The Mighty Nile – Vaera 5780

Twenty five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Egypt.  One of the touristy things to do in Cairo is to hire a small sailing boat called a felucca to go out onto the Nile River. It was a beautiful day, and a great memory.  At one point, our guide generously offered to make us tea, promising to make the experience even better. So he reached over the side of the boat, scooped up some fresh Nile River water, and set it to boil.

I passed on the tea.

The Nile is one of the great rivers of the world.  Depending on who you ask, it is either the first or second longest river.  For much of human history, whoever controlled the Nile was arguably the most powerful person in the world.

The Nile is the life-blood of Egypt, the source of all its power and strength.  The annual rising and flooding of its waters feeds its people.  The one who rules the Nile is the master of Egypt and all who live there.  It is easy to understand why the pharaohs of Egypt tended to think highly of themselves.  

Much of the action in both this morning’s Torah and Haftarah portions takes place at the Nile. In the Haftarah, it is the year 586 BCE, the end of the First Temple period.  The Kingdom of Judah, about to be overrun by the Babylonians, has desperately aligned itself with Egypt.  The Prophet Ezekiel, knowing that nothing can avert the coming tragedy, prophesizes that Israel will eventually be redeemed, but Egypt is about to be shmeisted.  (That’s a technical term) Listen to how the Prophet describes it:

I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, tanin—Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, Li Ye’ori va’ani asitini—My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.

Ezekiel 29:3

Literally, “Mine is the Nile, and I have made myself.”  The Pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time is a self-declared god, answerable to nobody.  He is personified as a tanin, a mythical sea monster dwelling in the River.  What plans does God have for this Pharaoh?

I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your Nile cling to your scales; I will haul you up from your Nile, with all your Nile fish clinging to your scales.  And I will fling you into the desert, with all your Nile fish.  You shall be left lying in the open, ungathered and unburied: I have given you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.  Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel 29:4-6

Pretty specific.  God will haul out Pharaoh from the Nile and leave his corpse to rot, unburied, in the desert where it will be eaten by scavengers.  That was the haftarah.

Let’s turn now to the Torah portion.  Again, the Nile River is the battleground where God exerts power over an impotent Pharaoh. For the first demonstration, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and his court.  Aaron throws down his rod and it turns into a… tanin.  Remember that word?  The same word Ezekiel uses to describe the mythical sea monster in the Nile.  It is not the usual word for snake.  That word is nachash. When Pharaoh’s magicians replicate the trick, Moses and Aaron’s tanin eats up their taninim.  The meaning of this demonstration is obvious.

The next confrontation, we read, takes place at the banks of the Nile River, early in the morning.  Why does that Torah go out of its way to inform us of the time of day? A midrash (Tanhuma Va’era 14) offers a colorful explanation.  Pharaoh considers himself a god.  Divine beings, of course, do not need to use the bathroom or wash themselves.  If Pharaoh’s subjects were to see him engaged in such humble tasks, they would doubt his divinity.

So what does he do?  Every day, Pharaoh arises at dawn to sneak down to the banks of the river by himself for his morning ablutions.  That is why God chooses that moment to send Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh.  It is to embarrass him and demonstrate his corporeality.  Moses is saying, “I know your secret.”

Keep in mind that the purpose of a midrash is often to use the biblical text to say something about current situations.  That is what the Prophet Ezekiel does.  He hearkens back to an earlier time when the Israelites found themselves dealing with Pharaoh in Egypt.  In the case of the midrash, the Sages are perhaps referring to rulers in their own day, Roman Emperors or other Kings who claim divinity and infallibility. This dawn showdown continues with the first plague.  God gives instructions to Moses:

Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.

Exodus 7:19-21

It is comparable to Ezekiel in its vividness.  The Nile, as the battleground between God and Pharaoh, is a powerful symbol.  It is the source of Pharaoh’s strength and the symbol of his divinity.  He is the Nile’s creator and master.  But he is powerless to prevent this transformation of the the source of his authority into a symbol of death.

Think about what else the Nile represents.  To the Israelite slaves, the Nile has already become a symbol of terror and dread.  Pharaoh’s decree, described in chapter one of the Book of Exodus, to murder every male baby by throwing it into the Nile must have transformed the river, which was seen as the source of life, into a symbol of death—at least for the Israelites.

Except for one.  Moses is different.  Remember, after Moses’ birth, his mother places him in a basket sealed with pitch and floats him down the river.  Maybe someone will rescue him, she hopes. Her wish is fulfilled.  Pharaoh’s own daughter encounters the basket when she is bathing in the river (sound familiar?), and understands immediately that he must be a Hebrew baby.

So what does the Nile mean to Moses?  As the adopted child of the Egyptian Princess, he surely must have had some positive memories of it.  On the other hand, he knows that the Nile is  a place of death to his people.  But, the Nile River also saved him from drowning.  His basket did not sink, and somehow it arrived in the best possible place.  His name, moshe, meaning “I drew him out of the water,” alludes to his miraculous redemption in the Nile.

Now, God is sending Moses down to the Nile to confront Pharaoh, and doing some pretty nasty things to it.  How does Moses feel about that? Our great commentator, Rashi, notices a subtle detail.  Moses is not the one who actually strikes the water with the rod.  That action is performed by Aaron.

And then, for the second plague, Moses again instructs Aaron to strike the waters of the Nile with the rod.  That brings up the frogs, who hop slimily out of the waters and invade absolutely everything, homes, beds, kneading bowls, and toilets.  Rashi asks why Moses does not perform these first two plagues himself.  After all, he conducts most of the others.

The answer is that these are the only two plagues that are produced by smiting the waters of the Nile, the river which once protected Moses when he was an infant.  That is why Aaron, not Moses, does the smiting for the first two plagues.

We can see Moses’ mixed emotions. This incredible river is the source of life and prosperity.  Its consistent annual rise and fall makes Egypt the breadbasket of the world, and the place of refuge when famine strikes in the days of Jacob and his sons. The very source of life and blessing, however, becomes a means for power, dominion, and cruelty.  In both the Torah and Haftarah, God punishes a Pharaoh and a nation that has become haughty and overly self-assured.  Perhaps that is why Moses is torn at the Nile.  He can see its potential for blessing and curse.  He knows it personally, because he has experienced it.

We have many gifts in our lives.  The choice is whether we will use them for blessing or for curse.  Our tradition is one that fully embraces the idea of free choice.  We are told to choose life.  The Torah’s purpose is to guide us towards treating our gifts in a way that makes them blessings.

Immigration, Terrorism, and History – Parashat Bo 5777

I am the child of a stateless refugee.

My grandfather, Israel, was from Lodz, Poland, and my grandmother, Feiga, was from Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine.  Each of them fled East from the Nazi advance – the only members of their families to escape and survive.

They both made their way to the Soviet Georgian town of Poti, on the Black Sea – which was beyond the Nazis’ advance into the Soviet Union.  In 1943, my grandmother’s landlady thought they would make a nice couple, so she introduced them.  They were married 6 weeks later.   After the war, they returned to Poland to search for surviving relatives, without success.  When pogroms broke out, they escaped to the West, and ended up in an American-run Displaced Persons camp in an Rosenheim, West Germany.  They applied for a visa to come to America.  My grandfather had an older sister, Bella, who had emigrated to the United States in 1930 and settled in Long Beach, California.  She sponsored their application.

My father, Carl, was born in the DP camp in 1948.  They did not receive the visa until he was three years old.  By that time, the DP camp had actually closed down.  Finally, in June 1951, my father and grandparents arrived at Ellis Island aboard the USS General M.B. Stewart.

I have grown up with this story.  I always kind of wondered why it took my grandparents so long to receive their visa – but never looked into it.  Over the last couple of weeks, as issues around immigration and refugees has exploded across our country, I have been thinking a lot about my own family’s journey.

I asked my father why it took so long to get the visa.  He explained that the United States had annual refugee quotas, and that there was no preference given to Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust.  So they simply had to wait their turn.

Searching online for information, I came across the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation and discovered that more than 51 million passenger records have been scanned and recorded in a searchable database.  I ran a query for the name Berkenwald, and was surprised to discover records for 21 people.  All of them had originated from Lodz, Poland, so I am almost certain that they are all relatives.  It is remarkable because we thought we knew about all of our surviving family members.

The earliest immigrant on the list, 21 year old Schmul Leib Berkenwald, arrived in 1906.  Two Berkenwald’s arrived in 1921.  (Remember that year.)  One came in 1938, leaving from Belgium.  Five managed to arrive during World War Two, a pair leaving from Spain in 1941 and a mother and her two daughters coming from the United Kingdom.  Twelve Berkenwald’s came as refugees after the war, including my father, listed as Calel, and my grandparents, Feiga and Israel.

America is a nation of immigrants.  Each of us has stories about how we arrived.  Some people in this room are themselves immigrants, and even refugees.  But the truth is, as the Jewish people, we are all immigrants and refugees.

This morning’s Torah portion, Bo, describes the final moments before our Israelite ancestors leave Egypt.  The story takes a break from the narrative to record instructions for observing Passover.  It specifies symbolic rituals that are to be reenacted every year.  We are to slaughter and eat the paschal lamb on matza and maror, with loins girded, sandals on feet and staff in hand.  We are to remove hametz from our homes and eat only unleavened bread for seven days.  Our Passover seder today is directly based on these instructions given to Moses over three thousand years ago.

What does the seder recall and celebrate?  The Exodus, after four hundred years, of our people from the oppressive Egyptians.  Looked at from a different angle, it is a celebration of the moment when our ancestors became political refugees.  They wandered for forty years through the wilderness, homeless and stateless.  It was essentially a refugee camp, not too dissimilar from refugee camps in the Middle East today.

As the Torah progresses, it hammers home our memory of being strangers in a strange land.  We cannot forget what it was like to have been aliens living in Egypt.  Jewish tradition instructs us to recall our redemption from slavery every single day.

It is not only the ancient past.  We have experienced persecution, exile, and statelessness over and over throughout our history.

That memory must make us compassionate to strangers living among us.  The Torah repeatedly tells us to take care of the strangers in our midst.  Citizens and non-citizen alike must be treated with the same set of laws.

These are the ideals of our tradition.  In the real world, however, things get more complicated.  Nations cannot simply throw open their borders and allow anyone who wants to come in.  Governments’ primary responsibilities are to those who are already living in the country.  So it is absolutely legitimate to screen potential immigrants before their arrival.  The dilemma we face now is how many immigrants we ought to be accepting, and which ones.

I am certain that everyone in this room has an opinion about these questions.

Before we get too locked in our beliefs, I ask that we first consider a couple of things.  First, let’s each think about our own family history.  How did each of us end up in America?  Those of us who are not immigrants, at some point had ancestors who arrived on these shores from somewhere else.  What compelled them to make the journey?  What were they leaving behind – were they seeking opportunity, or fleeing persecution?  What kind of welcome did they find when they arrived?

It is important to recall our personal stories, because it reminds us that government policies have impacts on the lives of individuals and families.  Just imagine if, when your relatives wanted to immigrate, immigration policies had been more restrictive and they were turned away.

The second thing we ought to all consider is the history of immigration into the United States.  President Trump’s Executive Order titled “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” did not appear out of a vacuum.  Our nation has a long history.  Before any of us takes a stand on this issue, we ought to know what has come before.

So please allow me to summarize the past 135 years of US immigration and refugee policy.

Since the founding of our nation, there have been many laws which regulate who can be admitted into the country as immigrants.  Some of those laws expanded immigration, while others limited it.

The first immigration law to restrict a particular ethnic group from coming to America was passed by Congress in 1882.  It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Initially, it was meant to last ten years, but it was so popular that Congress renewed it in 1892 and made it permanent in 1902.

Large numbers of mostly male Chinese workers had immigrated beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1848.  They continued as laborers for the construction of the transcontinental railroad.  As the economy declined in the 1870’s after the Civil War, fear of the “Yellow Peril” increased.  Chinese workers were blamed for driving down wages.  Chinese residents had already been banned from becoming US citizens.  The new law imposed a total ban on Chinese immigration.  Anyone who left the country needed to have special certification in order to reenter.  This meant that husbands could neither sponsor their wives to join them from China, or themselves go to visit their families.

The law was overturned in 1943 in deference to the US’s alliance with China during World War Two.  The new legislation allowed Chinese residents in the US to become naturalized citizens.  With regard to immigration, it expanded the national quota – to 105 Chinese immigrants per year.

Until the 1920’s, Chinese were the only immigrant group that was specifically targeted by law.

After World War One, huge numbers of Europeans were fleeing the devastation that had been wreaked on their homelands.  Immigration to the United States exploded.  At the same time, the US economy took a downturn as war-spending declined.  The result was predictable: anti-immigrant backlash.

The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first to broadly restrict immigration.  It marked the beginning of nativism in the United States.  It established literacy requirements and created classes of inadmissible people.  It banned all immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone, a huge swath of territory defined by latitude and longitude which included the Arabian Peninsula, India, Afghanistan, Asiatic Russia, and more.  Nobody who lived there would be allowed in the country.

In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which introduced the National Origins Formula.  For the first time, the US imposed immigration quotas.  It worked like this: The 1910 US census included records of the numbers of foreign-born residents currently living in the United States, divided up by country of origin.  3% of the total number from each country would be permitted to immigrate each year.

The National Origins Formula was originally designed to be temporary, but it became permanent three years later when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924.  The new act changed the formula.  The percentage would decrease to 2%, with an annual ceiling that would severely reduce the total number of permitted immigrants.  Instead of the 1910 census, immigration would now be based on the 1890 census.

Furthermore, relative percentages from each country were now going to be based on the overall proportion of all naturalized citizens, including those whose families had been in the United States for generations.  This was designed to give a tremendous preference to new immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany, who were seen as racially superior.

It was also meant to reduce immigration by Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Africans.  It worked as intended.  86% of the 155,000 permitted immigrants in the first year came from Northern European countries.  The restrictions were so great that in 1924, there were more people from the undesirable countries that left the United States than who entered it.

The law was not controversial.  It passed the Senate by a vote of 69 to 9 to 18, with strong bipartisan support.  It was rooted in beliefs in eugenics that were popular at the time.  One of the architects of the law, Senator David Reed, complained that earlier legislation “disregards entirely those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard – that is, the people who were born here.”  He claimed that Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews arrived sick and starving and were less capable of contributing to the American economy and adapting to American culture.

In 1932, President Hoover shut down nearly all immigration.  1933 saw just 23,000 foreigners move to the United States.

Throughout the 1930’s on average, more people emigrated from the US than immigrated to it.    Under the Mexican Repatriation Movement from 1929 to 1936, as many as 2 million people were deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Services, many without any due process.  Significant numbers of the deportees were actually US citizens at the time.

Most Jewish would-be immigrants throughout the 1930’s were refused admission.

Things began to swing the other way in 1952.  The Immigration and Nationality Act changed the quotas, basing them on the 1920 census.  It also removed racial distinctions.

Finally, in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments abolished the National Origins Formula.  It put limits on immigration based on hemisphere.  For the first time, there was a limit for immigration from the Western Hemisphere – 120,000 per year.  The Eastern Hemisphere was given 170,000.  It also established a seven-category preference system, giving priority, for example, to potential immigrants with relatives who were US citizens, and to those with professional or specialized skills.

In subsequent years, further refinements have been made.  Many of these changes should be understood in light of the rise of globalization and the increasing ease of movement around the world.  The 1980 Refugee Act established policies for refugees, redefined refugees according to UN norms; and set a target for 50,000 refugees annually.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Reagan, established penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and provided amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants.

The 1990 Immigration Reform and Control Act increased immigration limits to 700,000 annually, and increased visas by 40%.  It also increased the amount of employment-related immigration.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed laws to expand the categories of criminal activities that could lead to deportation.  As of 2013, this legislation had resulted in the deportation of more than 2 million people.

Recent years have also seen resolutions by Congress and the California Legislature apologizing for discriminatory immigration policies of the past, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Mexican Repatriation movement.

It is a long and complicated history.  Ours is a nation of immigrants, and yet we have gone through periods of time when the ideals of freedom and equality enshrined in the Constitution were not necessarily reflected in our immigration policies.  The overall trend since the end of World War Two has been to establish a fair and equitable system of immigration that provides a steady inflow of people from around the world who will assimilate into American culture and contribute to the flourishing of the country.  America has also been a haven for persecuted individuals who enter as refugees.  That is why I am standing here today.

In periods of restricting immigration to the United States, we have seen some of the same kinds of fears expressed as we are witnessing today: Immigrants take jobs from Americans.  They depress wages.  They will not be able to assimilate American values.  They will change the demographic mix of the country and disrupt American culture.

Are these valid concerns?

We each have our opinions.  But I would urge all of us to acknowledge that these same claims have been made in the past when other groups have been excluded, including Jews.

A fear that is widely expressed today is that by accepting Muslim refugees specifically, we open the doors to potential terrorists who would try to take advantage of weak vetting policies.

That is the stated reason for President Trump’s Executive Order.  By the way, if we are going to express an opinion about it, it behooves us to read it first.  Some elements might be a good idea.  The President instructs the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State, and the Directors of National Intelligence and the FBI to conduct reviews and submit reports of the status of various aspects of our current vetting procedures for visas and immigration and to create more rigorous screening procedures.

The sections that have generated so much controversy, and that should be viewed in light of our nation’s immigration history, is the outright banning of all travel by any person from those seven countries, the total halting of all refugee resettlement for 120 days, the indefinite halting of acceptance for all Syrian refugees, and the implied favoring of Christian refugees over Muslims.

Consider two questions:  1.  Are these steps consistent with our nation’s values?  2.  Do they address a problem that actually exists?

There is an underlying flaw with the whole thing.  Terrorism-generated fear is vastly overweighted and thus leads to really bad policy.  That is precisely why terrorists do what they do.  They want governments to overreact.

How many people have actually been killed in terrorist attacks in the United States by people born in foreign countries?

In September 2016, the CATO Institute, a libertarian thinktank, issued a report entitled “Terrorism and Immigration.”  The author, Alex Nowrasteh, catalogs all foreign-born terrorists between 1975 and the end of 2015.  He looks at how many people they killed, which countries they came from, and what kinds of visas they used to enter the United States.  In that time period, there have been 154 foreign-born terrorists who have murdered 3,024 people on US soil.  Keep in mind that 2,983, or 98.6% of them, were killed on 9/11.

114 of the 154 foreign-born terrorists did not actually manage to kill anyone.  They either failed in their attacks, or were caught by law enforcement before they could act.  40 terrorists are responsible for the murders of 3,024 people in that 30 year time frame.

During the same time period, 1.13 billion foreigners entered the United States legally or illegally.  More than 28 million foreigners entered the country for each victim who was killed in an attack.  The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on US soil by a foreigner is one in 3.6 million per year.

Fear of refugees is unsupported by the facts.  Nobody has been murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States by a refugee since the 1970’s.

Of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11, eighteen had entered on tourist visas.  None of them came from the seven countries banned by the President’s order.  In fact, there has never been a single person killed in a terrorist act on US soil by someone from one of those seven countries.  Here are the countries of origin of radicalized Muslims who have carried out attacks in the United States since 9/11: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States.

The attack at the Pulse nightclub this past December in which 49 people were killed was committed by Omar Mateen, who was born in New York.  The San Bernardino killings were committed by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik.  He was born in Chicago.  She was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia.

In light of our recent history, it would seem that the threat of terrorism is not an especially significant problem with regard to our current immigration and refugee policies.  This is not to say that we should not take great care regarding who is permitted to entire our nation.  We should, but we must not allow ourselves to be driven by fear.

The deeper question we must consider is what our personal experience, our national experience and the experience of the Jewish people over the last three millennia teach us about dealing with those who leave their homelands to seek greater opportunities.  What are the values that we hope to embody?  And in an increasingly complicated and quickly-changing world, how do we translate those values into actions?

Jacoob’s Parting Message – Vayechi 5777

Two men had a dispute over a particular burial plot.   Each one claimed the piece of land for himself.   The men presented their arguments to the rabbi, and left the final decision up to him.

After a while, the rabbi said to them, “It is a very difficult case.    Each one of you has very good arguments.   Thus, I decree that whoever dies first will have the right to this burial place”.

From then on, they stopped fighting …

As we get older, it is fairly common to think about our final resting places.  As a Rabbi, I am often advising people about making arrangements.  Funeral directors call it “preplanning” – although that expression seems kind of redundant, doesn’t it?

Some folks are concerned that their specific wishes be carried out by their next of kin.  Others want to save their children the stress of having to make the arrangements at what will surely be an emotional time.  And some people want to lock in prices now before they go up.

This is not a new concern.  Cemeteries have been central institutions for Jewish communities for thousands of years.  The very first Jewish institution in San Jose, in fact, before there were any synagogues, was the Home of Peace Cemetery in Oak Hill Memorial Gardens.

But in addition to making the logistical arrangements, perhaps we also ought to be thinking about how to convey our values to those whom we leave behind.

The desire to arrange our funerals goes all the way back to the Bible.  When Sarah dies, Abraham enters into lengthy negotiations to purchase the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron to serve as a family burial plot.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Jacob, our Patriarch, does his preplanning.

He has spent the final seventeen years of his life living in Egypt, under the invitation and protection of his son Joseph, who is the second most powerful man in the Empire, second only to Pharaoh.  The entire family has left the land of Canaan to settle in the land of Goshen, located just to the East of the Nile Delta.

When he feels the end of his life approaching, Jacob calls Joseph to his bedside for a special request.  He wants to be buried in the land of Canaan, in the Cave of Machpelah.

… please do not bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.  (Gen. 47:29-30)

Jacob is insistent.  He does not merely tell his son what he wants.  Jacob makes Joseph swear it.  Joseph initially resists committing himself by oath.  “I will do as you have spoken,” he agrees.

But Jacob will not back down.  “Swear to me,” he demands; and Joseph complies.

This is no small request.  It is a journey of approximately 400 km, most of it desert.  And this is in the Middle East, so it is hot.  We can only imagine the smell.

Plus, it is politically dangerous.  Joseph is the second in command to Pharaoh.  What is Pharaoh going to think when Joseph asks for permission to return to his ancestral homeland?  Can Pharaoh trust that Joseph will come back?

And furthermore, what will the Canaanites think when a large delegation arrives from Egypt?  Might they see it as a threat and muster for war?

On a personal note, Jacob’s request is totally audacious.  He acknowledges that when Rachel, Joseph’s mother died many years earlier, Jacob buried her on the side of the road.  She died in a place called Paddan-Aram, which was only a half day’s journey from the family tomb in the Cave of Machpelah.

Jacob could not be bothered to take even a small detour to bury Joseph’s mother.  Now he is requesting something that is almost impossible.  Kind of hypocritical, no?

A look beneath the surface of this request reveals Jacob’s wisdom.  In fact, his instructions contain a final lesson to his sons, the tribes of Israel, and future generations.

Why does Jacob insist that Joseph swear that he will fulfill his father’s dying request?  The clue emerges when Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to leave.  Listen to what he says:

My father made me swear, saying ‘I am about to die.  Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.’  Now therefore let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.  (Gen. 50:5)

Let’s pay attention to a few details.  First, notice that Joseph leads with the oath.  That gets Pharaoh’s attention.  He knows that an oath is no small thing.  Jacob insists so that Joseph will be able to fully convey the earnestness of the request.

Keep in mind also that the Egyptians were cultishly obsessed with death.  Notables would spend considerable resources – during their lifetimes – to arrange their burial chambers.  Just think of the pyramids.

When Joseph makes his request to Pharaoh, he does not mention his father’s wish to be buried with his fathers.  Rather, he tells a little white lie, claiming that Jacob had arranged the burial location for himself.  After all, that is something an Egyptian would do.  Joseph is also careful to say that he intends to come back.

Pharaoh is so impressed by Joseph’s request that he agrees immediately.

The delegation is significant.  Not only do Joseph and all of his brothers accompany the body on its final journey, all of the senior members of Pharaoh’s court, along with chariots and horsemen go as well.  The children and flocks are left behind.  Perhaps they are too young to make the journey.  Or, perhaps they are hostages to ensure that Joseph will return to Egypt.

But we still have not determined why, specifically, Jacob want to be buried in the family plot?

At the time of his death, Jacob’s family is thriving in Egypt.  They are the official shepherds for Pharaoh’s flocks.  They have land.  And their population has been growing.  Moreover, Joseph has achieved the second highest rank in the Empire.

According to the midrash, Jacob is worried that if his body remains in Egypt, his descendants will come to see Egypt as their home, rather than just a temporary residence.  Furthermore, he worries that the idolatrous Egyptians will begin to worship his remains, as the father of their beloved Joseph.

His desire to have his body returned to the Cave of Machpelah, therefore, is intended to remind his children that there are more important things than material success, and to underscore their connection to the Promised Land.

The final mystery has to do with Rachel’s burial location.  Why didn’t Jacob bury Rachel in the Cave of Machpelah, and why does he bring it up with Joseph now?

According to the commentator Rashi, Jacob is acknowledging Joseph’s anger.  It would not have been difficult to bury Rachel in the family tomb.  Joseph feels that his mother has been dishonored.  And now Jacob wants Joseph to bend over backwards to bury him.  So on one level, Jacob is feeling guilty, and knows that his request sounds hypocritical.

But Rashi also cites a midrash.  At the moment of Rachel’s death, God reveals to Jacob the future fate of his descendants.  One day, perhaps a thousand years later, they will be exiled from the land of Israel by the Babylonians.  Their tragic path out of Jerusalem will take them South, on the road to Beith Lechem.  They will pass by Rachel’s tomb, and her spirit will join them, weeping in exile.

She will pray to God on behalf of her children, asking for compassion, and God will grant it.  Thus, Jacob buries Rachel on the side of the road as a symbol of comfort and hope to his future descendants.

Looking at both of these midrashim, we find Jacob concerned about his children in the future.  In death, he seeks to leave a lasting legacy.

He does not want them to become so seduced with wealth and success in Egypt that they forget the nation they are supposed to become.  And, he knows that there will be times of devastation in the future, and he wants to leave them a legacy of hope and compassion.

Rather than an expression of selfishness and hypocrisy, we find that Jacob’s final instructions to have his body returned to the Land of Israel is a positive parting message to his children, and to us.

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.

The Origin of the Hebrew Calendar – Bo 5775

Parashat Bo continues the story of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, demanding that the King of Egypt allow the Israelites to go out into the wilderness to worship God.  As he refuses, they announce each calamity that God is about to bring upon the Egyptians.  The devastation wrought by the plagues on Egypt worsens, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness begins to show cracks.  He offers to let just the men go, but then he changes his mind.  Then he agrees that the children and the elderly can go as well, but he backtracks once again.  Finally, Moses announces that the entire nation is simply going to leave with all of their belongings.  Furthermore, Pharaoh himself will supply the cattle that will be used as offerings to God.

Moses declares the upcoming tenth plague, the death of all first born humans and animals in the land of Egypt, and then the Torah takes a break.

God speaks to Moses and Aaron, saying the following:

Hachodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim, rishon hu lakhem l’chodshei hashanah

This chodesh shall be for you the head of the chodashim, it shall be first for you of the chodashim of the year.  (Exodus 12:2)

Our tradition understands this to be the first of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.  Because of its position as number one, and because it interrupts this dramatic story, we can assume that it is telling us something highly significant.

Indeed, this verse is the origin of the Hebrew calendar.  The Rabbis do some very close reading to explain how the Hebrew calendar, which came into existence long before they came along, is rooted in the Torah.

Moses and Aaron are told that this chodesh will serve as the first chodesh of the year.  But what is a chodesh?

Chodesh is from the same root as chadash, meaning new.  The chodesh is something that is mitchadesh, that experiences renewal.

The appearance of the moon changes from one day to the next, such that it renews itself once per month.  The sun, on the other hand, appears the same each day.  Thus, the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Megillah 5a) explain that we count the year by months, rather than by days.  The term chodshei hashanah, the months of the year, illustrate this requirement.  This is why our calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar.

But this leads to several problems.

A lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.976 seconds, approximately.  Twelve months is 354 days and a fraction.  This would make a lunar year about 11 days shorter than a solar year.  If we were to follow just a lunar system, the months, and the Jewish holidays, would float across the seasons, taking about 33 years to return full-circle to the season in which they started.  That is, in fact, how the Muslim calendar works.

Deuteronomy states shamor et chodesh ha-Aviv v’asita Pesach.  “Observe the month of Aviv and offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, for it was in the month of Aviv, at night, that the Lord your God freed you from Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 16:1).  Aviv is the only named month in the Torah.  It literally means “new ears of grain” because it is the month in which the ears of grain first appear.  If the calendar were to float over the course of the seasons, then we would not be observing Passover during Aviv.

Furthermore, with regard to Succot, the Torah says b’asaf’cha et ma’asecha min hasadeh – “when you bring in your produce from the field.”  This means that Succot must always take place at the time of the fall harvest.  Therefore, the Rabbis of the Talmud explain, we have to occasionally make an adjustment by adding a thirteenth month.  (BT Rosh Hashanah 7a)  In this way, we will be able to celebrate Passover and Succot in the appropriate seasons.

In ancient times, the adjustments would be made based on the observance of spring-like changes.  If the trees had not yet begun to blossom or barley had not yet started ripening, then the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court that met in the Temple, would delay the beginning of the year by adding a thirteenth month.  The additional month, following Adar, we now refer to as Adar Bet.

Now that we have a fixed calendar, the addition of the extra month happens on a predetermined schedule, seven times out of every nineteen years.

But there is another problem.  When is the Jewish new year?

In the Mishnah, we read that there are actually four, or maybe even five new years, each marking something different.  Nisan is the New Year for counting holidays and for kings.  Tishrei is the new year for counting years, sabbatical and jubilee years, and for several other agricultural purposes. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

The Talmud records an argument between two rabbis about when the creation of the world occurred.  One Rabbi says that it happened in Nisan.  The other says it happened in Tishrei.  So we seem to have some ambiguity.

In the Torah, the new year occurs on the first day of the month we know as Nisan.  This is the same month as the month of Aviv I just mentioned.  The Torah, indeed most of the Bible, does not have names for any of the months.  Instead, it references the month number, always referring back to the month in which the Israelites went out of Egypt.

For example, what we refer to as Rosh Hashanah, occurring on the first of Tishrei, is instead name Yom Teruah, a Day of Blasting, and takes place on the first day of the seventh month.  When the Israelites get to Mount Sinai and camp out around the base, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah states:

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.  (Exodus 19:1)

The Book of Numbers begins as follows:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…  (Number 1:1)

Centuries later, the Bible continues to look back to this moment.

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt, in the month of Ziv―that is, the second month―in the fourth year of his reign over Israel, Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.  (I Kings 6:1)

Throughout the Bible, whenever dates are referenced, it is by a number counting back to the first of Nisan in the year in which the Israelites left Egypt.

What we know as the Hebrew months (Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet…) do not appear until later books of the Bible, such as Esther.  In fact, the “Hebrew months” are in fact Persian names which were assimilated into the Jewish calendar at some point late in the Biblical era.

Why is all of this important?  Couldn’t the Israelites haves simply taken the Egyptian calendar with them, or adopted the Canaanite calendar?  Why did our ancient ancestors need to have a different calendar?  Why is it important for us to continue to keep a different calendar?

How we measure time is extremely important.  Having a Jewish calendar, and marking our years according to it, distinguishes us, especially when we are living in a society that counts time differently.

The twelfth century Torah commentator Rashbam explains that the calendar is oriented in this way so that we always have the Exodus from Egypt in our consciousness.  The Exodus is the formative moment of the Jewish people.  Its memory is supposed to have a profound effect on our lives, both individually and collectively.

As we read in the Haggadah for Passover, we are instructed to recall the Exodus all the days of our lives, and even the nights.  We mention it in our daily prayers.  We connect it to Shabbat by calling it zekher liztziat mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, when we recite Kiddush.  And, our calendar itself also reminds us of that formative event.

Nachmanides points out that when the Torah states “this month shall be for you…” it puts things into a relative context that is particular to the Jewish people.  While Tishrei might be the universal month of creation, and the month from which we count the earth itself, we are also to think of time in its relationship to our particular story.  Our story began when our ancestors first became free.

Being conscious of Jewish time offers great meaning for our lives.  We count our week from Yom Rishon, the first day, up to Yom Shishi, the sixth day, keeping ourselves oriented towards the day of rest throughout the week.  We mark our months by the waxing and waning of the moon, and experience renewal every 29 or 30 days.  We remember our exodus from Egypt, and express our gratitude for freedom by caring for those who are suffering.  And we mark the yearly birthday of the world, marveling at the miracle of Creation and committing ourselves to do better and be more.

That is what it means to live in Jewish time.

Va’era 5775 – France Without Jews is not France

We are still in shock over the murders by Islamic terrorists a week and a half ago of Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham and François-Michel Saada as they were doing some last-minute shopping before Shabbat.  Those killings, along with the attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been a wake-up call.  Much soul-searching is taking place in France, and around the world.

It seems that some people outside of the Jewish community are finally recognizing that there is a connection between antisemitic attitudes and rhetoric and terrorism – that ignoring the former will invariably lead to the latter.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared last week that “France without Jews is not France.”  To back up this sentiment, he announced on Monday that 10,000- military troops would be deployed to protect sensitive sites, and that 4,700 police officers would protect Jewish schools and synagogues.

At the rally in Paris last Sunday of a million and a half people, in addition to signs declaring “Je suis Charlie,” there were some that read “Je suis Juif.”  I am Jewish.

I imagine it must be at least somewhat reassuring to French Jews to have both the leaders of the country as well as some of its citizens taking their safety seriously and making commitments to protect them because they recognize that French Jews are citizens of the country who make up an important and integral part of the national fabric.

Not everyone is so hopeful.  On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, attending the rally in Paris, explicitly invited the Jews of France to move to Israel.  “Israel is your home,” he said.  This was not the first time that an Israeli leader urged French Jews to make aliyah.  In 2012, at a joint press conference with President Francois Hollande, Netanyahu said:  “In my role as Prime Minister of Israel, I always say to Jews, wherever they may be, I say to them: Come to Israel and make Israel your home.”

It has not only been Netanyahu.  At a ceremony in 2004 welcoming new immigrants from France, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon advised French Jews to “move immediately” to Israel to escape “the wildest antisemitism” in France.

The French were not pleased then either.

There is something of a rhetorical tug of war going on here between those who say that “France without Jews is not France,” and those who claim that there is no future for Judaism there.

This is not the first time the Jewish people have faced this question.  In this morning’s Torah portion, Va-era, there is also a tug of war over the future of the children of Israel.  At the opening of the parashah, they are enslaved in Egypt.  God has identified Moses as the prophet who will carry the message “Let my people go” to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery and to the Promised Land.

Not everyone wants to see the Israelites leave, however.  Pharaoh and his court, certainly, do not want to see their enslaved workforce disappear.  The Israelites themselves are skeptical of Moses’ insistence that God is going to lead them away.  They prefer an enslaved life that they know to an uncertain life of freedom.

God knows, however, that there is no future for Israel in the land of Egypt.

God hears the groaning of the Israelites and remembers the commitment made to their ancestors generations before.  God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that their offspring would be as numerous as the stars and would one day inherit the land of Israel.  They would be a blessing to the world.  This is a destiny that cannot be fulfilled by slaves in a foreign land.

God tells Moses:

Say… to the Israelite people…  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:6-7)

These four verbs – “I will free you, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, and I will take you” – are the four stages of redemption that our Passover Seder identifies as the basis of the four cups of wine.

In this redemption, freedom is only part of God’s promise.  God also means to build a covenantal relationship with the Jewish people.  Central to that covenant is the establishment of a Jewish society in the Promised Land.  Only then can the Jewish people become what God has intended for them to become.  Only then will they realize their potential and flourish.

This tug of war in the Torah between slavery and freedom, between Egypt and Israel, is black and white.  In the millennia since our ancestors first became free, the question of where the Jewish people can best flourish has been more complicated.  Maimonides, fleeing persecution in Spain and then Morocco, made his way to the land of Israel.  There, he found a backwards Jewish community in which he did not see a future.  So he kept going South and settled in the thriving Jewish community of Fustat, Egypt.

We are a people that is both rooted in our Promised Land, and capable of bringing our faith and identity with us wherever we go.  We have been successful at it, developing tight-knit communities whose members support one another and are a force for good in their surrounding environments.

Part of the importance of the State of Israel today is that it truly functions as the homeland of the Jewish people.  Robert Frost said “Home is the place where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  Israel is that home for Jews, wherever we happen to be living right now.

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, it has opened its doors to refugees from the Holocaust, masses of Jews fleeing pogroms in North Africa and the Middle East, Jews of the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.  “Welcome home,” Israel said.

So what of the Jews of France today?

The Jewish community in France is significant.  There are an estimated 500,000 Jews living in France.  The is the largest community in Europe and the third largest in the world.  It is a diverse, cosmopolitan community, comprised of Jews across the religious spectrum – from secular to ultra-Orthodox, and everything in between.

The last few years have seen a rise in acts of antisemitism.  This has led to increasing numbers of French Jews deciding to move to Israel.  Last year, nearly 7,000 French Jews made aliyah, more than double the previous year.  With continued anti-Jewish violence, that number is expected to be even higher this year, perhaps as many as 10,000.

When we consider the long history of Judaism in France, it is particularly sad that the community finds itself facing so much pressure now, because France has really come a long way.

The first Jews probably arrived about 2,000 years ago.  Attracted by economic opportunities, they did well in the early middle ages.  Charlemagne embraced the Jews, seeing them as a blessing to his kingdom.

The Crusades brought new attitudes across Europe.  Rulers stoked antisemitism, and peasants took out their frustrations on their vulnerable Jewish neighbors.

The persecutions began around the year 1000 CE.  Jewish communities were often confronted with the choice of conversion to Christianity, death, or exile.  Several waves of expulsions took place in 1182, 1306, and 1394.  Jews often had property and assets seized, or debt owed to them cancelled.  Blood libel accusations were frequent.

Don’t think, however, that it was all bad – that the middle ages were centuries upon centuries of pure suffering.  Also during this time, there were Jewish communities that thrived, enjoying prosperity and cultural flowering.  Some of the most important Jewish leaders and thinkers in history came from France.

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, more commonly known as Rashi, is the most important commentator of the Torah and Talmud in Jewish history.  He lived and taught in Troyes, in Northern France in the eleventh century and gave rise to a school of innovative Jewish thinkers that flourished for several generations.

As the years passed, the Jews of France, as they were everywhere else in the world, were seen as other, and treated as second-class citizens, at best.

By the 1780’s there were approximately 40-50,000 Jews living in France.  They had legal status to be there, but with extremely limited rights.  They were basically restricted to the money-lending business.  Things were changing in Europe, however, especially in France.  The Enlightenment had taken hold, and there were finally some Christian voices that were calling for tolerance and acceptance of minorities.

The French Revolution of 1789, with its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, introduced the notion that all residents of a nation could be considered citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation.

The change was sporadic and haphazard, as the chaos of the revolution proceeded and the Reign of Terror took hold, but the Jews of France recognized that something new was happening, and they were excited about the possibilities.  Jewish communities helped fund the revolution, and Jewish soldiers joined the Army of the Republic in its battles against other European countries.  Many Jews patriotically gave their lives for the sake of their French homeland.

When Napoleon came to power, he wanted to finally resolve the Jewish question.  In 1806, he convened the Assembly of Jewish Notables, naming it the Grand Sanhedrin.  Twelve questions were posed to it members, the answers to which would determine the future status of the Jews of France.  Those questions included:

• May a Jewess marry a Christian, or [May] a Jew [marry] a Christian woman? or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?

• In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or strangers?

• Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?

• What kind of police jurisdiction do the rabbis exercise over the Jews? What judicial power do they exercise over them?

The answers the Assembly gave essentially declared Jews to be French citizens first, and Jews second.  Intermarriages would be considered binding.  French Jews would consider non-Jews to be their brethren.  Jews would consider France to be their fatherland, and would defend it when called upon, etc.

When asked if they wanted to be citizens, with all that it would entail, the Jews of France answered with a resounding “oui.”

In 1807, Napoleon added Judaism as an official religion of France.  As his armies moved across Europe, Napoleon liberated Jewish communities of other lands from the ghettos to which they had been restricted.

Emancipation was not yet complete, however.  In 1846, the Jews of France became fully equal when the French Supreme Court found the More Judaico, the Jewish oath, rooted in medieval antisemitism, to be unconstitutional.  Legally, the Jews of France were now fully French, with rights equal to Catholics and Protestants.

The social reality, however, was quite different.  Despite tremendous efforts by Jews to assimilate into French society, antisemitism was still widespread.  At the end of the nineteenth century, a traditionalist faction of army officers concocted a plot to frame a young Jewish Captain named Alfred Dreyfus for treason.  The subsequent trials were a major political scandal in France that lasted from 1894 – 1906 and that divided the country between the anticlerical, pro-republic Dreyfusards and the pro-army, mostly Catholic anti-Dreyfusards.

Theodore Herzl was a secular Jewish journalist who had grown up in antisemitic Austro-Hungary and moved to France due to what he perceived as its progressive, humanist values.  He was a strong proponent of Jewish assimilation into European culture as the solution to the Jewish problem, which had become “an obsession for him.”  (Dictionary of the Dreyfus affair, Nichol, p. 505.)  Herzl’s coverage of the Dreyfus Affair in 1895, however, led him to conclude that Jews would never be accepted by the non-Jewish world.  As much as Jews had given up to become citizens, they would never be seen as equals.

In his book, Der Judenstaat, Herzl writes:

If France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated.

Herzl subsequently founded the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, creating Zionism as a political movement and laying the foundation for the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel.  If the Gentile world is incapable of accepting Jews as equals, Jews will have to establish a land of their own where they constitute a majority and are free to determine their own fate.

At the beginning of World War Two, there were 350,000 Jews living in France, a number of them having fled Germany in the 1930’s.  During the Holocaust, one fifth of France’s Jewish population were murdered by the Nazis, often with the collaboration of French officials and citizens.  There were also many enlightened French who saved Jews.  France has the third highest number of people honored as Righteous Among the Nations among any country.

Between 1948 and 1967, France was a strong supporter of Israel, with close military ties.  The Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona was built with significant assistance from the French government in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Israeli Air Force pilots flew French fighter jets in the Six Day War in 1967.

By the end of the twentieth century, France’s population had among the most favorable attitudes towards Jews of any country in Europe.

The resurgence of anti-Semitism over the last fifteen years has come from a non-traditional  source.  While there are still antisemitic attitudes from those on the far right and the far left, the rise in anti-Jewish activity has been attributed mainly to increasing violence by people in the French Muslim community.  Flare-ups have tended to occur especially when there is political tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition to the terrorist attack on the Hypercacher grocery store, there have been other murders, acts of vandalism, attacks against synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, anti-Jewish demonstrations and chants, and more.

That is why French Jews are increasingly nervous, why French emigration is up, and why real estate prices in Israel are soaring.

I am not French, but I doubt that we are going to see a mass Exodus of the entire Jewish community of France to Israel.  I hope and pray that there is a thriving future for the Jews of France.

Like you, I am extremely concerned for our Jewish brothers and sisters who had to cancel Shabbat services at some synagogues last week and who require police and military presence at all of their institutions.  I hope that this wake-up call to the French people will lead to action, will help them realize that the Jewish people are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, because the Prime Minister is correct when he says “France without Jews is not France.”

Shemot 5775 – Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God

When I was in college, I had an opportunity to attend a talk by the the famous Israeli author and peacenik, Amos Oz.  Something he said has stuck with me.  “I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor, nor have I ever seen a person with a sense of humor become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humor.”

The wisdom captured by this insight was on display in France this week.  Islamic terrorists, upset about cartoons that insulted Muhammad attacked the offices of the French weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, murdering twelve people.

Ironically, it is the fanatic who is the funniest of all, and who most needs to be satirized.  It is the fanatic who most urgently needs to understand the joke, but on whom the punchline is lost.

Charlie Hebdo is a rude, satirical magazine that is an equal-opportunity insulter.  As Jews, we might get offended at how it depicts our coreligionists, but then again, when we consider that  Christians and Muslims receive the same treatment, perhaps there is something going on here other than antisemitism.

As we gather together this morning to pray, to celebrate Shabbat, to be together, and in a little while, to eat, we cannot help but also reflect on the terrible events of this week in France.  First, the murder of twelve souls at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.  Then the shooting of a police officer.  And right before Shabbat, the taking hostage and murder of Jewish shoppers in a kosher grocery store.

The sad thing is that we knew this was coming.  The Editor of Charlie Hebdo even had a bodyguard, who was among the victims.  The Muslim terrorists who committed these terrible acts received training by Al-Qaeda in Yemen and were heavily armed.  It seems that there was really no stopping this tragedy from happening.

Consider other recent events around the world, including the beheading of Western journalists in Syria and Iraq, the killing of 132 schoolchildren in Pakistan, the murder of a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, the taking hostage of diners in a cafe in Australia – all were committed by Islamic terrorists in the name of their religion.

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah, Taliban, Boko Haram, and the list goes on.  It is impossible to deny that we are facing a global epidemic of Islamic fundamentalists whose interpretation of religion compels them to fight anything to do with the West: democracy, women’s rights, freedom of the press, religious pluralism, the list goes on.

How is it possible that religious people could have such a perverse interpretation of what God wants from humanity?  It is mind-boggling.  Comical even.  ISIS would make a fantastic comic book villain if it was not real.

How does religion become totalitarian?  This phenomenon is so antithetical to how our Jewish tradition would have us see the world.

This morning, we begin reading the Book of Exodus.  Parashat Shemot introduces us to the major characters in this drama: the Israelites, Pharaoh, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and of course, God.

The English title of the book captures what we usually think of as its major theme: Exodus.  In Hebrew, we refer to this event as Yetziat Mitzrayim, the leaving of Egypt.  This is our formative story as a people.  It is a story which is embedded into our consciousness individually and collectively.  We were once slaves.  God saved us with an outstretched arm.  Now we are free, and we are in a covenantal relationship with God that, among other things, requires us to care for the downtrodden.  We know this story well.  We tell it in our daily prayers.  We reexperience it every year during Passover.

It is not only our story.  Martin Luther King, Jr. used the story of the Exodus as a biblical paradigm BFranklinSealin the Civil Rights movement.  Abraham Lincoln turned to the Exodus for inspiration in the fight to end slavery.  Benjamin Franklin wanted the seal of the United States to depict the Israelites safely on the far side of the Sea of Reeds while the Egyptian army drowns in its depths.  The motto surrounding the seal would have read: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

That is the other message of the Book of Exodus.  Pharaoh is a tyrant.  He is a fanatic.  He has no sense of humor.  Just as God brings the Israelites into freedom to convey a universal concern for human freedom, God also set out to overthrow Pharaoh as a sign to the world that despotism is never to be tolerated.

God’s problem with Pharaoh is not that he is an idolater.  In fact, the Torah is ambivalent with regard to other nations’ religious beliefs and practices.  The Jewish people are never commanded to rid the world of idolatry or to force the rest of humanity to worship God.

Pharaoh’s sin is that he, a human, claims to be divine.  And further, he allows for no possibility of anything else.

At the beginning of Exodus, Pharaoh looks at his kingdom, sees the Israelites, and notices that they are different.  He cultivates a sense of fear among the Egyptian people, convincing them that the Israelites pose a threat to Egypt.  The regime of slavery begins, but Pharaoh’s paranoia only gets worse.  Still fearful of a rebellion, he orders the execution of all male Israelite children.

The Torah, in its wisdom, is articulating the steps of how a totalitarian dictator consolidates power by demonizing foreign elements.  It is setting the stage for God’s overthrow of a tyrant.

When Moses first comes to Pharaoh as God’s Prophet, he does not ask for freedom from slavery.  He asks only for a three day break so that the Israelites can go out into the wilderness and worship God.  Three days.  Pharaoh cannot tolerate even that.

What is he so worried about – three days of lost work?  No.  Pharaoh cannot accept that these lowly people refuse to acknowledge him as divine.  The worship of God is a threat to Pharaoh.  How does he respond – by increasing the workload.

This guy takes himself way too seriously.  Pharaoh has no sense of humor, no capacity to see things from another’s perspective.  He is so stubbornly fanatic that he brings his entire nation down to hell rather than give up an inch.

God has two objectives in Exodus.  One is to free the Israelites.  The other is to demonstrate to Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and the other nations of the world, that Pharaoh is Pharaoh and God is God.  God clearly is on the side against totalitarianism.

The Book of Exodus is about the preciousness of freedom and the evils of arrogance.

This is a message that is sorely needed today.

What we are facing today is not a war between Islam and the West.  What we are facing is a totalitarian fundamentalism rooted in the Islamic religion that seeks nothing less than total domination.

To be clear, Islam is not inherently violent.  There are plenty of peaceful, tolerant Muslims.  But let’s not be naive and pretend that the numerous terrorist attacks all over the world committed by Muslims in the name of their faith are not part of a broader trend.

Islamic fundamentalist groups are fighting to create societies that are governed by Sharia courts.  Infidels must convert, die, or in some cases live as second-class citizens.  Moderate Muslims must convert to this extreme brand of Islam.  It is why so much of the killing in recent years has targeted other Muslims.  If this was really about a war between East and West, why is there so much Muslim on Muslim killing?

There may not be anything that we can do to change the minds of those who have already committed to Islamic fanaticism.  Force may indeed be the only way to defend ourselves from people without a sense of humor.  In the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh is not capable of teshuvah.  The only outcome for this tyrant is total defeat.

But a ray of light emerged last week from a more contemporary Egyptian leader.  Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, delivered a speech at Cairo’s al-Azhar University on January 1, which on the Muslim calendar this year coincided with the birthday of Muhammad.  In the audience sat leading Egyptian Muslim clerics, as well as the Minister of Religious Appropriations.  President Al-Sisi made forceful, honest comments about Islam that are the kind of words that could get him killed.  Here is an excerpt from his speech:

It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.  Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.   It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.

Notice a few things.  Al-Sisi specifies that it is not the Islamic religion itself that is so violent, but it is the way that it has been interpreted over the centuries that has caused so much destruction.

I agree.  Our Jewish texts have some brutal passages that, if taken literally, would make us fanatics as well.  But we have a more than two thousand year old interpretive tradition that has found ways to address those difficult passages.  Al-Sisi is calling for Islam to develop similar interpretive traditions.

Also, he does not claim that “Islam is a religion of peace,” nor does he state that the terrorists are not really Muslims.  Al-Sisi does not blame the West, or point his finger at colonialism.  He takes responsibility as a Muslim.

He calls for a change in the way that Islam is understood and practiced, and he acknowledges that it will not be easy.  Islam has been interpreted in fundamentalist, triumphalist ways for so long that those modes of thinking have become fully embedded.

But it does not have to continue that way.  Islam, he argues, is “in need of a religious revolution” that comes from within.  Who has to lead it?  Al-Sisi places responsibility where it belongs – on the Imams seated before him.  It is they who must take the lead on changing Islamic thinking about its role in the world.

Until that happens on a widespread and sustained global level, I fear, the clash between tyranny and freedom that our world is experiencing will continue, and this week’s events will be repeated somewhere else, sometime soon.

On this Shabbat, our prayers extend to the families and communities who lost loved ones this week.  We pray that more people in the world will embrace the core lessons of Exodus: that freedom is precious, and that tyranny is intolerable.  We pray for all those around the world who risk their lives to protect innocent people from terror.  And we pray for strength and offer solidarity to our Muslim brothers and sisters who are courageously raising their voices and calling for change from within.

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.

 

Black Lives Matter Because All Lives Matter – Miketz 5775

Recent months have seen the tragic killings by police of young African-American men: Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in Staten Island.  The decision by Grand Juries to not indict the police officers in these cases has sparked a massive public response in our country.  The expression “Black lives matter,” which first came to represent this movement after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted, has been reawakened.

More recent shootings by police of African Americans Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, twelve year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and John Crawford III in Dayton have further exacerbated civil unrest around the country.

Discussions taking place in many communities about whether police officers should be required to wear body cameras reveals the degree of distrust that exists in our society.  How sad that many feel the need to constantly watch those who are entrusted to keep us safe.  How frustrating it must be for police officers, who dedicate their lives to protecting people and put themselves in harm’s way every day.

This is not a problem with the police.  This is a pervasive issue across all levels of society that happened to have been sparked by the recent shootings and Grand Jury decisions.  Nobody wants to not trust the police.  What will it take to achieve reconciliation?  This is what the Black Lives Matter movement is addressing.

This is a difficult topic for me to discuss in the format of a sermon for a few reasons:

1.  I am not African American

2.  I am not a police officer.

3.  People in this room have vastly different opinions about this topic.

But it is undeniable that we have an issue in our country and our society.  That thousands upon thousands of people of all races and backgrounds have been taking to the streets for months is a pretty good indication of that.

As a Rabbi and as the spiritual leader of this community, I struggle deeply with how to address a topic like racial inequality.  I have my personal feelings, but those are just one man’s opinions.

My job is not to tell you things that you already know or take positions that you agree with.  My job is also not to tell you that you are wrong.

I am not here to make statements that you could read in an Op/Ed column in the newspaper.

I am a Rabbi, and my job is to teach Torah.  And hopefully, to teach Torah in a way that challenges all of us to look at ourselves, our experiences, and our values from a new perspective, regardless of where we happen to stand on the religious, political, or socioeconomic spectrum.

As you can imagine, this is a fine line to skirt, but I deeply appreciate those who offer their  gentle critiques when I teach something with which they disagree.  I learn from being challenged and I welcome it.

It is significant that the protests and anger have not been only by the black community.  We have seen protesters from people of all racial backgrounds, including some who work in law enforcement, expressing their outrage at what they see as entrenched racism in American society.

Many people in the Jewish community have been heavily involved in this movement, marching in protests, signing on to statements of solidarity, and being arrested.  There has also been a push to incorporate the message of Black Lives Matter into Chanukah observances, and thousands of Jews have responded, including special readings and activities in their nightly Menorah lightings.

We cannot deny that a large portion of the American Jewish community is deeply concerned about issues involving systemic racial inequality in our society and the distrust that exists between police and civilians.

What is motivating Jews to protest?  What in our Jewish tradition has compelled so many of our brothers and sisters to get involved in this cause, and to do so explicitly as Jews?

The Torah’s expression of the golden rule appears in Leviticus, chapter 19.  V’ahavta L’re-acha kamochaAni Adonai.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord.”  (Lev. 19:18)  What does the Torah mean by “neighbor” in this verse?  Is it a universal statement of how we ought to treat every human being, or is it a particular statement, to be understood as only how we treat our fellow Jews.  I suspect that, despite how it is often used in contemporary times, the Torah’s original intention was the latter.  It is about how we treat people who are part of our own community.

But this reading does not undermine the universal message, because it does not end there.  Just sixteen verses later, in the same chapter, we read “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens…”  And then the Torah uses familiar language:  V’ahavta lo kamocha.  “You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…”  And then it ends exactly the same, invoking God’s name to underscore the point:  Ani Adonai.  “I the Lord am your God.”  (Lev. 19:34)

These two verses need to be read together.  Not only does the Torah challenge us to treat people from our own communities as we would have ourselves be treated, it tells us that we have have to do the same thing for the stranger.

Then, a few chapters later, the Israelites who are on their way to the Promised Land where they are going to build a society, are warned that all residents must be treated equally under the law.  “One law shall there be for you, for stranger and citizen alike shall it be, for I the Lord am your God.”  (Lev. 24:22)

There are some core Jewish values here.  We are asked to treat members of our communities, and people outside of our communities as we would want to be treated.  All residents of a land must be treated equally under law.  These are Jewish values.

There is one more Jewish value that was mentioned.  The Torah commands us, over and over again, that we must care for the least powerful members of our society because we know what it was like to be in their position.  The memory of having been slaves in Egypt obligates us to not stand idly by while others are suffering among us.

Thankfully, the vast majority of Jews in the world today, with the notable exception of many living in Europe, have basically reached a point of full acceptance in society.  But one does not have to go back very far in our national past to find a time when this was not the case: when Jews were demonized, accused of being inferior, kept out of positions of authority, and denied permission to live in certain areas or enter certain professions.  This has been true at various times in pretty much all of Europe, the Muslim world, and even in the United States.

We know what it is like to be denied opportunities, to have the authorities treat us differently, and to have those charged with protecting citizens turn their backs on us.  At least, we should know what it is like, because it is undeniably our history.

When we were the victims of persecution, we cried out, and nobody came to our aid.  Now that the roles are reversed, are we really going to be silent?

The Torah’s message of remembering the Exodus from Egypt forbids us from being indifferent.

We cannot claim to be the victims of persecution and discrimination for thousands of years, and then do nothing when our neighbors suffer a similar fate, when we have the power to do something about it.

That is why so many Jews in America have gotten involved.

The motto of this movement, “Black lives matter,” is a fitting expression.  Black lives matter because every life matters.

Unless you are African- American, you cannot know what it is like to be black in this country.  So when significant majorities of African Americans report feeling discriminated against when it comes to their treatment by law enforcement officials, acccess to educational opportunities, and ability to compete in the jobs markets, it is not ok for someone who is not black to deny that experience.

It is the equivalent of someone who is not Jewish denying our own historical claims to being the victims of persecution and hatred.  Who are you to tell me that how I see myself is wrong?

And then there are the facts.  The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with nearly 1% of our population currently behind bars.  This is true both in absolute terms, as well as in per capita terms.

Of those prisoners, in 2009, 39.4% were non-Hispanic blacks, even though they comprise only 13.6% of the national population.

Now there are a lot of factors that might explain why people of color are so much more likely to be incarcerated, but I think we can agree that there are systemic problems that need to be addressed if those disparities are going to be reduced.  There is tremendous distrust between communities of color and those whom we entrust to keep the peace.

I don’t think anyone wants a continuation of the status quo.  We have to find a way to change it, restore trust, and create better opportunities for communities that have experienced generations of poverty and discrimination to finally break the cycle.

So what can we do about it?  First of all, peaceful protest has been an incredibly effective method of raising awareness.

Perhaps we can find wisdom from the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers.  This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, opens with a famine.  Jacob sends his sons down to Egypt, where careful planning has resulted in food to spare.  The brothers arrive, and are taken to appear before the Vizier, who happens to be their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery many years earlier.

When Joseph sees them, he recognizes them immediately, but they do not recognize him.  Think of how psychologically difficult this must have been for Joseph.  His brothers had nearly murdered him, instead sending him into exile as a slave.  Now, when Joseph has the power to do whatever he wants, what does he do?

Maybe we should first consider what he does not do.  Joseph does not immediately reveal himself and tell his brothers that all is forgiven, nor does he have them executed on the spot or arrested.  Instead, Joseph pretends to be cold and cruel, accusing them of espionage.  He eventually sends them home with grain, but he secretly has their money put back inside their bags as if they had stolen it.

All of this is a ruse on Joseph’s part to determine whether his brothers have changed.  He knows that for real healing to occur, they must confront their past openly and honestly.

In the course of their interactions, the brothers express regret for what they did to Joseph many years earlier.  They indicate their concern for their father’s well-being, and their try to protect Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin, who is now their father’s favorite.

At each expression of remorse and brotherliness, Joseph is overcome with emotion and is forced to turn away so that he can weep without revealing his identity.  When he is finally convinced of his brothers’ sincerity in next week’s parashah, Joseph knows that the cycle of hatred and distrust has broken, and that the time has come when he can safely reveal his identity and reunite with his family.

This is a story of a family that is plagued by a history of discrimination that manages somehow to reconcile. To break the cycle of hatred, each side needs an opportunity to move forward.  Despite all of his power, Joseph is incapable of wiping away his brothers’ guilt.  Only they can do teshuvah.  Similarly, Joseph begins this story as a spoiled brat, bragging of his superiority and ratting out his older brothers.  He also needs time to mature.

We face a similar situation today.

The problems of racial distrust in our country today go back many generations.  We have made great progress, but it seems clear, both from the statistics as well as from the real life experiences of black individuals, that we have a ways to go.

Our communities tend to be separated rather significantly along socioeconomic lines, which in many cases are also racial line.  This means that we tend to interact mainly with people with whom we have a lot in common.  Our society, however, involves a great deal more diversity than most of our daily experiences would indicate.

As Jews, we must consider how our own experience of persecution sensitizes us to the plight of our neighbors when they experience persecution.

Bo 5773 – Pharaoh, Lance, and Us

This week, we are going to talk about someone who was larger than life. Someone who was at the top of his field. His competitors couldn’t touch him. He was invincible. Anyone who dared challenge him would be trampled underfoot.

And then, even when indications began to accumulate that he was not who he had claimed to be all this time, he continued to persist.

When some of the members of his team began to question his invincibility, he responded with threats, stubbornly holding out.

Finally, when the evidence could be ignored no longer, he backed down, admitting that he was not the person whom he had claimed to be.

But was the concession sincere? Did he mean it? Has he really come down from his high podium out of genuine contrition? Or, is it merely an attempt to shake off the feeding frenzy that has been attacking from all sides? Is he a changed man, or will he revert to his old ways?

Any guesses who we are talking about?

Actually, it’s two different men: Lance Armstrong and Pharaoh. Two people who were lured by the promise of fame and wealth. Of prestige. Of knowing that there is nobody else in your field who can touch you.

It turns out that these are extremely powerful forces. They can lead a person to set aside ethics, break the law, lie, and even abandon friends and family.

Of course, we have a role in all of this as well, just as the Egyptian people had a role in Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Lance Armstrong would not have achieved what he did without us: the fans, and the consumers.

His story of overcoming cancer was inspiring to millions. His charity did so much good. His unimaginable comeback in leading the US Postal cycling team to win seven consecutive French Open titles was simply astounding.

As it turns out, Lance Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs for years. Through bribery and lying, he avoided being caught by drug testers. He threatened anyone who confronted him, including friends and teammates. He lied under oath.

Until recently, it all paid off. Lance Armstrong brought incredible prestige and money to the sport of cycling. He made a hundred million dollars or more in product endorsements and prize money. And he became one of the most popular sports figures in the world.

Never mind that it is so unbelievably unlikely that a person could accomplish what he accomplished without using performance enhancing drugs. Come on. Did we really think he could do something so impossibly unlikely on his own? Apparently we did. Or we wanted to. We wanted it all to be true. We love our heroes, so we are willing to overlook the ugliness.

But we also love to see our heroes come crashing down. We get a sick kind of pleasure when we witness the fall of someone who has achieved greatness to a level at which we can only dream. That’s why Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah this week has drawn so much attention.

“He wasn’t that good after all,” we can now tell ourselves. But are we any better off now that Lance has fallen from his podium? No.

I’ll leave it to others who follow these things more closely to do the close analysis. I hope that Armstrong’s extremely public admission of guilt is the beginning of a long process of teshuvah, of repentance. While public opinion will pass its own judgment, only time will tell if he is ready to become a new man. And only God and Lance will know if he has truly changed his neshamah, his soul.

Pharaoh shares much with Lance. Granted, there is a big difference between being an athlete and being the King of the most powerful empire in the world. The stakes, in terms of human lives, are much greater in Pharaoh’s case.

But Pharaoh, also, is addicted to power, prestige, and wealth. In his world, he is no mere human. He is the living embodiment of the sun god, and thus cannot concede to any challenge, whether that challenge comes from Moses, or from the Lord of the Universe.

Pharaoh’s pursuit of wealth and power and his single-minded desire to retain it, leads him to trample on the lives of the Israelites. He has ordered their enslavement, decreed the murder of their male children, increased their workload, and refused to let up even a little. Why? Greed and power. These slaves built him the garrison cities of Pithom and Rameses. His drive for wealth has eclipsed any smidgen of an ethical sensibility or human compassion.

But it is not all on Pharaoh. He believes what everybody is saying about him: that he is the sun god; that he is all-powerful; and that he deserves it. Pharaoh’s “fans,” so to speak, have reinforced all of the unethical behaviors of which he is guilty. And they have benefited too, with a slave underclass to make their lives a bit cushier.

Years of sycophancy have made Pharaoh hard-hearted towards Moses’ cry of “Let me people go.”

So God brings ten plagues of evidence to demonstrate that Pharaoh is not divine. Towards the end, his people are convinced. They abandon him, and urge their king to let the Israelites leave. The Egyptians have finally begun to appreciate their slaves as human beings, and especially Moses, the Prophet of the true God of the Universe. As this morning’s Torah portion tells us, “The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.”*1*

God’s plan, from the beginning of the Book of Exodus, has been to demonstrate to Pharaoh that no human being is that great. But the message is not only directed at him. God is clear that all of Egyptian society is complicit in the oppression of the Israelites. The sin is not only Pharaoh’s, and the punishment is not alone for him to bear. The lesson that God has set out to impart is directed as much to the Egyptian people as it is to Pharaoh. And through them, to the rest of the world.

What is that lesson?

Ultimately, it is a lesson of humility. As humans, we need to know our limits. We are not gods. We are not superior to one another. We are not immune to norms of basic human morality. And none of us are above the laws of a just society.

This message is timeless. For there will always be those who do not see themselves as being subject to typical norms of human behavior. Whether we are talking about politicians, business people, entertainers, or professional athletes.

But we also can’t just sit back and take silent pride in the moral failings of public figures.

We need to remember that we are an integral part of this system. Without a public to care about their lives, there would be no famous people. There is a part of me that feels bad for those celebrities whose egos and faults are reinforced and strengthened by the public’s attention. I cannot imagine how difficult it wold be to live ethically, to be one’s best self, under such scrutiny.

I hope that Lance Armstrong is sincere. I wish him the strength to face the consequences of his actions, and to correct the harm that he has caused.

And I hope that we can take a sober look at ourselves, and acknowledge how we contribute to a society that pushes people to allow greed and the quest for money or power to inflate the ego and suppress good behavior.

*1*Exodus 11:3