Thursday, December 18, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Miketz - Credit where credit is due

Once again we are entering into awards season with Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys and a whole variety of other awards to be handed out to celebrities.  We’ll discuss the nominations process and then on the night we’ll watch as Hollywood awards its best and brightest with their gift of a statuette to take home.  But one of the things we’ll most look forward to are the acceptance speeches when the celebrities stand on stage and give thanks to all of the people who helped them get to that place they have aspired to reach.  We’ll listen out to see who’s missed and who’s included.  And, see that they give credit where credit is due.

In the case of the actors, they nearly always thank the director or the producers of the movie and similarly the directors are always thanking the actors for making them look good.  People are very conscious of thanking the people who helped them get to the place where they’re finally standing. 

And in this week’s Torah portion, as Joseph is rushed to see Pharaoh to interpret his dream, we might remember the arrogant boy of previous verses who boasted to his brothers and father that they would one day bow down to him and seemed to rub his brother’s noses in the fact that he was his father’s favorite.  And, yet when Pharaoh calls Joseph to him and says “I have a dream that no one else can interpret and I would like you to tell me its meaning”, Joseph says to Pharaoh,” I don’t interpret dreams, God will see to Pharaoh's welfare.” 

Something happened to Joseph in the period of time from his sale into slavery to this moment that he stands before Pharaoh which allowed this young man to grow up and realize that it was God working through him and that credit needed to be given to God.  And when Pharaoh explains to him the dream, Joseph says to Pharaoh “Pharaoh's dreams are really one and the same, God has told Pharaoh what God is about to do.” And then it continues “God has revealed to Pharaoh what God is about to do”.

In the interpretation, Joseph makes reference to God again and again and again.  This is no longer the arrogant young boy taking credit for everything, even the things he was not responsible for.  This is now a mature young man who recognizes that it is through the gift of God that he is able to stand before Pharaoh and offer interpretation for his dream and through the gift of God that he even has the ability to understand the dreams that Pharaoh had.

We see in Joseph the importance of giving credit where credit is due.  And when Pharaoh ultimately makes the decision to place Joseph as the leader of all Egypt to help them through the seven years of plenty and then the seven years of famine, I wonder, if part of that decision related to the fact that he saw, in Joseph, someone who was prepared to stand before the Pharaoh and not take all the credit for himself, but attribute that credit and that blessing to God.  In that moment, we, as the reader also see just how much Joseph has grown up.  And how he is ready for the next stage of his life.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayeishev - The Nearly Man

Our Torah is filled with wonderful stories of heroes, villains and larger than life characters.  We can all think about who our favorite biblical figure might be and what they did and who might be the biblical figure we least like and in the midst of all of these stories and personalities we get Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son. 

In this week’s Torah portion, he comes ever so close to being the hero but falls just short, and then gets consigned to second class status behind Judah and Joseph.  

When Joseph’s brothers see him approaching they immediately make plans to kill him, they plot that they will kill him and then throw him into a pit and then blame it on a savage beast.  But Reuben, hearing this, decides to try and save his brother’s life and says to them “let us not take his life”.  And tells them not to shed any blood and instead urges them to just throw him into a pit in the wilderness.  With his intention being to save him later on and restore him to their father Jacob.  

The problem is that Reuben appears to disappear from the story as the brothers sit down for a meal, with Joseph in the pit, they see a caravan of Ishmaelites coming and then Judah steps forward and says, why kill him, we might as well gain something by this, by selling him.  And, so they decide together to sell him to the Ishmaelites, selling Joseph, their own brother, into a life of slavery.  

And then we read of Reuben, returning to the pit and finding that Joseph was not there.  He tears his clothes in anguish, asking what will he do.  Taking personal responsibility for the fact that his brother has been sold. 

Reuben came so close to saving his brother, but he hesitated.  Instead of doing the right thing immediately, he put it off.  While his intentions were good throughout the story, his hesitation allowed for events to transpire beyond his control and for Joseph to be sold into slavery.  Reuben is a reminder that we shouldn’t put off till tomorrow what can be done today.  Especially when it’s doing the right thing.

Ben Azai in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Ancestors, said – run to perform even a minor Mitzvah.  He understood that when we need to do the right thing, no matter how small that thing is, we need to try and do it immediately, because in those moments of hesitation, the opportunity may be lost.  As the story of the brothers continues, the focus shifts to Joseph and Judah.  Reuben is relegated and consigned to a secondary status.  As the Nearly Man, he missed his chance.  We can learn from his mistakes and insure that we never wait to do the right thing, acting immediately.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayeitze - The Religious If

The joke is told about the New York man driving around desperately seeking a parking place.  He can’t find one, and so in desperation, he says, "Oh God I pray that you give me a parking space, If you give me a parking space then I promise to go to synagogue every Shabbat, I promise to give more money to tzedakah and I promise to be more observant of mitzvot."  At that moment in front of him a parking space opens up and the man says "Oh never mind God I found one." 

In our lives we often engage with this “If”.  If this happens, then I will do such and such.  We set up the negotiation, the exchange between ourselves and God or between ourselves and the fates of the universe, imagining that that gives us some element of control.

In this week’s Torah Portion, we get a very strange parallel moment of “If”.  

Jacob, having left Be'ersheva on his way to Haran, has an amazing dream, he dreams that he’s by a stairway leading up to heaven where he sees angels going up and coming down. Then God speaks to Jacob and introduces Godself as the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac, informing Jacob of the fact that the land on which he is sleeping is holy ground; promising Jacob that God will be with his descendants, that they will receive the land upon which he is sleeping as an inheritance; essentially entering Jacob into the patriarchal promise.  

In the morning when Jacob awakes he is in no doubt about the significance of the dream and the awesomeness of  the place. And he sets up a pillar as a dedication to God, naming the place Beth El.  However, Jacob then continues by saying "If, God remains with me, If God protects me on the journey that I’m taking and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear and If I return safely to my father’s house, then Adonai shall be God and this stone which I establish as a pillar shall be God’s abode."  

After all that Jacob has just seen in that dream, after all of the promises which God gave to Jacob, Jacob feels the need to make a vow beginning with “If”.  There is the “If” of uncertainty, the “If” of doubt, and possibly even the “If” of fear as to what lies ahead for Jacob.  And so in trying to regain some control even in this moment after all that he has seen, Jacob says “If”. 

We often use the word “If” without all the signs and wonders presented to Jacob.  And we do it for similar reasons, because we seek to regain that sense of control.  But when we use the religious “If” we lose sight of the fact that so much of our life is based, not around certainty and control , but is instead based around faith.  It is hard to give up control and put our faith in God, but if we can do it, our lives would be so much richer.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Toldot - Frozen Relationships

Right now, my daughter Gabby is obsessed with the movie Frozen.  This means that I end up watching some, or all, of the movie, on average, once a day, as she demands to watch Frozen from the moment she wakes up until virtually the moment that she goes to sleep at night.  Thankfully, it is a very good movie with some wonderful music in it, but I do find one element of the story frustrating.  The story seems to gloss over the fact that Anna and Elsa's childhood relationship is broken completely by the advice of the trolls and the way that their parents interpret it.  For much of the movie, the sisterly relationship is broken, due to a lack of contact and communication between the two of them. 

I wonder if we can draw some parallels with this week’s Torah portion, and the relationship of Esau and Jacob.  From the very beginning of this week’s Torah, it is clear that there is to be a struggle between the two brothers.  When Rebecca goes to God and asks about all of the struggling in her womb, she is told that there will be two nations, two separate peoples, one shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.  From the very beginning Rebecca  therefore knows that according to God’s decree, Esau will serve Jacob.  And yet, she appears to let the two of them go about their business and Isaac, especially, to go about his business, without sharing this vital piece of information.  We know that Esau sells Jacob his birthright for a bowl of soup and we know that later on in the story, Isaac decides to give his blessing to Esau, and Rebecca, overhearing this, tells Jacob to go in and lie to his father and pretend to be his brother Esau.  Rebecca may have been right that Jacob was supposed to be the one to inherit the blessing.  And she may have been correct that Jacob was the one who would continue the birthright given to Abraham and Isaac. 

But the way she went about this, the way that she set Jacob up against Esau, lying to their father, breaks the sibling relationship.  The brotherly relationship is broken by the actions of Rebecca, who chooses a path of deception, rather than honesty in broaching the difficult subject over who would receive the birthright.  In the aftermath of this incident , the brotherly relationship is broken and Jacob and Esau do not see each other  for over 20 years.  When finally they are reunited in the Torah, they embrace one another and it is clear that the love that these brothers shared is still there.  But it is sad for us, as the reader, to observe the way that their relationship was frozen.  The way that it is broken by the action of their parents.

There is a similar cautious tale in Frozen but I don’t want to spoil that movie for you.  To us, as we read about the separation and break in the relationship between Esau and Jacob, perhaps we can be inspired to pick up the phone and thaw a once frozen relationship, learning the lesson of these two brothers.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Chayeh Sarah - What's in our control?

The popular serenity prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Neiber says, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."  This prayer has become popular in American society because I think many of us feel that need to distinguish between those things which are within our control and those things which are outside of our control. 

We might still worry about those things which are outside of our control, but at least we’ll recognize the fact that we can’t do anything about that.  And, maybe then we’ll focus our efforts on those things that we can influence and change.  

In this week’s Torah portion, we get a sense of the serenity prayer in the oath sworn by Abraham’s servant.  Abraham tells the senior servant of his household that he should go back to Abraham’s birthplace and find a wife for Isaac.  The servant appears concerned that the woman might not want to follow him back and therefore asks, "and if she doesn’t come, should I bring Isaac back to your homeland?"  Abraham makes it clear that under no circumstances is Isaac to return to his homeland and instead says to the servant , "If, she refuses to come back with you, then you are free from the oath which you have sworn."

I imagine, that when the servant set out on his quest, he must have felt secure in the knowledge that he had only sworn over those things which he was responsible for.  If the woman he found refused to accompany him back, he would be free from his promise because that was something beyond his control. 

As we continue with the story, we see that Rebecca really is the one who decides whether she should or should not return.  Thankfully, for us, she chooses to accompany the servant back to Isaac to become his wife and one of our matriarchs.  There is a moment of uncertainty when the servant must have felt secure in the knowledge that whatever Rebecca decided he would be able to go back to Abraham either having fulfilled his promise or having been absolved of it. 

We often make promises over which we have no control, as the famous quote says "Promises are like babies, easy to make, hard to deliver."  As with all areas of our life, it is important to recognize what we have control over and what is beyond our control. 

Abraham and his servant were able to distinguish between the two and so the oath sworn by Abraham’s servant was both appropriate and deliverable and completely within his control.  May we have the power in our lives to distinguish between those things that we have control over and those things which we don’t.  And, when we make promises,  may we be careful to only promise those things over which we have control and that we can deliver.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayera - Bargaining with God

Whenever I go to the shouk , the market in Jerusalem, I always get very nervous.  My nerves come from the fact that I know that I really should be prepared to negotiate to get the best price possible with some of the market’s stall holders, but I hate to negotiate.  I get really nervous when I have to start bargaining with these people because I don’t want to cause offense by offering too low a price, but at the same time, I don’t want to be taken for a ride and pay too high a price.  Ultimately I’m convinced that I never get a good deal when I’m in the market and I always leave that bit disappointed with how things went.  And yet, each and every trip, I keep returning. 

The market is a place where we’re expected to negotiate and bargain.  We don’t often think about negotiating or bargaining with God because after all who would have the nerve to stand before God and dare to negotiate or bargain with God.  And, yet, in this week’s Torah portion, that is exactly what Abraham does.  Standing up to God and negotiating. 

God decides that God has to tell Abraham about what is intended for Sodom and Gomorrah .  The fact that God intends to destroy these evil, wicked cities, and Abraham, in front of God says, will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  And, then Abraham asks, what if there are 50 innocent people in the city.  Surely then you should spare the city for those 50 and God agrees.  And, then Abraham goes from 50 and says what if there are 45? And God agrees.  And then he says, what if there were 40?  Moving to 30, to 20, till eventually Abraham and God agree that if there are 10 righteous people in the city they will be spared. 

Of course we know that there were not 10 righteous people and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.  And, yet we have this wonderful story where Abraham has the audacity to negotiate with God.   And Abraham is a successful negotiator, getting God down to 10 righteous people in the city.

We might wonder how Abraham dared to do this, how Abraham had the chutzpah to stand before God.  And, yet only last week, God said to Abraham, you shall be a blessing and through you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.  Clearly Abraham took this call very seriously and recognized that part of being a blessing meant standing up before God and challenging God with the hope of sparing the righteous who lived in Sodom and Gomorrah.

In this negotiation, Abraham stands as a wonderful example of how we must always be willing to do the right thing, even if that sometimes means bargaining with God.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Lech Lecha - Be the Blessing

What do you want to be when you grow up?  This is a question that we often ask our children.  But in reality, when we ask them this question, we’re not really asking what do you want to be, we’re more accurately asking, what do you want to do.  We expect them to answer,  film star, astronaut, sports player, maybe even rabbi.  Because we’re asking about what profession, what job do they aspire toward in their future. 

The question of being, is a much deeper question, a much harder question to answer.  What do we want to be, that’s a question that can be answered by an emotion. I want to be happy.  Or, in the case of the Jewish people in Abraham’s call of Lech Lecha perhaps the answer is, to be a blessing.

This week, as Abraham is called by God to Lech Lecha to go out on the journey, God says to Abraham, I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those that curse you and through you shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.  In this way, from the very beginning, our story is about being a blessing. 

God tells Abraham what he will be, but at the same time, one can almost hear this as a challenge.  The challenge placed before Abraham and Sarah is to be a blessing.  To live their life in a way that blessing emanates from them.  Blessings for those closest to them, blessings for their families, blessing for the stranger and even blessings for the world as a whole. 

Abraham and Sarah, and by extension, each one of us, is challenged to be a blessing in the world.  As Jews, when we’re asked what do we want to be when we grow up, one of our answers should be, to be a blessing.  This means that we have to be conscious of whether, through the way that we behave,  through the way that we live our life, through the words that we speak, do we bring blessing, or do we bring pain and suffering into this world.

It is not necessarily easy to be a blessing, but this is what being Jewish is all about.  About spreading the blessing that we receive from God to everyone on the earth.  Ultimately as God says to Abraham, all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you, or through you.  We are to be that conduit of blessing for this whole planet.  It’s a heavy responsibility which Abraham accepted on our behalf all those years ago.  And, yet, there’s something so wonderful about the challenge placed before us. 

Can each one of us live our lives so that we truly are the heirs to Abraham and Sarah?  So that each one of us is truly a blessing.