Measure for measure: Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)


There are a good many details about the Joseph narratives that elude ready explanation. We absorb them readily and ignore them just as readily. What bearing do they have on Joseph or his brothers? They seem of no connection with the past or with the future. It is fair to claim all this as chance and happenstance. But to be sure, we must, like the good detective of legend, examine the evidence. 

Let us begin at a familiar point. The brothers have stripped Joseph of his dignity and his “coat of many colors.” He is dumped down the shaft of a dry well. Meanwhile, as he lies alone and bloodied in the dark, a caravan of Ishmaelites arrive, “their camels carrying balm, balsam and labdanum, heading down toward Egypt” (Genesis 37:25). The merchants’ destination is quite significant, for it is to there that Joseph shall soon descend. But of what import is the merchandise? Perfumes and fragrances are neither here nor there.

Next, the brothers sell “Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver” (Genesis 37:28). The sale of a human being is a heinous crime. It is neither mitigated nor magnified with a brief statement about currency and price! Why even mention these “pieces of silver”?

Finally, to conceal their wicked sin, the brothers “took Joseph’s coat, slew a hairy goat and then dipped the coat in its blood” (Genesis 37:31). Naturally, the blood is needed to deceive Jacob, who at the sight of the tattered, blood-soaked coat assumes the worst: “Joseph is torn to pieces by a wild beast” (Genesis 37:33). Still, why mention the goat, and why especially a hairy goat? 

With these facts before us, we proceed. To begin, the goat seems to have little connection with the particulars of Joseph’s life, but Jacob’s life seems to revolve around them. It was Jacob who sent 220 goats to his brother as a guilt offering to assuage the latter’s wrath (Genesis 32:15). It was Jacob who spent a good 20 years being swindled out of things, like spotted and speckled goats, by his father-in-law, Lavan. And most important, it was Jacob who deceived his father, Isaac, with goat meat and goatskins. Disguised as (hairy) Esau, wearing his goatskins and bearing a tray of goat meat, Jacob steals Esau’s blessings (Genesis 27:9-16). It is poetic justice, then, that his children in turn deceive Jacob through a slain goat. 

As to Joseph, it is possible that his beloved coat was woven of goat’s hair. Luxury fabrics like cashmere and mohair are woven from goat sheerings. In the wilderness, the fabric was used in the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:4). Perhaps it is doubly ironic that the beautiful coat, which expressed Jacob’s profound love for Joseph, is used to bring about Jacob’s greatest sorrow, through its being submerged in, of all things, the blood of a hairy goat. 

If this is Jacob’s due for his past crimes, what punishment awaits the brothers? It is here that we find two details that would, at first glance, seem happenstance if it were not for our earlier investigations. The setting is Egypt, Joseph is viceroy, and in the 20 years since his brothers last saw him, he has become a new man, disguised beyond recognition. Joseph interrogates his brothers, accuses them of espionage and incarcerates Simeon. He then offers them a deal to prove their innocence: “bring Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son.” 

On their way, the brothers notice something odd. Joseph has returned their pieces of silver. They “see silver in the mouth of the pack” (Genesis 42:28). Once more they must return to their father, minus a son, with a sack full of silver coins, and the heavy stench of guilt. “What is this that God has done to us?”

When they finally convince Jacob to relinquish Benjamin, so they can return to Egypt and buy food, Jacob offers some advice. Bring the man (Joseph) a gift: “a little balsam, a little honey, balm and labdanum, pistachio nuts and almonds … and as for your brother, take him, too” (Genesis 43:11-13).

Such delicious irony: The same fragrant smells that accompanied Joseph the slave on his descent to Egypt now accompanies the brothers as they descend to Egypt. This time the brothers accompany Benjamin, anxious at every step. Will he vanish like Joseph, like Simeon? Perhaps this viceroy will keep all of them as slaves? 

Such is biblical justice, measure for measure, an eye for an eye. “Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” as Abraham Lincoln put it. But such a world is not half as cruel as one of happenstance. A world where, to quote William Shakespeare, “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”


Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

Power of words: Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)


In our age of Facebook and Twitter, we know all too well how fast words can spread. When I was a kid, we played the game telephone, passing a word or phrase around the circle by whispering it into each other’s ear, knowing that by the time it went all the way around, it would probably be transformed into something completely different — that was funny! 

Words are some of the most powerful tools we have in our human arsenal, and they can be used for incredible good or immense evil. Speaking into the microphone of today’s hyper-connected world enables us to both spread positive energy into the universe, and, sadly more often, spread negative energy, sometimes leading to violence. Both are known as going viral, and both are as ancient as the creation of the world and the essence of this week’s parashah.

Vayeshev begins the Joseph cycle, which will carry through for the rest of Genesis. Words are central to this parashah, as they are to the Jewish people as a whole. Our liturgy reminds us every morning, “Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam” (Blessed is the one who spoke and the world came into being). In Vayeshev, words are crucial to the plot as Joseph “brings evil reports of his brothers” to his father (Genesis 37:2), and shares his dreams with his brothers and family, vocalizing private thoughts out loud without necessarily thinking about the consequences. Jacob, continuing the family tradition, expresses favoritism for Joseph in both words and actions, giving him the famous cloak of many colors, thereby driving his brothers to hate him so much that “they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Genesis 37:4). Emotions are heated and the sibling rivalry is quite extreme. The Hebrew text in this parashah is replete with the words deebah (word), daber (speak), yaged (tell) and, sadly, sinah (hate). All of the words that Joseph and his brothers exchange only lead to more and more hate, eventually driving them to do the unthinkable: throw Joseph in a pit, sell him down to Egypt, and lie to their father by saying he died, ironically using the cloak of many colors, drenched in blood, as their alibi. Words, language, the very power God used to create our world, are thrown around in this parashah in such a negative way that the consequences are legendary. However, in the one place that words could have saved the situation, the text reports silence. Jacob has a chance to reprimand Joseph and the brothers, after the dreams, and the text says Jacob “shamar et ha’davar” (he guarded the matter). Rashi interprets this to mean, “He waited to see what would happen.” Precisely when words were needed to save the family unit, Jacob waited and was silent. It is not the only time this happens in Jacob’s life. 

The lessons of this parashah, to me, are: When do we speak and when do we hold our tongue? When do we share what we are feeling and when do we keep it to ourselves? Words, the precious gift that God gave us humans to communicate, can change the world, as in the great oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, or they can destroy worlds, as in hate speech or bullying a kid at school. I see this parashah as calling us to teach our children how and when to speak, and how and when to keep quiet. Standing up for someone in need demands the courage of words; knowing when to ignore someone with silence or keeping our negative thoughts to ourselves demands wisdom. Joseph learns well, as the very dream-work that gets him into trouble at the beginning of the parashah is what saves his life in the dungeon of Pharaoh.

Kohelet said it best: “There is a time for speech and a time for silence.” May the Torah this week, and the lessons learned from some of the painful experiences we read about, teach us what to do before we speak, write or hit the reply/send button on our computers. Blessed is the one Who spoke and the world came into being: This is a great personal meditation before uttering, or choosing not to utter, our words. Shabbat shalom!

‘La Rafle’ recalls Vichy sins


The biblical book of Exodus begins the ominous story of the Israelites’ descent into slavery with the following words: “A new generation arose” in Egypt that did not know Joseph. Well, a new generation has arisen in France, and they, unlike their parents and certainly their grandparents, are willing to remember and to confront the past.

There is a paradox in the Holocaust: The innocent feel guilty and the guilty feel innocent. There is a vast literature of survivor guilt, but a scant literature of perpetrator guilt. In France, the new generation may not feel guilty — they have no reason to feel guilty — but they certainly feel a responsibility to confront the French past.

“La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), a film by Roselyne Bosch that stars Jean Reno and Melanie Laurent, won the audience award for best film when it had its L.A. premier at the 2011 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. The film begins with the statement that the events portrayed happened. And so they did.

A word of historiography: In the aftermath of World War II, France developed two comforting myths, the myth of résistance and the myth that Charles De Gaulle and his forces actually liberated France. The truth was rather different: French police had rounded up Jews, deported them to transit camps and from there to death camps — it was French police, not the Germans. And French men and women collaborated, participating in both the persecution of the Jews and their roundup. French leadership in collaborationist Vichy France, headed by World War I hero Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, were willing collaborators with the German regime and not, as they had been depicted, reluctant participants in the murder of their Jews.

The myth of résistance collapsed, in part, when the full history of former French President François Mitterrand was revealed; the trials of Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon made French collaboration undeniable.

This set the stage for the moving new film “La Rafle,” which depicts the Parisian roundup of Jews on July 16 and 17, 1942, and their confinement in the Vel d’Hiv, a French sports stadium, before their deportation to a transit camp and from there to the “East.” The specific death camp remains unmentioned, but the destination — death by gassing — is an ever-present shadow throughout.

Like the best of French films, the work is textured. We get a wonderful feel for life in Paris, and an even better sense of Jewish life under German occupation. Jewish children become the dramatic center of the film, and their lives in the early days of occupation are portrayed in school, at home and in the street through a series of small vignettes, showing them seemingly oblivious to their new and constricted circumstances. The texture of the film is also reflected in the response of the French population, first to the persecution and later to the deportation. Even within the Vel d’Hiv, we don’t have a one-dimensional portrayal of the French. Some French men and women internalize Nazi anti-Semitism and use the occupation as a welcome opportunity to express their own anti-Semitism without restraint. Others are protective of their Jews — some effectively so, most ineffectively.

Sensitively portrayed by Laurent, the heroine of the story is a French non-Jewish nurse who comes into the Vel d’Hiv to treat the Jews. She is first introduced to us at the early stages of the film when the dean of the nursing school instructs her students to allow the Jews to escape should the Germans enter the premises. She volunteers to work  in the Vel d’Hiv, and it is through her innocent eyes that we encounter the inhumanity of the French confinement of the Jews.

We are taken inside the roller rink, where Jews are hungry and dirty, their nerves at the cracking point. Children play, parents fret, the pious pray and study and the thousands of Jewish prisoners swing between despair and hope, resignation and lethargy, defiance and self-help. For a moment, the peace of Shabbat descends on the Vel d’Hiv, as some Jewish women light their candles, but one can transcend such impossible conditions only for a moment. Some French firemen give water to the parched Jews; their fire chief covers for them and allows them to call in sick so that they can distribute the last notes of the desperate Jews who have trusted them to carry their messages forth. Their calls for help go unheeded.

And while there are heroes and villains, there is also what students of Holocaust literature and historians call the “gray zone.” A collaborationist policeman, who previously was enthusiastic at the deportation and tried to force himself on an aristocratic beautiful young Jewish woman, shades his eye as she seeks to escape the stadium.

“La Rafle” does not shade the painful truth of the experience. The conditions in the Vel d’Hiv are horrific; the mood of the Jews swings wildly, and we witness firsthand the filth and violence of their condition as they wait for the ordeal to end. Their deportation to the transit camp appears a welcome relief, as the Jews think that they have survived the worst, only to encounter more horrific conditions in the camp.

“La Rafle” avoids giving the audience a simple love story. The nurse is infatuated with an older Jewish doctor (played by Reno) who struggles valiantly but in vain to provide medical care to the prisoners. There is no time for love; admiration, affection and a joint sense of mission must suffice. She volunteers to go to the transit camp; he will not permit her to go to the death camp. She is gentile and can live; he is Jewish and will die.

And the children whom we have seen before in the Jewish quarter and in the Vel d’Hiv come center stage in the camps, as first their mothers are deported, and then their fathers. When they are left behind, because French leaders do not want to have it perceived that they kill children, the children form a supportive community among themselves.

We go with these Jews to the transit camps, with their own set of horrific conditions. We witness the separation of husbands from wives, the confinement of children in separate barracks and, ultimately, the shipping out of women followed by men and, only later, by children, which the French officials describe as a humanitarian gesture that will unite mother and child — albeit in the ovens of Auschwitz.

French officialdom is seen in its glorious vanity looking for a way to cast off responsibility, precisely as they are not just compliant, but cooperative, in the murder of their own Jews. 

While all the details of the film may not be precisely historically accurate, the true ethos of their acts and the nature of their pretense is brought to life on the screen.

The film does not take us inside the gates of Auschwitz, for it is there that French history ends and German history begins — and Bosch is interested in French history, French actions, French hypocrisy — but she does take us to postwar Paris and the desperate search by survivors for someone of their past, and by Jewish children for some knowledge of who they were and where they came from, even their true names. 

The drama of reunion is not played up, as it might be in an American film, as a moment of triumph, because we see that, for every reunion, there are thousands who did not return. There is a deep and subtle power to the film; characters are developed and then we return to them, themes are presented and then refined. Each scene is striking; no moment seems superfluous, none inauthentic. But there is no subtlety to what is presented — the horror is layered, the intensity builds from scene to scene. And in the end, we have a powerful film that presents the truth of how the French treated their Jews.

Roselyne Bosch has done her job. It is a film not to be missed.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com/a_jew.

All-women ‘Joseph’ a dream come true


At a recent dress rehearsal at Temple Beth Am for the Jewish Women’s Repertory Company’s (JWRC) November production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Margy Horowitz, the company’s founder, musical director and accompanist, played piano while the narrator belted out the famous opening line: “Some folks dream of the wonders they’ll do, before their time on this planet is through.”

Horowitz, to her frustration, couldn’t take her eyes off the sheet music, but she doesn’t have to watch the performers to know the narrator is describing her. The Chicago native dreamed of creating an outlet for observant Jewish women to realize their love of performing even though the Jewish law of kol isha prohibits women from singing solo in front of men.

“I founded [JWRC] in 2005 purely out of jealousy, because my best friend, who lives in Chicago, called one day and said she got a leading role in ‘Mary Poppins’ in a Jewish women’s theater group, so I thought, ‘Why can’t I do it here?’ ” Horowitz said in an interview before rehearsals.

Friends dismissed her as a “dreamer,” saying no one in Los Angeles would be interested, yet this production of the family-friendly biblical favorite has not only proven them wrong but also assures that if “some folks” have a dream, they can realize it.

Horowitz, a professional piano teacher, launched JWRC with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” for which she cast anyone who auditioned. This year, only 31 out of 52 hopefuls got parts, and the company has moved from performing at Beverly Hills High School to the state-of-the-art Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles. The band has expanded from a piano accompanist to include drums and a violin. JWRC subsists through ticket sales and ads, yet last year it donated $5,000 to Aleinu Family Resource Center, up $3,000 from 2005.

“Now it’s just a way for Jewish women to get together and perform and enjoy each other and be creative together,” Horowitz said, surrounded by a few visibly proud cast members dressed in their colorful costumes. But, she said, “There are so many more things that came out of it that I didn’t imagine. Friendships have been made. You have Bais Ya’akov parents friends with Beth Am parents,” she said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox girls’ school and the Conservative congregation, respectively. Horowitz is a member of the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation.

The ambitious “Joseph” musical is a symbolic choice, as it tells the tale of the fractured tribes of Israel coming together around one man’s dream. And indeed, the atmosphere in the rehearsal hall feels like a Jewish sisterhood: Women of all ages, callings and denominations — mothers, teachers, lawyers, therapists, professors, students and a doctor — happily synchronizing steps, singing and letting go as they move to the cohesive and professional choreography.

At first, Horowitz was surprised that she’d draw women who aren’t concerned with kol isha. When Caryn Malkus, an English and dance teacher, and a Beth Am member, was cast for a role in the 2007 production of “Guys and Dolls,” she didn’t know men weren’t allowed to attend performances. But she loved the experience so much that she came on as choreographer in 2008 and is this year’s co-director.

“It’s very empowering for women that we’re able to play all the parts and that we can put it on on our own with some technical help from men, but with the nuts and bolts done by women,” Malkus said.

And while cast members commit anywhere from six to eight hours a week throughout the four-month rehearsal period, often juggling parenthood and/or a full-time job, Malkus believes participation enhances her family life.

“There’s nothing better than having kids come watch you,” said Malkus, a mother of twin boys. “First of all, you’re out so much in the evening it’s hard to explain for them why it’s important you’re gone, but once they see the show and connect what you’ve been talking about with reality, it’s amazing for them. We’re becoming role models for our kids. You can be a mom, a doctor, a cantor, and do something creative for yourself.”

Horowitz says quality time with her family has only intensified. “In the musical, there is a line when the brothers say to Joseph, ‘Your dreams of course will not come true,’ and my husband says, ‘Your dreams of course will all come true.’ It’s a culmination of everything that I could have wanted for this group, and more.”

Performances of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” will take place at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles on Nov. 20 and 21. For more information, visit

Quality of Life


It was a very brief meeting, and a seemingly peculiar exchange of words. For the first time, the head of the Israelite household — Jacob — meets Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.

The only thing they shared in common was Joseph.

To Jacob, Joseph was his son, and to Pharaoh, Joseph was the economic wizard who saved his empire’s economy from total disaster.

If one were asked to speculate on what these two men would speak about during their first meeting, it might go something like this:

“Jacob, you raised a brilliant young man. Without him, our country would be in a great depression right now.”

Beaming with pride, Jacob would respond, “Thank you, your majesty, it’s a great honor to see my son serving in your distinguished court. He always was a dreamer, and I am proud that he followed his dreams.”

Pride, honor, and praise — all of the ingredients one would expect in a first conversation between a grateful king and a proud father.

There is no such exchange between the two, nothing even remotely close. Instead, here’s how it went: “Joseph brought his father and presented him to Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh. ‘How many are the days of your life?’ asked Pharaoh of Jacob. Jacob replied to Pharaoh: ‘The days of the years of my sojourning are a hundred and thirty years; few and unhappy have the days of my life been. I did not attain the days of the years of life that my fathers did during their sojourn through life.’ With that, Jacob blessed Pharaoh and left his presence.” (Genesis 47:7-10)

Far removed from the typically schmaltzy story of “Your son is so wonderful,” and “Yes, I’m so proud of him,” the brief exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob has an altogether different aura, rooted in what we call in Hebrew hochmat haim, or life’s wisdom.

As the leader of a powerful empire, Pharaoh had certainly met many world leaders. In his meetings with them, he certainly drew from their wisdom and advice, as would any intelligent ruler. One can only imagine what Pharaoh expected Jacob to look like, but the 16th century Polish commentator Kli Yakar tells us that Pharaoh was shocked when he saw a thin, frail, weakened old man approaching him, barely able to walk toward his throne. Jacob begins by blessing Pharaoh, and this seems to bond the two men, so much so that Pharaoh poses a wise, carefully worded, personal question: “How many are the days of your life?” The wording of Pharaoh’s question caught the eye of many commentators, who wonder why Pharaoh did not simply ask, “How old are you?” Why did he word his question as “How many are the days of your life?”

Jacob’s response reflects a deep understanding of Pharaoh’s carefully worded question: “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130, [but] few and unhappy have been the days of my life.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German commentator, remarks that Jacob differentiates between living and existing: “You ask how many are the days of my life? I have not lived much. I have sojourned on this earth for 130 years. The days of the years that I can really call my life were in reality only few — and were themselves bitter and full of worry.”

The Netziv, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva during the second half of the 19th century, offers an additional insight: “My years of success in life were few and bitter, for even when I had actually achieved material wealth and financial security, my life was still filled with woe and sorrow, such as the death of my wife Rachel and the rape of my daughter Dinah.”

Jacob’s answer is filled with perspective on life’s big question: How do we measure and define a “happy life”? Is it by living to a ripe old age? Is it through material wealth and success?

According to Hirsch, Jacob was telling Pharaoh that a true human being does not see life through length of years, rather through the quality of days lived. As much as we may like to think otherwise, Hirsch says, “It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning.” Jacob’s perspective brings to mind the custom of reciting Psalm 90 at a funeral, when — before burying a loved one — we ask God to “Teach us to number our days, so that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

The Netziv’s comments add the powerful reminder to Pharaoh that material wealth alone does not bring happiness. In another psalm recited by mourners (Psalm 49), we are reminded that material wealth is not carried with us into the grave. Jacob told this wealthy king that his great palace, wealth and fame are of no value without the true happiness, love and fulfillment of family life and personal relationships.

In the waning days of a 130-year-old life that included receiving his father’s blessing by way of deceit, a terrible relationship with his brother, an unfulfilled married life, the rape of his daughter and constant strife between his children, Jacob teaches Pharaoh — and all of us — that happiness is not about reaching old age or amassing wealth; rather, it’s about the quality and richness of day-to-day life. In this regard, his brief encounter with Pharaoh is arguably his greatest and wisest moment as a patriarch.

Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. You can read his blog at www.rabbidanielbouskila.blogspot.com, and can reach him for questions or comments at rabbousk@aol.com.


Crossing paths


A television comedy director on hiatus takes a brief journey to Eastern Europe to look for the birthplaces of her grandparents. While there, she meets a
professor documenting the lives of the last remaining shtetl Jews. The professor encourages the director to visit a few of these aging, isolated survivors, and the visits change her life and theirs.

“The genesis of this project lies in a series of paths that fortuitously crossed, creating a meaningful link between people from all over the world,” writes Zane Buzby in an introduction to The Survivor Mitzvah Project, an organization created solely to provide food, medicine, heat, shelter and human contact to aged, lonely Holocaust survivors living in tiny towns and villages in Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Slovakia and Latvia.

This project won’t last much longer. Buzby notes the survivors are in their 80s and 90s, and while they are still alive “it is our mission to see that these elderly and forgotten people, who have experienced firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust, will not be alone and neglected in their final years.”

“A series of paths that fortuitously crossed,” says Buzby, and her words bring to mind a coincidence in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev.

Joseph, 17, is sent by his father Jacob to check on his 10 older brothers, herding their flocks a long distance away. By chance, an unidentified man finds Joseph wandering in the fields and asks him: “What do you seek?”

The 11th and 12th century Jewish scholars Rashi and Maimonides, and the Midrash Rabbah before them, declare Joseph’s mystery man to be an angel sent by God. One can easily see why. If the man hadn’t told Joseph where to look for his brothers, Joseph might not have found them, and thus might not have been sold into slavery by them — though Joseph might not call that fortuitous. And then he might never have gone to Egypt and won Pharaoh’s favor so that he might later save his starving family (including his aged father), and for that matter the known world. Buzby repeats frequently from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5: “Who saves a life, saves the world entire.”

When Jacob calls the young Joseph to set out on this journey, before he even gives him the details of his assignment, Jacob says, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” And Joseph replies with the weighty biblical phrase: “Hineini,” “I am ready” or “I am here” (Genesis 37:13). It’s the same reply his ancestor, Abraham, offered just before God called him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1). The same reply Moses offered when God first calls out to him from the burning bush (Exodus 3:4). The same reply that comes from the prophet Isaiah when, on a visit to heaven, he hears God saying, “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?” “Hineini,” Isaiah says, “send me,” (Isaiah 6:8). Is it ironic or is it the point that our biblical ancestors replied, “Hineini,” before they knew what God or others were going to ask of them?

I imagine that each of us could come up with our own examples of “fortuitous” path-crossing; the encounter with a stranger/angel that changed our life, or at least sent us down an unexplored path. And no doubt, too, we could recall the paths not taken, the times we didn’t say, “Hineini,” when the stranger (or trusted adviser) whose pointed questions — “What do you seek?” — we ended up ignoring, finding ourselves too busy, too focused, too unfocused, too scared, just “not ready.”

You might have read about the Survivor Mitzvah Project last year in The Jewish Journal. Today, with the worldwide economic upheaval, heat and food and medicine cost even more. Buzby and those whose paths she crossed — philanthropist Chic Wolk, professor Dovid Katz, Ludmila who makes the deliveries, Sonia Kovitz, who translates the survivors’ letters and writes to them in Yiddish — all help see to it not only that “100 percent of every donation goes directly into the hands of an elderly Holocaust survivor,” but also that their stories get told and archived. The survivors refer to their benefactors as “di malokhim fun Amerike” (the angels from America).

These days, in the midst of this horrendous economic crisis, many advisers suggest we turn “micro,” focusing small when trying to solve problems. Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman wrote about this idea (“DIY,” Nov. 28), noting that new Jewish philanthropies are tending toward smaller projects. Indeed, in this day and age, perhaps we need to think locally in order to act globally.

Eshman concluded that our job is “not just to change and innovate, but to leave behind something better, something substantial. It likely won’t be actual buildings, but it should be something the next generation can build upon.”

How about, for starters — crossed path by crossed path, person by person, angel by angel — a rescued world?

For more information about the Survivor Mitzvah Project, call (800) 905-6160 or visit

Obituaries


Madeleine Adler died April 13 at 83. She is survived by her daughter, Jackie (Doug) Bristol; son, Robert (Maxine); two grandchildren; and sister, Vera Adler. Malinow and Silverman

Mollye Polin Aranoff died April 24 at 96. She is survived by her daughter, Leslie (Robert) Aranoff-Hirschman; grandchildren Halley Hirschman and Stacey (Michael) Woodhart; and great-grandchildren, Kaleigh and Alex Woodhart. Hillside Memorial Park

Abe Aronow died April 22 at 61. He is survived by his brohter, Sam (Elizabeth); and sister, Greta. Mount Sinai

Jane Axel died April 22 at 90. She is survived by her son, Robert (Linda); daughter, Karin (John Hondershot) Honigberg; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Rae Louise Avrutin died April 20 at 92. She is survived by her daughters, Ricki (Ken Draper) and Sherry; brother, Leon Prasow; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Groman

Benjamin Bain died April 18 at 94. He is survived by his daughter, Beverly (Mark) Finkelstein; sons, Norman (Neskat) and Leslie (Linda); six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Shelly Bear died April 14 at 62. She is survived by her daughter, Michelle; son, Michael; and brother, Tony (Christine) Rose. Mount Sinai

George Harvey Blum died April 14 at 92. He is survived by his daughter, Marta (Shahpoor Ashorzadeh) Blum; and son, Matthew. Mount Sinai

Jennie Candiotti died April 25 at 98. She is survived by her son, Ruben; daughter, Molly; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Groman

Miriam Ellis died April 20 at 89. She is survived by her daughter, Jacqueline Dermer; and grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Manuel Fertell died April 17 at 84. He is survived by his son, Eliot. Malinow and Silverman

Zelda Siteman Freeberger died April 26 at 93; she is survived by her daughter, Michelle Siteman Shwartz; son, Frank; three grandchildren; nieces; and nephews. Malinow and Silverman

Frances Freeman died April 23 at 97. She is survived by her sons, Michael and Alan (Alice); three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Miles Gardner died April 18 at 76. He is survived by his wife, Beverly; children, Jonathan (Lori), Audrey (William Schumacher) and Jeffrey (Nancy); and three grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Gustave “Gus” Hermes died April 24 at 77. He is survived by his daughters, Rhonda Lipnicki, Rosalin (Marty) Mandelberg and Tamar (Matt Earl Beesley); son, Russell (Kat) Rosen; seven grandchildren; and brother, Jerry. Mount Sinai

Sadie Ruth Jaro died April 19 at 94. She is survived by her sons, Robert (Laurie) and Larry (Sara); daughter, Barbara (Gershon) Waintraub; four grandchildren; and great-grandchild. Mount Sinai

Lillian Kaiser died April 23 at 96. She is survived by her son, Ronald; and by grandchildren, Jennifer and Daniel. Mount Sinai

Charlene Kaplan died April 22 at 70. She is survived by her friends. Groman

Estelle Klein died April 14 at 99. She is survived by her son, Laurence (Betsy); daughters, Barbara (Ronald Mitchell) and Judy; 10 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Beulah Kraveitz died April 23 at 94. She is survived by her son, Mark; and two grandchildren. Groman

Michael Kreinman died April 23 at 76. He is survived by his wife, Lynn; daughters, Diana (Jonathan) Rodgers and Karen (William Basore); grandson, Bram Elijah Rodgers; nieces; and nephews. Malinow and Silverman

Estelle Kreitzer died April 28 at 86. She is survived by her son, Philip. Malinow and Silverman

Dr. Irvin Jack Leven died April 13 at 83. He is survived by his wife, Evelyn; sons, Paul (Saralyn)and Steven (Susan); five grandchildren; and sister, Phyllis Heft. Eden

Dr. Eileen Levine died April 15 at 57. She is survived by her husband, Michael. Malinow and Silverman

David Massoth died April 13 at 86. He is survived by his wife, Roberta; daughters, Donna (Leo) Santiago and Susan (Gil) Abrams; son, Richard (Lise LaFlamme); six grandchildren; sisters, Lillian (Warren) Neidenberg and Leanna Berlin; and brother-in-law, Jack Berlin. Malinow and Silverman

Shirley Mastin died April 24 at 86. She is survived by her daughter, Helene Cohen. Malinow and Silverman

Edward Merkow died April 15 at 75. He is survived by his daughter, Jan (David) Fryman; sons, Michael (Elena), Todd (Lisa) and Eric (Dawn); eight grandchildren; and sister, Esther Shapiro. Malinow and Silverman

Esther Meshul died April 26 at 94. She is survived by her husband, Sol; daughters, Myna (Rabbi Uri) Herscher and Renee (Tom Klitcher); son, Cary (Roxanne Sylvester); six grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; sister, Sylvia Greene; and brothers, Bernard Kliska and Beie. Mount Sinai

Freda Mesnik died April 12 at 93. She is survived by her son, Stuart (Barbara); six grandchildren; and great-grandchild. Mount Sinai

Carol Nash died April 16 at 86. She is survived by her sons, Anthony and Robert. Malinow and Silverman

Sylvia Novak died April 19 at 84. She is survived by her sons, Jonathan and David (Isabelle); and grandson, Yitzhak (Aviva). Mount Sinai

Marilyn Orzeck died April 22 at 74. She is survived by her daughter, Elise; son, Toren (Jill); grandson, Alexander; sister, Sally (Sheldon) Goldman; and brother, Harold (Elaine) Adelman. Mount Sinai

Grusha Paterson-Mills died April 15 at 97. She is survived by her husband, Alvin Mills; daughter, Judy (Dr Emanuel) Baker; son, Richard Marcus; stepsons, Robert and Steven Mills; stepdaughters, Maria Mills, Elaine (Eric) Eaydian and Janette (William) Grigg; grandchildren, David (Marissa) Marcus and Ellen Cuningham; five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Ivan Phillips died April 12 at 89. He is survived by his daughter, Shirlee (Ken) Frost; sons, Randy (Beth) and Gary (Vicki); and grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Betty Polachek died April 28 at 91. She is survived by her son, Michael (Jane); daughter, Joanne (Colin) Lennard; eight grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Sylvia Prager died April 20 at 98. She is survived by her daughter, Karen Strauss. Malinow and Silverman

Estelle Rosenberg died April 25 at 87. She is survived by her son, Mark (Sona); and two grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Richard Rosett died April 19 at 65. He is survived by his wife, Sharon; daughter, Ilene (David) Tucker; son, Michael (Mya); and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Even the subtlest slight deserves a challenge


It happens to all of us. You are with friends, engaged in small talk, and then someone makes a disparaging comment about a common acquaintance. You didn’t
see the insult coming, but there it is. It’s entered the conversation.

What should you do? Should you challenge the slight or let it go by unaddressed?

Before you can process your thoughts, the small talk has moved on to another subject — the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the latest presidential debate, the writers’ strike. The insult remains unchallenged.

In parshat Miketz, Joseph faces the same dilemma — and he essentially freezes.

In a whirlwind turn of events, he is taken from his prison cell to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams about fat and emaciated cows, fat and emaciated ears of grain, and soon he is viceroy of Egypt. As Rav Avigdor Miller teaches, the entire dream sequence was a Divine gift to open the door for a series of events to unfold that would result in the unfathomable: a decision by the grand Pharaoh to allow an extended family of approximately 70 immigrants to be given their own canton in Egypt, where they could grow and evolve as a people, safely enough isolated from the rest of society to retain their language, their manners of dress, their names as well as their values and traditions.

Soon, Joseph becomes supplier of food to all of Egypt, and his influence progressively extends throughout the region. Our rabbis tell us in Tractate Pesachim 119a, for example, that he ultimately ingathered into Egypt all the gold and silver in the known world as he doled out food — first for money, later for land and indenture.

In time, his brothers arrive, sent by patriarch Jacob to seek food. When they arrive, they don’t recognize Joseph, although Joseph recognizes them.

Some say that when Joseph was sold into slavery at 17 he had not yet grown significant facial hair, so his new full beard effectively masked his appearance. Presumably it was easier for Joseph to spot Issachar and Zevulun, who were proximate to Joseph’s age when he was sold into slavery, because they were among the other brothers he knew and recognized. The Chasam Sofer adds that Hashem aided Joseph’s effort to disguise himself, placing in Pharaoh’s head the idea of changing Joseph’s name to Tzafnat Panayach (Genesis 41:45). Had the brothers been introduced to an Egyptian Viceroy named Joseph, well….

Joseph chose to play hardball rather than disclose his identity. In part, he knew that his brothers’ “first impression” of him — dating to boyhood — was that of “little Joey,” and he needed to redefine that first impression by getting them accustomed to fearing him, even prostrating, so that they ultimately would follow his plan to relocate them in Goshen.

Further, to protect his plan of disguise, he accused the brothers of being spies. Our rabbis tell us that Joseph harbored concerns that the brothers would snoop around Egypt, looking for their long-lost sibling. Therefore, to protect his secret, he acted to stop them in their tracks, accusing them of espionage. That very accusation compelled them to stop asking questions around town.

Joseph and the brothers converse briefly during each of their two visits for food. In the first round, he levels his accusations and eventually sends them on their way with instructions to bring back Benjamin. The second time, they are back — this time with Benjamin — and again they banter. And then come words that Joseph did not anticipate; they are simple words but with a terrible sting. He asks the brothers “Is your elderly father, about whom you told me, at peace?” And they respond: “Your servant — our father — is at peace. He still lives” (Genesis 43:27-28).

Joseph did not see that response coming. He may even have missed its import. But our rabbis in Sotah 13b point a laser at it: Joseph heard his father being ever slightly denigrated, described as his “servant,” and he did not say anything to elevate his father Jacob’s honor. He let the term pass. “Your servant — our father.”

It certainly would have been quirky for the viceroy of Egypt to have demonstrated humility. But that was the call of the hour.

Joseph allowed his father’s honor to pass undefended at that moment. Our rabbis teach that, later in his life, Joseph’s own honor was downgraded. In contrast to Jacob, who instructed his sons to “carry me” after death from Egypt back to the Holy Land for burial (Genesis 47:30), Joseph instructed his brothers to “carry my bones” from this place after his death for burial (Genesis 50:25). In the end, Jacob would end his days with the dignity of his personage intact. And Joseph would die, speaking only of the bones he would be leaving behind.

Clearly, Joseph lived and died a great man — Joseph the Tzadik, we have called him throughout history — but the lesson is instructive.

A person’s name is his or her greatest asset. His honor and dignity are his greatest resources and treasures. Any slight to that name carries a steep price. And anyone who hears an unjustified disparagement and lets it pass by unanswered is an accessory.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.

Right or Righteous?


Have you ever dealt with someone who insisted s/he was right — even smugly so — while actually being objectively, measurably and completely wrong?

Now, let me ask a tougher question: Have you ever been that person? If so, you are in good — and plentiful — company.

In this week’s portion, Vayeshev, Judah marries his son Er to Tamar. But Er is evil, and God takes his life. Because Er dies childless, his brother, Onan, marries Tamar in compliance with the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5). Children from their union would “belong” to Er and perpetuate his name, and therefore also reduce Onan’s portion of the family estate. Onan “spills his seed,” rather than impregnate Tamar. When God takes Onan’s life in punishment, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house to wait for his third son. But Judah considers Tamar a “black widow,” and has no intention of providing her protection and progeny through a third marriage.

A long while later, Judah loses his own spouse. Tamar finds out where his travels will take him following the mourning period, and waits at the crossroads, posing as a prostitute. She requests his distinctive seal, cord and staff for collateral, until the payment of a kid can be delivered. Later, the “prostitute” who has Judah’s proprietary items cannot be found to make the exchange.

About three months later, Judah is told that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Everyone assumes that Tamar is guilty of harlotry, since she is supposedly awaiting levirate marriage. Judah calls for her to be brought out and burned for adultery. She sends him the seal, cord, and staff with the message: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong.” Understanding the lengths to which Tamar has gone, he announces: “She is more right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her my [third] son.” Not only is Tamar’s life spared, one of the twins she carries is Perez, progenitor of David and the Messiah.

Judah thought his first two sons suffered because of Tamar. He thought he was sparing his third son. He thought she betrayed the family. He had it entirely wrong.

To Judah’s credit, he acknowledges the children he sired and the justice of Tamar’s position. He can’t make everything right; he can’t give Tamar a real marriage or compensate her for lost time and honor. Yet his admission of guilt and fallibility makes him not only more likable, but actually more righteous. Saying, “I’m wrong and you’re right” is a crucial step in his moral development. It enables him to repent and in some way compensate for the greatest wrong of his life: selling his brother, Joseph, into slavery.

With Tamar, Judah is proven wrong by the collateral (eravon, 38:18) he leaves behind. Then — and perhaps, therefore — he is able to offer himself as collateral (anochi e’ervenu, 43:9), and protect Benjamin in a way that he failed to protect Joseph years before. When Benjamin is framed for a crime, Judah, having pledged himself (arav, 44:32) for the boy, pleads to be enslaved in his stead. Only in the face of this expression of love and righteousness, does Joseph finally reveal himself and forgive his brothers.

There is a modern-day term for the inability to admit wrongdoing: sociopathy. A conscience that cannot feel guilt is capable of untold evil. An ability to look critically at ourselves, to see where we are wrong, is the beginning of making things right.

Being right — in the narrow sense of “correct” — amounts to very little, if a correct position isn’t also righteous. Joseph is correct in interpreting his dreams of domination and superiority to his family, but he is also insensitive and inflammatory. He is right again, according to midrash, in what he tells his father about his brothers’ bad behavior. But in Jewish law, unlike American, truth is not a defense against defamation. Accuracy is not piety.

Judah wins Joseph’s heart and heals the breach between the brothers not because he is right, but because he is righteous.

I like to think that Judah, after fearing and ignoring Tamar, learns from her. He learns to question his own position and to treat those who may be wrong with kindness. Tamar is right when she advocates for herself, Er, and her future children. And she is righteous in the way she makes her claim. She could have exacted revenge and humiliated Judah, displaying his personal items and publicly naming him as the father. Instead, she sends him a private message that allows him to preserve his dignity.

Tamar takes a risk because Judah might have let her burn, rather than admit he was wrong. In fact, it’s because she could have burned that the rabbis teach, “better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to publicly shame another” (Ketubot 67b). Tamar is willing to risk more than most human beings to be righteous. She is also willing to see more nuance than most of us. Her father-in-law was wrong, but that’s not all he was. Despite the way Judah treated her, Tamar is able to see some decency in him and decides to trust him. Between the time he recognizes his belongings and the time he pronounces “she is more right than I,” they are both in peril. The exchange between them is a gift of grace for and by them both. Tamar is finally recognized, as so many family members long to be. Judah discovers that, though wrong, he can still choose to be righteous. And so can we.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (www.makom.org).

For Cryin’ Out Loud


Upon analyzing Vayigash, one of my bar mitzvah students commented: “Joseph sure cries a lot … it’s kinda weird.”

Well put. In fact, Joseph does
not simply cry — he weeps. A lot! “Aloud [so] that all of Egypt and the house of Paro heard.”

He turns on the waterworks upon revealing his identity to his brothers (who had attempted to kill him last he saw them). Later his tears stream down his maternal brother Benjamin’s neck, then on the rest of their necks, and then on his father’s neck. Yup, Joey’s a bawler with a seemingly strange affinity for necks.

Indeed, this is peculiar behavior. I mean, guys aren’t supposed to cry, right? They’re supposed to be stoic, autonomous, aggressive. Babies cry. Women cry (5.3 times more often than men — statistics say). For women, weeping in front of each other demonstrates trust. Conversely, while men might feel like sniveling as often as women, actually doing so exhibits weakness — especially in front of other men (research indicates that displaying such emotions communicates an easy target for attack; hence, men rarely cry in public).

The mere fact that Joseph felt so free to blubber is unmanly. But to do so repeatedly, publicly, in front of men already guilty of attacking him, and with an emotionally demented father having raised him? (Remember, Jacob is the guy that tricked his own father into a birthright without displaying any remorse, and later responded to news that his daughter had been raped and kidnapped without so much as a whimper.) It’s just weird!

Across time and in every society, the fact remains: Men don’t cry much. Get angry? Forceful? Absolutely. But tears and neck nuzzling are displays of vulnerability that have no place in definitively masculine behavior.

Yet, Vayigash narrates the triumph of a man clearly in touch with his feminine side over his family’s preoccupation with manliness, and in so doing, cleans up a whole bunch of karma — more aptly described within our faith as tikkun and teshuvah; mainstream Jewish ideas of “what comes around goes around” are not as much connected with reincarnation as with inheritance, and the notion of a soul needing to clean up consequences from past sins is recognized through family lineage.

Exodus 20:5-6 states: “I … your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children….” In Judaism, the sins of fathers are acceded to their sons, who must repair those transgressions through their own lives and return the long shadow of their souls to the light.

Applying this idea to Vayigash, it is interesting to note that the word “father” is repeated 38 times! It seems that Joseph has the responsibility of repairing his old man’s mistakes — by expressing emotions while Jacob could not, by embracing his own frailty while Jacob envied his brother’s physical strength, by prevailing over his siblings’ jealous and covert attempts to diminish him while Jacob got away with it. Joseph redeems his father’s transgressions.

While Jacob had to physically wrestle with, and triumph over, the archetype of man in the darkness to redeem esteem in his own physical strength, his son’s power came by passively allowing other men to exhibit dominance over him, lifting him out of a well of darkness in order that he help them from their own shadows by shedding light on their dreams.

Whereas Jacob concealed himself under a garment of fur so that his blind father would not recognize his lack of hair/masculinity, Joseph proudly sported his father’s gift of a multicolored coat — dazzling to the eye, but not terribly macho. As Jacob’s brother raged at him for stealing the favoritism to which he was entitled, Joseph’s brothers raged at him for receiving the favoritism to which they were entitled; while Jacob waited until his blind, dying father could only use his hands for recognition and concealed his identity before him, Joseph revealed his identity to his father before he died and “put his hand over his eyes” (Genesis 46:4).

Joseph wept because his faithful embrace of the trials and seeming betrayals presented during his life had returned him, with his family, to wholeness. He shed tears for all the men that get angry when they want to cry and all the women who cry when they are angry. He sobbed for those that confuse vulnerability with weakness, and in so doing demonstrated the power that comes from full exposure, freedom from resistance, depth of experience, and the capacity to respond with presence and authenticity — as all great and charismatic people do. He cried out his release from the past in forgiveness and understanding that it all had to be as it was, and in joy for the gift of reuniting in love.

Weeping is underrated. It is the expression of intense and inspiring moments of all colors. We can only laugh when things are funny, but we can cry from grief, joy, love, despair. In our doing so, we reunite the expression of the sacred feminine with the masculine in to One; we return the long shadows of our parents to the light, and together we laugh through our tears at the perfect and ironic balance of it all.

Kinda weird.


Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a a freelance officant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She will be teaching several classes for The University of Judaism’s Adult Studies program during their winter semester. You can reach her at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Familial Forgiveness


 

The syllabus for my USC general education class includes both Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Chapters 37-50 of Genesis — the Joseph story or “novella.” These two narratives share themes that commend themselves: forgiveness and reconciliation. Both Prospero and Joseph were set upon by their own brothers and narrowly escaped death. Both protagonists contributed to their victim role — Prospero through neglecting governance and Joseph by insensitive boasting. In the end, though, both forgive those who abused them — enabling their family circle to be repaired and the next generation blessed. Just as Prospero realizes that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” so, too, does the instinct for reconciliation surge through Joseph.

Just barely, however. And it is in this week’s parsha where Joseph turns the corner. That turn allows him to be a brother and son while also being himself. In effect, that turn enabled us to become the Jewish people who went out of Egypt and returned to Israel. Such turning is not easy, then or now, within a family or within a people.

The stellar moment of Parshat Vayigash comes when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Does my father yet live?” (Genesis 45:3).

For me, Joseph’s trumpeting of his individual identity within a complex social situation echoes across the millennia: “It is I, Hamlet the Dane.” “Call me Ishmael.” “I am an invisible man.” We know from literature and our own lives how difficult it can be, not only to forgive those who wrong us, but to be both our parents’ child and our own self. American society keeps struggling to strike the right balance between self and other, healthy individualism and civic cohesion. We could do worse than Joseph as a model, precisely because such balancing does not come easy to him.

Upon reflection, it’s clear that being able to forgive requires the stretching of personal borders and the capacity to take a broad view. Ironically, only a secure person or people can manage such a stretch; only a firm hold on one’s own life thread permits that thread’s being woven into a larger tapestry. Through suffering, Joseph has sloughed off his egotism and gained a clear sense of God’s providence. So matured, he reassures his brothers with great sensitivity: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He does this while still realistically urging them to “not be quarrelsome on the way” back to their father, Jacob (Genesis 45:4 and 24).

I will not assume that others have as much trouble as I being like the Joseph of Parshat Vayigash. For me, it has not been easy to get beyond familial and other breaches. The struggle continues to transcend resentment for past ills and discern the outlines of a divine plan. On the Jewish level, it can be hard to meet inner needs and participate in community. It is also hard to hold together ahavat Yisrael — the special bond among Jews — with acknowledgment of where we have done wrong, forgiveness of the wrongs that have been done to us and effort to repair the damage and move toward the wholeness that is peace.

All the levels of our lives are linked and require constant tuning. As individuals who belong to families, as American citizens who are members of both the Jewish people and the world order, we have to be able to forgive in order to go forward. From beginning to end, our sacred scripture, the Tanach, records disruption and repair in irregular sequence. Until the Messiah comes, the best we can do is strive toward the enlightenment and clear-sighted resolve displayed by our patriarch Jacob at the end of Chapter 45: “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Jan. 5, 2001.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle is dean of religious life at USC.

 

A Portion of Parshat Mikketz


Do you remember your dreams? In both last week’s and this week’s parshot, dreams play a big part in the story. First, Joseph dreams that the sun, the moon and 11 stars are bowing down to him. His 11 brothers get very angry with him. They say, “Is that what you think? That we are going to bow down to you?”

In Mikketz, Pharoah dreams, too, first about cows, and then about stalks of grain. After Joseph interprets the dreams for Pharoah, he is freed from prison and soon becomes the grand vizier of Egypt. His brothers come down to Egypt looking for food, and they end up bowing down to him. Finally, the dreams that Joseph had 20 years before came true.

Some people keep a “dream journal” near their beds, so that they can write their dreams down as soon as they get up, before they forget them. You might want to try this, too. You never know what you might learn about yourself from your dreams.

Familial Forgiveness


The syllabus for my USC general education class includes both Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and chapters 37-50 of Genesis — the Joseph story or “novella.” These two narratives share themes that commend themselves: forgiveness and reconciliation. Both Prospero and Joseph were set upon by their own brothers and narrowly escaped death. Both protagonists contributed to their victim role — Prospero through neglecting governance and Joseph by insensitive boasting. In the end, though, both forgive those who abused them — enabling their family circle to be repaired and the next generation blessed. Just as Prospero realizes that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” so too does the instinct for reconciliation surge through Joseph.

Just barely, however. And it is in this week’s parasha where Joseph turns the corner. That turn allows him to be a brother and son while also being himself. In effect, that turn enabled us to become the Jewish people who went out of Egypt and returned to Israel. Such turning is not easy, then or now, within a family or within a people.

The stellar moment of Parashat Vayigash comes when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Does my father yet live?” (45:3). For me, Joseph’s trumpeting of his individual identity within a complex social situation echoes across the millennia: “It is I, Hamlet the Dane.” “Call me Ishmael.” “I am an invisible man.” We know from literature and our own lives how difficult it can be, not only to forgive those who wrong us, but to be both our parents’ child and our own self. American society keeps struggling to strike the right balance between self and other, healthy individualism and civic cohesion. We could do worse than Joseph as a model, precisely because such balancing does not come easy to him.

Upon reflection, it’s clear that being able to forgive requires the stretching of personal borders and the capacity to take a broad view. Ironically, only a secure person or people can manage such a stretch; only a firm hold on one’s own life thread permits that thread’s being woven into a larger tapestry. Through suffering, Joseph has sloughed off his egotism and gained a clear sense of God’s providence. So matured, he reassures his brothers with great sensitivity: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He does this while still realistically urging them to “not be quarrelsome on the way” back to their father Jacob (45: 4 and 24).

I will not assume that others have as much trouble as I being like the Joseph of Parashat Vayigash. For me, it has not been easy to get beyond familial and other breaches. The struggle continues to transcend resentment for past ills and discern the outlines of a divine plan. On the Jewish level, it can be hard to meet inner needs and participate in community. Hard also to hold together ahavat Yisrael — the special bond among Jews — with acknowledgment of where we have done wrong, forgiveness of the wrongs that have been done to us, and effort to repair the damage and move toward the wholeness that is peace.

All the levels of our lives are linked and require constant tuning. As individuals who belong to families, as American citizens who are members of both the Jewish people and the world order, we have to be able to forgive in order to go forward. From beginning to end, our sacred scripture, the Tanach, records disruption and repair in irregular sequence. Until the Messiah comes, the best we can do is strive toward the enlightenment and clear-sighted resolve displayed by our patriarch Jacob at the end of chapter 45: “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”


Rabbi Susan Laemmle is dean of religious life at USC.

Sibling Rivalry


It’s a cautionary tale for parents, and one whose message will resonate with children: the new DreamWorks telling of the biblical tale of Joseph in the animated direct-to-video film “Joseph: King of Dreams.”In a style similar to that of “The Prince of Egypt,” which told the story of Moses, “Joseph: King of Dreams” imagines the childhood of Joseph and illustrates the dangers of favoring one child and the extremes to which sibling rivalry can lead. Animated by their jealousy, Joseph’s brothers sell their preferred brother to Egyptian slave traders. It’s an act they come to regret.

Fortunately for Joseph, he has an ability to interpret dreams, a talent that ultimately helps move him from slavery to a position as a powerful advisor in the court of the Egyptian pharaoh.

In Egypt, happily married and a father himself, Joseph one day encounters his own brothers, who have come to plead for food. It is a time of famine, a situation that Joseph had foreseen, and for which Egypt was well-prepared due to Joseph’s accurate interpretation of a recurrent dream Pharaoh had had.

Although he is now a powerful grown man, Joseph struggles with himself over how to treat his brothers, as his hurt, anger and desire to be loved by his family emerge once again – a situation with which any child could identify. And we see Joseph’s wish to forgive and help his family win out over his desire for revenge – a useful lesson to all.

The film ends with a joyous but sad reunion with his beloved father, Jacob; sad because of all the lost years when they weren’t together, joyous because they finally found each other. Then Joseph welcomes the family, and they live with him in the palace.

It’s a well-told and compelling story, one your children will find riveting. In fact, 9-year-old Tzvia Berrin-Reinstein has this to say: “I think if kids liked ‘The Prince of Egypt,’ they’ll like ‘Joseph: King of Dreams,’ [which has] the same kind of characters.” Tzvia especially liked “the music,” and “Joseph’s coat, which was all shiny.” Asked if she would like to watch it again, the answer was a resounding “Yes.”

The film includes the voices of Ben Affleck (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Armageddon”), Mark Hamill (“Star Wars”), Steven Weber (TV’s “Wings”), and Judith Light (TV’s “Who’s the Boss?”) and features five new songs by John Bucchino, sung by Jodi Benson (“The Little Mermaid”), David Campbell and Maureen McGovern.

It is directed by Robert Ramirez and Rob LaDuca and produced by Ken Tsumura, with a screenplay by Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, Joe Stilman and Marshall Goldberg.

The movie is currently in release. Look for it in your local video store.

Rich in Spirit


There’s a Yiddish saying that goes: “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Believe me, rich is better!” In the Midrash we read: “Nothing in the universe is worse than poverty; it is the most terrible of sufferings.” (Exodus Rabbah 31:14)

Los Angeles is a city that glitters with gold and at the same time is tarnished with dirt. The billboards up and down Sunset Boulevard with their perfect models wearing the latest fashion fall in sharp contrast with the homeless and hungry of our city.

In this week’s Torah portion our people actually live through a fall from wealth to poverty. In it we read that Joseph — Pharaoh’s right-hand man — is put in charge of preparing for seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of scarcity. Then “when the famine was over all the face of the earth, Joseph opened all the places that had food in them and sold the grain to the Egyptians.” (Genesis 41:56)

According to the Midrash, when the famine in Egypt devoured the land, the first to recognize it were the wealthy, not the poor. Why so? Because the poor easily become accustomed to a lack of food, clothing and material goods. They are unable to see disaster when it hits since their lives are regularly filled with turmoil. But the rich are used to fine food, private school education, a house overlooking the ocean and exotic vacations. The rich are the first to feel the loss of a job or a fall in the economy.

This contrast of rich and poor is highlighted in the “December Dilemma” many families experience during this Chanukah season. Our children look around and see department stores and commercials advertising the latest, greatest items and parents feel as though we need to compete with Christmas and give our children eight presents for the eight nights of Chanukah.

Whether we are rich, poor or most likely somewhere in between, we get swept up in the corrupting consumerism of Christmas. (Not what Christmas is truly about, but what it has become.) Ironically, Chanukah is actually about the rejection of the pagan world (in modern times read: December consumerism) and the fight to maintain our Jewish set of practices. Our ancestors fought a battle because Judah Maccabee and his courageous followers refused to reject their faith in God, their customs, and their religious traditions. They saw the Jews getting drawn into the negative attributes of the larger culture, and risked their lives to uphold our unique ways. By participating in December’s gift giving madness, we are disregarding Chanukah’s main message. Instead of reaping the best of the secular culture, we are teaching our children that material goods are Chanukah’s reward, rather than Chanukah’s main message: We are unique and different, and proud of it. We as Jews need not fall into the corrupting paganism of our time. We have wonderfully rich traditions that teach our values and vision for the future.

When I share this approach with my congregants, I urge them to consider how they can create a special Chanukah tradition in their home to take the place of presents. One tradition I grew up with was that every night of Chanukah my parents would play the same Chanukah record as we sang along and danced in front of the burning lights. Then we all went into the bedroom while my parents hid three pieces of Chanukah gelt, one for each child, in the living room. Each night we would play “hot and cold” and try and find the gelt. We all knew that our Christian, and many of our Jewish friends, received many presents, but after a few years the excitement and ritual of our tradition became more meaningful than my friends forgotten gifts.

Then one day on the first night of Chanukah, years later in my college dorm room, my Christian roommate asked me to suddenly leave the room. When I came back in she said, “OK, now it’s time for hot and cold.” I couldn’t believe it. A huge smile came to my face, and I knew that my parents had truly taught me the meaning of Chanukah. Presents come and go, but memories of a rich Jewish tradition remain forever.


Michelle Missaghieh is rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

The Image of an Honorable Man


Every summer, my sisters and I, along with our husbands and children, spend a few days with our parents at Red’s Meadow resort near Mammoth. The cabins are rustic; the air is bracing; the pace is deliciously unhurried. By now, our visits are a cluster of beloved rituals. One day we go fishing; one day we take the short trail to Rainbow Falls; and on the third day, when we’re used to the altitude, we go hiking with my father up the mountain to Shadow Lake.

The rest of us keep up a constant stream of commentary while we’re walking, but my father never says much. He is close to 70 this year, but, as far as I can tell, he has no trouble making the climb. He does it the way he does everything — quietly, dependably, never flashy, but strong and steady on his feet. I like to watch him taking the trail like a mountain man, or standing contented at the summit when we’ve reached the shore of the lake. That’s how I picture him all through the year, while I’m in my office and he’s in his — still working, with no thought of retiring yet. My father doesn’t know the meaning of quit.

This week, the Torah brings us the story of Joseph, a vain, spoiled boy at odds with his brothers. Joseph is a dreamer; he’s full of self-importance; he’s a snoop, a tattletale, a troublemaker — no wonder Jacob’s other sons find him insufferable. Because he dreams of power, because his dreams nakedly reveal his yearning to rule over his brothers, our Sages tell us that Joseph deserves the comeuppance he gets: cast into a pit, sold into slavery, carried down to Egypt, where he’ll spend the rest of his life.

But Joseph is, above all, a work in progress. At one pivotal moment in our portion, the spoiled boy emerges as a man of substance. Handsome young Joseph is pursued by the wife of Potiphar, his Egyptian employer. She is frank and importunate in her sexual demands: “Lie with me,” she commands. Joseph puts her off, but she persists. Finally, she catches him alone in the house, seizes him bodily and insists that he take her to bed. And Joseph, unaccountably, becomes a hero. Defying his master’s wife, resisting the urgent call of his own adolescent hormones, he tears himself away and flees.

How does Joseph find the strength to resist the wiles of Potiphar’s wife? He isn’t sure, at first, how to handle the situation; the Talmud suggests that he came into the empty house ready to give in to her demands. But at that crucial moment, says the midrash, Joseph saw his father’s image before him. He saw Jacob’s face, he heard his voice, and, all at once, Joseph knew the right thing to do.

Esa einai el he-harim,” says Psalm 121. “I lift my eyes to the mountains — from where will my help come?” And a midrash comments: “Our fathers are called ‘mountains.'” From where shall our help come? From those who made us, from those who formed us and shaped our minds and hearts, from the parents and grandparents whose lessons we will never forget. They are monumental in our memory; the touch of their hands lives forever; their voices echo as long as we live.

Like Joseph, I think of my father, and of the help that has come from him for so many years — quiet, steady, dependable, unstinting. He will always be a picture of strength to me, even when he’s no longer strong enough to hike the Sierra Nevada. It helps to hold before you the image of an honorable man. Sometimes, when you need him most, he helps you figure out the right thing to do.


Rabbi Janet Ross Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council.