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!