Author Archives: Guy Izhak Austrian

Guy Izhak Austrian

About Guy Izhak Austrian

Guy Izhak Austrian is a community organizer and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The Ultimate Destination Spot

If the neighbors invited us over to view slides of their recent vacation to India, we might cringe to see goofy photos of them in traditional Indian clothes, posing with “the natives,” or to hear guffawing imitations of the hotel concierge’s accent. Even if our neighbors were more sophisticated, we might still be uncomfortable hearing about the “exotic customs” or the “famous hospitality” of the common people.

Talking About Places We Visited

These are caricatures, of course. But they point to a serious question about how those of us who travel from affluent countries to developing countries talk about the places we visited, once we have returned home. We want to convey our wonder, delight and sorrow–and also to share what we’ve learned. But sometimes we end up using language that condescends or perpetuates stereotypes. How can we communicate about our travels in a way that both respects our hosts and informs our listeners?
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In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aaron receives instructions on how to visit the ultimate destination spot: God’s own house, the holy sanctuary in the Tabernacle, which the Israelites are about to build in the desert. A cryptic but crucial passage focuses on one of Aaron’s priestly garments, the robe of the High Priest, which is designed to enable his entry into the sanctuary and–just as important–his successful return:

On its hem, make pomegranates of blue, purple and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe. Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out–that he may not die.

The Rabbis associated the sounding of the golden bells with the prohibition against entering a person’s home without proper warning. The 12th-century French commentator Joseph Bechor Shor elaborates that the bells teach that,

It is decent behavior that one should not enter one’s fellow’s house suddenly, lest the home’s resident do or say something that ought to remain private; for if the intruder hears it, the resident will thereafter avoid the intruder (yastir mipanav).

The Bones of the Ephraimites

I arched my head back and looked up at a tower of nearly 9,000 human skulls. Rising 62 meters into the air, stacked and piled and encased in glass, the skulls belonged to Cambodians murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. This upsetting memorial now stands in the infamous “Killing Fields,” where prisoners were butchered after enduring torture at Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s interrogation compound in Phnom Penh.
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It has been a couple of years since I visited Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. But my memories of the piles of bones came tumbling back when I encountered a midrash on Parashat B’shalah. The Torah portion tells us that following the Exodus, God did not lead the Israelites on a direct route to the Promised Land, through the land of the Philistines, lest the Israelites have “a change of heart when they see war.” The midrash suggests what vision of “war” they would have seen: the bones of 300,000 Israelites from the tribe of Ephraim, laying “in heaps on the road.”

A Troubling Midrash

This troubling midrash relates a tradition that some or all of the tribe of Ephraim died in the wilderness. Having miscalculated the end of the 400 years of slavery which God prophesied to Abraham, they left Egypt on their own, 30 years ahead of schedule, and were slaughtered by the Philistines. God circumvents the scene of this tragedy, believing that the rest of the Israelites, having just emerged from their long period of oppression and violence, are not ready to encounter the sheer horror of these skeletons. As the midrash states, “Therefore the Holy Blessed One reasoned: If Israel behold the bones of the Ephraimites strewn in the path, they will return to Egypt.”

Confronting the bones of the past has taken on new urgency in Cambodia recently, as the former commander of Tuol Sleng, known as Comrade Duch, has stood trial for the atrocities that took place. The trial has offered an opportunity for the Cambodian public to revisit the scenes of horror from that era, but it has also raised difficult questions about the usefulness of these revelations in a developing country that is still struggling with profound and immediate challenges, including deep poverty and public health crises.

Connecting With Others

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

We usually think of prayer as a way of connecting to God. But this week’s parashah suggests that prayer can also help us connect with other people and open the way toward tikkun–repairing brokenness in our world.


Parashat Miketz describes the slow, agonizing process of Joseph’s reunification with his brothers, who have come down to Egypt to plead for food. The Torah tells us: “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” The relationship between them, long broken since their bitter childhood, cannot be repaired so quickly. Joseph chooses not to reveal himself, taunting and testing his brothers and maintaining their estrangement.
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Only when Benjamin, Joseph’s youngest and only full sibling, arrives in Egypt, is Joseph confronted with a deeper recognition of brotherhood. Choking up, he utters a short prayer of blessing:

“May God be gracious to you, my boy.” With that, Joseph hurried out, for his compassionate feelings grew hot toward his brother, and he needed to cry; he went into a room and he cried there (vayevk). Then he washed his face and returned; restraining himself, he gave the order [to his servants]:  “Put out bread.” They served him by himself, and them by themselves…

Joseph’s Compassion

The encounter with Benjamin stirs Joseph’s compassion, but the short prayer cracks it open. Suddenly he feels the pain of disconnectedness from his family and is able to empathize with his brothers’ hunger and powerlessness. And yet, Joseph hides his cries. Determined to maintain his distance and power, he stifles his own emotions and offers only a terse order to give bread. He cannot and will not sit and eat with his brothers. How familiar is this feeling to those of us who see suffering or poverty and yet hold our full selves back from such an encounter, content instead merely to give a bit of tzedakah!

And yet: “vayevk–and he cried.” This powerful word reappears at two crucial junctures in the next parashah. The first comes when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. He allows his emotions to break free; he still tries to hide his cries, but the Egyptians outside the room hear him sobbing. The second comes when Joseph reunites with his father Jacob, apparently in full view of many others. At this moment of reconciliation, the process of recognition and reunification reaches its fulfillment.

Living A Full Life

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

What is a complete human lifetime, and what does it mean to live a full life? Parashat Haye Sarah takes on these deeply difficult questions by beginning and ending with death–two deaths that are as unequal as they are momentous in the history of the Jewish people.

The parashah begins: “Sarah’s lifetime–the span of Sarah’s life–came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” A midrash relates that upon hearing that Abraham had nearly slaughtered her son with a knife upon an altar to God, Sarah died suddenly and prematurely, “me’oto tza’ar–from that very pain.”  The suffering of her son actually destroyed her own well-being.
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In contrast, at the end of the parashah, Abraham dies a peaceful, natural death: “This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.” Whereas Sarah dies in response to her son’s near sacrifice, Abraham lives long enough to witness his twin grandsons’ fifteenth birthdays.

Life Expectancies

Today, a person’s life expectancy can vary wildly, depending on where she was born. Japan and Hong Kong top the list at an average of 82.7 and 82.2 years, while Afghanistan and Zimbabwe bottom out at 43.6 and 43.4. People consistently die younger in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and other parts of the Global South. This fact in itself is devastating. The unfulfilled potential of these lives—economic, social and cultural—cannot be measured.
The unnaturally low life expectancy in developing nations also violates the “right to life” included in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. “Right to life” is an extraordinary expression, implying the right to one’s entire potential life, to die of natural causes in contented old age; in a manner of speaking, to avoid tza’ar–the kind of trauma that brought about Sarah’s early death. To realize this right requires us to address the whole range of human needs, from health care and clean water to economic opportunity and an end to armed conflicts.

Yet the meaning of a fulfilled, fulfilling life is not captured merely by longevity and the absence of suffering. It must also include emotional satisfaction, the living out of one’s values and the development of the spirit. Abraham’s contentedness is defined not merely by his wealth or years, but also by his ability to see his grandchildren and to rest in the embrace of his kin.