The theme of this week’s torah reading is the giving and receiving of Blessings.
Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe in chapter 48, is the basis of the tradition of Jewish parents blessing our children on Shabbat, Holy Days and special life cycle occasions. Ann and I have blessed our children Abby and Jeremy every Shabbat of their lives. Watching them and their spouses now bless our grandchildren, makes this week’s Parsha ever more so poignant. Blessing our children reminds me, each week, not to take for granted that my family is both a source of blessing to me and a sign of God’s blessing of me. The fact that we can ask God to bless others, endows us all with an awesome power and responsibility and raises for me the question: How can I be a source of Blessing to others?
As we come to the end of 2018, a year in which we have wrestled with the curses of increased Anti-Semitism; of political scandals in America , in Israel and around the world; as well as repeated acts of mass murder, it seems far easier to count our curses than our blessings. . As we approach the new secular year, I therefore want to recommend that the message of this week’s torah portion Vayechi, which literally means life, is that life, truly has meaning, only when each of us personally and we as a society, use our days as opportunities to give and receive blessings.
This week’s Torah reading marks the end of the book of Genesis. When we conclude the reading of a book of the Torah the congregation stands and proclaims the affirmation: Chazak Chazak V’nitchazak! Be Strong Be Strong May you be strengthened. This triple proclamation of strength teaches me that it is through the blessings we give and we receive, that God blesses each of us. My question, on this Shabbat of life, is: How can each of us find the strength to both be a source of blessing to others, as well count the blessings of our lives and acknowledge those who bless us?
As American Jews who live by two calendars, I feel that both January 1 and The First of Tishre are moments that we can both look back on the past and resolve to do better in the future. Here are a few New Year’s resolutions I am making, that I hope can guide me, and perhaps some of you in making 2019 a better year.
1. Working harder to combat gun violence in our nation.
Despite the truism promulgated by NRA supporters, that its people who kill, not guns, the reality of American life today, is that easy availability of assault weapons, makes it nary impossible for any of us individually, or we as a society, to protect ourselves. Mass shootings in America know neither geographic nor socio-economic boundaries. While some perpetrators are inspired by hate, others are suffering from mental illness. The common denominator is our nation’s unwillingness to recognize that the 18th century authors of the Second Amendment could not have conceived of an A R 15 rifle that could shoot a hundred or more bullets in a matter of seconds. This killing machine was the weapon of choice by the murderers at both Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida in February, and at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. 2018 was a proof text that increased security measures cannot guard against attacks by suicidal gunmen armed with assault weapons. Only our political will, to demand action on gun control, by Congress and our State Legislators, can replace the curse of insecurity, that we and our children live with on a daily basis.
2. Calling for Action on both Economic and Health inequality and insecurity.
As I sat down to write this column, I looked back on a Dvar Torah I wrote, as the Madoff scandal topped off the 2008 financial and economic collapse. I asked ten years ago, whether we could place all the blame on Madoff, the con man, for the loss of literally billions of dollars in Jewish charitable funds, or whether, both individual and communal greed played a role. What is our moral, as well as our fiduciary responsibility, for how both our charitable dollars and our tax dollars are invested and spent? After more than nine years of economic growth and decreased unemployment, are there not still too many of our fellow Americans feeling left behind? Even if most of us, are better off financially, than we were in December of 2008, do we really feel more secure? As we all live longer, and the cost of health care, both short term and long term, increases, are we, as an American society and we, as an American Jewish community, adequately planning for the challenges of tomorrow? While the curse of the deterioration of our physical and mental health may be unavoidable, are there not actions we can and should be taking today, to insure that affordable and available care will be available for all?
3. Recognizing that people we often see as “others” are in fact our “sisters and brothers”
The Rabbis of the Talmud saw the destruction of the Second Temple as a result of “Sinat Chinam” , the hatred of one brother for another that destroyed communal unity. As my teacher of Rabbinic History at HUC –JIR, Professor Ellis Rivkin taught: Communal Unity is not the same as unanimity of opinion. In his book The Shaping of Jewish History, Rivkin argued. 45 years ago, that the opposite is true. The greatest moments in Jewish History have occurred when Jews have acknowledged, both what unites us, and what divides us. Diversity, Rivkin argued, does not of necessity lead us to Divisiveness.
Rivkin’s lesson are relevant and salient to both contemporary American society and to the world Jewish community. Intolerance of the “other” has reached a crisis level. As the calendar turns to 2019, I hope that all of us turn our attention and our efforts to being more civil toward others, with whom we disagree, and more tolerant of the rights of others, to exercise their free will. In both America and in Israel, we are challenged, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, by the threat of Sinat Chinam, and must confront the responsibility expressed in the Israeli and American Declarations of Independence to facilitate and protect freedom of Religion and freedom of Speech for all inhabitants.
According to Genesis Rabba 98:4, the death bed blessing by Jacob of his sons which is described in Genesis 49, is the origin of the recitation of the Sh’ma.
Jacob was worried that after his death, his kids would totally assimilate into Egyptian culture and forsake God and Torah. The Midrash says that his son’s answered him by proclaiming Sh’ma Yisrael, Listen Israel, which was Jacob’s Jewish name, bestowed upon him by the Being with whom he wrestled before confronting his brother Esau. Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Echad. Adonai is our God, Adonai Alone.
Jacob’s response, to his children, according to Midrash Rabba was the phrase from Mishna Yoma 3:8, we recite to ourselves, twice daily, when we affirm our faith, by reciting Sh’ma: Baruch Shame K’vod Malchuto L’olam Vaed
Blessed be God’s name and the glory of His kingdom forever.
May 2019 be a year in which we turn the bitterness of divisiveness into the blessing of Diversity and work together to be a symphony of harmony acknowledging the glory of God.