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Archive for December, 2008

An amazing exercise in gratitude from the mind of Jonathan Ring

Posted by rabbiart on December 15, 2008

This past motzei shabbat I had the privilege of facilitating the study of parshat eikev. Somehow we got on the subject of gratitude, probably in response to the commandment to eat, be satisfied and give thanks (Devarim 8:10). Our friend Jon suggested this most though-provoking exercise; to go through one day – from morning to evening – being conscious of all the people who have contributed to the “stuff” we use.  Over the course of a single day, we experience the contributions of (probably tens of) thousands of people who have thought of, invented, or made the things we use, the food we consume, and so on.

Imagine what it would be like to live even a single day (heck, even a single hour) without being dependant on what other people have grown, created, made, manufactured, delivered, stocked, sold.  We would have to go into the woods somewhere edible plants grow without cultivation, where there is natural water to drink, strip ourselves naked (or have somehow made clothes for ourselves with no assistance)…you get the idea. Seems impossible to do… and probably is.

Or… imagine spending a single day having an attitude of gratitude for every individual whose life is inter-connected with ours.  Who made toothbrush and toothpaste?  Washcloth and soap? (Shampoo for readers who still have their hair) Laid the pipes for running water? Invented the toilet (Thomas Crapper) and indoor plumbing in general? The shower? Grew the wool, cotton (cotton gin by Eli Whitney and mechanical reaper by Cyrus MacCormack if I remember correctly) and linen,  or invented the sewing needle and the loom? Buttons and zippers? Blue jeans (Levi Strauss, I think) And let’s not leave out Inspector #39 who made sure my shirt had a matching number of buttons and buttonholes.

Heck, I’m mentally exhausted, and I haven’t – in this exercise – even gotten myself out of the bathroom and clothes closet to the point where I could put on tallis (in my case Gladys Hoisington (see the 1st Jewish catalog, got to add more names to the list) who wove my tallis on a loom and Outi Gould who has added a collar and made some repairs – thanks Outi!) and tefillin (can’t even remember where I got my tefillin, much less know who made them) and down to the kitchen for breakfast!

Jumping ahead, how about all the people (mostly on the other side of the Pacific ocean) who made all the piece parts of the computer I’m typing on right now, much less all the designers and inventors of ROM, RAM, LCD, hard drive, power supply, cables and batteries, so I could be on the Internet (thanks Tim) and the browser (thanks Marc Andreeson and all the people you collaborated with)
And of course, I have to be grateful (intentional reference) to Jerry, Bob, Phil, Ron, Mickey, Pigpen and Robert (lyrics), for making the music I’m listening to right now! Oh, and Steve and everybody at Apple for my iPod, although I imagine they need to be grateful to some other people (everyone at Sony?) for the concept of a portable music player. Whoops, can’t leave out whoever invented MP3.  The list just keeps going and growing and growing.

Considering where I’m sitting as I write this, I better add in Orville and Wilbur and all their spiritual/technological descendants as well, and for good measure, the two folks in the cockpit who are flying the plane, or maybe watching the autopilot (more gratitude to somebody) do the job for them.

Suggestion… definitely try this at home, and hit the comment link right below and share your thoughts on the experience.  Thanks Jon!

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Does Love Cause Hate?

Posted by rabbiart on December 15, 2008

Our parshah has hardly started and we have conflict between brothers that we know will escalate into violence, perhaps caused by yet another Breshit case of parental favoritism. What is the first thing we learn about Yosef?  He tattles on his brothers!*
וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת-דִּבָּתָם רָעָה, אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם “Yosef brought a bad report to their father”   Why?  We quickly find out. Daddy likes him best. Why?  One stated reason and one we can infer.  The text states that Israel loved Yosef the most because Yosef was the child of his old age.  And we know that Yosef is the first-born of Israel’s true love – Rachel. What does Daddy do?  He gives Yosef a visible sign of his preferred standing; a coat of many colors. (There is some  historical/cultural data indicating that his was a mechanism for designating the chosen successor, which would provide a tangible reason for resentment).

Where does hatred come from?

וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו, כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו–וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ, אֹתוֹ; וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם

His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him; they couldn’t even speak to him peaceably!

Is Yosef book smart and street stupid?  He dreams of power and domination, and tells the first dream to his brothers.  Big surprise; they hate him even more.  Finally he goes too far even for his father, and gets a rebuke for saying he will rule over even his parents. Shifts in the family take place.  Brotherly jealousy is added to brotherly hate, and dad keeps the whole thing in mind.  Perhaps Dad also remembers (see Breshit 30:1) that wife Rachel envied wife Leah for her ability to have children, and when she begged him for help, he got angry at her.  Yes, the plot (like Yosef’s father’s soup a generation earlier) has thickened and the rest will soon become history.

Why these stories of dreams and conflict? Of course dreams were (and are) powerful indicators of what is top of mind.  And of course the dreams in this parshah set the stage for the dreams – and their interpretations – that will come later.  And without the conflict that starts here, we would not have Yosef in Mitzrayim for the temporary reprieve that leads the budding family of Israel into the slavery of Mitzrayim.  But as one of my law school professors used to say from time to time after listening to a student explanation that wasn’t quite on point; so what?  Is there something new that we can learn from this year’s reading of the story?

It is – I propose – easy for us to read the story in context and identify all the dysfunctional family behaviors that could have been avoided or resolved. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for Yakov to give Yosef the coat of many colors.  Maybe not such a good idea for Yosef to tell his dreams to the family.  Maybe the brothers could have figured out that it wasn’t Yosef’s fault that he was his father’s favorite.  And most of all (reinterpretation of verse two coming), probably not a good idea for Yosef to make up a false report of his brothers’ activities and tell it to his father.

Now let’s layer our story on top of the historical experience of the Jewish people and see what we have.  Let’s start by recalling various midrashim which have HaShem offering the Torah to all of the seventy nations of the world before finally giving it to Israel. In these midrashim we (the Jewish people) are not the first-born but rather the child of HaShem’s “old age.” We (Jewish people) are Yosef.  The rest of humanity are the brothers.  HaShem is Yakov. The Torah – with her promises  of greatness and blessing to our founding ancestors – is the coat of many-colors.

As my friend Todd Aaronson likes to say, let’s begin with the end in mind. We (Jewish people) have historically been on the receiving end of hatred and jealousy. We’ve been dumped into the pit, sold into slavery, and carried off to a foreign land. Unfortunately, not much question there; the “Joseph story” resonates with our historical experience.  Who is responsible?   Have we told our dreams too many times and built up hatred of us through our own actions.  Mordecai Kaplan thought so, and chose to rewrite one part of our historical beliefs.  Could our brothers have cut us a little slack? Undoubtedly. Has “our father” loved us too much but not too well? That’s a tough one.

Where does this drosh go from here? Darned if I know, you (dear reader) figure it out. The Breshit brothers eventually reconciled, maybe we can too, speedily and in our day.

*Yosef is born in Breshit 30:23 and assigned his name in verse 24.  Why this name? Because as soon as he is born, his long-barren mother wants another child. (The hebrew word also means “to add to”)

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Mitzvah #3:Not to eat gid-hanasheh (the thigh-vein)

Posted by rabbiart on December 12, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

In the story of Yakov he wrestles with a mysterious man who confronts him in the middle of the night while he awaits a reunion with his brother Esav. At dawn, unable to escape, the man wounds Yakov in the thigh, and we read “therefore the members of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh-vein” (Breshit 32:33). Although we read of this commandment in the Yakov story, the tradition considers that the commandment is issued at Mt. Sinai along with all the other mitzvot.

Although we can classify this particular mitzvah as belonging to the mitzvot of kashrut, it is a mitzvah with a particular message. In the midrash, we learn that the mysterious wrestler is none other than the guardian angel of Esav. Rabbinic Judaism, striving to rebuild the Jewish people after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, uses this mitzvah to deliver a message of hope and faith against the power of the Roman empire. Rome is considered to be the descendant of Esav. Yakov defeated Esav’s guardian angel, therefore Israel will not perish, but out-last and overcome Rome.

The mitzvah of not eating the sinew of the thigh-vein is the first mitzvah that applies to women as well as to men, and it is applicable in all times and places. The specifics of this observance differ from place to place. In general, Jewish communities refrain from eating any part of the hindquarters, where the inner and outer sinew are located. In places where meat is not readily obtainable, the sinews are removed and then the hindquarter is used as food. There are other veins, arteries and tendons that are also removed, but we’ll come to those in due (mitzvah) order.

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Brothers Re-United

Posted by rabbiart on December 10, 2008

This parshah, everyone is exploring the meaning of the second dream and the game-changing, name-changing event where Yakov gets his new name Israel. Not to ignore one of the very few commandments that can be derived from from the book of Breshit – not to eat the gid-hanasheh (aka the sinew of the thigh-vein).  The commandment is itself based on the wrestler touching the hollow of Yakov’s thigh, but the Torah shows some self-awareness, or a later historical voice, in verse 33 where the text relates that the Israelites do not eat the gid hanasheh “even to this day” because the angel/wrestler touched Yakov in that place.  (Google fans might be interested to know that you can -accidentally in my case- type “fid hanasheh” into Google search and it will know that you mean gid ha-nasheh.  Must be some Torah scholars over in the googleplex 🙂 ) Depending on local custom, some communities do not eat the hind-quarter, which contains the sinew, and other communities eat the hind-quarter, but only after the (kosher of course) butcher has removed the sinew.

The business at hand, however, is to see what the text has to say about relationships. Specifically, how our definition of a relationship can drive our behavior, which of course, can affect the relationship for better or worse.

As we return from commercial break (six work-days of the week in between each Shabbes) Yakov has left Laban and his place, and embarked on his journey home.  The third person voice of the text (32:4) calmly states that Yakov sent messengers to Esav his brother. Is that how Yakov thinks of Esav? When giving the messengers their marching orders, he tells them they will speak  לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו  “to my lord, to Esav”.  It is the messengers who, upon their return, speak of Esav as “your brother”.  By verse nine, he is simply “Esav”.    Yakov describes Avraham and Yitzhak as his father(s) but when it comes to Esav,   In verse twelve, it is as if Esav is two different people. When Yakov speaks the aspect of “brother” is separated out from the identity of Esav.    הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי, מִיַּד עֵשָׂו        Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav.  Esav is one person, “brother” is someone else.  Only when the text returns to a third person narrative (verse 14) is Esav again a brother.  Only once does Yakov refer to Esav as “Esav my brother”, and never does he refer to himself as Esav’s brother.

What else does the text reveal about Yakov’s state of mind and feelings?  He still lives in fear, quite possibly driven by guilt over how he treated his brother, with the added layer of the impending meeting.  Is he interested in reconciliation or just in placating his brother and then staying as far away as possible from him?  Could his gifts to his brother be understood as a genuine attempt at recompense for “negotiating” the birth-right and final blessings?The (un)re-uniting of the brothers presents an interesting challenge to our accepted interpretation of Yakov good, Esav bad.  Who lives in fear and dread of meeting his brother once again?  Who sends gifts out of a need to placate? Yakov.  Who says “thank you brother” I have enough? Who says “let’s travel together?” Esav.

Rabbinic Judaism labored long, hard and successfully to establish that Yakov is the rightful heir, and therefore all his (and his mother’s) machinations were in service of the divine will.  In a world of conflict and persecution the authors of talmud and midrash identified a winner and a loser from among the twin brothers.  Yakov is cherished and Esav is cast out of the tradition.

Unfortunately, we still live in a world of conflict, but perhaps it is time to construct a new interpretation that gives us a model not of mere co-existence, but of living in peace and harmony. (Warning, unashamed plug follows immediately!)

We were fortunate just this past month to see a model and get a taste of the world to come during our Israel bike ride for the Arava Institute. Out of all the possible worthy causes, we’ve “signed up” for this one, in part because we saw “Yakov” and “Esav” not only living and learning together, but forming lasting friendships.  So much so that we’re going back in spring 2010 for another ride. (hint, hint). And hoping to arrange for (local) readers to meet a few of the Arava Institute alums in the coming year.

No one can really rewrite history, but we can imagine a world where brothers live together. To borry from Herzl, if we will it, it is not a dream. Brothers – no matter how different – can live together in peace. If only for a brief time, we saw it!

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What Deals We Make

Posted by rabbiart on December 5, 2008

It does not take long for Yakov to back off of the statement  he makes on waking up from his dream.  You know, of complete awe and  sensing the presence of HaShem.  He wakes, and he says”this is nothing but the house of elohim and the gateway to the heavens.” The emotions wear off, and  the vow he makes only a few verses later is loaded with pre-conditions and desired outcomes, and a mood that contrasts with his waking emotions. He demands a lot of HaShem

וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב, נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר: אִם-יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי, וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ, וְנָתַן-לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל, וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ. כא: וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם, אֶל-בֵּית אָבִי; וְהָיָה יְהוָה לִי, לֵאלֹהִים. כב: וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה–יִהְיֶה, בֵּית אֱלֹהִים; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן-לִי, עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ

Yakov vowed a vow “If elohim will be with me,and guard me on this road I am walking, and give me food to eat and clothes to wear, and bring me back in peace to my father’s house and – in general – be an elohim to me. Then this stone, which I set up as a pillar, will be elohim’s house; I will give a tithing to you.”

What guarantees doesYakov want? Food and clothing to be sure, but mostly a guard on the way and to return in shalom – peace, wholeness, resolution. … not exactly the condition he is leaving in, with a dysfunctional family in his wake.

Why all the conditions on his commitment to the covenant?  What happened to the powerful emotions?  Even Rashi, generally in the business of praising our ancestors, has a pointed comment about Yakov’s statement.  Noting the vav as the first letter of verse 22 he comments that it is to be explained as “If You will do these things for me, I too will do this.”

According to the midrash (Breshit Rabah 70:8) , Yakov was assured of protection in response to this vow, and as soon as he received it, immediately he got walking and headed for Laban.  Not only that, but in 29:2 when Yakov sees three flocks of sheep עֶדְרֵי-צֹאן gathering at a well, this is nothing but a reference to  Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, who of course have not yet been born at this point in the story.

The midrash goes on to say that from this well, all of the descendants of Yakov came to “water” their own progeny. They must all gather together and work in concert to remove the covering from the well.  An alternate interpretation follows, saying that this is the well that produced the water for the simchat bet hasho’eivah (water festival in the Temple), which itself is a well of the divine spirit.

The midrash seems to be concerned with demonstrating to Yakov, so to speak, that HaShem fulfills promises.  It pictures Yakov “seeing future outcomes” and thereby being reassured to have faith in the promise that he received.  We have come a long way from grandfather to grandson by the third generation,.Back in the day, Avraham heard the voice regularly, and while he was not always obedient to it, he never questioned that HaShem would do what HaShem would say. His faith was strong and constant. In contrast, Yakov cannot trust the promise, and puts conditions on his commitment to it.

What is the difference between Yakov and Avraham? After the dream ended, the text tells us, Yakov awoke suddenly, and he was afraid. (See verses 16 and 17) Yakov operates out of fear.  Perhaps the fear is a product of guilt over the way he has treated his father and brother. Perhaps it is because, unlike Avraham, Yakov hears the voice only once.  Who wouldn’t be afraid?  Maybe it is a combination of both.

Whatever the reason for his fear and his pre-conditions, in the next verse Yakov picks up his feet – and he goes on his journey.

וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב, רַגְלָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ

He lifted, did Yakov, his feet, and he went walking.

Who are we more like? Avraham, with his ability to hear the voice and receive it unconditionally? Or Yakov, who cowers in fear, makes his own pre-conditions and private deals, but in the end, after all, picks up his feet and goes?

It would be nice to be like Avraham, but to be Yakov would be mightily sufficient.

Shabbat Shalom

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