Divrei Torah on Parashat Miketz

I associate memories with certain Torah portions. I remember Shelach Lecha as the week I  became a Jew, and the week I left home for rabbinical school. I remember Yitro as the first time I first chanted Torah for the congregation. And I remember Miketz because it was the portion I was assigned for my first d’var Torah in rabbinical school.

On the one hand, the stories in Miketz have been favorites of mine ever since I was little: Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams! Joseph becomes the Prime Minister of Egypt! Joseph faces his brothers again! And on the other hand I was going to speak before the whole school, and I wanted to say something profound about the Joseph story. Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur was assigned to me as a mentor for the first sermon, and I was as intimidated by his reputation as Joseph’s brothers must have been in Pharaoh’s court.

I didn’t say anything profound that week. It was a fine learning experience: Rabbi Marmur taught me how to dig into the text for something coherent to say, and as far as I recall, I performed adequately. I remember, with blushes now, my overblown ambitions for that sermon.

However, I have some wonderful divrei Torah for you from people with more practice at it than I had back in 2002!

Rabbi Ellen M. Umansky — Forgiveness and Reconciliation with the Past

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild — Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat — Miketz: Letting Yourself Dream

Rabbi John Rosove — Jewish Survival is not a Given

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken z”l — Joseph and Potiphar: The Named, The Neutered, and the Neutralized

A Jew on Christmas Day

Image: My neighbor’s house is amazing. (Photo by Adar.)

My neighbor’s house is amazing, like a branch office of Disneyland.

My house has a menorah in the window. One of our poodles is mesmerized by the menorah; we don’t know why.

Many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that most of us have time off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food.

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by and see their Christmas tree.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

May be new secular year be a year in which we have the courage to see new ways of listening and talking, walking and running.

May we have courage. May we have heart. May we have strength.

May we remember this feeling of being the Other the next time we are tempted to Other another.

Amen.

(Adapted from a previous post, in a different year. Time flies, and things change.)

Vayeshev: Journey to Leadership

Image: Caterpillar, pupa, butterfly: this animal completely transforms over its lifetime. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, shows us the transformation of Joseph from a spoiled favorite-child to a leader. Seems to me that’s useful information in light of the world’s troubles right now.

Joseph was the spoiled youngest son of a rich man, doubly spoiled after his father began trying to compensate for the death of his mother Rachel. Often first-time readers feel a sharp sympathy for his brothers, who hated him so much that they debated killing him and then settled for selling him into slavery. I’ve never gone that far – I don’t think anyone deserves to be murdered or enslaved, certainly no young person – but there’s no doubt that the young Joseph was obnoxious.

The older Joseph is wiser, not just because he has suffered but because he as used his time well. Midrash tells us that he spent his years in prison learning: he learned to speak every language spoken in that prison, he learned the life stories of everyone in the prison, he became a student of human nature and indeed, all the humanities.

The boy who was interested only in his own aggrandizement became curious about others.

The boy who wanted everyone to listen to him learned how to listen to others.

The boy who said things thoughtlessly learned to hold his counsel and measure his words.

I think, from now on, this is how I’m going to judge candidates for office. Not: will they be good for me? But: will they be wise in office?

All politicians are human beings. They will have flaws, and sometimes voting seems like an exercise in choosing which flaws I’m willing to live with. But looking at the Joseph story, what I see is the qualities that make for good leadership in unpredictable times: a willingness to listen, curiosity, a need to understand others so pressing that languages became important.

At any rate, it’s a different way to see a candidate, and with all the manipulation from media and outside influences, new paradigms for seeing might be really helpful. I know that the presidents who in my opinion have failed us had the qualities I associate with young Joseph: self-involved, wanting to be important, too quick to speak, too quick to judge, and greedy. The greatest leaders, in my opinion, have been the ones who were willing to listen to everyone, who did so not for an advantage but out of curiosity.

I’m not going to say which were which. I just invite you to join me, as the next election approaches, to try asking these questions:

  1. Is this person curious?
  2. Is their education over, or ongoing?
  3. Have they ever suffered real misfortune? How did they respond?
  4. Can they be quiet when quiet is called for?
  5. Do they learn from mistakes?
  6. Do they seek fame and/or fortune, compared to the other candidates on offer?
  7. What are their relationships with others like?

No policy there at all – just a question, are they closer to Joseph the Spoiled Kid or Joseph the Tzaddik?

Shabbat shalom.

P.S. – If you use the comments to endorse a political candidate, I will delete the post. I’m not going to use this space to advocate for a particular candidate, nor am I going to provide it for that purpose.

Online Class: Meet the Tanach and Other Jewish Texts!

Image: A scroll, a pen, and ink. (Image by zofiaEliyahu from Pixabay)

I teach three online classes on basic Judaism for an organization called HaMaqom | The Place. Registration for two of them just opened up, and I welcome any of you who are interested to join us.

These two classes are accessible for beginners, but they are not what people usually think of as “Intro to Judaism” topics. The first:

Texts, History & Israel

This class offers an introduction to the classical texts of Judaism, from the Jewish Bible itself to the commentaries, the Talmud, the law codes, and the topic of Jewish Law, or halakhah. I use history as the framework for approaching the texts, and we explore the relationship of those texts to the Land of Israel. By the course’s end, students will have gotten a taste of Torah study, Talmud study, and the process known as Jewish Law.

Class meets online on Sunday afternoons, Pacific Time, from 3:30 – 5pm using the Zoom learning environment. You can follow on a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone.

Tuition is on a sliding scale. Financial assistance is available for those who need a little more slide on the scale – please do not hesitate to request it.

Registration & More information

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה וְנִתַּאי הָאַרְבֵּלִי קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת:

Joshua ben Perahiah used to say: appoint for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend and give every person the benefit of the doubt.

Ethics of the Fathers, 1:6

Ask the Rabbi: Why Can't Jews Have a Christmas Tree?

Image: Golden Christmas tree shape on a red background. (monicore / Pixabay)

When I try to imagine the person asking this question in this way, the first person who comes to mind is someone who loves Christmas trees and is living with a Jew who does not love Christmas trees. They have said to the Jewish roommate/spouse/friend, “Why can’t we have a Christmas tree?” and the Jew has replied something like, “Because Jews aren’t allowed to have Christmas trees.”

As a way to get at the real question, may I suggest a little exercise?

You and your partner/roommate/spouse each take a piece of paper, go to your own corner for a bit, and answer these questions in writing. Then come back together to share your answers.

  • What feelings do you experience when you see a Christmas tree?
  • What do Christmas trees mean to you?
  • What is your earliest memory of a Christmas tree?
  • What feelings do you associate with that memory?
  • What is your strongest memory of a Christmas tree?
  • Why is that memory so powerful for you?
  • What other things give you the feelings that a Christmas tree gives you?

Notice that I am not even once asking for your rational thoughts. There is nothing rational about Christmas trees, unless you count the ones put up in shopping districts to encourage people to spend money. A home Christmas tree is an object of emotion. Also, don’t try to anticipate what the other person will say. Just write about what is true for you.

Then: trade pieces of paper and go back to your separate corners. Read what the other person has written. Sit with their emotions. Do not judge their emotions. Think about that last question: what gives you the kind of feelings that Christmas trees give that other person? If you love that person, read with the eyes of love, if you can.

Then you will be ready to have a conversation.

The person who loves Christmas trees may talk about any number of things, including: love of Jesus, love of secular Christmas, times of family closeness and warmth, fantasies of family closeness and warmth, memories of a particular relative, colorful lights in a dark room are beautiful! Presents! Or: I couldn’t have a tree as a child, but now I am an adult and I am finally able to have that tree! I want my children to have the experiences I remember from my childhood Christmases.

The person who doesn’t love Christmas trees may have all sorts of things on their list, too: Christmas trees make me feel like an Outsider, they remind me of mean things people did to me when I was a kid, Christmas trees are fire hazards and therefore scary, a Christmas tree has no place in my house because I am a proud Jew, Christmas trees remind me of presents that were never for me, the alcoholic in my family always got drunk at Christmas. I do not want my children to be confused by a Christmas tree in the house.

It may be that as you pay attention to each other’s emotions, things sort themselves out. For example, I do not keep bees because they are horrifying to my wife. My desire to keep bees is not as great as her horror at the thought of them nearby. On other things, we compromise: she collects Star Trek memorabilia but keeps it in her personal space, not all over the living room.

It may also be that the partners can get what they need, without resorting to a symbol that’s upsetting to one of them. There are many ways to experience family warmth and to make memories without having a tree in the house. Shabbat, for instance, comes once a week, involves candles and lovely lights (see The Lovely Lights of Shabbat and Havdalah: A Sweet Finish to Shabbat.)

But it may also be that there is no easy answer, that one partner loves the tree and the other is horrified by it. In that case, getting some counseling to help in sorting things out is vital if you want the relationship to thrive.

Pro tip: Don’t approach a rabbi wanting them to tell you it’s fine to have a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. Most rabbis have strong feelings about cultural appropriation, whether it is about Christmas trees in Jewish homes or the Southern Baptists deciding it’s fun to have a “Christian Passover Seder” for Easter.

Vayishlach: Pain & Confusion

Image: The sciatic nerve, which is where Jacob was injured. (Lightspring/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Vayishlach “and he sent” is the name of this week’s Torah portion, a portion full of pain and confusion. It is so chock full of things to write about that I almost failed to write about any of them.

I can’t touch Dinah’s story this week. I don’t have enough emotional armor right now, so I’m not going there. Instead, I will point you to a sermon by one of my teachers and to a brilliant new book on the subject, The Story of Dinah: Rape and Rape Myth in Jewish Tradition by Gavi S. Ruit, with a forward from another of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Tamara Eskenazi. The sermon is available free online. The book is expensive: convince your synagogue library that they need it, or petition the library for it, because it is worth it.

The first line of Parashat Vayishlach seems straightforward: Jacob has been humbled by his suffering at the hand of the trickster Laban (and Laban’s daughters, Jacob’s wives.) He realizes that he is ready to make peace with his brother Esau. So he sends messengers – melachim – to his brother in hope that they can negotiate a peace and Jacob can return home.

The messengers return from the task, and report that Esau himself is on his way with 400 men. Numbers in the Bible mean all sorts of things, and sometimes nothing at all, but according to my Hebrew grammar instructor in Jerusalem, Yossi Lechem, “400 men” is code for “an enormous army coming to beat the daylights out of you.” Jacob panics and divides his caravan in two camps, then approaches Esau alone, camping for the night by the river. There he is accosted by and wrestles with ish, a man.

The Hebrew words in this parashah are fascinating and somewhat obfuscating. Melachim can mean either messenger or angel. Ish usually means “man” but in this passage may mean “angel” and possibly is a euphemism for “God.” Ish also appears in the phrase arba’ah ish imo, “400 men with him.”

Bottom line: this is a setup for a comedy or tragedy of mistaken identity. Which shadowy figure is God? A man? An enemy? An angel? And after all these years, who is Jacob?

I remember reading this passage when I was still very new at Hebrew, and I found it bewildering. I got something along these lines just from verse 4:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃

Jacob sent angels into the face of Esau his brother, in the Land of Seir, in the country of Edom…

Genesis 32:4, (a very) alternative translation

And frankly, while it is not a great translation (wheredid Jacob get the power to command angels?) it speaks to the mystery, the confusion, and the high stakes of this passage. Jacob has a relationship with the land in Canaan, and he believes his destiny to be tied to it. The land is in the possession of Esau, his twin who became his enemy because Jacob cheated him repeatedly. The only way Jacob can go home to this critical bit of real estate is by making up with Esau.

Then, as if things were not complicated enough, another ish appears by the bank of the river after Jacob is alone and vulnerable. This ish, all alone, beats him in a wrestling match, and gives him a permanent injury to his sciatic nerve (ow!) He also gives Jacob a new name: Israel.

The name is a new translation problem. The usual translation is something like this one from sefaria.org:

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32:29

I’m more inclined to translate ki-sarita “Because you have persisted” and va-tukhol “and you have proven yourself able.” Thus:

Said [the ish], “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have persisted with deities and human beings, and have proven yourself able.”

Genesis 32:29 (alternative translation)

As I read it, Jacob hasn’t prevailed over much of anyone. He was cheated by Laban. His beloved, Rachel, participated in her father’s scheme. His first wife Leah knows that he doesn’t love her as much as he loves Rachel, and so his household is full of strife. His brother is apparently coming to kill him, and a mystery figure by the river has maimed him for life. The come-from-behind scrapper, the “supplanter” Jacob is now Israel: a fighter, not necessarily a winner, but a fighter.

As I write this, in December of 2019, we are living in a very confusing time. The Jewish community has been divided into two camps, pro- and anti-Trump. It is hard to tell the angels from the messengers. It is impossible to see where it is all going, but right now the Jewish community feels wounded by a resurgence in anti-Semitism worldwide and especially in the United States. Our synagogues are vandalized; our schools and other institutions are under threat.

But Jacob is still Israel: he’s a fighter. He may be terribly wounded, his house may be divided, but he never gives up. He persists.

May we each do our best to live lives of Torah. May we seek out the best in one another and ourselves. May we not be so impaired by our wounds that we give up the fight. May we not be in so much pain that we confuse friends and enemies. We are Israel, and we do not give up. We persist.

A Psalm for the Depressed

Image: A man holds his head in his hands. (Gerd Altmann /Pixabay)

Dear God. Dear. God. Hear my cry!

Like the Hebrews in the hand of Pharaoh, I am locked into the depths of a depression. I know it is an illness. I have sought treatment, and I am following directions as well as I can.

The words of Psalm 6 speak to me and to all the sufferers:

O God, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.

Have mercy on me, O God, for I languish; heal me, O God, for my bones shake with terror.

My whole being is stricken with terror, while You, God —O, how long!

O God, turn! Rescue me! Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness.

For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?

I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears.

Psalm 6:2-8

This is billed as “a Psalm of David” – wow. The great warrior king of Israel seems to understand depression very well. I’ve never particularly liked King David, but now I feel a kinship to him.

Then at the end, David reminds me that there is a road out of this awful emotional place:

Away from me, all you evildoers, for God heeds the sound of my weeping!

Psalm 6:9

Away from me, all you evildoers! Away, the voices that clamor in my head! Away the memories of cruel words said, away! Away, self-loathing! Away, shame! Away, away, away!

David reminds me that Someone is listening to my cry, and his psalm closes with hope:

God heeds my plea, God accepts my prayer.

All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.

Psalm 6: 10-11

Who or what is God in this psalm? My guess is that David was as unsure as any of us when he wrote this. He was sitting at the bottom of life’s bucket 3000 years ago, and he wrote this little psalm, one of the shortest out of the 150 that we have.

God isn’t the point of this psalm, even if God is the addressee. David – the warrior king, the poet, the sweet singer of Israel – wrote this letter to every sufferer who hides under the covers, or cries in the parking lot.

This psalm is a postcard of consolation. He is saying, I was there too, right where you are now. I survived it. You will survive this too.

If you have sought out this article because you are depressed, remember that you are not alone. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Chat by clicking on the link. You can call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You do not need to be suicidal to seek out those resources – they are available 24 hours a day to assist you. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Resources Helpline can help you locate other assistance, and it is available 24 hours a day – just click the link to get to the info page.

We are not alone.