Wednesday, November 25, 2009

When to Hold and When to Fold

When is it time to move on? Have you ever wanted something very much, prayed for it, waited for it, longed for it, but yet it did not come? When is it time to let go and accept that, sad as it may be, what we much hoped for will will not happen.

I suspect most of us have asked ourselves that question and more than once. We longed for something in our lives maybe a certain job, or something in our marriage, or a shidduch, and no matter how much we davened or how hard we tried, it simply did not happen. We were left with a dilemma. Should we hang on to the dream, after all it could still happen. Hashem may yet answer our prayers and we don't want to lose a gift that may be so near and could mean so much? Or should we let go. To continue to wait may come at too high a price especially when other opportunities beckon and the desired may never occur.

I suspect many a life has been wasted waiting and praying for that which never came. And similarly, I suspect many a person after years of waiting has abandoned a deep and powerful yearning only a short time before there aspirations would have been realized had they remained committed.

Knowing when to hold and when to fold is hard indeed.

I look at two episodes in this week's parsha that seems to speak to the theme. The first is the more simple. Yaacov spends 20 years working for his father-in-law Lavan. He is cheated and taken advantage of time and time again. By the reading's end he is ready to move on. He doesn't even say goodbye. He simply gathers his family and possessions and takes 0ff. Yaacov realizes there is nothing between him and his father-in-law. Despite his best efforts to create a cordial, if not warm, family relationship all he experiences in return is mistrust and envy. Yaacov, in accord with G-d's charge, moves on. He and his wives' family will never see each other again. What might have been is no longer anticipated. No goodbyes necessary. Its over !

The second story is a bit more subtle. We read of Rachel and her desire to have children. She was so pained that she was childless that she said to Yaakov " Give me children else I am going to die". Desperate, she gave her maid-servant Bilha to Yaakov in order to have children through her. After 7 years, while Leah, her sister, and Yaacov's other wife had 7 children and the maid-servants 4, Rachel conceives. The Torah tells us " And Elokim remembered Rachel and Elokim listened to her and opened her womb".

The Torah explicitly states that Rachel conceived not only because G-d remembered her but because he heard her . After 7 years and seeing all the births around her Rachel was still praying for a child. She had not given up. We might wonder about that. She knew her husband was not sterile. He was a virtual baby-maker, having had 11 children. She, on the other hand, had gone 7 years infertile.

Might she not have thought, "its time to move on. Its just not going to happen for me. Let me find another direction for my life." Who would have blamed Rachel if she had stopped praying to have a child and instead invested in other meaningful life endeavours. Some times one needs to move on.

When to move on and when to hold fast? Can we learn anything from the consideration of both stories?

I think there is a lesson here. And the lesson is gleaned more from the Rachel story than from the Yaakov-Laban saga. Little doubt their are times to move on. And they are not easy to discern. Yaacov himself may not have recognized the time to leave had G-d not come to him in a dream and mandated his exodus. I suspect most of us wait too long before letting go rather than leave too soon. How many a woman has stayed in an abusive marriage way too long, hoping it would get better, before finally giving up and leaving.

Yes, giving up on people and on dreams no matter how important has its time. We cannot wait forever. And their are other life investments to be made. But its different when what we are yearning for is not about someone or something else, but about our own becoming and about the realization of our truest self. Sometimes what we are praying for and yearning to realize is so personal as to be core to our self concept, having to do with who we feel ourselves to be.

Such was the case with Rachel. Rachel knew she was meant to be a mother. It was her essence.

That's why she told Yaakov "Give me children else I will die". She could not imagine being at all without being a mother. While its true, in some cases, that which we most believe to be core to our identity does not happen in our lives, no matter how hard we pray or how many tears we shed. Yet as long as their is any possibility at all, we do not give up. We cannot give up. Giving up is to die. And until that death is inevitable we will rightfully remain committed to our personal calling.

Rachel is the mother of the Jewish people. She is the only one of the matriarchs who is always called Imeinu. To be a mother was not a work of her life, it was her very essence, inseparable from her identity. 7 years or 70 years, it would not have mattered, until or unless she would have been physically unable, Rachel would have been praying and petitioning to have a child, to be a mother. When its your self you are waiting to bring to life, there is no folding up.

I remember the story of a Rav who went to a particularly wicked town and made every effort to get the people to do teshuva but to no avail. Year after year he preached. coaxed and pleaded to get the people to change with no results. Finally someone asked him "Rav why do you continue to make these heroic efforts. Can't you see its useless?". The Rav answered, "Originally I preached and pleaded to change them. Now I preach and plead so that they shouldn't change me".

When we are talking about that which we believe to be vital to our sense of self, no matter how long we wait, we need to continue to pray and anticipate, never giving up. Our opportunity may not yet have come, but we cannot abandon our personal call. In those cases we need to plead petition and daven, even if we feel unheard, so that time and circumstance does not change us nor dim our resolve to become who we were meant to become.

When to hold and when to fold....One thing is sure in every life there is call for both. And we need to be steadfast when necessary and have courage enough to let go and move on when that is clearly our work. Most of all, like Rachel Imeinu, we need to be resolute and persist, no matter the challenge, to become our truest selves.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Between Mothers and Fathers

Have you ever noticed, while we find blessings being given by men on numerous occasions in the Torah we don't find a single instance of a woman's blessing. Moshe blesses, Yaakov blesses, Yitzchak blesses in this weeks parsha and they give blessings more than once. Yet we have no record of Sarah giving a blessing nor of any of the matriarchs. Why?

I asked my Rebbe, Rav Yehoshua Cohen, who knows all shas and beyond as I know my address, if there is record of a woman giving a blessing in the Talmud. He could only come up with one vague instance where a woman gave Rav Papa a blessing when he came to a strange town and asked for a certain talmid chacham. Not knowing Rav Papa to be the great authority he was she told him "you should be like him".

At the chupah prior to the wedding the custom is for the father to bless the kallah. I have seen where the father-in-law blesses his new daughter to-be as well. But I have never seen a mother's blessing.
And in most homes on Friday night their is a custom for the father to bless his children. Rare is the practice that the mother blesses the children.

Why? Why is the blessing of children reserved as the prerogative of the father?

I don't believe this is an accident. There is real reason why blessings belong to the father and not the mother. And the reason is rooted in the respective roles mother and father play in the life of a child. Mother is the nurturer and protector of the child. She makes the child feel safe, secure, esteemed as s/he is. Mother validates the child and affirms his/her intrinsic goodness.
The mother's love for her child is not based on anything s/he does. It does not need to be earned. A mother's love is unconditional and simply based on who the child is.

The father's role is to challenge the child, to encourage the child to grow and become. He is like a coach inviting the child to push his/her boundaries, to strive and to mature. He wants for the child to realize his/her potential. While of course, he too loves his child without condition, its different than with the mother. He has expectations. And those expectations motivate the child to believe in him/herself and to take the risks necessary to grow.

We need both influences in our life to realize our capabilities. We need the mother's love that affirms us for who we are and forges our self-esteem. And we need the father's love to help us believe in our capacity to be more than we are now, to grow and become. (Of course its not that each parent gives one type of love exclusively. But these are the respective roles in family life and in the life of a child).

Look at this weeks parsha. We see the different roles of father and mother played out dramatically. Rivka loves Yaakov. She seeks to protect him. She loves him for who he is. She insists he claim the blessings he is entitled to even if it means he has to put on a huge deception. She sends him away when she hears his brother Esav has plans to kill him.Were it not for her fear for his life she would never have wanted him to leave.

Yitzchak on the other hand loves Esav. And here, unlike Rivka's love for Yaakov where the Torah gives us no reason, the Torah tell us why. Yitzchak loved Esav for his accomplishments, "for he was able to hunt and take care of himself". Like Rivka, Yitzchak too sent Yaakov away at the end of the reading. But the sending is oh so different. He sends Yaakov not to protect him but for him to find a wife, to make his way in the world. Yitzchak wanted Yaakov to go out and become, to leave the "tents" (the Torah describes Yaakov as one who "sat in the tents".) and make something of himself.

Why don't we find women giving brachot? The answer is because a blessing is essentially a challenge to a person to stretch their boundaries, to go and realize their gifts, to become. Blessings express the encouragement for the person to fulfill themselves. They are prayers that s/he know success in his/her initiatives. That sentiment belongs to the fathers role within the family. He is the one who invites the child to grow beyond who s/he currently is. The mother's role validates the child as s/he is. She affirms the child as a person, as good and whole independent of what s/he does. Its not for her to bless. She offers the love that says "no matter what you do or become you are already good enough".

Truth is we need both the message of Yitzchak and Rivka for our healthy maturation. We need both nurture and challenge. We need mother and father. Sometimes one more than the other, but always both. And we who play that role in the lives of our children need to know that as parents we may not always be on the same page, as Yitzchak and Rivka were not. As mother and father we bring different energies to our children and at times we may feel our roles divide us. As father and mother we share the role as parent, but not necessarily its application.
Accepting the reality that as parents we may rightly feel different from one another goes along way to resolving tensions between parents in the home.

Did Yitzchak and Rivka love each other? Of course. But that did not mean they always thought and acted alike. As parents they felt and acted differently from each other. And we, their children, are grateful for the unique contribution each brought into the life of Yaakov and through him to us.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Small Expectations

In Charles Dickens classic "Great Expectations", the protagonist grows up poor in the marshes of Wales. To his surprise and delight in his late teens he becomes the beneficiary of ongoing gifts from an anonymous donor that turns him from pauper to newly rich. For some years he believes the mysterious benefactor is an old eccentric woman he tried to endear himself to when a boy, someone he long hoped would leave him money in her estate. He is shocked to learn that in fact he is being supported by gifts from an escaped convict he once fed at the peril of his life when still a child, an escaped convict who later became wealthy and never forgot the kindness.

If Charles Dickens could name this weeks parsha of Chayai Sarah, he might name it "Small Expectations". There is much to learn from the story of Eliezer and his adventure to find a wife for Yitzchak. But what intrigues me this year is how Rivka, the woman who becomes our matriarch, finds all of who she is, then and forever, changed through one act of kindness.

I mean could Rivka ever have imagined that one day when she was walking to the well to get water for her sheep that she would be asked to do something the consequence of which would totally transform her life? Rivka is asked by a person who she perceives a total stranger, someone who had no prospects of ever mattering to her, if she might give him some water.
Had she any idea the import of her response? Of course not! Yet in her decision to not only give Eliezer water, but go beyond his request and water his camels she changed history, hers and ours, her children.

Rivka had small expectations. She was simply doing the act of hesed that she felt was right and good. Yet that seemingly small act had consequence beyond measure. Who would have ever imagined?

Whats the lesson here? You and I spend so much of our time worrying about the big issues, the big challenges of our life. And yet that which may be most consequential for our present and future may be the little thing that we encounter along the way. Whats that famous line "life is what happens while we are busy making plans!".

So much of the time we are focused on the future goal and acquire tunnel vision, missing the opportunities before us. We become blind to the real hesed that may be life changing for us and for others. I thought of this as I considered my daughter, Bat Sheva and her progress at school.
At times I can be so preoccupied wanting her to learn and grow that I miss the chance to compliment her, affirm her, show her that I love her. I think of her future but miss her present.
And in missing her present I may miss doing that which will be far more telling in influencing the person she will grow up to be and the direction of her life.

In Tehilim the pasuk reads "Ashrai shomrai mishpat oseh tzedaka b'chal et...Fortunate is one who is a guardian of justice and does tzedaka all the time" The Gemara wonders, "how can one do tzedaka at all times?" For me the answer is that the pasuk refers to one who is ready to do tzedaka at all times. S/he is never so lost in pursuit of his/her agenda that s/he misses the moment.
Like Rivka in our story, they seize every opportunity to do good for indeed who can know its import, not only for the other, but for us!

Who knows if the moment before our eyes is not the moment that will make all the difference in the world in terms of Heaven's decree for us or even in terms of some earthly consequence. In both Dickens' story and in our parsha, lehavdil, the main characters had no idea their single act would so radically alter their lives. I suspect you and I have many moments that pass like those, many moments with great import for us , but our small expectations of those times causes us to miss the moment and alas it is gone.

Let us emulate our mother Rivka and not let the hesed before us pass, especially with those nearest to us, who we often take for granted. One act, one word, one choice, can change our lives and persons forever! Open your eyes! Do it! Say it! Make it!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Between Men & Women

The couple, in our tradition, most reflective of a loving relationship is Avraham and Sarah. The Talmud tells us that their union was so strong that even in death they were not separated (Bava Batra 58a). Yet the marriage of Avraham and Sarah, like all good marriages, had its moments of conflict. Last week we read where Sarah tells Avraham " I am furious at you....let Hashem be the judge between us". And this week Avraham is upset when Sarah insists that he get rid of Hagar and Yishmael. Its only when Hashem tells him to listen to Sarah that Avraham comes to accept her will.

But its not those passages I want to explore with you this week. But rather a troubling section at the beginning of the reading. There at the outset of the parsah of Vayeira we read that Avraham offers hospitality to three angels disguised as travellers. One of the angels was sent by G-d to tell Sarah that in a years time she would have a baby. Avraham already got the good news 3 days earlier at the same time that he was told of his requirement of mila, the ritual circumcision (last weeks reading). Its not clear from the text whether he informed Sarah of their good news but one would surmise he did. Nonetheless the angels come to deliver the news first hand to Sarah.

Yet, as we read the story, though the angels asked for Sarah they are not given access to her directly. Avraham tells them that she is in the tent. With no alternative the angels deliver their message to Avraham telling him that in a year's time Sarah will give birth to a son. Meanwhile, the Torah tells us, Sarah is standing at the opening to the tent and she hears the news. Her response, "And Sarah laughed to herself saying after I have grown old will I yet be desirable and my master (Avraham) is old as well".

This is a private laugh. The Torah tells us "Sarah laughed to herself..." and in any case no one heard her. She was alone at the entrance to the tent. Yet the angel finds problem with Sarah's laugh. He tells Avraham "Why did Sarah laugh saying can it be that I will yet give birth when I am so old." ( Though the Torah says this in the name of G-d most commentaries say it was the angel who spoke for G-d).The story concludes with Avraham confronting Sarah about her laugh. Sarah denies having laughed saying "'I did not laugh'....because she was afraid". And Avraham says to her "Indeed you did laugh". And that ends the episode.

There are many questions we need to ask about this story. First okay Sarah laughed, big deal.
Three days earlier when Avraham got the new from Hashem the Torah says " And Avraham fell on his face and laughed. And he said in his heart ' Can I really become a father at 100 and Sarah become a mother at 90'". Why was Avraham's laugh acceptable but not Sarah's. Second, how is it that Sarah denies her laugh. I understand she was afraid, but to lie a blatant lie? And then further, if she did lie in denying the laugh,why does Avraham go on to challenge her. Whats the point in embarrassing her? He is her husband and yet he seems to be acting like a repudiating parent.

And most importantly we would do well to wonder whats the point of the Torah giving us the story? What's the lesson in it for us? It seems peculiar at best.

I believe the key to understanding the story and its meaning is recognizing that at its core this is a story whose dynamics are rooted in gender. Avraham was male. Sarah was female. The idea of finally having a child with Sarah was wonderful for Avraham, a dream come true. For Sarah it was much more consequential. Little doubt she had died a 1000 deaths over the many years of their marriage each time her period came and she realized she was not pregnant. For her, as for most women, not having a child engenders a huge sense of failure and shame. She was so pained by her baroness that she asked Avraham to sleep with another woman (Hagar) just so she might have a child to raise as her own. By the time she was 90, no longer fertile, she had mourned her tragedy....and moved on. It was so painful to accept but she at last must have made some peace.

Now the angels come and she over-hears that she is going to have a child. Yes both Avraham and Sarah laugh when each gets their news...but look at the difference in what they are thinking.
Avraham's laugh is accompanied by the thought " Wow, can it be at 100 I will yet be a father (again) and Sarah at 90 be a mother". Its the laughter of joy and it invokes no criticism from Hashem.

What thought accompanies Sarah's (private) laugh on hearing the angel's words? She says "How can it be? My body is already worn (no longer fertile). Will I yet be desirable to my husband? And he too is old". Sarah laughs an anxious laugh. She wants to believe but struggles. One of the great Torah commentaries explained that Avraham and Sarah were no longer physically intimate. She was no longer attractive to him. She could not imagine how in practicality this baby was to be conceived. Sarah's doubt is reminiscent of Yaakov's inability to believe his sons when they return from Egypt and tell him that Yosef is alive. He grieved all these years. It meant so much to him...he was afraid to believe that it could really be . He was afraid lest he suffer a disappointment he could not bare.

Sarah's laugh is not the laugh of Avraham. Its the laugh of a woman afraid to believe for fear that if she trusts and she is disappointed she will not survive. This isn't just a wonderful gift for her. This is life and death. She wants to believe, desperately. But dare she?

It is to this that the angel speaks when he says to Avraham " why does Sarah laugh saying 'can I really give birth as I am so old'. Is anything too wondrous for Hashem to do. Next year at this time I will return and Sarah will have a son". The angel is not criticizing her. On the contrary he is making effort to reassure her, which was his purpose for the visit in the first place.
He is telling Sarah she can trust and not be afraid. The baby will come.

And so when we reach the end of the story and Avraham confronts Sarah on her laughter, Sarah denies the laugh. And why? Because "she is afraid". She is afraid that her private laugh that now is clearly known, that doubt that she expressed out of years of frustration and longing, will now cause her to lose this last chance at a child. She is afraid that the laugh will ruin everything...All seems so fragile and unreal to her...She fears what was promised will now be taken away.

It is to this that Avraham says " Indeed you laughed"saying thereby to his beloved Sarah, "Yes you laughed and its okay. This is real. We are going to have our son. And neither your laughter nor anything else will take him from us. You need not be afraid. Your redemption is at hand".

If we understand the story this way it speaks to the love between Avraham and Sarah. They each wanted a son. But the meaning it had for each of them was very different. Avraham already had Yishmael and even had he not, having a child was a gift. For Sarah, as for many women, it had the import of life and death. Avraham had to come to understand Sarah's anxiety. It was the same anxiety that according to a medrash caused Sarah's death when she feared Yitzchak was being killed at the akaida.

In my reading of the story Avraham does not chastise Sarah at the end. Rather he comforts her. feeling for her anxieties and worries.
Husbands and wives need to understand that though many times they want the same thing it does not mean that it has the same import to both.
Love is based on respect and respect is based on the appreciation of the unique mindset of the other. Its not enough for couples to say "we want the same things". That may well be true but it isn't enough to prevent serious misunderstanding. What priority do those things have for each of you? how critical? and for what reasons?

Yes, Avraham and Sarah are the ideal couple. But they too had to do the work of building intimacy and trust. Even at the ages of 100 and 90 and after perhaps 70 years of marriage they were still learning each other and growing together. That's not a bad thing. That's what gives life meaning. We would do well to invest in our marriages with similar resolve.

Shabbat Shalom