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.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Noach - Righteous Right Now

I sometimes imagine what it would have been like to have been born at a different time.  In some ways I fantasize that I could have been born in the Chalutzic generation, that generation of pioneers who went out at the beginning of the 20th century and the end of the 19th century to settle the land of Israel. I’d have liked to have been one of those initial kibbutzniks, draining the swamps and building up the land. 

Or, I imagine that I would have been born just a few years later than I was, so that I could have been born as a digital native with the worldwide web already existing and all of that technology already at my fingertips rather than developing as I grew up.  Either way, I was born into the generation in which I was born, and there’s nothing that I can do to change it.

In this week’s Torah portion, as we read about Noah, we’re introduced to him as an ish tzaddik tamim hayah bedorotayv.  He was a righteous man, he was blameless in his generation.  For the rabbis, this led to a great deal of debate as to how righteous, how blameless he really was.  On the one hand, they read this “in his generation” suggesting had Noah been born in another time, he might not have been that special. If Noah was born to a different generation, people wouldn’t have noticed his righteousness.

This leads into the comparison between Noah and Abraham that takes place contrasting these two biblical figures in the way that they behaved.  Ultimately the rabbis seem to conclude that Abraham was the more righteous person and that’s why the covenant of the Jewish people started with him. 

But I think this misses the important point about saying “in his generation”.  Noah was born in a generation which was so bad, so wicked, so evil that God decided to destroy the whole earth, save for Noah.  And, in that generation, he was still worthy of being described as tzaddik righteous and tamim blameless.  Perhaps we should therefore elevate Noah even further, because in the situation in which he found himself, to be righteous and blameless was a very impressive state.

Noah therefore comes as a reminder to each one of us, that it doesn’t matter how we would have behaved had we been born 50 years earlier, or how we would have behaved had we been born 50 years later, we’re born into the context in which we are born and we have to make the best of it, living our lives in a way which can be described as righteous.  We don’t choose when we are born but we choose how we live our lives and what we do with that birth.  In his context, Noah was the one man worthy of saving the world and for that, he was righteous then and we should still consider him righteous today.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Bereishit - God's To Do List

I don’t know about you, but when I have a lot of jobs that need to get done, and I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed, rather than start the work, I like to write a “to do list”.  I’ve always feel that much better once I’ve written down my “to do list” and I can then start crossing things off as I work my way through it. I know of one person who adds "write a to do list" as the first item to ensure at least one thing will be crossed off that day. 

I don’t know that God had a “to do list” ready when beginning the work of creating the world in this week’s Torah portion, but from the structured and ordered way that God works thru everything, one imagines that there was at least a plan that God was following. 

Day one – Let there be Light.  And there was light.  And then the separation of the light into day and the dark into night.

Day two – the separation of the water.

Day three – the creation of the dry land. 

And so on and so forth.  Each day following the specific details of what God needed to create.  Building one upon the other until eventually on the sixth day, God creates us – humanity.

In reading the account of the creation of the world in this week’s Torah portion, it all seems very structured and then in Pirkei Avot (the ethics of our ancestors), they come along and suggest that 10 things were created at the very end just before that first Shabbat.  These include, the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach, the mouth of the world that followed the Israelites through the wilderness, the rainbow that Noah saw.  And, my favorite when it suggests tongs which were used to make the first set of tongs. 

What I love about this Mishnah is that it creates for me this image at the very end of creation, of God rushing around to make sure that these last few things were ready.  For me, the message is, that there are always some jobs that are left to be done.  No matter how ordered and structured the process is, there’s always a little bit more that we can do.  And, I like to think that God didn’t quite finish everything that needed to be done.  There were a few jobs left to be done on the “to do list”. A few things that didn’t get crossed out.  There just wasn’t enough time before that Shabbat to get everything done.  And that’s where we come in.  We were created to be God’s partners in the work of creation.  We were created, so that we might continue the work of God’s creation and perfect this world. 

The incompleteness of the world was intentional.  It was intentional because it gave us a job which we had to do.  As we read about creation in Parashat Bereishit, we might think that everything was done.  The world was created and now we just had to inhabit it.  But that misses the message that we also have a responsibility to this world.  We have a responsibility to continue checking things off God’s “to-do list” to continue the work of creating and perfecting our world.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Sukkot Special

Most of our Jewish festivals have some symbols that we associate with them.  On Sukkot, in many ways, we actually have five.  On the one hand, we have the Sukkah, the temporary dwelling place that we build, reside in, and eat our meals in during the festival; but then we also have the Lulav and Etrog, really the arba'a minim - the four species, which are necessary for the performance of various Mitzvot associated with Sukkot. 

The arba'a minim which consists of the Etrog, the Palm (lulav), the Myrtle (hadas) and the Willow (arava) are shaken around ourselves on each day of the Festival.  It is the part of the festival that always seems to engage the young people as they have the opportunity to shake the Lulav and Etrog in all different directions. 

There are many interpretations of the symbolism of these four species.  Some associate them with parts of the body, others with the elements, but my personal favorite is the one which associates them with different members of the community of Israel. 

The Etrog, the Lulav, the Myrtle and the Willow  are divided by some according to taste and smell.  In this way the Etrog has taste and smell, the Lulav has taste, but no smell, the Myrtle has smell but no taste and the Willow has neither taste nor smell.  This is associated and said to represent, Jews and our wisdom and our good deeds.  Some Jews have wisdom and good deeds, some Jews have wisdom but no good deeds, others have good deeds but no wisdom and some Jews have neither wisdom nor good deeds.

But, to perform the Mitzvah of the Lulav and the Etrog, we have to take all four species together and shake them.  Without each one of these four species the Mitzvah is incomplete.  And, so too, it is with our Jewish community. We all bring various levels of wisdom and good deeds but we are all necessary for the Jewish community to be complete.  From the wisest and the most  righteous to the least wise and the least righteous.  Each one of us needs to be present and involved and engaged for the Jewish people to flourish.

Sukkot, coming on the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippurm can sometimes feel like the poor relation.  The synagogue is packed over the High Holy Days and then there is an inevitable, and unfortunate, drop off into Sukkot.  And, yet, Sukkot is such a joyful festival filled with so much celebration that I often feel that those people who come for just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur really miss out in not joining us to celebrate on Sukkot and as the arba'a minim, the four species remind us we need everyone to be present.

This Sukkot may we open the doors of our Sukkah to welcome all Jews in, whether they are like us or different so that we as a community can be complete