Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vayigash: Modern Struggles in an Ancient Family Gathering

Hello again, everyone! Last week I was away on vacation, and you probably noticed there was no blog post. I'll admit it, I missed you! Well, I'm back, and I am excited to continue our exploration of the wonderful stories told throughout the Bible. So without further ado, let's dive right back in:

As we make our way through the season, the theme of 'family gatherings' seems to loom large. From a modern perspective, this 'season' generally refers to Thanksgiving, Chanukah/Christmas, and New Year's Eve, or at least one of the above. At the same time, from a Biblical perspective, we are also talking about family gatherings; in that this week's Torah portion provides the dramatic conclusion to the Joseph story, where he is finally reunited with his father and his brothers. So everyone gets to be surrounded by relatives this week! And with this unifying theme in mind, I found a fascinating little story tucked away in our parasha that remains as true today as it was 3,000 years ago.

Joseph and his father, Jacob, are back together again. In a beautiful scene, the two men embrace and cry, and everything seems happy and wonderful. But once more we are reminded that these are human beings, not cartoon characters. They are also amazingly familiar, displaying traits that you or I might possess right here and now. 
Joseph, excited to see his father and eager to show off his own accomplishments, decides to introduce his dad to his new boss. He brings Jacob to meet Pharaoh, and the two men shake hands. Pharaoh asks Jacob a simple question, "How many are the years of your life?" (Gen. 47:8) Jacob replies, "The years of my sojourn [on earth] are 130." A straightforward enough response, right? So far, so good... and then Jacob begins to embarrass his son. He continues: "Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns" (v. 9). 

The scene ends awkwardly. Neither man speaks again, and they go their separate ways. I can just picture Joseph, the son, cringing on the inside. In Egypt, he has risen to a position of power; he's established, modern, professional - a yuppie. And now his old-world, old-religion father shows up talking about his ancestors, complaining about all the tzures he's lived through, and generally over-sharing. How often doesn't this happen to parents and kids today, this type of miscommunication? And what's Jacob talking about anyway? He's 130 years old, yet he's upset about how young he is?!? Furthermore, now that he's finally been reunited with his long-lost son, and should be filled with joy and gratitude, why is it he still sounds so miserable? Why is he still kvetching?? As frustrating as this scene might be, it is also wonderfully true to life, even today. I think it speaks volumes about Jacob's mindset, about Joseph's mindset, and about family interactions still facing the same challenges, even after millennia.

We could spend our time debating what each man was trying to convey, but I think that misses the point. To me, this scene reveals something about communication within families. We all struggle with it! The story gives us the freedom to acknowledge we aren't alone, but also encourages us to try and see things from someone else's perspective. Jacob has had a truly hard life... but Joseph hasn't 
exactly been living on easy-street either! Sometimes the people closest to us can seem farther away than anyone else. After years of living apart, how can Jacob and Joseph grow to understand one another again, to connect, to see one another as equals? And perhaps most important of all, if we allow ourselves to dig beneath the surface, are we brave enough to admit that our own story really isn't so different from theirs?

Photos in this blog post:  

1. CC image courtesy of wlodi on Flickr 

2. CC image courtesy of Tag Your Friends on Flickr  

3. CC image courtesy of gcoldironjr2003 on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Donna Sullivan Thomson on Flickr

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Vayeishev: Searching for Life's Hidden Themes

Can you believe we're almost at the start of 2012? What happened to 2011?!? Time really flies sometimes, doesn't it? Which, of course, makes it all the more essential that we try to take stock, step back, and appreciate life in this very moment, before it whisks away from us. This week, I won't be offering my usual commentary on the Torah portion. Instead, the rapidly approaching New Year inspired me to look back at the index page of my Chumash, where I stumbled upon a fascinating new insight into the Book of Genesis.

Who is the main character in Genesis? Initially, we might have thought it was Abraham, and by the end of the book you might be tempted to suggest Joseph, but ultimately I think it's Jacob. You could, of course, also offer that it's God, but let's posit for a moment that God is the star of the WHOLE Torah, but that Jacob is the protagonist in Genesis. The last six Torah portions deal with Jacob's life, as well as the legacy he leaves behind, specifically through his 12 sons, with Joseph leading the pack. On the index page of any Chumash, you might discover that five of the last six portions have similar sounding titles, in that they are all verbs: Va-yeitzei, Va-yishlach, Va-yeishev, (then Miketz), Va-yiggash, and Va-yechi. Their meanings are: 'And he left,' 'And he sent,' 'And he settled,' ('At the end of...'), 'And he came closer to,' 'And he lived.' What do we make of this pattern?

First of all, they're not all talking about Jacob. The first three are, but then the odd-man-out (Miketz) is talking about Pharaoh, the fifth is about Judah and Joseph, and the last one is Jacob again. But here's what I'd like to suggest: When you take a step outside the story (and if you accept that Jacob is the protagonist), then in fact these six titles DO tell a sequential story of Jacob's life: 
He LEFT his home; he was SENT away, first by his parents then by Laban; he thought he was SETTLED and at peace with his family, but then his sons sold Joseph into slavery; AT THE END of a long period, he was reunited with Joseph; he CAME CLOSER TO God; and, in the end, he LIVED a long life and died content. Even though these six words weren't initially referring to Jacob, when strung together they actually do sum up the major events of his life.

But then I really started to think. Last week, my brother, Benjamin, wrote a great blog post (in Swedish) about how Jacob's life is actually a microcosm of Jewish history. His struggles are our struggles, his successes mirror our successes; and as "B'nai Yisrael" - "The Children of Israel/Jacob" our history has very much followed the pattern of our namesake. With that in mind, look again at the names of the six Torah portions. Here's what I came up with: "Throughout our history, sometimes we have chosen to LEAVE places, and sometimes we have been SENT AWAY (read: thrown out). Sometimes we've tried to SETTLE and join our fate to that of our neighbors. IN THE END, there isn't one model that has worked for everyone or at all times. Yet throughout it all, we focus on DRAWING NEAR TO God (prayer, study, ritual, etc.), and that has been the key to LIFE for the Jewish people."

Isn't it interesting, what can happen when we take a step back? When we look for Big Picture clues (and answers) in hidden patterns? You don't have to read into the text the way I did, but I hope it at least provoked some contemplation. If nothing else, try this exercise on your own life, and see what words, phrases, and/or ideas jump out at you. It might give you something to think about, as you head into the New Year. 2013 is it? I don't know, who can keep up?

Happy New Year!

Photos in this blog post:  

1. CC image courtesy of *Sally M* on Flickr 

2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber  

3. CC image courtesy of deb roby on Flickr

4. Image of two very young Gerber brothers courtesy of Deborah Gerber.

5. CC image courtesy of wobble-san on Flickr

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Va-Yishlach: Deeds, not Words, To Live By

When all is said and done, the people we learn from are the ones who impress us with their actions, not with their words. That's why the
expression is, "Lead by example," not "Lead by saying a lot of impressive stuff." We are especially disillusioned when there's significant disparity between words and behavior, when someone doesn't live by their own rules, or is exposed as a fraud or liar. And even with all the role models on TV, in sports, and in the news, at the end of the day, the people we look up to the most are our parents.

When we see our patriarchs (and matriarchs) misbehaving in the Bible, we often fall into the trap of blaming God, or maybe even the individuals themselves. When in fact, we can actually find many clues in the behavior of their parents. Sometimes we don't want to acknowledge this, because it means admitting that we too learned how to behave from our parents; and that our kids are watching our every move... So far, what we know
about Jacob is that he tricked his brother, lied to his father, played favorites among his wives, and was not the most honest of businessmen. So we're not off to a great start. Is it any wonder then, that as we shift down to the next generation, we see similar examples of guile and misbehavior? Later on, we will get to stories of snitches, gloating, selling siblings into slavery, and even some questionable sexual behavior. This week, the 'legacy' of Jacob is already beginning to take shape. 

The only story in the Bible about Jacob's lone daughter, Dina, is often called The Rape of Dina. Shechem, the son of a local chieftain, takes Dina by force, and only afterwards decides he wants to ask her family for her hand in marriage. Even though Shechem approaches Jacob, the sons quickly usurp his leadership and handle all the dealings with Shechem themselves. They trick Shechem into having all the men of his town circumcise themselves, and while they are all recovering from surgery, Jacob's two sons, Simeon and Levi, kill everyone! Jacob is outraged, though not because of the heinous nature of their actions. Selfishly, he says to them, "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land... if they unite against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed!" (Gen. 34:30)

Jacob's response is disturbing, but it is really just the final unsavory act at the end of a long list. All along, there's been a lack of parental guidance, support, or instruction. We hear a lot about Divine covenants and heartfelt prayers, 
but it really just amounts to a lot of words and promises. Where are the role models? Where is the leading by positive example? And if we see this problem in the Bible, how much more so does it affect all of us today? We are all responsible, and we all have the power to affect positive change; whether you're a teacher, a parent, a rabbi, or none of the above. The people around you - around each and every one of us - aren't waiting to hear what we have to SAY, they're already watching everything we do. So isn't it about time you start doing what you wish other people thought you were doing? I'd say so. Err... I mean, I'd DO so.

Photos in this blog post:  

1. CC image courtesy of Stenly Lam on Flickr 

2. CC image courtesy of tibbygirl on Flickr  

3. CC image courtesy of Thirteen of Clubs on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Andy Hay on Flickr

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Vayeitzei: Naming the Problem (and the Solution)

What does your name mean? Do you know its origin, its literal translation, and perhaps the history of how it became your name? I've always found this to be a fascinating topic, and even used it as the basis of my Senior Sermon when I was in rabbinical school! Names are important. They inform us about heritage, identity, and sometimes even purpose. 
This week's Torah reading involves a lot of naming; and in some ways it is through the examination of those names that we learn about the troubled relationships, heartbreak, and tension between our ancestors. The Biblical characters seem unable to speak TO one another, and so it is through naming that they convey what's really going on.

Jacob is the main protagonist this week. And when his uncle, Laban, tricks him out of marrying the woman he really loves, Jacob suddenly finds himself with four (!) wives: Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah. The women - at least Rachel and Leah, who are the two principal wives - don't get along. Thankfully, they refrain from fighting openly, but when we look at the names they chose for their children, there is no doubting the tension felt between them. So you can see what I'm talking about, here are the names of the twelve sons (the underlined part is the Hebrew word that inspired the name, also transliterated in parentheses):

1. Reuven - Leah's 1st son. Meaning: "Now my husband will love me." (Ye-ehav/Reuven)
2. Simeon (Shimon) - Leah's 2nd son. "The Lord has heard that I was unloved." (Shama/Shimon)
3. Levi - Leah's 3rd son. "This time my husband will become attached to me." (Yilaveh/Levi)
4. Judah (Yehudah) - Leah's 4th son. "This time I will praise the Lord." (Odeh/Yehudah)
5. Dan - Bilhah's 1st son (Rachel's handmaiden, so she names him). "God has vindicated me." (Danani/Dan)
6. Naphtali - Bilhah's 2nd son. "A fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed." (Naftulei/Niftalti/Naphtali)
7. Gad - Zilpah's 1st son (Leah's handmaiden, so she names him). "What luck!" (Bah Gad/Gad) I guess Leah was getting bored of thinking up names...
8. Asher - Zilpah's 2nd son. "What fortune!" (Be-Ashri/Asher)
9. Issachar - Leah's 5th son. "God has given me my reward." (Sechari/Issachar)
10. Zebulun - Leah's 6th son. "This time my husband will exalt me." (Yizbeleini/Zebulun)
11. Joseph (Yosef) - Rachel's 1st son. "God has taken away my disgrace." (Assaf/Yosef)
12. Benjamin (Binyamin) - Rachel's 2nd son. Rachel dies in childbirth, but as she's dying, she calls her son, 'Ben-Oni,' meaning 'son of my sorrow.' But Jacob renames the infant, "Binyamin."

What do we make of these names? Or perhaps more importantly, how were these boys meant to internalize the legacy passed down to them through these horrific name choices? Sadly, not much has changed. Still today, we see parents giving their children ridiculous names. And we certainly all know stories of parents taking out their issues, frustrations, disappointments, and unfulfilled dreams on their kids. We tell ourselves that children are a blank slate, an empty canvas waiting to be filled with knowledge, skill, and talent. Yet all too often parents use that canvas for graffiti and vandalism!

Our name can be a banner for who we are; a business card that tells other people whether to take us seriously or treat us like children. The Torah shows us, however, that often the name says more about the parents than about the child! Nevertheless, each person needs to be the master of his or her own destiny. At some point, we must let go of the legacy of our mother and father, and forge a path that is uniquely ours. The sons of Jacob didn't exactly get off to a great start;
being forced to shlep around the emotional baggage of their parents in their names. Yet these twelve sons became the history-changing Twelve Tribes of Israel, and ultimately they took control of their own fate. No matter what was handed down to you by your ancestors and your parents, you too can do the same.

Photos in this blog post:  

1. Image courtesy of (a very young) Rabbi Gerber 

2. CC image courtesy of hans s on Flickr  

3. CC image courtesy of Lieutenant Pol on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Chor lp on Flickr

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Toledot: A Recipe For Good 'Hodu'

And so, once again, it is time for Thanksgiving. You might have thought this holiday was about pilgrims, Indians, and stuffing, but in fact it's roots are much, much more ancient than that. In Psalm 118,
verse 1, we read, "Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; God's lovingkindness endures forever." Obviously, this line is about giving thanks, i.e. Thanksgiving! However, did you also know that the Hebrew word for 'giving thanks' is 'Hodu,' which ALSO means 'turkey'?? No joke, people. "Hodu L'Adonai Ki Tov" is talking about BOTH giving thanks AND turkey. Feel free to bring that little gem with you to dinner on Thursday night... :-)

While we're on the subject of Thanksgiving, a big part of the holiday involves spending time with family. And coincidentally, this week's Torah portion is all about family. The name of our parasha is Tol'dot, which means 'generations,' and it tells the story of Isaac, his wife, Rebecca, and their two sons, Esau and Jacob. Unfortunately, it's not the most harmonious group, and our Torah portion is filled with deception, lies, yelling, crying, and family members swearing at one another. For some, this ALSO describes Thanksgiving dinner, so once again, a funny little coincidence...

Yet underneath the surface of this story, I think we find an important question; one which we don't always acknowledge, but is often true for us all. What does 'family' mean? We have no control over who gets thrust into a shared gene pool with us, so just like our patriarchs in 
Tol'dot, the fact that people are related doesn't guarantee that they will get along. 'Family' should be something we create, not something we complain about to a therapist. Each of us has the ability to form a family of loving, caring, devoted individuals. For some people, that group includes relatives, for others it's friends, and for the lucky ones, it's both. In the Torah, Jacob and Esau aren't able to reconcile their differences, but they each go off and form a family of their own, and each brother finds peace in his own way... 

When you sit down for dinner on Thursday night, look at the people sitting around the table. Take a moment to think about what the notion of 'family' means to you, and how you are successfully being an active agent, creating a family of supportive, nurturing, generous, and warm people, in your own life. Don't forget that a big part of the puzzle is looking at yourself, and thinking about how you provide these things for others. When we understand ourselves, and think about 'family' in those proactive terms, then I think we will truly have a successful Thanksgiving filled with "Hodu"... in both senses of the word!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of martha_chapa95 on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of exfordy on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of
dan taylor on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Horia Varlan on Flickr

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chayei Sarah: Why The Binding Can Never Be Untied

Last week, I was bothered by our Torah reading. Which isn't to say it was the first time this had happened, but something about the trouble I was having seemed unique. I had read the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah before, as well as the other stories pertaining to immoral behavior, unethical actions, and disturbing sexual situations. Let's face it; a lot of weird (and upsetting) stuff happens in Genesis! But I was finding it particularly difficult to practice my Torah readings and plan out what I was going to say in services on Shabbat, given what's been happening at Penn State, and the unfolding of a pretty horrific sex scandal.

I was, therefore, pretty thankful when we were done with last week's Torah reading, so we could put the whole sordid mess behind us... but like the Penn State scandal, the pain continues. Last week's reading contained the Binding of Isaac, a story in which God "tests" Abraham by telling him to offer his young son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham willingly goes along with it, and only at the last minute does an angel block Abraham's hand, and stop him from actually killing his son. Bizarrely, the text tries to convince us this is all a good thing, and that Abraham has now proven his worth. But just like the story unfolding in State College, PA, where for a while we were distracted by stories about an idolized football coach, riots in the streets, and questions about a most peculiar phone interview; in the end, the question is, and should always be, what about the children? 

In the case of the Bible, God and Abraham play a high-stakes game of chicken, which is (or really isn't) fine, but the life that's at stake is Isaac's. He is like a sad, traumatized pawn in this ordeal, and no one seems to want to really deal with the question, what did this horrible experience do to him? And when we read the text closely, we in fact see that something is very wrong. The last time we heard Isaac speak was when he asked his father where the lamb was for their sacrifice... and his father lied to him. Then, Isaac never spoke again in last week's Torah portion. 
Lots of things happen around him this week, but Isaac himself never says a single word in our entire parasha, and this continues into next week's reading, where it takes a full chapter before he finally opens his mouth again. And by the way, when he does, he himself speaks a lie. The kid is traumatized. It isn't articulated explicitly, but so what? We have to stop using that as an excuse. We need to protect Isaac, like we need to protect the abused kids from The Second Mile, even when they don't know how to protect themselves. We need to stop waiting for someone ELSE to act, or to call the police for us; we are obligated (by our own conscience, if not by law) to be proactive. Please see that both of these stories are speaking directly to you and me.

Later on, when Isaac is an old man, he goes blind. The rabbinic commentators tell us it's a repercussion after seeing his father standing over him holding a knife, when he was a child. Trauma doesn't just disappear; it didn't 4,000 years ago, and it's still true today. The aftermath for these kids is unimaginable for most of us, but that is all the more reason why we must not let ourselves forget. The Binding of Isaac never went away, and neither should our vigilance and our outrage at what has happened today.

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of gideon_wright on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of carulmare on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of
slimdandy on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of ~Brenda-Starr~ on Flickr

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Vayera: Striving To Be More Than A Lot

"God helps those who help themselves." I'm sure many of you are familiar with this quote. It sounds kind of Biblical, but is actually not in the Bible at all. Some say it comes from one of Aesop's fables; others attribute it to Benjamin Franklin, from his yearly publication, Poor Richard's Almanack. In fact, if anything you might say that the Bible espouses a very different philosophy, namely that God helps the helpless. We see a very good example of this in the Torah portion, Vayera, which we are reading in synagogue this week.

Our parasha tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah; two cities overrun with lawlessness, and which God has finally decided to destroy. Only one inhabitant is worth saving, namely Abraham's nephew, Lot. Two angels arrive at Lot's home, and inform him of the impending annihilation. We read: "As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on... Still, he delayed. So the men (angels) seized his hand... and brought him out and left him outside the city" (Gen. 19:15-16). Amazingly, we see that even when they knew their lives were in danger, Lot and his family members kept dragging their feet. 
Then, even after he has been saved, Lot starts nit-picking with the angels about where to resettle. They tell him he'll be safe in the hills, but he says to them, "I cannot flee to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die!" (19:19) But they just told him he'd be safe, why doesn't he believe them?!? As a final demonstration of their lack of faith, and unwillingness to help themselves, Lot's wife turns around to look at the destruction - even though the family was told not to look back - and she is subsequently turned into a pillar of salt.

Lot and his household seem frustratingly unable (or unwilling?) to help themselves throughout this story. They procrastinate, they whine, they object, and they disobey. For a while, it even seems puzzling why God thought to save Lot in the first place, until we read that it wasn't for his own merit. The Torah tells us, "God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval" (19:29). So he was basically only saved because his uncle was 'a bigshot.' How cliché... This certainly helps us understand why the Torah depicts Lot as such a shlemiel, but it doesn't necessarily give us any takeaway from this story. Why does the Torah share so much about Lot's failings and shortcomings?

I think it's because many of us see these traits in ourselves. We'd like to think we're more like Abraham, but often in life we behave like Lot. Even when we know we should take the high road, we falter. We know what needs to be done, yet we make excuses, we procrastinate, and we try to deflect responsibility. We often skip over the story of Lot, but I feel that it really speaks to human emotions like fear, waffling, and anxiety. Perhaps spending a few minutes reading about Lot will allow each of us to search ourselves, to acknowledge that sometimes we are Lot, and to reflect on how we might go about changing that. We'd all like to think we're already the best we could be, but sometimes that inclination stops us from trying to improve. Let us strive instead to help ourselves by admitting fault and flaw. It's not easy to do, but if you can really give it a shot, I promise you'll feel a Lot better!

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Paul Lowry on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of quinn.anya on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of
Roadside Guitars on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Qfamily on Flickr

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lech Lecha: The Portrait of Abraham as a Young Abram

You meet a lot of people when you're a rabbi. You see people at so many different stages of life; viewing only snapshots of them at any one given moment in a much longer life of experiences, emotions, and growth. Each one of us - every person - is so much more than just the sum of what we've done. Sometimes there are moments in our lives that define us, but even they are not the culmination of our being. Life is truly a journey, with many stops and restarts, sections and detours. The Torah certainly shows us that every human being is both unique, and also infinitely complex.

This week, we are introduced to Abraham. When I say 'Abraham,' you may already have conjured up an association or two in your mind. Perhaps the Binding of Isaac stands out for you. Or Abraham's defense of Sodom and Gomorrah... right before the two cities were destroyed. And if I asked you to draw a picture of him, you might depict him as an old man, with long flowing robes, a staff in hand, and with the quintessential long, white beard. A lot like Moses, in fact, or any number of Biblical patriarchs. But in this week's Torah portion,
we see a very different Abraham, or actually Abram, as he is called before God renames him. We are introduced to a younger man who joins forces with five powerful kings to wage war against four other, seemingly more powerful, monarchs. Abram enters the conflict to rescue his nephew, Lot, who was taken captive by the four, evil rulers. Not only does Abram fight, he is in fact the hero who turns the tide and gives his allies a decisive victory! Why don't we hear more about THIS Abram in Hebrew School?!?

Furthermore, there are large parts of Abraham's life that we know nothing about. We only actually meet him for the first time when he is already married; whatever happened to Abram, the little boy, or Abram, the rebellious teenager? The rabbis fill in the gaps with midrashim, rabbinic tales that help us imagine what Abram MIGHT have been like in his youth. But the fact remains: The Bible leaves out large parts of Abraham's story. And even the parts we DO get, we often neglect; focusing instead on Abraham as an old man, recounting only stories of him at the end of his life, and his infamous Near Sacrifice of his son, Isaac. But on the other hand, isn't this true for all of us?

Except for (possibly...) our most immediate family members, rarely do we know people at every stage of their lives. Those we befriend when we are young disappear, and those we meet later in life somehow managed to exist long before we knew them. We have a hard time imagining infants growing into world-changing adults; and we cannot picture elders being any younger than they are right now. And like Abraham, many famous (and infamous) people are defined by specific moments and choices; yet even they lived complex lives, and presumably experienced all the hopes and dreams, fears and insecurities, childishness and maturity, that we afford ourselves. 

In this week's parasha, we have the opportunity to see Abraham as a younger man, to view his character with a bit more fullness and depth. In the blink of an eye (or really until next week), that opportunity will be gone, and we'll be moving onto the next Biblical stories. Our own lives can feel like that sometimes as well, moving almost as fast as the Torah portions of the Bible. And the same is true of our relationships with the people around us, which often appear and disappear with great haste. Savor them. All of them. Take a moment to hold onto the stories the Torah is teaching us. Take some time also to appreciate the people with whom you share this small slice of life. And most importantly, take a minute (or two) to reflect on, and acknowledge where, and who, you are right now. It goes fast; just ask Abraham!

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Nanagyei - (Trying to catch up) on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of Juliana Coutinho on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of
limaoscarjuliet on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of jm3 on Flickr

5. CC image courtesy of Dazzie D on Flickr 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Noah: What Happens When The Flood Stops?

Do you know which expression I've always found kind of creepy? (Appropriate to the week before Halloween, I suppose.) "Be careful what you wish for... because it might come true." It's not that I disagree with it, in fact it's more the opposite. Having seen this expression play out perfectly, I'm bothered by how accurate it is, and how hard it is to learn from it. Most things in life have the potential of becoming double-edged swords, where there are both advantages and disadvantages lurking around the corner. The lesson is to be aware of both, to live life in moderation and with careful planning, and to still, despite the risks, keep on wishin'.

This week, we read about Noah and the Flood. You may already know the basic story: The world is wicked; Noah is a good guy; God has Noah build an ark to save himself, his family, and a whole boat-load (literally!) of animals; everyone else is wiped out and the world starts again with Noah. Well, at the end of the story, something in the text caught my eye. After Noah leaves the ark, God proclaims, "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done" (Gen. 8:21). Phew! Thank goodness, right? That's it for devastating floods that wipe out life on earth. We're saved!!

Ah, but don't forget: "Be careful what you wish for..." It's true that God won't ever destroy all life on earth, but that also means that if we descend into lawlessness, we're on our own! Look at the above verse again: "since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth." God is reminding us that even though we still have the capacity for the kind of pre-flood evil we had previously perpetrated (think Nazism, genocide, etc.), God won't intervene. It is now up to us to save the planet, or in the words of Gandhi, it is up to us to be the change we wish to see in this world.

In fact, we even learn this in the very next scene in our Torah portion. Noah leaves the ark, plants a vineyard, and promptly gets himself drunk as his first act of new life on earth. A proud moment for
humankind... Avivah Zornberg, a phenomenal Torah commentator, writes about how Noah is actually a second Adam. She points to several interpretations that suggest the "fruit" Adam and Eve sinned with was actually grapes; and that Noah "proceeds to make exactly the same mistakes that the first Adam made." This time, however, God says nothing. God does not intervene. The repercussions for our actions are now in our own hands.

It sounds ominous, I know. But it doesn't have to be all that bad. Just like our creepy expression at the start of this post, the answer is not that we should stop wishing. We just have to be more careful; realize that everything in life involves cause and effect, as well as advantages and disadvantages. Sure, we're on our own, and God won't rescue us if we mess up the planet. But this also represents the birth of free will, one of our most prized possessions as human beings. God is actually giving us an unbelievable gift; the ability to mature, to learn from our mistakes, and to strive, together, to make this world a little bit better. Is it scary? Yes, I would have to say so. Daunting? For sure. But it's also exhilarating, because it is truly the chance of a lifetime. So who needs God to wipe the slate clean?? We've got all the tools we need right here to do it ourselves. So let's move beyond wishing, and let's get to work!
Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Guitarwarlord on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of Ken's Oven on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of
U.S. Embassy New Delhi on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of ideacreamanuelaPps on Flickr

5. CC image courtesy of flattop341 on Flickr