serach croppedSerach’s Wisdom (5774/2013)

Towards the end of his life, Yosef is revered by Pharaoh as a wise councilor, and appreciated by his brothers as a gracious man. He lives to transmit his wisdom to his great-grandchildren. But at the end of Bereisheet, we learn, metaphorically, that Yosef has no say over what others do with the wisdom he shared. He gives instructions, but they are ignored. “He made his relatives swear to bring his bones back to the land of his ancestors. [However,] when he died at age 110, was embalmed and placed in a crypt in Egypt” (Genesis 50:25-26).

Only hundreds of years later does Moshe carry Yosef’s bones out of Egypt (Genesis 13:10). According to one midrash, only one person remembers where to find the bones – the elderly Serach bat Asher. Serach is willing to share the location only with someone ready for the knowledge. Moshe seeks out Serach, who reveals that Yosef’s crypt sits at the bottom of the Nile River (B. Talmud, Sotah 13a).

Recently I dreamed of Serach, and learned more about the metaphor of wisdom buried deep under water. In my dream, an elderly woman reached through a doorway to hand me an envelope full of wisdom writings. Carelessly, I dropped the envelope into a swimming pool and had to dive deep to retrieve it. I retrieved the envelope… and then realized I had left a whole box of her other teachings under the water.

Often, I wish I were wiser, with greater self-control, insight and empathy. Give yourself a break, my dream Serach teaches. To meet your own standards would take hundreds of years of life experience. In the meantime, dive down and see what you can find. Find it; learn it; practice it. And when you are ready, dive again.


Yehudah, The Lion King (5772/2011)

Disney’s The Lion King tells an archetypal story of heroic action. Young lion Simba, believing himself responsible for his father’s death, runs away from his mistakes. Young lioness Nala sets out to find the means to overthrow an unjust regime. When their paths intersect, Simba thinks only of himself. When he finally rises to Nala’s challenge, he discovers his strength and takes responsibility. Together, Simba and Nala save their family. They become dominant male and female of the pride, restoring peace and prosperity.

Disney chose to tell this hero’s story using a pride of lions because many young male lions do go off on a solo journey. In those few years, they come to maturity, and find their place in a family.

Knowledge of the lion’s journey is expressed in the Torah as well.

When Yosef blesses his sons, he says, “Yehuda is a lion’s cub…the staff shall not turn from his hand.” (Bereisheet/Genesis 49:9-10)

Yehuda’s story is not so different from Simba’s. Young, self-centered Yehuda arranges for the kidnapping of his brother. Shortly afterwards, he leaves his family. He experiences love and loss, but continues to deal with life using self-centered trickery. When confronted about his injustice by his daughter-in-law Tamar, he finally discovers integrity and responsibility. He returns to the fold of his childhood family, where he becomes protector of his father and brothers. The Kings of Israel come from the children he fathers with Tamar.

The story of a lion’s journey has become a powerful archetype – ancient model. Where in your life can you find insight in the lion’s journey?


Self-Evaluation (5771/2010)

Parshat Vayechi -Ya’akov lived – marks the end of an era in early Israelite history, and the end of the lives of two colorful characters: Ya’akov and Yosef. Thus, it invites us to reflect on our own lives.

In Parshat Vayechi, Ya’akov gives a final blessing to his twelve sons. He says, “Come together and I will tell you what will happen in the course of time.” Using metaphors drawn from the natural world, he tells them what will be the characteristics of the clans descended from them.

Reuven – water, constantly changing

Shimon and Levi – fierce enough to attack bulls

Yehudah – intimidating as a hunting lion

Zebulun – a safe harbor

Yissachar – working the land, like a strong donkey

Dan – a powerful warrior, with weapons like snake fangs

Gad – a stealth warrior, a tiny creature that attacks the heel

Asher – a cornucopia filled with rich food

Naphtali – a deer in the wild, free and beautiful

Joseph – a vine that produces fruit in any circumstance

Binyamin – a disciplined warrior, like a wolf

These twelve descriptions offer a set of categories we can use to evaluate our environment, our country, our inner lives.

Each tribe represents:

1)   an element in a balanced ecosystem: water, land, plants, hunting animals,

and vegetarian animals;

2)   an element in a balanced nation: flexibility, agricultural security, international

trade, military security, a protected natural environment;

3)    an element in a balanced personality: flexibility, confidence, discipline,

freedom, love of beauty, productivity.

Where are we succeeding, and where do our personal and collective lives require attention?


The Mystical Power of Minyan (2005/5766)

Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather round . . .” (Bereisheet/Genesis 49:1)

Why does Jacob ask his sons to gather into a single group in order to receive their individual deathbed blessings from him?  Why does Midrash teach that they answer by praying the Shema together? What does this teach us about praying as a group?

Zohar turns to the verse “He has turned to the prayer of the solitary one and has not spurned their prayer” (Psalms 102:18).  When the prayer of an individual comes before the Blessed Holy One, God “turns it over” – scrutinizes that personís sins and virtue.  But a congregational prayer includes many prayers of those who are not virtuous, and yet they all enter the presence of the King without the King “turning over” – overturning – their sins!  Jacob’s sons pray together hoping that their father will overlook their sins and give each a loving blessing.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero looks towards the verse “God forgives the . . . remnant of God’s heritage” (Micah 7:18).  The Hebrew word “remnant” can also be understood to mean “oneís own flesh.”  All people are blood relatives, and all souls are united.  Thus each person should desire the well-being of all others.  Ideally, everyone will uphold the mitzvah of “love your neighbor as yourself” and act with kindness and forgiveness.  Because the souls of each member of a minyan are connected with one another, the prayer of a minyan is equal in power to 100 prayers.  Jacob’s sons pray together to show that they have forgiven one another the abuses of youth and understand that they are stronger as a loving unit.

Image: Detail from “May You Live Forever: The Assumption of Serach Bat Asher” by Janet Shafner.

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