This Land is God’s Land

Land management and economic justice are subjects of this week’s Torah portion Behar.

We are first told that after six years of being cultivated, land is to rest and lie fallow during the seventh year in order to be renewed; this is the practice known as shmita. And then we are to count seven seven-year cycles, and on the 50th year land ownership is to be released and debts forgiven. This is the law of the yovel, or Jubilee year. During both of these years, one is to subsist off of whatever the untended land produces, and one must share this yield with those in need. In addition, the Torah teaches that we are to be fair in our business dealings around the buying and selling of land in general.

The value underlying these practices is expressed in this simple verse:

But the land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.

Leviticus 25:23

While we may manage, steward, farm, and build upon the land, ultimately we do not possess it. The land is God’s, and we are but temporary residents. Human “ownership” of the land is only temporary.

Even if most are not farmers today practicing shmita and yovel, we still have the principle of land ownership. And beyond that, we as humans have found other ways to express dominion and power over the land. We divvy it up not only among individual owners, but we divide the land into towns, states, and countries. We create boundaries and borders, and then use force or walls to enforce those boundaries and borders.

But again, as the Torah teaches, the land ultimately is not ours to divide.

The issue of boundaries and borders are at the center of immigration policy. Nations wish to control who is a part of their country, so they control who can enter. The United States is no different, and over the past few years we have seen an increase in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric and policy, from Muslim bans to border walls. It is a disturbing trend for a nation much of whose residents can trace their roots to immigration.

Some of that policy has been rolled back, others not. One policy that is hanging in the middle is Title 42, under which the Trump Administration used the cover of Covid to block immigration from the southern border. Title 42 uses public health as an excuse to impose harsh immigration policies by summarily deporting people or refusing entry to those seeking asylum, returning them to the oppression from which they were fleeing. The Biden Administration has announced an intention to roll back Title 42, something that is meant to happen this coming week. This policy change is in jeopardy however–there is currently bipartisan legislation making its way through Congress that seeks to continue the policy.

As Jews, we know that immigration is an important part of our story, from the sacred narrative of the Exodus in the Torah to the many stories of immigration in our personal histories. My congregation has hosted and supported an asylum seeker in sanctuary to prevent deportation. And national Jewish organizations like HIAS and T’ruah are heeding the call to fight for a just immigration system. (I’m honored to be a member of the T’ruah Immigration Working Group.)

The most recent message coming out of those organizations is that although we have had a change of leadership in our country, there is still the need to fight for those who seek asylum. Educating on the issues, being in touch with lawmakers, welcoming asylum seekers, telling the stories of immigrants–these are all important steps in the continued fight for policy change. Ensuring that Title 42 is overturned is the most immediate focus. [You can act now by joining me and signing a letter to your congressional representatives here]

I recognize that boundaries and borders are necessary at times to maintain group identity and meaningful community. At the same time, when we recall the teaching that the land is ultimately God’s, we need to approach these boundaries and borders with a spirit of humility, and know that they must be fluid, not rigid. We need to build bridges, not walls. We can be responsible and welcoming at the same time.

Title 42 must go not only because it summarily punishes a group of people fleeing oppression on dubious grounds, but because it further stigmatizes migrants by collectively associating them with the spread of a deadly virus. We can take the teaching from Leviticus further: if all of it is God’s land, then none of us is a true “owner” of the land. And if none of us is an owner, then all of us are equal. When we remember this, we are compelled to act differently, toward the land, and toward each other.

Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Save our Sacred Salmon

I was honored to speak at a gathering and demonstration to pressure Washington State leadership to remove the dams on the lower Snake River, thus freeing salmon runs and promoting a better relationship with our land. These are the words I shared.

Shabbat Shalom. Thank you, it is an honor to be here today to represent myself and other members of faith communities, many of whom are also connected to Earth Ministry. Each one of us, in our way, understands the natural world to be sacred, infused with divine energy. Creation is something that we all share, and it binds us together. We recognize that we are a part of, not separate from, the natural world that surrounds us.

Caring for the earth, therefore, is a spiritual imperative, a way of partnering with God in the ongoing work of Creation. And as faith communities in the Pacific Northwest, that means recognizing the important and sacred role salmon play in our ecosystem, and doing what we can to protect them, the orca, the water, and the land.

I want to share a piece of scripture with you, from the Hebrew Bible:

“You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals.” (Exodus 23:10)

I share this particular passage because according to the reckoning of the Jewish calendar, we are currently in one of these sabbatical years, the last year of a seven-year cycle. And while the specifics of how this year is observed has changed since biblical times, the values that underlie this decree are still relevant to us today.

For one, it reminds us that the earth is a living thing, and that it needs to rest and recover, just as we do. There is a parallel between the Sabbath, the day of rest each week for us humans, and this sabbatical year for the land. We are obligated to see ourselves in relationship to the earth, not as exploiters, but as partners.  And more than that, this text reminds us that economic justice and environmental justice are linked—it is not one or the other, but both/and. And, these words teach us that we are in particular relationship with the wild animals with whom we share this earth.

These values expressed in these Scriptural verses are particularly relevant for today’s gathering, as we honor our relationship with a particular “wild animal”—the salmon, this iconic and sacred fish that is so important to this region and its peoples, and recommit to live up to our duty to honor and protect it. And that we do so not at the expense of economic viability for our region, but with the recognition that we can do both. We can uplift the flora and the fauna and the human community at the same time, for we all depend on one another for our ecological, economic and energy future. We are all interconnected.

We are in the throes of a climate crisis. Human behavior has created a tremendous impact on the environment, and brought about near irreversible change. With humility, we must recognize the role we have played, and admit that we have not been good stewards of this gift, we have let down our end of the partnership. Too often we have treated the Earth as the other, not as our neighbor.

But also with humility, we can say, we can change. We can atone and repent for our past missteps and commit to a better future. Sometimes our past deeds can not be undone, and we must commit to acting better moving forward. Other times, our past deeds can be undone, and we must commit to taking those steps to remake the past. A dam can be built, and a dam can be taken down. A river can be blocked, and a river can be set free.

Faith communities teach that God creates, and we steward. Let the voices of the faith communities, and all who have a vision and hope for a better future, join this cause to save the salmon, to save ourselves, and to save our world.

Thank you.

From Purim to Passover: “Juxtaposing Redemptions is Preferred”

I delivered this d’var Torah at the 2022 Annual Meeting of the Reconstrucionist Rabbinical Association on March 6, 2022.

Thank you for this opportunity and this honor, and so good to be with colleagues today.

We have just passed Rosh Chodesh Adar 2, since this year being a leap year in which we add an extra month in order to balance out the lunar foundation of our calendar with the solar necessity of holidays falling in their due season. And by gathering here at this time, we have answered the question: when we are in a leap year, in which month—Adar 1 or Adar 2—do we hold the RRA Annual Meeting? The answer is, of course, March.

The answer was not so clear cut to our Talmudic rabbis when they needed to determine in which month we would celebrate Purim. Do we hold it in Adar 1, or Adar 2? In the Book of Esther we read,

Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, bechol shanah v’shanah, each and every year—

Esther 9:20-21

These last words, bechol shanah v’shanah, are, for the rabbis, proof that no matter which month they choose, it has to be the same every year. So again, Adar 1 or Adar 2? And in good talmudic fashion, there is a machlochet.

In the pages of Tractate Megillah, on daf 6b, Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi said that since Adar follows Shevat, then even in a leap year Purim should be celebrated in the month that follows Shevat, i.e. Adar 1. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel argued that since Adar precedes Nissan, then even in a leap year Purim should be celebrated in the month that precedes Nissan, i.e. Adar 2.

Both of these calendrical arguments make logical sense, so what are the values that underlie them? To Rabbi Yossi, it is that one should not put off the performance of a mitzvah. To delay the celebration of Purim by a whole month would be an unnecessary delay. On the other hand, to Rabbi Shimon, mismach geulah l’geulah adif—to juxtapose one redemption to another is preferable. It is better to celebrate Purim closer to Passover, as these two holidays are linked by their themes of miracles and rescue and liberation and redemption. And we know which argument wins out, we celebrate Purim in Adar 2, and thus validate this concept of mismach geulah l’geulah adif.

On their face, they seem like very different forms of redemption. Purim celebrates the rescue of one Jewish community, Passover marks the liberation of the entire am yisrael. On Purim rescue comes from the ingenuity and courage of human actors, on Passover the events are orchestrated by God acting through history. We celebrate Purim through frivolity and excess consumption, we celebrate Passover through serious reflection and avoidance of a whole category of foods.

And yet, the rabbis in discussing the calendar, link these two festivals. Therefore, rather than thinking of them as two stand-alone holidays, we need to think of this upcoming period as a season of redemption that begins with the frivolity of Purim and culminates in the seriousness of Passover. Indeed I would suggest, by linking the two, mismach geulah l’geulah, our tradition is suggesting that redemption itself, either personal or communal, requires both solemnity and silliness, plagues and punchlines. Personal redemption is possible only if we work hard at positive change and have the ability to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves too seriously. Communal redemption is only possible if we not only throw down our staffs at the seats of power, but we have a fun time doing it.

I believe if we have learned anything over these past two years of the pandemic, it is that it has to be this way. From now on we will recall that Adar welcomes not only Purim but the anniversary of when the world shut down in the face of the pandemic. These past two years for us as rabbis, as the Jewish people, have been ones of loss, of stress, and of struggle. But they have also been one of innovation, and creativity, and—dare I say it—at times, fun. If we get through this period thinking only of what we have lost rather than what we have gained, then we will have missed an opportunity for post-pandemic redemption.

For ultimately, Mismach geulah l’geulah adif is a reminder not to think in binaries. Everything is one, everything is connected. There are no opposites. And yet, in our working lives, we continue to think in those terms. Forgive me God, but I think we as rabbis would be better off having a few hours of Shabbat every day rather than 25 once a week. We need to put aside the idea of “work-life balance”—a challenging image because of its implied false division and the general precariousness of trying to keep something in balance—in favor of something more holistic.

Rather we should strive for everything at all times. This might mean doing things we don’t like to do—like saying “no,” or lowering our expectations, or rejecting the capitalist emphasis on productivity. But sometimes these are necessary. The whole world is a very narrow bridge, yes, but do we have to stop at just not being afraid? Can’t the ikar also be to enjoy the view? Again, how can the spirit of Purim and Passover be in everything that we do?

But luckily, we are not alone in our struggles and desires for wholeness. For we can also read mismach geulah l’geulah as connecting the idea of redemption not only between holidays or themes, but between each other. We would do well to remember that redemption is interconnected. My redemption is bound up in yours, and yours in mine. And it is in that kavannah that we join together today as an association of rabbis—facing the same challenges with the same set of values and interests trying to figure it all out in a spirit of mutual support.

And as we recited yesterday when we concluded the book of Exodus: hazak hazak venithazek: though the hazak of Purim, and the hazak of Passover, may we all be strengthened, and redeemed.

Thanks.

Time to Lie Fallow

As we come upon the two year anniversary of the Covid pandemic, I am, for the first time, by desire and necessity, taking a step back from my work at my congregation.

Suffice it to say, I know that we are all hurting from this time. It has not been easy. And I do not mean to imply that I have had it harder than most, or that my lack of time off is because of some kind of martyr complex. No, it was more out of a desire to meet the moment and serve our community. And, dare I say it, the first year of the pandemic also allowed for innovation and creativity in how we make spiritual community in a way that we haven’t seen before, which was in its own way invigorating.

Then, when things last summer looked like they would be opening up again, I felt we can breathe a sigh of relief and move on. When Omicron came and we moved backward, it became clear to me that the wind was out of my sails. It became evident to me by general feelings of exhaustion and lack of energy, and the fact that I was getting sloppy and neglectful at work.

So, I’m going to take a break. The timing is right in the Jewish calendar and we are at a place as a congregation that we know well how to manage this new virtual reality.

Since first announcing that I was going to take this sabbatical, I’ve often been asked what I plan to do. And my answer is simple: nothing. Yes, there are things I plan to do: focus on my physical health, projects around the house, spend time in the outdoors, read books, play guitar. And I do plan on visiting family and attending a conference at the end of March. But I am resisting the urge to be productive for the sake of being productive, or doing things that will solely serve my rabbinic work. No, what I plan to do is to just be, and in that way hope to come back renewed in spirit and perspective.

It is fitting this year too because on our Jewish calendar, this year 5782 is what is known as a “shmita” year. In the Torah we are told,

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your home-born slave and the stranger may be refreshed.

Exodus 23:10-12

This seventh year is known as the “shmita” year. As evidenced by this quote from Exodus, it is parallel to the weekly Shabbat, when we are meant to rest from the week’s labors. Just as we rest every seventh day in order to be refreshed and ready to face the week ahead, the land is meant to rest every seventh year in order to be refreshed and ready to grow again.

There are several other teachings about shmita in the Torah that imply the seventh year is meant to be a “reset” not only for the land, but for the community as well. Debts are meant to be forgiven, for example. In the quote above, the poor eat from what grows naturally in the untended field. Society needs a time to rest as well.

And while some of the specifics of the shmita year are not practiced as they are imagined in the Torah, the understanding of shmita is very much relevant. In order to be productive, we need to take a break. In order to do, we need times to just be. In order to grow again, we need to lie fallow.

So I’m going to lie fallow. And I would encourage you to find the opportunity to do the same in your own way. We all have different ways of stepping back, or taking care of ourselves, and being renewed. And I also recognize that we have different capacities of time and space in order to rest. (I feel very blessed and privileged that the congregation is granting me this time.) And while the means and capacities are different, the need is the same. We can not survive if we don’t take the time to be refreshed.

In Hebrew, the word that is commonly translated as “refreshed” is related to the word for “soul”–nefesh. With the pandemic, our bodies are imperiled. We wear masks, keep our distance, and get vaccines in order to stay physically healthy. But our souls are also imperiled, and it is imperative that we take care of them as well.

May we all find the ability to lie fallow, and witness new growth.

Some Reflections After Colleyville

On my first day back at the syangogue after Colleyville, I (what else) made a TikTok video. Here it is, with a transcript:

Hi friends.

So it’s my first day back in the synagogue after the events at Congregation Beth Israel in Texas and I just wanted to come up to the sanctuary and reflect a little bit.

Now normally on a regular weekday I’m not up in the sanctuary, but in my office, but it’s still thinking about showing up into Jewish spaces on a regular basis and the care and the caution that is always on my mind.

We have safety and security measures of the synagogue some of which are visible and known, some of which you might not even realize. Some are physical some are behavioral. But just leaning into the reality that that is the condition of entering into Jewish spaces today: that we need to be mindful of safety and security and that on some level, it’s a risk. There’s not one service, one holiday program, one class that I’m not looking around thinking about the Safety and Security of my people and myself and running scenarios through my mind.

It’s difficult, it’s exhausting at times, but I’ll tell you this: I’m never going to stop showing up in to Jewish spaces. I’m never going to stop welcoming people into Jewish spaces. People who are here to connect with spiritual community, people who are in need—all are welcome.

And in response to the ongoing threats, my response is four-fold:

One, to be pragmatic and to do what we need to do in terms of security and trainings in order to keep ourselves safe.

Two, continue to build relationships beyond our walls with the greater community around especially the interfaith community so that we have support and allies, and that we can support others in their times of need.

Three, to call out anti-Semitism and hatred in all of its forms so that we can expose it and hopefully eradicate it.

And four, to commit myself more deeply to Jewish community, Jewish continuity, Jewish tradition, and Jewish life because it is so valuable to us and to future generations.

Yes, the Jewish story does contain within it pain and suffering story. And the Jewish story also contains within it the idea of hope and redemption.

A Prayer for Protection

I wrote the first part of this prayer on Saturday as the events at Congregational Beth Israel in Colleyville were still playing out, and I shared it on TikTok, Facebook and at a congregational gathering that evening. I returned to it after and worked on it a little more, and offer it as a general prayer for protection.

Source of All Life and Blessing,

Free those who are in captivity

Protect those who are in danger

Heal those who are in pain

Strengthen those who are weary

Give peace to those who are in strife

Bring justice to those who do wrong.

Source of All Life and Blessing

May hatred and violence be eradicated from our communities.

May we continue to not only build walls, but bridges.

May the spark of the divine in each of us be visible to all.

May righteousness and compassion guide our steps.

May we lead with love and understanding.

Source of All Life and Blessing

In our times of need, we turn to You

And we turn to each other.

May we be blessed

with protection

with wisdom

with resilience

with solidarity

and with courage to fight distress and oppression, and to pursue joy and liberation.

For us and for all peoples

Now and in the future

From generation to generation.

Amen.

Gee 2021, Krup You!

In Jewish tradition we are taught that there are four “new years.” Two are familiar to us: Rosh Hashana, our calendar new year and a time of introspection and atonement, and Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees, which we now observe as a celebration of our environment. The Talmud also teaches that there is a new year of the kings, to mark the years of government, and the new year of the animals, which in ancient times marked the age of animals in preparation for Temple sacrifice.

So we are used to the idea of multiple communal anniversaries, and as Jews living in America we also mark multiple “new years.” In addition to our Jewish holidays we join with others to welcome in the Gregorian new year tonight. And I’m also thinking toward March, when we will mark a “new year” of living under the shadow of the Covid pandemic.

On the cusp of another (Gregorian) year, it is a time to look back over what was. The year began with an uprising at the US Capitol in protest of the election results, and now ended–at least locally here in the Pacific Northwest–with a snowstorm that has shut things down for a few days, and (as I write this) with the death of Betty White just shy of her 100th birthday.

When we gather for Rosh Hashana, it is a time of personal spiritual introspection as to where we have been and where we are going. When we mark the turn of the Gregorian year, we can use it as a time to look back as a society where we have been and where we are going.

One of the 2021 highlights for me, towards the end of this year, was the release of Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story. I’m a fan of musicals, and this got me into the movie theaters for the first time in a long while. I thought it was amazing–I loved the visuals, the acting, and–of course–the music. Seeing it a few weeks after the show’s lyricist and Broadway giant Stephen Sondheim died added a new poignancy to the viewing.

I’ve always been intrigued by the Jewish elements of West Side Story–the four main creators (author, lyricist, composer, and choreographer) were all gay Jewish men. The story was originally going to be about rival Jewish and Catholic gangs before being turned into “white” and Puerto Rican. Themes of immigration and assimilation and acceptance are underlying the main story of star-crossed lovers.

But what grabbed my attention this time is one particular song: “Gee, Officer Krupke!” If you are not familiar with the story of the musical: in 1950s New York City, two street gangs–the Jets and the Sharks–are enemies. Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, meet at a dance and fall in love, but their relationship is doomed against the backdrop of the rivalry and the violence that ensues.

“Gee, Officer Krupke!” is a song sung by the Jets in derision of the named police officer who, along with Lieutenant Shrank, are the characters in the show who represent authority and are continually trying to keep order. The song is meant to be funny and satirical, poking fun at the different ways their behavior is labeled as “anti-social” and the different “solutions” that are offered, all in contradiction to each other. And like any good satire, there is truth underneath.

You can watch a version here, and the full lyrics are underneath the video on YouTube:

In an effort to tell their story, the Jets see themselves as being pushed around: the police send them to the judge, who thinks all they need is therapy, so sends them to a psychiatrist, who thinks all they need is a job, so sends them to a social worker, who thinks all they need time in jail, so sends them back to the judge.

The song culminates with these lyrics:

DIESEL (As Judge) The trouble is he’s crazy.

A-RAB (As Psychiatrist) The trouble is he drinks.

BABY JOHN (As Female Social Worker) The trouble is he’s lazy.

DIESEL The trouble is he stinks.

A-RAB The trouble is he’s growing.

BABY JOHN The trouble is he’s grown.

ALL Krupke, we got troubles of our own! Gee, Officer Krupke, We’re down on our knees, ‘Cause no one wants a fellow with a social disease. Gee, Officer Krupke, What are we to do? Gee, Officer Krupke, Krup you!

This pandemic has revealed for us some of our deepest societal challenges: income inequality, lack of a strong social safety net, lack of access to resources, gross individualism, deliberate undermining of our governing institutions, and more. And yet, we don’t seem to have the will to truly address them, just put on Band-Aids at best. And even when we see those who struggle under these societal challenges, we tend to try to find individual causes–either its drugs, or bad choices, or laziness, or whatever–rather than confront the larger forces at work.

We see it too in this week’s Torah portion. We continue the story of the Exodus with Moses repeatedly confronting Pharaoh to free the Israelites, each time bringing a plague upon Egypt. Each time Pharaoh seems to cave under the pressure of the plague, but once it is alleviated he changes his mind. He responds to the immediate pressures, but is unable to see the underlying systemic forces at work.

Sondheim invites us to laugh along with the Jets, not only with their humorous portrayal of their situation, but in the flippant way society treats those it deems “other” or “outside” or “delinquent”: pushing them away, making it someone else’s issue, failing to see the forest through the trees. And as we laugh, deep down we know that the real story–like West Side Story–is a tragedy.

In 2022, let’s do better. Happy New Year.

To Be Strong, Take Care of Yourself

There is a custom that, upon finishing a book of the Torah as part of the weekly reading cycle, the community says “hazak, hazak, ve’nithazek!” “Be strong, be strong, may we all be strengthened!”

We have the opportunity to practice this this Shabbat, as we finish reading the Book of Genesis. In this week’s Torah portion we have the end of the Joseph story, culminating in the death of Jacob and finally the death of Joseph. But really when we end Genesis, we also end a long multi-generational family saga. Next week, when we begin the book of Exodus, the Torah’s narrative shifts to the national saga of slavery and redemption.

So we pause, as we mark that transition, and offer that three-word phrase.

The custom of doing so dates back to the middle ages, and it can have several interpretations. One can be that we are congratulating ourselves on completing a stage of the reading and preparing ourselves for the next stage. Another could be that it is a prayer to the effect of, may the teachings of the Torah that we have just read be strong within us, and may we be strengthened by the teachings to come. Another could be a recognition that we as individuals are strengthened by the words of the Torah, and therefore, based on those teachings, we are obligated to strengthen one another.

In thinking of this phrase right now, there is something to the repetition of the word hazak as part of it. On the one hand, this could be understood as an emphatic. To me, though, I understand it as frequency.

As we continue to navigate the pandemic, as we continue to deal with that uncertainty, we have needed to be strong for ourselves and others now more so than in recent history. The threat of a deadly virus, now with multiple variants, has forced us to alter our behavior, take on new practices, be mindful of who is around us and how far away, stay at home, rely on technology, adopt new cleaning protocols, get a vaccine, and continue to wear masks. Combine this with feelings of fear, isolation, anxiety, and loneliness. It is exhausting.

We do this to protect ourselves and protect our community. We haven’t just had to be strong, we’ve had to be strong and strong and strong and strong–hazak hazak.

And, in order to do so, it is necessary to take care of ourselves. And that is where the third word of the phrase comes in–ve’nithazek. We can not be strong if we are not strengthened in some way. We can not show up for others if we do not show up for ourselves.

So I invite you to ask yourself, how have you been able to be strengthened? How have you been able to take care of yourself? What do you do for you? It is not selfish, it is necessary.

I have realized recently that I feel like I’m running out of steam. I feel like I am getting sloppy, inattentive, and just plain tired. The novelty of technology is wearing off and I am deeply missing being together and the casual connections and conversations that happen. Nothing in the past year and a half has given me more meaning that being able to be present and care for our congregation during this difficult time. And, I realize, I need a break.

Beginning in mid-February, I will be taking a six-week sabbatical. Not many folks know but I had a three-month sabbatical on the calendar for the first three months of 2021. (TBH has generously granted me six months, which I had planned to take in two three-month chunks.) But because of the needs of the community, and the fact there wasn’t much to do for a sabbatical during Covid, the Board and I agreed that I would postpone it. I still stand by that decision. And now, I’m going to take some of that time to rest and recharge. I don’t have any particular plans yet, outside of just stepping away and attending the Reconstructionist movement convention in March, but maybe that is enough.

I thank you all for your support in advance of this, and I would encourage you all to do what you need to do to take care of yourselves. We are not living through an easy time. Unlike the reading of the Torah, it is very unclear as to when Covid will end. We will continue to need to be resilient. And in order to do that, we need to do what we can to nurture ourselves.

Be strong, be strong, and may we all do what we need to do to be strengthened.

Wrestling with our Vulnerability

Jacob in our Torah is known for his spiritual experiences. Earlier in his life, we are told, he had a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder, and receives a blessing from God. In this week’s Torah portion, we find him wrestling with an angel, leaving that encounter with a limp, a new name, and another blessing.

The episode with the angel comes at a transitional moment in Jacob’s life. Just prior, he spent years living with and working for his relative Laban. He marries two of his daughters, Rachel and Leah, has children with them and with their attendants Bilhah and Zilpah, and accumulates a lot of wealth. Now, we read in the Torah, he is on his way to reunite with his estranged brother Esau.

While he and Esau are twins, they led very different lives. They were physically different in size and stature and features, and they were each a favorite of one of their parents, Esau their father Isaac, and Jacob their mother Rebecca. Things came to a head when Jacob, who was technically the second born and therefore not the rightful heir, convinces his brother to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup, and then tricks his father into giving him the parental blessing by dressing up as his brother when his father was old and could not see very well. The two brothers, who were seemingly never very close prior, severed ties after this episode. Jacob was sent away, ostensibly to find a partner but also to avoid Esau’s revenge.

As the Torah reading opens this week in Genesis 32, Jacob is on his way to see his brother. The Torah describes Jacob as being “greatly frightened” and “anxious” (v. 8) and makes preparations accordingly, dividing his camps and flocks so that if one is attacked, the other can escape. He also sends ahead gifts for his brother, hoping that they will appease him. Finally, he sends forth his wives and children until he is left alone. It is then that the angel comes to wrestle with Jacob.

Fast forward to the reunion, and Jacob’s fears and anxieties turn out to be misplaced assumptions. Esau receives him cordially,

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.” Then the maids, with their children, came forward and bowed low; next Leah, with her children, came forward and bowed low; and last, Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed low. And he asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” He answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.” Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted.

Genesis 33:1-11

They do not, however, remain close. After this meeting they go their separate ways, ultimately reuniting once again to bury their father Isaac. The parasha ends with Esau’s genealogy, but the narrative continues with the line of Jacob.

But I want to turn back to that pivotal encounter with the angel. The Torah says that Jacob and the angel wrestled until dawn, with Jacob prevailing. The angel dislocates Jacob’s hip to gain an advantage, leaving him with a permanent limp. Jacob still had the upper hand and demanded a blessing from the angel, the angel blesses him with a new name–Israel, or “one who wrestles with God and people.” God confirms the blessing and the covenant a few chapters later, and it is this name that will go on to describe the collective Jewish people.

It is a mysterious episode, and we can posit different ideas about what the angel and the act of wrestling represents. But we can only understand it in the context of where Jacob is at this moment: standing on the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob is alone, in the dark of night, in an unfamiliar place, the night before a potentially frightening outcome.

He is, in a word, vulnerable.

As you may know, in addition to my work at the congregation I am serving as a chaplaincy intern at Providence St. Peter Hospital. As part of the work I visit with patients and families, and, as it is an educational program, receive individual supervision and participate in group instruction. It has been a tremendous learning experience.

Having been a patient, a caregiver, and now a chaplain, I know that it is in these moments in the hospital that we are at our most vulnerable. Our bodies have failed us, hopefully only temporarily, and we put ourselves in the hands of caregivers, practitioners, technology, and a health care system. Hospitals are places of recovery and healing, and they are also places of comfort and loss. They are places like the bank of the Jabbok River, where we are alone, in the dark, in an unfamiliar spot, facing a potentially frightening outcome.

Recently I asked my chaplaincy supervisor why we tend to judge certain deaths. If someone died of Covid, for example, we want to know if they were vaccinated. The answer will impact how we think about that death. Or we want to know if a certain illness can be linked to a behavior, or an accident can be linked to a risky action. She answered that it is because in our fear of death, if we are able to judge the death as being linked to an action, then we feel we have some control, we will feel safe. “Since I’m vaccinated,” we can say, “that won’t happen to me.” Or, “well I don’t drink, so I won’t die of liver disease.” We are hesitant to deal with the human vulnerability that comes from accepting the knowledge that death can take many forms, and is ultimately out of our control.

The same is true, I believe, when we talk about social issues, particularly about homelessness. We want to ascribe reasons for those who are unhoused: it’s because of their mental illness, or it’s because they are addicted to drugs, or it’s because they don’t want to get a job, or some other specific cause. When we name something, we can feel better by assuring ourselves by saying, “well I don’t struggle with serious mental illness,” or “I don’t use hard drugs,” or “I have a steady job.” So we avoid and deflect, and it becomes easier to look away. Here too we don’t want to deal with the human vulnerability that “there but for the grace of God go I”–that anyone is one natural disaster, or one medical crisis, or one shift in the job market away from homelessness, and that we as a society have failed to provide an adequate social safety net to prevent that from happening.

Our spiritual ancestor Jacob experienced a moment of deep vulnerability, which included confronting his own fears and anxieties. We would do well to allow ourselves to do the same. For in order to truly wrestle with matters of life and death, in order to truly wrestle with our communal challenges, in order to truly wrestle with God and people, we need to make ourselves vulnerable and confront our own fears and anxieties.

The wrestling is not easy, and can make us feel even more vulnerable. Like the angel dislocating Jacob’s hip, the wrestling can change us permanently, we might carry ourselves differently afterwards. But this is not a loss, it means we have been touched by God.

And with that touch comes blessing. As we learn in the Torah this week, it is only at that moment of deep vulnerability that we are able to wrestle, and it is through the wrestling that we receive blessing. In the Torah that blessing is a sacred mission and a holy covenant. As the inheritors of that blessing we too are gifted with a sacred mission and a holy covenant. And it is by our vulnerability and our wrestling that we are able to see the “face of God” in the other, seeing them as a whole human being, as Jacob saw Esau.

And Jacob is also blessed with a new name, Israel. Which is our name, Israel. We are Israel. We are the ones who wrestle with God and people. So let us continue to live into that name, let us continue to wrestle. And let us remember from where that wrestling begins: from recognizing, and naming, and owning our vulnerabilities.