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We All Come From Somewhere

Abraham_Journeying_into_the_Land_of_Canaan-dore

“Abraham Goes to the Land of Canaan,” Gustave Doré, 1866.

We are following the painful story of our people’s enslavement in Egypt, and the resistance that Moses and Aaron will now begin to mount against Pharaoh, as messengers of God. One of the most common designations of our ancestors in the Bible, particularly here in Exodus, is Ivrim – Hebrews. Here is the “short answer,” as it were, for the meaning of this term, particularly as it pertains to this chapter in our people’s history. While it also becomes a specific linguistic designation, the root עבר – ‘a-v-r – actually refers to someone from “the other side.” In the Book of Genesis, Avram is referred to as Avram Ha’Ivri – Avram the Hebrew, or more literally, Avram, the one from the other side.”

We know, of course, that as Joseph arrived in Egypt generations earlier, it was known that he was an Ivri, but he was elevated to a position of great power in the Egyptian court because of his prescient abilities, and ultimately saved Egypt from the famine that had engulfed Canaan and the surrounding area. Joseph’s family – his brothers, his father, and all their descendants – were welcomed into Egypt and lived there in peace. But then, as we read two weeks ago, “a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph,” and set about to oppress and enslave his descendants. But then God sent Moses and Aaron to warn Pharaoh, and eventually saved our ancestors from Egyptian bondage through a great Exodus and eventual Redemption.

But in fact, the cold reality is that we left Egypt as refugees. Our life was embittered and intolerable, and we had to leave that place and set out with the hope of a new life ahead.

I needn’t belabor the point. Of all people who are excruciatingly well acquainted with the plight of refugees in the world, it is we – the Jews. Virtually throughout our long history as a people we have suffered through dislocation, disorientation, and loss, which generally accompany the experience of fleeing from one place and seeking refuge in another. The United States of America has been a haven of protection and comfort for those seeking protection, and a better life for themselves and their families. Now, we are witnessing an assault upon that which our country has always represented as a country of immigrants. The assault is coming from the highest office in our land – the Oval Office. It is intolerable, and we will have to continue to rise up against it until it stops.

At our Shabbat service this Friday evening, we will celebrate our lives as descendants of immigrants, and in some cases, as immigrants ourselves. We will remember our ancestors, and where they came from, as we echo the theme “We All Come From Somewhere!” I hope you will join us for First Friday Family Shabbat, 6:30PM, followed by pot luck dinner, to celebrate the “gorgeous mosaic” that we are as Americans.

The End of One Year

2017Our Torah portion begins, Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . After two years’ time. . . . The two years are those that presumably have passed since the end of last week’s parashah, as the cupbearer of the Egyptian court had told his dream to Joseph, and Joseph interpreted it with astounding accuracy. This time, “after two years’ time,” it is Pharaoh himself who is dreaming. The cupbearer tells him of Joseph’s astonishing powers of dream interpretation. Pharaoh orders Joseph’s release from the dungeon, and thus begins Joseph’s rise to power.

It is fortuitous that we are talking about miketz sh’natayim yamim, the end of two years, now at the end of this year of 2016. While in actual time it has only been one year, it has felt like one of the longest years in history. Donald Trump steamrolling over sixteen opponents in the Republican primaries; the often irritating rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the bruising, often outrageous presidential campaign; the unforgettable election night that most of us would prefer to forget; the devastating massacre at Pulse Night Club in Orlando; the police shootings of all too many African American young men, and likewise, the targeted shootings of all too many police officers; Brexit; Nice; Berlin; natural disasters; Russian hacking; escalated tensions between the US and Israel – close friends who are clearly rather irritated with each other at this moment – and the deaths of all too many celebrities whom we felt like we knew personally – from Mohammed Ali, to Gene Wilder, to Prince, to John Glenn, to Eli Wiesel, to Shimon Peres, and just this week, not only Carrie Fisher, but her mother Debbie Reynolds as well, among many more.

Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . . This may have been one year that felt not even like “two years’ time,” but more like twenty. I suspect we won’t be sorry to bid farewell to 2016. But 2017, of course, will present us with many challenges. While we may still be feeling down in the dumps, we will have to redirect our energies into mobilizing for what are sure to be struggles ahead.

This Torah portion, Miketz, is almost always read during the Festival of Chanukah. While it is actually just a calendrical coincidence, perhaps we might find some hope in the metaphor of light, which is such a prominent feature of our Festival of Lights. The last night of Chanukah this year is also the last night of 2016. But the festival reminds us of the strength and eternality of the Jewish People, and of the values we derive from our tradition – the values of justice, and fairness, of compassion and the pursuit of peace, and the teaching of fundamental respect for the dignity of all human beings.

So, Miketz HaShanah HaZot – at the end of this year – I wish all of you in the coming year renewed strength, and fortitude, hope and peace.

Light Against the Darkness

menorah-Robert Couse-Baker-flickr

Menorah. Photo: Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr

On the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall this past Saturday evening, I joined a number of rabbinic colleagues and our various congregants, in addition to our friends and colleagues from the Christian and Muslim communities, for a demonstration of unity in light of the increasingly emboldened face of bigotry and hatred. One of the speakers who particularly impressed me was Linda Sarsour from the Arab American Association of New York. When she finished speaking she and I hugged, because we realized that we shared our name. But in addition, we share our desire to live in a country that embraces the core value of respect for the dignity of human beings, regardless of religion, gender, sexual preference, or ethnic background. As she stepped to the podium, some hecklers across the street raised their voices in agreement with Donald Trump’s expressed intention (IF he were given the chance to implement it) to exclude all members of the Muslim faith from entering America. When the heckling grew louder, a number of us – Jews, Muslims, Christians, women and men – drew closer and surrounded her in support, as she recounted the pressure and harassment that the Muslim community has had to endure, and continues to endure, here in America, where she was born.

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Arab American Association of New York website

A makeshift menorah was put together for the occasion by Eddie Ehrlich, whose brother Danny is the VP of Keshet Tours, and is organizing our trip to Israel this July. Eddie spoke eloquently about his father who had been expelled from Vienna by the Nazis, and found refuge here in America. Then he lit the menorah, which shone as a bright light of freedom against the darkness of bigotry and exclusion. Each one of us is a descendant of immigrants. Some of our ancestors, and perhaps even some of us, came to these shores seeking refuge from persecution, and in some cases, almost certain death. Some came seeking the possibility of a better life for themselves and their children – a life of economic, educational, social and professional opportunities that were closed to them in their countries of origin.

In our Torah portion this week, Joseph’s brothers have made the long journey down to Egypt to escape the famine that was blanketing the land of Israel, and most of the Ancient Near East. They were new to this place and unfamiliar with their surroundings. They had to plead their case before the Viceroy himself, who appeared as a threatening figure to them. Only after proving themselves worthy did the Viceroy reveal himself as their long-lost brother Joseph, whom they did not recognize, as his appearance was that of Egyptian royalty. This is the Torah’s etiology for how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt. As we will read beginning in January, the sojourn there didn’t turn out so well.

This is a different time and place. But hopefully we have learned the lessons of history. As American Jews we continue to stand up and raise our voices against the scourge of bigotry, ostracism and persecution that threaten our values at this time.

In this spirit, and still until the end of this day I wish you a Chag Urim Sameach, a Happy Chanukah, our Festival of Light.

Unwilling Immigrant

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Joseph Attacked by His Brothers by Marc Chagall 1957

This week we begin the Joseph cycle within the Genesis narrative. Since his younger brother Benjamin has not been born as yet, Joseph is still the youngest of the sons of Jacob, the son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, and, as the text tells us, “the son of his old age.” And, he was his father’s favorite. In defiance of convention, Jacob designates Joseph as the one who will inherit his estate and the leadership of his people. Joseph’s brothers are understandably infuriated. When the opportunity presents itself, they throw Joseph into a pit, and then sell him to the Midianites, who take him off to Egypt. Once there, he is thrown into the dungeon as a slave.

Can we even try to imagine the gripping fear that Joseph must have experienced – the dislocation of leaving his homeland and his family, and everything that was familiar and comforting to him? Ultimately Joseph became assimilated into Egyptian society; changed his name, his appearance, his language, and rose to great political heights. We might identify Joseph’s experience as paradigmatic of the immigrant experience. Of course, this one turned out well. But as we know, in reality, there are no guarantees.

Whatever our political persuasions may be, there can be no denying the stark reality of Jewish teaching, tradition, and historical experience. Beginning in the 4th century of the Common Era, the notion that Jews not only rejected Jesus but actually were responsible for his crucifixion and death, became a central theme of Christian dogma, and the raison d’être of Jew hatred and persecution, to this day. And the litany is long and sad. 11th century, the Crusades. 12th century, the first blood libel. 13th century, the Expulsion from England. 14th century, the Expulsion from France. 15th century, the Expulsion from Spain. 16th century, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation brought a new level of anti-Jewish policies and rhetoric to Europe. 17th century, the Chelmnicki Massacres in Poland. 18th century, ghettoization and exclusion in Russia. 19th century, legal and economic ostracism in Germany, and vicious pogroms in Russia, that sent so many of our grandparents and great-grandparents running for their lives to America, the “Goldene Medina.” 20th century, the Shoah. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, over a million Jews were expelled from surrounding Arab countries: Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere, and they sought refuge in Israel. Some 15,000 Jews were rescued from Ethiopia and brought to Israel. Over a million Jews from the Former Soviet Union sought refuge in Israel, and many others in the United States.

“You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No fewer than 36 times our Torah admonishes us regarding our obligations to refugees and strangers in our midst. This is Jewish teaching. This is the Jewish way. As Americans, we have the right and the prerogative to support the candidate(s) of our choice with as much energy as we can muster. Our support ought to come as well with our demands of our candidates that they support policies that honor our sensitivities as Jewish Americans. As our political process unfolds during this rather extraordinary presidential campaign, it behooves us to keep this in mind, whatever our personal political positions may be.