Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            It's sort of sad, but we are often the victims of our parents' prejudices.  For many years I thought of Wilt Chamberlain as a terrible person, because my parents, as loyal fans of the Celtics and Bill Russell, often disparaged his ability and character.  One of the truly gifted athletes of the twentieth century went totally unappreciated, because of attitudes inherited from my partisan parents.  Only after he retired from basketball, with most of the National Basketball Association's scoring records in his possession, and became an exceptional volley ball player, did I start to realize what an outstanding sportsman he truly was.  It's like that with so many issues and attitudes.  We take positions without thought, just because our forebears felt that way, or, for the perverse minority, because they didn't.  It's really not so bad to hold these biases in areas like sports, but it's really negative when this phenomenon is carried over into more important areas of life like politics, religion and ethnic profiling.  I broach this topic this week, because of something I read in the new collection of Rabbi Soloveitchik's essays on Joseph and Moshe, called Vision and Leadership.

            The Rav makes an observation which, I believe, underscores the relationship between these two giants of Jewish history.  The Rav points out that, according to the Midrash, the two brothers most antagonistic to Joseph were Levi and Shimon.  No surprise there.  These two had already shown a propensity for violence in the aftermath of the rape of their sister Dina.  Plus, the two other oldest brothers, Reuvein and Yehuda, planned ways to keep Joseph alive.  So, Shimon and Levi looked like the culprits in favor of executing Joseph.  Therefore the Rav assumes that when he was being nursed by his birth mother, Yocheved, on behalf of Pharaoh's daughter, he received his parents' Levitical attitude about Joseph with his mother's milk.  Since we know that Yocheved was the daughter of Levi, and Amram the grandson, we can assume he imbibed their attitudes.  Perhaps that's why chapter six gives Moshe's whole family tree.  Nevertheless, both verses and Midrash lead us to believe that Moshe had tremendous respect and even affection for Joseph.  The verse (Exodus 13:19) testifies that Moshe personally took the bones of Joseph when the Jews departed Egypt.  One can imagine that Moshe might have been a bit busy that morning of the exodus, but he found time to collect the remains of Joseph.  The Midrash embellishes this act of chesed by describing the intensive search Moshe performed during the previous evening to discover the hiding place of Joseph's earthly remains.  Later, it is recorded that Moshe kept Joseph's coffin within his control the entire forty years of wandering in the desert.  With his death imminent, he entrusted the corpse to Joshua, who personally buried it fourteen years later. 

Joshua is a direct descendant of Joseph, so we understand his concern.  But what about Moshe?  Why didn't he continue his family's antipathy for Joseph?  The Rav suggests that Levi himself let go of that negativity for Joseph after the death of Ya'akov.  Levi reformed his attitude, because of the continued kind treatment for the other brothers, when they expected payback for the kidnapping and sale of Joseph.  Therefore, there no longer was a prejudice against Joseph for Moshe to inherit.  Please, forgive me, but I'd like to posit another approach. 

Most people don't change their opinions about others even when they are nice to us.  Sometimes our attitudes get even more intense.  We hate being in debt to an erstwhile foe, please, note Javert from Les Miserables.  Granted Levi did reform his violent behavior and sublimate it to the service of God, in contrast to Shimon, who never got it.  But I think there's another way to go.  I think that Moshe overcame his family's attitude all by himself.  In his rise to greatness Moshe overcame many shortcomings, including his speech defect, and I think this could be one of them. 

How did Moshe conquer this inherited antipathy for Joseph?  I think that it happened when he went out to observe the Jews in Egypt.  On the first outing he saw the terrible oppression and felt their pain and suffering.  The next excursion brought him into contact with Jews who had been broken by the bondage.  They questioned his attempt to bring them to accord and harmony.  There was no sense of belonging to a group or to an ethnicity.  It was every man for himself.  This began, I believe, a deep appreciation for the double accomplishment of Joseph.  First he remained a loyal Jew in exile.  Neither success nor depredation could shake him from his fealty to Jewish custom and identification.  Second, and for a budding leader, more importantly, he kept the Jews together.  The Jews remained who they had been as long as Joseph was around.  The deterioration which Moshe had observed, happened after Joseph's death.  Moshe was wowed by this revelation and kept his remains nearby throughout his period of leadership for constant inspiration during this difficult period.  Maybe that's why Joshua didn't bury Joseph immediately upon arrival into Israel instead of waiting fourteen more years.  He also wanted this constant reminder of how a leader leads.

So many lessons are to be learned from the behavior of Moshe.  We also want to learn what he learned from Joseph.  We also want to be successful in maintaining our personal Jewish commitment and in keeping the nation intact.  But I think that the greatest lesson to be cherished is from the personality growth of Moshe.  We, too, can overcome ingrained attitudes.  We don't have to slavishly continue the positions of parents and community.  We receive so much from the previous generation, much of it wonderful and worthwhile.  But we should live our lives with our eyes open and be prepared to think for ourselves as well.  We should arrive at intellectual and spiritual positions through personal investigation along with tradition.  Then we can pray to God as our God and the God of our ancestors, because we have thought through our positions and attitudes.          

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