Friday, January 23, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Bo

This week’s Torah portion, Bo (Ex. 10:1-13:16), recounts the last three plagues of Egypt, instructions for celebrating the first Passover and the exodus out of Egypt.

The slaying of the firstborn of Egypt is the catalyst that causes Pharaoh, finally, to let the Israelites out of Egypt.  The book of Exodus began with Pharaoh ordering the death of the Israelite male children.  Now, God carries out the death of the Egyptian firstborn.  It is the act that finally gets Pharaoh to let the children of Israel out of Egypt.  

As soon as they leave Egypt, though, God commands that the firstborn male of Israel, both human and animal, are to be consecrated to God.  Many ancient Near Eastern civilizations recognized a special relationship between their god and the firstborn child, but the last of the plagues and the first commandment the Israelites are given when they leave Egypt is too similar to be coincidence.  The Israelites must bear the burden of the plague that broke the intransigence of the Pharaoh, and the hearts of his people.  The firstborn males of Israel, ol this day, undergo the ceremony of pidyon ha-ben, redemption of the firstborn, to free them from Temple service, though the Temple itself has not been an entity for almost two thousand years.   Erev Passover is still today a fast day for firstborn sons, a sobering recollection that the firstborn sons of Egypt were struck down by God’s hand.  Egypt and Pharaoh were our oppressors, but they were still children of the God that we worship, and their deaths should not go unremembered.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Shemot

This week we begin a new book of the Torah.  Shemot, meaning “names” is known in English as Exodus.  The first parshah, also called Shemot (Ex. 1:1-6:1) picks up the story of Israel in Egypt many years after the death of Joseph.  A new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.  The Israelites grew in number, which made the Pharaoh wonder if they would join the enemies of Egypt in case of war or “rise up from the ground” (Ex. 1:10), meaning that they might ascend from their place and take over the land. And so the Pharaoh set taskmasters over them and forced them into labor to build garrison cities for the Pharaoh.  All of the advantages for the descendants of Joseph’s family disappeared.

In the early 1930s, many Jews felt that their place in German society was assured.  They had wealth, land, businesses and connections.  Many German Jewish men were veterans of World War I who had fought for Germany with loyalty and distinction and had the medals to show for it.  And then Adolf Hitler ascended to power, and all of their advantages disappeared.  
The world is a strange and dangerous place.  Today in Paris, Jews doing their Shabbat shopping in a kosher supermarket were taken hostage.  Some were killed and others wounded, and none of the survivors will ever be the same.  History has a tendency to repeat itself.  Our challenge is to remember the past and protect the present.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayechi – Speaking to the Heart

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Gen. 47:28-50:26) concludes the book of Genesis.  Jacob, knowing that he will soon die, gives a blessing to each of his sons, and to Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manassah.  He gives his sons instructions to take his body out of Egypt and bury it in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan, where his parents and grandparents and his wife Leah (but not Rachel) are buried.  

After his death, his sons comply with his wishes.  After they have returned to Egypt, Joseph’s brothers begin to worry.  Now that their father is dead, they wonder if Joseph will finally take revenge upon them for the way they treated him so many years ago. So they tell Joseph that, before he died, Jacob had told them “Say this to Joseph: Forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, though they inflicted harm upon you”.  It is a most unlikely story.  First of all, Joseph and his brothers had all tacitly conspired to be sure that Jacob did not know what they had done to Joseph.  Secondly, why would Jacob say such a thing to his other sons, rather than to Joseph directly?  But Joseph does not contradict them.  Instead, he sees their fear and comforts them.  He says, “Am I in place of God?  You intended harm but God intended it for good…have no fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus did he comfort them and speak straight to their hearts (Gen. 50:21).

Joseph understands what his brothers fear and he addresses it directly.  He states that they meant to harm him.  He tells them that he can’t and won’t judge them, and he assures them that he will continue to care for them, and for their children.  He doesn’t sugarcoat things or sweep them under the rug.  His acknowledgement of the truth, speaking straight to their hearts, is indeed true comfort.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Vayigash – Family Secrets

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Gen. 44:18 – 47:27), the family secrets that have been going on throughout the story of Joseph come to an end. Joseph’s brothers come to buy food in Egypt and face Pharaoh’s vizier, who they do not recognize as their brother Joseph.  After a series of cat-and-mouse games, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers.  Although he sends the Egyptians out of the room before he does so, he cries so loudly that the whole palace hears him.  The word goes out that Joseph’s brothers have arrived and Pharaoh invites them to go back to Canaan and bring their whole household with them, and he will find them a place to live in the best area in Egypt.  The brothers go back to Canaan to tell Jacob that not only is his son Joseph still alive, but that he had acquired great wealth and power and was second only to the Pharaoh.  All is revealed except one thing; Jacob is left to believe that Joseph was abducted by some unknown group and sold into servitude in Egypt. His sons  do not tell him that it was Joseph’s own brothers who placed him in the pit and argued over whether to kill him or sell him.  
Family secrets sow seeds of pain, guilt, confusion and anger.  In the case of Jacob and his descendants, the end of the long secrecy causes happiness and reconciliation.  But there are some secrets whose revelation would only bring more suffering.  And those secrets are best left untold.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Miketz – Dreams Part II

This week’s Torah portion, Miketz (Genesis 41:1 - 44:17) continues the story of Joseph.  As the parshah begins, the Pharaoh of Egypt has two similar and disturbing dreams.  In the first, he dreams that he was standing by the Nile, and out of the river came seven healthy and comely cows and they grazed in the reeds.  Then, out of the Nile came seven gaunt and ugly cows that ate up the seven healthy cows.  Pharaoh awoke, went back to sleep and dreamed a second dream.  In this dream, seven solid and full ears of corn grew on a single stalk.  Close behind them were seven scorched and thin ears of corn on a single stalk, and the seven thin ears ate up the seven full ears.

Pharaoh called his wise men and magicians but none of them could interpret the dream.  Then, Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered the man he had met in prison who had correctly interpreted his dream and that of the baker.  Pharaoh has Joseph brought from the prison to the palace.  Joseph tells Pharaoh that his two dreams are one and the same.  They foretell that Egypt will have seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine.  The seven years of famine will be so severe that they will blot out the years of abundance.  Joseph offers Pharaoh a solution.  During the seven years of plenty, Pharaoh should appoint an overseer to collect and store food to carry the land through the seven harsh years to come.  Pharaoh immediately appoints Joseph to the task.

The Sfat Emet, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi, sees a spiritual side to this story.  “What can be learned from this parshah to prepare ourselves in good days, days in which holiness is revealed, to set the light in our hearts, to be there in times when holiness seems far off? We must store up resources of faith, even as the Egyptians stored grain, to nourish us spiritually when events turn against us.” 
When things are going well for us and our belief is strong, we need to take note of these precious times.  They will be what sustains us at times when life seems unfair, when loneliness overwhelms us, and when God seems distant.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Vayeshev – Dreams Part I

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, (Gen.  37:1 - 40:23) we meet Joseph.  At age seventeen, Joseph is the cherished son of his aging father Jacob, and a trial to his brothers.  He gives his father bad reports of his brothers, with whom he herds the sheep, and he parades around in his special coat of many colors, a token of his father’s favoritism.  Moreover, he shares his special dreams with his family, seemingly heedless of the effect they will have.  He recounts a dream that he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the fields, and all of their sheaves bowed down before his.  Then he tells of another dream in which the sun, the moon and eleven stars (representing his eleven brothers) bowed down to him.  

Joseph’s brothers go off to tend the sheep in Shechem, and Jacob sends Joseph after them to see how they are faring.  He cannot find them but a man comes upon him and redirects him to Dothan.  There, Joseph’s brothers see him coming and plot to kill him, and tell their father that he was killed by a wild beast.  Instead, they drop him in a pit and a band of Ishmaelites, or Midianites, or both, take him to Egypt to be sold.  In Egypt, Joseph’s troubles really begin.  He becomes a part of the household of Potiphar and rises to prominence there, but Potiphar’s wife tries to bed him and when he refuses, accuses him of rape.  Potiphar has Joseph thrown into jail.  In the jail he meets Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker, who have fallen out of Pharaoh’s favor.  One night, both men have disturbing dreams.  Joseph sees them in the morning, and asks them what is wrong, as they seem distraught.  They tell him that each of them has had a disturbing dream.  Joseph hears the dreams and interprets them, telling the cupbearer that his dream means that he will be restored to his post, and the baker that he would be put to death.  Both of his predictions come true.  What is really remarkable about this incident, though, is how Joseph has matured as a result of his troubles.  As a vain teenager, he did not care enough about his own brothers to measure the effect that telling his dreams would have on them.  Now, his troubles have matured him to the extent that he can look at the faces of others, and see that something is bothering them, and ask what it is.  Joseph will rise to great heights, but it is this trait of empathy, along with his growing reliance on God, which will get him there.