Friday, January 30, 2009

Bo 5769:Of Spamalot and Haggadot

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for Parshat Bo comparing Monty Python to the Passover Haggadah. Since I've gotten behind in writing, I thought I'd post that piece this week, instead of something completely different.

In Parshat Bo, we have the last three plagues: locusts, darkness, and finally the death of the first born. Before the last plague hits, however, there is a lot of preparation done. God gives a set of directions to first chain up then kill a lamb, eating it all in the night of the plague, and spreading its blood on the doorposts of the houses of the Israelites so to indicate whose house to pass over. Further instructions mentioned not eating leavened foods for seven days and eating Matzah instead. This was the first Passover.

Every year we go through a haggadah with the same words about this event. Many over the years have had their favorite parts memorized, and quote them even away from the Passover table. Oddly enough, there is little from parshat Bo that is actually included in the Passover seder. Although we celebrate this event told in the book of Exodus, the number of quotes from the book of Exodus in the liturgy of the Passover seder, the Haggadah, is rather small. But the lines that are mentioned everybody remembers.

Exodus 12:26. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What do you mean by this service?

Exodus 13:8 And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came forth out of Egypt.

Exodus 13:14 And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, What is this? That you shall say to him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery;

These of course are three of the four sons, who were formulated into different archetypes by the early rabbis. The rabbis of 1900 years ago, in creating the structure of the Passover Seder we celebrate today had a problem. Much of the ceremony required the Temple, but the Temple no longer stood. How would one use all the differing symbols and stories of the Exodus in a world where the primary thing necessary, roasting the lamb in the Temple, could not be done? We can even see the problem in the Mishnah, where the rabbis preserved the temple service:

They filled a second cup for him. At this stage the son questions his father;
If the son is unintelligent, his father instructs him [to ask]:
‘Why is this night different from all [other] nights.
For on all [other] nights we eat leavened and unleavened bread, whereas on this night [we eat] only leavened bread; on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, on this night bitter herbs;
On all other nights we eat meat roast, stewed or boiled, on this night, roast only.
On all other nights we dip once, but on this night we dip twice.’

And according to the son's intelligence his father instructs him. He commences with shame and concludes with praise; and expounds from ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’ until he completes the whole section.[Pesachim 116a]

One of the four questions includes roasted lamb, which is impossible without a Temple. How does the Haggadah deal with such problems? Of all the places to think about this, it was after watching a new musical on its way to Broadway that gave me insight into this problem. Of all musicals which had to deal with the problem it was Spamalot, the musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When it was in it's pre-Broadway tour several years ago, I saw it in Chicago. Like a majority of the audience I had memorized every line of the movie, knew every joke and gag from beginning to end. Indeed, it is probably the most memorized film comedy ever. I kept wondering how former Python Eric Idle could put together a musical which could handle some of the material that was only possible on film, and could not translate into musical theater. Cutting in and out of Terry Gilliam's animation just could not happen, there could be no "problems" with the beginning credits, and the original ending of the film just couldn’t be done. Idle realized he could not translate Grail directly, so he changed many parts to create entirely new experience with the same cherished symbols of Python lovers, even some from other Monty Python sources such as Life of Brian.

Like Monty Python, how does the rabbis who no longer have their original medium, the Temple, deal with the issue of all the symbols around Passover? Like Holy Grail, everybody had memorized many of the words already, and they have special nostalgic meaning. The words of Exodus 12 and 13 had already been repeated over and over again for generations. Not only that, many of the traditions that had sprouted could not be simply put aside. Leaving out the four questions, four sons or the Haroset from the Seder, much of which had little or no biblical basis, was unthinkable. It would have caused the same disaster leaving out the killer bunny rabbit in Spamalot would have. In a qualitative study of moderately affiliated Jews by Cohen and Eisen, the primary factors why people keep Jewish tend not to be spiritual, but nostalgia and grandma’s cooking. The two holidays, which show the most observance, Passover and Hanukkah have home-made food associated with them. The rabbis even 1900 years ago understood that same problem all too well.

Sprinkled repeatedly in the text of Bo is the reason for this type of observance. The four sons, four questions, Hillel sandwiches and singing Had Gadya are there intentionally for one reason: to transmit the tradition from one generation to another easily. In a reference usually associated with tefillin, we are to do this with (13:9)“a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes.” We are to do this remembering experientially, with both actions and sights. The best place to find the children, to continue the nostalgia and food is at our own dinner tables. We change a large production number in the Temple to a smaller setting -the family dining table. Along the way there is need for changes to compensate of course, new things were added, some things were changed. The third question in the Mishnah about the roasted lamb would evolve into a question of reclining. The Haroset would in some sense become a substitute to the roast lamb in the Hillel sandwich. But the elements, many of which were probably from popular observance, were preserved for generations.

I still find it funny Eric Idle’s book for Spamalot is an analogy to the creation of the Passover Haggadah. But oddly enough it is. It is an important lesson: one can change things, but be careful of personal attachments to parts of what you are changing.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Vaeira 5769: Why Plagues?

It’s a question that has bothered many: Why should an entire nation suffer horribly just to change the mind of one person? It’s been a timeless question and is immediately topical as well. On a smaller scale, should suffering bring about change on the interpersonal level? The week’s text leaves me wondering.
After Moses’ first disaster talking to Pharaoh and the Israelites, God talks to Moses again and tells him to talk to the Israelites again, they are so stressed out, they promptly ignore him. Then God tells a despondent Moses to talk to Pharaoh once again, and Moses objects -- again. God tells Moses that he will use signs and wonders in order to make completely clear God’s power. First there is the wonder of the staff being turned into a snake, then the staff eating the other snakes. Then begins the plagues, where we have the first seven of the ten: blood, frogs, lice, swarms, cattle disease, boils and hail.
Even the Midrash wonders why there was a need for ten plagues:
Surely, the Holy One, blessed be He, could have delivered Israel from the Egyptians with the first plague? But it was in order to fulfill the verse: He increases the nations, and destroyed them; which is followed by, He takes away the heart of the chiefs of the people of the land (Job XII, 23, 24). [Midrash Rabbah - Exodus XV: 10]
It’s answer is not very satisfying, the land, it’s animals and it’s people are apparently to suffer for the deeds of the leadership. Another midrash is a little more reasonable, but no less satisfying:
God brought the ten plagues upon them in accordance with the regular plan of campaign [Midrash Rabbah - Exodus XV:27]
While Midrash Rabbah leaves only this oblique comment, other commentaries flesh out the idea that God used the traditional tactics of any army which was attacking a city, correlating each plague with a different stage of a military siege. After the crossing of the Red Sea, and running out of water, Moses is given his first encounter with a rock:
5. And the Lord said to Moses, Go on before the people, and take with you of the elders of Israel; and your rod, with which you struck the river, take in your hand, and go. 6. Behold, I will stand before you there upon the rock in Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. [Exodus 17]

Midrash adds Moses’ objection:
Moses then said: ‘Lord of the Universe. This is the rod of punishment, for it caused the waters in Egypt to stink, and it brought the ten plagues on the Egyptians.’ But God replied: ‘My methods are not those of mortals; man cuts with a knife and heals with a bandage, but I heal with the thing with which I smite.’ ‘And thy rod, with which you struck the river, take in thy hand’ (ib.), so that all may know that it is an instrument of blessing. [Midrash Rabbah - Exodus XXVI: 2]
God, not man, makes plagues. Huge acts of suffering might be contributed to by man, but a man cannot cause the volume and extent of damage that only God can in these ways. Even a nuclear weapon does not have the potential of a tsunami to cause massive destruction. As the Pharaoh’s magicians learn and acknowledge, the plagues are the finger of God. The plagues on one level were proving the power of God. Only God can do these things.
I have to wonder about a deeper level. Moses’ staff struck a river and it became undrinkable. When the people are free, He strikes a rock with the same staff and drinkable water pours out. Construction and destruction from the same implement. Human thinking is that there is one implement to hurt and one to heal. God thinks differently, that Divine power can hurt and heal. What intrigues me is that the hurt and the healing may be merely matters of perspective.
What if suffering is actually a way to make one stronger? As the biblical texts in the prophets attest, Egypt is not broken by the Exodus or the plagues, it remains a powerful nation. As the Egyptians suffered so did the Israelites under their slavery, only to become a powerful nation itself. Why was the slavery necessary in the first place? Slavery forged the children of Israel from a family into a people. To do so required suffering and challenge, but what for?
I think about that in many contexts. Why did I have horribly traumatic events, ones I have suffered from since I was rather young? My only answer of any comfort is to forge me into the person I am, and the person I will become. In another context, suffering allows us to perform acts of righteous compassion. We can help other people in need, or the homeless around the street. Knowing what suffering is allows us to show compassion for others who are suffering now, and to actively help with alleviating that suffering. It may be as big as stopping a famine or as small as holding the door open for someone unable to enter a building otherwise. Big and small acts of gemilut hasidim, acts of kindness abound, if we only see them. To see them we must feel them ourselves.
What Moses’ staff represents is a choice we have to make. We have the ability to bless or to curse by our deeds. God will leave suffering in the world, by famine plague, earthquake, disease, or other natural disaster. Many times, we initiate or contribute to the problem, much like Moses and his staff. Yet we too can heal, or even prevent greater devastation in such times by our actions. The biblical text is silent on any rebellions or movements within Egyptian society who took action to free the Israelites. We hear some advisors panicking, but nothing more. Like those advisors, we can choose to believe only in the finger of God and let God do everything, both healing and smiting, or we can choose to be Moses’ rod, being partners in the act of healing the world. We certainly have the power to destroy and to cause suffering; can we also find it in our hearts to stop polluting the waters with blood and toxic materials, but also to bring fresh drinking water to all peoples, so that they may live?
Such a change requires change not only in the leader, who often like Pharaoh will be incredibly stubborn. It requires the heart of every person be free to choose such a path. In Egypt, even the Egyptians were downtrodden and surfs, courtesy of Joseph’s taxation system, so they too were far from free. The plagues happened because there was no one to stop them but Moses and God. Magicians would replicate them, but never heal. It’s easy to build another bomb; it’s hard to negotiate for peace. The plagues were the challenge, and the Egyptian people failed, as did the Israelites of that generation who repeatedly failed in the years in the wilderness.
We too have that choice, Lets us all choose wisely.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Shemot 5769: Returning

Drash Shemot 5769:

Why Midian? For that matter why in this story did we need any of this middle part of Moses being a shepherd? Wouldn’t it have been simpler to stumble around a little and end up at Sinai and the burning bush? Last week, I wrote about Joseph getting away, about leaving behind that which impedes our identity and our development, which very well may have been Jacob.

This week we start the book of Exodus and are introduced to the setup for the rest of the Torah. A Pharaoh who does not know Joseph arises and appealing to national security has the Israelites enslaved. Things get worse. Pharaoh has the midwives try to kill all the newborn boys but they do not heed him. In response Pharaoh then decides to kill all male newborns by drowning, though one baby escapes this by being sent down the river, ending up living in the palace, until he murders an Egyptian taskmaster. The slave who this guy saves rewards him by ratting him out. To escape Pharaoh’s anger, this man flees to Midian where he finds a bride, becomes a shepherd and has a rather interesting conversation with a burning bush. This man is of course Moses. And this week is really his story.

After a time, which Midrash tells us is forty years away from Egypt, Moses returns with God’s marching orders. He’s not happy about it to be certain. At the bush, he repeatedly tries to get out of this task of returning:

11. And Moses said to God, Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the people of Israel out of Egypt? [Exodus 3]

1. And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor listen to my voice; for they will say, The Lord has not appeared to you. [Exodus 4]

10. And Moses said to the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither yesterday nor the day before, nor since you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. [Exodus 4]

13. And he said, O my Lord, send, I beseech you, by the hand of him whom you will send. [Exodus 4]
Moses tries everything to get out of this. Of course he has reason, Egypt is a painful place for him as there is a death penalty against him. God has to assure him that he does not have to worry about that.

Coming back this week from Disney World, I’ve been thinking about return. I’ve been thinking of return from the place I was able to acknowledge a part of me I rarely am able to do to that extent. The young kid came out and played. Several times I’ve written about me trying to conquer fear in that place, riding roller coasters and thrill rides I was afraid of. This year was different. I just had fun, and played like a kid. A lot of what had been problematic or painful in 2008 washed off in this place. Returning, I was fresh once again, able to handle the situations that are put in front of me. Like Moses in the portion, I’ll admit to some preliminary stumbling, but the energy, creativity and enthusiasm a little kid is all there, ready for my use.

For the last few months, I’ve been reconciling the two most painful experiences in my life. The first experience imprisoned the young kid inside of me who enjoyed Disney so much, hiding much of him from me. The second, which happened in my last year of college, was a repeat of the first only worse – because he was so locked away, the boy inside could not warn me, and I ended up in a very bad situation. What made that situation worse was I never was able to recover. Though I’m pretty sure it was not intentionally against me, my support system of my college friends was ripped away from me in a cause where my recovery meant I was against their cause. Like Moses I fled. One hour after graduation, I was on the road, away from that place.

Twenty years later, I’ve virtually returned. Though I never originally intended it, Via the Internet and Social networking, I’ve re-connected with many people from that time, some of them very special and dear to my heart now. As I thought of it, I realized I changed.

The events in out lives are sometimes extraordinary. Sometimes the turns they take are so bizarre as to only be miracles. The Midrash relates of the odd wording of Yitro’s daughters that an Egyptian saved them from the Shepherds at the well:

An alternative explanation of AN EGYPTIAN: Moses can be compared to one bitten by a lizard, who ran to place his feet in the water. When he put them in the river, he observed that a small child was drowning; so he stretched out his hand and saved him. Thereupon the child said: ‘Had it not been for you, I would already have perished.’ To which the man replied: ‘Not I have saved you, but the lizard who bit me and from which I escaped, he saved you.’ Thus the daughters of Jethro greeted Moses: ' Thanks for saving us from the hand of the shepherds.’ Moses replied: ‘The Egyptian whom I slew, he delivered you.’ They therefore said to their father AN EGYPTIAN meaning that the Egyptian whom this man slew caused him to come to us. [Exodus Rabbah I:32]

The chain of causality is so bizarre as to be inexplicable but by the word miracle. Moses ends up at a place where he was content to live, have Children and have the seemingly humble Job as a shepherd. Yet, as the Midrash explains, No role is better to prepare one for leadership, comparing David to Moses. Despite his objections, Moses was ready to return, and then bring the Israelites back from the land of Egypt. The experiences of our lives lead us down a path, and God has helped us set that path, even when we don't realize it.
There is even a midrash that the burning bush was burning quite a while, but only when Moses was ready to see it did things happen. Sometimes we need to go away for a while to return a different person, to do something special. In the short term, This might be a vacation. In the long term long lost friends might enter your life in ways you never imagined.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Vayehi 5769: Getting Away

As we read both this week and last week, Joseph made and incredible turn around. From the bratty tattletale to the viceroy of Egypt who could forgive his brothers and humble himself before God, there was quite a transformation. How did this happen? This week’s portion begins with another question, which might lead to an answer.

28. And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the whole age of Jacob was a hundred and forty seven years. [Genesis 48]

This week we read of the last days of both Jacob and Joseph. This ends the book of Genesis, and the Story of Joseph. Interestingly the Story of Joseph starts with this verse:

2. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought to his father their evil report. [Genesis 37]

In both verses is the number seventeen. Joseph lived in Jacob’s house seventeen years, and Jacob lived under Joseph’s reign seventeen years. The symmetry is striking, and may not be coincidental. Such symmetry is rampant in the story of Joseph according to Midrash. Potiphar's wife attempts to seduce Joseph, but Joseph marries Potiphar’s daughter. There is a midrash describing the young Joseph that begins to explain the symmetry of seventeen years:
7. JOSEPH, BEING SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD, etc. He was seventeen years old, yet you say, BEING STILL A LAD! It means, however, that he behaved like a boy, pencilling his eyes, curling his hair, and lifting his heel. [Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LXXXIV:7]

Joseph was a seventeen year old behaving like a ten year old, but why? One answer may be that Jacob wanted him to be that way. We know from later texts in I Kings that the coat of stripes that Jacob gave Joseph was the garb of princesses. Jacob was the one forcing Joseph to act a certain way, possibly to be the little boy he was at the time of the death of his mother, Jacob’s beloved Rachel. Here was a seventeen-year-old unable to act like a man, but only like a little boy. If so this was a painful, powerless, humiliating experience for Joseph. Joseph only recourse in behavior was his tale bearing and dream of a time when he will have power.
Joseph was a slave in the house of Potiphar, but he was considered an adult, and much of his physical appearance changed to that appropriate to his age, yet he really wasn’t free either to decide what he wanted to do, to make his own decisions. He changed more in prison when he volunteers to do things. He could have just sat in his cell whimpering, but he doesn’t. . Ironically he has more freedom in prison than he had at home. By the time Pharaoh appoints him viceroy, he in no daddy’s boy. He undertakes a position very different than his world in Canaan. He has unlimited freedom, to make decision, second only to Pharaoh’s.
It is the Joseph with incredibly adult responsibilities, making decisions for an entire nation, that Jacob meets. Even the father of a power figure is still not a powerful as that figure. That explains what Jacob says when he embraces Joseph:
30. And Israel said to Joseph, Now let me die, since I have seen your face, because you are still alive. [Genesis 46]

While Joseph may have gotten over what his brothers did, he did not get over what his father did to start the whole mess. Jacob knows this too and is asking for mercy for what is to come. Joseph’s, and very likely God’s retribution was subtle but again, symmetrical. Jacob, the free living powerful Patriarch of Caannan, would have to live as a squatter completely under the power of Joseph for the same amount of time Joseph had to wear those ridiculous outfits for the pleasure of his dad.

Joseph changed in Egypt. He became a different person because the negative influences of his home were no longer there. Joseph’s story, like many Biblical stories are magnified in order to give us a view of our own weaknesses and personalities. In today’s world making one’s 17 year old son dress up like a five-year old would probably be considered Child abuse. Hopefully many of us have not had experiences from their parents that hurt them that deeply, that forced them into a powerless place. Unfortunately it does happen. It happens in relationships too, as I experienced twenty years ago. There can be many possibilities for toxic relationships.

The best thing to do is get away, sometimes for a short time, sometimes for a long one. Each of us heals from the trauma differently, and each trauma is different. When Joseph names Menasseh, he admits that God gave him the gift of forgetting his old life.
51. And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh; For God, said he, has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. [Genesis 41]

Sometimes it is not just a place we need to forget but the patterns we learned there. It’s too easy to transmit abuse from generation to generation, or from partner to partner. We have to unlearn the patterns somewhere new that challenges us differently, and challenges the correctness of the old patterns. Joseph may not have known of his real problems but his time in Egypt changed him to the person he became. Next week we begin the main story of Torah -- what happens when a family of seventy is forged into a nation in the same crucible as Joseph?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Vayigash 5769: Forgiveness

In one of the great dramatic moments of the biblical text, Judah who has buried two of his sons by this point gives a heart wrenching plea to the Viceroy of Egypt, unaware of his real identity as his missing brother Joseph. After that plea, we read:
1. Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me. And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers.2. And he wept aloud; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard. 3. And Joseph said to his brothers, I am Joseph; does my father still live? And his brothers could not answer him; for they were troubled by his presence. [Genesis 45]

Some might take this a great family reunion, or one filled with tension. Joseph in his cry completely forgives his brothers. But do the brothers believe that Joseph really forgave them? We will read in Genesis 50:15, seventeen years after this reunion.
And when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will perhaps hate us, and will certainly pay us back for all the evil which we did to him.

The brothers still did not trust that Joseph forgave them. Indeed reading this passage we see there is another tension which comes up from the phrase “does my father still live?” The brother’s apparently thought Joseph’s good behavior towards them was all for the eye of Jacob, it was a subterfuge until Jacob had died and then Joseph would exact his revenge. To ask if their father was still alive was not just the shock that Joseph was still alive, but that Joseph might kill, imprison or enslave them if Jacob wasn’t.
Joseph of course takes much of this portion to set up the brothers with the best of everything in Egypt, using material means to prove he had forgiven them. Yet the evidence was there that this did little to completely remove the fear of Joseph taking revenge over their treatment of him in Joseph’s youth.
This has me wondering something about the nature of apology and forgiveness. Forgiveness is only as good as the one who believes they are forgiven. If Joseph forgave and the brothers did not believe he forgave them, did he really forgive them? If I Say to someone “I forgive you” do I really forgive them?
There is a whole cycle of course. Mr. Smith for example insults Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones now has the possibility of retaliation or forgiveness. Mr. Smith asks for forgiveness, he repents of his insult. Mr. Jones then had to decide if he is willing to forgive, or retaliate against Mr. Smith. Finally, Mr. Smith has to believe that Mr. Jones meant what he said if he forgives, or prepare for a retaliation.
The problem is if there is any mistrust of either the repenter or the forgiver, the result is mistrust and less openness between Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith. The relationship changes dramatically, and often in a downward spiral. Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith trust each other less and are on guard for the slightest thing that might be hurtful. Even the unintentional become hurtful.
There is one poison which seems to cause this downwards spiral more than most. Some might call it righteousness, but I prefer to think of it as right-ness. Right-ness is the belief that one person’s position is the only right one. It gives a person a perception that their position is a superior one, and thus their in power of the situation. Often however there are many parts to a story or situation and combinations of each provide vastly different perceptions of the situation. A person could be merely clueless but perceived as vindictive for example. Two Right-nesses often make a wrong as people dig into positions. I’ve been guilty of it in the past, as I’m sure many have.
Indeed even the best and brightest have done so. The most tragic story, almost operatic in its sadness concerns the great Talmudic masters R. Johanan and Resh Lakish. R. Yohanan got into an argument with his best friend and brother-in-law Resh Lakish by mentioning his sordid past. Anger, hurt and grief is exchanged, and neither refuses to forgive the other. This all ends up killing Resh Lakish, the guilt and loneliness from the loss of his friend kills R. Yohanan [B.M. 84a]
It is often from the point of rightness that we retaliate. “Someone hurt me and that was wrong – I am right to hurt him back” But often the hurting back affects not only our selves but others as well. Being family, both of their deaths caused grief on R. Yohanan’s sister. She was so upset with her brother over the death of her husband she even verbally attack him too. It becomes sad how quickly these things can get out of hand as the hurt and pain spread else where.
While Midrash has stories about the potential to fall into this trap, Joseph did not. He forgave his brothers and it is important to see how he did.
5. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life. 6. For these two years has the famine been in the land; and yet there are five years, when there shall neither be plowing nor harvest. 7. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. [Genesis 45]

And Later, after the death of Jacob,
19. And Joseph said to them, Fear not; for am I in the place of God? 20. But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it to good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. 21. Now therefore do not fear; I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them. [Genesis 50]

Joseph no longer blamed his brothers. In both instances he insisted that it was God’s doing. He acknowledges both times what they did, and what they thought. He sees the good in the situation and not the bad. Everyone was saved from the famine because they threw him in a pit one day many years. Joseph understood he was in God’s hands, and let the dark emotions go. Anger has no place here. For the brothers it took seventeen years to get that lesson, yet eventually they did too.
I’m sitting here on the first day of 2009 thinking about a lot of thing happening in my life and the world around us that all of that applies. The secular year for me feels a lot like what I might feel at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In discussing this topic a few days ago on-line I thought of Yom Kippur. If on Yom Kippur atones for our sins, but we do not know if we are forgiven or not, was Yom Kippur worth anything? In ancient days they had that question too. There was a sign from God that the scarlet cord would turn to white to indicate that the people’s sins were forgiven. But today, there seems to be no sign.
For me there is a sign, one I try to use, and one I believe Joseph used. Genesis 20:51 translates more literally as he spoke to their hearts, though we read it as He spoke kindly to them. My personal slogan and way of life is a loose translation of Perkei Avot 1:15 “Learn every day, do more than you say, and greet everyone with a smile” That last is not a false smile of course, it’s a genuine one, and that is the key to Joseph’s words. Showing how genuinely he feels in his warm words to the heart opens up the belief in forgiveness and friendship with his brothers. We can rebuild relationships and maintains the friends we have and create new ones by a simple thing – greet everyone with a warm smile. This is the sign of forgiveness; this is the sign of openness.
In 2009, may you greet everyone with a warm smile, may you move from right-ness, hurt and anger to forgiveness and may your forgiveness lead to strength. May this be true for not just us but the whole planet. Amen.