Monthly Archives: November 2013

Mikketz 5774: Taking Control of our own Destiny on Hanukah

Each year we eavesdrop on Joseph as he eavesdrops on his clueless brothers. He has placed a “melitz” or interpreter between them in order to extend the ruse that he is a foreign potentate rather than their brother. And so he learns that Reuben tried to rescue him from the pit. This is presumably why Joseph chooses to take Simeon hostage—the next oldest brother will have to be punished. From the perspective of the brothers, this development is rather stunning. How does the Egyptian vizier know so much about them? Clearly, this must be a divine intervention. In verse 28, they fearfully ask, “What is this that God has done to us?” They think that events are governed by the mysteries of heaven, but they miss the clues that they are playing out a very human drama, and that they have become puppets in the hands of their own brother. 

The word “melitz” recurs in the book of Job, in Elihu’s speech of reprimand to Job and the three older companions. In Job 33:22, Elihu speaks of an angel who is a “melitz yosher,” an advocate of the person’s rectitude. Even in the most desperate of circumstances, one angel who is “melitz yosher” can prevail over many opponents, bring grace and redemption.  In b. Shabbat 32a, Rabbi Eliezer teaches that even if the odds are stacked 999:1 against a person, if s/he has one angelic defender, they will be rescued.

Throughout the centuries, the Jewish strategy for survival often depended on finding one patron, whether at the royal court, or among the gentile clergy, or in the business elite, who could be an advocate and rescue the Jews in their time of need. To this day we speak of important donors as “angels” who provide the support necessary for Jewish organizations to do their important work. Beyond financial support, the encouragement of well-connected leaders validates the activities of the Jewish community, which can often feel peripheral to the larger developments of society. Continue reading

Vayeshev 5774: Saint Joseph and the Scottsboro Boys

One of the most famous injustices in American history was the trial of nine black teens for an alleged rape of two white girls aboard a freight train on March 25, 1931. The “Scottsboro Boys” were tried in groups, and eight of them were sentenced to death (the ninth, who was only twelve at the time, was also sentenced to death by the all-white jury even though the prosecutors asked for life-imprisonment, and a mistrial was declared). The trials were flawed in numerous ways, but the racially charged atmosphere in Alabama scared off even civil rights organizations such as the NAACP from helping the defendants. A Jewish criminal defense attorney named Charles Leibowitz appealed the convictions and carried the fight all the way to the US Supreme Court. Even though the high court reversed the convictions, four of the defendants were retried in Alabama and given new lengthy prison sentences (one escaped prison and died later in Michigan). Just this week, the State of Alabama posthumously pardoned the three defendants, Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and James A. Wright, the last of whom died in 1989. [For more on the story, see links below]

Reading this moving story, it is hard not to think of Joseph, who in our parashah is falsely accused of attempted rape and sent to jail with no apparent process to consider his side of the story. While there is no explicit mention of race as a factor, Mrs. Potiphar does “other” him in saying, “look, he [that is, Potiphar] has brought this Hebrew to mock us; he came to lie with me, but I cried out with a great voice.” In her telling, Mrs. Potiphar is both victim and heroine—her valiant defense sent the menacing Hebrew running away. Her account puts pressure on her husband, whom she has explicitly blamed for the failing to defend his own wife. He does not hesitate to toss Joseph in jail; problem solved.  Continue reading

Vayishlah 5774: Dina, the Dangerous Sister

If you could write a subtitle for the book of Genesis, what would it be? My entry would be Genesis: Oh, Brother! That’s because brothers, and the fraught relationships between them, are the beams upon which the structure of this book is built. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and of course his twelve sons—brothers dominate the sacred history of Israel. Cain’s pathetic question,השומר אחי אנכי “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is arguably the set-up for all that follows in Genesis, and even the Torah. What does it mean to be a brother? A family? A covenanted nation? There is a lot to learn, and the Torah is eager to teach us. Genesis will close with Joseph making his brothers swear to become his שומרים, the guardians of his body (in later Jewish parlance, anyway). In doing so, they will show repentance not only for their prior offense against Joseph, but for all of the instances of fraternal treachery in this book.

Parashat VaYishlah certainly features brothers—five chapters (28-32) and twenty years separate Esau’s threat to kill Jacob from his dramatic and weepy hug of his younger brother. During the interim they have both grown independent, but no one expects that the old tensions have been forgotten. Soon after their fraught embrace, Jacob and Esau join together to bury Isaac (35:28), but just a few verses later we learn that Esau will depart Canaan for “another land because of his brother Jacob.” Modern scholars have long noticed the Bible’s trope of younger brothers supplanting their elders, and understood this to be a projection of national history. Israel too was a younger, weaker and smaller nation than those that surrounded it to the east and west; yet as God’s beloved child, it could presume to greatness and even hegemony, just as Isaac and Jacob (and Moses, and David etc.) would dominate their older brothers.

Brothers are important in Genesis, but what about the girls? Women of course appear in many roles—as daughters, mothers and wives—but what of their role as sisters? Genesis doesn’t give us a great deal to work with—some scholars have seen the Rachel/Leah rivalry as a mere reflection of Jacob vs. Esau. Indeed, the famous midrash that Leah’s eyes were רכות“weak” from crying over her feared match with Esau (b. Bava Batra 123a), would support this argument. Dina Avenged

However, recent scholars have reread the Bible’s women, and found much more substance to their relationships. I am lucky to have gotten a sneak pre-publication peek at Rabbi/Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky’s new book, Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, Jan. 2014). Rabbi Kalmanofsky teaches us about two types of sister narratives—that of the ideal sister, who reinforces the patriarchy of her natal household, and that of the dangerous sister, who destabilizes it. Rebecca plays the role of the ideal sister, waiting for Laban to arrange her marriage, and readily acceding to it. Her union with Isaac reinforces the family’s unity. Rebecca’s sexuality and fertility are entirely at the service of her natal family. Miriam, when we first meet her in Exodus 2, is likewise an ideal sister. She protects her brother Moses, and thus aids in the success of her birth family. Later, in Numbers 12, she will play a more independent and challenging role vis a vis her lead brother, and for this “dangerous sister” behavior, she will be punished.  Continue reading

VaYetze 5774: One Runaway Teen, One Patriarch to Be

Temperatures are dropping here in New York City, and winter approaches quickly. I like the cool air—it clears my mind—but then again, I have easy access to a warm and comfortable home day and night. For over 50,000 New Yorkers, there is no such luck. Many stay in shelters, like where I am now, staffing the overnight shift at Ansche Chesed, but many are unable to secure even temporary housing. Instead, they seek warmth in subway tunnels and other hidden spaces where we don’t see them. The number of homeless families in our city has risen by 73% in the past 12 years, and there are now 21,000 homeless children in our city. These statistics come from a sobering article by Ian Frazier called, “Hidden City,” in the October 28 issue of The New Yorker.

21,000 homeless children—that is a shocking number, but it helps to connect it to a face. Can you picture a runaway teenager, alienated from his family, unsafe at home, bolting out the door in terror, pointing towards a vague destination, afraid of yet another round of rejection? Alone for the first time in his life, vulnerable in the night, collapsing in a hard place, seizing stones for shelter and perhaps self defense? That homeless child, that runaway teen, is of course Yaakov Avinu as the curtain draws open and our parashah begins. Continue reading