Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mouth of the Well / Parshat Vayeitzei 2016-5777

How do you live in difficult or frightening times? That’s a question I’ve heard frequently in the past few weeks, coming from the mouths of people who are deeply troubled and apprehensive about the future and who sense that the country is dangerously divided—socially, economically, racially, and politically. Clearly, not everyone shares this sentiment, but the precipitous rise in racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic incidents around the country in the past month[1] should give all decent people pause for concern, regardless of their political proclivities. Beyond our borders, with nine countries in the nuclear weapons club (and Iran working feverishly to gain admission); ISIS continuing to wreak havoc on the lives of millions and precipitating the worst refugee crisis in decades[2]; a score of unstable, simmering hot spots including Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, North Korea, and Ukraine that could erupt at any time; and indeed the entire planet becoming one, big hot spot,[3] it is challenging to keep a cool head and level outlook. As many have noted, with a president-elect who knows little about foreign affairs,[4] less about diplomacy,[5] and doesn’t believe in science,[6] many find cause to be anxious. Does Torah have wisdom for us at a time like this?

This week’s parashah, Vayeitzei, begins by recounting Jacob’s leave-taking from his family, his arrival in Beer-sheba on his way to Haran, and his famous dream of the ladder. When Jacob awakes from his dream—having seen angels ascending and descending on the ladder and God standing at his side—he proclaims, Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, which is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17) In Jacob’s words, we find our first piece of advice: Recall that this place—every place—is the abode of God, a gateway to heaven. God is present everywhere, in everyone, regardless of how they voted, regardless of what policies or politics they pursue. The rampant demonization of the “Other” that has marked the recent campaign, and which is an on-going feature of xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism here in the United States and abroad, threatens the moral fiber of Western society. Rejecting demonization begins not with an “Other,” but with each of us. Those who hold differing views (be they radically red, blisteringly blue, or whatever hue offends you) share this earthly abode-of-God with us and with this country we hold dear. We must understand each other and that requires building bridges for communication. Remember what your mother told you about why God gave you two ears and one mouth?[7] I’m quite sure I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah…” but now is the time to put it to action.

A second helpful lessons comes from the hasidic sage, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who explained the very next passage in our parashah:

Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners. There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well. (Genesis 29:1-3)

Levi Yitzhak explains in Kedushat Levi:
The verses can be interpreted this way: We know that the Holy One always longs to have goodness flow upon God’s people Israel It is the evil urge that impedes this flow. But when Israel are surrounded in joy, their happiness defeats those “outside” forces, and God’s grace and compassion bring forth blessing. This is: There before his eyes was a wellthat is the flow of God’s blessing. In the open—refers to the “holy field of apples trees [understood to mean the Shekhinah]”—this indicates God’s own great joy in giving [blessing]. Three flocks of sheep—refers to the three festivals of pilgrimage in the year [Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot]. The large stoneis the evil urge, which is called a “stone,” as in “if it is a stone, let it crumble” (BT Kiddushin 30b). On the mouth of the well—preventing the flow of God’s blessing. All the flocks were gathered there—refers to Israel, assembled together to celebrate the pilgrimage festival, amid great joy. The stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well—pushing aside the evil one and all his host, stopping them from holding back the flow. Then blessing and goodness can pour forth upon Israel…

Life is supposed to be a continuous blessing flowing from heaven to earth, as water continuously flows over a waterfall, or flows through an underground stream into a well. The well is a gathering place, a source of mayyim chayyim (life-giving water)—a place of community. It exists to provide water for all living creatures in need—people and animals alike—where those who gather can assist one another. Our yetzer ra (evil urge, or inclination) stops the flow, just as the stone stopped the mouth of the well, cutting off the flow of blessing. We stop the flow of blessing when we give in to the yetzer ra, when we act out of hatred and jealousy rather than love and compassion, when we demonize others rather than seek to help them, when we operate out of selfishness rather than with generosity.

Jacob and Rachel at the Well, by Pedro Orrente
But how do we roll the stone of the yetzer ra away from the mouth of the well to let divine blessing flow? Levi Yitzhak’s interpretation continues, commenting on Genesis 29:10[8]: “When Jacob saw Rachel, refers to the joy of bridegroom and bride, paralleling the joy of the festival.” Joy is our greatest tool for defeating pessimism, doubt, fear, and hatred. How that could be, you may wonder? Perhaps you think this sounds simplistic and naive, but it is far from either.

Our lives are filled with experiences both good and bad: love and rejection, loyalty and betrayal, happiness and sadness, triumph and failure, confidence and insecurity, strength and weakness, pain and pleasure. If you think for a moment, you can surely pull up personal examples of each from memory. We cannot know the future. Nonetheless, we are inclined either toward optimism or pessimism. Which inclination has much to do with which memories we privilege and how we interpret them. If we privilege memories of happiness, we expect happiness in the future. If we privilege memories of suffering, we expect a future marred by suffering. Therefore, in a sense, pleasure begets pleasure, and pain begets pain. What we focus on not only reinforces specific memories, but shapes our expectations and molds our character. Levi Yitzhak wants us to privilege joy in our lives—seek it, treasure it, focus on it, and remember it—because by programming ourselves for joy, we will be joyous, our attitude will incline toward optimism, and we will be receptive to blessing. What is more, we will be far more likely to be a blessing to others. With a positive and joyous approach to life, we will be resilient and energized to meet the challenges that lie ahead and to find the will and wherewithal to engage in the issues that concern us most, helping us to live more fully.

Levi Yitzhak’s message is universalistic in tone, but he has a particularistic Jewish message for us, as well: We should look to our traditions and to our community for joy. Our holy days, our traditions, and our community can all be sources of joy if we reach out and embrace them and incorporate them in our lives, removing the rock at the mouth of the well and letting blessing flow into our lives and through us, into the lives of those we love—and the life of the world.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[2] ISI has displaced more than 3.3 million people in Iraq alone. Millions have fled Syria, headed for Lebanon, Turkey, the Gulf States, and destinations in Europe.
[3] http://climate.nasa.gov/.
[4] He said he would familiarize himself with key facts “when it’s appropriate.” http://time.com/4022603/2016-election-foreign-affairs-international-relations-donald-trump-republican-nomination/.
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/02/world/trump-calls-to-world-leaders.html.
[6] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trump-comments-on-science-are-shockingly-ignorant/.
[7] Just in case your mother or father didn’t share this pithy teaching with you: the reason God gave us two ears and one mouth is because we should listen twice as much as we talk.
[8] And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. (Genesis 29:10)

Friday, December 2, 2016

What’s With Those Wells? / Parshat Toldot 2016-5777

A casual reader of Parshat Toldot could be forgiven for thinking this portion is about Abraham rather than his son Isaac. Many familiar motifs are found here: a patriarch with a barren wife who ultimately gives birth, famine in the land causes the patriarch to leave, the patriarch tells his wife to protect him by claiming she is his sister, and more talk of wells. Concerning the wells, which Torah terms be’er mayyim chayyim (“well of living water”), Torah tells us:

The Philistines stopped up all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth. And Abimelech said, “Go away from us, for you have become far too numerous for us.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled. Isaac dug anew the wells that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” (Genesis 26:15-19)

What does the story about Isaac digging anew the wells of his father mean? The Sages offer three suggestions: Peace, Torah, Life.

R. Chanina said, “If one sees a well in a dream, he will see peace, as it says, Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of living water (Genesis 26:19).” R. Natan said, “He will find Torah, as it says, Whoever finds Me finds life (Proverbs 8:35), and it is written here, a well of living water.” Rava said, “It literally means life.” (BT Berakhot 56b)

The image of Isaac digging anew the wells of his father, Abraham, has inspired many other beautiful interpretations: never give up; hold close and cherish the traditions of your parents/ancestors; become a well of Torah for others; the fullness of life sometimes flows beneath the surface of our lives and to find it we must dig down. For others, there is a concrete message here about the scarcity of water resources and the importance of equitable distribution of water rights, important in many locales around the globe today.

I’d like to share yet another way to view the account of Isaac digging out his father’s wells, which is inspired by two interesting questions in tandem: Why is there so much talk about digging, filling, and re-digging wells in Genesis? And why are only Abraham and Isaac involved in digging the wells, but not Jacob? A Kabbalistic interpretation to these questions is offered by the late Shlonimer rebbe, Sholom Noach Berezovsky (1911–1981), the spiritual leader of a small but vibrant hasidic group that originated in Shlonim in Belarus. [1] (For some background on Kabbalistic thinking that will aid in appreciating the Shlonimer rebbe’s interpretation, please skip to the bottom of this drash and read that material now.) Concerning the wells of Abraham and Isaac, Berezovsky writes:

The wells represent the specific middah (attribute), the approach to serving God, in which each of the patriarchs specialized. Abraham’s well was a source of chesed (kindness) and ahavah (love); Isaac’s brought forth din (justice) and gevurah (strength). Jacob is associated with tiferet (beauty), an amalgam of chesed (kindness) and gevurah (strength). It did not reveal a new facet of God for people to relate to, but combined the teachings concerning two middot that were by this time already known to others. Jacob did not discover and reveal a new middah, so much as re-engineer two older ones. It makes perfect sense that Jacob does not dig wells of his own. (Netivot Shalom, Toldot)

The Shlonimer rebbe’s reference to divine attributes—middot or sefirot—is familiar to those who have studied Kabbalah. The story of wells reflects Kabbalistic cosmology in his mind. The wells of Abraham symbolize the emanation of chesed (kindness)/ahavah (love), the sefirah traditionally associated with Abraham, into the world. Isaac digs anew the wells of his father, and then his servants dig additional an “well of living water” that bespeaks the emanation of gevurah (strength)/din (justice), the sefirah traditionally associated with Isaac, into the world. Jacob, however, who is associated with the sefirah of tiferet (beauty), does not dig any wells. Tiferet, the Shonimer tells us, is not a wholly new and different divine attribute, but rather a combination of the two that came before, the two associated with Abraham and Isaac. The first important lesson here: Not everyone brings something new and original into the world. Some people's contributions arise from re-engineering what already exists or has been discovered into new and useful forms to benefit others. In our society, which places so much emphasis on “originality” and “creativity” and “novelty,” and often deprecates the contributions of so many because they did not give birth to something wholly new and unprecedented, this alone is a reassuring message. Most of us—if any of us!—come up with something unprecedented and ground breaking, yet our contributions can be exceedingly important and meaningful to the world. Intellectual advancement, scientific research and discovery, and art all progress incrementally, building on the accomplishments and insights of those who came before. Each generation, each practitioner, “stands on the shoulders of giants.”

The Shlonimer rebbe goes even further. He says that sometimes we cannot sustain the progress we have made backslide or lose ground. Who hasn’t experienced this? Sometimes our best efforts are “vandalized”—the wells fill up and we cannot draw water from them for a time. Sound familiar? Two steps forward, one step back. This happens; we shouldn’t allow it to demoralize us, because even if we cannot recognize it in the moment, we have not lost everything. Our efforts and accomplishments have not evaporated and disappeared. Everything we have become and done affects the world permanently. Our achievements have influenced the world and their imprint remains. All the good we done—every generous deed, every kind word, every effort to ascend spiritually—is secured. None of it is lost. No good is ever wasted or lost. Ever.

[1] Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky was sent to live in Palestine when he was young. Most of his family perished in the Holocaust, and most of the Shlonimer community was wiped out. Rabbi Berezovsky built a new community in Israel.

A few words about Kabbalah to help the reader glean more 
from the Shonimer rebbe’s interpretation

There are many ways to interpret Torah, many lenses through which to view the stories. One lens is Jewish mysticism. Among the pre-eminent books of Jewish mysticism is the Zohar (“The Book of Radiance”), which purports to be written by a second century rabbi named Shimon bar Yochai. [2] According to Talmud, R. Shimon hid in a cave for thirteen years to avoid Roman persecution. The legend arose that during those thirteen years R. Shimon studied Kabbalah and wrote the Zohar, a mystical interpretation of Judaism that reveals the hidden truth of Torah. The Zohar is quite explicit in its claim that to be properly understood, Torah must not be interpreted merely on the level of p’shat (contextual meaning)— p’shat cannot reveal the depth of its truth.

Rabbi Shimon said, “Woe to the human being who says that Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words! If so, we could compose a Torah right now with ordinary words, and better than all of them! To present matters of the world? Even rulers of the world possess words more sublime. If so, let us follow them and make a Torah out of them. Ah, but all the words of Torah are sublime words, sublime secrets! (Zohar 3:152a)

Yes, Torah looks and feels like a book of stories and laws, but that is merely appearance, the Zohar tells us: 

So this story of Torah is the garment of Torah. Whoever thinks that the garment is the real Torah and not something else—may his spirit deflate!… That is why David said, Open my eyes so I can see wonders out of Your Torah! (Psalm 119:18), what is under the garment of Torah! Come and see: There is a garment visible to all. When fools see someone in a good-looking garment they look no further. But the essence of the garment is the body; the essence of the body is the soul! 

Torah is a disguise composed of stories and laws that contains, conceals, and safeguards the truth of ultimate reality. Yes, they can understood as “mere stories and ordinary words” but what is holy and divine about that? Anyone can write stories—even better stories. The mission of the mystic is to strip away the concealing garments and reveal the inner truth, to see through the body (apparent, physical reality) and into the unseen, but not unknowable, soul of the universe. For the Zohar, and many forms of Jewish mysticism, Torah is an allegory of ultimate truth, a window on Reality, which is God. 

For Kabbalists, God is manifest in the world, and the world came into being, through ten sefirot, emanations of attributes of the Divine which can be thought of as traits of God or as archetypes of existence. Kabbalists often arrange these in a “tree” diagram, which may be familiar to you. (Please see the diagram below.) The sefirot are a way of talking about the abstract  structure of reality, the meaning and purpose of life. They are a way of identifying holiness in our lives and in our world. They are also the kabbalists’ map of the universe: the universe is composed of the divine traits of God erupting and flowing into the world to be made manifest. The understanding behind that notion is that the world is filled with the divine; indeed, the universe is all contained within the divine, within God. The secret of the unity of God (as we affirm when we say Shema) is that all is contained within God, all is One. God is the Ein Sof (“without end”)—the Infinite One. 

The kabbalists sometimes  portrayed the sefirot/middot (divine attributes or qualities) as a human body, the “body of God,” as in the diagram on the right. They often associated the sefirot (the middot, or divine attributes) with biblical personages, as noted on the diagram on the previous page. Abraham is associated with chesed (kindness)/ahavah (love); Isaac is associated with gevurah (strength)/din (justice); and Jacob is associated with tiferet (beauty)/rachamim (compassion). The sefirot / middot are also associated with body parts, allowing kabbalists to envision the diagram as a human form rather than a tree. An example in on the right.

[2] The Zohar was actually written in Spain in the 13th century by Moses de Leon.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Most Important Mitzvah of All / Parshat Chayei Sara 2016-5777

Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” Can you be kind yet also deaf and blind to the true meaning of kindness? Many years ago, I met a friend at an eatery in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore. As I waited, two women came in, both wearing sheitels. One said, “I did a chesed [kind deed] today.” “How wonderful!” exclaimed her friend with enthusiasm. The second woman then asked, “What did you do?” but the first woman replied, “More zechut [merit] for olam ha-ba [the world-to-come].” Her friend responded politely but looked chagrined. The first woman had ignored her friend’s question and reflected that her kind deed would earn her a greater reward in the world-to-come. The deed had little meaning for her beyond the brownie points it would earn her with God, redeemable in the next life.

The attitude the first woman expressed is related to a teaching attributed to no less than Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, who said: והוי זהיר במצוה קלה כמצוה חמורה (“Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one”). Rabbi’s statement admits that there are “minor” commandments and “major” commandments but his reasoning establishes the motivation for attentiveness to all mitvzot: שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצוות (“for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot”). I imagine that, in his time, before the rabbinic tradition was well established and widely accepted by the Jewish people, Rabbi’s appeal to the world-to-come was a powerful motivator. It continues to be a powerful incentive for many, as it was for the first woman. But for those whose view is more expansive (the second woman), or those who do not believe there is a literal world-to-come (or aren’t sure), or those who don’t believe that religious and moral decisions should be made according to one’s selfish expectation of gain, Rabbi’s teaching is problematic.

Not surprisingly, it is but one of many teachings that have come down to us. Overwhelmingly, our tradition asserts that chesed (deeds of loving kindness) is the most important mitzvah we can perform, and this week’s parashah, Chayei Sara, illustrates what the Rabbis themselves tell us many times in many ways. Chayei Sara opens with a report of the death of the matriarch Sarah. Her husband, Abraham, undertakes to bury her; the story of how he goes about it teaches us much about chesed. The mitzvah of participating in a burial is a chesed shel emet—the truest kind of kindness—because it is entirely altruistic. The deceased cannot know and appreciate what you have done, nor ever pay you back. That is why serving on a chevra kaddisha (burial society)—washing and preparing the body for burial—is a position of great righteousness and honor in the community. Abraham purchases not merely a plot for burial, but the entire cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite. He pays top dollar to acquire the cave and the field in which it sits. He spares nothing to fulfill the mitzvah of chesed shel emet for his beloved Sarah.

Kindness permeates this parashah. Following Sarah’s death, Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer has full authority to choose a suitable mate for Isaac. How does he proceed? Eliezer has a test in mind: The young woman who exhibits an inherent proclivity for chesed is the most suitable wife for Isaac. Moments later, Rebekah arrives. Eliezer races over to her and says, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” Rebekah replies, “Drink, my lord. I will also draw water for your camels until they finish drinking.” (Genesis24:15-20) Torah tells us that Eliezer, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether Adonai had showered his mission with successful (Genesis 24:21). Eliezer cannot be much in doubt, because he gives Rebekah a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets. Rebekah invites the stranger back to her family’s home, an invitation that again demonstrates her quality of chesed. And while Torah makes it clear that her father, Laban, after one look at the gold jewelry is prepared to send his daughter away with this stranger, Torah is equally clear that Rebekah’s salient quality—the one Eliezer sought and found in her—is kindness. 

The parashah closes with the death of the patriarch Abraham and here, too, we see chesed shel emet at work. Isaac and Ishmael, who separated long ago and have not seen one another since, and probably have entirely understandable bitter feelings toward one another, nonetheless come together one last time to bury their father next to their mother in the Cave of Machpelah. Their act of chesed is prioritized over everything they have experienced and feel toward one another.

Some are accustomed to thinking that tzedakah is the premier mitzvah, but the Sages teach otherwise:

 ת"ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים

Our Rabbis taught: Chesed is superior to tzedakah in three ways: Tzedakah is done with one’s money, but chesed is done with one’s money or with one’s person. Tzedakah is given only to the poor, but chesed may be given to both the poor and the rich. Tzedakah is given only to the living, but chesed may be shown to the both the living and the dead. (BT Sukkah 49b)

And in the Talmud, the Sages explain (BT Sotah 14a) that God fulfills the mitzvah of chesed, not assigning or relegating it to others, both because the mitzvah is so important and because God wants us to know that we, too, should fulfill the mitzvah ourselves. The Sages provide four examples, complete with verses that demonstrate that God performed these deeds: (1) God clothes the naked. God provided Adam and Even with coats of skins when they left the Garden of Eden. Therefore, we, too, should clothe the naked. (2) God visits the sick. God visited Abraham while he was recuperating from his circumcision. Therefore, we, too, should visit the sick. (3) God consoles mourners. God blessed Isaac in his bereavement over his father, Abraham. Therefore, we, too, should console mourners. (4) God buries the dead. God buried Moses. Therefore, we, too, should bury the dead.

The ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao-Tzu, taught: “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” This is a fine reminder that kindness is dispensed in words, thoughts, and deeds, and that each has a far-reaching impact on others. The Dalai Lama taught: “There is no need for temples, no  need for complicated philosophies. My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.” His thinking is echoed by the Rabbis in Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4:21: R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah teaches his master, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, who mourns the Temple and loss of the altar as a means of atonement that chesed is no less effective as a means of atonement. R. Yehoshua quotes the prophet Hosea, who says, I desire chesed and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).

The day before Thanksgiving, I stood on a long, long line at a dollar store. Four teens at the head of the line checking out were counting out 50 pairs of gloves, dozens of packs of tissues, and a number of other things I couldn’t see. At one point, one of them came back to the rack near where I stood on line to collect more gloves. “Who’s getting these?” I asked her. “We’re taking them to a homeless shelter in Washington, DC,” she replied. No sooner had the teens finished checking out, than one of them, consulting their shopping list, realized that they were short one pack of tissues. She asked the cashier to ring up the additional item. The cashier wasn’t sure what to do because she was  about to ring up the next customer. That customer pointed to the back of the long, long line and told the teen she would now need to wait on line again. But the woman behind him said to the teen, “Just take the tissues. I’ll have them add it to my bill. Go in peace,” and another customer on line said to this woman, “God bless you for your kindness.” 

Each day we are faced with choices large and small. Will we act with kindness and fulfill the mitzvah of chesed?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman