Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Instant Gratification


7 Kislev 5772

December 2-3, 2011

“Jacob loved Rachel, so he said [to Laban her father], ‘I will work for you seven years, for Rachel your younger daughter.’” – Genesis 29:18

In this week’s Torah portion, we find Jacob fleeing from home after stealing his brother Esau’s blessing from their father Isaac. His journey takes him to the town where Laban, his uncle, lives. Laban had two daughters: (1) Leah the elder, and (2) Rachel the younger. After living with and working for Laban and his family for a month, Jacob is asked what his desired wages are. Jacob responds that he will work for 7 years in order to marry Rachel, as he was in love with her.

Holy. Moly. Seven years.

Is there any goal that you would be willing, right now, to commit 7 years to achieving?

If you found the person you wanted to be your life partner, would you labor for 7 years to have the ability to be with him or her?

Many of us are incredibly focused on achieving short term goals. Day to day and week to week, we all have tasks that need to be accomplished and that require our time, dedication and effort. So too do we seek instant gratification from our efforts. We want to see our goals achieved as quickly as possible, and we want to find a sense of fulfillment in our achievements (with such “fulfillment” often coming via the accolades showered upon us by others, rather than due to any ingrained sense of self worth).

But are we so concerned with short term rewards and instant gratification that we fail to take the time to look at the big picture? To set long term goals that can serve as a framework for our daily lives?

When I was working at the Conservative synagogue in Charleston, S.C. right after finishing college, one of my congregants was a retired Navy captain. At the beginning of his career, the Captain had set a long term goal: namely, to serve his country, in turn protecting his family, and to retire after 20 years. That goal framed his existence for two decades.

For 20 years, he was away at sea on a submarine for 9 months out of the year. For 20 years, he only got to see his wife and children 90 days per year. Out of dedication to his country and due to the need to support his family, he made what I’m sure many of us would consider a significant personal sacrifice. Now, as a retired captain on a military pension, he has the ability to spend every day with his wife, and has the flexibility to visit his children and grandchildren whenever he pleases.

The Captain’s path need not be yours. But due to having a long term goal in mind, he was able to create meaning in his day to day life beyond completing daily tasks and duties, as he knew he was on a path that he had set for himself.

While we often seek instant gratification in our lives, our ancestors were a bit more patient than we were. For a good chunk of our history the Jewish people were farmers, and a significant number of the Torah’s commandments focus on agricultural practices. For example, the Torah dictates that when you plant a new tree, you cannot eat of its fruit until the 5th year. Talk about needing to have patience!

For 7 years, Jacob patiently worked for his uncle in order to have the privilege of marrying Rachel. Then, his uncle tricked him (oh how the tables have turned!), and instead of Rachel, Jacob married Leah. In return for Jacob promising to work another 7 years, Laban then agrees to allow Jacob to marry Rachel. Thus, it wasn’t 7 years, but 14 years that Jacob worked for Laban. There must have been days where Jacob questioned his decision. And yet, striving to achieve his long term goal allowed him to frame his daily life in a meaningful way.

This Shabbat, take the time to reflect and set a long term goal. It might have to do with love and family. It might have to do with career. It might have to do with charitable endeavors. Whatever the goal is, use it to frame your daily activities, so that you can find meaning and real fulfillment, every day of your life.

Thursday, November 24, 2011



29 Cheshvan 5772

November 25-26, 2011

So he built an altar there and invoked the Lord by name.” – Genesis 26:25

This week’s portion, Toldot, tells the story of Isaac’s life, which in many ways is remarkably similar to his father’s (to the point where some modern commentators suggest that the two were actually the same person!). In the portion, in addition to the sibling rivalries of Jacob and Esau, and the questionable (horrific?) parenting methods utilized by Isaac and Rebecca, we find Isaac seeking to thank God for promising that just as God blessed his father Abraham, so too would God bless him and his descendants.

Isaac goes about giving thanks the way traditionally done during his era: he built an altar in order to make a sacrifice. However, we find here that Isaac, despite having plenty of material wealth and flocks galore, does not offer up an animal sacrifice. Rather, he “invoked the Lord by name.”

The first time in the Torah we see an “offering” of some kind being made to God is by Cain and Abel, back in Genesis chapter 4. There is no alter, and there is no invoking of God’s name. There, God preferred Abel’s offering to Cain’s, as the ancient rabbis suggest Abel offered the best of his flock, while Cain did not offer his best produce. Thus, we learn that when making offerings of thanksgiving, we should be giving our best.

The first instance in the Bible of building an altar and offering sacrifices on it is by Noah, and is done after the flood (Genesis 8:20). The Torah makes clear that Noah brought extra animals onto the ark for this express purpose before the flood – otherwise, if he had just brought sets of 2 onto the ark, to offer any animal up for sacrifice would have been the extermination of the species! Despite not invoking God’s name when making the sacrifices, we learn in Genesis 8:21 that God found the odor of the sacrifices pleasing, and as a result, resolved to never again flood/destroy the world. We therefore learn that making offerings of thanksgiving has the ability to result in outcomes beneficial to us.

We have 3 examples here of giving thanks to God:

*Cain and Abel make offerings without an altar and without invoking God’s name.

*Noah performs animal sacrifice upon an altar he built, but does not invoke God’s name.

*Isaac builds an altar and invokes God’s name, but does not perform animal sacrifice.

Each of these examples of giving thanks is different than the other. And each of them was acceptable to God.

As Jews we no longer offer sacrifices, as after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, prayer came to replace our sacrificial rituals. Prayer can mean different things for different people, and the possible expressions of prayer are endless. The examples above make it clear that how you offer thanks, provided you do so wholeheartedly and from a place of sincerity, makes little difference. Rather, expressing thanks in and of itself is the essential virtue, and has the ability to dramatically improve the world around us.

This Shabbat, which falls on Thanksgiving weekend here in the USA, reflect on your blessings. Determine those things you are most thankful for, and in whatever way comes most naturally to you, make sure you take the time to say thank you.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Matriarch Power

Chayeii Sarah

22 Cheshvan 5772
Nov. 18 – 19, 2011

So [Rebecca] took her veil and covered herself.” -- Genesis 24:65

In Chayeii Sarah, we read that Abraham sends his servant to go and find a wife for Isaac (the precursor to JDating). The servant decides that the first woman to offer both him and his camels water to drink once reaching his destination (Abraham specifically instructed that Isaac’s wife come from his old neighborhood, which was a bit of a trek) will be the woman designated by God for Isaac.

Lo and behold, Rebecca greets the servant upon seeing him, and the first thing she does is draw water for both him and his camels. A match!

Rebecca agrees to return with the servant in order to marry Isaac. Upon seeing Isaac from afar, she covers herself, as shared in the verse above. The ancient rabbis understood this as a sign of modesty – traditionally viewed as an essential Jewish value. Isaac and Rebecca meet, and Isaac quickly takes her back to Sarah’s tent (which is now vacant, as Sarah dies at the beginning of the portion), where they consummate their marriage. Jewish brides have been covering their faces with a veil on their wedding days since.

Without question, Rebecca is unique, and we can learn from her actions.

* Rebecca was generous and hospitable to the servant – a complete stranger.

In what ways are we generous and hospitable to those we know? When folks we’re entertaining enter our homes, do we reflexively offer them something to drink? Do we offer to take their coats and ask them to make themselves at home? Do we support our friends when they ask us to show up for them, be it at a recital or charity function?

How are we generous to those we do not know? Rebecca sets a clear example of being an ambassador of kindness to a complete stranger. Are we being generous enough with our charitable contributions? Water, which Rebecca draws from the well, is a tangible object. Rather than donating simply dollars, can we donate tangible objects to help improve the lives of others? From canned goods to used cars, there are bountiful opportunities to be generous to strangers. Can a simple hello and a smile to a complete stranger (noting of course the need for personal safety) be an action we make a regular part of our lives?

* Rebecca was willing to take a chance on love.

Are we open to the power of love? Are we so picky and concerned with checking off hypothetical boxes on an imaginary (real?) checklist that we miss out on amazing relationships with wonderful people? Are we so concerned with self-fulfillment that the ability simply doesn’t exist to put the needs of another before our own?

A good female friend of mine recently was asked to take a gent new to town out for an evening. Her grandmother knew his grandmother, or something along those lines, and he did not know anyone in the neighborhood. Out of the kindness of her heart, she showed him around the neighborhood one night. A few months later, they were engaged.

Are you open to meeting someone in a completely unexpected way?

If you have already met someone, do you think about potential awesome introductions for your friends?

* Rebecca wanted her first meaningful interaction with her husband-to-be to be one not based on her physical appearance.

The hyper-sexualization of Western culture, and in particular, the fanaticism associated with being skinny and meeting society’s definition of beauty, has resulted in an unhealthy focus on one’s external physical appearance. Body image issues plague a large number of people in our society, and particularly troubling is the reality that most of the models we see on magazine covers, whom we are told symbolize “beauty” and “sexuality,” have been airbrushed using modern technology to appear skinnier. By covering her face upon seeing Isaac approaching from afar prior to their first encounter, Rebecca ensured that Isaac would not be able to judge her by an initial glance.

“Hotness” fades – we know this. In your senior years, you’re going to want to be with someone you have the ability to have meaningful conversations with, and whom you enjoy spending time with. While initial sparks are key to igniting any relationship, be conscious to not focus solely on your potential partner’s external features.

* Rebecca was modest.

Many of us are used to being told how special we are by numerous people and cannot help but internalize such sentiments. Are we modest enough in our daily lives? Do we strike a healthy balance between self-confidence and the humility needed to self-reflect and improve?

In the week(s) ahead, strive to emulate Rebecca when possible. Be open and generous with strangers and friends alike. Be willing to take a chance on love, and if you’ve already found love, seek to help others find their match. Recognize the fallacy of judging others based solely on their physical appearance, and strive to get to know people on a deeper level. Finally, recognize that while you are indeed special, and that the world was created just for you, in the end, you are but dust and ashes, and without question have the ability to improve as a human being.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Parashat Vayera

15 Cheshvan 5771

Nov. 11-12, 2011

In this week’s Torah portion, we find God seeking to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham negotiating with God as to the number of righteous persons living in the cities needed to justify not destroying them. Starting at 50, he eventually convinces God to not destroy the cities if there are 10 righteous persons living within them (a minyan). In the end, the cities could not produce even 10 righteous persons, and they were destroyed.

Abraham was willing to argue with God to save the lives of people he did not know.

While not the lesson traditionally gleaned from this Torah portion, which also includes the well-known story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, there is a powerful lesson with regards to the value and power of community contained within it.

Individual righteous actions are wonderful, but this Torah portion makes it pretty clear that even righteous individuals were not to be spared God’s wrath. Rather, only if there were at minimum a community of 10 such persons would God resist the temptation to destroy the cities.

We live in an era of hyper-individualization, despite the plethora of tools available to connect with others. In our society, self-fulfillment is king, and only after we ourselves are content do we begin thinking about the needs of others. Those of us who do find ways to give back often do so on an individual level, as many of our peers are still in the “self-fulfillment” mode, and are not interested in giving back when we are.

Given the emphasis placed on community in this week’s Torah portion, the question I need to ask is: What are we doing as a community to be righteous together?

Are we going out of our way to argue for those who maybe are not in a position to stand up for themselves?

Are we encouraging others to join us when we do acts that are considered righteous, such as community service?

Are we capable of putting aside selfish desires in favor of working towards the betterment of others?

The next time you’re inclined to do community service or a similar selfless activity, invite a large group of friends to join you. Make community building and communal involvement a central part of your personal Jewish journey. And never forget that while you are indeed important and special as an individual, you will never be more valued as an individual than when part of a community.