"Careful the things you say…children will listen. Careful things you do…children will see—and learn.
Children may not obey…but children will listen.
Children will look to you…for which way to turn, to learn what to be…"
These lyrics from the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods seem especially apt for both the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, but also this week’s parsha.
The parsha begins thus:
וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם
V’ele toledot Yitzhak ben Avraham
This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.
The word “toledot” from which the Torah portion (parsha) takes its name, doesn’t just translate to story—it can also mean—history, generations, consequences, outcome. You could say that this story is about the “ripple effect” our actions have on those around us, both intentionally and unintentionally.
In Judaism, we generally don’t dwell on the afterlife very much. While there are references to the world to come, most of the focus in our stories about life after death is in the legacy we leave behind for our children.
In the scheme of things, Isaac is sort of a placeholder of a patriarch—he’s not like Abraham, pioneer who first hears the call of G-d to leave his homeland to chart a new path, and he’s not Jacob, who wrestles with angels and whose numerous offspring make up the 12 tribes of Israel.
Still, on paper, in terms of life and legacy, Isaac’s life is a success—he inherits the mission from his father Abraham to fulfill G-d’s covenant, and fathers sons who end up continuing that legacy.
But if you look deeper at Isaac’s life and his family, we see the downsides of what happens when you are raised in a culture that is committed to a narrow version of what “success” means.
From Isaac’s birth, he is the center of a conflict that tears apart his family before he is able to speak. As a child, he witnessed his brother Ishmael being separated from him at the behest of his mother when she feared Ishmael would threaten her son’s birthright, and then was nearly killed by his own father as a human sacrifice, which caused his mother Sarah to separate from them. So he didn’t necessarily have the best models for marriage and child-rearing.
And Isaac’s unhealed trauma ends up infusing his own family with tension. As G-d tells Rebekah when she complains of pregnancy pains, two nations are at war in her belly, and the older one is fated to serve the younger one. There is never the sense that any sort of sharing power or cooperation is possible—someone has to be the winner, and someone else has to be a loser. As they grow, Isaac and Rebekah reinforce those divisions by each favoring a different child. Isaac favors the physically strong, hairy Esau, whereas Rebekah favors the physically slight Jacob. Jacob uses his cleverness to trick older twin out of his birthright, and then with the help of Rebekah, takes advantage of Isaac’s blindness into bestowing his blessing upon him instead of his favored son. In a sad sort of symmetry, I wonder if part of Isaac's despair over unintentionally hurting Esau brought back memories of his own father nearly killing him as part of "G-d's plan."
Most of the time when we read this story, Rebekah is the hero of this story—the wise, clever woman with insight to see which son would be more worthy, and who strategizes to make that happen. But when you look closely as to why Rebekah has a problem with Esau…her motivations get sort of uncomfortable. We learn that Esau ended up taking two wives from among the Hittites, women native to the land of Canaan, rather than marrying within the tribe the way his parents did, and that these wives were “a source of bitterness” for Isaac and Rebekah. Apparently their family was destined to possess the land of Canaan, but disregard the people living there.
This feels especially prescient in light of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday: the central myth is about the Pilgrims, a people who leave their homeland in Europe ostensibly in search of religious freedom, but who end up displacing and destroying the nations who had made the land fertile for them. When Esau threatens Jacob’s life after being cheated out of his father’s blessing and he is forced to flee, Rebekah’s immediate thought is “If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?”
I’ve heard many of the same fears and anxieties expressed in the Jewish world—the importance of marrying other Jews for the sake of the survival of the tribe. That sort of mindset can not only alienate people from their families—but also from Judaism itself, and as a result of this “cultural inbreeding” we as a people are less rich for it.
This all stems from a scarcity mentality—the belief that there is only a finite amount of land, a finite amount of wealth, a finite amount of love to share. It’s understandable for the Jewish people to be fearful and protective when we have continually faced threats to our very survival, but that kind of protectivism can also put a stranglehold on the very people we are trying to protect.
As we reflect on tensions within Isaac’s family and ponder our own family ties this Thanksgiving, let us try to move from a mentality of scarcity to one of abundance—and that we can not only survive, but thrive, together.
“I sat shiva for 10 days. Then I started plotting.”
This is a quote from a Stacey Abrams in a recent interview in Vogue about how she dealt with the grief of losing the 2018 Georgia governor’s race. Aware that her razor-thin loss was due in large part to racist voter suppression, she dedicated the next two years to expanding voting rights in her state, which may very well be the key to Joe Biden and the Democrats winning the electoral college.
There are so many things to talk about in this week’s parsha, Vayeira, which is like the Stefon’s hottest club of parshot. “It has everything”: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s Jerry Springer family drama, the turning away of Hagar and Ishmael by Sarah and Abraham, and the binding of Isaac. On the surface, these stories all seem rather disconnected, but what is resonating with me right now is that they all involve people who, see their rights and boundaries trampled, and how that impacts them, their families, and communities.
Let’s start with the Sodom and Gomorrah of it all. As a queer person, obviously I have feelings about a story that is used to justify bigotry against LGBTQ people. We’re told that Lot is the only virtuous person in Sodom, and the only real evidence given for this is he welcomes the messengers from G-d into his home—a similar move that his uncle Abraham pulls earlier in the parsha. The people of Sodom come to Lot’s house and demand Lot turn over the messengers so they can have sex with them. Lot, virtuous mensch he is, offers up his virgin daughters instead, whose consent is never obtained (the consequences of this come to bite Lot later when Lot’s daughters believe they are the only three people left alive and that the only way to save the human race is to get their father drunk and have him impregnate them. What did Stephen Sondheim say about how “children will listen?”). It is no wonder that Lot’s wife may have some complicated feelings about walking away from her home while G-d reigns fiery destruction down on it. And for her sense of nuance, she is reduced to a pillar of salt. Can you imagine if instead Lot’s wife was exalted for her prophetic sense of empathy, and like Stacey Abrams, was able to have the opportunity to bridge the ideological divides in her home, rather than be asked to simply wash her hands and walk away.
But G-d in the Tanakh isn’t really into nuance. The prevailing theme over and over seems to be that the only way to move forward is complete and utter consensus and obedience—that any dissent will cause the whole house of cards to crumble. Sarah sees her son Isaac playing with Hagar’s son Ishmael and decides the only solution is to have Abraham turn them away. Never mind that Sarah was the one who forced Hagar into Abraham’s bed in the first place; like the essential workers applauded for their sacrifice at the beginning of the pandemic, only for the largely poor and marginalized population to be discarded when they protest for their rights and demand support to keep their families safe.
What is incredible about Stacey Abrams is that after the 2018 election in Georgia was stolen from her, she had every reason to shut down, cut herself off and say “screw it” to the broken American political process. There are many Democrats who have basically written off the entire red part of the country, content to let it burn down in flames in its bigotry like Sodom and Gomorrah and not look back. But it takes bravery to stare into that darkness, into that discomfort and decide that there are things worth saving. Stacey Abrams no doubt knew that by diving into the fight against voter suppression, the Republicans in Georgia would do everything they could to reduce her and her allies to a pillar of salt, but her efforts this year in 2020 may be the first step in bridging our country’s oceans of division. Let's make sure if the Democrats pull this off that Stacey Abrams--and all of the other black women who have showed up for this party time and time again--are given the honor and respect they deserve.
I’ve been wanting to talk about “Lech Lecha” for a while now,
The story of our Biblical father Abram—later Abraham-- being commanded by G-d to leave the land of his father
And claim a new destiny in the land of Canaan.
Basically I want an excuse to talk about the way the show “Transparent” adapted it in their 2019 musical finale.
The show is about a self-involved California Jewish family whose patriarch comes out as trans in the pilot episode, and the way that coming out impacts everyone else in her family.
Of the kids, the main focus is the youngest, who goes by Ali for most of the show but comes out as nonbinary in the finale and identifies as Ari.
In an early season of the show, we learn that parental neglect led Ari’s parents to allow them to opt out of their bat mitzvah.
Their parsha is “lech lecha,” and despite not having a ceremony, in a climactic moment in the episode a 13 year old Ari delivers her Torah portion to the lone cater-waiter played by Alanis Morisette who didn’t get the message.
Fast forward years later, and the world is vastly changed from the one in which we met these characters.
Jeffrey Tambor, the cis man who controversially the trans parent Maura of the title, was revealed to be a violent abuser, leading to the cancellation of the show itself.
Not so dissimilar to Abraham, whose single-minded pursuit of his prophet mission also left collateral damage among those around him, including his sons Isaac and Ishmael, as well as his wife’s maidservant Hagar.
In response to this news about Tambor, the show’s creator Jill Soloway decided to end the show on a musical note,
In which Tambor’s character has died and all of the characters have to process her loss.
Ari has spent the last several years finding themselves spiritually in Israel, and returns with their siblings to find not only their parent dead, but their house left to someone else.
And in this moment Ari sings a gorgeous translation/adaptation of “Lech Lecha” while their childhood self chants the Hebrew in the background:
“Run from your father’s house
There’s a land that I will show you
I will make your name a blessing as you as you float on out
Run from your father’s house.
Run from your father’s house
There’s a lesson I will teach you
I will honor all who honor you
Curse all who curse you.
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you
And when you get home--
You won’t be alone
I promise to not look away.”
It builds on this rather mundane, dry command by G-d
To a GREAT MAN on his way to a GREAT destiny.
And turns it into a reassurance.
A gesture of soothing and nurturing.
An acknowledgment that leaving the past behind can be scary.
There is a reason that we often don’t make major changes until we are forced to.
Because there is comfort in the familiar.
The routines, the rituals.
Even the patterns of negative self-talk come in predictable ebbs and flows like the tide
And even provide us a sense of anchor.
What helps us take that leap into the abyss has to be more than the hope of success and fame--
Those things are fleeting when we do achieve them anyway--
But more it’s the possibility of a world where we can be truly known.
As a sort of fun side project, I have been coming up with memes on Instagram where I retell the Parsha story using Broadway and other pop culture memes.
This week I am using the tangled romance of Greg, Rose Quartz and Pearl from Steven Universe to explore Lech Lecha--
And how like Abram, Sarai, and Hagar these three left behind the worlds they knew--
Often suffering and perpetuating unspeakable loss and pain along the way--
And cracking the window open to destinies they could never imagined.
That idea that there exists a version of home where we can be supported in ways our families of origin simply were never capable.
It’s a powerful counterfactual for anyone who has never felt like they belonged in the place they were born.
And that we deserve the right to build a place where we can live together with all the other weirdos of the world.
“Lech Lecha”: Go forth and found your tribe.
“Kill your darlings.”
It’s a saying common in creative writing--
The idea that in order for a story we are working on to move forward,
We need to cut anything that doesn’t serve the larger purpose.
And sometimes that can be hard
because some of those ideas, lines, images
that we birthed from our creative womb
can be very dear to us.
And it can hurt to let them go.
Even if we know it is what is necessary in the long run.
Of course when we say “Kill your darlings” we are talking figuratively.
But I also think it’s an apt way to think of G-d in Parshat Noach.
Last week in Bereshit I talked about G-d in the throes of the creative process.
That first week delighting in the first draft right brain mode
When everything is magical and exciting
Followed by the terror
When the characters you created--
in this case Adam and Eve and Cain--
Start to make choices you don’t expect.
Now with Noach, we see G-d’s world-building really go off the rails.
Eve and the snake and Cain whacking his brother were one thing--
But now we have giants in the sky and Angels having sex with humans
and all sorts of chaos.
Not gonna lie, I always thought that world seemed like a lot of fun.
But if you were G-d I can imagine being overwhelmed.
So though G-d probably cares deeply for the beings they have created.
G-d is also aware that they might not belong in the world they are trying to build.
So they create a flood and wipe out everything that isn’t working,
Preserving what works and building from there.
I mean there is a lot we can say about mass genocide.
And G-d just deciding arbitrarily that a whole swath of people aren’t worthy of salvation.
This isn’t the first time this happens in the Torah and it never fails to bother me.
But as a creator, I also get it.
I have this adaptation of the Persephone myth I have been making and remaking several times over the last decade.
Every few years I pull it out,
write 60 pages,
put it away,
cut 40 of those pages
and build it back up again.
Like G-d’s creation project,
Perhaps this play will never be finished.
But I can always save those other drafts.
And maybe some of those lines and characters that I love so much
Will find homes in other adventures.
And while many of the wild and wonderful weirdness of the pre-flood world
May not have fit into the picture G-d was creating.
But that’s what the world of Midrash is for.
I’m thinking of the song “Everything Stays”
From the cartoon Adventure Time.
About another world that experiences a crash
Where Marceline, a thousand-year-old vampire,
Reflects on a lullaby her mother used to sing her:
“Everything stays right where you left it
But still it changes
Ever so slightly, daily and nightly
In little ways, when everything stays.”
When I was a kid, I liked to say I thought G-d was an animator,
And that we were all characters in the cartoon they were drawing.
And that the animator had a sick sense of humor and enjoyed messing with us.
At the time, I was being a snarky kid.
But as I delve deeper in my own process as an artist, I am starting to feel like my metaphor wasn’t too far off.
Except for the idea that as creators we have any control over the outcome of our work.
At least for me, the magic and joy of making art is throwing something out there, and not knowing for sure what--if anything--will come of it.
When I read Bereshit, I think of the--the excitement and terror of the blank page.
Endless possibilities. The joy of a first draft, when you can put anything out there and you don’t know where it will go.
The first week, the world is like G-d’s improv partner.
G-d says, “Let there be light,”
And the planet replies, “yes--and!”
There is light.
G-d next says “let there be an expanse in the midst of water, that it may separate from water--”
And planet repliaes, “yes--and!”
And now there is sea and sky.
“Let there be earth and sky!”
“Let there be plants!”
“Let there be living creatures!”
That early part of the creation is the fun part--when everything feels exciting, feels new, feels free, feels possible.
Everything is “Ki Tov”--it is all good.
And it is amazing to think that you had all of that in you.
I’m also thinking about the musical “Sunday in the Park with George,”
Where the artist George Seurat, marvels the fruits of his labor.
“Look, I made a hat!”
But, the rest of the process is trickier.
Sometimes our creations get away from us.
Like Adam and Eve, and then Cain and Abel, our characters we have conjured start to make choices that scare us.
Which seems odd--if we are the ones who created them, shouldn’t we be able to control everything they do? Should they be able to surprise us?
But the truth is, if we knew the answers, then the creative process would be pointless.
If we’re truly engaged, truly dropped in, truly present, we open ourselves up to discovery--even if sometimes what we discover can hurt.
Each time we create a new project, we are creating a whole world.
So earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to receive a New Works Grant from Queens Council on the Arts. That grant allowed me to continue to develop the food storytelling project that began with The Prodigal Vegan in 2016, with an eye toward helping others share their stories and explore what it means to be Jewish in Queens.
It's been an incredibly humbling journey as I've eaten and learned with a diverse array of my community members over the past six months, shaped and guided by the incredible Ilana Becker. I am thrilled to share the first public presentations of this project which has become Foods That Feel Like Home.
Thursday, September 17 we will be presenting at The Free Synagogue of Flushing. The event is free, but space is limited so make sure you make a reservation here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/jewish-in-queens-foods-that-feel-like-home-tickets-69181665223
Thursday, October 17 we will be presenting in the Sukkah at Commonpoint Queens (Formerly the Central Queens Y). To make a free reservation: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/foods-that-feel-like-home-jewish-food-stories-in-the-sukkah-tickets-72563482329