Friday, November 22, 2013

Keeping the Adrenaline Up: Even In The Absence of Crisis

Parshat Vayeishev begins that Yaakov was dwelling in the Land of Canaan. After the difficulties he encountered with Lavan and the tension involved in reuniting with his brother Eisav, the Medrash states that Yaakov was looking forward to a little peace and quiet. Instead, Yaakov is forced to deal with the discord between Yosef and the other brothers, followed by the disappearance of Yosef.

The Medrash notes that whenever the term "Vayeshev" is used, it means trouble for the Jewish People. For instance, prior to the sin of immorality with the daughters of Midyan we are told that "Vayeshev Yisrael B'Shittim." The Medrash states that righteous people seek peace and serenity in this world, but God does not allow it. Peace is reserved for tzadikim in the World To Come; this world is meant to be stressful and full of hard work. How are we to understand this statement of the Medrash? Does it mean we can't ever take a day off from work or go on vacation, or even stay-cation? Of course not. I believe that the Medrash here is teaching us a fundamental truth about human nature and how we must view the work of our lives.

In general people are at their best when responding to crises. The adrenaline kicks in, you begin to feel the endorphin rush and you are able to accomplish things that you never thought possible. When failure is not an option, the situation usually will meet with some degree of success.

But what happens when there is no great crisis? things are going along well enough? It is not human nature to keep up the momentum, when there is not glaring reason to do so. We begin to take our guards down, relax a little, be less careful and less vigilant. Can we get back that feeling of urgency in the absence of a crisis?

I would argue yes and no. On the one hand, we are much more efficient on the defense compared to the offense. It may very well be that without a crisis we are less effective and less efficient. But there are two ways to function within a system of "pretend crisis." One is to blow up every little problem into a crisis. In this way we can remain hysterical and hyper vigilant, even regarding those things in life that are really not all that important. This can create a "boy who cried wolf" crisis fatigue among all parties involved.

The second option is to channel these "flight or fight" energies into pre-empting the next crisis, or even improving things instead of only fixing things. This requires much more forethought and planning and prioritizing- but it is very fulfilling and allows people to grow instead of merely taking a defensive posture to remain in place.

That is why the Medrash has nothing nice to say about the desire to find peace. We need to constantly be on the move and doing. Often it's on the defensive. Often it's in response to crisis- something that needs to be addressed right now. But every once in a while we need to be on the lookout for opportunities to harness those crisis- management finesse and talents and channel them into crisis prevention and person / community building.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Confronting Assimilation By Leaving Eisav

Parshat Yayishlach tells the story of the reunion between Yaakov and Eisav. After years of separation and animosity, the two brothers meet. What occurs at that meeting can be described at the very least as momentary d├ętente, and from the text one might even see a real fraternal reconciliation taking place at this time.

As the brothers prepare to take leave from one another, Eisav offers to accompany Yaakov on the next leg of his trip (33:12). Yaakov declines, explaining that his children are young and his family is slow: much slower than Eisav and his entourage of grown men. Also Yaakov is traveling with all of his property, including flocks of sheep, which will slow him down even more. If he rushes his family they might just complain, but if he rushes the sheep, they may die.

Eisav persists and offers to assign a portion of his entourage to accompany/ bodyguard Yaakov and his family. Yaakov declines this offer, doing so once again in a gracious and magnanimous fashion.

The meeting between Yaakov and Eisav is confounding from beginning to end. Rashi quotes a number of Midrashim that help to make sense of this story: by both filling in factual gaps as well as providing symbolic meaning for some of the seemingly insignificant details. After doing so, Rashi notes (33:15) that there remain many more Midrashim that explain this story.

One lesson that I learn from the story of Yaakov and Eisav parting ways is how we as Jews should respond to assimilationist trends and a non-Jewish society that has begun to welcome Jews into their culture with open arms.

At this juncture Eisav represents both a friend and a threat. He is being friendly yet his values and lifestyle are not consistent with what Yaakov holds dear. In many ways this is the experience of the 21st century Jew, in his/her interactions with the rest of the world: friendly yet threatening. There are many ways in which Jews can benefit from the welcoming attitude of the other nations of the world. A symbiotic relationship can blossom concerning many issues. At the same time, such overtures may cause us to “let our guard down” and ignore the unique mission of the Jewish People and the fundamental differences that exist between Yaakov and Eisav.

We need to learn from Yaakov in Parshat Vayishlach: approach, interact, be gracious and grateful. Acknowledge Eisav’s contributions and even be humble; call him master if that’s what it takes. But at the end of the day, we must part ways. We must walk alone with God through our mission in life. Eisav goes his way and we go ours; working in cooperation with the rest of the world while never denying our unique purpose.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Yehuda, Entitlement and Gratitude

In Parshat Vayeitzei we read about the birth of Yaakov’s children. Leah gives birth to his first four children and each time the child is named, the Torah gives us the reason for his name:
Reuven: Hashem has seen my humiliation
Shimon: Hashem has heard that I am unloved
Levi: My husband will now become attached to me

Upon the birth of her fourth son, Leah names him Yehuda: “This time I will thank Hashem”
Many commentators throughout the ages have noted that Jews are referred to as Yehudim, due to Yehuda’s name. The lesson generally learned is that we are referred to by a name that indicates gratitude; for integral to being Jewish is a sense of gratitude- to others and to God.

However I can’t help but note that it was only upon the birth of her fourth son that leah expresses her gratitude. The oft-quoted Medrash explains that  through prophecy it was known that Yaakov would have four wives and 12 sons. If each wife shared equally in birthing the Tribes of Israel, then each woman would have 3 sons. It’s only upon leah’s receiving something above and beyond that which she expected/ that which she felt she was entitled to, that she expresses gratitude.

Perhaps this is the reason why we are referred to as Yehudim. To repair the expression of gratitude made by Leah and express gratitude for everything we receive- even those things that we feel are owed to us, even those thing to which we feel entitled.

Many psychologists note the incredible sense of entitlement that children express today.  Entitlement is connected with the pervasive ingratitude that has infected our society.

Perhaps we Jews are called Yehudim to teach ourselves and the world around us that entitlement and gratitude need not be at odds with each other. We can provide for our children and yet  teach them the importance of saying thank you- whether it’s for a new video game system (which contrary to some kids’ perception is not a necessity) or when someone does something for you as part of their job/ expectations.

One concrete step we could take to better the world is by taking our status as Yehudim seriously and thanking others for even the small things: Like a teacher when she hands back a test, or a mail carrier when the mail is dropped off, or a cashier when s/he checks you out of a store. Or thanking Hashem for the small things: like waking up in the morning (Modeh Ani), or for a drink of water (Shehakol).

Small expressions of gratitude can create an entirely different and positive perspective- for ourselves and those around us.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Questions of Rivkah and Eisav

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 Question is: what do we do with our questions once we formulate them? Answering that is perhaps the most important part of addressing the problem in a constructive fashion.