Secrets & Courage

I had the great privilege of leading my Congregation’s Shabbat service tonight, what follows is the d’var from that service.

This week’s Torah portion is vayeishev, essentially the story of Joseph.  Often we who are not great Torah scholars think of Joseph as the story of the multicolored dreamcoat – perhaps you are old enough to remember that.  In my case it puts me in mind of a beautiful song written by the great song writer Dolly Parton called the Coat of Many Colors.  Both of these cultural references to the story of Joseph’s coat present a fairly sweet or optimistic picture.  Unfortunately, the story of Joseph is not, overall, a happy one.

My wonderful seventh level religious school class has been working through the early portions in the book of Genesis and each and every one is about family relationships; parents and children, brother and brother, husband and wife.  And most of these stories are full of conflict, violence or at the least deception.  And Joseph’s story is much the same, his brothers hate  him and he is exiled, going from place to place, away from his family.  Oddly he is generally oblivious to their hatred, tremendous self absorption.  But it is important to note here that no matter where Joseph went, through all his travels and travails even when he was the only Jew in Egypt, he determinedly retained his identity as a Jew.

What my students discerned is that in all these stories, there is a missing piece, much midrash but a big missing piece.  And that is the communication, the dialogues, the conversations that must have taken place between family members.  We are told the action, the facts of what happened, but not what was said.  It is hard to imagine that Cain and Abel went from nothing to murder with no talking or interactions between.  Or that Isaac trudged up the mountain with his father in complete silence.  These conversations are left to our imagination.  One hopes that the conversations took place and were just lost in the telling and retelling of the stories.  So it is with Joseph and his family, we know what happened but not what was said.

This portion generally falls on or near Chanukah so the challenge is to find the connection.  A side note here, the Chanukah story is not in the Torah or the Hebrew bible as a whole.  It was in the two books of Maccabees but when the Hebrew bible was canonized, the Rabbis left them out.  The Catholics, interestingly, did not – they included them.  There are many theories and as with so much of our tradition,  a great stew of debate.  But I digress.

This time of year is a time when many end their lives either intentionally or by simply giving up. And how much of that stress and sadness finds its roots in family relations, quite a lot  I think. And how much family dysfunction is a result of a failure of communication?  Again, quite a lot I think.  How many of us have families in which there are secrets? Those things we “don’t tell mom” or “don’t tell dad”.  In my family it depends on the subject as to who we don’t tell.  How many conversations have you had with family members in which you began or ended with the words “don’t tell…..”.  There are many reasons to keep secrets, some good, some not so much.

Maybe the story of Joseph is meant to remind us to bravely retain our identities, to fight for them as bravely as the Maccabees did to be public Jews.  This is the crux of the Chanukah story.  Maybe it is also to remind us to speak kindly to one another, to overcome our difficulties with family members, to listen to each other’s feelings and needs.  And maybe to remind us to reach out to the isolated, lonely, sorrowing or frightened among us.  To remember that a kind word or a civil dialogue can have enormous impact on someone or on a relationship.

As we light our channukiahs in the window, because we can, to symbolize our religious freedom, let us be proud of who we are and teach our children thus.   And may we be free from the bondage of silence, conflict, disunity and hatred.  Let us all be a light for kindness, freedom and peace.  Shabbat Shalom.

Shemot ~ Redemption and Terrorism

It is impossible to have been unaffected by the terrible events that transpired in France this week. And the Torah portion for this past week, Shemot, ends with a promise of redemption; ironic timing. So much happens in the parshat that choosing one thing to write of is problematic. Joseph has passed away and the people Israel are multiplying. Perhaps for this reason Pharoah and thus all Egypt changes its view of the Israelites, seeing them as a threat. “A new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph”. The new king orders the death of all male Jewish babies and bravely, the midwives Shifrah and Puah refuse this command. As a result of this refusal, the Egyptians are commanded to throw all the babies into the river.

Moses is born to Yocheved and is raised by Pharoah’s daughter. He commits murder and flees, marrying Tzipporah and becoming a shepherd. While herding at the foot of Sinai, the burning bush appears and G-d commands him to return and demand that Pharoah “let his people go.” He does and, in short, is unsuccessful such that the suffering of the Jews is multiplied despite their belief in Moses that redemption is at hand.

In the space of a single generation, the lives and fate of the Jews is abruptly changed from a reasonably peaceful and presumably prosperous presence in Egypt to a feared and despised presence with the murder of their male children a priority of the culture. In the space of how many single generations has this happened to the Jews, the rise of anti-Semitism and the near complete destruction of the Jewish population in the Shoah. The inquisition and the forced conversion or death of the Jews of Spain.

How quickly public attitudes, fears and prejudices shift and change. The terrible rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment throughout Europe, really in the space of generation or so, in this the third largest Jewish population in the world.

The swiftness of this shift is frightening and, coming in the wake of Chanukah, a festival of freedom poses a powerful lesson. Freedom, liberty and security are not to be taken for granted. The mundane, grocery shopping, turns to a nightmare at the hands of a terrorist with a gun in the blink of an eye; a cup of coffee in an Israeli café is blown to bits on a sunny day. We light our candles in the window because we can, because we declare ourselves publicly as Jews, as proud and as free. But we are at risk in doing so. Can we be as brave as Shifrah and Puah, resisting the public bent to anti-Semitism, speaking aloud our horror and resistance to acts of terror and physically violent anti-Semitic behavior?

Moses returns to speak with G-d and bemoans the difficulty of the lives of the Israelites and G-d’s response is the promise of redemption. But we do not have the luxury to wait for a modern redemption, G-d gave us will, G-d gave us choice and G-d gave us the ability to act. And act we must. If I am not for myself who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I. If not now, when? And so, what we learned “at Sinai’s foot” we need to attend ~ freedom is every and it is not easy.

And special thanks to Rabbi Joe Black for sparking this train of thought.