Charismatic Faith / Graceful Masculinity: Vayechi

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף, בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי-עָיִן; בָּנוֹת, צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי-שׁוּר.

A charming son is Joseph, a charming son to the eye; each of the daughters climbed heights to gaze. (Genesis 49:22)

 

Although Joseph was aware of his exceptional desirability, he never relied on his good looks or the privilege of being Jacob and Rachel’s oldest son — or on the financial success or political power that he accrued in Egypt. We read in Psalms that praiseworthy is the person who has made Hashem their trust (Psalms 40:5). According to the midrash, this refers to Joseph.1 He is the paradigm of a person who trusts in G-d. When the baker and the cup-bearer are disturbed by their dreams, Joseph tells them, “G-d has all dream interpretations.” (Genesis 40:8) When Joseph is later summoned to explain Pharaoh’s dreams, he declares, “It is not me. G-d will answer the peace of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:16). 

Yet, the same midrash faults Joseph for asking the cup-bearer twice (Genesis 40:14) to help him get out of prison. Because Joseph relied on a person, by asking for their intervention, instead of just having faith in God, he was forced to spend an additional two years in prison, one for each of the requests. It is implied however, that had he only asked once he wouldn’t have been punished at all. So why isn’t Joseph simply sentenced to one year, for the one unnecessary ask?

This midrash highlights one of the paradoxes of living a life of faith. Faith can be a propelling force that drives a person to seek and effect change, or it can comfort a person with the belief that everything will be ok so they don’t need to act. How can we balance our belief that God will cause everything to turn out as it should with the imperative to try our hardest to accomplish what we can? Wasn’t it proper for Joseph to try to get himself released from jail? Shouldn’t we always try to better our situation without sitting back and waiting for God to make it better?

Faith, or bitachon in Hebrew, enabled Joseph to tell his brothers time and again (Genesis 45:8, Genesis 50:20) that it was G-d’s plan that he go down to Egypt. Rashi translates “a charming son” as “a son of grace, chein.Bitachon, בטחון, is an anagram of  טוב חן – good grace. Jealousy only exists in the absence of faith in G-d’s wisdom and oversight. If we really believe that G-d has given each of us what we need to fulfill our unique purpose in this world, how could we possibly want what another has? 

Our rabbis point point out that the Hebrew word for worry is dayga, דאגה, which has four of the first five letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, and is just missing the bet, ב, for bitachon.  It is that bet “ב” that we find as the first letter of Genesis. The stories in it, known as aggadah / אגדה (those same four letters again!), help inspire our faith, reduce our anxiety, and build the foundation for our relationship with G-d and each other.

The Gra says that the large “ב”, in the first word of the Torah “בראשית”, “In the beginning”, represents “בטחון”, faith. He further teaches that the first word can be parsed as “בראש-ית” at the head of “ית” , an allusion to the three letters in the Hebrew alphabet that head “ית”: namely ב,ט,ח2. Together, these three letters form the root of “faith” — in Hebrew, בטחון, which can be understood as G-d’s promise of our committed relationship.3 Joseph was in an exceedingly intimate dynamic with G-d. He lived with a deep awareness of G-d. But the moment he diverted his focus to another, he lapsed in his awareness of G-d — to the extent that it was clear to God that even the first time that he asked the cupbearer for help, he had the wrong motivation, and was therefore held responsible for both requests.

Motivation matters. And our connection with G-d matters. And — one never loses by doing the right thing. Our task is to seek to do the right thing, with the right motivation, maintaining our connection with our values and their Source. If we believe that G-d is the source of everything, how could we possibly advance our position by going against the will of the Creator, hurting another person, or misusing our resources for selfish gains? Each one of us has a connection to G-d, the Torah, and each other. We must see ourselves as partners and coworkers in the elevation of it all — and like Joseph, allow our charming and grace-filled faith to sustain us in the work in healing this broken world together.

 

Discussion questions:

The stories in our tradition are meant to model what our good and bad choices can lead to. What is your favorite Jewish story where faith led to a happy ending?

If Joseph was alive today, what do you think he would be doing with his time to fix our world?

Charisma is powerful. How can we make sure that it is used for in the right ways?

Who today, is a good example of one who using their status for the greater good?

 


1. בראשית רבה פ”ט:ג

2. בית, טית, חית

3. תי = 410 = קדוש

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

 

Enero 2020: Palabras del Torá / January 2020 Torah video

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah – R’ Rachel Barenblat from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.

 

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s video offering features a teaching from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, translated into Spanish by Rabbi Juan Mejia. The text follows, in Spanish and then in English.

¡Shalom javerim y buenos días amigos! El mes pasado celebramos la fiesta de Januká.  El próximo mes nos traerá Tu Bishvat, también conocido como el “año nuevo de los árboles”.  Pero Enero es un mes en espera. Un festival ya pasó y el otro todavía no ha llegado. 

Esta pausa entre fiestas es parte de nuestra vida espiritual también.  Nuestra vida espiritual no consta sólo de experiencias cumbre cuando la comunidad se reune para las fiestas o una celebración.  Por supuesto que éstas también son parte de nuestra vida espiritual. Pero los tiempos tranquilos, los tiempos de espera también son parte de nuestra vida espiritual.

La vida judía – como toda vida espiritual- tiene un ritmo natural de avance y retroceso.  En hebreo decimos “ratzó vashov”. La vida espiritual avanza y retrocede como la marea. Tanto la marea alta como la baja son parte del ritmo natural del mar. Igualmente, las cimas y los tiempos tranquilos son igualmente parte del ritmo natural de la vida espiritual. 

Amo a nuestras fiestas y los rituales que las acompañan.  Pero también amo los tiempos tranquilos. Estos me recuerdan que puedo encontrar santidad y apoyo en las pequeñas tareas que forman parte de mi día a día.  Estas pequeñas prácticas son parte de las herramientas que la tradición nos ofrece para construir vidas judías con sentido. 

Creo que es importante que estas prácticas no nos exigen venir a un sitio especial, o usar objetos especiales o incluso hablar en hebreo.  Somos judíos donde quiera que vayamos, no sólo en la sinagoga. Somos judíos sin importar en qué lenguaje estemos hablando o rezando.

Acá les presento mis dos prácticas favoritas.  Estos son sus textos y las melodías que las acompañan. Pero creo que lo más importante, más que las palabras o la música, es el movimiento del corazón.  Estas son dos de las herramientas esenciales de mi caja de herramientas espiritual. 

La primera de ellas es agradecer a Dios al despertarme.  Hay una oración tradicional para este fin llamada el Modé Aní.  Esta se encuentra al comienzo de la mayoría de los libros de oración / siddurim: “Te agradezco, mi Dios vivo y duradero, por haberme devuelto mi alma. Grande es tu fidelidad.”

Amo esta oración porque me recuerda que estar vivo es un regalo. Y me recuerda que aunque puedo haber cometido errores ayer, Dios tiene fe en mí para ser mejor hoy.  Amo la idea de que del mismo modo que buscamos tener fe en Dios, también podemos creer que Dios tiene fe en nosotros. 

Si no conoces las palabras tradicionales, o estas no resuenan contigo, puedes adoptar esta práctica con las palabras de tu propio corazón. Cuando te despiertes en la mañana, toma un momento para cultivar un sentimiento de gratitud.  Una vez esto se volvió un hábito para mí, hizo mis mañanas más luminosas. 

Recitar el Shemá antes de dormir es otra herramienta espiritual para el tiempo corriente. Primero hacemos una pausa y meditamos sobre nuestro día.  Resolvemos mejorar mañana y dejamos ir los errores y afanes del día- tanto los propios como los ajenos. 

Y después decimos el Shemá, un recordatorio de la unidad de Dios y un recordatorio de que somos parte de la unidad del Universo.  Hacer esto todas las noches es una forma de mantenimiento espiritual diario para el alma. Y, en mi opinión, también me ayuda a conciliar el sueño más rápido. Mi corazón se aligera.

Amo como estas prácticas en la mañana y en la noche enmarcan mi día. Me ayudan a comenzar y a terminar mi día con un sentimiento de conexión. Y me recuerdan que las cosas pequeñas pueden ser más grandes que la suma de sus partes.  A pesar de sólo tomar unos pocos minutos, su impacto es profundo. 

Meses como éste, sin grandes fiestas, nos vienen a enseñar (y a recordarnos) que toda la vida es vida espiritual.  Meses como estos nos recuerdan que nuestra vida espiritual está compuesta de simples acciones cotidianas. Todo lo que hacemos es parte de nuestra vida espiritual, o puede serlo, si prestamos atención.

Estas pequeñas prácticas diarias son algunas de nuestras herramientas judías para ayudarnos a prestar atención.  Nos despiertan, no sólo del sueño físico sino del sueño espiritual. Con ellas podemos construir vidas judías ricas y significativas no sólo durante las fiestas sino siempre. 

 

Shalom chaverim y buenos dias amigos! Last month we celebrated the festival of Chanukah. Next month will bring the holiday of Tu BiShvat, known as the “new year of the trees.” But January is an in-between month. One festival is over and the next has not yet arrived.

This pause between holidays is part of spiritual life too. Spiritual life isn’t only the peak experiences when communities come together for holidays or lifecycle celebrations. Of course those are part of spiritual life! But the quiet times, the in-between times, are also spiritual life.

Jewish life — all spiritual life — has a natural ebb and flow. In Hebrew, we say ratzo v’shov. Spiritual life ebbs and flows like the tide. High tide and low tide are both part of the natural rhythm of the sea. Peak times and quiet times are both part of the natural rhythm of spiritual life.

I love our festivals and the rituals that come with them. But I also love the quiet times. They remind me that I can find holiness and sustenance in small actions that are part of my every day. These small practices are among tradition’s tools for building meaningful Jewish lives. 

And I think it’s important that some of these practices don’t require us to come to a special place, to use special items, or even to speak Hebrew. We are Jewish everywhere we go, not just at synagogue. We are Jewish no matter what language we use to speak or to pray. 

Here are two of my favorite daily practices. There are texts and melodies that go with them, but I think the movement of the heart is the most important thing, more important than any special words or tunes. These are two of the most essential tools in my spiritual toolbox.

The first one is thanking God when I wake up. There’s a short traditional prayer for this purpose, called Modeh Ani. You can find it in most siddurim / prayerbooks: “I am thankful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me; great is Your faithfulness!”

I love this prayer because it reminds me that being alive is a gift. And it reminds me that even if I feel like I made mistakes yesterday, God has faith that I can be my best self today. I love the idea that just as we seek to have faith in God, we can also believe that God has faith in us.

If you don’t know the traditional words, or if they don’t speak to you, you can do this practice with the words of your own heart. When you wake up in the morning, just pause and cultivate a sense of gratitude. Once this became a habit for me, it made my mornings feel brighter.

Saying the Shema before sleep is another spiritual tool for ordinary time. First we pause before bed, and reflect on the day. We resolve to do better tomorrow, and try to let go of the day’s hurts and mistakes — both mistakes we made ourselves, and mistakes made by others.

And then we say the Shema, a reminder of the Oneness of God and a reminder that we are part of the great unity of the universe. Doing this every night is a form of daily spiritual soul-maintenance. And I think it helps me fall asleep more easily, too. My heart feels lighter.

I love how these morning and evening practices bookend my day. They help me begin and end each day with a sense of connection. And they remind me that little things can add up to more than the sum of their parts. They take only a few minutes, but their impact is deep.

Months like this one, with no big holidays, come to teach us (and then to remind us) that all of life is spiritual life. Months like this one remind us that spiritual life is made up of simple everyday actions. Everything we do is part of spiritual life… or can be, if we pay attention.

And these small daily spiritual practices are some of our Jewish tools for helping us pay attention. They help us wake up: not just from literal sleep, but from spiritual sleep. With them we can build Jewish lives that are meaningful and deep: not only at holiday times, but always.

Responsibility as Redemption / Graceful Masculinity: Vayigash

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. (Genesis 45:1)

 

One of the most dramatic moments in the Genesis narrative is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, declaring “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” The medrash explains that it was Judah who brought Joseph to a point where he could hold back no longer and therefore divulges his true identity. Rabbi Chiya bar Abba posits that Judah’s speech, although directed at Joseph, is actually constructed to appease Joseph, Benjamin, and the other brothers.

We understand why Judah needs to apologize to Joseph and Benjamin. It was Judah’s plan to sell Joseph as a slave, upending Joseph’s life and robbing Benjamin of his only brother from the same mother. But I find it interesting that Rabbi Chiyah also thinks that Judah is appeasing his other brothers as well. The other brothers had wanted to kill Joseph, while Judah suggested they could make some money by selling Joseph as a slave. Judah could argue that his other brothers are equally complicit in what was done to Joseph, but instead he chooses to take full responsibility for the situation.

In a relationship, it is an act of grace to take responsibility for our actions and inactions without trying to share the blame. Our choices are meaningful because they represent our will, and as a result they are ours to own. We should make it a daily practice to take stock of our deeds,  but Yom Kippur is especially designated as a particular Day of Reckoning in the Jewish calendar. The High Priest in the Yom Kippur Temple service takes full responsibility for the deeds of Israel. He is compared on this day to a graceful groom, reflecting the magnanimous nature of his behavior and the joy of the experience. 

The Midrash says that the meal which precipitated Joseph’s revelation happened on Shabbos. Shabbos is a time when we are able to access and orient ourselves to the truth of being G-d’s creations. The Hebrew word for face, פנים, is the same as a word for “inside” because the face gives expression to what is going on internally within a person. Our rabbis teach that the light that emanates from a person’s face is different on Shabbos than during the week and has its source in the holiness of the Garden of Eden. Even Adam, after the sin, didn’t lose that light until Saturday night. Shabbos invites us to remember and take action, to return to the ideal and work to fix the things we broke. 

The brothers are rendered speechless by Joseph’s revelation. The medresh uses this as a model for us and our own day of reckoning: “Woe to us on the day of judgment, woe to us on the day of rebuke.” If the brothers were not able to answer Joseph, how are we going to be able to answer G-d?

Joseph has not rebuked his brothers. He has simply revealed the truth of the situation. Chein (grace) can be understood as an acronym for chochma nistera, hidden wisdom. The brothers had originally thought that Joseph was extraneous and expendable. The “judgment” came with Joseph simply letting them know that they had gotten it wrong.

On the Day of Judgement we will all be confronted by the truth of our potential. The prospect of this is terrifying. When people become aware of their failings, they can feel embarrassed and even give up hope of correcting bad behavior. Chein is the ability to see the greatness of the hidden and bring it out. The groom, on the verge of marriage, epitomizes embracing one’s potential and turning it into reality. It is that commitment to the ideal that empowers the groom to take responsibility for inevitable bumps along the way. Acknowledging our mistakes allows us to make amends for the past and better positions us for a more perfect future.

 

Discussion questions:

 

What are the consequences of minimizing our own potential for change?

How can one break the cycle of bad habits?

What are some best practices in saying “I’m sorry”?

It isn’t easy to admit that one was wrong. How can those receiving an apology best support a healthy outcome?

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Rising With Grace / Graceful Masculinity: Mikeitz

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיֹּאמֶר–הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם; רְדוּ-שָׁמָּה וְשִׁבְרוּ-לָנוּ מִשָּׁם, וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת.

And [Jacob] said. “Behold, I have heard that there are provisions in Egypt; go down there and purchase for us from there, so that we may live and not die. (Genesis 42:2)

 

This week’s parsha finds Jacob in a dark time. He is in deep mourning for his son Joseph, a serious famine has descended upon the region, and Jacob and his remaining sons are in danger of starvation. Amid these difficulties, Jacob bids his sons to take a treacherous journey to Egypt in the prospect of procuring food. The medresh is bothered by Jacob’s use of the word “שבר” for food. Why not use אכל, which would be a more common term?1 The medresh answers that Jacob wanted to convey an aspect of hope. The root שבר  appears in psalms with a connotation of hope: אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ   עַל־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהָֽיו –  Happy is the one who has the G-d of Jacob for help, whose hope is in the L-rd their G-d. (Psalms 146:5)

Jacob tells his sons רדו שמהdescend there. The word רדו has the numerical value of 210, which is an allusion to the 210 years of being enslaved in Egypt.2 This trip down to Egypt is emblematic of future struggles. Faith in our ability to create positive change nourishes the movement of the moment. That is the destination on the other side of the descent. “There” – שמה – has the same letters as משה, Moses, teaching us that after the 210 years there will be liberation, the giving of the Torah, and freedom. 3

The word שבר can also mean brokenness. It’s easy to experience brokenness as hopelessness, but our rabbis embrace a process of humility and empowerment. When things are difficult, we are easily tempted to give up. It takes a unique strength entwined with a particular grace to descend into the darkness and fight for light and life. The miracle of Chanukah is that in the aftermath of horrific trauma, we didn’t surrender or stop searching for light. We went down into the shattered fragments, and came out elevated on a supernal plane.

We are told that things do get better, but we are rarely aware of where we are in the arc of it all. Being created in the Divine Image means that we, like G-d, have the ability to create new realities. The power of our impactfulness is so great that we must constantly be alert and cautious. We are taught: “Do not believe in yourself [that you will always get it right] until the day of your death; for Rabbi Yochonon was the High Priest in the Temple for 80 years, but at the end of his life he denied Divine authority.” 4 Even someone who seems to be doing everything right might make mistakes… and even someone who seems to be doing everything wrong can always improve. 

The Chanukah liturgy recalls the brave actions of Matisyahu ben Yochonon, the High Priest, who led the resistance against the Greeks.5 There is a tradition that Matisyahu is the son of the High Priest who rebelled. His actions that we celebrate on Chanukah are the corrective act that restores our faith in the Divine and repairs his father’s mistake. As a result of his efforts to fix what was broken we now have another mitzvah in the Oral Law, and he is seen as an embodiment of (ben) his father’s true identity of grace 6 (The word chein, grace, is hidden within the name Yochanan: יוחנן).7

Matisyahu was committed to a more perfect existence. It’s reminiscent of the story  of Rabbi Elezer ben Dordiah’s.8 At the end of his life, Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordiah recognized all of the desecration and defilement that he had caused, and his transformation triggered a revolt of holiness and sanctification that the physical limitations of the earthly world could no longer contain, manifesting the miraculous.9His internal change came about through grace.  So too, later in this week’s parsha, when Joseph raises his eyes to his brother Benjamin, and asks G-d to bless him with grace (43:29), the mystical tradition sees this as a blessing for Chanukah. It is grace that allows us to rededicate ourselves to hopefulness and to spiritual pursuits.10

 

Discussion questions:

There is no shortage of things that are broken in this world. Where should a person look first to try and fix it?

How is the process of increasing light difference for the individual and the communal?

What are examples of the miraculous or supernatural accomplishments, of our times, that are good models for the work that still needs to be done?

Does optimism require faith or is it a rational expectation that things will improve?

 

 


1. ב”ר פצ”א ו

2. Rashi quoting Midrash Rabbah

3. עיין צמח צדיק

4. ברכות כט.

5. עיין בני יששכר מ”ד כה

6. שם כד

7. It is noteworthy that the three letters that remain, without חן grace spell Yavan יון , the Hebrew word for “Greece” and demonstrate a literal decent, as Hebrew is read from right to left.

8. Tractate Avoda Zarah 17a: Rabbi Elezer ben Dordiah spent his life exploiting women for pleasure and after traveling the world pursuing physical indulgence he repents from such a depth that his soul leaves his body and is ushered into heaven with a Divine Voice calling him Rabbi.

9. The AriZ”l taught (פרע”ח) that he was a reincarnation of Yochanan Kohen Gadol.

10. מאור ענים

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Re-educating the Natural Order / Graceful Masculinity: Vayeshev

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

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

His brothers saw that it was he whom their father loved most of all his brothers so they hated him and were not able to speak to him peacefully. (Genesis 37:4)

 

This coming Sunday night, we begin to celebrate the eight day festival of Chanukah. The Beis Yosef famously asks – Why are there eight days? If there was enough oil for the first day, wasn’t the miracle in fact only for 7 days? Why then isn’t the festival just seven days long? 

One of my favorite answers is supplied by the Ba’aeli Mussar. They teach that indeed everything in the world is miraculous. It is just that we are so accustomed to everyday wonders that we call them “natural.” If G-d willed for water to burn and oil to extinguish, then our “normal” would be perceived as the supernatural. Chanukah is a time to question what is real, and what we’ve simply accepted as truth because we are used to it. At Chanukah we acknowledge and appreciate the hidden light in the seemingly mundane.

This week’s parsha, Parshat Vayeshev, is also one of hidden light. People who are discounted, rejected, and dismissed turn out to be the mainstays of redemption. Joseph, the younger brother, is thrown into a pit, nearly killed, and sold as a slave, but he then becomes the viceroy of Egypt and is able to save everyone from famine. According to the medrash, after Shechem rapes Dina, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Asnos. Dina’s brothers want to abandon the baby but Jacob intervenes and arranges for her to be adopted by an Egyptian family. This baby girl, according to the midrash, grows up and marries Joseph. Together they parent Menashe and Efrayim, the first brothers to ever get along with each other. This light, hidden below the surface, is able to shine — and to disturb the system of artificially evaluating human worth, the system that discounted both Joseph and Dina.. 

So too with Tamar. Yehuda wanted to execute her because he assumed that she had become pregnant through harlotry, when he himself was in fact the father. When Tamar reveals the truth to Yehuda, he declares that she is more righteous than he. Tradition teaches that the Messiah of the Davidic line is descended from Tamar, while the Messiah of Joseph’s line comes from Asnos. (Yes, tradition speaks of two messiahs.) What’s important here is that each of these figures is descended from someone who was considered unworthy of living but survived and became a necessary agent of salvation… just like Joseph.

And in the times of the Chanukah story, when men were passive in the face of evil decrees and bride trafficking, it was Yehudis who had faith in the power of change. She resisted, rebelled, and revolted. Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday that falls during two different months, demonstrating its own ability to incorporate shifts in the changing of time.

The name Chanukah comes from the language of chinuch, education. Now, like during the Chanukah story, we must actively pursue a constant re-education about what is right and appropriate. One of the indicators that we are being successful is whether or not we are producing chein, gracefulness,1, also at the root of both words.

The Greeks wanted us to forget the Torah and its eternal truth: that real power doesn’t rest in physical strength or gatherings of men, but in the One Who “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few”. The candles that we light each night remind us of our partnership with the Divine and the source of holiness that is our most precious resource.

We live in very dark times, but dark times contain hidden light. The medresh teaches that while everyone was busying themselves in these painful narratives, G-d was involved and was creating the light of redemption. When we challenge structures that support oppressors, we are shining the light of truth that is the most disruptive to oppression. The rebellions of today’s resistance are no less miraculous or courageous, perhaps they just feel more natural.

 

Discussion questions:

 

What are some of the changes that we have seen, in the last one hundred years, toward gender equality?

Where are changes today most needed in society?

Can systems and institutions that have contributed negatively change from the inside?

How can we use this Chanuka to affect change?  

 


1.חנוכה גימטריא חן א-ל Chanukah has the same numerical value of “G-dly grace”.

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Becoming a Better Being / Graceful Masculinity: Vayishlach

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיִּחַן, אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר.

And Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city. (Genesis 33:18)

 

“Don’t just do something, stand there.” The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland understands that human beings have a very hard time just being. Often it is easier to pursue the future and be distracted from the moment than to be fully in the present. But it’s important for us to “just be” sometimes. When we are only thinking about what is next, our ability to actually improve ourselves is diminished.

Every week, Shabbos invites us to pivot from a weekday posture of creative production to one of graceful existence. (From “doing something” to “just being.”) The medresh teaches that Jacob came to the city of Shechem on erev Shabbos, and prepared for the day of rest. The Sefas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) understands the word “ויחן”, in the context of this verse, not just as he encamped, but also that Jacob restored grace,  חן, to the land.

Sefer Yetzirah teaches that G-d connects the letter ת with both חן (grace) and Shabbos. As a result, Shabbos is inherently connected with grace. Shabbos supports our acquisition of gracefulness by giving us the opportunity to reflect on what we have and to be satisfied with what we have. Just as G-d rested on the Shabbos from creating, and appreciated what had been made, so too does Shabbos provide a weekly reminder to cease pursuing the physical and instead to elevate it to the level of spirituality. 

The brothers Jacob and Esav offer two different ways of relating to “what we have” and “enoughness.” When Jacob is on his way to meet Esav, he attempts to make amends with his brother by sending him many gifts. Esav rejects the offering, saying, ““I have plenty,” which Rashi understands as an arrogant boast of accomplishment. By contrast, Jacob says of himself, “I have all (כל),” which Rashi interprets to mean that he has enough. 

Jacob tells Esav  כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹקים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל / “G-d has been gracious to me and therefore I have all that I need.” (Genesis 33:11) He means “I have found the G-dly type of grace, not a superficial one.” Jacob not only wants to give Esav physical gifts: he wants to give Esav the spiritual gift of his worldview, the spiritual gift of knowing that what one has is enough.

Esav comes with 400 men, a representation of the force of “רע עין,” a negative outlook of the world.  Jacob lives for 147 years, which is the numerical value of “עין טוב”, a positive outlook on the world. The numerical value of “יש לי כל”, I have enough, is 400, the same as the letter “ת” which as we explained, is connected to Shabbos and to חן / grace. Jacob was modeling for his brother a practice of being satisfied with what one has, and not being distracted by the superficial pleasure of being seen as successful through excess. This reflects a real internal חן / grace. 1

וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם Jacob came shalem, in peace.  שָׁלֵם (Shalem) can also mean complete or full. Jacob came on Erev Shabbos, a time of completion. We conclude the physical work before Shabbos so that we can be free to invest in the spiritual “work” of Shabbos.2 Shabbos’s name is shalom. Part of achieving graceful living is appreciating what we have, existing in Jacob’s state of יש לי כל. For the moment we know that we have all we need. 

 

Discussion questions:

 

Why does society look at physical wealth as such an indicator of success?

Spiritual ambitions can also be toxic. How can we evaluate if our ambitions are holy?

How can we be more conscious of our presence?

Does being with other people make that easier?

 


1. חיצון = חן יופי

2. עיין אמרי אמת תר”צ “בשבת אדם משלים עצמו”

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Growing the Giving Nature of Love / Graceful Masculinity: Vayeitzei

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וַיַּעֲבֹד יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל, שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים; וַיִּהְיוּ בְעֵינָיו כְּיָמִים אֲחָדִים, בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ אֹתָהּ.

Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him a few days because of his love for her.  (Genesis 29:20)

 

There’s a story about a student who is accompanying his rabbi to a restaurant for dinner. After they are seated and have looked over the menu, the rabbi asks, “What would you like to eat?” Still scanning the options, the student responds, “I love fish, so…” The rabbi interrupts by gently lowering the student’s menu, makes eye contact, and corrects him: “If you really love fish, you would let it live out its life peacefully in the water. Instead, you are willing to pay someone to catch it, kill it, dice it, deep fry the pieces, and then you will eat it. You don’t love fish. You love the way eating fish makes you feel.”

Love can be selfish or selfless. We can love another, G-d forbid, for what the person can provide to us — or we can love by trying to offer as much as possible. In Hebrew, the world for “love” is אהבה. It comes from the root הב, which means to give. In the purest kind of love, we seek to better ourselves as a way of making the best possible offering to those we love. 

In our parsha, the Torah testifies that Jacob’s love was for Rachel. Perhaps that is why the seven long years of labor felt like days for him. Moments waiting for a beloved can feel like an eternity, but Jacob was already achieving a sense of closeness in the moment by investing the time to work and refine himself. It is not coincidental that he, like many of our early leaders, was first a shepherd of animals before leading people. Putting the needs of others first isn’t easy, and it took effort to habituate themselves to accommodating the needs of the flock.

The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that we can best learn how to love another by learning to love ourselves and then expanding from there. In Tractate Nedarim, the Talmud explains the connection between the first half of the verse “You shall not seek revenge” with the second half of the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Lev. 19:18) The Jerusalem Talmud presents a parable of a person who accidentally cut their finger while preparing food. Would the wounded hand take the knife and avenge itself by stabbing the hand that cut it? When we understand ourselves as being part of a greater whole, this not only discourages revenge, but it can inspire deep love. We are all commanded to love another the way that we love ourselves, but if we are not aware of the care we need to offer ourselves, we can end up hurting others.

Before we can expand our concern to include others, we need to understand our own needs. The way that we feel about ourselves can teach us how to properly feel for others. We must love ourselves in order to fully love someone else.

This is especially true in our most intimate relationships. Maimonides teaches that I must honor my partner even more than I honor myself and I should love my partner as much as I love myself.1 The source for this is the Babylonian Talmud, but it is noteworthy that the order there is reversed: One must love their partner the way one loves oneself and should honor the partner even more.2 The rabbis explain that Maimonides changes the order because he is offering practical advice on how to cultivate love for another. The first step is understanding and honoring what is important to the other, and making it important to you.

Tradition also acknowledges that desire is natural and powerful, and needs to be harnessed and channeled. The mystics understand the 613 commandments in the Torah as corresponding to 613 parts of our being. The commandment of loving another as we love ourselves is connected to the part of us that experiences desire. Intimate relationships offer the unique opportunity to focus on the needs of another, with as much sensitivity, as if those needs were one’s own. It is for this reason that the Talmud mandates that one see the other before marrying, to make sure there is an attraction. Torah’s imperative to love another as oneself is given as the prooftext.3

Jacob’s love for Rachel is passionate and generous. His work, both internal and external, models how we can find personal nourishment by focusing on the needs of another. G-d wants us to feel loved, and to know that we will never get there by exploiting others. Instead, we reach love through giving love in a healthy way.

 

Discussion questions:

How does the way society uses the word “love” affect our understanding of it?

What are some examples of micro-affections, small positive platonic acts, that we can offer through the day, especially to strangers?

If we feel good when we give and help others, why do we often feel resistance to giving more? 

Is it more helpful to try and apply successful lessons in one’s partnership with G-d to human relationships, or apply lessons from our human relationships to our partnership with G-d?

 


1. וְכֵן צִוּוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁיִּהְיֶה אָדָם מְכַבֵּד אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ יוֹתֵר מִגּוּפוֹ וְאוֹהֲבָהּ כְּגוּפוֹ.

2. ת”ר האוהב את אשתו כגופו והמכבדה יותר מגופו

3. There are more rational reasons to be attractive to one’s partner, as Maimonides writes: otherwise the partnership could end in graceleness, hate, or divorce. וְלֹא יְקַדֵּשׁ אִשָּׁה עַד שֶׁיִּרְאֶנָּה וְתִהְיֶה כְּשֵׁרָה בְּעֵינָיו שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִּמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וְנִמְצָא מְגָרְשָׁהּ אוֹ שׁוֹכֵב עִמָּהּ וְהוּא שׂוֹנְאָהּ:

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Image from wallpapercave.com.

See other #MenschUp posts here.

The Other Half of the Battle / Graceful Masculinity: Toldot

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וְיַעֲקֹב נָתַן לְעֵשָׂו, לֶחֶם וּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים, וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ; וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה.

Jacob then gave Esav bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. So Esav spurned the birthright. (Genesis 25:34)

 

Sometimes we just forget things. Often though, it’s not that we have actually forgotten, but rather that the clarity of our knowledge is not sufficient to orchestrate our actions.1 If a person stays up most of the night playing video games, it’s not because he forgot that he has to wake up in the morning for work. Rather, just knowing that his alarm will ring soon is not sufficient to change his behavior.

When we say that remembering is a call to action, it is because we want to bring to the fore the knowledge that will cause us to behave appropriately. This requires an awareness of what we have “forgotten,” so that we can counter the memory lapse and orient ourselves towards proper activity.

In our tradition, Esav (Esau) had vast knowledge but there was a disconnect between what he knew and what he did; he was not a talmid chacham, a practitioner of wisdom. He would ask his father detailed questions about halacha, Jewish law,  but he did not use that knowledge to influence his actions. Most egregiously, he was not self-aware enough to realize the tremendous gap between his education and his behavior. He thought he was already there and had nothing left to learn; the Hebrew words “Esav” and “complete” have the same numerical value.2 He was completely unaware of how underdeveloped he really was. Our rabbis teach that this was the source of his evil and like an undiagnosed illness, it never got treated.3

It is for this reason that Esav thought that he was fitting to receive the blessings from his father. He didn’t see himself as a sinner, and even the shock of the rejection didn’t arouse any introspection or change. Esav was “in his head,” not connected to the rest of his body, or the rest of the world.4 Tradition teaches that Esav’s head is buried apart from his body, perhaps as a further expression of this disconnect.

Jacob, by contrast, was constantly struggling, evolving, and throwing himself back into the fight for greater awareness. He was born at his brother’s heel, thereby earning himself the name Jacob / Ya’akov (connected to the Hebrew word for heel, עקב / ekev). Jacob consistently fights his way up until G-d grants him a new name, ישראל / Israel, which is an anagram of לי ראש / li rosh, “you are to Me a head.” With this name change,G-d gives Jacob confirmation of his holy transformation. 

The space between intentions and impact can be vast and even violent. How can men be expected to know what we don’t know? Judaism teaches that knowing that we don’t know is both a high level of knowledge and also a prerequisite for gaining greater wisdom. 

Acquiring this type of sensitivity is truly a gift that comes from the sensing of its absence. When we know that we are not there yet, that there is still much work to be done, then we can be open and worthy of receiving what we need to know.

We thank God for being our source of knowledge in the blessing “You graciously endow man with wisdom,” found in daily prayer. Wisdom is given with grace, and so being wise is not just about knowing facts, but knowing how to be with other people in a way that is graceful. This involves an awareness of how our actions resonate with others.

The Vilna Gaon comments on the verse (Proverbs 3:4) “You will find favor and goodly wisdom in the eyes of G-d and man” that “חן ”, “favor” comes from the language of “חנם” free. It is for that reason, he posits, that “grace” is most commonly paired with the verb “find”. 

We can’t rely on our subjective understanding of what’s appropriate based on how we intend an action in our heads. Instead we need to check in and hear from those being affected by what we do. Esav spurned his birthright by minimizing the consequences of his actions. In the mystical tradition, his ministering angel governs though the power of forgetting. When we recognize that wisdom comes from beyond us, that should humble us, and encourage us to take responsibility to internalize wisdom, commit to its application, and regularly review the space between the ideal and our lived, embodied experiences. 

 

 

Discussion questions:

What framework would enable us to ensure that our actions are having the desired effect?

How can we strengthen the knowledge we have to subdue undesirable habits?

What responsibility comes with being privileged in society?

How does Jacob model a more positive masculinity?

How can we cultivate greater self awareness?  

 


1. עיין מתנת חלקו מ”י ד”ג “השכחה אינו שולטת על הידיע, אלא על מה שהידיעה צריכה לגרום למעשה.

2. עשו = 376, שלום = 376

3. עיין נאות דשא אות ג

4. עיין משנת רבי אהרן

 

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Image source: Charlene Winfred.

Mission Statement: Listen. Remember. Connect. Build.

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

In Ha’azinu, Moses gives his final oration. At the beginning of his story he called himself a person of uncircumcised lips or impeded speech, (Ex. 6:30) but here he’s eloquent, pouring forth an impassioned mission statement for the children of Israel. Ever since the burning bush, Moses has been a figure of transcendence. He speaks face-to-face with God, he goes up to the mountaintop… In this final speech, his transcendence feels even more palpable, maybe because he knows he’s about to die. And he begins (Deut: 32:1) by connecting up to heaven. 

But leading the people has always required both connection with heaven, and rootedness on earth. Which is maybe why Moses has always had a partner. When Moses said he couldn’t go to Pharaoh because he can’t speak to people, God promised that Aaron would speak for him. And when Moses was too fiery, Aaron spoke to the people safely. Aaron was his connector, keeping him grounded. This time, it’s Joshua who is standing by his side. (Deut. 32:44)  Joshua is his new connector, his new “grounding,” balancing Moses’ heavenly energy with some earth.

Given that, it’s interesting that Moses doesn’t conclude his speech with an introduction of Joshua as the people’s new leader. That would have put the people’s focus on the person at the helm — first Moses, who’s in the process of stepping down; then Joshua, who’s in the process of stepping up — rather than on the message that Moses wants to convey. Moses wants to give over a mission statement for b’nei Yisrael (the children of Israel; the community that together wrestles with the Holy; our spiritual ancestors in Torah “back then;” all of us listening today.)

Moses says:

“Take all of this to heart. Teach it to your generations. This is not a trifling thing: it is your very life!” (Deut. 32:4647

Moses knows that his time is over. And Joshua’s time too will be temporary. Every person who serves as a leader is necessarily temporary. In this final speech, he aims to teach the people that this isn’t about us, the leaders who are privileged to serve the community. It’s not about me or him (or her or them!) or whoever comes after. This is about our core mission as human beings. This is about who we are and what we’re here for. Our mission as b’nei Yisrael is to hear, to remember, to be in relationship with the Holy, and to build mindfully from that place. 

Each of us is part of the chain of generations, the chain of tradition and transmission from our ancestors to our descendants (whether literal or metaphorical). In our place and time, each of us has building work to do: building on what came before us, and leaving good foundations for what will come next. But none of us is permanent. What’s permanent, says Moses in this week’s Torah portion, is God; heaven; earth; the whole of which each of us is a part. What’s permanent is the “Us”-ness that will continue after each of us is gone, and the mission we take on together.

Torah tells us that “God spoke to Moses in his bones on that day.” (Deut. 32:48) That verse is usually translated “on that very day,” but the use of the word עצם is striking. It can connote our bones, our essence, who we most truly are. Moses feels in his very bones that he is done. He feels in his bones that it’s time for a transition, and he consciously transfers leadership to Joshua — while making sure to focus not on them as individuals (no matter how extraordinary), but instead to focus on mission. Our mission is listening. Remembering. Relationship. Building.

May we feel that mission in our very bones… and may that somatic awareness inspire us to listen, to remember, to connect with each other and with God, and from there, to build.

By Rabbi Bella Bogart and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Keystones: Great for Buildings, But Not for Relationships

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

Vayeilech continues Moses’ final speech to the children of Israel, encamped on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Land of Promise. Three times over the course of the parsha, Torah instructs us to share this teaching (this whole teaching) with the community (the whole community): 

“Then Moses wrote down this Teaching… and instructed them as follows:… you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, and the strangers in your community — that they may hear…” (Deut. 31:9-12)

“Write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths…” (Deut. 21:19)

“Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel.” (Deut. 31:30)

Reading these words as this year of building Torah draws to a close, I find two lessons — and one warning! — for us as builders of the Jewish future: 

  • Read the whole plan

The Jewish mystical tradition regards Torah as a blueprint for all of creation. That poetic image may or may not resonate with us today. But even on a pshat (surface) level, Torah contains all kinds of injunctions about how to live and how to treat each other. Rules like, “remember the day of Shabbat and keep it holy,” or “when you are reaping the harvest of your fields, don’t go all the way to the corners: leave food there for those who need to glean,” or “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Or, in R’ Mike Moskowitz’ translation, “Resist so that you may persist.”) 

These are Torah’s building instructions for us.  They’re the blueprint for building an ethical and spiritually conscious society. And in this week’s parsha, Torah is reminding us that we need to read (and hear) all of them. We may read these instructions through the lenses of Talmud and commentaries. (Indeed, Jews rarely read Torah on its own.) We may read these instructions through a mystical lens, or a poetic lens. But we need to keep reading them, and we need to read all of them — even the ones that may require major reinterpretation to feel live today.

If we’re building a house, we need to look at all of the blueprints: for the foundation and the plumbing, the electrical system and the walls. If we were to ignore the HVAC blueprint, for instance, we’d make some critical errors that would make the house impossible to heat or cool. Assuming that our architect is trustworthy, we need to pay attention to the whole plan. (If our architect isn’t trustworthy, we have a different problem.) Torah teaches that Moshe recited the words of this poem (meaning the Torah itself) “to the very end.” Be attentive to the whole plan.

  • Empower everyone to build

When there’s an intention to build together, we need to make sure that everyone is clear on the building plan. We can’t leave anyone out. “Gather the people — men, women, and the strangers in your community,” says Torah. (Today we might regard “men [and] women” as shorthand for “the whole range of genders and gender expressions.”) And don’t leave out the strangers in the community, the outsiders, the immigrants, the refugees. Or maybe we understand “strangers” in a less literal way, as those already in community who aren’t yet on board with the building plan.

The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us. All genders and gender expressions. The insiders and those who feel like outsiders. The locals and the immigrants. A vibrant and meaningful Jewish future can’t be built only by men, or only by white people, or only by Israelis (or Americans), or only by rabbis. On the contrary: this building work belongs to all of us. Only when all of us are present, and all of us are appreciated for our differences and our unique gifts, and all of us are uplifted into service, can we fullfil the blueprint of a world redeemed. 

It’s not enough to merely write down “this poem” (the Torah, the blueprint, the building plan) — we need to “put it in [our] mouths.” Everyone needs to be able to take ownership of a piece of the building plan, to speak it in their own words, to articulate for themselves why this building work matters. Even as Torah shows us a top-down hierarchy (God speaks to Moshe who speaks to us), it’s instructing us to pursue empowerment and democratization. It’s instructing us to put the words of the building plan in everyone’s mouths, not just the general contractor’s.

  • Be careful…

God says to Moses, “When you die, the people will go astray.” (Deut. 31:16) This may be a warning about excessive verticality. It’s a warning about the dangers of conflating a leader — no matter how extraordinary — with the work they’re leading the community in doing. Every build team needs a leader, to dream and plan, manage and inspire. But if the members of the build team abdicate responsibility, that’s not healthy. Then — to borrow a different architectural metaphor — the leader becomes the keystone, and without them the arch will crumble.

We need to be careful about not vesting too much power in the hands of those who lead. That’s not healthy for leaders, and it’s not healthy for the community, either. Better to share leadership, share responsibility, and share vision with everyone. Empower builders to take up their tools together.  When we engage with the whole plan, from bottom to top — and when we each take ownership of the unique building that only we can do (the unique pearl of Torah that only we can teach) — then we’ll be able to build a world of justice and joy, a land of promise wherever we are.

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.