Tuesday, December 6, 2016

All I Leave Behind Me Is Only What I Found ( Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "China Doll")

Now that the December Holiday season is upon us, one cannot turn on the television without a Christmas special on one channel or a Christmas movie on another channel. Perhaps the most beloved holiday movie in our home is Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”. In fact the first time the movie was on this year occurred earlier this week. With our children on the computer, the phone or the IPod, I happened to turn the movie on. I notified my children that “It’s a Wonderful Life” was on. I have never seen them stop doing whatever it is they were doing. Within a few seconds, our kids were on the sofa watching the movie. We have watched this movie dozens and dozens of times as a family. Often times our kids will ask us questions about the movie, it’s setting, and if life was really the way it is portrayed in the movie. For the first time, our kids picked up on something that I never really noticed. Until Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey gets married, his greatest desire is to leave home, go away to school, and make a life for himself in some other place besides Bedford Falls. This unfulfilled desire gnaws away at him and contributes to his sense of failure as an adult, as a husband, and a father.  They wondered aloud why it is so important for George Bailey to have left home, and why is it such a source of frustration in his life? I explained that leaving home is important because it is vital to become an independent and confident person. I explained that we could talk more after the movie.
This Shabbat we read from Parsha VaYeitze. The focus of the narrative is upon Yaakov. For the first time, Yaakov will find out what it means to be alone in the world.  He has left his mother, Rivkah, and his father Yitzchak, for the first time. In fleeing his brother Esav, Yaakov now embarks on a new phase of his life. For the first time, but certainly not the last time, he will have to face being alone. He will learn to be an independent individual. Yes, Yaakov will meet his future wives, his cousins Leah and Rachel. He will work for his father in- law, Lavan, and he will have children. The narrative will focus upon Yaakov’s life from young adulthood to becoming a responsible father, earning a living and all the trials, tribulation, and tensions of career and family. As Yaakov makes his way in life, hopefully he will learn more about himself. With each event, with each adventure, Yaakov has an opportunity to become better connected, better connected to himself, and better connected to a covenant that his father bequeathed to him. Yet throughout the narrative he will learn to be alone, he will learn to become independent, he will learn, through trial and error, to whom he should spiritually cling: from Esav, to his parents, Lavan, his wives, and ultimately God.
At the conclusion of the previous Parsha, Parsha Toldot, we read that Yitzchak and Rivkah instructed Yaakov to go to Padan- Aram, to the house of Bethuel (Rivkah’s father’s home) and take a wife from there. We would expect Parsha VaYeitze to begin with Yaakov heading to Padan- Aram. Instead, VaYeitze begins: VaYeitze Yaakov M’Beer Sheva VaYeilech CharanaYaakov departed from Beer Sheva and went toward Charan. Why doesn’t VaYeitze, say that Yaakov departed and went to Padan Aram? Why do we need to be told that he went to Charan what’s in Charan? Keeping in mind that Yaakov has never been away from home and although he is heading toward is mother’s family; even Rivkah knew enough to leave her family of origin. Now Yaakov, in order to preserve his life, must leave his family of origin. In Toldot, Yaakov was described as Ish Tam  Yoshev Ohalim – a simple man of faith who dwells in tents (Gen. 19;27) The Talmudic Sages explain that Yaakov’s dwelling in the tents meant that he spent time in his parent’s tents studying and learning. However no learning would prepare him for what he would contend with when dealing with Rivka’s family and particularly her brother Lavan.  Rabbi Kamenetsky, (1891-1986), explained that prior to arriving in Paddan Aram, Yaakov stopped in Charan to learn from Shem and Eber. Shem was Noah’s son, and Eber from the generation of the Tower of Bavel. Both were considered righteous and wise men who lived in unsavory environments and managed to retain their sense of righteousness. Yaakov sought their practical wisdom prior to his encounter with Lavan and dealing with becoming independent in an unsavory environment.  He will also need the wisdom of Shem and Eber to help him eventually return home. As a result of Yaakov’s detour, Yaakov understands that he must maintain a relationship to God, and he understands that he will need to find his way home when the time is right.
As we watched the movie, I suggested that George’s he wished that he never had been born, symbolized his leaving home and all the lives he touched when he left only to return when he returns to real life. For Yaakov, he needed to leave his physical home, but clearly he took with him the values and the learning that he acquired from his family. He took God with him as well as the sense of the land. He took with him a desire to return home. I reminded our children that part of becoming independent is knowing what to bring and what to leave, what wisdom is helpful and which superstitions are foolish. For both Yaakov and George Baily, part of the independence that they achieve is deriving their own faith based upon not only what they learn from their families but from their own experiences. Hopefully, our children, as they strive for their own sense of independence will make stops along the way in order to learn, test, and discover faith for themselves. Of course when they are all finished, hopefully they will come home every so often to visit.
Rav Yitz.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Esau Holds A Blessing, Brother Esau Holds A Curse (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "My Brother Esau")

          It has been “Cold War History Week” this week in our home. With the death of Fidel Castro, we watched as Little Havana (a section of Miami, Florida) erupted with tears of joy, relief and celebration. We watched as the Cuban state television showed the Cuban people standing in line and shedding tears of sadness as they prepare for a funeral.  As our children watched both tears of joy and tears of sadness they became confused. Their confusion grew as we watched the news and listened to political commentators from both the Left and the Right offer a harsh and justified opinion of this Communist dictator who imprisoned, and murdered numerous Cubans and forced many to flee to the United States.  They listened to Cuban-American legislators from Florida explain why Castro was so dangerous. They heard how this dictator from this tiny island 90 miles off the coast of Florida managed to convince the Soviet Union to place nuclear missiles in Cuba and aim those missiles at Florida during October of 1962. They saw comments by President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau that reflected something other than the emotions expressed in Little Havana, or by Cuban Americans, or by those who are students of “Cold War” History. Admittedly they were a bit confused as they wanted a definitive answer as to whether Fidel Castro was a good guy or a bad guy.  I explained that sometimes a bad guy might have a redeeming quality or two. I explained that sometimes the determination of a good guy or a bad buy depends upon who is looking, which explains Prime Minister Trudeau’s response and the response of so many Cuban Americans. I explained that sometimes a person might be too complex, that maybe he started off good and then evolved into something worse. After all, Castro initially sought U.S. aid to overthrow the Bautista regime in the late 50’s, and wanted to utilize America’s most sacred documents: The Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, as the foundation for a more democratic government. When the United States said “no” to Castro, he found help from the Soviet Union.
This week, we read from Parsha is Toldot. We read of the birth of Esav and Yaakov. Even though they were twins, we learn that these boys couldn’t be any more different. Esav is a hunter Ish Sadeh – a man of the field, an outdoorsman, Yaakov is Ish Tam v’Yashav b’Ohalo – a simple man who resides in his tent. Yaakov is concerned with the Birthright, receiving blessings and the spiritual world. Esav is concerned with eating, drinking, hunting and the physical world. We learn that just like his father, Avraham, who experienced a famine in the land, Yitzchak also experienced a famine in the land. Unlike his father, Yitzchak does not go down to Egypt. Yitzchak remains in the land, grows wealthy, and re-opens the wells that had gone dry in his father’s day. The narrative then re-focuses upon Yitzchak and his family. Yitzchak, sensing his imminent death, wants to bless Esav. Rivka overhears this and tells Yaakov to pose as Esav in order to receive the blessing. Yaakov listens to his mother, and dresses as Esav. Yaakov receives Yitzchak’s blessing. As a result, Esav is fit to be tied and threatens to kill Yaakov. The Parsha concludes with Rivka telling Jacob to go to her brother’s home, convincing Yitzchak that Yaakov needs to leave home in order to find a wife. Yaakov receives his fathers’ blessing, the blessing of the Brit, the Covenant that God made with Avraham and Yitzchak, a blessing that was never intended for Esav.  Yaakov leaves home and Esav moves away as well. He decides to dwell with his uncle Ishmael among the Canaanites.
Esav on the other hand is Ish Sadeh, a man of the field, a hunter, a physically oriented person. Yes he sells his birthright to his brother because he is “starving to death”.  He marries the wrong girl from the wrong tribe which upsets his parents. However, we should keep in mind he fulfills his father’s request in order to receive his blessing. In fact the ChaZaL, the Talmudic Sages, ascribe the mitzvah of Av, Kibud respecting the father, to Esav.  Frequently, Esav would cook and care for his father. Clearly he was very close to Yitzchak. So when Esav doesn’t receive the blessing: KiShma Esav et Divrei Aviv Yitzchak Tzaaka Gedola U’Mara Ad M’Ode; VaYomer L’Aviv Barcheini Gam Ani Avi When Esav heard his father’s words, he cried out an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me to my Father” (27:34). Four verses later, when it appears that Yitzchak doesn’t have a blessing in reserve for Esav: VaYomer Esav El Aviv HaBracha Achat Hee Lecha Avi, Barcheini Gam Ani Avi VaYisah Esav Kolo VaYeivkEsav said to his father, “have you but one blessing, my Father? Bless me too my father!” and Esav raised his voice and wept (27:38).  After this big strong strapping sort of man finished crying he then vowed to kill his brother.  For a moment at least, Esav appears sympathetic, his cry is “exceedingly great”; he “raises his voice and weeps”.  What did these cries sound like? After all, not all cries sound the same. Was it the type of cry when one has suffered a sudden loss? Was it the cry of someone who just broke a bone? Was it the cry upon hearing the news of a loved one? Was it the cry of being at the end of one’s emotional rope and feeling helpless in the face of life’s onslaught? The Meforshim (the commentators) are oddly silent about the nature of the “Tzaak Gedola UMara- the great and bitter cry. Perhaps the silence suggests that Esav’s response is legitimately reasonable. Maybe the silence suggests that Esav’s crying is so out of character from the way he has behaved up until this point and how he acts after the second cry. Regarding the VaYisah Esav Kolo VaYeivk Esav raised his voice and wept;” the Midrash Tanchuma comments that Esav wept only three tears. One from each eye and one that disappeared in the midst of his eye. When God saw that the “wicked one wept over his life only 3 tears”, that small limited moment demonstrated the smallest of regret over the what his life had become and might very well be in the future. For this tiny moment, for this humane cry, God made sure that Esav received a blessing. Maybe not the one that Yaakov received, but this minimal blessing reflects the minimal nature of the crying, weeping.
Indeed, Esav was a “bad guy”. He was and will remain an existential threat to Yaakov until he confronts his Esav twenty years later. But once that existential threat is no longer considered an “existential threat”, Esav becomes small, small to the point that his line, his descendants, become utterly meaningless in the narrative of B’nai Yisroel. Sure there will be moments throughout the Torah where Esav's descendants will engage and even give B'nai Yisroel a difficult time. Yes, the Talmudic Sages will cast Roman Empire,  once an existential threat to the Jewish People, as Edom (the tribe that Esav's descendants are known as) but they too will disappear from the course of history. So as our kids watched and listened to the coverage and received an intensive lesson in “Cold War” History, hopefully they understood that when existential threats no longer exist, judgements of “good guy” or “bad guy” become much more complex and difficult to make.

Rav Yitz

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Since The End Is Never Told We Pay The Story Teller Off In Gold (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Lady With The Fan")

 For the most part our children have figured out how to balance being American and living in Toronto. Sure they notice subtle cultural differences. For the most part, our kids' citizenship is not a "front and center" sort of issue in their world.  However in the days immediately preceding the United States Thanksgiving; our children have to explain Thanksgiving to their friends. Because we take them out of school, our kids need to explain Thanksgiving to  their teachers as a reason for an upcoming absence, a reason to get homework assignments and a reason to try and reschedule tests.  Sometimes the teachers are understanding yet curious, “a real Thanksgiving dinner that we see on TV?”  Our children explain that yes, their family gathers together, eats Turkey and all the trimmings, goes around the table telling family and friends one thing for which they are thankful. When our children’s friends ask why we celebrate Thanksgiving, why it’s such a big deal in the U.S., and why it’s such a big deal for Jews, our kids tell them that Thanksgiving has a story. It’s not just a meal, it’s not just a family gathering, watching a parade, a football game (maybe, if it’s not too boring!).  There is a narrative, a story, and the story is taught to every little child in every school and the story gets repeated over and over for decades and centuries and the story, is transmitted from one generation to the next, transcending economic class, transcending ethnic background, transcending social status. The story, the narrative highlights one the fundamental values upon which North America was built: immigrants coming to the New World fleeing religious persecution. The narrative includes the reasons for the special meal and includes a food that is distinct to North America, or at least it was distinct in the 1600’s: Turkey.
This Shabbat we read from Parsha Chayei Sarah, “the Life of Sara”. It is a rather odd name for a Parsha that discusses’ Sarah’s death, and Avraham’s funeral preparations including: a eulogy, crying, and the purchase of land for burial. The focus then shifts from Sarah’s death and Avraham’s caring for her to Avraham’s son Yitzchak and getting on with his life. Avraham instructs his servant to find a wife for Yitzchak from among his ancestors. The servant head back to Avraham’s homeland, he asks’ God for a sign so that he knows which girls is the right one for his master’s son. He finds the girl, convinces her to return with him, the girl leaves home and heads back with the servant to meet her new husband and her father –in-law. They get married. Avraham takes a wife and lives quietly in retirement. The Parsha concludes with Avraham’s death and the death of his eldest son Ishmael.
Structurally, the Parsha is rather peculiar. Between narrative of Sarah’s death and funeral and the narrative of Avraham and Ishmael’s deaths exists a narrative affirming life.  A father arranges to find a wife for his son. A young woman, Rivkah,  leaves home and marries Avraham’s son Yitzchak, a man who had a near death experience when his father tried to offer him as a sacrifice and who is dealing with the death of his mother.  This life affirming narrative is told three different ways. The first narrative occurs when Avraham tells his servant what to do: Return to the ancestral homeland, find a girl from the tribe, bring her back so that Yitzchak can marry her. The second narrative is Avraham’s plan coming to fruition. The servant returns to Avraham’s homeland, he prays to God for a sign that he should pick the right girl, he meets the girl and then meets the family. The third narrative is the servant’s recounting the narrative beginning with Avraham’s presenting the servant with this sacred task. Why does the Torah present this narrative three different ways and from three different perspectives: Avraham’s plan, Avraham’s servant (Eliezer) fulfilling the mission, Eliezer explaining all these events to Rebecca’s family? Why all the details? The Torah could have told of Avraham’s plan, and even included the events that allowed Eliezer to fulfill the plan. Certainly we don’t need to read Eliezer’s recounting of events to Rebecca’s family. The Torah could have said: “And Eliezer told her family all that happened.” Maybe we read the narratives’ reiteration gets us to look at it in more than just a cursory manner. The more we look at it, and hear about it, the more we begin to realize just how miraculous the whole story is. Maybe the narrative’s reiteration reminds us that the focus should be on life affirming events rather than death affirming events.  Maybe the subliminal message and the reason for the narrative’s reiteration is the sanctity of narrative. Yitzchak was dealing with lots of death, as was Avraham. Generally death marks the end of a narrative. For Yitzchak and Rebecca, both of whom were about to begin new stage of life together, they needed to have a new narrative, their narrative. For the narrative to be effective it had to include the past, an origin, it needs to embody point to a possible future, it needs to embody fundamental values, and it needs to have a way of being transmitted.
 Indeed Thanksgiving is beloved by the American Jewish community. There is a narrative about people coming to the new world to escape religious persecution. There are special foods. Families come together. The only difference between Thanksgiving and any Jewish Holiday is that Thanksgiving does not have any restrictions of a Yom Tov. However every Jewish family can relate to the immigrant experience, every Jewish family can relate to the importance of religious freedom. Every Jewish family understand the sanctity of a narrative, the telling of a story that links the past to the present and offers lessons for the future. Just exactly how important is the idea of narrative in Judaism. Halacha Jewish law includes commandment to tell the story of the Exodus, to read the Megillah of Esther twice on the holiday of Purim, to teach Torah to “your children”. Judaism commands us to transmit our narrative to the next generation.  So while we are eating turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes, we will be transmitting the story of Pilgrims, Native Americans, Squanto, the first thanksgiving, religious freedom, the Jewish experience and our family’s immigrant experience.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"When I Was A Young Man, I Needed Good Luck" (Robert Hunter & Keith Godchaux -"Let Me Sing Your Blues Away")

I admit it. Over the past few weeks I had been a bit obsessed about the Presidential Election. I would watch the news until all hours the night. I neglected to help my kids with their homework.  Thankfully, my wife picked up the slack. Well, I am back to the grind helping kids with homework. During one evening while helping our son, he decided to lament just how demanding 7th grade life has become. A quiz that required a few minutes of review, a test to prepare for, our son expressed his exasperation, his frustration offering one excuse after another. “The material is boring”, “the teacher doesn’t teach,” “It's not like I will ever use this stuff”. All this coming out of the mouth of a boy preparing for Bar Mitzvah.  The poor kid didn’t have a chance. I asked our son his age. I confirmed that he, indeed was studying for Bar Mitzvah. I clarified his “job” his “occupation”. I remarked that maybe it was time he starts to grow up a bit and exert some effort and take pride in his work. Obviously this didn’t go over well as I think he was expecting me to empathize with him. Boy was he surprised. In no uncertain words, I asked our son if he wanted me to treat him like a little boy, or a young man on the brink of assuming the responsibility of observing Mitzvot (Commandments) and being a Bar Mitzvah. I asked him how long he wanted to be treated like a little boy as opposed to a young man with responsibility as well as privileges. I suggested he think about those two terms, “little boy” and “young man” and what those terms meant to him.
This week’s Parsha is VaYeira. The narrative and adventures of Avraham the Patriarch continue. While healing from his ritual circumcision, he fulfills the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, hospitality. He negotiates with God and reduces the number of righteous people that must be found in S’dom and Amorrah in order to prevent its destruction. The narrative of Avraham is interrupted as we read the narrative of Lot, the two Angels (the same two that had visited Avraham at the beginning of the Parsha), the destruction of the city, and the impure relationship that results when the survivors think that world has been destroyed. The narrative returns to Avraham as its focus and he and his wife Sarah give birth to a son (Yitzchak), the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael (Avraham’s first born son and his concubine) and the final test of his belief, the Akeidat Yitzchak – the Offering of Isaac. While the narrative highlights Avraham’s faith in God, and certainly a man worthy of receiving God’s covenant; the Parsha is replete with parent’s ill treatment of children. Avraham was willing to offer his son Yitzchak as a way of indicating his faith in God. He banished his son Ishmael into the wilderness. Certainly it is possible to evaluate Avraham’s behavior as a father as a bit negligent to say the least and perhaps abusive.
            Yet the Torah struggles with portraying Avraham’s sons as just that, sons. When we read the text, we view Yitzchak and Ishmael as little boys, helpless victims in Avraham’s displays of faith. We easily forget that Yitzchak was thirty seven years old when Avraham was asked to make him an offering to God. Ishmael’s status changes throughout the Parsha. His status changes within one narrative from verse to verse.  VaYeira HaDavar M’Ode B’Einei Avraham Al Odot B’no. VaYomer Elokim El Avraham Al Yeira B’Einecha AL HaNa’Ar v’Al AmatechaThe matter greatly distressed Avraham regarding his son. So God said to Avraham, “be not distressed over the (HaNa’ar) youth or your slave woman. (21:11-12). VaYitein El Hagar Sam Al Shichmah V’Et HaYeled V’Yishalcheha VaTeileich BaTeita B’Midbar B’Eir Shava -  He placed them on her should along with the Yeled (the boy), and sent her off… (Gen. 21:14).  Why does the text easily and seemingly so arbitrarily switch between the use of Yeled (the boy) and the Na’Ar (the youth)? The Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Shchreiber, a late 18th early 19th century German commentator and Halachist, points out that the term Na’ar (Youth) is used when Ishmael is home living with Avraham, and the term Yeled (boy/child) is used when Ishmael is in the wilderness cut off from his father’s influence.  A Na’Ar (a youth) was held to the same high standards that Avraham held for himself and his household. This means that as a Na’Ar, Ishmael embodied and lived up to the expectations of Avraham’s teachings. As Yeled (a boy), Ishmael was not held to the same high exacting standard of behavior and belief.
Parenting is no easy task. Quite often it is thankless. As parents we are constantly forced to make choices. Some of our choices are truly tests in our faith in God. Some of our choices leave us feeling that we are stuck between choosing the between “bad” and “worse”. Some of our choices mean that we need to know when the child is ready to transition from one stage of life to the next, from “baby” to “big boy”, from “child” to “young man”. As parents we have a responsibility to our children, to pass along morals, values, and Torah. As parents we also have the responsibility to determine how much responsibility our kids can handle as they make their way within the developmental process. As a result, we need to see our children as they are and not how we wish them to be. Only then can we help them transition from one stage of life to the next.

Rav Yitz