In the movie, Little Big League, a middle school boy, Billy Haywood, inherits ownership of the Minnesota Twins baseball team. Shortly after he becomes owner, he appoints himself as the new manager. This is met with plenty of resistance from the team members who did not believe that Billy, a child with no experience, could lead them to victory. One game, the physically imposing pitcher, John “Blackout” Gatling is struggling with his accuracy. Billy decides to take him out of the game, despite warnings from Mac, his pitching coach that Blackout doesn’t like to be taken out of games. So, the young boy goes out to the mound and meets a man that looks at least twice his size! Initially, Blackout growls at Billy, “Go Away!” After Billy tells Blackout that he is being removed from the game, Blackout again barks at Billy, “You don’t take me out, not if you wanna win!” Billy challenges him. “Why? Do you think [your teammate] Bowers can’t pitch? Do you think that you are the only relief pitcher we got?” The rest of team, now standing around watching this confrontation, eagerly awaits his reply. Blackout tries to take back his embarrassingly prideful comment, and then he stomps his way back to the dugout. Later in the movie Blackout comes back to Billy and tells him that after watching film, he realized that Billy was right about why he was struggling.
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Va’Era, God promises to Israel to “take you out...save you...redeem you...take you as a people...so that you know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the burdens of the Egyptians/ וְהוֹצֵאתִי... וְהִצַּלְתִּי... וְגָאַלְתִּי... וְלָקַחְתִּי... וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם, הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם (Ex. 6:6-7).” The Sfas Emes points out that the whole point of the exile in Egypt, is to realize that God is the One that can and will bring us out. He continues to teach that in all times, we have the potential to stumble and fall into Egypt, which is why we constantly have to remind ourselves of the exodus (it is in the Shma that we say twice a day). For if we can truly remember every day that God is the One that brought us out, then we do not have to go into the narrowness/meitzar/מיצר. But when we forget, and start to think that we are the cause of our own success/“כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי (Deut. 8:17)”, that is when we need to be placed in the meitzar. Narrowness and restriction teaches us the limitations of our ability, and that we cannot be saved without the help of our Redeemer. God chooses to take us as a people, only when we can truly understand that.
In the movie, Blackout thinks he can do everything himself. And it takes being removed from his comfort zone for him to realize that he is human, has faults, and needs outside help. The same can often be true for us. When we are successful, it is easy to think that we are capable of achieving anything. So when we falter a little bit, we continue to assume that we can get ourselves back on track. This week, I invite you to think of an area in your life that could improve. Then, see if you can ask for help. Ask God. Lean on a friend or loved one. It is only through the help of God and each other, that we can get back to where we want to be.
During winter months, at least once a week while speaking with my father on the phone, he somehow finds a way to bring up the weather in conversation. He will ask, “how’s the weather up there?”--My parents live in South Florida. I might reply, “it’s not too bad, just below freezing, but bearable.” To this, my father usually says, “here it's not so great either, it did not quite make it to 80 [degrees] today.” I can feel his smirk from 1500 miles away. While speaking on the phone, sharing our realities with each other, we physically live in different ones. His is bright and warm, and mine is darker and colder. At one moment, all of this is true.
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Shmot, we are introduced to Moses. After growing up in Egypt and fleeing from there, he encounters God at the burning bush and is charged with going back to Egypt as God’s messenger in order to free the Israelites from bondage. Moses’ first major concern is that the people will not trust him and will not believe in him. God then gives him signs to show the people. God shows Moses how a staff can become a serpent and that a hand can become diseased and healed in an instant. God then reassures Moses (Ex. 4: 8-9), “If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or heed you, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground/וְהָיָה אִם-לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לָךְ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ לְקֹל הָאֹת הָרִאשׁוֹן--וְהֶאֱמִינוּ לְקֹל הָאֹת הָאַחֲרוֹן. וְהָיָה אִם-לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ גַּם לִשְׁנֵי הָאֹתוֹת הָאֵלֶּה, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּן לְקֹלֶךָ--וְלָקַחְתָּ מִמֵּימֵי הַיְאֹר וְשָׁפַכְתָּ הַיַּבָּשָׁה; וְהָיוּ הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר תִּקַּח מִן-הַיְאֹר וְהָיוּ לְדָם בַּיַּבָּשֶׁת.”
The Ben Ish Hai (Rabbi Yosef Haim, 19th Century Baghdad) explains that the reason that all of these signs are necessary is to prove that all things come from the same source. Both the constructive and the destructive come from God. The One that makes sick also heals. The One that sends a people into exile also redeems and delivers them to the Promised Land. And that is why the Rabbis established for us that we mention day during the night (Page 107 in Siddur Sim Shalom--Praised are You Hashem our God, who rules the universe, creating light and fashioning darkness.../ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם, יוצר אור ובורא חושך) and night during the day (Page 28 in Siddur Sim Shalom--...rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light/גולל אור מפני חושך וחושך מפני אור). These blessings/brachot/ברכות remind us that both light and darkness come from the same source.
Additionally, the Ben Ish Hai teaches that the reason we say these blessings is so that we may understand a fundamental truth about our world. There is no time when it is day that it is not also night, and there is no time when it is night that it is not also day. While the sun shines on our half of the world, it is dark on the other side of the globe, and vice versa. When some are experiencing light, others are experiencing darkness.
We are living in complex times. Some are experiencing light while others experience darkness. We must try our hardest to remember that the world constantly turns--light becomes dark and light again. This week, let us take up the important charge to remember that when things are good, there is still pain and suffering in this world. And when things feel destructive, goodness and tranquility are just beyond the horizon.
I heard this story years ago while watching an episode of The West Wing. "This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayehi, we conclude the reading of the Book of Genesis/בראשית. Before Jacob our Father, peace be upon him/יעקב אבינו, עליו השלום dies, he blesses his children. Judah/יהודה is given the following blessing (Gen. 49:8-9), “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion, like the king of animals—who dares rouse him up?/יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ--יָדְךָ בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ. גּוּר אַרְיֵה יְהוּדָה, מִטֶּרֶף בְּנִי עָלִיתָ; כָּרַע רָבַץ כְּאַרְיֵה וּכְלָבִיא מִי יְקִימֶנּוּ.”
There is a verse in Psalms (97:11) that we sing on Friday night/ערב שבת in Kabbalat Shabbat, “Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart/אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק; וּלְיִשְׁרֵי-לֵב שִׂמְחָה.” In Hasidic thought, Joseph/יוסף is considered the righteous one/tzaddik/צדיק. The Sfas Emes comes to teach us that Judah is the upright. And Rashi comments on this verse (BT Ta’anit 15a) that the upright are preferable to the righteous. Why is this? The Sfas Emes explains that it is Judah’s role to use his strength to raise up those who have fallen, and to straighten out their paths. Judah has been in the hole and made his way out . He has been in difficult situations, situations that he put himself in. And he ultimately got himself out.
Jacob knows as this book of our history comes to a close, that we are going to be in Egypt for some time. And this time in Egypt is going to be dark and painful. He not only blesses Judah, but he charges him with the task of leading our people. As the Rabbis teach in a Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 9:2), “The one who lights candles in dark alleys merits to see the salvation of God.”
Every one of us can get down in the hole with our fellows and help them out. We do not necessarily need to be a tzaddik. But we do need to be a mentsch. And when a mentsch sees someone in the hole, they don’t assume somebody else will come, or that advice will help. A mentsch, a disciple of the ways of Judah, crouches low, so that when we rise, we rise together.
 Rashi 49:9 SV My son, you have gone up, Judah redeems himself by trying to save Joseph’s life when his brothers plotted to kill him, and again he redeems himself by validating Tamar and claiming that she is more righteous than him.
One of the greatest movies of all time, by all objective standards, is The Godfather. If you have never seen this movie, I will not spoil it for you, but you should take the time to watch it (it is available on Netflix). In one scene towards the beginning of the movie, one of the main characters, Clamenza, tries to teach Michael (played by Al Pacino) how to cook. He calls Michael over, “Heh, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some
garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't
stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh?... And a
little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick.” It is an iconic scene that no doubt inspired many people to learn how to cook meat sauce.
A verse from Psalms reads (84:12) “For the Lord God is a sun and shield/כִּי שֶׁמֶשׁ וּמָגֵן יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים.” The Noam Elimelekh explains that this verse comes to teach us that the Sun is very strong. And in order to see it and receive its light, we need a shield. This is why we have sunglasses, or blinds on our windows. Indeed, we need shade in order to receive appropriate amounts of light. And we have to figure out how to do this in our daily lives. The Noam Elimelekh challenges us, as people who aspire to influence the world around us. He says it is our role to find a way to sweeten what might be too strong and or too savory. Here, he is not referring to meat sauce.
And this is the meaning of the opening verse of our Parsha, Parshat Vayigash, “Then Judah stepped up to him and said, ‘O my lord, let your servant please speak a word in my lord’s ears, and do not be angry with your servant; for you are like Pharaoh himself/וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי, יְדַבֶּר-נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי, וְאַל-יִחַר אַפְּךָ בְּעַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה.” It should not be read, “O my lord/ בִּי אֲדֹנִי/Bi Adoni”, rather, “God is in me/בי אדני/Bi Adonai.” When we let God in, it sweetens us, and thus we are not received with anger. That is Judah’s great accomplishment in this verse. He understands that kindness will soften Joseph and prevent anger from coming out.
We often find ourselves living in a contentious world. Our friends and family are frequently the ones with whom we have the strongest disagreements. This week, let us strive to open our mouths with kindness. Even when we know we are right, and we represent good, too much good can feel overpowering and aggressive. I encourage you to add some sugar to your words. It is not just the trick to great sauce, it's the trick to great relationships.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.