Parashat Vayigash Torah Reading: Genesis 44:18-47:27
The biblical book of Breishit/Genesis is full of dysfunctional families. Mothers and children are banished to the wilderness, sons are bound on altars and then never speak to their fathers again, brothers begin their rivalry in utero, mothers and sons conspire to deceive fathers. It's official: Breishit is a soap opera that's running longer than "The Days of Our Lives!"
As is often the case in the real world, in fiction and in divine revelation, this family does not contain one villain and one innocent. Rather, the dysfunctionality of the family comes from the fateful chemistry between several flawed individuals. Part of the saga of the Breishit families are moments of transcendence in which they mature, achieve resolution and show us how we might heal the great and small ruptures in our own lives.
This week's Torah reading / parashah contains just such a moment, when Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brother, after manipulating them with a terrifyiing game of cat and mouse. This is a moment that has been building up from the time of the brothers' childhoods when the older brothers resented their younger brother for the special treatment he received at the hands of their Jacob (the coat of many colors), and for Joseph's seemingly narcissistic dreams.
Joseph suffers an indescribable trauma when his brothers, the family which is supposed to make us feel safe, throw him into a pit and leave him for dead. Now they stand before him, supplicants asking for food. He is the second most powerful man in Egypt and his brothers have no idea that the man who holds the key to their survival is that same obnoxious little brother they abandoned decades ago.
One of the fascinating, and deeply true, aspects of this story is that after all those years, after garnering all that power, Joseph still felt so vulnerable at the sight of his brothers that he had to hide his identity from them, threaten them with his power, surround himself with the accouterments of his office. It couldn't matter less what our external attainments are. The dynamics of our family histories affect us in the core of our being, in a place that outward attainments cannot touch. It is only be repairing the rifts between us, by reaching out to each other, that we can heal.
Let's remember that this story is not a modern self-help book, it's a profound gift of the divine revelation of our Torah. the fact of the presence of these passages in the Torah is an indication that God understands how families heal. The fact of the presence of these passages in the Torah is an indication of God's love for us and an indication of how God can inspire us in our daily lives.
Shabbat Hanukah I
This evening the festival of Hanukah begins. Hanukah is one of our most vivid holidays: candles, menorahs, dreidles, songs, latkes, an engaging story of heroism, it's just about perfect!
One of the things I appreciate most about this holiday is its name: like almost every Hebrew word, "Hanukah" is built on a three letter root. In this case the letters are "het, nun, chaf" or, reading from right to left:
ח נ כ
Other words built on this same three-letter root include: "dedication," "education," "consecration" and "apprenticeship." When we move into a new home our "house-warming party" takes on additional significance when we hang a mezuzah on our doorpost (something I love doing, give me a call if you're moving!!). Now a simple house-warming becomes a "Hanukah Bayit" / a consecration of our new home.
Hebrew links the concepts of dedication and education in a way that would never occur to us in English: It is through education (hinuch) that we learn the value of dedication to our collective identity. It is through the consecration of our homes that our family lives unfold in sacred space and in that consecrated space we learn to dedicate ourselves to our loved ones. There is a lot of depth to the etymological connection created by these three Hebrew letters.
I hope you will have the opportunity to share Hanukah candle lighting with family and friends this week (you'll find the words and melodies for the blessings and some Hanukah songs at: www.toratyisrael.org/hanukah.html). And as you gaze into the mesmerizing little flames of those candles, I hope you will find inspiration to renew your dedication to and education in the beauties of our tradition.
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 Vayetze Torah Reading: Genesis 28:10-32:3
This past Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of participating in our neighborhood's annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service at the Trinity Episcopal Church on Ocean Avenue. It was a warm, lovely and meaningful service. I thought I would share with you the short sermon I delivered at the end of the service. Even though Thanksgiving Day is over, our tradition encourages us to stop and acknowledge the blessings of our lives every day with a beautiful blessing in the three-times a day prayer the amidah. That blessing is called "Modim" which means "Thanks and Acknowledgement." So in a way, my Thanksgiving sermon works any time!
Thanksgiving 2009 / Trinity Church, Cranston, RI
When my mother was teaching me how to write thank-you letters, she told me that I had to be specific about the gift I had received. It was not sufficient, she taught me, to write "thanks for the gift." I had to write "thanks for the cute fuzzy brown socks, they sure keep my feet warm!" or "thanks for the 800 page book about ducks, that first chapter was a real page-turner."
If it is only proper to praise with specificity even the most dubious of presents we receive from family or friends . . . then it behooves us to wax absolutely poetic about the blessings bestowed upon us by God. We enjoy both collective gifts and personal gifts in these blessings. One of our greatest collective gifts is this very moment. "Thank you, God, for bringing us together with mutual respect for each other and a shared awe of You as we flourish in this exceptional nation of ours."
May we all put aside a few moments at our Thanksgiving tables . . . grand or modest as they may be . . . to thank God for the blessings we enjoy of family and friends, security, nourishing food, laughter and belonging. Our private and our collective blessings.
The roots of the celebration we will enjoy on Thursday are found in the 17th century, but the gift of gratitude, the act of acknowledging that our blessings come from God have been part of our common religious traditions for much longer than 17 centuries: Psalm 100 is called the Psalm of Thanks and serves as an inspiring text for thanking our Creator with joy. Allow me to bring our evening of interfaith thanksgiving to a close with the words of the Psalmist:
A Thanksgiving psalm.
Shout out to the Lord, all the earth, worship the Lord in rejoicing, come before God in glad song.
Know that the Lord is God who made us, we are the Lord's, God's people, the flock the Lord tends.
Come into God's gates in thanksgiving, the Lord's courts in praise.
We acclaim God and bless God's holy name.
For the Lord is good, blessing us with eternal kindness, faithful for all our generations.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.