The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Vayigash: What the tears reveal

In last week's Torah portion, we saw Joseph hiding his tears from his brothers and his Egyptian colleagues. In this week's Torah portion, the tears flow too deeply to hide. As you will recall, the last portion ends with Joseph's goblet being found in Benjamin's pack. None of the brothers are aware that Joseph ordered his servants to put it there. Upon being accused of theft, but before the "theft" was revealed, the brothers vow that if any of them stole from Joseph, the thief should be executed, and the other brothers sold into slavery. Upon being arrested for the theft, Joseph made their vow more lenient, asking that the thief be enslaved, and the others go free. Upon revealing the stolen goblet, Joseph insists that Benjamin be his slave. As you will recall, Jacob was reluctant to let Benjamin travel down to Egypt until Judah promised to offer his life for Benjamin's life should anything happen to Benjamin in Egypt. And then this week's Torah portion begins.

The portion begins with Judah coming to Benjamin's defense before Joseph. Judah does not recognize Joseph, and thinks of him as second only to Pharaoh. Therefore, to contest his decision is to put his life in jeopardy, but he does not hesitate to step up. Judah relates his promise to their father, and mentions that his father, through Rachel, had only two sons. Joseph, Jacob assumes, was torn by wild beasts, and Benjamin is Jacob's new favorite. Judah assures Joseph that if the brothers return without Benjamin, their father will die of anguish. He tells Joseph that he has pledged his life for Benjamin's, and begs Joseph to take him instead, in order to spare their father's life.

This proves too much for Joseph. This whole ruse and subterfuge has been designed to prove to Joseph whether or not their brothers have made moral restitution since since abducting him and selling him into slavery. With Judah's testimony, he is convinced that his brothers have done so, and he cannot help but be overcome with emotion at this discovery. He fears that he is about to break down weeping, and sends his Egyptian servants away.

His sobs are so loud that everyone in his palace can hear them, but alone in the room with his brothers, he reveals himself to them. He insists that they feel no guilt at having wronged him, but assures them that God sent him before them to Egypt, to save all of their lives before the upcoming famine. He asks them to return for their father, and gives them choice land to settle in Goshen, in Egypt, to wait out the famine in some of the only fertile lands in the region.

With that, he embraces Benjamin, and the two of them sob on each other's shoulders. Then he kisses each of his brothers and weeps with them. The commotion is so loud that Pharaoh is alerted, and he invites the brothers to return to Canaan for their wives and children, and to bring their father with them, to settle in the best lands in Egypt. Joseph helps them pack for the journey, and tells them: "do not have anger or agitation along the way." [Genesis 45: 24].

The rabbis are fascinated with this advice. The history of the Jewish people is full of internecine conflicts, right up to the present day. The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, or baseless hatred. Jews who should have loved each other hated each other over issues that from a distance look like minutiae. Today in Israel, in Beit Shemesh, an eight-year-old Modern Orthodox girl was spat upon and called a whore by extremist ultra-Orthodox adult men for wearing a long-sleeve shirt and a long skirt that still was not considered modest enough by her bullies. Last night, there was rioting in Beit Shemesh as people protesting the girl's treatment, and those who harassed her fought in the public square. Police who showed up to quell the violence were met with rocks and flaming trash cans. The extremists within the ultra-Orthodox community there are calling for an exclusion of women in the public sphere, from public shops and public transport. In their journey to the land of Israel, they have quarreled along the way.

Too often Jews have forgotten that we are all brothers, and should love each other, and that we should not quarrel along the way to Israel, both the land of Israel, and the metaphorical Israel. Masons too sometimes gently need to be reminded not to quarrel along the way. We are all brothers.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mikeitz: Hiding his tears

In this week's Torah portion, Joseph spends two more years in prison before he is released. As you will recall from last week, the Pharaoh's wine steward forgot about him when he was released, after Joseph interpreted his dream. Two years later, Pharaoh himself has prophetic dreams. He dreams that he sees seven handsome cows grazing by the Nile, set upon by seven lean and scraggly cows, which devour the healthy cows. Then he dreams of seven lush and healthy ears of corn, which are devoured by seven weather-beaten, blighted ears of corn. None of Pharaoh's advisors can satisfactorily interpret the dream, and only then, the wine steward remembers about Joseph, and asks that he can be released to interpret Pharaoh's dreams.

Joseph is cleaned up and brought before Pharaoh, and Pharaoh relates his dreams to Joseph. Joseph interprets them both the same way: there will be seven years of abundance in Egypt, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advises Pharaoh to ration grain during the abundant years, to prepare for the upcoming famine. He suggests that Pharaoh hire a supervisor to administrate this process, and Pharaoh chooses Joseph as that supervisor. Joseph becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh, and is given power and authority.

When the famine arrives, it spreads throughout the region, and in Canaan, Jacob and his other sons are hard hit by it. Jacob sends his sons, laden with money and expensive goods, to Egypt to buy grain. He leaves his youngest son, Benjamin, at home with him, because he adores Benjamin too much to risk losing him. The sons arrive in Egypt and are brought before Joseph. Joseph recognizes the brothers who sold him into slavery and faked his death. They tell their story to Joseph, through an interpreter, and he asks them about their family, and where they come from. He accuses them of being spies, since they speak Hebrew and yet claim to be from Canaan. At this accusation, the brothers begin to argue with each other. Reuben tells his brothers that he had warned them not to do anything to Joseph. When Joseph hears this (the brothers do not realize that Joseph understands Hebrew), he runs away and cries in another room. He regains his composure and returns.

Joseph imprisons them for three days, and then releases them (with the exception of Simeon), demanding that they prove their story by returning home to bring their brother Benjamin back with them. The brothers know that Jacob is deeply reluctant to part with Benjamin. Joseph packs their bags with grain, and hides all the money they paid for the grain in the grain bags.

On the return journey, the brothers find the money in the grain bags, and they are horrified, thinking that they will be accused of stealing. They return home to their father with the grain, and tell them all of what happened, and that Joseph expects them to return with Benjamin in order to release Simeon from prison. Jacob is very reluctant to do this, but eventually, their grain runs out, and they are forced to return to Egypt. Simeon promises Jacob that if Benjamin is killed on their journey, Jacob can kill two of his four sons. Jacob sends them back with double the money, and they return to Egypt.

Upon their return with Benjamin, they are again brought before Joseph, who offers them a lavish feast. Joseph receives the returned money along with the new money, and asks them about their father. Then he looks over Benjamin and prays before the brothers that God would be gracious to Benjamin. Overcome with emotion, he again leaves the banquet hall and weeps in another room before regaining his composure and returning to the feast. Benjamin has been given five portions of food.

Joseph orders that their bags be laden with grain for their return, and he has all the money put in their grain sacks, and in Benjamin's sack, he places his precious silver goblet. Joseph has his guards chase after the brothers' caravan and overtake it, and they accuse the brothers of stealing the goblet. The brothers swear their innocence, and suggest that if they find a stolen goblet, that brother be executed and the others sold into slavery. The guards instead suggest that if they find the goblet, the one who has the goblet would be enslaved, and the other brothers would go free. The guards find the goblet in Benjamin's sack. They all return to the city.

Joseph judges them for stealing the goblet, and the brothers fall on their knees in supplication. At this moment, the dreams that Joseph had twenty-two years earlier, which so enraged their brothers in the first place, have come true. Joseph reiterates that they can all go free except Benjamin, who is to be enslaved to Joseph. Here the portion ends.

I find great emotional resonance in the two times that Joseph hides and weeps. He has been terribly wronged by his brothers, and yet, they have inadvertently set him upon the path that has lead to Joseph becoming a very fortunate and powerful man. Despite all they have done to him, Joseph loves his brothers and misses his father. Next week, we will see Jacob come down to Egypt himself.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Meaning of Hanukkah

Tonight is Erev Hanukkah (Hanukkah Eve). Raised as a Secular Jew, I never really took Hanukkah very seriously. Hanukkah holds a strange place in the cycle of Jewish festivals in that the source material for its inception was written in texts that were de-canonized by the rabbis who redacted the Jewish Bible, the TaNaKh (TaNaKh is an acronym. Tav stands for Torah, Nun stands for Nevi'im, or books of the Prophets, and Khet stands for Ketuvim, or miscellaneous writings). The First and Second Books of Maccabees is the source, although those books were left out of the Bible. Josephus describes the incident in Antiquities of the Jews. The rabbis were uncomfortable with a holiday that could not justify its existence via Scripture. Thus, it is a minor holiday with a fair amount of ambivalence associated with it.

The incident that inspired the festival concerned a civil war between Hellenized Jews and more Orthodox Jews. In a sense, this conflict continues today with the disagreements between Secular Jews and Orthodox Jews. Hellenized Jews performed a less radical circumcision, trimming the foreskin rather than removing it entirely. There is some speculation that the total removal of the foreskin comes from this time period, as a strong stance taken against assimilation. In any case, the Hellenized Jews had the backing of King Antiochus III, who sought to subjugate the more traditional Jews. Matisyahu, a priest of the (Second) Temple, and his sons, revolted against the Hellenized High Priest, and Matisyahu's son, Judah, was known as Yehuda HaMakabi, or Judah the Hammer. After winning the battle with the Hellenized Jews, Judah the Maccabee secured the Temple complex, and declared himself the High Priest. Because he considered the oil for the Temple Menorah (lamp stand) that had been supplied by the Hellenized Jews to be unclean, he had to make new lamp oil for the Temple Menorah. Because they had been fighting during the festival of Sukkot and the related holiday of Shemini Atzeret, they had to celebrate these Temple festivals belatedly, after the battle. He was only able to secure enough new oil to last one day, and yet, when he went to burn the oil in the Menorah, it burned for eight days. This miracle later generations decided to commemorate every year on the anniversary of it as the Festival of Hanukkah, or Festival of Lights.

 Because this all happened after the events in the Bible, this festival is not a holy day like the holy days delineated in the Torah. Jews do not need to observe Sabbath-like restrictions on Hanukkah.

Hanukkah was a minor holiday (even more minor still than Purim, which is also not delineated in the Torah). This is the way it would have remained if it were not for the Ashkenazi migration to Europe, and the later integration of Jews into European society. As European Christians converted the pagan observances of the Winter Solstice into an observance of the Birth of Christ. The Romans celebrated the Birth of the Sun on December 25th. As both the Sun and Christ are the Sefer Tiferet on the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah, many solar practices easily converted to Christian practices after the Christianization of Rome. Similarly, the festivals of Saturnalia among the Romans, and Yule among the Germans, were all adopted into the celebration of Christmas. As the Christians celebrated Christmas, some were disturbed that the Jews who lived among them did not celebrate with them, and this was often a source of conflict.

As Jews were emancipated from the ghettos in Europe in the 18th century, Jewish children and Christian children had social intercourse with each other. Jewish children saw the observance of Christmas (and the copious gifts received) among their Christian peers, and demanded a similar observance from their parents. As Hanukkah is observed for a week after 25 Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, it often coincides with Christmas Day. It became a modern custom to give children a gift for each day of Hanukkah, to appease them away from Christmas envy.

So, while Hanukkah is a minor holiday, I have Christian friends who, with all sincerity, make a point of wishing me a Happy Hanukkah with far more gusto than anyone has ever wished me a Happy Shavuot, a much more important Jewish holiday. Hanukkah's temporal proximity to Christmas has elevated it above any reasonable stature it should possess.

Thus, as an adult Jew (and thus not likely to get eight presents), Hanukkah remained a minor holiday for me, and a fairly unremarkable one at that. That was, until last year, when I finally understood its meaning.

Last year, on Erev Hanukkah, I heard an interpretation of Hanukkah that rang true for me. I apologize that I don't remember where I received it. The interpretation regarded what the miracle of Hanukkah was. Traditionally, the miracle was that the oil lasted eight days. This interpretation went as follows: imagine that you are Judah the Maccabee. You only have enough oil for one day and yet you need to burn oil for eight days. What do you do? A pragmatic person would give up, acknowledging that there wasn't enough oil to light the lamps. Note that at this point in the story, no miracle had occurred, and none were promised to occur. Judah instead burned the oil that he had, conserving none of it. He devoted himself to the mitzvah (commandment) wholeheartedly without hesitation, even though he was, for all practical purposes, unprepared to follow through with it. The next morning, the oil should have been exhausted, but it wasn't. He could have unlit the lamps to conserve what remained, and yet he did not. He let them burn.

The next day, he let them burn. And the next, and the next. While the obvious miracle is that the oil continued to burn, the miracle of faith was that Judah, without knowing how long the oil would burn, trusted that he could continue to burn the oil, withholding any hesitation or fear that he would exhaust the supply. That is faith.

I was very conscious of this last year, when I was working at a company, and had a bad review in October. My boss had been recently supplanted by a new boss who was the boss of her and of everyone under her. The new boss had never met any of us, as he lived overseas. For some reason, he took an instant dislike to me. So while I had never had a negative review with the company before, in my semi-annual review in October, he arrived in person and absolutely excoriated me. He accused me of lying on my resume, of malingering, of faking knowledge I did not possess. It was a total shock, since my previous boss had been nothing but positive with me. At the end of the review, he told me that I had four weeks to show drastic improvement, or he would fire me. He wanted me to write a written weekly self-review, which he and my old boss would analyze, and at the end of four weeks, they would collectively decide if I kept my job. Four weeks later, I had sent four such reviews, and the only feedback I received was that the first one was too long, and to make the subsequent ones shorter. Two weeks after that, I had still not received any feedback whatsoever. And my old boss, and the HR director, both of whom lived on the West Coast, were scheduled to visit my office in Boston for a week. The week of Hanukkah.

They arrived on a Tuesday, and I asked them what their conclusions were, and they both told me that, unofficially, I shouldn't worry about keeping my job. I asked them when I would know officially, and they told me that my new boss was incommunicado. They had tried to reach him without success for two days. The next day I came to work and demanded an answer. At 4 PM, they asked me to come into their office to talk.

They told me that my new boss wanted to fire me, and that they wanted to keep me, and that discussions were at an impasse. They asked me what I thought. I told them that this was Hanukkah, and that in the Temple, Judah the Maccabee had burned the oil without knowing whether it would last more than a day because it was a mitzvah to burn the oil. I had been coming to work and working hard, not knowing each day for the last two and a half weeks whether or not I'd be fired that day. That morning, a co-worker had taken an emergency call from a hospital that had gone down due to a bad software upgrade of our software. The patient data system was not sending meaningful data. Patients could not have bed transfers, discharges, nor could they be admitted to the hospital. My colleague had asked me to jump in on the call, and in twenty minutes I had diagnosed the problem, walked them through a solution, and got them back online. At any moment during that emergency, I told them, one of you could have tapped me on the shoulder and told me I was fired. I knew that, and yet I did my job, and saved our client from a serious emergency. I told them that like the meager oil in the lamp stand, I continued to burn. They let me keep my job. That was my Hanukkah miracle.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Vayeishev: Joseph and the meaning of dreams

One fourth of the Book of Genesis is dedicated to the story of Joseph. Fascinating, since he was not considered one of the Patriarchs. Indeed, there is no tribe of Joseph as there are for each of his brothers.  The tribe of Levi form the Levites who, because of their priestly duties, were not given a portion of the Land of Israel, and thus do not form a territorial tribe. The final two tribes, that of Ephraim and Manasseh, are the sons of Joseph, who got their own tribes, rather than Joseph himself.

So why does the Book of Genesis devote so much text to Joseph? Partially to explain how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, but there is more going on in the story of Joseph than a mere relocation story. Joseph's story is driven by dreams, both his and the dreams of others. God gave him the gift of prophecy through dream interpretation, and in the next four Torah portions, he uses this gift, at first injudiciously, and later more wisely.

Jacob regarded Joseph as a favorite, and this favoritism inspired jealousy in his brothers. Jacob gave him an extravagant brocaded coat (כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים in Hebrew). This coat became a focus for his brothers' jealousies. Joseph received prophetic dreams that he would rule over his brothers and even his father when he was seventeen. A wiser youth would have kept these dreams to himself, especially if he were conscious of his brothers' attitudes towards him, but Joseph foolishly told his brothers his dreams in which he dominated them. In one dream, he appeared as a sheaf of wheat (Masons take note) standing straight up, whereas his brothers appeared as sheaves of wheat pointing in a circle around him bowing down to him. In a second dream, his brothers appeared as seven stars, his father the sun and his deceased mother the moon, all bowing down to Joseph. He told this dream to his father and brothers, and it greatly upset them, although his father suspended judgment at the time.

These dreams exacerbated his brothers' ill feelings towards him, and they conspired to murder him. One day, his older brothers were tending sheep when Jacob asked Joseph to check on them. The Talmud tells us that Simeon and Levi, the perpetrators of the massacre at Shechem, were the chief conspirators, intending to murder Joseph and cast his corpse into a pit. Reuben, on the other hand, intervened on Joseph's behalf, insisting that his brothers spare Joseph's life. Instead, Reuben suggests that they cast Joseph alive into a well that was dug, but turned out to be dry.

Wells appear throughout the Book of Genesis as a symbol of mercy in the midst of harshness, or of inheritance in the case of Isaac reclaiming his father's wells. Water in the desert is life in the midst of death, and is a symbol of chesed, or lovingkindness. Thus, a dry well is a symbol of failed chesed, or an attempt at mercy that does not contain true caritas.

Reuben planned to rescue Joseph and return him to their father. As we shall see, this plan does not come into fruition. The brothers strip him of his precious coat, and put him in the dry well. The Talmud says that Simeon threw Joseph into the pit, but Josephus says that Reuben gently lowered Joseph into the pit, as to save him from injury. Soon afterwards, an Arab caravan approached, bringing spices and incenses for trade. Judah decides that, rather than murder Joseph, he can sell Jospeh as a slave to the caravan. He receives twenty pieces of silver for the sale of their brother. Reuben returns to the pit to rescue Joseph and finds him gone, and tears his clothing in his grief. He says to his brothers: "The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?" [Genesis 37: 30].

As a ruse, the brothers slaughter a goat and dip Joseph's coat in the blood. They bring the coat to their father, and tell him: "This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no." [Genesis 37: 32]. Heartbroken, Jacob assumes that Joseph has been killed by wild beasts, and succumbs to a long period of mourning, tearing his clothing and wearing sackcloth. His grief is pitiful: "And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him." [Genesis 37: 35].

Joseph, meanwhile is taken by the caravan to Egypt, and sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, and a Captain of the Guard.

At this point in the Torah, there is a rather bizarre digression about the duties of Levirate marriage (there is a whole tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the complex rules surrounding this obligation). It is important to remember that these peoples were extremely patriarchal, and their responsibilities to each other were very much dictated by the requirements of patriarchy, in ways that seem very odd to us today. When a woman was widowed, it was the responsibility of her brother-in-law to marry her, thus ensuring her protection.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah will dictate the rules of yibbum in the following way: "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.". [Deuteronomy 25: 5-6].

While this seems disturbing to a modern sensibility, in the culture of the Ancients, an unmarried woman had no protection in society, especially if she had no sons to look out for her. Defending her from the isolation of widowhood, the brother of her dead husband could marry her, impregnate her, and these children would be legally  considered the children of her dead husband. This would restore not only her status, but the posthumous status of her dead husband. Men lived in fear of not producing progeny, and this method could ensure that a man could produce progeny after his death.

Incidentally, a brother could refuse to marry his brother's widow. This refusal is called chalitzah in Jewish law. The Talmud actually prefers chalitzah to yibbum. In a public ceremony, the widow removes the shoe of her brother-in-law, and then spits in his face, and announces to the crowd that this man refuses to take her as a wife, and he confirms this. In the current Orthodox version of chalitzah, the widow spits on the ground, not in her brother-in-law's face, and the witnesses say "May it be the will [of God] that Jewish women be no more subjected to halizah or to yibbum." Thus, in Masonic ritual, the removal of the shoe is referred to as "a testament in Israel".

Judah, the progenitor of the Jewish people, does some pretty disreputable things in this section, and is depicted in a very unflattering manner. In the authorship theory of the Torah, it is believed that two factions of Torah author are in conflict with each other: the clerical faction and the political faction. In this theory, at the time ascribed to when the Torah was written down, the Levites controlled all religious practice and the tribe of Judah controlled the Kingdom of Judah, which was in power. Thus, the Priestly author was skeptical of political power, diminishing Judah, and the Political author was skeptical of clericalism, diminishing Levi.

Judah leaves his brothers and sets off on his own. He marries and has three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, and because he is wicked, is struck down by God. Judah insists that his son Onan marry Tamar. Judah does not object to marrying Tamar, but he does object to having her children and having them be regarded as Er's children. He marries her, but practices coitus interruptus when having sex with her, ejaculating on the ground instead of inside Tamar. This dereliction of duty offends God, who strikes Onan dead.

In some Christian societies, masturbation is called onanism after this Biblical passage, and because Levirate marriage is not well-understood anymore, it has been misinterpreted that God kills Onan either for using a birth control method, or for masturbating (fairly odd considering the passage). Even some Orthodox Jews regard masturbation as the sin of Onan, and even go so far as to regard nocturnal emissions as sinful. I think that, considering what the Torah says, these extremist interpretations are wildly off the mark. If Levirate marriage is understood, the passage is pretty clear and direct. Onan was killed for refusing to give Tamar children who would be considered Er's children.

As Shelah was still a child, Judah told Tamar to live with her father until Shelah grew to adulthood. Judah worried that Shelah would die like his brothers, and was basically blowing Tamar off. Judah's wife died, and Judah did not marry Tamar and Shelah as he had promised. Tamar disguised herself as a  veiled prostitute (זוֹנָה in Hebrew). She is later described as being dressed like a hierodule, or sacred prostitute (קְּדֵשָׁה in Hebrew). This is a strange word, as it is the feminine form of the word sacred. Certain pagan women in ancient Canaan would have sex with worshippers in fertility rites as part of worship. In this tradition, they covered their faces (and thus were anonymous, encouraging any woman who wanted this form of pagan religious devotion to do this without loss of reputation).

Judah offers her a goat for solicitation, and gives her his seal of authority, his cloak and his staff (the symbols of his authority) as a deposit until he can provide her with the goat, and has sex with her, impregnating her. If she were a zonah, or regular prostitute, Judah would be guilty of fornication, but if she were a kedeishah, or sacred prostitute, he would be guilty of blasphemy as well.

Judah tries to provide the goat to the sacred prostitute, and get his deposit back, but nobody is aware of her existence. He is forced to give up and abandon the symbols of his authority. A few months later, Tamar is visibly pregnant, and Judah (not knowing that he is the father) is indignant, and insists that she be burned. The rabbinic commentary is divided as to whether burned meant burned to death, or branded. Upon her arrest, she offered the seal, the cloak and the staff to the men who arrested her, claiming that the owner of these items is the father of her child. Judah is exposed as a fornicator, a promise-breaker and a hypocrite.

Tamar gives birth to twins. One boy, Zerach thrust his arm out of her womb, and the midwife tied a crimson string around his wrist, claiming the boy as the firstborn. But the infant pulled his arm back in, and his brother, Peretz left the womb before him. Peretz was an ancestor of King David.

Joseph thrives as the servant of Potiphar in Egypt. The Torah suggests that the Lord caused Joseph to have success in all his undertakings, and Potiphar realizes that Joseph is blessed by the Lord, and gave him responsibility for the entire household, making him head butler of Potiphar's estate. God blessed Potiphar because of Joseph, making him extremely successful and prosperous. Joseph grew to manhood, and became extremely attractive, and Potiphar's wife became infatuated with Joseph. She demanded that Joseph sleep with her, but he refused, insisting that he had earned the trust of his master. She finally jumped him, grabbing his cloak as Joseph fled without it. Incensed, she told the household that Joseph had tried to rape her, and she gave his cloak as evidence of his assault. Potiphar, trusting his wife, had Joseph thrown in prison.

Joseph befriended the warden of the prison, and pretty soon, the warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. God blesses Joseph, and he ends up running the prison. Later, Pharaoh's wine steward and baker are imprisoned. Midrash suggests that there was a fly in the wine and a pebble in the bread. Another midrash suggests that they had conspired to poison Pharaoh, and a third midrash says that they had attempted to seduce Pharaoh's daughter.

One night, both men had prophetic dreams they could not interpret. The wine steward dreams of a vine with three branches. As he watches, buds form, blossoms bloom, and the branches fill with grapes.  Pharaoh's cup appears in his hand and he took the grapes and squeezed them into the cup and handed it to Pharaoh. Joseph interpets the three branches as three days. In three days, the wine steward will be pardoned and restored to his previous position. Joseph tells the wine steward that when this happens, to remember Joseph in prison and to tell Pharaoh that Joseph is innocent and should be freed.

The baker dreams that three baskets of white bread are on his head. In the top basket are Pharaoh's favorite breads, but that birds were eating it out of the basket. Joseph interprets the three baskets as three days, and says that in three days, Pharaoh will hang the baker, and that the birds will pick at his carcass on the gallows. Nice, I know.

Three days later was Pharaoh's birthday, and he released the wine steward and the baker from prison. He restored the wine steward to his former position, but he executed the baker. The wine steward, in his excitement about being freed, forgot all about Joseph, leaving him to languish in prison.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Installed in the East

Last night, I was installed as Worshipful Master of Samuel Crocker Lawrence Lodge in Medford, MA. Two weeks ago, I attended a Lodge of Qualification, and took the Chair Degree. This degree is very old: there are records of it being performed going back to the 1730s. It stands in a grey area in Freemasonry in that Blue Lodge Freemasonry comprises three degrees, and this is not one of the three, and yet it is required for anyone who would be Worshipful Master of a Masonic Lodge. William Preston, in his Order of Harodim (his idealized versions of the Blue Lodge degree), offers five degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellow of the Craft, Master Mason, Past Master, and Holy Royal Arch. In its earliest days, the Holy Royal Arch degree had as a prerequisite that the candidate be an Installed Master (either a sitting Worshipful Master or a Past Master). As the appeal of the Holy Royal Arch spread, lodges were installing Worshipful Masters merely as a bureaucratic measure before Exalting them in the Royal Arch degree. Some lodges in the 18th century were reprimanded for installing six or more Worshipful Masters in a night.

To mitigate this, a Virtual Past Master degree was designed as a substitute for the Chair degree, and this solution is the way the contemporary York Rite handles the requirement in the Royal Arch degree. While I have been elected to Cambridge Royal Arch Chapter in Cambridge, MA, I have yet to take any degrees, so I say this without any direct knowledge, but I have been told there is some overlap between the Chair degree and the Virtual Past Master degree. I made a conscious decision not to take the Virtual Past Master degree until after I had taken the Chair degree. Readers of this blog know that I am extremely active in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, both in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction and the Southern Jurisdiction in the United States. I actually joined Freemasonry intending to be a Scottish Rite Freemason. When I first learned of the York Rite, I was disinclined to join due to the Christian requirement in the Knights Templar order. (To be honest, there are many Jews who have become Knights Templar. The obligation requires a Sir Knight to lift a sword in the defense of Christianity. I know many brothers who regard the Order of the Temple degree as the single most beautiful and inspiring and impressive degree in all of Freemasonry. That being said, and with all due love and respect to my Templar brothers, I am disinclined to become a Templar for many reasons I would be happy to expound in a future post should my readers desire for me to do so).

I later learned that the degrees of the Royal Arch Chapter are pretty much essential to Freemasonry, and, previous to having taken them, I would regard the Royal Arch degree as the repository of knowledge essential to becoming a fully-informed Freemason. Albert Pike understood this, and created his own version of this degree, spread out in the 13th and 14th degrees of the Scottish Rite, the Royal Arch of Solomon and Perfect Elu degrees. Having attended these degrees, I understand that they tell a Royal Arch story, but probably not the same, nor in the same depth as the Royal Arch Chapter does.

In the USA, due to a truce between the Scottish Rite and the York Rite, we regard the three degrees of Blue Lodge Freemasonry as the whole Masonic curriculum, with the higher degrees regarded as Concordant rather than central. I am of the opinion that the Blue Lodge is merely the first book of Freemasonry, with the Chapter degrees (or their equivalents in the Lodge of Perfection in the Scottish Rite, or the Lodge of St. Andreas in the Swedish Rite, or other analogues in other rites of Freemasonry) being the second book, the Council degrees (or their equivalents in the other rites of Freemasonry) being the third book, and some version of the Chivalric degrees being the fourth book. The Scottish Rite adds a fifth book with the Consistory degrees in the Southern Jurisdiction, but since the other rites do not, I will not comment on how central they are to Freemasonry as a whole, regardless of how clearly essential they are to the Scottish Rite.

So I have taken the Chair degree, and in February, I will take the Mark Master degree, and start my York Rite journey, taking the Virtual Past Master degree as an Installed Master. Long story short, I avoided the York Rite originally because I thought erroneously that I was ineligible, and then waited until I was an Installed Master as not to spoil the Chair degree by learning too much about it in the Virtual Past Master degree.

Last night was very special. The District Deputy Grand Master attended, and I had an installing suite of officers consisting of good friends and mentors to me in my Masonic career. Many cherished friends and brothers attended, some of whom were at my Raising. I catered the dinner, and stayed around to clean up the lodge room afterwards. My friends at Amicable Lodge offered me a new pair of gloves and an inscribed gavel with my name, the name of the lodge, and the Square and Compasses on it.

I have made a two year commitment to be Worshipful Master at Samuel Crocker Lawrence Lodge (assuming my brothers re-elect me). I understand that being Worshipful Master is not about having people call me "Worshipful", or parading around in a top hat. As much as the Chair degree and the Installation are impressive rituals designed to impress upon the incoming Master the seriousness of his office (and provide esoteric knowledge designed to aid him in his tasks), the job of Worshipful Master really begins the first time the cell phone rings and there is a crisis on the other end of the phone.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Vayishlach: Wrestling with an angel

In this week's Torah portion, Jacob returns to his family in Canaan after twenty years of servitude to his uncle Laban. His brother, Esau, from whom he hed fled for his life after cheating him out of his father's dying blessing, now dominates the region of his family, and Jacob is terrified that Esau still wants to kill him. Jacob has been blessed by God with wealth and a large family, and they are in a large caravan when Jacob sends forth messengers to Esau to announce his return and to offer gifts of livestock and slave girls. Esau informs the messengers that Esau will send 400 men to greet Jacob. Fearing that the 400 men will slay him and his family, he splits the caravan into two groups, reasoning that if one is massacred, the other might survive. I have mentioned previously that the rabbis of the Talmud regarded Esau as the embodiment of evil, and the father of all the enemies of the Jews. In the rabbinic commentaries, the perfidy of Esau is emphasized, and illustrates the source of Jacob's terror.

At the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob puts the two camps on the further bank, and then crosses again alone to wait out the night. He prays to God, asking Him to remember His promise to Jacob during the dream of the Ladder.

Just before dawn, an angel appears in the guise of a man and wrestles Jacob. The angel initiates contact, engaging Jacob in grappling to test his resolve. Jacob wrestles the angel through the dawn, and ultimately the tables are turned and the angel struggles to flee from Jacob's grip, but Jacob will not let him go until the angel gives him a blessing. The angel dislocates Jacob's hip with a touch, but Jacob will not let go of the angel. The angel changes Jacob's name to Israel (Yisrael means one who wrestles with God), and prophesied that Jacob would become mighty before God and man. Jacob asks the angel his name, but that knowledge is forbidden him. Jacob named the place Peniel, or the Face of God, declaring that he had seen the Face of God and had withstood it [Genesis 32:31]. Jacob walked with a limp, with great difficulty, from that day forward.

Israel is the name of the whole Jewish people, of whom Jacob is the father. We are the people who wrestle with God. We do not come into faith naively. We question everything. We criticize, analyze, doubt, argue, question and ponder every detail of the revealed texts, and our own traditions. A Jew can doubt the existence of God and still be a Jew. A Jew has grabbed an angel and has wrestled with it. Sometimes the angel grabs us, and sometimes we cling to the angel long after it wishes to depart. We do not let go until we receive a blessing, however begrudgingly given. This defines us as a people. We are a nation of God-wrestlers.

Esau, the next morning, runs to meet him and kisses him, and they both hold each other, weeping. The anti-Esau crowd has a hard time with this. There is one midrash that Esau attempted to bite Jacob, and that Jacob's neck turned to marble, that Esau's teeth broke on the marble, and the bite appeared as a kiss to someone observing from far away. I find such interpretation repellant. Esau kissed Jacob. Esau forgave Jacob. This is one of the most precious moments of redemption in the Torah, and should not be trivialized. Esau refused Jacob's gifts, saying that he was sufficiently wealthy without them.

Jacob tells Esau that seeing him is like seeing the Face of the Divine (and Jacob should know). Esau offers to escort Jacob and his family, but Jacob declines. Again, the interpretation is that Esau plans to waylay Jacob and steal his riches (which he could have done by the banks of the Jabbok, but did not). Jacob travels to Sechem and sets up roots there, buying the land he is to live upon.

Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is raped by the prince of Sechem (himself named Sechem). The Torah does not always have contemporary meanings to terms, but in this case, Sechem has sex with Dinah by force, even though the Torah tells us that he is in love with her. Sechem's father asks Jacob if the prince can marry Dinah. In ancient patriarchal societies, a rapist could escape punishment by marrying his victim and paying her father a large bride-price. This seems pretty disgusting from a modern perspective, but in ancient times rape was seen as as much a crime of property as a crime of violating one's person. A daughter who was not a virgin could not normally marry.

Sechem begs Jacob for permission to marry Dinah. The sons of Jacob agree on the condition that every man in the city of Sechem get circumcised. Sechem agrees on behalf of his people, persuading his people that the wealth of Jacob could add to the wealth of the city. Every man in the city agrees to undergo circumcision.

While they are recovering from this painful procedure, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, enter the city and murder every man in the city of Sechem, including Sechem and his father, and took Dinah home with them, along with all the plunder of the city, its wealth, its livestock, and its women as slaves. Jacob is furious. He excoriates them for disgracing him and his family, and for inviting scorn and retaliation from the other peoples of Canaan. Simeon and Levi reply to their father: "should he deal with our sister as an harlot?".

Jacob and his family flee to Beth-El. Eventually, Rachel dies, and Isaac dies of old age. Esau and Jacob bury their father together. The Torah portion ends with a description of Esau's household and wealth, and the agreement that Esau will move to Edom to separate his household from Jacob's. It is mentioned that among Esau's Edomite descendants is Amelek, the great enemy of the Jewish people.

I think the anti-Esau crowd use this mention to justify why they despise Esau so much, but nobody can control whether or not they have evil descendants. But it does set the stage for much of the drama to come, when the Israelites free Egypt and engage in war in Moab in Edom.