Monday, November 28, 2011

Parshat Va’Yetzeh
Bereshit 28:10 – 32:3
7 Kislev 5772 / December 2-3, 2011

Jacob’s Journey to Find Himself
by David Martin, MH Mexico City

I will approach Parasha Vayetze in a different way, taking two guidelines from the first Pasuk (verse) of the Parasha.

(1) If we look carefully into the text at pasuk 28:13 we will see that G-d literally says to Jacob: "I am HaShem G-d of Abraham, your father, and G-d of Isaac." What could this mean? Isaac was the father of Jacob, not Abraham! Could that mean that Abraham’s relationship with G-d had a certain resemblance to Jacob’s? Or, that in some higher level sense, Abraham was the father of Jacob?

(2) In verse 28:10 the Torah states "...and Jacob stopped on the road because the sun had already set (down) and he slept there...." The pasuk doesn't say where he slept.... all that it says is that he "went out from Be’er Sheva and walked to Jaran". Why does the Torah repeat that he "left Be’er Sheva?" We already know from the previous week that he was there and that his father told him to go to Jaran. If we acknowledge that every word in Torah is used for a specific purpose.... then the pasuk gets very repetitive. So let’s pretend for a minute that the place where he slept and rested is not a physical one, rather a state of mind.

One of my favorite Torah Portions is Lech Lecha. It is an earlier portion about Abraham beginning his own journey away from his birth family to follow the word of G-d. If we translate literally that phrase means "Go for yourself." We could say that the very first thing that G-d asks Abraham is that he has to find himself before G-d could give him any kind of illumination or knowledge... that was the main core of wisdom: find yourself.

The main guidelines or "scripts" from the lives of Abraham and Jacob are similar... both grew up in places that were hostile to their form of spirituality and both of them had to leave their home environments. So maybe what the Torah says when it calls Abraham the father of Jacob is: that he had some connection in the way that G-d was revealed to both of them.

I don’t know for sure, but maybe the place where Jacob “stopped and slept” was more of a state of mind where he was able receive Ruach ha’Kodesh (prophetic spirit). When he left Be’er Sheva, he left his old bad habits and his old rotten environment beyond and at that moment, he finally was able to rest and dream of G-d. He had to leave from Beer Sheeva to Jaran, and also, like Abraham, he had to Lech Lecha.

Monday, November 21, 2011

An Evil Twin is Born

Parshat Toldot
Bereshit 25:19 – 28:9
29 Cheshvan 5772 / Nov. 26 – 26, 2011

An Evil Twin is Born
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I believe that this Parsha contains one of the earliest recorded existential conflicts. Here is the scene (Bereshit Chapter 25).

Esav, a young burly red-headed hunter returns from a strenuous hunt. He did not find any prey on this particular day and is feeling very hungry. He walks into his home and smells something delicious. An aromatic red lentil stew, his younger brother’s special recipe, is simmering on the fire. Esav wants some of that soup!

Esav: Pour into me some of the red-stuff for I am exhausted!

Yaacov: You want my soup! Trade me your status as the first-born!

Esav: Well, I am going to die anyway, so of what use to me is a birthright?

Esav swears his first-born birthright over to his little brother. (Yep they are twins, but Esav came out first. If you know twins, or are a twin, the fact that one came out first can be quite an issue!)And the rest is history – the children of Yaacov and the children of Esav become eternal archetypal enemies. Not so wonderful!

Growing up I always learned about Esav as the “evil twin.” He terrorized his brother and was stupid to sell his birthright – he got the “short end of the stick” that what was coming to him. This year, the response of Esav really jumped out at me in a way that I could very much relate.

“Well, I am going to die anyways, so of what use to me is a birthright?”

Personally, I ebb and flow in my ability to see the world as a meaningful place and thus my engagement in the world also can feel void of purpose. Experiencing life as meaningful takes practice and is not a simple given. The narrative of Yaacov and Esav seems to take place in their adolescence. Can we actually condone a teenager for stating the obvious truth – Nothing lasts forever, so why should I strive for success? Think back to when you were a teen (or maybe just last Tuesday), it is quite natural to wrestle with this perspective.

So was Esav a boor or just someone who tended towards existential conflicts of meaning? Being a hunter, Esav knows that the world can seem quite random. On the hunt, you win some, you lose some. There is not exact reason why a swooping bird catches this rodent and not the one next to it. Perhaps Esav, in that moment was taken by this fact – even with a G-d in the world, things seem to just happen.

Introducing the perspective of the existential into this portion we see a dichotomy between a “Yaacov way” of looking at the world and an “Esav way” of looking at the world. On the one hand the world is full of meaning that lasts beyond the life of one individual. The blessings from the past generations impact the present, and the actions of those in the present will shape the direction of the future. On the other hand, we are stuck in the finiteness of life. There is no continuity in the random unfolding of one generation to the next – Who will die, who will live? Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten?

Un/fortunately, I think about these topics way to much ( and here is my short answer to this complicated dilemma. Both perspectives are absolutely valid (and there are many positions in between!) We can become skillful in knowing when to embrace the meaningfulness of a moment versus when we might tone down our own self-importance. For example, when your commitment at work results in the decay of your social relationships – it is time to evaluate the real meaning of your work. On the contrary, if you are having trouble making a decision, you might tap into your passions and intentions and remember that to live fully is to make choices that appear meaningful in a particular moment.

This week, I feel bad for Esav. Not only does he struggle to see his life as meaningful, but his shallow self-esteem is affirmed by his parents choosing his younger brother over him. We see that this begins a chain reaction whereby he chooses a wife that will specifically antagonize his father (28:9). His father, Isaac, was once Esav’s biggest fan. I want to suggest that this Parsha teaches us an important lesson about how we can affirm or aggravate the sense of meaning of another person. As we see in the story of Esav, it can be the meaning of those closest to us that are impacted most deeply by our actions and attitudes towards them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

It’s In the Genes

Parashat Chayei Sarah
22 Cheshvan 5772 / Nov. 18 – 19, 2011
Bereishit 23:1 – 25:18

It’s In the Genes
by Uri Manor (MH Montgomery County Alumni)  

This parsha opens with Abraham coming home to find his wife Sarah is dead.In case you forgot, last week's parsha ends on the joyous note of G-d making His covenant with Abraham after Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac. I believe that the lesson here is that even Abraham was unable to enjoy constant happiness, and he was the greatest Tzaddik (Righteous person) in our history. Thus, how can we expect (at least relatively) “wicked people” such as ourselves to enjoy constant happiness?

Next, we learn that Abraham went to buy the cave of Machpaila to bury Sarah in.  The Midrash says that this is a cave Abraham discovered when chasing the sacrificial lamb that "replaced" Isaac. This cave is full of the Shechina (Divine Presence), and also happens to be the burial place of Adam and Eve.

Next Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. He meets Rebecca, who demonstrates to us the concept of midda-keneged-midda (measure opposite measure, literally, but it means "what goes around, comes around"). She treats Eliezer kindly and generously, and she is repaid with beautiful gifts from Abraham and is also repaid with Abraham's son as a husband!

One interesting note the Midrash makes is that Rebecca grew up in a wicked town. The lesson is that G-d wanted Isaac's wife to be someone who grew up surrounded by wickedness, but was still able to remain virtuous. That way G-d knew that the descendants of Isaac (e.g. us!) would have the genetic background necessary to do the same throughout the ages, no matter how wicked the world became. It appears to me that G-d was thinking like an evolutionary biologist, or even a molecular biologist that "selects" for the colonies with the properties necessary for the experiment to run as planned. Or maybe it is the other way around? Either way, I think that if we look deeply enough, we can find that there is no contradiction between the theory of evolution and the Torah. After all, is nature not meant to lead us closer to G-d?

In fact, the Midrash says that Abraham discovered G-d through the study of nature. At first, Abraham worshipped the Earth, because its production is that which sustains life, but then he realized the Earth isn't all powerful since it depends on the heavens for rain (let's ignore the irrelevant scientific inaccuracy for a moment), so he worshipped the heavens, or, namely the Sun, since that was what he perceived to be the ruling power of the firmament. But then when the Sun set, he figured that the Moon must be divine, but then he abandoned that thought when he saw that the Moon only shone by night. Finally, by observing the regular rhythm of day/night, the seasons, and all the natural laws, Abraham inferred the presence of a wise creator.

Thus, nature and the study of it, including the wicked "E word", should bring us closer to G-d.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Standing Up

Parshat Vayera
Bereshit 18:1 – 23:24
15 Cheshvan 5771 / Nov. 11-12, 2011

Standing Up
by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, MH Mid-West Regional Director

 In this week’s Torah portion, we find God seeking to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham negotiating with God as to the number of righteous persons living in the cities needed to justify not destroying them.  Starting at 50, he eventually convinces God to not destroy the cities if there are 10 righteous persons living within them (a minyan).  In the end, the cities could not produce even 10 righteous persons, and they were destroyed.

 Abraham was willing to argue with God to save the lives of people he did not know. 

 While not the lesson traditionally gleaned from this Torah portion, which also includes the well-known story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, there is a powerful lesson with regards to the value and power of community contained within it.

Individual righteous actions are wonderful, but this Torah portion makes it pretty clear that even righteous individuals were not to be spared God’s wrath.  Rather, only if there were at minimum a community of 10 such persons would God resist the temptation to destroy the cities.

We live in an era of hyper-individualization, despite the plethora of tools available to connect with others.  In our society, self-fulfillment is king, and only after we ourselves are content do we begin thinking about the needs of others.  Those of us who do find ways to give back often do so on an individual level, as many of our peers are still in the “self-fulfillment” mode, and are not interested in giving back when we are.

Given the emphasis placed on community in this week’s Torah portion, the question I need to ask is:  What are we doing as a community to be righteous together? 

Are we going out of our way to argue for those who maybe are not in a position to stand up for themselves?

Are we encouraging others to join us when we do acts that are considered righteous, such as community service?

Are we capable of putting aside selfish desires in favor of working towards the betterment of others?

The next time you’re inclined to do community service or a similar selfless activity, invite a large group of friends to join you.  Make community building and communal involvement a central part of your personal Jewish journey.  And never forget that while you are indeed important and special as an individual, you will never be more valued as an individual than when part of a community.