May the Force Be With You: a Jewish View

This is a very special Shabbat – ‘Shabbat Star Wars.’ I’m sure that everyone is aware that the new Star Wars movie opened last night. I haven’t yet had an opportunity to see it – but from all accounts, t’s ‘out of this world!’ So I  thought that this evening would be a good time to spend a few moments sharing some thoughts about Star Wars –The Jewish View. The movies have much to teach us and share common themes with our ancient Jewish texts.

Shabbat Shalom! This is a very special Shabbat – “Shabbat Star Wars.” I’m sure that everyone is aware that the new Star Wars movie opened last night. I haven’t yet had an opportunity to see it – but from all accounts, it is “out of this world!”

And if you haven’t tried this trick yet, type the words: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” into the Google search bar… the results will amaze you!

The first Star Wars movies came out when I was just finishing high school– 38 years ago. Yet, the Star Wars phenomenon and appeal have never gone away, even after all these years. My young six-year old nephews, and so many other young children love everything about Star Wars: collecting Star Wars Lego sets, books and paraphernalia. They can describe in great detail all of the intricacies involving the characters and the plot-lines, they love making up their own Star Wars stories and they’re excited to see the new movie.

So I thought that this evening would be a good time to spend a few moments sharing some thoughts about “Star Wars –The Jewish View.” The movies have much to teach us and share common themes with our ancient Jewish texts.

Obi-Wan-sharonFirst, Obi Wan Kenobi – the legendary Jedi master, explains that the Force is what gives Jedis their powers. The Force surrounds us and penetrates us, he explains. The Force binds the galaxy together.

In our Torah portion this week, Vayigash, (from the book of Genesis) we see the ultimate Jewish Jedi: Joseph. He’s in charge of all of Egypt. The only one who is more powerful than him is Pharaoh. Yet, Joseph’s power doesn’t come from Pharaoh – it comes from his connection with the Divine, his belief and his faith in God. In this week’s Torah portion, God has inspired Joseph and enabled him to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery so long ago. With God by his side, Joseph and his family are able to reconcile and move forward as a united family.

We too, can find strength and sustenance with God’s presence in our lives. Just as the Force is what gives a Jedi his/her powers, God is what gives meaning to our very existence. God is what binds OUR universe together.

Next, in all the Star Wars movies, we see deep and significant friendships developing between Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2D2, C3P0, Chewbacca, wookies and so many other creatures of all shapes, sizes, levels of hairiness and colors. This is a celebration of diversity at its best – an acknowledgement that “all life forms matter.” We see in these stories how true friends value each other’s special gifts, and remain loyal when adversity strikes. When faced with challenges or obstacles, friends are there to help you overcome those obstacles or to save you if you need help.

In our Joseph story, Pharaoh was a true friend to Joseph. He greatly valued all of Joseph’s special gifts and acknowledged Joseph’s talent, wisdom and abilities. So much so, that he assisted Joseph in reuniting with his family and gave Joseph’s family excellent land on which to live when they came to Egypt. The friendship was reciprocated.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 8) that we should “Acquire for yourself a friend.” What is the meaning of this text? The commentators say that this text teaches us that we should acquire a friend with whom to eat and drink, read and study, sleep and share secrets of Torah and personal secrets.

In the beginning of the Torah, as part of the creation story, God says: “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a fitting help-mate for him.” God then creates Eve. People are meant to live in relationships: with partners, with friends, with community.

As a Jewish community, this notion is reinforced by the fact that we need a minyan – a quorum of 10 people – in order to recite certain prayers. As a people, we believe that it is important to live in community, surrounded by others. As Jews, we do not live in isolation. We cannot celebrate the passage of time or the cycle of life alone. The power of friendships and the power of community can be uplifting indeed. And just like in Star Wars, we are taught that the honor of one’s “fellow is as precious to us as our own.” (Pirke Avot 2:10)

Third, Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi represent wise, revered elders, who have much to teach those who are leading the way. At first glance, Yoda doesn’t seems like much to behold: he is small, wrinkled, shriveled. But looks can be deceiving: he is the Jedi Master par excellence. His wisdom is beyond compare. Obi Wan Kenobi, too, has much to share with others. He is a great leader and has lived his life with struggle and battle, overcoming some and losing others.

Obi Wan Kenobi’s life has been just like all of ours. Each of us has experienced the joys and struggles of life. And we get through life with the help and guidance of trusted and wise mentors.

In this week’s Torah portion, When Joseph reconnects with his father, Jacob, we see that Jacob, too, is old and has lived a long life, full of trials and tribulations, joys and heartache. Jacob, in his advanced years (in the Torah over the next few weeks) will still have much to teach to his children and grandchildren.

We are taught: “Aseh l’cha rav, u’kneh l’cha chaver – Acquire for yourself a teacher, and you will make for yourself a friend.” (Pirke Avot 1:6). None of us is expert in all things – we can each learn from those who came before us, from those who are our peers and from those who are younger than us. We must have an inquiring mind, an open heart and a willing spirit, if we want our future to be bright with hope and fulfillment.

vaderFinally, in Star Wars, there is always the Dark Side of the Force, represented by Darth Vader and his minions, his evil deep breath (can you hear his: “huuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhh“? – insert deep breathing noise here). Egypt – initially in the Torah – represented a place of plenty and sustenance. It was the place that Abraham and Sarah went to get food during a famine. Joseph and his family lived long and prospered there. OK the phrase“live long and prosper” belongs to “Star Trek,” not “Star Wars – but I couldn’t resist!” Egypt initially was a place of plenty, bounty and goodness. And then, the dark force took over…and we saw the another side of Egypt.

But if it weren’t for the Dark Side of Egypt, we never would have left, never would have gone to Sinai, never formed a covenant with God, never would have received the 10 Commandments, and never become the People we are today.

We are taught: There are two forces that exist within each one of us: the Yetzer Ha-Rah and the Yetzer Ha-Tov. The good inclination and the evil inclination. It is the Yetzer Ha-Rah, the evil inclination that motivates each of us to find a partner, to go to work each day, to procure food, to take care of our families. And it is the good inclination, the Yetzer Ha-tov that makes sure that we don’t do anything to excess, and that we take care of the stranger and feed the hungry, clothe the naked. We need each one of these inclinations to balance the other. We need each to have a healthy existence on this earth.

There are so many more Jewish themes in Star Wars – perhaps we should all arrange to go and see the movie together!

For now, however, I will conclude by saying:r2d2 “May the Force surround you and be with you, may you find loving companions to guide you through life’s path, and may your Yetzer Ha-Tov always take precedence over your Yetzer Ha-rah! Shabbat Shalom.”

Wrapped in the Embrace of Our Loved Ones

When I wear something that used to belong to my mother, father or one of my grandparents, I feel as if I am wrapped in their embrace. I feel their presence near me, with me. It comforts me. It gives me a sense of peace.

Clothes often evoke powerful memories of the person who wore them. When my mother died 3.5 years ago, my young nieces were looking through her closet during the shiva and found some treasures lovingly tucked away, that they had never seen before. They brought them into the living room: “Auntie Sharon! Look what we found!!” Can you EVER imagine bubbie wearing this?!?!” They held up a stunning Persian lamb coat with a mink collar, with my grandmother’s initials, that my mother used to wear when I was young. Another niece put on a short American broadtail jacket that also used to be my grandmothers. And a third niece was holding this dress that I’m wearing right now: my mother had this dress made for her for some special occasion when she was 20 – I have photos of my mother wearing it.

My nieces thought these items of clothing were hysterically funny. But I have the memories of my then-young and very beautiful mother wearing them. I said to my siblings, “I’m the only one in the family who will fit in these, is it ok if I take them?” And so now I have some of my mother’s and grandmother’s special clothing.

I also have some handkerchiefs that belong to my dad, tallitot that belonged to my mother and to my father.

Tonight, our Sisterhood president Amy Lask, is wearing her late mother’s ring and necklace, keeping her mother near and dear to her heart, physically and well as emotionally.

When I wear something that used to belong to my mother, father or one of my grandparents, I feel as if I am wrapped in their embrace. I feel their presence near me, with me. It comforts me. It gives me a sense of peace.

Clothes can evoke memories for the rest of us as well. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As we all know, his wife Jackie, was riding by his side in the convertible limousine when he was shot in Dallas. The images of Jackie in her pink pill-box hat and blood-spattered pink suit remain engraved in our minds. They are tied up with our memories of where we were when we heard the news of JFK’s assassination.

Jackie was known for her impeccable taste in everything: home décor, entertaining and clothing: especially her clothing. She exemplified Mark Twain’s adage: “Clothes make the man.” It was Jackie who restored the White House to its original beauty, so that tourists and guests could visit and see our nations President’s residence as the magnificent landmark it was intended to be. It was Jackie who was brought dignity and elegance to Washington, despite some of the less-than-dignified behaviors that were taking place. She dressed the part, she looked the part, and she did what needed to be done. But she was more than a beautiful superficial trophy wife. Her steely resolve helped her raise two smart and educated children, dedicated to public service. She was smart, extremely literate and very independent. It is very fitting that we celebrate Sisterhood Shabbat on this Yahrzeit for JFK. Jackie’s strength and tenacity enabled her to live a rich, fulfilling and meaningful life despite the tragedy of “Camelot.”

Mark Twain once said that “clothes make the man”. Jackie certainly exemplified that. However, Jackie herself embodied so much more. You only have to read any one of a number of biographies of her to see that.

And so it is with Joseph in our Torah portion this week. Joseph’s life is bound up in clothing – just as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onnasis’ life was. It all begins in this week’s Torah portion when Joseph’s father makes him that famous multi-colored, techni-colored tunic. Because, as the text tell us: “Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was a child of his old age, and he made him an ornamented tunic.” (37:3).

This was something very special. His many brothers did not receive anything like it from their father – and they saw that their father loved him more than their brothers. They hated him so much, they could not speak a friendly word to him. Not only did this piece of clothing “make the man”, it conveyed that Joseph had a special status: perhaps that of a beloved firstborn son – displacing all the other brothers.

Isn’t amazing how a simple piece of clothing could convey all of that? Joseph will soon suffer because of this status. He dreams dreams, and then boasts that he will be above his brothers and his parents.

Eventually, his clothing leads to his downfall. His brothers begin to hate him so much that they strip him of his garment, throw him in a pit, and at first, determine that they will kill him. Then decide that they will sell him.

We all know the Joseph story well. After Joseph ends up in Egypt, and eventually lands in prison, he comes to the understanding that it wasn’t the coat that made Joseph special. It wasn’t even the unique traits with which he was blessed. It was Joseph’s realization that his special gifts were a Divine blessing and should be used for common good. This is what Joseph discovered. The end result was he became a little less haughty, more humble and was able to benefit the entire community.

Jackie O – beneath all of her beautiful clothing – was able to use her special gifts to nurture the gifts in others. She became less about her clothing and more about who she was as a person and what she was able to accomplish on behalf of others.

So as we celebrate the special women in our lives tonight with this Sisterhood Shabbat, we look at what we inherit from them: beyond our beautiful dresses, jewelry and other physical items. These women – and men – leave a legacy that goes beyond the external. May the external garments remind us that the garments only come to life when we invest them with deeds and actions of love on behalf of others. Then we will truly feel the warm embrace of the ones we love wrapped around us when we put them on.

Shabbat Shalom.