The Moment of Change – Parshat Vayigash 5779

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m somewhat predictable. Without fail, certain situations elicit a certain response from me. Whether it’s when my kids are in their difficult moods, or when I hear about a “holiday program” that should be called what it is (a Christmas program), or even when I put down my phone to charge, and suddenly that’s when I get flooded with messages, my frustrations follow certain patterns. You’d think that as predictable as my reactions are, I’d be self-aware enough to modify them, but apparently it takes more than moderate awareness to actually make a change.

Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, reminds us of the different ways in which we see behavioral changes. In the parshah, Joseph’s brother Yehudah (Judah) tries to redeem himself by asking to be imprisoned instead of Benjamin, and Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and heroically invites the whole family to Egypt to save them from the starvation of Israel. In addition, Joseph and his father Jacob are reunited, and Joseph is able to finally reveal his newfound position of power.

The very first line in the parshah reminds us that we can in fact change our gut reactions. Judah goes up to Joseph after he was asked to bring the “favorite” brother, Benjamin, down to Egypt. Once again Judah is faced with the reality that his father still has a favorite son, as well as the fact that the last time this happened he made the choice to get rid of the other favorite (Joseph) instead of deal with the situation in a rational way.

Judah goes up to Joseph and can either make a deal to save his brother, or he can repeat the same poor choice. The Torah says Judah “went up to him.” According to the S’fat Emet, Judah approached himself. He saw who he himself was inside and recognized that while his father had not changed his behavior, Judah could change how he reacted to it. It takes intention and recognition of our own failings to change behavior. Judah recognizes that he can’t change anyone but himself, and that’s exactly what he does. Let us remember that the only choices we can control are our own, but that in itself is enough to cause change.

Fear and Oppression – Parshat Miketz 5779

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Why is it that some people in leadership positions feel they succeed only when others are held back? Whether it’s a boss, a politician, an athlete, or even a family member, we’ve all known someone who felt it was their job to push people down rather than lift them up. Why do people engage in smack talk or bullying in order to make their case or keep others quiet? Why are intimidation and fear of backlash used to keep victims of abuse and harassment silent? Thankfully the Me Too movement has shed at least some light on this pervasive issue. Of course it hasn’t wiped it out altogether, but the pushed around are starting to push back. Today we are seeing that it’s not only the powerful who have a voice, and it’s not only the ones with the loudest voices who hold the power.

The idea of the powerful remaining in control by holding back or oppressing the less powerful out of fear that they might be overthrown is not a new phenomenon, nor one that should surprise us. In Parshat Miketz, the reading we’ll have from the Torah this week, we see a similar fear, manifested in a couple of ways. But in the case of the Torah portion, the fear is channeled productively to everyone’s benefit.

To recap, Joseph solves Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes a great leader in Egypt. He then marries and has two 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.

At the outset, Joseph is interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. One dream features fat, prominent, powerful cows being devoured by weak, skinny, meek cows. Imagine being in Pharaoh’s position and dreaming that you, the tyrannical, powerful leader might be overthrown by a body of people you see as “less than.” But instead of using his fear as an excuse to oppress his subjects, Pharaoh uses Joseph’s subsequent interpretations to focus on the famine and formulate a plan to survive.

This seems remarkable for someone in Pharaoh’s position. Consider the potential threat of Joseph himself. Had Pharaoh let fear of an overthrow prevail, he might not have been open to Joseph’s help, possibly fearing Joseph would be the one to overthrow him. However, this Pharaoh was able to look past his fear and doubt to the knowledge to be gained. Instead of oppressing Joseph or holding him back, he welcomed his guidance, which would prove invaluable. The next Pharaoh could have learned a thing or two from his predecessor on how to treat those who are “other.”

Parshat Miketz reminds us that every leader, no matter how powerful or steadfast, has moments of doubt. It’s up to the leader to recognize those moments to learn and grow and continue their success.

Too Young to be a Rabbi – Parshat Vayeshev 5779

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If I had a dollar for every time someone either told me I looked too young to be a rabbi or that I was an old soul, I could have finished paying back my student loans long ago. I have always been an old soul in a younger body. When I was younger, I often preferred to hang out with the adults over my peers, and I was more comfortable in situations that seemed “adult” and less “angst-filled teen” even when I was an “angst-filled teen.”

However, given my young age, I’m also constantly reminded that I look too young to have wisdom, or to teach people decades older than me about a religion thousands of years old. I usually laugh it off, knowing that age is simply the number of years since birth, not a milestone of wisdom. Wisdom is attained through experiences, learning, and living. And in my 36 short years I’ve learned quite a bit from the experiences life has thrown at me.

Parshat Vayeshev reminds us of all the complexities that might come with age. It begins with Joseph’s youth and the problems he encounters when trying to relate to his siblings through his dreams. They subsequently sell him, which results in their father Jacob going into a deep period of mourning. Joseph finds himself in Egypt, interacting with young and old alike and using the skills that once turned off his peers to his own benefit.

Joseph’s relationship with his father, and thus also his relationship with his brothers, is sealed in the way he is described in chapter 37, verse 3: “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic.” This verse is somewhat confusing. Benjamin was in fact younger than Joseph, so why did Joseph retain the preferred status? The answer for both Rashi and the Kli Yakar, a 17th century commentary on Torah, lies in the words used in Hebrew to describe Joseph. For Rashi, “ben z’kunim” refers to Joseph as a child with the mature wisdom of an older person. Thus, Joseph is wise beyond his years, and that made him unrelatable to his brothers, but the perfect peer for his father. The Kli Yakar understands it to mean that Joseph could be playful with children and mature in the company of adults. Joseph was a chameleon of sorts.

We spend so much time reinforcing to our children that they should just “be themselves.” But what if who they really are inside doesn’t match the “self” we expect them to be because of their age or sex or development? Respect and open communication are possible only when we value each person because of what they offer individually, not because of a category we put them in. A very philosophical statement, right? Well, perhaps I’m wise beyond my years.

True to Myself – Parshat Vayishlach 5779

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A while back someone asked me what I like to do with my free time, and it took me a second to come up with an answer that was simply about me. Before having kids, I loved going on long walks, cooking, reading a book (often in just a day), learning, and going to movies. Since having kids, I’ve read three books in five years, I rarely cook something other than the necessary dinner cooking, and I can count on one hand the number of movies I’ve seen in a theater since Shiri was born. And I don’t remember the last time I stayed awake through a movie at home. About the only thing I still do for me alone anymore is long walks. Those are essential.

When the world around us gets busy, and life starts to consume us, sometimes we have to let go of pieces of ourselves in order to continue growing. Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayishlach, reminds us of what it might be like to live fully as yourself, even as the world around you is changing. Jacob is preparing to meet his brother Esau after their fallout and struggles in his dream with the angel who changes his name to Israel. The brothers meet and part in peace, and the story continues with the birth of more sons to Jacob and the different ways in which his children misbehave. But before all the fun begins, Jacob has a realization about his character while living with Laban.

In Chapter 32, verse 5 we read Jacob’s message to his brother: “To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: I stayed with Laban and remained until now.” In Hebrew, Jacob uses the word garti, as in “I lived there.” Rashi, the great Medieval commentator, reminds us that garti is actually an anagram of taryag, the numerical value of 613 used to represent the 613 commandments in the Torah. Rashi extends this by teaching that Jacob’s words actually mean “I stayed with Laban, but maintained my integrity; I was not corrupted by him.”

There are so many ways in which our interactions in the world are influenced by those around us. From the ways in which we behave day to day to the hobbies we take on, we are influenced by our status in life, and the relationships in which we find ourselves. When we’re around people who make bad choices, we’re often more likely to do the same. But, when we surround ourselves with positive role models, we may follow suit.

What can be difficult is choosing to do the right thing, even when depravity seems to surround us. As Hillel teaches in Pirkei Avot, “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” May we all be like Jacob, hold true to ourselves, our values, our core beliefs, and may we help others to shine out in the world around us.

Does God Leave You? – Parshat Vayetzei 5779

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A year ago as I was teaching our 6th graders our “Tidbits of Torah” class, where we read a small section of each parshah in order to prepare for their b’nai mitzvah Torah portions, one of the verses we read elicited this question. Does God ever leave you?

The context for this question comes in chapter 28, verses 13-17:

And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham, and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

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. We examined these verses that day in class, and the students quickly wondered what it meant that God “will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Does it mean that there are times in our lives when God is not with us? Does it mean that God’s promise to us covers both our past and our future, so God is of course always there? Do these verses mean that if our perceived destiny is fulfilled then it was God’s wishes? These were weighty questions coming from 11 and 12-year-olds.

We came to the general consensus that perhaps God is always with us, but is actively engaging in our lives only in those times when we need it most. Even the students who questioned the notion of God playing any role in our lives agreed that whether or not people believe in God, God might still believe in us and journey through life with us as a presence.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that God is always present in my life in some way. Sometimes it feels like a blessing, sometimes more like a curse, but God’s love is always there and only leaves when my soul returns to its final resting place.

Now it’s your turn to answer: What does it mean to you that “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you?” The wonderful thing about learning together is that we often end up with more questions than answers, which simply means more exceptional learning opportunities!