Thursday, January 12, 2017

From Torah to Twitter, Be Careful What You Say

Words are powerful.

How did God create the world? What were God’s tools for creating the world?

“And God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light…and God said…and God said…” – such was the process of creation, from light to human beings. God spoke, and words became a world.

We are reminded of this every morning during our prayers, when we recite the prayer “Baruch She’amar”:

                  Baruch She’amar ve-haya ha-olam…Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being.

Jewish commentators widely agree that God’s use of words to create the world represents a metaphor on speech and communication.
It is empowering to know that we possess the same tools that God used to create the world. With our own words, we have the power to create entire new worlds of knowledge, innovation and progress for humanity. Through our words, we have the power to build and to inspire.

But we also know that those very same tools – words -- have the power to destroy.

Reading ahead in Genesis, we meet the world’s first brothers, Cain and Abel. While out in the field together, Cain and Abel had an exchange of words, one that was so negative that it led to the world’s first-ever murder:

                  "Cain said to his brother Abel... and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him."

We know that Cain said something, and we know that Cain killed Abel. What we don’t know is what Cain said, what Abel might have responded, and what type of exchange ensued between them. The Torah omits their words, leaving it for us to think about.

Thus, in Chapter 1 of the Torah, words created the entire world, yet by Chapter 4, words resulted in murder.

We’ve seen this pattern throughout history.

With words, visionary leaders and orators like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and David Ben-Gurion inspired people towards new ideas meant to create a better world for all of humanity.

With words, demagogic leaders and orators like Adolph Hitler convinced millions of people to adopt racist ideas that led to mass murder.

“Wise men, be careful with your words.” Such was the warning by Pirkei Avot specifically addressed to public figures.

When our sages said this, little did they know that there would come a day when – at the mere push of a button – words could spread to millions of people.

Today, all it takes to build – or to destroy – is a mere 140 characters.

“Wise men, be careful with your words.”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Quality of Life

It was a very brief meeting, and a seemingly peculiar exchange of words. For the first time, the head of the Israelite household -- Jacob -- meets Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. The only thing they shared in common was Joseph. To Jacob, Joseph was his son, and to Pharaoh, Joseph was the economic wizard who saved his empire's economy from total disaster.

What could these two men possibly talk about?

Here is their brief exchange of words, as described by the Torah:

 "Joseph brought his father and presented him to Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh. 'How many are the days of your life?' asked Pharaoh of Jacob. Jacob replied to Pharaoh: 'The days of the years of my sojourning are a hundred and thirty years; few and unhappy have the days of my life been. I did not attain the days of the years of life that my fathers did during their sojourn through life.' With that, Jacob blessed Pharaoh and left his presence." (Genesis 47:7-10)

As the leader of a powerful empire, Pharaoh had certainly met many world leaders. One can only imagine what Pharaoh expected Jacob to look like, but the 16th century commentator Kli Yakar tells us that Pharaoh was shocked when he saw a thin, frail, weakened old man approaching him, barely able to walk toward his throne.

Jacob begins by blessing Pharaoh, and this seems to bond the two men, so much so that Pharaoh poses a wise, carefully worded, personal question: "How many are the days of your life?" The wording of Pharaoh's question caught the eye of many commentators, who wonder why Pharaoh did not simply ask, "How old are you?" Why did he word his question as "How many are the days of your life?"

Jacob's response reflects a deep understanding of Pharaoh's carefully worded question: "The days of the years of my sojourning are 130, [but] few and unhappy have been the days of my life."

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century commentator, remarks that Jacob differentiates between living and existing: "You ask how many are the days of my life? I have not lived much. I have sojourned on this earth for 130 years. The days of the years that I can really call my life were in reality only few -- and were themselves bitter and full of worry."

The Netziv, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva during the second half of the 19th century, offers an additional insight: "My years of success in life were few and bitter, for even when I had actually achieved material wealth and financial security, my life was still filled with woe and sorrow, such as the death of my wife Rachel and the rape of my daughter Dinah."

Jacob's answer is filled with perspective on life's biggest question: How do we measure and define a "happy life"? Is it by living to a ripe old age? Is it through material wealth and success?

According to Hirsch, Jacob was telling Pharaoh that a true human being does not see life through length of years, rather through the quality of days lived. Centuries after Jacob died, another wise patriarch – Abraham Lincoln – used to say: “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

The Netziv's comments add the powerful reminder to Pharaoh that material wealth alone does not bring happiness. Jacob told this wealthy king that his great palace, wealth and fame are of no value without the true happiness and fulfillment of family life and personal relationships.

In the waning days of a tumultuous 130-year life that included receiving his father's blessing by way of deceit, a terrible relationship with his brother, an unfulfilled married life, the rape of his daughter and constant strife between his children, Jacob teaches Pharaoh -- and all of us -- that happiness is not about reaching old age or amassing wealth; rather, it's about the quality and richness of day-to-day life with our family and friends. As such, Jacob’s brief encounter with Pharaoh is arguably his greatest and wisest moment as a true “patriarch.”

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Stuck in the Middle: Isaac Speaks Up

My name is Isaac. You think you know me, but you really don't. I am stuck in between two generations, constantly overshadowed by my father Abraham and my son Jacob. If you ask anyone to name the nation that eventually came from my family, they either refer to them as "the offspring of Abraham" or, more commonly, "the children of Israel" (Jacob’s adopted name). You never hear anyone refer to this nation by my name: Isaac. It's not that my name isn't mentioned in the Bible. My name actually appears 108 times, yet, virtually all of the stories where my name is mentioned and where I am involved as a character are told from someone else's point of view, completely ignoring my perspective.

When I was just a little boy, I was out playing with my half-brother Ishmael. The next thing I know, my mother throws him and his mother Hagar out of our house. To this day, I have no idea why this happened, and nobody ever asked me how I felt about losing my half-brother who I was playing with. The next and only other time I saw Ishmael was when we together buried our father Abraham.

Not long after I lost my half-brother, there came what many of you call the "big test." You have certainly heard about the most famous of stories that contains my name, "The Binding of Isaac." The irony of having my name in the title of this story is that the story isn't really about me at all. It's all about my father: "After these events, God tested Abraham." Not once throughout this "big test of faith" is my voice ever heard, except when I asked my father why he forgot the sacrificial lamb. His answer: "God will provide." So there I was, bound on an altar, the fire burning and my father's knife to my throat. Yet when it's all over and God's angel saves my life, only my father emerges as a heroic figure. Not once do we hear how I -- Isaac -- felt throughout this ordeal. In case you're wondering, I'll start by asking if you ever noticed that after the ropes were loosened from my hands and feet, there is never again recorded in the Torah one single conversation between my father and me. Let's add to this that when we came home, we found that my mother died from the shock of hearing what my father had done. So perhaps from your perspective, this story crowned my father the "ultimate hero of faith." As for me, my relationship with my father was ruined, I lost my mother and I spent the rest of my life traumatized. Not quite an "all's well that ends well."

My father's last act on earth was to send his servant to arrange my marriage. Funny, nobody asked me if I wanted to get married, and if I did, you’d think I might have a say in who I would marry? I ask this question because, yes, I did love my wife Rebecca, but I have a hard time getting over how she went behind my back and convinced my son Jacob to deceive me. I favored Esau, and I have my own reasons for that. But once again, my feelings were not taken into account, and what should have been "Isaac Blessing His Sons" became "Jacob Deceiving Isaac." My own blessing to my kids became the matter of a sibling rivalry and a sneaky plot by my wife. Once again, I had no say in the matter.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not writing all of this in order to invite your pity, because there is one story recorded about me for which I will forever be proud. It is the one and only story in the Torah that is all about me. As you know, both my father and son were faced with severe famines in Canaan, and as a result, both of them left Canaan and “went down to Egypt.” I, too, was faced with a "famine in the land," but I did not leave. I chose to fight it out and stay in Canaan…and I dug wells. I think being bound with a knife to my throat on Mount Moriah actually gave me something I would call “the survivor’s instinct.” I became a survivor, and despite the trauma I experienced, I learned to tough things out. I am the only one in my family to never leave our Promised Land.

Throughout our history, my family's descendants have been mistreated, traumatized and deceived (just like me), yet somehow, we always survived. We always insisted, either physically or metaphorically, on "staying in the land and digging wells," despite "the famine." So perhaps our people refer to themselves by the names of my father and son, but their inner character and strength as tough survivors comes from me, Isaac. It is my story -- the story of a survivor -- that is really our collective story.

So, I may not have much a voice in all of this, but my gut instinct tells me I have lots to do with why we are still here.

It was nice speaking with you, and sorry this talk is just a few thousand years late. Funny, something deep inside of me said that even if I waited this long to speak up, my people would still be around to hear me.