Sunday, December 30, 2012

Parshat Vayehi

This piece was delivered as a talk at Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park on Saturday, December 29, 2012. 

This week's parshah is Va-yekhi, that last in the book of Bereshit. It recounts the promise Joseph made to bring Jacob's body back to the land of Israel for burial; Jacob's adoption of Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe and the intentionally reversed blessings his gives them; Jacob's testament to his other sons (one can scarcely call some of them “blessings”), and then the aftermath of Jacob's death. It is here that I want to focus.

Read 50:15

So they're afraid that Joseph is Michael Corleone and they are 10 Fredos. But in case you needed to be told, that's not the case.

Read 16-17

So they lie, basically. Comparison to God misquoting Sarah's words in Gen 18.

Read 18-21

It's interesting to see what is said here, and what isn't said. What do they want? Forgiveness. What does he say in response? 1) I'm not in place of God, it's not up to me to exact punishment, and 2) you meant it for ill, but God meant it for good.

It occurs to me there's a psychological truth here that we need to notice. And let's begin by asking a question. Why is he called by the tradition “Joseph the tzaddik” the righteous one. First he's a callow youth who can't keep his dreams to himself, then he's a bit of a climber, maybe even a schemer, rising to the top of whatever establishment he finds himself in – Potiphar's house, Pharaoh's kingdom – the midrash even says he was basically running the jail when he was there.

Yet here he is, the most powerful man in Egypt, with every reason in the world to stick it to his brothers, yet he chooses not to – why? Joseph chose to believe that his role was divinely ordained – that it was God's will that he end up in his position of power in Egypt, to help his family and the many others that he helped. One cannot reconcile this approach with holding a many-decade-long resentment of the way he was treated way back when. The two cannot be reconciled psychologically. Joseph chose to be psychologically healthy, and the way he had to be healthy was not to obsess about what had happened to him in the past, and who made it happen to him.

It reminds me of Victor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz and went on to develop a long career as a psychologist. In his book, “Man's Search for Meaning” he came to the remarkable conclusion that even in the most absurd, painful and dehumanized situation, such as the one faced by inmates in the camps, that life has potential meaning and therefore even suffering is meaningful. He says that one of the differences between survival and not, and after the war the difference between a life consumed by the demons of memory, or not, is the ability to see meaning in what has occurred.

Extraordinary that the Torah is able to get to this psychological truth thousands of years ago.

In an account of a particularly bad moment Frankl talks about seeing the face of his wife, and he says, “The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in the world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”

And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.” 
Maimonides mentions that there are three steps to teshuvah, or repentance from a sin – 1) recognition that the action taken was wrong, 2) regret, and third, when the opportunity to do the same thing happens again, the opportunity is not taken.

We see all of these in the story of Joseph and his brothers. When in parshat Mi-ketz (Gen 42:21) Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, wants one of them to stay while the others go home to get the youngest brother, they say, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.” And then when he plants the cup on Benjamin, he is testing his brothers, and when at the beginning of parshat Va-yiggash (Gen 44:18) Judah pleads for his brother, and offers himself in Benjamin's stead, Joseph knows that they have made full teshuvah.

And that's the end of the matter for him. Any other punishment that the brothers may face will have to come from God. The fact that they held on to their fear of what would happen after their father's death for all those years is what pains him.

What does Joseph not offer them? The one thing they ask for - forgiveness. In fact Joseph never mentions forgiveness in any of his conversations with his brothers. It's often struck me that the ritual offering and accepting of apologies is the most superficial form of reconciliation. What are we saying when we forgive someone? Oh, that's okay, never mind, don't worry about it. Does that accomplish what it's intended to? Joseph recognizes that just as it's not his role to punish, neither is it really his role to forgive. He puts it behind him – that's what allows him to be psychologically healthy, even “righteous” - and it's enough.

Difficult to do, though, on the personal or on the political level.

Some of the people who are the most admirable in history show this same ability to put their resentments to the side. I think of someone like Nelson Mandela, who spent 24 years in prison in the harshest and most inhumane environment and yet came out dedicated not to violent revenge but to a peaceful transition for his nation.

And in fact this tendency was lived out on a institutional by the truth and reconciliation commission in post-apartheid South Africa. Victims of human rights violations during the apartheid era gave statements about their experiences, and perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. Owning up to what they had done, honestly and openly, was the condition of reconciliation. The issue was forgiveness, it was honesty, taking responsibility, and it allowed the society to move forward with a marked lack of expiatory bloodshed.

And it's this approach that is markedly missing in the current situation in Israel/Palestine. If you follow spokespeople of either side in the press or on twitter you'll see a lot of people talking past each other. Each side has a laundry list of wrongs done to it by the other. And each side is right. If a report from human rights watch or some similar organization comes out, the parts that support our side are trumpeted, and the parts that support the other side are either ignored or are seen as evidence of bias or hatred.

One particular attempt to move past this battle of justifiable homicide is in the The Parents Circle - Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Palestinian Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the conflict. Sharing their stories, sharing their grief, has allowed them to humanize the so-called other, and to point the way to a resolution of the conflict based not on victory but on reconciliation and mutual respect. They were portrayed in the documentary film “Encounter Point.”

But the other significant dynamic in the story of Joseph and his brothers is that the power relationship is very one-sided. Joseph could do anything he wants to just about anyone he wants, and his righteousness comes from the fact that he doesn't. He chooses not to.

The dynamic between Israel and the Palestinians is also one-sided. Here I'm going to talk about the PA, Abbas' quasi-government, because the situation is Gaza is more complex. But in regard to the Palestinians in the West Bank: Israel has the army, Israel has the economy, Israel has the unquestioning support of the United States. And Abbas' government has done all what it's been asked to do in terms of protecting Israel's security and building the infrastructure of statehood – as the American negotiators and even many Israelis will tell you. But instead of using its strength to pursue reconciliation, Israel keeps pressing its advantage – now announcing plans to build thousands of new housing units in East Jerusalem and in the area between Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim called E-1. These provocative gestures threaten both the possibility of a two-state solution and the relationship between Israel and the United States.

This is why I and over 600 of my rabbinic colleagues have signed an open letter sponsored, by Rabbis for Human Rights-North American and J Street, to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, asking him to desist from these plans, and to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible, before it's too late.

The letter quotes Pirke Avot 1:12 in telling us, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving humankind and bringing them closer to the Torah." But it could just as easily reference our parshah today. Joseph is a man of great power, and a lot of justification for using it unwisely, should he have chosen to. But he recognizes that what's done is done, and that it is neither productive nor healthy to keep stewing on it. Rather, let the focus be on, as the Torah says later, “seeking peace and pursuing it.” Then we and our Israeli cousins will live up to the legacy that Joseph the tzadik, Joseph the righteous one, leaves for us.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Parshat Breishit: Caring for God's Creation

This article was published in the October 11, 2012 edition of the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. 

This week's parshah tells of God's creation of the world and of the first few generations of human beings. Although this section has often been used to suggest permission for a cavalier attitude toward the natural world, a careful reading shows the deep responsibility human beings have to care for God's Creation.

The issue is best seen in two different verses describing the creation of human beings. In chapter 1, verse 27 we read: “And God created man in God's image, after God's likeness; male and female God created them. God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth.'”

The word for “master” in this passage is kibush, which means “dominate” or “occupy.” This passage seems to say that the sole purpose for the world and all that is in it is for human beings to use as they see fit.

But the issue is not left there, and the passage is balanced by a second one, found in chapter 2, verse 15: “God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.” The words for “till” is oved (literally, work) and the word for “tend” is shomer (literally, guard). The clear connotation\ of this passage is protection or stewardship.

I don't want to dismiss the first passage for the second, and in fact there's no question that humans have the ability, and even divine permission, to use the resources available to us on Earth for the benefit of human life. But - and it's a big but – we are not permitted to use God's creation in profligate or careless ways. We do not own the Earth – God does; we are God's caretakers, tasked with making sure that the world continues to be able to support our lives and the lives of the other creatures with which we share it.

That's why, over time, Judaism has developed values that support the responsible stewardship of Creation. One such value is baal tashhit (do not waste). Each and every one of us breaks this directive every day. We waste food – Americans waste more than 40 percent of the food we produce for consumption. We waste energy - more than half (58%) of the total energy produced in the US is wasted due to inefficiencies. We waste water – watering our lawns can use almost as much water in an hour as an average family of four uses in one day. The way we transport ourselves, and heat and light our homes, contributes to global climate change, which is causing non-human species to die-off and makes it much harder for many people, especially those in the least privileged areas of the world, to get the resources they need to survive and thrive. In these ways and many others we are failing to fulfill God's instruction to “till and tend” creation.

The Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) says, “Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And everything I made, I created for you. Be careful [though] that you don’t spoil or destroy my world — because if you spoil it, there is nobody after you to fix it.”

The reading this week of Parshat Breishit is a chance to remind ourselves of, and rededicate ourselves to, our responsibility to care for God's Creation.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Agenda 21: Cons' New Con

I know that you, dear reader, have probably never heard of UN Agenda 21. That's because you are not imbued in rightwing talk radio. So let me enlighten you: Agenda 21 is the latest conspiracy theory on the right, partner of climate denial, sister to birtherism and directly descended from the black helicopter UN conspiracy theories of the 1990s.

In brief: at the UN environmental conference in Rio in 1992, 178 countries adopted Agenda 21, which “is a comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken globally, nationally, and locally by organizations of the UN, governments, and major groups in every area in which humans directly affect the environment.” It sets as a goal sustainable development (defined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”) and the assistance of the rich countries to the poor to help them meet their development needs sustainably. The first paragraph of the preamble reads
    1. Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can - in a global partnership for sustainable development.
which is true enough. But - and this is a key point - Agenda 21 is legally non-binding. It is up to each country to implement its goals in keeping with its own and values, and there is a preference for cooperative and international coordination efforts. It also call for liberalized trade policies, which should be a winner for the market-based among us.

But what it says doesn't really matter. Agenda 21 was mostly a forgotten corner of the UN universe until it became a cause celebre on the right. It appears that every time a bikepath or a water management issue is on the agenda at a planning committee, county commission, or regional council in a red state, right wing activists come to complain about Agenda 21, claiming that all sustainability planning is but the thin wedge of a UN effort toward world government, the elimination of private property, and surrender of the keys to our cars.

Recently this has risen (sic) to the level of legislative action. This article in Inside Climate News sums up all the action in the various (5) states in which legislation has been introduced. In Kansas a florid and alarmist resolution was recently passed by the House. The text is here, but the gist is captured by the title:

A RESOLUTION opposing and exposing the radical nature of United Nations Agenda 21 and its destructiveness to the principles of the founding documents of the United States of America.

They removed the words “socialist and communist” to pretend at compromise.

There was also an incident at the county commission in Sedgwick County, where Wichita is. An oped from the Wichita Eagle on the matter is here.

I went to a hearing at the House Energy and Utilities Committee to testify against the resolution, and I was struck by the alarmist tenor of the comments by its proponents. The upshot is that if you are trying to do any sustainability work in the state, you are either a part of the UN conspiracy or an unknowing dupe. The idea that planning officials could be doing their best to make responsible decisions that benefit their constituents and tread lightly on the earth is not one of the options.

Although the resolution was tabled in the E&U committee, the proponents got it through the more reliable Federal and State Affairs Committee, and then it was passed by the House by a comfortable margin.

I had to decide how serious an issue this was, whether it was deserving of the effort it took to write and go to deliver the testimony. On the one hand, it's rightwing crackpotism writ large, more appropriate to mock than to be taken seriously (and in fact mockery was a large part my approach, including the words “black helicopters” and "patent nonsense" into the official record). On the other hand, a lot of mischief can be done when no one's looking, and as it turned out in both committees I was the only one to testify against the bill. (In the Fed and State Committee my testimony was read into the record by Zack Pistora, the Sierra Club's lobbyist. I was not available that day and chose not to rearrange my life to chase this phantom.)

The reason I took it seriously at all is because I see it as the next beachhead for the climate denying, fossil-fuel serving, will-of-ALEC-doing crowd. With the wall of climate denial breaking down ever so slightly, the next tactic is to take perfectly reasonable public policies (bike paths) and tar them as but tactics of the evil UN.

Just to remind: sustainability is the effort to make sure that the development decisions we make do not do harm to the earth as we take what we need. There are numerous actions we can take, some simple and some more complex, to mitigate the impact we have on the environment, including transitioning to cleaner, renewable sources of energy, lowering our reliance on fossil-fuel powered transportation, being more conscious of our impact on creation with the development decisions we make, and in general being better and more responsible stewards of the earth which God has given us. It's a happy fact that these activities can also help providing vital jobs and economic activity throughout the state. 
In addition to the fevered-rightwing-imaginings aspect of this, there is a cui bono aspect. There's a reason that there's no one concerned about Agenda 21 who is not already a stone climate denier. It is not a real issue at all, but rather a strawman, a tactic to be used by those who have political, philosophical or economic opposition to any kind of sustainable development, clean energy, or Earth Care generally. 

We have not heard the end of this. Next year it will come back with a limitation on state spending, and that's when the joke will be over and it will get serious.  

Update: an article on Huffington Post on this whole thing.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

“Never Again” and Climate Change

Today is Yom Ha'Shoah, the day on which the international Jewish community commemorates the destruction of 6,000,000 Jews, and virtually the entire, 900-year-old culture of European Jewry, by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It is a somber day, obviously; commemorative ceremonies will include testimonies from witnesses and survivors, candlelighting ceremonies, readings, reflective music and prayer, including the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

One of the watchwords that came out of this terrible experience for contemporary Jews is, Never again. Now, exactly what is meant by “never again” depends in large part on who is saying it: to some, it refers specifically to the Jewish people, and means that a powerful Israel will never again allow Jews around the world to be helpless victims of cruel regimes.

Others, though, take a more universal message from the phrase: never again will we allow an entire people to be destroyed by a more powerful group. This is the impetus behind Jewish communal involvement in the war in Bosnia some years ago, or recent activities on behalf of the people of Darfur, in the Sudan. When it comes to conflicts such as these, the most powerful term in the Jewish lexicon is genocide. If something is defined as a genocide, you can be sure that Jewish organizations large and small, local and national, will be in the lead in attempting to find solutions, and failing that, to protecting the people who have fallen victim to these conflicts.

It so happens that Yom Ha'Shoah often falls in close proximity to Earth Day, and this has led me to think about whether the term “never again” can be applied to the environmental challenges the world is facing. After all, we are in a period of rapid climatological changes, which are expected to have serious repercussions for people around the world. These will include the destruction of coastline communities due to rising sea levels; the loss of access to fresh water caused by the melting of glacial water sources; increased desertification and loss of agricultural capacity due to changing rainfall patters; what are called “disease vector shifts,” where diseases move into areas that are less accustomed to them and therefore less able to deal with them, and more. The US' national security leadership is concerned about greater numbers of what are called climate refugees – masses of people who will need to move across countries and continents simply to find the resources they need to survive.

The thing is, you see, that we're the ones causing all of this. You, and me, and everyone we know – by our profligate use of fossil fuels – coal for electricity, oil for transportation and everything else we use oil for, gas for heating. Plane travel. Industrial agriculture. Our modern lifestyle is already causing and will continue to cause increasing hardship for people all over the world, people who have neither the responsibility for the problem nor the resources to deal with it.

And for some reason, or for some number of reasons, we seem to have more or less decided not to do anything about it. We'd rather close our eyes and ears to the problem than take the steps that would address it, if those steps would inconvenience us.

The UN defines genocide as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” Perhaps you'll be relieved to know that's I don't think that's what we're doing. It's not deliberate, and it's not aimed at at any specific group of people. Is there such a thing as manslaughter, or of criminally negligent homicide - of whole populations? Because that, we are doing.

Perhaps the term “never again” isn't the right one. After all, what we are seeing and will see in terms of climate change has not happened before in human history. But the idea behind never again – the idea that the lesson of the Holocaust is that it is our human responsibility to protect the weak and powerless, that if they are destroyed it is our collective human responsibility – that surely applies.

Let's hope that in years to come we are not lighting candles and singing somber songs and saying kaddish for for the earth and its peoples that we ourselves have helped to destroy. Let's instead begin to take the actions that can stop this process for happening. Let's not have to say never again, again.