Originally posted Tuesday, December 15th, 2015
This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27), in which the story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax. It starts out with Judah pleading to Joseph on behalf of their youngest brother Benjamin. This heartfelt plea is the final straw that leads Joseph to reveal who he is to his brothers and that leads to their reconciliation.
After this, Pharaoh urges Joseph to encourage his whole family to settle in Egypt, where food supplies are plentiful in the midst of worldwide famine. And the entire family does indeed settle in Egypt, unaware that this safe haven will later become a place in which they will be enslaved.
For those of us whose Jewish ancestors came to this country from Europe, America was seen as the “Goldene Medina” --- The Golden Land --- a land that promised economic opportunity and freedom from oppression. But still it was, and always has been a complicated balance. How can we best adapt our Jewish traditions to a country in which we are a small minority so that we can be accepted as full members of society?
That was probably the most critical question two or three generations ago.
In more recent times, the more critical question for American Jews has been how we can retain our distinct religious and cultural identity when we are so successfully assimilated into American society that many of us have lost the sense of Jewishness that can only come from Jewish education and from having immersive experiences of Jewish life and practice.
The Passover Haggadah recounts that it was in Egypt that the extended family of Jacob became the nation of Israel, in part because they dwelt apart and they didn’t change their names.
In contemporary times we recognize that identity is a not a simple either-or scenario. Rather, we have multiple identities within each of us. Identities related to religion, to gender identity, to sexual orientation, to ethnicity, to race, to socioeconomic status, to political philosophies, to occupation, to physical and mental health.
Our Temple is at one level a place for the transmission, cultivation and celebration of Jewish tradition. Our active involvement in it and our support of it is critical to Jewish life in our region.
And our Temple is also the sum of its people, with all of our diverse backgrounds, outlooks, experiences and aspirations. And we know that when we come together for prayer, study, fellowship and social action, we are more than the sum of our parts. When we unite as a kehilah kedoshah/ a holy congregation --- we experience the fulfillment of God’s commandment in Exodus 25:8-- וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם/ “ve’asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham” (“They shall make for me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.”)
In addition to taking care of the official business required by State law and by our bylaws, our Annual Meeting is also a time to express our thanks to one another for all of our ongoing efforts to maintain and deepen our mutual fellowship. May we, with the help of God who dwells within us and among us, go from strength to strength in the coming year, and may we be a force for peace, justice and compassion in our neighborhood and in our world, motivated and informed by our highest Jewish values.