Ki Gam Zeh Lach / Because this is also for you

R. Noa Kushner // Vayishlach 5778

This is a time of great unrest
Something fundamental is changing, many things

Political energies
Fundamental power dynamics
Things that were not discussed, here I am talking about sexual harassment, violence, are now out in the open

For some, it seems like everyone around them, trusted figures, are now
suspect, guilty, violators, it is disorienting, new

And for some, it seems like the world is finally beginning to wake up to a great injustice that has been systemically, basically ignored since the beginning of time
The latest names in the news are just some in a long, long list

There are great shifts taking place
But in times of unrest there is also great possibility

I noticed for the first time this week in Torah that not only does Ya’akov / Jacob wrestle with a mysterious eish / man, maybe an angel (not clear)  
Finally receiving a blessing that he earns rather than steals and wrenching his leg in the process
Remember that he receives a new name: “God wrestler”

I noticed, not only that but there is another wrestling match, this one with a different outcome
Because at the end of the parasha
Rachel is giving birth to her second of two children
And it is also a struggle
Torah uses a different word
We know it is a struggle because Rachel is neither here nor there, they are all on the road, on the way to Ephrat, the road being not a place where you want to go into labor
And we know it is a struggle because the labor is described / t’kash b’lid’tah / hard labor / kashah, something stubborn, immutable, irreducable
Like avodah kashah (hard brutal labor of slavery)

And we know it is a struggle because that same phrase “hard labor” is repeated again right away
We know it is a struggle because when the labor was at its hardest
As the midwife says to Rachael, “Al Tiri”
“Don’t be afraid” (I’ll come back to that later) but for now, if she had to say it, we know Rachael was feeling it

And we know the labor is a struggle because Rachel names that baby, Ben-oni, the child of my suffering
And even though her husband will quickly rename that baby Ben-yamin, “Son of my right hand” Torah records that suffering, that name, no matter what comes of it, Torah unflinchingly records the suffering that took place

And finally, sadly, we know it is a struggle because
although she brings another soul into the world, Rachael dies in childbirth
She is remembered but her body is no more.

So here we have two struggles in one parasha
In one, a person wrestles in the dark and prevails
He is hurt, but he leaves more or less intact, blessed,
Even with a new name
As if someone new has taken his place in his old body, what we call transformation

In the other, less known story, a person wrestles on the road and also creates a new person
With a new name
But while she enables great change, it is a very different kind of transformation
Because as I said, Rachael doesn’t live through it

First, let’s get a few things out of the way
I don’t want to romanticize Rachael’s death
I wish she did not die at that moment
And I am not saying that men wrestle and change
and women can only make change either by giving birth or dying or both

No, we are all Jacob and we are all Rachael and that is my point
That in times of great change
Personal change
Societal change
We have two models, and it would help us to figure out which one we are in this moment

In both there is a struggle
But in one, the body is hurt, yet blessed and renamed
And in the other, the body of Rachel cannot make it any longer – it must give way as something new comes to live in the world.

And as I read the paper, with story after story of sexual harassment, sexual violence, abuse of power, sexual trafficking
And I see all the powerful people who have fallen
And I perceive but don’t see all the victims, because they are even afraid to be seen
So many
Not to mention all the ones who died without being ever able to say what happened
I wonder if we are wrestling through the night, if our society can be renamed, hurt but blessed at the end
Or if the basic assumptions we hold will have to give way so something new can be born. Something born of suffering but something that can be a key part of our future.

I am truly not sure, maybe it is both
Either way, a fundamental shift is taking place and I feel,
as we learn,
we will need to remember that there is something loving and essential in us and between us
And, in addition to finally telling the truth, (maybe as a part of telling this truth) this trusting love can be simultaneously cultivated
So that even if all we are hearing about now is our ability to destroy one another in ways small and monumental
We must work to remember that
just as undeniably
We carry within us a connection to one another
An ability to show chesed, lovingkindness, a sweet generosity
an unlimited, and unobligated loving kindness, a trusting love
That this is also fundamentally who we are.

I have three stories of this chesed, this loving kindness
I thought of a story I heard about fire fighters up in Santa Rosa
There had been a senior home that had been particularly hard hit
A crew of men and women were on site around the clock
The fear was that because some of the seniors could not have left quickly enough as the fire raged through
That many were no longer living
So the fire fighters were working around the clock
Doing the painful work of going through the ashes to try to find clues, in this case they were looking literally for a fragment of a person
Can you imagine
But once in a while, the site leader would get a call, because someone who had lived in that place was found alive, safe, identified
And she would make an announcement to the whole team
And a resounding collective cheer would go up to the heavens to the sky from these service people
They were cheering for a life of a person they had never met and would likely never know, they were just cheering because another person was alive.

See we think our orbits are discreet
And we think our lives don’t matter except to those who are related to us, our friends
But as human beings, even those of us hearing this story now
We don’t have to know those who were in danger
We can picture their apartments, their lives
We feel like cheering, too.
One more is alive
See, this chesed / lovingkindness is what has been implanted in us
And we are capable of destruction but we are capable of great chesed, unlimited lovingkindness, too.

This summer, as you know, there was a tragedy in our community
A holy man, died in accident, and his daughter died too
He was a tzaddik
I have no satisfying explanation for any of it, and I am still angry about it
I will tell you about them over dinner if you like
But the reason I am bringing it up, the story I want to tell, is how a few weeks after the funeral I got a phone call.
You see, when the accident happened, I had been in touch with some local officials to help make arrangements, and I left my phone number on a voice mail
And so one day, weeks later, I got a call from the policeman who was on duty the day of the crash, he called out of the blue, I had never met him
He apologized for calling, and he told me in a quiet voice, “I never do this but I was there that day and still had your number from the voice mail and I wanted to know… could you tell me what happened, were they all right?”
And I had to tell him, no. This time it did not turn out all right
And this policeman and I, who had never met, and likely never would meet, strangers
Had a cry on the phone together.
See, the policeman tracked me down because it was impossible for him to stay detached
Because we as humans are capable of great generosity, of caring so deeply for one another, not just our friends but any other person, just as a base line, this is how we were created
We are capable of tapping into a great love /an ahavah rabbah / for one another
And acting out of a place of this love has huge implications for our country right now

I was at the Glide Holiday Jam this week
I’ll just say the music was much better than any Jewish fundraiser like ever.
I know at least 50 of you took an incredible class at Glide last night, just the beginning
I was at the event with thousands of others and Reverend Cecil Williams was asked to speak about an incredible woman who had been their president for twenty-two years and who was just stepping down.
Many people spoke and used fine words, evocative words
Janice Mirakatani, his wife, blew the room away with her overwhelming gratitude and affection as the poet she is
But Reverend Williams just sat in his 80-something body, in his wheelchair and said softly
The only way he speaks these days
Softly softly into the microphone
I love you
I love you Amy I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you Amy I love you

He said it until we were all weeping
Because his love for this person, in his quiet repetition, it became an ahavah rabbah / a great love
A love for which we did not need to know either of them to understand
An overwhelming love, an everlasting love
A love that was and is available to us all
And when he loved her so much, in front of all of us
I am telling you the troubles of the world for just one moment were suspended
And we all fit inside that great love
We drew from it like a wellspring
And here it is right now, in the room, this shabbat

And so, at last, I want to return to our scene with Rachael eimanu, Rachael our mother
She is struggling mightily, a major transformation is taking place literally in her body, the way I imagine we are struggling in our society now
And the midwife says to her, “Don’t be afraid” “You are having a baby, something new is being born”
“Don’t be afraid”

In other words, the midwife says: this struggle is profound, ultimate,
it may change everything, but it is not meaningless
Something will come of it
And the fact that the midwife says, “Don’t be afraid” is significant

Not that anything in Torah is extraneous but this phrase, Al Tiri / “Don’t be afraid” is hugely loaded, because
Abraham Aveinu (our father), in a scene of personal desperation, all alone is told by God (al tirah) not to be afraid, he will be blessed
Isaac our father, all alone, in the night, is told by God not to be afraid, he is connected to his father and the future and he will be blessed
And a few chapters later, Jacob approached by God  as he prepares to go to Egypt to meet his long lost son Joseph, he is told (al tirah) not to be afraid, Joseph will bury him and he will die in piece, the patriarch of a great nation
God says it to Hagar, when she is worried her boy will die. Throughout all of stories of Bereisheet, this phrase is always uttered, in big moments, by God.

So the fact that the midwife is saying, Al Tiri / “Don’t be afraid” is no accident
Don’t you see? Unlike other midwives, this midwife has no name
She just appears in the middle of nowhere and helps Rachael to give birth,

So I think if we can say, as we already say, that the unnamed eish / man who visits Jacob in the middle of the night and wrestles with him and renames him
If we can say that man is an angel, as we already do, that unnamed man is God
Then I think we can also safely say this unnamed midwife --
Who cannot save Rachael
but can indeed tell her and us that our struggles are not in vain
Who can help us to deliver what is next --
I think we can safely say this woman is also divine, this midwife is an angel, this midwife is also an agent of God
Midwife sure talks like God
(Our God of the mighty hands and the outstretched arms, just saying.)
As we learn from R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin / God says, “… I was the midwife to my children” (Yechezkiel 16:4) Kohelet Rabbah 3:8:2

So maybe in these times
When difficult, necessary truths are being revealed at a rapid fire pace
When things are this destabilizing
We must not only channel the great and everlasting love that has been implanted within each of us
We should also try to find the midwives who can help us transform
Or maybe we’ll have to be the midwives
So we can remind each other that the struggle is not meaningless
And we shouldn’t be afraid
Because this kind of destruction is sometimes what happens when something altogether new is being born.