Friday, November 17, 2017

A New Blessing for Parashat Toledot

Shabbat Shalom! I've told you all before about my soft spots for some of the Biblical "villains", and Esau is no different. Although the vast majority of rabbinic literature paints him as a monster, I've always thought he had an unfair reputation, and in rabbinical school I had the opportunity to hear some midrashim (especially modern) that explain some of his behaviors and choices in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Toledot.
The parasha is about the births of twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob is the favored son of their mother, Rebecca, and Esau is the favored son of their father, Isaac. Esau is the first born, with Jacob immediately following him out of the womb holding on his heel. Thus, Esau the elder is supposed to get the birthright and the blessing, the physical and spiritual inheritance of Isaac. Yet, as we see again and again throughout the stories of Genesis, destiny subverts the norms of the day, and Jacob the younger manages to weasel both away from his brother.
There is so much to say about all of this, but this year Esau's cry toward the end of the parasha is really sticking in my kishkes and filling me with empathetic sorrow for Esau. When Esau enters his father's room/tent to approach his death bed and receive his blessing, Isaac realizes he has been tricked into giving the blessing to Jacob and at first he acts defeatist. Esau wails a loud and bitter cry, "Bless me, too, Father! Have you no other blessing for me?" It's just so heartbreaking.
So Isaac reaches deep inside himself and finds a second blessing. But it's clear that the blessing Isaac musters up for Esau is such a second-place blessing. It's pretty objectively worse than Jacob's and it's not the one that was meant for him in the first place. Jacob is blessed with the blessing of HaShem, the promises God made to Abraham that continue to be passed down through this line to the Israelites. With this blessing, comes a particular relationship with Holiness, which now Esau seems to be completely barred from.
I know different people have different relationships with the Divine and different pathways into their Judaism, but no one should be barred from it this way, told that because they were not in the right place at the right time, now they have missed the chance to access their spirituality. It is not infrequent that I hear from people who didn't finish their Hebrew school studies and now they think it's too late for them to learn, or that they're lesser Jews because they didn't have a B' Mitzvah ceremony, and from converts who are made to feel like they don't truly have a Jewish neshama because of some happenstance of their birth, and from other reasons of identity that have caused so many to have been cast out of their religious communities.
I hope because you are here, you already know how wrong that is, and know that you are still entitled to your own spiritual journey. I hope because you are here, you feel welcomed and ready to learn and pray and explore your relationship with Judaism and God.
But just in case, I have a blessing for you, and it's not Isaac's second-rate, war-mongering blessing for Esau. You belong in the Jewish community. You have a right to your own relationship with the Higher Power of your understanding. There is no sexuality, gender identity, race, class, education level, or any other reason that gives anyone else the right to withhold from you the blessings of our ancestors and our peoples. May you always feel safe and loved here, may you feel warmth of the Divine Presence on the coldest days, and may you feel a sense of peace with your Judaism. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Parashat Chayei Sarah and Trauma

            Shabbat Shalom. As you know, yesterday was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, often considered the first act of the Holocaust, and tomorrow is Veteran’s Day (observed today as the Federal holiday off). Krista Tippett must have known that as this week’s episode of On Being from NPR played an interview between Krista and psychiatrist and neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda, in which they discuss both American veterans and Holocaust survivors.
Dr. Yehuda, who herself grew up in a neighborhood largely populated by Holocaust survivors and their families, is a pioneer in the field of epigenetics and trauma. Epigenetics is the new scientific field of discovering how our genes can morph and evolve based on our environments and experiences. These changes may not only affect how the person who experiences them lives out the rest of their lives, but may literally change the genetic markers they then pass on to their children. Some of the early discovery of this for Dr. Yehuda came out of a study that initially focused on veterans from the Vietnam War through the VA, where she recognized patterns from her neighbors and community members growing up. She and her research team found parallels between the PTSD experiences and physiology of the veterans and that of the Holocaust survivors. For example, in most people with chronic mental illnesses, the stress hormone cortisol is very high. But in people who experience sustained external trauma and develop PTSD, such as the combat veterans and the Holocaust survivors, the cortisol levels are very low. I’m no neuroscientist myself, but it has something to do with the normalization of the stress that occurs during the trauma and the way the body sort of shuts down the ability to process the trauma. It can get passed down to the children of trauma survivors in a way that causes the diminishing of their resiliency as well, as their bodies then don’t respond to stress in the typical way. Of course, just as the changes were made to their parents’ genes when the trauma occurred, the children of trauma survivors can create environments and experiences that help them learn resiliency and change the way their genes process stress yet again. But it is difficult, as they are starting already from a disadvantage, arguably one even deeper than those of us who have neuroatypicalities that overproduce cortisol.
The main distinction that Dr. Yehuda notes in her interview between the veterans and the Holocaust survivors in her initial study, is that the Holocaust survivors notoriously would not seek professional help. She reports that they told her it never occurred to them because how could any American therapist possible understand what they lived through? One in particular reminds her, “We don’t have centers for us like your VA.” So, sure enough, after this study, Dr. Yehuda and her research team created the Holocaust survivor center at Mount Sinai Hospital. After this initial study, when she began studying the epigenetics as well and looking for “Holocaust progeny” (as she calls them), they were very forthcoming. They too had largely neglected to seek help for their vicarious trauma, presumably because what they experienced was present as the norm by their parents, and now that they were learning there may be reasons for their susceptibility to traumatic responses to stress, they were eager to talk to Dr. Yehuda about their experiences. They needed someone who opened the door for them first, who intuited that there may be something psychologically and physiologically deeper than simply learned responses to stressors, someone who understood trauma and how to approach it.
In our Torah readings, last week’s portion, Parashat Vayera, ends with the near-sacrifice of Isaac, and this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, immediately opens with the death of his mother, presumably from a broken heart upon hearing what had transpired on Mount Moriah. Isaac and Abraham never speak again after that trip to the mountain, and now Isaac has lost his mother as well. So Abraham send his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, to assuage his grief and loneliness. Eliezer goes to Abraham’s hometown and waits by the well for the townswomen to come to gather water. He prays to God, “Give me a sign for the correct woman – the one that offers to water my camels in addition to me, I will know she is the correct wife for my master’s son.” Sure enough, when the women come, Eliezer asks for water, and Rebecca tells him that she will not only give water to him, but to all his camels. She draws bucket after bucket from the well, until all 10 of his camels have had their fill. Then Eliezer proposes to her on Isaac’s behalf, and she agrees to return to Canaan with him to marry Isaac.
In his modern commentary of the parshiyot, Rabbi Shai Held points out how important it is that Rebecca offers the water to the camels without Eliezer’s prompting. In his prayer for God, Eliezer demonstrates a keen understanding of what “traumatized, taciturn Isaac” (Rabbi Held’s words) needs: a wife who can intuit his needs without being explicitly prompted. Someone who can open the doors and gently acknowledge that the traumatic experience he has internalized, the experience with his father, doesn’t have to be his normal, someone who understands trauma.
Something Dr. Yehuda doesn’t really talk about in her interview with Krista Tippett is the difficulties veterans can also face when seeking support. Though they may not have experienced something quite as singular and large-scale as the Holocaust, they may also come back from their experiences feeling like civilian therapists, even ones that work for the VA, couldn’t understand what they’ve been through. They may be denied the aid in affordable health care that they deserve. They may be misdiagnosed based on nuances of their service, treated differently according to their status as enlisted or officer, and so on. While we might not have the expertise to contribute to the continued efforts of Dr. Yehuda’s PTSD clinic for veterans, Holocaust survivors and their children, and other survivors of trauma, we can all work a little harder to be Rebeccas for the people in our own lives. Whether it is veterans in our families, friends who we learn are survivors of abuse, refugees from ethnic cleansings who enter our communities, or first responders from major events like 9/11 (also mentioned in Dr. Yehuda’s interview), we can work on our intuition and sensitivity. We can study up on trauma triggers and proper responses and useful grounding techniques so that if we are to witness someone having a PTSD flashback, we are capable of helping.
             This week, as we remember Kristallnacht and the beginning of serious cultural trauma for our people, and as we honor the veterans among our people, let us commit to honoring these legacies truly, with sensitivity and intuition, with a willingness to acknowledge their possibly unspoken pain, to open the door for their pathways to healing, to understand the depths of trauma, across lifetimes and generations. May we find and be the Rebeccas our communities need. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Parashat Vayera for Religious School Shabbat

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayera, which opens with Abraham sitting at the opening of his tent hanging out with God. Abraham then raises his eyes and notices three men standing before him. He jumps up to greet them, tells them they must rest a while, offers them a morsel of food, and is simply the gold star of hospitality. Based on this behavior, the early medieval rabbis teach in the Talmud (a multi-volume series of books of Jewish commentary on Torah, rituals, and daily rules for Jewish life), “Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekhinah [God]” (Shabbat 127a).
            Modern day scholar Rabbi Shai Held writes about this in his new book of Torah commentaries as well. He segues from this quote from the Talmud to reference a philosophical principal taught by 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. I’ve never read Kierkegaard and I’m guessing neither have most of you, but I can still understand Rabbi Held’s point when he says he wants to flip Kierkegaard’s teaching around and offer that our Torah teaches the importance of “the ethical postponement of the theological.” By this he means, when faced with a real-life application of a mitzvah, a Jewish value and commandment, it is more important to fulfill that tangible goal than to remain seated and continue your chat with God. For Abraham, that means jumping up to greet the visitors even though we are told the Divine Presence is sitting with him.
            There’s another a common teaching on this subject from one of our earliest rabbis, usually repeated around Tu B’Shevat, the new year for the trees which Jews celebrate in January or February. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai would teach, “If you are holding a sapling in your hand – about to plant a new tree – and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the messiah is here!’ first finish planting the tree, and then go to greet the messiah.” Again, this teaches us that it is more important to finish the mitzvah of the here and now than to focus your mind too much on the state of Heaven.
            After Abraham welcomes in his guests and offers them a mere morsel of food, the Torah tells us that he and his wife Sarah actually fed the guests a fancy feast. The rabbis teach us that this shows Abraham is the embodiment of the teaching “say little, do much, and greet every person with a friendly face.” Abraham didn’t need to show off or make a big deal about feeing his guests. He was modest in what he said he had to share, but then he was generous in what he did share. And most importantly, he did both steps with a smile.
            Although prayer is important and I hope you all have a relationship with God, it is more important to be kind and welcoming to others. This week, I want you all to think more about your words and your actions. Do they match? Are you more focused on telling people about yourself, or on showing people who you truly are? Are your heads in the clouds, or are you focused on your tasks before you? May you find that it is easy for you to say little, do much, and greet every person with a friendly face. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.