The Transitive Property

This week was tough. Someone in my life lost a job. Someone in my life was losing their home. A friend was physically assaulted by a family member. Another loved one was hospitalized for addiction. A friend’s mother is very sick. And that’s all just this week!

It seems that the more people you know and love, the more tsouris you encounter. Tsouris (which is Yiddish for trouble) has a transitive property. Each person’s struggle not only affects them but a web of family and friends. These supporters consequently walk around, trying to go about the tasks of their day while carrying around heaviness in their heart. Family and friends bear a combination of sorrow and powerlessness over situations that spiral out of control.

With this heaviness, I turn to this week’s portion and ask: what do you have to say What comfort can you offer my aching heart?

At the opening of this week’s parasha, the characters must have felt heavy-hearted as well. Abraham had nearly killed Isaac in last week’s portion, and Sarah dies in this week’s portion. According to the rabbis, Sarah died because she heard about Isaac’s near-death and couldn’t bear the news. So now, Abraham and Isaac each face dual traumas – that of Isaac’s near-death and Sarah’s actual death. They certainly had tsouris!

So what did they do with their tsouris?

The portion recounts that Abraham immediately sent his servant back to his hometown to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham didn’t leave the servant Eliezer with directions on how to find the right woman; he was left to his own devices. Eliezer’s plan was curious. He went to the well of the town and prayed to God for a young woman to come. He would ask for water, and if the woman gave water not only to him, but to his camels, then he would know that she was The One.

Lo and behold, a woman came and when he asked for water, she gave it both to him and his camels. Eliezer then knew he’d hit the jackpot. After some negotiations with her family, he brought the woman home to meet Isaac. When she arrived, “Isaac took Rebecca as his wife, Isaac loved her and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

Eliezer’s bride-selection method seems odd by modern standards, but it highlights what he was seeking – kindness. When Rebecca gave the camels water, she went beyond Eliezer’s request. As Rabbi Harold Kushner explained, “Abraham and Sarah, for all their pioneering religious achievements were sometimes insensitive to members of their own household. Rebecca’s kindness and generosity may have been what was needed to correct those family dynamics.” Like tsouris, caring too has transitive properties; it brings healing to wounded hearts.

In this cruel world, this week’s portion teaches: Seek out kindness, and when you find it, hold onto it with all your might.

When Lightning Strikes

This week, we finish reading the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy and start again at the beginning of Genesis. I can hardly believe that it’s now been a year since I started writing these columns. In reflecting back on the year, I’m struck by how much writing these columns have enriched my life in ways that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated when I began.

The last portion of Deuteronomy, called V’zot Habrahah (And this is the blessing), begins with Moses blessing the people Israel before his death. The blessing recounts that God came from Sinai carrying lightening. The word for lightning is “esh dat” which literally means “fiery law” and according to the rabbis refers to the Torah.

This past year, I learned how Torah is indeed analogous to lightning. Like lightning, my thoughts for this column strike unexpectedly. I learned that I can’t make the inspiration for these columns come on my own schedule. Most often ideas come in the most unspectacular, everyday places — at the dinner table or when out on a walk around the neighborhood one of the kids makes a remark that somehow resonates within me.

Just as the time and place of lightning bolts can’t be anticipated, neither can the effects. In the Talmud, (Ta’anit 7a) the rabbis asked: “Why are the words of Torah compared to fire?” They answered “Just as fire does not ignite itself, so too words of Torah are not sustained alone.” The most unexpected blessing of writing these columns is the way that it has brought people into my life. It has helped me keep in touch with past congregants, colleagues, students and teachers in a substantive way and kept the light of those relationships burning brightly.

The column has brought new people into my life. Each week, I share it with friends and family. Over time, my list of friends and family has grown and now includes almost 700 people. This journey has shown me the intricate web of relationships in which I (and each one of us) take part. The column has brought old people back into my life — prompting reconnections with childhood friends with whom I had fallen out of touch. Just this past week, a babysitter from my childhood came across the column and contacted me for the first time in over twenty years! Through the incredible tool of the internet, the fire of Torah has a way of slowly spreading and bringing people together.

The most prominent fire recounted in the Torah is when Moses encountered a burning bush that was not consumed. What I learned most this past year is that the fire of Torah doesn’t run out. I was concerned when I began this project whether I would be able to write a piece on every Torah portion. As a congregational rabbi, I connected the lives of my congregants to the weekly Torah portion — but I hadn’t tried to link it to my own life (and particularly to parenting) each and every week. Genesis is filled with narratives about parents and children, but the subject matter of the latter books of the Torah is often remote from such themes. I wondered whether I would find an idea in every portion. Yet I found that the Torah portion always connects to the events of the week. The light of Torah never burns out.

I want to thank each of you for accompanying me on my journey, for your support and your insights. This week, on the holiday of Simchat Torah, the end of the Torah is read, followed immediately with Bereshit (the first chapter of Genesis). So too, as I complete this column, I look forward to starting all over again at the beginning with you.

A Sukkot Message

On Sunday morning, I woke up feeling refreshed and energized, grateful that Yom Kippur was done.

“Okay, kids,” I said. “Let’s go outside. We need to build the sukkah today.”

My son Jeremy asked: “Why do we have to build a sukkah?”

“We need to build the sukkah so we can eat in it,” I said.

He then questioned: “Why do we have to eat in the sukkah when we have a whole house to eat in?”

Jeremy had a point. Sukkot is one of my favorite holidays, and it’s also one of the strangest. The holiday provokes lots of questions: why do we have to build a hut in the backyard, and then a week later, take it down?

His questions reminded me of one of my favorite stories which takes place on Sukkot.

A folktale is told about the biblical King Solomon, the builder of the First Temple, who was known for his wisdom, and who was often sad.

He turned to his most trusted servant, Benaiah and said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot which gives you six months to find it.”

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

“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.”

Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by an old merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet.

“Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah.

He watched the old merchant take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile.

That night, the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.

“Well, my friend,” said Solomon. “Have you found what I sent you after?”

To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, ‘Here it is, your majesty!” The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which stood for Gam zeh ya’avor: This too shall pass.

This phrase could be a slogan for the holiday of Sukkot. The reason why we build a hut is to follow the commandment to dwell in a temporary structure (if the sukkah were left up all year, then it would no longer be Kosher.) Like the ring, the sukkah embodies the same message as the ring. The sukkah reminds us that our struggles are only temporary. It encourages us to hold onto the moments of joy just a little longer.

“When the people left Egypt to go to Israel they lived in huts. We build the sukkah to remember the people’s trip.” I told Jeremy.

“Okay,” he said, and we began building.