Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.” (Genesis 48:5)

The land will be divided between the twelve tribes, descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. But there is a problem. One of the sons, Levi, would become religious functionaries and not given land. There are now eleven sons left. So Jacob approaches Joeph and “adopts” Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. His grandsons become his sons, and now we once again have twelve tribes. In fact, Ephraim would become the most important tribe in the Northern Kingdom, as Judah was the most important in the Southern Kingdom.
It is common today for grandparents to take over raising their grandchildren like their children. Sometimes the parents are unable to raise their own children because of drug problems, jail, immaturity, or other issues. Occasionally grandparents formally adopt grandchildren, but often the arrangement is much more informal. In many memoirs, authors speak of the role a grandparent had as the stable influence in their lives.
Even if children are raised by their own parents, grandparents play a key role. It is not simply the tongue-in-cheek comment of radio commentator Dennis Prager, “Grandparents and grandchildren have something in common – a shared enemy.” Often when I officiate at funerals, I hear grandchildren passionately speak of the influence their grandparent had in their lives. Parents may have the day-to-day obligations of raising children. But grandparents play a key role.
My wife and I have the privilege of being grandparents. It is one of the joys of our lives. Of course, like so many of our friends, our grandson lives out of state. We see him when we can and love the technology Facetime provides. But we try very hard to be an important influence in his life.
The Talmud speaks about the importance of grandchildren. In the section describing the commandment to procreate, the Talmud says that people fulfill their obligation through their grandchildren as well as their children. In fact, the Talmud hints that since the goal is to build generations, the commandment is ultimately fulfilled through grandchildren (Yebamot 62b). (This section may be painful to those without grandchildren.) Grandchildren are the next link in the Jewish dream we chant in our prayers, ledor vedor “from generation to generation.”
Nonetheless, there is a difference between being a parent and being a grandparent, at least in most cases. Parents must put great effort to care for the physical needs of the child – feeding them, bathing them, clothing them, getting them to school and to the doctor. Grandparents, particularly if they live in town, can help. But the burden lies on parents. Grandparents have a different role. They help fulfill the spiritual needs of a child.
Grandparents can give grandchildren memories. Allow me to share a personal memory. I did not grow up in a kosher home. My parents gave us milk with every meal. (Jewish law forbids drinking milk at a meat meal.) Nonetheless, whenever we went to my grandparents for dinner, milk was not permitted. I remember asking why at one point. I suppose that was my first memory of what a kosher home was. To this day, the dishes we use on Passover were my grandmother’s.
Grandparents can also share stories with grandchildren. My grandparents (except my mom’s mom) were all immigrants from Europe. I learned from them what the past was like. Unfortunately, having grown up in California to American born parents, I never learned to speak Yiddish like my grandparents. But the immigrant experience resonates with me, and perhaps influenced my decision to be a rabbi.
In this brief message, I mentioned grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren, five generations. In my own family memories and values are passed from generation to generation. It is a chain that reaches into the past and points to the future.

“So he blessed them that day, saying, By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
This week we finish reading the book of Genesis. It is a powerful book containing so many important themes. But there is one theme that runs through the entire book from beginning to end – sibling rivalry, the struggle between brothers (and in one case, sisters). One can learn a deep lesson in pursuing this topic through the entire book.
At the beginning of Genesis, we have the first brothers ever born – Cain and Abel. As we know, in a fit of jealousy Cain kills his brother Abel. He asks the question that is echoed throughout the book, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the implied answer to this rhetorical question is yes, he is his brother’s keeper. But it will take an entire book before this becomes the norm.
There is trouble between Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael together with his mother Hagar is exiled from Abraham’s household. They will only come together once more to bury their father. How often do I perform a funeral which finally brings siblings back together after years of estrangement. According to both Jewish and Muslim tradition, Isaac was one of the fathers of the Jewish people and Ishmael was the father of the Arab nation. Just as they came together to bury their father, perhaps Jews and Arabs can begin to come together in peace.
The next generation, twins Jacob and Esau, already begin fighting in the womb. Esau seeks to murder Jacob for stealing his birthright and his blessing. In the end the brothers do hug, although they will never be close. According to Jewish tradition, Jacob was one of the fathers of the Jewish people. Esau became Edom who became Rome, and eventually the Christian nation. Today we are finally seeing some reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Many Christians receive my weekly message. After centuries of enmity, Jews and Christians are coming together in peace.
We also read about the rivalry between the two sisters Rachel and Leah, both married to Jacob. Rachel was the beloved wife who could not have children, while Leah was the fertile wife who sought her husband’s love. This theme of two wives, one loved and one hated, will come up frequently in the Bible. Throughout Genesis the two sisters approach one another with a mixture of love and jealousy.
In the end there is the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers. In their jealousy the brothers sell Joseph into slavery. Finally in last week’s portion, they hug and find reconciliation. Forgiveness and the rebuilding of relationships are the central themes. That brings us to the two brothers introduced in this week’s portion – Ephraim and Menashe. They are the two sons of Joseph adopted by their grandfather Jacob to become two of the tribes.
It is customary for Jewish parents to bless their sons every Friday evening with the words from this week’s portion, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” (Jewish parents also bless their daughters with the words “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.) Why Ephraim and Menashe? There is an ancient tradition that in the book of Genesis, they are the first brothers who truly respected each other and got along their entire lives. They are the culmination of the theme of Genesis, we are to be our brother’s keeper.
The prophet Malachi famously said, “Have we not one father? Did one God not create us all” (Malachi 2:10). If we have one father, then all of us are brothers and sisters. All of us, every human being, needs to see every other human beings as a sibling. We need to be each other’s keeper. That is the goal of Genesis. One might say that this is the goal of all the world’s great faiths.

“Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel.” (Genesis 50:2)
I finally had the surgery to fix my broken arm. The bone is held together by a metal plate and multiple screws. This matches the screws in my hip from several years ago. I hope I do not set off metal detectors. The miracle is that bones heal.
Our bodies are miraculous. They heal themselves. They form antibodies to fight off diseases. This is what vaccines are all about. They respond not only to physical things like food and water, but mental things like emotions and prayers. That is why I have often taught that there is a spiritual side to healing. But perhaps most important, our bodies hold the neshama, the spirit (literally “the breath”) of God. As the mystics of many faiths have long taught, we are embodied spiritual beings. And that gives our bodies an intrinsic holiness.
That raises a fundamental question. What happens to our bodies what they no longer can hold onto our spirit? What happens at the end of life when our spirit leaves our bodies, and “returns to God Who gave it” to quote the Bible? We have a holy object left behind. What do we do with it? When a scroll of the Torah is no longer kosher, we do not dispose of it in the trash. We bury it in a sacred place, what was traditionally called a geniza. How much more so the remains of a human being, who once carried the spirit of God.
This week we read about the deaths of two prominent Biblical personalities, our patriarch Jacob and his beloved son Joseph. The Torah describes Jacob’s funeral in great detail. First he is embalmed so that a great procession of Hebrews and Egyptians can carry him back to the family plot in Hebron. In general, Judaism forbids embalming. It artificially preserves the body rather than allowing nature to take its course. But when required by law or for a long journey like Jacob’s, it is permitted.
However, as much as Judaism discourages embalming, it was central to the Egyptian world view. That is where the tradition of mummies comes from, bodies that are artificially preserved for eternity. That is the culture that built the pyramids, giant tombs where bodies could lie in rest with everything they need for their future, including food and clothing. It is an attempt to preserve the living after they are gone. How different is the Jewish tradition which mandates a quick, simple burial in the earth. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
So much of our tradition revolved around treating the remains of a human being with proper dignity. I am always impressed when the remains of an unknown soldier are identified, often generations later, they are returned to be buried in a family plot. This was the respect shown to Jacob.
With Joseph’s remains it was a different story. He dies in Egypt and would have been forgotten there. But generations later, when the other Israelites are gathering gold, silver, and other valuables for the exodus, Moses has only one concern. He gathers the bones of Joseph to transport them through the wilderness and bury them in the Promised Land. For forty years of wandering, Joseph’s remains were carried through the desert. The Torah teaches, “Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel saying, God will surely take notice of you, then you shall carry up my bones from here with you” (Exodus 13:19). Again, we see a true concern with the remains of someone who once carried in them the breath of God.
How different this is from what I often hear today. “Cremate me and dispose of my ashes; no one will come visit me anyway.” This is not the Jewish way. Our bodies are miraculous creations which hold the spirit of God and deserve to be treated with dignity when we pass from this earth.
“He [Jacob] blessed them that day, saying, In you shall Israel bless, saying, God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh; and he set Ephraim before Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
Every Friday night I bless our children. I have done it since they were infants. Today I do it by telephone. Our oldest son, our daughter and her husband, and our grandson live in Maryland. Our youngest son lives in California. I bless our daughter with the traditional words, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” For my sons and son-in-law, and if I can get him on the phone, my grandson, I use the words from this week’s portion. Yiseemcha Elohim k’Efryim u’k’Menashe. “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
Who were Ephraim and Manasseh? They were the two sons of Joseph and his wife Asenath, the only grandchildren of Jacob born in Egypt. Jacob adopted them as if they were two of his own sons, and they became the names of two of the twelve tribes. But what was so special about these two brothers that we should bless our sons using their names. One wonderful answer I have heard is that, through the book of Genesis, they are the first brothers to get along. And they got along, in spite of the fact that Jacob chose the younger Ephraim before the older Manasseh. Perhaps the blessing is telling our children to always get along with their siblings. For as the prophet Malachi said, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?” (Malachi 2:10)
The book of Genesis is the story of tension between brothers (and sisters). With the birth of the first two brothers, fratricide enters the world. In a fit of jealousy Cain murders his brother Abel. When confronted by God, he replies with those immortal words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There is tension between Abraham’s two sons Ishmael and Isaac. To make peace in his household, Abraham sends Ishmael away.
Isaac’s sons Esau and Jacob fight while still in the womb. Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, and Esau threatens to murder Jacob. Jacob flees and will not see his brother again for twenty years. Jacob’s son Joseph provokes the envy of his brothers by parading around in his coat of many colors and sharing his dreams that they will bow to him. The brothers conspire to throw him into a pit, where is eventually sold down to Egypt as a slave.
In Genesis there is even sibling rivalry between two sisters. Jacob’s first wife Leah has all the children, while Jacob’s second wife Rachel has her husband’s love. Each will try to acquire what the other has. The theme of the hated wife with the children and the beloved wife without children will appear several times in the Bible.
In each of these cases, there is some reconciliation between siblings. Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father Abraham. Jacob and Esau meet and embrace, before going their separate ways. Leah gives Rachel her son’s mandrakes in exchange for her husband returning to her tent that night. Joseph eventually forgives his brothers and tells them that the entire series of events was the will of God. But nowhere to we have two brothers who totally get along until the end of Genesis.
Last week I quoted from the Netflix series The Crown. Please indulge me if I share one more scene from the show. Elizabeth the young queen is chastising her younger sister Margaret. She believed Margaret had behaved in a manner not in keeping with the dignity of the monarchy. Margaret replies as many of us would reply to our siblings. “When two sisters envy one another; when two sisters are so close in age, the more a sister becomes one thing, the more the other becomes the opposite.” Sisters and brothers compete with one another, envy one another, and two often seek to hurt one another. Perhaps the message of Ephraim and Manasseh is that we can move beyond such hurt. We can live by the words of the Psalmist, “Here is what is good and what is pleasant, for brothers to dwell together.” (Psalms 133:1)


“Fear not, I will sustain you and your children.  Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”  (Genesis 50:21)

This week we finish reading the first of the five books of Moses, the book of Genesis.  What is the central theme of Genesis?  Some would say creation, but that is only the first two chapters of the book.  Some would say the story of Abraham and his descendants, which is certainly important in Genesis.  But my own sense is there is a major theme running through the entire book, from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers.  The theme of Genesis is about brothers who cannot get along.

At the beginning of Genesis, Cain in an act of jealousy murders his brother Abel.  As the book continues, we have tension between the two half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael, who in Jewish tradition came to symbolize Jews and Moslems.  Then there is even greater tension between the twins Jacob and Esau, who in Jewish tradition came to symbolize Jews and Christians.  The book foreshadows the tensions in the world which continue to our own day.

There is even tension between the two sisters Leah and Rachel.  Leah is the unloved wife with all the children, while Rachel is the beloved wife who is barren. The longest epic in the book tells the story of the hatred between Joseph and his brothers, who finally are reconciled at the very end of the book.  The brothers are worried that Joseph will take revenge against them.  Joseph speaks kindly to them saying, fear not, for I will sustain you and your children.  In my mind, the central theme of Genesis is how brothers and sisters can learn to get along.  Or to quote the book of Psalms, Hinei Ma Tov u’Ma Nayim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – “Here is what is good and is pleasant, for brothers to dwell together in peace” (Psalms 133:1).

What is the central theme of Genesis?  I believe it is the famous quote by the late activist Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”  Certainly, Genesis is about biological brothers and sisters who cannot get along.  But later the prophet Malachi would famously say, “Have we not one father?  Has not one God created us?”  (Malachi 2:10).  All human beings are brothers and sisters.  When brothers and sisters fight with one another, particularly as adults, it causes great pain to their parents.  In a parallel manner, when humans fight with one another, it causes great pain to God.  Why can we not learn to get along?

We are living at a time of rising tension between human beings.  We certainly see that in the growing acceptance of antisemitism today, which is rearing its ugly head more and more often.  We saw that in the horrible synagogue massacres in Pittsburgh and Poway, the beating of Jews on the streets in New York, the murders in a kosher market in Jersey City, and on Hanukkah the horrible stabbing of a number of Hasidic Jews gathered at their Rebbe’s home.  But it is not simply a hatred of Jews.  There is a hatred of “the other,” whether people of color, gays and lesbians, immigrants, or anybody different.

Today we also see a coarseness in our public discourse.  People who disagreed politically used to be able to find common grounds, compromise, and work with one another.  Today people cannot even speak with one another.  I know families who refuse to invite other members of the family to holiday dinners.  It is sad that a supporter of President Trump and an opponent of President Trump cannot sit at the same Thanksgiving table.  Why can we not learn to get along?

Last week there were small signs of hope.  Sunday Jews in New York City and many other parts of the world marched to declare they were “proud and Jewish.”  Many Christian and Moslem leaders marched with them and expressed solidarity.  The message was clear – we will not tolerate antisemitism or any other kind of hatred.  Every human being of every faith, every nationality, and yes, every political persuasion, was created in the image of God.  Genesis begins with a brother killing a brother and ends with a brother forgiving his brothers.  That is central message of Genesis, if only the world will learn to hear it.

“Now therefore do not fear; I will nourish you and your little ones. And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:21)
This week we finish reading the book of Genesis. It is a book that deals with multiple themes, from the creation of the universe to the descent of the Israelites into Egypt. But one theme returns over and over throughout the book – sibling rivalry. The book of Genesis begins with a brother murdering a brother. It ends with a brother forgiving his brothers. Through the book we read the stories of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. (In this message I will not speak of the two sisters Leah and Rachel, which I studied a few weeks ago.) The central theme of Genesis is whether brothers can learn to overcome jealousy and embrace their brothers.
At the beginning of the book, Cain in a fit of jealousy murders his brother Abel. God has accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. The Midrash explains that Abel brings his offering with a full heart whereas Cain brings it reluctantly. I wonder if there is another deeper theme going on here. Abel is a shepherd and Cain is a farmer, and the Torah seems to favor shepherds over farmers. That is why Joseph tells Pharaoh that his brothers are shepherds; the Egyptians who are farmers hate shepherds. (Remember the musical Oklahoma; “The farmer and the cowman should be friends.”) In human history, the move of humanity from raising herds to growing crops created major conflicts.
There is conflict between Ishmael and Isaac. Abraham, listening to his wife Sarah, realizes that Ishmael and Isaac cannot live in the same household. The Torah pictures Ishmael as a wild man (pera adam), a man of weapons, whose hand is against everyone. Of course, Isaac is one of the fathers of the Jewish people. According to the Qur’an, Ishmael became the founder of the Arab people and eventually the Muslims. Tension between Ishmael and Isaac symbolizes the tension between Jews and Muslims. One of the most powerful images in the Torah is when Isaac and Ishmael put aside their differences to bury their father Abraham. Perhaps it is a symbol that the children of Abraham, Jew and Muslim, can put aside their differences and make peace.
There is also a major conflict between Jacob and Esau. Jacob becomes Israel, literally “God-wrestler,” the father of the Jewish people. Esau is also known as Edom, who becomes Rome, and eventually the father of the Christian nation. The conflict became Jacob and Esau became the conflict between Jew and Christian. Here we have seen some of the greatest changes in the last century. Most Christians (but not all) realized that their tradition of Jew hatred led to the Holocaust. Replacement theology (the covenant with the Jews was replaced by the covenant with followers of Jesus) has been rejected by most Christians. Today Christians speak of two covenants, the one God made with the Jews and the second God made with Christians. Jews and Christians are working together. When the Pope visited the synagogue and met with the Chief Rabbi of Rome, there is a sense that Jacob and Esau are finally getting along.
Finally, we have Joseph and his brothers. Joseph puts his brothers to the test, to see if they have changed. Will they sell out Benjamin the way they sold him out Joseph? But the brothers have changed. Joseph embraces his brothers, forgives them, and promises to care for them. We have brother embracing brother. This week’s portion mentions the blessing Jacob gives to Joseph’s two sons, which Jewish parents say to their sons every Friday night – “May God make you like Efraim and Menashe” (Genesis 48:20). What was special about these two sons of Joseph? According to tradition, they are the first brothers in the Torah to get along.
What is Genesis about? The deep message is that brothers can learn to get along, to care for one another, even to love one another. Farmers can learn to love shepherds, Muslims and Christians can learn to love Jews, all humanity can learn to forgive one another. It has taken an entire book for this message to come through. It has taken millennia for humanity to hear that message. Maybe in our own age all humanity will finally hear the message of Genesis.
“Jacob called his sons and said, come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” (Genesis 49:1)
We have finally come to the end of the book of Genesis. Jacobs sons have reconciled with one another. Jacob calls his sons together in a spirit of prophecy, telling each one what will befall him in the coming days. Then Jacob gives a series of poetic blessings. But none of those blessings deal with prophecy or any prediction of the future. The blessings deal with the character and personality of each of the twelve sons.
Are we talking about the future of the sons or are we talking about the character of the sons? The Etz Hayim Torah commentary we use in our synagogue makes a very important comment. “The modern reader may understand the passage to mean that a person’s future depends on his or her character.” In other words, our future is determined by the kind of people we are. Tell me who you are and I can tell the kind of person you will become. Perhaps the best example of a person’s character determining the future is Pharaoh, who hardened his heart through each of the ten plagues. God knows Pharaoh’s character to be stubborn and proud, and therefore God knew that in the future he would harden his heart, bringing more plagues.
Jewish tradition teaches that our future is open, and we can choose the kind of people we wish to become. But most modern philosophers and modern scientists disagree. They say that we do not have free will, but what we are is already determined by our nature. Perhaps the writer Samuel Johnson put it best. “All theory is against free will; all experience is for it.” Modern philosophy teaches that who we become has been determined by our genetic predispositions and our environment. We may think that we have free will, but our in-bred character has already determined who we will become.
My favorite example of this was the famous Clarence Darrow defense of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. In May 1924 the two young men, both raised in wealthy Jewish families in Chicago, kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Robert Franks. They wanted to see if they could get away with the perfect crime. Leopold and Loeb were caught and arrested, and their families hired the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow as their defense attorney. Incidentally, Meyer Levin wrote an excellent novel based on this case entitled Compulsion, changing the names but not the details. The novel includes much of Darrow’s argument.
Darrow argued that the young men were not responsible for the murders. They were victims of their own character. It is worth quoting Darrow somewhat at length. “Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite, not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for their blood.” With his argument that they committed murder because they were made that way, it was part of their very nature, Darrow saved Leopold and Loeb from the gallows.
When people say that what they do is part of their nature, I often like to quote a story from the 1992 movie The Crying Game. A scorpion once asked a frog if he could climb on the frog’s back and get a ride across a river. The frog replied, “Are you crazy? You will sting me and I will die.” The scorpion replied, “If I sting you and you die, then I will fall into the river and drown.” The frog was convinced and told the scorpion to get on his back. Halfway across the river the frog suddenly felt a sting. The frog cried out, “Why did you do that? Now we will both die.” The scorpion wistfully said, “I could not help it. It is in my nature.”
Perhaps Jacob believed that he knew the nature of each of his sons, and therefore knew their future. I like to believe that we are not slaves to our character, but we the freedom to become the kind of people we wish to become.

“When the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh. Do for me a true kindness and do not bury me in Egypt.” (Genesis 47:29)
This week we come to the last portion in Genesis. With it we read about the death of Jacob and then eventually, the death of his son Joseph. This portion raises several end-of-life questions, including the importance of blessing one’s children and leaving a spiritual inheritance. This is often called an “ethical will. This portion also introduces the phrase in Hebrew hesed shel emet, translated here “true kindness.” Hesed shel emet refers to the treatment of someone who died. It is called true kindness, because it is done to someone who cannot return the favor.
Later Judaism would use this phrase to refer to the Hevre Kadisha or Jewish burial society. These are Jews who voluntarily take on the task of preparing the dead for burial. Traditionally men prepare men and women prepare women. The members of the Hevre Kadisha carefully wash the body (tahara), saying prayers and asking forgiveness for the deceased that nothing disrespectful is being done. Water is then poured over the entire body. They then dress the body in a simple white garment or shroud (tachrihim), with no pockets. We cannot take anything with us. The body is put in a simple wooden casket, and is never left alone until the moment of burial.
Judaism calls this task hesed shel emet “true kindness” because it is the only loving act we can do towards another where we know that they cannot return the favor. I am a very strong believer in this method of preparing a body for burial, and I am surprised how often it is ignored here in Florida. Unfortunately, it is a bit more expensive than having funeral directors, who are usually not Jewish, prepare the body with no prayers and no traditions. Doing something correctly in keeping with Jewish tradition does cost, but it is worth the money. Many Conservative synagogues have established their own Hevra Kadisha to handle this, something I have never tried here.
This idea of doing good for others with no chance that the favor will be returned raises some fascinating questions in ethics. Most of us believe in doing good deeds for others. But underneath there is a strong sense that our good deeds will come back to bless us. For example, it is wonderful that businesses support charitable causes. But it is clear that such support is good for business. Bringing food to a family in mourning is a wonderful deed, but we know that when we are in mourning, someone will bring food for us. What goes around comes around? We do good deeds and hope that they will come back to bless us.
Hesed shel emet is a good deed where it cannot come back to bless us. In a way, it is like those who give charity secretly, where the recipient does not know the donor and the donor does not know the recipient. Maimonides called this one of the highest levels of charity. One of my favorite Hasidic tales speaks of a wealthy man in town who never gave to any of the town charities. He was known to be very tight with his money, and people called him “The Miser.” When he died, nobody mourned very much. Then poor families began coming to the rabbi. “Every Friday someone would leave us food for Shabbat, but it stopped.” “Every month someone left clothing for my children, but it stopped.” “All winter someone would leave us wood chopped for the fireplace, but it stopped.” The rabbi realized all the man had been giving to the poor in secret. On his gravestone it was written, “The Holy Miser.”
I doubt that the great philosopher Immanuel Kant ever heard of the idea hesed shel emet. But he wrote that if we perform an act hoping for some positive consequences, then it is not truly an ethical act. To be ethical, an action must be performed out of sense of duty, with no consideration of the consequences. We can all use a reminder that acts of kindness are not done with the hope of someone returning the favor. They are done out of a pure sense of duty, with the hope of sending kindness out into the world.

“So he blessed them that day saying, by you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying, May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.”
(Genesis 48:20)
This week we finish the book of Genesis – Bereishit. The book deals with so many themes from creation to covenant to the difficulties of family life. But a central theme of the entire book is sibling rivalry. Genesis begins with a brother Cain killing a brother Abel out of jealousy. Genesis ends with brothers hugging as Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. Throughout the book we have constant sibling rivalry, often between the older and the younger sibling. We read about Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and even the sisters Rachel and Leah. We walk away from Genesis with the sad sense that it is the way of the world – brothers (and sisters) are destined not to get along.
Nonetheless, this portion contains the blessing that parents say to their sons every Friday night, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Why Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph born in Egypt? There is a tradition that these are the only two brothers in Genesis who never fight. Even when the younger Ephraim is chosen over the older Manasseh, the two brothers get along. We use this blessing with the hope that siblings can learn to get along. We believe that someday the Psalm Hinei Ma Tov will come true, “This is what is good and what is pleasant for brothers to dwell together in peace. (Psalms 133:1)
There is an old Jewish saying that what happens to the fathers is a sign for the children. Perhaps we can see the events of Genesis as a sign for the future history of Western religions. Perhaps what began as brothers killing brothers will end with brothers embracing brothers. To see this, we have to take a long term view of history.
The brothers in Genesis have come to represent historical peoples and faiths. Jacob became Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. He represents the people Israel and the religion they practice – Judaism. Esau the older brother was also known as Edom. He became the nation of Rome, which converted to Christianity during the reign of Constantine. Esau represents Christianity. The father of Jacob and Esau was Isaac, who had a rivalry with his older brother Ishmael. In fact the rivalry was so severe that his mother Sarah sent Ishmael away into the wilderness. Ishmael became the father of the Arab nation and eventually the religion practiced by that nation – Islam. So Jacob, Esau, and Ishmael became the three great Western religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Can they learn to get along?
For all the rivalries between Jacob and Esau, Judaism and Christianity have gone through a huge change, particularly since World War II and the Holocaust. One thinks of the long history of violence against Jews by the Christian community from the Crusades to the Inquisition. Who would have dreamed that Jews and Christians would be working together, that the Vatican would recognize Israel, or that the Pope would visit a synagogue in Rome? Somehow in the last century Jacob and Esau have learned to live together, work together, and find common ground. Certainly there are still Christians who hate Jews (and sad to say, some Jews who hate Christians.) But the mainstream churches, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, have learned to embrace their Jewish brothers and sisters.
Perhaps this change is most strongly symbolized by the growth of marriages between Christian and Jews. Every newspaper in America including the Sun-Sentinel (our local paper) had an article this week about how Jewish-Christian couples are celebrating Christmas. Rabbis certainly are disturbed by the rising rates of such marriages. But on the bright side, such marriages are a sign of how two faiths that used to hate each other have learned to get along.
What about Ishmael and his nephews, Jacob and Esau? Will there ever be peace between Islam and the two older faiths, Judaism and Christianity? Sadly if one looks historically, at one point there was such a peace. Jews flourished in Moslem Spain, often called the Golden Age. Maimonides and Aquinas wrote brilliant works combining their respective faiths Judaism and Christianity with the Greek philosopher Aristotle. But they only knew Aristotle’s writings through Arabic translations in the Moslem world. The potential is there for Islam to live in peace with Judaism and Christianity.
In this age of ISIS and al-Qaeda, is there hope for such brotherly love? Perhaps not currently, but we need to take a long term view of history. In Genesis, Isaac and Ishmael stood together to bury their father Abraham. I believe the day will come when the three Abrahamic religions will embrace, and work together to build a better world.

“So he blessed them that day saying, God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
I just returned from five days in Cali, Colombia where I celebrated the bat mitzvah of a young law student who I converted a few years ago. She learned the haftarah in between her rather demanding law studies. This was my third trip to Colombia, and I hope to return to visit in the future. But I need to learn Spanish.
The Shabbat was a fascinating experience. Although almost everyone who participated in services was a convert, they had learned Jewish ritual by attending the local Orthodox Sephardic synagogue. They asked me to lead the services Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon, using a Sephardic Hebrew-Spanish prayer book. My Ashkenazic roots came out, and several times I got lost in their prayerbook. They followed the rituals they are used to, with men and women sitting separately. The only woman called to the Torah was my bat mitzvah student. But I was impressed how well they knew the traditional prayers.
A kosher caterer was brought in from Bogota and all the food for the whole weekend was prepared under Orthodox supervision. We had the traditional Shabbat meals. I even did an hour of Torah learning Shabbat afternoon, with a young high school student translating my English into Spanish. She was one of a number of young people who joined us that Shabbat. The entire Shabbat program took place at a venue called Club Shalom (which also hosted two non-Jewish weddings that Saturday.) Then after Shabbat we moved to an outdoor arena on the grounds for the party. Again the food was strictly kosher. And the music was wild. I learned why Cali, Colombia is considered the Salsa capital of the world.
Sunday was a special experience. The family of my bat mitzvah owns a gigantic ranch about an hour and a half outside Cali. Travel was not by superhighway but by back, curvy, crowded roads through tiny towns. But when we arrived I saw the ranch was huge. There was a big family home that was more like a hacienda, where we unpacked and ate a hot kosher picnic lunch. Then we drove through the ranch, up and down the hills, calling to the cows to approach us. I even posed with a horse and a couple of baby goats, pictures I posted on Facebook. Finally I learned why the owner had brought me there. He wanted me to place a mezuzah on the ranch home. Then he wanted me to hold the Torah and give my blessing to this family ranch.
How do you bless a ranch? This week’s portion talks about blessing children, a practice I follow with my children every Friday night. Jewish tradition has the kohenim (priests) bless the congregation. Over the years as a rabbi I have blessed marriages, I have blessed new babies, I have blessed cars, I have blessed homes, I even once blessed someone’s wine cellar. But a ranch that covers acres and acres, filled with grazing cows and horses? How was I worthy to give such a blessing?
In truth, it is God who is blessing the ranch. They wanted me, as a rabbi, to represent God, hold the Torah, and say the words. I was to pronounce God’s blessing. So I began to pronounce a Hebrew blessing. At that moment, the Hebrew word for “ranch” (chava) totally slipped my mind. I used the word for “property” instead. I had taught during my Torah study on Shabbat afternoon that all property belongs to God, and we humans can use it only if we remember who ultimate owns all property. So I blessed the ranch. Or perhaps to put it more accurately, I invoked God’s blessing on the ranch.
I believe that the family who brought me to Colombia for their daughter’s bat mitzvah is now convinced that their ranch will truly prosper. It was blessed by an American rabbi in Hebrew, while holding a Torah. But ultimately it was blessed by God. So whenever we invoke a blessing, we may say the words. But it is God’s blessing that we are invoking.

“So shall you say to Joseph, forgive I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly. Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father. And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.” (Genesis 50:17)
This week we finish the book of Genesis. The book began with the creation of the universe. It ends with the Israelites living in Egypt, soon to be enslaved by Pharaoh. Events occur on a grand scale.
Genesis is also about events on much smaller scale, within families and peoples. Genesis begins with fratricide, the slaying of Cain by Abel. It ends with reconciliation, Joseph hugging and forgiving his brothers. Throughout the book we see constant brotherly conflict – Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. And let us not leave out the tension between two sisters, Rachel and Leah.
Of course, these conflicts symbolize the much bigger conflicts between nations and peoples that have continued throughout human history. The prophet Malachi said long ago, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10) Just as sibling rivalry is natural within families, conflict between nations seems to be the nature of humanity. And if conflict is a natural state of affairs, reconciliation and forgiveness is the hope of humanity. Genesis ends with a sign of hope that someday we will all get along.
I thought about this as the nations of the world gathered to mourn the death this past week of Nelson Mandela, the man who brought a revolutionary change to South Africa. He more than anybody else, managed to end apartheid and bring some degree of understanding between different races in that troubled nation. There were numerous tributes to the man for bringing a spirit of forgiveness to his nation, even after his long imprisonment.
Certainly Mandela was often a controversial figure in life. Many in the Jewish community were distrustful of him. They did not accept his early embrace of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In a similar manner, many in the Cuban-American community were angered by his embrace of Fidel Castro. In truth, Mandela was not a hater of Israel, and he deeply understood the desire of Jews to live freely in their own homeland. However, he also understood the needs of the Palestinians. He wanted Israel to embrace her enemies. To quote him, “Look, I appreciate what the Jewish community has done for me. On the other hand, if the test of my friendship with you is that I have to be an enemy of your enemy, then I cannot be your friend.” (I want to thank anti-defamation league director Abraham Foxman who shared this quote.) These words of Nelson Mandela remind me of similar words of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “You do not make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies.”
Many people have criticized Israel for sending a relatively low level delegation to the Mandela funeral led by former refusenik Yuli Edelstein. They believe that the Prime Minister or the President of Israel should have gone, as head of an Israeli delegation reflecting Jewish tradition with its emphasis on peace and reconciliation. This Jewish emphasis on peace is reflected in a wonderful scene in the Broadway musical Soul Doctor about the life of Shlomo Carlebach. Unfortunately, the musical closed too quickly. In one scene Shlomo is attacked for returning to Vienna where his family had fled from the Nazis. He responds that if he had too separate hearts, he could use one to love and one to hate. But since God only gave him one heart, he may as well use it to love.
The book of Genesis ends when warring brothers made peace. Mandela died after forgiving his enemies and making peace between the races in his country. Perhaps the message is that someday the conflicts between brothers and sisters, conflicts between peoples and nations, do not need to be the fate of the world. Perhaps it is a hint of a future built on peace.

“Then he instructed them saying to them, I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite … there I buried Leah.”
(Genesis 49:29, 31)
Twice in the last three weeks I have flown out to Los Angeles. Three weeks ago it was to bury my Uncle Max Srery, who passed away just short of one hundred years. This week it was to bury his wife of 57 years, my Aunt Shirley Srery, my mom’s little sister. She had been like a second mother to me since my own mom passed on. She was much younger and her loss was truly unexpected.
I expected that when my uncle died, Shirley would start to enjoy life after being his caretaker for a number of years. But I suppose God had different plans for her, or perhaps she herself had different plans. After all these years, she did not want to live on without her husband. Now they are truly “together forever.” I imagine her in the next world making him his daily breakfast of a sunny side up egg on a waffle. May their memories be for a blessing.
Part of the reality of my job is that I spend a lot of time in cemeteries. I find myself reading grave markers. One of the most frequent markers I see is a husband and wife buried next to one another with the words “together forever” engraved on the marker. I imagine that not only are their bodies together in the ground, but their spirits are together in the next world. I am intrigued by a scene in this week’s Torah reading. Jacob on his death bed in Egypt does not ask to be carried back to the Promised Land to be buried next to his beloved Rachel. Rather he chooses to be buried next to Leah, his first wife and the mother of the majority of his children. Jacob and Leah, in spite of tension in their marriage in this world, are together in eternity.
I recently met a woman who is a deeply religious Mormon. She was speaking to me about her husband and their marriage. The way she described him, I assumed he was sitting at home waiting for her. It turned out that he has been dead more than ten years. But in this woman’s mind they were still married. The two of them had converted to the Mormon faith and gone through a ceremony of eternal marriage. They would now be married forever, both in this world and in the next. I could see in this woman a deep sense of comfort and happiness in being “together forever.”
Does my own religion have any ideas equivalent to such eternal marriage? Young people often speak about looking for their beshert, a nice Yiddish word referring to their particular chosen one or soul mate. Everyone dreams of finding their beshert. But the idea goes much deeper amongst Jewish mystics. In the kabbalah a male soul and a female soul are joined before they come into this world. They are separated and brought into this world. Part of each one’s mission in life is to rejoin the two halves of the soul, for each to find the other half. I explore this in greater length in my book The Kabbalah of Love; The Story of a Soul.
Of course not everybody is lucky enough to find their soul mate in this world. Many marriages do not work out. Many people try again. As Samuel Johnson is quoted as saying, “A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” Some find eternal love the second time around. And some people seem to find two or more eternal loves. I will not enter the mind boggling question of the man who has married twice in life; who will he spend eternity with? God will have to sort that one out. But I still love the idea of being “together forever” both in this world at the next.
In California I said goodbye to two people who I believe are truly “together forever.” May we all be so blessed in this world to find such a soul mate in this world!


“By you shall Israel invoke blessings saying, God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
Every Friday evening I bless my three children. When they were little I blessed them around the Shabbat dinner table. Now that they are adults with two living in other states, I bless them over the phone. I bless my two sons with the words from this week’s portion Yeseemcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’keeManashe – “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” I bless my daughter with the words Yeseemech Elohim k’Sara Rivka Rahel v’Leah – May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Then I conclude with the priestly blessing.
Why Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph born in Egypt? Some have suggested that in the Torah they are the first two brothers who totally get along. They lived peacefully with one another, even though Jacob favored the younger Ephraim over the older Manasseh. Perhaps the blessing is a foretaste of that future dream, when “here is what is good and what is pleasant, for brothers to dwell peacefully together.” (Psalms 133:1) This blessing is particularly important to end the book of Genesis, a book filled with fratricide, sibling rivalry, and hatred.
From the beginning of Genesis we see brothers and even sisters who cannot get along. The book begins with Cain killing his brother Abel; with the first set of siblings murder enters the world. It seems to be saying that fratricide is built into nature. Human beings, without legal and religious restraints, kill other human beings. How can we rise above our passions and accept our siblings?
The sibling rivalries continue. The half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael do not get along, and Abraham must banish Ishmael from his home. The two brothers only come together briefly to bury their father. This rivalry has come to symbolize the war between Jews, the descendents of Isaac, and Moslems, the descendents of Ishmael. This war continues today. Perhaps one day Jews and Moslems will come together and recognize our shared father Abraham.
The next generation is marked by a rivalry between Jacob and Esau, who fought one another while still in their mother’s womb. The younger Jacob would pressure the older Esau to give him his birthright, and then would steal his blessing. Esau sought to kill his brother. After twenty years separation the two brothers have some reconciliation. They hug one another but still go their separate ways. This rivalry has come to symbolize the tensions between Jews, descendents of Jacob, and Christians, descendents of Esau who was renamed Edom and then became Rome. Today, particularly since Vatican II, we have seen a reconciliation between Jews and Christians that would have shocked our grandparents. But too often we still go our separate ways.
Even sisters in Genesis are not immune to sibling rivalry. Leah the older sister is fertile but unloved; Rachel the younger sister is loved but infertile. Each is jealous of the other. In due course their rivalry will lead to a rivalry between their children. Leah’s sons lead by Judah will throw Rachel’s son Joseph into a pit, from which he will be taken as a slave to Egypt. Only towards the end of Genesis does Joseph embrace and forgive his brothers.
And so we come to the next generation, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. We do not know much about their individual personalities. But we do know that the Torah reflects no conflicts between them. We finally have a generation of brothers who get along. With them we end Genesis and begin reading Exodus. In Exodus we finally have an older sister Miriam and two brothers Aaron and Moses who embraced one another and were proud of each other’s accomplishments.
This week we finish reading Genesis. We read a book that begins with hatred between brothers and ends with brothers embracing. The Bible views all humans as brothers and sisters. “Have we not one father? Did not one God create us all?” (Malachi 2:10) Perhaps the entire book of Genesis points to that day when sibling rivalry and hatred will finally disappear from the world.


“And Israel saw Joseph’s sons, and said, Who are these?”
(Genesis 48:8)

Greetings from Los Angeles. I am out here to see my family – my aunt and uncle and cousins, and of course my youngest son who moved here last year. I am also out here to attend the wedding of the daughter of one of my oldest friends. It was worth a cramped airplane flight to be able to see people I love face-to-face.
In this week’s portion Joseph brings his two sons to see his ailing father Jacob (or Israel). Jacob hopes to bless the two boys, but when they come to his bedside he does not recognize them. “Who are these?” he asks. Of course the Rabbis of old asked how a man could not recognize his own grandsons. Rashi reflects that perhaps he saw in a prophecy that wicked kings would descend from these grandsons, and this scary prophecy blinded his eyes. It is a fascinating thought, but I do not believe it goes to the heart of the portion.
Joseph was thrilled to see his father move down to Egypt. But he was a busy man, and now some time had passed. He had not brought his sons to see their grandfather for some time. This was in the days before email and phones, facebook and twitter, audio and visual conferencing. The only way to see someone was face-to-face. Time had passed, the boys had grown older, and when they finally met up again, Jacob did not recognize his own grandsons. Perhaps even in this age of electronic interconnections, it is worthy to speak of the importance of face-to-face meetings.
It is the miracle of our modern age that I am able to hear the voice and see the face of people I love around the world. But there is something about a face-to-face encounter. This is already hinted by the Hebrew. The Hebrew word for face is panim – always in the plural. Face-to-face is panim el panim, (today it is the name of an educational program for teens in Washington DC.) The very Hebrew word for face seems to teach us that our face needs other faces to fulfill its purpose. Our face has more muscles and more ways to move than any other organ of our body. This seems to indicate that our face needs other faces to do what God designed it to do.
Of course it is possible to be in the presence of someone and still not be face-to-face. I remember many years ago when my children were young, sitting with them in a restaurant and reading the newspaper. A total stranger came up and scolded me. “Put your newspaper away and pay attention to your children. They will not be young forever.” Then he walked away. In hindsight I realize how correct he was. People and particularly our children deserve our presence. How often do we sit at the table with those we love and ignore them, playing with our cell phones or blackberries? How often do we talk to someone but our minds are far away? How often do we ignore the presence of those who most need us? As the Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”
God made humans to be face-to-face with other humans. In fact, one of my favorite Biblical teachings, which I have often repeated, is the image of the Cherubim in the ancient tabernacle the Israelites carried through the desert. The two Cherubim faced each other. And God spoke from between the faces. When one human being is face-to-face with another human being, it is there that God dwells.
So even if it is a bit expensive or inconvenient, a cramped airplane flight or a long car ride, I urge you to take the time and see those you love face-to-face. It is in the presence of others that we become most fully human.



“Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.” (Genesis 47:28)

This portion is called vayechi “and he lived.” The title is about life, and yet the portion is about death. Jacob dies in this portion after gathering his sons and blessing each one. And at the end of the portion Joseph dies full of years, having seen his great grandchildren. A portion about death reaffirms life. The world of the living is where the action is – our tradition has always emphasized not how to make it to the next world but how to live in this world. Both Jacob and Joseph accomplished during their lifetimes what God sent them into this world to do.
I dealt with this theme last Yom Kippur. Let me share just a piece of that sermon entitled “The Jewish Way of Being Human: The Final Journey:”
Let me mention one more movie that came out this year that covers the same theme. I deeply enjoyed the film The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Two very different men – an auto mechanic and a wealthy hospital owner – meet in the hospital as both are going through cancer treatment. Both learn they are dying. And so they come up with a bucket list – things they want to do with their lives before they kick the bucket. And together they take off around the world to do everything on their list. They go skydiving and drive racecars. They dine in Paris and climb the pyramids. They develop a wonderful friendship, and eventually discover that there is more to life than filling a to-do list. It ends with a wonderful message; go rent the movie.
I will agree that there a things we should try to do while we are alive. And if we can do them as soon as we can, all the better. There is the story of Willoughby who goes for a two week trip to Paris. It had always been his dream. He returns and tells his best friend, “It was wonderful, I should have done the trip twenty years ago.” “When Paris was really Paris.” “No,” he answers, “When Willoughby was really Willoughby.” Yes it is nice to have a bucket list to fulfill while you can still enjoy them. But that is not the message I want to give you on this Yom Kippur. I am going to give you a short list – three things. There are three things I want you to do while you are still alive in this world. [Note – I go on to mention three things each of us needs to do while in this world. Let me just bring the second one here. I can email you the entire sermon.]
. . .
The second thing on my bucket list that each of us needs to do, starting today if possible, is to become a presence in the life of the people who need us in their lives. One of the ways we perfect this world as a kingdom of God is by our relationships with other people. I am talking about the key people – our parents, our siblings, our spouse or significant other, perhaps most important, our children. I am talking about our friends and our mentors and our students. They need our presence. Our children need our physical presence, to see us and talk to us face-to-face.
In my new book The Kabbalah of Love I brought a mystical insight from the Torah. After we received the Ten Commandments, God gave Moses instructions how to build a tabernacle, curtain by curtain and clasp by clasp. God would appear and speak to the people out of the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a beautiful portable tent. Where in the tabernacle did God speak? One would think that God was in the Holy of Holies, the holiest spot which contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Rather, above the Holy of Holies were the faces of two cherubim, two models of human faces turned towards each other. God spoke from between the faces of the cherubim. When a human being is face to face with another human being, that is where God speaks.
The significant people in our lives need our presence. And if they do not live near us, that is why there are telephones and airplanes. For the older generation here, I want you to do something. I want you to learn how to send an email by computer. That is how your grandchildren communicate. If you do not have a computer, do not worry. Every library has them for public use. Learn to use email.
For the younger generation who are here, I want you to do something you have probably never done in your life. I want you to learn to write a letter. Stamp it and mail it. Do you even know where to buy stamps? Part of the reason we get so much junk mail is that is the only way the US Post Office can stay in business; no one sends letters any more. On one of the last trips I took home to visit my parents before they died, they gave me a pile of letters I had written them during a year of study in Israel. It was like a diary saved. Whether face-to-face, by phone, by email, by letter, even on Facebook, I want you to be a presence in the lives of others.



“When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” (Genesis 47:30)

A true story – It was a Shabbat evening towards the end of December 1990. My family and I had just moved to Florida from Pittsburgh. We looked forward to living in a much larger Jewish community. We loved Pittsburgh, appreciated the small but active Jewish community there, but often felt like an invisible minority amongst the vast Christian majority.
We had just sat down to eat our Shabbat dinner when there was a knock on the door. When I answered, there was Santa Claus in his full regalia. He said his ho, ho, ho and started to walk into our home. I told him, “Boy, do you have the wrong house.” Meanwhile, my children were all excited. It turns out that Santa had been hired to show up at a Christmas party about a block away. He had been given the wrong address and showed up at a rabbi’s home on the Jewish Sabbath. So that was the year I had to give Santa directions and send him off to the proper place.
I sometimes think about that story as we enter the week where the vast majority of our friends and neighbors celebrate Christmas. It is so easy to be swallowed up in the trappings of the season. I never want to be “the Grinch who stole Christmas” or Ebenezer Scrooge shouting, “bah humbug.” I appreciate the lights, the decorations, the music, and most important, the sense of good will and holiness which this Christian holiday exudes. Unless I am willing to go live in Israel (something which has crossed my mind), I realize that I must live a Jewish life as a minority in a majority culture.
How do I as a Jew maintain my identity? How do I teach my children to be proud of their differences? (When my children were very young in Pittsburgh, I remember having them pose for pictures at the mall. The poor camera operator tried to get them to sit still for the snap shot, saying in exasperation, “Be good, or Santa won’t bring you any presents.” One of my kids spoke back, “We’re Jewish. We don’t believe in Santa.” The young mall employee did not even know how to react.)
To be a Jew outside the land of Israel is to be part of a minority. To be sure, we are a proud minority who has kept our way of life going for thousands of years. And few nations in the history of humanity have been as welcoming to the Jewish people as America. Jews have flourished in the United States thanks to the tradition of religious freedom tied to the good will of the American people. But having said that, it is always difficult to be a minority and keep one’s identity alive.
This week’s portion is a precedent for living as a minority in a majority culture. The Israelites came down to Egypt as a small minority in a vast majority culture. Joseph insisted that the Israelites live in one concentrated area, Goshen, where they could maintain their way of life and not assimilate into Egyptian society. Parents would bless children with the dream of keeping the Jewish way of life alive. And both Jacob and Joseph, as they face their own deaths, tell their children not to bury them in Egypt. Bring them back to the Holy Land so they can be buried with their ancestors.
Later the Rabbis would elaborate on how the Israelites maintained their identity in the land of Egypt. Children were given Hebrew names and maintained the Hebrew language. Parents were careful to teach their children the laws against gossip and sexual immorality. (Leviticus Rabbah 32:5) There was a serious effort to keep their minority culture alive.
Today it is easy for Jews living in America to be swept along with the majority culture. (One bit of irony – it was a Jew who composed the most popular Christmas song of all time; Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas. Berlin called it the best song he had ever written, and went on to say it was the best song anybody had ever written.) For Jews living in America, let us appreciate our neighbors’ holiday. But like the Israelites in ancient Egypt, let us never forget who we are.



“And Israel saw Joseph’s sons, and said, who are these?”
(Genesis 48:8)

Jacob was old and sick, and called upon Joseph to bring his two sons to him for a blessing. Moments before he had waxed eloquent on how he planned to adopt the two sons, making them two of the tribes. Now the moment had come when the sons appeared before him. Jacob looked at his two beloved grandsons and said, “Who are these?” He did not even recognize his own grandsons.
The Midrash (Rabbinic legend) gives one explanation. He did not recognize them because they came dressed in Egyptian dress, and they did not appear to be Hebrews. However, when the two boys saw their grandfather, they said the Shma (the central prayer of Jewish tradition.) Hearing the prayer, Jacob realized who they were and was ready to bless them.
The Midrash is beautiful. But perhaps there is another explanation. When a grandparent does not recognize his own grandsons, perhaps it is the beginning of senility. Perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease was setting in. I have seen it too often. In my own family, during the last years of her life, my father’s mother did not recognize him; she called him “Sonny.” Too often I have performed a funeral where the family told me, “Rabbi, my mother died years ago. Her mind disappeared.” Recently someone spoke to me who was angrier. “Rabbi, my wife was stolen from me by this disease.”
I do not know if Jacob had Alzheimer’s. He certainly was able to speak in an articulate way to all of his sons before he died. But perhaps his memory was beginning to fade. Sadly, too many of us see a loved one’s mind slip away while they are still in this world. I think we all admire the honesty with which the late President Ronald Reagan admitted his Alzheimer’s to the public and shared his struggle with this incurable condition. It is certainly one of the saddest ways to leave this world.
A number of years ago I gave a lecture at the Broward County Main Public Library. The lecture was for a mind-body conference, and it dealt with the kabalistic idea that our soul has various levels in this world. Our soul goes from nefesh (mere consciousness) to ruach (the animal soul of emotions), then to neshama (the human soul able to empathize and make rational decisions) and finally, if we are lucky, chaya (the highest level of the soul where we become at one with another soul, or with the universe as a whole.) One of our goals in life is to grow our souls, to evolve to higher and higher levels. I have written and lectured extensively on this beautiful idea.
As I was speaking, I saw a woman growing agitated in the back of the room. Finally she raised her hand and asked me, “Rabbi, my mother has Alzheimer’s. She cannot take care of herself, she gets violent, and she no longer recognizes me. Tell me, what level is her soul at?” I will admit that I was stumped. But I have been thinking about that question ever since.
Could it be that some people, because of brain malfunction, can only hold onto the lowest level of the soul in this world? Could they go back to the nefesh level, the most basic level of the soul? Certainly they possess the higher levels of the soul. But perhaps those levels of the soul are no longer in this world. Could it be that some people’s souls are already partially in the world to come, even as they continue their bodily existence in this world? Could it be that they still exist on some higher plane, while those of us who love them in this world only see the most basic level of consciousness?
Perhaps our job when, this happens, is to make sure they never lose their human dignity. There is a tradition that when Moses built the Ark of the Covenant, he put in the Ten Commandments written on two tablets of stone. But Moses also put the broken pieces of the tablets he threw down after the incident of the golden calf. The Rabbis compare the broken tablet to a scholar who has forgotten his learning. Such a scholar is treated with as much dignity and respect as a scholar at the height of his learning.
Sadly, there are some people whose souls retreat to the next world while they still live among us in this world. They become shells of themselves. Nonetheless, they deserve as much human dignity as any other human being. After all, at the end of his life, even the great patriarch Jacob did not recognize his own grandchildren.



“And Jacob said to Joseph, El Shaddai appeared to me in Luz in the land of Canaan and He blessed me and said to me, I will make you fertile and numerous, making of you a community of peoples; and I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession.” (Genesis 48:3-4)

This week we finish the book of Genesis, reading about the death of Jacob and at the end, the death of his son Joseph. What is the major theme in Genesis? The book speaks of many powerful themes – creation, perhaps family. But I believe there is one theme that stands out throughout the first book of the Bible – covenant (in Hebrew brit or bris.)
In the book, God made a covenant with Noah and his descendents (all humanity), with the rainbow as the symbol of this covenant. Then God made a covenant with Abraham and his immediate family (the Jewish people) with circumcision as the symbol of this covenant. Later, this covenant will be renewed with the entire people Israel standing at Mt. Sinai. To understand the message of Genesis, and perhaps the message of the entire Bible, we must understand the meaning of covenant.
A covenant is like a contract, but with a much deeper sense of commitment. It defines mutual obligations between the parties, whether God and all humanity or God and the people Israel. It assumes an ongoing relationship as well as mutual commitments towards action. In a similar way, our tradition sees marriage as covenant between a man and a woman, with mutual promises and commitments as well as an ongoing relationship.
One of the modern thinkers who has written powerful books about covenant is Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and the teacher of a generation of rabbis. Last summer Rabbi Hartman and his daughter were scholars in the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State, a retreat center for the arts, education, and religion. (I was also a teacher in Chautauqua last summer, but was there several weeks before Rabbi Hartman. However, I was privileged to get a tape of his main talk.)
Rabbi Hartman told this mostly Christian audience that covenant is one of the most empowering ideas in religious thinking. Many people have the mistaken notion that religion teaches human passivity and obedience. Religion is about going through the motions because God demands it, as a master makes demands of a slave. But this is not the Biblical view. Rather, God made a covenant with humanity because God needs us. We humans are major actors in the divine, human drama. God literally waits for us to act out our particular role in the covenant. We are partners with God in the perfection or the redemption of this world.
Hartman compared the Biblical and the Greek visions of God. To the Greeks, God was the unmoved first mover. According to Aristotle, God was pure thought contemplating God=s own perfection. God was unchangeable, without needs or desires. No Greek would understand the title of the famous book written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man. The Greek God does not need humanity; in fact, to say God needs anything is to mar God’s perfection.
Not so the Biblical God. God needs humans. We are God=s covenantal partners. God awaits our actions. We have the power to do God’s work in this world, making this world a better, holier place. Or we have the ability to reject God’s work, making this world a sadder place to live. God needs us as much as we need God. Covenant implies partnership; that is what makes the idea of covenant so empowering for human beings.
People sometimes ask me what the essence of Judaism is. My answer is that Judaism, whether Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, is an answer to the question: What does God expect of us as Jews under the covenant? In fact, since God made a covenant with all humanity, a central human question ought to be, what does God expect of us as human beings under the covenant? The book of Genesis introduced the idea of covenant to the world. God needs a partner. God cries out to us as human beings. How we respond to the covenant with God is the central religious question of our time, perhaps the central religious question of all time.



“When Jacob was told, your son Joseph has come to see you, Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed.” (Genesis 48:2)

The words of the Torah were written thousands of years ago. And yet, sometimes they read as if they are happening today.
In the beginning of this portion, an elderly man (Jacob, also called Israel) lay on his sick bed. A messenger told his beloved son Joseph that his elderly father was ailing. (Why did he not know?!) Joseph arrived with the two grandsons. Jacob, upon seeing his son and two grandsons, had a new burst of strength and was able to sit up on the bed. Jacob blessed his grandsons before his death.
This scenario is played out here in Florida on a regular basis. People retire down here to live out their days in the good weather, enjoying the golf and cards, early bird dinners and cruises. But time takes its toll, children are far away, people become sick and frail. Often their children do not know of their parents’ condition. Sometimes the children do know but are too busy with their own lives to do very much about it. (“Rabbi, my mother is frail, alone in her apartment down in Florida. It is hard for me to visit. Can you look in on her on a regular basis and make sure she is alright.”)
Finally, when the situation gets bad enough, the children come down. Often they bring the grandchildren. Something happens; the frail senior suddenly has a new life, a new excitement. (“Rabbi, when I finally came down to visit mom, she seemed so animated and excited. She seems to be okay. Why did you tell me she is ill?”)
Who is responsible for the care of elderly frail parents? The Torah tradition is clear; the responsibility lies with the children. The Talmud teaches, “Honor means the child must supply the parent with food and drink, clothing and footwear, and assist the parent’s coming and going.” (Kiddushin 31b) The child does not necessarily have to provide the hands on, day to day care, although in a perfect world that is the ideal. But a child must make sure a frail, elderly parent is properly cared for.
I am certainly aware that parents can be difficult, particularly as they loose their physical abilities or part of their mental capacity. I am reminded of the story of Rabbi Assi who had a tough, perhaps senile mother. His mother wanted jewelry, so he bought her some. His mother wanted a husband, so he tried to find one for her. None were good enough; his mother demanded a husband who looked like him. Finally Rabbi Assi fled to the land of Israel. Then he heard his mother was coming to stay with him, so he asked permission of his rabbi to leave. After receiving permission, he heard that it was his mother’s casket coming to Israel. Rabbi Assi cried out, “If I had known I never would have left her.” (Kiddushin 31a)
Part of the burden and the joy of being human is to care for elderly parents. It is not necessarily an easy task. But after all, they did care for us when we were children. Now the time has come to return the favor.



“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them, every one according to his blessing he blessed them.” (Genesis 49:28)

I visited an elderly woman last week who was homebound and quite depressed. She could no longer drive, see very well, or participate in the physical activities she used to enjoy. She cried in my presence and asked, “Why am I alive? My body cannot do what it used to do? I no longer do the things that used to give me pleasure? What good is life?”
I tried to comfort her. “God is not ready to take you yet. God still must have something He wants you to do in this world.”
“What could God want with an old lady like me?”
I answered, “You have grandchildren and great grandchildren. If you could leave them a message, what would you tell them?”
At first she replied, “They are busy with their own lives. They don’t care.”
“But what would you tell them?” With that she started to talk, to tell her story, to speak of her values, to share her wishes and dreams for her progeny. And the more she spoke, the more animated she became. Finally I stopped her. “Don’t tell me. Use a tape recorder and record it for them. Perhaps this is what God wants you to do while you are still in this world.”
In this week’s portion, Jacob finally passes on after living to see several generations. He also had complained, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” (Genesis 47:9) Nonetheless, he was privileged to gather all his children around him for a final blessing and final words of wisdom before he died. Out of this portion grew the Jewish idea of leaving our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren an ethical will. Unlike a regular will, which is concerned with passing on our property, an ethical will is concerned with passing on our values.
With this week’s portion we finish the book of Genesis. One of the major themes of this book is the connection between parents and children. In my new book The Ten Journeys of Life in the chapter on facing our mortality, I speak of two metaphors for human life. The ancient pagan world saw life as a great cycle, with each generation simply reliving the life of the previous generation. “One generation comes and one generation goes. There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4,9) The Bible, on the other hand, sees life as a chain, with each generation a new link.
The book of Genesis is filled with long lists of begats, who gave birth to whom. There were ten generations from Adam to Noah, ten generations from Noah to Abraham, Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat twelve sons and a daughter, the sons begat the people Israel. The link between generations is key to understanding the Biblical message.
Parents have an obligation to teach their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Children have an obligation to honor their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. The older generation is a repository of wisdom for the younger generation. Each generation learns from the past, adds its own wisdom and insights, and passes their knowledge on to the future. So it is that over the course of generations, we human beings perfect this world as a kingdom of God.
As we grow older, we may no longer have the physical strength to participate in the activities we loved when we were younger. But we are never too old to teach our children and grandchildren. As we say in our daily prayers, “Generation by generation we will praise God’s name.”



“But Joseph said to them, Have no fear. Am I a substitute for God. Besides although you intended me harm, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

Joseph’s brothers approach Joseph, fearful that he will enact some kind of revenge for their treatment of him. Joseph answers that he is not in God’s stead to judge. Besides, they may have intended him harm, but God intended their actions for good.
One of the most natural human inclinations is to look for the negative in others. It is so easy to criticize and to pass judgment, it is natural to gossip and put down our fellow human beings. Some people can only build themselves up by knocking others down. It is always possible to find fault. It is far easier to look for the bad than to look for the good in others.
For that reason, Jewish tradition places great importance on the principle of lelamed z’chut, searching for the good in people. The idea goes back to the days when the Jewish community actually sat in judgment when there was a capital crime. Twenty-three judges, known as a small Sanhedrin were given responsibility to reach a verdict. In order to be convicted, there had to be a majority of two.
What if all twenty-three judges found the culprit guilty? In this case, he or she was let go. The idea was that there must be at least one judge willing to argue in the defendant=s defense. Somebody had to find some mitigating circumstance, some reason to consider a verdict of not guilty. Without someone searching for good, the defendant did not have proper representation. Perhaps our Constitutional right to proper legal defense grew out of this ancient Rabbinic law.
We no longer have Jewish courts of law. But all of us are in a position to judge our fellow human beings. Too often we scrutinize the actions of others even before we look at our own actions. The great sage Hillel taught, “Do not judge your neighbor until you have stood in his place.” (Avot 2:4) It is proper to search for the good, even when it is not obvious.
Sometimes we need to search hard for the good in others. There is a story of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement in the nineteenth century, a movement that emphasized deep ethical introspection. He caught a man smoking at the entrance of the synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath (an act forbidden by Jewish law.) He told the man, “Excuse me sir, perhaps you did not know that it is the Sabbath.”
“I know perfectly well that it is the Sabbath.”
“Perhaps you forgot that smoking is forbidden on the Sabbath.”
“I know perfectly well that smoking is forbidden on the Sabbath.”
“Perhaps your doctor gave you some kind of medical dispensation requiring you to smoke on the Sabbath.”
“There is no such dispensation.”
Rabbi Salanter then turned his face to God. “Lord of the universe, look how wonderful Your people are. I gave this man three chances to lie, and three times he told the truth.”
This is a perfect example of the search for good in someone. The more difficult a person is, the harder it is to find this good. Sometimes it involves a search for mitigating circumstances. Why is the person doing what they are doing? Are there aspects of this person’s life we do not know about? Are they simply weak and unable to control themselves? Underneath, what is the good and the positive in this person?
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to do a formal exercise. Every time we hear someone put down their fellow, we should try to find something positive about that person. Lelamed Z’chut ought to become a habit practiced daily. Let Joseph inspire us to always search out the good in others.



“Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.” (Genesis 48:5)

In this portion we come to the end of Jacob’s life. Jacob adopted his two grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of his son Joseph. They would become two of the twelve tribes. Through these grandchildren was the blessing fulfilled that the Psalmist spoke of: “To see children of your own children, may peace reign in Israel.” (Psalms 128:6)
As we finish the book of Genesis, we have the perfect opportunity to talk about grandchildren. There is a long discussion in the Talmud about the commandment of procreation. How many children must one have? According to the school of Hillel whose ruling we follow, the minimum is one son and one daughter. (Obviously more children are desirable.) However, these children must themselves be capable of having children. In other words, we have not fully kept the commandment of procreation until we are blessed with grandchildren.
The goal of the Torah is to establish a chain, with each generation a new link. It is not enough to simply reproduce ourselves, but to know the chain will continue to a new generation. To see the children of one’s children is life’s greatest blessing.
Cynics would say that grandchildren serve an important purpose. They are the revenge on our children for the way our children treated us. How often have I said to my growing sons and daughter, “Wait until you have children, and they do to you what you are doing to us.” Humorists have put it differently: “If I had known that grandchildren are such fun, I would have had them first.” Jewish law teaches that when we do something three times, it creates a presumption of permanence. So too, three generations presume a permanence. Grandchildren assure our future.
The Talmud tells the story of Rav Huna who found a delicious date. He was about to eat it when his son asked him for it, so he handed it to his son. Then Rav Huna’s son gave the date to his son, Rav Huna’s grandson. Rav Huna became upset. The story concludes with the truism, “The love of the parent is towards the child, but the love of the child is towards his child.” (Sota 49a) How often do I tell parents, “You can tell if you have been successful in raising your children by how they raise their children.” Parents may be upset that their children lavish such love and attention on their grandchildren, while ignoring their parents. That seems to be the way of the world.
Life is about passing our values down from generation to generation. Sometimes we can directly influence our grandchildren. They need to hear our stories. They need memories of the rituals and traditions of our household. They need to see our pictures. They need the roots that only grandparents can provide. Sometimes grandparents can be the key to bring their children closer to faith and closer to God.
There is the story of a couple who went on vacation, and dropped their young son off with his grandparents for a week. The grandparents had the son say a blessing before eating, say a prayer at night and in the morning. They spoke about God and the beautiful world He created. After a week, the parents came to pick up their son. As the boy was walking out to the car, he said, “Goodbye God, I am going home now. I am not going to see you anymore.”
Grandparents do not know the influence they can have on their grandchildren. Often years later, when the grandparent is gone from this earth, a grandchild will remember a story, a ritual, a blessing, and that memory will change that grandchild’s life.