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