A Modest Proposal for Lego (Please!!!)

I was at Wegmans, and I saw a product that left me very confused. Since childhood, I have been a big fan of Lego, and I have also been a huge fan of Star Wars and all of the toys, books, movies and stuff that has come out of that cultural tidal wave. Naturally, when the two companies began to make products together, I thought it was extremely cool. That partnership became real when I was not in a toy buying part of my life, so I never bought any of them. I have always admired them in the stores, and online. Now that my little boy is almost seven years old, and he also loves legos and Star Wars (shock!), the Star Wars line of legos is in our line of sight. (No worries to anyone who is thinking I might go and buy something erratic.) In short, Lego + Star Wars = good.

Then we add in a third element. Religion and culture. I am and always have been Jewish. As a little boy, I was put on Santa’s lap in some mall (never was clear on the reason why this happened), and, when asked what I wanted for Christmas, I (allegedly) told Santa that I was Jewish, did not need him, and then, putting my jacket over my head, refused to be photographed. How I wish I had that picture. Always had a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish friends. Always belonged to a synagogue. Did a great Jewish high school youth group, and stuff in college. Went to Hebrew University for my Junior Year abroad. Went to Rabbinical School (JTS!), have worked in the Jewish community for years, and now work with a fantastic congregation in Syracuse, NY.

But this stopped me in my tracks:


That’s right: A Lego. Star Wars. Advent Calendar.

See. Want. But. Christmas. Must. Hold. Back.

(Should have bought it for some lucky Christmas-celebrating kid…Maybe next year…)

For those of you who do not know what an Advent Calendar is, well…

An Advent calendar is a special calendar used to count or celebrate the days in anticipation of Christmas. Since the date of the first Sunday of Adventvaries, falling between November 27 and December 3 inclusive, the Advent calendar usually begins on December 1, although many include the previous few days that are part of the season. The Advent calendar was first used by German Lutherans in the 19th and 20th centuries but is now ubiquitous among adherents of many Christian denominations.[1][2] Many Advent calendars take the form of a large rectangular card with “windows”,[2] of which there are usually 24: one for each day of December leading up to Christmas Eve. The windows are opened starting with the first one. Often, these windows have a Bible verse and prayer printed on them, which Christian families incorporate as part of their daily Advent devotions.[1][3] Consecutive doors are opened every day leading up to Christmas. The calendar windows open to reveal an image, poem, a portion of a story (such as the story of the Nativity of Jesus) or a small gift, such as a toy or a chocolate item. Advent calendars range in theme, from sports to technology, often carrying Scripture verses.[1]

So on each day of this seasonal process, a kid opens up a little cardboard door, pulls out, not anything devotional in a religious sense, but pulls out a custom co- themed Christmas/Star Wars Lego kit. They are small and awesome. I think my favorite one is the cognitively dissonant Darth Vader/Santa Clause. Now, if he were the one to deal with the naughty kids, I think the world would be a whole lot nicer. And there are twenty-four pretty awesome little Star Wars kits, mini-figs, small vehicles, and so on.

So what is a Star Wars-loving, Lego-loving Rabbi to do? Leap to action.

Dear Lego,

I am very impressed by your use of Lego and Star Wars to help young children celebrate the holiday and season of Christmas. Did you know that there are other communities that might be similarly enticed to purchase religious themed legos? It’s true. In fact, I have a proposal for just the thing for the Jewish community. There are fifty days (hear me out) between the first day of Passover and the first Day of Shavuot (aka Pentecost, aka the Festival of Weeks) called the Counting of the Omer. The Hebrew bible material is rich for Lego-izing. The Exodus. The Time in the Wilderness. Standing at Mount Sinai. And the rabbinic material: The early rabbis and the oppression of Rome and the rabbinic resistance to the Hadrianic persecution. And the Jewish mystical material: the progression through the seven sefirot (emanations of divine creative energy). I mean, how could you keep it down to a mere fifty mini-kits!

So here is my suggestions. Contact the Brick Bible people, or this guy:

Together, you can develop something truly amazing for the Jewish world that will add a dimension of sacred fun to one of the most important time of the Jewish year. Moses. Golden Calf. Parts of the Mishkan. Aaron. Mannah. Pharaoh. Chariots. And more!


Rabbi Pepperstone

Vayigash: Stopping Along the Way

[I wrote this one three years ago, when we last came to this Torah reading in the weekly cycle. I post it today because I was thinking about the issues that it raises again. RAP]

Why does Jacob stop in Beer-Sheva?

Today’s specific Torah reading is the final journey of Jacob from the land of Canaan to the land of Egypt. From this point onward in the Torah, we are going to find ourselves outside the land, in Egypt or Sinai.

Jacob travels to Egypt because he has just been told that his long lost, presumed dead, son Joseph is alive and well in Egypt, where he is second only to Pharaoh. At first, Jacob does not believe his sons, but once he sees the wagons that Joseph has sent, he knows that they are telling the truth.

 And Israel says: “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”

Jacob, going by his other name Israel in this narrative, knows that the reason he is going to Egypt is not to survive. He does not need to leave Canaan. He could just stay put, get food from Egypt, and finish his days there as his father and grandfather did. 

In fact, one might expect that this would be the case. Abraham arrived in Canaan and was only forced to leave due to famine that would have killed him. Isaac never leaves the land, and when he considers doing just that, God tells him not to. Jacob has already been out of the land, when fleeing from his brother and looking to return to Haran to begin a family.

But in this circumstance, Jacob does not need to leave the land.  One could reasonably argue that Joseph himself has the power to travel to Canaan to visit his father whenever he wants. Indeed Joseph does come to Canaan to bury his father (in next week’s Torah portion), so we know that this could have happened.

 So what is Jacob’s plan? Is it to return to Canaan right after the visit? Is the plan to stay in Egypt for the five remaining years of the famine? The latter is clearly Joseph’s plan for the family.

 “Quickly go up to my father and tell him, thus says your son Josef. God has made me master over all Egypt. Come down to me, do not stay in Canaan, for you should live in the land of Goshen to be near me, you and your children…And I will provide for you there, for another five years of famine, lest you die, you and your entire household.”

The plan seems to be a five-year stay to wait out the famine and then to return to Canaan. But so goes the old Yiddish proverb: Humans plan and God laughs. God revels a different plan to Jacob on his way down to Egypt when they stop in Beer Sheva.

“And Israel traveled with all that was his, and they came to Beer Sheva, and he offering zevachim (sacrifices, peace offerings) to the God of his father Isaac.”

Why does Jacob stop at Beer Sheva? In fact, why stop at all? Why does he offer offerings to the God of Isaac? What about Avraham? Why does he make offerings at all? Why zevachim? No one else has done that! Why is he referred to as Israel and not Jacob?

To answer all of these, we must think about what Jacob is going through at this time in his life.

  1. Jacob is worried. In fact this is what God says to him, “Don’t fear OR Don’t worry…”
  2. Why is he worried? Probably because he is leaving Canaan. Abraham was chosen and then sent to the land. Isaac was chosen and not allowed to leave the land. If Jacob had not come back to Canaan, perhaps Esav would have become to chosen son. Jacob may be worrying now that if they leave the land, they risk giving up their chosenness.
  3. They could live in the land, get food from Egypt, but Joseph is inviting them to live in Goshen and avoid the famine altogether.
  4. Or is this exit going against God’s will?

Such worries!

Why Beer Sheva? This is the site of Isaac’s prayer. This is the point of departure for Jacob’s last journey out of the land, which ended with his return, albeit twenty-one years later. This is also the official southern border before the wilderness begins.

Why the God of Isaac? Perhaps to seek permission to leave the land, which Isaac was not granted? Or perhaps it could be that Jacob knew that this was going to be the beginning of their enslavement in Egypt, which God told to Abraham and the knowledge of which could have been passed down to Jacob.

So at this time of great anxiety, why offer a zevach? A Zevach is normally an animal offering offered at a joyous occasion! Every offering prior to this has been an olah, which is completely burnt up. A zevach’s full name is a Zevach Shlamim, which connects to a feeling of fullness or completeness.

There are three other major zevachim mentioned in the Torah:

  1. The Pesach offering is a Zevach, which marks the completion of the Exodus.
  2. The offerings made at Mount Sinai, which mark completion of entering the Covenant.
  3. The offerings make at the completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

All of these have to do with some process that is now at a successful end. Jacob might have been offering his gratitude this at the moment that his family is about to become complete for the first time in twenty-one years.

 If so, what a complex range of emotions Jacob is going through at this moment. Fear of leaving the land, risking his special role in Abraham’s family, beginning a period of suffering for what is to become a nation, and at the same time the joy of a family reunion that felt impossible just a few days prior.

So what doe God say to Jacob at Beer Sheva?

 Then God spoke to Israel in a night vision, and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And Jacob said, “Here I am.” And God said, “I am the God of your father Isaac, do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely bring you up, and Joseph will close your eyes with his hand.”

If Jacob had been planning to live in Egypt for a short visit, or even five years, God new reveals a different plan. They are going to be out of the land for hundreds of years. This descent to Egypt is not only the fulfillment if Joseph’s dreams, but also now clearly the beginning of enslavement and the exodus from Egypt.

God reassures Jacob that this is all part of the plan. The covenant with Abraham is not at risk. God is going to transform this reunited family into a mighty nation.

 So what can we learn from this moment in Jacob’s life?

We all come to these borders or moments in our lives when we are acutely aware that a chapter in our lives in concluding, when we are either about to end a part of our lives or begin a new one. These borders can be physical, mental, geographic, emotional, or developmental. They are all borders the same, and when we cross them, there is anxiety.

  • Will everything be ok?
  • What is going to change?
  • What is going to stay the same?
  • Am I ready?
  • Where will I turn for help?

At these moments we naturally have mixed emotions. Mingled joy and grief for a process now complete, excitement and trepidation when we take those first steps into the unknown. Those moments can be huge, a birth, a death, a marriage, a move, a new job, new school, or small, like going to sleep after a hard day, or looking behind at a week gone by or a week advancing upon us.

Jacob reminds us to stop at those moments, and not to rush through them. These are moments for pausing and reflecting. Just as Jacob stopped at that border crossing, so we should stop at that passage in our lives. Just as Jacob prays, we should pause to express what is going on in our lives, the anxiety, the gratitude, the fear, and the joy, no matter what the feeling. And then, as Jacob did, we should make ourselves receptive to hearing God’s response. Jacob heard God call out his name twice, Jacob, Jacob, and he responds, Hineni, Here I am. Just as Abraham did, and just as Moses will at the burning bush. Jacob was ready to hear what God had intended for him in the next phase of his life. We too can stand at that border, and open ourselves up to the possibility of whatever may come next. Just as Jacob was assured that his family would grow and change and become a nation, we too, through our openness to whatever comes next will enable us to grow and change into who we are to become.

A little light reading from 1 and 2 Maccabees

A few weeks ago, I purchased a remarkable set of books from the Jewish Publication Society called Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, and I must say, even to receive these 3 volumes in the mail is an experience. They came in one heavy medium size box. These are three serious volumes of writing! I had no idea that there was so much Jewish literary activity following the closing of the book of the Tanakh and up until the beginning of the Rabbinic period. Part of the reason that I chose to get these was because of the work of one of the editors, James L. Kugel, who wrote a book called In Potiphar’s House, which traces back motifs in the rabbinic midrash back to the literature from this intertestamental time period. This book turned me on to the entire period of time and its literature. Professor Kugel is also a mensch. I know this because when I wrote him an email looking for a version of a particular text, he took the time to personally write back, which I really appreciated. He also told me to look forward to this set coming out in the not too distant future.

So for this Hanukkah, I decided to dive into this book and do some reading about the books of the Maccabees, and to select some key passages that I think are the most interesting as they relate to the modern festival of Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew. These selections are by no means exhaustive, and only reflect my reading of 1 Maccabees and part of 2 Maccabees. I have not delved into 3 or 4 Maccabees yet, but they are also enticing. The books give glimpses (biased as they are) into what happens when super-power nations collide with smaller nations, how people in the ancient near east did diplomacy, warfare, sought revenge, dealt with the questions of accommodation when it comes to culture clashes, economic, political, and religious issues. It also shed some light on behaviors during times of war that today seem barbaric, but are described unapologetically in 1 Maccabees.

These selections give some insight into what led to the Maccabean Revolt against the decrees of Antiochus, which do not seem to have come from a place of evil, just a place of desire for control. The reason for the decrees was a civil war between two groups of Jews: Hellenizers and those who were faithful to the law. It is also interesting to note that the battle for Jerusalem takes place in the first year of the three-year war between the Assyrian Greek forces and the Maccabees. It took three more years to end the conflict and then long to establish an independent kingdom under Maccabean rule, which later on has its own problems.

The selections that depict Hanukkah should also grab out attention, since the depict a festival that both feels familiar and foreign all at the same time. The well known “cruse of oil” story is well known, although appears on the Jewish scene centuries later, and in contrast, the Maccabees first Hanukkah mentions the menorah, but only in the context of the overall Temple, with a particular focus on the altar. My favorite selection come from 2 Maccabees, which is in the form of a letter written to the Jews of the Diaspora, encouraging them to celebrate Hanukkah, which has three reasons to celebrate. First, the well-known dedication of the altar. Second, the delayed festival of Sukkot, which is why Hanukkah lasts eight day. But the third reason is for a legend about the Festival of the Fire, which is based on events set in the days of the Second Temple’s establishment. It appears in the book as a way to demonstrate the continuity of the fire on the altar going back as far as the Mishkan’s dedication in the wilderness waaaay back in the day. However, I think that a case can be made that this is also the basis for the rabbinic oil story, since it has some of the same motifs (return to the Temple, purification, looking for a missing element, a miraculous fire, and priestly involvement).

I hope that these selections whet your appetite for more!

Happy Hanukkah!

1. A Movement Begins (1 Maccabees 11-15); (2 Maccabees 4:7-10)

In those days, lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us. This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.


When Seleucus died and Antiochus, who was called Epiphanies, succeeded to the kingdom, Jason the brother of Onias [the current high priest] obtained the high priesthood by corruption…In addition to this, he promised to pay hundred and fifty more [talents of silver] if permission were given to establish by his authority a gymnasium and a body of youth for it, and to enroll the men of Jerusalem as citizens of Antioch. When the king assented and Jason came to office, he at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life.

2. The Reason for the Antiochan Decrees (2 Mac 5:11, 6:1)

[Insert horrifying and bloody Jewish civil war here.] When news of what had happened reached the king, he took it to mean that Judea was in revolt. So, raging inwardly, [Antiochus] left Egypt and took the city [of Jerusalem] by storm…Not long after this [and other horrible events], the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their fathers and cease to live by the laws of God…

3. The Antiochan Decrees (1 Maccabees 1:41-50)

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane Sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all ordinances. “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

4. The Twenty-Fifth of Kislev (1 Maccabees 1:58)

[After putting up idols in the Temple and establishing altars all around Judea] And on the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar which was upon the altar of burnt offering.

5. Beginnings of a Counter-Movement (2 Maccabees 2:19-24; 27)

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.…” When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modein, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar…Then Mattathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying, “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”

6. A Change in the Law (1 Maccabees 2:39-41)

When Mattathias and his friends learned of [the Sabbath massacre], they mourned for them deeply. And each said to his neighbor: “If we all do as our brethren have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.”

7. The First Hanukkah (1 Maccabees 4:36-56)

Then said Judas and his brothers, “Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. And they saw the sanctuary desolate…Then they rent their clothes, and mourned with great lamentation, and sprinkled themselves with ashes…[Judah] chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place….Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lamp stand, the altar of incense, and the table into the Temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lamp stand, and these gave light in the Temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they had finished all the work they had undertaken.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev…they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals….So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise.

8. Another Reason for the Season (2 Maccabees 1:18-22; 31-35)

Since on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev we shall celebrate the purification of the Temple, we though it necessary to notify you, in order that you may also celebrate the Feast of the Booths, and the Feast of the Fire when Nehemiah, who built the Temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.

For when our fathers were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to anyone. But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia, send the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it.

And when they reported to us that they had not found fire, but a thick liquid, he ordered them to dip it out and bring it. And when the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkled the liquid on the wood and what was laid upon it. When this was done and some time had passed and the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled…

And when the materials of the sacrifice were consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left should be poured upon large stones. When this was done, a flame blazed up; but when the light from the altar shone back, it went out…Nehemia and his associates called this “nephthar,” which means purification, but by most people it is called naphtha.

Mikketz: Breaking The Terrible Silence

In each Torah portion, there is a moment upon which the entire portion hinges. It might be a word, a phrase, an action. In this week’s Torah portion, there is an awkward silence, filled by the speech on someone who is not remarkable. But had that person not spoken, Jewish history would have had a very short span ending with a terrible famine.
This week, we begin with our third set of dreams, and this time they belong to Pharaoh. These two dreams of thin ears of corn and thin cows devouring their healthy counterparts are agitating the king. On all other nights, his dreams don’t bother him. But after this night, with such nightmarish images, Pharaoh knows that these dreams are not the night time musing of a king. They are trying to communicate something important.
Pharaoh gathers together all of the magicians and wise men of Egypt. All of them. All in one room. Then he asks them to interpret the dream. This would be the equivalent of the President calling together every brilliant mind in the entire country at one gathering, and asking them for advice. For some reason, could be that they simply have no idea, or that no one wants to interpret such ominous dreams, they are silent.
This is the silence that dares to be broken. One person breaks the silence. And it is a person who is not on hand to offer a solution to the problem of these two dreams. It is the cup bearer, whose job is to pour the king’s wine, not to offer solutions to the matters of state (or state of mind!)
“I must make mention today of my offenses….” The opening words of the cup-bearer reveal that to step into this silence is to risk his own life. He knew about a person with the ability to interpret dreams for two years and never told anyone! But in this moment, Pharaoh’s need to have these dreams solved is more important than the cup-bearer maintaining his silence. Were he to remain silent, all would have been lost. And it is because of his speaking up, of his breaking through the silence that Joseph is brought out of jail, cleaned up, and able to interpret the dreams, saving not only Egypt, but the lives of everyone in the region, including his own family, who fatefully shows us looking for rations as well.
  • What are the silences in our lives that fill us with dread?
  • What are the words that we must utter that open us up to becoming vulnerable to the others in our lives?
  • What do we give up by maintaining our silence?
Consider how much was gained by the courage of the cup-bearer in opening his mouth in the presence of Egypt’s most brilliant! 
Speaking up in those moments of terrible silence can save the world.

Joseph and Tamar: Thinking about how we think about the world

This past summer at Camp Ramah, I had the joy of spending some evenings with a bunk of middle school boys, doing what is called, in camp terms, harga’ah, which literally means “calming down,” and refers to an activity that helps get the kids ready for bedtime. I brought them a number of what are called “Lateral Thinking Puzzles,” which are puzzles where you share a clue in the form of a small amount of information, and then let others ask Yes or No questions to figure out the (one or maybe two) correct interpretations of that clue. The fun of the puzzle is trying to ask the right questions (and sometimes unusual questions) to zero in on the correct interpretation.

Here is one example:

A man walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender pulls out a gun and points it at him. The man says, “Thank you,” and walks out.

The boys in the bunk then spent a great deal of effort asking question after question, trying to narrow down the possibilities of what this clue means. There is great satisfaction when the group stumbles upon the answer.

What makes these puzzles so hard is that people always have initial assumptions about what the words in the clue mean; it is hard to take a step back and look at the clue without any preconceived notions.

SPOILERS: The solution to this one is that the man has the hiccups, and the gun was only used to scare him.

In one sense, this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, is about the same thing: How do we interpret the small amount of information that we have? How we make sense of our lives? Vayeshev challenges us to think about how we see the world, interpret it and make sense of it. We see this in both the figures of Joseph, Jacob’s beloved son, and in Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, another of Jacob’s sons.

First let’s look at Joseph and his dreams.

Joseph is the second youngest and favorite son of Jacob, first born son to Rachel, the love of Jacob’s life. He has ten older brothers, and one younger brother. The Torah says that his brothers cannot stand him; Jacob’s favoritism towards Joseph has poisoned their relationship to the point where they cannot even be polite to him.

Joseph is a dreamer who knows that his dreams are trying to tell him something vitally important. So much so that he cannot keep what he knows to himself, and shares his two dreams, one where he is a bundle of grain and his brothers’ bundles of grain all bow down to him, and the other, where he is a star surrounded by eleven other stars and the sun and the moon.

It is crucial to the story how everyone responds to these dreams. The brothers interpret these dreams through the lens of their hatred for Joseph. For them, they are nothing but the arrogant musings of a teenager. They rush to this interpretation based on their own experience, which blinds them to the fact that these dreams have a myriad number of interpretations. Who knows what they actually mean! Later on in prison, Joseph says to the cup-bearer and baker, each who have had ominous dreams, that “all dream interpretations belong to God,” so why not the brothers’ interpretations? Because they are not dream interpretations. They are personal reactions to these dreams. They are not from God; instead they are from the minds of these frustrated brothers. They hurl angry questions at him: “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” As we have seen before with Dinah, Joseph’s brothers like to end scenes with angry questions that leave space for neither answers nor other interpretations.

After Joseph’s second dream, it is Jacob, his father, who hurls angry questions: “What is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?” Had they put aside their own internal narratives and biases, they might have had the same reaction as Joseph did to his dreams.

These dreams are like Lateral Thinking Puzzles. Very little information. Lots of assumptions. Many possible interpretations, but only one correct one.

Joseph, for his part, offer no interpretations for his dreams. His reaction to his dreams is to share them with others. Joseph seems to genuinely offer them to the family as a puzzle that they can solve together. He has a sense that they mean something, that they communicate something important that the family needs to understand. I prefer to think that Joseph was wise enough at that time to recognize that his own reaction to the dreams might be solely based on his life experience. Instead of offering up a quick response, he lets the dream sit in him and simply be, uninterpreted, reserving final analysis until a later date. What is most important then about Joseph’s reaction to his dreams is that he knows that he does not understand them; his trusts that their full meaning will come in the course of the family’s unfolding story. Ironically, it is his brother’s increased anger from the dreams that actually pushes him in the direction through which the dreams will be fulfilled.

Joseph might have what is called “First Sight.” In his book, The Wee Free Men, the fantasy author Terry Pratchett introduces us to another young adult, named Tiffany Aching, who aspires to become a witch. In the book, a witch is not the fairy tale stereotype, but rather is a person who has finely honed skills of perception, among other qualities. One of these skills is called “First Sight,” which means you see what really is there, versus things that are not actually there. I like to think that Joseph has First Sight, that he knows that he does not know what his dreams mean, despite the fact the his family situation hints that they are about his dominion over his brothers. And that is exactly how his brothers interpret the dreams.

Of course, even though Joseph seems to recognize that he does not understand his dreams, at the same time, he shows a complete lack of understanding of his brothers’ hatred towards him. He is either blind to it, unaware of its depth, or unaware of what levels of violence they are capable of. When Joseph comes to his brothers in Dotan, if not for the bumbling intervention of Reuven and then Judah’s cold compassion, they would have killed him on the spot. Instead, they sell him as a slave, and he ends up in Egypt. In a moment of double-blindness, no one at this moment in the story sees that all of this moves them closer to fulfilling the dreams. On top of that, the brothers take Joseph’s special coat, dip it in blood, and send it to Jacob with the message, “We found this. Please examine it. Is it your son’s tunic or not?” Jacob, like his sons, rushes to interpret the meaning of this object. “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!” The interpretation Jacob tells himself blinds him from any other possibility, even from the remote possibility that Joseph is still alive. We, as the privileged audience, who have heard this before, know how every choice and every interpretation made in this unfolding drama is leading to that moment of the dream fulfilled.

Now let’s turn to Tamar. Right after Joseph is sold into slavery, we focus on Judah and his family. Judah marries a Canaanite woman and they have three children: Er, Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, and promptly dies, leaving Tamar childless. Judah tells Onan that it is his obligation to be a dutiful brother-in-law and help Tamar have a child. When Onan refuses to do that, he promptly dies as well. The Torah tells us in no uncertain terms that God is the one who killed these two sons, but this narrative fact is not told to make us angry at God, or to think of God as a homicidal deity, but to tell us, the privileged audience, that is was not Tamar’s fault. Like with Joseph’s dreams, we have a series of events that seem baffling. Why would two young and healthy men drop dead all of a sudden within months of each other? What is Judah to make of this situation? What is Tamar to make of this situation?

Judah and Tamar’s situation is also like a Lateral Thinking Puzzle. Lots of assumptions. Many possible interpretations, but only one correct one.

Judah, as he did with his brothers before, rushes to interpret these events base on his own internal narratives and biases. When thinking about Shelah, his last living son, helping Tamar to have a child, he says to himself: “He too might die like his brothers.” Judah connects the dots as best he can, and sees Tamar as the common factor in both deaths, seeing her as a veritable black widow. Unlike Joseph who can live with a lack of understanding, Judah cannot accept that he has no idea of what is really going on.

What might be Tamar’s take on all of this? At this point, we can imagine that Tamar is grieving the death of her husband, concerned and even angry about the death of his brother, but mostly she would be concerned that she is childless, which, in this society, makes her situation precarious. She is still tied to Judah’s family, who is obligated to help her bear a chid in Er’s name. When Judah sends her back to her father’s house, she fully expects to wait there until Shelah is old enough to help her bear a child. In this moment, She is blind to the fact that Judah sees her as the source of the problem, and that she is a dangerous force to be contained in her father’s home.

Several years later, Shelah grows up, and Tamar sees that she has actually been imprisoned in her father’s house, and, unless she does something, she is going to spend her entire life as a childless widow. In that moment, Tamar sees clearly what Judah’s intentions have always been and what she must do to make her own dream fulfilled, the dream of having a child to carry on her husband’s lineage. In act of obfuscation, she puts on a veil, and plays the part of a kadeshah, which is a professional “companion.” The place she sits at is called Einaim, which means “eyes,” perhaps alluding to her ability to see clearly what the situation is, what is means, and how she must act in this moment.

When Judah sees her, he does not see her. Instead, he sees a harlot, and despite their conversation and their moment of physical intimacy, he has no idea that this woman is Tamar, his daughter-in-law. True, it has been several years since he last saw her, but how does he have no idea that this is Tamar? One possibility is that he lacks First Sight, that since he thinks that it is impossible that this is Tamar, it simply isn’t. After all, he sent her back to her father’s house, and there she stayed. Right? It is inconceivable to Judah that she would do this. So behind both a cloth veil, and through Judah’s veil of his own inner narrative, Tamar does what needs to be done.

A few months later, it becomes known that Tamar is pregnant, which in this case is incest, since she is still tied to Judah’s family and is not allowed to be with any man other than Shelah. Judah, once again, rushes to interpret the small amount of information that he has, and immediately calls for her execution.

Through her new clarity of sight, Tamar has already foreseen this moment. Before she and Judah have their transaction, he gives her his seal, cord and staff as a pledge against her payment. [This would be the equivalent of giving someone your wallet, phone and car keys.] Before Judah’s friend came back with her payment, she had gone on her way, leaving him confused. Rather than risk embarrassment, Judah decides not to track her down and to let the woman keep them.

In this moment of truth, Tamar gives Judah just enough information so that he can, for the first time, see things as they really are, and not as how he has interprets them. Tamar sends Judah a message along with his seal, cord and staff, and says, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” Judah, the man who blinded his father with a coat dripped in blood, finally has his own blinders removed. When he hears this message and sees the items, he finally understands that Tamar was not the problem, that he really does not understand why his sons died, and that he had unjustly imprisoned Tamar for years. Judah recognizes that left to his own devices, his family would have been significantly smaller than those of his brothers.

The challenge for us is to think about how we think. When we are presented with a small amount of information, how do we make sense out of it? I don’t think most people naturally see things like Joseph, able to see without the filter of bias and preconceptions. Most of us are like Jacob, Judah and the brothers, who reasonably do our best and interpret the events of our lives through our experiences, past and present.

When confronted with a situation, it is far more challenging to not rush to interpret, but rather to take a moment, a breath, and step back from our initial reactions and assumptions about the situation, and to ask ourselves: What am I seeing? What is really going on here? What was my reaction to this situation? What is the meaning of my reaction? Are there are other ways to understand this, even if it means a complete lack of understanding?

For Joseph, his openness to the possibility of his dreams leads him ultimately to a position of influence that saves his family, Egypt and the entire region from a famine. For Tamar, her ability to see how to achieve her dream leads her to have twin sons: Peretz, whose name means breakthrough, and Zerach, whose names means brilliance. It may not surprise us that from Joseph’s line and from Tamar’s line, come visions of a messianic future that is free of hatred, bias and lack of understanding.

May we each have the capacity of Joseph and Tamar to see what is really in front of us, to avoid the pitfalls of our assumptions and habits of the mind, and follow our dreams to their fulfillment.

Oh Grocery Stores, Call Us Sometime to Talk About Jewish Food Culture

Food is a really important part of Jewish culture and religion. I mean, really important. Grocery stores, our main source of food, are place that we look to for filling our carts and tables with the traditional foods that help us mark Jewish time, and create festive meals. This might put a burden on some grocery stores that they are unequipped to handle. I don’t just want to complain (I will a little). I also want to propose a solution, which I will (a little).

The other night I was in a local chain grocery store, and what did I see as I walked in but a very neat and full food display for Hanukkah! Now, we do live in the part of Syracuse that has a large concentration of Jewish people, and three of the four synagogues in town are within a mile (if not across the street) from this particular location, so I was not surprised to see a food display. What did surprise me for a moment was what they had on the display. I know that most people know that Hanukkah is associated with latkes (potato pancakes for everyone else), topped with applesauce and sour cream. (Please do not start the Applesauce/Sour Cream debate. That is for another post.) So I was not surprised to see packages of latke mix and jars of apple sauce on the shelves. But also was able to imagine that just those two items might not have filled enough shelf space to make for an impressive display. They also had out the standard boxes of hanukkah candles, and some boxes and bags of gelt (chocolate coins, which is also another interesting topic). But that was also not enough. I imagine some very thoughtful and creative minds getting together to ask themselves: What else should we put on the shelves? What else do Jews eat on their holidays? What foods come to mind?

There is probably not a unit of time small enough to measure the gap between the question and the classic response: matzah. Oh yes! Nothing screams Jewish holiday food quite like matzah. After all, who else in the world eats matzah? (Answer: everyone, it is just a big water cracker. Ok, not “just,” but a really detailed water cracker.) Then they must have gone into the back to pull out anything that had the same company label on it: Manischewitz. They just put out everything that even looked remotely Jewish on to that display. And it looked like they were trying so hard to be awesome and thoughtful and creative.

Don’t get me wrong: I felt seen and appreciated. I just wish that they had said: Hey, I have an idea. There is a synagogue across the street (and there is). Let’s call them and ask them for some advice about what we should put out for Hanukkah. Maybe the Jewish people have some ideas about what they are looking for when they go shopping for food for Hanukkah. That would have been such a simple idea. We could have helped them pull of the shelves other items that might not have occurred to them, and for items that they might have been able to order that they would never have thought of: oils, olive oil, different vegetables for making contemporary versions of latkes, donuts, donut holes. I don’t know. We would have had some ideas. First and foremost: Take down the matzah. It’s just not the right season.

This remind me of the time in Louisville, KY, when I found a floor display for Passover at a local chain store there (God bless them), and there must have been an empty shelf or two. So they went looking for some more Jewish food. And do you know what totally awesome thing they found? He-brew! That’s right. Beer. A beverage that is made from a mixture of grain and water, which would be the one thing on Passover that we avoid like the plague. But they put it there, and it looked nice, if not completely ironic. The got the irony points, and again, should have called someone from the Jewish community to ask a few simple questions, like: Is beer a Passover food? What are some other Passover foods we might put on such a display? Simple questions that would have gone a long way to create a feeling of understanding in the grocery store.

Before Purim this year (or next year if we are looking at the secular date), I will give them a call and make some gentle suggestions. Might be worth picking up the phone.

Vayishlach: Jacob, Dinah and Vulnerability

Like father, like daughter. In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob “goes out.” He goes out from all that is familiar to him, to the larger world, to his family’s native land, to his mother’s household.

When he leaves home, he feels vulnerable. He has nothing but the shirt on his back. When he camps for the night, he uses rocks on the ground as his bed and pillow. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he feels truly vulnerable. Anything could happen to him out in the larger world beyond the familiar comfort of the tents of home. Out in the world is where Esav, his opposite-in-all-respects twin, felt at home, out on the hunt, out on the trail, with the smell of the field on his clothes. But not Jacob.

But still, Jacob is a man. Jacob may have felt vulnerable, and he was to an extent, but when a man leaves his home on his own and goes out in to the larger world, there is no overarching sense of anxiety, no feeling of foreboding, of looming danger. We often portray this kind of man as being on an adventure, as a pioneer, as brave and true.

Alas, this is not the case for a young woman who does the same. After Jacob returns back to the land, after a twenty-one years absence, his one and only daughter does just what her father did. She “goes out.”

Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, goes out from all that is familiar, from her tents, from her father and mother’s presence, from her brothers, from home. We know that Jacob was going out from a murderous and angry brother and going towards the possibility of finding a wife and starting a family. What is Dinah going out towards and what is she going out from?

Perhaps she is going out from a home life dominated by men, by boys, where women play an important but minor role by sheer force of numbers. Perhaps she is looking for a peer, a friend who understands the life of a teenage girl. Perhaps she is going out just for the sake of going out, to find something new, something different, something that she has never seen before, a city with all the trappings that come with urban life. She has lived her entire life in the tent or in the fields with sheep. This might be her first time in the “Big City.”

Whether she knows it or not, when she goes out into the world, even for all the right reasons, she is vulnerable. But she does not feel vulnerable. Unlike her father, this does feel like an adventure, like a woman blazing a new trail for herself. But, society sees her a vulnerable. In an ironic inversion of Jacob’s going out, where he felt vulnerable, but was not as much as he thought, she is far more vulnerable than she realizes.

To be a young women unaccompanied by either her father, a brother or a trusted servant (think back to Rebecca and Abraham’s servant) is to risk being taken advantage of by men, who may or may not have her best intentions at heart.

What meaning can this story have for us? When do we leave the comfortable, the familiar, and go out into the unknown? What are the factors in our decision to either stay at home or to venture out into the larger world? When is it worth being vulnerable? What makes us vulnerable? Is it an internal vulnerability, like with Jacob, or an external vulnerability, like Dinah?

May this Shabbat be one where we reflect on the times when we made ourselves vulnerable, and one where we consider when in our past we might have been over-confident and where we could be been more confident. May our going out of the week, out from the familiar and into Shabbat, be one of blessing.

When Ten Is Not Enough

This past Sunday morning, I was counting people as they entered the sanctuary. 4. 5. 6. 7. OK, since it was now 9 a.m. and we had seven people in the room, that was enough to begin our regular Sunday morning service. People often roll in a bit late on Sunday. No worries. Even if I had to skip a couple of parts to the service as we anticipate ten people arriving, that’s ok. As long as we get ten by the Amidah, we don’t skip much, and we will be able to include Mourner’s Kaddish, which is for some people the reason why they come. But, this is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Many people are saying final farewells to out-of-town family this morning, and I have an inkling that we will be hard pressed to make ten.

We begin. Morning blessings. 8. 9. Verses of song. And then the tenth person comes in the room. Oy. Ellen has been working on her conversion to Judaism for almost two years now, and is taking a long time because of her commitments to school and career. I am the second rabbi she has been working with. My advice to her was to do what she can for now, get as involved as she can, and when she is able to and wants to make more time for the study and engagement I am asking of her, we can move the process forward. I don’t see her too often. She came to tashlich during the High Holidays, I met her Jewish boyfriend, and she has come to an event here and there. During one of our conversations, I asked her about her anxieties about the conversion process. One of them was the fear of doing something wrong and not having any idea that she was. This is a completely reasonable fear, one that many native-born Jews have as well.

What enters my mind at this moment as Ellen walks in the room is that despite the face that we have ten people, we don’t have a minyan. For those of you who do not know, a minyan is a group of ten or more people over the age of 12 (for women) or 13 (for men). In Orthodox or non-egalitarian communities, this is limited to men. And when I say “people,” I mean Jews, either by birth or by choice. So even though we have ten people in the room, we do not constitute a minyan.

However, since Ellen is only marginally known at best to most members of the community, no one in the room knows that she is not (yet) Jewish, except for me. There really is no decision to make here. I know what to do. It is only the presence of ten members of the community (yes, that means Jews) that enables us to do a full service, to publicly as a community praise the Creator of the Universe, the Holy Bountiful One with particular prayers. I omit a hatzi kaddish, a bridge between sections. We skip Barkhu, which is the formal calling of the community to begin praying together. We do a private Amidah, rather than an expanded public one where we see ourselves as beings integrations of both human and divine. We skip Full Kaddish, which asks for our (public and private) prayers to be received. In the end, we skip the Mourner’s Kaddish. And all of this is increasingly a curiosity to the people in the room. They have no idea why we are doing this abridged service. I did have options. I could have paused and said to the room, “Hey, I know that it looks like we are a minyan, but really we are not because of Ellen, who has not yet completed her conversion.” I can’t do that; it would mortify her.  I decide to carry on with the service, and to pray for one more person to enter the room. Just one more Jew. I could make a call or text someone. Since I am the one leading the service, I don’t feel at liberty to make a phone call or even to text someone to get to the shul ASAP. The pause would have singled her out all the same. So I decided to trust that the people who have gathered there this morning know that I can count to ten, and that I know the people in the room.

Still, I ask myself, “Why not do a full service? Even though she has not completed her conversion, Ellen has clearly expressed the desire to cast her lot with the Jewish people. I have personally witnessed her sincerity and dedication. Here she is on a Sunday morning, coming when she can, doing what she can do, to become more involved and more engaged. Why should I not count her in the minyan?”

“Good question,” I reply. Then I answer myself, “Because there is halachah, Jewish tradition, which I understand to be a concretization of our core values and theology. Whereas I value every human being as being made in the Image of God, no matter who they are, I also understand that the Jewish people have a unique commitment to each other and to bringing the world a little closer to the ideal, bit by bit, day by day. Becoming part of that covenant is a powerful statement about one’s role in the world, and we have a process for bringing people into the covenant. In fact, some people in the room have undergone the conversion process themselves. In the room, is Jeanine, who underwent that process years before, and is now one of our most beloved members and teachers in the congregation, and in the room is Jack, who underwent that process with me a few years back, and now comes to Sunday morning minyan every Sunday, and in the room is Tim, whose wife Lisa is going through that process with me right now. To include Ellen in the minyan would not only violate the process of conversion, but would also trample on the years of study and action that these other people have undertaken. This is an easy question to answer, but the fallout is hard to grapple with.”

As we move through the mysteriously shortened service, I wonder: Why does the presence of a non-Jew, also a being created in God’s Image, not make it possible to fully praise the Master of All Worlds? Are they less than us? Are they so Other that people are being denied a full Sunday morning service? So Other that people are denied the opportunity to say Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of a deceased loved one? I know in my hear that they are not less than, but that they are different, and that different is not a bad thing. Drawing distinctions is one of the core practices in Jewish life.

I am praying for that eleventh Jewish person to walk in to the room. But it’s Thanksgiving morning. There is no religious school in session to grab a teaching assistant from. There is no one in the office to call down to help make a minyan. There are just the ten of us praying together in the sanctuary.

We end the service, and I am sure that there are questions. I pray that people just trust that I know how to count to ten and that I know how to count a minyan, which are not always the same thing. Then someone asks, “Why did we do a shorter service? Why did we not say Mourner’s Kaddish?” I wish that the person had asked me the question quietly on the side, but now there is no avoiding the issue. I gently answer that this morning, we had nine Jews in the room, and Ellen who is not yet Jewish. I almost don’t use her name, but it would have been obvious who I am talking about, even without the name. I see Ellen’s eyes look up at me. How is she feeling in that moment, that moment when it becomes clear that they thought that you were Jewish, and now realize that you are the person in the room who was different, not enough, who was less than, who was not one of us, and kept us from fully praising God’s name. Ellen made a beeline for the exit in what I read was embarrassment (and I am likely wrong on this, but not sure), and I would not blame her one bit if that were the case.

I have been sitting with this tension since that moment Ellen left the room. How do we balance the particular and the universal? We are all made in God’s Image, every human being, no matter what race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, no matter what. Yet, Jewish particularity is important to me, in that actively living as a member of a covenant is one of the most important facets of my life. Ellen is in between. Not them and yet at the same time not yet one of us. For a variety of reasons, I know how hard it can be to live in shades of gray, and not have the comfort of absolutes.

I emailed Ellen to reach out to her, to discuss her experience of Sunday morning, whatever it may have been. I hope that we can use the experience to depend her appreciation for the covenant that she is in the process of embracing.

May it be God’s will.

I’m Dreaming of a Mussar Hanukkah

Last month, many members of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas had the privilege of learning from Rabbi Ira Stone, a congregational rabbi in Philadelphia and Rosh Yeshivah (Academy Head) of the Mussar Leadership of Philadelphia. For those who were not there, the weekend was not only intellectually stimulating, but also moved many people to think deeply about the process we go through as we read the Torah as a sacred text, what keeps us from doing more good in the world, and to consider incorporating a regular practice that helps us become better people into their lives. It is CBSCS’ goal to establish a Mussar group that meets regularly to support each other in this practice. (If you live in Syracuse, and are interested in becoming part of such a group, please contact me!)

The core of mussar practice is working one one’s soul-traits, called Tikkun Ha-Middot. Middot also means dimensions. Indeed, the inner world of a human mind/soul is multi-dimensional. A particular middah that comes to mind each December is Nedivut, which is Generosity. This month, like no other during the American calendar year, is one with seriously mixed messages. To quote the great comedic songwriter Tom Lehrer (the link goes to the original song on YouTube): “Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out and buy!” Our surrounding culture tells us through every media channel possible that to show truly our love for each other, we must engage in a deeply money-centric gift giving process, one that so many people cannot afford to do, but do anyway. That is not the Jewish view of Generosity.

In the Jewish tradition, there are two kinds of giving. One is right from the heart, which is called “t’rumah,” which means “an elevated gift.” This comes from neither obligation nor out of guilt, but rather out of the pure generosity of the heart. The other kind is called “tzedakah,” which is obligated giving that is an expression of a commitment, whether or not the heart is moved to act. Contrary to the conventional rabbinic view of valuing giving out of a sense of commitment more highly, the Mussar approach is to “help us fulfill our potential to really live as the holy souls we are, and it is impossible to imagine that we will shine forth in holiness if we act only from a sense of obligation. The passion and the flowering of the heart must be so much more.” (Morinis, Everyday Holiness, p. 150)

The core nature of giving is not so that the received feels an obligation to the giver, nor that the giver feels personal satisfaction either in response to or even despite the feelings of the receiver. The essence of giving, of the quality of Nedivut, is that “by its nature, [it] draws closer the giver and the receiver, until ultimately there is neither ‘me’ nor ‘you,’ but only love.” (Morinis, Every Day, Holy Day, p. 64)

The paradigm for this level of Generosity is God, who needs nothing and yet creates the world with all of its abundance for the benefit of Creation. When we train ourselves to becomes givers, being generous becomes who and what we are, that is one way to walk in God’s paths.

So what might be a mussar practice to help train one to become more generous? Alan Morinis, in Every Day, Holy Day suggests four things.

  1. First, study a short piece of teaching on Nedivut, which could be the above piece or something else. This is a way to wake up the mind and body to the concepts around the middah.
  2. Second, to repeat a phrase over the course of the day or week as a mantra to keep this midday in the front of the mind. He suggests: The generous heart gives freely. The goal of this practice is to keep the middah in mind, so that when a situation comes up in which this middah is active, the chances of making a better choice are far greater.
  3. The third is a practice. Morinis suggests: Do three generous acts per day: one with your money, one with your time, and one with your caring. For me, this is key to subverting our money-centric culture, since it reminds both the giver and receiver that giving can take many forms, only one of which is through money. Money can be an important tool as an expression of love, but it can never be an expression of love all by itself.
  4. The fourth piece would be to spend a few minutes each day writing about one’s experience with Nedivut/Generosity that day. It does not have to be long, just a few sentences about how Generosity played in role that day. Think back to one or two moments during the day when the middah came up. What was your response to the moment? Did you have a defensive reaction to the moment? What the defense justified or was it a way to avoid? And so on. (This line of questions was taught to me by Rabbi Stone during his weekend in Syracuse. Many thanks to him!)

Give this a try for one week. It will literally take mere minutes out of anyone’s day, but doing this with conscious effort can help anyone become a more generous soul.