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