It is no exaggeration to say that Nelson Mandela was a hero of biblical proportions. But what is striking to one who studies the weekly Torah Portion, is that the week he died we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was sold into slavery to Egypt by his brothers, jailed for 12 years along the way, and when released was made viceroy of Egypt. In the Torah portion read this week we pick up the story when Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and repays them with kindness despite the fact that years earlier they had sold him into slavery.
The similarities between the life of biblical Joseph and Nelson Mandela are remarkable. The most moving part of the story is when Joseph asks his brothers to draw close to him and tells them, "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you. For already two years of famine have passed in the the land, and for another five years, there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me ahead of you to allow you to survive in the land and to keep you alive in a wonderful way.”
Over the past six months or so we have started to see an improvement in the economy here in the United States. It seems that the economic downturn is finally behind us and that we might be in for a number of years of solid growth ahead. But, just like there are dangers during a downturn, there are also pitfalls during years of economic success.
One of the professions that seems to be as much science as art is economic forecasting. Most forecasters miss important economic signs. Even the best economists did not predict the crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that then ensued. There is a fascinating account in the Torah that offers advice and a framework to economists who predict future economic health.
The Pharaoh of Egypt had two very disturbing dreams. In the first, he saw seven healthy and well-nourished cows and seven undernourished cows which proceeded to eat the seven healthy cows. He then dreamt a second dream where he saw seven healthy stalks of corn and seven withered stalks of corn. These withered stalks of corn then swallowed the healthy stalks.
These two dreams botherd the Pharaoh greatly and he consulted with his advisors to decipher their meaning. None of the advisors were able to offer a satisfactory explanation. Eventually Joseph was brought before Pharaoh and he interpreted the dreams in the following manner. The seven healthy cows and corn represent seven years of plenty — the time of growth and stability. Whereas the seven malnourished cows and stalks of corn represent seven years of economic contraction and famine. Joseph advised the Pharaoh to conserve food during the years of plenty to ensure that they were prepared for seven years of economic recession and famine when it inevitably arrived.
Jews, especially those who keep to the traditions of Judaism, are often uncomfortable celebrating secular or non-Jewish holidays. We make it a point to let people know that we have enough of our own holidays to celebrate and are in no need of extra festivals. In fact, even secular Jews tend not to celebrate Christmas. Recall Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan during her confirmation hearings saying that on Christmas Eve she can usually be found eating at a Chinese restaurant. Because they are the only restaurants that open on Christmas.
In fact, last year I was in Las Vegas with my wife on December 25, and we went to see a mentalist perform. We noticed that the stand-in performer was Jewish and so was most of the audience. In short, we Jews on the whole do not generally celebrate Christmas and for good reason. It is fundamentally a Christian holiday, and besides we have our own festival Chanukah which lasts for eight days rather than just one.
But, when it comes to Thanksgiving things are different. For starters, we don’t really have good excuse not to celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s not a Christian holiday, and it’s all about thanking God for everything good we have in our lives - sounds Jewish enough doesn’t it? In addition, there is no Jewish holiday with which it coincides. Clearly many Jews are very comfortable celebrating Thanksgiving, turkey and all.
It has already been a month since the Pew research study came out alerting us to what can best be described as the potential demise of American Jewry and Judaism. To be sure, there was plenty of handwringing and pontificating following the release of the study, but now, it seems, the news cycle and people have moved on. Yet the urgency, the desperate need to dial back this tragic trend, remains.
It seems clear that for big problems we need big solutions, and the oft-cited ship analogy here is pertinent. When one passenger drills a hole in the side of the ship in his cabin, it is no use for him to argue that he is only damaging himself, because in time the water that seeps in will sink the entire ship and everyone will lose their lives. The challenge facing American Jewry cannot only be the problem of those who take leadership positions in the community. This has the potential to destroy the entire community, it therefore must be seen as everyone’s problem. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving this stupendous challenge facing American Jewry, where more than thirty percent of Jews don’t identify as being Jewish by religion.
The last thing I’m looking for right now in my life is a new project to take on. My plate is currently full with things to do from the moment I wake up (usually very early) in the morning to the second I close my eyes at night.
Despite all of this, this week I launched a new project entitled “Frum and Stuck” (www.frumandstuck.com) together with a my friend, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz. The need for this project became apparent about a year ago when someone very close to me came to the realization that as a result of all their doubts and struggles with matters of faith, they could no longer continue as an Frum (Orthodox) Jew. This decision resulted in him leaving his community, his wife and his children. The heartbreak and destruction that resulted from that decision is still lingering.