Shabbat Miketz: Benefit of the Doubt

One of the Jewish ethics presented to us most powerfully by our parashat hashavua, and our week as a community, is this: khaf z’khut, “benefit of the doubt.” It is an important Talmudic teaching, and understood as a vital mitzvah of relationships, that we must always give someone the benefit of the doubt – even going out of our way to do so. Here is one well-known story which illuminates the principle:
It became known to the Rabbinical Sages that one Abba the Healer was considered to be an especially good and ethical person.
Two of the students were curious, and they went to Abba, pretending to be ill and in need of his help.
Abba the Healer received them and gave them comfortable reed mats to lie on while they waited their turn to see him.
When he was occupied, they took the mats and left.
A day later they returned to him, and he welcomed them.
“But do you recognize us?”
“Yes, of course I recognize my honored guests. You were here yesterday.”
“But did you know that we took your reed mats?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What did you think?”
“I said to myself, certainly an unexpected opportunity for a ransom of prisoners became available for the Rabbis, and they required immeidate funds, but they were too embarrassed to say so to me or to ask for money. Instead, they took the rugs.”
The students then offered the mats back to Abba the Healer. “Here, now please take them back.”
But Abba the Healer refused them, saying “from the moment I realized that they were missing, I put them out of my mind and consigned them for tzedakah.
As far as I am concerned, they are already designated for that purpose, and I cannot take them back. They are no longer mine.” (Taanit 22a)

In the world in which we live, many would consider Abba the Healer to be hopelessly naive. But our tradition insists that a person cannot be a good Jew unless s/he is committed to giving others the benefit of the doubt every single time there is any doubt at all. In this week’s parashah, the willingness to trust – or the lack thereof – shapes lives, relationships, futures.

In a world so full of disappointments on every level, it may be tempting to give in to the whisper of the yetzer hara’ as it urges us to give up on each other, and to become cynical and suspicious. But that way does not lie wholeness of the self, nor happiness in one’s relationships. To continue to see the good in others may be, on some days, a real act of defiance against the more dystopic aspects of our American culture – and in so doing, to affirm the wisdom of our far more ancient Jewish ethical culture. Judge each other l’khaf zekhut, with the benefit of the doubt, and may we all know the grace of having that benefit returned to us.
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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 Miketz: light is seen only in darkness

The Shabbat of Hanukkah is nearly always Shabbat Miketz. The word miketz means “at the end of”, and in this context it refers to the end of a period of time – a dark time, with Joseph missing from his family and his home. Joseph is imprisoned in a dungeon as we begin the parashah, and back home a famine is ravaging the land. Everyone is starving: for freedom, for food – for love. 

 

This time of year is the darkest; like all ancient religious traditions, we have our festival of light now, to reassure us that there is light at the end of this darkness. If only it were as true that there is freedom at the end of every enslavement, nourishment at the end of every drought, and love waiting for us all.

 

The reason that this is not reliably true is not because G-d plays favorites, but because we do. Francis Moore Lappe showed years ago that there is enough food on this planet to feed us all if only we would treat Earth wisely, and each other with respect; in the case of love, also, we act as if there is a limit to love, and ration it to the deserving, the attractive, the pleasing. Enslavement both real and metaphorical traps so many who could be freed….

 

In the parashat hashavua for this week, Jacob’s sons will go down to Egypt seeking sustenance for their families. Why, the midrash asks, are they called “Joseph’s brothers” instead of “Jacob’s sons”?

 

In so doing, the Torah is signaling the beginning of a move from darkness toward light. The brothers will confront their brother, whom they betrayed, and, after great emotional upheaval, be reconciled with him, and in the nurturance of that moment, so many longings will be answered. 

 

Joseph’s brothers were afraid when they first met Joseph – afraid of what they did not know about him, afraid that he would be angry at them, and perhaps try to kill them. Especially in this dark time, we too are afraid of what might be lurking within that which is impenetrable to our sight. Like the brothers, we assume fear, anger, difficulty – and we add to the darkness in that assumption. 

 

In a midrash, it is pointed out that the eye is made up of a dark part (the iris) and a light part (the white of the eye), and that one sees only out of the dark part. Consider a dark room with a spotlight: only when one is in darkness can one see that there is light (if you are in the spotlight you cannot see what is in the dark). Thus it is in our lives: darkness is a necessary precondition to seeing, and not at all, necessarily, an impediment. We forget to look sometimes for the light in the darkness, but it is there.

 

These long nights are a time to admit that these long nights can be full of grief and sadness, to express it and comfort each other in it. Let us seek to answer each other’s longings, feed each other’s hopes, and free each other as we are able from the prison of our fears. Let us kindle light together – not in defiance of the darkness, but in recognition that it is only when we realize the nature of the darkness that we are in, that we can begin to see the light.