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Drasha Parshat Vayeshev

12/16/2014 04:06:21 PM


Shabbat Shalom

Let’s talk about miracles. Chanukah is coming, one of our most beloved holidays. Yet there's a question I have on Chanukah, something on my mind really since I came back from Israel. Chanukah is a story of an unprecedented miracle, or miracles, the nes of the oil in the temple, the military victory, the rabim biyad me’atim – the many are defeated by the few – because Hashem was with them, and despite their formidable enemies, Hashem wanted them to prosper.

It’s a story of miracles against the odds. But what happened next?

At the risk of being called the “Grinch who stole Chanukah,” let me read the following from the opening paragraph of the Rambam's laws of Chanukah:

והושיעו ישראל מידם והעמידו מלך מן הכהנים וחזרה מלכות לישראל יתר על מאתים שנים עד החורבן השני:

Rambam says that the end of the revolt was a return of sovereignty to the Jewish people. And this, he says, lasted 200 years, until the destruction of the Temple.


I have long been troubled by that Rambam – why, before anything else, stress what a temporary victory it was? That the Hasmonean kingdom lasted 200 years, and were difficult years, that ended in the destruction of the temple?

In fact if you study the period of the time, it’s greatly disturbing.

Matisyahu the High Priest had five sons. Judah Maccabee died very soon after the Chanukah miracle, before the end of the war and was succeeded by his brother Yonatan, and then after his death by another brother Shimon.

Shimon, together with two of his sons, was murdered by another member of the family, a son-in-law, in a dynastic dispute. Shimon was succeeded by his son Yochanan, but upon his death, his son Aristobulus had his own mother and brothers arrested, starving her to death.

The next generation included figures such as King Alexander Yanai who murdered 800 rabbis – and from then came all the splits in the Jewish people that led to the Romans coming and destroying the temple, ending our independence for 2000 years.

In fact, Chazal say that the Hasmonean lineage completely disappeared - they all killed each other.

Ramban says they were doomed because a family of priests had no business taking the kingship – they should have passed the crown back to the House of David. It was a greedy dynasty that doomed itself.

And in thinking about all of this very unpleasant history, I am disturbed by a very unsettling question.

How can the people, for whom Hashem performed an awesome miracle – in fact a series of miracles – have turned out so bad? People for whom He was willing to protect and defend, lift up and exalt – how could it all have ended, so swiftly so quickly into fighting, bloodshed and conflict? How did these miracles come to such an inglorious end?

And I’ve got to be honest, when I landed at Newark airport last Tuesday after my trip to Israel, I was on – and still am – such an incredible high. Israel! What a land of miracles: nissim, there is no more inspirational place on earth – its foundation, the 6 Day War, down to this day – it’s a place where you have to be willfully blind not to see open miracles – the ingathering of the exiles, the Bible coming to life.

And I turned on my phone, and my Facebook feed was full of the news that the Bibi had sacked his cabinet ministers, the coalition was falling apart – politics, grubby politics.

And I read the comments of many Israelis – some of whom I had friended on the trip – and saw the weariness, the cynicism, indeed the anger that so many Israelis have with their leaders, for their self-serving, selfish, sometimes greedy, unprincipled politicking.

And I thought to myself: how can this country, that both inspires, that frankly reduces to me to tears of emotion, be led by people who are so uninspiring, often, apparently so incredibly limited, If not corrupt?

And without getting involved in Israeli politics, which if we want to we should make Aliyah and make a difference, in religious life, in Israel and here too, I am often struck by how true this is as well.

The explosion of Judaism – the flourishing of Torah, scholarship in Israel is inspiring. It’s inspiring here too. But how can that same miracle, the resurgence of a way of life that Hitler and Stalin nearly wiped out – be at the same time so inspiring and so very disappointing?

How can religious life both be so uplifting and so toxic?

Sometimes the selfsame rabbis who we look to for religious guidance can make the most incendiary, inflammatory comments. The very heads of the yeshivos whose resurgence is miraculous can unfortunately, be such polarizing figures. And I think the heart of this problem – that we, frankly, are a people who both merit miracles, and are possessed of an astonishing ability to throw our miracles in the gutter – the heart of the problem goes back to this week’s parsha.

It’s a story of hatred. Yosef and his brothers. Jealousy, bloodshed. It’s tragic. But what really drives this dispute is, as the Sforno points out, a world where everyone assumes that another's success is a personal threat that must be countered.

Avraham had two sons – one remains Jewish, the other disappears. Yitzchak has two sons – one remains Jewish, the other written out.

Yaakov has twelve sons. And he clearly favors one, Yosef. And the brothers assume, if Yosef gains, we lose. If he becomes the heir, the leader, the chosen, we become like Yishmael and Eisav.

And so they make sure this will never happen. They tragically misunderstood that it didn’t have to be this way. That in fact, they all could, all would, be Jewish, remain part of the people—leaders in their own right.

They looked at the world, like the squabbling Hasmoneans, and indeed far too many Jewish leaders, religious and secular, and saw not opportunities but threats. They decided that leadership was less important than winning.

What defines too much of Jewish life today, and this is true especially of the inner, religious wars, and religious versus secular – is the idea that we are only safe if we vanquish our opponents.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that one hundred years ago secular Zionism and religious Judaism looked at each other convinced that neither could possibly last for very long.

The idea that both would serve and they would coexist was prosperous – it didn’t fit into the worldview of either side.

And when you hear rabbis making some of the most extreme, off putting statements, and you ask, how will this possibly attract people to Judaism? You are forced to conclude, that that is not the goal. Religious parties – secular parties often too – stand not for making Israel a more ethical moral place, but for protecting a base, for fighting on behalf of one part of the people, against another.

And friends, who was it that said – a house divided against itself cannot stand? I want to be clear – Rabbi, are you saying G-d forbid, Israel is in danger, under threat? So to be clear – that’s EXACTLY what I am saying. At least the Israel we love, the Israel that inspires, the Israel of miracles. I'm not saying that, Jewish history is saying that.  And more than that – Jewish life, Judaism, everything we and all those who came before us worked so hard for, can be swept away as we have seen before, if we insist on continuing this way of being where we take our visions, our highest ideals, and turn them into turf wars and slogans to attack others.

Friends, it doesn’t have to be this way. Think of the three mothers, of Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frankel and Eyal Yifrach, think of the four Har Nof widows, all of whom appealed, in the light of these tragedies, for unity, for ahavah.

On our trip we met so many inspirational people, doing incredible things for Israel and the Jewish people – not politicians but true leaders. There are models of hope everywhere.

But collectively I feel we are in the wrong direction. Look at our own corner of American Modern Orthodox Judaism. I thought the discussion of, for example, women's involvement in shul, or secular education, the role of technology and Shabbat – I thought somehow we educated, literate American Jews would be able to discuss issues like that and many others, with respect, moderation, intellect and open mindedness. But you know what – we can't. Instead we label others. Question motives, ridicule, call names. I've lost count of the number of times people have said to me, in discussing some issue or another – Rabbi we can’t let “them” win.  Who is “them”? You know “them” – the left. Or the right. The men or the women, the Open Orthodox, the Yeshiva Orthodox.

If we insist on looking at Torah debates, questions in Halacha, as nothing more than turf war and politics – well, we know where it will end.

Nobody could have imagined that the end result of this week’s parsha would one day be Yosef and his brothers embracing and living together in peace and understanding that they were all much richer when they all prospered.

When we look at the Jewish and religious world we live in, dare we dream that the same thing could happen? Now wouldn’t that be a miracle!

Shabbat shalom


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