Saturday, December 28, 2013

What Oz Gave the Tin Man; What God Gives Us

Been away from the blog for a few weeks…back at it now...

The 1970s rock group America was known for its sometimes cryptic lyrics based on literary references and other musings of songwriter Dewey Bunnell.and his fellow band members.  One of their seminal hits was the song "Tin Man"

The chorus begins with the observation "Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man/ that he didn't, didn't already have."  In the midst of a slightly "trippy" folk-rock song, this couplet may, at first listen, seem to be nonsensical.  But if we think about the source material, the Wizard of Oz (either the L. Frank Baum book or the Judy Garland film, take your pick), we may recognize the meaning hinted at by these words.  At the end of Dorothy and her friends' sojourn in the land of Oz, they learn that the great wizard is nothing more than a "humbug."  And yet, he is nevertheless able to bless the Scarecrow with brains, the Tin Man with a heart, and the Cowardly Lion with courage, simply by showing them that they have already possessed many of the key traits of the items they have sought.  Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't already have-- if we can excuse the grammar, we'll see that it's true: the Tin Man already had plenty of love, though he lacked an actual heart.

I thought of the song as I thought of this week's parasha, VaEra.  In it, God sends Moses to visit the first of the ten plagues upon Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelite people from bondage.  We might ask, whom do these plagues benefit and/or impress?  Pharaoh?  The Egyptians?  The Israelites?  In fact, throughout the book of Exodus, when we witness God unleashing such displays of Divine power and showmanship, the inevitable question arises: why do we not see such miracles, such overt signs of God's presence, in our own day and age?

I think the answer is similar to the mystery that Dewey Bunnell unfolded in his song.  Just as Oz didn't give the Tin Man or his friends anything that they didn't already possess, so too does God refrain from giving us more than we need (or can handle) in displaying the Divine self within the universe.  The Israelites needed miracles like the parting of the Red Sea or the daily delivery of manna, both for their immediate survival and to assuage souls that had lost hope and suffered greatly during more than 400 years of slavery.  The Egyptian citizenry needed signs and portents like the ten plagues to wean them from the belief that Pharaoh was a god incarnate and to incline them to act more compassionately toward the Israelites.

In our time, while we may thirst for supernatural miracles that upset the order of nature as we have come to expect it, God realizes that we have already been imbued with an innate sense of wonder.  If we would merely open our eyes and appreciate the God-given beauty around us, we would recognize that miracles do still occur- in the growth of a tree, the inquisitiveness of a child, the blossoming of love.  God doesn't deliver miracles nowadays with fanfare and fireworks.  God just wants us to be grateful for the miracles we already have.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Coming Out of Your Closet, Even if It's Not Rainbow-Colored

Ash Beckham is a lesbian and an LGBTQ-rights advocate.  In September, she presented at a TED talk in Boulder, Colorado on the topic of "Coming Out of Your Closet." (note: one inadvertently PG-rated image appears at 9:37, but it's significant to the context of the talk)

The idea of "coming out of the closet" is usually spoken of in the context of the LGBTQ community.  But as Beckham points out, the metaphor is apt for any of us who are keeping a secret, who are sitting on information that they may be concerned about sharing with others.

Beckham cautions against drawing comparisons between the challenges we face and the challenges others face.  For instance, some may fear having a conversation about being in financial distress; others might be nervous about a medical diagnosis.  "Hard is not relative," Beckham notes, "hard is hard."  Yet we can commiserate on the fact that we all, at one point or another in our lives, have experienced "hard," and we can all appreciate that, whatever our personal closets may look like, "a closet is no place for a person to truly live."

In the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Parashat VaYigash, we find that Joseph has been living in his own closet.  Having risen to second-in-command of Egypt, he has put aside the attire of his youth, and many of the customs as well, adapting to the Egyptian way of life.  In so doing, he has become virtually unrecognizable to his brothers.  Now, as he reveals himself to them, they are dumbfounded, and Joseph himself is so emotionally overcome that he weeps loudly and uncontrollably.

In next week's portion, Parashat VaYechi, Joseph will be reunited with his father, Jacob.  Jacob exclaims, ראה פניך לא פללתי ra'oh panecha lo pallalti- "I did not ever dream that I would see your face [again]."  The early 20th century satirist Gerson Rosenzweig opined that this was not only because Jacob had become convinced that Joseph was dead, but also because even once it was revealed that Joseph was alive in Egypt, Jacob was certain that Joseph would be unrecognizable in his Egyptian costume.  The masks we wear can sometimes obscure our true selves.

Yet Joseph has had the courage to "come out of his closet"- to end the charade and reconcile with his brothers for the sake of the family and its future survival.  And perhaps what we can learn- from Joseph and from Ash Beckham- is that as daunting and frightening as it may seem, it is better to open that door and take a step outside than it is to cower in the darkness.

Beckham offers three rules for having the difficult conversations that can take us out of our closets:
1. Be authentic- certainly Joseph succeeds here.  He lays his emotions bare, so much so that "his sobs were so loud that all the Egyptians could hear."
2. Be direct- again, Joseph has got it covered.  "I am Joseph," he proclaims, "Is our father still living?"
3. Be unapologetic- in reuniting with his brothers, Joseph extends a hand in peace, telling them that they need not feel ashamed or sorrowful for selling him into slavery, since it all ended up working out positively.  But never does he apologize for who he was as a youth- or for all the times he bugged and pestered them- which made them hatch the plot in the first place.  Beckham opines that it is actually OK to apologize for what we've done, but that people should never feel forced to apologize for who they are.

So how about it?  Can we learn from Beckham's and Joseph's examples?  Can we find the courage to emerge from the closets- whatever shape or color they may be- that have been concealing our true selves?