Thursday, December 26, 2013


In Sh'mot we begin to read the narrative that changes the story of our ancestors from a story about a familial tribe to the becoming of a people.  The parasha starts with a real page turning statement that let's us know things are different:  And a pharaoh rose up in Egypt who knew not Joseph.  This lines clearly creates a new era for the people.  The prosperity of Israelites was coming to an end, first through taxes and then through slavery.  But a man in born to help them become free again, Moses.

Moses is called by God at to free the people from their oppression.  This begins a long drawn out narrative of the fight between Moses and Pharaoh for the freedom, Moses and the people, who struggle with their freedom, and at times Moses and God over what God wants of the people.

Moses, born to Jewish slaves, is saved by the courage of his mother and sister to keep him alive by floating him into the arms of the Pharaoh's daughter.  Being raised in the court of the Pharaoh, Moses knew wealth and privilege and yet when he learned about the plight of his fellow Israelites he empathized with them, to point of killing an Egyptian overseer.

Moses could easily have walked away from his people, his comfort was insured even if his identity was known.  Throughout history we have seen people of an oppressed group shift their identity to their oppressors. Some times it is to simply survive, but there are times it is just too difficult to buck the system or give up the benefits of you receive.  But Moses rose to become the leader of the people, he found parts of himself he didn't know existed.  It was because of that he was called by God.  The symbolism of him finding God's presence in the burning bush when he left camp in search of a stray lamb.

Moses becoming the leader of the people  made his life more uncomfortable for the greater good.  He models that for us today.  We often have opportunities to help those in need from afar, writing a check, attending a fund raiser or even baking, knitting or building things in the comfort of our own spaces.  But Moses challenge the authority directly while giving up his own comfort.  He strove to go beyond himself.   Moses tells us we should make reach beyond our comfort zones.  We often strive to do what we call tikkun olam, repairing the world.  But to really repair the world we need to find the cracks and breaks.  As we approach a new year we should challenge ourselves to not only continue to do good work in the world but to truly understand the good we are doing.  Who we are helping, and what we can learn from them.  Often when we find ourselves doing something to serve others we see so much that they have to offer us.

Moses made a choice to give up comfort for justice, but he was reluctant at each step he took.  it isn't about being brave or careless, it is about moving in a direction.  Add to what you are doing now and continue to expand your world.  You may not become the next Moses, but you may find a better you out there, and you are worth finding.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


This past week we closed the book of Genesis, and read about the death of both Jacob and Joseph.  Both they and their family have become settled in the land of Mitzraim and are somewhat comfortable.  But both long for the land of their ancestors.  At Jacob's death he asks that he is buried with his parents and grandparents and Joseph exacts a promise that when the children of Israel eventually leave Mitzraim that they take his bones back to Canaan.  While living in the land of another culture, there was a real effort by these leaders to keep a connection to land of their ancestors and to their God.

For Jacob there was a time of concern.  There is a famous midrash in Rabbah  that on his death bed Jacob worried that his children would forget God in this foreign land.  Seeing the struggle in Jacob's eyes they said to him:

“Listen, Israel (Jabob's name given to him after wrestling with a divine being earlier in the Torah), Adonai is our God. Adonai is one.”  In other words: Shema Yisrael. Adonai Eloheinu. Adonai Echad.
With his last dying breath  Jacob whispered:  “Praised is God, whose glorious reign will go on forever.”
or  Barukh Shem K’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed.  This is our continued declaration of faith that we repeat up to today.

I can sense an analogy to today.  The pressure of the greater culture to overwhelm our young people to move further and further from Judaism is real.  Jewish Identity has become the most important topic in the life of Jewish educators due to a recent study.  I think there is something to it.  I find that many Jews my age in liberal communities have a very stunted understanding of their Judaism, the result of leaving formal Jewish education after Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  It is like thinking you know all about history if once you finished 7th grade.  But despite a distancing themselves from synagogue and practice I also see a trend of their children coming back to building meaning of their Judaism.  Students in their late teens through the late 20s seem to be looking for ways to create a Judaism that works for them.  One that may not look like their parents Hebrew school or even like the way they learned when they were in Aleph classes not that long ago.  I have found a real effort to not only wanting to be Jewish but have a way of talking about what that means and to do Jewish.  It may not be in synagogues or even in Jewish institutions that have existed in the past.  But like Jacob's children they are holding on to the gift of tradition they received from their parents and preparing it for when it comes time to give it to their children.

Like in the deep and rich culture of Egypt, we remembered who we were I think we will continue to do it today, we just have to make room for it to be something we may not have seen before.

Friday, December 6, 2013


I write this today with a sadness.  The world has lost a great man, Nelson Mandela.  Mandela is a towering figure in the history of our world.  A fighter, a prisoner and later a man who struggled, even with his own people, to secure some kind of reconciliation.  Mandela's efforts changed the way the people of the world saw how an oppressed people might find a way to overcome their oppression and not focus solely on revenge.  This couldn't connect more to my thoughts of this week's parsha.

Joseph is a great man in Egypt and we enter the story in the middle this week.  Joseph's brothers, not recognizing him, have come to Egypt for food.  Joseph plays with them, gets them to bring Benjamin, makes it look like he is a thief and plans to imprison him but in the end relents and reveals who he is and that God had sent him to pave the way for his family to settle in Egypt during this terrible famine.  He longs to see Jacob and throughout the rest of Joseph's life we find he takes no revenge on the brothers that caused him so much pain.   The family reconciles and while the brothers never fully trust Joseph, he shows them he cares about family.

I can't fully liken Joseph to Mandela.  But there is something to be said for both of these men that can teach us.  In both cases they were treated poorly, in both cases they were freed from bondage and rose to positions of power, and in both cases they found a way to set aside revenge and focus on building new bonds.

Revenge is easy and even the fantasy of revenge gives us some great feelings.  I once found myself cut off in traffic causing me almost to go off the road.  About 5 minutes later the car that cut me off was in a ditch, back end in the air and front end smashed.  I waved to the guy as I rolled passed him.  It felt good but also it felt horrible.  I felt small.  In the case of Joseph and Mandela both could have exact much worse revenge.  Joseph could have easily kept his secret and turned his brothers into slaves far from where he lived.  He could have had them executed, tortured or simply locked them up forever.  He chose not to, he chose to listen to the voice that healed rather than split the group.  Mandela too could have led a uprising of Black South Africans who were ready for violent revenge.  Some occurred after the fall of Apartheid, but he struggled to make sure that he didn't become the people he fought his whole life not to be.  He didn't want to leave a legacy of pain in his wake.  I wonder if he read the Genesis narrative to guide him in this.

Reconciliation is harder too when others shared your pain.  For Joseph he was a single individual, injured by his brothers.  He simply saw it as his role in the grand scheme of things.  But Mandela was one of many who were imprisoned, tortured and some killed.  As an Anti-Apartheid activist in the mid-80s I met several.  Some seemed to struggle with the ideas of non-violence, some saw hope in the future and yet others were ready to create a revolutionary army to kill and crush all whites in South Africa.  The hate I saw in their eyes was clear and I remember being worried about the end of Apartheid and the potential of blood baths.

I have always been struck by people wronged who can find a way to forgive those who have hurt them and move forward together with a new view of life.  Joseph does this in the Torah in a way that can be a lesson for all of us.  Mandela did it in our life time in a way that shows peaceful co-existence is possible between oppressor and oppressed after the oppression stops.  The hope of a world of peace for all is there if we remember that so often there is a choice when we feel wronged.  A choice to find a way to hit back or to help the other person become a better person and end the initial beatings.  It isn't easy, but easy lives are for pampered pets and grass on the side of a hill.  We live through the difficult because it makes the colors of the world brighter.

If you are memorializing Mandela this week, think of how he overcame the searing hate that must have grown in him while in prison and how you in a small way can give up some grudge you carry.  Think of Joseph holding in his hand the power to crush the siblings who caused so much hardship and chose to hug them instead.  That is what life is really about, finding a way to make the next moment better than the last, not just for us but for everyone.

We use to sing "Free Nelson Mandela" , today he is free of a huge burden, and it is up to us to carry it now.  We have the Torah as our guide of where to take it and we have the hope of  the next moment.
Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Sorry, it appears that vacation made it harder for me to write than I thought it would.  So a day late but I think we all have to think about the fact that it was Hanukah and Thanksgiving so give me a break. 

So we read Miketz yesterday.  Miketz tells the story of the rise of Joseph in Egypt due to his ability to interpret Pharaoh's dream and the prediction of a coming famine.  Joseph becomes an important leader in Egypt, so much so when his brothers come to seek food at the time of the predicted famine, he is the one who bargains with them. He had become so Egyptian they did not recognize them.   It is Joseph who not only saves the lives of many but also creates the economic circumstances that centralize power in Egypt. 

During that time Joseph adopted a total Egyptian persona and became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. He named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, "God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home." And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." 

These names give us insight into Joseph’s story.  Alone in a foreign land and away from his family, he continues to recognize the God of his ancestors, even when acknowledging the pain his family caused him.  He embraces his role in Egypt but also continues to hold onto the faith tradition he was born into. 

We read this in the middle of Hanukah, a holiday of that speaks of a battle for the Jewish soul between the Greek culture and remembering the past.  Today there is another battle in our culture.  Hanukah has taken on a very large place on the Jewish calendar because of its proximity to the Christian and more and more the American holiday of Christmas.   Hanukah/Christmas has become a pivot point in the new Jewish American identity.  It gives us an opportunity to discuss who we are as a people amongst ourselves and with our neighbors.

In places that have few Jews or communities that tend not to interact with Jews, what people know about Jews can be summed up with the 4 Hs.   Hasidic Jews seen on TV, Hallah, Holocaust and Hanukah.  I don’t want to be defined by any of those but the last one truly shows the complexity of the historic Jewish experience.  We are more than the Hasidic community, who are known for their exotic nature, Hallah, while wonderful, reduces us what many people do with ethnic ignorance to a food stuff, while the Holocaust is an important part of our history and the history of the world, Am Israel Chai, the Jewish people survived the events and we are a strong and diverse community.  But Hanukah gives us the unique opportunity to acknowledge that there was a time when Jewish people fought with each other over how much we give up our Jewish nature and how much we don’t want to change, just as Joseph had to balance his Jewish nature and his new Egyptian identity.

Joseph as a child who was hurt by his family and became an important member of the Egyptian leadership, however he still connected to his faith tradition in the new land as Torah teaches us from how he named his sons and later he will enact a promise that his bones be taken out of Egypt when the people finally go back to Canaan.  While he forgets the pain of his history he connects to God of Abraham, Isaac and his father Jacob.  Joseph blends that need and the desire to give up the past and create a new identity while at the same time building that identity on the tradition that taught him by his ancestors. 

Joseph gives us a way to see a blending of the desire to be part of the greater culture without giving up our own special identity.  Joseph adopted the trappings of Egypt but kept his connection to his past.  We can do that with how we express our faith through Hanukah.  What’s more is that we can also use it to help others see the importance of the past to us as Jews while allowing us to speak of its complexity.  Most of the Jews today would not want to be Maccabees but the other choice was an oppressive culture meaning to stomp out the Jewish faith.  Today we have options.  Being Jewish can be many things, with different ways of approaching Torah, practice, traditions, and even God.  However, the foundation must go back to the heart of what it means to be Jewish.  The tree may bear many different kinds of fruit, but the root still is the Torah and what it means to us.   We don’t have to give up our Jewishness completely or totally buy into the celebration of someone else’s important holiday to be part of the culture.  Jews in the time of the Maccabees were willing to give up all of their Judaism and totally buy into the Greek culture even before they were forced.  They had little choice.  Today we can choose our own to find our Judaism along side our neighbors.  As the days of Hanukah fade we should remember the lights are lights of freedom to be Jews but also lights memory.  Like Joseph, we can feel part of the culture we live in, but we can also remember the past with all its warts and create a new identity that builds on who we are and not what others want us to be.  It is up to us.