Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.” (Genesis 41:23)

At the end of this portion, Joseph is in jail and life looks hopeless. Yet we know that he will be released and become the second most powerful man in Egypt. As they say, “It is always darkest before the dawn.” Hanukkah always falls during the darkest time of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere.) Nonetheless, we know that light will push away the darkness. As we face these dark times, may our Hanukkah lights be a symbol of hope in the future.
Of course, Hanukkah celebrates a victory of Judah Maccabee and his brothers against the Syrian – Greeks. They had sought to prevent the people Israel from practicing their faith. With the victory, the Maccabees rededicated the Temple and began eight days of celebration. Each day we increase the number of candles, increasing the light. It is a powerful symbol of hope.
But is Judaism truly anti-Greek? I am a rabbi who teaches philosophy, a system of thinking with roots in ancient Greece. Here is a short selection from my soon-to-be-published book Does the Universe Have a Soul?

One of my college students approached me before my Introduction to Philosophy class. He was surprised that I was teaching college philosophy. How can I be a rabbi and teach secular philosophy? Don’t they contradict each other? After all, religion gets truth from revelation, sacred scripture, and properly ordained authority. Philosophy gets truth from open ended free debate. What could religion and philosophy have in common?
My student sounded like the early Church father Tertullian (155–220). He famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Athens is the birthplace of philosophy while Jerusalem is the center of religion. The two should have nothing to do with each other. Religion begins with faith while philosophy begins with arguments. How can I accept both?
I answered that it was a great question. I prefer the approach of the great Christian thinker considered a saint by the Catholic Church, Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109). Anselm invented the ontological proof for the existence of God, which philosophers still argue over to this day. He defined philosophy as “faith seeking understanding.” Such religious thinkers as the Muslim Avicenna, the Jewish Maimonides, and the Christian Thomas Aquinas begin with faith, and use philosophical arguments to deepen their faith. Personally, my study of secular philosophy has deepened my Jewish faith.
In fact, the Rabbis of the Talmudic period had a surprising respect for the Greek philosophical tradition. In the Talmud (Megillah 9b), the sage Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel allowed Torah scrolls to be written in Greek. He based this on the blessing in the Torah that Noah gives his sons. “God shall enlarge Japheth and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). Japheth was the progenitor of Yavan, the Hebrew word for Greek. The Rabbis seem to read the verse from Genesis that the traditions of Greece shall enlighten the tent of the Hebrews.

Yes, we fought the Greeks. But we also learned from the Greeks. This raises a deep question – can someone be both our enemy and our teacher? It is a question worth pondering as we begin our celebration of Hanukkah.

“They took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24)
At the beginning of this week’s portion, Joseph’s brothers cast him into a pit. There was no water in it, but according to the commentator Rashi, there were snakes and scorpions. At the end of this week’s portion, Joseph is thrown into jail on false charges. The portion ends with him alone and forgotten. Joseph was a man of faith, but one can wonder – did Joseph ever doubt? Is there room for doubt in our religious tradition?
A few years ago I gave a sermon on the High Holidays about faith and doubt. Here is part of that sermon reworked. The prominent Orthodox rabbi Norman Lamm, former head of Yeshiva University, wrote a book called Faith and Doubt. He wrote, “The path to the knowledge of God is strewn with rocks and boulders of doubt; he who would despair of the journey because of the fear of doubt, must resign himself forever from attaining the greatest prize known to man.” And the Christian theologian Paul Tillich famously wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” Here are two great theologians, one Jewish and one Christian, saying that just as we need faith, we also need doubt.
This week I finally saw the Tony Award winning Broadway show Hadestown, which I highly recommend. I was supposed to go six months ago in Los Angeles but had to give up my ticket when I became sick with Covid. The show was worth the wait. It is a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the myth, Orpheus and Eurydice are deeply in love when Eurydice suddenly dies. Orpheus goes to the underworld to try to rescue his beloved. He is told that they can be reunited if he can walk out of the underworld with her following him. But he must have faith. He cannot look back to see if she is following.
As his journey nears the end, the suspense becomes too much for him. Is she following him? Orpheus begins to doubt and looks back, sees Eurydice following, and loses her forever. In the Broadway version, Eurydice goes to the underworld to help build a wall because she is hungry, and she will be fed down there. Orpheus goes down to find her, and she is allowed to follow him out. But only if he does not look back. The muses sing a song called “Doubt Comes In.” Does doubt cause him to look back? No spoilers here; see the show and find out. It is a wonderful Broadway show built on an ancient Greek legend about doubt.
What I love about Judaism is that it asks us to believe, but it leaves room for doubt. There are few people more difficult to tolerate than those who are so sure of themselves that they become smug and arrogant. It is hard to deal with people who are never wrong. Philosophers speak of something called a cognitive bias, where you only see things that support your point of view and are blind to things that challenge your point of view. Too many religious believers suffer from this cognitive bias.
A bit of doubt is healthy. It can teach us some humility. Can we doubt the existence of God? I think of the Hasidic story of the rebbe who lived a century ago in the old country, who told his followers that everything that exists can teach us something. One Hasid asks, “What can we learn from a train?” The rebbe answers, “We learn about leadership. One car full of energy can pull a string of cars with no energy.” Another Hasid asks, “What can we learn from a telephone?” The rebbe answers, “We learn about gossip. What is said over here can be heard over there.”
Finally, a third Hasid, hoping to get the best of the rebbe, askes, “What can we learn from atheism, doubting the existence of God?” The rebbe answers, “Atheism teaches us the most important lesson of all. We should always think there is no God. When your fellow is in trouble, do not say God will provide. Perhaps there is no God, and you need to provide.” Even doubt about God serves a purpose. If there is no God, we must act in God’s stead.
Joseph was known as Yosef HaTzadik, Joseph the righteous. I like to believe that at the bottom of the pit or locked in prison, he had moments of doubt. It is part of being human.

“They took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24)
My daughter and her family just moved to South Carolina, across the border from Charlotte. On Friday night they went to a local synagogue where the rabbi told a story I have often told. A farmer and his family lived in a small, crowded house, with children always underfoot. The farmer was deeply unhappy, so he went to the rabbi for advice. The rabbi told him to bring some chickens, then some goats, then finally a cow into the house. The farmer found it intolerable and went back to the rabbi. The rabbi then said to remove the cow, the goats, and the chickens. Then the farmer then thanked the rabbi. “There is so much more room now.”
The story, for obvious reasons, is called, “It Could Always Be Worse.” It rang true with me this week. As many of you heard, at a drive through ATM, while reaching for a check I dropped, my right arm became caught between my car door and a pole. In one moment, I managed to break both my arm and the car door. But it could always be worse. I was able to drive to the emergency room where staffers had to open the jammed car door to let me out. The arm is broken but I do not need surgery. It will heal and my car door will be fixed, although the body shop is backed up. I am learning to use my left hand, including writing this message. And I have sworn off all drive throughs.
Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, is the main character of this portion. I wonder if Joseph felt that it could always be worse. Here is a man filled with charisma, who succeeds wherever he goes, including the court of Pharaoh. Yet twice in this portion he finds himself in trouble. First his brothers cast him into a pit. The Torah teaches that the pit was empty, there was no water. Rashi comments that there was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions. Joseph is pulled from the pit by a passing caravan but sold as a slave in Egypt. At the end of the portion, he is thrown into prison, falsely accused of sexual harassment. Although Joseph proves himself as a talented interpreter of dreams, but at the end of the portion he is forlorn and forgotten.
I wonder if Joseph knew during these difficult times that the pit and the prison were not his destiny. He was a dreamer after all. By next week’s potion he will become the second most powerful man in Egypt. Perhaps by thinking positive thoughts, he brought positive results upon himself.
Thanksgiving falls this week. It is the perfect time to give gratitude for the blessings we have rather than dwelling on what we lack. I know that broken arms heal and car doors can be fixed. It could always be worse. Long ago a wise rabbi named Ben Zoma taught, “Who is rich? Whoever is satisfied with his lot” (Avot 4:1). It is a valuable lesson as we enter the weekend of Thanksgiving and the Joseph story. And of course this is the theme of Hanukkah where one day’s worth of oil gave off light for eight days, and which begins Sunday night. Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah.

“They took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty, there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24)
For the next four weeks we will be reading the story of Joseph, the favored son of Jacob. Whenever I read his story, I think of the classic Frank Sinatra Song, “That’s life, that’s what people say, you’re riding high in April, shot down in May. But I know I’m gonna change that tune, when I’m back on top in June.”
At the beginning of the story, Joseph is riding high as the favored son, flaunting his coat of many colors. His brothers in a fit of jealousy, toss him into a pit. The pit has no water, but according to Rashi it is filled with snakes and scorpions. Then a group of Midianites, or is it Ishamaelites, pull him out of the pit and sell him as a slave in Egypt. There he becomes head of the household of a powerful Egyptian nobleman Potiphar. But that position will not last. Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Jacob of sexual harassment (he is actually the victim of harassment.) He ends up in jail, forgotten even by people he helped. That is how the portion ends. But come back next week when Joseph will become the second most powerful man in Egypt.
That is Joseph’s life, up and down and up and down, and finally up. That is all of our lives. We have our good times and our bad times. To quote one more song lyric from a generation after Sinatra, James Taylors’s Fire and Rain, “I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end, I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” Life is filled with ups and downs, moments when we are riding on top of the world and moments when we feel as if we are languishing in a pit. But perhaps the lesson is that moments in the pit, those lonely days, will not last forever. As the cliché goes, “the sky is darkest before the dawn.”
What is true for our individual lives is true for the life of our community. The year 2020 will end in a few weeks, and it cannot happen quick enough. It has been a terrible year. There was a bitter election that broke up friendships, families, and even marriages. There were horrible examples of racism on the part of some police, and severe over reaction including rioting and looting. And on top of that all, there was the corona pandemic that stole hundreds of thousands of lives and turned our economy upside down. No wonder so many of us feel like we have been cast into a pit.
Nonetheless, 2021 is around the corner, the election is over, we have become more sensitized to racism, and several new vaccines have been developed. We are finding our way out of the pit. That is precisely the hidden message of Hanukkah. During the coldest, darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we light lamps. We increase the number and the amount of light, following the dictum of the sage Hillel. (His adversary Shammai taught that we lower the number each night, but his opinion was rejected.) We light in a window or public place, during the time when “there are people passing by in the marketplace” according to the Talmud. It is our festival of lights, called in Hebrew Hag Urim. We want to proclaim the miracle. And I believe it is no coincidence that our Christian neighbors cover their homes with lights at this same time of year.
I once met a young woman who is a practicing pagan, keeping ancient Wicchan and Celtic traditions. She was about to celebrate Yule, an all-night vigil lit by candles during the night of the winter solstice. The whole pagan ritual reminded me of a Midrash regarding the first man Adam. When the sun went down on the sixth night of creation, Adam starting to weep and fast. “The world is darkening for me.” When the sun arose the next day, Adam offered special offerings. “Such is the way of nature and I did not even realize it.” (Avoda Zara 8a)
The message of the Joseph story, the message of so many popular songs, and the message of Hanukkah, is the same message. When life appears to be dark, we should light lights. These lights express our true belief that better times are coming. It is a message we desperately need to hear as 2020 winds to a close.


“The keeper of the prison looked not to any thing that was under his hand; because the Lord was with him, and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper.”  (Genesis 39:23)

This week we begin the long saga of Joseph and his brothers.  Joseph over the next few weeks will go from being a lowly servant in Egypt to head of his master’s household, and from languishing in a prison to becoming the second most powerful man in Egypt.  In the beginning, he is an arrogant young man, strutting in his coat of many colors (actually a cloak of stripes) and bragging to his brothers how they will one day bow down to him.  Small wonder his brothers hated him.  But he will become a man who people noticed, who is seen as a leader wherever he went.

Joseph is sold into slavery in the Egyptian nobleman Potiphar’s home.  Soon he becomes head of the household.  After a false accusation of sexual harassment by Potiphar’s wife (the first known case of sexual harassment), he is thrown into prison.  But in prison he prospers to become the leader of all the prisoners.  Next week we will read how Pharaoh pulls him out of prison in order to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Before long he becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt.  There is something about Joseph that draws people to him.  We often use the word charisma, that undefined quality that makes someone a leader.  As arrogant as Joseph was in the beginning, he certainly displayed his charisma.  To be a true leader, a person needs charisma.

The great sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920), considered one of the founders of sociology, developed a theory of leadership in the religious community.  He taught that there are three kinds of religious authority – traditional, legal -rational, and charismatic.  First there is traditional authority.  This would include hereditary leadership.  For example, in the Jewish community, priests (kohanim) had to be the sons of priests.  Priesthood was passed from father to son in an unbroken chain.  In some Hasidic dynasties, sons follow fathers.  (In Chabad, the Rebbe was the son-in-law of the previous Rebbe.)  Leadership follows from generation to generation.

Legal – rational authority is how most religious institutions function today.  For example, I am a rabbi because I was ordained at an institution.  When my synagogue hired me, they went through a formal placement process.  There were rules that I and the synagogue had to follow.  Rabbis who break these rules risk being censured or removed from their rabbinic organization.  Churches follow similar rules in choosing their priests or pastors.  The rules give them their authority.

But there is a third type of leadership that often arises within a religious community – the charismatic leader.  In Biblical times, the great literary prophets like Isaiah and Amos were charismatic leaders.  In the Hasidic world leaders would arise that would gather a following through pure charisma.  They would gather followers around them through the pure force of personality.  Often in the modern Jewish and Christian world we find people who use charisma to become prominent religious leaders.  One thinks of the Reverent Martin Luther King Jr. or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Sometimes a young rabbi moves into a community, opens a synagogue, and gathers a loyal following.  They are human beings who have the amazing ability to attract others to their sides.

Joseph was a leader who had charisma.  Today when I look at leadership, whether in the world of religion, entertainment, business, or even politics, I look for the difficult to define quality called charisma.  I look for people who have that ability to create a following.  For those who saw the Broadway show Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda developed the title character as a man filled with such charisma.  Through his ability, he was able to transform the new republic he helped found.  In the case of Joseph, the Torah said that it was the Lord who made him prosper.  Charisma is a gift from God.  The goal of people who have such charisma is to use this God-given gift to make this a better world.

“The Lord was with Joseph and he was a successful man, and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master.” (Genesis 39:2)
Let me start with a confession. I am not someone who likes reality television. But if I am home Monday nights, I always watch Dancing with the Stars. There is something exciting about watching people who were not born to dance grow in talent and skill over the course of the show. Usually the best dancer wins. But not this year.
I was surprised that a radio personality named Bobby Bones together with his partner, professional dancer Sharna Burgess won. He was not the best dancer, far from it. While the others tried to receive perfect 10’s from the judges, he admitted that he was thrilled to receive 8’s. So if other dancers were better, why did he win? He had something the other dancers lacked, an appealing personality, a strong following, or to use an excellent word, “charisma.” The one with the most charisma won.
Often this happens in life. You know that I love Broadway musicals. I keep thinking of a line from Stephen Schwartz’s great show Wicked. “To think of celebrated heads of state or especially great communicators. Did they have brains or knowledge? Don’t make me laugh. They were popular! Please, it’s all about popular!” To have charisma is not about talent, it is about being popular. And that charisma is a gift which some people have.
This week we meet the central character of the next four portions of Genesis. Joseph is the son of Jacob and Rachel, in fact the favored son of Jacob. Jacob buys him a coat of many colors (according to the Hebrew, a cloak of stripes, but whose quibbling.) Joseph’s brothers hate him. But everywhere Joseph goes, he becomes the most popular guy in the room. He has charisma. Or to quote the Bible, “the Lord was with Joseph.” Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt to Potiphar, and soon becomes the head of his household. Joseph is thrown in jail for a crime he did not commit, and soon becomes the chief assistant to the jailor. Next week Joseph is plucked out of jail by Pharaoh and quickly becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt. Joseph has charisma.
What is charisma? The word has its roots in Christian theology, referring to a divine grace or spirit. In our secular world, it means “a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires unswerving allegiance and devotion” (Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary). Charisma is a talent, one might almost say a gift from God. People with charisma have the rare ability to attract a following. The German Sociologist Max Weber speaks of different kinds of religious leadership or authority, rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic. The charismatic religious leader often develops a following outside the established churches and synagogues. One thinks of the ancient prophets, or in our own time, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Often such charismatic leaders arise when religion has become routine and stale.
Even in the secular world certain people have that special quality. We can look at the entire royal family in Great Britain and think about the amazing following the late Princess Diana achieved in her lifetime. The quote from Wicked above hints at former President Ronald Reagan. Whether you liked or disliked Reagan, he had a certain charisma that more recent presidents have lacked. If I think about current celebrities, Elton John recently gave two concerts in our community. I could not attend, but those who did go spoke like they had gone to heaven. I believed that Elton John had that “it” factor since I first saw The Lion King.
Sadly, charisma can also be negative. How did Hitler go from writing Mein Kampf in prison to becoming the Fuhrer of Nazi Germany? Word is that he had a great deal of charisma and was able to mesmerize the German people.
Charisma is a gift from God. Joseph had it, and he saved his brothers and the people of Egypt. For those blessed with such charisma, the only question is, what are you doing with it?

“A certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field; and the man asked him, saying, what do you seek?” (Genesis 37:15)
I spent two days in Atlanta at the biennial convention of United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. My synagogue won an award at the convention. Sunday night was a memorable evening. We loaded on busses to visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church, home of the late Martin Luther King Jr. There we listened to a speech by the Rev. Natosha Reid Rice, an attorney, an accomplished speaker, and the assistant pastor of the church. More about her speech shortly. Following her speech, Neshama Carlebach, daughter of the late rabbi composer Shlomo Carlebach, performed in concert.
I will admit that I was tired after an early morning flight, and was nodding off at the beginning of the concert. But by the end I was flying like everyone else. When she sang her father’s Kee Ba Moed (“the appointed time is coming”) with members of the church’s black choir, you could feel the energy in the room. Soon everyone was dancing. Shortly after she sang her signature “Higher and Higher,” that we can move closer and closer to heaven by our actions. (It was also wonderful that she announced her engagement to Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a colleague of mine. I was able to personally wish him a mazel tov.) By the end of the concert, we felt we could bring the Messianic age of perfect justice through song and dance.
When the program was over, I walked across the street to the memorial of Martin Luther King Jr. I stood for a moment as the eternal flame burned, thinking of what I could do to fulfill Rev. King’s dream. But let me return to the words of Rev. Rice. She tried to explain what it felt like to be a person of color in the United States today. She exclaimed how towards the end of his life Rev. King spoke not only about human rights but economic justice for the poor. Some of what she said was controversial. For example, she defended the work of Black Lives Matter, a group that is strongly anti-Israel. But the heart of her message to our mostly white, affluent audience is that we need to understand what it is like for people who do not have the privileges most of us share.
How can we make a difference? I had a very different experience over Thanksgiving weekend at a different church revival gathering here in Ft. Lauderdale. I was invited to offer a prayer and do some teaching at a religious retreat for several black churches. I forgot that if I am invited to speak at 7:30 pm, there will be an hour of singing and preaching before I ever mount the pulpit. At 8:30 pm I shared the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) that when a man makes coins from the same mold, every one is like every other one. But when God makes humans from the same mold (Adam and Eve), each and every one is unique. No person is like any other person. Thus, every person must say that “the world was created for me.” Every human being, no matter the race or ethnic background, has his or her own role to play in God’s plan for the world. Everyone is valuable.
There is a hint of this idea in our portion. Joseph, trying to find his brothers, runs into a certain man wandering in the field. That certain man points Joseph in the right direction, thus setting off a series of events that would change history. We do not know his name nor anything about him. Why does the Torah mention this certain man? To try to show how one stranger who runs into Joseph can make a difference. Every human being ever created has a role to play and can change the course of human history. Everybody deserves dignity.
We are far from a colorblind world, where we treat people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” We must put out this message of human dignity. Saturday night, at the place where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, I felt that the day was a bit closer. Or as Neshama Carlebach sang her father’s song, “the appointed time is coming.” May it come speedily in our day.

“They took him and cast him in the pit. The pit was empty, there was no water in it.”
(Genesis 37:24)
Everyone knows I am a fan of Broadway musicals. Last May when I was in New York I saw Bright Star written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. It introduced blue grass music to Broadway, and was up for a Tony award for best musical. The original cast album is currently up for a Grammy. I was disappointed when it closed and hope to see it again on tour. The musical tells the story of a rather uptight editor of a literary journal in Asheville NC at the end of World War II. Her story is told in a series of flashbacks, revealing painful secrets about her past. Part of the reason star Carmen Cusack was nominated for her own Tony was her ability to switch from a woman in her forties to a teenager in trouble.
At the beginning of the 2nd act when things are looking bleakest for the main character, her mother starts to sing a song “The Sun is Going to Shine Again.” Soon the whole cast is singing this extremely catchy song. The future will be better. And one walks away with a good feeling. Many in the audience walked away humming that song.
The sun is going to shine again is the perfect theme as we begin reading the story of Joseph and his brothers. Early in this week’s portion the brothers throw Joseph into a pit. The pit is empty, there is no water, but Rashi says “There is no water, but there are snakes and scorpions.” Joseph is pulled from the pit and sold into slavery in Egypt. There he becomes the powerful assistant to one of Pharaoh’s chief advisors. But at the end of the portion he is a forgotten man, back in jail. To quote another Broadway show, Andrew Lloyd Weber has Joseph sing, “Close every door to me.”
Throughout the Joseph story, Joseph goes from the pit or jail to positions of influence and power. From the Joseph story we learn that, as the cliché says, “it is always darkest before the dawn.” It reminds me of the Midrash of the creation of Adam on the sixth day, and as Adam watched the sunset he fell into a depression. Will the sun ever shine again? According to the Talmud, “When primitive Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ He sat and fasted and Eve wept next to him. The he saw the light of dawn and realized, this is the way of the world.“ (Avodah Zarah 8a)
The world seems dark but then the dawn breaks. The sun starts to shine again. There is an oft-quoted passage found in a cellar in Cologne, Germany, where Jews were hidden during World War II. “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I am alone. And I believe in God, even when He hides His face.” Belief that the light will shine again has kept Jews going even during the darkest times.
That brings me to Hanukkah which begins when Shabbat ends. Hanukkah is our festival of lights. Following the dictate of the sage Hillel, we increase the number of candles and increase the amount of light each night. We do not simply light the Hanukkah menorah in our living room, we light it so that the candles can be seen through the window. We want to publicize the miracle. I believe that it is not simply a coincidence that Hanukkah falls each year close to the Winter Solstice, the shortest, darkest, coldest day of the year. Hanukkah is saying that in the darkest days, we need to shine lights. By the way, although Christmas technically has nothing to do with Hanukkah, this Christian festival of lights also falls near the solstice. The message is that when things appear dark, the sun is going to shine again.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy famously said, “We are not here to curse the darkness but to light a candle.” I can think of no better Hanukkah message.

“While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand to signify, this one came out first” (Genesis 38:28)
Each week I read the weekly portion wondering if I will come up with something new and original. This week one of our members shared an insight with me that I had never thought about before. (Thank you Geri Salomon.) He raised a fascinating thought. If someone’s parent sinned, are the children able to make atonement for their parent’s sins? To explore this question, let us look at the story of Judah and Tamar which falls in the middle of this portion.
The story is not a pleasant one. Judah the fourth son of Jacob, is the father of three boys. The oldest boy Er dies with no children, so Judah gives his daughter-in-law Tamar to the second son Onan. (In Biblical times, when a man dies without children, it was the brother’s responsibility to marry the widow and have children in the brother’s name. This is called Levirate marriage.) Onan refuses to have a child in his brother’s name, and also dies. Judah sends Tamar back to her parents’ home, promising her the youngest son Shelah when he grows up.
Judah never fulfills his promise. So Tamar disguises herself as a harlot on the road and Judah hires her to fulfill his lust. She becomes pregnant with twins and Judah declares, let her burn. Then he realizes that he is the father who had withheld his son from her. He admits that he had treated her wrongly. Now we come to the key point in our story. The first of the twins puts his hand out, and the midwife puts a crimson thread around his hand, signifying that he is the first born. Then the other son emerges first from the womb. He is known as Peretz and will become the progenitor of King David. But he is actually the second born, again in keeping with the Biblical theme of favoring the younger over the older. Finally the baby with the thread comes out and is named Zerah.
Why does the Torah contain this story about the thread and the first born? Perhaps Judah ordered the midwife to place a thread on the first born. He wanted to be absolutely sure who was the first born of the twins. Why was this important? Judah’s father Jacob had lived a life of conflict with his brother Esau over the question, who was the first born. The name Jacob is based on the Hebrew word for “heel”; Jacob was holding the heel of Esau trying to get out first. This conflict over who deserved to be the first born led to a life of suffering for Jacob. Judah knew his father’s story. He ordered the crimson thread to be tied on the hand of the first born, making it clear that the mistake of his father would not be carried on to a new generation. Judah was trying to atone for the sins of his father.
It is true that the prophet Ezekiel taught, “The soul who sins shall die. The son will not bear the iniquity of the father, nor the father the iniquity of the son.” (Ezekiel 18:20) We are not responsible for what our parents did, only for what we do. Nonetheless, there seems to be something very powerful about children trying to atone for their parents’ actions. Nowhere is this idea more powerful than young German volunteers who move to Israel to help the Jewish state. If their parents or grandparents were Nazis, this is something they can do to make up for what their parents did.
I heard this point powerfully presented in a lecture I heard from Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, a physician who lives in nearby Aventura, FL. Dr. Wollschlaeger was born in Germany to a Nazi father. As a young man, after confronting his father’s past, he decided to study Judaism. Eventually Dr. Wollschlaeger converted to Judaism and became an observant Jew. What began as an exploration of his father’s past eventually brought him to become a Jew, move to Israel to serve in the Israeli army, and then to Florida where he is active in the Jewish community. His book is entitled A German Life: Against All Odds Change is Possible.
So can children atone for the sins of their parents? I agree with Ezekiel that everyone is responsible for their own actions. But having said that, I think children can act in this world in a way that fixes what their parents broke. The Bible does say about human actions, “The crooked cannot be made straight.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15) Perhaps what is crooked in one generation can be made straight by the next generation.

“They took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.”
(Genesis 37:24)
I took a wonderful day off from work yesterday. Evelyn and I met our dear friends from Israel Andy and Debbie in Naples, a resort town on the west coast of Florida. We spent the day shopping, eating, talking, and enjoying each other’s company. We even enjoyed the annual Naples Christmas Parade (mostly because my car was blocked in by the parade.) Our friends are nature lovers, so in the afternoon we went out to the Everglades to visit a nature trail – bird sanctuary.
It was not a good day to view birds; the overcast weather kept them away. Andy said he would be happy if he could photograph five birds. He succeeded. Based on our entrance fee, that was about $2 a bird. However, we did see a huge alligator resting on a rock towards the end of the nature walk. When we finished, I commented, “We went bird watching and saw few birds.” Debbie with a big smile answered, “Yea, but we saw an alligator.” I realized that I was seeing the glass half empty and she was seeing it half full.
Our Israeli friends challenged me to write my weekly spiritual message on this experience. I have often said that any topic can be connected to any weekly portion. I thought about the comment we made, “There were no birds but there was an alligator.” And I thought of the comment Rashi made after Joseph is thrown into an empty pit. “There was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions.” (Rashi on Genesis 37:24) We can see what is not there, or we can see what is there. We can see the cup as half empty or we can see the cup as half full. Our attitude towards life makes all the difference.
I think about the life of Joseph, so full of ups and downs. At the beginning of this portion he is showing of the proof that he is his father’s favorite son, wearing his Coat of Many Colors (literally a “cloak of stripes”). He is on top of the world. Then he is thrown into an empty pit, without water but with snakes and scorpions. Next he is sold as a slave to Egypt where he becomes the chief servant of an Egyptian nobleman, so handsome that he catches the eye of the nobleman’s wife. Then he is back in the pit, forgotten in jail in Egypt. In next week’s portion he will be raised up again, becoming the second most powerful man in Egypt. The story of Joseph’s life reflects Frank Sinatra’s classic That’s Life, “You’re riding high in April, shot down in May. But I know I am going to change that tune, when I am back on top in June.”
Life is filled with ups and downs, bad times and good times. It is much easier to deal with the vicissitudes of life if we consider that neither good times nor bad times will last forever. It is helpful if we look at life with the attitude that the cup is half full rather than half empty. I have often mentioned to people that they should place in their pocket the saying “This too shall pass.” When things are really good, look at it and try to embrace the moment. Such moments do not last forever. When things are really bad, look at it and remember that better times will come.
The entire idea is probably best expressed in a classic Taoist tale. A man owns a single horse, until one day the horse escapes. His neighbors come by to comfort him for his bad fortune, and he replies, “What makes you think it is bad?” Shortly afterwards, the horse returns with several wild horses, which enter the man’s corral. The neighbors come by to congratulate him on his good fortune. The man replies, “What makes you think it is good?”
Shortly afterwards the man’s son tries to train one of the wild horses, falls off and breaks his leg. The neighbors come by to comfort him for his bad fortune, and he replies, “What makes you think it is bad?” Then a military official comes by to conscript men into the army, but they leave the man’s son alone because of his broken leg. The neighbor’s come by to congratulate him on his good fortune. Again the man replies, “What makes you think it is good?”
Life is bad and life is good. Sometimes you see no birds and sometimes you see an alligator. Sometimes you are thrown into a pit and sometimes you are on top of the world. In the end, attitude is everything.

“Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age, and he made him an ornamented tunic.” (Genesis 37:3)
This week we begin reading the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was the favored son of Jacob, and so he bought him an ornamented tunic (a more accurate translation than “coat of many colors.”) This leads directly into a counseling issue I deal with on a regular basis, including several times this very week. What happens when parents favor one of their children, or disfavor one of them?
The Talmud teaches, “Raba b. Mehasia said in the name of R. Hama b. Goria in the name of Rav: A man should never single out one son among his other sons, for on account of the two sela’s weight of silk, which Jacob gave Joseph in excess of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter resulted in our forefather’s descent into Egypt.” This wonderful passage seems to indicate that Jacob bought tunics for all his sons. However, Joseph’s was a bit fancier, with two sela’s extra of silk. For the sake of these two selas of silk, jealousy and exile occurred.
I see this happen on a regular basis. There is a particular problem when parents do not treat their children equally when it comes to a will or estate. Recently someone shared with me that they have two children, one of whom is jealous of the other. Sometimes the jealous one mistreats the other. The parent is angry at the jealous child and wants to remove this child from the will. I strongly recommended against it. To disinherit a child is an extreme act that will lead to bitterness down through the generations. Besides, the jealous child may change his or her ways. Disinheritance should only be used in the most extreme situations.
Where I see this issue more often is in situations where one child is much more financially successful than the others. Parents leave their money to the child who is a struggling artist and not to the successful doctor, thinking the doctor does not need it. I have spoken to people who have been disinherited by their parents because they were too successful. They often feel bitterly hurt by their parents’ actions, cheated out of their fair share. Lawyers I have spoken to agree strongly that parents should treat all their children – the rich and the poor, the nice and the not-so-nice – equally in a will. One can tell the successful child, “Take care of your brother/sister.” But children should be equal.
Of course this is not what happens in the Bible. Abraham favored Isaac over Ishmael. Isaac favored Esau over Jacob, while Rebecca favored Jacob over Esau. Jacob favored Joseph over the other brothers. This kind of behavior seems to be passed down over the generations. And it still reverberates today. Ishmael was the ancestor or the Arab nation, while Isaac was the ancestor of the Jewish people. Tension still reigns. Esau was the ancestor of Rome and eventually of Christian Europe. Jacob was the ancestor of the Jewish people. We only need to look at the history of the Jews in Europe to see where this favoritism leads. What a different world it would be if Biblical characters had treated their children equally. (Of course, then the Bible would have been far less interesting. Our Biblical ancestors were not saints but ordinary people.)
The ideal is to treat our children equally. Of course that is difficult, for every child is different. The book of Proverbs teaches, “Raise a son according to his way.” (Proverbs 22:6) Every child has his or her own way, with different needs and different desires. The challenge is to meet each child’s particular needs, while loving them and treating them equally. Nobody said parenthood was easy.

“And they took him, and threw him into a pit; and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.”
(Genesis 37:24)
My Uncle Max Srery passed away this week, exactly six months shy of his hundredth birthday. I flew out to Los Angeles for thirty six hours to conduct his funeral and be with my family. In many ways it was a blessed life – married 57 years to my Aunt Shirley and very close to his four children and seven grandchildren. There was more laughter than tears at his funeral.
Like so many of us, Max had his ups and downs during life. On the down side, he lived through the death of his father when he was a child, forcing him to take responsibility for his family. He lived through losing a business. And in the end, he lived through the loss of short term (but not long term) memory. He could not remember whether or not he had eaten breakfast. But he could remember in vivid detail how he played baseball in Wrigley Field as a young man.
The up side mostly revolved around family. Every year the all his children and grand children would join together in Lake Arrowhead, a mountain resort near Los Angeles. A few times I even joined them. Looking through Max’s long life, there were far more ups than downs. Or perhaps he was able to embrace the up moments.
Life is filled with ups and downs. In this week’s portion we begin to tell the story of Joseph and his brothers. The story will occupy us for the next four weeks. But even in this week’s reading, twice Joseph is on top of the world and twice he is literally thrown into a pit. He is walking tall as his father favors him with a coat of many colors. He is thrown into a pit as his brother’s conspire to sell him into slavery. He is walking tall again as the head of household for an Egyptian aristocrat. And he is back in the pit after being falsely accused of rape.
Joseph’s life was filled with ups and downs, high points and low points. But perhaps all lives are filled with such moments. Frank Sinatra put it best in one of his most enduring songs, “That’s life, that’s what people say. You’re riding high in April, shot down in May. But I know I’m gonna change their tune, when I’m right back on top in June.” Every life is filled with highs and lows, wonderful moments and sad moments, hope and despair. The key issue is dealing with vicissitudes of life with equanimity.
There is a famous story in the Taoist tradition. A poor farmer has a single horse. One day the horse runs away, and so the farmer’s neighbors come to comfort him. “What makes you think this is so terrible?” The horse soon returns with a number of wild horses. The neighbors again come by to celebrate his good fortune. “What makes you think this is so good?” The farmer’s son tries to tame one of the wild horses and is thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. Again the neighbors come by to comfort him. “What makes you think this is so terrible?” A war breaks out and all the able bodied men are sent into battle. The son with the broken leg is exempted. The neighbors come to celebrate. “What makes you think this is so good?”
The story could go on forever. The farmer has ups and downs, joyous moments and low moments. And he accepts each with a kind of equanimity. “That’s life.” Someone once asked me, “Rabbi, what is the best advice you can give anyone as they go through both good and bad moments of life.” My answer was to write down the words, “This too shall pass.” The good moments, the b’nai mitzvah and weddings and family get-togethers and vacations pass too quickly. They need to be embraced and enjoyed to their fullest. And the difficult moments – illnesses and deaths and financial setbacks create great pain. But these also pass. There is life and hope after the pain. In the end Joseph gets out of the pit.
We come from a tradition that says “choose life.” Life is full of both good and bad moments. We need to embrace the good moments and tolerate the bad moments. For both will pass away. Life is a celebration to be lived; my uncle knew how to live them. So should we all fully live life, even if we are not given almost one hundred.


“They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said, `We found this. Please examine it, is it your son’s tunic or not?’” (Genesis 37:32)
When I spent a year studying in Israel, one Thursday morning in November I saw a sign on our dormitory bulletin board: Yom Hodaah Feast tonight. I had no idea what Yom Hodaah meant. The Hebrew words mean “day of thanks,” but the American festival of Thanksgiving is not part of the Israeli calendar. It took a few minutes to understand that we American students were invited to celebrate Thanksgiving in Jerusalem. It was nice to have the unusual Israeli dishes of tarnagol hodu (turkey or literally, Indian rooster) and pie delaat (pumpkin pie – pareve).
Thanksgiving may not be part of the culture of Israel. But giving thanks is central to our tradition. In fact the very word Jew (Yehudi in Hebrew) comes from the Hebrew word meaning thank you. Our name comes from the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, named Judah, because “this time I will thank the Lord.” (Genesis 29:35) Thanksgiving is built into our very name. Certainly our tradition is filled with obligations to stop and say “thank you.” Tradition teaches that Jews should say one hundred blessings of thank you each day.
But this raises the question – was Judah worthy to be the namesake of an entire people and a religion. Based on this week’s Torah reading, the answer is no. The Torah paints an extremely unflattering picture of Judah. He is the leader of the brothers who seek to kill their brother Joseph. He is the one who suggests that rather than kill Joseph, they should cast him into a pit and then sell him as a slave to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites.
The saddest scene is when the brothers led by Judah take Joseph’s striped coat, often called the coat of many colors, dip it in blood and thrust it in front of their elderly father Jacob. “Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not.” Joseph is horrified. “My son’s tunic. A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast.” (Genesis 37:33) Jacob mourns and finds no comfort for the loss of his favorite son.
The Torah recognizes Judah’s cruelty. It goes on to tell the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Judah refuses to give his son Shelah to Tamar as required by the laws of Levirate marriage. Tamar dresses as a harlot and stands by the roadway; Judah, not recognizing her, sleeps with his daughter-in-law. He leaves his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge for payment. Three months later they find Tamar pregnant with Judah’s child (actually twins.) Judah demands that she be punished. She comes forwards with the seal, cord, and staff, using the words. “`I am with child by the man to whom these belong.’ And she added, `Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these? ” (Genesis 38:25-26)
The same words “examine these” are used by Judah to confront his father and by Tamar to confront Judah. This is no coincidence. What goes around comes around. If Judah is going to be cruel to his father, his daughter-in-law is going to be cruel to him. By the end of the portion Judah has been put in his place. He is certainly not worthy of leadership. Judah, for whom the Jews are named, the one whose name means “thank you”, has proven to be deceitful and cruel. He was not worthy of his name. It is easy to understand how we ought to desire another name for our people.
Now we come to one of the most powerful ideas in the Bible. People are not stuck. People can change. In two weeks we will read once again about Judah. But it will be a different Judah. Rather than being cruel to his elderly father, he will be deeply sensitive to his father. Rather than selling his brother Joseph into slavery, he will put his own freedom on the line to rescue his brother Benjamin. He will speak passionately about family loyalty. It will be a new Judah.
This week we see a cruel Judah. In two weeks we see a reborn Judah. And by Judah being reborn, we Jews became worthy of his name.


“And Judah said to Onan, Go in to your brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to your brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.”
(Genesis 38:8-9)

Greetings from Cherry Hill, NJ where I am participating in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial convention. After attending numerous sessions and hearing numerous speeches, I keep returning to the same issue. What is the future of this particular movement in Jewish life? I have no easy answer, but there are ideas that grow out of a strange story in this week’s Torah reading.
In Biblical times there was a law known as Levirate marriage. If a man died without children, his brother was obligated to marry his wife and sire children in the name of the brother who died. Sometimes this obligation fell on other family members (the entire book of Ruth is built on this ancient institution of Levirate marriage.) In later Jewish law, the entire procedure fell out of Jewish practice. But even today in the Orthodox world, when a man dies childless his brother must release the widow before she can marry someone else (halitza). This is also the practice in modern Israel.
What are we to make of such a strange law? It may have fallen out of practice but it does teach us a valuable lesson – a brother has an obligation towards his brother. The very act of being born into a particular family puts obligations upon us. Long ago Cain asked the rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is “yes.” Siblings owe something to their siblings, just as children owe something to their parents. Today we no longer require a man to marry his sister-in-law. But we do require him to protect and care for her, and vice versa. We are born into a web of obligations.
That brings me to a major theme of this conference, and of Judaism. Do we have obligations by the very circumstances of our birth? To the Orthodox the answer is obvious. Jews are obligated to the commandments of Judaism because every Jewish soul was present when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai. Every Jewish soul said the words, “we will do and we will understand.” There is no question whether or not to fulfill the commandments. God said it, we are to do it, and there is nothing more to be said. In fact, the outspoken Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught that any search for meaning or purpose behind God’s commandments is idolatry. We keep the commandments because God said it – period.
On the other side is the extreme liberal position. We are autonomous. We live in a country of freedom. And we are absolutely free agents who may choose to keep a particular law or may choose to ignore it. We could help our brother or we could ignore our brother. It is our choice and our right to choose. In America in the twentieth century we can no longer speak of any obligations, except perhaps the obligation not to harm our neighbor. If we choose to keep any of the laws of Judaism it is out of total freedom of choice. And rabbis would be wise to remove the language of obligation, of commandments, of mitzvot from their discourse. We worship the God of autonomy.
I have chosen to identify with Conservative Judaism not because it is perfect, but because it stakes out a middle ground between these two extremes. It does not speak the language of absolute heteronomy – God said it and we should do it. It also does not speak the language of absolute autonomy – we are free to choose and there are no obligations. Rather it speaks the language of covenant – we live in a covenantal relationship with the divine. Like any covenant (such as a marriage), we have both freedom and obligations.
Jews throughout the world will light Hanukkah candles beginning Friday night; for many it is one of the only Jewish obligations they have taken on. What makes them feel obligated? What makes us feel obligated to anything? The answer to this question will give us the future of Jewish life.



“How could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (Genesis 39:9)
About twenty years ago I wrote a book entitled Does God Belong in the Bedroom? It was based on some adult education classes I had taught while still a rabbi in Pittsburgh. The book was published by The Jewish Publication Society in 1992, and for a brief while I became the sex rabbi. This was before Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Sex was published. Boteach went on to become the rabbi of the stars, even getting his own TV show. I never got a TV show, but I did become the vice-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly Commission on Human Sexuality. And I discovered that I was one of the more conservative voices on that commission.
Many found my book too conservative. One person wanted to work with me on a curriculum for teens on sexuality but backed down when I would not condone teenage sex. In the book I built a ladder of holiness in sexual behavior, with marital sex at the top of the ladder. I took a somewhat traditionalist view on gay and lesbian sex, writing that I did not believe gays or lesbians should be ordained as rabbis. I have since changed my mind. But throughout the book I stressed the need for holiness in sexual relations.
On the other hand, many found my book too liberal. According to traditionalists, sexual acts are either permitted or forbidden – black or white. There is no ladder of behavior, no condoning some sexual behavior as somewhat okay, good but not quite holy. Either Jews observe the laws of proper sexual conduct or they do not. And from a Jewish perspective, only marital sex is permitted. And even sex between husband and wife has rules and limitations.
When you write a book and find yourself under attack from the left and from the right, you must be doing something correctly. I am utterly convinced that I was correct that God cares about our sexual behavior. When Potiphar’s wife comes onto Joseph in this week’s portion (the world’s first known case of sexual harassment), Joseph replies that it is a “sin before God.” It is not simply a sin against marriage, but there are religious consequences to sexual misbehavior.
This point is driven home in one of my favorite Talmudic passages. “R. Kahana once went and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him, `One would think that Abba’s never sipped the dish before.’ Rab answered, `Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude.’ He replied, `It is a matter of Torah, and I need to learn.’” (Berachot 62a) Hiding under your rabbi’s bed to observe sexual behavior is a little extreme. But sexual behavior, like all other areas of human life, is Torah, and we need to learn.
My own ideas continue to evolve. But the fundamental idea of the book remains valid. There is a ladder of holiness that each of us must climb in our sexual behavior, as we need to climb it in every other area of life. By holiness, I mean those things that separate humans from the animal kingdom. A male lion in the jungle will spread his seed to any female lion that will have it. But if male humans simply sleep around with any female they choose, it becomes very difficult to build a stable family life. Our tradition teaches self control and discipline in the area of sexual behavior.
Even on the controversial issue of gays and lesbians, although my ideas have changed, the fundamental question of a ladder of holiness still remains. One of my favorite evenings was a visit to New York City a few years ago sitting over dinner with a friend who is active in the gay community. We spoke at length about the issue, how do you make gay sex holy? I believe this is an issue that the Jewish community, perhaps humanity as a whole, is struggling with today. It is behind the contentious issue of gay marriage.
This week Hanukkah begins. We follow the opinion of Hillel, lighting one candle the first night and increasing each night. According to Hillel, the reason is that we should always go up in holiness rather than down. This is equally true for sexual behavior. We should always go up in holiness rather than down. (Shabbat 21b) That is why I believe God belongs in the bedroom.



“[Joseph replied, My master] … has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?”
(Genesis 39:9)

All living things have a built-in, natural drive to survive. All living things learn to flee predators and take whatever precautions necessary for their physical survival. But human beings, part animal and part angel, have a second kind of drive for survival. It is the drive for spiritual survival. Humans need not only to continue to exist in this physical world, but maintain their purpose for living, their spiritual integrity.
This need for spiritual survival is clear in the Joseph story. Joseph is thrust into a pit, taken by caravan down to Egypt, and sold as a slave. He ends up in the home of an Egyptian aristocrat Potiphar. There is no question that Joseph, with his good looks and his intelligence, will physically survive his stay in Egypt. The question is whether he will spiritually survive. Will he maintain the sense of purpose and values he was taught by his mother and father? Will he continue to live under the covenant that God made with the children of Israel?
Potiphar’s wife puts Joseph to the test; she tries to seduce him into an act of adultery. But Joseph maintains his spiritual integrity and his sense of values. Such an act would be a “sin before God.” As a result Joseph ends up in prison. His spiritual survival will be tested many more times in his lifetime. The story of Joseph is the story of spiritual survival in a foreign land.
Hanukkah which begins during the coming week is also the story of spiritual survival. There are two important post-Torah holidays in the Jewish calendar. Both Purim and Hanukkah contain similar passages in the liturgy and include a blessing for the miracles God performed for our ancestors and ourselves. But the holidays are different in a fundamental way. Purim is about physical survival. Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people. In the book of Esther the king gave the Jewish people permission to fight back against Haman and his hordes in order to assure their physical survival.
If Purim celebrates the survival of the body, Hanukkah celebrates the survival of the soul. The Syrian-Greeks were not trying to destroy the Jewish people but rather they were seeking to destroy the Jewish faith. In fact the story of Hanukkah began as a civil war between Jews who wanted to maintain the traditional faith and Jews who wanted to assimilate the Greek ways. The Jewish people might have survived the Syrian Greeks, but Judaism as a way of life would have been forever destroyed. Therefore at Hanukkah we celebrate spiritual survival. We light candles to proclaim the miracle and read from the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might nor by power but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)
There are two kinds of survival. Obviously physical survival is vital; without the body the soul cannot do its spiritual work. But we must also be concerned with spiritual survival. The body alone can lose its sense of purpose and its very raison d’etre. Animals exist, but only humans must constantly visit the question – why do I exist?
This concern for physical and spiritual survival is vital this week as once again peace talks open up between Israel and the Palestinians. As a lover of Israel, I desperately would like to see her make peace with her neighbors. But as a realist about politics in the Mid-East, I remain skeptical. Many Jews who are opposed to these peace talks speak of Israel’s physical survival. They believe any compromise with the Palestinians is a threat to Israel’s very existence. On the other hand, many Jews who support the peace talks are concerned with Israel’s spiritual survival. There cannot be a Jewish, democratic state that continues to rule over millions of Palestinians.
When we think of the future of Israel we must be concerned with both physical and spiritual survival. A concern for two kinds of survival will allow Israel to take whatever steps are necessary to assure its future.



“Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” (Genesis 40:23)

There is a big controversy brewing here in America. Do we greet someone at this season according to their specific holiday – Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah? Or do we simply use a generic greeting – Happy Holiday?
I find such controversies rather silly, distracting from the joy of the season. Personally, if someone wants to greet me with good wishes at this time of the year, I am happy to accept whatever language they choose to use. If they say “Happy Holiday,” I appreciate the generic greeting, recognizing that not everybody celebrates Christmas. And if they wish me “Merry Christmas,” I am aware that this is a holy day to the vast majority of Americans, and will return the words “Merry Christmas.” Life is too short for such petty controversies.
Having said that, I am not in favor of confusing various holidays which happen to fall at this time of year. It is true that this year Jews begin celebrating Hanukkah on the same day that Christians celebrate Christmas. But there is no such thing as Christmuccah, the syncretistic creation of the TV show The O.C. Holidays have their own history and their own integrity. For Jews, Hanukkah celebrates the right to be different, to celebrate their religion in spite of those who would force them to assimilate. The events of Hanukkah took place over one hundred years before the birth of Jesus. To Christians, Christmas celebrates the birth of the man who they believe was God incarnate. It is far more important holiday in Christian tradition. The holidays are not related.
However, deep underneath the particulars of these festivals, perhaps there is a link. Let us explore a very ancient Midrash (Rabbinic tale), one that I mentioned in my sermon last Shabbat. The Midrash goes back before either holiday, all the way to the first man Adam. Of course, Adam symbolizes universal man. Could it be that there is a universal message behind both these festivals?
The Talmud teaches, “When the first man saw the days getting shorter and shorter, he said woe is me, because of my sins the world is returned to darkness on my account; this is the death that I have received as punishment from heaven. He began eight days of fasting and prayer. When he saw the winter solstice and the days getting longer and longer, he celebrated eight days of festivity. Every year he declared the days at the beginning and end as festivals. He made them into days for the purpose of heaven, but idolaters made them into days of idolatry.” (Avoda Zara 8a)
The Talmud continues that this makes sense if you believe the world was created in the fall, for Adam has only seen days getting shorter. (Jews believe the world was created on Rosh Hashana, in the beginning of the fall.) But if you believe, as some Rabbis did, that the world was created in the spring, Adam has seen days get longer and days get shorter. Why would he be frightened? The Talmud comes up with an alternative Midrash.
“When the first man saw the sun setting on the first day, he said, Woe is me, because of my sins the world is returned to darkness on my account; this is the death that I have received as punishment from heaven. He fasted and cried all the night and Eve cried next to him. When he saw the sun rise again, he proclaimed, This is the way of the world. He then brought God the first offering.” (Avoda Zara 8a)
Adam is really each one of us. Each of us has moments in our life when we believe that darkness will overwhelm us. Each of us has moments when we believe the days will get shorter and colder and soon disappear altogether. Or we believe the sun will set and never rise again. Adam fasted before the winter solstice and after the first sunset. Then when light came out again, he celebrated and declared days of joy and light. Perhaps there is a universal human need to celebrate our darkest day with lights and joy.
In this week’s portion, Joseph was thrown into jail and forgotten. And yet, by next week’s portion Joseph will become the second most powerful man in Egypt, rescuing thousands of people from famine. Joseph’s fate was to go from darkness to light. So it is with all of us; when life seems darkest, there is a light around the corner.
Hanukkah and Christmas, for all their separateness, share a deep spiritual truth. Both fall at the darkest, coldest days of the year (at least for those of us who live in the Northern hemisphere.) And both emphasize the lighting of lights to chase away the darkness. Both hearken back to that early festival celebrated by Adam at the dawn of time. Let us light lights and look forward to spiritual joy, whatever holiday we happen to celebrate.



“Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age, and he had made him an ornamented tunic.”
(Genesis 37:3)

At last, Sadaam Hussein has been captured. Another dictator has fallen. If the situation were not so serious and so sad, with troops still being killed daily, I would break out into song – “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”
Dictators come and dictators go. Over the course of history the good guys seem to win. But there is always a new evil that seems to emerge after a period of time. As we say in the Passover seder, “In every generation someone rises up to slay us.” Evil people seem as inevitable as the change of seasons.
First there was Pharaoh, who enslaved the Israelites. This week we read the story of Joseph who was sold down to Egypt, the beginning of the epic that would lead to our enslavement. Later, there was Nebucanezzer, the Babylonian tyrant who destroyed the Temple and dispersed the Israelites. Then there was Antiochus, who tried to outlaw the Jewish faith. This week begins Hanukkah, the celebration of the Macabees unlikely victory over Antiochus. Then there was Titus, who destroyed the second Temple and sent the Jews in exile. The list of madmen reads like a litany of evil – Chmielnicki, Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden, Sadaam Hussein. The evil never ends.
I had a fabulous discussion with the teens who study with me each week in my Torah Corps. I asked them the question, “Do you think parents raise their children do become evil dictators? Do you think any parents are proud that their child grows up to be Idi Amin or Pol Pot or Sadaam Hussein? What does it take for parents to raise a dictator?”
We came up with three answers. First, if you want to raise a dictator, teach your child to hate people who are different, people of a different race or religion or ethnic background. When we first see certain people as “the other,” as somehow less than human, it becomes easier first to discriminate and then to destroy. The Nazis did not immediately start killing Jews. First they had to see them as mere vermin, not worthy of humanity. Hussein was able to gas the Kurds of northern Iraq because they were not fully human in his eyes.
How many of us grow up in homes where we fail to see the humanity of other people? It may be Palestinians, blacks, evangelical Christians, Moslems, gays, or other ethnic groups. How many of us stereotype, putting people in boxes because of their particular background? The first step towards dictatorship is when certain people become less than human in our eyes.
The second step towards raising a dictator is to allow a child to have whatever he or she wants. Children grow up thinking everything is coming to them. They have never heard the word “no.” And so, when they are in a position of power, they will take whatever they want, whether such acquisition is just or not just.
Too many of us parents, myself included, make the mistake of overindulging our children. Even Jacob bought his son Joseph a coat of many colors, a move that began the events leading to our exile in Egypt. Perhaps Jacob should have demanded a little more self discipline rather than self indulgence from his favorite son.
The child who grows up hating others, and the child who gets everything he or she wants, is well on the way to becoming a dictator. However, there is a third step. Allow a child to join a group of like minded people. Hitler never would have accomplished what he did without the Nazi party. And Sadaam Hussein never would have come into power without the Baathist party.
There is a reason why the Torah teaches “Do not go after the majority to do evil.” And there is a reason the Midrash teaches that Abraham was called haIvri (the Hebrew – from a root meaning “across”) because he was willing to stand across from everyone else. He was will not to follow the masses when the masses were doing the wrong thing.
In every generation dictators will rise up. There seem always to be people who grow up hating other people. There seem always to be people who have no self discipline but are prepared to take whatever they want. And there seem always to be people who follow the crowd, even when the crowd is going the wrong way. Our job as parents is to raise children who will be an influence for good in the world. It may take a thousand generations, but maybe we can bring about a time with no more dictators.



“He (Potiphar) left all that he had in Joseph=s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate. Now Joseph was well-built and handsome.” (Genesis 39:6)

It is official, at least according to People magazine. The actor Ben Affleck is the sexiest man alive. Not only is he a major movie star, but he is engaged to actress – singer Jennifer Lopez. Many consider her to be the sexiest woman alive. Imagine what beautiful children they will have. (In a sense, I feel sorry for those future children. Who can live up to such high expectations of beauty?)
We live in a beauty obsessed culture. Everyone wants to be young and beautiful. We pursue makeovers, intense diets, botox treatments, plastic surgery, whatever it takes to look like the people on the magazine covers. Later this year People magazine will come up with their issue of the fifty most beautiful people. (I never made the list, but one year I believe a rabbi did make it.) That issue is a perennial best seller, another sign of our obsession with beauty.
There have been scientific studies whether beautiful people are more successful in their professional lives. The answer seems to be yes. Even in our Torah portion, Josephs good looks and handsome physique help him become the man in charge of Potiphar’s home. Of course, these same good looks will get him into trouble when Potiphar’s wife became attracted to him, the first case of sexual harassment in the Torah. Joseph does seem somewhat obsessed with his looks; as a young man he paraded around in his fancy coat of many colors.
I often speak to the young people in our synagogue about the obsession with beauty. They all admire the celebrities, rock stars, actors and actresses, professional athletes, supermodels, the people who define beauty. I tell them to look not at looks but at values, at kindness, at how they treat other people. “Grace is deceptive and beauty is illusory; it is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised.” (Proverbs 31:30) Or as I tell people looking for a life partner, “Don’t look at physical beauty, for it can always fade. Look for values, which can never fade.”
Hanukkah begins this Shabbat. Hanukkah is not just about a military victory or oil that burned for eight days. It is about a war between two world views, that of the people Israel and that of ancient Greece. To the Hellenists, beauty was everything. The human body in its perfection was celebrated. The Olympics were done in the nude. Circumcision which marred the human body was condemned. And babies born with physical impairments were often left to die.
To Israel, beauty was a secondary value. Certainly there is nothing wrong with caring for one’s body. The ancient teacher Hillel left his teaching to go to the bathhouse. When questioned why, he replied, “See those statues of the emperor and how they are cleaned and cared for. How much more so should my body, created in the image of God, be cared for.” Still, even Hillel would admit that we care for the physical body as a means to ethical perfection. The ultimate value is goodness.
I have often summarized the difference between the Jewish and Hellenistic view of the world. To the Greeks, beauty is holy; to the Jews, holiness is beautiful. Even Joseph in the end learned that holiness and ethics are far more important that physical beauty.
I once saw an article in a popular magazine like People. It looked at the celebrities and movie stars, to find who were the nicest people. Who were the easiest to work with, the most even-tempered, the kindest to employees and subordinates, the most charitable, the friendliest to strangers. If anyone knows an editor at People magazine, have them put out an issue The Fifty Nicest People. In our beauty obsessed culture, it may not become a bestseller. But I would be the first to buy a copy.



“They saw him [Joseph] from afar, and before he came close they conspired to kill him.” (Genesis 37:18)

One Saturday night last July I wandered down Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem, mingling with the hundreds of young people enjoying the open air mall. It was my last evening in Israel, a wonderful spiritual high. Had I visited that same outdoor mall last Saturday night, I might have been the victim of a terrorist bombing.
Two weeks later, back in the United States, I visited the top of the World Trade Center with my twelve year old son. Looking back on this past week and these past months, I realize how easy it is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and lose everything. I feel grateful to be here, and both saddened and infuriated by these events.
Americans are learning what Israelis already know. What is it like to live life when someone is trying to kill us? They are not trying to kill us for anything we did? And there is nothing we can do differently that would stop them from trying to kill us? They simply want to kill us because we exist. Israel can stop the terror by folding up and dismantling the Jewish state. America can stop the terror by ceasing our very way of life.
The Talmud is clear that when someone tries to kill you, you are permitted to rise up and kill them first. Self-defense is permitted. Both America and Israel had to act to protect their citizens. This action sometimes causes casualties of innocent individuals, including children. War is never a cause for celebration. But it is sometimes a necessary evil. I am saddened by civilian casualties in Afghanistan, as I am saddened by innocent Palestinians killed by Israel. But unfortunately, in both cases the evil perpetrated upon us necessitated military action.
Besides striking back, what else can we do when someone wants to kill us through no fault of our own? In this week’s portion, Joseph knew what it felt to be the victim. His brothers sought to kill him, and only through the intervention of one brother Reuben was he thrown into a pit and not murdered. The Torah says that “The pit was empty, there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) According to Rashi, there was no water but there were snakes and scorpions in the pit. The pit was a place of death. Eventually Joseph was pulled out and sold into slavery, but by the end of the portion he was in prison.
Throughout his ordeal, Joseph never despaired. He had dreams that someday his brothers would bow down to him. He knew that however dark the pit, God was with him. He would walk through the Valley of Death and come out the other side.
When someone wants to destroy life, the best thing we can do is reaffirm life. We can reaffirm that life has meaning and purpose, and the forces that want to destroy life will not win in the end. We may despair while in the pit, but in the end God is with us. In the face of murder, we must try that much harder to value the preciousness of life.
Television recently showed a movie Uprising, the story of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt against the Nazis. What was so moving was the ways the Jews in the ghetto reaffirmed life in the face of Nazi murder. There were powerful scenes of Jews in the ghetto playing orchestral music and enjoying ballet, observing their religion and displaying overwhelming acts of personal kindness as well as unbelievable courage. The more the Nazis sought to kill, the more their victims sought to live fully.
How do we react to those who would kill us? Let us reaffirm life in every thing we do, especially in our treatment of one another. Life is a precious gift from God. Too many people in the world would destroy life. Let us be among those who embrace life.



“How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God.”
(Genesis 39:9)

People ask me, “Who needs God? ” They tell me that someone can be a wonderful person and not believe in God . (true!) They tell me one can be an awful person and believe in God. (sadly, also true!) There are a group of Jews who are trying to build a movement of Judaism that denies the existence of God. They call themselves Humanistic Jews. (The essence seems to be lacking in such an approach to Judaism.)
Who needs God? Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, discovered that he needed God. Joseph began as an arrogant teenager, brazenly displaying his coat of many colors and bragging to his brothers how they would one day all bow down to him. Like so many teens, God seemed far away from his daily concerns. Soon his brothers would cast him into a pit, and a passing caravan would find him and sell him as a slave down in Egypt. Now, the presence of God became important in Joseph’s life.
Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. (The first recorded case of sexual harassment in history.) Joseph refused her advances, saying “how then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God. ” He remembered the lessons of right and wrong he had learned at his father’s knee. For Joseph, God was a source of values and morality.
Joseph found himself confined in prison. Far from home and family, in prison in a foreign land, Joseph must have felt depressed. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, in their popular musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat pictured Joseph sitting in prison singing “The children of Israel are never alone.” For Joseph, God was a source of faith when all seemed hopeless.
Soon Joseph would become an interpreter of dreams. First he would interpret the dream of the royal cupbearer and the royal baker. Then he would interpret the dream of the king of Egypt, Pharaoh himself. When Joseph spoke of his dream interpreting ability, he says, “Surely God can interpret.” (Genesis 40:8) For Joseph, God was the source of vision about the meaning of events. He saw the hand of God in history.
I believe that those who would base life on a humanistic philosophy without God are mistaken. Like Joseph, we need God as a source of morals and values. We need God as a source of faith when all seems hopeless. We need God to give meaning to events in history. Human beings need God.
The centrality of God can best be seen in the way the Rabbis reinterpreted the story of Hanukkah. Historically, Hanukkah began as a civil war between assimilated Hellenistic Jews and more traditional pious Jews. Eventually, the traditionalists took on the entire Syrian – Greek empire. Led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, the Jews a guerilla war against the Syrians. They were victorious in battle, rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, and proclaimed eight days of celebration. Many scholars believe the eight days were a belated celebration of the eight day festival of Sukkot.
Hanukkah was originally a secular holiday established by military leaders to celebrate a victory on the battlefield. Unfortunately, the Hasmonean dynasty, established by Judah Maccabee became corrupt. The Rabbis of the Talmud realized that this purely secular celebration of a military victory was not appropriate on the Jewish calendar. God had to enter the picture.
A new story of Hanukkah developed. At the center was a miracle of a small cruse of oil that miraculously burned for eight days. The miracle of the oil that kept burning symbolized the miracle of the Jewish people who kept surviving. It was not military leaders but the hand of God that created the miracle.
To drive home the point, the Rabbis chose a passage from the Prophets to be read in every synagogue on the morning of Hanukkah. “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit says the Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6) The theme of Hanukkah became not human military prowess but the spirit of God.
At this holiday season, may we remember that we all need God.



“How can I do this wicked thing and sin before God.”
(Genesis 39:9)

This portion contains the earliest incident of sexual harassment in history. Joseph worked as a servant in the home of the Egyptian noble Potiphar, and Potiphar’s wife seduced Joseph. Joseph refused her advances, saying such an act would be a betrayal against his master. In addition, sex with a married woman would be a sin before God.
What if Potiphar and his wife had an understanding? What if they had an open marriage? Joseph stated that it does not matter; such an act would be wrong. In our contemporary society, almost any sexual act is acceptable as long as it is between consenting adults and nobody is hurt. The Torah takes a far different view.
Judaism teaches that sex is good; in fact it is a gift from God. Sex with the right person, in the right context, with the right attitude, becomes a way of serving God. To use the language of Judaism, sex is a mitzvah. The mitzvah is not simply procreation, but the mutual pleasure of the sexual act itself. To live a life of sexual abstinence is considered a tragedy.
Nevertheless, there is another message from Jewish tradition which is more sobering. Sex, in the wrong context, with the wrong person, with the wrong attitude, can become a destructive force. Sex can destroy families, damage marriages, cause disease, lead to premature pregnancies, or become addictive.
The sexual act itself is morally neutral, a mere biological act. In one context it is a destructive force; in another context it becomes a way of serving God. This point was best made in a wonderful rabbinic story.
There was a young rabbinic student who was meticulous about the commandment to wear tzitzit, the fringes worn by pious Jewish men on the four corners of their garment. The student heard about a prostitute who was the most beautiful and most expensive in the world. He sent her the price in gold coins, set up a date, and went to see her. When he arrived, she was sitting naked on the top of seven mattresses, each covered with beautiful bed¬clothes, six made of silver and one made of gold. He started to undress and climb up to her, when the four tzitzit flew up and hit him in the face. He immediately stopped and sat sulking on the floor.
The young woman climbed down and sat next to him. “Perhaps you see some blemish in me?” “No,” said the young man. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. But I saw the four fringes acting as witnesses against me.”
“Who is your teacher?” asked the woman. The student wrote it on a slip of paper and handed it to her. Immediately she gave up her profession, sold everything keeping only the bedclothes, went to his teacher and converted to Judaism. She married the student, and the Talmud ends with the phrase “the same bedclothes that were to be used in an illegitimate way were now going to be used legitimately.”
The story of the bedclothes teaches that the sexual act may be the same in a biological sense, but changing the context changes the entire meaning. What is improper or even harmful in one context is morally neutral in another, and in still another context becomes a way of serving God.