Friday, November 20, 2015

Va-Yeitzei: What Bleaching Can Teach

As you've probably figured out about me by now, I love names in the Torah. The Bible uses names for humor, poignant lessons, social critique, sarcasm, and backhanded 
insults. And perhaps all of these features are on display in this week's Torah portion; in our antagonist, our adversary, the "bad guy" of our parashah, Laban. To set the stage: Jacob has fled from his home, where his brother, Esau, threatened to kill him. He seeks refuge with his uncle, Laban, because family is always there to protect and care for us, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, as you may know, Jacob spends a couple of tough decades with Laban. He works for seven years in order to marry one daughter, but is tricked into marrying the other. He must then start working seven MORE years for daughter #2. Time and again, Laban changes his wages, cheats him, and basically tries to keep him as an 
indentured servant for as long as possible. When Jacob finally does break free, and literally flees with his family in the night, Laban chases him down and accuses him of stealing. When he can't prove Jacob's guilt, he begrudgingly lets him go, but not before declaring, "The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine!" (Gen. 31:43) Laban is greedy, manipulative, power-hungry, domineering, and aggressive... which is why it is terrific that his name, Laban," comes from the Hebrew root "L,V,N," meaning "white," "pure," or even "kind." Perfect, don't you think?

On one level, we can view this as sarcasm. Laban was clearly anything BUT "pure"! This same word can even mean "to clarify," which again seems almost comical, considering what a charlatan and scoundrel he was. But, as we know, the Torah also operates on many levels. 
Laban, "whitey," might be a Biblical joke, but the character also likes to present himself as honest and upstanding; he likes to "bleach" his reputation, and "whitewash" all his actions. Even in English, you can see how the word can mean many things, and often evokes several sentiments at the same time. Laban surely perceived HIMSELF as pure, and probably even wore his name with pride... even as he acted dastardly at every turn. It's a good reminder to us all, that everyone is the protagonist in their own story. We sometimes cannot imagine why someone acts the way s/he does, and believe it MUST BE for nefarious reasons. Yet most of the time, in their own minds, they are the good guy, standing up for some value or principle that no one else will protect.

As we go deeper still into the text, we also realize that Jacob learned a lot from Laban. Not all good things, perhaps, but he became a stronger, more resilient, tougher person, in part because he was forced to "survive" living with Laban. Many times, we look at our own lives and lament all the trials and tribulations we've endured; only to realize they actually taught us SO much. Good things come from our struggles, 
even when those silver linings are VERY hard to spot in the moment. I wonder if, despite everything, Jacob could still bless his decades with Laban, and feel gratitude for all he gained; not the least of which were wives, children, livestock, and wealth. The word "Lavan" can ALSO mean "to make bricks," oddly enough. Laban was an entrepreneur, a builder, a doer! These qualities too were passed on to Jacob, and so Laban DID, on some level, "build up" Jacob as a person as well. Our ancient rabbis teach us: "Who is wise? One who learns from all people." The key word here is "all." It's easy to learn from people we trust, or love, or respect. But even the "Labans" in our lives have something to impart. That doesn't mean we have to believe all their "bleached" stories; just look for the "bricks" hiding under the surface. Add them to YOUR story and be built up by them. It may give you more "clarity" than you could have possibly imagined.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Eviatar Bach on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Adina Firestone on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Tasja on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 13, 2015

Tol'dot: Love is Not a Commodity

"In truth, the whole Book of Genesis is the story of the disastrous consequences of treating love like a zero-sum game." 

I read the above quote in a Torah commentary by Rabbi Adam Greenwald of the Ziegler Rabbinical School in California. 
I was really struck by this categorization of Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, and of course, I agree. Starting with Cain and Abel, and continuing through Joseph's relationship with his two sons, we indeed see that the Torah depicts love as a finite resource. Each person only has so much love, blessing, favor, and kindness to give, and once it's used up, it is gone. How can that be? What does the Torah mean by describing it this way, and how does Bereishit help shape how you and I view love today?

Our parashah this week, Tol'dot, is a prime example of the zero-sum game. Two parents, two children; each parent picks one kid to love, and Isaac, the father, has but one blessing to give to ONE son. The story is told so compellingly that we are tempted to argue over who is right and who is wrong. We pick sides. We defend. 
And yet the saddest thing of all in this story is the heartbreaking premise that love is a shrinking commodity. We somehow accept that Isaac can love EITHER Esau OR Jacob, but clearly not both. Sure, many parents today will admit that they gravitate towards one child over another (or others). Yet surely ALL parents will also insist that when a second child is born, the heart seems to grow and develop new reservoirs of love, seemingly out of nowhere. Our ability to care is limitless; there is no maximum capacity. Furthermore, deepening one relationship can actually BENEFIT another, it does not detract. The incredible writer, Dan Savage, rails against the notion that it's selfish to spend time with a spouse, instead of devoting all time to one's children. Time and again, Savage says in his podcast (and I'm paraphrasing): "It is in your child's best interest to keep the two of you connected!" More love benefits everyone.

While this may sound so obvious, it is nevertheless difficult to implement. Rabbi Greenwald quotes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who, in his book Honey from the Rock, reinforces this same idea: 
"Is this not the great childhood problem-- and therefore the great human problem: To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you? That I have a stake in their love? That I get more when others give to others?" In my High Holiday sermons earlier this year, I focused on the concept of "Ahavah" - "Love," and how challenging it ACTUALLY is to bring more love into our lives. This is a great human problem. We do not feel that we have a stake in others' relationships, or that it benefits us generally when there is greater compassion, kindness, and care swirling around us. As hard as this is to learn, it behooves us all to make it a greater priority.

Bereishit, and it's emphasis on the zero-sum fallacy, demonstrates how damaging it can be to trivialize love. It has long-term repercussions and can be incredibly traumatizing. Isaac's treatment of his sons leads to Jacob's favoritism of Joseph. Joseph treats his own children the same way, and the cycle perpetuates generation after generation, l'Dor va'Dor. But we CAN change it, 
we can alter the way we view love and relationships. But it must happen deliberately; no one is going to accidentally trip over a new style of parenting, or chance upon a new way of thinking about love. It takes hard work, and we're likely to fall back into old patterns, time and again. Nevertheless, this is an essential struggle. We owe it to our children, to our spouses, and to everyone we relate to on a daily basis. Love is decidedly NOT a zero-sum game, and I encourage you to examine ways in which you might still be treating it that way in your own life. And if indeed you are able to discover how you've been viewing it that way, I urge you to push yourself towards change. With Chanukah around the corner, we can borrow the image of candle lighting as a metaphor for love. When more is added, light and warmth are increased, and the original candle is in no way diminished. So too it is with Ahavah.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Daniel Case on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Nevit on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Kulshrax on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Slick on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 6, 2015

Chayei Sarah: Remembering Rabin, Between Abraham and King David

Our ancient rabbis offer us lessons from the Torah in SO many different ways! Not content to just TELL us what they want us to know, they often employ clever, intricate, sometimes even sneaky ways to get 
their messages across. As any good teacher really should, don't you think? This week, I want to highlight a rabbinic tactic, related to our Torah portion, that's a little bit different, and which I think is particularly appropriate to Veterans' Day, being observed on Wednesday. I also think it is poignantly relevant to another anniversary, which took place just last week.

Our Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, highlights a shift in generations. First we read about the deaths of Abraham and Sarah, then we begin to learn the stories of their son, Isaac. The parashah ends serenely, informing us that, "Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. 
His sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the cave of Machpelah" (Gen. 25:8-9). Essentially, Abraham lived a good life, and at the end, his sons came together, in peace, to bury their father. A beautiful image... And right here, the rabbis take advantage of the opportunity to teach us something. Every Torah portion is accompanied by a Haftarah, a parallel text from SOMEWHERE else in the Bible, which the rabbis felt was appropriate to read with this particular Torah reading. And to Chayei Sarah the rabbis assign a Haftarah from the First Book of Kings, chapter 1, verses 1-31. It is the story of the death of King David, so on the surface it's a "simple" parallel - the death of one great leader (Abraham), and the death of another, centuries later (David).

David's death, however, is nearly a polar opposite to that of Abraham's. Our Haftarah depicts David's sons fighting for his throne, scheming against one another, and deceiving their father to get what they want. 
Soldiers are enlisted in this battle between siblings, and even though David DOES choose a successor - Solomon - before dying, the reader is left, at the end of the story, anticipating war and continued fighting. All has not been resolved or settled, not by a long shot. And indeed, we can add a layer of interpretation, and say that David, a man of battle with much blood on his hands, dies similarly unresolved and embattled. Subtly (though not even really), the rabbis are making a statement about war and fighting: If you live a life of struggle, your end will be the same. Abraham makes peace, for himself and between his sons, and so he dies content. A strong reminder to us all, to strive to live our lives like Abraham and not like David.

This week, as we observe Veterans' Day and give thanks to all our servicemen and women, we also must remember to constantly strive for greater peace in our world. Though they do what must be done - here, in Israel, and around the world - the long-term (sometimes life-long) impacts on the lives of individual soldiers is irrefutable. 
Just like King David, those who fight in our military today are left with deep scars that cannot be undone. We must do everything we can to help them, through non-profits like the Wounded Warrior Project, but we absolutely must also continue to work tirelessly towards peace. A few days ago, on November 4th, we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin. Rabin was truly a pursuer of peace, who despite a long military career and decades of fighting Israel's enemies, knew that the only true way forward was through peace. On the very night he was assassinated, Rabin was standing on a platform in Tel Aviv, singing a song called "Shir La-Shalom," "A Song of Peace." It includes the line: "Don’t whisper a prayer – sing a song of peace in a loud voice." That night, he was doing just that, and in his (painful) absence, we all must do the same.

Our Torah portion - along with its Haftarah - sets before us a choice: 
live like Abraham or live like David. The memory of Yitzchak Rabin makes it clear just what is at stake. On this Veterans' Day, even as we take care of our soldiers and help them reenter society, let us resolve to make this world a better place, so that some day - God willing - there will no longer be veterans who need our help.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Circuit-fantasist on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of a burial cave in Israel, courtesy of Deror-avi on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Stan Shebs on Wikimedia Commons
5. CC image of Yitzchak Rabin offering a prayer at the Western Wall, courtesy of Matanya on Wikimedia Commons