D’var Torah: Rabbi Dan Liben (Vayishlach)

After twenty years, Jacob is coming home, and it is time to pay the piper.

So much has changed for him since he left home: Then, Jacob was young and on his own.  Now, he is middle aged, and the head of a large family. Then, he was penniless. Now, he is returning with flocks and servants.

But most important, he left as a fugitive, running from the mess that he had left behind: He had deceived his father Isaac, stolen the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau, and fled in fear of his life.  Now, he returns home to own-up to what he did, not knowing what awaits him or what price he will have to pay.  After twenty years, will Esau welcome him as a brother or seek vengeance long deferred?

Just as he did on the night that he left home, Jacob turns to God in prayer. The difference between those two prayers, however, is huge.  That first prayer had a conditional feel to it.  It is the immature prayer of a kid who thinks he can strike a bargain with God:  IF you, protect me, if you provide for my needs during this journey; if you bring me back home in safety, then You will be my God.

This older Jacob is both wiser and more humble:

And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord, Who said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your birthplace, and I will do good to you.’
I am humbled from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.
Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children.
And You said, ‘I will surely do good with you, and I will make your seed [as numerous] as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of multitude.'”

 

Notice the elements of this remarkable prayer: First, he establishes who he is: I am Jacob, the descendent of Abraham and Isaac, with whom you have a relationship.  Then he allows his heart to turn to God in gratitude, even at this perilous hour, for all that God has given him, and for which he had no right to expect. Only then, does Jacob pour out his heart and ask for help. Finally, Jacob concludes by reminding God once again of the covenantal promises that He had made.

There are many kinds of prayers. The Bible, however, does offer models for us, and none more beautiful than this.  May we bring to our prayers a grateful awareness of the ways in which we have been blessed, even during fearful times; an ability to ask for the help that we need, and a sense of intimacy and relationship with the Source of Life.  Such are the prayers that carry within them their own comfort, consolation and courage.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Rabbi Daniel Liben, Temple Israel of Natick, Schechter Alumni Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi William Hamilton (Vayetzei)

Living a wider life

Negative emotions have a ‘narrowing effect’ on our thinking.  Feelings of fear and anger put on blinders as they command our attention.  For example, police detectives are often frustrated by the testimony of those threatened with gun violence. Their description of the gun is precise.  But they can’t seem to recall the height of their assailant or whether he had a beard.

By contrast, positive emotions expand what we’re able to see.  Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson describes how they broaden and build our thoughts and deeds.  Joy makes us want to play.  Interest makes us more curious and creative.  And pride puts us in a broadening mood to want to take on new challenges.

It’s no surprise that these days people are seeing less.  Contempt and outrage tighten our lens.  We’re reluctant to want to see more because so much of that which we do see is deplorable.

This week’s portion of Torah specializes in surviving distrust.  It covers twenty years during which Jacob builds his family in the land of his manipulative, possessive father-in-law Laban.  Its setting is saturated with suspicion, resentment, and dejection.  And yet, Leah, Jacob’s first wife who longs for her husband’s love, is somehow able to pivot.  Having named her first three children (Reuben, Shimon, and Levi) to attract the love she yearned for but couldn’t receive, the birth of her fourth son signals a profound shift in her perspective.  Rather than remaining obsessed with what she lacked, she thanked God for what she had.  She named him Judah, proclaiming, “this time I will praise (Judah) God” (Gen. 29:35).  The Talmudic sages were very impressed.  “From the beginning of time, nobody ever praised God as profoundly as did Leah.”

Judaism itself is named after Judah.  Her pivot can be ours.  As frightful as our times are, our Jewish people has never had more resources at our disposal – our home and our freedom, our admirers and our allies.  Good people everywhere today thirst for more expansive, counter-voices.  They welcome fresh ideas that widen our ways forward.

“In tight times, you have widened my way” expresses the psalmist (4:2).  Praise is a positive emotion.  It has a vast reach.  May we embrace our responsibility to do all we can to make alarming and ominous times into awakening and opportune times.

Rabbi William Hamilton, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Schechter alumni parent

D’var Torah: Ilan Sherman-Kadish ‘ 20 (Chayeh Sarah)

My parsha is Chayei Sarah. Here is a summary of the parsha so that you can get a sense of the events.  In the beginning of the parsha Sarah dies, then Avraham comes to mourn for her and he buys Sarah a cave and some land to be buried on.  After that Avraham wants to find a wife for his son Isaac so he sends his servant Eliezer to the land of Abraham’s birth (Aram Naharayim). His servant devises a test, and whoever passes his test will become Isaac’s wife. Rebecca passes the servant’s test and is given the choice to either stay with her family for one more year or leave immediately. Rebecca decides to leave immediately with Avraham’s servant. Rebecca meets Isaac while he is meditating in a field. Avraham marries again, has children, and then dies at the age of 175. Isaac, and Avraham’s estranged son Ishmael comes to his funeral.

I notice that many characters in this parsha and in other parts of the Torah have critical decisions to make, but they make these decisions in very different ways. Sometimes they make their choices–whether those choices are about following their instincts or obeying the word of God–without seeming to pause and think about anything other than what’s right in front of them. And at other times they seem to stop and think about what their choices might mean for the future.  I think about how to make choices a lot in my own life, and it’s also an interesting way to examine this parsha. The way you make choices and act in situations tells people a lot about you.  Sometimes snap decisions make sense… and sometimes they don’t.

When I look at the decision-makers in this parsha, I notice a few in particular. The first is Avraham. In this parsha Avraham makes some very deliberate decisions that seem to take a lot of thought.  First Avraham wants to find a place to bury Sarah. He starts by asking the sons of Het for the cave of machpela in Hevron.  They say that he can have it for free.  Some people would have stopped there. But Avraham is thinking ahead. He says he wants to pay full price for the land. 

The Medieval commentator Radak, says that the Hittites thought that Avraham was asking for a spot in one of their families’ burial caves, but Avraham was really asking for his own burial cave…and that is why he wanted to pay for it. When buying this burial plot, he’s thinking not just about Sarah but also about future generations. He wants to claim a spot of land that they will all be able to use for burials. I also think Avraham worried that there might be disagreements in the future about the ownership of the land, and he thought that if he never paid any money for it, then there would be no way to tell that it was his. Here we see that Avraham is thinking very long-term, and he’s choosing the more difficult path now (paying for the land), to make things easier in the future.

Later,  Avraham commands his servant to find a wife for Isaac from the land where Avraham was born.  He describes his wishes to his servant in great detail, and from this we can tell that he puts a lot of thought into his decision. Commentators have different ideas of why. Radak says that Avraham knew that Rebecca had been born, and he was hinting to his servant that he wanted him to find Rebecca. Bekhor Shor says you would have expected Avraham to want Isaac to marry one of the Caananites so that he could inherit the land, but Avraham knows that God would give him the land.  

To me, it almost feels like Avraham wanted to keep his kin mixed in with his original family so that they could all be connected.  I agree with Radak when he says that Avraham wanted Isaac to marry Rebecca, because Avraham’s instructions seemed very detailed, maybe making it so that Rebecca would be the only possible choice.

So in both of these cases, Avraham seems like someone who makes decisions carefully, keeping the long-term future in mind.

But this hasn’t always been the case for Avraham. Interestingly, in the previous parsha Avraham, with very little deliberation, listened to God’s command and came close to killing his own son, Isaac. In the story of the akedah, not only does Avraham agree to sacrifice his son, but he seems to do it without any hesitation.  

Avraham gets up early in the morning to do it–Vayashkaim avraham ba-boker–he doesn’t even stay in bed thinking about whether to do it. He acts right away—maybe to show that he’s devoted and obedient, maybe to do it quickly so he doesn’t have to think about it.  The question is, should a decision to kill  your son — even if you hear God’s voice –be made as a snap decision? Whatever the answer is, it seems that Avraham probably damaged his relationship with his son and wife by not stopping to think. 

Maybe Avraham wanted to think harder about his next decisions to make sure that he didn’t make any more mistakes, and this is why his decisions are more thought-out during Chayei Sarah.

But not all decisions in this parsha are made slowly and thoughtfully–quite the opposite.

Avraham’s servant picks Rebecca in an instant. He’s designed a test based on seeing who will volunteer to draw water for his camels. The moment Rebecca does this, and brings the servant water too, he knows she’s the one. This seems to work out all right, but maybe it would have been smart for him to wait and see if someone else had come along, and maybe learn a bit more about her, instead of just picking the first person who passed the test.  He probably was right in the end, but it’s the kind of decision that can go wrong as there could have been someone much better right around the corner.  

The servant isn’t the only one to make an instantaneous decision. Rebecca makes an on-the-spot decision to offer help to Avraham’s servant–the text says “Vatomer Shitay adoni vatmahair”, meaning she quickly went to help–  leading her to be chosen as a match for Isaac.  After she’s chosen to be Isaac’s wife, she is offered the chance to wait a year to go marry a stranger, but she decides  to marry Isaac right away rather than remaining with her family for another year.  It’s important to point out that Rebecca couldn’t choose if she wanted to marry Isaac or not but she could have considered staying with her family for another year but I understand that she may have wanted to get it over with.  Sometimes acting quickly can be a way of dealing with fear.  

Both of these fast decisions seem to be the right ones…but it also seems that the servant and Rebecca could have decided more slowly and it would still have worked out.

I wonder, what is the Torah saying about making on-the-spot decisions as opposed to debating and mulling what the impact of a decision will be in the future? I’ve always been told to take my time, that quick decisions can be foolish ones…but I know that’s not always the case. When I play baseball, I can’t stop to think about the spin on a pitch–I just have to swing or not swing. And a lot of the most important decisions in life–like speaking up for what you believe in, trying a challenging question on a math test, or standing up to a bully–can’t wait until you’ve had time to think.

The Torah seems to share those mixed feelings. One of the most famous quick decisions in the Torah–Moshe hitting the rock, without thinking about future consequences–has a terrible outcome. But Avraham’s abrupt decision to leave his family in lech lecha–is the very thing that gets the entire story of the Jewish people started… so presumably that quick decision is the right one.

It seems that according to the Torah, neither kind of decision is always right or always wrong. Some gut decisions–choices made without thinking about the future–are the right way to go and some end up with bad consequences.

I’m a person who feels more comfortable making quick decisions and as I grow up I hope to learn when going with my instinct is right and when it would be better to think it over.  I identify with Rebecca, who seemed to do her best work when being active and moving .  When I’m practicing reading Torah for my bar mitzvah and I come to a word that I don’t remember usually the first note I think of is the right one and it’s better to just sing it out.  When I play quarterback for my school team, one thing I know is that you can’t hold onto the ball or you’ll get sacked. Right or wrong, you have to choose. If you see a player open and you hesitate, or look for a better option, the player might not be open any more and you will lose your chance.  

When I am trying to assess a person’s character, like the servant who devised a test to find a wife for Isaac, I would also consider how someone acted when they didn’t have much time to think.  I could even imagine devising such a test: if I dropped a stack of books in a library, who would move to help the quickest? Or if I wandered by a game  in progress at recess, who would stop to invite me in?  The person who passed these tests would be someone I would respect.  The ability to recognize that someone was in need of help and take quick action is valuable in these situations.  But making these snap decisions can also risk missing out on something deeper.  Making a quick decision about someone’s character is like judging a book by its cover.   Some people I didn’t connect with at first, because I thought we had nothing in common, have become my closest friends because over time we’ve found there’s actually a lot we share.

Seeing the choices people make in Chayei Sarah, and  the consequences of those choices,  helps me understand that one kind of decision will never be flawless.  Maybe the secret is to balance the snap decisions and the well-thought-out plans one makes in life.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Vayera)

Avraham and Sara had thoughtfully chosen the perfect spot to locate their tent.  Many local shepherds and farmers regularly passed by the main crossroads of the land of C’naan which was the couple’s new home address.  They spent much of their days offering passersby a drink or a meal. They hoped that through their generosity they could demonstrate what their faith was all about. With the intense heat of the day, the opening to their tent was raised open, and a barely perceptible breeze caused the doorway to flutter gently.

On this day Avraham was deep in spiritual reflection. He had recently gone from test to test, from one divine challenge to the next, all in the hopes of doing God’s will.  And now, in the middle of the day, God had appeared to Avraham. A giant of faith, Avraham must have been focused like a laser on the power of this sacred moment.  Then, from a distance, out of the corner of his eye, Avraham saw 3 figures approaching the crossroads.  The elderly man suddenly apologized.  He took his leave from the God of all time and space; the God whom he had served by leaving his homeland and his family for an unknown foreign destination. He had even circumcised himself at the age of 99 at God’s command.  Yet, even in the midst of a direct revelation, Avraham left aside the spiritual and said- I have important work to do. I must welcome in guests.

From this moment in the Torah, our rabbis teach us a great lesson. In the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat), we learn:  “Rav Dimi teaches: Hachnasat Orchim– welcoming in guests- takes precedence over learning in the Bet Midrash. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav- Hosting guests is more important than even welcoming the Shechina, the Divine presence.”

This story points to the unique and powerful understanding of spirituality we Jews have always had.  Learning and prayer are the roots of our spiritual expression. We can only imagine what it must have felt like to have the connection of Avraham or Moshe in their moments of prayer. But all of our prayers and learning have an even deeper root- our human connections. We are the people of Shabbat dinner tables and sukkot filled with guests. We are the people of multi generation seders and synagogue kiddush tables for eating and kibbitzing. We are the people that believes that the greatest connection to God is our connection to one another.

It has been so deeply tragic that these past months have made our core spiritual exercise unsafe. We cannot come together. We cannot share a meal. Nothing feels less natural for us, the descendants of Avraham and Sara. With masks up, and our tent flaps down, we are separated from one another. During this time, we should redouble our commitment to connection and community. Whether through Zoom or at a safe (preferably outdoor) distance, our souls long for the power of connection.  I am grateful to Schechter for having provided a safe environment for our community’s children to gather together at our local crossroads on Stein Circle and at Wells Ave. This beautiful learning community has been a source of normalcy and strength in very difficult time. We are blessed to have a place where the Divine presence still can be found: as our children share lunch together around slightly distanced tables. Our tents are more empty than we are used to. But our hearts are filled with thanks.

 

Rabbi Ron Fish, Temple Israel of Sharon; Schechter parent