Monthly Archives: December 2018

On Privilege and Injustice: Joseph’s Role in helping some while hurting others

Joseph could no longer control himself, the Torah tells us.

“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’” (Gen. 45:1-4).

Joseph reunites with his brothers. He is the hero and he is the savior, not just for his family, but for all of Egypt. Or so we are led to believe. Pharaoh responds by telling Joseph’s family that “the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Gen. 45:20). Pharaoh says, “the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land” (Gen. 47:6). And in turn,  “Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones” (Gen. 47:12).

It seems everything works out. And Joseph saves all of Egypt from famine by supplying them with food that had been collected during seven years of plenty. It was a happily ever after conclusion to the story. As Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote and the ensemble of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat sang: “Joseph how can we ever say all that we want to about you, We’re so glad that you came our way; we would have perished without you.”

But the Torah tells us that Joseph wasn’t the savior that that is portrayed under the lights of Broadway. It wasn’t so happily ever after, at least not for those who weren’t a part of Joseph’s family. When the famine became so severe and there was no bread in the land, Egyptians began turning to the vizier of Egypt.  But Joseph wasn’t giving away “handouts.” This was not an act of tzedakah or charity. First, Joseph takes their money: “Joseph gathered all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt” (Gen. 47:14). And when there was no money left Joseph said, “bring me your livestock” (Gen. 47:16).  And when no animals were left they were desperate for food and said: “take us and our land in exchange for bread” (Gen. 47:19).

As Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, points out: “Joseph is an adept manager, but he is also seemingly a ruthless one: He saves the Egyptians but, as we shall see, he also enslaves them.” Joseph ends up creating a system of indentured servitude. The Egyptians couldn’t pay for food. First, they gave their money, and then their cattle, and then their homes, and then finally themselves. Joseph is no tzedek. He is not giving out food during a humanitarian crisis, like we would expect FEMA or the Red Cross to do. He is taking advantage of the straits that the Egyptians find themselves in and acquires them. Joseph enslaves them.

We are often left wondering: how is it possible that a king could rise up at the beginning of Exodus who doesn’t know Joseph, who in turn enslaves the Israelites?!? But what if the Israelites were the last to be enslaved? As troubling as the exodus story is, and as essential as the exodus experience is to our communal memory, what if we read it differently? What if according to this understanding, all of Egypt were enslaved except for the Israelites. All had succumbed to the reality of serfdom while the Hebrew privilege, the privilege that came from being a relative of Joseph allowed the Israelites to live in the best of the land, never having to worry about where their next meal would come from. But then all of a sudden, we become enslaved and finally demand justice. Moses only speaks for God in referring to the Israelites when demanding “Let My People Go!” However, when everyone else was enslaved under Pharaoh’s rule, they were ignored.

We never acknowledge the discrimination, injustice, and enslavement of our neighbors in Egypt. We know others were enslaved. The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, there was an erev rav, a mixed multitude of diverse individuals who joined in the Exodus with the Israelites. They were enslaved as well, marching with us side-by-side through a split sea to freedom. Yet, we ignore them – or at least ignored them – until we were the victims of an unjust system. What if the Israelites were apathetic – at best – to the injustices around them and directly responsible – at worst – for them?

The problem with the Exodus narrative that brings us such hope is that we only care about our own freedom and ignored the enslavement and injustice of others because it didn’t directly affect us.

Let’s not celebrate Joseph’s dreams coming true. Let’s not celebrate Joseph saving the day. Because he didn’t. Let’s remember Dr. King’s teaching that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If we refuse to stand up to injustice when it happens to another, it will ultimately happen to us as well as well. And no one will be there to stand with us as allies. It shouldn’t then be a surprise that the Israelites were eventually enslaved if they were content with the enslavement of everyone else in Egypt.

We cannot only stand up and scream because of the rise of anti-Semitism in this country. It is deeply troubling, but if we only care about that, and aren’t equally concerned about the rise in hate crimes across the board – about the rise in Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and racism – then we can’t be shocked with the spike in hatred towards us. If we witness injustice happening all around us but are content because Pharaoh supplies us with bread on our tables and the best of the land of Egypt to live in, then we are just waiting for injustice to happen to us as well. Let us remember that your liberation is bound up with mine, and mine with yours. So let us work together to create a wholly just society, where no one’s success is the result of anyone else’s demise.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

#NeverIsNow

We are at the point in our Torah where we celebrate Joseph’s rise to power as second-in-command in Egypt. Not only is he celebrated, but he is celebrated even though Pharaoh knows he is a Hebrew. And Pharaoh is okay with that. In fact, Midrash teaches that Osnat Bat Potiphara is Hebrew as well, adopted by an Egyptian family, and Pharaoh wanted to help Joseph find a Hebrew wife. In doing so, he honored Joseph’s Hebrew lineage.

In fact, when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and reunites with them in Parashat Vayigash, the Torah tells us that:

The news reached Pharaoh’s palace: Joseph’s brothers have come. Pharaoh and his courtiers were pleased. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your brothers, do as follows: load up your beasts and go at once to the land of Canaan. Take your father and your households and come to me. I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land  (Gen. 45:16-18).

Pharaoh ends up celebrating Joseph’s Jewish identity. Joseph doesn’t have to hide it. And Pharaoh rewards his family with the best that the land of Egypt has to offer.

Yet, somehow, as the book of Exodus starts and time passes, we read:

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph (Ex. 1:8).

I am always left wondering about this simple verse that is often glossed over. Maybe it is a necessary addition by editors to connect the otherwise separate stories of the book of Genesis and the Exodus narrative that follows. Or maybe it is a reminder that no matter how great it feels at times – with the Hebrew second-in-command ruler of Egypt whose identity is openly expressed and acknowledged and his family living off the fat of the land – that doesn’t mean that hate isn’t far behind. That doesn’t mean that we won’t eventually come in contact with the king that does not remember Joseph.

ADLI spent a part of last week at “Never is Now”, the Anti-Defamation League’s conference on Anti-Semitism and Hate. During the opening plenary session, Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University – famous for fighting Holocaust Deniers publicly and through the legal system – was asked about the rise in Anti-Semitism in this country. She referred to Anti-Semitism as “the oldest new form of hate.” It always seems so new, because we always feel comfortable, and then bam! It comes out of nowhere. She was sitting next to Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist at The New York Times. She mentioned how her parents’ generation wouldn’t have believed that the likes of Bret Stephens, or even Op-Ed editor, Bari Weiss, so openly wrote about Judaism and their Jewish identities in The New York Times, still the paper of record. She was acknowledging that this is an example of how great Jews have it in this country. This is the equivalent of us having “the best of the land” just as Joseph’s brothers were given. And yet, the ADL reported that in 2017 there were 4.2 million Anti-Semitic tweets posted by 3 million different Twitter users. This isn’t a dark web social media platform that Anti-Semites use. This is the preferred social media platform of the President of the United States, that he uses to announce policy and communicate with foreign leaders. This is a reminder of how quickly a king could arise that doesn’t know Joseph.

No matter how great life seems – and the success and freedom that Jews have in this country in 2018, is greater than at any other point in the diaspora – the oldest new form of hate, Anti-Semitism, will always lurk in the background. May we never stop celebrating our success – the Joseph’s rising to power – and may we never stop fighting the kings who might arise who do not remember us. May we never stop fighting hate, no matter how successful we are, or safe we feel.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Light Up The Darkness

The following Hanukkah message was sent out to the Congregation Beth El community from myself and Rabbi Rachel Marder on Saturday night, December 1, prior to the beginning of the Festival of Hanukkah:

As we prepare to light our hanukkiyot tomorrow evening and welcome in the Festival of Hanukkah, we find comfort in what these hanukkiyot represent. Jewish law is clear that one must light the hanukkiyah at the entrance of one’s home. It should be outside for all to see. Halakha, Jewish law, even stipulates that it needs be at a certain height so that passersby will be sure to see the flickering flames. More recently, it has become customary to place it in our homes in front of the windows, still on display for the public to see. Unlike Shabbat candles which had a practical purpose of providing light when it was dark, Hanukkah candles are not meant to be used to illuminate the room. In fact, one was prohibited from using the light. We do not take advantage of the light. Rather, we display it. In doing so, we fulfill the mitzvah of Pirsum HaNisa, publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah. But the menorah serves another purpose: it adds light to the darkness, literally and metaphorically, when we so desperately need it. Furthermore, publicly displaying such a ritual object declares that we will never be afraid of who we are or hide what we believe.

Twenty-five years ago during Hanukkah in Billings, Montana, a brick was thrown through five-year-old Isaac Schnitzer’s window, where he’d displayed his hanukkiyah. The local paper, the Billings Gazette, responded by printing a full-page picture of a menorah, asking residents to stand united against hate and display these menorahs in their windows. While the Jewish community made up less than 1% of Billing’s population, Christian, Muslim, and Indigenous residents of the city displayed menorahs in their windows, to publicize not just the miracle of Hanukkah, but their commitment to stand united against all forms of hate.

We light our hanukkiyot this year when it feels especially dark. We just concluded Sheloshim, the month-long mourning process, for the Tree of Life synagogue community in Pittsburgh, and we are well-aware that Anti-Semitism, and bigotry of all kinds, is on the rise. But let us not hide our hanukkiyot. Let us display them proudly and publicly. Place them in your window this year for all to see and let the lights of the hanukkiyah spread. May we never feel afraid to do so. May we celebrate doing so. And may we, together, light up the darkness for all those who need light.

Chag Urim Sameach

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky and Rabbi Rachel Marder

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

We Can Help Each Other’s Dreams Come True

The Torah tells us that Jacob’s sons were shepherding their flocks in Shechem so Jacob sent Joseph there to check on them. He went to Shechem but they were not there. The text says that there, he encountered an ish, a certain man, who suggests that they had gone down to Dotan. Joseph instead follows them there. This person is not mentioned again. The individual is so inconsequential that a name isn’t even given for this biblical character. But this person sends Joseph to his brothers, and as a result, also sends him to slavery and to prison, but eventually also to be the second-in-command in Egypt, stocking up on food during years of plenty, and saving the region during years of famine. It is a reminder of how a single person, and a single moment, can have such an impact on where we go in life. The Torah also teaches us that maybe this ish, this man, wasn’t an ordinary man at all. Earlier in Genesis, Abraham sees three men who turn out to be divine beings, Angels, sent as messengers of God. Jacob also wrestles with a man – an ish – who ends up being an angel, a messenger from God, and blesses Jacob by changing his name to Yisrael. Maybe, just maybe, this man in the distance, was also a divine messenger, ensuring that Joseph went on the not-so-straight path that he went on to end up where he ended up. Maybe that person was just an ish – or an isha – an ordinary person, but it is each of us, ordinary people, that have the power to do God’s holy work every day.

Parashat Vayeshev is filled with a ton of dreams, dreams by Joseph, and dreams by the Pharaoh’s steward and baker that Joseph interprets. In the following parasha, Parashat Mikketz, we read of Pharaoh’s dreams. But Joseph’s dreams are that he will be in a position of command. This man – this ish – this angel, this messenger, indirectly sends Joseph on a path to ensure that his dreams will come true. If the angel was not there, Joseph would’ve returned home. But this interaction changes his life, for bad, but eventually for good. This interaction makes his dream come true.

The Babylonian Talmud, in Berachot 57b, teaches that dreams are 1/60 of prophecy. There is a divine element and aspect to every dream we have. Let us then be each other’s angels, divine messengers to help our dreams come true. We can never underestimate how a simple conversation or interaction – or simply asking for directions – can impact the course of one’s lives. May we be each other’s angels. May we help make each other’s dreams come true.

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized