Thursday, December 27, 2012

Little Brother

16 Tevet 5773 / Dec. 28-29, 2012

In this week’s portion we find Jacob, having lived in Egypt for 17 years, feeling his death coming on. After making Joseph promise to bury him back in Canaan with his ancestors, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, Menashe and Emphraim. However, instead of resting his right (dominant) hand on Menashe’s head (as Menashe was the elder brother and such was tradition), he rested it on Ephraim’s head. Joseph tries to correct him, but Jacob says his actions were purposeful, as Ephraim’s line would be greater than Menashe’s, despite Ephraim being the younger of the two.

As an eldest child myself, it’s very hard for me to admit that the story of the Jewish people has historically been that of the younger brother superseding the older brother: Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; Ephraim over Menashe; and eventually, Moses over Aaron.

In many ways, what the Bible has done by consciously (and often painstakingly) pointing out the lineage of our ancestors is gift us with the underlying mentality that has allowed the Jewish people to survive for millennia. Namely, our narrative is the same as that often embodied by younger siblings striving to fill the shoes of their overachieving and (perceived) over-loved older siblings – that of the underdog. 

We are the miniscule pimply-faced David, facing the behemoth hyper-masculine Goliath. We are the Maccabees, few in number but strong in conviction. We are the tiny sliver of land in the Middle East surrounded by hateful neighbors.

As our ancestors did before us, we should embrace being the underdog, while acknowledging that embracing such a narrative inevitably may result in making it harder to recognize instances where we might occupy positions of relative power.

It is because of our underdog narrative, infused in us via our core religious text and embodied throughout history, that we find we possess the scrappiness we need to succeed in an ever-changing world, and the strength we need to face the Goliaths in our own lives.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Take Me Instead

At the end of last week’s portion, we found Joseph threatening to enslave Benjamin for having “stolen” his goblet.

This week’s portion, Vayigash, begins with Judah, one of the brothers (who is where we get the term “Jewish” from – “Yehuda” = Judah and “Yehudi” = Jewish), interceding.  Judah, who promised his father Jacob that he would be responsible for Benjamin’s well-being, cries out to Joseph: “Take me instead!” believing that Jacob would die if the brothers returned without Benjamin.

Joseph is so moved by Judah’s gesture that he sends all his attendants out of his chambers, and yet they can still hear his cries through the door as he finally reveals who he is to his brothers.

Joseph shares with his brothers that it was God’s plan that events should transpire as they did so that Joseph could help save all of their lives.  With Pharaoh’s support, Jacob and his entire household were brought down to Egypt to settle in the area of Goshen, where their flocks would be able to thrive, and at last, Jacob reunites with Joseph, his favorite son.

This portion and some of the interactions within it are particularly resonant this week, in light of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that claimed the lives of 20 schoolchildren, 6 adults and the gunman.

So many of us in the aftermath of the news, like Judah, responded with the words, “Take me instead.”  Lord knows the parents of the children lost have said those words.  How many of us wouldn’t want to trade places with those who were so young and innocent… who still had so much promise and potential.  How many of us want to believe we would have acted the way the committed teachers and administrators who sacrificed their lives did – with bravery and valiance in the face of such blind and unhinged hatred.

It is near impossible to find any comfort in the notion that such actions, so inhumane and unbelievable, are part of God’s plan – a faith that Joseph expresses as his childhood dreams are fulfilled 20 years after he has them and he is put in a position of power to save himself and his family.  Could it really be that such actions are part of a broader plan, and that we simply cannot and may not ever understand what exactly that plan is?  Needless to say, the prospect is far from comforting.

At the end of this week’s portion, upon meeting Jacob, Pharaoh asks him a simple question: How many are the years of your life?
Jacob answers Pharaoh – that he has lived 130 years, and those years have not been easy – and that’s the end of their brief (and arguably awkward) interaction.

Like Jacob’s interaction with Pharaoh, the lives that were taken this past week in Newtown were much too brief, and their hypothetical answers to Pharaoh’s simple question would be heartbreaking.

This week, this Shabbat and every day thereafter, let us resolve to treat each day and each moment as precious.  Let us express our love and appreciation of others openly and without reservation.  Let us commit to bettering, and when necessary, overhauling existing systems in order to help those most in need and ensure our collective safety as best we can.  And let us have faith that while there are indeed events that strike us as unfathomable and unexplainable, that we, as human beings, have the power to shape the world as we see fit, and as Jews, must make it our business to do so.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Clothes Make the Man

2 Tevet 5773 / Dec. 14-15, 2012

In this week’s portion, Miketz, we learn that Pharaoh has a couple of dreams of his own.  After checking in with his court, Pharaoh’s butler remembers and mentions Joseph’s dream-interpreting skills.  Thus, Joseph gets a haircut, is put into some new clothes, and is brought before Pharaoh. 

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that there are seven years of plenty on their way, which will be followed by seven years of famine.  He suggests that Pharaoh set someone in charge of conserving resources and planning over the seven years ahead to ensure there is enough to eat in the seven years of famine.  Lo and behold, Pharaoh makes Joseph his #2 and charges him with designing and executing such plans, and gives him an Egyptian wife, who in turn births two sons: Menashe and Ephraim.

After the seven years of plenty, famine strikes throughout the world, and Jacob sends his 10 older sons (he keeps Benjamin, his new favorite, and the youngest, at home) to Egypt to procure food.  Upon arriving in Egypt, Joseph recognizes his brothers (but they do not recognize him), and decides to give them a bit of payback.  He accuses them of being spies, and imprisons them for 3 days.  He then sends all but Simeon home, saying that he doesn’t want to see them again unless Benjamin is with them.  His brothers wail amongst themselves that this misfortune has come upon them because of what they did to their brother Joseph, not knowing that Joseph understood them, because there was an interpreter between him and them. 

Upon returning home, Jacob is unwilling to allow Benjamin to leave – even with Reuben promising that he’ll be looked after.  Thus, the brothers stay at home until their food runs low again (leaving Simeon in jail).  Then, Jacob accedes to the demand to send Benjamin, recognizing that they would all die without food.  Upon returning to Egypt, the brothers are treated well, with special favoritism shown by Joseph to Benjamin (perhaps trying to discover whether his brothers were still the jealous fratricidal types). 

Upon sending them home, Joseph has a goblet put in Benjamin’s sack.  He has his guards chase after the brothers, overtake them, and “discover” the “theft.”  The portion ends with the brothers offering themselves as slaves to Joseph, who states that he only desires as a prisoner “the one in whose possession the goblet was found.”

One of the most interesting sections of this portion, to me, is what takes place when Joseph is brought out of prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Before being brought to Pharaoh, Joseph was cleaned up! Between a haircut and some fresh clothes, Joseph must have looked like a new person when juxtaposed with his previous “prison chic” look.  It’s quite possible, and even likely, that by virtue of appearing clean and well dressed, that Pharaoh paid more attention to Joseph and attributed to him greater wisdom than he otherwise would have.

Mark Twain once stated: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

It’s no secret that clothes and appearance have a significant impact on how we view others.  While we like to think that we can look past exterior superficialities, we judge people all the time based on their external appearances.  One of the areas in particular where this is the case is when interviewing for jobs.  Even jobs that don’t require workers to dress formally at work often require applicants to dress in a more formal manner when interviewing.  The reality is that many people do not have the means to own such formal items.

While every season should be a season of giving, the holiday season in particular (partially due to year-end tax write-off possibilities) is one where many folks are conscious of giving a little bit extra.  This holiday season, consider donating lightly used or new professional wear to organizations such as Dress For Success and Career Gear – organizations focused on helping individuals find lasting employment by offering various tools, including appropriate interview attire.

According to Maimonides, the medieval Rabbi and philosopher, helping others find work is the highest rung on the ladder of charitable giving. 

This holiday season, let’s strive to look past each person’s external features and to recognize internal beauty.  Let’s reconcile any outstanding issues we may have with our own families, as Joseph struggled to do with his brothers.  And let’s climb to the highest rung of charity -- helping others make a living -- by assisting them in acquiring the tools (and clothing) they need to do so. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

I Dreamed a Dream

24 Kislev 5773 / Dec. 7-8, 2012

In this week’s portion, we get to know Jacob’s sons.  Jacob, like his father before him, played favorites, designating Joseph as his favorite son (due to being the first son born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel).  As one might expect, Joseph’s brothers were quite resentful of this favoritism, and such resentment only grew when Jacob gave Joseph an ornamented tunic (“coat of many colors”).

Joseph played into this favoritism in many ways, and frankly couldn’t figure out that sometimes, not everything needs to be shared with others.

Prime example: Joseph had two dreams; one which symbolized his brothers bowing to him, and the second symbolizing not only his brothers bowing to him, but his mother and father bowing to him as well.  Joseph decided he would share these dreams with his brothers, who hated him even more for suggesting they would one day bow to him, and with his father, who was quite troubled by his son’s dreams as well.

One day, Jacob sent Joseph to check in on his brothers, who were shepherding.  His brothers saw him coming and conspired to kill him, saying, “Here comes that dreamer…” If not for Reuben, who intervened, Joseph’s brothers likely would have killed him on the spot.  Instead, Joseph had his tunic ripped from his shoulders and was sold into slavery, eventually ending up in the house of a prominent Egyptian named Potiphar (who had a very demanding spouse…).  After refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and after her accompanying tale suggesting that he had tried to force himself upon her, Joseph ends up in jail, where he has the opportunity to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s Cupbearer and Baker respectively.  Joseph’s dream predictions turn out to be true, with the Baker being hanged, and the Cupbearer being restored to his position (and forgetting his promise to Joseph to let Pharaoh know that Joseph was awesome and should be let out of jail).

One of the constant themes throughout the Joseph saga is the power and purpose of dreams.  Joseph has dreams of his own that we know later on turned out to be (mostly) true.  His fratricidal brothers refer him to as “the dreamer.”  He later comes to correctly interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s Cupbearer and Pharaoh’s Baker. 

What does Judaism have to say about dreams? 

Are dreams a reflection of our desires? 
Are they simply reminders of what we were thinking about right before we went to sleep?
Do they foretell our future?

The ancient rabbis had much to say about dreaming, often using the Joseph story as their basis.

For example, we learn in the Talmud that all dreams follow their interpretation (interpreting dreams was a big deal in those days, as we also learn that “a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read”); that it might be better to have a negative dream than a positive one, as the negative dream will hopefully cause the dreamer to repent for his sins; that even those dreams that seem to tell the future are not completely realized, which we learn from the fact that Joseph dreamed his mother would bow to him as well as his father and brothers, but that didn’t happen because she died before having the chance to do so; and that it may take a long time for a dream’s prediction to come to pass, as evidenced by Joseph having to wait 22 years between his dreams of his siblings bowing to him and their appearance before him in Pharaoh’s court.
[Bab. Talmud, Berachot 55]

We are also taught that one should fast after having a bad dream (fasting is not just for Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition!).
[Bab. Talmud, Shabbat 11]

What are we to make of these teachings about dreams?  (there are many more as well!)

The ancient rabbis believed that by putting dreams into words (having them interpreted), one essentially opened the door for said dreams to actually come to fruition.  In essence, putting into words what your subconscious had seen was viewed as a mechanism for realization.  What a powerful concept! 

In contemporary spoken English, we often use the word “dream” when what we really mean is “aspiration that is just out of reach.”  For example, “I dream of being an NBA basketball player,” or “I dream that one day my children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but rather by the content of their character.” 

What I would argue is the essential takeaway point Joseph’s dream saga and the accompanying wisdom of the ancient rabbis is that the first step towards achieving one’s aspirations is putting one’s dreams into words – in effect, putting the vision out into the world. 

To sum up, in rhyme:

Whether or not dreams come true, is entirely up to you.

Only by actively articulating what we hope to see, can we focus on taking the steps necessary to making our dreams reality.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

I Love You, Man.

17 Kislev 5773 / Nov. 30 - Dec. 1, 2012

To see your face is like seeing the face of God.” – Jacob to Esau

This week’s portion begins with Jacob preparing to see his brother Esau after 20+ years apart.  As you’ll recall, after stealing Isaac’s blessing intended for Esau, Jacob fled in order to avoid Esau’s wrath.  Now, a few wives, a dozen children, and massive amounts of property later, Jacob finally has to deal with his past, as he learns that Esau is coming towards his camp with 400 men (seemingly to attack).

Jacob sends gifts ahead hoping to quell Esau’s anger, and then takes precautions by dividing his camp in two – hoping that if one half is attacked, the other will have time to escape.

The night before his meeting with Esau, we find the famous story of Jacob wrestling with an angel.  After Jacob emerges victorious, the angel changes his name from Jacob to “Israel” (hence we’re the “Children of Israel”).

The next morning Jacob and Esau finally meet, and to Jacob’s surprise, Esau is full of love for him.

In response, Jacob says to his brother: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

How do we deal with this statement?  Jacob had literally just wrestled with an angel the night before!  You’d think that this kind of statement would have been reserved for the divine being he encountered rather than for his human brother.

We learn in the Torah that humankind was created in God’s image.  Perhaps Jacob’s encounter with the angel, juxtaposed with his reunion with Esau, revealed to him just how similar we really are to divine beings?

How do our actions change – specifically as it relates to how we treat others – if we can really begin to see ourselves as reflections of the Divine?

Even if you don’t believe in God in the traditional sense (or at all), can we change how we look at other human beings in order to see each individual as unique, beautiful, and worthy of our love?

This Shabbat, reflect on how you interact with others.  Strive to see the innate beauty and special energy that every human being possesses.  Approach your relationships and interactions from a place of love and warmth, as if every human interaction is truly one between you and the Divine.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Decision - not LeBron's

10 Kislev 5773 / Nov. 23-24, 2012

At the beginning of this week’s portion, Vayetzeh, we find Jacob fleeing his home and his brother Esau’s wrath.  Along his journey he goes to sleep and has a vivid dream – of what has come to be known as Jacob’s ladder.  In this dream, God speaks to Jacob and informs him that he is the inheritor of the covenant that God made with Abraham and Isaac. 

Upon awaking, Jacob utters the famous phrase: “Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it.”

Commentators have long struggled with this particular statement, often trying to understanding how it could have possibly been that Jacob wasn’t conscious of God’s presence in a specific place – particularly given the traditional belief in God’s omnipresence.  Perhaps by virtue of God actively communicating with Abraham and Isaac, Jacob could only logically assume that if God was not actively communicating with him, that God wasn’t present.

After his interaction with God in his dream – an active communication – Jacob made a vow (vows are a big deal in the Jewish tradition) saying: “If God remains with me and protects me on this journey I’m making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house, the Lord shall be my God…”

Talk about needing to fulfill certain conditions!  Jacob’s vow to accept God as his own is made conditional upon a number of things.

Why does Jacob have to affirm this relationship at all?  He was already subject to the covenant just by virtue of being the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham.  Only two generations removed from the actual covenant, Jacob found the need to take a conscious affirmative step in order to declare that he was going to be part of the same faith tradition as his father and grandfather!

In some ways, like Jacob, we all have to affirm our commitment to the Jewish people, despite our roots – family history is simply not enough.  For many, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is an opportunity for affirmation, but the reality is that today’s youths are too young to really make an educated decision as to what they believe and which faith community they want to be a part of at that time.  For some, confirmation is such a ceremony.  As adults, we have the chance to decide whether or not being part of the Jewish people is truly something we value / desire, and frankly, we have the opportunity to make a decision such as Jacob’s on a regular basis. 

What does being part of the Jewish people provide for you?

What do you wish it provided for you that it does not?

What obligations, if any, do you feel you owe other MOTs?

If you had to affirm your belonging to the Jewish people today, would you?  Why or why not?

This Shabbat, reflect on the reality that while we are the inheritors of an ancient and unique tradition, it’s up to us to actively choose to be a part of it.  We have the ability to decide whether and how this tradition is passed on to subsequent generations.  The opportunity exists to make a choice, and to leave our mark.  Let's seize it.
Wishing you a Shabbat filled with rest, love and delicious Thanksgiving leftovers.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Miss Independent?

3 Kislev 5773 / Nov. 16-17, 2012

In this week’s portion, Toldot, we find the bulk of Isaac’s life.  From his wife Rebecca being barren for almost 20 years, to the birth of his twin sons, to pretending Rebecca was his sister to save his life, to amassing great wealth, to being upset at his son Esau’s intermarriage, and to eventually being tricked in his old (vision-impaired) age into blessing his younger twin Jacob with the blessing he intended to give to his older twin Esau before passing away.

Why would Isaac need to amass great wealth if, as the Torah says, he was the primary inheritor of Abraham’s extensive wealth? 

How could both Isaac and his father Abraham have encountered so similar a situation that they would each react by pretending his wife was his sister?

It is these kinds of questions that have driven the research efforts of Torah commentators for millennia. 

There are some who actually believe that Abraham and Isaac may have been the same person, rather than father and son, due to the intense similarity of their respective lives.  From marrying within the extended family, to having a spouse who struggled to bear children, to pretending his wife was his sister to save his life, to amassing great wealth, Isaac’s life in many ways mirrored that of his father Abraham’s.

But, you might ask, how could Abraham and Isaac possibly have been the same person, given the story of the Akeidah – where Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac (implying there are at least 2 people involved in that situation)? Many of our Muslim brethren actually believe that it was not Isaac, but rather his older brother Ishmael, whom Abraham was prepared to sacrifice.

I’m not in any way trying to make a case for events having taken place one way vs. another (and even that statement makes an arguably unfair assumption that the Torah is a factual telling of history as opposed to our collected cultural mythology).  Rather, what I find to be the interesting takeaway piece here, given the discomfort many feel with suggesting Abraham and Isaac might have been the same person due to their similar life experiences, is the value that we today place on living individual lives.

Individuality is something that most of us strive to attain.  We don’t want to be lemmings, simply following a path put before us without having the ability to question and/or divert from it.  And yet, many of us strive to be just like our parents.  Historically, it fell on the father to teach his son a trade, and often times, it was the trade the father had been engaged in.  Even today, it is not uncommon to see grown children learning from and subsequently taking over their parents’ businesses.

Some prime examples from the private sector:

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the current publisher of the New York Times, who followed his father Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, grandfather Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and great-grandfather Adolph Ochs.  

Prince Fielder, son of Cecil Fielder (both professional baseball players).

Mickey Arison, the head of Carnival Cruise Lines, inherited the business from his father, Ted Arison.

We find examples in the public sector as well:

George W. Bush, the former President of the United States, and his father George H. W. Bush, the former President of the United States.

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and his father George, the former governor of Michigan.

John Dingell Jr., who took his father John Dingell Sr.’s seat in Congress, representing parts of Detroit.

The Kennedy family.  Enough said.

While the examples provided above are all males, I’m sure there are a number of (and that there will be a growing number of) female examples as well.

Despite these examples (which often occur on a much more local, small business level), a large number of grown children are reluctant to step into their parents’ shoes, given their fears of being perceived as being “just like their parents,” or as having benefitted from the hard work of their parents without having to work hard on their own. Suggesting that Abraham and Isaac were the same person offends the sensibilities of those who seek to emulate their parents while still trying to live a life that is authentically and distinguishably theirs.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher from the late 1800s, stated: You have your way.  I have my way.  As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

This Shabbat, reflect on what it means to you to be an individual. 

Think of the ways in which you emulate your parents, both for better and for worse.

Recognize that we each, in our own way, have the ability to live lives that are distinct, full of meaning, and full of love.