A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 11.19.2020

Unsettled.  That seems to be the operative word right now.  We feel unsettled.  President-Elect Biden has won the election, but for the first time in our history the current president refuses to acknowledge his victory and concede. Does this flagrant violation of norms endanger us? Almost certainly. What damage, in the meantime, is being done to the republic? To our faith in the electoral system? To the stability of the incoming government? So we are unsettled. We are in limbo. The Covid-19 situation gets more and more dire across the country, but now there is the promise of a vaccine. How will it be distributed? How long will it take until we can “come out” again? How many more people will get sick or die? We don’t know. We are, again, in a state of limbo, unsettled.

In a funny way, our weekly Torah reading, parashat Toldot, reflects this state.  We are at a mid-point.  For the past three weeks, we have read many challenging stories about the founding couple, Abraham and Sarah, and we have followed Abraham’s complex relationship with God. This week, we meet the character Jacob (and his brother Esau).  It’s not long into the parasha before Jacob steals the show, first tricking his older brother into selling the birthright (which gives him a greater inheritance) and then participating in a ruse (orchestrated by his mother Rebecca) to steal the all-important blessing from their father.  The rest of the Book of Genesis will be about Jacob and his sons (I would argue that Jacob remains at the heart of the Joseph narrative).

So what about poor Isaac? Isaac is our limbo – our transitional figure.  The Torah gives us next to no information about this patriarch – his character is largely undeveloped.  We have a few tidbits – he loves his wife, he re-digs wells that his father had dug, he loses his sight. But there are no significant stories in which he is the central or substantial character.  It’s as if his job is to get us from point A to point B. And true to form, this figure of limbo-ness leaves us rather unsettled. At the reading’s end, Isaac’s death is uncertain (he believes he is about to die, even though he will live for many more years). His younger son (yes, they were twins, but Jacob is still the “younger”) is a fugitive from his older brother who has vowed to kill him. Everything is uncertain – this episode has ended and now we have to wait until next week to find out…!

I don’t know how our national drama will end. As readers of the Torah, we can flip forward and find out that Joseph saves his family and Egypt from starvation and is reunited with his beloved father and brother. As Americans, we don’t have that luxury. But as I spoke about a few weeks ago, we are the agents of change – we work in tandem with God, or follow the divine plan, and, at least to some degree, hold our own fate in our hands. And how do we exercise that agency? On one level, by being evangelists of justice and righteousness, goodness and kindness, wherever we can.  By encountering God, as Rabbi Sacks said, in the face of the stranger.

This Sunday, we will have such an opportunity. Incredibly, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. This 2-decade tradition began as a partnership between EMJC and Our Lady of Refuge RC Church and over the years has expanded to include other groups and other faiths.  For some years now, we have worked in friendship and collaboration with the Turkish Cultural Center and B’ShERT Reform Temple. This Sunday at 3:30, we’ll convene on Zoom to celebrate “peace, love, and understanding.” I can confidently say there’s no other place where you can hear Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluyah” sung in seven different languages. This is important work. Please join us. 

With many blessings for a Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Rabbi Sam Levine