Every year has its issues and key words and phrases. A key phrase this year is Intelligent design. Intelligent design is a new, more sophisticated form of the word creationism, which is now passé. Creationism is based on a very simple and literal reading of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis and states that the world was created 5700 years ago in six days. Evolution, on the other hand, says that life has evolved over hundreds of millions of years and that human life has been around millions of years. Most people in America think that they must choose religion or science on this matter.
Make no mistake: This is a big issue in America today and it’s getting bigger. I love the show West Wing, and the fictional presidential campaign ignites when a Democratic candidate says that he believes in G-d and that he likes to think that G-d is intelligent. That candidate goes on to say that this is his faith but that he doesn’t think intelligent design should be taught as science in school because it is not science, it is religion, and we need to separate religion from government. I’m sitting there saying, Amen to everything he’s saying and I’d vote for him if I could only find him on the ballot.
The problem is that many candidates on the ballot are people who have a very unsophisticated position
“Are you the Rebellious Child, always eager to show that you don’t buy any of this Jewish stuff and that you would never think about learning anything about it?
Are you the Simple Child who stopped learning when you were a child, who doesn’t know anything more than you did at thirteen years old?
Or do you know so little that you don’t even know what question to ask first?
Which child are you?
After twenty-seven years as a rabbi, I know enough about American Jewish people to generalize: Most of us are in the third group.
Yes, some of us are Wise Children who read Jewish books, attend adult education classes and services and stay current on events affecting Judaism and Israel.
And of course, some of us are Rebellious Children and don’t want to have much to do with the whole thing but do identify themselves as Jewish and who therefore come to the Seder table and a few High Holiday services but that’s really it.
Still, most of us are in the third group. We don’t learn or participate very much but also have only goodwill towards Judaism and the Jewish people. Educationally speaking, we know less than we did when we were children. One of the problems is that what we do know is what we were taught when we were kids. And so we think about Judaism as something for children.
When we were kids, we were taught in a certain way so that we would receive a foundation of values. Children should have heroes who embody great values. Children should learn a strong sense of good and evil and right and wrong. Jewish children should learn their Bible stories so that they will have a strong moral and ethical and religious foundation for their lives.
But in the process, our teachers, in both secular and religious schools, need to leave certain aspects of the truth out of the picture on these matters. By unsophisticated I mean simple and almost primitive, and I don’t only mean that they’re being simplistic about science; I also mean that they’re being simplistic about reading the Bible. But I know why they are this way; it’s the culture in which we live.
I hear, for instance, that there are going to be mini-theme parks that feature dinosaur sculptures. By having people walk around amidst dinosaurs, their point is that people and dinosaurs lived at the same time, because they think that’s what the Bible says. They’re wrong scientifically and they’re reading the Bible incorrectly but they do have Raquel Welch on their side. Raquel Welch appeared in a movie forty years ago called One Million Years BC with cave people and dinosaurs together. Raquel Welch would like these theme parks that are supposed to demonstrate that the world was created 5700 years ago and that people and dinosaurs lived at the same time.
Since President Bush has endorsed intelligent design, lots of politicians and prospective candidates are jumping all over each other to denounce any scientific statement that runs counter to their beliefs. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania there have been a long string of cases in which the local school board has sought to compel high school science teachers to point out the religious errors in the theory of evolution. I hope that the court will rule against the school board. But the president himself has said that intelligent design should be part of the curriculum, too. So we can see that school board mandated creationism will probably grow al l over the country.
You see, nearly half of the people in the United States believe that life on earth existed in its present form since the beginning of time. The other half thinks life on earth evolved over time. Nearly half of those people think that this evolution was guided by G-d.
I wish that people who believe in the Bible would understand what the Bible is. In the first chapter of Genesis, we have the very beautiful and poetic description of the creation of the world. This chapter was recited in the first Temple in Jerusalem as a prayer for order. G-d created the world not out of nothing but out of primordial stuff; creation means ordering that stuff so that life could grow. Plants and then animals are created. Then people, men and women, all created in the image of G-d, are told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. So at the end of Chapter One, there are lots of people and they have been commanded to fill the earth. Notice the order: Plants, animals, then people. Notice the evolution to higher life forms.
Now comes Chapter 2, a very different account of the creation of two particular human beings. In this chapter, G-d created a man and then plants and then animals and then a woman. By the way, the account of how the woman was created is given a lot more space and attention than the account of how the man is created. He places these people in a Garden in Eden City and does an experiment: he wants to see what they’ll do with Paradise They blow it, and the rest, literally, is history.
Please notice that in chapter 1 we had this order:
Men and Women created together
And that in Chapter 2 we had this order:
Woman, maybe, I don’t know, as the highest life-form.
If you were to ask, okay, what is the order of creation in the Bible, I would have to tell you that there is not one order because these stories are teaching religious lessons, not giving us a scientific account. If the writers of the Bible wanted to give us a scientific account, it would have given us one order, not two contradictory orders. The Bible was never meant to be a scientific document; it tells religious truths through stories that were never meant to be taken literally.
What bothers a lot of us about creationism is that it is bad scientific teaching. What bothers me at least as much about creationism is that it is bad Bible teaching.
Science should teach science, and each religion should teach its beliefs within its religious services and classes.
So here, within a Jewish service, let me be very clear about what I, as a rabbi, believe:
I believe in G-d.
I believe that He created the universe.
I believe that He has a special purpose for this world.
I believe that He created this world as a paradise, a Garden in Eden for human beings, that we are all Adam and Eve and that the question is what well do with this perfect place. So far, it looks like were blowing it sky high.
Which is a terrible tragedy, because I believe that human beings have a special destiny not only on this earth but in the universe.
Lets begin to think differently on this issue. We know that our country has a growing problem with keeping religion and government separate. We each have to do our part to keep religion distinct from government. If I go to a religious institution, I should expect to hear the teachings of that religion., But if I go to science class, I should expect to hear scientific teachings.
And lets think about our own lives. What the Bible is teaching us in Chapter 1 is that we have the capacity to create and maintain order in our lives. What the Bible is teaching us in Chapter 2 is that we are in charge of a paradise and that we have the capacity to maintain it or blow it.
Judaism teaches us to order our lives. Judaism teaches us to respect and maintain this Garden in Eden place City called the earth. Before we tell anyone else what to think or scientists how to do science, lets take care of ourselves. That’s a pretty big job for anyone. Last year I stood here on Yom Kippur and said that I was going to go to Poland , to see the concentration camps. I didn’t know why the desire to go at that particular point was so strong. Even when it turned out that because of my responsibilities here I could only go for about a day and a half, with traveling time being more than the time I’d actually be there, something in me told me I had to go at that particular time in May of 2005. After you’ve had all of the uncanny and mystical experiences that I’ve had, you just listen and follow these instincts, though you don’t learn till later why you’re doing what you’re doing.
So here I am on a bus to the camps, and I’m given a plywood grave marker in the shape of a Jewish star. I’m told that I should write something on the marker. I’m told that is the biggest cemetery in the world because the ashes of 1.2 million people are there without the appropriate tombstones. What should I write on my marker? I think about my late father-in-law whose last name was originally Haliciewicz. He had been at and almost his whole family had been killed in the Shoah, the Holocaust. So I write Haliciewicz on my marker, and the name of his little town, Bendin-Sosniewicz, where all of the Jewish population had been killed. And I write my own personal message, saying that their descendants are now alive and happy in America. I stick the marker in my pocket.
We get to Auschwitz and we begin the March of the Living. The Nazis had marched their Jewish victims from the work camp to the death camp. It was a death march, the march of those who were to be slaughtered for absolutely no sane reason. We walk the route they walked, but ours is a march of the living. Eighteen thousand people march, which, if you still believe in coincidences, was the number killed every day at the death camp. There are people from sixty-something countries around the world, mostly young people, and we begin to walk the route.
I notice that a woman in the New Haven delegation, Ruth Gross, has picked up my marker and is carrying it. I thank her for picking it up, figuring that it had fallen from my pocket. She starts to shake and I thank her and ask her for it. She can only stammer something like, “What do you mean? This is mine.” She knows what’s going on sooner than I do. Her marker says “HALICIEWICZ, Bendin-Sosnowicz, just like mine. I reach into my pocket. I still have my marker. After a couple of minutes of unintelligible stuttering, we realize that her mother and my father-in-law were first cousins, the children of two brothers, Abraham and Isaac Haliciewicz. She says that no one in her family had ever known what had happened to their relatives. Ruth says that she had grown up without an extended family and had assumed that they had all been killed. In turn, my father-in-law had assumed that his uncle’s family had all been killed.
So there we are, at the concentration camps in Poland in 2005, two people from New Haven who had seen each other all the time for over twenty years, never knowing the connection. And I stand there in the rain in Poland, with people all around us, and now I know why I was supposed to go to Poland for that day, to re-unite a family that had been cut off from itself for over sixty years. As I feel a kind of mystical trembling, I walk away, as quickly as I can, to the front of the crowd, and a young man says to me, “Hey, did you hear about the guy who found his cousin?” And later, I wait for Ruth, and we place our two Haliciewicz markers near the train track that had brought so many to their deaths. Ruth Gross is the secretary at the Jewish Federation and I’m a local rabbi. But we never would have known the connection if she hadn’t gone with her friend Dr. Cindy Miller on that trip. Sometimes things are meant to be. There is more to this world than meets the eye. There are no coincidences.
This is a wonderful story, but the reason I tell it right now is to tell you that in the ensuing weeks, I did not feel a new bond to Ruth Gross because of the relationship; to me, the relationship already existed and this just gave it a special dimension. I want to try to explain this by means of a chart you have at your seats. It is a chart of kinship, of relationships, and I borrow it directly from social anthropologists. Let’s start, like good Jewish people, from the right. There are people who are your friends. You would never hurt them. You will try to help them. You feel amity towards them. They are part of the structure of your life.
Moving to the left are ritualized friends, that is, people who are a bigger part of your life. You share rituals with them.
Let me be very personal. I have been with the people of this congregation for twenty something years. In that time, I have prayed with you and I have participated in one or more of the life-cycle rituals of most of the people here. In a sense, you and I have a friendship made more significant by those ritual events that we have shared. That’s great. But I noticed at one point, to my deep satisfaction, that my relationship with some people had moved over to the columns on the left side of the page. Some of you, to be really honest, are in the far left column; you’re as close or closer than kin by blood. That’s what happens when you share your life with others.
Last December, one of the best-known people in our synagogue passed away. Her name was Ethel Litt. She had been very sick for a long time and we had all known she was at the end. Though the week before she had told the doctors that she wasn’t ready to go because she still had some people she wanted to annoy, her passing was merciful for her. But when she passed on, and I went into her hospital room, and saw her lying there, something happened inside me. I didn’t have any idea I would have this reaction. And at that moment I remembered when her husband Jack had passed away at their home, and I had rushed over there, and I went into the kitchen and saw a picture of me on the refrigerator along with pictures of her family. So I guess I fit in her world in some way. Ethel was not my mother or my grandmother; she didn’t occupy any of those rooms in my emotional house. But she was Ethel, and there was no one quite like her, and she filled the Ethel room. I saw her many times every week for twenty-something years. She was a part of my life. And I tell you without embarrassment that I cried to see her dead.
And Ruth Gross, as a part of the Jewish community, by the fact that she is involved with and cares about people and ideas that I care about, was already ritual kin before I saw her marker. The fact that she moved over into the next box on the chart, from ritual kin to adopted or blood kin, is a great story, but it’s a matter of which box she now fits into.
I use these examples to tell you what community should be; we should care about each other. It’s really that simple. But the difficult truth is that most of us don’t have this feeling of community, not here or any other place. We have our workplace, which frankly chews us up and spits us out, we have our very complicated families, and we have our TVs and our computers but we don’t have a true community filled with the Ethels and the other personalities who care about us and give life another dimension.
At our shul, we have a lot of Shabbat morning services that include Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. If you are in one of the boxes to the left of the chart, if you’re kin by blood or marriage, you are invited to that ceremony and you come, happily and with bells on. There are not that many of you who will come on that morning if you are not specifically invited. Pun intended, you stand on ceremony; you only come to that to which you are invited. But there are some of us who are here, invitation or no invitation. These people kvell for people they don’t even know. They feel ritualized kinship for people they don’t even know. And I’ll see some of them come up to the father or mother of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah and wish them a mazal tov, and introduce themselves, and connect. Those who kvell for the others, they are the real community, they are the most significant part of this community. They don’t need an invitation. They’re here anyway. But even better, they feel kinship with the people who didn’t invite them because we are all a part of something, the amity, the kinship, the friendship of being Jewish. You understand Jewishness if you know that these people that you don’t even know are your kin.
So far my point, emanating from an experience I had in Poland, is that we in this community should appreciate what we have in each other.
Now I want to tell you another story from Poland with another reason for why we should appreciate what we have in each other. Last year, I said I was going to go to the scene of my worst nightmares, of humanity’s worst nightmare, to Auschwitz, to the ground zero of Jewish history. I needed to confront my demons and my fears. For me, this was a trip to the heart of darkness, to the center of Hell. It took everything for me to go. The point of actually having an experience is because you really don’t know how you’ll feel until you’ve actually done it. In my imagination, I was going to travel though the bleak landscape of the barren fields of Poland until I would come to the ruins of the death camps.
How different it was to go through the beautiful fields of Poland , with lovely, spacious houses and grounds and castles at the tops of the hills. How different from my imagination to see that the death camps were not in some remote place but right in the middle of everything. So why had I imagined it the way I had? Because no matter what I’d known or read, something in me couldn’t believe that millions of innocent human beings had been systematically killed right in the middle of a society.
There are many questions about the Holocaust. One would think, after thousands of books on the subject, that we would be closer to understanding this historical event. And yet, the more you know, the less you understand.
The Nazi government of Adolf Hitler rose to power on a Fascist agenda which was explicitly and violently anti-Semitic. For the Nazis, the extermination of the Jewish people was part and parcel of what we call World War II. So even when the Germans were losing the war and needed all available resources and manpower, they rushed and pushed resources and manpower into killing more and more Jewish people. They cared more about killing Jewish people than winning the war or even defending Germany country-region place.
We think of the Holocaust as being about the Nazis and their war against the Jews. But this is not the whole picture. I want to tell you a story not of the concentration camps but of one little Polish town, the town of Jedwabne. It is reported in a remarkable book called Neighbors by Jan T. Gross.
On July 10, 1941, the Germans came to this small town. The town’s Polish mayor ordered the 1,600 Jewish inhabitants, over half of the 2,500 people in the town, to come to the town square in order to clean up the grounds. Once assembled, the Polish townspeople began to chase their Jewish neighbors through the streets, butchering them to death with anything they had: stones, clubs, whips and knives. The Holocaust has been called a manifestation of modernity because of its industrialization of murder. But in Jedwabne, hooks and wooden clubs were used. A head was hacked off and kicked around. I can’t even repeat what they did to the children; the words won’t come out of my mouth. Gross estimates that half the town’s men participated, and because the killings were concentrated in a space no larger than a sports stadium, everyone “in possession of a sense of sight, smell, or hearing either participated in or witnessed the tormented deaths.” In a daylong ordeal, the Jews were tortured and subsequently herded into a barn, which was set ablaze with kerosene. The Polish people buried the charred bodies in a ditch. The massacre was not carried out by the Germans, who maintained only a token presence in the town on that day.
Gross ironic title, Neighbors, is about how one half of the town killed the other half of the town. It wasn’t the foreigners, the invading Nazis. It was people who had known their Jewish neighbors all their lives, who had lived side by side and did business and went to school with them.
People are decent to each other, as long as society is in order, but when disorder arises and society is no longer holding together, people can go wild and become savage animals.
Everything about the Holocaust troubles me to the core. But I can’t do anything with the number six million. It’s too big for me. I can comprehend a small town.
Why did neighbors murder their neighbors? Because the Polish neighbors knew that it was fine with the German invaders if they committed these murders.
The noted writer George F. Will, in writing about this story, asks the basic question: Why did they do it? Why did the Polish neighbors brutally kill their neighbors?
And he answers: Because they could.
That searing truth, Because they could, haunts me.
Is that what it means to be human? That if we can, we do ?
Is that why college kids, as soon as they go way from home, get involved in so much drinking, drug-taking and promiscuous behavior? Because now that they’re away from home, they can?
Is that what Lord of the Flies is about, about a bunch of nice children, without societal constraints, persecuting and killing each other, because they can?
Is that what happened at Enron and other corrupt corporations, where executives manipulated numbers and lied to their trusting employees and shareholders; did they do it because they could?
Is that why some people who have access to other people’s money take that money?
Edmond Burke said that what is required for evil to win is for the good to do nothing. If we do nothing, evil people will do everything that they can.
What are we doing?
Don’t tell me you’re busy coping. Were all busy coping. We’re all in that boat. But while we good people are busy coping with our own lives, we allow evil people to destroy people just like ourselves.
If the world lets the Arabs in the Sudan kill and rape and enslave, they will. And if the President of the United States does not speak out, why not keep killing?
If the world encourages the suicide bombers to destroy Jewish children on buses on their way to school, they will.
The great Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who fought the good fight against the Germans, was asked by his dear friend and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, a Jewish person who was horrified by what was going on in Poland , to bomb the tracks near the concentration camps so that Jewish people could not be transported there. And Roosevelt, always so revered by Jewish people, said that his good friend should be quiet because the Jews are only guests in this country. And Roosevelt didn’t bomb the tracks. And the killing went on.
orgenthau’s father, Henry Morgenthau, the Ambassador to Turkey , had asked the world to intercede as the Turks were killing one and a half million Armenians in 1915-16. The world did nothing. Morgenthau said: If we don’t do something about this, other evil people will see and commit new genocides. Oh, how right he was. Hitler said, “Go, kill without mercy . . . who today remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”
During my day in Poland, our group visited the Auschwitz Jewish Center, the site of the last remaining synagogue in the town of Osweicim. Osweicim is the Polish name of which Auschwitz place is the German translation. Ushpizin is a Jewish word for honored guests. The Jewish people of Owseicim called their town Ushpizin because they were honored citizens for seven hundred years until they were taken away to a camp nearby to be executed.
At the Auschwitz Jewish Center today, there are pictures of Jewish people in their town. Those pictures are, in a way, more chilling than anything else. They were just people, like you and me, going about their daily lives, playing soccer, hoping, complaining, eating lunch and dinner. They were just people, and they were killed for no good reason.
I’ve told you two stories, one about me in Poland in 2005, the other about some innocent Jewish people in Poland in 1941. The second story, about the massacre, tells us what evil people can do to other people if they can. What I learned from my reaction to the first story, to the story about my rather calm reaction to discovering a family connection, is that I already feel related to all Jewish people.
When our group was at Birkenau, I was asked to say a few words. What I found coming out of my mouth was that there, in a place where so many were killed; my main emotion was that I felt more Jewish. It was as if those thousands and millions of my people, who were all my relatives, who were all on my chart, who were all my family, were calling out to me to be what they were killed for, to make my life a march of the living.
My first reason for becoming more a part of this community is because I want you to be and feel a part of something that can bring you a sense of belonging; something that will enable you to share your life with others. I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about the first human beings who survived by building communities and by helping each other. If my friend Ethel were here, she’d tell you that when you give a lot to the community, you get a lot back.
My second reason for becoming more of a part of the Jewish people is for the sake of those who were killed. The philosopher Emile Fackenheim said: The eleventh commandment is, Thou shalt not grant Hitler a posthumous victory. He meant that Hitler was dead, but if the Jewish people does not go on, Hitler will have won the victory closest to his evil and insane mind. I think about the Jewish people killed in the camps and the towns like Jedwabne, and I feel kinship to them, they’re all on the left side of my chart, and I want to do something for them. They were people, just trying to cope with the stress of everyday life, just shopping and babysitting and walking to the park and having a picnic, and they were killed for no reason. And I want to do something for them, because they were my kin, not just the people with a last name that I recognize but all of them, every child who was murdered, every grandmother that was executed.
I’m asking you on this sacred day to think about your Jewishness,
To act on your Jewishness
To understand your Jewishness.
And if some cynic or nudnik in your life asks you,
Why are you doing that?
You don’t have to show them a chart about how you’re related by blood and adoption and ritual and friendship to other Jewish people
You don’t have to give a sermon about how evil people killed six million of your relatives because they could
Just say: I’m doing it because I can
a way, its too bad, because the truth is usually more interesting than the idealized version presented to children. That’s okay, as long as the children grow up and learn the truth when they’re older. The problem comes when we never learn the truth later on and never gain the understanding that the truth could give us.
So tonight, I’m going to teach you something I bet you don’t know about American history on an adult level, and then I’m going to teach you something I bet you don’t know about Judaism on the same issue on an adult level, and then I’m going to tell you what I think an adult understanding on this topic can mean to our lives. And I’m going to try to show you how being a hacham , a wise child who asks questions and learns, is better than remaining a tam, a simple adult who never moves beyond a child’s understanding.
All of us, when we were children, learned about the American Revolution. We learned that great men, like Patrick Henry, roused their generation to a courageous rebellion against tyranny.
All of us can repeat one of the most famous lines in American history, Give me liberty or give me death!
We picture Patrick Henry rising in the Virginia Convention and defiantly risking his life. We read the speech he gave, filled with references to the British tyrants and how they have enslaved the Colonial Americans. Since they live under this slavery, they have no choice but to rise up and make war against the tyrants.
I started to wonder why Patrick Henry would speak about slavery. Taxation without representation is unfair, I agree, but it’s not slavery . Slavery means that one person owns, literally owns another human being and controls everything he or she does.
So I began to read. I read adult books about early American history. I quickly realized that I had been simple, that I had always had a child’s understanding of Patrick Henry and that famous speech. First, I found that Patrick Henry never spoke the words attributed to him. Other people wrote that speech long after he was dead. They wrote those words decades later when slavery had become the issue in American debate.
Second, I found that Patrick Henry had risen that famous day out of fear of the British not because they were enslaving anyone but because they wanted to free the slaves of people like Patrick Henry. He was ready to go to war to stop the British from fleeing his slaves. Give me liberty or give me death? More like, Give me the freedom to enslave others or give me death!
One of the generally unknown stories about the American Revolution is that the British offered freedom to all slaves who would join their side and that a huge number of slaves ran away from their white masters to find freedom with the British. Between 80,000 and 100,000 slaves left their plantations during the war. One was Ralph Henry, owned by Patrick Henry. Another was Henry Washington, slave of George Washington. Thirty slaves ran away from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Two-thirds of the slaves in South Carolina ran away.
Give me liberty or give me death? Tens of thousands of slaves ran away to gain their liberty.
Even as a child, I always knew that the Founding Fathers of my beloved America were slave-owners. But I thought that in their time, everyone accepted slavery as moral. Now I learned that the supposedly evil British had exposed the hypocrisy of people who shouted about liberty while owning other people, that the British freed tens of thousands of slaves almost a century before Abraham Lincoln. Slavery was not considered moral by the British and was not accepted as a fact of life by the slaves themselves.
Colonel Patrick Henry went so far as to order patrols to keep Virginia slaves from accepting the British offer of freedom to those who would join their side. Henry knew the moral contradiction and explicitly admitted that slavery was horrible. But he was willing to fight to the death to keep his slaves.
It makes me look at the American Revolution itself very differently when I think that one of the causes of the war was the fervent desire to perpetuate slavery.
I am a patriotic American. I love this country with all my heart. But I’m not a kid anymore, and I have to understand things on an adult level. I have to be the Wise Child who says, Why were our Founding Fathers on the wrong side of this Important human and moral issue?
Our country was built on an immoral foundation that would tear the nation apart and would only be resolved by another, even bloodier conflict, the Civil War. The decision to keep slaves in the face of moral wrong nearly did this country in.
If were going to understand America, we have to understand its past.
I hope that this example will indicate that education should never end.
Since we should approach Judaism as adults, I’ll turn to a parallel example from the Book of Genesis, one that affects us as Jewish people. You’ll remember the story of Joseph. Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers who are jealous of his coat of many colors. He rises to become the Number Two Man in Egypt. He interprets Pharaohs dream to mean that there will be seven years of plenty and then seven years of famine. Joseph is given the power to control the economy. So during the seven years of plenty, he puts the surplus away and grows huge herds of livestock so that there will be enough food for the country during the years of famine.
When I was a child, I pictured the Egyptians lining up to receive food from the reserves created by Joseph’s wisdom and foresight.
But now as an adult, I read the Book of Genesis with open eyes. The Bible is a very adult book that tells the truths we don’t want to hear.
So what does the Bible actually say? That at first, when the Egyptians lined up for food, Joseph gave freely to all of the hungry Egyptians.
But the famine continued into the next year, and the Egyptians bought everything they could until their money ran out.
And when the famine continued into the third year, the Egyptians still needed food, and they bought it with all of their livestock.
And then when they came back again for food, they came to Joseph with a new proposition, that they would sell their land to Pharaoh and become his serfs. The deal was that they would give Pharaoh 20% of their produce and keep 80% for themselves. Joseph accepted this, and so most of the farmland in Egypt now belonged to Pharaoh.
All of this was legal and ethical. But on a higher plane, it was taking advantage of those who were hungry and needy, leaving them without anything that belonged to them. And when the famine was over, the Egyptians didn’t remember that it was their idea. All they knew was that they had nothing. After Joseph died, there arose not only a new Pharaoh but a new dynasty. While Joseph may have been part of a dynasty that was Semitic in origin, the new dynasty was made up of native Egyptians.
There was terrible resentment of the man who had caused the Egyptians to lose their land. And so what did the new native Egyptian dynasty do? They enslaved the Israelites, they made them serfs.
What goes around, come around.
Now it’s true that unlike Patrick Henry or George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, Joseph did not personally gain from his actions.
But just as American slavery did America in, so Joseph’s enserfment of the Egyptians seems to have done the Israelites in.
What goes around comes around.
You will pay the price of immorality.
Whether you’re the United States of America or Joseph, temporary political control does not mean moral right. Might does not make right.
Joseph started as the favored son and was thrown into the pit.
You would think that the experience of being a slave would have taught him not to enslave others.
Joseph had been sold into slavery; he responded by enserfing Egypt.
Do you see the cycle, the action and reactions?
Joseph had been a slave but he didn’t get the point.
And so G-d made us all enslaved.
So that we would all get the point and never forget it.
We remember that we were slaves in Egypt, controlled by others. We never forget that experience. We know that we were not slaves in Egypt because of any lack or failure on our part. We may have been slaves in Egypt because we were so successful and other people resented it.
I’ve given you two examples of what adult learning, hacham learning is. It is telling the truth, not pediatric truth for the kids, but real-life history and the kind of hard-edged truths that the Bible, when you actually read it, gives us.
But lets ask a Rasha question: What does this have to do with me? Why should I care about slavery, whether it’s in early America or ancient Egypt?
There are many responses to this question, but the one I’m thinking about now is that both our Founding Fathers, and our father Joseph, failed to meet the test that I call King of the Mountain. Did you play King of the Mountain when you were a kid? Through wrestling, shoving and pushing, you get to the top. And you say I’m King of the Mountain.
In real life, when you get to the top of the hill, it is as great a test as when you’re at the bottom trying to get yourself together. When you’re king of the hill, how are you going to treat the people who are below you? Will you meet the test of success?
Let me tell you two stories, both of which I heard from my archaeologist friends. There is a mild-mannered Archaeology Professor who investigates a mound in Syria and finds that it is a tell, the site of an ancient city. The professor is a kind person, very appreciative of those who help him in his effort. He gets a grant from a foundation and brings other experts to help him in the adventure. They work for years, season after season, and they are very successful. Eventually they identify the site and more money rolls in to back them. The archaeology professor becomes more and more famous.
One day he stands at the top of the mound, looking across the Syrian plain. And on top of that mound, he has a moment when all of the recent events of his life come rushing at him. He stands there and he is no longer just the head of an archaeological expedition but a king, the monarch of all he surveys. And from that moment on, he is an obnoxious, arrogant, self-centered person.
That’s the first story. The second story is about a famous television actor one of my archaeologist friend. Some of you will remember Poldark, a great BBC television series about the adventures of a hero named Ross Poldark in 18th century Cornwall. Poldark was played by a very handsome, dashing actor named Robin Ellis. My friend met Robin Ellis and his wife and asked Mrs. Ellis how they had met. And here was what Mrs. Ellis said:
I was doing Public Relations in New York and there was a huge black tie dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. Mr. Ellis needed a date, so I grabbed at the opportunity to sit next to him. I’d had a lot of contact with famous actors, and most of them were nasty, but I figured I could get a great photograph to show my friends out of the deal. And then, during the dinner, there was a disaster. The waiter poured hot coffee all over Robin Ellis, all over his tuxedo. I was ready for the usual horrible putdowns that I’d heard from so many famous people, only to hear Robin Ellis, his suit ruined at a dinner where he was the guest of honor, comforting and reassuring the waiter that it was all right, that it was an accident, that he would do nothing to get him fired, that he knew he felt badly and that he should just relax. At that very moment, I stopped having a crush on Poldark and fell in love with Robin Ellis. And I married him.
She married him because she had found a person who was not only successful but who had not let that success go to his head; he was still a wonderful human being.
How do you wear your success? How many people do you know who never had money growing up, now have made a lot, and are positively snobby about what they have? They stand at the top of the hill, the monarch of all they survey, and they forget that, not too long ago, they were slaves in Egypt.
We have quite a few people in this shul who were raised in humble surroundings in the Bronx and Brooklyn. I enjoy listening to people speak with pride about their humble beginnings, how they might not have had much money but had great values and wonderful families. They don’t pretend that they sprang into life with a silver spoon in their mouths: they are happy to tell you where and what they come from. They were born in Egypt and came through the wilderness and now they’re doing well, but they don’t forget what slavery was like and they wear their success with some humor and humility.
We talk all the time about coping with failure. But we should also talk about coping with success. Many of us don’t cope with success. We change and we lose who we were, we lose the best parts of ourselves. Every day, someone tells me a story about the way their boss or their superior lorded it over them. Every day, children tell me about successful parents who are inpatient or critical about their lives.
This is not how it should be. When you go back to the earliest laws in the Bible, you find that the Torah is vitally concerned with two situations: What if someone is in control of you or what if you’re in control of someone else? A primary reason for the commandment of the Sabbath day, the central ritual of our religion, is not only so you will rest but also so that the people under you should have a day off. The earliest Jewish laws speak concretely about not taking advantage of another’s misfortune.
We must not take advantage of those who are in lower or subservient positions. don’t let your success go to your head. Your success, and their relative lack of success, may not be because you’re so great and they’re not, or because you worked so hard and they didn’t. don’t be so full of yourself. Remember: What goes around comes around.
I began with the question of Which child are you? Are you a hacham, a wise child who asks questions in order to learn and grow? If so, now that you’re an adult, learn as an adult. Take an adult education class in our new expanded program. Read a book with our monthly book club.
I took two examples from the past. The first was from American history: I discussed how some of our Founding Fathers like Patrick Henry built America on the cracked, immoral foundation of slavery, only to see our country literally cut in two as a result. My second example was from the Bible: I discussed how the enslavement of the Israelites may have been caused by the actions of Joseph, who had been a slave himself but nevertheless enslaved the Egyptians.
What can we learn from these examples from the past about our lives? When you’re king of the hill, like Patrick Henry or Joseph, you must not forget what life was like when you were at the bottom of the hill.
So for all of you have a simple understanding of Judaism, understand this:
We have a lot to learn from the truth.