Mikketz: the end of the sibling hatred is in sight – maybe

When Joseph meets his brothers again everything is different. He is no longer an arrogant and specially adored child taken up with visions of his own importance much to the annoyance of his older brothers. Now he truly is an important man, second only to the Pharaoh. He is no longer the dreamer – now he is the interpreter of dreams. But one thing seems to remain the same – the relationship between him and his brothers is strained and unhappy.

He recognises his brothers as soon as they come to Egypt to buy food, but he doesn’t reveal himself to them. Instead he behaves in a cruel and unusual way, acting like a stranger to them, and speaking harshly to them, asking, “Where do you come from”.  He must know that they are anxious and unsettled in a strange land where they have come to buy food because of famine at home.  He must know too that their father has suffered greatly in his absence and will be suffering until the rest of his sons are home. He must have known that imprisoning Shimon would cause terrible pain to his family. And that demanding for Benjamin to come to Egypt – and then keeping him – would potentially destroy his father. He must have known, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to affect him.

Why does Joseph behave in this way? Has the passage of time and the huge respect for him in Egypt not changed him? Has he not matured and let go of some of his justifiable anger towards his brothers? Does he actually believe what he will later tell his brothers, that God has arranged for him to be in Egypt and thus ensure the survival of his family?  Is he deliberately humiliating and testing his brothers or is something else going on?

The Berdichever Rebbe Levi Yitzhak suggested that Joseph was actually acting in defence of his brother’s feelings – knowing that it would be a terrible humiliation for his brothers were they to learn that the man towards whom they were making obeisance and bowing with their faces to the ground was their young brother who had once dreamed that they would do precisely this.  Instead of revelling in their defeat and in the reversal of their positions, Joseph chose to keep quiet and appeared to be a stranger so as not to shame them.

While this is an ingenious way of keeping the character of Joseph unblemished and righteous, it is I think a stretch too far for us. But there must be some reason why Joseph keeps his silence, and then goes on to test his siblings, and test them again.  

Assuming that Levi Yitzhak was right, and Joseph was acting from compassion rather than vengeance, it may indeed be that he was protecting his brothers from knowing who was standing before them.  Before they could have any kind of true and credible reconciliation, the brothers would have to understand what they had done all those years ago to Joseph and to repent – even if they thought they could no longer ask forgiveness of him. Had they known that while they were in the presence of this powerful Egyptian, that they were actually standing in the presence of Joseph, any move towards Joseph, any plea for forgiveness would seem to be insincere and made out of fear or a need for the food he could supply. 

Before Joseph could let go of his own anger and pain, he needed to hear that his brothers were repentant of their behaviour towards him and that they understood that their current predicament was some recompense.  His strange behaviour towards them does not have to have been vengeance, but part of the process that could lead them all to forgiveness and reconciliation. Once he could see that the brothers truly atoned for their behaviour, then he too was able to take the next step towards conciliation with them. By seeming to be harsh he was in fact allowing for an opportunity for real understanding and credibility.

We can’t know what was really in his mind, why he had not contacted his family when he became powerful in Egypt, why he dealt with his brothers in the way he did; – but we can see that the process of reconciliation is not easy nor does it require us to ignore the real pain we feel when we have been wronged or when we ourselves have wronged others. 

Chanukah: A time to reconnect to our values

photoSome years ago I was telephoned by a local radio station, wanting to interview me about Christmas coming so early this year. Somewhat confused I asked “Coming early? But isn’t it a fixed date?” This in turn confused the researcher. After a while I became clear about what she meant – that the shops were already full of Xmas gifts and glitter, even though it was early October. She wanted to know what I thought about it. I had to tell her that as a Rabbi I hadn’t given it much thought, and maybe she ought to be speaking to a cleric whose own tradition was being devalued and commercialised by this particular phenomenon, rather than me. She thanked me kindly and rang off. But it set me thinking.
When we Jews say “the festivals are early this year” we mean that they have taken us by surprise, and we aren’t ready and prepared for them. But Christmas ‘coming early’ means almost the opposite – people OVER preparing for it – at least in one aspect of its celebration. And by this particular type of preparation, the meaning and the message behind the festival becomes obfuscated and ignored.
It is always necessary to prepare for festivals if they are to mean anything more than the superficial enjoyment we can create around them. But the preparation has to be appropriate and considered. “Christmas coming early” is another way of saying that the meaning of the festival has been overtaken and overlaid by the trappings. The preparation has somehow gone askew. The traditions which deliberately build up to the important date (Advent colours, candles and liturgy) are disempowered by the gilt and glitz in the shops.
Rosh Hashanah or Pesach ‘coming early’ really means that we have run out of time to prepare for them, and that happen because we’ve become disengaged from our Jewish calendar. “Jewish time” nudges us with the regular cycle of Shabbat observance, our liturgy includes prayers before the new moon which reminds us monthly just how the year is passing; We read special haftarot before some of the festivals, and others that link us to calendar and time – from before Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hashanah and so on.
There are so many reminders that our tradition has worked into our routines, but only if we keep those routines in our lives. We under-prepare for our festivals each time we could make Shabbat Kiddush but don’t, we under-prepare for our festivals each time we book holidays without consulting the Jewish calendar, we under-prepare for our festivals by not living within Jewish time, and by forgetting to mark each new day and new week with reference to our ancient markers.
One of the things the religious world could learn from the commercial world is that forward planning and continual working towards the goal is the only way that the festival is made to be successful. I’m pretty sure that the Easter Egg planning is finalised by now in most confectionary factories and probably some are already made!
As the days draw in and the trees lose their leaves we may be thinking about latkes and doughnuts, the comfort food of Chanukah, and the bright lights of the menorah in our windows – but to really prepare for the festival we should be thinking of the meaning of having a festival dedicated to the rights of people to practise their religious beliefs and then move on into putting the values of those religious beliefs into action.

And as we celebrate Chanukah this year, our thoughts should also be travelling a little further down the line, thinking about Pesach, about Shavuot, about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; we should be thinking about how we plan to put our values into action at every festival, and during every ordinary day of the week. Who will you invite to your Seder this year? How will you be able to sit around the table and talk of freedom if you haven’t been considering it throughout the year, – and not only considering it but actively working to maintain important freedoms in our world.
Reconnecting with our calendar is the first step we take in order to reconnect with the meaning of our festivals, to not be taken by surprise each time a date comes round. Forward planning to make our festivals meaningful. As new diaries come into the shops and we write our important information into them ready for the new year, let’s put in the religious festivals, and some time set aside to prepare for them

One Person’s Dream May Be Another Person’s Nightmare: Sidra Vayeshev and the dream narratives of Joseph

Sidra Vayeshev is begins and ends with a story about dreams and how Joseph is affected by them.  

In the book of Genesis we hear about a number of different dreams and dreamers, and each time dreaming is hugely important. The first dreamer is  Abimelech King of Gerar (Gen 20:3-7) who, having taken Sarah into his harem on the belief that she is Abraham’s sister, is warned by God in a dream to return Abraham’s wife to him. The next dreamer is Jacob, who dreams twice – the first time when leaving the land as a young boy afraid for his future when his dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending comforts him with the presence of God. The second dream occurs while he is still with Laban but is aware that the tide of hospitality is turning and he must return to the land. (Gen 31:10-13). After this God appears to Laban in a dream (31:24) in order to warn him not to attack Jacob.

Within the Joseph narratives, there are three couplets of dreams. Joseph as a young boy dreaming of both the sheaves of corn and of the stars all bowing down to him; the dreams of the butler and the baker, servants of Pharaoh, and finally the two dreams of Pharaoh himself. Each of these dreams contains a message about the future, and seems to be dependent on interpretation in a way that the earlier dreams do not.

Joseph is confident about his ability to explain dreams – a confidence is quickly validated, as each of his explanations is played out in Pharaoh’s court. The butler is restored to his position and the baker is hanged. (40:21-22)

Where did Joseph get this confidence; indeed, where did he get the ability to interpret dreams? The earlier dream sequence in the beginning of our Parasha has him not as dream interpreter but as the dreamer. His brothers and father are the ones who make inferences from his dreams – he just reports them. When did he learn how to explain dreams?

And why does the butler “finally” remember Joseph and report his successful dream interpretation abilities to Pharaoh. This ability will lead not only to Joseph’s rise to greatness but ultimately to our terrible oppression and slavery in Egypt. (See BT Shabbat 10b)

Dreams can bring about powerful events. Once we can imagine, we can aspire. Or to put it another way in the words of Herzl in Altneuland “If you will it, it will be no dream”

If we dream, then we can make things happen. Through our dreams, we imagine a world we want to live in. We can imagine a better tomorrow that we can help make happen. Dreams offer dress rehearsals for the reality yet to be.

Yet precisely because dreams provide a chance to see ourselves as significant in changing our reality, they can be dangerous. Following our dream might also skew our sight of others. and perspective about what impact we may have. If we aspire too narrowly, letting our ambition be the driver in our leves so that we blot out the reality of others whose world we share, our dreams can become a deadly weapon. Our ambition and self-centredness following our own dreams can mean that we can hurt and demean others, and this is what Joseph did to his older brothers.

Joseph’s dreams may well have been prophecy. They may well also have embodied the sibling rivalry between him and his older brothers. He was, after all, ben zekunim, the child of his father’s old age, and therefore a favoured child. He was certainly the child of the favoured wife. His dreams and the way he presented them to his brothers were offensive to them, and quite rightly so.  The brothers were offended not so much by the dream itself as by the apparent cause for this dream. They clearly thought that Joseph must be thinking about his takeover of the family so much that these thoughts have entered his dreams.  Jewish tradition knew early on that not all dreams are prophecy, but that they may be the expression of what we today would describe as subconscious desires and repressed urges.

So the brothers must have thought at first that the dream was an expression of Joseph’s ambition, and they rightly would have hated him for that. But why did they keep silent at the second dream?  Maybe they already knew the tradition that teaches that a single dream may be caused by internal thoughts and musing, but if that same dream occurs twice then it is truly God’s word. We find this approach explicitly stated by Joseph when he explains Pharaoh’s doubled dream: “The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon” (Gen. 41:32)

         We too have our dreams and our visions, and often we see them as being somehow stamped with the approval of the Almighty. But we should take the time to see our dreams from a different perspective, to look at how they look through the eyes of others. For what may appear to us as a deserved reward may seem to other parties involved as conquest, exploitation, or marginalization.

         We need to strive for a God’s eye view, in which how our dreams appear to everybody can be factored into the unfolding of the dream into a more welcoming reality. Because our dreams don’t have to pan out exactly for them to come true, and we certainly have a role to play in bringing them forth.


Vayishlach: Politics before People always leads to disaster

This sidra is choc a bloc with story after story waiting to be told, and one of the most painful is that of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dina, and the retaliation taken on the rapist, Shechem, and his whole city. 

Horrific as the story is presented to us, and with so much detail, there is a great deal that is omitted. We hear nothing of the feelings of Dina herself, see nothing through her eyes, and also there is nothing told of the horror or pain of her father whose only daughter has been abducted and raped.  The only feelings reported are those of Shechem who falls in love with the girl he has violated, and possibly the outraged feeling of her furious brothers.

Shechem and his father came to discuss marriage between the rapist and the victim, proposing in effect an alliance between the tribe of Israel and the tribe of Shechem. Strangely, Jacob is not involved in the discussion; instead it is his sons who respond to the request, and they make only one demand – that if Shechem is to marry their sister, then the men of Shechem must undergo circumcision, as Dina could not marry an uncircumcised male because this would be a disgrace to THEM! Rashi tells us that wherever this verb (Chet, Reish Peh) is used, it is an insult. So the men are negotiating the fate of Dinah only in relation to the honour or dishonour they feel, and with no concern whatsoever for the woman at the centre of the negotiation. 

One could argue that this ritual of circumcision actually converted the men of Shechem, bringing them into the covenant between Israel and God – they would undergo milah – and so they would become, as the Shechemites clearly believed, one people. While the word ‘brit’ is conspicuous by its absence, the mass circumcision was clearly supposed to align the two peoples in more ways than the physical. And becoming part of the people of Israel in those days did not seem to entail much more than the ritual of milah.

 The enabling of the prince of Shechem in order to marry the daughter of the House of Jacob was clearly supposed to create an alliance of equals from which it is not hard to understand that the two peoples would integrate fully. So the Shechemites agreed to the condition that every male be circumcised, and three days later, when they were all still in great pain from the procedure, Shimon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, entered the city, killed all of its male inhabitants, and took the women and children as captives.

Jacob’s response when he found out about this is only about the practical impact it will have  – he and his household are in danger from the other tribes around in the land. Surely they will gather together to destroy him and all his people. He is troubled, but not (as we are) by the morality of what has happened. He didn’t seem to be concerned about the personal damage done to his only daughter or about what would happen to her in the future, and now he is only worried about the immediate consequences of the actions of his sons. Increasingly we see that the focus of this story is jarringly political at the expense of anything remotely personal.

The Torah in this narrative is hugely disturbing.

Where is the voice of the victims? First Dina and then the people of Shechem are silenced as the political agenda is pursued.

Where is the voice of morality? Can the response of the sons of Jacob really be seen as justification when they ask “should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?” And why is Jacob himself silent when they plan to attack a people who have made themselves vulnerable in a belief that they are trustworthy?

Where is the voice of the God of all peoples who allows the act of circumcision to become the vehicle for murder?

The meta-Torah is perfectly clear from this narrative: When we think about politics and about political gain at the expense of thinking about real living breathing people then we make the wrong decisions, we allow violence to become justifiable, we think that retribution is acceptable. When we forget the reality of others, their needs and their lives, we narrow our focus deplorably, we think only of our own situation and not that of others.

The voice of Dina calls to us from this piece. I am sure I can hear her calling out “First I was treated without respect by Shechem and then without respect by my brothers, and finally  I was silenced by the choices of the Torah narrative. And this happened because you were focussing on your own enhancement, your own security, and your own needs.”

The voices of the men of Shechem call out to us too. “We did what you said we needed to do to make a peaceful alliance through marriage, and our action was callously used against us, our lives taken from us, our women and children taken captive, our wealth appropriated”.

 What can we learn from this sorry tale spun around Dina, daughter of Leah and Jacob?  It is this. If we put politics before people, the outcome will always be violence and pain, and the gain will be as nothing compared the anger we store up against us.

In the light of the Begin-Prawer bill currently before the Knesset, it is time for us to remember the story of Dina and to remember that nothing has changed in humanity since this story was first told. Putting politics before people will result in hostility and anger, violence and pain.

Please see http://rhr.org.il/eng/2013/05/position-paper-the-time-has-come-to-truly-and-fairly-resolve-the-negev-bedouins-rights/  for more information on this.


Taf Nun Tzaddi Beit Hey : May the soul of our dear one be bound up in the bundle of life. Thoughts for Kristallnacht 2013


ImageIn an enormous, overgrown, forested cemetery in Breslau, lies the grave of a woman who died in that town in the Jewish Hospital in 1940. She had come, as far as we can ascertain, to be near her sister whose husband had roots there. Her parents were dead, her brother moved to another part of the country to be near a different border, all three siblings dislocated from their family and home and all three would die far from the comfort and security they were born to.

Lily’s sister and brother in law fled separately to freedom a few weeks before she herself died in March 1940.  The Jews were deported from Breslau in September 1941 and by 1943 only partners of mixed marriages and some children remained of a community that had numbered 20 thousand in 1933, Almost all those deported perished in the Shoah that began 75 years ago this week, with the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938.

Trude, the sister of Lily, escaped to safety in the USA, knowing that her sister was too weak and ill to live much longer, certainly too ill to journey. I can only imagine the last days they were together, the agony of leaving behind a dying sister while knowing that to stay would only mean that both of them would die; and the pain of the woman left in a city she did not know, with relative strangers who nursed her to the end, and who buried her with dignity, marking the plinth of her grave so that one day someone might come back to honour her properly. The grave is at the end of an older line, on a pathway, presumably the easiest place to dig in the bitter winter time for a struggling community. And recently we, her great nephew and neices found it, commissioned a memorial stone, and dedicated it on a cool autumn morning.

The stone reminds the world that here lies Anne Elisabeth Rothschild, Lily’s real name. It gives the dates and places of her birth and death, and the names of her brother and sister. And there follows the acronym found on many Jewish graves:        “ taf nun. tsadi, beit, heh.” (for tehi nishmato/a tzruro/a bitzrur ha’chaim – may their soul be bound in the bundle of life)

The acronym has found its way onto Jewish memorial stones almost  it seems to me as a response to the Christian Requiescat In Pace (Rest in Peace) taken from the liturgy of the Catholic Requiem Mass.

The acronym we have comes to our funeral liturgy through the memorial prayer “El Malei Rachamim”, a prayer which was composed in the Ashkenazi Jewish Rite following the time of the Crusades This prayer was written for the many martyrs who died simply because they were Jews, and is referred to specifically as being recited for the souls of those who were murdered in the Chmielnicki revolts of the 17th Century. We read it as a memorial prayer, asking for the souls of the dead to be bound into the bundle of life, an image I find particularly comforting as I imagine each soul to be one of the threads of a tapestry that is still being woven. Each thread remains important, even if it has come to an end – it keeps in place the others around it, adds to the pattern, anchors the ones to come…. It has always seemed to me a richer and more positive image than that of peaceful resting, while containing within it that desire for eternal calm and serenity alongside a sense of history and continuation.

So when looking at its source I came across the full verse in the book of Samuel, I was rather taken aback when I found Abigail saying to King David

And though someone  rise up to pursue you, and to seek your soul, yet the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Eternal your God; And the souls of your enemies shall God sling out, as from the hollow of a sling.” (1 Sam 25:29)

Such a violent image in the second half of that verse, it takes the idea of being bound up with God in a continuing tapestry of life, of having a stake in the future while rooting the past securely and turns it on its head – now the souls of the ones who seek to destroy others are slung out as from a slingshot, to fall onto barren ground and to perish alone and without hope.

Violent and bleak, and yet I can understand why the authors of that prayer took the verse for their liturgy. I can see that while only using the first half with its warm, comforting and life affirming imagery they would have known that their listeners would also recognised the unsaid words. The people who had callously murdered other human beings simply for their being Jews would also not be forgotten by God, their recompense would not have been the certainty of being part of an ongoing tradition and community as was the lot of the victims, but a dislocated lonely and abandoned future.

As I stood with my brother and sister at the grave of my great aunt Lily, looking at the acronym that I have seen so many times in my rabbinic life, it came into focus in a different way, in the way that it must have first been written.

We mourn our dead, we mourn for the way so many lives were cut short, were filled with pain and anxiety, with separation from loved ones and disparagement and fear. But we honour them and we live lives in which the threads of their existence continue to have meaning and purpose, bringing them with us into the future.  And we remember those who brought about such horrors, and who continue to disturb and disrupt the peace and goodness of the world. And we know that somehow, somewhere, God does not forget.







Vayeitzei – Filled with Awe we encounter God

bradford synagogue doorwaybradfordshul outside

ark 2

bradford shul
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. And he was overawed and said “how full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”
The phrase “ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I grew up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.
The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message-
Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.
And Secondly that awe is a necessary instinct, God is, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for. We have lost the ability to be shocked.” Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.
In Judaism, believing is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement. The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.
I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told that someone doesn’t really believe in God, the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.
When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.
Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will”