Monday, November 23, 2009

I Am I Said

Sermon Saturday Morning
Parshat Toldot – 2009
Shabbat Shalom

“Who are you?” – The moment of truth. Jacob stands before his father and the dreaded question is asked. “Who are you?” It is a rare moment of high drama for the Bible. Isaac has stated his intention to give his blessing to his eldest son, Esau, but Rivka, Jacob’s wife, is determined that the blessing go to her favorite son, Jacob. After all, God promised her before the boys were born that “the elder will serve the younger”; now was the time to act. To Rivka, if Esau gets the blessing, then the oracle will not come true. She has to move quickly. She insists that Jacob impersonate his brother and get the blessing by deceiving his blind father. Jacob is reluctant. He is unsure what to do. He certainly feels he deserves the blessing and not Esau, but he hesitates. He can trick his brother and he can fool the neighbors, but should he play the trickster on his own father? Rivka, his mother, pleads with Jacob to impersonate Esau and finally Jacob goes along, perhaps hoping he will not be asked to lie to his father.

But it all comes down to this moment. The blind Isaac is unsure which son stands before him. Is it Esau or is Jacob playing another trick? So he asks the dreaded question. “Who are you?” It is, for Jacob, the pivotal moment; lie to his father or admit the ruse. The question cuts to the core of Jacob. Is he a liar or an honest man? Does he love his father or does he love the power of the blessing more? Is he his own man or does he blindly follow what his mother says? “Who are you?” Isaac demands. It is now all or nothing. Jacob decides…

“I am Esau, your first born”. He lies. He deceives his father, he insures the wrath of his older, stronger brother. He secures the blessing but the cost is far higher than he can know. He has identified himself as a con man, a deceiver, a trickster. One who will do anything to get his way. He will pay dearly for the deception. He will be exiled from his home, forced into exile without a penny to his name. He will be forced to confront his uncle, a man even more of a con artist than Jacob, and he will depend on Laban the deceiver for his every need. Jacob’s food, shelter and even the love of his life will depend on Jacob trusting his uncle; a confirmed liar and thief.

Later Rabbis will try and exonerate Jacob. They will say he really didn’t lie. That a righteous man like Jacob would never lie to his father. But the Text teaches us the truth. Even the great ancestor of the People of Israel had a moment of truth and he failed the test. For the rest of his life, Jacob will wrestle, literally at times, with the ghosts that will haunt him because of the question of his father, “Who are you?”

“Who are you?” That is not only a question to our patriarch Jacob. It is the question that all of us have to answer. More often than not, we will have to answer it many times. Are you an honest student or will you cheat on the test? Does your business follow ethical standards or will you cheat the unsuspecting customer? Will you be faithful to your spouse or will you let your desires rule your life? It often boils down to that first decision; how will we, like Jacob, act in the moment. “Who are you?” is the question, and almost every day we have to decide who we are and how we will answer that question.

We might think that something as simple as a name could help us identify ourselves, but according to our tradition, even a name is a complicated. The Torah teaches us that Adam, the first human being, was responsible for all the names of all the animals in the world. From that time on, names have never been easy. Jacob was given his name because from birth, he seemed to be trying to push ahead of his twin brother. It seems that Jacob is living up to his name; he is the trickster that his parents identified from birth.

There is a Midrash that teaches us, that every person has three names. There are three different ways that we are known in the world. First, there is the name that we are given at birth by our parents. It reflects the hopes and dreams they have for us at the moment we come into the world. It is likely that we were named after someone in the family that was very special to our parents. Our Ashkenazic tradition is that we are named after a deceased relative who had qualities that our parents wanted to instill in our lives. Sephardim honor living relatives by naming children after them in their lifetime. This name, however, tells us more about our parents than it says about us. If we are pondering the question “Who are you?” this name is not really very helpful. Understanding our parents is important and perhaps some of who we are can be traced to the way our parents raised us, but in the end, we are more than just the dreams of our parents.

The second name is the secret name that only God knows. It is the name that holds the essence of our soul. Many of you may know the story of how the soul comes to be placed in our body. According to the Sages, a soul is picked and is first sent to school to learn about what will happen in his or her life. We learn what work we will do and who we will fall in love with and marry. After this the Angel in charge teaches us the entire Torah, with all the commentaries, so that we will understand the importance of wisdom in our life. Then, in the moment before we are born, the Angel in charge strikes us on the lip and causes us to forget all that we have learned. The story says that this is why we have the indentation above our lip; it is the scar from where the Angel strikes us, and that the reason we are born crying, is because we are heartbroken to have forgotten all that we have learned.

We spend the rest our lives trying to restore all that we have forgotten. It is only the distant memory of what we once learned, the direction of our life, our love and our wisdom that keeps us striving for what we feel must be a deep truth about life. Just as an eraser cleans the page of its writing, but leaves behind the shadow of what was written, so too there is a faint memory of what we once knew before we were born; or as we might say in this age of computers, what was deleted, still leaves traces of what was once there in the computer’s memory. Unfortunately, we also forget the name that we have been assigned by God so if we are trying to answer the question, “Who are you?” this name will not be of much help to us.

The third name that we have is the name that we are known by to those who we meet along the path of our lives. Each time we touch the life of another, we leave a name behind. If we show that we are kind and caring, we will become known as one who is kind and caring. If we choose instead to be hard and cruel, that too will be the reputation that we leave behind. Some people spend their whole lives leaving in their wake only the memory that a selfish and self centered person was here. We can choose to make a difference; we can choose to give of our self, our time or of our resources to those whom we pass in life. If we do, then people will remember us when we are gone saying that once a generous and loving person was here. It is always our choice, we can be known as one who only loves his or her self, or one that is a mentch, a lover of all humanity. This is the name that we give ourselves. And it is the name we are remembered by long after we are gone.

One day, a mother of a young child had a visitor. An elderly woman came to talk about many different topics and told stories of her life. The young child listened in and was spellbound by the conversation between these two women. When the visitor left, the child said to her mother; “What a kind and gentle woman that was who visited us. If that is what it means to grow old, I will not mind growing old at all.” The mother smiled and watched as the visitor walked down the path, then she replied to the child, “If you want to be just like her, then I guess you had better get started. She does not impress me as someone who got that way overnight.”

We should, like our Patriarch Jacob, think about the question, “Who are you?” constantly. If we are unhappy with who we are, then it is important that we begin to change right away. A good name is not something that can be created in a moment. If we feel that we have not lived up to our potential, it is never too late to begin to change. Jacob made all the wrong choices early in his life, but as he grew, he learned that it is never too late to change. One night he wrestled with a divine being. Who that being was, we will never know, but Jacob emerged a changed man. He was wounded but he could walk proudly that he had overcome his past. He emerged with a new name, no longer “Jacob the trickster” but “Israel, the man of God”. His life was still hard and full of pain, but he would now be remembered as the father of a nation, and he would be surrounded by several generations of his family when he dies.

It is never too late to start working on a good name. Every time we find ourselves facing a difficult decision: we need to think of what our Parents would expect us to do; we must ask ourselves if we are living up to our Divine mandate; and we need to consider how it will affect our reputation, for better or for worse. We should, in every moment of decision, hear the words of our Patriarch Isaac, asking us over and over again, “Who are you?”

May we be blessed with good choices, good deeds and good friends, as we say….
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, November 22, 2009

You Are So Beautiful

Parshat Hayye Sarah
יב וַיֹּאמַר ה אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם הַקְרֵה-נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם וַעֲשֵׂה-חֶסֶד עִם אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם. יג הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי נִצָּב עַל-עֵין הַמָּיִם וּבְנוֹת אַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר יֹצְאֹת לִשְׁאֹב מָיִם. יד וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי-נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה וְגַם-גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיִצְחָק וּבָהּ אֵדַע כִּי-עָשִׂיתָ חֶסֶד עִם-אֲדֹנִי.
And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘please, lower your jar that I may drink.’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ let her be the one whom You have decreed for your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that you have dealt graciously with my master.”

A. Then Yonatan said, “behold we will pass over to these men, and we will reveal ourselves to them. If they say to us; ‘tarry until we come to you’ then we will stand still in this place and not go up to them. But if they say ‘Come up to us’ then we will go up for the Lord has delivered them into our hand. And this will be a sign for us. [I Samuel 14:8-10]

B. The plea of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant poses a problem. There is surely a self-contradiction in him praying to God to engineer a coincidence. This is the literal rendering of his plea which may be translated as “cause to chance before me today.” [N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit/Genesis p.239]

C. He did not make this a sign whereby he might recognize Isaac’s destined wife, because that would be divination, rather he prayed that it might fall out so; and so it was with Jonathan the son of Saul …If the individual says it not as a prayer, but as divination, i.e. “If thus and thus happens then I shall do this” then he is guilty of divination. [Sforno on Gen. 24:14]

D. The Servant prays for success in his mission, thanks God when success seems imminent, but the motif-word that recurs rather strangely in his prayers is the word “hesed” (love). … The importance of what Rebecca will mean to the family is intimated here. For there is, after all, a tragic residue of the Akedah in Abraham’s family. The darkening of Sarah’s light is one manifestation. But even in Abraham’s case – what can it have meant to him to undergo the test, and then, simply, silently, have Isaac restored to him? … God says not a word to Abraham after the command to sacrifice his son. He restores his son but Abraham never knows the reason for his experience. … Implicit in the servant’s prayers is the need to see a manifest indication of God’s hesed to Abraham. His main criterion for the rightness of Rebecca’s election is that he will sense in her the hesed that, since the Akedah, has been lacking from his master’s experience. [A Zornberg, Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, p.140]

E. The test to determine what girl is the right one for Isaac was recognized by the rabbis long ago as being ghastly inappropriate. “What if the woman who watered the servant’s camels had been a slave or a prostitute?” they ask in horror. Yet the foolish servant blithely goes his merry way and is guarded by God against error. Further, the servant dangles images of riches before the eyes of the girl’s family, rather than the sterling qualities of character one might have hoped for. It makes me wonder about Isaac. [B. Visotzky, The Genesis of Ethics p.126]

1. This is one of the longest narratives of the Torah. What are we being taught to do when faced with an important decision?

2. Is Rebecca chosen by character, fate, luck or divine will?

3. Is this story high drama or comedy? Why?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Teach your Children

Teach your Children
Sermon Parshat Vayera

Shabbat Shalom

The singers, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, sing a song with these lyrics

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well,Their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.
Teach your parents well,
Their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

The struggle between Parents and Children is as old as the history of human beings. When our children are born we have such high hopes about who they will be and what they will accomplish. We want our children to have all that we did not have and to become all that we could not be. We want them to have the benefit of the wisdom we gained throughout our lives, from the trial and error and the hard won lessons we learned in life. This will be our legacy to our children.

But I don’t have to tell you that it doesn’t work that way. We find we can’t prevent our children from repeating the mistakes we made in our lives. The hard won lessons we discover they have to also learn for themselves. As they grow we discover that they don’t want the same things we want for them. They have a path to travel and we have to sometimes, stand aside and let them travel it alone. It is very hard to raise children; it is a task that never ends.

Abraham and Isaac set out on a similar journey. Abraham will take Isaac to the place that God has shown the father. And there, the son will become a sacrifice. Isaac carries the wood and the firestone. And, in what will turn out to be the last time the two of them have a conversation, Isaac asks where the lamb for the offering is. Abraham only gives him the vague answer, “God will provide the lamb”.

Modern commentators of the Bible can’t stand this story of the Binding of Isaac. How can a father raise a knife to his son? What was Abraham thinking? Why doesn’t he protest the command of God as he protested the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? What must Isaac be thinking, silent Isaac, as he draws near to the place of sacrifice and begins to realize that he, Isaac will be the lamb?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, as a young man cried when he read this story. His teacher asked, “Why are you crying? You know the angel will come and save Isaac.” The young scholar replied, “but what if the Angel had arrived a second too late? What would have happened to poor Isaac?” The rabbi comforted him and calmed him by telling him that an angel cannot come late.” Heschel replied, “An angel cannot be late, but a human, made of flesh and blood, may be.”

This story can only have a bad ending. Isaac may survive God’s test of Abraham, but both father and son must leave with an unsettled soul. Abraham shaking that he could have raised a knife to his son. Isaac doomed never to forget the image of his father raising the knife. Abraham comes down off the mountain. There is no mention of Isaac. Perhaps Isaac needed some time alone. Perhaps Isaac realized that he would now have to go his own way.

What is it we are supposed to learn from this story? That God does not want us to sacrifice our children? If so, then just tell the patriarch, don’t have him destroy his relationship with his son by raising the knife. We can even make the case that this not only causes a breach between Isaac and Abraham, but it will bring about the death of Sarah as well. To make a point, the entire family will be destroyed? Abraham will lose his son and his wife. No, there must be a different lesson for us here.

Abraham and Isaac have much that they must still teach each other. Abraham will have to go on in life, without his beloved Sarah, but will still have meaningful relationships and will play with his twin grandchildren. Isaac will teach his father that reconciliation is always possible and in the end, Abraham’s two children, Isaac and Ishmael, will mend the rift in the family and both will be there to bury their father.

We too sometimes carry our resentments about our children with us, letting them drive a wedge in our relationship. Our children don’t often seem to understand the sacrifices we make on their behalf. Just when we think they will appreciate all that we have done for them, they go off on their own, make, what we think are terrible mistakes in their lives and they never really understand who we are. We had dreams for them and they just don’t seem to care. We were prepared to sacrifice everything for them and they will not sacrifice one small part of their lives for us. Such ingratitude. In our anger and frustration we wall them out of our hearts.

If I were to ask the children, the story would be a different path to the same ending. It is not that they don’t appreciate parents, but that parents just can’t let them go so they can find their own way in the world. Everything they do is not enough for the parents. The child grows up but, then realizes that in his parent’s eyes, he will always be a little boy, in need of a parent to help him navigate the world. The child has dreams but the parent does not really seem to care. They work so hard so that parents will appreciate their accomplishments and be proud of the child. But there is only disappointment. “You could have done better, you could have chosen better, you could have been better if only you would have listened to me.” So in anger and frustration they wall their parents out of their hearts.

I stood at the grave of an elderly woman, whose three grown sons gave her just the bare minimum honor a child must do for a parent. The pain between mother and sons was just too great. They did only what a son should do for his mother and no more. They had nothing left in their hearts for her. But the grandson was different. He stayed behind after the funeral and talked to me. He was angry. How could his father be so cruel to a grandmother who was always there for her grandson? How could his father not love this wonderful woman? How could he not see how loving, caring and kind she was? It is not fair Rabbi, it is not fair!

I looked at this angry grandson and said. “ I do not know what pain divided your father from his mother. I don’t know what turned his heart cold to her. But this I do know. You need to have a talk with your father. You need to ask him why he and his brothers were so estranged from their mother. You need to know the answer and you need to know it now. Because if you don’t, someday you will do for your father what he did for his mother, and your children will stand by the grave after you leave and say to the Rabbi “It is not fair!!”

At the end of Abraham’s life, he sees his son married. He finds some happiness with another wife, who takes care of him in his old age. And he lives to see Isaac pass on the spiritual heritage that Abraham has worked so hard to build. Isaac will repeat some of the mistakes of his father. But, in next week’s parsha, when Isaac digs again the wells that Abraham first dug, Isaac will come to understand his father better, and he will forgive him.

We must never give up on our children. We must work hard not to close our hearts to them out of anger and frustration. Their path in life will be as hard and difficult as our path has been. From time to time they will come and ask us how we navigated some of the trickiest parts of life. Sometimes they will follow our advice and sometimes they will make their own mistakes, and learn about life the hard way. I often tell children to at least get advice from their parents as part of their decision making process. But I tell the parents that while we may give advice, we must not be angry if they choose a different path. It is not a rejection of the parent, but just another attempt to find their way through a rough spot in their lives.

So don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry. So just look at them and sigh. And just know that they love you.

May we always find room in our hearts to love our children no matter how they live their lives, and may they always find room in their hearts to know how much we love them. As we say….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 6, 2009

You are Everything and Everything is You

You are Everything and Everything is You
Parshat Noach

Shabbat Shalom

While the narrative of Noah and the flood takes up the larger part of our Parsha this week, there are another nine pasukim/verses that also get a fair amount of play in Judaism. The story of the Tower of Babel may be short, but it has long been the source of much interest. Not because it tries to explain why people speak different languages. Rather because of the way the people of Babel relate to God.

The story tells us that the reason the tower is to be built up to heaven is so the rest of the world will know just how great the people of Babel are. The Midrash goes on to tell us that they wanted to make their name great by using the tower to attack God in heaven. I think most of us are not surprised by this. We know all about this kind of thinking even today. The project starts out with a good intentions, but is co-opted by those who bring to the table their own personal agenda. Perhaps the people of Babel only wanted to build the tower to feel closer to God. But as the tower grows, so grows their pride and their egos. They come to believe that they don’t only want to be near God, they want to conquer God, they want to “BE” God.

Isn’t it just like human beings. We start off with lofty goals but soon our “human nature” takes over and we let our good intentions get hijacked by what is easier, and what makes us look better to others.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, Tells a story of a King who is a master of illusions. He loves his people very much and he wants them to love him as well. So he builds a great castle illusion. It is filled will illusory walls and room, with illusory doors and halls. The illusory castle is set up like a giant maze in which the people can wander for days. Then, in front of every door and in every corridor, the kind places illusory bags of treasure. Treasure like gold and money, Hawaiian vacations and beautiful bodies. Then the King declares in a proclamation that the people should come to the castle and seek to find the King.

The people all flock to the castle and begin to search high and low for the King. But the longer they search, the more they get distracted by the treasure. One by one the people take the illusory treasure and stop looking for the King. Finally the King’s daughter arrives and sees that it is all an illusion and the King is, in reality, sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty field.

This story sounds a little like the Tower of Babel story. All the good intentions are derailed by the illusory treasure. I like to think that the metaphor of both stories is the same. The Castle and the Tower are the world in which we live, The King is God who wants us to discover how close to us the divine can be. And we, the people get distracted by the illusory treasure of the world and fail to see what is real and right in front of our eyes. Is it any wonder God confuses the language of people to help them see how illusory their desires really are?

I don’t know, maybe the idea that the world is really just an illusion is unsettling to many people. We like to think that we know what is “really real” and what is just an illusion. Judaism teaches us that the world is not always what we think it is. In our faith a strong man is not one with bulging muscles, but one who can control his evil impulses. In our faith a rich woman is not one with lots of money, but the woman who is content with what she already has. In our religion, if you want to be honored, you make sure you honor everyone else and if you want to be wise, you have to learn from everyone else. Things in this world are not always what they seem.

But the real essence of the illusion is not that we chase after what is not real but in the fact that we can’t see what is real, that God is not far away, but close by, perhaps right in front of our face. We are created in the image of God. We are not separate from God, but we are filled with God. The only things that separate us from the divine are our own wants and desires. If we can channel what we want to reflect the divine within us, we can make the presence of God more real in the world.

The Tower of Babel teaches us that when we go out to fight against God, when we live our lives with the idea that every person acts only out of his or her own self interest, then we will create a babel of a society and do nothing to bring God into the world. On the other hand, if we act to make life better for others, to help unify humanity and promote peace between people and nations, we reveal the presence of God in the world.

This is why the story of the Tower of Babel is followed immediately by the genealogy that leads us to the birth of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is the son of the King in our story. The first Jew stands in for all Jews. We all have the potential to be the son of the King and see through the illusion. Abraham did it when he lived his life, not as he wanted to, but as God directed him. By following God’s directions we will see Abraham will win three great blessings. His family will be protected from Danger. He will become wealthy and he will be the founder of a great nation. By not fighting God, by following God’s call, Abraham gets all he wants and more.

And so can we. On Yom Kippur I put out a call for what I am calling the Heneni Initiative. That we need to rise above the illusions that surround us and see clearly how we can make a difference in the world. In this manner we can bring into focus the fact that God is in plain view, in all our daily actions. When we become a part of people helping other people in need. When we join other people in making a difference in the world. When we stand up with others for what is right and just. We are making visible the presence of God in the world.

We are hoping to initiate the Heneni Initiative with three important causes. First of all we are forming a group to advocate for Israel, our homeland and the center of Jewish life. God knows there seem to be an endless supply of people who are Israel detractors, and I am not referring to Jews who lovingly criticize Israel, but those who question Israel’s basic right to exist. When other nations of the world condemn Israel, we need to speak up on her behalf; to the American public, to American politicians and to the world. It is important work and we are looking for those who think that this will be their cause, and help us get the word out, to our community and to reasonable people everywhere.

The second group we are forming is on behalf of Darfur. The human cost of the war that keeps the people of Darfur hungry and the killing by terror and famine are a cause that should move all of us to end humanities latest example of Genocide. Small actions on our part can make a huge difference in easing the suffering of the people of the Darful region of Sudan. We are talking about medicine, solar stoves and basic supplies. A little bit can go a long way and much suffering can be eased, all we are looking for are a few caring souls to help us all find our way to honor God through our work with those who suffer.

And the third group we would like to organize is to help feed the hungry right here at home. That one of the richest, strongest nations in the world has people who go to bed hungry at night is one of the great stains on democracy. We already collect food for the hungry in our Lobby every day. Every time we place a sandwich into the hand of a hungry man or woman, we can see the face of God. It is really that simple. We are looking for people who will help us feed others and who will guide our community in this holy work.

These three projects are just the first that will make up this Heneni Initiative. What other projects can there be? That depends on each of us and what will motivate us to see beyond the illusions in our life and what will help us discover our connection to God. I can’t call everyone up and make a personal plea to get involved. We all have to take the initiative and be like Abraham who followed God’s call and like Isaiah, who said “Heneni”, “Here I am, send me!”

Life can seem like just a noisy babble when we all just go our own way and ignore the presence of God before us. But when we act together to strengthen each other and bring order to the world, we can sanctify our lives and build a more holy world. Abraham and Sarah did it and they changed the course of human history. We can too, and through our actions bring God into our lives.

May we find God, in our hearts, in our deeds and in a folding chair right in front of our eyes.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom