Rabbi Charles S. Sherman is Senior Rabbi of Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park, PA. He has written a book called The Broken and The Whole, Discovering Joy After Heartbreak: Lessons from a Life of Faith. (Scribner/Simon and Schuster). His son Eyal suffered a brain stem stroke at the age of 4, and for the ensuing 30 years, lived as a quadriplegic, with numerous cognitive difficulties and the inability to speak. Eyal died not long ago. Rabbi Sherman posted this on his Facebook page this past December 7. I was so moved that I asked his permission to share it with you. He granted it unreservedly.
My wife and I just returned from a week’s vacation to Los Angeles, visiting two of our kids. We did the whole tourist thing, Warner Brothers studio tour, a walk down Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica pier. But what made it noteworthy was that it was the first time my wife and I were able to vacation together for almost 30 years. For those 30 years, we always made sure that one of us was with our profoundly-challenged son Eyal, who, after a stroke as a little boy, was a quadriplegic and required around-the-clock care. Eyal passed away a few months ago.
The vacation was bittersweet. It was great to get away, we enjoyed ourselves, and the bright warm sunshine was delightful. Still, it was difficult. We faced a dilemma, a contradiction—were we somehow being disloyal to our son by having a good time? I know a lot of people find themselves at that same poignant intersection.
There’s a natural feeling that people experience—you may feel guilty having a good time, and feel that you are not being faithful to the person you have lost. That is a very tough emotion to deal with. People may expect someone who is grieving to “move on.” I would suggest that instead, we concentrate on “going on.” Moving on sometimes sends a message that the past is all behind us, and we should try not to think about the loss. Going on means we incorporate the loss into our new life.
It is true that things will never be the same without your loved one. Crying and feeling sad is natural and helps us heal. And other things can help us heal, as well—a bit of relaxation, a hobby we enjoy, a trip we have always wanted to take. While missing our loved one will forever be a part of our lives, that loss does not mean that our days can never be joyful again.
As we close the Book of Genesis this Shabbat with the deaths of the patriarchal/matriarchal generation; and indeed, as we close out this calendar year, I offer Rabbi Sherman’s insight for your edification. Some of our own congregants have faced overwhelming challenges in life during this year. Many of us, thank God, have maintained relatively good health, but have faced other types of challenges. Nevertheless, Rabbi Sherman reminds us of the wisdom of our tradition. After this bizarre, and in many respects, rather horrifying year, we have no choice but to gather our strength for a new year, and resolve in earnest to keep working to make things better. Even amid anger, and sadness and frustration, we cannot allow ourselves to lose hope, lest we hand our adversaries a victory they do not deserve. And with this, I wish you all renewed strength and hope in the year ahead. And this Shabbat, upon finishing the Book of Genesis, together we will proclaim: Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek! Be strong; be very strong; and we shall strengthen each other!
Between 167 and 164 BCE, the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, who was politically and militarily in control of Judea at the time, imposed a series of decrees upon the population of Judea, effectively banning the observance of Judaism. Though throughout the preceding centuries there had been many wars for territory and military and political hegemony in the Ancient Near East, this was the first pointed and deliberate religious persecution imposed by one people upon another.
These were the decrees handed down by Antiochus:
During the time that these decrees were imposed, a priest named Mattathias lived in Jerusalem, but moved to Modi’in. Mattathias had five sons: John, Simon, Judah (called “the Maccabee”), Elazar, and Jonathan. But Antiochus’ officers traveled throughout Judea, trying to persuade the Jews to abandon their religion and offer sacrifices to the Greek god Zeus. Mattathias refused. When he witnessed a Jew in Modi’in step up to the altar to offer the pagan sacrifice, he was overcome with anger, and he rose up and slaughtered the Jew on the altar. Then he and his sons fled into the hills.*
Eventually, Judah created a fighting force, returned to Jerusalem, and defeated the army of Antiochus. It was a stunning military victory
This is history.
Now, for the miracle.
Several hundred years after the Maccabean Revolt, the Rabbis wrote the following story into the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b, from Megillat Ta’anit:
“Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [begin] the eight days of Chanukah, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed over them and defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by th
e High Priest. It contained only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit [with that oil] for eight days. The following year they were established as a festival with Hallel (Praise) and Thanksgiving.”
For Jews around the world, Chanukah is one of the most beloved and celebrated of all times during our Jewish year. Nevertheless, Chanukah is not ordained in the Torah, nor does it even appear anywhere in the Tanakh—the entire Hebrew Bible. In fact, most of what we know about it comes from the Books of Maccabees, which are included in the canonical Jewish Bible, though they are included in the New Testament.
Chances are, if you were to ask many Jews in our time what Chanukah is about, the “knee-jerk” answer would be, “the miracle of the oil,” or “the oil lasted for 8 nights,” or some permutation thereof. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in and of itself. But in fact, this tale of the miracle of Chanukah is just that—a tale. Not that celebrating miracles is a bad thing, necessarily. In fact, on a daily basis, we Jews recognize and give thanks for a whole host of miracles, including our very lives, our health and families, and the world around us. On the other hand, our celebration of Chanukah also demands that we remember our history as a people.
On the other hand, as a people, we have witnessed countless events that we might justifiably characterize as “miracles” throughout our history. But in fact, most of them have come about because we have refused to relinquish our faith and our strength, both physical and spiritual, despite the challenges, both internal and external, that we have endured and overcome throughout our history.
And so, as we celebrate the miracle of Chanukah, we also celebrate the miracle of our history as a people, which is ongoing even on this day. And we pray for a long, vibrant, and peaceful future.
A Chag Urim Sameach to all—a joyous Festival of Lights!
*The material on the decrees of Antiochus and the actions of Mattathias may be found in A Different Light, a brilliant compendium on Chanukah by Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Our Torah portion this week features one of the most seminal moments in our history as a people. Jacob is returning to Canaan after his hasty exit some 20 years earlier. Esau, as the older brother, even if only by a few minutes, was rightly entitled to inherit the birthright of land and leadership, and also the blessing from their father Jacob. Instead, Jacob manipulates both his brother and father so that he receives both the birthright and the blessing. To escape what is sure to be an enraged older brother, Jacob, with their mother Rebecca’s help, quickly flees from their home to Haran, the ancestral home of their grandparents Abraham and Sarah, to the estate of his uncle Laban. Now, he returns with his wives, their handmaidens, his children, his servants, and seeming great wealth. But he fears his brother, so when night falls, he sends his family and household ahead, and he remains alone at the River Jabok. There, in the dead of night, a “man” comes upon him and they wrestle. The implication is that this was a divine messenger. The “man” wrenches Jacob’s hip at the socket, and disappears before the dawn. Thus, Jacob becomes “Israel”—“who has wrestled with God, and survived;” as he prepares to meet his brother once again.
Previously I have noted that our tendency in reading the story of Jacob and Esau is to separate the two personalities into caricatures. Esau is ruddy, wild and boorish, without any discipline or consciousness of the consequences of his words and his actions. Jacob is smooth and calculating; thinking of the future, always calm and controlled. Then again, some interpreters have posited the notion that Jacob and Esau are actually one person, and the exaggerations are actually two sides of the same personality. I suspect this is not what the Biblical author intended, but it is an interesting thought nonetheless.
There are similar commentaries regarding Jacob’s wrestling with the “man.” Perhaps this was actually Jacob wrestling with himself; struggling with the part of himself that he feared, or even hated.
This has been a week of wrestling for us. One, after the other, after the other, men whom we have known and trusted in their public roles; whether in government, in the entertainment industry, and this week most notably, reporting and interpreting the news, have been accused of various levels of sexual misconduct. First and foremost, sexual misconduct is unacceptable, period. But also in this mix is the fact that they have taken advantage of their powerful positions to engage in this misconduct. This crosses over into the realm of abuse. In any equation in which there is one person who commands power of any kind over another, and takes advantage of the less powerful person, particularly in this way, this is an abuse of power. But the revelations of the past few weeks have left us confused and disappointed at times; and at others, frustrated and angry.
All of us have to confront the fact that people—ourselves included—are not monolithic entities. We are complex personalities. While this does not always manifest itself in such harmful ways as misconduct and abuse, it generally necessitates our having to wrestle with the effects of our decisions and behavior throughout our lives. When we brand people as either all good or all bad, that is very seldom the case. Our job as human beings, and particularly as Jews, is, as our tradition teaches, to constantly examine our deeds and motivations; our behavior, the words that we allow to come out of our mouths, and their effect on other people. We constantly are obligated to exercise judgment over ourselves as to whether or not we are doing the right thing. It is a lifelong wrestling match, if you will. It is difficult, and at times painful. But the reward is being able to emerge from our wrestling with our dignity and integrity intact.
Our Torah portion recounts the birth of Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau.
Genesis, Chapter 25
25 The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. 26 Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. . . 27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. 28 Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca favored Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”— which is why he was named Edom. 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is by birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.
Though these two are twins, albeit fraternal, ostensibly, they are different as night and day—polar opposites. We always have tended to see these two as extremes of the human personality—one smart and calculating, thinking of the future; the other, impulsive and crude, thinking only of immediate gratification for his own physical needs.
I have addressed the plague of sexual harassment and improper behavior before, and we will be addressing it again, no doubt. What I would prefer to look at for this particular moment is the more global issue of human nature. On the High Holy Days, we remind ourselves that we are created with two y’tzirot—two inclinations: the yeitzer tov and the yeitzer ra—the good inclination and the evil inclination. No one is inherently all good, or all evil. We all have the capacity for both. But the Holidays also remind us that we are created with the ability to control the yeitzer ra and steer ourselves in the direction of the yeitzer tov. Self-control: that seems to be the operative issue here.
For too long, there has been an assumption in our society that “boys will be boys,” and later on, “men will be men,” as it were. And thus, the sexual drive of men is beyond their control, and improper behavior—and that includes verbal behavior—is just part of their nature. Baloney! This is precisely the mentality that led to separation of men and women in synagogues, on buses, at the Western Wall, and so on. And as a liberal Jewish community, we flatly rejected that thinking. I know too many wonderful, accomplished men who are fully in control of their impulses, and do have the ability to control themselves, and behave appropriately around women: whether in the workplace, or in synagogue, or in social settings, or what-have-you. But as a society, for way too long, we have winked and nodded, as it were, in the full knowledge that there are men who have transgressed boundaries, from a little, to a lot. As a teenager, a college student, a graduate student, and a professional in two different professional worlds, I have seen it; and without any doubt in my mind, virtually every woman I know can say the same thing. But I believe that we, as a society, have allowed it. We have not adequately insisted that men, and yes, a small minority of women as well, must be held to the standard of self-control of which we are capable as human beings. That is what our tradition teaches us, and if our religious affiliation demands nothing else of us, it demands this.
As I said, this conversation will have to continue; but for now, I wish us all a little peace on this Shabbat.
Lech lecha mei-artz’cha – Go forth from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12.1-3)
Thus begins our Torah portion for this week, and thus begins the unfolding of our destiny as a people, which continues to unfold to this day, and will continue on, we pray, for all time.
On this particular day, the 7th of Cheshvan, there is a celebration among our people that may go completely unnoticed by many of us. It is called “Diaspora-Israel Day,” and grows out of the “Domim-aLike Project,” a relatively new joint initiative of the Reform Movement and the Israeli Government. Its aim is to express and celebrate the unique, ongoing, and complex relationship between Jewish people wherever we live: in Israel, in the United States and Canada, in Europe, in South America, everywhere. The word domim itself means alike. Wherever our people have lived throughout our long and amazing history, we have maintained a bond with each other that, despite a number of intense strains, remains intact to this day. We often hear the term “Jewish Peoplehood.” The term generally refers to the sense of belonging that we share with Jews around the world. Of course, it has taken many forms throughout our history, and on a certain level is an intangible; yet it remains one of the dominant components of Jewish identity and culture.
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another. This principle has been a driving force of our connection as a people, and our working to maintain our ties throughout history. It has been a primary motivator to help our people wherever they live, whether in times of trouble, or in times of great celebration. If you should have the occasion to visit the headquarters of UJA-Federation in New York City, you will see this principle emblazoned starkly upon the walls throughout the building. It is a short, yet powerful statement of the organization’s reason for being.
For us in Brownstone Brooklyn, one of the most wonderful developments of this bond is the Sh’lichut Program—the program of emissaries from Israel. One of the initiatives of this program is to bring young shinshinim to our area to become a part of our community each year. The term shinshin is an acronym for sh’nat sheirut—a year of service. When Israeli students graduate high school, they generally begin their mandatory service in the Army. Many, however, choose to delay their service by a year, and embark upon a voluntary year of community service. Many of the programs are structured within Israel.This particular program, however, funded by UJA-Federation, brings a small group of these wonderful young people to different areas within the US and Canada, both to learn about the vibrancy of North American Jewry, and to teach our students about the vibrancy of Israel. This is now Union Temple’s fourth year of participation in this program. Our kids, and we as well, have been blessed by Ido, Paz, Naomi, and now Aviv, in this extraordinary demonstration of domim—a learning experience to teach us that even though we are different in some ways, in many fundamental ways, we are alike.
Ayelet Zioni and Gili Liber formed a band in Israel in 1997 called Gaya. A Song for Love is perhaps their best-known song, and has become an unofficial anthem representing Jewish hope and connection.
A song for love
Together, heart to heart
We’ll open up and see the light in the sky
Together, heart to heart
We’ll open up with hope for love.
As the heart opens up
It embraces the world
And with a great shout
To sing for love.
Say everything’s possible
It’s not too late
The dawn has already broken
It’s time for love.
And only if we believe
Without any mucking around
In the road rising up
It’s a song for love.
For those of us on Facebook, the past week has been both startling and sobering. In the wake of the revelations concerning movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, women on Facebook have been encouraged to bear witness to their own experiences with some form of sexual harassment, with the simple phrase, “Me too.” During this entire week, one, after the other, after the other, women of all ages, some of whom I personally know well, have begun their posts with what now has become a haunting refrain: “Me too.” And then, the personal narratives unfold.
I was reminded on CNN during this week that perhaps the earliest and most public case of sexual harassment in this generation was brought by Anita Hill, now Professor of Law, Social Policy, and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, against Judge Clarence Thomas, during his confirmation hearings for appointment as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.
As we know, Hill’s allegations were deemed unfounded, and Thomas was appointed to the bench. It is not my intention to offer a personal assessment of the veracity of Professor Hill’s allegations. What I will say, however, is that all over America, there were women of all colors, ages, and stations in life, who watched those hearings with rapt attention, and had no trouble whatsoever believing that it was at least plausible that such encounters could have occurred within a work environment such as the one in which Hill found herself at the time. Again, I would state that this is not a commentary on Justice Thomas. It is, however, an observation that the type of abusive encounters such as those described in Hill’s allegations happen. They happen all the time. And, lest we forget, just about a year ago, the Republican candidate for President was heard on tape boasting about taking advantage of women professionally, and physically assaulting them in the process. And then, our fellow Americans elected him President anyway.
Our Torah portion begins with the story of the Flood, which wiped out the Earth and all its inhabitants, save for a righteous man named Noah, and his family, and two of every type of creature. Why? The Torah tells us that God had reached the end of the line with humanity, because “the earth was filled with hamas.” The term hamas is generally translated as violence, which the Rabbis tend to interpret as economic corruption. But in light of this dreadful week of revelations about a powerful and wealthy man, who continuously used his position to violate and humiliate women, I would offer as an alternative interpretation and manifestation of hamas, harassment and violence against women, in all its many forms.
In the coming weeks, we will be reading stories in the Genesis narratives that involve blatant violation and oppression of women. Sarah is taken against her will into the harems of Pharaoh and Avimelech, and forced to have sex with them. Hagar is brought into a subservient position to Abraham and Sarah, and used both for sex and procreation, only to be cast out into the wilderness with her son. Rachel and Leah are sisters are pitted against each other for the affections of Jacob, and are locked in a painful competition to bear children. Dina is taken against her will by Shechem. Tamar is brutally raped by Amnon. And this is just in the Book of Genesis!
On the one hand, we can understand these stories as reflections of the ancient world, in which women were generally treated as chattel. On the other, they provide important instructional value for us in our own time. While the structure of our society has changed dramatically, of course, the fact that women often find themselves on the losing end of sexual harassment and abuse is a reality that we can no longer afford to sweep under the rug. In this respect, it might be safe to say that Harvey Weinstein has done us all a big favor. (Though of course, it’s the women he abused and intimidated who finally found the courage to step forward, who really have done us the favor!) It’s not as though revelations of personal immorality and abuse of power are new to us. But there’s something about this particular case that has finally struck a nerve, to the point at which women are willing to “come out of the closet,” so to speak, and declare “Me too.”
What all of us would do well to consider in light of the Weinstein scandal is how it could happen in the first place. Harvey Weinstein has been one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, putting his money and support behind a number of important and successful, often ground-breaking movies. He also has donated untold amounts of money to liberal causes and candidates. (An interesting aside: In Oscar acceptance speeches, the most “thanked” individual has been Steven Spielberg, with 54 mentions. Next on the list, second only to Spielberg, is a tie with 34 mentions. The tie is between Harvey Weinstein – and God.) What happens to turn the mind of such an individual to convince him that he can do the things he is accused of doing, with utter impunity, and with no fear of consequences? It would seem that relegating it to a “power trip” is too facile. Of course it’s a power trip! A manifestation of sexual perversion? Perhaps. But I would suggest that a Harvey Weinstein, and all those like him, are created, and shaped, and encouraged, by the society that has objectified women since the days of Noah—the society that all of us have inherited.
Harvey Weinstein has been expelled from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. But the Academy has a long way to go to make adequate teshuva, as it were. But the Academy is just the tip of the iceberg, and we all know it. This is a much longer conversation that has to continue. For now, I offer my thanks and support to every “me too” who has written this week, and all those as well who have not.