Tag Archives: Joseph

Angel or Man?

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/21.  Best to all for a Happy Hanukkah –

     The following scenario may be familiar to you – less so for your children and grandchildren, who have grown up with cell phones and GPS.  There are two people, driving in a car.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the two people are husband and wife.  And let’s also say – again, for argument’s sake – that the husband is driving.  They are going to a place that is not familiar to them, and they seem to have reached a point where they are not one hundred percent sure where they are.  In other words, they are lost.  The wife is encouraging the husband to pull over to ask for directions, but he is resistant.

     Finally they are at a stop sign, and a young stranger walks by.  The woman rolls her window down – some of you will remember roll down windows, as well – and she calls out.  The stranger comes over to their car, and once they tell him where they are trying to go, he gives them directions.  A few minutes later, they reach their destination.  Later that evening the woman says to her husband, we were lucky we ran across that young man.  The husband, of course, says “I would have found it!”

     The predicament I just described is essentially the situation that our ancestor Joseph finds himself in in this morning’s Torah portion, called Vayeishev.  You’ll remember the story of Joseph – the 11th son of his father Jacob, born to his mother Rachel, Joseph has a troubled relationship with his other brothers from the time he is young.  In part this is caused by his father’s favoritism, the symbol of which is the coat of many colors that Jacob has given Joseph as a special gift.  But in part Joseph’s sibling issues seem to stem from his own personality.

     After the Torah establishes these facts the brothers are sent by Jacob on a shepherding mission that takes them a number of days away from home.  Jacob then – maybe against his better judgement – sends Joseph, all alone, knowing of the animosity between him and his brothers – to go out and find them.  And of course we know the rest of the story.  Once he does find them they strip him of his fancy coat, throw him into a pit, and ultimately sell him into slavery.  

     But in the course of this narrative Joseph finds himself in exactly the same situation as our husband and wife in the car.   He is lost, in an unfamiliar area, and he does not seem to want to ask for directions.  Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a mysterious man appears.  Referred to in the Torah only as an איש – meaning simply ‘a man’ – the stranger approaches Joseph and asks him מה תבקש – what are you looking for?  It is the Torah’s way of saying ‘can I help you?’  Joseph explains that he is looking for his brothers.  The man just happens to know exactly where they are, and sends Joseph to meet them.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  

     And I mean that literally.  He finds his brothers.  They sell him into slavery.  He is brought to Egypt.  Ultimately he becomes the second most powerful man in the entire country.  When there is a famine in the land of Israel Jacob and his other sons come to join Joseph.  The Israelites will be enslaved.  Moses will be born, will meet God in the form of a burning bush, and will lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  And to this very day, each spring, we celebrate Passover and tell the story of יציאת מצרים – of Exodus from Egypt.  All because of this mysterious man who sees Joseph lost, and asks if he can help.

     If you have any sense of rabbinic commentary, you probably already know that the traditional commentators are very interested in the identity of Joseph’s mysterious stranger.  They suggest a number of possibilities as to who the stranger might have been.  The great biblical commentator Rashi, who lived in France in the 11th century, explains that the stranger was really the angel Gabriel, sent by God to guide Joseph on the way.  Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century in Spain, believed that the man was just a simple passer by, a regular old Joe who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  But it is the comment of the Ramban, Nachmanides, who lived in the 13th century, that I find the most interesting.  He writes about the mysterious stranger – כי זימן לו הקב׳׳ה מורה דרך שלא מדעתו – which means, God sent him a guide – שלא מדעתו – without his knowledge.

     The question is, without whose knowledge?  It is unclear from what the Ramban writes whether he means without Joseph’s knowledge, or without the knowledge of the mysterious stranger.  The Hebrew is ambiguous.  It might mean that the stranger was sent, and Joseph didn’t know he would find a guide along the way.  But it could just as well mean that the stranger himself didn’t know he would end up being Joseph’s guide.  

     The first interpretation, I suppose, makes the most sense.  Certainly Joseph had no reason to expect to suddenly find someone, in the middle of nowhere, who would be able to point the way to his brothers.  But the second interpretation – that the stranger didn’t know he would end up helping Joseph – is, at least to me, more interesting.  Let me explain.

     We often don’t realize the effect our actions have on others.  We might say something, or do something, and in our minds what we’ve said or done is for all intents and purposes insignificant – we might not even remember it – as the Ramban said, שלא מדעתו – we do it almost without knowing it.  But what we’ve said, or done, can make a big difference in someone else’s life.  The right word of encouragement at exactly the right time.  A small act of kindness that passes in a moment, but brings warmth to someone’s heart on a difficult day.  All the stranger did was point Joseph in the right direction.  But because of that small act, everything was different.

     I’ll conclude this morning with a quick Hanukkah story.  We got a call a few weeks ago from a family that wanted to do something nice for a family in need, but whatever they did they wanted it to be strictly anonymous.  So we said ‘sure, we know of a family that could use a little extra help around the holidays.’  Thursday the family that wanted to do the mitzvah brought in a bunch of beautifully wrapped packages.  We then called the family in need, that the gifts were intended for.  It has been a terribly difficult year for them.  Illness.  Loss of a job.  Just one thought thing after another.  

     You should have seen the look on the face of the parent who came to pick up those gifts.  For a few moments the burdens were lifted.  For a few moments the parent was reminded of goodness and hope and kindness and possibility.  Knowing that they would have gifts to give to their children on Hanukkah.  Suddenly knowing that a holiday they were probably dreading, would be – filled with light.

     They will never know the identity of the family that did that kindness for them.  And the family that did the kindness will never know the impact their generosity had.  The difference they made.  In both cases, שלא מדעתו – they’ll just never know.  But I would say, somewhere, somehow, in someway, God knows.  May both those families be blessed with kindness, goodness, happiness, and health.  

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Earthrise

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat (12/22/18):

     Some of you will remember that it was fifty years ago this weekend when the Apollo 8 space mission was making its way towards the moon.  The flight launched on December 21st 1968 – fifty years ago yesterday – and lasted for 6 days.  It was manned by three astronauts – Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman – and was the second manned Apollo flight and the first to actually reach the moon’s orbit.  After circling the moon 10 times on December 24th and 25th, the astronauts set a course for Earth, and returned home on December 27, splashing down in the northern Pacific Ocean.

     The spirit of the mission, what it meant to Americans, and to people everywhere, was captured in a spectacular photograph taken by Bill Anders that would come to be known as Earthrise.  The photo shows a fragile and delicate – and also indescribably beautiful – blue and white sphere, half shrouded in darkness, and set in the deep blackness of infinite space, hovering in the distance over the stark white surface of the moon.  No one knew it at the time, but that photograph would become one of the most iconic images in the history of human kind.  

     The great irony in that moment is that in one of the greatest accomplishments of human history, manned space flight, with all of its technology, human ingenuity, its illustration of our ability to master the world around us – in the midst of all of that human greatness and achievement, we rediscovered our sense of how ultimately small we really are.  To see the Earth from that distance and perspective is to immediately understand that we live on just one tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star in a medium sized galaxy in an incredibly vast universe.  

     Fifty years ago that Earthrise photograph created what I call a ‘Grand Canyon’ moment for millions and millions of people.  That is the moment when you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking out over its vastness, and you suddenly realize – or maybe it is better to say you feel – that you are an infinitesimal part of a world, and a universe, that is vast beyond imagining.  It is what people feel when they enter some of the great European medieval churches, with their towering ceilings, or walk through a redwood forest, the enormous and ancient trees rising and rising into the distance of the sky.  This is the feeling captured by the Psalmist in Psalm 8:  “When I see your Heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You set in place, what am I that You, God, are mindful of me; a mere human being, yet you take note of my life.” (my own translation with a bit of paraphrasing)  It is precisely the greatness and beauty of God’s world and the infinite vastness of God’s universe that reminds us of our mortality and our limits and also, I would argue, of our humanity.

     The Book of Genesis that we finished reading this morning, for the most part, does not work on that grand scale that the Psalmist was writing about.  Instead, Genesis tells stories of intimacy and immediacy, of husbands and wives and parents and children, often during critical moments of their lives.  It describes Abraham and Sarah in the bedroom, talking about the fate of Hagar.  Or the private conversation between Jacob and his mother Rebecca about how to deceive Isaac.  We read in Genesis about Abraham and Isaac, alone, just father and son, walking to the top of Mount Moriah, and the few words that they share in that journey.  This morning’s portion, the last in Genesis, is also filled with intimate moments.  Jacob in his old age blesses his grandsons Efraim and Menasheh, drawing them close, kissing them, hugging them, placing his hands on their heads and tousling their hair, whispering over them a blessing.  And later in the portion we are flies on the wall of the bedroom where Jacob is dying, surrounded by his sons, as he gives each of them a last message that he hopes they will carry with them after he is gone.  

     These are human moments that we all can recognize from our own lives, moments of touching and talking, of whispered hopes and private expressions of fear and doubt.  Next week when we begin reading the Book of Exodus the Torah will leave those intimate moments behind, but in Genesis they are the primary focus as we learn about the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  

     There is of course one glaring exception to that sense of intimacy that Genesis focuses on, and that is?  The creation story, told in the first two chapters.  There God works on a cosmic scale, bringing the universe into being out of chaos, dividing up the waters and the lands, establishing the Heavens, putting into the sky the sun, the moon, and the stars.  I’ve always believed that the Torah begins that way because it wants us to understand that the God we are in relationship with, the God Who called to Abraham and Sarah, the God we prayed to this morning, the God we thanked for two long and loving marriages, the God we asked to heal our loved ones – that God is the Creator of all things.  And one of the great mysteries that Judaism explores is the idea that that cosmic, universal Creator can somehow be in relationship with us as small as we are, and can take note of and care about our lives.

      Fifty years ago on that Apollo 8 mission NASA arranged for the three astronauts to make a live broadcast to earth on that December 24th evening, a night observed in the Christian community as Christmas Eve.  When the crew asked what they should do for that broadcast they were told ‘just anything you feel is appropriate.’  One of the Astronauts brought a Bible, and in the course of the broadcast, as they crew circled the moon, with that spectacular view of earth captured in the photograph that would be called ‘Earthrise’, the crew took turns reading the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis. 

     The last verse they read – they 10th – is as follows:  ויקרא אלוקים ליבשה ארץ ולמקוה המים קרא ימים וירא אלוקים כי טוב – And God called the dry land – Earth – and the gathering of waters, God called seas.  And God saw that this was good.

So it was.  So it is.  So may it always be.earthrise

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Hanukkah’s Hypocrisy?

This is a text version of my sermon from the Shabbat of Hanukkah, 12/8/18 –

     There has been a bit of a hullabaloo in the Jewish community over the last few days about an op-ed article that appeared in the NY Times last Sunday, just on the eve of Hanukkah.  The title of the article was ‘the Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,’ in and of itself provocative, like any good title, and enough to get you to read further.  The author, Michael David Lucas, claimed that in contemporary times the celebration of Hanukkah has become hypocritical.  Why? Because most of the Jews who gather to light their menorahs during the 8 days are secular, but the real story of Hanukkah – he says – is a story of religious zealots – the Maccabees – fighting to impose their religious worldview against Jews who were secular and assimilating into Greek culture.  So the author argues that the Maccabees would not have accepted the secular lifestyle of most of us who celebrate the Hanukkah today.   

     Obviously this is not the understanding of Hanukkah that you learn about in Hebrew school.  The story of Hanukkah that we tell our children and grandchildren has nothing to do with an internal Jewish struggle.  Instead, it is a story of right versus might, of a small and relatively weak people rising up against one of the most powerful armies in the ancient world, and somehow defeating it.  It is a story of freedom and the triumph of the human spirit, of what people can accomplish when they come together and fight for a cause they believe in.  The story of the Maccabees has also been a point of pride for Jews for more than 2,000 years, an example of the strength of the Jewish will to survive, and the loyalty and dedication of Jews to their tradition and heritage.

     Which I think is precisely why this article has been so controversial.  The story of Hanukkah that I just summarized is the one we all grew up on, the one we’ve believed in our entire lives, and when someone challenges that story, or even tries to take it away from us, we get upset and angry, and we push back.  A number of you have asked me about the article, emailed me, called me, or actually in Shirley’s case brought the article in to show me, and I can tell that you are feeling a bit perplexed.  So let me try to clear it all up a bit if I can in the few minutes I have this morning.  I am not sure whether I’ll leave you feeling better, worse, or the same, but I suppose you’ll let me know.

     The first thing I would say is that the author is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong.  And he is a little bit right and a little bit wrong about a couple of different things.  He is right in that we do know there was an internal Jewish battle that was going on in the year 165 BCE, the time that the events of Hanukkah took place.  Ancient Israel was controlled by the Assyrians who had adopted Greek culture, and many Jews had become Hellenized – that is to say, they were more and more thinking and acting like Greeks.  In other words, many Jews at the time were what we would call today ‘secular’ Jews.  And there was tension between those secular Jews, who were comfortable assimilating and living more modern lives, and the Maccabees, who did argue for a strict and traditional adherence to Jewish law.  That is all true.

     But the Times article is wrong in assuming that the primary struggle was a Jew against Jew struggle.  There is no question that the real enemy the Maccabees were battling was the Assyrian army, and there must have been some kind of consensus in the broader Jewish community at the time that that was a struggle worth waging.  Why? Because it is impossible to imagine that the Maccabees by themselves, without the support of their fellow Jews, could have accomplished what they did.  So it is odd, to say the least, that the article in the Times barely mentions the Maccabees’ defeat of the Assyrian army.  As Lincoln famously once said, there are things you can prove by telling part of the truth that you can’t prove by telling all of the truth.  And that is one area where the article misses the mark.

     I would argue that the other is in the article’s misunderstanding of what it means to be a secular Jew.  And the author of the article – in a way pokes fun at himself and his own Judaism – his own discomfort with being Jewish – and by doing that he diminishes the role of the so called secular Jew, both today and historically, in terms of Jewish community and Jewish continuity. 

     Because of the way he described himself, I would say it is highly unlikely that that author of the article is sitting in shul this morning.  Which is a shame, because it would be a good thing for him to spend some time thinking about the Joseph narrative that we reading from the Torah right now.  He might be surprised to realize that Joseph is without question two things:  one, the person who enables and ensures Jewish continuity for his time.  It is the foothold that he has established in Egypt that gives him the power to ultimately bring the rest of his family there, to feed them and give them shelter, so that they will survive through the terrible famine afflicting the ancient near East at that time.  You can very plausibly make the argument were it not for Joseph, Jacob’s family would not have survived, and Judaism might have ended right there.

     But the other thing about Joseph that would surprise the Times author is that Joseph is the most secular Jew in the entire Torah.  It isn’t even close!  Joseph is so secular – he has become so Egyptian – that his own brothers can’t even recognize him, because he is wearing Egyptian clothes, he has completely adopted Egyptian culture, and he is speaking Egyptian like a native.  It is not a stretch to say that Joseph – one of the great figures of the Bible – one of the great heroes of Judaism – is just as secular as anyone sitting in this room this morning, and probably more secular than many of us!

     But being secular doesn’t mean that your Judaism isn’t important to you.  Being secular doesn’t mean that you haven’t been lighting Hanukkah candles each night, or that you don’t go to a Passover seder or come to synagogue on the HHDs, or care about Israel, or donate to Jewish causes, or enroll your children in Hebrew school so they can become Jewishly literate and educated.  So called ‘secular’ Jews do all of those things, and because they do them Jewish continuity and Jewish life are assured for a next generation, and a next, and a next.

     This is not to say that we don’t need our Judah Maccabees, our religious zealots.  We do, and it goes without saying they have an important role to play in Jewish life.  That is part of what Hanukkah reminds us of, and celebrates.  But I don’t think it is a coincidence that every year when we are celebrating Hanukkah and remembering the Maccabees, we are reading about Joseph from the Torah, Joseph the great secular Jew.  

     Few of us can be Maccabees – I know I certainly can’t.  But all of us have a chance to be a Joseph.  And when we are proud of our Judaism, when we care about Jewish community, when we play a part in ensuring Jewish continuity, we are walking in his footsteps.  And I don’t know about you, but for my feet those shoes feel pretty comfortable.  חג שמח ושבת שלום!

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Spiritual Multitasking

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 –

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Joseph’s Bones and The Humility of Moses

This a text version of my sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

Tradition has long understood the 7th day of Passover as the day the Israelites crossed through the Reed Sea, finally escaping the Egyptians, and that is why the Sages chose the narrative of the Song at the Sea for this morning’s Torah reading.  It is a dramatic moment, long anticipated, and our custom is to reflect the drama of the text by standing together as a congregation when it is read aloud.  We even participate in the song itself, joining in with the Torah reader when he chants some of the phrases, like מי כמוכה or ה׳ ימלוך לעולם ועד.

But this morning I would like to turn our attention away from that moment of high drama to focus on what is the traditional beginning of this morning’s reading.  As with any great moment of life, there was an extensive amount of mundane preparation that preceded the parting of the sea.  And the Torah gives us a fair amount of detail about those preparations.  The Israelites had to pack their things, and prepare for the long journey that lay ahead of them.  They also had to enact the entire Passover ritual, sacrificing lambs and painting some of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes.  And they went to the Egyptians, who gave them provisions and even gold to take on the journey.  This was all of the behind the scenes hustle and bustle that went on before they left Egypt, before the drama enacted at the Sea that marks the high point of this morning’s reading.

One can imagine that Moses was quite busy during these last hours in Egypt.  He was the project manager, if you will.  The Torah tells us Moses met with Pharaoh four separate times just before the Israelis left.  He also had to give the people instructions, telling them what they needed to do and how they were to prepare.  He must have been running from place to place, from person to person, making sure everyone knew what their role was, making sure that all the preparations had been properly attended to.

And then there is one additional responsibility that Moses carries out, just at the very moment when the Israelites are leaving Egypt, what must have been the busiest time of all for Moses.  The Torah tells us ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף – Moses took the bones of Joseph.  You may remember that at the very end of Genesis, in fact the second to the last verse of the book, Joseph tells his brothers, just as he is about to die – “you must bring my bones up out of here.  Make sure that one day my bones will be taken to the land of Israel.”  And here is Moses – some four hundred years later – fulfilling Joseph’s wish.

What commentators notice about this is that Moses does it himself.  In everything that was going on, meetings with Pharaoh, preparing more than a million people to leave their homes, the religious rites of the first Passover sacrifices, in all of that, one might have expected Moses to delegate the job of retrieving some 400 year old bones.  Even if they were the bones of Joseph.  If he wanted, he could have sent someone important – he could have sent Aaron, or Miriam.  But he doesn’t – he goes himself, and he schleps.

I am reminded of what I consider to be one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about being in the working world.  As is so often the case, this lesson came to me not in a classroom or a meeting, but in a casual conversation I had with a secretary, these days an administrative assistant, a conversation that took place now about 30 years ago.  I was working on my Master’s degree at Maryland, and found a part time job working in Rockville for a place called the Care Center.  We had a small office space in the large government complex in Rockville at the center of town, and the secretary of the head of the department sat just across the hall from my desk, and over the months as I worked there I got to know her a bit.

One day we were talking about something – I don’t even remember what – and she said to me that her boss – that department head – was the best boss she had ever worked for.  So I asked the natural question – which is?  Why?  What makes him the best boss you’ve ever worked for?  And she said this:  he would never ask me to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

Now on the surface that is a pretty simple and straight forward statement.   But under the surface there is a lot going on there.  What she was really saying was this:  “My boss and I might have very different jobs, but – he respects me, he values my time as much as his own, he is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and we are in this together, we are working together as a team to do what we need to do.”  And she was saying one other thing – “He is humble.  He doesn’t care what his title is, he is not impressed by his own resume, he doesn’t think he is any more important than anyone else here, including me.  And that is the kind of person for whom I like to work.”

Let me return now to Moses, and the Torah’s understanding of his character.  As large as Moses looms in the Torah, we have very little information from the text about his character.  We are never told, anywhere in the Torah, that Moses is brave, or courageous, or wise, or understanding, or moral or ethical.  In fact, we are only told one thing – directly – about Moses’ character.  We are told that he is humble.  (Numbers 12:3)  And it seems to me that only a person of true humility, on one of the busiest days of his life, would take the time to dig up some old dusty bones because of a promise made 400 years ago.  I guess like the boss of the secretary, Moses also would not ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

And I don’t know about you, but that is a very important lesson for a rabbi to remember.  Sometimes in the rabbinate it can feel like every day is the busiest day of your life.  And you are often told all kinds of wonderful things about yourself.  All of it very much appreciated, don’t get me wrong!  But if you are not careful, you can begin to believe your own press clippings, if you know what I mean.  And at the end of the day you have to strive to keep everything in perspective, to remember that you are no better or no more important that anyone else, no more deserving of respect or attention, no less deserving of doing a little schlepping every once in a while.

Because keeping that lesson in mind not only helps you to be a better rabbi, or whatever else it is you might do – it also helps you to be a better Jew, and a better person.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we are really all after anyway?

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Joseph and the Virtues of Assimilation

Common wisdom has long held that assimilation grows stronger with each passing generation.  As an example, in my own family on my dad’s side, my Bubbe and Zaide were born in eastern Europe.  They grew up speaking Yiddish, lived in neighborhoods here in Baltimore where only Jews lived, had friendships only with Jews, kept kosher, as much as possible kept Shabbat, and were much more eastern-European-Jewish in terms of their culture and identity than they were American.  My dad – next generation – went to City College High.  He ran track there, became a passionate Orioles and Colts fan, went to college – the first in his family to do so.  He knew Hebrew – still does – because he went to a Zionist camp growing up and went to Hebrew high school 3 days a week.  But his identity was more American, his cultural comfort level was Sinatra and Broadway, not Yiddish theater.  He and my mother had no hesitation in terms of moving to a community in upstate New York where there were very few Jews, let alone Jewish neighborhoods to live in – something my Bubbe and Zaide found inconceivable.

Then you have my sister and my brother and me.  Certainly we knew we were Jewish growing up, we went to Hebrew school, my brother and I had b’nai mitzvah, all three of us continued our Jewish education into high school with confirmation.  On RH and YK we went to shul, occasionally had Shabbat dinner at home.  But we were secular Jews, and culturally we were entirely American.  Most of our friends were not Jewish.  My brother and I played varsity soccer, the only Jews on the team, my sister danced in the local dance company, again, as far as I remember the only Jew.   Judaism was a part of our identity, but growing up by no means was it the biggest or most important part.  And that is by and large the way we see it work in today’s Jewish community as well.  Each generation a little bit less intensely Jewish, a little bit more American.

Now you might expect that a rabbi finds a trend like that to be disturbing, and there is no question that increasing assimilation generation by generation creates very difficult challenges for those of us who work in the synagogue world and who care about Jewish life and community.  That being said, this morning I want to argue that assimilation is not only acceptable, but that it is actually necessary for the survival of Jewish community and possibly for the survival of Judaism itself.

Consider with me for a moment the three main characters in the book of Genesis – they are?  Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.  I am skipping over Isaac because the truth is he is a relatively minor character in the Genesis narratives.  And as important as the matriarchs are, the primary focus is on those three.  Lets start with Abraham.  He is the idealist, fiercely devoted to serving God, so much so that he is willing to sacrifice his son in God’s service.  His relationship with God is the most important thing in his life, the one thing that defines him more than anything else.  He is generation number one.

Jacob, his grandson, is in a very different place with his religious life and identity.  He is the ‘God wrestler’, a person who struggles with faith and its importance in his life, not always sure of God’s attention or protection.  Jacob doesn’t entirely assimilate – his ethnic and religious identity is too strongly ingrained.  But he has serious doubts, and he does not wait around for God to take care of him.  Instead he uses his own intellect and cunning, his own strength and determination to navigate the challenges of his life.  Jacob believes if he doesn’t do it no one will do it for him – not even God.

Then we arrive at the next generation – Jacob’s son Joseph, Abraham’s great grandson.  And what do we find with Joseph?  He is by far the most assimilated character in the entire Torah.  Joseph has fully and completely integrated into Egyptian life and culture.  He has taken an Egyptian name, he has married an Egyptian woman, he works in the Egyptian government.  He has become so completely and thoroughly Egyptian that in this morning’s Torah portion, after multiple interactions with his own brothers, he finally has to actually say to them – “Hey!  Wake up!  This person you’ve been talking to now off and on for months – face to face, close up – its me!  Its Joseph!”  As it says in this morning’s portion – אני יוסף אחיכם – I am Joseph your brother!!

But as assimilated as Joseph is – as Egyptian as he has become – it is he who assures the future of the Jewish people.  Joseph is the one who brings his brothers and father to Egypt, enabling them to survive the famine.  It is Joseph who honors his father by making sure he is buried in the land of Israel.  And interestingly enough, it is Joseph who makes sure to bring his children, who must be even more Egyptian than he is, to Jacob for a blessing and a last encounter with the great patriarch of early Jewish life.

Now I don’t know if anyone reads the Forward any more.  I still take a glance through it when it comes out if I have the time.  This week there was an article that described current demographic trends in the Jewish community, and showed that the overall percentage of Jews who are Orthodox is rapidly growing.  If you take the Jewish community and divide it into three age ranges – 56 and older, 28-45, and 17 and younger, this is what you see:  Jews 56 and older %5 are Orthodox – that is it!  In the 28-45 age range that percentage grows significantly – %15 of Jews between the ages of 28-45 are Orthodox.  But then you get to 17 and younger and the number grows even more dramatically – %27 in that age range are Orthodox!

You might look at those numbers and think ‘this is good for the Jews,’ because the community will more and more be made up of Orthodox Jews, who are observant, knowledgable and devoted to their faith.  Those Jews should be able to transmit a sense of the importance of Judaism and the tradition to their children and grandchildren, and ensure a process of continuity for the Jewish people for generations to come.  Good for the Jews, right?

But I think there is also a potential problem in that growing percentage of Orthodox Jews, namely this:  in the Orthodox community you don’t have any Josephs.  You don’t have people who are fully assimilated and integrated into American life and culture.  And I would argue that for the Jewish community to be safe and sound and successful, we  need to have some Josephs out there.  We need people who know they are Jewish, but who are comfortable and fully integrated in the secular world.  We need people who have non-Jewish friends and business contacts.  We need people who feel just as comfortable in the non-Jewish world as they do in the Jewish world.  We need Jews involved in government, the sciences, the arts, the media, the entertainment world.  And by and large those Jews are not going to come from the Orthodox community, which if anything is becoming more insular, and more distant and cut off from the secular world.

So do we need to worry about assimilation?  We do – it IS growing, and it does present us with greater and greater challenges in terms of maintaining our identity and traditions and the continuity of our faith.  And the increase in the Orthodox population will help to address those challenges.  But we should also remember that assimilation should be celebrated, that it is symbol of the Jewish community’s success, and that without it we would simply not be where we are today.  May we continue from strength to strength for generations to come –

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White, Black, Technicolor

My guess would be that virtually everyone in the room this morning – and quite possibly just about everyone in the western hemisphere – is aware that a new Star Wars movie is playing in theaters this weekend.  I vividly remember going to see the first Star Wars film, in 1977.  The week that movie opened Star Wars was on the cover of Time magazine, and I remember the excitement I felt settling in to my seat at the movie theater.  The larger than life characters in the movie, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Darth Vadar and Princess Leia, the spectacular special effects, and the swashbuckling narrative combined to leave a deep impression on my then 13 year old brain which in some ways remains to this day.  And yes all five members of the Schwartz clan will be trekking to the theater Sunday night to see the newest version.  And we won’t be the only ones.  Early estimates are that this new Star Wars film may be the highest grossing movie of all time before all is said and done.

It is natural to wonder what is at the root of the enormous popularity of the Star Wars franchise.  It must be more than just good movie making, and in fact some of the later films were not particularly good movies at all.  Part of it I feel is the yearning that we all have in one way or another for a simpler time.  George Lucas has said that his inspiration for the initial Star Wars film, the one I saw in ’77, was in large part the classic western, with a wise and noble sheriff wearing of course what color hat?  White!  And a nasty and immoral villain, in the old westerns always dressed in black, and of course wearing a black hat.  Transfer this to Star Wars and you have Luke Skywalker, in his white tunic, the young hero who has arrived on the scene to restore order to town.  And of course you have Darth Vadar, played in the original movie by the great James Earl Jones, all in black, flowing black cape, and the black hat replaced by a black metallic helmet and mask that would become iconic.

The black and white color themes are symbolic, and we all understand how that symbolism works.  In the movies white is goodness, purity, morality, clarity, the truth and what is right.  Black is the opposite – it is dangerous, violent, evil, immoral, deceitful, whatever is disruptive to the proper order of the world.  At the heart of that color symbolism is the fundamental assumption that there is a right and a wrong that can be plainly distinguished, that it is entirely clear which is which.  Luke Skywalker is unambiguously good.  Darth Vadar clearly and completely evil.  And that also appeals to us.  We would like to believe that those distinctions are possible, that we can look at something – or someone – or some group – and know precisely what it is, good or bad, moral or immoral.  It would be easier, it would be simpler, if things were clear – and what is the phrase we use to express that? – black and white.

If you don’t mind I would like to detour from Star Wars to the Torah for a moment, and to move from Luke Skywalker’s white tunic and Darth Vadar’s black robes and mask to easily the most recognizable and famous piece of clothing in the entire Bible, Joseph’s ‘coat of many colors.’  Joseph is unquestionably the hero in the last third of Genesis, the main character who will ultimately save the Israelites from famine.  We know his story well – when he is young he is favored by his father Jacob, this brothers are jealous, they sell him into slavery, and he rises to power in Egypt to become second in command to only Pharaoh.  Finally in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, he is able to reconcile with his brothers as the Joseph narrative comes to a conclusion.

The coat of many colors plays a crucial role in Joseph’s story.  It is understood as being one of the main causes of the brother’s jealously.  Later when they capture Joseph and intend to harm him the Torah notes that the first thing the brothers do is to take the coat of many colors away from Joseph, and then it is that coat that they dip in goat’s blood and bring to Jacob – the father-  to prove to him that Joseph has been killed.  The colored coat and Joseph are clearly intertwined, connected, in the minds of the brothers, Jacob, and I would argue even Joseph himself.  And it is interesting that the coat has an ambiguity to it.  To go back to Star Wars, it is not something that could be worn by Luke Skywalker or Darth Vadar.  It is not white, or black – it is a bit of both, with other colors thrown in.  That doesn’t play very well in the movies, especially a movie like Star Wars, where you go to the theater expecting to enter a universe where things are black and white, where there is clarity about what is right and wrong, who is the hero and who is the villain.  But the coat of many colors is very much at home, very comfortable, in the Bible.  The world the Bible describes is a place where things are not clear, where right and wrong are not always easy to distinguish, where characters are complicated – not all good, and not all bad.

Joseph is a perfect example of this.  He is understood as being one of the great figures in the history of the Jewish people.  He is wise, able to interpret dreams, with a clear charisma and a talent for always winding up on top.  But at the same time he is a morally conflicted person.  Early in his life he is arrogant and insensitive.  We do see in this morning’s portion that he ultimately forgives his brothers for what they’ve done to him, and the reconciliation described at the beginning of the sedra seems heartfelt and genuine.  But he plays some nasty tricks on them along the way, and takes advantage of the fact that he has complete and total power over them.  Joseph is a complicated and conflicted person, in many ways ambiguous in his character, and the coat of many colors reflects that ambiguity.

It also of course reflects the world we live in.  It might be nice to enter the Star Wars universe for a couple of hours, but when the movie is over we return to the real world, and the real world cannot be painted in simple colors.  We live in a world where we wrestle with issues like abortion, immigration, refugees, health care, gun rights, poverty, and religious freedom just to name a few.  These issues are complicated, ambiguous, and difficult.  One of the problems with today’s political discourse is that the different sides have become so starkly oppositional, the lines so clearly defined, that people begin to look at these very complicated issues as if they were black and white, easy and clear, and totally unambiguous.  But the opposite is true, and issues like these do not have easy answers.  And if we can’t talk about them – if the minute someone says something that you disagree with, you shut it down – we’ll never be able to get anywhere.

That actually may be an opportunity that is presented to us all as we move into a presidential election year.  The issues will be on the table.  There will be debates – one after another after another.  My hope is that is that our political leaders can grapple with these issues in a real way, with all of their complexity and nuance.  If they can do that – with respect and dignity –  then they might help all of us to find a way to have meaningful dialogue about some of the most difficult, but also without question some of the most important issues of our time.  May we have the grace, the compassion, and the wisdom we need to speak about these issues not with anger, but with hope in our hearts for a better future that we can only make together.

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