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.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Abraham Was A Terrible Father - Fact.

Chayei Sarah
25 Cheshvan 5773 / Nov. 9-10, 2012

This week’s portion, Chayei Sarah (which literally means “the life of Sarah”), begins by telling us that Sarah died -- an odd way to open the portion. Abraham purchases a burial plot, buries Sarah, and mourns her loss.

As people often do when reflecting on a loss, Abraham seeks a mechanism by which to infuse new life in the world.  In that spirit, he sends his servant Eliezer to go find and bring back a bride for his son, Isaac.

After a journey, Eliezer pronounces to the heavens that he’ll look for a sign in order to determine which woman will be most suitable for Isaac: “Whomever offers not only me water, but my camels as well, will surely be the one.” 

Enter Rebecca, who does just that.

After Eliezer negotiates with her family, Rebecca is given the choice of whether or not to return with Eliezer to wed Isaac. Rebecca decides she’ll take the leap of faith.

At the end of her journey, Rebecca sees Isaac from afar and lowers a veil over her face out of a sense of modesty (Jewish brides have been doing this ever since!).  Isaac and Rebecca immediately consummate their union, and the Torah tells us that Isaac loved Rebecca and was comforted after his mother’s death.

We shortly thereafter learn of Abraham’s death (after he married another woman and had a few more children of his own).  The portion closes with Isaac and Ishmael burying Abraham with Sarah, in the Cave of Machpelah.

Needless to say, there’s a quite a bit of action taking place in this week’s portion.  We learn of the death of the first Jewish couple.  We see the precursor to JDate – which interestingly looks a lot like TheJMom.  We see positive examples of taking a leap for love, modesty, and honoring one’s parents when they pass on.

It’s this last piece that I want to focus on this week.  Needless to say, Abraham was far from an ideal parent.  I have to imagine that Isaac was scarred for life when he saw his father raise his hand with a knife in it in order to sacrifice him (Ya think that just MIGHT have caused some psychic damage?!). So too must Ishmael have been scarred knowing that Abraham was willing to have him be cast out into the wilderness with his mother at Sarah’s (jealous) request.  And yet, when it came time for Abraham to be buried, both of his sons were there to ensure their father’s body was taken care of.

We see here a prime example of honoring one’s father – one of the Ten Commandments (which were given to the Israelites much later).

Relationships are incredibly complicated – particularly those involving family, who we don’t electively choose to have in our lives.  Some of us are blessed with wonderful parents, while others don’t make out so great in the parent lottery.  What is it to honor one’s parents? The Talmud tells us that “honoring” includes making sure our parents are fed and clothed. [Bab. Talmud Kiddushin 31b]  In this sense, honoring our parents is at its core about preserving their dignity. 

Abraham was the standard-bearer for monotheism and was the first Jew, and he was a terrible parent any way you look at it.  Was he deserving of being honored by his sons?  Arguably not.  But note that the commandment is not to love your parents or to get along with them – but rather, to honor them.  And even if according them such honor during their lifetimes is made impossible due to their own actions, it remains a Jewish imperative to ensure their dignity is preserved upon their deaths. 

This Shabbat, reflect on your relationship with your parents.  Strive to seek out ways to honor your parents while they are living, even if they are not necessarily deserving of your love or affection.  Commit now to ensuring that when the time comes to say a final goodbye, that the dignity of your parents is preserved – just as you hope yours will be one day too.  In this way we can not only emulate our ancestor Isaac and his half-brother Ishmael, but also recognize that we, like Abraham, are imperfect beings, and need to constantly strive to be better than we are.

Friday, November 2, 2012

When You're Smiling...

18 Cheshvan 5773 / November 2-3, 2012
At the beginning of this week’s portion, Vayera, we find God visiting Abraham to check on him after his recent circumcision (which at age 99, was likely taking its toll physically).  Modeling for us the Jewish value of bikkur cholim -- visiting those who are ill -- you’d think that Abraham would have been flattered that God was stopping by to hang out for a bit.  Instead though, what we find is one of the more interesting interactions in the Torah.  Just as God was visiting Abraham, Abraham looked up and saw three men passing by.  Abraham rushes out of his tent to them (leaving God behind!) in order to greet them and to offer them food and shelter as a respite from their journey.

What. Just. Happened.?!

Abraham, our patriarch, supposedly the founder of monotheism, is being visited by his one and only God, and abandons God in favor of greeting complete strangers.

Is this simply a case of excessive hospitality?

There is a midrash that teaches us that Abraham's tent was consciously kept open so that he could see visitors coming in order to greet them in this fashion. [Genesis Rabbah 48:9]

In the Talmud, we see Abraham’s actions used to illustrate a general (and significant) principle: “Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine.” [Bab. Talmud Shabbat 127b]

Clearly we can learn from this episode the significant value that our tradition places on welcoming guests – including (especially?) ones that we don’t have existing relationships with.

Where does this notion of excessive hospitality play out in our tradition?

As an example, on Passover, there’s a part of the Seder (the paragraph of “Ha Lachma”) where we say: “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”  Many families will actually open the door to their home at this time and shout it to the street so that anyone passing by in need of a Seder will be able to come and join (granted, this model might have been more practical in Old Country where folks were living in closer, tighter quarters, although there’s certainly an argument to be made that in big cities with dense populations the ability still exists).

And yet, despite our people’s strong tradition of being welcoming, there are many who find today’s Jewish community to be cold and distant, rather than warm and present.  People often will walk into synagogues and not be greeted warmly, if they’re greeted at all.  Individuals will make charitable contributions to Jewish organizations they previously have had no relationship with, and will not receive a personal phone call expressing appreciation – rather, they’ll only receive a form letter in the mail for tax purposes.  Someone new will move to town, won’t be invited to join existing social circles, and/or won’t be invited over to someone’s home for a Shabbat dinner shortly after arriving so that s/he can meet others.

We can and need to do better.  Our tradition and accompanying values demand it.

This Shabbat, reflect on what you can do to be more welcoming of others.

Commit to reaching out to someone you know is new to the area and invite him/her to your home for a meal.

We learn from Shammai in Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishnah dealing with the Ethics of our Ancestors, that we should “receive everyone with a cheerful face.” [Avot 1:15]

Sometimes all it takes to be welcoming, and to change someone else's world, is a smile.