Good Times and Bad: This too shall pass

gam-zeh-yaavor-hebrew In 2009 I found myself wondering what Abraham Lincoln, Ben Bernanke & Bernanke have in common. As we prepare to enter 2017 the following story called to me once again.

One day, the wise King Solomon decided to test his most trusted minister, Benaiah ben Yehoyada.

Solomon: “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Pesach, which gives you six months to find it.”

Benaiah: “If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty, I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”

Solomon: “It has magic powers that can make a happy man sad and a sad man happy.”

Solomon knew no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility. So he set about to find the ring. The seasons passed, fall and then winter… No ring.

On the day of erev Pesach, Benaiah was walking in one of poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares – rings and earrings and bracelets – on a shabby carpet.

Benaiah:    “Do you know of a magic ring that makes a happy man sad and a sad man happy?”

Merchant: “No!”

gam-zeh-hebrew-braceletSuddenly, as if by magic, the merchant’s father appeared. With an old knarled finger, Grandfather beckoned to Benaiah. As Benaiah watched, the grandfather took a plain gold ring from the carpet and engraved something on it.

Benaiah read the words on ring and smiled. Then he returned to Solomon.

King Solomon: “Well, have you found what I sent you after?”

All the ministers laughed. Solomon smiled. Then Benaiah held up small gold ring and exclaimed: “Here it is your majesty!”

When Solomon read the inscription, his smile vanished. The jeweler had inscribed three Hebrew letters on gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, for “Gam zeh ya’avor” — “This too shall pass.”

In 1859, Abraham Lincoln said these same words. In 2009, Ben Bernanke repeated them. And, standing on the edge of 2017, we find ourselves hoping and praying that, Gam Zeh Ya’avor – this too shall pass!”

There will be no immediate relief.   Yet, despite our fears that the entire world as we know it seems to be collapsing, remember that we have survived other times of destruction and loss.

human_folly_impermanence_time_deathSaying Gam Zeh Ya’avor in the midst of calamity gives us needed perspective, humility and strength to galvanize our communities and care for one another. Oddly enough, one does not only say, “this too shall pass,” during the bad times. We are taught to say it during the good times as well.

Gam Zeh Ya’avor is something that makes the sad man happy and the happy man sad.

Using the magic ring, Beniah taught Solomon that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.

impermanence-cartoon-paradigm-shiftSaying Gam Zeh Ya’avor acknowledges the risks we take each day, which come with their intended or unintended consequences.   It requires us to accept responsibility for our actions despite the many other factors that may impact positively or negatively on our lives. It reminds us that we need ogam-zeh-yaavor-hebrewne another – in the good times and the not-so-good times.  

Wishing you and yours a year of insight, hope, and the strength to persevere.

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

 

An unimagined peace

Parashat Vayeishev: An unimagined peace

shalom-bayit Shalom Bayit – Peace in the home

Genesis captures the complexity of family dynamics –

The links and rifts that make their way through the generations.

Children struggle or thrive – because of or in spite of …

Everyone competes for love,

Feeling victorious or defeated

Even the seemingly oblivious.

“Israel loved Joseph more than all of his sons…” (Genesis 37:3).

Perhaps Ecclesiastes is right that

“there is nothing new under the sun (1:9)

We become lost in the stories we spin

At some point we leave our parents’ homes,

Taking our stories with us.

Whatever their hopes for us as a family,

Our parents ultimately depart this world

Bequeathing us unfinished family work

To repair rifts,

Build or rebuild trust,

Make peace.

But this is the child’s avodat ha-kodesh –sacred family work.

To reconcile with our siblings.

“[Joseph’s] brothers saw that their father loved him

more than all his brothers so they hated him”

A hate so deep that

“they could not speak with him peacefully” (37:3-4).

Yet the brothers ultimately build peace

out of the rubble of past deeds, as did Jacob and Esau.

These paradigms for reconciliation capture

the fear and pain of our secrets and conflicts,

Revealing that even estranged siblings

live in relationship with one another.

Will we choose to seek ways to infuse love into

the wreckage caused by fear, hate and envy?

Or make peace in the ways we can?

If not with the other, then with ourselves

An imperfect peace is better than no peace.

Though there is no “How to” manual,

We can discover resources from within to help us

Fill the cracks of what is broken,

Build something – anything – from the remains.

Joseph’s dreams caused trouble with his brothers

But his dreaming and ability to interpret dreams also

saved his family and our people

He taught us that while a dream may not be realized in our lifetime

Believing in the possibility of its fulfillment

can save and heal us in ways unimagined.

happiness-in-your-life-400x300Choosing to travel toward this beacon of promise

Frees us to live our lives with forgiveness, hope and love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach (Happy Festival of Lights )

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Wrestling Depression

feed-fearIn a state of terror

Jacob the dreamer also had his fears. After all, he did steal his brother’s blessing and then flee. Remember Esau’s piercing cry, “Bless me too, my father!”? Despite his blessing, Jacob also struggles. In this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares to face Esau after all these years. He fears what Esau might do to him and his family. The night prior to this meeting, in a state of terror, Jacob has an encounter. He struggles with an unnamed man. An angel? Himself?

the-struggle-is-real                    Jacob struggled and prevailed

Whether this struggle was physical, psychological or divine, Jacob prevails and receives a new name to mark this transformational moment in his life. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed” (Vayishlach, Genesis 32:29).Millions of people struggle with mental illness but do not prevail. Feeling hopeless and disconnected, they may succumb to bullying, addiction, PTSD, depression and bipolar disorder. Depression and bipolar mood disorders are real physical illnesses that often follow a cyclical course of ups and downs. Thoughts, body, energy and emotions are impacted. To make matters worse, these people, our family and friends, face stigma in the form of a belief that mental illness is a choice or a weakness.

struggle_of_mental_health  Suffering  and Stigma

Stigma is one of the main reasons why so many suffer in silence rather than ask for help. Recent campaigns to raise public awareness about this stigma include statements such as, “People suffering with depression think it’s their fault. Who in their right mind would think that!” “If you call in sick with the flu, you get sympathy. If you call in sick with depression, you get judged.” “Isn’t it insane how society diminishes people with mental illness?”

depression-sadnessRecognizing depression

It is time to stop the stigma, raise awareness and change attitudes. Thankfully, our loved ones are no longer locked up for life in dreary mental health institutions.  But that is not enough to address stage, shame and, of course, the need for lifelong treatment.  We need to envision wellness for people struggling with depression and bipolar disorder, Our support is essential in helping those with mental illness recover, manage their illness and thrive. “Mental health recovery is a journey of healing and transformation enabling a person with a mental health problem to live a meaningful life in a community of his or her choice while striving to achieve his or her full potential” (SAMSHA – The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/ Mental Health services: SAMSHA – The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/ Mental Health services

This d’var Torah is dedicated to those who suffer from mental illness. To you we offer our prayers. We vow never to forget all of those precious souls who did not prevail. Rather, we will honor your memory through our actions that others might prevail.

help-mental-illness     What else can we do?

Contribute to foundations such as “Rebecca’s Dream: Changing the Face of Depression”. Rebecca’s family believes the best way to honor her memory is to promote awareness and compassionate understanding of depression and bipolar disorder as real diseases. Rebecca understood that we must speak the truth about mental illness, no matter how difficult. Another action is to advocate for the promotion of health care integration. Or support  Mental Health America, which is committed to “promoting mental health as a critical part of overall wellness… [and advocating] for prevention services for all, early identification and intervention for those at risk, integrated services, care and treatment for those who need it, and recovery as the goal.”

hands-of-hope Bring hope

May we be like Jacob by wrestling the dark night of mental illness, that the dawn will bring healing, hope and light.  And that would be a blessing for all.

Shabbat Shalom!

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Having Enough Invites Generosity

enough  What is enough?

Twenty-two years have passed since Jacob ran from his brother, Esau. Jacob has had a good life, with a few bumps along the way. Working for his father-in-law, Laban, he earns the right to wed – twice. The first time he is deceived by Laban and Leah, not his beloved Rachel, becomes his bride. Jacob continues working and amassing wealth, and eventually weds Rachel. Besides his two wives, he has two concubines, eleven sons and one daughter. Circumstances change, however, when Rachel gives birth to her first son, Joseph. Jacob pleads with Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own place, and to my country. Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, and let me go: for you know how much work I have done for you” (Vayishlach, Genesis 30:26).   But Laban turns out to be greedy and unethical, making the situation difficult for Jacob. This is not the environment in which he wishes to raise his family, nor the values he hopes they will embrace. When Laban begins to lecture Jacob about how much he has done for him and his family and how he should be indebted to him, we find out what matters most to Jacob when he replies to Laban, “You shall not give me anything…” (Genesis 30:31).

“I have everything.” 

The next trial Jacob faces is meeting Esau for the first time since he stole his brother’s birthright and blessing. Naturally, Jacob is scared. He realizes that while the blessing cannot be returned, he hopes an offering of material compensation, which greatly reduces his own wealth, will ease what he fears most – Esau’s revenge. To Jacob’s offering of gifts, Esau replies, “I have ample [wealth] (“yeish li rav”), my brother. Let what you have remain yours” (Genesis 33:9). Jacob persists, “Take back my blessing. God has been good to me. I have everything.” (“yeish li kol”)” (Jerusalem Bible, Genesis 33:11)

 genersity-and-greed Material and Spiritual Abundance

The commentators note the use of two different terms referring to large, more than sufficient quantities: “rav” and “kol.” “Rav” refers to material possessions – of which Esau has in abundance. But “kol” implies overall wealth – here, both material and spiritual. Just as Laban’s need for material wealth is insatiable, Esau finds that no amount of wealth can fill the void in his life. Jacob, despite the many challenges of his life, can appreciate the power of wealth even as he understands that such power can be given or taken away.

generosity

In the “season of gift giving,” it is worth considering the “rav” and “kol” in our lives.  We can choose to redirect our financial resources to providing material resources for those truly lacking. In doing so, we deepen our sense of “kol” – the deep spiritual experience of feeling we have more than we need.

e_chinese_symbols_proverbs_generosity Redirecting Our Resources 

Together, a generous redirecting of our resources will raise others up with dignity and hope. And that is the true light we can kindle to lessen the profound darkness created when there simply isn’t enough.

Shabbat shalom,

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

 

 

A Midshipman’s Torah: Dealing with Dishonesty

My work with recruits at the Great Lakes Naval Base Recruit Training Center (GLRTC) continues to inspire me to think in new ways. Here, Parashot Toldot and Vayetze, which both address issues of honesty and dishonesty, are examined through the lens of the Navy’s “Midshipman Honor Code.”

seal_of_rtc_great_lakesA Midshipman’s Torah: Dealing with Dishonesty

Last week we learned how Jacob, Isaac’s younger son, followed his mother, Rebecca’s, request to steal away the blessing of his older brother, Esau. Rebecca felt that Jacob was better suited to be the leader of the family. She baked bread and cooked meat for Jacob to take to Isaac, his father, and then she dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes and wrapped goatskins around Jacob’s arms and neck to cover his smooth skin and take on the texture of Esau’s thick hair.

Jacob was able to trick Isaac and received the blessing of the firstborn. Esau received a lesser blessing. Esau was so angry that he had thoughts of killing Jacob. Rebecca sent Jacob away, to her homeland, to remove him from danger and to seek out a proper bride from her people.

Who is being dishonest in this narrative? Is Rebecca the guilty party because she initiates the deception or is Jacob guilty because he acquiesces to his mother’s plan and perpetrates the lie?

Rebecca felt strongly that Jacob should receive the blessing of leadership. Jacob wanted to honor his mother’s wishes. Both initially had honorable intentions. If your motivation supports a good cause, is it acceptable to lie or deceive? Do the ends justify the means?

navy-core-values  Midshipman Honor Code  

”A Midshipman does not lie, cheat, steal, or engage in any activity which would compromise the integrity and security of his or her conscience, the well-being of the unit, or the values of the United States Navy and Marine Corps.”

Rebecca felt that Jacob was a more responsible leader. In a sense, the “well-being of the unit, and the [spiritual] values” of the family are at stake. Jacob, on the other hand, stole what was intended for another.

  • How do you reconcile this issue?
  • Is it morally possible to deceive or cheat for the good of the group?
  • What do you do if the integrity and security of the individual conscience conflicts with the well-being of the unit?

Jacob returned to Haran, his mother’s birthplace. He lived and worked as a shepherd for his uncle, Laban. In return for seven years of his labor, Jacob asked for Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, in marriage. Laban was a known swindler. In keeping with his character Laban decided to exchange his older daughter, Leah, for Rachel. In the darkness of the night, Jacob became the victim of deceit. Legend tells us that Rachel was compassionate towards her sister and did not want her to be embarrassed or rejected. Rachel gave Leah all the love words and signs that she shared with Jacob so that Jacob would believe he married Rachel. Of course, Jacob was outraged by the deceit. Laban agreed to give Jacob Rachel’s hand in marriage as well, if Jacob worked for Laban for seven more years.

His uncle, Laban, now cheats Jacob, who cheated his brother out of his blessing. Do you agree that typically “what goes around comes around?”

According to Jewish legend, Rachel was an accomplice in the deceit. Do you feel the same way about her actions as you did about Jacob when he stole the blessing? What do her actions say about the nature of deceit?

Is lying always unethical? When is it acceptable to tell a “white lie.”

Jacob worked for Laban for twenty years. He had twelve sons and one daughter and became wealthy. He decided to go back to his homeland, Canaan. Yet, Jacob was afraid; he had to cross Esau’s territory on the way and he was unsure if Esau still wanted to kill him. Jacob divided his camp, putting the women and children in the back for safety if they were attacked, and also sent expensive gifts to Esau. Expecting the worst, Jacob prepared to face his brother. However, when Esau saw Jacob, he dismounted and embraced, kissed him and wept!

In this case, it seems that “time heals all” (or maybe the expensive gifts might have changed Esau’s mind!). What role does the passage of time play in the process of forgiveness?

What is it about Jacob’s and Esau’s meeting that show us that both brothers have grown spiritually and matured?

One’s military unit is like a family. What happens is a member of your “family” has not been completely honest with you? Can we learn any lessons from Jacob’s or Esau’s behavior?

What would you do if someone took credit for something that you did? Is this a form of dishonesty?

How should dishonest behavior be addressed?  

medal-of-honorMay each of us strive to place our honor of self, family, community and country as high a priority as do the men and women serving in our armed forces.

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

 

 

 

 

Bless me, too!

can-you-spare-a-blessing-1024x768

Parashat Tol’dot begins with “V’eileh tol’dot” – “these are the generations”.  This Shabbat we read about the birth of Esau and Jacob, the twins born to Rebecca and Isaac. “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca favored Jacob” (Genesis 25:27-28).

Most are familiar with the story of how Esau, upon returning from hunting, is famished. Being an in-the-moment kind of guy, he sells his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil stew. Later, after coaching from Rebecca, Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, and receives the blessing reserved for the firstborn son, Esau. When Esau returns from hunting, he prepares a stew for his father and places it before Isaac, anticipating a blessing. When Isaac explains what has happened, Esau’s reaction is heart wrenching . He pleads “Barcheini gam ani, avi” – “Bless me too, Father!” (Genesis 27:38) twice during his encounter with Isaac. But what has been done cannot be undone. At that moment there is nothing left to do but weep. All of us surely have faced bitter disappointment, perhaps even issues stemming from inheritance, birth order or sibling rivalry. The question is: how does this reality shape who we are and the choices we make?

There is something about sons. When I was expecting my first child, I prayed it would be a boy – not because gender mattered to me, but because having a grandson to pass along the family line was important to my father. Sexist? Yes. But I had already grown up in a home with expectations and roles set according to gender. Though neither of my brothers have children, I have a son and a daughter, both of whom carry their father’s family name.

A few years ago, when visiting my now 92 year-old dad, I had what I will call an “Esau moment.” In conversation, my father stated, with bitterness, his disappointment in my brothers because the legacy of the family name will end with them. Stunned and heart-broken, I thought, “Barcheini gam ani, avi” – “Bless me too, Father!” Don’t get me wrong. My father loves me with all of his heart but our worldviews often clash, especially regarding gender issues. What I long for is the affirmation of my worth in sustaining the future of our family by transmitting to my children the heritage, values and living tradition that will carry “Mizrahi” into generations to come.

johnodonohue-blessing-pic“V’eileh tol’dot” – “these are the generations” of women and men, of those who receive the coveted parental blessing and those who do not. Those who chose to marry and have children and those who never find their beshert (intended; soul-mate), let alone create a family. The unmarried who choose to have children and the GBLTQ couples seeking to create family in an atmosphere of increasing hostility and hate. Those who are misunderstood or judged. Those who are embraced and those who are rejected – for reasons too different to list. Each of these souls cries out, Barcheini gam ani – bless me with your unconditional love. Bless us with your love as an affirmation of who we are and the choices we make in the context of a world where choices are often made for us.

i-bless-myselfBlessed or not, these are the generations.  And we know now that we can bless ourselves, each other and even those who withhold blessing.  And perhaps this is all the blessing we need.

Shabbat shalom,

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

 

 

 

 

What matters is the recognition that Judaism itself is a blessing. Embracing it, filling our lives with acts of love, kindness and generosity, we transform ourselves into living blessings. Such acts help reveal the Divine in the lives we lead and through the connections we build.