Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Daddy's Dyin', Whose Got the Will? - Reflections 0n Parashat VaYechi 5775

(To see an earlier blog post on this parasha, please click here.)

Genesis 49: The entire family gathered around the death bed, straining to hear the last wheezy whisperings of the Old Man. "Gather around and pay heed, my children, as I shall tell of what will be in the end." They crushed in closer, eager to hear the secrets of a history yet to be written.

And then...nothing. No mystical healing secrets. No Nostradamus-like quatrains, no delphic riddles. Bubkis. Instead, Father Jacob gets his Aretha Franklin on and proceeds to tell his sons all about themselves. He draws character portraits of each of his twelve sons, and pretty much nails it, right between the eyeballs. Some of those characterizations are quite unflattering, insulting even. For example:

Reuben: my big disappointment.
Shimon & Levi: their stock-in-trade is violence.

I guess we have to cut 147 year-olds a lot of slack; they've earned the right to call it as they see it.

And then, as icing on the cake, the Torah sums up the event by saying, "thus did Jacob bless his sons, each according to his blessing did he bless them." What kind of blessing is a withering critique your own kids?

There is a dispute among the commentators on this very point. One opinion says that after he finished critiquing them, he did, in fact, bless them. But the other opinion says that the smackdown itself was some sort of "blessing." How can an insult be a blessing?

There are insults and there are insults. We grew up in a household with a very angry stepfather, where nothing was right, nothing was good enough. Any achievement was criticized because it could have been better; every accomplishment was marred by some flaw, and he could be relied upon to find the flaw in every good thing. He was such an expert in misery that he could find trouble where none existed. He was never happy unless he made everyone around him as miserable, bitter and frustrated as he was.

But unlike our stepdad, a critique can also be a kind of blessing. If the intent of the critic is to provide insight, to help improve, instruct and inform the object criticized, then that critique is constructive, not destructive. 

Rare is the person that can objectively evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses. We all tend to focus on our strengths and gloss over our weaknesses. It's just human nature. The way in which we see ourselves is often not at all the way others see us. To put it another way, everybody thinks their own BO smells okay. (Thank you George Carlin.)

We need an objective eye, someone we can trust who has our best interest at heart, yes, to highlight our strengths, but also show us the areas in our life where we need work, maybe a lot of work. A trusted friend. A parent. A grandparent. A spouse. A rabbi/life coach.

Jacob was, in fact, revealing the secrets of the future to his children. He was saying, "Look: if you want to succeed on your path, Reuben, here are the challenges you must overcome. Shimon & Levi, if you want to make it to the fourth quarter of History, you guys are going to have to get a handle on your anger and tendencies to violence." And so on.

The blessing Jacob conferred on his children was providing them the tools they would need to fix themselves and their progeny, in order that the Jewish People should survive.

We are all works in progress. No one is perfect, no one is infallible, no one is sinless. The key point is to surround ourselves, not with sycophants, but with people in whose counsel we trust, to spur us on, to challenge us, to expect the best from us; who continually help raise the bar in our spiritual, mental and intellectual growth.

A few verses later, when Jacob dies, he doesn't actually die. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, where the Torah says, "he expired and died, and was gathered up unto his ancestors," by Jacob the verse says, "and he expired - and was gathered up unto his ancestors."

Jacob's (Israel's) sons took his counsel to heart; they rectified the character flaws that were impeding their spiritual development. The proof is that they were able to survive the 210 years of Egyptian slavery and oppression. 

And so Israel lived on through his children, through their deeds. And he continues to live on through us today, the Children of Israel, because we are faithful to the Jewish world view and value system. 

Israel lives, Am Yisrael Chai.

May we be humble enough to accept genuine constructive criticism; to break out of our comfort zones, and to achieve greatness - for ourselves, for our communities, for the entire House of Israel, and by extension, for the entire world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Better Angels of Our Nature - Reflections on Parashat VaYishlach 5775

Angels are to Jacob what fast food joints are to I-95. Whenever the Torah paints a portrait of Jacob, angels are photobombing in the background. It's like he can't get away from those things.

He leaves home and has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder that stretches to heaven. Later, he follows his path and encounters angels of Gcd, and then calls the place Machanaim, the double encampment of angels. 

He sends angels to appease his hot-headed brother Esav. Then he wrestles with an angel, Esav's angel/advocate, who, according some opinions, was none other than Sama-el, the Angel of Death himself.

And at the end of his life, he blesses his grandsons Menashe & Ephraim by invoking the protections of the angel that had rescued him at every crisis in his incredibly crisis-ridden life.

So what's the deal with the angels, and why do they figure so prominently in Jacob's life? 

The answer depends on one's understanding of what angels are and what their function is in the unseen world which exists beyond our senses.

The Jewish view on angels is derived from the Hebrew word malach, which means both emissary and angel. Basically, angels are Gcd's messengers. Each one is created for a specific task, and ceases to exist when that task is completed. Some angels have ongoing missions and thus exist for eons; other exist for a fleeting moment. The Rambam, based on a careful examination of angelic verses throughout the Torah, organized the types of angels into a ten-level hierarchy. They are, to use a cytology analogy, the messenger RNA in the great cytoplasm of the universe.

There is, though, another view of angels in the Torah. "Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: A person who fulfills one mitzvah (commandment) acquires for himself a single defending angel. A person who commits one transgression acquires a single accusing angel." (Avot 4:13)

What a beautiful idea! Normally, we think of angels flitting hither and thither in Gcd's created universe rushing about to do His will. But when we mortals do Gcd's will by performing His mitzvot, we ourselves create an angel; an advocate that will accompany us through life and stand up for us on that inevitable day when we must give a full accounting for our deeds: the good, the bad and the ugly. 

We have the power to create angels. Our good deeds become angels that surround us, protect us, nurture us. 

Prior to his encounter with Esav, Jacob prays to Gcd: "I am 'smallified' by all the kindness and truth with which you have dealt me..." (Genesis 32:11) The simple sense of 'smallified' (Heb.: katonti) in the verse is 'humbled', but Rashi suggests otherwise: Jacob was afraid that, measured against all of the abundant kindnesses that Gcd had showered on Jacob, his good deeds would seem paltry by comparison, and Gcd might decide to give him over to the hand of the enemy. 

Here we see expression given to the idea that our good deeds are our advocates. Jacob is surrounded by his angels, his good deeds, that he had accumulated throughout his life. In his humility, he was worried that he had not accomplished enough good; but in the end, he had nothing to fear.

We are but the sum of our deeds, our mitzvot. Gcd doesn't care how much money we pile up, what kind of car we drive, what timepiece dangles from our wrists. Ultimately, our actions will speak more eloquently for us than any image consultant, epitaph or autobiography.

The newspapers are littered with stories of people, once thought to be great, once looked up to and admired as leaders, being dragged away in handcuffs, indicted by their actions. I won't repeat the litany of names or the various lesser self-aggrandizing rasputins and faith-healers who, wrapped in tallitot (prayer shawls) and righteous attitudes, rape, defame, assault and embezzle. Some have already been exposed; it's just a matter of time for the others.

Let us all join together to flood the world with angels. Take the mitzvot seriously! Unplug your devices on Shabbat. Give a homeless person an Andrew Jackson. Call your mother. Put on tefillin. Pick a mitzvah - any mitzvah - and create an angel.

Shabbat Shalom.