Tag Archives: Social Justice

Parshat Shemot (5775)

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

When Immigrants and Migrants are Hated for their Success

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, and our story picks up where we left off at the end of Genesis, with the family of Yaakov going down to Egypt. Why are they going down there? Surely the most emotional impacting reasons is so that the family can be re-united with Yosef. However, as touching of a reason as this is, there was a much more harsh reality at play which brought them there. There is another reason we need to considered. Namely that initially they were forced to come to Egypt in order to survive a famine in their homeland of Canaan.

The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) The Yiddish School , Jewish Education by the Arbeiter Ring; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokian, Russian Christian pacifists; a local Japanese-American family.
The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) A Yiddish dayschool , Jewish education offered by the Arbeiter Ring/Workmen’s circle; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokans, Russian Christian pacifists; and a local Japanese-American family.

In this week’s parsha we are quickly presented with the rise of that family, from a mere “seventy souls” of the descendants of Yaakov (Yisrael) who had come to take refuge with their brother Yosef in a foreign land, to becoming a distinct and successful people in their own merit. And how they came to be hated, not for their neediness in the end, but for their success as foreigners and their emerging greatness. This is a pattern which is all too real many times.

I don’t want to dig into the story of their journey down to Egypt, because of course we got that already in detail in the book of Genesis. Here in Exodus we are talking about the coming together and the rise of these children of Israel in a foreign land. How they rose to be a distinguished people in the land of Egypt. And the details surrounding this are few here, as in very few verses the story turns sour for the Israelites.

In the sixth verse we read that Yosef died, as well all the people of his generation. Everyone who knew Yosef personally were deceased. All those who knew of how he had saved all of Egypt from famine were now dead. Now, that was not what captivated the minds of the new generation and their new ruler when he came to power. That was not what came to mind as they considered the Israelites and their successful sojourn in Egypt.

As we see here, the main observation in this narrative – especially from the point of view of the Egyptians – is made plainly present to us right away:

“The children of Israel

were fruitful

and swarmed and increased

and became very strong,

and the land became filled with them.”

| Uveney Yisrael

| paru

| vayishretzu vayirbu

| vaya’atzmu bime’od me’od

| vatimale ha’aretz otam

Exodus 1:7

Now in this key verse from this weeks parsha, we see how the negative attitude and distrust arose. It was not just that there was a new generation, which did not have the same direct ties between the two cultures as in Yosef’s day. But more so the concern at hand was that the children of Israel had become very populous and exceedingly strong since then. And that the land had now become filled with Israelites.

These Israelites had become too successful, and there now were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And it also began to concern their new Pharaoh.

Before we look at the Pharaoh’s reaction to this populist outcry, let take a look at the psychology of the Egyptians rising prejudice in this narrative. I believe we have a word in the text which aptly delivers the very thoughts of this Egyptians host society. Here with the word, “vayishretzu,” meaning and they swarmed. This word, sharatz means “to swarm,” or “to infest.”

The Egyptians seem to be so alarmed by the rise of the Israelites that they easily dehumanized them in their minds. The Israelites are made out to be something as less than human, instead they are thought of as an infestation. Like bugs or vermin.

Even when our master Rashi interpret this text in order to deliver a meaning for us Jews reading on as later observers to this narrative, he cannot help but to also draw our attention as to how inhuman this word is. He instead takes it as a positive by applying midrash, suggesting in his commentary that the Israelites became numerous because they were each given six children with each birth. Something which is normally not so for us human mammals.

Rashi seems to take the understanding that we should read this word along the lines of the meaning “to be spawned,” as that’s how drastic their rise in numbers seemed. As though the Israelites were each given miraculous fertility, people having babies in a fashion comparable to the way other mammals might have litters.

From personal experience, as a minority descendant of immigrants, I’ve heard phrases used both these ways. However, not exactly as kindly as maybe our Rashi is suggesting, I’m afraid. The first way, I’ve heard in the voices of the anti-immigrant radicals; people who tend to call Latinos like myself roaches and vermin. And then there is the second way I’ve also heard it used, even by the most progressive professors of mine in college. When I heard them occasionally uncouthly remark on how supposedly immigrant Latinos are “so damn fertile” as a means to explain our rising demographics and growing influence. As you see for me, either way, I never really felt like this was a compliment. Rarely is it used as one either.

I think too few people are sensitive enough to give attention to precisely how dehumanizing these type of words can be. And we often fail to consider how these dehumanizing attitudes and statement, when left unchecked as in this story, can result in inhumane acts to come.

Now once again, let us take notice of the situation. These Israelites had become too successful, and now there were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And likewise it also began to concern their Pharaoh. He had to act, but he also had to have his own pretext which justified his actions against these people.

He didn’t just see these people as an infestation, but also as part of a potential invasion:

“He [Pharaoh] said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous [or greater] and stronger than we are.

“Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and when a war befall us, and they join our enemies, and fight against us, and depart from the land.’

“So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens…”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ:

הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ:

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם

Exodus 1:9-11

Here Pharaoh questions the loyalty of these resident-alien Israelites, and thus makes them out to be a threat to national security. They are a potential threat within his boarders, a threat which needs to be dwelt with.

Now I understand that many people might feel uncomfortable with this subject of the immigrants plight. In this part of the country in which I live, in a region which is heavily effected by the constant influx of migrants, this is a much painfully debated topic from both the right and the left. So talking about immigration is not exactly the best way for teachers like myself to satisfy their crowd. No matter how nuanced my presentation is. I’m likely to upset someone. Yet I feel that I must touch on this topic, because this lesson hits home for people like myself. Not just as a Latino, but even more so as a Jew! And as a Jew who caries on the heritage and ethics of my local community. And as a local who carries the burden of our local history in order to overcome it.

Let me explain before we go on to conclude our study of the Torah text, as I believe our local history will help draw this Torah lesson closer to us in a more vivid way.

Our Local History which Binds our Jewish Commitment to the Immigrant Community

If we want to talk about the hardships of the immigrants, our accounts really needs to mention the deplorable way that Asian immigrants have been treated in our society since the beginning, especially here in California. First there was the lynching of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871. Then in 1882 the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was ratified, which had tremendous consequences for the Chinese immigrants in this state. Chinese immigrants were stripped of their rights and dehumanized by society. And also barred from immigration; be they skill, unskilled, or employed in mining (the most major break-back job of the day). They were painted as too needy, as thus the Chinese were unwelcome and treated as a threat. Unlike any other people, they were mistreated and even surcharged in death as a foreign burden, when they were begrudgingly buried here outside the limits of Evergreen Cemetery here in Boyle Heights.

The suffering often crudely summed up as the plight of the Chinese rail-workers – those strong people who also helped unite this continent – how they were treated is considered a national shame. It’s something we need to all remember and consider. Even today, in an age when in contrast people often show contempt and sometimes even commit hate crimes against Chinese immigrants simply because of their present-day successes and educational prowess. (see “3 Los Angeles teens ordered to stand trial in death of USC exchange student.” “Killing of Chinese Student in LA a Wake-up Call”)

However, this was not the first occurrence of anti-immigrant prejudice to overtake California. Our first occurrence of legislation targeting resented immigrant minorities was actually enacted in 1855, just five years after the state was admitted into the Union. William W. Stow, Speaker of the State Assembly of California (and creator of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco), enacted unconstitutional Christian Sabbath laws. And in a slanderous manner accused Jews of depriving Christian business owners of customers and profits. Stow even accused Jews of being foreigners who did not contribute to the state!

This accusation that Jews were strangers getting successful at the expense of Christians was challenge by none other than Samuel K. Labatt, the American Sephardic Jew, and founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (today known and operating as Jewish Family Service). Samuel and his lawyer brother Henry J. Labatt saw to the writing and publication of effective denunciations of Stow, which were also republished here by the Los Angeles Star in April 7th, 1855. Making Samuel K. Labatt the first anti-defamation activist of Los Angeles.

Both for the Jews and the Chinese, attempts to legally marginalize them did often succeed. Surfacing over and over again in a constant back and forth of legal discrimination waged out in the courts, and sparked by whatever social anxiety of the time. Jews became very aware of our need to mobilize and denounce the persecution of immigrants each time it arose.

When the next flow of the poorer Eastern European Jews came and settled in the area of Boyle Height in the early 20th century, the connection between our local Jewish community and our other minority immigrants became forged together. And not just by being neighbors, but by identifying with each others suffering. This suffering would then intensify in the wake of World War II, as many immigrants would experience the second element of the discrimination we’ve been talking about. As many of our immigrant minorities were also wrongly accused of being disloyal.

This is a copy of the
This is a copy of the “The Siren,” published by Hollenbeck Middle School (Jr Rough Riders) students in 1941.

First in December 1941, when the United States was first thrown into World War II. The Jewish community was outspoken about their concern for their Japanese neighbors, even before their internment. Everyone from small to great.

As noted by a Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, a student at Hollenbeck Junior High School at the time: “We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us. They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.” (“The Siren,” student newspaper dated December 1941; see image to the right)

Their apprehension was justified, as shortly after the Japanese-American families were interned in camps. And their property and entire wealth was generally liquidated. In the wake of this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the mass media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese interment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, one Waxman would also hold in the wake of the Zoot Suit Riots as well.

Which brings us to a most notorious event in local history, the Zoot Suit Riots. Which was not any one event, but a series of riots which gripped Los Angeles in 1943. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Riots inflicted upon the community by local Marines against the ethnic Zoot Suiter youth, one which most often resulted in stripping them naked and beating them. Defrocking them of their glorious outfits for which they were notorious. All this happening during the height of wartime, and with the aid of the local authorities and stoked by the conservative media which controlled Los Angeles at the time.

Though this wave of violence was inflicted on all minorities of this style of street-culture in those days, the brunt of the abuse was mostly directed at Mexicans. Partially in reaction to the US government’s much debated “Bracero Program.” (named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning “manual laborer” [lit. “one who works using his arms”]) which allowed immigration for manual laborers in the US’s existential time of need. A program aimed at helping provide workers to fill jobs left vacant as the local men were off to war. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)

Servicemen and civilians of the day attacked these youth citing a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.
Servicemen and civilians attacked these youth, citing excess in dress style and a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.

Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by these Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. Offended at the appearance of excess which Mexicans seemed to flaunt in the lean times of war, the Zoot Suit became their hated symbol of excess and opportunism. For this reason they were stripped and brutally beaten. All with the tactic approval of the police and sheriffs.

The Zoot Suit Riots were an orgy of violence directed against those perceived of as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.

This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized the Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. Where Jews were also often accused of succeeding at the expense of their host countries. Where they were also often hated for their supposed lack of participation in the wars of their Czar and the nobles. Where they were also attacked for maintaining their own identity and standing apart.

For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community. The first vestiges of a working Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. Even before most of my Latino ancestors had a concept of what civil rights activism looked like, progressive Jews supported our cause here. Understanding that Latinos of the area needed a voice and sense of self-determination in this shared community of ours.

Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten
Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten

The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949, representing this very district. With the predominate Jewish community strongly endorsing Roybal, over and against a popular nationalist Jewish American candidate of the time. The election of Roybal kicked off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities. Causes he carried with him to the US Congress.

I could go on and on, brining us to the present with examples the Jewish commitment to our minorities and immigrant communities. However, I present just a mere selection of our foundational history. As I want us to understand our basic roots here. And from where the bonds of our historical loyalties are derived. This is all to remind us, we have a historical and religious obligation as Jews to support and hold the cause of the immigrant minorities in this region, and specifically in this neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

This scenario which the Torah lays out to us here in this parsha, it is mirrored in real life. This resentment of an immigrant people who first came poor and then were hated for their successes in the end. People who were often called disloyal strangers. It is very accessible to us if we just think about the history around us.

In Conclusion: “So did they multiply and so did they gain strength.”

As we see from real life, persecution often fortifies people instead of breaking them. Making them more determined, and forcing them to further develop their strengths. And so it was for the migrant Israelites as well. As we read in the next verse:

“But as much as they [the Egyptians] would afflict them [the Israelites], so did they multiply and so did they grow, and they were disgusted because of the children of Israel.”

וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Exodus 1:12

The Torah text tells us that despite all the cruelties and afflictions laid upon them by the Egyptians, the Israelites continued to increase both in number and in strength. These are points which are important for us to understand. But as the translations often greatly vary here, lets us take a look at this for ourselves. What is it exactly saying here?

What happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yirbah they were able to not just multiply, or increase. They were able to expand themselves.

What else happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yifrotz – they were able to grow, as most translations of the bible read. But I believe this translation is weak and insufficient. The word yifrotz means to break-out, to burst, to erupt, and to breach.

Our scriptures paint a picture of people who are blessed and whose lives are filled with success. They had arrived as a small and helpless people, and in a relatively short period of time they became great there. So great that they increased in population and in success, bursting out from their constraints in both these respects. Outgrowing their disadvantage in seemingly miraculous ways.

And what was the Egyptian reaction to this? We are told of the Egyptians, “vayakutzu mif’nei bnei yisrael / and they were disgusted in the faces of Israel.” What is this disgust? Is it merely just dehumanizing loathing? Or is it something more?

There is two more ways we can look at this text, depending on how we personally understand our master Rashi’s interpretation. We are presented with both of these ideas in the commentary for this line:

And they were disgusted: They were disgusted with their lives. (Others explain: And the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves, and it is easy to understand why.) Our Rabbis, however, interpreted it to mean that they [the Israelites] were like thorns (כקוצים) in their eyes. [from Sotah 11a]”

ויקצו: קצו בחייהם. ורבותינו דרשו כקוצים היו בעיניהם:

Rashi to Exodus 1:12

We have actually talked about this before. When dealing with turns of phrase similar to this. One reference found in a statement made by Isaac, and another found in the story of Moab and Balaam. In both those cases we saw that this phrase meant to be “disgusted” with life. To be “weary” of one’s own existence, but on account of others! (see Parshat Balak 2011)

So we can look at this two ways. The first being, that these Egyptians couldn’t feel contentment in life because of these Israelites whom they loathed. Their very existence and presence in their land caused them to be disgusted with life. As long as Israel remained and was prospering, they could not feel anything but disdain for life. These immigrants were ruining their lives!

And then there is the second way to look at this. That the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves. That the Egyptians grew disgusted with the results of their own way of life. They grew disgusted with their own inability to succeed and overcome their own challenges. And furthermore they even grew disgusted with the way that they mistreated these Israelites, and looking at these people constantly reminded them of that. Everything about their conduct made them disgusted with themselves as they stood before these noble Israelites. They became disgusted of their own conduct when forced to stand, “mif’nei bnei Yisaael / in the face of Israel.” They could no longer stand looking at these people eye to eye.

For this reason the Egyptians felt that they had to be “shrewd” with these Israelites. Inflicting taxation, slavery, heavy labor, etc. All of this we read as our parsha continues. But still we need to ask ourselves. Why would they go to this extreme, to all but annihilate this people? How could they then further descent into the slaughter of the Israelite babies?

An understanding of this is drawn out of the text here by our sages here, as Rashi finally notes. It’s because these Israelites became like thorns in the eyes of the Egyptians. Meaning everywhere they looked all they could see was these Israelites, and it was more than an irritation to them. It was even a pain – like kotzim, thorns in their eyes – for the Egyptians to see this people increase and succeed. So they took matters into their own hands.

And this is a hardship which Israel has always faced. In conclusion, I would like us all to consider this deep observation made by Rabbi Robert Kaplan concerning this phenomenon of hatred toward Israel by their detractors, hatred for their success and growth:

“When people look honestly at the accomplishments of the Jewish people and all of the advancements to civilization they have provided over the millennia of human existence, it is an astounding record. The achievements made by the Children of Israel, in every historical time period be it peaceful but mostly turbulent, is unexplainable in terms of natural causality. This fact registers unconsciously in the minds of our enemies particularly when they boast of numerical superiority and cultural enlightenment. There are two ways to deal with these phenomena. The enemy can look inward and reexamine its culture, its way of living and philosophy of life. If they did, they would realize the great advantage such recognition would bring to their existence. They would be able to make the necessary changes to improve their lives. However, the easier path is to blame the other, successful society for making you look bad. When this course is chosen, the only way to relieve the disappointment at failure of your own inability to succeed is to turn the frustration outward onto the ones who make you look and feel bad by their success. If possible, destroying them from existence is the best solution. Then there will be no more reminders of your internal disgust at your own inability to succeed.”

Rabbi Robert G. Kaplan of

CURE: Community Understanding for Racial and Ethnic Equality

Something to Consider: Are you anxious or distressed by immigrants and foreigners? Do you hold resentment for certain cultures for their increasing prominence? Maybe instead of being intimidated and unwelcoming, it would be a benefit for us to learn from other peoples unique ways and see how to adapt their strengths to our society as well. To appreciate these people as a contributing benefit to our society, and not as a threat.

Related articles:

Parshat Yayigash (2013)

Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Are you better off than your parents were?

One of the things that I enjoy the most is listening to my grandfather tell stories. Though he is suffering from Alzheimer’s which impairs his memories, his recall of the far-off past is still intact. It is those wandering stories that always kept me enthralled hour after hour. Now after all these years of our talks I see our time together becomes less frequent, so I cherish these moments all the more. I long to hear about what he has seen and done, to give context to how my family and I came to our place and position in life. I think it’s important to hear the scale of their challenges and the measure of their toil.

How will you recount your journey? Will you look back with nostalgia or regret?

I’ll be honest with you, I often feel that the rest of my family doesn’t spend enough time taking with the grandparents about their history. And I hear the reasons why some shy away. I supposed it is easy to understand how one can be a bit intimidated by our elders often crotchety talk sometimes. In their senior repose, even the coming of good fortune can tend to be downplayed and met with a wry face.

This is how I picture the way that Yaakov Avinu reacts to his arrival in Egypt and his presentation to Pharaoh. He has been reunited with his long-lost son, and they are being granted amnesty in Egypt instead of suffering the famine of Canaan. As the night continues and Pharaoh tries to make conversation with Yaakov we see this awkward exchange. Pharaoh just asks him how old he is and we get this cranky response:

“And Yaakov said to Pharaoh

the days of my wandering

have been 130 years.

Few and bitter

have been the days of the years of my life,

and still I have not achieved

the day of the years

of the lives of my fathers

during the days of their wandering.”

| Vayomer Ya’akov el-Par’oh

| yemei shnei megurai

| shloshim ume’at shanah

| me’at vera’im

| hayu yemei shnei chaiai

| velo hisigu

| et-yemei shnei

| chaiei avotai

| bimei megureihem

Genesis 47:9

Now we must ask ourselves, what is Yaakov saying here? Is he just falling into nostalgia or is he really saying something? Is this just the ranting of a tired old man, or is he trying to relay something?

I have to start this way because in modern-speak among the young people the word nostalgia doesn’t really mean the same thing it used to. Instead of nostalgia being the glowing admiration of the past that our parents saw, for the youth of today nostalgia means being crippled by the trapping of the past. As they say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. At this point most often the brains turns off. And that’s tragic, because there is a wonderful lesson that is completely relevant to our generation which can be learned by listening to what Yaakov has to say here.

If we actually take notice we will see that Yaakov is not so much praising his past. He isn’t really rose-tinting the old-days. In fact what he says about his life is kind of striking. Here at 130 years old he says his days were “me’at ve’ra’im / few and evil.”

On one hand we can look at it this way, Yaakov is 130 years old but he has not lived as long as his fathers Abraham and Isaac, who lived about 180 or so. So is he begrudging that he doesn’t seem to have the longevity of his forefathers?

Yaakov’s life is not yet over when he makes this statement, this is said upon his arrival in Egypt. Surely this was not the end of his life that he could speak which such certain remorse. Secondly, having lived 130 years he is not exactly having his days cut short. Sure, he didn’t live as long as his ancestors. But he did live beyond the normal 120 years we associate with natural life.

What some fail to recognize about this verse is that he is not talking about his life being short. He is saying that his megurai – his sojourn, his journey, his pilgrimage has been short. His wandering has been short.

Now how can he say this? Is it not true that Yaakov spent many years on the run away from home? In fact if anything his wandering in life actually ate up a lot of his early years. His years spent with Laban in service for his wives were 14 years alone. We aren’t exactly sure how many years he spent on the run from Eisav and in his journey to return home to Canaan.

But he did have a lot of years spent in servitude after running away, we can’t ignore that. However, in the context of his youth it is said, “And Yaakov served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him but a few days, because of the love he had for her.” (see Genesis 29:20) Many years were consumed with hardship, but he didn’t get overwhelmed by them because of his passion that propelled him. In his mind those days went by quickly. He can’t be talking about the flight of his youth here.

The reason why most quickly jump to the conclusion that he is talking about his sojourn when he left Canaan is because those days were indeed “ra’im / bitter,” or literally evil. They were days of calamity. He was on the run for his life from his brother, he was oppressed by his uncle, he was swindled for being lovesick, and he wrestled with his nature and with the divine through an angel as well. But that doesn’t seem to be what he is talking about.

Many midrashim that bring clarity to this text actually point us back to the start of Parshat Vayeishev, which just recently passed. There we see another contrast between Yaakov and his forefathers:

“Yaakov dwelt in the land |

of his father’s sojournings, |

in the land of Canaan.” |

וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ

מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו

בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן :

Genesis 37:1

In this light we see things very different. Instead of Yaakov being the wander, we see him as the settled one. He’s made his yeshuv, his settlement. But it is his fathers that were the sojourners, they were the wanderers. As we see when it comes to the life of Avraham and even Isaac, they traveled around in their tents. They owned land, but they were not settled men. They could not be settled men because they were gerim – they were strangers, they were outsiders, they were migrants. Unlike Yaakov, they were not recognized as born there as citizens on the land and were always contended with as foreigners in the eyes of the Canaanites. This always kept them on the move. In contrast Yaakov just returned to the land that was previously settled by them and dwelt there, and lived out a pretty sedentary life until he is brought down to Egypt in this week’s parsha. He ran early on in his life, but in the end he live consecutively in one place more than his forefathers had.

And that seems to be what Yaakov is getting at. Abraham and Isaac roamed the valleys and plains of Canaan. They ran the wild, wide-open habitation they made for themselves all the days of their lives.

Yaakov returned home to Canaan find himself dwelling to maintain a legacy settlement home. And though he was in one place and physically at rest, his mind and heart was never at rest.

By and large our midrashim and the commentary of our sages point out the fact that Yaakov’s years were indeed bitter because of the loss of his son Yosef. Add to that the untimely loss of his beloved wife, Rachel Imenu. Compound that with the callous and treacherous ways of his sons, as also displayed in acts like their massacre of Shechem. He returned home to settle, but little did he rest because of his worries. Though he dwelt securely in the land for many years, his days were consumed with worry that made them pass fast and furiously.

When I consider all this, I don’t see Yaakov as bitter that he didn’t get to live a full cowboy-like existence that his forefathers did, as much I see a man who was exhausted from the burden of property and maintaining that established legacy he fought so hard to win. I believe what is going on Yaakov is that when he considers his life he doesn’t see any of the pioneering and grand goals his fathers had. His forefathers established new settlements, built their many wells to secure the future of that land. They had the thrill of being the founder and inventor, and not so much the burden of being the boss. He seems almost envious of their freedom. Likewise it can be seem that for all the things that Yaakov did accomplished, he never achieved the things his forefathers did.

Now when Yaakov is called to recount his years, looking back his days seem quite few and his life profoundly bitter. And this is how Yaakov answers the Pharaoh who seems to be humoring him, right before Yaakov blesses him and leaves.

As I look at these word of Yaakov I also begin to see another truth revealed to me when I look at the words, “velo hisigu et-yemei shnei chaiei avotai / and still I have not reached the days of the lives of my fathers.” We have to remember one of the reasons that Yaakov and his sons are there to begin with, because there is a famine in their land. All the settlements and accomplishments of his forefathers were abandoned and he was forced to take sanctuary again in foreign land.

What I believe Yaakov is saying here is that he did not achieve (hisigu) in his lifetime what his forefathers did in leaving something better behind for his children. His fathers acquired much, they build upon the foundation of the previous generation, and had an impressive inheritance to leave behind. In contrast Yaakov was leaving his children in financial ruin, abandoning their family home and they were now receiving foreign aid. He didn’t appear to be leaving his children off better than his fathers left him.

In conclusion, we have often talked about the topic yeridah ha-dorot – the decent of generations, that as generations go by men seem to grow smaller. The men of the old days, they just can’t happen in our day. They just don’t make men the way they used to. (see Parshashiot of Lech Lecha and Vayeira 2012, Parshat Vayeira 2013)

We have even seen this attitude mirrored in our culture in more recent years by people like Tom Brokaw, dubbing our seniors that lived through The Great Depression and World War II “The Greatest Generation.” Likewise we see all the documentaries and books glowingly praising their public works and social justice accomplishments, ones that sadly lack today even though we have the know-how. We are puny men in their shadow, the trope goes.

Sure there is a level of this reflected in Yaakov’s statement, however I believe it is the position of destitution that irks him the most. Yaakov is happy to be reunited with his son Yosef here, but bitter to be doing so as a refugee.

So what lesson can people who have a full life ahead of us learn from this reflection of Yaaakov? What kind of things should we consider to make sure we don’t look back with bitter regret? Here are some suggestions:

First off, that we should try to live our lives so that we do not look back regretful of many years of running from and wrestling with one’s self-identity. Much of Yaakov’s personal suffering was due to that. Have you made peace with yourself?

Secondly, we need to also set great goals. We need to set our mark in the way that the generations before us did. We need to be original and ground breaking. We need to demand better than we had in our previous generation, not satisfied to just inherit what our parents built. We need to ask ourselves, are you better off than your parents were?

And lastly, are you leaving your children better off than your parents left you? I’m not just asking are you leaving an inheritance to your children. What I’m asking is, are you leaving your children in a better position that you were? It’s more than just considering if you are leaving your children anything more than a legacy of debt. Are your children and grandchildren poised for a better future? Have you left them a society that is more civil than the one before? Better yet, have you left them a country that has more opportunities and economic promise than you inherited?

If we can’t say yes to these things, maybe we really need to do something before we look back with regret instead of nostalgia.

Parshat Shoftim (2013)

Parshat Shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

How does the Torah define perversion? When the law becomes deviant.

_img-sefer-gavelHow often do you hear politicians and lobbyist groups talking about uprooting perversion in our country? It is a chorus that is ringing all over the world as people begin to feel social and economic turmoil. People are once again being singled out by the state, being blamed for destroying the moral and cultural fabric of a nation. For many of us Jews, to see state-sponsored persecution abound is something traumatic after the experiences of the Shoah – the holocaust of World War II. How can we respond to this?

It is true that the Torah does charge us with a call for holiness and purity, and also to do away with foreign ways and false religion. But it also charges us with justice and righteousness. So important is this charge that the discussion of holiness and Temple worship is temporarily suspended in this book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) to talk about setting up the courts of justice in a simple three verse clause (see Deut. 16:18-20).

At all the gates court is to be held by shoftim – judges, magistrates – who are to hand down mishpat tzedek – just rulings, or righteous judgment as some people poetically say.

As previously discussed (see Parshat Shoftim 2011), we are told to not twist (or bend) judgment (lo-tateh mishpat), nor show favoritism; nor are we to take a bribe, as that blinds the eyes of the wise. Then it continues with the words, “v’sulaf divrei tzedek / and you shall not pervert words of justice.” (see Deut. 16:19)

From this perspective we need to think differently about who we call perverts, and whom we call bent or twisted.

I call this to our attention because we all know the next words of the Torah, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof / Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (see Deut. 16:20) One might ask themselves why we are told to radaf – to pursue, to run after justice and righteousness. The reason is obviously because justice if often hard to grasp, and can often elude us. Yes, we are to chase down justice. However it means something more still. To radaf means to seek something with persistence; hauntingly, annoyingly, to trouble someone until justice is met. Most of us are annoying people already, if only we would use it for a righteous purpose!

How can we do that? By opposing policies and regimes which pervert words of justice (v’sulaf divrei tzedek). By actively opposing those who warp the legal system which meant to set policy for the betterment of all people, and instead turn the law into an element of oppression. Those which exchange words of righteousness for words of persecution.

Now I want to remind us that this is all talked about in the context of not showing favoritism nor taking bribes. We are instead instructed to continue to pursue justice in the face of this. Why must we pursue it? For what reason do we have to chase after it?

It’s because sometimes justice is not something easily attained. Sometimes there is all kinds of bribery, or as in our society this most often displayed as a flagrant use of corporate influence. We are not to give in to this ourselves, but keep bringing up “divrei” – not just mere words; this also quite literally means “cases” or “matters” or “legal opinions.” We continue to annoyingly raise these issues in the public square and in the courts until justice is met.

I want to point out that this text does not just speak to the judges, it speaks to us all by stating “you shall not bend judgment.” Or as most often stated, “you shall not pervert judgment.” It calls us all to look at ourselves and ask ourselves; have we become distorted, deviated and twisted in our own sense of justice? Are we negatively using our influence to harm others, or are we actively pursuing true justice?

Parshat Eikev (2012)

Parshat Eikev
Deuteronomy 7:12-11:15

Haughtiness: “I built this all myself”

This week our parsha is going to continue with the theme of the last couple weeks, Moses is going to continue warning the Israelites, and reminding them of everything he has taught them. Herein he is going to tell us all what to look out for, what we should protect ourselves against, here at the start of the second aliyah:

“Beware that you do not forget

Hashem your G-d

in not keeping His commandments

and ordinances and statutes

which I have command you this day.”

| Hishamer lecha pen-tishkach

| et-Hashem Eloheicha

| levilti shmor mitzvotav

| umishpatav vechukotav

| asher anochi metzavecha ha-yom.

Deuteronomy 8:11

We are told that we should not forget G-d, how do we do this? By not being shomer mitzvot – by not keeping the commandments. We show that we don’t really remember G-d when we don’t keep His chukim and mishpatim – the reasonable commands and the supra-rational commands of Torah. (see Parshat Chukat 2011) If we do not keep all the commandments, even the ones we don’t understand and find reasonable, we are forgetting Hashem.

Yellling Lubowski

Parshat Eikev: That’s the time G-d told the well-off, “You didn’t build that.”

There are all these mitzvot written into the Torah that we are to keep. They are summarized in the Ten Commandments, five sayings defining our responsibilities to G-d and five defining our responsibilities to our fellow man. These have already been referenced last week explicitly (see Parshat Ve’etchanan 2012), and we will continuously see them mentioned as we continue on in this summary of the Torah in Deuteronomy. Our sages recognize 613 commandments, that are summarized in these ten. Our sages further distill them down according to the teachings of Hillel and Akiva; to love Hashem our G-d and to love our neighbor as ourself. We cannot keep the Torah by only keeping half of it, we need to keep our responsibilities to both G-d and mankind.

How is this forgetting G-d if we don’t keep all these mitzvot? How can one be forgetting something that they are purposely avoiding?

That is precisely the point here, you see this forgetting is not just that one is merely ignorant of it and it slips ones mind. Our Torah calls us out to not let G-d be forgotten (nish’kach) in our lives, because generally to be forgotten (hushekach) is a deliberate putting out of one’s mind; its intentional forgetting. A better way of saying it would probably be ignoring.

One would wonder, what would occupy someone to the point that they would want to ignore doing mitzvot, from doing good deeds at every moment that they could? Is it hardship and trials? Is one too busy making a living? What could it be? Well the answer is yes, and no. Believe it or not people would find themselves too busy, too occupied to take time out of their busy schedules to remember their responsibilities to mitzvot. The Torah expresses this as it goes on with the text. What does it warn us will lead to us intentionally forgetting our responsibilities to mitzvot? Notice what is says:

“…lest you eat and are satisfied,

and you build fine houses and live in them

And your heards and your flocks multiply,

and your silver and gold increase,

and all you have increases…”

| Pen-tochal vesavata

| uvatim tovim tivneh veyashavta.

| Uvekarcha vetzoncha yirbeyun

| vechesef vezahav yirbeh-lach

| vechol asher-lecha yirbeh.

Deuteronomy 8:12-13

Here Moses warns us against getting distracted and ignoring our Torah responsibilities, because our attention instead turns to our own satisfaction and gratification. Notice the tone here, it’s not that the Torah is saying that there is anything wrong with abundance and wealth, in fact that is one of the promises of keeping this Torah is that we will be blessed and satiated. It’s not even necessarily abhorring the finer things, like really nice houses. Thats not what it’s saying. What it warns us against is the attitude that we can develop once we have the finner things in life, and live in excess:

“…and grow haughty in your heart

and forget Hashem your G-d

who brought you out of the land of Egypt

out of the house of slavery.”

| Veram levavecha

| veshachachta et-Hashem Eloheicha

| hamotzi’acha me’eretz Mitzrayim

| mibeit avadim

Deuteronomy 8:14

The Torah warns that often time when people are well-off and live in excess they tend to become haughty; rum in Hebrew, which means to be lifted up. But is also plainly means many other things in ordinary language, such as being loud (Deut. 27:14), or tall in stature (Deut. 1:28). The idea is that one is comparatively higher and more noticeable than another (Isaiah 2:12). This attitude is not innocuous, as seen in this last example the reason implied is with the intent to humble other people. If we doubt this, it is spelled out for us time and time again in the Psalms and Proverbs that this is an attitude of arrogance (Proverbs 6:17; Proverbs 30:13; Psalm 131:1). It means to be defiant and presumptuous (Numbers 15:3). In one example we even see this as so revolting to G-d that He removed King Nebuchadnezzar from his throne for his presumptuous arrogance (Daniel 5:20).

Its not necessarily that G-d has a problem with people living in access and becoming lofty, its seems that people in this situation tend to make themselves alienated from G-d and doing goodly things. For this reason the scriptures warn us:

“Even though Hashem is high

He regards the lowly

and the proud He knows from afar.”

כִּירָם יְוָ, |

וְשָׁפָל יִרְאֶה; |

וְגָבֹהַּ, מִמֶּרְחָק יְיֵדָע. |

Psalm 138:6

The scriptures is telling us a few things in this. Its hard for a person of excess to be close to G-d and good things because they set themselves above and higher than others. However it also contrasts a difference in the nature of G-d, presenting us with a trait that we should emulate: that even though G-d is lofty He is close to the lowly. He still gives consideration to the humble.  But the haughty are so high up in their arrogance and self-pride that they are far off from anywhere G-d can be found.

What is really sad is that given our Jewish experience of hardship we should find an attitude of aloofness abhorrent. Namely, for the reason that this parsha points out, because when we show arrogance we are forgetting that we were once slaves in Egypt. We forget the lowly background that we came from, we should have no room for such arrogance. How is it therefore possible for one to be able to still harbor such a proud and pretentious attitude (gavoach).

As we continue on through this parsha in the next few verses Moses begins to recount the suffering and hardships that the Israelites experienced in the desert. They were lead through a wilderness, filled with dangers, went thirsty, went hungry and were afflicted in every imaginable way. But all of this was for a purpose, so that the people would be humbled for their benefit in the end. (v.15-16) He broke us down in order to build us up, to test us in a way that is akin to building endurance in the body. All these trials were to make us stronger and for our benefit. Furthermore G-d didn’t just leave us out there to suffer, He provided for our needs in miraculous and unprecedented ways.

G-d warns us against the tendency to stand back after one reaches their goals and gains their acquisitions to look back on that hardship of one’s rise and instead of being humbled become inclined to arrogance through it. Not giving proper consideration to all the help they received from G-d along the way in order to make that possible as well.

G-d through Moses begins to finish up this statement of what attitude and mindset we are to avoid in our success:

“…and [yet] in your heart you say,

‘My strength and the might of my hand

has gotten me all this wealth.”

| Ve’amarta bilvavecha

| kochi ve’otzem yadi

| asah li et-hachayil hazeh.

Deuteronomy 8:17

G-d warns us that it might be true that we came from nothing. But instead of remembering the lowly conditions we came from, instead we only remember the hardships while ignoring all the help we got along the way that helped make that possible. In the end one foolishly believes and begins to presumptuously profess that they built everything they had with their own two hands. It was their struggle that made it happen. It was their blood, sweat and tears that went into it. That is why they are so proud and haughty. It was all them, so now this is all theirs alone.

But in the end this lofty attitude is false and ungodly. It is widely known in our tradition that we don’t leave anything to chance. We think that all things have a purposefulness, everything is hishgach pratit – Divinely ordered and by providence in our lives. Our sages tell us that our success is a matter of providence often times more than skill, this is well known; its more of a matter of birth than achievement (Talmud Bavli Sanheidrin 156a). But even if we insist that it is based on our own skill, the Torah itself here in our parsha tells us that we still can’t take credit for it; as if it was built merely of our own labor. The Torah tells us why we need to consider G-d who is the champion of the humble and lowly. The parsha continues:

“But you must remember Hashem your G-d

who gives you the strength

to make wealth

in order to establish His covenant

which He swore to your forefathers,

[for it to be] as it is today.”

| Vezacharta et-Hashem Eloheicha

| ki hu hanoten lecha koach

| la’asot chayil

| lema’an hakim et-berito

| asher-nishba la’avoteycha

| kayom hazeh.

Deuteronomy 8:18

The Torah calls us out. It says to even those of us who have suffered the biggest hardships, who came from nothing and have risen through the ranks to greatness, to those us that have built and acquired much, it says to us that we can’t really take credit for building that ourselves. Hashem gave us the strength to be able to accomplish that. Furthermore we are children of promise and privileged though this covenant of the Torah, its not all our building, we are benefactors of things that started long before we came into this world.

For this reason, this parsha stands out to me in this time of political and economic turmoil. Everywhere it seems the classes in society are fighting each other. The poor demanding a better shake, and the wealthy obstinately insisting that they deserve all their excess because its the produce of their own hand and might. This parsha doesn’t shame people for success, but it decries pride and aloofness. This parsha cries out against the attitude of tycoons who only concerning themselves with their own continued increase and who could care-less for the common man. We need to help others because we have been helped along the way. To not recognize this is haughtiness.

It also calls out the angry and crotchety conservatives in our midst that have and still benefit so much from the excess left over from the second part of the 20th century, and from the foundations of social justice and the social safety net, but aren’t concerned at all with what they leave behind to future generations. You know these people, you’ve heard them loud and clear, “I did it all myself. You young people think you deserve so much. I don’t care what happens if they do away with that, I’m gonna be dead anyway.” The Torah calls us out. It reminds us that we benefit today from a legacy of promise and blessing that has culminated in the success we have today, so it wasn’t all us; believing anything else is just arrogance. We need to be concerned with what we leave behind.

Once we understand that we can start to give serious consideration to the calls of tzedakah – of justice and righteousness, as defined by our moral responsibility to do justice and give charity. Only then are we truly remembering Hashem and His mitzvot.

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