Thursday, December 27, 2012

You are How You Act

Parashat Va-y’hi  Genesis 47:28-50:26

This week’s parshah – Va-y’hi – contains the culmination of the stories of Jacob/Israel and his sons. 

As Jacob is on his death bed, Joseph visits his father.  Accompanying Joseph are his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.  Israel adopts them and, in doing so, elevates them to full status as heads of the tribes of Israel, thus ensuring that the land of Israel will be divided among twelve tribes. As he prepares to bless Manasseh and Ephraim, something interesting happens.
Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “Who are these?” And Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” (48:9-10)

Didn’t Israel just adopt them?  How is it possible that he didn’t recognize them?  Some commentators suggest that he didn’t recognize his grandsons, because they were indistinguishable from other Egyptian youth. 
Joseph had married a wife named Asenath, daughter of Poti-phera, who was the priest of On – an Egyptian god. As a man of significance to the Pharaoh, it’s not surprising that both he and his sons “looked” Egyptian. 

Tradition has it that Manasseh and Ephraim reassured their Grandfather about their connection to the Israelites by reciting the Sh’ma and thus affirming their belief in the same God as their ancestors. 
So Israel bestows his blessing on each of them. I’ve often wondered whether he blessed his young, assimilated grandsons out of conviction that they would continue to practice Jewish life…. or out of a deep hope that they would.

The issue of assimilation, then, is one that appears throughout our people’s story.  Grandparents often wonder whether their grandchildren will continue to be Jewish.  But what exactly does “be Jewish” mean? 
When I converted to Judaism, over thirty years ago, I often felt that there was an invisible-to-me-but-apparent-to-everyone-else neon sign flashing over my head that proclaimed, “Not born Jewish.”  I was sure that others could tell – by my appearance, by my lack of Hebrew, by my uncertainty about whether to stand or sit during services – that I wasn’t “really” Jewish.  It took a long time for that “neon sign” to disappear from my consciousness.

What I’ve come to understand in the last 30 years is that what’s more important than appearance is my behavior.  Are my actions Jewish? Do they exemplify Jewish values? Do those values have a significant role in my decision-making?  And – no less critical – have I explicitly articulated those values to my children and to my students? 
·         We make a donation to tzedakah on days of celebration, because that’s what Jews do:  remember those who are less fortunate. 

·         As we step outside in the morning, we take a moment to say “Thank you” to the Eternal, because that’s what Jews do: notice and appreciate the blessings in the world around us.

·         We acknowledge the individual on the street, because that’s what Jews do: recognize that each of us is created in the image of our Creator.

·         We stop smoking, lose weight and/or [begin to] exercise regularly, because that’s what Jews do: take care of our bodies.

·         As we travel through life, when we spot injustice, we speak out, because that is what Jews do: continue in the footsteps of the prophets, telling truth to power and giving voice to the vulnerable.
Several years ago, I came across the following unsigned comment on the URJ’s Torah Talk web page for this week’s parshah: 

“Our legacy, impact, and ability to improve the world are only as strong as the values we transmit to our children.  We cannot ensure that our children will honor our memory, but it is up to us, like Joseph, to honor them by linking them with their past, and by giving them the responsibility and the trust to recreate and to reform Judaism in their own image.”  
Like Joseph, we stand between our parents and our children.  The stories we tell, the customs we integrate into our lives, the behaviors that are an integral part of the fabric of our lives – all are significant aspects of the transmission of Jewish identity l’dor v’dor  (from generation to generation).

Like Jacob, our influence may have to be exerted over multiple generations.  Today we may have to grandparent our third generation if family systems, economic pressure, and the distractions of popular culture inhibit the role of parents to enculturate their children on their own.

With this parshah, we end the book of Beresheit (Genesis).  As is our custom upon completion of a book of the Torah, we say “Hazak! Hazak! V’Nithazek! (Be strong! Be strong! And may you be strengthened!)”
And by the mindful choices we all make, am Israel (the Jewish people) will be strengthened.

Questions for discussion:
1)  Do you frequently find yourself making judgments about people based on their appearance?
2)  If people look at your behavior, will they see actions guided by Jewish practice and belief?

3)  What will your legacy be – for your children, your students, and your community?

Mary F. Meyerson is the founder of Morah Mary Consulting, LLC and the director of Gan Shalom Cooperative Preschool in Washington, DC.
Published by the Washington Jewish Week, December 27, 2012

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