Feeling Small – Parshat Vayishlach 5783

When have you felt small? A few years ago I was at a Rabbinical Assembly convention where the CEO asked this question. It just so happened I’d been next to the six-foot-plus-tall Rabbi Steven Rein just minutes earlier, so I didn’t have to think too hard. And immediately after that, we were invited into a tight circle for a singing exercise, and I felt small again because of the sound that enveloped us.

When have you felt small? Take a minute to think about it.

This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, brings the twin brothers together again. The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t care much for his birthright blessing until it had been given to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t care much about his brother’s right to the blessing until his brother threatened to kill him.  Now, 20 years or so later, we find the brothers on a path to meet again.  Both are now married and are fathers of large clans, and have large flocks with them.

As Jacob prepares to reconnect with his brother, he again has a dream. This time he dreams in chapter 32, verse 11: “Katonti mikol hachasidim.” It’s often translated as “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have so steadfastly shown your servant” But a literal translation would be “I am small compared to the kindness.”

In addition, the use of messengers between the brothers is a helpful reminder of the messages we might be sending to others through our actions and attitudes. Strife is often the result of one person or group of people seeing themselves as big, or bigger than others. On the other hand, when we feel small we often don’t stand up for ourselves, and we allow others to take more than their allotted space. There’s a balance between self-confidence and self-depreciation. 

Preparing to go into this moment with his brother, Jacob in his dream state recognizes the need to find his own humility. It’s a valuable lesson both brothers learn. You don’t have to make someone else feel small in order to build yourself up.

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast – Parshat Vayetzei 5783

When I was a child, my mom used to play Simon and Garfunkel in the car on the way to preschool. I have vivid memories of singing along with those words, “Slow down, you move too fast” from “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” I don’t think at the time either of us was aware of the moment and the message it held in it, but now, as the parent of a 6- and 9-year-old, I can’t help but think, “Goodness, slow down!” Time is moving much too fast.

I glance up at their school pictures hanging in the hallway upstairs, wondering how time has continued to move at such a pace. It isn’t that I didn’t know time was moving, it just feels as though they’ve grown in the blink of an eye. They were just babies yesterday, and now, they’re big. What is it about time and our living in it that makes it both simultaneously slow and fast?

This week’s Torah portion perhaps gives us a peek at the reasoning. Parshat Vayetzei begins with Jacob on the run from his angry brother, fleeing his home and the mess that has become of his family dynamic. Exhausted, he lies down and has this crazy dream in which God comes and speaks to him. God gives Jacob marching orders, a legacy to hold and create, and a full sense of his mission in life.

As we read this week’s Torah portion, we see Jacob in pursuit of Rachel. As time goes on, it is explained by Jacob as a feeling that “seemed but a few days.” Certainly years of labor and stress did not fly by. What Jacob apparently means is that his love, the desire he felt in those moments, simply made the time pass faster.

When we look forward to something, when we’re fully present, time has a way of both standing still and moving faster than we realize. Parshat Vayetzei reminds us that those moments allow us to see clearly all that has passed and perhaps the immediacy of the future. Time never actually stands still, which is why it’s often annoying when anyone tells you to “enjoy the moment because you’ll miss it” as if there was anything we could do about it. Time is finite and fleeting, but, if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to carry and pass on the memories of the times that meant the most.

Character Over Experience – Parshat Toldot 5783

As the oldest grandchild on one side of my family and the second oldest on the other, there’s a bit of legacy weight I feel I carry. On one side, my sister and I are the last of that lineage, the last to carry that name. On the other, none of us carry that name as our own, but it holds a strong connection to the family business and history. In either case, I strongly feel a certain responsibility. Eldest children tend to bare the burden of past generations to carry their legacy into the future. Perhaps this is because they’ve lived (slightly) longer, and therefore have more experience. 

What we often don’t discuss, however, is exactly what should live on. When there’s a family business or a significant piece of real estate involved, it’s easy to identify a tangible transfer from one generation to the next. But what happens when the thing you’re supposed to pass down isn’t quite that concrete? In the Torah this week, we learn that the job of carrying on tradition doesn’t always fall to the person you’d expect.

This week we have a Torah portion that is fully focused on generations moving forward and what we inherit. This week we read Parshat Toldot, in which Isaac and Rebekah become parents. The pregnancy is not easy, and the twins are anything but calm. Jacob and Esau are very different, and each is feisty in his own way. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for lentil stew, and Jacob tricks his father into getting the blessing his brother deserves. Esau finds out, and his outrage over the incident causes Jacob to flee for his life. The portion ends with Esau growing up and rebelling against the family in his choice of life partner.

Toldot means “the generations,” and as this name suggests, the focus isn’t merely on the current generation, but on future generations to come and who will lead them. Rebekah, a mother of twins, knows her sons more intimately than anyone. She knows which one is a leader and which one is a hunter, which one can follow directions and which is a free spirit. But knowing these truths in her heart doesn’t make transferring the legacy of the previous generation any easier.

In the end, the text seems to hint that God also guides her not to the son who is “older and wiser,” but to the one who is “more apt” to lead a nation. In this moment that breaks the norms we’ve come to know, the Torah suggests that in some cases character might be more important than experience.

Love Is Blind – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5783

Would there be reality television without dating shows? The first episode of The Bachelor aired 20 years ago, and now there are too many “find love on TV” shows to count. Love Island, 90 Day Fiancé, Love on the Spectrum – these are just a few of the dozens and dozens of dating show iterations that are now staples of our television landscape. Currently one of the most popular shows is a Netflix series called Love Is Blind, a “social experiment” where single men and women look for love and get engaged, all before meeting in person.

Full disclosure: I’ve not watched a single one of these reality shows. It’s not out of judgment at all; on the contrary, it’s simply because I’m more of a Keeping Up With the Kardashians kind of rabbi. The common denominator is my desire to see how intimate relationships are formed. Reality TV plays into the romantic notion that falling in love is part magic and part serendipity. Actual reality, though, is much more complicated, but in a way, makes a lot more sense.

Perhaps this week’s Torah portion can help explain. We read from Parshat Chayei Sarah, which marks the transition from one generation to the next. Beginning with Sarah’s death, we learn about Isaac and his courtship with Rebekkah, the list of Abraham’s decedents, and the death of Abraham and his burial at the cave of Machpelah. Through it all, the family continues to push their way through experiences of loss and grief into the next chapter of life.

As Abraham is working to build a sustainable future for his son Isaac, he considers which lessons will be the most impactful and which values will be the most beneficial in a mate. We’ll never know exactly how he came to this answer, but he tells his servant that in looking for a partner for Isaac, “She must feed the animals and you, she must not worship ‘other’ gods, she must be willing to follow you.”

To be clear, neither partner in a marriage should be subservient to the other. Rather, the deeper concern Abraham is expressing is that morals and values between parties line up. From better communication with each other to providing a stable environment for raising a family, having this basic shared foundation simply makes sense. 

In my years as a rabbi, I’ve been asked to officiate many weddings. In the early discussions with a couple, one of my first questions to them is based on this week’s Torah portion. What are your values? What are your guides in life? Love at first sight (or “at first episode”) is a romantic idea, but a successful marriage needs time for this exploration. What we learn from Abraham in his last moments in our story is that shared vision and values are truly what make strong and lasting partnerships. 

Hold My Hand – Parshat Vayera 5783

Over the past two-plus years, as Covid turned our world upside down, we’ve all felt the loss of what was our normal. Not being about to be physically present for holidays was hard, masks were uncomfortable, but so important. We went through the peaks and valleys of fear to relative calm and back to fear again as variants and surges came and went.

One of the lasting effects of Covid is how we handle physical touch. We’re now hyper-aware of every physical interaction. Whether it’s avoiding a handshake when meeting someone new or the awkward hug while holding your breath, for someone like me who’s used to giving a big hug or a gentle arm squeeze when I’m comforting someone, the early phases of the pandemic were especially hard. It’s only now as we’re understanding more and living with our adjusted reality that I realize how much meaning holding hands can have in our lives.

From skin-to-skin contact for newborns, to adult health benefits like slowing the heartbeat, lowering blood pressure, and triggering the release of oxytocin, the positive effects of touch have been proven time and again. Studies using PET scans have even shown that just holding a person’s hand helps the brain’s response to stress.

Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant and Ishamel’s mother, teaches us this lesson as well in the Torah this week. In this week’s parshah, Vayera, Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael. Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God asks that he offer up his son, Isaac.

When Sarah can no longer handle having Hagar and Ishmael in their home, she sends them into the wilderness. Hagar is alone with her child, feeling vulnerable and a bit scared. In chapter 21, verse 18, God instructs Hagar, “Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand.” Though they’re isolated from their community, God reminds Hagar that they have each other in this powerful moment of human touch. 

The exact translation of the Hebrew is closer to “make your hand strong in his.” When we hold each other, when we lift each other, we are stronger. As we’ve all learned over these last years, a simple high five or a gentle arm touch brings strength and connection. The name of our Torah portion this week, Vayera, means “and he saw.” Perhaps this is a reminder that really seeing each other is more than a visual cue. The real value of human connection is to see when someone is in need.