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11/20/2020 01:44:56 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Life: It's A Thorny Issue

11/20/2020 08:26:30 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

Syreeta Scott, owner of the salon Duafe, still wants to be at the top of the natural hair-care game. But now her post-COVID-19 dream includes investing and developing real estate. She bought the North Philly building where her salon is housed and is committed to providing fair housing for her tenants. “My dreams for myself now include activism,” said the 45-year-old entrepreneur.

I was really moved by this account. The ability to use the hardship and struggle of the pandemic as a catalyst for good is an amazing attribute. 

This week brought a mix of news about the COVID - 19 Pandemic. Two different drug  companies have reported that early trials show that their COVID- 19 vaccinations are over 95% percent effective. There is even talk about gaining provisional FDA approval before Thanksgiving. This is great news

We are also in the midst of a challenging spike in cases and we learned this week that the COVID -19 death toll in the U.S has topped 250,000.

So, the end is in sight...but we are not there yet.

The disturbing news of rising death tolls and rising infection rates sweeping the United States and the rest of the world tests our ability to respond to adversity. 

Our Torah has much to teach us about dealing with adversity and this week’s parsha provides two different models of how to do that. 

Both Yitzchak and Esav face the reality and inevitability of death - but as Rabbi Norman Lamm points out, they do so very differently. 

וַיְהִי֙ כִּֽי־זָקֵ֣ן יִצְחָ֔ק וַתִּכְהֶ֥יןָ עֵינָ֖יו מֵרְאֹ֑ת וַיִּקְרָ֞א אֶת־עֵשָׂ֣ו ׀ בְּנ֣וֹ הַגָּדֹ֗ל וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ בְּנִ֔י וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו הִנֵּֽנִי׃

When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.”

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּה־נָ֖א זָקַ֑נְתִּי לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְתִּי י֥וֹם מוֹתִֽי׃

And he said, “I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die.

וְעַתָּה֙ שָׂא־נָ֣א כֵלֶ֔יךָ תֶּלְיְךָ֖ וְקַשְׁתֶּ֑ךָ וְצֵא֙ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה וְצ֥וּדָה לִּ֖י צָֽיִד׃

Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game.

וַעֲשֵׂה־לִ֨י מַטְעַמִּ֜ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָהַ֛בְתִּי וְהָבִ֥יאָה לִּ֖י וְאֹכֵ֑לָה בַּעֲב֛וּר תְּבָרֶכְךָ֥ נַפְשִׁ֖י בְּטֶ֥רֶם אָמֽוּת׃

Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.”

As Yitzchak anticipates his own death, he wishes to leave behind a blessing. At this moment of adversity and perhaps even fear, Yitzchak turns his attention outward and desires to leave his imprint on the world by blessing his son. 

It was a moment of education and empowerment. Yitzchak offers Esav the opportunity to fulfill the Mitzvah of honoring his father. No doubt this would leave a lasting impression on Esav. After all, Esav may have thought: “my father’s last act was to entrust me with this Mitzvah - his last wish was to see me take responsibility.” 

Esav, similarly contemplates his demise.

וַיָּ֥זֶד יַעֲקֹ֖ב נָזִ֑יד וַיָּבֹ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו מִן־הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה וְה֥וּא עָיֵֽף׃

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי נָא֙ מִן־הָאָדֹ֤ם הָאָדֹם֙ הַזֶּ֔ה כִּ֥י עָיֵ֖ף אָנֹ֑כִי עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱדֽוֹם׃

And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom.

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִכְרָ֥ה כַיּ֛וֹם אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתְךָ֖ לִֽי׃

Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר עֵשָׂ֔ו הִנֵּ֛ה אָנֹכִ֥י הוֹלֵ֖ךְ לָמ֑וּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּ֥ה לִ֖י בְּכֹרָֽה׃

And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?

What?!!  "What use is the birthright to me?" How could he say that?

The birthright was everything. It meant the right to lead and to fashion his family and surroundings.

Esav’s reaction to his thoughts of death could not be more different than that of Yitzchak. Instead of empowerment he chose abdication of responsibility. Not only that, he gave up the opportunity to lead for a bowl of soup. Adversity for Esav triggered a self centered act. 

Yitzchak’s actions teaches us that there is a different path available to us. 

Even once the COVID-19 vaccination comes to market and becomes widely available, our world will not be the same. We will, for a very long time, be looking back at it, hoping to see our distance from it grow further and further. At the same time, we will always be on the lookout for signs of return and concerns for what is next. This has made all of us think and act differently. Yitzchak’s generosity of spirit is what should guide us down this path.

The ability to see the abyss and still be peaceful and inspire the best in people is alluded to, according to the late Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Bersovsky in his Netivot Shalom (Bereishit: pg. 174)

וַיַּחְפְּר֥וּ עַבְדֵֽי־יִצְחָ֖ק בַּנָּ֑חַל וַיִּ֨מְצְאוּ־שָׁ֔ם בְּאֵ֖ר מַ֥יִם חַיִּֽים׃

But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water,

וַיָּרִ֜יבוּ רֹעֵ֣י גְרָ֗ר עִם־רֹעֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק לֵאמֹ֖ר לָ֣נוּ הַמָּ֑יִם וַיִּקְרָ֤א שֵֽׁם־הַבְּאֵר֙ עֵ֔שֶׂק כִּ֥י הִֽתְעַשְּׂק֖וּ עִמּֽוֹ׃

the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek, because they contended with him.

וַֽיַּחְפְּרוּ֙ בְּאֵ֣ר אַחֶ֔רֶת וַיָּרִ֖יבוּ גַּם־עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמָ֖הּ שִׂטְנָֽה׃

And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.

וַיַּעְתֵּ֣ק מִשָּׁ֗ם וַיַּחְפֹּר֙ בְּאֵ֣ר אַחֶ֔רֶת וְלֹ֥א רָב֖וּ עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ רְחֹב֔וֹת וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־עַתָּ֞ה הִרְחִ֧יב יְהוָ֛ה לָ֖נוּ וּפָרִ֥ינוּ בָאָֽרֶץ׃

He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last the LORD has granted us ample space to increase in the land.”

Yitzchak digs three new wells. The first two attempts are met with argument over the water rights. The third time was a charm - there was no argument over the water of the third well. 

Rabbi Brusovsky suggests that each well represents a different stage of Yitzchak’s life. The third well, corresponds to Yitzchak’s old age. Finally, after all of the arguing and quarreling, there is peace. Note that before digging the third and final well, the Torah records  - וַיַּעְתֵּ֣ק מִשָּׁ֗ם - “He moved from there”. This is not only a physical move, but, perhaps also a change in attitude, an emotional transformation. Yitzchak was not so much interested in winning, but in providing. Yitzchak appropriately calls the new well  - רְחֹב֔וֹת - which means ample space, signaling his realization that a new path and an expanded approach is necessary. 

How do we react when faced with adversity. Let’s be like  Yitzchak, or Erin Wallace,  "who still has designs on being a prodigious restaurateur. But her company... is turning away from being so event-focused. Instead, her dreams include mentoring other women business owners. " Let’s see what we can do to bring out the best in ourselves and try to bring out the best in others - even as we face challenges. 

Esav, when contemplating his own death, reasons that since he will die anyway, there is no point in taking responsibility, no point in being serious at all. He gave up on himself and on the world.

Yitzchak’s response, on the other hand, is one that points to a belief in a better tomorrow. He wishes to bless Esav in order to insure his spiritual and material success. 

On Sunday, the Daf Yomi cycle will complete Masechet Eruvin. On page 101 the Talmud records an argument between a certain heretic and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ḥananya. The Heretic cites a verse from Mishlei, comparing the best of the Jewish people to thorns, indicating that even the best of us are no better than thorns and thorns cause pain. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ḥananya points out that thorns, at least a hedge of thorns also protects.

This passage reminds us that with the right attitude, even something as seemingly harmful as thorns, can bring protection and can be used for good.

This is the outlook we should try to cultivate during times like this. 

Look around. Who can you help? 

How can we turn this difficult time into an opportunity to leave behind blessing? 

Life today is full of thorns. It is up to us if they hurt us or if we re-purpose them to provide comfort, love and  protection to others. 

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781