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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Parshat Shemot: From Fear to Knowing

This week we begin reading the book of Shemot/Exodus with Parshat Shemot (Ex. 1:1 - 6:1). In reading the beginning of this familiar story of slavery and redemption, I could not help but be struck by verse 8 “and a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” There are many commentaries about this verse. Some say that he just didn't want to acknowledge all that Joseph had done. Others said that he did not remember about Joseph or that so many year had passed that the new Pharaoh just simply didn't know what Joseph had done for Egypt. His name had become a distant memory.

And yet the fact that he did not know Joseph then led Pharaoh to fear the Israelites. They had grown so numerous, he was concerned that they would eventually rise up against him. And so he made them slaves. They were forced into hard labor and task masters were placed over them. Then, still afraid that they might rise up against him in the future, he decreed that all male babies were to be killed. Of course, as the text tells us, the midwives refused to kill the male children and eventually our hero, Moses, is born.

I couldn't help but be struck by the simplicity of the verse phrase “a new king arose who did not know Joseph...” Some of the translations I found added phrases such as “who did not know Joseph or acknowledge all he had done.” But this is simply a commentary or expansion. The verse simply states that he did not know Joseph and this contributes, or perhaps even causes, his extreme reaction against the Israelites.

In Biblical Hebrew, the word for “know” is yada ידע . This verb also means to know intimately in a sexual way. It can also mean to acknowledge or approve. Either way, it implies more than just a surface knowledge of something or someone. Rather, it implies either an intimate knowledge. It is Pharaoh's inability to have this kind of knowledge that makes him fear the Israelites. As descendants of Joseph and his family, he does not understand or acknowledge them. They are simply a nuisance and a possible political problem. The fact that they are growing as a nation is a threat to him. And yet, if he had truly remembered and known Joseph, he might have realized that their presence could be an asset rather than a potential liability.

So often in our lives we think we know the reality of a situation. We think we understand what is going on in our lives and our world. And yet, so often we are as clueless as Pharaoh. We see what is going on, but we don't take the time to really know what is happening. Once again, it is our ego that prevents us from seeing clearly and causes us to take destructive, often self-destructive, action. Like Pharaoh, we try to enslave or suppress those people and things in our life that we see as dangerous. We try to kill or destroy what makes us afraid. But this fear is based on a lack of knowledge or a lack of connection with the reality and essence of the moment.

Historian George Santayana wrote that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Rabbi Alan Lew wrote that those who cling to tightly to history and don't let go of the story are also doomed to repeat it. We must somehow find a balance in each moment that allows us to acknowledge the past while remembering that we are living in the present. Pharaoh could not find that balance. He simultaneously chose to forget and to remember all too well the past, and this led to his fear that the Israelites might overwhelm him

Pharaoh chose, most likely out of fear, to not even acknowledge the existence of someone who helped his people and country to survive. Or perhaps it was because he did inded remember that Joseph had been so powerful that he feared a potential nation of Josephs! In this way, he remembered too well, but he remembered incorrectly because his memory was clouded by his ego. Either way, it was the ego's fear that led him to his destructive behavior.

There is no way to know for sure what caused Pharaoh to act as he did and to set in motion what ultimately became a great tragedy for him, his family and his nation. But if he had been able to be in the present and to find some sense of balance in terms of his memory of the past, without the ego playing its tricks, perhaps he could have welcomed the flourishing of the Israelites as a phenomenon that would have simply aided the flourishing of Egypt.

But alas, fear, ignorance and ego were his downfall, just as they are for so many of us. As we read this story let us remember that we all have the potential to act as Pharaoh did out of fear and ego. But if we allow our fear (which is a natural part of life) to draw us in rather than close us off, perhaps we will be able to see what is really beneath it all: the natural fear of the uncertainty of life. The ego reacts to this fear of uncertainty by striking out at anything that it might view as a threat. But if simply let go of the egos stories, we can embrace that fear, while also embracing the joy of living. Only then can we truly know and acknowledge the forces that have brought us to where we are and bless the moment with all of its contradictions and complication. If Pharaoh had done that, who knows how the story might have played out?

Shabbat Shalom,


Friday, January 6, 2012

Parshat Va'yehi. Dinah's Story

This week we conclude the reading of the Book of Bereshit/Genesis with Parshat Va’yehi (Genesis 47:28-50:26). The name and first word of the parashah/portion means, “he lived.” This refers to Jacob, who is on his deathbed. He had been brought down to Egypt to live with his beloved son Joseph, whom he thought dead for over 20 years. Now, after 17 years in Egypt he is ready, at the age of 147, for his life to end. He gathers his twelve sons around his bed (daughter Dinah has long since disappeared from the narrative. But that is for another time), as well as Manasseh and Ephraim, Joseph’s sons by his Egyptian wife Osnat. When he blesses his two grandsons, he crosses his hands, thereby giving the preferred blessing of the elder child to the younger. And so, this family tradition that blessed Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau and Judah over his elder brothers continues on to the next generation.

It has always struck me, and many others, how Dinah disappears after she is raped by Shekhem earlier in Genesis, which is followed by her brothers murder of Shekhem and all of the men of his community in order to rescue Dinah.

In the midrash (rabbinic lore) the rabbis create a story whereby Dinah actually becomes pregnant from the rape and gives birth to a daughter called Osnat. In order to protect Osnat from Dinah's brothers, who are still angry over the 'afront to the family honor' (or something along those lines), Jacob places an amulet around her neck and an angel spirits her down to Egypt, where she is adopted by Poti-phera, priest of On. Joseph finds Osnat and, seeing the amulet around her neck, realizes that she is an Israelite. So he marries her. In this way the rabbis solve the "problem" of Joseph's "intermarriage." We won't discuss the implications of him marrying his own niece.

My midrashic story is based on this midrash. In addition, it is meant to provide an etymology for Dinah's name, which can find for all of her brothers at the time of their birth. In Hebrew Din-ah can mean "her justice." What exactly is that justice? You'll need to read further to find discover the answer.

Shabbat Shalom,



A Sister's Justice

My brothers,

It has been years since we have seen one another. I suppose you wondered if I was still alive. Though I know that once we held a great deal of affection for one another I don't suppose we were ever able to get beyond the feelings which were stirred up by my encounter with Shekhem and your reaction.

I was there when you murdered Shekhem and his men in order to avenge what had been done to me. However, I only wish that you had taken my feelings into consideration when doing so. It is true that Shekhem violated me, and yet I never wanted to be the cause of more bloodshed. Enough violence had been perpetrated already and heaping more violence upon that did nothing to help. I wish that you had allowed me to handle the situation myself; to deal with Shekhem in my own way, rather than taking justice into your own hands.

But that is not why I am writing you. Rather, I am writing because word has just reached me of our father's death and I am deeply grieved. It seems impossible that he is no longer on this earth. I only wish I could have been there to see him one last time, and receive his blessing directly, but I am pleased to know that I at least was able to do so through Ephraim and Menasseh. It seems fitting that they received such a special blessing from our father since it was he who is truly responsible for their birth. I assume you know not of what I am speaking, that you are somewhat perplexed, so let me enlighten you.

I am sure you remember how distraught you were when you discovered that I had conceived a child by Shekhem. And when my daughter was born your distress turned to anger. Once again, thoughts of violence filled your minds -- as if you hadn't perpetrated enough violence already. You sought to kill my daughter for she reminded you of her father and what he had done to you and our family honor (I truly don't believe that any of this had much to do with me, when it comes down to it). It is as if her birth meant that your slaughter of Shekhem was for naught. Luckily, father showed compassion towards her. He inscribed the Divine Name on an amulet, placed it around her neck to assure her of God's protection and sent her way. And God did indeed provide. With the assistance of the angel Michael she made her way to Egypt. My little Osnat, who could have been my comfort in my old age, so far away. Yet she was again blessed, for she was adopted by Poti-phera a high priest of Egypt, and his wife, who were childless. They loved her and cared for her until she grew to be a beautiful and bright young woman. I know all this for I followed her to Egypt and watched from afari, afraid to let my identity be known lest you should search for her, or me, and find us together.

When our brother Joseph came to Egypt it was as if my Holy Protector had provided me with another miracle. I knew who Joseph was from the first moment I lay eyes upon him and yet I spoke not. I watched as he fell in love with my daughter and as he struggled with the fact that she was of Egypt and not a worshipper of the One God, creator of Heaven and Earth. When he discovered the amulet which father had made for her he knew then that she was indeed a Hebrew. Out of love for him she renounced her heathen ways and embraced our God - her God. They were married and had two lovely boys.

How I would watch them play, my dear Ephraim and Menasseh. Longing to hold them, to kiss them, to call them my own. And yet I dare not. To this day I am not sure why. Surely I would hope that Joseph would have sympathized with my plight, considering what he had been through. We had both been betrayed by our brothers. And yet I no longer felt like I could be part of the family of Jacob. I could not consider myself to be a part of a family of sons who kill, of sons who sell their brother into slavery, who lie to their father, who treat their sister with disdain. I had to be my own person. I had to distance myself from all the men in my family, even father, whom I loved. I was now simply Dinah bat Leah and I chose to remain silent.

So I lived silent, anonymous, alone for many years, receiving vicarious pleasure as I watched my daughter and her sons from afar. Then you came to Egypt in search of food and all the old memories were stirred up. The hatred began to well up inside me. Hatred of those who killed,supposedly, in my name. Those who forced me into hiding, who drove my only child away, who caused me to remain nameless. Yet, as I heard the stories of how Joseph dealt with you, in spite of all you had done to him... when I heard of Judah's bravery; how he offered himself in Benjamin's stead; when I heard that you had reconciled with Joseph and that he had forgiven you, I realized that perhaps the time had come for me to forgive as well. After much prayer and meditation I made peace with you in my heart and I then left. I left all of you, my daughter, my grandsons, in order to truly start a new life elsewhere, having now let go of my anger, having let go of the past.

Not long after I left I heard tales of the death of the father of the great Joseph. Stories reached me of the address which he gave to you and the blessings he gave my grandsons. Had I been there I do not know that I would have been blessed, for I was never destined to be a leader of our people; my biology saw to that. And yet, though absent for so many years and by so many miles I still received my blessings; I received my place as an ancestor of generations of our people to come, through our father's decision to bless my dear Ephraim and Menasseh.

It is as if all that had happened to me and to all of you has been made right. You had tried to deny me my place in our family history. You sought to destroy my name by destroying my daughter and forcing me to flee. You thought you had achieved your goal. No more was the name of Dinah, the one who brought shame to the family, mentioned. The feelings of love which we had for one another had long been submerged beneath a sea of denial, shame and anger. (Please pardon me if I am beginning to sound harsh again. I know I said that I had made peace with you and your actions. But that does not mean that some underlying anger and resentment - if not hatred - will not always exist somewhere in my heart.)

As I listened to these tales of the blessing of Jacob's grandsons, something struck me. You see, I had always found it strange that in the family lore everyone seemed to know the origins of their names except for me. Each of you knew why you had been given a certain name. I was simply Dinah. No reason, no origin was ever given for my name. But now our father's deathbed blessing has given meaning to my name. For finally I am truly the one who has found Din-ah, her justiceii. Not the bloody justice of her brothers, but the righteous justice which she desires and deserves. In the blessing of my grandchildren justice has finally been done for me by our father and our God. I have found my place in our family. I have found my place amongst our people. I can now say that I am Dinah bat Leah v'Yaakov - the one who found justice in the blessing of her seed, at the hands of her father. The one who sits with her brothers, her parents and her grandparents as a matriarch of Israel from now until eternity. You may have tried to erase me from the family history, but in the end it was your actions which ensured that I will always have a place in it. It may not be as good as getting my place directly and fairly, but I'll take what I can get ... for now. I simply hope that you will accept this as you have accepted my daughter and my grandsons, for I truly believe that this is what our father, and our mothers, would have wanted.

May peace be unto you my brothers and may we some day be together again, united in love, as a family, with all the women and men who have gone before us and all those who will follow us in the future.

Your sister,

Dinah bat (daughter of) Leah and Yaakov/Jacob, mother of Osnat, grandmother of Ephraim and Menasseh, ancestor of generations yet-to-come

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