Making You God to Pharaoh

One of the least understood lines in the Torah comes from this week’s portion. God tells Moses “I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.”[1] A person can be God to another?! What sense does that make?

          Of course, the term אלהים does not need to mean God; it can mean judge. It can also mean in the role of God, for through Moses will God perform the 10 plagues. The point here is that Pharaoh, who thought he himself is God, is going to be disproven by a mere mortal bringing plagues which wreak havoc upon Egypt. He will show Pharaoh that there is only one true God and what that God says goes. It will be a humbling lesson for Pharaoh to learn, and he never seems to learn it.

          The greatness of Judaism is that there is no such thing as absolute monarchy; rather, every person has equal rights. We do not answer to another master, only to God. While there was slavery in the Bible for those who ran into financial trouble, it was far from the ideal system with the goal being for each slave to become free. Moses illustrates that it is unacceptable for Pharaoh to impose corvee labor.

          In life we sometimes find that people are there to serve in the role of “judge” to us, or if you prefer as God’s messengers, helping us see the error of our ways and when we need to change course. May we not castigate those individuals but rather thank them for the important role they play in helping us make changes to become the best versions of ourselves.


[1] Exodus 7:1

Bravely Risking it All: the Hebrew Midwives

          What are the things in life for which you would risk it all? Shifra and Pua, the Hebrew midwives, risked their lives by saving the Hebrew boys. They answered to a Higher Authority, fearing God rather than the one who claimed he was God (Pharaoh).

          Sometimes in the moments of greatest trepidation we need to see what it is we truly value and act in accordance with it. The midwives were in a tight spot and yet they went with their ultimate value: the safeguarding of life. At times when the chips are on the line, we need to look at what is our ultimate value and how can we safeguard it.

          As a result of their devotion to God, He established houses for them. What are these houses? My Hevruta, Rabbi Mitch Chefitz, suggests in a modern Midrash that it refers to two houses of medicine: Beit Shifra and Beit Pua. Perhaps one of them was more natural (homeopathic, chiropractic) and the other a MD. Like Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the two medical schools had different philosophies, yet they worked extremely well together.

          These are not easy times in which we are living. They require great courage and care for how to best move forward. Thankfully, most decisions are not life and death matters. They do not require us to disobey a ruler and then make up an excuse as to why we did so. Nevertheless, there are times we need to take risks for what is important to us-safeguarding of life being on the top of that list. To those taking those great risks, our health care first responders, we thank you. You are heroes, the wind beneath our wings.

Storming the Capitol

I am shocked and ashamed. A mob storming the capitol after our President encouraged them to do so? A woman being treated for a gunshot would on the capitol steps? People climbing up walls and marching through the rotundas, with signs saying “Keep America Safe” as violence is being incited? Broken windows? Guns being drawn in the House of Representatives? Members of Congress told to shelter in place?

This is supposed to be America, the land of democracy. We have elections, there are winners and losers and people move on. Instead we have a president who refused to accept the election results, still claiming the election was “stolen,” asking elected officials in Georgia and Pennsylvania to overturn the state’s results as well as his Vice President, and unsubstantiated accusations of widespread voter fraud. Should we be surprised that this would lead to an attempted coup? I was but perhaps the stage was already set.

The president’s tweet “stay peaceful” makes no sense. The capitol has been stormed, people’s lives are in danger. It is one of the saddest days in our country’s history. People who cannot accept democratic results, who instead will threaten violence and death. I’m afraid this might be the lynchpin that pushes our democracy beyond the point of no return.

In Judaism we are taught “incline after the majority” (Exodus 23:2). The Talmud always keeps the minority opinion yet the majority declares the day. Protesting and persuasion are Jewish values; rioting and terrorizing because you don’t get your way are not. It is very upsetting to me that this is where our country is at today. What we need in 2021 is an opportunity for healing our country’s divide and working together. I hope that can become a reality and the horror show of today can become a vestige of the past.

What’s Wrong with Egypt?

          Among the first words said by Jacob to his son Joseph in Parshat VaYehi are “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty, please do not bury me in Egypt.”[1] Similarly, at the end of Joseph’s life, he told his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that God promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”[2] He made the children of Israel swear “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”[3]
          What is wrong with Egypt? After all, it’s a lush land that saved the children of Israel’s lives during the 7 year famine. In order to understand what is wrong, we need to understand the definition of Mitzrayim as “place of constriction.” Despite the lush, fertile nature of the Nile river, our ancestors remember that this is not their true home and only when they return to the Land of Canaan, the Land of Israel, shall they be secure.

          In Jacob’s case he wants a continuation of the covenant of Abraham and Isaac. Just as they were buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs and just as they received the covenant to inherit Israel, so too does Jacob want to ensure that will occur to him. In Joseph’s case it’s more of a sense of not being abandoned. He senses the coming enslavement as well as the exodus from Egypt and he doesn’t want his bones left in Egypt when his descendants leave there.

          Where we are buried plays a very significant role in our lives. Just as our ancestors, we want to be buried in a place where people will visit us. We also want burial in a Jewish cemetery, with possible exception of those who fought in battles who prefer a military cemetery. Like our ancestors, our final resting place matters to us a great deal. Though Jacob lived 17 of his 147 years in Egypt and Joseph lived 93 of his 110 years there, it was never truly home for them. Home was the place of their roots, the Land of Canaan. As we conclude Sefer Bereshit, let us reflect on where we feel at home, where (if we haven’t decided) we’d like our final resting place to be and what will be important to us when we reach the end of our days on earth.


[1] Genesis 48:29

[2] Genesis 50:24

[3] Genesis 50:25

The Great Reconciliation: Or Was It?

This week Joseph and his brothers reconcile. Jacob goes down to Egypt and everyone has one big, happy family reunion. All’s well that ends well-or is it?

          The brothers’ first reaction to Joseph revealing his identity is to be shellshocked. While Joseph tells them not to be distressed, for he has been sent ahead to Egypt to ensure survival during the famine, the brothers don’t seem convinced. Next week, in VaYehi, they concoct a story: “Before his death your father left this instruction: ‘So shall you say to Joseph: forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’”[1] For the brothers to react in said manner must indicate that they have apprehension that all is not well, and Joseph will exact vengeance against them.

          Furthermore, when the brothers do Joseph’s bidding, telling Jacob that he is alive, “Jacob’s heart went numb; for he did not believe them.”[2] He doesn’t believe Joseph is alive until he sees the Egyptian wagons with choice goods. Next week in VaYehi, Jacob will excoriate half of his sons on his deathbed for their behavior. It does not seem that Jacob has forgiven his sons for their behavior. In addition, when Pharaoh asks Jacob “How many are the years of your life?”[3] he replies, “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty, Few and hard have been the years of my life.”[4]

          It does not appear there is a Hollywood ending to this story. While Joseph does not exact vengeance, there are hurt feelings, uncertainty, 3030and apprehension. With our own families of origin, we might feel similar things. It is up to us, as we approach the secular new year, to try to get past our past and see if in the present day we can act to reconcile past estrangements. If we do not try, we will certainly not achieve and if not now, when?


[1] Genesis 50:17

[2] Genesis 45:26

[3] Genesis 47:8

[4] Genesis 47:9

Our Fears: Are They Valid?

          When Joseph’s 10 eldest brothers descend to Egypt to secure food during the famine, Joseph (in disguise as Pharaoh’s vizier) immediately accuses them of being spies. They offer information that they have a younger brother in Canaan to which Joseph said he would put them to the test: they must bring back their youngest brother. At this point the brothers said to one another “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why distress has come to us.”[1]

          There is a rabbinic principle of מדה כנגד מדה, measure for measure. When you sin, you will be punished in a similar manner. It makes sense that Joseph’s brothers would feel they are being punished now for what they had done in the past. Yet I must ask is this a helpful way of thinking? When things don’t go our way is it better to analyze what we did wrong or to learn from it and move on as best we can? I would argue the latter is the healthier approach.

          When our conscience tugs at us, as it did here for Joseph’s brothers, there is a lesson to be learned from it. However, to overanalyze and beat ourselves up over it is counterproductive. The past is the past; what we can and must do now is work towards building a better future. When we feel off course, lost or estranged, we need to remember that there is always a place for us, an area where we can thrive. Let us also recognize that our fears, while real too us, are often overstated. Even after Joseph reveals himself to the brothers, he says “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”[2] May we have faith that we are currently exactly where we are meant to be in life and that God will lead us in the direction we are to go.


[1] Genesis 42:21

[2] Genesis 45:5

Be the Light

       What is Hanukkah about? It is true that one lights candles at the darkest time of the year, inspiring a message of brightness and hope. Yet concurrently I would argue that we must be the light. When things look bleak, we are required to turn a positive spin on them. When we feel hopeless, we are required to find the silver lining.

          As the Prince of Egypt teaches us, “There will be miracles when you believe. Though hope is frail it’s hard to kill.” The next time you struggle with your situation, I want you to keep this line in mind. God sometimes works in mysterious ways and there is a light at the end of the tunnel in this rollercoaster that we call life. That is the message of Hanukkah: to never give up and to not only light the candles but to be the source of light, vitality and strength that we want for ourselves, our families and for all of humanity.

What I Learned from Watching Election Results

1. The top issue Americans care about is the economy. As I learned in Poli Sci 101, “Americans vote by their pocketbooks.” The pandemic was by and large the third issue exit polls showed Americans caring about, with the economy first and racial equality a distant second.

2. Things can change. I don’t view this as a repeat of 2016. It was fascinating to me to see Arizona, a state I lived in and considered very red, to have voted for Biden and now have both senators who are Democrats.

3. The “blue wall” is officially demolished. Regardless of how WI, PA and MI are called it is clear that Trump has significant support in them. As I’ve watched Arizona shift from red to blue I’ve watched Wisconsin take a shift from blue to red since 2010, a time when they had two Jewish, Democratic senators. Wisconsin is now purple and unable to be taken for granted as a Democrat state. Neither are Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The rust belt is up for grabs and very Trump heavy.

4. The Latino community in Miami Dade has shifted FL further right. This wasn’t a surprise to me. When I go running Trump signs outnumber Biden signs 10-1. It is likely there are more Biden voters who are not putting up signs but what further demonstrated this to me was the huge car rally with Trump flags and MAGA hats I saw on Sunday.

5. The polls continue to undercount Trump voters. This election as I thought is a 50-50 tossup. we shall see where it ends up but I’ll enjoy watching and of course will accept the results…WHEN ALL THE VOTES ARE COUNTED.

The Election from a Jewish Perspective

       Many of us, myself included love politics. As a rabbi I have always been blessed to serve a “mixed” congregation, full of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents. It is a blessing to be in community with those we disagree with, as we both challenge and bolster one another’s perspectives.

          Often politics is eschewed by rabbis because by its very nature it polarizes us. We often lose sight of the humanity of others, believing that “everyone’s entitled to MY opinion” or failing to believe that someone with diametrically opposed views is just as caring and compassionate a person as we are. Personally, I have experienced this on multiple fronts: in rabbinical school, where I was more conservative than the majority of my peers and in a previous synagogue where some felt I was a “bleeding heart liberal.” I take it in good stride, believing that if I displeasing people on multiple sides, I’m doing my job 😊.

Some are worried about the implications of this election regardless of the outcome. There is fear of a civil war or of the results not being accepted no matter what they are, undermining our country’s democratic foundation. As I hear these comments, I think what happened to “Mahloket L’Shem Shamayim,” arguing for the sake of heaven? What happened to the days when people vehemently disagreed and (as lawyers on opposing sides still sometimes do) shook hands and broke bread together? Has one’s political party really become his/her tribe or religion, a club for those who agree to be “in” and for those of opposing views being “out”? As one who strives to be an independent thinker and not succumb to peer pressure, I ask these questions frequently.

As we prepare to vote (or reflect on our previously casted vote) I want to share a poem and a prayer. May they give us personal insight and a feeling of being “at peace” regardless of the outcome of this coming election. The poem is by Israeli poet-laureate Yehuda Amichai and is titled The Place Where We Are Right:

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

  The prayer is A Prayer for Voting

by Rabbi David Seidenberg:

Behold, I am intending
    through my vote | through my prayer
    to seek peace for this country,
    as it is written (Jer. 29:7):

“Seek the peace of the city
    where I cause you to roam
    and pray for her to YHVH (Hashem/Adonai/God),
    for in her peace you all will have peace.”

May it be Your will, YHVH, that votes
    be counted faithfully
    and may You count my vote
    as if I had fulfilled this verse
    with all my power.

May You give a listening heart
    to whomever we elect
    and may it be good in Your eyes
    to raise for us a good government
    to bring healing, justice and peace
    to all living in this land
    and to all the world, and upon Jerusalem,
    a government that will honor the image of God
    in all humanity and in Creation,
    for rulership is Yours.

Just as I have participated in the election
    so may I merit to do good works
    and to repair the world through all my efforts,
    and through the act of… [fill in your pledge]
    which I pledge to do today
    on behalf of all living creatures,
    in remembrance of the covenant of Noah’s waters,
    to protect and to not destroy
    the earth and her plenitude.

Give to all the peoples of this country
    the strength and will to pursue righteousness
    and to seek peace as unified force
    to uproot racism and violence
    and to make healing, good life and peace flourish
    here and throughout the world
    and fulfill for us the verse (Ps. 90:17):

“May the pleasure of Adonai our God
    be upon us, and establish
    the work of our hands for us,
    and make the work of our hands endure.”

I pray that regardless of whether your candidate(s) win that each of us acknowledge the common humanity of the other and build bridges so that we can together constructively make a difference in our community and in our country.

Negligence

I’ve put off writing this article because of its political nature but I can do so no more.

What is negligence? According to Webster’s it is “failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in life’s circumstances.”

When President Trump’s Chief if Staff Mark Meadows bluntly said “We’re not going to control the pandemic” it solidified the negligence of the Trump administration. Over 80,000 Americans and 1,000 deaths per day over the weekend from Covid and over 225,000 deaths since the pandemic began. We know Judaism’s primary value is pikuah nefesh, safeguarding life. To know measures which work to curb covid, such as masking and social distancing, and deliberately not advocate, worse make fun of, people who wear them is negligence of the first degree. We know there are measures that can slow the spread yet the presidents chief of staff wants no part in them.

Thank God I live in Miami where I can spend a sufficient amount of time outdoors in the winter. I feel for those in Denver where it’s currently 7 degrees or Missoula where it’s 1 degree. This cold winter is not going to stop people who need to from going to work in multi story buildings or from essential business travel. Having an administration who admits they will do nothing to combat Covid, essentially advocating for the herd mentality, and which advocates for “learning to live with it,” is committing negligence of the first degree.

The Torah states “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.” An administration which purposefully withheld information in January and February so as not to “cause a panic” has placed a massive stumbling block which led many people I know to become infected with covid. The Torah also states “build a parapet for your roof” so that those in danger of harm will be protected. Where’s the parapet protecting the “essential” meatpackers or our essential teachers risking their lives day after day going into work?

While in the end I became a rabbi and not a lawyer, this administration is clearly guilty of negligence. I am tired of being a guinea pig in it’s futile experiment to “do nothing” and see how many get Covid.