Thursday, December 29, 2011

Grudge match?


5 Tevet 5772 / December 30-31, 2011

“I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” – Genesis 45:3

In this week’s portion, Vayigash, we have the big reveal. Joseph, moved by his brother Judah’s desire to serve as Joseph’s slave in place of Benjamin (Joseph’s goblet was placed in Benjamin’s backpack in order to frame him), orders his Egyptian entourage out of the room and tells his brothers who he really is. They are speechless until he assures them that he is not angry with them – rather, his being sold into slavery was part of a divine plan that allowed him to be in a position to later save everyone from certain starvation.

Joseph’s first question to his brothers upon the reveal is, “Is my father still well?”

This question, frankly, poses quite a few challenges.

Joseph is the #2 most powerful person in all of Egypt – only Pharaoh is more powerful. Joseph has chariots, food aplenty, servants, etc., and by the time his brothers come to see him, Joseph has been in his position as Pharaoh’s #2 for about 9 years, and hasn’t seen his father in over 20 years.

If Joseph really cared about his father Jacob’s wellbeing, why didn’t he go home to visit once he had attained such stature?

Why didn’t he send messengers to let his father know that he was alive and well?

It seems possible that Joseph held a grudge against his father, as he may have resented his father Jacob’s favoritism due to said favoritism making his brothers despise him. As a result, perhaps Joseph chose to not contact Jacob in order to “teach him a lesson,” consciously causing his father pain. So too may Joseph’s requirement that the brothers bring Benjamin to him in Egypt have been as a result of Joseph wanting to cause Jacob separation anxiety from his new favorite son.

Grudge holding is something that we all do. Sometimes we do it consciously, and other times subconsciously. For example, I know that there are times when I personally have been tempted to “give someone the silent treatment” due to holding a grudge, despite knowing from personal experience how painful it is to be ignored.

The Torah states in Leviticus 19:18 that “you shall not take vengeance, and shall not bear any grudge against the members of your people.”

While one might argue that the Jewish tradition makes it clear that sometimes grudge holding is permissible – e.g. when someone murders a member of your family – the Talmud, in Yoma 23a, argues that not holding grudges, as expressed in the Leviticus quote above, refers to monetary matters (understood as non-capital offenses).

Joseph’s actions, or lack thereof, seem to be focused on taking vengeance due to harboring a grudge against his father. The result is that Joseph spends significantly less time with his father and family than he otherwise could have, with the two of them being apart for over 20 years, and Jacob dying a mere 17 years after coming down to Egypt.

Life is too short to punish those we love for their misdeeds by holding grudges against them.

This Shabbat, reflect on those whom you might be holding grudges against, and seek to forgive. Recognize that while it is human nature to hold grudges, our Jewish tradition makes it clear that holding grudges is something we strive to avoid. Acknowledge that the time we have in this world is short, and to spend it angry with others is not the best use of our time.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Joseph, Bullying, and Latkes


28 Kislev 5772 / December 23-24, 2011

Shabbat Chanukah

In this week’s portion, we find Joseph having a bit of fun at his brothers’ expense.

After interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph becomes Egypt’s second-in-command, and oversees the storing of grain during seven years of plenty, in order to have enough food on hand for the predicted seven years of famine that would follow. During said famine, Jacob sends his sons (sans Benjamin, who has replaced Joseph as Jacob’s favorite) down to Egypt in order to buy food, as the famine had reached their family home in the Land of Canaan. Joseph has not seen his brothers since they sold him into slavery, and before helping them, he decides to mess with them a bit (as they don’t recognize him) by speaking to them harshly and accusing them of being spies.

The ancient rabbis view this interaction in a number of ways. Some say Joseph needed to test his brothers in order to determine whether or not they had changed their ways. Others say that he was fearful and purposely cautious, as if his brothers had hated him when he had dreamed that they were bowing to him, how much more so would they hate him if they realized they were actually bowing to him!

Today, some might view Joseph’s actions as vindication – the ability to finally get back at his brothers for what they did to him. Others might view it as bullying.

Bullying has been all over the news lately, with all-too-frequent stories about teens taking their own lives as a result. Bullying can take different forms, particularly with today’s myriad online communication tools. Perceiving someone as “different” is often what leads to bullying, coupled with one’s own insecurities.

Bullying and Judaism do not, and cannot, coexist.

When asked to share the single most important concept in all of Torah, Rabbi Akiva (approx. 50-135 CE), one of the earliest and most influential rabbis of all time, responded: “ve’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha” – “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Coupled with the traditional Jewish belief that every human being is made in the image of God, it is not possible to both be a bully and an ethical Jew.

With this Shabbat falling during the holiday of Chanukah, take note of how the ancient Jews were bullied by Antiochus and the Greeks, how some went along with his decrees, and how the Maccabees spoke and acted out against him.

“Tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

If you see someone being bullied, speak out.

If you know someone being bullied, support him/her however you can.

This week, and going forward, when you see someone that for some reason you initially perceive as being “different” than you, reflect for a moment on the beauty they must possess just by virtue of being human, and rather than look away or stare in disgust, smile at their beauty.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Smiling's my favorite!


21 Kislev 5772 / December 16-17, 2011

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age, and he made him a multicolored coat.” – Genesis 37:3

In this week’s portion we follow the early part of Joseph’s life, as he has dreams of his own, is hated and eventually sold by his brothers into slavery, shuns the advances of his master’s wife, and eventually after being thrown into Egyptian prison interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker.

What I want to focus on is how this business came about in the first place. While not a parent yet myself, I cannot help but be struck by the actions taken by Jacob in this week’s portion. What did Jacob think would happen when he gave Joseph a special garment? Did he think his other sons would respond favorably? Did they even cross his mind?

Joseph’s response to this preferable treatment is telling and unsurprising: he considers himself to be superior, at least on a subconscious level, as evidenced by his two dreams where his brothers bow to him. While we later learn that these dreams were foreshadowing the groveling of his brothers before him in Egypt, for Joseph to have and then share these dreams with his brothers made him a bit of a jerk – one whom we too might have been tempted to throw into a pit as his brothers initially did in order to put him in his place.

I regularly take the opportunity to point out that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were flawed individuals. They were not perfect! This can arguably best be evinced by pointing out how they all played favorites with their children. By means of example:

Abraham: kicked out his son Ishmael at Sarah’s bequest (he was willing to negotiate for the lives of strangers in Sodom and Gemorrah, but sent his own son into the wilderness without a fight)

Sarah: made Abraham kick out Ishmael (Hagar’s son) due to wanting her son Isaac to inherit Abraham’s wealth

Isaac: loved his son Esau more than his son Jacob

Rebecca: favored Jacob over Esau and helped Jacob steal Esau’s blessing

Jacob (aka Israel): favored his son Joseph over his 11 others and gave him a unique coat

Leah: cherished her own children above the others

Rachel: envious of Leah until having Joseph, whom she then of course favored

What we see here is a pattern of terrible parenting, which you can hardly blame on each subsequent generation given the shortcomings of the former.

The Jewish tradition contains significant insights as it relates to parenting, in no small part due to the (poor) example set by our ancestors.

For example, we learn in the Talmud (BT Shabbat 10b) that favoring one child over another is unacceptable and leads to disastrous consequences. The Talmud (BT Sukkah 46b) also shares that parents should not make promises to their children and then not keep them.

In Proverbs 22:6 we learn that parents “should train each child in the way the s/he should go,” suggesting that children should be brought up uniquely according to their particular personalities, character traits, and talents, recognizing that the same parenting techniques may not work for each child.

How can we apply this wisdom in our own lives?

Families today are anything but homogeneous. In fact, an overwhelming majority of families in America today are not comprised of a heterosexual non-divorced couple with two children, as society might have you think. Regardless of family structure and the admitted challenges that various structures present, our tradition recognizes the inherent challenges that accompany raising children, and that while we must strive to be fair and responsive to each child’s needs, the reality, just like it was for our ancestors, is that competing family dynamics are a part of human nature, and in many ways are what make us human.

For those of you who already have children, hopefully you can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, and find guidance in some our tradition’s teachings.

For those of you who do not yet have children, take a moment to ponder how our tradition’s teachings around parenting might inform your interaction with others on a daily basis.

Recognizing the imperfections of our ancestors and seeking to learn from them is an essential part of being Jewish, and the accompanying endeavor to make ourselves better people is what our time here is all about.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

My name is... WHAT? My name is... WHO?


14 Kislev 5771 / December 9-10, 2011

What is your name?” – Genesis 32:28

A good name is preferable to great riches…” – Proverbs 22:1

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we find Jacob preparing for a potentially dangerous reunion with his brother Esau (whose birthright and paternal blessing Jacob had taken). Jacob splits his camp into two (lest everyone should be wiped out upon an attack), and sends gifts via courier to his brother, hoping to quell Esau’s anticipated anger.

The night before the encounter, Jacob separated himself from his camp and his family.

“Jacob was left alone... and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” - Genesis 32:25

This is the well-known story of Jacob wrestling with an angel.

At the end of the struggle, having been defeated, the angel wished to depart. Jacob refused to let the angel leave until he gave Jacob a blessing. The first thing the angel did was to ask a simple question to Jacob: "What is your name?"

It is important to remember that while this question may sound simple to us, to Jacob, it carried a lot of weight. The last time Jacob was asked this question, he answered falsely, saying “I am Esau” in order to steal his brother’s paternal blessing from Isaac. This time, Jacob redeems himself by answering the angel’s question truthfully, saying “I am Jacob.”

At this point, the angel gives Jacob the new name “Israel” (which translates roughly to “having prevailed over the Divine”), blesses him, and departs.

The ancient rabbis have different opinions as to the role this angel played. Some felt the angel was acting maliciously toward Jacob, as Jacob was physically injured in the scuffle, while others contend that the angel was not evil, as struggling with the angel and defeating him gave Jacob the confidence to face Esau the next day. My personal take is that the angel and the accompanying struggle represent how we as human beings wrestle with our shortcomings and misdeeds, and our potential to overcome them.

Our Jewish tradition makes clear that having a “good name” – better understood as a “good reputation” – is priceless. We find this, for example, in our texts (see the Proverbs quote above), as well as in our rabbinic commentaries, such as those admonishing people who speak badly about others (using negative speech commonly referred to as “lashon harah”). Jacob was far from perfect in his actions, and as a result, his name and reputation at the time may not have been the greatest. Jacob was deceptive towards his father and took advantage of his hungry brother. Jacob’s reputation was certainly not one that Esau and his community would have found favorable.

Jacob’s name change to Israel signified a rebirth of sorts. It provided him with the confidence to confront his brother the next day as “a new man,” and with the ability to leave his misdeeds in the past and move forward. It also provides us as Jews with the comfort of knowing that for millennia we have been known as the “Children of Israel,” rather than as the “Children of Jacob,” so that our reputation as a nation would not be tainted throughout the generations.

What is your name? What does it mean to you? Who are you named for, if anyone?

What associations do you hope others make when they hear your name?

When it comes time for someone to offer your eulogy, what do you hope s/he will say?

We are all imperfect (despite what your mother may tell others about you). We all have struggles, make mistakes, and take actions that have the ability to harm others and tarnish our own reputations. But when given the opportunity to improve, like Jacob, we need to seize it.

Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, so too do we have the ability to wrestle with our own misdeeds, to come clean, to prevail over our own shortcomings, and to build reputations befitting of those as blessed as we are.

This Shabbat, take some time to reflect on your name, on some of your own perceived shortcomings, on what you want others to be saying about you once you’re gone and the actions you can take to help make it so.