Reevaluating Esau

[I know this is late. I meant to get it posted in time for the relevant Torah reading this year (Parashat Toldot). But it is one of my best pieces, so I am posting it now — better late than never]

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Why would Esau abandon his birthright? He arrives home after a day’s hunt, smells his brother’s cooking, and trades the birthright away for dinner. Why indeed would he do that?

Details matter here. The first thing Esau announces upon entering the tent is, “I am weary.” Jacob makes him a proposition, “Sell (michrah) your birthright.” Esau despairs: “I am about to die. What good is my birthright to me?” And with that, the deed is done.

Esau deserves more sympathy than he gets, because we are conditioned to treat him as the “heavy.” But God is compassionate, the Rabbis say, so we should be too. Look again at Esau, then.

Are we to believe that Esau’s weariness is pure physical exhaustion? Could this mighty man of strength be so weak that he cannot pour himself some stew? That he cannot think straight enough to keep his birthright intact? Hardly. Take him at his word! “I am weary… about to die.” It doesn’t take much to diagnose Esau as suffering from a malady that attacks millions of us still: Depression.

The Rabbis emphasize the word used by Jacob, an unusual version of the imperative, michrah, “Sell!” It can also be read, machrah, not the imperative, but the past tense, meaning, “She (or it) sold” — as if rather than asking for the birthright, Jacob was observing that something or other had already sold it. Nachmanides indicates what that “something” was: it is Esau’s weariness, ayefut in Hebrew, a feminine abstract noun, and the real subject of the sentence.

On this reading, Esau arrives home at dark, his depression creeping in with the setting sun. “I am weary,” he announces, “ready to die. What good is anything to me?”

“Your weariness has sold the birthright,” Jacob observes.

And the Torah sums it up: “Esau treated even his birthright with contempt,” not because he is too tired to think clearly, but because his very soul is so weary of the world, that he is ready to die.

Thousands of readers will now recognize Esau in themselves or in those they love. Sufferers of depression present themselves as strong and filled with promise, while inside, they are weary beyond belief. Their own birthright — fresh air, sunshine, life itself — seems meaningless. People ask them to snap out of it — as if they could. But they cannot. They can barely get out of bed in
the morning. Like Esau, they are oh so weary — ready to die.

How, we may wonder, does Esau fare in the end? Years later, returning from servitude to Laban, Jacob encounters his brother who has done quite well for himself. He is wealthy, thriving, a man with family, land, and servants. But Jacob overlooks the obvious to peer into Esau’s soul. Having recognized, once, how “Esau’s weariness has sold his birthright” Jacob now judges anew. “Looking into your face,” he says, “is like looking into the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).

Jacob recognizes Esau’s depression as a thing of the past: his brother’s face, once weary, now shines with divine radiance. With his new-found peace of mind, Esau can even forgive Jacob for taking advantage of him when they were children. He kisses Jacob, assures him he is content with life, and calmly takes his leave.

Esau is a case study in hope. If Esau can be transformed into a mirror of the divine, then so can we. But first we must decide that daily weariness is neither normal nor necessary. Happiness depends on the inner life of the soul, and the soul can find the most surprising cures, even when we least expect them.

In our day, God stores up miracles in medical discoveries. If you are weary unto death, find a doctor. Decide that you have had enough of sadness. It is never too late to learn to shine like God.

Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Ma’aseh sheyaha, as the Rabbis say – “Here’s a story for you.”

Several years ago, I was visiting Manhattan’s West Side Judaica -– one of my regular pilgrimages to a place of Jewish books, s’forim, as they are known: not the commercialized products reviewed in the New York Times, but arcane Hebrew texts from long ago that get newly reissued on occasion. With Passover arriving in a week, I decided also to buy a matzah tray for my kitchen table.

Noiach, the lovely man I deal with there, showed me several – one of them particularly beautiful, but so beyond my budget that I opted for something plainer and less expensive. As he began wrapping it, however, I changed my mind.

“No” I said, “I’ll take the expensive one, l’kuv’d yont’f “– literally, “in honor of the holiday.”

“Yes,” he nodded, knowingly, “l’kuv’d yont’f.”

I have no idea where I learned to say “l’kuv’d” anything – maybe from my Yiddish-speaking grandparents when I was little and still spoke the language. Whatever the case, the word l’kuv’d, which I hadn’t used in decades, somehow rose from deep inside my Jewish consciousness – a reflection of a value Jews hold dear.

L’kuv’d is the Yiddishized version of the Hebrew likhvod , “in honor of.” In context here, it meant honoring the holiday by beautifying its observance. The word occurs everywhere, however, in the Jewish conversation of the centuries and in all those s’forim I mentioned. Likhvod hamet (“in honor of the dead”) describes the Jewish instinct to show honor to the dead not just the living. “Honor” is what Torah commands us to show parents and teachers. Embarrassing people is forbidden because it contravenes k’vod habriyot (“the honor due God’s creatures”); we destroy places of idolatry, not for God’s sake, but because their existence is an embarrassment to the people who built them. We Jews are a culture of honor.

How spectacular! Noiach (from the traditionalist world of the Sanz Chasidim) and I (a Reform rabbi) may seem to have little in common. But I justify buying an expensive matzah tray by saying l‘kuv’d yunt’f” and Noiach knows exactly what I mean. Because both of us read and revere those s’forim that he sells and I buy, we share the rock-bottom Jewish commitment to a culture of honor – and we treat each other accordingly.

Reinforcing our loyalty to this culture of honor is central to Sukkot, which features our holding together “the four species”: the etrog; and the palm, myrtle, and willow branches that constitute the lulav. Those s’forim that we Jews pour over liken them to the Jewish People bound together as one despite our differences, likhvod hashem – “in honor of God,” whose People we are.

In this culture of honor, we learn from one another. The very expression, “culture of honor” came from Jonathan Rosenblatt, an Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, who taught it to some 300 synagogue representatives from all movements convened by Synagogue 2000, an organization dedicated to transforming synagogues into moral and spiritual centers for the 21st century. We shared insight, music, and learning across denominations because as different as we are, we all insist that what God wants for organizational life, and for relationships generally, is honor.

The opposite of a culture of honor, says Rabbi Rosenblatt, is a culture of blame, where people cover their own faults by blaming others. It might also be a culture of nastiness or humiliation where we build ourselves up by tearing others down. But blame, nastiness and humiliation are not the Jewish way.

Sh’ma yisrael, we Jews say; and then: barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed, which can be translated as “Blessed is the Name [of God]: the glory of His Kingdom is eternal; or better: “The honor [that is typical] of His Kingdom is what’s lasting.” To be a Jew is to construct together a culture that models what the world can be: however much we differ, we treat each other with honor.

 

Why High Holiday Serivces Matter More Than You Might Think

“…Jews are baffled by [services] … Especially on the high holidays, they really don’t know what to make of this great big thick book that everyone is going through rather slowly, often for hours at a time.”

“The High Holidays are the unique message of … the human dream.”

“One should rise at the end of the High Holiday service committed to the proposition that … we are historical moments in the making.”

Parashat Nitzavim

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” we say, but we are often wrong. It is self-delusion to suppose that if we always make a sound decision, always expend the extra effort, and always do the right thing, we will equally always figure it all out.

Jewish culture especially glorifies the seductive illusion that everything is possible. Sometimes it works — our grandparents lived adjacent to the Lower East Side’s Eldridge Street synagogue, which we now renovate with donations from Scarsdale and Great Neck. But sometimes it doesn’t.

So the important message of Rosh Hashanah is not what we usually think: not the self-congratulatory celebration of Happy New Year, L’chaim! Shehecheyanu, and all that; but the line from Avinu Malkenu — choneinu va’aneinu ki ein banu ma’asim; “Be gracious to us for we have no deeds of our own” — or, at least, some day we won’t have any. Count on it. The day will come (if it has not come already) when our capacity will seem paltry, given lives that grow older and frailer, and the inevitability of meeting challenges along the way that prove insurmountable.

“On Rosh Hashanah,” we say, “it is written who will live and who will die.” As literal theology, I don’t buy that. But as metaphor for the human condition, nothing could be more graphic. Our fate is often written for us; we don’t always get to write it.

This is not to say that we are helpless, but we do need to replace the neurotic notion that we are completely in charge with the recognition that we are often quite dependent — on the weather; on politics and people; on fate, coincidence and circumstance; on any number of things.

This should have been shabbat m’var’khim, the Shabbat immediately preceding the new month, when we pause in our morning prayers to invoke blessing on the month ahead. But the new year is an exception to the rule. Rosh Hashanah is indeed a Rosh Chodesh, a new month, but Jewish tradition dispenses with the normal blessing then because (says the Baal Shem Tov), “In the month that starts the new year, it is God who says the requisite blessing. Only by virtue of that divine act, may we bless the other months that follow.”

The recognition that we are unempowered, on our own, to invoke blessing for the coming year underscores the message that we cannot go endlessly through life bestowing unlimited blessing on everything and everyone. We will get tired, we will sometimes fail, we will need help. Some people learn this the hard way: millions of Americans who are in twelve-step recovery programs, admitting they have to “let go and let God”; and millions more who would do anything to cure a child of leukemia, bring back a teenage runaway, save a marriage, find a job. They do what they can; it is sometimes not enough.

The real heroes of the world are not the people who claw their way to the top as if immune to limitations. Forget Time Magazine’s annual story on the “Person of the Year.” Take the pictures of the rich and the beautiful that fill the New York Times’ style sections and wrap your garbage with them. Life isn’t like that.

The people I nominate for men and women of the year are the ordinary souls who muster the courage to go on, day after day, week after week, knowing they cannot solve life’s worst problems, but committed nonetheless to solving what they can and living with what they cannot. They, and we, will find comfort in a prayer with which Yom Kippur ends: precisely because we are dependent, “God reaches out a hand” to us. We are not alone in our shortcomings; some invisible force sustains us; and throughout the year-long silence following the echoes of Yom Kippur’s final t’kiyah g’dolah shofar-blast, that hand will be there for all who seek it.

Parashat B’chukotai

This final week of Leviticus is called “The Sabbath of Blessing” – a euphemistic reference to the content of the Torah portion, the curses said to await Israel if it fails to keep God’s commandments. The logic is as simple as it is unpalatable: God controls history and punishes us for noncompliance with God’s will.

Over the years, this thinking has been applied wholesale to Jewish tragedy — whether the destruction of the Temple in antiquity or the Holocaust of our own time, Jewish suffering is explained as divine punishment for sin.

I can think of few ideas as pernicious as this one. It is morally reprehensible to blame the Holocaust’s victims for their own agony. And what kind of God would mete out such punishment anyway? Finally, the notion that God determines history runs counter to everything we know about both God and history. Imagining God as a puppet-master manipulating the Romans or the Nazis is a profanation of the very word “God.”

The euphemism “Sabbath of Blessing” is not the only way we mitigate the pain of this parashah. Customarily, we read its curses quietly and rapidly, to get them over with quickly. Some people even leave the synagogue so as not to hear them.

The normal explanation for this behavior is the belief that by minimizing attention to the curses we prevent their coming true. But just the opposite conclusion ought to follow, the Chatam Sofer says. If we take the warnings seriously, they should be recited especially loudly and clearly, to make everyone hear them and heed them!

Yet we continue to read the curses sotto voce anyway. And I think we should, not because we superstitiously believe we thereby avoid their consequences, but because the very idea of God bringing curses upon us is so reprehensible that we slur over the verses that purport to say it. It is an embarrassment to God to imagine that God tweaks history to kill Jews – or anyone else, for that matter. No wonder we prefer downplaying the reading as much as possible.

The clear and evident point of the curses is to instill fear of God, an obvious consequence of hearing them read, if you believe they describe reality. If we no longer think that way, however, we need to redefine what we mean by “fear of God.” Here we can turn to Nehemia Polen’s discussion of Esh Kodesh, the sermons of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto.

Shapira saw first-hand the tortures endured under the Nazis; fear of punishment was all around him all the time; yet he hardly preached associating God with the Nazis! Having to face up to the theology that assumed the hand of God in history, he concluded that “fear of divine punishment,” is just a lower understanding of a loftier goal: attaining the awe that comes from comprehending “God’s grandeur.”

The curses of our parashah came from a time when imagining God as a micromanager of history was the best way to enforce the lesson of a God far enough beyond our ken to evoke awe. In our time, we have other ways to imagine that. How about the sheer force of numbers: our own earth that goes back 4,000,000,000 years; or the solar system that is 14,000,000,000 years old!

The awesome recognition of a God beyond ourselves is especially necessary today, given the possibility that we are likely, otherwise, to imagine we are God – and to do whatever we want, even to the point of destroying the world we live in.

So we should happily hear the curses muttered through at breakneck speed this year, not because they otherwise might come to pass, but to remind us that God does not actually manage history at all — in which case it must be true that we do. And we had better take that responsibility seriously before there is no history left to manage.

Parashat K’doshim: Individual and Societal Holiness

“Holiness,” says Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-1879, Russia), “is separating ourselves from materiality,and elevating ourselves to spiritual and divine concerns that transcend matters of the flesh.” By that standard, this week’s commandment to “be holy” seems an impossible task. So Malbim modifies his stand: “There are various degrees of the holy,” he concludes, ranging from curbing our appetite for forbidden pleasures to becoming immune to sensory pleasures altogether. But even so, one wonders: is total asceticism the ideal?

Jewish tradition does know isolated instances of ascetic behavior, but total self-abnegation seems foreign to Jews. So Malbim has a much grander message in mind, as we see from his following comment, an analogy between individuals and the world they inhabit.

He calls the individual and society, respectively, the “small world” and the “large world” of God’s creation (what we would call “microcosm” and “macrocosm”). They mirror each other, he maintains, in that they are both composed of body, mind, and soul. The purpose of controlling one’s individual urges is not to become an ascetic, but to effect a parallel change in the “large world,” the social order in which we dwell.

The three domains of body, mind, and soul, he thinks, constitute a sort of zero-sum game – diminish one, and the other two expand to fill the vacuum. So when individuals shrink their material appetites, the realms of mind and spirit automatically get bigger. Since microcosm and macrocosm are interdependent, contracting our personal appetite for physical pleasures produces a parallel contraction throughout society as a whole. As individuals become more mind and soul centered, so too does society.

From a scientific point of view, there is much wrong with this analysis. In Malbim’s understanding, the connection between individual and society is automatic – a kind of metaphysical law built into the universal order of things. But take away the metaphysics, and Malbim is on to something. As every social psychologist knows, individual and society are indeed mutually interdependent; if cultures are materialistic, their citizens are equally so, and vice versa. We take our individual cues from the culture in which we are raised.

But individuals are not, on that account, mere lemmings destined to follow their cultural ideals into the sea, if need be. We hold people morally responsible for resisting cultural norms that go astray: we believe in the individual’s right to protest; we think cultures should be called to account by individuals who believe their society has taken them too far.

Malbim is not arguing for selfless asceticism, therefore. His target is materialism so rampant that it crushes the other two realms of mind and spirit. What makes us distinctively human, he contends, is not our bodily appetites, after all – since other species share them with us; it is our mental and spiritual capacities that give us the right to the label “human.” When the “large world” of society becomes overly materialistic, only “the small world” of individuals can right the balance.

The commandment to be holy is thus no call for otherworldly monasticism. It is the commitment to cultivate mind and spirit. By mind, we mean a life of learning and of thoughtfulness. By spirit, we mean the values we associate with God, who is, after all, the ultimate standard of holiness: such things as compassion and kindness; justice and nobility.

Although he wrote well over a century ago, Malbim’s analysis could well have been an op ed column in today’s newspaper. Our American culture is indeed materially driven to the point of eclipsing the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake or goodness as an end in itself. The command “to be holy” is not a call to renounce all sensual pleasure. It is a request to balance it with the higher virtues of mind and spirit – starting with the “small world” of each and every person, the only way for the “large world,” the social order itself, to change.

 

Parashat Tzav: Middle Age

Israeli writer Amos Oz was taken with the famous introductory sentence to Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in life’s journey I strayed from the straight road ….” Oz loved the first four words, “Midway in life’s journey,” because, he says, that is when so many stories actually begin: in the middle years of life, that is, what we call “middle-age,” a time for building families and careers, independence at its finest.

It is also, however, a time of life we dread. Partly, we fear the loss of dying youth, with old age increasingly coming into view. Partly too, our middle-age years are not all tales of vigor, self-indulgence, and success. They are equally the need to care for others, while no one cares for us. Our parents begin to age and need us more and more; simultaneously, the dependency period of our children seems to stretch out longer and longer, so that we constantly care for them. Welcome to the sandwich generation.

The sandwich generation brings to mind the middle, or “sandwich,” book of Torah, Leviticus. Map the Torah cycle onto the life cycle, and Leviticus becomes our middle-age, the afternoon of our lives, no longer the morning of our youth, but not yet the evening of old age.

The entirety of Leviticus is about life’s middle-aged afternoons, a theme that arises when we combine its first two readings, Vayikra and Tzav . Vayikra began last week with the words, “God called Moses and said….” From the apparent redundancy of the word “called,” the Rabbis deduced that God first addressed Moses by name, the way we speak personally to someone we love before getting to the business at hand. Middle-age, they concluded, is saturated with God’s very special love.

The Rabbis extended that lesson to this week’s reading too, by insisting that God’s act of commanding comes with parallel love. This week’s instruction, Tzav (“command” the priests), they say, represents “special urging,” because what they are commanded to do is to sacrifice, and sacrificing is hard.

There you have it, middle age in a nutshell: the time of life when, at last, we achieve personal, financial, and psychological independence; but the time also when we are asked to sacrifice that independence for aging parents, on one hand, and not-yet fully-grown children, on the other; and to do so at God’s special urging, and a sign of God’s great love.

We are like Moses, who is, himself, entering life’s afternoon as Leviticus begins: no more heady stuff like a burning bush, confrontations with Pharaoh, and Sinai. The middle-aged Moses hears only God’s commanding voice to sacrifice; and the rabbinic point is that God’s love continues even then.

Life’s middle-aged afternoons are like that: no more annual birthday parties, trips to the zoo, parents who cuddle us, and surprise presents from grandparents. Instead, we get the daily commands of Tzav , “special urging,” to go about the unflashy business of sacrificing for the growing numbers of people who depend on us.

Yet that too is a gift. We may even be awestruck by life’s chain of giving and receiving. In the childhood of life, we receive; in the nighttime of old age, we receive again; and in life’s afternoon, we get the gift of giving.

We appreciate the gift especially, if it is taken from us, as it is with many, whose middle-age years are prematurely marred with the lasting trauma of being hit by a car or felled by chronic illness. Such unfortunates may still have some afternoon left in them – it is not as if they have absolutely nothing left to give. But giving is hard when early dusk settles over an afternoon that ought to have lasted longer than it did. For others, of course, it lasts a long time. Who knows?

Life’s afternoon may not be all it’s cracked up to be, but being asked to sacrifice and being able to do it is indeed a gift of love. Enjoy it as long as you have it.