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Self-Control

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.

Laughter and Tears

This is a sermon I wrote a number of years ago, and delivered at our temple on Sisterhood Shabbat, back in November of 2004. During that Shabbat, the Sisterhood made a point of honoring our mothers and grandmothers, as is mentioned at the beginning of the sermon. The sermon is based on this week’s Torah portion, “Chayei Sarah.”   I entitled it “Laughter and Tears.”  In these very strange and disturbing times, I found that it has once again struck a chord of poignancy for me, and if you have a few minutes to read it, I hope it will for you as well.

 

Laughter and Tears

This is a sad day in the story of our ancestors. Sarah Imeinu, Sarah our mother, has died, and now her husband Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father, must accord her the final respect of burial. We read that Abraham comes to mourn and bewail his wife: Vayavo Avraham lispod l’Sarah v’livkotahLispodto eulogize–an opportunity to speak well of the dead. So on this day, as we gather to honor each other, and especially our mothers and grandmothers, we offer our own hesped–a eulogy for Sarah Imeinu.

As you know, a eulogy involves looking back on the life of a person, and pulling together elements of that life that will portray who and what that person really was. But how can we find adequate words to describe a woman who herself spoke so very few? After all, from what we can glean from the text, Sarah did not speak much at all; not with her family, nor with anyone else, for that matter. But perhaps it is in this very silence that we might gain a clue as to who Sarah was, and what she felt in her heart.

Think back to our earliest memories of Sarah. The first time we meet her we are told 3 things: (1) Her name was originally Sarai; (2) She was the wife of Avram, the original name of Avraham; (3) She had no children. Is this the kind of introduction that a woman of such stature deserves? “This is Sarai, she has no children.” Is that the sum total of a human being’s significance? Later on in the Book of Numbers, when Moses was taking a census in the wilderness, God specifically instructed him not to ask how many children each person had, but instead to remember that his or her worth as an individual was paramount. Yet here in Genesis, in our first meeting of Sarah we hear, “This is Sarai, she has no children.” How did this kind of presentation affect the heart and soul of Sarah Imeinu? Let’s ponder this, as we turn momentarily to other chapters of her life.

Immediately after Sarai is introduced to us, God tells Avram to leave Haran: Lech lecha mei’artz’chahGo forth from your native land, from your father’s house, and go to the land which I will show you. And, in an instant, Avram takes his belongings, his nephew Lot, and Sarai his wife, and picks up to leave Haran–without so much as a word to Sarai! How could this happen?  Can any of us imagine being treated that way? Was this not also her land–the place of her birth? –her father’s house as well? But this does not phase Avram. So together they leave, lock, stock, and barrel, without a single word passing between them.

Not long after this move, as we recall, the two find themselves in Egypt. But Avram is frightened. Sarai is a beautiful woman; her name, after all, means “princess.” He fears that when the king of Egypt sees her and lusts after her, he, Avram, will be killed. Thus the very first words we hear him speak to his faithful wife were: “Look, you are very attractive. Please–say you are my sister–so that it may go well with me.” And, perfectly in character, Sarai does as her husband asks, sacrificing her virtue; giving herself to another man; without so much as a word.

But now, back to the issue of her childlessness. Regardless of what it says in Numbers, this issue is indeed a serious one; both within the context of the Ancient Near East, and within the relationship between Avram and Sarai. If we think about it, the fact that her childlessness is the first thing we learn about her really is not so surprising. This issue often exists first and foremost in the mind of a woman such as Sarai, and in the soul of the relationship between husband and wife, between spouses, not without its measure of anguish. And sure enough, the problem eventually does play itself out in the triangle that forms around Avram, Sarai, and the Egyptian handmaiden Hagar. Sarai, still true to the role of the self-sacrificing helpmate, offers Hagar to Avraham so that he might not be deprived of an heir, and the experience of fatherhood. Kind of like a modern-day “surrogate mother,” if you will. But once the deed is done, and Hagar becomes pregnant, the scene very quickly deteriorates. Hagar becomes haughty, and Sarai’s pain is exacerbated as she is reminded of her feelings of inadequacy. The confluence of emotions is more than she can bear: guilt, hatred, self-recrimination, anger at the whole predicament. And then, after all she has done for Avraham, when finallyshe cries out to him for help, how does he respond? “She’s your handmaiden, do with her as you please.” Imagine Sarai’s frustration and feelings of helplessness. Imagine her fear that Avraham would lose all interest in her in favor of Hagar. Not much encouragement for her to express herself in the future. And Avram, we might say, with 21st-century hindsight of course, was not very helpful to her when she needed him. Not very understanding. Not a very comforting husband.

Just by way of comparison, we can find another model in the Bible of the exchange between husband and wife experiencing the same kind of problem–Hannah and Elkanah, parents of the prophet Samuel. Elkanah had 2 wives, Hannah and Pnina. Pnina had children, Hannah did not. Pnina, like Hagar, used this to taunt Hannah–a convenient, but vicious way of demoralizing one’s rival. But Elkanah responds in a different way. When Hannah comes crying he implores her: “Why do you cry so? Is not my love for you enough to take the place of 10 children?” True, Hannah certainly was happier once she had Samuel. But her real happiness might well have come from the comfort and security offered her by her beloved husband Elkanah–comfort and security denied to Sarah. Is this to say that Abraham was a horrible and unfeeling person? Not necessarily. It is just an observation–of how much better the relationship functioned for Hannah and Elkanah.

The happiest moment in Sarah’s life came when she learned that she wasdestined to give birth, even at the age of 90. Remember that some time earlier, God had told Avram that he would be the father of many nations–av hamon goyim–and thus his name would be changed to Avraham. “And God then said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her…” And Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed–vayitzhak–as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at 90?…” And God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Yitzhak, Isaac.” So it was Abraham who laughed out loud at God. But God does not respond to his laughter, except to name his son because of it. But what happens when Sarah hears the news? First of all, she is not told about directly! She happens to overhear it when the 3 “visitors” are talking with Abraham at the tent. “Your wife, Sarah, shall have a son.” And she laughed within herself saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” “And Sarah laughed beqirbah–within herself.”

Sarah did not laugh out loud, as Abraham had before her. But what was God’s response to Abraham? “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for God?”

Why was Sarah blamed for laughing? And even if she had laughed, what would have been so terrible? What’s so bad about laughing? God seems to be worried that she doubts divine power. But how was she supposed to know that these 3 “visitors” were divine messengers? They never talked to her! The 16th-century commentator Sforno says that Sarah made a category error. She couldn’t be expected to know what was going on here. We would expect her to laugh. The text itself says that she merely laughed within herself. Remember that it was Abraham who laughed out loud. But he was not reprimanded at all! And why did he withhold it from Sarah to begin with? Where is the communication between these two?!

But despite the questions over who laughed and why, there’s a deeper issue here. What is the laughter all about? Remember, that the condition of her childlessness had been a source of great anxiety and deep sadness for Sarah. She had suffered humiliation and anger, and she was probably quite depressed. And now, the extraordinary news that she will be given the gift of parenthood!….   Have you ever had the experience of laughing until you cry? The laughter seems to unlock the emotions, and if given half a chance, they will flow naturally to tap those more deeply hidden. Could this not have been true for Sarah Imeinu? She only laughed within herself. But it could well be that if she had really laughed, and then been allowed to continue laughing, she probably would have started to cry–for all the pain she had endured in the past; for all that was missing in her marriage to Abraham; for the dreams that she thought she had lost; and of course, for the relief that some of them, at least, finally would be realized.  Laughter and tears… perhaps for Sarah, they were one and the same.

But even after that triumphal moment of joy, Sarah’s trials continued. The crowning blow soon followed, as her husband took her son Isaac, and went riding off into the early morning sun, without a single word about it to her. And she never saw either of them again. For the rest of her days on this earth, Sarah our mother lived, bereft of her son, and apart from her husband–perhaps the final blow to a marriage that was never all that close to begin with.

So here we are, “after these things,” still faced with the challenge of finding words for our mother Sarah. But we might take our lead from the Torah itself, as it begins on this very day: “Sarah’s lifetime–the span of Sarah’s life–came to 127 years.” 127 years–when the blessing for which we all pray is a mere 120! Sarah not only lived a complete life, she merited completeness and then some. Even more interesting is the way in which this total is expressed in the Hebrew: “And the span of Sarah’s life was 100 years, and 20 years, and 7 years.” This, we learn from the commentators, is because of the righteousness of Sarah Imeinu. Rashi says that she was such a virtuous woman that when she was 100, she seemed like 20. Add to this the sacred number of 7, and Sarah becomes the most honored woman of the Bible. Age did not diminish her beauty, and all her years were goodness. Remember, her very name means “princess.” But perhaps her age is expressed as it is to recall a note of sadness as well. Perhaps in Sarah’s own mind, it was as though she already had lived 3 lifetimes. Perhaps the words of the spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” are words that Sarah could have sung herself. But despite the trials, and the sadness, Sarah Imeinu never relinquished her grace, her courage, her determination, and her loyalty.

Sarah was indeed the mother of us all. Her laughter and tears are our laughter and tears. Her family is our family, and the heritage she initiated is ours. She was a righteous woman and a beautiful soul. May her memory live through us, her children, and may it be a blessing forever.

A Postscript: 

This week began with the tears that we all have shed as Americans, in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that befell the people of Sutherland Springs, TX, who had gathered in church for Sunday morning prayer. As people of faith, our hearts are heavy with grief as we think about the innocent victims, mercilessly and brutally gunned down in their house of worship. Our sadness is deep as we contemplate the sorrow of those they leave behind. We pray that their loved ones may eventually find some way to go on with life, comforted in their own understanding of God’s loving embrace.

But, my friends, we are forced once again to confront the reality that our tears, our prayers, and our sorrow are simply not enough. Nor are they enough from all the members of Congress who expressed them this week. No. It is time for them to act. It is time for them to act with courage. It is time for them to overcome the hold that the NRA has on them. How many lives will it take? How many children? How many tears? How many prayers? It is time for them to find some integrity, even at the possible cost of the seats they hold. Enough…enough…enough….

Welcome the Stranger

And so, we are here again. A horrifying week. Senseless loss of innocent life. Pain, fear, trauma. Such a sad week for us as Americans, and particularly as New Yorkers. In the very shadow of Freedom Tower—our tribute to the World Trade Center, and our will to go on in the face of terrorism—we endured yet another act of terrorism, and depraved, wanton murder. But, as a city and as a people, though we were shocked and traumatized, we did not, and will not, allow terrorism to shut us down. Our mayor, our governor, the police commissioner, and representatives of the incredible police force and anti-terrorism units that we have built up in this city, spoke strongly and informatively to all of us, and also with profound sympathy to those who lost loved ones. They did this because they are leaders; and that is what we need from them at such a time, and have every right to expect.

While I am not particularly fond of Mr. Trump (just in case any of you might have been in doubt), I actually do wish that, at the very least, he had some ability to understand and fulfill this role of leadership as President of the United States. That is my wish for sake of the well-being of our people, and the safety of our country. Unfortunately, our president is utterly incapable; both of understanding, and fulfilling. On the contrary. Mr. Trump immediately used this tragedy to jump onto his Twitter feed and accuse our own Senator Chuck Schumer of having caused this horrific act, because of a particular immigration policy that in fact was a bi-partisan effort, enacted during the first Bush administration in 1990, and which Schumer then participated in reversing in 2013, again in a bi-partisan effort. But on Trump’s part, this was just one more chapter in the fear mongering that he has fomented since he invented the “birther” nonsense, all of which has been directed against immigrants, and home-born Americans whom he deems to be “different,” and thus “not one of us.” Trump is obsessed; consumed by xenophobia; driven by his own hatred of anyone he considers to be “the other.” And the circle seems to be widening by the day.

Our Torah portion opens as Abraham sits by his tent in the heat of the day. Three men approach, and he welcomes them with open arms. Immediately, he invites them to sit down and share a meal with him. This episode becomes our paradigm for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim—welcoming the stranger. Beginning with Abraham’s journey that we read about last week, continuing on through the Book of Genesis, on through our entire Torah narrative, and indeed, throughout our history as a people, we have become all too well acquainted with the plight of the stranger, because it has been our plight. We have been strangers in strange lands throughout the millennia of our existence as a people. And here in our sidra, we also learn to welcome and care for others who are in that same position.

Our government officials and counter-terrorism intelligence experts will have to work overtime, in these dangerous times, to ferret out the type of “home-grown radicalization,” as it has been characterized, that drove this terrorist to act this past Tuesday. But the knee-jerk impulse on the part of the president to shut down immigration is wrong-headed and mean-spirited. That is not what we have been about as a nation, or as a people. Losing our cherished freedom is a dangerously high price that looms before us. Losing our heart is an even higher one. We cannot let that happen.