Tag Archives: bigotry

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

 

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#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

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See The Signs

This past weekend marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. On Kristallnacht, on November 9, 1938, a pogrom against the Jewish community was carried out by the Nazi’s paramilitary forces. By the next day, over a hundred Jews were murdered, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested or sent to concentration camps. Jewish schools and hospitals were looted. Jewish buildings were demolished. 267 synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed. And over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged. Store windows were shattered. Torah Scrolls were set on fire. These events seem so far removed from our minds. And yet, they are so close.

Historians look at Kristallnacht as a wake-up call, an alarm that was set off. November 9, 1938. But Kristallnacht was already after the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935 that sought to limit the freedom of Jewish citizens and exclude them from civil society. Historians identify the beginning of the Holocaust as 1941 – that is when Jews were marched into the gas chambers and Nazis put their plan of mass extermination of the Jewish people into play. But 1941 was three years after Kristallnacht, six years after the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and eight years after Hitler’s democratically elected rise to power. I can’t help but ask, after each of these events, why didn’t the Jewish community all leave then, even if some tried to? Why didn’t more people stand up and fight back, even if some tried, most notably the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Why didn’t the non-Jewish community do more to help the Jews, even if so many risked their own lives to save Jewish lives? Why didn’t other nations intervene sooner?

The Anti-Defamation League said that there was a 57% increase in Anti-Semitism from 2016-2017. We know what that can lead to; we experienced are own modern-day Kristallnact of sorts as we mourned with our brother and sisters in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, two Shabbatot ago. In France, the French Prime Minister’s office announced that Anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 69%. And here, we see laws passed to limit one’s rights based on their identities, be in gender identity, or country of origin, or immigration status. So we are left in the same exact situation. Last week we showed up for Shabbat in solidarity with the Tree of Life Synagogue. What do we do this week? Next week? Next month? After that?

And we must call out not just those who act with such hate, but those who fan the flames of hate; we must call out those who are just as responsible for those evil acts, not just the physically perpetrators of such acts, but also those whose policies were put in place, whose political promises, stoked the flames of this fire.

When we call out hate, it is easy to blame one person. No one is more to blame than those that committed such acts of hate and violence. Yet, there are so many responsible. And those with the biggest megaphones and soapboxes, rightly deserve such blame. But they are not alone in that blame. Those who are behind the scenes, encouraging the actions of those whose voices are heard are just as responsible. And those who remain silent, when such acts of evil don’t directly affect them –  or directly affect us – are to blame as well.

I often would wonder why more wasn’t done following Kristallnacht, why those in position of power who could’ve stopped the eventuality of the Holocaust didn’t stand up to Hitler and the Nazi party. I often wonder why more people didn’t see the signs and become fearfully aware of where they would lead. Let’s open our eyes and see the signs. This isn’t about politics or partisan issues. This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats. This isn’t about Red America or Blue America. This is about what hateful words of people in positions of power, who demonize minority groups, can lead to. The Holocaust happened eight years after Hitler rose to power. Let us all see the scary signs – the rise in hate crimes, in hateful acts, and in hateful rhetoric – and stand up to it now, before it is too late. Because when we say never again, we mean never again. And when we say never again, we don’t just mean never again for the Jewish people; we mean never again will we allow this to happen to anyone.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Finding the Balance

My children came home from school so excited to tell me everything they learned about Thanksgiving. My daughter who is in kindergarten had to decorate a feather. Every student in her class that would then added to her “class turkey.” My son who is still in preschool was amazed that he could trace his hand and it would look like the shape of a turkey. He was excited to “teach” me that Thanksgiving was about being thankful. In preparation for the holiday, I asked him what he was thankful for and he responded with a list: my house, the playground, my family, and my toys. I am just happy that family made the cut, even if we are seen as less important than the playground in his eyes. The more my children listed all that they are thankful for, the more grateful they became for the blessings in their lives. However, I also realized what a selfish exercise this was.

Giving thanks is an important part of our daily ritual as Jews. We begin each morning with the Birkot HaShachar, the morning blessings, in which we thank God for the everyday miracles of our lives. Even the Amidah prayer, recited three times daily, consists of Hodaot, daily prayers of Thanksgiving. Yet, as my children listed what they were thankful for, I realized that they – like all of us – were only thinking of themselves. I am grateful for the roof over my head, the food on my table, my family and friends, the blessings that benefit me exclusively in my life. We should always be grateful for the blessings in our lives, but I realized that by teaching my children to me thankful, I was also teaching them to exclusively think of themselves. 

This is true for most of us. Our initial instinct is to think of ourselves before we think of others. We care about our own self-interests and ignore the need and concern that others may feel. For this reason, rabbinic commentators and Jewish scholars have historically been perplexed by Abraham, the bible’s first monotheist and the patriarch of the Jewish people. This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayera, which begins with Abraham, infirm and recovering from a medical procedure, leaving his tent in the wilderness to greet strangers and invite them into his home:

“…As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘my lords, if it please you, do not go past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves…” (Gen. 18:2-5)

The Torah portion begins with Abraham going out of the way to welcome strangers into his home. Later, as he passes by Sodom and learns of God’s intentions to destroy the entire city because of those who do evil within the city limits, Abraham stands up to God. Arguing to spare the lives of an entire city, strangers who he has no relationship with, Abraham challenges God:

“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?” (Gen. 18:23-24)

Abraham continues to negotiate with God, attempting to convince God to spare the lives of those who have done wrong because of those who are righteous in their midst. Early on in his relationship with the divine, Abraham is willing to stand up to God to fight for the rights of others, even if it doesn’t directly benefit himself.

And for this reason, we are baffled by the final act of the Torah portion. The biblical narrative tells us:

“Some time afterward. God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, “Here I am.’ And God said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.’” (Gen. 22:1-2)

God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son and he agrees. While the rabbinic commentator Rashi suggests that Abraham tried to negotiate with God again, the simple reading of the text suggests that Abraham didn’t flinch. He woke up the next day prepared to kill his son and almost did so, until an angel intervened at the last minute. How is it possible that the patriarch who went out of his way to welcome strangers into his home, who fought with God to spare the lives of strangers, didn’t stand up to save his own son? We are not taught to always walk in the ways of our biblical ancestors. Rather we are taught to learn from their actions. We naturally live lives in which our first inclination is to think of ourselves and no one else. Our understand of the id of our psyche leads us to conclude that this is our animal instinct. Abraham does the complete opposite. But this too is incorrect. By standing up for others but refusing to stand up to save his son, he also fails God’s test. 

Our initial instincts lead us to the most extreme position of only thinking about ourselves and Abraham lives a life on the opposite extreme where he only thinks about others. The lessons of the Torah guide our lives and teach us that we must find the proper balance. We must equally care about ourselves and others. Hillel’s famous teaching reminds us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” but also, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel teaches these two lessons simultaneously. One cannot only think of oneself and not of others. But one cannot only care about others and neglect his or her own needs. There must be a balance.

Last Thursday, I attended the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism, Bigotry, and Hate. The ADL was founded over a hundred years ago to combat Anti-Semitism in this country. As the organization evolved, the ADL realized that we have a responsibility to stand up to all forms of bigotry. As its website says, the “ADL fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.” So, the daylong conference I attended had a session on the rise of Anti-Semitism and Violent Threats to Jewish Life in Europe and a session on Race, Identity, and Racial Justice. We listened to representatives from Twitter and journalists about the concerning use of social media by the Alt-Right to “troll” Jewish users and make online threats to Jewish journalists and we heard from Muslim leaders about the frightening rise of Islamophobia in this country. The promise of “Never Again” by the Jewish community is a promise to stand up to bigotry towards the Jewish community, but also to all forms of bigotry in which any minority is scapegoated. The leadership of the ADL and its CEO Jonathan Greenblatt remind us that our obligation is to protect ourselves and others. If we are not for ourselves, who will be? But if we are only for ourselves, what are we? 

Hillel concludes his famous teaching with the most important question: “If not now, when?” Now is the time because it is always the time to stand up for what is right. Now is the time to stand up to protect ourselves. Now is the time to stand up to protect others. Now is the time to find the balance, to learn from Abraham’s actions, and our own, to stand up for ourselves and others. This Thanksgiving, as we reflect on what we are thankful for, may we not just commit to protecting the blessings in our lives. May we ensure the blessings in the lives of others as well. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky 

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Being Held to a Higher Standard

When trying to understand what we look for in a leader, everyone has their own list of essential qualities. Forbes offers a list of leadership qualities for business success which include honesty, confidence, and commitment. CNN and Careerbuilder.com add passion and respect to the list of necessary qualities. Even rabbinic tradition offers its own definition of a leader. Midrash explains the qualities of the High Priest by suggesting that he must be handsome, of great strength, of great wealth, of great knowledge, and have many years of experience (Vaykira Rabba 26:9). While we may disagree on what those leadership qualities look like, it is clear that we each expect much from our leaders.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Emor. This section of our narrative begins with specific requirements of what the priests, the religious and ritual leaders of the Israelites, can and cannot do. In Parashat Kedoshim, we were taught that “you should be holy for I, the Lord, Your God, Am Holy.” Holiness is what we all seek. Holiness through our words and holiness through our actions. And yet, at the beginning of Parashat Emor, we find a greater and more detailed list of expectations for the priests. 

The priests who offered biblical sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites are forbidden from coming into contact with the dead. Additionally, the priests are prohibited from shaving their heads or sideburns. They were forbidden from profaning God’s name. There were limits to whom the priest could marry, how a priest must physically look, to whom and what a priest can and cannot come in contact with.

Remarkably, these verses – unlike most found in the Torah – are specific and limited to the leaders of the community. Clearly, the Torah is suggesting that leaders are held to a different standard. A leader is supposed to be different – not perfect, for no one is. But the beginning of Parashat Emor teaches us that a leader is supposed to be held to a higher standard. A leader puts the interests of those that she or he represents before others. A leader cares about others more than himself or herself. A leader does not ignore the actions of followers. Instead, a leader calls them out when their behavior is inappropriate and defers from the leader’s vision.

If Torah teaches us that leaders are held to a higher standard, that leaders strive for a different level of holiness, then it is our responsibility to call out leaders when all that they do and all that they say are the complete opposite of that which is holy. When our leaders lead through bigotry, hate, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny, we must call it out. Striving to be holy means seeing each individual as holy. And leading through hate is the opposite of holiness, it is chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. 

We expect more from our leaders because of the impact that they have on us. The Torah speaks of a great sense of kedushah of the priests, not just because they performed ritual sacrifices, but because of the opportunities they had to guide so many. We should expect our leaders to guide us. May their actions be holy so that they guide us to a life of holiness. May they also see the holiness in each individual. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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