The Difficult Climb Out

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Many years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Majdanek Concentration/Death Camp in Poland.  There is a huge sculpture that looks somewhat like a menorah that dominates the landscape.  As visitors get closer, they see that there is a long sloping path that goes under the menorah; the way out is a steep set of rock stairs.  The symbolism was to show how easy it was to slide into the situation that led to the Holocaust, and how difficult it was for those caught up in it to get out.

This week’s Torah portion reflects a similar idea.  The process by which the Children of Israel came into slavery in Egypt looks somewhat quick and easy; it occurs over the course of just a few verses.  The way out, however, took 400 years and a series of miraculous events.  Even then, by the end of the Torah, the Israelites still had not reached the Promised Land.  The contrast is striking.

Often in life we make decisions or take actions that are not well-thought out; we take the easy route instead of the right one.  Sometimes the repercussions are not really consequential.  Other times, though, we find ourselves entangled in webs from which we are not able to extract ourselves so easily.  Parashat Shemot–and the many parashiyot that follow it–remind us that what may seem inconsequential now may end up being quite significant further down the road.  It is up to us to see beyond the moment and think about the future.

Turning Dreams into Reality

Dream Catcher

Torah portion, Miketz, it is Pharaoh himself who dreams; Joseph’s interpretation of those dreams and his knowing what to do with those interpretations catapult him to the second highest office in all of Egypt.
Herein lies an important distinction.  It is one thing to dream (or to be a dreamer).  It is another thing to be able to interpret or understand what the dream means (like, I shouldn’t have had a burrito before I went to bed!).  It is quite another thing to take that interpretation and convert it into a plan of action–which is exactly what Joseph did.  Dreams without a strategy remain just that:  dreams.


This is a timely message for us as we approach the new secular year.  Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions which are, in a way, dreams that we have for the new year.  Making a resolution, however, without a concrete way to make it all happen is an exercise in futility and/or folly.  If we think about the resolutions that we have made in the past, how many of them went unfulfilled simply because we did not really think through how to make them a reality?  This is true whether the resolution has to do with study, work, relationships or physical fitness.  No plan equals no success.


This is a concept that Joseph understood well.  He was a dreamer and he understood others’ dreams too.  What set him apart was what he did next.  As we begin 2020, we should ask ourselves as well…what must we do next to make our dreams a reality?

Will We Fight the Evil Influences Around Us?

Menorah

Why is this Hanukkah different than all other Hanukkahs?

While many people around us think that Hanukkah is all about oil that should have only lasted for one day but lasted for eight, we know that there is much more to this holiday.  It is a celebration of the Maccabee’s defeat of the Syrians.  More than just a military victory, Hanukkah recognizes the miraculous efforts of our ancestors to keep Judaism alive in the face of growing Greek influence.  Hanukkah is really about the miracle of Jewish survival and thriving throughout the millennia.

We now live at a time when we face threats as individual Jews and as a community that are unprecedented in this country.  It seems that every day there is another news story about attacks on Jews or Jewish institutions; in the last few days we have seen a deadly shooting at a Kosher supermarket in New Jersey, an assault of a Jewish woman on a New York subway, vandalization of a synagogue in California, and the desecration of cemeteries and the American Jewish University.What should be our response?  Throughout the centuries Jews have always been ready to move, to head to the next place that would take us in after our adopted homelands became too dangerous.  Are we there yet?  Is it time for us to pick up and leave?  Or do we look to the Maccabees as an example and come together to battle the forces that would seek to destroy us?

We cannot wait any longer.  On this Hanukkah, as a community we must confront the very real threats that exist.  This year, it’s not just about the menorah, the latkes, and the jelly donuts; it is about what we will do to ensure a thriving Jewish future.  May the Maccabees inspire us to fight for what is right; our very lives depend on it.

Hello! (I must be going….)

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There was a big question mark back when my 20th High School Reunion rolled around.  Would I go or wouldn’t I?  I hadn’t gone to any of my previous reunions–mainly because I was usually travelling or it took place on Shabbat, but also because I didn’t really enjoy high school that much.  I felt like I didn’t share a lot in common with most of the other students; I couldn’t get away to college fast enough.

When the time came, I did decide to attend.  I went in with the following rule:  “if you didn’t talk to me in high school, I’m not talking to you tonight.”  I was pretty defensive about it all, but as soon as I walked through the door, it was great to see old friends.  Past concerns melted away and they were replaced with warm memories and lots of laughs.

That was many years ago (when I lived in Toledo) and, while I have reconnected with a few on Facebook, most of them have once again drifted off.

That experience gives perhaps 1% of the drama and anxiety surrounding the 20-year reunion of Jacob and Esau in our weekly Torah portion, Vayishlach.  The last time I saw many of my classmates we were getting our diplomas; the last time the brothers saw each other one had stolen a blessing and the other was threatening to kill!  Despite Jacob’s trepidation and planning, the reunion went smoothly.  In one of the most touching scenes in the Torah they come together, hug and weep.  Overall, it is a fairly brief reunion and the two head their separate ways; they do come together again to bury their father, Isaac, when the time comes.

The story of these twins and memories of my high school reunion remind us all that people dear and not-so-dear come in and out of our lives at different times.  It is rare that friendships last throughout the various stages of our lives; when it comes to friends, usually there are only a few to whom we hold on over the decades.  Family, however, is another matter.  Ultimately, it is sad that Jacob and Esau were never really able to patch things up, and our tradition tells us that we still suffer the consequences of that rift.

Not every relationship can be saved.  Not every relationship deserves to be saved.  Perhaps the lesson is to make the most out of the time we have with those we love; we never really know just how long they will be a part of our lives.Shabbat Shalom!

A Thought for Shabbat

Approaching the Herodian building over the cave

It has been noted by the Rabbis of our tradition–and by alert readers of the Torah–that even though our Torah portion for this week is called Chaye Sarah (literally, “the Life of Sarah”), the text actually talks about her death and the preparations for her burial.Of course, from the previous week’s Torah portions, we know something about her life…but not as much as we know about Abraham.

It is noteworthy that for all the praise that is heaped on Sarah by our Sages, Abraham seems caught off guard when she passes away.  Even though both of them were in advanced age, they made no preparations for burial plots; the resulting negotiations and purchase are what make up the entire beginning of the Parasha.

How could Abraham have overlooked this?  Perhaps it was that he was so focused on life that he couldn’t look forward that far.  Abraham does several things that show his focus on saving life (Sodom and Gomorrah, telling Sarah to pretend to be his sister, etc.)…even though he was prepared to sacrifice Isaac.Jewish tradition asks us to maintain a balance.  We must live in the moment and make the most of life, but we must also prepare for the fate that awaits all of us (we should live to 120!).  We cannot so focus on our end that we forget to live our lives to the fullest; we live so much in the moment that we forget that we do not have forever to be in this world.It is a difficult task to handle successfully.  The story in our Torah portion reminds us of this in a most dramatic way.

Would You Rather Be Happy or Live Longer?

Hour Glass

If you had to choose between long life and happiness, what would be your choice?

Guess what? You don’t have to choose. Happy people live longer. At least that is what research is showing. Studies about the connection have been going on for years, but all point to the fact that that happier we are, the longer we live.

Of course, what defines happiness for one person doesn’t necessarily define it for someone else. There are research questions that helped to identify the components that make up happiness. Five main areas are: 1. Having satisfying social connections, 2. Looking on the bright side, 3. Meaning and purpose in one’s life, 4. Spirituality, 5. and what Martin Seligman (co-founder of the Positive Psychology movement) calls flourishing with PERMA (Positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning, and accomplishment). For a full explanation of all of these, go to the article from http://www.cnn.com: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/30/health/happiness-live-longer-wellness/index.html

On this blog, I talk about nutrition, exercise and spirituality and how they can help to improve our health–physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is noteworthy that research now shows a strong link between happiness and long life.

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. It is a time for recognizing the blessings in our lives. That sense of gratitude helps to bring happiness our way. This is not an exercise just for the end of November; Jewish tradition’s mussar movement encourages us regularly to practice gratitude. Rather than focusing on the negative, we should be grateful for all the positives. The research shows: we will be happier…and for longer too!

And God Wouldn’t Let Him Sacrifice his Son Either

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“Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”  That is the challenge that Abraham placed before God when he heard of the Lord’s plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham negotiated with God until they agreed that if 10 innocent people could be found, the cities would be spared destruction.
I think about the question posed by Abraham this Shabbat in the context of the epidemic of gun violence in our country.  Just yesterday another school shooting “swept away the innocent.”  Who in that school could have possibly been wicked?  Who deserves to have their life cut short in such a violent way?
The Constitution does guarantee the right to bear arms, but too often the 2nd Amendment seems to be an impediment to achieving the very aims of that same Constitution:  “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  Too often it seems that the Constitution is used as a weapon itself, and the innocent are swept away along with the guilty.
Will we, like Abraham, raise our voices?  Will we protest?  Thoughts and prayers are nice but that is not what Abraham did.  He spoke truth to power.  Can we follow his example?