Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Be careful what you wish for! / Vayechi

There is no death, aging, affliction, or illness in the Garden of Eden. When do they enter the world? Death (mortality) enters as soon as Adam and Eve leave the Garden. The Rabbis tell us that aging, affliction, and illness arrive in the world a good deal later, and we might be shocked by the reason they ener the world.

In the opening verses of this week’s parashah, Joseph is informed that his father Jacob has become ill, so he takes his sons to Jacob to be blessed before the patriarch dies.
Sometime afterward, Joseph was told, “Your father is ill. So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph ahs come to see you,” Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. (Genesis 48:1, 2)
Midrash Beraishit Rabbah makes the astounding claim that not only illness, but also old age and affliction did not come into the world naturally, but rather bidden by our patriarchs. Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for” or is there another side to the experiences we most wish to avoid that we need to learn?
Abraham introduced he appearance of aging to the world, Isaac affliction, and Jacob illness.

Abraham requested the appearance of old age, pleading before God: "Master of the Universe! When a man and his son enter a town, none know whom to honor." Said God to him: "By your life, you have asked a proper thing, and it will commence with you." Thus… And Abraham was old and come along in days (Genesis 24:1).

Isaac asked for affliction, pleading thus: "Master of the Universe! When a man dies without affliction, Judgment threatens him; but if You afflict him, Judgment would not threaten him." Said God to him: "By your life, you have asked well, and it will commence with you." Thus… And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dimmed (Genesis 27:1).

Jacob requested illness, saying to Him: "Master of the Universe! A man dies without previous illness and does not settle his affairs with his children..." Said God to him: "By your life, you have asked well, and it will commence with you." Thus… Joseph was told, “Your father is ill” (Genesis 48:1).
We are accustomed to thinking that appearing old age, affliction, and illness are curses that are part and parcel of the human experience only avoided by the worse curse of dying young, and then consign this midrash to the “be careful what you wish for” category.

Yet this midrash introduces a surprising idea: the appearance of old age, affliction, and illness have silver linings, beneficial sides. Old age can – and should – confer honor and recognition for what one has accomplished in life and the wisdom one has accrued over time. For the Rabbis, suffering affliction protects us against future judgment. For those who don’t subscribe to this theology, suffering acutely sensitizes us to the experience of others who suffer: we wouldn’t choose it, but having experienced it we can assimilate the experience to become better people. Jacob’s illness permitted him time to settle his affairs, confer blessings on his children and grandchildren, and achieve closure on this life. Dying suddenly without warning, he might not have carved out the opportunity to do these things.

None of us chooses to appear old (would that we could add years without aging), suffer affliction, or become ill, but the Rabbis remind us that even in these it is possible to find a way to live better.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, December 21, 2009

So Many Approaches! / Vayigash

The crescendo in the drama of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers reaches its climax in the beginning of parshat Vayigash.
Then Judah approached him [Joseph] and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.” (Genesis 44:18)
Judah recounts at length the series of events that brought the brothers to Egypt, as well as their previous interactions with Joseph. Judah still does not know that the powerful and intimidating vizier of Egypt is his younger brother sold into slavery so many years earlier.

Midrash Beraishit Rabbah (93:6), ever sensitive to language, considers the opening words of our parashah, vayigash eilav Yehudah (“then Judah approached him). Three interpretations are offered, each speculating on Judah’s mindset as he approaches the grand vizier of Egypt.
Said Rabbi Judah: “he approached" (vayigash) for battle, as in the verse, So Joab and the people that were with him approached unto battle (II Samuel 10:13).

Rabbi Nechemiah said: “he approached" (vayigash) for conciliation, as in the verse, Then the children of Judah approached Joshua (Joshua 14:6).

The Sages said: It implies coming near for prayer, as in the verse, And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached... (I Kings 18:36).

Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views: I come whether for battle, for reconciliation, or for prayer.
Judah approached Joseph ready for war (if necessary), prepared to protect his brothers, open to reconciliation (if that was possible), and preparing through prayer. Why prayer? Judah remained open to possibilities, and prayer opened a channel for God to play a role in the encounter, providing strength and support to Judah to seek reconciliation and avoid war, just as his father Jacob had approached Esau after their 22-year separation with his heart and mind open to the possibility and hope of reconciliation.

The attitude we bring to an encounter with another can spell the difference between all-out war and reconciliation. Often we are unaware of the attitude we project and how it influences the nature and outcome of our interactions. Yet our expectations influence the tone and vocabulary of our communication, as well as our body language, and thereby influence the direction of the conversation. Politicians who convey willingness to compromise are most successful. Bosses who convey confidence and offer support are the most esteemed. Spouses who convey appreciation foster generosity. Parents who convey genuine interest in listening hear much more about their children’s lives. Inviting God into the conversation through mindfulness will help us achieve avoid more battles and achieve more reconciliations.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who are you going to call on? / Miketz

Joseph has both a knack for doing things extremely well yet running into terrible trouble. He is Jacob’s favorite son, but as a result incurs the hostility of his brothers who sell him into slavery in a foreign land. He earns the trust of his master, Potiphar, and comes to be entrusted with running the household, but attracts the sexual attention of Potiphar’s wife and ends up in the dungeon prison falsely accused of rape when he rejects her advances. The chief jailer, recognizing Joseph organizational skills and efficiency, places Joseph in charge of the prison, but even after interpreting correctly the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and baker, Joseph languishes two more years in prison. Here’s a condensation:
After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile… The chief cupbearer then spoke up and said to Pharaoh, ‘I must make mention today of my offenses… A Hebrew youth was there with us [in prison], a servant of the chief steward; and when we told him our dreams, he interpreted them for us, telling each of the meaning of his dream. (Genesis 41:1, 9, 12)
Some commentators wonder why Joseph languished two additional years in prison between the time he interpreted the cupbearer’s dream and the day he was hauled out to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.

One answer offered is that after interpreting the cupbearer’s dream, Joseph asked twice to be remembered to Pharaoh – his double request was superfluous.
But think of me (z’khar’ta’ni) when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me (v’hiz’kar’ta’ni) to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place. (Genesis 40:14)
But if the first request is legitimate and only the second is superfluous, shouldn’t Joseph be imprisoned only one additional year? The two requests each bought him an extra year in jail because, as Rav says in Berakhot 58b tells us, “The dead one is forgotten from the heart only after 12 months.” Hence, Joseph brought the additional two-year stint on himself.

In contrast, midrash Beraishit Rabbah 89 explains, “Joseph had been given a specific time to spend in the darkness of the prison,” suggesting that the two additional years were part of a larger plan conceived in Heaven. In fact, Joseph confirms this thinking to his brothers:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. (Genesis 45:4-5)
By now you may be yawning and thinking: Goodness, it’s just a plot element that heightens the tension when Pharaoh experiences what are clearly prescient dreams but cannot find anyone capable of interpreting them. Yes, I’m inclined to agree wholeheartedly, but it raises an interesting underlying question: What do we place our trust and faith in? When we are in narrow straits, facing danger, on the horns of a life dilemma, do we turn to God or do we rely on ourselves, or some combination? That, of course, is a question the Maccabees faced. Do they rely on God to redeem them from the might of Antiochus Ephiphanes IV and his armies? Or do they develop their own fighting skills and employ wit and strategy to wrest control of the land from the Hellenists?

There’s a very surprising passage in the Talmud on Berakhot 10b. We’re told that King Hezekiah – lauded as a righteous king – sequestered the medical books of his day so people would not rely on them rather than praying to God to heal them. Even more shocking, the Sages register their approval of this action. Yet what Jew would forego medical treatment, claiming that God who made illness possible, will affect a cure?

Let me share a teaching of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook that resolves the contradiction. He taught that there are two types of trust in God. One is the faith that God will perform a miracle when it is needed. The other – which the Maccabees employed and which works for many of us – is to trust that God will help us in our worthy endeavors. Hence the expression, “God helps those who help themselves.” Can we strike that healthy balance?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, December 7, 2009

Living Apart and Living Among / Vayeishev & Chanukah

Rav Avraham Isaac Kook pointed out a prescient connection between the conflict between Joseph and Judah, and the festival of Chanukah, which begins this shabbat. The brothers are emblematic of differing ideological schools of thought concerning the mission and meaning of Judaism. Joseph promoted the vision and mission of Am Yisrael (the People Israel) as an or ha-goyim liheyot yeshuati ad k’tzei ha-aretz “I will also make you a light unto the nations that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6) and hence encouraged interaction between Jews and other peoples and nations to expose the latter to the teachings of Judaism. Judah sought to protect the distinctiveness of the Jewish people and encouraged hen am l’vadar yishkom u’vagoyim lo yitchakhav “There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).

These ideologies arise in every generation, from the Hasmonean and the Hellenists to our own day. Do we seek openness, interaction, and assimilation, and to share our ways with others? Or do we seek distinctiveness and cultural intensity to preserve our values and traditions? Perhaps more realistically: how to do we achieve a balance between two competing yet legitimate ideologies? Joseph and Judah, after all, are brothers. Just as they live in the same family, these two ideologies co-exist among one People. Judah recognizes this when he says, “What profit is there if we kill our brother?” (Genesis 37:26). And perhaps this is why Jacob sends Judah ahead of him to Joseph l’hotrot lefanav Goshna “to point the way before him to Goshen”(Genesis 46:28): to point out the way to him that Jacob’s clan would live among the Egyptians, as well as separate from them, in Goshen.

We worry about Jewish survival but we are also committed to our mission. Without maintaining our distinctiveness and our traditions, our mission will fail. How do we find the balance needed?

When the Temple stood, each Sukkot 70 bullocks were offered over the course of the seven days of the festival. In the Talmud (Sukkot 55b) Rabbi Eleazar asks: “To what do those seventy bulls correspond?” He answers his own question: To the seventy nations (which for the Rabbis represented all the other nations of the world). Rabbi Yochanan thereupon comments: “Woe to the idol-worshippers, for they suffered a great loss but do not even know what they have lost! While the Temple was standing, the altar atoned for them, but now who shall atone for them?” On Chanukah, we ponder our national survival – we came frighteningly close to perishing in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes – but the Rabbis remind us that our survival is not solely for the sake of survival. Israel (the Jewish people) lives with and for others. The only way to do that is to remain distinctly Jewish.

Chag Urim sameach -- may your Chanukah be a light-filled and joyous festival.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is Us-versus-Them an eternal condition? / Vayishlach

In parshat Vayeitzei, Jacob flees Eretz Yisrael with good reason: his brother Esau has threatened to kill him. Esau has cause, much as our commentators want to condemn him: Jacob tricked Esau out of the birthright and stole the blessing intended for him. Jacob absconds with the inheritance and future assured Esau by birth order; most importantly, he carries the mantle of the Covenant. Two decades later, Jacob returns to Eretz Yisrael and must face his brother Esau again.

In last week’s parashah, Vayeitzei, on Jacob’s first night alone upon fleeing home, he dreams of a sulam (ladder or ramp) extending from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending and God standing beside him. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 29:2 comments that Jacob’s ladder was not the only special ladder. God created ladders for the princes of Babylon, Media (Persia), Greece, and Rome, as well. Jacob watched each ascend and descend and grew afraid that he too would not be able to reach the top and would fall back to the ground. But God replied, “Fear not, Jacob My servant (Jer. 30:10). Though you go up, you will never fall down.” For the Rabbis, this was reassurance that although the empires of Babylonia, Media, Greece, and Rome rose and fell, Israel would survive.

In this week’s parashah, Jacob meets Esau once again. According to the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman of Gerona, 1194-1270) the story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau is a paradigm for all time for the struggle between the Jewish people and other nations. God redeems Jacob from his much stronger brother Esau. Moreover, Jacob does not rely on God to save him; he marshals his own resources and wits to protect himself and his family. We learn that in three ways Jacob prepares himself to encounter Esau: prayer, gifts sent to Esau, and by making ready for war if necessary. That formula, Ramban instructs, is the formula to follow for all time.

For legions and generations of commentators, Ramban’s view that in each generation the prevailing condition of us-versus-them is self-evident. Countless enemies have sought to wipe us out, and in each case we manage to survive by a combination of our wit and God’s grace. Who hasn’t heard the quip that most Jewish festivals can be summed up as follows: “They tried to kill, we survived, let’s eat.” Just before sundown next erev shabbat, December 11, 2009, we will light the first candle of Chanukah for 5770. The Maccabees faced an implacable enemy – the Syrian Hellenists – who sought to terminate Jewish sovereignty and dissolve Jewish religion and culture.

We have long focused on survival and have even justified Jewish identity and Jewish living on that account. Is it time to invest our energy in other directions? Judaism has so much to offer spiritually, communally, and intellectually. It offers a host of values to kindle the spirit, sacred texts to fire the imagination, and religious practices to spark the soul. Yours in the inheritance of Jacob. Are you putting it to maximum advantage in your life? Are you enjoying it fully?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman