This Too Shall Pass – Parshat Miketz 5778

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There is a wonderful story about a king who dreamed about possessing the most precious ring in the world. He sent his advisors out to find something that could live up to this vision. When they finally returned with the one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry, the king opened the box to find a simple, plain-looking ring. Inscribed on it were three Hebrew words: “Gam zeh ya’avor.” This too shall pass. While he didn’t appreciate the simplicity at first, over time the king started to realize the true magical powers of the ring. When he was exceptionally sad, he would look at it and be reminded that dawn always follows the darkness of night. When he was giddy and enjoying his days, he would look at it and be sobered, managing his expectations and knowing how quickly things could change. This ring became his most prized possession.

As a parent of small children, parents of older children are always reminding me that everything is simply a phase. We hear all the time, “This too shall pass.” And while it brings little comfort in the midst of a tantrum, it is still very true. With all of life’s challenges, it can be important to remember “this too shall pass.” It may not seem like it in the moment when you’re down on your luck or in a “phase,” but it is the truth.

This week we read Parshat Miketz, the turning point in the Joseph saga. Joseph solves Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes a great leader in Egypt. He then marries a woman, he has sons named Ephraim and Menashe, and the land endures the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. During the famine Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food, and Joseph recognizes them, but they have no clue who he is. Joseph tests the brothers and asks for his younger brother to be brought to him. Then when no food remains in Jacob’s house in Israel, Benjamin is brought back down to Egypt, and again Joseph interacts with his brothers. All the while, Joseph’s brothers still have no idea who he is.

The story of this particular famine is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. The Israelites and the Egyptians were confronted with one man’s dream that predicted a terribly difficult period ahead of them. The key to their survival was the knowledge that “this too shall pass.” The seven years of plenty could have been squandered, but they knew that those years were to be followed by seven years of famine, so instead the people saved.

We don’t have a way of knowing what is to come, but perhaps, like the king in search of something precious, we can remind ourselves that nothing lasts forever. Things do change, although that’s sometimes hard to see in the moment.

 

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Petey the Ghost – Parshat Vayeshev 5778

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When I was a little girl, like most kids, I had an imaginary friend. I named him Petey the Ghost. I was about four years old when I “met” Petey, and he soon started taking the blame for everything I did wrong. Who took all the clothes out of the drawer? Petey. Who made a mess at dinner? Petey. My imaginary friend was my scapegoat, and his existence was calming to me because he gave me an out. As a parent, I’m even more aware of the power of imaginative play now that my daughter Shiri has an imaginary friend. Actually, she has an imaginary community. She calls it her “ballet class.” Shiri has never had a ballet class in her life, but she has story after story about who is in her class, what music they listen to, and what happens each day.

Needless to say, Shiri and I are not the first two people to make believe. Joseph, our predecessor in the Torah, also engages in some imaginative play. Unfortunately, his “play” leads to serious trouble. This week in Parshat Vayeshev, Joseph shares the dreams he has of his brothers bowing down to him, and they do not take kindly to this imagined scenario. They sell him, and then tell their father that they found him torn up by wild beasts. We then read about Joseph in Egypt and the way in which he ends up in jail. Only later in the narrative do we discover how Joseph’s imaginative play becomes a reality.

Luckily for most of us, our imaginative play doesn’t take the dark turn Joseph’s did. For my daughter and me, the world of imagination is a place in which we can feel safe, where we can act out scenarios that might seem scary in real life. The benefit is that the lessons we learn and discover are part of our necessary growth and development as we figure out how to interact in the world.

Aluminum or Glass – Parshat Vayishlach 5778

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Seemingly incompatible temperaments can work together. My husband Duncan and I are a prime example of this. We could not be more different when it comes to our emotional response and tolerance. We compare ourselves to the way different materials react to heat. I tend to be like aluminum: I get frustrated very easily, but then I usually calm down and relax very quickly. I don’t hold on to my frustration for long periods, except on rare occasions. On the other hand, Duncan is like glass: he’s very patient, and it takes a lot of heat to really frustrate him and get him to combust, but once he’s there, it takes just as long if not longer for him to cool down. This means that when we have a disagreement, we’re often on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum. I’m already on my way to cooled off as he’s just reached his hottest point. I’m ready to forgive as he’s ready to blaze.

In our Torah portion for this week, Parshat Vayishlach, we read about Jacob preparing for his meeting with his brother Esau after their estrangement. Jacob struggles with an angel during his dream before their meeting, and then their meeting is uneventful. Jacob and Esau meet, they hug, they forgive, and they move on. The parshah ends with Jacob’s daughter Dinah having an incident in Shechem and a list of the final events in the life of his family before the Joseph storyline begins.

Earlier in our story, Jacob and Esau anger each other, they have some time apart, and in the buildup to this moment it appears that Jacob is not so sure whether his brother is glass or aluminum, whether he is ready to forgive or might need some more time. These twins are clearly as different as siblings get, and Jacob is fearful of a war being waged, so he prepares himself physically by separating his children to avoid mass casualties. His restless behavior shows his distress. Is he himself ready to forgive? Perhaps he’s not so sure of that either.

It turns out they were both ready to forgive. The brothers meet, they run to each other and embrace, and they forgive and move forward. Yes, for the time in between they carried the grudge, the fear, the concern with them, and it clearly messed with Jacob’s psyche, manifested in his crazy dreams. But in the end, it was family that really mattered to them.

These brothers carried around a lot of baggage leading up to this point. Their family dynamic changed dramatically when Jacob won the birthright, and then again when their parents picked favorites. They were estranged as they entered into adulthood. There was no obvious reason to forgive, but they discovered forgiveness simply felt right and helped them let go of the burden they carried for so long.

Vayishlach means “and he sent.” What is being sent away is not a person or an object, but rather anger and fear. The emotional baggage is being discarded in favor of love. Oddly enough, the more we can learn to let go of certain things, the more we can hold on to each other.

We Have Awoken – Parshat Vayetzei 5778

 

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Something has awoken in us. In the past four weeks we’ve heard an outcry that was previously silenced. Those in positions of power are being held accountable for their actions, and victims who felt vulnerable and threatened are speaking out against their abusers. This is not to say that every instance of sexual misconduct is the same, or even that every instance happened exactly as reported. But one thing is for certain: the curtain is being pulled back, and a pervasive predatory culture is being exposed for what it is.

We’re not often shaken awake in such a deliberate way, but when something happens that rocks you to the core, either individually or societally, you take notice. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, we read about such a shock. Our forefather Jacob has an experience which, according to the text, literally shakes him. We begin with Jacob’s dream of the ladder while he’s on his way to meet his uncle, and continues with Jacob’s marriage to the older sister of the woman he thinks he is marrying. The rest of the parshah contains the birth of Jacob’s many children and Jacob and Lavan working out their father-in-law/son-in-law relationship.

There are actually several moments throughout the text in which Jacob has an encounter that changes or shakes him in some way. Specifically in chapter 28, verses 16-17, we read:

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place!”

It is so incredibly easy to fall into a trap of sameness, of status quo. We assume that things simply are the way they are, so we don’t try to change them or speak out against them. Occasionally, like Jacob, we need to be shaken awake. We need something to remove the blinders. This is true if we want to change a social attitude or if we want our relationship with God to go beyond just picking up a siddur or putting on a tallit. It is in those moments when we are most deeply shaken out of ourselves that we can actually make a change or even encounter the divine.

What Doesn’t Kill You – Parshat Toldot 5778

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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Like a lot of clichés, the literal reading is completely false. Something that almost causes your death doesn’t make you stronger; it makes you weaker, and likely significantly weaker. Instead, it’s the figurative interpretation that is meant to resonate with us. We have the power to take the things that nearly destroy us emotionally and spiritually and use them to our advantage later in life. Living and learning through these types of moments and events is difficult, no question, but the building up of character, will, drive – ultimately that strengthens us.

Believe it or not, this notion didn’t start with the lyrics in Kelly Clarkson’s song “Stronger.” All of the biblical figures who are known to us as the matriarchs and patriarchs have moments when they struggle with God and with the paths their lives take. Adam and Eve had to answer to God after going against their instruction and eating from the tree. Cain had to answer to God after he killed his brother. Abraham was tested by God on multiple occasions. This week we learn Isaac and Rebekah are no different.

This week we read from Parshat Toldot, which literally means “generations.” We read the story of Isaac and Rebekah, their struggle with infertility, and the subsequent birth of their twins. The text continues with the sibling rivalry which began in utero and continues throughout the boys’ lives. Ultimately, Jacob and Esau are no longer able to even live in the same house as the trickery, fighting, and intolerance for one another escalates. Jacob is sent away for his own safety by his mother as this section of the narrative comes to an end.

When Rebekah finds out she is pregnant, she not only feels the typical baby movements most mothers feel, but also endures the fighting her twins appear to be engaging in inside her womb. She asks out of desperation, “If this is so, why do I exist?” And God answers, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate people shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” This is Rebekah at her most vulnerable, grasping to understand how motherhood could possibly be worth all of the pain and suffering she is enduring. Rather than do something to relieve the suffering, God responds by charging her with the responsibility of nurturing two nations. It was perhaps not the answer she was hoping for in the moment, but certainly one that would have strengthened Rebekah emotionally, if not physically.

It doesn’t feel helpful when you’re in the middle of a crisis and someone attempts a reassuring tone to say, “This will only make you stronger.” We simply can’t see the world through that lens until the trying time has passed. However, the Torah reminds us this week that our job is to learn from our experiences and to be able to transition from the painful “Why me?” to the more purposeful “Now what?”