Take for Me a Contribution

What does it mean to give a contribution to a synagogue? This is an exceptionally poignant lesson with the new tax bill where people are less likely to itemize and get a tax deduction from their donation. Often we think that we’ve earned what is ours; our Torah portion teaches us otherwise. The reading begins דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה, speak to the children of Israel and take for me a contribution (for the building of the Mishkan, or G-d’s home).[1] Why is the word לי, or “for me,” written? Why does G-d need a contribution for G-dself?

Rashi, our commentator par excellence, writes that the word לי means לשמי that we are giving for the sake of G-d’s name.[2] This leaves more to be answered. Wouldn’t any gift be for G-d’s name? Siftei Hachamim (Shabbetai Bass 1641-1718 Kalisz, Poland), a supercommentator on Rashi, writes דהא כל דבר שבעולם, שלו הוא, that everything in the world is for G-d.[3] In other words, don’t think that you’re master of your own destiny; rather everything you have is a gift from G-d, and you should give back from the gifts G-d has given you. However, it is supposed to be contribution that one is willing to give because, in the words of Rabbi Yitzhak Karo (uncle of Yosef Karo), “There are those who contribute, not from their own hearts but rather from the hearts of others, meaning that they see others contributing and therefore contribute on account of shame.”[4] The goal of giving is to do so freely, without looking around at what others are doing.

We can use the immense resources that G-d has bestowed upon us to strengthen ourselves, but then it dies with us. When we use them to strengthen a house for G-d, they will live on eternally. Midrash Aggadah continues on this theme, asserting אמר הקב”ה לישראל: התנדבו ועשו המשכן, ואל תאמרו מכיסכם אתם נותנים דבר, כי משלי הוא הכל. לפיכך אמר ויקחו לי-משלי.[5] The Midrash understands ‘give to me’ as saying give from what is mine. Tzeror Hamor (Rabbi Abraham Saba, 1440-1508 Castille) continues on this theme, highlighting why it says “take for me a contribution” as opposed to “give me.” He wrote that when we give tzedakah “we are actually not giving, but rather taking and receiving…everything that one acquires in this world, except Torah and mitzvot will eventually belong to others…only concerning Torah and mitzvot does one truly acquire for himself.”[6]

What are we doing this year to grow in getting closer to G-d? Are we taking on additional Mitzvot? Are we setting additional time for Torah study? How can we increase the devotion of our time, energy and resources to strengthening our connection with G-d?

We are blessed to have a very powerful person joining us to enhance our connection with G-d through the sacred music of prayer. It is such a blessing to be able to welcome in Cantor Kenneth Cohen our new hazzan, who functions as shaliach tzibur, our intermediary before G-d in prayer. I look forward to partnering with and learning from Cantor Cohen as he brings innovative approaches in sacred music to our congregation, and his davening will help us reach closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu (G-d). His knowledge and wisdom will help us grow as a spiritual community, and we welcome him into our congregational family.

In order to fully celebrate Cantor Cohen’s arrival at the Jericho Jewish Center, please turn with me in the Siddur to Page 826. This is a prayer for Welcoming New Members but I am going to change the beginning of it to fit this special occasion. We will follow this with recitation of the Shehehaynu at the bottom of Page 828.

 

[1] Exodus 25:2

[2] Rashi on Exodus 25:2 ד”ה ויקחו לי תרומה

[3] Siftei Hachamim on Rashi Exodus 25:2 ד”ה ויקחו לי לשמי

[4] רבי יצחק קארו שמות כב:ב ד”ה דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה

[5] מדרש אגדה שמות פרק כה:ב Translation G-d said to Israel ‘Give voluntarily to construct the Mishkan. Don’t say you’re giving from your pockets, for everything comes from me. Therefore, say ‘give for me,’ that is to say what is from me.’

[6] צרור המור שמות כב:ב ד”ה ואמר ויקחו לי תרומה

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G-d as Our Doctor

G-d as Our Doctor

Who’s your doctor? Until I began working, I did not have to think about who mine is. My doctor growing up was Dr. Bruce Herman, my father. Even when I was a student in Madison and in New York, I never changed doctors, instead getting a check-up from my father when I was home for breaks.

According to Parshat Beshellach, however, I already have a doctor: G-d. After praising G-d for the defeat of the Egyptians, the Israelites went into the desert still could not find water after three days, finally discovering a source of bitter water.  They referred to the place as “Marah,” or bitter, for they were bitter about the bitter-tasting water.  They complained to Moses.  Moses cried out to G-d, who instructed him to throw a piece of wood into the water making it sweet so that the Israelites could drink it.  G-d then proclaimed to the Israelites, “If you listen to my voice and follow all of my commandments then the plagues that I set upon the Egyptians I will not put upon you, for I am G-d your doctor (רפאך).”[1]

What is most peculiar about this section is why would G-d need to “heal” the water, transforming it from bitter to sweet? Ibn Ezra’s interpretation is that for every affliction, we do not need a human healer or doctor but rather should turn to G-d, who turned the bitter water into sweetness, something that no human doctor can do.[2]  While I respect Ibn Ezra’s interpretation, as the child of a doctor I believe in the power of modern medicine, and that G-d helps those who help themselves.  Rashi has a different perspective: Torah and mitzvot (commandments) save us spiritually the same way that a healer saves us physically.  Just as a doctor tells us not to eat certain things that make us sick, so too does following mitzvot keep us healthy.[3]  Malbim, a Hasidic commentator, goes further on this point, asserting that the Torah keeps us healthy through teaching us proper behavior.  Through following the Torah’s laws, we will live a balanced and healthy life.[4]

Rashi and Malbim’s interpretations are fascinating to me because we often see health exclusively from a physical perspective.  We go to the doctor to check our blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol levels.  We regularly check our BMI as well as the susceptibility that we have to certain conditions or diseases.  Generally we do not turn to Torah for such questions, yet our commentators are indicating that following the Torah can be a measure of our health as a person.  Our keeping Shabbat can be a way of our keeping stress under control, focusing on the moment rather than the next task on our to-do list.  Similarly, keeping kashrut can be a means of thinking about what we are about to consume and whether it is in our best interest to consume it.

My teacher Aryeh Ben-David of the PARDES Institute in Jerusalem said that in addition to getting a physical checkup from a doctor we should get a “spiritual checkup” from G-d.  I think this is a great idea.  By turning to the Torah for guidance in our daily action and behavior, we can live healthier, more meaningful lives.  Just as we ask ourselves “Can I eat this?” or “Did I exercise enough today?” so too must we ask “Do I have a proper balance between work and home life?  Do I create time for myself? Do I reflect on what I am doing, or do I just rush from activity to activity?”  Through this mindset, G-d becomes our healer and our maintainer.

Eight days ago I returned from my introductory retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. This is an eighteen month program in which I work on mindfulness, highlighted by four retreats in which we experience the mornings in complete silence (besides Tefillah) while engaging in meditation, yoga and Hasidic text study. We also learned on zmirot, chanting beautiful songs and trying to get lost in the music. During the entire week we were asked not to use our phones or get any work done, an extremely difficult task for someone like me; rather we were advised to be sensitive to whatever we were engaged in at that particular moment, an approach anxieties or tension with curiosity. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I wrote in my journal that with consistent focus and attention moment-by-moment I can change my attitude and mentality for the better.

 

What amazes me most is how much the spiritual is connected to the physical. When we are fully engaged in the moment, we feel alive and healthy, and our body is strengthened. When we are distracted, torn this way and that, it can very easily lead to stress, weakening our bodies. On retreat, someone compared the brain to a computer and when too many widows are open, it slows down and crashes. The study of psychosomatic reactions and of the importance of holistic medicine, treating the causes in addition to the current symptoms, is not so new but it has gained focus in recent years.

This morning we want to thank our healthcare professionals who bring about for us sources for healing in so many ways. We are blessed to have in our congregation surgeons and internists, nurses and social workers optometrists, obgyns, pediatricians, geriatricians, dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors and so many more. Each of you works hard day in and day out to do what is in the best interest of your patients, often working long hours to do so, and we thank you for this.  We also celebrate that you’re not in it alone: G-d is serving as a doctor within you, guiding you to make good decisions and to be there with full presence and spirit for your patients. Thank you for being who you are and for what you do to make a difference each and every day.

[1] Exodus 15:26

[2] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 15:26 ד”ה המחלה

[3] Rashi on Exodus 15:26 ד”ה לא אשים עליך. His comment there on לפי פשוטו.

[4] Malbim on Exodus 15:26 ד”ה רפאך

No Place for Hate

When I walk into the Sid Jacobson JCC, I notice the sign “Hate Has No Place Here.” I was part of an advertisement along with other Long Island rabbis against hate speech and disturbing rhetoric and action that occurred at Charlottesville. I had also gone along with a number of congregants to the Mid Island JCC to be part of a Break the Hate event co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

In this week’s parsha, Israel is being freed from Egypt (היום יצאתם ממצרים.[1] This is great cause for the Israelites to rejoice and to wreck vengeance on their Egyptian brethren. The Egyptians are eager for Israel to leave, proclaiming כי אמרו כלנו מתים ותחזק מצרים את העם למהר לשלחם מן הארץ “The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country, ‘for otherwise,’ they said, ‘we will all die!’”[2] We learn in Beshellach that Israel leaves armed and in Bo we learn that Egypt gave Israel כלי-כסף וכלי זהב ושמלות, “silver, gold and clothing.”[3] Israel made out like a bandit in plundering Egypt upon their escape from slavery.

With all that had happened, one could surmise that Israelites would hate the Egyptians. After all, they enslaved us for 212 years (or, according to G-d’s prophecy to Abraham, for 400 years). However, at the end of his life, Moses implores Israel “Do not hate an Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land.”[4] What led Moses to say this?

Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “This is remarkable. The Israelites had been enslaved by the Egyptians. They owed them no debt of gratitude. On the contrary, they were entitled to feel a lingering resentment.” He concludes that “a people driven by hate are not-cannot be-free. Had the people carried with them a burden of hatred and a desire for revenge, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites. They would still be there, bound by chains of anger as restricting as any metal. To be free you have to let go of hate.”[5]

Mitzrayim means the place of constriction/narrowness. When we feel hatred (or negative emotions in general), our chest constricts, our shoulders rise and become tense, our fists clench. We close ourselves off, as opposed to the openness our body feels when we have joy and happiness.

How many of us are still bound by hatreds and resentments that we have held onto for years, unwilling to let go of? There’s a great reading in Siddur Hadash “Let us rid ourselves of hatreds and resentments which rob us of the peace we crave.”[6] By holding onto the past events, even when we were wronged, we are the ones who suffer. We cannot become whole until we let go of the past, becoming fully immersed in the present: moment-by-moment, breath-by-breath.

There’s a great video I saw at a Hebrew High staff meeting in Tucson about a father and son. The son complains about an acquaintance he had recently come across again who had wronged him a decade ago. His dad looked at him and said, “How much rent is he paying you?” The son was perplexed: “Rent, but he doesn’t live with me.” His father said, “He should be; he’s been living in your head all this time.”

When we hold onto events from the past, we hold ourselves back. When we hate someone for what they did to us in our hearts rather than forgiving them in our hearts, we hold ourselves back. When we cannot get over our hate and resentment that we feel towards another, even if we feel it is completely justified, we hold ourselves back.

The lesson that Moses is imparting is not to forget past wrongs but rather not to hate today because of them. We need to focus on what we can do in the present to make situations better for ourselves and for those we love rather than living in the past. What’s done is done and Moses recognizes that no amount of anger, vindication, upheaval or frustration will change it. He imparts on his people to not let the past in Egypt guide them but rather the future in the Promised Land. That is a lesson for us to take in as well: what can we do in the present to let go of hate, resentment and aggravation from the past, embracing a present with only love and kindness so that we will be better off today, היום, as a result.

[1] Exodus 13:3

[2] Exodus 12:33

[3] Exodus 12:35

[4] Deuteronomy 23:7

[5] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 93.

[6] Siddur Hadash Moreshet Edition, “Peace Means More than Quiet,” p. 61.

Flip-Flopping

We all get criticized for “flip-flopping.” I know I have. Yet this is precisely what Pharaoh does in this week’s portion. On multiple occasions, beginning with the plague of frogs, he says העתירו אל ה,1] “plead before G-d,” to let the plague end. Yet when it does end, at first he hardens his heart והכבד את לבו[2] whereas later on his heart his hardened for him by G-d ויחזק ה את לב פרעה.[3] Why can’t Pharaoh just stay the course and allow Israel to go? Wouldn’t this have made his life far less complicated?

At the end of Parshat Vaera, Pharaoh says one of my favorite lines: ה הוא הצדיק ואני ועמי הרשעים חטאתי הפעם,, “I have truly sinned this time! G-d is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones.”[4] He begs Moses for an end to the hail. Moses intercedes with G-d causing the hail to end and the rest is the familiar story that you know: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways.”[5]

Why is Pharaoh flip-flopping, saying that Israel can go and then changing his mind? Why couldn’t he have just let Israel go the first time? What’s he afraid of? Why after saying that he’d let Israel go does he relent again and again and again? Is this struggle unique to him or one that each of us shares?

Rashi comments that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the final five plagues is a punishment for the first five, where Pharaoh’s own obstinacy is what led him to refuse to let Israel go.[6] Sforno however offer the opposite interpretation: G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart to restore his free will. After all, the plagues devastating Egypt put Pharaoh under overwhelming pressure to let Israel go. Had he done so, it would not have been out of free will but rather under force majeure. G-d therefore toughened and strengthened Pharaoh’s heart so even after the first five plagues he was still genuinely free to say yes or no.[7]

Seforno’s interpretation intrigues me because if Pharaoh really had free will, why in his right mind would he continue to say no to letting Israel go? Was he just “prisoner of the moment,” automatically resisting as soon as there was no plague afflicting Egypt? Was he so dependent on a free, corvee labor force that he couldn’t put his money where his mouth was and risk Israel’s departure? We often say in life “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Perhaps the uncertainty regarding Pharaoh’s release of Israel was a strong enough fear to trigger him breaking his word time after time and causing Israel to be forced to stay.

Rabbi Shai Held writes in his new book The Heart of Torah that “most of us are not Pharaoh; even if in certain situations change becomes impossible, it is nevertheless crucial to emphasize that such cases are extremely rare. Most of us are faced with the daily struggle of exercising our freedom in the midst of very real limitations, not least the limitations we ourselves have created.”[8] I read Rabbi Held as saying that often we resist change because we will need to transcend what we perceive to be our limits. As we know from Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We can exercise our freedom but how will that choice impact our reality?

As counterintuitive as this might sound, I am much more sympathetic to Pharaoh as I get older. I recognize how easy it is to make promises and then retract them as well as how we might feel one thing at a moment of pressing urgency and another when that urgent matter has abated. Thank G-d no one has forced us into slavery or taken away our free will yet in different ways we can feel a similar tension to that of Pharaoh keeping his people free from plague yet concurrently not wanting to let go of his labor force.

Today we are honoring CPAs who have been very hard at work with new tax legislation, trying to advise their clients as best as possible while becoming abreast of the frenetic changes that they will need to implement. We honor them not only for sponsoring today’s Kiddush but more importantly for their hard work and dedication in a challenging profession, as well as for their devotion to the Jericho Jewish Center. We are so proud of the work that they do for JJC, especially our President Richard Cepler, our Immediate Past President Martha Perlson and our Chairman of the Board and fellow Past President Jay Kaplan. Thank you to all our CPAs for being who you are and for leading our congregation forward with strength.

[1] Exodus 8:4

[2] Exodus 8:11

[3] Exodus 9:12

[4] Exodus 9:27

[5] Exodus 9:34

[6] Rashi on Exodus 7:3 ד”ה ואני אקשה . In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 49.

[7] Seforno on Exodus 7:3 ד”ה ואני אקשה. In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 49.

[8] Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion-Genesis and Exodus Philadelphia: JPS, 2017), p. 143.

The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah

How does one rise to greatness in Judaism? It is not as easy as we might think. Greatness is not based upon pedigree (yihus) but rather upon hard work and merit. We see this through the praise that Jacob gives to his son Judah. He calls him גור אריה, a lion’s cub, says מטרף בני עלית, you have ascended from amidst the pray.[1] He then says לא יסור שבט מיהודה, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.[2] Rashi comments that this means that the line of Jewish leaders will never depart from the tribe of Judah, that wherever Jews live the leader, whether a king or resh galuta (exilarch) will descend from Judah.

Why did Judah merit this ascent? To get at that answer we have to go back to Parshat VaYeshev, where Joseph’s brothers want to kill him. Judah craftily says מה בצע כי נהרוג את אחינו וכסינו את דמו, “What benefit is there if we kill our brother and hide his blood?[4] לכו ונמכרנו לישמעלים וידנו אל-תהי-בו כי אחינו בשרנו הוא, “Let’s go instead and sell him to the Ishmaelites for he is our brother, our flesh.”[5]   Here Rashi asserts Judah is saying we won’t receive any profit, any money from killing him, so better to sell him and wipe our hands from his death (presuming he’ll die in slavery in Egypt).[6]

Judah descended even further in the next chapter of Parshat VaYeshev וירד יהודה מאת אחיו going down from where his brothers were at and taking a Canaanite wife.[7] Even Esau knew how bad it was to take a Canaanite wife, and yet Judah did precisely that. He also had relations with his daughter-in-law (albeit unknowingly) and when he found out she is with child he proclaims הוציאוה ותשרף, “take her out and burn her!”[8] He’s quickly ready to do away with the life of a relative again. When he realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his child, he says צדקה ממני, she is more righteous than me.[9] It is at this point that he begins to ascend through doing תשובה, or repentance, recognizing that the actions that he took were wrong and that it’s time to change course.

Of course the greatest step in Judah’s ascent was in last week’s parsha, VaYigash, where he begged Joseph to spare his brother Benjamin’s life. He states עבדיך ערב את הנער, “I, your servant, has pledged my life for the boy” and ישב-נא עבדיך תחת הנער עבד לאדוני, “let your servant remain as a slave instead of the boy.”[10] Judah has went from devaluation and degradation of human life, treating a brother as an object off of which to profit or a daughter-in-law as one to be burned, to pledging his life on behalf of a younger, innocent brother. He took a roundabout, circuitous way to get there, but the fact that he changed and evolved is why he is the son we need to emulate. G-d looked at Judah’s תשובה and said ‘I want that to be what leads the Jewish people forward.’

Normally we think the most righteous are those who are “Frum from birth.” However that’s not true in our tradition. The Talmud teaches that in the place of a baal teshuva (one who has undergone repentance) a tsadik cannot stand.[11] There is also the story of a Jew asking his rabbi about who is more holy, who is higher on the ladder in God’s judgment: A person beginning to observe the mitzvot or a person who had been observant who is now moving away from observance? The rabbi replied that God’s judgment is not based on how observant the person is, on how high they are on the ladder of observance, but rather on whether one is ascending or descending the ladder.

We have seen an example of ascent today through the hard work and dedication of our Bar Mitzvah boy. It was not easy for you to reach this day yet you did it with pride. Of course it didn’t hurt to have a great teacher-your abba-to guide you along the way. Your imma grew in her Jewish understanding, observance and commitment as an adult as many were casting it aside. Your abba came from Russia at a time when Jews had to hide aspects of their religion. Many left Russia with the status of being tinokot shenishbau, uneducated in the beauty of our faith. He has had to work hard, including through service in Tzahal, asking many questions and take steps forward each day in his Jewish learning. Unlike him you grew up in a place where people are proud to be Jewish, embracing our traditions, and ironically in environments like this it can be difficult to continue immersion in Jewish study. I urge you to follow in the example of your parents, putting in the time, effort and mesirut nefesh as you devote yourself to continuing to grow as a Jew.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! To celebrate as a congregation, let us turn to Page 841 and read responsively.

[1] Genesis 49:9

[2] Genesis 49:10

[3] Rashi on Genesis 49:10 ד”ה לא-יסור שבט מיהודה

[4] Genesis 37:26

[5] Genesis 37:27

[6] Rashi on Genesis 37:26 ד”ה מה בצע, ד”ה וכסינו

[7] Genesis 38:1-2

[8] Genesis 38:24

[9] Genesis 38:26

[10] Genesis 44:32, 33

[11] Talmud Berachot 38b

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

As a child I loved watching Sesame Street, a show which my daughter has continued watching. She loves the characters especially “Momo,” her name for Elmo. One of the Sesame Street songs that I especially enjoyed was “One of these things is not like the other” where I had to determine which was the misfit before the song was finished.

In one of the genealogies from our Torah reading, we have an example of something not being like the others. There is a listing of all of Jacob’s descendants who went down to Egypt after the family is reunited with Joseph. It’s the list of the 70 men, and most of it is just a list of names. However, in the midst of that list, one of Shimon’s sons is mentioned with an interesting reference: Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman.

The fact that the mother is listed only with Shaul and none of the others makes us assume that he is the only one who came from Canaanite birth. Why then is he listed here? We know that Isaac told Jacob himself “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite woman,”[1] yet here Isaac’s grandson apparently takes a wife or concubine from amongst the Canaanites!

We see that Shimon was not so righteous. After all, he will be cursed along with his brother Levi by Jacob in Parshat VaYehi because of their attack on the inhabitants of Shechem: “Shimon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not a person be included in their council, let not my being be counted in their assembly.”[2] At the same time we know that others of Jacob’s sons married outside the faith. We saw Judah before he underwent teshuva, separating from his brothers and at that point he “saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married and cohabited with her.”[3] However, the children born to Shua are not listed as ‘son of a Canaanite woman’ so what makes it so special that Shimon’s son Shaul is listed as ben hak’nani?

          Rashi tries to solve this in an interesting way. He comments that Shaul is not Shimon’s biological son after all! Rather he is בן דינה שנבעלה לכנעני, the son of Dinah with whom the Canaanite (Shechem son of Hamor) cohabited. Why then is he listed as the son of Shimon? Rashi continues כשהרגו את שכם לא היתה דינה לצאת עד שנשבע לה שמעון שישאנה, “when he killed Shechem, Dinah did not want to leave until Shimon swore to her that he’d marry her.”[4] A woman who had been raped (and as Rashi asserts, impregnated) would be vulnerable to return to the world, as she would have no one to support her. Shimon therefore marries her (never mind the incest) and becomes Shaul’s adoptive father.

Why would Rashi bother to comment on this and what can we learn from this? First we see Rashi trying to right the character of Shimon, who acted as a vigilante, murdering all the people of Shechem on account of the honor of his sister Dinah. With this comment, we see him not as a purely dangerous wild person but also as a man of hesed, who has compassion for his sister and who marries her in name only to ensure that her son will have a proper upbringing. Secondly, it teaches us that every addition in the Torah has significance, even when it is added to one name in a list of seventy. Thirdly and I’d argue most importantly, it demonstrates not to look at things as they appear prima facie but to critically and thoughtfully look for reasons behind things. Many of us, myself included, grew up with the understanding that Shimon acted inappropriately and as a result he would suffer, not only from the curse that Jacob gives him but also from his tribe assuming the smallest portion of land, being quickly absorbed into the tribe of Judah. Rashi is teaching us don’t always judge a book by its cover; try to look deeper and maybe you’ll uncover a greater meaning behind it.

As we learn from Hasidic teachings, people are not all good or all bad; we have elements of both within us. We can use our passion, as Shimon must have felt upon hearing the news of his sister’s defilement, to engage in all-out rage or we can use it to help raise the next generation with kindness. It is a great act of hesed to raise a child who is not one’s own out of devotion and love for another, and I’d like to depict Shimon in this light. In so doing, we can see that it is not only Judah who engages in Teshuvah through pleading on account of Benjamin, but also Shimon who behind-the-scenes intervenes for the dignity and well-being of his sister Dinah.

Last week I asked everyone to what do you dedicate yourselves? Now I will ask how can we work together behind the scenes to improve the lives of those in our community, even if we don’t get to take credit for it. May this be on the forefront of our minds and let us resolve to make a difference as we approach the end of secular year 2017.

[1] Genesis 28:1

[2] Genesis 49:5-6

[3] Genesis 38:2

[4] Rashi on Genesis 46:10 ד”ה בן הכנענית

To what are we dedicated?

“I put myself back in the narrative.” These words are said by Eliza Schuyler in the final song of Hamilton entitled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Eliza dedicated the 50 years of her life following her husband Alexander Hamilton’s death to telling his story and furthering his legacy, as well as her own. As we are now in the midst of Hanukkah, the holiday of dedication, I wonder to what are we dedicated? When we are remembered what attributes, activities and causes will be front and center?

In the middle of Parshat Miketz we find ourselves in the midst of a famine in the land of Canaan. Jacob’s sons appear to be dumbfounded, unsure of how to get out of it. It requires Jacob’s prodding למה תתראו, “why are you looking at one another?” followed by his command הנה שמעתי כי יש שבר במצרים רדו-שמה ושברו לנו משם ונחיה ולא נמות “for I have heard that there are rations in Egypt; go down and procure rations for us there that we may live and not die.”[1] Why are Jacob’s sons unwilling or unable to act until Jacob prods them?

Rashi asserts that Jacob’s sons acted as if they had more food than they did, for they wanted to appear satiated before the children of Ishmael and Esau. They were becoming lean through conserving their rations rather than to try to procure food from others. Jacob is telling them not to be prideful and wait until the very last minute before getting rations but rather to go right away.[2] Nahmanides echoes this line of thought, asserting that to wait might make it too late as they could die of hunger.[3] One can imagine psychologically that Jacob’s sons are reluctant to go down to Egypt as they remember that they sold their brother Joseph into slavery there, only planning to go as a last resort. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno has an equally psychological reading. He comments that Jacob’s sons were delaying in going to Egypt because each one thought his brother would go down. After all, there are 10 boys along with much younger Benjamin, so why can’t one of the others go instead?[4]

Our commentators’ views are well-aligned with human nature. When there is something we don’t want to do but necessary for us to do, we often procrastinate, putting it off until the last moment. This is especially true when there’s someone else (a spouse, a family member, a friend) who can do the task just as easily as us. After all, why should we have to exert the effort to do it? Our ancestor Jacob illustrates that this is the completely wrong attitude: when it comes time to take action, we must step forward.

It is fitting to read Parshat Miketz almost every year on Shabbat Hanukkah, as both are about our responsibility to step forward. This is why our Hanukkah Torah readings enumerate the gift brought to the dedication of the Tabernacle by every tribe, even though they each bring the same gift. Every tribe needed to step forward, and they did so on their own. Similarly, without Matityahu’s family stepping forth to resist the Syrian Greeks, who would have stood up to Antiochus IV? It’s like the famous story of a village where every villager needed to bring wine to put in a barrel for the royal banquet. Each one said ‘The others will bring wine; let me bring water,’ and put water in the barrel. When it came time to empty out the barrel, all that came out was water. If we don’t step forward, if we don’t dedicate ourselves to the tasks and the responsibilities we are uniquely meant to do in life, how are we certain that they will get done?

Today we are celebrating Jake, who was called to the Torah last month as a Bar Mitzvah. I spoke with Jake about how Bar Mitzvah, or son of the commandments, means taking more responsibilities in life (in addition to saying, as you love to, “today I am a man.” Like your biblical namesake, you recognize that stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility means a lot of hard work on your part. However, it did not stop you from putting in the time and dedicating yourself to learning two Torah portions. Your example epitomizes what Hanukkah is all about; that in order to celebrate greatness you first need to put in the time practicing.

This Hanukkah let each of us follow in Jake’s example, at times stepping out of our comfort zone and bringing our full selves to the present to engage in the hard, important work that is ours to do. When we find ourselves staring at others thinking perhaps it’s their responsibility, let us first look in the mirror at what we can do before we jump to conclusions. May we learn from Joseph’s brothers not to hang back and wait for others or to attempt to push problems under the rug when they exist but rather to act thoughtfully, constructively and with our full beings to dedicate ourselves to making a difference in our vocations, our families and our communities. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Genesis 42:1-2

[2] Rashi ד”ה למה תתראו

[3] Ramban ד”ה למה תתראו-והנכון בעיני

[4] Seforno ד”ה למה תתראו