Yom Kippur: Broken Promises

September 28, 2015 at 8:40 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment
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Yom Kippur is the annual day for atonement: for forgiving, being forgiven, and reuniting with God. This year my congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, chose an alternative  Torah reading for the Minchah (afternoon) service, from Shelach Lekha in the Book of Numbers/Bemidbar:

God said to Moses:  How long will this people disrespect Me, and how long will they not trust Me, despite all the signs I have made in their midst?  Let me strike them with the plague and disinherit them, and I will make you a greater and mightier nation than they.  Then Moses said to God: …Please forgive the sin of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness, and as You have carried this people from Egypt until now.  And God said:  I forgive, as you have spoken.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:11-12, 14:19-20)

I am pleased to post this thoughtful guest commentary that Chellema Qolus delivered  on Yom Kippur 5776 (2015).

 

hands reaching

by Chellema Qolus

Our Torah reading today is from the Book of Numbers, or Bamidbar. It’s the one where twelve scouts journey to check out the holy land. Ten come back and say “Oh no! It’s full of giants and scary stuff!” Two come back and say “It’s the land of milk and honey.”

Imagine you are God. You just gave your people some wonderful land. But instead of being grateful, 10 of 12 responses are “oooh no – it’s scary!” God in this case reacts like many of us often do when we feel unappreciated—God gets mad and says to Moses “Oh these people! I’m done with them! Forget it, I’ve changed my mind – I’m not going to play with them anymore!”

This happened before – when the Israelites made the golden calf God said the same thing. And who talked God out if it? Moses. Moses does a repeat performance here. Moses says “You promised—it’ll look bad if you go back on your promise. Come on, please? Forgive your people.”

Now, how is it that the all-knowing omniscient Infinite Oneness makes an agreement, gets mad, wants to break that agreement and then is convinced to keep it? I mean, if God knows everything that’s going to happen, how does this make sense?

God is infinite. All possibilities exist. God makes light and dark, good and evil. How this plays out at this level has a lot to do with us. If we are made in the image of God, then our portrayal of God in the Torah is also a reflection of us. Our relationship with God is a participatory process. That means we have to make the case, like Moses did, that forgiveness is included in the covenant.

If you look at the stories in Torah – the golden calf, the scouts, pretty much every story, people are breaking promises or betraying trusts right, left and sideways – EVERYONE!   Even Moses literally breaks the tablets of the covenant when he comes down from the mountain and sees the people dancing around the golden calf.

Here’s the thing. We ALL break our promises. We ALL betray trusts. We ALL hurt each other whether we mean to or not. That’s the way the world is. That’s the way we are. The great Kabbalist Isaac Luria said that when the universe was first created God’s infinite light was too much for the vessels of existence to hold and they shattered. So our universe has brokenness and so do we. Or, as the ten scouts would say “There’s giants and scary stuff! Oh no!”. The two scouts would say “Our souls are pure—direct from the Infinite. In nature we see the Glory, the cosmic pattern of wholeness of The Eternal. And in our kindness with each other, our hearts are one with God.”

These two perspectives, together, fuel our hopes and fears. We get so hurt and mad sometimes because it means so much. Early in my time with this congregation, I enjoyed a wonderful service and a warm and friendly oneg meal. I was feeling so much love for everyone and it struck me – I saw the patterns, my own patterns: how much community means to me, how much I love  the people here… and how I stumble, make mistakes, am misunderstood, and how inevitably, my heart is broken. After this wonderful service where I felt so much love … I went home and cried. Because I knew—I knew my heart would break with this community. And it did—in small ways, and large ways. But one thing is different from my previous experiences of this—I’m still here. And right now, in this moment, we’re all here.

We are all the characters in the story. Sometimes, like the two scouts Caleb and Joshua, we are in tune with God’s dance and understand how everything fits together and revel in God’s glory. Sometimes, like the ten scouts, we are overwhelmed by our pain and our fears and we project and perpetuate the negative. Sometimes, like God in this story, the God-spark in us feels unappreciated and we are hurt and lash out and just want to call everything off. Sometimes, like Moses, we plead with each other and the Divine Infinite for mercy and compassion.

To call on the Infinite for forgiveness that is attuned to us, here, on this level, we must first forgive ourselves and each other. Our forgiveness is like a homing beacon for God’s forgiveness. It creates a container made from the pieces of our brokenness, made to receive God’s Shalom, God’s Wholeness.handshake

…I call to Torah everyone who wants to bring our broken pieces together, creating a container to receive the Infinite One’s forgiveness and wholeness. Shalom.

 

Vayechi and Vayeitzei: No Substitute

December 28, 2014 at 9:02 am | Posted in Vayechi, Vayeitzei | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Am I tachat God? (Genesis/Bereshit 50:19)

tachat (תַּחַת) = underneath, under the authority of; instead of, a substitute for, in exchange for.

Two people in the Hebrew Bible ask this question. Jacob says it to his favorite wife, Rachel, in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (“and he went”). Almost 60 years later, their son Joseph says it to his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“and he lived”).

Jacob instead of God

from "Jacob and Rachel" by William Dyce

from “Jacob and Rachel” by William Dyce

Jacob throws the question at Rachel right after she has spoken for the first time in the Torah, more than ten years after Jacob first sees her and kisses her. Their romance is not smooth. Jacob serves her father Lavan for seven years as Rachel’s bride-price, and then on his wedding day, Lavan tricks him and marries him to Rachel’s sister Leah. Jacob’s wedding with Rachel follows a week later, once he commits to working an additional seven years. Leah has four sons before Rachel speaks up.

And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, and she was envious of her sister. And she said to Jacob: Give me children!—and if not, I am dead. Then Jacob was angry with Rachel, and he said: Am I tachat God, who withheld from you fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:1-2)

Rachel’s demand makes Jacob angry for more than one reason. When she says that without children, she is dead, Rachel implies that Jacob’s devotion is not enough to make her life worthwhile. Naturally Jacob’s anger flashes. And it is not his fault that Rachel is infertile. So he demands: Am I tachat God?

He cannot be a substitute for God. Only God can “open the womb” of an infertile woman.

It does not occur to Jacob to pray to God, as his father Isaac prayed for his mother Rebecca to conceive. But his rebuff does lead Rachel to take her own action. She gives her slave-woman, Bilhah, to Jacob as a wife, then adopts Bilhah’s two sons as her own.

Through this human solution, Jacob actually does give Rachel children, tachat—instead of—God.

Joseph instead of God

After Rachel has two adopted sons, God does open her womb, and she gives birth to Joseph. The family continues to be dysfunctional; Joseph’s ten older brothers hate him and sell him as a slave bound for Egypt. When they are reunited twenty years later, Joseph tells them not to worry about their past crime, because God planned it all in order to get him to Egypt and elevate him to viceroy so he could feed everyone during the seven-year famine. The whole clan, including the patriarch Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, and their families, immigrate to Egypt under Joseph’s protection.

But after Jacob dies, we learn that Joseph’s brothers are still worried about retribution. Like Rachel, they “see” a problem.

And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said: If Joseph bears a grudge against us, then he will certainly pay us back for all the evil that we did to him! (Genesis 50:15)

They assume that their father’s words would carry more weight with Joseph than their own, and they send Joseph what they claim is a deathbed request from Jacob:

Please sa, please, the crime and the offense of your brothers, when they did evil to you; now sa, please, the crime of the servants of your father’s god. (Genesis 50:17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift up. (To lift up a man’s head was to legally pardon him.)

And Joseph sobbed when they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:17)

Unlike Jacob, Joseph is not angry when he asks: Am I tachat God? Instead, his brothers’ clumsy and obsequious request makes him cry. Perhaps he cries because his brothers cannot speak to him directly. Or perhaps he cries in frustration, because he thought everything was settled, and now he has to deal with the issue all over again.

And his brothers also went and flung themselves down in front of him, and they said: Here we are, your slaves. (Genesis 50:17-18)

Nothing has changed in the seventeen years since Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. His older brothers still feel guilty. Joseph is sobbing again.  His brothers bow down to him again, and offer to be his slaves again. (See my  post Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber.)

joseph_receives_his_brothers_cameoAnd Joseph said to them:  Do not be afraid. For am I tachat God? While you planned evil against me, God planned it for good, in order to accomplish what is today, keeping many people alive. (Genesis 50:19-20)

Joseph said something similar seventeen years before:

And now, do not be worried and do not be angry at yourselves because you sold me here; because God sent me ahead of you for preservation of life. (Genesis 45:5)

Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg made the case that the first time Joseph tells his brothers their crime is part of God’s plan, he is suddenly seeing the big picture. His enslavement was a necessary step to reach his present position as the viceroy, enabling him to save his own family and many other people from starvation. Joseph drops his own resentment against his brothers, and he hopes that sharing his vision of big picture will let his brothers drop their guilt.

But years later, when their father dies, Joseph finds out that his brothers still feel guilty. And he still does not realize that what they need is forgiveness, or at least a pardon. (See my  post Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving.) Instead, he once again declares that their evil deed turned out to be part of God’s plan. Joseph continues:

And now, do not be afraid; I myself will sustain you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts. (Genesis 50:21)

Joseph’s brothers are comforted because his promise to sustain them—to keep them alive and well—implies that he no longer hates or resents them. Even though they do not get the relief of explicit forgiveness, they know that at least they do not need to worry about future retribution from their powerful brother.

Targum Onkelos, written around 100 C.E., translated Joseph’s statement “For am I tachat God?” as: “For I am subordinate to God”. In other words, this time tachat means “under” instead of “a substitute for”. In the 16th century, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno took this interpretation further by explaining that Joseph considered his brothers God’s agents. It was not his place to judge God’s agents, just as it was not his place to judge God’s plans.

Nevertheless, Joseph acts almost like a substitute for God. As viceroy of Egypt and distributor of food, he decides who will live and who will die.

Two substitutions

When Jacob tells Rachel he is no substitute for God as an opener of wombs, she finds another way he can give her the children she wants.  When Joseph tells his brothers he is no substitute for God as a judge of men, they do not find another way to get the human pardon or forgiveness they want.  They still cannot speak to Joseph directly. But he offers them a substitute for forgiveness: the reassurance that he will not punish them.

Am I tachat God?” is a good question for us to ask ourselves today. Am I trying to do something no human can do? If so, is there another way to achieve a desirable outcome? Or am I acting like God when I should be acting like a human being toward someone? If so, how can I come down off my pedestal and have a true heart-to-heart conversation?

Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness

June 11, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
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The Israelites march to the southern border of Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). Then Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land God promised them. The scouts return after forty days, carrying extra-large grapes, pomegranates, and figs.  Ten of the scouts report to Moses and the whole assembly of Israel, saying:

We came into the land where you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But it is all for nothing, for the dwellers in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very big, and also we saw the offspring of the Anak there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:27-28)

They list other hostile peoples living in the land of Canaan, reinforcing their hint that it does not matter how fertile the land is, since the Israelites have no hope of conquering its inhabitants.  Then one scout, Caleb, objects.

Caleb hushed the people toward Moses, and he said: We must certainly go up and we must certainly take possession of it, because we are certainly able to do it!  But the men who had gone up with him said: We will not be able to go up against those people, because they are stronger  mimenu. (Numbers 13:30-31)

mimenu (מִמֶּנּוּ) = than us; than him, than it.

In the Talmud (Sotah 35a), Rabbi Hanina bar Papa interprets mimenu as meaning “than Him”, than God—“as if even the master of the house cannot remove his furniture from it!”  Other commentators interpret mimenu as “than us”, and conclude that the ten scouts did not believe God would simply remove the inhabitants from the land before the Israelites walked in. Instead, they assumed they would have to fight for every farm and city, and they despaired.

Whether the scouts give up on God or give up on the people, their next move is to exaggerate the dangers of Canaan, emphasizing that …all the people that we saw inside it were men of unusual size. (Numbers 13:32)

The Israelites despair along with the ten scouts, and sob all night.

And all the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them: If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness! If only we had died! Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little children will become booty. Is it not better for us to turn back toward Egypt? (Numbers 14:2-3)

If they actually returned to Egypt, they would be punished as runaway slaves and their wives and children would be treated just like booty.  But the men do not think of this, and they decide to pick a new leader and head back. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces—but this time no divine inspiration comes. (See my earlier post, Korach: Falling on Your Face.) The crowd stops only because the two dissenting scouts, Caleb and Joshua, rip their clothing—an action that is normally performed as a sign of mourning. Now that they have the Israelites’ attention, they explain why the people should go up into Canaan:

The land that we passed through to scout out, it is very, very good land. If God favors us, then [God] will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And do not be afraid of the people of the land, for they are our food, and the shade of protection has left them. God is with us; do not be afraid of them! (Numbers 14:7-9)

The people are not convinced.  They are about to stone Caleb and Joshua, when the glory of God appears at the Tent of Meeting and stops them. I suspect the message that they are supposed to trust God makes them so uncomfortable they cannot bear to think about it, so they want to kill the messengers instead.

Moses persuades God to let go of anger and forgive the people, according to the greatness of your kindness (Numbers 14:19). But God swears that nobody who rebelled or ignored God will see the promised land. Only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will enter Canaan and get a share of the land. Everyone else will die in the wilderness—gradually, over a period of 40 years.

It sounds like a spiteful punishment; God gives them what they said they wanted, death in the wilderness.  But I believe this apparent punishment is actually a great kindness.  The adults among the Children of Israel mustered the courage to leave Egypt in the first place, and to face an unknown future following the mysterious and obviously dangerous God who inflicted the ten plagues on Egypt. But someone who can act with great courage in desperate situations, such as worsening slavery, does not necessarily have the willpower to take risks when life is pretty good.

At the time the Israelites refuse to enter Canaan, they are camped in the oasis of Kadeish-barnea, where there is enough vegetation for them and their livestock to live indefinitely, even without manna. They are not required to do any unusual labor, only to follow a set of reasonable laws and easy rituals. Why not just stay there for the rest of their lives?

The answer is that God is urging them to do something further. For Caleb and Joshua, and for Moses and his brother and sister, this urging is stronger than natural inertia and fear of the unknown.  But for others, the need for security and comfort is stronger.

So God kindly lets the Israelites stay at the oasis in the wilderness, living out their lives until each one dies at age 60. God recognizes that it is too much for most of the people to summon the willpower for another big act of courage.

Each of us today faces similar turning points in our lives. Sometimes we find ourselves trapped in a desperate situation, and it still takes a lot of inner strength to escape to a new life, but finally we do it. Other times life is pretty good, but something inside keeps urging us to make a change, to step out and take a risk that frightens us. Do we do it?

Whether we pick up the challenge or not depends on how fragile or strong our souls are. In this week’s Torah portion, God says:

But my servant Caleb, because there is a different ruach with him, and he followed me fully, I shall bring him into the land… (Numbers 14:24)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, mood, state of mind, driving impulse, motivation, temperament.

Perhaps when we hesitate between sticking with a pretty good life and taking a chance on the inner urge for change, all we can do is pray for wisdom and the right ruach.

May God, and life, be kind both to those who do not have the ruach to change, and to those who do.

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