Comfort Zone – Parshat Vayetzei 5777

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Each of our children has a soft fleecy lovey. The three-month-old isn’t quite old enough to fully appreciate its magical comforting powers, but it means quite a bit to his older sister. Her lovey is her regular bedtime companion. In addition, when my daughter is sad or scared, she’ll ask for her lovey. Or when she’s especially tired or grumpy, holding lovey to her face makes her calm and peaceful.

We also have very particular rules about lovey’s location to minimize the risk of losing this special item. Rather than attempt to transport lovey all over the place, some advanced parental preparation meant lovey was always where my daughter needed it. Comfort was never too far away.

In a certain way, this seemingly stationary – yet always available – nature is not unlike God’s presence in the Torah, especially for Jacob. This week we read from parshat Vayetzei, one of the turning points and most famous parts of our text. The text picks up with Jacob on his journey away from his parents’ house to meet his cousin, Lavan, and the strange dreams and encounters he has with godly creatures along the way. He ends up falling in love with Rachel, works for her hand in marriage, but is tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. Fast forward a few more years of work, and the prize of having Rachel as his wife is realized. The text continues with the birth of Jacob’s large family and his journey away from his father-in-law Lavan to a new home.

As Jacob runs away from his house, he has a dream. God appears to him. Jacob was likely frightened; after all, he was alone in an unknown place, in an unknown time, not sure of what would happen next. And in his moment of need, comfort arrives: “I am the Lord your God and I will be with you to protect you,” God says. Knowing from this point on he would never be alone, Jacob is able to move forward with confidence, understanding that there would always be a protector with him. In that moment, God was Jacob’s community. The place might have been new and different, but the comfort was familiar.

The need for protection doesn’t go away as we age; it is simply solved in different ways. The common thread is the comfort of consistency. It won’t always be a lovey. It may not always be God. But the knowledge that it’s not you alone against the world is one of the most valuable takeaways from our parshah and a core message of Judaism.

Stop It: 4 Ways to Break the Pattern – Parshat Toldot 5777

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Bad eating habits, destructive relationships, poor time management – how do we get into these cycles, and more importantly, how can we get out of them? Idioms like “Fool me once . . . ” and “If at first you don’t succeed . . .” are supposed to spur us into action to break these patterns. However, as much as these theories of progress are meant to teach us to learn from our mistakes, it’s not always that easy.

The Torah is full of examples of the same situation occurring over and over again, and those involved never seem to learn their lesson. Our parshah this week, parshat Toldot, is no exception to this common theme. The text begins with Isaac and Rebecca learning about the birth of their twins, followed later by Esau selling his birthright to Jacob and the sibling issues that follow.

In the middle we learn about what happens to Isaac as he re-inhabits a land where his father had been before. As Isaac is in Gerar, he follows the exact same pattern of his father. In chapter 26 we learn that Isaac lies to Avimelech about his wife being his sister, just as his father had done. Then we learn that his reward is bountiful crops. Finally, we discover that after the Philistines had stopped up all the wells that Abraham had dug, Isaac digs them again. And not only that, but he renames them with the exact same name. Like father, like son, Isaac follows in Abraham’s footsteps, which lead him to the same less-than-favorable results: children who quarrel, land too vast to deal with, upset kings, and the need to dig more wells.

Too often we do what we do simply because the comfort of familiarity outweighs the discomfort of the results. We follow a well-worn path, even if it might mean making the same mistakes that our parents or previous generations made. Perhaps parshat Toldot is here to teach us about the consequences of the paths we walk, but if you’re like me and always appreciate a more concrete plan of action, here are four suggestions for breaking the cycle.

Do something you’ve never done

Even if it’s unrelated to the habit or pattern you’re trying to break, a totally new experience can do wonders. It can distract you, lift your spirits, and possibly even change your outlook. Most importantly, it proves to yourself that you’re capable of change.

Write about it

Compiling your thoughts is a great way to remember positive experiences and reexamine negative ones. Journaling can be very therapeutic, but even if you don’t keep a daily diary, try making an outline or summary of the particular issue you’re facing. It may help you take a step back to look at things more objectively. If it helps, you could even try a symbolic gesture like tearing it up afterward.

Identify your triggers

In this week’s Torah portion, we notice a familiar pattern, but we don’t really get into what may have caused the pattern in the first place. Figuring out what triggers your behavior might be the most powerful weapon you have in fighting that behavior. Does stress lead to poor food choices? Does a fear of failure subconsciously cause procrastination? Work on the catalyst first, and the issue might just take care of itself.

Tell a friend

You’re not alone, and the sooner you realize that, the better. Whether you attend a group therapy session or simply talk through your troubles with someone you trust, a sympathetic ear is a game changer.

There is inherent hope in a negative pattern. Why? Because to recognize a pattern means you acknowledge its existence and thus stand a chance of addressing it. Take that chance.

Jews, Christmas, and Coffee Cups – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5777

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To this rabbi, last year’s Starbucks red cup “controversy” (because these days even a few tweets count as a controversy) was completely baffling. The complaint among a small number of customers was that Starbucks had lost the Christmas spirit, since they had replaced the previous festively decorated cup with a solid red design. To a vocal few, this move represented another offensive attack in the perceived “war on Christmas.”

Just to be clear, I never want anyone to feel that their right to celebrate the religion of their choice is being infringed upon in any way. But when you walk through the mall before Halloween to see the first signs of the Santa photo booth and related Christmas décor, I have a hard time believing that Christmas is in the slightest danger.

Jews are in the minority in America, and especially so in Portland. It is no more obvious than during the months of November and December that I am a resident alien. When the green and red appears in every storefront and Bing Crosby starts a continuous rotation on the radio, I want to hide. Again, it’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing other people celebrating their own faith; I’m happy to live in a country where we are free to do so. It’s that the in-my-face commercialization for two straight months simply becomes overwhelming.

This week we read parshat Chayei Sarah. We read about Abraham and Sarah and their continued journey to raise their son Isaac to the chuppah and a life of good deeds. Our reading begins with the death of Sarah and Abraham looking for a proper place to lay her body to rest. Immediately after Sarah’s burial, Abraham sets out to find a life partner for his own son; hoping to ensure that he has comfort and support as he mourns his mother. The text continues with Isaac and Rebekah meeting, marrying, and falling in love (an appropriate order of events in Biblical times), and it ends with the death of patriarch Abraham.

Back at the beginning of the text, when Abraham is coping with the loss of his beloved wife Sarah, he is a stranger in a strange land. He has no Jewish cemetery, no chevra kavod hamet to help him with his burial. He is alone and in need of sacred space. So with nothing to lose, Abraham pleads in chapter 23, verse 4, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you that I may remove my dead for burial.” The townspeople respond, “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places.”

Abraham needs the cemetery plot, and he has no idea how his neighbors will react to his request. Will they accept him as a fellow resident or treat him like an unwelcome outsider? As it turns out, Abraham is surprised not only by their kindness, but at their perception of him. He is seen as faithful, and the Hittites admire him for the way in which he is tied to his faith.

Let’s face it. Passover and Easter will never get equal display space at most grocery stores, and perhaps as a minority, that’s as it should be. However, particularly during the winter season, there should be a way to give appropriate time and space to a commonly celebrated holiday, while acknowledging that it is not the only one celebrated. At least it would be nice to work toward that inclusive goal. This week’s Torah portion is a reminder of what it takes to respect the traditions of others, to embrace the diversity in our community, and to inspire – rather than alienate – one another with our faith and our ideals.

Standing Still – Parshat Vayera 5777

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Some moments in life leave you stuck, standing still, unable to move forward (or in any direction for that matter). I felt a literal version of this when it was time to leave the grave after we buried my father. I was stuck. I just stood there. All I could do was stand and cry, thinking about the life we just lost, thinking or praying to God that I would find comfort and that we would be OK. It was my own thoughts and emotions that paralyzed me, froze me to the spot.

Moments like these can happen for a variety of reasons; the question is what do we do with this paralysis?

This week we read Parshat Vayera, where Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age. We then turn to Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s attempts at saving the cities. This is followed by the birth of Isaac, additional covenants, and God’s final test of Abraham’s faith with the “Binding of Isaac.”

At the beginning of the text, Abraham is sent out to Sodom and Gomorrah. The text reads, “The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.” It is from this verse, according to the Babylonian Talmud, that morning prayer became a practice. Rabbinic tradition teaches that Abraham prayed when he rose early to face God. However, this doesn’t strike me as a “rise early to pray” moment. Abraham is standing, about to deliver some devastating news to a community, which to me appears more like a “stuck in his place” moment.

Abraham does regain his composure and then actually has a face-to-face with God in order to try to save the city. But that moment of pause, that moment of being stuck, was perhaps the moment that gave Abraham the presence of mind and the courage to move forward. So often we jump into action or react without thinking things through. Here, Abraham takes a moment right at the start of a situation to reflect.

Parshat Vayera reminds us of this important step in providing for ourselves clarity and confidence. Perhaps our version of standing still or “morning prayer” is that moment each day when we pause, reflect, and prepare for what lies ahead. Whatever you call it, sometimes you simply have to give in to being “stuck” before you’re able to push forward.

Winning the Lottery – Parshat Lech Lecha 5777

Winning the Lottery

In January of this year, TIME magazine published an article about the terrible things that happen to lottery winners. The article quotes a study that found that 70% of people who come into large sums of money lose it only a few years later. The author goes on to cite several examples of worst-case scenarios involving big ticket winners, including bankruptcy and even murder.

Monetary wealth comes at a price. Literally. Of course your chances of surviving the pitfalls of being rich are probably greater if the wealth is accumulated over time rather than all at once. However, in either case money (in all amounts) carries the burden of responsibility to use it wisely.

Perkei Avot teaches, “More money, more problems.” The rabbis were trying to remind us that with the good comes the bad. As some Powerball winners discover, more money seems like a blessing until it creates more problems than you started with. This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, also has an interesting take on that very idea.

Parshat Lech Lecha brings us finally into the narrative of Abraham and Sarah and the true beginning of our history as the Jewish people. The text begins with Avram and Sarai leaving their land, the land that they knew and felt comfortable in, to follow God’s command and go to Egypt. The text continues with their ongoing problems in Egypt and ends with the changing of their names from Avram/Abram to Avraham/Abraham and Sarai to Sarah.

Early in the parshah we learn that Abraham went from Egypt back to the Negev with all that he had, together with his nephew Lot. The Torah teaches in chapter 13, verse 2, “Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver and gold.” That is to say, Abraham had a lot of possessions, and that meant that theoretically he also had a lot of power.

But the Hebrew word for “rich” the Torah uses here is not one that suggests the power of riches. Instead, the word kaved is used, which translates to mean heavy or burdened. Furthermore, wealth is relative and subjective. Abraham was rich with material items, but as we learn later, felt “poor” before he and Sarah were finally able to build a family together. The Torah leads us to believe that perhaps for a righteous person like Abraham, great wealth is accompanied by the great burden to use it responsibly. May this be our lesson as well.

[photo credit: apardavila PowerBall jackpot is a whopping $800 million via photopin (license)]