For almost a month the workers of Skokie, Ill. based Golan’s Moving and Storage have been on strike. The nearly 80 employees of the locally owned moving company voted to form a union at the end of 2013 in response to numerous unfair labor practices and outright reports of illegal activities. For example, there are currently 10 complaints of wage theft against the company under active investigation at the Department of Labor. Workers would be told to work a 14 hour day but only get paid for 8 of those hours. Since organizing as a union the employees have been unsuccessful in multiple attempts to negotiate a contract with the owners. The owners have cancelled negotiation dates nearly 6 times. All of this behavior is clearly in violation of not only ethics but of Jewish law and Jewish values.
Forty nine days after the holiday of Passover comes the holiday of Shavuot. If on Passover we are meant to recall and relive the experience of redemption from oppression, servitude and injustice then on Shavuot we are meant to recall how we catalyze that experience for real change and good. Passover is the life-altering moment and Shavuot is the day after. For centuries Jewish communities have utilized Shavuot as an opportunity for all night study and reflection. This tradition still continues and people all over the Chicagoland area will be participating in either formal programs or informal learning on the night of the holiday.
JCUA has prepared a unique text study guide that you can use to enhance your Shavuot learning and to bring the topic of immigration justice alive through the Jewish tradition.
Since 2008 more than two million individuals have been deported from the country. These people are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and loved ones. Families have been torn apart and people are crying out in pain and despair. This is an issue that directly impacts our city as families throughout Chicago have experienced the terror of detention and deportation.
We hope that this text study guide will be an educational resource to share broadly on how this issue is a deeply Jewish issue, rooted in the very foundational texts of the Jewish faith.
Please let us know how you used this study guide, we would love to hear your feedback!
A Note on the Weekly Torah Portion
Imagine the funeral procession: The leaders of the most powerful nation on earth paid their respects. Thousands of people traveled thousands of miles to attend. The departed was the great patriarch, who was nothing less than the father of a new nation.
This is how Jacob’s funeral is described in this week’s Torah portion – Parashat “Vayechi.” As we all watch the events mourning Nelson Mandela this week, we can turn to “Vayechi” to understand what matters about this momentous event.
Now what? What happens “after the funeral”?
In the wake of Jacob’s death, his sons are anxious. Will their brother Joseph – now in a powerful position of leadership – take the opportunity to avenge the way they had treated him. Remember, they sold Joseph to slavery and caused his imprisonment. And so they pleaded:
“Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father” (Genesis, 50: 17).
As it turns out, Joseph leads the family in a process of reconciliation. Though he endured slavery, imprisonment and maltreatment, he forgives.
We could end our reading here, but we would be missing something crucial about forgiveness – Joseph’s and Mandela’s.
Dr. Tariq Ramadan commented on Mandela’s legacy, that “the courage to forgive comes after the courage to resist.” Forgiveness and reconciliation come here at the end of the process. For Joseph and for Mandela, forgiveness does not mean reconciling yourself to being oppressed by others. Forgiveness comes from a position of power. It is the virtue and wisdom of the victor.
Aristotle argued that the key to a virtuous life is practical wisdom (“phronesis”). This is the wisdom to understand what the situation calls for. A time to forgive and a time to resist. A leader knows the difference.
Yes, the wisdom to forgive is crucial for any community charting its way “after the funeral.” But to reach this point, we must first have the courage to overcome oppression and to challenge social injustice.
What does it take to grow as a person or institution? What kind of transformation is necessary? In what ways must we leave our comfort zones in order to thrive? This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Vayigash – gives us a few clues to these questions.
This week we find Jacob’s family facing a famine, and pleading for help from Pharos’s deputy in Egypt (whom they don’t realize is actually their brother Joseph). At first Joseph tells them that in return for help, he demands to keep their brother Benjamin as a slave. He then agrees to help them, and reveals his identity (I’ll get back to that in a moment).
The brothers go to back to their father, Jacob (who is still in Cna’an, today’s Israel/Palestine), and he moves his whole family to Egypt, escaping the famine. This is where I’d like to start.
On the way to Egypt, as Jacob is leaving his home, G-d says to him: “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation” (Genesis, 46:3). So our first question is, Why does G-d promise to make Jacob into a great nation in Egypt, of all places? For me, the first lesson here is that growth and transformation mostly comes about when you are outside your comfort zone. When you pursue what is yet unknown. And it’s ok to be anxious. But no need to be afraid.
But how was this made possible in the first place? How was Joseph persuaded to reveal his identity to his brothers? This brings us back to the name of this Torah portion – “Vayigash.” The Hebrew meaning of this word is, “to come close,” or “to approach.” As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs points out, it was when Joseph’s brother – Judah – approached him up close, that Joseph finally broke into tears and revealed himself.
Remember, Judah was not aware that he was talking to his brother. As he was pleading on behalf of his family, he was talking to one of the most powerful people in the land. And yet, to accomplish his goal, Judah realized he needs to get closer, to approach. We can touch others powerfully when we overcome barriers and fear, and get close to one another.
To recap, so far we learn that transformation and change happen when you leave your comfort zone, and also when you get up close to others, approaching them on their terms.
But we would miss the drama of the Torah portion if we did not pay more attention to Judah, the brother who plead for Benjamin before Joseph. Rabbi Sachs reminds us that a few chapters before this one, Judah was the brother who proposed selling Joseph off to slavery. In light of this past behavior, it is all the more dramatic that Judah is the one to propose that he (Judah) stay as a slave in Benjamin’s stead (Genesis, 44: 33). The man who sold his brother to slavery, is now willing to go into slavery to save his brother.
It is Judah – the one after whom Judaism is named – who undergoes a dramatic transformation.
Takeaways from “Vayigash”? Perhaps that inspirational, transformative processes happen when we are bold enough to step out, and step closer. When we are willing to accept that things can be better than they are, in us, and in our circles.
by Asaf Bar-Tura
Director of Operations, JCUA
In this week’s Torah portion (Parashat “Mikketz”) we read of the birth of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh. These are the two sons of which Jacob, their grandfather, said, “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh’” (Genesis, 48:20).
To this day, Jacob’s blessing is still said in Jewish households around the world. We bless our children that they grow to embody the values of these sons. This begs the question, what is so special about these two sons? What are we trying to emulate?
Here’s one take on this question: Ephraim and Menasseh were born in Egypt, in a foreign land, in a culture with values not based in their tradition. It was not clear that they would live up to Jacob’s hopes of being leaders in their community.
But in fact, they did become leaders, and their tribes became part and parcel of the people of Israel, on par with Jacob’s own sons. For us, Ephraim and Menasseh can emulate the ideal of young people becoming leaders in our diverse Jewish community even though (and maybe BECAUSE) they did not grow up in a traditional Jewish environment. These sons made a non-trivial commitment to their community. They found their own path to a meaningful communal engagement.
And it was Jacob’s wisdom not to shun them due to their birthplace and background, but rather to embrace them all the more. There are no Ephraims and Menassehs without Jacobs, and there is no thriving community without embracing the diverse places from which our leadership may emerge.
by Asaf Bar-Tura
Director of Operations, JCUA
This week’s Torah portion is parashat “Vayishlach.” In this portion Jacob’s daughter – Dinah – is raped by the son of a king (Shechem).
Two of Jacob’s sons – Shimon and Levi – avenge this horrific act by killing ALL the male residents of the city. Jacob is furious at his sons for what they did, and even says on his death bed (in a later parasha): “Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel.”
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, this raises the question of collective responsibility. Should all the people of the town be held responsible for the deed of the prince? Maimonides and Nachmanides disagree on this point (the former sides with the sons and the latter with Jacob).
My take: It is important to distinguish between guilt and responsibility. A great example is white (and male) privilege. I am not guilty of having white male privilege. But the fact that I have this privilege places a responsibility on me to take an active role in pursuit of social justice and equity. If by having this privilege I am in an advantageous social position, I must use this unfair social advantage to combat oppression and collaborate with those who are oppressed.
So, Shimon and Levi had the right instinct that the citizens of the town are not uninvolved. They bear responsibility for what happens in their midst, especially to those who are socially vulnerable. But Jacob was also right that responsibility should not be confused with guilt.
When not evident, responsibility must be explained. It is often a hard topic. Rather than killing the town’s people, Shimon and Levi would have done better had they opened a space of dialogue, and then perhaps made room for advocacy and organizing to hold the town’s leadership accountable.
by Asaf Bar-Tura
Director of Programs, JCUA
In this week’s Torah portion (Niztavim-Vayelech), we meet Moses in his final days. He is giving last instructions to his people, as they proceed into the Promised Land without him.
But as I read this week’s parasha, it is a different speech of King that haunts me. It is the speech he gave at Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968 – the night before he was killed.
At the very conclusion of this later speech, King says –
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
In this week’s parasha, Moses stands by the Jordan River, and, like King, tells his people that they must continue into the promised land without him: “And Moses went, and he spoke the following words to all Israel. He said to them, ‘Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come, and the Lord said to me – You shall not cross this Jordan’ (Deuteronomy, 31: 1-2).”
Both leaders speak of standing at the cusp of achieving what they have worked so hard for, and empowering others to fulfill the dream. Perhaps this is where the road from the Jordan River to Memphis goes through the March on Washington. It is often mentioned that the March on Washington advocated for freedom. But it also advocated for jobs. It was a march for civil rights, but also for economic justice.
Not surprisingly, then, King took the fateful trip to Memphis in 1968 in order to support the city’s sanitation workers, mostly African American, who were fighting for their labor rights. He said to his Memphis audience:
The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. […] Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue.
We know that the dream of racial and economic justice is still a promise yet to be fulfilled. Last year I also wrote about King, as we commemorated 49 years to the March. I wrote then:
The midrash says that a person may walk through 49 gates of impurity, but once one crosses the 50th, one cannot be redeemed. It is said that while in slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were in such dire straits, that they had crossed “49 gates of impurity.” Hence, the midrash teaches, we count 49 days from Passover to Shavuot, when the Torah was given. These 49 days redeem us back from slavery to liberation – passing through 49 gates of sanctification.
I expressed the hope that we would not reach a 50th year without redeeming the dream. But still, there is much work to be done. How do we move forward?
I find inspiration, again, in this week’s Torah portion. Before sending his people into the promised land, Moses tells them that fulfilling the promise of becoming a just and righteous community is in their hands:
It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it. (Deuteronomy, 30: 12-14).
Moses and King both teach us, in their parting words, that in our collective action, we can lead ourselves to a just society.