Hushabye!

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Surrounded by original MYSTICS, second tenor, George Galfo (left) and lead singer, Phil Cracolici (right)

On a beautiful day in June 1959 George Snedden, Don Marino, Graham Carnegie, Tim Lewis and I were celebrating the fact that we had just completed seventh grade. Has there ever been a better day in a young boy’s life than the first day of summer vacation?

We were hanging out with a transistor radio in the parking lot across the street from George’s apartment on William Street in East Orange, NJ, when a beautiful lilting melody with amazing harmonies came out of the radio.  “That was ‘Hushabye’,” by the Mystics, a group from Brooklyn, NY,” the DJ announced.

I was transfixed. 

Many who know me find my musical tastes strange. If someone gave me two front row tickets to a Rolling Stones concert down the street, I would pass them up in favor of third balcony seats at full price to hear a good doo wop performance. Credit my wife Vickie, a classical music fan, for putting up with my idiosyncratic preferences.

Credit her also for not refusing when I suggested a few weeks ago that we take a three hour drive to Coral Springs on a Thursday night to hear the Mystics in concert.

Like almost every doo wop group from the fifties, the Mystics have gone through a number of personnel changes, but when I learned that two of the five “originals,” lead voice Phil Cracolici and second tenor George Galfo would be performing, I bought our tickets.

The sold out show was wonderful. We sat at a table with some very nice people who marveled at the fact that we drove three hours to be there. Vickie, who honestly expected to barely tolerate the concert, enjoyed it thoroughly.

The new voices in the Mystics did a great job on a wonderful array of doo wop and some post doo wop numbers, but Phil and George were the reason I was there.

Why?

After 61 years “Hushabye” remains one of my all time favorite songs.

Life in those 61 years has certainly had its ups and downs, but “Hushabye” represents for me a precious idyllic vision of how God wants the world to be.

Some 2500 years ago, the biblical Prophet Micah envisioned a word where: Everyone would lie down under their vines and fig tress with none to make them afraid (Micah 4:4)

“Hushabye” represents that world, a world where  children lie down at night in peace and security and “Guardian angels up above take care of the one I love.”

Micah’s words were just as eloquent, but he didn’t have Phil Crocolici’s beautifully understated voice and the Mystics impeccable harmonies.

Reconciliation

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Joseph’s brothers bow before him in Egypt by Stefanie Steinberg

 

The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph–so moved by Judah’s stirring appeal–reveals himself to his brothers. (Genesis 44:18-34)

“It is one of the greatest, most stirring addresses in all literature.”  That is the way my eighth grade religious school teacher, Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth, z”l, described Judah’s address to Joseph. Thank you, Mr. Ehrenworth. I know I was not a serious student in your class, but your explication of Judah’s speech has stayed with me my entire life. I did not realize it then, but you set in motion the process that inspired me to make the search for meaning in biblical narratives a driving force in my life.

Sir Walter Scott called Judah’s speech, “the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence extant in any language” (Joseph Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, P. 169).

We wonder though, why does Joseph treat his brothers so harshly? Why does he accuse them of being spies? Why does he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why does he instruct his steward to put his goblet into Benjamin’s bag?

Many commentators suggest that Joseph’s motive was revenge. The brothers mistreated Joseph and sold him as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back. Even W. Gunther Plaut, z’l, in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes that at first and understandably, “Joseph thought of revenge. He still wants revenge more than he wants love” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 284). However, if revenge had been Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused.

No, revenge was not Joseph’s motive.  Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed.

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. He tattled on them, he bragged about his dreams, and he proudly wore the famous “coat of many colors” that their father gave to Joseph and Joseph alone.  As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him away into slavery.

With Joseph gone, Benjamin became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he would be detained in Egypt as a slave and Jacob would once again suffer the loss of his favorite son.

Judah knows what is at stake.

If Benjamin does not return home safely, his father will die. Judah who so callously inflicted the pain of the loss of Joseph on his father is not willing to let it happen again. In his speech, the longest one to one address in the Bible, he offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin. That is all Joseph-who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence-needs to hear in order to end the charade.

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)].

In Parashat Va-yigash, Judah becomes a true hero. The story shows us his emergence as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” derive from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past and live more positive, purposeful lives in the future.

 

I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary.  

New Year’s Resolution

In Chariots of Fire, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture (along with three others) in 1982, Harold Abrahams, winner of the 1924 gold medal in the 100 meter race, compares his compulsively driven personality unfavorably to that of his friend Aubrey Montague who finished sixth in the steeplechase that year.

For all his fame and success, Abrahams laments he has never found contentment: “You, Aubrey, are my most complete man,” because, and I am paraphrasing now, you are content with who you are and do not spend your life as I have always trying relentlessly to prove your worth.

My New Year’s resolution for 2020 is to strive for the contentment that Abrahams saw in his friend Montague.

 Psalm 131 frames my quest:

 

Eternal One:

(Help me so that)

My heart is not haughty,

nor my eyes too lofty.

Neither do I exercise myself

in things too great

or too far beyond me.

Surely I have stilled

and quieted my soul

like a weaned child

with his mother.

Let my being be like

a weaned child. (Psalm131:1-2)

As a New Year begins, I hope to be as good a person, husband, father, grandfather, friend and rabbi that I can be.

 “Who is rich,” asked the second-century Sage, Simeon ben Zoma?

“The one who appreciates what he has.” (Pirke Avot 4:1)

Eternal One,

You have blessed me in ways too numerous to count.

Help me to quell regret for things that elude me

With profound gratitude for the things that I have.

May I come to realize, at last,

That the constant pursuit of more—

Is in the words of Kohelet:

“Vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Grant me, I pray, health and strength

To – in the days and years left to me –

Make life just a bit better

For others.

Amen