Wednesday, December 27, 2006


verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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The scroll rolls on and the saga of Joseph, the ‘Know It All’ who has risen to power in Egypt continues, paralleling the famine in the entire region. This week’s Torah episode, VaYigash, follows the long and winding road on which Jacob’s clan, hungry and scattered, is traveling, back and forth between Egypt and Canaan – a road that will soon lead to a tearjerker family reunion. While the main characters in this tale are Joseph, his brother Judah and their father Jacob - according to Jewish legends the real hero of the day is actually a little girl – Serach, the daughter of Asher, grand daughter of Jacob. Her story, and how it is related to her grandfather near fatal cardiac arrest, is our focus this week:

A bit of background: The brother of Joseph are heading back to Canaan, having just met their lost brother, wept, shocked and urged home, by his command to tell their aged father the incredible news – Joseph is alive. In this fragile moment, when good news wash over years of mourning, delicacy is required – a delicacy the brothers were never famous for. And so, according to the telling – Jacob just can’t take the good tidings - and suffers a heart attack:

And they told him, saying, Joseph is yet alive, and he is governor over all the land of Egypt. And Jacob’s heart fainted, for he believed them not. (Genesis 45:23, King James Bible)

Well, maybe it’s a heart attack and maybe not - the Hebrew word ‘PUG’ means ‘Pause’ and other translations and commentaries, perhaps not medically expert, take this to mean ‘failed’ or ‘numb’ or ‘rejected’. It is just one brief moment in the life of Jacob – and almost his last one – had it not been for the wisdom of his granddaughter, Serach, daughter of Asher, and her wisdom. According the legends, found in Talmud and Midrash, Serach was a skilled musician and singer, most famous for her harp playing. Her name is listed in the roster of the seventy Hebrews and accompanied Jacob to Egypt AND she is also mentioned in the list of Hebrew to leave Egypt four hundred years later. What’s her secret of successful living? Legend has it that she has lived so long because she saved Jacob’s life. While the brothers, her father and uncles, are hurrying back from Egypt, Serach dreams that her uncle Joseph is alive, and she sits outside her grandfather’s tent and plays a song with the words’ Joseph is Alive..’ Jacob dismisses the song as a girl’s fantasy, but later, when he hears the actual news – he is not as surprised. His heart skips a beat – but Serach’s song has helped him to overcome and survive the shock.

Thus the power of story, song, art to heal a broken heart, and to prevent an old heart from stopping. Jacob’s heart failure is a moment filled with dread, but also full of redemption. What, imagine, went through the minds of all present as the old man clutches his chest and crumbles to the floor? And, what words of praise and relief when his eyes re-open and his lips mumble a song he didn’t know he knew? Joseph is alive…

At moments of great grief and sadness, may there always be the wise inner child, a harp, a guitar, restoring our old hearts to life, hope, faith, future. If Jacob’s heart wouldn’t have skipped a beat, how would we know the tale of Serach?
More in 2007! Here’s to good music, healing songs, and the wisdom from the mouths of babes, all year long.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

Sorry folks,no audio this week!

Welcome back to the weekly installment of the torah, verse per verse.
These winter months it’s all about Joseph (NOT Mary’s man – his ancestor) – the hero of the weekly Torah saga. In this week’s episode, MIKETZ, we encounter a 30 years old man, freshly out of prison, summoned to the royal court to analyze the King’s disturbing dreams. Very pre Freud, and very Cinderella like, Joseph is propelled from prisoner to courtier within a matter of minutes, or verses, based on his uncanny talent of dream analysis. Joseph’s talent is favored by the king, who bestows honors: a new wardrobe(!), an Egyptian wife, a new job, and a new name. In previous explorations of this hero’s journey we examined Joseph’s garment and the meanings of its many changes, but the transformation here is even more radical – with one royal command Joseph becomes an Egyptian. His new name is what particularly calls our attention:

Genesis 41:45 And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Osnat the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On. And Joseph emerged in charge of the land of Egypt (JPS)

The new naming places Joseph in the name-change convention which we made particular note of in our exploration of his younger brother Benjamin. But this time the name is not Hebrew to Hebrew, but Hebrew to Egyptian. Joseph is called Zaphnath-paaneah. Most translators merely transliterate the word, some try to figure out what it might have meant in archaic Egyptian. The Fox translation names him ‘The God Speaks and He Lives.’ The pseudo-Jonathan’s is ‘The man who reveals mysteries’. Some Medieval commentaries such as Maimonidies , on the other hand, think the name is Hebrew derived, suggesting it means ‘he who explains what is hidden’.
Lauvitiucs would like to suggest: ‘And the King renamed him: ‘Know-It-All’ and wed him to Osnat, the dauther of the Priest of On, PotiPehra, and a new ruler rose over Egypt.’

The long and the short of it is that Joseph, perhaps the archetype of the assimilated Jew, takes an Egyptian wife, an Egyptian name, and functions in a position of power in a culture not his own. Some see him as the ultimate court Jew who can be accused of a willing suppression of his outsiderness for the sake of safety and prosperity. Yet, like Queen Esther, Joseph, for whatever reasons and by whatever means, is just where he needs to be to rescue family and clan. Does his new name hint at a deeper meaning for what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land with super powers both honored and suspected?

Perhaps his cryptic new name suggests a function and an attribute that will have bearing on the lives of his descendents, assimilated Jews in many countries, for generations to come. Accused for being too smart, too rich, or too engaged in world politics, ‘know-it-all’ Jews, public or not, like Joseph himself, will reap the benefits and pay the price for analyzing the dreams and wishes of leaders and mobs worldwide.
But apart from world politics and the tricky role of Jews in history – Joseph represents the inner voice that helps us analyze our dreams and plan our future. Who in your life, this time of year, is the voice that best serves your needs for clarity, vision, dream, a brighter future?

Bright Lights, Shabbat Shalom, Sweet Dreams


Thursday, December 14, 2006


verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This week, The Lauviticus Consortium of Scribes is delighted to welcome Julie Seltzer of the Storahtelling Tribe as a cotributing Scribe! Thank you for your juicy contribution on the truth below the garb!

‘Tis the season for bundling up, dressing fancy and going to parties – but this week’s storah peek is actually at what it’s like to be naked – as naked as truth. There seems to be a distinct link between the craving for lavish costumes and the need to unwrap the cover up, and go behind the mask to reveal the hideen. while Last week’s torah tale featured the birth of Benjamin, and this week we are fully focused on his brother – the one famous for a coat of many colors, AND for what he had going elsewhere. A brief recap of the Genesis Saga brings us to VaYeshev – the tragic telling of how Jacob tried to settle down quietly in Canaan, only to discover that his beloved son and spiritual heir, Joseph, is reported missing, presumed dead, with only a bloody coat to serve as witness. While Jacob is mourning, Joseph, betrayed by his brothers, is trafficked to Egypt, where he ends up a slave in the house of Potiphar, a Courtier of the King. And, while her husband is tending the king, Potiphar’s wife tends to Joseph and tried to de-robe him (Joseph is “well built and handsome” [JPS], “fair of form and fair to look at” [Everett Fox]). She tries the verbal seduction approach before grabbing hold of his garment (in Hebrew: BEGED). Rejected, she then uses this BEGED, this article of clothing, as “evidence” that Joseph tried to rape her, landing the dreamer in jail, again.
Genesis 39:16: ‘And she placed his garment by her side, until his master came home.’

The word BEGED appears here 6 times in 7 verses, forcing special attention to its presence, pointing us to the underlying truth by screaming out, “I’m a lie! Look underneath! Look deeper inside! I’m concealing something!”

One possible clue is found in the root of the word for GARMENT—BGD—exactly the same as the word for BETRAYAL. Joseph’s garment represents an act of betrayal that covers up the truth, just as his robe does when Joseph’s brothers dip it in animal blood to cover up their crime.

The garment as object of betrayal could, perhaps, voice a familiar (if timely) reminder to not get too hung up on the latest fashions. But here too, there’s much than meets the eye. (As if sharing a root with the word for “betray” weren’t enough, the text hints at another layer of meaning: the word BEGED is composed of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th letters of the alphabet, forming a mirror image of the letters that make up the word “lie,” SHEKER, which are the second-to-last, third-to-last, and fourth-to last letters whereas the letters for “truth,” EMET, form a perfect triangle made up of the first, middle, and last letter of the alphabet.

So what does Joseph’s coat have to offer us at this annual time of its re-appearance? Perhaps a reminder to look deeper than the garment and the outer, and perhaps that we all want to get naked – to get at the naked truth, to fully know ourselves, for others to fully know us, and for us to know them. Even the way we share stories begins with an undressing: we prepare to share our most sacred stories by first removing the garment and revealing the unrolled, naked Torah scroll. Just as the Torah has a protective skin—without which the truth would be too overwhelming to access—we also need clothing for our souls. Though somewhat counterintuitive, creating and presenting ourselves through garment, cover, costume - is a way of accessing and sharing our nakedness.
Every time Joseph’s coat is taken off him, a new destiny and identity awaits him; like a snake, he grows new skin.
What, this time round, is your garment? And what’s between it and your naked truth?

Think about that after lighting the romantically inclined Chanukah Candles.

Merry Sabbath and Happy Holiday of Lights!

Friday, December 08, 2006

BEN:what's in a name?

verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This has been a wild week in regards to reinterpting and translating biblical concepts, and we refer of course to the Conservative Movement's wrestling with Ye Ancient Sodomy. History in the making, and translation carefully examined, since the word SODOMY is the creation of Tynedale - the translator resposible for the King James Bible. More about this saga in future - for now we turn to the wrestle of the week:
Last week's Torah tale saw the creation of the clan of Jacob and delighted the t ranslator in all of us with the rich punning and wordplay in the names of the sons and daughter – the future tribes of Israel. The mythic process of naming reminds us how a biblical name rests on a root word which can turn a name into a characterization of a people. It is the youngest of the sons, born in this week’s episode, Vayishlach, that catches our eye, little Benjamin.

The context: The clan has returned to Canaan. Jacob has wrestled with an unnamed force and become Israel (the most famous of the name changes in the Bible). And right after the reunion with his brother Esau, it is Rachel's turn to give birth for the second and last time:

But as she breathed her last---for she was dying---she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrat---now Bethlehem. JPS: 35:18

In a book where name changes are significant markers, here are two changes that happens so quickly as almost to escape notice. One is historical, perhaps Political – Ephrat is also known as Bethlehem. The more striking one is the emotional change: Ben-oni to Benjamin, Rachel’s last choice, Jacob’s revision - what’s the story?

The JPS Bible simply gives the two names and leaves the interpretive translation to the notes: Ben-Oni: son of my suffering (or strength); Benjamin: son of the right hand or the son of the south.

The Fox translation calls him Son-Of-My-Woe and Son of my Right Hand.

Oni might also be translated as wrong or iniquity and there are commentators who see Rachel's name for her son as an admission of her guilt--- and her death as a punishment---either for stealing her father's idols or wishing another son after Joseph. The reference to the South could refer to the tribe of Benjamin’s strategic importance in the south and of its role in bringing forth Israel's first King; Saul.

All these considerations of the name were in play this past Sunday when we gave a workshop for a group of Jewish men and women who had been bereaved by 9/11. Convened in the immediate aftermath of shock and pain, the group met regularly, traveled to Israel together last year, and continues to meet for facilitated sessions of support, sharing, and exploration. For this group of survivors, the figure of Benjamin became particularly powerful. They knew as their own the face of loss, regret, guilt, and sorrow, and the face of strength, hope, and growth. For many, Jacob's immediate decision to override his wife's dying breath was seen as a brave and necessary act of claiming life over death. In fact each of them had been their own Jacob, wresting hope from loss, but wrestling with loss as a way of gaining strength.

Benjamin, who has hardly any story at all in the chapters which follow, stood in that circle as an emblem of bereavement and redemption. In his double-name, we acknowledged the two-sides of the soul and saw our own stories reflected in him.

Lauviticus would like to suggest: ‘Rachel’s soul departed, and as she died she named him son of suffering, but Jacob named him son of right.’

Either way, we suspect the brothers probably just called him Ben for short, or – Sonny.

Who/what is the Benjamin in your life - needing an extra attentive reminder of strength and hope?

Shabbat shalom!