Rare Quality

Being one of the top international best sellers of all time is not an easy spot to maintain, taking into account changing cultures, societies and times. But the Bible possesses this rare quality, which has enabled generation after generation of readers to identify with its heroes and messages and find in it answers, refuge and remedy.

There was, however, the issue of adaptation to different needs and literary tastes that affected the interpretation of the Bible throughout the ages. One of the most common and influential is the tendency of the late Second Temple period sages to unearth the mysteries of the anonymous characters of the Bible, which seems to have alienated some of that era’s synagogue-goers, who measured Torah reading or the sermon against the tragedies and comedies played in the adjacent Greek theater and demanded the same level of interest and entertainment. (High school students who had to read “Beowulf” were complaining about how they wish they could have watched the recent movie as an alternative to the archaic, boring text.)

One element that fascinated the ancient Jewish theater aficionados was the wealth of details and history attached to each character, which is so often missing in the laconic, terse language of the Torah. The rabbis responded to the trend by identifying the anonymous protagonists, usually tying them to other characters, who are mentioned by name. Such is the case of the leaders of the civil rebellion against Moses — Dathan and Abiram — whom the rabbis identified as the two Israelites confronted by Moses on the second day he ventured from the royal palace to see his brethren’s tribulations.

When Moses approached the attacker, asking him why he was beating his fellow Israelite, the man angrily responded: “Who appointed you a judge? Are you planning to kill me as you did the Egyptian?”

This identification of the quarreling Israelites with Dathan and Abiram undoubtedly adds an element of continuity and familiarity to the story. We almost expect to see those two at every hot spot, as the rabbis in the midrash most certainly did. But it is problematic for several reasons.

First, when God tells Moses to return to Egypt, He says that all those who sought to harm him are dead. If that includes Dathan and Abiram, how come they surface later during the Korach dispute? Moreover, in the quarrel story, only one is defined as a wicked person, while the other seems to be innocent, and if they are indeed Dathan and Abiram, both are wicked. Lastly, naming these two defies the intention of the Torah, which chose to leave them anonymous because their names are not essential to the narrative.

The answer to these questions is that the rabbis took the liberty, as playwrights, to introduce high drama and a sense of continuity and familiarity to the biblical text. Undoubtedly, they based their interpretation of the original text on the fact that in both cases, those who confronted Moses used words derived from the Hebrew root S.R.R., which means authority or rulership, and that they accused Moses of seeking to rule and dominate them, replacing one rogue regime with another.

Nothing could have offended Moses more, being sincere and genuinely concerned about his brethren’s suffering as he was. Moses could have stayed in the palace and enjoyed royal privileges, but he chose to commiserate with his brothers and, indeed, tried to save one of them by killing the Egyptian taskmaster.

When his altruism was faced with such doubt and accusation, he abandoned his plans altogether and fled to the desert, which was to become his fortress of solitude until God forced him to resume his mission and his role of a leader.

As the curtain draws, the audience of that ancient biblical play, in the new rabbinical rendition, can identify with the characters. Moses is the hero, the leader who once and again is being confronted with the machinations of those who seek power for themselves by casting doubt on the purity of his motives. The rabbinical narrator ties together loose ends and connects Moses’ response to the first confrontation (i.e., running away to the desert) with his response to the last one, in which he is in a position he cannot quit — leading the whole nation.

After attending services during the rabbinical times and hearing the rabbi dramatizing these fateful encounters, it’s not difficult to imagine congregants on their way home considering how this drama played out every so often in their lives and how they would rise to the occasion themselves if challenged by those who embodied Dathan and Abiram.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at hovadia@gmail.com.

Your Inner Joseph

Each of us lives a spiritual journey. One of greatest tasks in life is to know our journey, to understand its contours and what it demands of us. The Torah teaches us these journeys, these paths into our center.

As Genesis ends this week with Vayechi, Jacob pronounces blessings for his sons, often using word play with their names. It seems that the names their mothers chose for them (all but Benjamin, who was named by Jacob) set a destiny for them; their names, in turn, created their lives. From this we might learn that each of us has an inner name that identifies our spiritual journey.

Understanding our inner lives in terms of narratives and themes of a sacred text is often referred to as archetypal psychology. The major characters and moments are not just historical (or ahistorical, according to some), they are signs for us, as well, maps to our inner lives. As we study the characters and themes of Genesis carefully, especially as they are elucidated in the rabbinic and mystical commentaries, we are alerted to the tensions, themes and potentials of our own inner lives.

The spiritual assumption is that Torah and our own souls emanate from the same origin, from the Soul of the Universe. Our souls and Torah share the same essence, but are in different forms. Torah is what links us to the Holy One. Torah contains our narratives. And from studying Torah, we begin to see our own narratives peering out at us.

One of my favorite narratives is that of Esau, older brother of Jacob and putative inheritor of his father, Isaac. But his mother, Rebecca, has received word from God that Jacob is to inherit, not Esau. Unbeknownst to Esau, forces are in motion to deprive him of that which was his.

Or was it his?

The narrative seems to be telling us that some things to which we have a right or a claim are not truly ours. Esau seems to know this when he comes in from the field, utterly exhausted. He sells the birthright for a bowl of stew. One tradition says he was exhausted trying to be something he wasn’t — the kind of person who would inherit his father’s world. He didn’t despise the birthright per se, but rather he hated his own fraudulence, trying to be something he was not.

Jacob, the trickster, set the world right. Esau, in a moment of truth, gave it to his brother. And, like many of us, he forgot the clarity in that moment of truth, only to gain it again as an older man, when he truly forgave Jacob. When he forgave Jacob, one might say, he truly became himself.

Take the story of Joseph, who is sold off as a slave after drawing the wrath of his brothers. Joseph rises to prominence in the house of Potiphar, only to fall to scandal after spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He sits in an Egyptian prison, certainly bemoaning his fate.

As he sits in prison, he thinks and considers. His brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite. He was his father’s favorite because he was the first born of his mother Rachel, whom his father dearly loved, and who died birthing Joseph’s only full brother, Benjamin. Being his father’s favorite, he thought himself special, above others. He put on airs.

Of course his brothers hated him; of course his father favored him. Deep human forces were put into action by his father Jacob having to marry Leah, who bore those half-brothers of his, who always resented his being the favorite. Deep human forces were put into action by the death of his mother, placing his father in unbalanced grief. Perhaps as he sat in prison, Joseph realized the tragedy of it all; tragedy mixed with human frailty.

Perhaps Joseph now remembered himself back to his old games in the house of Potiphar, unconsciously (or not) flirting with Mrs. Potiphar. Joseph came to know himself in that prison. Later in life, he would engineer reconciliation with his brothers, breathtaking in its pathos and elegance.

As we read that story, some of us who may be feeling sorry for ourselves will come to know the tragedy of it all, and our part in the tragedy. And perhaps instead of ruminating on hatred and revenge, we dream up the possibilities for healing.

We have our Esau moments, our Joseph moments (and moments of the rest of matriarchs, patriarchs and other characters in Genesis).

If we don’t know that inner narrative, the name of our journey, our own lives are often a mystery to us, and we are mysterious to others. Life is mystery, but one that we should explore and come to know.

The study of Torah, especially through the archetypal approach as is suggested in the midrashic and mystical sources, helps us to understand our own narrative, to come to know our own inner name, to engage the mystery of being.

We learn to live — wisely, deeply and well.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and ethics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.


Palestinians Facing Uncertain Future


Standing in the Muqata, Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, on his funeral day made me believe that we Palestinians must overcome a hurdle if we are to move forward.

Our youth face uncertainty, our people feel lost and beaten and our elders are sad to think that their children and grandchildren will share their same destiny — never to live in peace in an independent Palestinian state.

Events on the Palestinian streets will have to be shaped by the combined efforts of Palestinian, Israeli and American leaders. Palestinians must rise to the occasion, put aside our differences and make unity a top priority.

Israelis must act to ease Palestinian conditions so that a new, legitimate leadership can be elected. And Americans must seize the opportunity and invest serious efforts with heavy backing from President Bush to bring about a fair and honest solution to the table.

What kind of change is Israel willing to make in an effort to ease conditions and allow Palestinians to elect a new leadership?

In the short term, Israel will play a pivotal role in the transition period by allowing Palestinians to elect a new leadership. It is crucial that Israel follows through and facilitates Palestinians holding free elections.

Unless there is full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and Palestinians in East Jerusalem are allowed to take part in the elections, it will not only be impossible to hold elections, but it is a safe bet that we are heading toward a more chaotic situation — something that Palestinians and Israelis can no longer afford.

Despite the anger and despair among our people and the actions of militants, the Palestinian leadership is prepared to work for peace. The first step is to elect a new leadership with a mandate to make peace. This was a very clear point Rawhi Fatooh, acting president of the Palestinian National Authority, stressed in a meeting I attended with him a few weeks ago in Ramallah.

The only person in the Palestinian leadership that I believe embodies the kind of leader that can maintain continuity and bring us to the next stage is Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. Are we more concerned about electing another leader that we can rally around and “worship,” or are we concerned about a leader that can rally international support and deliver what others could not?

People I spoke with believe that Abbas will be the right candidate, especially because of the deep desire and understanding that we must be realistic in order to move forward.

We cannot afford to elect a new leader who is serving time in an Israeli jail and make our focus an effort to free the president, rather than a national agenda for statehood. Marwan Barghouti should withdraw his candidacy for president, and instead Abbas’ agenda should include Barghouti’s release.

Every step Palestinians take must be coordinated on the Palestinian national level and international Arab level. Abbas is already taking a step toward that.

Talks with Hamas and other Palestinian groups, as well as talks with other Arab leaders, such as King Abdullah of Jordan, President Bashar Assad of Syria and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, are being conducted. Such talks must remain and continue to be the focus of any effort as we head for a new path.

The only person that can actually deliver this task is Abbas. He enjoys the support of the Arab countries, which is extremely important in any future negotiations with Israel. And beyond that, he is already working to strengthen the Palestinian-Arab relations as seen in his visit to six of the Gulf states.

The fact that a person from the old guard may be elected as president is irrelevant. Palestinians have a clear desire for reforms that must and will have to be included in the agenda of the next Palestinian leadership. Abbas has been one of the first people to speak of reforms and move toward implementing them.

Barghouti on the other hand is a man that everyone I spoke with seems to trust — even security service personnel who were in charge of the funeral arrangements for Arafat in Ramallah spoke highly of Barghouti. Nonetheless, Barghouti’s intentions to run for president from an Israeli jail cell, where he is serving a life sentence, will not only weaken the Fatah movement, but will also weaken the prospects of peace with Israel. It could also affect international support that is crucially needed to make the transition for the next stage in the peace process.

The problem is this: Every person I spoke with, whether they are a student, a mother, a father, young or old, had the impression that it is hard to trust Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Ala, as leaders, because of the medical, political and economic confusion that surrounded Arafat’s final days. Nonetheless, the fact that Barghouti and Abbas are tied in the polls shows that despite the obscurity that surrounds the death of Arafat, the idea that he may have been poisoned has not impressed itself on many Palestinians.

This is a clear indication that people are willing and ready to move on.

Abbas may or may not be the best candidate from the standpoint of legitimacy, but this is not the point Palestinians must be concerned with. I believe Palestinians are aware that Abbas is a transitional figure and represents the candidate of continuity, not dramatic change. That must come later.

We must consider the fact that the formal succession process is less important than the changes that are now possible in Palestinian politics — changes that include the shift from politics based on individuals and the cult of personality to institutions. We need a leader we can respect and hold accountable; this will introduce the change from governance based on centralized and arbitrary authority to governance that is good, transparent and accountable.

Finally, for any overall improvement in the situation, a clear, sincere and serious American involvement must be present to help rebuild the Palestinian Authority’s institutions and exert the necessary pressure on Israel to move forward. Although it came in his last days in office, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the region was important, but the president must put full weight and personal effort to make this work.

All parties have so far endorsed the “road map” peace plan, but as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, “The road map was never taken out of the glove compartment.”

The road map should be the framework from which the Gaza pullout plan is implemented and a good starting point for any further negotiations to come.

Whether the results of the elections will be seen by Palestinians and the international community as a vote for peace and reform is another factor in determining what comes next for the Palestinian people. Giving the new president the ability to move forward with a mandate for internal and external action should remain our focus as a united people, as we make our path toward a brighter future.

Fadi A. Elsalameen, 20, is founder and co-director of Voice of Arab Youth and a full-time college student in the United States.


Captains of Destiny

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, finds us studying the Book of Exodus for the first time this year. Probing the text, I began to think about the Hebrew word tevah (ark) that is found only twice in the Torah — in parshat Noah and in this one.

As Rabbi James Mirel once wrote: "There is an important link between these two mythic tales. In the story of Noah, God uses the ark to rescue all the animals, including the human species. In this instance, Moses, who is to become the vehicle for the redemption of the Jewish people, is kept alive by means of an ark."

"Both narratives depict the ark as being surrounded by potentially destructive waters. In the case of Noah, the waters of the flood, which covers the entire earth, and in this case, the river into which Pharaoh commands that all Hebrew male infants be thrown," Mirel said.

"From this parallel, we can learn that we, too, should consider the ways in which each of us can find a tevah by which to navigate the threatening waters that surround us in order to reach safety and redemption," he added.

I submit that there is another way to cite this rare Hebrew word in order to make a somewhat different point. Namely, are we to merely drift through life — mirroring Noah, who was able to survive during the flood, and Moses, who, we find on his way to being given an opportunity to live in the lap of luxury as Pharaoh’s adopted nephew — or is something else required of us?

It is my belief that God and Judaism’s prophets and sages demand that we not just rock along, dependent on the currents of life to move us from birth to death, but that we place a tiller into the waters of life, grab the helm and steer a course, which will provide us with personal fulfillment and satisfaction while responding to the needs of others who seek — and deserve — our assistance.

Here’s how we can avoid being dashed upon the rocks of despair, becoming stuck in the narrows of bias and prejudice or finding ourselves trapped in the shallows of limited thought and action.

Within this context, here’s the ultimate question which Shemot forces upon us: "Are we willing to risk everything to be the captains of our own destiny, or are we merely content letting circumstances and other people determine the course of our lives?"

If we are activists, we constantly take charge and even — on occasion — attempt to go upstream and thereby willingly confront one mighty challenge after another.

If we are pacifists, we are delighted to easily and simply follow the currents of the headwaters — even if this means that we must always allow others to decide the direction we’ll go … solely dependent on the winds of their opinion which then propel us from place to place. Under these circumstances, it is they and never we who will determine what our eventual goals might be.

Sam Rayburn, the late speaker of the House of Representatives, often instructed his younger colleagues "to get along just go along." If all a person desires is ease and comfort, that may be good advice. However, if someone decides that the demands and benefits of life require that we must occasionally take a chance, such an individual elects not to be under the thumb of others, but to set off on a self-selected course.

I am convinced that our lives are far more exciting and rewarding when we take charge of our own situations, set our sights on distant shores and then battle our way to reach them.

You see, just as so very little is written in this and in subsequent parshot about the first 80 of the 120 years allotted to Moses, we ought not to think too much about our origins, or where we find ourselves at any given moment. Instead, we need to concentrate on what we wish to achieve, to think about what demanding choices are ours, and to concentrate on the benefits that will be ours and others when we exert ourselves as proactive decision-makers and doers.

After all, as Vancouver’s Rabbi Philip Bregman has taught us: "By speeding through the description of Moses’ early and middle years, the Torah is making the statement that beginnings are less important than endings in life.

"In other words, a human being’s worth is not determined by where that individual came from but what that person ultimately accomplished," Bregman said. "This message has tremendous relevance for us today. Too often we spend our time dwelling on the past instead of focusing on our ultimate goal in life. What really counts is where our experiences lead us and what we have learned along the way."

"This week’s parsha encourages us to ask ourselves tough questions about where our own personal journey is leading," Bregman added. "Are we still growing and learning? What is that we seek? Are we moving in the right direction toward a worthwhile destination? Are we basking in the sun of a previous generation’s accomplishments, or are we endeavoring to make our own mark in the world"?

I wish you Godspeed and a bon voyage as you answer those profound questions and then act upon them in the most creative, dynamic and productive ways possible.