Thursday, January 12, 2017

Parashat Vayichi

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayichi. In it, Jacob gives his final blessings to his sons and the sons of Joseph. He prophesies what will become of the men as their families develop into the tribes of Israel. In the Talmud (Ta’anit 5b), there is a midrash on this:
Rabbi Yitzchak said to Rav Nachman: “So said Rabbi Yochanan: Our father Jacob did not die.” Asked Rav Nachman: “Was it for no reason that the eulogizers eulogized, the embalmers embalmed and the buriers buried?” Replied Rabbi Yitzchak: “I am only citing a verse. It is written (Jeremiah 30:10): ‘And you, my servant Jacob, fear not, says the L‑rd, and do not tremble, O Israel. For behold, I shall save you from afar, and your progeny from the land of their captivity.’ The verse equates Jacob with his progeny: just as his progeny are alive, he too is alive.”
From this we see that the parasha is very fitting both for a Bar Mitzvah weekend and the Shabbat before Martin Luther King Day, and we just so happen to find ourselves in both situations. Just as Jacob passes the torch on to his progeny, so too do we hand off new responsibility to Jewish learning and community to a young member of our community. We foresee a great future of love and respect for Judaism and that this Bar Mitzvah will bring honor to the Tribes of Israel. As long this young man lives by Torah, Judaism and our people are kept alive, as Jacob lives through his descendants.
            By the same logic, those who continue to fight for the civil rights of all Americans keep alive Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As long as we continue to advocate for the freedom and dignity for all people and ensure true equality in this country, we are the spiritual progeny of Dr. King, and as we live, he lives too.
            As Jacob is blessing his sons, he also takes the time to rebuke Simeon and Levi for their massacre at Shechem, and then he says that he too held the sword and bow there, though we know that the Torah tells us he did not join in the slaughter of Shechemites. A series of assorted midrash that build on each other clarifies this to tell us that when Jacob learned of Simeon and Levi’s misdeeds, though he did not want them, he still loved his sons dearly and wanted to protect them. So, he took up his sword and bow to stand guard at the gates of the city of Shechem to prevent any survivors from coming to kill Simon and Levi in retribution. Another midrash further explains that “sword and bow” in Jacob’s hands really means prayer and supplication. A third midrash expounds that we know that prayer is like a bow because the closer you draw it into yourself, the farther the arrow flies. So, too, the closer we draw prayer into our hearts, the greater affect it can have on our actions, the more so it can guide us to better the world.
            As our Bar Mitzvah grows and takes on the responsibility of being an adult in our community, may he find inspiration in these midrashim and in the legacy of Reverend King to all spiritual people. Our prayer, our values learned from Torah and God, are our greatest weapons. With them, we can truly fight inequality with great reach. Selling books to a second-hand store to help people struggling with financial stability still have access to books, and then using that money to help feed hungry children is a great start. I look forward to seeing how your tikkun olam grows and matures as you do. May everyone in our community, regardless of age, can take up this mantle of spiritual social justice. Amen, Mazel tov to tomorrow’s Bar Mitzvah boy, and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Parashat Vayigash

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion of Parashat Vayigash continues the Joseph narrative. At this point in the story, Joseph’s brothers have come to Joseph looking for food but they don’t recognize him. Joseph decided to play tricks on the brothers to test out if they have learned any lessons or grown as people since selling him to slavery. Last week’s parasha ends with Joseph declaring he will keep the youngest Benjamin (the second son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel) as a slave in retribution for Benjamin stealing a goblet (which Joseph planted in his sack). He tells the other brothers they may return to their father in peace.  This week’s parasha opens with the brothers refusing to leave Benjamin behind. Judah in particular pledges himself in return for Benjamin. Joseph learns from this that the brothers have indeed learned their lesson and reveals himself to them. They all embrace and Joseph cries and they feast. Pharaoh allows Joseph to send wagons to fetch Jacob and the rest of the camp and family of Israel.
            I am often fascinated by the family dynamics in Joseph’s story. In these parashiyot Joseph and his brothers go through many changes in their relationship, both external and internal changes. However, this time around, I was struck by a different aspect of the story. In teaching this narrative to the second graders at Gesher Jewish Day School, we watched some of the recording of the play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Today, as the scene showed Joseph’s elevation from imprisoned slave to Pharaoh’s number two, a student who has the entire score memorized, turned to me with her eyes glistening and said, “He went from the lowest person in the country to one of the most important!” It was clear she took great inspiration from this, and I took inspiration from her on that.
            In this week’s parasha we see the extent to which he is elevated. Not only does Pharaoh trust him to oversee the food storage, and all of Egypt defers to him for this reason, but even his own brothers do not recognize him in his finery. Judah consistently calls his brother “My Lord”, and even when he does reveal himself they are afraid of him. But Joseph does not allow this to go to his head, and he welcomes his brothers back into his life with open arms. His position in Pharaoh’s court allows for them to take over all of the land of Goshen and they live quite comfortably for the rest of their days due to Joseph’s kindness. I hope the student that gleans inspiration from Joseph’s social climbing also gleans compassion and forgiveness from Joseph’s embracing of his brothers.
            It’s fairly easy to let any amount of power go to your head, and even easier to hold a grudge against someone who has truly wronged you. I would say it would be completely reasonable of Joseph to not forgive his brothers. “After all,” as he sings in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, “they have tried fratricide.” In reality, it’s probably safer not to take people back into your life that have threatened so directly and physically. But if Joseph could do so and it all worked out for him and his brothers, all the more so can we learn to forgive people the normal every day offenses they commit against us. All the more so should we remember to treat all people fairly regardless of our positions of power over them. May we all find hope in Joseph’s story and shun despair in dire situations. At any moment, we may break free of our shackles and find ourselves in a situation to put ourselves forward. If such a moment comes, may we find in our hearts the compassion and forgiveness Joseph shows toward his brothers. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Shabbat Chanukah Sameach!

            Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah! In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph manages to gain his freedom by interpreting the Pharoah’s dreams. He has been imprisoned and left to rot in a dark cell for an offense he didn’t commit, and by the power of God and his prophetic ability to interpret dreams, he has brought light into his own life and that of all Egypt by helping them to prepare for the years of famine that will befall in them in the years to come.
            The haftarah for Chanukah also alludes to dream and awakening a new time of light and freedom. Zechariah chapter 4 tells of an angel waking Zechariah out of a dream in which he saw the menorah in the Temple (the regular seven-armed kind, not a chanukiah which didn’t exist yet). On either side of the menorah in his dream were olive trees, symbols of peace and prosperity. He asked the angel what it meant, and the angel responded, “Not by military might, nor by physical power, but by the spirit of Adonai Tzeva’ot [will the prophesy of peace and prosperity come to the Jewish people].” In the time of Zechariah, this meant looking forward to building the Second Temple, the same one that the Maccabees will eventually rededicate.
However, as Rashi explains, when God says, “By My Spirit alone,” God means that God will bestow Divine wisdom and insight into a human who will help orchestrate what needs to be done. For Egypt, the tribe of Israel, and Joseph, that meant Joseph’s dream interpretations were the Spirit of God. For Zechariah and the Jews yearning for a return to Zion after the first Babylonian exile, that meant the Persian King Darius allowing them to return and allowing some of the royal treasury to be used to resettle the land of Israel. For the Maccabees, it meant learning to fight back and take control of their destinies. In each of these cases, humans still needed to recognize what needed to be done, what was the Spirit of God, and act on it. If Joseph kept his dream interpretations to himself, and chose not to share his thoughts with the butler and baker in his jail cell, then word wouldn’t have made it to Pharaoh that he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. If he played humble and refused to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams for fear of getting them wrong, he wouldn’t have been appointed to an official position in the Egyptian royal court. If Zechariah didn’t prophesy and inspire the Jews returning to Israel to rebuild their religious life, if Darius chose to look the other way on his new subjects, then our people would not have been restored after the destruction of the First Temple. If the Maccabees continued to shy away from active resistance and fighting on Shabbat, then the acts of God couldn’t have unfolded.
There’s an old joke about a man lost in the sea. A fisherman comes by in his little boat and tosses the swimming man a net and offers to pull him to safety. But the man says, “No thank you, God will provide.” He starts to get tired and worried he can’t keep swimming much longer and the coast guard shows up in a helicopter, and tries to airlift the man out. The man says, “No thanks, I know God will provide.” He starts to drown. A dolphin tries to swim him back up to the surface and bring him toward land, but again he says, “I know God will save me.” He drowns and dies. Upon meeting God in the World to Come, he asks, “God, what happened? I did mitzvot and prayed and had faith all my life! Why didn’t you save me?” God says, “I sent you the fisherman, the coast guard, and even the freaking dolphin! What more did you want?”
The lesson here is that to bring ourselves out of the dark and into the light, we need to be able to recognize God’s spirit and use it to help ourselves move toward action. The right thing will not always just fall into place, but will require work and wisdom from ourselves and our communities. May we find in ourselves the strength to take action, the recognition of Divine wisdom, the spirit to know what is right. And may peace and light come to us all. Amen and Shabbat Chanukah Sameach.