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Last friday we hold an interfaith MLK service. This past Monday the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been commemorated. He is remembered for his heroic stand against injustice and demand for civil rights for all. His courage to take on the establishment and change it irrevocably altered the fabric of not just the United States, but perhaps the world. While the States still
reverberates with the echoes of his powerful and eloquent words, there
remains much work still to be done. He was driven by a need to correct wrongs he perceived in the world around him, to challenge things that were accepted and force people to take a long hard look at the order of things.
This week, we begin the book of Exodus, Shemot. It is a powerful soaring story about redemption and freedom. It is easy to focus on the perspective of the Israelites and forget about the cost to the Egyptians.
One could ask, What is the purpose of the plagues? With all of God’s power, could not God have simply taken theIsraelites out of Egypt without all the suffering and destruction of the ten plagues?
If they are simply seen as a punishment, why ten times? If the purpose of punishment is to point out and correct bad behaviour (such as punishing a student for not doing their work or misbehaving in class) why does the text point out that God’s purpose was more than simply correcting Pharaoh’s bad behaviour? Several times, in fact, God says something to the effect of, I am doing what I’m doing “in order that you
should know that there is none like the Lord, our God” (Exodus 8:6).
Perhaps this could help shed light on why all of Egypt is made to suffer through the plagues and not just Pharaoh. The objective was not simply
to punish, or simply to have God’s name made known, but both. They are not mutually exclusive. There are certain standards of behaviour that we as a society demand. There could not be a functioning community if we did not all adhere to those norms. Yet simply adhering to those standards is not enough. From time to time, it is incumbent on us to point out people or events that do not live up to those norms. The people of Egypt did not stand up and demand better treatment of the Israelites and thus, to a level, they are just as culpable as Pharaoh. Our standards and humanity dictate that we must not rejoice in their suffering, but we must also understand why they are being punished.

These plagues then serve as a reminder that when we observe immoral behaviour, it is our duty as Jews and more importantly people in a society to speak out. The plagues are a warning of what might happen if we lose our moral compass. Everybody, from the leaders down to the lowest member of our society, has an obligation to stand up for what is right and just. Failure to do so will lead to the downfall of our society.

Martin Luther King, Jr, saw this and could not simply stand by and do nothing. He stood up, lent his voice and openly and willingly paid the price, including prison and ultimately his life. He inspired and continues to
inspire many through his example.
I pray that this week we find the courage to stand up when we see injustice, for all of us to lend our voice and to constantly maintain our vigilance in order that we may continue to improve our society and never become complacent in our pursuit of justice.

This week we come to the close of the book of Genesis and with it, the end of the tales of the patriarchs and matriarchs. From next week we begin reading the exodus story and our focus shifts to the tale of our people as opposed to individual family groups. The last stories in the book of Genesis concern Joseph, his life and family and in a sense he is the one who helps us to make the transition from one style of narrative to the other. Rabbi Stephen Robbins notes in his commentary on this parasha, that Joseph is not a patriarch, unlike them he has no direct contact with God. His understanding of the Divine comes from his dreams and finding meaning in the events of his own life. Interestingly, this gives him a stronger faith and connection with God than the patriarchs. In the Torah we find the others doubting, questioning God, but Joseph remains steadfast in his belief and understanding of God. So much so, that when he faces adversity he finds a way to grow and find meaning and purpose within his experience.

In this week’s reading, Joseph’s father dies and his brothers panic about what Joseph will do to them. Without their father’s presence, the brothers fear Joseph will seek revenge for the way they treated him. When they confront Joseph he is so filled with sadness he cries, he says that far from desiring revenge, he has created his own peace with what happened. Joseph says: “Am I a substitute for God? You meant evil but God meant good.” (Genesis 50:17) and what happened meant that many people, including our family, survived the famine. Joseph, more than his brothers, more than the other patriarchs who had direct lines to God, found God in all moments of his life, both the good and the bad. In that way Joseph is like all of us, working to find meaning in our lives, seeking to connect with the sacred and the holy, trying to understand our purpose and our destiny. Rabbi Robbins writes:

Joseph’s faith was purchased with his pain. He crafted it out of the shell of his own suffering. It was not a faith of escape from his life but faith that made his life worth living…unlike the patriarchs and matriarchs, Joseph is someone we can identify with…Joseph is no distant hero, he is “everyman” and “everywoman” upon whom God must rely to fulfill the partnership of faith.” (“Learn Torah With…” pg. 93)

We are the descendants of Joseph, we carry his legacy with us and our destiny is to try and find that sense of meaning in our lives, to find a connection to spirit, to heart, to soul and to create our own relationship, just as Joseph did.

One of the key events in this week’s parasha is that of Jacob and his family
going down to Egypt. Joseph instructs his brothers, saying; “Maharu v’alu el
avi v’amartem eilav koh amar bincha Yosef samani Elohim l’adon l’chol-mitzrayim r’dah eilay al ta’amod” (Hasten and go up to my father, and say to him, ‘So said your son, Joseph: “God has made me a master over all the Egyptians. Come down to me, do not tarry”‘).
Some commentators refer to this instruction, explaining that Joseph knew that if Jacob and the rest of the family remained in Canaan, they would surely perish, as the famine engulfed the region. So, in order to save his family, he told them to move to Egypt, to Goshen to be more specific, to help make sure that they would survive. In addition, there is an even more personal reason that Joseph wants his father to come to Egypt quickly – he hasn’t seen him in so many years.
There’s also a viewpoint that God desired this move, in order to prevent
potential assimilation of the next generation (that had settled in Canaan),
and there is suggestion of that. Moving them to Egypt would serve to help
prevent assimilation, as the Egyptians were segregationists who maintained a
level of contempt, as evidenced towards the end of last week’s parasha; “ki lo
yuchlun hamitzrim l’echol et-ha’ivrim lechem ki to’eivah hi l’mitzrayim” (for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians). Perhaps we could argue that that was the very first ghetto.
In the last few parashot we’ve been focussing on Joseph’s story in Egypt, how he went from a slave, to being thrown into prison, how he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, and eventually became the governor, answerable only to Pharaoh.
With Jacob coming to Egypt, and bringing with him the entire family, our
ancestry, our heritage, moved to Egypt. Now, the full complement of our lineage
at that time, Jacob and all of his family, were in the same place. It’s as if the pause button had been pushed, and then a separate set of stories (involving Joseph)  entertained us, and now that we have everyone back together again, we can continue our story.
At first, I thought it could be like Rogue One, where the the rest of the Star Wars
story happened anyway, and if you missed out on what’s been labelled Episode  3.5 (Star Wars fans will know what I am talking about), your entertainment and experience wouldn’t be as rich, but the overall story doesn’t change.
However, upon further reflection it isn’t the same with Joseph’s adventures and
experiences. If Joseph was not taken to Egypt in the first place, the overall story
would change drastically. Taking everything at face value, it could have ended in disaster for the entire region, given that one of Joseph’s major accomplishments was interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, foreseeing the inevitable famine, and then developing a plan to take advantage of the years of plenty and store what could be stored, allowing Egypt and most of the region to survive the famine.

So, even though the story of our ancestors seems to go off at a tangent, and for the most part it leaves behind the current and previous generation (in Canaan) for some time, focusing on the story of just one of Jacob’s children, it is a necessary inclusion, allowing Joseph to make his mark on society, to grow as
a human, to realise he too needs to act less arrogantly, and ultimately, it is his
journey and his success that will allow the story of our ancestors to continue in
Goshen, helping to remove the potential dangers they were facing in Canaan.

This week begins the final story arc of the Book of Bereshit, Genesis. The characters are the sons of Jacob, the Children of Israel. While they have been mentioned and played small roles earlier, this is now their moment to take the spotlight. Joseph in particular is given the starring role as we read parasha vayeshev.

The record of Joseph is a bit mixed. All the midrashim associated with Joseph depict him as a famous, well-known, well-loved superstar. Angels tremble when his name is simply spoken. It was because of him that the miracle at the Red Sea would occur. At the same time, our tradition tells us all the sufferings that would befall the people Israel are the result of Joseph’s conflict with his brothers. Interestingly, Joseph, of all people, is called Tzaddik, a righteous man. When we are first introduced to him, he is depicted as an arrogant brat, egotistical, naive and immature, words that do not conjure up the image of righteousness.

So, how is it possible that Joseph is called a righteous man? He is arrogant, haughty and deceives his brothers. He dreams of ruling over his brothers (twice!) and then tells not only them, but his parents! He puts his brothers through a prolonged episode of deception and never thinks of contacting his father during his absence. Are these the actions of a righteous person?

So, why is Joseph a Tzaddik? Righteousness, nor any other character trait, is not something we are born with. It’s something we can develop as a result of our life experiences. And it is not something we simply attain once. Joseph becomes a Tzaddik because he knows what it is like to not be righteous. He has been through many trials in his life and building on those experiences, both what happened to him and what he did to others, gives him the context to see life from a different perspective. But, the most important part, is his choice on how he behaves. Joseph’s life and story are so compelling because he literally rises from the depths of the life to the highest pinnacle, both in a physical and moral sense. He was in a pit and ends up as Pharaoh’s right hand man. He was an arrogant little brother, yet rises above that and forgives his brothers and makes peace with them.

In this way, he is truly a tzaddik, one whom we should emulate in his growth as a person.

The book of Bereishit (Genesis) is not rife with mitzvot. In fact, only 3 of the 613 mitzvot are found in Bereishit. Vayishlach is fortunate enough to have the honour of the source and explanation of a mitzvah, and it is the only negative mitzvah, i.e. a do not as opposed to a do mitzvah, in the whole of the book of Bereishit.

One of the prevailing events in this week’s parasha is Jacob’s journey back to Canaan to meet his brother; Esau. He knows that Esau is still angry with him, and he expects a battle. In order to make sure that the family will still survive, he divides his family into two camps, in case there is a battle and Esau destroys the one camp.

On his way back, the Torah tell us; “Vayivater Ya’akov levado, veyei’aveik ish imo ad alot hashachar” (And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him, until the break of dawn). We are told that during the fight, the angel wounded Jacob in the thigh. As per our enquiring nature, we ask why did this happen, why did the angel need to wound Jacob in the thigh?

According to a Midrash, the angel wanted to know how Jacob could keep up a fight for so long, and he concluded that Jacob must be an angel. We are also told that one of the differences between angels and humans, is that angels do not have a hip joint, therefore they cannot sit. An angel is always ready for action.

Consequently, an angel never becomes depressed or overwhelmed. Humans do not have this ability, so we can be overwhelmed and subsequently give up and sit down. So, the angel struck Jacob in the hip joint, and he discovered that he was human.

As a result of this confrontation and Jacob’s injury, the Torah states that we are not permitted to eat the displaced sinew on the hip-socket, as that is where Jacob was injured in the struggle. This resulted in the prohibition against eating any of the hind parts or sections of kosher animals.

The Da’at Z’kainim explains that the night before Jacob’s confrontation with Esau, Jacob was left by himself. He elaborates that Jacob’s children behaved inconsiderately in leaving their father by himself; they should have remained with him (even though Jacob had instructed them to go). Therefore, in addition to the prohibition against eating the thigh vein, it is incumbent on us to ensure that we remember to accompany others.

An extension of that mitzvah is the minhag (custom) that when someone leaves your home, you are obligated to accompany them approximately 8 feet (2.5 metres) outside your door. You should also show them the way, and warn them of any pitfalls in the road or in the area.

The covenant, or brit, promised to our patriarchal ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, has two parts. They will found a great nation who will inherit the land. Yet, at the beginning of this parasha, Va’Yetzei, Jacob has fled from the promised land, childless. Twenty years pass before Ya’akov can return to the land; in the meantime he will begin to build the nation, which will be known by his other name, Israel. In parasha Va’yetzei, our ancestral mothers, Leah and Rachel, enter into a contest to have children, as the promise for our family to become a nation begins to blossom. Now Ya’akov brings a dozen new children into the world in a few verses. Ya’akov, the younger twin, falls in love with the younger sister Rachel. As he tricked his older brother, now his father-in–law tricks him. After working for seven years for the right to marry Rachel, her father Laban substitute the older and less attractive Leah.

Seven days later Jacob and Rachel wed, Jacob having pledged to work another seven years for the right to marry Rachel. The Torah tells us that “Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.”; a rivalry between brothers is mirrored by a rivalry between sisters. The sisters compete to provide Jacob with children. In the names they choose for them, they are not trying to establish identities for their children, but rather making statements to God, Jacob and the world. It is one of the few times in the Torah that the voice of the woman is acknowledged. The names Leah gives her children provide insight into the plight of the one less attractive, less loved.

The names Leah chooses reveal the process of healing for one who feels neglected. She names her boys, in order: Reuven – look, a son; Shimon – the Lord has heard me; Levi – attachment; Judah – praise; Issachar – reward; Zebulon –honor; Dinah – judgment. In our times we tend to give our children names that memorialize loved ones or somehow suit the character of the newborn. But the names of these children, the ones who will become the house of Israel (we are for the most part descended from Judah and Levi), are Leah’s way of communicating what it means to be unloved and then healed. With the first children born to her she feels seen, heard and connected; with the others she acknowledges God’s grace with praise, reward and honor. In the end, naming her daughter Dinah, Leah acknowledges God’s favorable judgment of her, as proved by her life’s story.

Leah has been put in an unenviable position. Jacob desired her younger sister; her father has duped Jacob into marrying her. She is the victim in the process and receives God’s compassion for her plight, becoming the mother of more children than Jacob’s three other wives combined. Eventually, she will be buried by Jacob’s side in the ancestral tomb in Hebron.

Leah’s voice, the voice of the one less loved, teaches us an important Torah. While Leah benefits from God’s grace in her time of distress and despair, not all of us are so fortunate.

But her naming of her children remains a lesson for us as to what we need in our time of trouble and therefore what we need to give when we know of others in theirs: to be seen, to be heard, to be connected. That is what it means to be in a well functioning community. It is upon us to nurture the other – to look for those isolated, to give them a sense of connection and belonging, to give them the honor and praise they are due. It is only when we do this that we can fulfill the promise of the covenant, to be a great people, to live in the Promised Land.

This week as we read Parashat Toldot, we find one of the most poignant and tragic moments in the Torah. Jacob has, with his mother’s help and guidance, deceived Isaac so that he gives the blessing intended for his older son Esau, to his younger son, Jacob. When Esau comes inside and approaches his father’s death bed, he discovers what has happened. He cries an agonized cry and then asks what has happened. Isaac explains that he has given his blessing to Jacob. Esau begins to sob and he asks: “Is there not a blessing for me too father?” In those few words we find a son seeking approval, blessing, love from his beloved father and his father has nothing to give him. Eventually, Isaac blesses Esau but his words are harsh and far less than what he gave Jacob a few moments before.

The rabbis of the tradition were as disturbed by this episode as we are today. How can a father treat his son that way? How can a mother be complicit in a deception which favors one son over another? Where is the justice? It seems there is none. But the rabbinic commentators are not satisfied with that answer and they seek to demonize Esau so that the actions of his family are justified. There are midrashim which say that Esau, even in the womb, was an idolator, he moved and kicked whenever his mother passed a pagan temple. They argue that Esau did not care about the future, his birthright or his legacy, that his desires were base and his actions all motivated by the lowest of impulses. They suggest he was not the person who could take on the mantle of leadership and be the progenitor of a great nation. So, through a process of interpretation the rabbis justify the harsh treatment of one son over another by creating a dynamic of good and evil.

How much are we seeing this today: the need to paint every picture in black and white, good and evil? The polarization of people and issues is creating a world which is divided and filled with hate and suffering. Humans are complex creatures, Judaism tells us that within each of us is the drive for both good and bad, we have many shades of grey and when we seek to classify people and categorize them it leads only to the suffering and pain that we see in the story of Esau and Jacob. It is easier to put people in a box, to justify our actions towards them, to use our words to label others but when we fail to see the nuances, to truly try and understand others, we are not really seeing them.

Last week in Israel a Progressive congregation in Ra’anana was vandalized. Graffiti was written on the outside of the building with hateful words from Torah and death threats against prominent Reform Jews in Israel and in America. Tragically, the hate crime was perpetrated by Jews and was incited by rabbis and other prominent Jewish leaders pedaling a message of hate against Jews who choose to practice their religion differently from them. Just as with Esau in the Torah, they have demonized the other to the extent that they justify acts of violence and hatred against them. Anat Hoffman, a passionate advocate for Progressive Judaism wrote: “I have never lost my resolve to continue doing what I believe is right but the idea that someone would want to kill me over a difference in religious practice is really beyond comprehension.”

It is time for us to call out the hateful speech, to not allow words which demonize those who are not like us to go unchallenged, and we need to look at our own discourse and ensure it is always from a place of respectful disagreement, not only seeing the black and white but also the shades of grey. If we do so, we can create a world of peace and harmony rather than one of conflict, division and pain.