Author Archives: Rabbi Andrew Bachman

Rabbi Andrew Bachman

About Rabbi Andrew Bachman

Rabbi Andy Bachman is the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn's largest Reform synagogue. He is also the co-founder, along with his wife Rachel Altstein, of Brooklyn Jews, a unique cultural and learning programs for Jews in their 20s and 30s.

Achievement And Action

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter Joseph, at the peak of his ascent in Egypt, long after having been left for dead by his brothers and ransomed by desert traders. Joseph’s purpose, as Judah approaches him, seems to be concerned with wringing repentance from the siblings who abandoned him.

Now a Man

This once-precocious lad was too much for his brothers to bear in their youth; and now, unrecognizable by his brothers, Joseph has come into his own and made himself a man. He is described in rabbinic midrash as wise, learned, as Joseph the Righteous, and indeed the power he has gained over Egypt is deserved. For our generation of readers, Joseph represents a type of materially and morally successful Diaspora Jew.

But rather than simply embrace his success, it behooves us to delve into the message the Torah gives us, pushing us to understand the story beyond merely material terms. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers he explains, "I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you."

Indeed, what makes the Joseph story so remarkable is not only that Joseph was able to transcend earlier familial strife, move into a foreign culture and rise to a position of great power. Joseph was able to see beyond the narrower perspective of his own success, to see God’s hand in his ascent, and to understand his success as being invested with the commandment to repair the world. In this case, Joseph’s brilliance is given expression in his ability to bring about fraternal reconciliation and to save countless lives with this strategy to confront famine head on.

While the Jewish tradition often places Abraham and Sarah in the role of the Torah’s exemplars of hospitality, Joseph comes through this week as the quintessential diaspora Jew engaged with the well-being of the Jewish and non-Jewish world.

Joseph as Groundmaker

Joseph is the groundbreaker in Jewish communal programs like Mazon, which seek to address the issue of in hunger in America through the venues of Jewish ritual celebration. Mazon, as is well known, asks Jews to donate 3% of the cost of Jewish communal celebrations to the war on hunger in America. It is estimated that throughout the world, 40,000 (mostly children) die of hunger related disease each day. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that nearly 32 million people live in poverty and most-from children to the elderly-face serious hunger each day.

Mazon is just one example of a Jewish organization reaching out its hand from the place of success and ascent in order to repair the world in the tradition of Joseph, seeing its mission as religiously commanded. Thus we may see ourselves, like Joseph, as having been given the privilege to preserve life.

"Tzedek Hillel" programs on college campuses devote much of their social justice work to hunger issues, and Dorot in New York City addresses on an ongoing basis issues of poverty and hunger among the elderly.

The list goes on and on. The point it makes is this: at a time of unprecedented success in American Jewish life, we must not merely celebrate the overall achievement of our community, but also recognize that many are still hungry.

Joseph, by one reading, could have easily forsaken his obligation to others based on the suffering he had experienced earlier in his life. But in transcending his painful past, he was able to reach out the hand of peace to his family, to his Egyptian neighbors and to future generations of readers of Torah. Joseph feeds us with his wisdom. His own actions serve as an inspiration for the command God gives all us in the duty to feed the hungry.

Social Action Within Our Walls: Smashing Jewish Idols

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.
The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

The midrash (rabbinic narrative elaboration) about Abraham smashing idols is so pervasive and well known that many Jews assume that it comes from Torah. As a story, it cuts to the core of a distinct ethical obligation Jews of all stripes feel when they act from the very center of their Jewish being to change the world. Whether our actions motivate us to work for labor and the downtrodden or peace in Israel, we activate a certain “Abraham” within to destroy the idols of prior perspectives and belief systems, and replace them with a new perspective that sheds light upon and brings us nearer to God’s vision for all humankind.

In Abraham’s own day, the rabbis tell us, the insights he was able to achieve were a testimony to his greatness of mind and soul. He had a way of seeing the world that earned not only God’s attention but eternal devotion and respect. One legend, attributed to Rabbi Isaac, an early Jewish sage, tells the tale of a traveling man who one day sees a palace burning. He shouts, “Is the mansion without someone to look after it?!” Like the wandering man, Abraham noticed the world in a terrible condition and spoke up, only to elicit a response from God, relieved that a human partner was willing to help counter the evil of the world with the impulse to save and do good.

In each generation a new Abraham arises and makes his or her case for a new perspective on events that shatters our previously held view. The advances are discernible in politics and science; in literature and philosophy; in music, the arts, and religion.

The greatest challenge of the teachings attributed to our sages focuses not only on the propensity to smash idols in the arts or politics or music; but what do we do with the desire when it comes to changes in religious observance, especially those motivated by justice concerns? What do we do when the impulse of Abraham arises in us in the context of Jewish learning and Jewish observance? When is the impulse, like Abraham’s, instructive; and when is it destructive?

Most radical changes in mainstream Jewish life have been wrought in the last two centuries. Their result has been most recently catalogued and dramatized by the accomplished journalist Samuel G. Freedman in his book, Jew vs. Jew. Beyond the title, which hints that some of the changes have created contentious splits in the Jewish body politic, Freedman argues that as various ideological models for Jewish life and expression have lost steam, the religious model of Jewish life has prevailed. While Jews have attempted a variety of modes of expression-from Zionist nationalist, to secular humanist, to labor Bundist or plain old materialist assimilationist–at the end of the day, we encounter an ever-growing need to reconnect to our Jewish religious selves, spiritualized and closer to God.

Look at the changes in recent years: equal rights and status of women in three of the four major movements; the ordination of women as rabbis; outreach to the unaffiliated and “stranger” living among us; ordination of gays and lesbians in two of the four movements; and an increased focus on Hebrew, sacred texts, and Jewish ritual among committed liberal Jews. Our wanderings from place to place have brought us back to Judaism; but not without making meaningful changes in our religious life, as Abraham himself did more than a few thousand years ago.

In his last book of poetry published before his death, Yehuda Amichai wrote:

“We are all children of Abraham But also the grandchildren of Terah, Abraham’s father And maybe it’s high time the grandchildren Did unto their father as he did unto his When he shattered his idols and images, his religion, his faith. That too would be the beginning of a new religion.” (From Open Closed Open, New York: Harcourt, 2000)

A new generation has smashed the idols of assimilation and acculturation and declared that being Jewish is as essential to their condition as being American. The question for us remains, as Amichai proposed in his inimitably playful way: which idols will fall? And as we pursue justice concerns within Judaism, what new light will be shed on our ancient, sacred tradition?