Archive for the '1.11 VaYigash' Category

“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.


Joseph’s Avatar

In this week’s Torah portion we see Joseph faced with a choice as to whether or not he will reveal himself to his brothers. Is he the little kid they tormented and put in a pit or the second most powerful person in Egypt. 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). He had closeted his identity as a son of Jacob to become the second most powerful man in the known world. When he finally opens up to his brothers, his voice knows no limits, and everyone finds out about his secret identity. Joseph’s life is informed by all of his experiences. He is more than the sum of these parts. In this intimate engagement with his brothers he is able to find a voice to fuse his identities.

It is hard to be reading this and not to reflect on the movie phenomena of Avatar. The crippled savior has to determine who he is. Is he the man with the mask or the man behind the mask? (Spoiler Alert!!)Like Joseph, when faced with the challenge to identify his true self he finds his voice in acting for a just cause. Like Joseph he goes native realizing his “true” nature.

A pleasant but otherwise hackneyed plotline, that seems to have been lifted from Joseph Campbell,  is redeemed the moment the viewer straps on his or her own 3-D glasses to experience the movie. In Aristotle’s terminology, the logos (the logical content of a speech) of Avatar is not that interesting but it becomes compelling in its lexis (the style and delivery of the message).  It is a science fiction version of having a Hassidic story in another Hassidic story. In watching the 3-D movie we join the main character’s exploration of a virtual reality and we experience the intersection of form and content. In this contemporary synesthesia the hero is revealed and in some way we too are transformed.  So to, when we read the Torah we are asked to put ourselves in as the 3-D and reread the narrative of our lives.

Like Pandora, the utopian backdrop of Avatar, Jewish camp is a unique place where we can become in tune with nature, try on new masks, leave wounds at home, and even “go native”. Like this week’s Torah portion, camp is a safe place where we can discern who we are in a safe family environment. By putting ourselves in the story we too can fuse together our narratives and become more than the sum of our parts. In retelling the story, there is no mask. People always say that camp is not a real place, it is too much like Pandora. I say, if it helps us reveal our inner nature and transforms us, it is as real as it gets.

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