Archive for Desembre de 2014

In this week’s Parashah, we come to the powerful denouement of the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, one of bitterness and betrayal in its opening, that slowly moves to an extraordinary moment of reconciliation. As we come toward the end of the book of Genesis we finally arrive at the moment that is the answer to the rhetorical question asked in the beginning of the Torah by Cain after he has murdered Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The highly emotional reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers is one of the great scenes in literature. Years earlier the brothers, jealous of Joseph’s position as their father’s favorite, had been led by Judah’s words “Let us sell him… not do away with him ourselves” [Gen.37:27]. However, rather than make their father share his affection more equally, this act not only caused years of unending grief for them all, but was made more futile when their father then took another son, Benjamin, as his new favorite.

By confronting Joseph, the second most powerful man in Egypt, and refusing to leave Benjamin as a hostage, Judah confronts himself, accepts his past guilt and takes on his true role as family moderator and protector. At the same time, Joseph, who could have understandably sought revenge against his brothers, realizes that he too prefers to reconcile with them and help them.

In one of the great scenes in all literature, the brothers reconcile. As the total opposite of Shakespearean tragedy, where the characters’ refusal to go beyond their allotted stereotype results in death and loss, these acts of mutual contrition result in reconciliation and the provision of real help to the family and to the tribe of Israel. In fact, rather than dwelling on the crime, Joseph says that his brothers “sent” him – thereby starting the chain of events that placed him in a position where he could benefit thousands of people, including his own family.

Through these brave admissions, both men show themselves to be the masters of their own fate and demonstrate their understanding that hatred damages the hater and the one they hate. It also highlights the fact that, although no person, and not even God, can truly control events, it is in the hands of each person to determine whether or not the circumstances become a force for good or evil.

Parshat Va-Yigash reminds us that we all do things that are selfish, wrong and that we would rather forget. The crucial test is whether you have the ability to admit the wrongdoing. If you cannot, you perpetuate and compound the problem. However, if you, like Judah and Joseph, can admit your faults you can adversity into an opportunity to benefit those you have harmed as well as many others along the way. Thus we learn we are not just our brother’s keeper in terms of “within the family” but in reality, for the larger family we call humanity. The rest of the Torah will teach us lessons about how to take care of the other, “to love your neighbor as yourself.”


Read Full Post »

This week, as we commemorate Chanukah, our Festival of Light, we will light our candles and begin our eight-day celebration of Chanukah. At the same time darkness has fallen over our world once more with the death of dozens of children in a school in Pakistan, in a world in which so much darkness has already fallen over this last year in particular. The darkness highlights the importance of the work of each of us has in this community. More than ever we must live the lessons of Chanukah, the festival of light; more than ever we must take responsibility to bring light to a world where there is still too much darkness.

Let us reflect on the stories of Chanukah to see how we can do that. Our prayer for Chanukah, “Al HaNisim”, tells us of the background to the story, reminding us of a time of religious persecution and national oppression. “In the days of Matthatias son of Yochanan, the heroic Hasmonean Kohen, and in the days of his sons, a cruel power rose against Your people Israel, demanding that they abandon Your Torah and violate Your mitzvot.” We were forbidden to teach Torah, which opens with the declaration “let there be light”. Light, even in the Torah, is understood as a metaphor for that which is good, for knowledge, perception, wisdom and understanding. To teach Torah, where it says that each and every human being was created in the image of God, each of us divine and equal – was a crime punishable by death. But certain brave individuals, led by the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, refused to let darkness cover the earth.

The word, Chanukah, or dedication, in Hebrew has the same root meaning as the word Chinukh, or education. Our ancestors understood the centrality of education to individuals and society. They established that our first petitionary prayer is the prayer for knowledge, understanding and discernment. They also established the first system for free public education 2,000 years ago – albeit then only for boys. We must not take for granted our privilege of learning, especially in the year in which the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education. Malala said:

This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change. I am here to stand up for their rights, to raise their voice. It is not time to pity them. It is time to take action so it becomes the last time that we see a child deprived of education.”

What we know is that it is not just education, but the curriculum, the vision and values behind the learning that is so central to the lessons learned. Our vision for our congregation is to be a spiritual home for all Jews in this area to sanctify their lives through Jewish practice, sensitive to contemporary society and committed to Jewish tradition, while emphasizing the values of integrity, leadership, inclusiveness, respect and growth.

At our little shul, we teach the light of Torah, the principles of our ancestral tradition. For the prophet Micah it was to do justice, act with loving-kindness and walk humbly with God. For Rabbi Akiva, it was to reference the mitzvah of Torah to “love your neighbour as your yourself.” His predecessor, the great sage Hillel taught, “Be a disciple of Aaron – loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah.” For these prophets, sages and rabbis of old, our greatest teachers, learning Torah – something prohibited during the time of the Maccabean revolt – was about learning principles by which all humanity could live together.

In this week in which darkness descended on our world with dozens of children dead in a school in Pakistan and people hold hostage in a cafe in Sidney, it is important to remember the light that each of us brings by our commitment to learning and teaching. After our winter break, we will have courses of study happening in 2015 for both young and old alike. At CBTBI, we are committed to daily improving the world in which we live. As we learn, we bring light, as we do, we create peace.

The revolt of Chanukah was that first revolt for Chinukh, the right for education, and learning. Let us rededicate ourselves to the spirit of our ancestors whose bravery and foresight we commemorate at this season. Let us learn in order to do, let us learn to be and let us bring the light.

Read Full Post »

As Jacob settles back in the land of his ancestors, his sons take us to the denouement of the book of Genesis, which for a large part is a detailed response to one of the first questions of the Torah, asked by Cain after killing his brother Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The epic story of Joseph and his brothers begins this week, and in the weeks ahead will lead us in convoluted fashion to the emphatic response, eventually said by Judah to Joseph, that he stands as surety for his brother. Indeed, the lesson “all Israel is responsible one for the other” flows from here. Yet, this week’s parashah reminds us that when it comes to the women in our families, we don’t always stand by them.

The story of Joseph is interrupted by the episode of Judah and Tamar. Judah married the daughter of a local businessman and had three sons. His first son, Er, married a woman named Tamar, but died soon thereafter. Judah had his second son, Onan, marry Tamar and thus fulfill the mitzvah of Yibbum, otherwise known as “Levirate marriage” and described later in Deuteronomy:

When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger, outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall unite with her: take her as his wife and perform the levir’s duty. The first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel.” (Dt. 5-6)

While Onan apparently fulfils the duty of the levir by marrying Tamar, but then violates its central principle as it says clearly in the Torah,

But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and God took his life also” (Gn. 38:9-10)

Judah refuses to give his third son to Tamar, forcing her against tradition to return to her father’s house childless. Eventually through action Judah will refer to as being “more righteous than he” in an interlude between the two of them that leads to the birth of twins, one of whom will be the ancestor of King David.

This little episode reveals how the Torah and tradition, in its focus on “being surety for our brothers” has forgotten we have sisters (and mothers and daughters as well.) Many will know that a word in the English language, “Onanism” (feel free to look it up) has entered our language from this story. It is generally defined as first, “coitus interruptus” and secondly, as masturbation, from interpretations of Onan’s “letting his seed go to waste.” Indeed, the entire rabbinic tradition has many moralistic stories and legal teachings against both of these practices. Sadly, these teachings not just miss the point of the story as clearly told in the Torah, they undermine it as well.

The passage in Deuteronomy discussing Levirate marriage provides the background we need to understand Onan’s actions and transgression. It continues from the point quoted above as follows:

But if the man does not want to marry his brother’s widow, his brother’s widow shall appear before the elders in the gate and declare, ‘My husband’s brother, refuses to establish a name in Israel for his brother, he will not perform the duty of a levir.’ The elders of this town shall then summon him and talk to him. If he insists, saying, ‘I do not want to marry her,’ his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: Thus shall be done Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house. And he shall go in Israel by the name of ‘the family of the unsandeled one.’” (Dt. 25: 7-9)

In other words, Onan was faced with two choices upon the childless death of his brother Er. He could marry Tamar and have a child by her, the first born son taking Er’s inheritance rights, OR he could refuse to do so, and in front of the leaders of the town have his sandal pulled off by Tamar as she spat in his face and gave him the name “the unsandaled one.” Onan instead in private pretends to be fulfilling his duty – only Tamar and he would know that he is not allowing her to fall pregnant – and so “God strikes him dead.”

Clearly this is just one more story in literature about the sexual exploitation of women – sadly one which is clear in the original Torah as to what is the crime of Onan, and one from which the rabbinic tradition has deviated. Interestingly, Rashi comments on the mysterious death of Er: “Er was guilty of the same sin as Onan, of spilling his seed, as it is written regarding Onan, ‘And God… slew him also’ (38:10)–Onan’s death was by the same cause as Er’s. And why did Er spill his seed? So that Tamar should not become pregnant and ruin her beauty” Thus a confusion has come about between the method of the wrong, “spilling the seed”, and the wrong actually perpetrated, which is the sexual exploitation of Tamar.

If only all the verbiage spilt in discussing coitus interruptus and masturbation had been spent on fighting the sexual exploitation of women by men, we may not have the same issues to this day with domestic violence, rape, slavery and so forth. We are not just our brother’s keeper, but also our sister’s, not just for “Israel”, but for all humanity. The Torah’s concern is not how we please our own self, but how we harm another.

Read Full Post »

This week we read one of the most beautiful and moving moments in the Torah; the reunion of Jacob and his estranged brother Esau. The last time the two were together Jacob feared for his life from the brother he had deceived and wronged. Now, after many years and much growth and change on the part of both, they meet again. The Torah describes the meeting: “Esau ran to greet him (Jacob), he embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him and they wept” (Gen 33:4).

I imagine Esau burying his head against his brother, clinging to him, joining together as they had in the womb of their mother and weeping tears of joy and sorrow, ecstasy and sadness. All the hurt and pain of the years that have passed, all the losses and grief that each have carried with them are shed in the salty tears which streak their cheeks and mingle together. And finally they are at peace. A cover of shalom descends upon them and touches them with its warmth and embrace. In those moments there is shalom, there is wholeness. Twins, two parts of one whole meet and embrace once more, balance and harmony are restored.

In our world today, when each news bulletin seems to bring more tales of horror and terror, brokenness, shattered hopes and dreams, a lack of wholeness, this portion reminds us to have hope. Peace can be made between warring partners, relationships can be repaired, the world can be mended, shalom, peace and wholeness can be restored. We cannot give up hope. Our parashah calls upon us to keep our eyes open in the world to the possibilities before us. To see the signs of goodness, beauty, opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation. Jacob and Esau see the goodness in one another, they remember the ties of family, the importance of peace, of seeing how they are alike and not how they are different. May this Shabbat remind us to look for those things in our world too: to see how we are alike, to find the beauty in one another, to remember that we are all one human family and may we, like Jacob and Esau, soon have shalom, peace and wholeness in our families, our communities, our relationships and our world.

Read Full Post »