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How do you reconcile difficult passages in Torah with your concepts of moral behavior?
What do you think about creating physical spaces to protect those who have committed some awful wrong (like manslaughter)? What should those spaces be like? What would a contemporary city of refuge look like?
Here we are already, at the last chapters of the book of Bemidbar/In the Wilderness/Numbers. Wow… that was a quick trip! It took the Israelites 40 years of wandering and took us just 10 Sabbaths of reading about their journey. Remember back in May when we started this desert trek?
Back then I mentioned that the opening chapters of Bemidbar contain several recurring themes, and that one of them is the theme of traveling and zig-zagging. We wander between texts that read like a triptych or map and texts that have a story or narrative to offer. In these final chapters we have a lot of GPS-like information (see Numbers 33:5-37 — and more!). All the place names! All of the camping sites! Sounds like an extended article in the New York Times Sunday Travel section.
Please note that this Shabbat we read a double portion: Mattot and Masei. The G-dcast for Mattot is done rap-style and worth your time to find out more about the difficulties in dividing up the Land of Canaan according to what each tribe desired.
When we get to chapter 34, we read about the boundaries of the map of the Land of Canaan which the Israelites are about to inherit.
Our storyteller this week focuses on how the Land is going to be divided up among the tribes; she paints a picture of a master plan for a utopian society based on the way land is to be used. She begins with the idea that every tribe will have its own specified section, except for the tribe of Levi — and they will receive their allotment as donations from the other tribes. This is to be in exchange for what the Levites will provide to the entire Israelite nation — leadership and role modeling — demonstrating good ethics, wisdom, teaching, and guidance.
While the idea of dividing up the land and giving the Levites their own cities is central to these last chapters of this 4th book of the Torah, there are a number of other important, even essential ideas that I want to highlight.
The idea of “cities of refuge.” You can read about them in chapter 35, verse 6 and verses 9-13. Basically there are designated places where those who have killed someone unintentionally (perhaps we would call this manslaughter) are offered a safe place, protected from those presumably seeking retribution, such as the kinsmen of the victim. The cities of refuge could be used by both Israelites and resident aliens who lived in the land. The Torah goes on to enumerate what circumstances would qualify to label a killing “unintentional,” or who merits the label “manslayer” instead of “murderer,” therefore deserving of protection in a city of refuge. Fascinating distinctions are being made here about the consequences of taking someone’s life. The rabbis of the Talmud were also fascinated by these distinctions, and constructed pages and pages of discussion on these verses. For example, chapter 35 verse 30: “If anyone kills a person, the manslayer may only be executed on the evidence of witnesses; the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death.”
From this, the rabbis riffed on how many witnesses (at least 2), who must be deposed separately (so as not to be influenced by the testimony of each other), and who must also be eye-witnesses to the event in question. Also, the rabbis concluded that the witnesses needed to have heard the killer being told (verbally) about the laws concerning murder, so that he would be fully aware of the consequences of his actions. There are literally dozens of exceptions in a capital case, so much so that by the time of the Talmud, laws about the cities of refuge are supplanted and made even more stringent, opposing simple and ancient judicially-imposed laws of retribution, such as: you kill someone, we will put you to death…. no extenuating circumstances count.
Expropriation of land belonging to others. This one is difficult for many of us to accept. When I read chapter 33 verses 50-56, I start to cringe. Why? Well, it seems that God is commanding the Israelites to utterly wipe out the indigenous people of the land that they are about to enter — the Land of Milk and Honey, the Land of Canaan, the Land of Israel, promised way back when to Abraham and Sarah. “You shall dispossess all the inhabitants…you shall destroy all their figured objects and molten images; you shall demolish all their cult places….”
For many, this exhortation sounds completely unethical and makes us wonder how the forward-thinking idea behind the cities of refuge (commanded by a God who tells us to always pursue justice) can stand side by side with a commandment to dispossess another people from the land on which they live. Does the success of one nation depend on the subjugation of another? What does it mean to favor one people with a “promised” land when others will need to be driven out of their homes, or worse? How are we to understand this?
Last week, we left our hero, Yosef/Joseph, in a heated conversational exchange with one of his brothers, Yehuda/Judah, who speaks on behalf of all of the brothers and pleads with Yosef not to keep the youngest brother, Binyamin/Benjamin, as a slave. We were literally stopped in our tracks in the middle of the conversation!
Now we take up the story in the middle of that conversation, with Yehuda’s heartfelt and poignant speech to save his youngest brother. Va-yigash (and he [Yehuda] approached) is the name of this parasha; in it we hear the longest and most sophisticated speech in all of the book of Genesis.
This long discourse takes 17 verses. Yehuda recounts much of the recent history of what has transpired with the brothers, adding that their elderly father, Yakov, would surely die from grief if this son, Binyamin, is enslaved in Egypt. The atmosphere couldn’t be more tension-filled. Everyone seems to be holding his breath to see what will happen next. Yehuda goes on to offer himself in place of Binyamin. He says all of this to the grand Egyptian vizier, not knowing that it’s Yosef, his brother. He ends his plea by asking Yosef to please take him instead, “for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.” And then he is silent.
You could hear a pin drop — the room is absolutely still. Breaking the silence, Yosef yells out and demands that the court to be emptied; the only ones who are allowed to stay are these men from Canaan. When the room is emptied, Yosef breaks down in loud sobs, crying, as he makes his true identity known to the brothers who once threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery. He says, “I am Yosef…. Is my father still well?” His brothers are speechless and cannot believe that this guy, who looks and acts so Egyptian and has so much power, is actually their little brother, the dreamer and braggart, now completely grown up and chief advisor to the Pharaoh.
There is a tearful scene of reconciliation as Yosef tells them that he has forgiven them for their wrongdoing so many years before. He now believes that it was God’s will that he ended up in Egypt so he could devise a plan to save that country and his own clan from the severe famine that they are all experiencing. Wow!! He instructs them to return home and bring their father and the entire tribe of Israelites down to Egypt so he can take care of them properly. Everyone is hugging everyone else and crying, the text tells us. I think they were probably laughing as well, from relief, from joy, from a break in the tension.
News reaches the Pharaoh who bestows gifts to Yosef’s family, “the best of the land of Egypt.” All of Yakov’s sons get ready to return home, laden with wagons bearing several changes of clothing, silver, and provisions like bread, grain, and other food for the journey to Canaan. Yosef tells his brothers, “don’t be quarrelsome with each other on the way back.” Why do you think he gives this particular piece of advice? What mood do you think the brothers were in that would cause them to get into fights?
The caravan leaves Egypt and after days, they reach Canaan. There are several midrashim (rabbinic interpretations to fill in the story) about how the brothers will tell their father Yakov that his beloved son Yosef, to whom he gave the coat of many colors, is still alive. They don’t want him to be shocked and have a heart-attack (God forbid), so how will they handle the news? The rabbis of the Talmud come up with a great little story that acts as a gloss to Genesis 45: 26-27. They remember that Yosef warned them not to alarm their aged father. So the brothers summoned Serach, the daughter of Asher, and asked her to sit before Yakov and play for him on the lyre; in this gentle, soothing manner she could reveal to her old grandfather that his favorite son was still alive, down in Egypt. Serach played the lyre well and sang gently: “Yosef my uncle did not die, he lives and rules all the land of Egypt.”
Serach bat (daughter) of Asher acquires a rich life in the midrash/rabbinic stories. She is actually named in the Torah, in the genealogy of this parasha, Genesis 46:17. And because she is the only girl listed by name, the rabbis embellished this tiny mention with fabulous stories about her: how she lives for hundreds of years; how she identifies Moshe/Moses as the liberator; and how, when the Children of Israel finally leave Egypt 400 years later, she alone knows exactly where Yosef’s bones are buried in the Nile River, and she shows Moshe so that Yosef’s bones can be carried out of Egypt, as per his instructions…. But wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves here. For more on Serach bat Asher, look at this resource from MyJewishLearning.
The rest of the parasha deals with the migration of the Children of Israel into Egypt and how they become a protected people among the Egyptians, how they are given the choicest geographical areas in Egypt by the Pharaoh, and how they prospered. We also get to read how Yosef manages the famine by establishing a system of serfdom among the population (not such a pretty solution, but the Egyptians were grateful nonetheless).
Next week, we will come to the end of the book of Genesis, the first of the 5 books of Moses. Stay tuned!
How do you feel about the system Yosef devises to enable all to have food (Genesis 47: 23-26)? Do you think the ends justify the means?
What do you think about the way Yosef reveals himself to his brothers? Why did he take so long to tell them the truth about who he was? Did Yehuda’s speech have anything to do with Yosef’s finally breaking down?
Have you ever been moved by a powerful speech, spoken from the heart? When? What moved you?