On Seeing Voices

Vignettes:
The snow storms have covered up cars, sidewalks, lawns, bushes, rocks and garbage bags in strange formations, but here and there, colorful spots appear on the white carpet. A creative art project and / or anthropological survey can be conducted with the assortment of single gloves in the streets.

The icy, dirty snow in the streets glistens in the bright, freezing sun. It looks so beautiful to take a walk or run, until that first  step into the wind. In the stairwell I come across an older couple huffing and puffing. “It’s our gym”, they apologize with a smile. “mine too”, I agree as I hop on, at least on the way down…

Recently, I attended a couple of “Bar (Bat) Mitzvah Fairs”. The fairs usually take place in a pretty nice hotel’s ballroom, where various vendors set up shop to sell “Bar Mitzvah related items”. What’s “Bar/ Bat Mitzvah related items”? In “my time” / my kids’ time, it would have been different kinds of kippot, maybe an especially stylish bencher. But in a world where, per Jackie Mason, “everybody is Jewish”, Bar Mitzvah Fair has not only the kippa vendors, but also — glitzy dancers, cruises and personalized trips around the world, giant cakes and specialty desserts (dry-ice dyed popcorn to look smoking…), clothing, cards, every sort of swag imaginable (and more), and professional party planners who will do the whole event for you, just show up. Actually, maybe don’t. There is also an option to rent a VR (Virtual Reality) set; transport yourself straight to the Torah reading and be done with it.
I walk away empty, wondering what are we doing and where we’ve gone wrong. Here’s to hoping this life cycle event somehow regains greater meaning.

And while on smoking, in this week’s Torah reading, the mountain itself is smoking when the Children of Israel receive the Law. Commentators differ as to exactly what happened, and what exactly we got, but whatever it was, it changed human history forever.
Because we can’t perceive things without words, it had to be broken down into a list of items: there are ten of them and they can be grouped – in five’s or two’s; we can read them backwards, we can count the letters… each method adds new ideas, significance and depth, while at the same time, also takes away from the totality of it.
The Torah tries to convey the remarkableness of the event by providing a unique description: “and all the people see the voices… וכל העם רואים את הקולות” (Exodus 20:15). How come everybody was able to see? And how can anyone see voices? The description is almost psychotic! Can we really use one sense for another?
Rashi tells us, in the name of an older midrash, that no one was blind, deaf or mute, hence they could see and answer, saying, “na’ase venishma –  נעשה ונשמע” – we will do and we will listen. The midrash itself focuses on the fact that the text did not say that “the people see A voice” in the singular, but rather – voices. Why would the One G-d speak in many voices?? One way to understand it is that just like the manna was one “thing” but once on the ground, could be experienced by each person as a different food and flavor, so too G-d voice, comes to us as voices, each hearing what we’re ready for. Even Moses and Aaron heard different things! In the same “dibur” (saying), Moses heard G-d telling him to go from Midyan back to Egypt, while Aaron heard that he should leave Egypt and go to the desert. That’s how they met: they heard the same voice but to each it had a different instruction which was appropriate to him (Shmot Rabba 5:9).
Rav Hirsch points to the added value in “seeing the voices” as it implies greater confirmation of the speaker, for if I only hear and don’t see, I might not recognize the speaker or know where the sound is coming from. Alternatively, if I only see, the message might be outward and superficial– think phone and soundless tv. The Kli Yakar reminds us that one cannot hear as far as one can see. The People moved away from the grandness of the event, but by seeing the voices, the message stays that much stronger, surer and True. Should someone one day try to challenge it, they would know that the experience was doubly strong. Ibn Ezra tells us that in their essence, all emotions funnel to and stem from one common place within a person, only finding different expressions. The fluidity with which we use our senses might be reflected in modern communication: we say – “I hear you” when we’re writing a text… “I see what you’re saying” when we’re on the phone.
No doubt the experience was too intense. As the People withdrew back, fearing death, they asked Moses to speak for them. Nevertheless, G-d says, “so you will tell the Children of Israel, you saw that I spoke with you from the heaven”… (Exodus 20:19).
The voices we saw at Sinai seeped into the world and history changed forever. No longer a few individuals who hear G-d’s calls, but a whole nation transformed, as we witnessed a glimpse of the Divide. Faced with that which is beyond comprehension, if anything, the fact that we don’t know exactly what happened and need so many commentators to explain just a few words of it, might show us how Divine it was.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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On Trees, Water and Trust

Due to my Ashkenazi heritage, I have nothing to eat on Pesach and am inundated with all sorts of “chumrot” (strictures), but I am thankful for a beautiful tradition– the celebration of Tu Bishvat.
It’s a bit ironic to write about Tu Bishvat when there’s a major snow storm outside (finally!), but also so appropriate. For while Tu Bishvat is all Israel – just walk out among the blooming almond trees and breathe and it’s right there – in the diaspora, especially in the snowy, cold diaspora, that’s a whole different story.
The first thing the Ashkenazi community could do to mark Tu Bishvat was to declare it a non-fast day (got to start somewhere…). Later they added dried fruits, not as a treat, but because there was nothing else that was edible in the winter months from the Holy Land. In the 17th century, the kabalists add the Tu Bishvat seder which has become more and more prevalent in recent decades.
So much so that this past Sunday, I had the honor and pleasure to co-lead a Tu Bishvat seder as part of my internship at New York’s maximum security women prison. It’s always eerie: to pass the guards, towers, check ups…I feel a multi-generational PTSD… But once inside, in the prison’s “Jewish chapel”, it’s a different story. For just a couple of hours, the small room is transposed: the table covered and laden with grape juice, both red and white, as well as bowls of various dried fruits and nuts. We chat and learn together; we discuss what kind of fruit we might be – shell on the outside or pit inside? My co-leader and I even manage a halachik argument: should we say a blessing over each cup or just once? We could have been anywhere: a group of women munching on goodies, casually talking about life, coloring pictures of trees to decorate the thick concrete walls around with our art. When it’s time to say good bye, we hug affectionately till our next meeting. If Tu Bishvat ever meant to be a reminder of warmth, life and hope in cold places, celebrating it in prison must be best.
*******
It’s the week following the OU statement about women leadership in the Orthodox community; and now, the week of “nevertheless”. It’s also the bar mitzvah of my daughter’s bat mitzvah (don’t do the math-), when there were still three generations of women alive in our family, celebrating together. Most of all, it’s Shabbat Shira – the songs of Miriam and Dvora, the first – by the shores of the sea, the latter – under a palm tree.
Miriam and water go together, from the time she was a little girl watching her brother from the bulrushes by the bank of the river, to the loss of the well with her death, later in the Book of Numbers, through her song this week.
To be sure, the song started out with Moses and the people, expressing their joy and thankfulness, but it wasn’t complete until Miriam and the women joined in. There are numerous fun, sexy if I may, lively midrashim, regarding the women in Egypt, who, throughout the years of slavery, were the ones who pushed for surviving and thriving against all odds. There was no way to limit their creativity and ingenuity, and in many ways, though the background is very different, not much has changed since. The song is just one of those moments when it’s obvious, that only when everybody gets together, allowing each to blossom in their own way, the celebration is complete.
*******
How to turn a band of slaves into a nation? There is lots to do. They need a calendar so they can be synchronized, which we started last week. They need to be safe. They need food. They need water. They need direction. They need rest… In the middle of trying to get all this together, suddenly they long to go back… Growing up is a challenging journey.
One of the first skills they must acquire is learning to trust. Moses tries to explain. This is not the time for long teachings, and he does get rebuked for it, but what he says is beautiful:
“”ויאמר משה אל העם אל תיראו, התיצבו וראו את ישועת ה’ אשר יעשה לכם היום… ה’ ילחם לכם ואתם תחרישון
“And Moses said to the people, do not fear, stand up and see G-d’s salvation which will be done to you today… Hashem will fight for you and you’ll be silent” (Exodus 14:14). This is the easy translation, but what if we stretch the words?
“Fight” in Hebrew – yilachem – shares its root with bread – lechem, as in struggle for basic sustenance; tacharishun – can mean, be still, but it can also mean “you will plow”: (lehacharish – be quiet; lacharosh – to sow), perhaps sharing a form of purposeful, quiet participation and attentiveness.
If so, this same verse can be read: ‘Hashem will give you bread, and you will plow’. In the desert, water comes from the ground (in the form of traveling wells), and bread – rains from the heavens (in the form of manna). Life is magical and contrary to the natural order of things. In “real life”, you’ll enter a new partnership, not that of slavery. You no longer work for nothing, nor do you work for a foreign king’s gain. Your future partnership is with G-d: you work, so Hashem can give you your sustenance. What do we need to do to allow this to happen?
The manna which also appears this week is another exercise in trust: It comes down every day in exactly the right amount needed, except on Shabbat when a double portion comes down on Friday. What’s it like to go to sleep with nothing yet know that all our needs will met tomorrow? For us, maybe the taste of that peace and trust is the gift of Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom!

שקדיה ושלגיה

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These & These are my Brothers

Vignettes:
Not long ago, I would watch “House of Cards” and wonder if I’m in the middle of a news report. Now I watch the news and can only hope I am in the middle of a crazy Netflix show that has gone terribly wrong…

This week’s images from Israel reminded many of Yamit. And Gush Katif. But just because something looks the same, does not mean it is exactly the same. What’s the difference?
In the past, we spoke about security concerns; once, we even got peace. But now it’s because we, the people who brought to the world the belief in the One G-d, the Torah and (amazing!) Talmud, the basis for civil law in the modern world; who created a miraculous “homeland”, who sent airplanes and secret missions to save people in heroic operations; who survived against all odds for thousands of years and are called to be a light unto the nations – can’t figure out how to peacefully rearrange a few plots of land with minimum harm to those involved.
And still, not maximizing on the best solution, would be the least of it. For while some are pained and torn, trying to pack 18 years into a suitcase, others are cheering against them, joyful at those hurting.
Amona is not the issue, but it does serve as a mirror to how far we’ve gone. To paraphrase Yehuda Amichai, redemption will come only when we can shift our viewpoint, and begin to see each other.

And while we’re on seeing:
This week we encounter the three last plagues, and among them – the plague of darkness. Some say, it was a darkness that had thickness. But some say, it was not too dark to see, just too dark to recognize one another. And yet, the midrash tells us, that in some places, there was light. What was that light? The Torah. How so? Not as a religious coercion and an oppressive list of do’s and don’t’s but as an expansive way of life that invites us to step out of ourselves and care for another; a way of light, Torah-Or.
*******
Ten whole Plagues. Days, weeks and months of preparations, including even time to collect gold and silver vessels. And suddenly, chipazon!! A great and almost frantic rush. Get out! Get out! Never mind the dough! Just go!
What’s going on?
The Exodus was not a surprise. We knew it was coming. There was a “process”. After years of slavery, we had to slowly be reminded that there is a tomorrow; learn that there is hope; that things can actually get better, that we matter, all things that as slaves we could not even imagine. That build up was necessary, and had to be gradual, just like when picking up anyone out of any bad situation…
But then one day, it’s time to go. And go we must in chipazon.
Rabbi Hirsch says the root ch.p.z. means – hasten aimlessly. Aimlessly?? Aren’t we going to freedom??
We’re going, that’s for sure. We don’t yet know where to. G-d says to Moses, to a land of milk and honey. Moses says to Pharaoh, it’s just a quick trip to celebrate a festival. The experience of the people must be super confusing. Strange things happen all around: the river turns to blood, frogs everywhere, live, animals… It’s no wonder there is “darkness”.
But then comes a day…
The battered woman who prepared her get-away carefully, waiting for that once in a lifetime window of opportunity, now must act; Our kidnapped soldier from Chatufim who couldn’t even dream that it’s possible, is now being whisked out secretly with no time for goodbyes; And the Children of Israel, who knew for months and yet, all of a sudden are in such a hurry that they can’t finish making sandwiches for the trip.
The two Torah portions – of patience and haste – go hand in hand. There is time for the lengthy prep, but then comes the time to just get up and go.
*******
With the Exodus, we receive the first mitzvah as a people: creating a calendar by setting the new moon and keeping track of time. And the question comes up again: if the Torah is all about doing mitzvoth, why not start right here? Why drag us all the way back to Genesis, the creation of the world etc? Who cares? Maybe the Torah is not the constitution, and not a dry list of laws, but so much more.

Shabbat Shalom.

These & these are my brothers

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Savlanut, Savlanut…

Vignettes:

  • I’m waiting for that real winter I’ve heard so much about… But this year, it seems that if I want winter, I should move to California. Or Jerusalem.
  • Some days the best thing that happens is losing a wallet, going totally crazy, and then finding it again, 5 hours later, resting peacefully 5 feet from where it was lost…
  • I have no idea how old I am. I mean, I can count, but since I have never been here before and have little reference, I am not exactly sure what that means. Then, I rush into the subway all frazzled, and some young guy asks if I want to sit… first thought: ouch, that hurts; why is he offering me a seat? aren’t we the same age?? Then, looking around the crowded subway situation: thank you wrinkles and some grey!
  • My yeshiva joy is daf yomi, the daily learning of one (double) page of Talmud. And this week: starting Bava Batra and a story about our complex relationship with a foreign government, inside a special focus on who’s to pay if one neighbor wants to build a wall, and the other one – doesn’t. Can the neighbor who doesn’t want the fence / wall be forced to pay?? and if yes, why? and how much? half? whole? nothing? Well, you know, the Talmud; a very ancient document about all sorts of irrelevant details; glad there’s nothing current…

Torah: I have the honor to have been this week’s yeshivat Maharat’s parasha writer. Below is what went out.red circles top 3

YM final colorJPEG

Pastoral Torah: Existential and Spiritual Insights into the Parsha

By Michal Kohane (’20)

Michal Kohane

Savlanut! Undoing the Web of Enslavement
Shabbat Va’era  2017/5777

 בעשרה מאמרות נברא העולם

“The world was created through Ten Utterances, our sages tell us” (Pirkei Avot 5:1). And yet, one wonders: The same God Almighty who can create a perfect world in 10 sayings, could do so in one! Why the extra work then? Let’s hold the question while we look at this week’s Torah portion.

The journey of a band of slaves becoming a free people, is fascinating, perhaps because it’s something that each person can identify with on many levels. Whether the story of one’s birth, or our struggle with various kinds of mitzrayim – narrow places – of enslavement (physical, emotional, spiritual) and our complicated journey to freedom.

Once again, we read this week, about the first seven of the Ten Plagues, reminiscent of the Ten Utterances as well as the later Ten Commandments; and once again we may wonder, why so many plagues? If G-d – or anyone for that matter- wants to get someone out of a bad situation, why not just go in and get them out? And the people? Didn’t they know they were suffering in slavery? Didn’t they groan and moan, crying and wanting to get out??

Rashi, the medieval commentator, points to Exodus 6:9:

  וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶלמשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה – “and they did not listen unto Moses due to impatience of spirit, and cruel bondage”. Drawing on the unique term “kotzer ru’ach” – literally meaning, shortness of breath, he says that someone whose breath (“ru’ach”, also wind, spirit, soul) is short, cannot have long breathing. Isn’t Rashi stating the obvious?

Rabbi Binyamin Lau explains Rashi: “This is like a person who is experiencing an asthma attack, and seeks immediate relief. As he reaches for his inhaler, someone tells them about an experimental new drug which might be available someday. The patient’s reaction is likely to be – I’m choking here, and you’re talking to me about something long term in the future? Likewise, the rulers of Egypt were pressuring the Children of Israel, leaving them breathless, unable to hear anything”.

Next, G-d explains to Moses the famous stages to the delivery from bondage, using the ארבע לשונות גאולה:  Four Expressions of Salvation:

 והוצאתיוהיצלתיוגאלתיולקחתי…  “and I shall take you out…. And I shall save you…. and I shall redeem you… and I shall take you to me unto a nation” (Exodus 6:6-8), which are the basis for our Four Cups on Passover. And again, we wonder. We can easily understand the asthma patient metaphor, but here we’re talking about G-d! Why not just get the people out already? After all, they were in so much anguish and G-d can do anything!

Inspired by watching “Chatufim”, the Israeli TV drama that was bought in the U.S. and became Homeland, I realized the devastating pattern of enslavement.

Chatufim tells the story of three IDF soldiers who are kidnapped and kept in captivity for 17 years. The complex and highly recommended show, takes a serious look into the psychology of the kidnapped. It shows what happens to someone who is kept in isolation, beaten up (physically and emotionally) and yet, at the same time, cared for and fed. Each one of these three components is critical to the combination, and creates a complete dependency of the kidnapped to his capturers.

This pattern repeats itself in all abuse situations, from that of POW’s, to battered women, to the Children of Israel in Egypt. We’ll see it later, when the Children of Israel will “remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for free; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” (Number 11:5). Is their imagination running wild? Are they suffering from heat stroke? Or perhaps, not everything was bad in Egypt, or else slavery would not have been possible. Too much oppression ultimately begets escape, riots and revolts, or the death of captive, situations the oppressor usually want to avoid. It takes the right mixture of isolation (in this case away from their land, from the silent G-d), harsh labor and torture (as in the back breaking work and killing of the baby boys,) as well as care (“free food” and a sense of safety) to create the ultimate slavery.

When we see people in abuse situation, we often wonder: why doesn’t this person who is in so much pain, just walk out? If living in Egypt didn’t work anymore, why didn’t Jacob’s children travel the relatively short distance home, with the many caravans and merchants who passed by? Similarly, why didn’t the Jews of the 1930’s leave Europe? Why doesn’t the battered woman walk out on her abuser? Why doesn’t our hero in Chatufim cross the border, not even a few kilometers away, even though there are times he can? Why don’t we free ourselves from what’s holding us down internally?

Because from where we stand during these moments, it’s not possible. The successful captor knows it. The successful redeemer must know it too. The carefully constructed web designed to keep one in, must be carefully undone to ensure a complete and safe journey out. Hayim Sabato in his book “Ahavat Torah” points out that the “Four Expressions of Salvation”, G-d’s plan which He shares with Moses, appear in three verses. Which correspond to the three elements that hold one in, and parallel the three elements needed in the Jewish People’s redemption: The Exodus, the Covenant at Sinai, and the journey to the Land of Israel. These further parallel to the three “regalim”, our holidays that celebrate that journey, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. The journey takes a detailed plan in order  to be successful. Likewise, when encountering enslavement, from within or without, maybe we shouldn’t judge too quickly. Even G-d takes time when delivering a band of slaves from their oppressor. We too, have to be patient with the journey ahead.

Shabbat Shalom & Hodesh Tov!

 

 

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The Power of a Genuine Smile

Raising children in the 1990’s and early 2000, meant that “Prince of Egypt” played repeatedly on our little then TV-VCR. Aside from its grand success in our home, the film went on to gross over $218 million worldwide in theaters, which made it the most successful non-Disney animated feature at the time. The song, “Deliver Us”, sung by the late Ofra Haza, was translated to 17 languages and (the song) “When You Believe” won Best Original Song at the 1999 Academy Awards. The creators of the film took the liberty to offer a modern midrash to the ancient story, and yet, they didn’t do without insight into the sources.
A couple of scenes are especially interesting to me: Moses goes out to see his brothers, but having grown up in the palace, how does he know who are his brothers? The film suggests the his mother and sister sang him the same song he hears in the Hebrew quarters which somehow strikes a cord within him. Another scene is when Moses sees the Egyptian hitting a Hebrew man. The Torah tells us: “ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש ויך את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול” – “and he turned this way and that, and when he saw that there was no “menאch” nearby, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). The translation, if surprising, is mine, trying to stick closely to the Hebrew – “ein ish”. Most translations prefer a variation on “there was no one around”. The problem is that as we hear a couple of verses later, there were people around, and the act of “ducking” the Egyptian in the sand, was seen and known. So what can be the meaning of “וירא כי אין איש” – “there was no one”?
In Pirkei Avot (Saying of the Fathers) 2:5, we’re told, במקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש –
“where there is no “ish”, strive to be one”. Rabbi Hirsch of the 19th century, explains that the root for ish – often translated as “man” or “human”, comes from one who can withstand, exist, possibly one who is a yeshut, a self sustaining entity, true to his (her) essence, a good, decent person at heart, and as such – what in Yiddish we‘d call a mentch. Hirsch further says that while it is good for one to stay away from authority positions as they have a tendency to corrupt, at the same time, if there is no one else to do the job, being falsely humble and avoiding one’s calling is not only wrong, but a crime.
Moses models the challenging balance between the two: in no way is he running after honors; in fact, much later, we’ll hear that he is the humblest of all humans, but he is no “pushover” either, and when the time comes, as is foreshadowed here, will be able to be that ish, and stand up to the great Pharaoh, the whole complaining people, Korach and his band and much more.

A moment of over humility for Moses is the lengthy list of excuses he submits when he and G-d put together a magic show for all to see: what if they don’t believe me? what if I can’t speak? what if…? Moses sounds like any one of us before an unknown, scary meetup. What is it that comforts Moses and helps him settle his anxiety?

“הלוא אהרון אחיך הלוי ידעתי כי דבר ידבר הוא וגם הנה הוא יוצא לקראתך וראך ושמח בליבו” – “Behold, Aaron, your brother, the Levite, I know that he will gladly speak (for you, and) behold! He is coming out towards you; he will see you and be joyous in his heart” (Exodus 4:14).
This is the first time in the Torah that the root “samach”, joyous, appears. We just completed a whole book of great tragedies between siblings: murder, banishment, theft, threats, rape, slavery and more. For the first time here, siblings work well together towards a common goal, each contributing his best abilities. Rashi says on this “joyous in his heart” here, is why later Aaron was worthy of the jewels of the priestly breastplate later (חושן (המשפט, which would be placed on the high priest’s chest, on his heart. Maybe Moses was worried that Aaron would be jealous that his younger brother was again a “favorite”, not only by their father, but by G-d Himself, receiving the direct message from the Divine; that Aaron would be offended that greatness was taken from him; that he would smile on the outside, but maintain animosity in his heart. G-d thus reassures Moses that Aaron is coming, and that when he’ll see Moses, he’ll be truly joyous in his heart. This change in brotherly relationship might be a key prerequisite to start the upcoming redemption. Later, in an unusual move, the two of them will be the ones in charge of the first communal commandment (Exodus 12:1-2). Of course, we’ll still need G-d’s amazing wonders and miracles; then again, He can do that anytime. But that true smile from one’s heart to another, davka away from home and when the chips are down – is up to us.

Earlier in the week, I was honored to be one of the speakers at the JOFA conference, along with 1200 participants from around the globe, coinciding with this week’s Torah portion, when women are our nation’s heroes and saviors (the midwives, Yocheved, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, and more). On the forefront of modern orthodoxy, discussion about women’s roles is lively and often heated. What will we look like? More on that in the future…

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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Closing Beresheet

The editor of the Talmud chose to place Tractate Chulin, literally meaning mundane, ordinary, inside the order of Kodashim, holy matters, which might have been his very (very!) subtle way of telling us how the two remain an inseparable part of each other, no matter what, a sort of a Jewish “Yin and Yang”.
The Book of Genesis began with a Torah portion called Beresheet, beginnings, and yet, while it describes how life comes into the world, it also introduces death. And, it ends with the Torah portion of Vayechi, and he lived, which includes with blessings for the future and thus, continuity, along with the death of two great leaders. Davka in Egypt, the foreign, idolatrous, land to which one goes “down”, the family is finally together, able to make a home where there is food and safety.
And so it goes.
We want simple answers: it’s always this way, always that way, but always – rarely works. We spend our days doing everything we can to add learning and gain understanding, and yet, time and again, we’re struck with things we have no way of comprehending. Maybe therefore it’s no wonder that freedom too has to be sought and found from within slavery. And on that, in the next book.

Up until this portion, people did not get sick. But now, for the first time, we’re told (Genesis 48:1): “Behold, your father is sick, so he took with him his sons… (to be blessed by Jacob). The midrash tells us that up until then, when it was time for a person to die, he would sneeze and his soul would depart from him, which might be the source for our custom to say, “bless you”, labri’ut, gesundheit etc etc…
The following is a(n imaginary 🙂 page from someone’s journal, used in my improve class last year. Guess who?

Meeting the family in Egypt was more exciting that words can describe, not only for Joseph, Jacob, the brothers and their growing families. After so many years of waiting, praying, longing; years I thought I’ll never see her again, suddenly, there she was. Slightly older but still just as beautiful as when she made heads turn as a young girl. My mom.
I remember the neighbors gossiping, their tongues like snakes hissing around us: it was all her fault, they’d say, she brought it on herself, her “mother’s daughter”, the “yatz’anit” – “the one going out”, referring of course, to that time grandma bought a night with her husband…
And my mom. The only daughter among 12 sons. She “went out” to visit with her girlfriends. Did she know? She must have known! Who didn’t know the handsome, charming, insistent prince whose father ruled the ancient city, who fell madly in love with her, who didn’t know what love even was, the one who was to be my father??
My father… I never met him. My two uncles got to him first, worrying more about the family’s honor than me growing up an orphan… were they justified braves or crazy fanatics?
And my grandfather. The one who was able to hold all these contradictions in his heart, the lonely, soulful giant amidst the big family, almost beaten down by his many loses…
When he found out that my mom was pregnant, he sent her to live in a small hut by a Canaanite village near Sh’chem, so his overly zealous sons wouldn’t kill me too. I remember the nights he’d sneak out to visit us, not much different from his own grandfather, sneaking out to visit his cast away son who was sent to the desert with his mom. He’d bring us goodies and we would sit around the small fire, my head in his lap, gazing at the stars, as he and mom told stories about our family’ journeys, humming old melodies while I dreamed of another life…
It was a hot day went I was out with the sheep, noticing my uncles in the valley below. They were yelling at each other, pulling something this way and that. Then I saw his colorful coat, blood dripping from it. Yes, I knew it was his. My mom told me all about it, and me, I just… already then, of course… but let me not get ahead of myself.
Much as they tried, it slowly became obvious that my life was in danger too, and that my mom won’t be able to protect me, just like Jacob was not able to protect his beloved son… With no father, no money, little sustenance, and a bad reputation, there was no future. After much deliberation, grandpa had me sent to Egypt, and a convoy of merchants took me to be a maid to Potifar’s wife…
That’s where we finally met, two Hebrew slaves in the palace, polishing someone else’s floor through our tears, trying to brighten our own dreams… At first we were scared, but unable to stay away from each other, we would sit at night, holding each other, talking in whisper, while the palace still, the breeze humming in the bulrushes and the full moon slowly rising over the Nile… Being a slave in a foreign land, all of a sudden was a blessing… it gave us time to enjoy the miracle that happened to us, finding each other again so far from home…
Then, one day… it was late afternoon. He was out in big yard, while I was walking behind Mrs. Potifar, trying to keep up with her, holding the heavy fan for her on her way to dinner, my arms straining. He looked up at me, and oh, one second of gazing in his beautiful eyes! My day was wonderful again, my arms light, no task too hard…
Unfortunately, I was not the only one who saw his look. She… for a moment I thought our secret was revealed, but she was too vain to think anything but about herself. So she thought his loving look was directed at her!! Silly, lonely woman!! She wished! “did you see that”? she asked me proudly. What could I say? From that day on, she pestered him even more, calling him to her chambers for no real reason, breaking things purposely, “needing” stuff that “only he could do”, screaming and yelling with her silly girlfriends, until… well, you know what happened…
More than two years he was in jail. I couldn’t do anything to get him out. But I did steal a small bucket which I filled with delicacies and lowered down to the dungeon… Sometimes, I would add a little message on papyrus, sit outside humming old melodies, gazing at the stars, once again dreaming of another life…
Then, one day, chariots were sent, and well dressed messengers carried fine linen, a change of clothing for him, what a commotion! Summoned back to the palace, he was asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, and was quickly declared second to the king. That’s when I was finally given to him officially as a wife, a perfect match, another well trained, well behaved servant from the palace, a dime a dozen. Little did they know about our love…
I bore him two sons, Efrayim and Menashe, and while they grew up here in Egypt, we both taught them everything we know, so that one day, one day…
Last week, my mom finally arrived and this week, we took the boys to receive their grandfather’s blessing. I stood there as he crossed his arms over their heads, mumbling the scared words. I thought about our journey, and for the first time in many, many years, I let my tears roll down my cheeks and just cried.

From Joseph, King of Dream - movie

From Joseph, King of Dream – movie

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Meeting our Brother in a Foreign Land

Vignette:
Walking out into the NY winter morning, all wrapped in my coat, scarf, gloves, hat, still feeling quite warm from the indoor heating system, my first thought is: Yeh, fresh air! Then: 20 some degrees (not Celsius!), eh, not so bad, not bad at all! Another minute; I can do this! I am doing this! Five minutes later: My face! Where is my face? I had a face! and now… ?

This past week, I celebrated 30 years of parenthood. Yes, my oldest is finally older than me (ha ha mom, very funny…). In conjunction with this momentous day, I am asking what advice do you give / wish you gave / receive / wish you received from your parents? You don’t have to be a parent to answer  You can comment here (public) or respond to me privately. If I ever put the responses together somewhere, it will be completely anonymous, and any identifying details will be changed.

Judah & Joseph’s Meeting
Judah and Joseph standing in front of each other must be one of the most moving and dramatic moments in the whole Torah: The Second to Pharaoh in his foreign name, family, attire and surroundings, facing the shepherd, who left the Holy Land reluctantly, only to find food, each powerful in his own way, each doing everything he can for his family and future, in his own way, the only way he sees and knows how.
As we’re told, Joseph recognizes the brothers but the brothers don’t recognize him. 22 years have passed by (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 55:2 offers a careful, precise calculation). Joseph is no longer the young 17 year old dreamer he was way back when. Clearly, he’s changed a lot. And yet, that simplistic storyline bothers me, and I think should bother any of us, especially those of us older than 39, especially in this internet age, when it’s possible to reconnect with childhood friends one hasn’t seen “forever”, and yet, are immediately familiar and easy to recognize. And if that does not make it obvious, how about this: You went to the same school for 12 years with only 12 students. One is missing. The last time you saw him was on his way to Egypt and now you’re here… You know he was super talented, beautiful, smart, resourceful, tenacious if slightly obnoxious… Wouldn’t you be at least a little suspicious that he’s somewhere nearby? Top that with the fact that everybody knows Joseph is a Hebrew, and that the brothers are Hebrews, and then think, how many Hebrews were there back then??
As mentioned elsewhere here, Judah’s speech is full of inconsistencies and hidden messages which would be clear only to Joseph, just in case the mysterious ruler was him. This begins already in the first sentence when Judah asks the Second to Pharaoh not to be angry with him. Imagine being invited to Joe Biden’s office and first thing, asking him not to be upset. Why should I do this if we’ve never met and I haven’t done anything to him?! Unless Judah does remember full well the last time they might have met?). Then Judah adds –“for you are like Pharaoh” (Genesis 44:18), possibly hinting that we know you’re “like” but not really another Pharaoh, though on the outside you might have fooled us, and by the way: posing as one person on the outside while being someone else, is not a new thing in this family, with Joseph being “Jacob’s progeny” (Genesis 37:2). Did they all not know the story of their own father, dressing up as someone else, and their grandfather having to figure out if the person in front of him was the outward presence or the inward voice?
One of my dearest friends (who miraculously showed up in my life after even more than 22 years 🙂 helped me zero in and simplify the answer to this: no doubt Judah and Joseph know each other but they do not want to ac-know-ledge each other. In Hebrew, the two are also linguistically linked, short of one construct: lehakir et – להכיר את (know) as opposed to lehakir b… להכיר ב (acknowledge).
We read the story with such suspense every year maybe because it is still just as fresh, relevant and painful as it was then. We too are facing each other, refusing to recognize our brother standing right in front of us, each defensive, pained, enclosed in his own hurt and plight, each unable to make a move forward. How do we dislodge this situation? Maybe we need to incorporate some of Joseph’s faithfulness, patience and forgiveness, preparing and setting the stage for our meeting and joint future as we await our long lost brothers – yes, the same brothers who harmed us-; maybe we need a little Judah in us, daring to get out of our comfort zone, reaching a hand for reconciliation even if there’s no guarantee it will be accepted. Then we can cut some of the talking and cry with each other so we can reunite, begin to heal and continue on our journey together.

Shabbat Shalom.

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