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.