Friday, January 20, 2017

What's In A Name?

This week we begin reading the second book of the Chumash. Our Rabbis refer to it as Sefer Hageulah, The Book of Redemption. This name aptly describes the main topics and themes contained within: The redemption from Egyptian slavery, which is only fully realized with the construction of the Tabernacle at the end of the book.
However most of us are more familiar with the second book of the Chumash as Sefer Shemot, literally “The Book of Names”.  Besides being one of the first words of the first Parsha in the book, are there any further lessons we can derive from the name “Shemot”?
The Medrash (Vayikra Rabba) writes that one of the merits that the Jewish People accumulated throughout their years of slavery is the fact that they never changed their names. They kept their Jewish names as a way of reminding themselves that they were not part of the majority, dominant culture of Egypt.  Their Jewish names reinforced the idea that The Jewish People came from a different culture and from ancestors that had a unique relationship with G-d. Names have the power to remind us of who we are and from where we come. It is no accident that there is a widespread Jewish custom to name babies after ancestors, whether deceased or still living.
But names have a future orientation as well. In Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem changes Avram’s and Sarai’s names. Rashi (on 15:5) introduces the concept of “Shem Gorem”: that a person’s name can have an impact on their destiny. Avram and Sarai would never have children. But with new names Hashem informs Avraham and Sarah that they were now ready to be parents. Names can identify a person with a unique mission and destiny.

This future oriented aspect of names needs to be reinforced. A person or institution can attain a “name”, or reputation in one of two ways: based on past performance or as a hope and challenge for future achievement. Too often we hastily attach negative names to people or institutions based on past experiences. For example, a student that has performed poorly in the past may be branded with a certain negative name, but that student may improve dramatically if given positive reinforcement and labeled in a good way (ie given a new name). The same is true of adults and institutions. As we begin the book of Shemot, let us realize that names not only connect us to our past, but they can help shape our future.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Should We Love Our Children All The Same?

Why doesn’t Yaakov learn his lesson? The trouble between Yosef and his brothers can be traced back, at least in part, to Yaakov’s favoring one brother over the other. Now in Parshat Vayechi, on his deathbed Yaakov does it again- not once, but twice.

First he gives Yosef an extra portion in the land of Israel, above and beyond what each tribe will get when they enter the land.
Later in the Parsha, Yaakov favors Yosef’s younger son Efraim over Menashe by placing his dominant hand on Efraim. Why doesn’t Yaakov learn that “playing favorites” can lead to problems?

One answer is that Yaakov doesn’t learn from his mistake, because Yaakov does not see it as a mistake. The problem was never with what Yaakov did; the problem lay with how the brothers reacted to this perceived favoritism.

Every person is different. We each have our unique talents and potential, strengths and weaknesses. It is therefore impossible for each person to be treated in an identical fashion. Just as we are different, so too each of us needs different things in order to realize our potential. Why did Yaakov treat Yosef differently? Maybe he saw leadership qualities in Yosef that none of the other brothers demonstrated. Maybe it’s because Yosef had lost his mother at a young age, unlike any of the other siblings. The problem was not that Yaakov treated Yosef differently. The problem was in hoe the brothers responded to the different treatment that Yaakov accorded to Yosef. They incorrectly perceived that difference as being qualitative, ie that Yaakov loved Yposef more than the other brothers..

To highlight this point, Yaakov “favors” Efraim in Parshat Vayechi. It is as if Yaakov wants us to understand that he has no regrets over how he treated Yosef. If anything, his regrets lie in his not recognizing the brothers’ mistaken attitudes towards this perceived favoritism.

This is a tough, but important, lesson for us all to learn; especially parents. We must love each of our children unconditionally and to the maximum degree. But that does not mean that we should love them each in the same identical manner. Each child is an individual and therefore a parent’s approach must be individualized. Differential treatment/ love is not the same as preferential treatment.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Quality Time Should Inspire Us Long After The Interaction

          In Parshat Vayigash we read about the reunion between Yosef and his family. After reuniting with his brothers, Yosef sent the brothers to bring back Yaakov and the rest of the family. The Torah tells us that at first Yaakov does not believe them that Yosef is alive. He is only convinced when:
וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֲגָלוֹת אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ
and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him
and only then:
וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם
the spirit of their father Jacob was revived
What was it about the wagons? Rashi explains that the wagons were a code that Yaakov understood could have only come from Yosef. The word for wagon- Agalah- is very similar to the word Eglah- as in Eglah Arufah, the ceremony undertaken when there is unsolved murder situated between two inhabited locations. Part of that ceremony entails the elders declaring their innocence from any culpability in that murder, and breaking the neck of an ox (eglah)..
          Is it really plausible that Yaakov, at over 100 years old and after 22 years would pick up on this slight hint that Yosef was dropping?
I say yes- for two reasons.
          First: This one-on-one Torah study time between Yaakov and Yosef was quality time- treasured by both father and son. That time together may not have been a lot, and it may not have been consistent.  But it is these moments between loved ones that stick in our memories and shape how we view ourselves and our relationships. The wagons reminded Yosef and Yaakov of quality time spent together, something that they would always remember and recognize.
          Secondly- let us take a moment to consider Rashi’s comments. The Agalah, wagon, reminded Yaakov of the Eglah Arufah. If we are correct that this study session symbolized quality time spent between Yaakov and Yosef, then the lesson of Eglah Arufah is most appropriate to be interjected into this episode. When a murder occurs between cities, leaders from both communities meet and declare that they did not neglect this victim. Had they been aware of his presence, they would have provided him provisions and accompany him at least partially along his way.
          Even if this traveler had not been accompanied the entire journey, his interaction with kind-hearted strangers would have allowed him to never feel alone, even as he took leave of his benefactors and undertook the solitary portion of his journey.

          By sending these wagons, Yosef is telling his father: “the quality time we spent together enabled me to feel your presence and your love even when we were separated and I was alone in Egypt.”  One of my most fervent prayers for my children is that they should always feel safe, loved and cared for- when I am around and even when I am not. In order for our spouses, friends and especially our children to feel safe, loved and cared for- when we are around and even when we are not- we must learn from Yosef’s wagons and invest in quality time with our loved ones. Just as quality time enabled Yaakov’s spirit to be revived at the end of the story upon his reunion with Yosef, so too may our efforts to invest in quality time nurture and revive our relationships with others.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Yosef, Jerusalem and Inconvenient Truths

A hallmark of greatness is the willingness to speak the truth- even when it is unpopular, even when it is dangerous. Yosef provides us with a model. At the beginning of the parsha he speaks the truth of his dreams even though it is met with scorn by both his brothers and his father. He speaks the truth to the Wife of Potiphar even as it causes him to lose everything he had and end up in jail, Finally at the end of the Parsha, Yosef’s truth speaking is recognized by his fellow prisoners and declared to be Tov, good: not just now, but all along.

Another speaker of truth is Yehuda. There’s a Tosefta in Brachot in which Rabbi Akiva asks: By what merit did Yehuda become the tribe of the monarchy, Jewish leadership? One answer suggested is “Mipnei Shehodeh B’Tamar.” He admitted the truth of his mistake even though such an admission could have been very costly. Telling the truth can be impressive; and even ameliorate mistakes. The United States Congress has impeached two Presidents in our country’s history. And according to many historians, neither one would have been impeached had there been the courage to speak the truth, even after the mistake.

Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes the truth is inconvenient. Sometimes the truth is depressing. Nevertheless we must learn from the model of our forefathers, especially from Yosef and Yehuda- and be willing to speak the truth- in our homes, our communities, and to the world. Today the cause that requires truth is the Jewish claim to Jerusalem. 

As I write this there is discussion about the possible passage of a lopsided, unhelpful, a-historic and dangerous resolution at the UN concerning Jerusalem. American Zionists need to speak the truth about Jerusalem: it is Judaism’s holiest city, the Jewish claim to Jerusalem begins over 3000 years ago- way before 1967, and Jerusalem under the sovereignty of the State of Israel is the most open, tolerant and accessible that the city has ever been in recent history.  

It may challenge the conventional wisdom and may upset those who who continue to believe in the dogmas of the (failed) peace process as has been implemented thus far. But let us learn from Yosef and speak the truth: Jerusalem has and will always be at the heart and soul of the Jewish people. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Leah's Lesson: Look Within for Happiness

I am fascinated by the Torah’s description of the birth of Leah’s first four sons:

And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

לאוַיַּרְא יְהֹוָה כִּי שְׂנוּאָה לֵאָה וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ וְרָחֵל עֲקָרָה:
32And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, "Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me."

לבוַתַּהַר לֵאָה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ רְאוּבֵן כִּי אָמְרָה כִּי רָאָה יְהֹוָה בְּעָנְיִי כִּי עַתָּה יֶאֱהָבַנִי אִישִׁי:
33And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "Since the Lord has heard that I am hated, He gave me this one too." So she named him Simeon.

לגוַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי שָׁמַע יְהֹוָה כִּי שְׂנוּאָה אָנֹכִי וַיִּתֶּן לִי גַּם אֶת זֶה וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ שִׁמְעוֹן:
34And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "Now this time my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons; therefore, He named him Levi.

לדוַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר עַתָּה הַפַּעַם יִלָּוֶה אִישִׁי אֵלַי כִּי יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שְׁלשָׁה בָנִים עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ לֵוִי:
35And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah, and [then] she stopped bearing.

להוַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת יְהֹוָה עַל כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ יְהוּדָה וַתַּעֲמֹד מִלֶּדֶת:

Each of Leah’s first 3 children are named as a prayer that Yaakov should begin to love her. It is sad, even painful, to read how unloved Leah feels, even after bearing Yaakov children. We think of the birth of a child as a most joyous event, and yet from the names Leah offers her first 3 sons all she can think about is how “God saw my afflication” (Reuven), “God heard that I was hated” (Shimon), and “hopefully, finally, now my husband will be close to me” (Levi).

What caught my attention this year is the description of the birth of Yehuda. For the first time, Leah picks a name that makes no mention of her wounded, unloved status. With Yehuda, Leah offers a name that only expresses gratitude. But then the Torah states that upon naming her fourth son Yehuda, Leah stopped bearing children. How are we to understand the juxtaposition in verse 35? One might argue that ceasing to bear children is some sort of punishment. But that begs the question: why should Leah be punished at this juncture, when she seems to finally be recovering from the wounds of her early married years and finally able to thank Hashem for what He has provided for her?

I believe that the Torah is teaching us something completely different. At first Leah feels hurt and alienated, and she seeks to quell those feelings through other people and their relationship to her. She hopes that a child, or children, or a change in attitude on Yaakov’s part will usher in the bliss and joy that she has always hoped for. This attitude accompanies Leah during the birth of her first three sons. But what she hoped to happen never transpires. She has three sons (her rightful share of the tribes) but her husband has not changed and she still feels miserable.

Upon the birth of her fourth son she decides to change her approach and change her attitude. She realizes that she cannot depend on external factors to determine her happiness. She realizes that she cannot control the events swirling around her. All that she has the ability to control is her attitude towards those events.

Leah names her fourth son Yehuda, and in so doing she closes the book on depending on external events or people to bring her happiness. Instead, Leah looks within and realizes that she has much to be grateful for. She resolves that from this point forward her happiness will not be determined by others. She will be control her attitude and he perspective on life. And from this point forward she resolves to approach life from the perspective of gratitude.

Once she does that, the Torah tells us that she ceases to bear children. The truth is that Leah will have two more sons and another daughter. But what the Torah means here is that no longer will her children be born in an attempt to make Leah happy. Leah realizes that the key to her happiness is entrusted exclusively in her own hands. 

There is much in life that is outside of our control, but how we respond to what life brings our way is completely up to us. So let us learn the lesson from Leah and respond first and foremost to life with gratitude. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

How Do You Handle Your "Lamah Zeh" Questions?

At the beginning of Parshat Toldot, we read about the difficulties Rivka experienced during her pregnancy. After wanting a child for so long, Rivkah is confused by her experiences, and in desperation cries out, “Lama Zeh Anochi?” Why is this happening to me? Why is it that what I anticipated to be the greatest joy of my life (childbearing) is causing me such great pain and anxiety?
In the very same aliyah we read how Rivka’s son Eisav similarly asks a “Lama Zeh” type of question. The Torah tells us how Eisav came back from hunting and is “dying of hunger”. Yaakov has food available but will only sell it to Eisav in exchange for the special blessing that are due to Eisav for being the firstborn. Eisav realizes that these blessing are spiritual in nature while he is a hunter, a “man of the field”, a person most concerned with the material world. Eisav therefore asks himself, Here I am about to die of hunger, V’Lama Zeh Li Bechora?”, “of what use do I have for these birthright blessings?”
The real divergence emerges not in the form of the question but what mother and son do with their questions. The Torah tells us that in response to her question, “Rivkah went to inquire of Hashem.” She understood that there must be a reason why this was happening and she sought religious guidance as to ways in which she could interpret her condition as having meaning and purpose. And upon consultation, she receives the answer that assuages her fears and allows her to go on with her life with strength and determination.
The Torah tells us that in response to Eisav’s question, that “Eisav disgraced the birthright.” Instead of trying to understand the significance of his status as a firstborn and instead of seeking guidance as to how to proceed in a relevant and significant way, Eisav takes the easy way out and gives up on what he does not understand (ie the birthright) for something that he can easily understand (ie the pot of porridge).
Judaism welcomes questions. We all have them. Some are easier than others to answer. The issue is not having questions. The issue is what you do once you have identified those questions. Do we seek answers, even if they may be elusive or impossible- with the knowledge that the very quest for answers can be therapeutic and religiously significant? Or do we deny the question and move onto things easier to resolve- like the hunger in our bellies.

The real Question is: what do we do with our questions? Answering that is perhaps the most important part of solving the problem in a constructive way.

Friday, November 18, 2016

What Angels Can Teach Us About Multitasking

Parshat Vayera begins with three mysterious men meeting with Avraham. Rashi quotes the Medrash that explains that these men were actually angels. Each of the three angels had a specific task: One was charged with healing Avraham after his circumcision, one was to inform Sarah of her impending pregnancy, and one would go on to destroy Sodom. The Medrash concludes with a rule: “She’ayn Malach echad oseh shtei shlichiyot”, one angel is not able to perform two tasks.
I believe that this Medrash has particular relevance in an age of multitasking. Though it seems to be the norm to do more than one thing at once, multitasking has been shown to be an inefficient way of accomplishing tasks. We are most efficient when we focus all of our talents and energies into one enterprise, and then move onto something else after the first task is completed. It is usually not in the interest of the person nor of the task to bounce from one activity to the next. Perhaps this is what the Medrash is conveying: If angels are tasked with only one job, then humans should not try to do more. Focus on one thing until completion or until you have done all that you can. And only then move on to something else.
Rashi does quote another source that offers somewhat of a qualifier to this critique on multitasking. The Gemara in Baba Metziah explains that the angel that healed Avraham went on to save Lot. The idea is that both tasks involved saving people, so it was really two chores on the same list. This too can teach us a lesson. It may be important at times to try new things and broaden our horizons. But it is also important to find something that you are good at and develop those skills and their impact. In this way we can emulate the angels and similarly find ourselves in optimal service to Hashem