954-721-7660 Ext 123

Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Vayigash

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5777)
SHEPHERDS AND FARMERS
“When Pharaoh summons you and asks, what is your occupation, you shall answer, your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Genesis 46:33-34)
Joseph’s father and brothers finally travel down to Egypt to live out the remaining years of the famine. Joseph surprisingly says to them, tell Pharaoh that you are shepherds, because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians. That way the Israelites can live in the land of Goshen, separated from the Egyptians. Obviously the goal is for the Israelites to maintain their own identity and not assimilate into Egyptian society. It was a clever move to emphasize the very thing that the Egyptians hate. Egyptians, living in the fertile Nile valley, were farmers. And it is the way of the world that farmers hate shepherds.
The tension between shepherds and farmers is not new in Egypt. It goes all the way back to the beginning of humanity, with the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer, while Abel was a shepherd. God accepted Abel’s offering but spurned Cain’s offering. It is clear that the Bible seems to favor shepherds over farmers. Of course, Cain gets angry and kills his brother Abel. Murder enters the world in the conflict between the shepherd and the farmer.
The conflict continues long after the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. Most of us know Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit show Oklahoma! In the second act there is a huge, somewhat humorous dance number – “The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends.” Of course they are not friends, neither in territorial Oklahoma nor modern Texas. There will always be tension. Shepherds and cowmen, those who herd animals, want the freedom to move with their animals across the open range. Farmers want to put up fences and block off land to grow crops. Barbed wire entered the world in conflict between the farmer and the shepherd.
It is clear that in this conflict the Torah takes a pro-shepherd point of view. God accepts the offering of Abel the shepherd while rejecting Cain the farmer. The Israelites are shepherds while the Egyptians are farmers. Although I am not an anthropologist, perhaps it is worth looking briefly at the early history of humanity. How did people feed themselves in early times?
Humans originally were hunter-gatherers. They wandered, collecting food from the wilderness around them. Sometimes it was plant food, and sometimes if they were lucky, it was animal food. People formed clans to forage or hunt together. Eventually the first great technological leap forward was the domestication of certain animals – sheep and goats, eventually cows and camels. Some of those became the clean animals already mentioned in the days of Noah, the animals permitted for food and for sacrifices. Shepherds still wandered upon the land, not settling down in certain places, much as Bedouins do today.
The major change was when humans developed agriculture, domesticating crops. Now they had to settle on the land, fencing off the land to protect their crops from predators. This changed their spiritual outlook. Until then, “the earth was the Lord’s.” The land belonged to everyone. Now land ownership became an issue. The Bible would try to put a limit on such land ownership, requiring that farmers leave the corners and the gleanings for the poor. And every fifty years there had to be a total redistribution of land, preventing land from concentrating in a few hands. But there is a sense that with farming something fundamental had changed.
One can continue this kind of anthropological study. People went from hunter gatherers to shepherds to farmers to village dwellers to city dwellers. Each of these was a technological step forward. But each may have been a spiritual step backwards. There is a sense that something spiritual was lost in crowded urban living. That is why groups such as the Essenes abandoned urban living to create a spiritual community in the wilderness. Later, Christian mysticism developed as a desert mysticism, away from the realities of urban life.
We are not going to be shepherds again. How can we recapture in our urban settings the spiritual values that were part of ancient shepherd life?

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5776)
SHEPHERDS AND FARMERS
“So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, what is your occupation, you shall answer, your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Genesis 46:33-34)
There is a classic literary character with a long history in the West – the noble savage. This is the pure individual raised in the wild, who has not been corrupted by civilization. Think about Tarzan or The Jungle Book. Or think about the movie Dances with Wolves. Behind this idea is the notion that humans are fundamentally good, it is civilization that spoils them. The strongest advocate of this idea was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who actually won a writing contest on the power of civilization by condemning that very civilization. He began his essay with the words, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
I believe this idea that people are basically good but society makes them bad is foreign to the Jewish view of humanity. But it is popular enough that it is worth considering. And there are hints of it in our Torah reading. To explore this idea, we have to look at how humanity has organized itself economically.
At their most primitive, humans were hunter – gatherers. The clan depended on each other or they would starve. There was minimal private property for such property would make it more difficult for humans to roam the land. It is easy for people to be good who own nothing and are dependent on each other. As humanity advanced, they eventually domesticated certain animals such as sheep and goats. They became shepherds. Certainly this could create more tension between humans (remember the conflict between Jacob and Laban over the sheep.) Nonetheless, humans and their herds had to be free to roam the land. Private property and the conflict such property would cause were still minimal. We might say that at this stage people were still basically good.
Then human beings learned to grow crops and cultivate the land. With farming everything changed. People became tied to the land and it was necessary to fence off a tract of land and claim it as one’s own. There was a natural conflict between farmers and shepherds. The shepherds wanted the freedom to graze their herds, while the farmers wanted to fence off their land. This conflict continues to our very day. (Think of the big song in act two of the classic Broadway show Oklahoma! – The farmer and the cowman should be friends.)
There are hints in Genesis that shepherding is the ideal for humans and with farming humanity’s corruption began. This is the basic theme behind the Cain and Abel story. Abel is a shepherd and Cain is a farmer. God accepts Abel’s offering and rejects Cain’s. In this week’s portion it is clear that the Israelites are shepherds while the Egyptians are farmers. The end of the portion speaks of how the farmers lost their land to Pharaoh during the seven years of famine. Joseph tells his brothers to admit that they are shepherds, therefore allowing them to settle in Goshen, far from the main population.
One definitely gets the feeling in reading Genesis that shepherds are good and farmers are bad. With technological advancement came moral degeneration. With farming, not only was the land fenced off but private property became the norm. Conflict, stealing, hoarding and other issues were now part of the way of life of humanity. Small wonder that as history developed, people such as Rousseau romanticized a more primitive time in human history. Rousseau believed that humanity in its primitive form was free, but now that we are tied to land and property, we are in chains.
Later in the Bible, when it became clear that the people in Israel would divide up the land and become farmers, there appeared numerous laws to drive home the fact that we do not own the land – “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalms 24:1) The corners of the fields must be left for the poor. The gleanings of the harvest must also be left. Tithes must be paid each year. And perhaps most important, the field must lay fallow every seventh year. The goal of these Biblical laws is clear. Even as we work the land, we must overcome greed and selfishness and learn to be good.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5775)
DO DOGS GO TO HEAVEN?
“Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh saying, my father and my brothers with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen.” (Genesis 47:1)
In 1989 Hollywood released a cute animated movie entitled All Dogs Go to Heaven. But this month Pope Francis made it official. He told a little boy, upset about the death of his dog, that his dog’s soul was now in heaven. I guess I have a certain comfort knowing that our Buddy, taken from this world two years ago, is now practicing his escape tactics or begging for table scraps in the next world. But do animals go to heaven? What about sinful dogs, dogs that bite? Do pit bulls go to heaven?
This is part of a broader question. In our religious tradition, what is the status of animals? This week I received a request from someone to add their dog to the sick list we read in synagogue each week. I said no, but did say a private prayer for their dog with them. This question matches one I have been asked frequently over the years. To quote a few: “Can I say kaddish for my dog?” “Can we celebrate my dog’s thirteenth birthday with a bark mitzvah?” “Can my dog walk up the aisle and be one of my attendants at my wedding?” To the consternation of pet lovers, I have answered no to all of these questions. I am sure the issue will soon be raised whether to count Fido in the minyan.
There is a fundamental teaching in the Torah regarding the status of animals. There is an ontological gap between animals and human beings. Humans have essential qualities that make them fundamentally different from animals. Humans are created in the image of God; animals are not. Humans have both a good and evil inclination; animals have only one inclination, their basic instincts. Humans can obey or disobey commandments; animals cannot. Humans cannot be property; animals can be property. That is why the Torah speaks of “their flocks and herds and all that is theirs.” Humans own their animals and their pets; they do not own their children.
In this day and age, this notion of the ontological separation between humans and animals is under attack. There are legal attempts to give complete personhood to animals. This move would mean that animals and humans would become exactly the same in the eyes of the law. Eating meat would be illegal, as would animal experimentation and the use of animals for entertainment. Circuses that use animals and theme parks such as Sea World would have to close up. One would wonder if the owning of pets would be allowed under these circumstances.
Even if the passage of such a law is unlikely, the influence of extreme animal rights proponents is very strong. Philosopher Peter Singer wrote a very well-received book on animal liberation where he introduced the term speciesism, the favoring of humans over animals. He compares this to racism, the favoring of one race over another. Singer’s ideas have influenced groups like P.E.T.A. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who have called the killing of six billion chickens a Holocaust. One sees the danger of going down this path.
Certainly any kind of cruelty to animals is wrong. But essentially animals are different from human beings. So do dogs go to heaven? I believe the correct answer comes from Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. The kabbalists speak about the five levels of the soul. Humans have a neshama, literally “the breath of God.” Humans can reach an even higher level of the soul known as chaya literally life. Animals have a much lower level of the show known as a nefesh, from the Hebrew term “to rest.” God’s presence rests within them. Higher level mammals such as dogs have a higher level of the soul known as ruach, literally spirit. All of these levels of the soul encompass a basic consciousness, an awareness or sense of self. And Kabbalah says that all these levels of the soul, upon death, return to God.
So according to the Kabbalah, Pope Francis is right. Both a dog’s ruach and the human neshama return to God. All dogs do go to heaven.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5774)
FREE WILL OR GOD’S WILL
“Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither, it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5)
As I prepare this portion, a memory comes back to me from my early days in the Rabbinate. I was serving a congregation in Nyack, NY, speaking about the personalities in the Joseph story. I tried to understand the motivations behind the actions of the major players in this week’s portion – Joseph, Judah, Benjamin, Jacob. As the story continues, Jacob and all of his sons come down to Egypt. Of course, these events will lead to slavery in Egypt and the eventual exodus.
One of my members interrupted my story. “Rabbi, you left out the most important part. You are talking about what Joseph did and what Judah did. But the whole point of the story is what God did. It was God acting Who brought the Israelites down to Egypt. God is the main character of the story.” Of course, he was right. Joseph even admits in the story that it was part of God’s plan that he was sold into slavery in Egypt. People may think they are acting of their own free will. But in reality they are all part of God’s plan.
This raises a difficult question. Are we humans mere chess players in a game which God is playing? People love to quote the Yiddish saying, Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht – “Man plans and God laughs.” The English equivalent is the saying, “Man proposes and God disposes.” On the surface it seems that Joseph and his brothers are acting out of their own free will. The brothers throw Joseph into a pit, cover his coat with blood, and lead his poor father to believe that he was killed by a wild beast. As a result of their actions, Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt. The brothers seem to be guilty. But now we learn that this was part of God’s plan all along. To switch metaphors, were the brothers mere puppets and God the puppeteer?
So which is it? Are we humans free agents acting of our own volition? Or are we merely carrying out God’s desires, playing roles in a greater plan? This is one of the most fundamental questions of both religion and philosophy. Jewish tradition says that both are true. We both have free will and act according to God’s given plan. Pirkei Avot teaches, “All is foreseen [by God], and freedom is given.” (Avot 3:15) There is a whole philosophical school called compatibilism which teaches that although everything is pre-determined, we have free will. Without going into details of this philosophical approach, I will admit that I do not agree. Either we have free will and future possibilities are wide open, or else God has decided what we will do and we do not have free will. Either Joseph’s brothers threw him in the pit of their own free will, or it was part of God’s greater plan.
So is it free will or God’s will? Let me suggest a possibility of combining free will with God’s will. Process theological teaches about a God of persuasion rather than a God of coercion. God acts by giving us a purpose and direction. Process theologians use the term “lure.” But humans are free to act as they will, following or ignoring God’s purpose. In explaining the role of God in process thought, I like to use the metaphor of a G.P.S. The G.P.S. tells us which way to go. We can follow it or ignore it. And if we ignore it, it says “recalculating” and tries again. So God tries again to lure us the way we ought to go. But ultimately we have a choice. And how we choose as human beings makes all the difference in the world.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5773)
DO MIRACLES HAPPEN? PART 2
“And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Genesis 45:7)
We are all deeply wounded by the horrific events which took place in Newtown, CT last week, which suffered the slaughter of so many innocent children, their teachers and administrators. Many of you have asked me, “Where was God in all of this?” I am sure that this is not part of God’s plan. I am sure a God Who taught “choose life” is weeping along with the rest of us for lives cut short. I only pray that God can be a healer for those families who lost loved ones.
The question “where was God” fits into the issue we discussed last week when we spoke about miracles. Do we believe in a God Who reaches down from heaven to intervene the affairs of the world including human history? Or do we believe in a God who created the world but then leaves it alone to go about its business without divine intervention? Or perhaps is there a third understanding for God’s relationship to the world? Let us explore each of these possibilities.
Possibility 1 – A God Who intervenes. This is the classical theistic view we have all been taught since childhood. The world runs by natural laws. But every now and again God suspends those laws and brings a miracle to further some divine purpose. God causes a sea to part so the Israelites can pass through. God causes the sun to stand still so Joshua can win a battle. God causes one day’s worth of oil to burn for eight days. If we pray hard enough, God will cause the incurable cancer to be cured. And perhaps God will reach down and stop a crazed gunman from shooting up a school.
Last week we tried to show that Judaism questions such a simplistic view of miracles. Miracles are actually built into nature itself. The Talmud teaches, “Don’t depend on miracles.” Spinoza taught that we see God not in the suspension of the laws of nature, but in the laws of nature themselves. We can have God without miracles.
Possibility 2 – A God Who does not intervene. God leaves the world to go about its business according to natural law. In fact, Spinoza denied that there was any free will anywhere in the universe. All that exists are the inexorable laws of nature. To Spinoza nature is God. In such a view of the world there are no miracles, but also no revelation, no divine redemption, no salvation, no reason to pray. It is a world devoid of God. This is the world as pictured by many scientists. Unfortunately, as the Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg famously wrote, “The more we understand about the universe, the more it seems purposeless.”
Our faith teaches that God plays a role in the universe. But it is not through miracles, but rather working through nature.
Possibility 3 – God in the background. This week’s portion continues the epic story of Joseph and his brothers. In the end all the brothers and their father come down to Egypt, allowing events to play out. The stage is set for the future exodus and the Passover story. Everything in the story can be explained naturally. Nonetheless, in the end, Joseph tells his brothers that it was all part of God’s plan. Even their actions in selling him down to Egypt was part of God’s ultimate plan. It is almost as if God is acting as a motivator behind the scenes.
I often like to compare this idea of God behind the scenes to the paintings of the French impressionist Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Look at a Seurat painting up close and it is simply a bunch of colored dots. It seems to have no pattern. Step back at the dots come together to form a brilliant pattern. In Sunday on La Grande Jatte the dots form a huge group of people in a park. This painting became the basis of the Stephen Soundheim’s Broadway show Sunday in the Park with George. Soundheim wrote, “piece by piece putting it together.”
The world is made of pieces, which we can call events.. Step back and we can see patterns. Suddenly we sense God’s presence. We look at these events and suddenly we can cry out, “this is the hand of God.”

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5771)

REDEEMING CAPTIVES
“Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father saying, if I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.” (Genesis 44:32)
On June 25 2006 Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier was captured by Hamas terrorists who crossed the border into Israel. For almost four and a half years he has been held in prison in the Gaza Strip. Negotiations with Hamas for his release including diplomatic efforts have been unsuccessful. Hamas is demanding the release of over a thousand Palestinian prisoners, many of them convicted of terrorist acts against Israel. Many Israelis favor setting free the Palestinian prisoners to win the release of this one man. Others believe setting terrorists free is too large a price for Israeli to pay. So the standoff continues and Shalit languishes in prison.
This is a modern example of one of the central commandments in Jewish tradition – pidyon shivuim, redeeming captives. Unfortunately, throughout Jewish history bandits have often captured Jews and held them for ransom, knowing that the community felt an obligation to redeem them. Redeeming captives was such a high priority in the Jewish community that it took precedence even over feeding the poor. There was a particular obligation to redeem female captives who might be sexually abused. In fact, among the obligations a husband has towards his wife is the requirement to redeem her should she be held hostage. Although this is not written explicitly in the ketubah (marriage document), it is an obligation that is assumed to be binding.
This week’s portion actually contains the first Biblical case of the obligation to redeem a captive. Benjamin is being held in Egypt. His brothers have a choice of leaving him behind or of coming forward and trying to redeem him. Judah delivers a passionate speech for the release of Benjamin. “For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.” (Genesis 44:34) In describing Benjamin’s father, Judah certainly expresses the pain to the family when someone is held captive. One can scarcely imagine the pain felt today by Gilad Shalit’s parents.
Should Israel release all the prisoners to win Shalit’s freedom? Is there a limit to releasing captives? Would not paying the ransom encourage further kidnappings and unreasonable demands? The Talmud actually discusses this question. “They must not ransom captives for more than their value for the sake of tikkun olam – repairing the world, nor can they help in the escape of captives for the sake of tikkun olam – repairing the world.” (Gittin 4:6) Paying too much for a ransom will encourage more kidnappings. And helping captives escape will lead to the mistreatment of other captives.
Thus we see an impossible dilemma. Do what is necessary to win release of the captive and it could lead to more captives. But not taking action would cause terrible suffering to the captive and his or her family. It was a dilemma in medieval times when the great Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg refused to allow the community to ransom him from prison. And it is a terrible dilemma for Israel today. We can only pray that compassion will rule and Shalit will be released.
Sadly, we live in a world where many people have no compunctions about kidnapping other people, whether for political reasons or for money. Kidnapping has become a day-to-day blight in parts of Latin America. The rich are targets and many have established elaborate security to protect themselves and their families. But these evils will continue as long as people see other people not as worthy of dignity but as a means to an end.
The Torah teaches that every human being is created in the image of God. Every human being is worthy of dignity. To hold innocent people prisoner against their will is an egregious transgression of human dignity. That is why ransoming captives is at the center of the Jewish conception of the world. Hamas knew that Israel will do what is necessary to redeem a captive. That is the tragedy of Shalit’s situation.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5770)

COPING WITH CHAOS

“Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine.”
(Genesis 47:13)

Life is fascinating. Sometimes I will go to a conference, learn something intellectually, then go out into the world and see that very thing in real life. This was my experience last Thursday night. For those who live in South Florida, you probably remember that it was one of the rainiest nights in years – over thirteen inches in some places. I drove with one of our members and his son to a conference on science and religion down in Miami Beach. Even walking into the conference I became soaked.
The conference took place at a beautiful synagogue called “The Shul” built by Chabad. There were three speakers that night – a mathematician from Israel, a physicist-author, and to me the most interesting, the Chabad rabbi. He spoke about subjects I have often explored, “did time exist before God or did God create time?” “What is chaos and what is order?” “What does the Midrash mean when it teaches that God created and destroyed many worlds before creating this one?”
The rabbi’s main point is that we need both science and religion. Science describes what is – how the natural world works. Religion describes what ought to be – what we should be doing within the natural world. He went on to give a kabbalistic understanding of chaos. “Chaos is when a huge amount of energy is released in the world and the vessels cannot hold it.” Anyone who ever studied the wisdom of the great kabbalist Isaac Luria will recognize these words. He went on, “our job as humans is to make ourselves into vessels that can control this energy. We must turn chaos into order.”
Driving home, we saw the truth of those words. The streets were flooded from the rain. Cars were stalled and people were walking trying to find tow trucks to rescue their stranded automobiles. Traffic was backed up in every direction, as cars could not pass each other. People were ignoring traffic lights but going forward into intersections whenever a space opened up. In the world of traffic, chaos reigned. A drive home which should have taken forty-five minutes took me over three hours. At numerous intersections we waited for the police, or a kindly volunteer, to step into the rain and try to bring the chaos under control. But that night chaos overwhelmed order, the darkness overwhelmed the light.
As we crept home, I thought of the rabbi’s words. Chaos is when vessels cannot hold the energy. The creation of the universe is the slow movement from chaos to order. Atoms must work together to form molecules, to form life, eventually to form us. But what if the universe worked with every atom for itself, every entity going its own way. There would have been no creation. So it was that night, with every car going its own way. Creation is not about a God sitting beyond space and time playing with matter as a child plays with legos. Rather it is God within the world working through the chaos towards order.
Our job is to imitate God and turn chaos into order. This week’s portion speaks about a famine. When natural disasters hit, there is great potential for chaos. (Think about Hurricane Katrina and the lack of government response.) In fact, when scientists speak of chaos theory, they give the example of weather out of control. A butterfly flaps its wings in Africa and a hurricane hits North America. Chaos is the natural state of the world. God’s role in creation is overcoming chaos and bringing order into the world.
Joseph through his wisdom and leadership overcame the chaos of a famine. By organizing the food, he was able to feed an entire nation including his brothers. Like Joseph, we each have a small role in bringing order out of chaos. Or to use the language of kabbalah, we can be those vessels that hold the divine energy.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5769)

BROTHERS AND GAZA

“He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.” (Genesis 45:15)

Violence has broken out again in the Middle East. Israel finally had to react to the unending barrage of rockets shot at Israel civilians by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. The world will condemn Israel as usual for overreacting. But I can think of no other nation that would tolerate unending attacks across a border against civilians without reacting. Of course we are saddened by the loss of innocent life. But for those who would condemn Israel, what choice is there?
I spent the last several days with dear friends who live in Israel. They were waiting for word whether their son, and officer in the reserves, would be called up for military duty. I do not know an Israeli who is happy with the choice of military action, but I also do not know an alternative. Our tradition teaches, if someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill them first. But it also teaches, pray for the peace of the city. Even when military power is necessary, the dream of peace cannot disappear.
This week we read about peace between brothers. Joseph finally reveals his identity to his older brothers, who had sold him down to Egypt as a slave. The brothers hug one another and there is a sense of forgiveness. Brothers, and of course sisters, can find reconciliation once again.
The entire book of Genesis is the story of brothers who are estranged, brothers who threaten to kill one another, and then brothers who finally make peace. Now that we are approaching the end of Genesis (we finish it next week), the overriding theme becomes clear. “Here is what is good and what is pleasant, for brothers to dwell together.” (Psalms 133:1)
In the beginning of Genesis, two brothers clash as Cain murders his brother Abel. Fratricide has entered the world and there is no reconciliation. Cain asks one of the great rhetorical questions of history: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer must be yes.
Half brothers Isaac and Ishmael clash. In fact Ishmael is forced to flee his father’s home because he is considered a bad influence on Isaac. There is no contact between the brothers. But in the end they finally come together to bury their father. We have the beginning of reconciliation.
Twin brothers Jacob and Esau clash even in the womb. Esau sells Jacob his birthright for a cup of soup, and Jacob steals his father’s blessing from Esau. The brothers are estranged for twenty years. In the end, the come together and hug, have some small reconciliation, and then choose to go their separate ways. The world is improving.
Joseph’s brothers are extremely jealous of him, throw him into a pit, and arrange to sell him down to Egypt. Years later when the brothers face Joseph begging for food, Joseph hides his identity from his brothers. First he must test them to see if they have changed their ways. But in this week’s portion the brothers hug and forgive one another. Brothers are learning to get along.
The book of Genesis is the story of a slow reconciliation between brothers. One could say that the history of the world is the history of the slow reconciliation between brothers and sisters. Jews and Christians (symbolized by Jacob and Esau) once hated each other. Today there is a growing respect and appreciation between these sister faiths. Jews and Moslems (symbolized by Isaac and Ishmael) continue to clash, particularly in Israel. But the book of Genesis holds the promise that they too will one day embrace.
Nobody expects Hamas to accept the reality of a Jewish state in the near future. Peace will take generations. But neither can anybody afford to lose sight of the dream of Genesis, the slow reconciliation between brothers. Even during this time of war, we pray for the day when Jew and Arab will build a place of peace and progress in the Middle East.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5768)

JOSEPH AND HIS FATHER

“Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while.”
(Genesis 46:29)

There is one unanswered question that troubles many of us as we read through the Joseph story each year. Why did Joseph make no attempt to contact his father Jacob and tell him that he was alive? He knew how much his father must be suffering at his disappearance. One can understand when Joseph was a slave or when he was in prison, that such contact was impossible. But once Joseph became the second most powerful man in Egypt, why not a quick note sent by caravan.
One answer I have heard is that perhaps Joseph blamed his father for his fate down in Egypt. And yet this idea is missing from the text. When Jacob finally came to Egypt, Joseph rode in his chariot to meet him. Usually the second most powerful man would expect a visitor to come to him; Joseph went to his father. The Torah describes him weeping on his father’s neck. Why all the emotions from a man who did not try to contact his father for years?
I believe I have an answer. It is the nature of children to leave home, go about their busy lives, and sadly, sometimes ignore their parents. The Torah wants children to leave home. “A man shall leave his mother and father…” But the Torah also wants children, once they leave, to turn back and honor the parents they left behind. But children get busy with their own lives. Calling home is neglected and soon forgotten. I can picture Joseph thinking that he ought to try to contact his father, but there was food to be gathered and people to be fed. Like so many children both in Biblical times and today, he simply was too busy and lost touch.
It is a mistake many children make. I know this because I made this mistake when I was young. I remember when I was in my early twenties, a busy graduate student and Hebrew school teacher, receiving a call from my father. “Did you know that your mother had surgery last week and never even heard from you!” The reprimand hit home, because it still stings over thirty years later. Fortunately, I was able to turn back to my parents and maintain a wonderful relationship with them as an adult through the remainder of their lives. But I had to learn the lesson.
I think all young people need to learn this lesson. We need to leave home, establish our identities, find a career, meet a life partner, and find our own way. This is the way of the world. But part of what makes us human is the obligation to honor those who raised us, gave us values, and prepared us to go into the world. We need to keep in touch and make sure our parents are taken care of. And we need to give them the appropriate honor they deserve.
A reality of life in Florida is the number of seniors I meet who tell me they have little or no contact with their children. I ask, “Do your children call? Do your children visit?” And these seniors make excuses. “They live such busy lives, I do not hear from them. They have their own family, their own career.” It is the Joseph story played out in a new generation. And it is deeply sad.
Joseph lived in an age when the only way to contact his father was sending a message by caravan. We live in an age of telephones and email and airplanes that can take us anywhere in the world. Children have an obligation to their parents to keep in touch, and to give them proper honor. After all, the Torah is not simply a book about individual achievement. It is a book about the generations. Perfecting this world can only happen over the course of generations. And that is why the link between parents and children is so vital.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5766)

IN THE ‘HOOD

“So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, what is your occupation, you shall answer, your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Genesis 46:33-34)

I had a strange experience last week. A rap artist was taping a music video in one of the classier, gated neighborhoods nearby. My sixteen-year-old son had gone to watch. When I drove over to pick him up, there was a large crowd and a number of cars so I parked way down the street. I walked up wearing my “rabbi uniform,” a yarmulke, suit, and tie. As I was walking up the street, one of the crew said, “Keep walking as you are. Just don’t look at the camera.” Sure enough, I discovered that I was being filmed.
So now there is some chance that I will make it into a rap video. (For those who follow such things, it was the Mike Jones remake of “I’m in love with a stripper.” No, I did not see either Mr. Jones or the stripper.)
In truth, I am not a lover of rap music. In fact, my son who is an avid fan and I have been having an ongoing fight. Every time he puts on the music, I complain about the foul language that seems to make up a good percentage of the lyrics. My son responds, “Dad, all rap music has bad language. Why don’t you listen to the words?” I realized that my son has a point. I was judging the language and ignoring the words. Part of the problem was that I did not understand many of the lyrics. But a bigger part is that I am from a different world and different culture than these rap artists. I come from the material comforts of white suburbia. And it is hard for me to relate to the ‘hood, those who grew up in a world of poverty, drug abuse, violence, and family breakdown.
Following my son’s advice, I recently searched for some of the lyrics on the Internet. I will admit that I still have difficulty getting past the language, and past some of the violence and misogyny. But underneath I found some rap artists who were portraying wonderful messages, messages that are universal for every culture. In particular, a number of songs deal with the importance that a loving mother can have in helping a child overcome adversity and move beyond difficult surroundings. There are songs about the role of love in making people successful, particularly those born into difficult circumstances. For the first time, I saw past the lyrics and began to understand the appeal of this kind of music.
I am not about to run out and buy the newest rap CDs. And I am sure that many in the ‘hood will not understand my love of Classical Music, Broadway Show Tunes, and Hebrew songs. There are cultural differences. Part of what makes us human is our individual cultural backgrounds. Culture is wonderful. But culture can also lead to myopia. We fail to appreciate those whose culture is different from our own.
This week’s Torah reading has a perfect example of cultural myopia. The Israelites have been shepherds from time immemorial. When they come to Egypt, Joseph tells his father and his brothers to admit to Pharaoh that they are shepherds. The entire culture of shepherding was held in low esteem and abhorrent to the Egyptians. The Egyptians, upon hearing that the Israelites are shepherds, send them to live in the land of Goshen, separating from the main population of Egypt. One could say that their sojourn in Goshen helped the Israelites maintained their cultural identity. But quite possibly, it led to slavery and oppression.
My son wanted me to look beyond the bad language and hear the message of these rap artists. The Egyptians needed to look beyond the shepherd culture to see the true beauty of the Israelites way of life. Perhaps the message is that we humans must maintain our own cultural identity, and at the same time learn to look beyond ourselves.. Our goal is not a melting pot, where we all combine into one homogenized, bland culture. Rather, it is a salad bowl where a variety of cultures maintain their identity while interacting with other cultures.
We just finished the festival of Hanukkah. The theme of Hanukkah is the survival of a small minority culture in the midst of the great Hellenistic empire. First, we need to make sure our culture survives. Then we need to end our cultural myopia, and learn to appreciate what other cultures have to offer. For whatever our cultural background, underneath we have a shared humanity.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5764)

GOD: DEMOCRAT OR REPUBLICAN?

“And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children.”
(Genesis 47:24)

Is God a Democrat or a Republican? In Israel, is God Labor or Likud? In other countries, is God a liberal or a conservative? I have many Jewish friends who insist God is a registered Democrat, and for a Jew to vote Republican is the religious equivalent of eating on Yom Kippur. On the other hand, I have met some Jews, and many Christians for whom G.O.P. (a nickname for the Republican party) means God’s Only Party.
I recently tried to explain to my daughter, who was registering to vote for the first time, the difference between the Democratic and Republican Party. It is difficult, because both parties are broad coalitions that represent a variety of ideas, often contradictory. However, I believe there is an essential idea which marks each party.
For modern Republicans, the idea is limited government and lower taxes. By limiting government spending and regulations, individuals and businesses can keep more of their money and prosper in their business dealings. The result is economic prosperity, which boosts the standard of living for everybody. A rising tide raises all ships. To quote what many of my Republican friends often say, “No society ever taxed its way to prosperity.”
For modern Democrats, such limited governments leave too many members of society vulnerable, unable to probably provide for themselves. Government must provide a broad safety net for the most poor and vulnerable members of society. If that means higher taxes paid by the wealthy, so be it. To Democrats, the rising tide of economic prosperity, rather than lifting everybody, leaves too many people behind. To quote what many of my Democratic friends often say, “A society must be judged by how it treats its children, its elderly, and its poor.”
So who is right? One is immediately reminded of the old Jewish joke of two men arguing before the rabbi. The rabbi turns to the first one and says, “You’re right.” He then tells the second, “You’re right.” A third person asks the rabbi, how can they both be right? The rabbi replies, “You’re right too.” In truth, both sides are right. Low taxes may help businesses to prosper, but it leaves no money for the needs of those most vulnerable. High taxes can stifle an economy and drive businesses and those most prosperous away from the community. (Ask the people in California.) So both are right. A reasonable level of taxes must carefully be negotiated to find a level that is fair, does not undermine prosperity, and protects those most in need.
How do we find the level? There is a hint in this week’s portion. Famine had struck the land of Egypt, and Joseph as chief administrator had confiscated all the land and property in exchange for food for the masses. He created feudalism, with the government owning everything and the people as mere serfs working the land. But Joseph realized that people will work very hard for themselves and their families. They will not work hard for society as a whole. So Joseph promulgated a new ruling.
In the future, the mass of people will be given land to work. Twenty percent of their earnings will go to the government for the public weal. The other eighty percent can be kept by families for their own prosperity. Joseph set the taxation rate at twenty percent as a fair number for society to prosper.
Is twenty percent still an applicable number today? Many conservatives would say yes. But many would say that we are far more dependent on the government today for security, education, welfare, and public works, and so the number must be higher. But again, set the tax rate too high and prosperity is undermined.
Tax policy is a clash between two very real values. There is the value of being a provider, working hard for one’s self and one’s family. And there is the value of providing for society as a whole, the children, the elderly, the poor, the sick. Politicians of both parties must set a tax policy which supports both these values. When Democrats and Republicans in the United States, or liberals and conservatives in other countries, work together to build such a policy, together they will be doing God’s work.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5763)

TOGETHER FOREVER

“Now if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us, for his soul is connected to his soul, when he sees that the boy is not with us he will die.”
(Genesis 44:30-31)

Living in south Florida, I spend too much time in cemeteries. I often look at the memorial stones and contemplate about life. How often are a husband and wife buried next to one another, with the words Together Forever. What do these words mean?
Certainly, their physical remains have been laid next to each other. But these physical remains are mere material, and nothing material is forever. The words Together Forever mean something far more spiritual. Two souls, the part of two human beings which goes beyond the material, are connected throughout eternity.
I saw such a connection in my own parents. My mother and father were married for forty six years when my mother lost her battle with cancer. My father, always a strong vital man, began to go downhill during the shiva (mourning) period. We had to rush him out of shiva to the emergency room. My dad lived for a year and a half without my mom, but physically he was never the same. Finally he passed away, and joined her in a spiritual sense.
This is the dream of so many of us, to find a soul mate that we are so connected with that on a spiritual level, we are Together Forever. In fact, according to the kabbalistic tradition in Judaism, a soul is neither male nor female in the spiritual world. Only when born into this world does the male and the female split from one another and enter different bodies. The Talmud teaches, “Forty days before the creation of a child, a voice proclaims in heaven so-and-so’s daughter for so-and-so’s son.” (Sotah 2a) If we are lucky, we find our beshert, our intended soul mate. And if we treat him or her correctly, we can build a relationship that goes beyond this material world.
This week’s portion has a beautiful phrase regarding love. It says regarding Jacob and his son Benjamin nafsho keshura benafsho, “his soul is connected to his soul.” It speaks of a father and son whose souls are so connected that one cannot live without the other. It speaks of a deep spiritual connection between two souls, where each needs the other to succeed in this world.
According to kabbalistic tradition, every soul is connected to every other soul as every soul is connected to God. That is why our actions not only affect others, but have cosmic significance. Beyond this connection, certain souls have a deep and profound relationship that encompasses both this material world and the spiritual world beyond this one. Sometimes the link is between the souls of two lovers, already chosen for one another before they were born.
Sometimes this link is between a parent and a child. Another kabbalistic teaching is that the soul of a child chooses the souls of parents best able to prepare that child for his or her particular mission. As an adoptive parent, I have lectured to adoption groups throughout the country. I often teach that God brings the right child to the right parents at the right time. There can be a spiritual connection between a parent and a child, even when there is no biological relationship.
Sometimes the soulful connection is between friends rather than family. The Talmud speaks of the love between David and Jonathan. Their love was truly unconditional, a love that could never be overturned. (Some modern authors have seen a homosexual undercurrent to their love, but I do not see it in the text.) The Bible says of the relationship “the soul of Jonathan was bound with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (1 Samuel 18:1) Jonathan would sacrifice the kingship to save David’s life.
If we are lucky, there are souls in the world to whom we are connected on a deep, spiritual level. It may be our spouse, our child, or our friend. When such a connection exists, our actions affect them and their actions affect us in a profound way. We are different because they exist. Such love exists beyond this world. With such a soul mate, we can truly be Together Forever.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5762)

THE LIMITS OF LOVE

“If I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us B since his soul is bound up with his soul.”
(Genesis 44:30)
We live in a society that worships love. One of the most beautiful phrases to describe love is found at the beginning of this week’s portion. The Torah speaks of the love between the father Jacob and his youngest son Benjamin. The Hebrew phrase is nefsho keshora benafsho “his soul is bound up to his soul.”
The Bible also uses this image of two souls bound together in love to describe the deep affinity between two dear friends David and Jonathan. “The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (Samuel 18:1) The Bible is speaking of more than a relationship; it is referring to an enduring love between two human beings. When two souls are bound together, it is a deep and profound experience.
The Bible teaches that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) Everything God made in the universe is good, the universe itself is very good. Only one thing is judged as not good, for a human being to be alone. We humans need other people. As the Beatles put it, “All you need is love.” And the highest form of love is when a soul is tied to another soul.
Such love can be beautiful and life affirming. However, like all things in life, there is a down side. When one human being is so connected to another that the other has power over them, it can sometimes become extremely destructive. When one person’s very soul is dependent upon the actions of another, one person has power over another that can become unhealthy.
I spoke to a man recently whose soul is deeply connected to his daughter, now a young adult. Unfortunately, his daughter has been behaving inappropriately over the past several years, causing great heartache and grief to this man. Part of my counseling was to tell the man that he is not responsible for his daughter’s behavior. He cannot give his daughter the power to destroy him. By letting go, loosening the bond, he was able to love his daughter that much more.
The same kind of problem occurs when we are so bound to our spouse or our lover that they have power over our very being. How often have I seen a man or woman die after a long, wonderful marriage, and almost immediately their partner also dies. (My father became sick at shiva for my mother, never recovered, and died less than two years later.) Their souls are so bound together that they cannot live apart. In a way, there is something very life moving about such a relationship. But it also deeply sad when any human being stops living because another human being is no longer around.
Love is powerful. It is never good to be alone. But for love to work, we first need a strong sense of self-esteem. We cannot love others until we love ourselves. When our soul is so tied to another that our very survival depends on that person, it gives another a power over us. This power over another can be destructive, whether the other is our child, our friend, our spouse, or our lover. When our soul becomes dependent on the actions of another, it abdicates some of our responsibility to care for ourselves.
At the end of a wedding feast, it is customary to repeat the seven wedding blessings over two cups of wine. This symbolizes two people joining together. But each cup is full, symbolizing self-sufficiency, showing that both the bride and the groom can stand on their own, each with a strong sense of self. Only then are the two cups poured together, showing two individuals tying their fate and their souls to one another. It is not a co-dependent relationship, but the love of two strong individuals. This is the love that God speaks of when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” This is the healthy way for one soul to be bound to another soul.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5761)

ALTRUISM

A”Then Judah went up to him and said, please my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord.”
(Genesis 44:18)

Judah steps forward and delivers a passionate speech to rescue his brother Benjamin after Benjamin has been accused of stealing a valuable goblet. In doing so, he puts his own life on the line. Judah could be arrested on the spot. It certainly would have been easier to walk away, let Benjamin be arrested, and go on with his life.
This is the perfect opportunity to speak about altruism. What would motivate someone to come forward and put his or her own life and self-interest on the line to help someone else? Why should we sacrifice for others? After all, our own survival ought to be our ultimate concern.
Altruistic behavior has puzzled biologists and other scientists. Many scientists accept a purely material view of life. They accept as gospel Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. Organisms do whatever is necessary to survive and flourish. Seemingly, it is illogical to sacrifice themselves for the needs of others. Certainly bees, ants, and certain other species do practice self-sacrifice, often trading their own lives for the good of the nest or hive. But can this behavior be applied to higher organisms, especially human beings?
Zoologist Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, writes “The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. ‘Special’ and ‘limited’ are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.”
Biologically, a gene will do what is necessary to protect itself. It may also protect its own closest biological relatives because they share genes. But the gene is not concerned with helping others, the stranger, those who are most biologically distant. If we accept the brutal, materialistic view of the world, there is little motivation to move beyond one’s own family to help others.
A religious outlook would reject the materialistic view of Dawkins and other biologists. We are more than our genes, more than the physical matter from which our bodies are built. We contain not only the dust of the earth but the breath of God. Every human being is created in the image of God, and every human being deserves our love and protection. The Torah teaches, ‘Do not stand idly by your brother’s blood.’ (Leviticus 19:16) The term brother means more than our biological brother. All humans are our brothers and sisters. ‘Have we not all one father? Have not one God created us?’ (Malachi 2:10)
A religious outlook means we care for the needs of our fellow human beings, even if there is some personal cost to us. We share our food with the hungry, even if it leaves us less to eat. We visit the sick, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We comfort the mourners, even if it makes us sad. We rescue captives, even if it involves some personal danger. We give of our money to help those in need, even if we would prefer to spend it for our own selves. These rules are true for our family, for our neighbors, for the greater community, and especially for the stranger.
The danger with the scientific, materialistic view of human nature is it easy to view the world simply as survival of the fittest. Altruistic behavior may be limited to what will perpetuate our own genes. The Torah comes along to teach us that we are more than ‘machines created by our genes.’ We are God’s creation and we carry within us the very breath of our Creator. That gives us responsibilities towards our fellow humans.

PARSHAT VAYIGASH
(5760)

THE SEVEN R’S OF REPENTENCE

“Please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.”
(Genesis 44:33)

Can people truly change? We joke that “a leopard cannot change its spots” or “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.” Note that both these proverbs deal with animals. Humans can change, we can get on the right path when we have gone astray. It is difficult, but certainly do-able.
How do we go about changing? I often speak of the Seven R’s of Teshuva (Repentance). It is a series of steps we each must take as we strive to follow the correct path.
RECOGNITION – The first step is to recognize that a particular action is wrong. The words “everyone is doing it,” “it is not big deal,” “it is simply my nature,” are signs that we do not even recognize our misbehavior. Pharaoh at first hardened his heart, but eventually the Torah teaches that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Pharaoh became so used to doing the wrong thing that he did not even recognize it as being wrong. We humans, despite our rationalizations, can discern right from wrong.
RESPONSIBILITY – It is not enough to say that a particular action is wrong. We must not make excuses, but rather accept responsibility. There is a famous Midrash (Rabbinic legend) how Cain, after slaying his brother Abel, blamed God. It is like a thief who blames the watchman for not better protecting the property. So we blame illness, racism, the way we were raised, our nature, everything but ourself. Finding a scapegoat for our misbehavior is the easy way out, taking responsibility is the Jewish way.
REMORSE – When we do wrong, we ought to feel bad. Guilt has a purpose, it causes pain which makes us change our ways. However, I want to differentiate between guilt and shame. Guilt is the statement “I did something bad.” Shame is the statement “I am something bad.”
RESTITUTION – This is the key point, and therefore it is smack in the middle. We must pay the price for our bad behavior. This certainly means apologizing to those we wronged; Jewish law says we should try three times to apologize. It means paying for any monetary loss, and suffering whatever punishments are appropriate. Restitution may even mean something harsh; resigning a position or even serving jail time. Restitution is the beginning of healing.
RESOLVE – Only after we have paid the price are we ready to resolve to change our ways. This is a decision regarding behavior. We will strive to return to the proper path. The Talmud teaches that if we sin and repent, sin and repent, without the resolve to change, Yom Kippur does not help. There must be a decision not to turn down the wrong path.
RECOVERY – I call this step recovery because it grows out of the recovery movement, the popular twelve step programs. We must turn to a higher power, to God to try to come onto the right path. The Talmud teaches, “Resh Lakish said, if a man comes to purify himself, he is helped from above.” (Yoma 38b) The recovery movement also recognizes that change is a difficult process that we must struggle with daily.
REPENTANCE – The word teshuvah, translated repentence, actually means “return.” Maimonides describes true repentance as the ability to face precisely the same temptation and this time take a different path, to return to the proper path. In last week’s portion, Joseph tested his brothers. They had sold him into slavery because he was their father’s favorite. He arranged it so that they could abandon the other beloved brother Benjamin to slavery. When his brother Judah stepped forward to save Benjamin, prepared to give himself as a slave instead, Joseph knew that his brothers had done true teshuvah – repentance.