Monday, December 29, 2008

Meeting the Moment!

With this week's powerful climax of the drama of Joseph and the brothers we begin the close of the book of Breishit. We will shortly leave the story of persons and families to engage the story of the People of Israel and the revelation of the laws by which the People is to live.

What legacy am I left with? What challenge do these engaging dramas of our fathers and mothers and the many other characters who inhabit the pages leave us? The stories are all different, the characters diverse. Some are good, some are bad. Their actions evoke a wide range of emotions from sadness to joy and from disdain to embrace. Is there a red thread we can find as we look to make a hadran for Breishit in the coming weeks? Is there a underlying message that transcends the individual stories and is present in all?

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I invite you to answer that question for your self? For me the red thread, the compelling message present throughout the least for this that wherever we are, whatever we face in life .. no matter how seemingly small or personal, it may well be our Waterloo... To do the right thing may justify our whole existence. To do the wrong thing may compromise our right to have been born. Moreover to do the right thing may bring a gift only we can bring to the messianic edifice. To do the wrong thing may hold back mashiach's arrival.

Yehuda had no idea that he was before Joseph and the whole future of the Jewish people depended on his rising up to the occasion to put his life on the line to save Benjamin. Nor did he know that in saving Tamar his daughter-in-law from the fire he saved the lineage of the Messiah. These were for him individual moments of testing....personal and private. Yet if he had failed either, the consequences would be beyond historic. The same is true for all the character tests our Avot and Imahot experienced and even for those who play lesser roles in the Book. What if Eliezer had not brought back Rivka saying he could not find a suitable wife? What if Joseph had simply given in to the awesome temptation of Potiphar's wife? On the other side, what might have been if Esav had over-come his hunger and not sold the birthright to Yaakov? Would Yaakov still have gone in at his mothers request to take the blessings? Could Noah have had any idea that his private righteousness would save the existence of humanity?

Each of us has moments that are consequential beyond the personal testing of either doing a mitzvah or committing an avaira. These are moments of calling, moments for which we were created. According to many teachings each person has a unique avoda or role to play in the completion of the story of humanity and the bringing about of the ultimate redemption. Its a role that is reserved exclusively for us. Each one of us has moments when we are Yehuda or Yosef or Noah..Completing those moments successfully means we have fulfilled our destiny, failing means we have compromised the progression of the world to the yemot hamashiach.

Breishit teaches me that I cannot know when those ultimate moments will be before me...Yehuda, Joseph, Noah, Eliezer, Esav and all the many many others did not know. Yet they needed to live their personal challenges as if the whole world depended on them. The Rambam taught... every person needs to see the him/herself and the world as exactly balanced between the good and the evil and the deed before him/her to do is so consequential that it will tip the scale and hence tip his/her fate and the fate of the world either for life or for destruction.

Brieshit challenges me to mindfulness, to living the moment fully, to embrace the gift of the single mitzvah or act of kindness as if its consequence will either sustain or destroy both me and the world...And who just might!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Its Tough to be a Hero..A Channukah Thought

Its Channukah, a holiday celebrating the triumph of the Jewish spirit over the repression of enemies. We might have been alive today without Channukah...but we would not have been Jews. The heroic commitment of men and women to maintain their yahadut in the face of persecution and at the risk of death is inspiring.

Who are these heroes...some we know by name; Yehuda of the sons of Mattityahu, his four brothers who we refer to as Hasmoneans. Yet whats amazing is that even as Channukah lives on as a Jewish holiday two thousand years after the events, and will according to our sages live on as a Jewish holiday into the messianic days and beyond, the heroes of Channukah have no personal presence in our world...and have been absent for near as long as the holiday they inspired exists.

The Talmud teaches us that "anyone who says s/he is from the family of the Hasmoneans must be a slave (non Jewish)." It tells us that the last of the distinguished lineage that inspired the revolt against the Syrio-Greeks committed suicide...and that occurred not much more than a hundred years after the Channukah victory. Moreover according to Megillat Antiyochut Yehuda died in the wars against Antiochus, as did his brother Eliezer. They never even got to celebrate the rededication of the Beit Hamikdash.

Channukah may be celebrated as a holiday for children, what with the gelt, presents, latkes etc.
But surely the story is not one of a happily ever after. Its a story of sacrifice and of tragedy...of national triumph yes but at the expense of individuals whose personal lives and legacies were lost forever. Just consider the power of the reality that no one can say today I am a descendant of the one!

What Channukah says to me is that if I want to know the blessings of life in this world I need to attach myself to my people. As an individual, even if I have lived a life of goodness and sacrifice, I can have no expectations of health, life and continuity. I and all that I have created, including my heirs, can disappear in a flash. There is no family no matter how large or how wealthy that
can insure its survival. I may need to know my 'I' inorder to realize my tachlis. But it is in belonging and in knowing my self as part of the klal that I have a future and a hope.

Living with the Klal is the gift of living in Eretz Yisrael. Unlike the galut where one is forever conscious of his/her uniqueness and in Eretz Yisrael one feels the sense of belonging. Here we live the destiny of the klal every day and it overshadows any personal story.
Here, while true it is Yehuda and the Hasmoneans sufferred personal tragedies, Channukah is the Yom Tov of hope, triumph and yes joy!
Chag Urim Samayach!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Learning Life's Lessons

My father, zichrono l'vracha, would often share a story, this time of the year, of the boy whose father told him the story of Joseph, as the parsha of Vayeshev arrived. An emotional child, he was moved to tears. Infact the boy cried not only the first year but even the second year when his father reviewed the drama. The third year, as his father told the story to him again, the boy remained unmoved. His father, noticing the change, asked "why no tears this year?"

The boy said " I felt sorry for Joseph two years ago....and even last year it was sad to think of how terrible it was to be betrayed by your brothers...But if he didnt learn not to trust them by the third year then he has no one to blame but himself".

The story of Joseph and the brothers remains new and fresh to us each year. First we hear it as children and identify with the rejected Joseph. As we get older we may hear the story and identify with siblings in conflict who despite all they have in common can't seem to get along.
As we age we may identify with Yaakov and the anguish of a parent who has lost a child either by dint of a tragic death of through emotional/spiritual separation. The story speaks to us wherever we are in our lives and has something to say...that is...if the child in my father's story continue to experience it as current...

Today as I write this blog we mark Yud Tet Kislev (the 19th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev) a special day for many hassidim but in particular for Chabad Hassidim who celebrate the Alter Rebbe's liberation from Russian jail. In the Rebbe's most famous work, Tanya, he provided an epistemology, a philosophy of how we come to know things, in accord with our tradition. The Rebbe pointed out the original step in coming to know is chachma. The word chachma comes from contracting two Hebrew words koach mah, loosely translated as 'what is its potency'. The way the Rebbe understood it, coming to know is a process. It starts with a flash intuition, the koach mah or chachma in which all the insight is contained as an undifferentiated whole...and only after being received moves from there to bina...a more processed and analyzed understanding of what one comes to know.

The critical context necessary to experience the first stage of the koach mah is the soil of humility. It is humility that makes it possible to receive the flash insight. Inorder to be even be able to come to chochma one first needs to get one's self out of the way. It is no coincidence that Moshe was both the anav who said of himself v'anachnu ma, what are we, and the great Rebbe of Klal Yisrael.

How is it that Yehuda was able to be a different brother to Benjamin than he was to Joseph?
What was the process of his teshuva?. The change in Yehuda begins with "and Judah went down from his brothers..." as the parsha this week tells us. The term vayered, can simply mean 'to travel'. But our sages understood it to mean that Yehuda indeed 'went down'... that he was demoted in their eyes from his leadership position as a consequence of his advice to them to sell Joseph....The story of Tamar further humbled Judah as he is compelled to acknowledge both his wrongful judgement of her and his own shame.

It was Judah's stature that prevented him from seeing Joseph for who he was. And in contast, it was in the humbling of Judah that it became possible for him to perceive the chochma necessary to recognize the truth. Humility makes all change possible. Arrogance keeps us both blind and stuck.

With all the goings on in the financial world, with one scam after another being revealed and billions of dollar being lost...its clear the underlying cause is not greed but arrogance....It is the arrogance of fund managers and CEOs which prevents them from facing their failures. It is arrogance that causes those in positions of authority to cover-up their errors rather than admit them. And the price of that arrogance is the piling up of losses upon losses and engaging in ever more menacing intrigues to hide mistakes.

Sometimes we all need a little humbling...Its the yerida l'tzorech aliya, the downfall that actually is necessary for our rehabilitation and ultimate ascent. I live in Jerusalem on Klein St..klein means small....Many of us would do well to spend some time on that street....I know it is the right home for me.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Similiar and the Different

Since I moved to Eretz Yisrael I have been mostly davening in a nusach sefarad siddur. Its not a matter of intentionally changing my personal nusach ha'tefila but rather the reality of davening morning and evening in a beit knesset that davens nusach sefarad in my neighborhood. The gift of the siddur I daven in is that it has a beautiful little prayer addendum to the ending portion of the shmoneh esrai, an addendum I decided to add to my silent prayer.

The prayer begins asking Hashem that I not have jealous feelings towards any person and that no person be jealous of me...I found it fascinating that protection from feelings of jealousy should be so important as to warrant a special addition to our prayers. And if I need Divine help to be safeguarded from the feeling what does it say about how prevalent the feeling is in both me and in others.

As I thought about jealousy I thought about the stories of sibling rivalries we have been encountering all through Breishit. From the earliest stories of Cain and Hevel to the stories of Joseph and his brothers a recurring theme has been brother (or sister) engaged in some form of conflict. I then wondered how is it that Yaakov and Esav seem to reconcile, as we read this week, while Joseph and his brothers, of which we read about next week, engage in a struggle that, one could argue, never gets fully resolved. After all Judah and Ephraim ( decendent of Joseph)
become adversaries in the form of a divided people and a split kingdom. And even if you don't want to take the struggle that far down the road of our history, it is certainly clear that the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers takes quite a bit more work than the reconciliation of Yaakov and Esav. Why?

I think the answer may be that there was one ingredient true in the story of Joseph and his brothers that we do not find in the story of Yaakov and Esav, or for that matter in any other rivalry save one (and interestingly that one is in the rivalry of the mothers of Joseph and his brothers). The ingredient is jealousy. Esav hated Yaakov. He hated him with an enmity so strong it moved him to want to commit fratricide. But nowhere does it say Esav was jealous of Yaakov. And a rivalry, no matter how bitter, not rooted in jealousy can be reconciled relatively easily and with no enduring consequences. However if jealousy is at the core of the conflict, no matter how good the people are in themselves, the conflict will be difficult to resolve and the consequences may endure.

It is no accident that we find jealousy being an operative dynamic with Joseph and his brothers and not with Yaakov and Esav. Jealousy more likely occurs when people are more similar to each other and where they have more in common. When people see themselves as different from each other, they may experience fear and hatred, they may resent and loathe, but they will not likely feel jealousy. Jealousy breeds where people actually have much in common and a potential affinity. It grows where people may experience feelings of love and closeness in concert with the feelings of jealousy. It is a feeling one typically experiences with those nearest and dearest, husbands and wives, parents and children ( I know the Gemara says a parent does not feel jealous of his/her child, and yet reality demands we not take that talmudic teaching literally). Not surprisingly it is a feeling we need pray to Hashem to protect us from because it's a feeling so painful for us to confront in ourselves and one so difficult to weed out.

Jealousy is the most pernicious of feelings between people and potentially the most destructive.
Yet it is a feeling that inheres in some forms even amongst the greatest of us and in relations to the ones we most love. How wise that little prayer I now say three times daily asking Hashem's protection from jealousy. How wise I would be if I have the courage to face the feeling where it exists in me and if I cannot dissolve the feeling, at least do all that I can to insure that the feeling not undermine the relationships I have with the ones I love....

Monday, December 1, 2008

My Father Yaakov

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Haran...

Have you ever heard the expression "life happens while we are making plans for something else"? My sense is that our father Yaakov would have understood that expression perfectly.

At the outset of the Parsha of Vayetzay we are told of Yaakov's journey. He is on the way from Beer Sheva to Haran to fulfill the charge of his parents to go and get for himself a wife. It was getting dark and he needed to rest. The Torah tells us he stopped over at hamakom, the place, for the night. Several times the Torah refers to the setting where Yaakov rested as hamakom, the place, as if it has no name. But why? At the end of the section we are told that Yaakov named hamakom, the place, Bet El. But is had a name prior. It was called Luz. So why is hamakom not referred to by its name, Luz, at the portions outset?

I suspect the place was not named at the beginning because to Yaakov its name was irrelevant. Yaakov was on a mission. He was focused on his goal. He merely was in Luz because he was tired and it was too dark to travel. The setting might as well have been anywhere he lay his head. It was only a way-station to places far more important for the journeys successful completion.

How surprised was Yaakov to have an amazing dream at this non-descript place, a dream of ascending and descending angels, a dream in which he receives the promise of the Divine. No wonder when Yaakov wakes in the middle of the night he does not build an altar and deal with the content of his dream, marvelous as it was. For that he waits until morning. No, he awakes and is shaken. He wonders how could he have missed an awareness of the holiness of this site. How could he have thought he was in hamakom when in fact he was at the Bet Elokim.

Indeed Yaakov was so busy focused on the destination that he almost missed the gift and opportunity of the journey itself with all its moments to experience Hashem.

A great baal musar once wrote that every person's daled amot, four cubits, is their kodesh hakadashim, holy of holies. And if a person accesses the moment and the place who knows whats possible for him/her in the arena of kedusha. What's vital is to never see where we are as simply a means to an end. The place where we are, no matter how far from our destination, may be the bet elokim for us if we will be but open to the moment. Life does happen while we are busy making plans...What a shame it would be if we were too preoccupied to notice!