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Cantorial Comments - Parshat Vayeshev                  December 21, 2019 - 23 Kislev 5780

12/20/2019 10:16:37 AM


“The reasonial why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress is because they haven't yet come to the end of themselves. We're still trying to give orders, and interfering with God's work within us. ”
- A. W. Tozer (1897-1963), American Christian pastor and author

Last week, in an effort to aid university administrations in supporting and protecting Jewish university students from hate, discrimination and harassment, a new American policy by executive order has effectively defined anti-Zionism as antisemitism.  Even amongst American Jews, the debate over whether or not this move on behalf of the administration was a good idea is highly controversial, and I must admit that I am also conflicted.  On the one hand, it is long overdue that the kind of perverse vitriol spouted by hate groups on campus that advocate for the destruction of Israel is formally called out for what it is – antisemitism.  It is about time that university administrations were empowered to reign in student organizations who discriminate against Israelis and otherwise make student life for Jews unbearable on campus.  But on the other hand, in order to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, the executive order defined Judaism as both a religion and a nationality, thus leaning into the pre-existing anti-Semitic trope that Jews have a divided allegiance between Israel and the country in which they reside.  Furthermore, the order is not going to stop any university campuses from holding their annual Israel Apartheid Week activities, nor will it realistically help any Jewish students who feel unsafe on campus, but only curb potentially discriminatory or anti-Semitic practices from becoming policy, which, in fairness, most universities have under reasonable control.  So, without making much of a meaningful difference, I fear that this policy may potentially only lift the pendulum higher before it swings wildly the other direction when the US eventually votes in a very new and different kind of administration.

As Canadian Jews, we peer cautiously over to our neighbours to the south, wondering what fallout, if any, there may be from this new policy.  We know all too well that the escalating situation on our own college campuses is becoming a serious cause for concern, but is this the solution?  If we’re aren’t sure yet, what is the cost of waiting before advocating for our government to enact a similar resolution?

If the Torah could answer this question for us, I imagine that the text would be marked with a shalshalet.  Used to convey a pivotal emotional conflict, the shalshalet is one of the many trope symbols that appear over or underneath each word in the Torah that indicates how the word should be chanted in order to convey both grammar and oftentimes emotional peaks and valleys in the Torah narrative.  The shalshelet is one of the rarest varieties of trope; so rare, in fact, that it only appears seven times in the entire Torah.  We’ve read two of them, so far in the book of Genesis, and this week we will read the third in our parsha, Vayeshev.

The first use of the shalshelet in the Torah occurs in the story of the destruction of the city of Sodom.  The townspeople are gathered outside the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, prepared to rape and kill Lot’s family for their amusement.  Oddly, the Torah says that Lot hesitates before leaving his home.  The shalshelet draws our focus to the Hebrew for ‘hesitate’, to put a spotlight on Lot’s fear and turmoil, and showing at the same time that there is still a part of him that is sorry to leave his home.  The second time the shalshelet is used is in the story of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who is sent to find a wife for Isaac.  Isaac seems to be ambivalent about marriage, and so the duty falls on Eliezer to choose the woman who would become the future matriarch of the Israelite nation.  Eliezer speaks to God, asking for help on his mission, saying “O Lord, God of my master, Abraham, grant me good fortune this day”.  A shalshelet punctuates the Hebrew word for “saying”, as the exact words of Eliezer’s request to God are revealed.

This Shabbat, we find the third and final shalshelet in the book of Genesis, and of all places, it is found in the story of Joseph encounter with Potiphar’s wife, whose sexual advances Joseph rebuffs, an act that ultimately lands Joseph in Pharoah’s prison.  The word that the shalshelet highlights is the Hebrew word for “refused” as Joseph refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances.  But what emotional turmoil is there here?  Shouldn’t we think that this would be an obvious and easy choice for Joseph?  Traditional commentaries teach that the shalshelet in this place teaches that Joseph was indeed tempted by Potiphar’s wife, but that it took great moral fortitude to refuse.  While I do appreciate interpretations that paint Joseph’s character as less than perfectly righteous (dare I say boastful and obnoxious), I feel that there is more here that this particular shalshelet can teach us.

The reality of life is that the right choices are not always so clear to us.  Sometimes when we seek to do good, our actions ultimately end up causing more harm.  Despite how much rigor and due process may go in to our well-intended actions, the consequences may not always be entirely foreseeable or within our power to control.  So what do we do?  Judaism teaches that while we must not rely on God to fight our battles for us, we must always aspire to be God’s partner, and to relinquish some semblance of control over our lives.  In this way, God and the Jewish people are described as partners in marriage, and the Torah is the marriage contract.  We look in the Torah for the best guidance that we can muster in order to help our decision making, but ultimately, the Torah is not our partner, God is.  Joseph sees in his situation that no matter what he does, he will end up in jail.  If he capitulates to Potiphar’s wife’s request, it will only be a matter of time before he is discovered, and if he doesn’t, she will accuse him anyway.  Perhaps some people in this no-win situation would have given into their baser instincts, but Joseph sticks to what he knows is right.  He makes a decision based on what he feels is the righteous thing to do, and trusts in God that the part he must play in Jewish history has already been laid before him.  He has no control over the big picture, but he takes charge of his own actions.  Joseph is in turmoil and has no options that will affect his life, but the shalshelet points to Joseph’s agency over his own soul because sometimes when we are in turmoil, all we can do is make decisions according to our conscience and have faith that God has the rest well in hand.

Shabbat Shalom,

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780