Children have been much on my mind this week, from my nieces and nephews in Rehovot shaken by the sound of fighter jets and the threat of rocket attacks, to the horrible stories and pictures of children in Gaza, to the lives of my own children and their more regular existence. In all of these cases, we think if children with a special kind of innocence. Whatever suffering they endure, they are not to blame for it, and that makes their suffering impossible for we “grownups” to explain away.

The Torah portion this week, Vayechi, is suffused with narratives of parents and children. The centerpiece of the parasha comes as a dying Jacob blesses his twelve children. Before that, Jacob promises that his grandchildren, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe, will be his adopted sons, “like Reuben and Simeon” (Gen. 48:5).

The parasha also takes up the reciprocal relationship of children and parents, as Jacob asks Joseph to swear to him that he will be buried in the grave of his ancestors (in Hebron). Jacob calls this promise a “hesed v’emet,” a “kindness and faithfulness,” or more literally “lovingkindness and truth.” The 12th century French commentator Hizkiya Hizkuni comments on this verse that “hesed v’emet” means “a fulfillment  beyond the letter of the law.” In this case, he explains, the basic requirement of a child is to bury his father. Jacob asks Joseph to beyond this and bury him in the land of his ancestors, and Joseph swears he will do so.

This all brings to the fore a third element in the parent-child relationship as it is explored in the book of Genesis, which is the relationship of these generations with the land of Israel. From the very first moment when God promises the land of Israel to Abraham in chapter 15, the covenant is defined in two dimensions: land and children. Here at the end of that story, the two themes are intertwined once more, not only in Joseph’s promise to bury Jacob in the land of Israel, but also in Jacob’s adoption of Joseph’s sons, as Ephraim and Menashe become entitled to a share of the land in place of their father.

This braiding of children and land remains a foreign thing to diaspora Jews, and it was foreign to all Jews before 1948. Nineteenth century European nationalists hurled antisemitic insults against Jews for being unlanded, for being a wandering people without a homeland. Zionism has changed all of that, and brought us back not only to the land of our national yearning, but also a rediscovered sense of the connection between children and land.

Yet there is an important lesson to remember in all of this. Jacob still refers to the land as Canaan, and the Torah will continue to do so, even after the land is clearly the designated destination of the children of Israel. Why not call it the land of Israel? Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller recently related to me a teaching of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the 17th-century author of the kabbalistic work Shnei Luchot HaBrit, more commonly abbreviated as the Shelah. The Shelah asks why the land is called Canaan, and, using the root of the name Canaan, answers that is the land in which we are to be always “nichnaim,” humble.

The land of Israel is not ours, as Leviticus 25:23 reminds us: “For the land is Mine.” Even when we have possession of the land, the Torah tells us, we cannot let it become an idol to us. We are tenants, who must constantly re-prove (and reprove) ourselves if we are to remain worthy. Likewise, as the story of the Binding of Isaac reminds us, our children are not ours either. We are custodians of their lives in their early years, and we love them as we love the land of Israel. But they, like the land, are ultimately their own, and must have their own identity, in relationship with, but independent of, their parents and guardians.

Shabbat shalom.

Last week at the NU Hillel Orthodox Minyan, Rabbi Michael Balinsky led us through a wonderful teaching of the 19th century Hasidic master Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, who is better known by the title of his major work, the Sefas Emes. The particular teaching that Rabbi Balinsky brought was an elaboration of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. One of the significant elements of that story is that at the moment that Mrs. Potiphar makes her attempt to seduce him, Joseph does not hesitate, but immediately runs outside. The Sefas Emes picks up on this point and says that what really happened was that God took away Joseph’s ability to choose, and left him with only one possible action. This, according to the Sefas Emes, is actually the highest level of freedom, achieved only by the very righteous. In fact, he says, the moment when God takes away the possibility of choice is precisely the moment when a human being is most free.

It’s a powerful teaching, and one that can be easily misunderstood and abused. But it comes to mind in light of my post last week about the emphasis on seeing clearly in the Joseph story (and the resonance of that theme with our own Madoff-induced haze). And it has further implications in relation to this week’s Torah reading, Miketz, in which dreams turn out to be the bearers of a deeper reality than is attainable through conscious means. First the dream of Pharaoh’s butler and baker turn out to be true; then Pharaoh’s own dreams come to fruition; and finally Joseph’s early dreams about his family bowing down before him are made manifest in the real world. 

The question pulsating beneath these narratives and the words of the Sefas Emes is this: What is real, and how do we know? While Freud did his part to redeem the notion that our dreams are bearers of truth, we generally tend to think of a dream as “only a dream.” Joseph’s story wants to tell us otherwise, at least in when it comes to the dreams of this particular individual, or, more accurately, to his ability to interpret them. Dreams, when apprehended correctly, turn out to be more true than the rational thoughts we think all day long. A paradox to ponder.

Beyond that, the Sefas Emes is gesturing at an even deeper paradox, which is that alignment between our will and God’s will is something that happens–at least according to him–through a related process of being released from the very thing which makes us human, the ability to make choices. This has some relationship to the Christian notion of grace, and sounds very foreign to those of us with modernist sensibilities. But if we listen to our own experience, we may find that it’s true to us too: Sometimes the right choice is so plainly obvious to us, so clear, that there is no choice. In those moments, we act with the faith that our will and God’s will are aligned.

Later in the week I had the additional pleasure of studying some more Hasidic texts with Rabbi Balinsky. This time we looked at writings related to Hannukah. One of them, from the Kedushas Levi of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, built on the idea that the miracle of Hannukah was not that the oil lasted for eight days when it should only have lasted for one, but that the Maccabees had the desire to light the menorah in the first place. Since they demonstrated their faith that this was the right thing to do, God reciprocated by making the oil last for eight days.

The important point here is that, like us, the Maccabees had no divine voice telling them that theirs was the right course of action. They relied on their own powers of discernment, their own knowledge, which came from a deeper place than rationality. When we light the Hannukah candles, we are demonstrating the same courage, and we remind ourselves that sometimes knowing the right answer is both simpler and more difficult than we thought before.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hannukah.

It seems inevitable this week to write about deception. The country in general and the Jewish world in particular have been rocked by a massive fraud perpetrated by one of our own. The parallels with the story of Joseph and his brothers are plain: we are Joseph, and Bernard Madoff is the brother who has sold us out. 

But another aspect of the story of Joseph is worth pondering in relation to our own story. Central to the brothers’ cover-up is this: 

Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” (Gen. 37:31-33) 

The word translated here as “identify” is the Hebrew word “H-C-R,” hakarah, which is also translated as recognition. The fraud is not complete until Jacob sees the prop created by the brothers and links it with a narrative in his mind. Joseph has not, of course, been torn to pieces, but Jacob, deceived by his sons (in an elegant echo of his own earlier deception of his father, Isaac), believes that the reality is such. As the Torah tells us in the ensuing verses, Jacob’s life is utterly destroyed by his belief in the death of his beloved son.

Part of the Madoff story is the tragic and irresponsible failure of recognition on the part of so many. Deceived by a con man and blinded by greed, otherwise smart individuals–not to mention government officials–failed to recognize what was happening. Some did recognize that Madoff’s prospectus didn’t add up, but many others did not. Those failures reflect one of the enduring questions of the Joseph story: why did Jacob not ask further questions? Why was he blind to the obvious jealousy between Joseph and his other sons? Why, for all those years, did Jacob never inquire further?

The Torah offers a poignant contrast to this failure of recognition in the story of Judah and Tamar: 

As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. (Gen. 38:25-26)

Once again, we have a challenge of identification or recognition, a challenge of hakarah. But in this case, Judah, who has every reason not to recognize what is going on, does so nevertheless. Judah sees clearly, he recognizes reality, and this leads him to take responsibility for his actions. That assumption of responsibility will be articulated even more clearly later on in the story of Benjamin and Joseph, but its immediate result is stated in the story of Tamar, with the birth of Peretz, ancestor of David, founder of the messianic dynasty. 

As President Richard Joel of Yeshiva University put it in an email to his community a few days ago, we must learn all applicable lessons from these events. So what is the lesson for us in all of this? I do not want to be misunderstood as ascribing too much blame to those who invested with Bernie Madoff. Clearly he is the crook here. Yet the heroes in this story are the ones who saw clearly, who were not blind to reality. As individuals, as a community, and as a nation, we must heed the lesson of Judah and not allow ourselves to be fooled, by the schemes of others or the failure of our own powers of perception. 

Shabbat shalom.