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Archive for December, 2014

Goodbye Papa Jacob. Vayechi

Papa, Can You Hear Me? , sang Barbara Streisand in the movie Yentl, after her father dies. I remember everything you taught me, every book I ever read,…Papa how I love you,… miss you, she sings. And so her father is very much with her, in spirit and influence, though he is gone. Her Papa’s willingness to educate his daughter, imparting learning, and the love of learning changes everything for Yentl.   And so it is with, not only our fathers, but those teachers who have changed our lives. Which brings us to this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, which means “and he lived”, but is really about the end of Jacob’s life and his death.
It is also the end of an era, the end of Genesis. Never again will there be Patriarchs. The foundation of the nation of Israel has been set in human flesh and family and will become the stuff of legend. The twelve tribes are set in the heavens as the twelve signs of the zodiac. I visited the Synagogue near Beit She-an and saw the mosaics of the twelve tribes – each with its symbol: Judah is the lion, perhaps Leo. This astrology is controversial, but primal, symbolic images will prevail as papa Jacob/Israel blesses his sons.
But Jacob’s death is also personal, it is our papa Jacob who dies: we are his children, the children of Israel
And his grandchildren – for the first time Grandparent/grandchild interaction happens in Torah, in this incredibly moving encounter between Jacob with Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasseh.
This final part of the saga begins as Jacob, who has come to Egypt and met with Pharoah, and lived her 17 years, is sick. This is first mention of illness ever. According to Talmud, (Baba Metzia 87a) Jacob actually prays that illness should come before death. Joseph is told “your father is ill, you need to go to him. And so Joseph goes and brings his boys . They are announced, and Jacob pulls his strength together, sits up on the bed, and begins to speak of the old times. God appeared to me in Luz, in Canaan and blessed me saying I would become a Kahal of people and that this land would belong to my descendants. As for me, I miss my Rachel, your mamma, I loved her so, but she died on me. Ah, who are these children?
“They are my sons, my Abba, whom God has given me:” And Jacob’s eyes are heavy with age, and he cannot see.. I never even prayed to see your face again, and now God has let me see not just you, but your children also.
Did you notice something mysterious here? How can Jacob see them, “he cannot see”! Obviously with Grandpa-eyes.

And Joseph released his sons and bowed to the ground. And Grandpa Jacob Sent out (Yishlach) his hand to the boys to change family history
This “sending out” to touch is going to connect these two generations in a powerful way. Once before a Father “Yishlach” sent out, his hand, but that was Abraham on the verge of slaughtering his son.
Now a grandfather is sending out his hand to bless and he’s going to cross his hands on purpose (sikel et yadav – with wisdom in his hands) to bless the younger with the favored right hand over the left. Joseph thinks it’s a mistake, and tries to correct his Dad: “I know, my son, I know” Jacob repeats. And in one motion reverses a mistake of three generations. Always the younger battled and fought to gather blessings that belonged to the elder. But these boys will not fight. They will be blessed only because they are treasured Grandsons. It’s Ok Joseph, the older will be great too, but this younger one will be better. And always will my name live in Israel, and that of my fathers, Abe and Isaac, and they will bless their sons saying May you be like Ephraim and Menasseh. And we do, Always bless the children!
In a way the crossing of the hands is a distraction to the real truth, which is: we always bless our children, all of them, not just the elder, so they know, we love them because they are our beautiful children.
Oh, by the way, do they have to look beautiful physically? (See Grandpa eyes above)
Jacob has taught his children and grandchildren – in his actions, in an action that carries down in tradition today. Jacob will continue to give advice to all his sons as the portion continue. Perhaps he also blessed Dina, but his daughter’s blessing is lost to history.  And Jacob asks to be buried in Canaan, as will Joseph, (and no others).  The funeral takes weeks to march the body down. I imagine the sons looking up at the desert night air, looking for their papa’s star, as Yentl does.
I touch the future, I teach, the immortal Krista MacCauliff wrote,
Whether we have biological children or not, the ripples of our teaching reach into future lives and ensures that a part of us can not die. Yakov, is every Grandpa and teacher, but also fixer of mistakes of the past generations, sending out a hand to the next generation to heal.
As I look at the night sky, I remember always my beautiful grandparents, my father, and those others who’ve taught me so much. “The stars that light up the darkest nights, are the lights that guide us, “ wrote Channah senesh. (Yeish Kochavim)

It is customary upon completing a book of the Torah to chant Chazak, “be strong, be strong, and strengthen one another”  In Dan Nichol’s Chazak, another connection: Torah strengthens by teaching us just as Papa Jacob and Yentl’s papa strengthen by teaching.
Rafael Ramos died last week, father of two boys – who look just like their Dad. I dedicate this effort to them. Rafael was studying for the chaplaincy in the NYPD, and his name means “God heals”, and may God indeed heal the boys’ hearts.  May all our fathers’ and teachers’ memories be for blessing. CHAZAKChimera_(PSF)



Did you ever have to do this: to muster the courage to stand and speak and plead your case? I was once a VERY nervous (now just a little nervous) public speaker. I watch people really suffer to stand up to be seen and heard.  Now kick it up one step: imagine drawing up close to some powerful world leader to offer your words and perhaps your life.

The Torah portion begins with the key word as Judah “draws near” to Joseph: Vayigash – to approach or draw near. This word is repeated five times in the parashah, and repeated more with the grandchildren next week.
What does is really mean to draw near, as you come nose to nose with someone, what’s going through your head and heart?
The Talmud also asks about the full meaning of “vayigash” And three points of view are stated. you approach to fight, to reconcile or to pray. Rabbi Eleazar says all three are happening here with Judah. The approach is everything. This approach begins the climactic scene of the Joseph saga and one could argue all of Genesis.

Picture the scene; You are Judah in the royal court of a guy named Tzapenath panea, the most powerful Egyptian in the Empire. You are facing the starvation of your children, so you’ve come to buy food, and now you face the enslavement of a Brother. And not just any brother: Rachel’s other son, Dad’s other favorite. If anything happens to him, it will kill Dad. It’s dejavu, all over again. You’re scott free if you walk away, if you turn your back on Benjamin as you did to Joseph. Just ignore your Brotherhood, ignore your Father and the spoiled favorite gets what he deserves, and you are free: win/win. But you won’t do it this time. You will give up your very life so that it doesn’t. So you stand up and go nose to nose – approaching Tzapenath

Talk about hard times! From Joseph’s (aka Tzapenath’s) point of view his own brothers have sold him as a slave, and he was later imprisoned, accused of a rape he did not commit. Never giving up faith, Joseph rises from the pit to rule Egypt with a dream interpretation and a plan to feed the world. Right now he’s facing down these same scum brothers.
Joseph is testing them big time, setting them up: has slipped his silver divining cup into Ben’s sack.
“I will take only this guilty man as my prisoner, the rest of you are free to go in peace to your father”
Now these same brothers had sold Joseph as a slave from jealousy and hatred. “behold, this master of dreams comes, let us kill him! Would they walk away without their brother? These brother’s hands are blood stained. Yet Judah steps up.

So what does Judah say? He recaps for Joseph and quotes father Jacob who is reluctant to let Benjamin go at all: “I had another son by his mother (Rachel) but he “went out” from me became “torn, ripped” If he loses Benjamin he will die grieving. Judah explains Jacob’s soul is bound up in Benjamin’s. To step out, to be torn, Why does Judah recount this: maybe he knows that what we need is to draw close, to love, to have our souls bound up as the text so beautifully paints
And finally Judah speaks the closer – offering himself as servant, let the boy return to Dad with his brothers.

What changed Judah? What gave him the courage to stand up, to speak up, to approach power? To say he was wrong, and put his own life on the line? What do you think?

Torah doesn’t say, but a clue in the story of a woman injected into the story seemingly at random. Her name is Tamar, and she is Judah’s daughter in law, marrying his eldest. Judah’s son dies. Levirate marriage was a law at that time. It says to the dead son’s family: don’t abandon this woman, but offer another son as bridegroom. Judah does, but Onan dies too. So Judah says to Tamar, just wait, hang out in limbo for my third son. Judah’s scared to lose a third son, so he’s lying. Tamar ends up tricking Judah into fulfilling his obligation to provide her with and children by disguising herself and sleeping with Judah himself, becoming pregnant with twins. When Judah finds out Tamar’s pregnant he orders her killed. Tamar proves Judah’s the dad, and reminds him of his obligation to provide her with a family. And Judah say’s “I’m wrong, Tamar is right” He is able to see Tamar’s point of view.
Perhaps Judah’s change of heart begins from loving and losing sons. At first he sees only his own heartbreak. Now he sees Tamar’s heartbreak of never being able to have sons. And finally he can see his Father’s heartbreak at losing Joseph and the possibility of losing Benjamin. “Their souls are bound up with one another” He explains to Joseph. And he honors his father, and both brothers by offering his own life and freedom.
Would you do it? Could you? I’m not a brave person by nature. As a Mom I know only fierce love could make me step up and put my own life down.

Joseph clears the court. Before he unmasks and reveals himself he cries. he releases pent up emotions with cries that are heard by all, (by Pharoah). Ani Yoseph ha-od avi chai? I am Joseph, does my father still live? This is the only part of Vayigash I’ve chanted, my favorite part, It reveals Joseph as a hero for forgiving his brothers, all of them as they pass his test. The powerful dreamer who has the strength to forgive. I’d never seen Judah as a hero until this time reading through. Perhaps I felt Judah was just a bully. I’m not so judgmental this time. Without Judah’s change and courage to approach the powerful and offer himself, we don’t exist.

So love transforms – the binding of souls from parents to children and back again. Perhaps Judah grew close to his sons and daughter in law and grandsons first but now Judah continues to draw close – in love to his father and brothers.

Incredible stories, our stories and heritage. I love stories. There’s an effort called storycorp to record people’s life stories that I’d love for us to get involved with. But are stories important to tell?

This week we look back on 2014 we know we living in troubling times. I need the hardest kind faith when faced with troubling times: to think that things will be OK. Where to find the strength? Perhaps knowing we’ve been there before. In this week’s Ten Minutes David Segal explains that stories of our families, and our people overcoming adversity give children resilience: the power to overcome the really hard times. I cannot mention Hurricane Sandy to my students in passing. They jump on the opening in the conversation to explain how they personally got through these times, and how they helped others. Their love of others inspired them to give, and that shining light lives alongside the hardships in their memory. I am sure they will tell those stories to their children. As I hope they will tell the story of Joseph and Judah, and the power of soul binding love to stand up and approach powerful forces face to face.

And so one more story about a young British / Israeli woman named Kay Wilson. (Full text in the link) She is a British-born Israeli tour guide, jazz musician and cartoonist. She is the survivor of a brutal terror attack that occurred while she was guiding in December 2010. Since the attack, she is in a demand as a motivational speaker and also speaks on issues of human rights and justice for victims of terrorism. Just a bit of her words here:

I believe with an imperfect faith that the question is not “why” did this happen to me, but rather “how” can I incorporate this grisly event into the rhythm of my life in a manner that guards me from becoming like those who tried to murder me.
…I believe with an imperfect faith that waking up every day in mental and physical pain is better than not waking up at all.
I believe with an imperfect faith in the importance of making a phone call, just to hear someone’s voice.
I believe with an imperfect faith that life is rushing outside when it starts to rain.
I believe with an imperfect faith that life is making someone giggle.
I believe with an imperfect faith in acknowledging the future but living in the present.
I believe with an imperfect faith in accepting the past but embracing the now.
I believe with an imperfect faith that life is too short to bear a grudge…..
I believe with an imperfect faith in living my life with gratitude.
I believe with an imperfect faith that every single moment is a miracle.
I believe with an imperfect faith that my broken and battered body serves both as a testimony and also a warning, of where hate speech can lead.

Like Joseph, Kay is a dreamer, of the world as it can be. Like Joseph, Kay harnesses the power of that dream to have the faith of hope and optimism. I wrote this little chant last year using Emily Dickenson’s poem in memory of Nelson Mandela, but offer it here for Kay’s story. Listen here


Vayishlach: Jacob’s Prayer


I have a little brother, well he’s big now, and when we were kids we’d sometimes wrestle -little kid fights. They were intense, but we were basically allies in our little world, and I was really glad to have him as a buddy.  We got together as many families did for Thanksgiving last week. And though we did not return to our childhood home, there was a returning, in a way, to a family that once was together.  In the Torah this week, a primal tale of Brothers, twins actually, and of returning home to the Promised Land.

Biblical Jacob is called to return home in this week’s Torah reading, after many years away. But  the way home is very hard, fraught with dangers from seeds he himself planted, from the bratty, grabbing punk kid he used to be. His twin brother, Esau is headed his way with 400 armed men at the very same time Jacob has decided to return!For more on the story check out Home

And so from Jacobs lips a prayer enters Torah:  “Please, Save me!” he cries. A petitionary prayer, one of very few whose words are recorded in Torah. His life began in a parents’ prayer to conceive, but the words of that prayer are lost. During pregnancy, Rivka sought God again, to know the meaning of her life in bringing these twins into the world, “If it’s like this, why am I here?” she asks. And now Jacob’s amazing prayer. He prays for salvation from from the hand of his twin brother. In this powerful narrative a terrified Jacob is returning to The Promised Land after many years raising a family far away. In fear, Jake has splits his camp – separating his wives and children so his brother cannot destroy all.  Jacob has been in trouble before, and in response, he fled, or found a way to outsmart his brother, to grab, to win. But Jacob has changed, his arrogance transformed to humility. For the first time he feels fear, and feels small and unworthy. He identifies his life with “mother and child” in his family. Is it possible love for his family has transformed him? With loved ones in danger, Jake’s response is this prayer.  He prays for “atzilut” freedom, NOT VICTORY perhaps for the first time in his life. What happens next is surreal. A mysterious stranger wrestles with him until dawn, ripping Jacob’s hip from his socket. What kind of answer to a prayer is this? Perhaps a brilliant one. Limping,  and offering many gifts, Jacob is seen, not as a threat, or a scoundrel, but as a true brother. Jake gets a new name: Yisrael meaning either “Struggle with God, or God Rules”, for, the wrestler declares: you have struggled with creatures Divine and Human, and prevailed.  Ironic, that true freedom from fear and from fighting with his brother can only be won in this divine wrestling match. But it works: the wrestling, the prayer. No longer fighting, Esau embraces his twin, and so embraces us, the children of Yisrael.
Could this be a lesson on how to achieve peace with humility? or on what it really means to be free? The prophet Micah spoke of a time when “all shall sit under their vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (4:4) Perhaps release from fear is the ultimate salvation.
What did Jacob’s Prayer sound like? Perhaps this: Imagine Jacob at the campfire at sunset, explaining what’s happening to his beloved Rachel.
JACOB’S PRAYER Listen to the Audio
You must go now, he can not find you here.
It’s I alone must stay behind, it’s clear….
Do you remember how we met, my sweet Rachel?
When I pushed that boulder off the well?
The Kiss, that cry, that rose to the sky; Entangling our destiny?
Now my very life is in your eyes, and with all the children by my side
Fear swallows me, I am unworthy; By mother and child, my brother will kill me   
Please, God, Deliver me, hatzileni na m’yad Achi!
Please, Deliver me.
From my fear and from brother’s hand, set me free!

Who am I, am I the truth or the lie?
The child of Abraham and Isaac am I.
Am I the dreamer, of a ladder to the sky,
Or the deceiver, stealing blessings from the blind?
Believer in promises, I must now return to Canaan land
It is so dark, the hour of demons, heed!
Who goes there now? What do you want of me?
I will fight with all my might.
I’ll keep you back and hold on tight
I won’t let you go, though day may break
You can turn my Pain to blessings great.
You will be born anew this day, a new name now is yours
Yisrael, as you struggle with God,
You know truth and justice will prevail
A broken heart & limping pace; can help you find your brother’s embrace
He’s a child of prophecy too, born of momma Rivka just as you.

*An American tale: There once was a girl who toiled, poor, and unhappy on her family farm. She dreamed of a far off place of wonderful riches. Following her dream she journeys along a road. Beset with terrible obstacles, she rises to each challenge, with the help of friends along the way. Her friends teach her great things, such as *”a heart is not judged by how much one is loved, but by how much one loves others” and that “true courage is facing danger when you are afraid” and that true smarts comes from experience, not brains. When she finally arrives, she discovers the true secret: that the greatest treasures lie back in the direction she came from. She must return home to find her heart’s desire in family and friends. I think maybe Jacob learns those same lessons as he returns to the promised land. What do you think?  From Thanksgiving to Oz, from Haran to Promised Land, Love transforms, and it’s always family you return to.

Above, Passover at my brother’s house, where we spent Thanksgiving.

(*Oh, of course, it is from L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz.)

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