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.
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