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Toldot 5778 - “May I Ask Who’s Calling?” 

November 17, 2017

I will never know what it’s like to be pregnant.

But I do know what it’s like to be pregnant in the Torah.

At least I know what it’s like for Rebekah to be pregnant in the Torah.

In a word, “lousy.”

This week’s Torah portion, from the book of Genesis, is called Toldot. In it, we find the story of Rebekah’s sons Jacob and Esau, the famous fraternal, and (in time) fratricidal twins, who struggle over birthright and blessing.

Rebekah had prayed for this pregnancy. But the Torah tells us that they fought from the beginning. Even in the womb. Hence the lousy pregnancy.

In fact, the struggle was so great that Rebekah cried out to God, Im kein, lama zeh anochi![1]

A desperate yelp of pain that’s hard to translate. The best I can do is “If it’s like this, why is this me?”

Rebecca gets what she wants from God, but it wasn’t what she bargained for. No matter. She’s not afraid to keep asking. And more than ask, to demand. “Why is this me?” In the midst of creating a family, to speak her mind, to shout her truth.

I said on Rosh haShanah that one of the ways to change your fate is tza’akah — crying out? When you read the Torah, it seems that nothing changes until someone yells at God. 

And sure enough, when Rebekah cries out to God, she gets an answer. Shney goyyim b’vitnech, God tells her. “Two nations are in your womb… the older will serve the younger.”[2]

Cool. That takes care of that.

Only one problem. Rebekah never tells anyone. Not her husband Isaac. Not her sons, Jacob and Esau.

Rebekah gets a message from God. That makes her a prophet. But because she isn’t upfront and honest about her prophecy, her family experiences untold suffering. Jacob swindles his brother out of the birthright, manipulating Esau with some stew — in Esau’s craven growl, a bowl of “that red, red stuff.”  And years later, as Isaac approaches his death, Rebekah coerces Jacob into tricking Isaac into giving him the family blessing. When he learns of the deception, Esau shrieks in grief and anguish. 

The echoes of that shriek resonate in our souls to this day.

This is what can happen when we’re not upfront, not honest, when we don’t speak our truths to those who need to hear it.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter at the shul. Strangely, the envelope had no return address. Was it a chain letter? Maybe a fund-raiser? 

Neither, as it turns out.

Upon opening the letter, I found that the writer was very upset with me. 

They did not like what I said on the bimah on Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. They didn’t agree with my interpretation of Jewish ethics, particularly as it applied to modern social justice issues.

Which is all fine. The Jewish people are an arguing people. Like God used words to construct the world — let there be light! — we use language to construct meaning, to make a case, to persuade and cajole and convince and create.

But it was the opening paragraph of the letter that troubled me — and still troubles me. “I fear that my views would be judged harshly,” the author wrote, “which is why I am not identifying myself.”

And, sure enough, the letter was not signed. 

So, let me first take responsibility for my own actions. As you know, I’m not shy about what I think this moment in history demands of the Jew. “This is no time for neutrality,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote last century, in a quote that sits in the signature line of every email I send. “We Jews cannot remain aloof or indifferent. We, too, are either ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil.” 

But being ministers of the sacred means not only sharing sacred words, but sharing them in sacred ways.  If you have felt slighted or disrespected by my teaching — on this bimah or anywhere else — I don’t just want to know.  I need to know.

Because the safety of my soul is at stake.  And the safety of this community is at stake.

In the words of the letter writer, “as a rabbi, you hold tremendous privilege and power and your words matter deeply to our congregants and our children.”

Words do indeed matter. The responsibility the author describes is one I take very seriously.

So I beg you. If I have insulted you or disrespected you, or in any way hurt you, please — be bold. Be brave. L’chu na v’nivach’cha, says the prophet Isaiah, “Come, let’s reason together.”[3]  Let me make amends for my disrespect.  Let’s sit together and find wisdom together.

Because I may be wrong, completely wrong. Wrong about all the things in the letter — immigration and white supremacy and racial justice. But I won’t know that unless we sit together. And talk together.

In the time I’ve been here, I’ve had hard conversations with a good many of you. Conversations about the role of the Jew in social justice movements, conversations about the role of non-Jews in our tradition, conversations about Israel/Palestine, conversations about b’nai mitzvah and Black Lives Matter and board policy. 

Conversations in which I had to concede that there were things I didn’t have quite right.

In every one of those conversations, I learned something. Not just about the topic, but about the person. Invariably, I left the conversation feeling closer to the other person. Because the other person was bold enough to speak honestly with me.

Because I respected them for approaching me. Because I could see that they respected me for listening to them.

Because we all have a little part of what we call the Truth.

But if, like Rebekah, we don’t share our wisdom, the result is pain and grief and discord.

We stay in our worlds, worlds of isolation and enmity, standing on ceremony and closing doors and raising walls, all of us, mild Jacobs and ruddy Esaus and Red States and Blue States and brutal battles over bowls of that red, red stuff.

We don’t live on the sets of MSNBC and Fox News. We live here. This is our community. What if we talked to each other, and listened to each other — really listened — and even if we disagreed, we knew that the voice we were hearing was the voice of the Divine?

Each one of us, whatever our politics, whatever our point of view, an emanation of Tzelem Elohim, the Image of God?

Sure, it’s no secret that I take issue with the way our president discharges his duties. Sure, I have problems with the policies he pursues, because I think they run counter to our Jewish values. But perhaps just as much, I’m troubled by his use of language. The slights, the insults, the juvenile put-downs and name-calling. Because I think they also run counter to our Jewish values.

As Rabbi Eliezer says, quoted right here on our Ark, in Pirkei Avot, Yehi chavod chaver’cha chaviv alecha k’shelach.  “Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own.”[4]

But we can’t honor each other if we don’t know who we are.  So please — make an appointment to talk to me.  Let’s meet here, or your place, or someplace else.

And let’s make a commitment, all of us, to have clear and respectful conversations. Let’s ask others, and ourselves, if our intention is open and caring when we say what we say.

And if you don’t want to approach me, come join us for services on Friday, December 8th.  Instead of a traditional drash, I’ll open up the room for discussion. For face-to-face connection. You can ask me questions about the Jewish ethics, about current affairs, about how who we are as a community should relate to who we are in the world.  You can challenge me, contradict me, correct me.  Or just bring up a question or a problem you’d like to see us address.  Or just share how you’re feeling.

I invite you to be honest.  I invite you to raise your hands, raise the blinds, look out on a new day, gaze into the rays of a new day, behold the face of the future.

I only ask one thing — of you, and of myself. Respect the person next to you. As though they are the image of the Divine. Because they are. Even when we forget.

Like Rebekah, each one of us is pregnant with twins — the twin forces of love and loathing. Let’s ask ourselves whether our speech will be a creative or destructive force.

In a time of blaring headlines and bloated tweets and showboats and braggarts and bullies, the hour calls for Jews to step forward with clear and principled Jewish words. To see each other. To see in each other the face of God.

It’s time we talked.

May I ask who’s calling?


[1] Genesis 25:22

[2] Genesis 25:23

[3] Isaiah 1:18

[4] Pirkei Avot 2:15

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782