Archive for Divrei Torah

Parshat Vayeitzei “Yaakov’s Slippery Path to Truth”

We learn by Parshat Vayeitzei, and in earlier parshiot of Berasheit, that Yaakov represents the middot of Emet for Klal Yisroyal. Truth, and the pursuit of it, is shown to be a slippery path for Yaakov and there is much to be learned from his decisions and the way he carried through with those commitments.

Last week, we met our “Man of the Tents” and witnessed him trading his older brother’s firstborn rights for a bowl of soup, conspiring with his mother to acquire this same blessing from his father, and running for his life to a foreign land. The truth of all this is found in the big picture, it is said, and that the ends DO justify the means.

We catch up with Yaakov this week and find him being cheated right-and-left by his mom’s brother, Lavan. There’s the whole seven years of work for a wife, then switching to the other sister at the wedding, then another seven years for the one he loved thing. Then the rivalry between four wives. Don’t forget being sold for flowers from one wife’s bed to the other’s. Then, the speckled sheep version of the supernatural truth. WOW!

Yaakov was a mess. Could you imagine? Is this is where truth gets you, what makes a paragon of truth? We’re going to have to take a hard look at this.

Just for fun, I looked up truth and found: “the quality or state of being true,” which is just about useless. True means: “in accordance with fact or reality” and that is sure to be a problem, since my main argument comes from an old book believed by the Orthodox Jews to be written on a mountain by Moses as dictated by God himself.

That being what it is, we plow ahead to find the “fact or reality” in Yaakov’s life that we can yank into our own and become a bit more true. Through all the machlochet of his interactions, one thing stands clear; Yaakov did not argue with his fate or bemoan the injustice of it all. He stood there and took it like a man, unlike me, I must add.

When I converted to Orthodox Judaism back in’93, The Beit Din asked me why I would ever want to become a Jew. Didn’t I know that people kill Jews and hate them and that it will mess up your life and everything you know? I was 33 at the time and knew a lot. Heck, I had been to college a bunch of times and had read the classics. Smart guy about to get dumb real quick.

This is what I said: “I have always thirsted for God and found the other religions of the world to be hollow and false when compared to the truth the Jews posses. If you were to send me away a hundred times, I would come back again because I have no choice.”

All these years later, that attitude remains. 25 years as a Frum Jew, hard years, learning years, and it remains. The quest for truth is a hard trail to shake and it has many twists and turns both deceptive and simple. Many would look at my existence and wonder where the truth is to be found in it, especially those who know me well. My own son said “You are wasting your life.” Ouch.

Maybe true, maybe not. Probably variable and ever-changing. Maybe non-existant. Who knows? Does uncertainty remove accountability? Does the road dead-end into frustration and uselessness, in truth? What makes a life worth living and who says so? What truth? Who’s truth? Mine? The one I make up?

Tough questions, and who am I to answer them? What have I gained from all of this that anyone would want anyway? I’ll tell you what; I have learned how to have a nice day sometimes. For me, that’s a big deal. Someone said “the truth will set you free” and I have found that to be a viable, albeit very slow and undependable, path to trod. Man, I can really relate with Yaakov.

If there is anything I want in life, it is the ability to “stand there and take it like a man” rather than deal with the pout and scowl I have to work with. My toolset is woefully inadequate for this truth business, but that doesn’t get me out of it. It just makes it suck.

So, let’s dust off that old book and see if there if there is something useful in it. The parsha begins with Yaakov’s head on a rock on Mount Moriah dreaming of angels going up down a ladder. Ramban and Ibn Ezra both point to this as evidence of God’s active participation in our individual lives, that “angels” climb up for instructions, then descend to execute them. Up and down, up and down, endlessly and constant.

Do we see these angels in our day-to-day and appreciate their efforts? I have found that to be a skill to be cultivated and that spiritual growth is not a matter of entitlement. There is a lot of pain there, and real happiness. There is joy and sorrow, fear and courage, dejection and encouragement, rejection and acceptance. It hurts to grow and change and become, sometimes way too much.

What’s to do? I don’t know. All I can share is my method and maybe you can find your own way. My secret is… ONE FOOT IN FRONT OF THE OTHER. Just keep going and you will get there. That’s what I choose to believe and that’s how I live my life. And, hope for the best. Don’t forget to hope for the best.


Parsha Vayera “Lot Isn’t A TOTAL Jerk”

There is a lot of good stuff in Parsha Vayera to learn and apply to the building of a better life. Angels, Kindness, Laughter, Betrayal, Sacrifice, Lechery, Lust, Shame… It’s all there this week. In fact, the whole book of Berashit is like the “Greatest Hits” of The Bible, chock full of famous cautionary tales and action-packed end-to-end.

We begin with Abraham waiting for guests on the third day after his Brit Milah, move through Sarah being told by an angel that she will have a child and the destruction of Sodom, Abimelech’s abduction of Abraham’s “sister” Sarah in Gerar, the birth of Yitzchak and his subsequent sacrifice, the expulsion of Ishmael and the birth of Rivka eimeinu. That’s quite a menu of conversation topics to cover in just a week!

In the sake of brevity, and to maintain sanity, we will focus simply on Lot, the enigmatic nephew of Abraham. From him, we learn the essence of bad judgement and self-will run riot, the world be damned. This man, who’s claim to fame forever will be offering his two daughters to be raped by an entire city before fathering children with them himself, is is strange anti-hero against his own will. It’s funny sometimes how, after the fact, our crappiest behaviors turn into merits.

Someone brought a rumor into shul yesterday, unverifiable on Shabbat, that there was a multi-fatal synagogue shooting during services in Philadelphia. Avoiding sadness, I said “Moshiach is coming soon, so these things will happen. In that way, it’s a good thing.” Eyebrows raised all around with that statement, and at its second saying at the lunch drasha as well. I argued that a life of Emunah doesn’t include second-guessing G-d’s running of the world and, in fact, he does, in fact, run the world. “What difference does it make what we think anyway?” I asked.

Riled up now, I answered with an example from the Holocaust. While Jews burned by the millions, Hollywood stars and politicians staged elaborate concerts where millionaires dressed-to-the-nines eased there conscious with cocktails and checkbooks, arguing that their concern was fake and contrived; they didn’t care that Jews were dying at all, so why pretend? Why not just be honest and admit “I don’t really care about anybody in this world but myself.”

Lot’s historical misfortune is that his narrative is blended with that of Abraham and his famous attributes of kindness and generosity and self-sacrifice. Anyone would pale in comparison and Lot was of low character. Torah teaches us to “do much and say little” with Abraham offering the men he would serve bread and bringing instead milk, cheese and a tender calf. Lot, on the other hand, chose to live in the stingiest city of all the land that sodomized visitors by local custom before robbing them.

And herein lay the rub. Lot grew up around Abraham and inadvertantly inherited a tiny portion of goodness that came out when push came to shove. Two angels were sent to destroy Sodom and Lot encountered them in the streets, telling them they were not safe. The strangers resisted. Lot grabbed their hands and pulled them into his house. The town demands them. Lot refuses, to his own endangerment. The town is destoyed. Lot is saved.

That salvation is our focus. His actions before and after flavored the outcome and, had he known the infamy coming to him forever, would he have even been able to act any differently? Meaning, was Lot doomed from the start to a historical shame so we can learn not to sacrifice everything we are to greed? His choices were his alone, from choosing the rich land to the south for his home to allowing the second daughter access when he knew what the first had done. Bad guy.

But, from Lot, we learn that any tiny little kind thing is appreciated by Hashem and earns some kind of reward. We call it midda-kaneged-middah and this tit-for-tat payback is seen in the hand pulling. Lot didn’t want to lose his wealth and prestige. Endangered with hesitation, the angels grabbed his hands and pulled him to safety in the same way Lot did to save him from danger before destroying, not only the city, but his wife, his son-in-law’s wives and four other neighboring cities. In the middle of all that fire and brimstone, Hashem remembered that tiny kindness of Lot and paid him.

If only it ended there. Lot didn’t like his salvation because the loss of his low neighbors, who living near them made Lot look good, resulted in the compairison falling back onto Abraham. The lost prestige was a shame to him, so he chose, on his own, to leave his deliverance for the mountain instead. The daughter thing happened there and would not have had he not done his own thing, for once. The poor guy earns merit without knowing it, then turns his back on the reward just as callously.

Ignorance is no excuse in Judaism and a lack of faith is simply that. What good does it do to hide behind excuses and blame to justify not doing the right thing? Even Lot, a thoroughly bad character, could not resist doing good when it really mattered. Talking about the good intended in the future is an act of nothing. Stating empty good intentions is a trap for becoming a liar. Words alone are more than useless, they are harmful.

If Lot had only done what he was told, then he would not be the most famous incest story of all time. His focus was entirely external and selfish, except for that tiny spark of kindness that Abraham’s proximity planted within him. If only he nurtured the good spark rather than fan the evil flame… He didn’t. More empty words because, after-the-fact, there is nothing to be done to correct the wreckage except accept it with gratitude as a gift from G-d and just move on to the next opportunity.

Chaye Sarah: It’s How You Say It That Counts

When examining the life of Sarah Imenu, I was intellectually dissatisfied with the akeida story. Was she informed that Avraham was bringing Isaak as a korban? I think not. The Midrash says that an angel spoke to Sarah and told her, after which she died.

My recent explorations have been in Emunah (the belief that all God does is for good) and Haskacha Pratit (the belief that God participates in our lives individually) as concerning our life situations. In these, Sarah had no opportunity to look at the situation with emuhah or see within it the hand of God. She died before either could happen, and that like a big rip-off.

Later, we saw a story in which prayer was very clearly answered. Eliezer was seeking a wife for Isaak at his mother’s brother’s house and “he said” a prayer setting the condition that if she offers water to his camel, she’s the one.

I was called up for the shlishit alia in which the special trope called attention to the words “he said” and I returned to my seat puzzled. Chazal was silent about the two words, but went on and on about WHAT he said, that it was one of a few times that a prayer was answered while it was “still in his mouth.” Instead, it was the manner in which “he said” this prayer. It was a matter of kavanah.

Eliezer had a secret hope that the match would fail, then Isaac could marry is own daughter. His instantaneous answer served to let hi know beyond doubt that the situation was being guided by heaven. No hindsight was required to understand the lesson. It was to be as it was, regardless of what “he said.”

Sarah’s case was different. She never even got the chance to pray before or reflect after. Chaye Sarah can only be understood under the filter of time, the intergeneration linking of destiny in which hashgacha pratit can be seen, hidden in the details and waiting to foster emunah in us all.