“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.
During 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.
Before 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.”
“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.
Commonly 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!
As 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.
“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)
Diversity is like a pizza pie. When I get my slice of pizza, I may feel as if no one is about to take part in this mouth watering experience, this mushroom-onion slice is mine, and mine alone. But as I finish, pay and make my way towards the door, I notice others, with a slice almost identical to my own. I pause, and I realize I am seeing double. And as I look at the pizza tray behind the closed glass, I take note, at times against my will, that the pizza others eat comes from the same place mine did. My experience is my own but is it also connected to theirs.
Parashat Chayei Sarah, is a portion of doubles and seeming contradictions, distancing and connecting: While Abraham claims his identity as a “resident” during his negotiation process of Sarah’s burial plot, he also identifies himself as a “stranger” amongst them. Similarly, Rebecca, our second matriarch, was a righteous woman, who carried the weight of living with “Laban the Deceitful,” but was able to remain true to herself. A conflict for some, possible for Rebecca. Finally, Isaac too brings together two things that often are seen as opposite. When he standardizes the afternoon, Mincha prayer, he connects day and night.
We humans have a proclivity for individualism. It helps us determine our own self-image, and define who we are in any situation. We carry this instinct to compartmentalize and differentiate from that which is other than the self. I may share the same pie of pizza with four strangers, but struggle to identify with them and their experience.
As the Torah states in Genesis (23:19): “and after this (the sale of the plot of land) Avraham buried his wife Sarah in the Machpeila cave in the fields, opposite Mamre, Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And the field and the cave transaction became established for Avraham as a burial place.” Avraham purchases a cave to preserve the life of Sarah and their legacy together. But also the field which can be planted, allowing him to begin to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel.
Later in the same portion, we read of Rebecca. Her opening scene points to her enthusiasm and personal responsibility to connect at every moment to HaShem. “She (Rivka) finished giving him drink, she said, I will draw water even for your camels until they have finished drinking.” So she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough and kept running to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels.” The word Rivka (Rebecca) means to link. In addition, the Hebrew letters R.V.K.H are the same letters as H.B.K.R (the morning). And just as her husband linked day to night with twilight, she connected night to day.
As we navigate a world filled with complex paradoxes and certain ambiguity, this portion teaches us we should embrace dualities and reach out to connect with that which is beyond our selves and personal experience. Just as Avraham created a connection through the generations and Rebecca created spiritual connections. We cannot be consumed by our own experiences, whether mundane like eating pizza or grand like loosing loved ones, but rather like our fore-parents we need see our experiences as opportunities to connect.
This week, I’d like to focus on the self, not as the observer, but as the observed. Not when we felt comfortable enough to notice the difference in the other, but more the moment my insides pinch from when realizing everything we believe ourselves to be, is called into question. It is because in those moments that my identity has been threatened that I not only retreat inwardly, but fend off all potential opposition—losing not only myself, but connection to a community and lifestyle.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, teaches us that in order to reach the goal of the self-actualization, a person must feel comfortable in their environment and develop a sense of identity. This need, or the “esteem need” is bedrock of the human experience. In his work, A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow explores this need, and what happens when it goes unmet:
“All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self respect, or self-esteem, and from the esteem of others…the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, for independence for freedom.”
We need people to see us in a positive light, and we do things constantly in order to be perceived the way in which seems fitting in our own eyes for their eyes.
How difficult the journey when I am the stranger in a world that does not welcome me? How sad the setting that causes me to feel so estranged that my basic human need, values, beliefs and my very identity is lost?
In Genesis 21:6, on the surface, we read of barren woman without a child to call her own, but with a deeper look, we see a woman barren of identity, lost within an environment that belittles her for her inability to give birth. Sarah, caught in a net of self-estrangement and difference, cannot believe that at her old age of ninety that she would give birth.
“And Sarah Said: ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone that will hear, will laugh because of me.’ And she said: ‘who would have said to Avraham that Sarah could breast-feed.’ ‘For I have bore him a son in his old age?’”
In the social jungle of the human experience, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity. When I am incapable of adapting to a setting, I am left with few options or coping strategies. Some people laugh and some disengage. Some stay in the corner, and others leave, but here we learn of our Matriarch, a woman with enough confidence to leave her entire life behind for a new one, but loses herself when she realizes it is her who does not fit in.
As our world grows further apart and closer together, as we get thirstier for connection in a desperate kind of way, the opportunity is upon us to welcome in the other, to tolerate ritual and spiritual expression in its many facets. To proclaim loud, “I know you are different, but come closer…I’m different too!” For without doing so, diversity is rejected, and our Jewish identities will remain a far cry from being our own.
“Is she converting?”
“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”
“She must be someone’s nanny…”
These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.
While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.
We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”
“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’
Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…
But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.
As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.