Parashat Vayigash Torah Reading: Genesis 44:18-47:27
Do you ever talk to the tv? You know the protagonist shouldn't go into the cave or whatever, and you're sitting there calling, "no! don't go there!"
And you're right, of course, because you've seen it before . . . the bad guy is lurking in the shadows or the rock slide seals your hero into an apparently impossible situation.
And that's how I feel reading Parashat Vayigash, this week's Torah reading. Joseph is at the height of his powers and reputation. All of his brothers and his father Jacob are graciously settled onto prime real estate by Pharaoh as a tribute to Joseph's vision and plan saving Egypt from famine. And as the family of Jacob settles into Goshen, I'm moved to call out "no! don't go there! Your great grandchildren are going to be doomed to slavery!"
Because, of course, I've read this story before. Every year. I read it in Religious School when I was a kid. I studied it, with all the commentaries, in rabbinical school. I review it every year when we come to this Shabbat, as well.
How many times can a person go back to the same story? If the story is in the Torah, there's no limit.
What is it about the Torah that keeps us coming back? Yes, it is engaging literature. Our spiritual connection to the text is the divine revelation integrally woven into every word.
But I think the real draw for us as Jews is the fact that it is our story. Revisiting the text of the Torah year after year is like sitting around the table with family and hearing your parents and grandparents tell and re-tell the family stories. I admit that when my Aunt Gladys gets started on those stories, I have a tendency to roll my eyes. But you know what? I love those stories and I love the way Gladys tells them. And every time I listen to them, I hear a little something that I didn't hear before. And every time I listen to them I feel embraced by the narratives . . . I see myself and where I've come from. It's a powerful and precious experience.
When we read and re-read the Torah, we are reading the story of our past, the story of our roots, the story of what ties us together as a community and a people. So, even though we know how the story ends, we never get tired of returning to the story. There is actually comfort and confirmation in knowing what happens next in the story . . . because this is the story whose narrative continues through the generations right up to us at this time and this place.
Shabbat Hanukah 5771 Parashat Miketz Torah Reading: Genesis 41:1-44:17
Parashat Miketz is often the Torah reading for the Shabbat of Hanukah. In his rich and insightful book, The Everyday Torah, Rabbi Brad Artson characterizes the the themes of the Torah reading and the themes of Hanukah as "Dedication, Transformation, and Cleansing." He writes: "The miracle of the human capacity to refocus, to begin anew, to reconsecrate our deeds to a path of mindful compassion is a cause for wonder and real celebration...."
This week, we celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Hellenistic Seleucid invading forces in 165 b.c.e. Everything within the precincts of the Temple grounds was cleaned and rededicated to the exclusive service of the God of Israel. Rabbi Artson encourages us to internalize that dynamic of cleansing and transformation so that we may dedicate our resources, our priorities and our actions to mindful compassion.
I am so engaged by Rabbi Artson's phrase, "mindful compassion." Among the meanings and associations that come to my mind is the principle that help is really only help when we understand the needs of the person we are helping. Mindful compassion compels us to enter into the world of the person we are encountering, and to offer them resources that will address their own perceived needs, not the resources that will bring them closer to a goal that we think they should aspire to.
There are also moments when mindful compassion pushes us to forgo intellectual exercises and simply act to relieve acute suffering.
This Hanukah, this season of re-dedication, well over 200 Rhode Islanders are facing the appalling reality of sleeping under bridges. There are enough shelter beds in Rhode Island to provide a warm, clean, dry place to sleep for just about everyone in need, but the state lacks the funds to open, heat and staff those shelters.
For this reason, the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis have come together to organize "A Call for Compassion During Hanukah," our communal response to the crying need in our state.
There is a collection box in the lobby at Torat Yisrael, and there will be one at my Open House this Sunday afternoon, as well as Sunday morning at the Cohen School. You may donate cash or a check to this emergency appeal. Checks can be made out to: Rhode Island Board of Rabbis with "emergency shelter fund" on the notation line.
You can also donate online directly to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless at www.rihomeless.org
Mindful compassion also compels us to use our imaginations to understand the realities of someone else's life. Please be generous.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.