Netivoteha Shalom on Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

Does the Torah's attitude towards the ger provide guidance for Israel's treatment of the African asylum seekers/refugees, and if not, are there more applicable biblical precedents? [I promised last week that I'd try to come up with something on this topic, and I suspect that during the reading of the second half of Sh'mot and Vayikra, others will be also be inclined to go beyond temple and cult to more topical issues]

Both the African asylum seekers and the biblical ger fit (or better, define) the category of The Other; therefore, the humanitarian concern for the latter in positive as well as negative terms (loving them, feeding them, identifying our own roots in their predicament, and not oppressing them) should be learned for the former. But it's not as simple as all that: just as the thrust of th e biblical text is on God's providence over the Israelites, so, too, is the raison d'etre of the state of Israel the creation and maintenance of a state for Jews (rather than “a Jewish state”, a phrase that means many things to many people). These ideologies build in a tendency towards marginalizing the Other.

Into which of the two categories of non-Israelite Other that are found in the Torah, the ger and the nochri, would the African asylum seekers fit? The ger is a disadvantaged resident who feeds her/himself by picking up the gleanings in the field – which means s/he doesn't raise his/her own crops, presumably because s/he is landless. Were Israel to decide to grant permanent residence to these Africans, they would fit the criteria of the biblical ger, but as long as we're only dealing with temporary residence, the category of nochri, the transient non-resident, would seem to be more applicable. Yet the nochri does not appear in situations of distress or in need of social welfare, but rather as a person of means who could buy a slave (as could the ger toshav in Leviticus 25) ; when s/he takes out a loan, perhaps it is for business purposes, not for food, and therefore can be charged interest.

As Avi Novis Deutsch points out (, the predicament of the African asylum seekers can be compared to the case of the runaway slave in Deut 23: 16-17. The Torah gives priority to the slave's desire for freedom over its concern over the financial loss of the slave owner, and the community must provide support for the runaway slave, even though this means swelling the numbers of those in need of social welfare; the parallels to the case of the African asylum seekers, and how Israeli society should react couldn't be clearer.

While the articulation of the legal obligation towards refugees in the Torah is limited to this case, the Israelite consciousness is replete with tales and memories of flight and refuge. Natural and man-made disasters often forced our ancestors to seek refuge in foreign lands (e.g., Abraham, to Egypt; Isaac, to the land of the Philistines; Jacob and his sons, to Egypt), where divine Providence sometimes looked after them (as in those patriarchal stories) and sometimes continued to torment them (as promised in the tochekhot of Lev. 26 and Deut. 28; Elimelech, Naomi and Ruth didn't seem to do too well in Moab, and David laments that Saul's pursuit forced him away from God's nahalah to a place where he had no choice but to worship other gods).

Israel didn't receive much of a welcome when seeking refuge in all these cases; even when it started out well – Joseph looking after his brothers in Goshen – it ended up in slavery. The Israelite memory of precarious refuge becomes the predominant theme song of Jewish history, one which the modern State of Israel was meant to solve...for Jews. And for non-Jews...not even temporarily?

I'd like to close by sharing the words of Jonathan Sacks (Covenant and Conversation Exodus pp 185-6), which read like a commentary on Lev. 25:23b, כי גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי in the spirit of Lionel Blue and Jonathan Magonet's rendering of שלא עשני נוכרי in their mahzor – something to the effect of "for not making me estranged from myself”:

To be a Jew is to be a stranger. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that is why Abraham was commanded to leave his land, home and father's house; why, long before Joseph was born, Abraham was already told that his descendants would be strangers in a land not their own; why Moses had to suffer personal exile before assuming the leadership of the people; why the Israelites underwent persecution before inheriting their own land; and why the Torah is so insistent that this experience - the retelling of the story on Passover, along with the never-forgotten taste of the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery – should become a permanent part of their collective memory . . .

The Torah asks why should you not hate the stranger? Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world's archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are whatever they are, and whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only once reply strong enough to answer the question Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.

Shabbat shalom,


Netivoteha Shalom on Mishpatim (and Yitro): evening the score

אם כסף תלוה את עמי את העני עמך: עמי ונכרי, עמי קודם. עני ועשיר, עני קודם. ענייך ועניי עירך, ענייך קודמין. עניי עירך ועניי עיר אחרת, עניי עירך קודמין
The second most harmful quote from rabbinic sources that's on everyone's lips in Israel is the final phrase of the braita from BM  71a: עניי עירך קודמין (the first, of course, is בא להרגך השכם להרגו), which opens the door to discrimination against the Other. But this verse actually commands preferential treatment to the Israelite only vis a vis the נוכרי, the transient foreigner*, not the indigenous גר.
The preceding paragraph deals with the גר in vivid manner: if you oppress the גר and he cries out to Me, I will hear his cry and turn your wives into widows and your children into orphans [almost all the translations read not אותו, יצעק, צעקתו but rather אותם, יצעקו, צעקתם along with the versions, but that destroys the symmetry of the paragraph]
There's much social injustice in this week's parashah (e.g., slaves, women as property, etc.) with capital punishment handed out right and left (which the Oral tradition works hard to modify); the aforementioned warning, that God will punish oppression against the weakest elements in society, somewhat evens out the score, in a way similar to the uneasy balance prophesized between Jacob and Esau: the latter is doomed to subservience, but went it gets unbearable, he will rebel and remove Jacob's yoke from his neck.
* this would fit the African asylum seekers, whose predicament I'll hope to address next week
The subject of translation gives me the chance to quote the following paragraphs from Gerald Blidstein's article on Lo Tirtzach that Rob Scheinberg suggested:
We have [in Numbers 35: 27,30] three persons in our drama, all described by some form of the root r-z-ch and all, surprisingly, [in the New JPS translation] with different English names: the manslayer, the killing blood-avenger, and the executioner. Translation, then, reflects contemporary values; slayer, killer and executioner are named with little regard for the Hebrew root but with much concern for the role (condemned or approved) each plays in our society...
Both Old and New JPS, by their discriminations, refuse to admit that the Bible makes no verbal distinction between a murderer and the approved surrogate of either family or society...But since, on the one hand, “murder” is to be defined by contemporary usage, and, on the other, the killing of the murderer is either commanded or regulated by Divine law, it can only be called killing. The conclusion will then have to be that r-z-ch must be rendered “kill” in all instances of its use.
One is, therefore, taken aback by the ingenious obscuring of Biblical thought in our contemporary translation, by the costuming of Biblical statement in diplomatic prose. There are, of course, instances where a translator must interpret an obscure text, but, on the other hand, a translator must always resist the impulse to manipulate the clear yet disconcerting phrase or sentence. This is especially so where preconceived moral judgments threaten to be imposed upon dissenting texts. Otherwise, the original statement becomes at best the victim of oversight; it is subdued by habit.
We have thus seen that Biblical usage does not limit rezichah to murder, rather extending it to describe
all killing, even to that which is Biblically ordained. We have also seen that subsequent Jewish usage never totally abandoned the Biblical insight that no word for the spilling of human blood could bear a less prohibitive denotation than any other.
The conclusion to be drawn from this usage is as concerned with the moral vision of the Hebrew language as it is with the proper rendering of the Sixth Commandment. For in the creation of certain words and meanings and the non-creation of others a basic and irretrievable moral step is taken. Some speak of the genius of the language. This is imprecise, for language itself is but the manifestation of a more significant and responsible entity.
[Blidstein goes on to discuss the tradition of R. Akiba, and here is some of what he writes, brilliantly, IMO]
It were also well to emphasize that R. Akiba hardly sanctifies human life beyond all other values. Did he not deliver up his own life for the love of God and His Torah? Naturally, he retained his objectivity in the construction of the Halachic scheme: while many sages understood the “death” decreed for the non-Kohen who performed the Temple service (Num. 18:7) as heavenly (biydei shamayim), R. Akiba maintained that capital punishment was intended. Indeed, Jewish law abolished capital punishment in fact not by denying its conceptual moral validity but rather by allowing it only this conceptual validity.
We must see R. Akiba, then,as the final expositer of a muted tradition. Significantly, R.Akiba is identified as using the term rezichah for execution (Mekhilta Ki Tissah (sic) p. 304, 1:13). Other teachings of this Tanna and his school fit into this same pattern. Thus, “R. Akiba says: 'Whoever spills blood destroys the image [of God].'” This is the metaphysical fact of the matter, a fact unchanged by the motives behind the slaying.
The Aggadah would praise even those reluctant to exact their due from the murderer: “The priests forgave [Saul, for his role in the slaughter at Nob], but the Gibeonites did not forgive him, and therefore God rejected them.” We have,,then, come full circle: for some, the murder of the priests of Nob limns the irresponsibility and bankruptcy of Saul's earlier desire to save the Amalekite innocents, while for others it proves the opportunity for a merciful act of forgiveness to the guilty. We see, thus, that both legal and Aggadic discussions give witness to two tendencies, one that regards the enforcing of retribution as most just and hence most merciful, and another, which finds mercy too divinely dynamic a quality to be forever defined and controlled by the demand for retribution.
Both approaches, curiously enough, contend in the Midrashic interpretation of Deut. 13:18: And there shall cleave nought of the devoted thing to thy hand, that the Lord may turn from the fierceness of His anger, and show thee mercy, and have compassion upon thee, and multiply thee as He hath sworn unto thy father.
Show thee [literally, “give thee]: to your people is the quality of mercifulness given, and not to others, as we read, And the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel.
Have compassion upon thee: the punishing of the wicked is an act of mercy to the world

Netivoteha Shalom on Yitro: The prohibition against spilling blood

Due to poor time management and some medical emergencies in the family, this will have to be completed after Shabbat -- sorry to all those who were counting on me for your vort this week (:

But I will share with you what's been on my mind: When Etz Hayim impresses upon us that the verb in Lo Tirtzach is not employed for killing in war, it misses the opportunity to remind us that killing innocents (which happens chiefly in war) was one of the ways the kings of Judea defiled the land, lost the Temple and brought about the exile:

וְגַם דָּם נָקִי שָׁפַךְ מְנַשֶּׁה הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד עַד אֲשֶׁר מִלֵּא אֶת יְרוּשָׁלַ‍ִם פֶּה לָפֶה
II Kings 21:16

Shenitbaser b'sorot tovot,

Netivoteha Shalom on B'shalach: Subversive Torah from each chapter

Subversive Torah from each chapter of B'shalach (this week's reading, Exodus 13:17-17:16 and Judges 4-5)
CHAPTER 14: Silence is Golden
: ה' ילחם לכם ואתם תחרישון God will do the fighting, you stay quiet, or, hold your peace (not your piece)!
cf. Tamaret (last week's posting, ). Yishayahu Leibowitz shows how all this will change with the crossing of the sea, the divide between the obviously miraculous providential divine presence that allows for our passivity, and the “real world” in which we must be active (cf. Chapter 17 and the war against Amalek)
One could additionally find in this verse an anti-militarism commandment. We are all too familiar with the centrality of military history in the public sphere: the streets and plazas named after battles, military heroes, army units, the generals-turned-politicians without any other proven talents, etc. One does not have to be a pacifist to recognize how such commemoration of our military impedes any progress towards peace, let alone the ongoing warmongering to which we are subjected. If only we could turn down the volume of these broadcasts!
CHAPTER 16: what was truly heavenly with the Manna were the miracles of its gathering and consumption
16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” 17 The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.
16 זֶ֤ה הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוָּ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה לִקְט֣וּ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ אִ֖ישׁ לְפִ֣י אָכְלֹ֑ו עֹ֣מֶר לַגֻּלְגֹּ֗לֶת מִסְפַּר֙ נַפְשֹׁ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם אִ֛ישׁ לַאֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּאָהֳלֹ֖ו תִּקָּֽחוּ׃
17 וַיַּעֲשׂוּ־כֵ֖ן בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַֽיִּלְקְט֔וּ הַמַּרְבֶּ֖ה וְהַמַּמְעִֽיט׃
18 וַיָּמֹ֣דּוּ בָעֹ֔מֶר וְלֹ֤א הֶעְדִּיף֙ הַמַּרְבֶּ֔ה וְהַמַּמְעִ֖יט לֹ֣א הֶחְסִ֑יר אִ֥ישׁ לְפִֽי־אָכְלֹ֖ו לָקָֽטוּ׃
This passage made me think of Karl Marx, but Wikipedia
took it back a few decades, then a century, and then all the way back to the Acts of the Apostles, but stopped there...
I haven't checked traditional commentaries on these verses, which combine the ostensibly contradictory uniformity of quantity – each end up with an omer's worth of manna --and the individuality of need – each according to his [sic] need. Not only is there equality in consumption, as each does everyone fill up with the same amount of food (and presumably equality in appetite); there is also eventual equality of production, as those who gathered more and those who gathered less bring home the same amounts (one can only wonder what that does to everyone's work ethic).
That manna should come with such objective uniformity and provide subjective satisfaction is further evidenced by the Talmudic statement that it delivered a different taste in every mouth (Yoma 75b). Diversity disguised as unanimity means...I'm sure everyo can see the sermon in this!
This is getting long, so I'll just give the radical messages in each of the remaining chapters in shorthand:
CHAPTER 15: upending spiritual hierarchies: the more you have, the less you
The midrash comments on זה אלי ואנווהו This is my God, I will exalt him:
: מה שראתה שפחה על הים לא ראו הנביאים
The divine vision attained by the maidservant at the [Red] Sea, exceeded that of the prophets
The Israelites are free now (or else they were supposed to be), but there are still maidservants, etc. Is liberty an illusion? (cf. Sanhedrin 111a and Sh'mot Rabbah). I wish I could find the recording of Leibowitz quoting that in his weekly Parashat Hashavu'a broadcast which I heard on the radio on the way to give a Talmud shi'ur in Mitzpeh Shorashim and felt duly rewarded.
That the maidservant surpasses the (male) prophets with her vision has clear feminist potential; it also states that class privilege and spirituality have an inverse relationship.
BTW, I'm still wondering where this image of the maidservant on the sea comes from, and how it's used in literature...
CHAPTER 17: Striking the rock and fighting Amalek: is there a connection?
There's tons written on Amalek. I'm currently studying Schiffman and Wolowelsky's War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, and there are a number of essays that deal with this subject...
This week's HAFTARAH (Judges 4-5): Compassion for the enemy
In his contribution to that volume, “What is this Bleeting of Sheep in My Ears”: Spoils of War /Wars that Spoil,” (note 53), 054-431-0857 Moshe Sokolov writes:
I have found no more striking application of this [Irving Greenberg's] “ethical sensitivity” than the following sentiment expressed by Rabbi Immanuel Jacobovits (“The Morality of Warfare,” L’eylah vol. 2 no. 4 (1983):
'A medieval Jewish source movingly tells us that the one hundred shofar sounds at our New Year’s services corresponds to the one hundred groans by the mother of Sisera (Judges 5:28) when she saw her son killed in his battle against the Israelites.'
'Sisera was a brutal tyrant, wreaking terror on our people. His death was our salvation. Yet, he had a mother, and to this day we hear her cries and recall her grief over the death of her child.'
'Even terrorists have mothers, and we must not be indifferent to their anguish.
This is but one of the remarkable features of Judaism in an effort to ensure that
even war does not harden us to the point of not caring for the loss and suffering
of our enemies.' “
and finally, for CHAPTER 13, I find it noteworthy that the Torah recognizes the fear of war that the Israelites have and brings it as the reason for the circuitous route to the Promised Land which they take. Here is perhaps an early, biblical example of Norman Lamm's “pragmatic pacifism” which I cited last week.
May we always be able to put off wars.

Netivoteha Shalom on Bo: A Diamond (= non-violence) in the Rough ( the Ten Plagues)

See how Aaron Samuel Tamaret (or Tamares) salvages meaning and hope from the darkness (which unfortunately has lasted longer than the three days of the 9th plague):

WE CAN NOW* explain the words of the Braita (Baba Kama 60a): " . . . 'and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning' (Exodus 12:22) Rabbi Joseph explained: Once He has permitted the destroyer to act, distinctions fall by the way." At first glance this appears to contradict the assertion of the Midrash, "I and not an intermediary." How then can the Braita say, "since He has given permission to the destroyer"? But by our explanation there is no contradiction in the words of the Braita, for their purpose is to explain why the Holy One, blessed be He, saw fit to execute vengeance by His glory and might rather than with the participation of the Children of Israel.
And the answer: in order not to give permission to the destroyer within them, for once having permission there will be no distinguishing between righteous and wicked, and from "defender" one becomes in the end "aggressor." The language itself is very precise both in Exodus and in the Braita. " . . . and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning" - "that there not be in your midst the plague of the destroyer." Which means: your abstention from any participation in the vengeance upon Egypt will prevent the plague of vengeance from stirring the power of the destroyer which is in you yourselves.
The Children of Israel, then, must derive this lesson from the events of that Passover eve: not to put their trust in wealth, and not to put their trust in might, but rather in the God of truth and justice, for this will serve to defend them everywhere against those who would dominate by the power of the fist.

* these are the last paragraphs of an excerpt edited and translated by our colleague Everett Gendler and published by the Jewish Peace Fellowship:; if I'm not mistaken, Noam Zion also quotes it in his Hagaddah. I'll be happy to scan and send you the original, from פציפיזם לאור היהדות , edited and introduced by Ehud Luz.
You'll find more quotes from Tamaret here:
    Our very own Aryeh Cohen will be speaking on "The foremost among the divine attributes is to hate the vulgar power of violence: Aharon Shmuel Tamares and recovering nonviolence for Jewish ethics" next week in Seattle at this very promising conference (how I wish I could be there):
    Here's the abstract of his talk:
    Aharon Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931) a powerful and unique figure, has not been given his voice in the contemporary academy. In a manner similar to Abraham Isaac Kook, Tamares forged a new conceptual vocabulary and theological system. While Tamares' pacifism has been noted, especially in relation to his split from the Zionist movement after attending the fourth Zionist Congress, its thoroughgoing nature has not been appreciated. In this paper I am going to attempt to recover Tamares for contemporary ethical discourse by putting his non-violence and pacifism in dialogue with Levinas' "pacifism" in Totality and Infinity and Abraham Isaach HaKohen's response to World War I in Orot Hamilchamah. I will then claim that this thoroughgoing nonviolence as a central religious precept can have utility in the current discourse around gun violence.
    And here's a link to an article Aryeh published last erev Pessakh in this direction:

    Netivoteha Shalom on Vayera: Also, not either/or: the one word that makes all the difference

    Exodus and Christmas: Also, not either/or:
    the one word that makes all the difference
    וְגַ֣ם׀ אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃ לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃

    I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 6 Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. (Exodus 6:6-7)

    What first stimulated this message was a comment made by a Palestinian pastor at an interfaith seminar on the Exodus story that was held in Jerusalem a year or so ago. He wondered aloud how Jews could accept the biblical account, plagues and all, without asking how God could have been so cruel and unjust in punishing innocent Egyptians (or something to that effect). In response, the Jewish participants all said that not only were they personally disturbed by this aspect of the story, but that Jewish philosophy has been perturbed by this matter for centuries. The larger question that has been on my mind for many years is what meaning does the story of Israel's redemption from Egypt hold for non-Jews for whom this text is holy.
    I'm not the only Jew who has been feeling for some time now that what's relevant in this week's parashah (Exodus 6:2-9:35), is the understanding that it is the Palestinians who are today's Israelites, and that God hears their cry and is redeeming them, inevitably albeit however slowly. Indeed, our scriptures warn that God hears the voices of those we oppress (Exodus 22:20-23), and that God looks after the pursued (Ecclesiastes 3: 15, even according to the rabbinic interpretation in Vayikra Rabbah 27:5, when if the pursued has done wrong:
    והאלהים יבקש את נרדף (קהלת ג): ר' הונא בשם רב יוסף אמר: לעולם, והאלהים יבקש את נרדף. אתה מוצא צדיק רודף צדיק, והאלהים יבקש את נרדף. רשע רודף צדיק והאלהים יבקש את נרדף. רשע רודף רשע והאלהים יבקש את נרדף. אפילו צדיק רודף רשע, והאלהים יבקש את נרדף. מכל מקום והאלהים יבקש את נרדף.
    רבי יהודה ב"ר סימון אמר, בשם ר' יוחנן, ב"ר נהוראי: לעולם הקב"ה תובע דמן של נרדפין מן הרודפין. תדע לך שכן הוא שכן הבל נרדף מפני קין ובחר הקדוש ברוך הוא בהבל, שנאמר (בראשית ד): וישע ה' אל הבל ואל מנחתו. נח נרדף מפני דורו ולא בחר הקב"ה, אלא בנח, שנאמר (שם ז): כי אותך ראיתי צדיק לפני בדור הזה.אברהם נרדף מפני נמרוד, ובחר הקדוש ברוך הוא באברהם, שנאמר (נחמיה ט): אתה הוא ה' האלהים אשר בחרת באברם. יצחק נרדף מפני פלשתים, ובחר הקב"ה ביצחק, שנאמר (בראשית כו): ראה ראינו כי היה ה' עמך.יעקב נרדף מפני עשו, ובחר הקדוש ברוך הוא ביעקב, שנאמר (תהלים קלה): כי יעקב בחר לו יה. יוסף נרדף מפני אחיו, ובחר הקב"ה ביוסף, שנאמר (שם פא): עדות ביהוסף שמו. משה נרדף מפני פרעה, ובחר הקדוש ברוך הוא במשה, שנאמר (שם קו): לולי משה בחירו. דוד נרדף מפני שאול, ובחר הקב"ה בדוד, שנאמר: (שם עח): ויבחר בדוד עבדו. שאול נרדף מפני פלשתים, ובחר הקדוש ברוך הוא בשאול, שנאמר: (שמואל א יב):הראיתם אשר בחר בו ה'. ישראל נרדפין מפני האומות, ובחר הקב"ה בישראל, שנאמר (דברים יד): ובך בחר ה'להיות לו לעם סגולה.

    But I was newly reassured to discover today the redemption the text offers biological Israel is not limited to the past: וגם אני שמעתי את נאקת בני ישראל – I have a l s o heard the groaning of the Israelites: our redemption, too, will come as we listen to the moaning of the Palestinians.
    Writing this on the last weekend of December, I find myself innundated with posts from Jews who feel besieged by Christmas, a feeling that one doesn't experience living in Israel,where Santa Claus and Christmas carols are so rare as to be quaint and even a bit refreshing. So, I was somewhat disappointed in the paucity of spirit that came across when reading of Jews who feel that have to gird themselves against the holiday by serving up potato Latkes (a Hanukkah food) and imaging that Christmas lights are only another version of Hanukkah candles. Granted, the birth of Jesus is not seen as a cosmic event or break theological ground in Jewish thought, but can't we at least acknowledge and appreciate the spiritual dimensions of this holiday for believing Christians? I was therefore greatly moved by the following posting sent out by our colleague Irwin Kula:

    About fifteen years ago, I had an experience that transformed Christmas for me.  My wife and I were sitting with a couple – he was well into his 60’s and Jewish and she a good twenty years younger and from a traditional Christian home. This was his second marriage and they had two young children.  We were guests at their ski home for a few days during winter break.
    Sitting after dinner at the dining room table, with their kids and our kids playing in the den, we wound up having a conversation about Christmas which was not being celebrated in their home because Susan had committed to raise their children Jewish. At some point I felt Susan’s unease and asked her what Christmas meant to her.  She was quiet for about twenty seconds – an eternity in a conversation – and in a translucent voice with searching eyes she said, “Imagine, if we saw every infant as truly holy and loved every child as if they were God. The miracle and grace of Christmas is this is the way the world can be.”
    I don’t know if the tears welling up in her eyes reflected the loss she was feeling not celebrating Christmas with her children, or the heart-opening enchanted vision of Christmas she had painted, but we were all silent in the night around that table.
    Every Christmas I think about Susan and her teaching about the infinite value of every child. Whatever our theologies or non-theologies, this stretches our moral horizon: inspiring us to narrow the gap between the way the world is and our ever expanding dream of the way the world can be. Isn't this precisely what religion is supposed to do when it is actually doing its job.
    How do we see our children today, especially our most vulnerable?
    Whatever our politics, I guess we still need Christmas, at least Susan’s version.  As an 8th generation rabbi, I really hope Christmas works this year…Merry Christmas.

    Netivoteha Shalom on Sh'mot: on not hearing

    “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?" (Exodus 4:11)

    Every time we move on from Genesis to Exodus, and from touching family sagas to tragic national ones (in my book, nationalism always turns sour), and the introduction of serious theological questions, I find myself dreading the unfolding of the violent redemption from Egypt; the God I search for is not a god who would harden anyone's heart in order to show his/her might. I therefore gravitate in this week's reading (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1) to the above verse with its statement of almost universal blessing – don't most of us take our vision and hearing for granted?

    Reflecting on the verse above takes me back to one of the best moments in my JTS Jewish Theological Seminary) Rabbinical School experience: hearing a Parkinson's stricken Prof. Yochanan Muffs talk about God the frustrated educator in Jeremiah 31 who tries so hard to persuade, but finally decides to give Israel a heart transplant that will keep her from sinning.

    Communication is not what Moses and Aaron will say, but what Pharaoh can hear (right, Rabbi Jack Bloom?); so the problem is that part of God's plan to harden Pharaoh's heart includes making Pharaoh deaf.

    Read this way, beyond reprimanding Moses for not realizing that the powers of speech, hearing and vision all come from God, the verse hints to the theological trap of promising a violent redemption which will display God's power, but at the same time undermines the essence of the divine: justice and mercy.

    Prof. Muffs used to quote Saul Lieberman ( who claimed that the Bible belongs to the genre of tragedy, and that the tragic figure in it is...God, whose creatures constantly fail. Along these lines, instead of dismissing the antiquated, inadequate morality of its omnipotent protagonist, could we not embrace the suffering God who is in desperate search of partners in tikkun olam? Would God not want us to repair this imperfect story?

    Netivoteha Shalom on Sh'mot (Hebrew)

    וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֵלָ֗יו מִ֣י שָׂ֣ם פֶּה֮ לָֽאָדָם֒ אֹ֚ו מִֽי־יָשׂ֣וּם אִלֵּ֔ם אֹ֣ו חֵרֵ֔שׁ אֹ֥ו פִקֵּ֖חַ אֹ֣ו עִוֵּ֑ר הֲלֹ֥א אָנֹכִ֖י יְהוָֽה -- שמות ד' 11

    סיפור יציאת מצרים תוך כדי רצח חפים מפשע (מבכור פרעה היושב על כסאו עד בכור השפחה אשר אחר הרחיים עד בכור השבי אשר בבית הבור וכל בכור בהמה) מזעזע אותי כל שנה מחדש, ולכן אני נמשך אל הפסוק הנ"ל המשקף את הברכה האלוהית הכמעט אוניברסלית  (חוץ מהאלמים, החרשים והעוורים ממש... אך במובן המטפורי, כולנו סובלים מהמגבלות שאנחנו מטילים על עצמנו)

    כמה אירוני שבהכבדת לב פרעה בוחר הקב"ה להפוך את פרעה לסוג של עיוור וחרש שאיננו יכול לשמוע ולהפנים את דבר ה' מפי אהרון ומשה, שיותר מאשר הם מקיימים שיחה עם פרעה, הם בעצם רק מצהירים הצהרות לדורות הבאים (למען ידעו שאין כה' בקרב הארץ...). בעלי המחשבה היהודית לדורותיה עסקו רבות בחסימת חופש הבחירה מפרעה, ולא איכנס לזה כאן אלא לציין שהנושא הטריד את מנוחתם.

    מה שמעניין הוא שענייני שמיעה, ראייה והיעדרם התחילו כבר בספר בראשית, ובמיוחד בסיפור יוסף:

    "ויאמרו איש אל אחיו אבל אשמים אנחנו על אחינו אשר ראינו צרת נפשו בהתחננו אלינו ולא שמענו על כן באה אלינו הצרה הזאת" – בראשית מ"ב 21. אפילו שמות בני יעקב הראשונים-- ראובן ושמעון – מכוונים אותנו אל הכח והמכשלה שבראייה ושמיעה. קישור עוד יותר משמעותי בין ספר בראשית המשפחתי כל כך, וספר שמות הלאומי (להחריד, לטעמי) הוא בעניין העבדות: לא רק שיוסף כל הזמן משחק עם אובדן החירות של אחיו, אולי כגמול על מכירתו שלו לעבדות, אלא שבהתמשך הרעב, נאלצים המצרים למכור את עצמם ליוסף ולהיות עבדים לפרעה, מה שחוזר כבומרנג על בני ישראל בספר שמות.

    ובחזרה לפסוק שלנו: אפשר לכעוס (או להתייאש) מקוצר הראייה המוסרי שבסיפור, או לקרוא את המלים "מי ישום אלם או חרש....או עוור" לא כשאלה רטורית ושבח לאל, אלא כהבעה של תיסכול מצידו של הקב"ה, שאיננו כל יכול אלא תלוי בשותפים אנושיים אינטרסנטיים. לפי קריאה זו, יש פה תחינה אלוהית אלינו שנאמץ את התכונות האלוהיות של צדק ורחמים ולא את הכוחנות שמאפיינים את סיפור יציאת מצרים. הרי אנו תמיד עושים אלהים בצלמנו וכדמותנו, והבחירה בידינו.

    שבת שלום!

    Netivoteha Shalom on Vayechi: Whose deeds are more magnificent?

    מעשיו של מי נאים?

    Jacob and Joseph (the end); The Prawer Plan (the end); Mandela (the end and the legend); The snow storm in Jerusalem (fuggetaboutit)

    1. Joseph and Nelson Mandela overcame the natural impulse to avenge (unlike King David's last will and testament in tomorrow's haftarah, I Kings 2: 1-12); was it something in their upbringing, or was this a divine grace, or even intervention? The first biblical mention of serving God (Genesis 50: 17) comes in the appeal for forgiveness. Up until now, God is the source of protection and material blessing, but herein lies the real blessing, the real heroism.

    2. Benny Begin admits that the Negev Bedouin never gave their blessing to it, and Benyamin Netanyahu drops the Prawer plan; the threat of imminent displacement of 40,000 Bedouin is lifted. A chance for us to celebrate effective activism? Divine grace, yet again? Or an opportunity for the most extreme right-wing elements to submit an even more discriminatory bill that would displace Bedouin with less or no compensation? I guess it's in our hands (as long as we have God on our minds and in our hearts).

    3. Finally, the weather: I don't know what the probability of my completing this post and sending it off before the wind knocks down a tree that knocks out the power and cuts off my access to the internet, but the way adverse weather impacts the Bedouin?


    Vayigash: Joseph of Many Colors

    Joseph's intense family dynamics took over last week's column; I couldn't wait to continue my quest into Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) even while the Torah scroll was still open at Miketz (41-44:17). I dreamt last week (I'm being serious)...there's a lot on my plate...but that's not what I thought Netivoteha Shalom was for; and sure enough, this week we're back to a wider, inter-ethnic perspective, and with a vengeance (unfortunately, quite literally).
    It seems that Joseph's prediction of a seven year famine was a well-kept secret known only to Jacob's family and Pharaoh's court, and that while Pharaoh prepared for it by stockpiling food during the seven years of plenty, the Egyptian people did not budget for it; thus we learn (Gen. 47:14) that they are starving but have no more money to purchase the food Joseph has stored. When they come pleading to him, he tells them he'll feed them in exchange for their livestock. After they have expended this resource, they return to Joseph saying, “We have nothing left but our carcasses and our land; why should we die , we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, we and our land will be enslaved to Pharaoh; give us seed, so that we live and not die, and the land won't be desolate (47:18-19).” Joseph accepts this offer and implements the arrangement.
    Now all this is told within an envelope of preceding and following verses (47:11-13 and 47:27) that tell us that Joseph is looking after his family, settling them in Goshen and feeding them, and it ends with the formula ויפרו וירבו מאוד they were fruitful and multiplied greatly  – reminding us of the idyllic blessing of Genesis 1, but more importantly, recalling the language of Exodus 1, which introduces the enslavement of Joseph's descendents. I began to wonder whether the connection between these two enslavements goes beyond the shared phraseology. Would it not add an unstated motive of revenge to the paranoia that is brought in Ex. 1:9-10?
    An online search of traditional commentaries I use, and recommend, the Feinburg E-collection at, pulled up the following comment by Siftey Cohen:  Plaut (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, UAHC, 1981) provides the following introduction to this section (p. 293):
    הוגד לי בחלום, שתם הכסף מארץ מצרים כדי שלא יהיה להם כסף, כדי שלא יקנו בני ישראל וישאו ויתנו בהם ויעשו סחורתם ויקשה עליהם יציאתם מאחר שלקחום בדמים, אם כשהיו בחנם רדפו אחריהם כל שכן כשהיו קנוים בדמים-- I learned in a dream (!) that "there was no money left in Egypt" (verse 15) kept them from purchasing the Israelites and trading in them, which would have made the Exodus more difficult; as it was, they pursued them, but had they paid for them, all the more so. I found this comment striking in its perception of Israelite vulnerability in a passage where Joseph's family is living in the lap of privilege; evidently, the memory of our enslavement in Egypt was so strong that it obscured the plain message of the text. But if this statement required some indulgence, what I found in the khumashim (Torah texts) that we put in our congregants hands really threw me for a loop. 

    "We learn about the effects of the famine and, so it seems to many, the morally puzzling aspects of Joseph's economic and political management. Israel now dwells in Goshen, and a new chapter in his people's history is about to begin."
    He is somewhat more explicit in his expansive afterword (page 298): "Because of the careful and unemotional accounting of the disenfranchisement of the Egyptian people and the apparent approval of Joseph's role in it, this section has been made "a show piece of anti-Semitic polemic" [von Rad]. Here is the Bible, it has been said, Jewry's sacred book, and look at the morality that, by its exaltation of Joseph, it obviously endorses [e.g., Gunkel]."
    Plaut then proceeds to put Joseph's behavior in the context of the proper functioning of a civil servant in ancient Egypt, which brings him to conclude (p. 299): "To superimpose 20th century ideas of social and political morality on this story is, therefore, not helpful. Joseph served Pharaoh in his struggle with the Egyptian hierarchy. In so doing he saved the multitudes from starvation, and, apparently this was worth any price to them -- including a mortgage on their freedom. And it is altogether possible that they thought little of their freedom anyway. Jewish tradition sensed, long ago, that Joseph's actions might not have met with the same success had the Egyptians valued their freedom more highly. The Bible calls Egypt the "house of bondage" not only because Israel was enslaved there but also because its people accepted their own bondage as a normal condition of life." [In a footnote, Plaut gives a little in the other direction, stating, "Joseph's participation in bringing about this condition left later generations with a sense of uneasiness" and cites examples of positive attitudes to Egyptians elsewhere in the Bible.]
    I am indebted to Plaut for sending me to von Rad, who opened my eyes to a hint of irony in the Egyptians' proclamation in verse 25: “You have kept us alive! we are grateful to my lord for making us slaves to Pharaoh." But aside from that, I'm left bewildered: I'm very sorry that anti-Semites go to town on this text, but this defence of the text and Judaism reeks of racism and blame-the-victim; and I can't find sources that corroborate his defamation of the Egyptians.
    Sarna (The JPS Torah Commentary, 1989), too, seems ambivalent. On the one hand, ”Joseph's actions cannot be measured by the moral standards that the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophetic tradition, has inculcated in Western civilization. (p.322).” But then he goes on to suggest that the author of this story comes from another literary tradition/value system: “Rather, they must be judged in the context of the ancient Near Eastern world by whose norms Joseph emerges here as a highly admirable model of a shrewd and successful administrator (Sarna, JPS, pp. 322-323).”

    I don't doubt that the Joseph story originates in wisdom literature, but looking at the broader context, not only the prophetic tradition but also the narrator here is indeed critical of Joseph, who saves one generation but enslaves many more; serving Pharaoh is not the same as serving God, or, in business terms, ethical behavior is ultimately profitable. When the Egyptians plead for their lives, למה נמות נגדך/לעיניך (“Why should we die in your presence/before your eyes”-- Gen. 47:15,19) we hear the echo of Esau's desperate הנה אנכי הולך למות, ולמה זה לי בכורה (“I'm about to die, what good will the birthright do me?”-- Gen. 25:32 ) made in trading his birthright for a stew. Yet, that transaction had limited validity, because otherwise, Jacob would not have had to deceive his father to receive Esau's blessing. It's shocking for Joseph to be denying the lesson his brothers learned when they realized their heartlessness which led to his sale: אשר ראינו צרת נפשו בהתחננו אלינו ולא שמענו (“We saw his desperation when he pleaded before us, but we didn't listen” – Gen. 42:21).
    What it all boils down to is that we all find the Joseph we need: if we're looking for a devoted son and brother, we'll find it in the text (and even more easily in the Midrash), but it will also offer us someone struggling to find his place as a family member, and who is still locked in destructive patterns of selfish behavior; if it's a national savior, we'll find that, too, but if we're wary of being too close to Pharaoh (in his many manifestations) we'll also be able to see the long-term effects of selfishness on a national level, and the xenophobia that keeps us from commiserating and co-existing with the Other. The text is a magical mirror, to be handled with great care.
    Shabbat shalom,