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Friday Night's Sermon (12/21/2018): Character in the face of strife

This week’s portion, Vayechi—He lived—closes out the book of Genesis. Next up, the book of Exodus introduces us to Moshe Rabbeinu, who is the main character of the rest of the Torah. It is Moses who has the strongest and most profound relationship with Hashem and has been chosen to deliver His message. Hence the name of the Chumash as the Five Books of Moses.

Genesis served as a lead up to the last four books. How? First of all, let’s understand what Torah is. The word “Torah” has been both translated and interpreted as “Law” and “Teaching”. It is the fundamentals of life that G-d transmitted through Moses. It is here, in these subsequent books, that Moses receives the primary, Ten Commandments, and then the rest of G-d’s teachings in the form of commandments.

What is really Torah and the commandments? Laws, Teachings, yes, but really, let’s face it, they’re rules, 613 dos and don’ts. Up to now, there hadn’t been any codified system of behaving, of regulating how society interacts with each other. Up to now, yes, there may have been some systems of justice, as in Noah’s time, but for the most part, people did what they wanted to do.

The people of Noah’s time saw just how ineffectual courts and justice were and stole from each other as they saw fit. They were destroyed. The people of Abraham’s time—Sodom and Gemorrah—didn’t like strangers and mistreated and persecuted them. They, too, were the recipients of G-d’s wrath.

What made our Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—stand out and be pleasing in the eyes of Hashem, was their intuitive grasp of these divine ideals. Their integrity and character stood out as they treated their fellows as the children of Hashem, with respect. They always strove to do the just and humane thing.

It was after the great enslavement of our ancestors in Egypt that G-d decided to codify his Law. It was necessary that we all had a playbook that told us how to act and behave. In fact, one of our great sages, in the Talmud tractate of Shabbat, remarked that had the Hebrews not received Torah, we would have destroyed the world. Why? Because we’re a stiff-necked people that apparently needs limits.

The paragraphs of the Shema are very poignant on this point. The first paragraph, commonly known as the “V’Ahavta”, states that individually we should not follow eyes or our heart, but only follow the Commandments. The next paragraph expands this commandment in the plural. So we are not only responsible for our own behavior, but we are only responsible for each other’s behavior. We do for ourselves and then serve as a check on our fellows. As further reminders, we put tzitzit on our garments and mezuzot on our doorposts and gates. You see, G-d knows we are willful and have a tendency to do what we want, make up the rules or interpret the rules as we go along.

But we need rules in order to get along. In order for society to function efficiently, we must have a frame of reference and have faith that we will be able to conduct business confidently and with security that everyone will live up to their part of the deal. Otherwise, business doesn’t get done and no one prospers.

We need those parameters in order to know how to engage. It’s like baseball. You get three strikes or four balls. That’s it. No more and no less. On the other hand, if the last strike is a foul ball, it doesn’t count as a strike. You may not like that, but that’s the rule and it applies to everyone equally. You can hit foul balls until the cows come home; you’re still up. I once watched a player hit foul balls for 15 minutes until he finally hit a home run. Naturally the other team wasn’t happy, but again, those are the rules and they apply to everyone. So deal with it, right? And by the way, the same rule can help you.

Still, some people just want to do their own thing. They either interpret rules as they see fit, cherry picking to suit their own agenda. If one were to Google “Toxic Work Place”, there would be articles from business psychologists and coaches in places such as Forbes magazines. A classic example of an environment in which people do according to their hearts or eyes.

In Toxic Work Environments, we see managers applying rules unfairly, like where one person is rewarded while another is punished for doing the same thing. This is why they have long meetings where nothing gets done, because they just don’t want to face reality or work in the real world. Too hard. And of course, they’re never to blame, it’s always one specific scapegoat. And when that scapegoat decides they’ve had enough and leaves, they simply find another because after all, it’s not them.

Such environments and situations can be very frustrating and trying. How do we deal with this? Just like our ancestors. We stick to our principles. We find strength in our integrity and character. Abraham welcomed the stranger while Sodom and Gemorrah persecuted those not like them. Jacob honored his arrangement with Laban who changed the terms “hundreds of times”. In the end, both of them thrived and lived to see happy days.

This is because while things may seem tough and unfair, in the end, goodness wins out because reality is reality. It takes a lot of inner strength to be moral while others are taking shortcuts. And it is specifically that strength that gives you the resolve to succeed and overcome.

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