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.
In a parasha/Torah reading of extraordinary events, there lies one verse which I find a true source of wonder: Jacob is fleeing his home land of Canaan on the way to his mother's homeland and safe haven from his (ostensibly) enraged twin, Esau.
There was no Amtrak, not even a stagecoach, to facilitate this journey: Jacob made his journey on foot and was required to make camp at night in the middle of nowhere on his way. It is in this vulnerable night that Jacob dreams: a ladder stretches from earth to heaven and angels are ascending and descending this ladder. And then we read:
And Jacob awoke ... and said: Surely, God is present in this place, and as for me, I did not know it!. (28:10,16)
That's the amazing verse to me: Jacob did not know that God was in that particular place.
Isn't the first lesson in Torat Tots (our pre-school program) that God is everywhere? For all that we cannot see God . . . despite the cartoons and the Renaissance paintings, God has no corporality, no arms or eyes or beard . . . God is omnipresent, in every place. Jacob, who may or may not serve as a paragon of virtue or faith (that's another d'var Torah!), apparently left home without the assumption that the God of his grandfather, Abraham, would be with him wherever he went. It took a divinely inspired dream to establish that truth for our ancestor.
We, who were raised with that basic premise of "God is everywhere," have our own difficulty with grappling with that reality. My rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, Professor of Theology at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, tells a story about one of his early encounters with his own teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The two of them had attended Shabbat services on a spring Shabbat at The Jewish Theological Seminary and were walking home together through Riverside Park. Suddenly, Rabbi Heschel stopped, pointed and said to the pre-rabbinic Neil Gillman: "There is God in that tree!"
Others might have taken that same walk and commented: "Oh how nice, the trees are budding again." or "Isn't that a pretty shade of light green?" But Rabbi Heschel had a very well-developed "awe radar system" . . . he had the capacity to sense and appreciate God's presence in the most prosaic as well as in the most elevated moments.
Our ancestor, Jacob, was able to appreciate the significance of that message God sent him in the dream "you are travelling far from home and I am with you wherever you go." Rabbi Heschel taught Neil Gillman that God is there for us if we would only open our eyes to God's presence.
All our lives can be richer, more fulfilling, less anxious--all we need do is fine-tune our "awe radar" and let God in to our prosaic and our elevated moments.
Parashat Vayishlah Torah Reading: Genesis 32:4-36:43
In this week's parashah / Torah portion, Vayishlach, we revisit the phenomenon of re-naming which we first witnessed in the patriarchal/matriarchal generation of Avram/Avraham and Sarai/Sarah. I always regarded this ceremonial re-naming as part of the transition in identity that our "first couple" underwent in their journey from the world of idolatry to the world of monotheism. Indeed, to this day, one of the most moving elements of conversion in the Jewish world is the selection of a name by which the Jew by choice will be called to the Torah. The Hebrew name which declares that this person is persona grata in the Jewish world.
These first two names of transition are based on the individuals' birth names: with the addition of the Hebrew letter ה (hei), Avram becomes Avraham. With the substitution of the letter י (yod) with the letter ה (hei), Sarai becomes Sarah. Their former identities are visibly woven into their new identities.
This is not the case, however, when it comes to the renaming of the patriarch Yaakov/Jacob, whose new name has no etymological or even auditory link with his new name, Yisrael/Israel. Unlike the cases of his grandparents, though, Jacob's birth name persists. Many a rabbinic hour has been dedicated to unravelling the mystery of this patriarch's parallel identities: sometimes the Torah refers to him as Jacob, sometimes the Torah refers to him as Israel.
I have a new friend, an Imam here in Rhode Island who, as a youth in New York, converted from Christianity to Islam. As is the case with Jewish conversion, my friend chose a new name for himself that clearly identifies himself as an adherent of his new faith. His decision to be known exclusively by his new name is the equivalent to a woman named Margaret converting to Judaism and legally changing her name to her new Hebrew name Miriam and thus leaving behind the name Margaret.
I was fascinated by this expression of transformation and asked him how he felt when he recalled the young man known by another name. He told me that that person would always be a part of him, that he did not carry around with him a sense of rejection of that young man.
And that led me to my "aha!" moment regarding our patriarch, the eternally-toggling Jacob/Israel. Here is the Torah, with profound revelatory insight, teaching us that there is no such thing as completely leaving behind who we have been and what we have done. Jacob the deceptive, conniving youth grows into Israel, the wise, insightful patriarch. Although the thought is unexpressed, it may very well be that Israel regrets some of the actions of Jacob. Even though we may feel remorse for, and have learned lessons from mistakes we have made in the past, those experiences still shape who we are. Indeed, as we might posit in Jacob/Israel's case, the insensitivities and deceptions of youth may have helped to develop empathy and integrity in later life. Hence, even as Israel, there is no leaving behind Jacob.
I am grateful for this insight of our Torah, which comes to encourage us to turn even the darkest experiences of our past into the raw material of wisdom, integrity and inspiration for our present and future.
Parashat Vayetze Torah Reading: Genesis 28:10-32:3
וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר: "מַה נונּוֹרָא הַמָּקווֹם הַזֶּה! אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם".
And Jacob was filled with awe, and said: 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'
This week's parashah / Torah portion open opens with the very graphic story of Jacob's ladder. After decades of alienation from his brother Esau and his homeland, Jacob is on a journey of return with his wives, Leah and Rachel, and his children. One night, he sleeps in an isolated spot and witnesses/dreams the apparition of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels moving down and up the ladder. This story has inspired commentators and artists for milennia, to my mind it provides us with enriching imagery for remembering who we are and what we should be keeping in mind every time we gather together: 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'
A synagogue is a lot of things: a place of worship; a community center; an education center; a social center, but the overarching umbrella concept that includes all of these and more is "house of God."
I like the combination of images in this verse: house of God and gate of heaven. What can that mean? Can we sit back and assume that any house of God also serves as a gate of heaven or is it a matter of earning the status of gate of heaven?
And what does "gate of heaven" mean anyway?
A gate is like a threshold. A gate allows us to pass from one realm into another. A congregation, a house of God, at its best, is a place where those who enter can find ways to move from the secular to the sacred.
On Tuesday evening, I asked the members of our Torat Yisrael board "What can we, as the leaders of this house of God do to assure that our congregation also serves as a gate of heaven?" I believe strongly in the essential role of leaders in shaping and guiding the values and culture of a congregation. But a congregation is, by definition, a collection on people brought together through a common denominator. Our common denominator, of course, is engagement in Judaism as a Conservative community.
In an ultimate and profound sense, the shaping and guiding of the values and culture of our congregation is the responsibility of everyone affiliated with Torat Yisrael, not only the formal leadership. And so I bring this same challenge to the entire Torat Yisrael family.
What we need to do is to agree among us, first of all, that we want Torat Yisrael, our house of God, to be a gate of heaven. Before we can work on the "how" we need to agree on the "what."
For the last few years, I have asked the officers and board members of our congregation to recite the following prayer on the occasion of their installation. I feel it is an outstanding blueprint for building and sustaining a house of God that is a gate of heaven:
May the doors of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for fellowship. May we welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture.
May the doors of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.
May its threshold be too high to admit complacency, selfishness, and harshness.
May it not be a stumbling block to the young, or a hindrance to those who are older.
May this synagogue be, for all who enter the doorway to a richer more meaningful life.
To which I can only say "amen!"
Parashat Vayishlah Torah Reading: Genesis 32:4-36:43
In this week's parashah / Torah Reading, the patriarch Jacob is on his way home. After decades in the land of his mother's birth, having acquired two wives, two concubines and thirteen children, Jacob is coming home. Man of means though he may be, homecoming is a source of tremendous anxiety for Jacob: he left as a young man having stolen the blessings due to his older twin Esau and he is not sure of the reception he will receive from his long-estranged twin.
With all this on his mind, in the middle of nowhere, Jacob is accosted in his sleep by a "being", an angel . . . if you are so inclined, you can read the story as a dramatic working out of Jacob's inner struggle. Whether God's angels are representative of elements of our own personalities or whether they are beings external to us, Jacob encounters one and wrestles with one in the middle of the night. The human and the angelic encounter and struggle with each other.
The Chasidic Koretzer Rebbe said: Within us are all the worlds, and we can therefore be in contact with them all. With us are all the qualities, good and evil, but they are unborn, and we have the power to beget them. We can transform evil qualities into good, and good into evil. By studying Torah and performing commandments we give birth to the angelic within us.
Why is Judaism such a holistic tradition? Why do we need guidance from the Torah and from Jewish law (halachah) about our relationships with our parents? our business dealings? our diets? our dress? Does God think we're stupid and immoral?
God knows that there are moral and good atheists (God made them, too!).
God, Torah, our tradition, the sages who have built layer upon layer of our rabbinic tradition all know that it's not easy being the best we can be. The holistic, comprehensive scope of Jewish tradition is here for us not because we can't be trusted, but because we do struggle all the time. The major figures in the Torah are not perfect human beings because there is no such thing as a perfect human being. The Torah allows us to witness how their lives are enriched when they let God into their lives . . . .
The gift of this week's parashah? We are encouraged to keep up the struggle, to let the angelic impulse prevail, to embrace Judaism in all it's range instead of compartmentalizing it into something we do at 330 Park Avenue or with the family at a holiday or simchah. Don't forget: Jacob was embraced by Esau when they met. If we let God in, we win.
Parashat Toldot Torah Reading: Genesis 25:19-28:9
The more I study Torah the more the divine source of the text proclaims itself. There is one moment in this week's Torah reading in which the Torah's insight into the human soul offers us a key to one of life's most difficult challenges . . . moving past the hurt someone has done to us.
Towards the end of the parashah, we witness a key moment towards the end of Isaac's life: the moment when he blesses his progeny and, in a sense, appoints the son who will carry the responsibility for sustaining the covenant with God. Through a ruse (justifiable or not, pre-ordained or not), the younger twin, Jacob, secures the blessing that by birth order should have come to his brother Esau. When Esau comes to his father's bedside to receive his blessing, he learns that his brother Jacob has maneuvered him out of his rightful blessing and Esau begs his father for a blessing for himself.
The words of Isaac's blessing are a bit cryptic. He begins by declaring that Esau will prosper, that he will live by his sword and that he will serve his brother until he . . . and then there's a word that is open to interpretation . . . at which point he will throw off the yoke of his brother.
One interpretation of this word is "restive" . . . when you grow restive you will throw off the yoke of your brother. Someone else interprets it as "humble". Yet another interpretation seems to be "troubled."
What impresses me about Isaac's blessing to Esau is that the yoke of Jacob, the resentment and hurt that will chain Esau to his brother in a relationship of "servitude" will be broken when something in Esau changes. When you hit bottom and are tired of carrying this weight around in your heart, Isaac seems to be saying, you'll finally be free of the yoke of your resentment.
Because our narrative follows Jacob rather than Esau, we do not meet up with Esau again until many years later (in another week's Torah reading!) when Jacob is on his way home and is anxiously protecting his family and possessions in anticipation of a reunion with an angry Esau. But when the brothers do come face to face again, we see that Esau steps forward to embrace his brother Jacob . . . Esau has achieved his father's blessing after all, has moved past the hurt Jacob saddled him with and embraces him free of the yoke of resentment.