Dreaming

It has been a long while since I wrote about a Torah portion but…here you are.

This week’s Torah portion is about many things. Most of which I will not address. Joseph, one of Jacob’s many sons is central to the beginning and end of this parshah. Joseph’s brothers call him a dreamer, even as they prepare to murder him. Joseph, throughout all the travails he encounters – being thrown into a pit, sold to the Ishmaelites, sold to an Egyptian and finally falsely imprisoned – never gives up his dreams.

Rabbi Shefa Gold posits that Joseph knows that his troubles are sent by God and that the blessings come disguised. That somehow Joseph knows of his own radiance, that he is special and loved and has a destiny to fulfill.

This interpretation resonated with me. How many of us have troubles in our lives, failures, disappointments, tragedies? All of us. Some are larger than others, but we all have them and our feelings are much the same. We ask “why me?” “Why them?” “Why?”

And how often have we told our children that you learn more from failure than success? We all wish success. But how often do we look at our failures, our tragedies, our disappointments, and find the blessing? Rarely I think. How do we measure success? By the money or accolades earned, or the lessons learned?

A dear friend of mine was recently told her marriage was over, it was heartbreaking and sorrowful. But in this event I see her finding her own wings, her own self, maybe the fulfillment of her dreams – perhaps ones she didn’t know she had. So the blessing is wrapped up in the sorrow. But you have to look for it.

In the long months leading up to my mother’s death, we were faced with a looming necessity to place her outside of her home. Maybe she knew it was coming, I don’t know. I do know that her dream was to die in the beautiful home that she spent a lifetime creating, filled with books and art and writing. And at our moment of decision, she did. She passed peacefully in her own bed with flowers around her and music playing and her son holding her hand. So the blessing was in the sorrow and in the fulfillment of her dream. It took a minute for me to find it.

When my father struggled with dementia and had to come and live with me, I asked a friend what lesson I was supposed to learn. It was a very difficult time. Her answer was “patience”. The blessing was in the giving back. We had a very un-parental relationship. He was not a good father but an interesting, artistic and talented man who taught me many things about the world. I was not a good daughter, running off at 16 to live an eclectic life. I often dreamed of a “normal” family, it was never to be. But in the end, my service to him gave us a new and valuable relationship, an unexpected fulfillment of my dream and a blessing. But I had to look for it.

When my marriage ended there was a great deal of pain. But through that experience, I have a much better understanding of my self, my spirit, and an acceptance of the wonder of the life I have. In the sorrow and pain, there was a great blessing, but I had to look for it.

I have had many losses and many failures in my life. But like Joseph, I remain a dreamer. I am not sure that I know, as Rabbi Gold would say, my own radiance. I do know that, as she puts it, it is my mission to unmask the blessings.

Each loss has taught me how to be graceful with the loss others experience. They have taught me to listen to others’ sorrow without judgment. Each failure has taught me to be more merciful when others fail. To reach out a hand not a criticism. Each failure has taught me some lesson, has given me some tool to use for the next. In every experience of life there is some fulfillment of a dream. God often fulfills our dreams in unexpected and challenging ways. Often the blessing is hard to see, but it is there – you just have to look for it.

Joseph in this parshah goes through enormous hardships, attempted murder, slavery, prison. And yet, he never stops dreaming and never stops being kind to those he encounters. He has a natural goodness – he has his radiance and his knowledge of God’s love for him no matter what.

So may we all, like Joseph, never give up our dreams, never stop acting with kindness, see our own radiance and always unmask the blessings. You never know what comes next.

Sorry Enough?

It is that season. The Jewish New Year. I love the cycle of the holidays, from S’lichot to Simchat Torah. It is a journey forward and a journey back. And this is a very personal journey, not one to be taken on social media. Blanket apologies, as I have often said, are not really apologies.

We move forward in repentance, in forgiveness and in self analysis and reflection. This month of Elul that brings us forward to ourselves is a special time. We each have our own way of taking stock, inventory, of our lives and our behavior. In this, we journey back over the past year. Could we have done better, have we hurt anyone, do we need to say we are sorry? And being human, we could always have done better, there is always something, or someone to whom we owe a debt, an apology.

But this journey back brings us forward, it brings us to our better selves, to our better lives. We go forward into the new year renewed in our repentance, in our desire and intention to live with even more integrity and charity.

For me, this process also brings me closer to those who have walked the path of this journey before me. I particularly remember my grandmother, my aunt and uncle and those whose ashes I trod at the camps. This ritual of self improvement is inspired by them and how they lived and died. I feel this most deeply on Yom Kippur when all worldly pursuits are set aside and the day is intended for prayer, meditation, remembrance and repentance.

The beautiful thing is that we are brought, at the  last, to forgiveness. It is in forgiveness that we can truly move forward. And having taken stock, made our amends, repented and been forgiven. As we hear the last blast of the shofar, we are called to take all that we have contemplated and be moved to action.  And then we dance, with the Torah, with each other, with God. Finally, on to action-action to repair our lives, repair our hearts, repair our world.

Shanah Tovah U’metekah – A sweet and wonderful new year.

What More Do You Need

Eikev is this week’s Torah portion; the word has too many meanings for me to really understand or expound on. Suffice it to say that it can mean “heed”, “hear”, “follow” and “heel”, among other things. The portion is always named for the first word so Eikev it is.

Moses, who will never enter the promised land with his people, reminds them of the covenant, the b’rit, that G-d made with them. But he also reminds them that they must be observant and follow the “rules” faithfully for G-d to maintain that covenant. He proceeds to remind them of their bad behavior, of their “trespasses against G-d”. He reminds them that although they will inherit the promised land from the idolatrous, they are far from virtuous.

This portion tells us that the promised land, Israel, will be a “land of milk and honey” if and only if the people obey the commandments and teach them to their children. What a metaphor for our time. If we were to obey the commandments, those basic social rules, we would be in a world at peace.

You have heard the idea that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten. You didn’t learn the basics to build a rocket, or a building, splice a gene or write computer code. You did, however, learn the basic rules of how to live in the world, how to treat other people, how to share and how to care. You learned to be nice, to be polite, to stand up for those less fortunate, to tell the truth, not to take or destroy other people’s things, not to cheat, to respect differences and to respect proper authority. As an aside you also learn to “tell on” improper authority figures. All of these values, if we were to actually translate them to adult behavior would make the world a much better place.

We do teach these values to our children, or at least many of us at home, and many of our schools and houses of worship do. But somewhere along the line we seem to forget these values and instead of what we learned as children persisting, we start learning from others, adults, who have also forgotten those values. We have stopped thinking for ourselves. We have stopped standing up for the less fortunate. We have forgotten how to look past our differences. We accept cheating. We have forgotten how to share.

So you may not have learned all you need to know in kindergarten, you definitely learned what you need to know about human interaction. But you have forgotten it. According to the Torah, G-d gave Moses the basics and instructed us to… Click To Tweet

So you may not have learned all you need to know in kindergarten, but you definitely learned what you need to know about human interaction. I think in the main we have forgotten it. According to the Torah, G-d gave Moses the basics and instructed us to follow them faithfully. And the promise is that if we ever manage to do that we might globally take a turn for the better.

Shabbat Shalom

Love and Family

This week’s Torah portion is, as always, chock full of things and covers quite the span of time. Significantly, Moses is born and his life is defined early on by acts of compassion and love, first by his mother who fears for his life and next by Pharoah’s daughter in defiance of his order that all Hebrew boy children be killed. Pharoah’s distrust of the Israelites is formed essentially by the fact that they are multiplying, that their families are growing and so he attempts to limit them by killing them off.

A great deal else happens in this very first book of Exodus but I think, at this season, we should talk about compassion, love and family. I listen to the news and read a Facebook feed and I hear people talk and I see bumper stickers and I am overwhelmed by the division, contempt, ignorance, rudeness and downright hatred. This to the point that I can barely stand to be part of the world.

And then, a package from one of my brothers arrives and in it is a canvas shopping bag inscribed large and in bright red “Be Optimistic”. Now that is a reminder. So I stop and think about my aging mother who loves me. About my brothers and their children who love me. I think about my friends who love me and who show me compassion when I am unlovable. I think about my students who I love. I think about my amazing son and his equally amazing fiance who love me and who I love more than anything. I stop and think about my life and how blessed I am.

The Torah portion reminds me of the sacrifice it takes to be a true leader of integrity, intelligence and courage. It reminds me of how dear our families and friends are. It reminds me that it takes great faith to do great things and that sometimes compassion is all that is needed to send someone on their way. It also reminds me that great faith and adherence to principle sometimes also demands great sacrifice and great courage.

I think in this season of many holidays that what is needed is not an argument about how we greet one another but that we act towards one another with compassion and love. We are, in the end all the same, united in the common bond of humanity. Be gracious, be grateful, love your family and those who matter, tell them often, look up at the moon and know we are all looking at the same beautiful sky. Whatever your faith, compassion, love and courage will carry us through.

Can You Still Believe In Magic?

I wrote on Vayeira, this past week’s Torah portion last year and what struck me was that it is full of magic and miracles. Although there was much punishment and destruction, there was still magic and miracles.

It is hard to write, today, about magic and miracles. Saturday, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jews were gunned down as they prayed their Sabbath prayers. They were not gunned down by Muslim extremists or other “imported” terrorists. They were gunned down by a homegrown anti-Semitic extremist who believed that Jews were somehow “alien” and a threat to his way of life. In Pittsburgh. He was known on extreme web sites as a virulent anti-Semite. He posted, essentially, what he planned to do, that he had had enough of us. And eleven innocent people are dead.

So it’s hard, today, to write about magic and miracles.  I taught religious school this morning and we talked about how you believe, how you have faith, in a world where bad things happen. We worked hard at this, at finding the path. These are 12 and 13 year olds, trying to find their path in so many ways. And then they have to think about and deal with things like this.

Why would they want to be Jews when Jews are targets? Why would they want to believe in a world where they can be shot down in school, in shul? I don’t think it is my place as a teacher to tell them what or how to believe. I can share what I believe, I can try to help them see a possible path, but everyone, teen or not, needs to find a way to faith on their own.

In the end I can’t promise them safety in their Jewish identity, we can only talk about the courage and self worth involved in being and standing up for who you are. We can only talk about living life not in fear. And that’s where faith comes in. We finally agreed that probably G-d does not create or cause bad things; life happens. Faith is what helps us through those things. The stories of the G-d of Genesis, testing and testing, are meant to instruct us but we need not take them literally. We work to find the lessons, everyone has to find their own path to belief. It would be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and disappear the evil, the scary things, but alas we cannot. What I do know is that despite the evil in the world it is truly still full of magic and miracles – you just have to believe, and know where to look.