Nesiya Inspiring Israel Summer Program for High School Students Fri, 27 Oct 2017 10:41:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Avram and the Universal El Elyon Fri, 27 Oct 2017 10:41:35 +0000 In this week’s parsha (Lech-Lcha), there is a strange story about a war in the Holy Land between local Kings, and Avram gets involved in the end. There is an even stranger scene at the end of this story when Malkitzedek, the Priest of Shalem comes out to welcome Avram, bringing bread and wine, and offers Avram a blessing. For us, I want to draw attention to the Divine name used four times in these four verses. It is a name of Gd that does not appear anywhere else in the Bible, but for people that say the traditional prayers in Hebrew, it is familiar and therefore does not grab our attention when reading the story. In Genesis 14:18-20, we meet Malkitzedek, and he is called the Priest of El-Elyon (The Supernal Gd). Next, he blesses Avram in the name of “El-Elyon” and blesses “El-Elyon” for delivering Avram’s foes. Finally in verse 22, Avram makes an oath in the name of “Hashem, El Elyon.”

These four times are the only times we meet this name of Gd in the Bible, and it is striking. What is going on here?

It seems like the name itself connotes that there is one Gd above all the other gods (like we say in “mi kamocha (Ex 15:11): Who is like you among the gods/powerful ones?), and this is the Supernal or Exalted God. Here is a Canaanite Priest in the city of Shalem (our Tradition says that this is really Jerusalem, and he is actually Shem, the son of Noah, but that is for another learning together!), that serves the One Gd. And then Avram goes on to say that Hashem, the One Gd that he follows, is the same El-Elyon!

One way to understand this is that there seems to be One Gd of all of humanity, this is the Gd that Avram has begun a relationship with and will go on to found what will become Judaism. This Gd is also worshipped by others–a universal experience behind the partiulars of different religions and practices. (It is important to note that the root of the name “Allah” is the same as the “El” that is here in “El-Elyon”), perhaps situating Avram in a pluralistic world of different ways of relating to the same One and Supernal Gd.

It is striking that in the continuation of the parsha, we have the Brit ben hab’tarim or “Covenant of the Parts” in chapter 15. This blessing and promise from Gd is the expression of a very particular mode of relating to Gd. It is about Avram’s son that will be born-Isaac, who will carry the blessing, and not his son that will be born- Ishmael. It is about his nation that will be enslaved before being redeemed and returned to this very specific Land of Israel.

What are these two poles of Divine Expression coming to teach us? Why do we have such a dramatic universal statement next to a very particular one?

I think that this is one of the most compelling aspects of Judaism, as we balance the seemingly competing world-views of universalism and particularism in a unique way. One the one hand, Hashem, the Gd of the Jews, is also the Gd of the entire world. The other monotheistic religions are worshipping the same Gd, albeit in a different way. We believe that the story of Hebrew Bible begins with the story of Humanity, and only later, becomes the particular story of the Jewish People, with a particular covenental relationship. There is no need to convert others to the one particular religion of Judaism, for we do not teach that it is the one singular path to serving the One Gd.

Avram will be renamed Abraham a few verses later (17:5), where Gd states that this new name is because he will be the father of a multitude of Nations. As particular as this story is, we cannot escape the universal dimension as well.

We opened our comments by suggesting that for those that say the traditional prayers, this unique and rare name of Gd, El-Elyon, does not stand out for it is right there in the beginning of the Shmoneh Esrei that is said by many Jews three times every day! The first blessing opens: Blessed are you, Lrd our Gd and Gd of our ancestors, Gd of Avraham, Gd of Isaac, Gd of Jacob. The Great, Powerful and Awesome Gd, El-Elyon“–Perhaps we also did not pay attention in the tefila to notice that this name that is used there is a name used in only one scene in the Bible, and it comes from a Canaanite Priest! But now we can understand that Avram himself acknowledged that this one, most lofty and superior Gd is the One and Only Gd, and when we use this name in our opening prayer, Rav Ezra Bick suggests that it is an intentional way of beginning prayer from a place of relating to Gd as the Gd of Humanity, of the entire world.

In other words, when a Jew begins to pray, says Rav Bick, he or she does not begin to pray as a particular Jew, rather, they begin from a place of being a human being. This is the first step and only then, after realizing that we are part of an even larger story, can we proceed to the particular and continue praying as a Jew.

May we be blessed as we read parshat Lech-Lcha, the beginning of the particular story of the Jewish People, and their relationship with the particular physical Land of Israel, to understand that Avram was at first a human being, before he was a Jew and that should guide each and every one of us as we navigate our own particular Jewish identity with a deep sense of identification and belonging to the larger epic of Humanity.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Going into the Ark Fri, 20 Oct 2017 07:08:42 +0000 The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the chasidic movement in the 18th century, wrote a lengthy treatise on prayer based on an innovative reading of one verse in this week’s parsha. When Gd instructs Noah in the beginning of Genesis 7, Gd tells Noah to “come into the ark.” The Hebrew word for ark, teiva, has another possible translation: word. The Baal Shem reads this verse as an invitation from Gd to “come into the word/ark”, meaning the words of prayer. He writes, “[The verse says]; ‘Come, you and your entire household, into the ark/word’, that is to say, ‘with your entire body and strength, come into the ark/word” (p.15)’ Just as Noah brought his entire self into the ark, so to are we invited when we engage in prayer–we should put our whole self into the words of our prayers.
What might this look like? How would this feel?

What does it mean to fully put yourself into your words? Is it being totally honest? Is it shouting them? Is it saying the words very slowly and intentionally? How does the ‘body’ fit in? Should we be gesticulating and jumping around? Dancing? What could this mean?

It also begs another question, not only how do we speak with (or to) Gd, how are we speaking to each other? How do we speak to ourselves?

I don’t think that there is one answer for everyone on this question, and it can look very different for different people, but what seems clear is that this is a strong invitation to invest deeply and take this mode of communication seriously, for it is a very powerful tool. I think that we can extend this to all forms of communication with words, not only with Gd. Can you imagine how it would look if we took our communication more seriously and invested more in how we express ourselves? If we could put more of our whole selves into our words, it could make the interaction more significant. It would certainly make us more vulnerable, but it could also make for transformative communication.

How much farther can we extend this idea? How does it feel to fully invest yourself in something?

We just finished the holiday of sukkot, which is one of the things that we do with our entire body when we sit inside the sukkah. Just by entering the sukkah, you are doing the mitzvah with your whole physical being. Being in the Land of Israel is another mitzvah that we do with our entire body by being present.

Whether we live here or if we come to visit, how might this consciousness change our experience here in Israel? I think about this as an invitation to connect the physical and spiritual dimensions. Returning to our verse in the Noah story, Gd says to bring ‘you’ and your ‘entire household’. This could mean ‘you’-spiritual and ‘your household’-physical. The Baal Shem Tov’s ‘your body’ and ‘your strength/power’ could mean also mean physical and spirutal. I want to suggest that this doubling is a call to bring both our physical and spiritual dimensions together into the ark/word. How could I be in Israel with my entire being, conjoining my physical and spiritual? Awareness and intentionality will make for a more profound experience. I am walking in the Land of our ancestors. Our Tradition teaches about the special connection between a Jewish person and this Land. Our People have yearned for this place for millenia. The Holy Temple once stood here. This is part of a unique moment in history with the renationalization of an ancient people. The eyes of the world are on this place and it is an opportunity to be a “Light unto the Nations”. It is a much more intense way of being here, but it also infuses the experience with more meaning.

When we are able to invest our whole selves into something it raises the ante, and invites a much more powerful experience. We can think of our daily lives and how simple tasks could become more significant when done with intentionality. All the more so in our communications and relationships with our loved ones, and it goes without saying for those of us who have spiritual pursuits and practices that this advice of the Baal Shem Tov could potentially deepen those moments with an added dimension of experience.

In the simplest way, the more present we can be in all of our actions, the deeper they can be. May we all be blessed to invest ourselves in ourselves! May we find the courage and the support to physically act and to communicate with more intentionality and awareness.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Gmar Chatima Tovah Fri, 29 Sep 2017 12:32:06 +0000 As we approach the awesome day of Yom Kippur, I want to share a thought that I came across in a very sweet book by Rabbi Ezra Bick about the 13 Attributes of Compassion. (“In His Mercy: Understanding the Thirteen Midot–I recommend it!)
The 13 attributes are based in the verses from Exodus (35:4-10) when Gd reveals Gdself to Moses on Mount Sinai, after the sin of the Golden Calf. Our Tradition builds a ritual out of reciting these verses as a request for mercy and compassion, and this is the core of the selichot prayers that many have been saying during these Days of Awe.
There is much discussion about each of the 13 attributes, how to count them, and what they all represent.
I want to share one powerful and sweet idea from the beginning of the list, in the name of Rav Hutner z”l.
The simplest way of counting the 13 attributes has the name of Gd (Hashem, YKVK, Lord) repeated twice as the opening. Why twice? An answer that is offered by the Talmud suggests that the first is before sin and the second is after. In otherwords, Gd remains unchanged in the steadfast love that flows into the world, despite the behavior of the individuals. Rav Bick points out that this is a very sweet idea, but should be the same for each of the 13 attributes–what is unique about this particular Name of Gd?
Without taking us far afield (a discussion for another day), this particular name of Gd is the explicit name which is a word play on the Hebrew in past, present and future tenses of “to be” (hayah, hoveh, yihyeh). This is the Name that infuses the world with Life-Force at all times. So why this name twice?
Here is the amazing idea:
In order for the Life Force to continue infusing the world with Divine Energy in a reality *after* sin, it includes an “acceptance” or even “approval” of the sin. In other words, the greatest Mercy that we see here is that the Source of All Life is not accepting, but even expecting the world to be a place of mistakes and failures. The continued infusion of life-force is based in a deep belief or trust that we will improve our behavior, and thus the world continues to exist.
On one level, there is incredible empowerment that each one of us is never given up on–Gd believes and is earnestly waiting for each of us to live up to our potential.
Another direction is that Gd is willing to continue having a world that has people that fall short of their potential. Oy! Do you hear?! So of course we can also continue to love and keep building despite when we fall short!
Sweet friends,
Blessings to you and your family for a meaningful Yom Kippur and the beginning of a fantastic year of growth, discovery, failures and successes!
Shana tova!
Gmar chatima tovah!

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L’Shana Tova Wed, 20 Sep 2017 14:00:31 +0000 How does the past influence the present and the future?
Can the future influence the past?

The Former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches regarding the three sections that make up the core of the prayer service on Rosh Hashana, that zichronot, malchuyot, and shofarot correspond to the past, present, and future.

His unique insight is that we are not prisoners to our past, nor even necessarily defined by it. We can ‘change’ the past for the better. We see this when we do teshuva: The Talmud teaches an incredible idea: When we do teshuva from love, even our intentional sins become counted as merits! (B. Yoma 86b). In other words, those mistakes that I made can be seen as having led me to make better decisions and are part of my story. It is important that this is not an Orwellian ‘whoever-controls-the-present-controls-the-past’ by rewriting history, rather it is a type of sublimation of that history when I do teshuva from love, and can essentially re-write my own history. It is less of my past influencing my future, and more of my future influencing my past.

What an incredibly empowering moment! How I behave in the present can essentially ‘re-write’ my past! I can fix things that are behind me–it’s never too late!

Friends, as we come to the end of the Hebrew Year 5777, I want to bless you with a year of health, prosperity, growth and discovery. May you find fulfillment in your endeavors!

May you and your family be written and sealed for a fantastic year!

With love,
​L’Shana Tova,

Executive Director

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“Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right” Sun, 17 Sep 2017 12:38:03 +0000 “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right”
Or in Jewish:
“The hidden things belong to the Lord, our Gd, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:28)
There is a deep reminder in this week’s parsha about how hidden things belong to Gd, and we can only work with what is reavealed to us in this world.
But sometimes, I feel that we are given a glimpse into deeper things. But I wasn’t expecting to be blown away in traffic school!
In the spirit of Elul and reflecting on our year, I accrued a fair number of points for a driving infraction that landed me in traffic school for a defensive driving class. Without getting into why it was unfair that I was blamed for the incident (thank Gd, no accident), I want to start with the opening moments of traffic school.
Imagine the nearly impossible educational set up: 30 adults. Ages from 25-75. Arabs, Charedim, Russians, Americans. No.One.Wants.To.Be.There.
And the teacher is stuck with this random group for three nights of 4 hours each! Can you imagine being strict and responsible about attendance for adults? Telling them to put their cell phones away (and catching them using them anyway like children!) How would you assert your authority, and also gain the trust of the students to come on this journey with you? You are the representative of the organization that gave them a big fine, may have taken away their license and is telling them that they need to improve their driving.
Not exactly the place we would expect to find a brilliant teacher!
Uri is an incredible combination of love, humor, honesty, and profound care for both his students and the material. He is a legend.
The first thing he does is make his students feel welcome. He bounces from Hebrew to Arabic to Yiddish to English, making sure that each student has a ‘place’ in his classroom. The second thing he does is speaks with everyone with deep respect–he doesn’t look at his students as criminals or people that have done something terrible.
“At least for the 12 hours that we are together, none of you will be in an accident.”
Uri reminds us of the incredible responsibility and risk that each of us take every time we get on the road.
Uri is not a tall man, but his loud voice and hefty girth demand your attention. He is dressed sharply, a button-down shirt and a tie, and his grey hair is well kept. Every so often, he adjusts his trousers under his stomach. After setting up his laptop and video projetor, he takes out his big thermos, pours a cup of something, and says the traditional blessing outloud: Blessed are you Lord, Ruler of All, that everything came to be according to His word.
His care for each of us, and for everyone else overflows as he begs us to drive more aware. More alert. More careful. Make good decisions, and always be on the lookout for someone that does the opposite. We all want to get home alive.
Hours of joking, teaching, caring and inspiring went by very quickly, but the most inspiring thing was what Uri shared with us in the last moments of the last class, just before the exam.
After blessing us with a healthy and productive new year, he says that he wants to share his personal story (of course we have all become intrigued by this character that we have spent all this time with). What is it? I assumed that perhaps he lost a child or loved one to an accident, Gd forbid, and that is what motivates Uri to teach these classes with such passion and commitment. What could it be.
Uri stands before us about to make a confession:
“8 years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer.
The doctors gave me two weeks to live.
I don’t have a stomach, liver or kidneys anymore.
I am covered with bags from my chest to my shoes.
You may have noticed that I adjust my trousers every so often, and that I also sometimes raise my voice and gesticulate with my hands.
Every 15 minutes, the belt that I am wearing sends me an injection of chemotherapy, and it hurts. That’s why I raise my voice.
The doctors gave me two weeks.
I said to the Source of All Life: I’m not finished here in this world yet. Give me time.
Let me use my strengths to teach Your children to be more careful with the most precious thing they have: life.
You, my students, are what give me the strength and the courage to continue.”
Uri is on borrowed time.
But he is on a mission from Gd.
He is doing holy work, and that’s what I told him at the end of the exam.
Friends, I’m begging us all to learn from Uri to take better care of ourselves and each on the roads.
Friends, I’m begging us all to learn from Uri how precious life can be, and to not take a single moment for granted.
Friends, I’m begging us to learn from Uri what it means to be given the gift of delivering a message. We all have our unique voice to bring to the world, and that is our role here.
And let’s keep carrying each other with love and joy!
Blessings for a sweet and healthy new year for Uri and for all of us!

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Tu B’shvat and Potential for Growth! Fri, 10 Feb 2017 10:13:13 +0000 Tonight is Tu B’shvat. This is the new year for the trees, and the process of how the date was chosen is fascinating. The assumption is that most of the winter’s rains have fallen, and from this point, the sap deep down in the core of the tree begins to flow, which will lead to flowering and fruiting in the coming months. This moment, undiscernable to the naked eye looking at the barren trees from the outside, signifies a stirring deep inside that will only yield results in the future. What an awesome idea to celebrate!

The Torah declares in Deuteronomy (20:19) that “A person is a tree of the field.” How often are we quick to judge external appearances? When do we really take the time to stop and imagine what is happening deep within another person before passing judgment or making assumptions? If we were able to take pause and give the benefit of the doubt that despite what we may see on the outside (barren, nothing of note, uninteresting and even ugly), there is an entirely different universe unfolding and growing beneath the surface!
Furthermore, this week’s parsha, Beshallach, is the ‘headquarters’ of a number of powerful issues. There is the moment when the Israelites are standing on the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptians closing in and Moses suggests that prayer is the answer. Gd’s response is surprising: Now is not the time for crying out, Go! This moment is a powerful statement of balancing between trust in Gd and the need to be an active participant. (Exodus 14: 13-15)
This parsha is the ‘headquarters’ of song as the Israelites break into joyous chorus of collective song after crossing the Red Sea. (Exodus 15)
This parsha has the Israelites complaining against Moses and Gd. (Exodus 16:1-4)
This parsha has the introduction of the Manna–the Divine Bread that will sustain the Israelites on their journey towards the Land of Israel (Exodus 16:4-36)
This parsha is also the command to observe Shabbat (Exodus 16:23) in the context of the method of feeding the Israelites the Manna, the seventh day is different and the Manna is not to be collected.
This parsha also has Moses striking the rock to bring out water to the thirsty Israelites. (Exodus 17:1-8)
Lastly, we have the struggle with Amalek. (Exodus 17:8-16)
All of these pivotal moments have a profound impact on the experience of the Israelites within the story, and also in our continued life as Jews throughout the generations. Some of them are immediate, and others are ‘planting the seeds’ for Jewish life far into the future.
May we be blessed to learn this shabbat and tu b’shvat to both be fully in the moment for the experiences and people around us, but also to hold dear the idea that there is something deeper happening at the same time. Especially when it seems unimportant on the outside, there is the potential for great change and growth deep inside.
Happy new year for the trees!
Shabbat shalom,

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Impossible? Try Anyway! Fri, 20 Jan 2017 09:20:01 +0000 Friends,

I saw a very powerful teaching from the Kotzker Rebbe (19th c. Poland) this week, and I wanted to share it with you.

There is so much action in this week’s parsha, as we begin the book of Exodus and the epic narrative of the Jewish People is shifting from the story of our foremothers and forefathers, to the Jewish Nation and its formation in the exile of Egypt. This week we meet Moses and he becomes the leader of the Jewish People, albeit reluctantly and humbly (which is incredibly poignant as the world is watching Washington today), and the beginning of the story of redemption which will be the subject of the Torah readings for the next few weeks.

Buried in the beginning of the story is an interesting insight from the Rabbis which was never very clear to me, until I read the following teaching.

The Torah tells us (Exodus 2:5) that when Moses was floating down the Nile in the basket his parents placed him in, Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket and sent her maid-servant (ammatah) to take it. This is an entirely reasonable translation and reading. However, Rashi does due diligence and quotes the Rabbis of the Talmud that see in this word a double meaning. Amah is also a measurement (‘armslength’). Therefore, ammatah would mean, ‘her armslength.’ Coupled with the word ‘sent’, the new reading is that her ‘armslength’ was lengthened, thereby changing the meaning of this verse to say that Pharoah’s daughter stretched out her hand towards the basket and it was miraculously lengthened to reach the basket!

A little ‘far’-fetched, no?

I never felt fully comfortable with the exertion of Rabbinic creativity to devise this clever reading. What are they trying to teach us? Why go to such an effort? Fine, this is another miracle in the story of Moses to emphasize that there is Divine intervention in the story and he is the chosen one, I get it it. And that was where I left it. Until now.

The Kotzker Rebbe asks: If the basket was beyond her reach, thus necessitating this miracle, could she have possibly anticipated it?? Rather, this scene comes to teach us something very profound and powerful. Oftentimes, we find ourselves in a situation that seems impossible and there is no way out or no way to solve the problem. Barring an absolute miracle, we are left powerless and do nothing, explaining to ourselves that whatever we could have done, wouldn’t have really make a difference anyway.

However, Pharaoh’s daughter heard a cry, and something struck her in her heart. Even though the distance between her and the basket was unbridgeable, she performed an action. This action, by all logical measures, was totally and completely pointless and ineffective. However, since she did the maximum that she was capable of,  and she accomplished the impossible! Her seemingly futile action drew the Divine in, miraculously extending her arm, facilitating what could not be done.

Friends, like Rebbe Nachman teaches us to never despair, when we exert our maximum, even in the face of impossibility, we should never give up!

May we all be blessed with the courage and audacity to exert ourselves, and may the Source of all Life meet our efforts and help us to accomplish the impossible!

Shabbat Shalom,

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Nesiya Tovah! Have a Meaningful Journey! Fri, 06 Jan 2017 09:03:59 +0000 Shalom Friends,

I hope that you are all doing well. This week’s parsha, Vayigash, is the culmination of the entire Joseph story, full of drama and excitement (and I always find myself singing some of the ditties from the musical at this time of year!). There are many connections to Chanukah, which always comes at the same time. There are deep insights into family dynamics, assimilation, leadership and identity.
Hidden at the end of the story however, might be one of the more meaningful moments for us today, but it is very easy to miss. Rashi picks up on it, but his answer is technical, and most of the major commentators don’t make any mention of it.
Chapter 46 opens with Jacob beginning the journey down to be reunited with his son Joseph in Egypt. After stopping in Beer Sheva and offering sacrifices, Gd appears to Jacob and makes a powerful promise to him, telling him not to fear the descent to Egypt and that Gd will certainly bring him up from there (46:4), which both serves as a personal promise to Jacob/Israel, but also has a hint of the promise of redemption from Egypt that we will learn about in the Exodus story. Verse 6 tells us how they all ‘came’ to Egypt in the past sense and every year I sigh at these words. Yes, Gd already told Abraham (Gen 15:13-14) that he and his descendants would be ‘strangers in a strange land’, but they would be redeemed. And we also know that it is precisely the experience in Egypt that helps transform this family of 70 into a Nation. Nevertheless, something about knowing what is to befall the descendants of Jacob in Egypt, and the horrors of slavery cause me to pause and sigh every year.
Perhaps it is also the weight of knowing that a few short months we will sit together at the Seder table and declare that in every generation we must see ourselves as if we ourselves are coming out of Egypt, and we are called upon to do our own inner work and explore what our own personal Egypt is (remember Hevroni in the Negev??), and that is difficult work, that begins now.
But it is verse 8, and Rashi’s comments that are most striking.
The verse seems innocuous enough, as the beginning of another list: “Now these are the names of the children of Egypt that are coming to Egypt–Jacob and his children.”
Did you catch it? What is striking here?
The verb in the verse is remarkably in the present. They are coming *right now* down into Egypt! Rashi tells us not to be surprised since this is simply a narrative technique to write in the present tense, for that is where we are in the story.What doesn’t make sense to me is that 2 verses earlier, the text had no problem writing it in the past tense.
So what can we learn here? And what if, despite Rashi’s encouragement, I am surprised?
Friends, we are all on the road into the darkness of Egypt. We are blessed to know that we will come out. We have two major questions to ask ourselves at this very moment:
1) How much of the Light of Chanukah have I brought into my life, to illuminate my path. In other words, what are the tools and skills that I have developed to be a source of strength and inspiration for me when the going gets rough?
2) Knowing that we will be coming out, what are the things that we need to learn down there? What new skills and tools do we need to develop that will help us manifest our dreams and purpose when we come out. We are not going there just to suffer, we are going to grow. One of my teachers, when looking at the current situation here in Israel asks–what have we learned in the 2000 years of separation from our Home that we need to be doing better now that we have returned?
Friends, it is very strong the verse is written in the present tense. I invite you all to take a moment to reflect on these two questions, and find blessing in the struggles that lay before us, for they can make us stronger, better, and equipped to most effectively make a better tomorrow!
Shabbat Shalom!  

Executive Director
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A Little Spark can make a Big Difference! Fri, 23 Dec 2016 09:14:19 +0000 “The house of Jacob will be fire, the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for straw, and they will ignite and devour them.” (Obadiah 1:18)

This intense verse from the Prophet Obadiah is about the ability for the Israelites to overcome in the forces of Esau when the Messiah comes. What is interesting for us is that the image is one of fire and flame, and in particular, it connects Joseph to a flame.

This verse is quoted in the Midrash, and in Rashi, on the opening of this week’s parsha, describing the descendents of Jacob, and opening the Joseph narrative. The midrash explains the juxtaposition of the long list of descendents of Esau at the end of last week’s Parsha (Genesis 36:1-43), with the mention of Joseph as the primary descendent of Jacob. Why? The Midrash tells a parable of a blacksmith that sees a flax merchant enter the town with a camel ladened with flax and wonders where he will be able to store all of his flax. A wise bystander offers that one spark from the bellows could burn up all of the flax. The Midrash than explains that Jacob is concerned after the enumeration of the long list of Esau’s descendents and generals, therefore a ‘spark’ comes–implying that Joseph will be the ‘remedy’ to the intimidating challenge of Esau.

The Mishna (Bava Kama 6:6) describes a similar story in an entirely different context. There, the discussion is about the dangers and responsibilities around fire. When a spark goes out and burns the flax that a camel is carrying, and subsequently even burns down the building, there are two possibilties for who is responsible to pay for the damages. If the camel is overburdened, and the flax enters the store where the shopkeeper had the candle in a reasonable place, the flax merchant is responsible. If the shopkeeper put his candle outside the store, in the public domain, he is responsible, EXCEPT in the case of Chanukah! Why here, in a discussion of fire-safety and damages, we learn about Chanukah, and with the same story–what is the connection? This Mishnah is implying that even if it is not the safest thing to do, the merit of lighting Chanukah lights takes precedence. We should of course exercise due caution, but at the end of the day, lighting the lights is more important.

The connection between Joseph and flame is striking as this is always the parsha that corresponds to the beginning of Chanukah. The Mishnah also connects a similar story to Chanukah. What are all the connections here? What additional insights can we gain by connecting these together?

We all know that it only takes a little bit of light to dispel a great amount of darkness. One small candle can illuminate an entire room. This concept is very important at this time of year, as we shine a little light into the darkest part of the year with Chanukah. Joseph is one man. We will learn next week that we will single-handedly devise a plan that will not only save Egypt, but will save most of the Middle East from a devasting famine. On a spiritual level, Joseph stands up to great temptationon multiple occasions. He could easily have despaired in the pit or in prison. He could easily have fallen to Mrs. Potiphar’s seductions. He could easily have assimilated as he ascended to power in Egypt. He could easily have taken revenge on his brothers. Joseph had an inner fortitude, a inner spark of light that kept him focused in all of these moments. The Sefat Emet often writes about the pintele yid, or little spark of the Jewish soul that exists inside of every Jew, that is impervious to becoming tainted. This was the spark the helped Joseph, and this is how Joseph became the spark that changed the history of the world.

It is not easy, nor without risk, to stand up in moments of crises and doubt. The mishnah, by using the same story, connects all of the pieces and encourages us that even if there is ‘risk’ involved in taking the right action, the declaring of one’s identity as a Jew is ideal, even if it might cause a little danger. This project of fighting for one’s identity and truth is not always neat and clean. Joseph did it in the Bible. The Maccabbees did it in ancient history. The builders of the State of Israel are doing it today. What will we do this Chanukah to continue this rich legacy?

Blessings for a wonderful Shabbat and a fantastic beginning of the Festival of Lights!

Chag Sameach!

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Brotherly Love Fri, 16 Dec 2016 12:54:46 +0000 This week, I want to do a careful reading of a few verses in the beginning of the parsha and see if we can learn a message hiding within the Hebrew phrasing (it will help to look at the Hebrew of verses in Genesis 32:4, 7, and 12).

In verse 4, Jacob is sending his messengers to “his brother Esau”, and that is exactly what the Hebrew says (el eisav achicha). We see a subtle change when the messengers return in verse 7 to report back to Jacob that they had met with Esau. They say, “We came to your brother, to Esau.” (el achicha el eisav). And then when Jacob offers a prayer in verse 12, he mirrors the repetition of the messengers when he prays, “Save me please from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau!” (m’yad achi m’yad eisav).
Esentially, the first statement from Jacob is the simplest, and he speaks of ‘his brother Eisav.’ The next two have an extra word and seem to forcibly break the connection between ‘brother’ and ‘Esau.’
I want to suggest that after all of the years of separation between the two brothers, Jacob is returning and gives the benefit of the doubt to his brother Esau. Yes, when he fled from Esau many years earlier, it was because Esau was planning to kill him. Now, the cautious hope is that he will behave towards him as a ‘brother’ and there will be reconciliation. That’s why he sends the messengers to ‘his brother Esau.’
Unfortunately, the messengers find Esau in a seemingly different mind-frame and report that they saw him approaching with 400 men–a sizable army! They tell Jacob that they ‘came to your brother, to Esau,’ subtly showing that his behavior is precisely not one of brotherly love by separating the two words and repeating the “to.”
This causes due concern to Jacob, and in his prayer he pleads to be saved from ‘the hand of his brother, from the hand of Esau’, implying likewise that he recognizes that coming to him with an army is not a brotherly expression of reconciliation. However, I want to suggest that Jacob is not willing to give up on him and he is hoping that he can still be his ‘brother’, and that is why he uses the word.
In other words, if Esau chooses, he can be Jacob’s brother by coming in peace and fraternity. Alternatively, if he chooses to come to fight, he will simply be Esau, and Jacob is not willing to pre-judge him.
Another more subtle reading is based in the Shem MiShmuel (19th c Poland) who reads the prayer as if Jacob is pleading with Gd that if Esau chooses to make war, ‘save me from being his brother’ for he does not want to fight his brother, and he does not want to be associated with a character that cannot forgive as a brother. But if he comes in peace, then is most certainly his brother.
Friends, reconciliation after an argument is a terribly difficult thing. It is an incredible challenge after we have been hurt, to come to make ammends with a truly open mind and heart. We learn from Jacob here an import principle of giving the benefit of the doubt and hoping that others will be willing to reconcile and rebuild with us. Yet he is not a naive optimist that merely assumes the best of others all the time, he is prepared for the difficult reality and hard work that is required for rebuilding relationships.
May we blessed to similarly approach building relationships and community with a realistic openness to deeply encounter the other and receive them as they are, without pre-judging them!
Shabbat Shalom,

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