Friday, December 27, 2013

Choosing To Lose Our Free Will

One of the challenging ideas to understand in the Exodus story is how to relate to the idea, repeated a number of times, that God “hardened Pharoh’s heart.” This idea seems to be in conflict with the notion of free will. If it was God who hardened Pharoh’s heart, why should he be blamed. Punished for his refusal to free the Israelites?

There are a number of approaches to this question. I’d like to mention the approach of Maimonides, as expressed in his Laws of Repentance:

“It is possible that a person may commit a grave transgression, such that the True Judge rules that the punishment is that repentance is withheld from him and he will not be allowed the right to turn from his evil.”

Though this quote can be understood from a theological perspective, I understand it from a psychological one. Free will does not mean that our past decisions play no part in our choices today. There are consequences to our past actions, and sometimes those consequences include fewer options in the present. Sometimes those consequences include an inability to choose from all of the theoretical choices for a given scenario. A person can get “locked in” by previous choices. In effect, such a person can at times lose their ability to exercise their free will.

In the past I have discussed the liberating characteristic of Free Will; that every day is a new beginning that allows us to change the course of our lives and make better decisions. However Maimonides’ interpretation of the hardening of Pharoh’s heart warns us that sometimes our choices cause us to lose our ability to choose in the future.

Friday, December 20, 2013

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 oriented role 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 too hastily attach negative names to people or institutions based on past events. For example, a student that has performed poorly in the past 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, December 13, 2013

Loving Children Equally and Differently

Why doesn’t Yaakov learn his lesson? The trouble between Yosef and his brotehrs 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 a 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. 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 brotehrs 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 that the brothers perceived that difference as being qualitative.

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 and children. 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.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Forgiving and Forgetting

In Parshat Vayigash, Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers and the reunion continues, when Yaakov and the rest of the family move down to Egypt. From his words, Yosef seems gracious and forgiving. And yet the brothers remain concerned. Yosef assuages their fears numerous times. And yet we see that years later after Yaakov dies, the brothers are still worried that Yosef had not forgiven them. In Parshat Vayechi, the text itself indicates this fear, as the brothers make up a deathbed scene in which Yaakov commands the brothers to tell Yosef to forgive them. And this idea is pointed out in more subtle ways as well. For instance. 

In Parshat Vayechi, Yosef is called (from elsewhere) to be informed that Yaakov is on his deathbed. Some commentators utilize that expression to suggest that Yosef remained estranged from his brothers, even after the reunion. If Yosef says that he has forgiven his brothers, then why don’t we believe him?
There are two answers to this question. First, if we look carefully at Yosef’s words we can suggest a double meaning:
“(45:5) And now do not be grieved, nor angry at yourselves that you sold me HERE (HEYNA)….”

45:8): “It was not you who sent me HERE (HAYNA), but rather God…..”

Reading between the lines one could suggest that Yosef tells the brothers not to worry about the fact that he ended up in Egypt…. But he may not have let them off the hook for initially throwing him into a pit and selling him to the wandering caravan.


Second, one could suggest that the pesukim here are teaching an important lesson. Forgiveness is encouraged for the victim, but the perpetrators should never forget their mistake; so that they don’t repeat it, so that they can make amends, and so that they can improve into the future.”