Saturday, December 27, 2008

Step Up and Approach:
A Miqeitz~Vayigash DvarTorah

(for se‘uda shelishit)

Just a few minutes ago
we resolved
the greatest cliffhanger
in the תורה.

יוסף has turned the tables on his brothers —
accusing them of espionage;
sending them back and forth
between כנען and Egypt;
demanding that they bring down
בנימין, his youngest brother;
secretly returning their money;
hiding his silver goblet in בנימין's sack;
and finally,
threatening to keep the “thief”
with him in Egypt as a slave.

For a few hours
between שחרית and מנחה,
we waited to see
what would happen.

Have the brothers
Will they now defend
יעקב's favorite son,
instead of selling him down the river,
as they did to יוסף?

And then,
this coming week's פרשה begins
ויגש אליו יהודה.
יהודה steps up,
confronts יוסף,
and saves the day.

Last week's פרשה
also ended with a cliffhanger —
יוסף in prison.
Having descended into tragedy
as far as he will ever go,
יוסף waited for the שר המשקים,
פרעה's chief wine steward
whose dream he interpreted,
to tell the king about him
and rescue him from incarceration.
פרשת וישב ended
with the שר המשקים
all about him.

And then,
at the beginning of this morning's פרשה,
יוסף waits two long years
before he is finally freed.

From our point of view
as readers of the תורה,
the cliffhanger is resolved —
but יוסף languishes in prison
all that time,
waiting in suspense,
expecting to be released
at any moment.

In this coming week's פרשה,
the suspense is short
even from the point of view
of the people it's happening to.

יוסף gives them
a merciful-sounding ultimatum —
the accused thief,
will remain with him in Egypt.
The rest of the brothers
can leave in peace
and return
laden with food
to their father in כנען.

And then immediately,
ויגש אליו יהודה.
יהודה approaches.
יהודה steps up and takes a stand.

Where יוסף
languished in prison
waiting passively for release,
יהודה is active —
confronting this Egyptian official
who seems to take
sadistic pleasure
in alternately
acting merciful
and cruel.

יהודה himself
used to be like יוסף.
When his first two sons died,
he delayed,
pushing off his daughter-in-law תמר
until the third son, שלה,
would be old enough
to perform ייבום
and marry her,
to continue her family.

But תמר
took matters into her own hands,
tricking יהודה
into fulfilling the obligation of ייבום himself
instead of waiting around
for some unknown future
to solve all their problems.

And when יהודה admits
צדקה ממני
“she is more righteous than me”
he may be referring
not to תמר's innocence of the crime of semi-adultery,
but to her take-a-stand, get-it-done attitude.

And so,
when בנימין's freedom —
and bound up with it, יעקב's life —
are on the line,
יהודה steps forward,
as יהודה המכבי and his brothers-in-arms did
so many years later.
Not only would the Maccabees
not have won
the miraculous war
if they hadn't taken up arms
to defend Judaism
against the Seleucid Empire —
the miracle of the oil, too
would never have occurred
if they hadn't taken action.

After all,
one day's worth of oil
could never burn for eight
if you don't step up
and light it
in the first place.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Translator Between:
A Miqeitz DvarTorah

(for ma‘ariv)

יוסף's brothers come down to Egypt
to buy food,
to support themselves
and their families
through the famine
that struck both Egypt and כנען —
but which only the Egyptians
were ready for,
thanks to their new assistant-pharaoh
or as we call him, יוסף.

Recognizing the brothers
who hated him,
who wanted to kill him,
who sold him into slavery —
יוסף turns on them,
singling them out
from all the other hungry foreigners,
and accuses them of being spies.

As everything begins to fall apart around them,
the brothers remember יוסף
thrown down
into the utterly empty pit —
and his voice,
which they ignored.

And the brothers
are terrified
that this
is their payback.

But they didn't know
that צפנת־פענח, vice-pharoah of Egypt,
what they said to each other
in desperation
and self-incrimination —
כִּי הַמֵּלִיץ בֵּינוֹתָֿם
because a translator was between them.

This whole time
יוסף had been making believe
that he could only speak Egyptian,
and not Cana‘anite or Aramaic,
or whatever other language
his brothers had been using
to speak among themselves.

This translator
is identified by the מדרשים
of בראשית רבה
as מנשה,
יוסף's older son.

was born in Egypt.
His father was יוסף.
His mother was אסנת, an Egyptian aristocrat.

Unlike his father,
who grew up in ארם and כנען,
insulated by family
who recognized their heritage
and their inheritance,
who had a sense of their relationship to God
and God's promise to them and their ancestors —
מנשה and his brother, אפרים,
grew up in Egypt,
surrounded by Pharaonic opulence
and the rich culture, history and faith
of the Land of Fertile Black Soil.

And yet,
as we will see in a few weeks,
יעקב considered his Egyptian grandchildren
faithful enough to the family's mission —
Abrahamic enough —
to be adopted by him
and upgraded
from grandsons
to Sons of Israel,
worthy of founding
entire tribes.

Rabbi Elli Fischer has pointed out
that every generation
and every Jewish group
has it's own חנוכה.
For the Secular Zionists in Israel,
חנוכה is about Jewish power
and military might.
For some contemporary חרדים,
חנוכה is about the victory
of the purity of fundamentalism
over pluralism and accommodation.
And in 20th century America,
the environment in which many
of us grew up,
was about religious freedom;
about multiculturalism;
about preserving and strengthening
Jewish identity
in sometimes hostile —
and if not actually hostile,
at least unsupportive

Like מנשה and אפרים,
we grow up in open homes.

Through our windows
come the ideas, values and influences
of the society in which we live,
both positive and negative.

Most of us are not outsiders like יוסף —
newcomers to a strange land.
We are more like his children,
at home in both worlds
and both languages.

We are translators
like מנשה,
the מליץ בינותם —
standing on the edge
between worlds,
interpreting and transforming
cultures, concepts,
languages and lives.

We enrich our relationship with God
and our understanding of humanity
when we search for the good and true
no matter where it comes from.

And we illuminate all of human civilization
like the חנוכיה in the window or the doorway
when we express the wisdom of our Tradition
in a way that the wider world can hear.

מנשה's job of translation
eventually led
to a reconciliation
between יוסף and his brothers.

Our task, though,
is more challenging.
We translate
not just to heal relationships between brothers,
but to heal the entire world.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

We Count Up:
A Vayeishev ShulDrasha

This is the story of יוסף.
He was seventeen years old,
and he would herd sheep
with his brothers.

יוסף dreamed dreams
of power —
of bundles of grain
paying homage
to his own;
of the sun, moon and stars
bowing before him —
and his brothers
were jealous
and angry.

And they threw יוסף
into an utterly empty pit.

And then
יוסף was sold to traders
who brought him
from כנען to Egypt,
where he was bought
as a slave;
where he narrowly escaped being raped
by his master's wife;
where he was then falsely accused
of attempting to rape her —
and was then
thrown down
into prison.

At the end of this week's פרשה,
פרשת וישב,
יוסף has descended
into tragedy
as far
as he will ever go.

Not only
is he in prison
in מצרים —
one of the תורה's prototypes
of the most immoral society imaginable —
but his last best hope for release,
the שר המשקים,
פרעה's chief wine steward,
the one who was supposed to remember יוסף —
supposed to tell the king
about this innocent Hebrew youth
who could interpret divine dreams —
the שר המשקים forgets all about him.

is at the low-point
of his life;
the darkest period
of his story.

And while for us
it will only be one week
until next week's פרשה
and the continuation of the story,
for יוסף
it will be
two long years
before he finally
begins to shine.

In the Babylonian Talmud
in מסכת שבת
our Sages explain
the holiday of חנוכה
with the story
of the miraculous jug of pure oil
that lasted for eight days
when it should have only lasted
for one.

When the Maccabees
liberated the בית המקדש,
they found the Temple
with spiritual darkness
and impurity.
Everything had been desecrated.
And then,
in the midst
of that thick dark cloud
of impurity and despair,
they found that first small jug of oil —
the first glimmering hint
of holy light.

But we find another explanation —
another layer of significance —
to the eight days of illumination
in the Books of the Maccabees,
which describe the first חנוכה
as a late סוכות,
celebrated by the victorious Jewish warrior-priests
in commemoration
of the סוכות they were unable to observe
when they were busy fighting
for the survival of Judaism
against the Seleucid Empire.

This other layer
of the Festival of Lights
is corroborated
by hints in the על הנסים prayer
and by the opinion of בית שמאי in the גמרא —
who taught
that like the bull sacrifices
of סוכות,
we should count down in candles
for the eight days
of the חנוכה holiday.

Just as the number of sacrifices
decreased each day of סוכות
from 13 to 12 to 11 and so on,
according to בית שמאי
we should kindle the חנוכה lights
8 on the first night
and 7 on the second
6 on the third
and so on,
all the way down
to one.

we don't rule
according to בית שמאי.

following the opinion of בית הלל,
we start
at one candle the first night;
on the second night, two;
on the third night, three —
and slowly,
day by day,
work our way up
to eight.
As בית הלל put it, going up in holiness.

We increase light
we increase holiness
and we increase hope.

In מסכת עבודה־זרה
we are told a story
about אדם הראשון.

After he was kicked out of Eden,
Adam noticed
that the days
were getting shorter.
Every 24 hours
the amount of daylight decreased
and the amount of darkness grew.

אדם fasted and prayed
for eight days,
that it was all his fault —
that because of his sin inside the Garden,
the light of creation
was dwindling away
to nothing,
and the world was returning
to empty chaos.

And then
תקופת טבת came —
the winter solstice —
and אדם saw
that the days
were once again
growing in length.

When he realized
that light
was returning to the world —
that the universe
was not dissolving
back into the primordial darkness —
that what he was so frightened of
was nothing but a natural cycle,
instituted by God —
אדם celebrated
for another eight days,
from the solstice onwards.

אדם celebrated תקופת טבת
for eight days
as hope returned to his dreams
and light returned to the world.

Now, the calendar doesn't fall out this way every year, but...

is תקופת טבת.
The winter solstice.
The shortest day of the year.

we will stand
with יוסף
abandoned in exile
and forgotten in prison.

we will stand
with אדם
watching the light of creation
dwindle away
into darkness.

And tomorrow
we will stand
with the Maccabees
in the Temple,
mourning a בית המקדש
mired and murky
with impurity.

And just at that point,
when all hope seems lost,
tomorrow night
we will light one candle.

And the next night,
we will light two.

And while each night
we increase the number of candles
on our חנוכיות,
adding to the illumination
in our homes
and in the streets —
counting up in holiness
according to the ruling
of בית הלל —
each following day
will last
just a little longer.
Each following day
the sun
will rise
just a little higher in the sky.

The Maccabees
will find
that first jug of pure oil,
and re-inaugurate
both the Temple
and Jewish independence.

will be released from prison
and rise to second-in-command
of all of Egypt.

Think about this
when you light your חנוכה candles
this year.

As we add light to our homes,
light returns to the world.

As we add holiness to our observances,
holiness returns to the world.

And as we add hope to our lives,
hope returns to the world.

We count up
in ever-increasing illumination —
and the universe
counts up with us.

(idea of videoblogging originally inspired by Rabbi Josh Waxman, later stoked by Drew Kaplan, RIT, and reinspired by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz and Rabbi Jeff Fox)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Divinely Romantic

another "guest post" from my friend the wannabe-Abelard

This is from a letter from the real Abelard to his love, Heloise.

Abelard to Heloise:

Nam et tuae Dominus non immemor salutis, immo plurimum tui memor, qui etiam sancto quodam nominis praesagio te praecipue suam fore praesignavit, cum te videlicet Heloissam, id est divinam, ex proprio nomine suo, quod est Elohim, insignivit.

For the Lord hath not been unmindful of thy wellbeing, either -- indeed, he hath been very mindful of thee, for he even pre-designated thee with a certain presaging of name, to especially be his -- when he called thee Heloise, that is, divine (אלוהית), after his own proper name, Elohim."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ethics and Kashrut Panel

Tonight at Yeshiva University, a new student group called TEIQU: A Torah Exploration of Ideas, Questions and Understanding had a panel discussion about Ethics and Kashrut, ultimately precipitated by the Agriprocessors scandals of the last few years.

The speakers were:
Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Agudah
Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU Kashrut Division
Rabbi Basil Herring of the RCA
Shmuly Yanklowitz, RIT*, of Uri L'Tzedek

It was very interesting — the speakers were fairly diplomatic most of the time, and there were a few funny points, such as jokes that various speakers made, and when R' Shafran tried talking to the mostly Modern Orthodox audience about "gedolim". Rav Soloveitchik was invoked on numerous occasions (including R' Genack talking about how before he makes major decisions, he thinks "What Would The Rav Do?"). But the most impressive part of the evening was listening to Shmuly Yanklowitz. The other speakers mostly talked in general terms about halakha and Jewish ethics — Mr. Yanklowitz, though, was like a machine-gun of Torah, rapid-firing and saturating everything he said with an unending stream of heavy-hitting halakhic sources about our moral-legal obligations to care about other human beings and ensure that our economic acts do not strengthen the hands of evildoers and oppressors. It was shocking, but awe-inspiring.

At one point, R' Shafran said “we are all rabbis — or rabbinical students, which is just as good.” Guess I never need to actually get semikha, then... ;-)

* RIT stands for Rabbi In Training, i.e. Rabbinical Student

Monday, December 08, 2008

"The Living Torah" is Awesome

Recently, someone somewhere (probably on the Internet) claimed that R' Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah translation is the most natural-sounding English translation of the Torah, surpassing the KJV, JPS, Fox, and all the rest of them.

Here is an example I just noticed:
from Bereishit 38:16

“Hello there,” he said. “Let me come to you.”

I never thought I would read a Biblical figure saying "hello there"... just imagine the different expressions and intonations that could go with that greeting, especially in this context — the story of Yehuda and Tamar!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Downtown Arabic Politics

This morning I was in a Downtown neighborhood of Manhattan, NYC, when I walked into a convenience store to buy a bag of potato chips. The guy behind the counter was not behind the counter at the moment — he was moving boxes around in the store — so I started looking at the Arabic newspaper lying there.

I took Arabic for a year in college, and even though I forgot most of what I learned, I can still sound out words and recognize a few of them.

So the [Arab immigrant] shopkeeper came over and told me that it's an Arabic newspaper, and then I said that I knew that already, and can read a little of it. He was sort of surprised that people study Arabic in college, but also asked me if I've ever been to Israel. I told him that I studied there for two years, and then he asked me whether I thought there are problems there. So I said "yeah, definitely — everyone keeps on fighting each other." I also told him that knowing Arabic didn't help me so much in Israel, except to know when the street-signs were misspelled.

He then started to give me his take on Middle-Eastern politics:
Sometimes the Falastinians are very stupid. It doesn't matter whether you're Falastinian or Israeeli, or Muslim or Jewish* — all that matters is that you are straight [=honest]. But the main reason they hate Israeel is because they're jealous* of the standard of living. That's why people in the Arab world hate Amreeka, too — they're jealous*. Even when I go there, they give me nasty looks because I even though I'm also Arab, I live in Amreeka and they're jealous* of me too.

*he actually pronounced these words Gooish and gealous, with a /g/ sound, seemingly because he was 'hypercorrecting' the fact that English /g/ sounds are usually borrowed into Arabic as "zh" or "dj" (since most Arabic dialects lack a "g" sound).