Friday, November 5, 2010

Do the ends justify the means? The midterm elections and biblical politics

Parashat Toldot 11/6/2010
The midterm election cycle challenged us to think hard about whether the ends justify the means. We endured wild stories about the candidates. So often we observe how politicians will say anything and do almost anything to win. Surely this is reality in a democratic system. What one can just never be absolutely sure is whether the means justifies the ends and whether power serves principle or the reverse where principles serve power.
Can we fathom that same description of biblical characters in the Torah? Does this week’s parashah Toldot demonstrate a Machiavellian-type strategy inside the patriarchal family’s bid to preserve and continue God’s covenant from one generation to the next? The protective mother Rebecca and son Jacob lie, cheat and steal to make sure that this favored son receives the covenantal blessing over the other twin sibling Esau. Again we ask does power serve an honorable principle? Are the means of treachery employed in this story justified because of the end game which is that Jacob must receive the covenantal blessing?
We feel God’s hand in the mix of it all but we cannot see God directly intervening. Humankind is left to figure it all out who will succeed Isaac, the son of Abraham, to shepherd this tribe to fulfill the divine promise. And as usual when we leave it to humans to play out a divine drama we can rest assured that they will muddle their way through it leaving behind plenty of collateral damage.  By the way I am speaking about the story of Rebecca and Jacob tricking the patriarch Isaac into believing he was bestowing the patriarchal blessing on Esau when it was, in fact, Jacob, one could think I was imagining some script of political intrigue in a familial battle to wrestle control of the family fortune. The story simply does not exhibit the noblest quality of ethical behavior.
But it is there and it survived as a critical narrative in the rough and tumble world of succession politics with the stakes being the future of God’s plan for the Jewish people.  Are we not supposed to live in a world where we aspire and inspire to take the moral high ground? What can we learn about doing good from a story about betrayal of one family member against the other? Before I answer my own question I remind us of a principle I have held fast to when studying Torah stories: The flaws of biblical characters represent paradigms of our own moral challenges. Thus we don’t have to learn only from exemplary behavior but we can watch the struggle of how imperfect people fulfill the divine will in profoundly flawed and human ways.
That is the why I draw a connection between the recent elections and our story in the Torah.  At the end of the day we see equally flawed characters becoming leaders of our nation and we still must acknowledge that they are now our leaders. Should we ascribe high marks for ethical behavior to Rebecca and Jacob? Apologists for them will argue that they did what was necessary to guarantee the proper succession plan from one generation to the next.  I am not willing to throw Rebecca under the bus just yet. She may have been wiser at second thought for what she sacrificed in her family and how she saved an entire people! Should we apply that same thinking in the aftermath of this year’s election? I will leave that conclusion to you.
In last week’s parasha Haye Sarah the once barren Rebecca prays and God visits her with children. She gives birth to twins and Esau being the first born whereas Jacob was the younger. Esau was the athlete and Jacob the geek. Jacob tricks his brother out of the favorite son status by getting him to give up his birthright for a stew that Jacob prepared. How shortsighted of the elder brother that he would sell everything for a short term fix because he was just hungry. That killed his chances of ever being considered a serious candidate for Patriarch.
Then we have the scene in this week’s parasha Toldot when Rebecca plots the entire sting beginning with Isaac her own husband. Just imagine a wife conspiring with one child over the other to trick Dad in writing his will to bequeath money to one son over the other. Yet when Jacob dresses up as Esau and presents his father Isaac’s favorite food that Rebecca had prepared, Isaac, despite his apparent physical impairments senses that something is wrong and says, “The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau.”
Remember context is everything. Does Isaac say it out loud? Or is he saying it to himself? Does he know that it is a trick on him? Or has he too come to the same conclusion that despite the time honored tradition of the first born inheriting the covenantal blessing, the real concern is that the divinely chosen successor be the second born Jacob? Is he playing along in this façade knowing full well that it was indeed Jacob dressed in Esau’s clothing?
When Esau comes back to receive his blessing, both he and Isaac discover that Jacob duped them.  The Torah describes Isaac as shocked when he hears Esau’s ranting that he was a victim of Jacob’s manipulation. He gives him a second tier blessing but it in no way equals the power and importance of the first blessing Isaac invoked upon Jacob.
From that point Isaac becomes less important in the narrative and the focus of the Torah is upon Jacob. Esau will go his own way to meet up again with his brother years from now. They will reconcile but never be close. Tragically Rebecca will never see her son Jacob again by sending him back to Haran to live with her father Laban.  Jacob will meet Rachel and then Leah starting the lineage of the great tribes of Israel later on in Genesis. We know little else about Rebecca. How could she have not lived with some guilt and sorrow for what she did to Esau? How does she face up to what she did by manipulating the events of her sons’ and husband’s lives?
The emotional cost of seeing the covenantal blessing go to Jacob is never discussed. Esau gets what Isaac promised. He is blessed with material wealth and power. He apparently gets over this anger and moves on in his life as long as he gets his share of the material prosperity and power. Finally Jacob must go on his own odyssey of living 14 years under Laban to win Rachel and Leah as his wives. At this point of the Jacob stories his challenge is just beginning. It is to grow from being a pawn of familial politics into the patriarchal leader of a great tribal system.
 So much of Jacob’s rise to prominence is about struggle. It is also about being patient given that he must remain under his father in-law’s employment for 14 years to marry Rachel. But at one point he picks up and leaves with both sisters and their maidservants and children violating the terms of his marriage agreement. Maybe there is a pattern of an independence streak in our biblical characters. So still we ask if Jacob’s actions of fleeing Laban and Haran were honorable or not?

We return to the meaning of this story in our own lives.  The horses have left the barn in this year’s mid-term elections. A new crop of elected officials will enter office in Federal, State, County and municipal offices. Now is the time for real prayer for our nation’s leaders. We have good reason to pray for them. Some will say it is naïve but praying that all our elected officials rise to the occasion and seize the moral high ground to be the best elected representatives that their constituencies deserve is a hope or goal which is worthy of our prayers.
Yes it may be that we cannot surrender our political savvy nor our own ethics to our hopes despite recognizing the perils and temptation of high office to corrupt even the best leaders. Similarly we must face the reality that our matriarchs and patriarchs struggled to reconcile their sense of the world with a vision that God wanted them to fulfill. Their intention was not personal gain but the plan to fulfill the divine plan was deeply flawed from our vantage point. We cannot abandon principles such as transparency and honesty. On the other hand we weren’t there in biblical times either. The moral imperative was not about the principles of being good. Instead the moral imperative was about doing God’s will. One could say that this is a story that shows how the end justifies the means. Our forbearers could do what they did to Esau and to Jacob and live with themselves afterwards because of a higher moral calling. I advise that we pray for Rebecca respecting her political skills but not losing sight that her mindset was for a higher purpose that transcended the best interests and stability of her own family and herself. For that reason does she not deserve our respect?
Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Hereafter

I went to see the new Matt Kamon movie "Hereafter." Clint Eastwood directed it. Damon plays a pyschic who when he touches the hands of another person can see into the Hereafter and tell the person what  their deceased loved is saying to the living individual. He sees this unique talent as a curse and tries to give it up striving for a normal life. The other two subplots show a french television news caster who survived a tsunammi and who died but was able to be resuscitated back to life. She is on a journey to understand the hereafter. The other story is a boy who loses his twin brother and is searching for a way to communicate with his deceased brother. At the end of the movie, Damon meets the woman and falls in love and then meets the boy and channels his brother's messages to move on with his life. All live happily ever after.
The Hereafter reflects an underlying message in religion which is what happens after I die? It is a timeless question we wrestle with throughout our lives. I once heard the great sage Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel respond to this question by saying that when it comes to the Hereafter, "Its God's business." Traditional Judaism believes in the Hereafter and has many different images that describe it. But Judaism does not advocate one particular way of thinking about the Hereafter. We believe in resurrection of the dead even though liberal Judaism does not focus on it like traditional Judaism does.
I too have struggled with this question all my life. I remember visiting the grave of John Kennedy at Arlington cemetary as an 8 year old when I first  thought about it. It scared me then because it was at that moment that I realized that I too would die one day.
As a rabbi I have buried many and washed bodies in the traditional ritual of tahara. It really comes down to a matter of faith. I have never seen any proof positive of the existance of a Hereafter so I just live with that hope despite the fact that I cannot comprehend it.
I fully respect the fact that people need to believe in it and that many religions have very active concepts of the Hereafter in their religious systems. That is fine.  Our rational way of thinking debunks the existance of the Hereafter but the emotional side holds onto the hope that maybe just maybe there is something afterwards. Maybe we need that hope even though our purpose for living is to do the best we can to live ethical lives.
I just don't think it is my right to take away a person's hope even if I am sceptical of the existence of the hereafter.
I do not believe that the Hereafter  is a heaven and a hell. Yes, I think about it and wonder what if I am wrong? But I know that there are some issues out of my control and this is one of them. So I advise; don't sweat the things we can't control.