Friday, February 20, 2015

The Education of a Son

This week’s Torah portion is Vayetze, which means, and he went. Jacob, who had tricked his Father and stolen Esau’s blessing is travelling to Haran, sent away by his parents to avoid Esau’s rage and to find a wife with his Uncle Laban. He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. God promises to be with him and return him to the land of Canaan, informing him that it will be given it to him and his descendants. He arrives at Haran, sees Rachel, and fall in love with her immediately. He is welcomed with open arms by her Father, Laban, who says to him, “Nevertheless, you are my bone and flesh.” (Gen. 29:14)

It seems like a puzzling statement, as if Laban is not happy to see him, until we consider the last visit of Jacob’s family to Haran. When Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac, he sent camels, servants, gold jewelry, and presents for Laban’s family and the new bride. Jacob arrives with only his own two feet; and Laban puts him right to work. Jacob asks to marry Rachel and agrees to work for seven years as the bride price, which was customary in those days. This turn of events is very interesting if we consider Jacob’s Father Isaac’s words to him in the previous portion.

Isaac has just been tricked by Jacob and his own wife, Rebecca, into giving the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob, when it was intended for Isaac. Isaac seems to forgive Jacob, sending him off with a blessing, instructing him to go to Laban and find a wife there. Isaac says, “May El Shaddai bless you, make you fruitful, and make you numerous, and may you be a congregation of peoples. May God grant you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, that you may possess the land of your sojourns which God gave to Abraham. (Gen. 28:3-4) Apparently, Isaac has forgiven Jacob, but the old man has yet some tricks up his sleeve.

He seemingly goes with the flow, accepting what has been done to him with grace and no bitterness, not bearing a grudge and not taking revenge, which is a teaching for us. Allowing and accepting what is happening is great wisdom. And in addition, Isaac possesses even a deeper wisdom, sending Jacob off to learn the hard lessons of real life, similarly to what God did for Cain, after Cain killed Abel; sending him off to learn and grow. Isaac, who had his very difficult and life changing experience when Abraham nearly sacrificed him, in which he came face to face with God’s Presence, is preparing his son without anger, hatred, or resentment added. And this is where another teaching lies. We are all in Life University, God’s sacred University, undergoing trials and triumphs to teach us and to elevate us. We have some elective courses in this University, but also, some difficult courses are required. Our task is to allow and accept what happens, doing our best to find a way to learn and elevate ourselves as we study, as we live life.

Many people underestimate Isaac. Here, he knows just what Jacob needs in life. He sees Jacob for who he is: someone who is not above lying and scheming, yet he loves him and wants the very best for him. Acceptance plus love are two powerful allies. The first makes our lives so much less stressful. It is a product of faith and trust. The second, love, enriches us and all life immeasurably. May these allies: acceptance and love, guide us, that we, like Isaac, may attain what Moses called, a heart of wisdom.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Scarcity and Blessings

This week’s Torah portion is Toldot, which means generations. It tells of the birth of the twins, Esau and Jacob to their parents, Rebecca and Isaac. Jacob persuades Esau to sell him his birthright, the right of inheritance of the firstborn. There is also a section about Isaac’s servants re-digging the wells of his father, Abraham, and of making peace with the local chieftain; and then there is the well-known story of how Rebecca and Jacob trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing of the firstborn, after which Jacob has to leave home to escape his brother’s anger.

It is interesting that there is so much conflict in this portion, and that it seems to revolve around food; and interesting coincidence that we read this portion before Thanksgiving. To obtain food when he is hungry and exhausted, Esau sells his birthright of the firstborn. Later, Isaac asks Esau to make him a meal of the game he will catch, after which Isaac will give Esau a blessing. Love and food seem to get all mixed up in this portion. In some families, like Jacob and Esau’s family, there is seemingly not enough love to go around. Esau’s heart rending cry, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?...Is there only one blessing? Bless me too, Father!” (Gen. 27:36, 38) touches us deeply.

The orientation of scarcity in life is something that, spiritually speaking, is really not true. The more we love, the more we mint the spiritual currency of the world, and the more love there is. This is true for most physical things as well. Even money flows according to our deeds and to Divine law. A scarcity of love, of blessing in Isaac & Rebecca’s family, comes because of favoritism, judging and controlling, which we also engage in concerning family members. The family is where we are known at our best and at our worst, and where we think we know each other. But are we really good judges of each other; and are we here to judge?

Our task on earth is really not to judge or control, but to accept and help each other. This is the essence of what a family is all about. When we can accept each other with all our faults and strengths, and actually love each other, scarcity disappears. Lovers happily share even a small bed. And the Torah teaches us in the book of Numbers, at the end of Chukat, that when we cooperate, there is more for everyone.

In the Middle East, the center of religion, sadly, none of the leaders seems to have read this in the Holy Books. At the end of this portion, both Jacob and Esau receive a blessing. The Chassidic master, the Vorker Rebbe taught, “No matter what one’s station, one can obtain a blessing.” (Soul of the Torah, P. 43) At this holiday time, may we accept, help, and not judge each other. May we express our love and thereby, receive many, many blessings.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Are Neanderthals in the Torah?

Re: NY Times Article:
Skull Fossil Offers New Clues On Human Journey From Africa 1/29/15

As a former biologist and current rabbi, I had been teaching my bar and bat mitzvah students the possibility of interbreeding among humans and Neanderthals for a number of years, based on Genesis: 6: 1-4, when the research confirming the percentage of Neanderthal DNA in human populations became public a few years ago. This latest find, in addition to prior articles, shows that the early sections of Genesis contain fascinating clues about scientific truths, if we are curious and know how to interpret them. My students were amazed that what I had been teaching them as a possibility was actually true.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Encountering God in the Everyday

This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, which means the life of Sarah. Sarah has died at 127 years of age; and Abraham purchases a plot of land for her burial, large enough to be a burial estate for his family. It is a deed of sale embedded in the Torah. He then prepares to send his servant, Eliezer, to his family in Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac.

The servant asks if Isaac may come along on the journey, but Abraham will not permit it. Abraham says that God of Heaven and Earth will send an angel to make his errand successful. As he approaches his destination, the servant prays, “God, God of my master Abraham, may you so arrange it for me this day that you do kindness and Truth with my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water and the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water. Let it be that the maiden to whom I shall say, Tip over your jug so I may drink and who replies drink and I will even water your camels, her will you have designated for your servant, for Isaac, and may I know through her that you have done kindness with my master. (Gen 24:13-14)”

The Torah reports that he had not yet finished his prayer, when Rebecca came out and offered to give him water, and to water the camels too. The text says, “The man was astonished at her. (24:21)” Eliezer finds out that she is Abraham’s relative and when he asks about lodging, she extends her family’s hospitality to him. Why should he be astonished? Perhaps it is because of the speed with which these events occurred. Also, perhaps it is because we are not used to having our prayers answered. The Talmud speaks about one reason the prayer was answered: because Eliezer was not praying on his own behalf.

There are several instances of this in the Torah. We read, “And Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maidservants” (Gen. 20:17), and immediately after it says: “And God remembered Sarah as God had said,” [i.e.] The Talmud remarks: “as Abraham had [prayed and] said regarding Abimelech.”(Baba Kama 92a); another instance is the prayer of Moses about Miriam, when he cries out to God, “Please God heal her now!” (Num. 12:13), and she was healed at that moment. For Eliezer, when his prayer was immediately answered, it must have been a kind of spontaneous conversion. It’s not often that we have a shattering, peak spiritual experience in our everyday lives; an experience which is such a meaningful coincidence that it convinces us that the Divine Presence reached across the divide which separates Heaven and Earth, into our very lives. We don’t expect to encounter God in the everyday. Perhaps this is what Abraham meant by, “God of Heaven and God of Earth” (Gen. 24:3): that the Divine Presence encounters us at unexpected moments.

We don’t often believe our own experiences. If we did, we would not have had to wander 40 years in the wilderness after having seen the 10 Plagues, the parting of the sea, the giving of the 10 Commandments, the manna, and the pillar of cloud leading us each day. We would have trusted in God’s care and protection. We often attribute God in the mundane to mere coincidence. When the Torah says that Eliezer prayed that God do kindness and truth with his master, this is to say that when things go our way, we experience kindness. When we recognize Divine help, this is truth. It’s real. Another person may not recognize it from the outside, but we know it inwardly.

Does God answer prayer? Sometimes, and not always in the form we have asked for. Does God hear prayer? I’m convinced that the answer is yes, always. We should remember that is up to us to make the contact, through prayer, intentionally keeping the awareness of the Divine Essence in our consciousness, and through developing our relationship to the Divine. Out of our closeness can come the reaching from the Divine realm into the mundane, into our human affairs. As King David witnessed and wrote, God is there to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalm 145:18). May our prayers, our calling out to God, allow us to experience the reaching out from shamayim, from the heavenly realm, into our lives for goodness and for blessing.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Mystery of God's Support

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, or, go for yourself, in which Abraham, whose name is still Abram, receives the call from God to leave his family and go forth from his native land to a land God promises to show him. He is told he will be greatly blessed with land, fame, and descendants, and that God will bless his friends and curse his enemies. This portion shows, in a series of incidents, how God teaches Abraham. There is a midrash that the sages like to quote, “Abraham knew the Torah before it was given.” I’ve seen this in more than 3 sources. I think Abraham must have been a very good and moral person to begin with; however we see Abraham being educated slowly, as well, in this portion.

First there is a famine. Abraham asks Sarah to say she is his sister, so that he will not be killed. As the custom was to seize the beautiful wife and kill the husband, she agrees, but Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s harem, a terrible turn of events. If Abraham had trusted that God would curse his enemies and protect him, would he have needed to lie? Would he have put Sarah in danger? We don’t’ know. God sends an illness to Pharaoh’s household so that no one feels well enough to have sexual relations, and Abraham leaves with Sarah unscathed and great wealth, the payment in a sense, given to Abraham by Pharaoh when he seized Sarah. God has taught Abraham that God will keep the promises of blessing and protection.

Then comes another test: there is a war of 4 chieftains fighting 5 chieftains. Lot, Abraham’s nephew is captured; so Abraham enters the war to get him back. Abraham is successful, and after the war is over, the victorious kings assemble to divide the spoils of war. What happens is strange; and we know that the sages taught that there are no coincidences. God arranges for a man named Malchizedek, whose name means righteous king, to be present. Malchizedek is described as a priest of God the most high,” who lives in Jerusalem. As they are about to divide the spoils, Malchizedek brings out bread and wine, which has become our Jewish custom, perhaps an ancient pagan custom, but also perhaps something Abraham picked up from this non-Jewish priest. He then blesses Abraham.

It is strange because we are not told that Malchizedek blessed the other chieftains. He is fixated on Abraham; and then he says, Blessed is Abraham of God the Most High, the owner of heaven and earth, and blessed is God the Most High, who has delivered you foes into your hand. (Gen. 14:18).” It is almost as if Malchizedek is a plant, put there by God just for Abraham. What is Malchizedek teaching Abraham here? He reminds Abraham by stressing that God owns everything, that all the wealth belongs to God: in other words, the spoils of war don’t really belong to you or to the others. Malchizedek then reminds Abraham that God has given them the victory, not their own strength or military prowess. The Sages in Pirkei Avot famously said, “Who is wise, the one who learns from every person.”

The support that Malchizedek gives Abraham is just what Abraham needs at this very moment, to be able to do the right thing. Abraham gives a 10 % donation to this priest, another monotheist, and then he gives up all the spoils, the wealth he might have taken, and by the customs of the time, that he was entitled to, as war at that time was a money making proposition; kind of like investing in junk bonds: you may win big or you may lose big. Abraham then explains that it will be God who makes him rich.

This portion shows us that God teaches us through tests, and also by making sure that we are supported when we have to make an important decision, so that we will do the right thing. Abraham repeats what Malchizedek said, that God owns everything, and repeats the word for tithe, from the root, 10, esser, becoming fixated on the teaching that our money and also our time and our life’s energy really belong to God. If Malchizedek had not been there and said what he said, might Abraham have been tempted to take some of the wealth? Would he have invoked God’s name and Presence at that time? We don’t know.

What is clear is that God supported Abraham with Malchizedek’s presence and words, helping him to become an even greater blessing. May we realize that we are being tested and also supported in our lives and tests; that our time and energy and also our money really belong to God, and may we eagerly embrace God’s support and precious teachings, so that, like Abraham, we will be a very great blessing.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Soul-Rest of Noah

This week’s Torah portion is Noach, the second portion in B’reisheet, the well-known story of the Flood, the animals, and the ark. We are told that Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” Rashi famously said, “The generations of the righteous are mitzvot and good deeds.” Most interpretations of this portion concern Noah’s goodness. In addition to considering Noah’s righteousness, we can also look at this portion as an allegory.

Noah means rest. The Zohar, our book of spirituality from the Middle Ages says, this refers to the soul, the inner spiritual center of a person. When we, through our particular spiritual path, whether it be the path of deeds of loving kindness, meditation, Yoga, charity, study, any other spiritual pathway, or a combination of some of these, find that rest, that place of inner composure and peace, the Torah says, interesting things begin to happen.

Noah had 3 sons: Shem, Ham, and Yafet. Shem literally means Name. Ham means warmth, and Yafet means beauty. When we strive, ethically, morally, and spiritually for what is true and good, we may be surprised that we have renown or fame, or even a very good name. We generate and exhibit warmth, the capacity to touch others; and we have beauty, inner beauty, that others sense. The sum of these three, a good name, warmth, and beauty, is that we become magnetic: others will feel the shift in our energy. People will be drawn to us; not really to us, actually, but to the God nature that we express. It isn’t really about us, it’s about something much larger: Divinity and goodness, being expressed through us.

To extend the allegory: Noah built the ark. He did the work God asked of him, and then the animals came to him. This can teach us that when we do our own inner work, that everything will come to us – that blessings and also Divine Protection, will come to us, as it says, “and you shall enter the ark,” (Gen. 6:18) in other words, enter protection and “come into my protection because you are righteous.” (Gen.7:1). Later when the flood, the difficulties, have abated, Noah sends out the raven and then the dove, but they return, not finding a resting place. Yet finally, the dove brings back an olive leaf, and all the animals leave the ark.

This might be teaching us to persist in our spiritual practices: not to be too impatient with the energies we expend, and not to be discouraged in our spiritual practices, but to wait, knowing that our efforts will bear fruit. Rest, calmness, serenity, goodness, generosity, working on ourselves, as well as on behalf of others is powerful, much more powerful, than we know. May we seek that rest, that inner calmness and elevation of spirit that brought such blessing to Noah and was beloved by God.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

If There Were No Chanukah...

This year, Christmas comes just as Chanukah ends, which is just as it should be, for you see, if there were no Chanukah, there would be no Christmas. Why is that so? Toward the end of the Greek Empire, the Greeks were feeling tremendous pressure from the new power in the world, the Roman Empire, which was threatening to engulf them. We are familiar with the Nazis trying to exterminate all the Jews and so many others, Catholics among them, during the Second World War. In the 2nd Century BCE, a similar thing was happening, only the Greeks were not attempting to kill the Jewish people, although many were murdered; they were trying to destroy the Jewish religion.

The Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV’s idea was to resist Rome by making his Syrian Greek Empire thoroughly Greek. Only Greek Gods could be worshipped, only Greek culture could exist. The Jewish religion must be wiped out. A band of Jewish rebels resisted swearing allegiance to the Greek Gods and to the worship of Antiochus IV himself as a God. Jews were forced to eat pork, prohibited from observing the Sabbath and from circumcising their children. A band of them, later called the Maccabees, ran into the hills to train as a guerilla army. The Greeks sent larger and larger forces against them, even elephants, the “tanks” of the day. Then “a great miracle happened there,” (symbolized by the letters on the dreidel): the few defeated the many; the weak overcame the strong. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem, they cleaned and rededicated the great Temple. There is a legend that a small amount of holy oil burned for the eight days of the re-dedication celebration.

However, most importantly, Judaism survived, and Jesus, also known as Rabbi Joshua, could be born, about a hundred and fifty years later. There is a growing acknowledgement from Christians that Jesus really lived as a Jew and died as a Jew. And there is a small but growing acknowledgement from within Judaism that Jesus’ teachings are fully Jewish, and that he was an important prophet, in the tradition of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. So if the Jews had not defeated the Greeks, there would have been no Rabbi Joshua, to become Jesus, the great teacher to Christendom. As we celebrate this holiday season, may we appreciate our common roots, accept and love each other, and know that we are much more interdependent than we realize. Happy Chanukah! Merry Christmas!

Jill Hausman is the Rabbi and Cantor of the historic Actors’ Temple.
This article was published in Times Square Chronicles in December, 2014