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Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Health Dose of Torah–Vayishlach
When most people think about this week’s Torah portion, they immediately think of Jacob’s wrestling match with God. As God and Jacob wrestle, God proclaims our destiny. We are Yisrael – people who wrestle with God. We are to be a faithful people, which means that we have to pay attention and not blindly accept things – even if someone tells us that it comes from God. I refuse to believe that God wants us to do some of the things that people say God wants us to do. It is no wonder that this episode attracts lots of attention. When most people think about this week’s Torah portion, they immediately think of Jacob’s wrestling match with God. As God and Jacob wrestle, God proclaims our destiny. We are Yisrael – people who wrestle with God. We are to be a faithful people, which means that we have to pay attention and not blindly accept things – even if someone tells us that it comes from God. I refuse to believe that God wants us to do some of the things that people say God wants us to do. It is no wonder that this episode attracts lots of attention.
I was looking for something different this week. I do believe that I am faithful, though I am wrestling with some of the perversions being called religion these days. Once God tells us that we are supposed to struggle, there has to be more: there has to be a purpose.
In studying the great sage Rav Avram Kook, I found my hook. In what seems to be an innocuous text, As Jacob is approaching his brother, he tells Esau, “I have an ox and a donkey (Gen 32:6).” I understand how we pass over this phrase so easily. Why on earth would Jacob need to share this news with Esau? With all that has happened between them, this seems most trite.
Perhaps it is because it seems so weird a statement that it draws our attention? A little research spawns wonderful thoughts (at least I think so). In Breishit Rabbah (an early book of commentary), we read that the ox and the donkey are symbols. Jacob was not speaking about the material possessions he had amassed, but about something of far greater significance. The ox and donkey refer to two types of messianic perspectives. Why do we need two Messianic paradigms? And why these two animals? The ox is strong and plows the ground preparing the land for planting grains. The donkey was used to transport the grains in from the field.
Jacob sent his brother a message: “I am whole. I have learned that healing and redemption is a process. It takes effort and strength (of character) to create and effort to share the very essence of life.” Jacob had taken all of his life, and yet, here, preparing to wrestle with God, he finally gets it. He sent the wealth that he had stolen ahead to his brother. Stuff does not matter; love and respect matter.
Many scholars argue that Jacob’s epiphany comes in the midst of the match. God wrenches Jacob’s hip and changes his name to Israel. I would argue that the match could not have happened if Jacob had not already figured that there was more in this universe than his insatiable appetite to acquire other people’s belongings. He could never have wrestled with a God he did not acknowledge.
Perhaps this is the best reason to help us understand why, despite Esau’s promise to kill Jacob, despite the army Esau brought to accomplish the task, when they saw each other, all they could do was embrace. Esau, who had been cheated out of everything, understood his brother’s new found faith.
Now, we are not close to the Messianic Age, but I have to believe that if we spent more time engaging each other in live and respect, we would spend less time threatening each other or defending ourselves from being threatened. I have to believe that if we were truly people of faith, there could be no room for the conflict that threatens our security and even our very existence. It begins, though, with the need to realize that we are measured by who we are and not by what we have. It begins with coming to terms with prioritizing the sanctity of spirit over the compilation of power. Religion cannot have value if all it does is separate us from each other. Faith is supposed to help us engage each other with greater earnest. In short, I think we all need to get over ourselves and get in touch with each other. Shabbat Shalom.
Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Health Dose of Torah–Vayeitzei
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day even [a nation] sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Jacob dreamed of the free exchange between heaven and earth. He dreamed that angels ascended and descended the ladder that bound heaven to earth. He saw no boundaries, no fences, no gatekeepers, and no quotas. He saw God at the top, welcoming those ascending and blessing those returning to earth. The awesomeness of the free flow and exchange of blessings had such an impact on Jacob that as he woke from this dream, he knew that he had seen God.“Al chaen yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati.” “Wow!” He exclaimed, “God is in this place, and I … I had no idea.”
We walk sightless among miracles.Heaven and earth touch so closely that they appear to be kissing (Talmud Bava Batra), and yet in the face of the miraculous, we get stuck expecting the mundane. Think of all the things that we take for granted. It may sound silly to mention the air that we breathe … or the fact that our bodies breathe, our hearts beat, and our minds (even without computer chips) store such incredible amounts of information.Heaven and Earth touch when we understand that there is a connection between everything that we see and everything that is beyond our sight … but is every bit as real as all that we see. We are so quick to reject all that we cannot immediately see and hold that we miss the magic of living. What makes us think that we hold eternity in our hands, and can fully define it within our human limitations? As you are shaking your head now, thinking that this is nonsense, I am ever more convinced that the problem and trauma under which the world suffers stems 100 percent from our lack of vision and from the insecurity that keeps us from believing in something bigger than ourselves. The “need” to rationalize and define everything (including the myopic descriptions of “God” which so many “religionoids” espouse) serves only to keep us blind, no different than our pre-epiphanic Jacob. He rejected any relationship with God until this week’s dream, as he experienced the ladder linking Heaven and Earth. Even after, he sarcastically bargains with God. “If you feed me, and see me through, then I will believe in you.”
How many miracles in life must we experience before we believe not only that there is something beyond us, but that that “SOMETHING” is beyond our ability to define, own, control, manipulate, or hold over others? How many times must we experience power beyond ourselves before we can let go of our egos and our fear and realize that heaven and earth touch where we partner with (not surrender to or run from) the source of our very creation? Shabbat Shalom.
Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Health Dose of Torah–Toldot
In all things, except for the Green Bay Packers, I cheer for the underdog. With Green Bay; now they are good, but they weren’t always. Since I was seven years old, through thick and thin, I am a “Cheesehead,” a Packer fan. In most everything else, I want to see the underdog at least hold the respect of the favorite. Whether sports, politics, or even a spelling bee, I pull for the one who know one believes has a chance to win.In all things, except for the Green Bay Packers, I cheer for the underdog. With Green Bay; now they are good, but they weren’t always. Since I was seven years old, through thick and thin, I am a “Cheesehead,” a Packer fan. In most everything else, I want to see the underdog at least hold the respect of the favorite. Whether sports, politics, or even a spelling bee, I pull for the one who know one believes has a chance to win.
For 27 years of Rabbinical study, I always viewed Isaac as the “weak link” between the powerful Abraham and the more powerful Jacob/Israel. The Torah does not share much about Isaac, except that he has a brother (Ishmael) that his mother hates, dad almost killed him atop a mountain, he passes his wife off as his sister to save his skin, and he has twins who are at war with each other from within his wife’s womb. When his father’s servant went to find Isaac a wife, the servant never even mentioned his name to the bride’s family. One has to wonder when Rebekah learned this piece of news. He gets old and his wife and one son deceives him into sharing the blessing die the oldest with the youngest. Oh yeah, his name, Yitzchak, means joke or laughter. Yet, he is an absolutely necessary link in the chain of our story. One cannot get to Jacob without going through Isaac (although there exists one passage where Torah refers to Abraham as Jacob’s father and not grandfather). So, committed to underdogs, I always fought for Isaac’s dignity.
Poor Isaac. That is, “poor Isaac” until today. In passing, I read that Isaac dug wells. He redug the one his father opened and opened new ones of his own. I relooked at his story. He faced death at his father’s hand, had a difficult marriage, had sons who made his life challenging, and yet, he never complained. He gave us water, and while never being thanked for it and having to endure so much, he kept giving and never complained about his plight in life. He kept giving … life’s very essence: water. Through it all, he felt blessed enough to be able to pass on the patriarch’s blessing to his child. The Rabbis debate whether or not the blind Isaac knew he was blessing Jacob or not, but one has to feel blessed to share a blessing, at all.
My first thought was to thrust my fist in the air and shout for joy (much like I do when I see sports teams help some disability suffering child hit a “home run,” “shoot a basket,” or “run for a touchdown”). I see this happen and I cry and celebrate humanity all in the same moment. Ok, redeeming Isaac isn’t quite the same, but maybe it should be. In the race for most important patriarch, Isaac usually is the underdog.Every day, we tire of people complaining. The number of times I have to remind myself that my problems are mostly “first world” problems. “My cell phone is not working right,” versus, “My home and water supply were destroyed in the storm and I have no place for shelter and no way to drink.” Most of our problems are inconveniences. Isaac had real tzooris (Yiddish for “really big problems”), and yet, through it all he made sure life sustained with his wells and blind and near the end of his years he still felt blessed. Maybe we need to rethink this Patriarchs’ role, and maybe, just maybe, he may be the greater paradigm for each of us. I think it says somewhere that the meek (underdog) will inherit the earth. Maybe this is true, because while those of us insistent on leading the pack stay distracted, people like Isaac just keep making sure that the job of living gets done.So, here is the big question. How many people do we dismiss because they don’t make headlines, or because we don’t see what they do to make our lives so much better? Who do we take for granted out of our own lack of vision, even while their commitment to us is unwavering? It is time we look at each other with more intention, with a greater desire to see each other’s blessings, both patent and latent. Each of us has incredible gifts to offer, even when they are not the gifts that don’t shine in lit up Vegas hotel style marquees. Take time to get to know people and not just dismiss them as you walk by. You have no idea how interconnected we are. You have no idea who, like Isaac, does so much to hold the world together without ever asking for credit. Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Health Dose of Torah–Chaye Sarah
I cringe every time someone refers to Torah as “Law.” The Torah has no vowels and no sentence structure, so, no one can ever say, “The Torah says …” Torah can say many things. As a recovering lawyer, I know that laws cannot be ambiguous; the courts rule that they are “void for vagueness.” All that said, I read a commentary based on the teachings of Rav Avraham Kook (ostensibly Israel’s first Chief Rabbi). The writer remarked about two types of Torah: a. the Torah of the Patriarchs, and b. The Torah of the Descendants. I had never thought about scripture in this light before. We normally speak of the written Torah versus the Oral Torah.I cringe every time someone refers to Torah as “Law.” The Torah has no vowels and no sentence structure, so, no one can ever say, “The Torah says …” Torah can say many things. As a recovering lawyer, I know that laws cannot be ambiguous; the courts rule that they are “void for vagueness.” All that said, I read a commentary based on the teachings of Rav Avraham Kook (ostensibly Israel’s first Chief Rabbi). The writer remarked about two types of Torah: a. the Torah of the Patriarchs, and b. The Torah of the Descendants. I had never thought about scripture in this light before. We normally speak of the written Torah versus the Oral Torah.
Thinking about the dichotomy that Rav Kook raised, a mundane piece of text (in my eyes) took on new life. This week’s portion goes on at length about the Biblical Abraham’s instructions to Eliezer. Abraham sends his servant off to the “homeland” to find a wife for Isaac (Abe’s son). The specific instructions play out several times over, and one almost wants to skip over them the last times they get uttered.
However, Rav Kook teaches that the Torah of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the discussions of our ancestors take precedence in sacred authority over the “rules and regulations” offered by Moses and Aaron throughout the rest of the text. The conversations between our sacred ancestors come candidly from their hearts. The rules of religion come through formulated statements and thought out processes. The words of the heart are always more telling than the planned words from the mind’s processes. We have the capacity to formulate formal statements. The heart, though, speaks with greater truth and spontaneity.This conversation between Abraham and Eliezer focused on finding a life partner for Isaac. Spoken from the heart, this was a matter of the heart. So consumed in justifying this enormous amount of trust placed in him, Eliezer repeated his charge over and over, to make sure that he did just as his master had instructed. The story carries an urgency about it.
When we speak with each other, the intimacy and urgency of what we share runs far deeper than any rule we read out of a legal code or rule book. In every facet of life, those called on to interpret and enforce the rules do so only in light of the human interaction that begged the question. Whether it is a penalty on the football field or the driving infraction on a highway, it ultimately falls on the one seeking to enforce the rules to decide whether to (or how to) impose sanctions for any offense. The rule does not change. What changes, is the way in which we interpersonally understand the circumstances of the moment and the people involved.
For this very reason, the “Torah of People” must hold primacy over the “Torah of Rules.” If I am responsible for deciding the fate of another in any given situation, I had better be faithful in my discernment. It is rarely in the law that we find discrimination; it is almost always in how to whom we apply it. Bigotry and ego hold its greatest power when part of a law maker’s/enforcer’s decision making.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel taught us that the world needs more Torah people and fewer Torah books. For two decades as Rabbi, I always thought that this referred to the need for people to do more good work. Torah’s greatest command is to community healing. It teaches us to secure the dignity and safety of the weakest amongst us. Torah reminds us that we are stewards of the earth and all its array. What I learned this week, though, was that these lofty ideals are still secondary to one greater command. In being Torah people, we must accept, as primary to all mitzvoth, that honoring one’s dignity transcends all other commandments. The Torah of people demands that whatever the rules of the community, the interpersonal relationship we share with each other is more important. The rest cannot matter if we do not begin every conversation with the heartfelt belief that when we speak with each other, the most sacred of engagements happens right there and then. Any conversation that begins anywhere else is blasphemy. Perhaps this makes the “Torah of People” the greatest “law” of humanity. While I am sure that most people who call Torah “law” do not see it this way, I have to reframe my own thoughts on the matter. Shabbat Shalom.
Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Vayeira
Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Health Dose of Torah: Lech L’cha
“Life is a journey and not a destination.” I have heard these words begin funerals, weddings, and baby namings. Even while we stand in place to mark specific moments in time, the ultimate value of living ties itself to the flow of time and not simply the moments of loss or celebration. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” We spend so much time focusing on the bookmarked moments and events blocked on our calendars, that we forget to focus on the continuum of blessings and challenges that create the broad spectrum portrait of life.
This past weekend, I gained a daughter, as my son married his beloved Emily. The next morning, we celebrated my grandson’s first birthday. That afternoon and the next day, we toured universities with the last child still living at home. We journeyed through a host of celebrations over the course of a short period of time, even as we remembered that my late wife missed every moment. Without her, though, none of this would have been. Reverend Ed Daniels from Myrtle Beach was there. He was the DJ for my son’s Bar Mitzvah 16 years ago. He wanted to come be part of this weekend. He brought his wife and twin sons. The last time I saw them, they were 4. They have grown into incredibly talented young men. Family came from everywhere. Life is a journey.
We experienced so much of the life cycle all in four short days! No wonder we are exhausted! Seriously, though, even with all of the focus on the future and the remembrance of the past, we got to spend a lot of time enjoying the present. Now that we are back home, how much of it still impacts our daily lives? How much of life’s journey do we take for granted? We plan and plan and plan for events, enjoy them in the moment and then are saddened when they are over.
It seems to me, that the planning should include the way in which we will process and hold on to the moments, continuing to learn from them as we progress through life. My son got married, but the celebration of that day is meaningless unless we can count it as a transition into blessing. Even while we place so much emphasis on the event, on the moment, the wedding was a day of celebration; the marriage is the measure of the blessing.
This week’s Torah portion sees God call Avram (not yet Abraham). God tells him to go on a journey. He is supposed to leave his father’s home and traverse the world, sharing the concept of blessing at every stop along the way. The entirety of Torah then teaches us how to go beyond sharing good news for the moment, but rather blessings for the long haul. The blessing is transitive and not episodic or transactional. I am only blessed with your company if, after we part, I still feel tied in to the blessing.
The word “Shalom” illustrates this point most perfectly. We use it as a salutation of greeting and parting. In one, we celebrate that we are more whole now that we are together and plan on maintaining the added blessings when we part company.
When Israel travels across the wilderness, we learn the moral failure of seeing life’s celebrations as merely episodes of things that happen. Despite the many signs and wonders Israel experiences through the wilderness, (freedom from Egypt and the sea parting for starters) Israel continues to fail in faith. There is no long term memory or continuum through which these miraculous events create the bigger picture of existence.
Lech l’cha, the title of the portion, literally means to get up and move … and keep moving. The moment that we stagnate in growing our spirit and blessings, life loses its value. You can schedule event after event of immense celebration, but if they are only events and only episodes, they will have no long-term value and will provide no real blessing.For the blessing of having been together to mature, we need to do more than show up at events. Having been together in that moment, we need to find ourselves together more often and more productively.
My son and his bride will not have a successful marriage because of a beautiful wedding, but having had the beautiful wedding, I pray that all those there to celebrate will continue growing our impact on and with each other, such that the blessing of the wedding is that long term loving relationships become longer term and more loving. Even being at a funeral can provide blessings. It’s about gratitude. Kak Sari, (modern philosopher) wrote, “Gratitude – an art of painting an adversity into a lovely picture.” If the things we do and the people we love truly hold value, then we ought to spend a lot more time appreciating them as we journey through life. Shabbat Shalom.