Archive for the '1.11 VaYigash' Category

Confluent Education: The Wagons of Learning

I have spent most of my life thinking about and trying to craft optimal educational experiences. Recently I have come to realize that much of this work revolves around the ideal of Confluent Education. “Confluent” refers to the process of holistic learning, involving body, mind, emotion and spirit. In educational settings the term is used to describe methods for teaching traditional subjects such as math, science, social studies, reading, language arts, physical education and fine arts by applying effective, introspective, intuitive, body/mind, movement, and kinesthetic types of activities to the lessons being taught. In this process the students learn about themselves and others in a deep way at the same time they are learning the traditional subject matter.

I was thinking about this in the context of Parshat Yayigash, this week’s Torah portion. After Yosef reveals himself and saves his brothers, Pharoah sends wagons to bring Yaakov to Egypt to evade the drought.  There we read:

And they ( Yosef’s brothers’s) told him ( Yaakov), saying: ‘Yosef is yet alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.’ And his heart fainted, for he believed them not. And they told him all of Yosef’s words that he had said to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him, and the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived.  (Genesis 45:26-27)

Why does it say that Yosef send the agalot – wagons, if we know it was Pharaoh who sent them? On this Rashi comments that upon seeing the wagons, Yaakov was reminded of eglah arufah (Deuteronomy 21:1), the last Torah topic they learned together. There are many fantastic aspects of Rashi’s idea. One is that there is the word play connecting agalot  to eglah arufah. More interesting is the idea that in the book of Genesis they were reading from the yet to be written book of  Deuteronomy.

For now the part that I find most compelling is the fantastic idea that Yaakov and Yosef had a regular Chevruta in the learning Torah. And what were they learning? They were learning the laws regarding the communal responsibility in the case of a death without a known culprit. Years later this memory seems to reside. This seems to be the gold standard of confluent education. The student had learned about himself and his father in a deep way and at the same time they learned the subject matter. It is also interesting to note that the impact was not limited to the student, it also had restorative power on the teacher. We learn from this Rashi the learning that fused revelation in relevance can even help Yosef reconcile his relationship with his brothers who finally took responsibility for be the culprits in selling into slavery. One challenge of good education is that might take years to see its full impact.

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Let My Voice Know No Bounds: An Unorthodox Lesson in Race and Respect

I have only very fond memories of Esther Meyers z”l. She was an African American housekeeper who came to our house in the suburbs every day from her home in Southwest Philadelphia to take care of me. She was always kind, caring, and nurturing. She raised me as she raised my three siblings. And before working for my parents, she had worked for my Oma and Opa, German grandparents, raising my mother and my aunt in West Philadelphia. To the best of my memory, I believe Esther was the daughter of a sharecropper from South Carolina. But my memories are incomplete, being the youngest of my generation.

One of my earliest memories growing up is something that Esther said to me. I could not have been older than seven at the time. She had prepared egg salad on rye bread as she did throughout my childhood. I was about to eat and she called out, “Put that thing on your head. Show some respect up in here sugar.”

Today I am an Orthodox Rabbi with my requisite beard, four-cornered garment, and of course the signature head covering. I can quote you many ancient, medieval, and modern texts to explain why a Jew should wear a Kippah, a traditional head covering. But to be honest, it is not the voice of my tradition that I hear commanding me to wear a Kippah, rather it is Esther’s sweet voice calling me to “put that thing on my head”. Over 30 years has passed since Esther said these words to me, but to this day it is the proud voice of a god-fearing African American woman telling me, a white boy of privilege, how to show respect that influences how I see the world and, in turn, how the world sees me. Esther’s voice commands me to show respect by recognizing the privileges I have. I may or not be conscious of it, I have race, class, education, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, all on my side. I understand that it means I have a great deal of responsibility in our fractured society. Am I, as a German Jew – – am I white? I find the question of Jews being white or not to be largely academic. If I want, I can closet my identity to ensure that I do not lose my white privilege. But, choosing to wear a Kippah essentially problematizes the pristine racial construct of being white in America. I decide to reveal this about myself every day.

This makes me think about the biblical character of Joseph. At beginning of Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, where we read of Joseph’s reconnecting with his brothers after they had sold him into slavery so many years previously. There we read:

Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried: ‘Cause every man to go out from me.’ And there stood no [Egyptian] man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he [Joseph] wept aloud; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)

It was not just that Joseph passed for an Egyptian, he married into the priestly class of Egypt and his brothers did not recognize him. In his closeted identity, he enjoyed every privilege in Egypt. Joseph cleared everyone out of the room, but that did not include his brothers. Despite his being the second to the king, he had internalized the xenophobia and felt that he needed to clear the room to share his hidden identity. When Joseph did find that voice, it could know no bounds. Everyone heard about it.

In all of my world travels, when I meet someone else with a Kippah I experience a filial bond. But I am not satisfied with this being a sign of my religion, group pride, or nationalism; rather I want our head coverings to reveal both the positive and negative lessons of Joseph. During the years of famine under Joseph’s administration Pharaoh sold the stockpile of food to the Egyptian people. First Joseph took their money, then their cattle, then their land, and ultimately themselves as slaves (Genesis 47:15- 26). Essentially, Joseph created a large class of Egyptian sharecroppers. Only the Israelites and the Egyptian priestly caste were spared.

We cannot be complicit with a system of oppression in order to give our brethren preferential treatment. As we learn from Joseph and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Ultimately the system of slavery that Joseph helped create came back around to enslave his descendants. I want my Kippah to remind me and others of our joint responsibilities to our people and the larger world. In wearing a Kippah I aspire to be a dreamer like a young Joseph before he experiences his own slavery. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” I wear a Kippah to create a certain kind of consciousness. I want to identify with and be identified by the holy calling “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

There is a lot of work to be done to repair the racial divide in this country. This is not a black problem. I know that I can always put my Kippah in my pocket or under a hat; Esther could never hide her skin color. Those of us with privilege need to be vigilant about standing up for those who are marginalized and oppressed. Like Joseph we need to find our hidden voice and courageously speak out for freedom and justice for all.  All I know is when I fail to cover my head with a culture of consciousness I am not showing the appropriate respect. Thank you Esther.

 

Table of Brotherhood: Joseph, MLK, and Race in America Today

In VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion,  Joseph tells his brothers of his dreams that their sheaves will bow down to his sheaf and that their stars will bow to him(Gen. 37:7-9). Jacob makes it clear to everyone that Joseph is pompous, but still his chosen son. These dreams and their father’s open display of favoritism moves Joseph’s brothers to the brink of fratricide. Once they get him alone they throw their little brother into a pit and cruelly sit around and eat lunch (Gen. 37: 24-25). Eventually Joseph gets sold into slavery in Egypt. There, Joseph lived through the nightmares of slavery and imprisonment. Through an interesting turn of events Joseph finds himself in a position of security and power. During a famine, his brothers, seeking food, come to bow before him. Sure enough in the passing of time Joseph’s dream becomes a reality. What is the meaning of this through-line of the brother’s eating?

With all of events in Ferguson and New York in mind and in light of Joseph’s dreams I pause to reread Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s  “I have a Dream” speech from August 28, 1963. Where Joseph’s dreams spoke of his hubris and ends with him in a pit, King’s dream describes the situation of Blacks in this country being in a pit and King’s aspirations for us all to live as equals. There he said:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

King delivered this iconic speech on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  In his speech he referenced it being 100 years since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. With all of the recent events, it is crazy to realize that it has been 51 years since King’s speech. Unfortunately the question of how someone could kill or enslave a brother is both timeless and  still so timely. The fraternal order of police along with the rest of us need to look into the mirror and determine how we allow this plague of fratricide to continue.  As king says:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

When none of us are in a pit we can see each other as equals. At that point we can break bread together and sit with each other at the table of brotherhood. Just because this problem has existed since the time of  Joseph and his brothers, does not  mean it is not urgent. We all have a lot of work to do.  How many more brothers need to die before King’s dream becomes a reality?

Yosef and Technology

At the beginning of Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Yosef’s reconnecting with his brothers. There we read:

Then Yosef could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried: ‘Cause every man to go out from me.’ And there stood no man with him, while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. ( Genesis 45:1-2)

While I imagine Yosef wanted to teach his brothers a lesson for having sold him into slavery, these are his brothers and he has been isolated from his family for many years. It is easy to relate to Yosef’s inability to control himself. But the situation does begs the question, with all of his wealth and resources why did Yosef not go out or send out for his family earlier?

I had not thought about it until I saw a video this week, but maybe Yosef  just lacked the technology. If you have not yet to see this video please watch it. It will blow your mind.

When Saroo Munshi Khan was five years old, he went with his older brother to scrounge for change on a passenger train about two hours away from his small hometown. Saroo became tired and hopped on a nearby train where he thought his brother was and then fell asleep. When he woke up, he was in Calcutta — nearly 900 miles away. Saroo tried to find his way back, but didn’t know the name of his hometown, and as a tiny, illiterate boy in a vast city full of forgotten children, he had no chance. Eventually he got adopted by an Australian couple.  Saroo moved there, learned their language and grew up, but he never stopped looking for his family and his hometown. Decades later, he discovered Google Earth. Using all of his memories,  this technology, and years of scouring the satellite photos, he recognized a few landmarks and found his way home.  

There are similarities between Saroo and Yosef’s story. One difference is technology. I have no misconceptions, technology can be terrible. It has brought us cyber-bullying, sexting, global terrorism, and many other terrible things that come from a platform for global connection and anonymity. But as the story of Saroo clearly articulates there is also a tremendous power behind today’s technology. This platform for global connection helped alleviate the pain of a lost child’s anonymity. It rejoined an orphan to his long-lost family.

It is interesting to reflect again on Yosef’s story. At the start he kicks everyone out of the room so he can reveal his hidden identity to his brothers in private. But when Yosef finds his voice it knows no bounds. His weeping was heard by the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh. If it was not for this technology I would never have learned about Saroo’s story or been able to share it with you. And who knows maybe if he had the technology Yosef would have tweeted his reunion.

 

–  Thank you Rabbis Yonah Berman and Seth Wax for helping this idea come together.

Being Present for a Difficult Topic

Two week’s ago in the Torah portion we saw Yaakov give Yosef a coat of many colors. While this special gift was supposed to be an expression of love between a father and a son, for his brothers it was a sign of Yaakov’s unfairly favoring Yosef. This led them to sell Yosef into slavery. In our Torah portion this week Yosef is finally reunited with Yaakov. It is interesting to note that he is not interested in any more presents, only his father’s presence. Last week we celebrated Chanukah and we very deliberate to get each of our children presents that they would enjoy that spoke of our love for them. Kindles so they could read and play. After this senseless shooting, the gift was out of my mind and all I could think about was wanting to be present for my children.

Like many other parents, Adina and I spent the weekend deliberating what we should tell our children about the horrific shootings this past Friday. The school in Sandy Hook Elementary is about an hour away from our children’s school in Connecticut. We both knew that there was nothing really to talk about with Emunah (3) and Yishama (6), but what could be hope to say to Yadid (8) about the death of so many precious innocents? This past Monday night when  I got home I pulled Yadid into the kitchen to talk with him in private. I asked him what they talked about at school that day. He reported to me what the school had communicated to us the were going to messaged to him verbatim. I was happy. I asked him what he was thinking about, what he was feeling, and if he had any questions. Yadid said that was sad for what happened, but he wanted to talk “when the kids were not around.”While we did get to talk about it later, I am still moved at his sensitivity. Evidently Adina and I are not the only ones who was thinking about what the right way is to talk about such a difficult topic.

There were many ways of communicating our love to our children and many ways of helping  them deal with a crisis. In the end no presents will replace a long hug and being completely present in the moment.

Dependable Memory

In the Mishnah Tamid ( 7:4) we learn that the Messianic Era will be a time which is  sheKulu Shabbat- completely Shabbat. What does that mean? First we need to understand some basic ideas about Shabbat and the Messiah. So, Shabbat with all of the rules and regulations actually boils down to just two commandments, LeShmor V LeZchor- to guard and to remember. Most of what we know  is all of the things we cannot do on Shabbat. That would fall under the commandment “to guard” Shabbat. We remember the Shabbat most clearly with the Kiddush. The Shulchan Aruch (OH272) brings down an interesting idea. If we do not have enough money for Challah and wine we should actually make Kiddush over Challah.  But we will come back to this.

Now back to the idea of the Messiah. We often say that one should ignore the idea of the Messiah ben David, but we ignore the idea of the Messiah ben Yosef. Living most of history as a dispossessed people we overlook the physical redemption of the Messiah descended from Yosef in favor of the metaphysical/ spiritual redemption that is supposed to come from a descendent of David. This idea of a physical redeemer in Yosef is very clearly discussed in the past few Torah portions. It all comes to a head in Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, when the hidden redeemer reveals his true identity to save his brothers.

Regardless of our station in life, on Shabbat we are transformed into kings presiding over our weekly feast. To anyone who keeps Shabbat in our lives, it is hard to imagine a world without Shabbat.  But if we tried to imagine a world without the comfort of family and community we do not need to look further then when Yosef himself was in prison. There he was in the pit without Shabbat, but he was with the head baker and the head butler of the Pharaoh. He interprets their dreams and asks to be remembered. Then we read:

And the butler did not remember Yosef and he forgot him. ( Genesis 41:23)

Yosef asks to be remembered and he is forgotten.  Many commentators suggest that this doubling of language suggests that the butler forgot him in the short-term and the long-term. It is easy to imagine why the butler might forget Yosef. Many of us assume that needing the help of others makes us weaker in some way. So in the short and long-term it was easier for the butler to think he was chosen or special then remembering that he was dependent on Yosef for anything.

What is the significance of this story of Yosef in the prison in the context of our Mishna in Tamid? Yosef was in the pit without Shabbat. Pharoah is the king and he is clearly not. There, Yosef was with the head of Challah and the Head of Kiddush. The head of Challah was going to be killed and the head of Kiddush was asked to remember the redeemer and forgets him. Every Shabbat we try to fix this by remembering Yosef when we make Kiddush. And if we do not have money for both we remember the Challah over the Kiddush.

In the Talmud,  Rav Yochanan said in the name of the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi:

If Israel were to keep two Shabbatot according to the laws, they would be redeemed immediately ( Shabbat 118b)

Surely if we remember what the butler forgot we could redeem the world. (Maybe for both the Messiah of Yosef and David) We all get help from people all the time. But, we let our egos get the best of us. If we took the time to reveal their good deeds it would help reveal the capacity of these hidden humble heroes to redeem the world. And, we would also reveal our own vulnerability. This itself might be the core of the Messianic Era. This will not be a time of independence or dependence, but radical interdependence.  Shabbat itself could be a taste of this. Take a moment this Shabbat to share how you were helped this week. This memory might itself bring us closer to that era.

L’Kavod Ben Sales ( who taught me to love Shabbat in new ways) and his wife Rachel

“Just” Affiliate

In 2004 when I started my years of being a Campus Rabbi I spent a lot of time trying to understand Hillel’s mission. In Hillel’s own memory it seems that at the outset Hillel was the pluralistic synagogue on campus. That eventually turned into the precursor to the “synaplex” on campus still only serving the needs of proto-synagogue Jews. In this Hillel enjoyed a certain movement from the sanctuary to the social hall, but it was caught in the grips of authenticity as defined by synagogue-centered Jewish life. Eventually Hillel tried to be a place in which Jewish students would do Jewish with other Jews. While this benefited from getting beyond the synagogue shadow, it lacked definition, rigor, or a clear drive to follow students’ passions. By the time I got there Hillel’s new mission had evolved into working toward “the significant survival of the Jewish people”.  While this clearly speaks to people’s passions, it does not speak to mine. For me survival is never good enough. The question for me was and still is, “What will be our contribution to the world as Jews”? This question is not limited to Hillel.

Looking at Miketz and VaYigash, last week’s and this week’s Torah portions, we are left with an interesting model for a Jew making a universal contribution in the character of Joseph. Last week Joseph contributed to the larger society by organizing them in preparation for the famine. Millions would have died if it was not for his insight and leadership. Once he meets his brothers who are driven from their homes in search of food, he is faced with a number of choices. Will he help them or not? This seems pretty obvious, they are his family and how else will he fulfil his childhood dream of having them bow down to him? But just because he saves them, it does not necessarily mean that he will disclose his identity. Joseph could have helped them and remained anonymous.  This week the drama is played out. Will Joseph’s contribution be as an individual or will he choose to be identified with his people?

The text reads, “Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me. And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.”(Genesis 45:1-2) At the outset we assume that Joseph is trying to come out to his brothers while stay closeted with his identity. He is an Ivri, descendent of Avraham, but the Egyptians do not need to know. When he finally opened up to his brothers, his voice knew no limits, and everyone found out about his identity.

If you contribute to the world around you, I would love to talk with you about finding a more articulate voice and to investigate how being Jewish is meaningful to your efforts. I have no hopes that you fit into some prefigured box. On the contrary I would love to imagine a Judaism that would meet your passions. For many of us, we identify with Judaism despite and not because of a prayer-centered synagogue Judaism. Working for social justice need not be marginalizing as a mere affinity; I believe being a Social Justice Jew could be an authentic affiliation.

Community is not something that you have to join; it is something you can choose to build. There is no doubt that this takes a lot of work, but think of the reward of connecting your passions to your personal and communal identities. My assumption is that connecting with other people to form community will make your contribution more sustainable. At first Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him. Similarly I have no doubt that it will take some time and effort for the organized Jewish community to see past the shadow of the synagogue and recognize contributing to the world as a Jew as a legitimate affiliation. At some point connecting this way to the Jewish community will be seen on par with affiliating with a religious or Zionist movement. So roll up your sleeves and make a sustainable gift to the world in the context of our community. Like Joseph, it is as important to identify as to be identified.


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