Thursday, December 31, 2020

Renewing Friendships

As we close the Book of Genesis, and bury our remaining patriarchs, mourning in particular the death of Joseph, and as we bid farewell to the last remaining hours of 2020 with its searing pain and unrivaled singularity--who could ever have imagined a year like the one we just experienced--I wish to offer one lesson gained from 2020. This is what staying home for these many months has taught me.

Sometime in May, my brother suggested (thank you Mike!) the idea for Monday Musings, in which I talk with friends and colleagues for 15-20 minutes. I was a guest on Mike's show before creating one of my own. He is the rabbi of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

The thought is that this program can serve as a spiritual kick start to the week, that our conversations can inspire others or give our listeners ideas to ponder. In a year in which weeks seem to blur into one another and look all too similar to each other, we envisioned that at the very least they can begin with different and varied thoughts.   A meeting with someone from whom we might learn something new can start each week.

The program evolved as time marched forward. I realized that I did not want to debate, or argue, with colleagues. I did not want the experience to be marked by disagreement but instead by discovery. There is plenty of disagreement out there and far too often argument that masquerades as entertainment rather than thoughtful debate. I wished instead to learn about friends' passions and gain insights from their personal journeys.

And I share this not so much as a promotional piece for my program (or Mike's for that matter), but instead as an opportunity to share what I have learned and to suggest that each of us can do likewise and gain similar sustenance from weekly get-togethers with friends.

Start every week with a phone call with a friend, although better to see your friend's face on FaceTime or Zoom. Put the date on the calendar well in advance. Allow yourself the pleasure of looking forward to catching up with your friend. And most important of all, use this as an opportunity to listen to what life has taught these friends. Don't talk about what you miss or how much you wished you could see them. Just listen to their offerings and be open to their wisdom.

I am privileged to be blessed by so many friends, some of whom I speak with regularly and others with whom this program provided me an excuse to rekindle friendships from years ago. Of course, it still pains me that I cannot see them in person and that I cannot even plan my next adventure when I might cross paths with them or even, and most especially, discover new friends on some as of yet, unscheduled journey.

And yet, when I look back on the year, I realize these Monday conversations helped me. I begin every week asking a friend to teach me. Every Monday I wake up and get to drink in the wisdom of others.

I recognize that longing for the adventures, and vacations, of the past and pining after the company of friends and family, as well as the frivolity of the celebrations that brought us together is a privilege and blessing many others might not share (there are far too many who long not for companionship but instead for food, shelter and warmth) and while I pledge to do more to help others, I also recognize that it is these very encounters that serve as the food on which my soul depends.

I miss seeing people in person. I did not need a pandemic to remind me that I am a people person. I am buoyed by the presence of others. And I have little doubt that I may very well start crying when I am able to hug a friend for the first time. I am lifted by community and even by crowds. (Today I even find myself dreaming about the day when I will be pushing through crowds of people in a jam-packed Penn Station.)

It is as if I am lifted in the hora's chair each and every time I am in the presence of others. And so, Monday Musings became my chair. I greeted each Monday morning as an opportunity to be hoisted on high.

I did not expect that when the idea for Monday Musings was first proposed that it would also help to sustain me. When I look back on this past year I have come to recognize that waking up each Monday in anticipation of seeing a friend and catching up with him or her has helped me. And it can help each of us as well.

So, make a list of friends. Schedule a conversation.

And open your heart to the wisdom of friends.

Your week will be transformed by the discussions. Your year might even be likewise redeemed.

Happy New Year! May 2021 only bring blessings of health.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Compassion Rewrites History

After many years apart, and at odds, Joseph and his brothers are reconciled. It is prompted by the elder Judah’s petitions. “For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Genesis 44) Judah appears to be a changed man. 

He now fears that the loss of his youngest brother Benjamin would cause his father Jacob’s death. Earlier he offered no such worry when he and his brothers sold Joseph into slavery and told their father that his beloved son was killed by wild beasts. Earlier Judah and his brothers only exhibited resentment towards Joseph and anger that their father favored him. 

Now they offer compassion. They acknowledge that Jacob shares a special bond with Benjamin, the son of his beloved wife Rachel who died in childbirth. It is this note of compassion that moves Joseph to offer forgiveness. It is their newfound understanding of the special bond one son shares with their father that causes Joseph to no longer to see the pain caused by their terrible deed but instead the good that has now transpired. 

Can good really emerge from terrible deeds? Can future successes redeem history’s errors? 

The Torah reports: “Joseph could no longer control himself…. He said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” Perhaps Joseph has also rediscovered a favored place in his heart for his father. Perhaps he was once angry at his father for doting on him and pushing his brothers toward their near deadly resentment. Joseph continues: “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45) 

It is a remarkable transformation. The brothers have changed. Joseph too is a new man. Resentment and anger have become love and affection. All are transformed by compassion and understanding. 

Years of anger, years of seething are seemingly undone in an instant, by a few well-chosen words. I do not imagine their ill feelings are forgotten. 

And yet is appears to be so. “Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” (Genesis 45) 

An act of compassion, a newfound understanding can rewrite history.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Genesis of Healing and Reconciliation

We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis. This week we find ourselves in the midst of the Joseph story. Our hero Joseph, recently sold into slavery by his brothers, has now achieved power and renown in Egypt. The brothers who think he is a slave in a faraway land must now approach him and beg for food. They do not recognize him. He walks like an Egyptian. He talks like an Egyptian. He, however, recognizes them. And so, Joseph tests them.

Much of Genesis can be viewed through the lens of the siblings it portrays. It is a story about brotherly love, although more often than not jealousy and rivalry. Ultimately the book concludes with a note of forgiveness and reconciliation. There are four sets of brothers.

We open with Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. Cain is so consumed with anger that he kills his brother Abel. The hatred, apparently fostered by God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s, is never overcome.

The next set of brothers is Isaac and Ishmael. They too have difficulty getting along, although fare better than their predecessors. After Isaac is born Sarah banishes his brother Ishmael. They are forced to live apart from each other. And yet they come together to bury their father Abraham. No words are exchanged. After the funeral they immediately go their separate ways. Still there appears a moment of reconciliation.

Next, we read about Jacob and Esau. After Jacob steals the birthright Esau threatens to kill him. Jacob runs from his angry brother. He builds a successful life, again living apart from his brother for many years. Later they are reunited. The Torah offers a tender description about their reconciliation: “Esau ran to greet Jacob. He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33) But then once again the brothers go their separate ways.

The Joseph story is far lengthier and offers more detail. It occupies four portions. It is the culminating story of the Book of Genesis.

In response to Joseph’s test, he discovers that his brothers have changed. They rise up and protect their younger brother Benjamin rather than betray him as they did Joseph. Joseph is overcome with emotion and offers a model of forgiveness. He states: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” The brothers are dumfounded and unable to speak. “Then Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” (Genesis 45) Finally they speak to each other. Joseph and his brothers forgive their wrongs.

Unlike the prior instances, Joseph’s brothers do not part ways after their reconciliation. The brothers, as well as their father Jacob, and their mothers, join Joseph in Egypt. The family is reunited. The brothers speak to each other. They are reconciled. It begins with Joseph’s forgiveness.

Perhaps that is lesson of the Book of Genesis.

Brothers, and siblings, and families, are often at odds. And yet this can change. It can turn. It may take years, or even generations, but ultimately there can be full reconciliation.

Many families are unable to repair divides. They keep each other at a distance. A few, however, can right the wrongs of yesterday. Joseph’s family offers the model of complete reconciliation and repair.

That is the most certainly the concluding note of the Book of Genesis. It might very well be its most important lesson.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Stand Up and Light the Hanukkah Candles

According to rabbinic legend Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil. After the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greek army and recaptured Jerusalem, they discovered the Temple desecrated. They decreed an eight-day rededication ceremony but found only enough holy oil to last for one day. Lo and behold, a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted for eight days.

Usually when we retell this story, we imagine the miracle growing brighter with each successive day. On each of the days of this dedication ceremony, the Maccabees must have expected the light to go out or at least the light to grow dimmer. Instead, the light kept burning. And so, the eighth day appears more miraculous than the first.

Yet, the more important, and perhaps even more miraculous, moment occurred on the first day when the light was first kindled. I imagine a debate ensued about whether or not to light that wick floating in the cup of olive oil. Some must have argued against its lighting. Others might have retorted, “Let’s light it anyway and see how long it lasts. Even if it lasts for one day, that will be good enough.” I doubt there were few, if any, who thought the oil would last all eight days or that there was enough oil to last much longer than a few days.

Despite this, someone had to stand up and light the oil. Even though no one knew what to expect, or what the future days might hold, someone kindled the light. Someone had the courage to light the Hanukkah lights on that first night even though evidence and reality argued against it.

It is going to be a hard winter. The news is increasingly dispiriting. We cannot travel as much as we might like or certainly as much as we did in past years. We cannot see all the family and friends with whom we usually gather in December. But we can still light these Hanukkah candles. We can summon the courage of that individual Jew who stood up and lit the oil even though others thought it would never last more than one day. Some most certainly argued why even bother.

Why bother? Because we need the lights.

We require such courage. We are in need of such faith.

This year most especially courage and faith seem in short supply. Is it as simple as standing up and lighting the candles? Yes.

Today we need to be like that individual who lit the first Hanukkah lights. That act represents not a denial of reality but courage and faith in the face of reality. The dangers are likewise real. Uncertainty and risk torment our souls. And yet we can summon the courage of yesteryear. We can rely on the faith of our ancestors.

We can affirm light and life despite darkness and fear.

We can relish in the love of family and friends.

Stand up and light the candles.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Our Questions Are Our Heritage

The Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, points out that Jacob is not called whole (shalem) until after he limps. “Jacob arrived shalem in the city of Shechem.” (Genesis 33:18) This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, describes the journey from which he arrives in Shechem. It describes our patriarch’s movement from cheating and brokenness to wholeness and peace.

Jacob, now married with two wives, two maidservants, eleven sons and one daughter, many slaves and an abundance of livestock, sets out to return to his native land. At the same place where he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, he sends his family across the river and again spends the night alone. He is understandably nervous about the impending reunion with his brother Esau who twenty years earlier vowed to kill him for stealing the birthright.

That night his experience is neither a dream nor an earthly reality. He wrestles with a being that is described as divine. Unable to free himself from Jacob’s grasp the being offers Jacob a blessing in exchange for his release. This being declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) The being wrenches Jacob’s hip causing him to limp.

Jacob’s new name becomes the name of the Jewish people. Yisrael means to wrestle with God. What a remarkable statement about our people and our tradition! We can wrestle with God. We can question God. In fact, we should question God. While most people understand that questioning is part and parcel to being Jewish, few appreciate that such questioning extends towards heaven. The rabbis called this notion, chutzpah klappei shamayim, chutzpah towards heaven. It is a beautiful and telling concept.

Long ago the rabbis codified action over belief, the duties of the hands over the feelings of the heart. We have books and books detailing exactly which cuts of beef are kosher, when to recite the Shema, even how much we should give to tzedakah. We do not have such books telling us exactly what we must believe. We have many discussions and debates about these questions, but no creeds. We have codes of action not creeds of belief.

It is this embrace of many different theologies that makes Judaism unique and to my mind, extraordinary. I don’t have to have it all figured out. I can still question. I can still wonder. I can still ask: why does God not heal every person who is sick and infirm? Why is there pain and suffering in God’s world?

Questions—and even, or perhaps most especially, questions of God—define us.

Isidor Isaac Rabi, who was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He answered, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. She would greet me with the words, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”

Don’t be afraid to ask good questions. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. Most of all, never think that your questioning makes you less Jewish. In fact, it is what makes you worthy of your name, the children of Israel.

The question remains our most important heritage.