Sunday, November 28, 2010

וישב - Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1- 40:23); Conquering Your Own Dreams

The Text:
This week’s parsha deals with overall themes of being an outsider, seduction, power struggles, envy, being powerless, and taking actions to be noticed. The parsha focuses on Joseph and Tamar’s stories this week of both dreams, and controlling your own destiny. Joseph is not afraid to be himself and shares the dreams he has with his family, resulting in his brothers’ jealousy as the favored child of Israel, and selling him to the Ishmalites, causing him to be outcast. He winds up in Egypt where he must devise his own plan and regain his power.

Additionally Tamar, Judah’s (one of Joseph’s brothers) daughter-in-law becomes a young widow when Judah’s son Er and then Onan die for being wicked in the sight of Adonai. Judah refusing to lose another son, forces Tamar to go to her father’s house and remain a widow. Tamar becomes outcast for her status as a widow. Determined to have a child, and refusing to be outcast, Tamar takes matters into her own hands by dressing as a prostitute and sleeping with her father-in-law Judah. In order to prove that this act occurred she asked for Judah’s unique material positions signifying his identity. (Genesis 38:18) “He asked, ‘What sort of pledge should I give you?’ She then said, ‘Your signet seal, your cord, and the staff in your hand.’ So he gave [them] to her and coupled with her – and she became pregnant by him.”

The Implication:
What do we do to both understand and control power? Where the power is, and what are the tools at our disposal to shape our own situations/ destiny in relation to power? Both Joseph and Tamar were stripped of their power and status and had to find their own means of regaining their dreams/ destiny again. Tamar proves to Judah through evidence that he has impregnated her, and that he had placed her in a compromising position that forced her to seduce him in order to create offspring. Joseph, imprisoned in Egypt, interprets two dreams of pharaoh’s guards, beginning to regain his status and hope towards freedom by encouraging the guards to speak kindly of Joseph to the Pharaoh.

What are the situations in your life where you feel powerless? What are the actions you can take towards completing your own dreams, and subtly challenging those that hold the power? Similarly to Joseph and Tamar, we too are often challenged or thrown off course in our lives. Reaching a dream is attainable but does not necessarily come easy. We can apply the examples set by Joseph and Tamar as we figure out how to navigate the challenges set before us. Our dreams fulfilled are that much more rewarding when we have fought to attain them.

What are the dreams you have, and who are those in power in your own life? Just as Tamar and Joseph did, we must map out who the key players are in our lives and who stands in our way of obtaining our dreams/ destiny. Once we know who, we must engage in creating a plan towards our goals. This may involve convincing those in power, or proving something of ourselves through our actions, and with evidence, as Tamar did. Do you act in a way that is admirable? Do you barely get a job done, or do you constantly go above and beyond? Once you have achieved your own power, do you keep it for yourself or help those in need to improve their own situations?

While we may be able to map out who, and how ideally to further ourselves in achieving our dreams, the hardest part may be taking the step and acting on our plans. Often the hardest challenge we may face in accomplishing our own dreams may be self-imposed fear. It may not be the external factors at all. Both Joseph and Tamar acted with bravery in shaping their own futures.

The Application:
Once we’ve mapped out where the power is in the situations we find ourselves in, how do we figure out the actions we will take to create plans to fulfill our dreams or regain power we may have lost or are looking to have. Basically, what do we do about it?

Feeling like an outsider or powerless in your own situation can be extremely difficult. How do we figure out where to turn? Often we must reflect on where we are, and where we are looking to go. Then we must work up the courage to challenge that which makes us feel powerless, or the hiccup that has set us back on the course towards our dreams.

Figure out a strategy to take on the people who have made you feel powerless, chart a course towards your goals, use your actions to build your own status. Tamar became respected for her brave actions that challenged her situation, and she changed her own destiny. Joseph shifted the minds of those in a position of power towards him, regaining control of power in his own life.

Each person’s dreams and the challenges that interfere are different making it hard to pinpoint where to turn. You may be at a turning point in your life, you may feel powerless, or you may feel in control of your destiny, regardless of your current position there are always ongoing dreams we create for ourselves and challenges that we are overcoming. Realizing our own power and ways in which we can control and plan our futures makes us the creators of our own destiny. Make a plan, overcome the fear and take on the challenge head on of regaining your own power.

While you work to create your own plan and shape your destiny, there are organizations that can help the truly powerless among us, those that may be affected by homelessness, experiencing a loss, unemployment, or the current economic downturn. Here are some Jewish organizations doing the work of helping people find the resources they need, if you know someone in your life that is in need of help please share:

Trying to figure out what your dream is? PBS explores this question:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

וישלח–– Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4- 36:43); Honoring Our Names Matters

The Text:
This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, includes a life-transforming event for Jacob. Jacob receives a new name of ‘Israel’. This renaming comes about from a specific event that Jacob engages in: wrestling with “an angel”.

Jacob, never shying from a challenge, receives his new title as a blessing. The angel says, (Genesis 32:29) “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel,” said the other, “for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed.”

The new name Israel signifies “struggle with the divine”, which Jacob not only conquered in his recent wrestling but additionally in his past life challenges and experiences.

The Implication:
Jacob’s struggle resulting in the blessing of a new name causes me to question names. Names can be given, acquired or created. Additionally names or titles can be gained to signify the work we have done. Our actions can either affirm or challenge others’ perceptions of who we are. Our actions can also further or diminish the validity of our given, acquired, or gained names/ titles.

When thinking about where our names come from I am reminded of a famous poem by Zelda, called “Each of us has a name.”

Each of us has a name
Given us by god,
And given us by our father and mother.

Each of us has a name
Given us by the way we stand,
Our way of smiling,
And the clothes we wear.

People perceive others based on the way that they portray themselves. Every action we take represents how we want to be perceived. We are constantly representing ourselves.

Do you do everything with a smile or a scowl? How do you treat others? When you are faced with conflict, how do you react? You continually are creating an evolving name for yourself.

There are titles that you can acquire from your choices, and your studies. You may have a title from your relationships to other people, such as someone’s partner, child, parent, etc. There are titles you can earn through study or career such as doctor, lawyer, educator, consultant, etc. All are representative of who you are and all act in a way where your name may be either honored or tarnished depending on your actions or the actions of others who you are in relation to your name.

When people describe you to strangers, what do they say? What are the adjectives added to your name, which gives people a sense of what type of person you are. How we act can change others perceptions of us. Do we act with kindness or bitterness?

The best part of our acquired titles is that we get to control them. We are the catalyst that people respond to. When we act positively with optimism, when we treat others justly, when we meet challenges head on as Jacob did, when we “put our best foot forward” that is when we act as a blessing.

When Jacob challenged the angel, he was rewarded with a name that described his actions, so others would know him as the one who overcame the challenges set before him. Are the actions you take appropriate representations of who you are and how you want to be perceived by others?

The Application:
November 20th was national Transgender Day Of Remembrance. It is an event where transgender individuals and allies gather to remember those lives lost to violence in the past year due to hatred against people expressing their gender variant identity. Names are read, lives are remembered, and hope is shared for future violence to end.

Every person controls and decides who they are and how they want to be perceived. This is the same for transgender individuals. Each of us have different identities. We should be able to chose what those identities are, and how we want to express ourselves.

In the same way that Jacob was given a new name, someone undergoing a gender change may chose a name that they feel is better representative of who they are.

People should both strive to, and be able to be their fullest selves at all times. I hope that one day we can all live in a world where people are not treated poorly simply because of the name and identity they have chosen and that is the best representation of the person they are.

We all should be held accountable by our names for how we represent ourselves. Simply, all people want to be respected for who they are, and want to live in the world where they are comfortable with the name they have created for themselves, without fear of bullying or violence towards them. When people react in a negative way towards others, they are only tarnishing their own name.

If we are each held accountable and responsible for our own actions then we should take time to reflect on how others may be perceiving us. If you took a moment to think about what others would say about you, do you think you would like what you hear? Are there ways in which you can continue to work towards making your name the most representative of the best person you want to be? How are you treating others? Is it the way you would want to be treated?

By focusing more on how we can honor our own name by acting in a meaningful way that is representative of the best person we can be, we will be striving to create a world where we are treating people the way we want to be treated. We will be able to gain the titles that fully represent ourselves and we will honor those names or titles we have already achieved and created for ourselves. And we too will be a blessing.

A prayer for those who have been harmed for simply being themselves….

For Trans Day of Remembrance
God, full of mercy, bless the souls of all who are in our hearts on this Transgender Day of Remembrance. We call to mind today young and old, of every race, faith, and gender experience who have died by violence. We remember those who have died because they would not hide, or did not pass, or did pass, or stood too proud. Today we name them: the reluctant activist, the fiery hurler of heels, the warrior for quiet truth, the one whom no one really knew. As many as we can name, there are thousands more whom we cannot, and for whom no Kaddish may have been said. We mourn their senseless deaths, and give thanks for their lives, for their teachings, and for the brief glow of each holy flame. We pray for the strength to carry on their legacy of vision, bravery, and love. And as we remember them, we remember with them the thousands more who have taken their own lives. We pray for resolve to root out the injustice, ignorance, and cruelty that grow despair. We pray, God, that those who perpetrate hate and violence will speedily come to understand that Your creation has many faces, many genders, and many holy expressions.

Blessed are they who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world. Blessed are You, God, in whom no light is extinguished.
Rabbi Reuben Zellman

Related Links:

My youtube video response to the recent lgbtq bullying and resulting suicides

What Keshet has to say about Transgender Day of Remembrance and resources!, Jewish resources for Trans Individuals and allies

Ingrid Michaelson’s song “Breakable”, a song that speaks to me about fragility of life