Parashah Ponderings

Thanksgiving Angst

Parashat Vayishlach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת וַיִּשְׁלַח
Genesis 32:4-36:43

Thanksgiving falls next week. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a joyous holiday — a time of feasting with family and friends and, of course, a time of giving thanks for our abundant blessings. For too many, though, Thanksgiving is anything but joyous. For them, it is a time of acute angst, a time of fear and loathing. I’m sure we all know someone who does all in their power to avoid “celebrating” this classic American festival with family members with whom they are all but estranged, people with whom they passionately disagree about everything from politics to table etiquette to the proper way of raising children to sports to — well, you name it! You or I may be one of these people who suffer from Thanksgiving angst. Sometimes we may be able to avoid the conflicts we dread by making plans that put us far away from those whose views and/or behaviors we despise. Sometimes, though, we suck it up and manage as best we can through several hours of confinement with those same people.

How sad that we let our passions separate us from our families. As one friend said to me recently, “Love them or hate them, they’re still family.” The family is as the most essential building block of our society. At it’s best, the family is where we learn to help one another, if not love one another. At it’s best, it’s the source of values that make for an orderly, compassionate society. When we become separated from that source of caring, of love, of learning, we are lucky if we can find another well to nourish us. Unfortunately, many of people who suffer from a rupture in their family relationships are left to flounder, to stew in misery and angst.

Our ancestor Jacob was one of those people who would have suffered from Thanksgiving angst were he alive in our own day. Imagine if Jacob’s reunion with Esau after 20 years would have taken place at Esau’s residence. Imagine Jacob receiving an invitation to join Esau and his family for Thanksgiving.

To help you visualize this encounter, consider what we read in Genesis 32:8-13:

Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.” Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’!I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’”

In this moment, Jacob cares only about self-preservation, keeping himself safe as well as those in his immediate family. “What if Esau comes after me?” he says. “I better protect myself.” “Even the promises of You, God, give me little assurance that I’ll make it through this encounter.” If he were preparing to reunite with Esau on Thanksgiving, he’d be doing everything he could to steal himself for the encounter, to prepare himself emotionally just to survive.

Yet, he decides to move forward, to make the journey toward what he believes will be an unpleasant encounter. On the way, he encounters an angel with whom he wrestles. He emerges from the bout with a limp and a new name, Yisrael, “one who strives with God.”

Shortly after Jacob takes on a new gait and a new name, we find him approaching Esau (Gen. 33:1-5):

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.”

He shows up on Esau’s “doorstep,” if you will, with his family. Instead of fending off arrows and swords, Jacob receives an embrace and a kiss. An embrace and a kiss from the brother he cheated, not once, but twice! The story here has a happy ending! We imagine they have their Thanksgiving meal. Maybe there’s even laughter, and singing, and lots and lots of story telling.

What happened? Why didn’t Esau attack Jacob and all that was his? Maybe it’s because Esau had years of really effective therapy. He remembered what Jacob had done to him, but he had learned to deal with it in a way that wouldn’t consume him or his sacred family tie. Maybe it was that after Jacob wrestled with the angel, a violent encounter with Esau seemed like child’s play. He wasn’t scared any longer. He showed up with an open heart.

The point is that we need not let our Thanksgiving angst keep us from the ones we should and will again, God willing, love. There certainly is some of Esau and Jacob in each of us. Let us let our best Esau’s and Jacob’s emerge this Thanksgiving.

Parashah Ponderings

Where is God while migrants suffer?

Parashat Vayeitzei Genesis 28:10-32:3

It has been heartrending to hear about the 2000 or more migrants in Belarus who are stuck at the border with Poland. Belarus is a Russian-aligned nation whose neighbor, Poland, is a member of the European Union. Most of these migrants come from the Middle East and Asia, apparently lured there by Belarus with the promise of receiving assistance to enter the European Union. Belarus is corralling the migrants toward the border and reportedly brutalizing them there. Meanwhile, Poland has built a fence of razor wire and is refusing to let the migrants in and both nations are rattling their sabers and mobilizing their militaries on either side of the border.

Things closer to home feel no less distressing. Nearly 800 migrants, 40% of whom are minors, live in one makeshift camp in Tijuana, hoping for legal passage into the U.S. At last count, roughly 1.7 million migrants, mostly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have been detained at the border . Under Title 42, most asylum seekers are being sent back to the border or to their home countries.

I do not have the solutions to these crises, nor am I going to pretend I know and understand all the facts and factors involved — from the causes of the crises to the barriers, physical and political, to reaching just conclusions. All I know is that there are thousands upon thousands of human beings all over the world who are seeking refuge from terror, criminality, and famine and no one is eager to give them safe harbor. Again, I don’t have the solutions, but I know these human beings deserve better than what the world’s leaders, including in our own country, are offering them. 

As a nation of immigrants, we as Americans and we as Jews, should be outraged! Adam and Eve were the first migrants, kicked out of Eden for a sin, a mistake or for their own gullibility, but God saw that they had the means to make a home outside Eden. They would have to work. They would suffer. But they would be agents of their own destiny, and with that, they would have their dignity.

Abraham leaves his homeland in response to a Divine call. He gets to his destination only to encounter famine and so keeps on moving. Abraham was a migrant.

Two generations later, Jacob would become a migrant. We see in this week’s Torah reading Jacob running for his life from his home in Beersheva to Haran. In Haran, he lives for 20 years as an indentured servant to his Laban, but ultimately outwits Laban and returns to Beersheva with his two wives and their very large families. 

What Adam and Eve, Abraham and Jacob all have in common is that they were never abandoned by God. God provided for Adam and Eve when they worked the soil and bore children. God gave Abraham a home in Canaan when he demonstrated his faithfulness. And Jacob encounters messengers of God enroute to Haran and then again enroute back to Beersheva, angels that promised Jacob security and gave him hope for a better future.

Where is God for the migrants in Belarus, Mexico and so many other places that don’t make the headlines? I am reminded of the famous saying of the early 19th century Hasidic rebbe, Menachem Mendl of Kotzk: God is where you let God in. I would add my own belief that God is where human beings behave and work in Godly ways. 

International relief organizations of all kinds are busy trying to get access to these migrants and provide for their daily needs. Journalists are risking their lives to bear witness to the migrants’ suffering and despair as well as their hope and perseverance. God is there in those migrant camps because extraordinary people make sure that God is there.

But the suffering continues because elected officials, autocrats, and bureaucrats, put nation and self over compassion and dignity. I know the world’s problems are not easily solved, but amassing troops on your borders, aiming guns not at the migrants but at the other nation, hardly signals a will to find a solution. There is no Godliness in hardened hearts. There is no Godliness in the conditions that allow migrants to wait out their days in squalor, not knowing if they will find refuge, be sent to their places of origins — where very often certain death awaits — or languish indefinitely in no-man’s land. At these hardened hearts — at this vacuum of compassion and lovingkindness among those who could bring an end to the suffering of migrant men, women, and children — we should be outraged.

On this Shabbat, when we read about our ancestors, who themselves were migrants, let us be mindful of and grateful for those angels, those divine messengers, who bring migrants hope and security. But let us also raise our voices so loudly that they shatter the outer crusts of those hardened hearts that fail to see the spark of the Divine in those human beings who await justice. Let us demand of the world’s leaders that they, too, let God in.

Community Discussion

The Thanksgiving-Chanukah Convergence

November-December Bulletin Article

It’s not quite Thanksgivakah this year, but it’s close: Chanukah begins on the Sunday night following Thanksgiving. When Thanksgiving and Chanukah nearly converge like this, I believe both holidays become more meaningful and festive. 

Chanukah has its origins in the biblical thanksgiving festival of Sukkot. During Sukkot the Temple priests would sacrifice a total of 70 bulls, 70 being the symbolic number of nations in the world. Our ancestors gave thanks not just for their blessings for the blessings of all peoples. Since the Maccabees were engaged in battle during Sukkot in the year 164 BCE, they delayed their Sukkot-thanksgiving celebration until after they had recaptured Jerusalem and purified the Temple. By then, the Maccabees and the Jewish People were ever more grateful for the miracles God had wrought for them in recent years and, perhaps, ever more grateful for those nations with whom they were at peace. In our day, the near-convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah might inspire us to feel just as grateful for our blessings and remind us to give thanks for our neighbors with whom we coexist peacefully here and abroad.

Another thought. Though many families reunite during Chanukah to light the chanukiah (Chanukah menorah), to eat latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and to open presents, more families, I believe, actually come together to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, when asked about my favorite Jewish holiday at my interview for rabbinical school, I offered Thanksgiving as my answer. For me, this was the moment, more than any biblical festival, when I would reconnect with distant aunts, uncles and cousins and experience a deep sense of gratitude, and it was that connectedness and gratitude that was — and still is — at the core of my Jewish identity. It is a real gift to be able to visit with family on Thanksgiving and celebrate an actual Jewish holiday at the same time.

Finally, when Chanukah falls early in the secular calendar, our Chanukah festivities seem to stand more on their own, rather than in the shadow of ubiquitous, over-commercialization Christmas cheer. While both Christmas and Chanukah share an intention of bringing light to the darkness of winter, Chanukah is NOT the Jewish Christmas. Who eats fruitcake along with their sufganiyot and latkes? And, contrary to popular belief, there is no halakhic (Jewish legal) requirement to give gifts; there is not even any mention of gift-giving at Chanukah in the Talmud. (Purim traditionally is the time for gift giving.)  True, there is the shadow of Thanksgiving, but as I’ve observed, the shadow of Thanksgiving accentuates, rather than obfuscates, the meaning of  Chanukah. 

I personally am looking forward to celebrating Chanukah with you as we did last year. Each night we’ll join together on Zoom, and a different household will lead us in the brachot (blessings) for lighting the Chanukah candles and increase the light even more by sharing a song, a story, or an inspirational thought. This year, we might also see some Thanksgiving decorations on the walls of each other’s homes as we “visit” with one another as a CAA family. And, no doubt, once we log-off from our computers, many of us will dig into our Thanksgiving leftovers and enjoy latkes on the side and sufganiyot for dessert. Just the thought makes me believe our holidays in November this year will be sweeter than ever.

Please share your thoughts on the convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah in the comment box!

Parashah Ponderings

Zuckerberg’s Halloween or Abraham’s Shabbat?

Parashat Chayei Sara 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת חַיֵּי שָֹרָה
Torah Portion: Genesis 23:1-25:18

If you are someone who gets into Halloween and is okay with Jewish kids trick-or-treating, then let me wish you an early Happy Halloween. If you are like my modern Orthodox friend, with whom I spoke today, then I simply wish you Shabbat Shalom. I asked him, “Did your children do Halloween when they were young?” “Oh, God, no. That’s for the gentiles.” If he is right, then I must be an honorary gentile, because I’m one Jewish boy who thinks Halloween is great.

Another Jewish boy who apparently thinks Halloween is great is Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of what was called Facebook, Inc. until today. As of today, Facebook, Inc, has a new name — Meta Platforms. So “meta” is the ancient Greek word for  “beyond,” “after,” or “behind.” But in Hebrew, “meta” is the feminine form for “dead,” which makes today officially the Day of the Dead in Israel. This is very confusing for people of Mexican heritage living in Israel who were planning on observing Dia de los Muertos on Monday night and Tuesday.

When the new name was announced on Twitter, a Jewish academic tweeted “The Jewish community will ridicule this name for years.” Not so quick, Professor. When volunteers for the Orthodox Jewish emergency rescue service Zaka learned of Facebook’s new name, they tweeted, “Don’t worry, we’re on it.”

Would Zuckerberg, who wrote on his application to Harvard that he could read and write Ancient Greek, French, Hebrew, and Latin, have gone public with the linguistic cross-over name Meta if it hadn’t been the shabbos before Halloween? Coincidence? You be the judge.

Speaking of judges, in the Talmud the rabbis speculate that the Judge of Judges, i.e. God, has a heavenly scribe named Metatron. We even learn that a particular heretic among the rabbis believed Metatron was a deity, a second divine superpower, if you will, though apparently the other rabbis believed Metatron was some form of angel.

I’m pretty sure that when Zuckerberg goes trick-or-treating with his children on Sunday night, he’s going as Metatron. But lest you think the costume will be something like the grim reaper or a Dementor, it’s more likely to look like a cross between Tinkerbell and court report with a stenotype machine. Not so scary until he starts asking for all your personal information and political views.

It turns out that Facebook will still exist, just under the umbrella of Meta, which describes itself on its website as “the next evolution of social connection. Our company’s vision is to help bring the metaverse to life, so we are changing our name to reflect our commitment to this future.” 

Marvel Cinematic Universe now has company, except it won’t be just tweens and comic-book enthusiasts who get sucked in. It’ll be all of us, too! There might even be a special blackhole to take care of all those people investigating Facebook. All of a sudden Zuckerberg’s legal, political and ethical problems will simply disappear into a vortex of time, space and matter.

I’m sure this was an idea planted in Zuckerberg’s brain by his rival billionaires, who are tired of being mocked for launching tourists into space in oddly shaped projectiles.

But, yes, there is a connection to this week’s Torah portion which gives me religious cover for offering up this third-rate late-night tv monologue.

For Zuckerberg, creating Meta is, above all, a business decision. But it’s coming at a time when his main product, Facebook, is coming under close scrutiny for all kinds of reasons. No wonder so many of Zuckerberg’s critics are questioning his motives.

In this week’s Torah portion, we find another Jewish boy making an entirely different kind of business deal but in a way that leaves absolutely no doubt about his motives or his integrity. After his wife Sarah dies, Abraham approaches the Hittite, Ephron, and offers to buy a parcel of land so Abraham can give her a proper burial. Abraham shouts out in the middle of the town square, “I’m not a member of your tribe, but please sell me a burial site.” When the townspeople say, “Sure. Take any spot you want,” Abraham responds, “I just want a cave on that man Ephron’s property.”

Ephron, who is in the crowd, yells out, “It’s yours! Take it. I’m giving it to you.”

But Abraham wouldn’t have it. “No, no. I insist on paying you full price.”

Ephron says, “It’s only 400 shekels. What’s that between friends? Keep your money.”

But Abraham insists. And in front of the crowd that has gathered, reaches into his bag and starts counting out 400 shekels, placing each shekel in the seller’s hand.

That property, The Cave of Machpelah, can be visited today in the town of Hebron. Abraham wanted the locals to know that he was now the legitimate owner of this property, and he eliminated any possibility of someone being able to challenge him in the future.

This business transaction has become the model of ethical business dealings for all time. Abraham was clear about what he wanted, and he made it clear that he would pay the full fair-market price. Everyone could see the transaction was above board.

When we start to keep our business dealings secret, it raises all kinds of suspicions. I’m not one to judge Metatron, um, Mark Zuckerberg, but I’m glad I’m not in his shoes having the world look upon me with suspicion. Most of us will never have the kind of power Zuckerberg wields economically and politically, but we can still glean a lesson from what we read about him on the front page. We can learn that ethics matter in business, in politics, and society. To avoid raising doubts about our integrity, we should all be as transparent in our undertaking as that other Jewish boy, Abraham. 

So if you were wondering who you would dress up as on Halloween, Mark Zuckerberg or Abraham, let me urge you to go with Abraham. Even my Orthodox friend would have to approve of that!

Shabbat Shalom

Parashah Ponderings

People Need People

Parashat Vayera 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת וַיֵּרָא
Torah Portion:
Genesis 18:1-22:24

People need people. I was reminded of this in recent days through encounters with friends old and new.

Earlier this week I received word that the mother of a childhood friend had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable form of brain cancer. Though I had not spoken with or written to my friend for many years, I wrote to her, offering my love, support and prayers during this difficult time. She wrote back saying she couldn’t express how much she appreciated my message. We will speak next week, after she visits with her mom. Though she has a healthy network of family and friends to bolster her spirits, the unexpected grace of friends from long ago signals that even in her loneliest of moments, she is never and has never been alone.

Also this week, I’ve continued to hold a beloved elder in my prayers as she’s faced a series of medical challenges. A long-time member of the congregation who inspires us with her joy, wisdom and spunk, Rosie is now on the mend and full of smiles. I am grateful for her daughter Shelly for sending me a photo of Rosie sitting up, dressed, and beaming as she prepared to leave the hospital and go to rehab. Rosie wouldn’t be where she is today without the countless medical professionals, friends, and loving family who have been doing their part to restore Rosie to good health. It’s amazing what can happen when people care for other people!

That people need other people is one of the primary messages of Parashat Vayera, a patchwork of stories alternately uplifting, horrifying, inspiring and mystifying. In the Torah portion for this week, Abraham appears in all but one of the stories, taking on different roles in relation to God, his wife Sarah, and the world around him. Each story highlights the importance of taking care of the people around us.

In the one scene where Abraham is absent, we encounter Lot’s two daughters, fearful following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that the human race will end with them and their father. Their plan to lie with their father and become impregnated by him defies the Torah’s own prohibition against incest but gives rise to two of Israel’s neighboring nations, the Ammonites and Moabites, the latter of which is the tribe of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David. Once we get past the sordid details of the story, we discover two women who love humanity so much, even after what they witnessed in Sodom and Gomorrah, that they will sublimate their own sense of decency in order to ensure humanity’s survival.

Earlier in the parashah, Abraham, who is still recovering from being circumcised, spies three guests coming toward his tent and jumps up and runs out to greet them. He then beckons Sarah and one of his servants to get busy preparing a feast for their visitors. The three visitors turn out to be agents of God; they appear to deliver the news that the elderly Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s heir within the year. In this incident, Abraham and Sarah set the standard for the mitzvah of hospitality for all time. We also find the basis for allowing the telling of untruths if they are intended to spare feelings and to maintain family peace.

Later, God announces to Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah had doomed themselves to destruction because of their violent and lascivious behavior. It is in this context that Abraham comes to the aid of his fellow human beings as he pleads with God to save the towns if God might find only ten righteous people among the dwellers. Ten such people could not be found, and the cities were destroyed. Nonetheless, Abraham forever earns a place in the panoply of biblical heroes for the chutzpah he musters to argue with God on behalf of people he did not know.

The penultimate scene of the parashah depicts the birth of Isaac and the subsequent dispersion of the blended family that had once included Sarah’s handmaid and her son, Ishmael, whom Abraham had fathered. The story is all the more poignant because it shows our ancestors at their most vulnerable, feeling alone and scared, trying to take care of each other while also causing harm to others. It is a heart wrenching story that bears a profound lesson about how difficult it can be sometimes for human beings to know what is right for themselves, for their families and for their descendents.

It is ironic that this parashah, which has presented image after image of human beings doing what they think is best for other people, ends with Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac at God’s behest. After all these lessons about the interdependence of human beings, we learn that Abraham was ready to give up his beloved Isaac, the one whose birth was foretold in the opening verses of the parashah, the one on whom the prophecy of Abraham’s greatness and blessing depended. The contrast between the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, and all that came before further highlights the reality that people need people.

What a contrast, too, between my encounters this week with my friend and Rosie. As my friend comes to terms with her mother’s terminal diagnosis, so many people, including myself, will reach out and hold her, giving her the strength and courage to cope with the inevitabile. As I look at the photo of Rosie on my phone, on the other hand, I am overjoyed that she is doing well. How awesome that so many people have come to her aid and have helped her regain her health and spirit! Here are two cases that prove that people need people. Let us all be there for one another whenever we are needed.

Parashah Ponderings

The Noah Story as a Model for Mindfulness

Parashat Noach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת נֹחַ
Torah Portion: Genesis 6:9-11:32

This week I looked at the story of Noah with fresh eyes, and I saw it for the first time as a model for mindfulness. Maybe that is because I’m in a six-week introduction to mindfulness meditation and I’m seeing everything as either a model or a catalyst for mindfulness. Be that as it may, let me share the lesson about mindfulness that I see in this week’s Torah portion.

First, it must be said, Noah is, on one hand, the quintessential children’s bible story. It features a great big boat, lots of animals, and a nice man doing what God tells him to do. But, on the other hand, once you get past the great big boat, the animals and the nice man, you’re left with an R-rated drama depicting the total destruction of humanity and the entire natural world. Throughout the story, Noah remains silent, never arguing with God to ease up on humankind. To cap it all off, shortly after the flood waters dissipate and the land dries, Noah’s son Ham walks into his father’s tent and finds his father naked and asleep, an unfortunate incident for which Ham would forever be cursed.

I’d like us to see Noah as something other than either a cute children’s story, on one end of the narrative spectrum, or on the other end of the spectrum, a profoundly disturbing and tragic attempt by God to create a more perfect world populated with blameless human beings.

In the mindfulness course I am taking, I am learning to practice a variety of mindfulness meditation techniques, all of which seem to have two things in common. All these practices seem to have two things in common: breath and presence. In essence, mindfulness is about quieting the mind and achieving release and relief from life’s stressors. Breathing, so elemental to sustaining our lives, is constant, always with us, and yet we can have some control over it. Our breath is something that we can focus on as we strive to be fully present in any given moment. By taking breaks during our everyday lives to simply breath and be present, we allow ourselves to then re-engage the world with peacefulness and, often, new insight.

The story of Noah takes place in a mythic period of human existence but it takes place in this world, not middle earth or outer space. Noah’s world is our world — a world filled with chaos and pain and darkness but also semblances of order, joy and light. Noah’s world was, for God, beyond repair. God saw no order, no joy, no light and so God decided to start all over again. God saw in Noah and his family the best chance to replant humanity in newly tilled soil.

I think we can all relate to the need to replant ourselves every now and then, to pull ourselves out of the soil and set ourselves down in more hospitable ground. Or, like Noah, to find refuge in an ark until the storm passes over. We all live with stress and tension — in our places of work, in our homes, in our heads. I would argue that we should each find our own ark where we can regroup and face the world with renewed energy and clearer vision.

There are some obvious challenges using the story of Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness, but we can learn from the ways in which the story doesn’t conform to an ideal state of mindfulness. For one, once he emerges from the safety of the ark, the world as he knew it had been obliterated, with the exception of his family and the animals who were on the ark with him, and with the exception, apparently, of vegetation and the very ground upon which he had walked before the flood. So some things were the same, but the conditions for life had been drastically altered. 

When we emerge from a meditative state, we can expect that not much will have changed outside of ourselves. We are not Noah, and for that we should be grateful! Part of being mindful is accepting the world as it is, knowing that we are called to engage in tikkun olam, to do our part to improve it. As much as we’d like to, we can’t just will the world around us out of existence, though I must admit that sounds very tempting. We can, however, strive to be present in it and do what we can to increase the order, joy and light.

Another challenge is that Noah is most certainly not in a quiet, serene setting. He’s not secluded in a dark room with only a scented candle. Nor is he sitting in the lotus position on a hill with a view of Mt. Monadnock on a beautiful day. No. Around Noah is noise and stench and confusion. Who of us would choose to take refuge under such conditions?

For us to be fully present and mindful in the world, we need to learn to breathe deeply even under trying circumstances. Even with the noise, stench and confusion of life, we must remember to breathe. Just three breaths in and three breaths out, consciously inhale and exhale. Quiet the mind while you breathe. Maybe close your eyes if you’re not driving or on a Zoom call with your boss or client. The noise, stench and confusion won’t go away, but you can reorient yourself in a way that makes it all more bearable. In this sense, maybe we are all like Noah. We’re on a busy, bustling ark at the same time that we’re taking refuge from the world around us. 

I am no expert in mindfulness. I have much to learn. In fact, I am interested in the ways others might see the story of a Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness. What lessons can you find in the story to help you live a more peaceful life? How can the story help you be more present in the here and now? I suspect if you join me in reframing the story of Noah as something other than a children’s story or a horror story, you will find your own riches that will bring order, joy and light to your life.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parashah Ponderings

Creating in the Image of the Divine

Parashat Bereishit 5782

One of the great ideas of the Torah is that the first human was made in God’s image. We read in chapter 1, verses 26 and 27 of Bereishit (Genesis): 

Vayomer Elohim, na-aseh adam b’tzalmeinu ki-d’moteinu… Vayivra Elohim et ha-adam b’tzalmo. B’tzelem elohim bara oto, zachar u’nikeiva bara oto. God said, “Let us make adam in our image, after our likeness… And God created adam in God’s image, in the image of God did God create (adam).

The idea of the first human being created in the image of the Divine was a radical idea in the ancient Near East. Heretofore only ruling kings had considered themselves made in the image or likeness of a god. The Torah rejects the idea that only the powerful and elite bear a resemblance to the divine, and asserts emphatically that we are all endowed with characteristics of the Sovereign of Sovereigns. We hear echoes of this assertion later in the Torah when we learn that the entire People of Israel is to be “holy” because God, their Creator and Ruler, is holy. Nowadays, we believe the Torah calls us to live lives of godliness — to become partners with God in creating a more perfect world and to extend to one another the same attributes of lovingkindness and justice that our tradition associates with God.

In chapter 5 of Bereishit, we learn that part of what it means to be created “in God’s image, after God’s likeness,” is that we should ourselves must seek to create others in God’s image:

Va’yehi Adam sheloshim u-me’at shana va-yoled bidmuto c’tzalmo, vayikra et sh’mo Shet. When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth (Gen. 5:3).

Adam was made in God’s image, and lo and behold, Adam’s child is made in his image. The late 12th-early 13th century French commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi, suggests that the likeness that Adam has imparted to Seth is something entirely human. Just as Adam had matured into an intelligent human being capable of learning from his mistakes, so too will Seth grow in intelligence. Kimhi suggests that the reason Cain and Abel are not listed here is because they were children of the younger, more reckless, less intelligent Adam. The image that Adam wanted to impart to his offspring was, thus, first realized in Seth. 

I think there is a lesson here about parenting, specifically, but generativity and the creative enterprise, more generally. That is, in whatever we create — whether it be children or students or ideas or things of beauty — we should strive to imbue our creations with the best aspects of who we are. In the case of Adam, this meant waiting 130 years for those best aspects to emerge within himself before trying again to create another human being. Sometimes we need to be patient before embarking on the act of creation to ensure that we have the skills to fashion something worthy of our own name.

But the text in chapter 5 is ambiguous. It says that Adam begat a son “in his image, after his likeness.” Who is the “his” here? If it is Adam, then let’s remember what Kimhi teaches us about what it takes for you and me to be creative. If, on the other hand, the “his” is engendered language referring to God, then perhaps we can find different meaning in the teaching of his Spanish contemporary Nahmanides, or Ramban.

Ramban teaches:

Obviously every living thing begotten from another living thing is in its likeness and after its image. This verse is telling us that Adam begot a son in God’s likeness, after God’s image, just as Adam himself had originally been (The Commentator’s Bible: Genesis, p. 58). 

Ramban’s view is shared by the Eitz Chayim Torah and Commentary, where we read “The first two human beings transmitted ‘the image of God’ in themselves to all future generations” (p. 30).

What Rambam and the Eitz Chayim teach us is that we are passing on to our children more than our own DNA, even more than our own character traits, for better or for worse. When we raise children or express generativity in other ways, we are transmitting something much larger and greater than ourselves. We are transmitting the very image and likeness of God that has been handed down to us from the time of Adam and Eve. 

What a responsibility! On one hand, we need to be capable stewards of God’s image. We need to give it exercise. We need to show it off. We need to nurture it so that God’s very being is experienced in the world. On the other hand, we must realize that God’s image is not for our own glorification but for the glorification of humanity for all time. We must be capable stewards, but we also must be capable teachers. To use a metaphor from track and field, we have to be careful that the baton does not get dropped as we pass it off to the next generation.

Ultimately, I think both Kimhi and Ramban are correct. Through our creative acts, we reproduce the best and worst of ourselves, but when we strive to pass on the best of ourselves, we are also passing on the image of the Divine that we inherited from those who came before us. To be a good steward is to care for that image of the Divine within each of us — to allow the Godliness within us to flourish. When we are ready to pass that picture of Godliness onto others, we must do so with utmost love and care.

Perhaps Adam needed to live 130 years before he was prepared to transmit his own image to his child. Perhaps, too, he needed that time to understand how to care for and nurture the image and likeness of God himself and to feel confident that he could then teach his child. It is my prayer that we can follow in Adam’s footsteps in our own, much shorter lifetimes, so that the best of us will flourish in future generations and God’s image will continue to shine light on the world.

Parashah Ponderings

What Can We Learn about Teshuvah from God, Moses and Joshua?

Parashat Vayeilech 5782 / פרשת וַיֵּלֶךְ
Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30
Shabbat Shuvah

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Returning. It is so named after the reading from Prophets that exhorts us to return to God, a fitting message for the Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a period known as Aseret Yemei Teshuva or Ten Days of Repentance. Though Shabbat Shuvah gets its name from the haftarah this week, the Torah reading itself, Vayeilech, suggests how we might approach the task of “returning.”

In Vayeilech, God summons Moses and Joshua to the Tent of Meeting for an intimate conversation about the future:

The LORD said to Moses: The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, that I may instruct him. Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting. The LORD appeared in the Tent, in a pillar of cloud, the pillar of cloud having come to rest at the entrance of the tent. (Deut. 31:14-15.)

Once God is present before Moses and Joshua, God warns them that the People will stray after foreign gods upon entering the Promised Land. To teach them the errors of their ways, God will hide God’s countenance from them, causing great misfortune to befall the Chosen People. (In next week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, Moses reads a poem to the People in which God publicly reveals further details about their faithlessness and resulting demise.)

But it’s not the prophecy of Israel’s downfall that strikes me as most apropos for Shabbat Shuvah. Rather, it’s what God says speaks directly to Moses and Joshua. To Moses, God says, “You are soon to lie with your fathers.” (Deut. 31:16) Here we have God alerting Moses to the fact that his death is imminent. This was no surprise to Moses, of course, for he already knew that God would take his life before he got to enter the Land. Still, I imagine that upon hearing these words “You are soon to lie with your fathers.” Moses might have engaged in a quick review of his life and asked himself how might he make the best use of the days that remain. Though Moses would have more of God’s teaching to share with the People, how else might he make constructive use of his limited time here on earth?

Isn’t the question of how we can best use our time the central question of teshuvah? If we’re honest with ourselves, when we do heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, we’ll recognize that we don’t always use our selves to make the world a better place. We squander time with vanities and frivolities. Worse, we engage in injurious speech and hurtful behavior. What if we knew our lives were coming to a close? How might we correct course for the good and right?

Facing our mistakes, working to mend our ways, and staying true to the course we set for ourselves are all daunting tasks. This is what we must do, though. It is also what Joshua had to do when he would lead the people over the Jordan River:

And God charged Joshua son of Nun: “Be strong and resolute: for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you.” (Deut. 31:23)

God girds Joshua for a difficult future with the words “Hazak ve’ematz, Be strong and resolute.” I have offered these words to students, friends and loved ones when they were about to face a trial in their lives. Strength and resolve does not mean setting one’s fears aside or denying the magnitude of the challenges ahead. Rather, strength and resolve entail believing in one’s self, despite one’s fears, and committing always to move forward.

As I think about the work of teshuvah, of returning and repentance, I imagine each of us standing in place of Moses and Joshua in the Tent of Meeting. Like God reminds Moses, the days of our lives are not infinite. We shouldn’t forget that. Before our time runs out, how can we make a difference, and how can we prepare the way for those who will carry on after us? While we need to treasure each day, we also need to lean into whatever will come our way with strength and resolve. In this respect, we are not only like Moses, but we are also like his disciple Joshua, who would one day succeed him.

We cannot know what the future holds. We don’t have the benefit of God’s prophecy to prepare us for tomorrow. As we take stock of where we are today, though, we can choose to do better going forward and enter the unknown with strength and resolve.

Parashah Ponderings

Why We Do the Things We Do (or Don’t)

Ki Tavo / פרשת כי־תבוא
Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

(I am pleased to share this devar Torah from September 2015, which also coincided with the eve of Selichot. In it, I encourage us to consider, as the rabbis did, what motivates us to change.)

This Saturday night is Selichot, a service that punctuates the coming of the Days of Awe in just over a week. The Selichot service represents a sort of “greatest hits” of the High Holy Days, with penitential hymns and familiar melodies from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Selichot, which means roughly “apologies” or asking forgiveness for our wrongdoings, is intended to help with the process of teshuva, repentance or, literally, “turning;” we are to contemplate how we can become the best version of ourselves in the year ahead.

Part of doing teshuva involves asking ourselves why we do the things we do and why we don’t do the things we don’t do. Why do we strive to avoid negative behaviors? We do strive to do only good?

These are questions that are addressed in a way in this week’s Torah reading. In Ki Tavo our ancestors are told that as soon as they enter Canaan, they are to undergo a ritual to remind them of the blessings that follow from obeying God’s mitzvot, commandments, and the curses that will ensue should Israel go astray by neglecting the mitzvot and going after foreign gods.

In his article Between Fear and Awe, my colleague Rabbi Shai Held, Co-Founder and Chair in Jewish Thought of Mechon Hadar, discusses two forces that prevent us from falling into disfavor with God, forces that help avert the terrible curses that await us if we disobey God’s commands. The forces are fear and awe, both of which are reasonable translations of yirah which the Torah commands us to feel. Rabbi Held shares the debate between rabbis across generations whether it is preferable to obey God out of fear of punishment or whether obedience should be rooted in awe and reverence for God’s self.

At one point, Rabbi Held notes that the word todah has a similar dual meaning as yirah. Today can be at once thankfulness for our bounty and praise for the One who Gives. In reality, though, the connection between todah and yirah is more than comparative. They are opposite sides of the same coin. We may be motivated to walk in God’s ways as much by todah, with all it connotes, as we are by yirah with all its connotations. Is it not the case that we avoid bad behaviors and exhibit good ones because sometimes we look forward to the benefits that come with making certain choices? Is it also not the case that sometimes we make choices out of respect and gratitude for God or, on a human level, for another person?

I encourage us to examine why we do what we do (or don’t) as we undergo a close examination of our souls during this penitential season. Perhaps by seeing where we are on this grid of fear<>awe/thankfulness<>gratitude we will be able to do teshuva in a way that will lead us on the right path not only for the coming year but well into the future.

Parashah Ponderings

Justice for Our Planet Shall We Pursue

Parashat Shoftim 5781 / פרשת שׁוֹפְטִים
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 

This week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a summary of a report 6-years in the making, involving more than 200 authors whose work is derived from some 14,000 peer-reviewed studies related to the physical science of climate change. The full report is almost 4,000 pages long. The summary, however, is only 40 pages. 

I read about the report in Jewish Currents magazine, where I found an interview conducted by the magazine’s newsletter editor with a staff writer from The New Republic who covers climate policy. What I learned from the writer, Kate Aronoff, is that the information found in this new report is both horrifying and hopeful.

She says, “It’s not so much new information as a synthesis that allows us to say with confidence that climate is ‘unequivocally’ caused by human activity — mostly the burning of fossil fuels. While much of it isn’t new, the tone scientists, who tend to underplay things, take up in it — calling this ‘code red for humanity,’ for instance — should be a wake-up call.”

But, Aronoff says, the mainstream media outlets are boiling the 4,000 into “the most doom-filled headlines you can imagine. The big takeaway of the coverage has been that climate change is now irreversible, that we have passed the 1.5 Celsius degree temperature increase threshold..” She explains that while there is some basis for these claims in the report, these headlines don’t present the full picture. In fact, we’ve warmed the planet by about 1.1 degrees, which is very concerning, and there’s enough carbon in the atmosphere for that to to increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. BUT that hasn’t happened yet, in part because we have forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.”

Rather than read into the report the idea that we’ve passed a point of no-return, Aronoff  says, we should adopt the mindset that “there’s no point at which you can say that we might as well just give up. There’s plenty of  suffering that can be prevented.” She points to the fact that every 10th of a degree Celsius of warming “translates to tens of thousands of lives lost, so every little incremental step we can take to mitigate climate change matters a tremendous amount.”

Aronoff then goes on to list a number of policies which, if adopted and executed wisely, could keep things from getting “infinitely worse.” 

What Aronoff and the scientists behind the climate research are suggesting, I believe, is that we must all do our part to prevent things from getting infinitely worse by adopting new mindsets and modes of behavior and by getting involved in the political system. From my point of view, heading this call is a matter of environmental justice.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (or “Judges”), we read the words: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Eternal your God is giving you.” What does this mean? It means that for us to achieve the ideal of transforming the world into the malkhut Shadai — the kingdom of the Almighty — we must be committed to pursuing justice under all circumstances, in all places and for all time. Rashi, the medieval biblical commentator, says “consider what you do, and conduct yourselves in every judgment as if the blessed Holy One were standing before you.” The pursuit of justice includes enforcing our laws equitably and judging without prejudice. But it also means creating a world in which all human beings can survive and thrive, where the image of the Divine can shine forth from each unique soul.

In a world increasingly ravished by drought, wildfires, devastating flooding, warming waters, catastrophic storms, rising tides and rising temperatures, we must take seriously our tradition’s call to pursue justice for the natural world.

We see a hint of this imperative for environmental justice in the laws of warfare, that are also part of this week’s reading (Deut. 20:19): When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its fruit trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” While the Torah does permit armies to cut down non-fruit-bearing trees for the construction of siegeworks, in general it prohibits the kind of deforestation that makes human life unsustainable. Fruit trees take years to bear fruit, and the Torah prohibits us from using the fruits for the first three years of a tree’s life. This wartime prohibition is a reminder of our dependency on the natural world for our very existence. If we destroy fruit trees, we might not be alive to eat the fruits of trees that we plant in their place. If we destroy our planet, the science is saying, at some point we won’t be able to repair it. And if we can’t establish a healthy balance between humanity’s needs and what is needed for the planet to sustain us, we will eventually perish and it will happen at the rate of tens of thousands per 1/10th of a degree Celsius, if not quicker. We already see how our friends and families in other parts of the world are suffering, not to mention what is happening in economically depressed countries who lack the medical resources to soften the health-related blows of climate change.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Let us do all in our power to secure justice for our planet and all God’s creatures.  Tzedek for ourselves. Tzedek for all people. Tzedek now. Tzedek always. Justice, justice shall we pursue.