The JCA participated in the Rabbis for Human Rights “Human Rights Shabbat” this past weekend, being led by Marcia Black in an exploration of human rights from a Jewish perspective, and learning about the issues of human trafficking and modern day slavery.
Below, you will find two of the teachings that Marcia presented to the community, first some information on how you can do your best to be sure that your shopping is not contributing to the perpetuation of slavery, and second the wonderful d’var Torah she gave about Jacob’s wrestling representing a wrestling with conscience.
During Human Rights Shabbat, we began a discussion of modern day slavery in the
supply chains of many of the products that we buy. We will continue to explore this
important issue in the coming months. Here are some links to places where you can
learn how to shop for fair trade products, and check out which major companies have
slaves in their supply chains.
Vayishlach – Wrestling with Our Complicity; Wrestling with Our Conscience
Human Rights Shabbat, December 10, 2011 – Marcia Black
In the Talmud we read, “From where do we know that if a person sees his fellow drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, he is bound to save him? From the verse (in Leviticus 19:16) “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.” Our tradition commands us to act against injustice, to intervene in cruelty, to free the captive. Why, then, do we so often fail to act? fail to protest? fail to protect? How is it that, in the blink of an eye, we go from seeing to not-seeing, from feeling to not-feeling? Why do we turn our faces away from suffering?
More than 27 million people are slaves today, more than at any other time in human history. Many of these slaves are children, bought and sold, and bought and sold again, and again, and again. Right this moment, close to 17,000 people are enslaved here in the United States, a country that outlawed slavery in the 1800’s. These slaves are held against their will, paid no wages, made to work long hours in dreadful conditions, threatened, locked up, beaten. They labor in fields, in factories, in people’s homes, in brothels. They are lured into slavery by false promises of jobs and a new life, are enslaved through false debts and misleading contracts. Many, if not most, are trafficked illegally into our country.
In the global economy of the 21st century, it is impossible not to be complicit. The tomatoes we eat are often harvested by debt-slaves in Florida’s tomato fields ; the chocolate we buy comes from cocoa picked by child slaves in West Africa; many of the cars we drive, the washing machines, driers, dishwashers we use, are made with steel that is made from pig iron that is made from charcoal produced by slaves in Brazil; many of the rugs we purchase are woven by child slaves in Nepal, Pakistan, India and Morocco. Can we come panim el panim with this truth: that our everyday actions as consumers contributes to the merciless treatment of others. More often than not, “we are drinking someone else’s misery for breakfast” (John Bowe, Nobodies), walking on someone else’s misery in our homes, wearing someone else’s misery next to our skin.
Many people suggest that the evasion of doing-what’s-right, the passivity of the bystander, comes from a lack of empathy or a moral cowardice that makes us think only of our own gain, or of a deeply-seated greed for power. I think the opposite may be more true – we turn a blind eye because we identify so strongly with the pain of another. In that moment when we resonate with another’s ruin, we fear we also will be annihilated – annihilated by a deep, reflexive empathy with the other’s terror, the other‘s rage, the other‘s pain.
When someone else feels anguish, pain, terror, heart-break, we, too, feel this. We are made that way: exquisitely sensitive instruments, attuned to the sensations of others, whether we want to or not. To be alive and in the company of others, is to sustain injury. Sooner or later, we all have to wrestle with, and finally accept this simple truth: we are injured by life. If we resist this truth, we either fight with life, or we wall ourselves off from others. If, on the other hand, we accept this wounding, then something else marvelous happens. We see this here with Yaakov – after wrestling with the mysterious being, Yaakov is injured, and only then is he blessed – given a new name, a new identity, a new relationship with God. As the S’fat Emet suggests, he is given a new way towards shalem, safety, and a new way to shalom, peace within himself and with God. (referenced in Etz Chayim).
Midrashic sources refer to Yaakov’s assailant as an angel of God, as well as Esau’s guardian angel. In modern terms, we can imagine that Yaakov feels Esau‘s rage inside of him, and he feels his fear in response to this rage. We can imagine him wrestling with these huge feelings, as well as his guilt and remorse, for they are uncomfortable and he would rather not feel them. We all have had our sleepless nights.
Yet I think that Yaakov’s struggle cannot be reduced to simply a struggle with strong emotions. I think we are witnessing, instead, the steps that Yaakov must take to build a resilient and strong conscience.
In the previous parsha, Laban and Yaakov agree to reconcile their differences, and agree not to harm each other in the future. Yaakov erects a pillar, reminiscent of the pillar that he erected at the place where he dreamed of the ladder connecting him with God. In that previous parsha, God tells Yaakov that He will watch over him, protect him. In this parsha, we hear that God is not just watching in order to protect Yaakov, but also to prevent Yaakov from harming us. When the pillar is erected, Laban says, “No man is here with us, but see, God is witness between me and you!….witness is this mound, witness is this pillar, that I will not cross over this mound to you and you will not cross over this mound and this pillar to me, for ill!” (Gen 31:44-52).
Yaakov has begun to relate to God as Witness, and so has begun to think in ethical terms. And yet in today’s parsha, God as witness, symbolized by a pillar external to the self, is not enough to keep Yaakov from succumbing to terror. Rashi writes that when Yaakov became …frightened, and…distressed at the approach of Esau and his men, “He was frightened lest he be killed and he was distressed that he might kill others.” (Gen. Rabbah 75:2, Tanchuma, Vayishlach 4), His terror was that his relationship with God would not be strong enough to protect him from this double jeopardy of kill or be killed.
This terror propels Yaakov into a dark night of the soul. He must fight for his life after all, but this is not a mortal fight with a mortal enemy. Instead, this is a fight to develop a stronger conscience. Yaakov must accept his capacity for harm, and accept the inevitability of injury. Only then can he move into a different relationship with God and with humans; only then can he develop a conscience that will guide him away from harm and towards kindness.
Rashi describes Yaakov’s struggle, “and a man wrestled……is a term meaning that he attached himself, and it is an Aramaic expression [found in the Talmud] (Sanh. 63b):“After they became attached (___________) to it…. for so is the habit of two people who make strong efforts to throw each other down, that one embraces the other and attaches himself to him with his arms.“ Body to body, Yaakov encounters his worst fears, body to body he encounters his guilt; body to body he encounters the other who is also himself, body to body he encounters God. Through this passionate attachment, Yaakov learned to engage God through his body, not just through his mind.
Midrash tells us that this fight between Yaakov and his assailant was so intense, enough dust was kicked up to touch the throne of Heaven. Through this long wrestling match, Yaakov’s energy touches the hem of God’s garment – the garment that is spread across the heavens to signify peace.
Yaakov names the place of struggle Peniel/Face of God. He then is able to approach Esau with openness, humility and a kind of unspoken resonance of love. Much to the surprise of Rabbinic commentators, Esau runs and embraces him. He flings himself on Yaakov’s neck and kisses him. The description of this meeting is physical, intense, passionate. Body to body, face to face, the two enemies, the twin brothers who resonate with each other, meet. Yaakov says “…I have seen your face, as one sees the face of God…” (Gen 33:10) It seems that only by allowing ourselves to become broken and brokenhearted do we break open a new way of relating to God, to others, and to ourselves.
Taking in – really taking in – the cruelty that humans inflict on each other injures us. Horror pulls hard at our hearts, sorrow rings through our nerves, fear sends rippling signals through our muscles when we resonate, body to body, with the suffering of others. And it turns out we are primed to feel this way by our neurology. We are programmed, through mirror neurons, to feel what the other feels, to want to act the way the other wants to act, to feel a resonance in our muscles and nerves with what the other person feels in theirs. Your body talks to my body, even if we are just seeing these each other in a photograph or a video, or read about each other in the news. Underneath thought, outside personal narrative, regardless of divides of time, distance or culture, our bodies twin with each other. No matter how different we are, like Yaakov and Esau, we feel what each other feels.
By opening to awareness of this grand orchestra of sensation and resonance, and by allowing bodily release of the inevitable pain that comes from living with one another, we become stronger, more resilient, and more actively kind. Yaakov wrestles body to body with the angel until he understands – we must accept the injury of deeply connected intimacy in order to receive the blessing that this intimacy brings.
Can we learn, with Yaakov, to overcome our instinctual responses to fear? Can we learn not to take flight, nor fight, nor freeze? Can we allow ourselves to be deeply injured by the biologically driven twinning with another’s pain and respond to this pain with open-hearted and wise action? Our sages tell us that God loves best the broken-hearted. Can we learn to open more and more and more to the unbidden and naturally occurring intimacy that resonates between us, as creatures living on this planet, who will always and forever be broken-hearted, and broken open?
Perhaps in this way we will find our way to say we did “not stand idly by our neighbor’s blood.”
Biblical quotes from Everett Fox, Five Books of Moses, 1983, Schocken Books, New York.
Information about neurological resonance comes from Peter Levine, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores , North Atlantic Books, 2010.