A Message about Pittsburgh

Dear Friends,

The JCP community expresses its profound shock and sadness at this morning’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, PA. Early reports indicate that there are multiple casualties and deaths and thankfully law enforcement has the suspect in custody.

At JCP, we are in close contact with local law enforcement authorities and our private security firm. This is our top priority each and every day. The safety, health and well-being of our community is always at the forefront of our minds and we will always do everything in our power to protect JCP as a safe haven for our members and neighbors.

Again in our nation, a violent act of hatred has taken innocent lives, this time those of our fellow Jews at a synagogue service on Shabbat morning. The pain of such inexplicable actions is profound. And at such times, we must rely upon our determination to transcend hatred and build the kinds of communities that have always sustained us as Jewish Americans.

As Jews we are reminded of the Torah’s central tenet that every human being is made in the Divine Image. Every nation, every race, every gender has the dignity and sacred privilege of being intimately linked to God.

As Americans, we take great pride in our nation’s motto: E Pluribus Unum, From Many, One. We are made great as a country when we honor and respect our friends and neighbors and recognize that each of us as individuals and communities have a sacred civic duty to celebrate our diversity and pluralism as one nation.

Finally, if you have family or friends in Pittsburgh, we hope and pray for their safety and well-being. If there is any support we may offer, please don’t hesitate to ask.

In the meantime, we offer condolences to those who lost loved ones today in Pittsburgh and we remain determined to build together a world of tolerance and love and peace.

Erin Silvers, Evan Roth, and Rabbi Andy Bachman

How You Get There

Life can be so entangling sometimes. Complications arise on a daily basis. Demands pile up. We make lists to get through. And the structure, the map to getting things done, is actually a comfort, giving order to the chaos of what it can sometimes feel like to be alive.

In last week’s Torah portion, Va’yera, God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, one of the most profoundly challenging notions in the entire Jewish tradition. It’s a story that has provoked, angered, and troubled some; and, paradoxically, has consoled others with its uncommon call to service and faith, exemplifying father and son’s apparent devotion to God by the demonstration of their willingness to accede to the Divine command.

There is doubtless an enormously compelling quality to the story. Abraham and Sarah, Jewish civilization’s founding father and mother, have trouble conceiving. Isaac comes late, practically a miracle. His half-brother Ishmael torments him. The family breaks apart when Hagar and Ishmael are expelled by an angry and protective Sarah. And no sooner does that occur when God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his son — by “listing” his demand. “Take your son. Your only son. The one you love. Isaac. Go to the land of Moriah. Offer him as a burnt offering. On one of the mountains I will show you.” The Sages love this listing. They point out that imbedded in it is a dialogue between Abraham and God that is about breaking the news slowly, easing Abraham into the news. And even giving Abraham a chance to argue back, in the space between the words. “Take your son.” “I have two sons.” “Your only son.” “Ishmael is only to his mother and Isaac is only to his.” “The one you love.” “I love them both!” Exasperated, God finally says, “Isaac!”

The listing allows us to see Abraham as hesitant, protective, and a clever negotiator. It shows our forefather in dialogue with his God, pushing back on the command, arguing. How could he not be the first Jew?

And another list, which leads to more dialogue, this time between father and son. Get up in the morning. Saddle the ass. Take two servants. Fetch Isaac. Carry some wood.

Isaac notices and says to Abraham, “My father, I see the fire and the wood. But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Like two shop owners going over a list of what to do to get the day’s work done, Isaac intuits the moment but chooses not to ask directly what is actually going on. He is a willing participant in the drama. “God will provide Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” It is a chilling, powerful confession of faith.

But for purposes of argument, the lists provide the structure, the form in which the drama plays out. It creates the space not only for Abraham and Isaac to address one another but bequeaths to future generations the opportunity to confront the text, to ask difficult questions, to forge meaning from the moments directly in front of them.

Which leads us to this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah. The parshah begins by announcing Sarah’s death but doesn’t reveal why she died. The midrash says that when Sarah heard the news of Isaac’s near sacrifice, she had a heart attack and died. The underlying assumption, we can assume, is that the event was a deeply traumatizing one, tearing at the fabric of the family. It raises questions about faith and what the price can be for our devotions when they veer toward the extreme. It is a tragic story not only for the result but for the ways in which questions and answers are not always explicitly related but rather are buried and subsumed, left for future generations to learn from.

“And the life of Sarah was a hundred years. And twenty years. And seven years. These were the years of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriath Arba. Which is Hebron. Which is in the land of Canaan. And Abraham eulogized her. And cried for her.”

Another list. Rashi says that the Torah delineates Sarah’s age this way to eulogize her as well. “She was as beautiful at 100 as she was at 20 and as sinless at 20 as she was at 7. And each of those 127 years was an expression of her inherent goodness.”

But there is another list is even more instructive. It shows us that first Abraham eulogized Sarah and only then he cried. First he had to tend to the business at hand. He had to buy a plot. He had to make a funeral for his wife. Speeches were made. Food was served. Mourners and consolers gathered together. Only then could the tears really flow. Only then, with time and the beginning of distance from the trauma, could reflection bear the fruit of wisdom. “Time heals all wounds” rings a bit hollow here. We might say that time offers the space to heal, even when scars remain.

Consider Pittsburgh and the precious lives taken last Shabbat in an act of anti-Semitic terror. How do we not, on some level, see these eleven beautiful souls as having offered their lives to God in such a moment? Praying, in synagogue, on Shabbat. Doing what Jews are commanded to do by their God for a thousand generations. It’s mind-boggling, disturbing, challenging, enraging, and yes, deeply moving and inspiring at the same time. How many prior generations of Jews have died simply for being Jews? The tradition says that this death is called “Kiddush Hashem,” a sanctification of God’s name. From the Romans to the Crusades to the Inquisition and through the Holocaust is the history of Jews who died only because they were Jews. And rather than run from this reality or curse God, our tradition engages with lists of questions and arguments and prayers and theologies and poetry and art — in an ongoing tapestry of what it means to be a Jew: to draw goodness and wisdom from the bitter waters of human suffering.

Malbim, a nineteenth century Polish rabbi, said of this sequence of events, of the dialogue and the lists shared by father, mother and son, “It’s not where you’re going, it’s how you get there,” an expression of Jewish wisdom that I have personally found to be of profound comfort on countless occasions. And as we watched our extended Jewish family in Pittsburgh come to terms with the outrageous violence and destruction wrought at the Tree of Life synagogue, with an all too acute awareness of the traumatic reverberations that will continue to rock the lives of survivors for the rest of their lives, we have an opportunity to apply Malbim’s wisdom for comfort and for good.

“It’s not where we are going it’s how we get there” is found in the outpouring of love and support from Jewish communities all over the world.

“It’s not where we are going it’s how we get there” is found in the outpouring of love and support from Americans of all faiths who gathered not only in Pittsburgh but in communities all over the nation in displays of interfaith solidarity that is the greatest peaceful response to the anti-Semitism in Pittsburgh, to the racism in Charleston, to the hatred of Islam and Sikhism in Oak Creek and on and on.

“It’s not where we are going it’s how we get there” is our call to action to show justice and love and mercy to our neighbors not despite our differences but because of our differences. Our diversity is a blessing, a teaching the rabbis of the Talmud made quite clear two thousand years ago when they said that God made the human in the Divine Image, formed with the breath of life in different colors of earth, in order to teach that no one is better than any other.

This we know. This we Jews have always testified to throughout our history. And so we draw up lists, over and over again to remind people of this wisdom, of these eternal truths.

Be kind to the stranger, for your were strangers in the land of Egypt.

What does God require of you? Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Carry the list with you. Read it once in a while. Talk about it. But don’t just talk the talk. Walk it, too.

Because remember: It’s not where we are going, it’s how we get there.

May the best of our humanity shine a light of hope and peace for our city and our nation. May all faiths and nations join as one to refuse the hate and to increase the unlimited capacity for love and justice and peace.

Blessings to Share

“Two nations are within you.” One would be forgiven for believing that these words are a poetic representation of the current divisive moment in our nation. However, these are, in fact, God’s words to Rebecca during her difficult pregnancy that we read about in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. Rebecca, previously infertile, is suddenly pregnant with twins. But these twins seem destined for conflict from their very conception; they fight with one another in Rebecca’s womb. Rebecca cries to God: “If these children struggle within me, why do I exist?” God tells her: “Two nations are within you. Two separate peoples shall issue from your body.” From one founding family, two peoples, with distinct destinies, will emerge.

At an early age, the twins, Esau and Jacob, differentiate and struggle to find their unique voice. Esau is described as a “skillful hunter;” Jacob as a “mild man.” Isaac, their father, develops a special relationship with Esau; Rebecca favors Jacob. Esau is trusting and naïve; Jacob is cunning and shrewd. It can be challenging to comprehend how these two children – from the same family of origin – can become so very different from one another.

Although no analogy is perfect, it is hard not to see the similarities between the story of Jacob and Esau, and the two separate political camps emerging in American politics today – each with different opinions, goals, and values. Members of these camps celebrate the same Independence Day, adhere to the same Constitution, share the same history. Like Esau and Jacob, we are all part of the same national family. But just like the contentious brothers, Americans seem to be drifting farther and farther apart, as this tense and painful election season has shown us.

At the climax of the story of Jacob and Esau, we learn that the brothers are locked in a competition for their father’s blessing. When Isaac is on his deathbed, he summons Esau – the older of the twins – to give him the blessing reserved for the firstborn. But Jacob, along with his mother Rebecca, trick Isaac – whose eyesight is poor – into giving the blessing to Jacob instead. When Esau discovers that he has been duped, he begins to sob and between his tears, cries: “Bless me too, father!” In later verses he beseeches Isaac again: “Have you not reserved a blessing for me? Have you but one blessing, father? Bless me too, father!” Esau’s request is modest. He asks neither for gifts, nor land, nor power. He simply seeks a blessing of his own from the lips of his dying father.

If we turn again to this moment in our country, we can ask: what is at the root of the strongly held but diametrically opposed beliefs about immigration, climate, identity – along with a myriad of other issues – that seem to push members of American political camps farther apart? Just as both Esau and Jacob each believed that he – and only he – was entitled to their father’s blessing, perhaps the current political divisions stem from an ingrained belief that each group is entitled to all of the blessings – justice, freedom, and power – which are intended to be bestowed on all Americans.

Perhaps our mistake, and that of Esau and Jacob, is that we harbor the incorrect notion, premised in fear, that blessings are limited. Later in the Torah portion, Esau finally receives a sought-after blessing from Isaac. This parasha teaches us that, just like there was more than one blessing in Isaac’s heart, blessings are abundant and meant to be shared.

When we live in a state of fear and short-sightedness, it is easy to feel that blessings are scarce and limited. Perhaps we ought to be reminded that, like Isaac, our nation has a wealth of blessings – enough for new immigrants and for those who have been living here for generations, enough for citizens of every race and religion, enough for people of all genders.

Enough to go around; enough to share.

Always Courage, Always Hope

Today marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht or “Night of Broken Glass.”

On November 9 & 10, 1938, the Nazis in Germany carried out a nationwide pogrom against German Jewry which claimed hundreds of lives, destroyed 267 synagogues, ruined more than 7000 businesses, and lead to the incarceration in concentration camps of more than 30,000 Jews. The destruction during that two day period is known as “Kristallnacht” and represents the true commencement of the Holocaust, which would eventually claim six million Jewish lives.

For Jews, remembering is not a passive act. We are commanded in the Torah that we are “to remember and not forget” those who have arisen to destroy us. It is not enough to simply remember. We must actively not forget. This requires commemoration, conversation, and actions taken to ensure that such hatred never happens again. Knowing that the narrative arc of Jewish history moves toward freedom, or, as the Haggadah requires us to remember in the telling the story of our Exodus each year at Passover, we move from “degradation to rejoicing.” Further, the Torah also commands that after the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt, we are to be “kind to the stranger because we were strangers in a strange land.” Our own oppression and the lessons drawn from it obligate us ethically and morally to alleviate the oppression of others. It is one of Jewish civilization’s most central teachings that bears repeating and is stated 36 times in the Bible, more than any other in the entire tradition. It is that important.

This morning on the BBC, I heard a remarkable interview with a 99 year old German Jewish survivor of Kristallnacht. She said the most important lesson she learned from her family’s calamity in those dark days is that humanity is capable of being united when we remember our similarities to one another more than our differences. The smallest adjustments in our approach to living can redeem the lives of millions. It boggles the mind.

And at this particularly divided and fraught time in our country, it is incumbent upon us to remember, to not forget, and thereby to commemorate, to mark Kristallnacht as an object lesson about what can go horribly wrong when anger, hatred, fear of and violence toward “the other” is left unchecked and veers wildly out of control. Kristallnacht was horrific enough for German Jewry. Did anyone truly imagine the enormity of what was to come and how tragically and shamefully little was done to stop it? Hatred unchecked has a way of building and potentially causing greater catastrophic destruction. This we must also never forget.

In my office at JCP hangs a piece of a Torah scroll given to me by my teacher Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory, a Brooklyn rabbi whose wife Marianne Baeck Dreyfus was the granddaughter of the great German Liberal rabbi, Dr. Leo Baeck of Berlin. This piece of Torah is a remnant from a synagogue destroyed in Berlin on November 9, 1938 and fortuitously, eerily, the passage from Torah is the story of the Exodus. “If you hearken to Me,” God tells the Jews in a passage that whispers to me each day as I work beneath it, “You will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” I argue with this text, asking God, “Where were You?” And I find comfort in this text, called upon to absorb life’s cruelest lessons by never forgetting, by refusing to be defeated by hatred, by remembering the stranger, the other, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our similarities to our neighbors have a greater potential for creating peace and love than do our differences: a lesson from a 99 year old survivor of Kristallnacht that resonates, still. Knowing this and realizing it requires work. And that work, so goes the proposition, is what will make us holy.

Is there no more urgent time for this message than today?

I recently had the privilege of returning to my ancestral homeland of Minsk for the 75th anniversary of the Nazi liquidation of the Minsk Ghetto. Before the Nazi invasion in the Second World War there were more than one million Jews in Belarus. Most lived in the shtetls surrounding Minsk. And between 1941-1943, nearly 90% of Belarusian Jewry was destroyed, including 28 members of my grandmother’s family in a town called Kopyl, about a 45 minutes drive from Minsk. I went with my friend Leonard Petlakh, who runs the Kings Bay Y and is himself a refugee from Minsk (his family, with the aid of HIAS, came to New York in the 1980s.) We were also joined by New York State Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors. We stood in the pit in in the center of Minsk where thousands of Jews were gathered and murdered. We bore witness. We testified. We remembered. Jews and Gentiles, together.

While in Minsk for the commemoration, it was stunning to see how, for the first time, Belarusian authorities spoke of lessons learned and publicly condemned the Nazi hatred of Jews. For that reason alone it was an historic occasion. Leaders of many nations, most movingly the German ambassador to Belarus and several major Jewish organizations across Europe sent delegations. The words were moving but still not as much as the effort made to stand together, to remember together, to not forget, together. There were talks and tours around the city; art exhibits in museums and galleries; and a sobering, humbling, even chilling sense that hatred continues to lurk in our world. We are not out of Egypt yet. None of us.

Closer to home, soon after returning, a gunman attacked Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh (and Rabbi Dreyfus’s synagogue in Brooklyn, Union Temple, was vandalized with anti-Jewish graffiti.) Our pain and sorrow at this grossly anti-Semitic act has raised alarms for American Jews while also uniting people of good faith from across the religious and ethnic divides, bringing people together as well.

Jill Lepore recently wrote in the New Yorker about Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, whose synagogue in Atlanta, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, was bombed for its support of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. Dozens of black churches and integrating schools were bombed during this era. One of every ten was a synagogue. This we cannot forget, either. “Our first duty is not to allow ourselves to be intimidated,” Rabbi Rothschild told his congregation after the bombing. It was stunning to read that as Lepore reported, Rabbi Rothschild grew up in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, around the corner from Tree of Life Synagogue. Rabbi Rothschild also told his congregants about the violence wrought against Blacks, Jews and others supporting Civil Rights, “Never did a band of violent men so misjudge the temper of the objects of the act of their intimidation. Out of the gaping hole that laid bare the havoc wrought within, out of the majestic columns that now lay crumbled and broken, out of the tiny bits of brilliant colored glass that had once graced with beauty the sanctuary itself — indeed, out of the twisted and evil hearts of bestial men has come a new courage and a new hope.”

I believe this with all my heart. It is God’s most sacred commandment that I take to heart. We must hope. And hope must be the flame that burns eternally to build a world that is safe and just and radiating with peace for all.

From the shards of broken glass will emerge, always, courage and hope.


One week ago, JCP joined Jewish communities around the world to celebrate Shabbat and the warmth of community. I invite you to join us again next week for our special Shabbat of Thanksgiving. A warm, community Shabbat dinner will follow. You can register here.

In addition, my colleague Dr. Ari Kelman from Stanford University will speak at a special Shabbat dinner on December 14. Dr. Kelman writes about Jewish communities and how they are adapting to the new century. He’s always interesting and frankly, a hell of a guy. You can register for that here.

Meanwhile, see you around the neighborhood.

Sibling Rivalry Continues

It is the perfect recipe for a family disaster.

Parashat V’yetzei, recounts Jacob’s 20-year stint living with his uncle Laban, acquiring two wives (Leah and Rachel) and two maidservants (Bilha and Zilpah) who collectively bring him 11 of his 12 sons (the tribes of Israel).

I haven’t done a close reading of the story in years and before looking into it, I figured I already knew the important things – that Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah, and then stuck around as an indentured servant so he could eventually marry Rachel (who he really loved). What I don’t remember is Jacob’s insincerity towards Rachel in the moment when she herself is frustrated with the fact that she is barren, “Give me children or I shall die” she tells him, to which he responds, “Can I take the place of God who has denied you fruit of the womb?”

I had also completely forgotten the detail of Jacob’s feelings towards Leah. I remember them as lukewarm. The text however reveals her situation as an important part of the story, “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb” (Genesis 29:31). Not only is the Hebrew much stronger than “unloved” (s’nuah can mean “hated”), but furthermore, God specifically gives Leah children because of this fact.

And so this tale very quickly becomes one of two sisters postured against each other, married to the same man, whose affection they jockey for by having his children.

I was also intrigued by the etymological significance of all the names of Jacob’s sons. They reflect this very rivalry. One example is when Naphtali is born to Bilha (Rachel’s maidservant). Rachel says, “I have prevailed” (the Hebrew root of Naphtali is Patal – a contest) – meaning, she is “part of the contest” of having children.

Putting aside all of the problematic elements brought out by a close reading of this story, I am thinking about how front-and-center the issue of infertility is here. Brought into focus for me was the raw quality of human emotion that arises with the desire for children. It can inspire the darker inclinations within us as it did with Leah and Rachel.

For me, the silver lining is that we should all have the courage of acceptance in our most challenging moments and find ways to still be loving to those around us. If not, that is when the structure of our lives has the potential to descend into unhealthy territory.

One of my best friends has been trying to get pregnant for at least two years now. She has done things like change her diet (in fact I’m on the same gluten-free diet thanks to her as well) and she has traveled to Israel to see specialists. Luckily with my friend, she has a wonderfully loving and supportive husband – and with more empathy than Jacob in this week’s Parsha. When I’m over their house for Shabbat dinners (with gluten free bread of course for H’motzi), there is only love and laughter, even as they give me updates on this current journey of theirs as a couple.

Behavior like this should be an inspiration to us all.

Shabbat Shalom,
Matt Check

Wrestling for a Better Nation

Thanksgivings in my Wisconsin childhood were brisk affairs: cool weather, bare trees, an occasional flurry. But inside our house it was warm. We had a fire going in the living room, the bridge table was set up for my parents and grandparents, cousins rolled around the spare rooms, wrestling, laughing, monkeying around as cousins do. My grandfather, a retired physician, was the kindest and gentlest of men, the son of an immigrant who served America in the First World War, and the only Jew in his medical school class. He married my grandmother, who fled Russian pogroms in 1903, following her father who had put down roots in Milwaukee in 1899. That makes my father first generation and after graduating high school in 1941, he went off to college, then served in the U.S. Army in the Second World War to defeat Nazism and Fascism. My mother was third generation American and when she crossed from Milwaukee’s mostly-gentile West Side to date and marry a Jew from the East Side, she fulfilled her own need for rebellion, albeit one of the heart, to start an American family.


Naomi Levine meeting David Ben Gurion on an American Jewish Congress trip to Tel Aviv

Last week I had lunch with my ninety-five year old mentor Naomi Levine before she headed down to West Palm Beach for the winter. Naomi grew up in the Bronx, was the first in her family to receive a university education (Hunter College), and one of the only women in her law school class at Columbia University. She built the early part of her career working on civil rights for the American Jewish Congress. Now a mere shell of its once illustrious past, “the Congress” was at the forefront of the struggle for Black Civil Rights in the United States, regularly filing petitions and amicus briefs in alliance with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Naomi worked very closely on two noteworthy cases, crafting some of the decisive language in both the Sweatt v Painter and Brown v Topeka cases, which successfully challenged and overturned Plessy v Ferguson, the odious 1896 Supreme Court case that encoded into the U.S. law the segregationist structures of “separate but equal.” Naomi and her team at the Congress commissioned the critical sociological research by noted scholars Kenneth and Mamie Clark who were able to demonstrate, in the famous “doll case” that Black children in segregated classrooms suffered serious psychological damage as a result of being separated legally from white students.

Less than a decade later, Naomi would co-write Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s “Sin of Silence” speech which he delivered after Mahalia Jackson’s song and before Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Linking Black Civil Rights to his own fate as a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany (Prinz was Berlin’s most charismatic and daring Reform rabbi who fled the Gestapo to a safe haven in Newark—and makes an heroic appearance in Philip Roth’s recently revived The Plot Against America), he said Naomi’s words that August day in 1963: “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

So last week at lunch I see a picture of Naomi’s late husband Leonard on the mantle. And though I have known her for more than twenty years (when I met her in early 1998 she was in the midst of a second career raising billions of dollars for New York University as the school’s Senior Vice President for External Affairs), she told me a story I had never heard before. Leonard, I learned, was in the third wave to land at Normandy; fought in the Battle of the Bulge; and then was among the soldiers assigned to accompany General Dwight D. Eisenhower on his tour of concentration camps which were the center of the Nazi genocide death machine. Leonard was among a number of soldiers who were sickened and overwhelmed by what they saw and experienced and when they addressed questions to their general about the assignment, Eisenhower said what he would eventually put in writing: “The things I saw beggar description. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering, I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things, if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.” More than seventy years later, Eisenhower’s words are particularly memorable and especially important.

Naomi was hard at work on her memoir when I visited and she shared aloud with me a passage about her grandfather on a breadline in the Bronx during the Depression, stopping to emphasize how important it is for us as Jews to both bear witness but also to be deeply engaged in the ongoing project of what it means to be an American.

And so it is worth remembering that while there were no Jews at Plymouth Plantation for that first mythic Thanksgiving, we do know that William Bradford cited Psalm 107, “Let them exalt God in the assembly of the people and praise God in the assembly of the elders.” Some scholars also suggest that surely the Pilgrims would have been familiar with the Biblical festival of Sukkot, a Fall harvest celebration of thanksgiving. Alas, even in our absence from Massachusetts on that first Thanksgiving, we were present. Our words matter; our moral aspirations contribute to the striving vision of justice and equality in America. As the divisions and rancor and violence in America have recently demonstrated, the American Project is far from complete.

The eleventh century scholar Rashi has a brilliant reading of this week’s Torah portion Va’yishlach, in which Jacob has a desert encounter with an angel of God, wrestling him to a draw and earning a new name, Israel, meaning “he who struggles with God.” The last time Jacob had encountered the angel, Rashi says, is when he was using guile and falsehood to wrest the birthright from his brother Esau. But here, in the desert, as an older, wiser man, Jacob faces the angel as the person he truly is and is meant to be. “Now that you are prepared to testify truthfully as to who you are,” the angel says to Jacob, “you have shed that previous identity and are prepared to take on a new one, Israel.”

While this interpretation has much to offer us on our personal journeys in life, I would like to suggest that we read it in the context of the American Project on this Thanksgiving, in an America that is in the midst of dueling narratives, division and strife—a struggle, a wrestling, if you will, over who we are to be as a nation. Will our true selves as citizens ultimately aim toward a nation of negations or will we transcend our limitations and be a nation of justice, equality, love and mercy for all?

As we sit around our Thanksgiving tables with so much to be thankful for—family, friendship, the bounty of a meal in a warm home—our Jewish community also has much to demonstrate to the greater world about what it means to live in a community of meaning, connection, and rootedness in life. This sacred narrative is the architectural plan for the best world we can imagine for all. So wrestle we must and wrestle we will: for our better selves, a better nation, and a world one day at peace.

Proximity Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

As Parashat Vayeishev opens, we learn that while Joseph is Jacob’s favorite child – he receives perhaps the most famous gift of all time, the coat of many colors, from his father – he is unpopular among his brothers. He enjoys taunting them with descriptions of his dreams, in which he is superior to them all, and they come to resent him.

One day, Jacob sends Joseph to oversee his brothers as they tend to the flocks. As they see him approaching from afar, they say, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” But as Joseph gets closer, the brothers have second thoughts and decide to spare his life. “When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic… and cast him into a pit.”

When Joseph is a far distance away, the brothers can imagine committing the most heinous crime. They plot to kill him, picturing how sweet it will be to get rid of their arrogant, favored younger brother who deprives them of their father’s love and attention. But as Joseph approaches, the idea of killing him becomes less abstract and they hesitate. As much as they want him out of their lives, they cannot bring themselves to murder him. Instead, they throw him into the bottom of an empty pit and leave him there so they are forever rid of him.

Studies show that proximity makes an enormous difference in how we act toward people. When people are closer to us, we pay more attention to them and treat them more humanely. One famous study, which was which was conducted in the early 1960s by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, examined obedience to authority figures. The results showed that participants were significantly less likely to administer electric shocks to a victim if they could hear his cries and screams. The rate of shock administration decreased further when participants could see the victim.* The notion that proximity creates empathy was supported by another study about charitable giving. Participants were split into two groups. One group was shown a graph displaying statistics about carnage in a war-torn area. The other group was shown a single photo of a girl accompanied by the story of her tragic circumstances. The donations of the second group were dramatically larger than those of the first; the photo created a feeling of proximity and therefore empathy with the girl.

Toward end of the parasha, many years after Joseph arrives in Egypt, he is imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit. In prison, he helps free one of Pharaoh’s cup-bearers by interpreting his dream. In return, Joseph asks only for one thing: “Think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place.” The parasha concludes by stating that once the cup-bearer leaves prison: “He forgot [Joseph].” The story teaches that when the cup-bearer was present with Joseph, he was grateful for his help and willing to reciprocate. However, after leaving prison, when he is no longer with Joseph, he simply forgets. Out of sight (or proximity), out of mind.

Interestingly, the concept that proximity creates awareness is supported by the rules concerning the Hanukkah menorah. The Rabbis of the Talmud mandate that the menorah should be placed no higher than 20 cubits, where it can be seen from the street. They juxtapose this height with the depth of the pit into which Joseph was thrown; it was so deep that the bottom could not be seen. The Rabbis learn the lesson of the importance of proximity from the story of Joseph.

When Hanukkah begins on December 2nd, we will continue this tradition of placing our menorahs in our windows, publicly and prominently, ensuring that the light of the candles can be seen by all, and that the ideals they represent remain in close proximity.

*The electric shocks in this study were fake. If you find this alarming, you’re not alone – the study caused enormous controversy when it was published. A similar study would not pass an ethics review board today.

“Did Christmas Ruin Hanukkah?” and Other Questions Jewish Teenagers Ask

One of our 8th graders, Noah, in Project Gadol (our monthly teen learning program) challenged me this week to teach about Hanukkah and last month’s events in Pittsburgh, at the same time making sure this all related to cookie decorating. Noah claimed that Hanukkah was made up to compete with Christmas.

Cracking my knuckles and stretching my forearms, I began. “You’re right,” I said, “but you’re also a bit wrong.”

Hanukkah feels like a pretty big deal to Jews in America. It is by far the most commercialized of Jewish festivals. Religion Reporter Emma Green at The Atlantic, who met with our 6th/7th graders last week to talk about covering religion in America and her own Jewish identity as a journalist, sums up the American contribution to many Hanukkah “traditions” beautifully in her article here. That’s where Noah was right.

But here’s where he was wrong:

Historically, Hanukkah was a minor festival to Jews living in the land of Israel and their counterparts living in the diaspora after the days of the original Maccabean revolt in what was then the land of Babylonia (and what is now the lands of modern day Iraq and Iran).

A good 600 years after the Maccabean revolt, a small paragraph about Hanukkah appears in the Babylonian Talmud. The line in there of particular interest to us says, “it is the custom to put the Hanukkah lamps in the window to publicize the miracle, but in a time of a danger, it is sufficient to put them on the table instead.”

This strange comment prompts later Rabbis to ask, what kind of danger would prohibit a Jew from putting his Hanukkah lamp in the window? Rashi, probably the most famous of Jewish commentators, provided the answer 600 years later: because the Persians had a law on their holidays that fire could only burn in their temples.

Thanks Rashi for solving that mystery! The Persian majority culture at the time of the Rabbis of the Talmud in Babylonian were followers of an ancient faith called Zoroastrianism (which yes, in case you were wondering, is a real thing and is still around today in small numbers!). Around the same time as Hanukkah, celebrated at the winter equinox, the Zoroastrians seemed to have had their own fire festival and had a law that fire could only burn in their temples. Apparently, the Zoroastrian fire priests would go around enforcing this law by putting out Hanukkah lamps of unsuspecting Jews!

The quirky intercultural exchange of Zoroastrian fire priests trying to extinguish the Hanukkah lamps of well-intentioned Jews aside, this text teaches us something historical about Hanukkah. Hanukkah seems to have drawn some of its own significance from its proximity to this Zoroastrian winter fire festival—the story of the oil burning and the customs of lighting the candles coming into centrality and focus only in the lands of Babylonia (and only found in texts from those lands).

It turns out that Jews have been absorbing and accenting our own traditions in the light of others for centuries, not just based on the last 100 years of commercialization of Christmas. You might say at this point, it’s a tradition and a deeply authentic Jewish act in and of itself, to look at the world around you and to see yourself and your Judaism in it.

And Pittsburgh? When I asked our learners if they felt they were living in a time of danger and were afraid to put the Hanukkah lamps in their windows or in the window of JCP, they all agreed: Maybe there are places where Jews should feel more alone and more vulnerable, but New York City is not one of them. What another miracle—a group of teenagers finding Jewish community in their own neighborhood, finding a deep sense of faith and conviction and fellowship in each other, and feeling warmth and optimism about their own futures as Jews in America.

And then, we decorated cookies. To publicize the miracle, of course.

To however you celebrate, may this Hanukkah be filled with light, laughter, and love!

Mercury in the Bones

My teacher Irv Saposnik, of blessed memory, loved the Biblical patriarch Jacob. During our one on one learning sessions each Friday afternoon at Hillel on Langdon Street in Madison, Wisconsin, Irv ploughed into Jacob with all the tools in his kit: as English professor and Yiddish scholar; as son, father and husband; as Brownsville-East New York kid yearning to breathe free; and as rebbe (though Irv was never a rabbi). Each of these manifestations of his own character found their way into his confrontation with, and analysis of, Jacob. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least, and the

first time I came to realize that the text we inherit from our ancestors, teeming with letters and words, is also a blank canvas upon which we are generously invited by its Author to paint our own masterpiece.

And if you think that last notion is heretical, good. You’re in fine company. “It is not possible to engage in the study of Torah without innovation,” the Talmud teaches. The “black fire on white fire” description of Revelation is as dangerous as it is sustaining; it is never static and it is always dynamic. Irv taught me that. And by the way, Irv’s Hebrew name was Isaac. Fancy that.

So Jacob in Isaac’s hands was a pleasure to behold. There were the accusations flung at him for stealing Esau’s birthright and chuckles of pleasure at the homebody Jacob needing his mother Rebecca to devise a scheme to win the blessing of the first-born from a blind and dying Isaac. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” This is some fine kabuki. Isaac knew, deep down, that he needed a clever conniver to take over the family mantle and that Esau was too simple to wear it. He needed assurance that he could not trust resided in his actual firstborn, and so he passively relented to the scheme. Rebecca, from Isaac’s father Abraham’s clan in the east, knew what to do to keep the family intact. She arranged the whole thing. Isaac went along. Jacob went along. Esau was robbed. And we Jews are still here today because of it.

When Irv first laid that theory at my feet (mic drops hadn’t been invented yet) I was dumbstruck. But then I realized it was true. There is, perhaps, an element in all our lives where there is some breach in the past, a transgression even, or a betrayal, that scars but never disappears. The real meaning of being a Jew in the world is not striving for perfection but rather gaining wisdom and understanding from our own weaknesses in order to eventually ensure that good and justice are done. It’s a tricky thing. Hardscrabble stories of mythic pasts are romantic; but they can also be disturbing and damaging.

My great grandfather Chaim Siegel was a saint when I was growing up. I never met him. He died long before I was born. But his dark eyes and goatee, styled jacket and tie, popped from the sepia colors in a family frame that conveyed brilliance, a scholar’s mind and business acumen that brought the family to safety in America at the turn of the century. He snuck Shakespeare into the pages of his prayer book in the Orthodox synagogue where he was president. He won communal awards for the money raised on behalf of the early Zionist enterprise in British Mandate Palestine; two sons became doctors and his daughter married another. Success.

But a few years ago, in researching his burlap bag factory history (Siegel Bag Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin) I discovered that in 1930 there was a terrible fire in his factory, and that in the attempt to put it out, the water-soaked burlap collapsed the floors of the building and two firemen died. There was a court inquest. It was found that the building had an illegal floor added to it. I read the transcripts and found my saintly great grandfather sounded rather slippery, not as contrite as I would have hoped; frightened, defensive, and ultimately diminished. I scanned newspaper accounts of the fire and found stories of the two men who had died. One had yet to have children, a family line snuffed out. I felt awful and somehow responsible. My family did this.

And so one autumn a couple years ago, I traveled back to Milwaukee and visited two cemeteries, one Protestant and one Catholic, and found the graves of these men in simple, humble, unadorned plots. I remember the frost on the grass. I remember the late fall leaves crunching underfoot. I remember the wide expanse of other graves and other stories crouching toward the quiet road in the distance. “I came here to apologize for what my great grandfather did,” I said. “I ask forgiveness on his behalf.” And then I said the Kaddish. It was my belief at the time, and still is, that to be a Jew, to be human, is to recognize that our inherent imperfections require taking responsibility for our own errors as often as we take responsibility, in some form or another, for the hurt and pain caused by those who came before us. Just look at America today, for God’s sake. We would do well to exercise humility and work together to right past wrongs rather than shirk a responsibility that awaits our ready hands, no?

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’Yiggash, Jacob is anxious about his journey down to Egypt, where he has been summoned by his son Joseph, who was considered dead. Fooled by his jealous sons in their effort to best their brother, whose gifts of prophecy and favor were better than theirs, Jacob was passive in the face of their sibling strife, did nothing to prevent their division, and accepted the ruse of Joseph’s disappearance with astounding selfishness. Some patriarch. But here in this week’s reading, he is close to the end of his life. He is dying and he is afraid. And it is God who reassures him that while this journey down to Egypt will likely be his last (and we readers know the dire future of 400 years of slavery that lie ahead) there is the promise of ultimate redemption.

“God called to Israel in a vision by night: ‘Jacob! Jacob! He answered, ‘Here I am.’ And God said, ‘I am God. The God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back. And Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.’” (Genesis 46:2-4)

Jacob’s deepest fears of dying and not being cared for, not being returned to his final resting place with his father and grandfather, of not being made whole, as it were, is intuited by God, who speaks with confidence that Joseph will care for the father who neglected him. Sure, he favored him by giving him that nice jacket, but then what? Jacob left his son as prey for cruel and envious brothers who kidnapped Joseph, stole his jacket (dipping it in blood to fake his death), and then never sent out a search party to rescue his beloved child. I can still hear Irv laughing at Jacob to this day. “He could be such a schmuck!”

But Joseph is our hero this week. He accepts his father lovingly. He brings him into exile to die but arranges with Pharoah to bury him back up in the land of Israel. So present is he in these final moments that it is Joseph who closes his father’s eyelids after death, a Jewish practice to this day, according to Ibn Ezra.

We may suppose that Joseph would have had every reason to reject his brothers and his father for the damage done, but it’s what Joseph does with his scars that presents us with a model for wisdom. He forgives. He sees the greater path to humility and responsibility. By accepting death with grace, he offers redemption for his family.

I remember standing over Irv’s grave after he died. The Jewish cemetery in Madison is one of the most beautiful tracts of prairie land you’ll ever see. Within a few steps is the grave of another teacher I buried, George Mosse. And in the distance is a nice golf course, which my dad would have appreciated—not so much Irv and George. But as we threw down the last shovelfuls of earth and laid his body to rest, I was filled with a feeling of warm mercury coursing through my body. Mercury, the Roman god of the underworld and luck; of commerce and trickery; of messages and conveyance; of boundaries and borders and eloquent words.

Heretical to end a Jewish teaching with Roman myth? Ha! “It is not possible to engage in the study of Torah without innovation,” the Talmud teaches.

The Transcendent Ecology of Purpose

In David Blight’s stunning and brilliant new biography of Frederick Douglass, the historian describes a moment early in Douglass’ writings where the orator and freedom fighter articulates his “existential core” as a man: “I have often wished myself a beast,” Douglass wrote in 1845. “I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Anything, no matter what to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had aroused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”

What remarkable eloquence and inspiration! What resilience! If you have ever read Douglass, you know his story. Born into slavery but as you can see from the above passage, incisively and deeply aware of his own gifts of humanity. Douglass was in possession of an exceptional personality that calls to mind George Mosse, a Berlin Jewish refugee who became one of the most important European historians of the twentieth century. As once told to me by George’s partner John Tortorice: “His life was a triumph.”

Yes. Frederick Douglass lived a life of triumph. He transcended the insidious and racist efforts to enslave and dehumanize his essence as a person, as a boy who would be a man, as a Black man, as an American; and in so doing he became not merely a “leader” or an “abolitionist,” but an eloquent exemplar of the universal striving to be human.

The sage Hillel said in Pirke Avot, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be one.” If consciousness and our thumbs separate us from animals, and there is something truly remarkable about what it means to be human, it’s worth pausing for a moment and noting what those characteristics may really be. Andrew Buskell, who teaches philosophy at the London School of Economics, argues that there are three basic areas of development in which the human clearly differs from animals, based on the notion that humans live within “cumulative cultures” of our own making. We exist within a structure of ever-increasing complexity and adapt accordingly; we are, therefore, always innovating in order to continue addressing the growing complexities of life; and as a result, we must always keep adapting, growing, changing, and evolving, with this keen awareness of our humanity.

There is a dangerous hubris that lies beneath the surface. The Biblical Joseph knew it well. He begins his life seeking the mantle of leadership, dreaming great visions, the second youngest among a band of brothers who, with an unrestrained ego, accords himself loudly a prophetic vision of unvanquishable singularity. How annoying he must have been. “Here comes Joe, blah, blah, blah,” one imagines his brothers saying, sending each other texts with eye-roll emojis. And then the coat! He got the coat! Dad’s coat! I’ll be honest: I’d have tossed him down into the pit as well.

Here is FD, crouched beneath a kitchen table, watching in horror as a master beats a slave, knowing from the earliest age that the slave and the master need each other if one is to be defined as slave and one is to be defined as master. And yet, the child Douglass knows that his mind, his humanity, his adaptiveness, is the “silver trump of freedom” that will bring his own and his people’s liberation. Joseph was a bit slower on the uptake but we can safely surmise that it’s because he had yet to suffer. He was born a dreamer and rewarded for it. He didn’t have to earn it. It took family strife, jealousy, rivalry, violence, a conniving deception of the father Jacob, a faked death, an accusation of attempted rape, jail-time, and finally a real and symbolic famine, to bring the family back together.

In last week’s parashah, Va’Yigash, Joseph reconciles with his brothers who had sold him into slavery by recognizing his own elevated understanding of the suffering the brothers caused. “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:4). No longer the crazed dreamer of his youth, his egoistic effulgence blinding his brothers, Joseph has been raised up by being brought low. He has turned his suffering into wisdom. Instead of breaking him, it made him. Though the brothers likely hated to admit it, in the end Joseph was triumphant. But not merely of his own accord, but because he could see that in suffering there was purpose, a searing focus and a direction to his existence.

In this week’s parashah, Va’Yehi, Jacob draws his last breath and is “gathered to his kin,” the Torah’s way of describing where we go when we die. And as promised, Joseph delivers his father’s body back up to the family burial plots in Hebron before returning (returning!) to Egypt, where he himself will die. Then, as the brothers approach, fearing that with their father Jacob now dead, Joseph will finally carry out his revenge, a powerful moment plays out. They throw themselves at Joseph’s feet, and say, “We are prepared to be your slaves!” But Joseph says to them, “Have no fear. Am I substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result, the survival of many people.”

Here we see the magnanimity of Joseph. He transcends himself because he understands his agency in the world, we might say. Or, to put it more colloquially, we might say, “It’s never really about us but something greater than us.”

This is Joseph transcending the ecology of his family dynamic and finding his “true north.” And it is Frederick Douglass understanding that the master is as much a slave as the man, woman or child subjugated to a radically inhumane ecology of American bondage.

We have purpose as Jews. We have purpose as humans. Joseph teaches us to see that in our pain there is hope; in our suffering there is light. And what makes the human project so compelling is that we have it in us to keep moving forward toward a better, more peaceful and just world.