Saturday, December 29, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Shemot (The Next Generation)

And now we arrive at the final central human character of the Bible: Moshe.

There is so much I could focus on. Let's start at the beginning. Boy meets girl, they have a son during times of persecution in which all the males are to be thrown, drowned in the sea. Moses is put into the very same body of water, but in a basket. He became a prince of egypt when adopted by the childless daughter of Pharaoh, who, due to her mercy for the infant, got the name Batya, (House of God). We then skip a number of years of Moses' life. What was his childhood like? I think it is really important to know that he even through his ordeal as the adopted son of pharaoh (and some maintain crown prince and heir apparent) he was not too mired in the evils of Egypt to try to prevent injustice against the helpless Israelites. The immediate next verse after he's drawn out of the water and given the name Moshe for that reason is that one day he saw an Egyptian beating up a Jewish slave and Moses, furious at the injustice, kills the Egyptian and buries him. Not as well known is the next story (omitted from most Moses related movies such as the Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt): the next day moses chides two fighting Israelites, one of which says (in classical Jewish guilt-inspiring sarcasm), "are you going to kill us like you killed the egyptian?" It is at this point he flees. The moral here seems to be that killing the Egyptian taskmaster was not the ideal choice. As a prince it was within his legal right to kill anyone, but it is not ideal in Judaism. Note that in the future his brother Aaron will be noted as the person who handles situations peacefully and that Moses' temper will do him in. Careful, Moses...

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sylvester.

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayechi (Password: Swordfish which has not yet shed its scales)

I missed out on writing last week because I had to finish papers and then went on vacation but now am back so I will attempt to write last week's and this week's in tandem.
I mentioned, in passing, last year about "pakod yifkod" (One translation "He [God] will surely remember you"). This is a phrase recited twice by Joseph to his brothers. Its meaning is shrouded in mystery, but it is considered, according to midrash, a password. Joseph leaves his brothers and the 70 Children of Israel assembled a cryptic message. He does not notify them that they will be enslaved in Egypt, but he does say that God will remember them (in the same word used that God remembered Sarah and the promise that he would grant her a child).

When Moses came some two hundred years later to free the people they didn't believe him. God spoke to him on the mountain saying "Pakod pakadti" ("I surely have remembered") and he forwards these words onto the elders of Israel. Serach, the daughter of Asher, the only survivor of the 70 named people who went down with Jacob to Egypt centuries later (and one of the few named women in genealogies in the Bible), who had heard Joseph in his original speech, confirmed that Moses was the destined deliverer.

Two words and the holiest man of all time was established among his people.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayigash/10th of Tevet (Oh my gosh, it's Vayigash!)

A little delayed, but I'm in finals

This past week we read of one of the most emotionally charged moments in history, what was intense fear turned to grief turned to immense anger and then to shock and disbelief and in a blast of emotion turned to blissful elation. I am referring to the standoff between Judah and Joseph. The Prince of Israel faces off against the Prince of Egypt and according to midrash, it ain't pretty. Oh, sorry... ai not pretty. Blood oozing from eyes-not pretty. It is quite graphic what Judah and Joseph do to intimidate one another. Judah almost tears heaven and earth asunder and Joseph is not destroyed because he holds on to the marble columns.

Or something. I really didn't research this week because I am, as mentioned, in finals. Everyone around me is standoffish this week. We are feeling all of the emotions that were felt in the palace that day in varying quantities and intensities. Maybe we can learn from the midrash on this portion when your teeth begin to shatter, blood oozes from your eyes, and you are knocking down marble columns with your bare hands then maybe it's time to take a break.

Speaking of breaking walls down, today begins a fast day (the first since Yom Kippur, exactly 3 months ago and the longest break between public fasts during the year... actually with the leap year, maybe not...), the 10th of Tevet, in which a number of horrible events happened in Jewish history most importantly for the biblical basis of the holiday: the beginning of the 3 year siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar in 588 BCE which led to the destruction of the First Temple. Another interesting reason tacked on is that it is the anniversary of the publication of the Septuagint, the first ever translation of the bible into another language, this time Greek, some time in the 300s BCE. Apparently this is seen as a blackletter day for the Hebrew Language and the Jewish people...

Anyway, back to studying. Best of luck to all those taking finals. An easy and meaningful fast to those taking up the fast.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Miketz/Shabbat Chanukkah (A mighty flame of one)

One of my favorite Hanukkah songs, Banu Choshech Legaresh, which was used by Israeli hip-hop group Subliminal in a song of the same name, there is a lyric: Kol echad hu ohr katan, Ve kulanu ohr eitan. Every individual is a tiny light but together we are a mighty light. Thus is true with a multiwicked candle versus a regular candle, while a Shabbat candle is a relatively tiny light, a Havdalah candle could be considered a medura, a bonfire, a very mighty light.

However we see that in the story of Hanukkah as well as this week's Torah portion that the ohr katan, the small tiny light can make just as much of a difference. Joseph single-handedly saved the world. The tiny group of Maccabees quelled the Hellenists and the Greek-Assyrians and ensured the survival of the Jewish way of life.

Maybe you're not a Joseph or a Judah (Joseph's brother) or a Judas Maccabeus, but I feel that everyone can make a difference. As a political scientist I know that there is a very real collective-action problem within society. "Can't someone else do it" becomes a rallying cry. Remember the 2000 presidential election. States were won with a handful of votes. Yet voting
rates are at an all-time low. Remember that 300 Spartans tried to defend themselves against millions of Persians. The point is that anyone really has the potential to do anything, and if not, has the prerogative to mobilize.

Additionally one can rally others and reinforce that tiny but powerful light and add wicks to become a mighty flame. Additionally, wildfires tend to start with a tiny spark. So don't feel that you are unable to make a difference in the world. You can be a mighty flame on your own.

Shabbat Shalom and a freilichin un a lichtikin Hanukkah.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2:Vayeshev (“Lost & Found” OR “Where’s Wool? D’oh!”)

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayeshev (“Lost & Found” OR “Where’s Wool? D’oh!”) (4’’ 04’’’)

As delivered before the AJU Hillel 11/30/07

This Dvar Torah is dedicated to anyone who has ever lost a sock in the midst of doing laundry.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev we shift to a new main character for the penultimate time in the entire Torah, to the story of Joseph. I love this time of year because I can keep singing songs from the greatest biblical broadway musical of all time.

I noticed something very interesting in this parasha. On three cases in Vayeshev clothing is illicitly taken from someone and used against them deceitfully, though it is all for the sake of heaven and actually benefits the future of the Jewish people. The first case is after Judah recommends they throw Joseph into the pit instead of killing him (that would have been an automatic “Game Over” for the Bible), instead he gets sold down to Egypt. His brothers tear his Amazing Technicolor DreamCoat™ and dip it in sheep’s blood. There is an interesting exchange between Judah and his father Jacob where he deceives him and asks him haker na! “identify please, whether or not this is the coat of your son”, to which Jacob believes he’s been killed. If it hadn’t been for this “proof”, Jacob might have not believed them and it was because of this coat of many colors that Joseph goes down to Egypt in the first place.

But in true biblical Curb Your Enthusiasm fashion, there is midah kneged midah, that if you do something wrong you are going to get punished for it in the exact same way. We have the famous story of Judah and Tamar. Tamar had been married to Judah’s son Er who died, and according to ancient Jewish law, yibbum, if a married man dies childless, his brother must marry his widow. Brother Onan married Tamar, angered God and died too, and so next in line was the infant Shelach. Judah didn’t want her to marry Shelach as his other two sons died on their wedding nights to her, leaving her an Agunah, so she took actions into her own hands as she badly wanted a child. She disguised herself as a kdeisha, a cult prostitute, and convinces him to patronize her. As the price is a sheep which he did not have at the time, he leaves her his signet ring, belt, and staff as collateral and this disguised woman conceives twins. When he finds his daughter-in-law pregnant, he demands her put to death. When she produces his three pieces of clothing, demanding of him the with the exact same words that he used to trick his father: “haker-na!”, Identify this ring, belt and staff. When he realizes that he is the father he marries her and one of the twins she gives birth to, Peretz, becomes the great great great great great great great grandfather of King David and the Messianic line. Ever heard of Peretz? We mentioned his name tonight in Lecha Dodi: The messianic redemption is coming Al Yad Ish Ben Partzi V’Nismecha V’Nagila” at the hand of a man of Peretz’s line, and we will be joyous and happy”. Not only this but the whole incident humbled the proud lion, Judah; vital for his stepping in to protect Benjamin in the final showdown with Joseph in Egypt.

Finally we have one more piece of clothing to lose: Mrs. Potiphar, the wife of the very influential Egyptian minister Mr. Potiphar is going to try to seduce her new slave Joseph. He resists her advances for a long time and one day she attacks him and grabs him by the shirt. He screams in shalshelet trop and runs away and the shirt tears in her hands. She takes the shirt to her husband and accuses Joseph of rape. If it weren’t for this he wouldn’t have been put in prison and wouldn’t have met the butler who would eventually lead him to become the Prince of Egypt.

We lose clothing all the time. How many times have we misplaced a sock when doing laundry? Who knows if that missing garment will ultimately bring the redemption. In fact a midrash says that Elijah is sitting at the gates of Rome disguised as a poor beggar. If only someone would offer him a garment to change his bandages he will immediately summon the messiah. If it weren’t for all of the pilfered clothing, Joseph wouldn’t have risen to power, Joseph’s brothers and father would have starved to death in the famine, as would have the entire world including Egypt, there would have been no exodus, no Torah, no Jewish people. The world was saved all because of three shmatas. So don’t sweat so much when you misplace that sock, it might change the world.

Shabbat Shalom.