Friday, December 28, 2012

There Are No Sure Things

At the end of his life, Yaakov wanted to leave his children with a message of hope and consolation. Chapter 49 begins with Yaakov calling together his sons at which point he says, “Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days.” However Yaakov does not live up to this promise. He blesses his children but we see no further explicit mention of the End of Days anywhere else in Yaakov’s last words. Rashi quotes the midrash that Yaakov wanted to reveal to his children when Moshiach would come, but just then his Divine inspiration departed and he no longer had access to that information.

We can all understand Yaakov’s desire to take leave of his children on a note of comfort. His family was now in Egypt and the years of slavery were yet to begin. As Yaakov lay dying, his sons probably were feeling vulnerable and dejected. It is only natural that Yaakov wanted to tell his children that “everything will be OK- and I can prove it to you by telling you when Moshiach will come.”
However Yaakov was not allowed to convey that message. In this way the Torah is teaching us an important lesson: there are no sure things in life. We have to try our best every day, even when the results are not guaranteed. We cannot give up on doing the right thing, even when it appears that nice guys finish last.
It would have been great had Yaakov been allowed to assure us that everything would work out OK in the end. By God not allowing him to do so, we are given the greater challenge – living a righteous life under an air of uncertainty.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

We are All Stakeholders

One of the “hot topics” during the recent presidential election was the discussion centered on notions of entitlement and responsibility. Many conservatives claim that the federal government is too big, people rely too heavily on government programs and we are creating an unhealthy “culture of entitlement”. Many liberals argue with this suggestion and emphasize the importance of government providing safety nets for the most vulnerable and underprivileged among the population.

While the proper size/role of government is a debatable issue, what is not debatable is the importance of encouraging people, especially our children, to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Of course we want what’s best for our biological children and, more generally, the next generation. In this age of affluence we are able to provide for everything that our children need and many things that they want. But even as we shower gifts upon our children we must allow space for them to become contributing members of society, to do good deeds, and to develop a sense of responsibility. Every human being is a stakeholder in society in some way.

This is the lesson that emerges from the Garden of Eden. On the one hand God tells Adam and Eve that they had free reign over the garden. Except for one or two trees, they were free to take and eat anything in the garden. At the same time God gives them a charge: “to work and protect” the garden. Optimal enjoyment and a sense of satisfaction for Adam and Eve could not be attained until they were made stakeholders in the garden and given responsibilities.

This is also the lesson that emerges from the end of Parshat Vayigash. After the seven years of plenty, the famine descends upon Egypt. The Egyptian people use all of their money and livestock in order to buy grain from Pharaoh, as planned by Yosef. After a year the people are left without any assets. They turn to Yosef and say (47:19): “Acquire us and our land for bread.” In the next verse we see that Yosef agrees, but only in part: “Thus Yosef acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh.” Yosef refuses to enslave the Egyptian people. Instead he makes them sharecroppers; they would work the land that was now owned by Pharaoh, they would keep 80% of the produce and pay 20% as tax.

Yosef understood that keeping the Egyptians as stakeholders in the land and in its ongoing cultivation was a good idea- for both the Egyptians and for Pharaoh. It was good for the Egyptians because it allowed them to maintain their self-identity and self-worth. It was good for Pharaoh because citizens that are no longer stakeholders in society have no reason to positively contribute. They get bored, disillusioned and are more likely to revolt against the powers that b

 If we want our children to become responsible, productive and contributing members of society, then we must learn from our ancestor Yosef.  We must empower the next generation and remind them of their responsibilities. We must teach them that they are important stakeholders: in their family, in their school, and in their community, in their world.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Few - and Proud

This morning in my Tefilah class I studied the Al Hanisim paragraph with 6th grade boys. I focused on the phrase in the prayer where we thank Hashem for the Jewish victory over the Greeks where it is described as “the many in the hands of the few.”  I reminded the class that the Greeks were not primarily interested in killing Jews, as Haman and the Nazis were. Rather, their interest was in extinguishing Judaism. A Jew would be left alone if s/he gave up unique Jewish beliefs and rituals and lived life as a Greek. Persecution would only occur if Jews refused this offer. Many Jews accepted the Greek offer and lived comfortable lives as Mityavnim. However there was a small cadre of people, led by the Maccabees who refused to give in, or give up.

As I emphasized in today’s class, they understood that there were some ideas or beliefs that are worth fighting for, even worth dying for. I compared the Maccabees to the American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. By and large, citizens of the 13 colonies could have gone on living comfortable lives as subjects of the British. They may have been taxed unfairly, but they would have been left alive. Yet they understood what the Maccabees understood: that there are some rights and ideas worth fighting for.

Chanukah also reminds us that being right does not always put you in the majority. As we read in Al Hanisim, the miracle was that “the many were given over to the few.” In a sense, this is the ongoing miracle of the Jewish People and the Jewish State: the few continue to persevere. Against all odds, against lopsided UN votes, we are still here and we are not going anywhere

Parshat Mikeitz begins with the story of Pharaoh’s dreams. Rabbi Moshe Amiel asks: In Egypt, they don’t talk about this Pharaoh anymore. Egyptian history books barely mention his name, and definitely do not describe his dreams. Yet in Judaism, Pharaoh’s dreams are part of our holy Bible. We read and study Pharaoh’s dream to a much greater degree than they do in Egypt. Why is this so?

Rabbi Amiel suggests that although Yosef interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as relevant for that particular point in history, there was a much larger significance to this dream that is relevant throughout Jewish history. The narrative of the healthy cows being swallowed by the skinny cows and the healthy stalks being devoured by the skinny stalks is the ongoing lesson of “the many in the hands of the few….the strong in the hands of the weak.” It is a Jewish theme and promise throughout history, not just on Chanukah.

The convergence of Parshat Mikeitz with Chanukah is the right time to remind ourselves of the lessons of “rabim biyad me’atim.” There are beliefs worth fighting for. Even when we are right, we may be in the minority. And just because we are in the minority does not mean we are destined to be lost to history.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Learning from Yosef Ha'Ivri

The story of Yosef in the house of Potiphar and his interaction with Potiphar’s wife can teach us a great deal about how we should strive to live our lives as Jews. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Yosef, and Yosef responds that he will not succumb to temptation on two accounts: “1)there is no one greater in this house than I, and Potiphar has denied me nothing but you (since you are his wife); how then can I perpetrate this great evil. 2)And I would have sinned against God.”

I admit that my punctuation of the last few words is debatable. One could argue that Yosef’s mail concern was that committing adultery is a sin against God. However I see within Yosef’s words the appropriate approach to gauging the correctness of our actions. First of all, Yosef considers the human impact of his actions and understands that committing adultery would be a sin against Potiphar, not only because she is his wife, but also because of the trust that Potiphar had placed in Yosef and adultery would be a supreme violation of that trust. Secondly, and just as important, even if Yosef had no feelings of respect and gratitude towards Potiphar, and even if he resented Potiphar and really wanted to hurt him, Yosef would not succumb to temptation because it would be a sin against God.

Yosef models for us the considerations that we are supposed to have. If our actions would hurt someone else, then even if we could rationalize those actions as not being a technical violation of halacha, it would still be wrong. And even if an action does not hurt anyone, we still must evaluate whether that activity is allowed according to Halacha, the code by which we are supposed to live our lives.

I believe that this is what sets Yosef apart and the reason why he is called “Ivri” on multiple occasions in Parshat Vayeshev. Yosef sets himself apart by holding himself to two high standards: one is the Halacha test, the other is the “mensch test”. Even if something could be construed as permissible based on the Halacha test, if we are to emulate Yosef Hatzaddik then we will avoid any activity that doesn’t pass the mensch tes

Let us learn the lessons of Yosef HaIvri well. Torah is distorted when it is used to justify improper behavior towards others, Jew or non-Jew.  A person who claims to be Torah observant yet hurts others is a liar. Let us never allow there to be daylight between being Torah observant and being a mensch.