Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Parshat Beshalach: The Green Book

The “Green Book” won several awards at the Golden Globes last week, including “Best Motion Picture.” The movie, set in 1960, tells the story of the relationship between an African-American classical pianist and the Italian-American bouncer he hires to drive him on a concert tour through the racially divided deep south.

The movie’s title comes from an annual directory published by and named for Victor Hugo Green which listed hotels, stores and gas stations that welcomed African Americans. The full title of the directory was “The Negro Motorist Green Book” and it was published every year from 1936-1966. The guide, which was almost forgotten over the decades, was essential in the era of racial segregation, enforced by legislation known as the Jim Crow laws.

These laws, upheld by the Supreme Court, maintained racial segregation in all public facilities in the southern states of the US. The court ruled that Jim Crow did not violate the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution — which ensured equal protection” to all people — by invoking the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial discrimination illegal, but until that time the Green Book was a valuable guide for African-American motorists at a time when the relative low cost of motoring meant that many Americans took to the roads, especially those looking to escape the racism and segregation they experienced on public transport.

However, driving across America was not easy for people of color when many gas stations, hostels, restaurants and stores refused to serve them. Even finding a public bathroom was sometimes difficult. Many African-American travelers were forced to pack not only food for their journey, but also carry spare fuel and sometimes even a portable toilet. And if the car broke down, it was sometimes almost impossible to find a mechanic who would fix it for them. There were also thousands of so-called “sundown towns,” which barred non-whites after dark (one of which features in the movie).

This was why Green’s guide became invaluable. In the introduction to the 1949 edition he wrote, “With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

Green was a postal worker from Harlem, New York, and he published 15,000 copies of his guide each year. He said the inspiration for his guide came from similar Jewish publications.

The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted and there are numerous publications that give the gentile whites all kinds of information.

Jews continued to face discrimination when Green launched his guide, though the peak of anti-Semitism in the US was in the 1920s. That decade may have heralded in the age of motoring, but the American father of the motorcar, Henry Ford, was an avowed anti-Semite who blamed the Jews for World War I (and for almost everything else). In 1924, the government passed the Johnson–Reed Act, effectively severely limiting immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. The Ku Klux Klan, newly reformed in 1915, claimed 4-5 million members by the 1920s. Hatred of Jews in America was widespread.

In response, Jews created their own philanthropic societies, their own hotels and resorts, their own lobbying groups, and their own guides to where Jews were welcomed. By the 1960s, Jews were at the forefront in the fight against discrimination of all kinds, and were among the founders and early funders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

According to a PBS show, Jews were at the heart of the fight against Jim Crow.

The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League were central to the campaign against racial prejudice. Jews made substantial financial contributions to many civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. About 50 percent of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews, as were over 50 percent of the Whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow Laws.

Jews knew that those who discriminated against minorities were the same people who hated Jews. The Jews of American felt that standing up for minorities was not only the right thing to do morally, but also the best way of combatting anti-Semitism.

The truth is, however, that anti-Semitism, the hatred of Jews, began millennia ago, in an incident we read in this week’s Torah portion.

After the Israelites miraculously left Egypt, everyone thought they were invincible. The Torah describes how they split the Red Sea, defeated Pharaoh’s army, and were guided by a column of fire and a pillar of smoke. Nobody in their right mind would have challenged the Israelites at the peak of their power.

Yet along came the tribe of Amalek and attacked the people, as they wandered through the desert. “And Amalek came and warred with Israel in Rephidim” (Exodus 17:8).

Amalek was not threatened by the Jews, who were heading to the Land of Canaan. The Jews had no resources that Amalek wanted or needed. How did their leader inspire the Amalekites to fight what must have seemed a suicidal war? Did he encourage them to fight by claiming that the Israelites were “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists” (or whatever was the equivalent at that time)? What other methods did he use to get his supporters to destroy themselves in order to get rid of the Israelites?

Amalek fought against the Israelites for no reason other than a hatred of Jews. Their war with Israel was the precursor to an eternal war against the Jews fought by those who hate Jews, as the verse states (Exodus 17:16):

He said, ‘For his hand is on the throne of God, there is a war between God and Amalek from generation to generation.’

Amalek was one single tribe that were wiped out thousands of years ago. But Amalek’s spiritual heirs, who continue to hate the Jews, remain strong to this day.

In 1948, Green wrote, “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”

Things have improved in so many ways in the US for minorities, but there is still a long way to go. Though discrimination based on race is now illegal, hatred of minorities is still widespread on social media and political rhetoric. The Green Book is no longer published and is almost forgotten. But the hatred of those who are different in the color of their skin, their religion or their ethnicity remains strong in some circles.

The last line of the introduction in the 1937 edition of the Green Book states, “Let’s all get together and make motoring better.” This message is equally relevant now, though I would alter it to read, “Let’s all get together to make the entire world better.”

With thanks to the wonderful podcast 99% Invisible for the inspiration behind this d’var Torah.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Parshat Bo: The power of youth

For more than a hundred years, from the end of the fifth century BCE, the Spartan army was the supreme fighting force in the ancient world.

The Spartans were not known for their advances in science, technology or medicine. Apart from the Chilon in the 6th century BCE (who was renowned as one of the Seven Sages of Greece), Sparta produced no philosophers. But in the field of war they excelled more than anyone else. The culture of Sparta was totally focused on military training and creating the best fighting force in the world.

Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War I:10) referred to the Sparta by its ancient name of Ladaeaemon when he wrote:

For I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without.

From the age of 7, Spartan boys would leave their homes and enter the agoge system where they were beaten, starved and often died, but where they were trained in the art of war. At the age of 20 they would enter the military, where they would continue to serve until they reached the age of 60. Unusually for the ancient world, girls also received an education, and were comparatively well cared for, so that they could give birth to and raise the finest soldiers. Spartan women lived longer than their counterparts in other Greek cities, most likely because they were well fed and in better health.

Everything in Spartan society was focused on having the finest army and encouraging the best fighters. When Spartans died, only soldiers who had died in battle or women who died in childbirth were entitled to have marked headstones.

Although life was extremely tough for boys between the ages of seven and 20, it was even more dangerous for Spartan babies. Shortly after birth, a mother would bathe her child in wine to see if he was strong. If he survived, he was brought by his father to the Gerousia, the council of elders, who decided whether the baby was fit enough to be raised. Any child considered deformed or puny was thrown to its death into a chasm on Mount Taygetos known as Ceadas (interestingly, the modern name for Taygetos is Mount Profitis Ilias, named for the prophet Elijah). Some modern scholars argue that babies were not thrown into the chasm but were instead left to die on the mountainside.

For the Spartans, children had no intrinsic value in their own right. They became honorable and important only once they reached adulthood and were able to fight.

In this week’s Torah reading, Pharaoh challenges Moses about the role of children in religious, communal life.

Even though Moses was planning on leading the Israelites out of Egypt for good, he told Pharaoh they wanted to go to the desert to celebrate a festival. Rabbenu Bahya explains that Moses was alluding to the festival of Shavuot, when the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.

Pharaoh, convinced by his servants that he had no option but to allow the Jews to leave, told Moses and Aharon, “Go worship the Lord, your God. Who are those who are going?” (Exodus 10:8).

Moses replied:

With our youths and our elderly we shall go; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we shall go, for it is a festival of God for us. (Exodus 10:9)

Pharaoh scoffed at the idea of allowing the children to go to worship God at a festival. “So be it, may God be with you, when I will send you and your children,” he said. “Look that evil lies before you. Not so. Please go the men and worship God, for that is what you are requesting” (Exodus 10:10-11).

At the simplest level, the verse shows that Pharaoh was afraid the Israelites would leave and never return. So he insisted on keeping the children as hostages.

However, Ramban explains in his commentary, that the argument between them was about the role of children in rituals and religion. Moses said that even the children had to take part in the festival, whereas Pharaoh said that worship was only for adults and not for children.

In Pharaoh’s defense, when the children of Jacob left Egypt to bury their father in Israel — which was itself a kind of ritual — they left their young behind in Egypt (Genesis 50:7-8).

And Joseph went up to bury his father, and with him went up all Pharaoh’s servants the elders of his house and all the elders of Egypt. And all the house of Joseph and his brothers and his father’s house. Only their children, their flocks and their sheep they left in the land of Goshen.

But perhaps Pharaoh shared the world view of the Spartans — that children had no intrinsic value. And perhaps he went a step further in saying that they had no part to play in worshiping God.

Yet at Mount Sinai it was specifically the children who offered the sacrifices, not the adults. “And he sent the youths of the Children of Israel and they offered offerings and sacrifices peace sacrifices to God, of bulls” (Exodus 24:5).

The idea that the children would offer sacrifices remained shocking to the Greek world even hundreds of years after Moses and the Spartans. The Talmud (Megillah 9a) relates that when Ptolemy ordered the rabbis to translate the Torah into Greek, one of the alterations they made was to change the phrase from “sent the youths” to “sent the elect” so as not to offend the Greeks or lead them to disparage Judaism.

It is fundamental to Judaism that children are included in the rituals and worship. The Torah stresses that once every seven years all the Jews must gather in Jerusalem: “The men, the women the children and the converts, in order that they may hear and in order that they may learn, and fear the Lord, your God, and observe and do all the words of this Torah,” (Deuteronomy 31:12).

This is the message that Moses delivered to Pharaoh shortly before leading the Israelites to their freedom.

Cross posted from Times of Israel.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Parshat Vaera: The Power of Two

Even non-Americans like me have heard of Paul Revere and his famous midnight ride during the American Revolution, even if they don’t know the actual meaning of Longfellow’s famous line, “One if by land, and two if by sea.” But far fewer people have ever heard of William Dawes, who made the same midnight ride, and was even more audacious than Revere in getting past the British.

In fact, I suspect that the only place people may have heard of Dawes is in “The Tipping Point,” where Malcolm Gladwell contrasts his failure with Revere’s success.

Gladwell uses Revere as a paradigm of a “connector” who can take an idea and turn it into an epidemic. He writes:

“When he died, his funeral was attended, in the words of one contemporary newspaper account, by ‘troops of people.’ He was a fisherman and a hunter, a cardplayer and a theater-lover, a frequenter of pubs and a successful businessman. He was active in the local Masonic Lodge and was a member of several select social clubs. He was also a doer, a man blessed — as David Hackett Fischer recounts in his brilliant book Paul Revere’s Ride — with an ‘uncanny genius for being at the center of events.’”

In contrast, nobody is certain what happened to Dawes after his midnight ride. Adding insult to injury, in 2007, it was discovered that he may not even be buried in his marked grave in Boston’s King’s Chapel Burying Ground, but may actually be buried five miles away with his wife.

Yet he was as much a patriot as Revere and played an equally important role in the revolutionary war.

While Revere was a silversmith, Dawes was a tanner. Both would have had a large number of contacts and connections. Dawes was so dedicated to independence that he boycotted British goods — the Boston Gazette stated that at his wedding, he wore a suit made entirely in America.

Like Revere and Dr Joseph Warren, who sent both messengers, Dawes was a Freemason. He had built up a large network of military connections. In October 1774, he led a group who brazenly stole two cannons from a British arsenal while the British soldiers were out at roll call. He often went out recruiting supporters for the colonial cause, sometimes taking his granddaughter with him, so that the British would not suspect he was up to anything untoward.

On the night of April 18, 1775, while Revere rowed across the Charles River in a boat, the 30-year-old Dawes was charged by Warren on the more dangerous overland route from Boston to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams of the impending British invasion. His path required him to pass through a British-guarded checkpoint at Boston neck. Nobody knows for certain how he managed to get past the sentries, but it is likely that he had cultivated friendships with them for some time, preparing for just such an eventuality.

So why is Revere so famous while Dawes has been so forgotten (or maligned on the rare occasion he is mentioned)?

It is true that Revere knocked on doors along his journey to Lexington, waking the revolutionary soldiers and preparing them for the invasion, whereas Dawes rode directly to Hancock and Adams without stopping along the way (and, ironically, he was still beaten by Revere, who had a faster horse and a shorter route, and so was able to deliver the message before Dawes arrived). So, far fewer people were aware of Dawes’s daring ride.

But more likely Dawes was forgotten and Revere remembered due to the power of the written word. Dawes did not leave a record of his heroism, whereas Revere wrote three accounts of his ride, the last written 23 years after the event in a letter to Jeremy Belknap, Secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

And probably the most important reason that Dawes was forgotten by history is due to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s historically inaccurate poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Gladwell praises Revere and derides Dawes, writing: “This chapter is about the people critical to social epidemics and what makes someone like Paul Revere different from someone like William Dawes.” But one could equally argue that Revere’s fame was not because he was a better connector than Dawes, but simply because he got better coverage after the fact.

In contrast to the famous Revere and the forgotten Dawes, the Torah goes to great lengths to stress that the two revolutionary leaders who took the Israelites out of Egypt had different roles, yet were equals.

Moses was the chosen leader, but it was Aaron who was the social “connector” who could speak to both the downtrodden slaves and to Pharaoh. Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, then fled the country, only to return decades later, at God’s command. In contrast, Aaron spent his entire life strengthening bonds between himself and others. Whereas Moses represented strict application of the law, described as “Let the judgment pierce the mountain,” (Midrash Shochar Tov on Psalms 90), Aaron embodied, “Love peace and pursue peace, love people and bring them close to Torah,” (Pirkei Avot 1:12).

Moses acknowledged his own shortcomings and God informed him that he could only succeed alongside his brother (Exodus 6:12-13).

Moses spoke before God saying, ‘Behold the Children of Israel did not listen to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me?… So God spoke to Moses and Aaron and commanded them about the Children of Israel and about Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.,

In the following chapter (Exodus 7:1-2) the Torah makes it even more clear that their mission could only succeed with Aaron being the one to spread the word.

God said to Moses, see I have placed you as a god for Pharaoh, but Aaron your brother will be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh…

At some point, Moses found his voice and was able to speak directly to Pharaoh, and later on was also able to speak to the fledgling Jewish nation, becoming the law-bearer who informed them of all God’s decisions. And Aaron became an important figure in his own right, as the High Priest, such that he and his descendants had the task of acting as intermediaries between God and the Jewish people in the Temple rituals. The Torah stresses (Exodus 6:26-27) that both brothers were equally important, referring to them as a single person and switching the order of their names to show their co-leadership.

He is Aaron and Moses to whom God said, ‘Take the Children of Israel out of the land of Israel in their multitudes. They are the ones who speak to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel from Egypt; he is Moses and Aaron.

But at the outset of their revolution, neither could have done it without the other.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Parshat Shemot: The Power of Belief

The Christian crusaders were weary and close to defeat. The Muslim armies defending the Holy Land were much stronger and better prepared than they had expected. Defeat was close at hand and they were about to abandon their question to liberate Jerusalem from the infidels.

Yet they knew they had a secret weapon. The crusaders knew there was a powerful Christian king living in the east, who at that very moment was leading a mighty army to save them. This king was named Prester John, but unfortunately he never came. Some said his army was unable to cross the Tigris river. Others said that it was not yet the time for him to come. And others said that Prester John was a myth and did not actually exist.

Stories of Prester John, also known as Presbyter John or John the Elder circulated throughout medieval European Christian.

In 1165 a letter was received by Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus which was believed to be from the great king himself. The letter states that John, lives in the land beyond India, where, “Our land streams with honey and is overflowing with milk.” He is so powerful that he is served by 72 kings of the surrounding lands. He sent Manuel a fantastic description of his country:

“Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles, meta-collinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, wild asses, white and red lions, white bears, white merules, crickets, griffins, tigers, lamias, hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men — men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell high giants, cyclopses, and similar women. It is the home, too, of the phoenix and of nearly all living animals.”

Of course, the letter turned out to be a forgery, but nevertheless, a large part of the Christian world believed in this great king who would come to save them.

Even some Jews believed in Prester John. Joshua ben Joseph ibn Vives al-Lorqui (Joshua Lorki) was a 15th century Jewish doctor living in AlcaƱi, in Aragon, Spain. He served Benedict XIII and wrote a medical textbook in Arabic which was later translated into Hebrew as Gerem Hamaalot.

In a letter to Paul of Burgos (a Spanish Jew who converted to Christianity), Lorki wrote:

I know that it is certainly not hidden from you the matter well-known to us from stories of travelers who journeyed the length and breadth of the world, and also from letters of the Rambam, and we heard it from the traders from the ends of the earth… about those who dwell at the end of the earth in the land of Ethiopians, called Al-Chabash, and they made a deal with the Christian prince called Prester John…

By this time the legend of Prester John had him living in Africa. As the Indian subcontinent became more widely explored and better known, the Europeans realized that the great Christian King must reside in Ethiopia.

There were many attempts at forging ties between European countries and Ethiopia during the Middle Ages, and despite the denial of the Ethiopians, the Europeans continued to insist their King was Prester John.

Zara Yaqob was emperor of Ethopia from 1434 until his death in 1468. In 1441 he sent delegates to the Council of Florence where, despite their confusion and subsequent denials, the council prelates continued to refer to their monarch as Prester John (in Robert Silverberg’s “The Realm of Prester John”).

As late as 1751, the Czech missionary Remedius Prutky visited Ethiopia and asked Emperor Iyasu II about Prester John. He writes that Isayu was “astonished, and told me that the kings of Abyssinia had never been accustomed to call themselves by this name.”

Gradually the legend of Prester John died away but it continues to have an influence to this day. From Shakespeare’s Benedick, who offers Don Pedro to “…bring you the length of Prester John’s foot…” in “Much Ado About Nothing,” to appearances in issues of Marvel’s “Fantastic Four” and “Thor” to DC comics who featured him in “Arak: Son of Thunder” the legend lives on.

This was not the first time a nation waited for a powerful king from a distant land to come and save his people. It was not even the first time Ethiopia was the believed hidden refuge of a powerful king.

In this week’s Torah reading, Shemot, we are introduced to Moses who was saved from Pharaoh’s decree by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the royal palace. He was forced to flee after he killed an Egyptian who was persecuting an Israelite and was sentenced to death (Exodus 2:15). The same verse states that he went to Midian, where he eventually married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah.

We are not told how young Moses was when he fled Egypt, but he was 80 years old when he led the Jews out of Egypt. It seems that there are many decades unaccounted for by the Torah.

Although there is no mention of it in the Talmud or early Midrashim, several of the Torah commentaries say that Moses spent the intervening years ruling Ethiopia.

The verse states, “Miriam and Aaron spoke about Moses because of the Ethiopian woman he married, for he had married an Ethiopian woman,” (Numbers 12:1). Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, in their commentaries on that verse, explain that Moses married this wife while he was king of Ethiopia. Later commentaries including Sefer Hayashar, Menahem Azariah da Fano (Ma’amar Chikur Din 3:5) and Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (Shem Mishmuel, Beha’alotecha 5676) speak of Moses’s time in Ethiopia. The medieval Midrash Yalkut Shimoni and the 17th century Yalkut Reuveni compiled by Rabbi Reuven Hoshke HaKohen also speak of Moses’s time ruling Ethiopia before he went to Midian.

But the origins of this legend date back to the second century BCE, hundreds of years before the Mishna and Talmud were compiled. The Jewish historian Artapanus, who lived in Egypt, most likely in Alexandria, wrote of Moses’s conquest of Ethiopia in his history book “Concerning The Jews.” Although the book no longer exists, Eusebius, who served as Bishop of Caesarea from 314 CE quotes sections of what Artapanus wrote about Moses. He describes how Pharaoh, named as Chenephres, sent Moses to lead an unskilled army against Ethiopia. Contrary to expectations Moses was victorious and founded the city of Hermopolis and taught the Ethiopian men to circumcise themselves.

Titus Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish rebel turned Roman historian, gives more details of Moses in Ethiopia. He writes in The Antiquities of the Jews (Book II; chapter 10) that not only was Moses victorious but he also married an Ethiopian princess:

“Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians: she happened to see Moses as he led the army near the walls, and fought with great courage… she fell deeply in love with him; and upon the prevalancy of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to discourse with him about their marriage. He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition she would procure the delivering up of the city…; and when Moses had cut off the Ethiopians, he gave thanks to God, and consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land.”

So, according to these ancient Jewish traditions, when Moses stood before God at the burning bush he was not merely a poor, humble shepherd, but also a former hero who had conquered foreign lands and ruled over them.

Yet at first Moses refused God’s command to go back to Israel and redeem the Israelites. Not only did he tell God he was unworthy, but he claimed that the people would not believe in him. And for doubting the faith of the nation Moses was punished.

Belief in a savior from afar does not require evidence or proof. When Moses returned to Egypt he performed the signs that God had given him, but it was unnecessary. For the verse states that immediately, “The people believed. And they heard that God had remembered the Children of Israel and that he had seen their suffering. And they bowed and prostrated themselves,” (Exodus 4:31).

The Torah tells us that Moses came from a distant land and brought the Israelites out of slavery. And just as the medieval faith in Prester John, the belief in a strong leader who will suddenly appear and save a nation remains powerful to this day.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Parshat Vayechi: The Final Journey

This was originally published on the Times of Israel website.

The elaborate funeral Joseph gave his father may shed light on the mysterious talmudic claim that Jacob never died

On November 30, 2018, George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away at his home in Houston, Texas, nine months after the death of his wife Barbara. On December 3, his body was flown from Ellington Base to Washington DC, where it lay in state at the Capitol for two days, followed by a funeral service attended by President Donald Trump and three former presidents.

Then his body was flown back to Texas, where a second funeral service was held.

Finally, his body was transported by train to the George Bush Presidential Library where he was buried next to his wife. Mourners lined the tracks as a Union Pacific locomotive named Bush 4141 pulled the carriages carrying the former president and his family the 100 kilometers (70 miles) to his final resting place.

Bush was the first president in almost 50 years to make his final journey by train, but it is a tradition going back to John Quincy Adams, who died 170 years ago.

However, it was Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in 1865, for whom the final train ride became an outpouring of national grief shared by mourners across the country.

After lying in state for a week in the capital, Lincoln’s body was transported 2,662 kilometers (1,654 miles) from Washington to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois in a trip that took almost two weeks.

Along its journey through seven states retracing Lincoln’s journey to the White House four years earlier, the train stopped in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Michigan City, and Chicago. In each place, his body was taken off the train and traveled on a horse-drawn hearse to a public building to lie in state as altogether millions of Americans paid their final respects to Lincoln.

As an interesting historical aside, according to President Theodore Roosevelt’s widow, Edith, a young Theodore and his brother Elliott can be seen in a photograph of Lincoln’s funeral procession, looking out of the open second story window of their grandfather Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt’s home at the corner of Broadway and Union Square in New York.

A local reporter described Lincoln’s funeral train as it pulled in to Springfield:
In the mellow air and bright sunlight of this May morning, sweetened by the rain of last night, when those prairies are clothed in flowers, and the thickets of wild fruit trees, and blossoming orchards are jubilant with birds, he comes back.

This week’s Torah reading describes in great detail the first and only “state funeral” in the Bible. It depicts Jacob’s death in Egypt and his final journey to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Although nowadays Jewish custom favors a burial in plain shrouds as soon after death as possible, Jacob’s funeral was the opposite of that.

The patriarch passed away peacefully aged 147, surrounded by all his children. Then his body was embalmed and lay in state in Egypt for 40 days while the Egyptians mourned him. Then his body was transported to the border of Canaan, accompanied by a military cortege and all the dignitaries of Egypt. Genesis chapter 50 then describes how the entire entourage was joined by the Canaanite people in a place named Goren Haatad for a further seven days. The site was renamed Evel Mitzrayim (Mourning of Egypt) to commemorate the event.

Although the Bible says that this was “on the other side of the Jordan” it seems unlikely that Jacob’s funeral procession made such a wide detour. Aaron Demsky (along with other scholars) explains it is more likely that Jacob’s final journey followed the Way of Horus, which was the main route from Egypt to Canaan. It is probably that Goren Haatad was a small village that was later destroyed during a Muslim battle with local Christians on February 4, 634 CE (described in Latin in Anecdota Syriaca p. 116).

Only after the weeks-long public mourning by the Egyptians and the Canaanites did Jacob’s children bury his body in the Cave of the Patriarchs, alongside Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rebecca, and Jacob’s first wife Leah.

Yes, there were perhaps bigger funerals in Jewish history — when Miriam and Aharon died in the desert they were mourned by the entire camp of 600,000 military-aged men, as well as the women and children. But nobody else in the Bible was mourned publicly by all the surrounding non-Jewish nations.

The people came to mourn Jacob, but the entire event was arranged and coordinated by his son Joseph, who was still the second-in-command in Egypt at the time.

It must have been so painful for Joseph to arrange such a public and international burial for his father when Jacob was unable to give Rachel, Joseph’s mother, even the bare minimum of a funeral. Although she married Jacob after Leah, and thus was his second wife, she was also the patriarchs first love, and when she predeceased her sister maybe Joseph had hoped that she would be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs so she could remain alongside her husband in death.

But instead, Jacob apologized to his son, saying that he could not even bring Rachel’s body to the city but buried her at the roadside (Genesis 48:7).

When I came from Paddan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan along the way, some distance away from Ephrat; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrat, which is Bethlehem.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the ignoble burial Jacob gave Rachel, Joseph swore to his father that he would carry him to Israel for burial with his fathers. And he gave Jacob the most elaborate public and international funeral recorded anywhere in the Torah.

But why did Joseph give his father a state funeral?

George Bush planned to make his final journey by train, perhaps as a reminder of how as a child, he rode the rails with his family, sleeping in on the train. Or perhaps he wanted to remind the country of an earlier age, when the only way to cross the country was by locomotive.

Why did Lincoln’s family and advisers decided to hold a very public funeral for him? Perhaps it was so that the nation, shocked by his assassination, could mourn for him publicly. Or perhaps it was a show of defiance against those who opposed his views on emancipation.

But why did Joseph give his father such an elaborate funeral? Jacob simply requested that he be buried in Hebron.

Perhaps it had to be done so that the Egyptians would continue to respect him and his family. During the New Kingdom period ancestor worship and honoring one’s deceased parents was not only important, but the Egyptians believed that if the family treated their deceased with respect, the dead would be able to continue to have an influence over the affairs of the living. Maybe the Egyptians insisted on a drawn-out, public funeral for their leader’s father, to ensure that the Patriarch would continue to protect his ruling son and the entire nation.

Or perhaps Joseph was preparing for the long exile of the fledgling Israelite nation. God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would be strangers in a strange land for hundreds of years. Maybe Joseph planned the elaborate funeral and procession to Israel so that even in the darkest depths of enslavement, Jacob’s children could look back and remember a time when their father was so important to their oppressors.

Or maybe Joseph wanted them to always remember that they were in exile, and that their ultimate destination was the land of Canaan. Jacob’s funeral would have remained as part of the narrative of the Egyptians and Canaanites for a long time, acting as a constant reminder to all that Jacob’s children ultimately belonged in the land of Israel.

Perhaps this is another meaning of the talmudic concept that Jacob never died:

Rav Yitzhak said, “Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Jacob our father didn’t die.'” [Rav Nahman] said to him, “Was it for nothing that they eulogized him, embalmed him and buried him?” [Rav Yitzhak] said to him, “I derived it from a verse… Just as his descendants are alive, so he too is alive.”

Maybe Jacob remains alive for his descendants as a constant reminder that once upon a time he and his family were respected by all the surrounding nations. And that eventually his children will follow his path, leave their exile and return to the holy land.