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Archive for Desembre de 2015

Parashat Shemot begins the book of “exile and redemption” of the people of Israel. Even though the fate of the Jews in general is at a cross-road, it is not easy to distinguish between this and the special personality of Moses, the leader and redeemer. How is the character of a person like this built? How are we able to determine any central points in his personal development?

We meet the “grown up adult” Moses when he goes out to his people, the Hebrew slaves, and he sees their suffering. He cannot restrain himself, nor remain silent, when he sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, and he reacts by killing the Egyptian.

Because of this event, Moses is forced to flee Egypt. He goes to Midian, where he encounters some shepherds who drive away the daughters of Yitro and he resolves to save the daughters, even caring for their sheep.

The courage and the firm stand shown by Moses against injustice is nothing less than remarkable. He is an individual against many, and is a stranger up against the locals. It is as if he experiences an internal awakening of the “good” within him when faced by the existence of evil.

This awakening, according to the Rambam, is the first level of “prophecy”, and is a form of meeting between a person’s inner awareness and a divine inspiration that gives the awareness of its strength and power.

The Torah continues; “Moses was grazing the sheep of Yitro … he guided the sheep far into the wilderness, and he arrived at the Mountain of God.”. Why does Moses guide the sheep “far into the wilderness”? Our rabbis see in this phrase a desire for Moses to distance himself from theft and wrongdoing, so that the flocks would not graze in the fields of other people. In addition to this recollection, there is a Midrash, which tells of Moses arriving in the desert by following a young lamb that was separated from the flock and so it became lost. Moses ran after it to save it.

Both of these explanations follow on directly from what has already been alluded to in the Torah, namely that prophecy is only “awarded” to someone whose moral and personal attributes are complete.

It seems that these challenges that Moses faced were God’s way of determining if Moses was worthy of the difficult and challenging tasks that lay ahead. God saw Moses’ selfless nature, and was satisfied with his commitment.

There is another landmark occasion in this week’s parasha that further helps to define Moses’s mission and presence. The burning bush, to which Moses was exposed when he arrived in the desert, also has a pivotal role to play in the process of Moses being chosen as a leader and a prophet. From the story of the burning bush onwards, we find a progression in Moses’ attitude and a development in his reverence for God. In this week’s parasha, Moses is described as a man who, according to the Torah; “was afraid to gaze towards God”, and he therefore hides his face when God is revealed to him.

Later on in the Torah, we are told of a Moses that stood facing God and was not afraid to seriously argue with God, regarding being divinely chosen to take the people out of Egypt.

What we find is that Moses goes on the mission both as a man obliged to go, and also as a man who, at the end of the day, chooses to go. We learn that it is okay to fear God, yet we are required to look at our development in attitude towards God, religion, and humanity.

This parasha shows us is that we are constantly being tested, not just by God, but also by our fellow human beings, and by ourselves. What may seem like an irrelevant task or occurrence, should be seen as an opportunity for us to act in a responsible and accountable manner, and to lead by example.

It is with this level of knowledge and understanding that we should approach the challenges and tasks that await us, and let us reflect on the path that Moses chose and the courage that he showed, and let us walk in the ways of the just and righteous.

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This week we finish reading the book of Bereshit. We answer a question asked at the opening of the book and raise a new one that will challenge the nascent nation of Israel. The question arises from the opening of Bereshit is Cain’s famous query after killing his brother Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The whole book of Bereshit, in a sense, is a response to that first question posed by the killer, Cain. From Noah’s sons, to Yitzchak and Yishmael, to Yakov and Esau, conflicts abound.

It takes the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, which concludes in this week’s parashah, to answer affirmatively that indeed we are our brother’s keeper. This is made evident in the words and actions of the two main protagonists, Judah and Joseph. Judah makes the clear commitment to put himself in jail so that his baby brother Benjamin can go free; Joseph informs his brothers that his being sold into slavery has all been for a larger purpose, so that the entire family can be sustained. While his brothers remain wary, Joseph declares strongly,

Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them (Genesis 50: 19–21).

While Jacob’s blessing of his children shows that they each remain unique and distinct, the story reveals that despite the conflicts that arise within families and among brothers, they indeed are their brother’s keeper.

The second and more serious question of the Torah is whether we can extend the concept of being “our brother’s keeper” beyond our family to “the other”, Jew and gentile alike. We might think the answer to the second question is as patently obvious as the answer to the first, but our deeds do not match our words. Clearly, as much as our ancestors had to evolve for thousands of years to answer affirmatively that we are our brother’s keeper, so too we still need to evolve to understand our responsibility for all humanity.

The parashah and book ends with the ominous word “Egypt”. Soon we will read that Egypt represents the land where we developed as a nation in slavery and oppression. Our redemption from Egyptian slavery and our standing together at Sinai are the core events for our people. Throughout the Torah we are constantly taught the lesson that we are never to be an oppressor, that we must be champions of justice especially for the underprivileged in our society, and that we should have one standard of law for citizen and stranger alike – all because we know what it was like to suffer in Egypt.

Thousands of years of history and tomes of teaching of Torah by prophets and rabbis apparently falls on “deaf ears” located just above perpetually “stiff necks”. While we as Jews have taken on the concept that “each Jew is responsible for each other Jew”, we have not been as good as extending that level of concern and responsibility to the non-Jew as well. Just think of how the word “goyim”, which in Hebrew literally means “nations”, has developed a derogatory connotation for the gentile nations. It does no good to respond, “but think how they treat us” if what we are trying to do is be God’s people and lead the way as a light to the nations. I fear a world of Jewish arrogance and triumphalism. According to the narrative of Torah, it took dozens of generations and thousands of years to learn that we are our brother’s keeper. How long will it take us to learn that “brother” now extends beyond our fellow Jew to the rest of humanity as well?

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While in the Torah we are referred to as B’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, for thousands of years we have been known as Yehudim, or Jews, based on the hero of this week’s story in Vayigash, Yehudah, one of Yisrael’s twelve sons. Judah displays certain characteristics that propel him to be not just the determiner of the name of our people, but also the ancestor of King David and the messianic line. Judah’s opening speech in this week’s parasha exemplifies those two major virtues: his ability to make teshuvah, repentance, and his commitment to shalom, peace.

Judah is not a perfect character by any stretch of the imagination. Judah is the one who had suggested that his brothers sell Joseph into slavery, attempting to achieve family harmony but causing his father endless grief. Judah is the one who has not followed through his familial obligation to give his youngest son in marriage to his daughter in law, Tamar (see Genesis chapter 38). Just as in the situation with Tamar, where Judah recognizes his wrong and confesses, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah (Gen. 38:26), so too does Judah make amends with his brother Joseph in this week’s parasha.

In one of the most moving speeches and greatest scenes in literature, Judah says to Joseph, “Therefore, please let your servant (i.e., Judah) remain as a slave to my lord (i.e., Joseph) and let the boy (Benjamin) go back with his brothers. Judah, in these two incidents vis a vis Tamar and Benjamin, displays the greatness of his character. He may not be right all the time, but when he transgresses, no matter how greatly, he acknowledges his wrongdoing and puts his reputation and life on the line in order to make amends. Moreover, he learns from each of his errors and continually grows in stature. Thus he becomes the ancestor of the messiah and the one by whom we, the Jews, are known.

Like his father Israel (a.k.a. Jacob), we will struggle with God and others. Like Judah, we too will stumble and occasionally fall. We live up to the best of our namesake when we live life to the highest principles of teshuvah, not waiting for an annual visit to synagogue on Yom Kippur to recognize our errors and make amends. When we daily work for inner peace and strive for harmony in relationship, we as Yehudim, perpetuate the values of our ancestor, Yehudah. Further, we should remember that a core meaning of Judah’s name is gratitude, something we in our place and time here should have each and every day for the privilege to live our lives as we do, and contribute back to society as our ancestral message suggests we do.

An Historical Postscript: Thousands of years ago, our people were united in a kingdom known as the Kingdom of Israel and Judah, which divided after the death of Solomon, King David’s son. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria in 721 BCE, its “ten tribes” disappearing into history. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Babylon in 576 BCE, but rebuilt with the support of the Persian Empire 100 years later. The Kingdom of Judah lasted until the year 70 CE, when the Second Temple was destroyed and our ancestors sent into exile by the Roman Empire. As part of their attempt to decimate our people, the Romans renamed Jerusalem “Aolia Capitolina” (which did not stick) and Judah “Palestine” (which did become the new name of the land.) We as a people continued to be known as Yehudim, the people from Judah, and as we know, have established sovereignty for the third time in the land where our ancestors have lived all these years. We discuss the implications of this sovereignty and connection in our Sunday morning class “Sacred Community: Personal tales of the Sacred”, which resumes January 10.

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In this week’s parasha we continue the story of Joseph. Last week we left him languishing in a dungeon, the fate of the Jewish people in his hands and those on the outside having forgotten that he existed. This week, the Pharaoh has a dream which nobody can interpret. He tries all the usual channels and has no luck. He is at his wits end when finally, his servant, remembers Joseph, the young man in prison who interprets dreams. He mentions to the Pharaoh that there is someone who may be able to help him and Joseph is hauled up from the dungeon. The Pharaoh explains his dreams and Joseph interprets them.

It has often surprised me that Pharaoh’s advisors were unable to interpret his dream. The explanation Joseph offers is not so complex and difficult, yet nobody from amongst Pharaoh’s formidable court can offer an acceptable understanding of the dream. Why? Some Torah commentators suggest that it was because Joseph had the skills and ability to listen which was lacking in the other advisors. The others entered the room with preconceived ideas and notions. They already had the interpretation they wished to present in mind and they bent and shaped the dream to suit their theories. Joseph, on the other hand, came into the room and listened carefully, with an open mind and then supplied the interpretation and for that reason, his was the one which rang true with the Pharaoh.

How often in our lives do we feel that we are not seen or heard by the people around us? That we talk above the noise and bustle of others’ preconceived notions of who we are. How much better and more peaceful would it be if we all took the time to truly listen to one another and give the comfort and love which is needed. This Shabbat of Chanukah I pray that we can all shed some light into the darkness of the world and bring healing through taking the time to listen. Then maybe peace will descend on us and on all the world.

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In this week’s parashah we begin the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, who was given the famous multi-coloured coat. The portion starts with Joseph being presented with the coat, he then has dreams of grandeur, which he recounts to his brothers, and they throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. At this point in Joseph’s tale, the Torah diverts to a completely unrelated tale about Judah, one of Joseph’s older brothers, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. It is a curious episode and, after its completion, the portion picks up with the story of Joseph again. As a result, the story of Tamar and Judah is often overlooked and its lessons not discussed.

Judah has a son Er, who is married to Tamar. Er dies without any children and, as was the custom in those times, his brother Onen is given to Tamar to produce an heir for Er. Onen manipulates the situation and does not fulfill his obligation to Tamar and his brother and, as Divine punishment, he dies. There is one son left to Judah, Shelah, but he is too young. So Tamar waits for Shelah to grow and help produce an heir for her dead husband. But Judah, perhaps our of fear – after all, Tamar has been with two of his sons and they both died – does not allow Shelah to be with Tamar. So Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, is intimate with Judah and conceives a child. When he cannot pay for her services, she asks him for objects she can hold in trust until he provides her with the money he owes. He gives her his seal, cord and staff, and goes on his way.

Sometime later, when she is obviously pregnant, Judah calls Tamar before the community and accuses her of adultery — a crime punishable by death. Tamar admits to being pregnant and declares that the father of the child she is carrying is the owner of certain objects, which she then produces. Judah recognizes them as his own, and realizes that Tamar is far from the adulterous woman he suspected. In fact, she has fulfilled the obligation to Er which Judah, Er’s own father, had not. Judah declares “she is more right than I”, and acknowledges that Tamar has done nothing wrong, in fact the opposite.

So what lessons can we learn from this tale? There are many, but the one I believe is most poignant today is what Tamar teaches us about shaming and embarrassing others. She could easily have announced to everyone that Judah was the father of her child. She could have produced his items and shamed him in front of the community, but she chooses not to. Instead, she ensures that he receives the message without forcing him to acknowledge his wrongdoing in front of others.

Tamar is an exemplar of how we should behave towards others. Large tracts of Talmud and other sources are written about how to ensure we never shame another person. Maimonides creates a ladder of tzedakah, different levels of giving based on doing all we can not to shame someone who needs to ask for financial help. Maintaining their dignity is paramount. Some even say that if you shame another while giving them tzedakah, it negates the mitzvah of giving. Further, the Torah teaches that we must rebuke another when we see them committing a wrong. But the Talmud elaborates in great depth about how we can do that without bringing embarrassment to the person to whom we are speaking. Commentators suggest that Korah’s great wrong was not that he challenged Moses’ leadership, but that he did it in public when he should have gone to him in private and had a conversation.

In our world of instant communication, we are called upon to be even more vigilant about our behavior towards others. So much is now public and we can easily do great damage with an unthinking push of a button. It is possible to debate, discuss and find just solutions, without shaming or embarrassing others and without making personal attacks. But too often we see the opposite: in politics, on blogs and social media. More than ever, we need to remember Tamar and her actions, and the importance of protecting the dignity and self worth of others.

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