A TRIPLE CELEBRATION – Miketz, Hanukkah, Rosh Hodesh – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A TRIPLE CELEBRATION – Miketz, Hanukkah, Rosh Hodesh – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week gives us not one Torah reading and one from the prophets but two from Torah and three from prophets, because this week features three celebrations on the same day.

First, of course, is Shabat.  The reading for this Shabat tells the story of Joseph and his brothers, as he plays cat-and-mouse with them in Egypt.  He knows them but they don’t recognize him.  All they know is that he is the Viceroy of Egypt and holds life-and-death power over them.  He conducts himself with some of the willful eccentricities that such power makes possible, demanding that they bring their youngest brother to meet him.  He holds Shimon hostage until they return with that boy, Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother, the one he really wants to see.  He then frames Benjamin for stealing, by having his servants plant his divination cup in Benjamin’s pack, and demands the brothers leave Benjamin to be his slave while they return to fetch their father.  Moved by Judah’s pleas for Benjamin’s life, Joseph has to retreat to his private room to weep.  But he manages to retain his official front throughout this week’s reading. So here we have some classic family drama.  To be continued next week.

Second, this will be a Shabat during Hanukkah.  And of course, the very word “Hanukkah” means “Dedication.”  The Maccabees defeated the Greeks in order to free the Temple and rededicate it.  And their ceremony followed the example Moses set when he dedicated the Tabernacle in the desert.  This year, Shabat falls on the 6thday of Hanukkah.  So this week the last Torah reading comes from a second scroll and describes the offering brought on the 6thday of the Tabernacle dedication, by a prince of the tribe of Gad.  Worth noting, Moses held the dedication for 12 days, giving each tribe a day to celebrate.  The Maccabees had only 8 days.  But hey, Moses didn’t have a one-day supply of oil that burned for 8 days!  The Talmud recounts the miracle that took place when the Maccabees entered their reconquered Sanctuary and found all the sacred oil contaminated – except for one small flask still sealed with the High Priest’s stamp.  It contained just enough oil to burn for one day.  But when they lit it in ceremonial celebration, it burned for 8 days, setting the length of our Hanukkah holiday.

A special feature of Shabat Hanukkah is its Haftorah – its prophetic reading.  This one is from Zachariah who urges the Daughter of Zion to “sing and rejoice —  Ra-nee v’sim-khee bat Tziyon”—because G-d will dwell with her and her people.  Unlike other Haftoros, this one is chanted twice a year: once now and once with the Torah reading describing Aaron lighting the sacred flame, a section we will read next June.  Also a tale of dedication.

Third, this Shabat is Rosh Hodesh, beginning the new month of Teveth.  So we are combining a weekly celebration with an annual one and a monthly one.  To acknowledge this part of our triple day, we will add a short prophetic section from Isaiah envisioning a time when all humanity will observe New Months and Sabbaths by worshipping G-d, and a few sentences from the First book of Samuel where Jonathan reminds us that tomorrow is also Rosh Hodesh.  Yes, Teveth is one of those months that has 2 semi-holidays to start it off.

Quite a challenging combination we have on this Triple Celebration.  We learn a lot about sibling rivalry from Joseph and his brothers, we join in the spirit of dedication, and we welcome a new month in the hope and faith that it will be a better one.

This week we should really greet each other Goot Shabos, Goot Yontov, Goot Yor!   

                                                                                                           

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NO SAINTS – Vayeishev –Gen. 37-40, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

NO SAINTS – Vayeishev –Gen. 37-40, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Like other leaders in other times, the ancestors who made our history were not perfect.  The book of Genesis pulls no punches in recounting their story.  This week’s reading will describe in vivid detail the actions of some of Jacob’s sons.  Particularly significant here are the characters of Judah and Joseph.

Jacob and Leah’s fourth son, Judah, distinguishes himself as a leader.  His older brothers get in trouble early, and don’t assert themselves in the family. On his deathbed Jacob will remind them of their faults.  Reuben, the firstborn, had sex with one of his father’s other wives.  And the next two, Shimon and Levi, led the attack on the defenseless men of Sh’khem in last week’s section.  “Weapons of violence are their kinship,” says Jacob.  Judah frequently takes the lead among his brothers. He thinks ahead. Midrashic commentary credits Judah with great physical power too. But he’s no saint either.

This week’s reading will describe Judah’s family life. He marries and has three sons. They grow up, and the oldest, named Er, marries a girl named Tamar.  Er is some kind of sinner, whose offenses are not listed, but they are serious enough to condemn him to death at the hands of Heaven.  So he dies young.  Judah promises Tamar that his second son Onan will carry out the ancient duty of marrying his brother’s childless widow, so she waits.  But Onan won’t do this Mitzvah because the child he fathers will not be recognized as his.  So he also dies, and the third son is still quite young.  Tamar is tired of waiting.  She disguises herself and goes to a place where Judah will be shearing his sheep.  There she poses as a prostitute and seduces him.  And she becomes pregnant.  But before sharing his bed she took a pledge from him – a very identifiable pledge – that will mark him as the father of her twins.  Despite his violation, however, he remains a leader among his brothers.  He will also be the ancestor of David, our greatest king.  And one of the twins Tamar bears, Peretz, is credited in Jewish lore with starting an ancestry that will one day produce the Messiah.

Sexual violations, we see, were charged against leaders in ancient times as well as modern times.  But the only one of Jacob’s sons who went to prison for a sexual violation was Joseph – and he was innocent.  In the famous story we will read in this week’s portion, Joseph gets sold into Egypt as a slave, and becomes a major domo in the house of Potiphar, a captain of the guard, whom the Torah describes as a saris, a eunuch. Many of Pharaoh’s officers were in fact castrated, to safeguard the royal harem.  But Potiphar is also married.  His wife sees a good-looking young fellow working in the house and tries to get something from him that clearly she was not getting from her husband. She’s not subtle about it either. She says “Lie with me!”  Joseph turns down her invitation very honorably, but next time around she grabs his coat.  He runs out, and she uses the coat as evidence to frame him for “attempted rape.” The Pharaoh promptly imprisons Joseph.

The contrast between these two sons of Jacob is striking.  Of course we know that Joseph was not perfect.  He was his father’s favorite, and had visions of grandeur as reflected in his dreams.  We also don’t know what Potiphar’s wife looked like.  But whatever faults Joseph had, he did become the viceroy who was able to bring his father and all the family out of Canaanite starvation to find refuge in Egypt.  For now, we still accept Judah and his descendants as past and future leaders. His wisdom and his strength overcome his mistakes.  In the coming weeks we will see even more dramatic developments in the lives of the brothers.  We have much to learn from the epic of our ancient forefathers.

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DETAILS, DETAILS — “Vayishlakh” — Gen. 32-34 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

DETAILS, DETAILS — “Vayishlakh” — Gen. 32-34 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Some Torah narratives are broad and sweeping, as in “G-d created heaven and earth,” while others seem overcrowded with details. Such crowding fills some of the chapters in Genesis that make up these current weekly portions.  This week we will read “Vayishlakh” in chapters 32-36, which explores the relations between Jacob’s family (our ancestors) and a local population called “Khivi” who lived in the part of Canaan where Jacob wanted to settle, a section with a city called Sh’khem.  Maybe it was good grazing country where his flocks and herds could prosper.  Apparently it had some rulers who could become his friends.

Looking around at the neighborhood and its people, Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah, decides to get away from all those brothers and go out and get acquainted with the local girls.  Presumably she put on her good clothes  and looked really beautiful, because she attracted the attention of not only the local girls but of the king’s son, Sh’khem, for whom the whole city was named.  He proceeded to take her to his palace and rape her.  Now stuck in captivity, she was missed at home, and Sh’khem wouldn’t let her go.  In fact he was falling in love with her.  He asks his father to arrange for her to become his wife.  Now follows a succession of highly detailed accounts of Jacob’s glum reception of the news of his daughter’s defilement, his sons’ furious reaction, and the political negotiations between Sh’khem, his father Khamor and Jacob and his sons about how their tribes could live together and become one nation.   Khamor makes a huge offer: The land is wide, use it, and live in the city, take our daughters for your wives and we will take your daughters into our families and we will all be one nation! And Sh’khem insists: I really love Dinah, so just tell me what to pay…etc.

To all of which, Jacob’s sons answer “b’mirmah” — in deceit, says the Torah.  They convince the prince and his father to get all their male subjects circumcised, otherwise the sons of Jacob cannot give their sister to a man with a foreskin. But on the third day after the mass operation, Jacob’s sons invade the city, kill the men who are all still in pain, and plunder the flocks and herds.  Jacob angrily charges his sons with exposing him — and themselves — to the revenge of the inhabitants of Canaan.  They retort: “Shall he treat our sister like a whore?”  They bring Dinah home, of course, but conflict and oppression result.

Certainly conflict and oppression came our way from other causes too.  Why does the Torah recount this cause in such detail?

We might ask the same question about the story in last week’s reading, which describes every action our father Jacob took to acquire a fortune in livestock from his employer and father-in-law Lavan.  In fact he tricked Lavan by agreeing to take only the speckled and spotted animals, leaving Lavan all those with solid color skins.  Then he made sure the breeding animals saw the sticks he planted by the water — sticks with their bark sliced off here and there so they looked speckled and spotted. As a result, all the new animals were born — guess how their skins were? — speckled and spotted.

And what about the beloved Rachel?  Didn’t she steal her father Lavan’s idols and hide them under the camel’s saddle?

So our ancestors were human beings with the mixed behavior of human beings.  The Torah does not extol them as perfect.  Whether their sometimes doubtful choices brought them good results or suffering, we need to know them.  We can learn from their experiences.  We do not pray to Abraham or Isaac or Jacob as saints.  We  pray to the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, the G-d of Jacob.  The G-d who blessed them and corrected their mistakes, the G-d who rewarded their righteous actions, the G-d who promised them the land that they — and their descendants today — inherited and fight for.

Every detail of these narratives can be a military “detail” with a job to do.  We need to let it do its job.

 

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THE ‘WOW’ OF RELIGION – Vayeytzey – Gen. 28:10-32:3 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

THE ‘WOW’ OF RELIGION – Vayeytzey – Gen. 28:10-32:3 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Jacob leaves home, ostensibly on his way to Haran to find a wife, but more importantly to get out of harm’s way in the person of his vengeful brother Esau.  He stops for the night in a place that is strange to him, and goes to sleep on a rock.  That place, that rock, that night become a life-changing experience for him. Because that is where he has his famous dream: a ladder reaching into heaven, with angels climbing both up it and down it.

Interesting that the story has the angels going up first and then coming down.  If angels are heavenly creatures, how did they get to the bottom of the ladder to climb up?  Didn’t they have to come down first?

Rashi explains that these angels were already with Jacob. They were the angels of the Land of Israel, and they could go no farther with him, because he chose to stop for the night just at the boundary line.  So these Israeli Guard angels were changing places with a second group of angels who would accompany him outside the Land.  Of course, Jacob was totally unaware of this whole Changing of the Guard – until his dream.

Waking from that dream, he has a striking reaction. Actually two reactions.  The first – awe.  “Certainly G-d is in this place and I did not know it.”  Then on further thought, he begins to digest the message he got in the dream – the message of Divine guidance on his journey and back home again.  And he offers a return commitment.  A contract, if you will.  “If G–d will be with me on the way that I go, and see that I have food to eat and clothes to wear, and if I can come home safely to my father’s house, then You [haShem] will be my G-d, and whatever You give me, I will return you a tenth.”

In other words, if this dream was a real flash of prophecy, and it comes true, I will believe.   And if I can go home safely, I’ll even make a contribution.  That is the awe-inspired reaction: gratitude calls for a contract.

Or:  Wow! What a dream!  I was talking to G-d!  It must be Divine inspiration.  That is the shock reaction: I was religious all the time and didn’t realize it!

Each of us in our attitude toward our faith takes one of these attitudes – awe, or shock.  At different times we may take both.

Something wonderful happens to us – the thrill of love, or winning the lottery, or getting safely discharged from the Armed Forces, or the birth of our first child, or maybe just climbing to the top of a major mountain and being alone with the universe.  And we suddenly discover the Master of that Universe.  We suddenly realize that we were really religious all the time and didn’t know it.  If that’s your experience, congratulations.  You can savor the wonder of life – the Wow!

Or… the daily grind becomes more complex.  More grinding.  And we wish for some childhood simplicity.  Let me go home safely and I’ll be glad to pray.  I’ll even make a contribution.  But don’t bother me now.  Not unless you can prove this idea is really prophetic and will come true.

Both of these reactions are legitimate, and neither is the whole story.  Which one applies to you?  Or are you an atheist?

Let me tell you about atheists.

Crossing the Gulf of Alaska in a 136-foot wooden minesweeper in the last year of World War II, we went through a typhoon.  Time after time, our little ship climbed trembling to the crest of 60-foot swells, shivered there for a long moment – both screws out of the water, completely at the ocean’s mercy.  Then she crashed down into the trough – breakers drenching the flying bridge, timbers creaking as if every nail would pop.  Of the thirty-four men on board – a few on watch, a few trying to sleep, and the rest?  I’ll tell you what they were doing: they were praying.  There were no atheists on that ship that day.

The Wow of religion frequently comes out of mortal danger. That’s the reverse of Jacob’s shock reaction to his dream.   It’s called foxhole religion.  It’s legitimate too.  It doesn’t happen to everyone.  Fortunately.

Even more fortunately, that sudden experience of wonder and excitement, that Wow, does happen to some of us.

And the conditioned commitment, the feeling of “Let’s go home again,” happens to large numbers of us.  It’s the hardest to deal with, because Tom Wolfe was right: you can’t go home again.  Not really. All you can do is reach back into your memory for the truths of home, the hope of home, the warmth of home. Try to recapture them where you are now.  And if you can’t recapture them, try to approximate them.

Bringing those qualities of your childhood home into your life today will probably require learning some things that may be new to you – even some things you made a point to forget.  Some Torah, some Minhagim – some ceremonies you sometimes laughed at, some of that old fashioned tradition that used to irritate you.  Maybe those things made home Home.

According to Rashi, Jacob spent 14 years in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever before he ever went to Haran.  What he learned there is hard to imagine, since the Torah would not be received for five more centuries.  But what Rashi is telling us is valuable.  He is telling us that learning and applying the tradition of our homes prepares us for life’s most climactic moments – the “Wow” – and for life’s trials and yearnings – the “Take me back home to my father’s house.”  Our tradition can even prepare us to face the reality of the foxhole and the typhoon.

I wish you the supreme high of the Wow.  And I wish you the fortitude to acquire the way home.

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A NOBODY?  — “Toldos” – Gen. 25:19-28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A NOBODY?  — “Toldos” – Gen. 25:19-28:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon –

This week we will read a section called “Toldos Yitzhok” – literally, the history of Isaac.  Very quickly we see that Isaac, the second of our patriarchs, is described in terms of other people.  He is the son of Abraham, the husband of Rebecca, the father of Jacob and Esau.  And who is he?

To quote my uncle of blessed memory, Rabbi Beryl D. Cohon z”l of Boston, this history could be called the portrait of a Nobody.

A nobody?  Let’s see.  Does Isaac really have no importance?  Certainly he carries forward a spark of Abraham’s inspiration.  Just as certainly he finds love and fulfillment in his union with Rebecca.  Like his father before him, he has two sons who are quite different from each other, and he will have a crisis over which one to call his real heir.

Unlike his father, he gets a direct message from G-d only twice.  Once, he is told to stay in Canaan despite hard times, and not to go to Egypt, because this land of Canaan will belong to him and his descendants as G-d promised Abraham.  The second Divine vision comes in a dream and gives him a blessing, and when he gets up, excited and inspired, he builds an altar and has his men dig a well.   By contrast, Abraham had many one-on-ones with the Almighty.  Is Isaac less holy?

Morris Adler, a rabbinical scholar of the last century, asks “What did Isaac do?  He preserved a tradition; he held onto it; he received it and he was loyal to it.  In a world of constant change, in a world where new fashions are sought and new habits constantly arise, in a world that never stops for a moment in its fluctuations, Isaac is not simply a negative character.  He is the son of Abraham and the father of Jacob.  He kept the chain that was handed to him… In all of his actions a tradition was preserved.”

Without Isaac the Jewish people would not exist.  All through the centuries, individual Jews proudly bear his name.  You and I and many others can identify with him because we link generations.   To tend the flame of continuity is our mission.  Family traditions, religious traditions, national traditions all bring pride and meaning to our lives.  We who bear those traditions and add to them and pass them on are carrying on Isaac’s work.

Part of that work involves listening.   Maybe he only heard a Divine voice directly twice.  But there was another voice he heard quite often.   Rebecca.  She is the one who travelled many miles to marry a stranger – Isaac, a man of 40 still brooding over his mother’s loss.  Rebecca is the one whose love points him toward the future.  She is the one who selects which of her twin sons will actually be able to carry on the sacred family heritage.  Maybe Esau can supply his father with venison, but Jacob can build him a nation.  Rebecca sees that, so she connives with Jacob to get his father’s blessing, by pretending to be Esau who had prior rights to it being a few minutes older. And she is the one who saves Jacob from his brother’s murderous fury by sending him to her home town – meanwhile complaining to Isaac about the Canaanite girls Esau brings home, and convincing him to send Jacob on the trip she already prepared him for, to find a wife from among his mother’s clan.

Isaac listens to good advice.   No, don’t call him henpecked.  He knows when his wife is right!   Isaac builds his family, and establishes residence in the land that will be theirs.  I beg to differ with my uncle’s opinion.  Isaac is not a Nobody.  He is the indispensable link that joins the generations.

Considered that way, Isaac’s story is the portrait of a Somebody.

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