Monday, January 16, 2012

Saturday night we went skating.  Once at the rink Keren was overcome with a headache and sore throat.  It turned out to be strep throat, proving, once again, antibiotics used properly are our friend.

Meanwhile Gavi, Jesse, and Sean made their way around the rink.  It wasn't pretty.  None of them have a great gait, but they've got guts.  As a child I skated most weekends, but Sean grew up in Virginia.  Gavi & Jesse (and Keren too) spent too much time in warm climates where skating is unheard of.  Still, we're here now, and skating in part of the culture.

Gavi is fearless.  He falls, but just keeps going- around and around and around again.  He understands danger, but it doesn't matter.  Gavi sets his mind and gets going.  He amazes me, and everyone else.  He guts were a topic of conversation, although a different body part was mentioned.

Jesse is full of fear.  He fell once, hitting his head, and hasn't skated in a year and a half.  He understands danger, and wishes to avoid it.  Still, he caves, like any teen, to peer pressure when he knows he should (and stands up to it when should, thank God).  So there he was, timid, scared, but skating.  The circles got smaller and smaller as he moved from the boards to the centre of the rink, slow and steady.

It may not be pretty, but they get the job done.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Parashat Bo- Karma Sure Is A Kick In The Pants

“Bo el Paro ki Ani hikhba’d’ti et libo v’et lev avodav.” 
“Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants”

It has been a wonder throughout the centuries of commentary how Pharaoh can ignore the punishments being rained down upon the Egyptians. Here we are in parashat Bo; seven plagues have already passed, and still Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge that God is more powerful and he must allow the Israelites to go free. But even more unfathomable is the idea that God has made it so. Jews and other believers throughout the ages have had difficulty with this piece of text.  How is it that God prolonged our suffering in slavery? How is it that God caused extra suffering to befall the Egyptians? Does this mean that God took from Pharaoh that which makes us human, our freewill?

What does it mean to harden the heart of Pharaoh and the hearts of his servants?  Rambam explained that Pharaoh’s heart became hardened in response to the plagues. Pharaoh saw himself as a God. The plagues brought down upon Egypt as punishment were a challenge to this. Pharaoh had his free will. He, and his servants, chose to allow the conditions in Egypt to harden their hearts. They chose to harden their hearts in response to what they saw out their windows each day, in response to the suffering of the Israelites for 400 years and in response to the suffering of the Egyptians under the plagues.

3500 years later the Beatles summed this up beautifully on side two of Abbey Road, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” What we put out into the world will always turn towards us, even when we are too blind to see it. Ain’t karma a kick in the parts?

Parashat Vayera- I Will Be What I Will Be

“…Ani A-donai. Va’eyra el Avraham el Yitzhak v’el Yaakov B’ail Shaddai ushmi
A-donai (Y-H-V-H) lo nodati lahem.”
“…I am the Lord. I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov as B’ail Shaddai [God Almighty]; by the name A-donai [Y-H-V-H]* I did not make myself known to them.” *yud-hey-vav-hey

Pesikta de Rav Kahana, a collection of midrashim dating at least from the 8th century, states, “Do not be confused because you hear many voices. Know that I am One and the same.” God comes to us in many names and voices. We are told God’s name in parashat Va’eyra, but that this is not the name by which Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov knew him. God’s true name is revealed to us in the form of the Y-H-V-H. It is the unpronounceable tetragrammaton, the ineffable name pronounced only by the Kohain Gadol in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and the personal name used between God and Moshe. Names are powerful things. Midrash Raba teaches that every person has three names, the name s/he is given; the name by which others call him/her and the name s/he creates for himself.

God’s name is also powerful and changing. It too encompasses names we give to God- El Harachaman, Merciful God, names others call God- Ehlohim, and the name God gives to Godself- Y-H-V-H. In parashat Shemot, meaning names, Moshe asks God’s name.  God tells him, Eh’h’yeh Asher Eh’h’yeh, usually translated as I Am That I Am, but more literally I Am That Which I Will Be. God’s name is still developing. To our patriarchs God was B’ail Shaddai, The mightiest of all ba’alim, of all gods. In a time when Avraham was leaving a world of many ba’alim, of many gods, God needed to be recognized as the Greatest. This relationship is always developing. God may be Makor Hayyim, Source of Life to one person, while Yotzer Or, Creator of Light to another. For those in need of healing God is Rofeh, Healer, and to those in need of direction, Ro’eh, Shepherd. Depending upon our needs we call God so many things; Oseh Shalom, Maker of Peace, Tzur Yisrael, Rock of Israel, yet at the centre of our faith we call God Ehad, One. 

Our names change in relation to others. We are son, daughter, sister, brother, friend. We are mother or father. We may be teacher or rabbi, doctor, or aide. In all cases we become known by the relationships we value and keep. So too, our relationship with God changes with the name we use and the relationship we cherish. God is present in our lives, becoming Eh’h’yeh Asher Eh’h’yeh, That Which We Need God To Be.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Life Gets in the Way

So, here I am again posting multiple posts.  It's unfair really since most are drashot, and while Torah is always worthwhile, they really should be posted in a timely fashion, but sometimes life gets in the way.  Work must be done, and family is much more important than blogging and facebook (even though these are a welcome escape, brain candy if you will).

I read last week that for each week away (business or pleasure) leads to two weeks recuperation at home and work.  We were away for a week and a half.  We've been home almost the same amount of time.  I am almost caught up (the giant pile of clean laundry in my closet notwithstanding; hey, at least it's clean!).  On Tuesday I leave for Israel for work.  While thrilled to be going, and even happier because I get to spend a few days with family whom I love dearly, I also dread the time away.  How big will the laundry pile be?  Yes, it'll still be clean, but I have a feeling the entire family will be rooting through my closet because ALL their clothing will be in one giant pile.  How many emails will have piled up on my computer, and how behind will I be at work.

There are so many things to do, but life gets in the way.  Life is all the messy stuff- fighting with my teen; talking with my teen; sharing with my teen; laughing with my younger children; advising on homework; hugs and kisses; more hugs and kisses; and laughter, but also laundry, dishes, shopping (the kids never seem to stop growing), more shopping, oh my God still more shopping, cooking, sweeping, finding lost objects, fixing broken objects, sewing, painting, hammering...

I could go on and on and on.  Still, if I never write my book, never finish the Shavuot seder, and somehow never catch up on those emails, it'll all be worth it.

The minutia of life may get in the way, but in those minutia are where life is lived.  I'll take it.

Parashat Shemot- Be The Change You Want to See in the World

Vatirehna ham’yaldot et Ha’Ehlohim v’lo asu ka’asher diber aleihem melech Mitzraiyim va’t’chayehna et ha’y’ladim. Vayikra melech Mitzraiyim la’m’yaldot vayomer lahem madua asiten hadavar hazeh va’t’chayehna et ha’y’ladim. Vatohmarna ham’yaldot el Paroh ki lo kanashim haMitzraiyim haIvriyot ki chayot heinah bterem tavo aleihem ha’m’yaledet v’yaladu.
And the midwives were in awe of God, and did not do as the king of Egypt told them; they let the boys live. The king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing and let the boys live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women, they are like animals.  Before the midwives can come to them, they have given birth.”

All change begins with one individual. This is the message throughout history.  From Naama Margolese and her mother Hadassa, the eight year old girl in Beit Shemesh determined to learn, back through history to Craig Keilburger, founder of Free the Children; from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, to Rosa Parks to Mahatma Ghandi and so on, all the way back to this first act of resistance by the Egyptian midwives.

Imagine the terror of the midwives to be summoned before Pharaoh. Within Egyptian culture Pharaoh was not only all-powerful he was a God.  The midwives saw a higher power, yirat shamayim, the awe and fear of heaven. These women, early medical practitioners, understood that life was holy. They sought to preserve life, not to take it, even at risk to their own lives. When summoned to answer to Pharaoh, Shifrah and Puah stood their ground and lied to this all-powerful king. 

Ain somchim al hanes; do not depend upon to the miracle. This is a steadfast rule of Jewish living.  Believe in God; have faith, but take steps to make the world a better place.  After 400 years in Egypt, God finally heard the cries of the people. Talmud teaches us that we finally merited redemption because of the merit of the righteous women. It all began with these two midwives; from there, many women stood up to Pharaoh to bring this change about.  Mitzvah goreret mitzvah; one mitzvah follows another.

Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If we each do this, together imagine the difference we can make.

Vayechi ~ And he lived

~ And he lived
Much like parashat Hayei Sarah, which begins with words “Vay’h’yu hayei Sarah; and it was the life of Sarah” but then speaks of Sarah’s death, parashat Vayechi begins with the words “Vayechi Ya’akov; and Jacob lived” but speaks of Jacob’s dying.  The parasha ends with Joseph’s death as a prince in Egypt.
Parashat Vayechi relate sthe last days and dying words of Jacob.  He speaks with his children, passing on blessings to some, warnings to others.  He draws a promise from Joseph to ensure his proper burial in the ancestral plot of Machpelah. 
Jacob’s death is a time for healing in the family.  Although Jacob’s words may hurt some of his sons, it is a private airing of old wounds and putting the past behind them.  After Jacob’s death, the brothers come to Joseph to once again offer heartfelt apologies.  Joseph ensures them his anger is past.  They are family.  Although they certainly cannot forget the old hurts, they do forgive. 
Death & burial is usually seen as an ending, but it can also be a healing time.  It is a time to put the past behind us, and look to what bonds us together.  It is meant as a time to remember family and roots. 
When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great Conservative rabbi and scholar, died, his funeral was held at the Jewish Theological Seminary with his immediate family, colleagues, and students with whom he spent his life.  Some surprising attendees were from the Hasidic community.  What was unknown to many at the funeral was that Rabbi Heschel, the closest person to a Conservative rebbe, was descended from rebbes.  Rabbi Heschel’s namesake was his great-grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, who was the founder of the Apter hasidim. At the conclusion of the funeral service, the Apters took the aron, the coffin to bury Rabbi Heschel at their plot.  Although Rabbi Heschel was not connected to them for much of his life, the family connection was one that could not be broken.  They would provide to him the ultimate mitzvah of hesed shel emet, caring for the dead.
This remembering is important, but more important is the timing.  It is very hard to forgive when we cannot forget. Our tradition teaches that Joseph was the first of the brothers to die.  After Jacob’s death they had 70 years of forgiveness, considered a full life in tradition.  They did not wait until death to make peace.  Hesed shel emet is considered the ultimate mitzvah, one that cannot be paid back. Still, teshuvah, returning, and s’licha, forgiveness, have a much greater reach in meaning.  With it we can have an entire life together.
May this be a year of shalom, s’licha, teshuvah, and tikvah (hope).

Parashat Vayigash- Slavery Comes in Many Forms

V’atah tzuveitah zot asu.
And now you are commanded to do this. (45:19)

These words in parashat Vayigash do not come from God, but from Pharaoh.  When the prophesized 400 years spent in slavery are counted, they start from the good times.  Midrash teaches that the Israelites were not enslaved by force, but by sweetness and kindness. 

How often do we find ourselves trapped in a favour or required to take on more responsibility at work.  “But you’re so good at it” starts the request.  Pharaoh promises Joseph, “I will give you the good land of Mitzrayim, and you will eat of the fat of the land…give no thought to your goods, for the good of all the land of Mitzrayim is yours.”  Joseph presents each family coming to Egypt with a wagon, provisions, and clothing.  Benjamin is given even more, and silver as well, and to his father Joseph sends pack animals laden with goods and food.  From all these riches it may seem that Joseph has been freed from slavery, freed from prison.  Certainly with all the perks of being Pharaoh’s right hand man and slaves of his own, Joseph believed he was free.  But in fact Pharaoh’s words above show us that he is just as much a slave while a prince in Egypt as he was in the house of Potiphar.  V’atah tzuveitah zot asu.  “And now you are commanded to do this.”  Slavery can be imposed upon us, as Joseph’s first experience was, or created of our own doing, as with the Israelites’ move to Egypt, accepted along with the kind words and gifts.

At all times, whether in prayer or through holiday observance, we remember that we Jews are who we are and do what we do because we “were once slaves in Egypt.”  We are expected to remember that condition and bring the experience of moving from slavery to freedom to our lives and to the lives of others. This can inform us to fight against oppression and for freedoms for people everywhere, or this can teach us to beware of the things to which we enslave ourselves.  As people everywhere begin to make New Year’s resolutions in honour of the secular New Year, may we all be able to perceive the thing that enslave us and work for ourselves to be free.

Rav Sean, Jesses, Gavriel, & Keren wish you all a healthy, happy, and free 2012.