D’var Torah: Vayechi

I gave this talk at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR) in 2004.

D’var Torah – Parashat Vayechi 5765 – December 25, 2004

 By Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week’s Torah Portion is Vayechi, the last parashah of the Book of Breishit, the Book of Genesis.  It is the closing chapter of a book that began with the creation of the universe, took us through the drama of the first human beings, through the stories of the first Jews – Sarah and Abraham and their extended family – and finally through the exhilarating and powerful cycle of stories surrounding Joseph.  Breishit opens with the beginning of all things and closes with Joseph and his bretheren dwelling securely in the land of Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing.  The last word of the parashah is the Hebrew word for Egypt – mitzrayim.  The stage is set for the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus – and the drama of enslavement and redemption that form the next chapters of the Torah’s epic story.

You may recall the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to rise from an Egyptian jail to become the second in command of the Egyptian empire.

Yet another example of Hollywood casting white dudes to play ancient Hebrews… I mean, he’s definitely easy on the eyes, no disrespect to the actor, but ancient Hebrews and Egyptians probably didn’t look quite like that.

When we pick up this week, Joseph has reconciled with his brothers, and the entire family, including his frail, aging father, Jacob, has settled in Egypt.  Hearing that his father Jacob has fallen ill, Jospeh brings his two sons, the first born, M’nasheh, and the younger one, Ephraim, to their grandfather.  Jacob proceeds to bless his grandsons.  In a gesture that has become commonplace in this family, Jacob gives the favored blessing traditionally reserved for the first born son to the younger son instead – a moment that I could easily spend the rest of this talk examining, but that will have to wait for another time.

Later in the parashah, Jacob gives his final words to his assembled sons.  Jacob also asks his sons to bury his body in the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah were buried.  Jacob dies, and Egypt’s finest courtiers accompany the funeral caravan all the way to the Land of Canaan, where Jacob’s sons bury him at Machpela.  After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers go through one more moment of anxiety about their having sold Joseph into slavery.  They become worried that, with their father Jacob no longer alive, Joseph may rediscover his anger at his brothers for their terrible treatment of him.  The brothers reconfirm their reconciliation, and the parashah concludes with Joseph’s last remarks to his brothers.

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D’var Torah – Parashat Noach

This was a d’var I wrote for the organization currently known as T’ruah, but at the time as Rabbis for Human Rights – North America.

There’s an oft-quoted midrash that tells a simple but powerful tale. A group of travelers are in a boat upon the open waters, when one of them suddenly takes out a hand-drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. Astonished, the others turn to him and say, “What are you doing?” He responds by saying, “What concern is it of yours? I’m drilling under my own seat!” The others then spell out the obvious truth that he is unable to perceive – that his actions affect them all, and that they are all in the same boat.[1]

As I considered the famous story of Noah and the Great Flood in this week’s parashah, I wondered: what if the boat this misguided traveler was aboard had been Noah’s ark? If we transplant the boat midrash to Noah’s ark, then the man drilling a hole under his own seat becomes someone who just might cause the entire living world to perish.

The story of Noah’s ark and the boat midrash both teach about interdependence and shared destiny. The boat midrash particularly reminds us that there are certain destructive actions that imperil all of us even if just one of us is allowed to carry them out. In addition, it teaches that we are all responsible for making sure that everyone in the community (aboard the boat) adheres to certain basic rules so that we don’t all drown. Human rights advocates can draw on both of these stories to illustrate some of our core beliefs: that we human beings are the guarantors of each other’s basic rights, and that our universal human rights only exist when we take them on as universal human responsibilities.

Too often, here in the U.S., our leaders have decided to set human rights aside in this or that case for the sake of some other highly desired political, military, or economic outcome. We live in a moment when some politicians openly brag about their support for casting aside human rights in our treatment of prisoners. And even government leaders who support human rights choose to make exceptions.

In addition, our elected officials frequently turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by other nations so that our industries can continue to do brisk business and our consumers continue to get cheap products. When political leaders do this, their sense of urgency is deeply misplaced. Often they’ll justify these decisions by saying that the consistent application of a commitment to human rights is an ideal to be achieved incrementally, whereas economic or short term political concerns are supposedly urgent. When we permit our elected officials to do this, we as Americans choose to let somebody else drill a hole under their seat in the boat. We usually rationalize that we can’t control what other’s do, or that sometime later we’ll prioritize urging them to stop.

The ancient rabbis taught that a person who has the capacity to object to the harmful actions of others and does not bears some of the responsibility for the harm that’s done.[2] This is not an easy mitzvah to uphold – not in the small worlds of our families and workplaces, nor in the larger world of governments and nations. But it’s an essential mitzvah for humanity to practice if we are ever to rise above the willingness to violate human rights or stand idly by while others do so. For human rights to become deeply rooted worldwide, they need to be upheld in all times and places.

(Note: the video above is of an early ’70s pop song called “Noah,” sung by Matti Caspi. If you want an English translation visit here.) 

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Abraham, Sarah, and the Arizona Immigration Law of 2010

Op-ed first appeared in The Oregonian on May 3, 2010 – see it here

In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, we read about Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the Promised Land. Shortly after they arrive, they encounter famine and head to Egypt in search of food. Foreigners without family or clan to protect them, they are afraid. Abraham asks Sarah to pretend to be his sister in the hope that this will help them avoid trouble — an act of deceit that made sense in the context of their times. The gamble works out badly. Pharaoh’s courtiers notice Sarah’s beauty, and the king summons her to his harem. Only divine intervention lets Sarah escape without having to sleep with the king.

It’s a pitiable story. Abraham and Sarah lie and humiliate themselves to try to survive in a foreign nation they have not received permission to enter. It must have been agonizing. It’s a story of strangers in a strange land, without protection, without connections and without a right to go about their business unmolested. It’s an illegal immigrant’s story.

Are things so different for America’s illegal, undocumented immigrants? And is the new Arizona law, which goes so far as to allow race and language to be a factor in police spot-checking peoples’ identity papers, a response that models the best of our society’s values?

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Esau’s Kiss – D’var Torah

D’var Torah – Dorshei Tzedek, West Newton, MA – Dec 6, 2014

Parashat Vayishlach – “Esau’s Kiss”

Rabbi Maurice Harris

We’ve been reading in our recent parashahs the saga of the life of Jacob. I’m sure folks here are pretty familiar with it, but it never hurts to start with a quick plot summary. I hope you won’t mind if I quickly recap what’s happened prior to and including this week’s portion. Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, had married a woman named Rebecca, and Rebecca became pregnant with twin boys who struggled physically with each other in her womb. In fact they struggled so much that Rebecca at one point cried out in anguish and asked what the point of her existence was. Finally, she gave birth to the two brothers. Esau, the first born by just seconds, had reddish features and grew to be a strapping, muscular, and quite hairy hunter. Jacob, who the text tells us emerged from the birth canal grabbing on to Esau’s heel, is of slighter stature and, according to later rabbinic midrash, he is bookish and studious.

The rabbis who gave us midrash would sometimes retroject images of themselves back onto the heroes of the Bible, such as picturing Jacob as a skinny and introverted Torah scholar. In fact, we even have examples of midrash that depict God studying the Torah and weighing the merits of different rabbis’ interpretations of each word! I guess we tend to see what we’re looking for much of the time – let’s hold on to that thought.

Anyway, getting back to the twins, Esau and Jacob. As you may remember, they end up in bitter conflict over issues of inheritance, first-born status, and pride. Families can just be awful, right? We know from the text that it turns out Rebecca and Isaac don’t see their kids in the same way. Rebecca sees Jacob as destined to carry on God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac, whereas Isaac tends to favor Esau, who is good with a bow and provides delicious meals of venison. The Torah uses sight as an important symbol in this story, hinting that Isaac can’t see the big picture by telling us that he has become blind in his later years.

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