Friday, December 28, 2012

Little Brother

Parashat Vayechi 
16 Tevet 5773 / Dec. 28-29, 2013
Bereshit 47:28 - 50:26 

Little Brother
by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, Moishe House Director of Immersive Learning and Rabbi

In this week’s portion we find Jacob, having lived in Egypt for 17 years, feeling his death coming on. After making Joseph promise to bury him back in Canaan with his ancestors, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, Menashe and Emphraim. However, instead of resting his right (dominant) hand on Menashe’s head (as Menashe was the elder brother and such was tradition), he rested it on Ephraim’s head. Joseph tries to correct him, but Jacob says his actions were purposeful, as Ephraim’s line would be greater than Menashe’s, despite Ephraim being the younger of the two.

As an eldest child myself, it’s very hard for me to admit that the story of the Jewish people has historically been that of the younger brother superseding the older brother: Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; Ephraim over Menashe; and eventually, Moses over Aaron.

In many ways, what the Bible has done by consciously (and often painstakingly) pointing out the lineage of our ancestors is gift us with the underlying mentality that has allowed the Jewish people to survive for millennia. Namely, our narrative is the same as that often embodied by younger siblings striving to fill the shoes of their overachieving and (perceived) over-loved older siblings – that of the underdog. 

We are the miniscule pimply-faced David, facing the behemoth hyper-masculine Goliath. We are the Maccabees, few in number but strong in conviction. We are the tiny sliver of land in the Middle East surrounded by hateful neighbors.

As our ancestors did before us, we should embrace being the underdog, while acknowledging that embracing such a narrative inevitably may result in making it harder to recognize instances where we might occupy positions of relative power. It is because of our underdog narrative, infused in us via our core religious text and embodied throughout history, that we find we possess the scrappiness we need to succeed in an ever-changing world, and the strength we need to face the Goliaths in our own lives. 

Parashat Vayechi  16 Tevet 5773 / Dec. 28-29, 2013
Bereshit 47:28 - 50:26 

Transcending and Include Tragedy: Reflections on the Newtown Shooting
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
The shooting in Connecticut last week makes it almost impossible not to feel the pain of an imperfect world. In such times it is easy to surrender our hopes and dreams of a better reality. As Jews we have unique tools to be re-inspired to live fully as we transcend and include such tragedy. For example, we can learn a powerful lesson from two archetypal characters - Jacob and Josef. In parshat Vayechi (“And he lived”) we read about the end of Jacob’s life. He is in Egypt surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Jacob is reunited with his beloved son Joseph, who he thought was dead for many years.
Chapter 48, verse 11 reads:
יא  וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, רְאֹה פָנֶיךָ לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי; וְהִנֵּה הֶרְאָה אֹתִי אֱלֹהִים, גַּם אֶת-זַרְעֶךָ.
11 And Israel said unto Joseph: 'I had not thought to see your face; and, lo, God has let me see your children too.'

The Torah’s word choice for thought is very curious. In the Hebrew (see bolded above) we have the word pilalti. This is from the same root as le’hitpalel or tefilah – to pray or prayer. The Torah is providing us 
insight as to what it means to really pray in the face of the most terrible circumstances.

Jacob is not only saying simply that he had not thought he would see Joseph’s face, rather he was saying he never believed or imagined the possibility that he would see Joseph’s face again. This is what prayer can be – an opportunity to imagine the unimaginable, to create possibility where there seems to be impossibility. When we tap into our spiritual life through prayer we are accessing what Viktor Frankl calls, “the defiant power of the human spirit.” When we pray in a traditional sense, we say, “Hey God! There are a lot of things wrong with this world and the solution seems impossible – but I believe that life can be different and I am not going to give up on doing my part to make it different!” When Jacob says that he thought he would never see Joseph again, we see his lapse into despair, his disconnection with the possibility that life can turn out any different than the misery he was living in.

In the face of a horrendous tragedy like the one that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, taking time to dwell in the Jacob response is very natural and important. Little children’s lives were brutally cut short, as were the lives of the teachers and staff that stayed dutifully to protect them. It is important to acknowledge the brokenness of our world, though unlike Jacob, we should make sure that our spirits are not broken too.

An alternative to Jacob’s despair can be seen in Joseph, who keeps his dreams alive and never loses a connection with the defiant power of his spirit. It reminds me of the popular adage from Pirkei Avot, "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it." 

All across the country people are speaking loudly about gun and bullet control reform, about better care and sensitivity around mental health needs, and about the need for closeness and love in every community. Great tragedy exposes the great cracks of our society. We cannot escape the ugliness in the world, and we should not try to. Moishe House is not just a place where events happen. Each house is a space for community to unite through mourning and celebration. As Rabbi A.J. Heschel suggested, now is the time to pray with our feet. Allow your community to be inspired past the pain to meaningful Jewish practice and social service. Continue to create moments of caring and support where people can come home and be themselves. Learn from Jacob and acknowledge the despair and then act like Joseph and dream of a bright today.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Shabbat Vayigash  
9 Tevet 5773 / December 21 – 22
Bershit 44:18 – 47:27 

The Shema – A Last Hope of Salvation For All the Generations
by Dani Mor and Elazar Niyazov (MH Vienna)

Jacob had not seen his son Joseph for 22 years. In fact he thought that Joseph had been torn apart by a wild animal, and he had already mourned for him. However his suffering finally came to an end. When his sons returned home from Egypt, Serach the daughter of Asher played a song on the harp, a song in which she suggested that “Joseph is still alive, and he rules all the land of Egypt.” When Jacob heard this good news, he immediately prepared himself to travel to Egypt and meet his son Joseph.

The Torah describes the emotional reunion between father and son: “Joseph prepared his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen. He presented himself to him and fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck a good while” (Genesis 46:29). Although Joseph wept, what was Jacob doing at the time? The Torah does not say, but the Sages tell us that Jacob did not weep on Joseph’s neck. Instead, he recited the Shema at that point (Midrash Aggadah, ad loc.).

Let us try and picture it. After 22 years, during which time Jacob and Joseph did not see each other, was it possible that Jacob was not deeply moved upon seeing his son? Is it possible that he was content on reciting the Shema? Why did he not recite it later on, after his encounter with Joseph? Furthermore, why was it only Jacob who recited the Shema? Why did Joseph not recite it as well?

Let us consider the basis for reciting the Shema. The Sages say that the foundation of the Shema is that every person must give one’s life for the sanctification of G-d’s Name, to that point that he or she must feel it at each instant and be ready to give his or her body and soul to sanctify it (Sifri Devarim). However we still need to understand how a person can prove that they are ready to give their life for Hashem. Perhaps someone is doing it for show, and when the time comes for action she will not be ready to give her life for G-d. Perhaps everything is but deception on her part.

We know that if someone wants to give his life for Hashem, he must try to emulate G-d, meaning to emulate G-d in all deeds and conduct. The Sages have said that Hashem asks us to be merciful just as G-d is merciful, to have pity on creatures just has G-d has pity on creatures. When a person acts in this way, it clearly proves to everyone that she truly loves Hashem. If she loves her fellowman and is truly prepared to give her life for others, to help them both materially and spiritually, this means that she also loves G-d and will be ready to give her life for G-d.

This is why, when Jacob encountered Joseph, it was precisely at that point that he recited the Shema. By doing so, he wanted to teach his children a lesson for all the generations, which is that they would not have sold their brother Joseph if they had truly loved one another. If they had been ready to give their lives for G-d, they would have been ready to give their lives for their brother. If they had conducted themselves in this way, they would not have ended up selling Joseph. Thus Jacob wanted to teach them a way of life that was valid for all time: The way of loving one’s fellowman and giving one’s life for him, for that is the foundation of the Shema.

This principle of the Shema has supported the Jewish people throughout the generations, especially during the Second World War, the years of the Holocaust, when Jews were led to the ovens with the Shema on their lips. Who knows as well as we do how much self-denial was required during those years. Jews shared their last piece of bread with their friends, which clearly proved that each person was ready to give her life for the other. From that came the will and the ability to give one’s life for Hashem.

This is the place to briefly recount a well-known story that happened immediately after the Holocaust. Several rabbis wanted to rescue children from the Church, but the question was how. One priest from a church mission that housed Jewish children asked them how they knew who exactly was Jewish and who was not. The rabbis did not know how to respond, and so the Holy One, blessed be He, gave them some help. An idea arose in the mind of one rabbi, who said: “We will come back when the children are ready to go to sleep, and we will show you then.”

At seven o’clock that night, when all the children were in bed, the rabbis arrived at the mission. One of them got up on a small chair in the middle of the dormitory and shouted: “Shema Israel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!” Many of the children began to cry at that exact moment, for the Shema reminded them of their homes. They remembered their Jewish mothers reciting the Shema with them when they went to sleep, and thus the rabbis were able to rescue the Jewish children from confinement in the mission.

From this we see just how powerful the Shema is. In every generation the Shema has been the symbol of the martyr, the symbol of love for the Jewish people and for Hashem, and the symbol of devotion to others and to Hashem. There is a reason why today there are a million Jewish children who, unfortunately, do not know what Shema Israel is, a fact that we are well aware of. These children think neither of others, nor of Hashem, but mainly of themselves.

The tremendous power of the Shema can save the Jewish people from its enemies, and it can save Jews from the Church. This is why each person should strengthen his fellowman in this important mitzvah, for then our reward will be great

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Lesson in Caring

Parshat Miketz
2 Tevet 5773 / Dec. 14 – 15, 2012
41:1 – 44:17

A Lesson in Caring
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

We all know the story. Pharoah has two dreams – fat things are eaten by famished things and they do not get any healthier. He calls together his magicians and dream casters for advice. No one can give Pharoah a satisfying interpretation. One of the king’s ministers recalls a prisoner that he once met who interpreted his dream quite accurately and Yosef is brought before Pharoah to interpret the royal dreams. Yosef listens to the dreams and promises an interpretation only as far as G-d will reveal to him. From the dreams Yosef understands that 7 years of plenty are on their way. The abundance will be followed by a treacherous famine, the likes of which have never been seen before. While this seems like a complete interpretation, he adds, (41:33-36)

33 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 And the food shall be for a store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.'

Perhaps this was part of the Divine insight that Yosef had about the dream, or maybe he was just capitalizing on a chance to make a huge social status vault from prisoner to Second-in-Command. I am unsure. What I do notice though is that Yosef delivers terrible news to the King with a viable solution without skipping a beat. When I think about how news is delivered to me in the U.S., it is often just a dropped bomb with an attitude of, “Here you go. You are on your own.” The world of media charges itself with delivering some version of the truth, but seems unconcerned with the consequences of its message. Gay teens are bullied. Unemployment is on the rise. War and unrest in many parts of the world. Messages delivered, media retreats.

I do not expect the media to have all the answers (or any answers). The folks in front of and behind the camera are just as clueless as anyone else. I do think though that the fissure between delivery of news and caring about the consequences is a symptom of a society that does not act from a place of compassion. And our generation has the potential to learn to create a more caring society by taking this teaching into the personal sphere.

Think about some times in your life when you had to deliver news that was not the greatest. Did you adopt a just the facts attitude in your telling, or did you consider how you might nurture the person as they are impacted by your news? When I interned as a counselor in the Washington D.C. Medical Examiner’s office, I had to guide families through a process of identifying their loved ones who had died. I had to learn to pay attention to every word that was uttered, body language, and breathing patterns. My goal was to bring some sense of order to arguably the most chaotic time in someone’s life. This is not feasible for every conversation, though it provides some context for being a caring and compassionate informant.

When Pharoah hears Yosef’s words he elevates him to be his prime advisor and changes his name to Tsafnat Paneach (41:45). Scholars can only guess at the meaning of this name. And one interpretation is given by Onkelus (c.35-120 CE) as “The Man to Whom All Secrets are Illuminated.” Yosef did not simply bring awareness to the coming disaster, but delivered the message with concern for its after-effects.

As Adam Sandler reminds us, “Channukah is the Festival of Lights!” (Celebrated everywhere this year from the evening of Dec. 20 to the 27th.) Metaphorically, we celebrate this holiday to remember that even in the darkest times, there is always light. The light of Channukah is hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. It’s potential when no alternative is in sight. It’s presence in the midst of utter confusion. This year, I want to challenge myself and our community to not just bring awareness of what is happening in our communities, but to act, like Yosef, as total Illuminators – increasing care and compassion.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Learning from the Pit

Parshat VaYeshev 
24 Kislev 5773 / December 7-8, 2012
Bereshit 37:1 – 40:23

Learning from the Pit
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

Yosef, the beloved son of Yaacov hits rock bottom this week. Literally! His dad gives him a beautiful coat which hails tremendous jealousy from his brothers. Not to mention Yosef’s dreams about his brothers and parents worshipping him do not help. His brothers are so fed up with their younger brother’s antics that they toss him into a pit and sell him into slavery.

“When Yosef came up to his brothers, they stripped him of his ornamented cloak and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:23-24)

Channukah begins this Saturday night and I am wondering how Yosef’s descent into this empty pit relates to the holiday of lights (Chag Ha’Urim).

One spiritual message of Channukah is that light is to be found even in the darkest night. This can be a metaphor for so many things, including that hope and possibility are always present in the midst of despair and doubt. I think this is what Yosef teaches us. He is in the pit of despair – shunned by his family and stripped of his radiant coat. The world was looking pretty amazing until this moment in his life. And like so many moments that occur, his world and his identity are turned upside down. Who can he trust? Where is he going? How will he survive this very painful moment? Yosef in the pit can represent the curve ball that life throws that we see in death, loss, and doubt.

The message of Channukah is to sit in the pit, because you have no other choice but to accept reality. At first you will look around and say that this moment is empty – I am alone. We see that all the experiences of our life, all the blessings of our life, have not adequately prepared us to deal with this amount of struggle – There is not even water here!

Very slowly though, as we light the first light of Channukah which over time becomes the radiance of eight shining flames, we discover inner and outer resources that we were originally blind to. Yosef discovers his faith and the power of his dreams. For some of us, in difficult times we might encounter a compassionate waiting community or a wellspring of dormant creativity. Our eyes and our lives adjust to the darkness of the pit until we see that there is a whole world to explore. A world that is more radiant with meaning and connection then we could have ever imagined.     

Wishing all of us a Chag Channukah Sameach. A joyous Channukah Celebration!