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I have been puzzling over Parashah Va’yechi for the better part of the week. Each word seems to hold so much power- everything is important here. Not the least of which is the end of the book of Genesis. Like any good novel, there is a cliffhanger. Joseph swears on his Egyptian deathbed that his children or his children’s children will return to the Promised Land. Genesis ends with Joseph’s death and the promise of a sequel.
Exodus begins many generations later, so long after Joseph’s death that the new pharaoh of Egypt has never heard of Joseph and how he saved the Egyptian people from starvation. From Genesis to Exodus, we leap a period of 430 years in which time the tribe of Israel grows from a group of 70 into a large population, so numerous that the new Pharaoh fears their power. 430 years-it’s a long time, and yet this people somehow maintain a connection that eventually led to their willing exodus from Egypt and a return home. The Israelites kept alive Joseph’s promise in Parashah Va’yechi, “God will surely remember you and bring you up from the land.” It could not have been Moses alone who reminded the slaves of their history. After all, he did not find out about his history until he was a young man. Therefore, there must have been something innate within this people, as if kindling had already been gathered, it was just waiting for a spark of light.
The Midrash teaches that the spark of light came in the form of Serach Bat Asher, who carried the institutional memory of the Jewish people. Although many of us have never heard her name, she is among the heroes of the Torah. Serach is mentioned twice in our biblical text. The first time occurs in Genesis 46:17 where she is counted in the list of seventy who went down to Egypt with Jacob, the only daughter listed in a line of sons. It is interesting that she is the only woman mentioned here but even more interesting is that she appears again, in Numbers 26:24 among the list of those that left Egypt. Serach has a life-span of over 430 years. That type of longevity takes more than yogurt and clean living. There is something greater going on here.
The rabbis note that she is the only one on both lists, and a woman, so they create several midrashim explaining her importance.
Midrash one: Serach was a woman of unusual gifts. Her talents were recognized by her uncles, Jacob’s sons. After trapping their brother Joseph, and selling him into slavery, the brothers tell their father that Joseph has been killed. Years later, Joseph reappears in Egypt and the family must tell their father that his favored son is still alive. Worried that the news may kill Jacob, the brother’s ask Serach, Asher’s daughter, to convey the information. She waits until Jacob is enraptured in prayer, not aware of what is occurring around him, and whispers in his ear, “Joseph is in Mitzrayim and has fathered two sons Menashe and Ephraim.” (A little rhyme). Jacob thinks that the information comes from the mouth of God. And so, because of Serach, the children of Israel descend into Egypt with their father’s approval and Jacob blesses his granddaughter saying, “My child may death never rule over you as you have brought my spirit back to life.” This blessing perhaps explains her longevity.
Serach’s father considered her the heir of the family legacy, and saw her as the wise ruler who would continue the chain of tradition. In the Midrash on Exodus 3:16 we learn that Asher entrusted Serach with the secret code that Moses hears at the moment of the burning bush. This code, the Midrash tells us, was passed down from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Serach. Therefore, when Moses comes before the elders of Israel, sharing God’s words and Moses’ mission, Serach knows that he is the rightful leader. She convinces the other elders to follow Moses, and continues to support Moses’ decisions.
Moses depends on Serach’s memory once more: at the crucial moment before crossing the Red Sea. On his deathbed, Joseph made his brother’s swear that they would bury him in the land of Canaan where his ancestors were buried. But as Joseph was a great Egyptian, he was mummified and placed in the ground with great pomp and ceremony and his bones remained in Egypt. The Exodus thus becomes entwined with returning Joseph’s bones to the land. In Exodus 13:19 we read that Moses took the bones of Joseph with him before leaving Egypt. What it doesn’t explain is how Moses knows where to find Joseph. After all, 430 years have passed. Serach enters our story once again. The rabbis explain that Serach advises Moses, telling him that the Egyptians had put Joseph’s body into a metal coffin, which they sank into the Nile. With her great knowledge, Serach prevents the last obstacle that could have forestalled the exodus.
Serach enters the Torah like a phantom, someone we see out of the corner of our eye but never in full view. Like her sisters and mothers, she nearly disappears, yet her presence, while almost invisible, carries great weight in the historic tale. We would not be where we stand today without the knowledge of Serach. And so, this woman enters the biblical account to teach us what we have truly learned this year, to look in corners for the true heroes, and not to overlook anyone because they are quiet or isolated or elderly or young. We are all important and each and every one of us has their name inscribed on the chain of tradition.
With the moments of our lives, through memory, we all create space for another’s Exodus. One generation cannot stand alone- it must stand on the shoulders of those who came before. And although we may not know the names of our great-grandparent’s grandparents they are a part of who we continue to become. May we bless their memory by holding fast the tradition that so many gave their lives for.
In this new year, may we all serve as heros, not for the grand accolades rather for the quiet, unnoticed moments of personal satisfaction.
At the end of the Joseph narrative, Joseph finally reveals his true identity to his brothers. The reunion is tearful and Joseph is able to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery. He then loads them with all sorts of riches from Egypt and tells them to return with their families so they can settle in Egypt and survive the famine under Joseph's supervision.
In the midst of their newfound wealth and security, Joseph gives them a strange piece of instruction. He says, "Do not be quarrelsome along the way." What does Joseph mean? Why would he say that, especially in the midst of a joyous reunion, amidst unexpected wealth and success? There are several answers, but I would like to share with you two: one dealing with the human condition, the second with the Jewish condition.
The first commentary: Rashi suggests that each brother would blame the others for having sold Joseph into slavery. Joseph, understanding how guilt and denial operate, anticipated his brothers' need to blame each other, and he therefore instructs them not to engage in recriminations about the past. In effect, Joseph tells his brothers that they will never agree about the past, but they can still live in harmony despite that disagreement. That advice is no less precious today.
Conflicts within families and between friends are often magnified by our human propensity to remember the past in a way that makes us
Look best. As a result, two loving people end up not only disagreeing about the meaning of what happened, but even about the facts themselves. By focusing on those areas of disagreement, we lose sight of a shared desire to be part of each other's life.
Give people the benefit of the doubt. Forgive what you can forgive. Keep those you love always in your life.
A second possibility, also raised by Rashi, is that Joseph instructs his brothers "not to engage in arguments of Jewish law (divrei halakhah), lest the road become unsteady for you."
We Jews have always argued about our beliefs, and we have always mined out sacred traditions to articulate our visions of how the world is structured, and how we should live our lives.
According to Rashi's second understanding, Joseph's brothers, like Jews throughout time, would spend their time on the road arguing about questions of Jewish law. Caught up in the passions of their discussions, they would lose their way religiously as well as geographically. Our Jewish obsession with ideas contains a potential danger--that we will become so excited by the ideas themselves that we
will lose any sense of a connection to reality. The ideas will justify themselves, regardless of how they work in the world, regardless of whether or not they conform to what we know of reality.
Judaism has always reflected this tension--adherence to timeless standards, but always renewing those standards in the light of developing communal understandings and ongoing social need. We must take care never to stop our passion for ideas, but we must also be on our guard, lest our ideas cease referring back to reality, to questions of how to live a more moral, more holy, more fully human life.
We must adhere to this truth, ever the more so what others’ cannot acknowledge the sanctity of life. One of the ways of fighting terrorism, aside from nations joining with nations and condemning them with physical force, is fully living each and every moment of our days. We will live, and laugh, and struggle and love, walk, eat and drink in the midst of our foes that treasure death. Use Facebook, post pictures of laughter and love with the quote, “Fighting against terrorism by fully living.” We are more than them. We are not afraid of those who live to kill. We will not be afraid. Let us “not be quarrelsome along the way.” All the world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. (Rebbe Nachmun of Bratslov)
Row, Row Row your boat, gently down the stream merily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
We are all very familiar with this nursery rhyme, perhaps our parents sang it to us as we were falling asleep as children, perhaps we sang it to our kids. It has a beautiful soothing melody.. but the words, the words paint a multi- layered picture. On the most basic level, a row boat, caught in the current, lazily makes its way down the stream. Overhead weeping willows cause the sun to create dappled patterns in the murky water. And in the midst of the boat, a person lays, eyes closed, bare feet hanging over the edge. There but not really present.
On a deeper level, the nursery rhyme is a metaphor for life. We share control of the boat with the current- which perhaps represents God, and together we move slowly through the stream of life… a scene out of a time. There is a stilted, false quality about the moment- like when you fast forward a home video and everyone moves in slow motion. There may be times where the boat is tossed by the current, there may be times where the current refuses to move. But here, it languishes in the stream… and life is but a momentary dream.
Our Parashah for this Shabbat miketz begins in a very interesting way: Va’yahi Miketz shenasyim yamim oo’pharoah choleim. As translated by Rabbi Plaut, :After two year’s time, Pharoah dreamed and behold, he was standing by the edge of the Nile. Once again, creating a multi-layed reality. The Peshat meaning of the text, the simple meaning- Pharoah dreamed that he was standing by the edge of the Nile. A deeper interpretation- a drash by the Hasidic master Rabbi Meir of Primishlan:And it will come to pass, at the end of time, when man has attained a ripe old age, and behold he realizes that, he slept away his whole year… and suddenly it becomes evident to him, that his entire life was but a dream. He stands by the edge of the river, not daring to enter or even to cross. Mayir Aynei Yesharim takes the interpretation one step further. Not only is this man’s life a dream but within the dream, the dreamer understands that he has not repaired anything in the world, or done anything to make the world a better place- therefore, his life has been but a dream. And when he dies, there will be no reality to assure that once he actually lived. If he is not remembered, his life means nothing at all. And life is but a dream.
You will not find me at the Springfield, NJ Christmas Tree, Hannukiah or Kinara lighting. Although, I find it a wonderful way for people of different faiths to celebrate their religion, it is against the law.
Public property should not be used for religious events. This is not to say, that I do not believe in these symbols and the beauty of their meanings. I love seeing churches with beautiful crèches on the church steps, and Hannukiah’s (the 7 branched menorah with an extra candle holder for the shamash) glistening in the windows of synagogues and private homes. The African Kinara, seven-branched candleholders in the colors of Africa, should glow in homes and churches as well. Our religious symbols do not belong together at the train station or town center- all of which are public property. There is a time and a place.
As a kid, I was very cognizant of the law and not breaking one. I waited for lights to tell me to cross the street. I have never received a ticket for speeding, maybe one or two for parking. I believe that laws are there for a reason. I even though about becoming a lawyer for a short moment because I wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice.
When I was a child, prayer was taken from school and replaced with the national anthem. Sudbury, Massachusetts was decorated with Christmas themed symbols and Santa rode through the streets on a fire engine. I remember the excitement clearly. One day it was there, the next year the town was decorated with lit snowflakes and candy canes. The only religious symbols were found on private property, religious institutions and in private homes.
The United States was formed on the principle of separation of church and state.
John Dickinson, one of our Founding Fathers, wrote in 1768 before the Revolutionary War that, “ Religion and Government are certainly very different Things, instituted for different Ends; the design of one being to promote our temporal Happiness; the design of the other to procure the Favor of God, and thereby the Salvation of our Souls. While these are kept distinct and apart, the Peace and welfare of Society is preserved, and the Ends of both are answered. By mixing them together, feuds, animosities and persecutions have been raised, which have deluged the World in Blood, and disgraced human Nature.” (John Dickinson, Pennsylvania Journal, May 12, 1768, reprinted in The Founders on Religion, ed. James H. Huston (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 60–61.)
John Dickenson was commenting on one of the major issues of his day, the ability of the Government to appoint Bishops and other church officials. Could you imagine if this was voted into law? The concept of separation of church and state is suggested from the words of the First Amendment although it is not in our constitution.
Layer after layer built upon the Declaration of Independence, does in fact declare that it is illegal to worship in public. There are too many cases to count.
I am a Rabbi who believes in building deep interfaith relationships. Relationships such as this, cannot be formed in one night, they require commitment and education. I plan to work with other churches and mosques in the area to help us understand that we bleed the same blood and have the same hearts, our beliefs and value regarding human behavior are the same. Our difference is in how we worship.
I look forward to coming to your churches to see the beautiful expressions of Christmas and Kwanza. I am excited to visit your Mosques and learn about our deep commonalities. I am excited to light the lights of Hannukah and see the faces’ of those I love reflected in the light. All of these will I do, but not on public property.
So you will not see me in attendance of the Town Celebration of the Winter Holidays. I try to do my best in upholding the law and this law is crucial for me, especially in light of all that is happening in our world.
Thanksgiving is all about family and friends coming together to break bread. During this time of year, we acknowledge all we have and give thanks to God. We also remember those in Springfield, New Jersey and the greater world who are hungry, without homes, whose human rights have been taken We pray that the terrorist cells are stopped so that people can live their lives and focus on the act of Tikkun Olam, repair of the world.