Friday, December 18, 2015

Parashat Vayigash: Joseph and George Bailey

            I don’t know if you guys know this, but there is a non-Jewish holiday coming up next week. Maybe you know some people who celebrate it? Maybe you even get to partake in the celebrations of friends and family? For those who don’t know about this holiday, it is one about which hundreds of movies have been made, so I’m sure you could easily look into those if you’d like. One such classic is a film entitled It’s A Wonderful Life. While reading Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s book on Genesis, something she said about the Joseph story caught my eye and made me think of the main character of It’s A Wonderful Life. The following d’var Torah contains spoilers, but the movie is 70 years old and there should be some statute of limitations for spoiler alerts.
            At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Joseph is reunited with his brothers, only, they don’t know that it is their own brother to whom they are speaking. The Torah says “[Joseph] recognized them and he acted like a stranger toward them” (Genesis 42:7). The peculiar thing is that the Hebrew words the Torah chooses here: “vayikareim” for “he recognized” and “vayitnakair” for “he made himself strange to them,” both come from the same three letter root. In order to scope out what kind of people his brothers really are now, after all these years have passed, Joseph must make himself invisible to them. Only in seeing how they behave while still thinking that he is dead, can he properly gage how they have grown since they sold him into slavery. While his identity is invisible to them, Joseph tests his brothers by demanding they go back to Canaan and bring him their youngest brother, Benjamin. When they do, seeing his brother compels Joseph to leave the room and weep (for a second time). On this second weeping, inspired by seeing Benjamin, the medieval commentator Rashi offers a midrash: “Joseph asked Benjamin, ‘Do you have a full brother [from your mother]?’ He answered, ‘I had one, but I don’t know where he is.’ Joseph asked him, ‘Do you have children?’ and he answered, ‘I have ten children … their names are Bela, Bekher, etc.’ Joseph asked, ‘What do these names mean?’ and Benjamin replied, “They are all for my brother and the troubles that have befallen him: Bela – because he was swallowed up among the nations; Bekher – because he was first born to my mother; Hupim – because he did not see my wedding, nor did I see his; Ard – because he went down among the pagans.” In the midrash, Joseph is moved by hearing the names of his nephews because, as Zornberg says, “His own existence is suddenly fleshed out in absence.”
            In It’s A Wonderful Life, main character George Bailey makes a wish that he were never born. An angel named Clarence grants his wish and takes him all around his hometown of Bedford Falls, seeing what life would be like for the town and the people he loves if he were not present. It’s not exactly analogous to Joseph’s situation; for Joseph did exist and his brothers are explaining to the stranger they do not know to be him the loss of him, while George Bailey interacts with people in an alternate universe where they have never known him. Still, in seeing how the world around him would move on in his absence, he is able to develop a stronger sense of his existence. The film ends with him re-wishing himself back to his original reality, where he exists and the people around him know who he is, and the whole town comes to his home to celebrate him and fill the void that had previously caused him to wish he were never born.
            In this week’s parasha, Joseph’s own George Bailey moment concludes similarly. By making himself strange, by using and interpreter and pretending to be a real Egyptian, by “disappearing” for his brothers, Joseph “has gained access to his lost self. His brothers, equally, have recovered a vital sense of pain at their loss” (Zornberg’s commentary on Parashat Miketz). Finally, he is unable to contain himself anymore. Parashat Vayigash, our reading this week, opens with a long speech by Judah which thoroughly illustrates how much the brothers regret what they did to Joseph. At the conclusion of the speech Joseph bursts into tears a third time. Unlike the first two times, when he left the room himself, this time he commands his attendants to leave him and his brothers alone, which Zornberg takes to mean that these tears are more passionate, so overwhelming he cannot move himself. The rest of the parasha is primarily about Joseph struggling to make himself seen again after being hidden in plain sight, having to convince his brothers and father that both their eyes and ears are working correctly: they are seeing and hearing Joseph. It’s a significant move from the focus on Joseph’s lack of existence to the focus on physical senses to assure his family of his true identity. Emmanuel Levinas wrote, “The Torah is given in the Light of a face. The epiphany of another person is ipso facto my responsibility toward him: seeing the Other is already an obligation toward him,” (Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings). This week’s Torah portion ends with everyone in the Israel clan finally seeing each other clearly and harmony settles among them, at least for now. Jacob and his sons stay in Egypt, close to Joseph, where Joseph remains in his position of power in the Egyptian courts, just as George Bailey’s friends and family gather near him in Bedford Falls, where he remains the proprietor of Savings and Loan.

            Sometimes we must draw back in order to see ourselves and others more clearly, to allow others to see us more clearly in our absence. Understanding others and ourselves is an important goal through life, lest we live impulsively and reactionary as Joseph’s brothers did in the beginning of this narrative. We don’t want to be going around throwing people in pits just because they annoy us. But we also don’t want to stay hidden forever. The principal is to make space for others so that you may see them better, without allowing yourself to disappear completely. Take the time to conceal yourself when necessary to investigate the true motivations of yourself or others, and make sound decisions based on those investigations, but remember to still stay true to yourself. In this way, may we learn to recognize our own worth, appreciate those around us, and make peace with our friends, family, and neighbors. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Parashat Miketz: Assimilation, Chanukah, and Joseph

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! We are reaching the end of our joyous 8 nights of lights, celebrating Chanukah. As we know, Chanukah is at its core a holiday about embracing a freedom of religion, a pride in being Jewish, and a refusal to change just for the sake of fitting in with those in power. As modern, progressive Jews, we have changed ourselves a bit to keep up with the times, but we maintain our Jewishness and can still appreciate our ancestors who fought for our right to do so. The emphasis of the miracle of the oil takes on a new importance for our rabbis who lived in ancient Babylonia, at a time when maybe talking about fighting foreign governments didn’t seem like a good idea, ironically further emphasizing from an historical point of view the importance of true freedom of religion.
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, Joseph makes his way out of his jail cell and into the inner circle of Egyptian leadership. The pharaoh himself arranges for Joseph to marry an Egyptian woman of high status, and she bears him two children. The first is Menashe, meaning "God has made me forget my hardship and my parental home," and the second is Ephraim, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." Joseph is ready to fit in with the Egyptians, but there's a level of obvious discomfort in it. He has come from a home where his own family members wanted to kill him, and fled to a place that has (aside from his stint in prison) mostly been good for and to him. He is able to rise to a position of power, but is unable to feel totally Egyptian. I'm not sure exactly what to make of this, but I think there's something worth acknowledging in the need to assimilate for survival. Did Joseph marry his wife because he loved her or because that was the only to keep himself from getting thrown back into the prison cell? Did the Hellenized Jews throw off Jewish observance because they were bored of it or because it felt unsafe to continue to do so? Did Babylonian Jews shift the focus of Chanukah because it felt unsafe to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees or because fire looks cool? When we give gifts for Chanukah now, is it because that feels like it is really the right thing to do, or because we are trying to compete with Christmas?
Rashi offers a Midrash on the story of the famine in Egypt, that the soil didn't stop producing food, but that the food grew and then immediately rotted. There's this sense of intense and immediate terror in this Midrash, that all of what we have may fall apart in front of our eyes at any moment. Joseph, the one in charge of managing the famine, is not only concerned about the physical rotting of the produce, but that all of what he has built for himself may rot. His children, half-Israelite and half-Egyptian, are central to his feeling rooted in the strange land of Egypt, and their names reflect his fear of this new place as well as his desire to assimilate into it, his remembering of home and his desire to forget it, his concern for life, staying alive, giving life, keeping alive. We're all in various ways assimilated Jews, trying to live safely in the broader communities we are a part of, but still feel in some way a pull to our Jewishness. May we find safety and strength as Jews, living by our values and with our traditions in mind, in whatever way that feels honest. May we welcome the stranger, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and may we stay alive and thriving, give life and keep alive those around us to the best of our abilities. Amen, Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Parashat Vayeshev - Human Rights Shabbat

            This week’s parasha is called Vayeshev, named for the first line: “And Jacob settled.” It tells of how Jacob tried to settle his clan after much time spent feeling transitory. Even the years in one place, in Laban’s camp, felt as a place of impermanence, and Jacob seeks to settle in peace in a land for his family to have for themselves. This immediately gives way to the Joseph story, and much of the parasha is focused on the strife between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph’s near-death and actual enslavement and ends with Joseph the Dreamer wasting away in prison. The medieval commentator Rashi expounds on this, “‘And Jacob was settled’: Jacob sought to settle in peace – there leapt upon him the agitation of Joseph. The righteous seek to settle in peace – God says, “Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in peace in this world?” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg further explains Rashi’s comment by saying, “One might even say that it is characteristic of righteous people to yearn for such a ‘settling,’ a clarification of the turbulences and anguish of life. But God rebuffs this yearning, in a tone of strange sarcasm: ‘Is it not enough?’ In God’s rhetoric, the righteous are made to seem… almost greedy, their desire for peace in this world wrongheaded, in view of the treasure awaiting them in another world.” Zornberg takes it in a theological direction, implying those who are self-assured of their place in the world to come shouldn’t bother trying for peace in this world because if they do, God will cause disaster to fall upon them. As soon as Jacob got too comfortable, God caused Joseph to be torn from him as a means of keeping Jacob on his toes, according to this reading.
            However, I connect with Rashi’s comment through a slightly different lens. The righteous may not settle in peace in this world because of all the peace that awaits them in the world to come, and this is because to be righteous, to earn a place in the world to come means to keep fighting for a better world for all here and now. Self-care, inner peace, and time to recharge are hugely important for the righteous, but lest they ever think their struggle is over while there is still injustice and people fighting for survival elsewhere, there will always come upon them a painful reminder that their duty is not ended. A righteous person may feel the anguish and turbulences of peace and yearn for a time when that may settle, but to be truly righteous is to know better than to seek that peace for yourself before the time is right.
            In ancient rabbinic literature, it is common to use oppositional terms to describe human behaviors and regulations of those behaviors. One such pair of contradictions is that of “Yishuv hada’at” – a settled mind – and “Tiruf hada’at” – a torn mind. Obviously, human experiences exist on a spectrum full of gray nuance, but the idea is that if we were to simplify our lives and thoughts down to a binary of extremes, we would find that we either have our minds at peace, able to think clearer and coherently, or our minds are scrambled, confused, maybe not even fully conscious. In this Torah portion we find these terms bookending the same chapter (Genesis 37). In the beginning of the parasha, starting with Genesis 37:1, we have the yishuv, the settling, of Jacob. After all his travels, this is clearly meant to be a physical, permanent settling, but the Midrash also has us understanding this as an emotional settling for Jacob. He has had some exhausting experiences up to now, and he’s ready to settle his brain. The end of the chapter, 37:33, about halfway through the portion, has Jacob lamenting that Joseph has been “tarof toraf,” surely and completely torn apart. Again, to Jacob, this is a physical tearing, of the coat and, in his mind, of Joseph, but it is also an emotional tearing. This news causes his mind to tear, tiruf hada’at. Eventually, this will lead to his physical unsettling, when Jacob and his clan will move to Egypt. When Jacob seeks the one, he inevitably finds the other; when he tries to “settle in peace,” he unleashes the “vengeful furies” of the Joseph story – “not because his is a moral offense,” Zornberg assures us, “but because it constitutes a wrong understanding of the human condition.” We are not meant to have complete peace in this world while some still have none at all. Those who allow themselves to stay unsettled, their minds troubled, in order to help others, are the truly righteous.
            This Shabbat, as we are joined with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and many other congregations in support of Human Rights Shabbat, let us seek to find comfort and peace in unsettled realities. Let us learn how to live with the anguish that comes from knowing better than to think peace has yet come to this earth, so that we might continue to work toward peace and human rights for all. May we earn the label of righteous and true peace in the world to come. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.