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Posted By The Stash

Once again as the Torah cycles through the year, we reach the story of Joseph being sent by his father Jacob to find out where his brothers and the sheep are. Joseph does his best to find them, but has no luck. Just as he is unsure of what to do next, the Torah tells us “and a man found him [Joseph] wandering in a field and asked: “what are you looking for? I am searching for my brothers, replied Joseph, please tell me where they can be found. They have left, replied the man, I heard them saying ‘let us go to Dothan.’” And the rest is well known history and will be covered in depth in our Voices of Torah classes. (Another great reason for you to come on Shabbat mornings!)

Our commentators debate whether this man is divine or human. But all agree that this incident epitomizes the debate over whether life is random or are certain events (or perhaps all of them) scripted as part of G-d’s plan? Or, perhaps yet again: how should we react to random and unexpected interactions in our busy daily lives?

Let me explain. Whenever I go shopping, I cannot help but reflect on how different it is from when I went with my mother 45 years ago. And of course, it’s not simply that now stores have scanners and checkout goes more quickly. Shopping used to be a social experience. The same cashiers were there year after year and my Mom talked to them while we cashed out. She also saw so many people she knew and was in no hurry to finish. And when she came home, she would talk on the phone for hours, and I would listen to the deep conversations she had with her friends. Despite taking all this time for socializing, my mother completed her daily work and prepared supper from scratch in time for when my father came home. Of course, the laundry was done, and the bills were paid—somehow in the few hours that banks were open between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.—and the house dusted.

The above is neither an ode to my mother or the “Leave it to Beaver” image of suburban women or a vindication of Betty Friedan’s famous critique of them that catalyzed modern feminism. It is simply an observation that until quite recently, people actually stopped to talk to each other. Ironically, despite computerization and the Internet, we don’t have time to really talk face to face at all unless we make an appointment to do so. If Joseph had met this random man in the field today, he would have glanced at his Blackberry or iPhone and told the man that not only did his GPS locate where his brothers were, but he had no need for idle conversations with strangers (who might be dangerous!) because his appointment schedule was already full!

This teaches the Intelligent Jew to relish randomness, to be happy when a long lost friend or cousin calls, and to stifle the urge to tell them to call again when you have time. People who don’t take the time to converse with each other over small comfortable matters will never know how to discuss more serious ones. Look at Joseph’s brothers. Despite living in a time when life afforded time to speak, the Torah asserts “v’lo yochlu dabro l’shalom”. A strange sentence that literally means “they could not speak to him in peace.” Since they had never learned to speak about small issues when they emerged, their jealousy and hatred festered, and finally burst into the open. Not all outcomes are as severe, but the message is quite clear: finding time for the unscripted things in life has a tremendously positive impact. Find time to speak and teach your loved ones to do the same—yet another joy of the Shabbat.

Posted By The Stash
The Ya’akov who returns home after 20 years is not the same man who left. Leaving home, as many university students know, makes one grow up quickly. Certainly Ya’kov’s father-in-law, Lavan, “assisted” this maturation process with his various schemes over the decades. Indeed, last week we read a lengthy and impassioned speech by Ya’akov which bitterly listed a host of indignities he had suffered at Laban’s hand. Ya’akov bitterly recalled he worked day and night for Lavan while “sleep vanished from my eyes.”

And as if this were not enough, at the beginning of our reading, Ya’akov must now cope with Aisav, who “is coming to meet him with 400 men” and whose intentions seem warlike. Ya’akov develops an elaborate strategy to ensure that at least—a familiar refrain in our history—“a remnant of the camp will survive.” The contrast between the strategist and survivor presented here contrasts sharply—both positively and negatively as we have frequently discussed after Kiddush luncheons—with the young “mommy’s boy” who fled 20 years before.

I, too, am a Ya’akov, and this parasha marks the beginning of my 29th year at the shul. A true journey that fortunately has been spiritually and professionally uplifting. I must admit, that like my namesake’s journey, there have been some rough spots and detours en route.

I came as a Torah reader, moved up to become the Ba’al Shacharit for the High Holy Days, and eventually, the Spiritual Coordinator of our lovely little shul. I was newly married when I arrived, and now—again like Ya’akov—I have a family.

When I reflect on my path, I am grateful for the chance to always be your representative during prayer. Every week I try to make familiar words sound fresh. As I pray, the words change emphasis because of events. I revel in the sounds of familiar voices chanting familiar words hallowed by past usage. Yet at times I change the melodies and the cadence. It is my way of indicating that the prayer is both ancient and contemporary. When I read the Torah the words seem both ancient and modern. I know the words and the notes, but every year different sections take on new clarity, while others seem to resonate slightly less. That used to bother me. Now I realize it is the text seeking to link itself to my life. I have come to understand that the text has a way of speaking to me, of always compelling me to listen to it. In sum, I am never allowed to go on “autopilot”.

But most of all, I have grown through interactions with a constellation of personalities. Those different than me forced me to think about who I really was, which was very hard when I was younger. I learned to become less judgmental of everyone besides myself. I learned a great deal of Toronto Jewish “underground” history: about bootleggers and bookmakers, about bicycle thieves and gang enforcers. I have learned many ways of “doing Jewish”, and tried to offer some place here to everyone I meet. It is a humbling and enjoyable experience. It keeps me on my toes and it forces me to always redefine who I am and where I am going and why I am fortunate enough to be an educator who influences people.

And I am luckier than Jacob. His life got less certain as he aged, mine—thank G-d—is getting busier and yet more rewarding, and I feel more and more certain that most of the roads and choices I made were valid. This is a place for people who care about being Jewish enough to take time out of a busy week to search for it amidst friendship and camaraderie. You all make me think about where I am going and what I am doing. Thanks for your help, enthusiasm, honesty, guidance, humour, and honest disagreements. Keep them all up—for a long time.

Posted By The Stash

Whether Jacob’s famous vision of the ladder is political prophecy or an educational metaphor is a matter worth examining. One of the most famous midrashim on this is blatantly political: “Yakov saw the patron-angel of Babylon ascend and descend, the angel of Mede ascend and descend, the angel of Greece ascend and descend and the angel of Rome ascend and descend. Hashem then said to Yakov, "Now you, too, climb the ladder!" Yakov was suddenly fearful. "Perhaps," he said, "just like these angels descended after climbing the ladder, I too will, G-d forbid, have to descend if I climb it." Hashem reassured him, "Do not fear, for if you climb the ladder you will never descend from it." (Vayikra Rabba 29:2) Another version of this midrash has each patron angel ascending a number of steps equal to the number of years they ruled over the Jewish people. And then Jacob was reassured: “Do not fear, Jacob. For even if they soar like eagles, I shall bring them down, says the Lord.” 

In contrast, Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed focuses on the “angels going up and coming down” the ladder. He then infers that this is a metaphor for the way in which prophets who can concentrate intensely and do the mitzvoth can experience a spiritual ascent of will which rises towards Heaven in direct proportion to their spiritual ability. They are then met by the descent of G-d’s prophetic power. The greater a prophet, the higher up the spiritual ladder he can climb, and the lesser the distance G-d’s prophetic power must descend to reach him. Thus, his or her vision will be clearer. Moses was able to rise all the way to the top of the ladder and thus he spoke to G-d “face to face as a man speaks to his neighbour.” 

And then we have the linguists, who argue that “sulam” is the term not for a ladder, but for a ramp. Hence, there are no steps at all, and whatever process is going on, be it prophetic or political, is far more gradual. The final results of a process can only be seen after incremental change over many months or years. 

This latter explanation seems best in view of the ensuing narrative of Jacob’s life, which will occupy almost the entire text of what remains of Sefer Bereishit. Jacob does many unsavoury things, and hurts many people in his efforts to establish himself. It is only after a long and sad life that he finally tastes a bit of peace when he is reunited, and even that miraculously unexpected event is coated with bitterness. Jacob tells Pharoah that in retrospect, “the years of my life are few and evil...they cannot be compared to those of my ancestors.” It is only on his deathbed, surrounded by his sons, that Jacob finally seems to be experiencing a bit of piece. Too little and far too late. For all that Jacob engaged in self-improvement, he was too far behind for the incremental approach to work—the family feuds were far too deep. As soon as Jacob was buried, the brothers hurriedly told Joseph that their father had begged him not to seek revenge after his death. The spectre of familial feuding was all too present. 

A cautionary tale indeed. It makes us understand the emphasis on repentance being a continuous process, and the efficacy of regular self-assessment. The Intelligent Jew cannot afford to let discords linger, or allow personal failings to take deep root. The unexamined life is truly not worth living—at least emotionally and spiritually.

Posted By The Stash

“And Isaac loved Esau because the taste of game was in his mouth.” Once again this verse comes around in the yearly Torah cycle, but this time, having learned it together, we are compelled to ask: are we satisfied with Rashi’s answer—based on the fact that the Hebrew word for ‘game” has the same root as “to ensnare/to hunt”—that Esau’s constant pretending to be a religiously observant son verbally snared his blind father? Certainly not. Interestingly, a minority of our Sages weren’t either. Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel: “No man has honoured his father as I honoured mine. But Esau honoured his father even more.” (Devarim Rabbah 1:15) 

Isaac was certainly not blind to Esau’s weaknesses. His solution was simple: unconditional parental love. Every child is entitled to their parents’ unconditional and at times unrequited love. It is interesting that Isaac continued to love his child despite his waywardness. And he was rewarded—why else would the Torah record the singular act of “and his sons Jacob and Esau buried him [Isaac].” The text carefully delineates how each brother went his separate spiritual and physical ways, it also shows that there were enough shared good feelings about their father for them to put aside whatever enmity and jealousy there was and bury him in a totally honorable and dignified manner. 

The Torah notes that Isaac made it clear to Esau that he and Rebecca were unhappy with the Hittite women he married. It also records that Esau partially accepted his father’s criticism by marrying Yishmael’s daughter, a more acceptable match, as an additional wife. Clearly Isaac knew how to convey to Esau that he could love him but dislike many of his actions. Esau got the message—though he didn’t always choose to take action. But—and this is the point the text and Rabbi Shimon underscore—their relationship never faltered. Esau respected his father, who drew lines in the sand, but never removed or denied his love. 

Once again the Torah provides clear lessons that many find difficult to accept in “real life”. Isaac, unlike many parents of today, was not a friend or on a first name basis with his children. He could tell them off harshly if need be. Esau was told that the women he married “disturbed his parents’ souls”—rather like the story of an Indian mother who told her son: “you make my blood run cold.” Many contemporary parents can’t do this. I see too many who buddy with their children, whom they urge to “text mommy whenever you are upset”, and who hover over their children to ensure that they will survive the imagined travails of applying for university, for a job, or even job interviews. Invariably these children are afraid to take risks, and—most interestingly in terms of our Torah portion—so used to getting serviced by their parents that they turn on them if anything just “doesn’t work out” totally in their favour. 

Esau may not have become a proverbial Yeshiva boy, but he did love and respect his father. Interestingly, when Jacob’s descendants arrived at the borders of Edom—the home of Esau’s descendants—G-d expressly told Moses to “not war against the Edomites…for I have given them this land as a possession.” Sometimes our children don’t end up where—geographically or philosophically—we want them to be, but shouldn’t we love them nonetheless? Or, are there certain actions that may lead to forfeiture of that love? A question well worth considering: hopefully before one has to decide under duress.




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