When No One Is Around – Parshat Shemot 5783

It has been said that the test of true character is how you behave when no one is around or watching you. I’m not talking about picking your nose in the car or looking around before adjusting your underwear. Do you pick up lost items in the street and try to find their owner? If you see a piece of trash on the beach, do you throw it away? Throughout the Torah we see examples of individuals making choices, believing no one will see them. The second book of the Torah begins with one such story. 

This week’s parshah serves as the turning point between the leadership of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to that of Moshe. Shemot leads us quickly through the change in leadership in Egypt as a new Pharaoh, who isn’t so keen on the Israelites, decrees that all males born should be put to death. Thankfully the midwives ignore this decree, and Moshe is kept alive. As an adopted Egyptian, Moshe joins the palace, but later learns he’s an Israelite. He flees out of fear for his life, marries a Midianite woman, and starts his own family.

As Moshe is enlightened to the injustice around him, he has a decision to make. Does he act? Does he risk his position? When Moshe sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he “sees no one is around” and then chooses to act. Why does he look over his shoulder? Could it be because he knows he’s about to do something that would forever change the way he’s seen by Egyptians? Is it because he thinks he can get away with it? Or, perhaps because he’s hoping someone else will step up, and he only acts when he knows he’s the only one who could step in?

One of my favorite teachings in Pirkei Avot is from Hillel: “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” I like to believe that Moshe stood up because if he didn’t, no one else would. It’s important to know that each of us has a voice, even if there’s not a chorus of other voices joining in.

Close to You – Parshat Vayechi 5783

My mom is in town visiting this week, and spending time together now reminds me of that feeling when I saw her for the first time after the pandemic had kept us apart for so long. Of course I missed her hugs, her caring presence, and the face-to-face conversations, but I didn’t realize just how much I missed her until I had to wait the 45 minutes it took Duncan to drive her home from PDX. That wait was excruciating, and that first hug was like something I had never experienced before.

There was a sense of familiarity with the feeling of sending my oldest to Camp Solomon Schechter for six days. I knew what missing a parent felt like, but I had no idea what it felt like to be the parent waiting to be reunited with my child. And similarly, it was the 90-minute drive home, while I waited patiently for her arrival, that was the hardest part of her time away. The human condition is set to miss and yearn for loved ones, and we are acutely aware of this because we feel it so deeply.

This week we read Parshat Vayechi, the last in the book of Genesis. The text begins with the request of Jacob to not be buried in Egypt, and continues with Jacob blessing each of his sons in his final hours. This text ends with Joseph making the request of his kin to bury him back in Israel when they finally leave Egypt.

Throughout the last number of Torah portions, we’ve seen the reactions as family members reunite after time apart: Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and then more intimately Jacob and his son Joseph. Each one is described with intense emotion and connection. In the past, I don’t think I truly understood the emotional charge of a long absence of physical presence. It seems like I’ve lived a lifetime since my father and grandparents passed away, and I miss them immensely, but I know they’ll never be back for a hug. 

In Parshat Vayechi, as we see Joseph “fling himself upon his father, weep and kiss him” when he dies, we are reminded of the emotional intensity in the space between physical presence and physical separation. The longing I felt in 2020 to hug my family, and the week of longing for my own child, gave me new perspective on how much that closeness really means.

In the Still of the Night – Parshat Vayigash 5783

Recently I’ve become somewhat of a restless sleeper. Falling asleep is not my problem, though. I’m pretty skilled at that part. It’s staying asleep that’s a struggle for me, especially following a particularly deep sleep early on in the night. Usually, by about 3:00 a.m. my mind starts to race, and my sleep goes from fluid to restless. It’s as if my brain thinks the best time to have an epiphany or take stock of my life is sometime in the wee hours, when all I really want to do is sleep. It has gotten to the point where I keep paper next to the bed so I can write down everything that comes out, not necessarily to save my thoughts, but to help them escape my brain so I can catch a few more hours of sleep.

But why do these deep thoughts strike when I’m not able to fully process them? Of course I don’t remember or understand half of what I write down in my sleepy haze, but I do know that for some people, the best ideas come at odd times, like in the shower, during a commute, or, like me, at 3:00 a.m. Perhaps it’s something about the calm darkness of night that offers a nice blank canvas for thoughts. This is often a place where epiphanies or trains of thought can occur. And apparently, our forefather Jacob and I have this in common.

Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, reminds us of the different ways in which we see behavioral changes. In the parshah, Joseph’s brother Yehudah (Judah) tries to redeem himself by asking to be imprisoned instead of Benjamin, and Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and heroically invites the whole family to Egypt to save them from starvation in Israel. In addition, Joseph and his father Jacob are reunited, and Joseph is able to finally reveal his newfound position of power.

The entirety of Jacob’s story is lifted through the power of dreams. From the angels on the ladder when he runs away from home, to the messenger he wrestles, to even raising a son who is a dreamer himself, Jacob is the only forefather to whom God only speaks through dreams.

This week’s parshah is no different. Jacob was nervous about the trip to Egypt, including what it would be like to travel and to see his beloved Joseph once more. In a restless sleep, God reassures Jacob that it will all be fine. Why is it only under the cover of night when God speaks to Jacob? It could be because that’s when we let our guard down. That’s when we’re vulnerable enough to show our true intentions or spirit. As we end another secular year, may we take this lesson of vulnerability and openness into our waking lives too, so that we’re better able to welcome our truest selves.

A Deeper Connection – Parshat Miketz 5783

Do you know those moments when you can just feel a certain connection with someone without even trying? Sometimes a mutual understanding or recognition doesn’t need explaining. Maybe your pupils dilate a little. The conversation has more excitement to it. You feel at ease, as if there’s a strong, but effortless force pulling you together. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but there’s no denying the effect on your body and soul.

We actually see this play out several times in our Torah, a connection between people based on mutual respect and understanding. Our parshah this week, Miketz, brings us back into the story of Joseph. We pick up in part two of the life and trying times of Joseph. Our hero has had a few setbacks, among them being sold into slavery by his brothers and thrown into jail. However, Joseph gets his big break when Pharaoh has a startling set of dreams. When none of Pharaoh’s resident magicians are able to interpret his visions, Pharaoh calls on Joseph, and with God’s help, Joseph translates the dreams as a sign of an approaching period of fertility followed by a period of famine. Joseph presents Pharaoh with a game plan and becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man in preparation for these times that will certainly be difficult not only for Egypt but also for neighboring lands. 

When Joseph and his brothers later reconnect, on the surface the recognition is presented as one-sided. Joesph knows that he is looking at his own brothers, but apparently, they do not recognize him. Except, maybe somewhere deep inside, they do. The brothers say, “We are all of us, sons of the same man.” The straightforward interpretation is that they are speaking about themselves, the brothers who have come down to ask for food, with no recognition of Joseph yet. However, another translation of the Hebrew could read, “You and we have the same father.” The ambiguity leaves room to ask: did they know without knowing? Did their hair stand on edge suddenly when seeing their brother, but their minds told them it couldn’t be? 

When Joseph recognizes his brothers, he has an ulterior motive for not quite identifying himself yet. The brothers, however, seem to have felt something – a kinship that let them continue the conversation instead of being intimidated and turning away. 

Just because we as humans have the power of rational thought doesn’t mean we should abandon our instincts. Sometimes it’s those deeply rooted feelings that provide us with the direction we need in the moment. 

The Age of Deception – Parshat Vayeshev 5783

Last year we reached perhaps one of my least favorite parenting milestones. It’s the one where your child moves beyond the “I tricked you” phase, full of silliness and laughter, and into the more deceptive phase, where it’s much harder to tell if they’re telling the truth. And as a bonus challenge for us, one of our children has a much better poker face than the other one.

These little deceits aren’t dangerous, and we sort of knew to expect this next phase, but it’s still troubling in its own way, and it led me to wonder why deception is so common into adulthood. From embellishing a resume to fake social media profiles, deception is everywhere in one form or another. Why do we misrepresent ourselves? Why do we purposefully mislead? 

Falsities go back well before the age of modern convenience. In particular, there are at least three acts of deception in this week’s Torah portion alone. Parshat Vayeshev is in the thick of the Joseph story, and Joseph has two dreams that he shares with his brothers, both of which make them angry. The brothers decide to sell Joseph into slavery, and their father Jacob mourns the loss of his favorite son. After this, the story takes a turn to focus on Joseph’s brother Judah and the betrayal of Tamar before turning back to Joseph’s life in Egypt, which ultimately lands him in jail.

In fact, there’s quite a bit of lying in the Torah. It’s fascinating that for a tradition that holds honesty in such high regard (the prohibition against false witness is in the Ten Commandments) we can point to so many examples of deceit. Even God lied to Abraham in reporting how Sarah reacted when the angels told her she was going to have a baby in her old age.

The difference is the purpose of the lie. What makes the various instances of deception we see in this week’s portion wrong is their intent to cause harm, rather than their intent to create peace. Our rabbinic sages came up with a principle for white lies told for the sake of peace: mutar le-shanot mipnei ha-shalom. Telling untruths (or literally “changing the facts”) is permitted for the sake of peace. We will even see the difference clearly in another lie Joseph’s brothers tell later in Genesis after Jacob’s death, but it’s a lie in an effort to maintain shalom bayit.

What, then, is at the heart of a deception that is meant to cause harm or help one party get ahead? I suggest it’s an act of desperation, however small, that somehow appeases a sense of belonging that has been lost or unfulfilled. When we feel we’ve been wronged or excluded or treated unfairly, it’s easy to grasp at anything, including a lie. If this is truly the case, then the way to prevent deception is not through preaching honesty, but by preaching justice.