Friday, November 21, 2014

Family Legacies (Looking at - not past - each other) -D'var Torah for Toldot - November 21, 2014

“Two peoples are in your belly, 
two nations shall branch off from each other
[as they emerge] from your womb. 
One people shall prevail over the other; 
the elder shall serve the younger.”
Such was the message Rebekah received directly from God 
as she asked why these twins-to-be
were struggling inside of her with such intensity. 
The message was clear to her: 
The elder, Esau, would serve the younger, Jacob.
Her interpretation set in motion 
all that would transpire afterwards 
as she paved the way for the younger child
to receive the older child's blessing
as Isaac's primary heir. 
So would follow the accusations of deceit
down through the ages of biblical commentary
Or, a strong defense of Rebekah's actions
because of her special insight
into the need for Jacob to be the fulcrum
of the future for the children of Abraham and Isaac. 
Some say that Rebekah did understand correctly
one part of the message,
while failing to grasp the other possible meaning.  
As with ancient oracular proclamations 
that could be taken in more ways than one,
Rebekah may have missed this possible understanding:
The older one the younger one will serve.
So did Rebekah do wrong in setting up Jacob 
as the primary son 
who would succeed Isaac in most every way? 
Perhaps not. 
Perhaps the statement with a dual meaning
Was intended to foretell what would actually happen.
In some ways, 
the younger son would serve the older
in having to leave his home because of his brother's anger, 
in a moment of trepidation before meeting up with him again,
years later
and in two peoples, Israel and Edom,
living in close proximity to each other
whether in calm or in conflict. 
There is here a family legacy
One not of competition 
but of the necessity of mutual recognition.  
In the end, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah had to learn
that even though they might not end up living together,
they couldn't look past each other
pretending that the other did not exist.  
They had to meet each other, eventually, 
at heart of their humanity
in a place where a divine perspective would bring them together
looking into one another's eyes
as if each was seeing the face of God  in the other.
Their legacy bears lessons for the human family throughout the ages.  
Too many times,
In too many places
People look past one another
Seeing those who are different 
those whose background they do not share
as strangers
as the enemy
as objects of scorn
and hatred.
Two men attack people praying in a house of worship.
Young women attack a cab driver with tear gas. 
In the name of security, law enforcement officers or soldiers
think the worst about the people demonstrating in front of them Protesters fail to see the human beings opposite them 
hoping to preserve calm.  
Motives of others are questioned based on rumor
Rather than being understood based on fact.  
Ultimately,  The struggle between these boys
Teaches us not to see others only as we see them
But to see and understand them  
As they see and understand themselves.  
When we reach that goal,
Perhaps our service to one another
Will be for good, for cooperation
And for peace.   

Friday, November 14, 2014

"A New Generation: Isaac remembers" - Parashat Chayei Sarah - November 14, 2014

I never thought I would see him again.
It had been such a long time since we were together.
And that last time was not easy.
He seemed to enjoy picking on me – is that what all older brothers do?  
He is my half-brother, but we were in the same household – all of us - Ishmael, his mother Hagar, my father Abraham’s female servant, my father Abraham
and my mother Sarah. 
I vaguely remember that one last time when he bothered me, even bullied me, and it was too much for my mother.  I didn’t really understand what he had done wrong, but my mother said, “Isaac, he was trying to say that he will always be more important than you.  I knew that he wouldn’t ever stop, especially after how his mother treated me after Ishmael was born and I had no child.” 
  I still didn’t understand – for all the complexities, we were still family.  
  But that day, my mother had had enough.  She told my father that Hagar and Ishmael had to go. 
   And that was just before my father and I had to go on our own journey, one that I would rather forget, but one that has left a lasting mark on me.
   It’s funny that my half-brother’s name is Yishma-eil – God will hear.  My name is YITZCHAK – he will laugh.   I heard all about how my mother laughed when she heard that, after years of not having a child, that I would be born.   She later said that I brought her laughter.  That is probably why she threw out Hagar and Ishmael – they only reminded her of how she was treated for not having had a child – that is, until I was born.  I can only imagine how their presence continued to cause her pain.   For me, my name means that I will laugh even when I might want to cry or feel despair.  It was the perfect reminder for me to keep a positive attitude.   And now that Rebekah is here as my wife,  she has brought warmth and laughter to our family once again. 
    Still, our family was split – until today.   My father Abraham died after a long, long, life.   Even with that difficult trip up the mountain so long ago, I owe him my life, and my wife, since it was he who sent his servant Eliezer to find her for me.  She is a lot like my mother, only different and special – and she has already been a perfect spouse.  
    Back to my father.  He had told me that he had one wish – that Ishmael and I reunite to bury him at the family plot in the Cave of the Machpelah.   
    My father had secretly told me a story about Ishmael.   He never did get to see him again.  But he did tell me that he had visited Ishmael’s tent and met his wife, who treated him with generous hospitality.
   So he said, “Isaac, when I die, leave the past behind.   Respect your brother, and bury me with respect as well.”
    My father would be proud – we had a good-enough reunion that I would never have expected as we laid Abraham to rest.   We didn’t talk a lot, but we did recognize how connected we are, and that we live, really, not too far away from each other.
     So Ishmael went back to his home when we were done.  And I returned to mine.
   And now I wonder – what will the future be like for our families?  For our children and their children?  What will they know of us and our stories?   Will having Abraham as a shared ancestor bring them together?  Or will the jealousy that once drove apart our mothers, Sarah and Hagar, persist from one generation to the next?
    Only time will tell.   It seems to me that, at any time, we have the possibility of taking a step back from conflict so we can change our attitudes towards each other – just like I did today. 
    I didn’t know what to expect – but it was good to see him again – Ishmael, the man that God will hear.  And I, the one who will laugh, will continue to muster a smile that, I can only, pray will reverberate throughout the generations and maybe, one day, bring peace between our descendants when they really need it.  
    So may it be. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Power of One...and Two...and Three - Article for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces NM November 2014 Newsletter

   As I was leading a recent Temple program, I was looking around at those who were there, and thinking about the significance and contributions of each person who attended. On Friday, October 17, we engaged in a discussion about creation and creativity as our communal D’var Torah. The conversation was shaped by each individual comment from the congregants who were present that night, as well as my brother, Rabbi Stephen Karol, who was visiting us for several days. Had even one person who spoke not attended, the course of our comments would not have been the same. 
    In a large congregation, 1-3 people may not make so much of a difference in total attendance. At Temple Beth-El of Las Cruces,   1-3 people can have a great impact on a gathering. We all bring our experiences, our knowledge, and our love of Judaism and the Jewish people with us when we attend a congregational event. That is why YOUR presence enhances most any program or event. 
Judaism teaches us about the importance of one, two and even three people to a community. 
ONE: “For this reason was a single human being created in the beginning: to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes guilt to him/her as though he/she had destroyed an entire world; and whosoever pre-serves a single soul, Scripture ascribes merit to him/her as though he/she had preserved an entire world” (Talmud Sanhedrin 37a). 
“Despise no one, and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and nothing that does not have its place” (Shimon ben Azzai, in Pirke Avot 4.3) 
TWO: “Two are better than one...If either of them falls , one can lift up the other” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). 
“When two sit together and words of Torah/learning pass between them, the Divine Presence rests with them: (Pirkei Avot 3:2). 
THREE: “If three have eaten together and spoken words of Torah/learning, it is as though they had eaten at God’s table.” (Pirkei Avot 3:3). 
“A triple cord will not be quickly snapped!”(Ecclesiastes 4:12). 
We often forget about the significance of one: one person’s leadership or idea, one vote in an election, one positive comment that can offer support or encouragement, or one gift. One of my favorite coffee mugs bears this statement: “To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world.” 

The book of Ecclesiastes speaks of two from a pragmatic perspective, rather than considering the emotional benefits of friendship. A partnership of any type begins with two, and such a cooperative arrangement works best when it is characterized by mutual support and the encouragement of sharing wisdom and growing in knowledge. That is why the statement of the rabbis focuses on what one person can teach another. That is what we can do for one another as well. 
     Three represents completeness in Judaism (we have three patriarchs and three major festivals), but it is also the minimum for creating a bond that is even stronger than two. The comment from Ecclesiastes notes that three people together can defend themselves better than two people can hold fast. That strength can also be brought to the sharing of ideas and to the building of community. 
We know that ten people makes a minyan in Jewish wor-ship, and sometimes congregations like ours may be only one, two or three people away from reaching that numerical threshold. Ten is said to represent absolute completeness. Never underestimate the blessing and gift that your presence can bring to a gathering at Temple or anywhere else in the community, because it might be you who adds something to make a program or event even more worthwhile and valuable than it otherwise might have been. 
     I look forward to seeing you soon!