Archive | D’var Torah

Forgiveness brings relief to both victim, actor

Posted on 30 November 2017 by admin

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob is returning from Haran and pauses on the shores of the Jabbok River in fear of confronting his brother Esau. Jacob had left his parents and brother behind in the Land of Israel to go to Haran to escape his brother and to find a wife.
Well, he found not one but two wives, two concubines, 12 named children, large flocks and tremendous wealth. But in all the years he was away, he never had the opportunity to reconcile with his brother Esau.
As far as Jacob knew, Esau still wanted to kill him for tricking Esau out of his birthright and stealing their father’s blessing. That night before the confrontation with Esau, Jacob was visited by a man and they wrestled all night. Who was it? Was it an angel of God?
Was it his own conscience, his own guilt at confronting after 20 years his past actions? What the text tells us is that he was forever changed by the experience. His name was changed from Jacob, meaning the heel, to Israel, meaning the one who struggles with God. Also, his hip was wrenched and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
In the morning, Jacob looked up to see his brother Esau approaching with 400 men, a large number for a welcoming party but not too large for an army. Jacob was understandably worried about Esau’s anger and he was afraid of what his brother might do. I love the language of their meeting because it’s filled with tension and release. Jacob “himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother.”
I can just see him bowing and scraping and reluctantly drawing closer as if approaching a large and dangerous animal. The text continues: “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck…” Like a predator? Like a lion biting the neck of its prey? “… he kissed him; and they wept.”
Granted it had been 20 years since they last saw each other, but they reconciled and forgave each other. Jacob, after all his worry and fear, exclaimed to Esau: “to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.”
How many have hurt and been hurt by those we love? How many of us struggle and wrestle with complicated and tangled personal relationships?
The problem when we have unresolved anger and hurt in our personal relationships, is that we end up like Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok River, emotionally limping from the encounter. When we wrestle, grappling with the damage in our relationships, who is it that ends up limping? It would be better to seek forgiveness when we have hurt loved ones, attempting to right the wrong.
It would be far better for us to forgive freely when we have been hurt by our loved ones, if not for their sake then for our own. When we freely forgive, we are able to release our own hurt rather than emotionally limping from the burden. Jacob and Esau never did become close, but they were able to come together later to mourn their father, Isaac, when he died.
Our damaged relationships may never be the same, but through forgiveness we won’t be left with a permanent limp.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Lewin: Choice is yours: Settle or live inspired life

Posted on 22 November 2017 by admin

This week opens with a pivotal journey: “And Yaakov went out from Beer Sheva and went towards Haran.” He is leaving the spiritual ambience of the holy land, and the shelter of his home, to cross the border, headed to his uncle’s house in Haran.
The Torah provides two explanations for the name Beer Sheva: a) because of the oath when Avraham made a covenant with Avimelech; b) because of the seventh well dug after Yitzhak’s peace treaty with Avimelech. Both explanations for the name Beer Sheva signify a state of tranquility. The name of the city Haran indicates the opposite — fierce anger (charon af) of the world.
Moving from Beer Sheva to Haran, therefore, is also a metaphorical journey from a place of peacefulness and sanctity into a lowly corrupt environment. On the surface level, the verses relate an individual, feeling insignificant in a giant world; on a mystical level, it’s the journey the soul takes into a “world of falsehood,” and a foreshadowing of the long exile his descendants, the Jewish people, will endure away from their homeland.
And within these verses, we find some fundamental messages for success.

First action sets the tone

As he reaches the border of Israel, he finds a place to camp. “He arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed (them) around his head, and he lay down.”
This unusual wording of “arrived” shares a common root with the word meaning to entreat or to pray (Jeremiah 7:16), leading the commentaries to explain how these words subtly communicate what he did when he first arrived — he prayed. The Talmud further notes that this hints at the origin of establishing a fixed time for evening prayer.
Upon arriving, perhaps Yaakov should have unloaded and relaxed. Or perhaps he should have prepared for the new stage in life, investigating the people or the local customs, fashions and so forth. Yet, despite all apprehension and unfamiliarity, his first step was to pause, reflect and pray.
Here lies the first instruction: When we first arrive from a long journey, or are about to encounter a big challenge, the first action should be to pray — to acknowledge that hard work, talent, and ingenuity will go so far; in the end, it’s the assistance from above that determines our success.
As every new day arrives, this first gesture and attitude sets the tone.

The mind

The next instruction is gleaned from placing stones around his head. What exactly is the Torah conveying with such a peculiar image? Rashi, the more literal commentary, states that Yaakov was protecting himself from wild animals. But if he was simply concerned about physical danger, why did he place the stones only around his head — why not the rest of his body?
The deeper message is the notion of “protecting your head”: Yaakov traveled to Haran knowing the place and people would be far different from the purity of his home. To sin there would be easier than to be virtuous. He would work for Laban the Aramite, and his integrity would be tested. Even along the road there were “wild animals.” Placing stones around his head was a personal signal that nothing and nobody was going to affect his head. (And if his head was straight, so his feet would carry him to where he needed to go.)
The broader application of protecting your head: People pay close attention to the upkeep of their body, or their physical presentation, while giving little consideration to what they fill their mind with. Yet the mind can be like a wild galloping horse, carrying the rider through muddy waters and into dark places. (This is especially relevant nowadays with the abundance of attractive entertainment, the flooding of social media and easy distractions.)
Over the generations, establishing fixed times for Torah study in one’s schedule — regardless of one’s intellectual level or interest — helps refine the mind and keep it sharp. This aspect of mental upkeep through study merges with spiritual health.

Staying rock-solid

The above image — “placing stones around his head” — signifies more than just filtering, or nurturing our intellect; it conveys how maintaining wisdom and clarity is dependent on a solid and unbendable commitment to what we hold dear.
Like Yaakov, we will inevitably face tests of whether we will influence or be influenced, whether we will keep our vision alive or settle for a less idealistic or inspired life. True happiness and success, especially in difficult environments, comes from the ability to keep alive memories (or visualization) of a more cherished environment, of those people who remain connected to us beyond any physical barriers — and to bring our deepest values to the forefront of our consciousness.

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Strength, knowledge required to climb God’s ladder

Posted on 16 November 2017 by admin

It is a wondrous thing to watch an infant or a child of 2 or 3 years old. A set of car keys jingling, the dancing waters of a fountain in front of an office building, or even the colors on a bright shirt provide unlimited moments of fascination. Somewhere along the way these simple discoveries and the joy they bring are replaced by a complacency about life and all of its small miracles. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we find infants and toddlers so entertaining. We glimpse back at that original innocent wonder that we once felt. It is a moment of magic rediscovered.
The rabbis knew that we were prone to that sense of numbing complacency from the rigor and demands of our daily lives. They set a prayer of regular thanksgiving, the Hoda’ah, to be read at every worship service, morning, noon and night. They realized that the awareness of miracles each new day would dissipate with the demands of the day.
In the set of Torah readings that begins this week with Toldot, our ancestor Jacob goes through a journey of discovery. His life has been lived one step in front of the other, always fearful and unaware of the wonders around him. Caught in parental rivalries and favoritism, he tricks his brother into selling his birthright, and is complacent in his mother’s act of deception against his father and brother. Jacob dresses in clothes that will imitate the smell and feel of his brother Esau’s body so he may receive his brother’s birthright blessing of the first-born. When his brother discovers this, Jacob must flee for his life.
In the next portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder reaching upward toward heaven with angels climbing up and down. God speaks to him and promises him a life of bounty. Jacob wakes up, aware for the first time in his life, and says, “Truly God is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). He names the spot Beth-El, a house of God, and goes on his way.
It would seem that Jacob has been transformed by the encounter, but his life will continue to be filled with more moments of deception before he and his brother, Esau, meet again in our third Torah portion, Vayishlach, read a week later. At that time, Jacob will finally grasp the miracle of each day and the awesome possibilities they present. He and his brother will reconcile and Jacob will seem to finally gain an awareness of the gift of each moment.
How appropriate that this three-week section of Torah readings that leads us to an to awakening of gratitude and a sense of awe takes place around the holiday of Thanksgiving. We live our lives so overwhelmed by tasks, so fearful of failure, and so afraid to miss a moment that we often miss it all. Thanksgiving is an American attempt to regain that sense of the ineffable wonder of discovery.
And yet, even Thanksgiving has lost its way. It has become victim to earlier and earlier store opening times, consumption of too much food and too many products, and a focus on highly-paid football gladiators. The holiday revolves less and less around the people, the real miracles that gather with us in our own living and dining rooms surrounded by a bounty of family and food. As our Torah portion teaches us, the first step is awe, the ability to see the ladder of our lives that rises heavenward. The second step is our response, knowing when it is time to climb the ladder and express our lives in acts of gratitude.
As the great rabbi and teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” (Rabbi Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man)
May you have a Thanksgiving filled with the vision to glimpse the ladder of God and blessing and the strength to know how to climb it.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth.

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Abraham continued to face his challenges

Posted on 26 October 2017 by admin

In Parashat Lech Lecha, Avram, whose name will be changed to Abraham, becomes the central figure in the Torah’s narrative when God tells him to go forth to the land of God’s choosing. God promises Avram wealth, land and children; all he has to do is accept that God is God. Our rabbis tell us multiple stories of Avram’s realization that there’s one God and now God is talking with him and guiding him. He would have been excited to go! He had no way to know that following God would lead to such difficulty.
He arrives in Canaan only to find that there was a famine in the land … a disappointment, maybe, but manageable. After some time in Egypt, his nephew Lot gets kidnapped. Avram gets a small army together and rescues him, but this is not a quiet life. And in spite of God’s promises, Avram and Sarai have still not been blessed with any children yet. Avram must be thinking — I did what I was supposed to, so what’s going on? This isn’t the way it was supposed to happen.
Then, adding insult to injury, when making another covenant with Avram, God calmly explains: “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years… As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; You shall be buried at a ripe old age.” (Genesis 15:13) That’s right — Avram is told that he will live a long and healthy life, but his descendants — they get to look forward to generations of slavery.
Following God hasn’t led Avram to a life of ease. It’s been one challenge after another. And if that’s not enough, the portion concludes with another covenant between God and Avram. This time, after his name is changed, Abraham is told that he has to circumcise himself at the age of 99 — along with Ishmael, and his entire household. So, when God tries to reassure Abraham that he and Sarah will still have a child together when Sarah can clearly no longer have a child, Abraham falls on his face laughing. He responds, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” (Genesis 17:18), or in other words, “That’s a good one, God.”
Is it any wonder that Abraham is laughing at God? Our rabbis talk about how Abraham was tested. He doesn’t have commandments to follow, except for circumcision. Instead, he gets tests. Time and again, promise after promise, Abraham was tested. He was tested by nature, he was tested by society, he was tested by family, and he was tested by God.
Abraham’s laughter and response to God demonstrates that even Abraham can doubt. Even for Abraham, life can be overwhelming. And when God comes with one more reassurance that Abraham no longer believes to be reality, the promise of Sarah having a child — he would have been justified in yelling at God. Instead, he laughs. And when God tells him again that it will happen, he listens and follows through with the circumcision.
This is why Abraham is such a good role model. In spite of the anger or despair, in spite of the hopelessness that he may have felt, he gets up every day, affirms the life he has been given, and faces the challenges that await. And because God knows this, God says that Abraham shall be a blessing. He shall be a blessing, not because of the challenges that he faced, but because he continued to face them, appreciating life all the while. That’s inspiration for us all.
Charlie Cytron-Walker is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.

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Noah teaches us: Strive to be better

Posted on 19 October 2017 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, Noach, starts out with an interesting description of Noah: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.” Is this simply a beautiful example of biblical poetry, a couplet in which the same thought is expressed in two different ways?
Or is this description of Noah hinting at a qualification to his character? Is it a hint that Noah is only righteous when compared to the evil generation of humanity among whom he lives? But if we were to compare Noah to, say, Abraham, then we wouldn’t think Noah was all that special? Or perhaps the fact that Noah — imperfect as he was — remained righteous despite being surrounded by temptations, which made Noah even greater than Abraham? It is a wonderful debate well worth reading about further in the commentary.
Personally, I like to think of comparing Noah to the rest of his generation not as a slam against Noah’s character, but as an inspiration to us all. Noah didn’t have to compare himself to Abraham; he compared himself to those around him. Neither do we have to measure ourselves against some unattainable moral exemplar like Abraham. It would be demoralizing if we did because we could never be as great as Abraham. But, if we simply do what we can to make the world better, then we too can be righteous in our age.
It is as Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot 2:16: “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor v’lo ata ben chorin l’bateil mimena. You are not responsible for finishing the work, but neither are you free to leave off from it.” That is, when we are faced with what seems to be an overwhelming task, all that’s expected is that we do what we can. And there is so much that needs work in this world today that it can feel overwhelming, as if the work will never be completed. But we’re not the ones who have to complete the work; we just have to do what we can.
There are thousands, millions, of people affected by hurricanes and floods and wildfires and earthquakes. There are so many people affected by so many natural disasters that I couldn’t possibly help them all. But I don’t have to because I just have to give of the resources that I can.
I don’t have to feed every hungry person in Texas, but I have to do my share in keeping the food pantries stocked. I don’t have to provide housing for every homeless person in Texas, but I do have to do my part in supporting homeless shelters. I don’t have to be a doctor myself, even if it would have made my mother proud, to heal the people who are ill, but I do have to support the clinics that provide healing to the needy.
We don’t have to be as great as Abraham. Rather, we should try to be like Noah, striving to be better than those around us. For if we all did, if we all tried to be better than each other, then we would create a virtuous circle. We would continuously improve the world around us, as we inspire each other to even greater heights. And when we all give what we can of ourselves and our resources, then when we put it all together, we will see the work completed.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Successful prayer involves lifelong quest

Posted on 14 September 2017 by admin

For the average Jew, there are just two or three days per year they will attend a synagogue service. Let us join one of these Jews on his journey into the synagogue, and let’s call him Jonathan.
Jonathan is a kind and caring person, believes that there is a God, but isn’t quite sure how to define that. He went to Sunday school, had a bar mitzvah and contributes to Jewish charities. So, he puts on his nicest suit, and he heads over to the synagogue. At the door, he is greeted and shown his seat.
He opens the prayer book, and he tries to follow along with the cantor. The language is vaguely familiar, and even though he took Hebrew 20 years ago, he can’t really follow along. For the parts that are in English, he reads along with everyone else, but isn’t quite sure why it is necessary to read of all this. He hears the shofar blast — and feeling good about himself for taking care of his religious duties, he probably won’t bother doing the same thing every weekend and certainly not every day. The thought of sitting through this every week is excruciating.
Makes perfect sense. If you have no idea why Judaism requires prayer, and what it is supposed to accomplish, then why bother with it? There is a famous parable of a poor man who dined at the home of the rich man. Whenever the rich man desired something, he lifted a small bell and rang it, and immediately a servant would appear with the next delicacy. At the end of the meal, the host offered the poor man any single item he desired from the table, and the poor man chose the bell.
He went home, and invited all his friends for dinner. As soon as they all arrived, he pulled out the bell and started ringing it, and of course no servant showed up. Showing up to services without having the tools of prayer and expecting to be drawn in is to behave like the poor man.
The Talmud refers to prayer as the time of war, a ferocious battle. As a Jew, our mission is to fill the world with the Divine, and we accomplish this through making sure we follow the commandments of the Torah and implement them in to our daily lives. For us to fulfill this mission, we need to be attuned to and conscious of our Creator. This is the purpose of prayer. The world is a spiritual desert, and it fights hard to pull us away from the Divine and toward physical enjoyment and indulgence. The time of prayer is the time to scrape away the coarseness of the physical world, and to focus our consciousness on God, and to guide our thought, speech and action to remain consistent with this mission.
Learning how to pray is a lifelong mission, and coming into a synagogue to pray without prior training and understanding of prayer, is akin to showing up for a tank battle with a butter knife.
The sages tell us, “Were it that a man would pray all day.” This doesn’t mean that we should neglect our livelihood, but that they wished that the pure state of mind, and focus on the Divine that we achieve during prayer, should remain with us all day long.
Be prepared. Don’t walk into the synagogue and ring your bell, and expect that miraculously you will know how to pray. If you need a place to start check out the book, Mystical Dimensions: Deep Calling Unto Deep by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet. It is available free on chabad.org.
Wishing you a prayerfully successful Happy and Sweet New Year, L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu Veteichatemu!
Rabbi Dov and Chana Tova Mandel are directors of Chabad of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

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