Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Where All The Pages Are My Days, And All My Lghts Grow Old (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Attics of My Life")



My wife,  kids and I  walked around one of Toronto’s upscale malls several days ago. We concluded our mall visit at Indigo’s, Canada’s version of Barnes and Noble. The books on display usually reflect the bestseller list. So, as I wandered, I went to my NY Times phone app and looked to see the NY Times Best Seller List. I notice that one of the marketing displays showed books with titles containing four lettered expletives. It seems that this isn’t just a marketing tool of Indigo's, but several self- help authors, one of whom has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 103 weeks. Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art Of Not Giving a *&#@, explains that much of our stress, and unhappiness is a result of caring too much about all the wrong things. He points out that in our desire to try to make things better, to “turn lemons into lemonade”; we contribute to the stress of a bad situation by trying too hard to make it better. He explains that stress would diminish if we learn how to “deal with the lemons”,  and not worry about what everyone else says, thinks, or looks at us as. Instead, we should learn how to stomach the lemons. Certainly, the book is a bit counter intuitive and humorous, but it makes an important point about stress. Chronic stress can speed up the aging process. Chronic stress can make our lives miserable.
In this week’s Parsha Vayigash, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers. He urges his brother, Yehudah, to bring his father down to Egypt in order to reunite father and son as well as save him from the famine. Yosef arranges for his brothers and all their households to live in Goshen, thereby preserving their livelihood as shepherds. Yosef then brings his 130 year-old father to meet Pharaoh. After a very revealing exchange, Yaakov blesses Pharaoh. The Parsha concludes with all Yaakov’s sons, and their households, and cattle settling down again. However, instead of Canaan, they settle down in Goshen. There, in Goshen, they thrive.
While last week’s Parsha embodied the theme of appearances, this week’s Parsha is all about the effect of emotions upon appearances. Specifically, we read that Yosef could no longer contain his anguish and his excitement at the possibility of seeing his father. Later towards the end of the Parsha, Pharaoh looks upon this 130 year old man and asks, Kamah Yemai Shnei ChayechaHow old are you”? We see what life has done to Yaakov and his response indicates that he understands that his life hasn't been easy. “Uma’at Shanah V’Raim Hayu Y’mei Shnei Chayai, V’lo Hisigu et Y’mei Shnei Chayai Avotai Bimei M’gureihem” Few and bad have been the day of the years of my life, and they have not reached the years of the life of my forefathers in the days of their wandering (Gen 47:7-9).  R’ Ovadia Sforno, the great Italian Renaissance Torah commentator explains that Pharoah’s question was not a sign of disrespect.  Rather, Pharaoh asked the questions in a state of wonderment, such old age was rare in Egypt. Maybe Egyptians had a relatively shorter life span so seeing an elderly person was a bit shocking.  Sforno goes on to explain that because of Jacob’s many trials and tribulations, Jacob appeared even older than his 130 years.  Yaakov was incredibly self-aware. He understood that there is a difference between years and days, between quantity and quality of life between. Jacob refers to Megureihem, the years of his “sojournings” as 130 years. He equates trials and tribulation to his “travels”; the opposite of his feeling settled and content. Contentment and feeling settled could be measured in days; the stress of trials, tribulations, wandering and never feeling settled were measured in years.  Indeed, Yaakov has had his share of tzuris – trials and tribulations. He spent over twenty years working for his evil uncle Lavan, and fearing his brother Esav. His daughter was violated by Shechem. For the last twenty- two years, he has been living with the anguish that his beloved son Yosef died in the pit. Yaakov has had a highly stressful, difficult and perhaps even tragic life. Life has beaten him up and aged him. Yaakov tells Pharaoh that he is not as old as his father or grandfather, only that his life has been far more difficult and full of stress compared to his father (Yitzchak) and his grandfather (Avraham.).
Our experiences affect us. We know that tragedies age us, and longevity takes a toll upon our bodies, our minds and sometimes our spirit. While Yaakov’s answer indicates that he had been through a lot, his answer is that of a Tzaddik (a righteous person). Not only does Yaakov answer, indicating that his mind is still sound, but his answer gives us insight into his soul. No matter how sad the situation, or tragic the experience, Yaakov possessed within him the element of a fighter. His name is Yisroel, and he is called by this name several times during the Parsha. Unlike Jacob’s father and Grandfather, Jacob is far more approachable. He has dealt with his share of loss, and his share of stress. He has feared for his own life, and as when confronted with bringing his family down to Egypt, he has feared for the welfare and the future of his own clan. No, we may not be leader of a clan, or an entire people. However, like Jacob, we hoped to be blessed with a family, and meaningful life. Pharaoh’s question and Jacob’s answer indicated the importance of living a life full of meaning. Jacob’s answer indicates that his days and years belong to him, the days and years were his path and his life and not his father’s life or grandfather’s life. So, good or bad, happy or sad, difficult or easy, the days and years belonged to him and he took ownership of his own life. Indeed, Jacob, even in old age, serves as a powerful role model on how to age with dignity.

Peace,
Rav Yitz

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Dark Star Crashes, Pouring Its Light Into Ashes (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Dark Star")



There were two distinct moods in our home this week. One had to do with the joy of Chanukah and everything associated with it: presents, latkes and our family ritual that each person lights their own personal Chanukiyah. This year, we were able to “Facetime” with our two older daughters: one in New York and one in Israel. With the housed darkened and the night settling outside, indeed there is something quite spiritual about seeing the Chanukah lights creating an oasis of light amid the darkness. The second mood was just the opposite albeit a bit more esoteric than the physical light and darkness of the Chanuka lights and physical darkness. During each evening this week, we watched the various ceremonies, rituals, rites, and services took place to honor President George H. W. Bush. Perhaps President Bush’s greatest achievement occurred in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, in the aftermath of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and, presided over the Re-unification of Germany and bringing the light of Democracy to those nations that had been trapped behind the Iron Curtain since the end of WWII.
This morning we read from Parsha Mikeitz. This Parsha is always read during Chanukah. While the Parsha has no explicit relationship to Chanukah, also known as Chag UrimThe Festival of Lights”; the implicit relationship is quite powerful. The Parsha begins with Yosef hurriedly brought from the dungeon to meet Pharaoh after Pharaoh is troubled by two seemingly different dreams. Yosef, he has been told, is able to interpret dreams. So Yosef begins to interpret but not before he credits his gift as coming from Hashem. Yosef not only interprets the dreams he offers solutions for Pharaoh. As a result, Pharaoh appoints Yosef as Viceroy, the second most powerful man in Egypt and perhaps the Second most powerful man in the world. While managing an economic program to ensure Egypt’s survival during the seven years of famine as foretold in Pharaoh’s dream, Yosef made sure to build up storehouses with grain.  However, the famine affected the whole region including Canaan and Yosef’s father, Jacob and Yosef’s brothers. Eventually, Yosef’s brothers head down to Egypt in order to buy food. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. Wanting to see his youngest brother Benjamin and his father Yaakov, Joseph arranges for the brothers to return home. One brother must remain in Egypt. Then, in order to redeem their brother, all the brothers including Benjamin must return to Egypt. After that, Joseph frames Benjamin, keeping in Egypt. The Parsha concludes with the brothers returning to their father and conveying what happened to Benjamin.
                We can understand the concept of darkness both figuratively and literally; physically, intellectually or even spiritually. Of course, we can understand the concept of light in the same way. VaYehi VaBoker VaTipaem Rucho – and it was morning; His spirit was agitated, VaYishlach VaYikra et Kol Chartumei Mitzrayim V’Et Kol Chochmehaso he sent and summoned all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men (Gen. 41:8). Pharaoh had the dream about the seven cows and the seven ears of corn. Why do we need to know that it was the morning after his dream? How bad could the dreams have been? Based upon the Torah, Pharaoh slept through the night. Granted he didn’t sleep well. After all, we are told that in the morning, his spirit was agitated. In a sense, his spirit was still “in the dark” even though the morning light was upon him. He brings Yosef out from the dungeon, a place of physical darkness. However, Yosef, because of his relationship to Hashem, embodies a spiritual light. Pharaoh asks the Egyptian Magicians and the Egyptian wise men, symbols of intellectual and spiritual light, to interpret the dream; to cast light upon Pharaoh’s troubled/darkened spirit. They are unable to bring light or to offer a solution. However, Yosef, the embodiment of Hashem’s light, is capable of casting light upon Pharaoh’s darkness. To Pharaoh’s credit; his fear is not directed at Yosef. Instead, Pharaoh’s fear is directed at the ramifications of famine upon Egypt and how a famine would affect his authority.  Even Yosef conceals his identity from his brothers, he remains in the darkness so to speak while his brothers are unable to conceal their identity from him.  Yosef is the embodiment of spiritual and physical light as he always knows what is happening and what will happen.  Despite Yosef being in a pit, and in a dungeon, Yosef is light. He is able to transmit his light, his knowledge, his spiritual strength to those around him without being diminished; much like a candle transmits a flame to another candle.
                So as we continue to light the lights of the Chanukkiyah amid the physical darkness that comes with night; I am struck by the actual transmission of the light from wick to wick. I am also struck by the beautiful light that we create. The transmission of knowledge like a flame doesn’t diminish the source. It only diminishes darkness and ignorance. Yes, I understand people are scared of the rising tide of darkness. We are all a little scared of darkness. However, if we become overwhelmed by the darkness, we will be too scared of the fact that our souls are agitated. We will become paralyzed rather than ask what we can do to eliminate the darkness. Rather than listening to those who would only bring more darkness and more paralysis, we should listen to those who bring light and bring solutions. Nearly thirty years ago, President Bush could have retreated from the impending darkness that was the chaos of the collapsing Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. He could have kept the light of Democracy lit only in the West. He didn’t. He chose to do everything he could to shine a light upon the darkness of those former totalitarian countries and create a possibility for nascent democratic institutions to survive.  It takes great faith and courage to transfer light to darkened places and know that the source of the transferred light will not diminished. Hopefully, as our children grow older they will appreciate Yosef’s role in bringing light to his world and President Bush's courage in bringing light to his world. Hopefully they appreciate the importance of service, of engaging in acts of Kindness. Transferring their light won't diminish their own light, but rather it will increase the possibility for more light to exist amid the darkness.
Peace,
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Small Wheel Turning By The Fire And Rod Big Wheel Turning By The Grace Of God (Robert Hunter, Jerry Garcia & BIll Kreutzman - "The Wheel")



          One of the things I love to do with my kids and something my father did with me, especially when watching a sporting event, is to determine “turning points”. There may be only one turning point, there may be more. Rarely does something progress on a straight upward slope. Sometimes there is an ebb and flow, more momentum or less, headwinds or tailwinds. At my age, I know my father well enough to know what he considers to be a key turning point in a sporting event, or in a political campaign. Until recently, our son would have focused on the highlight reel moments, the flashy and glitzy plays or the moments when the team scored.  He would be bowled over by the person running with the ball and not notice the block that allowed the runner to break free. So when we had a chance to talk about the “Big Game”, I asked him what he thought was a key turning point. He didn’t point out the flashy nor the spectacular. Rather he identified a small seemingly insignificant moment. I asked him why he thought that was the moment. He noticed that until then, the team seemed rather lethargic, and back on its heels. He noticed the entire complexion of the game changed after that certain play. The team blocked more effectively, the defense became more stout, and the team played a much crisper and more efficient style than it had up until that moment.  
 This Shabbat we read from Parsha VaYeishev. The focus of the narrative now shifts from Yaakov (aka. Israel) to his most beloved son Yosef. Contextually, Yaakov is at a point in his life where he has finished his spiritual and personal struggles. He now is at a calm and settled point in his life, hence the name of the Parshah: Vayeishev – and he settled. We learn that Yaakov, like his parents, played favorites. He showered Yosef, Rachel’s son, with a beautiful Kutonet Pasim – Coat of Many Colors. Yosef was a bit arrogant. This was manifested in his dreams that portrayed his greatness and the subjugated his brothers and his parents to his power. Needless to say, no one appreciated his dreams, neither his brothers who wanted to kill him but instead threw him into an empty pit nor his father who sent Yosef back to his brothers knowing that they were angry with him (Gen. 37:10-14). Yosef is then removed from the pit, sold as a slave and worked in the home of one of Pharaoh’s courtiers. As a slave, Yosef proved invaluable to the welfare of the Courtier’s business dealings. Yosef managed everything and the courtier profited greatly. The courtier’s wife, however, was a bit bored and made a pass at Yosef. Yosef put her off and then was accused of sexual harassment. Yosef was sent to prison. While in prison, Yosef helped the warden manage the prison, and the warden did well. Yosef became known for an ability to interpret dreams.
                Certainly, it was a “perfect storm”, a chain of events that brought Yosef to Egypt. His brother’s hatred, his father’s favoritism and later his aggravation with Yosef contributed to his winding up in Egypt. The brother’s decision to sell Yosef rather than kill him and the coincidence of the caravan’s arrival all contributed to Yosef’s winding up in Egypt.  However the moment, the turning point in the narrative, that small seemingly minor detail that affected the rest of Yosef’s life was the moment that Yosef, upon instructions from his father, sought out his brother, and got lost.  Vayimtza’eihu Ish V’Hinei To’eh BaSadeh And a certain man found him and behold, he [Yosef] was wandering in the field; VaYishaleihu Ha’Ish Leimor: Mah T’Vakeish? And the man asked him, saying: What are looking for? VaYomer Et Achai Anochi Mevakeish and He [Joseph] said I seeking my brothers. Hagidah Nah Li: Eifo Haim Ro’im.  Tell me I pray, where do they feed their flocks?   VaYomer HaIsh Nasu Mi’Zeh Ki Shamati Omrim Leilcha Dotainah. And the man said they traveled from here for I heard them say ‘Let us go to Dotham. VaYeilech Yosef Achar Echav Vayimtza’eim B’Dotan. So Yosef went after his brother and found them in Dothan. (Gen. 47:15-17). Between the dysfunctional environment of home and the confrontation with his brothers (at the request of his father); exist this very brief but incredibly important conversation between Yosef and an unnamed man. How important is this conversation? Yosef’s entire future, God’s prophesy and covenant with Avraham hinges upon this conversation and Yosef finding his brothers and eventually winding up in Egypt. The turning point in the narrative of Breishit hinges upon and an unnamed man giving directions to Yosef. The Talmudic Sages explain that this was not a chance passer-by but an “angel”; a divine messenger of God.
                For the Talmudic Sages, implicitly, this narrative is about God’s involvement in a person’s life.  Certainly, it is human nature to focus upon the big glaring moments: the explanation of a dream, a colorful coat, being thrown into a pit or being sold. God’s presence or absence may appear to be obvious. For the Sages, the key to a relationship with God was being able to sense God’s presence in the smallest and seemingly innocuous moments like a moment shared with an unnamed passerby who offers directions. The key is for us to be open-minded, and open-hearted enough to see that turning point and have the courage to see where it leads. It may lead to a new opportunity, it may cause us to avoid being in the “wrong place at the wrong time”.  For the Talmudic Sages, this is never happenstance this is evidence of God’s involvement and we must learn to make ourselves aware. Part of Yosef’s growing up involves increasing his awareness of God’s presence. The same can be said for our teenage son. Part of his growing up and maturation process is an increased awareness of those small details, those easily overlooked moments that really are turning points in life, and the ability to sense God in those small moments.

Peace,
Rav Yitz  

Thursday, November 22, 2018

And So I Wrestle With The Angel To See Who'll Reap The Seeds I Sow (Gerrit Graham & Bob Weir - "Victim Or The Crime")

Like so many American families, we celebrated Thanksgiving. We packed up and drove to my parents’ home. Our eldest daughter who had been working in Florida until the recent midterm elections came, my sister brother in law and niece came.  Our daughter studying in Israel made Thanksgiving and we all had the chance to video chat with her. The last time that I saw our eldest daughter was in June when she came for her sister and brother’s graduation. Certainly, we had video chatted. Let’s just say a video chat doesn’t exactly offer a complete picture. So when she took one look at my completely gray beard, my salt and pepper head of hair, she hugged and kissed me and said. “You are so old! What happened to you?” Like the crows feet around my eyes, I attributed all the gray hair and white beard to the existential angst of fatherhood. For me, existential angst usually occurs in the middle of the night. It wakes me up, I go downstairs, I look outside at the night sky full of stars I think and worry. I worry about life, death, the quality of life and the quality of death, what am I doing with my life, how am I going to pay for Jewish day school, college, and weddings. I worry about my aging parents, my aging mother in law. I worry about my wife worrying about her aging mother. I explain to my eldest daughter that I wake up in the middle of the night and worry about all the stuff that a middle-aged person wrestles with.” While I normally sleep quite soundlessly, every so often I am wake up to wrestle with all my existential angst and worries.
This Shabbat we read from Parsha Vayishlach. Yaakov and his family prepare to return to Yaakov’s home. However, they will first need to deal with an almost twenty-year grudge held by Esav. Yaakov will hope for the best and prepare for the worst as he prepares to meet his brother.  After their short reunion, Yaakov makes his way back to his ancestral lands. His mother passes away. He is blessed with another son, Benjamin, born to his wife Rachel. However, she dies in childbirth. His daughter, Dinah, has an illicit relationship with a prince of Shechem. According to the text, she is rendered “impure” and her brothers wipe out the prince and his village. Yaakov’s name is changed to Yisroel. God blessed Yaakov within the context of the covenant made with Avraham and Yitzchok. Yaakov’s blessing includes children, land and wealth, all of the things that God promised to Yaakov’s grandfather – Avraham. The Parsha concludes Yaakov and Esav seeing each other one last time in order to bury their father Yitzchok, and then we read the final psukim: a list of Esav’s descendants down to grandchildren.
The parsha is replete with dramatic moments. However, the brief narrative (Gen. 32:25-29) about Yaakov’s night prior to his first meeting with Esav, offers us a life-changing moment in Yaakov’s life. The narrative of the wrestling match begins in a very peculiar manner. VaYivater Yaakov L’Vado, VaYei’avek Ish Imo Ad Alot HaShacharJacob was left alone and a many wrestled with him until the break of dawn.  So if Yaakov was left alone, with whom did he wrestle?  The Torah tells us he wrestled with a man, however by the end of this brief narrative, Yaakov is asking the man(?) to bless him. During the wrestling match, and to add to the confusion the word for “man” is not used neither is Yaakov’s name. Rather the third person masculine singular pronoun “Hu” is used.  The M’forshim also struggle with this brief narrative.  Rashi reminds us of how our sages explain Sh’Hu Saro Shel Eisavthat it was the guardian angel of Esav.  Chizkuni – the 13th-century French commentator succinctly states Malach B’Damut Ishan angel in the form of a man. Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi – a late 12/early 13th-century French commentator is even more explicit. He offers a single word of explanation as to the “man’s” identity – Melach – an angel. Some say it was the guardian angel of Esav and some say it was an Angel sent to restate God’s promise to Yaakov. However, a more modern and psychologically aware understanding seems that the “man” is Yaakov. Yaakov is struggling with himself. The language of the wrestling match only uses the Hebrew word “Hu” – in English "he". He said, he held on, he didn’t let go, he blessed him, he wrestled with him. Yaakov’s name is only mentioned when his hip is pulled out of joint, when he states his name and when the other being renames Yaakov. Yaakov’s whole life has been a struggle… first with Esav, God, and then Lavan. Before his impending struggle with Esav, Yaakov needs to know who exactly Yaakov is and who he clings to – which aspect of himself does he cling to? The godly aspect within him? The Esav within him? The reality is, Yaakov must decide who He is and what that means as he returns to his ancestral home and receives the covenant.  It will leave a mark for sure, however during his sleepless night, during his “mid-life crisis” and his “moment of clarity”; Yaakov will finally be a complete spiritual person with a full acceptance of his relationship to God and a sense of purpose in his life. This does not mean his life will be easier. It just means that Yaakov, with this renewed sense of purpose and identity, will be able to deal with all the troubles and heartache that is involved in living life as he continues to grow old.
             Of course, I have gray hair. Yes, my beard is turning white. There are more worries, there are more things that feel beyond my control.  There are more times that I worry about the direction of my life and my children's lives. There are more times when I worry about my parent’s health. No, I don’t necessarily have my hip pulled out of joint when we wake up in the middle of the night with this existential angst. Although due to an old back injury; I sometimes wake up with my back pain more acute than at other times.  We do have the emotional scars of such moments. Our souls struggle and sometimes our souls receive scars because of those moments when we question our purpose in life. It probably causes wrinkles and definitely causes gray hair. However those struggles are necessary because it leads us to moments of clarity, and we understand that our lives do have a purpose, and our families will be ok and everything will be all right.

Peace,
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What I Want To Know Is, Are You Kind (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Uncle John's Band")



There are some life lessons that recur so frequently that it seems almost impossible to learn from them. Yet, for some, it is impossible to learn. As a husband, a parent, a child, as a friend, as an educator, as a Rabbi or a community leader one of the most vital and recurring lessons of Presence. Sometimes, the Lesson of Presence is a phone call, a tweet, or an email. Sometimes the Lesson of Presence is a formal statement. Sometimes it is physically showing up. The fires out west have been horrific, lives lost. My wife’s family lives in both northern and southern California. We call them because we are concerned, but we also call them to let them know that we are thinking of them, that we are present. With a daughter in learning in Jerusalem and friends throughout Israel, when we say “stay safe”, it reminds them that we care and that we are sensitive what has been happening in Israel with hundreds of rockets being fired from Gaza.  With a daughter who has finished an election cycle and was driving alone from Florida to Washington DC; I spoke to her several times so she shouldn’t feel so alone (it probably drove her a bit crazy but she should know that she wasn’t alone).  As Jews, we pay a Shiva visit to a mourner, we do Bikur Cholim- we visit the sick. On a Yartzeit, (the anniversary of a person’s death), the loved one might visit the grave.  To be “Present” is among the most basic and simplest acts that one person can demonstrate to another. Sometimes it may require words or a hug. Sometimes it can be done in silence. For a leader of a Nation, the Power of Presence is about the easiest thing to do.  On one hand, it is incredibly symbolic, it creates a sense of good will, and it goes a long way in reminding the person or the group that feels alone and abandoned that they are not.  
This week we read from Parsha VaYeitze. This week we read from Parshat 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. 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 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 come to understand the Lesson of Presence.  At the beginning of the narrative, he feels alone but will quickly sense God’s presence. He will learn the importance of Presence when his wife begs for a child, when a son helps his mother, and when a family prepares to finally leave an untenable situation.
Yaakov acknowledges his loneliness at the beginning of the Parsha. He doesn’t even feel connected to God. First God speaks to Yaakov in the dream: Ani Adoshem Elohei Avraham Avicha, V’Elohei Yitzchak HaAretz Asher Atah Shocheiv Aleha Lecha Etnenah U’LeZarechaI am Hashem, God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac; the ground upon which you are lying, to you will I give it and to your descendants (28:13). In the dream, God offers Yaakov protection wherever Yaakov goes. In a sense, God volunteers to be Yaakov’s God as well.  When Yaakov wakes up from the dream he still does not feel reassured: Im Yiheyeh Elohim Imadi Ushmarani Baderech Hazeh Asher Anochi Holech v’Natan Li Lechem L’echol Uveged Lilbosh, vShavti b’Shalom el Bet Avi v’Hayah Hashem Li Le’lohim.  If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothes to wear, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God.  Im Yiheyeh Elohim Imadi Ushmarani Baderech Hazeh Asher Anochi Holech v’Natan Li Lechem L’echol Uveged Lilbosh, vShavti b’Shalom el Bet Avi v’Hayah Hashem Li Le’lohim.  If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothes to wear, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God.   Yaakov equates the feeling of abandonment or a lack of presence with a lack of demonstrable kindness.  It will take nearly two decades, but as Yaakov is able to act selflessly, demonstrate kindness, he will feel less alone, and less of a sense of abandonment. As Yaakov is more present in others’ lives, he will sense God’s presence in his life.
In the first chapter of Genesis, we learned that humankind was created in God’s image. That is to say, human beings have the capacity to emulate Godly qualities. The Talmudic Tractate Sota 14 a explains that clothing the needy is a Godly quality because God clothed Adam and Chava; visiting the sick is a Godly quality because God visited Avraham while Avaraham was healing from circumcision (the beginning of Parsha VaYeirah); comforting the mourner is a Godly quality because God comforted Isaac (end of Parsha Chayei Sarah) and burying the dead because God buried Moses (end of Deuteronomy 34:6). Emulating God requires us to act selflessly, to remove the self from the equation and to do for the other. Fundamental to each of these Godly actions, these acts of kindness is the notion of being present. Every act of kindness is an expression of God’s Presence. Perhaps it is the simplest activity for a person to do – be present, empathize, and in doing so, God’s presence is self-evident.

Peace,
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

What Truth Is Proof Against All Lies (Gerrit Graham & Bob Weir - "Victim Or The Crime")



Shiva for the last of the 11 Jews murdered in Pittsburgh will conclude this Sabbath. While the relatives of Rose Mallinger (z”l) sat Shiva, an election took place in the United States. When a virulent anti-semite, raging against Jews and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society murdered Rose and 10 other Jews, Jews need to acknowledge that “it” can happen in America. As my children have watched the news about Pittsburgh unfold, as they have listened to commentators, Rabbis and civic leaders speak about it, as they listen to the President speak about it, they also  I remind my kids that “it” can happen in the U.S. My children watched the President denounced Anti-semitism; and, even though his son in law is Jewish, even though his daughter converted to Judaism, even though his grandchildren are Jewish, even though he has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; my children wanted to believe the President. I explained that of course we want to believe the President but then I warned them the need to do their homework and decide whether or not they should believe him. I suggested they take a few minutes and do some reading. The President uses terms like “Globalists” and described himself as a “Nationalist I suggested to my children that they should look into how those terms have been historically used and who used those terms. I suggested that they look up people like Richard Spencer, David Duke and see what they have to say about Trump. I suggested that they read an article about the rise of White Nationalism in the U.S. in the New York Times Magazine. I suggest that they look at t relationship between the rise of “Nationalism” and Anti-Semitism. That information is readily available from the Anti Defamation League
This week’s 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 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, 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.
            When Esav turned 40, he got married. As different as the boys were before this, Esav’s marriages reflect his further spiritual diminishment from his mother and father. Esav’s association with these women brings out the worst in him. Va’Yehi Eisav Ben Arbaim Shanah VaYikach Isha et Y’hudit Bat B’Eiri HaChiti V’et Basmat Bat Eilon Ha’ChitiWhen Esav was forty years old, he took as a wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. Va’Tiheyenah Morat Ruach L’Yitzchak U’l’Rivkahand they were a source of spiritual bitterness for Yitzchak and Rivka (Gen.26:24). There is a Midrash that tells us that once a species of bird migrated to Eretz Yisrael. The Rabbis were unable to determine whether this new species was kosher or treif. Rabbi Chiya, the leading scholar of his day, said, “Isolate one on the roof and see what kind of birds associate with it.” Immediately a raven (which is not kosher) joined the new bird. The Rabbis were able to finally determine that the new species of bird was not kosher. The same was true with regard to Esav when he married both women. They brought out the worst in him, whether it was Avodah Zarah – idolatry, or degrading himself to such a point that he did not warrant receiving the blessing. Of even greater concern to Rivkah and Yitzchak was the departure of the Divine Presence. Remember that when Yitzchak’s mother, Sarah, died, the light in her tent, the holy presence diminished. When Yitzchak married Rivka, the holy presence returned to Sarah’s tent. However, when Esav’s wives became part of Yitzchak’s household, this holy light was vanquished.
            So my kids discovered that terms like “Nationalist” and “Globalist” mean something to David Duke, Richard Spencer, White Nationalist, and the Alt-Right. My kids discovered you can learn a lot about a person by who gravitates towards that person. My kids discovered that you can learn a lot about a person by not only the words they use but how people respond to those words. Rose Mallinger was alive in February 1939 when the German American Bund Party filled Madison Square Garden for a political rally, and use those words and similar words to describe Jews. Nearly eighty years later those words and similar words have been used in arenas throughout the U.S.to stoke hate and fear. Unfortunately, my kids also learned the valuable lesson that leaders can and should be judged by the words they say, the company they keep, and who else may endorse and support those words.
           
Peace,
Rav Yitz

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

You Told Me Goodbye, How Was I To Know You Meant Please Don't Let Me Go (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia "High Time")



My sister and I have friends in Squirrel Hill, a primarily Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh. My sister lived there for nearly ten years.  So my family and I listened for the names of those 11 souls that were murdered last Shabbat at the Tree of Life shul in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. No, we didn’t know the 11 Jews, ages 56-97. However, these men, women, husbands, wives, brothers were also mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers,  great grandfathers, and great-grandmothers. Children, grandchildren and great children will be mourning the loss of these 11 souls.
This Week we read from Parsha Chayei Sarah. This Shabbat we read from Parsha Chayei Sarah, “the Life of Sara”. It is a rather odd name for a Parsha that discusses’ Sarah’s death, and Avraham’s funeral preparations including a eulogy, crying, and the purchase of land for burial. The focus then shifts from Sarah’s death and Avraham’s caring for her to Avraham’s son Yitzchak and getting on with his life. Avraham instructs his servant to find a wife for Yitzchak from among his ancestors. The servant head back to Avraham’s homeland, he asks’ God for a sign so that he knows which girl is the right one for his master’s son. He finds the girl, convinces her to return with him, the girl leaves home and heads back with the servant to meet her new husband and her father-in-law. They get married. Avraham takes a wife and lives quietly in retirement. The Parsha concludes with Avraham’s death and the death of his eldest son Ishmael.
Sandwiched between the deaths of Sarah, at the beginning of the Parsha, and Avraham Avinu, at the conclusion of the Parsha, we read about Yitzchak’s mourning the death of his mother. His Aveilut, mourning, comes at the time when he marries Rivkah. VaYavieha Yitzchak HaOhela Sarah Imo VaYiKach et Rivkah VaT’Hi Lo L’Isha VaYe’Ehaveha VaYinachem Yitzchak Acharei ImoAnd Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother; he married Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her; and thus was Isaac consoled after his mother [‘s death] (Gen. 24:67. What is significant about the Torah telling us that he Yitzchak brought Rivka to his mother’s tent and not just telling us that Yitzchak married Rebecca, took her has his wife and loved her. Why does the verse begin with going into his mother’s tent and conclude with his being consoled about his mother’s death? Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator comments: As long as Sarah was alive, a lamp burned in her tent from one Sabbath eve to the next, her dough was blessed and a cloud signifying the Divine Presence hung over Sarah’s tent. When Sarah died, these blessings ceased, but when Rebecca entered the tent they resumed.
Last Shabbat, 11 lamps were extinguished, and as the children, grandchildren, and Jews of Pittsburgh begin sitting Shivah, the lights will remain extinguished. It must seem that the cloud signifying the Shechina, God’s Divine Presence, has abandoned these 11 souls. Yet we learn that Yitzchak found consolation in the support and love from his wife, Rebecca. Love, embodied in his wife; love provided Isaac consolation, allowed the lamp to be lit and remain lit from Shabbat to Shabbat. Love lights the darkness and love will help bring consolation to the children and grandchildren mourning the loss of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in Pittsburgh. Love will allow the mourners and a community to sense that God’s presence embodied in the Divine Cloud never really left but remains a source of continued consolation and solidarity.
Peace,
Rav Yitz