Running on Empty – Parshat Toldot 5781

I have the habit of running myself ragged, sometimes beyond my body’s limits, and simply ending up with an empty tank. It’s strange that I never let my car gas tank go below a quarter tank, for fear that I might get stranded somewhere, but that seems to not apply to my own well-being. I have to schedule time into my calendar to refill my soul with a nourishing walk outside, or remind myself to put away my phone for some uninterrupted time with my kids. Shabbat can come in handy for these moments if I’m not working the whole day, but when I get to the empty mark, that’s it for me. I can’t see past my exhaustion and often don’t have the capacity to bring my spirit, comfort, or even presence to our community.

I realize it’s not just me facing this issue. We live in a world that celebrates busyness and pushing ourselves to the limit in terms of scheduling, activities, and commitments. In doing this, we often get to a point of being unable to see past the current moment, and the same happens in our Torah portion this week, Toldot. 

This week, in Parshat Toldot, Isaac and Rebekah become parents. The pregnancy is not easy, and the twins are anything but calm. Jacob and Esau are very different, and each is feisty in his own way. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for lentil stew, and Jacob tricks his father into getting the blessing his brother deserves. Esau finds out, and his outrage over the incident causes Jacob to flee for his life. The portion ends with Esau growing up and rebelling against the family in his choice of life partner.

Perhaps the most famous part of this Torah portion is the bargaining of Jacob with Esau for the birthright. The narrative tells us that Jacob, the favored child, the one their mother doted on, is cooking a delicious stew. Esau, who is described from birth as wild and clearly not favored by Rebekah, comes back from hunting. Esau is “famished” and accepts the bargain to give away his birthright, his prized position simply to satisfy an immediate need.

Joseph Soloveitchik, a brilliant mind among the 20th century Torah commentators, understands Esau’s hunger not to be solely physical, but rather a spiritual weariness and exhaustion. Perhaps Esau is weary because he doesn’t have faith to give meaning to his life, or perhaps he sees no point in living since death comes for us all, or perhaps he is so over it and exhausted that he can’t see past his own needs to his obligations to his family and community. Whatever combination of reasons, Esau acts out of this confluence of moments for his present need instead of what might have served him better in the future.

Parshat Toldot is a reminder to be aware of our hunger, both physical and spiritual, so that we don’t get to the point of famished. That might mean literally eating little snacks during the day to stay satiated but not stuffed, or metaphorically filling your soul with small breaks each day in nature or with your family. Whatever exhausts us does not have to control us. As long as we have a clear set of both values and boundaries, we’re able to act not from an empty, hollow place, but from a place of loving ourselves enough to know what we need.

Out of Reach – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5781

I’m not tall. I’m five feet, two inches on a good day. However, the ark in the sanctuary at Neveh Shalom was clearly designed for someone much taller, closer to six feet. In order to get the Torah in and out of it, I must stand on my tiptoes, reach in, and pray that my upper body strength is enough to lift it out. Sometimes, this little stretch just doesn’t cut it, and I have to ask for help.

Occasionally I have this struggle with mezuzot as well. The standard height for a mezuzah is in the top third of the door frame. This means that shorter members of our communities are often left out, since this height can even put the mezuzah out of eye level, let alone out of touching or kissing range.

It can be frustrating when it appears that a mitzvah or ritual item is physically out of reach. As an advocate for our communal spaces being accessible to everyone, I have been on a long-term mission to put our mezuzot at the middle of the door frame, a height which doesn’t require taller congregants to bend down, and also allows our youngest and smallest members to reach up and participate in the mitzvah.

Having our rituals at a reachable height actually allows for better connections with God, as we learn about in this week’s Torah portion. We read from Parshat Chayei Sarah, which makes the transition from one generation to the next. Beginning with Sarah’s death, we learn about Isaac and his courtship with Rebekah, the list of Abraham’s descendants, and the death of Abraham and his burial at the cave of Machpelah. Through it all the family continues to push their way from experiences of loss and grief into the next chapter of life.

As Abraham moves on in his grief, he sets out to help his son Isaac find a wife. He employs his servant to go out and find the right woman for Isaac. As he tasks him with this work, Abraham asks his servant to swear an oath. “Put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth.” For the Torah at this particular moment, this is an oddly specific description of God’s location that Abraham is sharing. The midrash in Sifrei Deuteronomy suggests that before the time of Abraham, God ruled in heaven, but was unknown on earth. It was Abraham who brought God’s sovereignty down to earth.

There is of course a larger lesson here. In this case, Abraham is suggesting that any loving partnership should not be out of reach or devoid of the divine. Instead, all of our rituals, even those of love and marriage, should be within reach of everyone. And with our regular rituals and mitzvot within physical reach, we can focus more on stretching our minds rather than our bodies.

The Multipurpose Life – Parshat Vayera 5781

What do you want to be when you grow up? A question that is asked repeatedly throughout our young lives. If you ask my son Matan what he wants to be, he’ll tell you a leaf blower or a vacuum cleaner (not the people who use these items, but the items themselves). If you ask Shiri, her answer depends on the day, but it’s usually a pop star or an artist/author like Eric Carle. No doubt these notions will change as they mature (Matan’s most certainly will). Do you remember your answer to this question from when you were a child? Are you actually doing one of the things you hoped to be doing?

Over the course of a lifetime, we may hold any number of different titles, positions, or even careers. Our purpose or calling in life might change based on our passions, strengths, or needs at any given time. This is one of the characteristics that makes us human: we have the ability to make clear choices, change our path, and fulfill multiple goals throughout our lives. 

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.”

One item in the narrative of Abraham and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah which fascinates me is when we learn about different numbers of angels. Previously when Abraham encountered the angels, three of them were mentioned as they visited him in his recovery. Now we’re down to two, and by the end of the parshah we’ll only have one. Why this decrease in number? The Talmud suggests that an angel exists to perform one specific task, after which the angel disappears. In our text, one angel delivers the good news about Sarah and Abraham and their future, one destroys Sodom, and the third arrives to rescue Lot.

We often think of angels as God-like beings, and by definition that suggests they don’t face the same limitations we do. However, these angels serve only one purpose each, while human beings, on the other hand, can and do live to serve multiple purposes and to achieve countless accomplishments.

One of the deeper lessons of Parshat Vayera is that we as humans have been given something not even the angels have. We have the ability to change, and that is more powerful than any single purpose.

Where You Begin – Parshat Lech Lecha 5781

As a child when I learned the stories of the Torah, the introduction of Abraham as the first monotheist always stuck with me. In particular, my teacher told this elaborate story of Abraham as a boy working in his father’s idol shop, and being really uncomfortable with the idea of people praying to all of these objects. Abraham tried to convince his father that idols were not necessary, that they shouldn’t be there, that there was only one God, but his father didn’t listen. So, one day while Abraham was minding his father’s shop, he took a stick and smashed all the idols except the largest one, and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned, Abraham explained that it was the large idol that caused the damage, which his father said was impossible because it was just a statue. Thus, Abraham emerges a leader in this new way of thinking, and our narrative of monotheism is born.

What an insightful backstory the Torah gives us about Abraham’s family and his origin as an independent thinker and leader. Except, this story isn’t in the Torah, it’s a midrash written much later. The Torah, in fact, doesn’t give us much to go on at all. What we do know of Abraham’s backstory is from last week’s parshah, Noach. Terah begat Avram (his name before it was Avraham), Avram married Sarai, and she could not have children. Terah took his son, grandson, and their family on a journey from Ur to Canaan, but didn’t make it all the way. Terah died at 205 years old. That’s what we know.

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Lech Lecha, begins when Avram is already about 75 years old. The text starts 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 to Avraham (Abraham) and Sarai to Sarah.

When Abraham finally hears God’s voice and makes the choice to listen to it, he’s 75 years old. Abraham lives 75 years of his life before he leaves his home as the first Jewish patriarch, and yet we know very little about that life. Since his past is so void of details, the rabbis of old made up stories to fill in the gaps so we might understand a little bit more about his character, why he made the choices he did, and why he was the one chosen as the leader.

There are countless true stories of artists, writers, actors, teachers, even rabbis, who have chosen a new direction much later in life. Whether it’s a career change or another major life decision that leads you on a new path, sometimes “life” begins well into the years we’ve lived. Parshat Lech Lecha jumps into Abraham’s life much later than you’d expect, but it’s because his story really begins in the moment he made a choice to follow God and step into the role that changed the course of history.

Cause and Effect – Parshat Noach 5781

One of the parts of parenting that I struggle with the most is when my children’s actions have negative consequences, and they don’t understand they’ve brought it upon themselves. Because they are not developmentally ready to make that connection, they have no understanding that they played a role in causing those results. Instead, they blame me.

For example, I’ll tell the kids it’s time to go up stairs and get ready for bed. We set a timer, knowing that if it goes off before they’re ready for bed, that means we’re out of time for stories. The idea is to beat the timer to ensure you get a story. But of course they play around, dawdle, complain, do anything but get ready for bed. I gently remind them that the timer has started and if they don’t start listening and moving, there will be no story. In my mind, the expectations are very clearly set, but inevitably the timer goes off without finishing bedtime preparations, and we don’t have time for a book. Cue the tantrum from the children and my “you did this to yourself” conclusion that they can’t quite internalize.

While we may have a better grasp of situations and our roles as we mature, we still do this to ourselves as adults. Yes, sometimes our struggles have outside causes, but sometimes we have no one to blame but ourselves. Parshat Noach, our Torah portion this week, carries this message with it. Parshat Noach details the misbehavior of the people who inhabit the earth in this pre-Judaism time. We read about Noah as a beacon of hope among the despicable people of his town. God instructs Noah to build the ark, put the animals on it, and escape destruction under God’s protection during the flood. Noah’s story is capped off with a covenant between God and humankind to never again destroy the world. Unfortunately, the beauty of the rainbow is quickly tainted as we learn of the misdeeds committed by a new civilization in trying to reach up closer to God. 

As we read the story of the flood, God is very clear about why the flood is necessary: “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them; I am about to destroy them with the earth.” In other words, God reminds Noah that civilization brought this on themselves. Their behavior, the lack of rule following, the unethical, immoral, and nasty actions brought on this flood.

The lesson seems clear: we reap what we sow. Displacement of peoples, pollution, the healthcare crisis – these issues are ones we’ve brought on ourselves, and we have to change them ourselves. While my 4- and 7-year-old may not be able to fully grasp this, Parshat Noach reminds us that as adults, we are responsible for our actions and what happens because of them, positive and negative.