Thursday, December 26, 2013

Parshat Va-Era, Being God to Pharaoh

There is a great story about how a person's good deeds are the only true friends who will, who can, accompany him or her into the afterlife to intercede before the Heavenly Court in its judgement of one's soul.

We are taught in this week's parshah that Moses will be "like God to Pharaoh" in their dealings with each other.  God will make Moses His messenger, and Moses, who was worried if he was up to the job, will be successful for this reason.

Yet some translate it, understand it, not that Moses will be like God, but that Moses will be a "master" over Pharaoh.  It's not that God will do it for Moses - but God is saying that you, Moses, you do have the ability to accomplish with your own hands, with your own deeds, the deliverance the Jewish People so desperately need.

So often in life we can feel as if our own actions are not enough, that we can't possibly accomplish what needs to be done.  Yet these two lessons - about one's good deeds being one's true friends for all time, and about Moses having the strength himself to carry out God's mission for him - these stories teach us that we can, with persistence, and determination, accomplish a great deal, if we try.

I want to acknowledge how one small action taken by members of our congregation is making an impact for the better.  The other day, many of you signed a letter that has now been sent to heads of universities around the country who have either taken their institutions out of the American Studies Association, or have otherwise protested against the ASA's resolution to boycott Israel.

Already I have received back a number of kind letters from university presidents we wrote to thanking us for our support of them.  I want to let you know, you are making a difference!

And so don't stop.  Find out if your alma mater is a part of the ASA and whether or not it has taken appropriate steps to distances itself form the ASA's despicable policy.   Contact your schools to let them know they should take such steps if they haven't yet and thank them if they have already.

Our small deeds can and do make a difference.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, December 20, 2013

Lingering at the Inn: Parshat Shemot

The title no doubt sounds like I'm about to tell you something relating to a certain little holiday coming up next week, but it's not that (though it is interesting that there are some clear parallels between the stories).

This is a story about Moses, and a peculiar incident that befalls him on his return to Egypt from Midian.  He is instructed to go back, he sets out, and then the next thing we know, God seems to be trying to kill him until Zipporah his wife saves the day by circumcising Eliezer, their son.

In order to explain this we focus in on the reference in the Torah that this incident in which God seems to want to kill Moses happens while Moses is staying at an inn.

This, at least for some of the commentators, is the answer to what went wrong here.  Moses has lost track of his mission.  Not only has he, for some unknown reason, put off circumcising his son, he has also slowed down to a halt in his journey back to Egypt.

Now of course Moses had to sleep, had to eat, couldn't fly to Egypt.  But the implication is that he got more than a little bit distracted and this is what brings on the punishment.

More than that, it would suggest he got caught up in things that weren't really important at all - saving the Jews and rearing his children according to the tradition.

That may not be the only explanation, but it is a good reminder to us about something.  Too often we get caught up "lingering at the inns" of life's unimportant and insignificant things and forget to keep on with the progress towards what's important.  For whatever the reason, fear, doubt, simple human nature - we need to shake ourselves to action to be like Zipporah in this instance, and, as the text suggests, wedding ourselves to life and action.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pledging the Shema - Parshat Vayechi

Much has been made of late of the aging and declining of the Conservative Movement and what to do about it.  How do we not just pass on to a new generation our love of our understanding of  Judaism, but how can we make it alive to them, make it spread and grow?

The final words of the elderly Jacob speaking to sons in the parshah this week give us some advice and guidance.  Just before he is about to die, Jacob summons his children to gather around his bed. He tells his sons, "Come together, that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come." Then, rather than beginning his list of predictions, he inserts the comment, "Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; ve-shim'u el Yisrael avichem (Hearken to Israel, your father)."

The Midrash notes the wording of this remark, its seemingly extraneous placement, and suggest that Jacob says these words, to which his sons respond by reciting the Shema prayer, "Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" and to which Jacob says in gratified response, the line we say when we recite the Shema today, Baruch shem... "Blessed is the Name of the Glorious Kingdom forever and ever."

Thus we learn something for when we say the Shema, something to guide us in thinking of how we pass on and shape our legacy:  

For “the sons” the younger generation, we need to be able to say this proclamation of faith sincerely, and think of the legacy of our elders; do we say the Shema as the twelve sons did in a way that honors what our elders hold dear?

And for the older generation – is what we are doing going to make the younger generation hearken to us as Jacob was able to do?  Are we setting the example for them so they can respond truthfully, “We hear you!”

Pledge with me – when you say the Shema, to think of these things and how you can in the future, help forge and help strengthen the bonds we feel between each other, wherever you stand in the great chain of the Jewish people.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Joseph, Jacob and Life's Five Great Regrets

Parshat Vayiggash is impressive for its family drama - Joseph acts with compassion and forgiveness after seeing his brothers have truly changed and repented their misdeeds.  Jacob and Joseph are reunited when it seemed they would likely die without ever seeing each other again and share in the joy of grandfather living to see his grandchildren.

Studies tell us that there are five chief-most regrets people confronted with their own mortality report having.  And our parshah shows us a version of nearly all of them.  Considering our Torah portion in the context these lessons may help us avoid having these regrets and live our lives in more meaningful, fulfilling ways:

1.  I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself and not what others expected of me - we see Joseph learning this lesson over the course of his life, ultimately for the better of his whole family, and the world.

2.  I wish I didn't work so hard - while I'm not sure if this one appears directly, any story focusing on how a dreamer rises from slavery to royalty at least hints at the idea.

3.  I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings - Joseph and his reaction to his brothers is the example of this.  He not only isn't afraid to express his feelings, but his feelings demonstrate a great capacity for learning who he is and of which emotions he is worthy.

4.  I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends - again, not sure this exactly appears but we do see many close bonds - Joseph and Jacob and Benjamin for example in our story.

5.  I wish that I had let myself be happier - And Jacob may be the example of this.  His blessing his grandchildren - his simply getting to see his grandchildren when he didn't even imagine seeing their father - is just such an example of literally embracing the happiness God grants you.

We have no guarantees in life but we can learn from stories like those in our portion this week how to avoid falling victim to these five regrets and instead living better lives without them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson