Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah-Sh’mot

This week I marked the passing of two great comedians. One died four years ago and the other just this week. One was a brilliant surgeon who brought healing to many, even as he shared his sense of humor in the operating room, in his office, and on stage as a “Stand Up” comic. The other dissected stereotypes and prejudices and brought healing to many, as he shared his sense of humor on the basketball court, in the stands playing with fans, and through his tireless humanitarian work. The surgeon is my brother. Though David passed four years ago, we gathered to dedicate his gravestone this weekend. The basketball player is Meadowlark Lemon, the Clown Prince of the Harlem Globetrotters.

As kids, David and I loved watching the Globetrotters. We sat in utter amazement as Lemon, Marques Haynes, Curley Neal, Geese Ausbie, and the crew delighted crowds and recreated the game of basketball. Lemon captained the basketball wizardry, and over his entire career, played in more games than any other player in history. Everything that is “razzle dazzle” and “above the rim” in basketball … is and only is, because of the way in which the Globetrotters broke down the barriers of racism and rallied all Americans to watch them reinvent the game. As my brother went through Medical School (we shared an apartment while I was in college), I sat amazed as his classmates spoke of his medical skills, and we laughed at his perfectly timed sense of humor. David’s patients remembered him for healing and changing their lives, and my niece said, “Dad’s patients always came first, and his family never came second.” Lemon’s time on earth has passed, as has my brother’s, but they are, and will be, remembered as having touched many lives in uplifting and meaningful ways.

This week, we begin a new book in the Torah. Exodus picks up where the Book of Genesis left off (plus a few hundred Biblical years). One of the first things we read is that a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt; one who knew not Joseph. Joseph had been the second in command to Pharaoh, and Viceroy over the entire Egyptian empire. Some say that he saved Egypt from the famine. Many others argue that in so doing, he destroyed every Egyptian life in the process. He did not buy their grain in years of plenty but sold it back at exorbitant cost when there was no other food available. As the Torah tells the story, Egypt got even wealthier while enslaving its own population.

So, this week, I have to “re-process” my brother’s death and reflect on the legendary life of a great American. At the same time, we read about the legacy of a man who certainly changed the course of Biblical history, but in a way that many argue created the atmosphere that led Egyptians to enslave his descendants. A new Pharaoh arose to overthrow a regime that may have been tied more to its own wealth than the well-being of its population.

In these polarized paradigms, Torah comes to life. We see how our life experiences demand that we engage the text and tradition in a conversation about faith. Torah is a tool for modern thought, building an ethical foundation, and ensuring personal growth. If we are shocked by the behaviors of our Biblical ancestors or the consequences of those behaviors, then Torah has helped us learn how not to travel those paths in our dealings with each other. Where we see hope and celebration, as we did when Jacob and Joseph reunited, we learn to pattern our lives in ways that help bring us back together, even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

These are conversations for all of us, not just Jews … and while technically “Bible stories,” not just for our children. This Shabbat begins on the first day of the secular new year. Yogis teach that we are not supposed to make “New Year’s Resolutions.” Rather, we make commitments to lifestyle and behavioral modifications. We do not create truth by fiat; it unfolds as we expand our ability to see the miracles about us. Facilitating this journey is, and always has been, the foundational purpose of Torah. As the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson wrote in his book, “Towards a Meaningful Life,” Torah is the possession of the entire world, we just use it differently. People living intentionally evolve the way in which the rest of us experience the world. Meadowlark Lemon and the Globetrotters (precedent and subsequent) filled the arenas, entertaining and conversing with “White” people even during the heights of segregation and the Civil Rights movement. My brother saw patients in Beverly Hills and in the Charity Hospitals. Imagine if we really could understand that it spawns from traditions centuries older and has bred the many variations of faithful conversation since, even through its own continual evolution. What might the world look like if we could fathom this miracle: we really are all studying the same moral values; we are praying to the same God who inspires all of creation; that our cultural differences are just that … different. We pray for the day when God will be acknowledged as a single source of creation in a relationship with one humanity, even while we speak differently. We pray for the day that, with this realization, we experience the prophet’s words come true, we will become one in all that matters most … our commitment to each other. Happy New Year and Shabbat Shalom.