Harold Klein

Curtis Sliwa, Joseph and Us Guardian Angels

My oldest son Max had a fabulous project in eighth grade. He chose to create a video on anti-Semitism in America. I had the opportunity to work with Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels (those guys and gals in red berets all over the city protecting civilians) and radio host. I suggested having him as one of the interviews. Curtis is known to be a tremendous friend of the Jewish people. At a speech he gave at the Jericho Jewish Center after the Crown Heights riots, he blasted the audience, all Jews—“Where were you that night? I and my Angels were there, where were you?” Curtis certainly created a few sparks with that thought. On the video he shared a remarkable story after Max asked “why are you such a good friend to us?” He shared that he was brought up to be anti-Semitic. That he always heard in his home Jews put down, denigrated and in Catholic School, portrayed as evil doers, crooks—you know the story. Then he moved from Philadelphia to Brooklyn and went to South Shore high school where he interacted with Jewish guys. Turned out, not what he thought. He did see a difference though; he saw his friends always carrying stickball bats and his Jewish friends were carrying books. He befriended and learned from them. It is clear he took not only a liking, but if you listen to him, he learned much about our ways and our Torah. What we do is clearly not strange to the top Guardian Angel. When Max asked “why do you think there is anti-Semitism in America and what can we do about it?” Curtis said “people don’t know you; they see what you do as strange, foreign, creating separateness. Education is the key, you must educate people, don’t separate yourselves, educate others on what you do and why you do it. People will come to respect and appreciate you.” He went on to say “education is the light, the way out for many oppressed people.”

Joseph was a light unto nations, Joseph the youngest son of Jacob, Joseph the bearer of the multi-colored coat, Joseph despised by his brothers, Josepth the Tzadik (the Righteous One),Joseph the Dreamer.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” Dr. Martin Luther King

Abraham Joshua Heschel had a special attraction to Dr. Martin Luther King and MLK of AJH. Why was that? I believe they both saw a Shamash of a nation. A flame that was fueled from the sparks of understanding, walking a different path, of educating and of interacting with the world in a manner that also allowed for a solid maintaining of his identity and being.

“If the world is the work of G-d isn’t it conceivable that there be within his work signs of his expression?……Behind the radiant cloud of living, perplexing the unacquainted radiant soul…lifting the curtain of un-knowableness…… in far reaching wisdom, undeserved, yet waving will not feel alien to the minds that perceived not a spark, but a flame. Rabbi Heschel

That statement indeed is a mind-full. I believe Heschel is sharing Curtis Sliwa’s chiddush and it is truly appropriate to connect this notion to the story of Joseph and Chanukah that reveals for us a very special message in the following regard. …
Last week we read a Haftorah by Obadiah the Prophet who converted to Judaism from Edom. He learned from living with such G-dless people, that he was called upon to prophesize against those ways. We read “For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations………..And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame.” The flame is what we see, what we can focus on, become affixed to.

I see a major theme of this week’s Parasha as one of light, of exposing the Menorah as we are required, to the entire world to see, of a story of Joseph in particular living Torah Umadah. With its proximity to Chanukah and the message it conveys to us, is stirring.

Rav Kook draws a direct connection to the story of Joseph and this Parasha to Chanukah and its message; “There were two schools of thought in Jacob’s family…. Joseph stressed the mission of the Jewish people as ‘a light unto the nations’…..Joseph felt that we must interact with the nations of the world and expose them to the monotheistic teaching of Judaism.” Judah (representing the brothers) he points out was concerned about intermingling… “a nation that dwells alone” … Numbers 23:9. He shares that Judah felt that Joseph’s concept of interacting with the world was the danger, not Joseph, he did not want to kill Joseph, just that notion. Perhaps, that attitude is the attitude that truly kills us and that fosters anti-Semitism. Briefly, R.Kook brings that Chanukah commemorates a similar struggle, “the conflict between those seeking integration with the rest of the world and those striving to preserve the distinct sanctity of the Jewish people…The Hellenists versus the Hasmonean Priests—The Hellenistic Jews wanted to adopt the the Greek customs claiming to be following Joseph’s path of openness”….but he points out they ignored Joseph’s underlying goal, to educate the nations.” The Hasmoneans were priests following the notion of Judah, wanting separation. “As Kohanim they benefited from the special sanctity of priesthood in following a path of separation from the rest of the people.” R. Kook concludes his thoughts reflecting the importance of the nations’ understanding our ways (through education) which will elevate us and accept upon themselves the Miztvot! In other words, participate in Obadiah’s journey.

I see it like this; the brothers represented an isolated community, living in a Ghetto. Could it be that the “evil reports” from Joseph shared that notion with Yaakov? In last week’s Parasha Yaakov was deeply troubled after Simeon and Levi’s violent reaction in Shechem to its peoples, “Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land….” He tells them “I and my house shall be destroyed” Is this thought not a direct relevance to the theme of instigating anti-Semitism!? G-d after changing Yaakov’s name said “a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee….”

Perhaps, a Prophesy from Yaakov regarding being among “the nations” was the giving of the multi-colored coat that the brothers hated. They hated the multi-colored coat. Heschel wrote that it was of particular and critical importance that the Jew recognizes the plight of the “colored.” In Joseph’s dream, is it possible when sharing “the sun and moon and the eleven stars (all bodies of light) bowed down to me” could be his pleading, to follow his lead, his path, his light, his dream?

I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. MLK

Joseph after leaving home.. “a certain man found him, and behold, he was wandering in the field..” Could that “man” represent the outside nations….do we not, are we not wandering? Have not certain nations “found” us in our wandering? Joseph indeed did go on and interact with, lead and demonstrate unto the Nations the meaning of the idea of a Hebrew’s Vision of a relationship, with, of a total commitment to, of an attachment to one G-d and G-d’s ultimate care, found in the feeding of the world.
“Israel is more than an instrument in God’s design. Israel is made to be ‘a witness to peoples’… ‘You are my witnesses’ ….Israel is called to be ‘A light to the nations’, To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, ….from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Heschel

Please remember that the brothers very possibly because of the implications of the mult-colored coat “cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness”… to isolate Joseph’s message…the Torah tells us “they stripped Joseph of his coat, thee coat of many colors….” and cast him into the pit. Later in the story we also find him in the dungeon.

After other nations found Joseph they saw his value and the light of Joseph… ‘” and there passed by Midiannites, merchantmen and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit”….

So, what is the message, the call to action to us Guardian Angels of G-d’s word?

Last week at the Gym, I’m cycling away. The gym I go to is mixed, multi-cultural. On my right side are 3 guys of color, big guys talking about how happy and relieved they were that President Obama was re-elected allowing for their people to realize payback for what they never had. Ok, they are just talking. BUT! one fellow says, “we never had what the Jews that came here from the Holocaust had…..America gave them lots of money, Germany gave them money, they…” I couldn’t bear hearing that, I raged within for a multitude of reasons…. “how dare you!!?? My father slept on a park bench with nothing when he came here, a survivor…how dare you say that, you have no clue…” The ring leader said I should mind my own business and that the Jews did take money. Well it got heated, the main guy said to his credit & certainly not out of fear,“this is getting to a bad place, I better walk away.” After my workout I realized I was going to have to see them, him again and really Curtis’ thought was sounding in my head. I went over to the main guy and said I need to share with you why I spoke up… “My father and many Jews couldn’t take money from Germany, My father said I would take money in trade for my family’s blood? They murdered his family…..if anyone knows the challenges of blacks, Jews do..…” I went on and educated him. He listened. We shook hands and now when Duane comes in, he makes it a point to come over and give me a warm hello and a fist pump. Thank you Curtis, thank you Joseph. Your message is truly a light to shine upon the world. I pray we can all live to become Guardian Angels of the true message.

Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom.
Zvi Hersh Ben Naftali HaKohain

About the Author
Co-founded with Nan Klein in 1976 one of the country's first video companies. We produce programming for the top organizations in the world. We live a fully Shomer Shabbat life in Woodmere, NY.