D’var Torah: Vayechi

I gave this talk at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR) in 2004.

D’var Torah – Parashat Vayechi 5765 – December 25, 2004

 By Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week’s Torah Portion is Vayechi, the last parashah of the Book of Breishit, the Book of Genesis.  It is the closing chapter of a book that began with the creation of the universe, took us through the drama of the first human beings, through the stories of the first Jews – Sarah and Abraham and their extended family – and finally through the exhilarating and powerful cycle of stories surrounding Joseph.  Breishit opens with the beginning of all things and closes with Joseph and his bretheren dwelling securely in the land of Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing.  The last word of the parashah is the Hebrew word for Egypt – mitzrayim.  The stage is set for the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus – and the drama of enslavement and redemption that form the next chapters of the Torah’s epic story.

You may recall the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to rise from an Egyptian jail to become the second in command of the Egyptian empire.

Yet another example of Hollywood casting white dudes to play ancient Hebrews… I mean, he’s definitely easy on the eyes, no disrespect to the actor, but ancient Hebrews and Egyptians probably didn’t look quite like that.

When we pick up this week, Joseph has reconciled with his brothers, and the entire family, including his frail, aging father, Jacob, has settled in Egypt.  Hearing that his father Jacob has fallen ill, Jospeh brings his two sons, the first born, M’nasheh, and the younger one, Ephraim, to their grandfather.  Jacob proceeds to bless his grandsons.  In a gesture that has become commonplace in this family, Jacob gives the favored blessing traditionally reserved for the first born son to the younger son instead – a moment that I could easily spend the rest of this talk examining, but that will have to wait for another time.

Later in the parashah, Jacob gives his final words to his assembled sons.  Jacob also asks his sons to bury his body in the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah were buried.  Jacob dies, and Egypt’s finest courtiers accompany the funeral caravan all the way to the Land of Canaan, where Jacob’s sons bury him at Machpela.  After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers go through one more moment of anxiety about their having sold Joseph into slavery.  They become worried that, with their father Jacob no longer alive, Joseph may rediscover his anger at his brothers for their terrible treatment of him.  The brothers reconfirm their reconciliation, and the parashah concludes with Joseph’s last remarks to his brothers.

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Historic Christmas Day Truce Breaks Out in #WarOnChristmas

In a series of spontaneous Christmas morning events that have taken place across the country, combatants from both sides of the War on Christmas have laid down their arms and ventured out of their trenches into no-man’s-land, where they met their enemies face to face and interrupted the slaughter.

Ground Zero in the War on Christmas

Apparently the Christmas holiday evoked a sense of nostalgia for family and good neighborliness, and found weary fighters sharing cups of hot cocoa and family snapshots with their enemies in the contested hallways and food courts of shopping malls across the U.S.

A century ago, in 1914, a similar Christmas day truce took place on the battlefields of World War I. General Fitzgerald A. Grinch, who commands the U.S. forces pressing the War on Christmas in the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania, described the scene with tears in his eyes.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in all the many wars I’ve been in,” Grinch told reporters. “I mean, we will never give up in our national War on Christmas, but just for today, to stop the carnage and the killing for even a few hours, because, I mean, hey, after all, it’s Christmas… it’s inspiring.”

Even Starbucks stores got in on the one-day truce. Green beret baristas who’ve been ardently attacking Christmas on behalf of our nation were seen, for the first time, speaking with pro-Christmas guerrillas, and even handing out free samples. Mall Santas came out from their dug-in positions in Hobby Lobby stores to share an Auntie Annie’s pretzel or two with enemy troops from elite Happy Holidays commando units.

Tomorrow, our nation will resume its fight against the tyranny of Christmas, with Starbucks leading the charge. But for a few hours today, everyone’s common humanity is rising above it all, because Christmas.




Creed is lovely


So, having seen the new Star Wars movie yesterday and enjoyed it, let me say that as much fun as Star Wars: The Force Awakens  was, it is the second best of the “40-years-since-the-original” follow on films that have recently hit theaters. That’s right, Creed, which opened in November, does simple yet wonderful things with the core elements that helped the original Rocky win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976.

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Starbucks #WaronHanukkah

We thought the red cups were bad enough in Starbucks’ ongoing War on Christmas. Then the hideous polar bear cookie controversy erupted.


As you all know, these hideous cookies, deliberately designed by Starbucks’ holiday season hating masterminds, depict a sweet winter-themed polar bear having had its throat slit by evil terrorists. Though Starbucks denies it, we know that their intention was for tens of thousands of unsuspecting customers to buy these cookies for their kids for Christmas, and then for their kids to freak out upon seeing what their parents were probably too busy to see: that these polar bears have been murdered and are still bleeding out.

Now Starbucks has opened a new front in this culture war – a War on Hanukkah. These seemingly innocent and religiously pluralistic gingerbread cookies were spotted in Starbucks shops across North America last week, during Hanukkah.

ginger death

That’s right. Starbucks now is taking the heat for its Hanukkah Ginger Bread Man cookies, who are supposed to be depicted wearing a tallis, but an angry group of rabbis is claiming that the actual intent of the design is to portray crazy Klansmen abducting Jewish people by grabbing them from behind. If you look closely at the area in the red circle in the photo, you can see what’s really going on in these nightmarish Hanukkah treats.

Starbucks, you don’t know what you’ve done now. You’ve awakened a sleeping giant. You see, when you went to war with Christmas, you took on a holiday featuring an innocent babe receiving blessings and gifts from visitors. Being the giant corporate bully that you are, of course you decided to attack a baby in a manger.

But Hanukkah is a whole different bag of dreidels. You’ve really overreached now. Because maybe you forgot, Starschmucks, that Hanukkah is about the Macca-kick-your-ass-abees. They were outnumbered, and outgunned (well, out-elephanted actually), but they knew a thing or two about bringing down giants on the battlefield. So go ahead, try to scare our children with your bad-dream-inducing bar mitzvah boy being grabbed by white robed thugs gingerbread cookies. We will bring you down. Your latkes are cooked.

In the job market…

Sad to report that my position with InterfaithFamily has been eliminated, and so I am in search of a job. I wish everyone on staff and on the board of InterfaithFamily all the best – it’s a wonderful organization with a bright future doing important work.

I’m looking for work in the Jewish or interfaith non-profit sector, ideally doing advocacy or education.

My CV is here: Maurice_CV_12 15


I wonder if this would be a good new look for me…

big deal

GOP needs to oust Trump

Open letter to the national GOP

To: Mr. Reince Priebus, Chair, Republican Party

December 7, 2015

Dear Mr. Priebus,

I’m not a Republican, but my dad was, and I learned a lot from his values and respected his politics. I hope you’ll consider my views here as a fellow American.

I’ll get straight to the point: the GOP needs to revoke Trump’s membership in the party and take their chances that he runs as an independent. The line he crossed today with his proposal to ban entry to the US for Muslims is not one the Republican party can or should permit to be seen as plausibly “in bounds” for anyone representing the party.

When David Duke ran as a Republican for governor of Louisiana, the elder President Bush was outraged and publicly announced that he wanted Duke kicked out of the party. As you know, it turned out that the party rules, perhaps at the state level, made it impossible for Duke to be kicked out, and he was ultimately able to run (and lose) as a Republican. But the fact that the Republican President at the time, as well as the entire national GOP establishment, publicly and unequivocally repudiated Duke and tried to oust him was important, not just for Republicans, but for America. It was patriotic, meaningful, moral, and right.

duke trump

David Duke and Donald Trump – blech.

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Santa Was a Mensch

This was a short piece my wife, Melissa Crabbe, and I co-authored back in early 2008, just a few months after our newly adopted kids had arrived.


It’s based on actual events. A version of this story appeared that year in Jewish Currents magazine. Melissa and I wrote the piece together even though it is in first person singular in my voice. 

*  *  *

I remember the first time I was in the mall in early December with our newly adopted children, Hunter and Clarice, ages 5 and 7. After years in foster care, they had come to us eight months earlier. Overnight they went from never having known any Jews to becoming a rabbi’s kids. And though they had already come to think of our synagogue as a second home, there were still things from their former life that they found comforting, things my wife and I hadn’t quite decided how to handle. Like mall Santa.

The kids spotted him as we walked past the cinema. Suddenly I was a rabbi whose kids wanted to sit on Santa’s lap.

We had already talked to them about how we don’t celebrate Christmas, and they had seemingly accepted that. They were intrigued by “Hanukkah Harry” who, we said, brought Jewish kids Hanukkah gifts and belonged to the same union as Santa.

“How does he get the presents to all the kids at Hanukkah?” my daughter had asked.

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