Saturday, November 29, 2008

Destiny in a Bowl of Soup:
A Toledot ShulDrasha

I went to college in [Upstate New York];
and the way the kosher dining hall works there
is that you pay
when you come in,
and then, for whatever meal you're there for, it's all-you-can-eat.

One day
I was sitting there
at a table
about to start eating my lunch.

I had just sat down
with a bowl of lentil soup
when my brother walked in.

My twin brother —
my older twin brother —
who was born five minutes before me.
Not exactly grabbing his heel on the way out, but close enough.

My brother
looked at me.
And then he looked across the room
to the daily menu on the wall.
And then he looked back at me,
and at the soup
on the table.

And then he said
הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא
מִן הָאָדֹֿם הָאָדֹֿם הַזֶּה

“Feed me
some of that red red stuff!”

So of course I said
“Sure —
if you sell me your birthright!”

To make a short story shorter,
I gave my brother
the bowl of lentil soup,
and he gave me
his birthright...
and then I immediately
went back to the counter
of the dining hall
and got myself a new bowl
of lentil soup. (Because I still wanted my lunch)

My twin brother sold me his birthright
for a bowl of lentil soup.
We did it for kicks
for fun
for the humor of the situation —
because we thought it would be amusing
to re-enact
what עשו and יעקב did
in this week's פרשה.

But that just raises the question:
Why did עשו do it in the first place?

Why would he sell his birthright
for a single meal?
Why would he ask to be fed
using a verb
that seems to mean
“to gulp down”?
Why would he,
as the תורה says,
his birthright?

עשו was a hunter,
a man of the field.
While יעקב was sitting around the tents —
watching the sheep
according to some commentators;
learning divine and human wisdom
according to others —
his brother,
the big hairy hunter
was risking his life.

עשו was out there
fighting for survival —
hunting animals
to take away their lives
and sustain his own.

And עשו hunted for meat,
bringing home food
to feed his family —
after all,
צַיִדֿ בְּפִֿיו
the hunted meat in his mouth
was what caused יצחק
to prefer עשו
over his more passive, innocent brother.

And so
when יעקב offers him a trade —
a single meal for his birthright —
עשו answers
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִֿי הוֹלֵךְֿ לָמוּתֿ
וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹֿרָה

“Hey!” he says,
“I'm going to die!
What use to me is a birthright?”

The commentator רד"ק
reads עשו's answer
not as the desperate plea
of an exhausted hunter
stumbling home —
but as a statement
about how עשו lives his life.
הנה אנכי הולך למות
“I am a person
whose entire identity
is bound up with death” —
He's out there in the fields,
risking his life,
fighting beasts and nature,
trying to bring home
food and resources
for his family.

is his life.
is his life.

עשו is out there
day after day
just trying to survive —
and when your entire life
is centered around
just the continuation of that life,
centered around survival itself —
what use is a birthright?

What do you need it for?
Some abstract future promise;
something about
the “heritage of אברהם”
and eventual spiritual greatness and success?
Who needs it?

When you're confronting
the End
at every instant —
who has time
to think about
some long-ago
or some hypothetical

And yet,
when we look at
יעקב אבינו,
we see that he also
confronted Death.
A number of מדרשים
make the claim
that the lentil stew
which יעקב was cooking
when עשו returned from the field
was a meal of consolation
for the death of אברהם
his grandfather.

And when יעקב
later on in the פרשה
gets his own blessing from his father,
what he receives is
בִּרְכַּתֿ אַבְֿרָהָם
the blessing of אברהם —
the promise
that connects the past —
אברהם's contract with God —
to the future —
the ultimate fulfillment of that contract
and the inheritance of The Land
by יעקב's descendents.

While עשו sees Life
as a constant struggle against Death —
a ‘Danger is his middle name’ story,
a precarious existence
living by the sword” —
יעקב sees the very same world
and refuses to disconnect
the present
from the past and the future.

We'll see next week
how even
while living on the run,
even while sleeping on rocks on the ground,
יעקב believes not just
in the immediate present,
but in the future as well,
when he wakes up
from his dream of angels
and promises to return
and dedicate that sudden place
as a House of God

And יעקב passed
this Long View of Time
on to his descendents.
This recognition
that the present
is not just some
evanescent ‘now’ —
but is intimately
bound up together
with the past
that shaped it,
and the future
to which it leads,
is one part of that which has preserved the Jewish People
down through the centuries.

This past Thursday,
was a holiday — and probably not the one you're thinking of.
The 29th of מרחשוון is a holiday called סיגד.
Celebrated by the Jews of Ethiopia,
סיגד is a day of reflection —
an echo of יום כיפור,
a commemoration of Mount Sinai,
and a re-enactment
of the Return
to the Land of Israel and to Torah
by the exiles coming back from Babylon
in the time of עזרא.

In times of poverty, persecution,
and isolation from the rest of the Jewish People,
the סיגד celebrations
on Ethiopian mountaintops
stubbornly recalled the past
and envisioned a future
when סיגד could be observed
at the end of the exile, back home in Jerusalem.

The Jews of Ethiopia
refused to give in
to an עשו view of the world
where the struggle to survive
becomes an excuse
to live minute-to-minute
in an ever-transient
and meaningless present.
they remembered the past,
and were confident
in a future
which we have already seen fulfilled —
חג הסיגד
in the streets of ירושלים itself.

And a bit closer to home,
on the first national Day of Thanksgiving
proclaimed by George Washington
for Thursday, November 26, 1789,
חזן גרשום מֶינדֶיס סֵיישַׁאס
the spiritual leader
of the Jewish community
of New York City
gave a sermon
in which he tied together
the past, present and future.

Like the Ethiopians
celebrating Sigd across the ocean,
Ḥazan Seixas encouraged his community
to observe מצוות
and to love תורה.

He spoke about the long history of Exile,
that since the Destruction
of the Second Jewish Commonwealth,
in his words,
“our predecessors have been,
and we are still at this time
in captivity
among the different nations of the earth” —
and he continued,
“we cannot but view ourselves
as captives
in comparison to what we were formerly,
and what we expect to be hereafter,
when the outcasts of Israel
shall be gathered together...”

He urged his community
to see the present
in light of the past and the future,
and to recognize the significance, in the midst of this long exile,
of the founding of a nation
based on ideals of freedom
where Jews, too, could be equal partners
in the benefits and responsibilities
of creating and maintaining
a truly just society —
and to thank God for that opportunity.

Now, עשו would tell you
that it doesn't matter —
eat when you can,
and fight when you can,
and don't think
about the promise of tomorrow
or the heritage of yesterday.
עשו was a man
who never paused to reflect;
his life was a string of verbs.

וַיֹּאכַֿל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְֿ
He ate and he drank
and he got up and left.
וַיִּבֶֿז עֵשָׂו אֶתֿ הַבְּכֹֿרָה
And עשו dishonored
his birthright.

עשו's life
was all about Now.
He had no time
to think about anything
but his immediate needs.
He threw away his birthright,
and with it,
אברהם's heritage,
because he thought
that it would be
but a distraction
from the business of survival.

But what יעקב taught us
is that the past sustains us,
and the future gives us hope;
that together
they give value and meaning
to this transient present;
and that if you remember that,
then not just nutrients
but Destiny
can be contained
in a bowl of soup.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Latin Shabbat Zemer? (GUEST POST)

A friend of mine who likes to think of himself as the early medieval French monk Abelard translated a poem by the historical Abelard into English. Seeing as how I don't speak Latin, I don't know how accurate the translation is (except for the Judaized features).

The real Abelard wrote a tune for the poem, too.
You can hear it HERE.

O quanta qualia / sunt illa sabbata,
quę semper celebrat // superna curia;
que fessis requies // quę merces fortibus
cum erit omnia // deus in omnibus
Oh, how great are those Shabbatot,
Which the heavenly court eternally celebrates;
What rest for the weary, what commodity for the strong,
When God will be everything for everyone!

Vere ierusalem // illic est ciuitas,
cuius pax iugis est, // summa iocunditas,
ubi non preuenit // rem desiderium,
nec desiderio // minus est premium.
Truly, Yerushalayim is the city there,
Whose peace is perpetual, the highest delight;
Where desire will not hinder the goal,
Nor is the prize any less than the desire.

Quis rex, quę curia, // quale palatium,
quę pax, quę requies, // quod illum gaudium
huius participes // exponant glorię
si, quantum sentiunt, // possint exprimere
What a King! What a court! What a great palace!
What peace, what rest, what great joy!
Those who participate in such glory will express it,
If they are able to express as much as they feel.

Nostrum est interim // mentem erigere
et totis patriam // uotis appetere,
et ad iherusalem // a babilonia
post longa regredi // tandem exilia.
For us, in the meantime, we should straighten out our thoughts,
And seek our homeland with all prayers,
And to Yerushalayim, out of Bavel,
At last return, after a long exile.

Illic molestiis // finitis omnibus,
securi cantica // syon cantabimus,
et iuges gratias // de donis gratię
beata referet // plebs tibi, domine.
There, when all troubles have ceased,
We shall sing songs, safe in Tziyon,
And the blessed people shall give to Thee
Perpetual thanks for Thy gratuitous gifts, O God.

Illic ex sabbato // succedet sabbatum:
perpes letitia // sabbatizantium.
nec ineffabiles // cessabunt iubili,
quos decantabimus // et nos et angeli.
And then, that Shabbat // will be succeded by another:
Perpetual joy // for the Shabbat-observers.
Nor will inexpressable joyous-songs ever cease,
Which we shall sing forth -- both we and the angels.

Perhenni domino.
For God, forever.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

No I Didn't Yes You Did

I heard a drasha on Shabbos from a kiruv rabbi, who talked about the importance of changing yourself upon repentence and becoming a new person. He hooked it into last week's parsha by quoting our ancestor Sara's denial of God's accusation that she laughed upon hearing the unbelievable news that she would give birth at such an old age. The idea was that when she said lo’ tzahhaqti, "I did not laugh" she was telling the truth — she was ashamed at her previous action, and transcended it, becoming a new person. The new "I" was not the same Sara who had laughed.

What the speaker forgot, though, is the end of the verse. Read it. God responds to Sara's denial, her supposed new identity, with three words: lo’, ki tzahhaqt. No, you did laugh. You can't deny your past. You can change yourself, you can move on, and you can improve. But you can never deny who you are, who you were, or where you came from. That's not what teshuva is about.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Voting Prayer

Rabbi David Seidenberg of posted a non-partisan prayer to be said in the voting booth. I highly recommend it to my fellow American Jews who will be voting this Tuesday, no matter which issues your vote turns on or who you are planning on voting for. I will probably personalize it when I use it, so feel free to do the same, whether you keep it general or want to relate it to the issues or candidates you care about.

As I did not write it, I take no responsibility for grammar or spelling.



(link originally sent to me by my rabbi, with whom i am presently in the middle of a long drawn-out debate over email centered around the interpretation and application of Natan Shtsharansky's new book Defending Identity, which we both are big fans of even though we generally do not agree on political matters)