Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayeitzei

I often point out that the word “Jew” never appears in the Torah. So, while many people use the term Israel and Jew as synonymous, literally speaking, it is just not so. Judah (from where the word “Judaism” comes) is the name of one of the tribes – one of Jacob’s sons. Jacob becomes Israel, but each of his children is a subset of the entire people. Thus, Judah is 1/12 of Israel. The Rabbis have reminded us that this God relationship is never about just us for thousands of years. God gave the Torah at a place owned by no one (including Israel) could claim exclusive ownership of it (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael and affirmed in major commentaries ever since). Torah belongs to everyone. It’s never been about just us.

Faith is about being part of Israel. Jacob’s name got changed to “Israel” after wrestling with God. The word’s etymology – “Yisrael,” means “One who wrestles with God.” God wrestling happens in every religious tradition wherein the practitioner understands the phrase, “Know before whom you stand.”
One unique thing about Judaism is that its essence – our label defines how we go about being faithful. “Yehuda – Judah” means “thanksgiving.” Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and Leah. From this week’s Torah Portion, “And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, ‘This time, I will thank [odeh] God!’ Therefore, she named him Judah [Yehuda]. Judaism requires us to live thankfully.

Whether it is a prayer for peace, for food, for love, or for healing, every formalized prayer that we utter begins, “Praised is God.” Each time, we acknowledge how blessed we are for the opportunity to make something happen. Every prayer we act out implicitly says, “Thank you, God.” As we breathe, eat, hold the hand of a loved one, marvel at a beautiful sunrise, we give thanks.

Tradition requires us to say 1000 prayers a day. The instruction is metaphoric, suggesting we should find ourselves acting prayerfully – all day. What does it mean? We spend a lot of time worrying about things beyond our control, so much of our energy goes into defending our truths and offending other people’s truths to feel more secure in who we are. We need to listen to each other with open ears and hearts.

The Torah teaches us that we must pursue righteousness. We cannot wait for someone to be kind to us or show a willingness to listen to us before reaching out. Where we understand that intractable forces can never reach peace, we must yield to open a door for what could be life (or mind)-changing conversations. We know that screaming at each other earns the next round of screaming. If we can demonstrate thankfulness for the opportunity to engage another, he/she might find him/herself thankful, as well. We lead by example. There is no room in our tradition for hurtful vitriolic behaviors towards others – even when we disagree. Every morning, our liturgy reminds us of our obligation to turn our enemy into our friend. We are Judah-ites – ones who give thanks. We pray that we live into our name.

Shabbat Shalom.