In governance, president, sermons

By Dr. Harvey Schipper, President.


In a brief footnote to the last chapter in today’s parsha, Robert Alter, author of a remarkable new translation of Torah, almost passingly introduces the concept “moral memory”. [1] Alter is a literary scholar, whose particular insight comes from his perspective as a student of Bible as literature. It is the turn of phrase, the alliteration, the nuances reflected from passages seemingly unrelated that energize him. He reads Bible like great scholars read Shakespeare, deeply attuned to the language in its context of custom and geography.

What is moral memory? It is something deep in the DNA of our values that provides a sense of direction, or a pattern of behavior, that is instinctive – innate. In fact, our modern molecular understanding of genetics reveals that genes learn.  Natural selection a la Darwin is not a purely random adaptive event. Genes respond to their environment and, it appears, that learning may pass from one generation to the next. The story of Joseph, and his famous coat is about moral memory.

The adjacent parshiyot, Vayyetze, Vayyishlach, and today’s parsha, Vayysehev can be understood to document the progress of articulation and actualization of Jewish moral principle. One of the interesting sidebars to my leadership role at Holy Blossom has been my progression through this series of  Divrei Torah.

The first, Vayyetze, which I offered this time last year, was the story of a punk on the run. It’s the story of Jacob’s Ladder. For me that is a story of moral awakening. Suddenly this young punk begins to get it. Life is not a reflex action. Life requires long-term investment and conviction. Bearing the burden of seven years on tenterhooks, followed by another seven years of indenture for his love of Rachel taught Jacob that all is not fair in life. Sometimes our highest principles compel us to a difficult road. We learn that moral expression is based on principles, and a life lived.

Next comes Vayishlech, the story of the forbidden sexual encounter, between Deena, a Jew, and Shehem a member of a non-Jewish tribe. That leads to an apparent resolution wherein Shehem’s whole tribe agrees to convert and in particular the males agree to be circumcised. Of course you will recall that while the new converts were somewhat incapacitated by their surgery they were all wiped out, vengefully, by Deena’s brothers. Apart from the deceit, it represents moral relativism at its basest. There is little in the text that inspires confidence in the moral wisdom of one of our forefathers. Jacob rues to his dying day his failure to exert the moral memory of a patriarch. His complicity of silence leaves a vacuum filled by a morality based on the custom of the day – tribal diktat.  Rather than elevated, transcendental, thinking we see a slaughter, where the deceitful means supposedly justifies an ideological end.

What’s the message here?  Moral memory must be acted upon.  If not, we debase our morality and may fall victim to a morality of convenience, which breeds injustice, even genocide.

This brings us to today’s parsha, Vayyeshev.  Unlike in the previous parshiyot, the protagonist in the dominant part of the story of a pretty good guy, Joseph.

Joseph is the youngest of Jacob’s sons. Somehow his father recognizes some special latent gift. That recognition is symbolized by a sumptuous garment, ‘the coat of many colours’. Not unexpectedly his brothers resentment and jealousy is made worse by Joseph’s hauteur, which one might describe in current terms as a ‘pisk’. When he then goes on to recite to them a couple of dreams that suggest they will ultimately bear him homage, they’ve had enough. They resolve to figuratively throw him to the lions, and toss him into a well. Benjamin injects a small element of moral recrimination, but by the time the brothers get around to acting upon it, lo and behold, some traders have rescued Joseph and sold him into Egypt. Ultimately he becomes a regent in the Imperial household. But the path is not smooth. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him.  He resists, only to find himself falsely imprisoned. While incarcerated, Joseph gives prescient advice to two prisoners, leading directly to his rehabilitation and the extraordinary moment in which he confronts his brothers.

In some respects Va Yeshev is an odd parsha in that the dominant theme, namely the story of Jacob is interrupted by an apparently quite unrelated short interlude wherein we are told the rather bizarre story of Judah, who, emerging from mourning, unwittingly sleeps with his daughter-in-law and upon recognizing his grievous error, almost at the moment of her execution, finds her spared.

How do the stories of Judah and Joseph come together? They represent further steps in moral growth.  Judah, perhaps for the most humanly understandable of reasons, breaches the moral fence by consorting with a supposed harlot. It takes the electric shock of the realization that it was his daughter-in-law for him to openly accept moral responsibility, and interpret the code of punishment in what we might call a Jewish way, sparing a life.

Joseph on the other hand stands wrongly accused, and suffers for it. Moral memory carries him through.  It is moral teaching and force that leads him to say to his brothers, who do not initially recognize him, ‘Zakhar”, ‘Do you remember’, after he harmlessly scares the hell out of them. It is far removed from the ideological vengeance of the Deena story, and still one step better than Jacob’s untested moral awakening in  Vayyetze. Joseph expresses moral memory out of Hebrew DNA.  It becomes thereafter our burden and our essence.

Moral memory is more than a tick-list of observance.  It puts observance in the service of making the world a better place, tikun olam.  Moral memory says that instinctively there are some things we do because they are inherently right.  It is not an ideology.  It is a way of life.  Judah sparing Tamar defied ideology, which would have seen her dead. Instead moral memory said ‘es pacht nicht’, and she lived.

Abba Hillel Silver, one of the giants of the Zionist Movement wrote in 1956 “…The God of Judaism was not interested in worshippers trampling His court, in incense and offerings, ‘in thousand of rams and ten thousand of rivers of oil.’ His sole requirement was that ‘men should seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’ ”.  He went on to say “…Occasionally one catches a fugitive note in the ritual texts of Babylonia and Assyria suggesting a conception of sin as a moral offense…but little more than that.  No line is drawn between taboo sins and moral sins, …[nor] to radically subordinate one to the other.  By making this distinction, Judaism gave new dimensions to man’s spiritual world.”[2]

This is moral memory. It is the ability to reach higher than the language of law, and deeper than the lock-step of taboo. It says that our actions speak to the benefit of humanity. In Rabbi Silver’s construction that powerfully nuanced understanding the morality is what projected Judaism and its descendent faiths toward a modern world. It energizes the Reform Movement.

It is Holy Blossom.  We did not step up in the Civil Rights Movement because it was ideologically correct.  Our moral memory spoke and we listened. Our moral memory led Rabbi Marmur to open a conversation with the same sex community in 1985, long before it was politically or ideologically correct.  And so the story goes; Out of the Cold, Dementia, the Roma, First Nations, and our conversation with Israel. They are all driven by moral memory.

Our job is building moral memory. Continuous lifelong learning trains our genes. It is why the greatest investment we can make is in learning; about our faith, about ourselves and about our world.  It is the translation of sacred text to a meaningful relationship with of our members and our community, where they are.  It is why we must expect untrammeled excellence from our spiritual leaders and our educators, and ourselves.  Its our role to engage, to inspire, to lead, to question and to cajole.

Think about the leaders you have installed today.  They represent we, the congregants’ part of the moral memory deal. In the conduct of the affairs of Holy Blossom Temple they represent us. They, with our spiritual leaders, are the ones acting on our behalf who must translate the moral growth of our faith from Jacob through Joseph into bricks and mortar, an educational heritage, a continuing spiritual legacy, and an administrative and financial capability. They represent the future of Holy Blossom. They are the lay partnership with our clergy in the moral memory enterprise.

Since the fall of the Second Temple we are a faith without a priesthood. When you think about it, that evolution is a remarkable piece of accountability. We, as Jews, take personal accountability for actions. We are the ones who, each in our own way, seek our place in God’s eyes without an intermediary. We are the custodians of moral memory.  Many of my friends of other faiths comment on that. Of course we have established an identity based on teachers, those whose study, and wisdom, and means of expression draw our respect and our deepest confidence. These are our rabbis.

So it is to me a humbling experience to find myself, as your President, announced in the pew card as offering the sermon. It does give me an opportunity to reflect with great thanks on the working relationship I and my fellow lay leaders have had with our teachers, our clergy, and for me, in particular with Rabbi Splansky. We have become colleagues. We meet frequently, and talk more than that. We have struggled with budget. We discuss matters of worship, education, and occasionally even the costumes at Purim parties. We tread straightforward territory, and matters of considerable delicacy. It is, after all, on many fronts a transition time at Holy Blossom Temple. I am grateful and I am thankful.

Moral memory and relationships most closely bind our families.  None of us on the Board could assume the mantle of responsibility without the support, the guidance and the wisdom of those we hold dear.  Taking my own experience as a metaphor for all of us, it is the knowing smile in response to my, “I’ll be home shortly after 9:00 when the Board meeting ends.”, or to the messages, both good and bad, passed on from congregants who assume your partner is the co-leader, or the , “You did what!”, from time to time. Karen, and all of our families, thank you, and a shehehianu that we are all here.

In a moment Jacob Dicker will provide the weekly welcome from our lay leadership. He is the HABSY, youth, representative to our Board.  Perhaps he’ll be President some day, and if so that will be an expression of our success as teachers.  From Jacob to Jacob Dicker, from Joseph to all of us, tens of generations.

This is what sets our standard…moral memory.

Shabbat Shalom


[1] Alter, Robert; The Five Books of Moses, a translation with commentary, W.W. Norton, New York, 2004, p. 229, fn 23.

[2] Silver, Abba Hillel, Where Judaism Differed, Macmillan, New York 1956, pp. 47.

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