Yearly archives "2017"

Moving On?

Moving On?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Let me share with you true story about something that happened to me, about personal property that was lost. My personal property. It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. After I finished stuffing a turkey for a holiday celebration and, with a sigh of satisfaction, had put it in the oven for about twenty minutes per pound at 400 degrees Farenheit, and with a nicely folded foil tent over it, I began to tidy up the kitchen. That was when I noticed that my beautiful, emerald-cut diamond was missing from the ring that had marked my engagement, a ring, that, together with my matching wedding band, I never, ever took off. I had been wearing it for many years. The engagement ring was still on my finger all right, but there was a big, gaping hole in the center where four prongs had formerly held the lovely gem.

My diamond was lost! No, I did not enter into a state of ye’ush (abandonment of hope), not at the beginning. I still hoped; no way would I abandon hope. I searched all over the kitchen, in every nook and cranny of the floor, the counters, for my diamond. Not too easy to find a clear diamond on a white tile floor or white counters (white, European kitchens were in vogue then), but … no diamond! I searched and washed all the dishes in the sink. Nothing had been put in the dishwasher yet, so maybe …  no, no diamond. “Oh no,” I cried. “The turkey!”

Releasing a keening sound of something that was not yet resignation, that still had a note of hope in it, I removed the turkey from the oven, and, bit by bit, removed what would have been a delicious stuffing from the turkey, examined it with a magnifying glass, kneaded each morsel carefully between my fingers. No diamond was to be found. Next, as I peered into the now empty cavity of that turkey and poked and prodded its insides (fortunately it had been deceased for some time), the sinews glistened back at me as if they were laughing. After all, the turkey had been cooking in a pre-heated oven for twenty minutes. It dripped a little here and there.

It was at this point that I began to cry. I entered a state of resignation, a state of ye’ush, but I did have the presence of mind to report the loss to the insurance company. “My diamond is gone,” I sobbed. At least some of the economic value, if not the sentimental value, was recoverable. And it did not take too much effort to report an insured loss. Now, if I had known that the diamond could not be found, that the loss was irrevocable despite all my effort, at the time the loss occurred, would I have entered a state of retroactive ye’ush immediately – that is ye’ush without knowing it, ye’ush shelo medat? It would have saved me a lot of searching time!

However, my story is not finished. When I finally served the turkey to my guests at a beautifully laid table that night, there it was, my diamond, floating in the gravy, as several of my guests pointed to it with astonishment. Thank goodness nobody had swallowed it! And yes, the diamond was undamaged. Diamonds, as you probably know, can survive high heat.

Yes, I had abandoned hope prematurely! Can we ever know, I reflect now, the precise time at which hope should be abandoned? Is there a time when we should give up hope and say, “Move on now! Collect the insurance money! Forget the sentimental value! Replace the diamond!”

But that is not the end of the story. Some years later, my diamond ring, this same diamond ring was stolen. A thief, a ganaf, broke into my house by stealth and stole all my jewelry, including this ring. And, oy vay, this time I no longer had jewelry insurance. It was too expensive! Since I was living in a large, metropolitan center where one diamond is like another diamond, I realized that I probably would not recover it. Even before the police advised me that it was unlikely I would recover the ring, that the thief would have fenced it or shipped it to another country before I had even discovered the loss. There were no identifying marks because the ring was not engraved with an inscription or initials, and, in any case, the thief would likely have taken the diamond out of the ring for resale. So this time, my ye’ush was not in vain. I had to abandon hope for real.

But since, as the police said, it was already too late to retrieve my loss before I even discovered it was missing, was this not also ye’ush shelo medat—ye’ush without knowing it, unconscious ye’ush? In other words, if I had known, would I have given up hope of recovering it from the moment it was stolen, even before I actually knew it was stolen?

But that is not the end of the story. After I set this seemingly cyclical tale of loss and recovery and loss down on paper, I had a sudden urge to put “recovery” – hope — back into the picture when a recurring advertisement in a very reputable magazine caught my attention. National Geographic, no less, in which a company reachable on the Internet was advertising gem-quality diamonds that looked very much like the one I had lost and found and lost again. Only these diamonds were not extracted from deep in the ground through the grime and sweat of miners working in unspeakably treacherous conditions that have been the subject matter of recent movies. These advertised diamonds were cooked in a scientific lab, and, yes, they had all the properties of natural diamonds found in the ground – but with one very important difference: They were flawless, a quality almost impossible for natural diamonds to attain. And, yes, these synthetic diamonds had another favorable attribute: The price was miniscule in comparison to what a “real” diamond would cost.

The temptation was too great to resist. I selected my ring (platinum-fused silver), with the large emerald-cut center stone surrounded by smaller baguettes on the side, just like the ones my long lost ring (solid platinum) had possessed. Again, there was a difference. This time the emerald-cut stone I chose was not a diamond; it was a synthetic emerald, proudly reflecting four karats of polished green, chemical properties in the sunlight.

It is very beautiful ring but somewhat ostentatious, so I haven’t worn it yet. Maybe I never will. If I should, however, it is unlikely that anyone would realize that this artful replacement for my lost jewel is synthetic. But if an unknowing thief should attempt to steal it from my jewelry box at any time in the future, that ganaf will have gained only an object of no significant value, not compared to the multiple lives that have been lost in mines over the centuries trying to recover that sparkling “real thing” – like the one I formerly owned — from the ground.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2015. All rights reserved. This story appears in my rabbinic thesis, “The Staying Power of Hope in the Aggadic Narratives of the Talmud.”

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Vayehi: (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26)

Vayehi: (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26)

History Depends on the POV

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Vayehi” brings the book of Genesis to a fascinating close. As a reading of this Torah portion reveals, there is a “doublet” within the story told here. Think “broken telephone” because the Torah was originally transmitted orally from generation to generation, and you know how that can change the details of a story.  God’s Word was in fact told from mouth to mouth, with a few scrolls – mostly Psalms — read aloud at the Temple on marketplace days (Mondays and Thursdays). It was eventually written down (not without opposition), and then compiled centuries later in the fear that the Living Torah – and Judaism with it — could be lost in the wake of the Second Temple’s destruction. This is what I think about when Torah scrolls are saved from a fire at personal risk or wrapped around the body of a Holocaust survivor who managed to get it out of Poland.

So, simply stated, a doublet is a second telling of a story within a Torah portion; it probably differs from the first version in some details (the duplicate stories of Adam and Eve and then of Cain and Abel are two early examples of doublets within Genesis). In Vayehi specifically, there is an alternate or complementary (depending on how you look at it) version of the way Jacob/Israel asks his own son, Joseph, to bring his grandsons, Ephraim (the younger one) and Manasseh (the firstborn) to him for a blessing.

Some rabbis think these different versions were included in the final version of the Torah mainly in order to reconcile different perspectives (those of Northern Israel, associated with King Saul – its ten tribes all too soon conquered by the Assyrians – and Southern Israel, eventual home of King David). Harmony was the desired goal. Other rabbis believe that duplicate stories in the Hebrew Bible were written down at different times and by different authors, so naturally they had different perspectives.

In more “modern” times – the 19th century — four different “sources” were identified by biblical scholars. In my very first year of rabbinical studies, I was spellbound by Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? — a “who-done-it” approach to the compilation of the Bible.  Here the four sources are specifically defined as J (Yaweh), E (Elohim), P (Priestly) and D (Deuteronomomistic) [1]. Friedman lays out his basic issues very clearly, detailing in a logical, methodical way how each of these sources – from both North and South Israel, from the priests, and a final summation — contributed to a Torah composed of many genres and many documents and, indeed, the distillation of many traditions. Contributing to the final result were the numerous editors (called redactors) involved and eventually the final Redactor (like a General Editor).

However, to this day, many orthodox (and some very conservative) rabbis will not subscribe to this Deuteronomistic Theory. For them, the Torah was written by God (or possibly divinely revealed), and not a single word can be added or subtracted. Still others, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, consider the entire Torah “a midrash, an interpretation…formulated in response to ineffable encounters with God” as Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff described. Perhaps Heschel’s point of view (POV) says it all [2].

In any case, this is what happens in Vayehi, in the Torah as we read it today, when Joseph brings his sons (their non-Jewish mother is Asenath, the daughter of a high-ranking Egyptian priest) to his dying father’s bedside. In the two versions that appear here, his father is interchangeably called Jacob or Israel.

In the first of the doublets, “…Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.’ So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Then, when Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to see you,’ Israel [this refers to Jacob] summoned his strength and sat up in bed.

“And Jacob said to Joseph, ‘El Shaddai [the Nurturer] appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me, and said to me, ‘I will make you fertile and numerous, making of you a community of peoples; and I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession. Now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt shall be mine; Ephraim and Manassah shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon. But progeny born to you after them shall be yours; they shall be recorded instead of their brothers in their inheritance” (48:1-6). Jacob then goes on to explain to Joseph that he is doing this because Joseph’s mother, Rachel, died while Jacob was on the road to Canaan, and that he buried her near Bethlehem (48:7).

Immediately after this first telling of the story, a second version appears in the text, thus creating the “doublet.” This version calls Jacob only by the name, Israel, the new name he assumed after his dramatic struggle with the “ish,” God’s messenger, who left Jacob with a perpetual limp to memorialize how he had altered spiritually. Then the story continues: “Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, ‘Who are these?’ And Joseph said to his father, ‘They are my sons, whom God has given me here. ‘Bring them to me,’ he said, ‘that I may bless them.’ Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age [recalling his own father Isaac’s poor vision when he was deceived by Jacob]; he could not see….(48:8)”

Then Israel embraces both boys, but when he blesses them, he surprisingly crosses his hands and blesses the children with his right hand on Ephraim’s head – the head of the younger son – and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, the older son. In other words, he reverses the older son/younger son in an inheritance battle that continues throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Why is this second version relevant to us today? Because – if we traditionally bless our children on the Sabbath as Jews are supposed to do – when we place our hands on our own children’s heads, we recite the last line of the blessing that Israel invoked when he blessed both of Jacob’s children: “God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

It is still troubling, though, that Israel/Jacob deliberately puts Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. Not so, explains Rabbi Jonathan Sacks [3]. Israel/Jacob does that because of what the blessing says. It has nothing to do with birth order, with older or younger. At the time Manasseh was named, Joseph expressed gratitude that the birth made him forget all the previous troubles he suffered in his father’s house. But by the time his next son, Ephraim, is born, Joseph is able to look forward to a fruitful future, saying, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41: 50-52). So Israel/Jacob is accentuating the positive in giving his blessing, and maybe that’s what we should be doing for our kids now.

Maybe, though, what we also need as 2018 approaches is a third story to create a triplet, a third version, that includes a special biblical blessing for daughters as well when they traverse the land.

[1] Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper Collins, 1987).

[2] Elliot N. Dorff, “Medieval and Modern Theories of Revelation,” Biblical Religion and Law, 1404.

[3] Vayehi 5767, The Generations Forget and Remember, Covenant and Conversation, Jan. 6, 2007, http: Received Dec. 27, 2017.

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©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles 2017. All rights reserved.

Vayigash: The Joy of Forgiveness (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

Vayigash: The Joy of Forgiveness (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“The time has come, the Walrus said,

to talk of many things….”

Lewis Carroll, 1872

In October of 1960, Pope John XXIII famously greeted a group of visiting Jewish leaders with these words: “I am Joseph, Your Brother”[1]. The Pope’s baptismal name was in reality Joseph, and his greeting echoed the words of the biblical Joseph as he revealed himself to his long-lost brothers. The words symbolize an act of mutual forgiveness that begins in Vayigash and resounds through the centuries (Genesis 45:4).

Vayigash is such a rich chapter. Every time I read a Torah portion, something that seems new attracts my attention. This time it is forgiveness. Of course, like the Walrus and the Carpenter in the allegorical children’s favorite, Alice Through The Looking-Glass, we could discuss many other amazing things contained in this portion. For example, we could discuss at length an elevated Joseph’s remarkable prowess as an “economic statesman…one of the earliest in history,” as Henry A. Wallace (a liberal progressive who was the 33rd Vice-President of the U.S. and unsuccessfully advocated universal healthcare) once called him. “Apparently he [the biblical Joseph] put the farmers on relief rolls,” Wallace said, “until the drought was over and then gave them back the use of their land for a very low rent….”  [2]. He credits Joseph with larger vision and with preparing for the whims of nature, something with which we are still coming to grips in California as I write this D’var Torah.

Also, while “tax reform” dominates our airwaves to considerable controversy as 2017 comes to a bombastic close, we recall that Joseph instituted a system of taxation (one-fifth – 20 percent of income — payable to the Pharaoh) considered reasonable in the ancient agricultural landscape of Pharaoh’s Egypt. Under Syrian rule, by contrast, “the Jews paid the king one-third of their seed and one-half of their fruits”[3].

We could discuss how Joseph was a great strategist and master planner, “who protected the surplus of the good years so that Egypt could survive during the lean ones,” as Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff discussed in his recent article for the Reform movement, “Does God Have a Plan?” [4]. In later life, after much adversity, Joseph learned to understand that his own free will could only operate within the big picture — the divine plan for the survival of humanity.

We could discuss, as Rabbi Anne Brener did so eloquently in her drash for AJRCA this week [5], the anxiety and grief of Joseph’s aged father, Jacob as he continued to mourn for the supposed death of his favored son, Joseph, and Jacob’s anxiety as he contemplated the possible loss of his much loved, youngest son, Benjamin. Or of Joseph’s own suppressed primal scream in the face of the reunion.

What particularly stands out for me at this year’s reading of Vayigash, however, is the depth of forgiveness that Joseph offers his brothers. In fact, this Torah portion contains “the first recorded moment of forgiveness in history,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Covenant and Conversation [6]. This is what Joseph says to them:

“I am your brother, Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me thither” (Genesis 45:4).

This is the same Joseph who, clad in multi-colored splendor, once dreamed of his brothers bowing down to him. Now, with the humility that denotes the spiritual growth he has since undergone, Joseph proceeds to explain to these same brothers that it was God’s will, not their own actions, that brought about the course of events that took him to Egypt as Pharaoh’s slave.  It was something far greater than the schemes of human beings, ironically including the free will to act that God had granted them.

“God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance [from famine and starvation]. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me [like] a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt” (Genesis 45: 7-8).

This is how, without recrimination, Joseph forgave his brothers who had once cast him into a pit and sold him into slavery.  For repentance and then forgiveness to occur, as our rabbis often point out, three sequential stages are necessary: the admission of guilt, confession, and, finally, behavioral change. It was true in ancient Egypt, and it remains true now. Only when these stages of character change have taken place – and it takes time, often years — is someone capable of sincere teshuvah (repentance). “Humanity changed the day Joseph forgave his brothers,” Sacks explains.  “When we forgive and are worthy of others, we are no longer prisoners of our past” [7].

As we begin the new secular calendar year, 2018, maybe it is time for all of us – no matter what our various political or religious leanings — to forgive one another. And ourselves. In humility for our own shortcomings. Then, God willing, we can move forward into a bright future together.

Happy New Year – and Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, General Ed. “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised ed. David E. S. Stein (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005,2006),300.

[2] Ibid., 301.

[3] Ibid,  298. Unfortunately, sometimes historical memory is short and not at all grateful. As Rabbi Plaut describes, later on, new Pharaohs did not remember that Joseph’s sagacity had saved Egypt in a time of famine, and he enslaved the Jews:

“When not long after Joseph’s death the rulers (according to some, the Hyksos) were overthrown and a new kingdom was established, a Pharaoh ascended the throne ‘who did not know Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8). He had no use for associates of the previous dynasty and therefore took no time in enslaving them in the very land of Goshen to which they had come to make their home. The experience of Joseph was to be repeated through many centuries of Jewish history: As long as Jews were useful to the host country, they were tolerated and even elevated; but often when political circumstances changed, they were offered to the masses as convenient scapegoats.”

[4] Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, “Does God Have A Plan?” www., December 2017.

[5] Rabbi Anne Brener, “Joseph’s Primal Scream,” Vayigash,, December 2017.

[6] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Birth of Forgiveness,” 5774,Covenant and Conversation,, retrieved December 2017.

[7] Ibid.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

To Move or Not to Move: That is the Question

To Move or Not to Move: That is the Question

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

In California, we have been experiencing a season of drought-related wildfires that are historically the worst in years. Many people in devastated areas have sadly lost their homes — or worse, their lives. Others a little more fortunate, those with homes that are damaged but not destroyed, and hopefully with their families intact, are questioning whether or not to restore what was once whole. When do you rebuild? When do you walk away? How do you redirect your hopes and dreams?

A small section – known as a tractate – from the Talmud is called Bava Metzia. This section deals, not with life and death issues (although it can be extended to those issues), but with the loss of property, of things. Among other issues, it raises the question of giving up hope of recovery of that property. More than that, it raises these questions: In what circumstances and at what point, do we abandon hope? When do you move on?

The Jewish tradition has a name for the abandonment of hope – despair of retrieving lost property; it is called ye’ush. And there is a further question that is raised. Can we abandon hope without knowing it? This is called ye’ush shelo medat (hope without knowing, unconsciously). And even further, can ye’ush be retroactive? In other words, even if we were unaware of the loss of property at the time it happened – if we had known facts that were revealed only later – would we have given up hope at the time the property was lost?

These questions were famously debated by two Amoraim (fourth-century C.E. Talmudic rabbis) known as Rava (his opinions were always stricter) and Abaye (more liberal opinions). Although the Talmudic decisions on other matters usually favored Rava’s arguments, in the case of lost property, they agreed with Abaye. Much depended on the intentionality of the identified owner in claiming (proof of title) and restoring the lost property. Does he or she want to restore it for comfort (i.e., to live in it, in this case) or profit (to sell or rent it, possibly at a steep hike because so many people are looking for housing in California)? Intentionality is a huge issue in the Talmud.

Also taken into account is the degree of effort required to recover or restore the property, and whether it has the necessary monetary value to make the effort worthwhile. It turns out that it is hard to decide these issues for someone else, because (said the rabbis), although as an individual, I know what my own motives are, how can I assume what motivates someone else? There are too many variables to determine the motivation of an individual. So the question is left undecided, known as teiku in the Talmud.

But it still leaves you, the one who sustained the loss, in limbo. Whether or not to restore your own destroyed property? Only you know what it is worth – physically and mentally, monetarily, sentimentally – to put in the effort and finances to bring it back, to recover the memories. So what has more weight to you and those you love? Do you have the strength or the money to sustain the effort? Can you leave out the sentiment and consider it only from the point of view of practicality? Hard to do. So, in the end, everyone else’s wisdom – even ancient wisdom — is not what matters. Only you know when you can still maintain a deep reservoir of hope. Only you know when it would be better to move on.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

Déjà Vu: The Public Propagation of Hatred

Déjà Vu: The Public Propagation of Hatred

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Like most of our American population, I thoroughly enjoy the internet and the educational and entertainment enrichment and communication possibilities the media in general adds to my life. But, as so many people are already aware, there is an essential caveat: the widespread dissemination of supposed truths that are actually untruths – in other words, lies. Currently, especially in our political life, we have also seen the damage that the reverse side of the coin – undermining proven facts and calling them “fake” to suit a particular, usually nefarious, agenda – can do.

This caveat also applies to the all too often malevolent representation of the Talmud on the web. As I have commented in previous posts, the Talmud represents an accumulation of wisdom. Each singular remark captures only one rabbinic opinion on the subject under discussion. The expression of many other opinions (over a number of centuries) follow on each talmudic page, and, in most cases, these differing opinions are reconciled to produce a majority view. Popular wisdom is also taken into account. Sometimes a conclusion cannot be reached, and the subject under discussion is tabled peaceably for another time.

So to cite a single negative position in a published post, article, or sound byte does not represent the whole conversation, is likely to distort it, and may indicate malicious intentions on the part of the person or organization that posted it. Unfortunately, anti-Semitic websites which quote a variety of out-of-context Talmudic statements proliferate on the internet. Their usual intent is to incite hatred of the Jewish people (even if appreciation of Jewish lawyers or doctors or occasional friends is expressed).

Here we come to the heart of the matter: statements taken out of context that are deliberately used by individuals or groups to malign people and cause them pain, and, even worse, to incite hatred against religious and/or ethnic groups. The Talmud refers to this deceitful misuse of speech as a category of what in Hebrew is called ona’at devarim, the pain that words can inflict.

The Talmud makes clear that just as there is ona’ah in monetary matters (i.e., willful deceit, fraudulent business dealings), there is also ona’ah in words, when the intention or effect is to inflict pain. Even if we have spoken these words with good intentions, we should be mindful of hurting others by what we say.

For example, we should not add pain with our words to people whom tragedy has befallen, who are suffering illness, or by implying that God does not allow innocent people to come to harm, and in general, behaving like Job’s so-called friends (who pointed out his failings when he was down). As my revered mentor, Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, cautioned (referencing the medieval scholar, Rashi), since no one except God can know your thoughts, “be mindful of the one who hears your thoughts.” Causing people anguish through disrespect is considered disrespect for God (who, after all, was our Creator).

In fact, shaming someone in public is considered so serious in the Talmud that the perpetrator or group of perpetrators — will have no share in the World-to-Come (the after-life). Shaming someone publicly – whitening that person’s face (that is, draining it of blood, deadening the spirit) — is compared with murder — you have murdered someone’s reputation, and it is often irreparable. Public humiliation of someone (even calling someone a bad name in public) is so sinful in the extreme, so offensive to God, that it is better, the Talmud declares, to cast yourself into a fiery furnace than to shame someone in public (Baba Metzi’a 59)! As the U.S. moves into the 2018 mid-term election, our politicians – and those who support them — should remember that.

Even the biblical Tamar, who was impregnated by Judah and brought forth on his orders to be burned, did not shame him in public. Instead she sent him the signs that identified him as the culprit, and, in remorse, he saved her from her fiery fate. Our electronic media and print press would do well to use restraint, as Tamar did, when they excoriate people in public office.

We certainly get the Talmudic point that ona’at devarim, causing people anguish with words, is a very important issue; that is, it is important not to do it. The Talmud does reflect, though, that sometimes external events provoke disharmony. Difficult economic times, for instance (can cause strife in a household, and husbands (in 2018, it would also be working wives) are enjoined to make sure there is food in the house. As the incomes of middle class and lower income families are presently poised to take a big hit through increased taxes and deliberately inflated medical costs, our governing bodies would do well to enact something positive – big league — to ameliorate this inequity.

©️Corinne Copnick, 2017, Los Angeles. All rights reserved.