Category Archives: Kheshvan
Ah, love! Beautiful, wonderful love. “What’s love got to do with it anyway?” A question once asked by a singer and many times by people. This, in the Jewish readings, is the season for love. (Yes, I know it’s supposed to be in spring – but Jews have always been a bit weird, and really, for those of us in northern climates where the snow just started to fall – it gives us something to do and talk about in the cold evenings.) These are the weeks where we read about Isaac falling in love at first sight, when we hear about Jacob sacrificing 14 years of his life for love, where Rachel and Leah compete for Jacob’s love. We read about broken love – love that didn’t go well between parents and children, love that didn’t go well between husbands and wives, love that didn’t go well between children. We read about qualities that are loveable – beauty and kindness, cleverness and strength, loyalty and faith.
What does love mean? I’m a fairly literal person – I like definitions. So, I didn’t like the one my friends in High School gave me when I asked them what they meant when they said ‘I’m in love.’ “Well, you know – love – it’s what you feel – when you, you know, like, love someone. You like them a lot. You … you just love them. When you feel it, you’ll know.” Irritating definition! Yes, it’s a bit like the biblical one which describes sex as knowing someone. Knowledge of self and other on an ever-deepening level? Is that love? I was not convinced.
The definition I picked was one from a book. To love someone meant that their happiness was essential to one’s own. This seemed to jibe with my experience. The more I loved someone, the more their happiness affected me – when they were happier, I was and I really didn’t feel good about the world in which they were sad. Kids, friends, beloveds – here was a definition that to different extent described how I felt about them, and I knew what to call love.
Was it Jewish though? I had often talked about Judaism as being different, because instead of being commanded to love your icky, difficult great-aunt Thelma, you were simply commanded to be polite to her, to treat her decently, to take care of her. Your emotions were your problem – your actions mattered. Yet, love is very important in Jewish writing. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” is, literally, the central commandment in the Jewish Torah scroll. Various rabbis have indicated that it is the basis of the Torah. Some have defined God as being perfect love. (An excellent definition of God, by the way.) So what is this love that is valued so highly by Jewish writers? How does it match with my definition of love?
I was not particularly shocked to discover that the Jewish definition of love had little to do with feeling. It seems to be a combination of knowledge and action. Knowledge: we love when we see God in another. By perceiving the divine, the ideal, the true – we realize that we are looking at an embodiment of love, and we love that person. Action: love is giving without taking. It’s a beautiful definition. I found it this morning and I have been delighted with it since. Love is giving without taking. Now, you can love your Aunt Thelma even if she squicks you out. All you have to do is give, without taking.
At the same time, in Torah Study, we are discussing sacrifice. You know, giving without taking. Of course, there it was all messy and bloody and animals being killed and ick – but if you look beyond the goriness, the point seems to be that it’s the gift that matters, the giving up of something expensive (affordable – one should not give more than one has for love – but expensive to one) and important for the sake of another. This allows a new way for me to evaluate my relationships. Do I love so & so? Am I willing to give to her without taking something from her?
Of course, that doesn’t mean without accepting gifts! Accepting and taking are different and accepting is essential for otherwise the other person can’t give. But taking – demanding, stealing, removing – all these are the connotations of taking. If something is given, it cements relationship, if taken it weakens and breaks it. There are so many ways to ask this question. Am I giving privacy? Am I taking away serenity? Am I giving companionship? Am I taking time and energy? It’s not a simple definition – it gives rise to endless questions and decisions – but it is a beautiful one.
So, love. Measured in happiness and gift, knowledge and recognition, sacrifice and acceptance, a crazy involved practice with no clear meaning, but one of such supreme importance that loving is the best way we can emulate God. Exploring it tells me how much more there is for me to do. There are many people whom I could love better. By listening more, by paying more careful attention, by seeing clearer and by thinking kinder, I can change how I know them to see the divine image within them. I can let go of expectations and demands and take less from those I love. And always, I can work just a bit harder and pray just a bit more fervently, think just a little bit more and put my wants to the side more to truly give, and by giving truly, truly love.
In last week’s parsha, Abraham and Sarah are super welcoming to the strangers and in this week’s parsha, Lot welcomes the angels. Then the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed in part because they weren’t all that welcoming. Being welcoming is a really big deal in the Jewish tradition. You have to make sure your guests feel comfortable – that they have enough to eat, that the attention paid to them is positive, that they are safe. In fact, welcoming guests is one of the lines we read in that bit about ‘these are the deeds whose reward gives you benefit in both this world and the next, which you get from Torah study’. Welcoming guests is considered a big deal for everyone. There are countless stories about rabbis that are welcomed properly or improperly, or even the Messiah being welcomed properly or improperly. It’s a Jewish value. I know because it was listed as a Jewish value in the list of Jewish values that my son had to learn to get his next colour of kippah. (Your son is a red belt in Karate? My son is a red kippah in Jewish values! Sometimes my life is funny.) So, welcoming is a big deal – especially in my current Shul which compares itself to Abraham and Sarah’s tent, which welcomes gay and interfaith couples, which is open and accepting.
OK, complete change of topic. When I was a little girl, the school I daily attended was Orthodox. There, I daily said the Birkot HaShahar, the morning blessings – the ones where we say things like “Thank You God for opening the eyes of the blind” (about our ability to see,) “Thank You God for making firm the land over the waters” (about our ability to stand,) “Thank You God for crowning Israel with glory” (well, there’s a reason to wear a kippah!) Among them was the blessing (for boys) that said “Thank You God for making me a man” and (for girls,) “Thank You God for making me according to Your will/word.” I asked a Rabbi at the time what the reason for the discrepancy might be. “Oh,” said he, “men have a lot of religious obligations and they want to show God how ready they are to do the hard work, so they thank God for giving them all these obligations. Women, on the other hand have it easier, religiously, and it would be obnoxious to thank God for not giving them so much work. So, women just thank God for making them how God wills.” It was a sweet explanation – but it didn’t entirely work for me then, and less and less as time went on. Women had lots of hard work, religious or otherwise, from what I could see, and saying thank you for making someone a man had a feeling of privilege, not acceptance of work.
New topic again! (What is it with this crazy post? It seems to go everywhere!) Interfaith families are a thing at Shul. There are and have been for some time lots of people who have a non-Jewish spouse, parent, child, sibling (yes, that’s possible, think about it,) other relative, or friend sitting with them or at least in the same row. Some people feel that these non-Jews cannot be more than guests at the Shul. They certainly cannot be members – it’s a Jewish community and they’re not Jews. That’s so simple and fundamental, it shouldn’t need mentioning. And yet – it stopped being simple when these guests became our family. They are there. They often sing the prayers with us, frequently much better than I can. They are the ones who drive the kids, participate on committees, pay the membership fees. Yes, they are guests. They are involved guests, though.
One day, sitting in my seat as the Birkot HaShahar came up, I thought about what my family member, the non-Jewish guest sitting next to me, was saying when I said “Thank You God for making me a Jew.” Was that line making her as uncomfortable as “Thank You God for making me a man” had made me many years ago? Of course, it is a perfectly valid prayer, with years of tradition. I could point out that Jews are a minority, and often disadvantaged, not privileged. Also, many non-Jewish guests will just not sing because it’s in Hebrew or sing without understanding, because it’s in Hebrew. It doesn’t say being a non-Jew is *bad* per se, it just says it’s different. In the Aleynu too – it’s just different. It doesn’t mean we don’t like non-Jews when we thank God for making us different from the other nations, and not making out portions like theirs or our having our futures be like everyone else’s. During Havdala – when we separate Jews from non-Jews, light from darkness, holy from everyday – surely we are not even slightly implying that Jews are bright and holy and non-Jews are dark and everyday.
I know all the explanations. I’ve given them. Is it welcoming, though? Is it what Abraham and Sarah, with a tent open on all sides, would have wanted? Would they be OK with it? I am not sure. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my Rabbi’s explanation when I was a young girl. I don’t see why my non-Jewish friends would be. I can’t help but think how I would feel if I came to church every week for some reason (it’s been known to happen) and heard a prayer that included “Thank God we’re Christians” and “Praise God we’re not stuck being like those others” and “Thanks for separating us from them.” I might not feel welcome at all. So, for me, prayers need to change. We find ways to praise God for giving us a chosen destiny without denigrating others. I skip these bits in the Birkot HaShahar, the Aleynu, and the Havdala. I stand quiet during these parts and think to myself, “what can I do to be more welcoming?”
Sometimes, only slightly amused at my life, I will even say that prayer I disdained when I was a young girl. Maybe that’s the one we should all say, as it reminds us of the fact that we are all strangers – all guests in someone’s tent. We all need compassion and acceptance, men, women, Jews and non-Jews. “Thank You, God for making me according to Your will.”
So, it’s Genesis being read right now, the book that tells us the stories of our illustrious ancestors, and you know, sometimes, I think that the lesson I’m getting is the wrong one. When I read the words in the bible, I sometimes think to myself, “wow, doing what God tells you is a really, really bad idea.” Abraham left his land, his people – everything he had or knew – and his reward? He got to wait until he was in his 90s to have children. Lot joined him, presumably because of belief, and Lot had many people he loved destroyed. Obeying God has consequences and they’re rarely pleasant. One may end up, like Hagar, watching one’s son almost die of thirst in a desert. One could end up alone and lonely after everything one knew was wiped out in a flood. None of the Genesis heros had comfortable or particularly happy lives.
Sarah found oneself married to a random ruler because her husband claimed she was his sister. Jacob grew up with the knowledge that his father preferred his brother. Rebecca had a husband who had various issues – so that she had to run the household. Eliezer’s conversation with God was about his master’s wife – he didn’t have a chance to look for his own that way. (We won’t even touch some of the other Jewish writings – Job comes to mind.) Story after story, there is the same theme. The foremothers and forefathers would do God’s will, and then awful things would happen to them, and then they’d have to do God’s will some more. Nowhere is that more evident than the Akeda – the heart break of that sacrifice is so huge we cannot even encompass it. Can you imagine being very old when one had a child, having the child grow up, and then knowing that your husband was killing your child – because the God you gave everything up for asked him to? Can you imagine feeling you had to give up everything – both the boys you had in your old age, really – to God? Can you actually imagine your father holding a knife above you? I think that for the rest of their lives, Isaac and Abraham would never be able to look at each other without seeing that knife flashing between them. In fact, anyone looking at them would see that knife in their eyes – how could it be otherwise?
Those horrible moments – when one’s wife turns to salt at one’s side, when one is powerless to save one’s children, when one deals with betrayal after betrayal because one’s children don’t understand – those moments seem to be the fruits of doing God’s will. You know that utter horrible moment is there for each of them. Rachel at Leah’s wedding? Leah at Rachel’s? Moses looking down on Canaan? (Sometime I wish I could get into the story and say, ‘avoid the burning bush – you’d be SO much happier’…) So, why? What is God trying to tell us? Why not have a story like “After Abraham got to Canaan, he and Sarah had a bunch of children who got along. God asked them to raise the children well, and especially to prepare the oldest two boys as they were going to continue Abraham’s traditions in different ways. Meanwhile, Hagar and Eliezer got married, and they too had important wonderful children. Everyone lived well, sometimes happily, sometimes not – but pretty well. No one did anything crazy like sacrificing children.” I like that. That’s not the story, though. Our stories are awful a lot of the time. It’s not limited to the Jewish faith either – Jesus on the cross helps confirm that in the stories of our faiths that we tell, being really pious gets you in a real mess.
I was thinking to myself that the Rabbis must have had an idea better than to give us the object lesson, “Don’t do God’s will, because the results of doing it are ugly.” That can’t be what I’m supposed to take away – although I do some days. Oh, sure, I’m sure they all had good moments – there were weddings and births as well as funerals and bitter break-ups – but I can’t imagine how many happy little moments it would take to make up for that horrible time when…
So, I think of Torah Study – and I think of the Jonah story and how his big thought in the belly of the fish was not that he would die, but that he’d lose the relationship he had with God, the closeness. I think of the sacrificial system that talks about sacrifice as closeness – as relationship with God. Could it be that closeness to God is worth it? Could that God-consciousness fill one up enough to give one – if not an erasure, then at least an answer to those horrible moments? Could that be what Abraham, Isaac and Sarah, and all the other biblical characters get? If they do what God says, they are closer to God. That, plus those happy moments – that’s it.
Is it enough? I ask myself that question sometimes. Usually, I say ‘no’. I would not sacrifice my children for God. I would not sacrifice my happiness to be closer to the Ideal (because one doesn’t need to be a believer to end up here – striving for perfection can be part of the most atheist of people and often ends one up in the same messy place.) Sometimes, I acknowledge that actually, without making any sense whatsoever, listening to God is worth it – that the feeling of complete rightness when one knows one has heard correctly and got it right makes up for the tragedy. I am still not about to take my kids up to mount Moria; I have never been convinced Abraham heard or understood correctly – but every now and then I realize that I don’t do God’s will because it’s easy, or because it’s fun or because it’s smart or useful or leads to the outcomes I want. I do it because it gets me closer to God, closer to being who I need to be. There’s joy in that no matter what is going on in my life.