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Friday, December 25, 2009

Parshat Vayigash: Midrash on Joseph revelation of himself to his brothers

This week's Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18), begins with the words
"Vayigash aylav Yehudah...." "And Judah drew near" to Joseph to plead for his brother Benjamin's freedom. Judah volunteered to be taken as a slave in Benjamin's stead, so that his father Jacob would not 'lose' another son.

Judah's pleads with Joseph to keep him instead of his youngest broth Benjamin, who is the only other son of Joseph's mother, Rachel and, therefore, dearest to their father. Moved by Judah's appeal, Joseph decides at that moment to reveal himself to his brothers. Moved to tears, he orders his servants to leave them alone so that he may reveal his true identity. He told them not to feel guilty for having left him in the pit. It was God's plan that Joseph should end up in Egypt, where he could predict the famine, become Pharaoh's administrator, and save his own family from starvation. Joseph told his brothers to return to Jacob and bring the entire clan to Egypt where he will ensure their well being for the remaining years of the famine.

The entire Joseph narrative can be seen as an allegory for the journey of the ego, as represented by Joseph (see my commentary of two weeks ago). Ultimately, we must negate the ego in order to allow the soul to shine forth. In this week’s climax Joseph, faced with the reality of all the suffering that ego can bring to the world, realizes that he must unite all the pieces of himself in order to reconnect with the soul. He sends away his Egyptian servants, representative of his ego's "power," and standing there, stripped of all sense of pretense and self-importance, joins in a tearful reunion with all the disparate aspects of himself and the universe. This eventually results in the reuniting with Jacob, his father, his human source of life (along with his long-deceased mother). This reunion represents the oneness that we find when we unite ourselves with our divine source, the oneness of all existence.

This story of reconciliation is a moving one and brings us closer to the end of this chapter in Joseph's life. Yet, as always, there is another chapter yet to be lived. In sharing these thoughts on the reunion as representative of the journey of negating the ego, I would also like to share with you another Midrash I have written as a continuation of the Joseph saga.

Shabbat Shalom,

Steven

Joseph's Choice

Joseph was seated on his throne as he watched his brothers preparing to leave. They had just enjoyed a sumptuous feast together. They enjoyed each other's company as if they were old friends; they had no idea that they were dining with their brother, nor that he had been setting a trap for them this entire time.

As they prepared to leave Joseph sprang his trap. "Wait," he cried, "someone has stolen my goblet. The perpetrator shall be discovered and punished appropriately." As all 11 brothers denied any wrongdoing Joseph watched as his men searched their bags. When the goblet was found in the sack belonging to Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel, Joseph could hear the jaws of the trap slam shut. "This one shall remain here as punishment for the wrong he has done me. The rest of you may return to your father."

Then something happened that Joseph never expected. Judah, the one who had been so instrumental in what happened to Joseph all those years ago, offered himself in Benjamin's stead. He pleaded with Joseph to keep him in Egypt rather than see the only other son of Rachel, the child of Jacob's old age, remain captive, and thereby grieving – and possibly killing – their elderly father.

As Joseph stood there looking down on his brothers, he could feel hatred and triumph raging in his heart. Yet, somewhere deep inside he felt another emotion trying to emerge, though he did his best to keep it repressed. For he knew that this emotion was compassion, the source of forgiveness, and he did not want to forgive. Above all else, he wished nothing less than that. To see his brothers suffer as he did was his greatest desire. Only after that might he be willing to entertain any other idea.

As he felt hatred and compassion struggling within him he suddenly remember a dream that he had the night before. And he realized, yet again, that it was a dream that held the key to his decision and his future.

In this dream, he imagined that he was standing, as he was now, above his brothers as they watched the goblet emerge from Benjamin's sack. In that moment, it appeared all the brothers turned as one towards Benjamin pointing an accusing finger at him. They encircled him like lions surrounding their prey, moving ever closer, tightening the circle, and preventing his escape.

Then, Joseph saw a deep pit in the earth just behind Benjamin. As the other brothers moved closer to Benjamin he continued to step back in fear, unaware of the danger behind him. As Benjamin stood almost at the edge of the pit, Joseph cried out "stop!" This the brothers did. What happened next astonished Joseph even more than it did his brothers. For Joseph descended the steps from his throne and pushed aside the brothers. He then stood in front of Benjamin and looked deeply into his eyes, not saying a word. All held their breath, wondering what he would do. He then reached out his hands and placed them on Benjamin's shoulders, all the while fixing his gaze on those familiar eyes. Their mother’s eyes. Then, without warning, Joseph shoved Benjamin as hard as he could and listened to his scream as he fell into the pit. The brothers gasped as they witnessed history repeating itself.

The room was silent, but for the low sobs rising from the depths where Benjamin lay. Joseph looked down into the pit, but all he could see through the darkness was Benjamin’s eyes looking up at him through his tears. As he looked deeply into the well, into the eyes of Rachel's only other son, he suddenly heard a wail, a scream, unlike any he had heard before. This cry pierced his heart; it pierced the heavens. It was as if its grief could tear the world in two.

Then Joseph awoke. Yet, he was confused, for the scream still continued. He looked around his bedchamber, but could not find its source. He looked outside, but no one was there. He wanted to follow the sound of the cry, but he could not tell from which direction it came. It was as if the cry came from everywhere and from nowhere. It was as if it came from deep within Joseph, himself.

Then the wail changed to a deep sobbing, which gave way to the voice of a woman crying softly, "Joseph, my Joseph, what have you done to your brother? What have you done to yourself? To me? To us all?" Joseph knew that voice. Even though he had not heard it since he was a youth, it was a voice he could never forget. The voice of his mother. Joseph remained silent.

Then Rachel’s voice spoke again. "Joseph, you must undo what you have done. You must release your brother from the pit. You must undo what has been done to him and to you." "But how? Why?” Joseph asked. “For all these years, I have never forgotten what my brothers did to me. Not a day has passed when I did not dream of setting things right. Now my opportunity has arrived. How can you deny me this justice, mother?"

"Justice!" replied Rachel, "this is not justice. This is hatred. This is revenge. This will eventually bring about the destruction of our family, our people and all humanity, if it does not cease." Joseph again remained silent, as his mother continued. "Joseph, look down into the pit. Look into the eyes of the only other child ever to emerge from my womb. "But the pit is not here," replied Joseph, "that was merely in my dream." "Look," Rachel commanded. Suddenly Joseph saw that there was indeed a pit in front of him, just as in the dream. Perhaps he had never really awoken? Perhaps he simply went from one dream into another? Or perhaps in that moment there was no separation between the world of dreams and the world of reality?

Joseph looked into the pit and saw his brother's eyes staring at him through the darkness. "Look deeply into those eyes," implored Rachel, "and tell me who you see." Joseph looked deeply for what seemed an eternity, then he spoke, "I see my brother…. I see you, my mother..…I see myself." "Exactly," exclaimed Rachel, "We are all one. And so are we one with your other brothers as well. Benjamin lying there in the pit is your family – a family that has tricked and deceived so many through the years. This is a family where twin brothers vied for parental blessings. A family where sisters strove with one another for a man's love and attention. A family where brothers plotted together to destroy the life of another brother. He is all of these, as are you.

"Continue looking into his eyes, my beloved son, and you will see yourself in him. Then look inside your soul and you will see him, as well as the rest of our family, in you. You must release him from his captivity. If you do not, neither you nor anyone in our family will every be free!"

Joseph suddenly looked up, breaking gaze with his brother, and cried into the air, "But why should I release him? You said it yourself. In our family it has always been brother against brother, sister against sister, parent against child. Perhaps it is seeking retribution that is truly the fulfillment of our destiny!"

"No!" cried Rachel, "I have come to you from my grave to tell you that this is not the way! I am here in Bethlehem alone. I was not buried with my family. I was not gathered to my ancestors, as is our custom. I was left out here alone by the side of the road where I died, as a reminder of what jealousy and struggle brings. I may have received more love from your father than did my sister, but in doing all I could to hold on to that love, I separated myself from her, and ultimately from everything and everyone.

"Yet, I know that Leah and I never truly hated one another, nor do you hate your brothers. We just were too narrow-minded and selfish to see that we were actually part of each other. Perhaps we understood this at the beginning. But as the competition for love and children continued we could each only see our individual suffering and pain. We were blind to the suffering of the other and everyone around us, just as your father had been blind to the suffering of his brother when he stole the blessing and the birthright.

“Do not be blind Joseph! See … not with your eyes, but with your soul. Listen … not with your ears, but with your heart. See the suffering of your brother; for it is your suffering, it is the suffering of all humanity. Hear his sobs, for they are your sobs. They are the sobs of all who desire simply to live in freedom and happiness and are prevented from doing so. Hear him and see him now, for he is the same as you, all those years ago. He is the same as those yet to be born who will also suffer so long as there is hatred in the world. Look … Listen … Feel … my beloved, and you will understand what I mean."

Slowly Joseph walked again to the edge of the pit and looked down at his younger brother. He had been but a mere child when Joseph was sold into slavery. He looked down and saw the eyes that were his and his mothers. As he continued to look, he began to feel the hatred well up within him once again. Then he remembered his mother's plea. He breathed in deeply and looked again, this time with his soul. He saw the pain and the fear in his brother. The longer he stood there, the more he felt the same pain and fear within himself. He wanted to run from it, but he did not. He knew he needed to stay there, still, quiet, and allow himself to feel these emotions, no matter how difficult it might be. Then he began to truly listen, for the first time, to the sounds coming from the well. They were not sounds of hatred, envy or jealousy. They were the sounds of pain and fear. They were the cries of someone who did not know if he would ever see sunlight again. They were the sounds of someone who believed that he would never again know happiness. They were the sounds that Joseph had made all those years ago, as he lay in the pit alone, prepared to die.

As he truly looked and listened, he could feel the pain, fear and longing deep within him. As he continued to pay attention to those feelings, he then sensed them slowly turning into compassion and mercy toward his brother, towards himself, toward his brothers and towards all in the world who are suffering. As the compassion and mercy grew, the pain, fear – and anger – diminished. It did not disappear totally, but it did disappear enough for him to begin to realize that his mother was right. The only way to break the cycle of anger, fear, jealousy and hatred that had plagued his family was to release Benjamin – and himself – from the pit. The only way to do his small part in bringing compassion and peace to humanity and the world was to show compassion towards Benjamin. But this was not enough. For he knew that he needed to show compassion and mercy not just to Benjamin, but also to all of his brothers.

The past was past. This was a new day, a new moment. Joseph had the opportunity to change the present. Hopefully, the future would follow suit. But that would remain to be seen.

At that moment, Joseph realized that he was still in his throne room, surrounded by his brothers. He saw the youngest, Benjamin, not deep in a pit, but in the clutches of his men, prepared to be taken into slavery. He saw Judah, now with a look of bravery and compassion on his face, prepared to take Benjamin's place so that their father would not again experience a loss like he had when they sold Joseph into slavery. The faces were the same as all those years ago, yet they were completely different. As he looked at them, he felt love and compassion begin to well up inside him. He then had no doubt what he must do.

And so he ordered his guards to release Benjamin and then commanded them to leave him alone with the Canaanite men. He knew that he was about to reveal his true self to his brothers and that they were about to begin the process of which his mother had dreamed. His reunion with them, with himself, and ultimately with his father, was about to begin.

He had no idea how things would turn out. All he knew in that moment was what he must do in order to bring some peace and healing to his family and himself, thereby bringing a little more peace and wholeness to all of God's creation then, and hopefully in the future.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Dreamer's Other Dream (A Midrash for Parshat Miketz)

[This is a corrected version of the midrash I sent out two days ago. I have fixed some formatting issues and changed one of the details that I realized conflicted with the actual bibilical account of Joseph.]


This week’s parashah is Miketz (Genesis/Bereshit 41:1-44:17). The saga of
Joseph and his brothers continues in this parashah. We read in the narrative of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, being made vizier of Egypt and then of his brothers coming to seek food during the famine.


Below is a midrash that I wrote focusing on an imagined dream Joseph had and what it might have taught him about the nature of identity and the need to mindful of who we are at any given moment. Some of you may have read this before, but this is a newly edited version. Comments and questions are always welcome!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Last Day of Hanukkah,

Steven


The Dreamer's Other Dream


It had been more than almost a quarter of a century since Joseph was exiled from his homeland and sold into slavery by his own brothers. Since then, he had known the pleasure (if you could call it that) of serving the wealthy as well as the pain of imprisonment and near death. Now, he was living in a world he had forgotten existed – the world of freedom. Not only freedom, but also control.


Once again, Joseph was in charge, just as in the old days when he was his father's favorite and could do no wrong. In those days he really thought that he was in control of his brothers and everyone around him. He certainly knew that he had his father wrapped around his little finger. However, those illusions died the moment he was thrown into the pit by his brothers and came to realize how little control he had over anything or anyone - including himself!


Now he was lying on silken sheets on a luxurious bed remembering the past and enjoying the present immensely. Earlier that day he had been dressed in garments that made the multi-colored cloak his father had given him seem like peasant's rags. More than that, Pharaoh himself had placed a signet ring on his hand making him part of Pharaoh’s household. He had clearly made it to the top simply by interpreting a couple dreams and suggesting a plan for the future based on them. Yet, in spite of the day and the comfort of his bedchamber, he could not sleep. He tossed and turned for hours, unable to get comfortable. Then finally he drifted off into sleep where he had a dream of his own. This was the first dream that he could remember having since the fateful ones he had in Canaan that predicted that his brothers would some day bow down to him.


In the beginning of the dream Joseph was seated on a throne overseeing the distribution of food to the hungry that had come to him seeking sustenance. He felt as if he were seated on the divine throne itself, but he knew that this was not so. He was too much of flesh and blood, as were the others who sought him out. Moreover, the throne was of this world, not in some otherworldly realm.


Suddenly he heard a voice calling out "Zaphenat Paneah." No one answered. Again, the voice called out "Zaphenat Paneah." Again, no response. This began to irritate Joseph who finally called out impatiently "Zaphenat Paneah must respond immediately or there will be consequences!" All movement ceased, as everyone looked up at Joseph with a puzzled look and stunned. "Why are you looking at me so strangely? Why have you all stopped moving?" he asked. Again, there was a long, unbroken silence. Then a small voice spoke. "My lord, you are Zaphenat Paneah. Certainly you must know this." It was as if something struck Joseph in the chest at that very moment. He lost his breath. He could not speak. Then, with a great deal of struggle, he spoke, "Me? I am not Zaphenat Paneah! Who dares to speak so impertinently to me?" A young boy stepped forward, "I do," he said timidly, but with a degree of certainty. "And who are you?" Joseph asked. The boy looked as stunned as Joseph had just a minute ago. Then he began to cry uncontrollably.


Joseph was had no idea what was happening. "Stop crying boy and answer my question. Who are you? Why do you say that I am Zaphenat Paneah?" With that, the boy became silent, stepped up to Joseph, removed a ring from his small finger and put it in Joseph's palm. "This is who I am." Joseph looked down at the ring. It was clearly the signet ring of a great man and his house. Around the border of the ring it read, "The seal of the house of Zaphenat Paneah, vizier of Egypt, right arm of Pharaoh. " You are Zaphenat Paneah?" Joseph asked. "No," cried the little boy with a mixture of fear and frustration, "you are, my father." Joseph felt both rage and confusion, "Me! Do you not think that I know my own name? I am Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel. I am not Zaphenat Paneah and I am certainly not your father!" The young boy then looked up into Joseph's eyes. His eyes looked so familiar to Joseph, and yet he did not know why. The boy then stated with firmness, "you are Zaphenat Paneah, and I am your son, Manasseh."


Manasseh. The name touched something seep within Joseph. Manasseh was a Hebrew name meaning "the one who made me forget." His head began to spin. He tried to speak. He tried to move. He could do neither. Joseph then looked down at the boy’s small brown eyes. Seeing them for the first time he realized that they were Jacob's eyes. He knew then that the boy was telling the truth. Yet, how could this be? How could he have a son and not remember him? And why was he calling him this strange name?


Joseph then spoke, "Come here my son, and tell me our story? I have forgotten it." The boy looked confused, but did as he was asked. Manasseh then told Joseph the story that had told him since he was an infant. He told him of how Zaphenat Paneah had been born into a special family in Egypt in which all the men had served as confidante to Pharaoh. He told his father that it was he who had foreseen the 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine, then creating a plan to save the nation from starvation. He then told his father how he had married Osnat, daughter of a high priest and how this marriage had been arranged in order to unite their two powerful families. He also told him of his other brother Ephraim, who was off somewhere playing with his friends, no doubt.


The man seated on the throne no longer knew who he was or what to believe. Was he Joseph or Zaphenat Paneah? Was he the son of nomadic Hebrews or the son of a privileged Egyptian family? Did he have a wife and two sons or was he a young, single man who had barely escaped death and imprisonment? He no longer knew who or what he was.


Then suddenly he heard a familiar voice calling out to him. "Joseph!” "Hineni – Here I am,” he replied, “though I don’t know if I really am here." "Yes, you are here," the voice responded. "But," Joseph asked, "how do you know that I am Joseph, when I cannot even be certain of my identity?" The voice replied, "you have responded with the word Hineni. This is the same word used by your grandfather and father when I called to them. It is the word you used when your father last called upon you. And it is the same word that some day will be used by the man who will lead my people out of Egypt when I first call upon him to serve me.” " But who am I?" he shouted back to the unseen voice, "and who are you?"


"I am the God of your mothers and fathers. I am your protector. But, you are the only one who possesses the answer to your other question. I can only ask the same question you are asking yourself, who are you?"


At that moment, Joseph awoke. His head was still reeling from confusion. However, with his eyes open and his mind beginning to clear he remembered that earlier in the day he had indeed been appointed second to Pharaoh and had been given the Egyptian name Zaphenat Paneah, meaning "God speaks, he lives." And so it was that God had spoken to him in his dream. God had also spoken to him through Pharaoh when Pharaoh delivered him from jail and then bestowed upon him this new name. It was indeed because of God that he was alive. It was because God had been present for him that he could now proclaim "Hineni."


Then he remembered the names of the children in his dream. The young one with Jacob's eyes with the name Manasseh, he who has made me forget, and the other, Ephraim, "he has made me fertile." Manasseh and Ephraim - he knew that these names were themselves prophecies of warning and of promise. Manasseh's name - and his eyes - were meant to remind him that, no matter how much he might want to forget the travails of his life, he could not. They were always to be a part of him. He had arrived at this point in his life not because he had been born to Egyptian aristocracy, which would have made his life's story much simpler. Rather, he had arrived where he was because the hand of God had guided him and because he was able to follow the path he had been shown. As long as he remembered that he was Joseph, though everyone might call him Zaphenat Paneah, then God would see to it that he would be fertile. God would then guarantee that he would not only have a family, but that he would continue to grow and increase in wisdom, knowledge, kindness and holiness, as he was meant to do.

As his father had always been both Israel, the one who struggled with God, as well as Jacob, the heal-grabber, so now he would always be Joseph, the one who added joy to his father's life and Zaphenat Paneah, the one to whom God speaks and whom God protects. He would be both of Canaan and of Egypt.


Though he never did become totally accustomed to his Egyptian name, he did follow the path shown to him in his dream that night. Joseph lived many years in the land of Egypt and was as fertile as the land itself during the seven years of plenty. He did marry Osnat, the daughter of a high priest. And Osnat gave birth to two beautiful boys that were then named Manasseh and Ephraim. Then, at the end of the seven-year period of plenty, the land dried up, as God had promised, and famine struck the entire region. With God's guidance Joseph had seen to it that there was enough food to prevent starvation for the people of Egypt and for them to provide food for those who sought help from elsewhere.



In Canaan, Jacob, and his children heard of the plenty in Egypt, collected during the fertile years by the man known as Zaphenat Paneah. And Israel sent all of his sons down to Egypt for food, except for Benjamin, the only remaining son of Rachel who remained after Joseph’s disappearance.


When the brothers finally arrived in Egypt, they did now know whom they were about to meet. When Zaphenat Paneah saw them enter the great hall where he dispensed food - and justice - he realized that he was not sure who was about to meet them either. Nor was he certain what he would do.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Commentary on Parshat Va'yeishev

When I sent out my midrash on Judith and Tamar for Hanukkah yesterday I wrote in the subject heading "A Little Extra for Hanukkah." I wrote that because I thought I had already sent out my d'var Torah commentary for this week. I just realized that this was not the case.
So here it is. Better late than never!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameakh (Happy Festival of Lights),

Steven

-----------------------

This week's parashah is Va'yeishev (Genesis/Bereshit 37:1 – 39:23)and it is the beginning of the story of Joseph. Though Joseph is not technically one of the patriarchs (that designation is limited to Abraham,Isaac and Jacob) his story is significantly longer and more detailed than the narratives describing the lives of his predecessors. Joseph's story also serves as a transition from the Patriarchal/Matriarchal period to the nation-building period that begins with the slavery and redemption narrative in the book of Shemot/Exodus. But the Joseph narrative is also compelling in its own right, for the Torah's authors give us glimpses into the character of Joseph that they do not provide for the previous generations.


In the beginning of the parashah we read of Jacob's favoritism towards Joseph and how his brothers hated Joseph because of this. Joseph and Jacob are both aware of this, and yet Joseph does not hesitate to tell his brothers of him dreams, which imply that they will some day bow down to him.

Then, in Chapter 37, verse 13, Jacob asks Joseph to go out to the fields where his brothers are pasturing the sheep in order to check on them. This is a strange request, since Jacob knew of the brothers' hatred of Joseph. However, it is Joseph's response to his father that fascinates me. After Jacob says "Come, I will send you to them" Joseph simply responds "Hineni." This literally means, "Here I am," though it is also understood as "I am ready." What fascinates me is that, with only one other exception, the word Hineni is used in the Torah only as a response to a Divine call. Two primary examples are Abraham's response when God calls him and then commands him to take Isaac as a sacrifice and when God calls to Moses from the Burning Bush.

A common technique of rabbinic exegesis, or exploration of text, is to use a word, especially a unique one, to connect various passages from the Bible with one another. Joseph's use of Hineni cries out for this.

Both Abraham and Moses responded to God "Hineni" when they were about to be asked to embark on a difficult, life-changing and somewhat dangerous journey. And though Moses may have seemed slightly more reluctant to go on his journey, both men ultimately begin their journeys into the unknown with faith in God and in the holy nature of their task - as well as the knowledge of the risk involved.


I believe the same is true of Joseph. Though the response "Hineni" is to his father, I believe he is also aware on some level that he is responding to God. The entire Joseph narrative may at first seem to be totally "secular" in nature. God does not speak or intervene as in the earlier narratives of the patriarchs and matriarchs or the later Moses narratives. And yet, when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers in Egypt, at the climax of the narrative he tells them that
his journey was part of God's plan and that it was God who sent him to Egypt in the first place.

Joseph has the ability to interpret dreams, which implies that God has given him a degree of prophetic vision. So it is within the realm of possibility that he had the prophetic vision to know what was about to happen to him. He may well have been aware that he was about to embark on a journey that was part of God's plan. If so, we don't know if he was at all reticent to embark
on this journey. There certainly must have been some fear or reticence as he set out to meet the brother who hated him out in the fields without anyone there to protect him. However, even if there was reticence or fear on his part, as I believe there is for anyone embarking on such a journey, he was still prepared to respond "Hineni."

I believe that each of us has a bit of this Joseph in us. For each of us is a dreamer and each of us must also be prepared to journey into the unknown. For every moment yet to come is always unknown. I also would like to believe that each of us, like Joseph, as well as Abraham and Moses, could see ourselves as part of "God's plan," however one chooses to define that.

In order to see ourselves in this light we each must be able to state "Hineni" when we are called. More often than not, the call is not in the form of a voice from heaven, or even a parent or authority figure. Rather,in each moment, we have the ability to hear a call from within – the call of God – telling us that it is time to take the next step on our journey. Unfortunately, the noise in our lives – both internal and external – often prevents us from hearing that call.

Yet, if we can truly be present in the moment and aware of what is within us then it is possible to hear that voice. Yet, that is only the first step. For after hearing the call we then must decide if we
are going to ignore it or respond to it.

To respond to the voice means to truly hear what it is saying. By paying attention to the voice that arises within and then truly listening we can then answer the call. However, we must also notice if we are responding or reacting. For by reacting we do not answer the call based on listening it, but instead we act based on assumptions, habits and compulsions that we have built
up within us.

To react is to answer from a place of being not in the present, but rather being caught up in our past or in worrying about our future. What Joseph, Moses and Abraham were all able to do was respond both to the present and from the present, regardless of what might have happened in the past or what fears they might have about the future. That is the essence of "Hineni".

May we each have the courage to be in the moment and say "Hineni" when we hear the call from within, no matter how afraid we might be to take the next step. May we each remember that we are part of something greater than ourselves. And may the sense of connection with our source, help us to follow in the footsteps of Joseph and so many others to continue our journey, step by step, to bring healing, wholeness and compassion to our world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Little Extra for Hanukkah...a Midrash on Judith and Tamar

This week's parashah is Va'yeishev (Bereshit/Genesis 37:1 – 40:23). This is the beginning of the Joseph story and includes Joseph's dreams of his brothers serving him, his father giving him the multi-colored coat and his brothers' decision to kill him and then selling him into slavery instead. Then the story of Judah and Tamar is seemingly interjected in Joseph's story.

In this story (which will be explained further in the midrash below) Tamar tricks her former father in-law Judah into sleeping with her in order to have the child that she believes is her right after the death of her first two husbands (Judah's eldest two sons). Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant and accuses her of 'harlotry,' but when he finds out that he is the father he admits his wrong and states that she is in the right. The Joseph story then continues.

I would like to juxtapose this with the fact that tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. And in addition to Judah Maccabee there also exists a lesser-known hero connected with Hanukkah. Her name is Judith. Her story is found in the Book of Judith, part of the Apocrypha (the books written in ancient times that were not included in the Tanakh/Hebrew Bible). Thanks to Judith's bravery the troops of the Syrian-Greek general Holofernes fled from her town and the people were saved.

Of course, the stories of Judith and Tamar are imagined to have taken place hundreds of years apart, but that doesn't mean that they couldn't have somehow spoken to each other. After all, in a world where a day's worth of oil can burn for eight days anything is possible! Happy Hanukkah!

Judith and Tamar

The war between the Maccabees and the Syrian Greeks was raging. Though the Jewish freedom fighters were outnumbered their cleverness enabled them to outwit the mighty Greeks on many occasions. But in the Jewish town of Bethulia it seemed as if victory would be in the hands of the Greeks before long.

On a dark winter night when the Greeks laying siege to the town had finally decided to rest for a while a young woman walked through the streets of the deserted town. Looking around her she saw the desolate streets and knew that her fellow citizens were inside either cowering with fright or making plans to escape under cover of darkness, sure that the Greeks would attack the town once again at sunrise and finally bring it to submission.

Judith's heart was heavy as she entered her home and lit the candle on the small table in the middle of the room. She then sat down in a chair and began to replay in her mind all that had happened in her short life. She had always lived in Bethulia. She had always been happy – until the Greeks arrived. It seems that ever since that day her life has been filled with fear and uncertainty. Tonight was no exception. And yet it was. For there was a feeling beginning to arise within her that was at war with her sense of melancholy and hopelessness. She couldn't name this feeling, but she knew that it was there and that it was calling to her to do something. But she didn't have the energy to figure out what it was telling her to do and so she closed her eyes and tried to get some rest on what was most probably to be her last night in the Jewish town of Bethulia.

Suddenly Judith felt a presence in the room with her. She opened her eyes and in the dim light of the candle she saw another woman sitting in the chair facing her. "I'm sorry if I frightened you Judith," said the strange woman. "Who are you?" asked a startled and somewhat frightened Judith. "I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself first. My name is Tamar and I have been sent to help you." "Help me?" "Yes," replied Tamar, "help you understand that feeling is rising up inside of you."

Judith could not speak. How did this woman Tamar know what she was thinking and feeling? Why was she there to help her? Who sent her?

"Those are all excellent questions," said Tamar, clearly able to read Judith's thoughts, "and I will answer them. All you must do is sit there and listen. I have no doubt that once I tell you my story you will understand why I am here, what you are meant to do and who sent me." And so Tamar began to tell a story that sounded strangely familiar to Judith.

"You see," began Tamar, "at a young age I married into a very prominent family. As the bride of the eldest son my role was clear. I was to be the mother of the next heir. But soon enough all these plans and expectations were in ruins, as is usually the way with plans and expectations, for my husband died before I was able to become pregnant. As was the law in those days, I then married his younger brother – the middle son. But he was stubborn and resentful of the fact that he was forced to marry me and that any child we would have would be the heir to his dead brother's name and not to his. The rivalry that had fueled their relationship when his brother was alive thwarted our relationship. He would sooner disobey the law rather than see me bearing his brother's child. In very little time I was a widow yet again.

"After the death of the second brother I soon realized that my destiny had changed. I was not meant to be the matriarch of this family. For some reason I was destined to die childless and alone. Then one night in a dream it became clear that this was not my destiny either. I became aware that night that I was indeed meant to be a matriarch, not merely of this small family, but of an entire nation. Somehow I believed that God was sending me the message that the salvation of the people was dependent upon me and my not-yet-conceived child."

Judith continued to stare into Tamar's eyes as she listened to the story. She knew by then who Tamar was and she could not believe that she was sitting across from her. Why had Tamar come to her? Before she had the chance to ask this question Tamar began to speak again.

"In due time you will understand everything, my daughter," she said with a smile. Then she continued. "My father-in-law, by now you may have guessed that his name was Judah, decided not to give me his youngest son in marriage right away. After all, losing two sons in such a short time was difficult enough, and it was clear that he blamed me for their deaths. But as the years passed and I grew older I still did not marry the youngest. Then I realized that I needed to take action myselfe in order to insure that I would become pregnant and give birth to the child whose existence would somehow insure the survival and salvation of our people. But Shelah, the youngest son, was kept in seclusion far away. I did not know what to do.

"Then it came to me as clearly as if it were the most natural thought in the world. I realized that it was not Shelah or his brothers that were meant to help me bring my destiny to fruition, but their father. It was Judah whose seed must be joined with mine in order to bring salvation. And so I set about to ensnare him, knowing that he would never submit willingly out of fear for his own life."

"I believe you know the details of the story?" Judith nodded slightly Tamar then continued. "You see, I believe that Judah was unable to act because of the guilt he still felt over what he and his brothers had done to Joseph. Deep down he believed that his sons' death was punishment for selling Joseph into slavery. Rather than acknowledge this it was much easier and more acceptable to put the blame on the woman. But his inner termoil and his melancholy eventually led him to seek out the comfort of a woman – any woman. Of course, as you know, that is where I entered the picture and how I conceived.

"Once he learned that I was pregnant he was incensed. He ordered that I be brought to him and executed for my crime. I suppose that he may also have thought that by destroying me perhaps he could also destroy his guilt over his sons' deaths and Joseph's plight.

"Of course, I always was a clever person, and I knew that having taken his staff, seal and cord as a pledge in exchange for sex would come in handy. After all, they represented Judah to the world. So when the messenger brought them to him from me in secret he realized what has happened. For now he knew that it was he who had 'played the harlot' – not that he would have phrased it that way. He was the one willing to sell himself, or at least his identity, for a quick encounter with an unknown woman along the roadside. So he then proclaimed to all who would listen that I was the righteous one and it was he who had wronged me.

"He then knew what I had already known, that he and I were destined to be the parents of this special child. It was all part of the plan. His proclamation insured my life and also released him from his guilt. For though he could not change what he had done to Joseph or bring back his sons, this experience had enable him to grow and to become a man who could admit his wrongs, make amends and seek forgiveness.

"If it had not been for my decisive action, performed with a little deceit, my children would never have been born and the lineage of King David and the Messiah would not have begun. Judah realized that, as I know you do now." Tamar paused for a few moment, " So do you understand why I have come to you on this dark night?"

At first Judith was unsure. But as she sat in silence, paying attention to the feeling that had been rising within and trying to listen to what it was trying to tell her, she suddenly understood. "You are here to tell me that I too must take decisive action, performed with a little deceit, to help insure the salvation of my town and my people." "Yes," said Tamar, "I knew you would understand." "But what action am I to take Tamar? Please tell me!" "Ah, I cannot tell you that any more than any human being could have told me what to do in my situation. Just listen to the voice within and you will know."

At that moment Judith awoke with a start. She looked around her. The candle had long since burned down and there was no one else in the room. Was it a dream? Perhaps. But even if it were, it was clearly a dream that was sending her a message. As she listened to the voice within her, but she also heard voices from outside. She paid careful attention to these whispering voices, which she realized belonged to Greek soldiers, . "Holofernes says we are to attack the town at dawn unless they seem well fortified – which they certainly do not." "Yes," replied the other, "let us only hope that Holofernes is in good enough shape to lead us into battle in the morning." "Don't worry," replied the first soldier, "I have been told that there is a guard outside of his tent to prevent any of the local harlots or any strong drink from entering his tent for tonight, at least. So he should sleep soundly and be prepared to lead us in the morning." It was then Judith knew what she must do.

Judith went outside and started towards the Greek camp. Almost immediately she was captured by the two soldiers whom she had just heard conversing. "Please," she begged, "I have information that I have overheard and which I must share with your commander. I do not wish to die along with the other people of my village. Helping you would be easier and save my life." "You can tell us what information you have," replied one of the soldiers. "You will pardon my forwardness," she said, "but I must tell your commander directly. My life is at stake and I want to be certain that he receives the message correctly." The two men looked at each other. This plain peasant woman seemed harmless enough. Surely she could not do or say anything that could spoil their victory. And so the men took Judith to Holofernes and she was left alone with him in his tent to tell him her secrets.

After giving him false information that he believed would ensure his victory she then asked him to celebrate with cheese and wine, which she had hidden inside her cloak. Once Holofernes had eaten and drunk enough to lull him to sleep she then followed in the footsteps of Tamar and took matters into her own hands.

When the soldiers found Holofernes' headless body in the tent that morning they feared for their own lives. And so they fled and Bethulia was saved. Years later, upon hearing of this miraculous event, Judah Maccabee, who had begun to fear that he and his followers might indeed be defeated by the Greeks, had his strength and confidence renewed. And so the battle he was fighting continued toward eventual victory. Rejoicing in their victory the people prayed for the coming of the Messiah, descendant of David, descendant of the house of Judah and Tamar to bring the ultimate salvation for them and the world. And perhaps the actions of Judith brought this vision a little closer to fruition – at least for the moment.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wrestling with Redemption - a midrash on Parshat Vayishlakh

This week's parashah is Vayishlakh (Bereshit/Genesis 32:4-36:4) in which Jacob prepares to be reunited with his brother Esau. As Jacob waits for the reunion and ponders whether his brother still wishes to kill him, he encounters a stranger in the darkness besides the river Jabok. They wrestle all night long, with neither of them the clear victor. As the sun begins to rise, the stranger realizes that he is unable to prevail over Jacob, he then wrenches Jacob's hip from its socket and tells him that he must leave for the sun is rising. Jacob demands a blessing from the stranger. The stranger asks Jacob his name. After Jacob responds, the stranger tells him that he will no longer be called Jacob, but he will instead be known as Israel, for he has struggled with beings divine and human (Yisrael, meaning "one who has struggled with God"). Then Jacob asks the stranger his name, to which he replies, "why do you ask my name?" The stranger then disappears and Jacob walks away, limping, to meet his brother Esau.

In the midrash that I wrote for last week's Torah portion, I imagined that Esau had also run into a stranger at dusk as he was chasing after his brother Jacob after Jacob had stolen Esau's blessing from their father Isaac. This stranger convinced Esau "not to do as he had done", and act out murderous revenge against his brother. Noticing the mark on his forehead, Esau realized that the stranger was Cain, son of Adam and Eve, who murdered his brother Abel. This midrash continues, as does the Torah, 20 years later as Jacob prepares to meet Esau.


Wrestling with Redemption

Another sleepless night. How many nights had it been? Jacob could not remember. All he knew was that each night he would awaken from the same dream. A dream in which he faced his brother alone for the first time since he had stolen his blessing from their father through deceit, thus guaranteeing his place as the patriarch of a great nation yet-to-be.

In the years since then he had married two sisters, fathered eleven children with them and their two servant-women and amassed a fortune beyond his wildest imagination. So why had this dream begun to haunt him now? The man who had been named Jacob because he grabbed his twin brother's heel (akev) when they were being born, no longer needed to fight or deceive to emerge on top. He was on top already! So why this sudden fear? Why these dreams? What could they mean? He searched and searched for a meaning but could find none. Then yesterday he was informed that a caravan consisting of hundreds of people and animals was traveling towards them; at its head was a man with hair as red as the blazing sun. Then Jacob knew why these dreams had begun to haunt him. Esau had found him. The day that he had feared was finally here.

What was he to do? He knew in his heart that he did not have the strength or the will to run away again. And so he sent messengers with gifts to his brother. Then devised a plan in which his camp would be divided into two separate camps, so if Esau attacked at least some might survive. He then prepared to meet Esau.

As the sun began to set at the end of the day, he prayed to God for strength and protection, while in his heart wondering if he was worthy after all that he had done to harm his brother. In the evening he told his wives and children that he was going to take them somewhere safe – though he was unsure if they would truly be safe if Esau were still in a murderous rage after all these years. As he was guiding them in the dusk he came upon a stream. He thought he had remembered every inch of the path that he had taken when he fled home all those years ago, and yet he did not remember this stream. Nevertheless, he paid little mind to this stream for his goal was to deliver his family to safety.

After crossing the stream and taking them to a place that he hoped would be safe he then returned to where they had camped the previous night. There he sat down alone on a rock and began to remember all that he had done to his brother. Surely his brother must still be angry with him. Who wouldn't be? He had taken everything from him through deceit. On top of that he and his mother had duped his aging and blind father into believing that the blessing was being given to Esau, his favorite son and rightful heir, as the elder of the two twins.

As Jacob played the story repeatedly in his mind, he could feel the fear welling inside of him. But the more he paid attention to the fear, the more he realized that he would have to face his brother in order to go on with his life and become the father of a great nation as promised.

As he sat there with his pain and fear, he heard a noise coming from behind him. He could see nothing as it was the time of the new moon and the night was pitch black. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see a figure of a man in front of him standing on the bank of the stream. The man stood there still and silent. Could it be Esau? No, he was too tall, too thin. Somehow, even without being able to see him, he also knew that this man was far too old to be his brother.

Before Jacob had a chance to ask the man's name he suddenly ran forward and lunged at Jacob's foot. Before he could respond the man grabbed Jacob's heel and pulled his leg out from under him so that he fell to the ground. Thus began a wrestling match that seemed to last the entire night. And though the stranger had appeared at first to be old, perhaps ancient, he had strength at least equal to that of Jacob. All through the night they struggled with each other, neither of them gaining or losing ground for very long. Jacob was amazed that he had the strength to endure this struggle. After all, fighting and other physical activity had always been his brother's forte, not his. He had always been happier studying or reading. Yet somehow he was able to endure this night because he sensed that if he conceded he would lose not only the fight, but also his life and everything that had been promised to him by God. Therefore, he struggled with this strange and silent man until he could see the tiniest bit of light appearing in the distant East. Though the stranger's back was towards the sliver of sunrise he stopped at the same moment Jacob had noticed the faint light.

At that moment the stranger slightly loosened his grip on Jacob. Jacob took advantage of this opportunity to break free of the stranger and begin to rise to his feet. Suddenly he was knocked over by what seemed a superhuman force. He fell to the ground and was once again locked in struggle. Then the stranger grabbed Jacob's thigh and pulled with what all his strength. Jacob could feel an unbearable pain shooting through his body, as his hip was wrenched from its socket. He let out a scream that he felt for sure would be heard by his family in their secret hiding place. He hoped and prayed that they would stay where they were and not come running to his rescue.

As the echo of the scream died and Jacob simply lay there in pain, barely able to maintain his hold of his opponent. Then the stranger spoke for the first time. "The time has come for me to leave you," he said in an other-worldly voice, "you must let me go." Upon hearing these words Jacob regained his composure and his strength. He tightened his arms around the stranger and pulled him back to the ground. He was not going to allow him to leave until he found out what this was all about. "You are going nowhere," Jacob said, "until you tell me who you are, where you came from and why you attacked me." "I am sorry," said the stranger, "I have no answers to those questions – at least not answers that would satisfy you – and I must leave before the sun rises." Upon hearing that Jacob held on even tighter.

"I will not let you go until you give me something," he said. The stranger laughed, "Give you something? Don't you think you have enough? You have four wives, eleven children, and an entourage equal to that of any king. In addition, you have everything else that God has given you. You have all of this, even though your father had told you all those years that it was to be your brother's."

Hearing this response Jacob wondered how the stranger knew all this? It became clear to him that he could not be human. "Are you an angel or a demon," he asked. "I am neither," the man replied. "I simply am. That is all I can tell you. Now please let me go!" "No!" said Jacob, "you must be a demon of some kind." "If I were a demon," he responded, " I would have…," the stranger stopped before completing his sentence. He knew he had said too much. "So, you are an angel then! If that's the case then I won't let you go until you bless me." " Don't you think you have stolen enough blessings for one life time," the stranger laughed, "what have you done to deserve another?"

Jacob had no answer. He knew the stranger was right. All that was his came from the fact that he had stolen what was meant to be his brother's. It had all been too easy. His mother had been so cunning and smart. His brother and father were both too easy to trick. Jacob, himself, had been too pliable, too easily swayed, and too unsure of himself to give any thought to what he was doing.

Then suddenly he thought to himself, "I am not the same person that I was all those years ago. For at this moment I am a man who is prepared to face his brother. I am a man able to sustain an all-night struggle with a divine being and hold his own. I am a man – truly a man – for the first time in my life." Realizing this, he spoke in a voice strong and clear that did not even sound like his, "I ask for a blessing from you now for I have finally earned the right to receive a blessing. I have struggled with you and with me and I have survived. I am ready to meet my brother – no matter what happens. I am ready to ask for forgiveness, but also to accept what might happen if he is unable to forgive. Please bless me, for this may be the last sunrise that I will see."

After a long silence the man asked Jacob, "What is your name?" "You know the answer to that," Jacob replied, "you even called me by my name earlier." "What is your name," he said again, this time more emphatically. "My name is Jacob." "Is that what you told your father the last time you saw him?" "No," said Jacob with pain in his heart, "the last time I saw my father I lied and told him that I was Esau, my brother." "And who are you now?" Jacob was about to repeat his previous answer when he stopped. He could not answer. He could not speak at all. "Quickly," said the stranger, "I need your answer now. The sun will soon be up." Jacob remained silent and then he said in a whisper, "I do not know my name. I do not know who I am. I have always been Jacob, the heal-grabber, the usurper, the cheater, the liar and the one who was blessed. But I see now that my blessing quickly became a curse from which I have tried to run my whole life. Please," he implored the stranger, "I need a new blessing for who I am now. Without it I am no one. Without it I cannot go on. Without it I will never be able to fulfill God's promise."

The stranger then spoke again. "On the night when you fled home your brother followed in a murderous rage. That night he encountered me at this very spot and I helped him to see that rage and hatred would only destroy him. He returned to your parents that night and continued with his life. Now he is returning with an entourage as large as yours this very place and he is ready to embrace you in peace. However, he will not embrace Jacob, for in this moment Jacob does not exist. You have struggled this night not only with me, but also with what it means to be human and what it means to be created in the image of the Divine. You have struggled with all that brought you to this moment. Because of this you are no longer simply Jacob, the heal-grabber. You are now Israel, the one who has struggled with Divinity – and humanity – and prevailed. My blessing for you is that you live your life each moment mindful of this name. That in every moment you face what is and do what is necessary to take the next step on the journey on which God has sent. This way you will become a blessing to yourself, your family, to God and all those whom you encounter each day."

Jacob, now Israel, was silent for a moment. Then he thanked the stranger, kissed him, and let him go. As the stranger began to walk towards the stream Israel cried out a second time, "but who are you?" With his back to Israel he simply replied, "as I said before, do not ask me that question. Simply know that for this moment I am here. That is enough." Israel did not know how to respond. The man then turned around and looked for a moment at Israel. Just then a ray of sunlight struck the man's face. Israel shielded his eyes. Still, he was able to see the man's face for a split-second. In that brief moment he was unable to tell if the features were those of a human being or an angel. For a moment, he even thought he saw the face of his brother as it had looked all those years ago. He also thought he saw a strange mark on the gaunt man's forehead. But when he uncovered his eyes, now adjusted to the light, the stranger was gone.

Then Israel walked over to the stream, still unsure if it had been there all those years ago. He stepped into the cold, clear waters and lay down. As the waters gently washed over him, he knew that when he arose he would indeed be a new person, as if reborn. He was indeed a man who had struggled with himself and with God. He was a man who also knew that night that he had felt the presence of God within him and seen the face of God in the momentary glimpse of the stranger's face. He also knew that soon on that day he would look once again into his brother's eyes. He was certain that in them he would see their father, their mother and himself. More than that, he knew that he would be seeing the face of the Divine in Esau, just as Esau would see the same in him. Secure in that knowledge he emerged from the water and faced the rising sun, prepared to greet the day and its challenges with renewed strength, with the blessing of God and as a new man.

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