Tag Archives: Joseph

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?

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, clergy, holidays, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, synagogue, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

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 –

7 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, community, Genesis, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

The Torah’s Facebook Page

Some of you will remember one of the original TV crime dramas, Dragnet, where the actor Jack Webb played Sgt. Joe Friday, and Harry Morgan played his partner Officer Bill Ganon.  In each episode Friday and Ganon would methodically investigate a case, interviewing one suspect after another.  It is hard to imagine today, but in Dragnet there was barely a car chase, and rarely a gun ever drawn.  The show was quite popular in its time, and it passes the test of any all time great TV series because it introduced into our lexicon a phrase that we probably all are familiar with.  You will remember whenever they were ready to begin an interview one of the detectives would always say – Just the facts, ma’am.

Just the facts.  It is an interesting idea, the sense of it being that a series of events unfolded, and what the detectives wanted to do was just reconstruct the events, develop a timeline, and get to the bottom of the matter, which in Dragnet they always did.  The problem of course is that Dragnet was a TV show, and in a TV world your job is to make up facts that make for an interesting story.  But all too often in real life it actually seems to work the other way around.  You start out with a story – great story, interesting story – but when the real life facts begin to come out, the story doesn’t look so good anymore.  All too often in real life, the facts get in the way of a good story.

We’ve seen two good examples of that rule over the last couple of weeks.  Probably the one in the forefront of everyone’s mind is what has happened with Brian Williams, the NBC news anchor who suspended from his job this week.  Brian Williams had a great story – dramatic story, a story that he told over the years multiple times and did not hesitate to embellish.  War time.  Helicopters.  Shot down.  The whole nine yards.  Great story.  But in the end the facts got in the way.

Second example, in some ways to me even more disturbing, was the story of the Chicago baseball team that won the Little League World series.  They had a great story.  Great group of kids, they worked hard, they won games in dramatic fashion, and the end of the story was the best, the ending that we Americans love, they were champions, they won the title.  But in the end the facts got in the way.  Note here it wasn’t the kids!  It was the adults, who evidently colluded to break Little League rules in terms of which players are allowed to play on which teams.  The story was a narrative of hard work, athletic skill, and an improbable championship.  But the facts were very different – they included the hard work and the championship, but they also included dishonesty, gaming the system, and plain old cheating.

In some ways it comes down to plain and simple human psychology.  All too often we aren’t satisfied with the facts, and we have a tendency, when we don’t like the facts, to ‘massage’ them, for lack of a better term.  This is something that seems to be happening more and more often today.  Every few months it comes to light that a prominent public figure has fudged his or her resume.  Added a graduate degree from an institution they never attended.  Maybe listed job experience at a place they never worked, or changed the description of what  they did when they were there.  The facts can be so mundane, so plain and every day, sometimes so problematic, but when you dress it up just a little bit it can look like a totally different animal.

I wonder if the internet plays into that phenomenon.  The internet gives you an opportunity to present to the world your story as you would like it to be, not necessarily as it actually is.  Think about Facebook for a moment.  The posts that people put up on Facebook – by and large –  tell a one sided story – a story of vacations in exotic places, of delicious looking dinners and tropical drinks, of snuggly pets, of gorgeous sunsets and the highlight moments of life.  You don’t see a lot of pictures on FB of people standing in line at the dry cleaners, or sitting in traffic, or walking the pet in the rain early in the morning, or paying bills, or any of that other less glamorous stuff that we spend at least half of our time doing.  Abraham Lincoln 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 the truth is life is messy, challenging, and hard at times.  Between all of the beautiful sunsets and fancy dinners there is a lot that goes on in people’s lives that they don’t put up on their FB pages.  Because despite what we might want things to be like, at the end of the day life is about the facts.  And the facts are always complicated.

Imagine for a moment if the Torah told its story like a FB page.  You would have all of the highlights, the great and glorious moments, but you wouldn’t see the difficulties and the challenges.  You would read about the Creation of the world, but you wouldn’t know that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banished from the garden of Eden, you wouldn’t know that Cain killed Abel.  You would see a photo of Jacob and Esau embracing, brothers reuniting after many years, but you would never have read about the way Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and blessing.  You would have Judah’s passionate speech about family in Parshat Vayigash, but you wouldn’t know the background to the story, that Judah and his brothers threw Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery.   You would have the dramatic moment of Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, but the dry list of laws that we read in this week’s Torah portion wouldn’t appear.    The golden calf story wouldn’t make it onto a FB page.  Nor would all of the complaining the people do, or Korach’s rebellion against Moses.

But the Torah doesn’t do that, it doesn’t present a one sided version, it doesn’t edit out the problematic moments and characters.  Abraham is a visionary monotheist, but he also has serious issues in his family life.  Moses is a great prophet, but he has an anger management problem, and is probably a lousy father.  Jacob is a survivor, an angel wrestler, the father of Israel, but also a talented manipulator of other people, and a thief.  The Torah gives us the whole picture – the highs and the lows, the good moments and the bad, the photo ops and the incidents that we would rather forget about.  At the end of the day, the Torah gives us the facts.

I would argue that is one of the things this week’s Torah portion is about, Parshat Mishpatim.  On the surface it is a relatively dry collection of laws, covering a wide variety of topics, from the way slaves should be treated, to lending money, to theft, to the separation of milk and meat.  The list goes on and on, commandment after commandment.  But what is underneath the list, what is the thread that ties all of these commandments together, is that the facts of human life, the way we actually act, in the real world, will all too often be problematic.  People will steal.  They will lie.  They’ll cheat in business.  Or even in Little League.  People will wish harm against other people they don’t like.  People will try to take advantage of the underprivileged.  The Torah knows this, it acknowledges it, and it sets these facts in front of us, in full view.  Because it is only when you see the full picture – the real picture – that you can begin to take the actions you need to take to move your own life forward, or for that matter to move a community forward, or a society.

So lets look at the big picture.  The Emes, as we would say.  Eyes wide open.  Just the facts, ma’am.  And then lets get to work.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Joseph – the Assimilated Jew

Don’t underestimate the ‘assimilated’ Jews in our community – a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (1/3/15):

The topic for this morning’s sermon is one that has been discussed countless times in countless sermons by countless rabbis over the years, namely the issue of assimilation.  We all know what the word means – the pull of the secular culture that is all around us, which so often conflicts with Jewish values and practices.  When a conflict arises between secular culture, secular life, and Jewish culture and Jewish life, all too often these days it is secular culture that wins the battle.

This happens in many different areas of life.  Think of values for example – the Jewish value is community and communal needs;  the secular value is the individual and individual needs.  The Jewish value is a Hebrew education for children, the secular value is that children should play in sports leagues.  Judaism emphasizes being chosen by God for specific responsibilities and obligations;  secular culture emphasizes a person’s right to choose to do whatever they want.  In each of these cases, and many more, the traditional Jewish values are being challenged, and often subsumed, by the secular values they come into conflict with.

In a way this is a blessing in disguise.  There was a time – not long ago, that many of you remember well – when Jews could only live in certain neighborhoods, go to certain schools, work at certain jobs, belong to certain country clubs.  But for the most part that has changed today – Jews live in Roland Park, go to Gilman, or Bryn Mawr, they don’t face quotas at Hopkins, and can work for any law firm, accounting practice, or hospital.  And that is a good thing.  I don’t think any of us would say we want to go back to the way things were 50 years ago, or probably even 30 years ago.

But as the secular door has opened wider and wider to Jews during these last decades, what we are finding is that it becomes more and more difficult for young Jews especially to maintain a strong Jewish identity and to prioritize connection to the Jewish community.  So we know today that synagogue affiliation rates are at historic lows, that intermarriage rates are at historic highs, that Jewish literacy – the ability to read Hebrew, follow a service, knowledge of Jewish history, a feeling for the land of Israel – all of these seem to be moving – statistically at least – in directions that make those of us in the professional Jewish community uncomfortable.

To imagine that we can find an easy solution to the challenge of assimilation, that we can wave a magic wand and make it suddenly disappear, is simply a pipe dream.  The challenge of assimilation is here to stay, absolutely part and parcel of the dynamic of a liberal Jewish community living in the Diaspora.  The real question is given that assimilation is with us, and will continue to be, how can we live with it, how can we work with it, in such a way that that other classic Jewish buzzword – continuity – will be maintained through the generations – our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

To answer that question today – or at least to gain some insight into it – I would like to think with your for a moment about the figure of Joseph, about whom we’ve been reading in the Torah for the last 4 weeks.  Joseph is without question one of the most important characters in the book of Genesis, really in the entire Bible – right up there with Abraham and Jacob – in fact Abraham’s entire story is told in 3 Torah portions, while Joseph gets 4.  The truth is we probably know the stories about Joseph even better than we know those of Abraham or Jacob – Joseph and the coat of many colors – Joseph and being sold into slavery by his brothers – Joseph and interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh (the fat cows and the skinny cows) – Joseph becoming ruler of the land of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.  Joseph is no minor character, one of the greatest figures in Jewish history.

Joseph is also entirely assimilated.  In many ways, if you read his story closely, he is more Egyptian than Israelite.  He speaks the Egyptian language, takes an Egyptian name, marries an Egyptian woman, wears Egyptian clothes, follows Egyptian burial practices.  The last verse of Genesis tells us that Joseph was embalmed – certainly not a Jewish ritual – and that he was put into a coffin – the only time in the entire Bible we are told someone is put into a coffin – because that is the way the Egyptians did it.  When we say to someone we hope they have a long life, what do we say to them?  They should live until  – 120!  Why?  Because that is how old Moses is when he dies.  But Joseph dies at 110.  Why?  Because 110 in ancient Egypt was the ideal life span.  Like many Jews today are more comfortable at the football stadium than they are in shul, or more knowledgeable about secular subjects than about Jewish ones, Joseph was more comfortable and familiar with Egyptian life than the Israelite way.

And yet as assimilated as Joseph was, there are three things in his life that enable him to maintain a sense of Jewish identity, that constantly remind him he is an Israelite.  The first is he remembers where he came from.  It is no mistake that just before he dies he tells his brothers to make sure that one day he wants his bones brought back to the land of Israel.  As the old saying goes, you can take the boy out of New York, but not the New York out of the boy.  Joseph knows at his core he is an Israelite, and he knows he comes from Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.

He also knows, at the end of the day, that the God he worships is the God of Israel.  Faith is the second thing that keeps Joseph connected to his Jewish identity.  It is clear in virtually every conversation he has – with Pharaoh, when he tells Pharaoh it is God who enables him to interpret dreams; with his brothers, when he assures them that everything that has happened has happened because of the God of Israel.  Even Pharaoh senses Joseph’s commitment to the Israelite God calling Joseph איש אשר רוח אלוקים בו – a man in whom the spirit of Elohim – the God if Israel – resides.  He may not be outwardly observant, he certainly is not pious, but the only God he knows, the only God he believes in, is the God of his fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And the last thing that keeps Joseph connected to his Israelite identity is that he has children, and as soon as he has children he has to decide how to raise them.  Should he raise them as Egyptians?  It would make their lives easier.  They would be able to do what all the other Egyptian boys and girls are doing, live their lives like everyone else.  Or should he raise them as Jews?  A more difficult path, a more challenging task, yet ultimately one filled with more meaning, both for Joseph, and for his sons Efraim and Menashe.  Of course we know Joseph’s decision.  He brings his boys to Jacob, because he wants them to receive, from the patriarch of the family, the blessing of the God if Israel.

The land of Israel, the God of Israel, the people of Israel.  Those three threads weave through Joseph’s life, through all of his trials and tribulations, through all of his triumphs and successes.  On the surface he is an Egyptian – so much so that when his brothers come face to face with him they have no idea who he is.  But under the surface – in his heart and soul – he is a Jew, and despite the years that have gone by that is something he has not forgotten.  In the Shema we say ‘love the Lord your God with all of your heart, your soul, your might.’  These are the internal qualities that define who we truly are – may they be strong in us, in our children, in our grandchildren, for generations to come –

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized