Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
THE BEND IN THE ROAD
The Genesis:3 Project
And He 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. Genesis 46:3
I still remember the very first instruction I received when I got behind the wheel of a car in driver’s ed. It was “aim high.” In case you haven’t noticed, the driver sits to the side of the car and not in the center. By focusing at a distance as you drive, it is natural to pilot the car down the center of the lane, rather than half-way onto the shoulder.
That longer view also makes you aware of what is on the road ahead and gives you time to adjust to hazards, traffic and living things that might get in your way.
But no matter how high you aim, you can’t see what is coming around the bend.
I am learning that lesson all over again in the USA these days. While some people will tell you otherwise, nobody really foresaw what was around the bend in late October of 2016. Oh, there were people predicting the results of the election, but the rapid deterioration of our political society as our unpredictable President lobs toxic tweets and preposterous proposals is surprising. The Republic will stand, but the challenges to the ability of government to function and even to the sanctity of the Constitution have left a lot of folks, myself included, with worries about restoring the America we believed was unassailable from within. All of us – voters and non-voters of all stripes – did not expect the uncertainty about the future we are now experiencing until the bend in the road was upon us on that Tuesday in November and that Saturday in January.
It is not such a new lesson, as it turns out. The verse that is the context of these ideas comes as the saga of Genesis comes to a close. Joseph is ensconced in Egypt and has invited his family to join him. Jacob is reluctant, but along comes God to encourage him to aim high. Don’t be afraid, he is told. You will be a great nation (not again, but for the first time). And, in the next verse, God assures Jacob that his beloved Joseph will attend his deathbed.
For Jacob, it is a happy ending, and in four chapters it comes true. But Jacob cannot see around the bend, and the bend comes in the very beginning of the next segment of history – a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph and, bang!, the great nation of Israelites is enslaved.
My point is not to compare the President of the United States to Pharaoh. Time will tell (and I hope not much time) how much damage has actually been done to our society and when the people around him will finally stand up to this man intoxicated with the aroma of his own arrogance (thank you, Pastor Michael Walrond). But no matter which statues are left to stand or how many “fine people” yearn for old times there that are not forgotten, sooner or later we will come to our senses and restore the real greatness of America.
My point is that Torah prepares us for this eventuality. Only a novice doesn’t know that God’s reassurance to Jacob is only half the truth. In the moment, Jacob needed to hear that the road ahead was clear or he would not have taken the risk that was necessary to establish the rest of the story. I ask myself, if I had known what was ahead for my great-grandchildren – enslaved for hundreds of years, subjected to harsh labor and oppression, chased into the wilderness to wander for a generation – would I have negotiated for a better arrangement. I like to think I would have.
But now I know how sanguine I have been about the inevitability of American blessing. Having seen us surge back after civil war, economic depression, civil rights struggles and terrorist attacks from the sky, I simply assumed that no matter what, there was no reason to fear; we are a great nation and God is with us. The faults we overlooked, whether they are the continuing disadvantages of one segment of Americans or the disillusionment of another, have consequences that lie around the bend. And the guy behind the steering wheel is not aiming high.
I don’t have the luxury of some American Torah that has revealed the next part of the story. I am living it in real time, just like Jacob, just like the virgin reader of Scripture. But I know to be cautious and not to believe what I want to believe because I am too frightened or arrogant to question and to resist. Scripture commends healthy cynicism about promises of a rosy tomorrow no matter who is making them…including God.
The Genesis:3 Project
Joseph said to his brothers, I am Joseph. Is my father still well? But his brothers could not answer him, so
dumbfounded were they on account of him. Genesis 45:3
One of my favorite jokes is about the guy who leaves his beloved cat with a friend while he goes on an extended vacation. A couple of days in, he calls to check in and asks after the cat. “I’m sorry, but the cat died,” says his friend. The guy gets furious. “You don’t do that to someone, dropping news like that all at once. You know I am out of town. Instead you say, ‘The cat is on the roof and I can’t coax him down. Call me in half an hour.’ When I call back, you say, ‘The fire department is here to help, but the cat scampered up to the chimney. Call me in half an hour.’ The next time you say, ‘The cat fell down the chimney, but we took her to the vet. Call me in half an hour.’ Finally, you tell me, ‘We did everything we could, but the cat died peacefully.’ You have to give me some time to adjust to the situation!” The friend apologizes profusely, and the guy says, “By the way, how is my mother?” The friend responds, “Well, she’s up on the roof.”
I have a few very painful memories of my own behavior that I cannot shake, no matter what I do. They are mostly from a long time ago, and I hope that the people I offended have forgotten them, but I know better. Almost always, they are the result of my conceit that other people know my intentions. However, every action stands on its own in the context of the moment, and every person brings her or his own context of the moment to every action.
You have had this experience with customer service representatives. The title itself creates expectations: you are a customer, you need service, the person at the counter or on the phone is going to represent. Almost without fail (and despite “I am going to do my very best to resolve your concern”), the levels of satisfaction with the outcome diverge one from the other.
I once planned a concert with a colleague. It was an innovation for me; he was an expert. The performance was electric. The audience was on its feet. The skeptics were won over in a rush. I ran up to him at intermission, bursting with excitement, and said, “Do you know what you have done?” He looked at me with dark eyes and said, “Yes. I have failed to convince people to fill more than half the seats in this room.”
In college, I was asked out on a blind date. I was not available that night, but I was flattered, and it so happened that I had an extra ticket to a Jethro Tull concert (long story). So, I asked her if she’d like to go. When I went to pick her up at her residence hall, I looked up at the top of the staircase as she appeared. I felt my face fall involuntarily; she could not have missed it. It turns out neither of us much liked Jethro Tull (as I said, long story), but that moment of revelation exposed my expectations and, I am guessing, shattered hers.
When I was in charge of a youth organization, I paid a visit from the “regional office” to an event in a local community. I was there as resource and enforcer; there were rules to be followed. At one point, I said to the advisor, “I am disappointed to see that this and that are not part of the activity.” She said to me, “And I am disappointed to see that you can’t tell how good a time these kids are having being together.”
What could Joseph have been thinking when he revealed himself to his brothers? He did not really believe that after deceiving them and framing them and threatening them he could just say, “Surprise, it’s me! How’s dad?” and they would reply, “Wow! Good one Joe! Dad’s gonna laugh when he hears this one more than the story about the cat on the roof!” Is it possible?
I think the answer is yes, it is possible, and maybe even likely. Sometimes our own optimism (or, for that matter, pessimism) leads us to believe that it is a straight line from intention to outcome. Indeed, imagining how things could go otherwise can be disabling. And when they do go otherwise (as they mostly do) we are left disappointed in others, but even more disappointed in ourselves. How could I have not seen those empty seats, how could I have put appearance above the connection we felt over the phone, how could I have missed the smiles for the regimentation?
I think this moment is one of the most poignant in all the Bible and one of the most insightful. It is repeated between Moses and the people at the Golden Calf, between Jonah and God and, for Christians, in the exclamation of Jesus on the cross, and lots of other narratives in lots of different circumstances. Same place, different planets.
When my fantasy makes me overlook your reality, we both wind up crestfallen. Dumbfounded, really.
Better to think of you than of myself.
The Genesis:3 Project
With the first light of morning, the men were sent off with their pack animals. Genesis 44:3
My dad loved to fish. I have written about it before, but whenever I see a reference to heading out at the first light of morning, that’s what I remember.
When I was a kid – nine or ten – until I was in high school, I spent a lot of time with my father on a simple fishing boat, rented at a public dock. There were two heavy tackle boxes, mine and my brother’s to schlep. We were taught to ties hooks and lures securely to fishing line. We learned that you could lubricate the parts of fishing poles that slide together by rubbing the “male” part on the side if your nose.
Our destination in those early years was Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, not yet the high-rent tourist town. We were guided by Ray Waters, also known as Peanuts, who knew the lake like the back of his weathered hand. As a Cubs fan, I enjoyed fishing off the Wrigley estate, though the success rate there was similar to the Cubs’.
Eventually, my father discovered Lake Wisconsin, farther north where the Wisconsin River was dammed. He had bought his own outboard motor, which meant a lot to him. We stayed in a fisherman’s motel with a bar and a family-style restaurant attached. Somehow, Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” was always playing on the jukebox.
In the Lake Geneva days, first light meant 0-dark-thirty on Saturday so we could be on the water when the sun was still very low in the sky. Lake Wisconsin was a longer drive, so we left Friday after work, but first light was when we wanted to be on the water. I was no more a fan of getting up that early then than I am now, but all these years later I know how remarkable the quiet hustle was. The fuzziness of the world was a backdrop to the clarity of purpose, which was less about fish and more about father and sons. My father’s love of fishing was nurtured by his father, who died while his teenage fishing buddy was fighting World War II, and I have no doubt he hoped desperately that his sons or his daughter or his eventual grandchildren would catch the passion.
We didn’t. Eventually, we chose Shabbat over fishing trips. My dad switched to Wednesdays on Lake Michigan off the Chicago shoreline and the kids went to college and work on those days. My brother and I long ago did a sort of memorial day-expedition, but fishing itself is a memory for us.
Instead, my siblings have our bonding rituals with our kids. Some of them center around holidays and others around baseball games, summer camp, vacations, travel, sports, learning and lots of family jokes. In terms of quality, they are interchangeable with fishing. Maybe the next generation knows something about their parents from our choice of activities like we know about our parents from theirs.
But for me, the first light of morning will always resonate in a particular way. We set off with the Oldsmobile packed, up the Tri-State Toll Road, past Fred Harvey’s “oasis” (the restaurant built on the toll road overpass), through the town of Muenster (whose mayor, I insisted, was known as the “Big Cheese”), into – and eventually beyond – Lake Geneva. Each time, to reference John Denver (forgive me), we came home to a place we’d never been before.
Whatever the destination and whatever my enthusiasm for it, that early embarkation held a lesson more important than extending our hours on the lake or doing the heavy lifting before the heat of the day. The sons of Israel were sent off early to make it look like stealth when Benjamin was framed – a purpose beyond extending the hours on the road or doing the heavy lifting before the heat of the day. Before the commotion of an awakened world distracts us from the part we play in it, the first light of morning makes us focus on our point of entry and our purpose in the day ahead.
It would be years before I discovered the value of coffee over orange juice which has made early rising much more tolerable. I wouldn’t rediscover the sacred nature of the light before dawn until we had babies to remind us of what it means to bond with the sunrise. (I wasn’t any happier about it then, but those memories, too, have sweetened with time.) But when my body or mind rouses me in my senior years at the first light of morning, I have something to remember as I rub my eye with my fist and grumble my way to my first-things-first. There is a fish waiting for me somewhere and someone to show me how to catch it.
The Genesis:3 Project
But Judah said to him, “The man warned us, ‘Do not let me see your faces unless your brother is with you.’ Genesis 43:3
My great grandfather Ben was a spitfire. Of course, I knew him when he was older, spending most of his days in an armchair that seemed to swallow him up, reading the Forverts in Yiddish, smoking Dutch Masters cigars or a pipe and bantering with my great-grandmother Molly and, after she died, his daughter Gertie. But he was filled with stories of how he transformed the landscape of the Chicago Jewish community. Were all of those stories true? I hope so.
I do not remember him being a scholar, but I do remember that he loved wordplay, which is an occupational hazard among my rabbinic colleagues. Just as I am not certain that he established an orphanage for Jewish children, I am not certain that he invented the dad joke. But at his funeral, the rabbi fondly remembered that whenever he asked my Zaydie, “How do you feel?” he would answer, “With my fingers.”
That was a new joke back then.
There are dozens of jokes like that, jokes that play on the literal meaning of an idiom. “This package is too heavy: it needs more stamps” – “More stamps will make it lighter?” “It’s cold outside, close the window” – “If I close the window it will be warm outside?” “The doctor told me I had a disease; I said I wanted a second opinion. He said: you’re ugly, too.” “Doc, it hurts when I go like this.” --- “So don’t go like that.” And, of course, the perfect joke, the signature line of Henny Youngman, four words that defined the endeavor: Take my wife, please.
It is no wonder that I can’t help but read the Bible with gentle disrespect when it comes to language. Serious scholars of Jewish tradition elevated the creative intonation and application of words into the entire system of Jewish law. Schleppers like me have a lower target – a chuckle.
We are satisfied with insisting that baseball predated creation. After all, wasn’t the world begun “in the big inning?” A slightly scatological camp song suggests that there were a number of constipated men in the Bible, including Cain who wasn’t Abel. (There are nine more at least, but you are on your own.) And bilingually there is no better moment than the occasional year when the Torah reading about the red heifer falls on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, and we hear the instruction to put “living waters in the vessel,” which, in Hebrew, is pronounced mayim chayyim el Kelly, as close as you get to the Bible saying, “Get that man a beer.”
I don’t know how old the presumption of a Jewish sense of humor actually is. Despite of the plethora of comedians and comedy writers, from George Burns to Jon Stewart, our comic cleverness is more an American phenomenon than a Talmudic one. Sure, there were stories of Chelm, the town of fools, that emerged from the European Jewish culture, and the occasional exaggerations of our original sages. Yes, Rabbi Akiba said close to 2000 years ago that a little joke is a good way to get your audience’s interest. But puns and wordplay were tools for understanding, not matters for amusement or (if I am going to honest) groans.
Otherwise, it would have been a longstanding tradition that Jacob is misquoted in response to Judah’s representation in the verse above. Instead of chastising his son for telling the Egyptians that there was another brother at home, and thereby putting young Benjamin at risk, Jacob, father of Shecky, would have replied to Judah’s protestation, “The man warned us, ‘Do not let me see your faces unless your brother is with you’” very differently. He would have said, “Tell him not to look!”
Zaydie would have liked it.
The Genesis:3 Project
So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to get grain rations in Egypt Genesis 42:3
There is an Aramaic exclamation, rachmana litzlan. Loosely, it means, “God help us.”
I happened to be in St. Louis on what was (I hope) the hottest weekend of the summer. At one point, an unrelenting sun pushed the temperature to 108 sticky degrees. The hotel I was staying at was more than 35 degrees cooler, but the heat from the outside was radiating through every outside wall and window.
There is a jailhouse in St. Louis called the Workhouse. In it, people who have been arrested are held for trial and sometimes returned to it to finish out their sentences. It may or may not surprise you to know that most of the people incarcerated there at any given time are African American.
The Workhouse has no air conditioning. It is a flat-roofed set of buildings surrounded by chain link, barbed wire and bright lights. Inmates are often crowded into cells and, as you can imagine, hot and crowded conditions make for some flammable circumstances. On the day in question, the temperature rose and held at over 115. Did I mention that there is no air conditioning?
St. Louis is a city with a conscience, and lots of people showed up in the street outside of the Workhouse to demand relief. Many of them had loved ones inside, and whatever the circumstances that landed them there, they feared for their well-being from both natural and human dangers. Police were restrained, even when some of the protestors climbed onto the chain link fence and tried (unsuccessfully) to pull it down.
City and state officials who, I learned, have been unable for years to find the resources to upgrade the Workhouse to humane conditions, promised action soon. “At great expense,” it was announced, portable commercial air conditioning trucks would be hooked up the following week, after the temperature was expected to drop.
I learned all of this from watching the local news. It was the lead story, even before tweets from the White House and protestations of innocence from Vladimir Putin.
And then, in the conversational tone that news anchors have perfected, I heard, “Well, it isn’t just the people of St. Louis who are sweltering in this heat. The animals at the local shelter were suffering, too – until the call went out to animal lovers all over the city. Within hours, fans and window air conditioning units were delivered by volunteers, and life is comfortable once again for our furry friends.” And there, on the screen, pushing my jaw lower and lower, was video of the giant electric fans and portable cooling units brought by concerned citizens.
You are going to read these words as reflecting on St. Louis. Don’t. I have no doubt that the scene could be replayed in Phoenix or Baton Rouge or Louisville or Casper, in excessively hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or flooding conditions. People were suffering and no relief was available. Abandoned pets were suffering and the hearts of their neighbors opened wide.
It is peculiar what moves us as human beings. The inmates in that jail did something – actually or allegedly – to put them there. Most of us are just fine with substandard conditions for people if we perceive them as somehow deserved. Then those conditions deteriorate to life-threatening and somehow humanity seeps back into the prison population. We are ashamed that they have to beg for dignity. Not ashamed enough to prioritize them over pets, but ashamed nonetheless.
Reuven tried to bed his father’s concubine. Simeon and Levi slaughtered an entire tribe. Judah anchored his daughter-in-law and then impregnated her. All the brothers conspired to do away with Joseph. The Workhouse would have been just fine for them.
But along comes famine, a threat to their lives, and suddenly they are a band of brothers. And we are rooting for them. The animals in Egypt were fattened, while back in Canaan, hot and dry meant undue suffering, maybe death, for our wayward family.