Friday, November 15, 2013

Fear & Shame, Withdrawal & Cover-up, Perseverance & Triumph. Vayishlach

photo by Jesse Andrews, used under Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License

It is hard to imagine the impact the devastation in the Philippines has on those affected, all we can do is give them the support they need, and I would not be offering them any advice from the comfort of my Sydney home.  In less dramatic ways, like most people, I deal with a range of challenges. There are times when others can support me. Yet there are some difficulties, especially relating to the consequences of our own choices that we need to deal with, almost, alone.

There are times when we are subjected to the choices of others, either malicious or indifferent, with limited ability to protect ourselves. At such times it can become difficult to keep fighting.  Whether as a victim or a guilty party, there is the temptation to hide one’s shame. Shame can be useful, just like pain, it is a sign that some standard has been violated,  and we can negotiate with shame to contain and channel it for good. With a prayer on our lips, gratitude for what we do have, recognition of our virtues (1), we can have faith that despite the troubles we face, we may yet triumph in the end. I explore these themes through the life of Jacob, mainly as they appear in the Torah reading this week, Vayishlach.

We encounter Jacob very afraid and upset (2) about meeting his violent brother Esau who he had cheated out of their father’s blessings years earlier (3). His prayer is full of pathos, “Please save me, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children” (4). Yet, despite the urgency for Jacob, God does not reply to this prayer.

I see great symbolism in the fact that Jacob remains “alone” when he wrestles with a man (5), who commentary tells us was his brother’s guardian angel (6). Jacob prevails in his wrestle with the angel, admitting that yes he is Jacob, which means the usurper (7), yet standing his ground. The meeting with the brother works out ok, after Jacob sent him many gifts, his brother kisses him and tells him “My brother, let what is yours, be yours” (8), which is interpreted “as my brother, there is no need for the gifts” (9) and perhaps even conceding that Jacob can keep the disputed blessings (10).

Shortly after the reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob’s daughter Dina’s, an only girl among a family of boys (11), goes out to seek some female company with the local girls or alternatively she is more keen to “be seen” to show off her good looks (12). She is noticed, then abducted and raped by Shchem the son of the local ruler “who sleeps with her and pains her” (13) (see note 12 regarding the offensive linking of mode of dress with rape). When Jacob hears about the rape, he waits silently for his sons (14) and leaves them to do the talking (15). They make a dishonest offer of intermarriage with the people of Shchem on condition that all the men in Shchem circumcise themselves which enables Jacob’s sons to kill the ailing townspeople. They don’t bother to seek Jacob’s guidance or permission. Jacob’s protests weakly about PR damage and fear of reprisal. His sons dismiss his concern with a rhetorical question “should he make our sister into a harlot?!” (16). I see Jacob withdrawing from leadership because of the pain and shame of the situation.

Jacob, shattered by the episode with Dina, still manages to pull himself together to provide some religious guidance to his sons about disposing of any idols among the spoils (17). It is not long before Jacob seems to withdraw again. After his beloved wife Rachel dies, the text tells us that his son Reuben “went and slept Bilhah (this is not a typo, it does not say slept with), his father’s concubine, and Jacob heard” (18).

There is great controversy about the meaning of the verse. Some sages are adamant that it is not to be taken literally (19). It could be argued that they are seeking to whitewash or cover up what really happened according to the plain meaning of the text and the views of other sages (20). At a time when the Torah used to be translated for those who did not understand Hebrew one sage instructed the translator not to translate this verse (21). One commentator (22) cryptically suggests that the sages have interpreted this verse well, citing the proverb “and the wise, have their shame covered” (23). This view is strongly rejected, while it is “permissible” to say that Reuben did in fact sin, it is absolutely forbidden to” suggest that the sages who did not take the story literally were engaged in a cover up (24).

Certainly in the modern context we know that hiding problems such as child abuse is a terrible omission that can lead to great suffering, honour killings is another crime that might be motivated by the desire to avoid shame. According to commentary Dina has a daughter to Shchem who is later named Osnat, and her brothers want to kill the baby girl so that no one will say that the house of 

Jacob is a house of harlotry. To his credit Jacob prevents that heinous crime, but disturbingly he sends young Osnat away from home (25).  

In the end Jacob survives all these troubles. His last years are happy ones, spent with his powerful and much loved son and wonderful wife,Joseph and Osnat, yes the same Osnat daughter of Shchem and Dina (26).

 Jacob’s legacy is the existence of the Jewish people today 3000 years later, and the spreading of Biblical teachings to large parts of the human family, an amazing triumph.  He fulfilled his greater destiny, despite the tragedies and foibles along the way.

Let us all offer support to each other whenever we can, through trouble great such as the Philippines is now going through as well as small. Equally, let all of us, who face difficulties try to “feel the fear and do it anyway” (27) persistently and humbly navigating the challenges of living. 

(Thank you Donna Jacobs Sife for Edit)
References and Notes 
1)    R. Yosef Yitchak Shneerson argues that one must know ones positive points just as one must be aware of ones faults
2)    Genesis 32:8
3)    Genesis 27
4)    Genesis 32:12, (translation with minor modification from
5)    Genesis 32:15
6)    Beresheet Rabba
7)    Gensis 32:28 as interpreted by my colleague Donna Jacobs Sife
8)    Genesis 33:9
9)    Seforno
10)    Rashi, Baal Haturim, indicates that the Gematriya, the numerical value of the letters in the words אחי יהי לך אשר לך (my brother let what is yours be yours) is the same as זה הברכות they both equal the number 645.
11)    Ohr Hachayim
12)    Tanchuma Yashan Vayshlach 10 who goes on to suggest that her arm was revealed, “because it could not be that she would have gone out without covering her face” (based on Torat Cohanim and Yefat Toar),  see also in Midrash Agada, Lekach Tov cited in Torah Shlaima  Vol. 2 p. 1317-1318. I agree with the modern view that showing off her beauty is no excuse for rape, these commentaries written over a thousand years ago do not suggest that it is a justification but they do contextualise her abduction with this commentary.
13)    Genesis 34:2, which is interpreted as Shchem raping her (Ramban)
14)    Genesis 34:5, an alternative interpretation is that he is that he initially sends two servants to bring her home, Shchem and his men banish Jacob’s servants but not before Shchem sits Dina down and kissed her and hugged her in front of them. They reported back to Jacob on what they had seen. It is a this point that Jacob goes silent (Sefer Hayashar)
15)    Genesis 34:13, Radak points out that Jacob is silent while this negotiated. He does not speak falsehood with his lips but leaves it to his sons to do.
16)    Genesis 34:30-31
17)    Genesis 35:2-4
18)    Genesis 35:22, while the verse seems to suggest that he was passive, commentary suggests that he heard and rebuked him (Yalkutim Hatemanim, cited in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2 p. 1362, 96).
19)    Talmud Shabbat 55b some of the sages, Rashi, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, Chizkuni. The proof cited in support of the non-literal view is the fact that the Tribe of Reuben stands on Mt. Ebal and utters the curse against anyone who sleeps with his father’s wife, which would surely not be appropriate if this was a sin committed by the founder of their tribe and their ancestor. 
20)    Other opinions in the Talmud Shabbat 55b, Oonkelus, Bchor Shor and Radak who explains that Reuben thought that Bilhah was not really his father’s wife but a mere concubine. Another source that would not be considered authoritative is Sefer Hayovilm  33 (which was found with the dead sea scrolls). It gives a vivid description of the event.
21)    Talmud Megilah 25b
22)    Ibn Ezra
23)    Proverbs 12:16, וכסה קלון ערום
24)    Sefer Emunat Chachamim, L’Rabbi Eliezer Sar Shalom 22, cited in in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2  p. 1362, 96
25)    Midrash Mayan Ganim, manuscript, cited in cited in in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2  p. 1318, 6
26)    Genesis 41:45, as interpreted by Pirkey DRabbi Eliezer 38
27)    Susan Jeffers, the name of her excellent book, an earlier variation of this concept is also articulated by Abarbanel.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Humanity of Perpetrators

I have been thinking about three people who can be described as perpetrators of crimes: one, who inspired me in Bondi last week; another is a member of the group of men and boys who attacked several Jewish people on a Friday night in Bondi. The third case involves a man we will call H who was arrested this week and charged with sexual abuse. I also seek some insights about these events from the Torah reading that tells of a villain named Esau and the context of his upbringing.

Last week, I encountered a young man named Jimmy, with an inspirational story: Jimmy has a history of crime, stealing his first car when he was 12 years old. Jimmy is of Aboriginal heritage but knew nothing about his heritage growing up. Later, he was reticent about telling anyone about his heritage because he thought they would think he was looking for a handout. He was ashamed of being Aboriginal. He told his mother he was disappointed with his first 8-month jail sentence. He considered it too short for him - he actually preferred a longer sentence which would have given him some status. Some years later, now the father of a young girl, he received an 8-year sentence. During this period, he made a choice to go straight because “I didn’t want to not be there for my daughter - to be the kind of dad that my dad was, never being there for me”.

Jimmy got permission for day release from prison to work in the community- based “Our Big Kitchen” in Bondi, where he was welcomed. He developed a talent for baking Challah (the Jewish Sabbath bread).  He was very shy at first, even running away when asked to talk to a group of pre-school children, but eventually his confidence grew. Last week he addressed a group of Muslim, Jewish and other students at an interschool program I led under the banner of Together For Humanity. He powerfully illustrated the idea that every human being should be thought of as a human being; the crimes or lesser sins committed by people are one important element of who they are, but not their essence. Jimmy is rising above his crimes by his choices.

The second case is far from inspiring. I have known the Jewish family who were attacked on a Bondi street since the 1990’s; one teaches at a school my children attend. She is a warm, kind and personable woman.  I am disgusted by the attack on them and especially about the significant anti-Semitic nature of the attack.

I was saddened to learn that some of the perpetrators of the attack on this lovely family were apparently Pacific Islanders , although somewhat relieved that the attackers were not Muslims. The organisation I lead, Together For Humanity, works intensively with Arabic Muslim and Pacific Islander teenagers not much older than this alleged perpetrator. There are significant challenges for these boys who are coming from a different world, where there is a great emphasis on family and different ways of showing respect. Pacific Islander students show respect by looking down and “not answering back” in a culture (ours) that values eye contact and verbal communication when dealing with a problem (see embedded video that features Pacific Islander Academic Dr Jioji Ravulo taken from . Newspapers quoted the boy’s mother talking about his problems with alcohol. Like Jimmy, he has spent time in Juvenile Detention, and - I suspect - sought glory or pleasure in “badness”. Unlike Jimmy, he has not yet made a choice to turn his life around.

Very disturbing in a different way is the recent arrest for sex offences of a man I knew in the 1990’s as a fun, dedicated, altruistic, somewhat wild, community volunteer, always smiling, often busy helping people with Mezuza scrolls and making their homes Kosher. Normally, when I hear about sexual abuse, I think about the terrible ordeal of the victims, the perpetrators being viewed as one- dimensional, evil monsters. Yet, this man H, whatever terrible harm he has inflicted on his young victims and the absolute primacy of justice for the current and potential victims, is a multi-dimensional human being. In addition to the tragedy and the terrible costs borne by his victims, it is very sad for him and his family. I shudder to think about what darkness in his soul drove him to commit the acts he allegedly committed. 

Esau, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, is generally thought of as a villain in Judaism. Unlike Jimmy, Esau’s father is not absent. In fact, we are told that he loved Esau although the love is conditional upon the meat he is able to hunt and bring to his dad . Still, it is not smooth sailing. We are told that his mother Rebecca loved Jacob. This is understood to mean that she did not love Esau because she recognised his wickedness . It is further suggested that it is, only when the “the lads grow up ”, that anyone pays attention to their unique natures: Esau was a man of the field while Jacob sat and studied in tents. The parents fail to recognize or notice Esau’s character, with all the “strength, energy, agility, and courage that lie slumbering in this child ”. Esau was the first born son in a culture in which the first born was to be treated with a measure of deference. Esau is further alienated when Jacob figures out a way to free himself from these customs  by purchasing the Birth-Right for a pot of lentils , legally displacing Esau from his elevated position.

In many conversations about offences, there is an either/or approach to the issues. One is either tough on crime with mandatory sentences, pink prison clothes and throwing away the key, or one is a bleeding heart, soft on crime, caring only about the perpetrators and not the victims. This is a false choice. We can forcefully condemn crimes against people because of their race and the exploitation of children, and insist that, no matter what their circumstances, people are responsible for their choices. At the same time, we can also recognise the humanity, the struggles and social context of those human beings who have chosen at certain moments of their life to be perpetrators . May we succeed as a community to maintain justice and order while also improving the conditions in which young people and older people find themselves, so that they are less likely to be drawn towards choosing to do evil.

  video by Dr Jioji Ravulo at
  Genesis 25:28
  Genesis 25:27
  Samson Raphael Hirsch
  Genesis 25:30-33
  Do  not judge your fellow until you have been in their place, Pirkey Avod 2:4 as discussed in Tanya 30