Rabbi Aaron Fine
Yesterday I officiated at the funeral of a remarkable woman named Shirley who was the grandmother of my closest childhood friend Seth. Shirley was an adventurer, travelling around the world sailing and doing business with her husband. The wild adventures also led to many hospital visits. At the funeral Seth told a story that always stuck with him about the time Shirley went to the hospital in bad shape with twisted intestines. The first thing she said when he walked in was, “And how’s my darling grandson?” Amidst her suffering, she somehow expressed love caring and gratitude, and that brought tears to Seth’s eyes this many years later.
This year at Temple Sinai we are focusing on one midah – one spiritual quality – each month, together with other local Jewish institutions. This month our midah is nedivut lev, generosity, or literally the “volunteering of the heart.”
Generosity of the heart was what allowed Shirley to express love for her grandson amidst her pain, and it is also what allows our ancestors Jacob and Joseph to live and die with dignity and hope in this week’s Torah portion, Va’yechi.
This weeks Torah portion marks a huge transition in the life of the Jewish people. Jacob and his children have come down to Egypt where Joseph sustains them during years of famine. There they grow from a family into a large tribe, setting the stage for their enslavement under a new Pharoah, liberation from Egypt, and the birth of the Jewish people.
As Jacob is on his deathbed, he reflects on the past when he thought Joseph had died, and also looks to the future giving blessings to his children and grandchildren. We read, “Now Israel’s eyes had become heavy with age such that he could not see. So he drew them near to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘I had not expected to see even your face, and behold, God has shown me your children too’.” Despite a very difficult life, in this sacred moment, Jacob feels and expresses generosity of heart. As he sees life through the lens of gratitude, his experience is transformed from one of constriction to one of expansiveness of spirit. He looks into the future with faith and hopefulness saying, “Behold, I am going to die, and God will be with you, and He will return you to the land of your forefathers.”
Once Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers fear that he will seek revenge for their abuse of him years before. They had tried to kill him in their youth, and they feared he had only pretended to forgive them to honor their father while he was alive. But Joseph’s generosity of heart was real. He says, “’Don’t be afraid, for am I in place of God? Indeed, you intended evil against me, but God designed it for good, in order …to keep a great people alive. So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children.’ And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts.” Later when Joseph is on his deathbed, like his father he looks to the future with faith, saying, “God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
The Jewish people could not have come into being without this generosity of spirit. The eventual redemption of the Jewish people from the narrow straits of Egpyt actually began here generations earlier with the freedom from anger and bitterness in the hearts of Jacob and Joseph.
What allowed them to face life with nedivut lev? How did Shirley allow love to transcend her suffering? How can we too enhance our lives and let in more love and connection, despite our own difficulties?
There is no easy answer when it comes to matters of the heart. Some of it results from our innate disposition. But I do believe it is possible to actively develop the spiritual quality of generosity of the heart.
This past Shabbas my bat mitzvah student Sam taught something wise beyond her years, “Forgiveness is something we do first ourselves, and then for others.” Sam already understands that much of our suffering arises from the way we relate to our life. In forgiving his brothers Joseph wasn’t just allowing a better future for them, he was allowing himself a better future and a more expansive and wholesome experience of the present.
Cultivating generosity of spirit in our lives begins with recognizing that suffering doesn’t just arise from external sources, but from within us. Redemption begins within.
This is easier said than done. But I invite us to start with a simple spiritual practice – with a simple question. Ask yourself, how might I relate to this moment with greater generosity of heart? How might I meet this moment with an expansiveness of spirit? How might I be a spiritual descendent of Jacob and Joseph today, just like Shirley was?