Tag Archives: Jacob

Prayer As a Vehicle for Change

13 Nov

 

Year after year around Thanksgiving time, Hollywood turns up the heat.  As we enter the winter holiday season, our country is bombarded by movies that are meant to be blockbusters. I am always amazed at the extent to which these blockbuster movies are adventures or fantasies, movies that force us to take a leap of faith beyond reality. The most successful films become franchises that repeat over and over again.  Right now, pop culture is captivated by 007, the 24th film in the James Bond franchise.  Next month, after much hoopla, the seventh Star Wars film will hit the silver screen

Why do blockbuster fantasy movies always take the country by storm? Certainly the popularity of familiar storylines and identity with characters help. Special effects also go a long way towards making them entertaining spectacles. But the key reason people turn to film or any dramatic media, is the escape it offers from the harsh realities of our world. What could be more comforting than the opening lines of the signature song of Disney’s classic, Pinocchio: “When you wish upon a star/makes no difference who you are/anything your heart desires/will come to you.” If only the world were so simple.  Whether in print or on the screen, we turn to fantasy as an escape from the confusing world in which we live, a world fraught with evil and destruction.

Wouldn’t it be nice if somehow by magic we could bring back to life those who died in terrorist attacks in Israel in recent weeks? Imagine if we could use the Force to summon Israel’s enemies to a bargaining table to finalize peace in the region. Alas, we are not able to use the Force or summon any kind of magical powers to rid the world of its problems. Our world demands more of us.

 

At first glance, today’s Torah reading seems to confirm the “When you wish upon a star” thinking that we find in many films. The essential point of conflict in the story of Jacob and Esau is who will get their father’s blessing. When Jacob, disguised as Esau, stands before Isaac, he receives Isaac’s innermost blessing:

כח וְיִֽתֶּן־לְךָ הָֽאֱלֹהִים מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן וְתִירֽשׁ:

May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, blessed be they who bless you.” (27:28-29) One might think that this blessing is a kind of hocus pocus incantation, like one would read in J.R.R. Tolkein or J.K. Rowling, two authors whose works also were adapted into blockbuster film serials. In fact, it is possible that Esau also believes that the blessing has a magical quality when he learns what happened and lets out a loud and bitter cry. Esau’s interest in the blessing was its material benefit. In the end, Esau receives from Isaac a very similar blessing of his own promising him the fat of  the earth and the dew of heaven above.

Blessings are not magic, however. Even in their most materialistic forms, the purpose of blessings is to acknowledge the ultimate power of God in the world. Elsewhere, the Torah explicitly prohibits practices of magic and divination that seek to undermine God’s authority over all creation. Isaac is more sophisticated than we often give him credit for in recognizing the distinction between a blessing and a magical incantation. This is most evident at the end of the parasha when Isaac blesses Jacob as he is about to flee from Esau’s wrath.

Isaac says: May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.” (28:3-4)

 

Nechama Leibowitz, one of the great Torah scholars of the 20th century, contrasts the blessing originally intended for Esau and the one Jacob received in his own right. On the one hand, Esau was promised abundance, fatness, power and dominion-material blessings. Jacob, however, is charged with the Abrahamic mission, which is essentially spiritual. It demands responsibility on the part of Jacob in addition to the promise it offers him.

In a twist on Shakespeare, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be or not to be.” Heschel further writes: “Man in prayer does not seek to impose his will upon God; he seeks to impose God’s will and mercy upon himself. Prayer is necessary to make us aware of our failures, backsliding, transgressions, sins.”

 

Jacob in his youth is far from perfect, and the Bible does not try to hide his faults. However, he has a greater sense of the ultimate purpose of prayer. By the end of Parashat Toledot, Isaac realizes that prayer is not merely a shopping list one sends to God, but a means to bring Godliness into the world and that the person to do that is Jacob. More than the other patriarchs, Jacob shows the greatest amount of growth. He makes mistakes and pays dearly for them. Ultimately, though, it is Jacob who recognizes the power of prayer to transform himself, as we shall see in the coming weeks.

In many fantasies, there are forces of good and forces of evil. The characters on either side of the divide lack the ability to change. The struggle between the two, therefore, is not a struggle over the hearts and minds of humanity. Rather, it is a pure power struggle devoid of moral implications. It is a struggle over the outside world and material objects. The victor is the one who comes up with the stronger magic tricks.

 

The Jewish understanding, on the other hand, is that we all have free will to choose between good and evil. Our world is not decided by the

wave of a magic wand but by how we treat one another. When we pray, we have the potential to find the strength within ourselves to make ourselves and the world better.

May the implicit lesson of Parashat Toledot and the readings of the coming weeks inspire us to approach prayer as a vehicle to improving ourselves and the world around us. Amen.

 

 

#TieBlog #Toledot 2014

21 Nov
Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. The turkeys on this week's tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. The turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

 

Food and sustenance play a prominent role in Parashat Toledot. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. He later deceives his blind father by wearing hairy skins to appear like his brother as if he had just returned from a hunt. His mother Rebecca prepares the purported game for Jacob to present to Isaac and receive in return his innermost blessing intended for the first born. In between these two narratives centered around food, we learn that Isaac reclaims the wells that his father had dug in Canaan. The family legacy cannot continue without sustenance from water, nor can it continue without nourishment from food. Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. This year, we read Toledot a few days before Thanksgiving. The turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

Vayehi: One Year after #Newtown, Affirming Life in the Face of Death

13 Dec

Sandy Hook victims

Sandy Hook victims

Benjamin Franklin once said: I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up.

Franklin’s sentiment is evident in the title of this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, literally, “and he lived.” The portion deals largely with the death of Jacob the Patriarch and, later, the death of Joseph. Despite the prevalence of death, the first word of the portion affirms life. The Sages note mah zar’o ba-hayyim, af hu ba-hayyim, so long as his children live, so long does the parent live; even after Jacob dies, he lives on by virtue of the legacy he passed on to his children.

On his death bed, Jacob affirms life by offering blessings to his sons and grandsons. A strange thing happens, though. Some of the sons don’t fare as well as others in receiving their last testament from their father. Shimon and Levi stand out for the harsh rebuke they receive from their father.

In blessing his second and third born sons, Shimon and Levi, Jacob must come to account with one of the most disturbing events in Genesis—the slaughter of the Shechemites following the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. In the event, it was Shimon and Levi who orchestrated the brutal response. They demanded that the Shechemites circumcise themselves on the pretext that that then Jacob’s clan would intermarry and trade with them. Once the Shechemites were weakened from the circumcision, the brothers proceeded to slaughter the Shechemite males (Gen. 34). Jacob, in his “blessing” says the following:

Shimon v’Levi ahim, klei hamas m’cheiroteihem.
Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of violent lawlessness (Gen. 49:5).

The text continues: “Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless, I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel (6-7).

The Hebrew word m’cheiroteihem is hard to translate. It seems that the New Jewish Publication Society translation that appears in the Etz Hayim Humash that renders “tools of lawlessness” may be based on Ramban (Nachmanides):

“As I understand it, the weapons of violence are their habitations, their life…for the weapons of violence are themselves their dwelling place, for with them they live and eat….As a result of this they must be divided in Jacob and scattered in Israel (reference to Gen 49:7) so that they will not congregate in one place. Thus the lots of the tribe of Shimon are amongst the people of Judah…and their cities were separated one from another through Judah’s tribal lands, and the lots of Levi, the cities of refuge, are scattered in all of Israel.”

Jacob recognized in Shimon and Levi that they had crossed the line into a culture and a life of violence. They were no longer merely possessing weapons in case they were needed, but they were possessed by their weapons. Their weapons were their habitation. Their weapons defined their lives and therefore they were dangerous and had to be dispersed so as not to endanger Israel or her neighbors—because “when angry, they slay men.” (Gen. 49:6) (Rabbi Aryeh Cohen)

Jacob had the blessing of living out the full measure of his days, some 147 years. Today, though, we recall a day of horror in our nation in which innocent children were denied the right to live out the measure of their days. December 14 marks the first anniversary of the bloodbath that occurred at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, CT. Twenty first-graders, all of them age five or six, were shot to death in school in cold blood, along with six teachers. More than any other shooting tragedy in recent memory where innocent people have been shot to death in schools, movie theaters, and grocery stores, this tragedy captured the attention of the nation.

Millions of Americans voiced outrage at the easy access to guns and ammunition available to mentally ill people and people with criminal records. Millions of Americans voiced outrage at the easy access many people have to sophisticated, military-grade, automatic weapons and ammunition. There was a widespread sense that common-sense legislation would be enacted to respond to this scourge of our country. Tragically, the legislation that would have kept guns out of the wrong hands died last April in a tone-deaf Congress, despite polls showing 90% support for the legislation. In the meantime, in the last year alone there have been 26 other school shootings, mostly in minority communities that don’t attract the press coverage of mostly white communities like Newtown. It’s estimated that some 38,000 people have died in the last year as a result of gun violence.

This country is a nation of laws, and when children are dying, yes, existing laws need to be enforced. At the same time, when it’s obvious that there are systemic flaws, new laws are necessary to fix the system.

With Shimon and Levi in the Torah, their weapons of violence became their habitations. They became possessed by their weapons and were defined by them. When they were angry, they would slay men. The echoes of Jacob’s rebuke of his sons ring true today. Our society has become habituated to gun violence and indifferent to its consequences. If we remain silent and complacent, how many more thousands will be left dead by next December?

This week’s parasha describes death, but affirms life. For us, our task in honoring the memory of the victims of Newtown is to call on our leaders to take action so that they will not have died in vain. In closing, let me read the names of the 20 children and eight teachers who died one year ago:

Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Rachel Davino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M. Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Dawn Hochsprung, Madeline F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emile Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison N. Wyatt—may their memories be for a blessing.

#BlessingAsAgentForChange

1 Nov

Isaac Blessing JacobTomorrow in Shabbat services I will facilitate a discussion on giving blessings, based on the drama surrounding Isaac blessing his sons. Consider the sources in this study sheet. Think of a time when you felt “blessed” by someone else through praise, words of encouragement or the like. In what way(s) were you transformed by the blessing? Let’s begin the discussion now! You can Tweet responses at #blessingAsAgentForChange. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Bernstein

#TieBlog #Toledot

31 Oct
Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. This year, they're a few weeks apart. Nevertheless, the turkeys on this week's tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. This year, they’re a few weeks apart. Nevertheless, the turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

Food and sustenance play a prominent role in Parashat Toledot. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. He later deceives his blind father by wearing hairy skins to appear like his brother as if he had just returned from a hunt. His mother Rebecca prepares the purported game for Jacob to present to Isaac and receive in return his innermost blessing intended for the first born. In between these two narratives centered around food, we learn that Isaac reclaims the wells that his father had dug in Canaan. The family legacy cannot continue without sustenance from water, nor can it continue without nourishment from food. Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. This year, they’re a few weeks apart. Nevertheless, the turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.