Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Circling Home: Parashat Vayigash
Jacob’s long journey is culminating as the truth is finally revealed to him. His son Joseph is alive after all. Jacob is stunned. He has been in mourning for twenty years. Now, suddenly, the world as he knew it is turned upside down. Torah tells us that upon hearing the news of Joseph’s existence, Jacob’s heart goes numb. Despite the wonderful news, he cannot process it. How is he to regain his center? How does Jacob transition to a new normal?
Torah tells us that once Jacob sees the wagons that Joseph sent for him, he is able to accept the news. With this physical proof he decides to make the journey to Egypt. Jacob sets out and immediately we are told that he stops along the way in Be’er Sheva. This name should ring in our ears. We have encountered this place before. This is Jacob’s ancestral home. It is the place where his father Isaac re-dug the wells of his father Abraham. And it is the place from which Jacob fled in his youth, running in fear from his brother Esav after deceiving his father. It is the same road upon which Jacob laid himself down and dreamt of a ladder connecting heaven and earth; the place where he encountered God; the place where God reassured him that he would not be alone on his journey.
As Jacob’s world once again comes undone, when his reality is turned upside down, he goes back to the place where once he experienced a profound connection with all of life, a sense of God’s reassuring presence and protection. He returns to the place where he once proclaimed, “God is in this place and I, I did not even know it.” There, he makes a new offering to God. Jacob knows instinctively what he needs at this critical tuning point. And God responds.
In this moment, in this place God calls out to him again, in a night vision, saying,
“Jacob! Jacob! And he answered Hineni- I am here. And God said, I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt for I will make of you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt and I will also surely bring you up again. And Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes. And Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes. (Gen. 46:2-4)
Jacob returns to his deep center, to the place of his dreams and his anchor. It is there that he reconnects with God’s reassuring presence. It is this turn on his path that allows him to move forward into the unknown.
These days we are experiencing a world whirling with change. We are seeking truth yet we are barraged daily with information expressing a divided reality. We are faced with political intrigue and radical changes to so many of our societal safety systems. New revelations about climate change and the horror of innocent lives taken through violence all over the globe pours through our morning coffee and somehow we are to go about business as usual.
When I look into Torah this week I see a man whose world has turned upside down. His heart goes numb. This is an altogether natural response but it becomes dangerous if it persists. Our challenge is to keep our hearts open and yet not be carried away in the whirling winds of today’s challenges.
Jacob provides us with a beautiful lesson on finding center in changing times. Jacob tells us to return to the root of our lives, to revisit the roots of our strength. For some this may mean connecting to God through prayer and Torah. For others it may mean connecting with nature, listening to music, skiing, meditating or connecting with family. Whatever the path may be, this is a time to restore a relationship with one’s true center and draw strength and peace from that place.
We are blessed by a tradition that gives us the gift of Shabbat for just this purpose. It is a time we can count on, to drink from the wells of our ancestors and return to what we hold as most holy in our lives. May this Shabbat be restorative, balancing and bring you peace.
A Bit of Chanukah Torah: Darkness and Light
Darkness comes in many forms- physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
We recall that Chanukah was established at the darkest time of the year. In late December we encounter the shortest day, a day with the least sunshine of the entire year. And as Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the lunar month during the waning moon cycle, the nights are also their darkest.
Darkness is also a spiritual metaphor for lack of awareness and particularly, the lack of awareness of God, for light is the physical metaphor for God. In Torah God appears to Moses as a burning bush. The Eternal Flame in our synagogues represents the constant presence of God.
At this time of year, when we turn inward, when cold and darkness is abundant, our ancestors, the Rabbis, created this festival of light, as if, in answer to the yearning we feel at this time of year for light and warmth.
It is interesting that on Tisha b’Av which falls in the summertime, just about 6 months earlier in the Hebrew calendar, we recall the destruction of the Temple. This is an experience of darkness arising in the midst of light. On Chanukah we celebrate the rededication of the Temple by creating light in the midst of darkness.
The beauty of our calendar cycle reveals the ever-changing nature of life and gives us spiritual tools to navigate these changes. When we are frolicking in the pleasure of summer, we take pause to recall the dangers of unrestricted fire. Misguided passions can erupt into destructive forces and destroy the place where the Divine dwells. So too, in the dark of winter, lest we fall into despair, we engage in kindling lights for eight nights. We remember that the light is returning; that the light in fact, always returns just as the sun rises each day. We nurture an attitude of trust as we are reminded of the hidden light that dwells in all of creation, even when there is an abundance of apparent darkness.
Unlike all Biblically-based holidays, there is no havdalah at the end of Chanukah. Rabbi Dovber Pinson teaches that this is because spiritual light and the quality of trust are always available to us at any time, in any day, week or year.
As we welcome the Chanukah lights this year, may we cultivate our vision to recognize the hidden light that permeates our lives; the Divine grace by which we experience a myriad of small miracles every day and the inner light that shines in every human being.
Wrestling with Truth Parashat Vayishlach
After 20 years away from his family, Jacob is told by G-d that it finally time to return to his family of origin. He has fulfilled his destiny in the home of his uncle Lavan. Jacob, who deceived his father Isaac and his brother Esau in order to steal Esav’s birthright has spent twenty years laboring for his uncle who deceived him. Our Rabbinic tradition uses the expression middah k’neged middah to explain the concept of instant karma. Jacob receives his due- his middah, that is, his quality in the same way he perpetrated his middah- deception for deception.
Meanwhile, Esav his brother has had twenty years to accept his loss and create a life for himself. He had sworn to kill Jacob when first he heard that Jacob had stolen his blessing. Now, twenty years hence, the two brothers will come face to face. Jacob is frightened for his life. He knows only one narrative, only one perspective and he is certain that his brother Esav means to do him in. He is not able to entertain the possibility of forgiveness.
Jacob is our wounded hero; a man with flaws and limitations who will discover the frontier of his own soul. His meeting with Esav will push him into the realm of the unknown. No longer in control or able to manipulate the outer world, like Lavan’s sheep whose mating he manipulated for his own gain, Jacob will be acted upon. The evening before encountering his brother Esav, Jacob will meet a mysterious man with whom he will wrestle the night through. Some say he is wrestling with the guardian angel of Esav, some say he is wrestling with himself, with his guilt over his deception of his brother.
By the end of the night Jacob will demand a blessing from the stranger who he now understands is an angel. The blessing will be embedded in a name change. His name is changed from Jacob, meaning heal of the foot, to Israel, the God wrestler.
In our tradition, there are man names for God. One name is EMET meaning truth. In kabbalistic teachings, Jacob represents the Godly attribute of Truth. In this sense then, Israel is the wrestler who struggles with truth. Before reuniting with his brother, he must wrestle with the truth about himself. He must come to terms with his more base qualities that motivate him to manipulate others for personal gain. He must confront his fear of retribution and his guilt. The time of hiding is over.
In our times, we are all called upon to be Truth Wrestlers in a struggle to discern authenticity. We are living in a time when the media is accused regularly of reporting “fake news” and when “alternative facts” are considered acceptable by some. Multiple investigations of our government leaders are underway as truth is sought after and exposed. Just today General Flynn was indicted for lying. And most recently scores of women have been coming forward to share the truth of their experiences which have long been held in a silent underground. Like Jacob’s dark night of the soul, we too are struggling with painful discoveries about our own society, about what we have tolerated and submerged, about abusive behavior we have sanctioned.
In the end Jacob will walk away from his encounter with a life-long wound, a clear reminder of his struggle. He will limp forward to meet his brother Esav. He will come face to face with his past offense and Esav will own a new truth- a new narrative of forgiveness. Torah tells us that “Esav ran to greet him. He- Esav- embraced Jacob and falling on his neck, he kissed him and they wept.” This was one outcome Jacob never expected. It is a beautiful picture of reconciliation that was only possible by first recognizing the truth that had so long been disguised under the skins of deception.
Truth telling is difficult, and as a society, the truth can be hard to bear. We are all wounded by living in a wounding society. But it is through this process only, that reconciliation, healing and social evolution is possible. After Jacob’s encounter with Esav ,Torah tells us, that despite his limp, Jacob arrived
“shalem”- in the city of Shechem. Some translators say shalem means safe. He arrived safely in the town of Shechem. But a more literal meaning of the word shalem is whole. Jacob arrived whole, in the city of Shechem. Despite his wound, he was now a whole person- having integrated his weaknesses, having owned his misdeeds. Now he was whole.
May we be like Yisrael- truth wrestlers. May we all develop the tenacity to demand the truth and to bear it compassionately when its face appears. May we be like Esav, forgiving in spite of our wounds and losses. And May our land be blessed with the heart to do the work of reconciliation and repair so that our daughters and sons may arrive shalem- whole and safe within our society.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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