Worst Case Scenario – Parshat Vayishlach 5780

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I have a terrible habit of always imagining the worst possible scenario in any instance. When Matan was a baby and I constantly had to get him in and out of the car, I’d envision myself tripping on the stairs and taking a tumble with him in my arms. And whenever the school number pops up on my caller ID, I always assume it’s because one of my kids is sick and has to come home. While my rational mind knows there’s not a lot to be gained from imagining these negative situations, other than at best an abundance of caution and at worst an ulcer, I still can’t help myself from doing this. 

Frequently, these scenarios will play out in our heads in anticipation of an event. When you’re planning a major function, you worry about the weather. When you’re pregnant, you’re concerned about going into labor somewhere not so convenient. When you’re seeing a friend for the first time in forever, you fear that you’ll have nothing to say, or the reunion will be awkward.

It’s this last version that happens in this week’s parshah, Vayishlach, which again shows the interaction between Jacob and his brother Esau. The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t seem too attached to 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, twenty years or so later, we find the brothers on a path to meet again. Both are now married and fathers of large clans, and both have large flocks with them. 

As Jacob is preparing to meet his brother after their extended absence from each other’s lives, he is running through all of the worst case scenarios in his head. Chapter 32, verses 8-9 reveal that “Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.’”

The Hebrew words va-yira and va-yeitser literally mean “he was frightened and upset.” According to Genesis Rabbah, that means that Jacob both feared that he and his family might be harmed and was upset that he might harm his brother in self-defense. Either way you look at it, Jacob was living in the world of worst case scenarios.

But in reality, Jacob took his fear and anxiety and put them into action, making a rational plan for protection and acknowledging how he was really feeling. That way he actually stood a chance at stopping some negative behavior from occurring. Worst case scenarios might just mean your subconscious is trying to remind you to be careful or change your attitude or look at a situation differently. Rational or not, just as Jacob did, we can still learn from the lessons our emotions have to teach us.

Recurring Nightmare – Parshat Vayetzei 5780

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Lately I’ve had the same recurring dream. Do you remember those nightmares about showing up to school in your underwear or missing a test? It’s pretty much like that, except now my nightmare is about shul instead of school. I’m standing on the bima, giving a sermon I feel passionately about. I’m confidently speaking from the heart, when suddenly one congregant after another stands up and starts heckling me. This continues for a while until the whole congregation is booing, and then I’m escorted off the bima. You don’t need to be Freud to understand my anxiety in this dream (which is, thankfully, just a dream).

Parshat Vayetzei, which we read this week, is the beginning of some vivid dream sequences that lead us through the next few parts of our Torah cycle. 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. 

The dreams Jacob has on his journey are full of the emotions he’s experiencing. It’s partly the fear of being in the world alone, but also the hopeful faith that God was always there as a guiding force. While he’s asleep, Jacob’s subconscious is bringing up the memories of running from his brother and of the regret of being dishonest with his father. 

Sometimes our dreams can wake us up to our truest feelings, feelings we might be fearful to address in the waking world. Perhaps there’s a change we’re scared of making, but our dreams, which are out of our control, can present things in a new light. Jacob wakes from his dream, suddenly aware that God was with him, and that when he does the right thing he will have the community and safety he seeks. 

My own personal heckling dream recently returned the night before I was going to give two divrei Torah on topics I was passionate about. Perhaps those dreams were a manifestation of my fear of being vulnerable in front of the congregation. What if my passion wasn’t shared? What if it fell flat? But in having those dreams, I was able to better appreciate that vulnerability and realize that the things that make us less perfect also make us more human.

A Mother’s Love – Parshat Toldot 5780

 

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The easiest part of parenting is love. The hardest part of parenting is tough love. I’m talking about those moments when I just want to give in to the ridiculous tantrum and relinquish a lollipop or M&M so the screaming will stop. But I know if I do that, I’m just making my life harder in the future, because I’m creating the expectation that bad behavior is rewarded. Or how about the moments when I just want to do something for my children instead of letting them make mistakes and learn from them. Doing the right thing as a parent isn’t always easy, but because I love my children I try to be strong and consistent.

Doing what’s best for someone else doesn’t necessarily mean doing what’s easiest or even what’s kindest in the moment. In the Torah, again and again we see parents making tough choices as they raise their children. Parsaht Toldot, which we read this week, is no exception. The text begins with Isaac and Rebecca learning about the birth of their twins, followed by the incident of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob and the sibling issues that follow. In the middle of the portion, we learn about what happens to Isaac as he re-inhabits a land that his father had been to before. 

At the end of the parshah, after the saga of Jacob stealing his brother’s birthright and tricking his father, the text reads, “Then Isaac sent Jacob off, and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau.” If you’ve been following the journey so far, it seems odd that the Torah would reiterate that Rebekah was Jacob’s mother, since at this point we are already very well aware of that. A 17th century Polish commentary called Tzeidah La-Derekh asks this question as well. The response is simple: it’s in her role as a mother that Rebekah sends Jacob away. She’s showing her love to both of her children; she’s sparing Jacob’s life, and she’s saving his brother Esau from becoming a murderer.

Both Jacob and Esau were her children, and while she may have had a deeper connection to Jacob, she still loved and protected Esau. The hardest thing she had to do was send away one child to save his life, and subsequently save the other child.

There are countless choices and decisions we make as parents, and plenty of times we’re left wondering whether or not we’ve made the right choice. The struggle of Rebekah reminds us that our job is to be firm and loving, and to make the tough choices that allow our children the best chance for success in life. 

Mind Over Matter – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5780

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You know the famous witticism: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” I was probably a teenager when I first heard it, and suffice it to say, it didn’t resonate with me at the time. However, as I’ve aged and as those I love have aged, it has started to take on real meaning. Some days I feel young and spry, on top of my game. Other days my back hurts, my legs creak, and I walk into a room of 7th graders and feel instantly ancient. Most days, though, it doesn’t matter. I’m somewhere in between, simply being me – learning, growing, working, and living life.

The old quip of mind over matter is even more relevant now, since the average life expectancy is much longer than it used to be, and we’re much more adept at living well into later and later years. In the Torah, interestingly, age really is just a number. It doesn’t seem to mean much, other than suggesting you had a very long life.

This week we read Parshat Chayei Sarah, in which we learn about Abraham and Sarah and their continued journey to raise their son Isaac to the huppah and a life of good deeds. Our reading begins with the death of Sarah and Abraham looking for a proper place to bury his wife. Immediately after Sarah’s burial, Abraham sets out to find a life partner for his 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, and it ends with the death of Abraham.

Chapter 24 begins with the observation that Abraham was now old, advanced in years. The word that the Torah uses is zaken, which is the modern word for a beard. This observation was not meant merely to note his chronological age, but to note that he has the wisdom and maturity that accompany the years he’s had on the earth. Zaken is also further interpreted in the midrash to stand for Zeh KaNah hochma, which means “this one has acquired wisdom.” 

The Torah never minces words or adds words without reason. The notation of Abraham’s age in this way is meant to remind the reader that Abraham was both older and wiser. In Abraham’s case, his age didn’t mean his mind was any less sharp; it meant he had experienced the world and learned from it. 

Many of our notions about age truly are mind over matter, as long as we appreciate and learn from the experiences we’ve had. Imagine if the lens we used to view those around us was not one of judgment based on the number of years on the planet, but one that allowed us to see and value experience and learning. You’re never too old for that.

Open Eyes – Parshat Vayera 5780

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“And God opened her eyes.” Each day in our morning blessings, we recite “Pokeach Ivrim.” Thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind. I often reflect on this verse with our young daveners in Kiddush Club. “What does it mean to open your eyes?” I’ll ask. The answers usually include thoughtful responses like “so we can see beauty” or “so we can see who needs help.” One particular week, Sammy, an inquisitive first-grader asked, “What about Helen Keller? Would she say this prayer?” And we all paused.

This week we read from Parshat Vayera. This sacred section of text denotes the birth of our Israelite nation as Abraham and Sarah are finally able to procreate. Their journey through infertility was undoubtedly arduous and painful, including Sarah resorting to having a child through her maidservant simply so her husband Abraham could fulfill the mitzvah. 

So much of this Torah portion gets the spotlight (the birth of Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, the binding of Isaac) that we seldom talk about the fate of Sarah’s handmaid Hagar and her (and Abraham’s) son Ishmael. At Sarah’s request (and God’s assurance), Abraham casts Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. There Hagar and Ishmael are, crying out in the middle of the desert for help and for water, and when God hears them and attends to their needs, it is by “opening her eyes.” Our commentary asks, does the well appear miraculously, in answer to the prayer of a deeply distressed mother, or had it been there all along and somehow in her distress, Hagar failed to see it? 

How often in life are we paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of what might need to be done? How often do we perceive ourselves as stuck somewhere, even if the answer is in front of us? Sometimes when a situation seems hopeless or beyond our control, hiding or closing our eyes is the first response. But what if we could train ourselves to let God open our eyes in those moments?

My conversation with first-grader Sammy on that Saturday morning turned to how Helen Keller was able to rise up, overcome the challenges she faced, and persevere. She opened her eyes, even if figuratively, and became an incredible inspiration and example of the strength of the human spirit. May we go into Shabbat, and soon into this new secular year, with open eyes and renewed spirit.