Archive for the '1.11 VaYigash' Category

The Start of the Siege: Yosef and the 10th Tevet

This coming week we commemorate the Tenth of Tevet – Asarah BeTevet. This fast day is observed in mourning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia—an event that began on that date and ultimately culminated in the destruction of the First Temple and the conquest of the Kingdom of Yehudah. In many ways this is the beginning of the long slog to our diaspora that only ended in 1948.

 

Nebuchadnezzar camp outside Jerusalem. Famine in the city.jpg
Nebuchadnezzar camps outside Jerusalem.  Petrus Comestor‘s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

I was thinking about this narrative and this image in the context on the Torah portions we have been reading these last few week’s about Yosef and his diaspora in Egypt. Yosef’s story starts off with an interesting image. There we read:

And it came to pass, when Yosef was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the coat of many colors that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Yishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spices and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. (Gen. 37: 23-25)

Their little brother comes to see his brothers. They strip him of his clothes,  stick him in pit, and have lunch. Their eating bread at this moment seems to underscore their cruelty.

The compelling element of this image is that Yosef in the pit is similar to the citizens of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar’s siege. Nothing has happened yet, but a long history of diaspora is coming. Noteworthy we deal with this moment by fasting and not sitting around and eating bread. We fast to ensure that we are sensitive to Yosef, the citizens of Jerusalem, and all those in captivity who are insecure as to their future far from home. It is noteworthy that with the recent surge of antisemitism many of us are also sitting in fear.

Eli Wiesel wrote:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

We need to stand up against hate and cannot be neutral or silent. We cannot be like those who sit around and just eat bread. This  Sunday there is an important Solidarity March: No Hate. No Fear. I am very proud that my wife has played such a big role in rolling this out. We need to stand up for ourselves. We need to stand up for all those who live in fear.

– JOIN: https://nyjewi.sh/marchnyc

The Hard Work and Luck of Our Expedition: Today in History

Norwegian Roald Amundsen, born in Borge, near Oslo, in 1872, was one of the great figures in polar exploration. In 1897, he was first mate on a Belgian expedition that was the first ever to winter in the Antarctic. In 1903, he guided the 47-ton sloop Gjöa through the Northwest Passage and around the Canadian coast, the first navigator to accomplish the treacherous journey. Amundsen planned to be the first man to the North Pole, and he was about to embark in 1909 when he learned that the American Robert Peary had achieved the feat.

Image result for roald amundsen

Amundsen completed his preparations and in June 1910 sailed instead for Antarctica, where the English explorer Robert F. Scott was also headed with the aim of reaching the South Pole. In early 1911, Amundsen sailed his ship into Antarctica’s Bay of Whales and set up base camp 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott. In October, both explorers set off–Amundsen using sleigh dogs, and Scott employing Siberian motor sledges, Siberian ponies, and dogs. On December 14, 1911, 107 years ago today, Amundsen’s expedition won the race to the Pole and returned safely to base camp in late January.

Scott’s expedition was less fortunate. The motor sleds broke down, the ponies had to be shot, and the dog teams were sent back as Scott and four companions continued on foot. On January 18, 1912, they reached the pole only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by over a month. Weather on the return journey was exceptionally bad–two members perished–and a storm later trapped Scott and the other two survivors in their tent only 11 miles from their base camp. Scott’s frozen body was found later that year.

What made Amundsen succeed and Scott fail has been the subject of much analysis. I learned about them in Jim Collins’ Great By Choice. Collins points out the importance of the 20 Mile March. No matter what happened Amundsen and his team would always aim to do 20 miles every day, no more and no less. In comparison Scott and his team would not go certain days if the conditions were too tough and go too far if the conditions were good. Amundsen’s rigor and discipline ensured his success.

I think a lot about the Amundsen’s rigor and discipline when I think about our collective resilience throughout Jewish history. What has helped this small tribe of people survive let alone thrive against the harsh terrain of hardship, conquest and plagues of history?

There are surly many answers but for me one of them comes this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Yosef confront his brothers. There we read:

Then Yosef said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Yosef, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.
It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling.
God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” ( Genesis 45:4-7)

Yosef could have been stuck being in isolation or in anger of his brothers who sold him into slavery. Instead he decided to see it as God’s plan for him. He was “supposed to be in Egypt” in order to save them. That is a nice explanation for their behavior, but not his. Yosef worked really hard every day in Egypt to get to his position. My parents used to tell me all the time when I was young, ” The Harder you work, the luckier you get.” The Jewish people, like Amundsen, have had to work pretty hard throughout our expedition through history and we are pretty lucky.

-borrowed from Today in History 

 

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.

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.


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