Friday, December 25, 2015

There Are No Guarantees

At the end of his life, Yaakov wanted to leave his children with a message of hope and consolation. Chapter 49 begins with Yaakov calling together his sons at which point he says, 

Jacob called for his sons and said, "Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. אוַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב אֶל בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים:
However if we look further in the Parsha we will see that Yaakov does not live up to this particular promise. He blesses his children but we see no further explicit mention of the End of Days anywhere else in Yaakov’s last words. Rashi quotes the Midrash that Yaakov wanted to reveal to his children when Moshiach would come, but just then his Divine inspiration departed and he no longer had access to that information.
We can understand Yaakov’s desire to take leave of his children on a note of optimism abd comfort. His family was now in Egypt and the years of slavery were yet to begin. As Yaakov lay on his deathbed, his sons were feeling vulnerable and dejected. It is only natural that Yaakov wanted to tell his children that “everything will be OK- and I can prove it to you by telling you when Moshiach will come.”
However Yaakov was not allowed to convey that message. In this way the Torah is teaching us that there are no sure things in life. We have to try our best every day, even when the results are not guaranteed. We cannot give up on doing the right thing, even when if we do not understand where it is all leading; even when it appears that “nice guys finish last”.

It would have been great had Yaakov been allowed to assure us that everything would work out OK in the end. By God not allowing him to do so, we are given the greater challenge – living a righteous life without any guarantees.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Standard Bearers for the Past and the Future

When Yaakov is introduced to Pharaoh in Egypt he is asked his age. Yaakov responds in a surprising manner:

And Jacob said to Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojournings are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings."

טוַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל פַּרְעֹה יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי שְׁלשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם:

There are a number of questions that immediately came to my mind (this time I read this verse):
Why does Yaakov call his years “few and bad” at this juncture- especially since he has just been reunited with his long lost son Yosef? Granted, he has just been forced to relocate- which is never easy and certainly not so for a man of Yaakov’s age- over 100 years old. But even within that difficult transition- God has just spoken directly to him and assured Yaakov that things will be OK- that God will continue to be with him and his family with transition from a family clan into the nation that was promised to Avraham.

What does Yaakov mean when he says that his years have not reached the life span of his father or grandfather? Yaakov is still alive!

Perhaps we can better understand Yaakov’s declaration in light of a Rabbinic teaching: A person should always be asking him/herself:  When will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?" (Tanna deBei Eliyahu 25)

At this crossroads in Yaakov’s life he reflects and wonders whether he has lived up to his family name. He wonders whether his father and grandfather would be proud of the choices he’s made and the direction his life- and that of his children and grandchildren- has gone. No amount of Divine assurance is sufficient for a person to stop asking him/herself that question.

As we read this episode- the very beginning of the pivotal Jewish experience that was Egyptian slavery- we should accustom ourselves to think in a similar way. As parents and transmitters of a rich Jewish tradition we should ask ourselves: Are we doing our part to project a rich and meaningful Jewish life that can be a model for the next generation. As receivers of this tradition we must ask ourselves: How are we doing at safeguarding And nurturing that gift of Jewish values that was safeguarded by our ancestors and then entrusted to us?

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Universal Lesson of Chanukah

The Halacha states that the most appropriate time to light Chanukah candles is at sunset. However if for whatever reason it is not done at sunset,  one can light Chanukah candles “until there are no more pedestrians coming back from market.” The Talmud goes on to explain that that the very last people to go home from the market were the Tarmoda’i merchants who sold small twigs to other merchants as firewood. After all of the customers went home for the day, the shopkeepers had to close up shop before making their way home. Oftentimes, after arriving home they would be informed that the house needed firewood to stay warm through the night. The shopkeepers would then have to trek back to the market, where the Tarmoda’i would be waiting to make their last sales of the day. One is allowed to light Chanukah candles so long as these Tarmoda’i have not made it home yet.

            According to Rashi, these Tarmoda’i were not Jewish. It emerges that the criteria for lighting Chanukah candles is not necessarily that Jews should see the Chanukah lights. So long as even non-Jews, such as these Tarmoda’i,  have seen the Chanukah candles, one has dispensed of his obligation to publicize the miracle of Chanukah. The question is why does it help to publicize this Jewish miracle to non-Jews?

            Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the struggle and victory of Chanukah is one that deserves the attention of the non-Jewish world as well. As opposed to other celebrations of victory and salvation (for example- Purim) on Chanukah there is no indication that the physical lives of the Jewish people were at risk. Rather the threat that the Maccabees encountered was an existential spiritual threat.

            To fight for one’s life is something that all people do- in fact even animal instincts dictate that an animal defends its physical existence. However in the story of Chanukah the Jews fought with similar vigor to defend their right to live Jewish lives. That is something that not everyone understands. Non-Jewish religions may not have ingrained the idea that some religious values are worth fighting for, even worth dying for. It is this aspect of the story and victory that is appropriate to publicize to all- even non-Jews.

            The notion that there are"ideals worth fighting for," or even worth dying for, has become a problematic topic, tarnished due to terrorists who justify not just dying, but killing for their ideals. As we celebrate Shabbat Chanukah let us ask ourselves: Are there values and causes for which we are willing to fight? What are they? How do we remain firm in our convictions and teach others to do so as well, while  encouraging a culture of tolerance at the same time?

Friday, December 4, 2015

The problem with asking for some peace

ועוד נדרש בו וישב ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף.
When Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility, the troubles of Joseph sprang upon him

Rashi quotes this Midrash at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev that seems critical of Yaakov’s desire for some peace and respite after many years of challenges and turmoil. The question that must be asked is: Why? What’s wrong with seeking some peace? Isn’t peace a great blessing that we seek for ourselves from Hashem?

I’d like to suggest an answer based on explanations that I recently read on the bleassing of “Birkat Hashanim” in our Amidah. This is a timely blessing to review since we will begin to say “V’tein Tal Umatar” beginning Saturday night with Maariv.
In that bracha we ask Hashem to bless “Et Hashana Hazot” THIS year, with prosperity. The problem is that we believe that one’s prosperity is set at Rosh Hashanah. So what are we asking for all year long?

The son of the Vilna Gaon explains that blessings can materialize in many different ways; some easier and some with more challenges. For instance, even if we have been decreed to receive the blessing of rain for the year- that blessing can manifest in a way that is easier- ie it rains at convenient times in proper amounts in the right locations. Or that blessing can materialize in more challenging ways. The lesson is that no blessing is unequivocal.

The Midrash is critiquing Yaakov for imagining that the blessing of “shalva” was unequivocally positive. It’s understandable that Yaakov thought so- after all he had experienced no peace and quiet for close to a quarter century. But even “Shalva” is only sometimes a bracha. I am reminded of what some of my “empty nester” friends will tell me when I appear haggard by the noise and mess that comes with the blessing of 4 energetic children. They will tell me that when the house empties and there is peace and quiet- I will miss the noise. (I try to keep that perspective in mind, instead of buying earplugs.)

Later in the bracha of Birkat Hashanim  we ask that God bless this year “Kashanim Hatovot” , “Like the good years”. The Siach Yitzchak explains this is meant to highlight for us the challenges that can accompany any blessing; specifically the challenge of ignoring God and thinking that our success is a result of our own efforts and cutting the Divine out of the picture. “Good Years” means a time in which we are the recipient of God’s blessings- and still remember where it all came from.

With this in mind, we can suggest a second aspect of the Midrash’s critique of Yaakov’s request for “shalva”. Shalva, like many blessings in life, cannot be viewed as an end onto itself. Peace and tranquility are blessings that enable us to accomplish and enjoy. Yaakov asked for “shalva” but viewed it merely as a respite from all of the challenges he had thus far experienced, instead of considering what he would be able to accomplish going forward with the gift of “shalva”
The Midrash is teaching us the contours of a proper request for blessing. First, we must request with the understanding that no blessing is unequivocal. “Be careful what you pray for, for you might get it” is something we need to consider carefully. Second, we must view blessings not as a response/ reward for the past but as an opportunity and a means to propel us forward.