Monthly Archives: December 2011

Why are the Jewish people so reluctant to dream Jewish dreams?

You can tell a lot about people because of the dreams they dream. Even in ancient times it was understood that dreams were somehow a reflection of the dreamer – that dreams are never entirely from the outside, they are a reflection of what is on the inside.

So when Yaakov (Jacob) rebukes Yosef (Joseph) for his dreams –

מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ

What is this dream that you have dreamed?

What he is saying (according to the great commentator the Ramban, Nachmanides) is; “how dare you dream these dreams?”

Yosef is responsible for these dreams – if they aren’t exactly an explicit choice on his part, they are certainly a window into his soul.

Yosef’s dreams are fascinating because they leave behind a trail of jealousy and hatred, bloodshed, violence, emotional pain and unbearable suffering.

But what are these dreams?

Why are they so threatening?

Of course, on one level, they are about the brothers bowing down to Yosef . They are about position, authority, and leadership – and there is enough there to alienate his family. Without question Yosef erred in being so non-diplomatic in telling his dreams – but Yosef knew that his dreams mattered, and that they contained a message that could not be suppressed.

Yosef dreamt, first, about sheaves of wheat.  About the brothers farming in the field, and about how all the sheaves of wheat belonging to the other brothers bowed down to his.

Many symbolic meanings have been suggested for this dream.

In a famous address delivered in 1962, The Rav, Rabbi Yosef Ber Solovetchik, explained why he had joined Mizrachi, the religious Zionist camp, and had left the more conservative Aguda, the ultra orthodox camp in which his family had its roots.

And he used the dreams of Yosef to explain his move. Yosef understood, deep in his soul, that the Jewish people, his family, was going to have to prepare itself for new realities – that the old ways, being shepherds in the land of Israel, weren’t going to last forever. G-d had already told Avraham (Abraham) that his children would go into exile. Yosef dreamt about his family as farmers, growing food, not shepherds, because he was deeply concerned about how his family and way of life would survive in exile. And he knew the old way of life would have to change.

But his brothers were outraged by this dream.

“We should be farmers?  G-d forbid! We are shepherds – our father Yaakov is a shepherd, indeed, great grandfather Avraham himself was a shepherd! That we should ever conceive of a different path, even if it might save us in the future, is unthinkable.”

And so the brothers were scandalized. They were challenged by that dream. Tthey hated that dream and the one who dreamt it. They could not conceive of ever changing. “Shepherds we are, and shepherds we will stay – if we have faith, the world will stay the same, progress will pass us by and leave us unscathed” they declared.

But I want, with the greatest respect, to pose a question on the Rav’s analysis, and, based on his words, offer a different insight.

Its true that Yaakov and his sons were shepherds, and its true that Avraham had been a shepherd, but not Yitzchak (isaac). Yitzchak had been a farmer.

When a famine occurred in the land of Israel, and Hashem told Yitzchak to dwell in the land and not go to Egypt. Instead, he planted a crop and, despite the famine, he realized a huge yield and became fabulously wealthy as a result.

So Yosef isn’t dreaming about something new at all – sheaves of wheat, farming the land – that’s not foreign territory, it was already in his family.

So why were the brothers so threatened? Why was this such a threatening image, as the Rav says?

Let me try to explain.

When Yaakov stole the blessing from his brother Esav, when he dressed up and tricked Yitzchak, it was  a very specific bracha that he received.

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ–וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ.

So God give thee of the dew of heaven, and of the fat places of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.

Yitzchak’s blessing was that his chosen son should be a farmer, and should enjoy the blessings of the land of Israel. Yitzchak knew the fulfillment of the Jewish destiny was to dwell in the land of Israel, not as nomads or shepherds, moving from place to place, but as farmers, to dig, to plant and to grow.

And that’s the blessing he handed over, the blessing that Yaakov stole.

When Yaakov came back to the land, after more than 20 years of exile, he does not become a farmer. He becomes a shepherd.

And, moreover, when he seeks to appease his brother, Esav (Esau), from whom he has taken the blessing, he tells him –

עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, וָאֵחַר עַד-עָתָּה.

וַיְהִי-לִי שׁוֹר וַחֲמוֹר, צֹאן וְעֶבֶד וְשִׁפְחָה;

I have dwelt with Lavan and delayed until now, and I have cattle and donkeys, flocks and servants.

The Kedushat Levi, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv, explains:  Yaakov is saying to Esav “Please don’t hurt me. It’s true I took your blessing, but I haven’t used it. I have lived in exile from that day to this, and even now I am back in the land, I have shor v’chamor, animals. I am going to be shepherd, not a farmer. I took the blessing but I will not use it. Don’t hate me, don’t be angry with me. I promise I will stick to shepherding, I will not use the bracha, I will not become a farmer.”

Yaakov was afraid, he wanted to avoid confrontation. In fact, the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir) says that Yaakov tried to run away from Esav. He didn’t want to stand his ground, that’s why G-d sent an angel to wrestle with him.

Yaakov remained a shepherd. And when our parsha opens “Vayeishev Yaakov” (And Yaakov dwelt), the Sages criticize him: Beekesh Yaakov leyshev bishalvah  (Yaakov wished to dwell in peace). Truly he did – so he shepherded. He moved from place to place, he didn’t want to take possession of his land.

And it’s that moment that Yosef dreams. A bold dream. A dangerous dream.

Lets stop being afraid! We should farm the land. This is our land. We don’t have to be afraid and we don’t have to be apologetic. G-d gave us this land. It is our land, we have every right to it. And its time we stopped apologizing for that fact, and pretending that if we don’t farm it, we won’t bother anyone.

Yosef’s dreams come at a critical moment for the Jewish people. G-d has stopped speaking to Yaakov and never speaks to his children. Nor do the children continue the past of building alters, calling out the name of G-d. The Jewish project seems to have stopped – it has got stuck. What are they supposed to do now?

And its at that moment that Yosef dreams dreams of a bold, unapologetic Jewish future – building the land, living the blessing.

But the brothers rejected those dreams. Because they were too “in your face”, too ambitious, too assertive … too Jewish.

And, sadly, we can say bi’yamim hahem b’zamn hazeh (in those days, in this time) – how true this is of our own jewish world.

So much effort is expended in the “Jewish Organization World” looking for the big Jewish idea. But we have the big idea. Its called Judaism. We just have to stop being afraid to dream our own Jewish dreams.

This past week, I read about how one of the largest Federations in the country ran a task force on outreach to intermarried families. This is, itself, a very important initiative – but the leader of the taskforce was quoted as saying: “We are not endorsing interfaith marriage or condemning it” which the eminent Professor Jack Wertheimer of JTS called a:

“devastating commentary on our times … In the name of “welcoming,” the Federation no longer asserts what Jews have understood for millennia: that leaving aside cases of conversion … intermarriage is bad for the Jewish people and for the perpetuation of Judaism.”

And, in an article about Tim Tebow and his tendency to pray, a rabbi in the Jewish Week column, wrote that he hopes that Tebow’s team doesn’t win the Super Bowl, because it will:

“… buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques and bashing gays.”

To its credit, the paper removed this from the website because it was perceived as an attack on Christian groups, but it’s really an attack on religion and I find myself wondering: if a rabbi is instinctively hostile to religiosity and religious people, what does that say about our times?

And, without commenting on politics and candidates, and without necessarily agreeing with every word of his statement, why is it left to a non-Jewish politician to assert powerfully, clearly and proudly Israel’s right to exist far more assertively than our own Jewish leaders?

Who is leading our community? Yosef – with dreams not of extremism, but of pride of engagement, of eagerness to see Judaism flourish – or the brothers – embarrassed, cowed, awkward with all of this enthusiasm?

Why the embarrassment? To fit in with society?

As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks remarks, in his experience, non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed about Judaism.

I recently finished reading the monumental history of the Soviet Jewry movement – “When they come for us we will be gone.”  The author recounts the fact that in the 1970s two non-Jewish congressmen were determined to link America’s foreign trade with progress on human rights, and passed the famous “Jackson Vanik” amendment.  This was done explicitly to help Soviet Jewry, but much of the Jewish establishment was firmly opposed, and, indeed, horrified by the proposal – fearing that it was too assertive, too demanding, too high profile for Jewish tastes.

I mention this case, in particular, because this Shabbat we celebrate the bar mitzvah of a very special young man form a very special family. A family where the parents were raised in the dark days of Soviet oppression of the Jewish people. The grandfather was imprisoned, twice, for Jewish and Zionist activities – for dreaming Jewish dreams of going to Israel, and was only saved from execution by a miracle. The grandmother scrupulously kept kosher, despite the danger and the hardship. The father would covertly eat matza at university on Pesach (Passover). Proud Jews, Jews who dreamed of freedom, of Jewish life, even in the darkest days.

There is nothing wrong with Jewish dreams. Indeed, there are no dreams more beautiful.


Elder Abuse – Distorting Judaism and Shaming the Avos

There is a shameful form of Tzedakah (charity) growing in today’s Jewish world that should sicken us all. Individuals and organizations prey on people’s fears and troubles, and “guarantee” miracles in return for donations.

I had considered calling this week’s Sermon “Prostituting the Avos (Forefathers)”, but I felt that that would be too disrespectful.  However, a charity flyer I received recently leads me to think that that is exactly what is being done. It’s a fabrication and an outrage.

I recently received a glossy 16-page magazine that was published to encourage people to donate money to a particular religious institution.

It tells the story of a particular religious Jew (whom we will call “Reb Weinman”), an impeccably observant Jew who maintains close ties with a prominent Israeli Rabbi (whom we will call “Rav Stein”). Here is an excerpt from the story.

“One time, he called Rav Stein with a seemingly overwhelming problem – he had become entangled with the IRS, America’s Internal Revenue Service, and was under criminal investigation. The most optimistic experts informed him that, if he were lucky, he’d end up spending “only” several years behind bars. The IRS had succeeded in infiltrating his staff. These talented undercover policemen wormed their way up to prominent positions in the company, where they had access to sensitive information, and then used that information to put together a seemingly clear-cut criminal case.

Reb Weinman’s world had caved in on him. He felt that there was no hope for the future. All was lost – his family would be destitute and he’d end up behind prison bars. Rav Stein listened carefully as Reb Weinman described his predicament. As was his custom, he paused for a few moments to think and then said, “Mama Rochel [Rachel our foremother] can help – she always helps, in every situation!” Reb Weinman, sitting at his desk in New York, was totally confused.

What was the Rav trying to telling him? “The government has issued a restraining order, making it impossible for me to leave the borders of the United States,” he pointed out. “It’s impossible for me to come to Israel, so how can I possibly daven at Kever Rochel [cave/burial place of Rachel]?”

“You don’t have to go personally,” the Rav responded. “There’s a tzaddik who will go for you. He’s a talmid chacham with tremendous self-sacrifice for Mama Rochel. Helping him in his holy work for Mama Rochel is a sure investment, even when everything appears hopeless.”

The Rav paused for a few seconds and then continued, “This tzaddik’s name is Rav Hirsh. He has arranged for groups of tzaddikim to daven at Kever Rochel around the clock. I suggest that you cover the expenses of the minyan that learns there each night at midnight. If you do, I am sure that you will have a yeshua [salvation]. I know from experience that it works.”

So Reb Weinman called Reb Hirsh and arranged the donation. The story continues…

As Reb Weinman told us the following part of the story, his face became flushed with emotion and he had to pause for a few moments to compose himself. The very next morning, he received a phone call from the IRS, requesting his presence at the main office in Manhattan. Reb Weinman was petrified. What did they want from him? Were they going to send him straight to prison, without even the benefit of a trial? Instead, the unbelievable happened. The clerk smiled (yes, he smiled!) and informed Reb Weinman that the office had decided not to take the case to court. Instead, he was asked to pay a fine and then his case would be closed.

Reb Weinman’s accountant was astounded. Such behavior was unprecedented; in his several decades of working with the tax authorities, he had never seen them close a case of this magnitude before.

At this point, the relieved Reb Weinman takes the first flight to Israel, where he met with his Rabbi.

Rav Stein turned to him and asked, “And what about your daughters?” He was referring to Reb Weinman’s three unmarried daughters – the youngest was already twenty-eight. “Take advantage of this opportunity,” the Rav urged him. Reb Weinman grasped the significance of the Rav’s words, and immediately made out a check to the Kever Rochel Foundation, to cover an additional three months of support for the Midnight Minyan – one month for each of his three unmarried daughters. Three weeks later, Reb Weinman celebrated the engagement of his oldest daughter. Eight weeks later, the second daughter became a kallah [bride]. And one day before the end of the three months, the Weinman’s youngest daughter also got engaged.

In the zechus [merit] of Mama Rochel, and of tzedakah given to Mosdos Kever Rochel, Reb Weinman was saved from prison, and, as a bonus, each of his three daughters found their b’shert [intended soul mates].

Where does one even begin?

This is nauseating. This is selling the holy avos and imahos (forefathers and foremothers), like cheap, grubby [I don’t even want to write the word] … ready to bail out any old ganav (thief) for the right price.

Chalilah! (G-d forbid!). We should cry when we read this, because this isn’t reverence. There is nothing holy about this. Torah study and davening may, or may not, be more effective when done at Kever Rochel than other places, but the notion that supporting it guarantees immunity from prosecution from the IRS is too vulgar for words.

I have no problem with Tzedakah – the opposite – Tzedakah tatzil mimavet (Charity saves from death). I have no problem with Kever Rochel, no problem with seeking blessings.  If I faced personal difficulties of these, or any other, I would try anything I could to find help.

And that’s the problem.

There are people who are ready to try anything. And there are people ready to sell them salvation.

This is not about segulos, per se – the notion that by doing a particular action on a particular day, e.g., saying a specific chapter of Tehilim (Psalms) on a specific day of the week, that help may be given to you. Segulos are complicated. This is about something much worse.

This is about people who are trying to tell us that salvation can always be guaranteed … for the right price, to the right cause.

The fact is that the example I gave above is one that I find most offensive – because I cannot imagine that Rochel Imaynu, whom we meet in this morning’s parsha, is on call 24/7 to arrange bail for anyone prepared to slip her kollel a few dollars. But it is far from unique.

It has almost become a standard approach in fundraising in the orthodox world.

Perhaps you missed the advertisement that appeared in certain frum (religious) publications for the silver “segulah ring”? This is a ring that, when made in a certain way, out of pure silver, engraved with certain verses and names of Hashem, is held to be effective for helping  people in all sorts of situations.

Now to be honest I am skeptical about these kinds of segulos, but I accept that there is an approach to Judaism that finds room for them. Perhaps, nowadays, that’s even the mainstream approach. Maybe.

But here’s the thing. I checked out the source for the ring, in one of the books of the great mystic the Chida. And, indeed, he mentions it. But he doesn’t go so far as the advertisement that appeared in the Jewish media last year.

After claiming that it is successful in, at least, 90% of cases, the advertisement goes on to warn that:

“Additionally, it should come to your attention that [name] was granted the patent to manufacture this segulah ring; no one else in the world is allowed to manufacture it at this point in time. Copying it would be against secular, as well as religious Jewish, law and legal and/or rabbinical action will be taken in the event someone is caught committing such a transgression. Nor could any help from the segulah be expected when doing something of that nature against it.”

And finally:

“Also, importantly, despite being mentioned after everything else, the ring cannot be lent to anyone else other than a very immediately close relative – wife, husband, and children. It is certainly to be kept in mind that no help could be expected from a ring that has been borrowed from a non-immediately close relative – cousin, uncle, and aunt – or from a friend.”

So there you have it. This segulah will work. But only if you pay me.

The naked self-interest is, at least, refreshing as it is not dressed up in the pious cloak of tzedakah.

You know what this is. It’s a scam.

And it’s disgusting.

And the advertisement brings what it claims are testimonials from people attesting to having been helped by this ring in every imaginable area for shiduchim (marriages), health, parnasah (livelihood) – you name it.

Oh – and just one thing – there is a warning that if you are one of the unlucky 10% – you are not getting your money back.

These are just two examples of people – perhaps for worthy goals, perhaps not, preying on people’s darkest moments’ worst fears.

When the doctors have given up hope, the experts given up hope, when it seems that your davening is hopeless – someone will sell you hope.

Commenting on one organization that stated in its promotional literature:

“… all who contribute to [this charity] merit to see open miracles.”

The great Mashgiach of the Lakewood Yeshiva, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, was reported as describing it as “nothing short of gezel gamur, of pure theft.”

Why this matters, and matters to us (perhaps a more skeptical crowd, although not totally) is as follows:

We are all looking for shortcuts. Sell me an app to get my prayers answered and I’ll take it. Show me the way round the hard work, the effort, the uncertainty, and I’ll pay any price.

But, at its root, that idea is heresy.

Do you really think there is a shortcut? That if illness or tragedy strikes your life, G-d forbid, that if Hashem has decreed an outcome for us, that you can break the system.

We know about prayer, tzedakah, teshuvah (repentance). We know that an evil decree can be averted. But it’s not magic and it’s certainly never ever guaranteed, and I can guarantee no one can sell it to you.

Beyond a laziness, a looking for shortcuts, a workaround, is a perverse scale of value systems that says, somehow, the Almighty can be tricked by the right incantation into giving you what you want. And that’s not Judaism, but it’s what many frum Jews have come to believe.

In this week’s parsha we meet Yaakov Avinu (our forefather Jacob), fleeing from home. Alone, and afraid his world has come crashing down. He has no money, no home, he has nothing. He dreams a dream and Hashem promised him: “Jacob I will guard you wherever you go, I will bless you, I will never abandon you, I will bring you home.”

And Yaakov woke up and he prayed to G-d and made an oath, and beseeched Hashem, for bread and clothing.

אִם-יִהְיֶה אֱלִֹקים עִמָּדִי, וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ, וְנָתַן-לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל, וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ.

Hashem just promised him every type of bracha (blessing) and now he’s asking for the basics of human existence. What’s the matter?  Has he lost his silver segulah ring? Why is he worried about not having bread to eat?

Because, as chazal explain, in life there are no guarantees. The Torah promises nobody an easy life. S’char mitzvah bu hay almal leka, there is no reward for Mitzvos (good deeds) in this world. No one, even the most righteous, are ever guaranteed that things will go easy for them in this world.

That’s what Hashem wants from us in this world – loyalty, devotion, work, but most of all faith. Faith that even when things don’t go well, that He is with us even as we suffer, and that we are not alone.

To imply otherwise – worse, to claim you have a shortcut that exempts you from what Hashem wants of all of us – is wrong. To seek to cash in on people suffering is a perversion.

Kever Rochel is, indeed, a beautiful place. Made all the more resonant by the fact that she lies buried at the side of the road, in order, as the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) tells us:

רָחֵל, מְבַכָּה עַל-בָּנֶיהָ

Rachel is crying for her children, begging the Almighty to bring redemption.

Perhaps if we spent less time asking Rochel Imaynu to keep tax cheats out of jail, and more time davening that Hashem should hear her cries, we would merit to see speedily the true and final salvation.

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