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Mr. Joe American
Parshat Vayishlach

Rush hour used to be from 7:30-9:30AM and 4-6PM, but that rush hour is a relic of a time when apples and blackberries were things you ate, and mail was something dropped off once a day by someone in a light blue uniform. Today, rush hour starts moments after you wake up and only ends when sleep rescues you by shutting down a brain that whirs at 120MPH.

Mr. Joe America wakes up in the morning, but before sleep has entirely departed, he’s already busy checking his phone to see what all important emails came in while he was in Dreamland. Usually those emails are from Best Buy, CompUSA, Spirit Airlines, Groupon, and Home Depot et. al. who have deals he absolutely needs to know about, and from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or any one of dozens of other news services that have pages and pages to read that won’t change his life much. But they show up on his phone and he has to open them. Just in case…

Then begins the mad rush. Getting kids off to school is chaotic. Kids are crying because their favorite socks are in the laundry or the dog ran off with one of their shoes. Parents’ stress levels rise as the clock tick tocks resolutely from on-time to late, and with every passing minute people’s voices get louder and louder until full blown yelling ensues, “Get your backpack and get in the car right now! PLEASE!”

On the train to work, what used to be a half hour of soothing quiet is now interrupted by a collage of loud phone conversations about cats, travel plans, last night’s TV shows, and domestic disputes. Loud thumping and offensive lyrics spill out of teenagers’ earphones, and someone next to Mr. Joe is watching a YouTube clip on their iPhone with no earphones at all.

Before he can even stop and think, Mr. Joe is at his desk, staggering under the weight of his inbox, a trusty drum of coffee his only friend in the cubicle. Spreadsheets, reports, administrative directives, and status updates flow past all day like a slow moving river, one that crests throughout the day, and begins flooding somewhere around 2:30PM. He knows he’s important because he has at least nine tabs open on his computer at all times, but important doesn’t equal productive, so every few days Joe gets an automatically generated email showing him how his production is lagging.

He doesn’t leave until seven pm because leaving at five would show laziness and lack of company commitment, and by the time he gets home, his family has eaten and he’s just in time to bathe the kids and put them to bed after the usual fight over how many minutes of iPad each kid gets before bedtime. He finally gets to dinner at 9PM, served along with the accompanying guilt of knowing that dinner at nine is not going to do any favors to his waistline. His meal is punctuated by phone calls, text messages, and emails, none of them patient enough to wait till he’s done eating. He finally crashes on the couch to watch a TV show and a basketball game, but for every 22 minutes of entertainment he has to endure eight minutes of advertisements reminding him of all the beautiful things he doesn’t have.

While he’s watching TV he’s also on his iPad to check Facebook where he has to respond to seventeen messages, six pokes, and twelve status updates. Then there is his Twitter feed where he gets to read hundreds of quips from people trying very hard to sound funny, important, or knowledgeable in 140 characters or less. His wife wants some time to talk, but it is a three way conversation between wife, TV, and iPad, a conversation that gives something to all three, but everything to none of them.

In the shower, his brain is running through a thousand thoughts; things he needs to get done tomorrow, forgot to do today, or wishes he could do sometime… It isn’t until he slips between the covers that sleep mercifully shuts down his system. At least in his sleep, Mr. Joe America appears pretty peaceful.

We live in a busy world. Just ask anybody how they are doing, and many of them will either tell you they are sooooo busy or so tired. Only 29% of employees aged 31-61 are very satisfied with their jobs, and according to the American Institute of Stress, 80% of workers feel stress on the job. The American Psychological Association conducted a study recently that showed that 75% of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the past month and nearly half reported that their stress has increased in the past year.

Human beings are the most complex machines on this earth, with a staggering array of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual components all combining to create an overall picture of well-being. Luckily, we have a User’s Manual, the Torah, created by the manufacturer of human beings, G-d, that gives us some insight on how to best operate all that human machinery to maximum efficiency. While those instructions have been the same for thousands of years, in each generation, their benefits are experienced differently. Here are some of them:

Power Down: The average smartphone user looks at his cell phone 150 times a day, or roughly once every 6.5 minutes of their waking hours. The average teen sends over 100 texts a day. Neuroimaging studies show that checking texts, emails, and Facebook or Twitter updates lights up the same parts of the brain as addicts using heroin. Every time we see a new message symbol, we get a feeling of micro-anxiety because we don’t know what it is or how important it is, and when we check it, we trigger a small dopamine release. This constant anxiety-pleasure dynamic creates overall stress, as well as addictive behavior (we all know people who are clinically addicted to their phones!).

To combat that stress we need to power down from time to time, and not give in to the urge to be constantly connected. The human User’s Manual has a 25-hour-a-week power down time called Shabbos, a time that is an oasis from the need to check for updates, and a refuge from communication anxiety. In addition to that, we can impose a tech-free zone for the first hour after we get home, the last hour before we go to bed, or the first 30 minutes after we wake up.

Be thankful: The positive psychology movement, which is sweeping the country, is based primarily on being grateful for what we have. People who are thankful have been shown in multiple studies to be less depressed, envious, greedy, or abusive of substances. Instead they are more likely to sleep better, exercise more often, earn more money, and be happier. In Judaism, we stop three times a day to pray, which is primarily a time to thank G-d for the amazing gifts He plants in our lives. We do it upon waking to start our day right, before going to bed, to end our day right, and somewhere smack dab in middle, to make sure we don’t lose focus in all the chaos.

Even if we are not accustomed to the standardized prayer system, we can still take five minutes three times a day, and meditate on thanking G-d for the gifts in our life. This will lead to a happier life, I guarantee it. It also is an opportunity to ask Him for help with our needs and wants. This way we us both appreciate what we have, and zero in on what is truly important for us.

Do Good: We all know that it is righteous to do good, but what we may not know is that it is a significant contributor to happiness. According to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey – a study of 30,000 American households – those who donated money to a charitable cause were 43% more likely to say they were “very happy” with their lives than those who had not made any contribution. Likewise, those who engaged in regular volunteer work were 42% more likely to rate themselves “very happy” than those who had not taken part in any social action projects.

Most people think of charity as something we do a few times a year, when various organizations that we are connected to perform their campaigns or drives, or when we want to get our tax deduction locked in, but charity can be a daily activity. In our house, we give charity at the dinner table every night. We pass a tzedaka box around and everyone puts a few nickels in. It’s not a lot of money, but repetitively doing acts of kindness is a significant booster of happiness. (My kids smile all the time!) Another simple act of kindness is calling one person who could use a pick-me-up call each day. It only takes 3-5 minutes, but it feels really good and is usually a good stress buster in middle of busy day.

Our great User Manual, the Torah, has dozens of more tips and instruction to help keep our lives happy, fulfilled, and energized. Those tips are called mitzvos, and while we don’t have the time or space to cover all of them, I would like to share with you the following statistic. A study based on The Gallup Well Being Index, which interviews over 1,000 people a day and has collected an enormous amount of data, found that the people with the overall highest level of well being in the USA are: (drumroll…..) Jewish people who are very religiously active! (I will gladly send you the graph, just email me!)

Somehow, a User Manual written over 3,300 years ago seems to hold the secrets for true happiness for Mr. Joe America. What a wonderful world!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

“When [the stranger] saw that he could not defeat him, he touched the upper joint of [Jacob’s] thigh. Jacob’s hip joint became dislocated as he wrestled with [the stranger]” (Genesis 32:26).

Jacob fought a momentous battle against the angel of Esau — a battle that would portend many battles and struggles between the descendants of Jacob (the Jewish people) and the descendants of Esau (the Romans, Christians, and Germans). Toward the end of the struggle, the angel saw that things weren’t working out quite as he had envisioned. Since he could not defeat Jacob, he injured him. Since the Torah says that he limped away from the area, we know that this injury stayed with Jacob for quite a while.

Jacob defeated the angel, and this victory imbued in his descendants the ability to overcome their enemies. But didn’t Jacob leave with an injury? We don’t read about any injuries to the angel, so why do we say that the injured combatant was the winner? Who really won?

In a physical battle, the one who emerges less wounded is considered the winner. But this was a spiritual battle, the only type one can wage with an angel. In this type of fight, the fact that one side leaves the playing field and resorts to physically hurting his opponent is a clear sign that he lost the fight.

This unfortunately has been the protocol of Esau’s descendants throughout history. They try to convince the Jews that their religion is superior, that they are the true bearers of the truth. Upon seeing the Jews steadfastness or upon being theologically disproven, they resort to physically lashing out at them.

Understanding this behavior can help us engage in debate in healthier ways. We need to stick to the subject of an argument and avoid going on a personal attack. If a husband and wife are disputing whether a child is too sick to attend school, one shouldn’t allow the disagreement to devolve into recriminations such as, “You never listen to me…” Not only does an argument escalate into a fight; the party who fans the flames usually demonstrates that their point of view is not backed by valid reasoning.

Disagreements inevitably arise; it’s up to us to ensure that our arguments don’t cross the delicate line between discussion and hurtfulness, argument and fighting.

 

Parsha Summary

Our Parsha starts with Yaakov returning to his homeland after being on the run from his brother Eisav for thirty four ears. Trying to gauge the reception he should expect, Yaakov sends messengers (some say they were angels) to reconnoiter Eisav’s camp. The messengers come back with a message that Eisav has a loving brother’s reception committee of 400 crack troops chomping at the bit, intending to kill Yaakov. In response, Yaakov sets up the protocol for how Jews deal with conflicts. First he sends a gift, then he prays, and lastly he sets up the battle camps. This included splitting his family into two camps so that if one is attacked the other can escape.

The night before the meeting of the brothers Yaakov goes back across a river he crossed with his family to pick up some vessels he left behind. At this moment he is attacked by the angel of Eisav, the angel of evil. They fight all night long, and Yaakov wins. However, the angel manages to dislocate part of Yaakov’s thigh tendon, which is the reason that Jews are not allowed to eat this particular piece of meat. (It is clear that this fight has an infinite amount of depth, and the significance of the thigh tendon dislocation and the subsequent prohibition is much more profound than it appears on the surface.)

The next day Eisav meets Yaakov and, miraculously, he is filled with mercy. Instead of killing Yaakov, he cries with him, forgives him for acquiring the blessings, and blesses him. He even expresses a desire to stay with Yaakov, but Yaakov firmly refuses, and the two brothers part ways. Yaakov realized that living with a loving Eisav would be just as dangerous (if not more) than battling an angry Eisav.

After this meeting Yaakov heads to the city of Shechem where he hopes to stay a bit but, unfortunately, things don’t go so smoothly. Shechem, the son of Chamor the king of the city, is attracted to Dina, Yaakov’s daughter. He grabs her and has forced relations with her. After that, he and his father come to Yaakov to try to work out a way that Shechem can marry her properly.

Shimon and Levi, two of Yaakov’s sons and Dina’s brothers, are enraged that their sister has been defiled, and come up with a plan to teach everyone a lesson. They tell Chamor that the reason they can’t let Dina marry Shechem is because he comes from an uncircumcised people. If all the males in the city are circumcised, then Shechem can marry Dina. Shechem and his father go back and convince the people of the city to circumcise themselves. On the third day after the circumcision, when the pain is the greatest, Shimon and Levi swoop down on the city and kill all the males. (The commentators explain that they had the right to kill Shechem for his rape, but everyone else defended Chamor, and in the ensuing battle everyone was killed. Nachmonides says that the people of the city were considered accomplices to Shechem’s crime and were therefore also deserving of the death penalty.)

Yaakov is concerned about this move, as he feels it would give his family a bad name amongst all the neighboring people, and they might join forces to attack him. (Later, when he blesses his children before his death, he brings up this event again, and curses the two brother’s anger.) However, G-d puts an unnatural fear on the people of the land and no one moves against Yaakov’s family.

At this point, we learn of the death of Rivka, Yaakov’s mother. After that, G-d renames Yaakov with the same name given to him by the angel, Yisroel. He also blesses him and promises him that the land he promised to Avraham and Yitzchak will be passed on to his children (not the children of Eisav or Yishmael).

Soon after, Rachel gives birth to the last of the twelve tribes, Binyamin. Immediately after childbirth and the naming of her son, Rachel dies. She is buried right there on the road, so that when the Jews are exiled by the Babylonians hundreds of years later they can pray by her grave and she will be able to intercede on their behalf before G-d.

After Rachel dies, Yaakov establishes his primary residence in the tent of Bilhah, who had been Rachel’s maid before marrying Yaakov. Reuven, Leah’s oldest son, sees this as a slight to his mother’s honor, so he moves Yaakov’s bed into Leah’s tent. For a person of Reuven’s stature, this action is considered almost tantamount to adultery, as he is trying to force his father to live with one wife and not the other. Reuven realizes his error and does teshuvah immediately.

Toward the end of the Parsha we find Yaakov reunited with his father after an extended leave of absence and, soon after that, Yitzchak passes away at the ripe old age of 180. Eisav and Yaakov bury him together next to their mother Rivka in the Mearat Hamachpela, the place where Adam, Eve, Avraham and Sara were buried. The Parsha concluds with an in-depth description of Eisav’s genealogy. That’s all Folks!

 

Quote of the Week: People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy. -Wiliam Butler Yeats

Random fact of the Week: On a clear night in the northern hemisphere, the naked eye can discern about 5,000 stars.

Funny Line of the Week: If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?

Have a Super-Duper Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham

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