Archive for the ‘spirituality’ Category

The Saga of Family Life: Vayigash

January 2, 2009 1 comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, opens with the nearly final stages of the drama of the misery and anguish of our ancestors’ family lives. But amid the sorrow we also find the promise of better times.

We read of Judah in Egypt as he begs for life-saving food from a man who will turn out to be his brother Joseph. Joseph, now the second most powerful man in Egypt, looks back at the man he knows to be his long-estranged brother Judah.

Both Judah and Joseph were victims of their father Jacob’s atrocious parenting skills, as evidenced, for example, by Jacob’s decision to give Joseph a fancy coat but to give nothing to any of Joseph’s brothers. (“Here’s a Hanukah experiment you can try at home,” Rabbi Larry Kushner teaches in this regard. “See what happens if you give an expensive present to only one of your children….”) So back in Canaan, Judah had helped sell Joseph to their cousins, the Ishmaelites, as a slave. Jacob was distraught at the loss of his son, Judah seemed not to care, and for a while slavery was too good for Joseph. He spent time in an Egyptian jail.

It is perhaps not Jacob’s fault that he never learned to be a good parent. His mother and father fought over which child they loved more, and Esau was always Daddy’s favorite. Jacob’s mother was conniving and devious. Jacob’s father quickly grew so senile that he couldn’t tell the difference between his son and a sheep.

Isaac, of course, learned from his own father, Abraham, the father who took him on a father-and-son outing where he almost sacrificed him on Mount Moriah.

In addition, Jacob inadvertently married the wrong woman. We can only imagine the sibling rivalry that results when your sister is also your husband’s favorite wife.

Jealousy, pettiness, and sibling rivalry seem to be the only family dynamics Jacob knew. So perhaps we understand why Jacob was unable to keep his family together. If Genesis is about families, it is about dysfunctional families, as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob make abundantly clear, along with Ishmael, Hagar, Esau, and so forth. Not one of them lived a particularly happy life.

Still, never one to learn from his mistakes, Jacob gathers all of his remaining children together when the family is faced with famine:

“I want all of you to go down to Egypt to try to get us some food,” he instructs his children. But then he clarifies what he wants: “All of you except Benjamin, that is.”

Why not Benjamin?

“Because I love him,” Jacob tells his children.

The message is clear.

Eventually, Benjamin must join his brothers in Egypt, and that brings us to this week’s installment of “what else can go wrong.” Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, demands that Benjamin stay behind and not return to their father.

But that’s not an option, Judah knows. “If my father sees that Benjamin is gone, he will die,” Judah tells the powerful Egyptian leader.

Judah has understood the situation fully. Daddy will die if Benjamin doesn’t return. But Daddy doesn’t care about him. “Let me stay in his place,” Judah offers. “Daddy won’t even miss me,” he knows.

In offering to stay behind instead of Benjamin, Judah recognizes his father’s failings, and, more importantly, he accepts them. This is the moment he breaks the cycle of family dysfunction that plagued the first four generations of our ancestors’ lives.

Genesis, of course, is about us. For we are Abraham, sometimes angry at our children, and we are Rachel and Leah, jealous of our siblings. We are Judah, still trying to understand why our parents cannot be perfect. We are all of them.

Let us not forget that things turned out very well for Judah, a fact we mark at every wedding when we quote the prophet Jeremiah: “Once again there will be heard among Judah the sounds of joy and happiness, the sounds of the bride and groom.”

Let us pray that God give us the courage to learn from Judah and accept reality. And let us look forward to the joy and happiness that await when we do.

Shabbat Shalom.

Categories: Bible, spirituality

There’s a Famine in the Land

January 1, 2009 2 comments

By Joel M. Hoffman

Genesis is about families, creation, where we come from, and what our lives are like. But it is also about famine. In fact, famine was so common that Genesis 26:1 begins, “there was a famine in the land,” but then the text has to clarify that it wasn’t the first famine, it was another famine.

Abraham and Sarah endured a famine. So did Isaac and Rebekkah. And so did Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, along with their children. Joseph was spared hunger, but that doesn’t mean that the famine didn’t impact his life. In fact, it was the famine that led to his rise in the ranks of the Egyptian power structure. Whether for the better or for the worse, famine shaped our people’s early life.

Three things about famines are important.

First, they always happen “in the land.” Even though some people suffer more than others, and even though some people, like Joseph, actually benefit, no famine is a personal famine. Famines belong collectively to everyone in “the land.”

Secondly, famines are not sent by God. They just happen. Our text does not read, “God sent a famine,” or, “God punished Abraham with a famine,” or even, “God tested Abraham with a famine,” but rather the clearer and more accurate, “a famine happened.”

Thirdly, when our ancestors suffered during a famine, they didn’t try to hide their pain. Their only reaction was to acknowledge their undeserved misfortune and try to make things better. They looked for food. Genesis 12:10 reads: “There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt” to get food. He didn’t sneak out of the house (well, tent) trying to hide his situation. He accepted the problem and set out to try to solve it.

All of this seems suddenly relevant in 2009 America as our own savings accounts dwindle and as some of us lose our jobs. Most of us haven’t descended into actual hunger, but there are those who fear that it’s not far off. We are like our ancestors, unexpectedly faced with uncertainty, unsure of the future and sometimes even afraid of the present.

Unfortunately, we are also unlike our ancestors, for we have brought something into our modern misfortune that never plagued our forebears: shame. It’s not that they didn’t know about shame. They did. But in the Bible shame was reserved for vile actions. Judah’s episode with a harlot is a source of shame. So too is building the idolatrous golden calf. More generally, shame is tied up with behavior, not circumstances. Do something wrong to someone else, and you should be ashamed. If something happens to you, you should not. We seem to have forgotten this basic fact.

When the bottom fell out of the Argentine economy several years ago, when half of that country reverted to the barter system, synagogues there did two things. They collected food for members who couldn’t afford to feed their families. But the synagogues also left their doors unlocked at night so people could sneak in under cover of darkness and find food, avoiding the shame they would otherwise have felt when people saw their poverty. Why was this second step necessary?

In this country, too, though most of us still have food, shame has crept in where it doesn’t belong. Synagogues are offering job services, but most are trying to do it anonymously. Some people who lose their jobs don’t even tell their spouses or children. Again, why?

We live in an unredeemed world, our sages teach. Life is good, but life is also hard. That’s just the way it is. Perhaps we can learn from our ancestors that misfortune is part of life, and, more importantly, that we have no reason to hide it.

The coming months and perhaps years will be hard enough on their own. Let’s not make them worse by adding the unnecessary burden of shame.

After all, there’s a famine in the land.

Categories: Bible, spirituality

Holy Hanukah Lights

December 2, 2008 1 comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

“These lights are holiness — haneirot hallalu kodesh hen.

This famous line about the Hanukah lights, now part of the standard Hanukah liturgy, comes from masechet sofrim, an 8th-Century Palestinian work that describes the practices of our ancestors in and around Jerusalem. Masechet sofrim goes on to warn that we are not allowed to use the Hanukah candles for anything except looking at them.

Unlike the Shabbat candles, then, which can be used to provide light for reading, or, presumably, warmth (though obviously not much), the Hanukah candles just sit there.

In fact, this is why we have a shamash. The shamash, the “ninth of the eight Hanukah candles,” is technically not actually a Hanukah candle itself. We use it to light the real Hanukah candles, while the shamash sits next to or above the Hanukah candles.

This way, in case you’re walking around the house reading a book, say, and if just as you walk by the Hanukah menorah the power goes out, and if by accident you keep on reading, you can maintain the fiction that you weren’t reading by the Hanukah lights. No! You were reading by the light of the shamash.

Or, if just as you walk by the menorah you suddenly find yourself in pressing need of a candle, you won’t be tempted to use the real Hanukah candles. You can grab the shamash instead.

This is why the shamash is supposed to be the first candle lit and the last candle to go out. (This is possible, even when the candles are identical. Can you figure out how to do it?) You wouldn’t want to find yourself with Hanukah lights and no shamash, not even for a moment.

At first glance, this all seems a bit silly, particularly in our modern day of electricity. I like to think of myself as fairly creative, and yet I have trouble conjuring up a situation in which I might be in dire sudden need of a burning candle.

But the real point has nothing to do with ambulatory reading or candle emergencies or any other practical concern. The real point goes back to the first line: these candles are holiness.

The light from the Hanukah candles, we are taught, is different than any other kind of light. Most light is just, well, light. (Photons, we might now call it.) But the light of Hanukah is the embodiment of holiness itself.

It’s hard enough to understand light, let alone holiness. We speak of light and darkness, even though there’s no such thing as darkness. (The old photography joke about opening the darkroom door and letting the dark leak out comes to mind.) Scientists have studied light and concluded that it is both a wave and a particle, though it’s also neither a wave nor a particle. It’s true, but it doesn’t help most people understand light. Still, we know what light is when we see it, and we know it’s part of our every day life.

Holiness is even harder. We may have a vague sense that God is holy, or that we are supposed to be holy. Holiness is involved in childbirth, perhaps, and according to some in the majesty of mountains and glory of nature. But, unlike light, most of us don’t think much about holiness. Would we even know it if we saw it?

Not surprisingly, the combination of light and holiness is even more difficult. How can light be holy? Even more vexing, how can a Hanukah candle emit holy light when the seemingly identical shamash gives us mere ordinary light? And what would that even mean?

I certainly don’t know. But I do know that we only get once chance a year to see the holy light.

So as we approach the darkest time of year and get ready to celebrate light, amid the stress of the holidays and the curious combination of exuberance and disappointment that accompanies gift-giving, let’s remember that life is mysterious. And let’s not miss our opportunity to gaze on the faces of the people we love as they are illuminated by flickering flames of the Divine.

I Have a Little List

September 22, 2008 2 comments

By Joel M. Hoffman

“These things have no limit,” begins a nearly 2,000-year-old list in the Mishnah, our earliest collection of Jewish law. The list details commandments for which more is always better.

Leaving unharvested crops (“pe’ah“) for the poor, for instance, is the first item there. Leviticus (23:22) asks farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor can — free of charge and anonymously — gather food. The more crops left for the poor, the more people eat. Feeding some hungry people is good; feeding more is better. That’s why there’s no limit.

But the real point of the list is that good things come in two varieties. For some, the more you have the better. That’s what we all expect. But it turns out that some good things — perhaps even most — are only good in moderation, and even turn detrimental with quantity. They not only stop being good, but they can actually become bad.

Food, for example, falls in this second, non-intuitive category. We think of food as a good thing because it’s yummy and we need it to survive. But while 2,000 calories of food a day is twice as good as 1,000, 4,000 calories is not twice better than that. 16,000 calories a day will kill most people. After a certain point, otherwise life-sustaining food becomes a health hazard.

Modern readers may be surprised to find that prayer is not on the ancient list of things that have no limit, because prayer is like food. You should have enough, the rabbis say, but don’t overdo it. By contrast, g’milut chasadim, being kind, does appear. You can never be too kind or kind too often.

A related list, traditionally juxtaposed with the first, comes from the Talmud. It details things that offer inherent reward in return for doing them: honoring parents, for example, or helping people work out their differences. Honor your parents and you’re more likely to be happy yourself. It’s the right thing to do, but even if it weren’t, it would still be a good idea, because it just so happens that it will make your own life better. Similarly, help two people stop fighting and you don’t have to live amid strife.

The second list even details how these good acts will reward those who do them. Good deed doers earn interest on their investment of beneficence “in this world,” and enjoy the principal “in the world to come.” In other words, you get a little bit of benefit for doing the right thing now, and you get even more benefit later.

We find g’milut chasadim (“being kind”) from the first list on the second list as well. Not only can you never be too kind, but the more kindness you can show, the better things will be for others and for you as well. Karma, some people call it.

Studying Torah is also on both lists. Unlike food, whose benefits turn deleterious after a point, more learning is always better. That’s why it’s on the first list. Its role in the second list is more oblique. We read: studying Torah “is like” all the other things on the list. (A common translation misses the whole point, wrongly claiming that studying Torah “is equal to them all.”) The list doesn’t tell us in what way studying Torah might be “like” honoring parents, helping two people get along, or being kind. Perhaps one has to study Torah to find out? That’s why we spend so much energy on studying Torah, giving children and adults alike a path into Jewish learning. We may not know why, but somehow, the more we study, the more we augment the world’s supply of the other good things, too.

Considerable unhappiness comes from mixing up lists like these. Addiction, for example, is the inability to keep things off of the first, short, list. What about money? Is more always better? Capitalism says yes, but Judaism says no. Wealth isn’t on the list. Maybe, like food, after a certain point money stops improving our lives and even makes them worse.

These complex and important issues are masked in a deceptive facade of simplicity. So as we celebrate a new year together, let’s also find time to reevaluate the lists of our lives.

Shanah Tovah.