Here Comes That Loser Dreamin’ Joe #letsthrowhiminapit

There is a lot with which I do not agree with our current President. We have different approaches to policy and leadership. He has taken many actions, in his personal life and as our President, that I find highly problematic, most recently the move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which turns against decades of foreign policy and will only inflame tensions in the area and serve as an obstacle for peace.

But the one thing that bothers me the most, that gets into my gut and makes me emotionally upset in addition to intellectually repulsed, is the name calling.

Crooked Hillary. Lyin’ Ted. Rocket Man. Pocahontas. Little Marco. Crazy Bernie.

Add to this to the general insults: “failing,” “loser,” “goofy,” “phony,” “lightweight.” Too many to name here. (The New York Times has cataloged them all.)

These get to me because they are not governance philosophies nor are they differences of opinion. They are, simply, the words of a bully. Donald Trump engages in bullying behavior, those who support him condone it, and we as a society are seeing the normalization of it.

The bullying behavior affects me on two levels. I still remember the name of my bully in summer camp. I went away for eight weeks over the summer for several years growing up, and while I had friends and a good time, I did have for a few years a bully who targeted me. I don’t even remember the basis for the abuse. I dealt with him, confronted him at times, had support from adults, and eventually moved to a different camp (for totally unrelated reasons).

But it also affects me for the simple reason that it is hurtful and unkind, and as someone who values compassion, lovingkindness, and respect, this behavior violates my core values and my view of what it means to be a human being.

This week in our Torah reading we begin the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was the favored of the twelve sons of Jacob, who doted on him and gave him a special coat. This did not endear him to his brothers. Neither did the fact that Joseph had dreams that appeared to foretell that he would rise above the rest of his family, and he would relate these dreams to his brothers.

The brothers grew to hate Joseph, and one day as they were out pasturing their flocks, Jacob sent Joseph to check on them. When they say him coming, they conspired to kill him, and said, “Here comes that dreamer (ba’al hachalomot)! Come now, let’s throw him into one of the pits, and we can say ‘a savage beast devoured him.'” (Genesis 37:19-20)

When I read this story these days, I can’t help but read this phrase “ba’al hachalomot” as an epithet along the lines of a Trump insult tweet. The eleven don’t refer to their brother by his name, but a name. “That dreamer” they said. They might as well have said, “Dreamin’ Joe!” What they didn’t say was “Joseph.”

What follows after calling him by this name is the plan to first kill him, and then eventually sell him into slavery. Indeed, perhaps the brothers are able to go through with their plan because they had already dehumanized him by calling him names. Simple lack of kindness can grow and fester and feeds upon itself. Small hurts can lead to large hurts.

Our task is to fight that normalization of bullying behavior that we are seeing in the  contemporary public square. Our task is to remember the simple acts of kindness that humanize each other. Our task is to use each other’s names.

Fear. Anger. Hate. Suffering.

To be honest, I was going to take a break this week.

I wasn’t going to send out a weekly message this week—it is winter break from school, and with the kids home I need to alter my schedule. Plus it was Erez’s birthday yesterday, so I took time off so we can have a family adventure. And my parents are coming into town for a few days, also meaning that outside of Shabbat, I wasn’t planning to do much this week.

[And since it is probably too early to write about the new Star Wars movie without giving away any spoilers, I will hold off on that for a bit. But, please, go see it so we can talk about it!]

But then Tuesday morning, I arrive at the shul. There was a lot going on there that morning, Tuesday is one of our days hosting the warming center, which has been getting a lot of activity. And plus we had roofing contractors come to do some cleaning and repair work. It was pointed out that there was some graffiti on the statue outside the office doors, a commissioned work by local artist Simon Kogan that was presented to the Temple when we moved into our new space. Upon closer inspection, the graffiti was a swastika.

I sent out a letter to the congregation that morning, which I also posted on here on my blog and shared on Facebook. Since that went out there has been a tremendous outpouring of support from the greater community. The Olympian picked up the story. Our local interfaith community partners have been notified, as has the ADL chapter in Seattle and the Olympia Police Department.

And though I would like to clean it up as soon as possible, I want to do it right, so have been in touch with Simon as to how best remove the paint without damaging the statue itself.

And while all this is happening, we continue on. Our calendar continues, and this Friday and Saturday of course is Shabbat. In our weekly Torah reading we read parashat Vayehi, the end of the book of Genesis.

In this portion, we read the end of the Joseph story. Joseph, who was sold into slavery yet who was able to rise to the heights of the Egyptian government, reconciled with the brothers who sold him. In this last part of the story, the brothers and their father Jacob move from their home in Canaan to a new home in Egypt where they will be close to Joseph. And after Jacob is reunited with his favorite son, he dies, but not before offering his blessing to his children.

Although the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers is a big part of the story, we learn in this week’s reading that it was perhaps incomplete. Once their father is dead, the brothers believe that Joseph might want to take revenge on them—that is, they think Joseph didn’t want to do anything to them as long as their father was alive, but now that he was gone Joseph will act:

“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!’ So they sent this message to Joseph, ‘Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.’ And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.” (Genesis 50:15-17)

The text does not record any such instruction from Jacob; the brothers seemingly make up a story in order that Joseph not do any harm to them.

Jewish tradition looks upon their act kindly, saying that it is ok to bend the truth sometimes to keep the peace. But what interests me is the brothers’ initial motivation. In this interaction with Joseph, they are clearly driven by fear.

And maybe this was their problem all along, they were driven by fear. It is what led them to first try to kill Joseph and then sell him into slavery—that they were fearful of his power of dream interpretation, or they were fearful for their own standing knowing Joseph was their father’s favorite, or they were fearful of him for no rational reason whatsoever. Fear can be seen as a motivator which led to their desire to do terrible things.

And that is the situation we are facing now. Fearmongering is taking center stage and entering the national discourse in a way that it hasn’t in the recent past. When national figures can talk in fearmongering terms about immigrants, or Muslims, or other groups and attract a large following, that is a cause of concern. It creates a culture where overt expressions of hate have the potential to become commonplace.

It creates a culture in which people feel emboldened to draw symbols of hate on Jewish institutions.

YodaAs the great sage Yoda once said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (There, I was able to get in a Star Wars reference.) We see this in our earliest texts in the Joseph story. And we see this now.

I don’t know who is responsible for this, or what their motives are. There was an uptick in neonazi activity this summer surrounding the shootings of two black men by an Olympia PD officer. We have already seen TBH defaced as an extension of anti-Israel sentiment. But having a swastika is new, and has not happened as long as I have been with the congregation, and it is hard for me to not see this outside of larger events taking place within our community and nation. When we create a culture of fear, it stirs up anger which enflames hate.

We as a Jewish community will need to take this seriously. We will need to be pragmatic and do what we can to address security concerns. We will need to continue to reach out to allies for support which is so critical. And our additional challenge is for us to not go down this path of the dark side. The swastika rightly inspires fear, and that may very well have been the intention of the perpetrator. But we must not let ourselves be driven by it.



The Significant Anonymous

As a rabbi, people often ask me who my favorite character from the Torah is.

Well, actually, no one has ever asked me that. But I will answer anyway. And while it is hard to choose, my vote for one of my favorite characters is the mysterious man in the Joseph story.

Who, you may ask?

Let me say at the onset that I am fudging a bit. Our weekly Torah reading this week is Shemot, the beginning of the Exodus story: the birth of Moses, his coming of age, his flight to Midian after killing an Egyptian task master, his call at the burning bush, etc. Now a major motion picture—again. We just finished reading the Joseph story, which comes at the end of Genesis. So this is a reflection backwards not forward. (Though our monthly Temple Beth Hatfiloh Torah study group will be beginning the Joseph story this Saturday.)

Ok, back to the mystery man. The outline of the Joseph story is perhaps familiar to us. Jacob had 12 sons with four wives. His favorite is Joseph, the first born son of his favorite wife Rachel. He shows him favor and gets him a fancy coat, which does not endear him to his brothers. Joseph also has the gift of dream interpretation, and has a series of dreams that tell him he will one day be raised above his brothers. In the spirit of honesty (or foolishness) he tells them of his dreams.

One day, Joseph is sent to find his brothers who are herding their sheep. When he is approaching, the brothers make a plan to kill him, and they take him and throw him in a pit. A caravan of traders pass by, and the brothers change their plans—they haul him out of the pit and sell him into slavery instead. They do tell their father that he was killed by an animal, and brandish his torn and bloody coat as “evidence.”

Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is first a servant and then a prisoner after being falsely accused of assault. And through a series of steps involving dreams of the Pharaoh, Joseph is given a high position in the government overseeing food collection and distribution. When famine hits, his brothers leave Canaan for Egypt in search of food, only to be reunited with Joseph. This then sets up the Exodus story, as Jacob (also known as Israel) and the rest of his family move down to Egypt. The saga of the Israelites begins.

So where was the mystery man? There is an interesting detail in the story. When Joseph is sent to find his brothers prior to them selling him into slavery, the Torah tells us:

One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.” And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. (Genesis 37:12-18)

Joseph arrives at Shechem where he believes his brothers are, but they had moved on to Dothan. But, there would have been no way for Joseph to know this. If the man had not been there, Joseph would not have known to go on to Dothan, where his brothers would seize him and sell him into slavery. Therefore, it is this mystery man “wandering scarecrowin the field” who sets in motion the course of action that results in Joseph being sold and sent to Egypt, meeting the Pharaoh and rising to authority, and the Israelites moving to Egypt. This man is one of the most important in all of Torah.

Who was he? Some commentators say he is just a man, some other commentators say he is an angel.

But regardless of who he was, we can all recognize him. We can all recognize that we have people like this in our lives: anonymous people who have made an impact on our life’s journey, people whose names we don’t know but whose guidance and influence have been huge. We may have understood their impact in the moment. Or our interactions with them may have seemed insignificant at the time, but become significant much later. Or we were not ready to hear what they had to say in the moment, but their words resonate after the fact. But in any event, we would not be who we are without them.

We may be on our way to Shechem, but really need to be in Dothan, but we may not have made the journey ourselves. We needed someone to show us the way.

As we travel life’s path, there are those who seem significant to us, and those who seem insignificant. But ultimately everyone is significant because they make us who we are. Think for yourself who you saw “wandering in the fields” of your journey and who set you on a new course, or helped you along the way, or shared words that helped sustain you. Their names may be known to you, or they may not. In any event, offer up some words of gratitude for them for making you who you are. (I personally have been thinking recently about the doctors and nurses and EMTs who have helped me through my health challenges, many of whom I do not know.)

Which does take us to this week’s portion: when we are introduced to Moses at the beginning of Exodus, the Torah first introduces us to Moses’s parents. But the text does not tell us their names, only “a man of the house of Levi” and “his wife.” This allows Moses’s arrival to be that much more dramatic. But it also tells us that significance lies not in the fact of who one is, but what one does.

And sometimes, the seemingly minor engagement with an anonymous person can change everything.

Hello New Year, Goodbye New York

On Monday my parents got into their car and left New York for good.

It was a move they have been planning of late. My mother retired from teaching a few years ago, and my father was winding down his career as an attorney. Full retirement was on the horizon. My sister and I were no longer local. And while some of their friends were still nearby, others had moved away.

They sold their house—the house in which I grew up—a year ago and moved into an apartment temporarily. And when my

My childhood home
My childhood home

father’s retirement became official last week, they moved down to the Washington, DC area to be near my sister and brother-in-law and their two (soon, three) young children.

And with that, my parents, who lived in New York all of their lives—born, raised, college and graduate school, marriage and children—became Marylanders.

I left New York a long time ago. At 18 I set off for college, and after a year in Texas I did return to New York to live as an adult for a few years for work and graduate school (I was in school in New York but lived in New Jersey). But then seminary pulled me away to Philadelphia, and then the west coast beckoned, and I have happily made my home here in the other Washington. Over the years I still enjoyed visiting, though it was clear my home and the roots I was creating lay elsewhere.

Now, though, I can’t help feeling sad that a link to my past has been severed. Much moreso than when they sold the house, the fact that now should rabbinic work take me to New York they won’t be there, or when I go to visit them I will be going somewhere different, feels like a major shift.

We are a mobile society. And perhaps we always were. Especially as Jews. Save for a few founding members, members of the Olympia Jewish community are from somewhere else. And even for those long-standing members, you only need to go back a generation to see movement and wandering. My grandparents left New York for the Eden of Florida, my sister and I decamped to other locations. I just watched Fiddler on the Roof again, and it ends with a fuzzy, nostalgic (forced by pogroms!) exile from Russia to other parts. “Maybe, that’s why we always wear our hats,” quips one villager.

As a rabbi, I have witnessed the dynamic of parents moving to be closer to their children (or children moving their parents to be closer to them). As my parents follow the same path, I realize it is a dynamic as old as the Torah itself. This week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, is the end of the Joseph story, in which Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, becomes a high-ranking official in the Egyptian government. When he is reunited with this remorseful brothers, the family, including his father Jacob (his mother had died), move from Canaan to Egypt to be close to Joseph. Jacob moves his family and all his holdings to a new place to be closer to Joseph.

And this move sets the stage for the next chapter of Israelite history: the challenging but necessary story of enslavement and liberation, Exodus and wanderings. More mobility.

And indeed, today is the 10th of Tevet, a minor fast day in the Jewish calendar. It commemorates the besiegement of the walls of Jerusalem at the hands of King Nebuchadezzer and the Babylonians in 588 BCE, an act which ultimately lead to the walls’ breach, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the community from Judea to Babylonia. The themes of exile and return also inform our Jewish consciousness. Again, more mobility.

It is mobility that defines us. We are dynamic, not static.

[As a side note: it is interesting to see how this mobile nature of Jewish community is impacting the conversations we have around cremation. This has become more of an active issue in Jewish communal life as more and more people are choosing to be cremated upon death. While this is not in keeping with Jewish tradition, which mandates in-ground burial, it is a reality. And part of the reason given is because of this mobility—with families stretched out in different directions, who will be present and available to visit a grave regularly? One of the last acts my parents did in New York was visit the gravesite of my paternal grandparents. And this tension between death and “place” is present in the Torah reading this week as Jacob dies in Egypt, but insists on being buried in Canaan.]

So the new year brings a new reality for my family, and a new stage of life for my parents. I’m excited for them and their new adventures. And while we will still be far away, I have the feeling that we will see them more often. We maintain the roots to the past, but also welcome the future. And when we go visit, we will simply take in the Smithsonian, rather than the Met.

Joseph and the Jewish Christmas

My posting is a bit later than usual this week because of the holiday. Yes, that holiday.

After all these years, I think I am still figuring out what it means to be a Jew on Christmas.

Growing up where I did in New York, with a large Jewish population, it seemed that Christmas celebrators were in the minority. I had a few friends who did, but surrounded by family and community and my Jewish friends, we had a nice size population engaging in that Jewish Christmas tradition: Chinese food and a movie. Here in Olympia we do the same, though it seems that the restaurant selections are more limited, and we created our own movie event with the Fiddler on the Roof Sing-Along at the Olympia Film Society.

I find this “Chinese food and movies” cliché funny because it appears to have moved beyond an “alternative” observance to one in its own right. It has become its own ritual, laden with as much meaning for non-Christmas observers as the tree and presents and family have for those who do. (Mind you, I am thinking non-theologically). Now with social media, I saw friends all over posting about which movies they were seeing and “check-ins” or photos of Chinese food dinners.chinesefoodsign

Why this observance? Aside from the specifics-movie theaters and Chinese restaurants were traditionally open on Christmas-developing an alternative celebration is a natural accommodation to a dominant culture, a theme that goes all the way back to the Torah.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we have the climax of the Joseph story. Joseph, the favorite of Jacob’s 12 sons who had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, has risen to the top of Egyptian society based on his ability to interpret dreams. Having interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as a portend of a famine, he is made a senior official in charge of guiding Egypt through the impending financial crisis. The famine spreads to Canaan where Joseph’s father Jacob and the rest of his family live, so the brothers travel to Egypt to seek food, where food has been kept in reserve. The brothers do not recognize Joseph, and after Joseph puts them through a test to see if they have changed, he reveals himself to his brothers, and a happy reunion ensues. Jacob and his family then move all down to Egypt and are reunited with Joseph.

When they move down, however, there is this interesting episode:

Then Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and tell the news to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me. The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs.’  So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’ – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh, saying, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen.” And selecting a few of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” They answered Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers. We have come,” they told Pharaoh, “to sojourn in this land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, the famine being severe in the land of Canaan. Pray, then, let your servants stay in the region of Goshen.” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “As regards your father and your brothers who have come to you, the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them stay in the region of Goshen. And if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock.” (Genesis 46:31-47:6)

Jacob and his family have to lie to Pharaoh about their true profession in order to fit in. Shepherds are not looked upon favorably, so they present as being cattle ranchers in order to be accepted.

Are they lying? Yes. Are they not being true to themselves? Perhaps. But they are doing something that every minority culture does when it is navigating life in a majority culture: trying to find a way to accommodate mores not their own in a way that respects both their own traditions and those of the majority.

Could the Jewish Christmas of “Chinese food and a movie” be the same impulse? We recognize that the holiday is not our own, yet by living here it becomes ours. So we find a way to navigate it.

I recognize this looks different for different people. There are many people in our Jewish community from mixed-faith households for whom Christmas is a meaningful family observance, sharing the holiday with non-Jewish family members and friends. (I’ve attended Christmas worship on occasion.) Many Jewish families will take on Christmas-like observances during Hanukkah (we have been known to do a lot of decorating in our house). And the Chinese food and movie “alternative” observance has in fact become an “authentic” way of observing Christmas.

What the story of Joseph teaches, and our own practices demonstrate, is that maintenance of Jewish identity and engaging with a holiday not our own are not mutually exclusive. All it takes is some negotiation, openness and creativity.

Merry Christmas

Hear the News

This Shabbat as part of our Torah reading cycle we read the end of Genesis, which concludes the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph has reconciled with his brothers and reunited with his father, and now everyone is settled in the land of Egypt, having moved down from Canaan in search of opportunity, and where Joseph continues to serve in his capacity as an advisor to Pharaoh.

This weekend at Temple Beth Hatfiloh we are also marking Human Rights Shabbat. It is a contemporary designation made by an organization called T’ruah (formally known as Rabbis for Human Rights-North America). T’ruah designates the two Shabbatot closest to Human Rights Day-the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN-as Human Rights Shabbat, an opportunity to reflect on the connection between Judaism and Human Rights. Over 170 congregations are observing this day.

This year, we are using this opportunity to reflect on the issue of immigration. Our guest speaker will be Michelle Muri from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, who will talk about that organization, and some of the issues facing immigrants in our state and nationwide. This promises to be a powerful presentation.

Today (Friday) is also a minor fast day in our tradition. Today is the 10th day of the month of Tevet, and tradition associates this day with the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King. A year and half later Nebuchadnezzar breeched the wall of Jerusalem, an event commemorated by a minor fast day the 17th of Tammuz. Then a few weeks later, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, an event marked by the major fast day of Tisha B’av, or the 9th of Av.

The fact of a fast day in Tevet is found in the Bible in the book of Zechariah, which speaks of the “fast of the 10th month.” The rabbis in the Talmud make the connection to the siege of Jerusalem and affix the fast on the 10th.

There is, however, another Talmudic tradition which associates the words of Zechariah with the 5th of Tevet, and claims that is the appropriate fast day. This opinion is based on the verse in Ezekiel (33:21): “And it came to pass in the twelfth year of our captivity, in the tenth month, in the fifth day of the month, that one that had escaped out of Jerusalem came unto me, saying: ‘The city is smitten.’” In other words, according to one opinion of the Talmud, the “fast of the 10th month” is actually the 5th of Tevet, and commemorates not the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, but rather the date when those who were already exiled heard of the Temple’s eventual destruction.

While this opinion is not followed nor codified into our law and practice, it is interesting to consider. The value underlying the opinion is that what is worth commemorating is not just the event itself, but the hearing of the news of the event.

When something happens it is an isolated event. When we tell and retell the events, it becomes something of much greater import. The immediate destruction of the Temple affected those closest to it. The transmission of the news to the community made it an event which affected the entire Jewish people. It is “hearing the news” that makes an impact on us. Think of how, with the recent commemoration of the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, much of the individual reflection was “where were you when you heard the news?”

So too with our contemporary issues of concern. When we gather for services, we do many things. We connect, we pray, we reflect, we learn, we study. And sometimes we bear witness. That will be our role this Shabbat, as we turn to our weekly Torah reading for one, and see how this is a story of migration and immigration. And we will bear witness to stories and issues of immigration in our day. We will “hear the news” of what is happening.

These stories may not be our stories. Events and narratives are particular. But telling and retelling them make them universal, and by their telling-and by our hearing-they become our stories.

And when they become our stories, we can not ignore them. Part of our kavannah (intention) around Human Rights Shabbat–and indeed any time we engage with issues of social justice–is that we listen in order to learn, and learn in order to do.

May this be another opportunity for listening and learning, and may we be filled with the spirit of doing.

[This weekend also marks the anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That mass shooting was unfortunately not an exceptionally rare event, but the severity of the massacre, and the fact the primary victims were young children in a place that is supposed to proved safety, awakened our eyes in a new way to the need for comprehensive gun legislation and the fact the culture of guns and violence can lead to disastrous ends. We continue to tell this story as well.]