Toldot & Thanksgiving

by Alison C. Brown, Executive Director

Fear not, while it currently feels as though some of our world leaders have purposefully severed our ancestral roots, I suspect every generation feels that way.

Parashah Toldot is a Jewish narrative about our ancestral roots and serves as another installment in the guide to being fully human. Together with the many Jewish texts redacted and commented upon over the millennia, there is no misconstruing the values that bind us.

Our ancestors live within us. We connect with and build upon the consciousness of previous generations. To borrow an image from science, we need only connect to the stardust of which we are all made. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught a general principle that wherever we go, we go to our roots. Pull the camera out to include contemporary times: we may move or change jobs, but our roots accompany us. To access our roots for decision making we need b’hirut hasaichel, clarity of reason. Through prayer, meditation and mindfully being in the present moment we experience an unchanging awareness and clarity of reason that is divine. We can practice and learn to experience rehovot, spaciousness. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes that, “The well of our ancestors becomes a fountain connecting the dark depths of our human story with the wide skies of awareness.”

Not to get off topic, but the Buddhists are right, life is suffering. The human story includes dark depths. Some of them stem from severed roots. We find our way back through the breath and faith. In Psalms 150, verse 6, our ancestors teach, “Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah.” Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer adds, “The action of breathing in and breathing out indicates the continuous Presence of God in our life.” In the Jewish narrative darkness is balanced by the light. Hallelujah!

In the ancestral narrative of Toldot, “Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of living water.” The well symbolizes, Rabbi Norman Lamm suggests, “the great well of personality and being that beckons us to access what we might learn from its depths.” My well of being is sometimes muddy. I feel weighed down by tons of earth. I have so many things I want to do and need to do. When I move the stone to access the living waters I am distracted by thoughts of list-making and judgement. To escape this suffering of my own making, I must begin my day practicing rehovot, spaciousness. A well of clear living waters can later reveal b’hirut hasaichel if we make time to intentionally be in the present. In the flowing, the breath and the stardust we coexist with our ancestors and the divine.

Our ancestral roots offer fundamental beliefs to guide our behavior. Judaism also invites us to question these beliefs. “Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt”, wrote renowned therapist Dr. Rollo May. “To every thesis there is an antithesis, and to this there is a synthesis. Truth is thus a never-dying process.” When we live or legislate with severed roots, truth dies. James Joyce wrote, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In my interpretation, consciousness is forever evolving within each of us and the smithy of my soul coexists with my ancestors and the Divine. Welcome, O life!

In 2017, we encounter the ancestors of Toldot just before Thanksgiving. This American holiday makes me think of the Amidah. During the Amidah, we bow before and after Avot, the blessing of the Patriarchs, and before and after the berachah of Hoda’ah, a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Rav Kook wrote that bowing our head, “signals an attitude of deference and humility.” In bowing, as in breathing, we acknowledge and give thanks to God and our ancestors.

And let us together pray privately:

Talmud Berakhot 17a

By Lawrence Kushner (translator)

May you live to see your world fulfilled,
May your destiny be for worlds still to come,
And may you trust in generations past and yet
to be.
May your heart be filled with intuition
and your words be filled with insight.
May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue
and your vision be on a straight path before you.
May your eyes shine with the light of holy words
and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.
May your lips speak wisdom
and your fulfillment be in righteousness
even as you ever yearn to hear the words
of the Holy Ancient One of Old.

Godcidences & Giving

November 29th is Giving Tuesday, a worldwide holiday that encourages giving back to our communities.  With one voice, non-profits reach out on Giving Tuesday to ask for our time, skills, and dollars to make a difference in other people’s lives.  Giving back to the community is a long-standing Jewish tradition.  Isaiah 32:17 says, “and the work of tzedakah shall bring peace.”

I asked Hebrew Seminary professor, Rabbi Daniel Vaisrub, to share a “Giving Tuesday” teaching with us.  Rabbi Vaisrub agrees that Tzedakah speaks to something greater. 

My favorite teaching on the obligation to support people in our community comes from Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Agriculture, Rules of Gifts to the Poor 10:1:

“We are obligated to be careful with regard to the commandment of tzedaqah to a greater extent than all [other] positive commandments, because tzedaqah is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham, our patriarch, as [Genesis 18:19] states: “I have known him, because he commands his children… to perform tzedaqah.”

“The throne of Israel will not be established, nor will the true faith stand except through tzedaqah, as [Isaiah 54:14] states: “You shall be established through righteousness [tzedaqah].”

“And Israel will be redeemed solely through tzedaqah, as [ibid. 1:27] states: “Zion will be redeemed through judgment and those who return to her through charity [tzedaqah].”

Note how Maimonides enumerates [and thus connects] four seemingly disconnected ideas, all through tzedaqah:
1. Personal righteousness
2. Proper governance / political stability
3. True faith proper religious belief
4. National redemption

In this rule, Maimonides is NOT merely teaching us why tzedaqah is important: any one of the reasons he enumerates would more than suffice, so why waste ink and parchment?

Rather, Maimonides teaches us how tzedaqah binds these different aspects of people’s lives together: the personal, the social, the religious, and ultimately the redemptive. In a particular way, acts of tzedaqah, which encompass justice and kindness, create individuals, and communities, and religious movements, and ultimately a nation, capable of actualizing human potential. Tzedaqah is thus the glue that ultimately binds people together, which speaks to its power to transform the world, micro and macro, physical and spiritual.

Rabbi Dr. Goldhamer wants to add that it is a Godcidence that we celebrate Giving Tuesday, during the same week that we read Parshat Toldot, the scriptural reading for this week.  The essence of this parasha is good and evil. Jacob represents good and his twin brother Esau represents evil.  I believe this simplistic understanding misses the point. What is evil?  In Kabbalah, evil is selfishness.  We are all concerned about our own welfare. We are all concerned about how to improve our own lives. We all do things to benefit ourselves. This is considered evil in Kabbalah.

Everyone is created with a desire to receive for oneself alone. There is a difference between receiving for yourself and receiving in order to share. The second form of receiving is considered good in KabbalahKabbalah comes from the root word meaning “to receive.” But Hashem wants us to receive in order to share and do tzedakah. And so, our Kabbalistic tradition teaches us to receive in order to share.

Nothing is wrong with accumulating millions of dollars and becoming wealthy. As a matter of fact, it’s a good thing to accumulate wealth–but we need to accumulate so that we can share what we accumulate. This is the essence of the teaching of this week’s parasha.  We need to receive in order to share.  When we receive and we do tzedakah, we are doing a high mitzvah in Judaism.  This is the essence of this week’s teaching of Toldot and Giving Tuesday.

For Giving Tuesday, Hebrew Seminary is asking that you donate food and/or funds to  Congregation Bene Shalom’s The Brian Glassenberg Food Pantry at Congregation Bene Shalom, 4435 W. Oakton Street Skokie, IL 60076 or call 847/ 677- 3330.