Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Inside You're Burning, I Can See Clear Through (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Feel Like A Stranger")




I happened to be at the supermarket this week. That in it of itself is not so unusual, as I usually get the list from my wife and stop on the way home from work. So the other day happened to be the Pre-Chanukah list consisting of oil, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and something healthy to offset all the starch and oil. Frequently, I will see congregants and friends and friend’s wives. So the other day I happened to see one of my wife’s book group friends.  After the standard chit chat, she asks me where our son will be attending High School because she heard from her son that he will be attending a particular school. It’s not every day that I have to verify or deny a rumor about our son’s life. For the next ten minutes, in the cereal aisle, we began discussing Jewish high schools. She spoke about why her son attended one high school as opposed to another. Then she made an interesting comment.  As she, her husband and her son went through the process of making a choice they all realized that if they were considering school on the basis of which one would protect and shield their son from all the shmutz of modern society, all the hedonistic behavior, the drugs, and all the difficult things that teenagers have to deal with; then they were going to be greatly disappointed. She said that no Jewish High School could protect her son from all the negative aspects of secularism, of hedonistic western culture. Rather, part of their decision was based upon which school offered the tools to deal with, and not deny the negative aspects of secularism in our everyday culture. Ultimately, she explained it came down to how assimilated their home would be in behavior, in attitude, and in the acknowledgment of the world around them. She wished me luck with our son’s choice and I continued with my Chanukah food shopping.
This Shabbat we read from Parsha Mikeitz. Mikeitz always coincides with Chanukah.  The Parsha begins two years from when VaYeishev concluded. Pharaoh has a dream. He is unsatisfied with all attempts to interpret it. Pharaoh's wine chamberlain remembers that Yosef accurately interpreted his dream while in prison. Yosef is released from prison and brought before Pharaoh. He interprets that soon will begin seven years of abundance followed by seven years of severe famine. Pharaoh appoints him as viceroy to oversee the project. Egypt becomes the granary of the world. Yaakov sends his sons to Egypt to buy food. The brothers come before Yosef and bow to him. Yosef recognizes them but they do not recognize him. Without disclosing his identity, Yosef sells food and grain to his brothers[G1] [G2] [G3]  but keeps Shimon hostage until they bring their brother Binyamin to him as proof that they are who they say they are. Yaakov refuses to let Binyamin go to Egypt, but when the famine grows unbearable, he accedes. Yehuda guarantees Binyamin's safety, and the brothers go to Egypt. Yosef welcomes the brothers lavishly as honored guests. When he sees Binyamin he rushes from the room and weeps. Yosef instructs his servants to put his goblet inside Binyamin's sack. When the goblet is discovered, Yosef demands Binyamin become his slave as punishment. Yehuda interposes and offers himself instead, but Yosef refuses. [G4] [G5] [G6] 
For the first time, beginning in last week’s Torah portion, VaYeishev and again in Mikeitz, we read about an individual encounter a dominant culture while still retaining his sense of code and morality. Avraham left the dominant culture and encountered it periodically but did so accompanied by his wife. Yitzchak encountered a different culture but had never left home in a spiritual nor a physical sense (he always remained in the land). Even Yaakov never had to confront a dominant culture. Yes, his uncle Lavan was an idol worshipper, but it was family and besides Uncle Lavan's was a tribal culture. When Yaakov encountered Shechem, he did so accompanied by his sons. However, Yosef was in his late teens, early twenties when arrived in Egypt. He worked for Potiphar. He had to stave off the sexual harassment of Potiphar's wife and accept the injustice of prison. At the beginning of Mikeitz, we find Yosef in prison, still referred to as [G7] [G8] [G9] [G10] Naar Ivri- Hebrew Youth even though he is 30 (Gen. 41:46).  Even after interpreting Pharaohs’ dreams, becoming a Viceroy, wearing Egyptian clothes, looking Egyptian, being clean shaven like an Egyptian, speaking Egyptian, marrying an Egyptian woman (Asnat) and receiving an Egyptian name (Zaphenat Paneah), and essentially living an Egyptian lifestyle; Yosef somehow manages to maintain his tribal loyalty, his Jewishness, his sense of morality and code. When Pharaoh tells Yosef about his dream and is asked to interpret it; VaYa’An Yosef et Paroh Leimor, Biladai Elohim Ya’Eneh et Shlom ParohJoseph answered Pharaoh saying, That is beyond me; it is God who will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare.   The Or HaChaim comments that Biladai is not only a humble expression “that is beyond me”. Biladai means “this does not depend on me”. This is not only an indication of Yosef giving credit for his “Dream Telling Gift” to God. Yosef subtly indicates that his code and his theology will not waver within this overbearing and all-encompassing culture. Yosef adds the words Shlom Paroh- literally, the peace of Pharaoh. Yosef is merely a vessel, and he isn't so much interpreting a dream, instead, he is providing a prophecy. As a result, Yosef must speak truth to power and cannot bend or interpret the meaning to satisfy some other agenda or plan except God's plan.[G11] [G12] [G13] [G14] [G15] [G16] 
Yosef, at the relatively young age of 30 has accepted the fact that his path, although his choosing, is part of God's plan. Yes, some people are lucky to sense that a plan has been revealed to them. Yosef's spiritual strength, his unwavering sense of belonging to a [G17] covenantal relationship means that no matter the name, no matter the clothes, no matter the culture, he is acutely aware that certain constants will keep him grounded in his relationship with God.  No, I don't know the path our son or any of our children are supposed to take. We can offer them guidance as they make their way along the path of their lives. Eventually, they will need to make those decisions for themselves. While we light the [G18] Chanukah candles, we are reminded Judaism’s survival within a powerful Hellenistic culture, we are reminded of Yosef surviving within a powerful Egyptian culture. We only hope that we have provided them enough tools, enough education and enough grounding in values that we deem important so that their decisions are an expression of a moral code and covenant to which they belong.

Peace,
Rav Yitz

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

TryTo See What's Going Down Lord, Try To Read Between The Lines (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Bertha")



On a typical weekday evening, after Mincha/Maariv (the afternoon and evening services) have been recited, and the final carpool has been driven, I usually walk in only to be inundated with every problem and issue that is plaguing my wife and our three teenagers. “This is broken”, “can you fix this”, “can you help me with my algebra”, “can you help me with chemistry”, or “can you help me study for my Talmud test”? After I perform a few minutes of triage and calm people down; we eat dinner. At that point, everyone views these few minutes of family mealtime as an opportunity to share every hurt feeling, every social slight, and “issue” that each teenager seems to be dealing with. Honestly, it seems like I am watching my wife and children’s lives as soap operas. Sometimes it can be exhausting. I try to get away from it by working out for about 45 minutes. Admittedly, they are all quite respectful of this, otherwise, they know that I won’t have the patience to help them.  For the next few hours I help with household chores, I help with essays, math problems, test, and applications. By 11pm, I am ready to sit on the sofa with a cup of tea and watch my news show and catch up with the world. Unfortunately, I encounter another soap opera of political intrigue, investigation, fragile egos, nuclear tension, and the constant venting of emotion via Twitter. I had hoped that my cup of tea, and listening to the news would have calmed me down, provided some perspective and allowed me to settle myself down for a quiet peaceful sleep.  
This morning we read from Parshah Vayeishev. The focus of the narrative now shifts from Yaakov (aka. Israel) to his most beloved son Yosef. Contextually, Yaakov is at a point in his life where he has finished his spiritual and personal struggles. He now is at a calm and settled point in his life, hence the name of the Parshah: Vayeishevand he settled. We learn that Yaakov, like his parents, played favorites. He showered Yosef, Rachel’s son, with a beautiful Kutonet PasimCoat of Many Colors. Yosef was a bit arrogant. This was manifested in his dreams that portrayed his greatness and the subjugated his brothers and his parents to his power. Needless to say, no one appreciated his dreams, neither his brothers who wanted to kill him nor his father who sent Yosef back to his brothers knowing that they were angry with him (Gen. 37:10-14). Yosef is then removed from a pit, sold as a slave and worked in the home of one of Pharaoh’s courtiers. The parsha concludes with Yosef being sent to prison.
Phew! Yosef’s life sounds like a soap opera. Yosef’s life is full of ups and downs. Yosef was up as a favored son, down when he was admonished by his father. Yosef was down when he was thrown into a pit by his brother, and then he was quite literally up when he was removed from the pit.  Soon after, Yosef was quickly down when he was sold into slavery. However, he went back up again when, as a slave, he was also the manager of the courtier’s business dealings. Yosef was then literally brought down by the courtier’s wife, and then went further down when he was thrown down into the prison. Yet even in prison, he enjoyed an elevated status because of his abilities. Yosef’s life has a certain roller coaster quality to it. He is an individual who has enjoyed success and experienced failure. Frequently, we read of Yosef going up and going down, ascending and descending in terms of direction and not only his spirituality. VaYishlcheihu M’Emek Chevron V’Yavoh ShChemaSo he [Yaakov] sent him [Yosef] from the depth of Hebron, and he arrived at Shechem. Hebron is in the south and Shechem is in the north, so from the perspective of direction, Yosef’s going from south to north would usually be categorized as “up”. However, the phrase Emek Chevron is very problematic. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, explains that V’Eilah Chevron B’Har, “VYaalu B’Negev Ad Chevron (BeMidbar 13:22) – Hebron is situated on a mountain as it says in Numbers 13:22 ‘they ascended in the south up to Hebron’. Clearly, the language appears confusing. Clearly, the text is geographically challenged. Maybe those two simple words, Emek Hebron, and those contradictory concepts Emek Hebron are supposed to teach us something about the nature of Yosef’s life and our lives.
            Maybe it is too much for me to wish my children’s lives to be quiet and boring. While “quiet” and “boring” suggests calm and even peacefulness; the reality is that human beings are far too complex to have “quiet and boring”. We engage in relationships, we are social beings, and we are spiritual beings. We think and we feel. Life will always have its ups and downs. We don’t even need to look for the ups and downs; it will find us. Of course, this begs the question why leaders go out of their way to “make news”; to do behave and lead as if life was a soap opera or a reality TV Show. As a parent, it is exhausting when a child’s life has the ups and downs of a soap opera. As a citizen, it is exhausting to constantly read about soap opera leadership while there are serious news stories and serious issues that need to be dealt with. Yosef, a spoiled son, a dreamer, a leader and an incredibly talented young man, demonstrates that sometimes a perceived down might really be an up and a perceived up might really be a down. It seems that the key is how we look at the ups and downs and how we handle those ups and downs. 

Peace,
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Gonna Scare You Up And Shoot Ya (Robert Hunter & Ron McKernan "Mister Charlie")



Our eldest daughter came home for American Thanksgiving. It was wonderful seeing all of our children sitting together, singing together, laughing together and talking with each other. At one point, our three daughters insisted on having a moment of sister bonding time and took several pictures excluding their younger brother.  While watching our three daughters, now 27,17,15 years of age pose for pictures; I experienced one of my moments of fatherly angst and anxiety. One has left our home, one is about to leave our home, and one, although several years away from leaving home, watches her older sisters and I am sure she can’t wait to get on with chosen path. All three are experiencing some degree of transition. All I can think of are two words: “boys” and “men”.   After hearing about the women who have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore (Alabama Senate candidate), Harvey Weinstein (movie producer), Matt Lauer (NBC host of Today Show), Charlie Rose, Al Franken and the President; where are the fathers? Why haven’t I heard a father say anything in support of his daughter? How can a father of daughters look at Roy Moore and cast a vote for him?  I watched my daughters laughing together as they took their pictures and I wondered and worried if I have given them the necessary tools to deal with such boys and men. I wonder if I gave them the necessary tools to fend off such animal behavior if they were accosted. I wonder if I infused within them enough courage, chutzpah, and sense of self that they would tell me if such a thing happened and then, more importantly, go to the authorities, and call out the animal that would have caused them such harm.
This week we read from Parsha Vayishlach. We read about Yaakov and Esav’s reunion. We read about Yaakov’s daughter Dina and her unholy tryst with Shechem a member of the Hivvites. We learn of what many consider to be the fanatical response on behalf of her brother Shimon and Levi. Yaakov returns to Bet El, the place where he dreamt of the ladder many years before, builds and altar, and receives the covenant from God. During that process, God changes his name from Yaakov to Yisroel. And while we read about the name change at the very beginning of the Parsha, that name change was given by another being (Gen. 32:29). Rachel dies as well as a wet nurse named Deborah. Finally we read a list of Yaakov’s children as well as Esav’s.
            The narrative about Yaakov is interrupted with the disturbing one chapter narrative (chapter 34) about Yaakov’s daughter Dina, her encounter with Shechem the Hivvite, their unholy tryst and the horrible aftermath. The aftermath is horrible for a variety of reasons. The initial incident in which the Torah tells us VaYikach Otah Vayishkav Otah Va’YeANeh’Ha- He [Shechem] took her, lay with her, and violated her [Dinah] is horrible enough for Dina. Dina does not speak. At no point are we told how Dina feels or what she wants. If that’s not troubling enough, Yaakov also remains silent is there a father that, upon hearing such news, would respond with silence?  Jacob’s silence is palatable. First the Torah says: V’ Yaakov Shama Ki TiMei et Dina Vito  U’Vanav Hayu et Mikneihu BaSadeh VHeCherish Yaakov Ad Bo’AmNow Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dina, while his sons were with his cattle in the field; so Jacob kept silent until their arrival (34:5). When the brothers returned and heard the news about their sister, VaYichar Lahem M’OdThey became very hot with anger. When Shechem and Hamor meet with Jacob and Shimon and Levi proposing marriage, VaYa’Anu V’Nei Yaakov et Shechem v’Et Chamor Aviv B’Mirmah V’Yidabeiru Asher Timei et Dina AchotamJacob’s son’s answered Shechem and his father Hamor cleverly and they spoke (because he had defiled their sister Dina). Jacob doesn’t speak. The Torah seems to suggest that Jacob is too upset to speak so the sons respond to Shechem’s proposal of marriage and political alliance between the families. We don’t read about Jacob seeing his daughter, consoling his daughter, even crying and yelling and screaming at her. He is silent. When the perpetrator shows up at his door, Jacob does nothing.  The man that “defiled” his daughter, the man that “violated” his daughter is standing in front him and Dina’s father doesn’t do a thing. His sons speak up for him and in a sense usurp Jacob’s paternal authority. No, this seems like the silence of weakness and timidity. The Yalkut Shimoni, a comprehensive midrashic anthology from the 13th century makes a very simple and powerfully sad insight. Commenting on V’HeCherish Yaakov (Jacob kept silent) – Hada Hu Dichtiv ‘V’Ish Tevunot YaCharish’- It is written there (in Proverbs 11:12) ‘a man of understanding will be silent’. Just as Dina is remarkably and tragically silent, perhaps Jacob’s silence is empathy for his daughter or maybe he is too upset to speak, or maybe he doesn’t know what to do. Certainly, he knew of Shimon and Levi’s plan because at the end of his life he despised them for their response. Maybe Jacob kept silent because he may have felt responsible, or that he failed to protect his daughter. Because the Torah uses the name Yaakov (the name which invokes clinging and therefore weakness) rather than Yisroel (a name that invokes struggling and vanquishing); Yaakov has become too spiritually weak to respond and to negotiate.
            I don’t know what I would do if it were my daughter but silence? I might have been like Bonasera, the mortician from the Godfather, when he said: “For justice, we must go to Don Corleone." Or I would seriously think about purchasing a gun and the shooting the animal that hurt my daughter. As a father, I now can hear the silence of the fathers of all these women who have spoken out against the unacceptable behavior. Perhaps a father’s silence is due to his being complicit in the dynamic. Maybe the silence of these fathers is because they neglected to provide tools for their daughter to deal with this, a strong voice to speak out sooner and louder, or just the quiet support and sustaining love that fathers should provide their daughters so that they are strong and independent people.

Peace,
Rav Yitz