The Necessity of Hope

For the week of December 22, 2012

Parashat “Va’yigash”
Genesis 44:18-47:27

In this week’s parashah (Torah portion), we reach the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers,  With roles reversed, Joseph (the former victim) has his brothers (the former victimizers) completely within his power.  Having framed Benjamin for the theft of an expensive goblet, Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, explains that he’ll allow the rest of them to return to Canaan but Benjamin must remain behind as a slave.  Va’yigash begins as Judah steps forward and, following an eloquent plea, offers to remain as a slave himself in place of Benjamin.  Poignantly, Judah asks:  “For how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer (Gen. 44:34)?”  After Judah has spoken these words, Joseph is overcome with emotion and, at last, reveals himself to his brothers–“I am Joseph–is my father still alive (Gen. 45:3)?”

This is a complicated moment for our understanding of Joseph.  Was the whole point of Joseph’s machinations to test his brothers and find out if they’d changed?  Before he could trust them, was Joseph trying to see whether his brothers would respond differently when faced, once again, with the prospect of abandoning a brother and causing terrible anguish to their father?  Or was Joseph simply struggling with the temptation to exact revenge and make his brothers suffer?  Did he only change course at the last minute because Judah’s plea softened his vengeful heart?  Perhaps, Joseph himself wasn’t sure of his motivations even as he was manipulating his brothers.  We can’t be sure.

For my part, I would like to believe that no matter how hurt and angry Joseph still felt, some part of his heart held onto the hope that his brothers could have changed.  After all, Joseph didn’t just throw them all in jail or deny them food and send them back empty-handed to face the intense famine in Canaan.  Instead, whether intentionally or not, Joseph left the door open for his brothers to do the right thing and Judah literally “stepped up.”  If Joseph had given up all hope that his brothers might have changed over the years, if he’d decided that things could never be healthy between them, the story would have had a very different and probably far more tragic ending.

Like Joseph, our people’s ability to  sustain this kind of stubborn and resilient hope, sometimes in spite of ourselves and certainly, despite the evidence of Jewish history, has been one of the strongest guarantors of our survival.  To give up hope is to give up on the future and the possibility that things still could change for the better.  To give up hope is to surrender to the dark cynicism and despair that threaten to corrupt our hearts and smother our will to do the slow, frustrating but essential work of creating change.

As I’ve continued to worry about events unfolding in Israel, a line from Naomi Shemer’s beautiful song, Al Kol Eileh (written after the 1973 Yom Kippur War) keeps rising up in me.  You’ll find a charming YouTube video version here and lyrics with a translation here.  In the second half of the chorus, Shemer writes:  “Do not uproot what is planted; do not forget Ha’Tikvah (the Hope).”  This is, of course, both a reference to Israel’s national anthem and also to hope itself.  The message of the song is undoubtedly nationalistic and patriotic.  But the lyrics also express a continued longing and hope for peace.  And what I fear these days is that too many Israelis, understandably exhausted by decades of disappointment and missed opportunities and terrible violence, have given up on the hope of peace.  I worry that too many Israelis have accepted as a sad, hard  but inevitable reality that there will never be peace with the Palestinians.  And they have adjusted their worldviews and political positions and choices accordingly.

If I’m right (and I pray that I’m not), this development bodes ill for Israel’s future.  Of course, Israel must continue to protect herself vigilantly and not be naive about the very real threats she faces.  At the same time, I believe Israel’s future depends on her ability to continue nurturing the hope for peace, perhaps like Joseph, in spite of herself and in spite of the evidence of much of her history.  I pray that Israel, like Joseph, can somehow leave the door open for an unexpected but not impossible transformation among those who have done her harm in the past.  While it’s possible that such a stubborn hope may never be rewarded, we know that if we abandon the hope of peace, it certainly will never happen.  Al tishkach et ha tikvah–don’t forget Hope.

Matters of the Heart

For the week of November 3rd, 2012

Parashat “Va’yera”
Genesis 18:1-22:24

Perhaps like some of you, I’m definitely ready for the campaign season to be over.  During these final weeks, we’re besieged by television commercials, postcards, newspaper editorials and phone calls that promote the virtues of one candidate or warn about the dark consequences of voting for an opponent.  These emotional appeals, particularly appeals to our fears and resentments, remind us that elections and politics are at least as much a matter of emotion as of reason.  Apparently, political consultants have figured out that if you can manipulate people’s emotions successfully, you often can get them to vote one way or another.  All of which helps to explain the commercials’ threatening music, their shadowy backgrounds and the presentation of even the smallest biographical fact in a manner calculated to make us worry, to make us suspicious or to cause us to resent someone.  Because though we may like to think otherwise, we often make choices, even our most consequential choices, based primarily on how something or someone makes us feel and not based on a rational, careful review of the pros and cons.

According to some translations of the Torah, this tendency also may be a challenge for God.  Va’yera includes the passage in which God informs Abraham of the approaching punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham famously pleads for the cities.  In Genesis 18:23, Abraham asks God:  “Will you indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked?”  What would it say about God’s justice, Abraham asks, if the innocent and wicked were  to suffer the same, terrible fate?  Amazingly, the Creator of the entire universe seems to be compelled by Abraham’s argument.  God agrees that even if there are only 50 righteous people in the cities, everyone will be spared for the sake of those 50.  We know the rest.  Abraham eventually convinces God that only 10 righteous people would mean sparing the cities but tragically, not even a minyan of righteous people can be found.  Sodom and Gomorroh are destroyed.

But some alternative translations for Genesis 18:23 suggest that Abraham may be warning God not to make a rash decision based in anger.  In the Hebrew, Abraham asks,  “Ha’af tispeh tzaddik im rasha?”  The usual translations render  “ha’af” as something like, “Will you really…?”  or, as above, “Will you indeed…?”  But according to Rabbi Plaut’s commentary, the Targum* and Syriac** versions of this verse treat the Hebrew word, “af” as “anger” and therefore understand Abraham’s question as, “Will You, in anger, sweep away the innocent with the wicked?”***  In other words, Abraham is cautioning God not to be ruled by emotion–especially a powerful emotion like anger–when making such a crucial, life-and-death decision.

Setting aside the interesting, theological question of an anthropomorphized God (who feels human emotions), this nuance teaches us important Torah.  First, these translations teach us about the value and urgency of having concerned advisers who will call us back to our best selves when we are in danger of making rash, emotional decisions.  How many of us have lived to regret a decision made in the heat of anger or fear or hurt or sorrow or even infatuation?  While there definitely can be a certain romance in spontaneous reactions to moments of deep emotion, such reactions also have the potential to cause a great deal of damage.  In such moments, we are blessed to have our own “Abrahams” who ask us the challenging but valuable questions that remind us of our best selves.  This interpretation reminds us to treasure such people in our lives (even though we sometimes may find their questions annoying!) and also to do our best to serve as worthy Abrahams for those we love.

Second, this interpretation reminds us that we tend to make the best choices when we don’t rely exclusively on either our rationality or our emotions.  We need both****.  Our humanity is discovered, defined and deepened in the creative space, in the constant dialogue between our hearts and our minds.  And if we aspire to wisdom, we will need to listen to both–apparently, just like God.


*An ancient, Aramaic translation and paraphrase of the Bible.  See here for more information about “Targum”.

**Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that apparently dates back to the 2nd century C.E.

***The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised), ed., Rabbi W.G. Plaut (New York: URJ Press, 2005), note to Gen. 18:23 on page 125.

****Here it seems worth reminding ourselves that for the Bible, the heart is the source of thought and skill as much as of feeling.  Regardless of what we now understand about human physiology, the Biblical view might instruct us about the importance of integrating reason and feeling in order to become “wise-hearted” (see, for example, Exodus 31:6 and Psalms 90:12).

The Power and Limits of Words

For the week of October 13th, 2012

Parashat “B’reisheet”
(Genesis 1:1-6:8)

Among the astounding presumptions of the Torah’s cosmology is the power of spoken words.  God says, “Let there be light… (Gen. 1:3)” and light comes into being.  God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly over the earth… (Gen. 1:20)” and fish and birds come into being.  The Torah takes it as a given that spoken words, at least God’s spoken words, have the power to create (or change) physical realities.  In B’reisheet, God speaks the world into being.

 That this was an important theological claim for our rabbis is seen in a comment of Ben Zoma on Genesis 1:7, “And God made the firmament… .”

This is a verse whose apparent implication caused Ben Zoma to shake the world [of Jewish learning].  ” ‘And God made!’–(is) an unbelievable utterance,” he said.  “Did not the firmament come into being by God’s word–“by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth (Psalms 33:6)?”1

 For Ben Zoma, of course, it was important to emphasize God’s power even while upholding the belief that God doesn’t have a body.  Genesis presents us with God who doesn’t have (and doesn’t need) hands or arms or eyes to make things (or, to make things happen!).2  Setting aside the related question of how a God with no mouth can speak, the creation narrative captures the rabbis’ sense of the awesome, spiritual mystery of a God who is clearly the Source of creation but also transcends it.  Unlike us, God doesn’t make things through physical effort but with ideas and intentions that are translated into spoken words.  God’s words have the power to create.

Of course, at times, our spoken words also have some power to change physical realities.  Leaders “declare” war or peace and people’s lives are sacrificed or saved.  Judges and juries “announce” sentences and people are jailed or set free (or sometimes killed) by the power of those spoken words.  Clergy “pronounce” couples married and a whole set of legal and property rights as well as behavioral expectations are created.  We “promise” to meet people somewhere or do them a favor and, on the basis of our spoken words, they act differently because of an expectation that our words have created.

 Yet, we also know that sometimes, spoken words can be empty or meaningless.  They have no power at all to effect change or create new realities.  A person says, “We should get together sometime” but we know it will never happen.  An unhappy child yells at a parent, “You can’t tell me what to do!”  but, of course, the parent usually can.  A chronic liar promises us, for the one hundredth time, that they’ll act differently this time and we just don’t believe them.  These words have no power to create.

 With human speech, the key to words that have power seems to be a relationship of trust.  In order for spoken words to be effective, the ones to whom the words are spoken must believe in the integrity and authority of the speaker–the speaker can do what he says and he will.  After all, if I don’t believe that you mean what you say or that you have the authority to make such a statement, your words are just sounds.  They can’t create new realities.  The creative power of spoken words depends on the quality of the relationship in which those words are spoken.

All of which brings us back to God and creation.  If one of the ways in which human beings are “created in God’s image” is the potential, creative power of our speech, then perhaps, we can read aspects of our own, human experience back into the Genesis story3.  Perhaps, for God’s creative speech to be effective, God had to have a depth and intimacy of relationship with the universe in which God’s integrity and authority were beyond question.  Maybe, the universe had to be deeply connected with God, had to “feel” God’s power and love and Truth, in order for God’s spoken words to have that much ability to create and form a new world.

And perhaps the same is true of God’s creative words to us–words that tell us to protect the vulnerable in our society, to regard every human being as a potentially holy reflection of God, to balance compassion with justice, to be good caretakers of the earth, and to do our best to sanctify each moment.  The effectiveness of these holy words in reshaping reality depends on the quality of our relationship with God.  They only have the ability to create or change us if allow ourselves to feel God’s integrity, power and love as well as the Truth of those words.  Otherwise, they’re all just empty sounds or indecipherable marks on parchment.


1Quoted in The Book of Legends–Sefer Ha-Aggadah:  Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, eds., Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York:  Schocken Books, 1992), #16, pg. 8 and citing as its sources Genesis Rabbah 4:6 and Yalkut B’reisheet 6.

2For the rabbis (and most of Jewish tradition), the Torah is limited by the ability of human language and imagery to describe what is, ultimately, beyond words.  So, when the Torah speaks of God “seeing” or “speaking” or of a God who frees slaves “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” these are only inadequate, human metaphors for a reality that is, ultimately, beyond the power of our words to name.

3Clearly, this idea won’t work for fundamentalist readers of the Bible.  To suggest that the universe (or we) have a choice in the face of God’s spoken command, that the authority of God’s command depends on the quality of our relationships with God, can be heard as denying God’s absolute power.  But isn’t it also possible that the same God who is understood as the source of humanity’s free will chooses to make the power of these commandments contingent on the evolving quality of our relationship with God?