You Shall Pursue

October 27, 2013

Parshat Chayyei Sarah: Love in all its Forms

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:54 pm

I delivered this D’var Torah at my student pulpit on October 26

This week has been all about weddings. Last Sunday, I was privileged to officiate at a wedding between two of my close friends. The day after, I learned that Governor Christie has no plans to appeal the New Jersey court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in this state. And this week we read Chayyei Sarah, a Torah portion that contains a funeral and two weddings. And I am struck, this week, by the restorative power of love and family and the beauty of binding together in covenant with the one that you love. And of what a blessing it is to be able to honor those commitments.

After last week’s parsha, Isaac is not doing so well. He has just been nearly sacrificed by his father. And the strain on their relationship shows; the text never describes another relationship between the man and his son.

And yet Abraham still cares about his son, and his welfare, so he sends his right hand man to find perhaps the feistiest woman in Torah, his niece Rebecca, to be his son’s wife. And the text tells us that, upon meeting her, “Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

Isaac is able to move on from the trauma of the last chapter, and begin a new family with this woman by his side.

Which brings me to New Jersey’s recent acceptance of same-sex marriage. While our rabbis may not have recognized same-sex couples, they do recognize the fundamental power in having a life partner. In tractate kiddushin in the Talmud, the rabbis explain that a requirement for good parenting is to find one’s son a proper spouse. Students are not able to study the mysteries of Kabbalah unless they are married. In general, our tradition teaches that access to love and partnership are one of the most fundamental human needs, the grounding through which the rest of life comes. And while certainly not all of us seek to find love and connection through romantic partnerships, it is a cruelty to deprive people who want that connection from the ability to honor and celebrate their love.

In our story, Abraham is adamant that not any woman will do for his son; she must be of his kin. And the servant seeks her out not by beauty or status, but by her kindness towards a stranger. And it is because of her good heart and good sense that she is able to serve as the mother of the family dynasty; correctly predicting which of Isaac’s children is the fit inheritor.

This text teaches us that when two people of “like kind,” find each other, that is a blessing. When two people of similar morals and values come together to find each other, it is a rare and beautiful miracle. As such, I am thrilled by this decision to allow recognition of more kinds of supportive partnerships.

And when I was watching the videos of the recent weddings on the steps of the Paramount Theater in New Jersey, and as I watched the faces of my dear friends on Sunday, I was struck by the utter joy on those faces. Not just of the faces of the marrying couples, but also of the watching witnesses, of friends and family, of everyone who is able to participate at weddings. As Jews, we know that it is our duty to turn out in style to celebrate weddings, to send couples into the world with communal support. And having just been part of creating a ceremony that helped two people that I love to bind to one another, I realize what a blessing it is for an entire community to participate in the celebration of a marriage. When we do not celebrate, when we allow fear and bigotry to get in the way of joy, it is not just the couple that suffers, it is the entire community.

As such, there is more work to be done. I am thrilled by recent rabbinic and local government support for gay marriage in my home state, but Pennsylvania may still be years away from overturning its same-sex marriage ban. And it is certainly not the only state in which same-sex partnerships are second-class partnerships.

As a concerned citizen who loves many people in same-sex partnerships, including many of my professors and class-mates, and the president of my school, it pains me deeply that people I care about are told that their love and commitment is less-than. I owe it to them, as we all owe it to the people we are about, to fight for recognition of loving bonds, however they may look. No person should have to fight for the right for their friends and loved ones to dance at their wedding.

The story of Isaac and Rebecca is a story of love and life after loss. May all of us be blessed to find such support in our lives to help us through the hard times and challenges. And may all of us be blessed to help to support and celebrate the brides and grooms in our lives, whomever they may love.

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October 8, 2013

D’var Torah: Parshat Noach

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 10:02 pm

Delivered at my student pulpit on Saturday, October 5

I have always felt a bit sorry for Noah. He is a good man, a righteous man, but a man like any other. He has worked hard all his life, raised up his children, and now he is in the twilight years, the years when most people sit back, relax, and enjoy a contented old age with a loving spouse and adorable grandchildren.

And then God comes to him and the experience changes everything. God gives Noah the challenge of a lifetime; he must save humanity. How does an old man respond to such a burden? This particular old man builds a raft, fills it with animals and children and in-laws, and sets out to honor God’s commands and save a remnant of humanity.

The God of the Bible favors those whom God loves by pulling them out of the usual path of their lives and plunking them down into extraordinary circumstances. From Noah, tasked with repopulating the Earth; to Abraham, who is commanded to leave his ancestral homeland for places unknown, cast out one son (Ishmael) and sacrifice the other (Isaac); to Moses, commanded to lead an extremely stubborn people through the desert for forty years, relationship, or covenant, with our God often reads more like an extreme test of faith than like a reward.

Why does God in the Bible show love by placing what appear to be impossible expectations on human beings? Perhaps it is to show all of us that a truly blessed life is difficult and meaningful rather than easily pleasurable. All of us experience our lives as a series of obligations that we must fulfill. The challenge is whether we view these obligations as a challenge to be overcome so that we can kick back and relax, or as an opportunity to better our own lives and the lives of those whom we love.

I’m sure that everyone in this room well understands what it means to be burdened. In our work lives, in our family lives, there is never enough time or energy, and the demands on us are unending.

I am reminded of the movie Date Night, in which Tina Fey portrays a harried and sleep-deprived working mother. In one scene, her children, whom she clearly loves deeply, burst into her room at six on a weekend, depriving her of her one day to sleep in. “Oh” she mumbles as she gets up to play with them, “You have so many NEEDS.” I don’t think I have ever heard caring for children as succinctly described as in that one sentence.

And yet, how many of us would abandon those burdens? How many would abandon our obligations to spouses, parents, children, dear friends? It is these very demands on our time and our energy (and often those whom we love demand much) that make our lives worth living.

We are all indebted to one another, and it is through filling those debts that we build a life of meaning, purpose, and joy.

One of my many rabbis, Rabbi Ira Stone, writes in his book A Responsible Life:

 Love, once evoked, creates in us the desire to care- and this desire cannot in good conscience be abandoned. The feeling of love thus becomes transformed into a responsibility, a command to which we must respond… This love which we have for another has singled us out; we are aware that no one else can stand in for us, no one else can take responsibility off of us… Revelation is the acknowledgment of this election.

When Noah responded to God call’s, the weight of humanity’s future rested on his shoulders. What could he do but take on that burden?

Of course, for most of us, our decisions to honor our obligations, or not, are not quite so weighty. But as many of us know who have seen the all consuming joy of a child when we take them on a vacation or even take them on a surprise outing, honoring our burdens with joy and love can deeply effect the world.

This love that we feel for others is not some vague, happy, hippy feel-good-ness. It comes out of an urgent need to DO something, to heed the call and do what we must to make things better for those who need us right now.

And so I ask, what are we doing to live up to our obligations? How are we living out our covenants with the people around us? How are we making their lives better? And are we attending to these tasks with a sense of joyless duty, or a sense of true pleasure?

God gives us covenant so that we may be connected, happy, and at peace. May we, like Noah, know the gratitude and sense of divine awe that comes of a Divine contract fulfilled, with God and with those whom we love.

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