Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Avoiding the Pit Falls in Life


- This Dvar Torah was delivered at Shaarei Kodesh on 12/17/11, parashat Vayeshev

Today, we stand here in simcha, happiness, as we welcome two young men into Jewish adulthood for their Bnai Mitzvah.  Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, baby namings, brit milah, weddings, and funerals and unveilings all fall under the classification of a life cycle event.  I was recently asked, which life cycle events do I as a Rabbi enjoy the most?  In my opinion, the best life cycle events are when there are people there to share in the simcha, or to comfort those who need comfort during a loss. 
I have done weddings in living rooms, on beautiful beaches, in beautiful catering halls, and in ornate synagogues.  But it does not matter where they happen, but it is all about the who.  Who is surrounding the baby, the bar/bat mitzvah child, the young or older couple, and, unfortunately, who is surrounding the person whose soul has departed. 
Life cycle events, as we call them, are very special, and to me, they are a way of avoiding a pit fall in our society today.  We have so many things that we can own, so many more comforts than we have ever had, so much more control over space and time than we have ever had, although that point is debatable, and yet, with all of this, it seems that there are more and more lonely people.  One of the pit falls of our world is loneliness.  I think that life cycle events are a solution to this problem. 
Here is the thing, many of us choose loneliness, but it is loneliness in disguise.  
In this week’s parashah, we see the son of Jacob, Joseph, who seems destined to be our next forefather.  The parashah opens with the verse
(א) וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן:
...(ב) אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף בֶּן שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה 

Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. 
2This, then, is the line of Jacob:
At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father. 
3Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. 
4And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.

Basically, the text is telling us that the story of Jacob is over; now Joseph will take over from here.  The rest of the book of Genesis will focus on Joseph.  He is perhaps one of the most complex characters of this book.  The Torah introduces him as a 17 year old.  The midrash says that his young age was emphasized because they wanted us to look at him as an immature boy.  The Talmud tells us that Joseph would pencil his eyes, curl his hair, and lift his heels.  The Torah tells us that he took up his father Jacob’s time unfairly and he gave his father bad reports about his brothers.  He tells his brothers about his dreams of his family bowing down to him.  He thinks that in order to be beloved by his father, he has to set himself apart by putting others down, by separating from his brothers and family.  This all leads to Joseph’s being sold into slavery, but before this, we read an interesting line. 

37:  23When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, 24 and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

V’HaBor Rek, Ein Bo Mayim
Why does the Torah have to mention that there is no water in it?  Rashi says that it is to tell us that there are snakes and scorpions in it.  Clearly, two ideas are being conveyed here:  the pit is empty, and there is no water in it.  Perhaps the Torah is trying to convey a deeper message.  Joseph is alone and helpless in the pit.  His loneliness is so dire that it causes him to lack the basic element of life, water.  Being alone is not what God had envisioned for us.  In the book of Genesis, God tells Adam, “18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him, Ezer K’Negdo.”  So God created Eve, and the human chain began.  From our beginnings, God never wanted us to be alone. 

It is in this pit that Joseph finally realizes something that has been in front of him the whole time.  In his attempt to make himself better than his brothers, he separates himself, and puts himself in danger.  Rashi was right, being alone is like putting yourself in a pit with snakes and scorpions. 

I read a story about literally avoiding a pit that I wanted to share with you. The story was told by the Grand Rabbi of Bluzhov, Rabbi Israel Spira
Rabbi Spira was a prisoner Janowska concentration camp in Poland. One cold night, the guards came on to the loud speaker and ordered the prisoners, “You are all to evacuate the barracks immediately and report to the vacant lot.  Anyone remaining inside will be shot on the spot!"  Exhausted and emaciated, the prisoners stumbled to the vacant field and saw before them a large open pit. 

The voice commanded, "Each of you dogs who values his miserable life must jump over the pit and land on the other side.  Those who miss will get what they rightfully deserve – ra-ta-ta-ta-ta."  The voice imitated the sound of a machine gun.

According to Spira, jumping over the pit would have been nearly impossible even under the best of circumstances.  The prisoners were "skeletons", feverish from disease, and physically exhausted from bone grinding work.  Spira himself suffered from bruised and swollen feet.  Waiting for their turn to jump, he and a close friend watched prisoners die in a hail of bullets with each unsuccessful attempt. The pit was slowly becoming a pit of death.  Spira's friend said to him, “Spira, all of our efforts to jump over the pit are in vain.  Let us sit down in the pit and wait for the end of our wretched existence.”  Spira looked at him and said, “My friend, man must obey the will of God.  If it was decreed from heaven that pits be dug and we be commanded to jump, pits will be dug and jump we must.  And if, God forbid, we fail and fall into the pits, we will reach the World of Truth a second later, after our attempt.  So, my friend, we must jump.” 

They leapt into the darkness and found themselves alive on the other side of the pit.  Spira’s friend was amazed and could not stop crying.  He told him, “For your sake, I am alive!  Tell me, how did we make it across the pit?  Spira answered, "I was holding on to my ancestral merit," said Spira.  "I was holding on to the coattails of my father, and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, of blessed memory."
Spira then asked his friend how he reached the other side of the pit.  "I was holding on to you," he said.

There are pits in this world that may not be full of death like the pit that Rabbi Spira and his friend jumped over.  The pits are filled with something worse than death; they are filled with nothingness, so empty, they do not even have water in them, so empty that they lack all meaning.  What we must recognize is that these empty pits, a life of loneliness, is not what God wants from us as Jews.  God wants us to do something that seems very hard, to jump over these pits with others, in other words, to let people into our lives and our hearts.  Joseph learned this lesson the hard way.  It is only when he is in another pit, the jail in Egypt, where he starts listening to others and helping them rather than helping himself.  And so all of us must do the same.  God told Adam, and through Adam each human being, “It’s not good for humanity to be alone.”  God wants us to share our lives with each other; this is the Jewish way.  Simchas are only simchas if we share them, the tough times in life are only pits if we fail to jump over them together. 
All of us must realize the lesson that Joseph learned, the lesson that Rabbi Israel Spira’s friend learned.  We must learn to hold on to each other as jump over the pits in this world. 

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