In this week's parashah, Torah portion, we are witness to a very human moment in the life of our patriarch, Jacob. Convinced by his mother, Rebecca, that he had alienated his twin, Esau, Jacob had fled to the land of his mother's birth and settled there. Years later, a husband and father, Jacob is on his way back home.
As he draws closer to his homeland . . . and to his twin, Esau . . . Jacob begins to worry about the welcome he will receive from his disaffected brother: will Esau wish him ill? will Esau attempt to attack him physically? will Esau turn him away? Jacob prays: "Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. (Breishit/Genesis 32: 12)
The closer the brothers become, geographically, the more terrifying the figure of Esau becomes to his twin, Jacob. Jacob has convinced himself that his and his family may be in mortal danger from the hand of Esau and in order to preserve at least part of his family, Jacob divides his camp into two. At least one half of his family and his estate will survive Esau's attack.
Now within sight of each other, Jacob prostrates himself seven times and he approaches Esau . . . who embraces his long lost twin with passion. Not anger. Not jealousy. Just love.
How often have you found the anticipation to be worse than the event? How often has the voice inside your head convinced you that you are about to face the insurmountable . . . only to discover yourself in a situation that is easier, more manageable, less intimidating than you allowed yourself to imagine?
The imaginings of Jacob, compared with the reality of Esau, provide us with the encouragement to resist talking ourselves into fear. With some faith, some perspective, and some effort to truly understand the other, we can move through this world with a bit more confidence, a bit less of the fear that turns us into people we'd rather not be.
I wonder what it is like to believe that basic social and religious values like fidelity, integrity and commitment apply to other people but not to oneself. That another major, powerful American male has been exposed in a sex scandal doesn't shock me anymore . . . but it does disappoint me and it is cause for bewilderment.
Could not an intelligent, capable man like General Petraeus look at President Clinton, Senator Edwards, Governor Sanford, Governor Schwarzenegger, Governor Spitzer, Justice Thomas and Representative Weiner and think to himself, "Hmm. I'm a public figure and I'm living in a fishbowl. Even if my marriage is flawed, maybe I shouldn't get involved in an extra-marital affair....." If not a commitment to basic moral standards, how about self-preservation?
If not a commitment to basic moral standards in one's personal life, how about a commitment to using one's intelligence, experience, training and talent for the public good? The public that put you in that position in the first place?
There is an important conversation to be had about the public's right to know about the personal conduct of public figures.
Former Governor, Eliot Spitzer, appeared on a New York program last night, Inside City Hall, during which he stated:
“As I understand the facts as we’ve seen in the papers so far, there was no criminal violation here,” Mr. Spitzer argued. “There was no violation, I’ve been told, of even C.I.A. rules or regulations although there may be some questions there. It does strike me that perhaps the president could have looked him in the eye and said, ‘You have violated a bevy of ethical and moral rules that you understand. You will have to deal with that. You and your family will deal with that. But you will go back and continue to serve your nation. You will be straightforward with the public with what you’ve done. But I’m telling you as the commander-in-chief, serve the nation. That’s what we expect of you; deal with the personal issues in your own way.’”
Mr. Spitzer resigned from his position of Governor of the State of New York in March of 2008 due to his regular use of the services of an escort agency called, tellingly, Emperor's Club VIP. Mr. Spitzer's post-facto advice to General Petraeus and President Obama provides us with a glimpse of how a man in power, or at least how this formerly powerful man, thinks: In the absence of a criminal violation, there is no compelling reason for resignation. The rest, the "bevy of ethical and moral rules" violated by General Petraeus, are a matter of private concern to be dealt with within the four walls of the Petraeus family.
That's not how Judaism sees it.
Our Jewish tradition, from our deepest roots in the Torah, acknowledges that human beings are not perfect. There is no room for self-righteousness here. For anyone (including, especially including, rabbis) to condemn others for falling short of the highest standards of moral behavior. Judaism teaches us that God crafted the human character with free will, with the capacity to make good choices and the capacity to make bad choices. The rest--the standards of human behavior outlined in the Torah; the brit/covenant between God and Israel; the framework of halachah/Jewish law . . . all of these provide the spiritual and societal and cognitive tools to help us avoid the pitfalls of being human.
As a community guided by the principles of our tradition, we are charged with maintaining the integrity of our community. As a nation, guided by values of integrity and fidelty, we are similarly charged with protecting the integrity of our society. It is at that moment the the conversation turns from "deal with your moral transgressions in the privacy of your own home" to "if you are capable of rationalizing this behavior in violation of your most personal commitments, what other actions are you capable of rationalizing on our behalf, the public that has put you in a position of power and influence?"
Yes, our states, our courts, our legislative bodies, our country have been deprived of the service of brilliant people whose experience and training and intelligence could have benefitted our society. But their personal behavior has demonstrated to us that there are not people whose judgment we can trust. Their ability to betray the trust of those closest to them must raise the specter of more far-ranging betrayals of our trust.
Presidents and Senators and Representatives and Judges . . . and yes, rabbis, too . . . consider themselves to be beyond the scope of the values of integrity and fidelity and commitment to their own detriment, to the detriment of their families and to the detriment of the communities who have trusted them.
Our focus on the elections and on the local issues that engaged us on the Rhode Island ballot was intense. We are, though, in a "no rest for the weary" situation as we enter into the Sabbath whose Torah reading is so infused with the images and lives of women: In parashat Hayyei Sarah we will mourn for Sarah and welcome Rebecca into the family as Isaac's wife.
As we look at the young loving couple, Isaac and Rebecca, it behooves us to remember that too many marriages lock couples into relationships of pain, emotional and physical abuse, and life-threatening violence.
At the beginning of October, President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation in which he said:
"Despite considerable progress in reducing domestic violence, an average of three women in the United States lose their lives every day as a result of these unconscionable acts. And while women between the ages of 16 and 24 are among the most vulnerable to intimate partner violence, domestic violence affects people regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, race, or religion."
The reality of President Obama's last statement was brought home to me in a most palpable way when, as a rabbi in Jerusalem, I was invited to conduct the seder for the residents of a shelter for battered women and their children in the neighborhood in which I served. As we began the seder, I saw that I was sharing the table with women with advanced degrees and women with an elementary school education; I was sharing the table with women born in Israel and Russia and the United States and Morocco and France. I was sharing the table with over a dozen Jewish women whose Jewish husbands beat them. Another comforting myth down the drain.
The Violence Against Women Act, (VAWA), enacted in 1994, recognizes the insidious and pervasive nature of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking and supports comprehensive, effective and cost saving responses to these crimes. VAWA programs, administered by the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, give law enforcement, prosecutors and judges the tools they need to hold offenders accountable and keep communities safe while supporting victims. VAWA must be swiftly reauthorized to ensure the continuation of these vital, lifesaving programs and laws.
VAWA expired over 660 days ago and in fewer than 50 working legislative days the act can either be reauthorized or become history.
I encourage you to inform yourself on the issue of the importance of Congress reauthorizing VAWA and to contact directly Senators Whitehouse and Reed, and Representatives Langevin and Cicilline to convey to them your desire that they act on your behalf to establish the authority and capacity of VAWA before the act's final expiration date.
For more information: www.4vawa.org
In Psalm 119 (verse 126) we read:
עֵת לַעֲשׂוֹת ה', הֵפֵרוּ תּוֹרָתֶךָ
It is a time to act for Adonay, for they have violated Your teaching.
When 1 in 4 renters in Rhode Island spend 50% or more of their income on housing, we have violated God's teaching.
When 275 veterans in Rhode Island are homeless, we are violating God's teaching. http://www.yeson7.org/HousingFacts/ForHomes/tabid/202/Default.aspx
When Rhode Island's homeless shelters need to accomodate growing numbers of people in need: families, singles, children, we are violating God's teaching.
Question 7 on our Rhode Island Ballot this coming Tuesday will provide the resources for our state to provide 600 new, affordable, respectable housing units. The construction of those housing units will provide jobs for Rhode Islanders. People moving into those housing units will support the local businesses in their new neighborhoods--grocery stores, gas stations, laundromats and more.
In my estimation, this is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of principle: Our tradition elevates the care for the needy in our community to a mitzvah, a commandment: "When there is among you a needy person from any one of your brothers, within one of oyur gates in the land that God is giving you, you are not to toughen your heart, you are not to shut your hand to your brother, the needy one. Rather, you are to pen, yes, open your hand to him, and are to pledge, yes, pledge to him, sufficient for his lack that is lacking to him. You are to give, yes, give freely to him, your heart is not to be ill-disposed in your giving to him, for on account of this matter Adonay your God wil bless you in all your doings and in all the enterprises of your hand! For the needy will never be gone from amid the land; therefore I comman you, saying: You are to open, yes, open your hand to your brother, to your afflicted one, and to your needy one in your land! (Deuteronomy/D'varim 15: 7-11).
Republican, Independent, Democrat: we can all vote "yes" on question 7. This is an issue that goes deeper than any political affiliation.
I have downloaded a basic information page from the "Yes on 7" website. Please read on. Please vote for the candidates of your choice. And vote "yes" on question 7.
Yes on 7
What is a Bond? Ballot Question 7 requests voter approval for the State of Rhode Island to issue General Obligation Bonds to finance the construction of affordable homes. Financing long-term capital assets, like homes, over the long-term is more feasible than paying for it all in the year of construction. The bonds will likely be repaid in less than 20 years and the homes will remain affordable for more than 30 years.
What Does Approval of Question 7 Do? Approving this critically important ballot question would provide for $25 million to finance the construction of long-term affordable homes for Rhode Islanders. It will likely be matched by $125 million from other public and private sources generating over $150 million for the construction of more than 600 affordable homes and supporting more than 1,000 construction jobs over the next few years.
How Will the Money Be Spent? The $25 million in bond funding will be allocated over two years. The funding decisions will be made by the Housing Resources Commission (HRC), a 27-member housing policy-making board that includes representatives from a wide range of public, philanthropic and private sector housing and business organizations. The HRC sets program priorities, solicits applications and makes decisions through a competitive and transparent process. The funds will be administered by the Department of Administration with technical assistance provided by Rhode Island Housing.
Why do we need a bond issue now?
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.