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Cantorial Comment - Parshat Vayigash                                  January 4, 2020 - 7 Tevet 5780

01/03/2020 07:58:39 AM


“No one that encounters prosperity does not also encounter danger.”
                                                         —Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), Greek Philosopher

Greetings from The Holy Land—no, not Boca Raton, the other one.  I feel so very privileged to be able to make it back to Jerusalem for a visit.  I lived here during my first year of cantorial school, 2005/6, and since then, every return visit always feels a little bit like I’m coming home.  That said, the city also changes so dramatically each time, with all kinds of new urban developments.  Unlike my previous visits, there is now a wonderfully convenient 20-minute train ride from Ben Gurion Airport, directly to Jerusalem’s city centre.  When I came out of the station at Yafo Street, a place which used to be perpetually grimy and congested with city traffic, I was surprised to find that the street has been replaced by a beautiful pedestrian promenade and light-rail transit, blended into a background of beautiful cityscapes, artisanal shops, and not a single car in sight. 

On my flight here, a passenger beside me watched as I used the adjustable computer screen built into my seat as a second table for the iPad I had brought with me, while my tray table was still full from the dinner service.  The man gave me a wink, “A Yiddishe kopf”, he said, congratulating me on my ingenuity.  A Yiddishe kopf—a Jewish head.  It’s a delicious phrase that could only exist in the Yiddish language.  It describes a person as “clever” or “ingenious”, with the meta-acknowledgement that ‘of course’ the Jewish people are the most clever, ingenious, industrious, astute people in the world.  And where else would you hear a stranger spontaneously say that to you except on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv?  It’s no wonder that Jerusalem is so different each time that I visit, as if a Jewish city could be anything but be among the most industrious, quickly developing, ever-growing, eco-conscious, technologically advanced cities on earth.  Why? Everybody here is walking around with a Yiddishe kopf!

Throughout history, city-states, kingdoms and empires all benefited from having a Yiddishe kopf on hand.  Often considered second-class citizens whether under Christian or Muslim rule and prohibited from owning land, Jews often rose to prominent social positions as money lenders (Christianity prohibits Christians from lending money to other Christians with interest), or as foreign trade facilitators, leveraging their well-established network of Jewish friends and relatives in distant lands on behalf of their benefactors.  While this mayhave given rise to the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews being greedy and money-grubbing, it is true that Jews were forced to evolve a keen sense for economics that has been a driving force behind world development since antiquity.  According to the biblical timeline, it would have been one of the eight Egyptian Pharaohs of the 12th dynasty who were first to recognize that every great ruler needs a Jewish economist on staff.

This week’s parsha, Vayigash, wraps up the first book of the Torah.  Joseph, the first Jewish royal economics advisor has achieved his position of prominence in Egyptian society.  He is completely unrecognizable to his brothers who have journeyed to Egypt to buy food during the famine that had plagued ancient Mesopotamia.  At long last, his identity is revealed to his brothers, and by doing so, Joseph also reclaims his heritage.  He reunites with his father, Jacob, and the whole family relocates to Egypt where Joseph can make sure that his family is provided for so that they may grow and prosper.

As I write this sentence, I am actually standing in front of Kever Rachel, the tomb of our foremother, Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph.  I can reach out and touch it.  Jerusalem is a few minutes drive to the Northwest of here where the progeny of Rachel continues to thrive, and carry on her legacy of creative thought, being able to see worlds of possibility when others can only see the reality of what is physically before them.  And yet, just outside the walls of the synagogue that house Rachel’s Tomb, is the concrete of the mighty barrier wall that protects Israel from Palestinian terror.  It is a sobering reminder that history has also taught us that wherever Jews prosper, there also exist those who resent us for our success, envy our achievements, despise our resolve, fear our strength and seek our destruction.  As proud as we may be of our Yiddishe kopf, it has failed many times in our long history to perceive the seriousness of the threats against us, bringing us to the brink of annihilation.

The artisanal shops by Kikar Tzion are particularly incredible this year.  In every store, I see industry-leading new concepts in mixed media such as combining ceramic and paper, metal and glass, and dimensional paintings that are reshaping how we understand colour, shape and functional sculpture.  The very same Yiddishe kopf that birthed these designs, I believe, also sees the possibilities of a future where Israel is at peace with Palestinians, and indeed, all of her Arab neighbours.  But just because we can envision it, doesn’t mean that it is ready to exist yet.  While there is nothing more powerful than a great new idea whose time has come, there is sometimes nothing more dangerous than a great new idea that the world is not quite ready for yet.  The Torah acknowledges our Yiddishe kopf by another term, one that both recognizes our ingenuity and also holds us responsible for using it not only to better ourselves, but to better the world.  Better than a Yiddishe kopf, we are A Light Unto The Nations, and we must continue to share our beautiful vision not only with each other, but with everyone.  It may take some time, but God willing, the rest of the world will find their Yiddishe kopf, and see the vision too.

Shabbat Shalom,

Thu, May 6 2021 24 Iyyar 5781