Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Vayetzei, Thanksgiving and Being Angels

Jacob awakes from his dream of a ladder reaching toward heaven with angels going up and down and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16)

A Hasidic story. A wealthy man who approaches the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and asks if he could meet Elijah the Prophet, the messenger of God who rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. The man had heard rumors that Elijah wanders the earth to bless people in need of his help. The wealthy man had achieved great success and counted many accomplishments to his name. Everything he ever wanted, he was able to acquire. (I first heard this story from Rabbi Naomi Levy.)

At first the Baal Shem Tov insisted he didn't know how to find Elijah. And then one day the Baal Shem Tov said to the man, "You can meet Elijah this Shabbat. Here is what you must do: Fill up your coach with a Shabbat feast. Pack hallah, wine, chicken and vegetables. Pack cakes and fruit and delicacies and bring it all to a hut in the forest and ask if you can spend the Shabbat there."

On Friday afternoon the wealthy man rode his coach along a winding forest trail until he came upon the hut the Baal Shem Tov had told him about. He knocked on the door and a poor woman in tattered clothes answered. The wealthy man asked if he could spend the Shabbat with her family.

The husband and his wife were overjoyed to have a Shabbat guest even though there was barely enough food to go around. Their emaciated children giggled with excitement. Then the wealthy man showed them the feast he had brought. For a moment they froze at the sight of such abundance. And then the children cheered, the wife wept with joy, and her husband comforted her.

That Shabbat eve was like no other this family had ever experienced. They ate well and drank well. They sang and prayed. The wealthy man kept staring at the poor father. Could this be Elijah? He asked the poor man to teach him Torah, but the man was illiterate. The father ate until his stomach was full, he drank and belched and picked his teeth. This couldn’t be Elijah. All through that night and the next day the wealthy man waited impatiently for Elijah to appear. But there was no sign of the holy prophet.

On Saturday night, as Shabbat came to an end, the wealthy man was fuming. "The Baal Shem Tov deceived me. He made a fool of me." And then he said his goodbyes to the family and raced outside filled with anger. As he was stomping away, the wealthy man's shoe got stuck in the mud. As he leaned down to pick it up he overheard sounds of rejoicing coming from inside the hut. The children were jumping up and down and shouting with joy over the most wonderful Shabbat they had ever experienced.

The wife said to her husband, "Who was that man who brought us all that food?" Her husband replied, "Don't you see? It was Elijah the Prophet who came to bless us."

Suddenly the wealthy man saw who Elijah was. "Elijah is me," he said to himself. “Elijah is me.”

Why did the angels go up the ladder in the opposite direction from what would be expected? Why did they climb the ladder not down from heaven but up from the earth?

The answer is uncovered in the story.

Not if we become Elijah.

The answer is discovered in Jacob’s dream.

Not if we are angels.

Nearly 300,000 Long Islanders receive emergency food assistance every year.  (Read more at Long Island Cares.)

We are surrounded by extraordinary abundance. And yet 50 million Americans struggle to feed themselves and their families. No one should go hungry in this blessed land.

We can do more. We can be like Elijah. We can become angels.

That is our dream. It is the same as Jacob's.  To climb ladders toward heaven. To become angels.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Toldot and Wells of Tears

Terrorism seeks to instill fear. Its goal is to terrorize. The danger of terrorism is that it makes us question doing the most ordinary of things.

On Tuesday, in Jerusalem, four Jews were brutally murdered while standing and beginning to pray the Amidah. One brave Druze policeman was killed while saving the lives of his fellow countrymen. In that moment preceding the chanting of the words “Blessed are You Adonai our God; God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob…” our thoughts are supposed to be focused on God, all distractions are to be pushed aside. We focus on God and God alone. It was in this moment that terrorists burst into the synagogue with their murderous intent. On this occasion their bloodied shouts of “God is great” silenced our “Blessed are You Adonai shield of Abraham.”

And yet, we will return to our prayers....

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Chayei Sarah and Teaching Compassion

This week we read of Sarah’s death. She dies at the age of 127 years and Abraham buries her in the Cave of Machpeleh in Hebron. This begins our attachment to this city located in today’s West Bank. All the patriarchs and matriarchs, with the exception of Rachel, are buried there.

Following the mourning for Sarah, Abraham sends his most trusted servant, Eliezer on an errand to find a wife for his 37 year old son, Isaac. (Talk about helicopter parenting!) Eliezer travels to the country of Abraham’s birth and goes there to the town well. The well was the singles bar of ancient times because young women would go there to fetch water. So Eliezer wisely went to the well in order to find a young wife for his master.

He decided that he would choose this wife not based on her beauty but instead on her character. And how would he make this determination? He decided that whoever offered to give him water and offer as well to water his camels would be the right woman. “When Rebekah had let him drink his fill, she said, ‘I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.’ Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.” (Genesis 24:19-20) Because of this he discovered that she was a compassionate person.

Kindness to animals is a measure of compassion to humans. In fact there is whole body of Jewish law dealing with our obligations to animals. We are commanded to be sure that animals do not suffer. This is the tradition’s basis for kosher slaughtering. The Talmud even suggests that we must feed our animals (in our case our pets) before we eat. (Brachot 40a) Why? Because to not do so may cause pain to the animals. Imagine how your dog responds every time you sit down for meal. The dog becomes agitated at your feet until you fill the bowl with food.

The tradition reasons that compassion to other human beings begins with showing kindness to animals. Moses Nachmanides, a medieval philosopher, reasons that this is the very reason for the commandment regarding preventing cruelty to animals. It is to inculcate compassion toward human beings. We learn the value of compassion by caring for pets. This is what we hope to teach our children by bringing a dog or cat into our homes.

This is what the servant Eliezer must have intuited when we first saw Rebekah. This is why he brought her back to marry Isaac. I imagine that when Rebekah and Isaac first met she saw the pain in his eyes. She saw that he was still grieving after his mother’s death. I imagine that she wrapped her arms around him and said, “I am sorry for your loss. Eliezer tells me what a remarkable woman your mother was.”

And the Torah states: “Isaac loved Rebekah, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)

Such traits of kindness can begin with the feeding of animals. A character founded on compassion can begin with the offering of water to a stranger.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Vayera and Ishmael's Cries

There are certain verses of my holiest of books that haunt my Jewish dreams.

Here is one such verse: “Hagar thought, ‘Let me not see when the child dies.’ And she sat a distance and raised her voice and wept.” (Genesis 21:16)

And here is the story. Sarah is unable to bear children and so she instructs her husband Abraham to have sexual relations with her maidservant, Hagar. She gives birth to a son and Abraham names him, Ishmael—God will hear. Some years later Sarah, as God promised, miraculously conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac. According to the Torah she is 90 years old and Abraham 100 at this point.

Sarah soon becomes jealous of Ishmael and overprotective of Isaac. She worries that Hagar’s son will supplant her son’s rightful place as heir to Abraham’s promise. Sarah instructs Abraham to banish them. He is troubled by this demand and consults with God. God advises Abraham to heed his wife’s request and reminds him that Ishmael will also become a great nation. Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham through Ishmael and Jews through Isaac. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with meager rations.

They quickly run out of water. Hagar places Ishmael by a bush and begins to weep.

The story continues. News reports suggest that a Third Intifada is beginning in the city that Jews and Muslims both deem holy. Jerusalem convulses.  The Torah reverberates with contemporary meaning.

The tears remain. My dreams become restless nights.

“God heard the voice of the child…. And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled the skin with water and gave it to the boy to drink.” (Genesis 21: 19)

God hears all cries.

Do we?