The site of Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in June 2012
This week, we read a double parashah, two Torah portions are linked together: Behar and Behukotai. These two readings are comprised of the final chapters of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus. Vayikra has been a bit of a hiatus from the Sh'mot/Exodus narrative flowing from leaving Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle . . . and leading to the book of Bamidar/Numbers in which we will journey along with the wilderness generations of our ancestors to the end of the Torah itself.
The final verse of the first of this week's parshiot/portions reads thus:
"You shall keep my Sabbaths and honor in awe My sanctuary, I am Adonay."
Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in May 2013 on the eve of our first Shabbat service.
This coming Shabbat, our Torat Yisrael family will gather in our new sanctuary for the first time. We will carry our Torah scrolls from our interim space in the accommodating TY Middle Road house (we've been a "close-knit" community this year, for sure!) with song and praise and will deposit our scrolls in the temporary ark lovingly constructed for us by instructor Bill Scott and the Amos House Carpentry Class.
This is most certainly a week to contemplate how to honor God's sanctuary in awe.
Through all the many meetings and conversations and consultations and impossible-to-count volunteer hours that have been devoted to the goal of bringing our Torat Yisrael congregation to this moment, we have always kept in mind the purpose of this building. For the purpose of our beautiful new synagogue building is not just to exist for its own sake, but to provide foster the Jewish learning, worship, celebration and community growth of the members and friends of Temple Torat Yisrael.
The contemporary Jewish scholar and theological, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes: "What does it mean to identify oneself as a Jew? The most obvious first answer is that a person is a Jew by religion. In fact, that is a hard argument to make, as odd as that may seem. There is no basic set of meaningful principles on which all Jews would agree. And there are huge variations in both practice and belief.
Are Jews members of a race? This is clearly not the case. Jews come in every color and exhibit every combination of ethnic features.
Do Jews belong to a nation? Following the involuntary exile inflicted on us many centuries ago, the notion of Jews as a people living in one place, speaking one language, or even sharing one culture does not fit.
Even linguistically, we are splintered. Hebrew is our official language, the language of the land of Israel and of our sacred texts, but many Jews have no knowledge of it at all.
What we are is a family. We are the biological or, in the case of converts, the spiritual children of the House of Israel.
We are connected to one another, whether or not we agree with one another, whether or not we even like one another.
We are not a perfect family, but we are a real family." (Pebbles of Wisdom)
I find Rabbi Steinsaltz's image of the Jewish people as a family very compelling . . . . As an international family or a nuclear family or a communal family, like Torat Yisrael, we will always have differences of opinion, shared aspirations, a variety of talents to contribute and the desire to turn to family at times of challenge, grief and joy.
When we walked out of our 60 year old Torat Yisrael home on Park Avenue thirteen months ago, I spoke about how wrenching it is to leave the "family home" in which so many of us had celebrated, found spiritual inspiration, shared and forged close friendships, learned and grown as Jews.
Now the doors are opening to our new spiritual home and beginning this Shabbat we will again have a home in which to embed new "family" memories.
How do we honor God's sanctuary in awe? By filling this space with our presence, by coming to learn and play and pray, by coming to thank God and support our friends and "kvell" over our growing children. As much as the wilderness Tabernacle was treasured by our ancestors because God's presence among the people was so deeply a source of honor and promise, I'd suggest that our presence in Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary is our most effective means of honoring God in awe. Our family's journey to East Greenwich is complete. . . . and that, to me, is a source of awe and pride and gratitude.
Our seder night is a brilliantly crafted experience: we are surrounded by evocative smells and flavors, melodies and pictures, all designed to draw us in to the journey from slavery to freedom. Horseradish brings to our eyes tears like those of our slave ancestors. We conclude with joyous verses of praise to God for reaching into the black hole of Egyptian bondage and pulling us to the safety of the far shore of the sea of reeds.
One sentence in the Haggadah expresses the soul of this night:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
In each and every generation, each person is obligated to see him/herself as if he/she came out of Egypt.
We eat the "bread of affliction," we chop up apples and walnuts until they look (but thank God, don't taste) like mortar. We steel ourselves for the bite of the maror and swear that "Dayyeinu", if God had only done half of what God has done for us, we would have been more than grateful. We are trying to throw ourselves into the experience of leaving Egypt.
Our experience in the United States is generally pretty "Ashkenazic." Most of us descend of Jewish immigrants who came from eastern and central Europe. Other Jewish communities have their own evocative moments that help the seder participant to feel the leaving:
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In some Sephardic [Mediterranean Jewish] communities, the cloth-wrapped afikoman [the broken middle matzah that is hidden early in the seder] was tied to the shoulder of a child, who left the company and then reappeared
knocking at the door. In the ensuing scripted dialogue, he identified himself as an Israelite on his way to Jerusalem carrying matzah. On entering the room, he looked at the specially arranged table and asked "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
In North African Jewish communities and in India, it was customary to pass the k'arah
[seder plate] over the heads of everyone at the table in a circular motion. Encompassing all gathered in the historic experience. It was an acknowledgment that as the world turns, first we were slaves, then we became free. www.myjewishlearning.com
The most moving collection of seder customs I have ever experienced was in Jerusalem. One year, I was asked to lead the seder at a battered women's shelter in the neighborhood in which I lived and led a congregation. Women and children from Russia and Morroco and Israel and England and Ethiopia and the United States and France and Argentina all sat together at the same seder table. Only the common denominator of having suffered violence at the hands of husbands and boyfriends and fathers could have created such a miscellaneous and yet homogenous group of people. The women had prepared the seder meal in the shelter's communal kitchen. Each woman had volunteered for a dish: soup, desserts, main dishes, side dishes . . . a Morrocan woman had said that she wanted to make her grandmother's special "seder soup." Everyone was delighted, until an Ashkenazic housemate strolled by the pot, lifted the lid and stirred and asked: "aifo hak'naidlach?" (Where are the matzah balls?). The Morrocan soup-chef asked "What's a matzah ball?" and that started a whole rebellion! All the Ashkenazic women ganged up protested: How can there be a seder without matzah balls? They came to a perfect solution: one of the Ashkenazic women taught the Morrocan woman how to make knaidlach and when we got to the soup course, our Morrocan soup-maker proudly ladled us each a bowful of her grandmother's seder soup with an Ashkenazic matzah ball floating in the middle!
Passover is absolutely about the journey: for these women and children, on their own journey from oppression to a new life of self-determination, that seder night was particularly evocative. We all saw ourselves as if we each had left from Egypt . . . and found some very moving milestones along the way.
"The Song at the Sea"
The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover is referred to, in the Jewish calendar, as Shabbat HaGadol / the Great Shabbat.
With so much time and energy devoted to preparation for Passover, one might wonder why we need a Great Shabbat right now. What makes this Shabbat so great?
Historically, when the role of the community rabbi was conceived differently, Shabbat HaGadol was one of very few Sabbaths during which the rabbi would give a major D'var Torah, a major sermon. The subject for this particular Shabbat was meant to be the ins and outs of Passover observance, in order to ensure that there would be no chametz found anywhere within the defined boundaries of the community.
Today, a Great Shabbat might be one in which the rabbi does not give a major D'var Torah! Sermon or no, I suggest that there is still something Great about this Shabbat.
Many of us are engaged in preparing for Passover. We're finishing up the crackers and vacuuming behind the couch. Those of us who are hosting seders are polishing the silver and hunting out last year's hit recipes.
All of this physical preparation is very absorbing, and it's pretty easy to get fixated on the small details of cleaning, shopping, switching out dishes and cooking. The huge spiritual gift that is Passover can easily get lost among the kugels.
This is why Shabbat HaGadol is Gadol, this is the greatness of the Great Shabbat: the essence of Shabbat as a day of rest provides us with a well-deserved hiatus from the shopping and chopping. Shabbat HaGadol is a day to anticipate the spiritual high of the seder. Anyone who has planned a wedding or a bat mitzvah or a fiftieth wedding anniversary party knows that the profound simchah at the heart of the celebration can easily get lost as we focus on the logistics.
The simchah of Passover is much too important; Shabbat HaGadol helps us shift our focus back to the reason for all the preparations: the simchah we celebrate on Passover is the unique, momentous moment of "yitziat mitzrayim." God, "with an outstretched arm" reached across the borders of the ancient world to scoop us up out of slavery and set us down on the safe side of the Sea of Reeds. We looked back and, like the young couple in the painting above, we rejoiced. We sang, we danced, we thanked God for this profound act of love.
When we gather this week at the seder table, amid the shining kiddush cups and the steaming matzah balls, we will, God willing, revel in the love around the table shared with our family and friends . . . and we will, because God willed it, sing and rejoice and remember that the core of our identity as a people is rooted in God's love.
This opening verses of this week's Torah reading / parashah present a core principle of Jewish tradition that, truthfully, has confused many people for a long time:
"And Moses assembled all of the congregation of the children of Israel and said to them, "These are the things that Adonay has commanded, to do them: Six days work shall be done, and in the seventh day you shall have a holy thing, a Sabbath, a ceasing to Adonay. Anyone who does work in it shall be put to death. You shall not burn a fire in all of your homes on the Sabbath day." (Exodus / Sh'mot 35: 1-3)
The passage then continues in a direction we would not expect. Instead of continuing to define "work," instead of listing the activities that are "holy enough" for Shabbat, we move on to a mitzvah/commandment directed to our Israelite ancestors in the wilderness to collect certain rare and expensive items to donate to the construction of the Tabernacle: the walls, the accessories, the priestly garments, the food items to be sacrificed . . .
The effect of this "turn without signalling" has been to spark the rabbinic imagination. A 2nd century rabbinic text, the Mishnah, connects the two passages and concludes that the "work" that is prohibited in verse 2 is defined by the human activities required to construct and create all of the pieces of the Tabernacle described in the ensuing verses. Thus, building, hammering, planting and sowing, creating fire, cooking, carrying items back and forth, weaving, cutting to measure . . . all of these become prohibited as "work" on Shabbat.
There is another derivation of "work" that is hinted at in verse 2: just as the seventh day was a day of "ceasing" to God--in Genesis/Breishit God rests on the seventh day after creating light and dark, dry land and oceans, plants, animals, stars and moon and humanity--so the seventh day should be a day of "ceasing" from creating for human beings as well.
What is it that we humans create? Our human endeavors, over the ages, have largely been focussed on providing food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. It is certainly the case that today, few of us are directly engaged in wielding a hammer, weeding a vegetable garden or cutting a sewing pattern . . . and when we are, it is more often a hobby or personal passion than a direct, compelling imperative to put clothing on our backs, food on our tables and a secure roof over our heads.
In today's complex economy, we provide food, clothing and shelter for our families by going to work and earning a paycheck and by shopping.
It may be physically challenging to carry a carton of books from the basement to the attic, but it isn't "work" in the Shabbat sense . . . that act of "shlepping" is not contributing to the creation of food, clothing or shelter. It may provide a sense of peace and accomplishment to pull out our knitting on Shabbat afternoon . . . but knitting is a human activity that literally creates clothing and, as such, is an activity proscribed by this definition of Shabbat.
For the majority of us, who have not made the commitment to turn to Jewish law / halachah to guide our actions, why should we turn the week's most convenient errand day into a day that produces no progress in the "food, clothing, shelter" department?
The rabbis of 2000 years ago suggested that Shabbat can be "a taste of the world to come." If we were to project ourselves into an existence where all that toil and worry about food, clothing and shelter were no longer necessary, what would our lives look like? No wallets. No watches. No ATMs. . . . an existence infused with peace and health and security and time to bask in the presence of our loved ones.
That is the potential of a "work-free" Saturday . . . a weekly opportunity to taste the world that might be.
Bernie at Purim 2009
Mardis Gras. Halloween. Carnevale de Venezia. Masquerade.
It seems everyone loves a chance to dress in costumes.
Purim is such a fascinating and unique moment in the cycle of the Jewish year: It's our "let loose" moment . . . costumes, songs, raucous audience-participation during the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), even some condoned adult tippling.
When we read the Purim story in the Scroll of Esther, however, some engaging, substantive themes emerge:
It is in this book of the Hebrew Bible that we encounter a new model of women's leadership. Vashti, King Ahashuerus's rebellious queen is banished from the throne for her non-compliance.
"Back in the day" active Megillah-listeners would hiss at the sound of Vashti's name. Today, women are more likely to cheer for the female sovereign who risked her crown to preserve her dignity.
Over the course of the Scroll, we witness Esther's transformation from a shy, self-deprecating beauty to a royal-court-savvy, assertive champion of our people, more successfully risking her crown for principle than her predecessor.
Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
Purim shares a significant distinction with the festival of Shavuot . . . neither festival takes place within the Land of Israel. What does it mean that we received the Torah (celebrated at Shavuot) and defended the security of our community (at Purim) outside the borders of the Land of Israel? This may be a question that we here in the United States may see differently than our peers living in Israel.
Too Much Bloodshed?
Whether hyperbole, fantasy or historical fact, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther relates the mechanism by which the Jews of Shushan and the Persian Empire survived. The King's order to slay the Jews (provoked by Haman) could not be revoked. There existed no mechanism for revoking a royal decree. So, the best King Ahashuerus could do was to order a second decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Which they did. Effectively. Enthusiastically. Throughout Shushan and its 127 provinces, over 75,000 enemies were killed by the Jews . . . who did not touch the spoils of war.
I had the opportunity to live in England for a year. A friend involved in the administration of Great Britain's equivalent of our Reform Movement explained that their tradition was to hold a board meeting the night of Purim in order to demonstrate to their non-Jewish neighbors and friends that this Jewish community would not gather to celebrate the deaths of their non-Jewish enemies.
Clearly the juvenile and family-friendly versions of the Megillah skip this chapter, but here, among adults, we are left to ponder: is the story of Purim meant to convey to our diaspora neighbors that God will protect us one way or another no matter where we live? Has the story of Purim generated hostility directed at diaspora Jewish communities over the centuries? Should we read Chapter 9 and take pride in the fact that our ancestors stood up for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be slaughtered? Do we cringe a little and wish the text of the book of Esther expressed some regret for the bloodshed?
The Priority of Community
The annual celebration of Esther and Mordechai's triumph over Haman is described in the final verses of the book of Esther. Purim is to be an occasion for feasting and merrymaking . . . for sending gifts of food to one another and sending donations to support the poor. The feasting and merrymaking are not unexpected expressions of joy, relief, celebration. I find the last two elements . . . Mishloach Manot, Sending Portions of Food to neighbors and friends and Matanot l'Evyonim, Sending Gifts to the Needy to add a quality of significance to our celebration. As we indulge in, perhaps, a little too much rich food and a little too much to drink, we are also equally expected to share our bounty with family and friends and make sure that the vulnerable among us also have cause and the means to celebrate.
Purim is most definitely fun . . . and we here at Torat Yisrael are hoping the snow won't get in the way of our celebration this year. And, between the snowflakes, we can also pause to consider some of Purim's "meatier" themes.
David Avram Smoller, ז"ל*
Every chance I get, I tell people that it is a privilege to be a rabbi. Most treasured among the opportunities I treasure in my rabbinate are the people who let me into their lives. The more experience I accrue as a rabbi, the more I come to appreciate what I can learn from my "chavrei kehillah" -- the members of my congregation.
A young friend recently told me about an intriguing international program called "The Human Library," in which a group of people with varying life experiences each agree to tell their life story for about fifteen minutes to any individual who is interested. The visitor reads a synopsis of the person's life story on a card and decides to "check out" the human book. They have a fifteen minute slot for the "human book" to tell her or his story and then the "library patron" returns the "human book" and can check out another if he or she finds another potentially interesting story.
Over the course of time, I've acquired a few people who i've added to my permanent "human library." People who have taught me, shared with me, opened vistas for me.
David Smoller was one of those.
If you were to assess the man in the photograph above, you'd probably guess that this was a happy man, a friendly man, a guy, perhaps, with a good sense of humor. You'd be right. What you would not guess from this great photograph of David at a Torat Yisrael end-of-summer barbecue a few years ago, is that David faced his own mortality with courage and determination and optimism and courage and sheer will since he was a teenager.
David would tell me: "There's no other way to do it." David would power through any and all onslaughts to his physical well-being with one single goal: to get back to his real life of loving and caring for and supporting Susan and Michelle. "Life is good." David would say.
Other people in David's circumstances would (and do) complain, whine, suffer under a burden of fear, lash out in anger and frustration, shrivel in helplessness.
David swaggered through every challenge with a smile on his face, putting his faith in God, counting the blessings in his life, embracing every opportunity for friendship, mentschlichkeit, joy, love, generosity and a good laugh.
I sat at his feet; a neophyte in the art of living and loving life.
A week or so before David died, his daughter, Michelle, brought her laptop to the hospital and created this Youtube video.
There is so much to learn from this intelligent, kind, funny, determined and loving man.
Thank you, Michelle, for putting this together so that so many of us can learn from your Dad.
Thank you, David, for sharing your wisdom and your humor and trust with me.
*zichrono livrachah: may his memory be a blessing
This week's parashah / Torah portion continues the revelation at Sinai begun during last week's dramatic, shofar-blasts-smoke-and-thunder forging of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
This week's chapters of Torah settle down to the task of laying out our responsibilities as we fulfill our commitment to maintain our covenant with God. The scope and diversity of the mitzvot / commandments delivered in our parashah, Mishpatim (which literally translates as "laws") is are tremendously comprehensive. As we look through laws that outline our relationships with other human beings, with God, with other elements of creation, like animals and plants, the realization dawns that our tradition is holistic . . . our thoughts, our actions, our aspirations can all be elevated and bring holiness to the world if we turn to the Torah and the covenant for guidance. "One who steals a man, and has sold him, or he was found in his hand, will be put to death." (Exodus/Sh'mot 21:16) "And if an ox will gore a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall be stoned, and its meat shall not be eaten--and the ox's owner is innocent. And if it was a goring ox from the day before yesterday, and it had been so testified to is owner, and he did not watch it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox will be stoned, and its owner will be put to death as well." (21:28-29) "You shall not bring up a false report. Do not join your hand with a wicked person to be a malevolent witness." (23:1) "And you shall not oppress an alien--since you know the alien's soul, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (23:9) "And six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; and the seventh: you shall let it lie fallow and leave it, and your people's indigent will eat it. You shall do this to your vineyard, to your olives." (23:10-11) "You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (23:19)
Few of us in East Greenwich have fields to leave fallow (and anyway, that particular mitzvah is reserved for Jewish-owned fields in Israel) or have to worry about the behavior of our ox. But the values couched in those ancient middle-eastern realia find expression in our own practices, traditions and standards today.
This past Sunday morning, our third, fourth, and fifth graders, their parents and even a few grandparents gathered at the Frenchtown Road Stop and Shop for a "Mishpatim Moment." After having studied about kashrut in class with teacher Joie Magnone, our students and parents met at the supermarket to put theory into practice. Armed with a booklet showing a variety of kosher symbols and a shopping list of ten items to find that sported those symbols, our kosher shoppers took off: salad dressing, pasta, breakfast cereal, prune juice, crackers, canned peaches . . . we spread through the store collecting kosher non-perishibles.
Lesson #1 learned: It's actually pretty easy to eat kosher. Most of our favorite national brands are kosher!
After checking everyone's basket and purchasing our 10 items per family, we arrived at Lesson #2: We met Susan Adler, Director of the Jewish Seniors Agency, which runs the Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry. Sue accepted our kosher offerings with enthusiasm and promised to stock the shelves of the pantry for the over 125 clients of the JSA who are food insecure . . . who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.
Our Mishpatim Moment: We learned a bit about what kosher food is and how to find it . . . and we got it into onto the tables of those in our community who need it most.
This week's parashah/Torah portion contains one of my most favorite passages. Moshe and Aaron are back in front of Pharaoh for yet another round of pre-plague negotiations. Pharaoh asks who among the Israelites would go out into the wilderness to worship the God of the Israelites if Pharaoh were to give his permission. Moshe replies:
"We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and our daughters..." (Sh'mot/Exodus 10:9).
Pharaoh's reply is infused with skepticism: "He said to them, "Adonay would be with you like that, when I would let you and your infants go! . . . It is not like that. Go--the men!-- and serve Adonay, because that is what you're asking." (10: 10-11)
There is a good deal of formal counting of "noses" in the Torah: before getting ready to leave Egypt, at significant junctures in the 40 years of wandering, on the eve of entering the Land . . . Israel gets counted. In those counts, we've seen that it is the men who get counted: the heads of the tribes get counted, the heads of the households get counted, the males fit for military service get counted. So we might get the impression that women don't count in our defining text as the foundations of Judaism are laid down.
This passage shows us otherwise. Yes, males get counted when there needs to be a sense of how many political or socio-economic units make up the עם/ahm/nation of Israel, how strong a military force is available to defend our people. But when Moshe and Aaron are talking about who goes and who stays, the definition of עם is inclusive: men and women, young and old, sons and daughters, the able-bodied and the frail, the economically significant and the dependent. Moshe makes it clear to Pharaoh that when Israel leaves Egypt it will be all of Israel, every single Israelite soul counts.
So it is in the best of Jewish communities today: everyone counts. Everyone is valued for the talents and the experience and the intelligence and the creativity and the humor and the dedication and the resources we each bring to the community . . . each individual's configuration of these elements is valued as essential to the well-being of the community as a whole. No one has it all: some of us are great organizers. Some of us brainstorm inspiring ideas. Some of us reach deep into our pockets. Some of us are there to support mourners. Some of us lighten the mood at meetings. Some of us bask in the limelight. Some of us thrive behind the scenes.
One of my most beloved "us" moments here at Torat Yisrael is our Torah at the Table Shabbat morning study sessions (the second and fourth Saturdays of the month at 9:15 am). Around the table, covered with munchies and coffee mugs and chumashim/bibles, we read and discuss Torah. Any given Torah at the Table can see Cohen School kids and their parents, empty-nesters and grandparents, all studying Torah together, all listening to and pondering each others questions and suggestions. That's us. A community of young and old, sons and daughters brought together by Torah.
Moses described it. We live it.
Every three or four years, more or less, we read this week's parashah / Torah reading on the Shabbat preceding New Year's Eve . . . so we are watching the book of Breishit/Genesis come to a close along with the secular year.
It's an evocative combination: A calendar year comes to a close, the first book of Torah comes to a close, the life of a patriarch comes to a close . . .
Like the time leading up to the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, this week or so in the secular calendar is a time for both looking back and looking forward. Amidst the unrelenting hype of post-Christmas sales, we are meant to consider the events and actions and relationships of our lives and resolve to do better. Despite the ads by Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, I imagine that these new year's resolutions should go beyond the number of pounds we promise ourselves we'll lose in the next calendar year.
The end of the book of Breishit/Genesis marks the end of a foundational text of the Torah. In Breishit we witness the creation of the world culminating in the creation of humanity and the establishment of the principle of Shabbat. We watch the first bumpy steps in the relationship between God and the most uncontrollable element of creation: curious, vindictive, disobedient, faithful, courageous, loyal, principled . . . people.
At the end of his long and eventful life, Jacob lies on his deathbed surrounded by his family in the closing chapters of Breishit. Jacob metes out judgment. At the end of his life, he reviews not his own behavior and actions, but those of his progeny. Son by son, Jacob evaluates past actions and comment's on that son's character: Reuben is "unstable as water"; Shimon and Levi are "tools of lawlessness . . . cursed be their anger . . . I will scatter them in Israel"; Judah--"the scepter shall not depart from Judah...and the homage of peoples shall be his"; Asher's "bread shall be rich". And like his father, Isaac, delivers a death-bed blessing to a younger son: to Joseph he says "The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills . . . . "
In Israel, New Year's Eve is referred to as "Sylvester", a nod to the non-Jewish roots of the festival. According to the Hebrew version of Wikipedia, the festival of the last night of the year called Sylvester in Israel and in some European countries is associated with Pope Sylvester I ( who served as Pope from 314 to 335) who died during the night of December 31st - January 1st. The date is, thus, a sacred day of remembrance within the Catholic world, and has become an international day of festivity since the Gregorian calendar became the internationally accepted standard with no thematic connection to Pope Sylvester, of course.
A week like this, when we re-watch the death-bed scene of Jacob's and are encouraged to contemplate the consequences of our actions by virtue of the ticking over of another calendar year, we should consider, perhaps, what Jacob did not: the aftermath of his own actions.
When Jacob died, surrounded by his twelve sons (and, one supposes, his daughter, Dina, although she is not mentioned) the Torah reports: "Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him." (50:1) Reuben, Gad, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Shimon, Levi, Naphtali, Benjamin, Zevulun, Judah . . . nothing. By this account, Jacob has left behind one bereaved and eleven disaffected sons. Probably in shock at hearing their father's final words to them.
A few verses later, and we find those eleven brothers turning to Joseph contending that their father had left instructions that Joseph was to forgive his brothers their offense of selling him into slavery and then they offered themselves as slaves to Joseph. Jacob has left behind a dysfunctional family whose only hope for healing is found in the favored son, Joseph. Joseph does indeed, bless his brothers will healing words: "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result--the survival of many people. And so, fear not, I will sustain you and your children." (50: 19-21)
It is not his father's love that has inspired Joseph to such maturity and perspective, but the opportunity provided to him by God to reach for, and attain, lofty goals . . . to feed those who might otherwise starve. From such experience, the dysfunction of his own family must seem easily addressed: compassion comes easily to Joseph after all his life experience.
There is value in taking the time to stop and consider our actions and our behavior and our relationships from time to time. If that contemplation is triggered by the ticking over of the Gregorian calendar year, great! Any moment of self-reflection that draws us into an evaluation of that which motivates us, inspires us, shapes our actions and guides us in our relationships with those we care about is a good moment, whichever calendar we're looking at.
In this week's parashah, Torah portion, we are witness to a very human moment in the life of our patriarch, Jacob. Convinced by his mother, Rebecca, that he had alienated his twin, Esau, Jacob had fled to the land of his mother's birth and settled there. Years later, a husband and father, Jacob is on his way back home.
As he draws closer to his homeland . . . and to his twin, Esau . . . Jacob begins to worry about the welcome he will receive from his disaffected brother: will Esau wish him ill? will Esau attempt to attack him physically? will Esau turn him away? Jacob prays: "Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. (Breishit/Genesis 32: 12)
The closer the brothers become, geographically, the more terrifying the figure of Esau becomes to his twin, Jacob. Jacob has convinced himself that his and his family may be in mortal danger from the hand of Esau and in order to preserve at least part of his family, Jacob divides his camp into two. At least one half of his family and his estate will survive Esau's attack.
Now within sight of each other, Jacob prostrates himself seven times and he approaches Esau . . . who embraces his long lost twin with passion. Not anger. Not jealousy. Just love.
How often have you found the anticipation to be worse than the event? How often has the voice inside your head convinced you that you are about to face the insurmountable . . . only to discover yourself in a situation that is easier, more manageable, less intimidating than you allowed yourself to imagine?
The imaginings of Jacob, compared with the reality of Esau, provide us with the encouragement to resist talking ourselves into fear. With some faith, some perspective, and some effort to truly understand the other, we can move through this world with a bit more confidence, a bit less of the fear that turns us into people we'd rather not be.