Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Va-Yechi: Learning How to Forgive

About a year ago, a good friend of mine was moving to Germany with her family. She was struggling to reconcile a lot of strong feelings about the experience, and so she and I spent some time discussing her apprehensions, fears, and concerns. In particular, she had family members who had perished in the Holocaust, and she wasn't sure she could spend an extended amount of time there. We had several meaningful and lengthy conversations on the subject, and one of the points that she made was, "I can forgive, but I can never forget."

I thought about that concept a lot. What does it mean to forgive? And how do we decide when to forgive, when to forget, and perhaps when to do neither? These are some of the issues that come to mind when I look at this week's Torah portion. It is the last parasha in the Book of Genesis, and it is also the last story about Abraham's descendants as a family; beginning with Exodus we deal with Israel as a nation. And one of the main stories in this week's reading deals with Jacob's last words to his sons on his death bed.

It could have been a beautiful scene. Jacob has gathered together his family members, and he offers them each a blessing before his life ends. Yet instead, he uses this opportunity to air every grievance and to chastise his progeny! It is somewhat surprising, and a little jarring. And it is also interesting in that Jacob has forgotten NOTHING. When speaking to Simeon and Levi, he rebukes them for violent acts committed decades earlier: "Simeon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council" (Gen. 49:5-6). He also clearly recalls his son Reuben having slept with one of his father's wives when he states, "For when you mounted your father's bed, you brought disgrace" (Gen. 4:4).

Why would Jacob choose to end his life this way; praising some of his sons, but leaving others feeling embarrassed and unloved? How are they meant to overcome their father's curse once he is dead? I read this text with great sadness for Jacob, who seems unable to forgive his children and die at peace. I also think that too many people learn from Jacob's example, and perpetuate family feuds for generations, allowing them to go to the grave unresolved. And who benefits from that?! Who wins when family members insist on hating one another and refuse to make amends?

Forgiveness is not something we do to let the other person "off the hook." It's not meant to absolve them of guilt. When we travel to Germany and move beyond the generation of the Holocaust, it is not in order to ignore, forget, or in any way trivialize the atrocities that were committed there. We forgive because it is the ultimate act of kindness. We forgive so that we can all move forward and grow towards becoming better people.

And we forgive for ourselves. We forgive so that we can move on, cutting out the wound that would otherwise fester and rot, destroying us from the inside with its venom and hate. Nobody wins when we refuse to reconcile. I cannot believe that Jacob died a peaceful and content man, or that his children could ever forget the dying words of their father. I only hope that we can learn from this to be better, to act better, and to seek reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness in our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Va-Yigash: Meeting Someone New This Year

Do you think fate led you here right now, to this moment of sitting in front of your computer, reading the first sentence of my blog? How would you know if it was the Hand of God, steering you along and pushing you towards decisions you may or may not have chosen for yourself? Are you ever really free to make your own decisions, or is Someone Else making them for you? And perhaps more importantly, does it matter? Would you do things any differently if you knew that it was fate telling you which way to walk, what clothes to wear, and what soda to drink? (Root Beer, definitely Root Beer...)

I imagine that Joseph's eleven brothers were asking themselves these types of questions in this week's Torah portion. 20 years earlier, Joseph dreamed that his whole family would bow down to him, and in an attempt to thwart his "silly" dreams, his brothers sold him into slavery. Decades later, they are begging for their lives to the Egyptian viceroy, who suddenly reveals himself to be their brother, Joseph. Do you think any of them stood up, breathed a sigh of relief, and then suddenly recalled with horror that this was exactly what Joseph had predicted in his dreams? I do.

So what's the deal with fate? Is it really making every decision for us? What about free will? Don't we have some control over what we do? Obviously there are no easy answers here, but I'll give you my take. I believe that everything is predetermined. I don't think we can do anything other than what was destined to happen the moment our lives began. BUT, we don't know what fate has in store. We don't get to read the Cliff's Notes on this one, so we just have to go along "believing" we are exercising free will. The brothers think they are shaking things up, but really they were always meant to sell Joseph into slavery. There's no escaping destiny.
There is, however, a way to gain the upper hand on fate. If you can understand yourself better, you can predict where life will take you. In the movie, "The Matrix Reloaded," the hero meets an Oracle, who tells him, "you didn't come here to make a choice, you've already made it. You're here to try to understand why you made it." That's what we all should be doing! We spend too much time asking the questions I listed at the start of this blog post. So what if life is predetermined?!? That only means you're predictable (as are we all), and all aspects of your personality (upbringing, genes, culture, schooling, sitcom preferences, etc.) contribute to making your decisions for you. The only advantage we can acquire is understanding ourselves better.
It takes Joseph 20 years to learn who he is. He finally understands how he feels about his brothers, about his father, about the gifts given to him by God. And only when he has made peace with himself can he forgive his brothers and move on with his life. If only we could all be so blessed!
What baggage are you carrying around with you? What stories are in your past that you still haven't processed that directly affect the decisions you make today? The New Year is around the corner, folks. It's time for resolutions and fresh starts. Why not take the biggest and scariest leap of them all, and get to know yourself a little better? And
-->if our destinies have indeed been determined for us already, I pray that God help steer each of us towards the best destiny that we can possibly have. And may we see the Hand of God in our lives, guiding us the way it guided Joseph, and protecting us the way it protected him and his family.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Miketz (Chanukah): Searching for the Best of Both Worlds

I was recently reading an interesting commentary on this week's Torah portion, which drew parallels between the stories we read in the Bible and the holiday of Chanukah. Coincidentally (or perhaps not...), we almost always read this particular Torah portion during the week of Chanukah. Our Torah reading talks about Joseph, who interprets Pharaoh's dreams and rises to great power in Egypt. One dream saw scrawny cows consuming fat ones, and the other featured wilted ears of grain devouring healthy ones. Sure enough, the message in both dreams was one and the same, namely that years of plenty were ahead, but followed by years of severe famine. So where is the Chanukah connection?

Well, each of the stories in the parasha (Torah portion) depicts an underdog story, whether it's Joseph going from captive to captain or the dreams of the scraggly defeating the sturdy. This too is the story of Chanukah, where the lowly Jews are able to fend off the mighty Greek empire. Surely, the Maccabees looked to the stories in the Torah for inspiration during their campaign, and perhaps Joseph's story of dominance over the Egyptians emboldened them to fight on.

But I also see another connection between the Maccabees and Joseph. In a recent article in the New York Times, David Brooks writes about the controversial Maccabees, and how they were more like "moderate fanatics... [who] had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice." It is true that we often romanticize the story of the Maccabees, and leave out their disconcerting beliefs about Jewish practice and observance. But in my opinion, that is the central theme of the Chanukah story - the challenge of living in two worlds, the secular and the religious. At that time, the Seleucid Greeks were taking things to one extreme, pushing secularism and logic over all else, and oppressing those who were religiously observant. The Maccabees, however, went to the other extreme, emphasizing religious values to the exclusion of Greek culture.

Nevertheless, Brooks admits that the Maccabees "were not in total revolt against Greek culture," and they DID bring some aspects of secularism into their practice. It's all about balance, people! Neither extreme is ideal, and life is about pursuing harmony, equilibrium. The former Chancellor of my Alma Mater, The Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, coined a term that I love: "Polarities in Balance." That is what it's all about.

So what's the connection to the Joseph story? Our Torah portion introduces Joseph's two sons, Menashe and Ephraim. And to this day, we bless our sons (usually at the Shabbat dinner table on Friday night) that they should be like Ephraim and Menashe. Why? Why don't we bless them to be like our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? We bless the girls to be like the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, so why go a different route with the boys? One reason is because they are a model to us of living as Jews in a secular society. They maintained a connection to their heritage and became two of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, even though they were raised in the Egyptian court, and probably learned a great deal about Egyptian culture and religion.

They were able to strike a balance. Their father, Joseph, created a sense of harmony in their lives. He continued to live as an Egyptian, and one with great power and influence, no less! Yet he was always a Jew at heart, and raised his sons with a strong connection to their heritage. And this is a major lesson for all of us today. As we read about the Maccabees and praise their victory over the Greeks, let us not forget that life is not about extremes or about fundamentalism. We should instead focus on the model of Joseph and his two sons. They truly taught us how to live with our Polarities in Balance.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Va-Yeishev: Who Was That Masked Man?

How often in life do we get to a crossroads, a milestone or major event, and not realize that we are there? So much of life is spent doing everyday tasks the same way we'd always been doing them, and all of a sudden something - or someone - changes our lives forever (whether good or bad), and we cannot imagine what life was like before it. Afterward, we certainly knew how significant it was, but beforehand, or even sometimes in the moment, did we acknowledge the weight of it? Often not.

That is the reason why I like to tell my Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to take a moment, look around at the friends and family who are there to celebrate, and to reflect on the significance of the experience. (So get ready, Vav Class!) Rarely do we get to plan the memorable moments that will last the rest of our lives, but Bar Mitzvahs and weddings are sometimes opportunities to do just that. The rest of the time, transitional events seem insignificant in real-time, and only after-the-fact do we realize how important they were. Something similar to that happens in this week's Torah reading.

Our new protagonist this week is Joseph. His father favors him over his brothers, which means all 10 of them hate his guts, and he's kind of a spoiled twerp. He really wasn't much of a role model in his younger years... He's even a tattletale who reports to his father about the mischief of his brothers, which (as you can imagine) does not endear him to them any further. And one day, his father sends him out to the fields to find his brothers, who are busy tending the sheep. Jacob, the father, does not know it is the last time he will see his son for many years, because the brothers are about to sell him into slavery in Egypt.

Joseph is out looking for his brothers, and he meets an unnamed man in the fields. The Torah spends three whole verses (quite a lot for such a minor incident) informing us that the man asked Joseph what he was looking for, Joseph said "my brothers," and the man pointed him in the right direction. It is a curious little vignette, and we have to ask ourselves what it's doing here. And once we stop to think about it, we realize that were it not for this stranger Joseph would never find his brothers, get sent to Egypt, bring his family down there, which leads to slavery, and ultimately brings us to the Exodus and the redemption of the entire Israelite nation. All of a sudden, the story seems a heck of a lot more interesting!

The commentators wonder why the man remains unnamed. And what is a lone stranger doing hanging out in the fields? Is this just some guy, or is it really an angel in disguise, sent to point Joseph towards his destiny? Perhaps. But it's also possible that this is meant to teach us that we rarely know significant moments when they are happening. Joseph unsuspectingly tries his hardest to find his brothers, not knowing that in doing so he is sealing his own fate. Where would all of us be today if Joseph had given up his search and gone home? Or if the stranger had discouraged him in his pursuit?

In the Talmud we learn a teaching of Rabbi Eliezer's: "Repent one day before your death" (Avot 2:15). This teaching reminds us to treat each day as a precious gift, as an opportunity to affect our destiny. You never know when an opportunity will present itself, when a very significant person is walking past you, or when a chance to change your life is right in front of your nose. When we remind ourselves, and each other, to appreciate every single moment, we become more attentive to the blessings in our lives.

"Ze Ha-yom Asah Adonai, Nagila Ve-nismecha Vo!"

"THIS is the day (each and every day) that the Lord created, we will rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118:24)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Va-Yishlach: Some Things We Can't Change

Every week, I meet with a really wonderful group of people for a Torah study class, and we delve into the portion of the Bible that is read in synagogue that week. Recently, we were examining our patriarch Jacob, who lies to his father, cheats his brother, plays favorites among his wives and his sons, and asks questionable requests of God.

After looking at this wonderful resume of "good deeds," the question inevitably came up: "Why does Jacob get to be our patriarch?" And it is indeed a fair question! Why do we look up to Jacob as a role model for ourselves and our children? Couldn't we do a little better than this shmo? (No offense...)

Well, one approach to this question is to reread the character of Jacob. The Talmudic and medieval commentators certainly do their best to try and redeem him. In their minds, he was a scholar, a great leader, a good father and husband, and a pious Jew. Every incident in his life can be read differently, and each time he seemingly misbehaves, there is really more going on under the surface... according to the rabbis.

OR perhaps we could choose to read the Torah honestly, admitting that he begins with serious flaws, but positing that Jacob strives to overcome his misdeeds. In this week's reading, we see that he struggles with an angel and is renamed Yisrael, "one who wrestles with God." Perhaps this marks his transformation, the beginning of his self-improvement and his desire to become a better man. And through this reading, we may begin to feel ok about this patriarch of ours.

But I want to suggest another possibility. Why do we have to label Jacob's actions, and with such rigid categories? Rather than seeing a righteous Jew or a villain, a brilliant leader or a coward, a loyal and loving father or a conniving and treacherous brother - let us strip away all of these nuanced readings and see him as something more simple: our ancestor. In a way, asking the question, "Why does Jacob get to be our patriarch?" is like saying to your mother's father: "Who said you could be my grandfather!?!" Whether we like it or not, we are descended from Jacob, and so we read about his life because it sheds light on our own origins and the history of our people.

Some things in life we have no control over. We choose our friends, but we are born with our relatives. We would love to imagine that everyone in our family tree was a hero, a scholar, or a king. But more likely than not, they were real people who messed up occasionally, and who lived challenging lives filled with hardship and tough choices.

The Torah exposes every one of Jacob's flaws, which in my opinion gives us license to criticize, question, and chastise. And when we look to draw lessons for our own lives, we have the right to say that Jacob teaches us what NOT to do, more than behaviors we would want to emulate! But through it all, he is our ancestor. Were it not for him, we wouldn't be here. Just as we cannot choose our parents, siblings, children, or cousins, we also cannot pick our patriarchs and matriarchs. And we have to make our peace with them all.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Va-Yeitzei: Entering a Season of Presence

When you read the book of Genesis, I mean really read it and look at the lives of its protagonists, one theme really stands out. They all lived difficult lives! All our patriarchs and matriarchs (including their friends, family members, servants, and animals) experienced their fair share of challenges, tests, moments of weakness, and errors in judgment. They were flawed people, just like us, and life was by no means easy back in those days.

In our Torah portion this week, we read about Jacob's travels. He has fled from his parents' home because he tricked his father into giving him his brother's blessing, and he's on his way to his uncle, Laban. On the way, God comes to him in a dream and says, "... All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Genesis 28:14-15). Notice that NOWHERE in this blessing does God say that Jacob is getting all these things because he is such a perfect person! Nor does God say that the Divine protection is conditional, or that it will disappear if Jacob behaves badly.

Feeling God's Presence is not conditional, but this can be a double-edged sword. Doing the wrong thing won't make it go away, but it also means God is always aware of how we act. God can't make us be mensches. That's the beauty of free will. But there's still an expectation that we constantly strive to improve ourselves. We're not perfect, but we need to try to be better.

After Jacob's dream (the one in which he saw Led Zeppelin's famous "Stairway to Heaven"...), he wakes up and exclaims, "Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!" (Gen. 28:16) Most of us feel the same way. We walk through life oblivious of God's Presence, and so we don't act as though God cares about what we do. People often misunderstand religion and chastise it for making people feel guilty about everything they do. But that's not the point of it at all! It's not that we should feel meek and humble, prostrating and apologizing every day of our lives. But we DO have to take ownership of our own actions.

It's true, our Biblical ancestors lived challenging lives. Today we've got wars, economic hardship, and relationships fraught with intrigue and drama. But we also have the potential for love, kindness, and caring for our fellow human beings. And the search for a relationship with God continues as well. Has anything changed since the time of the Bible? No, not really. And sometimes, despite all the struggles, that can be a comforting thought.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tol'dot: Letting Them Down Off the Pedestal

It seems to be a staple of human nature to want to create heroes for ourselves. Whether it's a brilliant scientist, a mesmerizing musician, an explosive athlete, or a gifted writer; we all seek out people of exceptional ability to admire. And because we do this, it is so much harder to accept when they fall short.

The purpose of this blog post is not to chastise us for wanting to look up to someone. But we also should not wear rose-colored glasses, where we refuse to accept that they can make mistakes, or that they are human beings who are not flawless. When we do this, we give people license to break the law or act immorally, and then, when we finally realize how poorly they've acted, things may already have gotten out of hand.

The Torah warns us against this behavior. Several times, it clearly describes who the heroes are in its stories, yet it exposes all their flaws and weaknesses. The purpose isn't to jump ship, to look for better leaders. We know who our patriarchs and prophets are, we cannot abandon them. But we have to accept that they are human, that they are constantly prone to errors of judgment.

This week we see an interesting example, both of flawed leadership, and also people refusing to accept the fall of their heroes. Our Torah portion portrays Jacob, our ancestor, disguising himself as his brother, Esau, in order to fool his blind father and steal the blessing of the firstborn. Hardly a praiseworthy endeavor...

At the start of the story, we might be able to shift blame to his mother, Rebecca, who hatched the nefarious plan. But once Jacob is alone with his aging father, he, and he alone, is responsible for the lies that he tells. That is, unless you are one of the medieval rabbinic commentators, and you are seeking desperately to redeem Jacob and prove that he is a noble and righteous individual. Then you might employ a different strategy, such as the approach taken by the commentator Rashi, to bail Jacob out of the mess he has created for himself.

Twice in the story, Isaac asks if the man before him is truly Esau, and not an impostor. And twice, Jacob lies... Or does he? In Genesis, chapter 27, verse 19, Jacob responds to his father, "I am Esau, your firstborn." Rashi redoes the punctuation of this verse (and inserts a few choice words), so that the verse instead reads: "I am [he that brings food to you], and Esau is your firstborn." Hey, if Isaac misunderstood what Jacob was "really" saying, it's not Jacob's fault, right? And then, in verse 24, Isaac again asks if this is really Esau standing before him, and Jacob responds, "I am." Rashi again comes to rescue, and writes: "He did not say, 'I am Esau,' but 'It is I.'" In other words, Jacob said "I am me," and Isaac simply misunderstood what his son was saying.

These interpretations are a little far-fetched, to be sure, but I think it teaches us something valuable about Rashi more than about Jacob and Esau, and it teaches us something about ourselves. Rashi doesn't want to let Jacob falter. The text portrays him as a liar, but Rashi doesn't want to accept that. We sometimes do the same thing; making excuses for athletes who break the law or behave inappropriately.

Sometimes we have to put interpretations aside and live with the tension of a hero who makes mistakes. The Torah seems content to expose flaws in every one of the Biblical heroes, from Abraham and Sarah, to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. If the Torah is ok with imperfect protagonists, why aren't we?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chayei Sarah: The Rumor of a Name

Have you ever noticed how rumors get started? One person says something ("The sky is falling!"), a second person corroborates ("It's true, I felt something fall and I'm worried..."), and by the time it gets to the third individual, it's practically a news story. And two minutes later you can read about it on Wikipedia as indisputable fact. You might be able to tell that I find this process pretty annoying.

You may be surprised to realize, however, that the same thing can happen in Torah study. This week we find one of my biggest pet peeves, and it's a nasty rumor that started nearly 2,000 years ago. In our Torah portion, we read about Abraham wanting to find his son Isaac a wife, so he sends his servant out to look for one. And many commentators will tell you that the servant's name is Eliezer. Why? Because in an earlier story, we saw that Abraham had a servant named Eliezer, so this must be the same guy.

But the text itself never calls him Eliezer! It irritates me to no end, because someone simply started a rumor ("Yeah, that's probably Eliezer, the servant from that other story"), another person felt the same way ("I agree, that's most likely Eliezer"), and two thousand years later, everyone is "certain" that it's Eliezer. If that's true, why doesn't the Torah call him Eliezer? In fact, the text goes out of its way to keep calling him either:

- "The servant" (Gen. 24:2, 5, 9, 10, 17, 34, 52, 53, 59, 61, 65, 66)
- "The man" (Gen. 24: 21, 22, 26, 29, 30, 32, 58, 61)
- "him"/"he" (Gen. 24:6, 10, 11, 12, 15, 18, 19, 33, 54, 56)

Look how many times the text refers to this guy! More than 30! And every time, it avoids giving him a name. If it's so OBVIOUS that it's Eliezer, why doesn't the text say so??

This teaches me two important things. First, rumors are annoying. When we assume, we miss out on learning for ourselves. The Torah is clearly trying to teach us something, and if we gloss over it by simply naming the poor guy and moving on, we've missed out on the intention of the Torah. We should instead be reading the text with our eyes wide open, sensitive to every nuance and intonation, and not allowing someone else to tell us how to read the Bible.

Second, what is the message of the Torah? Why is this servant unnamed? I'll offer one interpretation. Perhaps because he is not meant to be the focus of this journey. He has been sent on a great mission - to find a wife for Isaac, and thereby enable Abraham's lineage to continue - but he is simply a vessel in this mission. The emphasis is on Rebecca, the eventual woman who is chosen, and also on God, who is always present and guiding our footsteps.

Sometimes in life, the task is much greater than the individual. It's not always about us! It is a great blessing and an honor to be a vessel, a vehicle, for something more significant than ourselves. This story teaches us about faith in God, about the power of love, quite frankly, and about having a purpose in life. And by having the main character of the story go without a name, we also learn about humility and focusing on the task more than the individual.

Let this be a lesson to all of us, not to listen to rumors and to always keep our eyes and our minds wide open. Just because an opinion has been espoused for 2,000 years doesn't mean it's correct. Just ask The-Servant-FORMERLY-Known-As-Eliezer!!

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Va-Yeira: How Hospitality Happens

This past Shabbat at Ohev Shalom we dedicated our Saturday morning services to welcoming and honoring our new members. I would like to share with you my sermon from that service:

As you know, today is our New Member Shabbat. So what I thought I would do is show our new members how we approach Torah study here at Ohev Shalom. Right off the bat I’m going to tell you that the governing principal is to find relevance and meaning for today in the Biblical texts of our ancestors.

I wholeheartedly believe that we can find significant lessons in everything we read in the Bible. Sometimes through the stories themselves, sometimes through juxtaposing what we read with how society functions today, and sometimes by arguing and fighting with the text.

In other words, it’s not that we learn from Abraham, Moses, King David, and Esther how to live necessarily, that we should always follow their lead. Instead we see that reading the stories of their lives affords us the opportunity to examine our own lives. The most important message is: The Torah is inviting us to a dialogue. Engaging the Bible, and our ancestors, in conversation is a part of our heritage, and an essential part of our culture.

So let’s take a look. Today, in honor of our new members, I am going to focus on the issue of hospitality, and display for you two models of good hospitality and two models of bad hospitality. And I think we can learn just as much for our own lives from each of the four different stories.

We’ll start off with a model of good hospitality. Our Torah portion opens with Abraham sitting at the opening of his tent, and the commentators say that he was recuperating from having circumcised himself (and let me reiterate my personal comment on this from last week: yikes!). He sees three visitors approaching from afar, and he runs to greet them. It turns out that they are angels, but Abraham didn’t know that at the time. To him, they were just passing travelers, but he welcomed them into his home with open arms nonetheless.

He offers them food, he begs them to come and stay with him, and he and Sarah act as the perfect hosts. In fact, it’s such an impressive model to us that whenever a Jewish couple gets married, they do so under a chuppah, a wedding canopy, with openings on all four sides, which we say is symbolic of the tent of Abraham and Sarah, which was open to all. It’s a metaphor for welcoming in guests, for always having an open home to help others and share the warmth of our families with those less fortunate.

But it’s not just a model for our individual homes. It’s a model for our congregation as well. As a community, we should also be running to welcome visitors. We should have an open building so that new members, such as the ones sitting here today, will feel invited in, but also so that less fortunate individuals in our wider community will know that we are here for them as well.

And we are especially impressed with the hospitality of Sarah and Abraham when we juxtapose it with the model we see in the very next story. The angels proceed from the warmth of Abraham’s tent to the icy cold reception they receive when they visit Lot in Sodom. Sodom and Gomorrah, as we all know, are about to be destroyed, and seeing the way people behave in these cities, we understand why.

All the people of Sodom seem eager to hurt these visiting angels, without ever explaining why. But as jarring as this part of the story is, I find myself focusing on something else. When Lot tries to protect his guests, the people of the city yell back at him, “’Stand back! The fellow,’ they said (meaning Lot), ‘came here as an alien, and already he acts the ruler! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’” (Gen. 19:9)

How sad it is that Lot, who has lived there for years, is derogatorily called “an alien.” Sometimes communities create a hierarchy, where those who have lived 50, 60, 70 or more years in the congregation perceive themselves as better than others. New people feel as though they aren’t welcome, or that they have to earn the respect of the community before they will be accepted. Such is not the case here at Ohe Shalom, where we try to welcome everyone, and there isn’t at all a sense of pecking order, of some people being “more” congregants than others.

Later on, after Sodom and Gomorrah received no bailout money and went bankrupt (to put it mildly), Abraham and Sarah travel through a land called Gerar. Abraham is worried that the people will not treat them well, and will kill him to get to his very attractive wife. So instead he has Sarah say that she is his sister. How many of us don’t face that same dilemma all the time??

But surprisingly, the people of Gerar are upset that Abraham didn’t trust them. King Avimelech quickly restores Sarah to Abraham, and gives him sheep, oxen, slaves, silver, and even says to him, “Here, my land is before you; settle wherever you please.” (Gen. 20:15) Sometimes we don’t know how we will be perceived when we move to a new place. But we have to give the locals the benefit of the doubt, they may surprise us! Abraham didn’t know what to expect, but it turns out the people of Gerar were more than happy to share their land with him, and welcome him in as a neighbor. And the same reception awaits our new members here at Ohev.

Our fourth story doesn’t paint Sarah or Abraham in a very generous light. After the birth of their son, Isaac, Sarah insists that Abraham kick out their servant Hagar, who has a son by Abraham, named Ishmael. Once again, we don’t learn how to act by following the example of our ancestors, but instead by challenging their decisions. We learn about hospitality by saying, “I might have played that differently.” We might have tried to make space for both wives and both sons, and we would have tried to carve out land and inheritance for both sides of the family.

But the most important lesson we learn here is; guys, don’t take two wives. It’s bad news. Nobody gets along, everybody fights, and all you do is create headache, heartache, and heartburn for yourself. We have the benefit of learning from Abraham’s mistakes, and this one is a biggy.

So once again, you’ve got your two models of good hospitality, Abraham and Sarah with the visiting angels and King Avimelech of Gerar, and your two models of less-than-ideal hospitality, the people of Sodom and Abraham and Sarah with Hagar. But ultimately, the message from all four stories is the same; you can learn a lot about your own life from the stories of the Bible. There are plenty of lessons, if we only take the time to investigate and let the Torah be our teacher.

Just looking at the four stories as a unit teaches us something, why are Abraham and Sarah in the good category AND the bad category? Because nobody’s perfect. Sometimes we’re on our best behavior, and sometimes we fall short. And I want to say the same to all our members here, new and... well, less new. We’re not going to be perfect as a community. We are going to be there for you, as a part of your lives and the lives of all your family members, but we may not always get it exactly right, or be there just on time. We hope that you will be understanding, patient, and sometimes even forgiving.

When I look at the stories in the Torah and compare them to what we try to achieve here at Ohev Shalom, I have to say that we measure up pretty well. We do hospitality quite well here. To all of our new members and our visitors here today, I want to say that you’ve come to a very warm and welcoming congregation. And just as the Torah invites us to dialogue with it’s stories, we invite you to join us on our journey, and help make Ohev Shalom an even more warm and friendly place.

I began by saying that Torah study for us is about finding meaning and relevance in the texts of our tradition. Right now, throughout the world around us, I see people searching everywhere for meaning and relevance. And what we learn is that the first clues to finding an answer lie in the words of the Torah, but the real solution is in the community we create.
The Bible helps us to examine our own lives and evaluate what we’ve created,
but only we can make meaning happen. Only we, when we come together as a congregation and extend that hospitality and warmth to everyone we meet, can achieve a life of fulfillment and value. And here at Ohev, we are already well on our way to creating that kind of community. Welcome to our journey, we are thrilled that you are joining us.

Shabbat Shalom!