Thursday, December 19, 2013

Are You Humble?

18 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 20-21, 2013

With this week’s portion, Shemot, we begin the Book of Exodus.  We learn that a new Pharaoh comes to power who chooses to ignore Joseph’s legacy, and who in turn decides to oppress the Israelites (ultimately decreeing that all newborn Israelite boys should be killed).

Moses is born, is hidden for three months, is sent down the Nile and is shortly thereafter discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.  Moses’s sister Miriam approaches Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to fetch a midwife for her (Moses’s mother!).  Thus, Moses actually spends the next couple of years at home being nursed, and only once weaned was brought to his new palatial home.

The Torah says next to nothing about the subsequent portion of Moses’s life – the next thing we learn is that once grown, he strikes and kills an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite. Despite being part of the family, Moses learns that Pharaoh wants to kill him due to his actions, so Moses flees to Midian.

In his time in Midian, Moses becomes a shepherd, marries Tzipporah, and has a couple of sons.  After a period of time, Moses encounters the Burning Bush and is charged by God to go to Egypt in order to free the Israelites from bondage. 

Moses is incredibly resistant to the task:

“Who am I that I should do this?”

“What if they ask your name?”

“What if they don’t believe me?”

“But I’m slow of speech and tongue…”

“Please make someone else your agent…”

Moses is so resistant that God actually gets angry with him, and ultimately tells him that he’ll have Aaron join him in order to serve as his mouthpiece.

On that note, Moses takes his wife and sons and begins the journey back to Egypt.

After a brief middle-of-the-night interlude where God tries to kill “him” (the text is unclear whether it’s referring to Moses or to one of his sons), with the attack subsiding post Tzipporah circumcising one of their sons, Moses and Aaron reunite after decades apart, and together approach the Israelite elders and then the broader population, who are convinced that they are indeed messengers of God (God had prepped Moses with a few miracles / magic tricks to show off in order to help persuade them).

Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh for the first time (this is a new Pharaoh – NOT the one who Moses grew up knowing) and ask for permission for the Israelites to go on a 3-day journey to worship God in the wilderness (note that they don’t say “Let My People Go”!).  Pharaoh declines their request, and increases the workloads of the Israelites as a result.  Needless to say, the Israelites are upset. 

The portion ends with Moses calling out to God, asking why God had sent him to make the lives of the Israelites harder.  God responds: don’t worry -- I got this.  You’ll soon see what will happen to Pharaoh.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this week’s portion in my mind is how reluctant Moses was to be God’s messenger. You’d think that upon having a Divine revelatory experience, one might feel quite stoked about following through on some specific assignments.  Did Moses’s hesitation indicate a lack of faith?  Why was Moses chosen in the first place?  Maybe it was due to a preexisting relationship with the Pharaoh (while it was a new Pharaoh in power, given that Moses spent roughly 40 years in Egypt growing up as the adopted son of royalty, there’s a decent chance he would have met the new guy at some point…), which would provide the opportunity to appear before him?  The Midrash suggests that it’s because as a shepherd, Moses cared for each individual sheep, and not just the flock as a whole, signifying his ability to shepherd the entire Israelite nation, person by person, out of Egypt.

The Bible itself (later, in Numbers 12:3) states: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth. 

Some might argue that valuing such intense humility means that we are doomed to produce reluctant leaders.  After all, it’s quite evident that without God’s backing, Moses would not have led.  I would however counter that the major lesson we should be taking from this week’s portion is that by highlighting Moses’s reluctance, the Torah is emphasizing that the mission is more important than the man (or woman). 

This Shabbat, reflect on your own leadership experiences, and their intersection with humility.  Are you jumping at opportunities to lead because it’ll look good on a resume, or because you believe in the mission at hand?  Are you humble? (hint: if you answer “yes,” you might not be as humble as you think…).  Do you have a right-hand-person and confidant, the way Moses did with Aaron?

Let’s resolve to be humble enough to at times remove our selves and our needs from the equation, in order to make sure it’s the needs of others and impact we’re having on them that remains our focus.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Stuck Like Glue

11 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 13-14, 2013

This week’s portion, Vayechi, marks the end of the book of Genesis.  We first find Jacob about to pass away, and note that he still hasn’t learned his lesson about the issues that come with playing favorites, as he adopts Joseph’s sons as his own, ensuring that each gets an equal share of his inheritance with his trueborn sons.  He then gathers all of his sons together in order to share with them some insights he has about their futures.  Needless to say, some of his words are pretty harsh.  After delivering them, he passes away, is mourned throughout Egypt (due to his relationship to Joseph), and his sons collectively travel back to Canaan in order to bury him in the family burial place.

With Jacob having passed away, Joseph’s brothers were worried that Joseph would finally punish them for having sold him into slavery so many years before, and bow down to him begging for his mercy (again – 17 years after having settled in Egypt together).  Joseph assures them, again, that their actions were part of a broader Divine plan, and that they have no reason to fear him.

At the end of the portion, Joseph makes his family promise that when the time comes, they will bring his bones back to Canaan, as they did his father’s.  He then passes away at the age of 110.

There are so many real, raw emotions that we find in this portion, and we continue to see modeled challenging Biblical relationship situations often present in our own lives.  It is not at all uncommon for families today to have a patriarch (or matriarch), in this case Jacob, serving as the “glue” that holds a family together.  Just as Joseph’s brothers were afraid of a potential changed relationship when their father passed away, so too do many contemporary families crumble when siblings no longer have a shared love of their parent(s) to keep them from fighting with one another.  Putting aside fights over who benefits from a parent’s estate (which unfortunately are all too common), sometimes siblings are so different from and have so little love for one another, that once their parents are gone, they perceive no further reason to interact and simply go their separate ways.

I can’t help but wonder what the interactions between Joseph and his brothers must have been like during their 17 years of living in Egypt together.  Perhaps their relationship was so lukewarm – a farce being put on for the sake of Jacob -- that the brothers had every right to be afraid that Joseph was ultimately going to be vengeful.  Needless to say, Joseph, as Egypt’s #2 head honcho, could very easily have belatedly punished his brothers for their past actions, knowing that his father was no longer around. 

And yet, despite their long and complicated history, and despite his position of power, Joseph assures his brothers that they have nothing to fear.  Even if we read between the lines to suggest that perhaps 17 years prior, Joseph forgave his brothers but still harbored some resentment towards them, we can know for certain now, 17 years later, that he has forgiven them for the way they treated him. 

What’s the lesson we can learn from this interaction between Joseph and his brothers?

Forgiveness takes time.  Even when we forgive someone (or say “I forgive you”) shortly after an incident takes place, we haven’t necessarily gotten to a place where we’re ready or willing to truly put what we perceive as the other’s shortcomings behind us.  Even after forgiving another, it’s possible that the way we interact with and treat them may not be ideal, and will create lingering doubts in their minds (as it did in Joseph’s brothers).  Some wounds will forever leave scars – although with time, they usually become less and less visible, slowly fading away.  So too, forgiveness takes time.

This Shabbat, reflect on your family.  Who is your family’s glue?  How can you enhance your relationship with other members of your family?

Also, meditate on the theme of forgiveness, and don’t beat yourself up if there are folks in your life who you have forgiven in word, but whose prior actions still trouble you.  Examine the ways in which you interact with such folks, to make sure you aren’t putting off a negative vibe, despite having “forgiven” them.  Be comforted by the fact that true forgiveness takes time.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It was red and yellow and green and brown and...

20 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 22-23, 2013

This week’s portion, Vayeshev, contains a significant chunk of the Joseph narrative.  Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, and the wearer of a “coat of many colors.”  He also had a knack for having vivid dreams, and then sharing them with his siblings – even if their content was sure to enrage them.  Needless to say, he was young and immature.

His siblings harbor such hate for him (some of that is on Jacob for playing favorites to be sure) that they conspire to kill him, until eldest bother Reuben intercedes on his behalf.  The brothers settle on throwing Joseph into a pit, and when Reuben leaves, they sell him as a slave to passing travelers and lead their father to believe that a wild animal killed him.

Joseph ends up a servant in Egypt to a powerful man named Potiphar, and is given a considerable amount of power and influence in the home.  Potiphar’s wife notices Joseph’s talents and pursues hard.  Upon repeatedly being rejected, she falsely accuses him of attempted rape, and he ends up in jail.

And yet even in jail, he is given significant responsibilities by the guards, and has the chance to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and butler respectively (which turns out great for the butler, and poorly for the baker).  His one request to the butler was to remember him once he was reinstated in Pharaoh’s court – which the butler fails to do.

Also in this portion is a seemingly random interlude between Judah (one of Jacob’s sons) and his daughter in law Tamar, who tricks him into knocking her up (he thought she was a lady of the night…).  In the end, Judah takes responsibility for his actions and shortcomings.

I can’t help but be struck by the amazing juxtaposition between last week’s portion, where Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi slaughter an entire town’s male population in order to defend their sister’s honor, and this week’s, where they, along with their brothers, are prepared to kill their own brother!  Joseph may have been an incredibly annoying little brother who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, but there’s nothing in the text that suggests the desire to kill him was a rational response on the part of his brothers. Where does their intense hatred come from?  Did they find thrill in their previous killings, and crave more bloodshed?  If so, why didn’t they simply kill Joseph when Reuben left, rather than selling him into slavery?  And how could they live with themselves, knowing what they had done, and knowing the incredible pain they had caused their father?

One of the most frustrating portions of the narrative to me is that the story closely follows the adventures of Joseph after he is sold, but doesn’t tell us much about what’s going on with the brothers, until many years later when we learn there’s a famine in the land (and ultimately, they are reunited).  In some ways, that’s why it’s almost refreshing to have the Judah and Tamar interlude included in this week’s portion (as weird as it is) – to remind us that there were 11 other brothers who each had their own life trials and tribulations leading up to (spoiler alert!) the eventual reconciliation with Joseph in Egypt.  The brothers had to grow up themselves before they would be able to pass Joseph’s tests, and as a result of passing, have their lives spared from starvation. 

Joseph too had to grow up, and demonstrates his maturity by noting the overarching Divine plan that while not great for him personally at times, allowed for his entire family to be saved.

We are all, as human beings, on our own unique paths.  Some of us grow up more quickly than others.  Some need more time to develop.  Some need to get anger and hatred out of their systems.  In the end, we need to respect the process of the journey, own up to our shortcomings, acknowledge that we all have room to grow, and trust that things will fall into place. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Brothers and Sisters

13 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 15-16, 2013

In this week’s portion, Vayishlach, Jacob’s past catches up with him (or rather, is heading right towards him with 400 men), as he prepares to encounter his brother Esau for the first time in over 20 years.  Jacob obviously is fearful about this encounter, given that he not only traded Esau some stew for his birthright, but also stole Esau’s blessing from Isaac by disguising himself and lying to his father.  I suppose you could say his fears were well founded.

Often lost in the hustle and bustle of the narrative is the reality that in addition to being a man who played favorites with his wife and children and who had some shady dealings with his uncle Laban, Jacob was a terrible brother.  We could argue that it was his preordained destiny (/ God’s plan for him) to steal both Esau’s birthright and blessing, but ultimately, I can’t help but struggle with the fact that we’re the descendants of someone (and we celebrate such!) who would treat his own kin so poorly.

You’d like to think that Jacob’s shortcomings didn’t rub off on his own children, and we find a compelling (positive?) example later in this week’s portion when two of Jacob’s sons (Simeon and Levi) slaughter an entire town for their sake of their sister Dinah’s honor.  And yet, we know that ultimately, Jacob’s sons have such hatred for their brother Joseph (Jacob’s favorite) that they sell him into slavery.

At the end of this week’s portion, Jacob and Esau, despite their historic differences and subsequent reconciliation, bury their father Isaac together. 

This Shabbat, examine your relationship with your siblings (and if you don’t have siblings, with your family in general).  Do you get along?  Do you treat each other with respect and honor?  Even if your relationships are already strong, resolve to take meaningful steps to improve upon them and show your love.  Be generous.  Be kind.  Be forgiving.  Be family.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

All You Need Is Love

6 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 8-9, 2013

In this week’s portion, Vayetzeh, we find one of most intriguing love stories in the Bible.  Jacob lays eyes on Rachel for the first time (yes she was his first cousin; no that wasn’t weird at the time), and knows that they’re meant to be together.  He immediately proceeds to water her flocks for her, and lets her know who he is and his relationship to her.  After a month of serving in her father Laban’s house, he is asked what his desired wages are.  He says that he’d be willing to work seven years for the privilege of marrying her.  Laban agrees to the deal, and the Torah tells us that those seven years “seemed for him but a few days because of his love for her.”

As most love stories do, this one has a bit of an interesting twist.  When the time comes to marry Rachel, his uncle throws a feast and ultimately tricks Jacob by having him marry Rachel’s older sister, Leah (setting Leah up for a lifetime of feeling disappointed and unloved by her husband, given his passion for her sister).  Laban tells Jacob that he can also have Rachel as a wife (as soon as next week!), provided Jacob agrees to work another seven years.  Jacob agrees to these news terms, and a week later, Rachel becomes his second wife (with two concubines to shortly follow – quite the family unit!).

Ultimately, Jacob has to work for 14 years in order to marry Rachel (7 before marrying her, and 7 after).

Granted, Biblical years and contemporary years don’t always match up (Biblical lifespans were just a bit longer than ours today…), but the amount of work that Jacob was willing to do in order to “earn” the right to marry Rachel is truly incredible. 

As we all know, relationships are hard work.  Most of us don’t necessarily think of manual labor (or shepherding) as constituting such work, but it’s a meaningful metaphor for us to learn from.  Jacob models for us the fact that we should be willing to work our butts off, over an extended period of time, for those we love.  For some, this means investing in their relationships and deepening self-understanding, putting personal dreams on hold for the benefit of your family, and/or simply doing what needs to get done in order to put food on the table.  For others, such as our military families who are often apart from their loved ones for months at a time, hard work for love takes on a similarly powerful meaning.

This Shabbat, reflect on the lengths you would go to for love.  Are you being healthily selfless when called upon to be such in your relationships?  Are you willing/able to put the happiness and well-being of others ahead of your own?  Where do you draw the line and why? What are you willing to work hard for?

Wishing you a Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Dan

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Some Babies Are Hairier Than Others

29 Cheshvan 5774 / Nov. 1-2, 2013

This week’s portion, Toldot, begins with us learning that like her mother-in-law before her, Rebecca is also having problems getting pregnant.  Isaac, who has a tight relationship with God, pleads on her behalf, and ultimately, she conceives.  She has twins in her belly – and they fight with one another constantly.  Rebecca learns from God that the sons contained within her will eventually be the leaders of two great nations – but that “the older will serve the younger.”  The twins are born, and we’re thus introduced to Esau (who is the hairy one) and Jacob.

Shortly after their birth, we learn that Isaac favors Esau while Rebecca favors Jacob.  Oy.  Parental favoritism is always a good thing, right?

After a long day in the field, Jacob convinces Esau to give up his birthright in exchange for bread and lentil stew.  Trickstery? Mean spirited? Or maybe teaching Esau a lesson?

For some reason, there always seemed to be famines in that part of the world.  Isaac and Rebecca wander a bit in search of food, ultimately heading to a place called Gerar, where Isaac, like his father Abraham had twice done with his wife Sarah prior, tells others Rebecca is his sister so that the townsmen won’t kill him off in order to get with Rebecca (she was apparently quite attractive – and to their credit, the townspeople seemed to respect adultery laws…).  Like father like son!

And yet, Isaac, being the rambunctious and handsy type, ruins the plan by groping Rebecca in public, and is seen. 

Years later, Isaac sends Esau hunting, as he wants to give him his blessing before passing on.  We learn that Isaac’s eyesight had deteriorated significantly, and unfortunately Warby Parker didn’t deliver b/c Isaac and Rebecca only had a P.O. Box to ship to.

Rebecca overhears this interaction and encourages Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing, saying that any resulting curse will be upon her if he’s found out.  So Jacob, a lover of costuming, dresses in Esau’s clothes and puts goat skins on (remember – his brother was HAIRY). 

When Jacob approaches Isaac, Isaac is suspicious (don’t forget – he can’t see). The turnaround time seemed a bit quick, and the voice didn’t seem to match up.  When he asks, “which son are you?” Jacob replies, “I’m Esau, your first-born.”  

Isaac gives Jacob the blessing (in which he says, “your brothers will serve you”), Jacob departs and Esau arrives.  When Esau figures out what has gone on, he is enraged. Rebecca learns of Esau’s desire to murder Jacob and sends him away, with Isaac’s permission, to her family in Charan, in order to get married to one of her kinsmen.  Isaac actually offers Jacob a blessing before he departs, never mentioning the fact that he knew what Jacob had done.

In the meantime, Esau takes a third wife.

And scene.

Needless to say, there’s quite a bit of action in this week’s portion.

Some of the major takeaway points:

*Some babies are hairier than others.

*Human beings are imperfect, and parents (and our ancestors especially), often play favorites, to the detriment of their families.

*Problems conceiving are not a new thing, and we cannot and should not take the ability to have children for granted, or somehow assume / judge others who happen to not have children.

*It takes a pretty special wife to be willing to risk herself for the sake of her husband’s life…

*Public Displays of Affection can lead to some unfortunate consequences…

*Sometimes lying to your parents works out.  Teenagers across the world rejoice!

* Warby Parker should start delivering to P.O. Boxes.  But more seriously, our ancestors believed blessings carried great powers. 

What else would you take away from this portion?

Are you intrigued by how human (and flawed) our Biblical ancestors were?

What does it say about our tradition that we readily admit the flaws of those we look up to?  Are we ready to admit our own shortcomings when they present themselves?

This Shabbat, reflect on what it means to be human.  Acknowledge that while we each contain a Divine spark, we are all imperfect beings.  Commit to the lifelong process of self-improvement, learning from our mistakes and the mistakes of others, so that we can truly be the best forms of ourselves that we can be.