The Justice of Gelt - Parashat Vayeshev 2013/5774

Rabbi David Baum
Rabbi David Baum
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

Let me ask you something…is all chocolate created equally?

Here are two pieces of gelt – they look the same – but are they different?  If one was .50 cents, and one $1.50, which one would you choose, and what would be the reason for that choice?

Usually, it’s taste and sometimes it might be kashruth.  As Jews, we pay more for kosher meat than non-kosher meat, but should there be other factors, like how the product is made, or by whom?  Should this be a factor?  Does it get a veto or a vote?  

This all comes to mind because of an experience I had this week in Baltimore, Maryland.  I was one of four rabbis chosen to represent the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti Rabbis, at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable – a collection of 26 organizations pursuing social justice from a Jewish perspective.  The week challenged me to answer a very basic question – what does it mean to be Jewish in the 21st Century?  The now famous Pew Report on American Jewry asked Jewish Americans the following question: what is and is not essential to their own sense of Jewishness?  

73% say remembering the Holocaust is essential (including 76% of Jews by religion and 60% of Jews of no religion). Almost as many Jews, 69%, say leading an ethical and moral life is essential, and 56% cite working for social justice and equality; only 19% say observing Jewish law is essential.

The organized Jewish community is obsessed with young Jews – Jewish camping, Day Schools, Birthright-Israel, Hillel and Chabad on campus, etc. get most of the attention and funding probably because they focus on our youth and we are looking ahead to see who will be our leaders of the future.  These trends of social justice and equality as essential to what it means to be Jewish is growing, whereas observing Jewish law is decreasing.  

These organizations engage most of the young Jewish future – so it was interesting to hear their side to it, and work with them.

But I was torn with the question – will Jews of the present and future view justice work as Jewish, or observance, the things that have kept us unique and Jewish like Shabbat and Kashruth?  And what will be the role of the Conservative/Masorti movement in all of this?  

So today, I want to focus on another young Jew who grows up in front of our eyes, Joseph, who begins the parashah at the age of 17, and becomes the most developed character in Genesis.  

At the beginning of the parashah, the torch is passed – Elei Toledot Yaakov Yosef ben sheva eserei shanah – “These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph was 17 years old”…As if to say, Jacob’s story is over; the future generations are now with Joseph.  

We read about the proud and arrogant young man named Joseph.  At the beginning, he’s defined as a son, a brother, and a dreamer.  But soon, the plot thickens:  Joseph is taken from his life and he becomes the first Israelite slave.   In chapter 39 of Genesis, we read that Joseph was taken down to Egypt – in my eyes, he wasn’t just physically taken down, but spiritually.  He is one of the first of our people to experience true injustice – where his life of freedom is taken away from him and he is treated as a less than human. The text mentions three times that his new master is Potiphar, a certain Egyptian.  The JPS commentary tells us that we are setting the stage for the Egyptians as a people, to enslave our people.  It’s bigger than just Joseph and Potiphar.  But things start to go well for Joseph; he might be a slave, but he becomes a trusted slave.  The Torah tells us that he is put in charge of his household and all that he owned.  In fact Potiphar “left all that he had in Joseph’s hands…” that is until he won’t have sex with his master’s wife after she tries to seduce him.  So what does she do?  She sees how powerless he is, and takes advantage of it.  

Throughout this chapter, we read into how others view Joseph.  When his brothers are hatching their plans, they call him the dreamer in a pejorative way; and other times, they won’t call him anything but ‘him’ or ‘he’ avoiding using his name as if to distance themselves from him.  When Judah tries to save Joseph, he calls him ‘our brother’ ‘our flesh’ to appeal to his brothers – to get them to think differently about Joseph.  

But, for the first time, we read what we have seen all along regarding how the Egyptians viewed Joseph from the mouth of Potiphar’s wife:  

In Chapter 39 verse 17 we read, “Then she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally with me;

19When his master heard the story that his wife told him, namely, “Thus and so your slave did to me,” he was furious. 20So Joseph’s master put him in prison, where the Pharaoh’s prisoners were confined.  Again, Joseph is put into a pit, seemingly without hope or justice.

As we read the story, over the over, we all think the same thing – it’s just not fair!  But this was the way of the ancient world before our people came on to the scene.  

So let me ask you something – if Joseph, the slave, made your kosher gelt, would you eat it?  Is it still kosher?  Is all chocolate created equally?

Can their be ‘Just’ Gelt?  That’s what one of the organizations present at the roundtable, Fair Trade Judaica, does – they produce what they call ‘Guilt Free Gelt’.  Here is how they describe it:  

“The gelt we eat on Chanukah is a reminder of the freedom our people won many years ago. Today, however, young children are trafficked and forced into working on cocoa farms with no pay and in unsafe conditions in the Ivory Coast, where more than half the world’s cocoa is grown.

This Chanukah, we can support the 65,000 member farmers of Kuapa Kokoo, a Fair Trade cooperative in Ghana who are co-owners of Divine Chocolate.  Fair Trade standards prohibit the use of child labor.   The organization is democratically run, and their children attend school rather than work in the fields.”

And if you are wondering, yes, the product is heckshered.  

In other words, there are millions of Josephs out there in the world who are in their pits and prisons, looking for someone to bring them out and show them the light.  

So what makes buying this gelt authentically Jewish, and where does the Conservative/Masorti movement play a role?  

The way we view Judaism is that Social Justice is not the end all of Judaism, but it’s also not just a nice thing to do – it’s a mitzvah, a commandment.  

Rabbi Brad Artson writes, “Our concern for social justice is legitimately Jewish - and psychologically adequate - only when it is the result of our loyalty to the Torah and to mitzvot. Social justice is a mitzvah, neither more nor less obligatory than the mitzvah of observing the Sabbath or of observing Kashrut. The same God who commands that we fast and pray on Yom Kippur also insists that we show deference to the aged. Recorded in the same Torah are the mitzvot of circumcising firstborn males and of prohibiting wanton destruction of the earth’s natural resources. Both ritual profundity and acts of social justice are expressions of our obedience to the M’tzaveh, the Commander whose authority, presence, and passion permeate the Torah and later rabbinic teachings as well. One cannot claim to be a servant of God without a commitment to make this world more just, more compassionate, and more godly.”

It is our task to help bridge the gap between the percentages to help Jewish Americans realize that social justice is Jewish law along with the other mitzvoth.  

We are about to observe the holiday of Chanukah, which has become more popular than ever in America and in Israel.  You might think it’s because we are want to compete with Christmas, but deep down, I think it has to do with what we had been called by our prophets, an Or LaGoyim; a light unto the nations, so many thousands of years ago; but we have been granted freedom in America and independence of the state of Israel which has given us, for the first time since our expulsion from the land, a legitimate voice in the world one of the true nations of the world.  

Finally, people listen to us; those in the dark look to us to help bring them into the light!    

The Torah says that Joseph was brought DOWN to Egypt – to slavery – will we work to bring people up, not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it’s a mitzvah (a commandment)?  Can we be true Jews and realize that social justice, or as we like to call it, Tikkun Olam, is a mitzvah, but also hold the other mitzvoth, like Shabbat and kashruth, as mitzvoth as well?

Will we take advantage of our opportunities to bring light to darkness?  Will we liberate others?  This is the great challenge of being a Jew in the 21st century, and I believe our movement is best equipped to handle both.