While most of Baltimore gears up for the Ravens in the playoffs, true baseball fans will tell you that it is now less than 2 months before pitchers and catchers report to begin the early spring training season. One thing that will make that start especially interesting this year is the presence of a rookie player from Japan by the name of Shohei Otani who just signed with the LA Angels. He is the rarest of rare breeds in modern baseball – a two way threat who can both pitch and hit. At one time in baseball, and even in other sports, it was common to have “two way players.” But today common wisdom dictates the opposite, and that it is not possible to do two things, and to do them both extremely well. We will see if Otani can be the exception to that rule this year in Major League Baseball.
I will confess to you long before he throws his first pitch or hits his first home run that I do not have high hopes. There is a classic talmudic statement that Rabbi Loeb used to quote all the time – tafasta meruba lo tafasta – if you grasp too much, you end up with nothing. It seems to me that in today’s world specializing is the key. The problem is we have trouble remembering that, particular in an age when we talk all the time about ‘multi-tasking.’ Multi tasking means that you are doing multiple things at the same time. A harmless, or at least relatively harmless example is talking on the phone with someone while surfing the internet at the same time. I suspect many in the room have done exactly that at one point or another, and if so I can almost guarantee you that while doing it you’ve missed something the person on the other end of the line said.
A much more dangerous, but unfortunately probably just as common example comes from texting and driving. Current statistics suggest that over %60 of traffic accidents today are at least in part caused by the driver using a cell phone. %60!! Research in the field of psychology shows that in general multitasking impairs cognitive function. When people multitask at work production goes down. When students multitask while studying for an exam they don’t do as well. It seems that the human mind works best when it focuses on one thing at a time, finishes with whatever that thing is, and then goes on to the next thing.
But as a rabbi I am more in the human soul business than the human mind business, and so I wonder – does spiritual multitasking have the same kind of negative impact on our souls that cognitive multitasking has on our minds? And I would like to spend a few minutes with you thinking about that question this morning, and to begin investigating it by looking into something that happens in the story of Joseph that we’ve been reading the last few weeks, and that finally comes to its conclusion in this morning’s portion.
You’ll remember the narrative. Joseph has become the most powerful person in Egypt next to Pharaoh, and the famine that he predicted by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams has come to pass. And then fate seems to come in to play. Joseph’s brothers, who betrayed him and sold him into slavery, come looking for food for their families. And although Joseph recognizes them, they don’t know who he is. This is his opportunity, the moment he has been waiting for! He has his brothers in his power, and he can take his vengeance upon them.
Of course we know the end of the story. What happens? Ultimately he decides to forgive his brothers, and that leads to the moving reunion with all of the kissing and hugging that is the opening of this morning’s portion. But the decision doesn’t seem easy for Joseph, and in fact he toys with his brothers, and is quite cruel to them, before finally deciding, in the end, to let go of the past and to move forward with mercy into the future.
Commonly commentators explain Joseph’s behavior as having to do with his emotional state. He both loves his brothers and hates them. He wants to be merciful, but at the very same time he wants revenge. He is trying to forgive, but he is having a difficult time letting go of his anger over what happened. And so he wavers back and forth, sometimes acting cruelly with them, and other times being merciful and kind. But there is a curious scene in last week’s Torah portion that might explain Jacob’s behavior in another way. The Torah tells us that at one point, when his brothers still didn’t know who he was, Joseph served them a meal. And here is the odd way the Torah describes that meal: וישימו לו לבדו – they served him – Joseph – by himself – ולהם לבדם – then they served the brothers by themselves – ולמצרים האוכלים אתו לבדם – and then the Egyptians by themselves.
Picture this scene in your mind for a moment! There are three rooms. In one room Joseph’s brothers are eating their meal. In another room the Egyptians in the household are eating their meal. And then in a room in between, Joseph sits by himself, eating his meal alone. Because he is an important Egyptian his brothers may not eat with him. But as powerful as he is, the Egyptians won’t eat with him either, because they know he is a Hebrew, and according to the Torah the food of the Hebrews is not acceptable to Egyptians. So he has to eat by himself. To use a classic Yiddish expression, Joseph is nisht a hin un nisht a her – he is neither here nor there. He is a little bit Egyptian and a little bit Hebrew, but because he is a little bit of both – because he is a spiritual multitasker – he ends up being neither.
And I think the reason he ends up reconciling with his brothers is because he comes off of that neither here nor there fence, and he chooses to be true to his roots and to understand himself as a Jew. What is the very first thing he says to his brothers? אני יוסף – I am Joseph! This could simply be revealing his identity to his brothers, but it could also be understood as a moment when he fully embraces his identity as a Jew.
So maybe it is no coincidence we are reading Joseph’s story every year right around the time that Christmas comes along. It is a time of year when we Jews can feel pulled by the culture that is all around us, and conflicted in terms of how we should relate to that culture. Research is showing that more Jews are dabbling in Christmas. If you will, they are spiritually multitasking. Some are exchanging presents on December 25th, some are having parties on that day, some are putting up trees in their homes and decorating them. And as Christmas itself becomes more and more secular it becomes more and more enticing because it gets easier and easier to say ‘it isn’t a religious thing, it is just a nice time of year.’
Joseph sets a good example for us all. We should not be sitting on the fence, we should not be a bit of this and a bit of that. We should not be spiritual multitaskers. We should be Jews. Christmas is a wonderful day for our gentile brothers and sisters, but it is their day, not ours. Let them celebrate it and God willing find true meaning in its message of peace and hope for a better world. But let us remember that we have our own distinct and proud religious heritage, and our own beautiful spiritual realm in which to dwell. May we find meaning in it this weekend, and every day of our lives –