Archive for the ‘D’var Torah’ Category

Becoming Worthy… Becoming Moses

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, G-d called to Moses from out of a burning bush. “Moses! Moses!” and he answered, “Hineini – Here I am.” G-d gave Moses the sacred task of saving an enslaved nation. It is a job that Moses did not feel up to. Moses argued, “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and free the Israelites from Egypt.” Later he argued, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me?” and beyond that he said, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

Moses is Moses, but he is not yet MOSES. He will become MOSES in due time. Like G-d, Who reveals G-d’s name in this moment of Torah as “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I am what I am” or also translated as “I Will be What I Will Be,” Moses’s identity will be shaped by this pivotal moment in our historic narrative. Moses will find a way to approach Pharoah, to be believed and listened to, and he will find his ability to speak for himself, eventually speaking the entire book of Deuteronomy as a farewell sermon to his people.

How often are we faced with an important task that seems too great for us, too important, and for which we do not feel capable? This moment in Torah teaches us that it is the tasks themselves that make us capable of completing them – all we really need to do is show up and say, “hineini – here I am.” If the task is worthy of us, we can BECOME worthy of the task. The only question to ask is whether the task is truly worth doing.

On this Shabbat before the secular New Year, many of us are considering our new year’s resolutions – all the ways that we hope to better ourselves in 2019. I would suggest that this is a great moment to seek out remarkable tasks, things that seem beyond our reach, things that will help to make the world better than how we found it. This is a great moment to say, “Hineini.” I am here. I am worthy. I am ready.

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And You Shall Be a Blessing

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vay’chi, Jacob prepares to die. He asks Joseph to bring him his two sons so that he can bless them as his own. Jacob blessed these two grandsons and added the words, “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh.’” And so this has become the traditional formula for parents’ blessing their sons throughout the generations.

Why, you might ask, would we bless our sons by these names, rather than by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Ephraim and Menasheh were born and raised outside of the land of Israel. They were fully immersed into the highest echelons of Egyptian society. Deeply entrenched, they were in grave danger of losing their sense of their Jewish identity and their moral foundation. Tradition teaches that, despite the temptations of Egypt, they remained true to Jacob’s Judaism as transmitted through Joseph.

Perhaps we bless our children in the name of Ephraim and Menasheh because we wish them to have the inner strength to hold on to their Judaism in the midst of a secular society. There are times in everyone’s lives where faith is challenged, but we wish for our children to be able to hold on to the faith and traditions of their ancestors.

In my family of origin, we did not do a blessing every Friday night, but rather only once a year on the High Holy Days. I remember the strange and wonderful feeling of my father taking my head in his hands and offering a blessing that I no longer remember. I don’t remember the words to the blessing, but I remember the feeling of being blessed. It is not the words that matter, but the tradition, the sentiment, the holy moment passing between parent and child.

With what words would you wish to bless your children?

With what words would you wish to bless yourself?

Shabbat shalom.

What’s In a Name?

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob wrestles with G-d and in the end, G-d blesses him saying, “Your name shall no more be Jacob, but Yisrael.”  Yisrael means one who struggles with G-d and, as I wrote in a previous D’var Torah, it is our struggle with and engagement in faith that truly makes us a part of Yisrael.  But I want to focus on something different and that is on the concepts of naming and renaming.
A name defines something, gives it a role.  Those who choose to be Jewish have the opportunity to select a Hebrew name for themselves.  Some choose to honor a deceased relative as their parents might have done.  Others honor a Biblical personality or a character trait that they admire.  In the Torah, adults often receive additional names.  But today, we change our names only through three mechanisms – marriage, the addition of nicknames (often given by family or friends with humor), or through the bestowing of titles or honorifics earned through schooling.  In changing Jacob’s name to Yisrael, G-d attaches Jacob’s struggle to his identity.  Our additional names are given to us by others, but they rarely say something truly deep about our own inner lives
If you could choose a new name, Hebrew or otherwise, what would you choose?  Who would you honor or remember?  What character traits would you want as a part of your name?  Are there other ways that you can express that identity, honor those loved ones, bring those names forward in your life?
The great Israeli poet, Zelda (1914-1984) wrote:
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.
What will be your name?

When you are just… DONE

In Genesis 25:29, we read: “One day, when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the hunting field. He was famished, and he said to Jacob, ‘I’m famished: let me gulp some of that red stuff!… Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright here and now.’ And Esau said, ‘Here I am going to die; what good is the birthright to me?’”

The Hebrew word that gets translated as “famished,” is ayeif – which also means exhausted. We see Esau coming in from the field at his wits end – exhausted, hungry, or just, as we would say today, “DONE.” His exhaustion is such that he doesn’t even care if he gives up everything. I think we can all relate to this at some level. The exhaustion of our family lives, our efforts at tikkun olam (repairing the world), keeping up with social media, making a living, and so much more. The exhaustion at hearing what is happening in the world and how so much of it just keeps happening, with no lessons learned. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed, to want to throw up our hands in feeling ayeif and just be DONE.

Ah, but you see, we cannot be done, because if we give up, or give in, we risk giving away our birthright for a bowl of stew. So, what do we do when we are as done as Esau was?

If Esau had taken just a moment to stop, to relax, he surely would have known the folly of selling his birthright. But he didn’t stop. Shabbat is our birthright as Jews – it is the gift of stopping, of refilling our personal, spiritual, and emotional buckets. On Shabbat we can have family time, alone time, friend time. We can take a moment for the art and music that feeds our souls. Whatever it is that helps you to face another week, relieved and ready. When you, too, are ayeif, I hope you will take that moment and take care of you.

We Shall Not Die, But Live

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, our matriarch, Sarah dies. “…and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. I imagine that the entire community must have mourned for Sarah, yet that mourning would have been different in color and weight than Abraham’s and Isaac’s.

I have been thinking a lot about communal mourning in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack. When eleven Jews are shot in cold blood as they gather to worship on Shabbat, the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history, we all mourn. Those who lost loved ones mourn the deepest. Their loss is fresh, unfathomable, and personal. But we all mourn too. We mourn sympathetically for their loss and we mourn for the hatred and antisemitism that have increased so alarmingly in the last few years. I have been so sad to see the looks on the faces of my fellow Jews, so many appearing lost and broken as we grapple together with this tragedy.

After Sarah passed, Abraham’s first task was to procure a burial place for her. He honored her memory by staking a claim in the ground that was hers, and that was his in perpetuity. We too must stake a claim in the ground, a claim to our right to be Jewish in this country. The gunman went after this particular congregation, not just because they were Jews, but because they supported HIAS, fighting for the rights of immigrants. We must respond by putting our feet to the ground – we will not be moved. We will continue to fight for the rights of others because that is what we do as Jews. We will continue to show up at our synagogues to worship, to do mitzvot, and to perform acts of loving-kindness. This is our claim in the ground. We will respond to this tragedy, by grieving and then by acting, by fighting against gun violence and against intimidation and fear. Our matriarch, Sarah welcomed all into her tent. We will honor her legacy and that of all those who died in Pittsburgh by doing the same.

We shall not die, but live, we shall not cower in fear, but show up to worship, sing, and support one another and to continue to make the world a better place.

Shabbat shalom.

Korach

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach, Korach and his band stage a rebellion against Moses and Aaron saying, “You’ve gone too far.  Why do you raise yourself up above us?”  When Moses hears, he falls on his face.  He puts it to G-d to decide.  This ends badly for Korach and his followers.  History views Korach as a jealous demagogue, and we are meant to learn from his mistake continually.  His fire pans are incorporated into the alter as a reminder to be humble.

Korach presents us with a challenge.  He is arrogant and tries to take power from Moses.  On the other hand, some of what he says rings true.  “All the community are holy,” he says.  Well, isn’t that true?  Doesn’t the Torah tell us in Parshat K’doshim, “You shall be holy, for I, G-d, am holy”?  If you look closely, though, you will see that there is an important difference between Korach’s words and those in K’doshim.  The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz notes that Korach doesn’t understand that holiness is a process.  Holiness isn’t something that we are, it is something that we strive to become.  If we are already holy, as Korach believed, we have no more work to do, no more purpose in our lives.  Holy means set apart for a sacred purpose – the act of setting ourselves apart, of seeking sacred purpose to our days, is a process, not a state of being.

Korach missed something else.  In the wilderness, Korach had a role, a job to play.  Moses did too.  Korach’s  jealousy blinded him to the importance of his own work, of what he had to offer.   Strange to think that arrogance and jealousy would actually mean that he wasn’t valuing himself enough, but by refusing to see the significance of what he was already invited to do, he doomed himself to always be less than his potential.

On this Shabbat, let us think about how we can engage in the process of holiness, becoming more true to our own best potential, so that in the end, we will leave this world better than how we found it.

Kvetching…

keep-calm-and-dont-kvetch

A famous Buddhist parable tells of a group of blind men who heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town. Since none knew what an elephant was like, they endeavored to describe it based on their sense of touch. The first man, standing near the trunk of the elephant declared, “an elephant is like a thick snake.” The second, standing near the ear declared the first wrong, “an elephant is like a fan.” The third, standing by a leg said that the elephant is like “a tree-trunk.” The fourth, standing by the side of the animal said that an elephant is “like a wall.” The fifth standing near the tail said an elephant is “like a rope.” The last man, near the tusk said, “an elephant is hard and smooth like a spear.” Focusing in only on that part of the animal that they could immediately experience limited their understanding of the whole.

In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’a lot’cha, the Israelite people in the wilderness complain bitterly. They weep and cry saying, “If only we had meat to eat!! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to.” (Num 11:4-6) The manna that they refer to, the Torah tells us, came free with the dew, could be made into cakes, and tasted “like rich cream.” (Num 11:8) Because they are so focused on one single aspect of their past, they ignore the fact that the food they got in Egypt came along with slavery, torture, and subjugation. They forget that the manna they eat in the wilderness comes abundant, free, and tastes good. Like the blind men in the story, their attention on only the one thing right in front of them prevents them from experiencing the entire wondrous animal. Now perhaps manna got tiresome after a while, but widening their scope would have allowed them to witness the miracle and appreciate its essence.

We Jewish people love to kvetch. Sometimes I think it’s almost like a social lubricant. We can all relate to misfortune so easily. We can laugh together at the little things that go wrong, the shared indignities of life. Talking about our joys can seem a little like bragging, but sharing our troubles does not. It can go too far, however. Kvetch too much and you are a whiner, someone unpleasant to be around. The literal meaning of the word, kvetch, is to squeeze or press. This Shabbat, let us take a moment to press a little less, to broaden our vision to encompass the many blessings abundant in our lives despite our valid reasons to complain. In short, let’s not let our kvetches turn us into wretches but rather focus on our b’raches (blessings) and share our naches (sources of pride).

Shabbat Shalom!