Vayeshev 5753

 The portion of the Torah that we read this week is from Genesis, chapters 37 to 41. It tells the story of our patriarch Jacob and his favorite son, Joseph. “This is the history of Jacob's family. When Joseph was seventeen years old, he often tended his father's flocks with his half brothers, the sons of his father's wives Bilhah and Zilpah.” [Gen.37:2] There is no question that the father did not set a good example either for his children or for future generations by giving preferential treatment to Rachel’s first born son. It is also true that Joseph was not the kind of brother that engendered feelings of brotherly love among the other sons of Israel, as we read, “But Joseph reported to his father some of the bad things his brothers were doing.” [ibid.]

. And, of course, there was this matter of the dreams that Joseph had, and his interpretation of the dreams: “ "Listen to this dream," he announced. "We were out in the field tying up bundles of grain. My bundle stood up, and then your bundles all gathered around and bowed low before it!" "So you are going to be our king, are you?" his brothers taunted.” [Gen. 37:6-8] Not the right way to win friends and influence people.

Therefore, we are not surprised when the narrative turns ugly, Joseph is sold into slavery and Jacob is told “the tall tale” “They took the beautiful robe to their father and asked him to identify it. "We found this in the field," they told him. "It's Joseph's robe, isn't it?" Their father recognized it at once. "Yes," he said, "it is my son's robe. A wild animal has attacked and eaten him. Surely Joseph has been torn in pieces!"” [Gen. 37:32,33] -- the “boys” never actually told Jacob that Joseph was dead! After all, to do so would be a lie! But, Joseph’s coat of many colors is returned, covered with blood -- and what’s a father to think?

What do we learn from this story? Let us examine the action of the brothers, both concerning what they did to Joseph, and, maybe more importantly, what they did to their father, Israel. This poor man, seemingly cursed by fate, first to follow his brother and always strive for that position of the “first born,” then to have to go so far from his parents and his home in order to pursue his destiny (and avoid the justified wrath of Esau), further to suffer when his beloved Rachel was “swapped” on his wedding night, and later when she died in childbirth, and finally to be bereft of his beloved Joseph, cruelly made to believe that he was dead, eaten by a wild beast. What a motley crew those brothers had to be!

And what of his beloved Joseph? Yes, he was sold into slavery in Egypt -- but he quickly rose to a position of esteem in the household of Potiphar. Did he try to communicate with his father? We are not told -- and I rather doubt it! Joseph was motivated by a desire to punish his brothers, to avenge himself -- and he may well have felt that his father had a hand in his misfortune, too -- for had Dad not sent him to spy on them, Joseph would have been safe at home. A tragedy of errors multiplied by pride, aided by circumstances. Like so many in our lives! Yet it need not be this way. Each of us can moderate his or her actions. Each of us can ask “how will my action affect those closest to me?” And we can take steps to insure that one misfortune (and once in a while such misfortunes are inevitable) does not become an avalanche of misery and sorrow.

 

Amen

 

 

Vayeshev -- Shabbat Khanukkah 5755

This week's Torah portion tells the story of Joseph the dreamer, Joseph the obnoxious young brother who tells his older brothers about those dreams in which he is elevated far above them -- and the miserable results of his airs of superiority: his sale into slavery. The once spoiled talebearing favorite-son of Jacob suffers humiliation and disappointment time and again, wondering when God’s promise of justification will manifest itself. For God had a plan for the preservation of His people. Knowing that a famine is coming that will encompass the entire region where the seed of Abraham dwells, He begins laying the groundwork for their redemption through the talented and blessed son of Jacob, Joseph. The lad does not know what actually lies ahead for him, but he is aware that he has a destiny to fulfill.

In Verses 18–22 we read of the brothers’ sinister reaction to the sight of Yosef, their father’s beloved. "And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams." Only one brother, Reuven, comes to Joseph's succor, suggesting an alternate plan: throw him in a dry well and let him die there of thirst and hunger -- so that the brothers will have no blood upon their hands... An elegant legality that 'gets them of the hook' of responsibility for his demise. When they see a caravan of heathens on their way to Egypt, Judah succeeds in persuading the brothers to take Joseph out of the well and sell him into slavery. The brothers have no shame, and no pity, and they compound their evil deed by allowing their father to mourn for his lost son for many years. Later on, faced with the fulfillment of Joseph's dream, as they pay homage to the ruler of Egypt who identifies himself as their long lost brother, they gladly accepted his out-pour of benevolence. They quickly and willingly realize that although they had sinned and caused their brother’s suffering, God was working all things together for good. Thank God -- but no thanks to the brothers who did Joseph a great wrong!

This shabbat is a special Shabbat, it falls during the celebration of the Festival of Lights, the holiday of Khanukkah. This holiday, as every child knows, celebrates the struggle of our people for religious liberty. All too little attention is paid to the fact that this is also a victory of our people over its own weaknesses, pettiness and ignorance wedded to arrogance. Long before King Antiochus issued his decrees aimed at destroying Judaism and making the religion of our fathers an historic relic, Jews were making inroads into the popular culture of the day, Hellenism. Jason, the Hellenized rich cohen, paid Antiochus an exorbitant price for the commission to be High Priest. Judaism, which for many centuries existed as a classless society where honor came from reputation in the timeless virtues of the teachings and practices of Torah, now became a society with two distinct classes: the rich, the powerful, and the politically influential, who were mostly assimilated and Hellenized -- and the masses, who were devout, who were poor, and who were invisible to both the upper class and the foreign rulers of the land.

Antiochus would never had tried to convert the Jewish people to the pagan ways of the pantheon of Greek gods had he not been advised by the leaders of Judean High Society that the people no longer felt a loyalty to their fathers’ traditions. It was an internal struggle between Hellenists and traditionalist that blossomed into an international struggle. The Hellenists did not realize the depth of commitment of the devout for their heritage. When the edict was issued and the soldiers came to carry it out -- the Hellenists assumed that the devout would capitulate and join the new order. But the devout, who were known as Khassidim, chose death to conversion. Thousands upon thousands of them offered no resistance to the Greek threat of death -- but refused to save themselves through conversion. Their act of terminal defiance of the foe was called "kiddush Hashem" -- the consecration of God's name. It was valiant. It was heroic. It was also self-destructive, obviously -- and had it been allowed to continue, Judaism would have come to an unnatural and untimely end through the violence of the Greek-Assyrian armies aided by the tacit complicity Jews themselves.

Here is where the twist occurred. Here is where the need of the time met the men of destiny who brought deliverance to the people. A pacifist people had to learn war. The old High Priest Mattityahu Hasmonean rose to the challenge, struck the first blow at the enemy, achieved the first victory, established the first company to raise the banner of revolt. "Mi l'Adona'y Ela'y, whosoever is for God, let him join me" was his battle cry, and in very short order it was answered. We must never forget the most important element of this struggle, which is the fact that it was a grass-roots insurrection. Ordinary people, farmers and artisans, scholars and priests struggled against a great and dynamic Empire that was the seat of the winning culture of its day -- for no other reason but to maintain their right to follow the faith of their fathers.

We must understand that the real lesson of the Khanukkah story is our victory over our individual and collective weaknesses. In every generation there are those who wish to impose new ideas and foreign practices upon us in the name of modernity, of staying fresh, young and up-to-date. Others tell us to hold steadfastly and rigidly to the ways of our fathers. Neither one of these ways assures our continuity. At the time of Antiochus’ decrees, Judaism was split by ideological factions and weakened by political intrigues. Like the small flame of the single cruse of oil, it seemed to have enough strength to last but a day. It appeared to have no future. The Hellenists would cease to be Jews by choice -- and the Khassidim would cease to be, by decree and by death. Neither group offered a solution for the problem at hand: how do we survive. Mattityahu had the answer. "Mi l'Adona'y Ela'y, whosoever is for God, let him join me" was his call --not to die for God, but to live for God -- and for all the coming generations, for our future.

Mattityahu passed the torch of freedom's fight to his son Yehudah. Suddenly we had a new champion. The seemingly hopeless battle became a challenge, and Yehuda managed not only to survive but to vanquish his enemies. The temple was rededicated, and the eternal light burned bright in the miracle of rebirth and renewed vigor. Khanukkah became a message of hope for all oppressed and persecuted people. It inspired the founders of our own great republic in our struggle against an unjust King George the third. The roots of the conflict that brought us to war -- which was the chasm in the people, the hatred between brothers, the over-fluidity of one group and unbending rigidity of the other, these were forgotten. The glitter and the gelt became the message, replacing the devotion, drive and dedication of the Macabees.

Today Judaism faces the gravest challenge of its 4000 year existence. We have the new Hellenists, who wish to lead us into the twenty-first century, with its New Age "feel good" religion which is a rainbow of blending, undefined colors with no specific teachings, a universal brotherhood of sheep grazing together, with no predator to terrorize them -- the only problem being, of course, that the predators are still there... On the other hand we are assailed by the devout who tell us that only by means of returning to the ways of Torah, as practiced by our fathers some two hundred years ago, in a ghetto society that neither communicates with nor recognizes the outside world will we keep our heritage and our faith -- as if shutting out the rest of the world will somehow make it go away... And in the middle is a heroic, grass-roots minority that must carry the battle of survival on.

The new Macabees are the young scholars who are seeing to it that Judaism changes and evolves for the needs of the times in the spirit of Torah and Halakha. They are the men and women who devote time and energy and resources to the maintenance and development of Jewish communities, worldwide, with synagogues, community centers, social services, and all other needs of a dynamic and thriving society. They are the young men and women who give the best years of their young lives to serve in the Israel Defence Force, to keep the apple of our eye, the State of Israel, safe from attack by our many foes, those who declare their purpose, and those who feign friendship while waiting for the moment to strike -- when we will be unprepared. Some of them are very observant of mitzvot -- and others are less, or not at all observant. All of them are part of Netzakh Yisrael, the eternity of Israel, which will for falter and will not fail, and will ensure God's promise will be fulfilled. 'Al Hanisim,' for all the miracles which You have wrought for our fathers, we thank you God. This is a Khanukkah prayer. Well -- God is still making those miracles happen, and his agents today, as in that long ago, are the Macabees. And we, Am Yisrael, thank God for them, and for the redemption they brought, bring, and ever shall.

Amen

 

 

Vayeshev 5758

 

This week’s portion in the Torah is from the book of Genesis, chapters 37 to 41. It tells the story of our patriarch Jacob and his favorite son, Joseph. “And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.” [Gen 37:1-3]

There is no question that the father did not set a good example for either his children or future generations by giving preferential treatment to Rachel’s first born son. This seems to be a continuation of the manner in which he saw his own father treat his brother Esau and him when he was a child. Favoring one child over the other may have caused Esau to expect his father to confer the finest blessing upon him — and when his father was not forthcoming with such a blessing, it led to his scheme to kill Jacob. Certainly Jacob should have remembered and avoided the same mistake! It is also true that Joseph was not the kind of brother that engendered feelings of brotherly love among the other sons of Israel. And, of course, there was this matter of the dreams that Joseph had...

Therefore, we are not surprised when the narrative turns ugly, Joseph is sold into slavery and Jacob is told “the tall tale” — the “boys” never actually tell Jacob that Joseph was dead... After all, that would be a lie! But, Joseph’s coat of many colors is returned, covered with blood — and what’s a father to think?

What do we learn from this story?

I think that the primary lesson that must be learned has to do with the destructive nature of sibling rivalry. This can be extended to include all rivalry that is taken beyond the bounds of good sportsmanship. Jacob spent the better part of his adult life away from his parents’ home, deprived of their company and all that he could have learned from them — because of this kind of rivalry. He then passed on to his children a set of circumstances that made it impossible for him to live his life in the company of all his children — Joseph was sold into slavery, he thought him to be dead, and the other brothers, having done what they did to Joseph, could not have been good company to their father, because of their heavy guilt.

There is a corresponding situation existing today, in the manner in which some of the sons of Jacob treat each other. I am thinking of members of the family of Israel, who are at each other’s throat with accusations of every conceivable kind of wrong-doing, unwilling to reconcile or to bend, unable to compromise or rectify, on issues of paramount significance and preeminent relevance to the continued existence of our nation, Israel, and of our people all over the world as one people, indivisible and united through Torah, Mitzvot, and Ahavat Yisrael — the love of Israel! For that is the essence of what has kept us alive through two millennia of persecution and exile. We, the same people who survived and even flourished in the face of the wrath and venom of Greek garrisons, Roman rulers, crazed crusaders and greedy goose stepping Germans — we are beginning to attack and devastate one another in a frenzy of brotherly betrayal and character assassinations of those that only yesterday we supported and saved from the all consuming foreign fire of annihilation.

I am speaking of the issues of the day! I am speaking of religious communities that do not act with faith or with charity towards one another. I am speaking of b’nai Torah, Jews learned in the Torah who do not accord respect to fellow scholars. I am speaking of an entire segment of Judaism that has seen fit to sit as judge and jury to arbitrate the great question of who is and who is not a Jew. I am also speaking of those who disdain our connection to Torah, and who would like to propose that one can be a Jew without Torah, without Mitzvot, without a reverence for God!

That, and more. I am speaking of sin’at akhim — brotherly hate and abhorrence, such enmity and scorn caused the destruction of our first and second commonwealths. I am sure, beyond a doubt, that if it is not checked, if it is not reversed and removed – it will also destroy the present State of the Jews, our beloved Israel. I am referring to the personal enmity that goes far beyond any reasonable competition of politics. I am speaking of all the fringe groups that wish to see each and every person who assumes the role of head of government in Israel dead and buried — because they do not agree with their policy. I am speaking of the Socialists that destroyed all their opposition is the early years of the state, pulling the rug from under their feet, making it difficult if not impossible for them to make a living in the new state that they saw as their private, personal domain. I am also speaking of those who make it difficult for non-religious Jews to live in whole neighborhoods in different cities all over Israel. I am speaking of Jews, brothers, who wish to see the defeat of the head of the government of Israel, either by democratic means or by other means, just because ‘their’ interests are not served — be they on the right or on the left. The pain and suffering of our father Yitzkhak, and of our father Ya’akov, of Joseph and his brothers — that pain calls to us from the real and imagined roots of the body of the people Israel, and bids us to stop and think of what we are doing.

Each of us can moderate his or her actions. Each of us can ask “how will my action affect those closest to me, and in ever widening circles?” And we can take steps to insure that one misfortune (and once in a while such misfortunes are inevitable) does not become an avalanche of misery and sorrow. Amen

 

Vayeshev 5759

 

This week’s portion of the Torah, Va’yeshev, tells the story of our patriarch Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, and the many ups and downs in his life. Though the portion begins with the words, “And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old...” [Gen 37:1] one should really start reading the story in chapter 15, “And he said to Abram, Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth.” [Gen. 15:13,14] Commentary tells us that the Children of Israel were destined to go down to Egypt and become slaves to Pharaoh so as to have the experience of servitude in their communal memory. One cannot appreciate liberty and emancipation fully if one does not have the experience of captivity and bondage in one’s background.

The story of Joseph, the preferred son, is not a typical story of a favorite son — quite the opposite! What we have in our text is a story of a man who stumbles and falls time and time again; it is a tale of failure in spite of success. Joseph is born of the beloved wife of a wealthy and powerful man — yet he is double-crossed, betrayed and abandoned by his own brothers, sold into bitter slavery in exile from his land and family. Outwardly this seems to be horribly unfair, yet we know that Joseph himself comes to see the intervening finger of God in his brothers’ conspiracy against him: “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life.” [Gen. 45:5]

Three times in this week’s portion does Joseph descend from a high position to a position of disgrace and humiliation. The first time is when he leaves the sanctuary of his loving father’s tent and compound, to go to the field and visit his brothers. We read in the text, “And Israel said to Joseph, Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them. And he said to him, Here am I. And he said to him, Go, I beg you, see whether it is well with your brothers, and well with the flocks; and bring me word again. So he sent him out from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.” [Gen 37:13,14] Joseph arrived in Shechem and did not find his brothers. He could have returned to his father and reported that “they were not where they were supposed to be.” Instead he keeps searching for them, and when he finally finds them he is genuinely happy to see them — though they are certainly not reciprocating the emotion. “And he said, I seek my brothers; tell me, I beg you, where they feed their flocks. And the man said, They have departed from here; for I heard them say, Let us go to Dothan. And Joseph went after his brothers, and found them in Dothan. And when they saw him from far away, even before he came near to them, they conspired against him to slay him. And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer comes.” [Gen 37:17-19] Commentary tells us that he came towards them dancing with joy at seeing them — which served to ignite their jealousy and hatred even more and so that they conspired against him.

So Joseph ended up being sold to Potiphar the officer of Pharaoh’s, and captain of the guard. God helped the young man, and before long Potiphar placed him over all that he owned. Joseph was once more “top man” in his new situation. And it was precisely at this point that through none of his doing he began his second fall — for his master’s wife found him attractive and tried to seduce him. In a hedonistic and idol worshiping society, Joseph acted with great moral strength, refusing Potiphar’s wife with this argument: “Behold, my master knows not what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand; There is none greater in this house than I; nor has he kept back any thing from me but you, because you are his wife; how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” [Gen 39:8,9] Of course, nothing could be less pleasing to the woman than to hear words of morality and true faith from this upstart foreign servant, and in her fury she also conspired against him, asserting that he attempted to molest, ravage and rape her. From the exalted position of chief stewart to Pharaoh’s captain Potiphar, Joseph descends once more, to the pit of the prisoners, the jail from which slaves never reemerged. Yet even there Joseph shone — for it was his destiny and God’s plan to make him the most powerful man in Egypt, second to Pharaoh himself. Joseph becomes the favorite of the jailer, and is placed by him in the cell of Pharaoh’s out-of-favor servants, to establish a relationship that will bring him to the king’s attention. Joseph interprets the dreams of the baker and the butler. He asks for no reward, save “make mention of me to Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house.” [Gen. 40:14] Within three days of the dream and its interpretation by Joseph, the butler is restored, and Joseph waits for the summons to Pharaoh’s court — a summons that does not come, for “the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” [Gen. 40:23] Once more Joseph has a “fall” from successful interpreters of dreams to a jailed prisoner with (seemingly) no hope of ever coming out of the pit to which he had been thrown.

What is it that causes Joseph to repeatedly fall from grace after achieving a high position? It is his naive belief that others share his high moral standards. He does not wish to enslave his brothers when he tells them of his dreams, and he foolishly believes that they will see the divine finger that is directing his life and theirs. Joseph does not want to spurn his master’s wife — he holds steadfast to his unsophisticated belief that if he states the wrongful character of her desire for him she will cease to ensnare him. Even in the abyss, the dark hole of Pharaoh’s penitentiary, having suffered privations twice for no fault of his own, Joseph continued to believe idealistically in a world where one good deed brings about another. He asks the butler merely to mention his name and tell of his ability. Most of us, though, try to forget where we came from as soon as we rise to a higher level. We call it human nature. Joseph wants us to rise above this ‘nature’ and pursue ‘tzedek’ — that which ought to be done. This is because Joseph is a ‘tzadik’ — a man who does what needs to be done at all times and in all situations, a man who looks for the best in his fellow and believes that whatever happens is always for the best. Naive? Maybe, but where would we be without this naive dreamer and others like him in every age. May these tzadikim never cease from this earth that God has seen fit to give us as a dwelling place. Amen

 

 

Va'yeshev 5760

 

This week’s portion in the Torah, Va'yeshev, is from the book of Genesis, chapters 37 to 41. It tells the story of our patriarch Jacob and his favorite son, Joseph. “Va'yeshev Ya'akov be'eretz mgurey aviv be'eretz kna'an. Ele toldot ya'akov yosef ben shva esre shana ha'ya... And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: vayave yosef et dibatam ra'a el avihem -- and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report. ” [Gen 37:1-2]

There is a similarity between the life ofthe father and his favorite son that goes far beyond a coincidence. In our tradition it is called "mida keneged mida" -- measure for measure. The story of Jacob begins with his father, Yitzkhak, "Ele toldot Yizkhak ben Avraham Avraham holid et Yitzkhak... Now these are the records of the generations of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham became the father of Isaac; and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife." [Gen. 25:19,20] Note that the story of Jacob's father's life begins with his marriage, which results in the birth of Jacob; Jacob's life's story begins with the birth of Joseph. The father, both in the case of Yitzkhak and Jacob, did not set a good example for either his children or future generations by giving preferential treatment to one son over another or others. Yitzkhak did not treat his sons Esau and Jacob in a manner that could be called equitable. Jacob, who deserved recognition, did not getit; Yitzkhak's favoring Esau over Jacob may have caused Esau to expect his father to confer the finest blessing upon him — and when his father was not forthcoming with such a blessing, it led to his scheme to kill Jacob. Certainly Jacob should have remembered and avoided the same mistake!

The story of Joseph, the preferred son of Jacob, is not a typical story of a favorite son — quite the opposite! What we have in our text is a story of a man who stumbles and falls time and time again; it is a tale of "failure in spite of success," one might say. Joseph is born of the beloved wife of a wealthy and powerful man — yet he is double-crossed, betrayed and abandoned by his own brothers, sold into bitter slavery in exile from his land and family. It is also true that Joseph was not the kind of brother that engendered feelings of brotherly love among the other sons of Israel.

The text says, "Vayir'u ekhav ki oto ahav avihem mikol ekhav ekhav va'yisne oto vlo yakhlu dabro leshalom -- But his brothers hated Joseph because of their father's partiality. They couldn't say a kind word to him." [Gen 37:4]

What do we learn from this story?

Possibly the most important lesson that must be learned has to do with the destructive nature of sibling rivalry. This can be extended to include all rivalry that is taken beyond the bounds of good sportsmanship. Jacob spent the better part of his adult life away from his parents’ home, deprived of their company and the wisdom he could have gained from their experiences before he was born -- all he could have learned from them — because of this kind of rivalry. Then he, in turn, passed on to his children a set of circumstances that made it impossible for him to live his life in the company of all his children — Joseph was sold into slavery, he thought him to be dead, and the other brothers, having done what they did to Joseph, could not have been good company to their father, because of their heavy guilt.

Our sages point out the "mida keneged mida" aspect of the experiences of the second and third patriarchs -- as the one failed to see his young son's value, so the other failed to see the value of eleven out of the twelve. As Jacob had to resort to cunning to survive his years of exile with Laban, so the son had to endure the Egyptian slavery, the wrath of the spurned wife of potifar, and the years of jail. As one was blessed in a dream by night, so the other was redeemed from jail through the interpretation of dreams. This, truly, is "mida keneged mida."

Sometimes, though, the converse happens. Dreams, which are always a mystey, sometimes cometrue in strange ways. The text says about the brothers, " They couldn't say a kind word to him." But a time would come when they would fall all over themselves to say many a kind word to the vieroy of Egypt. In fact, " But his brothers hated Joseph" in the Hebrew the word 'hate' is 'sana' -- and the action of praising their brother -- which they did when they came to Egypt, is 'nasa' -- an anagram, and "mida keneged mida."

Tonight we are celebratingthe first night of Khanukkah, the festival of lights, the time of the rededication of the Temple. We must never forget that it was sin’at akhim — brotherly hate and abhorrence, cause the events in our history that made the battle ofthe Maccabees necessary. Our arch-enemy, Antiochus, was advised by Hellenized Jews to establish the edict forbidding Jews to learn Torah and practice our faith. The Hellenists thought that they are bringing enlightenment and wisdom to their fellow Jews -- but all they gave us was death and destruction. Brotherly hatered, enmity and scorn caused the destruction of our first and second commonwealths. I fear, and I am convinced beyond a doubt, that if it is not checked, if it is not reversed and removed – it will also destroy the present State of the Jews, our beloved Israel.

Mida keneged mida -- measure for measure, we must build new bridges, we must rediscover our connection to our brother and sister Jews, the ones on the left and the ones on the right. The ones that want to pray and the ones that want to dance; the ones that want to study, and the ones that want to build and farm and guard our nation from harm. Each of us, individually and in our interest groups, can and must moderate his or her actions. Each of us must redefine our role as fathers, showing favor to none, being loving and fair to all, so that we raise a generation of Jews who will celebrate and labor together, who will make life better for all the sons of Israel, so that misfortune (and once in a while such misfortunes are inevitable) does not continue to be our lot, and we can enjoy the blessing that God has promised us time and again. It is Khanukkah, the time of rededication. The time is right. The purpose is worthwhile. Let's kindlea flame that will warm us for another couple of millennia. Amen

 

 

 

Va’yeshev 5761

This is a special Shabbat, as you can tell at once when you sit in the sanctuary looking at the gleaming lights not only of Shabbat candles but also the Khanukkah candles. Khanukkah, unlike our major holidays, does not require a “special reading in the Torah, and so this week’s portion of the Torah, Va’yeshev, is the one that follows last week’s portion, and tells the story of our patriarch Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, and the many ups and downs in his life. Though the portion begins with the words, “And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old...” [Gen 37:1] one should really start reading the story in chapter 15, “And he said to Abram, Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth.” [Gen. 15:13,14] Commentary tells us that the Children of Israel were destined to go down to Egypt and become slaves to Pharaoh so as to have the experience of servitude in their communal memory. One cannot appreciate liberty and emancipation fully if one does not have the experience of captivity and bondage in one’s background.

Similarly, our sages have taught that the events of Khanukkah were also foretold. The holiday is also called “Khag Ha’urim” – the Festival of Lights. We celebrate the rededication of the Temple of God in the twenty fifth day of the third month. In the ‘numerology’ of Torah text, we count the words of the first chapter of Genesis, the story of creation. The story begins with the words, “Beresheet Bara Elohim” – In-the-beginning [one word] created Elohim [the heaven and the earth]. The third word is God. If you continue to count the words in the Hebrew, you will find “[22]Va’yomer (and said) [23] Elohim [24] yehi (let there be) [25] or (light)...” the twnety fifth word is or - light! The Hebrew word for light is made up of three letters, alef, with a value of one; vav, with a value of six; resh, with a value of two hundred. Adding the three letters’ value you get two hundred and seven. Two plus seven is nine. Light is considered the “power of God” – we call it “or hash’khina” - the light of God’s presence. The names of God, “Eh’ye” [from Exodus 3:14] – ‘I am [that I am]’. The value of alef heh yod heh is 21 which reduces to three. So, the Lord, with the value of three, is related to light, with a value of nine, in that the first is the square root of the other. God is the square root of light. From the first, to the power of two, comes the second.

All light flows from God. Light is so much more than that which makes possible vision. Light is a manifestation of energy. Particles of energy traveling at a specific speed, as visible as light. Enlightenment is the elevation of humanity from its earthly, animalistic existence to a more lofty and noble state of being. God is not only the master of creation – he is also most perfect positive presence. He is master of everything Good. One of my teachers used to say to his students again and again, “If ever in your study you conclude that God is wrong or evil, reexamine your argument - because you have made a mistake somewhere in your reasoning. God is not capable of evil. Either you don’t understand the deed, or you have ascribed an evil deed to the wrong source.”

May the spirit of God enlighten our lives each and every day that He has given us even as the candles of Khanukkah give forth their light, increasing night after night. May the idea of rededication, and the battle of the Maccabees with complete faith in the delivering power of the Almighty who can tip the scales of victory to favor the few against the multitude, renew our resolve to remain vigilant in the just cause of redeemed Israel in our own days. May His light be seen by all, and may all mankind walk by His beacon to His ‘promised land’ of peace for all His children in a world that beats the spears into pruning hooks and learns war no more.

Amen

Vayeshev 5762

This week's portion of the Torah, read in synagogues throughout the world, is from Beresheet, Genesis, chapters 37 to 41. It tells the story of our ancestors - the third patriarch, Ya'acov, and eleven of his sons. The twelfth son, Benjamin, is not really a part of this story - and most of what we read is in particular about Ya'akov's favorite son, Joseph. "And Ya'aco'v lived in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Ya'acov. Yoseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought to his father their evil report. Now Israel loved Yoseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat with long sleeves. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him." [Gen.37:1-4]
The history of the progenitors of our people is replete with family favoritism, breaking with tradition of continuance and inheritance which traditionally was by chronological order of birth - the first born being first in line of succession. Abraham sent away his first born, Ishma'el, at the behest of his wife Sarah, and approved by God Almighty. Yitzkhak gave the assumption blessing, because of (or maybe in spite of) his blindness, through the machination of his wife, Rivka, to his "younger" son, Ya'acov. And this week's text tells us that the third patriarch, having learned nothing from the behavior of his father and grandfather, repeats their misstep with his own favoritism of Rachel's first born son, Yoseph.
This behavior of Ya'akov, to no one's surprise, causes the other sons to turn ugly, and Yoseph is sold into slavery. The sons never actually told their father what had happened to his favorite son - "They took the beautiful robe to their father and asked him to identify it. "We found this in the field," they told him. "It's Joseph's robe, isn't it?" Their father recognized it at once. "Yes," he said, "it is my son's robe. A wild animal has attacked and eaten him. Surely Joseph has been torn in pieces!"" [Gen. 37:32,33] They allowed the father to reach his own conclusion when Joseph's coat of many colors was returned, covered with blood -- and what was a father to think?
Before the text continues with the events of Yoseph in the house of Potiphar, in Egypt, the text follows next with the story of Yehuda and his family. This son of Ya'acov separated himself from his brothers, and befriended a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. He met a daughter of a certain Canaanite, named Shuah, and he married her. In time she conceived, and bore three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Eventually, Yehuda took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. The Torah tells us that Er, Yehudah's firstborn, was wicked - and the Lord slew him. Tamar remained a childless widow. It was traditional, in ancient times, ofr the brother of a man who died without heirs, to act as a surrogate husband to ‘continue' the dead brother's family. Thus, Yehudah said to his second son, Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to your brother." Onan, however, knew that if Tamar will have a child, it would not be his family anymore, and to prevent this from happening, when he went in to his brother's wife, the Torah says, "he spilled it [the seed] on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother." [Gen. 38:9] This was a great transgression against his dead brother, and God was angry, and He slew Onan also.
At this point in the history of Yehudah he had but one son left - and not knowing God's reason for killing his two sons, he feared that Tamar was a "slaughtering wife," whose husbands are doomed to die. He bid her to return to her father's house, till Shelah his son be old enough to fulfill his obligation of giving her a son. However, he had no intention to give her the only remaining son, "for he said, Lest perhaps he die also, as his brothers did. And Tamar went and lived in her father's house." [Gen. 38:11] Time passed, Yehuda's wife died, and Tamar heard that he was coming past her village on his way to the sheep-shearing at Timnath. She planned a way to get herself out of her predicament. Pretending to be a prostitute, she enticed him to her tent, she took from him his signet, his bracelets, and his staff as a pledge of payment, and she conceived from their union. When he returned to pay the woman he thought was a prostitute - she was gone without a trace.
In due time her pregnancy became obvious, and it was reported to her father-in-law, "behold, she is with child by harlotry." [Gen. 38:24] Judah commanded, "Bring her out, and let her be burned." [ibid] Tamar sent to her father-in-law the signet, and bracelets, and the staff, saying, "By the man, whose these are, am I with child." Yehuda acknowledged his culpability in the turn of events, saying, "She has been more righteous than I; because I did not give her to Shelah my son." [Gen. 38:26] Tamar gave birth to twins, Peretz and Zarakh - and it was through them that the line of Yehuda got its continuity. Shelah, Yehuda's third son, did not contribute to the main strength of the lineage of his father. Peretz, the first born of the twins of Tamar, was the one through whose line there was born Boaz, who married Ruth, and whose line continued to David, king of Israel.
The history of the Jewish people is full of tragedy and anguish. So often our patriarchs and progenitors went astray on their path to glory and fulfillment. They showed great faith in the God who spoke to them and challenged them to establish a people who will serve his with faith and fidelity. However, the Torah makes it quite clear that it is our matriarchs, women of valor and of faith, of conviction and clear vision, who maintained the lineage of the patriarchs decedents strong and capable of withstanding the tests that will be put to them. Avraham, Yitzkhak, Ya'akov, Yoseph and Yehuda supplied the lion's roar. However, any naturalist will tell you that it is the lioness who bears the cubs and feeds the pride, and insures the survival of the species. Sarah and Rivka, Rakhel, Leah, Zilpa and Bilha - and Tamar, Ruth and Naomi, Hannah the mother of seven sons, and Hannah Senesh, who died for her people without ever giving birth, Deborah the judge, and Deborah who followed Eliezer to Jerusalem and became the first Hebrew mother in close to two thousand years - generation after generation of Jewish mothers, with love and patience, with faith and endurance, made sure that Judaism survives.
Let us never forget, and let us always give thanks for the courage and stamina of our women folk. The men gave us our name - but it was the women who gave us our life and our humanity.

Amen

Vayeshev 5763


This week's portion in the Torah is from the book of Genesis, chapters 37 to 41. It tells the story of our patriarch Jacob and his favorite son, Joseph. "And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours." [Gen 37:1-3]
Oh how history repeats itself! We read the "story of Yitzkhak" with the words, ""Ele toldot Yitzkhak ben avraham... These are the generations of Yitzkhak son of Abraham..." and immediately went to the subject of Rivkah and the children she bore; now we read that Ya'akov settled down, and immediately the story turns to Joseph... Ours is a history replete with family favoritism, breaking with tradition of contention over inheritance which should have gone by chronological order of birth - the first born being first in line of succession - but, in fact, never did. Abraham had to send away his first born, Ishma'el, at the behest of Sarah, and approved by God Almighty. Yitzkhak gave the assumption blessing, at the behest of his wife, Rivka, to his "younger" son, Ya'acov - even though he was not aware of it at the time. And this week's text tells us that the Ya'acov, having learned nothing from either his father or his grandfather, repeats their misstep with his treatment of his beloved Rachel's first born son, Yoseph.
This is a good time to mention that this evening is not only Shabbat va'yeshev - it is also the first night of Khanukkah. The name of the holiday, as everyone knows, comes from the "rededication of the Temple - KHANUKKAT MIKDASHENU." It is much less known that the root of the work dedication, Khet Nun Khaf, is also the root of the verb "to educate" - lekhanekh. It is not in vain that we thank God for "choosing us from among all nations and elevating us above all tongues," as we do in the kiddush of holidays and in other prayers. There is an instruction of logic and purpose in the relations between different concepts that share roots in the Hebrew.
Thus, for example, the matters of education and dedication. One can obstinately insist on doing things in a certain manner, and call it "tradition." We "traditionally" pray three times a day, "traditionally" avoid conflict, "traditionally" visit relatives we don't much care for. However, to pray with ‘kavanah' (meaning or direction), we need to know and understand what we say and to whom we pray - we must be educated; to replace conflict with understanding... Obviously, we must have the understanding, so... We must be educated. As for relatives we don't care for - maybe with a little education as to the meaning of "relatives and relationships" - we would not form hasty opinions that makes us dislike and disparage some people, relatives or strangers.
Going back to our reading in the Torah, and the special occasion of this Shabbat, I would like to connect the Khanukkah with vayeshev. The first verse in the Torah portion says that " Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. " Well, that land was for him, and for all the generations that came after - to this day - a homeland, the place where one finds our roots. Abraham made a covenant with God - outside time, "for eternity," - but in space, in the "Land of the Promise." The Hebrew for ‘inhabitants of an area' is "Yishuv" - from the same root. Long before there was a State of Israel the people who lived in the land were called the Yishuv, and their villages were called "moshavot." There is also a homonym - a sound-alike word that is not of the same root, that comes to mind when you speak of "yashav," "Yishuv" and "moshavot" - it is "Shuv" (return). We speak of Shivat Zion, the return to Zion, Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of return (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) - and the prophet Hosea's plea to his people, "Shuva Yisra'el" - "O Israel, return to the Lord your God; for you have stumbled in your iniquity. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord; say to him: Forgive all iniquity, and receive us graciously; so will we offer the words of our lips instead of calves." [Hosea 14:2,3] These "words" the prophet speaks of are not mere uterrances of the mouth - they are the "words" of Torah, the teaching of Moshe to Yisrael - to live a life dedicated to God. So, you see, we come full circle, from settling down in the Land of Promise to the covenant that established the relation between the One who promised and the people he rescued and redeemed from Egypt, to make His own at Sinai, to dedicate to His service, to go forth from Sinai to the land He wished to cause His name to dwell in.

Shabbat shalom and Khag Same'akh Amen

 

Va'yeshev 5764

This week's portion in the Torah, Va'yeshev, is from the book of Genesis, chapters 37 to 41. It tells the story of our patriarch Jacob and his favorite son, Joseph. The text begins with the words, "Va'yeshev Ya'akov be'eretz mgurey aviv be'eretz kna'an – And Jacob lived in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan..." [Gen 37:1-2]
It seems a little strange it is to read, "in the land where his father was a stranger," when, in fact, we know that father Yitzkhak was the only patriarch who was born, and lived his entire life, in that land that would eventually be called "Yisrael." I looked up a number of English translations of this text and found very similar text. To give you just a couple of examples, the New Revised Standard version reads, "his father had lived as an alien," and the King James version has the following: "his father was a stranger." All of which makes little sense to me. I think that once again we see here an example of the fact that no translation is ever equal to what the original language of the text wishes to convey.
"Eretz mgurey aviv," is the Hebrew text, and the word that bedevils me is the middle word, "mgurey." I believe that there is an error in translation, which comes from assuming that the root of this word, "mgurey," is "ger" – the word Abraham used when he spoke to the Hitites about purchasing a burial plot for his wife Sarah. "Ger vtoshav any imakhem – I am a stranger and a sojourner with you..." However, I firmly believe that our text this week speaks of "mgurey" from the root "gar," which means live or dwell. Further, I also contest the translation of "va'yeshev" as "lived" – preferring to give the word the meaning "to settle." Thus, the text should read, in my opinion, "And Jacob settled in the land where his father dwelled, in the land of Canaan."
This is not nitpicking! There is a reason for the way people translate a text. Translations are done by people with an agenda of their own, and that agenda creeps into the text on purpose or inadvertently. I firmly believe that making Yitzkhak a "stranger" in his own land, the only place he ever lived in, discredits the whole family's "right to the land." Claiming that Jacob "merely lived" in the land, rather than "settled" there, reinforces and clinches the argument. You see – the Hebrew text is pre-exilic, while the translations all came after the Jews connection with the Land of the Promise was placed in doubt. There was a sub-text to Roman policy after the "great revolt" of the years 66-70 and the second revolt of 133-135, also known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Judea's name was changed to Philistia (the root of the name "Palestine!"), to not only put an end to the revolt of the Jews – but to erase the very memory of their existence.
Tonight we light the first candle of Khanukkah, celebrating the victory of light over darkness, of the few against the many, of good against evil. Common sense tells us that good very rarely, if ever, wins against evil. Evil is usually strong and big and brutal, and good is small and humble and fragile. Yet there is a God in the heavens above, and He is full of grace and love and kindness, and He loves the good and abhors the evil. Sometimes, ever so unnoticed, he allows good to overcome evil. Grace wins against brutality.
A long time ago, Abraham began a relationship with God. This relationship established a line so thin, so ephemeral that it cannot ever be seen – yet it is stronger than the hardest steel. It is an umbilicus, a life-line, and a cord over the great abyss that separates God from the promise of a world that was fashioned by Him and will exist under His sovereignty. This line is anchored on the one side by God Himself; on the other side it is held by the People Israel, who in every generation, in every age, in spite of cruelty and meanness, despite ill-will and ill temper of the wicked of the earth, hold on and keep faith with, knowing that if they fail, humanity will fall into the abyss, and darkness will engulf all of creation. We are the candle that beats the darkness.
Shabbat shalom and khag urim same'akh – Happy Festival of light!


 

 

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