Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Shemot sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Birthing a Nation

In an extended passage from the book of Yechezkel, the birth of the people of Israel is described through the vivid imagery of actual childbirth:

And as for your birth, in the day you were born your navel was not cut, neither were you washed in water to make you supple … No eye pitied you … to have compassion upon you … but you were cast into the open field … on the day that you were born. And when I passed by you, and saw you polluted in your own blood, I said unto you: Live through your blood; I said unto you: Live through your blood (Yechezkel, 16:4–6).

Part of what makes this image so striking is the graphic, visceral reality of the infant child connected to her mother by the bloody umbilical cord, “polluted” in the blood of childbirth, awaiting that moment when the cord will be cut, the blood will be washed away, and she will begin to become a person unto herself. Along with the implicit mother birthing the child and a midwife to cut the navel and wash the child, birth, blood, and water are the key images of this passage.

These images—birth, blood, water, mother, and midwife—are central to the story of Shemot. The parasha opens with a description of the fecundity of the people: “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Shemot, 1:7). The small fetus of a nation had been growing and gestating in the womb of the land of Egypt, but the birth will not be easy. Pharaoh, the father, or perhaps more accurately, the step-father, is afraid of being displaced by the coming child. His first response is to impose slavery on the nation: the beginning of severe and anguishing birth pains. The phrase in Tanakh for birth pains is chevlei leida, travails of childbirth, from the root ch’v’l, meaning rope or bond. In English, we refer to childbirth as labor. These metaphoric bonds and labor find real-world expression in the bonds of slavery and the harsh labor that Pharaoh imposes on the people.

Pharaoh’s next move is an attempt to abort the nation before it is born by killing their infant sons, whom he finds so threatening. Midwives are called in as the agents of infanticide and are told what to do when they see the infant “on the birthing stone,” a hard image reflecting the life of slavery into which these children are being born. The midwives defy Pharaoh’s commands and, when challenged, respond that “the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are like animals, and before the midwives come to them, they have already given birth” (1:19). Like animals, these women give birth without midwives, not on the birthing stone but—as in the image drawn by Yechezkel—alone, out in the open field.

Pharaoh does not give up. He commands his entire people to cast every newly born male child into the river, and when the fateful birth of Moshe occurs, his mother is forced to place him in a basket in the Nile. When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him, she takes him from the Nile and names him Moshe, saying, “for I have mishitihu from the water.” The word mishitihu is best understood not as a Hebrew word (why would Pharaoh’s daughter be speaking Hebrew?), but as an Egyptian word meaning ‘the son of’ (hence Ramses is Ra-meses, or the son of Ra). Pharaoh’s daughter was saying, “I have made him my son / birthed him from the water.” And, indeed, her discovery of Moshe and his subsequent naming presents quite a different depiction of birth than that of the Hebrew women. Here we have an idealized picture of birth—a woman who has given birth without blood, cramps, pain, or labor, and in fact, without pregnancy! The baby arrives already washed and swaddled. Rather than taking place on a hard “birthing stone,” he has birthed into and out of the clean (and sacred) waters of the Nile. Even the labor-intensive, exhausting, bodily interactions with this baby—nursing, cleaning, and early childrearing—are done by someone else. But this idealized image of birth is not ultimately redemptive; it is the life of bodily pains, labor, breast feeding and child-rearing that ultimately brings about the birth of the nation.

A period of dormancy ensues, but after a time the urgency returns.  God sees their suffering (2:25) and remembers them – va’yizkor (2:24), pakod pakadeti etchem (3:16) – just as God saw (Breishit 29:31-32) and remembered (Breishit 21:1; 30:22) our barren foremothers. God now has “seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them” (3:9). The word for oppression here is lachatz, a word that rarely appears elsewhere and which more literally means “pressure.” The pressure is building up, the mother is crying out (see Yishayahu, 26:17), and the time of childbirth is almost at hand. The people will be brought out of Egypt to come into a land flowing with milk and honey (3:8, 17), imagery which evokes mothers, birth, and nurturing (see Devarim, 32:13, and Yishayahu, 7:14–15).

Moshe is dispatched to return to the people and to carry a message to Pharaoh: “Israel is my son, even my firstborn,” and it is this child who is about to be born. However, before this can happen, the narrative interrupts with another birth-related scene. With Moshe and family at the inn, God now seeks to kill “him.” “Him” may refer to Moshe, but it is quite likely Moshe’s son, who, like the firstborn of Egypt, is at risk. His life is saved by Tzipporah when she severs his foreskin with a rock.

The cutting of the foreskin is a pseudo-birth, and the harshness of the rock recalls the birthing stones of the midwives. It also evokes the cutting of the umbilical cord as in Yechezkel, and as in that image, the theme of blood is dominant (“a bridegroom of blood you are to me”). In fact, this is the only passage in the Torah that connects blood to the significance of the brit milah, and this is not by chance. The “childbirth” blood saves Moshe’s son, possibly his firstborn, and soon a similar blood—the blood of the Paschal lamb —will save the people, God’s firstborn. Marking the release of blood—whether from circumcision or sacrifice—is protective and salvific. Unlike the command to Avraham, here the mother circumcises her child rather than the father, takes control of her childbirth, and marks the release of blood, preparing the way for the final redemption.

Now, as the redemption begins, blood and water imagery come to the fore. The cleansing water of the Nile that had allowed for the bloodless childbirth of Pharaoh’s daughter is smitten with the first plague, turning to blood. The unfolding process eventually climaxes with the death of the firstborn. Unlike elsewhere in the Torah, here the firstborn is particularly linked with the mother, not just the father: “from the firstborn of Pharaoh … even unto the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the mill” (11:5). This becomes symbolized for future generations, when first births will be signified and sanctified through the mitzvah of redeeming the mother’s firstborn child and the ritualized bloodshed of the sacrifice of firstborn animals, both described with the graphic birthing image as the “one who opens the womb” (13:12).

This brings us to the moment of birth. When the firstborn of Egypt are dying, the children of Israel remain protected. They are protected by the sacrificially released blood of the Pesach on their lintels and doorposts. Just as the circumcision blood saved Moshe or his child, this sacrificial blood protects them against the maschit, the destroying angel who would otherwise slay them in their homes, derailing the future redemption. Childbirth is dangerous, and mother or child may die in the process. Sometimes even God’s plan requires our actions to ensure that it will be realized.

The blood on the doorframe does more than protect. It also makes the house into the womb of the nation. The door of the house is surrounded in blood just as the opening of the womb is surrounded in blood during childbirth (I thank Rabbi Dov Lerea for this point). The people will leave be pushed out of their houses, out of their protective womb, the next morning, but the birthing process will only be complete seven days later. It is then that the people will pass through the narrow straits of the split sea. It is then that they will exit the amniotic fluid, move down the birthing canal, and exit a new people on the other side. Theirs will be a birth from the soft, cleansing water. They will be washed of the blood and filth of the Egyptians, their umbilical cord will be cut, and they will be free to become a strong and independent nation.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Vayechi sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Change. Yes We Can?

What is the interplay between character, fate, and free will? How much does the character that one is born with determine whether he or she will be good or evil? Is it ever possible to change who we are, our essential character, and if not, can we at least find a way to rise above our natural shortcomings?

We have already seen that there are times when one can truly change their character through challenging life experiences and strength of will, as when Yaakov became Yisrael. Even in a case like this, one wonders if it is possible to leave the old self behind fully. After all, for the rest of Breishit Yaakov is referred to by both names, perhaps as a function of which personality comes most to the fore in any given situation. But it is clear that such complete transformations are extremely rare; it is close to impossible to fully or even partially change our character.

As Rav Yisrael Salanter said, "It is easier to go through all of Shas than to change just one character trait." Most of the time drastic changes are beyond our reach. We know that there are certain parts of our character and personality that we would like to change, but we feel unable to do so. Some of these may be character traits that we were born with, some may come from our environment and early life experiences, but now they are a part of us, and we are stuck with them. The key is not to try to disown a part of ourselves, but to consider how we can best channel and direct such traits to a good purpose:

R. Hanina b. Papa expounded: He [the angel who is in charge of conception] takes up the drop of semen and places it in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, "Sovereign of the Universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?" Whereas "wicked man" or "righteous one" he does not say, as R. Hanina states. For R. Hanina stated: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of God (Niddah 16b).

Our genes and our environment may determine our physical strength, our intellectual abilities, even our character traits, but they do not determine what type of a person we will become. That is in our hands:

"He who is born under Mars will be a shedder of blood." R. Ashi observed: Either a surgeon, a highway bandit, a ritual slaughterer, or a mohel. Rabbah said: I was born under Mars (and am none of these)! Abaye retorted: You too inflict [judicial] punishment and have people executed (Shabbat 157a).

The Rabbis referred to the stars; we refer to our genes, but the point is the same: some part of who we are is determined before we are born, but we choose who we will become.

Nowhere does this play out more clearly than in the lives of Shimon and Levi and their descendants. Shimon and Levi were violent men, and fueled by their righteous indignation over the rape of their sister, they wiped out the city of Shechem. At the time, Yaakov was appalled by their actions, but he only criticized them insofar as they endangered the family: "And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, you have brought trouble on me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house" (Breishit, 34:31). It was only on his deathbed that Yaakov found the strength to criticize them for the immorality of the violence itself:

Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords. O my soul, do not come into their council; to their assembly, let my honor not be united; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their wanton will they lamed an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel (Breishit, 49:5).

This curse, like the blessings to the other brothers, sees their character as fixed and determinative for their descendants. Hence the punishment that will be visited on their descendants is also predetermined: "I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel." The portion of the tribe of Shimon in the land of Israel was scattered throughout the territory of Yehudah. The tribe of Levi received no portion per se, only the cities of refuge, and they were destined, as Rashi puts it, to "go roundabout to the threshing floors collecting their trumot and ma'asrot."

It may be that their violent nature was a fixed part of their character - consider the Rabbis' statement that it was Shimon and Levi who hatched the plot against Yosef, and that Shimon was put in jail by Yosef to prevent him and Levi from destroying Mitzrayim - but it was not their destiny. They could still choose, in the words of R. Ashi, whether to be a surgeon or a bandit, whether a mohel or a murderer. While Shimon chose the path of destruction, Levi directed the trait of violence toward the service of God. When Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, defied the authority of God and Moshe by flagrantly fornicating with a Midianite woman in front of the Mishkan, shattering any boundaries of decency, it was Pinchas, a kohen of the tribe of Levi, who rose up and, in his religious zeal, executed Zimri and brought an end to the plague. Pinchas was able to use the trait of violence in the service of God.

Now, violence in the service of God is a dangerous concept, especially with the very real threat of fundamentalist violence and terrorism in the world today. In the case of Pinchas, it is important to note that it is doubtful whether he acted, as the Rabbis would have it, on his own zeal, or whether he was following the command of Moshe to the judges to execute those who had transgressed as a matter of law (Bamidbar, 25:5). Even according to the Rabbis, such violent zealousness was to be discouraged and severely limited. Similarly, the revolt of the Maccabees began with an act of violent religious zeal against a Jew who offered a sacrifice to the Greek gods, for which Matityahu is explicitly compared to Pinchas (see Maccabees II, 2:26). While this act sparked the revolt that ended with the miracle of Chanukah, it is interestingly absent from the Rabbinic literature. Violence in fighting against the occupying Seleucid Greeks was praised; violence against those who transgressed was bracketed. Violence is a dangerous trait, especially when fueled by religious zeal, but sometimes it does prove necessary.

This trait, then, is a dangerous one, but for the most part the Levites learned how to use it correctly and in the service of God. They followed Moshe's call to defend God's honor at Har Sinai after Israel sinned with the golden calf, this time acting on a direct order and in a judicial context, and in the Temple they became involved in the daily spilling of blood in the service of God through the tamed and sublimated form of animal sacrifices. Thus we find that in the blessing of Moshe, the blessing of the tribes at the end of Devarim, Levi is blessed while Shimon is passed over in silence. The tribe of Levi had redirected its character, and its curse was transformed into a blessing:

And of Levi he said, Let your Tummim and your Urim be with your pious one, whom you did test at Massah, and with whom you fought at the waters of Meribah; Who said to his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; nor did he acknowledge his brothers, nor knew his own children; for they have observed your word, and kept your covenant. They shall teach Jacob your judgments, and Israel your Torah; they shall put incense before you, and whole burnt sacrifice upon your altar (Devarim, 33:8-10).

Thus, even Yaakov's curse that they be scattered in Israel turned into a blessing, "And the Lord spoke to Aaron, You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any part among them; I am your part and your inheritance among the people of Israel. And, behold, I have given the sons of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, the service of the Tent of Meeting." (Bamidbar, 18:20-21). They have no inheritance in the land because they have God as their inheritance.

Our future - its specifics, its meaning, and its significance - is not fated or predetermined. It is what we make of it. It can be a curse, or it can be a blessing. Similarly, our traits do not determine who we are in our core essence: they are not our soul; they are not our identity. "'Cursed is their wrath' - Even when he criticized them, he only cursed their wrath [and not them]" (Rashi, Breishit, 49:7). People may have bad traits, but only the traits and how they are directed can be labeled as "bad." As Jews, as parents, and as people working on our own self-improvement, we need to believe that all people - ourselves, our children, those we care about -can choose to be good. Their traits may be bad; their actions may be bad, but as long as we retain our belief in the potential goodness of every person, as long as we criticize the traits and not the person, we can hope for and work towards change. And if we find that we cannot change our traits, at least we can find ways to direct them to the service of God and to live up to the model of Levi, the tribe chosen by God to serve God in God's Temple.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Vayigash sheet and share it with your friends and family.

"People Talking Without Speaking"

Silence is the last word one would use to characterize the climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers. Indeed, our parasha opens with Yehudah's heartfelt and impassioned plea to Yosef to free Binyamin. These words are so powerful in conveying Yehudah's unflinching loyalty to Binyamin and the anguish of his father Yaakov that Yosef can no longer contain himself; his emotions burst forth, and he reveals himself to his brothers. And if Yehudah's words can stir powerful, positive emotions, Yosef's words have the power to calm turbulent, potentially destructive ones: "Now, do not be anguished, and do not reproach yourselves that you have sold me here, for it is to be a source of life that God has sent me ahead of you" (Breishit, 45:4).

Even as the story reaches its dénouement there is much talking: talk of how to report back to Yaakov about what has happened; talk about how the land of Egypt is open to Yaakov and his family, and about how they should arrange their emigration from Canaan; talking to Yaakov about what has happened and his exclamation of wonderment at the news of Yosef; God's talking to Yaakov before he leaves Canaan; Yosef's talking to his brothers to prepare them for their meeting with Pharaoh; Pharaoh's talking to the brothers; Pharaoh's talking to Yaakov; and finally, Yaakov's blessing of Pharaoh. There is indeed much talking in this week's parasha, but in the midst of all the talking and the beehive of activity that surrounds it, there is a profound, poignant moment of silence:

And Yisrael said to Yosef, "I can now die, after that I have seen your face, that you are still alive." And Yosef said to his brothers and to his father's household, "I will go up and report to Pharaoh, and I will tell him, 'My brothers and my father's household from the Land of Canaan have come to me'" (46:30-31).

What just happened here? Yaakov and Yosef meet after a twenty-two year separation, Yaakov having believed Yosef to be dead but perhaps not so sure, perhaps suspecting that the brothers had something to do with the whole thing. And Yosef wondering who knows what... Perhaps he was thinking that his father didn't care that he was gone. Perhaps he suspected that his father was unconcerned with the dangers that had befallen him. Or perhaps he even believed that his father had conspired by sending him to his brothers when they were shepherding, knowing how much they hated him. But even if these troubling thoughts were not kept at bay, after hearing Yehudah's passionate speech Yosef certainly knew how bereaved his father felt and the serious toll his absence had taken on Yaakov.

And now, after twenty-two long years they finally reconcile, and Yaakov lets forth an exclamation of joy, joy tinged with his past suffering but joy nevertheless. And then what? Silence. Yosef does not respond: he does not say one word to his father. More exactly, there is not silence, but Yosef talks to all the wrong people: to his brothers and to his father's household but not to his father. And the talk is about all the wrong things: "Oh, let's go tell Pharaoh that you are here." The abrupt transition in these two verses is the conversational equivalent of, "Great to see you, Dad. Oh, look at the time. Gotta go." All the talking and all the business hold a profound silence. No one is talking about what needs to be discussed: not just, "I missed you so much. I can't believe we are together again," but also, "What really happened that day, twenty-two years ago?" "Why did you send me to check on my brothers, knowing how much they hated me?" What is being said instead is, "No, we'll talk about that later. There is too much to do now, too much other talking that needs to take place."

Simon and Garfunkel said it best:

People talking without speaking...
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.

"Fools" said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows."

The impassioned, heart-wrenching communication at the beginning of the parasha is replaced by a lot of pragmatic, businesslike talking at the end. The unspoken words continue to hover in the background. The silence grows like a cancer, eating away at Yosef and Yaakov from the inside, continuing to fester, preventing them from bringing these difficult issues to the surface so that they can be dealt with and resolved.

And the silence also grows like a wall to divide Yaakov and Yosef. It prevents them from ever truly connecting again on a deep, personal level. Yosef is too busy to talk to his father when he arrives and remains so through the rest of his life. When Yaakov finally speaks to Yosef again, it is at the end of Yaakov's life, on his deathbed, and it is for the very practical purpose of arranging for his own burial. During the exchange we find out that they have communicated so little that Yaakov does not even know his own grandchildren. He knows about them, but he does not recognize them: "And Yisrael saw the sons of Yosef, and he said, 'Who are these?' And Yosef said to his father, 'They are my sons'" (48:8-9). Because Yaakov and Yosef are not able to talk about the things that need to be said, they wind up talking about very little, or at least very little that really matters.

There is, finally, one moment when the silence is broken. But by then it is too late. For when Yaakov dies, Yosef's brothers grow fearful about how Yosef will now treat them: "And the brothers of Yosef saw that their father had died, and they said, 'Perhaps Yosef will now nurse his hatred against us, and return to us all the evil that we have done to him'" (50:15). So what did they do? They invented a conversation that never happened:

And they commanded that Yosef be told, "Your father commanded, before his death, saying: 'So shall you say to Yosef: Please forgive the iniquity of your brothers, and their trespass, for they have committed evil against you.' So now, please forgive the sin of the servants of your father's God." And Yosef wept when they spoke to him (50:16-17).

Why did Yosef weep? Perhaps it was because his brothers thought ill of him or suspected that he could still be harboring resentment about what had happened so many years ago. Perhaps it was because it pained him to see his brothers so anguished. But I believe he wept for a different reason: He wept because he realized that his father never said - never could have said - such a thing. His father had never and would never break the implicit pact of silence around these matters. He wept because what was said after his father's death - what had needed saying for so long-was never said in his father's life.

He wept for Yaakov, for Yaakov died having never had a chance to talk about what was eating away at him - his suspicions about Yosef's brothers and what they might have done - and he went to his grave with this cancer inside him. And he wept for himself, for never having been able to bring himself to talk to his father about his own suspicions and doubts, for never having been able to bring up all the messiness so that it could be expelled and a true relationship reestablished.

And he wept for his brothers: for his brothers who could not talk to him about these things before and who could not talk to him directly about their case even now, having to send someone to present it in their stead. He wept for his brothers who still could not talk about these things in their own voice, having to attribute them to their father Yaakov.

And perhaps he wept for his own silencing of his brothers: for the fact that he was so quick to forgive them when he first revealed himself to them that he did not give them a chance to talk about their guilt or their remorse. Here was a time when he needed to be silent so that others could be heard. To be forgiven before asking for forgiveness is a blessing, but it is also a curse. It silences voices that need to be heard. It prevents true healing from taking place.

We know well the power of speech. We know how words can kill and how they can heal. We must also know the power of silence. Silence can kill; it can kill a relationship, a friendship, or a marriage. But silence can also heal. A healing silence is one that does not cover up, avoid, or distract, but that makes space to listen, to open up, to allow another in, to allow another to speak. That is a silence that can give life. It is a silence that is a blessing to the soul: "There is a time to be silent, and a time to talk" (Kohelet, 3:7). Let us always know which is which so that both our talking and our silence bring with them life and healing for ourselves and for others.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Miketz sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Piety and Power - A Combustible Mix

The gemara asks, "What is Chanukah?" (Tractate Shabbat, 21b). The answer given is well known: the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. But according to Maharal, this answer makes no sense (Hidushei Aggadotad loc.). First, since when do we have holidays to celebrate miracles? Holidays celebrate days of national/religious significance - exodus, revelation, salvation - not miracles for their own sake. Moreover, the Al Ha'nissim prayer, the single recognition of Chanukah in the liturgy, makes no mention of the miracle of oil. Instead, it focuses on the victory against the Seleucid Greeks and the rededication of the Temple. This leads Maharal to question the very point of the miracle of oil. An examination of our parasha will help to answer his question.

Parashat Miketz presents us with two very different personalities: Yosef and Yehudah. Yosef is known by the Rabbis as Yosef Ha'Tzaddik, Yosef the Righteous. He is always thinking and talking about God. He cannot sleep with Potiphar's wife because it would be a sin to God. When he works for Potiphar, "his master saw that God was with him, and all that he did, God brought success at his hands" (Breishit, 39:3). The Rabbis explain that Potiphar saw that Yosef's success was due to God since "the name of God was constantly on his lips." His master would say, "Yosef, great job!" And Yosef would respond, "Baruch HaShem." His master would say, "Yosef, good work today," and Yosef would say, "Baruch HaShem."
Yosef sees God working through him; he sees God in all things. Yosef is captivated by his dreams not because they augur his future greatness, but because they are a message from God. God was communicating; how could he not be enraptured? Yosef tells first the wine steward and the baker, and later Pharaoh himself, that the true interpretation of the dreams belongs not to him, but to God. Tell me your dreams, says Yosef, and God will provide the interpretation through me.
There is tremendous religious power in constantly seeing God in the world and always giving God credit for one's good fortune and accomplishments. This worldview allows Yosef to console his brothers and to tell them not to blame themselves too much for what has happened: "Behold you did not send me here, but God" (45:8). But there is also a danger in this approach. If God is the author of all events, what happens to human responsibility? Were the brothers really blameless for selling Yosef into slavery? However much Yosef's descent into Egypt was part of the divine plan, this does not exonerate the brothers for their actions and their choices. God must be given credit, but in so doing, one cannot relinquish one's own - or another's - responsibility.

Yehudah is the opposite of Yosef. Yehudah never talks about God; he is all about personal responsibility. He had the courage to stand up and say, "I did it." He comes forward at the critical moment and admits that it was he who slept with Tamar. And when the other brothers fail, he alone is able to convince his father to send Binyamin down with them to Egypt. Why? Because he is ready to put himself on the line: "I will be a surety for him; of my hand shall you require him" (43:9). Yehudah is saying to his father, if something goes wrong then it will not matter who was at fault or who was to blame; I will be responsible. "If I bring him not unto you, and set him before you, then I will bear the blame to you forever." And Yehudah is as good as his word. At the fateful moment, it is he who steps forward willing to risk all, to give up his own freedom and become a slave to Yosef, to ensure that Binyamin may return safely to his father.

The entire story turns on that fateful encounter at the beginning of next week's parashava'yigash eilav Yehudah. The man of personal responsibility confronts the man of God. And Yehudah is triumphant. It was up to him to act and he did, and his taking of personal responsibility allowed God's plan to be realized. God works through us when we take responsibility for our own actions.
Yosef is indeed a tzaddik, but I wouldn't want a tzaddik running my business. I would want Yehudah as my CEO. And I would want Yehudah as my political leader. Indeed, it is from Yehudah that the kingly Davidic line descends. Our kings, our leaders, have to be able to say, "The buck stops here." But I would not want Yehudah as my spiritual leader. I would want Yosef as my spiritual guide, to remind me that no matter how much effort I expend or which choices I make, it is ultimately not kochi v'otzem yadi, my strength and my abilities alone, that have gotten me where I am. I need Yosef to remind me to deeply and sincerely say, "Baruch HaShem," to see God as the ultimate author of all of my success and good fortune, ki hu ha'noten likha koach la'asot chayil.

Which takes us back to Maharal's question: Why focus on the oil? Because, says Maharal, if we only spoke about the miracle of the military victory and the dedication of the Temple, we might come to think that it was all our doing. We might fail to see God's hidden hand. The visible miracle of the oil allowed the people to see the hidden miracle of the war, that the victory was both theirs and God's.

At the time of the Maccabees there were those who clung to Yosef's approach alone. According to Maccabees I, the Pietists refused to take up arms and fight the Greeks, refusing even to defend themselves on Shabbat. One can imagine their reasoning: "If God wants to save us, then let God bring about a miracle." The Maccabees rejected this. Their way of thinking would have gone something like this: "It is up to us. We must do what is necessary, and this is what God wants." The Maccabees embodied the fusing of Yehudah and Yosef. They were the miracle of the war and the miracle of the oil.

This synthesis is actually part of the Al Ha'nissim prayer. Even though it only speaks of the military victory, the prayer mentions the victory of God and not the victory of the Hasmoneans. "Ravta et riveinu, danta et dineinu," "You, God, fought our battles, came to our defense." This was the war that we fought and the miracle that You, God, brought about.

The fusion of Yosef and Yehudah can come in different forms. In one, a religious person, a Yosef, knows that he or she must show initiative and take responsibility for his or her choices, not waiting for God to control events or act through him or her. In another, a leader, a Yehudah, is able to look back on his or her accomplishments and see God's hand in all. But there is one fusion that can be dangerous and potentially destructive. This is when a Yosef is also a Yehudah, when a religious leader is invested with political power. Such a person might not just look back at his choices and thank God; he or she might make choices - choices that affect the lives of thousands if not millions of people - with the absolute and unwavering confidence that those choices are God's will. We have to look no further than Iran and ISIS for object lessons on what happens when a religious leader is also a political leader.

This, says Ramban, was the sin of the Hasmoneans (Breishit, 49:10). The kingship was the sole right of the descendants of Yehudah, but the Hasmoneans were kohanim from the tribe of Levi. Their task was to be religious leaders, not political ones: "And they should not have reigned, but rather to have devoted themselves to the Divine worship." Power and piety do not easily mix. True piety requires humility, and power often begets arrogance. Those with power must take personal responsibility for their choices without invoking God to justify their actions, for when the latter happens, many are bound to suffer as a result. Our response to our own choices should not be "because God has told me so,"  but rather, "anokhi e'ervenu," "I am taking full responsibility, right or wrong." Our response to our successes, however, must be "baruch HaShem." When we invoke God's name it should be, as we say on Chanukkah, "li'hodot u'lihallel li'shimkha ha'Gadol," to give thanks and praise to God's great name.

Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov and Chanukah Sameach!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Vayeshev sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Women Navigating a Man's World

The story of Yehuda and Tamar is often understood to be Yehuda's story, but it is also Tamar's story. It is the story not of a leader or a person in a position of power, but of someone without power and without a voice. It is the story of how a woman in a patriarchal society is able to influence those with power, to right the wrongs done to her, and to help others do what is right.

Tamar cannot directly challenge those above her, for the powerless cannot simply confront the powers that be. She is silent and raises no objection when Yehuda tells her that she must marry Sheila, his youngest son. Yehuda is not being straight with her: "for he said, lest he die just like his brothers" (38:11). We can assume that she was not fooled by this excuse. But what could she do? Yehuda was the man and the head of the family; she had no choice but to take him at his word. So she says nothing; she goes, she sits, and she waits: "And Tamar went, and she sat in her father's home" (38:11).

If she cannot succeed through a direct appeal, then an indirect approach is called for. And so, when many years have passed and there is no question that Yehuda is not going to live up to his word, she takes matters into her own hands. Taking advantage of his state of sexual neediness, she dresses as a prostitute and acts - through deception - to right the wrong.

At this point, we are familiar with the use of clothing to misrepresent and deceive. Rivka dressed Yaakov with Esav's garments so that he could present himself as his brother. But the outcomes of the two stories are radically different. Yaakov's and Rivka's deception led to great suffering: Yaakov flees in exile, labors for twenty years, and is himself deceived by Lavan. Tamar's deception, in contrast, leads to the acknowledgement of her righteousness and the birth of two children, one whom will be the forbearer of the Davidic line.

To appreciate the differences between these two stories we must first appreciate the parallels, and the parallels are striking. The key woman in each story - Rivka in one, Tamar in the other - gives birth to twins. Both sets of twins - Yaakov and Esav, Peretz and Zarach - fight in utero for who will be the true firstborn son. In both stories, clothing is used to misrepresent a person's identity and a kid goat plays a key role in the deception. In both narratives the word yaker, to recognize, is central and represents the turning point of events. "Lo hi'kiro," Yitzchak did not recognize at the key moment that the person before him was not Esav, not the intended son, and blessed him. In parallel, at the critical moment of our story we read, "va'yaker Yehuda"; Yehuda recognized the cloak and staff and acknowledged that he was the true father.

The purpose of these parallels, however, is not to show us that the two stories are the same, but to highlight their differences. In the Rivka story, the presence of the goat skins deceived. Because of the goat skins on Yaakov's hands, Yitzchak believed him to be Esav: vi'lo hi'kiro. In the Tamar story the absence of a goat stripped away the deception. Because he had no goat, Yehuda gave his cloak, staff and signet ring, markers of a person's true identity and because he had given these items, va'yaker Yehudah, the truth came to light.

While both Rivka and Tamar use an indirect and perhaps less than fully honest approach, the critical question is how it is being used. Is it being used to deceive and lead someone astray, or to educate and encourage someone to live up to his commitments and responsibilities? Rivka did what she did despite Yitzchak and with disregard for his desires. Yitzchak was not doing anything unusual or wrong in trying to give his blessing to his firstborn son. If it was wrong, it was only so because God told Rivka that the older son would serve the younger one. But she seems to have never shared that communication with Yitzchak. Because she had not been forthright earlier, she now had to act in a way contrary to Yitzchak's wishes and desires.

The reverse is true for Tamar. There was no question where Yehuda's obligation lay; he had to marry his next son to Tamar. Tamar acted not only to do what she thought right, but also to help Yehuda do what he himself knew was the right thing to do. As Ramban points out, the concept of levirate marriage seems to have existed before it was commanded in the Torah, and at this earlier time the obligation would have extended to other family members beyond the brother of the deceased. If Sheila was not going to marry Tamar, it was Yehuda's responsibility to do so himself.

Tamar's goals were not the only difference from Rivka. Her method was different as well. While Tamar dressed as a prostitute, she did not trick Yehuda into doing something he did not want to do. Yehuda knowingly and willingly chose to hire a prostitute. Tamar's actions allowed him to do what he desired, to sleep with another woman, and in so doing, also enabled him to do the right thing by fulfilling his obligation to his daughter-in-law. The contrast goes even deeper. Rivka, although motivated by her belief in what was right, nevertheless took away what belonged to one brother to give it to another. Tamar, on the other hand, restored to a brother what was his due. The act of the levirate marriage is one of self-sacrifice of one brother for another. Knowing that "the seed would not be his," the living brother is called upon nevertheless to sire a child that will carry on his dead brother's name. Onan would have none of this - he betrayed his brotherly obligation and died as a result - and Yehuda continued to delay its fulfillment. It was left to Tamar to step in, remind Yehuda of his obligation, and ensure that this brotherly obligation would be fulfilled.

While Rivka's deception put a man who was already blind more in the dark, Tamar's actions led to the restoration of Yehuda's moral sight. It is thus no accident that, when dressed as a prostitute, Tamar sits "b'petach einayim," "in the open place," but also, more literally, "at the opening of the eyes." Her actions enabled Yehuda to see clearly: va'yaker Yehuda.

As a powerless woman in a male-dominated society, like Rivka before her, Tamar could not take the direct approach. She could try, as Rivka had, to use subterfuge to trick Yehuda and bend him to her will. Doing this is not only morally problematic. As the aftermath of Yaakov's subterfuge demonstrates, even if this deception is successful in the short term, it is bound to lead to suffering and strife. Tamar chose to do what was right, and what was right was also what was most effective. Rather than tricking the person in power, she helped him to see the light.

We are taught that Tamar does not directly accuse Yehuda when she is about to be burned because she did not want him to suffer public embarrassment. This is a valuable moral lesson, but it is not the reason she avoided direct confrontation. Had she directly challenged Yehuda, she would have failed. Yehuda would have denied that he was involved, and she would have been executed. Instead, Tamar places the identifying items in front of him and then steps back. She gives Yehuda the space to accept responsibility and to do what is right. And Yehuda steps forward and owns that responsibility.

While the story of Rivka's deception begins with the struggle of the younger and older brother; the story of Tamar ends with one. Peretz also struggled with his twin brother, but he did not come out holding onto his older brother's heel. He won the fight and legitimately came out first. Peretz was the son of Tamar and Yehuda, of a mother who knew that one who lacks power must nevertheless always do what is right, and of a father who had learned that one who wields power must not allow it to blind him to the right course of action. Many generations later, Boaz, a descendant of Peretz, will come to recognize where his true obligations lay through the actions of Ruth, another woman honestly navigating a man's world. Their descendants will become the future leaders of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom!