Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jews and God, and VaYechi Redux

I just watched Julia Sweeney's one-woman show "Letting Go of God" on Showtime.  She is a very funny comedian who was raised Catholic and has become a proud atheist.  The monolog is funny and engaging, and if you are interested in seeing it you can either watch the first 15 minutes or so on YouTube or, which I recommend, the entire show on Showtime (if you have it).  The schedule is here  - just go to "more airings" for the times and dates.

The first time I was the show I missed the beginning, and just watched the last portion.  What struck me was her description of a conversation she had with someone after her father died, and when she had already decided she was sure there was no God.

Her friend said to her, not exactly in these words, but close:  "You know you're Jewish."

Sweeney was surprised, and asked what was meant by that comment.

The answer was that what she was doing - struggling to understand God - was a particularly Jewish thing.  Almost obligatory, if I remember the exchange properly.

And I loved that comment.  We do struggle to understand God.  And we have room in our Jewish community for many ways of understanding God.  And that, to me, is one of the most wonderful things about Judaism.

Jewish thinking is questioning - not simply memorizing and repeating.  We know that, and we need to help our learners - whatever their ages - to learn that.

On her blog,, she wrote the following:
I am thinking about some of the questions that people have asked.  Some people worry about having meaning in a world without god in it.  I don't have the best answer for that yet (I am mulling on that one) but I remember once being at a convention with Daniel Dennett (such a hero of mine) and he said (Dennet is a philosopher and scientist at Tufts and has written several books, some of which really impacted me) and anyway, he was talking to someone else and he said, "People say to me, 'You're a philosopher, what is the meaning of life?' and I say, 'I don't know but I do know the secret to happiness.  Find some subject that you love and spend the rest of your life studying it from every angle you can.  That is the secret to happiness."
 My personal opinion is that God is precisely what helps me find meaning in the world.  I do, however, appreciate the statement about finding some subject that you love and studying it for your entire life.  That subject will be different for different people.
In fact, if we look back at Yaakov's blessing of his sons we can understand them as recognizing and celebrating the various talents of each one.  Jewish wisdom?  Howard Gardner Multiple Intelligences?  Learning Styles?  Myers Briggs?

It's a wonderful day when there is overlap between what I learn in the scientific world about thinking and what I learn in the world of Jewish thinking.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Parshat VaYechi

The end of the book of B'reisheet, this parasha is also the end of the stories of the avot and imahot - the founding generations who were the source of the Jewish people.  The book is called B'reisheet - In the beginning - because of the first word of the first parasha, and refers to the beginning of the world, to the creation.  I would like to suggest that it is also an appropriate title for the entire first book:  B'reisheet - In the beginning of the creation and development of the People of Israel.

A big section of this parasha is devoted to the blessings Yaakov/Yisrael gives to his sons.  There are many ways to understand these blessings.

Before reading any of the commentaries, I urge you to look at the text of the blessings and see if the text raises any questions for you.  B'reisheet Chapters 48 to the end of the book.
Here are a couple of thoughts to get you started:

  • Why does it take a third party to let Yosef know his father is sick, and to let Yaakov know Yosef is coming?
  • Why does Yosef bring his sons?  Why doesn't Yaakov (here referred to as Yisrael) recognize them?
  • Why do you think Yisrael reverses his hands when he blesses Yosef's sons?  What does it remind you of?
  • What do you expect Yisrael to say to all his sons?  Why?
  • What surprises you about the blessings of the sons?
  • Do you think Yisrael has changed during his lifetime?  Explain why you think so.
  • Why do you think Yisrael wants to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah?  Why not with his favorite wife Rachel, who is buried in Bethlehem?
  • Why do you think Yosef had his father embalmed?
  • Why do you think the Egyptians mourned Yisrael?
  • Why do you think Yosef's children and animals remained in Egypt, in Goshen, when Yosef and his brothers went to bury Yisrael?
  • What do you think about the brothers telling Yosef what their father supposedly said to them before he died?  What does it tell you about them?  What does Yosef's answer tell you about Yosef?
  • In what way does this parasha satisfy you (or not) as the end of the first section of Torah?

The following commentaries suggest a few interesting interpretations, but don't answer all the questions above.

  • Yaakov 'opens his tent' to the diverse natures of his sons.  This commentary from Rabbi Kerry Olitzky builds on that thought
  • Aish HaTorah describes in detail the blessings of each of Yaakov's sons.  Go especially to the sections which are entitled Blessing the Tribes and The Future Leader for some traditional insights into the blessings.
  • Rabbi Elyse Winnick talks about the blessings at in an article entitled All in the Family.  I think she raises some thoughtful ideas about the tension between community and individual that are particularly relevant to our lives today.
Can you come up with your own interpretation of any part of the parasha?

Hazak, Hazak, VeNitchazek!