Shabbat Miketz: All of a Sudden, Change

You know where you stand, you know your path forward, you’ve spent time deciding what your future is going to look like. And then something happens, all of a sudden, and your plans….they get eaten up like the seven fat cows of Pharaoh’s dream.

Every year we read parashat Miketz on a Shabbat that coincides with Hanukkah. Every year Joseph is suddenly snatched from a dungeon and hurried before the Egyptian throne. Whatever he had imagined for his future disappeared suddenly, and a new reality confronted him. He was alone, surrounded by strangers, without resources.

Except for one very important resource. As the text tells us, when he is asked to show what he’s capable of, Joseph says clearly that his strength and his vision are not his, but the inspiration and blessing of his G*d.

What does he mean, and how can we relate?

Each of us is alone in our skin and in our dreams, as in our hopes and our fears. In the days and weeks since the U. S. presidential election, a growing sense of vulnerability has begun to eclipse the fairer aspects of the autonomy – the individuality – of our lives. While we may cherish our time alone, no one wants to be lonely. More, to be alone is to be isolated in ways that may be dangerous.

We know it: the only thing you can count on in life is that change happens. As the Yiddish folk saying goes, man tracht und Gott lakht, “we make plans and G*d laughs.” We can attempt to deny it and keep going in the path in which we’ve already invested our time and our dreams, but day by day we will only become more out of touch, and more pathetic.

I once officiated at the burial of a woman who lived alone. It was two weeks before they found her. Long walks by yourself in the woods or on the beach are one thing, but there is nothing uplifting about that kind of solitude that leaves you without support when you need it most.

I worked with the Jewish community of Kiev during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and saw Soviet citizens at a loss for a sense of identity and belonging in the post-Soviet era they were entering, very much against their will. Jews were among the minority groups who had an ironic advantage; the Jewishness that had been held against them in the Soviet system gave them a fallback – although they didn’t know much about it, their Jewish identity was there for the exploring. Jewish communities formed with great rapidity and passion in those days.

Like Joseph, those Jews were vulnerable and without resources – except for one. The memory of where they came from and its teachings was still there for them, and as they sought it out, it strengthened them. Through the communities they formed and the support they gave each other, they experienced inspiration and blessing. As the Jewish mystics would say, they evoked G*d’s presence in their midst, and thus they knew strength and support and hope.

The same thing happened to the Maccabees in the Hanukkah story. The same thing can happen to us. Change happens, uproots our expectations, upends our lives. And when in response a small group of individuals comes together, supports each other, in so doing they create something holy.

All of a sudden. May it happen to us.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Advertisements

Shabbat VaYeshev: Return, O Light, and We will Return to You

This is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, the light of the sun returns to us, slowly, day by day.

Darkness settles on us human beings like an oppressive cloak. Like Jacob and his sons in our parashat hashavua, we might even lose our grip on what’s real, and what’s really important. The darkness of their jealousy causes his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and allow his father to believe that he is dead. The darkness of his grief turns Jacob away from his remaining sons. Love leads to hurt, becomes betrayal, and mires a family in misery.

The wisdom of our ancient tradition does not tell us to avoid darkness – we’ve been around too long to believe in such a possibility. Rather, we are invited to note that the eye has both a dark part and a white part, and it is out of the dark part that we see. (R. Berekhiah b’Rabi, Midrash Tanhuma to Exodus, commenting on Psalm 18.29) Light blinds the eye; it is only in darkness that we are able to see light.

Joseph, cast into the darkness of an Egyptian dungeon, embodies this insight. It is not by betrayal and hate that he is able to climb up out of that darkness. When he is offered success in Egyptian terms, he consistently applies the ethical terms he learned from his own tradition to those opportunities. His steady honesty leads toward blessings he can see in the greater light that dawns for him and, ultimately, for all Egypt, as he is able to use his position to create public policy to forestall the worst effects of a multi-year famine.

Some of us have been cast down into our own dungeons of darkness, flirting with despair and with helplessness, in these dark days. It has been harder to remember to be gentle with those we love, and kind to those with whom we share our communities. It is not only personal grief that turns one inward and can lead to more hurt than necessary. It’s not easy to find the strength that Joseph had, to banish the darkness through steady connection to one’s ethics and honesty. 

How did Joseph manage it? What allowed him to see the light in the midst of the darkness that surrounded him? According to our tradition, it was because he never forgot the place from which he came and the people who came before him. He was able to see much more than light; because he remembered who he was and where he was from, he was able to see light’s Source.

We are taught that each of us is a reflection of G*d. That does not mean that we look, physically, like G*d. What we “see,” in the reflection that is each of us, is not carried on the wavelength of visible light. It is memory that communicates the resemblance between Creator and Creation. Memory is not a personal reverie; it is a collective, pulsing river of light, carrying the story of who we are, back and forth, all life long, creating us and forming G*d. Each individual’s memory illuminates a small part of the darkness that surrounds us.    

And so Hanukkah comes to remind us, just exactly at the right time, that darkness is nothing but an invitation to believe in our ability to kindle light, and to see in that light much more than the present reality it illuminates. Our Havdalah candle tomorrow evening leads directly to the kindling of the first light of the Hanukkiyah, as if already to encourage us to see how the spark becomes a bigger flame when we remember all the Hanukkah holidays that have come before, and all those who kindled light before us.

This, we pray, is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, may light of our own kindling return to us, slowly, day by day.

Shabbat Miketz: Life Comes At You Fast

This week’s parashah is Miketz, which literally translates as “at the end”. In the Torah’s context, it refers to the end of two years’ time during which Joseph languishes, forgotten, in an Egyptian dungeon. The word ketz, “end”, is short and sharp. It echoes another key word of the parashah, vayikatz, which refers to the way in which Pharaoh startles awake after a disturbing dream, not once but twice as the parashah unfolds its tale.

The overall impact is of language which startles with its abruptness. Life changes just that quickly: one carries on for endless days until, suddenly and shockingly, everything changes. Pharaoh is shocked out of sleep and complacency; Joseph is hauled up out of the dungeon with no warning, brought to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. We go on day by day with our lives, consuming fossil fuels or throwing things “away”, until, suddenly, the reality of climate change bursts upon us, and we have to have emergency meetings in Paris.

Life seeems to change that quickly. Even when we have a sense of warning, and think we have time to prepare, the actual moment of impact can be shockingly sudden. 

But the work of that change is actually slow, even plodding, and full of blind alleys. What seems a sudden sprouting is really the result of greater forces at work than we can possibly manage, or even discern – not to mention the forces that grind themselves out before their impact can become known. Once again we realized that we are not in control of our lives, nor of what happens to us. 

As is often said, all we can control is our response. And we sabotage our responses in many ways: we become afraid to move, we underestimate our capacity to act, we let the momentary imbalance of the shock send us into a rabbit hole of panic. 

This all sounds very personal, but it is also global. We are who we are, regardless of the scale.  And it is true that, in ways we do not easily feel in our bones, our individual responses have meaning.

We can choose as individuals to join a march to express our individual convictions, to commit to some small act to lighten our single demand on the planet, to reach for a new degree of kavvanah, mindfulness, in all our acts – and in so doing discover that many others are marching, committing, and reaching in the same way. 

During this dark time, as we struggle with so many invitations to despair, I offer you one specific act to heighten the meaning of the Hanukkah menorah you light this year (I recommend doing it on the 8th night, when the menorah is fully ablaze):  https://www.vsgoliath.org/action/blacklivesmatter-chanukah/. One small way to say to the forces of evil that they will not win. We have their number.

Life comes at us fast – but Shabbat is here to give us a moment to focus, and that slows everything down just enough. This evening we mark T’ruah’s call for a national Human Rights Shabbat. Spend some time on this Shabbat, in shul with your community if you can, lighting a candle, and meditating in its light upon how together we can help each other not to panic, to recognize our ability to respond, and then, to do so to the best of our ability.

shabbat shalom and Hanukkah sameakh!

Shabbat VaYigash: Who Are You Before You Were Hurt?

On this Shabbat the terrible game ends: brothers stop terrifying brothers, a parent is relieved of a horrifying lie, and we see the cessation of a generational dysfunction, all because of one – or, actually, two – heroic individuals.

The parashat hashavua (the Torah reading of the week) is named for the key act that brings the entire unhealthy structure down: vayigash, “he drew near”. It describes the heroism of Judah, fourth son of Leah and Jacob. When all seems lost and the brothers are convinced that they are to die, or at least to become slaves for the rest of their lives in Egypt, Judah finds the courage and the wisdom that it takes to “draw near” the threatening man who is second only to Pharaoh over all the land. Judah is able to ascertain what to say, and, more importantly, he understands good timing. 

Judah is not the oldest brother – he’s fourth in a long line of twelve. Nothing special about that – but that Judah makes his place special through his willingness to learn from experience and do the right thing even when it might cost him.

Judah risks it all, and he turns the tide. No one dies. And as the terror subsides, the man they most feared turns out to be their long-lost brother, Joseph.

Judah’s heroism is in his willingness to be the one to go first, to step away from the safety of the crowd and to stand for what he saw as just, regardless of the personal cost. The Torah seems here to be inviting us to learn that it is only within the fear that one finds the friend – and that finding the kindred spirit inside the terrifying enemy requires all the strength and wisdom that we can bring to bear.

The second act of heroism is Joseph’s, for he is able to still reach the wounded child inside the angry man he has become. There is no act which requires greater courage than that of being willing to let go of the anger and disappointment, and the days that stretched into years of building his sense of self upon the justification of that anger. Joseph had created in his heart a whole narrative of what had happened to him so that he would be able to go on. The defiant names he gave his children are essentially “I reject where I came from” and “I’m happy here”. 

And then in one moment, he finds the grace to drop it all and let Judah reach across the abyss to touch him, brother to brother. 

The Torah records the final closing of the wounds in the first three verses of the third year’s reading of this parashah, according to the Triennial Cycle:

כח  וְאֶת-יְהוּדָה שָׁלַח לְפָנָיו, אֶל-יוֹסֵף, לְהוֹרֹת לְפָנָיו, גֹּשְׁנָה; וַיָּבֹאוּ, אַרְצָה גֹּשֶׁן.

[Jacob} sent Judah before him unto Joseph, to show the way before him unto Goshen; and they came into the land of Goshen.

כט  וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ, וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת-יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו גֹּשְׁנָה; וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָיו, וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל-צַוָּארָיו, עוֹד.

Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen; he presented himself unto him, and fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while.

ל  וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם, אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ, כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי.

And Israel said unto Joseph: ‘Now let me die, since I have seen your face, that you are yet alive.’ (Genesis 46.28-30)

What Jacob sees here is that Joseph has not essentially changed; his “Joseph-ness” is still alive. Judah is the bridge that brings Joseph back to Jacob and all that the Patriarch represents, and also back to a sense of himself within the family, as son and brother. Judah allows Joseph to become whole in himself by restoring his family relationships to him.

In this moment we can see why Judah is the line of future kings of the People of Israel. And we’ve already seen Joseph’s intelligence and greatness. But only in this moment do we see that what we most long for requires being able to find, within the greatness and the kingship, the vulnerable human being who never stops needing the essential human connection of love, and belonging.

It’s still quite dark as we turn the corner after the solstice. There are still many dark hours of human history to make our way through – and we won’t all make it. And there is no guarantee of future results in these past acts of courage. 

But these acts nevertheless stand as testimony to what is, sometimes, possible, everywhere and within everyone: to find the brother within the enemy. To find the hope within the despair. To find the light in the midst of the darkness. After all, where else does one see light, but within the darkness?

Shabbat Miketz: Enough Already, Let’s Wake Up

This parashat hashavua (parashah of the week) is called Miketz, “at the end”. The word refers to a period of time, as the Torah specifies: “It was at the end of two years….” It describes the Egyptian Pharaoh in the grip of dreams that start out innocuously enough, but then turn into terrifying nightmares: happy, fat cows grazing on the lush grass by the side of the Nile are eaten by horrifyingly gaunt, zombie-like cows who look no different after consuming the healthy cows. Then, in a literary echo of the parashah’s name, we read vayikatz Par’oh, “Pharaoh’s sleep came to a sudden end”. The dream was repeated, this time with stalks of grain, and once again the Pharaoh was startled out of a troubled sleep. 

The King of Egypt became desperate to find a meaning for the dreams, and a way to answer them, to understand and therefore to escape from the nightmare they presented. And a dream interpreter was found: Joseph, son of Jacob, who in the process becomes the first “court Jew” of many in our people’s history. 

When the dreams are related to him, Joseph declares to Pharaoh, “the two dreams are one and the same. You have been shown what is to be.” (Bereshit [Genesis] 41.25)

Joseph is able to correctly foresee the coming catastrophe and to offer guidance to meet it which Pharaoh was able to accept. Disaster, in the form of a years-deep, deadly famine, was successfully averted by centralized government planning, led by a wise and capable “Famine Czar” – Joseph himself, appointed by Pharaoh. Disaster is averted because the Egyptian Pharaoh woke up startled from a nightmare and took action.

In Israel right now, our fellow Jews are trying to wake up from a dream of Israel that has slowly turned into a nightmare. If the “public square” of Israeli media is any indication, more and more Israelis are desperate to find a way out of the ever-recurring nightmare which is the ethical and political morass of the status quo. 

But that’s not all:

In the United States right now, our fellow citizens are trying to wake up from the recurring nightmare of the interrupted march of our nation toward equal rights that started as a beautiful dream, but is being consumed, just like the healthy cows of Pharaoh’s dream, by harbingers of death and disaster: persistent racism, sexism, economic classism. It is known by many names, and its evil threatens to consume us.

The two dreams are one and the same.

The only real question is whether we will wake up, and take action to avert the catastrophe. For us as American Jews, there is supportive action we can and must undertake, and it is dictated in our traditional Jewish ethics: “justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live.” (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 16.20)

The dream of Israel: It is true that we are not in Israel, not part of the Israeli polity, and not subject to Israeli taxes; nor can we vote in an Israeli election. But it is a mitzvah, an obligation incumbent on every Jew, to build the land and to care for it, to do our part in help the Jewish homeland become the light to the nations that the prophets foresee as its destiny. We do have a relationship with the land and people of Israel. We can and should support those Israeli causes that further the Jewish values of justice and equality as proclaimed in the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence  In so doing we are helping Israel become what the people of Israel aspire to be as their best selves, most fully reflecting the presence of G-d in the world. In the declaration’s own words:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The dream of the United States of America: “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” (VaYikra [Leviticus] 19.9) Those of us who used to feel safe, who thought that we would remain untouched by civil wrongs, are coming to see that we live in a truly inter-connected world. There is nothing wrong with money – it is a gift and those who have it are privileged to do good with it – but there is clearly something wrong with the way wealth is used in our nation.  There is nothing wrong with being white, either, unless those of us who identify as white are blind to the obligation to help our neighbor lift his load when we see that he has fallen under it, as our non-white neighbors suffer under the racism that drives them to their knees. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating one’s own sexual identity, unless one is driven to defend it by hurting others. The ethical obscenity of the inequality we see demonstrated every day requires an ethical Jewish response, as the Prophet Jeremiah demanded: that of working for the welfare of the community in which we live, that it may prosper. (Jeremiah 29.7)

For the sake of all that is good in our dream, we must wake up and take action against the looming nightmare it is becoming. Let your kindling of the Hanukkah lights be sanctified this year by your own personal urgent search for Joseph’s way forward. 

Shabbat VaYeshev: Choices and Exile

In this week’s parashah we follow Joseph down to Egypt. This is a time of terror for him: his brothers sell him as a slave and he is taken far away from home. He is bought by a minister to Pharaoh and seems to be doing well; he gains his master’s trust and is put in charge of the household. The future is beginning to look brighter; maybe he will be able to become free, or at least become a higher rank of slave….

Then, one day, his master’s wife tries to seduce him. The story goes that Joseph was a very good looking young man, and like many young men is, well, not uninterested in sexual advances. Joseph knows it is wrong to sleep with his master’s wife, but, according to the midrash, he is, naturally, tempted.

How does he manage to refuse? According to a fascinating teaching by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger,

….there are two sorts of trials. One sort can be overcome by a person’s own efforts. The other trial is the greater one, in which sheer strength cannot be victorious at all. In a case like this, the pure desire and the honest and just heart of the righteous person allow choice to be removed all together, thus avoiding the trial. This is considered divine intervention.

This is what Joseph is really saying where in the Torah it is written, He refused, saying to his master’s wife: My lord knows nothing of that which I do in the house; all that is his he has placed in my hands (Gen. 39.8). G-d gives us choices in all we desire to do, asking only one thing of us: that we remember the yoke of G-d’s kingdom, recalling that all comes to us from G-d. This much we surely have to keep in mind.

Now understand this meaning within the words of Joseph: “…he [He] has kept nothing from me, except for you insofar as you are his wife.”

In this way Joseph was able to avoid having to choose; he remembered that choice itself is given by G-d. In this way, even though he could not overcome the temptation by his own strength, the pain he felt over this helped him to access G-d’s help in overcoming this trial.

This was our first preparation for exile, since Egypt contained within it all of our exiles. The essence of exile is that it makes for additional choice. If there were no need to choose, humanity would be truly free. When we are able to avoid choosing we will come to complete redemption.  

(from Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, p. 56-57)

Choosing, for the Sefat Emet, is a trial of exile – and exile is wandering, lost among competing claims for meaning, without an orienting compass to help distinguish between them, distant from a sense of certainty and a clear path. On this Shabbat, consider this insight into the halakha, the path of Jewish going. Its guidance may seem constricting, but within the certainties one is liberated from a basic level of choice. Consider the discipline of exercise; if you don’t have to waste time deciding if you’re going to, you’re already ahead. Similarly, What might you do with that extra energy if you weren’t using it deciding whether or not to do mitzvot?