Manhattan. 11 o’clock at night. Breathless after another session of Israeli dancing in the city where one can dance more than 7 times a week, I grab my stuff and run to the subway. There is a moment of hesitation – how “sketch” is it going to be? – but the subway is packed full with people of all colors, ages and styles. I walk in nonchalantly as if I’ve done this forever too, leaning on the bar, then eye the other passengers, wondering: do I already look like one of them or can they tell?
I too have stuffed extra gloves in my pockets and bag; I got my leg warmers on; my scarf wrapped around; and my black bottoms. But the flowery dress. I’m thinking, I’ll need to work on those flowers.
This Torah, this journey, this week:
“The worst punishment that ever happened to us, is to confuse our languages”, says my friend, Sophia about last week’s Torah portion. “Look at us. We still haven’t recovered”.
I agree. And the question is, just like with the Garden of Eden and other consequences since, what opportunities were created with this one? What was easy before and perhaps taken for granted, and now has become a place for us to correct, to reinstate the understanding of one language, to pay much greater attention to in each other, knowing very well we do not speak the same language??
Abraham shows up on the Torah stage on the heels of – not Noah, as we often compare the two, but the Tower of Babel; and the first commandment that G-d has for him is, lech lecha, literally – go to yourself, go- figure it out. Leave everything familiar, because you can’t think where everything has been chewed and prescribed for you by others; embark on your own journey, because – going on your own journey, finding your own path, turning on that light within you, that can, should and will – be a blessing to everyone around you.
I know there are lots of other ways to understand this week’s opening verse – we can talk about faith and dedication, about the first monotheist, and some, I’m sure, will say, see? we should all make aliya and move to Israel…
After weeks of warm sunlight, the day after the elections in NYC, it’s dark, chilly and rainy. There is a feeling of gloom, disbelief, devastation, an end, and a great fear of what’s coming.
On that Tuesday evening, I facilitate a program at our Yeshiva – a thought provoking film and discussion about women’s issues. Some of those I invite apologize for not being able to attend because they have an elections party to go to. When I ask, how do they know who’s going to win, they look at me as if for me to imply that it can be anything but what they think, is to be out of my mind.
More than the results themselves, I’m saddened by the shock they cause; that throughout this elections season, I didn’t have one thoughtful conversation with anyone who doesn’t agree with me – no slogans, no idiotic statements, but a true dialog; that I too am fearful, impatient and threatened by the prospect of hearing someone “different”.
The famous story about Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish comes to mind: when Reish Lakish died, Rabbi Yochanan was heartbroken for losing not only his brother in law but his dear brilliant trusted chavruta. The rabbis contemplate how to console him and send another sage to learn with him, but when he agrees with everything, Rabbi Yochanan exclaims in anguish: ‘Don’t you think I know I’m right?? Where oh where is Reish Lakish who would argue with me, thus helping me to sharpen my thinking?’
When I drove across the “fly over” middle states this past summer, friends from the edges told me how sorry they were that I’m in “Trump country”. Some of these people are very open minded; open to everything – women’s rights, gay marriage, poor and needy everywhere, progressive laws – but, they did not personally know any one Trump supporter. Because they are “open”.
Openness, it turns out, can be very closed. And should you be a Trump supporter, don’t yet smile and be smug about it because it’s true on both sides, each with their own self-righteousness and hubris.
A lot of humility is needed the day after. And a new journey.
We, who have been reading about Abraham forever, think we know the answer; we know the rest of the verse and from it, deduce what the beginning should mean, but what if, for a moment, we stayed with just the beginning; with the injunction to go; to get unstuck from our spot somewhere halfway along the path; to leave the comfort of our preconceived notions and head to the land which will be shown, a land we do not yet know?
True openness is very scary but – it also introduces hope. Ironically, the most scared we should be when things are perfect, because there is nowhere to go from the top but down. But when things are “broken”, however we perceive it, there is room for us to do and things to happen; and maybe we don’t know how it’s all supposed to work out.
So this is how I’d like to read this week’s Torah portion this year:
In conjunction with the elections’ results, whatever anyone of us thought, whoever we all voted for, let’s take a deep breath. Then let’s find someone who thinks exactly the opposite; someone with whom we profoundly disagree; someone who’s out of our element and might take us out too. Invite that person for coffee. Pack lightly for that meeting: leave the assumptions, the fear, the ‘what you thought you knew you thought the person is thinking’ – behind… Listen. Yes, they might say things that will drive you crazy; they might even say things in order to drive you crazy. So what. Go crazy a little. Get another coffee. Maybe a mimosa. Or a glass of wine. And something to eat. Plan to sit for a while. Listen some more. It takes time and hard work to bridge all the different languages we’ve developed, but then, you might learn that they are scared too; that they are unsure; and that although differently, they care too. You might find hope along the way after all.
As I write, galgalatz announces that singer, “rabbi” to many, Leonard Cohen died at 82. His deep voice echoes with hope. Earlier this week, we quote him in class:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”
May his memory be a blessing.