Please note that this evening's Shabbat services will include a blessing of simchas, or good events that occurred in your life during the past month or week. Join us as we offer a special blessing as a community.
Please note that this weekend's Totally Torah program includes an incredibly important Sunday afternoon session entitled Holy Rollers. An email about the event will be sent shortly.
Finally, please note that Rabbi Leiken has re-launched the Panim el Panim program, in which congregants are encouraged to meet with the Rabbi for a brief period and share stories. Last year, this program enabled members of the community to develop meaningful relationships. We especially encourage those members who have yet to spend time with the Rabbi to make an appointment. You can call the office at 845.638.0770.
(The following commentary on the Torah portion of the week is the result of a collaboration between Rabbi Leiken and a special congregant -- for whom the Rabbi thanks profusely. You can have similar opportunities to make sense of the Torah by joining us on Shabbat mornings at 9AM for our weekly Torah Study.)
As we nearly complete the book of Bereishit
or Genesis this week, we justifiably feel confused.
The Jewish narrative, which began in Lech Lecha,
was centered on a divine promise to Abraham about a promised land and a people to populate it.
As we learn, the "people" of Bereishit
seem not to truly care about one another.
Familial conflicts surface everywhere throughout the ensuing years.
We know, for example, that the children of Abraham's grandchild, Jacob, have heartlessly sold their brother Joseph to slave traders.
To Joseph's good fortune, through his unique ability to understand dreams, along with a variety of chance encounters that result in his comforting Pharaoh of his nightmares, Joseph ends up becoming Egypt's second in command. Shortly after gaining this position, Joseph constructs a plot to teach his brothers a lesson for their crime against him. As the brothers come to terms with what they have done, in one of the most important moments of Torah, Joseph invites his entire family to come down to Egypt.
Why would Joseph invite his family to Egypt?!?!? Is Egypt not the symbol of exile for the Jewish people? How could Joseph lead his people to such a hostile land if he has foreseen the future as we are made to believe?
In the 18th century, these questions bothered a prolific Polish Rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon. From his perspective, the Egyptian exile was the first opportunity for the Israelites to understand the pain of exile. According to him, the travel down to Egypt also gave the Israelites the ability to live through future exiles.
We can argue that by living through pain, people may find strength. Additionally, people also often need to suffer hardship in order to find compassion for others who suffer.
In the second book of Torah known as
Shemot, we will learn that the Israelites begin multiplying in Egypt. The Hebrew word that is used for this multiplying is the same term used for the swarming of insects. As we will learn, it is not Joseph or Jacob's decision to go to Egypt that causes the Israelite enslavement. Instead, it is a future lack of recognizing the importance and meaning of "peoplehood". Instead of carefully building loving and caring families, the Israelites carelessly multiply and begin to lose their sense of humanity (as seen in the encounter between Moses and two Israelites after Moses strikes down an Egyptian taskmaster).
In conclusion, it seems the Israelites came to Egypt, and eventually lost the sense of humanity at the root of God's promise to Abraham. This week's portion reminds us that no matter where one goes, that place will never be fulfilling without a people who care about one another.
The choice to go to Egypt presents the Israelites with an opportunity to act with the compassion of Jacob's family at the end of
Bereishit. Abraham was not promised simply land, but a people. This people is meant to be a sacred and understanding people.
Egypt presents an opportunity for the Israelites to struggle in order to maintain a focus on this priority - becoming "people". Their first failures in exile will ultimately become their great success.
We too often need such struggles to recognize what it means to be kind, caring and sacred people - people worthy of that divine promise.