Mikeytz - Shabbat Chanukah

Candles Fri 30th December at 4:18 pm
Havdalah 31st at 5:18 pm

Yosef and Chanukah have been linked ever since the Talmud in Shabbat gave us the laws of Chanukah and then went on to talk about Joseph being thrown into the pit which was empty and had no water but did have snakes and scorpions.

You might think the connection between Joseph and the Mikeytz is that, as this week, it often happens that the Torah reading on Shabbat is about Joseph emerging from the pit his brothers threw him into. Then he was thrown into the pit of the prison in Egypt by Potiphar. From all this he emerged to become the master of the country. And this is usually read on the Shabbat of Chanukah where the Jewish people emerged from the heel of alien oppression to gain control of their own destiny when they defeated the Syrian Greeks. A fitting message of hope this week where Obama and Kerry have revealed their antipathy towards Israel blaming it alone for the stalemate in the Middle East.

The Talmud however implies something more. The light of Chanukah lasting as long as it did, defied natural law. Similarly, Joseph being thrown into pit of snakes survived. This too defied nature. The rabbis were eager to stress that survival physically is important but not enough. We need spiritual survival too and that is not a matter of arms or winning wars. And that is why the Haftarah this week contains the message of hope to Zerubavel that he would lead the Jews exiled in Babylon back home “Neither by strength nor buy might but by the spirit of God do the Jews survive.”

And yet in addition to our faith, we must do what we can physically to survive. And Joseph represents this combination.

The more I read about Joseph the more impressed I am. The way he rebounded from one disaster after another, how he worked hard to reach the top time and time again and how when he got there he knew how to keep both his boss and the masses happy, avoid offending entrenched priestly interests, running an economy with booms and busts and avoiding irrational exuberance. And throughout it all, the lows and the high, he preserved his spiritual integrity and values. A poster boy for Jewish talent and adaptability. Yet, clearly he had the spiritual dimension. The faith in God that kept him going.

The fact is the narratives of the Torah lend themselves to multiple possibilities and variations. Sometimes one aspect seems more relevant than the other. But each one of us is invited to find the interpretation that most suits our own predicament and circumstances. The real significance for us of the story is the lesson we draw from it.


Shabbat Vayeyshev

Candles Friday 23 December 4:12pm
Havdalah 24th 5:07pm
1st Evening/1st light of Chanukah December 24th
Rosh Hodesh Tevet Friday 30th December

There are lots of dreams in the book of Bereishit (Genesis). Last week we read about Jacob’s dream as he ran away from his brother. This week we read about Joseph and his dreams as well as those of the Egyptian Pharaoh and his head baker and his sommelier. Dreams are an important part of all of our lives. But are they significant?

They have always played a very important role in ancient civilizations as oracles, used to predict the future. The Talmud devotes a lot of space to explaining the significance or other wise of dreams. Some rabbis are skeptical. They say dreams depend entirely on interpretations. But these are often either biased or dependent on how much money one is prepared to pay for a good interpretation. Some eve say that every dream contains some nonsense. Others give detailed explanations of what the significance is of events, animals, objects and situations in dreams. Some consider them predictors of the future. People were always on the lookout to take advantage. For opportunities to make money playing on the pain, the insecurity and credulity of simple folk.

The Torah was written long before anyone had heard of Freud and his “Interpretation of Dreams.” But we can apply some of his ideas to explain the dreams mentioned here. Jacob’s angels climbing up to heaven and down clearly reflected his anxiety at leaving the security and protection of his family and his land.

Joseph’s dreams of leadership were fostered by Jacob appointing him as his successor and encouraging his sense of exceptionalism. The butcher and the butler were dreaming about how they had failed in their tasks and were desperate for another chance to prove themselves. And Pharaoh as monarch of a troubled land was worrying about supplies of food for his starving masses and will have been thinking about good years and bad years.

Joseph’s gift was not just for interpretation. His advice was crucial. He might have used his psychological skills to get to the bottom of the dreams. But he used his brain and logic to devise a practical and effective way of dealing with the anxieties and of those who told him their dreams. That was his success.

Dreams tell us a great deal about ourselves. They tell us about things we fear but are reluctant to express. Often dreams of things in the future are no more than our brains describing what we want to happen nor fear happening. They release suppressed anxieties and wishes. Freud taught us not be afraid of them but to use dreams therapeutically to understand ourselves better.


Shabbat Vayishlah

Candles 4:10pm Friday Dec 16th
Havdalah 5:05 Dec 17th

The Talmud tells us that we should not favor one child over another. Surely this is obvious. Of course, it is not, as this week’s reading illustrates. The Talmud was referring to Joseph’s coat of stripes or colors that marked him out from the other brothers. But really, the problem started before. With Abraham favoring Isaac and Isaac favoring Esau.

Now Jacob is returning home from Haran to face Esau who he assumes still wants to kill him. He divides his camp into different groups to face the oncoming assault. He puts the concubines and their children first, then Leah and hers and finally Rachel and Joseph. Arguing, so says the Torah, that if Esau bent on revenge, takes his anger out on the first groups, he might allow the last to survive.

Just think of the psychological damage this does. A father is prepared to sacrifice ten of his children in the hope that the other may live. No wonder they grew to resent Joseph. And their father too.

My mother always used to tell me she loved me and loved all her children equally. But even so, I always thought she preferred the younger ones. I know it was illogical. Children are illogical and so are most adults. I guess there was nothing my mother could have done or said to reassure me. But I have no doubt my younger siblings thought that I got preferential treatment as the eldest. Sometimes one can never get it right.

Different children have different strengths and weaknesses. We can validate those differences without treating them unfairly. Good parents are aware of the dangers of favoritism.

We are told to take lessons from how our biblical forbears acted, how they treated their children, for better and for worse. But In the end, we take responsibility for our actions.


Shabbat Vayeytzey

Candles December 9th 4:08pm
Havdalah 10th 5:03pm

Jacob left home. Esau threatened to kill him. But Rebekah could not say anything negative about him to her husband because Esau was his favorite. So, she claimed that Jacob had to leave to find a wife, as Isaac had, back home in Ur.

It’s an interesting side note, that despite the family being economic migrants and now were in the third generation of living in their adopted country, they still thought of Ur as their “home” both physically and culturally. Bad as Laban might have been, they still preferred his family to the local Canaanites.

But the main and recurring theme over these weeks of Torah reading, is the use of language, to mislead, to impress, to cover up intentions and to deceive. Language, Lashon, comes from the word for the tongue. The tongue is only the mouth piece of the mind. And the human mind is an enormously unpredictable and unreliable organ. It is best at deceiving itself! We humans are notoriously credulous and unreliable.

In the end the only thing we can judge are actions. How people behave. And the fact is that we are able to differentiate and the Torah differentiates between people whose actions are positive and humane and those whose actions are only self-serving. We judge by the results, not the words. And by what is better for humans, for society and for values.


Shabbat Toldot

Candles December 2nd 4:10pm
Havdalah December 3rd 5:05pm

The character of Ishmael is ambiguous. He made fun of Isaac. He was driven out and went to live a life of preying on others. Yet his home became the home of Isaac, Be’er LeChai Roi and together Isaac and Esau buried their father and the hatchet. Similarly, Esau. He is ambiguous.

We see him first as a devious hunter, in contrast to the straighter, home body Jacob. He is a man of instant gratification. He wants his soup now at any cost. He disregards the responsibilities of the Birth Right. He marries against his parents’ wishes. He is too impetuous to be a good leader. But he is not all bad. He is a good son, serving game to his father. When he is denied the Blessing, he cries. And in the end, we know he will be reconciled to Jacob.

So why does the Midrash (the tradition of explaining the Torah texts) set out to make both of them all negative with no shred of good. Ishmael is a thief and a bully. Esau ids a rapist, a lier and a killer.

One answer may be the historical. Ishmael was associated with Islam, Esau with Rome and Christianity. When the Midrashim were compiled both empires were oppressing the Jews. Esau and Ishmael were codes for the causes of their suffering. Making them out to be completely evil was therapeutic and comforting.

But the Midrash itself also says that we judge people by the results, by their legacy. It is possible to say that all of the characters in the Torah are ambiguous, with different sides to their characters. What matters are the results. And if they are negative, if the succeeding generations fail in their moral missions, it is a reflection on their progenitors.