Joseph, Benjamin, and all of us


This week’s Torah portion is Parshat Miketz, in which Joseph is reunited with his brother Benjamin, who was the only other child Jacob had with Joseph’s mother, Rachel.

According to the commentary in The Stone Edition of the Chumash, twenty-two years passed between when Joseph was sold unto slavery and when Jacob learned Joseph was alive in Egypt.  It also states Benjamin was thirty-one years old when he stood before Joseph in Egypt.  Thus, Benjamin was approximately nine years old when Joseph was sold into slavery.

Torah tells us the first time Joseph sold food to his other ten brothers, he told them they were not permitted to return to Egypt to request more food without bringing their youngest brother with them.   As the brothers approach Egypt the second time, Joseph sees that Benjamin is with them, and he orders his staff to prepare a feast.

When Benjamin actually stands before Joseph in Joseph’s house:

     Joseph lifted up his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and so he said, “Is this your little brother, of whom you spoke to me?”  Joseph said to Benjamin, “G-d be gracious to you, my son.”
      Then Joseph rushed because his compassion for his brother had been stirred and he wanted to weep; so he entered into his chamber, and wept there.

Genesis 43:29-30.  Because “his brother Benjamin” would have been sufficient to inform a reader whom Joseph saw, the commentary suggests the phrase “his mother’s son” was included to indicate Joseph saw his mother in Benjamin’s features, and that seeing an image of Rachel was what caused Joseph to weep.

That certainly is one interpretation of the text, but I can’t help but wonder if, the very moment their eyes met, Benjamin didn’t also recognize Joseph.  It is not inconceivable, as Benjamin was nine and Joseph was at least seventeen when Joseph ‘disappeared.’   Moreover, if Benjamin had even a bit of Joseph’s ability to ‘read’ situations and people, then Benjamin may well have immediately recognized that Joseph was carrying grief and ‘pain of loss’ that was similar to that which Jacob and Benjamin were carrying.

If Benjamin recognized Joseph, he would have wanted to reach out to him, and although the circumstances would have required Benjamin to stand frozen and mute, I imagine his soul would have been ‘screaming’ something like this:

Is it you, Joseph??
I am Benjamin, second son of Rachel,
who died giving birth to me and was buried at Beit-lechem.
. . .
I did not sell you into slavery, Joseph.
I was just a child, and I stayed home
when Father sent you to Shechem
to check on our brothers.
. . .
I know you don’t trust the others.
I’ll still pretend you are Egyptian.
Just give me a sign that it’s you.
Joseph . . . please!
I need to know that my brother lives,
to believe that one day we’ll reunite,
that you will tell me about our mother,
whom I never got to meet.
. . .
Please tell me you are Joseph.
Please tell me that I’ve found you.
I swear I won’t betray you.
I am Benjamin . . . your brother . . .
 . . .

And Joseph, being a person capable of reading situations and people, certainly would have been able to ‘hear’ Benjamin’s silent pleading/screaming for Joseph to reveal himself.   Nevertheless, the story tells us, Joseph feared for Benjamin’s safety from the other brothers, and so to protect Benjamin, Joseph did not reveal himself.

Maybe Joseph’s emotions were stirred not because Benjamin looked like Rachel, but because Joseph could not give to the brother whom he loved so very much the one thing they both wanted — to embrace one another in brotherly love and weep with the joy of having finally found one another again . . . . and perhaps this is why Joseph had to run from the room to weep.

After Joseph regained his composure, he ordered the feast served, and he ensured that Benjamin received a portion that was five times larger than the portion given to any other brother.  The commentary suggests Joseph did this to see if the other brothers would become jealous when Rachel’s son received special treatment.  But maybe, instead, Joseph was simply giving Benjamin a sign —
–a sign that Benjamin had found his brother . . .
–a sign that Joseph loved Benjamin and had heard his soul’s pleading . . .
–a sign that they would, one day, be reunited as brothers . . .

Perhaps this is why Benjamin made no protest when Joseph’s cup was found in his bag after they left Egypt.

And perhaps this is why Benjamin was the brother onto whom Joseph first fell to weep when he finally revealed himself.


We can never really know because we weren’t given the story from Benjamin’s perspective and we weren’t given a full explanation of what was happening from Joseph’s perspective.  This is not, however, a flaw in the story’s design; rather, that is the beauty of these stories in the Torah!! The stories contain enough ‘facts’ to be interesting, but enough ambiguity to allow us to fill in the detail, to imagine different reasons why each character is behaving or responding in the way that he or she is, so that we might learn to see any situation from many different, perhaps even completely incompatible, perspectives.

Every story in Torah — just like every story that has occurred or is occurring in our lives today — happens from multiple perspectives simultaneously, and thus each story has multiple layers of meaning and multiple levels and versions of ‘truth.’  No level or version or perspective is “wrong” . . . and only when we can “step back” far enough from any story to begin to see multiple perspectives can we begin to appreciate and understand all the meanings and truths that exist . . .  in Torah and in our own lives . . . from our own perspective and from the perspective of those with whom we interact.

This Shabbat, may we each be blessed with the ability to acknowledge and appreciate the perspective of someone whose perspective we have not before understood, so that we might move even a small step closer toward a day when peace between all people will be possible.

Shabbat shalom, jen

This year’s menorah

This year, for the first time since the 1800’s, the first day of Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving Day. People (who obviously are more skilled with a calendar than me!) claim the Jewish and Gregorian calendars won’t converge like this again for another 77,000 years, which seems far enough in the future for me to safely say “this will never again happen!!”

So, to get into the spirit of the week, I spent some time this weekend hanging out with my sons’ Legos . . . and the result was this centerpiece for our Thanksgiving table:

turkey menorah
turkey menorah2

Clearly I’m excited about the “never again” intersection of Thanksgiving Day and the first day of Chanukah, but I’m also wondering if maybe it’s arrived to remind me of one of those deeper truths that I seem to repeatedly forget — that every Chanukah, every Thanksgiving, every day, every hour, every moment . . . all of them are “never again.”

I know it can be a bit overwhelming to consider, but it is true. Inevitably, some small unpredictable “somethings” will happen today that will cause change in me, in you, in everyone. We grow, we learn, we gain new perspective, we continue becoming whatever it is we are to become (ehyeh asher ehyeh, in the image of G-d). The kids we have dinner with tonight will be just a little different from the kids we dropped at school this morning . . . so this morning’s breakfast was a never again breakfast. That moment in time, just like this moment in time and the next one, into infinity (or into The Infinite, if you prefer) . . . those moments simply won’t ever exist again.

So, yes, I pray all of us have wonderful, safe holiday weekends, filled with the love and laughter of friends and family and really great food . . . but I also pray we remember it’s not just Thanksgiving on the First Day of Chanukah that won’t ever happen again. It’s also the prep time in the kitchen, it’s the moment arguing with your kid about brushing his teeth, it’s the exhaustion of a day entertaining relatives . . . savor them all, because they won’t ever happen this way again . . .

Shavua tov, jen

“My Rabbi”

If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.

 –Thomas Edison

When My Rabbi visited town recently, she brought a magnet with that quote on it to me.

I always refer to her as “My Rabbi” and, until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to what others might hear in that phrase . . . probably because I myself couldn’t explain what it meant.  I just knew that “it was.”

I used that phrase to describe her while talking to Rabbi Arthur Green and then, as he and I continued our conversation, I learned the phrase led him to assume that she was the rabbi who helped me complete my conversion to Judaism.

The shallow, selfish, sensitive part of me (my “ego”) urged me to be offended by his assumption because, in some strange way, I no longer think of myself as a convert . . . but . . . he was right:  My Rabbi did help me complete my conversion to Judaism.

Nevertheless, that’s not why she is My Rabbi — that would be putting the cart before the horse!!

The truth is that I chose to complete my conversion to Judaism with her because she was already My Rabbi.

So, why is she My Rabbi?

…because she’s the kind of person who would bring me a quote to remind me how astounded I would be if I acknowledged what I am capable of doing!

You see, My Rabbi is able to accept and love me for exactly who I am — acknowledging the existence of my faults, inconsistencies, and contradictions — while also seeing me as an image of G-d that is created anew at each moment and filled with infinite potential and possibility.

She’s not the only person in the world who can do this, of course!  It is the kind of love we hope a mother will share with her children.  It is the love that I always found in my Granny’s eyes (which probably explains why I still miss her so much!).  It’s the love that connects people across generations, across space, and through time.

In my experience, this love allows a person to simultaneously feel:
–the safety and security of a child enveloped in it’s mother’s womb or wrapped up in it’s father’s strong arms following a frightening experience;
–the infinite hope and promise that a pregnant woman can feel for the child inside her or that any person can feel when holding a newborn child.

It is a sacred, holy love, because:
–standing in this love can open a “window” that allows us to find a new understanding of the past and/or to imagine a different future . . . without requiring us to deny the present;
–sharing this kind of love creates a bond, connection, or oneness between people that cannot be broken . . . but yet has nothing to do with the day-to-day details of life.

This love is, of course, what people mean when they refer to “G-d’s Infinite Love,” Ahavah Rabbah.  It was the love that Jesus shared.  It is the love the Dalai Lama shares. It was the love of Hillel and Shammai.  It is the love that I am humbled to see Pope Francis display so easily. It is the love that mystics seek through union with G-d.  It is the Hesed for which the original Hasidim were named.

It is a love that reminds us that although we don’t know what today will be and we don’t know what tomorrow might bring, we cannot waste time and energy fearing the infinite possibilities. Instead, we must embrace the infinite possibility because embracing it is the only way to truly LIVE!!

To embrace life in this way, we must:
(1) Fall into the the security of G-d’s Infinite Love;
(2) Stand in each and every moment without any shame about the flaws that make us beautifully-original images of G-d;
and yet
(3) Never, ever doubt that we are capable of so much that we could astound even ourselves if we allowed ourselves the freedom to continue becoming . . . infinitely . . . whatever we might become . . .

From the moment we met, My Rabbi offered me Ahavah Rabbah and began teaching me about those three rules —that is why she became “My Rabbi”!

The fact that she has been willing for the last ten years to continue offering Ahavah Rabbah, teaching me, and –when I have occasionally lost my way– gently pointing me back to whichever of those three rules I have most-recently forgotten — that is why I hope she will always be “My Rabbi.”

If you don’t have a rabbi (priest, pastor, imam, mentor, etc.) who can show you, with both words and deeds, how to walk humbly with G-d, then I encourage you to find one!

Shabbat shalom, jen

Walking. Walking.


Walking.  Walking.
Forever walking.
On a journey with no destination.
With each step I take,
I gather more tiles
for the mosaic that will be my Creation.
I can’t stop for long,
really settle down,
or grow roots that bind me to land.
My place is The Place,
HaMakom is my home,
the path I walk is in G-d’s hand.
People to meet.
Experiences to have.
Hidden treasures in unexpected locations.
Until my last breath,
I’m gathering tiles.
A self-portrait from the path unplanned.
Shabbat shalom!!

You choose the meaning!


Life presents us with stories, experiences, sets of circumstances . . . and then we have to decide what meaning to assign to the story or experience. For example, in his introduction to Hasidic Tales Annotated & Explained, Rabbi Rami Shapiro tells this story about the Ropchitzer Rebbe, who was a very holy man, a master of hesed:

One evening, [the Ropchitzer Rebbe] and his disciples were dancing.  Suddenly, the old Rebbe raised his arms with an expression of great pain on his face.  His disciples noticed that he was suffering and stopped dancing.  This made the old Rebbe furious and he cried out, stamping his feet, “Does an army stop the struggle when a general dies?  Keep dancing, keep dancing!”  It was only a few days later that the disciples learned that an old friend of the Rebbe’s, the Kamarner Rebbe, had died at the very moment the Ropchitzer Rebbe had raised his arms. 

From that story, we can:
(1)   hear that disciples are not to stop dancing when their Rebbe stops dancing;   
(2)   hear that one holy man felt the death of another holy man but call it a simple coincidence because it is frighteningly beyond rational comprehension;
(3)  hear that one holy man felt the death of another holy man and find therein affirmation that the Many really, truly are all still part of the One.

None of those interpretations is “wrong;”  they are just different levels of analysis, different kinds of meaning that can be assigned to the same set of facts.

Nevertheless, I can tell you:  Life is a lot more beautiful if you can allow yourself to acknowledge the third interpretation!!  

Enjoy your day! 

Everywhere, Always


This weekend I had the great honor and privilege of studying with Rabbi Arthur Green, Rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College.   During one of his discussions, he noted that Hasidism, or mysticism generally, is about “lifting the veil and seeing the deep structure” that underlies all of creation.

A couple of months ago, when I was sitting on a beach looking out over water, I wrote this:

   everywhere, always
laughing crying falling flying
every direction is You
turning turning turning again
always returning to You
morning noon evening night
my soul sings in praise of You
good bad exciting mundane
everywhere, always, You