Yichus – Parshat Vaera 5779

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As we go through life our experiences and interactions link us to each other. When we build these relationships we end up with a network of colleagues, friends, and acquaintances that we carry with us. If you do any online social networking, you probably know this is the model behind LinkedIn: who do you know, how do you know them, and what skills or services do they have that you or your other acquaintances might benefit from?

Yes, many things in life are about who you know. In Yiddish this is called yichus, the connection and honor bestowed on you by knowing another person of honor. This is common when referring to long familial lines of rabbis or a prominent political figure. In a less public arena, your yichus might be your great-grandparent and their friends, or perhaps that feeling when you move to a new city and find a close connection that suddenly makes you feel welcomed into the larger community. Yichus, the close tie to others, brings a sense of peace and connection as we navigate the world.

Yichus also plays a prominent role throughout our Jewish story. For example, the connection in daily prayer to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah helps us tie the entire narrative together. Parshat Vaera, this week’s portion, is no different. This week we find the Israelites in the midst of their transition from slavery to freedom. God reminds Moses about the covenant made with our forefathers and that redemption is in the near future. Moses tries to share this with the people Israel, but they aren’t ready to listen to him. And Moses isn’t so sure of himself anyway.

In chapter 6, verses 13 and 14, we see our text pause and take note of our lineage once more while the people are again refusing to listen to Moses. The text pauses in the middle of our narrative and serves us up a genealogy leading to Moses and Aaron’s parents. This is their yichus. But why now? Our commentators suggest that perhaps the timing is because Moses and Aaron might have needed this reminder of where they’ve come from. They’re not imposters; they have a long line of leaders, Levites, and heads of households behind them who have been leading this people for generations.

Furthermore, maybe the people need the reminder too. That’s not to say that just because your grandfather was a top notch surgeon, automatically you will be too (I wouldn’t trust that logic), but it is to remind us that we at least have the support and backing of our ancestors and of our community when we take bold steps in our lives.

Yichus is all about who you know, but it’s also about how you know them and what happens when you support one another. I, for one, am grateful that my Torah and my yichus connects me with each of you. Shabbat shalom.

 

Weighing the Options – Parshat Shemot 5779

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“You won’t know unless you try.” It’s that little bit of encouragement used for helping a friend who’s feeling nervous about a new experience or a child who’s about to taste sweet potatoes for the first time. When in life does the fear of what might happen or what might be unpleasant hold you back from doing what could actually bring positive rewards? In most cases it depends on your ability first to weigh the consequences of the action to evaluate potential outcomes. In other words, what result would be bad, what result would be good, and is either one worth the risk?

The Torah is constantly teaching us this lesson as our patriarchs and the Israelite nation come into their own. Especially in this week’s parshah, Shemot, we see this lesson come to life. This parshah serves as the turning point between the leadership of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to that of Moshe. Shemot leads us quickly through the change in leadership in Egypt as a new Pharaoh who isn’t so keen on the Israelites decrees that all males born should be put to death. Thankfully the midwives ignore this decree, and Moshe is kept alive. As an adopted Egyptian, Moshe joins the palace, but later learns he’s an Israelite. He flees out of fear for his life, marries a Midianite woman, and starts his own family.

The circumstances surrounding Moshe’s birth are intense, as you can imagine. Pharaoh has made a decree that all baby boys should be put to death, thus reproduction among the Israelite community slowed quite a bit. According to the midrash, many Israelite couples even went as far as splitting up so that they wouldn’t procreate and have to watch a male child be put to death. In fact, when Moshe is born we learn that his parents are recently married, which doesn’t really make sense since we know they have two older children, Miriam and Aaron. So how, in those days, could they be newly married?

The midrash fills in this puzzle by explaining that Miriam thought this separation was the wrong choice. It teaches that Miriam persuaded her parents to return to each other by saying basically, “You are worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh only threatens the males; you eliminate the possibility of any child. Pharaoh’s decree may not be carried out, but your decision not to have children certainly will be.” Miriam is able to convince her parents to reunite, and Moshe was born, luckily for the Israelites.

When you’re tasked with weighing potential outcomes, it’s hard to know which decisions will have major implications and which ones minor. Miriam’s strength and conviction in insisting that we must consider all repercussions of our decision making illustrates this point perfectly. If you don’t look at an issue from all sides, you might miss the decision that would change the world.

Caring for the Caretaker – Parshat Vayechi 5779

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As we age we go through a variety of stages. We begin life solely dependent on other, older human beings for support, nutrition, care, and other necessities. As we age we gain independence in each of these areas. From learning to hold a cup or fork, to learning to walk, read, and balance a checkbook, we’re on a steady trend of depending less on parents and more on our own ability to lead and navigate the world.

Even into adulthood, there are certain things we turn to our parents for, even though we might not depend fully on them. When I became a mom, for example, I certainly had lots of questions for my mom about parenting. Eventually, there often comes a point when the roles are reversed, and the parent depends on the child for many things. Many elderly parents rely as much or more on their children for the support they once gave to them.

The idea of this role reversal, of parents relying on children, goes as far back as our very own patriarchs in the Torah. This week we read Parshat Vayechi, the last in the book of Genesis. The text begins with the request of Jacob to not be buried in Egypt, and continues with Jacob blessing each of his sons in his final hours. This text ends with Joseph making the request of his kin to bury him back in Israel when they finally leave Egypt.

What is remarkable is the ways in which we have seen changes in Jacob and Joseph, as well as in their children. Our text begins with Jacob’s end. Jacob has been cared for by his family for a while now as they made their way down to Egypt, and as his beloved son, Joseph, was the caretaker for all of their society. However, in this moment Jacob voices one final request. Chapter 47, verse 29 has Jacob asking his family to do him the service of burying him in Israel. When the Israelite nation will ultimately leave Egypt, he wants to be buried in his homeland. He asks his child out of steadfast loyalty to make him this promise, and in this moment we see a poignant role reversal of parent and child. And of course, Jacob’s sons agree to “remember him” and carry his bones with them as they leave.

This week’s parshah is truly a circle of life display, and the lesson is that caring for other individuals never stops. Responsibility and compassion never take a holiday; they simply guide our lives differently at different times.

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.