Saturday, January 7, 2017

Issues that that the faith community will face in 2017

In my most recent column I identify issues in the public square that the faith communities in America will likely have a strong interest in advocating for or against regardless of being liberal or conservative.  Have a good read and let me know what you think.
Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Rabbi Brad Bloom

Torah Portion of the Week. Vayigash Genesis Chapter 45:2 Why did Joseph Cry?

Why Did Joseph Cry when he revealed himself to his brothers?
Davar Torah-Vayigash Genesis Chapter 45:2
January 6, 2017

It is unfortunately true when folks say that there is so much violence in the Torah and the Bible as a whole. Yet, the story of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers strikes an exceptional tone highlighting repentance and forgiveness as Jewish values. This is a story not about how violence was used by Joseph to seek revenge against his brothers who kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. The Torah goes into detail to provide the reader an exact sense of the emotional turmoil  that Joseph experiences as the brothers approach for the second trip to Egypt, this time with Joseph’s brother Benjamin (from the same mother Rachel). The narrative of Torah gives us the detail and nuance of Joseph internal spiritual struggle and the brother’s recognition of their evil deeds from the past. Unlike many stories in the Torah which describe the character’s external actions in a certain set of circumstances.  This story, on the contrary, is about the internal drama of Joseph emerging out of his shell and his hidden identity  into the open and demonstrating his maturity and, thus, according Elie Wiesel became a Tzaddik a righteous person by not taking revenge.

One of the most interesting and perplexing moments in this narrative is how Joseph burst out into tears when he was about to reveal himself. Wait a moment! I thought guys are supposed to suppress their emotions? Aren’t men expected to be in control of themselves and especially their emotions? Don’t we commonly hold to the stereotype that women cry and men stand stoically by their wives suffering?

Why did Joseph cry? What did it do for his relationship with his brothers? Did it enable them to reach out towards each other down the road? To begin with let’s take a look at the midrash. In chapter forty-five verse two the Torah tell us that Joseph cleared the hall of his palace except for this brothers. “He gave forth his voice in weeping  Egypt heard, and Pharaoh’s household heard.”He rises to identify himself and speak to his brothers about his past and his divinely inspired role to sustain life and why he will want to be with them as their brother and that they all should come down to Egypt. After he says all this he concludes when he sees his baby brother Benjamin. (Remember they were both from Rachel who had long since died giving birth to Benjamin.) The Torah says, Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck.  He then kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and afterwards his brothers spoke with him.”

 One midrash comments on the verse “He cried out loud.” Just as Joseph conciliated with  his bothers only through weeping, so the Holy One, blessed be he, will redeem Israel only though weeping”(Genesis Rabbah). Not rational discussion but a complete catharsis of tears, at least for Joseph, with his brothers. Not a sit down one on one conversation and gradual returning towards each other over the years. This time it was an explosion of emotion as if all their lives thy had held onto this secret. It was as if the hurt and the pain of the past was burned off like the morning fog and the expression of tears was what it took to transcend the past.

Sometimes it takes the releasing of that kind of emotion to bridge the divide that caused so much pain to Joseph. Maybe there is something to that for us as well in reconciling with old antagonisms with siblings and friends as well as relatives. I have seen moments when siblings who have not seen each other in decades were reunited. Sometimes it was because of the Holocaust and other times it was about the typical kinds of stuff that happens when one person allegedly hurts another years ago and the brothers or the sisters refuse to speak with other.

Yet the wisdom of the midrash says that only through the weeping can Israel find healing. Redemption moments are not always about the discussion, rather, those moments happen when both see past the petty things and recognize the bonds of family are enduring. Those redemption moments are often times intuitive.

In another modern commentary there are two other interpretations offered. One asks’ why did Joseph let loose? What was the trigger for him with his brothers? The answer was that he had spoken to them harshly before in order to have them realize the enormity of their sin and to repent so that they would atone for the sin of having sold him. This was the first moment, again an intuition, when Joseph realized that they had  regretted their actions. That was why he was no longer able to restrain himself.

The second moment was  that he could not tolerate to have the Egyptians stand by him and see how his brothers would be humiliated when he  revealed  himself to them.(Rashi).  Why did he even care about their humiliation after all those years given what his brothers had done to him? Doesn’t that mean he cared about them being his brothers and they were still a reflection upon him? Or maybe, the commentator suggests, Joseph did not want his staff to see that a vizier of Egypt would cry? What a sign of weakness! Maybe one more reason he cried was that  Joseph did not restrain his crying in order not to have others near him, and he was not worried about his own honor, but about that of his brothers. He was thinking about them not him. (Shem mi-Shmuel.)

“They shall come with weeping and with supplications will I lead them, I will cause them to walk by rivers of waters”(Jeremiah 31:9). This is a unique story because it gets to a place where a lot of men never go in their emotional lives. Men like Joseph show great strength and not weakness because they cry. They show that letting go of pain through tears is healthy and spiritually necessary. Joseph could not have been able to follow through the rest of the journey with his brothers had he not shared the length and breath of his emotions.

There is a lesson for us too when it comes not just towards reconciling with old antagonisms but embracing the fears and angers that we harbor over the years with relatives, spouses and children. Joseph is a great role model for men to take a step back and develop that intuition for moments that can make or break a life and its meaning.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, December 26, 2016

I was at the governor's mansion for Hanukkah

I went home to Baltimore to see a Ravens football game and attended the Maryland Governor's annual Hanukkah party. Here is what I learned.
Happy Secular New Year.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Is Hilton Head the Golf Island. Is it the Caring Island too?

This is my most recent column from the Newspaper on what we on the Island are really about. This time of year at Thanksgiving should give us all some time to reflect wherever we live about our priorities. So how about take a read and let me know what you think? All the best
Rabbi Brad Bloom

Saturday, November 19, 2016

New Post from Rabbi Brad Bloom: Davar Torah on Genesis 19 and the Story of Sodom and Gamorah

There are many stories  in the Torah that leave us feeling more perplexed after reading them. The story of Sodom and Gamorah is one example from this week’s parashat vayerah in the book of Genesis. In a nut shel it goes like this. Two supposed holy beings come to see Lot, the nephew of Abraham. They want to stay with him but no one is sure what their purpose is for the visit. 

The word gets out about these two strangers and a group of townspeople surround Lot’s home and demand to see them. The Torah suggests that this crowd wants to rape the two holy men. Lot tries to protect them and offers these people his two daughters. The next scene is that the special holy beings tell Lot that God plans to destroy this city due to its corrupt nature and that they, Lot, his wife and their two daughters, have to leave immediately.

As they leave in a hurry they tell them not to look back over the town lest they turn into salt. Unfortunately his wife disobeys the warning, gazes back upon the city and she turns into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters flee to a town called Zoar. The daughters get upset that they have no men to be with and they decide to have sex with their father. So for two nights they give him wine and get him totally drunk and each sister has sex with him with the belief that he will be so drunk that he will never remember his sex with them the next morning.

Let me add one more bit of Torah here which is in the preceding chapter. God announces that these residents of the Negev desert communities Sodom and Gamorah are all wicked and that he plans to annihilate them. Abraham gets into a direct dialogue with God trying to convince him that if he can find fifty righteous people will God retract from his threat to destroy them? God says yes. Abraham says if I can produce thirty, or twenty or even ten righteous people will God relent on his declaration to destroy all of them? Each time God says, “Yes.” In the next chapter the story of Lot begins which I just summarized. Obviously there weren’t even ten and so God went about to destroy the citizens of Sodom and Gamorah.

Abraham shows how he is not afraid to challenge God on his judgement. Each time God agrees to his terms ,yet,  there aren’t simply those ten righteous  people to be found. This is not the first time God carries out a threat of destruction. We harken back to Noah and the flood. In this case Noah obeys God’s instructions to build an ark and never tries to challenge God’s decree to destroy all mankind. Noah’s silence stands in stark contrast to Abraham’s determination and guts to take on God in a debate. This is not so different from Moses who took on God who was about to destroy the Israelite people after the sin of the Golden Calf. There too Moses challenges God’s wisdom and convinces God to relent from starting over with Moses to form a new people. One could say that Abraham and Moses and other biblical figures show that it is acceptable to challenge God’s sense of justice. Again we see that God will change his mind when a powerful case is made on behalf of the Jewish people.

I find this appeal from Abraham to challenge God one of the most fascinating themes of the Torah; to witness how a human being can debate with God.  Why is this aspect of the story important for us? What can we learn about how a society turns against itself. And who is today that must be the one who challenges the status quo to preserve a good and decent society form turning against itself?
Judaism has had a series of biblical characters including the most famous  such as Job who challenges God for bringing so much disaster upon him by killing all who are near and dear to him. Jews have, ever since then, had a tradition of talking and challenging God when they thought God was not acting fairly towards the Jewish people.

Even today Elie Wiesel  taught how Abraham is a different kind of patriarch as compared to the passive and acquiescent Noah. Our best approach is not to say that God is wrong but to ask God to think about his decision. We have this ability respectfully challenge the holy one to rethink a position. In the story of Sodom and Gamorah, God agreed each time with Abraham to spare the citizens if he could produce the righteous people. In the end Abraham never did it and the rest of the story we know.
We are living in times today when we need to produce righteous people who can give credibility to a society like ours and cause us to question our own way of thinking about how we relate to others. Sometimes confrontation does work, depending on the issue. Yet when we can challenge someone to think through an issue, respect them even though we disagree with them we may have a better chance to influence their thinking,
 I know we tend to lambast elected officials as crooks. There is mistrust from the top of the elected leader ladder to the local school board. We have righteous people in this country and in the world. Today we are not just talking about elected leaders but folks who serve society in all sorts of capacities. It is not like we are arguing before God for our position to restore public confidence in our communities. We are, instead, arguing our position to the rest of the community which does sit in judgment upon us. Honesty and integrity are critical values that were not in existence in Sodom and Gamorah. They paid the price.

The rabbis said that when hatred divides a society against itself that society will not survive. Do we need a higher bar of moral conduct and integrity today? Do we also need, besides elected officials,corporate leaders and medical professionals, clergy and teachers and business owners to rise to an even higher plateau of leadership and honesty. We cannot be silent like Noah not even before God. As Wiesel said about the Jewish people which was that we speak truth to power even if it is God. We learn this lesson first from Abraham.

Sodom and Gamorah were communities that we should fear the most. It wasn’t a nuclear bomb or a biological disease that destroyed them. Despite all the pleading of a righteous man it was, in truth, simply baseless hatred and mistrust amongst themselves. A city of people who lost a vision of justice towards themselves and imploded. It can happen to any city, and in any country.