Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Muse: Vayigash 2008

Traditionally, we view Joseph through the lens of the ethical/moral development of the nascent Jewish people. Joseph is Yoseph Hatzadik in our rabbinic literature, wronged by his brothers, tested by Potiphar’s wife and because of his impeccable character rose to the second in command in Pharaoh’s Egypt.

There is however another side to Joseph, Joseph the political person. It would appear that he was a natural survivor and one who had an instinctual affinity for the art of politics. Unlike the counselors and advisors of the Pharoah who were “yes men” Joseph had little to loose by informing the Pharaoh that he was in for some very bad times. A savvy politician would understand the possibilities of acquiring unlimited power if he were to take advantage of the situation. Joseph, as a ruthless politician began setting up the process and preparing the groundwork for exploiting the situation to his benefit.

Preparing for the famine, Joseph prepares the country by stockpiling perishable goods, grain and other essential food stuffs. When the famine hits he sells the food for cash (Chapter 47:14) accumulating great wealth for the Pharaoh. After the money was depleted he began trading the grain for livestock (chapter 47:16-17). Once the livestock was depleted the Egyptians sold their land to the Pharaoh for food and in so doing indentured themselves as Pharaoh’s property.

Joseph’s policy of consolidating the power totally in the Pharoh’s hand became complete once he executed his final policy which as the text says removed the people from their ancestral lands. (Chapter 47:21-22) Joseph was very clever because the only ones that weren’t dislocated were the priests who legitimized the divinity of the Pharaoh.

Joseph during his tenure managed to centralize the power, wealth, and property of the Egyptians; keep them dislocated and off the land and maintain his alliance with the priests to insure his continued divine grace. Naturally, there was growing resentment to the fact that Joseph and the Pharaoh bested the people out of their wealth and land and waited till the opportunity presented itself. After Joseph and that generation died off we are told of a new Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” (vayakom melech chadash al mitzrayim) and was intent on not only reversing the misfortunes of the Egyptians but taking revenge for what had happened to them under the rule of Joseph.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Greed Genes

It would appear that Shlomo Rubashkin and Bernard Madoff have little in common with each other. One is a hareidi the other isn’t even modern orthodox. although he might identify with the modern orthodox community. Rubashkin made his money in the low tech, blue collar industry as a slaughter house super butcher/entrepeneur; Madoff made his money in the rarefied atmosphere of the financial markets as the head of a fund and financial consultant. Rubashkin exploited the weak, uneducated underclass; Madoff took advantage of and defrauded the wealthy, sophisticated and educated upper tier of the American elite. So what do Shlomo Rubashkin and Bernard Madoff have in common?

The “greed gene” is a gene which many of us have. It is somewhat like the fat gene. In western society where so much value is placed on beautifully sculpted thin bodies a person with a fat gene is at a disadvantage when compared to someone without a fat gene. Someone with a fat gene will have to spend his/her entire life on dieting just to maintain an acceptable level of body fat, while the ones without the fat gene will have a much easier and more enjoyable experience. The greed gene operates in much the same way as the fat gene. Not all of us have this gene. For those who have the greed gene, so much of their life will be devoted to keeping it under control.

There are many people who don’t possess this gene. They are people who may be motivated to make money, make a lot of money, but aren’t driven or obsessed with the need to make more and more and more without ever being satiated. There are millionaires plus, who enjoy the daily challenge of making money, but this doesn’t mean that they are greedy, or have the greed gene. Similarly, there are many people who aren’t necessarily wealthy but obsessed with money and do possess the greed gene. So having lots of money isn’t a determining factor as to whether one has the greed gene or not. What determines whether one has the greed gene is defining their level of satiation.

Perhaps a good analogy for explaining this phenomenon is the disease known as diabetes. It is a fact that one of the symptoms of diabetes is that the untreated diabetic can never have enough water. The untreated diabetic is always thirsty and no mater how much water he drinks, he is thirsty. Someone with the greed gene is analogous to the untreated diabetic. He can never get enough money. He doesn’t need the money. It doesn’t enhance his quality of life, he has everything he needs, his family isn’t in want of anything, yet he is driven to accumulate more and more and more, never becoming satiated. Unlike diabetes, it is difficult to identify one who possesses the greed gene and it must be a very difficult, painful and conflicted existence.

Imagine someone who hasn’t the cues to know when he has had enough to eat or drink. This isn’t an unusual problem, and many people are plagued with this disorder. Once it is identified therapies can be introduced to manage the problem. But how does one identify the greed gene. It isn’t a physical ailment; there are no discernable symptoms. Just because a person is wealthy or aspires to wealth doesn’t in any way imply they have the greed gene.

I don’t think that this problem is a uniquely Jewish one. I think it is common and runs throughout the general community, however it may be pronounced within our own community since there is a premium placed on wealth and philanthropy. The wealthier and more philanthropic you are the greater the chavod, giving credence to the Hebrew expression “baal hamea who baal hadea” meaning “he who has the money has the last word”. Our weddings and bar /bat mitzvah celebrations are gauged by how much was spent and the venue. These things aren’t in themselves indicative of the greed gene. They do however add fuel to those with the greed gene and may even trigger the dormant greed gene.

The problem is exacerbated because the greed gene becomes the monster that ultimately controls the person, taking over the person who is no longer in control. It is the disease that is in control. As such, they will stop at nothing to feed their craving for more. Ethics are out the window and so is common decency. To defraud a friend isn’t out of the realm of possibility, nor is serving up treif under the guise of a hechsher to a frum person as was evident by the Monsey butcher only two years ago, who knowingly sold treif chickens for years to his hareidi friends and neighbors.

While the greed gene isn’t a diagnosed illness and certainly isn’t on the “spectrum”, I do believe that eventually it will be an identifiable disease with medical interventions. In the meantime those with the disease will continue to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting public as the likes of Rubashkin and Madoff have demonstrated.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Muse: Miketz 2008

This week’s portion is a continuation of the deception and pay back that has been so characteristic in Genesis, certainly from the beginning of the Jacob narrative as we have already pointed out in previous musings. Of concern in this weeks portion is the question why didn’t Joseph attempt to establish contact with his family , if for no other reason than to let Jacob know that he is alive and well, thriving in Egypt. It would appear to be quite cruel of Joseph not to have done so. Yet, Joseph is a product of his environment and as Jacob was opportunistic and calculating in his relationship to his brother it isn’t surprising that Joseph too has demonstrated similar tendencies.

Joseph clearly had issues with his father and certainly with his brothers .It may very well be that Joseph saw his father as an enabler of his brothers and thus hatched the plot by which he would deceive them and his father as he had been deceived by them.

An interesting sub-theme which emerges in the deception and false accusations suggested by Alan Dershowitz is that those falsely accused remain silent and do not protest because it will do no good, but in the end are vindicated. Potiphar’s wife accusing Joseph of inappropriate sexual advances towards her doesn’t evoke reaction from Joseph. Joseph, however, is vindicated and becomes the king’s vizier. Similarly, when Benjamin is falsely accused he doesn’t try to defend himself in view of the evidence against him. He too is vindicated. It was only after Joseph realizes that the brothers aren’t inclined to forsake their youngest brother, Benjamin, does he call off the charade, realizing that the cycle of deception, false accusation and payback have to cease being a part of their family culture. [Incidental to all this is the further pay back of Yehudah, (who becomes the volunteer hostage) for his treatment of Tamar when he prejudged and misjudged her when he himself had been complicit].

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rear View Mirror

I’ve always prided myself in looking to the future. Committed always to having both eyes on the road ahead, but occasionally looking into the rear view mirror would be the metaphor of choice for illustrating the paradigm of Rabbi Maryles’ post this past Wednesday December 10, The Challenge. (The rear view mirror is one of the great auto inventions of the twentieth century along with windshield wipers.) To put it another way: There are two kinds of people in this world; those who are focused on the past and those who are primed and tuned to the future. There really aren’t two groups as Rabbi Maryles would posit; Hareidim and Centrtists, but rather those who chose to live in the past and those who live with an eye to the future.

The difference between the two groups is profound, a chasm that really isn’t bridgeable because the fundamental differences between them aren’t predicated on practice but rather upon a deeply rooted philosophical perspective that defines the core value of the person. Either you see the cup half empty or you see it half full. Either you see life as a series of challenges waiting to be met and exploited or you see life as a series of obstacles and threats that need to be negotiated. Those who are constantly poised with their eyes on the past haven’t a clear vision of the future or its possibilities. They aren’t dreamers, they are doomed to continue the motions of those before them always moving in the same monotonous circle, perhaps a little faster or a little slower, but never leaving the orbit. They never really progress, but live/exist in a cocoon, never having the joy of discovery. How can they? If they are always focused on the past their ability to discover is radically impaired. They may print an occasional sefer titled ‘chidushei this or that’, but we aren’t really talking about discovery, it is more of regurgitation in a slightly different format. Those who are dreamers, who have their eyes focused on the future haven’t the patience or inclination to keep on moving in the same circle, regardless of whether or not they can vary the speed in which they travel. They haven’t the patience to keep on reading the same stuff year in and year out without variation. And as they transition into another orbit seeking the new and exciting, understanding that they are on a new trajectory that will take them to unknown places, whether it is in the physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual realm. It is exciting because it holds out the possibility of new discovery and self discovery.

This is what Judaism is really all about. That is what Genesis is all about. It is the story of Avraham, when he set out on his own journey, leaving behind a life he rejected. He tired of moving in the same circle day in and day out without deriving satisfaction and spiritual fulfillment. He jumped the orbit catapulting himself on to a new trajectory setting out on a journey of discovery and self discovery. Avraham didn’t focus on the past, but focused on the future. While Isaac may have been traumatized by the “Akeida”, Jacob definitely was a unique thinker, his entire life spent on a journey seeking the future, seeking the new, searching for self definition and new ways of self expression.

There is however another group of people, the indecisive ones, those who want to look to the future but fear the unknown, so they focus just a little longer on the past by over using the rear view mirror. These are what Rabbi Maryles refers to as the Centrists. But Centrists aren’t sustainable. They are designed to self destruct. The human being isn’t designed to live in limbo, dangling between the past and the future. Sooner or later you have to make a choice; to either live in the past or to move on and into the future. Those who initially can’t decide are Centrists, but sooner or later they can’t take the stress of being in limbo and either join the hareidim living in the past or hook onto the Modernists (Post Denominationalists) who are firmly headed toward the future with an occasional glance at their rear view mirror.

Being a modernist doesn’t mean you discard the past or ignore its teachings and values. It does, however mean that a cap is placed on its ability to dictate ones approach to life. It means that while one may check the rear view mirror occasionally for contextual references one isn’t cabled to it nor hobbled by what is revealed in the rear view mirror. Rather one may use this information in a way that may help negotiate an unchartered journey. Isn’t that one of the lessons to be learned from Jacob’s long journey? The situational ethics to which we are introduced throughout Genesis is a by -product of this healthy approach to living.

With this in mind one can better understand Rabbi Maryles’ determination of reconciling the hareidi community with the “centrists”. He is conflicted, because I believe he is still one of the danglers, he’s in limbo, not having yet made the choice between the past and the future. He understands the beauty of the future but is conflicted with his loyalty to the past. I respect this and certainly appreciate his struggle, but I will be waiting for him on the other side.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Muse: Vayeshev 2008

Over the next several weeks we will be reading the unfolding and dramatic story of Joseph. In the midst of the drama of Joseph being sold into slavery and Judah telling their father that Joseph is dead, we are abruptly apprised of another drama unfolding; the story of Judah and Tamar.

While there is much speculation as to the inclusion of this story in the text as well as its juxtaposition there is nevertheless much we can learn from its inclusion. One of the purposes of Torah is to serve as our spiritual map and a guidepost on how to live. One of the lessons derived from the Judah – Tamar story as well as the Joseph story is the recognition of situational ethics. These ethical dilemmas are presented to us in a multitude of ways beginning with the sale of the Esau’s birthright to the stealing of Isaac’s blessings to the deceit of Tamar.

Another lesson learned from these tangled events is understanding that the unfolding of our spiritual history was earmarked by trailblazing, breaking down accepted normative practices such as primogeniture, and devaluing pedigree. Evidence of this comes not only in the Jacob – Esau story but also with the supremacy of Judah over the first born Rueben even though Judah breaks from his family and marries a Canaanite who is absolutely forbidden.

Balance and counterbalance, mida k’neged mida, the ying yang, is another lesson we take from this chapter of Genesis. Our Torah is teaching us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We can’t always anticipate the nature of the reaction, when and how, but we are assured that it will happen. Jacob is deceptive in his dealings with his brother and Laben in return is deceptive with Jacob. Jacob’s questionable reaction to the news of the slaughter of Hamor and his tribesmen after the rape of Dina is met with news that Joseph his favorite was killed by a wild animal as told to him by Judah. And Judah deceives Tamar and is in return deceived by Tamar.

But with all that was said the Text also teaches us that ultimately there is reconciliation. After the Great Deluge there is reconciliation through Noah, and when that isn’t complete there is further reconciliation through Abraham and his progeny. While Jacob may have lost his direction at times, in the end he is focused, directed and on message. And his sons, although they lived their developmental years in antagonism, guilt and recrimination, in the end there is reconciliation with Joseph as well.

The Text too, by abruptly inserting the story of Yehudah and Tamar in the midst of the Joseph story establishes the foundation for the Davidic line (Beit David) as early as Genesis by registering the ascendance of Judah. The stage is set for the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and Jacob that the Kings will come from the loins of Abraham and Jacob and through Judah even though he married a Canaanite, is the fourth son, not the favorite, has character flaws and produces twins from the unholy union with Tamar, a Canaanite.

Perhaps it can be said that Jacob was the patriarch of a dysfunctional family. He had an uncanny talent of setting son against son by pointing out their flaws and letting them be known to the siblings. It was no wonder that Joseph became the scorn of the other ten brothers. Unfortunately, Jacob never learnt from his mistakes in this regard. At the very end, when he was blessing his sons, he included the two sons of Joseph (Ephraim and Menasheh) as equals to his sons. In so doing Jacob perhaps unknowingly set up another polarity, this time greater than any of the others.

Through Judah came the original kingdom, which split after Solomon. The ten tribes that split off (the northern tribes) were referred to as Beit Yoseph and Ephraim (Zechariah 10:6-7) and the southern tribes were those of Judah (Beit David). Ephraim, the progeny of Joseph laid claim to the kingdom because they believed that it was Joseph who rightfully deserved the mantle, being Jacob’s favorite and not Judah who was fundamentally flawed.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Jerusalem, Oh Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Municipal Elections were more interesting and with results that I least expected. Jerusalem’s best days were those when the Honorable Teddy Kollek was Mayor. He brought to the table gravitas as well as a profound love for the city. For Teddy, Jerusalem wasn’t a stepping stone to further his political career, it was his career. Jerusalem was his passion. He was known to go through the streets of Jerusalem at 5AM before the city came to life and the traffic began so he could inspect for himself city projects and their progress. It was Teddy who established Keren Yerushalayim which quickly became an international organization with snob appeal. Philanthropists from all over the world were making huge donations without solicitation. They wanted to be part of Teddy’s Jerusalem.

During the mid 1980’s as a graduate student at Hebrew University, my mentor and advisor was doing research on behalf of the Keren Yerushalayim. As his student, and knowing how hungry I was, he was kind enough to involve me in the research and publication of the study. The nature of the research involved the impact of the growing hareidi population on Jerusalem. One of the purposes of the study was to make a determination on the effect a growing hareidi population would have on the hiloni (secular) community. The concern was that the hilonim were the financial backbone of Jerusalem. If the hareidim became a majority what impact would that have on the hilonim? One obvious concern was that they would abandon Jerusalem. The impact would be catastrophic. Who would deliver services? What would become of all the cultural attractions that the city built up over the past decades? Would Jerusalem, the capitol of Israel slide backward and become another backwater city like Zfat?

Since that time I have returned to Jerusalem at least annually and each time I was more disappointed than the previous visit. The city slowly began to show its neglect; it no longer shined. It began showing its age like an older woman resigned to her age giving up on the hair coloring allowing her white hair to grow in, complimenting her graying palor. It’s ok to age. We all do and so do cities. But it’s another thing to allow it to grow old. That’s the sign of someone who has given up. In the years since Teddy left the Iriya the city was up for grabs. Olmert used it as a stepping stone and then came Lupiyanski who casually let the city slide further into the abyss of growing old. His concern and that of his constituency wasn’t the culture of the city or its development in order to attract bright young minds but was concerned with meeting the needs of a growing hareidi community in need of more and more services and yeshivas but not contributing to the beauty, glory, or development of the city. On my last visit there a year ago Jerusalem lost any semblance of the Jerusalem of Gold I loved. It no longer loomed on the horizon with pride and majesty as the Jewel of Israel and the Jewish people. No, it conjured up an image of an old hareidi man, stooped but rushing to a hashakamah minyan with their eyes cast towards the ground rather than stand erect with their eyes fixed straight ahead with the pride of being a man. If Jerusalem was once a beacon of light giving full meaning to the words Ki Mitzion Tezeh Torah, today its light has dimmed, is no longer a beacon and certainly can’t pride itself on giving meaning to those poetic words of hope and fulfillment.

Over the years the hareidim through natural growth took over the city and destroyed its beautiful legacy. A city that once prided itself on its culture and beauty was replaced by neglected streets, pollution, faded out parks and lackluster in every way except for its plethora of yishivas and shteiblech. Apparently even the hareidim believed that they over did the zealousness to the point that they even corrupted the very religious principles they were supposed to be keeping. A glaring example of this was the ‘modesty police’ going berserk over the dancers scheduled to perform at the opening cerermony at the Chords Bridge. Girls 13-16 years old fully and modestly dressed by most standards wasn’t good enough for these talibanesque type hareidim who insisted that they cover their hair and wear shapeless bags over their bodies.

It was probably ‘bashert’ that the “chords” event preceded the municipal elections. Most Jerusalemites have probably had enough of the hareidim running rough shod over the city. It also helped that there happened to be disharmony within their own ranks.

The split within Agudas Yisrael was the best thing that could have happened and contributed substantially to Barkats victory. Porusch’s Shomrei Emunei Yisrael is up against Israel’s largest hassidic sect Ger. The struggle is the typical power struggle: who will control Agudas Yisrael: Ger or Shomrei Emunei Yisrael? As a result of this power struggle Rabbi Y. A. Alter, leader of Ger refused to throw his support behind Porusch and it is questionable whether or not he gave the word to his followers to vote for Barkat. Regardless, Barkat did win and perhaps now, Jerusalem can be rehabilitated and restored as a city that delights in Torah as well as world culture giving new meaning to those beautiful words ‘ki mitzion teizeh torah’.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Muse: Vayishlach 2008

This weeks Torah portion details the reconciliation of Jacob and his brother Esau as well as the mysterious encounter between Jacob and the angel at a place he subsequently named Peniel, on the banks of the Jabok River. The portion also relates the rape of Dina as well as the brutal revenge of Shimon and Levi.

The complex and delicate nature of the Sedra raises many questions. I'd like to share just a few of them with you:

• The series of events are not sequentially logical. If after having wrestled with the angel of God, Jacob comes out a spiritually stronger man as evidenced by his name change than why did he fear confrontation with Esau? If he wrestled with an angel and was able to overcome why was he afraid to face his brother?

• Who did Jacob really fight, man or angel, or was it perhaps a dream in which he found himself in a struggle with phantom demons. This happens to be one of the classic controversies between the Rambam and the Ramban - as to whether the wrestling constituted an external event or an inner prophetic experience through the medium of a dream.

• What was the significance of the encounter being a nocturnal one and why near the river Jabok?

• Why was it important for the text to note Jacob's physical handicap resulting from the struggle?

• Why is the story of Dinah mentioned, considering that it is unrelated to the rest of the narrative? She never reappears in the Biblical text, nor do we ever learn what happened to her, so why is this isolated incident recorded?

• Jacob's response to the news of Shimon and Levi's bloodbath is limited to the possible repercussions (utilitarian concerns) from the neighboring tribes rather than addressing the moral issues - and this after his encounter with the angel!

It is possible that these events have a common denominator, which point to the character development of Jacob. In this Parsha Jacob should be understood as a work in progress, as a man who is still caught up in the quagmire of self-discovery.

Jacob, on his way to meet his brother whom he hadn't seen for years is, according to the text, in fear for his personal safety. And rightfully so, according to Yehoshua Leibovitz. After all, according to Leibowitz, he was fully aware that he had sinned twenty years ago, and therefore didn't have the courage to confront his brother - let alone fight him. He was even willing to humiliate himself in order to atone. Ironically, it is precisely that night, the night prior to his meeting with his brother that he has the real or imagined encounter with the angel. Is it possible that in anticipation of his confrontational meeting with Esau, Jacob suffered from anxiety? Going to sleep with a heavy conscience may have precipitated Jacob's need to confront this and other issues. If so, with whom was he in fact struggling?

Was Jacob indeed literally struggling with an angel, or was he still struggling with his father Isaac regarding the Bracha? Possibly he was struggling with Esau, or his alter ego as the Medrash Rabbah suggests, whom he incidentally wrestled once before - in the womb. Or perhaps it was his shadow self whom he was struggling with.

Possibly, Jacob is wrestling with all these phantoms on this night prior to his meeting with Esau. He subdues all of these phantoms and in the process transforms himself while given a new name. In assuming his new identity, he leaves behind his insecurities and assumes the adult mantle of the patriarch. It is no wander that his struggle is staged at the River Jabok, for it symbolizes a spiritual divide - a new destiny and a break from the past. The word Yabok shares the same Hebrew root for Maavak - struggle.

Jacob's struggle as narrated in the text illustrates that we never stop growing. Each step forward brings new challenges and sometimes setbacks. Even after Jacob's spiritual catharsis he resumes his journey with a limp - with imperfections. Jacob's set back was that he inappropriately rebuked his sons after the revenge of Hamor and the tribe of Shechem. This, especially in light of the fact that Chazal point out that Hamor's solution was in step with the biblical law: payment to the rape victim's father and marriage to the victim. It was only years later that Jacob, on his deathbed did redeem himself of this matter by appropriately addressing Shimon and Levi with a moral rebuke and a scathing curse.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Oy Vey Ovadia

It’s a tight contest between Ovadia Yosef and Vice Pres. Elect Joe Biden. During the campaign season, journalist would be waiting for a classic Joe Biden gaf. Similarly, whenever Rabbi Ovadia opens his mouth the press is there waiting for a doozy. Towards the end of the election season a parapalegic patriot was sitting in the audience where Biden happened to be speaking. Having seen the paraplegic he asked him to stand up and take bow and be recognized by the public for his contribution. After seeing the condition he was in he said “never mind” or something to that effect. What a gaf. To Joe Biden’s credit one can say that while he has made some awful mistakes they were honest, with no bad intention intended. The Rabbi, on the other hand is mean spirited.

To say that secular teachers are “donkeys” and the children of “donkeys” is contemptible and insulting to say the least, not only to the teachers and their profession, but to society as a whole. After all it is society that has deemed it worthy to have schools and teachers. Where would we be without those teachers? Where would Rabb Ovadia be without those teachers? After all it is because of those teachers that we have a modern and enlightened country where Jews can live in relative freedom and democracy, no thanks to the likes of Rabbi Ovadia.

Intererstingly, Shas leader and homophobe, Eli Yishai tried to explain what Rabbi Ovadia meant. Since he couldn’t really put a spin on what Rabbi Ovadia said he took another approach – attacking the secular media by asserting that the media simply can’t understand what Rabbi Ovadia meant. Apparently, Rabbi Ovadia is some kind of genius, like an Albert Einstein. Just like the lay community couldn’t possibly understand E=MC squared, so too the public can’t fathom the meaning of Rabbi Ovadia’s words; they’re too complex. Rubbish. Yishai is as bad as Rabbi Ovadia. He must take the entire public as donkeys and not only teachers! It doesn’t take a genius to understand what Rabbi Ovadia meant – his total and utter contempt for teachers because they represent enlightenment and knowledge.

Knowledge and enlightenment have always been the natural enemies of the hareidim. Knowledge threatens their status. It’s something akin to the different sephardi immigrations to Israel. The children of these immigrants lost respect for their parents because in Israel, where knowledge and education counted they couldn’t compete in the market place. They became the unemployed, naturally loosing their status as the bread winners. The real tragedy in that scenario was the parents who chose to cling to the old ways resisting modernization and entry into the light of the twentieth century. In many cases the children suffered for their parent’s lack of foresight. As the saying goes “Eizehu ashir? haroeh et hanolad? Who is fortunate he who can anticipate the future.

Rabbi Ovadia and the likes of him are fighting a loosing battle. They can’t win. Society will continue to progress and teachers will continue to play an honored an integral part in the unfolding of history. Its people like Ovadia who have duped their public into choosing a road which is a dead end. Too bad. I feel sorry for all those children and the yet to be born children of hareidim who will never be able to appreciate a good piece of literature, good art or classical music, not to mention the challenge of studying the sciences or the humanities and contributing to the world we live in.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Muse: Vayetze 2008

“Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel’. Laban said ‘Better that I give her to you than I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me.’ So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her. ..And Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast. When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him; and he cohabited with her…When morning came there was Leah! So he said to Laban ‘what is this you have done to me?’ Laban said ‘It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older…’” (Genesis 29:18-26)

Throughout Genesis there is a sense that there are no real absolute standards when it comes to ethical behavior. It appears as though Genesis is conflicted between the necessities for an absolute standard as opposed to situational ethics. The creation story makes the case for absolute standards as does the crime and punishment of Cain. Noah, however is treated by our traditional commentaries on a relative scale. He was a “tzaddik”, a righteous man compared to those of his generation. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been deemed a “righteous one” had he lived in another generation, in the generation o f Abraham; yet God goes to extreme measures in His desire to enforce standards.

Jacob is another example of one practicing situational ethics, and it appears as though the text treating the episodes of Jacob is struggling with Jacob’s choices. Jacob, in his desire to fulfill his mission, tricks his brother Esau twice. The first time when he holds back his food until Esau sells him his birthright and the second time is when he tricks his father into giving him the blessings of the first born by passing himself off as Esau. One can’t help but wince at the commentaries who try to pass off these behaviors as acceptable and necessary due to the need to carry out God’s will. The text has difficulty with it and suggests that he who lives by deceit shall himself be deceived.

A clear example of this is the “switch and bait” technique used by Laban when negotiating the marriage of his daughters. Laban’s comment that “Such is not done in our place, giving away the younger before the firstborn”, reminds us of Jacob’s ruse in tricking Esau out of his birthright. The comparison goes further when considering the following: as Jacob fooled his blind father, so too was he fooled by his dim sighted wife, Leah, in a dark wedding tent. There is a beautiful midrash that interprets the story as follows: After Jacob realizes in the morning that he slept with Leah he rebukes her by saying ‘why did you answer when I addressed Rachel?’ Leah responded according to the midrash ‘is there a teacher without a pupil?...When your father called you Esau did you not say ‘here I am’? So did you call me and I answered.

Later on when Jacob wishes to leave Laban with his family he deceives his father-in-law again. The text, not being comfortable with this, points to the deception of Jacob’s own children. In the Dina story the clan of Hamor is deceived by Shimon and Levi. Later Jacob is deceived in to believing that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. As Jacob used a hairy animal skin to steal the blessings, his sons in turn used a hairy goat to deceive Jacob by dipping Joseph’s coat in its blood.

To counter the situational ethics encountered in our text and the obvious dissonance expressed we are commanded in Deuteronomy to pursue justice. While deception and the weakness of human nature maybe man’s natural state we are thus commanded to pursue justice because that is not our natural state.