Few and Hard

How do you want the years of your life to be viewed? Someone wise told me that each and every day we write part of our eulogy. What part are you working on today?

At the end of his life, Jacob met with Pharaoh in Egypt. Pharaoh asked him “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Jacob’s reply might take us aback at first. He stated, “The days of the years of my sojourn on earth have been 130. Few and hard have been the days of the years of my life, and the do not reach the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.”

Is this Jacob being Hutzpahdik again? I’m sure many of us would love to live 130 years-or have our loved ones have lived 130 years. Why is Jacob comparing his own life to that of his father’s and grandfather’s? Why isn’t he looking back on his life and saying “I have had a life well-lived?”

Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, wondered about why Jacob brought his forefathers into his reply to Pharaoh. He asserted that Jacob did not mean that his life did not attain Isaac’s and Abraham’s in terms of goodness. After all, Jacob lived most of his adult life thinking his youngest, beloved son, Joseph, was dead. He also lived through years of famine, as a refugee fleeing his brother Esau, and of being deceived by family members. At this stage, Jacob recognizes that he had a much harder life than those before him. We know that stress can age people (just look at how President Obama looks now compared to seven years ago), and through his trials and tribulations Jacob has greatly aged.

Nachmanides (Ramban), from 13th century Spain and Israel, was interested in why Pharaoh asked Jacob the question about his age in the first place. He comments that Pharaoh had seen very few people who had reached Jacob’s age and wanted to know what his secret was. Perhaps Jacob had an elixir or a “fountain of youth,” just like some are now looking the reason why people in Okinawa, Japan tend to live such long lives. Jacob threw a difficult answer back at Pharaoh, retorting that not only is there no secret but he actually has lived a shorter amount of time than those who preceded him-that it is just from his hard life that he looks older than he is.

Ovadiah Seforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, went a step further in discussing Jacob’s hardships. He asserted that the years in which one goes through hardships are not considered “the years of one’s life.” Of course they are considered years in which Jacob has sojourned on earth, so they count towards his 130 years. However, for Seforno, living through toil and tribulation is not life in its fullest and richest sense, making Jacob’s years of calm and comfort “few and hard.” While Jacob was blessed to live many years, unfortunately he was not blessed with an easy life in which he could live to the fullest.

What lessons do we take from Jacob’s reply to Pharaoh? Perhaps it is that Jacob finally understands that life is about more than how many years one lives; it’s about what one does with the years that s/he is given. Jacob was privileged to live 17 years after his encounter with Pharaoh, to a ripe-old age of 147, yet I doubt many of us would have traded our lives for his and for what he went through. The birthright and the blessing he had achieved did not appear to be so valuable anymore after being manipulated by his children into thinking his son was dead and almost going through the same heartbreak when he entrusted Benjamin to the brothers’ care so that they would not starve during the famine. What we learn from Jacob is the well-known statement, “a person of wisdom makes every day count,” that while we may not have the blessing of living 147 years, we can enjoy and make the most out of each day of each month of each year that we do have. In so doing, while our days might not add up to those of our forefathers, instead of viewing them as “few and hard” we can see them as “full and wonderful.” We are fortunate to live in nice suburban homes with food and clothing so readily accessible to us at a time when we have economic opportunities greater than those of our ancestors. Let us do what we can to appreciate the blessings of our life each and every day to always view things with the best outlook. Shabbat Shalom.

Over 200 Muslims Marching

Over 200 American Muslims marched on Saturday with signs saying “America Is Our Home” and “Islam strictly prohibits terrorism” and condemning terrorism is the name of religion, proclaiming “Islam means peace.” It was heartening to learn that Muslims condemned the actions of other Muslims, just as Jews do when one of our commits an atrocity. At the same time, I’m sure some will say “Where are the other hundreds of thousands of Muslims who live in New York?” I wish there were more Muslims who spoke out, but I do not believe that 200 is an insignificant number. We need to reach out to our local organizations, like the Islamic Center of Long Island, an applaud them when they speak out against terrorists. We also need to partner with them on initiatives rather than shying away from them. If the moderate Muslims voices condemning terrorism are few or just not getting the attention of the media, we are still obligated to start with those that we know about, standing in solidarity with them. It’s not easy to speak out against co-coreligionists, and when one rightly does so (after the San Bernardino massacre), they need to be shown appreciation rather than skepticism or indifference.

Stuck on the Train

Last night Karina, her uncle Mike and I were heading back on the Long Island Rail Road after a fun night in the city of dinner and comedy. As we exited the subway at Penn Station and saw the train right across the platform, I had an inkling that something was not right. We got on the train and proceeded past Jamaica towards Merillon Avenue when all of a sudden we heard a thump. The train stopped, and we all waited, not knowing what happened. The conductor came on and said we struck someone on the tracks and that we would need to wait for a police investigation before exiting the train.

Many of the passengers’ first reactions was to be upset about being inconvenienced. However, at the same time I thought about this individual who for whatever reason got on the tracks and had his/her life ended instantly by the train. I realized the fleeting nature of our lives and of our own mortality. Someone who probably had a full future ahead of him/her gone in one second.

The train powered down, including the A/C, and it was boiling the entire half hour we were stuck on the train. I was worried about my wife’s boiling because of her pregnancy. We were told that the last two cars had platformed at the New Hyde Park station, and that we should exit the train. There would be buses picking us up and taking us to the Hicksville Station, but who know how long the buses would take. We got up to exit but stood for at least 10 minutes before anyone was let off. Finally we exited on the south side of the train station, on which there were no cabs. We called an Uber but noticed the premium on the wait time and cost. I knew Mark Wilkow, our former congregational President and good friend, would be up and he generously offered to get us from the New Hyde Park Station.

This experience made me realize that a relatively brief inconvenience (an hour and a half delay in getting home, being stuck in a warm train car) pales in importance to the individual who was struck by the train. Ultimately I made it home and though tired, I can continue life’s adventures today. That is not true for the other. I hope that next time we are stuck in a situation beyond our control we will take a moment to appreciate what we do have and recognize that inconveniences can be overcome.

What’s In a Name

It is very fitting that this Shabbat Daphne is being given her Hebrew name Aviva for two reasons. First, there are two babies who are named in this week’s Torah portion: Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Both names have to do with Joseph’s state of life. Manasseh means to forget, and is so named כי נשני אלקים את כל עמלי ואת כל-בית אבי, for God has made me forget my hardship and my father’s home. At first glance it seems like a horrible name to give a child-we name our children after people we want to remember, not events that we want to forget. However, Joseph is pointing out how much his life has changed and that he is grateful for those changes. He is no longer the boy hated by his brothers, who was thrown into a pit and later into jail, but rather he is second-in-command in all of Egypt! Joseph recognizes the goodness of his life now, and he demonstrates his appreciation through Manasseh’s name.

Joseph next names his son Ephraim כי הפרני אלקים בארץ עניי, for God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction. This is an even more bizarre etymology for a name. Joseph has it better than anyone else except Pharaoh, so why would he refer to Egypt as “the land of his affliction?” Is he referring to the fact that he was imprisoned for 13 years in Egypt, is he foreshadowing his people’s captivity in Egypt, or is something else going on?

I would argue that while Joseph has an exalted position and a great standard of living, especially considering the famine all around him, he recognizes that “there is no place like home.” He asks for his brother Benjamin, who he has not met, to come down to Egypt. He misses his father Jacob, as evidenced by the fact that he says העוד אבי חי, “is my father still alive” when he reveals himself to his brothers. Joseph cannot escape his past-his upbringing with 12 brothers and a sister in Canaan. He received an Egyptian name צפנת פענח, Tzapnath Pa’aneach meaning “God speaks-he lives.” He also marries and Egyptian, Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On. However, Joseph will always be bound to the Hebrew people, to his family and their way of life.

This message comes to light as we celebrate Daphne’s Hebrew name, Aviva, which means spring. As mentioned by her parents, Jennifer and Daniel, Aviva is named after a number of grandmothers and great-grandmothers named Anna and Amelia. Our tradition in Ashkenazi Judaism is to name a child after relatives who have passed on, so that their attributes, their traditions and the values that they taught us continue on directly into the newborn. It also means that each child has a responsibility and the opportunity to live in accordance with to the example of those who came before.

While we generally no longer name people after events that occur in our lives, the example of Ephraim and Manasseh shed light on the name we gave Daphne today. The name Aviva binds Daphne to those who came before her, linking her to her heritage and to those who worked hard to enable her to be before us this very day. We recognize that though Daphne will grow up to be her own, independent person, she will forever be linked to the chain of tradition comprised by her parents, Jen and Daniel and her grandparents, Dave, Christine, Caren and Kenneth. In naming Daphne today, we know that she will continue to be raised with love, tenderness and caring and that she will live in accordance with the values that her family bestows upon her today. Mazal Tov to the entire family on reaching this joyous occasion!

Shameful Trumpist Xenophobia

I heard Donald Trump’s comments about banning Muslims from entering the United States “until our representatives can figure out what is going on” as a shameful overreaction, collectively punishing the many for the sins of the few. Trump should know that we’re aware of what is going on. There are terrorist attacks from people with a radically different worldview than we have, a desire to create a new Islamic Caliphate. Unfortunately, knowing that there are radical Muslims who seek to harm non-Muslims and those with western values will not make us able to stop each and every attack. We can work on doing a better job of monitoring those with suspicious loyalties but this is different than barring an entire religion from entering a country.

What disturbs me is how many people I have encountered who share Trump’s sentiments, believing that all Muslims are radical and that American Muslims in an ideal world would overthrow our western democracy and institute a country governed by Sharia law. The belief that all Muslims desire the creation of an Islamic Caliphate is simply not true. I have met so many moderate Muslims while working at the Inner City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, at the 92nd Street Mosque in Manhattan and through being in dialogue with the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury. These organizations have issued statements decrying Muslim terrorist attacks, stating that radical Muslims are “friends of Satan,” that they radically take Jihad, a struggle against oneself, out of context as a holy war. They have marched against ISIS, condemned 9/11 and the Paris massacres. The reply I get is “there are not enough of them speaking out, which means they sympathize with the radicals.” We have a mosque in our backyard which has spoken out repeatedly against terrorism and yet we choose to ignore it. It is far too easy to play into Trump’s hand, seeing all Muslims as terrorists.

I wrote in a previous post that I believe we are at war with radical Islam, and I continue to believe that. However, to say that all of Islam is radical, that every Muslim believes we should “kill the infidel,” that a fundamental tenet of Islam is to be anti-Israel or that “the only good Arab is a dead one” is so vehemently wrong and deeply troubling. In seeing the world in such a black-and-white frame we let fear drive our every move, and we generalize an entire people over the deeds of a minority of the population.

Last night we had a debate on the Syrian Refugee situation, and the most popular opinion (or at least the one which got the most applause) was not to let in any refugees, not even a 5 year old orphan. “Let them move to Saudi Arabia” was what was suggested; “They’ll take over our country and we’ll become just like France.” Where is our responsibility in making a difference, in “being the change we want to see in the world”? Do we want to live in fear over the “what ifs,” locked away in our suburban palaces, or do we actually want to do something small albeit significant to support those in need? If we do the former, then the Trumpist attitude will prevail, and we will be back in the isolationist, “me first” attitude that our relatives found themselves in in 1930s America. Let’s not let our degree of comfort blind us from what it took to get there in the first place. For Trump first we’ll start with the Muslims, but the Jews are not far behind.

VaYishlach: Meeting People with Different Needs

This week we have the conclusion of the Jacob and Esau family feud, one which has spanned three Torah portions. Let’s examine how this conflict came to be in the first place. We have seen Jacob and Esau bifurcated in a number of ways, beginning with Rebecca’s pregnancy struggles, with her two fetuses literally fighting in the womb, and her imploring God “If this is the case, why am I alive?” God replies that she has two nations in her womb, that one shall be mightier than the other and that the older shall serve the younger. Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the trope indicates a different message: the pause is after the word “older,” indicating “The older, the younger shall serve,” and perhaps this is why Jacob bows to Esau in this week’s portion. Nevertheless, a conflict is set up in utero.

Both brothers quickly emerged from the womb in a struggle to be firstborn. The first is covered with red hair and appropriately named Esau, “the mantled one.” The second holds onto the heel of the first, as he wants to come out first in an attempt to supersede him[1] and is named Yaakov, a name derived from the word “heel.” The brothers are described as different as night and day, with Esau being a great hunter and Jacob sitting in tents. Rashi equates Jacob with a yeshiva bochur, stating that he sat in the tents of his ancestors Shem and Ever studying Torah.[2]

One day, Esau returns from the field ravished one day and asked that his brother give him a bowl of stew. Jacob makes Esau swear his birthright away before giving him the stew. The story is further complicated by the fact that each parent favors a different child: Isaac the strong hunter and Rebecca the quiet homeboy. Isaac intended to give Esau a blessing after he went on a hunt and returned with game. Thwarting his plan, Rebecca disguised Jacob in the clothing of Esau and cooked a meal that Jacob served his father in order to acquire the blessing. When Esau found out about the ruse, he broke down saying “Have you but one blessing father? Bless me too father!”[3] and Isaac gave him a blessing to serve his brother but when he grows restive to break the yoke from his neck! Rebecca sent Jacob away under the guise of needing to find an appropriate marriage partner and he fled the wrath of his brother. Eventually Esau pursues Jacob who after splitting his family in half (so that one half could survive), bowed seven times in submission to Esau. The two appear to reconcile (though Midrash tells a different story) and all is happily ever after.

What bothers me about this narrative is threefold: first is that sibling conflict appears to be divinely ordained, from the moment the two brothers struggle in the womb. There will be a winner and a loser, a master and a servant. Secondly, both parents favor a different child and a wife acts behind her husband’s back to ensure that her favored child will receive the firstborn blessing. Thirdly, Jacob is rewarded for his trickery in “stealing” the blessing from his brother. This is so much the case that one of the meaning of the word יעקב is trickery, as we see in the Haftorah for Tisha B’Av, כי כל אח עקב יעקב, for every brother is a deceitful supplanter.[4]

How can we reconcile the problematic nature of the brothers? The process shall begin through an appreciation of what each of the brothers brings to the table. Esau was a hunter, a provider of food for his family. We should value those who, like Esau, are active, provider types. We also should value those like Jacob, who sit quietly in the tents learning. There is no need to pick favorites in such a case: rather we should see the gifts of both brothers as being of value.

Through the same logic, we can value all types of people. When I was growing up, I was the “ideal student,” the one who listened quietly to the teacher, asked questions and showed respect to my peers. Some of my more active and outspoken classmates were not “favorited” to the degree I was in the classroom. Neither were those who had learning difficulties, at least in the traditional style of reading the textbook and “spitting back” the content on a test. The irony was that I almost was not allowed to attend Jewish day school because I was taking OT, PT and Speech, and the day school did not want anyone with supplemental services. When they saw my test scores, however, they said “Oh, he’ll do fine,” and I was accepted into day school.

When I attended college and later the Davidson School of Education at JTS, I studied Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, understanding that students learn best in different ways. We created projects and portfolios that featured lessons focusing on different intelligences, whether music, art, intrapersonal reflection, interpersonal discussions or spatial activities. These lessons were designed to meet the needs of multiple types of learners, rather than solely the traditional “model student” or “teacher’s pet.” It made me truly understand that smart did not only refer to book learning, and that each person has both strengths and challenges.

In our interactions with people, we have a natural proclivity to favor some and not others, to appreciate the gifts of some while not noticing or being impressed by those of others. Too often we turn away from those who struggle with similar challenges to the ones we had, perhaps because it is too painful to see them. The story of Jacob and Esau teaches us about the dangers of this approach and of the importance of seeing the value inside every person. Esau was one who focused on actively doing, on providing for his family with hard days work in the field, while Jacob stayed indoors and learned home skills from those in his family. May we honor both of these personalities, as well as all others that we encounter in life. On a weekend when we express appreciation for all we have, let us learn to value the strengths that are our own and always see the positive in each person we encounter. In doing so, may our story always end with a hug and a kiss, just like Jacob and Esau’s did.

[1] A congregant’s interpretation was that Jacob clung to Esau’s heel so that he didn’t have to separate from him, demonstrating the closeness of the brothers.

[2] Rashi on Genesis 25:27

[3] Genesis 27:38

[4]Jeremiah 8:3

The Paris Attacks: World War III

When I went to a the Bar Mitzvah of a family friend in Efrat in the summer of 2005, I was given a ride from Jerusalem by the father of the Bar Mitzvah boy. We engaged in conversation, which he began by saying “we are in World War III.” At first I thought he was crazy. Ten years later, however, it appears that he is correct.

We are at war, whether we admit it or not, against the forces of terror and radicalism. People who would murder 130 innocents in Paris without a second thought. Why? Because they are opposed to the values that we believe in: democracy, pluralism, western thought, justice. These barbarians are going after people like you and me who seek to enjoy an evening at a concert or theater. They are purposefully creating as much damage and tumult as possible in doing so, trying to bring about a continuous reign of terror.

We’re now over 15 years since the atrocities committed on September 11, 2001, and I think some of us were sleeping, dare I say even suppressing the terror that day instilled in us. Now we are woken up once again to the slaughter of innocents, the instilling of fear into our lives with the goal of disrupting our daily rhythm of living. Schools on Long Island have cancelled their trips into Manhattan and people are contemplating changing their Thanksgiving weekend plans as a result of the terror attack.

Let us also know forget the multiple stabbings and shootings of innocents that have occurred in Israel: in the secular, “western” area of Tel Aviv, in the religious community of Gush Etzion, in the city of Kiryat Gat in the northern Negev and throughout Israel’s capital Jerusalem. These are part of a series of terror actions based on the lie that Israel is going to demolish the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Having been in Israel for 2 weeks, I can assert that I felt completely safe and that I was proud our congregation came to support Israel in its time of need. At the same time, I noticed how dead Jerusalem was, seeing hardly anyone on Ben Yehuda Street or Mamila Mall and actually being able to walk in the Mahane Yehduah market on Friday afternoon. It seems that people are doing exactly what the terrorists want and avoiding Jerusalem.

As much as I’d like not to believe it, these signs point more and more towards us being ensconced in World War III. Unlike the previous two world wars, this one is not a war against countries but rather a war of values. It is those who believe in democracy, equality and western thought against those who would like to see the entire world dominated by Sharia law. This is not a war against Islam, and many Muslims (including my friends at the Islamic Cultural Center down the road) are very much pro-western and condemn the terrorist behavior. However, it is very much a war against those radicals and militants who believe we are infidels and heathens and who seek our destruction.

What should we do? We should continue to live our regular lives, not letting those who seek to cause fear and pandemonium actually do so. We should continue to live our lives in accordance with the values that we hold dear. We should outwardly condemn the behavior of those who seek to do us harm while at the same time working towards a world where terrorists and those who hate one for their religion will be uprooted. Let us never forget the Paris attacks just as we will never forget 9/11 and fight for a better world, a better future for us and for our children.