Author Archives: Isaiah Rothstein

Isaiah Rothstein

About Isaiah Rothstein

Isaiah Rothstein is a 4th year rabbinical student at Yeshiva University and works as the Spiritual and Experiential Educator at Carmel Academy in Greenwich, CT. Isaiah is the product of a mixed-race marriage, and proud Jew of Color.

At Purim, We Shall Overcome

purim1This past week I had the pleasure of attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. With inspiring speakers, expressions of hope and dreams for a better world, and an unflinching defense for the State of Israel, I felt a deep pride to be a Jew during the only time since Alexander the Great, that Jewish community in the Diaspora was able to partner with the foreign governments—this is historical. Last night though, as I walked out of the convention center, dozens of people with their anti-Israel sentiments, signs, and slurs called me a murderer, called me a Nazi, called me a an animal. As I walked through the groups, some I tried to speak too, but my words had no voice, and my reasoning was beyond the possible, and so, myself along with a just five of my Jewish brothers and sisters (including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach) started to sing.

We stood with each other in solidarity in a sea of peering hatred. We stood in prayer, we stood for the thousands of years that our people were killed before they could even utter a breath—we stand, because we can, we stand because in every generation we are commanded to. Our Freedom Song, our story to tell is a story of every generation, and this time, it will be heard. It is a story that speaks not only to the heart of the Jewish nation, but to all nations, all peoples.

“In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hands (Passover Haggadah).”

In every generation there is a call, a command, and for the righteous few, a scream against the injustice committed against the innocent—this generation is no different. Now, more than ever, the world is hungry the world is thirsty, and as the prophet Amos projects (8:11) not just for food, not just for water, but for the idea that one day the flood-waters will subside, and that “their swords will be beat to plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).”

As the darkness of humanity spreads further West and people desire to push me, you and our values into the sea; as the Haman’s and Hitler’s challenge our every step and creed, I grow more and more concerned, more and more despondent and faithfully stirred. But almost in that same moment, I remember the resilience and grit of our Queen Esther, I recall the eternal command of Mordechai to remember what Purim represents for every generation:

 “and that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their offspring (Esther 9:28).”

Our Purim holiday calls for us to believe that despite the hardships found in every generation “we shall overcome.” In spite of the hatred found in the hearts of so many for the Jewish nation, we must still seek to blot out such hatred. No matter what they say, not matter what they do, we must walk hand in hand, we must stand among our enemies in the streets of Washington, and we must not falter in knowing that the time of Purim is perpetually among us, and that “Although you have been abandoned and hated, and it (this hatred) has not passed, I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations (Isaiah 60:15).”

Purim empowers our generation to realize that we are charged with the ability to defeat, with God’s help, and with glory, love and words, the hatred of our world, for the voice of Esther has been heard.

In the words of W.E.B Du Bois

“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”

Posted on March 3, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The King’s Gate

Grand_Choral_Synagogue,_St._Petersburg,_Russia,_main_hallEverything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.–Viktor E. Frankl

This idea came from a Holocaust survivor, no less, who decided in the death camps that he can determine the fate of his inner world, and later suggested in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that your identity does not need to depend on what is going on around you, and that you can control the spirit’s choice as how to respond to any given the situation. Indeed, also under the harshest realities of the African slave-trade, what did many of them do? They stood above their oppressors by singing soul songs, Spirituals, to channel their souls cry of inner yearning. Yes, while in the net of captivity, the heart soared with the eagle’s eyes protecting the soul, but what about the lions kinship to protect their physical freedoms? Would the spirituals freedoms be enough?

“Build for me a sanctuary so that my presence may dwell among you (25:8)”

Busying up nearly 1/3 or the Biblical text, the Mishkan takes the cake as the single most important Biblical creation made by Man. One artistic craft found in the Mishkan’s blueprint, that joins the sacred and the profane, the subtle opposites found in our human experience, are the curtains which serve as the inner and our ceiling covers. From within the Tabernacle, says the Talmud (Yoma 72b), one could see “A lion from this side, and eagle from that side.” From above the Tabernacle, one could see the Tachash hide, which as mentioned by the great Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (RaSHI), was multi-colored animal that only lived during that specific generation (26:1).

An Eagle (spiritual) and a Lion (physical), have you, needed to be interwoven into the very fabric of our existence—literally. For without this space, and joining of dualities, Mankind, and the legacy of Abraham would cease to exist. This edifice of hope, this manifesto, of the spiritual to dwell in context, and freely among the physical, was the Tabernacle, the Mishkan.

That is why, according to Rav Kook (Orot HaKodesh 2:439), that the holiness of the Holy of Holies only comes into creation, after we separate a location as something above what the individual relates to, and rather to name it as a light-house for all to reference. Because by saying that you and me both can call the same thing special, is the way that the Lion comes to lead on soil and the eagle comes to lead in the skies. It is by joining the song within the sanctuary that causes the outer to reflect the inner: A Tachash, a diverse, colorful people with many layers, many colors, and many thoughts, to all dwell within the Holiest of places.

Similarly, Purim is just two weeks away! And today marks the head of the new month of “Adar!” J J J Our Rabbis teach that one reason why King Achashreirosh was considered an evil person was because he confused the Jews out of spiritual longing, by creating lavish parties, a physical place without a soul. He caused others to think that the soul’s deepest desires do not come from the same place as your neighbor’s, namely the Temple (Mishkan), but rather “according to each person’s desire (Esther 1:8).”

Mordechai the Jew would not show to these events, but waited always, at the “Kings gate,” he stood above. But as the story unfolds, it was not enough to dwell with individual holiness, a Mishkan was needed so that fate of my soul and yours are linked. The place of the Lion and Eagle could not be forgotten.

“Ba’yamim HaHaym, Bazman Hazeh—In those days, and in these.”

Posted on February 19, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Rabbi, The Pastor and the Torah of Mankind

Downtown_Gondar

The baggage claim at the airport in Gondar, Ethiopia is still by far the most humorous way I have yet to collect my luggage after flying. A massive crate is hauled from the plane and dumped into a heaping pile of blues, blacks and greys, with all the creative markings to let each person know which bag belonged to them. As we all pushed and pulled bags aside looking for our own, I noticed other farengie–Amharic for light skinned people, claim their belongings. Though a few glared at my kippah and Tzizit in perplexity, I was used to it, and smiled in return. Later that night, as I walked from my hotel-room for dinner I passed by an open room and looked inside while passing. I noticed some of the same people from the airport! Before I was even a meter away from their door, one calls out “execuse me, man from the airport!” I turn back and stand at their doorway and begin interacting with them around global service.

It turned out they were on service trip as a part of their church from New Orleans, and the room that I was neighboring was the pastor herself! She exclaimed “I didn’t know that Jews like yourself do work like this!” I told her all about the organization my cohort was representing, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and how this organization has been honored by many high ranking officials for their work in the region, she was delighted. We exchanged words of Torah, discussed the power of religious values in helping the underserved populations around the world. Before leaving, I shook her hand and kissed my own. When asking me why I kissed my hand, I asked her: “what does one do when they drop the Bible on the floor?” she quickly responded with a smile and thanked me. I said the Bible has God in it, and so do you, to that I turned to leave and said “we are in this together.”

It is by way of logic that Mankind understands the importance of one another.  Everything from scientific discoveries within medicine to your community shopping center involves your fellow human being. We share the same air and benefit from the billions of organisms within nature. With all this in mind our religion, language, and personal egos drives us away from one another, limiting the opportunity to connect to other souls of G-d (Jewish and non-Jewish). But that is not the Jewish way…

“Rabbi Yehuda Ben Levi said if you see a black, red, white, fat, or short person, say Blessed are You our G-d King of the Universe who makes his creations different (Brachoat 59a).”

Regardless of our religious or political preferences, morals are at the core of our family framework and even societal practice. We are reminded of these morals on a day to day basis, because they are fueled by logic and common sense. The laws introduced to us in this week’s Torah portion are not only the focus of nearly one third of the Talmud, many of them are not dependant on ethnicity, religion, kind or creed. “These are the laws that you should set before them (21:1).”

In the heart of this week’s Torah portion the verse states “do not oppress the stranger amongst you for you know the essence of stranger-hood since you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” This is a law so significant that it is the essence of mankind, despite all this ritual purity triumphs, haughtiness penetrates and loneliness overcasts. Is this commandment logical? “To not oppress the stranger amongst you,” if one were stuck on an island with a total stranger, there is a greater chance of survival if the stranger becomes comrade. Unfortunately thought, these teachings placed before us have become a secret to the masses, and the disconnect between what we believe and what practice is still present.

Whether we shame ourselves for our ancestry because of evil’s undying power, or we believe that doubt and isolation is the cornerstone of our existence, we must remember that our continuous desire for clarity and comfort amongst each other, and even those who are foreign to us is acquired through common ties, and universal morale, stating clearly, that even in Gondar, Ethiopia, we are in this together.

Our very existence depends on the stranger amongst us. Remember you too are a stranger if not in your comfort zone, you too have been challenged by your neighbor and cast into isolation. Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud lived in a time when Torah was forbidden to be learned or even practiced, and he was murdered because of his desire to find residence within a time of chaos, to create a place for all strangers to go to. As he took his last breathes, his last words were “echad,” one. Rabbi Akiva brought all people together regardless of who they were, why? Because he too was a stranger — his last word: unity (Echad). There is not enough time in the world for us to remain divided. Unity is what will save our micro and macro, community and national identity.

Posted on February 12, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Balanced Like the Trees

shutterstock_79269655“He (Moses) said: “If you will listen diligently to the voice of HaShem, your God, and you will do what is just in His eyes, and you will give ear to His commandments and observe all His statues, then any of the diseases that I placed upon Egypt, I will not place upon you, for I am HaShem your Healer (Exodus 16:26).”

When God originally created the world, there was neither order nor disorder, it simply just was. Darkness and light shared the same time and space, the world was filled with chaos, and the physical realm was void of all order (Genesis 1:2). It was then that the Holy One spent the week ahead, a busy workweek it was! defining the boundaries of the universe, creating balance, creating Shabbat.

Man, as commanded by God, was not only given the responsibility to build up and guard the world (2:15), but also to be the master-crafter of each organisms’ fate (2:19), with uprightness and with justice.

Our rabbis tell us that when Adam was in the Garden of Eden, God took Adam on a tour of Eden and pointed to all of God’s creations. God then said to Adam “see to it that you do not destroy My world, for if you do, no one will be after you to fix it (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).” We learn that it was Man’s role to steer the world towards uprightness. But just as quick and twice as subtly, as Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel explains (Avot 1:18), Adam was also warned that if people’s actions may corrupt and bring the world to a place that is no longer sustainable.

Pharoah did not see the Hebrews, as a people of values that would soon plant the riches of praiseworthy mores for all civilizations to follow. Pharoah knew not (of Joseph) about or the Jewish mission to strike the balance of the spiritual and physical, and so Pharoah committed the greatest injustice against humanity—human enslavement. He threw the world into imbalance.

With the Exodus, came new possibility. At Sinai a new seal and covenant would begin, the seal of responsibility. At the mountain Jews claimed their responsibility to uphold higher moral standards so as to prevent further injustice around the world.

Moshe was shown the tree, the symbol of steadfast balance of sun and water, and the waters sweetened (Exodus 15:25). Reminding the world yet again, that balance can be achieved, and that prejudice, enslavement and human corruption will inevitably crumble.

Jews are about to celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the trees. And this year we are in the seventh and final year of agricultural cycle, Shmeettat Karka’ot. Both Tu Bishvat and the shemitah cycle remind us that the earth’s rest produces for us the greatest results. That by allowing for the world to exist uninterrupted, we create balance and healing. “You may sow your land for six years, and gather its crops, but during the seventh year you must leave it alone and withdraw from it, so the needy of your people will be able to eat (from your fields) just as you do, and whatever is left over will be eaten by wild animals (Exodus 23:10-11),” Stating clearly that harmonious existence of all living things must reign over dysfunction.

Posted on January 28, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Lesson from Moses to Martin Luther King Jr.

Isaiahfamily2During my childhood, I never understood why I found myself needing to adapt differently depending on which parent I was walking with: my black mother, or my white father. But then the stares grew longer, the presumptuous comments and questions never seemed to fall-short of an insult, and well, as a family we learned to know when to guard, deflect or just turn around and walk out the door.

It’s one thing when an individual discriminates against you, but it’s whole other thing when it’s a group or community. When a community, organization or country perpetuate distant values of discrimination, it sticks, and becomes a part of who you are, your DNA.

“And He (Pharoah) said to his nation: ‘behold the nation of the Children of Israel they are larger and stronger than us, come let us devise a plan to outsmart them with trickery and deception.’ (Exodus 1:9)”

This verse always reminds me of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous words: “We should never forget that everything that Adolf Hitler did in Germany was legal.” King’s letter, written from the Birmingham jail cell during the 1960’s challenges the reader to not only speak up against the individual who displays hateful behavior, but to note that just because an institution does something “legally,” it doesn’t make it right.

When we go to the big picture it is not just Joseph and the sibling strife that led to a cry which still murmurs today. When we shift from the individual to the big picture the power and damage is amplified. That is what happen when a new Pharaoh rose us in Egypt, just 3300 years ago.

It’s the pain of collective estrangement that causes collective enslavement. It is society’s of silence that do not condemn their citizens behavior that cause the breakdown of moral justice and civil liberties. Pharoah tells his entire nation and no one speaks up. Freedom was lost…until someone spoke up.

According to Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (12th Century-Girona, Spain) “he went out to his brothers,” meaning he realized what his household (the home of Pharoah in which Moses grew up) had done, and to which ancestry (Abraham) he truly belonged to. Moses takes stage in the public sphere once it becomes known to him that his home was the center of institutionalized discrimination, and that he was a member of both parties: the oppressors and the oppressed! It was then that the Exodus began. Though this week’s Torah portion shows us reinstilled leadership directed by the elders and the heads of tribes, it was Moses’s simple action to leave his home that brought about physical, spiritual and moral freedom.

Could I have said something when I was a little boy and my ancestry was called into question? Sure, but you could have also. But each of the individual Jews in my community could have been the Moses for us, and you still can be. Learn from Moses. Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King. Speak up, for once you begin to speak, you create the opportunity for even a sea to split.

Posted on January 14, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

We Need More than a Sneeze

sneeze2Before attaining my Master of Social Work, I had the honor of helping many sick people live out their final months comfortable in hospice. Clients passed away, loved ones wailed as the coffin is lowered, and me, the social work intern, was left to support, love, guide, facilitate. Out of all of the things I have learned (so far) in this capacity, the most compelling is that the fragility of life calls to the healthy to breathe deeply, laugh loudly. Let the sobriety of personal grit and ambition keep you sensitive to what life has in store for you.

Easier said than done.

Regardless of age, the thought that lays at the base and forefront of most human consciousness is the uncertainty as to what will become of our existence. A person may be an established teacher, CEO or other sorts of professionals, and may have eloquent and intellectual capacities, and even have the riches of a king but no matter what they achieve, each and every person carries an unknown fate – we do not know when we will die. The billions of eulogies throughout world history cause the same emotional response in the listeners. As the deceased is lowered in the ground, we wonder, “what will become of me?”

In this week’s Torah portion we learn about the death of Jacob and then his son Joseph: the two individuals whose stories engage nearly half the book of Genesis, and whose blood lines ultimately establish the Jewish people as a nation. Jacob’s death was no happenstance. Jacob awaited to see his son Joseph and his brothers, though in a foreign land, together again.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) teaches that before Jacob, there was no illness to indicate death was imminent. Death was sudden. A person would sneeze, and his soul would depart. Jacob prayed for sickness so that there would be a sign for the individual, so s/he could properly prepare a will for his offspring and bid farewell to the physical realm systematically. As the Torah tells us in Genesis 48:1, “And it was, after many things transpired, he said to Joseph ‘behold your father is ill.’ He took his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh with him (to be blessed).” Illness provided Jacob time to say his good byes and bestow blessings.

Death is inescapable, and happens to each person regardless of financial status, skin-color or political party. We cannot pray for immortality, but there is something worth praying for! We can pray for the gift of time-consciousness, the living reminder to bless, feel blessed, and be blessed. We can pray for that inner voice to remind us periodically, that health is a privilege not a guarantee. We should take the time we have and make the most of it.

“Heal us HaShem and we shall be healed, Save us HaShem and we will be Saved.”

Posted on December 31, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Lighting to be Seen

light2“He was a tall man with broad shoulders, the type we used to call ‘a real goliath,’ powerful and with an unusual personality to boot. Unlike most of the Jews, he had no problem walking to his work, upright and with confidence. Instead of leading the line from the barracks, he insisted on bringing up the rear, and the whole way he would support the backs of those who had trouble walking. Avrum deh pusher (Avram the pusher), Avram deh Shtipper (Avram the booster), they used to call him in Yiddish. With his right hand, he picked up the weak, with his left he straightened the bent, and with his chest he pushed them forward. If he saw one of fellow Jews sway and fall, he would grab him quickly and give him a push so that the man could continue walking on his own. Everyone thought of him as a remarkable figure.”

This story is the eyewitness account of Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the youngest survivor of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. It was he, like Judah the Macabbee in ancient time, who helped save lives in the camp with courage and love. During one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, Avram helped those along the way by instilling belief and hope that light can not only be found, but created, in the darkest of times.

When I light my menorah, I let the whole world know that sometimes I cannot see, and I really need you, my fellow-being, to show me the way, to lift me up, to push me forward and to enrouage me to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The curse of exile and the dread of being lost and confused, “like a blind man,” leaves me not knowing where to go, how to live–even on a day with the clearest skies.

“Rabbi Yosee said: ‘All my life I was unable to understand the verse (Deuteronomy 28:29) that says: ‘And you will fumble in the afternoon just as a blind man gropes during in the darkness’ (he asks) why should it make a difference whether the blind walks in darkness or light?! But then this one time I was walking in the pitch black of night and darkness, and I saw a blind man, and he was walking on the way with a torch in his hand. I said to him ‘my son, this torch, what is its purpose for you?’ and the blind man responded ‘whenever I have this torch in my hand, other people can see me, and rescue me from the openings, thorns and lightning. Talmud: Tractate-Megillah 24b

The blind man engages in the seemingly unnecessary act of holding a candle in the dark, so the rest of the world could support him At times we get caught up in our daily activities and our own misfortunes that I may pass someone who is holding a flame, and be so consumed, to never even see the menorah burning on the windowsill. As our sages tell us (Orach Chayim 672:1-2) that the time to light the menorah is when most people leave the market place to go home at the day’s end so that all can see the light permeating from your home.

In the words of Shlomo Carlebach, when we light the candles, I may be saying: “I don’t know where You are, but You better come get me.” We see a tremendous need today for light, but we must begin to realize, that if I don’t help my brother or sister stand, death would be imminent, if I don’t stop to appreciate the light in someone else’s home, then I’ll be afraid to admit that I sometimes am in need of light. Like Avrum deh shtipper, he lifted up those in need, because if he didn’t, no one else would.

Posted on December 22, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Achieving Shalom

shalom2Commonly defined as peace, hello and goodbye, Shalom cannot simply be translated and then understood by its English description. In Western society peace of mind, is often described as a getaway to the Bahamas where you are never to be concerned with anything. In this week’s Torah portion we see the absence of Shalom as the greatest recipe for destruction.

Joseph the Dreamer, blessed with such beauty and charisma, and yet is still the source of strife and disharmony among the remaining tribes, and consequently the Nation of Israel.  His brothers angered by his very existence, Shalom, in its most true definition was impossible to attain.

“His Brothers saw that it was he whom their father loved most of all his brothers so they hated him; and they could not speak to him peaceably (shalom) (37:4).”

The days of true shalom cannot be acquired as long as we continue to define it with its perplexing opposites (hello, goodbye, etc.), but rather, we must look deeper at the name of our Holy City Jerusalem (they will see-Yeru. Shalom-Peace), and beyond. Says Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (Ukraine, 18th century):

“What is Shalom? It is the joining of two total opposites. As Our Rabbis of Blessed Memory said on the verse ‘(Oseh Shalom) he who makes peace on heights (above), He who makes peace upon us (below)’ This is the joining of two total opposites, for although fire puts out water, and the Holy Blessed is He brought peace by joining them together (LM 1:80).”

True Shalom cannot exist when there is conflict. It is the joining of opposites, and it’s confrontation that brings true shalom into the world. Not waterfalls and bunny rabbits, i.e., avoidance, but head-on conflict resolution.

In many ways, the darkness of Hanukkah is felt strongly by our world today. Ebola outbreaks, Islamic State, Israel’s questionable fate in the eyes of many, and the killing of the helpless innocent solely because of prejudices and racism. How many opposites we have to confront today? It seems endless. And still, we take the candle, and we join liquid and fire with a flame unwavering, and we say that Shalom will. Shalom Must. Shalom, will light up the world.

“The Holy One Blessed be He, cannot find a stronger vessel to hold blessing than that of Shalom (Mishneh, Uktzin 3).”

With Rebbe Nachman’s definition of shalom, can you shed light on some of our colloquial uses? Shabbat Shalom, Shalom Bayit, Oseh Shalom etc. “Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace etc…” Feel free to leave your thoughts!

Posted on December 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Why Are We Called the “Children of Israel?” and Not Jacob?

jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-genesis-xxxii-24-30As a Jew, do I respond to the needs of the stranger as I am repeatedly commanded to do so? As a Jew, have I fought to recruit a jury and politicians that stands for equality and justice? As Jew, should my voice be raised high, discontented and repetitive until justice is met? 

For me, as I recall the anti-Semitic struggle of my European ancestors, and as I seek to understand how my grandfather’s grandmother, Lucille Mcgruder, was born enslaved in West Virginia during a segment of America’s darkest times, these questions burn in my mind. But as we learn from the story of how Jacob became Israel, these questions are fundamental to all Jews.

In Genesis 32: 25-29 we read:

And Jacob was left alone, and a man (some say angel) wrestled with him until morning…and he (man/angel) said ‘let me go because it is the morning, and he (Jacob) said I will not let you go unless you bless me, and he (angel/man) said to him ‘what is your name?’ he said ‘Jacob.’ And he (angel/man) said, ‘no longer shall your name be Jacob, but rather Israel, because you struggled with God (for the sake of the Divine), and with men (for the sake of man) and were triumphant.’” 

Later in the Bible, in his final message to our nation, Moses reminds the people of Israel as they get ready to enter the land of Israel, that the Israelites are who they are because they seek justice from below and above. Fundamental to being Jews was the agreement with God to make the physical world free of spiritual and moral blemish. We were “chosen” to elevate the stranger the orphan and the widow, and to build a world of moral courage and freedoms for all. We were “chosen” to be Israel, to struggle with the Divine and with Men, to fight for the Divine when Men fall low, and to Fight with God, when men cant “pull it together.” As we learn about Jacob in the Torah, we were not “chosen,” to stay in the walls of our synagogue (tent), because the plight of the world is too great to stay concealed in the warmth of the soul.

We are called Israel, because we made a decision to scream out when corruption is rampant. (Numbers 25:11)

We are called Israel, because we are not afraid to say that truth should reign in the place of folly. (Joseph the Righteous, 41:42)

We are called Israel, because of people like Louis Isaac Jaffe who condemned American whites for lynching American Blacks.

We are called Israel, because of people like Gili Rosenberg who reasoned “because they are our brothers” when asked why she joined the Kurdish fighters against ISIS.

We are called Israel, because even when my twin brother plots evil schemes against me, I will still attempt to appease him (Genesis 33:3)

We are named Israel, because when she comes, we know her well, when the stranger is without refuge, we defend and embrace her without hesitation.

Jacob wrestled with the angel and the battle left him with a limp and a new name. Jews collectively embrace the name Israel, because we will wrestle, even when it means that we may leave limping.

Posted on December 1, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Embracing the Contradictions

twins2

“And the boys ran about inside her, and she [Rebecca] said, If this is so, then why am I? and she went to seek God. And God said to her ‘two nations are in your womb, and two are in your insides, and one nation will be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger (26:27).”

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (France, 12th century) notes that Rebecca expected to mother just the Jewish people and have a singleton birth from which would come the Jewish people. Instead two separate entities grew within her, two powers, two forms of kingship.

But what forms of kingships exactly?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches (Ukraine, 18th century) that “there are two forms of kingship in the world: one that is hidden for our sake, and one that is revealed for the sake of the world.”

Esau is called “the man who knows game, the man of the field.” While YJacob aakov is called the “simple man who dwelt in the tents.” Esau was called the revealed kingship, with billboards and banners, while Jacob is perceived as modest, without complexity, “a simple man.” Total opposites. An extrovert and an introvert. One of words, and one of action, one voice, and the other of hands.

But it is Rebekah’s vision to bring these two oppositional forces together. And she does so covertly and with implicit intentions. When Jacob, approached Isaac his father, he touched him. His father then states: “the voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau (27:22).” Both sides come together, Rebekah’s vision was complete.

At last, Jacob must leave his tent, and learn about the second kind of kingship, the one of the field, the one of subjectivity Jacob must embrace the world of difference. Who did Jacob become? As the verse states “the voice of Jacob with the hands of Esau.” This verse teaches us the ability to know when to use our words softly, as if in a tent, but also to know when to scream as if in a field was what made Jacob a worldly and appropriate individual to father the Jewish nation. To have the splendor of multiple realities existing simultaneously.

Very often we are presented with difficulties that are out of our reach. We call them problems. We complain, we sigh, we scoff, and we cry because we believe the problem to be an outside influence, and not something that is a part of me and my experience. When such a struggle surfaces, how do I react, do I embrace the conflict as an opportunity like Rebekah, do I encourage fusion of ideas or perspectives? Or do I run? Do I allow for conflict to remain for always? Do I even try?

 And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (33:4)

Posted on November 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy