Friday, December 28, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: A Midrash on the Origins of the Sh'ma

Scholars of liturgy tell us there are three categories of prayer: petition, where we ask God for something; thanksgiving, where we thank God for something; and praise, where we praise God for something. Admittedly, the line between prayers of praise and of thanksgiving can be a little unclear.

When teaching this material, I then go on to ask about the Shema. Most of us have been taught at one point or another that the Shema is the "most important prayer in Judaism." If so, which category of prayer does it fit into?

The students then discover that the "most important prayer in Judaism" is not, in fact, a prayer at all. It isn't even addressed to God -- it's addressed to us, Israel, the Jewish people.

What is the origin of the Shema? There is a legend that places it in the encounter in this week's parasha between Jacob and his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. The biblical text itself tells us that when Jacob was on his deathbed in Egypt, Joseph brings his sons to visit their grandfather. He doesn't know who they are and asks Joseph "mi elleh?," who are they?

Now we delve into the realm of midrash. Why didn't Jacob recognize his own grandchildren? Perhaps because they were dressed as the children of an Egyptian noble and spoke Egyptian rather than Hebrew to each other. So Jacob could not possibly believe that these assimilated young men were indeed his Hebrew grandchildren. When told that this is indeed who they were, he was distraught.

At that point, the grandchildren said to him "Shema, Yisrael. Listen up, Israel (remember that this was Jacob's other name, given to him by the angel). Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad -- Adonai is our God, Adonai alone." And Jacob was so relieved to hear this, he replied "baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va-ed -- praised be God's name for ever and ever!"

This midrash comes to teach us that the essence of Jewish identity is not language or dress but belief and behavior. We are Jews not because we share our ancestors dress and language -- indeed, many Jews do not even have Jewish biological ancestors -- but rather because we share the Patriarchs' and Matriarchs' faith in God and observance of mitzvot.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Exile

More than twenty years ago, when I was the Hillel director at the University of Virginia, I went with a few friends to see an English-language performance of a Palestinian theater company. The play was set in a mythical future, and in it a messenger is sent to a Palestinian family living in Boston. The Palestinian state has been established, the messenger tells them, and they make plans to donate money to help the new entity. But the messenger informs them that no, he has not come to collect money. Rather, he has come to inform them that it is time to come back to Palestine. They explain that they can't do that at the moment. There are all kinds of reasons -- a child has to finish college, another child has medical needs that can only be met in the United States, and so on. They definitely plan to go live in Palestine, but not yet. In the meantime, please accept our donations for our needy brothers and sisters.

All of us in our small group laughed uncomfortably. We had all spent some serious time in Israel. A couple of us had made unsuccessful attempts at aliyah (immigration to Israel) and all of us knew Israelis families that were living in the US, some for many years, yet always steadfastly maintained that they had not left Israel permanently and would go back when conditions allowed. It seemed that "diaspora Palestinians" were not all that different from Jews.

In Parashat Va-yigash which we read this week, Jacob is preparing to leave Israel and join his son Joseph with the rest of the family in Egypt. He doesn't really want to leave Israel, but God tells him (Genesis 46:4) "I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely bring you up again." Rabbi Jacob miLita's commentary on this verse says that God is foreseeing here that Jacob's descendants would become used to exile, because God would "go down with" us to Egypt but "bring" us up . This implies that the descent to Egypt was voluntary but that God would have to use force to get us out of exile and back to the Promised Land.

Every day many of our prayers include a petition to God to bring us out of exile and return us to Zion. Yet a return to Zion is as close as the nearest airport. And the number of American Jews who have successfully made aliyah is dwarfed by the number of Israelis living more-or-less permanently in the United States. Is exile the natural condition of the Jewish people? What do you think?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Amalek, Guns, and Us

Sermon Delivered Friday Evening Dec. 14 2012
Rabbi Charles Arian
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD

In the Jewish tradition the epitome of evil is Amalek. In Deuteronomy 17 we are taught why there is a war between God and Amalek forever: “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.”

Judaism teaches us to have special care for the most vulnerable among us, those who are helpless and defenseless. The Amalekites are considered especially evil because they attacked, not soldiers, but precisely those who were most helpless and defenseless -- the elderly, the stragglers, and children.

My friend Rabbi Jack Bloom of Fairfield CT wrote an article some years on “Amalek and Us” where he points out that the Hebrew text, as opposed to most English translations, is actually fairly ambiguous. The Hebrew does not really make explicit that it was Amalek who did not fear God. The Hebrew says “atah ayef v’yageah, v’lo ya’rei ‘elohim” --- literally, “you were tired and weary and did not fear God.” While most translations assume that it is Amalek who did not fear God, the Hebrew text leaves open the possibility that it was the Israelites who did not fear God. In their own weariness, in their own fear, they were the ones who left the most vulnerable members of their society defenseless. Yes, Amalek was evil and there is no justification for attacking the weary and the stragglers; but it was us who did not fear God, by leaving the vulnerable exposed, and it is our own inaction which allowed Amalek to attack.

Our children are the most dependent and vulnerable members of our society and this morning we failed to protect them, and thus Amalek, the epitome of evil, struck. A society is judged by how well it cares for those who are most vulnerable, and this morning our society failed. Rabbi Bloom teaches us that if we don’t take care of the defenseless ones, we do not fear God. And the truth is, we don’t. The Shabbat after Columbine I gave a sermon and I said I would not rest until we had stronger gun laws in our country. And I was very passionate about the issue for about two weeks and then things pretty much went back to normal. And I am sure that I am not alone.

Do we fear God? Do our politicians fear God or do they fear the NRA? Until we figure out a way to protect the most defenseless ones who have been entrusted to our care, we have truly failed as a society.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Joseph Dines Solo

Joseph's brothers have come down to Egypt a second time, this time

bringing with them their youngest brother Benjamin. Joseph of course

knows who they are but they still do not know who he is. The brothers

are invited to a festive banquet at Joseph's house. The seating

arrangements are odd. The brothers are at one table, Joseph's staff

and household at another, and Joseph eats by himself. The text tells

us that Joseph's Hebrew brothers had to sit separately from everyone

else because the Egyptians will not dine at the same table as Hebrews,

because "it is an abomination to the Egyptians."

But the text does not tell us why Joseph has to eat by himself. We

know why, as the viceroy of Egypt, he can't eat with his brothers who

are foreigners. But why can't he eat with the other Egyptians?

Both our current Etz Hayyim commentary and the older Hertz Chumash say

that it has to do with social status -- that it would have been

demeaning for Joseph to eat with his staff members. But I don't think

this necessarily has to be the case.

I think rather that Joseph has to eat by himself because he

exemplifies the existential dilemma of the first Diaspora Jew. Joseph

was of course born in the Land of Israel but wound up living in Egypt

where he attained fame, fortune, and power. And so he is different

than has brothers, who are not immigrants but merely visitors. But he

is also different than the other Egyptians because he is a Hebrew.

Presumably, he keeps kosher and needs different food, different

utensils, and so on. Just as he is somewhat alienated from his

fellow-Hebrews because of his status as Egyptian nobility, he is

somewhat alienated from the other Egyptian nobles because of his

Hebrew origins and especially his religious practices.

We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis and will soon begin the

Book of Exodus. We will read of a new king of Egypt "who knew not

Joseph." There is a difference between the derivative power of Joseph

and the sovereign power of Jews living in their own land. The stranger

and sojourner always lives at the sufferance of others, and what is

given can be taken away. Are we American Jews Joseph? I think not, but

nevertheless this is a cautionary tale of the difference between

Diaspora and sovereignty.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: The Most Important Human Character in Genesis Is . . .

If you were asked to name the most important human character in the Book of Genesis, you probably would not name Joseph. And yet, more space in Genesis is devoted to Joseph than to any other human being. Abraham merits three parshiot, weekly Torah portions, while the Joseph saga is spread out over four, starting with Vayeshev which we read this Shabbat.

The Torah presupposes an Israelite commonwealth living in its own land. A significant proportion of the Torah’s commandments can only be observed in the Land of Israel -- virtually all of the commandments dealing with agriculture, of which there are many. And yet, the fact is that most of Jewish history has taken place outside of the Land of Israel. While Rabbinic Judaism first developed in the Land of Israel, it did so under Roman occupation, and the most important work of Rabbinic Judaism is the Babylonian Talmud, written in what is today Iraq.

Perhaps this is the real reason for all of the emphasis on Joseph, who was in essence the first Diaspora Jew. He was a sabra, true, born in the Land of Israel, but he rose to political power not in Israel but in the capital of the most powerful country on Earth at the time, Egypt. While for the Torah the ideal is to live in Israel, the reality is that throughout most of our history -- and today -- the majority of Jews have lived elsewhere. For those of us who live today in the capital of the most powerful country on Earth, is Joseph a role model

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Two Camps

Jacob has not seen his brother Esau for about twenty years. Jacob knows that Esau is coming with his retinue to meet him, but he doesn't know what Esau's intentions are. They had, of course, parted on bad terms, with Jacob having cheated Esau of his birthright. Is Esau coming to seek revenge?

On the chance that Esau has mayhem in mind, Jacob decides to split his own family and property into two camps. This way, he rationalizes, if Esau decides to attack, he will only kill half of Jacob's family and destroy or capture half of his property. The other half will remain.

While the particulars were different in biblical times, the concern and the strategy itself are familiar. I am sure that you know families (I certainly do) where they are very careful not to have both parents travel on the same flight. The fear, or course, is that the plane will crash; and this way, at least one parent will remain. (This of course ignores the fact that air travel is much safer than car travel, and I don't know any families that make sure that both parents don't travel together in the same car.)

Is this concern applicable to a people as a whole? Within Zionism, there is a long-standing debate on what is known as "negation of the Diaspora." What is the purpose of Zionism? While some say that it is to create a Jewish state for those Jews who choose to live there, others believe that all Jews should live in Israel. According to the proponents of "negation of the Diaspora" the existence of a people where more than half live outside its national state is unnatural. The Diaspora, according to this theory, will ultimately disappear through either assimilation or antisemitism, and those Jews who care about their descendants' continued existence as Jews should move to Israel as soon as possible.

One wonders if the patriarch Jacob would have agreed. Is it a wise idea to put all our eggs into one basket? History is cunning and unpredictable. Is Jewish survival best served by concentrating our entire people in one place? Or are we better off with some of our people in Israel, some in the United States (far and away the two largest Jewish communities) and some in other places like Argentina, France, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Eastern Europe? What do you think?