Happy Yom Sylvester!

To most of us, January 1 is a day set aside for relaxation and celebration. In our culture, we celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and Jews are no exception. True, some especially religious Jews shy away from celebrating the beginning of a new Gregorian year, perhaps seeing it as inappropriately rivaling the spiritual celebration of the Jewish New Year on Rosh Hashana. But since we keep time according to both the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian calendar, there is nothing inappropriate about marking the beginning of a new secular year, greeting each other with wishes of “Happy New Year” and even making resolutions that we hope to keep in the next twelve secular months. Our welcoming of 2016 in no way overshadows or competes with our celebration of a new Jewish year.

Israelis also celebrate the beginning of a new secular year, though the day isn’t a national holiday and most celebrations are more subdued than those we experience here in America and elsewhere in the world. And in Israel, New Year’s Eve is called by a different name—it’s known as Yom Sylvester. The reason is both intriguing and a bit amusing.

In 46 BCE Julius Caesar decreed that the first day of the year should be January 1 rather than in March. In the centuries that followed, many European countries named New Year’s Eve after Pope Sylvester I, who was Pope from 314-335 CE and who died on December 31 (it was common to hold a feast in his memory on that date). Jews were, of course, aware of the designation of the occasion in memory of Pope Sylvester. In the early years of the modern State of Israel, secularists who wanted to celebrate the beginning of the Gregorian year called New Year’s Eve “Yom Sylvester” because it seemed highly inappropriate to call it “Rosh Hashana.” The name has stuck to this day.

But there is also something ironic about calling New Year’s Eve “Yom Sylvester.” It turns out that Pope Sylvester was a particularly anti-Semitic Pope. Among other decrees, he convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. Pope Sylvester is long gone, but the Jews are still here and are living in the Land of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. So perhaps the name “Yom Sylvester” is used with a slight touch of irony and humor.

Whatever its history and whatever we call it, I wish you a Happy New Year. And while I won’t say “Shana Tova,” I certainly express the hope that the new secular year that is about to begin brings you much to celebrate and many reasons for you to be happy and fulfilled.

Joseph the Tsadik

As we conclude this year’s reading of the Book of Genesis on Shabbat morning with the final portion, Vayechi, we will read of the deaths of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob, though seemingly a flawed person, has the status of revered patriarch, with his name prominently mentioned along with his father and grandfather in our daily prayers. But how is Joseph remembered by our tradition? A smash hit Broadway show is not bad, but actually the rabbinic sages give Joseph an honorific title—they call him Joseph the Tzadik, the Righteous One. A question worth asking is why he merits this distinction.

A variety of Talmudic and Midrashic answers are there for us to consider. Here are a few examples:

  • Joseph was a “tsadik” because he obeyed his father willingly.
  • Joseph’s righteousness was due to his moral standards. He refused to be intimate with Potiphar’s wife not because he was afraid he would get caught but because he felt it was simply wrong (the Midrash embellishes this side of Joseph by telling stories of how numerous Egyptian women who were married threw themselves on him but he consistently refused their advances).
  • Joseph was righteous because he was God’s agent in implementing the Divine plan to relocate the Israelites to Egypt, setting the stage for their enslavement and eventual redemption. Through all he endured, he never lost his faith in God.

At this week’s Torah study class, we came upon what might be the best explanation of why Joseph was considered to be a righteous man. Despite living outside of the Land of Israel, he maintained his Jewish identity and passed it down to his children.

In this last portion of the Book of Genesis, we find the blessing that Jacob, near death, bestows on his Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe. We recite these very words every Friday night when we bless our sons at the beginning of the Shabbat meal—Y’simcha Elohim K’Ephraim V’chi-Menashe…May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe. The question is, why does the Torah tell us to bless our sons in the name of Joseph’s two children and not in the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? One modern Torah scholar, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginsberg (1885-1946, Russia and America), says the following:

“Why specifically as Ephraim and Manasseh? The reason is that Jacob realized that the time of the exile of his descendants was approaching, and he knew that in exile their Jewishness was in great danger. He therefore blessed them that they should be as Ephraim and Manasseh – the first Jews who were born, grew up, and were educated in exile – and yet in spite of that, they “are mine” – they remained faithful to the House of Israel, just as Reuven and Shimon.”

Rabbi Ginsberg tells us that Ephraim and Menashe are role models to be emulated, so much so that the Torah mandates that a blessing be offered in their names. They were the first members of Jacob’s family to be born, grow up and be educated outside of Israel, yet they retained their Jewish identity. We could infer that Joseph deserves the credit for this, and therefore should be known as a tzadik (perhaps Rabbi Ginsberg, who lived in Russia and the United States, saw a great many people giving up a Jewish way of life).

The Torah tells us that the destiny of the Jewish people is to live as a nation in the Land of Israel. And we are blessed to live in a time of history that has seen the reestablishment of Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel. But despite the Torah’s message about our destiny to live in Israel as a nation, it became our fate to make our home in a great many places around the world other than Israel.

Jacob’s sons were the first “Diaspora Jews.” Our history relates that the Jewish people returned to Israel a few generations after Joseph and developed there as a nation, but exile soon followed. For over 2,500 years Jews wandered the earth in search of a place to call home that would be safe. We’ve been compelled to find the right balance between assimilation and isolation, always seeking a way to preserve our tradition while struggling to survive. Joseph is credited with being a tzadik, a person who devoted himself to preserving the traditions of his ancestors and passing them faithfully to his children. We ought to ask ourselves if we are also a tsadik in the same way.

Letting Them Off the Hook Too Fast

The Joseph narrative comes to a climax in this week’s Torah portion, with Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers, meeting his father after an absence of many years, and reconciling with his family. What’s remarkable about the story is Joseph’s capacity for forgiveness. We might think that someone who has been victimized in the past, even if he experiences spectacular success afterward, would still bear a grudge toward those who hurt him. His brothers certainly think he might, and even lie to Joseph when they later tell him that their father Jacob left instructions for Joseph to forgive the hurt they caused him and refrain from any acts of revenge. Each of us has likely been the victim of someone else’s hurtful act, and each of us, like Joseph, has likely faced the choice between revenge and forgiveness.

But Joseph seems to be able to rise above the need for revenge. He says to his brothers,

“God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:7-8)

Joseph clearly believes that being thrown into a pit by his brothers and being sold into slavery was not an evil act on their part, but part of a grand Divine plan. That he believes such a thing is an enormous act of faith. He sees himself as a pawn in a great cosmic chess game being played by God. We, who know how the story develops, can understand Joseph’s enslavement and all the events that flow forth from it as part of a plan to bring the Israelites to Egypt, see them enslaved by a future Pharaoh, and then redeemed in a miraculous act of redemption.

Yet, Joseph’s reassurance to his brothers that they are not to blame may not be so righteous and admirable. A modern commentator, Rabbi Ya’akov Beifuss, suggests that Joseph displays an odd and excessive desire to let his brothers off the hook. He writes,

“A doer of lovingkindness, out of a tendency to show the abundance of good in his heart, refuses to accept recompense for the good he did. Such a person would do well to consider and check whether this behavior flows from a perfect will to do good or, perhaps, he wants his friend to remain a slave to him forever for his kindness. He ought to free his friend from the feeling of indebtedness that was created…”

 In other words, Joseph’s eagerness to connect his fate to God’s will and the Divine plan may be less than genuine. By so eagerly letting them off the hook Joseph robs his brothers of the opportunity to be held accountable for what they did to him. In reality, the brothers need to be found guilty. They need the opportunity to perform an act of teshuva, to express regret and make amends. Joseph needs to give his brothers a chance to apologize and affirm their willingness to try to be better people. That he lets them off the hook may very well be a mind game, another act of quiet revenge.

When we err, it’s nice to be forgiven. But when we hurt others or make serious mistakes, we also need to accept responsibility for what we have done, be held accountable and make amends, for that is the pathway to peace of mind and wholeness.

Note: This Shabbat we will read the Haftarah in a different and special way. Part of the prophetic reading, from the 37th chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, will be read in Hebrew and part will be read in English, along with an introduction and commentary. The reading of the Haftarah has been a part of Shabbat and festival services for ages, but in recent times the reading of the prophetic message has become inaccessible to most congregants. Oheb Shalom is a congregation that strives to be innovative, so from time to time we will try new approaches to bringing the spirit of the Jewish tradition to our congregants.

When You See a Racist

The character of Joseph is an enigma. Because he is favored by his father and showered with gifts from him, he is abused by his brothers, who sell him into slavery in a foreign country. His master’s wife tries to seduce him and, when he refuses, he is falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison. In prison, he successfully interprets the dreams of two fellow inmates, one of whom is set free. In return he asks to be remembered to the Pharaoh so that he too can be freed from prison, but the man he helped forgets about him for over two years.

Given all that he has experienced, one might think that Joseph would be a bitter person, angry at people and mistrusting of others. But, instead, he is somehow able to retain his faith in God and in God’s plan for his people and for the world. He is seemingly a positive person, one who guides the Pharaoh in saving the people of Egypt, and the surrounding region, from a crippling famine. When given the chance, he will forgive his brothers for what they did to him, telling them that they need not worry that he will seek to hurt them, for, he says, all that has happened was meant to be.

The story of Joseph reminds us that we can react to the turbulence, chaos and pain of life in one of two ways. Either we can turn inward, become angry and bitter, immune and insensitive to the pain of others. Or we can react to having been hurt by becoming sensitive to others who suffer a similar fate. Throughout our history, the Jewish people have been oppressed and tormented, enslaved and victimized.   We could have reacted by becoming resentful and deaf to the cries of others who suffer. But we didn’t. We responded to being oppressed by trying to nurture an enlightened humanity and by trying to spare others the pain we have felt. This is the message of the Torah when it commands us to treat the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the destitute and the downtrodden with love and caring and respect, for, we are told, we know their pain all too well.

We know the sting of racism. Hitler’s racist policies led to the destruction of European Jewry. 40 years ago last month, the United Nations General Assembly voted to declare Zionism to be a form of racism. The resolution was laced with vicious, anti-Zionist rhetoric, referring to Israel as “occupied Palestine” (it was rescinded 16 years later). The Jewish response is not to become bitter and resentful, but to fight against racism wherever we find it. We know the pain of discrimination; thus, we are commanded to oppose discrimination with every fiber of our being.

I won’t use this blog to take political sides in the long race for the presidency, or to endorse one candidate over another. But Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric deserves to be condemned, and it’s appropriate for Jews to condemn it. His call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is not only foolish and misguided (based on his logic, he should seek to deport Muslims living in the United States). His call to prevent Muslims from entering the United States is not only rhetoric designed to yield another bump in the polls at a time that people are anxious about gun violence. Mostly his call to prevent Muslims from entering the US is just plain racist. And when Jews see racism, we are commanded to condemn it, for we know well what it’s like to be the victim of racist hatred. We are commanded to translate the pain and discrimination we have experienced into love and tolerance, for it is love and tolerance that will heal the world.

Through the Eyes of a Survivor

Just yesterday, there were 14 dead and 17 wounded at the Inland Regional Center for people with developmental disabilities in San Bernardino, California.

On November 29, it was 3 dead and 9 injured at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

On October 1, it was 9 dead and 9 injured at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

On July 16, it was 5 dead and 3 wounded at a military recruiting center and a Navy-Marine training facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

On June 18, it was 9 dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

On May 23, 2014 it was 6 dead and 7 wounded in Isla Vista, California.

On April 2, 2014 it was 3 killed and 16 inured at Fort Hood, Texas.

On September 16, 2013 it was 12 killed and 3 injured at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington D.C.

Should I go on? The statistics are frightening. One in three people in the United States knows someone who has been shot. On average, more than 11,000 Americans are murdered with a gun every day. Every day, an average of 55 people kill themselves with a firearm, and 46 people are shot or killed in an accident with a gun. The homicide rate from firearms in the United States is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.

There is an epidemic of gun violence in our country and, frankly, no one is safe. Every time an episode of gun violence takes place, which seems to happen with alarming frequency, those who witness it react with shock and disbelief. How could anyone do such a thing, they wonder. But gun violence is becoming so commonplace that we risk getting used to it.

We, the Jewish people, are commanded to honor the sanctity of life and to do whatever we can to preserve even one human life. The Talmud teaches us that “he who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe and he who saves one life it is as though he has saved the universe” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Jewish people have always had an aversion to violent behavior. We are obligated to try to save lives at risk from gun violence.

What will compel us to embrace this obligation- this mitzvah- with passion and commitment? How can apathy be overcome or, worse, the feeling that nothing can ever be done to make a difference? What will it take to inspire us to act?

One small step toward action is to put a personal face on the tragedy of gun violence. The story of the Holocaust became more compelling for millions of people through the eyes of Anne Frank and her diary. Perhaps in a similar way the tragedy of gun violence can become real for us by seeing it through the eyes of a single victim, someone whose life was nearly lost because of a gun crime.

Living for 32, the story of Colin Goddard surviving the gun massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, personalizes the gun violence crisis and, hopefully, motivates action.  Oheb Shalom Congregation is sponsoring a screening of the film tonight at 7:00 PM at SOPAC, to be followed by a question and answer session. Tickets are $5. I hope that you are available and will make it a point to be present for the screening.

Hayom katzar v’hamlacha m’ruba…the day is short and the task is great, says Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Sages). The task of overcoming the scourge of gun violence is great, and we don’t have time to waste in solving this terrible problem. It’s time to act. Perhaps Colin Goddard’s story will inspire us.