Monday, December 28, 2015

Parashat Sh’mot 5776- We Are Family

Echoes of Eden      
      Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Shmot
We Are Family

In a sense, the entire first book of the Torah is a book of sibling intrigue, involving competition, jealousy and even murder. As Abels bloodied, lifeless body lies on the ground in a lonely field, God calls out to Cain and asks, or perhaps demands, Where is your brother Abel? Cain responds cynically, Am I my brothers keeper? The answer, of course, is a resounding YES! We are, indeed, responsible for our brothers and sisters, our immediate and extended families.

At various critical points throughout the book of Bereishit, this lesson seems to have been forgotten. Vicious cycles play themselves out over and over: More hatred, more jealousy. Even when violence is narrowly averted, it is a constant threat. Yosef, who was a victim of his brothers ire, forces this problem out of the shadows of the subconscious and up to the surface, orchestrating the situation in which Yehudah, the very person who had spearheaded the violence against him, morphs into the protector of his brother Binyamin. In the final chapters, despite everything that has been said and done, Yosef takes care of his brothers  - much to their surprise. The book of Bereishit comes to a close with this chord of conciliation and brotherly responsibility.

Now, a new book begins with a particularly tender scene: Miriam, Moshes older sister, goes to extraordinary lengths to look out for her younger brother. She is unwilling to simply turn her back and walk away as Moshe is placed in an ark and set adrift on the Nile. When her brother is rescued by Pharaohs daughter, Miriam steps in with an offer to help find a wet nurse who is willing to care for this infant. Conveniently enough, not only is Moshe temporarily returned to his mother, but she is paid to fulfill her hearts deepest desire: to nurse and nurture her son. All of this is made possible through Miriams love.

As a result of Miriams concern for her brothers welfare, Moshe is returned to his home and family, and in addition to his mothers milk, he receives a rudimentary Jewish education and a very strong sense of Jewish identity that manifests itself years later: When Moshe leaves the comfort and security of his home in Pharaohs palace and goes out to seek his brothers, he witnesses an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jew:

Now it came to pass in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their suffering, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers. (2:11)

In a scene so similar to - yet so different from - the Cain and Abel scene, once again a life is taken. This time, it is taken to defend a brother who was being beaten to death, whereas Abels death was senseless and morally indefensible, the result of anger and jealousy.

In a very real sense, Moshes unique gifts as a leader and savior of the Jewish People shine through in this early scene: He defends the weak, rescues the victim, and takes an unequivocal moral stand. But there is another message in this episode that should not be overlooked: The person Moshe rescued was an anonymous Jew, not only to us but to Moshe as well. This unfortunate slave was, in fact, a stranger to Moshe but Moshe saw him as a brother. Moshe had gone out in search of his brothers, and he felt an unshakeable sense of kinship and responsibility toward this unnamed Jew and every other member of his People. Apparently, the lesson Moshe learned from his sister had sunk in: Never turn your back on a brother or sister. Brothers do not harm one another; they most certainly do not kill one another, nor do they sell their siblings into slavery. Moshe, the beneficiary of his sister Miriams love and devotion, in turn seeks out brothers to aid and protect. This is the foundation of Moshes identity, and it becomes the cornerstone of his personality as the greatest leader of the Jewish People.

As readers, we would do well to pause and consider these spiritual giants, the men and women who populate the Book of Shmot and lay the groundwork for the redemption of the Jewish People. In particular, we might contrast their words and actions with the pathetic behavior so often found in Bereishit the jealousy, the callous disregard for the welfare and rights of others, the selfishness, egotism and ingratitude that results in exile and destruction, discord and death. The contrast highlights the fact that Shmot is not merely a new book; it is cause for new hope. It is the story of the emergence of a new nation - a nation that is a family, a nation whose members take responsibility for one another, a nation that can only thrive when no brother or sister is left behind.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Audio and Essays Parashat Shmot

Audio and Essays Parashat Shmot

New Echoes of Eden Project:

We Are Family

Audio shiurim

The Book of Shmot an Introduction:

The Redeemers

A Sign Of Redemption

A new King - who Forgot Yosef (5772)

Recreating The World

Regaining Innocence

Shmot Moshes Delay Vaeira Burning Bush

Straw (advanced)

Straw (basic)

The Development Of Moshe

The Leadership Of Moshe

Shmot - a Brief Overview What Is FREEDOM

Why Moshe Was Chosen

Sefer Shmot and the Confusing Chronology

Who Forgot - and Who Remembered Yosef? (5773)

The Metamorphosis of Moshe

The Choice of Moshe as Leader



Redemption Song

A New Book, An Old Story 

Moshe: The Emergence of a Leader

Collecting Straw

Born to Lead

Fathers and Sons

Moses' Stop
New Book:

Monday, December 21, 2015

Parashat Vayechi 5776 Love and Loss

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayechi 5776
Love and Loss

In the words of the great poet Alfred Tennyson,

'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.[1]

Almost any person who lives long enough will experience and suffer loss; it is an inescapable fact of the human condition. Modern scholarship recognizes five distinct stages of loss and mourning: Denial, anger, bargaining, and depression must be experienced before acceptance is a possibility.[2]  And yet, though the process may be universal, the individuals response to loss is far less uniform: So many factors come into play, and so many different types of loss may be experienced at different stages of a persons life, generating very different responses.

Our Patriarch Yaakov suffered and endured a great deal of loss. First, he lost the comfort and tranquility of his childhood home when he was forced to flee his brothers murderous fury. In retrospect, this loss paled in comparison to the death of loved ones that Yaakov subsequently endured: He lost the love of his life, Rachel, when she died in childbirth. He mourned the loss of his son Yosef, the son of Rachel, for decades. Both of these losses were devastating, cruel, swift: He was unprepared for the death of his young wife and of his seventeen-year-old son.

How did Yaakov cope with these catastrophes? Others might have crumbled under the weight of these tragedies. Indeed, when Pharaoh asks Yaakov his age, Yaakov  responds:

'My journey through life has lasted 130 years,' replied Yaakov. 'The days of my life have been few and hard. I did not live as long as my fathers did during their pilgrimage through life.' (Bereishit 47:7)

In Yaakovs words, first to his sons, then to Pharaoh, and, eventually directly to Yosef, we hear the pain that he has lived through and the loss he has endured. His beloved wife had died suddenly; from the moment he had met her, all Yaakov ever really wanted was to marry Rachel and to live out their days together. His son Yosef, who replaced Rachel in Yaakovs heart, was wrested from him, leaving Yaakov bereft and emotionally alone. And yet, as traumatic as these devastating losses were, they may not have been what Yaakov had in mind when he described to Pharaoh the misery he had experienced. These losses are not unknown in this world; they are, in a sense, a cruel but not unusual part of life. Hard as it was for Yaakov to bear, the loss of his loved ones was not what shook him to his very core. Yaakov had loved and lost; he could cling to the memories of Rachel and Yosef, take comfort in Binyamin, enjoy the company of his other wives, children and grandchildren. He could focus on the time he had spent with Rachel and of his special relationship with Yosef; more generally, he could take pride in what he had achieved, rather than focusing on what was lacking in his life.

Even Tennyson, the poet who grappled with the sudden loss of someone so dear to him and so central to his life, [3] was able to draw solace from this aspect of love lost. From the depths of his own mourning, Tennyson chose to change his focus, and to cherish the time he had shared with his friend Arthur Hallam rather than succumb to the raw, biting pain of loss.

Yaakov had experienced an additional type of loss, and it was this other pain that tormented his days, his nights, his years: Yaakov had experienced estrangement from God Himself. When Yaakov ran away from Esav, when he lost his home, his property, his entire family, God had been with him. God spoke to him, reassured him, promised not to abandon him. Years later, when Yaakov extricated himself from the house of Lavan and started to make his way back home, God spoke to him, guided him and shored up his courage. Yaakov had an intimate relationship with God; he spoke to Him in his hour of darkness and fear as he prepared to confront Esav, and brought Him offerings of thanksgiving after the ordeal was over. And yet, when Yaakovs life was torn asunder by the disappearance of Yosef, God was silent. For decades, Yaakov was left to face his grief alone, without Gods words of reassurance or comfort that he so sorely craved. When Yosef exits the stage, God ceases to communicate with Yaakov. For Yaakov, the loss of his son is compounded by Gods silence; this loss, unlike the other pain that he had experienced, was unnatural, impossible to understand. It was a sense of loss that reflected something so profoundly wrong that Yaakov was inconsolable.

The loss of a loved one is painful, but to suffer Gods silence is a completely different experience. The loved one is gone, yet God continues to exist; He chooses not to communicate. Can we say to a person who has experienced intimacy with God such as Yaakov did, that it is better to have been a prophet and lose the ability to prophesize than never to have heard the voice of God at all? Can a prophet take solace in the fact that he knows with certainty that God exists and communicates with man, that He is involved in human history and takes a personal interest in each and every aspect of our lives and not be anything less than devastated when prophecy is suddenly, inexplicably denied? Is the loss of this gift of intimacy too spiritually devastating for any man or woman to bear?

When Yaakov is informed that Yosef is, in fact, alive, his prophetic ability returns; Yaakov comes to life once again. His spiritual world is rehabilitated. The intimacy with God is restored. Only then is Yaakov able to make sense of what has happened. He is granted the insight that is only possible from Gods perspective of history insight that Yosef was granted all along. Yosef lives, and God speaks; Yaakovs world, which had been upended, is set right.

 And then, once again, Yaakov is thrust into darkness. On his deathbed, Yaakov intends to share this Divine perspective with his children, to draw a line from the past, through the present, to the future. He is eager to include them in the intimacy with God that he has regained, but this intimacy is suddenly denied. Yaakov once again must endure the loss of Divine communication, and Gods silence terrifies him. He searches the faces of his children with fear: Could they, perhaps, be unworthy of sharing Divine intimacy?

Rabbinic tradition teaches us that in this moment of fear and dread, Yaakovs children cry out in unison: Shma Yisrael - Hashem Elokeinu Hashshem Echad Hear oh Israel (our father): God is our Lord, God is One.[4] Yaakov now gains a new type of understanding, a more human sort of insight: This time, Gods silence is not a punishment but an act of tenderness and consideration. God is silent, not because Yaakovs children are unworthy of prophecy, but because they are worthy of Gods kindness:  Sometimes, we are better off not knowing exactly what the future holds, and yet, despite this, when and even more importantly, when our children say the Shma we know that God is with us.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

[1] Alfred Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”
[2] See Elisabeth Kubler-Ross On Death and Dying, (Routledge 1969), Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving (NY: Simon and Shuster, 2005).
[3] Despite many a lover taking solace in the words of Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H” was written for his dear friend and fellow poet Arthur Hallam, who had been engaged to marry Tennyson’s sister Emily but died unexpectedly at the age of twenty two.
[4] Talmud Bavli Pesachim 56a.

Echoes of Eden

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Audio and Essays Parashat Vayechi

Audio and Essays Parashat Vayechi

New Echoes of Eden Project:
Love and Loss

Audio shiurim

Berishit; a Book Review

The Deaths of Yakov and Esav

Parshat Vayechi / The Deaths of Yakov and Esav

Parshat Vayechi / The Order Of The Brachot

Parshat Vayechi / The Shema

Parshat Vayechi / Yosef An Extension Of Yaacov

Parshat Vayechi/ Take Me Home

An Inconclusive Conclusion

Father and Son



Who Are These?

The Death of Jacob