Weekly Torah Commentary – Kedoshim May 6, 2016

Leviticus 19-20

In last week’s Torah portion, we were given several commandments prohibiting certain behaviors.  In this week’s reading, we move to positive commandments.

The section opens with these words:

The Lord also said to Moses, ‘Give the following instructions to the entire community of Israel.  You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy…….’Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.’

By connecting these two commandments within the section, we understand that from God’s point of view, there is no true holiness without loving others.  As has been said, ‘If you cannot love your brother whom you do see, how can you love God whom you do not see?’

Holiness is defined as the state or quality of being holy.  Becoming holy is a process  comprised of daily choices that in reality boil down to one fundamental choice: will I live by God’s instructions or not?

In this week’s portion, for instance, there are also the commands: ‘Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people’ and ‘Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives.’  Both of these relate directly to the commandment: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’

Every time we choose to bite our tongue rather than lash out in anger at someone else, we take a step towards holiness.  Every time I pass up the opportunity to gossip about someone, I take another step towards holiness.

Now here’s the rub.  We all get hurt – it’s part of life.  But…what we sometimes forget is this: we all hurt others as well.  It’s a two way street.  We may not intend it but it happens. If we want understanding and forgiveness from someone we may have offended, then it is incumbent upon us to be ready and willing to forgive those who offend or hurt us.

Centuries ago, Rabbi Akiva said: ‘That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellowman; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”  In other words, treat other people the way you want to be treated yourself…and do it first!  Can you imagine what this world would be like if as a society we all lived by this principle?

Why don’t we?

Consider: Moses had ample opportunities to be offended.  Remember when his sister and brother spoke against him in Numbers 12?  Yet in that very passage, God called him ‘the most humble man in all the earth.’

Humility is not weakness; it is the fundamental character of a person who understands that we are all fallible; everyone of us makes mistakes.  Therefore, when someone behaves or speaks in a way that irks me or annoys me, rather than react in anger and lash out, humility causes me to take a step back and recognize my own fallibility.  As I do, an attitude of understanding and compassion can arise in me towards the offender.

That does not mean we just let people get away with anything and everything.  Absolutely not.  But it does mean that if I am in the position to address the offense and offer some correction or means of reconciliation, I do so maintaining respect for the offender, not belittling or demeaning him or her but communicating in a clear and appropriate manner, designed to minimize any damage to the relationship.

To walk in love towards others requires willingness on our part to exercise patience, kindness and humility.  To walk in love towards others is no small matter.  But it IS a commandment. Therefore, if we have dedicated our lives to following God and His Word, the choice has already been made.

May God help each of us to live up to our commitment.

In Tune with Torah this week = honestly assess how you are doing in this matter?  Do you love your spouse, your children, your neighbors, your co-workers, as you love yourself? What does that mean to you?

Shabbat shalom and a blessed weekend to you.




Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayechi December 25, 2015

Genesis 27:28 – 50:26

This is the last Torah reading in the book of Genesis. It ends with the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers and the death of Jacob.

Afraid that he had not really forgiven them for their betrayal of him, the brothers send Joseph a message after the death of Jacob, asking for forgiveness.  The message grieves Joseph who has indeed forgiven long ago.  He replies:

“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Gen. 50:19-21)

This message bears a great resemblance to an earlier one. When he revealed himself to them seventeen years before, he said:

“I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no sowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:3-8)

These two interactions between Joseph and his brothers are critical moments in the history of biblical faith.  These are the first occasions recorded in the Scriptures when one person forgives another for an offense.  But that’s not all: these two exchanges also establish the principle of Divine Providence.

History, as has been noted, is “His Story” – the unfolding of God’s plan and purpose for mankind. Though we think we are in command of our destiny, the truth is that God is on His throne and it is He Who reigns over our days. His purposes are accomplished, often in ways that we do not understand, but nevertheless work for our good and, more importantly, for His overall plan of Redemption.  There are no coincidences with God; no accidents.  God never says “Oops!”

Joseph’s greatness was that he sensed this. He learned that nothing in his life happened by accident. The brothers’ betrayal, the plot to kill him, his tenure as a slave, the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife, his time in prison, and his disappointed hope that the chief butler would remember him and secure his release – all these events failed to throw him into an unredeemable depression.  Rather, to his credit and for our example, they became stepping stones in the journey towards the fulfillment of his destiny.  How? Because along the way, Joseph chose to learn from his experiences rather than rail against them.

No leader succeeds without facing opposition, envy, false accusations and repeated setback. Given his closeness to his father, Jacob, before he was separated from him, it is reasonable to expect that Joseph learned this principle from Jacob, himself.

I don’t know if Winston Churchill read the Bible but he certainly reflects the life journey of Joseph in his famous quote:  “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

What sustained Joseph through the many trials he endured was his faith.  Somehow Joseph internalized that life was not just about him, but about something much bigger.  The faith he learned from his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather stabilized him in the midst of chaos, encouraged him in the darkness and humbled him in success.  It as that very humility that enabled him to say to his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.”

In Tune with Torah this week = By recognizing, like Joseph, that we are no more than co-authors of our lives, we are empowered to survive without resentment towards the past or despair about the future. Trust in God despite any obstacles or setbacks is his message to us this week. Whatever malice other people may harbor against us, if we can say, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good,” we will survive, our strength intact, our energy undiminished.  May the God of Joseph, Whom we also serve, grant us that same perspective.

If you have found this message helpful, pass it on to a friend.

Shabbat Shalom and blessings to all at this season.

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.