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Vayeishev

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken


"And it came to pass on a particular day, that he [Yosef] went into the house to do his work, and no one from the household was there in the house; And she [Potiphar's wife] caught him by his garment and said to him, 'lie with me;' and he left his garment in her hand, and he fled and went outside." [39:11-12]

Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the preeminent Torah commentator, quotes a debate between Rav and Shmuel in the Talmud. What happened on that day? One Rabbi says that Yosef went into the house to do his work, as he did every day. The other says no - "to do his work" was a euphemism. He planned to give in to his desires, but the image of his father's face appeared before him, reminding and strengthening him to conduct himself appropriately. The image of Yisrael was sufficient to turn Yosef towards G-dly conduct.

Today it is we, as a Jewish community, who must recreate and maintain the "image of Yisrael" for future generations. It is we who must set the standards for Jewish conduct.

Here in Baltimore, the board of the local Jewish Community Center has proposed opening their Owings Mills location on Shabbos afternoons. The Orthodox segment of the community is unanimously opposed, to the great surprise of no one, while liberal Jews seem divided but mostly in favor. But it seems to me (again, this will probably surprise no one) that even one who does not observe the Sabbath in a traditional fashion should support closure of Jewish communal facilities (except Houses of Worship!) on Saturdays. This isn't an issue of this-type-of-Jew vs. that-type-of-Jew, or one of individual autonomy, but rather an issue of the image of Yisrael - the communal image which we present.

We don't live in a vacuum. We, all of us, must be well-aware that 90% of the American Jewish community doesn't observe Shabbos in a traditional way, and over 50% probably don't observe it at all - it's just half the weekend! But at the same time, let us realize that it is those who do have some sort of Shabbat who are most strongly attached to Judaism and Jewish affiliation, and that for the rest of us, a weekly Sabbath meal would be a great step forward in ensuring Jewish continuity for our children. Thus a somewhat-idealistic statement that Shabbat is a day for synagogue attendance and shared dinners shouldn't rub people the wrong way, as long as we value steps towards Jewish continuity - even for those of us who would love to head for the pool. I am sure that your Rabbi will favor this sort of idealism (I really can't imagine a Rabbi failing to encourage synagogue attendance; it's rather self-defeating!).

We live in a generation where we must prove ourselves as a Jewish community. Today, a Jew can decide to desert Judaism (Heaven forbid) with ease, and we must all share the pain and sorrow over the many Jews who do just that. And because we know that Jewish education and spirituality are the keys to a Jewish future for ourselves and our children, we must encourage their development within our homes and our communities.

Throughout our history, the Sabbath has been a day for spiritual introspection, for synagogue attendance, and for meals complete with discussions of Judaism and how fortunate we are to be Jews. Whatever our individual affiliations and ideologies, Shabbos remains a special day - at least as an ideal. This is the image of Yisrael: whether or not I go to synagogue, "Jews" go to synagogue. Whether or not I have a Shabbos meal, "Jews" have a Shabbos meal. And because "Jews" do these things, and I'm Jewish, maybe I'll try these things once in a while, myself - and maybe I'll find myself doing these things regularly, after all. [As Rabbi Yissocher Frand noted on Sunday, if more people had the opportunity to experience a traditional Shabbos, observance might be a great deal more popular.]

If a community is 90%+ non-observant, then maybe it's even more important to make this statement as a public ideal. As I said, every Rabbi would prefer to see filled pews rather than congregants out on the tennis courts. And I believe that for most families, Shabbat morning in synagogue, noon at home for a meal, and then off to the JCC... is not a workable agenda. It becomes far more likely that the morning will be spent sleeping in or watching TV - and thus an open JCC encourages a bad move in terms of Jewish involvement.

We all make choices, and we celebrate our free will and autonomy. But as a dear friend of mine, a committed liberal Jew, asked several of his colleagues recently, "are all choices equally valid? How much value do we give to choosing nothing? Because, in fact, this is the choice most Jews in America have made." We must understand that people want to swim and play racquetball on Shabbos afternoons. But we don't need to give it a stamp of Jewish authenticity. We cannot fool ourselves into calling this Jewish affiliation. A tennis racquet is a poorly chosen tool for constructing the image of Yisrael.

The (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore hastily called together a rally this past Sunday - despite the short notice, over 3500 people attended according to media estimates. What all perceived, Orthodox Jews, liberal Jews, and gentiles alike, was that it was an extraordinarily orderly and peaceful gathering, where the expressions were ones of pain, inclusiveness, welcome, and honest self-criticism.

[It is further my pleasure to mention that the board of the Associated Jewish Charities of Baltimore voted Tuesday to keep the current policy - the JCC will remain closed on Shabbos. This was in good part an effort to maintain the extraordinary level of Jewish unity in Baltimore, and at least in part a response to the same concerns as those expressed at the rally.]

Whatever your position on this issue, Project Genesis is privileged to offer you the opportunity to hear (and even see) Sabbath observant Jews discussing why Shabbos means so much to them, to see the Rosh HaYeshiva (Dean) of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College cry because of his concern for all Jews, and to hear Rav Yissocher Frand shout beyond the auditorium, "we care about you!"

The last words of Rav Frand's drasha, his message of inclusion, is one which every Jew must have the opportunity to hear - or at least see in print. Thus, even as I invite you to to visit http://www.torah.org/shabbos/ and see and hear (using RealNetworks audio/video) his speech and others from the event, I will reprint his closing here. For even if we disagree completely, even if we think others are totally wrong and off-base, how much better a community would we have, if we all shouted out our love and concern as clearly as he?

"We are here, because we care about you! Do you hear that? We care about all of you! Don't believe what you read, and what you hear. Don't let them tell you that we don't believe you are Jews. We hold you to be Jews, and we care about you. We're not here for our Shabbos, we're here for your Shabbos. Because if we didn't care about you, then why on earth would we be here?!"


 






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