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 — Toldot November 21, 2014

Genesis 25:19-28:9

The critical event regarding the birthright which Jacob purchased from Esau in exchange for a bowl of red lentils is one of the most well known accounts in the Torah. But does the story focus equally on the relationship of Isaac and Rebecca as it does on Jacob and Esau?

Several commentators suggest that perhaps the communication between Isaac and Rebecca during their married life was less intimate than between Sarah and Abraham. We get a hint about the strained communication to follow when Rebecca saw Isaac “meditating in the field” at which point she “covered herself with a veil.” Was she in awe of Isaac? Did she feel she was unworthy to be his wife, and from then on that sense of inadequacy dictated her communication or lack of it?

The Sages suggest that at a series of critical moments in their married life we see a failure of communication. It quite possible that Rebecca never told her husband what she heard from God before the twins, Esau and Jacob, were born, in which God told her “the elder will serve the younger.” If Isaac knew this, he may well not have favored Esau.

The failure to communicate had its consequence. Many years later, when she heard that Isaac was about to bless Esau she resorted to deception; she told Jacob to pretend he was Esau. Why not simply tell Isaac that Jacob was chosen by God to be blessed? Was she afraid to acknowledge that she’d kept the prophecy to herself all these years? Was she afraid that Isaac would be angry?

Had she spoken openly to Isaac on that day, Isaac may well have responded in a way that would have changed the entire course of their, and their children’s, lives. The entire deceit planned by Rebecca and carried out by Jacob would not have been needed. At its root is the sad truth that she and her husband did not enjoy open communication. The consequences were painful.

The elderly Isaac felt betrayed by his younger son, Jacob. He “trembled violently” when he realized what had happened, and said to Esau, “Your brother came deceitfully.”

Esau’s sense of betrayal produced such a violent hatred toward Jacob that he vowed to kill him. Rebecca was forced to send Jacob into exile and for the next twenty years did not see the son that she so loved. As for Jacob, the consequences of the deceit lasted a lifetime, resulting in strife between his wives, and between his children. “Few and evil have been the days of my life,” he said as an old man to Pharaoh. Four lives were scarred by one act which may not even have been necessary in the first place.

There is always a price to pay for a failure to communicate. The Torah shows us real life, among real people with real problems. Communication matters. In Genesis 2,the phrase “And man became a living soul” can just as correctly be translated “and man became a speaking soul.” Life is about relationship. And human relationships only exist because we can speak. We can tell other people our hopes, our fears, our feelings and thoughts.

Parents, clear and kind, strong and honest communication is essential in the home between yourselves and between you and your children. Open and respectful communication is what makes families, teams and corporate cultures healthy. Each individual needs to understand the values and behaviors they are expected to exemplify. When a child or an employee does well, there should be sincere praise given. When constructive criticism is required, it must be given with courtesy, making clear that it is not the person who is being criticized but their action.

Honest, open and respectful communication is not just about speaking; it is equally about listening! Parents, employers, friends, co-workers – we must all learn to gift one another with attentive listening as the occasion arises. My late husband used to say, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth; perhaps that means we should listen twice as much as we speak.”

In Tune with Torah this week = we can derive a couple of lessons from this week’s reading: 1) the importance of good communication between human beings is essential to stable society and a stable home.
2) If we find ourselves struggling to communicate, this is the time to humble ourselves before God, asking for His help as we strive to improve our skill in communicating effectively with those we love.

Shabbat Shalom