Monday, January 5, 2015

Ending Rivalry Between the Brothers- The Greatness of Peace

Ending Rivalry Between the Brothers- The Greatness of Peace
Portion Vayechi

Have you ever heard the explanation for a Magen  David?

It is two triangles pointing in the opposite directions to show that no two Jews agree. It can be said that Judaism itself is composed of opposite directions, what we can call polarity just like the plus and minus on a battery.

One of the many polarities of Judaism is the idea that there is one underlying unity to all existence, which is God, but all existence is itself a polarity, even of good polarities. Like the battery, existence may have a plus and minus but underlying it is one battery.

Thus, we like to speak of the world torn between justice and mercy. We speak of God as you, immanent and personal, and as he or she or it, transcendent and unreachable.

The very structure of the first book of the Torah is also a polarity.

Imagine the structure of the Torah to be a pyramid--wide at base, narrow at top.  This the pattern of the book: the opening lines are universal, cosmic, and then narrow to this planet, narrow down to all humanity, narrow down to one clan, the clan of Abraham. The focus narrows down to only one of Abraham's sons, Isaac, the focus again to only one of Isaac's son, Jacob- the final focus, on of twelve sons, Joseph.

But to quote Solomon Schechter,“What's past is prologue”. All fifty chapters of Genesis are merely the prologue for enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt and their Exodus. What had boiled down to one now expands to 600,000 adult males, plus wives and children and a mixed multitude of hangers-on. Furthermore in the overall view of the Bible, in the ultimate end, all will expand back to the universal of the totality of all humanity and the universe itself.

So here you have this polarity. The Bible is a book of universal dimensions, which seeks to concentrate one, particular family among the families of mankind, and trace their events. This polarity is also in the nature of Judaism itself, for speaks to the universality of humanity through one particular people.

          In this portion, Jacob has given his personal blessings to Ephraim and Manasseh and then given his blessings all of the 12 sons. He dies and is buried back in the land of Israel. It is then upon the return of the brothers to Egypt that we have an unusual dialogue between Joseph and the brothers.

          The brothers are now filled with anxiety over their future. They send a message to Joseph, claiming that, “Your father commanded before he died, "Say unto Joseph: Forgive the transgressions of your brethren.”
          When, did Jacob ever say such a thing? In all probability, he never knew the truth. If he did, he would have mentioned it in his blessings to the twelve sons and he would have directly commanded Joseph to forgive them when he gave him his burial instructions.

      It is a pure fabrication which Joseph must have seen through. Shouldn’t the brothers by now have seen the virtue of telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but?
Can we ever justify a fabrication?     
            This is  the comment by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel:
Gadol hashalom-Great is peace, for even the tribes ( that is, the brothers) spoke fiction in order to create peace between themselves and Joseph.

            Just the same thing is commented upon by Sages in the Midrash, at the account of the announcement of Isaac’s pending birth. God directly misquotes Sarah." Great is peace,’ they explained,” for when Sarah said, 'I am past my time and Abraham is old’, God rephrased the whole sentence to say, in the words of Sara, "I am old". But she never said that!

          Ten contentious brothers, Nu! We can accept them twisting things. But G-d, the absolute, who wants not and needs not! Scandalous!

          Here you can see yet again another polarity, the tension between the value of truth and the value of the human heart.         
          Some philosophers and ethicists have insisted on an absolute value to every ethical principal. Principals are non-negotiable and all of equal value. If principles collide and come to an impasse, so be it.

          This is referred to  as a categorical imperative-something that demands to be done, without deviation right or left, no matter benefit or harm. It is an absolute right because even the slightest breach undermines the validity of the ideal.
          That does not seem to be the case in Jewish ethics. Jewish ethics requires us to constantly weigh out the cost in terms of pain and agony in undertaking any ethical action. Ethics is a vehicle for the saving of the human; the human is not a vehicle for the sake of an abstraction.
          The playwright, Henry Ibsen, hardly a Jew himself, wrote well in Peer Gynt “The truth , when carried to excess, is wisdom written backwards. "
          I can think of a common example. I have an acquaintance who was recently told by her doctor that she had at best a year to live. All now looked bleak and black as she gave up her struggle for life. We know that transparency in medical treatment is now sacrosanct, as is the patients right to know. The doctor is also protecting his or her back from lawsuit by spelling out all dangers.
          The Jewish equivalent, of telling someone he or she facing mortal danger, was to advise the person to confess the wrong doings just in case. The secret, though , to advising this, was to say it anytime someone was ill, so that it would never seem fatal, and say it with the words,” Many have confessed their sins and have come through the illness.” In other words, get it off your chest, feel cleansed for it, and it will be well.
          Perhaps this is sugar coating, but Jews and Judaism never preached fatalism. We prepared for the worst, but hoped for the best.
The truth, then, takes a back seat to what is best for the patient. It is tempered as much as possible, to help the sick one perhaps overcome the statistics.
            As for my friend- friends don’t let friends down. Another friend heard of this and tracked down a specialist who offered new hope and a life line to survival.  With hope, she has been able to gird herself up and face each new day with hope.

            Many of you know that I have been involved in education for many years. Our job was to take children who were struggling in the classroom, build up their essential skills in reading, math and other areas.

            One of the most challenging areas was always confidence. We had a mantra, our slogan, that we would draw on a piece of paper in a circle when we explained what we were about to do : skills-confidence-motivation. When we strengthened the child’s skills, that led to confidence, which in turn led to motivation.
            The child would come to us, after having been told the raw truth for years by his teachers. The raw truth came in the form of low grades-D or F, today 1 or two, or a frown face- or a percentage score on a test.  Year after year of the same depressing truth. What did we do?
            We would start the child on a skill set that we knew, from assessing the youngster’s existing skills, by starting on material the child already knew. We would give a page of short exercises , the child would get 5 out of 5.”Wow”,” What a great start”, and other simple forms of praise.
            What if the child came across a series of problems that proved hard?
Never say “Fail”! We started with the problems that were right, gave credit for the right first, then went to the wrong one and say “ Let’s look at it again.” Never a put down, never a discouraging word.
            After years of an education system that was unbearably honest, the child could perform above grade level because we sugar coated the truth. We did not lie as some school systems do, and pass the child upwards despite failure, or, as is the current fashion in some sports team, give the child a trophy just for showing up. It was not empty self-esteem dished out for no achievement.
            What we did was give a child hope based on actual achievement but never marked by failure.
            Truth must be measured and balanced and flavored in a way that opens the door of hope. What goes for life and death or for education goes for all aspects of life.

            This is the last portion of Bereshit. Let me spring back to the first book, when God is about to create Adam, the first human. The angels did not like the idea of a competing figure dominating God’s attention, said the Rabbis, so they began to argue against creating him ( and her). One of their arguments was, “ He will be full of lies.” At this , it was said, God threw truth to the ground. You see, for all philosophers who seek absolute reason and clean and neat solutions, as we Jews see it, God loves us, as humans, far more than any abstract principals.  To that end, God could misquote Sarah and the brothers of Joseph could twist their father’s words, because Gadol haShalom, Great is Peace, so great is reconciliation  between human beings, great as all creation. 

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