Parshat Vayeshev 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Vayeshev 5776

There is a war going on outside. And I struggle in this. I struggle because I do not want it to consume us. I believe that we have a level of choice in our response to terror.

I know that one of the things that visitors to Israel regularly witness and then report upon returning. They say: Everything is so normal.

And that, in fact, is a response to terror. We can hide, stay away from public places and behind walls…or we can respond with appropriate security measures, have those who fight, fight the battle to destroy ISIS and live our lives as we normally as we can.

And that’s what we have to choose. It’s our choice. And so, I want this place to serve as sanctuary. I don’t join the chorus of voices regularly calling for political and military responses. There are times to do so…not all times; and certainly not every Shabbat.

No Shabbat is Kodesh. And we are obligated to continue to allow it to uplift and speak to our spirits.

And I thought of a wonderful metaphor for this dilemma…It’s also a metaphor for our lives. How engaged in the troubles of our times need we be? Are there healthy ways to escape?

A number of years ago I read about a money market manager who decided that the pressures and the challenge to his values in life were too overwhelming, challenging and even distasteful and so he gave it up and he moved to Vermont and he bought a farm and began to heard sheep and goats.

At the time I thought it admirable and wondered could I do that? I have the name of a shepherd, David, but not the temperament…but I need people and community too badly.

And then I began to think about the life of a shepherd. Not a present day shepherd but the shepherds of our tradition. Our ancestors were shepherds. The Torah tells us that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rachel, and King David all herded goats and sheep. And in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, we see that Joseph also worked as a shepherd alongside his brothers (Genesis 37:2).

The greatest of our early Jewish leaders chose this profession, and we have learned that it was a livelihood scorned by surrounding cultures. Years after Joseph’s exile to Egypt and rise to viceroy of the king of Egypt, when his brothers came to him in exile, Joseph presented them to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. The question that most interested the king was: “What is your occupation?”

“We are shepherds,” they replied to Pharaoh, “like our fathers before us (Genesis 47:3).” Shepherding was not a respected occupation in Egypt, and Pharaoh relegated Joseph’s family to the far-off land of Goshen.

Why did so many of the original leaders of the Jewish people choose to become shepherds?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, explains that the advantage of shepherding may be found in the secluded lifestyle of the shepherd. While engaged with flocks, ambling through the hills and valleys, the shepherd is cut off from the noisy distractions of society, thus enabling ample time for inner reflection.

Additionally, the labor is not intensive. Unlike farming, shepherding does not require one to exert a great deal of energy in mundane matters. Nevertheless, the shepherd is concerned with the actual physical needs of the flock. A shepherd does not live in an ivory tower, immersed in artificial philosophies detached from life; rather, the shepherd is constantly engaged with the real world, seeking water, shade, and good fodder for animals. The thoughts and musings of the shepherd may be sublime and lofty, but they cannot take the shepherd away from the task at hand.

This explanation requires further examination, especially for Rabbi Kook, who throughout his writing emphasizes the importance of the individual’s connection and contribution to society. What is the value of seclusion and solitude? Is the desire for solitude a positive trait? How do we balance reclusive behavior with the greater ideals of refining humanity and elevating the universe and engagement in people’s lives and society? In other words: Is the ideal to connect to the world, or to disconnect?

Let me first examine this through the teachings of Rabbi Kook what occurs when one engages in the inner-reflection that exemplifies “shepherd consciousness.” Rabbi Kook writes in Orot Hakodesh (volume 3, p. 270):

“The greater the soul, the more it must struggle in order to find itself; the more the depths of the human soul are hidden from the conscious mind. One must have extended solitude and hitbodedut (self-reflective prayer), examining ideas, deepening thoughts, and expanding the mind, until finally the soul will truly reveal itself, unveiling some of the splendor of its brilliant inner light.”

So he’s saying that

In order to cultivate one’s own greatness, it is necessary to develop a deep soul-awareness. This is best accomplished through silence and isolation. When one truly engages in such a practice, it will inevitably have a positive influence both in one’s own life and also on one’s surroundings and to have a positive impact on the larger world, and not for mere personal spiritual fulfillment.

And by the way, this is also the essence of the philosophy of Transcendental Meditation.

The goal is not to engage in a personal spiritual path that is disassociated from the rest of the world. Rather, the aspiration is the opposite–the solitude of the shepherd ultimately enables him to reconnect and even provide for the larger world on a spiritual level.

The silence of the shepherd is not just the absence of speech. It is a sublime language of silence, flowing from an outpouring of the soul, a vehicle of ruah hakodesh (Divine inspiration). The depths of the soul demand silence. Silence is full of life, revealing treasures from the beauty of wisdom.

Yet today’s hi-tech, DSL-connected world does not leave enough space for an individual to hear silence. Even with wireless access, are we able to access the inner recesses of our own being?

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov teaches that a Jew should spend one hour a day in hitbodedut. This means that every Jewish person should set aside a significant period of time to simply be with God. Not to pray formally, study, or engage in mitzvot–rather, to simply be. It can include mundane conversation with God, or soul-wrenching self-analysis.

In this sacred time we can come to taste the Divine encounter that our forefathers taught us through their example as shepherds. This one hour of being with God–of simply being–will come to inform how we are and what we do in the world.

So, from the shepherd we can learn. And maybe what we can learn is that our lives need balance.

I think it’s also the message of Shabbat. We simply and, at times to disengage from the norm to help with perspective and to balance ourselves. In our busy-ness we need to stop…truly take time. And the wonderful thing is that we have the power.

We can assert the control as to how we want to be in a world dominated by technology and with a seemingly endless degree of violence.  Did you see what Mark Zuckerberg and his wife did this week – As a give to their daughter they have committed 99% of their Facebook stocks valued at over $45 billion to charity.  And he wrote a beautiful letter to his daughter.  And it states that we have been reminded that the world is less violent today than ever before.  There is a greater health in this world than ever before; that we are moving towards a cleaner planet; and there IS A HIGHER CONSCIOUSNESS, a paradigm shift taking place.

Somehow we need to stop and gain perspective.  So we find silence, we pray, we study Torah. Part of the beauty of Joseph’s life was found in his capacity to transcend his circumstances. He was able to alter his behavior in such  a way that the results were that he ended up…as the number two guy behind Pharaoh…he ended up on top and he saved the ancient near east…His people and the Egyptian people…He had great perspective, he listened to his dreams, he transformed his behaviors accordingly.

We have to understand what we can control and take control…and what we cannot…and be able to give what we cannot over to God. Then we can truly increase our peace and our comfort.

The Shepherd understood this. He knew when to be involved, how to work and he used silence for a greater connection to his environment, the world around him and the world within…and there he could hear the voice, a still silent voice…which brought him greater peace…and direction.

The world will be in turmoil…probably longer than any one of us desires.

We must use the gifts we have and develop the strategies available to enjoy sanctuary we have, find inner peace and then move forward and engage when we must…

May this Shabbat and every Shabbat bring us and all our families…

Simchah and shalom

Joy, and peace, wholeness and well-being and the comfort of friendship and support we find in community.

Shabbat Shalom