Speaking, Naming and Celebrating the Component Parts of Liberation: D’var Torah for Parashat VaEira

Movement work is hard. Paths to possible victories pass through certain defeats. It is impossible to do the work of justice and liberation without bouts of debilitating self-doubt and glimpses over the precipice of despair, when we think we’re not helping, but only making things worse. How can we press on in the work? Our parasha opens on just that note. Moshe, who didn’t feel worthy and who dreaded being sent to Egypt to work for the Israelites’ liberation in the first place (Sh’mot/Exodus 3:11 and following), overcame his fears, did what he was asked, but apparently, it failed spectacularly. He confronted Phara‘oh and conveyed Hashem’s demand that he release the Hebrews (Sh’mot 5:2), but not only did Phara‘oh dismiss Moshe and God — “Who is YHWH, that I should listen to his voice?!” (5:2), but used the freedom movement as a pretext to intensify their labor oppression with ever-more-draconian regulations (5:5-9), deriding the Israelites as “lazy”(5:17) and Moshe as a rabble-rouser (5:4-5). The Israelites, initially excited by Moshe and Aharon’s arrival and rhetoric, turn on them: “May YHWH see you and judge, for you have made our odor stink in the eyes of Phara‘oh and the eyes of his servants, putting a sword in their hands to kill us!” (5:21). Moshe lashes out at God, and God says, ‘Just watch’ (6:1). This is what we’ve been sitting with all week, a vague, but strong promise of liberation, against the lived experience of a failed uprising, leading to greater brutality.

Into the midst of Israelite agony, God calls out to Moshe, opening our parasha by revealing in greater detail the brighter future in store for the Israelites:

“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people, ‘I am YHWH. I will BRING you out from the labors of the Egyptians and I will DELIVER you from their bondage. I will REDEEM you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary judgments.  And I will TAKE you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, YHWH, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya‘akov, and I will give it to you for a possession—I, YHWH’” (Sh’mot 6:5-8).

In the experience of despair, it is tempting to hear this promise as just a more verbose repetition of the same promise which Moshe and the people have come to distrust, God shouting instead of speaking to their actual anguish. That’s what actually happened: “So Moshe spoke accordingly to the Israelites, but they could not hear Moshe, out of shortness of breath and hard labor” (Sh’mot 6:9). Moshe, consequently, balks at continuing the movement, telling God, “Look, the Israelites didn’t hear me, so how would Phara‘oh hear me, and I have foreskinned lips” (6:12): I clearly can’t speak well or we wouldn’t be in this predicament. Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, following the Hasidic master known as the S’fas Emes, homes in on the logic of Moshe’s despair: “because they would not listen, therefore I am of foreskinned lips” (The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, 2001, pp. 83-84). The experience of failure and oppression blocks our words.

However, a more careful ear can detect a crucial, if elusive, lesson in God’s apparently redundant speech. God is not giving us synonyms for the end result of freedom, but outlining the process, the stages toward that freedom. A well-known midrash (Talmud Yerushalmi Pesahim 10:1 and elsewhere) teaches that the four key verbs which I bolded represent four distinct redemptions. The Torah Temimah (Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, 1860-1941) explains: “Vehotzeiti (I will bring out)”—that God lightened our work load; “Vehitzalti (I will deliver)”—that we no longer worked at all; “VeGa’alti (I will redeem)”—that we completely ceased to be Phara‘oh’s slaves; “VeLakahti (I will take you)”—that we were brought into a special, firm relationship with God. Think about what those must have looked and felt like in material terms: Egypt thrown into socio-economic and political turmoil from the first few plagues, so Phara‘oh eases the labor conditions to try to quell the rebellion. Or perhaps he started to lose control of the people and overseers stopped caring or started resigning, easing the burden. Eventually, Egypt is in total free-fall and slavery is defunct, though borders are still enforced. Eventually Egypt had no control over our ancestors and we booked it, giving us the space to create and nurture culture, in a deep, covenantal relationship. 

Liberation isn’t magic; it’s a process, a succession of measurable victories escalating to a sea change. The midrash adds that these four verbs, four redemptions, are the source for why we are obligated to drink four cups of wine at the Pesach seder. Liberation demands celebration, not just for the happy ending, but for each victory along the way. Similarly, the Pesach Haggadah includes the Dayeinu poem, which walks us through 14 distinct redemptions leading up to and following the exodus, each one of which would alone be sufficient cause (“Dayeinu”) for us to offer praise and celebration by singing the freedom songs of Hallel. The full list affirms that our celebration must always point forward, that each small victory is part of a bigger picture. No one victory is existentially “enough”, but each is sufficient cause to celebrate.

When we break down liberation from a flat, totalizing vision into a long series of concrete, achievable steps, we restore our voices. How do we restore our voices? By using our voices. Singing Hallel after a partial victory to energize us getting back to work the next day, rather than denying the partial victory, rejecting any cause for song because there’s so much more to do. Song, speech, and even groaning and crying train us to hear ourselves and each other of people who must be heard. A major recurring theme of these Torah portions is Phara‘oh refusing to hear or listen. Mirroring that is the recurring theme of God commanding Moshe and Aharon to speak. The premise of God’s speech, we now understand as a strategy plan is that “I have heard the moaning of the Israelites” (6:5). The heart of oppression is silencing the voices of the oppressed, erasing them for their elimination, exploitation, or scapegoating, but always suppressing their subjectivity, their voice. As Isabel Wilkerson puts it, “The ancient code for the subordinate caste calls upon them to see the world not with their own eyes but as the dominant caste sees it” (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, 2020, p. 283), making the oppressed feel inarticulate, that they have a speech impediment, that their lips are blocked by foreskin.

This Shabbat let us resolve to notice, accept, and celebrate micro-victories toward human and planetary liberation where we achieve them and to connect them with each other into a strategic progression, a great, epic arc of redemption from any and all Phara‘ohs and toward covenental trust and just power, with the One Who Hears the Cries of the Oppressed. Let’s keep talking, singing, and groaning, and hearing and amplifying the voices of the oppressed.

Shabbat shalom.

The Seeding of Slavery, The Making of Tyranny: A Folktale of the Politics of Oppression: D’var Torah for Parashat Sh’mot

And, then, all of a sudden, we were enslaved. This week, we begin the book of Sh’mot/Exodus. Before we can even get settled in our seats, we’re plunged into slavery, in just a few verses. How did it happen? How did a minority group who had received favorable immigrant status and lived successfully in a country for several generations, even encouraged by the host country to have land in which to practice and maintain their unique cultural practices, get plunged into slavery and partial genocide? What were the mechanisms that enabled the turning of these tables? How does a multicultural superpower country turn to tyranny? 

Let’s review the opening of our parasha. The first seven verses just list the names of Ya‘akov’s family, tell us that Yosef and his entire generation died, and inform us that the “Israelites were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and became very, very vast, and the land was filled with them” (1:7). Against that backdrop, the political upheaval is unleashed:

8 And a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef. 9 And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel is more numerous and vast than we. 10 Come, let us outsmart it, lest it multiply; and then, should war occur, even join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.” 11 So they set forced labor masters over them so as to abuse them with their burdens; and they built store cities for Phara‘oh: Pithom and Ra‘amses. 12 But the more they abused them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so they loathed the Israelites.

  1. Power Analysis: Who is this King Politically?

The reversal of the Israelites’ fortunes hinges on a regime change, but the Torah’s description of this king’s ascent to the throne is very strange: “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef.” Here’s a signature example of how the Bible typically describes standard regime changes (Bereishit/Genesis 36:31-34):

“And these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned for the Israelites: Bela‘ ben Be‘or reigned in Edom and the name of his city was Dinhava. And Bela‘ died and Yovav ben Zerah from Botzrah reigned in his place. And Yovav died and Husham, from the land of the Yemenite, reigned in his place…”

First of all, our passage does not mention that the previous king died, which we would expect. Second, the usual verb describing the beginning of a regime is Vayimlokh/וַיִּמְלֹךְ”, the verb form of the word “melekh/מֶֶלֶך” (king). Here, though, the new king “arose over Egypt”. The semantic valence of that word, “arose” (vayakom/ויָקָם), is very much darker, especially when joined with the preposition “over” (‘al/עַל). The Torah’s signature story of wicked and self-aggrandizing insurrection tells that Korah, along with Datan and Aviram and 250 other big-shots, “arose” (vayakom/ויָקָם) before Moshe (Bemidbar/Numbers 16:1-2). Later in the Bible, Job says, “The murderer arises (yakum/יָקוּם) in the evening to kill the poor and needy” (Job 24:14). The psalmist pleads in poetic desperation, “Do not turn me over to the clutches of my tormentors, for false witnesses and unjust accusers have arisen “kamu/קָמוּ” against me (Psalms 27:12). Finally, a legal passage compares a rape case to “as a man arises (yakum/יָקוּם) over (‘al/עַל) his neighbor and murders them (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:26). The terminology of this new king’s coronation signals violent, hostile assumption of power: an invasion or a coup. In light of these echoes, the Spanish Bible commentator Avraham Ibn ‘Ezra, (1089-c.1167) says of this new king in Egypt, “The explanation is like the plain meaning without addition: that he was not from the seed of the dynastic kingship”, adding another Biblical verse using that same root to refer to a feared coup attempt (I Sh’muel 22:8). All leaders face threats from rivals, but a new leader who is discontinuous with the nation’s political tradition and legacy is likely to face additional challenges asserting legitimacy in the eyes of the people: the new king arose over Egypt; presumably many Egyptians saw him as illegitimate or hostile.

II. Asserting His Authority By Rallying the Country around a New Enemy

The first thing the new king did was speak to the people: “And he said to his people, ‘Look, the people of the children of Israel is more numerous and vast than we. Come, let us outsmart it, lest it multiply; and then, should war occur, even join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.’” Since this transpires in two verses, it’s easy to think of it as a quick, one-time statement, but let’s think realistically. How did this king say something to his people? Did he tweet? Did he summon the entire Egyptian population to a one-time, mass gathering, give a two-sentence speech, and send everyone home? This had to be a sustained, public relations, messaging campaign over time. The new king utilized all the media available, over time, to communicate a new message to the people — emphasizing his people, to cover-up his own insecure, questionable place at the helm.

One key component of the king’s message is that the children of Israel — remember, Israel was just a person’s name, the patriarch Jacob’s alter ego — are now a people or a nation, an ‘am/עַם. Up until now, they were plural people, descendants of Cana‘nite famine refugees, who had become Egyptians. The new king brands them a nation, referring to them in the collective singular: the Jewish people is born. 

The Pesach Haggadah draws our attention to the significance of this campaign of defamation in its running commentary of the Torah’s most concise retelling of our mythic history, Devarim/Deuteronomy chapter 26, the “My father was a wandering Aramean” paragraph. That passage says, “And the Egyptians did us evil, and abused us, and set upon us hard labor (26:6). Everyone I’ve ever asked about this verse, including myself for several decades, has quite reasonably explained that “the Egyptians did us evil” must refer to either slavery or killing the Hebrew baby boys. The Haggadah’s explanation must give us pause, then:

“‘And the Egyptians did us evil’ – as it is stated (Sh’mot/Exodus 1:10), “‘Come, let us outsmart it, lest it multiply; and then, should war occur, actually join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.’” Why would the Haggadah say this? Why does the Haggadah say that the paradigmatic example of evil done to us by the Egyptians was mere words? 

The Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893, Russia) points our attention to a subtle, but very specific word choice in the Torah that the Haggadah is picking up on. Although many translations of Deut. 26:6 say “And the Egyptians did evil unto us”, a close reading of the Hebrew does not support that translation. To say “to us”, the Hebrew would need to say “vayarei‘u lanu/וַיָּרֵעוּ לָנוּ”, a phrase we find in the Torah, when Moshe unsuccessfully petitions the King of Edom to allow the Israelites safe passage, saying, “‘You know all the travail that has found us; 15 how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we lived in Egypt many days; and the Egyptians did evil unto us, and to our ancestors” (Bemidbar/Numbers 20:14-15). Here, though, in Devarim 26, the Hebrew says, “vayarei‘u otanu/וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ”, using the word et/את, which always introduces a direct object. This would have to mean not that they did evil to us, but that they evil’ed us: they made us out to be evil, hence, my translation, “they did us evil”. As the Netziv puts it, “they made us out to be evil and ingrates, until they suspected us and said, ‘lest it multiply…and join our enemies…’” (Netziv’s Commentary to the Haggadah, Imrei Shefer). The Haggadah tells us an urgent message: words matter. Defamation matters. The brutal slavery and the killing of babies could not have happened without a prior defamation campaign. Hitler of 1944 was impossible without Hitler of 1930. An armed invasion of Congress is continuous with birtherism. When we tell the story of slavery in Egypt, the story must start with the new king’s media campaign to defame the descendants of Israel, turning the opinion of the Egyptian masses against them, creating a new, mythic Egyptian identity built off its opposition to the newly fabricated nation of Israelites. 

Kings are kings, but they always need the backing of the people. The Ramban (1194-1270, Spain) explains why the new king didn’t just go ahead and massacre the Hebrews: “this would have constituted rank treason to persecute without cause a people that had come to the land at the bidding of his royal predecessor. Moreover the people of the land would not have allowed the king to commit this violence, since he had to consult them…” (comment to Sh’mot 1:10). Moreover, the king’s goal was not the elimination of the Hebrews, but the exploitation of the Hebrews to turn his non-loyal, skeptical subjects, into a strong unified force behind him, to make himself great by making the people identify him with Egypt and a new nationalist identity around him. He starts with public defamation, continues with a labor boondoggle to mess with family structures, then tries to buy off the midwives to secretly kill babies, so that his hands will be clean, and only then does he take the gloves off and issue a national edict of baby-killing, in which all Egyptians are deputized as enforcers. It took a long time, a lot of steps that could have been interrupted, some of which were interrupted by heroic resisters, such as the midwives

III.  Finding an Enemy: What Bothered the New King?

What bothered the king was Hebrew fertility: “The people of the children of Israel is more numerous and vast than we”, or perhaps, as Nehama Leibowitz prefers, “too numerous and vast for us”. As we see throughout history, stigmatized and scapegoated people are often framed as sexually deviant, promiscuous, or unnatural, and the oppressor, in turn, oppresses them through control of their sexuality. Let’s be clear, though: sexual oppression was not a byproduct of economic slavery for the Hebrews; economic slavery was a byproduct of sexual oppression, a way to justify it. “So they set forced labor masters over them so as to abuse them with their burdens” (1:11). The word “abuse them” (‘anoto/עַנֹּתוֹ) is used in numerous places in the Torah to refer to encroachment on body autonomy, through forced or forcibly denied sex, or through food. (For example, see Genesis 16:6-11, 31:50, 34:1, 41:52; Leviticus 23:26; Deuteronomy 5:1-3.) The Haggadah names this in its interpretation of this root in Deut. 26:7, “YHWH saw our abuse (‘onyenu/עָנְיֵנוּ): “this refers to the forced disruption of sexual relations”. The Torah highlights this stigmatized disgust with Israelite fertility even in the narrator’s introduction to the book, just before the new king is introduced. The Israelites were not just “fruitful and multiplied”, which would echo God’s vision for humanity in Genesis 1, but they “were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and became very, very vast, and the land was filled with them” (1:7). They are dehumanized, seen as swarming insects or reptiles, a plague upon the land, foreshadowing the several plagues of vermind and reptiles through which the Egyptians will later be punished for their campaign of dehumanization. Sexual abuse, in different forms, pervades this story, and the Rabbis will see numerous manifestations of liberation, human and Divine, playing out through human sexuality.

From the distance of history, profound oppression can seem like it just happened. The story of the Shoah is told through Auschwitz and Treblinka. The story of American enslavement of Africans is told through the brutal cotton plantations of the 1800s. The story of planetary collapse can be told through massive forest fires and droughts. Our parasha reflects that by narrating our ancestors’ descent into slavery so quickly, but it also inscribes hints inviting us to resist that kind of retelling, to stop and unpack all the building blocks of tyranny, all the steps that moderates would gaslight a good reader into thinking are insignificant: the new king’s just blowing smoke; stop exaggerating about everything. The Torah tells us: You’re not exaggerating. These are the most important things to name.

Shabbat shalom. 

Statement on Today’s Insurrection at The U.S. Capitol

To our Avodah community:

As of 5 p.m. ET, all Avodah D.C. Corps Members who were out of the Bayit providing essential services to clients across the District were home safely and adhering to the curfew ordered by the D.C. Mayor. We offered car ride services to Corps Members who did not have personal vehicles at their placement organizations so that they could avoid public transportation.

Today’s attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol proved the importance of safeguarding our democracy. Elections and the peaceful transfer of power are at the very heart of American democracy. The momentous events of today confirm that we may not take these cornerstones of our democracy for granted.

We are sad and angered by the events taking place today, and by the myriad actions and irresponsible rhetoric that led to this. While the scenes from Capitol Hill, which included Confederate flags, a giant cross, and Nazi imagery, are shocking, they are not surprising. We have seen these acts of white supremacy more and more emboldened each year. Today, we are reminded that our systems of democracy are fragile – especially when those who abuse their power feel threatened by the loss of it. We were also reminded that there are two systems of justice in this country, as we witnessed the blatantly unbalanced way today’s violent extremists were treated as compared to the treatment of Black protestors and other marginalized groups in racial justice protests this past summer.

This is why leadership matters – leadership guided by compassion, integrity, a sense of justice, and a moral compass. Developing leaders driven by these values is at the core of Avodah’s work. We train our participants to be the kind of leaders we need in moments like this and in the moments that will come after this. We are committed to supporting the Avodah community of leaders who will not stand for the corrosion of our democracy, and who we trust will help build the future our country needs and deserves.

Olam Chesed Yibaneh. We will build this world with love.

Cheryl Cook,
CEO Avodah

There’s a Riot Goin’ On: Talking about Violence and Power, Part II: D’var Torah for Parashat VaYehi

“Shim‘on and Levi are brothers, weapons of violence their trade” (Bereishit/Genesis 49:5).

Four weeks ago, in Parashat VaYishlah, we read of Shim‘on and Levi’s premeditated massacre of all men of the town of Shekhem in order to rescue their sister Dinah, from captivity in the home of the governor, whose son had likely raped her, kidnapped her, and then tried to whitewash it, pressuring her family into compliance. We saw that the Torah ends the story on a blunt and unresolved note, showing our Patriarch, Ya‘akov, excoriating his two impetuous sons for their outrageous violence, but giving them the last word and offering no alternative path toward rescuing Dinah. We saw that the great, medieval jurist, the Rambam, went out of his way to point out that all residents of Shekhem were actually liable for the death penalty, since operating a justice system is a core human requirement, and they neglected to prosecute their governor’s son for kidnaping. We considered a troubling question: when the state executes violence or allows its powerful citizens to execute violence against its vulnerable residents, what is the place of violence in those vulnerable populations’ strategies for liberation? Are there always non-violent alternatives and what if there are not? We noted that “the Torah leaves clues elsewhere that Shim‘on and Levi were not nice guys…[b]ut the extent to which we eschew zealots and sociopaths like them and don’t want them to monopolize bravery is the extent to which we must say J’accuse to the reasonable people, the moderates, like Ya‘akov, maybe like us, who did absolutely nothing to try to rescue Dinah.” We promised to return later in the year to Shim‘on and Levi, violence, and vigilante justice, and this week is our time to do that.

Zealots, Sociopaths, and Vigilante Justice

The Rambam does not say that Shim‘on and Levi were authorized to take the law into their hands. He also doesn’t say that they weren’t. The Rambam is interested in the citizens; he’s interested in us: Are we all capital criminals when we fail to prosecute police, the 1%, government officials, and other powerful people when they commit violence against poor or vulnerable people? That’s the Rambam. But what do we make of Shim‘on and Levi, of people who enact bloody, vigilante justice? The Torah leaves clues that Shim‘on and Levi were not gentle, nice guys. Although they got the last word in their fight with their father after the rescue mission and massacre, Ya‘akov gets the last word in our parasha, on his deathbed, when he gives final charges to each of his twelve sons. He lumps his second and third sons together, ominously pronouncing, “Shim‘on and Levi are brothers, weapons of violence their trade. In their council, may my person never come, in their assembly let my honor not join. For in their rage, they killed men; at their pleasure, they maimed an ox. Cursed by their rage, so fierce, and their wrath, so rigid. I will divide them in Ya‘akov, scatter them in Israel” (49:5-7). The Rabbinic tradition unpacks these words to refer not only to the massacre of Shekhem, but to a pattern of violent behavior that bonded them. 

When Yosef (now self-presenting as Egyptian Prime Minister Tzafnat Paneah and unrecognized by his brothers), holds one of his brothers in jail while they return home to bring their baby brother, Binyamin, he chooses, without explanation, Shim‘on (42:24). Was Shim‘on, perhaps, his most brutal tormenter in his youth, and this is vengeance? Or is it a strategic way to isolate the brothers from their worst influence or prevent an uprising against him? Rashi (1040-1105, France) thought so and commented about Shim‘on that “he had cast him into the pit and it was he who had said to Levi, ‘Look! Here comes the dreamer-man’. Alternatively, it was Yosef’s intention to separate him from Levi lest the two of them might conspire to kill him.” Rashi follows midrashic close reading to surmise that when Yosef was 17 and his brothers assaulted him, threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery, there were ring-leaders and followers: “They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said, one man to his brother, ‘Look! Here comes the dreamer-man!’ Now, let’s go kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say a wild animal ate him. We’ll see what comes of his dreams!” (37:18-20). “One man to his brother”, according to this reading, wasn’t ‘each one to another,’ but literally, one brother to his brother — Shim‘on to his special brother, Levi. How do we deduce that Shim‘on and Levi were the likely ringleaders? The other two of the oldest brothers, Reuven and Yehuda, couldn’t have done it, because they actually tried to intervene and stop the murder (37:22 and 37:26-27). The younger brothers and the sons of the concubines would likely have had lower status in the family. Shim‘on and Levi, already known for leading an act of violence which the other brothers followed, in Shekhem, become the most likely culprits (Rashi’s comment to Bereishit/Genesis 49:5, based on Midrash Tanhuma VaYehi 9:6).

Shim‘on and Levi continue to be associated with violence, but apropos Ya‘akov’s deathbed premonition that these two brothers will be henceforth divided, we no longer see them in consort with each other. Generations later, in the desert, when the masses revolt, declare God and Moshe obsolete, and build and worship a Golden Calf, it is the Levites who answer Moshe’s calls for religious zealotry, issued in language reminiscent of the Shim‘on and Levi story, ruthlessly killing 3,000 of their idolatrous brethren (Sh’mot/Exodus 32:26-28): an act of brutal violence explicitly sanctioned in order to arrest a greater crisis of mass violence.

The saga of the relationship between these typologically violent brothers reaches a head in the sequel story to the massacre of Shekhem, the Torah’s signature episode of political violence, chapter 25 of the book of Bemidbar/Numbers. Toward the end of the desert narrative, the whole Israelite community gets seduced into an idolatrous orgy led by the overpowering majority culture Moabites and Midianites. God is enraged (25:1-3): this is the Torah’s version of a national security crisis, as the Israelites are being swallowed by a perverse, aggressive, hegemonic culture. God reads this as a political collapse, sees the entire Israelite leadership structure as irredeemably corrupt, and commands Moshe to execute all the political leaders by public hanging (25:4). Moshe doesn’t do that but, instead, instructs the judges to kill those civilians who have cleaved to the foreign god Ba‘al Pe‘or (25:5). Meanwhile, in this leadership collapse, one brazen couple, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, flaunts idolatrous lawlessness, copulating, flagrantly, right in the front of Moshe and the whole people. Everyone’s watching, but all they do is cry (25:6). Just then, Pinhas, the grandson of Aharon the High Priest, the central line of the tribe of Levi, took the law into his own hands, grabbed a spear, stabbed the couple graphically, through their conjoined midsections, slaying them, and staying the Divine wrath, which had already killed 24,000 Israelites in a plague (25:7-9). Finally, the Torah names the offending parties: the Israelite man was Zimri, son of Salu, a Chieftain of the tribe of Shim‘on, and the Midianite woman was Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, a Midianite Chieftain. Shim‘on’s and Levi’s predilections for violence meet again, but now, filtered through Ya‘akov’s charge, they are foes, Shim‘on as the brazen sociopath, out to exacerbate a crisis breaking down the community, and Levi as the zealot, who risks his life to commit gory violence in order to stop and prevent greater violence.

There’s a Place in a Movement for Zealot, but Beware the Sociopaths

Not all violence is the same. Some people are driven by zealous pursuit of justice, by any means necessary. Some are driven by the thrill of danger and bloodshed. They may be hard to tell apart sometimes. Zealots may be susceptible to being drafted for sociopathic ends if convinced by a narrative of righteousness. Sociopaths may be drafted to righteous causes, simply for the thrill of the fight. But it will be important to separate them. In Israelite history, Levi, the zealot, becomes the religious leadership, directing Divine service through animal slaughter and song in the Temple. But — and this is crucial — no one in the tribe is allowed to own land; they must all be supported by public tax funds, through produce tithes and other entitlements. Moreover, Levites do not live together, but are dispersed evenly among the other tribes, providing sparks of energy to the whole people, but always being constrained and controlled by the public (Bemidbar/Numbers 35:1-8): beware of zealots consolidating power. Their familiarity with violence comes in handy, as they are assigned the task of managing the rough Cities of Refuge, where reckless manslaughterers live out their days. Shim‘on, the sociopath, on the other hand, gets isolated and swallowed: the entire tribe is omitted in Moshe’s final blessing (Devarim/Deuteronomy 33) and historically, the tribe of Shim‘on is not apportioned its own land allotment, but is contained and kept in check by the large, powerful, tribe of Yehuda (Joshua 19:1). 

Political Violence is a Mirror Image of the Breakdown of the Criminal Justice System

The Rabbis understand the Pinhas story as a warning siren about a failed judicial system. While they show ambivalence toward Pinhas and discomfort with his extrajudicial action, they put themselves on the hook, asking, What makes a vigilante do what he does? In their retelling, Pinhas responds rationally to the failures that they can imagine for themselves:

At that time, Pinhas responded, saying, “Isn’t anyone here prepared to kill at risk of being killed?! Where are those Legal Lions — ‘Yehuda is a young lion’ (Genesis 49:9), ‘Dan is a young lion’ (Deuteronomy 33:22) [referring to the two tribes most associated with the judiciary]?! He started to scream. When he saw that everyone was staying silent, he stood up from his own Sanhedrin (court), took out his spear, placed it in his belt, leaned on his staff, and started walking. Midrash Sifrei Bemidbar #131:2

This is a story about power. God says that the culprits are the Israelite political leaders and Moshe is unwilling to follow God’s instruction to take out the leadership. He kicks it to the judiciary, and they also freeze. In the Rabbinic emphasis, the criminal justice system is entirely unwilling or unable to prosecute someone with power, a tribal leader. This story dramatizes that judicial acquiescence to violent criminality by the powerful is itself a grievous act of violence and no one can expect anything other than ugly, violent, vigilante justice. You don’t like Pinhas’s violence? Then you’d better make sure that the criminal justice system shows some muscle against powerful people. You can’t choose your vigilante. Yeah, the person who does it will probably be a hothead, a fanatic. You don’t like it? Then make sure the sober, judicious people do their job. Unlike much of today’s moderate punditry, at least the Rabbinic punditry recognized their own weaknesses and made sure to make an uncomfortable story more uncomfortable by broadcasting that the story is about them and their own, likely shortcomings. 

The Rabbis’ warning finds contemporary echo in a brief, 2016 article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Near Certainty of Anti-Police Violence”:

“…Last week, 25-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson murdered five police officers in Dallas. This abhorrent act of political extremism cannot be divorced from American history—recent or old. In black communities, the police departments have only enjoyed a kind of quasi-legitimacy. That is because wanton discrimination is definitional to the black experience, and very often it is law enforcement which implements that discrimination with violence. A community consistently subjected to violent discrimination under the law will lose respect for it, and act beyond it. When such actions stretch to mass murder it is horrific. But it is also predictable…. 

…There is no shortcut out. Sanctimonious cries of nonviolence will not help. ‘Retraining’ can only do so much. Until we move to the broader question of policy, we can expect to see Walter Scotts and Freddie Grays with some regularity. And the extent to which we are tolerant of the possibility of more Walter Scotts and Freddie Grays is the extent to which we are tolerant of the possibility of more Micah Xavier Johnsons.”

The question is not so much whether Pinhas was good or bad, whether Shim‘on and Levi were right and wrong. Bloodshed is bad. We definitely want to avoid a world with stories like these. The question is whether we, the body politic, really eschew violence, or only hate having to confront violence, while we live comfortably with it as long as it happens to the voiceless, out of sight, out of mind. Do we abhor violence or just disorder, the consequence of the oppressed ceasing to accept the violence done to them? The question is, if we truly eschew violence, what are we prepared to do to stop the greatest perpetrators of violence, the wealthy and powerful, from doing so? 

Shabbat shalom.

Multiple Meanings in Texts, Multiple Dynamics in Power Relationships: D’var Torah for Parashat VaYiggash

Parashat Va-Yiggash (Bereishit 44:18-47:27)

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, Avodah National Jewish Educator

For the past week, we have dwelled in the strange and tense pause between the beginning of Yehuda’s speech to Yoseph, at the end of last week’s parasha, and the conclusion of his speech, at the beginning of this week’s. This oratory tour de force is the climax of the drama of Yoseph and his brothers; nevertheless, we interrupted it in the middle to wait a week. The odd editorial move of breaking up the two Torah portions in the middle of a conversation invites us to look closely at the power and relationship dynamics unfolding between these two brothers.

The backdrop is that the brothers, on their way home, have been arrested and Yoseph’s royal goblet has been “found” in Binyamin’s sack, after Yoseph’s aids planted there clandestinely to frame him. The brothers, especially favorite child Binyamin, now stand accused before Yoseph, the Egyptian Prime Minister, still unrecognized by his dependent brothers.

Last week’s parasha closes as follows (Genesis/Bereishit 44 and following): 

“Yoseph said to them, ‘What is this deed that you have done?’ Don’t you know that a man like me practices divination?’ Yehuda replied, ‘What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has found the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, servants of my lord, the rest of us as much as him in whose possession the goblet was found.’ But [Yoseph] said, Far be it for me to do such a thing! Only the one in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my servant; the rest of you should go back up in peace to your father.”

[New parashah here.]

“And Yehuda approached him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, for you are the equal of Phara‘oh.” 

For the sake of brevity, I will not record the sixteen gut-wrenching verses of Yehuda’s telling of their story, emphasizing their father’s suffering, inducing Yoseph to break down and reveal himself to his brothers, but I encourage you to read them on your own

The simple meaning of these verses is that Yehuda, filled with trepidation, pleads desperately and eloquently for mercy on their suffering father, begging the Prime Minister to release Binyamin. The midrashic tradition, however, sees confrontation in Yehuda’s words and tone, as expressed in the following passage in Rashi‘s commentary, explaining Yehuda’s words, “For you are the equal to Phara‘oh” (44:18):

“‘You are as important in my eyes as the king’ – this is the plain meaning. The midrashic reading is: “You will, in the end, be afflicted with leprosy, as Phara‘oh was, when he kept Sarah, my great-grandmother, for one night in the palace.’ Or, another reading: ‘Just as Phara‘oh decrees and does not fulfill his decree, promises and does not perform, so do you. Is this what you meant when you promised to keep your eye on Binyamin?’ Or, another reading:  ‘You are just like Phara‘oh: if you provoke me, I shall kill both you and your master.'”

Rashi includes two different genres of interpretation, the plain meaning (p’shat), reading Yehuda as begging for mercy, and midrash, reading Yehuda as threatening and taunting Yoseph. What does it mean for Rashi to record both interpretations? What does he really think? What is the true meaning of the verse?  

Beneath every text are numerous subtexts. An author creates a text, but does not control the subtexts readers will see through their various pre-existing lenses. The midrashic readings Rashi proposes are voices that Yoseph could have (must have?) heard in Yehuda’s speech. “And Yehuda approached him”: As Yehuda draws near to make his words hit home more personally, whom does Yoseph see? Yehuda is the charismatic leader of the brothers (37:26-27), who showed unanimous hatred for Yoseph when he was a teen (37:4). Yehuda was the one who proposed throwing Yoseph into the pit. Yoseph was not there when Yehuda was humbled by Tamar (38:25-26), so what is aroused for Yoseph when he sees Yehuda approaching him? Despite Yoseph’s awesome power now, has he shaken the fear and trauma of childhood menaces?

When Yehuda speaks, he is begging for mercy from an international monarch. What does Yoseph hear, though? Last week, he named his first-born son Menashe, “because God has made me forget (Nashani) all of my hardship and my parental home” (41:51). One who has genuinely forgotten cannot make a statement like that. Now, the leader of his family comes and tells him that he is like Phara‘oh. Yehuda means to defer humbly to Yoseph’s great stature and authority.  This is the p’shat, the plain, contextual meaning. It is authorial intent. What is triggered for Yoseph, though, when he hears his older brother tell him that he’s just like Phara‘oh?  A shared association for Yoseph and Yehuda with the word “Phara‘oh” is the story they grew up with about God smiting an earlier Phara‘oh with leprosy for holding their great-grandmother Sarah in his house (12:17). To be called Phara‘oh reminds Yoseph where he comes from and how foreign his current identity is; in an Israelite household, “you’re like Phara‘oh” is an accusation. Another subtext is specific to the situation at hand, the question of Binyamin’s future. Yoseph was emotionally stirred seeing his only full brother, Binyamin, the other favorite of their father (43:29-30). When older brother Yehuda approaches and says, regarding Yoseph’s conduct with Binyamin, “You are like Phara‘oh”, Yoseph hears a belligerent subtext of, “You are not a brother, who must be loyal and loving and responsible; you are a whimsical, ruthless Phara‘oh.” Yehuda’s words enter the lens of Yoseph’s ambivalent, conflicted thoughts, to arouse other “texts”. This is Midrash. If, above, I analogized Yehuda to an “author”, then Yoseph, here, is the “reader”. Yehuda’s speech is delivered in conciliatory tones, but heard in combative undertones. Both the p’shat and midrash are “true” and present in the text and this is what Rashi is telling us.

The dynamic between Yehuda and Yoseph goads us toward literary sensitivity, reading texts thickly. It also goads us toward interpersonal and political sensitivity, reading the texts of life thickly. Power dynamics are complex; in any interpersonal dynamic, in the workplace, in communal living, in family, in organizing, in politics, there are multiple power imbalances between parties, often in tension with each other. One person’s p’shat, intended dynamic, is not the other party’s midrash, experience of that dynamic via impact subtexts. All parties must always be reading and living midrashically. 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

2020 Was Tough. These Are The Moments That Got us Through

Animated Gif of slideshow photos from 2020 year

The year 2020 has been filled with challenges. And yet, as we look back on these past 12 months, we can’t help but feel hopeful. This year, we’ve seen Avodah’s graduating and incoming cohorts step up in unprecedented ways to meet the demands of a global crisis head-on, we received a blessing from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, z”l in the form of multiple gifts she made before her passing, and we saw our Avodah community come together over countless Zoom and in-person actions to lead and support incredible advocacy work happening to make our country a more just place for everyone.

We are so proud to share some of the incredible feats and exciting moments we celebrated at Avodah in 2020 and we can’t wait for you to see what we have in store in 2021. Read on to look back on the moments that brought us hope this year.

Avodahniks Lead Frontline COVID-19 Efforts

Over the past 10 months, Avodah participants and alumni faced this global crisis head-on. They’ve served at food banks and shelters through worsening economic disparities, assisted students through unfamiliar online schooling, organized phone banks to demand representatives take action, and much more. Alumni, like medical student Tal Lee, took inspiration from her time as a Corps Member to volunteer with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to help address health disparities in majority African-American neighborhoods of West and North Philadelphia, and recent Justice Fellowship alum, Anna Yankelev, has been serving as Lake County’s Mitigation Chief, just outside of Chicago, monitoring community transmission of the virus and the related consequences, focusing on helping high-risk populations secure access to the resources they need to stay safe and healthy. What’s it been like serving in Avodah during the pandemic? Check out this video.
Tal Lee in P.P.E. medical gear stands next to a nurse at a COVID-19 swab test site with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

RBG Leaves Avodah with Three Gifts to Continue Legacy of “Tikkun Olam”

Like many of you, we were heartbroken by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg was more than a hero to those of us at Avodah and we were humbled to call her a supporter and friend. In the last two years of her life, the late Justice Ginsburg designated three separate gifts to Avodah after receiving several awards for her life’s work. The weight of her legacy was palpable when we received the signed letter on U.S. Supreme Court letterhead, in which she declared that “Avodah is respected by people across the political spectrum for its engagement in real tikkun olam.” We couldn’t have imagined a more meaningful blessing.
Image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with overlaying quote.

Black Lives Matter — Taking Action Beyond Words in Showing Up for Racial Justice

The wave of long-overdue attention on police brutality against black individuals and communities came to a head this summer after video footage of George Floyd‘s murder emerged, intersecting with the height of the pandemic, which has hit communities of color the hardest. We were proud to witness so many Avodah community members show up to demand justice, legal accountability, and police reform in these powerful efforts led by black activists and people of color, including Avodah alum Cydney Wallace (Chicago Justice Fellowship, 2017-2018), co-founder of Kol Or, Jewish Council on Urban Affair’s (JCUA) Jews of Color Caucus. Additionally, our 2019-2020 Chicago cohort raised a whopping $20,000 for Black-led community initiatives through their newly formed Chicago Solidarity Fund. The DC cohort of the same year followed, raising over $1,000 for Black- and trans-led organizations in the DMV area. 

On an organizational level, Avodah has been working for years to address racial inequality, both within our own organization and the larger Jewish world with our Racial Justice Task Force. This fall, we were proud to release our Racial Justice Guide, as a resource for Jewish nonprofit organizations and all stages of organizational leadership. The Racial Justice Guide has been downloaded more than 200 times and is being used by organizations all over the U.S. as a resource for dismantling systems of oppression, along with building more inclusive Jewish communities that truly reflect the rich diversity of the Jewish world. And in 2021, Avodah will open its very first JOC Bayit in New York City. We’re excited to share more about our plans soon!

Cydney Wallace speaks at a Jews for Black Lives event.
Cydney Wallace speaks at a Jews for Black Lives event.

Avodah Board Member Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt Leads RBG Memorial Service

We were moved to tears during the memorial ceremony, when Avodah Board Member, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, gave the eulogy for the late Justice, marking the very first time in history a Hebrew prayer had been recited in the Great Hall. You can watch the full memorial video here, including Rabbi Holtzblatt’s tribute. Rabbi Holtzblatt recently spoke with Avodah participants and supporters about her relationship with RBG and the inspiration she took from her in an intimate conversation with Avodah participants and supporters. You can view a clip from that conversation here. While she was still with us, our Corps Members, had the great honor of thanking Justice Ginsburg for her support in a video we are pleased to share with you here.
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt giving a eulogy for Justice Ginsburg with an overlaid quote.

Avodah’s Role in Historic 2020 Election

The 2020 Presidential Election made history with the highest voter turnout and the highest mail-in ballot turnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With several key swing states on the line, and threats of voter suppression, Avodahniks did their part to ensure voters had the information and access they needed to participate in a fair election. Avodah DC Corps Members Francesca Rubinson and Jordan Pollack traveled to Pennsylvania with placement organization, CASA de Maryland, on Election Day to volunteer as voter guardians for those who might have faced intimidation at the polls due to anti-immigrant sentiment. Together, they helped ensure that all voters had the chance to cast their ballots free from harm. Additionally, Avodah honored New Orleans volunteers Sylvia Finger and Jill Israel, at our virtual 2020 Partners in Justice Event in New Orleans for their outstanding efforts to register more than 9,000 new voters (focusing on Millennial and Gen Z voters) in just two years through their work with the Engaging New Voices & Voters (ENVV) coalition. To add to the celebrations, Avodah Kansas City family member, Ethan Corson, won a seat in the Kansas State Senate. Corson is married to Avodah’s Kansas City Advisory Council Chair, Jenna Brofsky, who was also sworn in to her seat on the Fairway City Council in Kansas earlier this year. Avodah community members are continuing to make calls to Georgia to help get out the vote in the upcoming run-off election with The Workers Circle and the Center for Common Ground.

Corps Members Francesca Rubinson and Jordan Pollack visited Pennsylvania on Election Day to serve as voter guardians for those who might have faced intimidation at the polls.
Jill Israel and Sylvia Finger registering voters outside of a church in New Orleans.

CNN’s David Gregory Joins Partners in Justice Virtual Celebration

More than 400 people attended Avodah’s Virtual Partners in Justice celebration, with special guest David Gregory of CNN in conversation with Avodah alum Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger. Attendees got an in-depth understanding of the disparities the pandemic has been exacerbating and how Avodah’s participants have been stepping up to fulfill the greatest needs of this moment. Click here to relive the celebration and watch our heartwarming Corps Members video here.

Headshot of David Gregory from event.

74 Corps Members Graduate in Pandemic; Another 74 Kick-off their Avodah Journey

In July, we welcomed 74 Corps Members to our Alumni community and just a few weeks later, after an extended quarantine period, another 74 new cohort members moved into the bayit in each of their cities (meet them all here)These cohorts have made a difference in a year like no other. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve continued to provide critical services in the fields of education, healthcare, housing, immigration, legal services, criminal justice reform, domestic violence, and more. These Jewish leaders are making a commitment not only to their clients and communities, but also to one another, following strict COVID-19 protocols, as advised by public health experts. We’re proud that in a time when our work matters most, we have adapted our programs to ensure we mitigate risk every step of the way while continuing to fulfill our mission. Check out this moving video of our Corps Members’ work throughout the pandemic.

Corps Member Ben dropping off supplies at a women's shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Avodah Premieres 6 NEW Speak Torah to Power Talks

Now in its third installation, Avodah launched an incredible six new “Speak Torah to Power” Talks and accompanying curricula, featuring inspiring Jewish leaders including Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, Founder and Director of Edot: The Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative; Nate Looney, Avodah’s Manager of Racial Justice Initiatives and a U.S. Army veteran with a background in urban farming; Founder and CEO of Swipe out Hunger (and Avodah alum!) Rachel Sumekh, who credits her intersectional lens to being raised by her Jewish Iranian immigrant parents; Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, the founder and CEO of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action; Jamie Margolin, a Latinx Jewish teen climate activist and author; and the inimitable Ruth W. Messinger, former CEO of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), who also served in New York City political office for 20 years. Click here to view the entire talk series and download any or all of our Speak Torah to Power curriculum and discussion guides.

Collage of speakers

Coming up in 2021:

In the new year, we’re looking forward to the opening of Avodah’s very first JOC (Jews of color) Bayit, which will provide self-identifying JOCs in our Service Corps the opportunity to live communally as part of a majority in an environment for that is specifically targeted to nurture the leadership of Jews of Color and pave the way for JOCs to lead our community in movements for social justice, if they choose. We’re also excited to launch our San Diego Bayit, which will be Avodah’s first location on the West Coast. In addition, we look forward to sharing more information about Avodah’s new Jewish Justice Institute, a program designed for deep social justice learning for Jewish organizational leaders.

Image of to JOC Corps Members in Avodah T-Shirts

“It Was On Rosh HaShana that Yoseph Was Freed from Prison”: The Death of Prison and the Birth in Release, Parashat Mikketz, 5781/2020

Our parasha begins with Yoseph in prison. Despite his stunning good looks, his charisma, and talents, in the land of Egypt, he is alone, destitute, and vulnerable. Framed for a sexual assault he didn’t commit by someone who actually tried to assault him, but powerless to do anything about it with no clout, Yoseph learns what so many poor people, immigrants, and members of unfavored ethnic groups learn living in widely respected superpowers: truth does not matter in the justice system. The last line of last week’s parasha highlights Yoseph’s abandoned and seemingly hopeless state, when his one potential friend, a prison-mate who knows his story, was freed and restored to his post as Phara‘oh’s butler: “But the chief butler did not remember Yoseph, and he forgot him” (Genesis/Bereishit 40:23). How must Yoseph have felt, already in prison ten years (according to reasonable, Rabbinic calculation), knowing no one, receiving no guests, having no contact with the outside world? So many people in this country must have raw insight into what that may have felt like and how he coped.

And then, he gets his chance. Our parasha opens two years after the butler was released. Phara‘oh has disturbing dreams, is dissatisfied with the interpretations of all the experts in his hire, who are probably used to telling him what they think he wants to hear. The butler finally remembers his prison buddy and tells Phara‘oh about this Hebrew convict who’s good at interpreting dreams. The rest is dramatic history: Yoseph is brought out, interprets the dreams convincingly as a premonition of the next 14 years of agricultural yield for the region, takes a risk and offers a suggestion for to manage plenty followed by famine, and Phara‘oh is impressed, makes him Prime Minister, which will surprisingly end up re-uniting him with his family. That’s all so thrilling that it’s tempting to jump ahead, but I want to dwell on the liberation from prison. “Phara‘oh tells Yoseph, ‘Inasmuch as God has made you know all of this, there is no one as insightful or wise as you” (Bereishit 41:39). He had that insight and wisdom all along, but they didn’t prevent the state from incarcerating him; dumb luck led the state to pay attention.

“It was on Rosh HaShanah that Yoseph was released from prison” (Talmud Bavli, Rosh HaShana 11a-b). The 2nd-Century all-star Sages, Rabbi Eli‘ezer and Rabbi Yehoshu‘a argue over the timing of numerous, significant, mythic events, such as the creation of the universe and the birth and death dates of the Patriarchs, but there is consensus that Rosh HaShana commemorates Yoseph’s liberation from prison. The Talmud’s stated source for this dating is Psalm 81, which equates the festival of shofar blasts with the day Yoseph began his rule over Egypt, leaving behind the slave labor of prison:

(4) Blow the shofar on the new moon, at the covered time of our festival day.

(5) For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the God of Jacob;

(6) As testimony upon Yoseph [God] placed it when he went forth over the land of Egypt; a language that I knew not I now could hear.

(7) I relieved his shoulder of the burden, his hands were removed from the cauldron.

It is tempting to jump to metaphor, as much of our tradition has richly done: Rosh HaShana is the time of rebirth, of possibility, the day “pregnant with eternity”, as we discussed in our Rosh HaShana devar torah, and we will find meaning by seeking release from the “prisons” of bad habits and hurtful choices if only we engage in teshuvah/repentance. That is all true and important, but, I think, inadequate when we do not stay grounded in the literal basis of the metaphor: release from prison.

Prison is always a threat to life itself. In the Talmud, Rav Yehudah taught in the name of Rav that people having survived four different experiences must say the blessing praising God for life-saving “bestowing of lovingkindness” (Birkat HaGomel): seafarers returning from a journey, travelers returning from the desert, one who recovered from a serious illness, and “someone who was incarcerated in prison, and left” — seemingly regardless of whether they were released or escaped (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 54b). Being alive and safe for people with those experiences is not continuous with life the day before in the ways that it is for everyone else. It is a rupture, a rebirth, because in those conditions, death was always lurking. Prison, in that sense, is a contingent, capital punishment. The significantly higher rates of infection and death from COVID among incarcerated people is only another, contemporary example of a phenomenon that has been true for generations. Escaping the kind of mortal threat posed by prison requires a special, unusual blessing capturing the feeling that life, in that case, feels not natural, but supernatural.

One influential sage there, Abaye, even added that this blessing must be said publicly. Perhaps the reborn person needs that public affirmation to verify that they are truly, and not metaphorically, alive. Perhaps the community needs to confront some hard truths about mortality more widely by hearing and validating the dangerous experiences we’d like to hide in the shadows, none more than prison. This burden does not fall just on those who have survived these trials, though. The liturgy records a list of blessings to be recited by every Jew every morning upon waking and getting ready for the day (Birkot HaShahar). One of these blessings is “Praised are You, YHWH our God, Cosmic Majesty, Releaser of the Imprisoned (matir assurim).” Yes, sleep is a kind of prison, when we are vulnerable. But that from which we draw understanding of our constant vulnerability is the literal experience of incarceration.

The second blessing of the ‘Amidah prayer, recited three times daily praises God for “reviving the dead” (mehayeh ha-meitim). Much ink was spilled in the Jewish 20th Century about whether that blessing should be said by those who don’t literally believe in a supernatural God who literally restores literal dead people to literal life. Lost in those discussions was the Biblical and Rabbinic recognition of states of “walking dead”, of the experience of being left for dead, yet sometimes making it. The three phrases capturing this reality in the blessing are clauses recognizing the Holy One for “supporting the fallen, healing the sick, and releasing the imprisoned (matir assurim)”. Will dead people come back to life from the grave one day? I don’t know. But we, the living, willingly leave other living people for dead in prison. When they make it out, it’s the stuff of miracles, and I can’t understand the meaning of life without facing up to the reality of prison. At least one early midrash identifies release from prison as the basic expression of our needs, if we boil all the requests of the ‘Amidah done to their core:

“Even the 18 blessings that the first prophets established for Israel to pray every day, they didn’t open with the needs of Israel until they opened with the praise of God: ‘The great, mighty and awesome God. Holy are you and awesome is your name.’ Afterward: ‘Who releases the imprisoned’, and afterward: ‘who heals the sick’ and afterward: ‘We are grateful to you’” (Sifrei Devarim #343).

God frees incarcerated people. That’s Who we say God is and who God expects us to be. As Rabbi Elie Kaunfer put it:

“This phrase also offers us another example of God modeling something that we can do in the world before it is redeemed: freeing the captives. God tells us that we are a light unto the nations, and that involved freeing those who are in prison,” quoting the prophet Isaiah: “I, YHWH, have summoned you in justice, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light to nations, opening eyes deprived of light, Rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6-7).

Today, the 155th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery, but codifies its legitimacy as punishment for crime, let’s get to work on repairing a justice system that operates on the most expansive system of slavery in world history. On this day, when we read of our ancestor leaving the death of prison and being reborn, let us take to heart the teaching of our Sages, that it is the release from prison that constitutes the Day of Judgment, a central name for Rosh HaShana. Building a righteous justice system means proliferating life and releasing the incarcerated.

Shabbat shalom.

Power, Responsibility, and Civil Disobedience: the Story of Yehuda and Tamar

This week’s parasha is the first installment of the enthralling riches-to-rags-to-riches saga of the life of Yoseph. This epic power story unfolds uninterrupted for three weeks, with the exception of chapter 38, in the middle of our parasha. At a moment of high drama, after spoiled, favorite child Yoseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, the narrative abandons Yoseph as he’s trafficked to Egypt, to stick around Cana‘an and show us what happened to one brother, Yehuda. The Yehuda story, far from a diversion, contains essential keys to open up the surrounding stories — of Yoseph in particular, of the Tanakh as a whole, and maybe even of us and our understandings of power, responsibility, and civil disobedience.

Yehuda, the fourth son of Ya‘akov and Leah, is the de facto leader of the family. When the brothers plot to kill Yoseph, two of them try to de-escalate and interrupt the murder. Reuven, the eldest and expected leader, has good intentions, convincing them to throw Yoseph into a pit, so that he can later save him. He acts alone: having no cachet with his brothers, he keeps his plans to himself, not trusting the force of his character and reason to influence them (37:21-22), and his plan fails. Yehuda’s intervention is not so well intentioned: “What do we profit by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh” (37:26-27)? Yehuda, though, speaks convincingly to his brothers. Reuven’s intervention was prefaced with “And Reuven heard [his brothers’ plot]”; his words are only a reaction to his brothers. By contrast, as soon as Yehudah speaks, “And his brothers heard”: they follow him. 

What happens after they sell their brother into slavery?  “And it was at this time that Yehuda went down from his brothers and turned away toward an Adullamite man” (38:1-2). He marries an unnamed Cana‘anite woman, which we know was a cause for distress in their family (eg, 24:3 and 28:8). She quickly bears three sons, to whom he gives names without explanation or significance (38:3-5), unlike his ancestors, brothers, and himself, for whom names signified meaning and were usually bestowed by women. Yehuda has excess power, but is running away from family and responsibility, and really, from himself.  (I thank Rabbanit Sally Mayer for points in this paragraph.) 

He marries off his first son, ‘Er, to a woman named Tamar, but God gets mad at the son and kills him (38:6-7). Following the “law” of levirate marriage (Devarim 25:5-6), Yehuda marries the widow Tamar to his second son, Onan. “But Onan knew that the seed would not be his, and when he came into his brother’s wife, he spilled his seed on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother,” so God kills him, too (38:8-10). Onan’s sin is avoiding responsibility, turning inward when life calls for turning outward. Like father, like son. We can imagine the hot gossip in town: Why did two brothers die in bed with Tamar? Of course, she’ll be blamed. Yehuda exiles her to sit as a widow in her father’s house, ostensibly to wait for the third son, Shelah, to reach marriage age, but, c’mon. Tamar’s been abandoned (38:11), cast away and scapegoated for the sins of men.

Time passes, Yehuda’s still-unnamed wife dies, and without even mourning for her, he goes sheep-shearing with the guys. Prof. Nahum Sarna points out that springtime sheep-shearing was an arduous task demanding enormous manpower, which was concluded in the Ancient Near East with debaucherous revelry, celebrations of male virility proportional to the physically strenuous blitz of work over the previous week (new JPS commentary, here). The Rabbis pick up on this, noting three villains, Naval, Lavan, and Avshalom, whom the Tanakh mentions going to sheep-shearing (Bereishit Rabbah 85:6). On cue, Yehuda, fresh from burying his wife, sleeps with the first prostitute he sees, who is, in fact, a disguised Tamar. Shrewdly understanding her fate in the hands of powerful men and using what she’s got to force him to restore her into the community, she asks for clear identifying signs as collateral while he procures his payment. Yehuda, on the run from his life, casually hands over his signet ring, staff, and cord, the most basic symbols of familial identity and authority, to an anonymous, out-of-town prostitute (38:14-19).

When the community notices that the widowed Tamar is pregnant, Yehuda flamboyantly orders her to be brought out and burned, displacing his own death wish onto the bodies of women, as men have done for centuries. In a high moment of Biblical drama, Tamar, on the stake, produces Yehuda’s collateral possessions and announces that the father of the baby is the owner of these objects: “Recognize, please,” to whom these objects belong; “And Yehudah recognized and he said, ‘she is more righteous than I’” (38:24-26). Tamar is saved, twins are born, and Yehuda is a changed man. The rest of the Yoseph story is just as much the Yehuda story, as he continuously asserts selfless leadership in protecting his brothers and his broken father.

Yehuda always had charisma, but he becomes the dynastic head of the Jewish people only when he directs his behavior toward the well-being of others, publicly acknowledges his moral failures, and elevates the righteousness, knowledge, and leadership of those he has hurt, those closest to the crisis. Later, when dying Ya‘akov gives his final charge to his sons, he says, “Yehuda, you are the one whom your brothers will acknowledge” (49:8), using a play on Yehuda’s name which means “thank” or “acknowledge”, as in “todah”. The 1st Century translator Onkelos the Convert adds three words into his Aramaic translation: “…because you admitted and were not ashamed to do so” (49:8). Yehuda’s esteem, his very name, derives from acknowledgement of wrong-doing. 

Yehuda did not come around on his own. He was a star in a patriarchy that rewarded his irresponsibility. He repents when Tamar forces him, publicly, to confront his violence and his identity and mission. She violates house arrest, goes undercover, lures Yehuda into illicit sex, secures proof, and interrupts her execution trial to nail him. Yehuda’s “lawful” actions corrupted the actual (Divine) law; Tamar’s “unlawful” actions restored the actual (Divine) law. Through her civil disobedience, Tamar mirrors Yehuda back to himself. Her language when she shows Yehudah his property — “Recognize, please (Hakker-na)” to whom these objects belong — echoes his own speech patterns. In 37:32, the brothers, having taken Yehuda’s advice to sell Yoseph, spill goat’s blood on his coat and send it to their father, saying, “Recognize, please (Hakker-na), whether this is your son’s coat or not” (Bereishit Rabbah 84:19). Even Tamar’s cadence, as dramatized by the Torah chanting tropes, mirrors Yehuda’s when he contracts for her sexual services, (38:16-18). (I thank Rabbi Wendy Amsellem for this observation.) 

When Tamar turns Yehuda’s collateral objects over to him, she shows him who he is supposed to be. A midrash notes that signet seals, cords, and staffs are associated in the Bible with the throne, the judiciary, and the messiah, saying that Tamar manifested Divine inspiration in choosing them (Bereishit Rabbah 85:9): Yehuda could be destined for greatness, but, in the wake of using his charisma to sell his own brother into slavery, he has justified his failures with ever snowballing injury to those close to him. Tamar brings him to follow her back on that path to greatness, which only grows out of local, personal responsibility for those closest to him.

Law must be just. When representatives of law abuse their power, it is the lawful responsibility of the abandoned to subvert that social order in order to restore justice. The Torah conveys this message powerfully. The end of the book of Ruth records the genealogy back from Peretz, Yehuda and Tamar’s son, through Bo‘az and Ruth, and down to King David, and therefore, the Messiah. The Talmud (Sotah 10b) also points out that the prophet Isaiah, our most poignant prophet of liberation, descends from David, and, therefore, from Yehuda and Tamar. Majesty, prophecy, and Messianic redemption: Tamar oozed liberation from the sidelines of society. How many other Tamars have we missed?

Shabbat shalom.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On: Talking about Violence and Power — Devar Torah for Parashat VaYishlah

This week, we’re going to talk about violence. It will take us a little more time than usual, as this loaded topic may require, and I offer a content warning that this essay and the texts in it refer to violence, including sexual violence. This week’s parashah tells of perhaps the Torah’s most morally complicated episode of vigilante justice. After Ya‘akov and his big family acrimoniously, but safely, part ways with dishonest Uncle Lavan and head back to the Old Country, Ya‘akov fearfully confronts his estranged twin brother ‘Esav, who wanted to murder him last they saw each other, but it goes well, and they reconcile! The clan settles in a town called Shekhem, purchases the land “from the children of Hamor, Shekhem’s father”, dedicates it with an altar to God (Bereishit/Genesis 33:18-20), and all seems good and well, until it all falls apart, destabilizing any sense of the safety of “home”.

I. An Assault and a Massacre: A Power Analysis of Bereishit/Genesis 34 

Ya‘akov and Leah’s daughter Dinah “went out to see the girls of the land” (34:1). While she was out, that same Shekhem after whom the city is named, and whose father is now identified as “Chief of the Land — נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ”, “saw her, and took her and laid her, abused her” (34:2). While there is some question among commentators and scholars as to the nature of Shekhem’s crime in the eyes of the Biblical author, for our purposes, we’ll suffice to say that the language points to sexual assault or rape, and that is how many commentators have understood it (eg, the Ramban). As I summarize and describe the continuation of the story, pay attention to Dinah and to the power relationships between different characters.  

Shekhem then wants to marry Dinah and asks his father to acquire her for him as wife. The narrator calls Dinah a na‘arah, indicating a teen or so; Shekhem, speaking to his father, calls her a yaldah, a little girl (34:3-4). Word gets out about what happened: Ya‘akov hears, but does nothing until his sons come back from work (34:5). Governor Hamor goes to speak with Ya‘akov (34:6). Meanwhile, the brothers hear what happened, become incensed, and rush home (34:7). The Governor proposes the marriage to Ya‘akov and sons, adding that their family should fully assimilate into the majority, in marriage, residence, and finances (34:8-10). The text does not say how Ya‘akov or the brothers heard: the word seems to be out. Dinah’s brothers, Shim‘on and Levi, demur, saying that the family could agree to the marriage only if every man in the town got circumcised; if not, “let us take our daughter and go”. The narrator tells us that they were speaking “deceitfully”, implying that it was a ruse to get out of the crisis, that they expected the Governor to decline, and hopefully, restore Dinah to her family (34:13-17). Likely to everyone’s surprise, the Governor and his son like the plan, agree to it, and immediately go and tell their townsmen to agree, emphasizing the great wealth of Ya‘akov’s family, which will be absorbed into the community if this gets legitimated. So they did it, all of them (34:18-24). We don’t hear how Ya‘akov’s family reacted immediately, but on the third day after the mass circumcision, “when they were in pain, Shim‘on and Levi, two of Ya’akov’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each one his sword, came upon the city powerfully, and killed all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shekhem by sword, took Dinah out of Shekhem’s house, and left” (34:25-26). Then the other sons ransack the city, kidnapping women and children as captives, and raiding property, but Ya‘akov expresses outrage not at the brothers, but only at Shim‘on and Levi, for ruining him and putting the family in danger with future neighbors. Shim‘on and Levi get the last word, for now: “should our sister be treated like a whore?!” (34:27-31).

How should we understand this extreme act of violence by Shim‘on and Levi? On one hand, massacring half the adult population of an entire city seems awfully extreme. The instinct to eschew violence is a good, moral instinct. But the opposition to violence has to propose actual, preferable, alternative, non-violent strategies and explain how they stood to be effective. Otherwise, non-violence isn’t a moral theory, but bourgeois escapism from confronting the abundant violence that surrounds us and from which a small number of us are able to hide our eyes. 

Let’s do a power analysis: first, Dinah’s voice and desires are glaringly absent from this story. It’s tempting to chalk this up to the Tanakh’s general androcentrism and sexism, but Biblical androcentrism mainly takes the form of not introducing women in the first place and when it does, often having them serve interests of men, and never interacting with each other about topics other than men: the Torah does not pass the Bechdel Test. When the Torah does introduce women to the story, however, they are often verbal and active, including elsewhere in this week’s parasha. Dinah’s silence is thematic. In verse 26, at the end of the massacre, we read that Shim‘on and Levi took Dinah out of Shekhem’s house, which tells us that throughout that long negotiation, for this whole time, since the assault, Dinah has been held captive in the house. How does that affect your assessment of the massacre? Maybe it was justified to kill her captors, the Governor and his son, but notice that they killed every man in the town before reaching the Governor’s mansion. This implies, as logic would indicate, that the house was in the deepest, most central, best fortified part of town. If they did, somehow, make it to the house and perform a daring rescue mission, with or without killing the rapist/kidnapper and his enabling Governor father, how would they get out? Was there a method to rescue Dinah without all the bloodshed? These verses must inform how we go back and re-read the negotiation. The Governor’s civility masks the brutal violence he is committing at that very moment, talking of coming together in harmony, to the family of the captive currently trapped in his house. The negotiations are a farce; the Governor is making Ya‘akov ‘an offer he can’t refuse’. People in power can hide, sanitize, or justify their violence, controlling the public narrative along the way. Make no mistake, though; it is violence. 

Dinah’s silence is critical; Shim‘on and Levi understand exactly what’s happening: the Governor’s son, accustomed to taking what he wants and getting away with it, rapes an immigrant and asks Daddy to make it legit. This is the Governor’s interest, too, which the brothers understand: Either way, your sister is not coming back; we can do this the nice way, and it will be a state marriage at the additional cost of your identity and wealth, or, we’ll do it the not-nice way. People will talk — they’re already talking, as we know, since Ya‘akov and sons heard about it. Dinah will be Shekhem’s concubine as long as she’s useful, until she’s not, at which point she’ll be blamed, defamed, slut-shamed, cast-away, and destroyed. Their choice is clear. They can’t prosecute, they can’t sue, they can’t vote, much as immigrants, outsiders, and poor people often have no recourse to any of these theoretically universal levers of power. The moderate in this story, the voice of anti-violence, Ya‘akov, commits the violence of washing his hands of his daughter. His non-action is thematized and from this moment through the rest of the book, he loses control of his family to his sons. Non-violence is a powerful, effective strategy when a violent oppressor can be exposed and when the oppressor cares about being exposed. But where there are no cameras and the Governor controls the narrative, in such a world of violence, there is no non-violent alternative, just different paths of violence. Violence is just not the same on both sides of a power divide. 

II. Violence and the Criminal Justice System

Most of the Torah and Rabbinic literature address the specific responsibilities of the Jewish people. The Talmud does take care, though, to deduce from the early chapters of the Torah Divine commandments for all of humanity. These are known as the Seven Commandments for descendants of Noah, ie, for everyone, and constitute basic pillars of social organization without which a body politic cannot be deemed civilized: 1) Civil laws; and prohibitions on 2) Blasphemy; 3) Idolatry; 4) Incest; 5) Bloodshed; 6) Robbery/kidnapping (both captured by one word in Hebrew, גזל-gezel); 7) and tearing a limb from a living animal (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 56a). Peoples will testify to their revelations and divine truths; we have no reason not to take them at their word unless they violate one of these core laws.

What does the Talmud mean when it says “Civil laws” (one word in Hebrew, דינין-dinin)? In his codification of the Seven Noahide Laws, the great medieval sage of Jewish law and philosophy, the Rambam (1135-1204, Egypt), defines “civil laws” concisely: “And in what way are people commanded with regard to civil law? They are obligated to seat judges and magistrates in each and every municipality, to adjudicate those six mitzvot, and to warn the people.” Every body politic must have a functioning justice system, in name and in deed. The Rambam continues, explaining the consequences, theoretical though they may be, of a society failing to adhere to these seven basic laws: “And a descendant of Noah who violates one of these seven commandments must be killed by the sword.” The Rambam does not end there, but quite uncharacteristically adds an explanatory aside not grounded in any Talmudic text: “and for this reason, all the people of Shekhem were liable for the death penalty, for after all, Shekhem kidnapped, and they saw it, knew about it, and did not prosecute him” (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Melakhim 9:14). Kidnapping is a capital crime and not operating a justice system is a capital crime. The rich kid kidnapped someone, everyone knew about it, and the state didn’t prosecute him. That state does not have a functioning justice system — it’s a state governed by bloodshed — so its inhabitants are liable for the death penalty. 

According to the Rambam, is everyone in the state of New York liable for the death penalty? Police officer Daniel Pantaleo murdered Eric Garner, everyone saw it, the coroner ruled it a homicide, and the state did not prosecute the murder. Is there any state in the U.S. about which we could not ask this question? According to the Rambam, is there a criminal justice system anywhere in the U.S.? How widely is it taken for granted that powerful people, whether via money or political clout, will not be held accountable for their crimes against poor people? If a couple of extremists, like Shim‘on and Levi, were to destroy the whole state, killing everyone in sight, would they actually be murderers? According to the Rambam, is anyone innocent? 

The Rambam’s position is actually pretty controversial in halakhic jurisprudence and was criticized harshly by the RambaN (1194-1270, Girona, Spain) and students of his school. According to them, the Noahide law of “civil laws” refers to various, specific, core civil laws, such as prohibitions on judges taking bribes or knowingly issuing a corrupt ruling. “Civil laws” can include civilians to the extent that they are included in the judicial system, such as giving false testimony or, in our time, ruling dishonestly on a jury. A disciple of Ramban’s approach, Rabbeinu Nissim (aka, The Ra”N, 1320-76, Girona) explains, “But the citizens who were sitting and keeping to themselves, and did not establish judges in each and every city and jurisdiction, are not liable for the death penalty, to actually be physically executed”; it is a positive responsibility on everyone to set up a justice system, but individuals cannot possibly bear capital responsibility for the failure to do so. I think it’s terrible what that cop did to Eric Garner, but what do you expect me to do about it!? The Ra”N continues: “Moreover, [the Rambam’s statement] is difficult to me, because in Shekhem’s place, it’s possible that there were judges, but since Shekhem, son of Hamor, lorded over them, they couldn’t prosecute him.” In the Jewish legal tradition, when there is pushback at the opinion that all citizens give up their right to life when their state doesn’t have a justice system, that pushback ends up justifying itself by accepting the reality of different justice systems for powerful people and regular people. If we won’t acknowledge that we’re all mortally culpable for the unpunished murders of Fred Hampton, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Loreal Tsingine, Kayden Clarke, and the rest, are we, necessarily, accepting that police and other powerful people cannot be expected to be subject to the justice system? The Rambam established his high bar for personal culpability even not in the context of a democratic society. The Ra”N, too, objected in a non-democratic world. How does this dispute translate when prosecutors are elected, when police contracts are ratified by elected officials? How much blood is on our hands? How would we act differently if we truly thought that blood was on our hands?

My instinct is to be horrified by Shim‘on and Levi’s massacre, but if I really face it, that’s because I can’t see myself in it. I can more comfortably hear the marriage negotiations as a cordial, civilized discussion than I can imagine myself carrying out the bloodshed necessary for the rescue mission. My whole life, I’ve been taught to identify with power, even as it exploits and murders poor people, profits off their blood, and calls it freedom. I’ve bought into the fraud of gentility. I’ve been shocked by Shim‘on and Levi while I didn’t even notice that Dinah was held hostage in the Governor’s mansion by her rapist and everyone knew about it. The Torah leaves clues elsewhere that Shim‘on and Levi were not nice guys; we will return to them later in the year, with God’s help. But the extent to which we eschew zealots and sociopaths like them and don’t want them to monopolize bravery is the extent to which we must say J’accuse to the reasonable people, the moderates, like Ya‘akov, maybe like us, who did absolutely nothing to try to rescue Dinah. The extent to which we’re bothered by the massacre must be less than the extent that we’re bothered by state violence. The violence did not start with Shim‘on and Levi massacring the city. What do we even mean by our revulsion at violence, if we only or primarily direct that revulsion at those responding violently to the violence done to them? If we’re going to teach non-violence, we have to teach power. Ta-Nehisi Coates put it sharply during the 2015 Baltimore uprising, after the police murder of Freddie Gray: “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con” (The Atlantic, “Non-violence as Compliance”, April 27, 2015).

The blunt ending to this story is a challenge: what do we really think about violence, especially for people who have been robbed of every non-violent recourse by oppressors whose own violence is not treated as a scandal? 

Shabbat shalom.

Is Lying Ever Justified? Devar Torah for Parashat Toledot

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein Avodah, 5781

It seems intuitive that truthfulness should be paramount in religious life and in fact, the Torah teaches bluntly in the civil code, “From a lying word stay far away” (Exodus/Sh’mot 23:7). This mitzvah is directed to judges; in our own world, we can relate all too easily with the sense of public crisis when judicial or governmental authorities lie. However, Rabbinic tradition understands this mitzvah to apply to the general public, as well (eg, Midrash Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishma‘el on the verse). Against the backdrop of the Torah’s concern for honesty, we face a problem in this week’s parashah: our two ancestral protagonists, Rivka and her favorite son, Ya‘akov, intentionally deceive their spouse/father, Yitzhak, taking advantage of his vulnerability as a blind person to dupe him into giving Ya‘akov the favored blessing intended for his older twin brother ‘Esav (Bereshit/Genesis 27).

It’s not necessarily a problem for Biblical “heroes” to do bad things; the Tanakh (Bible) is a literarily rich work with complex characters who make mistakes. The medieval sage Ramban even, famously, says that slavery in Egypt was a punishment for Avram exposing his wife Sarai to sexual abuse by telling the Egyptian king that she was his sister (comment to Bereishit/Genesis 12:10). However, there are some literary cues in the Rivka-Ya‘akov story suggesting that their deception should be seen as justified. For one thing, God told Rivka during her difficult pregnancy that the elder twin would end up subordinate to the younger (Bereishit/Genesis 25:23). For whatever Divine reason, Ya‘akov is supposed to get that blessing; we can’t address the dishonesty without addressing what made Yitzhak, from the very beginning (ibid., 25:28), completely miss the Divine message and what barriers prevented Rivka from communicating with him or prevented him from hearing her. Furthermore, halakhah, like other legal systems, recognizes that a transaction carried out under false pretenses (in Hebrew, a “mekah ta‘ut) is void; the irreversibility of Ya‘akov’s blessing suggests that the deception here was righting some other wrong, and therefore valid.

Moreover, the language and structure of this story mirror another tale of deception, the story of the snake enticing Havah (aka, Eve) to eat from the forbidden fruit of the garden, which she and Adam do, earning them expulsion from ‘Eden (ibid., 2:25-3:24). Adam and Havah were naked. As a result of the snake’s deception, they violate God’s word through eating and become aware, such that they could no longer bear to be naked, forever-after wearing clothing. Here, Rivka has Ya‘akov put on ‘Esav’s clothing in order to deceive his father, clouding his awareness as to his identity, in order to feed him food and receive a blessing, in order to fulfill God’s word. The snake story is explicitly a story of sin and punishment; the Rivka story is its mirror image, suggesting an undoing or repair of that previous wrongdoing. 

I have lots of theories as to why Rivka couldn’t communicate with Yitzhak, but let’s bracket them and just consider: what if she knew something to be true, but Yitzhak held power and was corrupting that truth, refusing to accept her just testimony? When the reigning regime is falsehood, do the same rules of truth apply to those with less power? When they go low, is it just to go high? I would like to claim gently and carefully that the Torah’s requirements of truthfulness are not absolute, but serve a larger goal of preventing hurt and abuse. There may be situations in which straying from a local truth can be the best way to accomplish the larger truth.

Consider a few examples in which halakhah (Jewish law) allows or requires us to stray from truth. Generally, deception or mental fraud (“geneivat da‘at”), is forbidden, such as doing or saying anything to deceive another person into thinking that you did something for them if, in fact, you didn’t do it. Don’t take credit for things you didn’t do, creating a sense of indebtedness. For example, if I happen to run into you on the street, I can’t lie and tell you that I was coming specifically to see you. However, the Talmud (Hullin 94b) tells a piquant story of rabbis running into each other, the upshot of which is that if I unnecessarily assume that you came specifically to see me, you shouldn’t burst my bubble. I misled myself in order to feel good and you shouldn’t correct me.

There is a bruising dispute among 2nd century Rabbis as to whether arbitration in monetary disputes is preferable to a court decision, or an absolute perversion of justice: if I say you owe me $1,000 and you say you don’t, and an arbitrator brings us to settle for a $300 payment, we have definitely done falsehood; no one thinks you actually owed me $300. Nevertheless, halakhah rules that arbitration is preferable, if the parties are willing to work out a settlement instead of going to court (Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 12:2). 

More broadly, the Talmud teaches elsewhere (Yevamot 65b), that one is permitted to change the truth for the sake of peace, citing Yoseph’s brothers’ white lie (Bereishit/Genesis 50:16-17). Fearing that the only reason Yoseph has been kind to them is for the sake of their father Ya‘akov, but that now that father is dead, Yoseph would kill them, they lie and tell him that before dying, Ya‘akov had sent a message commanding Yoseph to forgive them. The Talmud sees that lie as a model for human behavior when necessary to keep peace.

Another Talmudic passage (Bava Metzia‘ 23b-24a) teaches that one is permitted to lie regarding “tractate, bed, and being a houseguest”. Rashi explains that if someone asks whether you have mastered a certain tractate of Talmud, or had sex last night, or had a wonderful experience being hosted in so-and-so’s home, you may answer “no”, even if the truthful answer is “yes”. The Talmud recognizes that sometimes people ask questions they have no business asking, goading you into competitive boasting, which distorts the purpose of learning; encroaching on your privacy, goading you into uncouth violation of intimacy; or trying to find out whose generosity can be exploited.

Think about these laws through a power lens. You’re never allowed to deceive someone into thinking you did something for them, because that gives you power over them; they owe you something. But if they unnecessarily tell themself that you did it for them, it’s because that feeling of connection is what they need. It doesn’t weaken them in relation to you; it strengthens them, allows them to feel stronger social bonds. Perhaps a reason we favor arbitration is a sober recognition that, despite our best efforts, the court system is not always fair and does not neutralize power imbalances. A more powerful plaintiff is likely to be able to overwhelm a weaker defendant and the court itself, extracting an undeserved verdict. A more powerful defendant is likely to be able to hobble the court with procedural stalling, dragging out proceedings to an unsustainable point for the weaker plaintiff. The justice system does not always do justice; arbitration offers a lane of quicker, partial restitution. Yoseph’s brothers are our model for sanctioned white lies for “peace”. They were famine refugees at the mercy of the state’s finance minister (their brother, Yoseph), who held their lives in their hands. Finally, in the “tractate, bed, houseguest” case, the concern seems to be about preserving or restoring appropriate boundaries from someone who has aggressively crossed them. When real truth is for a question not to be asked, lying in response to the question serves the greater truth and limits the power of someone abusing it. 

This idea is dangerous and we must be sensitive to potential abuse we may be justifying. Our story still leaves us wondering why the Torah never depicts Rivka telling Yitzhak what God told her about their sons. When dishonesty is justified, many things have already gone wrong. Maybe Yitzhak, in his state after the ‘Akeidah (binding), simply could not communicate about family matters. Be that as it may, truth is not an end to itself, but a means to the larger end of doing good. We cannot hurt another person and feel justified because, “after all, I told the truth”. Real, ultimate truth is when goodness flows like a mighty stream that reaches everyone.

Shabbat shalom.