Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeishev December 8, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

Haftorah reading:  Amos 2:6 – 3:8

There is something extremely curious about the birth of a giraffe.  The mother gives birth standing up.  When the baby giraffe emerges from her womb, it literally drops to the ground, landing hard on its back.  The newborn will lay there almost motionless until after a few seconds, onlookers are shocked to see the mother give her baby a swift kick, a kick strong enough to knock the baby head over hooves.
Why does she do that? Because she wants the newborn to get up on its feet. Somehow, the baby giraffe understands what his mother wants and struggles to get up, but after a feeble try, gives us and drops back to the ground.
Boom! A second hearty kick from the mother rolls the young one over several more times. The newborn tries again to prop itself up again on its spindly legs, and finally manages to stand upright.
But before the viewers can breathe a sigh of relief, the mother kicks the baby off its feet again!  The zoo keeper explains to the onlookers: ‘The mother wants her baby to remember how it got up.  In the wilderness where they live, if the baby doesn’t quickly get up and follow the herd, it will be picked off by predators.’ The swift kick is necessary for the baby’s life!
Perhaps we all have something in common with a baby giraffe.  Have you ever been kicked off your feet?  Have you been kicked while you were down? And have you been kicked by the very people from whom you expected kindness and understanding?
All of us have times in life when we get side-swiped by circumstances or side-lined by harsh judgments from those we most expect to stand by us. How we respond in those moments reveals the truth about what we really believe about God, about His plan for our life and about the meaning of our faith.
In this week’s Torah reading we drop in on Joseph at 17-years of age. As we open to Gen. 37:3, Joseph’s life is good and his future looks bright! But he is about to be kicked off his feet. He is about to be kicked hard while he is down. And the ones doing the kicking are his own family.
Yet somehow, Joseph managed to avoid the very thing that had consumed his brothers—the emotional stronghold of bitter jealousy. Somehow, Joseph faced trauma and the high-jacking of his dreams without becoming bitter; for his brothers, it’s a very different story. There’s a deep message for us all right here.
Bitterness is seething anger that hardens into a rebellious, vengeful conclusion. An unforgiving spirit lets anger take hold: anger over circumstances, anger at your spouse, at your children, your employer, whoever. If we embrace it, coddle it, dwell on it, it quietly takes over our entire life.  We feel entitled to hate the person, justified to desire their ruin, and energized to seek their downfall. That is the story of Joseph’s brothers. How did it happen?
Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons and when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than them, they hated him and could not speak a civil word to him.  Why was Joseph Jacob’s favorite? There are several reasons. Joseph was Rachel’s firstborn, Jacob most beloved wife. Rachel had died about a year before, so it is natural that Jacob would transfer his affection to their son. And Joseph was born late in Jacob’s life, giving the old man a special joy. Rightly or wrongly, Jacob cherished Joseph in ways he hadn’t shown to his other sons, and Joseph was hated for it. The brothers were jealous of his relationship with their father.
“And he made him a robe of many colors.” Jacob exercised his fatherly privilege and chose to appoint his firstborn son by Rachel as his heir.  He skipped his other nine sons and selected the youngest at that time. The symbol of the birthright was a special tunic. The Hebrew words used to describe this coat or tunic suggest that it was richly ornamented, but the most important detail the Hebrew gives us is that it was long-sleeved and extended to Joseph’s ankles.  Why is that important?  The tunics worn by working men in that day were sleeveless and stopped at the knees. A long-sleeved, tailored garment was worn by a manager, someone who had been put in charge, and was therefore exempt from the work himself. So the coat was a symbol of position. The brothers were jealous of his position. 
Verse 5 tells us: Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. In v. 6-8, Joseph tells his brothers that they were all in the field binding sheaves of grain when suddenly his sheaf rose up and their sheaves gathered around and bowed down. You don’t have to be brilliant to figure out the meaning of that dream, do you?

Verses 9-11: Joseph had a second dream, this time with different symbols, but with the same meaning. His dad heard Joseph’s dream and thought it was a joke, but his brother’s didn’t. Verse eleven reports that his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

Now if your little brother had a crazy dream, you wouldn’t get jealous unless you really believed God was speaking to him.  The very fact that Joseph’s dreams provoked such violent jealousy testifies that the brothers believed the dream! They believed that God was speaking to their younger brother.  So the brothers were jealous of God’s favor on Joseph.

Self-pity, jealousy and anger finally pushed the brothers over a dangerous line. They were mad at their father for his favoritism. They were mad at God for the good things that were coming to their brother and not to them. There was only one way to get back at them both: they would take away the darling object of affection.

The first plan suggested was ‘Let’s kill him.’ Reuben, the oldest, inserts a voice of reason and suggests instead, ‘Let’s throw him into that pit over there.’  In the end, when a caravan of slave traders comes by, they haul Joseph up from the pit and sell him into slavery, wash their hands of the troublemaker and sit down for lunch!  Problem solved…or so they thought.

It appeared to be ‘problem solved’ for some years but you all know how it ends.

Our purpose right now, however, is to focus on the early part of the story.  What does it say to us?

In Tune with Torah this week = We need to ask ourselves some pretty confrontational questions.

Do I have an issue with jealousy?  Do I have any bitterness in my heart towards someone who enjoys a relationship that I wish I had?  Am I jealous of another’s position or promotion?  Do my emotions get riled up when someone gets more favor than I do at work or in my community?

Jealousy kills spiritual growth; it is a poison of the worst kind to our souls.

Our choice is pretty clear: do we go the way of Joseph who guarded his heart against bitterness? Or do we go the way of his brothers whose bitterness poisoned their lives for years?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayigash Dec. 18, 2015

Genesis 44:18-47:27

In this dramatic reading, Joseph and his brothers are finally united.  It is the first biblical record of forgiveness between family members and has much to say to us, not only about forgiveness but also about reconciliation.  They are not the same thing.

Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. From one perspective, forgiveness is a form of voluntary ‘suffering’. Look at it this way.

If a friend hurts your reputation with gossip or unkind words, you have two choices: ‘pay’ them back with a cold shoulder, with unkind words about them to others, or refusing to reconcile with them.  Or you forgive, and you absorb the suffering yourself.  Someone always pays every debt.

Forgiveness is a promise first, to refrain from retribution or revenge and secondly, to deny yourself the luxury of brooding or obsessing over the wrong that was done.  Forgiveness does not excuse the misbehavior of the other person, but it does recognize that all humanity is flawed and therefore you choose to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  We all need forgiveness at various times throughout our lives so give it freely and you will reap it back in abundance.

In revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph freely expressed his forgiveness.  In fact, he went so far as to free them from the burden of guilt by saying, “it was not you, but God, who sent me here…”

But, you may ask, if he was so ready to forgive them, why did he treat them harshly when they first went down to Egypt?  This is where we learn about reconciliation.  You can forgive someone for an offense without reconciling with them.  In fact, reconciliation often takes some time depending on the nature of the offense.  Because you forgive someone who betrayed you, for example, doesn’t mean you have to trust them immediately.  That’s what we see displayed in Joseph’s actions.

Had his brothers truly changed? Or were they still quarrelsome and cantankerous? Joseph put them through a series of tests designed to reveal their character, the ultimate one being the encounter with his brother, Judah, in Genesis 44:18-34.  Judah – the one who originally suggested selling Joseph – now humbly pleads for mercy regarding Benjamin and even offers himself to take Benjamin’s place.  That was the moment when Joseph knew that his brother’s repentance was real.  And so the very next verse, Gen. 45:1, says “Joseph could stand it no longer…”and putting everyone out of the room he cries out, “I am Joseph!”  Though he had forgiven them long ago, at this moment they are reconciled.  Joseph could trust them again.  Why? Because when faced with the opportunity to abandon (betray) Benjamin as they had betrayed him, they refused to do so and instead begged for mercy.

Joseph never lost his hope for a restored and healed relationship with his brothers and reunion with his father.  But Joseph was wise enough to know that while forgiveness can be given – even at a distance from the offender – reconciliation requires a rebuilding of trust.  The tests he put his brothers through paved the way for full reconciliation.

We have all been hurt and we have all hurt others. If we refuse to forgive, we damage our own souls.  (Even the Mayo Clinic has published articles on the negative effects to one’s physical and mental health of harboring resentment and bitterness.)  The Torah – indeed – all of Scripture exhorts to forgive one another.  But that’s the first step.  The next is reconciliation.  Depending on the offense, it can take a little time or a lot of time. There will always be a need for patience on the road to reconciliation. What matters is that like Joseph we never give up hope.

In Tune with Torah this week = Are you holding on to any resentment or bitterness? Do you harbor a coldness, an irritability toward someone? Are you refusing to ‘let go’ of past hurts? Do you justify your negative attitude and anger towards someone?  If any of these questions elicit a ‘yes’, don’t you think it’s time to move on? To mend broken relationships? To cleanse your own soul of the damaging effects of nursing old wounds? May God help us all to move closer to unity and peace within our families and communities.

Shabbat shalom.





Weekly Torah Commentary — Devarim July 24, 2015

Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1 – 3:22

This week we begin the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. This particular portion always coincides with the Shabbat before the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, not just once but twice.

The Sages have taught over the centuries that Israel lost the Temple due to the sin of baseless hatred. Divisions, arguments, jealousies and hostilities were allowed to grow and fester in the population so that the unity Moses urged Israel to preserve was destroyed. Among others, the venerable Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of modern Israel, used to teach that as the Temple was destroyed by senseless hatred, it would be rebuilt when Israel returned to the commandment ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Extravagant love in the place of senseless hatred would unite the nation again as the psalmist wrote, Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity…for there the Lord commands the blessing – life forever.

While this teaching sounds simple, it is in fact quite daunting, deserving of serious meditation.

The words “baseless hatred” imply rampant, wanton violence, yet the precise Hebrew phrase is”sin’at hinam”. Literally, ‘hinam’ actually means “free of charge” or “at no cost”. The Torah is not speaking about hatred for no reason at all, but rather a hatred out of proportion.

We generally dislike people for a reason. We justify our dislikes by citing reasons we consider appropriate. Perhaps we have been hurt, insulted, ignored or humiliated in public. Disliking them seems to be our only defense. The problem with that is that more times than we care to admit, our response is not proportional. We “overcharge” for these real or imagined offenses. Then we pay back with interest, and, as we all know, according to the Torah, ‘charging’ interest of a brother is forbidden.

If we are willing to be honest, we would recognize that at times the other person had no intention to hurt. It is our own insecurity and emotional fragility that reacted and judged others as malicious, even when no such malice was intended.

So here’s our dilemma: When accused of senseless hatred, many of us can with utter honesty state that we are innocent. However, if we ask the question a different way, does our conclusion stand that test?

If we have harbored resentments and tried in any way to ‘get even’, we are guilty. Whatever hatred we have for ‘them’ is not “free.” It is protected and nurtured by our un-forgiveness.

Our love for others is grounded in the knowledge that every person is created in the image of God. This other person is my brother, sister or perhaps, cousin too-many-times removed. I am obligated by Torah to love and care for him or her, to constantly consider how I can improve their life, to pray for them.

Therein lies the rub: We convince ourselves that the hostility is well-deserved, while the love we are commanded to express is unearned and is given to the undeserving.

How do we resolve this dilemma? The prophet Isaiah wrote that God’s ways are not our ways, neither are His thoughts our thoughts. We are called to see the world and the people in it from God’s perspective rather than our own. We also need to remember that we were created in God’s image and likeness and He commanded us ‘Be holy as I am holy.’

We have all sinned and offended God and His Word. Yet He holds no grudge, nor does He withhold His care. High interest payback is not in His vocabulary! Neither should it be part of our relationship paradigm.

In Tune with Torah this week = taking an honest look at our relationships. Are we harboring any resentment, un-forgiveness or ill will towards anyone else? Are we very sure that they actually intended to hurt us or have we ‘assumed’ or ‘presumed’ we knew their intention? Could we be wrong in our assessment of what happened? Can we admit that we may have misunderstood the incident and rushed to an incorrect conclusion? Moses was called by God ‘the most humble man on the face of the earth.’ Could my relationships be improved with a bit more humility injected into them – on MY part?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Mishpatim January 24, 2014

MISHPATIM Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

In this week’s portion we have instructions/teachings regarding civil relationships. They define personal liabilities and obligations regarding such matters as theft, personal injury, financial and marital obligations, labor employee relationships.

Instructions and guidelines for a civil society occupy a prominent place in Torah laws. To emphasize their importance, many of them are listed in this week’s parsha, which immediately follows the acceptance of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This position reflects God’s attitude regarding the importance of their observance; the spiritual level of Israel in God’s eyes is directly correlated with the peoples’ dedication to their observance.

The Sage, Nachmonides, explains that Mishpatim are important as they spell out in detail the requirements of the proper observance of the Tenth commandment, You shall not covet your fellow’s house. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow. (20:14) Proper awareness of this commandment requires a clear recognition of what belongs to a fellow Jew in all these areas; it is his house, his wife etc.

Rabbi Chaim Vital then concludes that to the degree that a Jew faithfully obeys the tenth commandment, one can deduce his level of acceptance of the first commandment. I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before Me.

An aspect of true belief in an all knowing, all-powerful God has as its natural outcome the understanding that the blessings present in each life are divinely ordained. Therefore, those things that belong to his friend were designated by God to be his friend’s possessions, not his. To actively covet someone else’s possessions, then, is tantamount to questioning God’s judgment and His will, and demonstrates a lack of acceptance of the first commandment “I am the Lord your God…”.

God sends each of us to this world to work on our characters. Every individual’s particular life situation is designed by God to compel him/her to improve his inner being, to purify his soul, to mature into a godly person. To resist the demands of Torah instruction reveals the very area in which we need to grow. Far better to yield in obedience for what we resist, persists.

Torah instruction was never meant to be observed solely out of a sense of obligation, grudgingly and joyless. Rather, Torah guidelines are the “path of life”, David wrote, and the outline for a life of joy in relationship with the Holy One of Israel.

In fact, it is in the molding and shaping of the human character, that we discover the significance of Mishpatim. It is only the existence of Mishpatim that makes the sculpting of the human character a free will exercise. If a particular Torah commandment grates on one’s sensibilities, the choice to observe it out of love for God, even when it’s difficult, strengthens moral character and takes us one step closer to being what we created to be: creatures who reflect the image and likeness of God.

If, on the other hand, one chooses to follow his feelings and disregard Torah, that person’s character is damaged negatively. Repentance is the only means of turning that situation around.

In Tune with Torah this week = think about any of the commandments that you may find difficult to observe: are you prone to speak negatively about others? do you envy what others have or feel jealous? are you critical of other people? do you get angry easily? do you “tease” in such a way that others are humiliated? Each of these relates specifically to a Torah commandment. This Shabbat let us examine ourselves honestly and repent of those areas where we really do know better but have been reluctant to change.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Ki Tetzei August 15, 2013

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

The theme of relationships – how to build them, how to keep them intact, and how to heal them in the event that they are damaged – is a pervading theme of this week’s Torah portion. In one particular verse, a very strict limitation is placed upon interpersonal relationships. The Torah explains the prohibition in a clear statement of rationale:

An Ammonite or Moavite shall not enter into the Congregation of God; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the Congregation of God forever; Because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the Almighty, your God, would not listen to Bil’am; but the Almighty, your God, turned the curse into a blessing to you, because the Almighty your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever. (Deuteronomy 23:4-7)

Amon and Moav were raised in a strange family unit: they were both the products of incest. Their mothers were sisters who got their father drunk, and seduced him in his stupor. (Gen. 19:30-38)

Lot, Avraham’s nephew, saw his world crumble around him. His first tragic mistake was taking leave of Avraham: He should have learned enough from his uncle to achieve a reconciliation between the shepherds of his flocks and Avraham’s shepherds. Avraham in his wisdom realized that there was only one solution for the conflict, and suggested a parting of the ways. (Gen. 13:7-9) Lot travels eastward to Sodom.

There is something terribly wrong with a person who would leave the tent of Avraham and choose a place like Sodom. Sodom
‘looked good’for he was motivated by aspirations of wealth and power. But it didn’t take long for Sodom to be destroyed, his home and possessions along with it. Even his wife was lost. He escaped with only the clothes on his back and his two daughters. These daughters each present Lot with sons, Moav and Amon.

These sons enter the world with a stigma: Their father/grandfather has made countless bad decisions, and their mothers instigated incest with their own father. They are emotionally damaged men: hurt, angry, full of resentment. Yet the Torah teaches a remarkable lesson: These nations are forbidden to the Jewish people; descendents of Amon and Moav are not to be accepted as converts to Judaism. But why? Not because they are genetically inferior but “because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.

The second half of the verse is understandable: They conspired to curse the Jews, reason enough for maintaining a healthy distance. But that’s not the main reason. Rather, it is their failure to greet us in the desert with food and drink that illustrates their lack of character.

Note: Lot grew up in Avraham’s tent. Despite Lot’s possible feelings of abandonment, despite Moav and Amon’s feelings of rejection, despite the dysfunctional family that produced Moav and Amon, they should have known better, and behaved as any relative of Avraham knew was the proper way to deal with others – certainly with relatives.

They are expected to behave as Avraham would have, to greet travelers with food and drink. In this instance, the Torah is unforgiving. We are not meant to summon up “understanding” or “empathy” for those who are products of a dysfunctional home, children born of twisted relationships, the products of incest who may have suffered ridicule, who could have blamed their parents for all their problems. The Torah underscores the power of a positive education and example to overcome negative feelings of resentment and anger. Despite their origins and upbringing, the descendents of Lot had the ability to choose kindness. They were endowed with free will.

The lesson for all of us is unavoidable: Human beings – children and adults -are often tempted to blame others for their own shortcomings, but the Torah does not allow us to place the blame with our upbringing, our parents or ancestors, or other situations beyond our control. Every human being has Free Will; this means that, along with any negative experiences, there are positive lessons to be learned from the challenges in our past.

The responsible individual must choose to reject the negative and distill positive lessons from any given experience. Cycles of abuse and pain can and must be broken, as the case of Amon and Moav illustrates: Even many generations down the line, we have the right to expect moral behavior on the part of Lot’s descendents. Despite Lot’s many failings, despite the challenging background, God has expectations of those raised in the Tent of Avraham. Amon and Moav, as descendents of Lot, had so many positive lessons to learn. They were punished for choosing to focus on their own feelings and their own anger. For their choices, and not for their history, they are forever banned from the Congregation of God.

Each and every one of us, emotional scars and personal failures notwithstanding, is called upon by the laws of the Torah to make a similar choice. We are reminded, through the unlikely example of Amon and Moav, that we are all descendents of someone who grew up in the tents of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya’akov, Rachel and Leah. There is greatness within our collective memory, and therefore within our abilities and our selves. Focusing on anger and failure can easily develop into self-fulfilling, negative prophesies, leading to fractured homes and decimated communities. Alternatively, we can each make the conscious choice to learn positive lessons from our negative experiences, and raise ourselves as individuals and families to the higher moral ground prepared for us by our ancestors.

In Tune with Torah this week = renewing our determination to choose rightly despite any negative influences.