Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayeishev

Tell me that the Bible has no satire; I dare you! Ok, now that I have your attention – over the course of these last two weeks, we cannot help but notice that the Torah text screams at us to pay attention! RaShI (medieval scholar) reminded us that the beauty of our Bible is that it never shies away from being intentionally provocative. It screams at us never to read a text without paying attention. As I often say, the purpose of scripture is to spark conversation more than provide answers. Well, this week, I noticed something for the first time.

Last week, Simeon and Levi took it on themselves to kill every male in the community where they found their sister Dinah with a man. While convention likes to refer to this story as “The Rape of Dinah,” I pointed out during services that the text really never says that (up for the conversation any time). After lying to the men of the village, the brothers went through the town and slaughtered them. Jacob (dad) was outraged at what they had done. Their violence brought shame on the entire family. Bad Simeon and Levy!

This week, the same brothers get upset at Joseph (little brother) and plot to slaughter him. Yes, Joseph was a spoiled braggart, but killing him? Really? Oldest brother Reuben stops them, but only by promising that they still were going to get rid of him, just by different means. Again, really bad Simeon and Levy. It cannot be by accident that the Torah forces us to see violence running through the veins of these men.

Please remember the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5), when God says, “The sins of the fathers will visit upon the third and fourth generations after.” Please also remember Jacob’s deathbed “blessing” for Levi (and Simeon), “Simeon and Levi are brothers – their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! for it is cruel! I will disperse them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” (Genesis 49:5-7)

Now, here is the real satire – Levi is the progenitor of the entire priesthood. Yes, Moses, Aaron, and all the priests descend from Levi. Our entire faith and trust rests in the family line of marauders.

Here we see the danger in being too literal. I give our tradition credit for not “white-washing” the ugly out of the story line. In fact, in the spirit of screaming for attention, this part of our storyline is both incredulous and incredible – at the same time.

The truth is that we all have baggage. Most of us have lots of ancestral baggage that carries forward into our behaviors and biases, and often beyond our vision or conscious control. Many of us inherited abuse and the scars that get passed on through generations who never learned past the pain. What we know, however, is that the brokenness we inherited is not the sum-total of who we are or who we can be. How often do we judge people first based on from where they came? Who do we dismiss because we didn’t like their parents or grandparents? Moses and Aaron pose as two of the greatest leaders in our heritage. Imagine dismissing them because of something their ancestor Levi did? Who amongst us have had to overcome a legacy of pain in order that we can thrive?

The grandchildren of the Third Reich – the troubled descendants travel the world to denounce their “inheritance.” The Composer Richard Wagner’s great-grandchildren work hard lamenting their family’s link with Hitler’s NAZI philosophy. Scores of people descending from oppressive leaders in every walk of life dedicate their lives to creating better answers for the next generation than the ones left to them. The world will never let their ancestors off the hook, but we will be hard pressed to hold the ancestry of evil against people working hard to change the direction of their families’ legacy. I can’t fix yesterday. I can’t undo slavery in America, the Third Reich, Apartheid in South Africa, or any horrific oppression we have seen through history. I can – I must look through from where we have come and learn how and why it happened, acknowledge the nightmares and learn how to move forward. Society must own its bad history, learn from it and bring us together to heal. We each have our scars, but the voice of yesterday can never be prophetic as we prepare for tomorrow. We must have faith that whatever came before is yesterday’s news.

Shabbat Shalom.