Rabbi Rafi Cohen ©
My family and I were at an overnight camp for two weeks this summer – Ramah Sports Academy, located in close-by Fairfield, CT – where I worked as a rabbi/educator, my wife worked in the office, and my children were enrolled as campers. It was by my count my 18th summer with a Ramah camp including summers spent as a camper and staff member. No matter the camp I have attended in my lifetime or how many summers – as a camper or staff member – it continues to be the case that camp can be intense. Relationships are intense; games and activities can be intense and are often competitive. Time at camp has its way of intensifying and concurrently we can feel disassociated with the world outside of camp. One day can feel like a few days, one week like a month, and if you go to camp for two months…an eternity.
I also discovered during my years at camp that as scenarios play out in the social spheres, it’s best to respond carefully and, when possible, calmly and rationally. Handling situations otherwise can have disastrous consequences. From young junior counselors to seasoned veterans and program directors, if you are at a summer camp, it’s always best to have all of the facts of any situation before addressing the circumstances head on. This is not how Pinhas handled things at his summer camp. He killed two people – one Israelite and one foreign woman – recorded in the previous week's Torah reading, and Parashat Pinchas tells of his reward from God.
How is it that the vengeance that Pinchas carrie out earned him such a reward? A story is told of a wealthy man, R’ Zev, known for his compassion toward others. Although he was a tough businessman, he always found a place in his heart for the less fortunate who often called upon him for help. One day, Shimon, a man who had reneged on many obligations in the past, called R. Zev asking for a large loan. Knowing that no one else would lend him any money, R’ Zev decided to help him. He hoped that Shimon would appreciate the fact that he had helped him when no one else would, and later show that appreciation by paying back the loan on time. That unfortunately was not the case. The due date came and went without even a word from Shimon. After more than two years passed, even R’ Zev’s inexhaustible patience finally reached its limit, and he approached Shimon to ask for his money. Needless to say, R’ Zev was completely shocked when Shimon denied ever having received any loan from him. “How dare you deny the loan! I helped you when no one else would! This is how you ‘repay’ me?” R’ Zev demanded angrily. Shimon remained steadfast in his calm denial, leaving R’ Zev no recourse besides summoning Shimon to a Rabbinical court. The judges ruled that in the absence of any document or witnesses, Shimon had the option to swear that he hadn’t received any money from R’ Zev and could thus be exonerated. R’ Zev was confident that even Shimon wouldn’t have the audacity to swear falsely but he once again miscalculated. Shimon calmly swore that he hadn’t borrowed any money. At this point R’ Zev lost it… “I don’t care about the money but how can you swear falsely! Don’t even the Ten Commandments mean anything to you? You are a disgrace to yourself and to all Jews!” With that, R’ Zev stormed out of the room. For months R’ Zev was still furious. “I don’t care about the money but how could he swear falsely?” he would say time and time again.
Years passed, and the incident was forgotten. One Shabbat afternoon, R’ Zev went to the front of the synagogue and shared a startling announcement. “A number of years ago, I had an incident with Shimon. Following the ruling of the judges I criticized Shimon publicly. Just as I defamed him publicly, I am now asking for his forgiveness.” Stunned, immediately following the service, people ran to R’ Zev, to ask what prompted this apology after so many years. He then told the following story. “This past week I was traveling on business through a far-away town. I had some extra time to myself, so I sat in on the Rabbinical court which was then convening. As I sat and listened, I realized that they were judging an almost identical case to the one that I had brought against Shimon a few years ago. A man who had admitted to other people that he had borrowed money from a certain wealthy individual was now denying it. The judges ruled that he could swear and be free from any obligation. No one thought he would swear but he did. I watched it all happen and it didn’t faze me.” “As I was traveling home a thought occurred to me. This man had also violated the same commandments that had upset me so much years ago but now it didn’t really bother me. Why had it upset me so much with Shimon but not at all with him? I realized that it really was my money that was infuriating me all along. I kept saying that it was the false swearing and the desecration of Hashem’s name but I now see that it really was simply the fact that it was my money. For that I had no right to speak so harshly against him.”
Pinchas, the verse states, was “kano et kinati.” He avenged God’s honor. There wasn’t even a hint of his own personal interests in mind. He rose above the confused mixture of good and evil that possesses many of us. Most of us must learn to set aside our personal affairs and be attentive to what is at times a desecration of God’s name (or other human beings) that results from some of today’s affairs. We must be “kano et kinati," jealous for God without involving our own petty dealings and concerns.
Rabbi Moses Coucy was onto something and this type of critical commentary occurring within the text shows the value of patience and not rushing to decisions rather to be careful and thoughtful in our actions. Taking time in one’s actions and not rushing to deliver a reward is a positive outcome and works in some settings such as camp.
What of the reward Pinchas received? It wasn't necessarily the perfect prize for today's campers. The phrase briti shalom (my covenant of peace; Numbers 25:12) is written in every Torah scroll in a most careful and unusual fashion. Containing four Hebrew letters: shin, lamed, vuv, and (final) mem, the word shalom is written with a broken vuv – a straight line broken in half; there are two discrete sections. The Rabbis in the 8th and 9th centuries codified that the letter vuv in the word shalom be written this way as two half stokes, unconnected. By writing the word shalom with a broken vuv the message is conveyed that peace created by zealots and acts of violence will never be whole and complete. True peace is not created through violence and fanaticism. The text would have us understand that true peace, wholeness - shlemut - is achieved in a more peaceful and patient (sorry, lacking a better word at the moment) manner. Taking one's time, not too long, to respond in a thoughtful manner is likely the more peaceful and productive approach.
As a parent, I sometimes get the feeling that I answered my child’s question with too many words. It feels like I overstepped a boundary and, when I cannot backtrack, I need to explain further. The opening verse of Vayetzei reads kind of like that. “And Jacob went out of Beersheba…” Period. Hard stop. The verse could have ended right there, but wait, there’s more. “…And [Jacob] went towards Haran.” The great French rabbi and Torah commentator Rashi comments that “it need have written simply 'And Jacob went to Haran.' Why then does it mention his departure from Beersheba?” It is a good and fair question to which Rashi gives an even better answer, owing partially to the fact that, according to many, Jacob is a flawed character.
Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy: An Ode to my 39th Year
1 Tishrei 5778
In 1933, Jack Benny celebrated his 39th birthday on-air with his audience during The Jack Benny Program. When he turned 40 the next year, he wanted to again enjoy his birthday with fans. The day arrived and he refused to say he was turning 40. Instead, Benny announced he was ... "39 and holding." Why? Because "there's nothing funny about 40," declared the funnyman. The gaff was indeed so funny that his 39th birthday celebration became a running gag, and the actor/comedian born Benjamin Kubelsky, February 14, 1894, never aged himself after 1933. He was forever 39!
While I have never watched a single episode of the Jack Benny Program, I am 39 years old – for a couple of more months – and I think he is onto something. “Forty is a threshold,” said a Professor of psychiatry at UCLA. Why is forty such a threshold? “Forty was once viewed as the traditional entry into middle age; staying 39 represents a denial of the transition.” Another clinical psychologist once wrote, “A lot of people struggle with the idea of moving from their 30’s into their 40’s.” I would broaden this by saying that no matter the decade any of us is leaving or approaching, questioning and soul-searching from year to year, decade to decade, can accompany the change. The issues vary from person to person, but the areas open for questioning are pretty standard: Career, marriage, relationships, children, physical appearance, and ability.
At the cusp of this threshold, I don’t know that I am facing any significant struggle, but I recognize that age is as much a state of mind as it is some kind of physical measurement. Though I may not be 39 and holding, there is something very real within the desire to hold onto something and to avoid the changes that are beyond our control.
Our ability and willingness to face what is ahead boils down to one basic question. How will we live with the decisions that we have made and have yet to make? Or, as author Sheryl Sandberg has experienced and writes about in her book, Option B, how do we accept what I don’t have and live with the options as they are in front of me? In her book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg explores “the capacity of the human spirit to persevere.” Following the unexpected passing of her husband, Sandberg feared that she and her children would never find joy again. She discovered that her fear is fortunately unfounded, and she is able to show how she and others overcome a wide range of hardships. She posits that it is helpful to think of resilience like a muscle, one that atrophies in the calm between the storms of our lives. But there are things we can do to develop it, so we are better prepared when adversity strikes. This preparedness helped her accept Option B when Option A was no longer available.
It does not matter how many times Jack Benny or any one of us has turned 39; part of Sandberg’s message, and mine for the Near Year is that which is important is how we view ourselves and the changes around us from year to year. We can appreciate the stories of our youth or days past, yet we must allow ourselves to truly see these moments of our past because the tales they tell are the jubilation and discomfort that make life worth living. These moments can be, borrowing words from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, radically amazing!
Central to Sandberg’s book is her grief journey illustrated in part by a great quote from author/playwright Samuel Beckett at the beginning of Chapter One: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Early on Sandberg writes, “dealing with grief was like building physical stamina; the more you exercise, the faster your heart rate recovers after it is elevated. And sometimes during especially vigorous physical activity, you discover strength you didn’t know you had.”
I look at the story of Akedat Yizchak (The Binding of Isaac) and I think about many of the central characters that embark upon a physical and emotional journey. They realized a level of personal strength, fortitude, and belief in God and one another through the experience they shared. We see the physical strain when the Torah describes those things Abraham and Isaac carried with them: “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering…He took the firestone and the knife.” (Genesis 22:6)
The scene bares emotional strain as well. Isaac said to his father, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (22:8) And Abraham said, “It is God who will see to the sheep for this burnt offering, my son.” Whether Abraham was telling his son a boldface lie, or Abraham really believed God would come through, the scene must have been exhausting. “They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac.” This old man Abraham built an altar, laid out wood, and bound his son who commentaries would lead us to believe may have been as old as 37 years old. How could it be that Abraham did all of this?! The moment must have been difficult for Abraham and somehow passively devastating to Isaac.
Within a text that is centered on the ideas of faith and the bonding between father and son, it is easy to lose sight of the human and physical dimensions of the story. “And it came to pass after these things that God tried Abraham.” (Gen. 22:1) Midrash Tanhuma asks, “After what things?” “According to R. Yohanan, citing R. Yose ben Zimra, after the feast given upon the ‘child’s having brown and being weaned.” Many things happened before God “tried Abraham.”
The proceedings of Akedat Yitzchak like so many trials of our lives today, present emotional heartache where it is difficult respond in any sane way. It takes Sandberg a while, but she does resolve to endure Option B when Option A is no longer possible. And she challenges us to change systems that don’t always take our humanness into account. Our strength and resilience in the face of adversity is the muscle we need; it is this muscle that forces us to “lean in” when times are tough. Harvard University psychologist George Vaillant suggests that resilience can be understood as a “twig with a fresh, green living core” that springs back and continues to grow after encountering pressure. Sandberg discovers that when we lean in to the numerous lessons life has to offer, there’s a lot more joy to be found. From the story of Akedat Yitzchak and other from our tradition to today, I believe that we are as resilient as ever.
Aided by his faith and resilience, Abraham was able to move forward and deal with all of the adversity that came before him. A midrash shows Satan, the Adversary, trying to prevent Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Satan appears before Abraham multiple times, each time trying to stop Abraham on his journey and prevent him from crossing the threshold from a loving, faithful father to a murderer. Whereas, according to the midrash, God believed that could sacrifice his son, Satan did not and did what he could to stop Abraham. Satan’s final effort is to turn into a river that Abraham could not cross. Yet, Abraham committed himself to carrying on, at which point, God “rebukes the water” and it dries up.
We are, like Abraham, more resilient than we think. There are things we can do for ourselves and for other people who are hurting, that will allow our resilience to bloom. The challenge is to see the opportunity presented by these events, however seismic. I tend to find humor in nearly everything, even when my birthday rolls around. Funny keeps us young. Silly is funny. And, funny or not, forty is coming so I may as well deal with it.
 Sandberg, Sheryl. Introduction, 12
 Sandberg, 25
This morning, I attended my children's Jewish Day School for a special "Chagigat Chumash" ceremony - a one-hour long ceremony to celebrate the receiving of a new Chumash (Five Books of Moses) by every third grade student. I watched with interest and pride as my eight year old son participated in a moving and well scripted ceremony that culminated with one of the school's senior administrators giving him his new Chumash. I am proud of my son's achievements. I am equally pleased with our efforts as his parents and the tremendous effort and talent that permeates the school. The confluence of these endeavors resulted in a poignant moment for my son, one that I hope will remain with him for a long time.
Though it was not mentioned during the morning's proceedings, nor should it have been, today being Inauguration Day was on my mind. Running not quite parallel to the Chumash ceremony was the moment during the inauguration when the President elect places his hand on a Bible. For significant reason a Bible is used, and often deeper significance is explicated about the Bible that is chosen for this meaningful moment. And I am thinking about my role as a parent who cares deeply for the words within the Torah and the manner in which both of my children currently and will in the future regard the words of their tradition.
I am also keenly aware of the difference between how the Chumash was used at the Chagigat Chumash and the Bible at the Inauguration. Whereas the president elect merely places a hand on the Bible, my son held his Chumash against his chest almost hugging it. There were, in fact, a couple of close calls during the Chumash ceremony when a student nearly dropped her Chumash only to catch it, pull it closer, and smile. While the recovery may have been filled with a bit of embarrassment, I would like to interpret a degree of love and safeguarding as well. When we love something and want a moment to last, we hold it close. Additionally, from a very young age, we are instructed to kiss a sacred book when it falls and we pick it up.
Despite the nerves that I knew to be present by my own child, and I imagine others, their faces were filled with happiness and eagerness, the latter likely because that which awaited them was a room of celebratory desserts. The delight is also, I hope, from receiving a book that he knows has been important to so many others before him and one that he will use time and time again. Expressed among the words that he practiced for the past couple of weeks is the idea that his receiving his Chumash marks his engagement with the chain of tradition.
Being a link in the chain of tradition means there are others - generations of Jewish people - on both sides of us with whom we are interconnected. That connection is likely never be broken and is therefore up to us to transmit the values and vocabulary that are at the core of our tradition to those next in line. Having a good grip on the chain and deep knowledge of what makes up the Torah also means that, when ready, my son can go off script and recover with the confidence and pride in his Jewish identity. And I am confident that his hand will go from the top outside cover of the book to the innermost contents carefully scripted within.
My Review of Fiddler on the Roof
Being a fiddler on the roof is no doubt a precarious role. Every time I see the movie or attend a theater adaptation of Shalom Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman, I wonder what if the Fiddler falls? This eternal question is part of what draws me to the Fiddler's character. He is an enigma; his music is mysterious - both distant and close. The Fiddler always leaves me wanting more.
I recently attended the current Broadway revival that will apparently close December 31, 2016. The production was as meaningful and enjoyable as each of my previous encounters with the story, albeit with some subtle and less than discreet changes.
For more, please click here to see the article published by the Times of Israel.