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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Vayichee

PARSHAT VAYICHEE
(5777)
TRUE KINDNESS
“When the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh. Do for me a true kindness and do not bury me in Egypt.” (Genesis 47:29)
This week we come to the last portion in Genesis. With it we read about the death of Jacob and then eventually, the death of his son Joseph. This portion raises several end-of-life questions, including the importance of blessing one’s children and leaving a spiritual inheritance. This is often called an “ethical will. This portion also introduces the phrase in Hebrew hesed shel emet, translated here “true kindness.” Hesed shel emet refers to the treatment of someone who died. It is called true kindness, because it is done to someone who cannot return the favor.
Later Judaism would use this phrase to refer to the Hevre Kadisha or Jewish burial society. These are Jews who voluntarily take on the task of preparing the dead for burial. Traditionally men prepare men and women prepare women. The members of the Hevre Kadisha carefully wash the body (tahara), saying prayers and asking forgiveness for the deceased that nothing disrespectful is being done. Water is then poured over the entire body. They then dress the body in a simple white garment or shroud (tachrihim), with no pockets. We cannot take anything with us. The body is put in a simple wooden casket, and is never left alone until the moment of burial.
Judaism calls this task hesed shel emet “true kindness” because it is the only loving act we can do towards another where we know that they cannot return the favor. I am a very strong believer in this method of preparing a body for burial, and I am surprised how often it is ignored here in Florida. Unfortunately, it is a bit more expensive than having funeral directors, who are usually not Jewish, prepare the body with no prayers and no traditions. Doing something correctly in keeping with Jewish tradition does cost, but it is worth the money. Many Conservative synagogues have established their own Hevra Kadisha to handle this, something I have never tried here.
This idea of doing good for others with no chance that the favor will be returned raises some fascinating questions in ethics. Most of us believe in doing good deeds for others. But underneath there is a strong sense that our good deeds will come back to bless us. For example, it is wonderful that businesses support charitable causes. But it is clear that such support is good for business. Bringing food to a family in mourning is a wonderful deed, but we know that when we are in mourning, someone will bring food for us. What goes around comes around? We do good deeds and hope that they will come back to bless us.
Hesed shel emet is a good deed where it cannot come back to bless us. In a way, it is like those who give charity secretly, where the recipient does not know the donor and the donor does not know the recipient. Maimonides called this one of the highest levels of charity. One of my favorite Hasidic tales speaks of a wealthy man in town who never gave to any of the town charities. He was known to be very tight with his money, and people called him “The Miser.” When he died, nobody mourned very much. Then poor families began coming to the rabbi. “Every Friday someone would leave us food for Shabbat, but it stopped.” “Every month someone left clothing for my children, but it stopped.” “All winter someone would leave us wood chopped for the fireplace, but it stopped.” The rabbi realized all the man had been giving to the poor in secret. On his gravestone it was written, “The Holy Miser.”
I doubt that the great philosopher Immanuel Kant ever heard of the idea hesed shel emet. But he wrote that if we perform an act hoping for some positive consequences, then it is not truly an ethical act. To be ethical, an action must be performed out of sense of duty, with no consideration of the consequences. We can all use a reminder that acts of kindness are not done with the hope of someone returning the favor. They are done out of a pure sense of duty, with the hope of sending kindness out into the world.

PARSHAT VAYICHEE
(5776)
BROTHERS WHO GET ALONG
“So he blessed them that day saying, by you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying, May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.”
(Genesis 48:20)
This week we finish the book of Genesis – Bereishit. The book deals with so many themes from creation to covenant to the difficulties of family life. But a central theme of the entire book is sibling rivalry. Genesis begins with a brother Cain killing a brother Abel out of jealousy. Genesis ends with brothers hugging as Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. Throughout the book we have constant sibling rivalry, often between the older and the younger sibling. We read about Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and even the sisters Rachel and Leah. We walk away from Genesis with the sad sense that it is the way of the world – brothers (and sisters) are destined not to get along.
Nonetheless, this portion contains the blessing that parents say to their sons every Friday night, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Why Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph born in Egypt? There is a tradition that these are the only two brothers in Genesis who never fight. Even when the younger Ephraim is chosen over the older Manasseh, the two brothers get along. We use this blessing with the hope that siblings can learn to get along. We believe that someday the Psalm Hinei Ma Tov will come true, “This is what is good and what is pleasant for brothers to dwell together in peace. (Psalms 133:1)
There is an old Jewish saying that what happens to the fathers is a sign for the children. Perhaps we can see the events of Genesis as a sign for the future history of Western religions. Perhaps what began as brothers killing brothers will end with brothers embracing brothers. To see this, we have to take a long term view of history.
The brothers in Genesis have come to represent historical peoples and faiths. Jacob became Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. He represents the people Israel and the religion they practice – Judaism. Esau the older brother was also known as Edom. He became the nation of Rome, which converted to Christianity during the reign of Constantine. Esau represents Christianity. The father of Jacob and Esau was Isaac, who had a rivalry with his older brother Ishmael. In fact the rivalry was so severe that his mother Sarah sent Ishmael away into the wilderness. Ishmael became the father of the Arab nation and eventually the religion practiced by that nation – Islam. So Jacob, Esau, and Ishmael became the three great Western religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Can they learn to get along?
For all the rivalries between Jacob and Esau, Judaism and Christianity have gone through a huge change, particularly since World War II and the Holocaust. One thinks of the long history of violence against Jews by the Christian community from the Crusades to the Inquisition. Who would have dreamed that Jews and Christians would be working together, that the Vatican would recognize Israel, or that the Pope would visit a synagogue in Rome? Somehow in the last century Jacob and Esau have learned to live together, work together, and find common ground. Certainly there are still Christians who hate Jews (and sad to say, some Jews who hate Christians.) But the mainstream churches, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, have learned to embrace their Jewish brothers and sisters.
Perhaps this change is most strongly symbolized by the growth of marriages between Christian and Jews. Every newspaper in America including the Sun-Sentinel (our local paper) had an article this week about how Jewish-Christian couples are celebrating Christmas. Rabbis certainly are disturbed by the rising rates of such marriages. But on the bright side, such marriages are a sign of how two faiths that used to hate each other have learned to get along.
What about Ishmael and his nephews, Jacob and Esau? Will there ever be peace between Islam and the two older faiths, Judaism and Christianity? Sadly if one looks historically, at one point there was such a peace. Jews flourished in Moslem Spain, often called the Golden Age. Maimonides and Aquinas wrote brilliant works combining their respective faiths Judaism and Christianity with the Greek philosopher Aristotle. But they only knew Aristotle’s writings through Arabic translations in the Moslem world. The potential is there for Islam to live in peace with Judaism and Christianity.
In this age of ISIS and al-Qaeda, is there hope for such brotherly love? Perhaps not currently, but we need to take a long term view of history. In Genesis, Isaac and Ishmael stood together to bury their father Abraham. I believe the day will come when the three Abrahamic religions will embrace, and work together to build a better world.

PARSHAT VAYECHEE
(5775)
BLESSING A RANCH
“So he blessed them that day saying, God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
I just returned from five days in Cali, Colombia where I celebrated the bat mitzvah of a young law student who I converted a few years ago. She learned the haftarah in between her rather demanding law studies. This was my third trip to Colombia, and I hope to return to visit in the future. But I need to learn Spanish.
The Shabbat was a fascinating experience. Although almost everyone who participated in services was a convert, they had learned Jewish ritual by attending the local Orthodox Sephardic synagogue. They asked me to lead the services Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon, using a Sephardic Hebrew-Spanish prayer book. My Ashkenazic roots came out, and several times I got lost in their prayerbook. They followed the rituals they are used to, with men and women sitting separately. The only woman called to the Torah was my bat mitzvah student. But I was impressed how well they knew the traditional prayers.
A kosher caterer was brought in from Bogota and all the food for the whole weekend was prepared under Orthodox supervision. We had the traditional Shabbat meals. I even did an hour of Torah learning Shabbat afternoon, with a young high school student translating my English into Spanish. She was one of a number of young people who joined us that Shabbat. The entire Shabbat program took place at a venue called Club Shalom (which also hosted two non-Jewish weddings that Saturday.) Then after Shabbat we moved to an outdoor arena on the grounds for the party. Again the food was strictly kosher. And the music was wild. I learned why Cali, Colombia is considered the Salsa capital of the world.
Sunday was a special experience. The family of my bat mitzvah owns a gigantic ranch about an hour and a half outside Cali. Travel was not by superhighway but by back, curvy, crowded roads through tiny towns. But when we arrived I saw the ranch was huge. There was a big family home that was more like a hacienda, where we unpacked and ate a hot kosher picnic lunch. Then we drove through the ranch, up and down the hills, calling to the cows to approach us. I even posed with a horse and a couple of baby goats, pictures I posted on Facebook. Finally I learned why the owner had brought me there. He wanted me to place a mezuzah on the ranch home. Then he wanted me to hold the Torah and give my blessing to this family ranch.
How do you bless a ranch? This week’s portion talks about blessing children, a practice I follow with my children every Friday night. Jewish tradition has the kohenim (priests) bless the congregation. Over the years as a rabbi I have blessed marriages, I have blessed new babies, I have blessed cars, I have blessed homes, I even once blessed someone’s wine cellar. But a ranch that covers acres and acres, filled with grazing cows and horses? How was I worthy to give such a blessing?
In truth, it is God who is blessing the ranch. They wanted me, as a rabbi, to represent God, hold the Torah, and say the words. I was to pronounce God’s blessing. So I began to pronounce a Hebrew blessing. At that moment, the Hebrew word for “ranch” (chava) totally slipped my mind. I used the word for “property” instead. I had taught during my Torah study on Shabbat afternoon that all property belongs to God, and we humans can use it only if we remember who ultimate owns all property. So I blessed the ranch. Or perhaps to put it more accurately, I invoked God’s blessing on the ranch.
I believe that the family who brought me to Colombia for their daughter’s bat mitzvah is now convinced that their ranch will truly prosper. It was blessed by an American rabbi in Hebrew, while holding a Torah. But ultimately it was blessed by God. So whenever we invoke a blessing, we may say the words. But it is God’s blessing that we are invoking.

PARSHAT VAYECHEE
(5774)
RECONCILIATION BETWEEN BROTHERS
“So shall you say to Joseph, forgive I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly. Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father. And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.” (Genesis 50:17)
This week we finish the book of Genesis. The book began with the creation of the universe. It ends with the Israelites living in Egypt, soon to be enslaved by Pharaoh. Events occur on a grand scale.
Genesis is also about events on much smaller scale, within families and peoples. Genesis begins with fratricide, the slaying of Cain by Abel. It ends with reconciliation, Joseph hugging and forgiving his brothers. Throughout the book we see constant brotherly conflict – Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. And let us not leave out the tension between two sisters, Rachel and Leah.
Of course, these conflicts symbolize the much bigger conflicts between nations and peoples that have continued throughout human history. The prophet Malachi said long ago, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10) Just as sibling rivalry is natural within families, conflict between nations seems to be the nature of humanity. And if conflict is a natural state of affairs, reconciliation and forgiveness is the hope of humanity. Genesis ends with a sign of hope that someday we will all get along.
I thought about this as the nations of the world gathered to mourn the death this past week of Nelson Mandela, the man who brought a revolutionary change to South Africa. He more than anybody else, managed to end apartheid and bring some degree of understanding between different races in that troubled nation. There were numerous tributes to the man for bringing a spirit of forgiveness to his nation, even after his long imprisonment.
Certainly Mandela was often a controversial figure in life. Many in the Jewish community were distrustful of him. They did not accept his early embrace of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In a similar manner, many in the Cuban-American community were angered by his embrace of Fidel Castro. In truth, Mandela was not a hater of Israel, and he deeply understood the desire of Jews to live freely in their own homeland. However, he also understood the needs of the Palestinians. He wanted Israel to embrace her enemies. To quote him, “Look, I appreciate what the Jewish community has done for me. On the other hand, if the test of my friendship with you is that I have to be an enemy of your enemy, then I cannot be your friend.” (I want to thank anti-defamation league director Abraham Foxman who shared this quote.) These words of Nelson Mandela remind me of similar words of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “You do not make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies.”
Many people have criticized Israel for sending a relatively low level delegation to the Mandela funeral led by former refusenik Yuli Edelstein. They believe that the Prime Minister or the President of Israel should have gone, as head of an Israeli delegation reflecting Jewish tradition with its emphasis on peace and reconciliation. This Jewish emphasis on peace is reflected in a wonderful scene in the Broadway musical Soul Doctor about the life of Shlomo Carlebach. Unfortunately, the musical closed too quickly. In one scene Shlomo is attacked for returning to Vienna where his family had fled from the Nazis. He responds that if he had too separate hearts, he could use one to love and one to hate. But since God only gave him one heart, he may as well use it to love.
The book of Genesis ends when warring brothers made peace. Mandela died after forgiving his enemies and making peace between the races in his country. Perhaps the message is that someday the conflicts between brothers and sisters, conflicts between peoples and nations, do not need to be the fate of the world. Perhaps it is a hint of a future built on peace.

PARSHAT VAYECHEE
(5773)
TOGETHER FOREVER
“Then he instructed them saying to them, I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite … there I buried Leah.”
(Genesis 49:29, 31)
Twice in the last three weeks I have flown out to Los Angeles. Three weeks ago it was to bury my Uncle Max Srery, who passed away just short of one hundred years. This week it was to bury his wife of 57 years, my Aunt Shirley Srery, my mom’s little sister. She had been like a second mother to me since my own mom passed on. She was much younger and her loss was truly unexpected.
I expected that when my uncle died, Shirley would start to enjoy life after being his caretaker for a number of years. But I suppose God had different plans for her, or perhaps she herself had different plans. After all these years, she did not want to live on without her husband. Now they are truly “together forever.” I imagine her in the next world making him his daily breakfast of a sunny side up egg on a waffle. May their memories be for a blessing.
Part of the reality of my job is that I spend a lot of time in cemeteries. I find myself reading grave markers. One of the most frequent markers I see is a husband and wife buried next to one another with the words “together forever” engraved on the marker. I imagine that not only are their bodies together in the ground, but their spirits are together in the next world. I am intrigued by a scene in this week’s Torah reading. Jacob on his death bed in Egypt does not ask to be carried back to the Promised Land to be buried next to his beloved Rachel. Rather he chooses to be buried next to Leah, his first wife and the mother of the majority of his children. Jacob and Leah, in spite of tension in their marriage in this world, are together in eternity.
I recently met a woman who is a deeply religious Mormon. She was speaking to me about her husband and their marriage. The way she described him, I assumed he was sitting at home waiting for her. It turned out that he has been dead more than ten years. But in this woman’s mind they were still married. The two of them had converted to the Mormon faith and gone through a ceremony of eternal marriage. They would now be married forever, both in this world and in the next. I could see in this woman a deep sense of comfort and happiness in being “together forever.”
Does my own religion have any ideas equivalent to such eternal marriage? Young people often speak about looking for their beshert, a nice Yiddish word referring to their particular chosen one or soul mate. Everyone dreams of finding their beshert. But the idea goes much deeper amongst Jewish mystics. In the kabbalah a male soul and a female soul are joined before they come into this world. They are separated and brought into this world. Part of each one’s mission in life is to rejoin the two halves of the soul, for each to find the other half. I explore this in greater length in my book The Kabbalah of Love; The Story of a Soul.
Of course not everybody is lucky enough to find their soul mate in this world. Many marriages do not work out. Many people try again. As Samuel Johnson is quoted as saying, “A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” Some find eternal love the second time around. And some people seem to find two or more eternal loves. I will not enter the mind boggling question of the man who has married twice in life; who will he spend eternity with? God will have to sort that one out. But I still love the idea of being “together forever” both in this world at the next.
In California I said goodbye to two people who I believe are truly “together forever.” May we all be so blessed in this world to find such a soul mate in this world!

PARSHAT VAYECHEE
(5771)

EPHRAIM AND MANASSEH
“By you shall Israel invoke blessings saying, God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
Every Friday evening I bless my three children. When they were little I blessed them around the Shabbat dinner table. Now that they are adults with two living in other states, I bless them over the phone. I bless my two sons with the words from this week’s portion Yeseemcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’keeManashe – “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” I bless my daughter with the words Yeseemech Elohim k’Sara Rivka Rahel v’Leah – May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Then I conclude with the priestly blessing.
Why Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph born in Egypt? Some have suggested that in the Torah they are the first two brothers who totally get along. They lived peacefully with one another, even though Jacob favored the younger Ephraim over the older Manasseh. Perhaps the blessing is a foretaste of that future dream, when “here is what is good and what is pleasant, for brothers to dwell peacefully together.” (Psalms 133:1) This blessing is particularly important to end the book of Genesis, a book filled with fratricide, sibling rivalry, and hatred.
From the beginning of Genesis we see brothers and even sisters who cannot get along. The book begins with Cain killing his brother Abel; with the first set of siblings murder enters the world. It seems to be saying that fratricide is built into nature. Human beings, without legal and religious restraints, kill other human beings. How can we rise above our passions and accept our siblings?
The sibling rivalries continue. The half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael do not get along, and Abraham must banish Ishmael from his home. The two brothers only come together briefly to bury their father. This rivalry has come to symbolize the war between Jews, the descendents of Isaac, and Moslems, the descendents of Ishmael. This war continues today. Perhaps one day Jews and Moslems will come together and recognize our shared father Abraham.
The next generation is marked by a rivalry between Jacob and Esau, who fought one another while still in their mother’s womb. The younger Jacob would pressure the older Esau to give him his birthright, and then would steal his blessing. Esau sought to kill his brother. After twenty years separation the two brothers have some reconciliation. They hug one another but still go their separate ways. This rivalry has come to symbolize the tensions between Jews, descendents of Jacob, and Christians, descendents of Esau who was renamed Edom and then became Rome. Today, particularly since Vatican II, we have seen a reconciliation between Jews and Christians that would have shocked our grandparents. But too often we still go our separate ways.
Even sisters in Genesis are not immune to sibling rivalry. Leah the older sister is fertile but unloved; Rachel the younger sister is loved but infertile. Each is jealous of the other. In due course their rivalry will lead to a rivalry between their children. Leah’s sons lead by Judah will throw Rachel’s son Joseph into a pit, from which he will be taken as a slave to Egypt. Only towards the end of Genesis does Joseph embrace and forgive his brothers.
And so we come to the next generation, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. We do not know much about their individual personalities. But we do know that the Torah reflects no conflicts between them. We finally have a generation of brothers who get along. With them we end Genesis and begin reading Exodus. In Exodus we finally have an older sister Miriam and two brothers Aaron and Moses who embraced one another and were proud of each other’s accomplishments.
This week we finish reading Genesis. We read a book that begins with hatred between brothers and ends with brothers embracing. The Bible views all humans as brothers and sisters. “Have we not one father? Did not one God create us all?” (Malachi 2:10) Perhaps the entire book of Genesis points to that day when sibling rivalry and hatred will finally disappear from the world.

PARSHAT VIYECHEE
(5770)

FACE-TO-FACE
“And Israel saw Joseph’s sons, and said, Who are these?”
(Genesis 48:8)

Greetings from Los Angeles. I am out here to see my family – my aunt and uncle and cousins, and of course my youngest son who moved here last year. I am also out here to attend the wedding of the daughter of one of my oldest friends. It was worth a cramped airplane flight to be able to see people I love face-to-face.
In this week’s portion Joseph brings his two sons to see his ailing father Jacob (or Israel). Jacob hopes to bless the two boys, but when they come to his bedside he does not recognize them. “Who are these?” he asks. Of course the Rabbis of old asked how a man could not recognize his own grandsons. Rashi reflects that perhaps he saw in a prophecy that wicked kings would descend from these grandsons, and this scary prophecy blinded his eyes. It is a fascinating thought, but I do not believe it goes to the heart of the portion.
Joseph was thrilled to see his father move down to Egypt. But he was a busy man, and now some time had passed. He had not brought his sons to see their grandfather for some time. This was in the days before email and phones, facebook and twitter, audio and visual conferencing. The only way to see someone was face-to-face. Time had passed, the boys had grown older, and when they finally met up again, Jacob did not recognize his own grandsons. Perhaps even in this age of electronic interconnections, it is worthy to speak of the importance of face-to-face meetings.
It is the miracle of our modern age that I am able to hear the voice and see the face of people I love around the world. But there is something about a face-to-face encounter. This is already hinted by the Hebrew. The Hebrew word for face is panim – always in the plural. Face-to-face is panim el panim, (today it is the name of an educational program for teens in Washington DC.) The very Hebrew word for face seems to teach us that our face needs other faces to fulfill its purpose. Our face has more muscles and more ways to move than any other organ of our body. This seems to indicate that our face needs other faces to do what God designed it to do.
Of course it is possible to be in the presence of someone and still not be face-to-face. I remember many years ago when my children were young, sitting with them in a restaurant and reading the newspaper. A total stranger came up and scolded me. “Put your newspaper away and pay attention to your children. They will not be young forever.” Then he walked away. In hindsight I realize how correct he was. People and particularly our children deserve our presence. How often do we sit at the table with those we love and ignore them, playing with our cell phones or blackberries? How often do we talk to someone but our minds are far away? How often do we ignore the presence of those who most need us? As the Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”
God made humans to be face-to-face with other humans. In fact, one of my favorite Biblical teachings, which I have often repeated, is the image of the Cherubim in the ancient tabernacle the Israelites carried through the desert. The two Cherubim faced each other. And God spoke from between the faces. When one human being is face-to-face with another human being, it is there that God dwells.
So even if it is a bit expensive or inconvenient, a cramped airplane flight or a long car ride, I urge you to take the time and see those you love face-to-face. It is in the presence of others that we become most fully human.

PARSHAT VEYECHI
(5769)

BEFORE WE DIE

“Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.” (Genesis 47:28)

This portion is called vayechi “and he lived.” The title is about life, and yet the portion is about death. Jacob dies in this portion after gathering his sons and blessing each one. And at the end of the portion Joseph dies full of years, having seen his great grandchildren. A portion about death reaffirms life. The world of the living is where the action is – our tradition has always emphasized not how to make it to the next world but how to live in this world. Both Jacob and Joseph accomplished during their lifetimes what God sent them into this world to do.
I dealt with this theme last Yom Kippur. Let me share just a piece of that sermon entitled “The Jewish Way of Being Human: The Final Journey:”
Let me mention one more movie that came out this year that covers the same theme. I deeply enjoyed the film The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Two very different men – an auto mechanic and a wealthy hospital owner – meet in the hospital as both are going through cancer treatment. Both learn they are dying. And so they come up with a bucket list – things they want to do with their lives before they kick the bucket. And together they take off around the world to do everything on their list. They go skydiving and drive racecars. They dine in Paris and climb the pyramids. They develop a wonderful friendship, and eventually discover that there is more to life than filling a to-do list. It ends with a wonderful message; go rent the movie.
I will agree that there a things we should try to do while we are alive. And if we can do them as soon as we can, all the better. There is the story of Willoughby who goes for a two week trip to Paris. It had always been his dream. He returns and tells his best friend, “It was wonderful, I should have done the trip twenty years ago.” “When Paris was really Paris.” “No,” he answers, “When Willoughby was really Willoughby.” Yes it is nice to have a bucket list to fulfill while you can still enjoy them. But that is not the message I want to give you on this Yom Kippur. I am going to give you a short list – three things. There are three things I want you to do while you are still alive in this world. [Note – I go on to mention three things each of us needs to do while in this world. Let me just bring the second one here. I can email you the entire sermon.]
. . .
The second thing on my bucket list that each of us needs to do, starting today if possible, is to become a presence in the life of the people who need us in their lives. One of the ways we perfect this world as a kingdom of God is by our relationships with other people. I am talking about the key people – our parents, our siblings, our spouse or significant other, perhaps most important, our children. I am talking about our friends and our mentors and our students. They need our presence. Our children need our physical presence, to see us and talk to us face-to-face.
In my new book The Kabbalah of Love I brought a mystical insight from the Torah. After we received the Ten Commandments, God gave Moses instructions how to build a tabernacle, curtain by curtain and clasp by clasp. God would appear and speak to the people out of the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a beautiful portable tent. Where in the tabernacle did God speak? One would think that God was in the Holy of Holies, the holiest spot which contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Rather, above the Holy of Holies were the faces of two cherubim, two models of human faces turned towards each other. God spoke from between the faces of the cherubim. When a human being is face to face with another human being, that is where God speaks.
The significant people in our lives need our presence. And if they do not live near us, that is why there are telephones and airplanes. For the older generation here, I want you to do something. I want you to learn how to send an email by computer. That is how your grandchildren communicate. If you do not have a computer, do not worry. Every library has them for public use. Learn to use email.
For the younger generation who are here, I want you to do something you have probably never done in your life. I want you to learn to write a letter. Stamp it and mail it. Do you even know where to buy stamps? Part of the reason we get so much junk mail is that is the only way the US Post Office can stay in business; no one sends letters any more. On one of the last trips I took home to visit my parents before they died, they gave me a pile of letters I had written them during a year of study in Israel. It was like a diary saved. Whether face-to-face, by phone, by email, by letter, even on Facebook, I want you to be a presence in the lives of others.

PARSHAT VAYECHI
(5768)

MAINTAINING ONE’S IDENTITY

“When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” (Genesis 47:30)

A true story – It was a Shabbat evening towards the end of December 1990. My family and I had just moved to Florida from Pittsburgh. We looked forward to living in a much larger Jewish community. We loved Pittsburgh, appreciated the small but active Jewish community there, but often felt like an invisible minority amongst the vast Christian majority.
We had just sat down to eat our Shabbat dinner when there was a knock on the door. When I answered, there was Santa Claus in his full regalia. He said his ho, ho, ho and started to walk into our home. I told him, “Boy, do you have the wrong house.” Meanwhile, my children were all excited. It turns out that Santa had been hired to show up at a Christmas party about a block away. He had been given the wrong address and showed up at a rabbi’s home on the Jewish Sabbath. So that was the year I had to give Santa directions and send him off to the proper place.
I sometimes think about that story as we enter the week where the vast majority of our friends and neighbors celebrate Christmas. It is so easy to be swallowed up in the trappings of the season. I never want to be “the Grinch who stole Christmas” or Ebenezer Scrooge shouting, “bah humbug.” I appreciate the lights, the decorations, the music, and most important, the sense of good will and holiness which this Christian holiday exudes. Unless I am willing to go live in Israel (something which has crossed my mind), I realize that I must live a Jewish life as a minority in a majority culture.
How do I as a Jew maintain my identity? How do I teach my children to be proud of their differences? (When my children were very young in Pittsburgh, I remember having them pose for pictures at the mall. The poor camera operator tried to get them to sit still for the snap shot, saying in exasperation, “Be good, or Santa won’t bring you any presents.” One of my kids spoke back, “We’re Jewish. We don’t believe in Santa.” The young mall employee did not even know how to react.)
To be a Jew outside the land of Israel is to be part of a minority. To be sure, we are a proud minority who has kept our way of life going for thousands of years. And few nations in the history of humanity have been as welcoming to the Jewish people as America. Jews have flourished in the United States thanks to the tradition of religious freedom tied to the good will of the American people. But having said that, it is always difficult to be a minority and keep one’s identity alive.
This week’s portion is a precedent for living as a minority in a majority culture. The Israelites came down to Egypt as a small minority in a vast majority culture. Joseph insisted that the Israelites live in one concentrated area, Goshen, where they could maintain their way of life and not assimilate into Egyptian society. Parents would bless children with the dream of keeping the Jewish way of life alive. And both Jacob and Joseph, as they face their own deaths, tell their children not to bury them in Egypt. Bring them back to the Holy Land so they can be buried with their ancestors.
Later the Rabbis would elaborate on how the Israelites maintained their identity in the land of Egypt. Children were given Hebrew names and maintained the Hebrew language. Parents were careful to teach their children the laws against gossip and sexual immorality. (Leviticus Rabbah 32:5) There was a serious effort to keep their minority culture alive.
Today it is easy for Jews living in America to be swept along with the majority culture. (One bit of irony – it was a Jew who composed the most popular Christmas song of all time; Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas. Berlin called it the best song he had ever written, and went on to say it was the best song anybody had ever written.) For Jews living in America, let us appreciate our neighbors’ holiday. But like the Israelites in ancient Egypt, let us never forget who we are.

PARSHAT VAYECHEE
(5766)

ALZHEIMER’S

“And Israel saw Joseph’s sons, and said, who are these?”
(Genesis 48:8)

Jacob was old and sick, and called upon Joseph to bring his two sons to him for a blessing. Moments before he had waxed eloquent on how he planned to adopt the two sons, making them two of the tribes. Now the moment had come when the sons appeared before him. Jacob looked at his two beloved grandsons and said, “Who are these?” He did not even recognize his own grandsons.
The Midrash (Rabbinic legend) gives one explanation. He did not recognize them because they came dressed in Egyptian dress, and they did not appear to be Hebrews. However, when the two boys saw their grandfather, they said the Shma (the central prayer of Jewish tradition.) Hearing the prayer, Jacob realized who they were and was ready to bless them.
The Midrash is beautiful. But perhaps there is another explanation. When a grandparent does not recognize his own grandsons, perhaps it is the beginning of senility. Perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease was setting in. I have seen it too often. In my own family, during the last years of her life, my father’s mother did not recognize him; she called him “Sonny.” Too often I have performed a funeral where the family told me, “Rabbi, my mother died years ago. Her mind disappeared.” Recently someone spoke to me who was angrier. “Rabbi, my wife was stolen from me by this disease.”
I do not know if Jacob had Alzheimer’s. He certainly was able to speak in an articulate way to all of his sons before he died. But perhaps his memory was beginning to fade. Sadly, too many of us see a loved one’s mind slip away while they are still in this world. I think we all admire the honesty with which the late President Ronald Reagan admitted his Alzheimer’s to the public and shared his struggle with this incurable condition. It is certainly one of the saddest ways to leave this world.
A number of years ago I gave a lecture at the Broward County Main Public Library. The lecture was for a mind-body conference, and it dealt with the kabalistic idea that our soul has various levels in this world. Our soul goes from nefesh (mere consciousness) to ruach (the animal soul of emotions), then to neshama (the human soul able to empathize and make rational decisions) and finally, if we are lucky, chaya (the highest level of the soul where we become at one with another soul, or with the universe as a whole.) One of our goals in life is to grow our souls, to evolve to higher and higher levels. I have written and lectured extensively on this beautiful idea.
As I was speaking, I saw a woman growing agitated in the back of the room. Finally she raised her hand and asked me, “Rabbi, my mother has Alzheimer’s. She cannot take care of herself, she gets violent, and she no longer recognizes me. Tell me, what level is her soul at?” I will admit that I was stumped. But I have been thinking about that question ever since.
Could it be that some people, because of brain malfunction, can only hold onto the lowest level of the soul in this world? Could they go back to the nefesh level, the most basic level of the soul? Certainly they possess the higher levels of the soul. But perhaps those levels of the soul are no longer in this world. Could it be that some people’s souls are already partially in the world to come, even as they continue their bodily existence in this world? Could it be that they still exist on some higher plane, while those of us who love them in this world only see the most basic level of consciousness?
Perhaps our job when, this happens, is to make sure they never lose their human dignity. There is a tradition that when Moses built the Ark of the Covenant, he put in the Ten Commandments written on two tablets of stone. But Moses also put the broken pieces of the tablets he threw down after the incident of the golden calf. The Rabbis compare the broken tablet to a scholar who has forgotten his learning. Such a scholar is treated with as much dignity and respect as a scholar at the height of his learning.
Sadly, there are some people whose souls retreat to the next world while they still live among us in this world. They become shells of themselves. Nonetheless, they deserve as much human dignity as any other human being. After all, at the end of his life, even the great patriarch Jacob did not recognize his own grandchildren.

PARSHAT VAYICHEE
(5764)

COVENANT

“And Jacob said to Joseph, El Shaddai appeared to me in Luz in the land of Canaan and He blessed me and said to me, I will make you fertile and numerous, making of you a community of peoples; and I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession.” (Genesis 48:3-4)

This week we finish the book of Genesis, reading about the death of Jacob and at the end, the death of his son Joseph. What is the major theme in Genesis? The book speaks of many powerful themes – creation, perhaps family. But I believe there is one theme that stands out throughout the first book of the Bible – covenant (in Hebrew brit or bris.)
In the book, God made a covenant with Noah and his descendents (all humanity), with the rainbow as the symbol of this covenant. Then God made a covenant with Abraham and his immediate family (the Jewish people) with circumcision as the symbol of this covenant. Later, this covenant will be renewed with the entire people Israel standing at Mt. Sinai. To understand the message of Genesis, and perhaps the message of the entire Bible, we must understand the meaning of covenant.
A covenant is like a contract, but with a much deeper sense of commitment. It defines mutual obligations between the parties, whether God and all humanity or God and the people Israel. It assumes an ongoing relationship as well as mutual commitments towards action. In a similar way, our tradition sees marriage as covenant between a man and a woman, with mutual promises and commitments as well as an ongoing relationship.
One of the modern thinkers who has written powerful books about covenant is Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and the teacher of a generation of rabbis. Last summer Rabbi Hartman and his daughter were scholars in the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State, a retreat center for the arts, education, and religion. (I was also a teacher in Chautauqua last summer, but was there several weeks before Rabbi Hartman. However, I was privileged to get a tape of his main talk.)
Rabbi Hartman told this mostly Christian audience that covenant is one of the most empowering ideas in religious thinking. Many people have the mistaken notion that religion teaches human passivity and obedience. Religion is about going through the motions because God demands it, as a master makes demands of a slave. But this is not the Biblical view. Rather, God made a covenant with humanity because God needs us. We humans are major actors in the divine, human drama. God literally waits for us to act out our particular role in the covenant. We are partners with God in the perfection or the redemption of this world.
Hartman compared the Biblical and the Greek visions of God. To the Greeks, God was the unmoved first mover. According to Aristotle, God was pure thought contemplating God=s own perfection. God was unchangeable, without needs or desires. No Greek would understand the title of the famous book written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man. The Greek God does not need humanity; in fact, to say God needs anything is to mar God’s perfection.
Not so the Biblical God. God needs humans. We are God=s covenantal partners. God awaits our actions. We have the power to do God’s work in this world, making this world a better, holier place. Or we have the ability to reject God’s work, making this world a sadder place to live. God needs us as much as we need God. Covenant implies partnership; that is what makes the idea of covenant so empowering for human beings.
People sometimes ask me what the essence of Judaism is. My answer is that Judaism, whether Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, is an answer to the question: What does God expect of us as Jews under the covenant? In fact, since God made a covenant with all humanity, a central human question ought to be, what does God expect of us as human beings under the covenant? The book of Genesis introduced the idea of covenant to the world. God needs a partner. God cries out to us as human beings. How we respond to the covenant with God is the central religious question of our time, perhaps the central religious question of all time.

PARSHAT VAYICHEE
(5763)

ELDERLY PARENTS

“When Jacob was told, your son Joseph has come to see you, Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed.” (Genesis 48:2)

The words of the Torah were written thousands of years ago. And yet, sometimes they read as if they are happening today.
In the beginning of this portion, an elderly man (Jacob, also called Israel) lay on his sick bed. A messenger told his beloved son Joseph that his elderly father was ailing. (Why did he not know?!) Joseph arrived with the two grandsons. Jacob, upon seeing his son and two grandsons, had a new burst of strength and was able to sit up on the bed. Jacob blessed his grandsons before his death.
This scenario is played out here in Florida on a regular basis. People retire down here to live out their days in the good weather, enjoying the golf and cards, early bird dinners and cruises. But time takes its toll, children are far away, people become sick and frail. Often their children do not know of their parents’ condition. Sometimes the children do know but are too busy with their own lives to do very much about it. (“Rabbi, my mother is frail, alone in her apartment down in Florida. It is hard for me to visit. Can you look in on her on a regular basis and make sure she is alright.”)
Finally, when the situation gets bad enough, the children come down. Often they bring the grandchildren. Something happens; the frail senior suddenly has a new life, a new excitement. (“Rabbi, when I finally came down to visit mom, she seemed so animated and excited. She seems to be okay. Why did you tell me she is ill?”)
Who is responsible for the care of elderly frail parents? The Torah tradition is clear; the responsibility lies with the children. The Talmud teaches, “Honor means the child must supply the parent with food and drink, clothing and footwear, and assist the parent’s coming and going.” (Kiddushin 31b) The child does not necessarily have to provide the hands on, day to day care, although in a perfect world that is the ideal. But a child must make sure a frail, elderly parent is properly cared for.
I am certainly aware that parents can be difficult, particularly as they loose their physical abilities or part of their mental capacity. I am reminded of the story of Rabbi Assi who had a tough, perhaps senile mother. His mother wanted jewelry, so he bought her some. His mother wanted a husband, so he tried to find one for her. None were good enough; his mother demanded a husband who looked like him. Finally Rabbi Assi fled to the land of Israel. Then he heard his mother was coming to stay with him, so he asked permission of his rabbi to leave. After receiving permission, he heard that it was his mother’s casket coming to Israel. Rabbi Assi cried out, “If I had known I never would have left her.” (Kiddushin 31a)
Part of the burden and the joy of being human is to care for elderly parents. It is not necessarily an easy task. But after all, they did care for us when we were children. Now the time has come to return the favor.

PARSHAT VAYICHEE
(5762)

FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION

“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them, every one according to his blessing he blessed them.” (Genesis 49:28)

I visited an elderly woman last week who was homebound and quite depressed. She could no longer drive, see very well, or participate in the physical activities she used to enjoy. She cried in my presence and asked, “Why am I alive? My body cannot do what it used to do? I no longer do the things that used to give me pleasure? What good is life?”
I tried to comfort her. “God is not ready to take you yet. God still must have something He wants you to do in this world.”
“What could God want with an old lady like me?”
I answered, “You have grandchildren and great grandchildren. If you could leave them a message, what would you tell them?”
At first she replied, “They are busy with their own lives. They don’t care.”
“But what would you tell them?” With that she started to talk, to tell her story, to speak of her values, to share her wishes and dreams for her progeny. And the more she spoke, the more animated she became. Finally I stopped her. “Don’t tell me. Use a tape recorder and record it for them. Perhaps this is what God wants you to do while you are still in this world.”
In this week’s portion, Jacob finally passes on after living to see several generations. He also had complained, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” (Genesis 47:9) Nonetheless, he was privileged to gather all his children around him for a final blessing and final words of wisdom before he died. Out of this portion grew the Jewish idea of leaving our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren an ethical will. Unlike a regular will, which is concerned with passing on our property, an ethical will is concerned with passing on our values.
With this week’s portion we finish the book of Genesis. One of the major themes of this book is the connection between parents and children. In my new book The Ten Journeys of Life in the chapter on facing our mortality, I speak of two metaphors for human life. The ancient pagan world saw life as a great cycle, with each generation simply reliving the life of the previous generation. “One generation comes and one generation goes. There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4,9) The Bible, on the other hand, sees life as a chain, with each generation a new link.
The book of Genesis is filled with long lists of begats, who gave birth to whom. There were ten generations from Adam to Noah, ten generations from Noah to Abraham, Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat twelve sons and a daughter, the sons begat the people Israel. The link between generations is key to understanding the Biblical message.
Parents have an obligation to teach their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Children have an obligation to honor their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. The older generation is a repository of wisdom for the younger generation. Each generation learns from the past, adds its own wisdom and insights, and passes their knowledge on to the future. So it is that over the course of generations, we human beings perfect this world as a kingdom of God.
As we grow older, we may no longer have the physical strength to participate in the activities we loved when we were younger. But we are never too old to teach our children and grandchildren. As we say in our daily prayers, “Generation by generation we will praise God’s name.”

PARSHAT VAYICHEE
(5761)

LOOKING FOR GOOD

“But Joseph said to them, Have no fear. Am I a substitute for God. Besides although you intended me harm, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

Joseph’s brothers approach Joseph, fearful that he will enact some kind of revenge for their treatment of him. Joseph answers that he is not in God’s stead to judge. Besides, they may have intended him harm, but God intended their actions for good.
One of the most natural human inclinations is to look for the negative in others. It is so easy to criticize and to pass judgment, it is natural to gossip and put down our fellow human beings. Some people can only build themselves up by knocking others down. It is always possible to find fault. It is far easier to look for the bad than to look for the good in others.
For that reason, Jewish tradition places great importance on the principle of lelamed z’chut, searching for the good in people. The idea goes back to the days when the Jewish community actually sat in judgment when there was a capital crime. Twenty-three judges, known as a small Sanhedrin were given responsibility to reach a verdict. In order to be convicted, there had to be a majority of two.
What if all twenty-three judges found the culprit guilty? In this case, he or she was let go. The idea was that there must be at least one judge willing to argue in the defendant=s defense. Somebody had to find some mitigating circumstance, some reason to consider a verdict of not guilty. Without someone searching for good, the defendant did not have proper representation. Perhaps our Constitutional right to proper legal defense grew out of this ancient Rabbinic law.
We no longer have Jewish courts of law. But all of us are in a position to judge our fellow human beings. Too often we scrutinize the actions of others even before we look at our own actions. The great sage Hillel taught, “Do not judge your neighbor until you have stood in his place.” (Avot 2:4) It is proper to search for the good, even when it is not obvious.
Sometimes we need to search hard for the good in others. There is a story of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement in the nineteenth century, a movement that emphasized deep ethical introspection. He caught a man smoking at the entrance of the synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath (an act forbidden by Jewish law.) He told the man, “Excuse me sir, perhaps you did not know that it is the Sabbath.”
“I know perfectly well that it is the Sabbath.”
“Perhaps you forgot that smoking is forbidden on the Sabbath.”
“I know perfectly well that smoking is forbidden on the Sabbath.”
“Perhaps your doctor gave you some kind of medical dispensation requiring you to smoke on the Sabbath.”
“There is no such dispensation.”
Rabbi Salanter then turned his face to God. “Lord of the universe, look how wonderful Your people are. I gave this man three chances to lie, and three times he told the truth.”
This is a perfect example of the search for good in someone. The more difficult a person is, the harder it is to find this good. Sometimes it involves a search for mitigating circumstances. Why is the person doing what they are doing? Are there aspects of this person’s life we do not know about? Are they simply weak and unable to control themselves? Underneath, what is the good and the positive in this person?
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to do a formal exercise. Every time we hear someone put down their fellow, we should try to find something positive about that person. Lelamed Z’chut ought to become a habit practiced daily. Let Joseph inspire us to always search out the good in others.

PARSHAT VAYECHEE
(5760)

ON BEING A GRANDPARENT

“Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.” (Genesis 48:5)

In this portion we come to the end of Jacob’s life. Jacob adopted his two grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of his son Joseph. They would become two of the twelve tribes. Through these grandchildren was the blessing fulfilled that the Psalmist spoke of: “To see children of your own children, may peace reign in Israel.” (Psalms 128:6)
As we finish the book of Genesis, we have the perfect opportunity to talk about grandchildren. There is a long discussion in the Talmud about the commandment of procreation. How many children must one have? According to the school of Hillel whose ruling we follow, the minimum is one son and one daughter. (Obviously more children are desirable.) However, these children must themselves be capable of having children. In other words, we have not fully kept the commandment of procreation until we are blessed with grandchildren.
The goal of the Torah is to establish a chain, with each generation a new link. It is not enough to simply reproduce ourselves, but to know the chain will continue to a new generation. To see the children of one’s children is life’s greatest blessing.
Cynics would say that grandchildren serve an important purpose. They are the revenge on our children for the way our children treated us. How often have I said to my growing sons and daughter, “Wait until you have children, and they do to you what you are doing to us.” Humorists have put it differently: “If I had known that grandchildren are such fun, I would have had them first.” Jewish law teaches that when we do something three times, it creates a presumption of permanence. So too, three generations presume a permanence. Grandchildren assure our future.
The Talmud tells the story of Rav Huna who found a delicious date. He was about to eat it when his son asked him for it, so he handed it to his son. Then Rav Huna’s son gave the date to his son, Rav Huna’s grandson. Rav Huna became upset. The story concludes with the truism, “The love of the parent is towards the child, but the love of the child is towards his child.” (Sota 49a) How often do I tell parents, “You can tell if you have been successful in raising your children by how they raise their children.” Parents may be upset that their children lavish such love and attention on their grandchildren, while ignoring their parents. That seems to be the way of the world.
Life is about passing our values down from generation to generation. Sometimes we can directly influence our grandchildren. They need to hear our stories. They need memories of the rituals and traditions of our household. They need to see our pictures. They need the roots that only grandparents can provide. Sometimes grandparents can be the key to bring their children closer to faith and closer to God.
There is the story of a couple who went on vacation, and dropped their young son off with his grandparents for a week. The grandparents had the son say a blessing before eating, say a prayer at night and in the morning. They spoke about God and the beautiful world He created. After a week, the parents came to pick up their son. As the boy was walking out to the car, he said, “Goodbye God, I am going home now. I am not going to see you anymore.”
Grandparents do not know the influence they can have on their grandchildren. Often years later, when the grandparent is gone from this earth, a grandchild will remember a story, a ritual, a blessing, and that memory will change that grandchild’s life.