Shabbat VaYeshev: Minority Status

Hanukkah begins on Sunday December 2 at sundown. We always find it in proximity to the parashat hashavua which we study this week, VaYeshev. The word means “he returned” but we might also read it as “here we go again.” One month after the massacre of our fellow Jews joined in Shabbat prayer in Pittsburgh, we prepare to kindle Hanukkah lights with a somewhat sharper sense of our minority status and its implications. The tiny little light we begin with on the first night shines this year against a very dark night.
VaYeshev recounts the experience of Jacob, Leah, Rakhel, and their families, a large camp of kin who travel with flocks and herds, camping outside of the city walls of Shekhem. Their experiences of the people of Shekhem are varied: some take advantage of their helpless immigrant state, others apparently try to befriend them – but no trust grows between the two groups. A violent end to the story forces the camp to move hurriedly away, and they resume their homeless walk.
One enduring lesson of this parashah is the difficultly of minority status. Our ancestors wandering in medieval Europe knew this well: their survival always depended upon the whims and moods of others. In our own day, we who have passed as white and participated in the hegemony of this nation have recently awakened to the fact that our own whims and moods have defined the lives of targeted minorities in our own midst. We have recently been reminded that we are also vulnerable, in a very powerful way. Not long ago we were going about our lives, as oblivious as possible to unpleasantness happening not far away. We should be grateful to Black Lives Matter and many other justice-based organizations for welcoming our support, now that we’re starting to wake up, and for their leadership in discerning what paths might best help targeted minorities survive in our own day.
For us Jews, Hanukkah brings us the lesson every year that to survive as a minority means to be awake to the sources of our strength. The Books of the Maccabees (not included in the Jewish canon) chronicle the experiences of a happily assimilated minority – the Jews living in the Greek empire – coming under pressure to renounce distinctive practices. We ourselves know this pressure, in a more subtle way, when we are socially snubbed for being Jewish, or for not eating certain things, or for not celebrating certain holidays. In a city in which the public school system has ruled the Christmas tree to be a non-religious symbol and therefore suitable for school hallways, clarifies for us the local impact of the fact that we constitute only two percent of the U.S. population.
The Jewish experience as a minority has been summarized as developing in three stages: (1) the demarcation of ghettoes expressed the attitude “you cannot live among us as Jews’; the expulsions demonstrated (2) the declaration that “you cannot live among us.” Finally in the twentieth century we saw the ultimate declension: (#) “you cannot live.” To our horror, in our recent relative safety we have lost track of the fact that it is not only against us that these statements and their attendant violence have been perpetrated, and now we see that even those of us who were able to separate ourselves from the violence once done to us, now done to others, are no longer able to secure that separation.
We are back there again, feeling unsafe because we are Jews. There is no satisfaction in the voices of those who say “I told you so,” only resignation and sadness. Let the Hanukkah lights this year illuminate what we must learn:
One candle sheds a very small light: we will not be safe if we attempt to keep only ourselves safe.
One candle is quickly blown out unless it finds protection larger than itself: we cannot depend on our own resources alone.
As each night of Hanukkah passes, may the growing light inspire us to consider how we might work with other minorities for the safety of all.
And may that light shed the necessary illumination, so that we are able to see each other, and the support and strength our tradition offers us when we come together.
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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?