Sunday, December 22, 2019

Miketz: Beware of Unintended Consequences

This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, describes Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt.  After languishing in prison for ten years on a false conviction, his fate turns when he is called upon to interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams.  He recognizes that while one involves ears of grain and the other livestock, both of these dreams are essentially the same.  He tells Pharaoh: “The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears are seven years.  The seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years, as are also the seven empty ears scorched by the east wind; they are years of famine. . . Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt.  After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten.” 

But Joseph is not content to merely interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  Instead, he offers a detailed strategy for dealing with the forthcoming agricultural boom-bust cycle: “Let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.  Let all the food of the good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities.  Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.”
Pharaoh approves of this idea, because it solidifies his power over his subjects.  He appoints Joseph to administer the policy, which he does, with relentless efficiency. During the bad years, Joseph rations food in return for the Egyptians’ land and livestock, which become the property of Pharaoh.

Most of our commentators defend Joseph, suggesting that he always repays the Egyptians with something of value.  He provides rations in exchange for their money, food in the place of their cattle, and seed in exchange for their land.  But a few, including Radak, and the contemporary scholar Shai Held argue otherwise.  In Rabbi Held’s words:

The ironic turns in the text are intense and powerful and thus require explanation: Brought to Egypt as a slave, Joseph now becomes Egypt’s enslaver. And soon enough, a new Pharaoh rises and the House of Israel [finds] themselves once again on the wrong end of the enslavement process.  Joseph displays remarkable administrative prowess, but he unleashes forces that eventually end up oppressing and degrading his own people. . . . Joseph provides short-term relief in the midst of a ghastly famine, but he also systematically and relentlessly strips the people bare. There is something to be said for administrative aptitude, but it is sobering to realize that it can be coupled with profound short-sightedness.


Short-sightedness and unintended consequences have played a significant role in creating our current environmental crisis.  Some greedy corporations and individuals have deliberately chosen to exploit our planet and its delicate ecosystems; by way of example, Exxon knew a great deal about global warming over forty years ago and choose to hide their findings with a malignant, decades-long disinformation campaign. 

But oftentimes, harmful actions come from good but shortsighted intentions.  We have introduced countless non-native species accidentally through travel, or on well-intended but ultimately misguided efforts at conservation, population control and agricultural experimentation.

Similarly, for many years, dams were seen as an unfettered boon, providing irrigation and drinking water, cheap hydroelectric power, flood control, and recreation sites.  However, in recent years, we have learned that these same dams also increase the risk of earthquakes, decimate fish populations, destroy vast ecosystems, and block the essential free flow of sediments. 

To learn from our past is to recognize the need to look beyond the immediate future and consider the possible long-term effects of our actions.  Joseph, tragically, failed to do so; the result was over two centuries of enslavement in Egypt.  If we are to preserve life on earth as we know it, we need to do better.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Vayeshev: Teshuvah--Judah's and Our Own

Most of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, focuses the tangled tale of Joseph and his brothers.  But midway through that drama, as a kind of interlude in the parshah, we get one of those R-rated biblical episodes that we don’t teach in Hebrew school.

Genesis 38 tells the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar.  She marries Judah’s eldest son, Er; when Er dies prematurely, before she can bear him an heir, she marries his younger brother, Onan.  When that match, too, fails to produce children, upon Onan’s death Judah sends Tamar away, lest the same grim fate await his youngest son, Shelah.

This leaves Tamar despondent and alone, with little prospect for marriage and family.  In her desperation, she hatches a ruse to take matters into her own hands. She dons a veil, disguises herself as a prostitute and waits by the side of the road for her father-in-law, who eventually engages her services and sleeps with her, without realizing her true identity.  A few months later, Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant.  In a patriarchal rage, he proclaims: “Bring her out and burn her!”  But when she produces Judah’s staff and seal, which he left in her possession as a sort of deposit after their tryst, he owns up to his misdeeds: “She was in the right, rather than me, inasmuch as I denied her my son Shelah.”

She is right.  I was wrong. 

With these words, Judah becomes the first person in the Torah to make teshuvah, to acknowledge his transgressions and alter his behavior accordingly.  It is no coincidence that many years later, when the brothers must plead for their lives in Egypt, Judah is the one who steps up and confesses their history of wrongdoing toward Joseph.  Judah is a hero, because as we all know, it is extraordinarily difficult to take responsibility for our offenses and change our path for the better.  Overcoming stubborn pride and ego is a formidable task.  This is why Judah’s name will become the root of both “Jew” and “Judaism.”  When we are at our best, we are his heirs.

There is no realm in which teshuvah—and our Jewish leadership—is more important than that of ecological justice.  Our relationship with the rest of God’s creation is in dire need of repair.  Indeed, a failure to deliberately turn away from the destructive status quo imperils all life on earth.  Our future hinges upon our ability to step out of the status quo and learn to live in a far more sustainable future—and there is no time to waste.  The hour is late, as injurious climate change is already upon us, but we, like our forefather Judah, can still shift course and affirm the promise of life for our posterity.

The Jewish organization Hazon is leading the way.  Their vision is both straightforward and urgent: a vibrant healthy Jewish community in which to be Jewish is necessarily to help create a more sustainable world for all.  Hazon has proclaimed the current Jewish year, 5780, as the year of environmental teshuvah.  They are urging all Jews to examine our impact on the planet and use our tradition’s insights and imperatives to commit ourselves to doing better.  You can find more here:

As Judah recognized long ago—and as we all experience in our own lives—teshuvah is hard.  But I am confident that with CABI’s new task force on climate change, our community will do our part to teach by example.  Please join us—we need you!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Vayishlach: A River Runs Through It

An undisturbed river is as perfect a thing as we will ever know, every refractive slide of cold water a glimpse of eternity.
-Thomas McGuane

At the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob is preparing for a long-awaited—and feared—reunion with his estranged brother Esau.  The night before that critical encounter, he ferries his entire family across the River Jabbok, then returns to the far bank, where he is left alone at nightfall.  There, by the riverside, he wrestles with a divine being until sunrise.

I believe the setting for this fateful meeting is no accident.  In the Midrash Tanchuma, the Rabbis teach that after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, there was no more revelation outside of Israel—except along the banks of rivers.  Our Sages knew that the Eternal One could be found in the presence of living water.  Daniel received the divine call as he stood by the Ulai River, and Ezekiel beheld the hosts of heaven from the banks of the Chebar.  Ezekiel’s ensuing vision of the Divine Chariot—complete with a raging storm, fiery winged, multi-headed creatures, and wheels rimmed with eyes—became the touchstone experience for all subsequent generations of Jewish mystics.  Thus an episode of revelation that is arguably second in importance only to Sinai took place along an otherwise unknown Chaldean stream.

Why does the Holy One so often choose to appear to our ancestors along river banks?  Perhaps there is something about flowing water that makes such places uniquely felicitous for people to receive the Divine Presence. The kabbalists believe that more than any other manifestation of God’s creation, rivers remind us of life’s fluidity. 

Alas, climate change is already taking a heavy toll on our rivers.  For six million years, the Colorado River ran to the sea.  Today, it dries out in the middle of the desert, deprived of water by dams and droughts.  Drastic changes in the timing and quantity of precipitation is already leading to both flooding and drought, and declining water quality as well. 

When a river dies, we squander a source of much bounty, to humanity and far beyond, to entire riparian ecosystems.  We also lose our spiritual centers where God is revealed to those who know how and where to look.  Jacob wrestled with the Divine—and found his best and brightest self—along the River Jabbok.  Without living rivers, where will we, his descendants, encounter the Holy One?