Thursday, November 18, 2010

Going Home

Many years ago Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel "You Can't Go Home Again".
In it he told the story of a man, himself a novelist who becomes an instant success for his first book. However that very book is seen by the people of his hometown as describing them in unflattering ways. He becomes a hero in society. Yet, because of the anger he causes in the town of his roots, he can't go home again!

"You can't go home again" has become much more famous as an individual maxim than as a novel. Its core concept expresses the idea that once one grows up and grows out of the limited family environs, s/he can never really go back home, at least not as the person/child they once were.

This week, in the parsha of Vayishlach, we read of Yaakov, our father, finally coming home. In truth it seems a much delayed homecoming, and one Yaakov did not seem very keen on. You recall, several weeks ago we read how Yaakov was sent away by his mother Rivka, after he stole the blessings from Esav, his brother. Rivka and Yitzchak envisioned Yaakov being away as short time, just long enough to marry and for his brother's anger to abate.

In the end Yaakov stays away all of 36 years. Twenty of them he spends in the home of his father-in-law, Lavan. By the time he returns his mother already died. He had opportunity to return home after being with Lavan 14 years. Instead he chose to stay-on and make money growing his flock. Even when he finally decided to return to Canaan, it only came after he no longer felt welcome in the house of Lavan. He expressed to his wives the need to leave, not so as to return to his parents, they are not mentioned. Rather he claimed the need to redeem the pledge he made to G-d at Bet El,before he began his long and difficult journey.

Still more, after his encounter with Esav, of which we read this week, we would expect Yaakov to finally go home. But no, he moved his family to Succot, there setting up a home for a year and a half.
And even after that, Yaakov moves to Sh'chem where the terrible story of the rape of his daughter Deena takes place, and in consequence the whole town is massacred. Who knows how long he might have stayed there if he were not compelled to leave because of the circumstances.

Only after Rachel died did Yaakov finally come home. Why? Why does Yaakov seem to resist going home? Why does he disappoint both parents desire to see him, and keep away so long? How can we explain this? And if he truly avoided home for so long, how is it that he finally does indeed go home again?

We call this blog The Torah and the Self. Its intent is to make the Torah personal so as to grow from what the stories and laws have to teach us about ourselves. None of us can be sure why Yaakov stayed away so long, why he avoided going home. But knowing ourselves, and knowing his story we can speculate. It would not be surprising if in Yaakov's time away and in his maturation he got in touch with some conflicted feelings towards one or both of his parents. After-all, his father Yitzchak preferred his older brother Esav to him, as the Torah told us. Yaakov was the Tzaddik yet his father loved more his older sibling who was not. That hurts!

As for Rivka, Yaakov might well have wondered about the way she loved him. Why did she send him in to lie before his father in the deception of the blessings, rather than confront his father herself. Why did he have to carry the burden of the wrath of Esav, when it was his mother's agenda he was following? Questions that while when young and living at home one might put aside, as one matures and moves away, cause one a sense of conflictedness towards a parent and perhaps even some anger.

Many of us who were 'perfect' children, as we grew became conscious of issues we had about our upbringing. Often we brought them to therapy. If we were fortunate we got to raise the issues with our parents, express our feelings and achieve a special reconciliation, one only possible adult to adult. That's hard work. Many a child, now adult, resists going home if their feelings never get worked through.

Yaakov had reason to avoid going home.It was uncomfortable for him at best. He had feelings about his childhood and upbringing. How could he not? So how is it that he finally goes home? What makes the homecoming possible?

I believe the Torah tells us exactly what made Yaakov able to go home. He needed to! When does Yaakov go home, after the debacle with Deena, when he cannot protect his only daughter from harm and fails as a father. When does Yaakov go home, after he is ashamed of Shimon and Levi his older sons for there act of mass murder, and for making the family vulnerable to attack.When does Yaakov go home, after his beloved Rachel dies on the road, in giving birth to his child! and, in tradition, as a consequence of an oath he swore to Lavan! Indeed he goes home after he has failed as a husband too!

Yaakov goes home because he needs to. Yes, he felt conflicted towards his mother and father. But he needed the love and affirmation only a parent could bring. The angel he wrestled with, in the beginning of this week's reading, wounded him a wound time and attention could heal. These wounds were different. They affected his core sense of self and person and required much more to heal. These wounds needed the warmth of home and nurturing. Yes, Yaakov the adult,the one accomplished and mature, needed the love and caring available to children in their time of vulnerability. That kind of caring can only be gained at home and from one's family of origin.

Seen in this light the story of Yaakov's homecoming is both profound and personal. In it we can very much find pieces of ourselves and of those we know. Can we go home again? We can when we need to! Who was it that said "necessity is the mother of invention!".

Yaakov's story is indeed our own...

Shabbat Shalom

PS I want to thank my wonderful wife Lindy for her thoughts on this that much inspired me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Who Am I?

When we first meet someone and attempt to get to know them one of the first questions we ask is "What do you do?". In asking the question we reveal an assumption; who we are can be gleaned from what we do!

But is that really true? I want to explore with you this week's parsha and in particular the lives of our matriarchs, Rachel and Leah, to test our assumption.

On Rosh Chodesh, after our early morning daf yomi, the Rav left the shule.Before he left he asked me if he should bring my regards to "Mama Rachel". You see, he was leaving to recite early morning prayers at Kever Rachel in Bethlehem, on the outskirts of Yerushalayim. His question led me to wonder. What is it about Rachel, our mother, that makes her the mother-ideal in the eyes of our people and throughout the generations? After-all she only gave birth to two of the twelve tribes. Moreover nearly none of the Jews who survive today can be said to be her descendants. For most of us, and here I mean most as in likely some 90%, Leah is our mother. Rachel is our aunt.Moreover Rachel died young, in childbirth. She was only a mother to one of her children, Yosef, and was not there for much of his life either. How does she become the mother in death when she spent so few years being the mother in life!

If we were to name the ultimate 'mother' of our people it would be likely to choose Leah. She is our true mother. She gave birth and raised most of the people of Israel and most of the Jews alive today. Yet in the long-run, while Leah was the mother, based on her life and deeds, she is better noted for being Yaakov's wife than for being the mother. She is buried with Yaakov in Hebron. Rachel, the wife Yaakov loved is buried in a grave of her own in Bethlehem.
When we name the couples buried in the M'aarat Hamachpaila we name Yaakov and Leah.

Yet the oddity here is that Yaakov never seemed to really love Leah. She bore his children but never became the 'wife' to him that Rachel was. Yet after her death, in the context of history,she seems recognized in tradition, not as the mother, but as the wife!
How can that be?

The answer to the riddle teaches us something profound. It surely is true that Rachel in her lifetime was much more the 'wife' than the 'mother'. But what we do does not so much define who we are as what we yearn for. The story of Rachel's short and tragic life is the story of the yearning for children. Yaakov's love mattered less to her than being a mother, so much so that she told him "Give me children else I will die!". When Reuvan, Leah's eldest, brings home the wondrous flowers from the field for his mother, as we are told in this week's reading, Rachel is willing to give up a night of intimacy with Yaakov to know the gift of as child's love, even vicariously. Rachel dies in childbirth. No woman more yearned for children. She is the mother-ideal, and not just for the two children she bore. She is our mother. Her life was all about the yearning to be a mother, even if so little of it was actually spent raising children.

On the other hand, yes, Leah was the mother in the story of her life. Her work was very much the raising of children. But the Torah is clear, what Leah yearned for was the love of her husband. She wanted more than anything to be the 'wife' to Yaakov.She named each of her children for the impact she hoped that child would bring to win her the love of Yaakov. She gave up her son Reuvain's gift of the wondrous flowers for the night of intimacy with the husband who loved her less. Leah's life was raising children. Yet her yearning was to finally be the wife! It is as the wife of Yaakov she is remembered, buried by his side for all eternity, not as the mother, for this was her yearning. We are what we yearn for, not what we do!

When I say "yearn", it is not the same thing as wish! A yearning is something deep within us. It becomes our source of hope and joy. A yearning gives us reason for living, it motivates our existence.
Let me give an example. A young woman had a severe accident as a child and is left without the use of her legs. She cannot walk, never mind dance. Yet she yearns to dance. She watches ballet with an uncommon intentionality. She follows every motion. She identifies with the ballerina, feeling herself move with the dancer's turn and jumps. In her mind, she is one with the ballerina. She dances each dance she watches. She loves ballet. She loves to dance. It gives her life meaning. Who is this paralyzed young woman. Her yearning defines her! Though she cannot move her legs, she is a dancer!

Do you and I have yearnings? Do we have deep seated hopes and dreams that give our life its energy. For the one most spiritual the yearnings that define him/her is the intimacy with G-d. For others the yearning may be for something far less noble, money, prestige, position etc.

Who we are is revealed by what we yearn for not by what we do!
Re-adjusting our yearnings,though difficult, may be the most important work we can invest in!

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 5, 2010

Truth or Consequence

There is no more confounding story in the Torah than that of Yaakov and Esav. In this week's parsha of Toldot we read how our father, Yaakov, at his mother's behest, steals the blessing his father Yitzchak intended to bestow on Esav. Yaakov clearly engaged in act of deception. Yet nowhere does the Torah indicate that it was a sin. On the contrary,Yaakov was the one deserving of the blessing, the son with moral values and the one faithful to the tradition of Avraham. Moreover he was obedient to his mother. In this case we might well argue, the ends justified the means.

We all know times in our lives where we might well argue that the ends justify the means. Lets say we are applying for a job, one we need desperately to provide food for our family and a roof to live under.Yet we also know that unless we lie on the application about something in our past or some personal detail, like our age, we will never get the post. In a case like this we might well argue that our lie is not only justified but mandated by our circumstances. We might say the wrong in this case is in fact a right and ought to be done!

Yet if we follow the story of Yaakov, the deception he engaged in came back to haunt him and confound his life. In the parsha of the week coming, that of Vayetze, Yaakov is deceived by his father-in-law, Lavan, and his intended bride, Rachel, as he wedded her sister Leah in error. And in the following weeks in the parsha of Vayeshev, Yaakov's sons deceive him regarding the sale of Yosef, bringing him Yosef's coat dipped in blood and leading him to believe Yosef was killed by a wild animal. The impact of both deceptions was huge on Yak's life. That they follow the story of the stolen blessings seems meant for us to conclude that the former led to the latter and as a consequence.

If Yaakov's act of stealing the blessings intended to Esav was justified and correct then we might wonder why does he seem to pay such a heavy price in his life with the deceptions played on him?

In coming to terms with this difficult question I want to share with you a story in the Talmud. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (87a) tells of Rav Tuvis who had the excellence of never telling a lie. He shared that once he travelled to a town called Kushta (which in Aramaic means truth). There no one told a falsehood. There also no one died prematurely. Rav Tuvis settled in the town and married a woman from the community.They were blessed to have two sons. One day, he related, a neighbor woman knocked on the door while his wife was washing her hair. In order to protect his wife's privacy he told the neighbor that his wife was not home. Shortly thereafter both sons died. The people of the town came to Rav Tuvis and asked how could this have happened, after all no one died prematurely in their town. He told them the story of his lie. They in turn asked him to leave the town lest he bring tragedy on all of them.

What's amazing about the story is that while Rav Tuvis indeed told a lie, it was a lie justified in halacha and appropriate to protect the modesty of his wife. He did no wrong. Nonetheless his untruth had huge repercussions for him and his family. Why?

The Maharal, in explicating the story makes clear that even when a lie is told for good reason and is the correct thing to say, it does not go without consequence. It leaves its mark. The lie was spoken, that it was the right thing to say does not make it less a lie. And for every act we do, even one that is warranted, if it contains a deception it has an effect.

Yaakov and Rav Tuvis both had good cause to engage in the deception. It was the right thing to do. Yet because it was a lie in fact, while they received no punishment for their act, it nevertheless had impact on their lives. All our actions, even when the ends justify the means, have consequence, even if no punishment.

This week marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Baruch Ber Leibowitz, one of the Torah giants of a generation ago. During World War One he was compelled to flee Poland where he had his Yeshiva for Russia. After the war he wanted to return to Poland. The guards at the border would only let Polish citizens return. They asked him if he was a citizen. Reb Baruch Ber would not tell a lie even where it was warranted to escape the upheaval in Bolshevik Russia. He told them "I am not a citizen but many of my students are citizens of Poland". The border guards were so impressed with Reb Baruch Ber's honesty that they let him pass.

Clearly Reb Baruch Ber had justification to deceive the border guards. If he had lied it could not have been called a sin. Yet he insisted on telling the truth. He knew that an untruth even justified in speaking leaves both an impression and a consequence.

What does all this mean for you and me? We are not the Tzaddik of Reb Baruch Ber, and we need at times to lie. Indeed at times halacha may want us to lie to protect another or to avoid hurting another. Yet we need to be conscious that all our actions have consequences. And if even those times where we do the right leave an impression, if not a punishment, how much more so the wrong we do and the unjustified leaves a mark in the world and on ourselves and family.

Everything we do has consequence. We need to be aware and intentional!

Shabbat Shalom