Friday, December 29, 2017

"Say Little and Do Much"- But We Need To Say Something

After all challenges that Yosef experienced, Parshat Vayechi ends off on a note that seems to add insult to all of the previous injuries.

On their way home from Yaakov’s funeral the brothers once again conspire against Yosef:
“They said, ‘perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us all of the evil that we did to him.” To protect against that possibility they inform Yosef of a message their father Yaakov wanted him to know: Forgive your brothers.

Yosef responds by crying. Yosef cries at being unfairly suspected of wrong doing.
The brothers are not unique in their suspicion of Yosef, even at this late juncture in the story. The Talmud in Masechet Kallah (3a) develops an approach that views Yaakov as also being suspicious of Yosef’s righteousness.

Before blessing his grandchildren Yaakov asks Yosef “Mi Eleh?” “Who are these boys?” The Talmud explains that Yaakov suspected Yosef of intermarriage, or of having his children out of wedlock. That is why Yosef responds to his father (48:9):
 “They are my sons, that G-d has given me BAZEH
Yosef showed his father his ketubah to prove that these children were born in wedlock into a Jewish family.

Yaakov’s suspicion of Yosef began earlier, at their reunion after decades of separation.
In last week’s Torah portion, (46:29) we read how during that reunion,
“He fell on his neck, and he cried on his neck.”
The verse is ambiguous, and the commentators try to make sense of what happened.  Masechet Kallah explains that Yosef fell on his father’s neck and wanted to kiss Yaakov. However Yaakov refused, for he suspected Yosef of impropriety. Upon seeing that his display of affection was rebuffed, Yosef also cries in frustration at his father’s suspicion.

Since their reunion Yosef was nothing but nice to his family. He made sure that his family was taken care of. Yosef even arranged for special housing and professional accommodations for his family. After all he did for them, why do they still suspect him of wrongdoing?

Although Yosef treated his brothers in a way that appeared to show his feelings, he never once said the three words that could have cleared everything up, “I forgive you.” Sure, he says to his brothers, “It was all part of G-d’s plan, don’t worry about it.” But we all know that if a person responds to an apology by saying “don’t worry about it” – then we definitely have something to worry about.

It appears that Yosef never sat down with his father to talk things through. If they had, Yaakov would have realized the extent of Yosef’s righteousness and would not have suspected him of any wrongdoing. Yosef attempted to show his feelings through his actions, but had difficulty expressing himself. Yosef, the man who had been called Tzafnat Paneach, “revealer of secrets”- could only reveal other people’s secrets through dream interpretation. But he had a much more difficult time revealing his own feelings to others.

There is an old adage that talk is cheap, and that what really counts is our actions. Nonetheless our words must be used to frame our actions. Actions can be misunderstood, words are much more difficult to misconstrue. Pirkei Avot says “Emor Me’at Vasey Harbei”, say little and do much. Your words should be less than your actions- but you still need to say something! Yosef may have done all the right things, but he failed to say the right things, to verbalize those feelings in a way that would have cleared the air and created a happier ending to this story.

As we think about the challenges that we face in our homes, communities and beyond, let us be ready to not only do what needs to be done, but to say what needs to be said.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Years of Our Living Vs The Years of Our Life

Check out my Dvar Torah for Parshat Vayigash, featured on the website of Mizrachi: Religious Zionists of America
Click here to view

Friday, December 15, 2017

Thankful for the Struggles

Over Chanukah (and Purim) we expand our Thanksgiving portion of Shemonah Esrei by adding the “Al Hanisim” prayer. The introduction to the holiday-specific portion of the prayer states: (remember that this is an addendum to that which we began with – Modim Anachnu Lach – we thank You Hashem)
“For the miracles, for the deliverances, for the mighty acts for the victories and for the battles which You performed for our fathers in those days at this season.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wonders why we thank Hashem for the Milchamot, for the battles. It doesn’t mean only for the victories- because that is covered by the word “teshu’ot.” Rabbi Hirsch explains that it is through the battles that we had to fight that we have come to truly appreciate that which we had to fight for.
As the Talmud (Shabbat 130) puts it, “every Mitzvah that Jews had to die for in order to fulfill, have become firmly entrenched within the hearts of the Jewish People.
Sometimes we don’t realize how important something is until we are forced to fight for it. In the case of the Chanukah story, the Jews were forced to fight for their right to live Jewish lives. Through that war, their commitment to Jewish life was reinforced.

Our hope is to live peaceful lives- without any need for war. But at the same time we should ask ourselves: If we were every called upon to fight for our rights to maintain our lives as Jews (either in the broad sense or in a very limited and narrow way) would we be willing to do so? Perhaps just by asking the hypothetical question we can reinforce our ties to the Torah.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Joseph the Dreamer and Freedom Sunday

This past Wednesday marked the 30th Anniversary of Freedom Sunday, a rally in Washington D.C. on behalf of Soviet Jewry. An estimated 250,000 people demonstrated on the National Mall in an unprecedented display of solidarity with Soviet Jews. Organized by a broad based coalition, activists from across the country came to demand that Gorbachev put an end to the forced assimilation of Soviet Jews and allow them to emigrate from the USSR.

In his book, When They Come for Us, We’ll be Gone, Gal Beckerman points out that the Soviet Jewry movement was unique in the annals of American Jewish history in three ways.
1 The movement was grassroots. It was not initiated by established Jewish communal organizations or professionals. it was led by students and housewives and synagogue members who became activists in order to help solve the problem.

2 The movement was when American Jews found their voice. The Soviet Jewry Movement demonstrated that American Jewry had learned its lesson from the Holocaust. When Jews far away were in danger, they would not be silent this time.

3 The movement was a rare moment of unity in American Jewish history. Jews put aside their differences and worked together on a cause that they all agreed was important enough to present a united front.

Soon after Freedom Sunday 1987, the fruits of those efforts began to be seen in earnest. 30 years later there are 1 million Soviet Jews in Israel and a half million in the United States.
What is the activist cause for the Jewish community in the 21st century? What can be or should be today’s equivalent of the Soviet Jewry Movement?

One obvious contender for our activist efforts is the State of Israel. As the world turns its back on her, we need to learn from the tactics of the Soviet Jewry movement and apply them to pro-Israel activism. I recall vividly my participation in the Israel Solidarity Rally on April 15, 2002. Standing with tens of thousands of pro-Israel supporters on that day was a memory that will stay with me forever.

Another cause gaining attention and activism on its behalf is the affordability of Jewish education. One of the ways that this issue is being addressed is through involvement in political action and lobbying on behalf of government funding for elements of day school education.
What’s critical is that we choose to be active about something.

At the beginning of the Parsha we read about the relationship between Yosef and his brothers. They hate him, and conventional wisdom explains that they hate him because he thinks he’s better than the rest of them. However when we look carefully at the pesukim we see that the brother begin to hate Yosef before he tells them the details of his dreams. Knowing that Yosef is a dreamer is enough for the brothers to hate him. It would seem that the brothers embraced Yaakov’s attitude on life: Bikesh Yaakov Leisheiv B’Shalva- they want to live in peace, to live and let live, without making waves. That is not how life works. Life is to find issues that we are passionate about, and then work hard on behalf of those causes.

Yosef is the dreamer. Perhaps that is why he is called a Tzaddik; a man that understood that we must always have a cause that we are working on. Let us learn the lessons from 30 years ago, as well as our forefather Yosef and commit to finding causes that speak to our souls and then advocating on their behalf.      

Friday, December 1, 2017

Making Tough Decisions: Potentially Painful, Yet Enriching

Yaakov is about to meet his brother Eisav for the first time after twenty years. The night before this meeting, Yaakov finds himself alone and has a personal encounter of his own:
Vayevater Yaakov Levado Vayeavek Ish Imo.
“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

From the text it is not at all clear what exactly happened or who was involved. What is clear is that the story ends with Yaakov being blessed, but also being injured in his hip.
                The Torah therefore lays out the prohibition:
“Al Keyn LoYochlu Bnei yisrael et Gid Hanasheh Asher Al Kaf Hayareich At Hayom HAzeh.”
                Due to this mysterious episode, Jews are forbidden from consuming the sciatic nerve throughout history.  This nerve is found in the hindquarter.

In explaining this prohibition the Sefer Hachinuch relies on the Midrashic interpretation that Yaakov was wrestling with Saro shel Eisav, the Guardian Angel of Eisav. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that this struggle is symbolic of the ongoing struggle that Jews are subject to by other nations, especially descendants of Eisav. When we refrain from eating the Gid Hansheh we should remember that at times we may be antagonized or persecuted by the nations of the world, but we’re never out for the count. The Jewish People, as symbolized by our patriarch Yaakov, may get injured at times, but we will always persevere.

Some Rabbis suggest that Yaakov was not wrestling another entity, but rather he was wrestling with himself. Yaakov’s antagonist in this battle is left unnamed. All we know is that he was an Ish. In Parshat Vayeitzei, Yaakov himself is called the Ish. After twenty years in Lavan’s house, the Torah said:
“Vayifrotz Ha’Ish Meod Meod”
The man, Yaakov became very wealthy.

The man of the Yeshiva went out to the world of business (with his crafty father in law) and became very successful. Success brought with it new challenges; challenges that forced Yaakov to make decisions about who he was and what he stood for. These were not easy decisions: yet Yaakov was forced to confront and grapple with. They were decisions with no easy answers. And when the dust settles, Yaakov survives. He is elevated, as indicated by his name change to Yisrael representing that his essence was more connected to the spiritual than the material. Nonetheless, he was left injured by the consequences of his decisions.

Understood in this way, Gid Hanasheh teaches us the necessity of confronting and ultimately making difficult decisions. These decisions can cause pain, to others and even to ourselves. Not only are these decisions necessary, but they can also be edifying and enriching in the long run. It is only through exercising our free will that we grow from our decisions and value our choices in life.