Sunday, December 5, 2021

Vayigash: Growing from our Failures

Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy [Benjamin] to my father, saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.”  Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers, for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.         -Judah pleading before Joseph in Genesis 44

From the start, our Torah is overwhelmingly a chronicle of failure.  Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden.  Cain kills Abel.  God destroys the world in the flood.  Generation after generation of patriarchs and matriarchs favor one child over another, spawning family dysfunction.  And the Israelites wander the wilderness for forty years, locked in a cycle of failure and complaint.  Even Moses fails, lashing out at the rebellious Israelites and thereby losing the right to enter the Promised Land.  

So much failure!  Why, then, do we, return to these stories year after year? I believe the timeless appeal of the Torah’s tales lies in our ancestors’ dogged persistence in the face of their failures, their willingness to learn from their mistakes and to fail in new and better ways.  

For all of us, personal growth depends upon our ability to understand our mistakes as opportunities for growth.  While no one goes out in search of failure, it inevitably finds us.  As Winston Churchill famously noted: Success is not final and failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.  If we face our shortcomings honestly and directly, we can use them to become better people.  Thus the Talmud teaches that one who sins and truly repents stands in a higher place than a totally righteous person. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yigash, Judah shows that he is prepared to sacrifice his own life for his younger brother Benjamin.   This represents a remarkable transformation—the same brother who earlier sealed the deal to sell Joseph into slavery comes to embody the possibility of teshuvah—of real and enduring renewal.  What has changed?  In the intervening years, Judah has suffered and failed repeatedly, and in a moment of reckoning with his daughter-in-law Tamara, finally admits: “She—not I—is in the right.” As Cantor Kay Greenwald notes: “We are yehudim, the spiritual descendants of Judah.  Each of us has the power to learn and grow from our mistakes and our life experiences.  Each of us has the power to forgive and to be forgiven.”

In other words, we Jews are, by name and character, a people who, rather than being defined by our failures, see them as opportunities for growth.

Conversation Questions:

Are there parts of your identity and experiences from your past that you are actively trying to forget or erase?  How and when might you be ready to approach those difficult places with self-compassion and forgiveness?

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Miketz: Remembering Ourselves, Reaching Out to Others

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, Joseph is second in command over all of Egypt.  As such, he is extraordinarily wealthy and powerful, with access to nearly unlimited resources.  So why doesn’t he take the opportunity to reach out to his aged father Jacob, to let him know he is alive?  The commentator Nachmanides notes that dwelling in Hebron, Jacob is only a six days journey away.  Surely Joseph could at least have written him a reassuring letter!

Rabbi Yael Shy offers a psychologically-astute response to this question that speaks to the challenges of our own time.  She writes: 

Joseph's behavior is directly in line with most trauma victims, who repress large swaths of memory in order to numb the raw, un-integrated, and overwhelming traumatic experiences from their past. Joseph is doing his best to dissociate, consciously and unconsciously, in order to move forward with his life. He is building a new life, complete with new job, wife and children. His trauma, however, is still locked within him, untouched and unprocessed.

For Joseph to heal, for him to be able to forgive his brothers, he must first remember who he is. By the time Joseph's brothers appear before him in Egypt, Joseph has reconciled himself with himself. He has opened the door of his heart to the totality of his painful past, placing his trauma in a much larger framework. He tells his brothers: “I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not be pained, and do not let upset be in your eyes that you sold me here! For it was to save life that God sent me on before you...So-now, it was not you that sent me here, but God.” Joseph sees his journey - every shameful and painful part of it, as part of his path and God's unfolding.

Conversation Questions:

Are there parts of your identity and experiences from your past that you are actively trying to forget or erase?  How and when might you be ready to approach those difficult places with self-compassion and forgiveness?

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Vayeshev: A Time to Speak and a Time to be Silent

When we first meet Joseph, in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion Vayishlach, he is a gifted and arrogant seventeen-year-old.  We see his brilliance in his capacity to envision the future by interpreting his dreams.  His egotism is evident in the way he speaks to his older brothers.

We read: “Once Joseph had a dream, which he told to his brothers. . . He said to them, ‘Hear this dream that I have dreamed.  There we were, binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright.  Then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.’” 

It doesn’t take a trained analyst to grasp the intention here; the text continues: “His brothers answered, ‘Do you mean to reign over us?  Do you mean to rule over all of us?’  And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.”

Joseph’s dream isn’t wrong; it is, indeed, predictive of events that will unfold over the following chapters, in which he eventually becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man and his brothers unwittingly find themselves begging him for food.  The problem isn’t the vision—it’s Joseph’s youthful insufferable insistence on sharing it.  As the Italian commentator Sforno notes, “Not only did he tell them his dream in passing; instead, he insisted on their hearing it, which could not fail to intensify their animosity.”

In other words, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.

The challenge, of course, is to recognize which is the proper course in any given moment.  Eventually, Joseph will learn to be more circumspect when needed, and his brothers will also grow in their ability to speak with respect.  That is the work of a lifetime.

Conversation Question:

Reflect on times when you mistakenly chose to speak rather than to listen.  What role did your ego play in your insistence on sharing what you might have better kept to yourself?  How do you better distinguish between times for speech and silence?

Monday, November 15, 2021

Vayishlach: Heels and Godwrestlers

In Torah, a change of name usually indicates an irreversible change of fate. Avram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Jewish people.  Hoshea ben Nun becomes Joshua, who will deliver us into the Promised Land.  Upon his rise to power, Joseph assumes the Egyptian name of Zaphenat-Paneah, by which he will always be known to the Pharaoh who makes him his right-hand man.  

In this week’s portion, Vayishlach, Jacob follows in this line.  After he prevails in a night-long struggle with a divine being, he is blessed with the new name Israel—the “Godwrestler.”  The patriarch whose original moniker means “heel” or “supplanter” becomes the rightful heir of the covenant and assumes his place as a mighty spiritual forefather.

Except. . . just a few lines after he becomes Israel, Torah again refers to him as Jacob—and continues to do so for the rest of his life. 

Unlike Abraham and Sarah, who change their identity and never look back, Jacob/Israel vacillates between his two selves until his dying day.  He is both the man transformed into a heroic Godwrestler and the unreconstructed Heel/Deceiver, a deeply human mix of hope and failure, sacred and profane.

As such, Jacob is us.   Our Jewish tradition affirms the possibility of teshuvah—of real change—but also recognizes this sort of conversion is incremental and imperfect.  We take two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes we embody Israel, fulfilling our higher destiny.  And sometimes, even many years after undertaking personal transformation, we lapse back into Jacob, the old self that we had hoped to leave behind.

So we bear our two names—bayt Ya’akov, the house of Jacob, and b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel.  We are earthly connivers and wrestlers with the divine, fallen and angelic, striving for holiness and sometimes settling for a great deal less. In other words, we are humans, doing our best to grow.

Conversation Question:
Who is your inner “Jacob” that you seek to grow beyond?  The “Israel” that you hope to become?  And how do you navigate between those two senses of self, between the vision toward which you aspire and the current human reality?

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Vayetze: To Know the Dark

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.

Unto God let praise be brought
For the wonders God has wrought
At the solemn hour of midnight. . . 

Toward the end of the Ashkenazi Passover Haggadah, we find a medieval liturgical poem entitled B’Chatzi Ha-lailahAnd It Came to Pass at Midnight.  In it, the poet, Yannai, recounts an array of miracles and redemptive acts that occurred in the middle of the night, including the exodus from Egypt, which is a harbinger of ultimate liberation for all of humankind.  The message is clear: hope is often born of adversity, under the cloak of darkness.

This is certainly true in the life of the patriarch Jacob, who stands at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze.  Almost all of the defining events of his life take place under the veil of darkness.  He uses his father Isaac’s blindness to secure the blessing intended for his twin brother Esau, then encounters the Holy One on two fateful nights, first in his dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, and later in a nocturnal wrestling match that earns him the new name of Israel—One who struggles with God.  In order to fulfill his destiny, Jacob must embrace the darkness as the vehicle for his transformation.

We tend to associate the dark with danger, fear, and suffering.  Yet our portion reminds us that darkness is also the space where new life and unexpected possibilities most often incubate.  As we settle into the coming winter, with its grey days and long nights, it is good to remember the promise of Jacob’s path, which the contemporary poet Wendell Barry eloquently describes in his poem, “To Know the Dark”:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

Conversation Question:

What paths of growth might you anticipate in entering, or dwelling in, the darkness?

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Toldot: New Life in Old Wells

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.

American culture puts a premium on innovation, and this often serves us well, as individuals and as a nation.  But sometimes reaffirming and renewing old wisdom is every bit as essential as creative invention.  As a timely example, consider the public health measures we currently employ to protect ourselves and our communities from COVID.  Our best strategy combines the cutting-edge miracle of m-RNA vaccines with the time-tested tactics of masking and social distancing.  

In the Torah’s tales of our patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob are the revolutionary innovators.  Abraham is the first Jew, embarking on an audacious pilgrimage into the unknown, in the service of an unprecedented monotheistic God.  Jacob is the radical who dares to wrestle with beings human and divine.

Isaac, by contrast, is a conservator.  In this week’s portion, Toldot, we read that one of his greatest accomplishments is that he “dug anew the wells that had been dug in the days of his father which the Philistines had stopped up. . . and gave them the same names that his Abraham had given them.” He is not a bold pioneer like both his father and his son—yet Isaac is every bit as important an actor in defining the Jewish people.  Our personal and communal lives sometimes call for intrepid creativity; at other times, we need patience, persistence and preservation.  

Conversation Question:

What do you most need in your life’s journey right now—innovation or renewal or both?

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Chayei Sarah: What's Love Got to Do With It?

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.

Isaac took Rebekah as his wife. He loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.

                        -Genesis 24:67

The first time that Torah speaks of one person loving another is in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah.  We’ve seen numerous partnerships and relationships in previous passages, but none are described as loving.  Perhaps it is no accident that the description is accorded to Isaac and Rebecca, the only monogamous couple among our patriarchs and matriarchs.  

As with every couple, both before and after them, their relationship is sometimes rocky.  Rebecca and Isaac struggle over infertility, and when they finally have twins, they have very significant differences in how they relate to their boys, Jacob and Esau.  In some key moments, they are not entirely truthful with one another, and at others, they fail to communicate clearly.  

And yet, we read, they alone amongst almost all of the Torah’s characters forged a relationship defined, from the start, by love.

In the Talmudic collection Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, we learn: All love that is conditional upon something—when that thing perishes, the love perishes.  But love that is not conditional does not ever perish.

Isaac and Rebecca’s love is not easy or perfect, but it does endure.  

Conversation Question:

Reflect on your most significant relationships—romantic, parental, friendship.  What small steps or adjustments might enhance the love you bring to those partnerships and make it more enduring and less conditional?