Vaera (6:2-9:35)

What is power? Where does it come from?

In this parshah, God and Pharaoh embark on a battle of the wills. Pharaoh won’t let the people go; God will bring plagues. This is the image of God with which many of us struggle: an all powerful being who can control events, who can defy the laws of nature, who can make things happen.

Yet, even this all powerful God needs a prophet, a partner, someone who can give voice to God’s plans and desires. Why? Why doesn’t God do all that God’s self? Why does God require an intermediary?

Maybe it is because power really comes through the relationship and partnership between God and Moses. Through this relationship Moses finds the inner power to speak to the Pharaoh, with authority and defiance, to speak for a people and to learn to care for the people’s welfare. The plagues will come and go, but the relationship between God, and Moses will continue to grow and influence many people for many years.

God tells Moses to go tell the Israelites that God will redeem them. They can not believe Moses, their spirits are too broken. God then tells Moses to go talk to Pharaoh. Moses responds, “Hen, b’nai yisrael lo yishme’u elai, v’eich yishma’eini Paroh, v’ani aral s’fatayim: The Israelites would not listen to me, how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man with impeded speech?” He doesn’t know yet, that the power of his speech will not come from his voice, his diction or his words. It will come from his inner spirit and strength. This is the power that will lead the Israelites out of Egypt, through the wilderness and into Israel. The rest of the Torah will narrate for us how God, Moses and Israel struggle in their relationships with one another. Moses will become a man whose soul and spirit speak loudly. Many times he will call upon God’s compassion and mercy to spare the Israelites punishment. He will speak his heart and his will to God, to the people and in between the two.

I would like to suggest that it isn’t the fact that God can summon plagues, and controls events that ultimately inspires and empowers Moses as a leader, and the Israelites to become a nation. It is the relationship aligning between all of them that eventually gives them their power to create change not only in the politics and circumstances of their lives, but in their spiritual selves as well. It is God’s empowerment of Moses that will have the longest lasting an most significant affect.

Often in our lives we mistake the ability to control for power. Political power, hierarchical power can only do so much. It may control someone’s actions, but it doesn’t last. It takes 10 times of making the Egyptians suffer plagues until they relinquish. True power, the ability to influence each other, to build relationships, to share one’s spirit ultimately lasts longer and has more influence.

We may be witnessing certain political power in our personal or professional lives, in our nation, in our world. This power may be strong in the immediate sense, like the plagues. Spiritual power lives in us and finds a way to move us forward despite the controlling influences around us. Let’s build the relationships we need to empower each other, to nurture each other’s spirits, to truly enable us to have the power we need to bring good into our world.

Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

We read this week, “Vayakam melech chadash al mitzrayim asher lo yadah et Yosef: A new king rose to power who didn’t know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) The new Pharaoh, not knowing or caring of what Joseph had done for Egypt exercises his power by enslaving the Israelites so that they can not pose a threat to his rule. He speaks to the midwives telling them that if they see a newborn boy, they should kill it.

But, the midwives exercise a different kind of power a spiritual power. “Vayirenah Hamiyaldot et Haelohim ” (Exodus 1:17) Vayirenah – and they feared, though the Hebrew word, Yirah is fear and awe, a sense of something larger and more powerful. The phrase is used in the Torah to invoke a sense of morality as a behavior responding to a higher power. The women did not respond to Pharaoh’s command, but chose instead to respond to a moral standard that exists beyond Pharaoh.

I think about these two kinds of power, political and spiritual, as I reflect on this week’s inauguration and how these types of power play out in our private and public lives. I suspect that different people would see Pharaoh standing for whatever political power they oppose and the midwives for having the morality to stand up to that political power. I found a quote from Albert Einstein that says, “Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.” That seems to express the sentiments of the midwives and the choice they made not to follow Pharaoh’s order.

Pharaoh’s actions come from a place of fear. Pharaoh is afraid the Israelites will be a threat to his power. Though the Hebrew word “Yirah” often translates into fear, it evokes a higher moral code. The midwives behave from a place of caring. They care about the babies, the families and therefore do not follow Pharaoh’s orders.

It is easier to see how this plays in public life because we look outside ourselves and recognize these two kinds of power in the world around us. I’d like to suggest that these types of power are at play in our inner lives as well and influence our experiences of power.

Do you know that part of yourself that can feel like Pharaoh? That enslaves you to certain ideas, certain beliefs, certain habits? Can you hear the critical voice that talks down to you? Maybe you have an inner Pharaoh that enslaves you to wearing certain clothes, spending time with certain people, eating when you aren’t hungry, to smoking, to spending money, to losing your temper etc.

Listen. Listen. harder. Listen and you will hear the midwives inside you quietly standing for what they think is right and gently nudging you away from following Pharaoh’s orders.

 

Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

This past November in the weeks between the election and Thanksgiving the New York Times published an article providing strategies and questions to use to have conversations with family members who voted the other way. Though we may love each other, we don’t always know how to talk to each other. We avoid gathering with family so that we don’t have to talk about uncomfortable things, we argue, or we talk past each other.

How do we have hard conversations with people that are close to us?

I am not sure I have the answer, but every year, I am inspired by Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers as described in this week’s Torah portion. With Jacob gone, the brothers fear that Joseph will “hashev yashiv lanu et kol ha ra’ah gamalnu oto: Joseph will return to us all the bad that we did to him” (Genesis 47:15 my translation.) They send a message to Joseph saying that their father had left a message before his death that urged Joseph to forgive his brothers. They go to Joseph and fling themselves before him offering themselves to be his slaves.

In verse 21 it says, “Vayinachem otam, vayidaber el libam: Joseph comforted them and spoke to their hearts.”I love these quiet moments in between the words of the text.

There is a beautiful moment after the word libam or hearts, if you stop to hear it.  I imagine Joseph really seeing his brothers and really hearing them. I imagine him being open hearted and giving as he gently and quietly reassures them. I feel the connections made in that moment and how Joseph turns what could have been a contentious, argumentative, vengeful moment into a moment of intimacy and relationship building.

I hope that we can all learn from Joseph to see the humanity in those who believe or vote in ways that are inexplicable to us. I hope we can find forgiveness for those who we feel have wronged us. I wish for us the courage to comfort and speak to each other’s hearts even when we feel that they have done unforgivable wrongs to us.

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

During Chanukah, when talking about the shamash on the menorah, the helper candle with which we light the other 8 candles, I realized that Joseph who we’ve read about the last few weeks in the Torah, was a kind of shamash in the prison. The Torah says about Joseph in the prison: “Et kol osim sham, hu haya oseh” Everything that they did there, he did.” The word “shammas” in Yiddish or “shamash” in Hebrew means servant and is used for the person who assists and makes everything happen in the synagogue: anything that needs to be done, he does.  The Hebrew word “shamash” is derives from the name for the ancient Semitic word for the sun god, Shamash, sometimes also the author of justice and compassion.  How striking to me that the word for sun came to mean someone who serves others and that this is who Joseph became in prison.

This year, during Chanukah, I told a story adopted from Peninah Schram and Steven M. Roseman’s retelling of Jewish folklore: The Secret of the Shammas.  They write that “we must do what the shammas tells us. We must help to spread torah and light.  We must help the weak and the oppressed. We must help the needy and teach those who do not know. In this way, you will also rise to a higher level and the world will benefit from you.”

Even when Joseph is at the bottom of society, stuck in a jail for an indefinite amount of time, he finds a way to serve others. This is the first step in his ascension to a high position. When he is no longer trying to prove himself as he had with his father, when his conversations are no longer reports about what his brothers did wrong, or about his own dreams, when he has turned his attention to doing for others, is he on a path towards light.  As a shammas, a light unto others, he then ascends.  He brings light to the Pharoah through service and is rewarded for his acts.

Now that Joseph has served as a light unto others, now that he has done what needed to be done, he can face his past.  This week, in Vayigash, we find Joseph face to face with his brothers and ready to reveal his identity. Perhaps Joseph can reveal himself now because the brothers too have moved towards a position of service having come to Egypt twice for food, and Judah’s willingness to be taken into Joseph’s custody in place of Benjamin. He can reveal himself and reunite with his family as a brother and a son.

Maybe what we learn from Joseph is that when we are at our lowest, when we are in a darkness that imprisons us, the first step towards change is to bring light into the darkness by serving others as the shammas does.  I think it is when we can turn our attention from ourselves, our accomplishments and our own status in the world and put our attention on helping others that we feel the light within us. When we serve, we uplift others thereby igniting their lights, just as the shammas of the Chanukiyah does. Maybe, like Joseph, when we haved serve others continually, helped the weak, oppressed and the needy, maybe then we can also face and shed a light on our past.

 

 

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:40)

According to the psychologist Arthur Aron, “Four minutes of contact brings people closer together than anything else.” Look Beyond Borders is a short film that was made this past year bringing Europeans and refugees together to look into each other’s eyes for four minutes. “People from different continents who have literally never set eyes on each other before come away feeling an amazing connection,” says Draginja Nadażdin, Director of Amnesty International Poland.

Perhaps it is because really seeing each other can create an intense experience that we have many different patters for eye contact depending on our relationship, what kind of attention we want from someone or want to give someone. I wonder what happens between Esau and Jacob when they reunite after so many years apart following a betrayal.

What does it feel like to look into the eyes of the brother who you betrayed? Or the eyes of the brother who betrayed you? What million emotions must be running through each of them as they see each other for the first time? How vulnerable they must feel to stand, look and be seen by each other if even for just a moment.

The Torah narrative doesn’t describe emotions or detail the eyes in this moment. What it gives us is a verbal exchange about gifts which has other clues for us. Jacob says, “Take this gift from my hands.” Why “take” from my hands? Why not “here is a gift?”

Why doesn’t the Torah narrate the exchange with the verb “give?” Not only is it the verb “take”, but very specifically, “from my hands.” I hear this specific direction as an emphasis on the receiving of the gift over the giving of the gift. Instead of passively receiving that which is handed to the receiver, the one receiving the gift must actively “take.”

Especially at this time of the year, that seemed quite noteworthy to me. We hear a lot of language about “Getting gifts for…” or what we are going to “give” someone. We might hear about what we hope to “get.” But, we never talk about what we will “Take” from someone. We don’t have language or conversation to describe how we will act or feel when we receive the gifts from those who love and care for us.

Perhaps it is because to give a gift, we look at the gift as we hand it over, but to ask someone to take something from us, we can look at the person, as we let them know the gift is designated for them. Then the receiver has to engage in the act of receiving, not only looking and taking, but the act of letting in the offer of connection and caring that comes with it. Imagine what can be communicated between two people with just eye contact while giving and receiving from each other.

I’d like to think that when Jacob then adds the reason why Esau should accept his gifts, “Because I have seen your face which is like seeing the face of God (my translation)” he is commenting on what it feels like to really see Esau, to see his eyes, to see into his humanity, to feel the lost family member, and remorse for the tricks he played on his brother.

The brothers will part again and go separate ways. But, perhaps in this moment of exchange, they are like the subjects in the video who come together to see each other, who through a short interval of looking at each others eyes build a new connection that will stay with them as they go about their separate lives.

This year, let’s not only think about the objects we will exchange with each other, but the act of giving and receiving, and how we might give and receive connection in those moments as well.

Vayetze

My name is Leah. There is a music to the sound that I have grown to like, and I have come to associate my name with my individual qualities. But, it wasn’t always that way. When I was in preschool, around age 4, the children in my neighborhood made fun of my name.

As an elementary school aged child, I associated my name with the way it made me feel when my mother was trying to get me to do things, or stop doing things. I have a distinct memory of standing in one of my dance classes and thinking that the girls who had the name Stacy or Jennifer were lucky because that was more “normal” and sounded better than Leah.

I also internalized some of what I learned about Jacob, Leah and Rachel whose story is told in this week’s Torah portion. Leah was the one with the “weak eyes.” Rachel was the beautiful one who Jacob loved. “Not Leah” is what I heard. Who was beautiful? “Not Leah.” Who was loved? “Not Leah.”

This seemed to go with the way I felt about myself in my Jewish day school where we learned this story. “Not Leah” seemed to fit the way I felt among my classmates. I was different, set apart in some way. While I still felt somewhat at home in my school, I felt like an outsider elsewhere. Other names could be found in personalized items in the toy store. “Not Leah.” Other friends seemed to have certain kinds of toys or games. “Not Leah.” Other friends when trick or treating on Halloween. “Not Leah.” Every time I was corrected or criticized which to me seemed incessant, it reinforced the feeling of “Not Leah.” Who is worthy, deserving of praise? “Not Leah.”

It was spending time with extended family that gave me some appreciation of my name. I was named for my great grandmother who had been the first matriarch to live in the family bungalow where we spent summers with extended family. I heard lots of stories of “Grandma Leah” and the name came alive in a special way. “This is what Grandma Leah” used to do, this was “Grandma Leah’s”, etc. Even my dad’s voice softened when he talked about his grandmother. Grandma Leah was so beloved there were two of us named for her!

Over many years, I have reframed the way I see the world, shed the little judges who sat on my shoulders correcting and criticizing with the words I’d heard from teachers and parents. As I carved a path for myself as an adult, doing the things that were meaningful for me, shedding external expectations and living more and more according to how I felt myself to be in the world, I grew to like my name more. I heard Leah, and I heard the love in my husband’s voice. I heard “Leah,” and I heard the love and respect that elementary school children have for their teacher. I grew to associate my name with what I gave to the world instead for what it seemed to think of me.

The more I have oriented myself to thinking of others and sharing in the world, the more I have concentrated on all who are “Not Leah” the sweeter the sound of my name to me.

I wonder if the Biblical Leah could have learned to see herself by what she had to offer the world, through what she could give and contribute to the world, and not through the lens of competition with her sister, or the lens of “Not Leah” how her story might have changed.  Now when I think of Leah in the Torah, I feel compassion for my namesake and wish I could share my life lessons with her.

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

How often do we build a case against someone who is playing the antagonist in our life story? What would change if we could approach that antagonist with more empathy?

This week we are introduced to two brothers very different from each other. Esau is the hairy, outdoorsy male, and Jacob the clean shaven, gentle, studious type. While the rabbis give us a lot of commentary judging Esau and proving him undeserving of the blessing that Jacob wins through deception, the Torah itself does not judge Esau and in fact gives voice to Esau’s sense of loss when he discovered that he has been deceived. The Midrash tells us that from the beginning that Jacob was a man of God and the Torah, Esau was course and a worshipper of idols. They do so in order to elevate Jacob and to diminish Esau, thus justifying Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac.

This year I am struck by the contrast between the rabbis’ demeaning description of Esau and the empathy the Torah narrative provides for Esau. I read Esau’s interaction with Isaac, and feel his disappointment, his loss when “V’yitzak tza’akah g’dolah”, “he cried out a big cry.” His words to his father after hearing that Jacob has received the blessing meant for him, “Have you not a blessing reserved for me?” touch my heart. The empathy in the narrative for Esau moves me. Esau will become an enemy of Jacob, Jacob will be the hero of our story. Yet, the Torah exposes Esau’s humanity to us and asks us to confront the consequence of Jacob’s actions.

How often do we build a case against someone who is playing the antagonist in our life story?

When someone is against us, or seems to favor an opponent, how often do we work to build our own case while diminishing the other person?

What would change in our lives if instead of proving ourselves right and the other person wrong, we accepted our own truth, but allowed empathy for that other person as well?

What might change in the way we treat each other if we could find a little more room in our own hearts to be touched by their “big cries?”

From the way the Torah tells this narrative, I learn that even when someone is our opposite, our opponent, our enemy, our foil, we need to see the humanity in that person and find empathy for him.

Maybe the Torah wants to remind us that though we may favor certain heroes in our own life stories, that we should always save some empathy for the people who challenge us and remember to see the humanity in their stories as well.