In the Still of the Night – Parshat Vayigash 5783

Recently I’ve become somewhat of a restless sleeper. Falling asleep is not my problem, though. I’m pretty skilled at that part. It’s staying asleep that’s a struggle for me, especially following a particularly deep sleep early on in the night. Usually, by about 3:00 a.m. my mind starts to race, and my sleep goes from fluid to restless. It’s as if my brain thinks the best time to have an epiphany or take stock of my life is sometime in the wee hours, when all I really want to do is sleep. It has gotten to the point where I keep paper next to the bed so I can write down everything that comes out, not necessarily to save my thoughts, but to help them escape my brain so I can catch a few more hours of sleep.

But why do these deep thoughts strike when I’m not able to fully process them? Of course I don’t remember or understand half of what I write down in my sleepy haze, but I do know that for some people, the best ideas come at odd times, like in the shower, during a commute, or, like me, at 3:00 a.m. Perhaps it’s something about the calm darkness of night that offers a nice blank canvas for thoughts. This is often a place where epiphanies or trains of thought can occur. And apparently, our forefather Jacob and I have this in common.

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 starvation in Israel. In addition, Joseph and his father Jacob are reunited, and Joseph is able to finally reveal his newfound position of power.

The entirety of Jacob’s story is lifted through the power of dreams. From the angels on the ladder when he runs away from home, to the messenger he wrestles, to even raising a son who is a dreamer himself, Jacob is the only forefather to whom God only speaks through dreams.

This week’s parshah is no different. Jacob was nervous about the trip to Egypt, including what it would be like to travel and to see his beloved Joseph once more. In a restless sleep, God reassures Jacob that it will all be fine. Why is it only under the cover of night when God speaks to Jacob? It could be because that’s when we let our guard down. That’s when we’re vulnerable enough to show our true intentions or spirit. As we end another secular year, may we take this lesson of vulnerability and openness into our waking lives too, so that we’re better able to welcome our truest selves.

A Deeper Connection – Parshat Miketz 5783

Do you know those moments when you can just feel a certain connection with someone without even trying? Sometimes a mutual understanding or recognition doesn’t need explaining. Maybe your pupils dilate a little. The conversation has more excitement to it. You feel at ease, as if there’s a strong, but effortless force pulling you together. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but there’s no denying the effect on your body and soul.

We actually see this play out several times in our Torah, a connection between people based on mutual respect and understanding. 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 for neighboring lands. 

When Joseph and his brothers later reconnect, on the surface the recognition is presented as one-sided. Joesph knows that he is looking at his own brothers, but apparently, they do not recognize him. Except, maybe somewhere deep inside, they do. The brothers say, “We are all of us, sons of the same man.” The straightforward interpretation is that they are speaking about themselves, the brothers who have come down to ask for food, with no recognition of Joseph yet. However, another translation of the Hebrew could read, “You and we have the same father.” The ambiguity leaves room to ask: did they know without knowing? Did their hair stand on edge suddenly when seeing their brother, but their minds told them it couldn’t be? 

When Joseph recognizes his brothers, he has an ulterior motive for not quite identifying himself yet. The brothers, however, seem to have felt something – a kinship that let them continue the conversation instead of being intimidated and turning away. 

Just because we as humans have the power of rational thought doesn’t mean we should abandon our instincts. Sometimes it’s those deeply rooted feelings that provide us with the direction we need in the moment. 

The Age of Deception – Parshat Vayeshev 5783

Last year we reached perhaps one of my least favorite parenting milestones. It’s the one where your child moves beyond the “I tricked you” phase, full of silliness and laughter, and into the more deceptive phase, where it’s much harder to tell if they’re telling the truth. And as a bonus challenge for us, one of our children has a much better poker face than the other one.

These little deceits aren’t dangerous, and we sort of knew to expect this next phase, but it’s still troubling in its own way, and it led me to wonder why deception is so common into adulthood. From embellishing a resume to fake social media profiles, deception is everywhere in one form or another. Why do we misrepresent ourselves? Why do we purposefully mislead? 

Falsities go back well before the age of modern convenience. In particular, there are at least three acts of deception in this week’s Torah portion alone. Parshat Vayeshev is in the thick of the Joseph story, and Joseph has two dreams that he shares with his brothers, both of which make them angry. The brothers decide to sell Joseph into slavery, and their 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.

In fact, there’s quite a bit of lying in the Torah. It’s fascinating that for a tradition that holds honesty in such high regard (the prohibition against false witness is in the Ten Commandments) we can point to so many examples of deceit. Even God lied to Abraham in reporting how Sarah reacted when the angels told her she was going to have a baby in her old age.

The difference is the purpose of the lie. What makes the various instances of deception we see in this week’s portion wrong is their intent to cause harm, rather than their intent to create peace. Our rabbinic sages came up with a principle for white lies told for the sake of peace: mutar le-shanot mipnei ha-shalom. Telling untruths (or literally “changing the facts”) is permitted for the sake of peace. We will even see the difference clearly in another lie Joseph’s brothers tell later in Genesis after Jacob’s death, but it’s a lie in an effort to maintain shalom bayit.

What, then, is at the heart of a deception that is meant to cause harm or help one party get ahead? I suggest it’s an act of desperation, however small, that somehow appeases a sense of belonging that has been lost or unfulfilled. When we feel we’ve been wronged or excluded or treated unfairly, it’s easy to grasp at anything, including a lie. If this is truly the case, then the way to prevent deception is not through preaching honesty, but by preaching justice.

Feeling Small – Parshat Vayishlach 5783

When have you felt small? A few years ago I was at a Rabbinical Assembly convention where the CEO asked this question. It just so happened I’d been next to the six-foot-plus-tall Rabbi Steven Rein just minutes earlier, so I didn’t have to think too hard. And immediately after that, we were invited into a tight circle for a singing exercise, and I felt small again because of the sound that enveloped us.

When have you felt small? Take a minute to think about it.

This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, brings the twin brothers together again. The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t care much for 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, 20 years or so later, we find the brothers on a path to meet again.  Both are now married and are fathers of large clans, and have large flocks with them.

As Jacob prepares to reconnect with his brother, he again has a dream. This time he dreams in chapter 32, verse 11: “Katonti mikol hachasidim.” It’s often translated as “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have so steadfastly shown your servant” But a literal translation would be “I am small compared to the kindness.”

In addition, the use of messengers between the brothers is a helpful reminder of the messages we might be sending to others through our actions and attitudes. Strife is often the result of one person or group of people seeing themselves as big, or bigger than others. On the other hand, when we feel small we often don’t stand up for ourselves, and we allow others to take more than their allotted space. There’s a balance between self-confidence and self-depreciation. 

Preparing to go into this moment with his brother, Jacob in his dream state recognizes the need to find his own humility. It’s a valuable lesson both brothers learn. You don’t have to make someone else feel small in order to build yourself up.

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast – Parshat Vayetzei 5783

When I was a child, my mom used to play Simon and Garfunkel in the car on the way to preschool. I have vivid memories of singing along with those words, “Slow down, you move too fast” from “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” I don’t think at the time either of us was aware of the moment and the message it held in it, but now, as the parent of a 6- and 9-year-old, I can’t help but think, “Goodness, slow down!” Time is moving much too fast.

I glance up at their school pictures hanging in the hallway upstairs, wondering how time has continued to move at such a pace. It isn’t that I didn’t know time was moving, it just feels as though they’ve grown in the blink of an eye. They were just babies yesterday, and now, they’re big. What is it about time and our living in it that makes it both simultaneously slow and fast?

This week’s Torah portion perhaps gives us a peek at the reasoning. 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.

As we read this week’s Torah portion, we see Jacob in pursuit of Rachel. As time goes on, it is explained by Jacob as a feeling that “seemed but a few days.” Certainly years of labor and stress did not fly by. What Jacob apparently means is that his love, the desire he felt in those moments, simply made the time pass faster.

When we look forward to something, when we’re fully present, time has a way of both standing still and moving faster than we realize. Parshat Vayetzei reminds us that those moments allow us to see clearly all that has passed and perhaps the immediacy of the future. Time never actually stands still, which is why it’s often annoying when anyone tells you to “enjoy the moment because you’ll miss it” as if there was anything we could do about it. Time is finite and fleeting, but, if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to carry and pass on the memories of the times that meant the most.