It Takes One to Know One – Vayetzei 5777

As this morning’s Torah portion opens, Jacob has just left the land of Canaan.  He is fleeing home after deceiving his father and stealing the blessing meant for his brother Esau.  He has nothing with him.  Following his mother Rebekah’s orders, he makes his way to her family in Haran.

Arriving with nothing but the shirt on his back, Jacob comes to town, stops at the local watering hole, and there meets his cousin Rachel.  She brings him home, and Jacob is incorporated into the family.

Twenty years later, Jacob has built up his own family, marrying both Rachel and her sister Leah, fathering eleven sons and a daughter, and becoming extremely wealthy.  The Torah portion ends where it started, at the border.  This time, Jacob is returning home.

During the intervening years, Jacob gets his comeuppance.  The deception that brings him there is returned many times over.

Simply put, Laban, Jacob’s uncle and soon to be father-in-law, is not a nice man.  He is greedy and selfish; duplicitous and conniving – making him a suitable match for Jacob.  They make a great pair: the perfect frenemies.

Throughout his time in Laban’s household, Jacob is subjected to lies and deception.  On Jacob’s wedding night to Rachel, Laban sneaks his older daughter Leah into the dark tent, forcing Jacob to work an additional seven years for his beloved’s hand.  He changes Jacob’s wages ten times.  He makes a deal with Jacob to divide the flocks, and then steals all of the animals that should have gone to his son-in-law.  Finally, he refuses to grant a dowry to his daughters, effectively disinheriting them.

The midrash imagines that even more is taking place between the lines.  Before he even meets his uncle, Jacob is already anticipating the kind of man to expect.

When Jacob sees his cousin Rachel, the first thing he does is to roll the large stone covering off the mouth of the well.  Next, he waters her flock.  He kisses her.  Then he cries.  Finally, he introduces himself.  (Seems kind of out of order, doesn’t it?)  Listen to how the Torah describes the introduction:

Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, that he was Rebekah’s son…  (29:12)

Rashi, citing the Talmud (Bava Batra 123a), notes that Jacob is not, in fact, Laban’s brother, but rather his nephew.  Furthermore, why does Jacob repeat himself by emphasizing both his connection to Laban and to Rebekah?  It seems redundant.

Beneath the surface, Jacob is really asking Rachel about his uncle’s character.  He wants to know what to expect when she brings him home.  If Laban is a deceiver, Jacob says, know that I am his brother in deception; his equal.  But if he is an upstanding individual, know that I am the son of the honorable Rebekah.

Jacob is prepared to play either role in his uncle’s household.  That is classic Jacob.  Always calculating, always thinking ahead.

Tragically – although it makes for a better story – Laban is the former.

The midrash continues, noting that Laban runs to Jacob, embraces him and then kisses him.  Why is he so eager?  He must be up to something.

Laban remembers what happened many years earlier, when the servant of Abraham showed up looking for a wife for Isaac.  Laban was much younger then.  He recalls the servant arriving with ten camels, all loaded with valuable gifts.  The servant left with Laban’s sister, Rebekah.

Now, decades later, when he hears about the arrival of Rebekah’s son, Laban imagines to himself, ‘if a servant from that household brings so much wealth with him, how much more will a member of the family bring!’  We can almost hear him salivating.  In his greed, Laban is so excited that he runs.

But he does not see any camels, nor luggage.  Where are the precious gifts?  He gives Jacob a big hug.  Laban’s hands start to wander, as he pats him down, frisking him in his search for gems that might be hidden in Jacob’s clothing.  He finds nothing.

In his final, desperate effort, Laban kisses Jacob on the lips, imagining there might be jewels concealed inside his nephew’s mouth.

Disappointed, Laban concedes “you are truly my bone and flesh.”  (29:14)  Then the text tells us that Jacob stayed with Laban for one month’s time.

Rashi explains that, since there is no profit in it, Laban does not want to have to put Jacob up.  But since he is blood, there is a familial obligation – an obligation that lasts exactly one month.

This explains why Laban raises the question of Jacob’s payment exactly one month after his arrival.  Don’t be fooled.  He is not actually being generous.  He is trying to change Jacob’s status from freeloading nephew to employee.

This is the man who will control Jacob’s fate for the next twenty years.  Remember, Jacob has been blessed by his father and by God.  After meeting Laban, he has to be wondering about that blessing.

Despite his uncle’s duplicitousness, Jacob manages to do well, the result of a combination of Divine providence and his own wily nature.  But there is a cost.

Jacob will never have peace.  His household will be plagued with dishonesty and deception

Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah, struggle for position in the household.  As the family leaves home – in secret in the middle of the night, keep in mind – Rachel steals her father’s household idols.  She places them under her cushion, and when her father comes to search her tent, she lies, claiming that she is having her period and cannot get up.  Her lie puts Jacob in the position of telling an unintentional lie as well.  It also leads him to invoke a curse that would eventually lead to her demise.

In the next generation, the dishonesty will repeat among Jacob’s sons.

Jacob’s life illustrates the principle of midah k’neged midah – measure for measure.  We reap what we sow.  What goes around comes around.  Or in the case of Laban and Jacob: it takes one to know one.

Does real life work this way?  I would hope so.  But in the inverse, as I would not want to wish evil on anyone.  A person who makes the effort to conduct him or herself honestly and fairly will be treated honestly and fairly.  One who treats others with compassion will be treated with compassion.  Those who are available to a friend in need will not be abandoned in their time of need.

Pirkei Avot, the ancient collection of ethical teachings from the Mishnah, teaches Eizehu m’khubad?  Ha-m’khabed et ha-b’riyot  Who is honored?  The one who honors every person.  (4:1)

The Difficulty of Legacy (In Honor of the Silicon Valley Jewish Legacy Shabbat) – Toldot 5777

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, generates stronger emotional reactions than most parashiyot in the Torah.  It opens with the story of Esau and Jacob’s birth, and continues to describe their difficult childhood and the events that lead to the schism that drives them apart for over two decades.

The protagonist of the story, Jacob, our Patriarch, does not come off well.  He manipulates Esau to acquire the birthright -which is the privilege of earning a double portion of their father’s inheritance.

Later, with his mother Rebecca’s guidance, he dresses up as Esau to deceive his father Isaac, and lies to his face in order to receive the blessing.  The blessing in question is the continuity of the covenant that began with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, would inherit the Land of Canaan, and would be a blessing to the world.  This covenant passed from Abraham to Isaac, and now from Isaac to – because of his deception – Jacob.

It is not a pretty story.  Is not Jacob, our Patriarch, the one after whom the Jewish people will eventually be named, supposed to be a role model for us?  For that matter, what kind of mother is Rebecca, who would encourage her son to deceive his father and steal from his brother?  She is our Matriarch!  Do we not expect better?  It is troubling to read that one of the foundational stories of the Jewish people is rooted in dishonesty.

But let us take a step back from the story and look at it through a wide angle lens.

What we are reading is the all-too-real description of a family’s struggles over legacy, and it is not pretty.

We saw a similar struggle in the previous generation.  Ishmael, the older son of Abraham, is viewed by Sarah as a threat to his half-brother Isaac.  To remove the threat, she demands that Abraham banish Ishmael and his mother Hagar from the household.  This move ensures that the legacy of Abraham’s blessing, and the full, undivided inheritance of his entire estate, will pass to Isaac as the sole heir.

The struggles between siblings will continue in Jacob’s future household.  It first manifests in the relationship between Leah and Rachel, sisters, and co-wives to Jacob.  They struggle for position within the household.  Rachel is the more beloved, but Leah is the more fertile – and they each use their respective strengths to posture for dominance.  It is a similar tension to what we saw in the previous generation with Isaac and Ishmael.

The messy struggle for legacy passes to the next generation.  Once again, the father plays favorites, as Jacob bestows the infamous coat-of-many colors on Joseph.  The jockeying for control of the family legacy nearly leads to fratricide, as the brothers capture Joseph, plot to kill him, and finally settle on selling him into slavery and lying to their father about it.

So that is the birds’ eye view.  In context, Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac and theft from Esau are fairly typical of this family.

Let us not be overly judgmental.  How many families today struggle over issues relating to inheritance and legacy?  The actions of these families in the Book of Genesis are, sadly, all too familiar.

But there is a happy conclusion to this story.

The family eventually reunites in Egypt, where Joseph has risen to become Viceroy.  As Jacob is on his deathbed, all of his sons gather around him to receive a final message and blessing.  In the midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:35), Jacob is distressed that as soon as he dies, his sons will abandon God and begin to worship another deity.  The disfunction of previous generations will be repeated.  After all, Ishmael and Esau were both idolaters.

But the brothers respond, as one: Shema Yisrael, adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.

Listen Israel – Israel is Jacob, after all, so named after his nighttime struggle with an angel of God.  Listen Israel, Adonai – the God whom you worshipped, who blessed you, our Grandfather Isaac, and our Great-grandfather Abraham – that same Adonai is our God.  Adonai alone.

Relieved, Jacob settles back in his bed and whispers: Barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va-ed.  Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever.

This is the first generation in the book of Genesis in which all of the children maintain the faith of their father.  God’s promise to Abraham, that he would be ancestor to a great nation that would be in a special covenantal relationship with God, is finally beginning to be fulfilled.

When Jacob dies, the brothers are terrified that Joseph is now going to go after them.  But he doesn’t.  Instead, he promises to take care of them.  The family is reunited, and can now, finally, begin its transformation into a nation.

So when we read the stories about Jacob and Rebecca behaving dishonestly, we must not do so without keeping an eye on the bigger picture, and without remembering that the family will eventually learn, will eventually forgive itself, and make a commitment to be a united people with a common faith shared by their ancestors.

We are reminded of this every time we recite the Shema.  The Rabbis were wise to include the Shema in our prayers.  In addition to a proclamation of belief in God, it is also a commitment to the unity of the Jewish people, both among our fellow Jews today, and with the generations that have come before and those that will follow us.

That is why it is so important for us to consider the legacy that has been left to us by those who came before, and to think seriously and act on what we need to do to ensure that there will be a legacy for the generations that follow.

Our world is changing rapidly.  The old models of how Jewish institutions are supported are less and less effective.  To ensure that there will continue to be synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish schools and educational initiatives and Jewish philanthropic organizations, those of us who value these institutions will to have to take concrete steps to ensure that they will be around for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.

We cannot be complacent if we want to preserve the legacy that began, somewhat messily, with our Patriarchs and Matriarchs – but that has continued unbroken for thousands of years, ever since that first, unifying Shema recited together by Jacob’s sons.

Our community Legacy Project is an extremely important opportunity for us.  It offers us a concrete way to support Jewish peoplehood long after we are gone, to ensure that the Jewish institutions that have been so important to our own lives will be able to play such a role for future generations.  Now is the time to put our legacies in place.

I hope you will join Dana and myself in ensuring that our children and grandchildren will be able to proudly recite the Shema, knowing that their parents and grandparents cared deeply about continuing the legacy of the Jewish people.

Bringing Home With Us (on the occasion of my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah) – Lekh Lekha 5777

A Rabbi was once giving a lecture in which he claimed that from it’s earliest days, Judaism has always promoted the parent-child relationship.  Suddenly, a heckler stood up from within the audience, and challenged his assertion.

“Isn’t it true that God’s first commandment to Abraham was to leave his father’s home?”

“It is true,” the Rabbi responded, “but he was seventy-five at the time.  He was entitled.”

I have had the privilege of officiating as Rabbi at many Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations over the past decade.  But there is a special joy to being here as my own child becomes Bat Mitzvah.

I also try to remind myself that being the child of a Rabbi can be tough.  There is even a special nickname just for kids of clergy: PK’s – “Preacher’s Kids.”

There are the pressures of living in the fishbowl.  The boundaries between private life and public life are often blurred for Rabbis’ families.

PK’s see their parents living public lives in the same community in which they themselves are raised.  Parents sometimes place expectations on their PK kids to live up to a higher standard because the family is living in the public eye.

And, communities sometimes hold PK’s to higher standards, expecting them to have the same knowledge, religious commitment, or leadership qualities of their parents.

For the child of Rabbi, this pressure is nowhere more on display than at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We are sure aware of it as parents, as we celebrate a personal simchah within the community that we serve.  Noa, I am sure that you feel it as our daughter.

Dana and I are grateful to the Sinai community for respecting boundaries and giving our children the freedom to be regular kids, almost all the time.

The truth is, these issues are not unique to PK’s.  All of us struggle in one way or another with the legacies left to us by our parents.  We all must find a way to differentiate ourselves, to break free, to step out of our parents’ shadows.

Some of us, as we get older, choose to emulate the qualities of the homes in which we were raised.  Others go the opposite direction, rejecting the examples of those who brought us into the world and guided us in our early years.

For all of us, though, there is a tension between leaving the home of our childhood vs. bringing the home of our childhood with us.

This morning’s Torah portion, parashat Lekh L’kha sends something of a mixed message with regard to continuing our parents’ legacies.  It begins:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶךָּ:

The Lord said to Avram: Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  (Gen. 12:1)

God could have told Abraham simply, “Pack your bags and go.”  Instead, God emphasizes the departure in triplicate.

Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish commentator, explains this threefold instruction:

It is difficult for a person to leave the land in which he, along with all of his loved ones and companions, has lived; and even more so when it is the place in which he was born; and even more so when his father’s entire household is there.  Therefore, it was necessary to tell him to leave everything – out of his love for the Holy One, blessed be He.

What a tremendous request this is from God.  Abraham is being asked to make a clean and total break from his past.  And this is really something.  Abraham will never go back.  He will never see any of his family members again.

It is ironic, because one of the central components of God’s covenant with Abraham is about family.  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…  So shall your offspring be.”  (Gen. 15:5)  God promises the land of Israel to these yet-to-be-seen descendants of Abraham.

Towards the end of the parashah, God instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and his household, explaining that it will be a sign of the everlasting covenant between God and Abraham’s children.

In next week’s parashah, as God is deciding to consult with Abraham over the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God reveals another aspect of Abraham’s legacy.  “I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…”  (Gen. 18:19)

Ever since, the Jewish people have treasured the transmission of values from one generation to the next.  So many aspects of Jewish law and custom emphasize this.

How do we transmit our values?  Of course, we place great focus on learning – Talmud Torah – and not just for an elite class of scholars.  Universal education for all – that is the Jewish way.

But we also recognize that, as a medium for transmitting values, formal education alone is insufficient.  Jewish values must be lived.  All of our holiday celebrations take place in the home.  The most obvious of these, of course, is Passover, with its encouraging of children to engage with their elders through questions.  But our other holidays also involve multiple generations celebrating together.  This is how values are transmitted – not by classroom learning, but by intergenerational living within a household and amongst a community.

It is profoundly ironic, therefore, that God asks Abraham to sever his relationship with previous generations, his father’s household, and his community.

This break is a necessary step for Abraham.  His particular household and community is thoroughly immersed in idolatry and immorality.  The Rabbis develop this idea in numerous Midrashim about Abraham’s youth.  In the most well-known of them, Abraham’s own father, Terach, is an idol merchant.

For Abraham to fulfill his destiny, he must first break free from his father’s shadow.

Other figures in the Book of Genesis struggle with this as well.  Midway through Parashat Lekh L’kha, tensions are rising between Abraham and his nephew Lot’s shepherds.  The time has come for Lot to leave home, to strike out on his own.  He needs to get out of Abraham’s shadow to live his own life.  Unfortunately, he does not choose well, settling in Sodom, which is such a depraved society that God annihilates it in next week’s parashah.

Later, Isaac has trouble breaking free from his father, Abraham’s, strong personality.  But Jacob, and in the subsequent generation, Joseph, leave their homes and families to spend significant portions of their lives on their own.

As a Diaspora people for thousands of years, we have developed the ability to bring home with us in our journeys.  It is this ability which has enabled the survival of our people.

In Abraham’s day, most people were born, lived their lives, and died within the same community.  Nowadays, it is common for children to move away.  This raises the stakes even higher for parents to instill a deep sense of home in their children.

Maybe it is too soon for me to be thinking these thoughts.  After all, Noa, you are only in seventh grade.  I don’t think you are quite ready to leave home yet.  Nevertheless, as you make this transition into adolescence, it has been on my mind.

As a father, I see it as my primary duty to raise children who will bring home with them wherever they go in life.

For me, this means children who are grounded, who know themselves, and who have humility about their limitations and their strengths.  They feel a deep sense of peoplehood, and a mature understanding and sincere commitment to Jewish practices and beliefs.  They are curious, and love to learn.  They feel connected to Israel and speak Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people.

They know the stories of their own family, and their connection to previous generations gives them a sense of rootedness in a rapidly-changing world.

They are resilient, able to be flexible and respond thoughtfully to unexpected challenges.  They recognize the importance of community, and they have people in their lives who care about them.  They are generous, and give freely of themselves to support others in their need.

While I would like to say that our children will also live near us, I must recognize that all of Dana and my family members have flown in from out of town to celebrate Noa’s becoming Bat Mitzvah.  That is the unfortunate reality of contemporary life.  God’s request – for Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s household – which was so radical in its day, is commonplace now.

My more realistic hope is that, when my children move out, they bring their “home” with them.

Noa, you are an inspiring young woman.  From a young age, you have demonstrated a level of self-awareness that has taken me until adulthood to achieve.

You spoke about your desire to develop more patience.  That is certainly an admirable quality to pursue, and one that will result in greater happiness.  But impatience is not all bad.  A healthy dose of channeled impatience compels us to change the status quo, right wrongs, solve problems, and make discoveries.  But, try to be more patient with your family.

Noa, you are a naturally curious, skeptical person.  You often express your doubt regarding religion and belief.  I applaud those questions, and I often share your doubts.  I encourage you to be as open-minded to hearing answers as you are willing to ask questions.

Throughout your life, you have embraced Jewish practices and traditions with enthusiasm and joy.  I have loved watching your challah baking, sukkah building, and Torah reading skills develop over the years.  As soon as you were old enough, you chose to join me on the early walk to synagogue most Shabbat mornings.  I have loved that weekly time together.

These are religious activities that connect you to your tradition and your past.  They will be tangible ways for you to bring your “home” with you as you go out into the world.

Noa, may your curiosity continue to inspire you to learn Torah, asking critical questions while embracing the ancient wisdom of those who have come before us.  May you continue to fulfill the mitzvot and customs of Judaism with joy and enthusiasm.  May you always remain deeply rooted in community, family, and home, wherever your journey takes you.  I love you.

The Lesson of the Tower of Babel: Unity with Humility – Noach 5777

The bulk of this morning’s Torah portion describes the flood.  Humanity has become so corrupt that God regrets having created the earth, and decides to wipe out almost all life.  Representative samples of each species are gathered together and entrusted to Noah, who builds the famous ark to serve as a shelter during the deluge.

After the waters subside, life emerges from the ark and begins anew.  Hopefully, humanity has learned a lesson from the experience.

Several generations pass.  Humans multiply, and eventually find themselves living in Mesopotamia, where they embark on a scheme which nearly results in a calamity as serious for humanity as the flood: the construction of the Tower of Babel.

The entire passage is described in just nine eloquently-crafted verses.  (Gen. 11:1-9)  We learn that all of humanity has settled in a valley in the land of Shinar, also known as Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Iraq.  Everyone speaks the same language.  Together, they decide to make bricks, with which to build “a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

At first glance, it sounds like a pretty good idea.  Everybody gets along.  They are united in a shared vision.  There do not seem to be any major disputes.  Many people might wish things were a bit more like this today.

Yet, there seems to be a problem with this giant public-works project.  God comes down to look at the tower that the humans are building and reacts with disapproval.  “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.”  (11:6)

God confounds their speech so that the humans do not understand one another, and scatters them over the face of the earth.  The project grinds to a halt.  The story ends by explaining that the city is called Bavel, or Babel, because it is where the Lord “babbled” the speech of the whole earth.

That is the basic story as it appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  Our inclination might be to sympathize with humanity.  After all, has there ever in history been a time during which everyone agreed?

But the Torah is very deliberate.  If it tells us that there is something wrong with what these humans are doing, then there is something wrong with what these humans are doing.  The reason is not easily apparent, and so it is up to us to dig deep to figure it out.

Jewish tradition is in agreement that the generation of the Dispersion, Dor Haflagah, as that generation is called, was in the wrong.  The Mishnah, from the second century, declares that members of that generation do not have a place in the World to Come.  The Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 109a) concur, but have trouble agreeing on the specifics.

The school of Rabbi Shilah, located in Babylonia not too far from where the Tower of Babel once stood, offers a novel explanation.  In the ancient world, people believed that the world as we know it was surrounded by water, both below the earth, and above the sky.  The humans wanted to build a tower that was high enough that they could cut holes in the firmament, presumably to have access to water.  The Talmud reports that when this theory made its way to the West, that is to say, to the land of Israel, the scholars laughed and made fun of it, suggesting that if that was their intent, it might have made more sense to have built the tower on top of a mountain, rather than at the bottom of a valley.

Rabbi Natan suggests that they built the tower as an expression of some sort of idolatrous belief and practice.

Rabbi Jeremiah claims that the people of Bavel were not quite as united as the Torah makes it seem.  One third of them want to build a city and tower in which to live, perhaps to escape a future flood.  Their punishment is to be scattered across the land.  A second third wants to build the tower to worship idols.  They are the ones whose tongues are confounded by God.  The final third intends to use the tower to wage war against Heaven.  They are transformed into apes, spirits, devils, and night-demons.  Ouch!

But what of the tower itself?  After all, significant progress is made before God takes notice.  The tower is quite substantial.  Rabbi Yochanan says that the bottom third sunk into the ground, The top third burnt up, but the middle third is still standing.

Other midrashim add colorful details to the legends.  Genesis Rabbah describes how those who wanted to rebel against God planned to place a giant statue on top of the tower with a sword in its hand pointing a challenge directed at the Heavens.  I imagine it looking kind of like the Titan of Braavos, for you Game of Thrones fans.

I’ll mention one final midrash.  Someone made some calculations and determined that the flood occurred 1,656 years after creation.  The people of Babel come to the conclusion that this is a built in feature of the firmament, the giant expanse of water suspended over the sky.  Once every 1,656 years, the firmament totters, and the waters of chaos above break free and inundate the world.  To prevent it from happening again, they decide to build four giant pillars to support the heavens – one in each of the cardinal directions.  The Tower of Babel is supposed to be the pillar of the East.

This final midrash sounds appealing, actually.  All of humanity becomes aware of an impending natural disaster that will have catastrophic effects for life on earth, albeit not for one thousand years.  So they join together to invest massive resources into a technological solution to prevent the deluge.  We are in desperate need of that kind of long-range planning.

The problem, from the midrash’s perspective, is that the people have removed God from the equation.  The periodic flooding of the earth happens on its own, and is not the result of God’s actions.  In fact, just a few chapters earlier, we read of God’s promise, symbolized by the rainbow, never to destroy the earth by flood again.  Their sin, therefore, is a lack of faith.  They have placed nature above God rather than God above nature.

So what was the sin of the Tower of Babel that provoked God so greatly?  We have just heard numerous suggestions, and believe me, we have only scratched the surface.  Whenever the Rabbis offer this many explanations for something, it means that they have absolutely no idea whatsoever.

But to me, all of these “sins” share a basic feature.  “Come, let us make a name for ourselves,” they declare.  Humanity, collectively sees no limits on itself.  Whether the people want to overthrow God, build a monument to themselves, or reverse the forces of nature – they lack basic humility about their place in creation.

Perhaps a lesson to be learned is: God is God, and we are not.

There is still something appealing, however, about the unity that exists at the outset of the story.  Is cooperation and a universally shared vision inherently problematic?  I cannot believe that the story of the Tower of Babel is disparaging the idea of humanity collectively working together.

I would like to think that we, as a species, have it within us to both have some humble respect for our place amidst creation, as well as come together to solve problems and challenges that affect us all.  Some of those problems are of our own making.  Others are external.  But we all make our homes on the same planet, and we eventually have to pay the cost of our collective hubris.

We face numerous challenges that can only be solved through joined effort: challenges of inequality and oppression, environmental destruction, climate change, and on and on.  We live in a scattered world, in which we do not all speak the same language.  Even when we share a vocabulary, we often are not speaking the same language.

Perhaps the Tower of Babel can inspire us to, humbly, find a way to come together.

Jacob and Pharaoh – Vayigash 5776

Something that I have tried to emphasize about the Book of Genesis is the moral ambivalence of its narrator.  The text rarely passes judgment on its characters.  Instead, it allows them to speak for themselves, without judgment.  It is one of things I love about the book.

In the various troubled relationships between siblings, parents, neighbors, enemies, and even God, the text never tells us that one of them is right and the other wrong.  Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – the Torah lets their actions, their words, sometimes even their inner thoughts, speak for themselves.

We bring our own predilections to the text.  It is important for us, as readers, to recognize our biases.  We might have a tendency to favor the underdog, to always suspect the motives of the winner, or to favor the “heroes” and whitewash their mistakes.

Traditional religious biases lead many, but not all, of our commentaries to see Jacob, for example, as pious, morally justified, and honorable.  On the other hand, biases of moral indignancy lead many contemporary readers to view Jacob as a lying, cheating manipulator.  But the Book of Genesis does not present him either way.  It is non-judgmental.  He is a flawed protagonist certainly, but a hero nonetheless.  That is what makes him so human, and makes our emotional reactions to him so strong.  After all, he is the father of the Jewish people.

When we have strong emotional responses to biblical characters, it should prompt us to ask ourselves why we are reacting with such intensity.  The stories can be seen as a kind of literary Rorschach Test, with our reactions telling us who we are and what concerns us.

In Parashat Vayigash, Jacob our Patriarch nears the end of his life.  It offers a natural opportunity to conduct a grand analysis of his life.  But rather than projecting ourselves into the text, this morning let us instead allow Jacob to speak in his own words.  First, let’s set the scene.

Upon revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph invites them to bring the entire family down to Egypt.  After many years apart, Jacob is finally reunited with his beloved son.  Joseph helps the family get settled in the land of Goshen, where they will be able to pasture their flocks in peace and prosperity.  Finally, Joseph arranges to have his father meet his boss.

Imagine, for a moment, what that meeting must have been like for each of them.

Pharaoh is about to meet the father of his Viceroy Joseph.  I bet Pharaoh felt a certain degree of awe towards Joseph – a foreigner, brought out from prison.  He has strange and powerful abilities to interpret dreams which are supplied by his equally strange God.  Not only that, but he has single-handedly predicted and solved a famine that would have otherwise been catastrophic and could possibly have led to Pharaoh’s ouster.  And now, Pharaoh is about to meet this guy’s father.  When Jacob walks into the room, Pharaoh is immediately struck by the extreme age of the old man.  He has never seen someone so old.  What unnatural powers must he have?!

How about from Jacob’s perspective?  He is about to meet the most powerful man in the world.  This man has taken in his favorite son, long-presumed dead, and made him his second in command.  Jacob could be feeling grateful, or perhaps he is jealous and resentful.  Has Pharaoh replaced Jacob as Joseph’s father?

Now listen to the Torah’s description of their meeting.

And Joseph brought Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.  And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”  And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from Pharaoh’s presence.  (Genesis 47:7-10, translation by Robert Alter)

Jacob’s blessings of Pharaoh bookend a single question and answer exchange between these two figures.  And it is a strange exchange which prompts many subsequent questions.

First of all, what are these “blessings” which Jacob bestows upon Pharaoh?

Rashi, along with several other commentators, suggests that in this context, the word va-y’varekh does not mean “then he blessed”, but rather “then he greeted” – she-ilat shalom, “inquiring into well-being,” as he calls it.

Ramban disagrees, claiming that it is improper to greet a king.  Rather, he argues, it is customary for elderly and pious people to bless kings with wealth, property, glory, and the advancement of their reign.  Upon departing from Pharaoh’s presence, Jacob blesses him as well.  According to the Midrash, Jacob prays that “the Nile should rise up to his feet.”  (Tanhuma, Naso 26)

The central part of their interaction is comprised of Pharaoh’s question and Jacob’s answer.  “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  Pharaoh asks.

According to Ramban, Pharaoh is immediately struck by Jacob’s appearance.  He has never seen someone so old in all the years of his rule.  Nahum Sarna explains that the ideal lifespan in Egypt at that time was 110 years, which turns out to be the length of Joseph’s life.  Jacob appears much older, prompting Pharaoh’s question.  It sounds almost like he is blurting it out.  He can’t help himself.  Consider, is this the question that we would expect Pharaoh to ask of the man who raised his Viceroy, the person responsible for saving Egypt?  How old are you?!

Jacob’s response is equally surprising.  “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”

Jacob’s response sounds so bitter and angry.  He is filled with regret and disappointment.

The commentator Ramban throws his hands up in bewilderment:  “I do not understand the meaning of our forefather’s words,” he admits.   “For what reason would he complain to the king?”

Jacob compares himself to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham.  He is currently 130 years old, and already is convinced that he will not live as long as his predecessors.  Radak explains that he has experienced so much suffering that it has weakened him and he can feel death creeping up.  How he knows this is a mystery.  He is not exactly on death’s door.  After all, he does live another seventeen years.

Our commentators read Jacob’s response closely and unpack it.  “Few and evil – me-at v’ra-im – have been the days of the years of my life.”  Rashbam explains that Jacob appears even older than he is because of all of the suffering he has been through.  It has caused him to age prematurely.  (Although how someone who is 130 old could be prematurely aged is something of a mystery.)  In describing himself as a sojourner, Jacob is claiming to be a stranger.  Everywhere he has lived, he has been unsettled, dwelling as an alien amidst local populations.  Sforno adds that Jacob claims that his father and grandfather did not have to deal with the same tzuris, troubles, that he had, which is why they lived longer.

The 13th century French commentator, Hizkuni, has a more critical take on Jacob.  Essentially, he calls him ungrateful.  He notes that Jacob’s final lifespan of 147 is 33 years short of Isaac’s 180.  Why 33?

God notes that: “I saved you from Lavan, and Esau, and Shechem, and I restored Dinah and Joseph to you, and you [have the gall to] say ‘few and evil’ your life has been.  By your life, I will take from you the number of words that you have spoken.”  By this, Hizkuni means the number of words in verses 8 and 9, which constitute the verbal exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob – the former’s question and the latter’s answer.

I love Hizkuni’s insight.  Jacob is a bitter man, and God does not let him off the hook.  Looking back on his life, Jacob sees only disappointment and regret.  He is blind to the fact that he has survived all this time, that his children are all alive, and with him.  He has managed to acquire everything he ever set his mind to: the birthright, the blessing, his beloved Rachel, he’s gotten Joseph back.  He has become wealthy, and now finds himself in Egypt with a household numbering 70 souls, not including the wives!  This is a man who has been supremely blessed in life.

But when he looks in the mirror, what does he see?  Struggle, going all the way back to his uterine striving with his brother Esau.  His success at acquiring the birthright and blessing has been accompanied by fear of retribution and probably guilt.  He gets his beloved Rachel, but at the “expense” of being first tricked into marrying Leah.  He builds a large household, but one that has been mired in scheming, distrust, and discord.  He receives a new name, Israel, but walks away with a limp to serve as a reminder for the rest of his life.  He has twelve sons and one daughter, but has to grieve for 22 years over the presumed death of his favorite, knowing that his playing favorites makes him at least partially responsible.

While everything, in the end, has worked out to Jacob’s advantage, the road, from Jacob’s perspective, has been torturous, and that is all that he is able to see.

What do we see when we look at Jacob?  Each of us has to answer that on our own.  But I would urge us to remember that we are our own worst – and potentially best – critics.  And what we see in Jacob probably ought to tell us something about ourselves.

Jacob’s Story – Toldot 5776

Jacob the Liar.  Jacob the Trickster.  Jacob our Patriarch.

Every year, when we come to this week’s Torah portion, at least one person, usually more, comes to me with something critical to say about Jacob.  How can such an immoral person, a thief and manipulator – be one of our Patriarchs?  But the Torah tells the story from a bird’s eye view, without passing judgment on Jacob or any of the other characters in the story.  What about Jacob the person – the son, the brother?  How did he become who he became?  With your permission, I will attempt to delve into Jacob’s character from a first-person vantage point.

My name is Ya-akov, which means “Heel.”  Why anyone would name their child after a heel is beyond me.  They say that I came out of my mother second, holding on to my twin brother’s foot as if I didn’t want to be left behind, or perhaps even as if I was struggling to come out first.  Anyways, being called a “Heel” all of the time has got to be somebody’s idea of a cruel joke.

Right now, I’m on the run.  My brother vowed to kill me – and I believe he just might do it.  So I had to skip town in a hurry, with nothing but the clothes on my back.

Let me tell you about my brother, Esau.  First of all, I cannot believe that we are even related, much less twins.  He is my opposite in every way.  He is big and strong.  He has red hair all over his body.  He spends as much time as he can away from home, hunting out in the fields with his bow and arrow.

And let’s just say that he is not much of a reader.  He is brash, quick-tempered, and prone to hyperbole – not that he knows the meaning of the word.

Not only that, I think Esau might be evil.  What does he do all day when he is out in the fields?  I know he is a good hunter, and he always brings home a fresh kill for my father, but he is gone so long that he has to be up to other things.

I have my suspicions.  And there are rumors.  They say (Genesis Rabbah 63:12) he spends a lot of time with the ladies.  And not just the single ones.  (Ibid. 65:1) I even heard that he once forced himself on a young woman who was engaged to be married.  But nobody is going to mess with Esau – so he gets away with it.

I also overheard our servants whispering that they heard Esau killed a man.  There weren’t any details, but knowing my brother, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to find out that it is true.

And yet, my father, Isaac, clearly favors Esau.  He barely even acknowledges me.  Every day, Esau struts back into our homestead with his bloody carcass from that day’s hunt.  He roasts it up just how dad likes it.  Then he changes out of his soiled clothes  (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:15) and brings the meat to father with a glass of wine (Genesis Rabbah 63:10), which he keeps refilling.  He plays the part of the obedient, respectful son to a T.

He asks father questions to try to foster an aura of righteousness that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  One day, I overhead him asking about the proper way to tithe salt and straw, as if he has ever tithed anything or offered a single word of praise to God in his life.  But father thought Esau was so pious, he talked about it for days.  There isn’t even an obligation to tithe salt or straw.  (Rashi on Genesis 25:27)   He hunts our father’s emotions just like the prey that he tracks out in the wilds.

The worst part of it all is that this so-called brother of mine, simply because he came out a few seconds before me, is entitled to receive a double inheritance of our father’s estate.  This brute, who knows nothing about running a farm, managing a household, or maintaining good relations with neighbors, will get to take over the family business.  He is going to squander everything that our grandfather Abraham and our father Isaac built to satisfy his own gluttonous passions.

Does my father, Isaac, see any of this?  He is a wise man, and a good man.  How can he be so blind?

I sometimes think that he feels guilty about what happened to his own half-brother, Ishmael.  Even though Uncle Ishmael was the son of a slave, he was still Grandfather Abraham’s oldest child.  After my father was born, Ishmael was sent away so that we wouldn’t be a threat, and so that father could be the uncontested heir.  Ishmael grew up into a wild man, quite the opposite of dad.  But I wonder if father feels that he somehow owes something to Ishmael that he cannot repay, and so he overlooks Esau’s terrible qualities.

I could not let Esau inherit our father’s possessions.  Not because I thought they should be mine.  But because Father doesn’t see Esau as he truly is.  So when opportunity presented itself, I took advantage.

One afternoon, I was cooking a red lentil stew.  I have to stay, I am quite the chef.  Because I have spent so much of my time around the tents and with mother, I have picked up a thing or two in the kitchen.

Esau came in from the field in one of his moods.  He had been tracking an ibex or antelope or something that had gotten away, so he was pretty upset.

“Argggh!” was the announcement of his approach.  I heard the clattering sound of a bow and quiver of arrows as it was thrown to the ground.

Then Esau shoved his ugly, dirty, hairy face in front of mine.  “I’m starving!” he shouted.  “Give me that red red stuff!”

Startled, I looked in his face, and saw my chance.  “Sell me your birthright, and you can have as much as you want.”  I knew exactly how he would respond.

“I’m dying of hunger here.  I’ve got no use for a birthright!”

But I wanted to be sure.  “No.  You’ve got to swear to me.”

“Fine!  Whatever!  I swear you can have the birthright.  Now gimme that red stuff!”

So I let him have it.  He ate, drank, got up, and stormed off.  I don’t think he even tasted the soup.

Now let me tell you about my father.  One year, there was a famine, so he moved the household to Philistine territory, near Gerar.  Father did not feel very confident in himself, so he told everyone that his wife was actually his sister so they would not be tempted to kill him and steal her.  Well, the ruse did not last very long.  When King Avimelech saw them fooling around out in the fields one day, he summoned father to the palace for an explanation.

Overall, though, we did pretty well in Gerar.  Father made a lot of money.  But the locals were not pleased, so they started stopping up all of his wells.  Those wells, by the way, were wells that Grandfather Avraham had dug many years ago.  Then the King ordered us to leave.  Instead of standing up for himself, father just acquiesced, and we moved further out, to a dry riverbed.

Farther sent his workers out to re-dig the stopped-up wells.  Whenever they struck water, the locals came out to claim them as their own.  So what did father do?  He gave in and moved on to dig another well.  After three times, he just picked up and moved us all far away to Be’er Sheva.

I hate to say this, but my father is not a brave man.

He is blind to my brother’s wickedness, and he lets people push him around.

Mother?  She is another story entirely.  Rebecca is a force to be reckoned with.

Like I said, I spend most of my days by the tents.  But those days are not idly spent.  She makes sure of that.  Mother is constantly drilling me to learn.  She made sure I could read, and that I knew my numbers.  She taught me to watch people, to read their emotions and understand their motivations so that I would know how to deal with them.  She made sure that I understood how the household worked, and how to manage our people.

Let me tell you – she is a demanding teacher.  Do not talk back to that woman.  You do what she says, or else.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my mother.  But it’s a complicated relationship.  Sometimes I think that she is too much in my business.  She misses nothing.

At least she doesn’t have any illusions about her eldest son.  Mother knows exactly who, and what, Esau is.  Unfortunately, father cannot tolerate anything bad said about him – even when she confronts him with the truth.  It’s infuriating.

One day, mother came to me in a rush.  “Quick, Jacob.  Your father has just asked your brother to go out and hunt him some game.  He is about to give him his innermost blessing.  We cannot allow that to happen!”

“But,” I protested, “I’ve already gotten the birthright from him.  What do I need the blessing for?”

“The Lord made a sacred promise to your grandfather that his descendants would become a great nation and be a blessing to the world.  That blessing passed on to your father.  It cannot go on to your brother.”

“But he is the oldest.”  I said.

Then her face softened.  “I never told you this.  My pregnancy with you was terrible.  I thought I was going to die.  It was something unnatural.  So I asked the Lord ‘what’s the point of all this?’ and I received an answer: ‘Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.'””

“So Jacob, it must be you.  Go select two animals from the flock.  I’ll prepare them the way that your father likes.  Bring them in to him, and he will give you his blessing.”

I sucked in my breath and spoke back to her again: “But mother, there is no way that father is going to think I am Esau.  Yes, he is blind, but Esau is covered in hair, and I’m smooth-skinned.  As soon as father touches me, he is going to know who it is, and then I’m going to be cursed.”

“Let the curse fall upon me.” she snapped.  “Just do it.  The future depends on it.”

You should have seen her in that moment.  Her eyes were blazing.  Her face was scarlet.  I had to do what she said.

So I got the animals and gave them to mother.  She prepared the meal while I snuck into my brother’s tent to steal his clothes.  Then I took some animal skins and put them on my arms so that they would feel like Esau’s.  Yes.  He is that hairy.

I brought the food in.  “Father,” I said.  “It’s me your son.”

“Which son are you?” he asked.

I gulped.  “I am Esau, your first-born.  I did what you told me.  Please sit up and eat of this game, so that you can give me your innermost blessing.”

“That was fast,” he said.  “How did you come back so quickly.”

Without thinking, I responded, “Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune.”  That was a stupid thing to say.  Esau would never talk like that.

Father seemed suspicious, and he said, “come closer so I can feel you, and know whether you are Esau or not.”  He suspected!

So I approached and nervously held out my arms for him to feel.

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.  Are you really Esau?”

“I am.”

“Then serve me so that I may eat of my son’s game and give him my innermost blessing.”

So I did.  My father ate, and then he called me over close and asked me to kiss him.  Holding my breath, I did as he asked.

“Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed.”

Was this really going to work?

Apparently it was.  He blessed me.  “May God give you Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine.  Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you.  Cursed be they who curse you, blessed they who bless you.”

Believe me, I got out of there as fast as I could.  I rushed past mother, who was waiting outside the tent, and went to get out of sight as quickly as possible.  I did not want to be around when my brother got back.

Good thing, too.  Because Esau showed up seconds later.  I was hiding in my tent, so I don’t know what happened when they figured out what I had done.  But a little while later, I heard the loudest scream I have ever heard.  It was filled with pain, anger, and rage.

That night, mother came to my tent.  She grabbed a travel bag and started rushing around, grabbing things to pack into it.  “Jacob, you have to leave immediately” she said.  “Esau is furious.  He is swearing that as soon as your father dies, he is going to come after you to kill you.  Here is what I want you to do.  Leave the country, and travel to Haran, where I was born.  Find my brother Laban.  You can stay with him for as long as you need.  After Esau calms down, I’ll send for you.”

That’s it!?  My mother forces me to trick my father and infuriate my brother – and now I’ve got to go into exile!?  What did she think was going to happen?  Not that I shouldn’t have been the one to get the blessing, mind you.  I agree with her there.  There is no way that Esau’s descendants will be blessings to the world.

But it’s not like she gave me any alternatives.  What was I supposed to do?

So I packed my things, and was about to leave when my father sent for me.  “Uh oh.  Now I’m in for it,” I thought.  “Here comes the curse.”

I went back into father’s tent, terrified of what was to come next.

“You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women,” he ordered.  “Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.”

It sounds like mother got to him first.  She must have complained to father about the local women so that he would think that it was his idea to send me abroad.  She is a devious one.

Then father gave me another blessing.  “May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.  May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.”

He didn’t say a word about my deceiving him.  Nothing.  I was flabbergasted, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out what he was going to say next.  I hit the road immediately, and that’s where I am now.  Be’er Sheva is behind me.  I think I am out of my brother’s range.

So now you know my story.  Before you judge me too harshly, please consider what I have had to deal with in my life up until now: a brother who could not be more different, who is crude, uneducated, wicked, and deceitful; a father who cannot stand up for himself, and who allows himself to be deceived; and an overbearing mother who knows how to get what she wants, but whose love is, at times, suffocating.

I think it’s good for me to get away for a while, to escape this atmosphere of dishonesty and duplicity.  It’s time for me to chart my own course.

 

Migrations – Lekh L’kha 5776

Lekh L’kha  Go forth!  Parashat Lekh Lekha is a parashah of migrations.  From beginning to end, its characters leave behind their past and set out for the unknown.  They are driven to do so by the same causes that lead people today to become immigrants: religion, culture, economic opportunity, famine, war, and persecution.

The story actually begins at the end of last week’s parashah, when we first encounter Avram.  (He has not yet had his name changed to Avraham).  His family hails from a place called Ur Kasdim.  We are not exactly sure where it is.  It is either the major city of Ur which is located in Southern Iraq on the coast of the Persian Gulf, or it is a smaller town in Upper Mesopotamia.

Avram’s father, Terach, moves the entire household – including Avram, his two brothers, and their respective households – intending to eventually settle in the Land of Canaan.  For some reason, they stop in a place called Haran.

Haran was a major station along the caravan route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.  It is located about ten miles North of the present border between Syria and Turkey.  The Torah does not tell us what prompted Terach to move the family from Ur Kasdim, nor do we know why they interrupt their migration in Haran.  We do know that the rest of Avram’s family remains in Haran.  Only he completes the journey that his father had begun.

This morning’s parashah begins with God’s revelation to seventy five year old Avram.  Lekh L’kha – “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  God has big plans for Avram.

Avram responds with alacrity, setting out with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and a rather large but unnamed retinue of followers that they managed to acquire while in Haran.  It is not a short journey, and Avram does not stop when he reaches the border.  Rather, he continues his migration until he arrives in Shechem (known today as Nablus).  This is the physical center of the land that God has promised his descendants as an inheritance.

Soon after arriving in Shechem and building an altar to God, Avram continues moving south for another 20 miles, pitching his tent in the hill country east of Beit El, where he builds another altar.  He then continues south by stages until he reaches the Negev, probably near Beer-Sheva.  By now, Avram has traversed the entire length of the Promised Land, from North to South.

How might we describe this migration?  What is Avram abandoning, and what is he hoping to find when he reaches his destination?  The Torah’s emphasis on leaving behind his native land and his father’s house suggests that there is something culturally or morally unsavory about his birthplace.  Although we know nothing about Avram’s first seventy five years of life in Haran, many midrashim fill in the gaps.  Legends abound describing Terach’s idolatry, the deviousness of the local King Nimrod, and the rampant idolatry of Babylonian culture.

Remaining in Haran will subject Avram and his progeny to bad influences which will prevent the realization of God’s blessing that his descendants will become a great nation.  To fulfill his destiny, Avram needs to make a clean break with his culture of origin.

We might describe this move as a religious migration.  But perhaps it also might be akin to moving to a better neighborhood, where Avram’s family will have access to higher quality schools, less crime, and a more cohesive communal environment.

It does not take long for a new situation to arise which will force Avram to pack up his tent and move his household once again.  The land is struck by a famine.  Israel is dependent on seasonal rains.  Several years of poor rainfall, therefore, are disastrous and result in famine.  In contrast, Egypt receives its water from the annual flooding of the Nile River, which is a much more reliable source.  While the text only mentions Avram, it is safe to assume that his household is just one of a deluge of refugees fleeing south to Egypt for food.

The typical experience of refugees is not a pleasant one.  They usually find discrimination in their host countries.  If refugees end up settling permanently in their new countries, it often takes several generations before full assimilation and acceptance is reached.

Avram somehow defies the usual pattern and acquires great wealth during his time in Egypt. In 1848, a Potato Famine prompted the massive immigration of nearly one million Irish to the United States.  In the mid 1980’s a massive famine and war in Ethiopia caused the deaths of over one million people.  Six hundred thousand fled Ethiopia for Sudan, where they remained in refugee camps for several years before finally returning home.

One of the factors in the current Syrian refugee crisis is a famine that has been exacerbated, or even perhaps caused by war.

When the famine ends, Avram returns with his family to his former home east of Beit El.  There, his situation seems to stabilize for a short time.  At this point, Avram has huge flocks.  His nephew Lot has also managed to become wealthy.  Both of them send their herds out into the surrounding fields each day.  Soon, their respective shepherds are quarreling with one another over access to grazing land.

Avram recognizes that the status quo cannot continue, so he offers his nephew a choice.  “This is a fertile land, with plenty of room for both of us.  We just can’t stay here in the same place.  Pick where you want to go,” he says.  “If you go right, I’ll go left.  If you go left, I’ll go right.”  Lot chooses to settle in Sodom, where he has access to the lush Jordan River plain.  Avram stays put.

This migration is not the result of a crisis.  Quite the opposite.  Avram and Lot have become too wealthy, and they need to expand their markets.  Lot moves so that he can have access to better economic opportunities.

God appears once again to Avram, reiterating the blessing.  Afterwards, Avram moves his tent to the terebinths of Mamre, near Hebron.  Again, the Torah does not give us a specific reason for Avram’s move, but like his original journey into the Land of Canaan, it seems to be a religious migration.

Lot, meanwhile, gets caught up in a war when the cities of the Jordan Valley, including Sodom, rebel against their vassal overlords to the east.  The rebel cities are defeated and the conquering armies plunder them and take their residents as spoils of war.  When Avram hears that Lot has been taken captive, he assembles a small army and launches a rescue mission.  His risky venture takes him all the way to Dan, which is located at the far northern point of the Land of Israel, on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  He then goes on a night raid to a location north of Damascus.

The mission is successful, and Avram manages to defeat the enemy armies and rescue his nephew, along with all of the other prisoners who have been forcibly removed from their homes.

We see in this story another kind of migration – one prompted by war.  In this case, residents are taken and enslaved by their conquerors.  As we are seeing vividly right now with the millions of Syrian refugees, people tend to flee from war-torn areas.

The final migration occurs towards the end of the parashahSarai is unable to get pregnant, and so she gives her handmaiden Hagar to Avram to bear a child in her name.  When Hagar gets pregnant, tensions rise in the household, and Sarai begins to treat Hagar harshly.  We don’t know how bad the mistreatment was, but it was enough to cause Hagar to flee.  She heads south, embarking on the Road to Shur, which leads eventually to Egypt.  Along the way, an angel of God appears to Hagar and reassures her that God will bless her son.  In the meantime, she should go back to Sarai and “submit to her harsh treatment.”

This is not an optimistic text, but it illustrates another cause of migration: persecution.  How many millions of Americans came to this country fleeing religious persecution?!  It is what brought the original Pilgrims.  The rise of modern Zionism came about when Theodore Herzl and the other early leaders realized that the persecution of the Jewish people in the Diaspora was not going to go away.  The Jewish people needed a homeland where Jews could immigrate.  Sadly, Herzl’s prediction that the reestablishment of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel would eliminate antisemitism in the Diaspora has proved to be incorrect, and Jews continue to immigrate to Israel because of persecution.

The reasons that compel a person to leave his or her home and move to a strange new place have not changed in four thousand years.  We immigrate because we want better lives for ourselves and our families.  We want to provide our children with safer environments in which to learn and play.  We move to find better economic opportunities.  Sometimes, we flee dangerous situations like war and famine.  And we leave places in which we face discrimination in favor of communities that will accept us as we are.

All of these factors lead the characters in Parashat Lekh L’kha to become immigrants, just as they lead people in our world today to seek better lives in new lands.

While the reasons to immigrate may be the same, in our world, some of the barriers have changed.

Globalization and technology have made it much easier to travel from one place to another.  A journey that once might have taken an entire year can be accomplished in less than a day.  Images of drowned children vividly demonstrate how dangerous the world can be for someone who is fleeing their homeland in desperation.

While antagonism towards immigrants is certainly still with us, multicultural attitudes in many countries in the world allow for an easier welcome and integration than in earlier centuries.

And yet, legal bureaucracies and quotas place significant obstacles before immigrants.  I doubt Avram was asked to produce his passport and visa when he crossed the border into the Land of Canaan.

Let us each think about our own family history.  How did we get to this country?  On my father’s side, my family immigrated to the United States after surviving World War Two and the Holocaust.  My mother’s ancestors arrived a generation or two earlier with millions of other Jews from Eastern Europe who were fleeing persecution.  My parents migrated from Southern California to the Bay Area, to Atlanta, and finally to Seattle as they sought better economic opportunities and a healthy environment to raise my brother and I.

Illegal immigration is a serious challenge in our world.  There are currently over eleven million undocumented people in the United States.  European countries are facing hundred of thousands of Syrians crossing their borders.  Millions of Syrians have been displaced and are living in refugee camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.  Huge influxes of immigrants has the potential to be destabilizing for a country, especially when that country does not do a good job of assimilating the newcomers.  I don’t have answers to these challenges, but as a people whose founders are immigrants, we ought to approach the issue with compassion and understanding.

Please Let It Not Be Another Intifada – Noach 5776

The violence in Israel right now leaves me feeling worried and confused.  Everyone seems to be throwing up their hands trying to understand what is going on.

It would be one thing if it was a terrorist organization like Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that was planning and carrying out these attacks.  Then, we could point to a particular group with its own ideology, and hold it accountable.  But that is not what has been happening.

What we are seeing is scarier.  Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Afula… These attacks have not been coordinated.  They are being carried out by boys and girls, men and women with knives and meat cleavers.  People with families.  People whom we would not expect to be violent.  A young girl.  A thirteen year old boy.  A perversion is taking place that is producing a kind of collective insanity, a national blood-lust.  What else could explain why two teenage cousins would go out into the street, and randomly stab a thirteen year old on a bicycle?

When a society goes astray like this, it is the leaders of that society that must step up and take responsibility for setting it back on course.  But there have been too few voices calling for calm.

What ostensibly set off this violence were claims by some Palestinians that Israel was planning to take the Temple Mount away from Muslims.  It is not true.

When Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, an Israeli flag was quickly installed on top of the Dome of the Rock.  As soon as he found out about it, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan immediately ordered it removed.  Soon later, he gave authority over the site to the Muslim Waqf, which is charged with maintaining Muslim holy sites.  Jews were forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount.  That has been the status quo arrangement ever since.

Recently, rumors started spreading that Israel was planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately denied the rumors, and affirmed that the status quo would remain as it has been for nearly fifty years.

But nobody listened.  Even those who ought to know better have been fanning the flames of violence.  As the rumors were spreading last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said: “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.”  Then he declared that Jews “have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.”  This week he also accused Israel of “executing” Palestinian children.

What does he think he is doing?

As Jeffrey Goldberg writes in The Atlantic, this is not the first time that false rumors of an impending Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount have led to widespread violence.  In 1928, Jews brought a wooden bench up to the Western Wall for elderly worshippers to sit along with a partition to separate men and women for prayer.  Local Muslim leaders stirred up popular anger by declaring that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, used the incident – the placement of a bench – as proof of a plot against Islam.  He incited Jerusalem Arabs to riot against the Jewish community.  Doctored photographs showing a defaced Dome of the Rock were distributed in Hebron to rile up the community.  In riots the following year, 133 Jews were murdered.

In 2000, the Second Intifada was launched when Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount.  Granted, he took a large military presence with him.  But he had cleared it with Palestinian security officials in advance, who assured him that the situation would remain calm.  And he certainly did not go to pray.

After the visit, Palestinians began protesting, and the leader of the Waqf, on a loudspeaker, called on Palestinians to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque, which Sharon had not even entered.  The protests became violent, and it soon grew into the Second Intifada.  It later turned out that the uprising had been planned in advance by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, but it was Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount which was used as the pretext to incite Muslims to defend their holy place.

Today, there are many Arab leaders who are fanning the flames of violence, many even more blatantly than Abbas, but it does not seem to be a coordinated strategy.

And to be clear, it is not everyone.  Just three days ago, the Bedouin village of Zarzir, which my children passed through every day on their way to school, organized a public rally for peace.  They called it “We refuse to be Enemies.”  Many of our friends from Kibbutz Hanaton participated.  There were signs and posters in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  Village leaders, wearing kafiyyehs and holding Israeli flags, spoke against violence and in support of the State of Israel.  But I did not read any news reports about it except for an article by Rabbi Yoav Ende, of Kibbutz Chanaton.

I saw a news clip of Arab news reporter, Lucy Aharish, speaking about as forcefully as a person could in condemning the violence and declaring that there is no justification whatsoever for committing terror.  She blasted Arab leaders for failing to come out and strongly condemn the violence.  That is where she placed the responsibility.

I do not claim that Israel has been perfect.  As you know, I have a lot of disagreements with decisions of the Israeli government over the years.  I think that Israel’s policies have contributed in part to feelings of hopelessness within Palestinian society.

While Israelis are understandably feeling scared, I think it is awful that some have responded to the terror with their own violence and discrimination.  It is inexcusable.

But nothing justifies stabbing a random stranger with a knife, or driving a car into a crowd of people waiting at a bus stop.  There is no moral equivalency when police, soldiers, or even civilians respond with violence to defend against a terrorist who is actively trying to kill an innocent person.  There is no excuse when the leaders of a society glorify a teen-ager who has committed a terrorist act, or fail to do everything they can to stop violence.

I do not have any suggestions for how to solve the chaos that ensues when a society that is not mine has lost its way.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Noach, we read of another society that has lost its way.

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness (chamas).  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (hishchit kol basar et darko), God said to Noach, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness (chamas) because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.”

Ironically, the word that the Torah uses for “lawlessness” is chamas.  It is just a coincidence, but an ironic one.  Nahum Sarna defines chamas as the “flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”    (JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 51)  There was no rule of law.  No respect for communal standards.

Then the Torah says ki hishchit kol basar et darko – “for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth.”

God’s response is not to give them a warning, or a punishment, or to send a Prophet to urge them to change their ways.  God regrets having created humanity, and decides to wipe out all life on earth, saving only representative male and female samples of each species.

After the flood, humanity is just as wicked as before.  It is the same DNA.

But God makes two significant changes.

He tells Noach and his offspring that they must punish those who murder.  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  This is retributive justice.  According to the theory of evolution, the strongest, most violent people ought to survive.  But God introduces an element to counter the morality of “survival of the fittest.”  Simply put, whatever you do to harm the body of another shall be done to you.  This is the basic premise of retributive justice.  Human societies have to protect their members by punishing those who commit violence.

The second change is a counter to the first.  God declares:  “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”

God knows that human nature has not changed.  People will continue to have an urge to cross boundaries.  But retributive justice alone is not enough.  Forgiveness is also needed.  So even though God know that yetzer lev ha-adam ra mine’urav – “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth,” God promises to not wipe out all life again – even though they may deserve it.  There are times when justice must be set aside in favor of mercy.

This is the challenge that God presents to the children of Noah.  Build societies that are anchored by justice and forgiveness.

Although it seems perpetually elusive, that is my prayer for Israel and Palestine.  One day, both societies will have leaders who take responsibility for their own actions, as well as for their respective people’s actions.  Neither society will tolerate the dehumanization of the other.  Both will recognize that justice cannot be administered selectively.  The two peoples will recognize and protect each others’ sacred places without feeling threatened.  And Israelis and Palestinians will one day be able to hear one another’s stories with a sense of compassion and forgiveness.

For now, as our brothers and sisters are living under the daily threat of terror, we can turn to God in prayer.

Shomer Yisrael — Guardian of Israel,

We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.

Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.

Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one

Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks

Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.

Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.

Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers

And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.

Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.

We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,

Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,

And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.

Know the Genre – Bereishit 5776

Imagine a space alien landing on earth and reading the headline of an article that I saw posted on Facebook earlier this week.  “Texas: 14-Year Old Virgin Falls Pregnant After Flu Shot.”  Our alien visitor, reading this article in an official sounding publication called World News Daily Report, might take it as accurate news reporting rather than satire.  A bit of digging would hopefully lead the alien to the truth.

One of the most important aspects that a reader must understand about what he or she is reading is its genre.  Usually, we understand genre inherently without needing to spend any time consciously considering the type of literature that we are reading.

If I open the front section of the newspaper, I know that I am reading current events articles about something going on right now in the world.  If I open up a book written by John Grisham, I know that I am probably reading a fictional novel that is in the sub-genre of legal thriller.  We run into trouble with genre sometimes online with fake news articles that are forwarded or posted on Facebook.  If I peruse an article published by the Onion, for example, hopefully I know that I am reading satire.  Otherwise, I could get into trouble.

Generally speaking, our brains know how to classify the various kinds of writing that we encounter on a daily basis.  We do this by comparing what we read to what is already familiar.

When we read literature from far away places and long ago times, however, we are at a similar, if not even a greater, disadvantage as our alien friend.

In high school, I had opportunity to read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as well as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.  To properly understand these masterpieces, it is essential to be aware of their genre.  In the case of Thucydides, his book is one of the earliest examples of historical writing.  A political philosopher and general, he writes of the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE.  He takes great effort to stick to facts, and his explanations do not include maneuverings and interventions by the gods in human affairs.  Someone who wants to learn about military history, or study that time period, must read this classic first-hand description.

In contrast, Homer’s telling of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus are not historical accounts.  Rather, human beings are mere tools manipulated by the gods in their grand feuds and struggles.  The Iliad and The Odyssey are epic poems containing myth and legend.  One should not read them to find out “what happened,” but one should look to them to understand the beliefs and values of Ancient Greece, to understand something about the human condition, as well as enjoy two of the most beautiful epic poems ever written.

Which author’s works are more “true” – Thucydides are Homer?  It is an absurd question.  Both are true, but in different ways.  Understanding genre is essential for knowing this.

The same is true when we read our Sacred Texts.  Today, we begin our annual cycle of weekly Torah reading and study.  Parashat Bereishit – the beginning.  The beginning of what?  Let’s leave that question aside for now and say simply that it is the beginning of the Torah.

So let’s talk about genre.  Our Bible, the Tanakh, is a huge, composite book composed over a span of about one thousand years by many people, with different life experiences, values, and concerns.  Within the Bible, and within the Torah specifically, there are many genres and sub-genres represented.  Let us name a few:

Law codes.  History.  Legend.  Satire.  Prophecy.  Poetry.  Prayer.  Theology.  Wisdom literature.  Mythology.  Propaganda.

If we are going to begin to understand our Bible, we have got to make an effort to understand what kind of literature it is that we are reading.

As our Sacred Scripture, we consider the text to be universal and timeless.  That does not mean that we can ignore the central questions about what the text is, or that we can ignore the cultural context in which it first appeared.

The first three chapters of the Torah tell the story of creation.  How does the Torah itself want us to read these stories?  How would someone living in the land of Israel nearly three thousand years ago have understood them?

A close reading of these three chapters reveals inconsistencies.  Chapter one through chapter two, verse 4a seems to tell one version of the creation story.  Chapter two, verse 4b through chapter three tells a different version.  The language in each version is different.  The character of God, as well as the nature of humanity and order of creation are also contradictory.  God even has a different name in these two narrativez.

Version one tells the story of six days of creation.  It is highly structured and organized.  God, referred to as Elohim, creates each element of the world at a specific time.  Human beings are created last, in the image of God, both male and female.  Then God rests on the seventh day.

In version two, God, referred to as Adonai Elohim, creates a man named Adam and then places him in the Garden of Eden.  Eventually, after lonely Adam cannot find a suitable companion amongst the animals, God removes one of Adam’s ribs and makes a woman.  Then, we read the story of the woman, the snake, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The story results in humans being banished from the Garden of Eden and being forced to wander the earth, earning their living and bearing children through hard work and struggle.

Our interpretive tradition is typically uncomfortable with contradictions in the Sacred Text.  So it tries to find ways to settle those contradictions.  To explain what, on the surface, seems like alternative versions of creation, it describes the events in the Garden of Eden described in chapters two and three as all taking place on the sixth day.  But these explanations ignore many of the details.

In the twenty first century, many of us get stuck on what seems, on the surface, to be an incompatibility between Torah and science.  We are trained to be skeptical readers, to question the historical accuracy of what we hear, and to demand evidence and facts before we accept a proposition.

This comes up a lot for children, sometimes as early as second or third grade.  How do we respond to our kids when they say to us: “I don’t think that ever happened,” which sometimes leads to “I don’t want to be Jewish”?

First of all, I have no argument with someone who says that the Earth cannot have been created in six days.  I agree.  By the way, I do have an argument with someone who tries to fit the latest scientific theories of evolution or the Big Bang into the words of the Torah.  The Torah is not a science book.  We should not be tempted to turn it into one.

Just because it did not happen that way does not mean it is not true.  An answer, I believe, comes down to understanding the concept of genre.

This is not simply a postmodern approach to our Sacred Texts.  Although they used different terms, some of our greatest scholars understood the importance of recognizing genre and accepting the limitations of what the text is able to tell us.

The great thirteenth century Spanish Rabbi, Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides, was a great Torah scholar, philosopher, legalist, and kabbalist.  He wrote a commentary on the Torah.  In his opening comment, he explains that the process of creation is a deep mystery that cannot be understood from the verses, and it can only be known through the oral tradition going back to Moses, who received it from God on Mt. Sinai.  Then he adds that those who know it are obligated to keep it secret.

Nachmanides goes on to explain that all of the descriptions of creation: day one, day two etc., as well as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the accounts of the generations leading up to the flood, the Tower of Babel, and so on – none of these events can actually be understood from the verses in the Torah.  Basically, he is saying that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are not reporting historical facts.

What, therefore, is the Torah’s purpose in describing the six days of creation?  Nachmanides offers the same answer as Rashi, which is based on a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 1:2).  According to the midrash, the Torah’s description of creation establishes the entire earth as belonging to God, its Creator.  Thus, God has the authority to grant land to one people, and then subsequently take it away and give it to another.

In reading Nachmanides’ commentary, we need to understand that he himself is writing in a particular time and place, with his own unique perspectives, assumptions, and interests.  His worldview does not necessarily align with our own, seven hundred years later.

What we call “science” today was not familiar to Nachmanides.  He did not know about the Big Bang Theory, evolution, or radio carbon dating.  We can only speculate how he would have reacted to those concepts, and how that knowledge might have affected his commentaries.  As someone who studied medicine and philosophy, he might have been open to science.  On the other hand, he opposed the extreme rationalism of Maimonides that downplayed the Torah’s descriptions of miracles by explaining them as metaphors, and he was a practicing kabbalist who accepted many of our tradition’s supernatural stories as historically true.

I find it reassuring to know that Nachmanides acknowledged that the Torah’s account of Creation is not science.  For him, the purpose is theological and political.  It justifies Israel’s claim to the land of Israel and counters charges by other nations that the Jews stole it unjustly.  (Sound familiar?)

While the secrets of how God actually created the universe are known to some, that knowledge is in the realm of mysticism, and is not intended for popular dissemination.  The concepts are either too esoteric, or difficult, or perhaps even dangerous to share with the general public, and so the Torah tells us nothing about how creation historically took place.

So let us take a step back and look at these stories with new eyes.  Or rather, let us try to look at them through the eyes of an Israelite nearly three thousand years ago.

What is the genre?  Both stories speak about origins.  The origin of the earth and the seas, the sun, moon, and stars, plants and trees, sea and land animals, birds, insects, and humans.

In today’s terms, what would we call a text that speaks about the origins of these things?  We would call it science.  So there is an inclination when we read the Torah to think that we are reading a scientific, historical account of how the world and life came into existence.

But that is an incorrect reading.  In science, when there are contradictions in the evidence, it generally means that there is something wrong with the theory.  The problem with reading the Torah as science or even history is that the text is not internally consistent, and it is often not consistent with what we know from extrenal sources.  As science, and often as history, the Bible is terrible literature.

But the Torah is neither a science nor a history book.  Science and history, as we know them, did not even exist when the Torah was written.  That is the wrong genre.

A better term to describe these stories is “myth.”  Confusingly, “myth” has two main definitions which are diametrically opposed to one another.

For decades, a book has been published every few years called Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  I do not bring it up to talk about politics, but to illustrate how, colloquially, the word “myth” means the opposite of facts.  If something is a myth, it is not true, and might even be a deliberate lie.

But that is not the definition of myth that is used by anthropologists and sociologists.  Quite the opposite, a myth conveys something that is of ultimate truth, even if it is not historically accurate.  One classicist writes that myth is “a traditional tale with […] reference to something of collective importance.”  (Walter Burkett, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, as quoted in Marc Zvi Bressler, How to Read the Jewish Bible, p. 39.)  Myths reveal the core beliefs of a people and help to explain the human condition.  Most cultures have a creation myth that explains how the world came into existence and how human beings fit into that existence.

Both of the Torah’s creation narratives fit that definition, although they convey different messages.

The first version is about God’s taming of the forces of chaos and evil.  In systematic fashion, God pushes aside the already-existing primordial waters to separate earth from sky, and land from water.  Each creative act of order is declared to be “good,” with humans, the final creation, described by God as “very good.”  Holding the forces of chaos at bay has been God’s preoccupation ever since.  The narrative ends with God observing Shabbat on the seventh day.

The second story has a different focus.  It is a far more anthropocentric story.  God first creates Adam and then makes the Garden of Eden, introducing plants and animals to serve the human.  As an origin story, it tells of the loss of human immortality and the gaining of sexual knowledge.  It describes the roles of men and women vis a vis each other in the ancient world.  It explains why it is so hard to earn a living, and why childbirth is so painful and dangerous.  Then, and now, these are some of the central aspects of human existence.

So while God did not create the earth in six days, and while two people named Adam and Eve never walked around naked in the Garden of Eden, each of these creation stories is true in a profound way.  Understanding how they are true makes them relevant and alive for us.

As we begin a new year of Torah study, let us come to these texts with open eyes and open hearts, with the presumption that Torah has something profound to teach us.  It is our task, through engaging with Torah, to discover what it is.

Why Doesn’t Christmas Violate the Separation of Church and State? – Vayiggash 5775

I hope everyone had a wonderful time on the national holiday of the Twenty-Fifth of December.  I sure did.  It’s one of my favorite days of the year.  The shul is closed.  The streets are empty.  No responsibilities.  I get to sleep in.  We usually go on a family hike.  This year, it was a beautiful crisp, sunny day.

Growing up, I was always pretty sensitive this time of year.  When I was in first grade attending public school in Atlanta, our music teacher had us singing gospel songs that were certainly of a religious nature.  I told my parents, and my dad was on the phone with the principal that night.  The next day in music class, the gospel songs were gone, and a token Chanukah song had been added to our repertoire.  So yes, I was the Jewish kid who destroyed Christmas.

I think this was a pretty common experience for Jewish kids growing up in a largely Christian society.

We are fortunate to live in a time when there is a great deal more sensitivity to these kinds of issues, and in a part of the country that is especially diverse.

But the dominance of Christmas is still inescapable.  How is it possible that in a country like the United States, which prides itself on having a separation between church and state, one of our national holidays can be Christmas?

Let’s take a look at the First Amendment.  It begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The separation of church and state is understood to have two clauses.  The first is the anti-establishment clause, which is summarized quite well by Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in the 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education.

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another … in the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State’ … That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

Simply put, the government cannot establish or favor any particular religion, or even religion in general.

The other aspect of the First Amendment is known as the free exercise clause.  The government is not allowed to curtail the beliefs of any individual or group, nor can it restrict a person’s religious actions unless those actions are “subversive of good order.”

How is it possible that Christmas could be a federal holiday?  Is not this a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Probably not.  But maybe.

When did Christmas become a national holiday?

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill passed by Congress creating the first federal holidays in the United States.  Most of the states had already established state holidays, but this was a first for the national government.  Initially, it only applied to employees of the federal government in Washington, D. C.  Several years later, it was expanded to include all federal employees.  There were five days.  The bill’s title was:

An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays, within the District of Columbia.

It went like this:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the following days, to wit: The first day of January, commonly called New Year’s day, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day, and any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fast or thanksgiving, shall be holidays within the District of Columbia…

Notice a couple of things.  First, the title of the bill does not mention the word “Christmas.”  It says “the twenty-fifth day of December.”  The bill itself also uses that expression, adding, almost as a sidebar, that the day is “commonly called Christmas Day.”

In 1870, just five years after the end of the Civil War, there were still deep divisions between the North and the South.  Northerners tended to get really excited about Thanksgiving, while Southerners made a big deal about Christmas.  One impetus behind the federal holidays bill was to create national unity.

As you can imagine, there have been cases brought to the courts, usually regarding Christmas displays on public property.  The courts have basically drawn a line between what they see as secular symbols and what they define as religious symbols.  For example, a nativity scene in which an angel is holding a banner with “Glory to God in the Highest” written in Latin was seen as religious.  Images like Santa Claus, reindeer, a Christmas tree, or a menorah, for that matter, are typically seen as secular.  In a court case involving Jersey City’s public holiday display, the presence of symbols from different traditions like a Christmas tree, Kwanza symbols, a Menorah, Frosty the Snowman, and a sign expressing the city’s intention to “celebrate the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its people” was accepted by the 3rd Circuit in 1999.  As long as minority traditions are also included with the majority, the courts tend to permit it.

As a people, we have had to deal with being a minority in the midst of a dominant culture for most of our existence.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Joseph is finally reunited with his family.  He invites them to join him in Egypt, where they will thrive under his protection and favored status, but it is clear from the beginning that they do not in.  Joseph instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh that they are breeders of livestock, because that is a profession which is abhorrent to Egyptians.  By telling this to Pharaoh, Joseph’s family receives rights to settle in the fertile land of Goshen, and to receive a special commission to care for the royal flocks.

On their way down, God appears to Jacob with a message of assurance:  “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.  I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back…”  The commentator Ha-emek Davar explains that God is reassuring Jacob that his descendants will not forget who they are.  They will maintain their distinctiveness first as a family, and eventually as a nation.

Initially at least, we see tolerance on the part of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  They permit this tribe, with its strange customs, to live in Egyptian society, and to maintain their cultural and religious practices.  In next week’s Torah portion, when Jacob dies, the Egyptian dignitaries participate with Joseph and his brothers in the mourning rituals as they bring their father’s body back to the ancestral burial site in the Land of Canaan.

Unfortunately, this tolerance does not last, and a new Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph, and who does not share his predecessor’s generosity and open-mindedness.  So we understand well how important it is to protect the religious freedoms of others.

I have always felt that, as a Jew, I had a greater awareness of the experiences of minorities than those who were in the dominant culture.  Being a minority prepares us to better respect religious diversity.

But what if Jews were in the majority?  How would we deal with issues of religious freedom then?

In 1948, Israel was established as the nation state of the Jewish people.  The Declaration of Independence, issued shortly after the United Nations Partition Plan passed, “declare[d] the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

It went on to declare certain freedoms which should sound familiar to us:  “…it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

So how can Israel, on the one hand, be “the Jewish State” while also ensuring equality and freedom for all, irrespective of religion?

To be fair, many, if not most of the world’s democracies have official state religions, or offer certain favorable status to one particular religion while still protecting religious freedom.  It is the United States which is unusual in not favoring any particular religion.

In building a new nation in 1948, Israel’s founders had some important decisions to make.  Most of them were fiercely secular Jews, yet they looked to Jewish history, traditions, and customs to determine some of the core aspects of the State.

One basic question they had to address was: when is the weekend?

In the U.S., the weekend was originally just Sunday.  The two day weekend developed over the course of the twentieth century.  Would Israel follow the example of the rest of the Western world and go with Sunday, or would it copy its Muslim neighbors and choose Friday?

Of course, you know the answer.  Shabbat has been the weekend of the Jewish people for thousands of years, not just in religious terms, but in national terms.

What about holidays?

Again, Israel’s founders looked to Jewish tradition and established the Yamim Tovim, the holidays on which work is religiously forbidden, as national holidays.

In the Ordinances of Law and Government, Section 18a, subsection 1, paragraph a, it states:

Shabbat and the Jewish holidays—the two days of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, the first day of Succot and Shmini Atzeret, the first and seventh days of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—are the fixed days of rest for the State of Israel.

What about non-Jews?  Israel’s founders were emphatic about ensuring equality and the right to freely practice religion.  This brings us to paragraph b.

For those who are not Jewish there is reserved the right to observe their days of rest in accordance with their Sabbath and holidays. These holidays will be set in accordance with each community by the government and published in the public records.

To summarize, the law states the following in subsection 2:

The laws of work hours and rest of 1951, which apply to weekly periods of rest, will apply:

a. To Jews—on their holidays

b. To non-Jews—on the Jewish holidays or on the holidays of their community, whatever is acceptable to them.

In other words, if you are Christian, you can take your weekend on Sunday, and celebrate all the Christian holidays when they occur.  If you are Muslim, you can take your weekend on Friday, and celebrate all the Muslim holidays when they occur.  And those are not considered to be vacation days, but rather national holidays.

While it can get kind of complicated in the workplace, and I imagine that it is a nightmare for Human Resources departments, this is practiced and taken very seriously in Israel to this day.  Every religion gets its own weekends and national holidays.

We had a taste of something like this when we lived in New York.  Ostensibly to keep the streets clean in the five boroughs, but really to discourage car ownership, the city imposes alternate side of the street parking rules.  Pretty much every day of the work week, car owners have to get in their cars and move them to the opposite side of the street to make room for the street cleaners.  Failure to do so results in a fairly hefty ticket.

But what if you are an observant Jew (and there are a few of those in New York) and it is Rosh Hashanah, when it is forbidden to drive a car?  To deal with that situation, there are holiday suspensions of the alternate side parking restrictions.

“Wait,” you say.  Isn’t that a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Not if you make the holiday suspensions available to everyone.  Here are just a few examples of holidays on which alternate side parking restrictions are suspended:  Yom Kippur, both days of Shavuot, Purim (driving is technically allowed, but you can probably guess why the city doesn’t want Jews getting in their cars on Purim), Good Friday, Holy Thursday, Ash Wednesday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Diwali, and the newest entry in the list, the Asian Lunar New Year.

So I guess having a national holiday on the 25th of December does not bother me as much as it once did.  I can accept that for many Americans, as well as the U.S. courts, it is seen as a secular holiday.

So to all of us, Happy National Holiday of the 1st of January, coming up in just a few days.