Friday, December 18, 2015

Vayigash: Feeling Plagued by Famine and Apathy

Last week at Ohev Shalom, we celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of Spencer Schwartz. I mention this, because something that Spencer said in his D'var Torah really stuck with me, and especially the force and conviction 
with which he delivered the message. He was focusing on the story of Joseph, who interprets Pharaoh's dreams to mean that a famine is coming. Joseph also suggests that Pharaoh collect food from all Egyptians before the famine strikes, and then sell it back to them in the lean years. Spencer said this was "terrible" behavior, and chastised Joseph for being "power hungry." In light of many things going on around the world, in our community, and right outside our very doors, I would like to agree with Spencer and add yet another reason why Joseph's behavior is, indeed, terrible.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post on this same Torah portion, Vayigash, focusing on how the land itself is a player in our story. We often talk about Joseph, Pharaoh, and God in this drama, but we don't see the planet, the physical ground as a character in the Torah as well. 

Still today, we disregard the vital role that the earth plays in determining our future, and we pretend not to see the signs all around us that climate change is a significant problem. Recently, statements issued by Pope Francis and then the summit in Paris demonstrate how world leaders are (finally!) realizing that change MUST happen. We all need to open our eyes - wide - to this issue, and we especially need to accept our own responsibility in it. This brings me back to Spencer's D'var Torah.

It isn't just that the earth is a player in our lives, it's how we interact with it as well. The plan that Joseph suggested to Pharaoh in Spencer's parashah gets implemented this week, and we see how the palace gradually takes possession of people's livestock, land, and then their autonomy. 
Indeed, as Spencer suggests, this is terrible. In a time of 
famine and starvation, Joseph takes advantage of the vulnerability of the people, rather than trying to help them take care of themselves. Not only that, but this attitude is actually damaging to our entire planet. In his papal letter, "Laudato Si," Pope Francis writes: "Those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms." Around the world today, leaders are realizing that their inaction, apathy, and disinterest - especially regarding the environmental disasters in poorer parts of the globe - has already led to greater climate destruction. We cannot behave like Joseph, and think we won't suffer the repercussions of oppressing others. We are all interconnected, and we need to take care of our planet together.

This weekend, we will be joined at Ohev Shalom by Bill Haaf. He represents an organization called Climate Voices that seeks to bring climate scientists to communities to engage in dialogue. This will be our opportunity to bring science and religion together (what could possibly go wrong??). 
The data may be 
pretty bleak, but there are also many things that we can each do to take greater responsibility for our community and our world. But first, we must admit that we are Joseph in this drama. We CAN make a difference, and we CAN alter our behavior to influence those around us and even people across the nation and beyond. On the surface, we often think Joseph is just taking care of himself and his family, and we praise his behavior. But, in fact, we all need to realize that caring only for those in our closest circle is simply not enough. I hope you can come on Saturday to hear our Sustainability talk, and I hope you will take a good look at your own life and your behaviors, and make a change. Our ancient ancestors were lucky, and seven years of famine were followed by bounty yet again. Can we afford to gamble on the same being true for us? 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Robertsan1 onWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Olivier LPB on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image, "Famine in India: Natives waiting for relief in Bangalore," courtesy of Adam63 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Nigelj on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 11, 2015

Mikeitz/Rosh Chodesh/Shabbat Chanukah: The December Di...scussion

A few years ago, in the late fall, we invited congregants to an open discussion here at Ohev Shalom called "the December Dilemma." I suppose it seemed edgy at the time. I remember feeling good about my own willingness to discuss with congregants, family members, and anyone who felt affected, the challenges of navigating Chanukah and Christmas within our homes and among our neighbors. 
Looking back, it sounds pretty naive, and maybe even a little presumptuous. Indeed, I learned a lot that day. Many people came and spoke about how, for them, it wasn't really a dilemma at all. Each couple, and each family, navigated the holiday season in its own way, and generally people felt pretty resolved and at peace. The dilemma was more mine than anyone else's in the room! This Shabbat, we read about Joseph in the Torah, and we also continue to celebrate Chanukah; in both instances, we see our Jewish ancestors wrestling with their own assimilation dilemmas. What can we learn from examining our intercultural questions today, in the context of stories from our ancient tradition? Let's shed some light on the subject. 

Joseph, this week, is living the sweet life in Egypt. He's no longer in prison; he's the right-hand man of Pharaoh; he has a beautiful new wife; he amasses wealth and fame - life is good. In the midst of this Hollywood-style, rags-to-riches storyline, Joseph reveals an 

underlying discomfort with his situation. In naming his two sons, we see that Joseph is indeed struggling with assimilation and the memory of his Israelite roots: "Joseph named the firstborn Menashe, 'For,' he said, 'God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father's household.' He named the second Ephraim, 'For,' he said, 'God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction'" (Gen. 41:51-52).  Look closely at what Joseph is saying here. On the one hand, he's purposely moving past his roots and the bad memories of his childhood. He's also thanking God for making him prosper in his adopted home. And yet, on the other hand, he refers to Egypt as "the land of my affliction," and he offers both prayers to "Elohim," the God of the Israelites, and not to any Egyptian deity. Joseph is indeed grappling with his own "December Dilemma."

The story of Chanukah is another similar tale. We often over-simplify the story, portraying it plainly as Jews defeating Assyrian-Greeks. It's the victory of Jewish culture, heritage, and practice over Hellenistic influence. 
In reality, the battle 
was most likely waged internally, between various Jewish factions. Some pushed for more Greek influence, others rejected it entirely. But most scholars agree that Chanukah represents a struggle over assimilation, and that most Jews at that time were trying to maintain a delicate balance of the two cultures. Each person and each community had to figure out how much Hellenism they wanted to bring in and still feel like Jews. Rarely, if ever, is the answer "all" or "nothing"; 2,200 years ago, this was a different iteration of our people's "December Dilemma." 

In my opinion, there are two major elements to consider. One is the importance of balance. Neither extreme is good; life is lived somewhere in the middle, always needing to make choices and decisions about where we fall on the spectrum between religious observance and secular living. And two, it is crucial to feel at peace with your decisions. 

Many of us feel guilty about how we live our lives. We're too American, not Jewish enough, and we make too many concessions. OR we are too insular, too focused on the needs and expectations of the Jewish community. We obsess, we agonize. The stories of Joseph and the Maccabees remind us that we've ALWAYS had this struggle. We are not the first Jews striving to find the "right" balance, and certainly not the only ones to feel like we're failing at it. It IS tough. As we finish up the celebration of our own Winter Festival, and then find ourselves immersed in the holiday songs, images, greetings, and foods of Christmas, let us be mindful of the delicate balance. If you haven't already, find your own spot along the spectrum... and then be at peace with your decisions. December can be a time for us to celebrate our individuality AND our relationships with other religions and traditions. It doesn't have to be a dilemma at all; it can be a time of festive joy, plain and simple.

Happy... Everything!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of a "Chrismukkah" tree courtesy of Kumar McMillan on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image, "Joseph Set Over Egypt" (by Adolf Hult), courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image, "Ritual at Thessaloniki Hellen Temple," courtesy of Wyhiry on Wikimedia Commons
4. An American-Israeli Flag Pin

Friday, December 4, 2015

Va-Yeishev: Which Way Are You Heading?

Where do you come from, and where are you going? In my case, I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, as many of you know, and gradually made my way to Wallingford, just outside Philadelphia, PA. My rabbi 
growing up, Morton Narrowe, grew up in the Philly area, and became the Chief Rabbi of Sweden. I like to jokingly say that Rabbi Narrowe and I did the reverse commute and switched places. I mention this in order to invite you to contemplate your own journey through life, and also to highlight a similar situation in the Torah. I want to share with you a connection between two, seemingly disparate, stories, that I read in a wonderful Torah commentary this week, and it opened my eyes to something new and fascinating.

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, in writing about our parashah for the Jewish Theological Seminary, begins by noting something strange in Joseph's dreams. Joseph, a young shepherd living in Canaan, has two unusual dreams at the start of our Torah portion; one involves sheaves of wheat bowing down to a single sheaf, 
and the other has the sun, moon, and stars bowing down before Joseph himself. Rabbi Berkowitz quotes another author, Leon Kass, who asks, "What kind of a shepherd dreams of sheaves of wheat?" Shouldn't he be dreaming of sheep? Furthermore, why does Joseph brazenly tell his brothers the dreams, fueling their hatred of him? His behavior seems foreign, alien, to Jewish values. It is, perhaps, as though he's already exhibiting Egyptian traits. In next week's reading, Joseph will tell Pharaoh to gather up wheat from all of Egypt, and then sell it back to the people during the impending famine. Again, are these values we admire in him?

The text may already be foreshadowing Joseph's journey down to Egypt, and his transformation into Tzafenat-Paneach, the right-hand 
man of Pharaoh himself. Long before he made the move, he was already becoming an Egyptian at heart. Conversely, Rabbi Berkowitz mentions Moses, who will be introduced to us in a few weeks, when we read the Book of Exodus. Moses grows up in Pharaoh's palace, yet cleaves to the Israelites when he sees a taskmaster beating an Israelite slave. The two men, Joseph and Moses, are switching places, doing the reverse commute. And while Rabbi Berkowitz uses this image to urge us all to be more like Moses than Joseph, I would instead like to say something about journeys.

It is interesting to see where each of these leaders winds up, and how far away it is from where he began. So too in our lives, we sometimes look back at the path we've taken, and are simply surprised at just how long a trek it's been. We might also be surprised to discover how different an odyssey it was than what we imagined at the outset. 
What emotions does that conjure up? Do you feel content, frustrated, filled with regret, elation, disappointment, or joy? Or maybe a combination of all. It is important to remember that all our experiences, together, formed who we are today. We would not be here, at this very moment, reading this blog, were not for each and every step we've taken up until now. I do agree with Rabbi Berkowitz that our Torah gives us two inverse models in Moses and Joseph, and we DO get to choose which one to follow and emulate. I also think it's important to give thanks for the journey itself. Stop occasionally along the way and be mindful of what came before, where you are right now, and what may lie ahead in the future. And if you also have a sense of the direction in which you're heading - and you know what your commute looks like - that helps too.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of the inside of the Great Synagogue of Stockholm (my shul growing up)
2. Image of the tribal flag of Issachar (the sun, moon, and stars), as depicted on a mosaic art panel in our synagogue sanctuary; picture courtesy of Allan Baron.
3. CC image courtesy of Daderot on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Hekerui on Wikimedia Commons