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Vayeishev 5770
Human Rights Shabbat

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
12 December 2009


Gen 37:18-28, 36 & 39:1
Shabbat in Chanukah

70th Birthday Blessing for Irene Marcus

“When the Midianite traders came through they (the brothers) pulled Joseph up out of the pit; they sold Joseph for 20 pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites who carried Joseph off to Egypt.”

This is such a deeply problematic episode recorded in the Torah. To the Midianites and Ishmaelites, we must add the Medanites who are also mentioned as selling Joseph on to Potpiphar, although perhaps ‘Medanite’ was just a variant word for Midianite. Rashi, who we traditionally turn to first for explanation of our Torah is so confusing that even his own supercommmentator, Mizrachi admits: “I don’t know what Rashi makes of this verse!” If I try to follow Rashi, Joseph might have been sold 5 times: By his brothers to the Midianites who sold him to the Ishmaelites, they to the Medanites, they to another set of Ishmaelites who finally sell him to Potiphar!

Naturally, as Liberal Jews we can explain all these problems in the text by Biblical Criticism: There was more than one tradition of this episode and the redaction of them was imperfect. However, there is some merit to exploring this complex text as we have it in front of us and has been handed down for generation upon generation.

Would one of the Midianites - who by this reading originally bought Joseph - not suspect that their merchandise was tainted? On riding off, I could imagine them looking more closely at Joseph. The Torah describes Joseph as a handsome and imposing figure and one who was presumably of lighter skin than the traders. Might they not have perceived a slight problem with their purchase? And so he was traded on…and on…until the origins of the man were so obscured that he was just another slave with no rights and no one to concern themselves about him.

It seems that it is human nature that the further we are in relationship to another human being, the least regard we have for him. Biological anthropologists describe this phenomena as ‘social evolution,’ whereby genes that one would expect to dominate through ‘natural selection’ – survival of the fittest – fail to increase whilst weaker genes shared within a family, ‘kin selection,’ or a social grouping, ‘inclusive fitness,’ are enhanced.

I am sure that we can all think of our own examples of this phenomenon. I am certainly aware of my different reactions to 9/11 and 7/7 attacks on western society compared to the daily large-scale losses of civilian lives in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

That is why I see such importance in our involvement in our being in relationship locally, with those people who we rarely get the opportunity to come into contact with and whose local and global concerns are somewhat alien to us.

Let us consider the planned demonstration on Sunday by the English Defence League and the group called Stop Islamisation of Europe against local Muslims at the Harrow Central Mosque. Whilst the Board of Deputies has voiced caution and the United Synagogue have refused involvement unless the situation ‘escalates,’ what ever that means, NPLS and Harrow and Wembley Progressive Synagogues are leading the Jewish Community’s support of our fellow local residents. Together with local Reform Rabbis, we have written to all of the local papers expressing our support for the Muslim Community of Harrow. Rabbi Frank will attend the meeting at Harrow Central Mosque on Sunday and Rabbi Hillel and myself are seeking meetings with leaders at the Mosque and direct involvement in strategic level dialogue amongst faith groups in Harrow.

If one were to doubt the affect that the Jewish Community can have on these issues, and I have to admit I sometimes do, we have been this week of what our support can do. Through our support of the Aegis Trust and direct contact with the Home Office, a recent overturning of a Home Office Policy to return Darfuri failed asylum seekers back to Khartoum has been reversed. On Thursday, I heard from Mustafa Hassaballa, who we have hosted at High Holydays and last Pesach, that he has indefinite leave to stay in the UK. We can affect change.

As a Liberal Rabbi, I do not often speak of the duties of a Liberal Jew. However, I firmly believe that it is our duty as Liberal Jews to widen our inclusive selection as far as possible. It is our duty to reach out and understand our neighbours so that we include rather than exclude them from our zone of concern.
This Chanukah, let us rededicate ourselves to the duty of a Liberal Jew to seek freedom of expression for all and to allow those who wish to practice in peace their religion. To seek human rights for all.

This is one of the fundamental tenets of Liberal Judaism that Irene Marcus has done so much to establish. At Harrow and Wembley Progressive Synagogue, at Hertsmere, now The Liberal Synagogue Elstree, within our youth movement in its earlier form and now within Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue.

It is individuals with a passion that help create passionate communities. Another man with a passion, is celebrating his birthday. Michael Crabbe is one of those passionate people who writes me letters, sends messages and basically bugs me on what is bothering him. Without him and others like him in our Community, I would not be as passionate as I am. Michael and all those who are passionate about the Copenhagen Conference, Human Rights and all that makes you righteous, thank you and to honour your birthday at this potentially pivotal moment in the health of our planet, we invite you to read this prayer for Human Rights Shabbat:


Prayer for Human Rights Shabbat

Eternal God, help us to recognise Your image
In the face of every human being,
And to accept fully in our hearts
The responsibility we bear for others.

Teach us to walk in all Your ways:
As You provide food enough for all
Let us ensure that all have food to eat.
As You provide materials to clothe the naked,
Let us ensure that all have clothing and shelter.

Help us to protect the freedoms
Which give human beings dignity:
The freedom to love and be loved;
The freedom to work and to rest;
The freedom to think and to speak
The freedom to believe and to pray.

Teach us to be Your hands
To raise up those who have fallen
And to break the chains of oppression.
Grant us the wisdom to heal wounds
And the courage to shape a better future
For us, and for all Your children.


Rabbi Janet Burden
Rabbi Janet Darley

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