Witness – Parshat Shemot 5780

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How do you really understand discrimination and oppression until you see it? With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day coming up on Monday, we celebrate his enormous work in civil rights, and at the same time awake to the sobering reminder that even to this day we forget our common humanity.

For better or worse, our view of the world is based largely on assumptions and second-hand information until we witness the world with our own eyes. And when you’re finally exposed to the facts, they might change the reality you’ve known up to that point. I didn’t fully understand the suffering of the indigenous people in Guatemala until I went and saw it in person on my trip a year ago. Up until then, it felt disingenuous to speak out about causes that I hadn’t verified first-hand. I’ll admit it’s partly because perhaps I didn’t want to imagine the cruel reality. In this way, we allow ourselves to be blind until the truth is staring back at us. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, we begin to see how miracles are going to play out in the text and what it takes to believe in them. First there’s a reminder that a new king has taken over Egypt, one who does not know the goodness the Israelite nation brought. The story continues with the fear this new king felt because the Hebrews seemed so different. But he doesn’t see them with his own eyes to confirm his suspicions. The king doesn’t engage one-on-one with the Israelites, he simply makes a xenophobic judgement call and then bans them from procreating without verification of any facts. Of course we know how the narrative continues – with Moses being rescued from the Nile, his life in the palace, and his rise to leadership.

When you think about it, it’s really Pharaoh’s daughter who is the savior of an entire nation. Why? Because she witnessed something with her own eyes. There are several conflicting viewpoints on how she may have felt about her father’s rule. Rabbi and Jewish mystic Isaac Luria believes that she went along with her father’s policies until, in chapter 2, verse 5, she comes down to the Nile to bathe and sees the endangered Hebrew child. Until that moment, the plight of the Israelites and these “foreign” people had all been an abstraction, so she was able to believe the worst in them. However, when she sees the tiny, helpless Moses in the river, she recognizes her common humanity with his people.

Pharaoh’s daughter acts because she sees the truth: people are people. As we once again approach Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, perhaps this is a reminder for all of us in all times. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to others when we see them as different. Instead, if you’re able to empathize and identify yourself in someone else’s story, you are instantly linked through your humanity. And by doing so, Pharaoh’s daughter does in fact change the world.

Imperfect – Parshat Vayechi 5780

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I’ll never forget the first time Shiri pointed out one of my flaws. This wasn’t the usual innocent jab about my squishy belly or tired bags under my eyes (thanks kids). This was at bedtime a few years ago, when after what was a really rough evening, she said, “Mommy, you’re a villain. You yell, and you’re mean and impatient.” My heart broke, not only because her words sounded so adult coming out of a four-year-old, but because they were true. I had lost my temper, I yelled, and I slammed the door. I certainly wasn’t the best version of myself. And with her teenage years on the way, I’m sure this won’t be the last time she’ll point out how I’ve failed her, but it stung.

The Torah is a prime example of this as we read the final portion in the book of Bereshit. This week, Parshat Vayechi, the final section of text in Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis) tells of the death of Jacob, and later Joseph, and their final moments with their family. In the final moments, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons and all of his own children. He promises in this blessing to tell them what will happen to them in the future; but instead, he shares with each child their special gifts and character. 

Jacob is supposed to bless his sons with his vision of the future and their special gifts. The task of this blessing starts off a little rocky as Jacob begins blessing Reuben. Chapter 49, verses 3-4 read, “Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; for when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace – my couch he mounted!” This doesn’t seem to be much of a blessing as much as it seems like a curse. But perhaps the Torah is reminding us that the greatest blessing is to have someone who cares about you point out your missteps so that you have an opportunity to improve. 

There are things which only those closest to us can say. Just as my then four-year-old demonstrated, those who we love the most are often the ones who see our truest selves. At the same time, Parshat Vayechi also reminds us that Jacob lived on through his children, and it was because of his ability to tell the truth, to hold them up when they had failed, and hold them to their best selves. That too is how we must live: with compassion and honesty, as we bless each other with not only the truth, but with the ability to listen and to change. 

True To Yourself – Parshat Vayigash 5780

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When the person next to you on an airplane asks what you do for work, what do you say? Personally, I always dread this question. Don’t get me wrong – I’m proud to be a rabbi. I just don’t particularly enjoy the conversations with strangers about religion, faith, God, or Israel that inevitably result following this revelation. If pushed to answer, I share that I’m a teacher (which is technically true). When I’m stuck next to someone at 30,000 feet, I simply want to blend in and focus on my book or movie, rather than try to explain my philosophy of Jewish education and the state of American Jewry. 

I’m sure you can pinpoint those times in life when you find yourself desperately trying to fit in, to find whatever the norm is and to be that. Maybe you base your sense of style on what the fashion world tells us is trendy, or maybe you smile and nod during discussions of sports even if you have no interest in the teams. Sometimes it’s a tricky balancing act to be true to yourself and simultaneously be whatever we think of as the average “every person.”

The Torah tells us this isn’t a new conundrum. Parshat Vayigash, our Torah portion for this week, is the continuation of the saga between Joseph and his brothers. Yehudah, one of the master perpetrators of the evil against Joseph, stands up for his brothers and requests to be imprisoned rather than Benjamin. Later, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and his brothers tell Jacob that Joseph is still alive. Then, the 70 members of Jacob’s people follow him down to Egypt, the family is reunited, and there’s effectively a pause in the narrative. 

In chapters 46 and 47 of the book of Genesis, Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh. But before he introduces them, he tells them to say that they are breeders of livestock, not shepherds. His reasoning is that in Egypt shepherds are held in low esteem. But instead of following that suggestion, the brothers remain true to themselves and answer that they are shepherds like their father. Interestingly, Pharaoh responds not by looking down on the brothers, but by elevating them to be in charge of the royal flocks and herds. 

The brothers in Parshat Vayigash are proud to be themselves. They don’t shy away from their lineage or profession because someone suggests that it might not be “cool.” Instead, they share their true identity and are rewarded for doing so. 

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for all of us, including me and my conversations with strangers on airplanes. We would do well to wear our true selves with pride. Our Torah portion reminds us that the ultimate show of respect is first to respect yourself. That’s how we bring blessing into the world.

Forgive But Not Forget – Parshat Miketz 5780

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There are certain memories that I not only hold on to, but ones I sometimes feel hold me back. The broken heart after the end of my first true love left me afraid to trust and love again for some time. The feeling of failure when I didn’t get into a school I had my heart set on held me back from going for my dreams for several years after. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to let go, and it’s something I’m still working on. Part of it might be my hyperactive memory, but I tend to hold on to grudges and remember not just what someone did but also how they made me feel. Sometimes those residual feelings we remember hold us back from healing, which makes it that much more difficult to move forward.

We see memory play a large role in the lives of our biblical leaders. So much of how they react in specific situations hinges upon what has happened to them in the past and how they have held on or let go of that experience. 

Our parshah this week, Miketz, brings us back into the story of Joseph. We pick up in part two of the life and trying times of Joseph. Our hero has had a few setbacks, among them being sold into slavery by his brothers and thrown into jail. However, Joseph gets his big break when Pharaoh has a startling set of dreams. When none of Pharaoh’s resident magicians are able to interpret his visions, Pharaoh calls on Joseph, and with God’s help, Joseph translates the dreams as a sign of an approaching period of fertility followed by a period of famine. Joseph presents Pharaoh with a game plan and becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man in preparation for these times that will certainly be difficult not only for Egypt, but also neighboring lands. 

In the midst of his time in Egypt, Joseph gets married, and he has two children, Efraim and Manasseh. The descriptions of their names comes in chapter 41, verses 50-52: “Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath, daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, ‘God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.’ And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, ‘God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.’”

The name of his first son, Manasseh, might seem strange, considering that he clearly did not forget the hardship of his parental home, which we see when he meets his brothers again in the next parshah. Instead, perhaps he is saying that while he remembers, the memory no longer oppresses him. In other words, Joseph has taken the lesson of his family hardship and learned from it so that he could move forward. He hasn’t forgotten the events, but he has put aside enough of the feeling of those events to move on.

Joseph reminds us that even when we live through the unimaginable, we have the ability to grow from it. On the other hand, when we let our memories oppress us, we’re letting the perpetrators win. Instead, sometimes we have to find the will to free ourselves from the part of the memory that’s holding us back and the wisdom to be aware of it in the first place. 

Self Soothing – Parshat Vayeshev 5780

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One of the hardest parts of parenting infants for me was sleep training and helping them learn the process of self-soothing. For the longest time, both of my children could only find comfort snuggled in my arms. I don’t blame them; I love being cozy and snuggled up too. Unfortunately, inconsistent baby sleeping led to regularly interrupted parent sleeping, and I discovered my tolerance for the “cry it out” method was exactly two minutes before I lost my mind and resorted back to snuggling. Eventually, as they both got older and with the help of their soft “lovies” and reassurance from Mommy and Daddy, they learned how to self soothe. 

Being able to healthfully self soothe is one of the skills we learn very early on in life, and it’s an essential skill for the rest of our lives. With so many ups and downs and unknowns in life, the ability to comfort yourself in a healthy and efficient way is critical to your well-being. But what happens if we lose this ability? In our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayeshev, the patriarch Jacob finds out.

Vayeshev is in the thick of the Joseph story. Joseph has two dreams that he shares with his brothers, both of which make them angry with him. The brothers go out to pasture, Joseph finds them, the brothers decide to sell him, and father Jacob mourns the loss of his favorite son. After this, the story takes a turn to focus on Joseph’s brother Judah and the betrayal of Tamar before turning back to Joseph’s life in Egypt, which ultimately lands him in jail.

Chapter 37, verses 34 through 35, reveal Jacob deep in his grief after his sons tell him Joseph is gone. “Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning for his son many days. All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, ‘No, I will go down mourning for my son in Sheol.’” The Hebrew word used for “comforted” here is reflexive, l’hitnachem. In other words, the pain was so great, Jacob refused to comfort himself. 

Soothing yourself as an adult is different than soothing yourself as a toddler. As adults, we can use rational thought and experience to refocus and remain calm. But in this week’s Torah portion, Jacob reminds us that there are some moments in life that don’t fit neatly into these rational coping blueprints. Sometimes even adults have to cry it out.