Tag Archives: Joseph

We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers

9 Jan
"Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4: 9) The Torah turns Cain's protestation into the essence of Judaism.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4: 9) The Torah turns Cain’s protestation into the essence of Judaism.

(This D’var Torah was inspired by a D’var Torah delivered by Rabbi Daniel Nevins at JTS Rabbinic Training Institute, January 8, 2015)

As we begin reading the book of Exodus, it’s fitting to review one key aspect of the previous book, Sefer Bereshit, the book of Genesis. Normative Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not have a concept of original sin. We are all born with a clean slate, and we have free will to do good or evil and shape our destiny. Further, one can argue that Adam and Eve should not really be considered to have committed the first sin by eating the forbidden fruit because 1) They didn’t hurt anyone; 2) God bears responsibility for planting the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the first place; 3) How could God have NOT desired that humans understand the difference? As far as the direction of the Torah and Jewish tradition is concerned, the first real sin in the Torah is when Cain kills Abel. Not only does he kill him, but he denies responsibility. When God asks him אי הבל אחיך–where is your brother Abel?–Cain answers: לא ידעתי–I don’t know–השומר אחי אנוכי Am I my brother’s keeper?

Cain’s contempt for his brother and his brutal violence set a tone for the rest of Genesis. There is terrible sibling rivalry. Brothers are not their brothers’ keepers. True, we don’t see another fratricide, but we come close. Esau almost kills Jacob. Joseph is almost killed by his brothers. Even sisters Rachel and Leah have a painful rivalry, even if it is not physically violent. Brothers are not kind to brothers, sisters are not kind to sisters and brother are not kind to sisters, such as Laban treating his sister Rebecca like a piece of chattel to sell for a significant sum. Simeon and Levi’s response to Dina’s liaison with Shechem–they’re not protecting her, they’re protecting their honor through horrific violence. One chapter after another, generation after generation, and our ancestors are not their brothers’ or sisters’ keepers.

Then, suddenly, when we least expect it, there is a change. Judah breaks the spell when he stands up before Joseph and protects his endangered brother Benjamin. Joseph, in a position to avenge the brutality of his brothers from years before backs off. He relents. He says אני יוסף אחיך–I am Joseph your brother. He welcomes them into his palace in Egypt. This is the first recorded act of forgiveness in human history. Genesis closes with siblings serving as shomrim, guardians for one another.  Genesis begins with a question–will siblings guard one another?After generations of struggle, by the end of the Genesis, the answer is finally yes.  This resolution sets the stage for the opening of Exodus.

A new Pharaoh arises who enslaves the Israelites and afflicts them with pain. Despite the pain, the Israelites are not broken. As the narrative zeroes in on one family, we see a reason why. An infant Moses is guarded closely by his sister Miriam until he is safely in the care of Pharaoh’s daughter. An adult Moses is called upon by God to lead the people out of bondage. He’s terrified and tries mightily to avoid the task. God tries to impress him with a fiery bush not consumed by fire. God turns Moses’s staff into a snake and turns his hand white as snow only to cure it just as instantly. God presents one final ace in the hole: Moses won’t be alone. His brother Aaron will be by his side to help. Only then Moses goes forward.

Exodus presents a new model. Siblings are each others’ keepers. They support one another and care for each other. The Torah is making a powerful statement. Sibling rivalry is natural. However, when siblings are there for one another, other people who are not biological siblings are more capable of looking out for one another. Indeed, a nation is born. When a nation of disparate tribes comes together, they have the capacity to enter a covenant with God.

The power of brotherhood, sisterhood or, if you will, siblinghood is as real for us today as it was for our ancestors. This weekend we join with people of good will of all faiths and persuasions in abject horror over the brutal terrorist attacks in France this week. The massacre of at least 12 people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the apparent murder of at least four at a kosher market in a related incident on Friday remind the world that the   depravity of militant Islam knows no bounds. Every time a horrific incident like this occurs, whether in Israel, Europe, the U.S. or anywhere, we hope that maybe, just maybe, the world will finally understand the Torah’s teaching that we are all created in God’s image and that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. After all, what does it take for the world to get it?

It is easy to fall into despair when we observe such evil and horrendous violence in our world. To a large measure it’s beyond our control, and we feel powerless. And yet, time and again we answer the call of our tradition to affirm life and attempt to bring loving kindness into the world.

This weekend, our community is celebrating a historic moment in the life of our congregation. We honor the trust, the fellowship, the sense of responsibility to the Jewish people that brought together two congregations, Temple Torah and Temple Emeth, to form one vibrant congregation, Temple Torat Emet. Our new name means the Torah of truth, a powerful phrase that is found throughout our liturgy, including the second blessing we say in a Torah aliyah. How do we discover the truth of the Torah? By acting as guardians of our brothers and sisters as we see in today’s Torah reading.

Our new venture as Temple Torat Emet came about through courage, trust and a great sense of responsibility to the Jewish people. Our success in the future depends on choices we make based on the Torah’s guidance. As a Kehillah Kedoshah, a sacred community, our task is to create a sense of caring for one another as if we are all brothers and sisters. Let us build a community in which we see one another, listen to one another, rejoice with one another, and, when necessary, weep with one another. We must ensure that all activities in our building are conducted with dignity and respect. At every service and program, we must remember the higher purpose to which we are called in creating this sacred community. Our sense of community and fellowship must extend beyond the walls of this building and include Shabbat and holiday meals in each other’s homes where we will build true and lasting friendships.

Our world is, tragically, a vicious place. We need a refuge. We need a laboratory for goodness and loving kindness. That is what Temple Torat Emet must be for our community.  If we can model for the broader community the meaning of shemirah, looking out for one another, we will give ourselves and the world a desperately needed gift. Let me close with the words of the Psalmist:

הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד

“How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony.”

May we be worthy of this sacred task.



#TieBlog #ShabbatHanukkah #Mikketz

19 Dec
Dreidel tie for Hanukkah

Dreidel tie for Hanukkah

Heading into Shabbat Hanukkah, #TieBlog proposes a connection between this tie and Parashat Mikketz. Joseph’s life has been like a game of dreidel. He landed on some hard times and is lying forgotten in an Egyptian jail. Then his fortunes turn dramatically when he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and is appointed viceroy of Egypt. He saves the people from starvation and ultimately his own family as well. In the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Joseph says upon his new appointment: “Anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break!”

Yes, the game of dreidel is a game of chance and luck. At the same time, an important message of Hanukkah is that people have to make miracles happen. The rabbinic legend of Hanukkah roots the festival in the miracle of oil: when they were cleaning up the desecrated Temple, the Maccabees found only enough oil to last for one day, yet it burned for eight days. We often overlook the important human elements of this miracle. Someone at some point had to crush olives in order to extract oil. Some lonely kohen (priest) had to pour oil into a jar, and perhaps another had the foresight to hide it before the Greeks desecrated the Temple.

Similarly, the Joseph story in the Torah is the most human story in the Bible. God is not an active character in the narrative. All of the events are shaped by human action. And yet, at key junctures, Joseph acknowledges God’s guiding force (45:5).

As much as life often seems random, like the result of a dreidel spin, we are in fact the authors of our own destiny. One of the great miracles of life is that God grants humans free will. An even greater miracle is when we channel that free will to do good.

PS–Be sure to watch and share my music video “Chanukah Opens Doors.

#TieBlog #Vayehi

12 Dec
Egyptian-themed tie

Egyptian-themed tie

Several years ago, I visited the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Naturally, I was drawn to the gift shop afterwards and found this tie that I knew would be just perfect for Parashat Vayehi. The patriarch Jacob dies, and Joseph has him embalmed–Egyptian mummy style–so that the children of Israel could escort their father’s remains on the long journey back to Canaan where he was to be buried. Later, Joseph dies. While he too leaves instructions to be buried in Canaan, his remains will be taken when the children of Israel leave Egypt permanently. In the meantime, he too is embalmed and entombed in Egypt. So, Parashat Vayehi is the one Torah portion with mummies, giving it a very King Tut-esque flavor.

Truth and Reconciliation: A Link Through the Ages from Joseph to #Mandela

6 Dec
Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

There’s a story told about a group of rabbis in Poland returning to their Yeshiva from a long journey to another town. They travel through thick forests and open meadows until one day they come to a raging river, where a beautiful young woman stands. She approaches the eldest rabbi and says, “Forgive me, Rabbi, but would you be so kind as to carry me across the river? I cannot swim, and if I remain here or attempt to cross on my own I shall surely perish.” The rabbi smiles at her warmly and says, “Of course I will help you.” With that he picks her up and carries her across the river. On the other side, he gently sets her down. She thanks him, departs, and the rabbis continue their journey.

After five more days of arduous travel, the rabbis arrive at their yeshiva, and the moment they do, they turn on the elder in a fury. “How could you do that?” they admonish him. “You violated Jewish law—you touched a woman who is not your wife!”

The elder rabbi replies, “I only carried her across the river. You have been carrying her for five days.”

The story illustrates the danger of carrying within us resentments that impede our ability to form strong bonds with others. This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, teaches the value of letting go. Following the cliffhanger on which last week’s Torah reading ends, Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob and full brother of Joseph, is in danger of being thrown in jail. The brothers were warned by Jacob to ensure no harm to Benjamin, and now they are all in mortal danger. Judah steps forward and approaches the Egyptian ruler before him and pleads for Benjamin’s life, offering to take his place for the sake of his father. The Egyptian ruler before him can no longer contain his emotions and reveals himself as their brother Joseph. The brothers are stunned. They are also probably terrified that Joseph may now truly unleash his fury and exact revenge for what they did to him years ago, selling him into slavery. The opposite occurs.

Joseph says (45:5): v’al yihar b’eineichem ki m’khartem oti heinah—do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here. Ki l’mikhiyah sh’lahani Elohim lifneichem—it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. He later says (8): v’atah lo atem sh’lahtem oti heinah ki Elohim—it was not you who sent me here but God.

Rabbi Harold Kushner notes in his commentary that God’s role was to sustain Joseph and guide him to bring something good and life affirming out of the unfairness afflicted on him. Joseph has the wisdom and strength to recognize this, and he is not interested in holding grudges over past slights. He wants to move forward and bring about healing.

This weekend the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95. He was the legendary leader of the movement to end apartheid in South Africa and was its first post-apartheid president. In an uncanny way, his biography mirrors that of Joseph. Joseph was sold into slavery, suffered years in prison, and yet rose above it all when he was finally free and a leader. He never took revenge on his brothers; rather, he ensured their safety.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and yet when he ultimately became president he was able also to lead with a sense of dignity, fairness and even forgiveness. In reviewing the extensive obituaries over the last couple of days, the aspect of his legacy that stands out most for me is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he established during his presidency. The panel was devised to balance justice and forgiveness in a reckoning of the country’s apartheid history where the majority black population was systematically abused by the white minority and its regime. The panel offered individual amnesties for anyone who testified fully on the crimes committed during the apartheid period.

The goal of the TRC was to give victims of brutality a forum where their accounts would be heard and vindicated, where their dignity and sense of justice would be restored, and where they could express their grievances in front of the perpetrators themselves. In exchange for amnesty, the perpetrators had to drop their denials, evasions, and self-justifications and admit the harm they had done, including torture and murder. The commission emphasized the “need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu [humanity toward others] but not for victimization.”

The goals of the TRC were inspiring, if not entirely honored in practice. The commission produced grumbling, mockery, protests, and anger. Many black victims of apartheid, such as the family of activist Stephen Biko, who had been murdered in prison, were furious at the provisions of amnesty to the perpetrators. Many white perpetrators did not apologize with anything remotely like true feelings of remorse, and many white supporters of apartheid were not interested in listening to the broadcast confessions of their peers. South Africa has hardly become a paradise; it is still suffering from poverty and high crime rates. Yet it averted a bloodbath. Solomon Schimmel, a professor of psychology at Hebrew College in Boston, traveled to South Africa, interviewing people across the political and cultural spectrum for his book on victims of injustice and atrocities. He expected to hear people describe their rage and desire for revenge. “What most impressed me overall,” he reported, “was the remarkable lack of overt rancor and hatred between blacks and whites, and the concerted effort to create a society in which racial harmony and economic justice will prevail” (Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), pp. 255-256, iBook Edition).

Among his great achievements in standing for freedom and rebuilding a nation, Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a remarkable achievement.

Mandela’s passing this week on the eve of our reading of Parashat Vayigash, is yet another reminder that life imitates Torah As we reach the climax of the Joseph story this Shabbat in the Torah portion of Vayyigash, we are reminded of Nelson Mandela who, like Joseph, knew from an early age that he was destined for something special. Like Joseph, he spent many years in prison separated from his family. Like Joseph, it was in prison that he developed the skills — especially the ability to listen — that would later make him a great leader. Like Joseph, he had the fortitude to forgive those who were responsible for his imprisonment and to achieve reconciliation with them. Like Joseph, once regarded as part of a despised minority, Mandela ascended to national leadership. Like Joseph, as a national leader he was not without controversy and was far from perfefct. Nevertheless, he was able to steer his country through a crisis that, without his wise stewardship, could have led to civil war and complete destruction (from Rabbi Rob Scheinberg).

May God grant each of us the strength and courage to be inspired by Joseph and Nelson Mandela to repair the broken relationships in our lives.

#TieBlog #Thanksgivikkuh

26 Nov
Dreidel tie for Hanukkah

Dreidel tie for Hanukkah

We spin the dreidel into another Hanukkah, and this time, in America at least, Hanukkah combines with Thanksgiving. In fact, with the quirks of the lunar calendar and its adjustments to the solar calendar, this is the first time Hanukkah and Thanksgiving have ever fallen one same day, and it won’t happen again for another 75,000 years! I like this tie because it has the two kinds of dreidels–nes gadol hayah sham (a great miracle happened there–in Israel) and nes gadol hayah po (a great miracle happened here–for those living in Israel). The miracle refers to the miracle of lights. According to the Talmud, the Maccabees liberated the Temple and found only enough oil to kindle the lights for one day, but they lasted for eight days. This year, we Americans might also reflect on the great miracle that is America and the blessings of freedom, including and especially religious freedom, that we enjoy on these shores. The “Peh” dreidel can work here too, at least on Thursday.

Looking ahead to Shabbat, #TieBlog proposes a connection between this tie and Parashat Mikketz. Joseph’s life has been like a game of dreidel. He landed on some hard times and is lying forgotten in an Egyptian jail. Then his fortunes turn dramatically when he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams an disappointed viceroy of Egypt. He saves the people from starvation and ultimately his own family as well. In the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Joseph says upon his new appointment: “Anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break!”

Yes, the game of dreidel is a game of chance and luck. At the same time people have to make miracles happen, whether it’s crushing olives to make enough olive oil to kindle fire even for one day, let alone eight, or to cross the Atlantic in the Mayflower to a strange new land in search of religious freedom.
Happy Thanksgivikkuh!

Like #Lincoln and #Kennedy, we all can change the world

22 Nov
President Abraham Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy

President Abraham Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy

On Thursday of this week, I was pleased to participate in the formal kickoff of our adult education season in tandem with Temple Shaarei Shalom. Rabbi Fratello and Cantor Bain from Shaarei Shalom, and Cantor Mondrow and I each reflected on different aspects on the state of American Jewry today against the backdrop of two monumental anniversaries in America this week. On November 19, we marked the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Yesterday, November 22, we marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas. The coincidental proximity of these anniversaries may have lent fuel to those who suggest that there must have been some cosmic, pre-ordained connection between these two slain Presidents. It’s easy to get caught up in the trivia that they were both shot in the head on a Friday, that they were each succeeded by Johnson and that Kennedy’s secretary was named Evelyn Lincoln. I think we would be better off reflecting on who these men were, why they were important and how we might strive to carry on with their unfinished work.

In recalling two momentous events in American history, it’s worthy first to explore a momentous event in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev. The parashah begins with the ironic statement that Jacob had settled down in the land where his fathers wandered. Based on what happens next, nothing is settled about daily life in the house of Jacob. Jacob showers favor upon Joseph, son of his favorite wife, Rachel. he presents him with a k’tonet passim, a striped, or, perhaps, “technicolor” coat. The favoritism naturally created a rift between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s arrogant personality did not help to assuage the tension. One day when the brothers are away, Jacob sends Joseph to find them and see how they’re doing. What a fateful mistake that was. Or was it?

On his way towards Shechem (Genesis 37:15), Joseph meets a man who says basically he saw them and they went “thataway” towards Dothan. Joseph finds his brothers. They pounce on him, nearly kill him, and ultimately sell him into slavery.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who is coming to Temple Torah on January 15 (and you should all buy tickets), writes in his Torah commentary about this mysterious man on the road who meets Joseph.

“We never hear of this man again,” he writes. “Yet if Joseph had not met him, he never would have been sold into slavery. The family would not have followed him into Egypt. There would have been no Exodus. The history of the world would have been so different! Could that man have known how his chance encounter changed history? Do we ever know the consequences of the little acts of thoughtfulness we perform?”

Each one of us may be that man or woman on the road that knowingly or unknowingly profoundly influences the life of someone else. Knowing that, our task in life is to try to do so with positive energy and intentionality. This week, we pause to reflect two giant historical leaders, President Lincoln and President Kennedy. There may be coincidental similarities between the two, but they served with great purpose and intentionality. Without their leadership, the world as we know it might be a very different place.

For Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address is a masterpiece not only for its brilliant, concise rhetoric, but also for stating in clear terms Lincoln’s vision of his lasting legacy, the end of slavery and the defense of the union. Had Lincoln not entered the historical stage, how would America have evolved from its status quo in the mid-1800s? Would there even be a single United States of America? We can only speculate, but we know our world is different because Lincoln lived. As we reflect on the meaning of Lincoln this week, let me share all 272 words of the Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

For Kennedy, his term was shorter and his legacy less clear-cut but still significant. The Cold War weighed heavily on the mood of the time of his inauguration. His rhetoric that day acknowledged the national stress, and inspired principled leadership of the free world. He said: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

During his term, he averted nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis. He went to Berlin and inspired the people in this enclave of democracy stuck in the midst of Communist East Germany that freedom and democracy were precious and necessary. Back at home, he laid the groundwork for the sweeping Civil Rights legislation that his successor President Johnson would sign into law. On June 11, 1963, during the desegregation of the University of Alabama, President Kennedy said: “If an American, because the color of his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public schools available, if he cannot vote for those public officials that represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

“I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Finally, President Kennedy channeled his magnetic charisma to inspire a generation of Americans to think beyond their personal wants and desires and to serve their nation. The Peace Corps is one product of that legacy. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” are his immortal words from his inauguration that continue to resonate today.

Had Kennedy not served as President, what would our world look like today? Would we have experienced nuclear war? Would we have put astronauts on the moon? We can only speculate, but certainly our world is different because President Kennedy lived.

In reflecting this week on these two fallen Presidents, we can think about that man on the road to Shechem whom Joseph encounters. He’s a reminder to us that our words and our actions matter. Anything we do or say can have a profound effect on the lives of others and even to affect the course of history. Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy were great statesmen who channeled powerful oratory and deft leadership skills towards serving our nation and making our world a bit better. Their lives were both tragically cut short, and their work was unfinished. It is up to each of us to see ourselves as that “person on the road to Shechem” who can change the world. May we be blessed to make the world a bit brighter and better.

#TieBlog #Vayeshev #OurGang

21 Nov
"The Little Rascals" get into mischief, and so do the sons of Jacob in this week's Torah portion.

“The Little Rascals” get into mischief, and so do the sons of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Vayeshev, we meet Joseph, the spoiled brat and favorite son of Jacob. He torments his eleven brothers with his dreams in which he predicts his dominance over them. They can’t take it any more. In a puzzling act of parenting, Jacob sends Joseph out one day to find his brothers and inquire after their welfare. They plot to kill him but relent when Judah sells him into slavery instead. Joseph goes down to Egypt and eventually achieves a position of immense power. One can only imagine what living in a house of twelve sons must have been like on a day-to-day basis. The mischief of the “Little Rascals,” may offer some clue into the brothers’ lives when they were young boys.