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Facing Our Challenges_Parshas Vayishlach

Mazel Tov! Mazel Tov! What a joyous day! We have an upcoming wedding between Adam Miller and Devorah Drebin, Mazel Tov! And Gabe Heyman’s Bar Mitzvah – Gabe, you did a wonderful job up there! Mazel Tov to your proud parents, Andrea and Bill, and proud grandparents, Teresa, Stanley, and Marilyn.

At the conclusion of services, Gabe will be sharing some thoughts from the pulpit, and Gabe, if I could put you on the spot for a second, I hope you don’t mind – are you nervous?

Let me tell you something, at my Bar Mitzvah, I was not nervous. Not because I was comfortable speaking in front of a huge crowd, I wasn’t. I wasn’t nervous though that’s because I was wearing a huge hat with a tremendous brim, and I couldn’t even see anyone, so I just looked down at my paper and read it and sat down.

But I do want to share with you what happened to me the first time I spoke in public, actually the first few times that I spoke in public. The first time wasn’t exactly a talk; it was a solo I sang in a choir. But I consider that my first attempt at public speaking because I had to stand up in front of a few hundred people and sing a few lines with words that I had just learned a day or two before. I was about ten years old, in sleepaway camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York, and the song I was asked to sing was about our camp, Camp Kesser. The song went something like this (it was sung to the tune of Naomi Shemer’s beautiful song, Al Kol Eileh):

“Camp Kesser, high in the mountains, catch the ruach in the air. Great times filled with achdus, Kesser, I promise to be back next year.”

Well, I got up there, and this is how it went: “Camp Kesser, high in the mountains…”

“Lah, lah, lah, lah, lah.” I totally forgot the words.

Yeah, it still hurts, it was quite humiliating.

Needless to say, I did not speak publicly for quite some time (Bar Mitzvah in that space-helmet-hat-thing being the one exception).

Ten years later, ten years! I tried again. I was asked to speak in a shul I was visiting, and I said, sure why not. I remembered all the words this time, but – no one had a clue as to what I was saying. And that’s because… naturally-I-speak-really-quickly-to-the-point-that-no-one-knows-what-I’m-saying.

Four years later, I was hired to be the Assistant Director of a sleep away camp, and on the first day I gave a short, very short talk, after which my boss, the director turned to me and said, “Sruli, you have some great qualities, speaking is not one of them.” That really hurt.

Now as soon as you stop feeling bad for me, you might start wondering how in the world, after all those speaking failures, did I end up as a rabbi, as someone who is expected to speak all the time? I could be at the grocery and I have to be prepared for a quick impromptu D’var Torah about purchasing tomatoes. How did I go from forgetting lines, speaking too quickly, and just plain speaking poorly to this?

And the answer is that I got great advice. I was once speaking to a beloved teacher of mine, and I told him that I had turned down an opportunity to speak at some venue. Can’t blame me, can you? But he disagreed. And he shared with me an idea that is found in the Torah portion that Gabe just read.

A few moments ago you read how our patriarch, Jacob, was given a name change. He used to be called Yakov, and in this week’s parsha that changes, now he would be called Yisrael. But it’s a very unique name-change because in Judaism, there are only two things that cause us to change a name. If someone is gravely ill, an additional name will often be added to their name. And if a school or shul needs some funds they will rename their building to the highest bidder… Why is Jacob changing his name here? What’s the significance of his name change?

It would seem that the reason he is changing his name is because Jacob, in this week’s Torah portion, became an entirely new person, to the point that he had to be given a new name.

You see, Jacob more than any other Biblical figure in the book of Genesis faces adversaries, he is constantly being challenged. Eisav his brother wants to kill him, Lavan, his father-in-law wants to kill him. And what does Yakov do each time? He runs; he runs away from the challenge.

Even when it comes to receiving the blessings that are rightfully his, what does Jacob do? He receives them but with deception. He would never confront Eisav, he would never argue his case before his father. Jacob was a righteous individual, he was an accomplished individual, but he was also non-confrontational to the extreme, perhaps even to a fault.

In this week’s Torah portion, that changes. Jacob, upon returning to the land of Israel, proactively engages his estranged brother. He sends messengers to his Eisav, the brother with whom there is so much bad blood. “Let’s talk,” he says. “Let’s go for coffee.”

Jacob learns that running away is not the solution. The only way he will overcome the challenge of Eisav is by confronting him. And it’s not easy for Jacob. The Torah tells us that he’s scared, he’s frightened; Jacob is doing something entirely unprecedented in his life. As much as he’s accomplished, as great as he is, he never confronted. He would run, he would deceive, he would hide but he never ever stepped outside his comfort zone.

And when he finally does, when he decides that running away from his issues, avoiding the conflicts of his life, he is given a new name; a name that symbolizes the fact that he is now a new person. He is no longer Yakov, which comes from the word, eikev, a heel, someone who is stepped upon, someone who is entirely passive and non-confrontational. He is now called, Yisrael, which the Torah tells us means, ki sarita im Elohim v’adam vatuchal, because you wrestled, you confronted, you engaged with men and even with angels, and you overcame them. By stepping out of his comfort zone, by doing what he wasn’t always accustomed to doing, he not only grew, but he became an entirely different and better person.

And that’s what my teacher told me. He said, “The only way you’ll grow in the realm of public speaking or in any realm is if you push yourself out of our comfort zone. Never stop speaking, never stop trying, no matter how hard you fall, no matter how humiliating.”

And so I did. And yes, I had even more embarrassing stories along the way, but I’m done humiliating myself for today. And so now I want to talk about you and you.

Adam, you will be getting married in just a few days. There is nothing, nothing! more out of one’s comfort zone than marriage. Because you are transforming yourself from a single entity to a dual one; from me to we. And on the one hand, there is nothing more blissful than becoming one with another human being, to share your life entirely with someone else that you love, what could be sweeter. At the same time, it is no longer what you like to do during the day, it’s what we like to do during the day. It’s no longer my finances, it’s our finances. Etc., etc., etc. Two people, by definition, will have their differences, and marriage is an ongoing exercise in getting out of me, out of my own personal and comfortable space, and finding out what makes my spouse comfortable as well.

Adam, you have stepped out of your comfort zone in the past, you have made big decisions, decisions that weren’t necessarily easy, but you most certainly have it in you to continue to do so; to engage, to accept and to confront any challenge that comes your way. Because when you do so, although it’s scary at times, it’s difficult at times, but it’s also transformative in the most beautiful of ways.

I am confident, having gotten to know you and Devora, having seen the two of you together, the love and the care for one another, your ability already to be constantly stepping outside of yourselves, you will most certainly transform yourself, and together build a beautiful home and family.

 

Gabe, just in case you missed the Dvar Torah, I’m going to share with you an analogy that I know you’re going to appreciate. Gabe is a serious sports fan. Is that right, Gabe? He’s also a serious Raven’s fan, right? Amazingly though, Gabe told me he is not going to the game tomorrow. (Anyone here want to give this boy a great Bar Mitzvah present? C’mon!)

So I have this great idea for Joe Flacco, I know he’s recuperating a little bit and probably wants to take it easy but they need to win this game. So, if I were Joe Flacco, facing all these huge defenseman, instead of trying to get the ball past all those big players from the Eagle’s, why doesn’t he just have his receiver’s stand behind him, throw them the ball, and have them kneel? Reception! It’s great! He could do it over and over and over again and no one will get in the way!

 

Now obviously, that’s a pretty silly idea. Why? Because the point of the game of football is not simply to take the path of least resistance. The point of the game is to get past the defense, is to bring the ball past your line of scrimmage and bring that line forward, again and again, and sometimes, often the only way to do so is by pushing back against unbelievable resistance. That’s what makes the game so enjoyable. Right?

But Gabe, that’s not only true for the game of football, it’s true for the game of life. Because it’s much easier to walk away from our problems, to so to speak throw the ball backwards and never move forward. It’s much easier to ignore our weaknesses, it’s much simpler to avoid anyone with whom we have a disagreement, it’s much more comfortable to just do things that we know we’re good at it and not deal with the stuff we’re not so good at it. But when we do that, we never move the line of scrimmage forward; it just stays where it is.

The purpose of life Gabe, is to push and push and push some more. The purpose of life is to never be happy with our spiritual status quo, to constantly strive to be a better person, to strive to develop better character, to develop better skills; there is no point to life if we’re just standing still.

I’m going to take this football analogy just a little but further. As you know, first down does not start at the same place each time. Joe Flacco will start the set of downs at a different line depending on how well the return went after the kickoff. He gets to start wherever the returner was sacked. But no matter where he starts first down, Joe Flacco’s job is to bring the ball even further. So if Jacoby Jones, while he was still playing for the Ravens makes a great return and he gets tackled ten yards from the goal-line, it doesn’t really matter for Flacco. His job is still to bring the ball forward.

Gabe, you were born with some unbelievable qualities; you’re bright, you’re athletic, you’re naturally kind and sensitive, you’re modest, you’re easy-going, you’re a good person to the point that your teachers described you as a true mentsch – and not too many middle-schoolers get that title, trust me!

But most of those qualities were gifts, they were gifts from the gene pool – your parents are all those things and more. Most of those amazing qualities that you have, and they are truly amazing, you are a very impressive young man, but they’ve been given to you. You walked on to the playing field of life ten yards from the goal line. But that doesn’t matter, because in this game of life, your goal is to constantly move the ball forward.

So often people miss this point. They think to themselves, well, hey! I’m living a good life, I’m a good person, moral, upstanding, everything. And they are good people! But the purpose of life is not to be a good person, it is to be a growing person. It is to day in and day out ask yourself, how have I grown today? How have I changed? How have I moved the line of scrimmage just a little bit forward?

Gabe, now that your Bar Mitzvah, now that you’re an adult, you’re going to be facing a pretty good defense; there will be challenges that you will face, that’s what adulthood is all about. You will be faced with moral dilemmas, you will be faced with tricky relationships, you will be faced with your weaknesses, and you’ll have a choice; do I confront them? Do I work on them? Do I struggle through them? Or, do I avoid them? Do I take the path of least-resistance and never step out of your comfort zone.

Gabe, you have wonderful role models in this game of life. Your parents know what it means to step out of their comfort zone, they know what it means to be challenged and to take the challenge, and to make big decisions, scary decisions, but decisions that ultimately helped them and helped you grow.

May you and may all of us earn from them. May we learn from Jacob who changed himself from being passive, from not being a heel, by recognizing that being good is not good enough. May we learn from his ability to transform himself into a Yisrael, a warrior by recognizing that life is about change, positive growth that necessitates difficult, challenging, and friction-filled situations. May we all be granted the strength to face our challenges head-on and come out, as I’m sure we will, all that much stronger.

 

 

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