VAYEISHEV (Genesis, 37:1-40:23) — “Nowhere Man”

 

I was listening to a “Torah tape” in the car last Friday when the “news alarm” went off. I had set the alarm clock in my cell phone to me know when it was two minutes before the hour. I wanted to know what was going on in the world. There was, after all, a war going on. There were constitutional issues of military tribunals and detaining terror suspects. We’re looking for anthrax in the mail and Osama in his rat hole. I HAD to listen to the news. 

The announcer at WCBS told me that it was eight o’clock, and then I heard it — “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I was surprised because I thought I was listening to a news station; why are they playing music?! I was waiting for news from George W. Instead I got news from George H. After the musical introduction, the anchorman told us that now “the world gently weeps” at the loss of George Harrison. He spent a minute or two of the five-minute news report talking about the Beatles, and finally moved on to discuss a bit about Afghanistan. 

[I want to be perfectly clear; the death of ANYONE at the age of 58 is a tragedy. Mr. Harrison was a musician of world renown, and his demise was certainly newsworthy. But the main story on the “World News Roundup?!”] 

This, of course, was nothing compared to the reaction of the world to the shocking murder of fellow Beatle John Lennon several years ago. New York and the world went into mourning over the death of an icon. 

Lennon and Harrison et al were the heroes of the ’60’s and ’70’s. They were the architects of the Woodstock Generation. Their lyrics and lifestyle (“All Ya Need is…Lust”) celebrated the drug and free love/lust culture and made it acceptable in the minds of many. 

Who are our heroes today? To whom do we turn when seeking role models for our children and ourselves? Do we hope that our children will grow up to be like baseball hero Mark McGuire, who sells autographs for free cups of Starbucks? (See “Big Mac Strikes Out in the Garden of Eden”.) Like the rich and famous whose dysfunctional lives stare us in the face from the tabloid covers at the checkout counter? How about the Clintons? O.J.? Is there ANYONE out there whom we can encourage our children to emulate??? 

(By the way, speaking of heroes, shortly after 9/11, there were two cartoons that appeared in the New York Post that were widely distributed. One, entitled “The Other Twin Towers of New York,” shows the New York skyline with a skyscraper-sized policeman next to a skyscraper-sized fireman. The other one depicts Superman, Batman, and Spiderman asking a fireman for his autograph. Even now, three months later, these cartoons bring a chill to my spine and tears to my eyes. You can see these cartoons here. Select September 14 and 19, 2001)

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Did you read about John Walker Lindh? He’s the 20-year-old Taliban soldier from California, who now calls himself Abdul Hamid. You really have to wonder about what values his parents taught him. His father is a Catholic corporate lawyer. His mother is a commercial photographer who, according to the New York Times, has “dabbled in Buddhism.” Rather than push their values on their son, they encouraged him to “choose his own spiritual path.” The closest they came to giving him a role model was naming their then-Catholic son “John.” Why John? The Baptist, perhaps? Nope. An Adams or a Kennedy? Try again. Give up? That’s right, the Times article tells us that when choosing a name for their future terrorist, they decided to name him after John Lennon. 

John/Abdul fulfills “All You Need is Love” by celebrating the carnage at the World Trade Center. How does “Give Peace a Chance” lead to joining the Taliban, who expressed its love for all people this week by stopping a bus and cutting off the noses of men who had shaved or trimmed their beards? 

It has been said that tolerance is a virtue for those who have no principles. Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but not by much. When you live a life that accepts ALL values, it means you have NO values. If everything and every philosophy is right, then there is no such thing as wrong. Would it have been so terrible if John Walker Lindh had been encouraged by his parents to be a devout Catholic, a “righteous Gentile?” Instead, they gave him no guidance. They told him, “Whatever you do is fine.” The result was treason. 

[I AGAIN WANT TO BE PERFECTLY CLEAR: I do not mean to oversimplify this painful situation. I am certainly not trying to suggest that naming a child after a rock star is what made him into a bloodthirsty fanatic. Nor do I wish to absolve the son of blame for his criminal actions. What I am suggesting is that this is an extreme illustration of the consequences of lack of value instruction by parents.] 

Joseph was in trouble. He was in Egypt, far from his family. He had been sold as a slave, and was the head servant in the home of an Egyptian nobleman. He was bright, handsome and charismatic. He had caught the attention of his master’s wife and was now the subject of her advances. 

Joseph was firm. He said to his master’s wife, “…no one has more status in this house than I. He (your husband) has denied me nothing! How then can I perpetrate this great evil?! It would be a sin against G-d!!” (Genesis 39:8-9) 

She wouldn’t take no for an answer. She tried every possible way to seduce him. She dressed attractively and tried to convince him that no one would find out. She threatened him and attempted to bribe him, all to no avail. Joseph was a Jew — actually a Hebrew — the term “Jew” didn’t exist yet. He would not violate the teachings of the Torah. 

Human nature being what it is, Joseph’s resolve began to weaken. The daily onslaught took its toll. He was alone in the house with his master’s wife. It was an Egyptian religious holiday, and everyone had gone to the temple. She had stayed home, claiming to be sick. Joseph began to waver. He was considering the possibility of compromising his moral values when he saw it — he saw the picture. 

A picture of his father appeared before him. He suddenly remembered his father — his role model. “What would my father say?” he asked himself. “What would he do in a situation like this?” 

The crisis was over. He ran away from the woman and saved himself from transgression and eternal humiliation. 

One question. He saw the image of his father. He based his decision on the values of his role model, his hero. What if Joseph had seen an image of John Lennon? What advice would Joseph have received from THAT paragon of virtue and self-control? 

Walk into the home of a Torah-observant family. You will see pictures of Torah scholars. Go to the Bris of a Torah-observant family and listen to the names that are given to their children. A month ago, the world said farewell to the hundred-and-?-year-old Torah sage Rabbi Eliezer Shach, of Blessed Memory. By now, there are dozens, if not hundreds of newborn Eliezers whose parents pray that their little boy will grow up to be a Torah scholar. 

The Talmud tells us “in every generation one is required to ask himself, ‘when will my actions reach the level of the actions of my ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.'” In reality, this is a naive question. The Torah teaches that the previous generations of prophets occupied an exalted spiritual position that we can never hope to duplicate. They were people who saw miracles and spoke with G-d. There is no comparison between them and us. 

The message, however, is that we must set our sights high. If we aim to emulate mediocre people, we will, at best, accomplish mediocrity. If we reach for the stars, we will not get there. But we will hopefully surpass the bounds of mediocrity. My middle name is Avraham. I can never hope to achieve Abraham’s level of righteousness and holiness. 

But that doesn’t exempt me from my obligation to try. 

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links. 

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

“The ‘December Dilemma’ — Bah! Humbug!!” (2009) 

 [This  message ran as an op-ed piece in the Jewish Press — Another well-known Jewish weekly paper rejected the article. — I wonder why. 🙂 ]

… Once again, we are confronted by the so-called “December Dilemma.” How do we as Jews respond to the “Holiday Spirit” that surrounds us wherever we go?  How should we as American Jews deal with a December holiday that occupies the hearts and minds of all around us? 

In one respect, it seems that the Christmas-Chanukah clash is no longer the problem that it used to be.  Most communities have found it politically correct to substitute “Merry Christmas” with a much more inclusive “Happy Holidays.” 

They have theirs and we have ours. We too, have the ability to ornament our homes with Chanukah decorations. Stores offer us the same abundance of toys for children of all ages, complete with appropriate Chanukah wrapping paper.  We can now celebrate with pride!  OUR holiday is no different than THEIRS! They are two sides of the same coin.  The dilemma is solved! 

Isn’t that sad? Why does Chanukah’s chronological proximity to Christmas have to force us to try to duplicate it?… 

Read more.

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 “The Paternity Suit”(2008) 

…Tamar had a dilemma. Judahhad accused her of committing a terrible sin.  But she had done nothing wrong…  

What Tamar had to do now was to bring out the facts… 

So what did she do?  Almost nothing…

The entire future ofIsraeland the world hung in the balance.  Tamar had been chosen to be the mother of royalty.  But … it wasn’t worth it… 

Read more.

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 “Yes, Brothers, Joseph DOES Love You!” (2006) 

Joseph’s brothers never did understand him.  They didn’t realize how much he loved them.  They thought he was out to get them… Even years later, inEgypt, after the death of their father, they thought he wanted to hurt them.  Joseph loved his brothers… 

The eleventh son of Jacob was the first Joseph to be misunderstood.  But he was not the last… 

Read more.

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“The Rabbi and the Baker” (2004) 

… Last week there was a fire in a strip mall. Several of the businesses in the mall were incapacitated.  Z’s bakery was closed … However, Z’s didn’t stay closed for long.  Within several days, they were back in business, and I got my Danishes back. 

Then I saw an ad that shocked me…  

Read more.

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“Nowhere Man” (2001) 

… Did you read about John Walker Lindh? He’s the 20-year-old Taliban soldier fromCalifornia, who now calls himself Abdul Hamid. You really have to wonder about what values his parents taught him. His father is a Catholic corporate lawyer. His mother is a commercial photographer who, according to the New York Times, has “dabbled in Buddhism.” Rather than push their values on their son, they encouraged him to “choose his own spiritual path.” The closest they came to giving him a role model was naming their then-Catholic son “John.” Why John? The Baptist, perhaps? Nope. An Adams or a Kennedy? Try again. Give up? That’s right, the Times article tells us that when choosing a name for their future terrorist, they decided to name him after  … 

Read more.

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“Pro-choice!” (2000) 

…One voice of reason was Reuben, the oldest brother. He advised against physically murdering him. According to the Talmud, the pit contained poisonous snakes and scorpions. Reuben suggested throwing Joseph into a pit and letting nature take its course. The brothers would thereby avoid doing the dirty work themselves. 

Big deal! What difference does it make whether you kill someone with a weapon or you throw him in front of a train to be run over? Regardless of who pulls the trigger, the victim is equally dead!! … 

  Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.brisrabbi.org.   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on December 6, 2001 at 10:52 am  Leave a Comment  

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