Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torah from Around the World: Parashat Vayetze



Torah from Around the World #248

Jacob and Rachel Facing Infertility // Parashat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
By Rabbi Brad L. Bloom, Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yam, Hilton Head, South Carolina and doctoral student in modern Jewish history at the Hebrew Union College

The Torah describes a particularly difficult conversation on the issue of infertility between Jacob and his cherished Rachel. She is frustrated and angry that she has not been able to conceive a child and she reaches out to Jacob for support. The Torah says: “When Rachel saw she had borne no children to Jacob, Rachel became envious of her sister [Leah] and said to Jacob, ‘Give me children or I will die’” (Genesis 30:1).

One would have hoped for a more compassionate reply: “Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel and he said, ‘Can I take the place of God who has denied you the fruit of your womb’” (Genesis 30:2). The sages were also perplexed by the seemingly callous response to her plea. The commentator Rashi taught that ‘Rachel asked Jacob to pray for her or else the world would die.’

Our sages of blessed memory in one Midrash criticized Jacob. “Said the Holy One blessed be He; ‘Is this the way to answer the troubled?’”(Genesis Rabbah). 

In another Midrash God said to Jacob, “Is this how one replies to an embittered woman? By your life, your sons will stand before her son (Joseph) and he will tell them (Genesis 50:19) ‘Am I a substitute for God?’” (Genesis Rabbah). The point here is that years later, Leah’s sons will ultimately stand before Joseph, second in command to Pharaoh, fearing that Joseph will take vengeance on them after Jacob’s death. All of this, according to the Midrash, is because Jacob spoke harshly to his wife Rachel in her time of distress.

Some commentators try to explain that Jacob was not trying to be hurtful to Rachel but that he was frustrated that her petition should have been presented to God and not him.  The commentator Radak wrote, “Jacob was angry with her for attributing powers to him rather than God alone. If she had merely asked Jacob to intercede for her she would have been justified and he would not have become angry.” P.334

Other sources demonstrate that Rachel did not take kindly to her husband’s harsh reaction. In one Midrash, Rachel confronts Jacob on his behavior reminding him that his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham acted with more compassion than he did. In fact, she criticizes him that both men prayed for their wives. Why couldn't Jacob have done so? Rachel was not afraid to stand up to Jacob and register her disappointment with him implying that he was not the man his father and grandfather were. (Genesis Rabbah)

Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel all contended with initially not being able to conceive and they all directed their prayers to God for a child.  His response in the eyes of some sages was deemed inadequate in those days as it would be for a husband to respond that way to his wife today. A husband has to think carefully how to react to the pain of his wife who is having trouble conceiving a child. By responding the way he did, Jacob does not seem to share with her the deep seated hurt she is experiencing. Is his seemingly insensitive and caustic response indicative of his true underlying feeling of helplessness?  

There is a great deal that this story in Genesis can teach men and women struggling with fertility issues. Medical technology can determine which gender is potentially the source of the medical issue. Mental health professionals provide counseling for the couple. The reality today is that it can be a man who cannot impregnate his wife. He too now can feel shame and a blow to his self esteem and ego that often times characterizes the state of mind that a woman feels. How would he want his wife to respond to his plea or prayer to be able to fertilize her egg?

We cannot change Jacob’s response to Rachel. Yet, men need to think carefully about what they can say to their wives in order to be comforting and supportive of them during this difficult time.

Why couldn't Jacob have just made a prayer instead of reminding her that he was not a god? Men can learn that understanding and compassion goes a long way towards helping a spouse cope with the issue of infertility. Moreover a man should remember that his role in this kind of situation is not automatically to solve the problem. Instead it is to stand by his wife and offer the emotional support she needs.  

Prayer can certainly make all the difference in the world in how the couple together faces the emotional and spiritual challenges of trying to become pregnant. It is true that Jacob or any man cannot simply grant his wife’s request to conceive as it is not in her power to grant his hopes to all of a sudden be able to impregnate his wife. Now that there are so many avenues both medical and psychological available to couples it becomes clear why this is a journey shared together. Progressive Jewish congregations treat this issue seriously. With men and women serving as rabbis and some congregations even offering programs that help couples find the support they need from their religious community, couples can blend the medical, mental health and religious communities into a positive tapestry of hope. Hopefully the strength and consolation that a couple can receive in their prayers from the Eternal One can support them to fulfill their dream towards receiving the blessing of a child. Neither man nor woman can play the role of God nor should they close their hearts off to the prayers of the other.



Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, South Carolina and is a doctoral student in modern Jewish history at the Hebrew Union College. You can follow Rabbi Bloom on his blog 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The dome of the Rock and the Western Wall: When symbols become the source of a religious conflict.

http://www.islandpacket.com/2014/12/05/3471690_in-palestinian-israeli-conflict.html?rh=1

Shalom to everyone
I have written in my newspaper column a piece about the recent conflicts on the Temple Mount. We have Islam's Dome of the Rock and the El Aksa Mosque and the Western Wall. This piece discusses the history of these two sacred spaces. Thank you for taking the time to read this column. As always your reactions and feedback is always appreciated.
Shalom,
Brad

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Homily on the Torah Portion Vayetze Genesis 28. "When you see a fateful moment, do not stand against it but give way to it."

 Vayetze
What does it feel like to experience a moment of truth? It does not have to be a bad or tragic thing, but, any juncture or crossroads when we are compelled to follow a new course in our lives. I can imagine several examples such as beginning a new venture, deciding to retire and relocate or taking a new job or to get married or even to mourn a loved one’s passing? How about a medical diagnosis and the process of deciding the course of medical treatment?  Making a choice between priorities at work with family or a personal decision about one’s identity such as for example revealing one’s sexual orientation?
In this week’s parasha, Vayetze, Jacob, the precocious kid, flees the wrath of a betrayed and revenge seeking brother Esau. On his journey back to his native Haran for refuge with his uncle Laban, Jacob encounters in a dream a moment of truth. How did the sages understand this transcendent occasion in his life? What does the Torah teach us about reacting to the moments of truth that move us to change course in our life as well?
 In Genesis chapter 28 it is written, “Jacob left Beer-Sheba and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night for the son had set. Taking one of the stones of that place he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  He had a dream, a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.  And the Lord was standing beside him and said, “I am the Eternal One, the God of your father Abraham, and the god of Isaac, the ground on which you are lying, I will give to you and your offspring.  Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth, you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  And the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.  Remember I am with you and I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to the land I will not leave you and I have done what I have promised you” (28:10-15).
Clearly this dream was an unexpected moment of truth for Jacob. His reaction to the dream reflected his willingness to embrace change and a new course in his life. Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it.,” How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and the gateway to heaven,” (28:16-17).
 The sages of our tradition had many interpretations but one stands out above the others. The Midrash says regarding Jacob’s dream, “When you see a fateful moment, do not stand against it but give way to it” (Tanhuma Midrash). Was he facing the reality that even though he was in the midst of running away from his immediate family drama and deception with Esau that one day he would accept his destiny to return to the Promised Land and be Patriarch? In other words could he run away in the short term but not run away in the long term from his newly defined purpose in life?
“When you see a fateful moment, do not stand against it but give way to it.” I feel the intention here is that life often times brings us unanticipated moments of great decision and the Midrash is saying that we are supposed to embrace change rather than resist it. For Jacob the dream of a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending along with God’s covenantal promise helped him expand his awareness of a new life direction. He knew not what would come next in his life but maybe now he understood that his purpose was to fulfill a divine promise that he Jacob would one day be the Patriarch of this tribe. The future is not always clear to us initially in so far as what change means in the short term but somehow if we open our eyes we eventually grasp a long range perspective in the direction of our lives.
“When you see a fateful moment do not stand against it but give way to it.” I heard something like this from a man who had lost his beloved to a disease and refused to ever consider another life partner again until that special person entered into his life. He then fought the moment of feeling that he could love again but eventually embraced those feelings and ultimately married her.
A woman told me a story about a time when she was notified that she was pregnant and experienced a conflict inside her regarding to have the child or choose an abortion. She gave way to the powerful emotions of being a mother and chose to carry the unexpected child to full term.
I recall a college student’s confession of his decision to change his major and pursue a new course of study where his real passions were and risked his parent’s disapproval. Change is the most threatening thing and, parenthetically, the most exhilarating experience. I am not sure Jacob made peace with this change of discovering his destiny but he followed it like an adventurer on a long journey not being sure of the outcome but committed to the journey.
“When a fateful moment comes do not stand against it but give way to it.”  These historic moments occur sparingly in a lifetime. Sometimes we stop for a moment and ask, “Am I in charge of my life or am I being guided on a much larger scale drama than I could ever imagine?

That is one of the major questions that religion asks of us which is to ascertain our purpose in life. For Jacob he received his marching orders from God that his role was to father a family and represent the Jewish people one day. That was his fateful moment. Can we recall an encounter or a fateful moment that would shape a new direction for our lives? Thanksgiving is an excellent time to reflect on the journey each of us has travelled to be here. Maybe we did not welcome that change at first and quite possibly it scared us or challenged us to the core of our being but at the end of the day we accepted this new direction anyway. That was the challenge that Jacob finally embraced and it is one which happens to us when we least expect it. As Isaiah said at the conclusion of the Midrash; “Go my people, enter your chambers and shut your doors behind me. Hide just for a moment until my anger passes” (Isaiah 6:20). The message is hiding to avoid the challenges of a change of course is understandable. At the end of the day change is inevitable and a call to action for a new opportunity at life can be a gift in the long run. The Sages say don’t resist it but embrace change.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Story of the Shakers in the history of religious life in America

http://www.islandpacket.com/2014/11/21/3444396_story-of-the-shakers-reminds-us.html?rh=1


I visited the Berkshires and wanted to learn more about this unusual religious group which was founded by a woman and created religious communes that existed from the 18th century to the 1960. They lived and work the soil and kept their faith. Their commitment to a simple and religiously based lifestyle is admirable and stands out in the annals of American history.
Have a good read and your comments are always welcome.
Brad

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reflections on the murders at the Har Nof synagogue in Jerusalem


It is telling about the nature of the Jewish people in response to terror when those in the Jerusalem neighborhood let alone in the shul that was attacked this week respond to media inquiries by saying that ‘we go back to the business of living.’ It is practically impossible to fathom the outrage, anger and desire for revenge that must be pulsating through the veins of Israelis in this most recent barbaric action.  We read reports of Israelis, definitely shaken to the core of their souls, yet still able and willing to live and not give in to the terrorist’s goals.
At the outset I want to stand in solidarity with my rabbinic colleagues in condemning these murderous acts and extend my personal condolences to the families who lost their loved ones in this terrorist attack. There can be no justification or excuse for this kind of abominable action. I hope that all of us will share our thoughts with our national elected leaders including our congressman and senators.
Media reports show video footage of observant Jews at this Jerusalem synagogue praying in the streets. They wait for the Messiah. They are believers in their theology with a deep seated faith turning to God for strength. They do not call out to destroy Arabs and Palestinians.  They do not summon the faithful to carry out an Intifada against the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. They do not call for a Jihad against all non-Jews and chop off heads. They mourn and grieve. They pray and even dance through their grief knowing that God is listening and giving them consolation.
Their martyrdom is not to walk through mosques and Arab storefronts and blow themselves up because God is great. Jewish martyrdom is about enduring the pain of exile and the pain today of terrorism. It is the courage to resume life knowing one has sustained a serious wound to their body and soul that distinguishes our martyrs from those of the radical Muslim terrorists.
Tragically we have seen these kinds of despicable actions many times in the past. Do we ever get used to or accustomed to the brutality?  What will be the consequences of these young men’s’ crimes? Will Israel build a security fence? I hope not. Jews in Jerusalem remain vulnerable since there are no barriers constructed between East and West Jerusalem. Anyone can drive anywhere they want to in Jerusalem. As always there are more questions lingering from these events than answers. I pray that the city will never be divided due to fear.
Are there Americans who enter the fray of Israeli- Palestinian politics saying, “This is what Israel gets for its policies in the territories”? Others will remain silent because they know the hypocrisy of the position that says, ‘I am a friend of the Jewish people but I just hate Israel.’ Are all the academic associations who condemned Israel and the religious organizations which supported the Boycott Divest and Sanction Israel declarations now rejoicing in the same way that Palestinians do in Ramallah and Gaza City at the so-called martyrdom of two murderous cousins from East Jerusalem?
Four Rabbis and an Israeli Druze policeman have entered eternity. The bullets and knife wielding terrorists did not care whether there victims would be rabbis or an Israel Druze police officer. Their hatred and dedication to their cause blinded them to the basic values that are supposed to be universal. Human life is sacred. “Whatever is hateful to you do not do to another”( Talmud Shabbat). “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:19).
We will say kaddish for the deceased and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded. May God accept the victims of terrorism in his Heavenly embrace? May Israel resist the pressures to respond with vengeance and may it remain on the moral high ground. May God bless the memories of the departed and sustain them in our hearts and souls and, finally, heal those recuperating from their wounds. Zichronom L’vrachah-May their memories be for a blessing.
Shalom

Rabbi Bloom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In memorium: Rabbi Isaac Neuman cherished Rabbi and friend.

In Memorium: Rabbi Isaac Neuman
I can still remember walking into his rabbinic study at Sinai Temple in Champaign, Illinois back in 1987. Soon I would sit behind that desk as the congregation’s new rabbi and Rabbi Neuman, the new Rabbi Emeritus would have his spot which was in the Temple library. Some people predicted that we would never get along. We were too different and from such different backgrounds. Yet I can say that none of those predictions came true. We were different and were from different worlds. From my vantage point I grew to respect and have deep admiration for Rabbi Isaac Neuman. He was a rabbi to me in the best sense of the term. He was my teacher and inspiration. For these reasons and more I mourn his passing.
Isaac opened a door for me and I walked down a pathway into many other worlds. No other rabbi has had a greater influence on my theology and learning as did Isaac. He introduced me to the study of Hasidism. He taught me how to read Elie Wiesel and other theologians. What Isaac did for me was to teach me firsthand about the Holocaust and then to understand those writers who like Wiesel began to combine Jewish sources with real life theological issues that emerged out of the Holocaust. I am greatly indebted to him for opening my eyes. One example was to teach me how to develop and implement a Yom HaShoah service. Every year since I left Champaign in 1995 to this day I have presented in the congregations I have served an annual Yom HaShoah service and program. From Isaac I learned to treat it like a miniature Yom Kippur with the best readings, poetry as well as music.
Isaac also taught me to appreciate Jewish music. He really took music seriously. In my days at Sinai Temple we brought out many of the greatest contemporary composers of contemporary Reform liturgical music. Working with a professional choir along with his advice provided me with the knowledge that would become invaluable to me as a rabbi in the future congregations I would serve and still do today.
What I loved about knowing him was that as long as he was in the library reading magazines like Commentary and others I could sit down with him and we would talk. We talked about his youth, his children and about the scholars of old as if he knew them intimately. Maybe he did. What he achieved in his life to have his sons, his beloved Eva and his rabbinic ordination and devoted congregants over the decades was a true achievement given the history he had from Poland to the  concentration camps and then to America. I stood in awe of this man. I remember saying goodbye to him when I was headed out to California and how I cried then when I embraced him.
The years went by and I was thrilled to have him out as a scholar in residence at my congregation in Sacramento. In addition each year before the High Holy Days we spoke and he gave me some of the greatest texts from the Talmud and Hasidism for my sermons. When my family and I would visit my parents in South Florida, we always made sure to visit Isaac and Eva in Miami Beach. He loved to speak about politics and Israel and often times bemoan new gimmicks he saw in the Reform Movement as shallow.
I feel bad, I must confess, that I did not keep up with him as I should have over the last five years or so. I regret that and ask from god forgiveness. I just hope he knows in Olam HaBa that I am carrying on his work and that I loved him.
It is true that sometimes he was short of patience and could be sharp tongued when something irritated him. Yet he was so kind to my family and especially affectionate to my daughter Leah. I shall never forget when he announced to me that he was going to East Berlin to be their rabbi at the reform congregation. He told me, “I’m putting my head in the lion’s mouth.” What a man to have the courage to do that given his experiences in life! Then he came home with Eva and the next thing I know I am standing with Gary Porton co-officiating with me under a huppah at the wedding of Eva and Isaac. Eva, my heart and condolences go out to you. You are a beautiful spirit and Isaac was blessed to have you as his wife. In addition I want to extend my heartfelt condolences to Mark and David. One could not ask for two devoted sons like them.

I will say kaddish for him at my congregation and I hope that everyone who reads this blog who did not know Isaac will realize that he was a special man with incredible gifts. While he opened up worlds of spirituality and learning for me, I used to also believe he lived in different worlds as well. Reform Judaism, Hasidism, the Holocaust were all worlds he inhabited and knew somehow how to balance them all while serving honorably his congregations as a pulpit rabbi. He gave the best of what Judaism offered and taught it to Sinai Temple. His storytelling and his passion for preserving Jewish memory filled us all with a glow. His teaching from the words of Nahman of Bratslav will always stay with me. “The whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to be afraid.” Nahman wrote those words but Isaac Neuman taught me them and how they could protect and strengthen me in the challenges I have faced in my life. I am a better person and rabbi for having known my beloved and cherished teacher Rabbi Isaac Neuman. Zichrono L’vrachah-May he be remembered for blessing.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Veterans Day Column

http://www.islandpacket.com/2014/11/07/3419549_houses-of-worship-should-be-spiritual.html?rh=1

I wanted to express some thoughts on Veterans Day in my newspaper column. I appreciate you taking the time to read it. Again your thoughts are greatly appreciated.
shalom,
Brad