Here Comes That Loser Dreamin’ Joe #letsthrowhiminapit

There is a lot with which I do not agree with our current President. We have different approaches to policy and leadership. He has taken many actions, in his personal life and as our President, that I find highly problematic, most recently the move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which turns against decades of foreign policy and will only inflame tensions in the area and serve as an obstacle for peace.

But the one thing that bothers me the most, that gets into my gut and makes me emotionally upset in addition to intellectually repulsed, is the name calling.

Crooked Hillary. Lyin’ Ted. Rocket Man. Pocahontas. Little Marco. Crazy Bernie.

Add to this to the general insults: “failing,” “loser,” “goofy,” “phony,” “lightweight.” Too many to name here. (The New York Times has cataloged them all.)

These get to me because they are not governance philosophies nor are they differences of opinion. They are, simply, the words of a bully. Donald Trump engages in bullying behavior, those who support him condone it, and we as a society are seeing the normalization of it.

The bullying behavior affects me on two levels. I still remember the name of my bully in summer camp. I went away for eight weeks over the summer for several years growing up, and while I had friends and a good time, I did have for a few years a bully who targeted me. I don’t even remember the basis for the abuse. I dealt with him, confronted him at times, had support from adults, and eventually moved to a different camp (for totally unrelated reasons).

But it also affects me for the simple reason that it is hurtful and unkind, and as someone who values compassion, lovingkindness, and respect, this behavior violates my core values and my view of what it means to be a human being.

This week in our Torah reading we begin the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was the favored of the twelve sons of Jacob, who doted on him and gave him a special coat. This did not endear him to his brothers. Neither did the fact that Joseph had dreams that appeared to foretell that he would rise above the rest of his family, and he would relate these dreams to his brothers.

The brothers grew to hate Joseph, and one day as they were out pasturing their flocks, Jacob sent Joseph to check on them. When they say him coming, they conspired to kill him, and said, “Here comes that dreamer (ba’al hachalomot)! Come now, let’s throw him into one of the pits, and we can say ‘a savage beast devoured him.'” (Genesis 37:19-20)

When I read this story these days, I can’t help but read this phrase “ba’al hachalomot” as an epithet along the lines of a Trump insult tweet. The eleven don’t refer to their brother by his name, but a name. “That dreamer” they said. They might as well have said, “Dreamin’ Joe!” What they didn’t say was “Joseph.”

What follows after calling him by this name is the plan to first kill him, and then eventually sell him into slavery. Indeed, perhaps the brothers are able to go through with their plan because they had already dehumanized him by calling him names. Simple lack of kindness can grow and fester and feeds upon itself. Small hurts can lead to large hurts.

Our task is to fight that normalization of bullying behavior that we are seeing in the  contemporary public square. Our task is to remember the simple acts of kindness that humanize each other. Our task is to use each other’s names.

Hearing Dinah’s Silence

The news has been a cascade of allegations, resignations and firings. Men, mostly in the media, have been accused of sexual harassment and assault, and have lost their positions: Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose and others. Political figures have also been accused, though their removal is more difficult.

And following all these accusations have been the statements: denials, apologies, contriteness, acknowledgement of pain, commitment to change. The New York Times even ran an in-depth analysis of all of the apologies and the language used, reading between the lines to get at the real meaning of the statements.

And yet, even as we pore over these statements, we are still only paying attention to the voices of men, of the accused. And that perpetuates the problem.

This week in the Torah portion we have our own story of sexuality and power. Jacob and his family are living in in Canaan on land purchased from the family of Hamor, the leader of the local tribe. Dinah, the one daughter among Jacob’s twelve sons, goes out to visit with the other women of the area. When she does so, Shechem, the son of Hamor, sees her and, as the Torah says, “lays with her and degraded her.” Shechem then realized he had feelings for her, and wanted to marry her.

When they heard the news, Jacob and his sons were furious, and so when Hamor approached Jacob about Shechem marrying Dinah, the sons reply that they can not give her over to marry someone who is not circumcised. If everyone in the tribe is circumcised, then they will agree that Shechem can marry Dinah. They agree, and all the males in the tribe are circumcised. As they are recovering, Simeon and Levi, two of the brothers, entered the city and killed all the men, including Hamor and Shechem, and took Dinah. The other sons then go and plunder the whole city, stealing all of the flocks and wealth, and even the women and children.

When Jacob learns what his sons have done he is upset for he now believes that he will be a target, and that the other residents of the area will turn against him. Simeon and Levi reply, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

It’s a powerful and deeply troubling story. There are multiple layers to this story and it has been read in multiple ways. It is unclear what has even happened at the beginning of the story: was this a case of forcible rape? Or is the source of the “degradation” something else? Are the brothers upset because they feel their sister was sexually violated in general, or because she had sex with someone from outside the tribe, or because they are viewing her as property and that her value has decreased?

All of these are problematic, and yet perhaps the most problematic element of the story is that we can only speculate because the only voice that is not heard is Dinah’s.

What was Dinah’s experience of her relationship with Shechem? What did Dinah want? How did she feel when she was “taken” from Shechem’s house by her brothers (an act which also has overtones of force)? We do not know. All we have is the voices of the men: of Shechem and Hamor, of Simeon and Levi, of Jacob, and of the “objective narrator,” which we can presume to be a man or men.

From the beginning, the perpetrators Shechem and Hamor objectify and characterize Dinah’s experience in a way that suits their frame and their needs. This is to be expected. But the words and actions of Simeon and Levi prove also that even Dinah’s “protectors”—her brothers—act out of their own interest and frame her experience on their terms. It is in their mind that she is “treated like a whore,” Dinah is not given the chance to express her own views of the matter. She is treated as an object by both sides.

That fact reminds us today that all of these apologies issued by these recently accused men, which, even in an attempt to rectify the situations, have the effect of turning the attention away from the women who were harassed and assaulted and puts it squarely back on the men themselves.

With all of these recent stories, it’s quite possible that we have reached a new level in how we as a society talk of sexual assault and the general harassment of women. This week’s Torah portion both reminds us that this is an ancient challenge, and also gives us a means of approaching it in new ways. Dinah’s story reminds us of the need to make space for women to raise up their own voices, and to end—in word and deed—the objectification of women from both the offenders and the defenders.

Jacob and Laban: How Not to Do Healthcare

This week I wrote the “Torah from T’ruah”–a reflection on the weekly Torah portion for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. T’ruah is an organization that is doing important social justice work, and I am proud to be counted among their chaverim (partners)

Click here to read the post on their website.

A few months ago I received a letter from my health insurance company telling me that they were cancelling my insurance plan, and that as of December 31 I would have to find new coverage. I was not alone in this scenario, as this particular company cancelled plans in several counties in my state. The reason, as the letter stated, was “instability in the market.”

As a rabbi of a smaller congregation, I need to find my insurance either through the health exchange or the individual market. I found my current plan on the individual market last year, as it seemed like the best fit for my family. But with the current administration withholding the subsidies that offset the costs for low-income beneficiaries, and with the general threats directed at the Affordable Care Act, the market for insurance has become more volatile. Even now, as I shop for plans in the open enrollment period, I see that premiums have risen significantly.

The Torah portion this week, Vayetze, is full of economic trickery. Jacob, fresh from dressing up like his older brother in order to steal the blessing from his visually impaired father, sets off to the family homeland of Haran in order to find his family and a wife. His kinsman Laban brings him in and promises his daughter Rachel in exchange for seven year’s work. When Laban tricks him into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah, Jacob insists he will work another seven years. When that time is up, he is allowed to marry Rachel.

Jacob gets revenge of a sort when he makes a deal for his “wages”—striking a bargain for sheep and goats of a particular coloring. After Laban tries to hide these, Jacob breeds new ones using the healthiest animals, thus getting rich off of Laban. The story is also full of stolen idols, trading sex for mandrakes, and middle-of-the-night escapes.

One the one hand, this story reads like farce—there are so many double-dealings, falsehoods, and tricks that it becomes comical. But the dark side of the story is this perpetual vying to get the upper hand, to exploit the labor of the other, to be dishonest in business dealings. And while Jacob and Laban in the end form a truce of sorts, there is a sense that trust has been broken permanently. They build a pillar, share a sacrificial meal, and promise to never have anything to do with the other again.

I feel like I am stuck in Jacob and Laban’s universe during this period as I look over the insurance market. Is this really the best way to provide health care? Buying into for-profit companies who in turn pay for one’s medical expenses? Companies which would prefer to maximize profit by minimizing risk, and when the “instability” gets too much they just pull out of the market leaving “customers” like me having to go elsewhere? It feels like I have to contend with those who, like Jacob and Laban, are acting only out of their own self-interest, without concern for the real needs of the other.

There is, however, a hint of another way in this portion. In the beginning of Jacob’s journey to Haran, he stops to sleep for the night and has his famous vision of a ladder with angels moving up and down, and God promising to protect him. When he awakes he is amazed at his vision, and as he sets off to continue his journey he says, “If God remains with me and protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house—Adonai shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

On the one hand it sounds presumptuous—Jacob will only stand by God if he gets what he is asking for. On the other, Jacob is only asking for simple things: food, clothing, safety, and security. Indeed, isn’t this what we all want and deserve? And in our day, access to affordable health care is a way we manifest “safety” and “security.” Jacob commits to God; God commits to Jacob; even if there is conflict, they know they can’t turn away from each other forever.

Too often we find ourselves living out the push and pull of Jacob and Laban, each striving for dominance over the other. What we really need to do is hear the words of Jacob before he meets Laban, when he is able to articulate a vision of fundamental human needs. It should be the right of all to have these, and the responsibility of our society to set up a system that provides them. Because, unlike Jacob and Laban, we must raise up, rather than push down, our fellow members of society.