Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
The Oscars may have been on Sunday, but this week’s Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments – God’s block buster Revelation at Mount Sinai. Could it get any bigger than this? The Revelation at Sinai was the seminal moment where the people of Israel collectively encountered God. Or was it?
Dr. Tzvi Novick of the University of Notre Dame has another idea. He reminds us of a well known midrashic tradition which states that we accepted the covenant at Sinai under extreme duress:
“And they took their places at the foot (takh’tit) of the mountain” (Exod. 19:17) – Said R. Avdimi b. Chama b. Chasa: “It teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, turned the mountain over them like a tub, and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good; and if not there will be your burial.’” [Talmud Bavli, Shab. 88a]
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
There are those who say that today’s culture can be defined by the phrase “what have you done for me lately.” Whether we are in an election cycle, our work lives, or our personal relationships, more and more of us seem to live in the moment, focused in a transactional way on our individual needs and wants. Of course, this is not new. More than twenty years ago, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by historian Michael Meyer, who wondered what historians in the far future would call our current era. His best guess was “the age of rage.” While he was specifically referring to the then-new phenomenon known as road rage, the underlying concept was simple – and he blamed Burger King. In the 1970s Burger King ran an ad campaign which changed everything. Unlike every other place of business we might frequent, at Burger King, we could “have it your way.” This was a radical shift from our way of thinking up to that point, but as it became normalized, our expectations changed. Now we wanted exactly what we wanted our way, at fast food speed, and when we didn’t get it, we wouldn’t just be disappointed, we would become outraged. Years later, with all of the innovations that technology and especially the internet have brought us, we expect instant and highly personalized gratification as the norm, not the exception. When we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we complain, and more often that we could care to admit, we escalate.
This may seem like a recent shift in our culture, but it is not new – it is cyclical. In this week’s parasha God brings the Israelites out of Egypt with wondrous and terrifying plagues, parts the sea so that we can cross on dry land, and then brings the waters crashing down on Pharaoh’s army. The people, having witnessed these great miracles, join with Moses in singing and dancing by the shores of the sea: “Mi Kamocha BaElim Adonai – Who is like You among the gods Adonai?” Surely, the exuberance of the moment must have been spectacular. Yet three days later, when they became thirsty and could not find water, they complained bitterly to Moses, so God provided sweet water to drink. A short time later, the Israelites again complained to Moses:
“Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out to this wilderness to bring death by famine on all this assembly.” [Ex. 16:3]
Yikes! They don’t just say, “We are hungry, please help us find food.” They blame Moses for ruining the beautiful lives they enjoyed as slaves in Egypt. Sure, God responded and brought manna from heaven to feed the Israelites, but soon after they began to complain again, this time asking for meat and more variety of food. Again, they focused on how good it had been in Egypt, forgetting the pain and suffering of their oppression. In other words, despite all that they had witnessed, all that God had done for them, our forbears kept returning to the question: “what have you done for me lately?”
To be fair, they were ill equipped for the challenge. For their entire lives, as far back as memory stretched, all they had known was slavery. They did not know how to think for themselves, or how to provide for themselves. There entire world view was that of an Egyptian slave. It would take forty years of wandering through the Wilderness for a new generation, born to freedom, to come of age before we could take our place as a free people and enter the Promised Land.
We needed to mature as a people, just as we need to mature as individuals. Early on, we tend to be more self-centered, and less aware of the needs of others. Yet, as we mature and grow, we learn what Torah teaches, which is to balance our individual wants and needs with the needs of others, and of the community at large. Each person needs to go through this growth, and each generation.
“What have you done for me lately?” is the question of our immaturity. We need not stay there, nor should we. Rabbi Craig Ezring suggests that instead, we should ask, “What have I done … What have I done for you lately?” He encourages us to get specific:
“What have I done for my spouse? What have I done for my children? What have I done for my shul? What have I done for my country?”
These are the questions of maturity, of responsibility, of Torah. We are a long way from the Wilderness, and yet in some ways, we have yet to reach the land of Promise. Asking the right questions might help.
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Most of us have heard it before, especially if we grew up in America:
“If you want the job done right, do it yourself.”
That’s the phrase which describes the independent “can do” spirit of the rugged individualism which permeates American culture. Many of us take pride in that approach.
However, Torah has another idea. To better understand our Jewish “can do” spirit, we need only look at this week’s Torah portion, Va’Era. God has called Moses to action at the Burning Bush, and Moses’ has balked. Among other concerns, Moses has a speech impediment. How could he possibly speak before Pharaoh?
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have set you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your prophet. You it is who will speak all that I charge you and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh …’” [Ex. 7:1-2]
It’s all right there. Moses, the greatest leader our people has ever known, says (I’m paraphrasing here), “The task is too great for me.” God responds (I’m still paraphrasing), “Don’t worry, help is on the way.” Torah does not teach rugged individualism; it inspires us to consider what we can accomplish together. In other words: “If you want the job done right, get help.”
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
“And these are the names [Shemot] of the sons of Jacob who came to Egypt with Jacob, each man with his household they came.” [Ex. 1:1]
The book of Exodus, which details the enslavement and eventual redemption of our people, begins with our names. Egypt, like Nazi Germany, attempted a Holocaust against our people. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives (who thankfully resisted) to kill all newborn baby boys, which would effectively destroy the Jewish people in one generation. However, unlike what happened to us under the Nazi oppression, where Jews in the death camps were tattooed with numbers meant to deny them any humanity, in Egypt we kept our names. A name is a powerful thing. It identifies us, and when we attach ourselves to a family or people, it connects us with their history and values. Thus, the history of our enslavement and our miraculous redemption begins with our names, so that we can remember who we really are.
As anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in the world today, as some would try to portray us in ways that take away our humanity and attempt to hijack the meaning of our tradition, we can respond by refusing to accept such nonsense. We have names, and we have families, and we are part of a people with a noble religious tradition and inspiring values.
With this in mind, I would like to share two expressions of what it means to be a Jew, one from France in the early 20th Century and the second from Brooklyn, just a few weeks ago. The first was written by the French playwright and philosopher Edmund Fleg. He was a proud Frenchman, a recipient of the War Cross and eventually an officer in the Foreign Legion. He was also an ardent Zionist. In the 1920’s, according to legend, he was offered a prestigious position to teach Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, the offer came with a stipulation: he would have to convert out of Judaism. In 1928, he published his rejection of this requirement with his response, Porquoi Je Suis Juife (Why I am a Jew). What follows is an adaptation of his powerful statement from the Reform movement prayer book Mishkan Tefillah (pg. 203):
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
New York Times columnist Bari Weiss spoke these next words at the “No Hate, No Fear” solidarity march in Brooklyn on January 5. May we be inspired by both her words and his to stay true to who we are, and proudly proclaim our names as part of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel):
My name is Bari Weiss.
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Remember the Hatfields and the McCoys? Their blood-feud lasted far beyond the point where anyone even remembered how it started, driven by family honor and pride. It had to begin with a slight, intentional or not. Because family honor has been “stained”, an act of revenge was required. This, in turn, led to a retaliation for the other family’s honor, and so on. Regardless of who is involved, this kind of cycle, once started, intensifies with each tit for tat, and is virtually impossible to end.
The blood feud is a distinctive element of what is commonly called a shame-based culture. In shame-based cultures wrongful acts lead to public shame and become permanent stains on us and our families/clans/nations. In this setting, unforgiving responses to shameful acts are often the only way honor can be restored. Much of the world is organized according to shame-based cultural frames. Just open a newspaper – the examples abound.
It should be no surprise that Jewish culture not shame-based, but guilt-based. There is nothing like Jewish guilt! In a guilt-based culture, when a wrong is committed, the focus is on the damaging behavior or act, rather than on permanently shaming the perpetrator. In other words, while a shame-based culture requires revenge, a guilt-based culture seeks responsibility, restitution and forgiveness.
In this week’s parasha, we find an extraordinary example of forgiveness. Jacob dies at a ripe old age in Egypt, leaving all of his children behind. Since they are in Egypt, and since Joseph is the power behind the throne, the brothers become worried that Joseph will seek revenge against them. In a shame-based culture, he would be well within his rights, and may have simply been waiting for their father to die (out of respect) before taking action.
Soon after Jacob’s death, the brothers send a message to Joseph, saying:
“Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” [Gen. 50:16]
How does Joseph respond? By reminding them of what he already said:
“Don’t be afraid,” said Joseph, “Am I in place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” [Gen. 50-19-20]
Rabbi Jonathan Saks teaches that this great act of forgiveness is the bookend to one of the very first stories in Genesis: the sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel. He notes that the theme of sibling rivalry is repeated through many generations: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and finally, Joseph and his brothers. The cycle which originally led to an act fratricide, could only be resolved in the end by an act of powerful forgiveness. Joseph breaks the cycle as Genesis comes to its end. Permanently.
Rabbi Saks writes:
“Can brothers live peaceably with one another? This question is fundamental to the biblical drama of redemption, for if brothers cannot live together, how can nations? And if nations cannot live together, how can the human world survive?”
Redemption and freedom, the primary themes of the rest of Torah, can only happen once we learn to reconcile our differences.
Perhaps a little guilt isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Last week, more than ten different acts of violence were perpetrated against our people in the greater New York area during the celebration of Hanukkah.
What is the Jewish response to fear, pain and suffering?
Just look at this week’s parasha, VaYigash. Joseph, is now the ‘Prime Minister’ of Egypt and has severely tested his brothers to see if they will abandon Benjamin the way they abandoned him so many years before. They, of course, did not recognize him, but they do pass the test. Now, overcome with emotion, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. Their first reaction is shock, but when the truth finally sinks in, they became terribly afraid.
Because they were the ones who threw Joseph in the pit, where slavers then found him and took him to Egypt. Joseph suffered first at the hands of his brothers, then at the hands of the slavers, then as a slave in Egypt, then as a prisoner in Pharaoh’s dungeon for a crime he did not commit. He suffered for years and years, and now that his brothers were in Egypt, he had the power to take any revenge against them he wished.
Yet, Joseph did not seek revenge. He said:
“I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. And now, do not be pained and do not be incensed with yourselves that you sold me down here, because for sustenance God has sent me before you. Two years now there has been famine in the heart of the land, and there are yet five years without plowing and harvest. And God has sent me before you to make you a remnant on earth and to preserve life, for you to be a great surviving group. And so, it is not you who sent me here, but God, and He has made me father to Pharaoh and lord to all his house and ruler over the all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph: God has made lord to all Egypt. Come down to me, do not delay …’” [Gen. 45:4-9]
First, Joseph acknowledges the wrong his brothers committed. We are not stoics; we do not pretend everything is ok when it is not. The Jewish response to suffering begins with acknowledging the suffering we endure. But we do not stop there. Joseph serves as a great model for our people. His resilience stemmed from his faith, which in turn, allowed Joseph to take the long view. In this way, rather than just focusing on what he faced in the moment, Joseph was able not only to endure, but to maintain a sense of hope.
There is a common joke you may have heard before, about most every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” I have said these words in jest many times, yet Rabbi Dan Moskovitz teaches that Joseph’s example is not so simple. Joseph recasts his situation to find a greater meaning. His message to his brothers is that while they may have intended him harm, he was sent to Egypt for a Greater Reason. There was a purpose to his suffering. He had to learn from his experience; grow from being a spoiled little boy to a great and generous man of faith. He had to be in the right place at the right time to save his family, and many others.
Our resilience comes from our ability to take the long view AND our ability to find meaning in our experience.
Last week, more than ten different acts of violence were perpetrated against our people in the greater New York area during the celebration of Hanukkah. The most reported instance was a tragic attack at the house of a rabbi, as his community was preparing to light the candles. Five people were wounded – including the rabbi’s son.
How did this community respond?
After the danger had passed, and after making sure to care for everyone who needed, they returned to the celebration of Hanukkah – our festival of lights and of religious freedom. This was not an act of callousness, but of profound faith. It was a refusal to let the attackers take Hanukkah away from us. It was bringing the meaning of Hanukkah back to life.
For long after these haters are gone, we will still be here, still lighting candles during the darkest weeks of the year, still singing songs of praise, and yes, still eating delicious fried food for Hanukkah.
And that is no joke.
Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
[This drash is inspired by a teaching from Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, published in the CCAR newsletter in 2015]
Young Joseph was the model of arrogance. He was the beloved of Jacob and he knew it. He wore a special coat. He even dreamed how his family would bow before him.
The thing is, that is what eventually led to his downfall – literally, in a pit, thrown there and abandoned by his own brothers. Slave traders found him there, and brought him to Egypt, where Joseph began to learn humility.
We see it first when he tries to fend off the amorous attentions of Potiphar’s wife. We see it again when he declares before Pharaoh that it is God, not he, who is interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. And we see it when Joseph, as Viceroy of Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers and explains that he bears them no ill will. His humility allows him to see that God brought him to Egypt not for his own aggrandizement, but so that he could save his family from famine.
In other words, Joseph’s life is a lesson in the pitfalls of arrogance and in the healing power of humility. When we are arrogant, there is no room for anyone else in our world. In the end, by making everything about us, we find ourselves utterly alone, in a pit of our own making. On the other hand, when we cultivate humility, we see our value in relation to others. We see the contributions and benefit we offer each other, and we find more meaning in the good we do than in the honors we try to collect.
What would our world be like today, if more us could learn from Joseph’s example?
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
It’s not like she didn’t know his name.
Joseph, although a slave in Egypt, was the head of Potiphar’s household. Everyone in the house knew him. The other slaves and servants reported to him. Potiphar appointed him. Potiphar’s wife lusted after him.
Joseph refused her advances, and when she grabbed him by his tunic one day, he ran away – leaving it in her hands. She, in turn, set about framing him for rape. When she accused him, first before the other servants and then before her husband, she never used his name. Instead, she called him “that Hebrew” (ivri in Hebrew).
The word ivri is based on the root which means “from over there.” In other words, ivri contains within it the connotation of “other” or “not like me/us.” Potiphar’s wife dehumanized Joseph, she emphasized that he was different, and then she accused him of a heinous crime.
It did not matter that he was innocent, he never had a chance. Our parasha ends with Joseph languishing in Pharaoh’s dungeon.
Torah reminds us no fewer than 36 times that we were once strangers, so that we will empathize with and then care for those who we might think of as “other.” As the world around seems to become more and more like Potiphar’s wife, Torah demands that we hold true to our values, even if it makes us seem like we ourselves are “other.”
“In a place where there are no human beings, [taught Hillel,] strive be one.” [Pirkei Avot 2:5]
This is the how the word ivri becomes a badge of strength and courage, and how we can live up to our great name.
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
This is a huge parasha. Jacob wrestles with something big (God, an angel, his conscience – depending on who you ask) and as a result is transformed and becomes Israel. The next day, he makes peace with Esau. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter is raped by Shechem the Hivite, and her brothers take revenge by murdering every male of Shechem and plundering the city. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, and Isaac dies and is buried in Hebron.
With all of this to capture our attention, the last chapter of the portion can easily be overlooked. After all, it is but a long, “dry as bones” list of the descendants of Esau. Yet, buried in the midst of this genealogy is a mystery which captivated the rabbis:
“Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz, she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.” [Gen. 36:12]
Rabbi Michael Gold observes that, in general, biblical genealogies mention the men, but not the women. Why then does the Torah make an exception for Timna? Who was this woman? Why was she so important that she had to be included in Torah, where every word is there for a reason?
Torah says nothing else about Timna, but the rabbinic tradition tries to fill in the gaps. According to the rabbis, Timna was the daughter of a local chieftain. As a child, she was deeply moved by the teachings of Abraham, and desired to convert to Judaism. When she tried, she was turned away. Yet, she was so desperate to become part of this people that she turned to the only other option she could think of – she tried to become part of the family as a concubine to Eliphaz, the great-grandson of Abraham. Then she gives birth to Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people. Rabbi Gold writes: “The lesson is that our greatest enemy is born because a woman is turned away from conversion.”
Contrast this with Abraham, who the rabbis teach was chosen by God because of his extraordinary hospitality.
In every synagogue, and every Jewish community, we would be well advised to remember Timna, and to seek ways to be more like Abraham, with our tents opened wide.
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
While many of us took time this past week to feel and offer gratitude on Thanksgiving, some of us may have struggled to find gratitude. And, even among those who truly did have a grateful Thanksgiving are those of us for whom the holiday is just for once a year – rather than a daily or weekly celebration. For far too many of us, our world - the “real world,” has too many claims upon us:
Enter this week’s Torah portion, where Jacob finally begins to come into his own. In last week’s parasha Jacob is introduced to us as the physically weaker stay-at-home-with-his-mother twin as compared with his burly man-of-the-fields brother Esau. However, this week Jacob – by himself – moves an incredibly heavy stone to access the life-giving waters of the well it had covered.
What is the connection between this story and gratitude?
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell notes how we are “wired” for gratitude: it creates such warm feelings within and between us. She also acknowledges that we are the most materially comfortable people in the history of people. Yet we are also the most dissatisfied, consumed with desire, struggling with what she calls a spiritual depression. She teaches: “Gratitude is as important to our spiritual well-being as water is to our physical well-being. What is it that blocks us from accessing the soul restoring waters of gratitude and appreciation?”
That is the question. What are the stones, the spiritual blocks, we need to move to access the joy which comes with spiritual health? For each of us, the answer will be different, but know this: just like Jacob, you have the strength to move them – even if you think you don’t.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras