The Name Game – Parshat Miketz 5775

name-badgesSouthern manners are a real thing.  Having lived the last four years in Texas, I heard and became accustomed to titles for everyone.  It was Mr. X or Ms. Y, Mrs. A or Dr. B.  We do our best to impart habits like this to Shiri and have taught her since she was tiny that everyone has a title and deserves to use that title.  But as a rabbi, I know that sometimes our titles can become our names, and a bit of individual identity is lost.  People often resort to calling me “Rabbi” instead of “Rabbi Posen” or “Rabbi Eve.”  While this works in theory, there are many times when I’m not the only rabbi around, and it can be difficult to determine who’s being beckoned.  “Rabbi” without a qualifier like first or last name is like calling out “Mom” or “Dad” in a crowded room; a dozen parents are likely to turn around.  Our titles and names are the way in which we can be easily identified.  They are the personalized method of keeping track of the people we meet and know.

The Torah takes names seriously as well.  Abraham was originally Avram, and Sarah was Sarai until they both had an encounter with God that changed their lives.  Like a bride and groom becoming Mr. and Mrs. or having the title rabbi or doctor bestowed upon you when you earn your degree and start a career, names tell us something about where we are in the world and who we are as people.

Parshat Miketz, the portion of Torah we read this week, again reminds us of the story behind each name we carry and the power it holds.  The parshah is the turning point in the Joseph saga.  Joseph solves Pharaoh’s dreams and becomes a great leader in Egypt.  He then marries, has two sons named Ephraim and Menashe, and the land endures the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine as foreseen.  We know how the story concludes, with Joseph’s brothers coming to Egypt in search of food, and Joseph recognizing them without them knowing who he is.  What we don’t talk about as much is the period of time as Joseph works his way up in Egyptian society to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man.

During this time Joseph is given a new name by Pharaoh.  In chapter 41 the following interaction occurs: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.’ Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him a wife…”  This new Egyptian name means “God speaks; he lives,” or “creator/sustainer of life.”  Clearly Pharaoh believes that Joseph, a Hebrew name, is not befitting of someone with such power and honor in society.

We’ve seen previous name changes in the Torah, but this is the first instance in Jewish tradition of someone having two names simultaneously – one Hebrew, for religious purposes, and the other secular, representing what Joseph does for the greater society.

We continue a similar tradition today; Jewish children typically receive a Hebrew name and an English name.  The idea is not that we’re two different people, in the same way that Rabbi Posen is not a separate person from Eve.  Rather, the two names represent different parts of who we are to ourselves and to the world.  I am a mother, wife, daughter, sister, and a rabbi, and all of these 24/7.

As we near the closing of the secular year, may we remember that our Jewish and secular lives are not exclusive of each other.  They are intimately woven together, and we rely on both to be full and complete.

Hunger Games – Parshat Miketz/Shabbat Hanukah 5773

When I first started working at Levine, I was warned of the Levine 10, the number of pounds that can easily be put on working in the school.  The phenomenon makes a lot of sense when you consider the temptations.  Our children bake nearly every day in the ECC, and the smells are amazing.  We have snacks or leftovers to graze on in the teachers’ lounge, and birthday parties always seem to end with a piece of cake on my desk.  I’m certainly not lacking for food.  The warning of the Levine 10 is especially applicable at this time of year when the delicious smell of frying latkes makes its way through the halls, and several different types of latkes end up on my desk every day.  Rest assured the rabbi will never go home hungry.
The excess of foods that we see at this time of year with the tempting jelly filled sufganiyot and the crispy latkes comes as we read parshat Miketz, a portion of the Torah all about the lack of food in Egypt.  The parshah begins with Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and continues with Joseph getting married, having children, living out the vision of Pharaoh’s dreams, his brothers coming to Egypt to get food, and the test Joseph administers to his brothers to see if they have changed. 
Pharaoh dreams, or perhaps has a nightmare, about food.  First, seven healthy cows are eaten by seven emaciated cows; then seven thin ears of grain eat up seven healthy ears of grain.  Joseph is called to interpret these visions and ultimately shares that the dreams represent seven years of good harvest and the abundance to come, followed by seven years of famine.  But, Joseph doesn’t stop there.  Joseph continues to instruct Pharaoh on how to store the food and abundance now so that there will be food later.  Joseph shares great vision in preparing for the worst, and ultimately saves the society in which he lives.
Too many people in our own community aren’t fortunate to have their own food reserves stored for when times are tough.  Even the best planners can face unforeseen circumstances that lead to hunger and starvation.  As we’ve partnered with MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger this year, we have been discussing ways in which we can help alleviate some of the hunger locally. 
Because we are aware of where resources are in abundance and where they are in short supply, we have an obligation to be like Joseph.  We can choose to share what we know about hunger in our world and help ensure that the years of plenty that many of us live in today continue for us and those around us.  Perhaps parshat Miketz teaches us that another miracle of Hanukah might be the moment when we not only identify a problem in our world, but take steps towards creating a sustainable solution.  
THIS TOO IS TORAH: One of the learning resources MAZON uses as a teaching tool is a set of eight myths and realities about hunger. As you celebrate each night of Hanukah, enjoying the sights, smells, and tastes, take a minute each night to examine one of these myths. Is it something you knew? Is it something you can help do something about?
MYTH
REALITY
Hunger exists because there is not enough food
Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world’s food supply. Enough wheat, rice, and other grains are produced globally to provide every human being with 3,500 calories a day – that’s 75% more calories per person than are recommended in the USDA’s Nutritional Guidelines. Hunger persists in this country not because of a lack of food, but an absence of political will to solve the problem.
It’s better for local charities to feed people, not the government.
Charitable organizations – including MAZON’s nationwide partners on the front lines –were not designed to feed their entire community. Instead, these food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens were created to solve what were thought to be temporary or emergency situations, not systemic problems. Most are open only a few days a week, and for a few hours of each day. They are largely volunteer run, often out of basements or closets at their local houses of worship, and they primarily distribute food that has been donated from within their communities. They simply could never have the capacity to feed the number of people who need help.
Government programs enable lazy people to live well on society’s dime.
Receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) hardly enables anyone to live well. The average benefit equates to roughly $1.40 per person per meal. And in most cases, the money runs out before the month ends – typically after only three weeks – forcing families to rely on charity to eat. Government programs like SNAP are designed to ensure that people receive the sustenance they need so they can contribute back to society and get off these programs. How productive could we expect anyone to be if they haven’t eaten for days or weeks or longer?
Hunger is only a big city problem
When many people think about where people might be going hungry, they often envision a city where the disparity between those who have and those who don’t is blatantly evident. Certainly food insecurity exists in those cities, but every day, we at MAZON hear about the growing number of challenges that afflict suburban, rural, and remote areas of the country. And alleviating hunger in these areas can be much harder to do than in the cities, because those communities often have fewer opportunities to obtain needed resources and lack a sufficient transportation infrastructure to support food distribution.
You can’t be overweight and be food insecure.
Many people believe that hungry people always look thin and emaciated. However, a growing body of research shows a startling correlation between obesity and hunger. The simple fact is this: people living in poverty cannot afford enough food, and often, what little food they can afford is unhealthy and processed, with low nutritional value. They also tend to have far more limited access to healthy and affordable foods in their communities, and reduced opportunities for physical activity. It is the convergence of all these factors that has exacerbated the obesity epidemic among those who are, in fact, hungry.
People on SNAP just need to get a job
As the nation’s unemployment rate hovers at 9%, SNAP provides a vital lifeline so that people and their families can eat while they search for work. In fact, this important and effective program is designed to expand and contract in relation to unemployment – in other words, for caseloads to rise as unemployment rises and fall as the economy recovers. 40% of households receiving SNAP benefits have at least one working person.
SNAP is rife with waste, fraud and abuse
SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program. States must conduct regular “quality control” reviews of SNAP case files to ensure that benefits are accurately distributed. And ongoing improvements to regulate the program have kept fraud and abuse to a historic low of less than 2%. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients follow the rules because they desperately need help ensuring their family has food to eat.
 “Hunger can be a positive motivator”
– Rep. Cynthia Davis (R-MO)
There is no doubt that hungry people would rather not be hungry and may try to do everything they can to avoid it in the future. But that same hunger also hinders their ability to take such action. Being hungry can be all-consuming and distracting, which in turn decreases productivity in working adults, and negatively impacts unemployed people’s ability to get jobs. And for children, chronic hunger has devastating effects, impacting their physical development, and making it nearly impossible to learn. In both the short and long term, having a substantial population of hungry people – be they adults or children – impedes the country’s economic prosperity for everyone.