Friday, March 27, 2015

We Didn't Start the Fire - Reflections on Parashat Tzav 5775

OK, all you pyromaniacs out there, this week's parashah is for you. 

Part of the priestly charge was to ensure a sufficient supply of wood for the altar at all times, so that the pyre would burn brightly, day and night, and never be allowed to go out. In fact, the original fire stayed lit for 889 years, from the time of Moses to the reign of the evil king Menasseh at the end of the First Temple period. Interesting historical factoid.

We are also taught that when an offering was placed upon the altar, a heavenly fire descended, lightning-bolt style, to consume the offering in its entirety, indicating Divine favor with the offering.

So...if the offering was consumed by the heavenly fire from above, what was the big deal about keeping the fire lit from below? 

The Ba'al HaTurim helps us out. He points out that the Torah itself is likened to fire, and brings several verses to prove it. 

So let's think that simile through. 

Any idea is but an abstraction, every desire like a flickering flame. Both are ethereal. How is Torah like fire? It reflects Hashem's desire with regard to how we are to conduct our lives, how to treat one another, and the proper ways serve Him. So in that sense, Torah is a tzimtzum - an embodiment, a coalescence - of Gcd's will for mankind. That's what the Talmud means when it says that the "Torah" existed before Hashem created the universe - Gcd's will pre-dates the created universe.

Who got to light the first fire on the altar? Actually, the Divine lightning bolt lit the wood the very first time, during the week-long investiture of Aaron and his sons, as recorded in our parashah. Similarly does Torah, as Hashem's manifest will, come from on high to bring enlightenment to mankind.

But guess what? That fire doesn't stay lit by itself. It takes nurturing, attention and care by the flame keepers. 

We Jews didn't start the fire, but we have the holy charge of keeping Gcd's light burning brightly in this (otherwise) very dark world.

From Haman to the Hellenes to the Romans to the Crusaders to the English expulsion to the Spanish expulsion to Chmielnicki to Kishinev to Hevron to the Grand Mufti to Hitler to Nasser to Arafat to Abu Mazen to Maalot to Mercaz HaRav to Hamas to Hezbollah to Khameni to BDS - they have all done their level best to extinguish that meddlesome Jewish flame.

Occasionally we stare down the rage and the hate. But mostly, we just shrug our shoulders and keep on keeping on. 

Studying Torah. Teaching it to our children. Donning tefillin. Doing unrequited acts of kindness. Pouring our hearts out to Gcd in prayer. Creating new medicines and wonder technologies. Refining our thoughts and behaviors. Sharing a hug or a smile or a kind word. Building another Jewish home in Israel. And another. And another.

Tough work, but somebody has to do it.

The question is: what are you going to do today to nurture the flame?

May all who read this merit to see the Gcd's Supernal Light illuminate Israel; and through us, illuminate and elevate all of mankind, speedily in our days, amen.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Don't Touch That Dial! - Reflections on Parashat Mishpatim 5775

(For an earlier blog post on Mishpatim, click HERE.)

Up till now, the Torah's narrative has been intense, dramatic, emotional: the Creation of the Universe, the Great Flood, the lives of the Patriarchs, the vicious enslavement of Joseph and his meteoric rise to Viceroy of Egypt, slavery and the Ten Plagues, the Parting of the Sea, the Revelation at SInai. Woof! What a ride! It's the kind of heady stuff that captures your imagination and keeps you glued to your seat.

But in Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah abruptly changes gears and deals with dry matters of law. Damages. Torts. Booooring!! Where's the passion? Where's the plot? Where's the conflict? So (true confessions) Mishpatim is where many people sort of...tune out, eyes glazing over. Ready to turn the dial to another channel. 

Consider the first case in our Parasha, the laws of owning a Jewish slave. We moderns shake our heads at these laws. Slavery? The entire civilized world has condemned slavery. A thing of the past, you'll tell me. Barbaric. How can these laws possibly have anything to say to modernity? Moving on.

But hold on to your hats: I'm about to argue that the Jewish laws of slavery are directly and immediately relevant and applicable to our lives, so don't touch that dial quite yet.

It is true that de jure slavery - the institution that permitted a human being to be the property of, and wholly subject to, another - has thankfully passed from this earth, or at least from open view. But there are other, less egregious, forms of slavery. Political slavery, for example. Or economic slavery.

A person working three part-time jobs just to make ends meet, because employers can no longer afford the onerous payroll burden of carrying full-timers - that person is a de facto slave. Part-time employees, in whom only a bare minimum of training or skill development is invested, who are treated as disposable - those people are economic slaves. An employee who can't speak freely for fear of being fired is a slave. 

The working poor are America's most vulnerable underclass, no different than coal miners or piece workers in the needle trades a century ago. (Right now, you are probably wearing clothes make by someone in a third-world country working for about a dollar a day.) And like the slaves of yore, today's workers are grateful for the few crumbs they are thrown, because they are all too aware that many have even less.

The threat of job loss is a form of slavery through economic intimidation, because you are wholly subject to the whims of another human being. Being economically dependent on another is a form of slavery, because your personal autonomy has been effectively stripped from you. "Work or starve" is not a meaningful choice.

Now I'm not going all Che Guevara on you, I'm simply trying to disabuse you of the notion that slavery doesn't exist in the United States of America today. 

And it was to this kind of slavery which Rav Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook was referring when he said that slavery is part of the human condition. 

Whether we like it or not, slavery exists, and since it exists, the Torah deals with it, insisting that it be humane, limited, regulated; that the slave be given rights under the law; that his servitude is a form of indenture for which he is entitled to compensation. The Torah's conception of limited slavery was a method of economic rehabilitation through which the servant could learn a trade at the side of his master, and upon his emancipation in six years (or less), be self-supporting. 

And how could a Jew become a slave to another Jew anyway? In only one of two ways: either, due to his desperate circumstances, by offering himself into servitude in exchange for room and board, or else a thief who cannot make restitution is sold to his victim to repay his debt through labor. A thief, who stole out of dire necessity. Do you see any passion here? The conflict behind the law? 

The verse later states, "And when you lend money to My people, the poor in your midst, don't constantly dun them for payment..." (Shmot/Exodus 22:24) Rashi states that "Gcd's people" are defined by the next phrase: the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the disadvantaged. "Gcd is close to the brokenhearted, and those who have had their spirits crushed, He saves." (Psalms 34) "The outcry of the poor You surely hear; the moans of the indigent You pay close attention to, and save them."

The grand, unifying theme throughout all the 53 laws laid down in our Parasha is how we, as individuals, must treat the poor. We dare not avert our eyes to their plight, or leave it to others to deal with it. Not to be treated as pitiable charity cases, but whenever possible, helping them grow out of slavery and into more productive, more enriching, more ennobling work.

That is why the Parasha opens with a case deliberately designed to shock us out of our complacency: a person so desperate, he is willing to ransom his very liberty for a mere crust of bread. 

It's easy to profess love of Gcd, to declare from the mountaintops your belief in the Ten Commandments which immediately precede our verses. But if you truly wish to "Seek out Gcd where He is to be found," Parashat Mishpatim gives you a pretty strong hint where to look. 

Shabbat Shalom.



Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Horse Named Shabbat - Reflections on Parashat Yitro 5775

(To view earlier blog posts on this parasha, click HERE and HERE.)

The story is told about a very special horse named Wildfire (my apologies in advance to Michael Martin Murphey). Wildfire had won the Triple Crown, and almost every other race in which he had ever competed. Wildfire was in the prime of his career, and the talk of the sports world; the kind of horse with a storied history that only comes around once a century. Understandably, Wildfire was worth untold millions of dollars.

But Wildfire loved to run and needed lots of space. So Wildfire's owner built a huge enclosure just for him, a broad, treeless field, 39 miles around the perimeter. And every day, that rancher would spend hours inspecting that perimeter, never taking his careful eye off that fence. He would be out there at first light, rain or shine, snow or blistering sun, scrutinizing fence posts, cross bars, wires, barbs, fasteners - he would stop and repair even the smallest breach right there on the spot with an expertise born of long experience. After all, even one small break and Wildfire, the culmination of his life's work, his multi-million dollar investment, could be gone forever. 

The neighbor boy, a clever ten year old, had been watching this strange fence ritual for many months with growing curiosity. On day, that bright young feller and the rancher happened past each other on the path. The boy said, "Mister, you must sure love that fence."

The rancher thought about that for a second and burst out laughing.

This week's parasha describes in vivid detail the Ten Commandments, or more accurately rendered from the Hebrew, the Ten Utterances. For these were the Ten Categories of Torah Law, spoken by Gcd Himself to the Jewish People, as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai in the presence of Almighty Gcd.

Number Four is about Shabbat, the Sabbath Day:
Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it distinct/separate/holy. For six days you should work and engage in all manner of creative endeavor; but the Seventh Day is Sabbath to the Lcrd Your Gcd: do not do any creative work - you, or your son or daughter, your manservant or maidservant, your animals or even the resident alien who dwells in your gates. For in six days did Gcd create the heavens, the earth, the seas and all that dwell therein; and He Himself rested on the Seventh Day; therefore, Gcd blessed the Seventh Day and made it holy. (Shemot/Exodus 20:8 - 11)
Shabbat is a big deal in Judaism. Shabbat is our frame of reference in all things: either we are savoring the lingering essence of the Shabbat that just was, or we are anticipating the Shabbat that approaches. It is our guiding light; the brightest star in the Jewish constellation.

But the specifics of how to do Shabbat right, with all the attendant "do's" and "don'ts" in Gcd's Book, can be quite detailed, and take up a significant hunk in Jewish Lawbooks. And understandably, many people not schooled in Shabbat observance from an early age are intimidated and overwhelmed by its minutiae. Like the little boy, people tend to focus on the fence and lose sight of what it protects.

So what is inside the fence exactly? What is this horse called Shabbat? Is it merely a day off from the J-O-B? A day of leisure? recreation?

Although I have never seen it framed in quite this way, in my view Shabbat has five key components:

1. Communion with Gcd: Six days a week, we assemble for daily prayers for a few minutes before and after work. However, we are mere mortals, and the reality is that many of us are often only half awake, rushed, harried, distracted.  As we mumble the proscribed prayers, we worry about catching the 7:37 or traffic or the big meeting or the shopping list or the car repair.

Comes the Shabbat! and all the "have-tos" are put on ice. We can focus on our prayers without the distractions of the work week. Indeed, we add extra psalms to our Shabbat devotions because we have the luxury of time to revel in the poetry and timelessness of the liturgy.

2. Torah Study: Six days a week, we struggle to spend sufficient time drinking from the vivifying waters of Torah. Comes the Shabbat! and we have the luxury to spend extra time learning Torah in depth, studying with our kids, sharing our insights with our families, and in turn, turning them on to the beauty of Torah study.

3. Family: Six days a week, the brushfires of our lives deny us the time with those most precious to us. Comes the Shabbat! and we gather about the sparkling table dressed in our finest clothes, enjoy long, lovely meals together, singing songs, telling stories - but mostly, enjoying each other's company; saying, in effect, that there's no place in the world I'd rather be than spending time with you. 

4. Physical rest: Shabbat is indeed a day of rest. Six days a week we burn the candle at both ends, but comes the Shabbat! and we can sleep in a little, or grab a little afternoon kip as one of the delicious joys of the day.

5. Introspection: Shabbat provides a regular opportunity to reflect on the week that was, on the week that lies before us, and the general path of our lives. Shabbat encourages us to take stock, to make sure that are lives are headed in a meaningful direction, and provides the context for the course corrections we may need in coming week.

These five elements of Shabbat can't be achieved at the movies or on the golf course or playing video games. And I suggest that true Shabbat observance is not in the punctilious performance of the minutiae; the particulars must of course be observed, but with a constant eye on what they are intended to protect. There's no way around it: without careful maintenance of the fence, the horse - that ethereal, delicate, precious Spirit of Shabbat - is sure to escape. 

There is also little doubt that the devotion of the Jewish People to Shabbat observance has been one of the defining factors in our miraculous, 4,000 year old survival story. Jews can no more survive without Shabbat than a fish without water. And Shabbat observers will tell you that the sublime, restorative spiritual high of Shabbat cannot be shared or described, it can only be experienced. 

Yet today, as in many generations past, well-meaning but misguided thinkers have attempted to construct a fence-less Shabbat, more suitable, they argue, to modernity. Predictably, all they have accomplished is the destruction of the greatest Jewish diaspora since the Golden Age of Spain. For the vast majority of American Jews, Shabbat is but a dim memory.

The only way to be a part of the Jewish future is to 'Remember the Shabbat and keep it holy.'

So if you're not a regular Shabbat observer, what to do? where to start? First of all, take a deep breath, don't be overwhelmed, don't be intimidated by supposed "experts", those who are three pages ahead of you in some method book. 

Begin by making the commitment to keep Shabbat, and start integrating Shabbat into your life gradually, in doable doses. It takes a little time, but once you get the hang of it, it's not that hard; any ten year old with twenty years of experience can do it.

Here are a few suggestions:

- Go to Shabbat.com and register to be hosted for a Shabbat meal;
- Call your local rabbi and arrange for an invite or ask for a reading list;
- Drop in to shul on a Shabbat morning;
- Start lighting Shabbat candles on Friday before sunset;
- Contact me directly and I will help get you started on the path to Shabbat observance.

Shabbat Shalom - may you truly experience the transcendent peace and tranquility of the Holy Sabbath Day.
Yehoshua

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Super Bowl Challenge - Reflections on Parashat BeShalach 5775

(To read an earlier blog post on this parasha, click here.)

Unless you live under a rock, you know that this weekend is Super Bowl Sunday - the culmination of a football season that began last August; the match up of the two best teams in football, both vying for the rarefied title of champion.

Americans can't get enough of pro football, and they spend insane amounts of time and money on this pastime. Devotees spend twenty hours a week or more watching games during the regular season, and hours more analyzing the games, studying the stats, and preparing for the next Sunday. 

This obsession makes the NFL a lot a money - annual revenues of $10 billion, while the 32 NFL franchise teams themselves are worth a cumulative $45 billion. Beer-bellied Joes who will never throw a real football in competition fuel the 
$70 billion fantasy football industry.

Then consider a few stats about the Super Bowl itself:

- An estimated 120 million people will watch the game on Sunday - 40% of the entire country.
- A stadium seat costs upwards of $4,000; tickets on the 50 yard line, a cool $10,000.
- The airtime cost of a 30-second commercial is $4.5 million. 
- More food and alcohol are consumed in the United States on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year save Thanksgiving.

The numbers are so large that it is hard to wrap your brain around the enormity and impact of football in American life.

But what on earth does the Super Bowl have to do with the parting of the Reed Sea? 

Shemot/Exodus 14:2: "Speak to the Children of Israel and have them turn back and encamp before Pi-HaChirot, between Migdol and the Sea, opposite Baal-Zephon."

For a week after leaving Egypt, the Pillar of Cloud/Fire led the Jewish People on a seemingly random perambulation through the northeastern approaches to Egypt. Now they were instructed to encamp on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, opposite Baal Zephon. 

Earlier, Gcd had promised to render judgment against the deities of Egypt, that is, to expose them all for the frauds that they were. And during the Ten Plagues, He had systematically done so, except for one: Baal Zephon, the last Egyptian god standing...

...and perhaps their most important deity. And so it was arranged that the ultimate smackdown between Gcd and Pharaoh, Israel and Egypt would take place at the foot of the shrine to Baal Zephon. The Egyptians took heart: if all the other Egyptian deities had failed them, surely Baal Zephon would rescue them in their hour of need!

What did this supremely important deity represent to the Egyptians?

Our sages teach us that Baal Zephon was the god of money. This shrine was placed on the northern trade routes into Egypt; all caravans entering Egypt had to pay heavy tribute to this god. (Can you see where I'm going with this?)

For all the talk about the game itself, the NFL is big business. Stripped of all the pageantry and accoutrements, it's all about the money. 

Now there's nothing wrong with making money. But when the profit motive is unalloyed with social and ethical considerations; when the relentless quest for short-term gain blinds the entrepreneur to long-term consequences, strategy and planning, then slash-and-burn capitalism can become idol worship, Baal Zephon.

Usually, the higher interests of ethical behavior can run together with the interests of profit. But occasionally those interests diverge, and when they do, there are decisions to be made. Each individual has to evaluate their priorities for themselves. When your boss asks you to bend the rules, to maybe cheat or steal a little to close the big sale, what will you do? Character is destiny, and lives are established or shattered on decisions such as these.

The NFL's reaction to the recent spate of player indiscretions, cheating allegations and other misbehavior clearly establishes that, so far as the NFL is concerned, that which bolsters the bottom line is to be condoned, and that which damages it is to be condemned. 

Baal Zephon. The almighty dollar is king.

Now I'm not being prudish here; I enjoy football and will probably watch the game myself. But the Super Bowl presents an opportunity to make a statement about your priorities. I wonder if the people who can find twenty hours a week for the games spend an equal amount of time studying Torah? Communing with Gcd through prayer? Doing kindnesses for their fellow man? Where do these imperatives rank in comparison to football? Where you spend your time is the truest indicator of what is really important in your life.

Here is the Super Bowl Challenge: for every hour you spend watching football, spend ten minutes studying Torah. It doesn't matter which book: pick any subject that intrigues you. The key thing is to make a statement about priorities: that however much fun football is, there are other things that are more important, more enduring, more meaningful.

Hit me up if you accept the challenge, and let me know how you do. 

I'm rooting for you.

Shabbat Shalom.
Yehoshua

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Let's Hear It for The Girls - Reflections on Parashat Shemot 5775

If Bereishit/Genesis, the first book of the Torah, is the story of the Patriarchs, then we must say that Shemot/Exodus is, by and large, the story of Jewish women.

In the very first narrative of the book, we find the Pharaoh bribing the Jewish midwives to accidentally (on purpose) kill the newborn Jewish boys, and let the newborn Jewish girls live. These brave Jewish women defy the Pharaoh, and save the Jewish babies alive.

It is a woman who puts her baby - the future redeemer of Israel - in a waterproof basket to float down the Nile; and it is a young girl who risks her life to keep an eye on that basket from the bulrushes.

Who fishes the baby out of the water and gives him a chance at life? A woman.

Who saves Moses' life by performing an emergency circumcision of their son? A woman.

We are taught that the more the Egyptians tortured and enslaved the Jews, more they increased and multiplied. How so? Because of the self-sacrifice of the Jewish women, who dolled themselves up and shlepped out to fields to consort with their broken, exhausted husbands, reduced as they were to sleeping in the killing fields.

It was the Jewish women who, confident of a great salvation, stood ready at the Reed Sea with musical instruments in hand, while their men were bickering among themselves, bellyaching about surrender.

It was the Jewish women who refused to participate in the death folly of the Golden Calf. It was Jewish women who rejected the report of the cowardly spies, and later on, it was Jewish women who marched right up to Moses and his Council of Sages and made an eloquent plea for the preservation of their family's inheritance in the Land of Israel.

Moses, the Ten Plagues, the Parting of the Red Sea - these are almost side shows compared to the accomplishments of these incredible Jewish women. At every turn of Jewish history, women save the day.

So we must ask: why isn't Shemot called "Jewish Women"? And don't you find it curious that the names of these great women aren't revealed until much later? (PS: The names of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, are a feint, mere noms de guerre.)

Answer: because modesty is the defining characteristic of Jewish Femininity. Jewish women have always eschewed the spotlight, preferring to make their influence felt behind the scenes.

Consider the relationship between  power and influence. Untamed power is raw, capricious, dangerous - like lightning. However, power, if refined, directed, controlled, can be a tremendous force for good - like electricity. 

It is but a small leap to conclude that influence is ultimately more powerful than power itself. Who is more powerful: the king or the kingmaker?

The Author of Life has engineered us such that, in the main, men possess power, and women have influence - meaning the vision, the moral clarity and the ability to direct that power for the Higher Good. 

Jewish history has demonstrated over and over again that when Jewish men ignore the guidance of their wives, they get themselves into serious hot water. "And Gcd said to Abraham: pay heed to whatever your wife Sarah tells you." She had clarity of vision where his perspective was clouded. And Jewish wives have never let us down since.

Like the Yin and the Yang, when men and women work symbiotically, great things can be accomplished in the world, because women's strengths complement men's weaknesses and vice versa. We neither of us can do it on our own.

Judaism is all about balance, about finding the middle path, about holding the center. Tragically, there are strong centrifugal forces pulling Judaism towards the extremes. 

On the right, we are witnessing the islamization of Judaism, with the voice, and indeed, the presence of women, banished from public life. Kol Isha K'Ervah has been rigidly construed to mean that women have no role in Jewish life outside the home: witness the segregated buses, the segregated wedding feasts, the segregated kiddushes, the suffocating neo-Puritanical dress codes of which our grandparents never knew. 

On the left, we have seen the christianization of Judaism, wherein Judaism resembles Unitarianism, only with Jewish stars instead of a crosses; a mitzvah-less, Gcd-less, feel good Judaism replete with synagogues arranged like churches, women clergy, women cantors, and women serving as lay leaders. Mazal tov! Jewish feminists have proven what we have known anyway for four millenia: that women and men are equally capable. But in arrogating men's power to themselves, they have abdicated their critical role to influence, to guide, to teach, to nurture. And Judaism is immeasurably poorer for it.

Both approaches are fatal. We must look to the Yocheveds, the Miriams, the Zipporahs and the Batyas for guidance. No doubt the greatest accomplishments of Jewish women have yet to be made. And no doubt that they will most assuredly be made by holding the Jewish center; by working together with their husbands, supporting one another, guiding one another, helping one another, to perfect the world for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Daddy's Dyin', Whose Got the Will? - Reflections 0n Parashat VaYechi 5775

(To see an earlier blog post on this parasha, please click here.)

Genesis 49: The entire family gathered around the death bed, straining to hear the last wheezy whisperings of the Old Man. "Gather around and pay heed, my children, as I shall tell of what will be in the end." They crushed in closer, eager to hear the secrets of a history yet to be written.

And then...nothing. No mystical healing secrets. No Nostradamus-like quatrains, no delphic riddles. Bubkis. Instead, Father Jacob gets his Aretha Franklin on and proceeds to tell his sons all about themselves. He draws character portraits of each of his twelve sons, and pretty much nails it, right between the eyeballs. Some of those characterizations are quite unflattering, insulting even. For example:

Reuben: my big disappointment.
Shimon & Levi: their stock-in-trade is violence.

I guess we have to cut 147 year-olds a lot of slack; they've earned the right to call it as they see it.

And then, as icing on the cake, the Torah sums up the event by saying, "thus did Jacob bless his sons, each according to his blessing did he bless them." What kind of blessing is a withering critique your own kids?

There is a dispute among the commentators on this very point. One opinion says that after he finished critiquing them, he did, in fact, bless them. But the other opinion says that the smackdown itself was some sort of "blessing." How can an insult be a blessing?

There are insults and there are insults. We grew up in a household with a very angry stepfather, where nothing was right, nothing was good enough. Any achievement was criticized because it could have been better; every accomplishment was marred by some flaw, and he could be relied upon to find the flaw in every good thing. He was such an expert in misery that he could find trouble where none existed. He was never happy unless he made everyone around him as miserable, bitter and frustrated as he was.

But unlike our stepdad, a critique can also be a kind of blessing. If the intent of the critic is to provide insight, to help improve, instruct and inform the object criticized, then that critique is constructive, not destructive. 

Rare is the person that can objectively evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses. We all tend to focus on our strengths and gloss over our weaknesses. It's just human nature. The way in which we see ourselves is often not at all the way others see us. To put it another way, everybody thinks their own BO smells okay. (Thank you George Carlin.)

We need an objective eye, someone we can trust who has our best interest at heart, yes, to highlight our strengths, but also show us the areas in our life where we need work, maybe a lot of work. A trusted friend. A parent. A grandparent. A spouse. A rabbi/life coach.

Jacob was, in fact, revealing the secrets of the future to his children. He was saying, "Look: if you want to succeed on your path, Reuben, here are the challenges you must overcome. Shimon & Levi, if you want to make it to the fourth quarter of History, you guys are going to have to get a handle on your anger and tendencies to violence." And so on.

The blessing Jacob conferred on his children was providing them the tools they would need to fix themselves and their progeny, in order that the Jewish People should survive.

We are all works in progress. No one is perfect, no one is infallible, no one is sinless. The key point is to surround ourselves, not with sycophants, but with people in whose counsel we trust, to spur us on, to challenge us, to expect the best from us; who continually help raise the bar in our spiritual, mental and intellectual growth.

A few verses later, when Jacob dies, he doesn't actually die. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, where the Torah says, "he expired and died, and was gathered up unto his ancestors," by Jacob the verse says, "and he expired - and was gathered up unto his ancestors."

Jacob's (Israel's) sons took his counsel to heart; they rectified the character flaws that were impeding their spiritual development. The proof is that they were able to survive the 210 years of Egyptian slavery and oppression. 

And so Israel lived on through his children, through their deeds. And he continues to live on through us today, the Children of Israel, because we are faithful to the Jewish world view and value system. 

Israel lives, Am Yisrael Chai.

May we be humble enough to accept genuine constructive criticism; to break out of our comfort zones, and to achieve greatness - for ourselves, for our communities, for the entire House of Israel, and by extension, for the entire world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Better Angels of Our Nature - Reflections on Parashat VaYishlach 5775

Angels are to Jacob what fast food joints are to I-95. Whenever the Torah paints a portrait of Jacob, angels are photobombing in the background. It's like he can't get away from those things.

He leaves home and has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder that stretches to heaven. Later, he follows his path and encounters angels of Gcd, and then calls the place Machanaim, the double encampment of angels. 

He sends angels to appease his hot-headed brother Esav. Then he wrestles with an angel, Esav's angel/advocate, who, according some opinions, was none other than Sama-el, the Angel of Death himself.

And at the end of his life, he blesses his grandsons Menashe & Ephraim by invoking the protections of the angel that had rescued him at every crisis in his incredibly crisis-ridden life.

So what's the deal with the angels, and why do they figure so prominently in Jacob's life? 

The answer depends on one's understanding of what angels are and what their function is in the unseen world which exists beyond our senses.

The Jewish view on angels is derived from the Hebrew word malach, which means both emissary and angel. Basically, angels are Gcd's messengers. Each one is created for a specific task, and ceases to exist when that task is completed. Some angels have ongoing missions and thus exist for eons; other exist for a fleeting moment. The Rambam, based on a careful examination of angelic verses throughout the Torah, organized the types of angels into a ten-level hierarchy. They are, to use a cytology analogy, the messenger RNA in the great cytoplasm of the universe.

There is, though, another view of angels in the Torah. "Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: A person who fulfills one mitzvah (commandment) acquires for himself a single defending angel. A person who commits one transgression acquires a single accusing angel." (Avot 4:13)

What a beautiful idea! Normally, we think of angels flitting hither and thither in Gcd's created universe rushing about to do His will. But when we mortals do Gcd's will by performing His mitzvot, we ourselves create an angel; an advocate that will accompany us through life and stand up for us on that inevitable day when we must give a full accounting for our deeds: the good, the bad and the ugly. 

We have the power to create angels. Our good deeds become angels that surround us, protect us, nurture us. 

Prior to his encounter with Esav, Jacob prays to Gcd: "I am 'smallified' by all the kindness and truth with which you have dealt me..." (Genesis 32:11) The simple sense of 'smallified' (Heb.: katonti) in the verse is 'humbled', but Rashi suggests otherwise: Jacob was afraid that, measured against all of the abundant kindnesses that Gcd had showered on Jacob, his good deeds would seem paltry by comparison, and Gcd might decide to give him over to the hand of the enemy. 

Here we see expression given to the idea that our good deeds are our advocates. Jacob is surrounded by his angels, his good deeds, that he had accumulated throughout his life. In his humility, he was worried that he had not accomplished enough good; but in the end, he had nothing to fear.

We are but the sum of our deeds, our mitzvot. Gcd doesn't care how much money we pile up, what kind of car we drive, what timepiece dangles from our wrists. Ultimately, our actions will speak more eloquently for us than any image consultant, epitaph or autobiography.

The newspapers are littered with stories of people, once thought to be great, once looked up to and admired as leaders, being dragged away in handcuffs, indicted by their actions. I won't repeat the litany of names or the various lesser self-aggrandizing rasputins and faith-healers who, wrapped in tallitot (prayer shawls) and righteous attitudes, rape, defame, assault and embezzle. Some have already been exposed; it's just a matter of time for the others.

Let us all join together to flood the world with angels. Take the mitzvot seriously! Unplug your devices on Shabbat. Give a homeless person an Andrew Jackson. Call your mother. Put on tefillin. Pick a mitzvah - any mitzvah - and create an angel.

Shabbat Shalom.