Thursday, December 12, 2019

Shadow boxing the apocalypse yet again, yet again. Shadow boxing the apocalypse, and wandering the land. (John Barlow & Bob Weir "My Brother Esau")

While our daughters were home for Thanksgiving, their friends came by to visit and we discussed Jewish life and anti- Semitism on college/university campuses. I especially wanted our grade 12 daughter to listen and be a part of the discussion since she is in the process of applying to universities both in Ontario and in the North East U.S. One friend of our 19-year-old daughter’s friends is an observant woman and only wears skirts. She attends a university in Toronto. The friend explained that while she is aware of the institutional anti-Semitism and the BDS campaigns; because she doesn’t live on campus, it doesn’t feel as acute.  Far more troubling has been the anti-Semitism she has encountered on an individual basis. She explained that her lab partner is an observant Muslim. The friend explained that she and the lab partner seemed to get along as both were very respectful of issues of religion, and they shared a common concern about an over-emphasis upon the secular. Well, when the young Muslim woman noticed a pro-Israel sticker on our daughter’s friend’s computer; the Muslim woman refused to work with our daughter’s friend. Eventually, she switched out of the lab and now our daughter’s friend no longer has a lab partner. When she does see her former lab partner; she receives no acknowledgment, and the former lab partner won’t speak to her nor acknowledge her existence.
This week we read from Parsha VaYishlach. We read Yaakov’s preparation for the reunion with his brother Esav. We read about Yaakov’s wrestling match. We read about Yaakov and Esav’s reunion. We read about Yaakov’s daughter Dina and her unholy tryst with Shechem a member of the Hivvites. We learn of what many consider to be the fanatical response on behalf of her brother Shimon and Levi. Yaakov returns to Bet El, the place where he dreamt of the ladder many years before, builds an altar, and receives the covenant from God. During that process, God changes his name from Yaakov to Yisroel. And while we read about the name change at the very beginning of the Parsha, that name change was given by another being (Gen. 32:29). Rachel dies as well as a wet nurse named Deborah. Finally, we read a list of Yaakov’s children as well as Esav’s descendants and the princes of Edom.
Yaakov’s trepidation prior to his reunion with his brother stems from the one unanswered question. “Does my brother still wish to kill me”? “What can I do to prevent Esav from killing me and wiping out my family?” Yaakov just crossed the Yabok River and is unsure as to what to expect from his brother Esav.  VaYaratz Esav Likrato VaiChabkeihu, VaYipol Al Tzavarav Vayishahkeihu VayivkuEsav ran toward him, embraced him, fell upon his neck, and kissed him; then they wept (Gen. 33:4).  The plain meaning suggests Esav has forgiven his brother. The plain meaning suggests that nearly two decades have washed away Esav’s animosity towards his brother and he no longer desires to harm his younger brother. Esav embraces his brother and kisses him. Yet questions about Esav and his attitudes toward his brother remain. Esav’s actions: the embrace, the kiss, even the manner in which he ran towards Yaakov and “fell upon him” could be easily interpreted as something far more disturbing even ominous for Yaakov and his family. There are four dots that appear in the Torah text above the word VaYishahkeihu And he kissed him. What do the dots indicate? Is there a difference between the embrace when there is genuine affection as opposed to an embrace when there still a deep-seated animosity? As early as the late 2nd century, R’ Shimon ben Eliezer, in B’reishit Rabba (The Talmudic Sages’ commentary on the TaNaCh) explained that VaYishaKiehu with the letter Kuf means “kiss”. However, if the dot above that letter suggests that the letter ought to be a Kaf,  then “he kissed him”, would mean “and he bit him”. Whereupon, Yaakov’s neck turned to marble and thus preventing Esav from biting Yaakov’s neck. An 8th/9th century text, the Midrash Tanchuma, explains the approach, kiss, and tears in a more ominous manner. Esau should be compared to a wolf that sought to bite Yaakov. When Yaakov’s neck turned to marble, Esav’s teeth “were set on edge”. Both men cried but for different reasons.  Esav was frustrated because he will have to wait for another opportunity to kill his brother, and Yaakov cried because he understands that he would always remain on ready in case of another attack.
For the Rabbinic Sages, Esav, and his tribe Edom came to symbolize Rome. When Rome became Christian, that symbolism became more poignant. As the Church became more anti-Semitic throughout the first and second millennia, Yaakov and his descendants, the Jewish people, had to remain vigilant about the anti-Semitism that originated from his brother. With the rise of political extremism on both the political left and the political, Jews have to remain vigilant. These displays of anti-Semitism from either extreme whether it is supporting BDS speakers and policies or white nationalist pro-fascist speakers and policies, both are easy to identify on a university/college campus.  For our 12th grade daughter, it is reason enough not to apply to such an institution. However, what is more difficult, and perhaps more hurtful on a personal level, is the antisemitism encountered on an individual and personal basis as manifested in our daughter’s friend’s experience. When asked about this type of anti-Semitism, our 12th grade daughter explained that she expects to encounter that type of anti-Semitism. However she is thoughtful enough to understand and see the distinction between individuals and institutions. To her credit, she like Jacob, understood that she would have to deal with that type of anti-Semitism on a contextual case by case basis.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Gonna Leave This Brokedown Palace; On My Hands And My Knees, I Will Roll, Roll, Roll (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Brokedown Palace")

Now that December Holiday season is upon us, one cannot turn on the television without a Christmas special on this channel or a Christmas movie on that channel. Perhaps the most beloved holiday movie in our home is Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”. In fact, the first time the movie was on this year occurred last Saturday night during the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. With all of our children, we sat together as a family and watched. We have watched this movie dozens and dozens of times as a family. While we watched, our 17-year-old daughter furiously worked on her university applications as well as her Israel seminary applications. The Seminary applications and one university application were due the following day.   During the scene Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey sits at the dining room table with his mother, his father, his younger brother, they discuss George’s future plans. There we were, our seventeen-year-old sitting with her father, mother and siblings worry about her future. Our daughter, who just wanted to be finished with the process, declared that perhaps she would just remain at home. As she makes this statement, Jimmy Steward said: “I just feel like if I don't get away, I'd bust.” We all laughed at the contradicting attitudes: one stated by our daughter and one stated by Jimmy Stewart as a 21-year-old son.  When we finished laughing, I suggested that our two children who no longer lived at home ought to provide an answer.  
This Shabbat we read from Parsha VaYeitze. The focus of the narrative is upon Yaakov. For the first time, Yaakov will find out what it means to be alone in the world.  He has left his mother, Rivkah, and his father Yitzchak, for the first time. In fleeing his brother Esav, Yaakov now embarks on a new phase of his life. For the first time, but certainly not the last time, he will have to face being alone. He will learn to be an independent individual. Yes, Yaakov will meet his future wives, his cousins Leah and Rachel. He will work for his father in- law, Lavan, and he will have children. The narrative will focus upon Yaakov’s life from young adulthood to becoming a responsible father, earning a living and all the trials, tribulation, and tensions of career and family. As Yaakov makes his way in life, hopefully, he will learn more about himself. With each event, with each adventure, Yaakov has an opportunity to become better connected, better connected to himself, and better connected to a covenant that his father bequeathed to him. Yet throughout the narrative he will learn to be alone, he will learn to become independent, he will learn, through trial and error, to whom he should spiritually cling: Esav, his parents, Lavan, his wives, and God.
At the conclusion of the previous Parsha, Parsha Toldot, we read that Yitzchak and Rivkah instructed Yaakov to go to Padan- Aram, to the house of Bethuel (Rivkah’s father’s home) and take a wife from there. We would expect Parsha VaYeitze to begin with Yaakov heading to Padan- Aram. Instead, VaYeitze begins: VaYeitze Yaakov M’Beer Sheva VaYeilech CharanaYaakov departed from Beer Sheva and went toward Charan. Why doesn’t VaYeitze, say that Yaakov departed and went to Padan Aram? Why do we need to be told that he went to Charan what’s in Charan? Keeping in mind that Yaakov has never been away from home and although he is heading toward his mother’s family; even Rivkah knew enough to leave her family of origin. Now Yaakov, in order to preserve his life, must leave his family of origin. In Toldot, Yaakov was described as Ish Tam  Yoshev Ohalim – a simple man of faith who dwells in tents (Gen. 19;27) The Talmudic Sages explain that Yaakov’s dwelling in the tents meant that he spent time in his parent’s tents studying and learning. However, no learning would prepare him for what he would contend with when dealing with Rivka’s family and particularly her brother Lavan.  Rabbi Kamenetsky, (1891-1986), explained that prior to arriving in Paddan Aram, Yaakov stopped in Charan to learn from Shem and Eber. Shem was Noah’s son, and Eber from the generation of the Tower of Bavel. Both were considered righteous and wise men who lived in unsavory environments and managed to retain their sense of righteousness. Yaakov sought their practical wisdom prior to his encounter with Lavan and dealing with becoming independent in an unsavory environment.  He will also need the wisdom of Shem and Eber to help him eventually return home. As a result of Yaakov’s diversion, Yaakov understands that he must maintain a relationship with God, and he understands that he will need to find his way home when the time is right.
As we watched the movie, George Bailey’s desire to leave home was symbolized by his request and his “wish to never been born”. Indeed, when George cries out “I want to live again” he is asking to return home. For Yaakov, he needed to leave his physical home, but clearly, he took with him the values and the learning that he acquired from his family. He took God with him as well as the sense of the land. He took with him a desire to return home. Yaakov and George Bailey derive an aspect of their independence from not only leaving home but leaving home with a code as well has having the courage and humility to return home. Our daughter’s older sisters both explained that leaving home is a vital ingredient in becoming and independent and confident person. Older sisters pointed out that part of becoming independent is knowing what to bring and what to leave, what wisdom is helpful and which superstitions are foolish As our 17-year-old watched the remainder of the movie and listened to her older sisters’ wisdom, hopefully, she will leave with same excitement and enthusiasm as they left with. Admittedly, and selfishly, I also hope that she will return often, having become an independent,  thoughtful, and decent woman like her sisters.

Rav Yitz.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Wonder Who Will Water All The Children Of The Garden (Robert Hunter, Phil Lesh & Jerry Garcia "St. Stephen -William Tell Bridge")

          Our family gathered together to celebrate American Thanksgiving and our eldest daughter’s birthday. Seeing my parents and all of our children celebrating a birthday and Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help but have a sense of Thankfulness. I also sensed the inevitable squeeze of being the middle generation. My parents are still healthy, still independent but aging with all the inconveniences of aging. Our children are healthy, engaged in their age-appropriate endeavors: high school studies and activities, university studies and activities and moving along a career path in her chosen field. As a result, I worry about their continued education, their life choices, and helping them when necessary. I watch my parents and my children interact, and I am deeply appreciative that our children are blessed with three grandparents with whom they enjoy an incredibly close and meaningful relationship. As our children listen to stories told to them by their grandparents, our children notice my father’s mannerisms and his expressions. My children comment on how similar I am to their grandfather. My father and I laugh invoking the words of Mel Brooks’ Two Thousand Year Old Man: “We mock the things we are to be.” Apparently, on their grandfather, these mannerisms and use of language, and philosophy on life are appealing, cute and endearing. On their father, these mannerisms, use of language, and philosophy of life are unappealing and annoying.
          This week, we read from Parsha is Toldot. We read of the birth of Esav and Yaakov. Even though they were twins, we learn that these boys couldn’t be any more different. Esav is a hunter Ish Sadeh – a man of the field, an outdoorsman, Yaakov is Ish Tam v’Yashav b’Ohalo – a simple man who resides in his tent. Yaakov is concerned with the Birthright, receiving blessings and the spiritual world. Esav is concerned with eating, drinking, hunting, and the physical world. We learn that just like his father, Avraham, who experienced a famine in the land, Yitzchak also experienced a famine in the land. Unlike his father, Yitzchak does not go down to Egypt. Yitzchak remains in the land, grows wealthy, and re-opens the wells that had gone dry in his father’s day. The narrative then re-focuses upon Yitzchak and his family. Yitzchak, sensing his imminent death, wants to bless Esav. Rivka overhears this and tells Yaakov to pose as Esav in order to receive the blessing. Yaakov listens to his mother and dresses as Esav. Yaakov receives Yitzchak’s blessing. As a result, Esav is fit to be tied and threatens to kill Yaakov. The Parsha concludes with Rivka telling Jacob to go to her brother’s home, convincing Yitzchak that Yaakov needs to leave home in order to find a wife. Yaakov receives his fathers’ blessing, the blessing of the Brit, the Covenant that God made with Avraham and Yitzchak, a blessing that was never intended for Esav. Yaakov leaves home and Esav moves away as well. He decides to dwell with his uncle Ishmael among the Canaanites.
          The Parsha begins with a common sort of phrase but contains within it a rather unexpected twist. The common phrase is Eila Toldot so and so. Whenever the Torah wants to begin presenting a genealogy; it begins with Eilah Toldot (These are the generations). We expect to see a list of children. However, this week’s Parsha begins, Eilah Toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, Avraham Holid Yitzchak – These are the generations of Isaac son of Avraham; Avraham sired Isaac Gen 25:19). Given the end of the verse, the beginning of the verse should have said These are the generations of Avraham, Avraham sired Isaac. Why does the Torah remind us that Avraham is Yitzchak’s father? The Midrash Tanchuma is compelled to respond to the rumors questioning Isaac’s origins. Recalling that Sarah had been taken by Abimelech (Gen. 20:1-17), questions about Isaac’s origins persisted. Naysayers and conspiracy theorists cite Avraham’s behavior regarding the Akeidah as evidence supporting the rumor and conspiracy. Avraham needed to be told which son was to be offered. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that Isaac’s features were identical to Avraham’s features. Even in the previous Parsha, Chayei Sarah, Avraham was described as “old” immediately prior to his death. The Midrash explains that until Avraham, there was no such thing as old age. However, Avraham asked that he have the z'chut (the merit) of showing his age because he and Isaac looked so similar and their mannerisms were so similar. The Chatam Sofer (18th century Bratslav) offers an alternative understanding to that of Midrash Tanchuma. In his comment about the phrase: “Avraham sired Yitzchak”, The ChatamSofer suggests that the phrase alludes to the profound sense of fulfillment that Avraham derived from his son. Eventually, Avraham no longer desired to be known as Avraham. Instead, he received Nachas, (a mixture of pride and joy) being known as Yitzchak’s father and Jacob and Esau’s grandfather.
          Avraham had reached a point in his life where his focus was all about his legacy, his son and grandchildren. For Yitzchak, who looked so similar to his father, and whose mannerisms were so similar to his father, people couldn’t help but think that Yitzchak embodied so much of his father’s values and personal philosophy. Yitzchak must be the rightful inheritor of Avraham’s covenant with God. What follows from this opening verse focuses our attention as to who from the next generation will inherit this covenant. The answer is Avraham. Whichever of Yitzchak’s children embody Avraham, he will be the recipient of the covenant. No, I don’t look upon my children and think that only one is worthy of a covenant. Rather, as my children roll their eyes because they see and hear my father in me, indeed, I have been the beneficiary of my father’s Torah. As they continued to comment and lovingly tease me, I smile to my father and remind my children the words of Mel Brook’s “We mock the things we are to be”. I only hope that the “to be” that they mock are the good qualities that I received from my parents, and the good qualities my wife received from her parents.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Story Teller Makes No Choice, Soon You Will Not Hear His Voice; His Job Is To Shed Light (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia- Terrapin Station Suite/Lady With The Fan)

All week, our children have had a lesson in Civics. They have been watching the Impeachment hearings. I recorded them because I wanted to watch the testimony of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindiman. Vindman is Jewish. In 1978, following his mother’s death, his father, and brothers emigrated from Kyiv, which was then part of the former Soviet Union and settled in an area of Brooklyn, NY known as “Little Odessa”.  He and his brother’s all served in the U.S. Armed Forces. During Vindman’s testimony, there were several moments when my children became aware that he was Jewish. First, there was his father’s value of making sure his children “got a good education”.  Second, there was Vindman’s testimony. It wasn’t so much a testimony but rather a narrative He was given the opportunity to provide testimony. Vindman didn’t just offer testimony. He offered a narrative to the House Intel committee. We heard about a plan (everything leading up to the “perfect phone call”), his experience as the plan unfolds (his listening to the “perfect phone call”), and finally his re-telling of these events both in his deposition in his testimony.  Finally, there was a moment towards the end of his testimony where he was asked to re-read an excerpt from his opening statement. In the excerpt he was asked to read, he thanked his father for bringing the family to America and that his father shouldn’t worry about his son testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, and that he would be safe because he was speaking the truth.  
This week's Parsha is Chayei Sarah. The Parsha begins with recounting the years of Sarah's life, Avraham's mourning for his wife, purchasing the land for Sarah's burial and then burying her. Avraham then tells his servant that he does not want his son, Yitzchak, marrying a Canaanite woman. Instead, the servant must return to Avraham's hometown and look for a woman from Avraham's family/ tribe. Avraham explains that the girl that returns with the servant is the right girl. Armed with treasures, camels and plenty of wealth for a dowry the servant sets off and decides that the best place to find a girl is by the local well. There the servant decides that the "right" girl is the girl who would offer him water, as well as offer water to his camels. Sure enough, Rebecca arrives at the well and fulfills the servant's standard. The servant returns with Rebecca to her family, he convinces the family to let her go, and Rebecca is asked if she wants to return with the servant. Rebecca unhesitatingly responds with a yes. Now Rebecca has fulfilled the servant's requirement as well as Avraham's requirement. Upon her arrival at her new home, she sees her betrothed, and, not knowing who he was, asked the servant. The servant told her and she covered herself. Rebecca and Yitzchak are married. The Parsha concludes with Yitzchak and Ishmael burying their father, and the genealogy of Ishmael's family.
Three different times and in three different contexts we read about a father’s desire to find a wife for his son and then we read about that desire being fulfilled.  First, Avraham tells his servant Eliezer to swear an oath to find a wife for Yitzchak. Then we read about Eliezer actually finding the future wife for his master’s son, Yitzchak. Finally, we read about Eliezer’s transmitting the first two narratives to the future bride’s family since they are about to be impacted by both Avraham’s desire for his son to find a wife and their daughter’s decision to become that wife. Each narrative contains numerous details and descriptions. Yet the narrative that immediately preceded this week’s Parsha, the narrative that Jewish tradition points to as the foundational essence of a people’s relationship to God, the Akedah, and The Binding of Isaac is a scant nineteen verses and numerous details aren’t even included. In this one long narrative divided into three subsections, we are told of specific conversations, prayers, jewelry as well as gifts for Rebecca’s family.  Why does the Torah tell the story of how a couple met in three different ways, the third being a recapitulation of previous events by the servant. The only other time we read of a detailed recapitulation of a narrative is when Moshe speaks to B’nai Yisroel when they are on the eastern bank of the Jordan River and preparing to enter into Eretz Canaan. The RaDaK (Rabbi David Kimchi- Provence, France 1160-1235) explains that Eliezer’s recapitulation serves to placate Rebecca and her family. Avraham’s servant speaks candidly and enthusiastically of his master and his master’s household. Eliezer’s re-capitulation hints at  Avraham’s character as well as the very unique covenant established between him and God. Only by transmitting this message, this story in a face to face manner, Rebecca’s family understands the significance and the necessity of Rebecca leaving her family of origin for her future with Yitzchak.
Creating a narrative is important for individuals and for nations. Eliezer’s re-capitulation to Rebecca’s family and indeed, to the reader serves to placate Rebecca, her family and us. Lt. Colonel Vindman’s testimony, his recapitulation of his story, his narrative, including his background and his upbringing, was designed to placate those for whom he had the greatest respect. His testimony, the narrative that he offered and the way in which he provided it was designed to placate his family, his father, in order to re-affirm to his father that he did the right thing raising his children in a democratic nation based on the rule of law, truth, and liberty. His testimony, the narrative he offered and the way in which he offered it was designed to placate. The testimony placated his teachers and those who wore the uniform. Finally, his testimony, his narrative was designed to placate those who buy into the “American Dream” as understood by his father. After the inspiring and comforting words that the Lt. Colonel offered his father and the rest of his family the gallery applauded. We watched, and our children commented that Lt. Colonel Vindman's father should be very proud and hopefully “shevved a lot of nachas”.

Rav Yitz