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Tripping Over Words

July 31, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

One of my favorite activities is meeting with pre-bar/bat mitzvah students to talk about their Torah and Haftarah readings.

I recently asked a student, Jennifer, about Parashat Korah, and, in particular, about the sequence of events that involves Korah and Moses. I explained that in her Torah portion, Korah, a prominent Israelite wandering in the desert under God’s leadership through Moses, was unhappy with how Moses was handling things. But rather than try to work things out, Korah instigated revolution. Numbers 16:3 reports that Korah publicly chastised Moses, and then one verse later, that Moses “fell upon his face.” I asked Jennifer if she knew what “fell upon his face” means.

I didn’t expect her to know. How could she? It’s a biblical expression that we don’t have in English, and, in fact, as a translator I wouldn’t even use that odd phrase in English.

But Jennifer surprised me and answered the question with remarkable and unusual insight. She told me she thought that Moses tripped over Korah’s words.

Wow.

In that one answer, the student brilliantly understood what is widely regarded to be the point of the story, and she based it firmly in the larger context of Judaism.

Our words have power. Judaism is clear on that. This Yom Kippur — as we do every year — we will read from Deuteronomy about the power of words. God puts before all of us blessing and curse, commanding that we choose blessing over curse. The point there is not “cursing out” (though that’s probably a bad idea, too), but rather actual curses: saying something bad to make something bad happen. Contrarily, blessings are when you say something good to make something good happen. On our holiest day of the year we remind the congregation that we all have the power to bless and to curse, and that we are commanded to choose blessing.

Of course, the connected notions that our words have power and that we have to choose wisely are not confined to Jewish thought. We find the same sentiments in aphorisms — “The pen is mightier than the sword,” after all, and “if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.” — and in laws against slander.

We actually have two Torah readings on Yom Kippur. The first, as we just saw, deals with the power of words. The second, generally called the holiness code, comes from Leviticus 19. It’s a detailed description of what to do and what not to do in order to be holy.

Some of the ordinances seem to be particularly innovative and forward looking, as in Leviticus 19:15, which warns against judicial favoritism based on economic position. That’s something we’re still grappling with thousands of years later.

By contrast, Leviticus 19:14, just one verse earlier, seems to prohibit something so cruel that, one would hope, we wouldn’t need a warning not to do it: “Don’t place an obstacle before the blind.” Is that something people were doing? Is that, like favoritism, something we have to worry about?

Yes, says my student, because the obstacle can be our unseen words. When Korah spoke out publicly against Moses, he put an obstacle before him. And because even Moses couldn’t see spoken words, Moses was like a blind man, and he tripped.

Korah’s unkind actions had a short-term and long-term impact, and neither of them was good. First, 250 people died. Then 14,700 more. All because of Korah’s words.

When children think of power, physicality most naturally comes to mind. One of my projects for the upcoming year is to make it clearer that words — of education, praise, consolation, and support, but also of misdirection, condemnation, antagonism, and back-stabbing — all have power. When we open our mouths, we change the world.

I’m going to take my cue from Jennifer who insightfully connected both Yom Kippur readings. There’s the easy part: we shouldn’t make the blind stumble. And there’s the harder part: if we’re not careful, our words can be the instruments of damage. And there’s the lesson from Leviticus: when we fail, the whole community suffers.

I hope you’ll join me in looking forward to a year free of verbal stumbling blocks.

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Categories: Bible, education

The Saga of Family Life: Vayigash

January 2, 2009 1 comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, opens with the nearly final stages of the drama of the misery and anguish of our ancestors’ family lives. But amid the sorrow we also find the promise of better times.

We read of Judah in Egypt as he begs for life-saving food from a man who will turn out to be his brother Joseph. Joseph, now the second most powerful man in Egypt, looks back at the man he knows to be his long-estranged brother Judah.

Both Judah and Joseph were victims of their father Jacob’s atrocious parenting skills, as evidenced, for example, by Jacob’s decision to give Joseph a fancy coat but to give nothing to any of Joseph’s brothers. (“Here’s a Hanukah experiment you can try at home,” Rabbi Larry Kushner teaches in this regard. “See what happens if you give an expensive present to only one of your children….”) So back in Canaan, Judah had helped sell Joseph to their cousins, the Ishmaelites, as a slave. Jacob was distraught at the loss of his son, Judah seemed not to care, and for a while slavery was too good for Joseph. He spent time in an Egyptian jail.

It is perhaps not Jacob’s fault that he never learned to be a good parent. His mother and father fought over which child they loved more, and Esau was always Daddy’s favorite. Jacob’s mother was conniving and devious. Jacob’s father quickly grew so senile that he couldn’t tell the difference between his son and a sheep.

Isaac, of course, learned from his own father, Abraham, the father who took him on a father-and-son outing where he almost sacrificed him on Mount Moriah.

In addition, Jacob inadvertently married the wrong woman. We can only imagine the sibling rivalry that results when your sister is also your husband’s favorite wife.

Jealousy, pettiness, and sibling rivalry seem to be the only family dynamics Jacob knew. So perhaps we understand why Jacob was unable to keep his family together. If Genesis is about families, it is about dysfunctional families, as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob make abundantly clear, along with Ishmael, Hagar, Esau, and so forth. Not one of them lived a particularly happy life.

Still, never one to learn from his mistakes, Jacob gathers all of his remaining children together when the family is faced with famine:

“I want all of you to go down to Egypt to try to get us some food,” he instructs his children. But then he clarifies what he wants: “All of you except Benjamin, that is.”

Why not Benjamin?

“Because I love him,” Jacob tells his children.

The message is clear.

Eventually, Benjamin must join his brothers in Egypt, and that brings us to this week’s installment of “what else can go wrong.” Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, demands that Benjamin stay behind and not return to their father.

But that’s not an option, Judah knows. “If my father sees that Benjamin is gone, he will die,” Judah tells the powerful Egyptian leader.

Judah has understood the situation fully. Daddy will die if Benjamin doesn’t return. But Daddy doesn’t care about him. “Let me stay in his place,” Judah offers. “Daddy won’t even miss me,” he knows.

In offering to stay behind instead of Benjamin, Judah recognizes his father’s failings, and, more importantly, he accepts them. This is the moment he breaks the cycle of family dysfunction that plagued the first four generations of our ancestors’ lives.

Genesis, of course, is about us. For we are Abraham, sometimes angry at our children, and we are Rachel and Leah, jealous of our siblings. We are Judah, still trying to understand why our parents cannot be perfect. We are all of them.

Let us not forget that things turned out very well for Judah, a fact we mark at every wedding when we quote the prophet Jeremiah: “Once again there will be heard among Judah the sounds of joy and happiness, the sounds of the bride and groom.”

Let us pray that God give us the courage to learn from Judah and accept reality. And let us look forward to the joy and happiness that await when we do.

Shabbat Shalom.

Categories: Bible, spirituality

There’s a Famine in the Land

January 1, 2009 2 comments

By Joel M. Hoffman

Genesis is about families, creation, where we come from, and what our lives are like. But it is also about famine. In fact, famine was so common that Genesis 26:1 begins, “there was a famine in the land,” but then the text has to clarify that it wasn’t the first famine, it was another famine.

Abraham and Sarah endured a famine. So did Isaac and Rebekkah. And so did Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, along with their children. Joseph was spared hunger, but that doesn’t mean that the famine didn’t impact his life. In fact, it was the famine that led to his rise in the ranks of the Egyptian power structure. Whether for the better or for the worse, famine shaped our people’s early life.

Three things about famines are important.

First, they always happen “in the land.” Even though some people suffer more than others, and even though some people, like Joseph, actually benefit, no famine is a personal famine. Famines belong collectively to everyone in “the land.”

Secondly, famines are not sent by God. They just happen. Our text does not read, “God sent a famine,” or, “God punished Abraham with a famine,” or even, “God tested Abraham with a famine,” but rather the clearer and more accurate, “a famine happened.”

Thirdly, when our ancestors suffered during a famine, they didn’t try to hide their pain. Their only reaction was to acknowledge their undeserved misfortune and try to make things better. They looked for food. Genesis 12:10 reads: “There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt” to get food. He didn’t sneak out of the house (well, tent) trying to hide his situation. He accepted the problem and set out to try to solve it.

All of this seems suddenly relevant in 2009 America as our own savings accounts dwindle and as some of us lose our jobs. Most of us haven’t descended into actual hunger, but there are those who fear that it’s not far off. We are like our ancestors, unexpectedly faced with uncertainty, unsure of the future and sometimes even afraid of the present.

Unfortunately, we are also unlike our ancestors, for we have brought something into our modern misfortune that never plagued our forebears: shame. It’s not that they didn’t know about shame. They did. But in the Bible shame was reserved for vile actions. Judah’s episode with a harlot is a source of shame. So too is building the idolatrous golden calf. More generally, shame is tied up with behavior, not circumstances. Do something wrong to someone else, and you should be ashamed. If something happens to you, you should not. We seem to have forgotten this basic fact.

When the bottom fell out of the Argentine economy several years ago, when half of that country reverted to the barter system, synagogues there did two things. They collected food for members who couldn’t afford to feed their families. But the synagogues also left their doors unlocked at night so people could sneak in under cover of darkness and find food, avoiding the shame they would otherwise have felt when people saw their poverty. Why was this second step necessary?

In this country, too, though most of us still have food, shame has crept in where it doesn’t belong. Synagogues are offering job services, but most are trying to do it anonymously. Some people who lose their jobs don’t even tell their spouses or children. Again, why?

We live in an unredeemed world, our sages teach. Life is good, but life is also hard. That’s just the way it is. Perhaps we can learn from our ancestors that misfortune is part of life, and, more importantly, that we have no reason to hide it.

The coming months and perhaps years will be hard enough on their own. Let’s not make them worse by adding the unnecessary burden of shame.

After all, there’s a famine in the land.

Categories: Bible, spirituality