Only a Motion/Moment Away – Shabbat Vayigash 5776 (2015)

“No, I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day, but the mother and child reunion is only a motion away…”

So begins Paul Simon’s 1971 classic ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ Its lines have been running around my head all week. “Only a motion away.”

Parashat Vayigash tells the tale of Jacob and Joseph’s reunion after twenty two years.

“He had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to point the way before him to Goshen. So when they came to the region of Goshen, Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while. Then Israel said to Joseph, ‘Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.’” [Genesis 46:28-30]

Weeping and embracing – a kiss and a cry – are the “motion” of this father and child reunion. And, says Rashi, the weeping is profuse and continuous, more than usual (ba’bekhi yoteir min ha’ragil). The Torah’s wording leaves open the question of who weeps and who embraces. Is it Jacob or is it Joseph? The answer to that question shapes and shifts the tone and texture of the story in interesting ways.

Ramban suggests that Jacob weeps and kisses his beloved son, explaining himself with a pair of rhetorical questions – “By whom are tears more easily shed? By the aged parent who finds his long-lost son alive, or by the young man who is a ruler?” Jacob moves toward Joseph, allowing his emotions to flow and overflow, while Joseph remains in his new role as ruler, unable to set his ego aside in order to be fully present to his aged father.

Rashi reads it the other way around. “Jacob, however, neither fell on Joseph’s neck nor kissed him. Our Sages said that he was reciting the Shema.” Now it’s Joseph who fully occupies this tender moment of reconciliation, while Jacob remains stuck in his ideological and religious commitments, unable to interrupt his prayer in order to embrace his long-lost son.

I’d like to suggest a third possibility. The Torah’s ambiguous language strikes me as intentional, a conscious choice on the part of the author(s) that leaves it to us as readers to spin out the possibilities. Ramban and Rashi choose, but perhaps there is no need to take sides. Rather, let’s imagine that the embrace and the tears are mutual, that both Jacob and Joseph set their self-protective instincts aside and embrace the chance for reconciliation and reunion as they embrace one another.

The message to us? Set aside ego, overcome yetzer, kiss, weep, and reconcile. Hard, but worth it. Or to paraphrase the closing words of Paul Simon’s great song: “Oh, the father and child reunion is only a motion away; Oh, the father and child reunion is only a moment away.” Only a motion/moment away.

Shabbat Shalom.

Hanging On to Hanukkah

Hanukkah is over. No more dreidel games, no more latkes, no more sufganiyot (jelly filled doughnuts), no more candles and blessings and songs. For 5776 the Festival of Lights is finished. Why then, I wonder, are our Hanukkiot still out on their tray, filled with hardened wax after eight light filled nights?

The truth is, I’m not ready, yet, to pack up the menorot and to begin the long wait until next year. I’d like to hang on to Hanukkah for a little bit longer…Yes, we have finished making more and more light for this year; and yes, the moon has begun its return in this new month of Tevet. But let’s face it, it’s still plenty dark out there, and more of the inner spirit of our celebration would do us and the world a lot of good.

In his great work of halakha, a collection of comments and essays known as the Beit Yosef, R. Yosef Karo (Spain, Turkey, Eretz Yisrael, 16th century) wonders aloud why Hanukkah lasts eight nights and not seven. After all, there was nothing miraculous about the oil burning on the first night; there was always enough for one night! His answer to his own challenge includes the suggestion that the miracle of each night was that the oil replenished itself. “On the first night they placed the oil in the menorah and it burned all night. In the morning they found the menorah (still) filled with oil. And so on for each of the nights.” [Tur, Orah Haim 570]

Let’s ask Karo’s question in reverse. Why does the miracle of self refilling come to an end after eight nights? Why wouldn’t it continue? Shouldn’t it? On these nights after Hanukkah I find myself longing for the lights of the past week to continue. I want Hanukkah’s joy and spirituality to last much more than a week.

The point of these eight days, I suggest, has been to wake ourselves up to our own potential to bring wondrous light into the world. We’re meant to learn that we can make light and then use that light to produce even more. We’re invited to observe that light once kindled not only doesn’t go out, it actually renews and replenishes itself.

Yes, Hanukkah is over. The call to us is to keep the lights on. We know the answer to darkness. Now it’s our time to turn the deep spiritual lesson of this past week into steadfast, determined, and long-lasting action.

Compassion is THE Way – Shabbat Hanukkah/Mikketz 5776 (2015)

Sibling relationships gone awry is one of the central motifs of Genesis. For weeks now we’ve encountered the painful tales of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. This Shabbat takes us to the heart of Bereshit’s longest and most intricate tale of family disunity, the artfully told story of Jacob’s sons, of Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous siblings, has risen to prominence and power in Egypt as Pharaoh’s second in command. Married to the daughter of an Egyptian priest, he is now the father of two, and the director of Egypt’s effort to endure a famine afflicting the entire world. That very famine brings Joseph together with his brothers after many years. In search of food, Jacob’s remaining sons travel to Egypt where they are greeted by “the vizier of the land…who dispensed rations to all the people of the land.” (Genesis 42:6)

Joseph recognizes them immediately; they, however, do not recognize him at all. In a few short lines, the Torah describes the widest possible chasm among siblings. “When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them.” (Genesis 42:7) The Hebrew for ‘acted like a stranger,’ va’yitnaker aleikhem, carries a sense of foreign-ness. Joseph has actually become “other;” no longer ‘us,’ he is now ‘them,’ utterly unrecognizable.

Can such a gulf be bridged? What might repairing such a breach look like? In the flow of the story, it takes the presence of Benjamin, Joseph’s lone full brother, to begin the process of reconciliation and reconnection. On their next trip to Egypt to procure food, the brothers bring Benjamin along. The moment in which Joseph first sees Benjamin after so many years serves as the major hinge in the narrative. Hear the Torah’s poignant description: “And he raised his eyes and saw Benjamin his brother, his mother’s son, and he said, ‘Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?’ And he said, ‘God be gracious to you, my son.’ And Joseph hurried out, for his feelings for his brother overwhelmed him and he wanted to weep, and he went into the chamber and wept there.” (Robert Alter translation) [Genesis 43:29-30]

The Midrash beautifully and evocatively expands the moment, imagining a lengthy conversation between the brothers. “He asked him: My son, do you have a brother? He (Benjamin) said to him: I had a brother but I do not know where he went. He (Joseph) said to him: Do you have a wife? He (Benjamin) said to him: I have a wife and ten children. He said to him: What are their names? (After listing and explaining the names of his sons) Joseph asked: Why did you give them these names? He said to him: I named all of them after the name of my brother… At that moment ‘his feelings for his brother overwhelmed him’ (lit. his compassion – rahamav – burned hot).” [Bereshit Rabbah 93]

Joseph’s sense of compassion, his warm feeling for his brother, is aroused by Benjamin’s affirmation that he, Joseph, has not been forgotten. Despite the dramatically different trajectories of their lives, these brothers remain connected to one another. Joseph – the cultivated, sophisticated, Egyptian dignitary – and Benjamin – the sheltered, youngest son of an Israelite shepherd – narrow the gap between them by opting for the path of mercy. Strangeness can be overcome with compassion.

The Torah’s narrative contrasts powerfully with a difficult wrinkle in the most ‘historical’ version of the Hanukkah story available to us. The First Book of Maccabees hints at a violent internal struggle within the Jewish community of the Land of Israel under Hellenistic rule. Mattathias and his sons rebel not only against the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes IV but also against fellow Jews who “gladly adopted his religion, sacrificing to idols and profaning the Sabbath.” “Mattathias and his friends went about and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel…” [1 Maccabees 1:43, 2:45-46] Perhaps the gap of that time was too wide to bridge. Perhaps no amount of rahmanut – mercy and compassion – would have sufficed. Perhaps.

We live in a moment marked by deep and difficult divisions within the Jewish community. To my ear, our story feels more like Joseph’s and Benjamin’s than Mattithias’s. We face challenges galore coupled with utterly unprecedented freedom to be ourselves. Among our greatest challenges is that of keeping the extended family called the Jewish people together. Like Benjamin and Joseph, we disagree and differ about much; and yet, like Joseph and Benjamin, we remain deeply connected to one another. What will it take to bridge the gaps that divide us from one another?

The ancient rabbis chose a remarkable passage from the prophet Zechariah as the haftarah for the Shabbat of Hanukkah. I wonder if they had the sorts of divisions we face in mind when they opted for these words as the tagline of this week’s prophetic message: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.” [Zechariah 4:6] That Divine spirit, it seems to me, begins and ends with the kind of mercy and compassion exhibited by Joseph and Benjamin in Parashat Mikketz. The way to reconciliation lies down that path.

Shabbat Shalom, Hodesh Tov, & Hag Urim Sameah.

Light Against the Darkness – Hanukkah 5776 (2015)

The Talmud tells a quite amazing story about Adam ha’Rishon – the very first human being.

“Our Rabbis taught: When the first human (Adam ha’Rishon) saw the day growing gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is growing darker and returning to its state of chaos and confusion (tohu va’vohu); this must be the death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter solstice and took note of the days growing increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course’ (minhago shel ‘olam), and so he kept an eight days’ festival. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry.” [Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 8a]

Long before the Maccabees, the first human being created an eight day festival to be observed at this time of the year whose purpose was to celebrate the return of the light after the winter solstice! Hanukkah without history, OR, Hanukkah as a statement about the fundamental experience of human life.

Deepening darkness fills us with fear, one piece of which is the worry that we will never again see light. The first human faced that darkness directly and viscerally; so too the terror and fear experienced by Adam ha-Rishon. We encounter darkness in other ways. Violent acts of terror and a sense of a world gone mad, are the predominant themes in this darkest month of this year. We know that the light will return, the moon will come back, days will again lengthen, because we’ve seen it before. We possess the perspective born of experience that the first human being lacked. The darkness of an off kilter universe, however, feels truly and deeply scary. To paraphrase the great winter-time jazz standard, “baby, it’s dark outside.”

What do we do about all the darkness? How ought we to respond? Our original ancestor’s response proceeds in stages – self blame, panic, observation, recognition of larger patterns – but it notably does not include inciting hatred, blaming others, or adding darkness to darkness. Too much response in our current moment does all of that and more. These last days of Hanukkah, mirrored by the eight day festival inaugurated by Adam ha-Rishon, offer us the model response. In the face of darkness, even deepening darkness, make more light. Over the next two nights the sky is at its darkest point of the entire year, the combined effect of long nights and very little moon. Our job in the world is to illuminate the darkness. Not the other way around.

Hag Urim Sameah! Happy Hanukkah!

Choosing Well – Shabbat Vayeshev 5776 (2015)

This Shabbat we meet Joseph, stepping into the Torah’s longest sustained narrative, a tale that fills four weekly parashiot and covers fourteen chapters of the Book of Genesis. It’s quite a story.

Young Joseph, his father’s favorite, dreams big and irritates his brothers in like fashion. So much so that they fake his death and sell him into slavery. A few twists and turns down the road, we encounter Joseph serving as personal attendant and head of household to a man named Potiphar, Pharaoh’s courtier and chief steward. Along the way we learn that “Joseph was well built and handsome” – y’feh toar viy’feh marah. [Genesis 39:6]

His good looks draw the attention of Potiphar’s wife who invites Joseph to “lie with me.” [Genesis 39:7] Her advance takes place on a day when none of the household is in the house, a detail that enables the rabbinic tradition, along with other ancient interpreters, to imagine that Joseph is not an innocent victim but a co-conspirator. As R. Yohanan suggests in the Talmud’s expanded retelling of the story, “the two of them had planned to sin together.” The Talmud goes on to explain that that day was an Egyptian holiday and all the members of Potiphar’s household were out observing the festival. Potiphar’s wife, however, called in sick, in order to stay home with Joseph. Again, the Talmud’s words: “She had said (to herself) that there was no day in which she might indulge herself with Joseph like this day!”

At the last moment, however, Joseph doesn’t go through with the plan. What happened? Says the Talmud, “at that moment the image of his father entered and appeared to him in the window.” [Talmud Bavli, Sotah 36b] The picture of Jacob, (which turns out also to speak!) literally pulls Joseph back from the brink. Jacob reminds Joseph that he is the head of one of the tribes of Israel, a person with both a lineage and a legacy. That reminder keeps Joseph on the straight and narrow.

What really happens when Joseph looks in the window/mirror? In Freudian terms, his superego overtakes his id. In rabbinic language, his yetzer ha’tov conquers his yetzer ha’ra – his inclination to do good defeats his inclination to submit to his desires. From either vantage point, the story of Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife, as understood by the rabbis of the Talmud, suggests that every moment of our lives represents a choice. We’re always deciding from among different versions of our own selves. By and large, superego is a wiser choice than id. And in the language of the rabbis, yetzer ha-tov beats yetzer ha’ra every time.

Shabbat Shalom.