Friday, November 20, 2015

Dance Like Everyone is Watching: Parashat Vayetze

        "Dance like no one is watching!"  This is a famous adage that encourages us to live courageously and without regard for what others think of us. I think there is value in this attitude -- don't let the judgment of others keep you from having fun or from doing what is right.  However, in the Jewish tradition, we are encouraged very strongly to act as though the entire universe is watching: our neighbors, our enemies, and our God.  Indeed, the Tanakh, our rabbis, and our medieval sages took reputations quite seriously.  We learn in Proverbs 22:1
א  נִבְחָר שֵׁם, מֵעֹשֶׁר רָב:    מִכֶּסֶף וּמִזָּהָב, חֵן טוֹב.1 A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.
In our tradition, the esteem of others matters a great deal.  We should not live for ourselves and for today, but rather for a lasting legacy of personal integrity and communal regard.  A life lived Jewishly is a life lived with a deep consciousness of the interconnectedness of community and the duty we have toward others.
            In Parashat Vayetze, we encounter a few examples of this cultural value.  Our portion begins with the departure of Jacob from Be'er Sheva on his path to Haran:

Genesis 28:10 And Jacob left Beersheba, and he went to Haran.
יוַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:
Rashi asks the question -- why does it include the seemingly extraneous detail that he "left Beersheba," when the Torah could have just said that he travelled to Haran?  Rashi answers his own question:

And Jacob left: Scripture had only to write: “And Jacob went to Haran.” Why did it mention his departure? But this tells [us] that the departure of a righteous man from a place makes an impression, for while the righteous man is in the city, he is its beauty, he is its splendor, he is its majesty. When he departs from there, its beauty has departed, its splendor has departed, its majesty has departed. And likewise (Ruth 1:7): “And she went forth from the place,” stated in reference to Naomi and Ruth. - [From Gen. Rabbah 68:6]
ויצא יעקב מבאר שבע: לא היה צריך לכתוב אלא וילך יעקב חרנה, ולמה הזכיר יציאתו, אלא מגיד שיציאת צדיק מן המקום עושה רושם, שבזמן שהצדיק בעיר הוא הודה הוא זיוה הוא הדרה, יצא משם פנה הודה פנה זיוה פנה הדרה וכן (רות א ז) ותצא מן המקום, האמור בנעמי ורות:
When a righteous individual like Jacob or Ruth leaves a place, it makes an impression.  The grandeur of the city is tarnished and diminished when a great person leaves, either by choice or through death.  While Ruth is an individual about whom nothing negative is recorded, we know that Jacob was not a perfect person.  He tricked his vulnerable brother and his disabled father, and was not always upstanding in his behavior.  Being a great person does not being a person without sin or fault.  However, being an individual who is willing to do teshuva, to grow and repent as a human being and a leader, marks the beginning of a remarkable life.  Jacob's life in many respects is a lifelong, serpentine journey to be better.  He doesn't always succeed -- he was human after all.  But he lived righteously enough that Be'er Sheva was worse off when he departed.  His life conveyed enough goodness that the city could not be the same without him.  I think the first thing we can learn from this parasha is that we should endeavor to live in a way that people miss us when we are gone.  We should ask ourselves at the end of each day: did I bring joy, sweetness, justice, comfort, and thoughtfulness to my community?  Would this place hold the same value if I weren't here?
        The second lesson that can be gleaned from this parasha is that a righteous person is saddened not by what she cannot enjoy, but rather by what she cannot give.  We encounter one of the most beautiful scenes in the Torah when Jacob encounters Rachel for the first time.  When Jacob sees his cousin he runs to her and kisses her, and then breaks out crying.  Why does Jacob cry when he sees Rachel?  Part of it could be the release of finally seeing someone he knows will care for him after an arduous and lonely journey -- his crying is simply an act of catharsis and relief.  Rashi, however, provides an alternative interpretation:

and wept: Since he foresaw with the holy spirit that she (Rachel) would not enter the grave with him. Another explanation: Since he came empty-handed, he said, “Eliezer, my grandfather’s servant, had nose rings, and bracelets and sweet fruits in his possession, and I am coming with nothing in my hands. [He had nothing] because Eliphaz the son of Esau had pursued him to kill him at his father’s orders; he (Eliphaz) overtook him, but since he had grown up in Isaac’s lap, he held back his hand. He said to him (Jacob), ”What shall I do about my father’s orders?“ Jacob replied,”Take what I have, for a poor man is counted as dead." - [from Bereishit Rabbathi by Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan]
ויבך: לפי שצפה ברוח הקודש שאינה נכנסת עמו לקבורה. דבר אחר לפי שבא בידים ריקניות, אמר אליעזר עבד אבי אבא היו בידיו נזמים וצמידים ומגדנות, ואני אין בידי כלום. לפי שרדף אליפז בן עשו במצות אביו אחריו להורגו והשיגו, ולפי שגדל אליפז בחיקו של יצחק משך ידו. אמר לו מה אעשה לציווי של אבא, אמר לו יעקב טול מה שבידי, והעני חשוב כמת:

What makes Jacob weep is not his personal pain per se, but rather the fact that he has no gifts to give his kinswoman and host.  He knows that Eliezer brought great gifts on Isaac's behalf for his bride, Rebecca.  Jacob has arrived ostensibly empty handed -- without jewelry or money to show his appreciation.  The righteous man feels grief not for his own personal misfortune, but when he does not have enough to give others.  We also learn from Rashi's comment that part of the spiritual tragedy of poverty, especially the poverty of a refugee fleeing for his life, is that he feels he has no value when he has nothing to give.  To be alive in our tradition is to be hospitable and generous, and we are deprived of an essential part of our humanity when we have nothing to contribute.
         Of course, Jacob was not bereft of gifts.  He famously rolls back the stone on the well so that Rachel's flocks could drink.  He had his strength and his commitment to his cousin's and her animals' wellbeing.  The shepherds who were hanging around the well made excuses for letting their animals suffer from thirst.  Jacob, on the other hand, used all of his strength to care for his family and their flocks.  In a beautiful Hebrew word play, we see that the same verb that is used for "providing water" is used for "kissing."  Genesis is teaching us that providing love is analogous to providing water, the ultimate source and symbol of life in the Jewish tradition.  Jacob is allowed to retain a patina of pride because he still has the ability to provide love and life to the stranger and the loved one alike.
        This week let us focus on living a life that is noticed for its integrity and its positive contributions.  Let us dance as though everyone is watching, and live accordingly.  Let our lives be blessings and sources of life and love for others.  When we give, we affirm our humanity and the most important kind of wealth.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Beth Israel Chanukkah Party! December 13, 2015

Get ready for Chanukkah at Beth Israel Congregation!  

December 13, 2015 5:00-7:00 pm

We need your help in order to make our chanukkah party a success.  Please volunteer to help!