Saturday, November 23, 2013

Joseph or Judah: which way should we face? / Parshat Miketz

The recent Pew Research Study on American Jews has once again evoked fear, despair, and hand wringing in many quarters of the liberal Jewish community. Here are some of the highlights—both attitudinal and behavioral—taken directly from the Pew website:

·      The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%.
·      The number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising and is now about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population.
·      Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.
·      Two-thirds of Jews of no religion say they are not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish – either by religion or aside from religion.

The alarm bells paraphrase the immortal words uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West: “We’re shrinking! We’re shrinking!” Will liberal Judaism disappear through assimilation? Is this the end of us?

Miketz means “at the end,” referring to the end of Joseph’s two-year hitch in Pharaoh’s one-star dungeon. The notion of “the end”—be it the ominous specter the Pew Report holds forth to some, or the conclusion of Joseph’s time in prison—evokes another question about ends: What end do we have in mind when we choose how we will live our Jewish lives— in our own heads and hearts, in our homes, and out in the community?

Pondering Joseph’s scheming efforts to test his brothers, who have come down to Egypt in search of food during a famine in Eretz Yisrael: What end does Joseph have in mind? His brother Judah’s straightforward behavior and response provide a sharp contrast. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in his commentary on Parshat Miketz in Shemot HaRe’iyah, compares the brothers. Judah responds to present and pressing reality because for him, it’s all about survival; the Jewish people must live apart from other nations in order to preserve their heritage. Joseph, in contrast, focuses on a future messianic goal when, nations will walk by Your light (Isaiah 60:3). Joseph therefore concerns himself with the greater world and the spiritual elevation of all people, not only Israel.

Let’s explore this a bit more. Consider Judah, the pragmatist and isolationist: He is focused on his family and the internal discord caused by a bratty younger brother, Joseph, who sows seeds of jealousy. When his brothers propose killing Joseph, Judah convinces them to sell him to a traveling caravan of merchants and bring home his blood-soaked cloak to convince their father Jacob that Joseph is gone, once and for all (Genesis chapter 37). Judah seeks equilibrium in the family, but he does not seek goodness or righteousness, either for his family or anyone beyond the clan. His dealings with Tamar (chapter 38) are honest and forthright, but again his focus is to resolve conflict within the clan. In Parshat Miketz, confronted by Joseph’s scheme, Judah’s focus is on holding the family together. He convinces Jacob that Benjamin must be permitted to travel to Egypt to satisfy the needs of the Egyptian Prime Minister, or the family will starve (43:8-9). Once Joseph reveals himself, Judah’s focus turns to placating Joseph.

When Judah and his brothers reentered the house of Joseph, who was still there they threw themselves on the ground before him. Joseph said to them, “What is this deed that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me practices divination?” Judah replied, “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found.” (Genesis 44:14-16)

Joseph sees the world, and his place in it, differently. He lives among the Egyptians. He dedicates his life energies to seeing that they survive the famine. He settles his family in Goshen where they can live together but are not wholly isolated from the Egyptians. The Rabbis noted that Psalm 81:6 spells Joseph’s names with an additional hey: יהוסף rather than יוסף. The Sages of the Talmud (Sotah 36b) tell us that the angel Gabriel added a hey to Joseph’s name, a letter from God’s name, and midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 12:9) explains that the additional hey enables Joseph to understand each nation’s language and appreciate their spiritual potential.

In short: Judah is able to see only what is. Joseph is able to see potential. Judah focuses inward on preservation. Joseph focuses outward on possibility.

The seeming choice of where to invest our energy and effort is for many a perennial dilemma. If we do not attend to the present and effectively pass down our traditions to the next generation, how many next generations will there be? That is the fear buttressed by the results of the Pew Study. Yet if we live isolated, insular lives, how can we fulfill our purpose and have a positive impact on the world beyond our own communal borders? What difference does it make that Israel exists, if we exist only for ourselves?

Perhaps Hillel put it best, and note that he uttered these words more than 2,000 years ago long before the Pew Study was issued:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when? (BT Pirke Avot 1:14)

The tension between self-preservation motivated insularity and assimilation-risking openness is with us in every generation. It always has been. The trick—and truly it is a magical dance—is to maintain a balance between the two. If we do not preserve our traditions and identity, we cannot pass our heritage and values to our children, let alone contribute to the world. If we have no positive impact on the world outside our own communal borders, then we exist selfishly for ourselves alone. There is no magic formula, no magic wand, and there are no guarantees. But one thing is certain: We need to keep the ends—both Joseph’s and Judah’s—in mind. If we raise our children in an environment of joyous and meaningful Judaism, we can accomplish both ends. No guarantees, of course, but what in life is certain save death and taxes, as Benjamin Franklin noted. But take heart: a joyous, meaningful Jewish life will appealingly convey tradition to future generations, and facilitate our sharing the wisdom of our tradition with the world. And there’s a bonus: it will be religiously and spiritually satisfying to us. So it’s a win-win-win. Please keep Hillel’s wisdom in mind: If not now, when?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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