Fear Not

The patriarch Jacob, in the twilight years of his life, learns that his son Joseph is not only alive and well in Egypt but has risen to become second in power only to the Pharaoh. He prepares to leave his home in Canaan and head to Egypt to see him for the first time in more than 20 years. While on his way he stops in Beersheva to offer sacrifices to God. There God speaks to him: “I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 46:3). Commentators are puzzled by this Divine reassurance—why must God tell Jacob not to fear going down to Egypt? What is causing him to be afraid? Indeed, Jacob seems to be excited about seeing his son and enthusiastic about making the trip.

The answers offered to this intriguing question are many and varied. Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, a 13th century French scholar, posits that Jacob is afraid that his move to Egypt will bring closer the predicted enslavement of his descendants. God reassures him that while the People of Israel will be enslaved, Jacob’s move to Egypt will also bring closer their redemption from slavery. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, who lived in Lithuania in the 19th century, taught that Jacob was afraid of the possibility that his family would lose their identity through assimilation into Egyptian religious and cultural life. Some have suggested that Jacob was afraid simply because he was elderly, and packing up and moving to a new home, especially in a different country, is a traumatic experience for someone in his stage of life. And Rashi, the great scholar whose words echo across a thousand years, wrote in his commentary to Genesis that Jacob was afraid because he was leaving the land of Israel, the land where his father Isaac remained for his entire life, the land that God promised to his grandfather Abraham as a sacred possession.

It is Rashi’s commentary that resonates with me in a deeply personal way. We have raised our children to love the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, and we are proud that all of our sons are devoted Zionists, having visited Israel countless times beginning in childhood and having spent extended periods of time studying there. Rashi’s teaching that Jacob was anxious because he might have to leave the Land of Israel speaks to us of the power and importance of Zionism. There are many ways to express our commitment to Zionism, including visiting Israel, supporting Israel with our resources, and advocating for Israel when individuals and communities choose to attack the Jewish State.

Perhaps the highest form of Zionism is to make one’s home in Israel, to live there as the patriarch Jacob yearned to do. So I am especially proud to tell you that my son Josh, who moved to Israel upon completing his college education a year ago, will officially become an Israeli citizen this Monday (he will continue to be an American citizen as well). Josh is very excited to become an Israeli. Within a year, he will be drafted by the army and, after a short stint in basic training, will likely serve for six months. Rather than trying to avoid army service, Josh will welcome becoming a soldier in the IDF and doing whatever is asked of him for the State of Israel. For many years now, as his thinking and spiritual life have grown and matured, he has aspired to live his life in Israel as an Israeli. Becoming an Israeli on Monday (the process is mostly bureaucratic and not ceremonial) will be very fulfilling for him.

And it will be very moving and fulfilling for me and Amy as well. Those with whom we have already shared this news have asked us how we feel about one of our children making his permanent home in Israel, halfway around the world. My answer is that a parent’s job, after bringing our children into the world, is to shape their character and guide them toward a life of meaning and purpose. Amy and I have tried to do that by aligning our children with the values and ways of life of Judaism. But children must be allowed and empowered to find their own pathway in life. The Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran expressed this idea eloquently in his poem “Children”:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

We respect our children’s choices, wherever they may go in life. The patriarch Jacob yearned to live in Eretz Yisrael, and countless of his descendants, the Children of Israel, have sought to fulfill their Jewish identity by living in the land where Jewish civilization came into existence. On Monday, our son Josh will join their ranks and we couldn’t be more proud.

Giving Thanks

In the course of my rabbinate, I’ve had the privilege of participating with countless families in the celebration of the birth of a child. It’s always a delight to hear the name that parents choose for their child, and interesting to hear the reason for their choice. As many of us have done and in keeping with Ashkenazic tradition, parents often name a child after a loved one who has passed away (Sephardic custom is to name a child in honor of a living relative). But some parents give their child a name that represents an interest they may have in life (one parent named his son Harley because he liked motorcycles) or an experience they may have had at some point (another parent named their child Hudson because she and her husband fell in love and got married in New York).

In this week’s Parasha, we read about the names given to the sons of Jacob by their mothers, Rachel and Leah. What’s striking about their choices is that they seem very self-serving, in an almost tragic sense. Leah chooses the name Simeon “because the Lord heard that I was unloved” and the name Levi “so my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.” Naftali is chosen because his mother won a “fateful contest with her sister and prevailed,” and Joseph is chosen as an affirmation that “God has taken away my disgrace by adding another son to me.”

But the choice of the name Judah, the origin of the word Jewish, is made for reasons that are not self-serving. Leah chooses this name as an expression of gratitude for those things that are above and beyond what she felt she had a right to expect in life. When Leah gives birth to Judah—the namesake of our people—she says “ha-pa’am odeh et Adonai…this time I will thank God” (Genesis 29:35). Why did Leah feel the need to thank God when Judah was born? Because he was her fourth child, and she had reasoned that each of Jacob’s four wives would be entitled to bear three sons who would become one of the ancestors of the twelve tribes. Judah was “extra,” more than she felt she was entitled to have, so she felt compelled to offer thanks to God.

This idea lies at the heart of the historical narrative that gave rise to Thanksgiving. According to historical records, the Pilgrims suffered numerous fatalities during their first year in the New World. Of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower, only half survived. In order for the others to make it, they needed the help of the Wampanoag, who taught them how to hunt, how to fish and what crops to plant in a place that was unfamiliar to them. The Pilgrims, feeling indebted to the Wampanoag, asked that they join them for a meal to show their gratitude for their kindness. The story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving gives us an insight into the meaning of gratitude. Related to the word “gratis,” showing gratitude seems to mean offering appreciation for those things that are free or extra, above and beyond what we feel we are entitled to have. The Pilgrims had no reason to expect that the Wampanoag would help them and the lifesaving assistance they received was above and beyond the basic sustenance for which they might have otherwise recited grace.

There is no exact equivalent Hebrew word for gratitude. Typically, people say “todah” when they wish to say thank you, a word emanating from the Hebrew verb “l’hodot,” meaning to acknowledge or to praise. Another phrase, often used in modern Hebrew to express gratitude, is “hakarat ha-tov, to recognize the good.” That phrase captures the true essence of giving thanks. To offer thanks is to recognize the good around us, and to express appreciation for that which we perceive to be extra or above what we are entitled to have. Each new day should be received as a gift. Judaism encourages us to not only express appreciation for the blessings we receive that go beyond what we think we ought to have in life, but also to express gratitude every moment of life itself, for it is all a gift.

On this Thanksgiving Day, and every day that follows, let us offer thanks for the totality of life.

Time to Move On

Like many of you, Amy and I had the pleasure recently of attending a graduation ceremony for one of our children.  Joshua, who completed his degree at the University of Pennsylvania in December, returned from his new home in Tel Aviv to participate in commencement exercises with his class.  The two days we spent at Penn were an emotionally fulfilling and filled with pride and delight at our son’s accomplishments, a feeling that I’m certain many of you have experienced as well.  These are moments to cherish, true “she-hecheyanu” moments that call forth from us expressions of gratitude and delight at life’s blessings.  We are so pleased to see our children grow and thrive and to see them move forward in life.

Still, transitions like graduations can sometimes be quietly bittersweet.  While we take delight in seeing our children grow and mature, we know that as they do we must begin to let go.  When our children are young, we know that we must begin to teach them to make their own decisions and to live on independently.  At some point in life, we recognize that our children are moving swiftly toward adulthood.

Change of any type is both good and challenging.  In order to be fully human, we must embrace change, both in ourselves and in those we love.  And change can be challenging, as it requires us to give up that which is familiar and comfortable and replace it with something new.

As we watch our children grow and change, we should be reassured that, while part of us may find it hard to let go, their growth brings forth a new, positive and enriching person of whom we can be proud.   It may be challenging at times to embrace change, but it brings with it new promise and potential.

When asked what Josh is doing now that he has graduated from college, we proudly say that he has moved to Tel Aviv and is working for Google as a computer programmer.  Upon hearing that he has moved across the world from our home in New Jersey, some people say, “You must be devastated that your son has moved so far away.”  I instinctively reply, “Quite the contrary.”  Children are meant to move forward from their family home to find themselves in the world.  Not only am I proud that Josh is expressing his Zionist identity by making aliyah, I fully accept that his life journey will take him where he wants to go, not where I want him to go.  That is as it should be.

In that spirit, and at this season of transition, I share this poem by the Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran about the destiny of children, which I have always found moving:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children 
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable. 

I want to wish Mazal Tov to all those in the Oheb Shalom family who are celebrating a graduation this month, whether from nursery school, college, or somewhere in between.  I encourage you to attend our annual High School Senior Shabbat on Friday, June 6 at 8:00 PM.  High School Senior Shabbat is a special evening on which we honor our graduating High School seniors and celebrate all they have done, and I know you will be pleased to attend.