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.
As I prepare for the coming Jewish New Year (5776), I am engaged in my typical practice of looking back at past teachings. Here is what I shared last year with the community members of Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, FL. Others who read this may recognize it from a sermon I gave at my former congregation in Texas. I am grateful that I may adapt my own words without recrimination of plagiarism, and I am grateful to be returning to Kissimmee this year.
Award winning Israeli writer Shai Agnon once told a story of a young boy and his father engaging in a little game. Standing over his son, the father held onto the most beautiful red apple. The boy, wanting the apple, attempted to take hold of it, each time having the apple playfully snatched away by his father. This continues back and forth for a little while until, finally, with the apple in his father’s hand, the boy smiles. He retreats a few steps and makes the bracha (blessing) over the fruit – borei pri ha’etz. The father, not wanting his son to make a blessing in vein, quickly gives his son the apple.
Each year prior to Rosh Hashanah, the image of an apple creeps into my mind. Tasting the apple with honey is a significant association with Rosh Hashanah for many, and the honey itself has a rightful place in other parts of our lives as well. I remember my first year of marriage, when each Shabbat my wife and I drizzled honey over the challah on the Shabbat table instead of salt.The moment in this story when the father gives the child the apple may be about ensuring that the child does not make a blessing in vain. It is also, I think, about the child in each one of us who, at one time or another, wants something so badly that we would do well to stop and take a few steps back before realizing what we must do to obtain the object of our intention. Is it a moment of self-awareness that the child possesses or perhaps a more manipulative and child-like behavior that the kid is behaving like, a kid?
The story does something else extremely important that is timely to the New Year and in line with some of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. The tale illustrates the role each of us plays in giving something of value to another person. We can pay attention to others and recognize their greatest moment of need and help them. When we can act like the father in Agnon's story, we possess the potential to enable the joy of another person or quench their thirst. We don’t seize those moments enough, when we can act like the father, and give a gift that is so sweet, so tasty and fulfilling on both a physical and spiritual level to others who need it.
I view a passage in the mahzor as demonstrating this and pulling us forward in a new direction in the year ahead. The prophet Jeremiah, within the traditional Zichronot portion of the service, states "Zacharti lach hessed neurayich, ahavat kelulotayich. “I (God) remember the affection of your youth, your love…when you followed Me in the wilderness, a barren land.” (Jeremiah 2:2) Jeremiah proclaims, on God’s behalf, what many see as the beginning and foundation of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity. We must build our relationship with God and each other on a charitable base. We are meant to enable and empower others.
The title of the service, Zichronot, shares the root word "zeycher" (memory) or the infinitive "lizkor" (to remember) and presents a metaphor of God with a memory. At the most simple and literal meaning, God remembers us. On a deeper level, God impresses upon us a sense of accountability for our deeds. (Mahzor Lev Shalem, 133) God takes note of our actions and our past, something we tend to link to the Book of Life (sefer chayim). As Jeremiah indicates, God remembers us because of our affection toward others – the hessed that we complete. Agnon’s story, together with Jeremiah, shows that only we can close the gaps, the empty pockets that people feel.
Are we literally meant to follow God (or others) into the wilderness, as Jeremiah’s words would have as us? Watching or reading the accounts about the Syrian refugee crisis as thousands of people escape their home in order to find comfort and refuge in a place unknown to them is deeply troubling and somehow familiar. And our response as Jews is not without its own struggle. Some would quickly open their arms while others question are we doing enough for our own people before we bring in others? Can we find a way to let people in or ensure safe passage for them?
Jeremiah portrays a Jewish people that follow God into the land "not sewn", led by nothing more than a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire demonstrates that these moments may not be without risk or anxiety. Maybe this is part of what makes gemilut hassadim more significant. Zacharti lach hessed neurayich… Simple as it sounds and perhaps more profound than we realize, hessed is intertwined with our hearts and souls. When we may not physically be able to stand side by side someone who is suffering or follow in their wilderness, we can explore charitable acts that see to their safety. Engaging in acts of kindness transform spaces that might otherwise be empty – a space where someone reaches out his or her hand and there is nothing.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, once pointed to these words (Zacharti lach hessed neurayich) as the embodiment of faith. The Jewish people acted and followed God with the unknown before them. “The whole of life is facing the unknown,” Sacks said. “We can know everything, but there is one thing we can never know…what tomorrow will bring.” “Every single course of action we take has an underside of doubt.”
God loves us because we have the courage to act and help each other, to go to a place where we are needed most. As the verse suggests, there are times we go to a place we may have never seen before. We follow without a map, without clearly paved roads, and we have no choice but to act. When we can follow the unknown and help someone who is facing the unknown, we are at our greatest. The reward, whether loyalty, love or a simple thank you, is not ours but that which we provide to others. Yet without our actions, we end up as Jeremiah describes, in a wasteland, barren and unknown.
The great rabbinic sages taught that before God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, the Torah was offered to other nations of the world. Each nation rejected the Torah, saying that it was impossible for them to observe it. Ishmael had a problem with "You shall not steal.” Esav had a problem with "You shall not kill." (Sifrei, Devarim 33:2) Often faced with the claim that it is difficult to observe Torah, it is in fact easier than we think to live a life of Torah – a life of good deeds. Discovering moments like the one between father and son – where we are all at one time or another the fathers and others are our children – will yield the greatest hessed.
May we conclude, as Agnon concluded, that on the high holidays we are each the child who stands before the apple. We do not simply look and gaze at the apple but we do more. We are the parents. We see other people who desire and are reaching out their hands and heaven forbid their actions and words are in vain. On the High Holidays, we call on God as Avinu – our parent – to forgive our wrong doings and assist us in finding our way. We call to God Malkeinu – the wise Ruler – for us to be full of wisdom and courage that we may redeem and rebuild God’s realm through love and hessed. Hopeful that our prayers will reach fruition, we look toward God that we might offer something simple, elegant and fulfilling like the love that a parent gives a child or a friend gives to another. May we find in the New Year something in our hands and our hearts the ability to give to others in need. And, when we are the child who can eat the apple, may we give pause to bless the moment and taste the sweetness.
is Director of Graduate Admissions at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A parent, partner, teacher and coffee enthusiast (I've attempted to home roast coffee), Rafi enjoys helping individual students and families find Jewish meaning in their lives.