and making sure everything has its own place.

The first few verses of the Torah are focused on God as creator. However, as soon as there is more than one human being on the earth, the blame game begins. It takes only until the third chapter of the Torah before someone starts to look for someone else to blame for their own actions. In chapter 3 the snake goes “in for the kill” on Eve. The serpent convinces her to eat from the banned tree. She does, then Adam does, and the minute they do, God comes out again to find out what happened. Adam is quick to first blame Eve, then he blames God for creating Eve. Eve blames the serpent, and both humans are punished for this violation of trust.

However, this blame game doesn’t end there. A few chapters later Adam and Eve’s children have a fight. Cain kills Abel, and when God comes to ask where his brother is, Cain is quick to respond with “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Once again, refusing to admit guilt or take the blame.

Why does our Torah begin like this? Why is there blame right off the bat? It’s likely because admitting guilt and accepting blame is downright difficult. We don’t like being “in trouble” or feeling like we may have messed up. That’s human. The Torah also begins here because these early chapters are a cautionary tale about how our actions and deeds can influence the behavior of others. Imagine if Eve or Adam had admitted blame. Perhaps they would’ve then set an example for Cain to also own his behavior. If he knew he would be expected to own his actions, perhaps he would not have been so reactive.

In reality, my parents never really let me get away with blaming Petey the Ghost. Similarly, Adam, Eve, and Cain aren’t let off the hook for trying to assign blame elsewhere. As we contemplate new beginnings, let us be aware that our actions have consequences. The more we learn to take responsibility for those actions, the better those consequences become.