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Friday, December 24, 2010


Dvar Torah For Parshat Shemot, 5771.

How significant are the differences between variant spellings of people’s English names? Let’s try a little experiment to determine this. If I spell Brian B R I A N and then I spell it B R Y A N, does the spelling difference make a difference? Now, let’s try another English name, Louis. If I spell it L O U I S, does this name differ in meaning from L E W I S? How about Billy? If I spell it B I L L Y, then spell it B I L L I E, is there a difference? Or, what about Barry? Is B A R R Y different from B A R R I E? In these last two examples, the variant spellings of Barry and Billy are significant only in terms of determining the gender of the person bearing the name, and only in written form. Just hearing the name Billy or Barry would not allow you to determine if the name belonged to a man or a woman unless the person bearing that name was being addressed in front of you. I would make the highly uninformed and speculative assumption that though English names are rooted in meaningful ideas based upon their Latin, Greek, or Germanic roots, variants on the spelling of those names do not normally have any real significance.

This is not necessarily the case in biblical Hebrew, which uses names consciously to predict the fates and establish the characteristics of its heroes. One example, not a great one, is Avram and Avraham. Apart from one Hebrew letter, we don’t think of these as two distinct names, but the Torah certainly does. The addition of the Hebrew letter Hey to Avram’s name by God completely changed him from Avram to Av Hamon Goyim, the father of many nations, as part of his covenant with God.

Another much less known example of this name phenomenon, one that the Torah itself does not spell out explicitly, is that of the names GershoM, spelled with a final MEM, and GershoN, spelled with a final NUN. We find both of these variant spellings in this morning’s Torah portion, Shmot, which by the way, means “names” and starts with the names of the people who moved to Egypt with Jacob. Looking in Exodus 2:25 (HEH 325), we find the following: “She (Moses’ wife, Zipporah) bore a son whom he named GershoM, for he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.’” GershoM is a compound of the Hebrew words, ger (stranger) and sham (there). Moses uses the birth of his first child as an opportunity to remember his (Moses’) precarious state as an exiled resident alien in the land of his wife’s family. Now let’s look at Exodus 6:16 (HEH 354): “These are the names of Levi’s sons by their lineage, GershoN, Kohath and Merari.” Of course, notice the spelling differences between the two, specifically the variant uses of final MEM and final NUN. I suspect that both of these names were originally mere variants with no significant difference, but over time, Jewish tradition came to read them as different. According to Halachah (Jewish law), when you write a get, a divorce document, if you write the name of the ex-husband as GershoN (final NUN) when his name is actually GershoM (final MEM), or vice versa, the get cannot be used and must be written again. Explaining this, the Torah commentator, Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Epstein writes that GershoM refers to what the Torah had already written: Moses as a stranger in a foreign land. However, the name GershoN is derived from the Hebrew word, Gerushin, dismissal or divorce, which is based upon the Hebrew verb, garash, to chase away. The two names sound the same, but they derive from different roots with different meanings; thus they are not interchangeable for get writing purposes.

I would like to explore the difference between these two names, GershoM and GershoN a bit more closely with you. Though the Torah never explicitly tells us that GershoN the son of Levi was named to recall some traumatic experience of dismissal or divorce, we can readily imagine Levi, third son of Jacob, imputing such significance to his eldest son’s name. The Book of Genesis tells us that, with his brother Shimon, Levi murdered the residents of Shechem to avenge the rape of his sister, Dinah, but their leader. Upon his death bed, Jacob singled out the two brothers for particularly harsh condemnation, as the result of their actions. Gershon’s levitical descendants were charged with the task of transporting the covers of the portable sanctuary, the outermost (and some might say, least significant) parts of that structure, thus emphasizing symbolically how transient or “chased away” they might have been seen or felt themselves to be. Based upon an interesting polemic found in the Talmud, a much later Hasidic comment on the name GershoN relates it to the desirable and condemnable characteristics of a communal leader: a leader with great ancestral lineage who is not also well versed in Torah ( a bar avahan versus a bar uryan, according to BT Menahot 53a) is considered a GershoN, one who should be divorced from or chased away from leadership. Without the sobering and sanctifying discipline of Torah, lineage as a standard for leadership easily degenerates into ruthlessness born of a sense of inherent prestige and privilege. This certainly seems to be part of Levi’s problem: as Jacob’s son, he may well have believed that his lineage granted him license to react with violence, the horror and moral outrage of his sister’s victimization notwithstanding. Separated emotionally from his father, Levi may have named his first born son GershoN to reflect that sense of dismissal, divorce and estrangement, a kind of emotional exile.

Both names, seemingly unconnected in the story of the enslavement in Egypt, actually connect quite meaningfully. Moses’ son, GershoM, bore the memory of his father’s self imposed physical exile in a strange land, the result of his fear for his life at the hands of Pharaoh. Levi’s son, GershoN (Moses’ uncle) bore the memory of his father’s divorce like estrangement from his own father, Jacob. I suspect that neither was pleased about inheriting such darkly symbolic names or the legacies of so much alien residency brought about by their two fathers’ actions and wanderings. They were the dubious beneficiaries of family histories, choices, and migrations over which they had no control.

Let me suggest that the modern GershoNs and GershoMs are the children of illegal immigrants who populate our nation in the millions. A recent Washington Post article offers the following population statistics: by 2006, the number of foreign born children of illegal immigrants had leveled off at 1.5 million. By 2008, the number of children born in the United States to illegal immigrants had actually grown to 4 million. Though there are those who would like it repealed, federal law makes anyone born in the United States a legal citizen, even if his or her parents are not. The Dream Act, legislation recently defeated in the Senate just shy of five votes, would have provided legal citizenship for a limited category of young Americans who came to this country under the age of 16 with their parents illegally. It would have allowed them to apply for citizenship, especially for the purposes of enlisting in the armed forces or applying to college as long as they meet specific residency and legal requirements. Though I found it heartening that a majority of senators (including three Republicans) voted for the new law, it is quite sad that the requisite 60 votes to pass the bill was not reached. Opponents claim that the law would be abused by young illegals who would find ways around the age-at-immigration requirements, thus encouraging even more illegal immigration beyond the more than eleven million illegal immigrants residing here now. Given the byzantine bureaucracy that is the federal government, I doubt this would happen anytime soon; for all we know, the usual big government snafus that accompany all such new legislation would hold up most of these young people from ever seeing their status legalized anytime before the coming of the Messiah, so I am more inclined to believe that opposition to the bill was motivated more by nativist paranoia, a great deal of confusion about proper federal immigration policy, and plain old pandering to racism, most of it directed at Latinos who represent the largest body of illegal immigrants, as well as a growing political force to be reckoned with. Further, given the fact that the Obama administration is planning to deport an all time record high of 400,000 illegal immigrants this fiscal year, killing such legislation on the grounds that it is one more piece of liberalism that seeks to weaken American security is just nonsense. Consider the impassioned words of Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska, hardly a liberal state. She was one of the three Republican senators who broke ranks to support the bill:

“I support the goal of the Dream Act which is to enable children who were brought to the United States by their parents to earn citizenship through service in the armed forces or pursuit of higher education… I do not believe that children are to blame for the decision of their parents to enter or remain in the United States unlawfully. The reality is that many of these children regard America as the only country they ever knew. Some were not even told that they were unlawfully in the United States until it came time for them to apply for college. America should provide these young people with the opportunity to pursue the American dream. They have much to offer America if given the chance.”

I personally support tough immigration legislation that protects us from absorbing immigrants who do not have good reasons to be here, especially in this era of international terrorism against the United States and in this broken economy. I stop way short of the illegal, racist and capricious immigration policies of the State of Arizona, and I am also well aware of how much we Jews have benefitted from immigration to this country. Still, I believe firmly that we need real immigration reform that will monitor immigrants carefully, prevent them from being abused by sweatshop bosses and prostitution rings, protect jobs for American citizens, and limit legal immigration to those who are seeking genuine political asylum from persecution or who possess high level skills and education that can benefit American society. However, the kids who would have benefitted from the Dream Act are, like GershoM and GershoN of the Torah, mostly the hapless recipients of their parents’ decisions. (We would do well, of course, to remember that most of their parents came here illegally because they wanted a better life for those kids.) What do we benefit by denying them the simple chance to be legal citizens in the only country that they know or have ever known? Surely, we can do better at dealing with this aspect of the very serious problem of illegal immigration. Surely, if GershoM and GershoN showed up at our doors today, we should have a much better way of providing them with a legitimate chance to fulfill the American dream.

Shabbat shalom.


A Dvar Torah For Parshat VaYehi, 5771.

Parshat VaYehi brings Jacob, his family, and us to the end of his physical life, and it allows us to touch the edges of the impending birth of the Israelites as a nation. Each of Jacob’s death bed scenes –the first with his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe and the second with his sons- is presented with the almost idyllic quality of cinematic death bed scenes; the patriarch of the family offers blessing and wisdom to his progeny, his infirmities do not prevent him from being mentally sharp and emotionally connected, and he simply dies upon completing his life tasks and putting his house in order, with no mention of his pain, suffering, struggle or physical degradation. Those of us who have encountered the final stages of life with loved ones and congregants know that, at least on the surface, this death bed portrayal by the Torah appears far too gentle and pleasant than it actually is a lot of the time. However, I invite you to look just beneath the surface at the more nuanced progression of the narrative about Jacob’s death, beginning with an important scene in last week’s portion, VaYiggash. When Jacob meets Pharoah, the king asks him, “How old are you?” Jacob replies quite intriguingly that the years of his sojourn on earth have been 130, and they have been few and difficult. Even at the moment of his reunion with his beloved Joseph and the supposed reconciliation among his children, he is fully aware of the losses and pain he has suffered, from the time of his complicated relationship with his brother, Esau, and his parents, until his old age. At the opening of VaYechi, we encounter Jacob as an old and dying man of 147, seventeen years later, the number of years a telling echo of Joseph’s age when his father’s favoritism set Joseph, Jacob, and his brothers on their course of tragic missteps, hatred and pain. As this final narrative continues, we watch Jacob express gratitude for seeing Joseph again, then we watch him privilege his younger grandson Ephraim over his older grandson Menashe, almost as if repeating his past errors of violating societal rules to favor a younger sibling in a way that could engender great resentment in his son’s family. Jacob calls his sons together for what is called, at the end, a blessing, but is really mostly an after- the-fact, bitter criticism of what they have done wrong, how they have disappointed him in the past, or his own observations of who they are. We may find his open assessment of his sons refreshing, but we are also left with the disturbing feeling that this is too little, too late, and that of the all times in his life, not being able to let go of his anger at some of his children at the end of his life is likely not a good thing. It is no wonder then that the Torah continues to call him by his former name, Yaakov (the sneaky heel) and his new name, Yisrael (the one who fights with God and men). To the very end, he is both: a prisoner of the devices and artifices of his younger life, and an older, wiser, freer man who learns from his errors to face himself and others with courage and honesty.

In the last chapter of his celebrated book, How We Die, Dr. Sherwin Nuland writes the following:

The dignity that we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives…the art of dying is the art of living. The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last weeks or days that we compose the message that will be remembered, but in all the decades that preceded them.

I am not certain that I agree entirely with Dr. Nuland. I have watched people of great dignity become ravaged by the indignities of dying that affect deeply their mental capacity to live with and love those around them. I have also watched dying people whose lives were filled with undignified wrongdoing towards others make serious, often successful attempts at repentance and reconciliation with others. Still, his general point is well taken: the quality of our dying often does relate closely to the quality of our lives. So, I ask us: do we, readers of faith, feel that Jacob’s impending death reflects the way in which he lived? More importantly, did he live well? Most important, are his life and death mirrors that we can hold up to ourselves and from which we can learn? Let’s read VaYechi together and continue the ongoing conversation about these critical questions.

Shabbat Shalom


A Dvar Torah For Parshat Mikketz and Shabbat Hanukkah 5771.

We all know that our common practice is to light one candle on the first night of Hanukkah (not counting the helper candle, of course) and to add one more candle each night until the final night, when we light eight candles. In the early part of the common era, there were actually two conflicting candle lighting practices. The Talmud tells us that the School of Shammai would begin Hanukkah by lighting eight candles, then reduce the number of candles lit each night, so that by night eight only one candle would be lit. Shammai’s intellectual rival, the school of Hillel, would begin Hanukkah by lighting one candle, then increase the number of candles lit each night, so that by night eight, eight candles would be lit. Shammai’s reasoning was that, since Hanukkah was originally an imitation of Sukkot –a holiday that the Maccabees could not celebrate during their battles with the Greek army- we imitate the practices of Sukkot in our candle lighting. On Sukkot in the ancient temple, the number of sacrificial offerings burned on the altar decreased each day of the holiday, until the Shmini Atzeret holiday on the eighth day, when only one offering would be burned. So too on Hanukkah, the School of Shammai would offer fewer and fewer candles, as it were, on the imitative altar known as the Hanukkiyah. Hillel’s reasoning was that, since the true Hanukkah miracle involved the small jug of oil being sufficient for the people to light the Menorah for eight days, we imitate them by lighting an increasing number of candles each night, until we light eight. However, a careful look at the words used in the Talmud to describe Hillel’s reasoning reveals something interesting: The Hillelites never say explicitly that we increase the number of candles for the reason just mentioned. The Talmud cryptically explains that they practiced this way because we are supposed to increase the presence of holiness in our lives, not decrease it. What the Talmud seems to be getting at here is what we all know intuitively. As a winter holiday, Hanukkah is all about increasing God’s holy presence in our lives by actively increasing the light in a dark, winter world. Hanukkah may have connections to Sukkot, but what light starved people truly crave as we come together during the holiday or on any night, is more light, which brings more joy and more security.

The great 18th century Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, explains this basic human quest for more light in his extended essays on Hanukkah, which I am privileged to be studying with our fellow congregant, Anschel Weiss. Levi Yitzchak views the disagreement between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai as two unique spiritual postures. He asks us to imagine a person in the desert who is starving for food and water. When that person finds out that food and water are on their way, his gratitude and sense of relief continue to increase because he can anticipate getting closer to nourishment, even though he is still intensely hungry and thirsty. When he finally eats, he initially thanks God for what he now has, but his sense of gratitude begins to wear off as he eats and drinks more and more. Comparing this to the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, Levi Yitzchak explains that Hillel’s practice reflects how they thought the Jews of ancient times must have felt each night of that first Hanukkah. Once they were out of harm’s way, each night they lit the Menorah in the Temple with that one small jug of oil, they became hungrier and thirstier –as it were- for more opportunities to show gratitude to God. Their increasing joy at the possibilities of restoring light to their own dark world only made them increase their thanks to God: thus, Hillel’s practice. Shammai’s practice, however, reflects a very different assumption about the people’s feelings during that first Hanukkah. Once they were out of harm’s way, each night they lit the Menorah in the Temple, the initial thrill of God’s redemption began to wear off as they moved further and further from the original miraculous experience of defeating the Greek occupiers. Like a community slogging through the rituals of Sukkot day after day, after having already observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Maccabean Jews’ spiritual enthusiasm grew dim: thus, Shammai’s practice.

We record and study both opinions, Hillel and Shammai, but we only observe the opinion of the School of Hillel. We recognize, as does Levi Yitzchak, that our experiences of God and of life are always most powerful at the moment that they happen, and we are always most appreciative of them then. But time, forgetfulness, and the difficulties of life distract us, so that our exhilaration starts to diminish and grow dim. It is human nature to want to practice like the House of Shammai, and we need to accept this about ourselves. However, the lighting of our Hanukkah lights in accordance with the House of Hillel is a symbolic challenge to us to resist that impulse to darken the world further by growing dark ourselves. By lighting more lights each night of Hanukkah, we indicate our steadfast refusal to be swallowed up by that despair that daily accompanies the dark little indignities of life in a world that is less than just, less than perfect, and seemingly so far away from the miracles that life has to offer. By lighting more lights each night of Hanukkah, we shed more light on the ordinary that surrounds us, so that we can see the extraordinary hiding in its shadows.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukkah.