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September 20, 2014 / 25 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph’

The Dangers of Favoring One Child Over Another

Monday, December 31st, 2012

I’ve always seen Jacob as characterized by two central yet seemingly contradictory facets. On the one hand he is the patriarch who is always around his kids. He is a father and a husband first and foremost. A really family man. On the other hand, his family appears to be deeply dysfunctional, with strife, bitterness, and jealousy rending the family asunder.

Beginning with the time he was as boy Jacob witnessed his father Isaac’s favoritism toward Esau. When he gets older Jacob repeats this error by favoring Joseph. It’s unbelievable that the Torah actually says, “And Jacob (Israel) loved his son Joseph more than all his other sons.” Which father does that, or is so blatant about it?

This leads, of course, to enormous, almost deadly resentment toward Joseph from his elder siblings. But in this past Shabbat’s Torah reading, just when you think that the family is finally united and things are healed, Jacob does it again. In Egypt, in his dying moment, after Joseph has forgiven his brothers their attempt and fratricide and brought everyone together, saving them from famine, Jacob first seeks to bless Joseph’s children, but not necessarily the children of his other sons. And second, he gives the first-born blessing to Efraim, and not Menashe, who is the older son.

What is it about Jacob that he seemingly can’t stop the favoritism? When Joseph objects and essentially says, “Please father, bless Menashe first, for he is the firstborn,” Jacob responds, within earshot of the older boy, “I know, my son. I know. And while he will grow to be a great man, he will be outdone by his brother.” Surely Menashe didn’t feel good hearing this.

Is this simply a case of family dysfunction becoming a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation? I have seen this hundreds of times with families I have counseled. The same toxic patterns are repeated from parent to child to parent to child. Studies show, for example, the high prevalence of repetitive adultery in families. If your parents cheated, there is a likelihood that you will cheat as well. The same is true of divorce. Children of divorce have a far higher rate than the national average.

Is that what this is about? Abraham favored one son, Isaac, and cast off Ishmael, albeit with Sarah’s prodding and even God’s acquiescence. Isaac repeats the favoritism with Esau, thereby scarring Jacob deeply. And Jacob repeats it first with Joseph, then with Joseph’s children, and then with just one of Joseph’s son. Seemingly unable to break free of the pattern, Jacob’s family remains divided by bitter jealousies.

This might explain why Jacob, in last week’s Torah reading, makes one of the more startling statements of the Torah. When introduced to Pharaoh and asked how old he is, presumably because he looks older than his years, Jacob responds, “I am 147 years old. My life has been short and bitter, and has not reached the length of my ancestors.” Whoa. Talk about a downer.

But there are few things in life that can cause greater pain than family dysfunction and continual fighting. No parent likes watching their children assail each other.  Jacob was worn down by the constant strife. But he also seems challenged to rise above its basic causes.

Amid the Bible’s descriptions of his paternal shortcomings, I have always identified with Jacob more than any other Biblical personality, with the exception possibly of King David (whose humanity is so vividly detailed in the Bible). The reason: Jacob is so lifelike, complex, and real. He is a man whose righteousness is defined not by perfection but by a constant striving to live by the will of God amid the scarring he has endured and the human limitations that tie the hands of us all. He is the father of his nation, named for that constant wrestling and striving, “Israel, he who wrestles with God.”

To use a modern example, Abraham would be like George Washington, seemingly perfect and inscrutable. The marble man. One, the father of monotheism. The other, the father of his nation. But Jacob would be Jefferson. Jefferson, the quintessential American. The man of great complexity and even greater contradictions. But the true author of our independence. The man who, is his multifaceted, intricate nature captures the true spirit of America in all its glory, its virtue, its inconsistencies, and its shortcomings.

The Refusal To Be Comforted

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

The deception has taken place. Joseph has been sold into slavery. His brothers have dipped his coat in blood. They bring it back to their father, saying: “Look what we have found. Do you recognize it? Is this your son’s robe or not?” Jacob recognized it and replied, “It is my son’s robe. A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces.”

We then read: “Jacob rent his clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned his son for a long time. His sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. He said, ‘I will go down to the grave mourning for my son’ ” (37:34-35).

Why did Jacob refuse to be comforted? A midrash gives a remarkable answer. “One can be comforted for one who is dead, but not for one who is still living.”

Jacob refused to be comforted because he had not yet given up hope that Joseph was alive. That, tragically, is the fate of those who have lost members of their family (the parents of soldiers missing in action, for example), but have no proof that they are dead. They cannot go through the normal stages of mourning because they cannot abandon the possibility that the missing person is still capable of being rescued. Their continuing anguish is a form of loyalty; to give up, to mourn, to be reconciled to loss is a kind of betrayal. In such cases, grief lacks closure. To refuse to be comforted is to refuse to give up hope.

On what basis did Jacob continue to hope? The late David Daube made a suggestion that I find convincing. The words the sons say to Jacob – “Haker na – Do you recognize this?” – have a quasi-legal connotation. Daube relates this passage to another, with which it has close linguistic parallels:

“If a man gives a donkey, an ox, a sheep or any other animal to his neighbor for safekeeping … If it [the animal] was torn to pieces by a wild animal, he shall bring the remains as evidence and he will not be required to pay for the torn animal” (Shemot 22:10-13).

The issue at stake is the extent of responsibility borne by a guardian (shomer). If the animal is lost through negligence, the guardian is at fault and must make good the loss. If there is no negligence, merely force majeure, an unavoidable, unforeseeable accident, the guardian is exempt from blame. One such case is where the loss has been caused by a wild animal. The wording in the law – “tarof yitaref – torn to pieces” – exactly parallels Jacob’s judgment in the case of Joseph: “tarof toraf Yosef – Joseph has been torn to pieces.”

We know that some such law existed prior to the giving of the Torah. Jacob himself says to Laban, whose flocks and herds have been placed in his charge, “I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself” (Bereishit 31:39). This implies that guardians even then were exempt from responsibility for the damage caused by wild animals. We also know that an elder brother carried a similar responsibility for the fate of a younger brother placed in his charge (i.e. when the two were alone together). That is the significance of Cain’s denial when confronted by G-d as to the fate of Abel: “Am I my brother’s guardian (shomer)?”

We now understand a series of nuances in the encounter between Jacob and his sons when they return without Joseph. Normally they would be held responsible for their younger brother’s disappearance. To avoid this, as in the case of later biblical law, they “bring the remains as evidence.” If those remains show signs of an attack by a wild animal, they must – by virtue of the law then operative – be held innocent. Their request to Jacob, “haker na,” must be construed as a legal request, meaning, “Examine the evidence.” Jacob has no alternative but to do so, and in virtue of what he has seen, acquit them.

A judge, however, may be forced to acquit someone accused of the crime because the evidence is insufficient to justify a conviction, yet he may hold lingering private doubts. So Jacob was forced to find his sons innocent, without necessarily believing what they said. Jacob did not believe it, and his refusal to be comforted shows that he was unconvinced. He continued to hope that Joseph was still alive. That hope was eventually justified. Joseph was still alive, and eventually father and son were reunited.

Two Very Different Jews Memorialized on Saturday

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Memorials for two memorable Jews took place this weekend, though they stood, perhaps, on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

The Matriarch Rachel, wife of the Patriarch Jacob and mother to biblical figures Joseph and Benjamin, was remembered on the 11th of the Jewish month of Cheshvan, being visited by a reported 70,000+ of her and her husband’s descendants.  Jews from all over Israel and all walks of life came on Friday and Saturday night to pay their respects to the beloved matriarch, who is considered to be the mother of aliyah, said to be weeping for her exiled children by the prophet Jeremiah.

On Saturday night, a somewhat different Jew was also remembered, albeit by a significantly smaller and less pious crowd.  Less than 25,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to remember former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.  Less a celebration of his life and accomplishments than a nostalgic gathering for Oslo and reflection on his murder, the Rabin memorial this year was themed “Remembering the Murder: Fighting for Democracy”.

Rosa Katzenelson: Paintings Beyond Hasidic Expressionism

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Hadas Gallery (hadasgallery.com)
541 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, New York
info@hadasgallery.com 215-704-2205
Until October 28, 2012

Passion of belief can certainly lead to passion of expression, especially for an artist. Rosa Katzenelson’s paintings and digital artwork, currently at the Hadas Gallery in Brooklyn, could easily define the very essence of religious expressionism. As a Chabad devotee, every aspect of her work exudes a passion for both the chassidic subjects she depicts and the visceral act of making a painting. Nonetheless, upon closer inspection her work yields considerably more complexity.

Dancing in the Rain presents an exuberant moment of religious consciousness in which the male dancer, kicking up his heels in the midst of a crowd on a wet sidewalk, seems almost suspended by the umbrella he holds aloft. The chassidic crowd cheers him on, a swirl of black fedoras and dark umbrellas, while a blast of light in the upper right intimates that the rain is indeed a divine overflow. Quite the magical moment perhaps inspired by Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain (MGM 1952)” film sequence in which the love-struck Kelly literally sings and dances on a rain-drenched Hollywood street. But then we notice the upside down figure in the foreground sidewalk. Immediately we assume it to be the dancing man’s reflection and yet it uncomfortably feels like something else. The head, hat and hand are too much in focus to be a mere reflection. So perhaps it is an allusion to a slain alter-ego, the yetzer hara, or a dybbuk; whatever it may be, suddenly the first impression of carefree joy is tempered by more serious matters.

Preparation from Below, (18 x 24), Oil on canvas by Rosa Katzenelson
Courtesy Hadas Gallery

Light again operates as a mystical agent in Preparation from Below (Chatan l’Torah), flowing in from an open window to where a sefer Torah is about to be read. The open Torah, some of its letters magically floating over the klaf, is surrounded by no less than six intense men in taleisim. In the foreground a young woman is handing a golden-haired child to a man while his older son stands alongside, thereby further defining the moment as the Kol haNe’arim, the blessing of all the children that introduces the aliyah of Chassan Torah. This painting breathes a joyful moment of expectation and celebration, depicting a blessing of light upon the moment that faithful Jews complete one year’s Torah cycle and prepare to take up the New Year’s Beraishis. The men and their children form a quivering white crown that surrounds the Torah, directly connected with the Divine light that illuminates its existence.

Joseph’s Dance, (28 x 24), Oil on linen by Rosa Katzenelson
Courtesy Hadas Gallery

Katzenelson, who studied art and film in Argentina, also has a background as a clinical psychologist. This may give us some insight into the very recently completed Joseph’s Dance. At first glance we are at some kind of simcha with the central figure, presumably Joseph, dancing wildly with another foreground figure. Most of the onlookers seem engaged and cheery although two on the extreme right exude a barely concealed animosity. Count them all up and there are ten and then of course we understand that this contemporary scene is actually depicting the biblical Joseph. Now the mad enthusiasm starts to come into focus with each brother reflecting his relationship with the troublesome Joseph. We wonder exactly where in the narrative has the artist set this scene. If it is before the outbreak of their conflict then the shinny new blue-black suit Joseph wears fits perfectly as the “coat” Jacob gives him, as does his flying peyoesand maniacal expression. This is the young reckless Joseph, not careful with his words or actions around his older brothers. Or perhaps we are seeing a homecoming, the chastened brothers readmitting Joseph into the family fold, with the lingering resentment and fear of at least two of them on the side. Then this is Joseph triumphant, still unnervingly sure of himself, dominant and even a bit dangerous. Whichever scene we choose, the artist has collapsed the long convoluted narrative of Joseph and his brothers into one insightful moment of familial complexity and tension.

Eye of the Fish, (18 x 14), Oil on linen by Rosa Katzenelson
Courtesy Hadas Gallery

Mystery is at the heart of every good painting. To be otherwise renders art into illustration and The Eye of the Fish is no exception. Set around a bucolic pond we slowly make out four or five male figures tightly clustered on the far side of the pond, each holding what may be a prayer book. Immediately Tashlich comes to mind. But what of the two beautifully painted ladies in the foreground? They too have a prayer book, but it seems one is holding an infant even as a young girl playfully runs alongside them. Men on one side, women on the other, a shimmering pond between them in fading hours of Rosh Hashanah. This artwork, in its lush brushwork, evocative setting and characters is a beautiful pastoral that contemplates the complexity and quiet delights of a year about to unfold. The image is evocative, charming, playful and yet wonderfully serious about the joys of living in a Jewish world. Out of Rosa Katzenelson’s passion for Yiddishkeit and making art comes flashes of insights and mystery that make returning to the paintings over and over a pure delight.

Miami Beach Chabad House Torah Studies Catalog

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Chabad House in Miami Beach has released its Torah Studies catalog of classes for the first season of the 2013 academic year. All classes will be held at The Chabad House, 669 North Lincoln Lane, Miami Beach. The sessions are open to men and women.

Chabad of Miami Beach values a deep and rich learning experience.

Its Torah Studies program is of the highest caliber, developed by the world-renowned Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. The program brings a series of stimulating text- and discussion-based classes on a weekly basis:

Livening The Human Core – Tues, Oct 30, 7:30 p.m. How to Get Up when Life is Down. Material worries cause emotional drain, depleting us of our inner reserves and the conviction to go on. This class introduces profound advice from the prophet Elisha about how to reignite our inner spark.

Behind the Wedding Ring – Tues, Nov 6, 7:30 p.m. Steps to Acquiring a Flourishing Marriage. Marriage is forever. Husband and wife should both feel they are getting a winning deal. These are some of the secrets we explore as we unravel the surprising biblical origins of the wedding ring.

Living to Laugh – Tues, Nov 13, 7:30 p.m. Humor as our Reason for Being.

What makes us laugh? What gives us our greatest giggles? Humor is born from the radically unexpected, unfamiliar, and abnormal. This lesson views laughter as the purpose of life, that by transcending and defying our nature we can make God chuckle.

Jacob’s Ladder – Tues, Nov 20, 7:30 p.m. Actualizing Your Higher Calling. Climbing from who we are to what we can become is perhaps life’s greatest challenge. This lesson introduces a practical daily meditative exercise to keep our potential in sight and the tools to actualize it.

A Love Called Hatred – Tues, Nov 27. The Fascinating Story of King Menasheh. The opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. Hatred is love turned sour. When people are too gripped by love to let go and be indifferent, they instead redefine their strong relationship as hate. This lesson examines the biography of a hateful Jewish king who ultimately uncovered the love behind his hatred.

The Tune of Ambivalence – Tues, Dec 4, 7:30 p.m. Navigating Through Tough Existential Dilemmas. Discover the guiding principles that help us make critical and courageous decisions. Torn between temptation, hesitation, and cognitive dissonance, this lesson examines three biblical tales of everyday struggle that share a common tune – literally!

Decorate, Then Sweep – Tues, Dec 11, 7:30 p.m. (Chanukah). Starting Out on a Positive Note. You need to rid yourself of bad habits to inculcate positive ones, but if you don’t start with the good right away, you may end up waiting forever. This lesson explores the pros and cons of cognitive versus behavioral therapy and the wisdom in the order of the Chanukah candles and of Joseph’s sons.

Reconstructing Crossed Lines – Tues, Dec 18, 7:30 p.m. An Exploration of the Workings of Teshuvah. When we cross a line, we become desensitized to the line and prone to cross it again. How do we return to our former selves? This lesson explores the innovative, three-step process Joseph used to aid his brothers return, including reconstructing their original circumstances to prove they had truly changed.

Deaf to Nuance – Tues, Dec 25, 7:30p.m. The Positive Side to Selective Hearing. Subtleties sometimes dilute and distort the lines of truth, and complexity gets in the way of us standing up for what is right. This lesson amplifies the story of Chushim – the deaf grandson of Jacob – who stood by the obvious when others were blinded by the details.

Thoughts Make the Man

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Dear Friends, the clock is ticking down to Rosh HaShanah. You can hear the shofars blasting all over the world. T’shuva may seem like a towering mountain too high to climb, but it’s really not as hard as you think.

Rabbi Kook teaches that even contemplations of t’shuva have significant value. To understand this, we must look at life with a different orientation than we normally do. Usually, we are pragmatists. We judge the value of things by the influence they have on ourselves and the world. For instance, ten dollars is worth more than five dollars because it can buy more. A doctorate is better than a bachelor’s degree because it can lead to a better paying and more prestigious job.

There are things, however, that have an absolute value, regardless of their tangible impact in this world. Truth is an example. Holiness is another. To this list, Rabbi Kook adds good thoughts. Contemplations of t’shuva, even if they do not lead to a resulting change in behavior, bring benefit to the individual and the world.

This is similar to the question in the Talmud — which is greater, Torah study or good deeds? The answer is Torah study because it leads to good deeds. You might think that if the ultimate goal is the deeds, then they would be more important. But our Sages tell us that the thought processes which lead to the deeds are of primary concern. Being immersed in Torah has an absolute value in itself. Thus, Rabbi Kook writes:

The thought of t’shuva transforms all transgressions and the darkness they cause, along with their spiritual bitterness and stains, into visions of joy and comfort, for it is through these contemplations that a person is filled with a deep feeling of hatred for evil, and the love of goodness is increased within him with a powerful force (Orot HaT’shuva, 7:1).

T’shuva can be dissected into two different realms. There is the nitty-gritty t’shuva of mending an actual deed, and there is the thought process which precedes the action. The value of these thoughts is not to be measured according to the activities which they inspire. For instance, a person may decide that he wants to be righteous. But when the person tries to translate this thought into action, he finds himself overwhelmed. To be righteous, he has to get up early in the morning to pray. He has to stop doing a host of forbidden deeds. He has to watch what he says, and watch what he eats. Before he even begins, his will is broken. Though his wish to do t’shuva was sincere, he couldn’t find the inner strength to actualize his thoughts into deeds.

Rabbi Kook says that all is not lost. This person’s original idea to do t’shuva stemmed from the deepest recesses of the soul, where it was inspired by the spiritual waves of t’shuva which encircle the world. Thus he has already been touched by t’shuva’s cleansing streams. In effect, he has boarded the boat. Though his will power  may be weak at the moment, his soul is longing for God.

Through the contemplations of t’shuva, a person hears the voice of God calling him from the Torah and from the heart, from the world and all it contains. The will for good is fortified within him. The body itself, which causes transgression, becomes more and more purified until the thought of t’shuva pervades it (Ibid, 7:5).

In the beginning of his t’shuva journey, a person must realize the absolute value of his initial inspiration. He has to find a new way of judging the value of things, not always looking for concrete benefits or results. When a person undertakes t’shuva, his thoughts weigh as much as his deeds. T’shuva is not just a process of do’s and don’ts, but rather a conscious and subconscious overhaul of an individual’s thought processes and emotions. Already by thinking about t’shuva one is engaged in it. As the saying goes: you are what you think.

Even the thought of t’shuva brings great healing. However, the soul can only find full freedom when this potential t’shuva is actualized. Nonetheless, since the contemplation is bound up with the longing for t’shuva, there is no cause for dismay. God will certainly provide all of the means necessary for complete repentance, which brightens all darkness with its light… ‘A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise’ (Ibid. Tehillim, 51;19).

When we recognize the value of our thoughts, we discover a very encouraging concept. One needn’t despair when confronted by the often difficult changes which t’shuva demands. This is especially true in the initial stages before a person’s increasing love for G-d makes all difficulties and sacrifices seem small. Even if a person cannot immediately redress all of his wrongdoings, he should know that there is a great value in just wanting to be good. One can take comfort that he wants to be a better person. With God’s help, he will also be able to actualize his yearnings. But in the meantime, just thinking good thoughts is already strengthening his inner self and the world.

Father’s Day

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

For a Jew, every day is Father’s Day, not just once a year. The mitzvah to “Honor thy father and thy mother” is one of the most fundamental commandments of the Torah. Interestingly, the commandment of honoring one’s father and mother is on the side of the Tablets dealing with commandments between man and God. This is because our parents are our gateway to God. It is they who teach us about God and the Torah. Therefore, honoring them is essential to the preservation and continuity of the Torah from father to son, generation after generation.

The full wording of the commandment is: “Honor thy father and mother that thy days may be long in the Land which the Lord thy God gives thee” (Shemot, 20:12).

Not many commandments come with a clearly stated reward. Please look closely at the reward for keeping this fundamental commandment – “that your days may be long in the Land” – that means in the Land of Israel. Isn’t that interesting!

What’s the connection? Well, if you honor your father and mother, you will respect what they teach you. Since Jewish fathers and mothers are obligated to teach their children the Torah, they will naturally teach their kids that a Jew is supposed to live in the Land of Israel, just like it repeats over and over again in the Torah dozens of times. Part of respecting one’s parents is by obeying them when they instruct you in the ways of the Torah. Thus a child who honors his parents will live in the Land of Israel, in line with the Torah’s teachings.

Though my parents were not happy when I told them that I was moving to Israel, I made aliyah anyway. While honoring one’s parents is an essential tenet of Judaism, if parents do not want a child to move to Israel, the child does not have to listen to them, since going on aliyah is a mitzvah, and parents are not allowed to prevent a child from carrying out a commandment of God. To my parents’ great merit, even though they were upset with my decision, they always helped me out when I needed their assistance in fulfilling the commandment of living in Israel, which our Sages tell us is equal in weight to all of the commandments of the Torah.

Later, when my aging parents became ill, I had the good fortune of bringing them to Israel to live adjacent to my family in Shilo, and then Jerusalem. When my aunt phoned me from Florida, informing me that my mother was developing the early-warning signs of Alzheimer’s Disease, and that my dad couldn’t handle her outbursts of anger, I immediately flew to Boca. We visited some retirement communities, but when we learned that my mom wouldn’t be allowed to live with my dad because of her condition, I persuaded my dad to let me take them to Israel where my family could watch over them. My uncle agreed to sell their house and car, so I packed up their bags and some cherished belongings, and we drove off to the Miami airport, telling my mother that she was going to Israel for the bar mitzvah of one of my sons.

Thus, my father, of blessed memory, spent his last nine years in the Holy Land. At the end of his sojourn in this world, he merited to be buried on the Mount of Olives, alongside the Prophets and great Rabbis of Israel. After, my dad passed away, we moved my mom into a nursing home nearby, so that I can visit every day.

I can’t say it was easy running back and forth between my mom and dad, and my own topsy-turvy home, having to take care of sick and anxiety-ridden parents and a house with seven energetic children, but, Baruch Hashem, I am grateful that I merited observing the mitzvah from alef to taf. My trials and tribulations became the basis for my latest novel, a comic and moving tale of a family situation we all go through sooner or later, when the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents takes on its greatest weight and meaning – when they are older and need us the most. It’s a wonderful family adventure, filled with Torah and the love of Jewish values. I set the story in New York, at my daughter’s request, so that people in Israel (her friends) wouldn’t say it was about our family. Since it’s still Book Month in Israel, here’s an excerpt from the novel for your reading pleasure, based on the time I (“Joseph”) took my parents (“Harry and Lizzy Friedman”) for a Pesach vacation at a resort hotel, to give my overtaxed wife (“Rivka”) a break. Also, since Dad’s yahrtzeit is coming up, it’s a chance to thank him again for helping me on my journey back to Torah and to Eretz Yisrael. May his memory be for a blessing.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/blogs/felafel-on-rye/fathers-day/2012/06/17/

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