Mugging or Mayberry

As the rabbi of a fledgling synagogue in Venice, CA, one of my first goals was to build a school. Recognizing that a stable community needs a place to celebrate and pass along its values, Susan and I spent the summer after our marriage recruiting students for an enterprise that, as of yet, had no teachers and recruiting teachers for an enterprise that, as of yet, had no students.

One father’s reaction disturbed us greatly. He conceded that the local public school his six-year-old was slated to attend wasn’t safe. Nonetheless, he told us that he was committed to sending his son there. “I know he will get mugged for his lunch money and he may get roughed up a bit but I want him to live in the real world.”

Susan and I were sure that when God blessed us with children, we would have a different attitude. Nonetheless, that father had a point. While we need to protect our children and keep them safe, our job is also to strengthen them to face whatever challenges come their way.

We all know people who unexpectedly found themselves in difficult moral circumstances and prevailed; we also know those who succumbed to their surroundings.

Father Jacob had the same challenge. Should he teach his twelve sons to shelter their families or should he expose them to ideas from negative cultures so they can be inoculated against them?

We find an answer in an intersection of Genesis and Chanuka.

And the children of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two. All the souls of the house of Jacob coming to Egypt were seventy. And Judah, he sent before him, to Joseph, to mentor before him, to Goshen…  – Genesis 46: 27-28

Do you see some problems?

  1. Since Joseph’s sons were born and lived in Egypt, why are they mentioned while discussing the people who came there?
  2. Why was Judah sent in advance?

At the tender age of seventeen, Joseph was torn from the safe shelter of his family. He “lucked into” a great position, but quickly faced overtures from his master’s wife. Adhering to his upbringing and spurning her advances led to prison, certainly a place where you don’t want to stand out. He did, staying identifiable as the ‘Jew-boy.’ (Genesis 41:12)

Later, he became second to Pharaoh, facing a test of wealth and power that defeats many. Scripture’s comment in Genesis 46:27, including Joseph’s sons as part of the family of Jacob, is high praise. Not only did Joseph stay faithful, he also passed on his beliefs to his Egyptian-born sons. Facing an opposing culture strengthened his backbone rather than crushing it.

What about Judah? While appreciative of Joseph’s spiritual success and how that success prepared a landing place for his tribe, Jacob also understood the need for an incubator with a completely pristine environment. As his family moved on-masse to an alien society, Judah was sent to prepare that incubator in the land of Goshen, where the family could live apart from the main culture.

Living life in an incubator isn’t a plan. Removing all barriers and immersing ourselves in incompatible beliefs isn’t a plan. We need both Joseph and Judah in our lives. We must protect ourselves (Judah) and also prevail over depravity. (Joseph).

The link to Chanuka? The portion of the Torah above that is always read near the Festival of Lights, refers to Goshen as Goshna, literally ‘to Goshen.’

Rearrange the letters and you get the four letters arranged on the four sides of the dreidel. On, or just after, Chanuka, we read a portion of Ezekiel in synagogue. Verses 15-19 speak of two pieces of wood, one with Joseph’s name written on it and one with Judah’s. The two pieces merge together, just as an images on the side of a spinning top blur together when spun. The dreidel, mistakenly thought of as a children’s toy, represents this prophecy and a guide for our lives. In going ‘to Goshen,’ Joseph and Judah’s survival guides merged together, providing the place where a Jewish family turned into a Jewish nation. Chanuka is a muscle-strengthening annual exercise that calls upon us to live in this world without falling prey to it.

Bible-study is the machine that builds our spiritual muscle. Connect into this special time of year and commit to expanding your study with ancient Jewish wisdom on Scripture. Our Genesis Journeys audio CD set complete with study guides is a great place to start. Regularly $79.95, you can get it for only $65 right now, becoming better at merging the Judah and Joseph in you.

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