In fairness, the Trump administration is endeavoring to fulfill the enforcement end of immigration laws already on the books, and they have been saddled with the problem of 12 million illegal immigrants in this country. What is important, however, from my Jewish point of view, is that any racheting up of enforcement should be moderated through the lens of compassion to the stranger, a basic tenet of our religion. In the Torah, we read thirty-six times, "Love the stranger." Be kind to them, ki gerim heyeetem– for once we knew what it was to be spurned and marginal strangers in a land not our own. Judaism's radical claim is to turn a human reflex on its head. An abused person often becomes an abuser. God saw to it that our abuse would lead to sensitivity.
Yet it would be disingenuous if I left it only at this. The Israelites were also commanded to obliterate Amalek and destroy the seven nations that were occupying the land God promised Israel. These nations were practitioners of murderous rites and demanded compulsive adherence to their pagan religious practices for the Christian population trying to live an otherwise productive and law-abiding life. In addition, in the late Ancient time and certainly by the early Medieval time, rabbinic law had forbidden this way of thinking about any present day people.
A look at laws in Mishpatim of the parasha resonate, to some degree, with the issue currently evolving with this new executive thrust. Hebrew slaves who were serving a master to work off a debt were to be set free after six years. Their status was to be upgraded after the serving of a certain number of years, and they were to be provided with "perks" upon that upgrade–sufficient provisions, tools, etc.–to be able to get started again on their own. If he so chose, the Hebrew slave could seek harbor in the master's household and the master would be required to give him shelter and provisions in exchange for his servitude until the time of Jubilee, for as many as 49 years.
There is another mitzvah that applies to an extent, regarding the occasion upon which a poor person is required to give collateral. If that collateral ends up being a garment, the lender must make certain he or she has returned it by nightfall, for this could be his or her only covering on a cold night. God apparently cares that all human beings don't suffer from the cold or find themselves exposed to the elements. God, says our midrash, shares the distress of human beings who are suffering. "Created in His image" means more to God than just that we resemble some of His qualities; it means He's a parent to every human being. A mother and/or a father looks at a child as almost a phantom limb. When the child suffers, so does God, the parent.
A third mitzvah of the Torah tells us that if we afflict the orphan or widow, in due time God will become furious and our wives and children will end up beings widows and orphans. The Talmud takes this further and teaches that if we even witness such affliction and don't act to stop it, the same penalty applies. This is remarkable, the commentators opine. Such is the strictness God holds with widows and orphans. Since they are so vulnerable, they must be given extra iron-clad protections.
Reflections on the beginning of Exodus and the UN Resolution 2334: Saving the world while saving one’s own
We will explore the world of push-and-pull in Moses’ inner psyche and in so doing, maybe see a reflection of ourselves.
Moses bursts onto the scene an internationalist, working on behalf of those who are oppressed. Brought up as an Egyptian royal, Moses looks upon slavery in the abstract and sees an oppressed people, but it takes a while before he actually internalizes that those who are abused are his own people and is bothered enough to spring into action. It says in Vayigdal Moshe, “…and Moses matured and then went out unto HIS people and saw their suffering.” The Midrash tells us that Moses sees an Egyptian raid a man’s home at night and takes the man and his wife out into the dark. The Egyptian approaches the wife, who cannot see in the dark, pretending to be her husband. Thereafter, with the Egyptian knowing that the man is onto him, this taskmaster torments the slave daily. Moses “looked here and there…he saw the man’s debasement in his own home and he saw his debasement during the day in the field, and he struck out at the Egyptian and in the process killed him…” But Moses still, at this point, has issues with being a savior only of his own people.
A bounty is put on Moses’ head and he flees to Midian. Seeing that working to help your own is dangerous and yet not able to refrain from helping others, he immediately goes to work aiding the daughters of Jethro, who are attempting to draw water for the flock they are tending, but are being tormented by local bullies. Moses defends them and draws their water. Jethro, thinking Moses an Egyptian, rewards Moses by giving him Tzippora to wed, and Moses fathers two children and stays in Midian as a shepherd. Moses is contented for forty years, fully one third of his life, ignoring his own people’s suffering while helping a different people and helpless animals. It only when happening upon God in the form of a strangely and perennially burning bush, that he is reminded of the oppression of the Hebrews in Egypt. We know of such people that will move mountains to help the oppressed of the world and poor animals suffering, but when it comes to their own people’s plight, they poo-poo it. And aren’t some of these people us? Moses, even after a forty-year hiatus, still drags his feet to the point where God almost kills him on the way back to Egypt!
Moses seems to need to go through that journey of re-sensitizing himself to his brothers’ suffering–vayetze el Echav vayaar sivlotam–to really see the suffering of his brothers, his sisters, and his own family in the main. Much like Abraham before him, he flirts with universalism and worries a lot about people suffering like those in Midian and in Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham, in his day, overlooked the violence and the people’s incitement–the fact that they were almost all wicked– and struggled to have God save them too. That is a fine and deeply needed sensibility, to an extent. But in Abraham’s case, his focus became so much the inclusion of the wicked that he lost sight of the advocacy of his own. He seemed mute when God told him “Hey Abe, take Ishmael and his mother into the desert with a canteen of water…” He seemed frozen when God demanded, “Nu, slaughter your own son Isaac…” In other words, he loses his bearing and his right to self- preservation. So too, Moses at this point pawns off the job of rescuing those pesky “Israelites,” saying, “God, please I am slow of speech…” Send someone else, please–let me off the hook.
And of course we know this tension. It is difficult not to agree with those who claim we should care about the rights and suffering of so many groups. We should advocate equally for the oppressed groups of minorities and Muslims, of queer people and of illegals. We should be color blind and indiscriminate in embracing the liberation movements of all peoples. Consistency must be the order of the day. Like Moses and Abraham, the needs of those of Sodom and Gemorah and the needs of the Midianites and the needs of all oppressed should occupy our time equally.
In our contemporary American milieu, we begin January as a new chapter, with a batch of resolutions for the New Year. Similarly, with the departure of our beloved Chazzan, we at ENJC are also beginning a new chapter. And, according to Jewish tradition, every day is an opportunity for a new chapter, a potential for teshuva–a return to the correct path and to good living. Even God starts a new chapter each day, as the siddur claims, Hamechadesh bechol Yom Maaseah beresheet–we are awestruck at our God who each day 'creates the world anew.' With this in mind, there are four resolutions we can adopt into our Jewish lives, based on major themes in the portions we read in each of our January Shabbats. Perhaps you will embrace all or some of these opportunities.
In Miketz, which we read on December 30th, Joseph is appointed vizier of Egypt and devises a way to save the Near East from drought and hunger. Through his foresight and vision, suffering is alleviated and lives are saved. Let’s resolve, this new year, to make certain to redouble our efforts in supporting major organizations like Mazon, and make a personal effort to combat hunger by working with HIHI and with Long Island Harvest soup kitchens and food pantries, so as to minimize hunger for those who live locally.
In Vayigash, read on January 7, Joseph recognizes the repentance and improvement in his brothers, and reveals that he is their long-lost brother and that they must stop beating themselves up for past wrongdoings against him. Similarly, in our lives, we may have run-ins and moments of disagreement that turn ugly. This year, can't we perhaps turn to a loved one and forgive? Can't we gain a new perspective and maturity for a feud for which we may not even remember its' origin? Years may go by and affection may grow colder. Instead, love and let live. Forgive and forget. Reveal your real face to family and friends–a face that seeks to embrace rather than to estrange.
In Vayechi, which we read on January 14, we see an acme of pure love in the behavior of one of Jacob's grandsons, Menasseh, when he receives a lesser blessing from his grandfather than his younger brother, Ephraim. Jacob crosses his arms and knowingly puts his right hand on the head of Ephraim, even though he is the younger, saying that the younger brother will be greater than the elder Menasseh. In fact, the entire book of Genesis is about the jealousy of brothers: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau Joseph and his brothers. But Menasseh isn't jealous. He is happy for his brother. That is why, on Friday night, we bless our sons to be like Menasseh and Ephraim. These brothers broke the cycle of envy. May we resolve this year to break our cycle of envy, and when we catch ourselves coveting the blessings of others, let's make sure to count the many that we have.
On January 21, we read from the portion of Shemoth. We are introduced to Moses, who runs away from Egypt as a fugitive, and assumes the role of a shepherd. Moses needs to be convinced that he can be so much more. Yet he resists his calling and his talents, not believing in himself. God puts a staff in his hand and says, "Just do it." Moses finds his stride, and boy does he. This might be a lesson for all of us who are perfectionists or are too hard on ourselves. This year don't talk yourself out of trying for a new level of achievement, a new skill, or a new hobby. Don't settle for the familiar. Bring it on. You may fail but you have to believe in yourself and make that effort. You, like Moses, might surprise yourself with your talents if you do!
The Dreidel and Chanukah
According to Rabbi David Golinkin, the dreidel, or sevivon, is the most strongly linked symbol, next to the Chanukah lamp, for Jews at Chanukah. Apparently the dreidel is not an indigenous custom, but one that is modeled after other cultures. In 16th century England, Ireland and in central Europe, there were games called Totem, which also had spinning tops with gambling directions. T is Take All, H is Half, P is Put Down, and N is Nothing. How very ironic that a holiday with a message to hold tenaciously to one's laws and customs has as one of its main symbols one derived through imitation!
But this does not stop our rabbis from attributing other meanings to dreidels, after the fact. Some claim that the letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin stem from the miracle of Chanukah shortly after declaring Nes gadol Haya poh, or in the diaspora, Nes gadol Haya Sham–A great miracle happened here/there. The game of dreidel, it is claimed, was begun for the purpose of concealing Torah study, which Antiochus prohibited, and that the letters equal the numeric equivalent of 358, which is also the value of the word meshiah. Chanukah begins a time of messianic redemption.
Finally, some claim the letters represent the kingdoms that Jews have “spun circles around” and vanquished. Nun, gimmel, hey and shin remind us N, Nebuchadnetzar=Babylon; H, Haman=Persia=Madai; G, Gog=Greece; and S, Seir=Rome.
But the following is the take-away that I like best. The dreidel is a representation of what we mean by the middle Chanukah candle-lighting blessing. Praise and bless God, who has given us miracles in those days and in this time. “This time” refers not to our era, but rather “human time” real time. the whole story of Chanukah is that the miracle is driven from below by the Maccabees in real time. The centripedal force of the spin is driven not by the little handle above, but rather the body below. Similarly, it was the assumption of actions below that drove the victory and the success over the Greeks. The weighty actions and decisions we make in our life, in our time, are what allows miracles to happen. “Actions below lead to stirring above,” say our sages. That is what the letters of the body of the dreidel are telling us.
May all of us enjoy Chanukah and our dreidels. And may they inspire us to weighty actions and decisions that drive our reality. And let us say, Amen.
In November, we had the opportunity as a congregation to say good-bye to our Cantor. In December, many of us will have opportunities to say personal good-byes to a dear friend. Cantor Nussbaum has been a constant presence in our synagogue life. It will be very strange to not see him on the bimah or in the Religious School. I will miss his melodic baritone, "What's going oonnnn?" I will miss his enthusiastic "guess"-timates of attendance at various functions. I will miss the way in which he has always made my family feel welcome and loved in our shul.
If you have not already, I hope that you will have opportunities to wish Ralph well as he and his family embark on this new stage in their lives. Shake his hand. Share a memory. Give him a hug if that feels appropriate. (Just try not to make him cry. He hates that!)
Now, as a community, we must look to the future. We are at once both diminished by our loss and stronger for having had the Nussbaums in our midst. As we adjust to their absence, we will gradually develop a new sense of balance and normalcy.
Shalom, chaverim! See you in shul!