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I HAD SPENT SHABBAT WITH FAMILY

Thursday, 2 November, 2017 - 10:38 pm

A Jewish couple was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. During the feast, the woman stood up and said: "I'd like to make a toast to myself for sticking it out with this man for 50 years. Let me tell you, our 50 years of marriage felt like 2 days!"

The crowd was very moved by her words. One man asked, "Why like two days, and not like one day?"

"The 50 years," replied the woman, "felt like two days: Tishah B'av and Yom Kippur."  (The most challenging fast days in the Jewish calendar.)

This week's Torah portion, Vayera, tells of the famine that broke out in the Land of Israel, and how Abraham and his wife Sarah headed to Egypt. As they approached Egypt, Abraham voiced his fear to his wife that the Egyptians, notorious for their immorality, would kill him so they could lay their hands on her, a beautiful woman. "Please say that you are my sister," Abraham begged his wife, "so that they will give me gifts for your sake and my life will be spared."

This is a difficult story to digest. Abraham, the founder of Judaism, considered one of the most spiritual men of all times–the one who gave the world the gift of Monotheism and moral conscience–seems to be all-consumed by fear for his life, and totally unconcerned with his wife's fate.

You might explain this by saying they would gain nothing with honesty. If they would say the truth, he would be murdered and Sarah would be taken anyways! At least now, their lives would be spared.

The Zohar explains that Abraham, who knew Sarah's superior spiritual quality, was certain that no harm would befall her and was thus only fearful about his own fate. Abraham and Isaac saw that their wives had “guardian angels,” who protected them from being violated.

There seems to be a constant troubling pattern in the lives of our fathers and mothers. Whenever they came to a new location, they claimed  they were siblings, rather than spouses, so their lives would be spared. Abraham said so clearly: "This is your kindness, which you shall do with me: To any place that we come, say about me, 'He is my brother.'" The Torah records three times this happened. But from Abraham’s words it is clear that this happened every single time they came to a new location.

The moral question is one issue. What we will discuss, however, is the spiritual meaning of this. Why was there this ongoing pattern by our patriarchs and matriarchs?  What’s the message to us?

A Chassidic interpretation highlights the words of King Solomon: "A sound! My beloved knocks! Open your heart to Me, My sister, My wife, My dove, My perfection." In these stirring words, King Solomon described the Jew both as G-d's spouse and as G-d's sibling.

There are times when a Jew, situated in the holy land, is inspired and motivated to live a spiritual and G-dly life. Like in a good marriage, he Jew is crazy about G-d, yearning to be close to Him and fulfilled by having a relationship with Him.

But then come the days when the Jew enters into a psychological "Egypt," where his inner spirituality is numbed as he is overtaken by self-centered lusts, beastly cravings, negative impulses and enslaving addictions. His marriage with G-d seems all but dead.

The key to survival at those moments is to remember that G-d is not only a spouse, but also a sibling. We are sacred and G-dly not just because we feel and love it, but because man is inherently a spiritual and sacred creature. G-dliness is intrinsic to our very composition. Whether I'm in the mood for it or not, when I behave in a moral and spiritual way, I am being loyal to my true self.

You are holy not because you feel holy, but because you are essentially holy. This is a most fundamental idea of Judaism, expressed in the first narrative about the first Jew, and again throughout all his journeys. Never think the relationship is over just because you do not feel it.

What is the difference between the sibling relationship and the spouse relationship? A spouse you choose; siblings you don’t choose. Your connection with your brothers and sisters is natural and innate. The bond between siblings is constant and immutable. Whether you love your brother or not, he will always be your brother. You are eternally connected because you share the same DNA; you are genetically bound up to each other.

Conversely, the bond with a spouse is subject to change and fluctuation; today you are married, but in a year from now you may be (heaven forbid) divorced.

Yet paradoxically, love of a sibling–even at its best–is usually calm and placid; the love of a spouse, on the other hand, is capable of becoming fiery and passionate. Because the love of a sibling is inborn, it can never die, but we also don't get too excited about it.

The love of a spouse is something created anew as a result of two separate individuals coming together at a later stage in life. The distinctiveness, rather than the sameness, of the two individuals linked in marriage is what gives the relationship its unique intensity and drama, feelings found not even between the closest of siblings. Yet this same quality is also the reason some marriages are short-lived: passion can flourish, but passion can die. When such a marriage fails, the exes fall back on the innate bond that exists among family members, who are (hopefully) always there for them.

This then is the deeper meaning in Abraham’s words to the Philistine king: “And it came to pass, when G-d caused me to wander from my father's house that I said to her: This is your kindness, which you shall do with me: To any place that we come, say about me, 'He is my brother.'"

Abraham wandered, and his children have wandered. In fact, for most of our history we have sadly been wandering. We never can fully settle in one place. There is no one country outside of the Land of Israel where Jews have remained throughout their entire history.

How can we survive such ordeals? Most nations, when exiled to countries where they became the minorities, without the political and military infrastructure to maintain their national identity, forfeited their identities within a few generations at best. Yet millennia later, our nation survives and thrives. We returned to our homeland after 2,000 years in exile, and throughout the entire world, Jews are a living people. How?

This was the trailblazing path forged by Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca. “And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father's house that I said to her: This is your kindness, which you shall do with me: Wherever we gosay about me, 'He is my brother.'"

This is what saves us, what protects us, Abraham tells his children. “Wherever we go,” in your long and winding exile, “say of me, he is my brother.” Wherever Jews are, they should look at each Jewish boy and man and say, you are my brother. Look at every Jewish girl and woman and say, you are my sister!

Deena Yaalin tells this story: As I settled into my seat on Flight 1272 bound for Chicago, I glanced at the passengers filing down the aisle. My Jew-radar immediately went off; in addition to the businessmen toting their briefcases and the pleasure travelers wearing shorts, I spied several kippot, a streimel and long skirts.

Despite our shared heritage, I didn't acknowledge them. They were strangers, and I live in New York, where strangers seldom exchange greetings, even if they recite the same prayers.

The plane rolled toward the runway and I waited for takeoff. No such luck. The pilot announced the flight was being delayed three hours due to stormy weather in Chicago. I glanced at my watch nervously. Usually, I avoid flying Friday afternoons for fear I won't arrive in time, but on summer weekends when Shabbat doesn't begin until 8 p.m., I figured I'd be safe. I figured wrong.

A half-hour before arrival, the pilot announced O'Hare Airport was shut down and we were landing in Milwaukee until we could continue on. My stomach sank. Candle-lighting was an hour away. I'd never make it on time.

It was time to introduce myself to the other Jews. We're going to get off in Milwaukee, a young man told me. The Chassid had called Milwaukee's Chabad rabbi, who offered to host any stranded passengers for Shabbat. Come with us, he urged. I nodded with relief but returned to my seat crestfallen since I had planned this weekend with my family for months.

My non-Jewish seatmate, noticing my despair, inquired what was wrong. When I told him the story, his jaw dropped. "Let me get this straight," he said, "You're getting off the plane in a town where you've never been with people you don't know to stay overnight with complete strangers?" For the first time that day, it occurred to me just how lucky I was.

When the plane landed, the pilot announced we were disembarking first for religious reasons. Passengers stared at us, dumbfounded. My seatmate bid me farewell as if he didn't think I'd survive.

But I quickly realized I was among friends. As I attempted to carry my bags off the plane, a woman insisted on helping me. When we crowded into cabs to take us to the rabbi's house, the Chassid insisted on paying for me. When the cabs pulled up at the home of the rabbi and rebbetzin, they ran outside to greet us as if we were long lost relatives.

The sun set on Milwaukee as they ushered us into their home, where a long table was set for Shabbat with a white tablecloth, china and gleaming Kiddush cups. When I lit the Shabbat candles, I felt a wave of peace. With all that had transpired, I was warmed by the notion that the world stops with the first flicker of Shabbat light.

Over a traditional Shabbat feast, the rabbi enchanted us with tales of the Baal Shem Tov and informed us that our re-route to Milwaukee was due to Divine providence.

We lingered over our meal, enjoying our spiritual sanctuary after the stressful day. Zemirot (Shabbat songs) filled the room. We shared disappointments about our unexpected stopover. Most of the group was traveling to Chicago for their friend's aufruf ("calling up" the groom to the Torah on the Shabbat before his wedding) and wedding and were missing the aufruf. The Chassid and his wife were missing a Bar Mitzvah.

We nicknamed ourselves the Milwaukee 15 and wondered if future generations would retell the story of the flight that didn't make it in time for candle lighting.

Saturday night, we regretfully returned to the everyday world. But before we began the final leg of our journey, I called my husband to tell him all that had transpired.

"Who did you spend Shabbat with?" he asked worriedly.

I pondered how to explain who these former strangers were who had given me lessons in Shabbat hospitality and in the power of Shabbat in bringing Jews together.

And, then as swiftly as a 747 can leave the tarmac on a clear day, I realized the truth: Miles from home, I had accomplished what I set out to do when I booked my ticket: I had spent Shabbat with family.

This is what Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca, were advising us. Wherever you go in the world, realize you are my sister or brother. Always remember you have family everywhere. That will nurture and protect you, and surround you with a halo of eternity.

We need Abraham’s and Sarah’s exile strategy now, perhaps more than ever. With all of the social media and 24-hour connectivity, so many of us still feel isolated. It seems like the more we connect, the more we are isolated, because so many of the connections are superficial and skin deep. We don’t have real friends; we have Facebook friends. We long and thirst for a good, caring word from another person, to know that someone truly cares about us. We want to hear someone call us: “Brother!” or “Sister!” You can make a difference.

Shabbat Shalom to my brothers and sisters,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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