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Parshat Bereshit – The difficult mission: to say “I”, and not out of egoism

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Some people use to say that one of the traits that makes the Human different from animals is the capacity of self awareness. The Human is capable of self thinking, self analyzing. Nonetheless, together with this characteristic, the Human has the possibility of thinking of others, to be aware of the being of the fellow one. We should then change the definition of that “differentiating trait”, saying that the Human differs from the animals by his/her capacity of being aware simultaneously of him/herself and the others.

This does not mean, regretfully, that we actually succeed to fulfill that capacity. It seems simple, but it turns to be pretty difficult to do it at the same time and with the same vehemence. We do think of others, yes… but to take them on account when “I” or “me” are the focus? Conversely, highlighting the “I” when we are so busy being altruistic? These two situations are understood as contradictions: either you are egoist or altruist.

However this may be the principal mission we have as Human Beings: to know how to put the “I” and the “other” under the same intensity of awareness, without making any of them loose strength. It is about finding the balance between egoism and altruism.

Parshat Bereshit shows us to extreme examples of the first problem: the difficulty of taking others on account, the difficulty of getting out the “I” so as to regard the fellow person.  Examples where the “I” in the center causes damage to the other one.

The first one is the case of eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Eve saw that the fruit was good to eat. She though only of what is good for her (even though she knew this “good” was forbidden). From this selfish thought she concluded that it must be good for her man. She didn’t ask him, she didn’t took him on account. If it is good for her, then it is good for the other one. Adam, for his part, he doesn’t take any responsibility for what he did. The Torah says “She gave to her man, with her, and he ate”: he was with her, he saw, she gave, he ate. When God asks “Have you eaten?”, Adam’s answer is: “The woman You have given me, she gave it”. I am not responsible of this, he says: it is You, God, and the woman. Adam thinks only of himself, evades responsibility and blames somebody else.

The second case is the killing of Abel. Cain brought an offer. Abel imitates him and is even rewarded, but he fails to thank Cain, or even to acknowledge Cain as the owner of the original idea. Cain does not hear his brother (we don’t know whether Abel even managed to say something): he speaks, he is angry he kills. There is a very interesting midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (22:7) that explains that Cain and Abel argued about ownership of things in the world. None of them was ready to share with his fellow. “I”, “me”, “mine” were the dominant ideas in the argument, with no place of the “other” one. Here again, when God asks Cain, he evades responsibility and blames, now subtly, somebody else (blames God, like his father): “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Is it me the keeper? Isn’t it rather You, God? He thinks only of himself, of his anger, of the offense on him.

After the story of the creation of the Human Being, in the second chapter of Genesis, God declares: “It is not good the Human should be alone”. The intention of the phrase may be that it is not good for the Human to see him/herself as the only one in the Creation, to think that only he or she is worthwhile. Another interesting midrash says:

“The Holy, Blessed be He, said: I am alone in My world and he is alone in his. I don’t reproduce and he does not reproduce. The creatures may say, “since he does not reproduce, he is our creator”! It is not good the Human should be alone”. (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 12).

It is not good for the Human to see him/herself as God, alone and almighty. Because then the Human will not take on account the fellow person and will destroy, instead of building.

The “I” is important to state “He I am”, to state “I exist, but not alone”, “I am here for me and for the others”. This is the human trait that differentiates us from the animals. And we have to activate that characteristic.

Following the dictum of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Maybe this is all what the Torah is about: from Brith Milah to Shabbat, from Kashrut to the forbidden intimate relations, from the prohibition of stealing to building a balustrade, from the first tithe to eating Matzah, from “Love God” to “You should love the stranger”, through “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

Parshat Vayeshev

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We usually consider little actions to be of little importance. Even things we utter by the way, we do not think of them as having any big consequences. It is as if crucial outgrowths could only come from important and programmed deeds. Moreover, drastic changes in history come only from famous people, who are experienced and well known in the field which is being transformed. At least, this is the widespread opinion.

Our parashah shows us a different reality, a more frequent one that happens every day, a reality more like ours. We may think it is a fortuitous reality. But it is not.

Yaakov had sent Yosef to search for his brothers, who went to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem. Yosef did not find them. He wandered seeking them, but it was of no avail.

Up till now, this is a simple story of something that could also happen to us. We set an appointment at a certain place but we cannot find each other. What do we do? We wait, we search, and after a while we decide to go back. We couldn’t meet this time, so we’ll do it later on.

But in the parashah Yosef finds a man, an anonymous man, whose task is to ask him “what are you looking for?” meaning “have you lost something? Have you get lost? May I help you?” A simply deed of everyday life. A generous one, but simple all the same. Something done by an unknown person. A deed that is not intended to cause any significant revolution. “They went to Dothan”, this is all the contribution of this anonymous man.

Is it?

Wasn’t this man interested in Yosef and hadn’t he offered him this simple information, Yosef would neither have been sold, nor would he have arrived to Egypt, nor would he have become Vizier. He would not have brought his father and siblings into Egypt and would not have become slaves in a strange land. We would have then never been liberated, would not have received the Torah at Mount Sinai, we would have never entered the Promised Land and the slavery we suffered would have never become the example and the basis for foundational mitzvoth of the Jewish civilization such as Shabbath, loving the stranger, respecting the rights of the slaves and paying them a compensation for slavery time, judicial justice, justice for the vulnerable, social justice and support for the needy.

It was only because one little thing by an anonymous man that our history developed as it developed.

God had said to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a strange land and that He would redeem them. But He did not state neither the place, nor the time, nor how things would develop. He did not even say who exactly would be those involved and how they may respond to the developments. All this was in man’s hand.

And that anonymous man, with his so little deed, changed our whole history.

We all are that anonymous man. We should never belittle the importance of what each one of us may do. We should neither forget the power of our words – power either to build or to destroy.

Parshat Va-Yishlah

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We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” (Gen. 32:7 (6))

What did Yaakov’s messengers really mean? A well-known explanation says that Esav was coming to fight him: “We came to your brother, but he behaves towards you like Esav, the one who hates you” (Bereshit Rabba, Pseudo Jonathan, Rashi, Radak). Others consider they reported only plain facts: “he comes to see you the same as you come to see him” (Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides). Other commentators see here the happiness of the reunion: “Esav comes with a large retinue to welcome his brother joyfully and cheerily” (Rashbam, Hizkuni).

So, how should we deliver a piece of information? How should we tell somebody, somebody else’s message?

Even though there is not an exclusive way or technique to do that, three basic qualities are to be met by a messenger: objective approach, empathy and control of emotional sensitivity.

Objective approach: to rely on facts, without adding or omitting elements.

Empathy: to try and understand what the receiver of the news feels (not “how”, but “what” he/she feels), without being emotionally involved. Emotional engagement may lead us to not to understand other person’s feelings, but to be engrossed in our own feelings and to react according to the latter.

Control of emotional sensitivity: to understand the emotional process we go through, so as to prevent these feelings from interfering.  Our feelings may lead us to detachment and coldness (out of distress to deal with the facts), or to overexcitement, or even to decide not to deliver information that is hard for us to grasp (assuming it will be hard for the receiver to hear). In other words, our feelings thwart our real understanding of the fellow person, they dazzle the soul and may lead us to act in a paternalistic way (“my feelings know better what is good for him or her”). At any rate, we should not annul or neutralize the feelings – the real challenge is to control them.

These three qualities must be present together. Relying on only one of them may cause us to deliver a wrong message, an inappropriate one, which consequences may be disastrous… even having the best of the intentions… like Yaakov’s messengers.

They failed to apply two out of the three qualities. They were very objective in their report, but they were neither empathetic, nor did they measured their own feelings. They described the facts without taking on account Yaakov’s situation, his problematic relationship with Esav, his fears, or even the threat of death because of which he fled the land he’s now returning to. Maybe they felt it was better for Yaakov not to return. Maybe they were full of anger against Esav. It is possible that they preferred not to influence Yaakov in any way, so they took the objective approach. At any rate, they did not measure the emotional sensitivity required by the situation.

The messengers transmitted only facts, without any context. Over-objectivity, that was not objective at all, since the context was lacking. And the context is a built-in part of reality.

In this way, they let Yaakov’s fear and anxiety tint the information with tonalities of loss and destruction. His apprehension coming from the past conquered him and prevented him to properly judge the now different current reality.

It is not easy to put in practice the three basic qualities of transmitting a message. Especially hard are empathy and control of emotional sensitivity. But to ignore them is tantamount to disembarrass oneself of the great responsibility of being a messenger of truth.

Parshat Va-yetze

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Yaakov is a very complex character that presents dilemmas and experiences that are very close to our own life. His way to respond to the challenges compels us to reflect upon our stances, our beliefs, our principles. How would we react if we were in his place? What does he teach us, his descendents, by his behaving?

A very common situation in our daily life is the doubt that affects our confidence in the Almighty. We use to think that this is a direct consequence of modern times, of an era of spiritual skepticism derived from the scientific attitude in modern society.

But in our parasha we discover that this phenomenon existed always. One of the expressions of this doubt regarding the confidence is the lie that both Abraham and Yitzhak told regarding their wives. They lied out of fear that the local dwellers kill them in spite of God’s promise!

Yaakov, for his part, he establishes conditions to accept the Almighty ad his God! The Torah says: “Jacob made then a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house, then the Lord shall be my God” (Gen. 28:20-21).

Many commentators try to understand that Yaakov did not really establish conditions for his belief. Some consider that he was afraid of losing God’s protection because of his possible future sins (Radak and Hizkuni, among others). Other commentators say that Yaakov was actually swearing that after having enjoyed of the Almighty’s protection, he will worship God in that very place (Ramban, Rabenu Bahya ben Asher, Rav Hayim Paltiel, Rosh, Keli Yakar)

But the simple reading of these verses put forward the doubt, the dilemma, the lack of confidence of Yaakov. He does not know for sure whether God’s promise will indeed become true. He is only beginning his spiritual journey. His belief comes from his parents and his grand-parents, but he has not yet developed his own in his soul.  Up till now his life experience may have taught him the incertitude of the confidence: his father prefers his brother and he himself receives a blessing by deceiving; but the blessing is intended for somebody called Esav. His mother assured him that if anything goes wrong with the deception, she will carry the consequences instead of him (“Upon me be your curse, my son“); but now it is Yaakov who must run away and his mother does not defend him.

This doubt is not only his, although. It is also ours. We find ourselves all the time in the twilight zone of our confidence in God’s promise to the Jewish People. We believe, yet we ask questions. We are confident and skeptic at the same time. Sometimes we feel that we can rely on nobody, but God. And some other times we feel that we can rely on nobody, period.

Our spiritual growth and our dialogue with God are not constructed without doubts. They are forged by struggling deeply with spiritual doubts and by building again and again our confidence and our belief in God. Yaakov’s spiritual development is the symbol of this struggle, of this going from the doubt towards the deep understanding of the relationship between God and Israel His People. Yaakov learnt in his childhood how difficult it is to trust, but in time he understood that even if “my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up” (Psalms 27:10). In that moment, he became Israel and ceased being only Yaakov. Yaakov establishes conditions, while Israel is grateful to God. Yaakov runs away, while Israel comes back. Yaakov is plenty of doubts, while Israel seeks to trust. Yaakov looks for one only answer to his needs, while Israel knows that life is too complex and there is not only one solution to the challenges we face. As it is written: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for You are with me” (Psalms23,4)

Parshat Toledot

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One of the challenges that parshat Toledot forces us to face is whether we develop independence or dependency in the parent-children relationship.

The Torah opens by: “these are the generations of Yitzhak” [v’ele toledot Yitzhak], yet it does not go on with the latter’s children (like in other instances in the Torah) but with the generations of Abraham: “Abraham begat Yitzhak”. A known midrash tells us that God formed Yitzhak’s face similar to Abraham’s, for everybody to know that it was he who fathered Yitzhak (see Midrash Agadah, Bereshit 25:19 and also Rashi). Maybe our Sages felt how difficult it was for Yitzhak to get free from his father’s influence. We find indeed in our parashah, Yitzhak mirroring many times Abraham’s behavior. But his results weren’t as successful. Imitating the success of the previous generation is not a way of gaining accomplishment.

Yitzhak’s dependency on his father, or Abraham’s difficulty in letting the son of his old age go and develop himself, all made it hard for Yitzhak to walk independently. Who knows? Maybe the story of the Binding of Yitzhak, the Akeda, symbolizes the sacrifice of the dependent child on the altar of a parent who cannot release him … and yet God says to him: “Let him go!”

A lesson for all the generations.

We meet then the two siblings: Esav and Yaakov, who struggle with the imprint cast by their parents – the names, that fix behavior; the preference, that fixes behavior. The names: Esav, a man of doing (esav-aso = alef-samekh-vav = to do), a man of handwork. A practical person without any thought, reflection or cogitation, without any ability to evaluate. He’s a man of here and now – either he does, or he dies. And Yaakov, a person who arrives at his goal by indirect ways – he tracks [okev], he bypasses [okef] , he follows [meaqev], he hampers [meakev]. They both mirror what their parents established for them. And everybody, parents and children alike, enter into a series of actions/mistakes that only perpetuates the difficulty of recognizing the value and the dissimilarity of each one of them, as well as the value of being dissimilar.

Another lesson for all the generations.

It will take two parshiot, 21 years, and a lot of suffering from both sides (mainly from Yaakov), until both brothers would be able to be free from repeating the model established by their parents… and to meet… and to recognize each other… but the wounds and the scars will remain.

Everyone meant well and thought of the wellbeing of their children. But they not always regarded their children. In fact, they saw in their children their own reflection, forgetting that “toledot”, generations, speaks of “going forth” and not “going back”. It speaks of “we give, we guide, we show, we teach… and you must go on without imitating”.