Saturday, December 27, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Vayigash – Family Secrets

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Gen. 44:18 – 47:27), the family secrets that have been going on throughout the story of Joseph come to an end. Joseph’s brothers come to buy food in Egypt and face Pharaoh’s vizier, who they do not recognize as their brother Joseph.  After a series of cat-and-mouse games, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers.  Although he sends the Egyptians out of the room before he does so, he cries so loudly that the whole palace hears him.  The word goes out that Joseph’s brothers have arrived and Pharaoh invites them to go back to Canaan and bring their whole household with them, and he will find them a place to live in the best area in Egypt.  The brothers go back to Canaan to tell Jacob that not only is his son Joseph still alive, but that he had acquired great wealth and power and was second only to the Pharaoh.  All is revealed except one thing; Jacob is left to believe that Joseph was abducted by some unknown group and sold into servitude in Egypt. His sons  do not tell him that it was Joseph’s own brothers who placed him in the pit and argued over whether to kill him or sell him.  
Family secrets sow seeds of pain, guilt, confusion and anger.  In the case of Jacob and his descendants, the end of the long secrecy causes happiness and reconciliation.  But there are some secrets whose revelation would only bring more suffering.  And those secrets are best left untold.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Miketz – Dreams Part II

This week’s Torah portion, Miketz (Genesis 41:1 - 44:17) continues the story of Joseph.  As the parshah begins, the Pharaoh of Egypt has two similar and disturbing dreams.  In the first, he dreams that he was standing by the Nile, and out of the river came seven healthy and comely cows and they grazed in the reeds.  Then, out of the Nile came seven gaunt and ugly cows that ate up the seven healthy cows.  Pharaoh awoke, went back to sleep and dreamed a second dream.  In this dream, seven solid and full ears of corn grew on a single stalk.  Close behind them were seven scorched and thin ears of corn on a single stalk, and the seven thin ears ate up the seven full ears.

Pharaoh called his wise men and magicians but none of them could interpret the dream.  Then, Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered the man he had met in prison who had correctly interpreted his dream and that of the baker.  Pharaoh has Joseph brought from the prison to the palace.  Joseph tells Pharaoh that his two dreams are one and the same.  They foretell that Egypt will have seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine.  The seven years of famine will be so severe that they will blot out the years of abundance.  Joseph offers Pharaoh a solution.  During the seven years of plenty, Pharaoh should appoint an overseer to collect and store food to carry the land through the seven harsh years to come.  Pharaoh immediately appoints Joseph to the task.

The Sfat Emet, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi, sees a spiritual side to this story.  “What can be learned from this parshah to prepare ourselves in good days, days in which holiness is revealed, to set the light in our hearts, to be there in times when holiness seems far off? We must store up resources of faith, even as the Egyptians stored grain, to nourish us spiritually when events turn against us.” 
When things are going well for us and our belief is strong, we need to take note of these precious times.  They will be what sustains us at times when life seems unfair, when loneliness overwhelms us, and when God seems distant.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Vayeshev – Dreams Part I

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, (Gen.  37:1 - 40:23) we meet Joseph.  At age seventeen, Joseph is the cherished son of his aging father Jacob, and a trial to his brothers.  He gives his father bad reports of his brothers, with whom he herds the sheep, and he parades around in his special coat of many colors, a token of his father’s favoritism.  Moreover, he shares his special dreams with his family, seemingly heedless of the effect they will have.  He recounts a dream that he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the fields, and all of their sheaves bowed down before his.  Then he tells of another dream in which the sun, the moon and eleven stars (representing his eleven brothers) bowed down to him.  

Joseph’s brothers go off to tend the sheep in Shechem, and Jacob sends Joseph after them to see how they are faring.  He cannot find them but a man comes upon him and redirects him to Dothan.  There, Joseph’s brothers see him coming and plot to kill him, and tell their father that he was killed by a wild beast.  Instead, they drop him in a pit and a band of Ishmaelites, or Midianites, or both, take him to Egypt to be sold.  In Egypt, Joseph’s troubles really begin.  He becomes a part of the household of Potiphar and rises to prominence there, but Potiphar’s wife tries to bed him and when he refuses, accuses him of rape.  Potiphar has Joseph thrown into jail.  In the jail he meets Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker, who have fallen out of Pharaoh’s favor.  One night, both men have disturbing dreams.  Joseph sees them in the morning, and asks them what is wrong, as they seem distraught.  They tell him that each of them has had a disturbing dream.  Joseph hears the dreams and interprets them, telling the cupbearer that his dream means that he will be restored to his post, and the baker that he would be put to death.  Both of his predictions come true.  What is really remarkable about this incident, though, is how Joseph has matured as a result of his troubles.  As a vain teenager, he did not care enough about his own brothers to measure the effect that telling his dreams would have on them.  Now, his troubles have matured him to the extent that he can look at the faces of others, and see that something is bothering them, and ask what it is.  Joseph will rise to great heights, but it is this trait of empathy, along with his growing reliance on God, which will get him there.     

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

His Hands Hold Miracles

Soon my grandson will celebrate his six-month birthday. Actually that's not quite true. Chances are only his family will celebrate this milestone. Charles, on the other hand, will continue his daily pursuits oblivious of the date and its significance. On that day he will smile and on occasion laugh. He will expend awe-inspiring effort to drag himself a few feet across the floor until he is able to crawl there. And we will, of course, clap our hands at his every accomplishment.
Shortly after his birth a friend asked me if I had processed the fact that I was a grandmother. My response was that I hadn't even processed the fact that I was a mother and thus felt far removed from "getting it" that my daughter was now the mother of a child who was by definition my grandchild.
Life is a lot to take in.
Shortly after his birth, I held my grandson for the first time. A tiny hand grasped my index finger. Since that overwhelmingly powerful moment I've been thinking a lot about hands.
We wring them. We wave them. We clap them. We hold them. We make them into fists. We use them to replace or accompany speech. We salute or insult with our hands. If we've lost control we say that things got out of hand. If we want to pass responsibility to another person we say we will hand it off. The height of a horse is measured in hands. We shake hands with another originally to indicate we had no weapons and now to show positive regard. Charity without respect can be called a hand out. In negotiations we don't want to show our hand too early. If we are experienced it might be said that we are old hands at it. When we help out a friend we have lent a hand. Decisions can be made by a show of hands. If our hands are tied we are unable to, for example, lend a hand. When we have too much to do we might say that our hands are full. Supervisors who work alongside staff might be said to be hands on in style. When we refuse or fail to take action we are possibly sitting on our hands.
Hands have power in language and in life.
During the past almost six months, Charles has accomplished magnificent things with his hands. He can now pull his mother's hair. He can tug his father's necktie. He can grasp and release his rattle. He can stroke his dog's nose. He can pick up a spoon and with his other hand fill the spoon with pumpkin. He can also pick up more pumpkin and rub it into his hair. And, of course, he continues to grasp my fingers. His grip is stronger and much more deliberate than on the day of his birth but still mesmerizing and mystifying.
He is learning at six months the possibilities of his hands.
Of course, we all continue to learn the potential of our hands. With our hands we play violin concertos and write novels and turn pages and knead dough and butter bread and comfort and caress. And with our hands we pull triggers and hit and inflict unbearable pain.
For the rest of his life my grandson will continue to discover the potential of his hands. He will assign them their tasks.
In that way we are all like Charles. We must each decide the work of our hands.
As I celebrate his first six months of life and wish him decades and decades more I also wish him the courage to use his hands for good.
But I'll explain all of that to him in a few years. For now I'll just enjoy having him hold onto my finger while I wipe the pumpkin out of his hair.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Vayishlach

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, (Gen. 32:4–36:43) Jacob, returning to Canaan after his twenty years in Haran, has an encounter with an unnamed divine being with whom he wrestles until daybreak, and over whom he finally prevails.  He reconciles with his brother Esau, a meeting he anticipated with both dread and longing.  Still later in the parashah, Jacob’s beloved Rachel dies giving birth to his last son, Benjamin, and only six verses later, we are told that Jacob went to his aged father Isaac at Hebron where, “Isaac was one hundred and eighty years old when he breathed his last and died”, and Jacob and Esau buried their father.

After wrestling with the divine being, Jacob demanded from him a blessing, and received a new name, Israel, “for you have striven with beings divine and human and prevailed”.  I believe that we could do far worse than to live life as our ancestor Jacob, who became Israel, lived it.  Make mistakes and learn from them.  Love and do not be afraid to be hurt by loving too well.  Delve deeply and with passion into your relationships with God and with the people around you.  As we share Israel’s name, may we also share his legacy. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Don't Eat That!

They Are Back

Friday, November 28, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Vayetze

           In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, (Gen. 28:10-32:3) Jacob is running away from the wrath of his brother Esau, from whom he has just snatched the birthright and the spiritual legacy of Abraham.  He gets as far as Luz, where he has a most remarkable dream.  “…He dreamt and behold, a ladder was set in the earth and its top reached to heaven, and behold, angels of God ascended and descended upon it”.  Wait a minute.  Ascended and descended?  These are angels of God.  If the top of the ladder is in heaven and the foot on earth, shouldn’t they be first descending from heaven and then ascending?  The commentator Rashi answers this question as follows, “The angels that accompanied him in the Holy Land do not go outside the Holy Land.  They therefore ascended to heaven.  Then the angels of outside the Holy Land descended to accompany him”.  According to Rashi, Jacob gets a new shift of angels, like some sort of angel Pony Express.  (I might add that Rashi must think that angels have an excellent labor union, for it was he who said of our Torah portion a few weeks ago that the reason that three angels visited Abraham is that each angel has only one task, so that one came to comfort Abraham after his circumcision, one to tell Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child, and one to tell of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.) 

            Professor Nehama Leibowitz, in her volume Studies in Genesis, comments, “In other words, man’s experiences in his own country are not to be compared with his situation in a strange land.  To make his way on foreign soil, he needed different guardians from those that protected him in his own birthplace, amidst familiar landmarks.  But wherever he went, Jacob was always furnished with Divine protection.  Rashi’s brief remark fits the picture described in this portion perfectly.  The angels of ‘outside the Holy Land’ accompany Jacob throughout his tribulations, from the moment he leaves Beersheba to his return to Mahanaim after spending twenty years in exile.  There he is again confronted by angels—the guardian angels of the Homeland: ‘And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him’ (Gen. 33:2).

Going away from home is the history of our people.  At God’s bidding, Abraham left his homeland, his land and his father’s house, and began a new nation in the land of Canaan.  Rebecca, Jacob’s mother, left her home in Aram-Naharaim to go with Abraham's’servant to marry Isaac.  Jacob left Beersheva for Haran, and returned to Canaan twenty years later, a changed man.  His sons left Canaan for Egypt and 400 years later his descendants, the fledgling people Israel, left Egypt to wander in the desert for 40 years, and to become the inhabitants of Canaan once more.  Centuries later, exiled from the land by the Babylonians, they left Jerusalem, returning some fifty years later no longer as Israelites, but as Jews.  From the time of the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, every time the Jewish people were forced to leave a place, it is said, the Shechina, the manifestation of God that had dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem, moved on with them.  And, because of the moving on, the changing, the Israelites did not become a dead ancient civilization like others of the ancient near east, but a thriving, changing, thinking religion, culture, and ethnicity which encompasses the world.  Some of the moves were forced, some were anticipated.  Some were reluctant, some joyous.  But all of them were the precursors of growth. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Toldot – Prayers and Blessings

               On this weekend before Thanksgiving Day, when some of the best American family drama occurs, we read the Torah portion Toldot (Gen.25:19-28:9) which might just win the Oscar for Torah portion with the most family drama.

                The twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca vie for the birthright.  Isaac favors Esau, who is the older of the two, and Rebecca recognizes that Jacob, although younger, is better suited to carry on the spiritual legacy of his grandfather Abraham.  Isaac loses his sight in his old age, and thinks he is dying.  He asks Esau to go out and hunt and prepare him a meal, after which he will bestow his blessing upon his firstborn son.  Rebecca thwarts him by sending Jacob in, wearing a goatskin to hide his hairless arms, and fools his father into giving him the blessing of the birthright. .  Jacob, in Esau’s stead, receives a blessing of abundant wealth, sovereignty, the thrall of his brother, and the same blessing God gave to Abraham – that those who curse him will be cursed and those who bless him be blessed.  As soon as Jacob leaves, Esau enters.  Isaac tells Esau that he has already blessed Jacob, and Esau bursts into tears, saying, “Do you onlyl have one blessing?  Bless me!  Me, too, Father!”  And Isaac finds a blessing for Esau as well.

                There are lessons to be learned from both of Isaac’s sons.  Jacob’s life journey will not be an easy one.  He will not be able to return home until he is a grown man with a large family.  He will never see his beloved mother again.  As he tricked his brother, he will be tricked by his uncle Laban.  Esau, too, has a lesson to teach us.  We cannot always live out our parents dream, but we still deserve their blessings and prayers.
                There is so much dramatic action in this Torah portion that we often forget how powerful are the prayers and blessings contained in it.  At this time of Thanksgiving, may those of us who will be with family find harmony, and not acrimony.  May the memory of those who are no longer with us cause us to recall the blessings they brought to our lives.  And may we learn from the example of our Jacob and Esau that winning isn’t everything, and that everyone deserves a blessing.