Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Born Where The Sun Don't Shine, And I Don't Deny My Name (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia "So Many Roads"

Among the more irritating qualities of teenagers is their attempt to convey a lack of intellectual curiosity. Certainly this attitude is something that neither my wife nor I model nor condone. Maybe it’s not all teenagers all the time. Maybe this lack of intellectual curiosity exists in some teenagers some of the time.  As parents, there is perhaps no greater frustration than watching our children receive an assignment in English class that involves reading a book and then writing an essay or a paper about some aspect of the book. The frustration sets in immediately as our children’s criteria for choosing the book is the number of pages, the size of the print, and the degree of difficulty.  If I suggest a book, I can all but guarantee that our child will find some inane reason not to read it. Well, I am here to say that we had a momentous breakthrough. Our daughter received a list of choices for her book assignment. One of the choices offered was Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes. I had read the book, and I liked the book. Because the book told the story of a young girl’s life of from childhood to old age, and that much of the book involved American history, I felt that our daughter would be able to connect to the text and enjoy it. I explained that when the Book of Negroes was published; it was published in the U.S. with a different title. In the US the book was entitled: Someone Knows My Name.  When she asked why, I told her that was for her to figure out. Amazingly enough my non-answer piqued her interest. Sure she hemmed and hawed, but she read the book. More importantly, she asked questions about the book, she expressed interest in the book. When she finished the book she could appreciate the U.S. title. She even figured out that issues of race are very different in the U.S. compared to Canada, and the term Negro became a derogatory term within the African American community in a very different way than in Canada. She even thanked me for suggesting it to her in the first place. I was shocked, and I was very proud of her.  She exhibited genuine intellectual curiosity and suddenly she became an interesting person with whom I could discuss issues.
This week we begin the second book of the Torah; the Book of Exodus – Sefer Shmot, literally translated into “The Book of Names”. This second book begins with the Parsha Shmot – The Book of Names. The first few verses essentially recount the ending of the Book of Genesis. Shmot re-iterates names of Jacobs’ sons and the fact that Jacob and his sons came to Egypt. We are reminded that Jacob had already died. We are reminded that next generation, Jacob’s sons (including Yosef) passed away. A new king assumes the mantle of power and does not know of Yosef’s great deeds. Instead, the new Pharaoh believed that this foreign population was tantamount to a fifth column. Therefore this tribe must be enslaved in order to prevent their uniting with Egypt’s external enemies. We read about the birth and growth of Moses, and his flight to Midian. We read about his becoming a husband, a shepherd, a father. We learn of his epiphany with the Burning Bush and God’s instructions plan to redeem B’nai Israel from slavery and Moshe’s role in the redemptive process.
Considering, that this is a completely new Sefer, a new Book of the Torah, and that dominant theme of this new book is redemption from slavery and the national revelation at Mt. Sinai, why should the text be known as a Book of Names and why should it begin with a re-iteration of the names of Jacobs’ sons: V’Eilah Shmot  B’nai Yisroel Ha’Baim Mitzrayaima Eit Yaakov Ish U’Veito Ba’u- And these are the name of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt with Jacob, each man and his household came, Reuven Shimon, Levi, Yehuda; Issachar, Zebulun , and Benjamin; Dan Naphtali; Gad and Asher. We don’t normally begin a new book with conjunction, especially the conjunction “And”.  Instead of beginning the Parsha and the Book of Shmot with Eilah (These), the Parsha begins with V’Eilah (And these). Also, we know, based upon the conclusion of Sefer Breishit that the sons, along with Jacob, arrived in Egypt decades before (Gen. 46:8-30). Why do these opening verses repeat the concluding verses of the previous book? RaMBaN, (the great 12th century Spanish doctor, commentator and Halachist), and R’ Bachya (late 13th early 14th century Torah commentator), explain that the conjunction which begins the Parsha purposefully connects this new book to the previous book.  “B’nai Yisroel”, the term now used for the extended tribe owe their existence and their future existence to V’Eilah –“and these”…. these sons of Jacob, these sons who were “with Jacob” in his descent into Egypt. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh (19th Cent. Germany) explains that these twelve sons and their resulting twelve tribal families were intimately attached to Jacob, and this was the secret of Israel’s strength and survival in Egypt. Although each son had his own family, he remained connected and united with Jacob. Implicit to these opening versus we understand that the secret to B’nai Israel’s survival in Egypt as slaves: past, present and future were connected through values and covenant of the name of Jacobs twelve sons, Jacob, and his father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham. The strength of those connections, the strength of being connected to the past with an eye towards a hopeful and positive future kept B’nai Israel spiritually free despite physical hardship and bondage.
The names explicitly mentioned, Jacob and his son’s, stood for something. Implicitly, these names stood for and symbolized a covenantal relationship with God. These names stood for inheriting a land, as well as making a great name for itself. For their descendants, the names gave them an identity, an identity that kept them spiritually free despite their physical bondage.  Our daughter learned the same lesson from The Book of Negroes. People’s names matter. A given name matters as does the surname. Often times, a given name reflects the parents’ hopes and dreams for that child. A given name expresses a parents’ hope of whom the child should emulate, and whose values the child should grow to aspire to and embody. However a surname tells the child where she from and to whom she belongs. A surname provides a backdrop, a narrative for the child to be part of and to expand. Now that she has become a bit more intellectually curious, maybe she will be more enthusiastic to make her name part of her family’s narrative.

Rav Yitz    

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

I Swear To It On My Very Soul: If I Lie May I Fall Down Cold (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Reuben and Cerise"

Well the Chanukah, Christmas New Years’ Vacation has concluded, kids have returned to school and the regular routine finally resumed this week. With this resumption of the daily routine, the news this week has been dominated by three events. The President gave his final speech from his adopted hometown of Chicago, the President Elect is scheduled to give his first press conference since the summer, and Senate nomination hearings for the President – Elect’s cabinet got underway. These three events were like a splash of icy cold water forcing me to confront the fact that Donald Trump was just over a week from taking the Presidential Oath to uphold the Constitution and to protect the United States.
This morning we read from Parsha Vayechi. This is the final Parsha in the book of Breishit. The Parsha begins with Yaakov calling Yosef and making him swear an oath that he will not be buried in Egypt. He also blesses his grandson’s Ephraim and Menashe. He gathers his sons together and offers each son a blessing or a prophecy. Yaakov dies and his sons take him out of Egypt and fulfill their vow. They bury their father in Heron alongside Avraham and Yitzchak and Sarah Rebecca and Leah. Afterwards, the brothers fear that Yosef will finally take vengeance for their mistreatment of him. Yosef doesn’t, and the brothers and their families continue to grow and prosper in Goshen. As Yosef prepares for his death, he makes his brothers vow to take his bones out of Egypt and bury his bones in Eretz Canaan.
Yaakov’s final dying wish is to be buried in Canaan, in the Caves of the Machpela with his ancestors, Avraham/Sarah, Yitzchak/Rivka and Leah his wife. Yaakov shares this wish with Yosef. Given his position within Egypt, Yosef would be the most likely of the sons who would be able to arrange this final wish. After sharing his final wish with his beloved son Yosef; Yaakov asks Yosef to swear to him that he will carry out this final wish. To demonstrate one’s “swearing a vow” Yaakov tells Yosef: Im Nah Matzati Chein M’Einecha If now I have found grace in your eyes Sim Nah Yadcha Tachat Yereichi put, I pray of you, your hand beneath my thigh v’Asita Imadi Chesed v’Emet,and deal kindly and truthfully with me. However Yosef does not do as his father asks; Yosef does not put his hand beneath his father’s thigh as an indication of swearing and oath. Rather, Vayomer [Yosef] said, Anochi Eseh ChidvarechaI personally will do as you said. The text clearly conveys that Yosef did not make a “vow” to Yaakov. Yosef did not put his hand beneath his father’s thigh as an indication of making a vow. Rather his said that he would take care of the matter personally.  Rabeinu Chananel, a tenth century Egyptian Talmudic commentator, briefly and succinctly that Anochi Eseh M’AtzmiI will take care of it myself  hence there is no need for swearing an oath. Rav Ovadia Sforno – the 16th Italian Renaissance Torah Commentator adds a more in depth comment over the fact that Yosef did not at first swear an oath to Yaakov’s final request. Anochi Metzad Atzmi Eseh Kidvarecha B’Chol ChaiAs far as I am concerned, I will do as you say with all my power. Yosef’s response suggest an out in case he cannot fulfill the dying wish. “I will do everything in my power” suggests that if Yosef entreats Pharaoh to let him bury his father in Canaan, and Pharaoh refuses; then Yosef still fulfilled his father’s final wish since Yosef did everything he could.  Yaakov senses he hesitation and tells Yosef: Hishava Li Swear to me, Vayishava Loand He [Yosef] swore to him [Yaakov]. Yaakov does not want any excuses nor does he want Yosef to have to rely solely upon his own relationship Pharaoh. Pharaoh will understand a son’s swearing an oath to his dying father and would never refuse a request of that nature.
Clearly the commentators saw something in Yosef’s hesitancy. Why would Yosef hesitate about taking swearing an oath to his father? How could the favorite son hesitate and not swear an oath to his dying father? The last time we saw an old man asking someone to “swear an oath” to him in the Torah was Avraham asking his servant to put his hand beneath Avraham’s thigh and swear that he would bring back a girl from Avraham’s tribe in order to marry Yitzchak. The servant unhesitatingly swore the oath to Avraham. The Midrash explains the difference between Avraham’s servant’s behavior and Yosef’s behavior: HaEved Asa K’Avadoto Uven Chorin Asah K’ChirutoRabbi Yitzchak said: The servant acted like a servant and the free man acted as a free man, The servant acted like a servant, as it is says ‘And the servant put his hand beneath his [Avraham’s] thigh; While the freeman acted as a free person: ‘And he said, I will do as you said’’ As a free individual, Yosef is only bound by his conscience. He is free to question. The servant on the other hand, has no such ability. He is bound to fulfill his obligations whether forced or unforced. The Malbim, the 17th century commentator explains that Yosef was acting like a son should. Yosef was trying to act out of filial responsibility, based upon his own free will rather than a servant who is bound by oaths.
There are moments where one’s own volition is not enough in fulfilling a final wish. Yaakov makes Yosef swear the oath because he wants Yosef to acknowledge an authority greater than his own. He also wants Yosef to acknowledge an authority greater than Pharaoh. Yaakov wanted Yosef to be completely powerless and act solely on behalf of his father. Under normal circumstances, according to ChaZaL – our Talmudic sages of Blessed Memory, the acceptance of Torah and its commandments are an acknowledgment and acceptance of an external authority greater than ourselves. Intrinsic to that acceptance is a humbling awareness that we are not all that powerful or in control of every aspect of life. In little more than a week, Donald Trump will take Presidential oath, hopefully he will understand the gravity of the office and the importance of serving the office with humility and dignity and without arrogance. Well, here’s hoping.

Rav Yitz

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Got To Find A Private Line (Ron McKernan- "Operator")

The North American Jewish world was further divided these past few weeks when the United States who normally vetoes UN resolutions against Israel abstained instead. It is interesting to note that this was the first time in the eight year Obama administration that the US abstained rather than vetoed a resolution.  This first and last abstention under the Obama administration equals the same number of abstentions that occurred during the eight years of the George Bush Jr. administration. By the way, Ronald Reagan’s eight years saw the US abstain eight times in UN Israel resolutions.  However those are historical and statistical facts. It doesn't relieve my disappointment with the recent U. S. abstention.  My disappointment is not because this administration spoke truth to power and disagrees with Netanyahu and the settlers. My disappointment is not because there is an enormous financial and spiritual cost that results in sacrificing Israel's national morality.  I believe in a Jewish state. I believe that Israel must remain Jewish and democratic, based upon the democratic ideals under which it was established.  My frustration, my aggravation, and my deep disappointment in the recent U.S. abstention stems from the fact that the administration chose to speak truth to power in the corrupt and hypocritical halls of the United Nations.  I would have preferred that these two nations, these allies, approached each other as friends dedicated to the ideals upon which Israel was founded.
This week’s Torah portion is VaYigash.  The confrontation between Yosef and his brothers is about to occur. The Parshah begins with Yehudah approaching his brother Yosef, whom he does not recognize, and pleads for Benjamin’s freedom.  Yosef reveals his identity and the brothers hug and kiss each other. They cry and they forgive each other. Yosef asks about his father’s welfare. The brother’s return to their father, Yaakov, and tell him that Yosef is alive. The brothers add that everyone, the entire clan, should go down to Egypt. So this clan, including: Jacob, the brothers, their wives and children, heads down to Egypt. Yaakov meets Pharaoh. Yosef’s family is given a parcel of land outside of Egypt in a place called Goshen, where they can tend to their flocks. Yaakov is re-united with his beloved Yosef in the land of Goshen.
For the ChaZaL, the Sages of Blessed Memory, the Sages of the Talmud, the confrontation between Yosef, the second most powerful man in Egypt, and Yehudah, the leader of the Yaakov’s sons; the confrontation is much more than just two brothers meeting up after a couple of decades. For ChaZaL, the word VaYiGaSh refers to Yehudah girding himself for war. Remember, Yehudah does not yet know the identity of the man standing before him. For all Yehudah knows, this man, who looks Egyptian, dresses Egyptian, and speaks Egyptian embodies the most powerful empire and the most dominant culture in the world. However, according to the Or HaChayim that is not the plain meaning of the word. The Or HaChayim explains that if Yehudah was “girding himself for war” then he would not have spoken so respectfully and politely to Yosef: Bi Adoni “if it pleases my lord”. Nor would Yehudah be concerned with antagonizing Yosef’s anger. Instead,  Yehudah’s approaches  Egypt’s second in command  not girded for war but confidently approaches bypassing guards and advisors and manages to speak quietly and privately into the minister’s ear. Make no mistake, when Yehudah tells the minister that he is just like Pharaoh, when he speaks truth to power, Yehudah does it in a whisper, privately, without causing embarrassment to second most powerful man in the Egyptian empire.
Yehudah’s approach to Joseph was based upon several factors. First, he felt a deep sense of responsibility for his brother Benjamin. Second, he felt a deep sense of responsibility and commitment to his father. Third, he felt a deep sense of respect of the power and authority of the man standing before him and what that man represented.  As a result, Yehudah had to project the perfect blend of strength and humility. He had to speak politely yet forcefully. Most of all he had to make sure that that he wouldn’t embarrass the second most powerful man in the Egyptian empire. I only wish that more of an effort had been made by this administration to speak truth to power in a manner that was more dignified and respectful than an abstention in a UN resolution.
Rav Yitz