Dear Temple Family,
One of the great strengths of Riverdale Temple is the participation of our congregants in conducting our sacred services. Rachel Radna, our president, has served as our cantor on more occasions than I can count. Especially during the summers, numerous members take part in leading the worship services, including offering “divrei Torah.” On several Shabbatot one of our congregants, Dr. Craig Katz, a psychiatrist by profession, has delivered an interpretation of the weekly Torah portion. He offered to do so on the Shabbat during Chanukah, and his words continue to echo in my mind. In fact, shortly after that Shabbat, I was packing up the dozen or so pairs of Shabbat candlesticks I have accumulated over the years in preparation for moving to Rochester. I found myself moved to tears as I reflected on the history of each pair and asked Craig if we could include his words in our monthly bulletin.
I did ask if we could delete the last paragraphs, but he gently insisted that I submit the entire sermon. I do not want us to spend the rest of our months together bemoaning our upcoming separation; I want Riverdale Temple to look forward, optimistically and enthusiastically, to an exciting future. Yet I also accept Dr. Katz’s observation that tears are a necessary part of the changes we go through in life, and so I thank him for his fascinating discussion of the Torah portion for Shabbat during Chanukah and express my gratitude for supplying me with a new memory that will add to the warmth and beauty (and, yes, tears) of my future Chanukah celebrations. (click on Continue Reading to see the Dvar Torah with Dr.Craig Katz' moving observations)
—Rabbi Judith Lewis
Dvar Torah, December 20, 2014 Parashat Miketz
This week we have arrived at that iconic portion of Genesis where Jacob’s sons, minus Benjamin and of course minus Joseph, travel to Egypt in search of grain to bring back to Jacob. Famine has struck Canaan, and the ten sons go off searching for food with which to survive. Of course, they encounter Joseph in his role as a leader in Egypt, having been anointed to this role after impressing Pharaoh with his ability to interpret dreams. They do not know it is Joseph, and he puts them to several tests to see whether his brothers can now be trusted after jealousy had years earlier driven them to sell him into slavery. Of course, Joseph knew these were his brothers and was clearly battling the rush of emotions that came with this realization. Like an audience in a Shakespearean play, we are privy to how Joseph scurries off to cry in private and then returns to resume coolly dictating to the brothers the terms under which they can buy his grain. In a subsequent passage just beyond today’s portion, he again rushes away to cry when his brothers return as commanded with his younger brother, Benjamin.This time, we see him so humanly wash his face of his tears in order to help compose himself. And, when he finally reveals himself to his eleven brothers, Joseph weeps before them. In short, Joseph cried alot, and it is crying that I want to focus on today.
I was able to find a recounting of prior moments of tears in the Torah. It all starts with Hagar’s tears as she abandons Ishmael in the wilderness after they were banished from Abraham’s home. Then come Abraham’s own tears over the death of Sarah. Esau will cry upon learning of Jacob’s having deceptively secured Isaac’s deathbed blessing. Jacob next takes his first turn at crying, presumably from a mix of excitement and romance, when he meets Rachel. Jacob and Esau then strike up a duet of tears when they finally reunite and reconcile rather than battle. Finally, Jacob weeps with grief when his sons deceive him about the death of Joseph. Indeed, it has been suggested that Jacob had a particular penchant for crying that Joseph went on to inherit. Joseph’s tears were on my mind last night at the Shabbat evening service as the rabbi pointed out that this week’s portion always falls during Chanukah. As I stole repeated glances at the fifteen chanukiyot that glowed from the windowsill following our community candle-lighting (see photo, p. 1), the diversity of their shapes and sizes struck me as the very embodiment of our synagogue’s diversity—big and small; stylized and plain; storebought, handcrafted, and homemade. Then as my mind wandered, I had another thought about the candles themselves—they seem to cry as they drip their wax. My initial instinct was to recoil at such party pooping, but then I decided to learn about candles.
Does anyone know how candles work? It is an elegant science unto itself. When we light the wick, it is able to continue to burn because the wax acts as fuel. As the flame burns, it melts the topmost wax, which then gets sucked up the wick by a process that I think is like convection or capillary action to provide fuel for the flame.A dripless candle can be accomplished in several ways but a commonway involves adjusting the diameter of the wick. If the wick is too thick, it draws up melted wax so quickly that the candle exhausts itself too soon. If the wick is too thin, it cannot draw up wax quickly enough, and so the wax pools, extinguishing the candle.
Dripless candles are coveted because they make no mess. No need to line the surface with aluminum foil as we all did last night here in the temple in a way that not only reminded me of my own home but also made me think there must be mention of tin foil somewhere in the Bible. Dripless candles also mean there is no need to carve away globules of hardened wax that cling for their lives to the candleholders and body of the chanukiyah.
Candle experts out there tell us that driplessness ultimately comes down to something very philosophical—they say it comes down to balance. Balance between the wick size and the candle diameter. And now I return to Joseph. When he was decreeing to his unknowing brothers the conditions for getting grain out of him, he was the poised, dripless candle. When he cried, he was anything but balanced, spilling his tears like wax overflowing from a hapless dripping candle.
This all makes me grateful that we have not devolved into a world of dripless candles despite their ease and grace. Logic would say we should. But, I literally just now have come to realize how very human and very beautiful dripping candles are. They stain surfaces with their tears, leaving a trace of themselves and a story behind—depending upon our fastidiousness, maybe even layers of Chanukah nights and Chanukah seasons. In those drips lie so many colors and shapes and a near permanence of spirit and body that the fragile candle never even hints at.
And, who is to say whether they are necessarily tears of sadness? As we watch the candles burn, don’t we experience a range of emotion—the ageless, even instinctual, excitement at the birth of the flame; the comfort of watching them burn; and the pang of grief when they snuff out with a poof and a wisp? The whole life cycle in the span of a candle on a Chanukah night. And, of course, fire itself illuminates as much as it burns.
I am at first tempted to chide the Torah for portraying Joseph’s need to conceal his emotions until he could not. I cannot help but think this somehow set the tone for our expectations for millennia of leaders to come that say neither they nor other respected members of society can be emotional or even have emotions. I just saw a posting on an Internet news site declaring, with an exclamation point, how the recent leak of e-mails from Sony revealed that Alex Trebek, the host of the game show Jeopardy, had once considered leaving the show. But, what else can we expect from someone who has held a job for three decades? It would be news if he never had any such second thoughts, so where do we find the time and energy to devote to trumpeting that he did?
On the other hand, in today’s portion, Joseph demonstrates that there is a time and place for sharing one’s emotions. He does not trust his brothers with his feelings before he decides he can trust them. Then, he lets it all out. Sometimes there is a place for dripless candles. I just do not think the Torah advocates for a steady diet of leading our lives as if we were dripless candles.
This week we saw a living example of this very point right here in our own congregation. (And, in getting around to this subject, I hope I am not taking undue liberties.) Everyone in this sanctuary has read the rabbi’s letter explaining her resignation. Even in her writing, her words come out like gasps barely finding their way through her sobs. The tears roll, the candle drips, and she, and we, search out the emotions therein. We each grieve the loss at hand. We feel respect for what she has done and meant here at the temple. And, we are inspired by the example of a daughter whose filial duty and love call her to Rochester as her rabbinical calling once brought her to Riverdale. Let none of us, and here I respectfully include the rabbi and her family, spare any emotion, public or private, in the unfolding of this Torah-worthy story of a latter day reunion.
—Craig L. Katz, M.D