Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tomorrow Is Another Day- To Sing Shira

In the second aliyah of Parshat Vayishlach we find the famous story of Yaakov's encounter with "a man" (32:25). There are differences of opinion as to who exactly this man was, with whom Yaakov wrestled. Some suggest it was Eisav's Gaurdian Angel. Others suggest the Torah is describing an internal struggle that Yaakov had with himself. Proof to this second approach is the fact that Yaakov is referred to in many instances as "the man." The story ends with Yaakov being injured but ultimately prevailing in his struggle.

Right before Yaakov receives a blessing and a name change to Yisrael, "the man" tells Yaakov, "Let me go for dawn has broken." Why must "the man" leave at dawn? Is he a vampire? Rashi quotes the Midrashic tradition that "the man" was Eisav's guardian angel, and angels must recite Shira, praise to God, at dawn. I find this idea most fascinating and worthy of our attention.

Working with Rashi's assumption, the lesson here is that even Yaakov's arch enemy must pay his respects to the God of Jacob at dawn. There will be a future in which all of humanity, even those who are currently enemies of the Jewish People will acknowledge God and the Jewish People's status as God's PR and Marketing in this world. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow- but we believe that the dawn will ultimately arrive at which point the Angel of Eisav will sing Shira.

And if we work with the interpretation that Yaakov as struggling with himself, then another insight emerges. As Socrates said, "the un-examined life is not worth living." Refection and introspection are not just for the High Holidays, but for all year long. As Jews we are called upon to take a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror all the time. sometimes we struggle with ourselves. Sometimes we are struggling with God. The Torah here is telling us: it's OK to struggle, and you may even get hurt a little in the process. But realize that at the end of this struggle comes the dawn at which point you sing Shira to God. Whether you resolve the struggle or not, you don't leave without acknowledging that God is with us, even in the struggles.

The notion that Jacob's confrontation ends at dawn with Song to God reminds me of a quote by Elie Wiesel:
"You can be a Jew with God; you can be a Jew against God; but not without God."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gratitude: A Reminder that We Can’t Go It Alone

I find it to be a most interested coincidence that Thanksgiving weekend in the US very often falls during the week that we read Parshat Vayeitzei, the Torah portion that teaches us much about gratitude. We read how Leah has the first four of Yaakov’s sons; the fourth son she names Yehudah, from the word Hoda’ah, to give thanks. As Leah puts it, upon having a fourth son for Yaakov, “at this time, let me gratefully praise Hashem.” There is much that we can learn from Leah’s naming of Yehuda and her expression of gratitude at this point. For instance, Rashi quotes the Midrash that Leah foresaw that Yaakov’s family would consist of 4 wives and 12 sons. If each wife would merit to have an equal share in the tribes of Israel, then each woman would bear Yaakov three sons. Upon having a fourth son Leah realized that she had been blessed with more than her “fair share” of sons. She therefore chose that moment to express gratitude.
                I would like to suggest an alternate interpretation, supported in part by the name of Leah’s third son, Levi. He is named such because Leah hopes, “this time my husband will be attached to me.” Even though Leah knew that she was not the favorite wife, she was sure that she could make Yaakov love her. She was convinced that by the time she bore Yaakov his third son (fulfilling her share of the tribes), Yaakov would have no choice but to love her. After the birth of Levi, Leah is forced to admit that nothing in life is a sure thing. Furthermore she realizes that even the best laid plans require help from God. She demonstrates that she has learned these lessons by naming her fourth son Yehuda, a name that indicates Leah’s newfound understandings. No person is an island. We all need help- be it from god or our fellow human being.
                Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner points out that the word in Hebrew for “gratitude” is related to the word for “admission.” When we express gratitude we are in effect saying that someone helped us and we could not have made it to this point without their help. Perhaps that is why it is difficult for some people to say “thank you”: for it can make them feel insecure at knowing that they could not do it alone or go it alone. On this Shabbat Vayeitzei/ Thanksgiving let us get more comfortable with expressing gratitude. Let us realize that having what to be grateful for is a source of strength for each of us and a reason to feel blessed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Something Else We Can Do for Israel - And For Ourselves

I commend the OU, the RCA and the National Council of Young Israel for coming together so quickly and issuing a joint statement recommending that we engage in extra Torah study on Wednesday and Thursday (11/21 and 11/22) to create extra merit for the safety of Israel and its citizens. It's wonderful to see National Orthodox organizations coming together in a constructive manner on behalf of an important cause, and hopefully such cooperation can continue even after this crisis is over and Israel is safe.

I recommend that we all follow this suggestion and find ways to add additional Torah study to our daily schedule on Wednesday and Thursday - go to an additional shiur, listen to a class online, learn a sefer- a little bit more than what we normally do. The beneficiaries of such activities are not only those in Israel, but everyone that takes the time to commit to do something religiously meaningful on behalf of others.

Participating in this initiative is an opportunity to re-calibrate our relationship with Torah study. It also affords us the chance to confront our feelings about the relationship between religiously meaningful actions and their impact on the "real world" around us. It is an opportune time for each of to explore our own feelings on how we understand how Torah study and mitzvah performance in America can positively impact the situation in Israel.

I'm thinking that in addition to prayer and Torah study and charity (especially charity to support those impacted by the current situations - in Israel and post-Superstorm Sandy) we should consider committing to engaging in activities, specific to the situation at hand, that can create additional merit.
I propose that we start at our Shabbat tables this week.

In many communities Shabbat meals are shared with friends- both old ones and those whom we might have just met. Oftentimes the conversations turn to topics that people care about deeply. For some, it's politics. For others, it is often Jewish institutions, whether local, national, or international. Among parents of school aged children, the topic of conversation often turns to their experiences with the day schools that their children attend (or once attended, or plan to attend, or will never attend.)

Often times due to our passion and zeal for these institutions and and the investments that we make into these organizations, the conversations harp on our disappointments, even anger; sometimes the discourse turns to slander and rumor mongering.

This Shabbat (and from here on out) let uschange our attitudes and the discourse. We can do so in a way that stands in direct contrast to how our enemies in Gaza conduct themselves, thereby also creating merit for our brothers and sisters in Israel.

Hamas has no regard or use for the truth. They spew utter falsehoods and half truths as if there is no such thing as objective truth and everyone is entitled to their own facts.
In response let us avoid promulgating or perpetuating lies or rumors within our own communities. Let us remember the old adage that something that is 99% true is really 100% false. Let us remember how damaging rumors can be and that the prohibition of Lashon Hara applies even to those causes and institutions that we care deeply about. And the prohibition of Lashon Hara even applies if what we are saying is true.

Hamas, seeks to de-legitimize Israel and reject Israel's right to exist. 
In response, let us resolve not to de-legitimize our fellow Jews, even when we passionately disagree. Let us state our positions with respect and love, and listen to others (much harder for some of us) with similar respect and love. Let's remember that those who disagree with us may be seeking the same goals as us, but have different views on how to achieve them.

Hamas has utter disregard for human life. 
In response let us commit to valuing our fellow Jews, even those with whom we disagree. Let us never lose sight of the Tzelem Elokim in each of us, a perspective that is fundamental to our interactions with our fellow Jews, and the institutions within our Jewish community that we care about so deeply.

May these efforts transform our lives and communities for the better. And may the merit of that transformation serve as protection for Israel and her citizens.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sometimes there is no "Other Hand"

As thinking, serious Jews we are willing to hear both sides of a story. We are comfortable with the idea that there are a multiplicity of possible opinions, solutions or approaches to any given situation or problem. We embrace the notions of "Eilu V'Eilu Divrei Elokim Chayim" ("this and that are both the words of a living God") and "Shivim Panim L'Torah" ("there are seventy faces to the Torah"). We are taught to be wary of positions that are myopic or unyielding. We remind ourselves often that no matter how convinced we are of our opinion, we should leave room for an alternate view (even if we think that view is flawed).

But then there are situations, problems and events in which there simply is no room for a multiplicity of  approaches to the situation.  My thoughts are on the unfolding situation in Israel: the rockets raining down on heavily populated civilian areas, already killing three innocents and injuring many more. The media coverage might make some believe that there are two legitimate sides to the story, but there's not. The facts are simple and straightforward. Israel has been under missile attack from the Gaza Strip for years. Israel would not be carrying out airstrikes and other defensive operations in Gaza if there were no missile batteries in Gaza aimed at innocent Israeli citizens.Israel has been and is under attack. Israel has been unbelievably patient and willing to bear rocket fire on its citizens for far too long. It's time for Israel to remove the threat to its citizens lives and welfare.  It really is that simple. There is no "other hand" or other side to the story. There is no competing narrative that deserves our attention or our consideration.

And so today we prayer for the safety of the citizens and soldiers of Israel with a greater degree of intensity. And as we do, we must also do what we can to support Israel- specifically do all that we can to correct the gross suggestion that there is somehow two sides to this story.There isn't: All thinking, peace loving people of good will should see this- without any "other hand". Those that espouse the notion that there is another side to the story are exposing their true feelings: that Israeli blood is cheap, that Israeli citizens do not have a right to live in peace, and that Israel has no right to exist.

Now is a great time to remind ourselves that sometimes there is no "other hand". Sometimes there is only one truth.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Live your life- and take some risks

There is a Medrash towards the end of Parshat Chayei Sarah that at first seems peculiar, but I believe it can teach us an important lesson.
                After Avraham’s death we read (25:11) “And it was after the death of Avraham that God blessed Yitzchak his son.” Rashi quotes two interpretations. The first interpretation emphasizes the timing of God’s blessing Yitzchak: ie after the death of Avraham. According to this explanation, God “made a shiva visit” to Yitzcah and offered him consolation over the loss of his father Avraham. This is the source in Chumash that God engaged in comforting mourners and from where we learn that we must act similarly and comfort mourners as well.
                In the second interpretation the focus is on who is blessing of Yitzchak: ie God, and not Avraham. We would have expected Avraham to bless his son before his death, just as Yitzchak and Yaakov do at the end of their lives. Rashi explains that Avraham considered blessing Yitzchak but refrained from doing so, after foreseeing that Yitzchak was destined to have a wicked son, Eisav. In light of this defect, Avraham was not comfortable offering Yitzchak a blessing and instead left the decision whether to bless Yitzchak up to God. The Torah clearly states that while Avraham may have had qualms about blessing Yitzchak, God did not.
                Perhaps the Torah here is teaching us the value of taking risks. Sure, there was a definite risk in spiritually fortifying Yitzchak, for that meant that Eisav would also be blessed by extension. This was a risk that Avraham was not willing to take. However Hashem “overrules” Avraham and blessed Yitzchak anyway. Hashem is teaching us that we sometimes need to take risks in order to create the big opportunities and huge accomplishments. Eisav may have been blessed by extension, but more importantly Yitzchak and Yaakov and all of their descendant were blessed, thereby changing the course of Jewish history. It may be that God’s decisions are less risky because He knows the outcome. Nevertheless I view Rashi’s second explanation here as a reminder and encouragement for us to take risks at times in order to maximize our success in life.