Thursday, November 29, 2012

Vayishlach: A Precious, Tough Conversation

How do we prepare for a worst-case scenario? It's very hard, sometimes unimaginable, to picture how we might respond to a
disaster or a tragedy. This question comes up in our Torah portion, but it is also very present all around us today. Our region, thank God, was overwhelmingly spared the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. But how did people, living along the coast, prepare for it? How did they make the tough decisions about what to bring and what to leave behind? This is not just a Biblical question, or an ancient one, but a question many of us are forced to ask right now, in our own lives, and at a moment's notice.

Recently I was reading a D'var Torah by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, in which she addresses the challenge of explaining the current conflict in Israel to her young children. As delicately as possible, she speaks of fighting and rockets, and when her children inevitably ask her, "Are rockets going to fall here?," 
she remarks to us, the readers, "I thought of my cousins and friends in Israel who aren't able to offer their children... an unequivocal reassurance of their safety." What a poignant, yet terrifying, observation! How would I answer my child if indeed we were living in harm's way? What an impossible conversation to have to have; yet at this very moment, on both sides of the divide, parents are forced to reassure children without any real certainty behind their promises.

This week, we read about our ancestor Jacob, preparing for the possibility that his brother, Esau, is bringing an army to kill him. I've often written about Jacob's three strategies of preparation: 
1) Sending gifts to placate his brother, 2) Praying to God for help, and 3) Dividing his camp in half so that some will escape, should disaster strike the others. But I've never before imagined Jacob's conversation with his wives and children, as he tries to explain to them why they're fleeing. What did he say? What COULD he say? Did he lie and reassure them, all the while knowing they might be in grave danger, or did he try to explain, delicately, what was really going on? Either way, how painful for a parent to have to address such things with small children.

We don't like to think about these questions. One of the Bible's most brilliant tactics is to force us to engage with questions that are SO crucial, but which we often try our hardest to neglect. What would you say, if you were Jacob? Or living in rocket-range in Israel, or leaving your coastal home before an oncoming storm? And what are
the items, mementos, and trinkets that are invaluable, that could never be replaced in your life? We should really use every moment, EVERY opportunity to remind ourselves what matters most. It may help us in a moment of panic and confusion, but it will also teach us gratitude and tremendous appreciation for what we have. Ask yourself the tough questions today. It may save your life someday, but it will also remind you to love life right now. A small price to pay for a tough conversation.

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy
david_shankbone on Flickr

2.CC image courtesy of jurvetson
on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of
asenat29 on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Schmeegan on Flickr 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Vayeitzei: Thanks for Praying!

There are basically three types or prayer. Judaism says so, and in her book, 'Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers,' Anne Lamott not only agrees, she sums them each up beautifully into a single word. What she calls 'Help,' Judaism
would call 'bakashot,' or 'requests.' What she calls 'Thanks,' is basically the same thing in Hebrew, what the rabbis called 'todot.' And Lamotts wonderful term 'Wow' is 'hoda'ot' in Hebrew, meaning 'praises.' Now you might ask, so which is the most important? Or which should come first? I think each one offers an access point to God, and to our inner selves, and each one has value and merit. But this week, leading into Thanksgiving, I'd like to spend a little time talking about gratitude.

This week's Torah portion might inspire you to think a bit more about giving thanks. However, it wouldn't be because there was SO MUCH of it in our parashah, quite the contrary. Despite the plethora
of prayers and pray-ers in the Torah reading, there are two things that are especially lacking: Gratitude and Happiness. Jacob asks God for help and guidance, bakashot, and both Leah and Rachel sing praise to God with many hoda'ot. Yet the tone of everyone's prayer is self-interest, jealousy, competition, and righteous indignation. We read about love and hate, friendship and rivalry, and through it all, no one seems to feel joy or happiness... and perhaps it's directly linked to the equal absence of gratitude.

In a recent New York Times article, entitled 'A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day,' John Tierney writes about research that shows how increased gratitude in our lives may lead to 'better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others."
It's a fabulous article meant to help you navigate the 'challenges' of the holiday of Thanksgiving, but it's also an opportunity to take stock of your entire life, to really think about how much gratitude you feel or express on a daily or weekly basis. Sometimes we imagine that the keys to healthier, better living involve monumental shifts in how we live our lives. But what if it really could be something as simple as saying 'Thank You' once or twice more each day? I encourage you to read the NY Times article and maybe even print it out and bring to your Thanksgiving table. Couldn't be worse than talking politics post-election with your crazy relatives, could it?

The story of Jacob and his family highlights another essential lesson.
I don't think it's saying that Thanksgiving is MORE important, it's instead reminding us that we need all three forms of prayer together. And when I speak of 'prayer,' I don't even necessarily mean a directional, God-focused benediction. If, for example, you don't believe in God, your prayer might look different. These three words, Help, Thanks, and Wow, teach us to acknowledge that life is about more than just me, my needs, and right now. And we need all three of them to see that. Food for thought on this holiday season, wouldn't you say?

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy *dans on Flickr

2.CC image courtesy of 2Shutter on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of ConstructionDealMkting on Flickr

4. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPad. Handwriting unknown (unless you think it looks nice, then it was me...)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tol'dot: Bless Me Too!

I watch a lot of TV. Surprising, I know. When do I find the time? I'm not always sure, to tell you the truth, but I'll tell you three magic words that make it possible: 'DVR' and 'On Demand.' One of my
favorite series right now is Boardwalk Empire on HBO. It's a show about bootlegging gangsters in the 1920's, primarily centering on one main character, Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson in Atlantic City (thus the 'boardwalk' from the title). In last week's episode, Nucky's wife - who knew he was a gangster, but never really saw him at his most vicious - finally sees him in a particularly vindictive and violent mood. In an effort to explain himself, Nucky says to her, "There is no walking away. I do it to them or they do it to me. That's how this works." What a chilling statement about life; whether you're talking about the 1920's mob world, the 2012 ad campaign wars, or the rapidly escalating conflict (again) in the Middle East.

Sometimes it seems as though this is the only way we know how to interact. Any tactic I resort to - any underhanded, morally-questionable ploy - is permitted because 'the other guy' would do the same thing. No one rises above,
no one tries to change the narrative or the dialogue, and everyone expects 'someone else' to make the first move. We'd like to think it's limited to terrorists, gangsters, and politicians (does it bother anyone else that the three of them go together so easily?), but what about cyber bullying or the way we let politics ruin our relationships? In fact, we've used this type of reasoning to justify our bad behavior for millennia, and this week's Torah reading provides a prime example.

We are introduced, in parashat Tol'dot, to Isaac's and Rebecca's two sons, Jacob and Esau. Just four verses after announcing the birth of these twins, the Torah already tells us that Isaac favored Esau and Rebecca favored Jacob; family tension and strife are born along with the two boys. The main story of our Torah portion is the blessing
given from father to son. Isaac wants to bestow it on Esau; Rebecca masterminds Jacob's interception of the blessing. And we see here the same mentality at work: 'I do it to them or they do it to me.' One parent acts irresponsibly, so the other one feels justified to respond in kind. And who wins? Isaac is distraught, as is Esau. Jacob is forced to flee for his life, and Rebecca loses her son. No one wins at all. Two wrongs never make a right, and in fact we're all worse off for having tried to make that faulty math add up.

We must all instead ask ourselves the very same question that Esau cries it to his father, painfully forlorn: "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!" Could it possibly be true that there is only one blessing out there, that we're all fighting for some singular, ultimate prize? When we win elections, does that mean that the voice of the other is insignificant,
inconsequential? And when a terrorist drops a bomb on our brethren, does that mean that the women on children on his side of the border are just as guilty? No, these things are all wrong. There ARE many blessings and many truths in the world, and when we hide behind translucent justifications of our immoral actions, everyone loses. What is your 'one blessing'? Where do you restrict others access to their own truths and their own perspectives, and how can you instead work to reverse that trend? Let us learn from the tragedy of Esau, and seek to bring more blessing and compromise to the world. That's how this SHOULD work, and how we can begin to MAKE it work starting right now.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Play Nice on Flickr.

2. CC image courtesy of Miss Blackflag on Flickr.

3. CC image courtesy of Dylan231 on Flickr.

4. CC image courtesy of psd on Flickr.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Chayei Sarah: ... Because It's Your Story Too.

I was chatting with someone from Ohev recently, and he made a fascinating observation about Abraham, though it really applies to everyone we read about in Genesis. If we didn't already KNOW Abraham was special, if he hadn't already been identified for us as our great ancestor, would we see it
in the text? If you could somehow remove everything you know about the Judeo-Christian tradition, and about Abraham as the ancestor of all of monotheism, would these stories impress you AT ALL? Not only is the subject matter often somewhat mundane, but if you didn't read the text TRYING to see Abraham as an awesome, unwavering, religious, upright, and all-around stupendous fellow, you might accidentally notice how flawed, afraid, and imperfect he really is. So why do we keep reading these stories, and why do we do so with such rose-colored glasses?

Don't get me wrong, sometimes the Torah is fabulously well-written. The drama between Jacob and Esau, the confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh; the Torah is full of terrific plot lines and good ol' fashioned storytelling. But it's also really boring at times, and it's
heroes can be remarkably unsympathetic. Nearly every, single Biblical protagonist is also flawed, and we have to look past his or her errors in judgment and behavior to continue rooting for him/her. Yet perhaps it is reminding us that we don't get to choose our family members OR our ancestors. We love them and we read their stories, not because they're inherently fabulous, but because they're OUR stories. And no matter how much we might wish that our relatives would be the greatest relatives in the history of humanity - that they'd be perfect and noble and innocent - ultimately, they're just people. 

The part that amazes me the most is how disappointed we are to hear that. For some reason, we WANT to think that Abraham, Moses, Rachel, and Miriam were perfect. I don't really understand it,
because WE are not perfect, and setting ourselves up to try and emulate perfection is almost guaranteed to end in disappointment and frustration. Wouldn't it make them more relatable and inspirational if they OVERCAME their flaws and shortcomings to achieve greatness anyway? We do the same thing with our athletes, movie stars, and politicians; we insist that they be immaculate, and we are shocked and horrified when they act just like us. Why do we set ourselves up for such failure?

I agree with my friend's earlier assertion, that we might not have thought too much of the Abraham story if we didn't know he was destined for greatness. But we do know. We know that Abraham is our ancestor, and we know that his story is important to us. 
So read this story with your eyes wide open. He's a regular guy from meager beginnings, with a lot of doubts and insecurities. But he made a great name for himself and he has become a symbol of so much more than just the few, short stories about his life that we read in the Torah. And his descendants did the same thing for themselves. And so can you.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of derekGavey on Flickr.

2. CC image courtesy of viralbus on Flickr.

3. CC image courtesy of nineball2727 on Flickr.

4. CC image courtesy of mikelao26 on Flickr.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Vayeira: You Already Love This Blog Post

I love big, fancy words - especially ones related to Biblical scholarship. I don't know what it is about them, I just think they're terrific. Did you know, for instance, that a word that appears only once in the
entire Torah is called a 'Hapax Legomenon'? Now how could you NOT love a term like that?? Or the 'official' designation for God's holiest Name, the granddaddy of all God's titles - the one we pronounce 'Adonai' - which is 'Tetragrammaton.' Try sneaking that one into a cocktail party conversation... This week, I'd like to discuss another one with you, though you may already be familiar with it from other areas of literary scholarship. And it's one I've already (cunningly) employed in this first paragraph...

In the JTS commentary on our Torah portion, Vayera, one of my former Bible professors, David Marcus, writes about prolepsis. He defines prolepsis simply as 'anticipation,' or what movie-goers might know as 'foreshadowing.' Dr. Marcus gives us two versions of how this rhetorical device is employed in the Biblical narrative, and I'd like to briefly talk about both. 
When the Torah gives us information that it unknown to the characters themselves, that is one kind of prolepsis. For example, in Vayera the story of the Binding of Isaac is introduced with the phrase, "Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test" (Genesis, 22:1). Right away, we know that this ordeal is 'a test,' and it assures us that all will end well. It instead becomes a thrilling story, as we follow Abraham up the mountain, watch him tie up his son, then bite our nails as he raises the knife in the air... and an angel stops him at the last minute. Incredibly dramatic stuff, to be sure, but all the while we, the readers, can rest easy knowing it's only a test. Thank you very much, prolepsis!

Another example of this technique is the use of seemingly unimportant details in one story, which will then later reappear elsewhere with greater purpose. For example, why did I refer to Adonai as the 'granddaddy' of Names at the start of this blog post? 
A peculiar choice of idiom, no? Or is it... When we are first introduced to Abram - whose name is later changed to Abraham - we might also be wondering why he has a name meaning 'Great Father.' It seems almost cruel, considering that he is child-less. But the name, of course, bears great significance, because he does indeed become the father of all monotheistic religions later on. However, the name is even more complex still. What kind of a 'Great Father' agrees to sacrifice his child? How are we meant to feel about his name while reading this terrible story about the near-sacrifice of Isaac? It seemed so innocent before, but now the name holds great tension for Abraham, for Sarah, certainly for Isaac, and for all of us as well.

At the end of his Torah commentary, Dr. Marcus shares a fabulous insight about prolepsis: "Too often we worry about the future, and about what can go wrong in our personal and professional lives... Instead of worrying about these matters, we might be well advised to adopt a proleptic technique. 
Let us envision success in our endeavors." Before starting a big business presentation, visualize being congratulated for 'nailing it.' Before swinging a golf club, picture the ball already in the hole. And hey, maybe when you place a vote in a ballot box, you can already picture your candidate delivering the acceptance speech! Prolepsis allows us to feel calm, because we already know things will end well. Why worry about failing when you've pictured yourself succeeding? Changing your outlook CAN transform your experience. All you've got to do is envision a positive end-result. I know you can do it, Daddy-O!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of on Flickr.

2. CC image courtesy of DaveBleasdale on Flickr.

3. CC image courtesy of carulmare on Flickr.

4. CC image courtesy of FutUndBeidl on Flickr.