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.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Life Of...

Chayyei Sarah
22 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 25-26, 2013

This week’s portion, Chayyei Sarah (which literally means “the life of Sarah”), begins with Sarah’s death.  We learn that Abraham goes and negotiates a deal for the Cave of Machpelah, which had been owned by a dude named Ephron, and buries Sarah there, designating the Cave as a family burial site.

Later in the portion, Abraham sends a trusted servant to go and fetch a wife for Isaac. After some Divine intervention, the servant ultimately brings back Rebecca, who literally falls off of her camel when she sees Isaac for the first time (he was quite dashing).  She covers herself with a veil before their first encounter, and right after meeting, is taken to bed in Sarah’s tent -- in the process becoming Isaac’s wife (helping the ancient rabbis determine that one of the ways to take a wife in accordance with Jewish law is by having consensual sex – check out Mishna Kiddushin 1:1).

We finally learn that Abraham actually took another wife after Sarah passed away, having another 6 kids, and ultimately Abraham passes away at age 175, “dying at a good, ripe age, old and contented.”  His sons Isaac and Ishmael bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, with his wife Sarah (note that we haven’t heard from Ishmael in quite some time, so to find him here burying his father, who had effectively banished him and his mother Hagar, is quite surprising).

I can’t help but be moved by the amount of effort that Abraham puts forth to ensure a meaningful burial place for Sarah.  He not only negotiates for and secures the physical location, but he actually buries her himself.  Ultimately, his own sons – even the one who is estranged – come to bury him there as well when the time comes.

Have you ever helped bury a loved one?

Have you thought about where you’d like to be buried when the time comes, and whom you hope will be taking part in that holy process?

Have you thought about what you’d like others to say about you once you’re gone, and are you striving to live your life in such a way to make those desired remarks come true?

This Shabbat, reflect on the fragility of life.  Take stock of your life thus far, and be grateful. Envision the life you hope to live in the years ahead and work towards it.  May we all be blessed to one day have those we leave behind not referencing our deaths, but rather having our life’s Torah portion be referred to as “the life of (insert your name here).”  And what a story it will be.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Do You Have 10?

15 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 18-19, 2013

In this week’s portion, Vayera, we find tons of action!

God visits Abraham 3 days after his circumcision (at age 99!), and Abraham leaves God in order to run and welcome strangers (hoping to offer them hospitality) – a powerful statement about the value our tradition places on welcoming others!  Sarah laughs when she hears these strangers (who are really angels) state that she’ll give birth within the year to a son, Abraham negotiates with God over the lives of innocent inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his family are rescued when those evil cities are destroyed, Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt, Lot’s daughters get him drunk on back-to-back nights and get pregnant by him, Abraham again lies about Sarah being his sister to a foreign king, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are sent away, God tells Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice and Abraham is about to do so until a heavenly voice calls out and tells him not to.  Exhale.

As part of his negotiation with God, due to his concern for innocents being killed along with the wicked, Abraham starts by getting God to agree that if there were 50 righteous people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God would refrain from destroying them.  After a bit more needling, Abraham finally gets God to agree to 10.  If there were 10 righteous people in the two cities, God would refrain from destroying them.  Ultimately there were not 10, and the cities are destroyed (but, due to Abraham’s merit, Lot is saved along with his wife and two unmarried daughters).

This number of 10 has continued to be prominent in our Jewish tradition, as 10 is the number we associate with a minyan – in essence, a quorum.  There are certain Jewish rituals that can only be done when a minyan is present, further emphasizing the tradition’s perspective that being part of a larger community is an essential component in leading a full Jewish life.

What does this mean for us in an era of hyper-individualization?  For those of us in the liberal Jewish community, where self-fulfillment is often heralded (“learn about and then take on those mitzvot that you find meaning in”), how do we build that a true sense of community if everyone is doing their own thing?  Is homogeneity of practice a necessity when building community? 

What makes for a community?  Does a community require shared expectations?  Can people really commit to communal expectations if their own practices are constantly evolving and don’t necessary mesh with the expectations of others, who arguably derive their expectations from their own practices?

Or can a community be formed due to a shared communal value of “trying things out and constantly seeking to learn and grow” – even if that means that there might be disparate practices within that community?

I would argue that such a community can not only exist, but has the potential to thrive, although it admittedly may complicate things at times.  I can imagine an amazing community formed around the shared values of exploration, learning and growth.

What do you think?

What makes for a community?

Is like-minded philosophy enough, or must there be like-minded action?  What does such action - if any - look like?

This Shabbat, reflect on what kind of community you either are, or would like to be, a part of.  Notice how some of our practices today (e.g. praying with a minyan) are derived from our holy texts, and seek to learn what other types of contemporary practices are also textually rooted.  Strive to be like Abraham, standing against injustice and negotiating on behalf of those you don’t know personally.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Filling In The Gaps

Lech Lecha
8 Cheshvan 5774 / October 11-12, 2013

In this week’s portion, we begin to learn a bit about Abraham (at the time, still called Abram).  When introduced, Abram is already 75 years old -- granted the years might have been a calculated a bit differently back then, given that biblical characters were often cited as living very long lives (Noah, for example, is said to have lived to the ripe old of age of 950!).  This little bit of information alone leaves me with so many questions, such as:

What were Abram’s first 75 years like?

Why did God wait so long to give him instructions?

After 75 years, wouldn’t Abram have been such a creature of habit that he would’ve protested somehow when asked to leave his home?

Fortunately, we have a vast rabbinic tradition of trying to answer such questions.

For example, the Midrash helps shed some light on what Abram might have been like as a younger man, and why God might have chosen him:

Terach, Abram’s father, worshipped and sold carved idols. Once when he was away, he left Abram in charge. An old man came to make a purchase. Abram asked him his age, and the man said he was between fifty and sixty years old. Abram mocked him, questioning how he could view the carvings of another man’s hands, produced perhaps only a few hours ago, as his god.  The man was convinced and gave up idol worship.  Later that day, a woman came with a handful of choice flour as an offering to the idols.  Abram took a stick and broke all the idols except the largest one, and placed the stick in its hand. When his father returned and saw the damage, he demanded an explanation.  Abram explained that when the flour offering was brought, the idols fought with one another as to which should be the recipient; and that in the end, the biggest of them took up a stick and destroyed the others.  Terach was not convinced…
[Paraphrased from Genesis Rabbah 38]

For millennia, Jews have tried to fill in the gaps in our sacred texts, and to answer the questions that don’t seem to have readily apparent answers.  While predictably frustrating at first, this has created an incredible opportunity for creativity.  There is now a genre being referred to as “contemporary midrash” (the hyperlink shares quite a bit about, which is awesome), allowing for us today to fill in those gaps we perceive in the text.

This Shabbat, reflect on the questions you have about the Torah that are unanswered.  Seek out those potential answers offered by our ancestors.  If you don’t find them satisfying (or even if you do), get creative and compose your own midrash. And then share it with me!  In this way, we can all engage with the Torah's narratives (even the tricky ones), and continue the millennia-old Jewish tradition of exegesis.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Oh Noah You Didn't!

1 Cheshvan 5774 / October 4-5, 2013

In this week’s portion, Noah, we are introduced to Noah by being told that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”

The ancient rabbis don’t come to a conclusion as to whether or not the modifier “in his generation” is a good thing or a bad thing.  In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108), both sides are presented.  Rabbi Yochanan argues that Noah was righteous in his own generation but not others, while Reish Lakish argues that if Noah was able to be righteous in his own evil generation, how much more so would he have been righteous in other generations.  Ahh… the rabbinic mind!

Personally, whether or not Noah was righteous only in his own generation or would have been righteous in others as well, I struggle with his character, given that when he receives the command to build the ark, providing him with the chance not only to save all land animals from extinction but his family as well, he does so without protest.  He doesn’t argue with God, the way Abraham later does in order to try and save the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

While the Midrash provides us with a tradition that says Noah spent decades planting the trees he ultimately would use to build the ark and warned others who asked him what he was doing about the impending flood (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 30:7), even if that were true, Noah did not proactively challenge God on behalf of humankind, and did not go out of his way to warn humankind about their impending destruction.

The portion this week answers some of our most basic questions about the world around us from a traditional Jewish perspective.

Why are there rainbows?
They are a sign between God and humankind that never again shall there be a flood that wipes out all of humanity.

Why are there different languages?
God confounded the speech of humankind, who had all been speaking the same language, due to their efforts to build a tower up to the heavens (The Tower of Babel – read “Babble”).

While not traditionally associated with these questions, I think a worthwhile additional question we can seek to glean an answer to presented in this week’s portion is: 

What constitutes a righteous individual?

The answer, according to a simple reading of the text, is one who walks with (i.e. obeys) God.

But I would argue that the tradition demands more of us as Jews.

Noah was not Jewish.  He was not selected to be the father of the Israelite nation (granted, as Jews we theoretically come from the line of his son Shem (Shem = Shemite = Semite)).  I would argue that the reason he didn’t merit such was his reluctance to argue with God.  While “walking with God” may be enough for some, challenging God and the world around us by standing up for others – even those we have no relationship to or with – is, and should continue to be, a nation-defining trait.