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Running With Grace / Graceful Masculinity: Vayeira

וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ–אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.

And he said, “my lord, if I have found grace in your eyes, please do not pass from before your servant.” (Genesis 18:3)

 

Vayeira begins as Avraham, recovering from his recent circumcision, is conversing with G-d in a prophetic state. Suddenly, Avraham lifts up his eyes and sees three angels, presenting as men, approaching. He runs to greet them and then says, “My Lord, if I have found grace in your eyes, please do not pass from before your servant.”

With whom is Avraham speaking? If he is speaking to the three men, why does he address them in the singular?  Rashi offers two understandings of Avraham’s words. First Rashi suggests that Avraham is speaking to the three men, but he is addressing the most important of the three and that is why he says “my lord.” Then Rashi shares an intriguing, alternative approach. Avraham is actually speaking with G-d, asking G-d to wait while he goes to welcome the potential guests.

Based on this understanding of the verse, the Talmud teaches1 that “Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence”. But if Avraham is asking G-d not to pass on from him, why does he first run to the three men? Would it not make more sense to take his leave of G-d and then run to greet his guests? Also, how did Avraham know that it was acceptable to keep G-d waiting in order to service guests? 

The Ramchal frames2 all of character development as an attempt to better understand G-d in order to act as G-d would act. “Walking in G-d’s ways – this includes all matters of uprightness and correction of character traits.” He explains that is what the Talmud3 means when it teaches “Just as God is full of grace and compassion, we should similarly be merciful and compassionate.4

The commentators5 observe that Talmud could have simply taught that we should be graceful and compassionate because G-d is, but instead the Talmud links our actions to G-d’s by making them conditional to be G-d like. In other words, the more we study and come to know G-d and the appropriate applications of G-d’s attributes, the more similar we can be to G-d.

Abraham started his quest to understand G-d very early on and now, 96 years later, he had perfected his body to be aligned with the Divine Will. R’ Nosson Gestetner writes that Avraham’s 248 limbs were so attuned to their corresponding 248 positive commandments that his body naturally was performing in G-dly ways. 

As soon as his feet began to run towards the guests, he assumed that was what God wanted him to do. Because G-d is charitable, Avraham knew that he was also meant to be. Perhaps our verse should be understood as a question of approbation, after having left the prophetic state, asking “If I have found grace in Your eyes, if I have understood You correctly, this is what You want me to do – If I have properly found your way of gracefulness, please don’t leave me because I am not leaving you.” Avraham wasn’t just walking in G-d’s ways, but he was running!

Our relationship with G-d, however asymmetrical, is still reciprocal. Whatever Abraham did for his angelic guests himself, G-d performed directly for Abraham’s descendants. But whatever was done through a messenger, G-d also performed indirectly; mida k’neged mida, measure for measure.  This principal can also be understood, homiletically, as reflecting G-d’s Midos, character traits. The more we understand G-d the more we can be like G-d, and then the more G-d shares G-d’s self in relationship with us. 

Perhaps the mitzvah of welcoming strangers is the example given because one of the ways that we come to better understand G-d is by seeing different aspects of G-d in other people. It is now also a way to express to G-d, like Abraham did, that we come closer to  G-d by treating people with kindness.

 


1. Bavli Shavuot 35b

2. Introduction to Path of the Just

3. Talmud Bavli Shabbat 133b

4.Rashi explains this teaching about grace, from Abba Shaul on the verse in Exodus of זה א-לי ואנוהו, through the etymology ואנוהו = אני והוא, me and G-d – that we should make ourselves like G-d by doing as God does, adding to the Braisa’s understanding of אנוהו as the act of beautifying a mitzvah

5. בלבבי משכן אבנה

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

Covenantal Grace / Graceful Masculinity: Lech Lecha

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיְהִי אַבְרָם, בֶּן-תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה וְתֵשַׁע שָׁנִים; וַיֵּרָא יְקוָק אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-קל שַׁקי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Hashem appeared to Abram and said to him. “I am El Shaddai; walk before me and be perfect.” (Genesis 17:1)

God commands Abraham to be entirely perfect. It is difficult to perfect one’s body and soul as the partnership between them is naturally contentious. The body is formed from the earth and the soul from Heaven, and each yearns towards its source. Without work, they will be in opposition to each other. This lack of harmony, according to the Sefas Emes, is the deficiency that bris mila, circumcision, comes to fix.1 Circumcision takes a site of physical desire, and consecrates it for spiritual purpose. 

The commentators famously ask “If Abraham kept the Torah,2 even though it had not yet been given on Mount Sinai, why did he wait to be commanded to be circumcised?” One simple answer might be that circumcision is more than a physical act. It is the instantiation of covenant. You can’t enter into such an intimate space  — the space of covenant —  without the consent of the other. Circumcision reminds us of the holiness of actions being determined by the will of another. Until G-d said “I want you …,” it couldn’t be fulfilled.

For bodies to whom circumcision applies, circumcision allies the body to the soul, which provides a continuity of our actions. The temporary nature of the physical world gains permanence through a spiritual attachment. The Bris Kehunas Olam observes an allusion to this in the verse (Psalms 144:4) “ימיו כצל עובר / His days are like a passing shadow.” In Hebrew, the phrase has a numerical value of 484; the same as “body-soul” גוף נשמה. With the sixth letter vuv, “ו” the conjunction “and,” it equals תמים, perfect. The Zohar says the letter “vuv” alludes to the site of the bris milah. The soul is connected and partnered with the body.

The early mystical work Sefer Yetzirah3 writes that there are actually two covenants: a covenant of speech, and the covenant of circumcision. “When Abraham our father looked…G-d made a covenant between the ten fingers of his hands – this is the covenant of the tongue, and between the ten toes of his feet – this is the covenant of circumcision, and G-d bound the 22 letters of the Torah…”

A fascinating observation is made by Ohr Tzvi. The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet can map to the body. Starting with the toes of the right foot, those letters represent א-ה. The next letter vuv, “ו”, is the “covenant between the toes” or the place of circumcision between the legs. If we continue to count the next five toes of the left foot, these are then aligned with ז-כ. The count then moves to the five fingers of the right hand ל-ע, and then to the mouth which is between the hands, which correlates with the Hebrew letter פה, which actually means mouth and represents the covenant of the tongue. We conclude with the five fingers of the left hand צ-ת. So all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are represented on the the body. And this connects the covenant of the tongue with the covenant of circumcision.

The Talmud4 relates that right before Rebbe, the redactor of the Mishna, passed away, “he raised his ten fingers toward Heaven and said: Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that I toiled with my ten fingers in the Torah, and I have not derived any benefit from the world even with my small finger.” Reb Tzodok HaKohen explains this Gemara as a reference to being faithful to the covenant.5

The holiness of circumcision is dependent on speech. The numerical value of פה / mouth is equal to that of מילה / circumcision. King David writes in Psalms “grace/chein is poured on to your lips.” (Psalm 45:3) Perfection of speech requires mastering how to speak, when appropriate, but also mastering when to be silent.6 Noach found grace and was called “perfect” in his generation. He is also praised for his use of sensitive speech.7 However, he was deficient in that he didn’t use language to help those around him to improve themselves and be saved from the flood.

The Magid points out that the measurements that the Torah gives for Noah’s ark: 30, 300, and 50 spell “לשן”, speech/tongue — but the word is missing the “ו”, vuv. Noah wasn’t connecting to others through speech the way he should have, and in the end that manifests in a defilement of his body.8

Correctly using our mouth involves both putting words out into the world through speech, and silence in holding words back. This dynamic of expansion and containment is reflected in the two covenants. Rashi says that G-d’s name E-l Shaddai is the name of G-d used in the passage about circumcision because there is די / dai  (sufficient) divinity for all. Yet the Talmud9 relates that the dai in the name E-l Shaddai is also in the context of G-d saying to the creation of the world: “that is enough.”  How can the same name of G-d refer both to G-d’s relationship with the world as limitless but also contained?

Chein / grace is produced by expanding the holiness of our spiritual connections, elevating the mundane and each other, while minimizing the physical that could be in opposition with the spiritual. Pursuing perfection comes from increasing our awareness of the Divine Presence, knowing that when we attach ourselves to G-d, we are made for each other.

 

1. Rashi here shares an interpretation that this verse is referring to the commandment to be circumcised.
2. Yoma 28a
3. Sefer Yetzirah 6:7
4. Bavli Ketubot 104a
5. Takanas HaShavin
6. Sefas Emes succot
7. Pesachim 3a
8. Genesis 20:9
9. Chagigah 12a

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

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.

 

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.

Every Team Needs a Build; Every Build Needs a Team

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

The Torah portion known as Vayechi offers the conclusion of the dramatic family narrative of the book of Genesis. Jacob knows he will die soon, and calls in his family to provide them with blessings. Encoded in these blessings is an essential piece of sage advice about how to build thriving communities that live on after the death of a charismatic founder: members must recognize that everyone has a role to play that’s unique to their particular talents and interests. In building language: every build requires a build team, and everyone on the build team has gifts to bring.

Though this parsha is titled “Vayechi,” “and he [Jacob] lived,” it’s actually about Jacob’s death. The Midrash explains: “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: the days of the righteous die, but they do not die… It does not say, ‘and Israel drew near to die,’ but ‘the days of Israel drew near to die.’” This midrash is saying that though we die physically, we can live on through the lives we have touched and through the things we have built that can continue to transform the world

The same message appears in Joan Baez’s song “Joe Hill,” about the famous union organizer: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night alive as you and me says I but Joe, you’re ten years dead. I never died says he, I never died, says he.” The song and the midrash express the same truth: a builder’s spirit lives on through what they have built. And this week’s parsha offers a lesson on how to keep that spirit alive: each inheritor of any builder’s vision has a unique role to play.

Right before he dies, Jacob calls together all of his sons, each of whom will go on to found one of the twelve tribes. To each he gives an essential piece of wisdom about their particular role to play in the sustenance of the people of Israel — for example: “Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor…” or “You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise.”

Throughout Genesis, Torah has explored the question of who inherits a builder’s legacy.  Isaac and Ishmael fought over Abraham’s legacy. Jacob and Esau fought over Isaac’s legacy. In each of those first two generations, only one brother could inherit. Here at the end of Genesis, Torah offers a new answer, and a way for community to remain intact. Everyone inherits Jacob’s legacy in their own unique way. Everyone has a role to play.

Jacob’s wisdom is embedded in Bayit’s founding principles. Every build needs a team, and “[m]ore than any building, the team is any builder’s greatest legacy.” As we do the work of spiritual building — both building the spiritual future, and doing the actual building in a way that expresses our spiritual values — we must value each person’s unique gifts and skills. We must build in a way that honors teamwork and collaboration. We must build with recognition that spiritual building isn’t a zero-sum game where only one person can inherit. On the contrary: the only way to build the spiritual future for which our hearts and souls yearn is together.

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There is risk in this kind of building. The Occupy movement, which had great potential for social and political transformation, fizzled in part because excessive egalitarianism led to a leadership vacuum. In science fiction terms, if everyone is an identical drone in the hive, you wind up with Star Trek’s The Borg. Better, if Star Trek is the model, to be like the Starship Enterprise — “boldly going where no one has gone before,” and doing so in a way that includes and honors a wide variety of skills, talents, and roles.

That’s the blessing that Jacob gave to his sons: permission to each bring their own gifts and skills to the work of building the Jewish future. That’s the blessing that we seek in our day, too. Every build team needs an architect, a blueprint, a variety of differently-skilled craftspeople — and the right balance of following visionary plans, and being willing to adapt the plans as needed. May we, like Jacob’s sons (and like the crew of the Enterprise!), honor our variety of skills, gifts, and roles. Then we can build with audacity and humility in appropriate balance, “boldly going” where the future calls, with firm foundations that will help spirits soar.

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

Building a Temple from Tears

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

The Torah is filled with instructions for building the Mishkan, G-d’s “dwelling place” that our ancestors carried in the wilderness, but those blueprints don’t provide measurements of the emotional dimensions needed to build that holy space within our hearts. It often feels like the walls we have constructed, to protect that space, are more permanent than the walls of the original Mishkan, designed to create an inviting space.

There are few things that penetrate our hearts more powerfully than the wailing cries of a child. We hear and witness the holy purity and unfiltered truth of their experience in real time. It is this portal into the honest rawness and exposed feelings of human vulnerability that naturally move us to open up our own emotional channels.

IMG_3665Tears can be powerful, cleansing, and soulful. They can also be the result of overwhelming pain. Regardless of the part of us that hurts, it is the eyes that cry. No other part of our body is as sensitive to the basic material of the physical world. Even one speck of dirt in the eye can be excruciating and incapacitating, where it would go completely unnoticed nearly everywhere else on the body.

Our Rabbis teach that we come into this world crying because the soul feels the pain of just being forced into this physical and constrained space of a body. Crying, it seems, is also a bridge back to that spiritual habitat. The Talmud teaches that although the gates of prayer are sometimes shut, the gates of tears are never closed. If so, asks the Kotzker Rebbe, why then do they need gates at all? He answers that only true, heartfelt tears are let in. It is not coincidental that the Hebrew word for crying (בכי) has the same numerical value as the word for heart (לב).

So why in this week’s Torah portion didn’t Jacob cry with his son Joseph, when they are finally reunited? The verse (Genesis 46:29) observes that “Joseph harnessed his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel, and he appeared to him, fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck excessively.” Rashi comments that while Joseph wept greatly, continuously, and more than usual – Jacob however, did not fall upon Joseph’s neck nor did he kiss him but instead said the Shema.

When we recite the Shema, we close our eyes and give testimony to our faith and total commitment to the One that we can’t see, but know to be the source of it all.

שמע ישראל ה׳ אלהינו ה׳ אחד

The large “עand “ד” spell the words for “witness” and “knowledge”. Saying the Shema is IMG_3663a demonstration of our inner truth and willingness to serve G-d “With all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might”.

The six letters of the first and last words are an acronym for six people who sacrificed their lives in the service of G-d, and were miraculously saved . These two words are 1 also acronyms for the six different literal sacrifices that were offered in the Temple , 2 often compared to the neck, where we are told heaven and earth are connected.

Perhaps Jacob’s absence of tears wasn’t a denial of a shared experience, with his son, but rather an expression of it.

The verse can be read as “Shema Yisroel”, “Israel (Jacob) heard”: he listened, he internalized, and he responded with a complete focus of reunification with the ultimate source of goodness, healing, and power. This is one of the interpretations of Chanukah- “חנוכה” an application (חנו) of the 25 (כה) letters of the Shema.

The Greeks wanted to darken the eyes of the Jewish people. In response the Maccabees rededicate the Temple and brought forth miraculous light. The Midrash teaches that G-d told Israel that once the Temple is destroyed, G-d will desire that we say the Shema, twice a day, and it will be an elevation greater than the sacrifices themselves. That’s the path that Jacob models here: eyes closed, heart open.

IMG_3664The temple for our soul, our Rabbis teach, is in our eyes. This is perhaps why our tradition instructs us to close the eyes of a person, once their soul has returned to its source. However, as long as our heart beats, it must beat for the collective, to see the pain of another’s, as our own.

Too often we limit our vision of what we see as possible. When we connect and partner with the Omnipresent (המקום), not only is there comfort but there is a true sense of empowerment. When we look out into the world, whether our heart feels moved to tears or not, we must feel the responsibility to each other, and be willing to make an offering, because of our relationship with G-d.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Teves, the day tradition has it that Jacob is buried. It is also the month that is ruled by the letter “ע” and the power of a deeper sight. We must constantly rededicate our temple, allowing our soul to hear, granting it permission to cry, and letting our tears flow to form a path forward to soothe the pain of all of G-d’s children.

 

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By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.