In this week's parashah/Torah Reading, Joseph reveals his identity to his beleaguered brothers and with the Pharaoh's blessing moves his brothers and his father, Jacob, to Egypt. The Torah relates that Jacob’s sons carried their father in the Pharaoh’s wagons and Joseph went to greet his father in Goshen, flinging himself upon his father’s neck to weep. Jacob was 130 years old when he was reunited with his beloved Joseph in Egypt.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "The test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless, are the true gold mines of a culture." (The Insecurity of Freedom)
With ceremony and respect, Jacob was carried to Egypt in the Pharaoh's own wagons. Joseph's brothers are presented to Pharaoh who questions them briefly and assents to their settling in Egypt. Apparently, Jacob, the patriarch of this family, is presented to Pharaoh after his sons are dismissed.
When we read these passages attentively, we see that Jacob is always treated with great respect by his sons . . . all his sons . . . and even by the sovereign of the country in which he seeks a haven.
I wonder if we would pass Rabbi Heschel's test today: would our attitude toward our elders attest to a culture of compassion or of impatience?
Rabbi Ron Isaacs, in his book Kosher Living: It’s More Than Just the Food asks: Is it kosher to visit a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s who doesn’t even know who you are?
Rabbi Isaacs continues: Yes, it certainly is right to take time to visit a person who has Alzheimer’s disease. Though cut off from society, he or she is till a member of society, deserving of care and attention. The Talmud is very explicit in recognizing the dignity of persons with dementia: “Rabbi Joseph learned: This teaches us that both the tablets and the fragments of the tablets were deposited in the ark. Hence, we learn that a scholar who has forgotten his learning through no fault of his own must not be treated with disrespect” (Talmud, Menachot 99a).We who constitute the community of Torat Yisrael need to take an honest look at how we treat our own elderly, incurable and helpless. This past week, I had the sad duty of conducting the funeral of Rosalind Herman. Roz and her husband were among the founders of our congregation. Roz had served as Secretary of our Board for a decade and was President of our Sisterhood for many years as well. We are quickly losing this elder, wise and experienced generation of Torat Yisrael and because those who remain with us are largely homebound or living in a variety of care facilities, they are out of our sight, and therefore, beyond the scope of our vision and awareness.Our Kesher social worker, Andrea Epstein, is a wonderful, caring presence reaching out to many of our housebound, but we should truly not be relying on Andrea to care for and about our elders. They are the elders of our community and without them we lose depth, history and wisdom. I invite you to look for opportunities to embrace our elders and homebound and help organize efforts to weave our elders back into the fabric of our community.
In this week's parashah, we continue to engage in dreams. Last week, we marveled along with Joseph's family, at the self-aggrandizing spins Joseph put on his dreams . . . and the seeming cluelessness of that young dreamer regarding the effect of is dreams on those around him.
From a dream about sheaves of wheat and heavenly bodies, Joseph cheerfully and unhesitatingly notifies his family of his expectation of grandeur. For the most part, Joseph's dreams will, as we know, come true . . . his brothers and his father will come to bow down to him at Pharaoh's court. But, unforeseen by Joseph, his beloved mother who waited so long for his birth, will be spared that particular humiliation: Rachel will die before her husband, his other progeny and her youngest child are forced to settle in Egypt.
Rabbi Chaim Stern in his rich anthology, Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah, remarks: "Joseph is called [from prison] to interpret Pharoah's dreams. Pharaoh says to Joseph: I have heard this about you: you have but to hear a dream to interpret it (Genesis/Breishit 41:15). Pharaoh, struck by Joseph's brilliant understanding, gives him control over Egypt: he is to be second only to Pharaoh. The boy who once dreamed of glory, gains it by understanding the dreams of others."
It seems that Joseph did a lot of growing up somewhere between the pit his brothers threw him into and the prison Pharaoh threw him into: Joseph learned humility. When credited with a certain genius regarding the interpretation of dreams that confound even Pharaoh's most seasoned seers, Joseph steps out of the limelight and credits his insight to God. When given the opportunity to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh, the newly matured Joseph sees not himself, but others, at the center of the royal scene.
Ironically, it is when Joseph steps aside, publicly deferring to the inspiration of the God of Israel, that Joseph rises in the Pharaoh's esteem. Faith, leadership, wisdom, respect and perspective all seem to benefit from a capacity to learn from life's lessons and a willingness to live in the shadow of God.
By this time next week, we will be deep into Hanukah and those of Christian faith will be just a day or so away from Christmas. Because our Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar and the secular/Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar, these two holidays coincide occasionally, but more often are separated by a few days or weeks.
Were you to look up Hanukah in a book about Jewish holidays, you'd see that Hanukah is categorized as a "Minor Festival." This status is largely due to the festival's post-biblical roots. The historical events of the Maccabean revolt (166 BCE) took place after the five books of the Torah were already canonized. In the Jewish world, that which is Torah-based is of greater weight and significance than that which follows . . . hence Hanukah is "minor" while Sukkot, for example is "major."
But the themes of Hanukah are not really "minor" at all:
Hanukah inspires us to take pride in our Jewish heritage and to dedicate ourselves to forging durable Jewish identities in a multicultural setting.
During the week of Hanukah, during the part of the year in which the days are the shortest, we bring more and more light into the world by lighting an increasing number of candles each night. Light is a symbol of God's presence . . . and this practice of lighting an increasing number of candles is a ritual of optimism and faith, an expression of our conviction that the darkness will relent through our partnership with God.
The engaging story of the Hanukah miracle of the oil reminds us that miracles can be perceived in the mundane, if we are only open to perceiving them.
But there's no foliage involved in Hanukah.
We American Jews are blessed to be living in a country where the culture and values we share with our non-Jewish neighbors promote mutual respect and inclusivity. The official dubbing of that huge evergreen in the State House as a "holiday tree" is kind of sweet and certainly well-intentioned, but rather misguided.
I suffer from no foliage-envy. I am sated by the richness of our Hanukah traditions and am happy for my Christian friends and neighbors that this stark season is enlivened for them by the richness of Christmas traditions as well.
I have to admit to a twinge of resentment . . . as if, non-foliage-blessed person that I am, I am being co-opted into identifying with an iconic symbol that is only meaningful to others.
So, please, call it a Christmas tree . . . that's what it is. It's beautiful and fun and festive . . . and Christian.
Now, where did I put those Hanukah candles . . . . .
This week's Torah reading contains one of the most disturbing passages in the entire Hebrew Bible: the rape of Jacob and Leah's daughter, Dina. The story is a challenging one for us to understand in the first place, and it also highlights the struggles of many women throughout history. I am grateful to Rabbi Laura Geller for the following commentary on this biblical passage. Rabbi Geller's insights are comprehensive and I feel the best I can do is share them with you with no further comment from me:
Comforting Dina: The rape of Dina...and other horrible, contemporary acts of violence. By Rabbi Laura Geller
[Jacob is journeying back to Canaan, his homeland, to meet his estranged brother, Esau. He journeys with his wives, concubines and children....]
Somehow, alone, separated from his "two wives" and his "eleven children," Jacob discovers the face of God in his adversary--and Jacob is blessed.
Eleven children cross the river? But Jacob already at this point has twelve children. What about Dina, his daughter? What happened to her? Rashi, quoting a midrash, explains: "He placed her in a chest and locked her in." While many commentaries understand that by locking Dina in a box Jacob intends to protect her from marrying his brother Esau, we know the truth of the story. Hiding Dinah--locking her up--is a powerful image about silencing women. And that silence echoes loudly through the rest of the Torah.
What happens next? Dina gets In an ultimate act of silencing, the commentaries understand Dina's rape as Jacob's punishment for withholding her from Esau. Dina's rape is Jacob's punishment? What about Dina? What has she done? How does she feel? Out text is silent. We only know what her brothers and father think: that she has been defiled (34:5-7), that she must not be treated as a whore (34:31). No one in the Torah or the midrashic accounts asks her what she wants, what she needs, or how she can be comforted.
Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations. We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter's rape as their dishonor, their punishment.
Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her. Other women are not as lucky. In 1998, in Pakistan, Arbab Khatoon was raped by three men in a village in Jacobabad district. She was murdered seven hours later. According to local residents, she was killed by her relatives for bringing dishonour to the family by going to the police. In 1999, Lal Jamilla Mandokhel, a 16-year-old mentally retarded girl, was reportedly raped several times by a junior clerk of the local government department of agriculture in a hotel in Parachinar, Pakistan. The girl's uncle filed a complaint about the incident with police--who took the accused into protective custody but then handed over the girl to her tribe. The elders decided that she had brought shame to her tribe and that the honor could only be restored by her death; she was killed in front of a tribal gathering.
Similar stories are reported not only in Pakistan but also in Bangladesh, Great Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda-as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. No wonder women are silent!
This outrage is only part of a much larger problem of violence against women. For example, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than five thousand brides die annually in India because their dowries are considered insufficient. Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, says that "in countries where Islam is practiced, they're called honor killings, but dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable."
The practice, she said, "goes across cultures and across religions." In the few cases when public outcry around the world and international pressure were used, a woman's life was spared. But stories that capture the headlines do not begin to address the scope and range of the problem.
We hear Dina's silence as well in the challenges to reproductive rights happening right now in the United States. If Dina were raped and pregnant while living in South Dakota in 2007, she might not be able to get an abortion.
What happens to Dina in the aftermath of ordeal? We do not know. We never hear from her, as we may never hear from the women and our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard. But the legacy of Jacob as the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world--and not passively ignore these facts. The feminist educator Nelle Morton urged women to hear each other speech." Dina's story challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for all of our sisters.
Reprinted from The Torah: A Women's Commentary,
edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss
(New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
In a parasha/Torah reading of extraordinary events, there lies one verse which I find a true source of wonder: Jacob is fleeing his home land of Canaan on the way to his mother's homeland and safe haven from his (ostensibly) enraged twin, Esau.
There was no Amtrak, not even a stagecoach, to facilitate this journey: Jacob made his journey on foot and was required to make camp at night in the middle of nowhere on his way. It is in this vulnerable night that Jacob dreams: a ladder stretches from earth to heaven and angels are ascending and descending this ladder. And then we read:
And Jacob awoke ... and said: Surely, God is present in this place, and as for me, I did not know it!. (28:10,16)
That's the amazing verse to me: Jacob did not know that God was in that particular place.
Isn't the first lesson in Torat Tots (our pre-school program) that God is everywhere? For all that we cannot see God . . . despite the cartoons and the Renaissance paintings, God has no corporality, no arms or eyes or beard . . . God is omnipresent, in every place. Jacob, who may or may not serve as a paragon of virtue or faith (that's another d'var Torah!), apparently left home without the assumption that the God of his grandfather, Abraham, would be with him wherever he went. It took a divinely inspired dream to establish that truth for our ancestor.
We, who were raised with that basic premise of "God is everywhere," have our own difficulty with grappling with that reality. My rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, Professor of Theology at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, tells a story about one of his early encounters with his own teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The two of them had attended Shabbat services on a spring Shabbat at The Jewish Theological Seminary and were walking home together through Riverside Park. Suddenly, Rabbi Heschel stopped, pointed and said to the pre-rabbinic Neil Gillman: "There is God in that tree!"
Others might have taken that same walk and commented: "Oh how nice, the trees are budding again." or "Isn't that a pretty shade of light green?" But Rabbi Heschel had a very well-developed "awe radar system" . . . he had the capacity to sense and appreciate God's presence in the most prosaic as well as in the most elevated moments.
Our ancestor, Jacob, was able to appreciate the significance of that message God sent him in the dream "you are travelling far from home and I am with you wherever you go." Rabbi Heschel taught Neil Gillman that God is there for us if we would only open our eyes to God's presence.
All our lives can be richer, more fulfilling, less anxious--all we need do is fine-tune our "awe radar" and let God in to our prosaic and our elevated moments.
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.