Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye – Shabbat Va’era 5780 (2020)

‘Hear ye. Hear ye. Hear ye.’

Daily, those words have opened the impeachment trial proceedings this week. Many words have already been spoken from the well of the Senate chamber, with many days’ worth still to come. How many have been heard? How many will be heard? And by whom? Who’s listening, and to what exactly? Who’s willing, who’s able, to hear?

Parashat Va’era raises a similar set of questions. In Aviva Zornberg’s description, “The crisis in the drama of redemption…could be sketched with a kind of structural simplicity: God’s will (and) message of redemption is blocked by all three human protagonists: by Pharaoh, by the Israelites, and by Moses himself. Pharaoh and the Israelites are described as ‘not listening’…Moses links the ‘deafness’ of both Pharaoh and the Israelites with his own ‘foreskinned’ lips: ‘because they would not listen, therefore I am of foreskinned lips’”.

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Pharaoh, the children of Israel, and Moses are unwilling, and perhaps unable, to hear, even to listen to, one another. As a consequence of that underlying reality, redemption, whatever its specific form and content, isn’t possible. That, teaches Zornberg, is Va’era’s big message. It sounds awfully familiar and relevant to me in 2020. A few more of Zornberg’s words make the point with elegance and eloquence.

“Speech, we normally affirm, creates listeners (or fails to create them). Here, the converse truth is affirmed: it is the listener who creates the act of speech. The prophet prophesies by dint of the listening of his people. As long as there is no one to listen to God’s word, language impotently stutters.”

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At the very moment of this week’s impeachment presentations, another set of speeches echoed in a similarly significant spot half the globe away. World leaders gathered at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to mark the upcoming 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. Germany’s President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier shared poignant and inspiring words that we all would do well to hear. Read his speech here – https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/full-text-of-german-president-s-yad-vashem-speech-we-germans-have-not-learned-from-1.8438504. View and listen (really listen) to it here – https://youtu.be/aWarJrXDku0. For me, and perhaps for you as well, President Steinmeier’s powerful words (re)open the possibility of redemption in our time and in our world. Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.

The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz takes place on Monday January 27th. Together we can view, and listen well to, the ceremony in real time beginning at 9:30 am. Please search for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum’s official YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/AuschwitzMemorial . Then, please look for the live stream entitled “The 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz”. 

No listening, no redemption. That’s Va’era’s ‘structural simplicity’. Time to open, really open, our ears and our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom.

Seeing Another’s Burden – MLK Unity Service – January 19, 2020

My remarks at this morning’s MLK Unity Service at Zion Baptist Church of Ardmore, PA:

Good morning – as you know it’s always morning at Zion Baptist Church; no matter what the clock says!

Hinei mah tov u’mah na’im shevet ahim gam yahad – How good and pleasant it is when sisters and brothers dwell together. We’ve been coming together in unity and fellowship for many years now, more than thirty, to celebrate Dr. King’s rich legacy and to commit ourselves to carrying that legacy forward together in our place and in this moment.

To focus our attention on that sacred task, I’d like to explore a famous Bible passage with you. You’ve already heard these words from the book of Exodus. Now let’s take a look at them together.

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing that there was no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known! When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well. [Exodus 2:11-15]

Let’s home in on the phrase ‘witnessed their labors’. The Hebrew matters on this one –  וירא בסבלתם – literally ‘he saw their sufferings’. Hebrew words have three letter roots; the root of the word translated as suffering or labors is samekh, bet, lamed which also means ‘to bear’ or ‘to carry’. Hang on to that meaning; I’ll come back to it in a few minutes.

First, let’s talk about ‘seeing’. Moses sees the suffering, the burden, the labors of the Hebrew slaves. What does it mean to see another’s burden?

Rashi, one of the great medieval Bible commentators, gets to the inside of Moses’ seeing…

וירא בסבלתם  And he witnessed their labors — ‘he gave his eyes and his heart to be distressed over them’. [Rashi on Exodus 2:11]

Moses, in other words, feels the pain of the slaves whose suffering he witnesses. Contemporary Bible scholar Aviva Zornberg puts it this way: “Moses’ first significant act of maturity is an act of empathy with those who seem, physically, socially, and existentially, so different from him.” Their distress is his distress; their burden is his burden, one that he will now carry with them. Zornberg describes it as “vulnerable empathy” and “complex empathy”. It’s powerful stuff.

 

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[Sandro Botticelli ‘Trials of Moses’, Sistine Chapel, 1490]

 

The contrast is to the way Pharaoh ‘sees’. Pharaoh observes the growth of the Israelite population and he sees a threat to his own well being. And he invites, even commands, fellow Egyptians to ‘see’ in much the same way. Hear his edict to the midwives – Shifra and Puah – “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool (u’r’eetem ‘al ha-avanim): if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” “Pharaoh’s was a seeing of disjunction and difference,” writes Zornberg. I see you as Other, as an ‘It’ not a ‘Thou’, as a threat to me, not as a sister or brother crying out for my care and attention. Pharaoh’s seeing divides; Moses’ seeing connects.

The Midrash – the running commentary of the ancient rabbis – gives us more.

What is, “And [he] saw?” For he would look upon their burdens and cry and say, “Woe is me unto you, who will provide my death instead of yours, for there is not more difficult labor than the labor of the mortar.”

Moses’s seeing brings him to tears, literally…And those tears will lead him to act. His first act is to get in there and share the slaves’ burden.

“And he would give of his shoulders [i.e. use his shoulders to] assist each one of them.”

One of Moses’ concerns is unfairness.

Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: [If] he saw a large burden on a small person and a small burden on a large person, or a man’s burden on a woman and a woman’s burden on a man, or an elderly man’s burden on a young man and a young man’s burden on an elderly man, he would leave aside his rank and go and right their burdens, and act as though he were assisting Pharaoh. The Holy One of Blessing said: You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act. I will leave aside the upper and the lower [i.e. ignore the distinction between Heaven and Earth] and talk to you. Such is it written, ” And when the LORD saw that [Moses] turned aside to see” (Exodus 3:4). The Holy One of Blessing saw Moses, who left aside his business to see their burdens. Therefore, “God called unto him out of the midst of the bush”. [Midrash Shemot Rabbah 1:27]

I love that line in the middle: You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act.

אַתָּה הִנַּחְתָּ עֲסָקֶיךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ לִרְאוֹת בְּצַעֲרָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְנָהַגְתָּ בָּהֶן מִנְהַג אַחִים

That’s complex, vulnerable empathy at work – the pure gaze of brothers and sisters toward and with one another.

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[Dura Europos Synagogue, Western Wall, Scenes from the life of Moses, 2nd century]

 

Only now does Moses strike down the Egyptian taskmaster whom he ‘sees’ beating a Hebrew slave. He sees, says Zornberg, “the axis of difference now running between those who inflict cruelty and those who suffer it”. “This third ‘seeing’ conveys the unavoidable responsibility to act on the basis of a complex empathy.”

Seeing the burden, the struggle, the suffering of an other who is really a sister or brother, seeing, that is, with ‘vulnerable empathy’, gives rise to an ‘unavoidable responsibility to act’. I can’t allow myself to carry your burden and then just go about my business. I actually have to do something about it; I have an ‘unavoidable responsibility to act’. Moses is the model and his story is both an invitation and a challenge to us. Do we really see one another? And do we ‘allow ourselves to be affected’ by another’s suffering?

Dr. King’s own words offer us the same piece of encouragement and the same profound challenge.

In a sense every day is judgment day, and we, through our deeds and words, our silence and speech, are constantly writing in the Book of Life. Light has come into the world, and every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” [Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘Three Dimensions of a Complete Life’ in Strength to Love (1963)]

 

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Moses shares the burden with others, sisters and brothers, whose suffering he ‘sees’. He also blows his top, reacts violently to what he has seen and felt, and kills an Egyptian taskmaster. He’s angry, and with good reason, but maybe the kind of anger that Moses exhibits isn’t the best response in such a moment. My teacher and friend, Rabbi David Jaffe, calls this kind of a moment one of ‘Creative Discomfort’ and it’s not simple. We’ve all seen expressions of this kind of hot, explosive anger in our lives and in the world around us, and there’s something very satisfying about it. It’s also dangerous; rage explodes, all too easily, into hate and violence.

Rabbi Jaffe suggests that there’s more than one kind of anger – the hot anger that he describes as ‘that sweet, satisfying feeling at having “gotten it all off your chest” and a cold “anger that is focused and deep and rooted in grief” and whose purpose and goal is that of ‘setting things right’.  The key to cultivating that kind of anger is a character trait – an attribute of both the divine and the human personality – called savlanut. Remember our little Hebrew lesson from a few minutes ago? Moses saw the burdens of the Hebrew slaves – וירא בסבלתם. That same Hebrew root – samekh, bet, lamed – gives us the word savlanut. Savlanut is the ability and willingness to bear another’s burden along with that person and to stay in it with them for the long haul. For that reason it’s sometimes translated as patience, but ‘bearing’ is a better description. And staying in it is the hard part.

So let’s talk about that long haul for a bit. We’ve been joining together in fellowship for three decades. The story of African-American struggle began in 1619, four hundred years ago, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of Virginia. And there have been so many sign posts along the way, a number of which have already been spoken of this morning: the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, two spots I had the opportunity to visit in this past year, places of pilgrimage that mark this long struggle.  Just a few weeks ago, as part of a group of local clergy people, I spent a morning at SCI Phoenix, a maximum security state prison not far from here. There we met with men already incarcerated for ten, twenty, thirty years, in order to hear from them about ‘restorative justice’ and their future hopes and dreams. Some of them did truly terrible things; some of them were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a broken system and we have a lot of work to do together. And what a year it has been for Jews in America. You all know the details; the place names suffice to call up the horror and the strugge: Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey. There’s a great deal of burden for us to bear. 

The words of my friend and colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs: “When I was younger, I had a sense that we needed to fix everything now. If we could just stay up all night seven days a week, we could fix everything. Now I know it is a marathon, and an election is every four years.”

And the words of scholar Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow which was published a decade ago, writing in this morning’s New York Times: “The centuries-long struggle to birth a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy – a nation in which every voice and every life truly matters – did not begin with us. The struggle is as old as the nation itself and the birth process has been painful, to say the least. My hope and prayer is that we will serve as faithful midwives in our lifetimes and do what we can to make America, finally, what it must become”.

And, finally, Dr. King himself, in 1963, words penned in his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama: “If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”

We’re here to see – really see – one another’s struggle and to put our shoulders into one another’s burden; we’re here to practice savlanut holy forbearance – together; we’re in it for the long haul; we’re here to serve alongside one another – sisters and brothers – as ‘faithful midwives’ to help birth a better, more hopeful, more just tomorrow. That’s the work, nothing more, nothing less.

So, to borrow Dr King’s ringing words – will we walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness? And how will each of us answer that most persistent and urgent question with which life challenges us? What, indeed, is each of us doing – today, tomorrow, everyday – for others?”

This is the question. This is the judgement. God bless you all.


Watch the whole service here –

courtesy of Zion Baptist Church of Ardmore’s facebook page

Kindness & Truth – Shabbat Vayehi 5780 (2020)

My remarks at the Opening of Souls Shot: Portraits of Victims of Gun Violence @ Beth Am Israel, Penn Valley, January 9, 2020 —

Good evening.

This week’s scriptural reading, the weekly Torah portion, is called vay’hi – and he lived. The he is Jacob, arguably our people’s most important and most complex patriarch. “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years.” “…an apt description of the years Jacob spent reunited with his beloved son” Joseph. And Jacob lived. The very next verse makes clear the reality of the moment – “And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph.” In an instant, the Torah moves from living to dying, from life to death. In an instant…

Commenting on that second verse, the ancient rabbis cite a statement from another book of the Bible, the wisdom collection known as Ecclesiastes. “No one has authority over the life breath (ruah) – to hold back the lifebreath; there is no authority over the day of death.” And then the rabbis apply these words to the very greatest of the Bible’s heroes – to Moses, to King David, and, finally, to Jacob.

As he moves from life to death, Jacob makes a request of his son Joseph – to be buried in his homeland in the same cave as his parents – Rebekah and Isaac – and his grandparents – Sarah and Abraham. The request’s language is striking: asita ‘imadi hesed ve’emet – literally, ‘do for me a kindness and a truth.’ Kindness or love on the one hand, truth on the other. They’re two different things, two distinct categories, one hard edged, one soft and embracing.

 

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[Michelangelo, Jacob and Joseph, Sistine Chapel Fresco]

 

The extraordinary pictures – remarkably expressive and poignant works – that hang in this space speak to both halves of Jacob’s phrase, to both sides of the coin. They convey difficult and painful truths – of senseless and terrifying violence in our world, our neighborhoods, our lives; and they communicate extraordinary kindness, depicting with compassion and love the lives, the souls, of beloved sons, daughters, lovers, friends, sisters and brothers, all in an instant, all too young.

We’re here to honor their lives, and to honor both sides of Jacob’s coin. Like him, each of these loved ones held no authority over the timing and circumstances of their deaths. Like him, they lived – fully, vividly, joyfully. To paraphrase Jacob’s request – na’ase ‘imahem hesed ve’emet: Let us do for them kindness and love, and also truth.

Welcome to Beth Am Israel and to the opening of this most extraordinary exhibit.

The View from the Pit – Shabbat Vayeshev 5780 (2019)

It’s Erev Shabbat Vayeshev, three days before the beginning of Hanukkah, and I spent the morning in jail. Part of an ad-hoc interfaith clergy group meeting with a group of inmates, I walked into SCI Phoenix in Collegeville, PA just before 8 this morning, and walked out at 11:30. The inmates we met with, many serving life sentences, had walked into prison 10, and 20, and 30+ years ago, more than a few with no hope or expectation of ever walking out.

Our group had been invited to participate in a workshop on ‘restorative justice’ organized and led by the prisoners themselves. ‘Moving’ doesn’t even begin to describe what it felt like to hear the powerful and painful stories shared by the men I met this morning. Over the coming weeks, and especially on MLK Day 2020, I hope to convey more of my impressions, feelings, and thoughts from this morning. It’s far from formulated right now; over time I hope to find the words.

The workshop’s closing exercise invited each of us to articulate what we were taking with us from the morning. My response was ‘a mix up of emotions – sadness, anger, hope, inspiration – and a whole lot of questions.’ I also took with me an awareness of the timing of our gathering. Parashat Vayeshev narrates the opening chapters of Joseph’s saga – his brothers’ throwing him into a pit prior to selling him into slavery, and his imprisonment in Egypt most notably.

Vayeshev is largely a prison narrative, and at each of those moments of incarceration, Joseph actually has no hope of ever leaving. As readers, we know that there’s ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ (a phrase that I heard from a number of the inmates I met today), but in the moment he doesn’t know that he will come out alive. Another of this morning’s phrases was ‘death by incarceration.’ Joseph, I imagine, saw that as his fate as well.

 

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[Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 17th century, Holland]

Natan Sharansky spent 8 Hanukkahs in prison. At each of them he found ways, often quite creative and ingenuous ways, to light a menorah. In his memoir Sharansky writes beautifully of Hanukkah’s symbolic power for his fellow prisoners.

I was the only Jew in the prison zone, but when I explained that Hanukkah was a holiday of national freedom, of returning to one’s own culture in the face of forced assimilation, my friends in our “kibbutz” decided to celebrate it with me. They even made me a wooden menorah, decorated it, and found some candles.

In the evening I lit the first candle and recited a prayer that I had composed for this occasion. Tea was poured, and I began to describe the heroic struggle of the Maccabees to save their people from slavery. For each zek [a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag] who was listening, this story had its own personal meaning.

As we prepare to light Hanukkah candles starting on Sunday night, I’ll be thinking about the men I met this morning, hearing again the echo of their stories, their aspirations, their hopes. And as we read tomorrow morning of Joseph in the pit and imprisoned in Egypt, I’ll be picturing the prisoners I encountered today, seeing in my mind’s eye their faces, recalling the feeling of meeting them, talking with them, listening to, and learning from them on the ‘inside.’ More to come…

Shabbat Shalom.   


 

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[woodcut from the Cologne Bible, 1478]


 

מתוך הבור / יהודית כפרי

מתוך הבור ראיתי

.הרבה אורחות ישמעאלים עוברות

כתנת פסים לא היתה לי

,מעולם

.גם לא רציתי להיות משנה למלך מצרים

רק לצאת וללכת הביתה

אל מקום

שם לא ישנאוני אחי

.בשל חלומותי

 

From Inside the Pit / Yehudit Kafri

From inside the pit I saw

a multitude of passing Ishmaelite caravans.

I didn’t have my colored coat

ever,

I also didn’t wish to be

second to Egypt’s king.

Only to leave and go home

to a place

where my brothers wouldn’t hate me

on account of my dreams.


 

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[Konstantin Flavitsky, Russia, 1855]


 

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[Master of Affligem, Flanders, 15th century]

In Search of Wholeness – Shabbat Vayishlach 5780 (2019)

“His whole life will be a struggle to grow, to achieve the stability, the wholeness for which he yearns.” That’s Aviva Zornberg’s evocative assessment of the Jacob of Parashat Vayishlach, (The Beginning of Desire, p. 241) he who wrestles with an angel (or God, or himself, or his/his brother’s guardian angel, or…?), reunites with his brother Esau, and returns home shalem (whole, safe, at peace, in friendship). A struggle to grow and to achieve stability and wholeness sounds like an apt description of most of our lives. We’re all in search of shleimut – wholeness or fulfillment – and the path to it is never an easy one. 

What exactly is this thing called wholeness? The Zohar views Jacob’s wholeness as a mystical (and mysterious) coming together of all the elements both of his life and of the entire cosmos. “Complete above, complete below; complete in heaven, complete on earth” in the Zohar’s words [1:172b] (shalem l’eyla, shalem l’tata; shalem b’shemaya, shalem b’ara). In contrast, Zornberg offers a concept of wholeness that is more process than product. Calling wholeness “a dynamic rather than a static idea,” she lands on “the managing of contrary forms…the husbanding of divergent energies…” as her definition. That’s how Jacob’s wrestling match can be an act of, if not achieving, at least striving toward wholeness. 

 

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[Hananiah Harari, Jacob and the Angel (1936), Smithsonian]

 

Wholeness feels pretty hard to come by in this current moment. Fragmentation and division surround us on all sides. The anti-Semitic murders in Jersey City this week render our people, not to mention our hearts, a lot less than whole. Our country is as divided – at least politically and culturally – as it has been in a century and a half, and perhaps ever. Israel, too, seems remarkably fragmented, unable to bring a new government into being, and now facing elections for the third time in a year. And then add our own distracted and frazzled lives to the mix. How, really, does one manage all the contrary forms and husband all the divergent energies?!?

One of my favorite rabbinic teachings (Tosefta Sotah 7:12) depicts a confounded student struggling to handle the diversity of opinions thrown her way in the name of Torah. Why learn Torah at all, she wonders, when Beit Hillel permits while Beit Shammai prohibits? The Tosefta’s answer begins with a reminder that the full kaleidoscope of views actually derives from one source, from The One in fact – ‘one Shepherd, one God, one Provider, the Sovereign of All Deeds.’ The student’s real work, our real work, is ‘to make of one’s heart a house of many rooms’ and to welcome all the variety in. Not easy, to be sure, and a definite recipe for kicking up an abundance of dust in the course of wrestling. But that’s the path.

 

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[Marc Chagall, Jacob and the Angel (1963)]

 

In search of wholeness? Make of your heart a house of many rooms. Jacob’s discovery of that path of struggle earns him his new name of Israel. And we are, to this day, the people of Israel, Jacob our Ancestor’s children.

Shabbat Shalom.

On Dreams – Shabbat Vayeitzei 5780 (2019)

“The perilous season is middle age.” So wrote pioneering educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in 1838. Her letter goes on to describe middle age as a time “when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth.”

 

Parashat Vayetze begins with an account of a youthful dream of decidedly divine origin. Young Jacob, on the run and in fear of his brother Esau, finds himself in the middle of nowhere at nightfall. “And he took from among the stones in that spot in order to put under his head, and he lay down in that place.  And he dreamt that there was a ladder set upon the earth whose top reached to heaven, and the angels of God were going up and down upon it.”

 

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[Nicolas Dipre ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ c.1500, Petit Palais, Avignon]

Bible scholar Nahum Sarna remarks that “visual imagery and an auditory sensation are the manifest content of the dream.” [JPS Torah Commentary, p. 198] Indeed, Jacob assigns meaning to the theophany he has just experienced. “And Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Adonai is indeed present in this place, and I did not know it.’” For Jacob, the dream means that God will be with him in this particular journey, and perhaps wherever his life journey takes him.

 

Jacob renames the place of his dream ‘Bethel’ – Beyt El in Hebrew – God’s house. No place, anyplace, can be the house of God; for Jacob (and for us?) that’s the dream’s ‘content.’ When Jacob returns to Canaan twenty plus years later, it is to this very spot that he comes, even naming it Beyt El a second time! A renewed theophany, a new marker, a second recounting of Jacob’s name change to Israel, all happen at this no place at Canaan’s edge.

 

Jacob manages, in middle age, to retain the ‘divine origin of the dreams of (his) youth.’ Elizabeth Peabody sees in middle age a kind of ‘acquiescence’ to the world as it is, a concession that she detests. As one well into those middle years, I hear her words as a profound challenge. Jacob’s model comforts me. My Beyt El, and yours too, is out there to be rediscovered, renewed, and redeemed.

 

Shabbat Shalom.