Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 15, 2018 Vayigash “And he approached”

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 15, 2018

Vayigash (“And he approached”)
44:18-47:27 Bereshit (Genesis)

Vayigash is the eleventh sedrah in the Book of Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “And Judah approached him and said.…”  This sedrah is the third in the Joseph/Jacob cycle.  It is ironic that a sedrah that begins “Then Judah came near unto him and said…” is important not just for what is said but what is left unsaid.  For some students, that which is left unspoken is the most intriguing part of the sedrah.  Vayigash is another action packed sedrah that begins with the deliverance of Benjamin and ends with the Israelites settled in the Goshen.

Judah Steps Up to the Plate (44:18-44-24)
Vayigash picks up where Miketz left off with Judah pleading for Benjamin’s freedom.  In one of the most eloquent speeches in the Bible, Judah pulls out all of the stops as he attempts to save Benjamin from slavery and Jacob from the certain death that will take place if Benjamin does not return home.  Unbeknownst to Judah, Joseph is not moved so much by Judah’s words as he is by the fact that Judah is willing to risk all to save his brother.  Unlike the time when Joseph was faced with possible death and certain enslavement, here Judah is willing to become a slave in order to spare his brother and his father.  Judah has promised Jacob that he would protect Benjamin and he proves himself to be a man of his word.  This alliance of Judah and Benjamin is a foreshadowing of Jewish history.  The Southern Kingdom will be composed of the large tribe of Judah and the small tribe of Benjamin.  They will stand in opposition to the Northern Kingdom composed of the ten tribes referred to by some as the Joseph tribes.

The Revelation of Joseph and the Reuniting with Jacob (45:1-46:30)
Joseph cannot contain himself any longer.  He is so moved by Judah’s words that he dismisses his servants and, weeping, announces to his brothers, “I am Joseph... I am Joseph your brother - it is me, whom you sold into Egypt.”  Knowing that his brothers might be frightened by this revelation, Joseph reassures them that he bears them no ill will since what they did was part of God’s plan.  “Be not distressed nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that God sent me ahead of you…it was not you who sent me here but God….”

After further reassurances and entreaties from Joseph and Pharaoh, the gift-laden brothers return to Canaan.  Their mission is to bring Jacob and all of the Israelites back to settle in Egypt.  “They went up from Egypt and came …to Jacob their father.  And they told him…Joseph is still alive and…he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.”  At first Jacob cannot believe his ears, but when he sees the laden wagons from Pharaoh his disbelief disappears and he declares “My son Joseph still lives!  I shall go and see him before I die.”  He then packs up the family and heads south.  This is one of those moments of puzzling silence.  Why didn’t Jacob ask about the “death of Joseph?”  Why didn’t Jacob express any words of anger or recrimination over the fact that his sons let him mourn for over twenty years?  Why didn’t the brothers apologize to Jacob for their deception?  After all, according to Jewish law, in order to gain forgiveness, one must apologize to the injured party.  The silence is deafening and mystifying, but it is only one of many silences in this sedrah.

As Jacob prepares to leave Canaan, he hears from God directly (46:1-4).  At Beer-sheba, God tells Jacob not to fear going to Egypt; that He, God, will go down with His children and He will redeem them.  At a personal level, Jacob will be taken care of even unto death with Joseph there to close his eyes.  This revelation takes place at night, which reinforces the connection between Jacob and the Evening Service.  The Torah provides a detailed listing of the Israelites going into Egypt.  The tally comes to seventy.  But just as there is some “confusion” as to who is included when the term the Twelve Tribes is used, so is there some question as to who constitutes the seventy souls.  Dinah is named in the genealogy, but we are not sure in what capacity.  Also listed is Serah, the daughter of Asher.  She is the only granddaughter mentioned in the tally.  While there are commentaries giving reasons for this, the text is silent as to this oddity (46:8-27).  This section of the sedrah ends with Joseph and Jacob reuniting in tearful embrace.  Jacob utters the classic line “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.”  And then there is silence.  No question about why Joseph had not sent word to his father that he was alive.  There are no questions about anything from either of them.  There is just the sound of silence; a silence which can prove deafening for the modern reader.

Pharaoh and the Israelites (46:31-47:12)
As his family, including his father, figuratively bow down to him, the second of Joseph’s dreams comes true.  Joseph organizes the settling of the clan in Egypt.  He instructs his brothers in how to speak to Pharaoh and he orchestrates Jacob’s meeting with the Egyptian ruler.  Three things of note occur in these conversations.  First Joseph tells his brothers to describe themselves as breeders of livestock and not as shepherds.  Yet the brothers tell Pharaoh that they are indeed shepherds.  Was Joseph trying to create a better family history with which to impress the Egyptians?  Why did the brothers defy their powerful brother?  Did they not realize in what low esteem Egyptians held shepherds?  Or are we seeing an echo of that same defiance to Joseph’s pretensions to power that we saw in the opening verses of Va-yayshev?  Commentators may speculate, but once again, the text is silent.  Secondly, when Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is Jacob responds by saying, “Few and hard have been the years of my life.”  This is a strange answer for a man who has lived to see the sons of his sons grow to manhood, who has lived to see one of his sons become Viceroy of Egypt and who has spoken with God.  Is this more of the same self-pitying whine that we heard when the sons avenged Dinah or when they returned without Simeon or is there a deeper meaning?  We can explore this further next week when Jacob closes his eyes for the last time.  Thirdly, Joseph is determined to see to it that his family will maintain its own identity.  He secures Pharaoh’s approval to settle them in Goshen, a distinct area where they will not intermingle with the Egyptians.  Joseph may have taken an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife but for whatever reason, he is determined to see to it that the Israelites do not lose their identity.  Of course, at one level, this has to be done as part of the God’s plan.  The Israelites must maintain their group identity so that the Exodus can take place.

The Famine Continues (47:13-27)
The famine continues unabated just as the dreams had said it would.  The people are reduced to a status similar to sharecroppers in the post- Civil War southern part of the United States.  Only the priests get to keep their holdings.  At the same time, there appear to be transfers of population reminiscent of Stalinist Russia.  We should compare the response to famine, poverty and land tenure in Egypt with the laws we have already read in Devarim on this same topic.  The contrast is startling.  The last sentence in the sedrah provides a startling contrast between the plight of the Egyptians and that of the Israelites.  While the Egyptians were tottering on the brink of starvation and surrendering their land for bread the Israelites “were acquiring holdings…and were fertile and increased greatly.”

The Seventy
Who are the seventy who went down to Egypt?  According to the Torah the tally is made up of the following elements.  First, there are the twelve sons and one daughter of Jacob.  Then there are all of their living off-spring including the two sons born to Joseph in Egypt.  Next there are two grandsons of Judah who in effect replace his two sons who died (see the story of Tamar).  This adds up to only sixty-nine souls.  There are three views as to who makes up the seventieth.  Some say it was Jacob.  Some say it was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi.  Supposedly she was conceived in Canaan but born as they crossed into Egypt.  Those who count Jochebed believe that this is the same Jochebed who will be the mother of Moshe.  Finally, some say the seventieth was the “Divine Presence” which accompanied the Israelites into what would ultimately be the Egyptian Bondage.

No matter how you cut it, the chaotic and sometimes hostile family life we saw in the time of Abraham and Isaac continues through the family of Jacob.  At the obvious level, Rueben has been supplanted by both Joseph and Judah.  At the unspoken level, one cannot help but wonder about what was going on in the minds of Jacob and Joseph when the father learned that the son was alive.

Egypt versus Israel
The laws of the Torah stand in stark contrast to the life of the Egyptians.  Some might say that Egypt was an abhorrent place and the Torah was designed to keep us from being like the Egyptians.  The response to the famine at the end of the sedrah provides one example.  In Egypt, the Priests keep their lands.  In the Torah, the Levites are landless and the Israelites are commanded to support them and the Cohanim.  In Egypt, the people become landless.  In the Torah, the Israelites are commanded to observe the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.  As we read more Torah, look for more of these contrasts to see if this hypothesis has any validity.

The descendants of Abraham are no longer called Hebrews.  Now they are Israelites.  They are the Sons of Israel.  In the Hebrew text the term “Sons of Israel” appears not just as two separate words; it now begins to appear in a hyphenated form.

Appearances of God
When Jacob left for Laban’s home, God appeared to Jacob.  When it was time for Jacob to leave Laban’s home and return to Canaan, God appeared to Jacob.  And now God appears to Jacob when it is time to travel one last time; only this time it is to Egypt, a place from which he will not return alive.  There are several possible messages in this last encounter with the Lord.  God appears to Jacob at night, which is unusual.  According to some, this nocturnal appearance is God’s way of assuring Jacob that he will be with the Israelites during the long night of the bondage that is to come.  Remember that Jacob is Israel and we are the children of Israel.  For the Israelites, for the Jews, the message is that no matter where we travel, God is always with us.

Jacob has three dreams.  The first is “Jacob’s ladder.”  The second is Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.  The third is found in this sedrah when God calls out to Jacob and the Patriarch accepts the fact that he must go down to Egypt.  There is a midrash that tells of Jacob refusing to climb the ladder because he is afraid.  This is symbolic of Jacob’s fear of taking responsibility, of entering into history.  Now, he lets God comfort him.  He lets God allay his fear and he is able to enter into history, to play the role that needs to be played.

Customs and Ceremonies
We know from our studies that the Jew prays three times a day and that each of the services is rooted in the ritual of Temple.  According to tradition, each service is also connected with one of the Patriarchs.  Ma’ariv, the evening service, is connected to Jacob in general and to the episode of his last nocturnal encounter with God before going into Egypt.  The evening service actually marks the start of the next day even though it is recited before the start of the long night of darkness.  This matches God’s last appearance to Jacob, which serves a reminder that the evening is the prelude to a long night of darkness that will end in the daylight of freedom.

How do we know we have been forgiven for a sin?  When confronted with same situation, we do not behave in that manner again.  This is the message of Judah.  The first time, he betrays his brother and allows him to be sold into slavery.  The second time, he offers himself up rather than allow his brother to become a slave.  Interestingly enough, Judah continues to lie about the fate of Joseph.  He continues to portray Joseph as being dead and never does own up to what he did.  Since some commentators consider this episode with Judah to be the epitome of Teshuvah, how does this fit in with the Jewish conception of seeking forgiveness from those whom we have wronged before we can seek God’s forgiveness (see Yom Kippur)?

Peace in the House
Avoiding conflict is an important Jewish value.  When sending his brothers back to Jacob, Joseph says, “Do not fight on the way.”  In other words do not quarrel among yourself over who was responsible for selling me into slavery.  Other commentators say Joseph was telling them, “Do not worry on the way.”  They contend that Joseph is telling the brothers not to worry about facing recriminations for selling him into slavery.  Also, they need not worry about the future as long as they follow his instructions.

Some commentators erroneously refer to Goshen as the first ghetto.  A ghetto is place of involuntary confinement.  Goshen was a district at the edge of Egypt.  It enabled our ancestors to live in Egypt without losing their identity.  The so-called Jewish neighborhood was a common phenomenon in many major American metropolitan areas, which served a similar purpose as that of ancient Goshen.

More About Shepherds
The Israelites are supposed to identify themselves as breeders of livestock to ensure that the Egyptians will assign them a separate place to live i.e., Goshen.  The text continues with the words “For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians” (46:34).  This hatred of shepherds has produced a great deal of commentary; little of it very satisfying.  Why did the Egyptians hate shepherds and what impact would that have on the future fate of the Jewish people?  Consider the following.  Egypt had become a sedentary, feudal society.  All of its citizens were bound to the land.  Shepherds were outsiders at best; synonymous with rebels at worst.  Shepherds could come and go as they pleased.  Shepherds were nomadic.  Since they were not tied to the land, they had no place in society.  The very free-wheeling nature of their existence posed a threat to the Pharaoh’s authoritarian rule since they were a constant reminder that men could and did exist in a world beyond Pharaoh’s control.  To the extent that the Israelites would become synonymous with Shepherds in the Egyptian mind, they would be seen as a threat to the established order.  They were free people living in an authoritarian world and this would set them up for the interplay that is found in the opening chapters of Shemot, the Book of Exodus.

On the other hand, there may be no rational explanation for the Egyptians’ abhorrence of Shepherds.  The lesson here may be one about the simple evil of bigotry.  First the Egyptians abhorred Shepherds.  Then they invented rationalizations for their hate to justify their behavior.  Is this not the truth of anti-Semitism?  First people hate Jews.  Then they find excuses for their hate.

Of course for those who remember the range wars of 19th century American West, this could be nothing more than an ancient version of the cowman versus the sheep herder.  Maybe there is something “genetic” about the competition of those who chase cows and those who herd sheep.

Apologies and Commentaries
At the end of the story of the Rape of Dinah, I said she disappeared from the Torah.  Since she is mentioned in the listing of the names in this sedrah, I was wrong.  In 45:8, Joseph refers to himself as “the father to Pharaoh.”  The commentary in Etz Hayim assures us that no such title existed in ancient Egypt.  The commentary in Plaut assures us that this is a translation of an official Egyptian title.  Somebody has it right and somebody has it wrong; or so it would appear.

Jewish Identity
Who is a Jew?  What does it mean to be Jewish?  How do Jews define themselves?  These questions have taken a special urgency with the growth of various Jewish renewal movements and as individual Jews work to deepen their connection with their faith and heritage.  As we will continue to see, these are not new questions and as with all good questions, there are no simplistic answers.  In his commentary on this portion entitled “Member of the Clan,” Professor Avigdor Shinana from Hebrew University offers some interesting insights.  He contends that this portion reveals three ways of identifying and deepening Jewish identity.  Joseph reveals himself to his brothers with three different statements.  First he tells them “I am Joseph” (45:3) followed by a narrative of how his brothers sold him into slavery.  Note before actually beginning this narrative he says to the brothers, “Come close to me if you please” (45:4)  Sensing that they do not believe him, Joseph finishes the narrative saying “…it is my mouth that is speaking to you” (45:12) or “It is I who am speaking to you.”  When he tells his brothers I am Joseph and then relates the family history, they do not believe him.  After all they last saw him as callow youth of 17 and the person before them is a bearded viceroy of the Pharaohs - a man whom they have no reason to trust given their experience with him.  For all they know, this man might have heard these stories from somebody else and is using them for his own devious ends.  But when Joseph says, “it is my mouth that is speaking to you,” Shinana says that Joseph is really saying, I am speaking to you in our language - Hebrew.  Remember up until this moment, Joseph had always talked to the brothers through interpreters.  It is only just before the revelation of his identity that Joseph sends everybody out of the room and speaks directly to the brothers.  The reasons that he asks the brothers to “come close to me” is so that he can show them something hidden that nobody else has seen - his circumcision which marks him as being a member of their family.

The rabbis who developed these interpretations lived in the Graeco-Roman world which abhorred circumcision and had no use or knowledge of Hebrew.  Hebrew and circumcision are two sources of Jewish identity.  The third is the plainly stated one - knowing the family and its history.  “Hebrew, circumcision and knowledge of a shared past were among a Jew’s identity badges in the ancient world…Anyone who wants to fade into his surroundings could conceal his circumcision, avoid Hebrew, and not mention his people’s past.  But the signs are available when it comes time (as with Joseph) to identify oneself to other Jews.”  The modern interpretation goes deeper.  After all circumcision was a masculine rite and in today’s world we are concerned about the Jewish identity of both Joseph and Josephine.  Circumcision becomes an example of all the religious commandments.  Hebrew stands not just for the language but for the shared Jewish culture.  The family story that Joseph told is emblematic of the whole history of the Jewish people.  Just as Joseph used these “three strands of shared identity” to re-unite with his family, so can those seeking a deeper connection with their Judaism use them in their quest.

Names 2
“God spoke to Israel in night visions and He said, “Jacob, Jacob.”  And he said, “Here I am.”  We have seen name changes in the Torah.  For example Abraham and Sarah both had their names changed.  But once the change took place, their old names were never used again.  The name change for the third patriarch is unique.  He begins life as Jacob and then becomes Israel.  But we keep seeing references to him using both names.  In this final encounter, even God cannot seem to make up His mind as to the name of the patriarch.  Is this a case that even though he had come to embody the changes brought on by maturity he could not shake off the behaviors of his early “Jacob” years?  In truth, I have not found a commentary that explains this and hope that one of you will be able to provide one.

Judah and Ephraim
The reading opens with Judah playing the role of family leader when he heroically stands up to the second most powerful person in Egypt - a person with the power to kill him with the flick of a finger.  Later when the tally is given of the 70 people who comprise the core of the Israelite community, Ephraim is not even mentioned by name.  But we are reminded that he is the grandson of Jacob, not the son of the Patriarch and we are reminded that his mother is one of the Egyptians whose descendants would enslave the Israelites.  “And Joseph’s sons who were born to him in Egypt were two in number.” (46:27).  Judah will become synonymous with the Southern Kingdom, the remnant of which survived the Babylonian Exile and provided us with the term Jew by which we are known today.  Ephraim became synonymous with the Northern Kingdom; the Kingdom of Israel that turned to idolatry, lost its connection with Ha-Shem and disappeared into the lands of the victorious Assyrian Empire.  Does this week’s reading foretell the fate of the two kingdoms?  Or was this reference in Vayigash a way of explaining the fate that befell the two kingdoms?  Here are a couple of more Kiddush or Cholent Questions for your consideration.

37:15-28 Ezekiel

The Book/The Man:  Ezekiel is one of the Three Major Prophets.  The other two are Isaiah and Jeremiah.  This grouping comes from the size of their books, not just the quality of their teachings and preachings.  Ezekiel lived at the time of the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.)  He is a younger contemporary of Jeremiah.  He was born about 620 B.C.E. and died about 570 B.C.E.  We know little about his personal life from the text.  He is described as the son of Buzi and is a member of the priestly family of Zadok.  He was married and his wife died suddenly.  He was carried into captivity by the Babylonians and lived in a place called Tel-abib (Hill of Corn Ears) on the banks of the Chebar River.  Apparently this was one of the sections set aside for the exiles.  According to legend, Ezekiel died of unknown causes during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar and was buried in a town lying between the Euphrates and the Chebar rivers.  A synagogue was built on that site and as late as the twelfth century pilgrims came there to read from a Sefer Torah supposedly written by Ezekiel’s own hand.

The Message:  Ezekiel is unique in many ways.  He was a seer, an inspired speaker and a member of the priestly class with knowledge of Temple ritual.  In his preachings Ezekiel “was unable to distinguish between the ritual and moral elements in religion, since he coupled high social morality with ritualistic demands.”  He was the first prophet to preach after the destruction of the Temple.  His audience consisted of the exiles, the remnant that has survived the destruction of both kingdoms.  According to one historian, the nation had gone from a population of four million in David’s time to approximately one hundred thousand at the time of the Babylonian Exile.  These dwindling numbers coupled with the reality of exile could have meant the end of the Jewish people.  The challenge for Ezekiel was to explain the plight of the nation in terms of its moral shortcomings while offering a vision of future redemption.  In the realm of personal morality, he assured the people that they would be rewarded and punished according to their own behavior.  They would not be punished for the sins of those who came before.  Nor could they rely on the merit of others for their own forgiveness.  Two of his most famous visions are the Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones and the Vision of the Sticks, the prophetic portion coupled with this week’s sedrah.  But Ezekiel was given to other visions as well - for example, the famed Merkavah or Divine Throne-Chariot.  This vision gave rise to a whole school of mysticism called the Masseh Merkavah or Work of the Chariot.  For once I do not feel the need to apologize for my lack of knowledge since the study of this is “reserved for men of the highest degree of mental and moral perfection.”  Fortunately there are other Haftarot taken from Ezekiel.  This will provide us with an opportunity to discuss his message and teachings in greater detail.

Theme- Link:  The sedrah and haftarah both describe reunifications of the Children of Israel.  In the sedrah, the reunification takes the form of the brothers meeting with Joseph and the family of Jacob all moving to Egypt.  In the haftarah, Ezekiel describes a future reunification when the Ten Lost Tribes, the Joseph Tribes, will be reunited with the Judah (and Benjamin) tribes of the Southern Kingdom.  The two kingdoms will become one united under a single king descended from the house of David.  The haftarah comes from the second half of Chapter 37.  The first half of Chapter 37 is the Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones.  The two visions are companions.  One describes a spiritual reunification.  The other describes a political reunification.  In both visions, the prophet uses the term Ben-Adam, Son of Man.  This majestic phrase is a signature line for Ezekiel, appearing over one hundred times throughout his writings.  In referring to the prophet in this manner, we are reminded that although a person might gain great spiritual insight, he is not divine; he is always Ben-Adam, Son of Man.

Copyright December, 2018, Mitchell A. Levin

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 8, 2018 through Hanukkah Sixth Day Rosh Chodesh Shabbat Shel Chanukah Miketz

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 8, 2018

(Shabbat Shel Chanukah)
First Scroll
41:1-44:17 Bereshit

Triple Header
When Rosh Chodesh Tevet falls on Shabbat Chanukah, as it does this year, three scrolls are taken from the Ark.  The first scroll is for the regular weekly reading.  Six people are called to the Torah.  The second scroll is for the Rosh Chodesh Torah Reading.  One person is called to the Torah.  The third scroll is for the Chanukah Reading (always the Sixth Day reading).  One person, the maftir is called to the Torah.

First Scroll
Miketz, (literally “at the end,” the first distinctive word in the portion) is the tenth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis) and the second in the Jacob/Joseph cycle.  The sedrah divides neatly into two parts.  The first part (41:1-56) recounts Joseph’s rise to power as he becomes second most powerful person in Egypt.  The second part (42:1-44:17) recounts Joseph’s first two encounters with his brothers.

Joseph’s Rise To Power (41:1-56)
Two years have passed since the end of last week’s sedrah.  The cupbearer has been restored to his position, but he has failed to keep his promise and Joseph continues to languish in prison.  Miketz opens with one of those famous Bible Stories that we all heard in Sunday School.  Pharaoh dreams of seven fat cows rising from the Nile that are consumed by seven lean cows.  He then dreams of seven ears of corn that are swallowed up by seven thin ears of corn.  When nobody can interpret the dreams in a meaningful way, the cupbearer remembers Joseph, the interpreter of dreams.  Joseph is brought before Pharaoh who tells Joseph of his dreams.  It should be noted that the dream and what Pharaoh describes as the dreams are slightly different.  Compare 41:1-7 with 41:17-24.  In speaking of the cows Pharaoh adds “never had I seen their likes for ugliness in all the land of Egypt!”  In speaking of the ears of corn he adds “but when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them for they looked just as bad as before.”  In other words, Joseph does not actually interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he interprets Pharaoh’s second version of the dream.  The additional comments Pharaoh makes help provide clues as to their meaning.  At any rate, Joseph describes the dreams as a revelation from God of impending events.  What is left to Pharaoh is to find a way to cope with what is coming.  Fortunately, Joseph has a plan of action that Pharaoh is only too glad to adopt.  And since it is obvious to Pharaoh that Joseph has insight into God’s will, Joseph is the obvious choice to carry out the plan.  The willingness of this Pharaoh to acknowledge God is far cry from the view of God displayed by the Pharaoh we see at Pesach.  This part of the sedrah ends with Joseph becoming a full member of the Egyptian society.  The Hebrew slave gets an Egyptian name and is given a prominent Egyptian woman for his wife.  When Joseph was cast into the pit, he lost his status in the material world.  Now, he has not only regained what he lost, he has reached undreamed of heights in the material world.  In other words, the first part of the sedrah can be viewed as the Material Redemption of Joseph.

Joseph’s First Two Encounters With His Brothers (42:1-44:17)
The narrative shifts back to Canaan and the house of Jacob.  Famine is abroad in the land and Jacob sends ten of his sons down to Egypt to buy supplies.  The Torah is silent as to why he sent ten.  Certainly one or two of them could have made the purchases.  The text is explicit as to why it is ten and not eleven.  Benjamin, the remaining son of Rachel, was to stay with Jacob “Lest disaster befall him.”  Does this mean that Jacob was still so caught up in playing favorites that he was willing to lose his other sons, but could not bear the thought of losing the living link with Rachel?

The brothers arrive in Egypt and when they see Joseph whom they recognize only as a great Egyptian official “they bowed down to him.”  Joseph not only recognizes his brothers, he recognizes the fulfillment of his youthful dream in their behavior.  Since Joseph knows who the brothers are, the accusations about being spies and the ensuing imprisonment cannot be for the reasons stated.  As the second most powerful person in Egypt, Joseph had no reason to fear his brothers.  So, is his behavior merely a very human act of revenge or is it, as some commentators suggest, a test by Joseph to see if his brothers have repented for what they did to him?  Or is it a combination of both?  Regardless, Joseph withdraws his charges, gives his brothers grain and sends them on their way back home.  But they must leave Simeon behind as a guarantee that they are not spies and that they will return with Benjamin.  Additionally, the brothers find that the money with which they paid for the grain has mysteriously been returned them.

When they come home, the brothers recount their tale to Jacob who responds in a tone of self-pity reminiscent of his response when he found out what his sons did to avenge Dinah.  The self-pitying wail “These things always happen to me!” is hardly the noble voice of a great patriarch.  Rueben makes his second, and last, attempt to play the role of the oldest son.  Rueben assures his father that that he can kill his sons if anything happens to Benjamin when they take him to Egypt.  Jacob spurns the offer.  The son who “lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine” and who was unable to save Joseph is swept away from the position of leadership he has failed to fulfill.  Be that as it may, the famine continues and Jacob is forced to send his sons back to Egypt to procure more food.  Judah now assumes the role that Rueben had attempted to fill and guarantees the safety of Benjamin.

Jacob, in a move reminiscent of his encounter with Esau, commands his sons to take gifts and double the money so that all will go well when they meet “the man” in Egypt.  Joseph still does not seem to have made up his mind about his brothers when he sees them for the second time.  In moves worthy of Laban, he tricks them into believing that all is well.  But in the end, he concocts an elaborate ruse that threatens the well-being of Benjamin and therefore the very life of Jacob.  The story carries echoes of early narratives.  The meal that Joseph feeds his brothers reminds us of the meal they ate while Joseph languished in the pit.  The “theft” of the cup (a religious object) by Rachel’s son is reminiscent of the theft of Laban’s household gods by Rachel.  The important thing, from Joseph’s point of view, is that the brothers do not desert Benjamin.  They will not leave him to languish in slavery.  They will not treat Rachel’s youngest son as they had her eldest.  Not only do the brothers all return to Joseph’s house, but Judah steps up to the plate to plead his brother case.  This sedrah is a cliffhanger.  We will have to wait until next week for the final outcome.

More than one kind of Smarts
When he finishes interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph offers the following solution, “And now shall Pharaoh look for an intelligent and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt” (41:33).  Why use both terms?  Why not just say either intelligent or just say wise?  The sages of the Middle Ages came up with explanations that are surprisingly consistent with modern management theorists.  According to Moses Ben Nachman, the 13th century Sephardic Rabbi also known as the Ramban, intelligence refers to human learning and human structures.  Wisdom refers to natural phenomena and properties.  The knowledgeable person knows the natural sciences as well as the humanities and the social sciences.  Another way of looking at this is that the knowledgeable person is conversant with secular and religious matters.  This leads logically to the concept that a person should divide his time between earning a living and studying Torah.

Free will versus Predestination
We have been reading about the beginning of the Israelite migration to Egypt.  Do the actors in this story really have any choice in the roles they are playing?  Remember the words uttered by God to Abraham in Bereshit 15:13,Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.…”

In Miketz, Joseph is still referred to as being a Hebrew.  For the first time, our ancestors are referred to as the “Sons of Israel.”  The Hebrew term is variously translated as the Children of Israel, as well as the more literal sons of Israel.  This is the name that will follow us throughout our history.

There would appear to be two famines described in Miketz.  One takes place in Egypt and is caused by the failure of the Nile to flood.  But there is a second famine in Canaan, a land not dependent upon the Nile.  So what is the common thread?  Rainfall or more simply the lack of rain.  The Blue Nile does not flood when there is insufficient rainfall in the land of the White Nile.  And we know from later Biblical references that droughts came to the Promised Land when there was a lack of rainfall.  Interestingly enough, at this time of the year when we read Miketz, we change the prayer in the Amidah to read “give dew and rain for a blessing.”  In other words, at a time when lack of rain plays such a prominent part in our history, we add the prayer for rain to our daily prayers.  It may be a coincidence, but sure is an interesting one.

Dress for Success
“Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph and he was rushed from the dungeon.  He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” (4:14-15).  Joseph does not appear before the King of Egypt in his work clothes.  He changes his outfit and cuts his hair.  If Joseph would take time to attend to his physical appearance before coming before the temporal King of Egypt, it makes you wonder why when people come to services to appear before the King of the Universe they do not at least make an attempt to emulate Joseph’s behavior.  Even the poor Jews of Eastern Europe took to heart the words of Shulchon Oruch when it came to dress and personal hygiene.

Economics 101
Much of the current economic misery could have been avoided if people had paid attention to the story about the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows.  The Bible provides us with a basic lesson of economics - prosperity does not last forever.  People must take action during the good times to ameliorate the pain of privation.  Considering the antiquity of the story of Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s Dreams, you would think that people would have gotten the message by now.  Unfortunately, such is not the case.

Miketz is usually the sedrah read during Chanukah.  In looking for a connection between the two we must be careful since the Torah came long before the holiday.  In Miketz, Joseph gives God credit for his ability to explain dreams.  In celebrating Chanukah, we give God credit for our ability to overcome the Syrians and for making the oil burn for eight days (yes, the last part is a myth but God still gets the credit).  But Chanukah is also a holiday that sparks discussion about assimilation and imitation.  The Chanukah fight was, in part, a fight between Jews who wanted to become like the Greeks and those who did not want to adopt their ways.  In Miketz, we see Joseph being transformed from a Hebrew slave into an Egyptian official.  In name, appearance and practice, he seems to become an Egyptian.  Yet, it is obvious that he does not forget his roots or his people.  Is enslavement the ultimate punishment for assimilation?  Is some form of assimilation the cost of physical survival?  These are questions raised in Miketz and that echo through the Chanukah story and down to our own times.

The role of dreams and visions which we saw in last week’s Torah portion continues in Miketz.  Those who think that dreams are the province of the ancient world or the ignorant and gullible might want to read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel for the importance of dreams and visions of the future in helping individuals move forward, and in the case of his experience during the Holocaust, survive in the worst Hell on Earth known to man.  Also, as Rabbi Sacks reminds us, two Viennese Jews gained fame for the involvement of dreams.  Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic therapy was steeped in the interpretation of dreams.  At the same time, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism who dreamed of Jewish state, responded to the mockery of his critics by saying “If you will it, it is no dream.”  As Eli Weisel pointed out, it is good thing that the two never met.  Who knows, Freud might have “explained” Herzl’s dream and in so doing put an end to his drive for creating a Jewish homeland.

There are those who contend that events in Bereshit foreshadow later events in the Jewish experience.  In Miketz, Joseph’s brothers do not recognize him.  For them, Joseph was a callow youth that they had sold into slavery.  Here, they are looking at Egyptian official - complete with the appropriate clothing of Pharaoh’s ranking minister and an Egyptian name.  In fact, they will only realize that this official is their brother when he reveals himself to him in next week’s reading.  Fast forward to the Book of Samuel where we read about the selection process for the first two monarchs.  Saul looked like a king because “he was head and shoulders above” all others. (1 Samuel 9:2).  On the other hand, when it came to choosing his successor David, God tells Samuel not “to consider his appearance or his height…The Lord does not look at the things people look at.  People look at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7).  In the case of Saul, the Jewish people were like Joseph’s brothers.  They took appearance at face value.  If you look like a government official, then that is what you must be.  If you look like a king, you must be the one who gets anointed.  In the selection of David the Jewish people finally get it right.  It is what is inside a person that is the measure of the person.  The trick is to look beyond appearance, beyond the superficial and to look into the deeper nature of the person to understand who and what they are.

Second Scroll
Rosh Chodesh Tevet (First Day)
28:9-15 Bamidbar

The reading from the second scroll is Bamidbar 28: 9- 15, the special Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh.  These verses are also part of the sedrah called Pinchas.  They describe the sacrifices brought to the Tabernacle on Rosh Chodesh.

Third Scroll
Sixth Day Chanukah
7:42-47 Bamidbar

The Torah is read on all eight days of Chanukah.  The special readings for Chanukah include the entire seventh chapter of Bamidbar and the first four verses from chapter eight.  During the year we read chapter seven as part of Naso and chapter eight as part of Beha’alotcha.  

Zechariah 2:12-4:7 (Ashkenazim and Sephardim)
Shabbat Chanukah

Usually there is a connection between the Weekly Torah Portion and the readings from the prophets.  However, since this is a holiday Shabbat, the haftarah usually read with the Torah Portion is replaced by a special reading from the Prophets that is connected to the holiday.  There is a special relationship between the concept of the haftarah and Chanukah.  According to some, the special reading from the Prophets began during the Syrian persecution when Jews were forbidden to study the Torah.  A reading from the Prophets was substituted for the Torah reading.  Apparently this practice proved to be so popular that it was modified and adopted as part of our observances.  During Chanukah, the haftarah is read only on Shabbat.  The special haftarah replaces the one normally paired with the weekly reading.  During those years when the first and eighth days of Chanukah fall on Shabbat, there are two different readings from the Prophets.  For this special guide, we will only concern ourselves with the special holiday message of the Haftarah.  We will discuss the Prophet and his message when we meet him during the annual cycle.

The special Torah readings for Chanukah deal with the dedication of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and the Menorah.  The prophetic portion for Shabbat Chanukah read by the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim envisions a restored Temple, the permanent dwelling that has replaced the Tabernacle.  In addition, the Haftarah references the Menorah and the olive oil.  Finally, the prophet predicts the ultimate triumph with the language “this is the work of the Lord….  Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit - said the Lord of Hosts.”  “And Thy word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.”  In other words, the victory of the few Jews over the mighty Syrians was a product of our faith in God.  This is the message of Chanukah.  This reading from Zechariah is also the Haftarah for the sedrah of Beha’alotcha, so we will be able to study its other messages when we come to it as part of the annual cycle.

Chanukah Literature
(This is not intended to be an all-inclusive discussion of Chanukah.  There are numerous books and websites which approach the story in depth and from all kinds of different points of view.)

The original source for the story of Chanukah comes from the Books of the Maccabees.  The first book covers the period from approximately 175 to 135 B.C.E. and describes the events of the revolt.  The second book covers a shorter period of time (175 to 160 B.C.E.).  It may be a shorter form of a five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene.  At any rate, it is a book portraying a war against the pagans and filled with tales of martyrdom.  These books are not in the TaNaCh.  They are part of the Apocrypha.  The Scroll of the Hasmoneans also tells the Chanukah story, but it probably dates back to the tenth century and is more or a compilation of popular legends.  At one time it was read in Italian synagogues much as the Scroll of Esther is read on Purim.  We can look to the First Book of the Maccabees for the origin of the holiday and why it lasted eight days.  “Then Judah and his brothers and the whole congregation of Israel established that the days of the consecration of the altar be celebrated for eight days at this period, namely beginning with the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, in joy and happy renewal.”  (I Maccabees 4: 36 - 61).  The holiday was tied to Sukkoth, which was the holiday associated with the dedications of the First and Second Temples.  In fact, the holiday may have been known as the Sukkoth Feast of the Month of Kislev.  The Mishnah, which was completed in the third century (almost three hundred years after the revolt) does not mention the holiday.  Chanukah and the cruise of oil story appear in the Gemara, the second part of the Talmud, which was finished at the start of the sixth century.

Unlike with Pesach, there are no required foods.  The custom is to eat foods cooked with oil because of the miracle of the oil burning for eight days.  Ashkenazim developed the custom of eating Latkes - potato pancakes.  Sephardim developed the custom of eating “sufganiyot” (doughnuts).  After all doughnuts are just dough cooked in oil.  Think of it - Krispy Kremes for Chanukah!

Blessings, Prayers and Songs
Everybody knows about the blessings over the Chanukah lights, which are recited after lighting the shamas but before lighting the candles themselves.  When lighting the candles, always do Chanukah before Shabbat, but do Chanukah after Havdalah.  In the synagogue, Hallel is recited as part of the morning service throughout the holiday.  A special prayer called Al haNissim (For the Miracles) is recited during the Shemoneh Esrei during each of the three daily services and during the Grace After Meals.  The version of this prayer recited at Chanukah summarizes the story of the Maccabees.  There are numerous songs that have been composed over the centuries concerning this holiday.  They include “Rock of Ages,” “Who can retell,” and that most ubiquitous one of all, “I Had A Little Dreydel.”  This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list and thanks to the wonders of the internet you can find all this and so much more with music included.

Copyright; December, 2018; Mitchell A. Levin

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 1, 2018 Va-yayshev “And he dwelt” or “settled”

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 1, 2018

Va-yayshev (“And he dwelt” or “settled”)
37:1-40:23 Bereshit (Genesis)

Va-yayshev is the ninth sedrah in Bereshit or Genesis.  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “And Jacob dwelt (Va-yayshev) in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.”  It is the third sedrah to begin with a verb describing the behavior of Jacob.  However, Jacob quickly fades into a secondary role.  Va-yayshev marks the end of the Jacob Cycle and the start of the Joseph Cycle.  The sedrah breaks into three main parts:  The Events Surrounding the Sale of Joseph, the Story of Judah and Tamar, and Joseph’s Early Years in Egypt.

The Events Surrounding the Sale of Joseph (37:1-36)
Since the story is pretty straightforward and most texts offer ample notes, I will limit my commentaries to a few salient points.  The opening statement “And now Jacob was settled in the land where his father sojourned” would indicate that Jacob thought his years of wandering were done and that he could settle down to enjoy the good life of a clan leader.  However, Jacob’s life will never be settled and he will never know the comfort that Abraham and Isaac enjoyed.  Some commentators contend that this is part of the price Jacob must pay for the way in which he supplanted Esau.  Others say that the work of the righteous is never done when it comes to carrying out the divine plan for the world.  Regardless, one of the more obvious reasons for this lack of rest is found in Jacob’s treatment of Joseph and his other sons.  We immediately find out that Joseph is a snitch, that he is his father’s favorite and that the older brothers hate Joseph for these reasons.

The second verse in Chapter 37 states, “And Joseph brought bad reports of them (his brothers) to their father.”  This is a prime example of the sin of forbidden speech, which is commonly called “lashon hara.”  Our sages have condemned this practice throughout the centuries.  That Joseph engages in such vile behavior is one thing.  That Jacob encourages such behavior is even worse.  If one ever one wonders where speaking evil of another can lead, just remember that Joseph’s bad reports about his brother were the first in a chain of events that helped bring us to bondage in Egypt.  The tale that ends up with Joseph being sold into slavery is quite repetitive.  It is another example of one child being favored over another with resulting negative consequences.  It is also another example of Jacob being deceived by his children.  Just as Jacob deceived his father and brother so is he fated to be deceived over and over again.  And finally, it demonstrates, once again, that our ancestors were quite capable of some rather vile behavior.  First, the brothers wanted to murder Joseph.  Then they were willing to let him die of thirst and starvation while they enjoyed their own meal.  And finally they contented themselves with selling their brother into slavery.  This latter offense is considered kidnapping, which is a capital crime under Jewish law.  It is worth noting that Rueben tried saving his younger brother.  But, in this case, the act of trickery failed.  The ultimate act of trickery has to be the brothers’ daily deception of their father over the “death” of Joseph.  How they could watch their father mourn for Joseph day in and day out, year in and year out, boggles the modern mind.  Whom did they hate more, Joseph or Jacob?

Joseph has two dreams in the opening verses of the sedrah.  The dreams are important for several reasons.  First, the content helps to fuel his brothers’ resentment, which will later result in his being sold into slavery.  Second, the dreams are important because they do in fact prove to be a portent of Joseph’s future relationship with his family.  And finally they are the first of three pairs of dreams that have a major impact on Joseph’s life.  As Joseph matures, he will learn that it is not enough to understand a dream.  One must also understand the people to whom one explains the dream as well.

Judah and Tamar (38:1-30)
Briefly, this chapter recounts the story of a woman named Tamar and Jacob’s son Judah.  Tamar marries Judah’s eldest son, Er.  He dies.  In accordance with the law, she then marries the second son, Onan.  He is the famous “seed spiller” and he also dies.  Jacob sends Tamar back to her family promising to send for her when the third son comes of age.  Possibly because he thought Tamar was somehow cursed, he “forgets” to send for her.  When Judah fails to keep his promise, Tamar disguises herself as a cultic prostitute, consorts with Judah and becomes pregnant by him.  When she is tried for her crime, she exposes the unwitting father, Judah, who, realizing her innocence, ensures that she is freed.  Why is this story inserted between two parts of the narrative about Joseph?  At one level, it is almost like an intermission; a tale told to cover the time while Joseph is actually making his way from Canaan to Egypt.  At another level, there are those who say that one clue is found in the introductory sentence, “And it came to pass…that Judah went down from his brothers…” (38:1).  Judah had made some attempt to save Joseph’s life.  He knew better than the wrong they had committed.  Being around his brothers was a constant reminder of what they had done so he moved away from them.  The sages also say that the events surrounding the death of Judah’s son were to teach him the pain he had caused his father.  Nobody can know what it is like to mourn for a child until he or she has suffered such a loss.  One of the connections between the Joseph story and the Judah story is that both are tales of enmity between brothers.  In the case of the Judah story, it is Onan’s enmity for Er.  Another connection is sexual fidelity - Potiphar’s wife and Joseph versus Tamar and Judah.  Only in the Judah story, the woman, Tamar, emerges as the moral victor.  Finally, the Joseph cycle is describing the history of the progenitor of the Northern Kingdom.  The Judah story describes the history of Judah, the progenitor of the Southern Kingdom.  More interestingly it provides further evidence of the strange origins of the House of David, since Tamar’s son Perez is David’s forefather.

Joseph’s Early Years in Egypt (39:1-40:23)
These chapters could have been called the Downs and Ups and Downs of Joseph.  He arrives in Egypt as an ordinary slave but then rises to a point where he is running the household of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief steward.  According to the text, all goes well because of the Lord’s blessings but nowhere in the text do we find God talking to Joseph as He had with the Patriarchs.  Joseph’s success is short-lived.

Potiphar’s wife invites Joseph into her bed and Joseph turns her down.  His rejection is based on moral grounds.  Apparently Joseph has matured since he left home because he had to know that there was grave risk in spurning the advances of his mistress.  After further rejection, Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of attempted rape and he falls from a position of power into the royal prison.  Clothing plays a prominent role in the life of Joseph.  It is his “cloak of many colors” that earns his brothers’ enmity and is used as evidence of his death.  It is a cloak in the hands of Potiphar’s wife that provides the evidence of his alleged rape.

Once in prison, Joseph repeats what seems to be his destined lot in life - the very successful chief administrator for the Egyptians.  Just as he managed Potiphar’s household, now Joseph manages the prison for the chief jailer.  Once again he is successful “because the Lord was with him.”  This role of successful administrator will culminate later when Joseph meets the Pharaoh.  While in jail, Joseph interprets the dreams of two Egyptian officials - the chief cupbearer and the chief baker.  This is the second pair of dreams that have an impact on Joseph’s life.  It should be noted that Joseph’s willingness to interpret these dreams is an act of kindness.  He only offers to interpret them because he sees that they are “downcast” over their dreams and because “there is no one to interpret them.”  This sensitivity to the feelings of others is a far cry from the swaggering seventeen-year-old we met at the start of Va-yayshev.  Also, it should be noted that Joseph does not claim to be the interpreter.  Instead he gives all of the credit to the Lord.  “Surely God can interpret (your dreams)!”  As every Sunday School child knows, Joseph’s interpretations prove to be true.  The baker ends up being killed and the cupbearer ends up being restored to his high office.  The sedrah ends on a seemingly negative note.  All that Joseph had asked as payment for interpreting the dreams was to be remembered so that he might be freed from his unjust imprisonment.  But the cupbearer forgot Joseph and left our forefather to languish in prison.

There are no name changes this time.  However, it is worth noting that the term Hebrews or Ivrim is used several times in the sedrah both by Potiphar’s wife and by Joseph himself to identify Joseph’s lineage.  The question of who were our ancestors and to whom in the ancient world are we related continues to puzzle archeologists and biblical scholars to this day.

Names II
Joseph tells his fellow prisoners who were Egyptians that he “was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews.”  Note, he does not say Canaan.  If you read the Bible literally, this would indicate that ancient Egyptians knew who the Hebrews were and where their lands were.  If you read the text as an explanation of later events in the manner of Rabbi Kugel, it still means that in antiquity the Promised Land was known as the land of the Hebrews.  Interestingly enough, in the 19th century and the early 20th century, the secular press referred to the Jews as “Hebrews.”

This topic will be more fully developed after we read about Pharaoh’s dreams in the next sedrah.  Suffice it to say that the Jewish view of the importance of dreams was not the same as that of the Egyptians or ancient people.  You might want to consider what the difference is between dreams and prophecy.

The Torah continues to present us with families that demonstrate high levels of dysfunctionality.  Ever since Cain and Abel, the Torah has demonstrated the negative consequences of favoritism.  And the behavior of Jacob’s sons shows that they are worthy successors (if that is the right term) to both Laban and Jacob.

Judaism puts a premium on memory.  We are reminded over and over again that we were slaves in Egypt lest we forget our humble origins and become haughty.  We have turned that need to remember into a major festival, Pesach.  Could this penchant for remembering have its antecedents in the failure of the cupbearer to remember Joseph once he had returned to power?  We can pursue this line of thought at the start of Shemot when a new Pharaoh comes to power; a Pharaoh who does not remember Joseph.

The Blood Not Shed Might Be Your Own
When the brothers are debating Joseph’s fate, Reuben calls out, “Shed no blood!  Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” (37:22).  From this utterance comes the following instructive tale.  In a town beyond the Carpathian Mountains, a penniless gentile stopped at the home of poor Jew who was known for feeding others, even with his own limited means.  The beggar said he hadn’t eaten for days and pleaded for a slice of bread.  It was Erev of Shabbat and the only bread in the house was the uncut loaves of Challah that would not be sliced until the evening meal.  When the Jew saw that his wife was reluctant to break into one of her specially prepared loaves, he called out to her, “Slice up a loaf; no blood will be lost because of it.”  The wife complied.  The beggar was fed and the incident was quickly forgotten.  Years later, this same Jew was traveling late at night.  A band of brigands attacked him, stripped him of possessions and brought him back to the camp where their leader would decide his fate.  Lo and behold, the chief of the thieves was the same starving gentile.  He looked at the Jew and remembered his kindness.  He told his comrades to give the Jew back his belongings and escort him safely home.  When the Jew entered his home he told his waiting wife, “Do you remember that I told you to slice up the loaf, and no blood would be lost because of it?  Well, because of it the blood that wasn’t lost was mine.”

When the pregnant Tamar was accused of being a harlot, her father-in-law Judah said, “‘Take her out and let her be burned.’  As she was taken out, she sent word to her father-in-law saying, ‘By the man to whom these belong I am with…’” (38:24, 25).  Tamar’s merit is that chose not to expose Judah in public.  She sent him the evidence in private so as not to shame him in front of the community.  From this episode the sages deduced the precept that a man should be willing to jump into a fiery furnace before embarrassing or shaming another person in public.  A corollary of this is that being right is important; being right in the right way may be even more important.

Never Words Without A Reason
The sedrah ends with “And the chief of the cupbearers did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (40:23).  Why doesn’t the text end with the phrase “did not remember Joseph” and instead tack on what appears to be the redundant “but forgot him.”  According to one Midrash, Joseph was ashamed of himself for having asked the cupbearer’s aid in getting out of prison (40:14).  He prayed to God to forgive him for what appeared to be a momentary lapse when he asked for human intervention instead of trusting in Divine Justice.  The restatement at the end of the sedrah shows that God had heard Joseph’s prayer and had answered it.  Another explanation is that the restatement is an example of the arrogance of the newly affluent.  The cupbearer is an example of those people who, having risen from humble origins, choose to forget from whence they came and the less fortunate whom they left behind.  By repeating the description of the cupbearer’s behavior, the author is reminding us of the great effort the cupbearer went to to “forget” the lowly state from which he had risen.  Once upon a time, there was an actor who was a liberal Democrat, a supporter of the New Deal.  Later in his career he started earning a lot of money.  He was upset about the taxes he had to pay.  One of his thespian colleagues told him he should become a Republican.  That was the party that let the wealthy keep their money and not pay taxes.  Forgetting how those very taxes had provided his own father with a New Deal job during the Great Depression; the actor switched his political persuasion and changed his political philosophy to one befitting his newly acquired wealth.  Eventually he would follow a peanut farmer from Georgia to the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Sometimes real life stories actually fit with Torah lessons.

Why was Onan punished?  The conventional wisdom centers its answer on the mechanics of his behavior.  There are those who would say that he was punished for the why of his behavior not the mechanics of it.  Onan spilled his seed because the product of the conception would have been considered to be his brother’s child.  In spilling his seed he was attempting to blot out his brother’s line, to make it as if he had never existed.  It would be like blowing out a yahrzeit candle or destroying somebody’s tombstone.  Jews put a premium on memory and remembering.  Over and over again we are commanded “Zachor” - Remember.  In modern times the Holocaust was not just an attempt to kill all of the Jews; it was an attempt to wipe out even the memory of the Jews’ existence.  When the Arabs held Jerusalem for twenty years, they desecrated the synagogues and used tombstones for paving stones for the same reason - to wipe out the memory of the Jews’ existence.  In our daily lives, how many of us behave like Onan, wiping out the memory of others?  Whenever we forget to thank those who have helped us accomplish a task we are in effect wiping out their memory.  Why are footnotes so important in the world of academia?  It is acknowledgement of the help a researcher was provided and that footnote may be some other writer’s only moment of immortality.

Sex in the Scripture
The stories about Tamar and Potiphar’s wife are not the first stories involving sex in the Bible.  Nor will they be the last.  There are numerous possibilities for including these two tales in the same weekly reading.  The story of Judah and Tamar portrays sex as a means of procreation and/or recreation.  The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife shows sexual relations evolving to a higher level.  Unlike the pseudo-soft core porn portrayed in today’s media, Joseph, the young, handsome hunk does not surrender to the lustful entreaties of the “older, sexy, married woman.”  Instead he enunciates a view that sexual relations are sacred; that marriage is a special relationship that, if violated, is an affront to God.  Is this a case that a sympathetic Northerner inserted a story that made the progenitor of the Joseph Tribes look superior to the founder of the Southern (Judah dominated) Kingdom?  Is it a case that the “Redactor” or redactors were trying to show that Jewish views of the relationship between men and women were constantly evolving, hopefully to a higher level?  Or is there a third explanation for placing these two apparently conflicting views of sexual relations in the same weekly reading?  Yes, another question for a long, languid Kiddush discussion.

Change in Status
“…Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah.” (37:2).  Previously Zilpah was described as the handmaiden of Leah and Bilhah was the handmaiden of Rachel.  The wives of Jacob gave these two women to him as concubines.  Without any warning the status of the two women is changed to that of “wives.”  How did this happen?  Was the change in status a result of the deaths of their mistresses, Leah and Rachel?  The text does not say.  But if the status of these women was upgraded from concubines to wives it makes one wonder why those who re-wrote the Amidah did not include them in the changed prayer.

In the opening of the sedrah, the text tells us that Joseph worked with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah - Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher.  This means that he did not work with the sons of Leah.  Is there a reason for this separation?  Is this another portent of the future division of the Leah tribes (Judah and Levi) from the Joseph tribes or as it comes to be known the Southern Kingdom and the Northern Kingdom.

Forbidden Relationships
In this week’s reading we are reminded that the world before Sinai (the giving of the law) and after Sinai were different places.  The Book of Leviticus contains a long list of forbidden relationships.  But here Judah has a child by the woman who is his daughter-in-law twice over.

Twins Again
As we have said, the “author” or “authors” seem to have a penchant for repeating literary themes.  In the case of the Tamar Story, the theme is twins, just as we saw with Esau and Jacob.  But in this case, the first child through the birth canal, Perez, is the one who will get the leadership role as can be seen by the fact that he is the progenitor of King David.  Also, we see a repetition of the theme of red.  Esau is described as being Red, while Zerah, the twin brother of Perez, came out with the crimson (or red) thread tied to his hand.  Unlike in the case of Esau, in this case “the red twin” came out second.

Just the Facts
In the Torah, the rationale for Judah supplanting Rueben begins with this week’s portion and continues intermittently over the next few weeks.  However, Chronicles, the last book in the TaNaCh which provides what might be called a “spare or lean” version of these same events.  What takes chapters in Bereishit is covered in just two verses in chapter 5 of Chronicles.  It can be instructive to read the parallel versions of events described in the first two sections of the TaNaCh with what appears in Chronicles which is, chronologically, “the last word.”

2:6-3:8 Amos

The Man:  Amos is too big a topic for a brief weekly summary like this.  He is a worthy subject for more than one book and/or a multiplicity of academic treatments.  For now we will try to say enough to cover the subject without being too overwhelming.  Fortunately, Amos will provide the text for another haftarah so we can spend more time on this moral giant and innovator.

Amos was probably the first of the literary prophets, even though his book has been placed third among the so-called Twelve Minor Prophets.  Unlike other prophets we have studied, we know a fair amount about him from the text itself.  He was from Tekoa, a small town near Bethlehem in Judah, the Southern Kingdom.  He was “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” and not a professional seer.  He only assumed the role of prophet because God said, “Go prophesy unto My people Israel.”  Although Amos lived in the Southern Kingdom, he preached in Israel, the Northern Kingdom.  The text says that he lived at the time of the King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II, King of Israel.  The text also references an earthquake and an eclipse.  Therefore we can safely assume that Amos preached from 765 B.C.E. to 750 B.C.E.  For the Northern Kingdom, this was a period of great wealth and prosperity.  But it was also a time of increasing income disparity with the newly emerging rich exploiting the ever-growing number of poor people.  It was this lack of social and economic justice that would animate the preaching of Amos.  Trouble came when he predicted the death of the king and the destruction of the kingdom.  It was at this point that the Amaziah, the “false priest” at the shrine of Beth-el condemned the prophet for treason.  However, instead of being put to death, Amos was banished and forced to return to Judah.  This lenient treatment may have hinted at his popularity.  We do not know how Amos met his death.

The Message:  As we can see from statements above in which Amos describes himself, he represented a new dimension in the world of prophets.  He was not a seer, a professional prophet or part of the retinue at court.  He would be the first in a series of divinely inspired critics who preached a message of social justice.  His preachings on this are consistent with the laws found in the Torah, especially in Devarim.  Ritual in a society without justice was meaningless.  “Take away from Me the noise of your songs; To the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice well up as waters, And righteousness as a mighty stream.”  It would be this lack of social justice that would lead to the exile of the Israelites from their home.

Amos was not opposed to ritual.  He was opposed to sham.  In the end, the need for making this a just society was a way to fulfill God’s plan for the world.  As to the issue of ritual and justice, we need them both.  As Plaut writes, “we constantly remember God’s presence with ritual and prayer and at the same time order our relationships with others in accordance with ethical principles.  Religion without ethics is not religion.”  But God is the source of truly ethical behavior.  As we can see from this haftarah another aspect of Amos’ message is his belief in the unique relationship between God and His Chosen People.  “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth…” (3:2).  But because of this unique relationship, much was expected of the Israelites.  “Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (3:2).  In other words, Jews are judged by a higher a moral standard.  God has given us more - the Exodus and the Torah - and therefore He expects more from us and punishes us more harshly.  You might not like the explanation for our suffering, but at least Amos provides one.  Amos also preaches a message of ultimate redemption.  In the end of the book, God, speaking through Amos, offers these words of hope to the Children of Israel.  “And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be plucked out of their land, which I have given them, saith the Lord thy God.” (9:15).

Theme-Link:  There are at least three possible links between the sedrah and the haftarah.  In the sedrah, we read about Joseph’s brothers selling him for twenty pieces of silver.  In the haftarah, Amos cries out against those who “sell the righteous for silver” (2:6).  Amos uses the Hebrew word tzaddik when speaking of the righteous sold for silver.  Rabbinic commentaries refer to our young hero as Yosef ha-Tzaddik (Joseph the Righteous) or simply as Ha-Tzaddik.  So there is a double link between the sedrah and the reference found in the haftarah.  In the sedrah we read the story of Judah and Tamar, a story about a father and his son sharing the same woman.  In the haftarah, Amos declares, “Father and son go to the same girl, and thereby profane My holy name.” (2:7).  Last but not least is the issue of the “garment” or, in Hebrew, “beged.”  In the sedrah we read about Potiphar’s wife grabbing hold of Joseph’s garment or “beged” as he escapes from her clutches.  She waves this garment as her proof of his villainy.  In fact, the garment is proof of his virtue, of his righteousness and his moral dignity.  He has left it behind rather than compromise his beliefs.  In the haftarah, Amos condemns the rich because “They recline by every altar on garments (begadim, pl. form of beged) taken in pledge” (2:8).  At first glance he is condemning the wealthy for violating the commands found in Devarim 24 (10-13) concerning taking the garment of the poor as a pledge.  However, there is a deeper meaning.  The garment is not just a piece of clothing.  Based on the episode in the sedrah, taking the garment of the poor is akin to stripping of them their dignity for financial gain; something that is morally reprehensible.

Amos & Tzedakah:  The sedrah is about Yosef Ha-Tzaddik (Joseph, the Tzaddik or Righteous Person).  Amos calls for righteousness to “well up as a mighty stream.”  The giving of extra measures of Tzedakah is equated by some with the vision of the mighty stream.

“Amos On Times Square”:  This was the name of a famous poem written at the outbreak of World War II by Jacob J. Weinstein.  The poet uses the motif of Amos’ prophecies.  But he substitutes the combatants in World War II for the ancient nations mentioned in the writings of Amos.  While the poem may be somewhat dated, it is interesting to note that the work of Amos was so well known that this literary device proved quite effective in communicating with the general population.

Personal Note:  I have a special relationship with this reading.  This first time I saw it was for my Bar Mitzvah which was a long, long time ago.  Imagine being thirteen and the sweat is pouring down the back of your brand new Bar Mitzvah suit as they motion for you to come up and read from the scroll.  Imagine hearing your father (who is an educated man) reciting the Torah blessings and then gazing intently at the open scroll as you start chanting in your quavering adolescent voice.  Imagine the intensity of my prayer that God get me through this without screwing up.  From that day forward, there was a special bond between Amos and me.  We had gotten through that morning in one piece and I would not forget him for that.  To this day, I can still hear those first three words of the prophet, “Koa ahmar adnoai” and to this day the sweat still runs down the back of my suit whenever I have to get up in front of a group of Jews on a Saturday morning.

Irregular Reading:  This week’s prophetic portion is frequently not read because often as not Parsha Va-yayshev is read during Chanukah which means the haftarah chanted is the special one chosen for Shabbat Chanukah.  This year the calendar gives us the luxury having a little extra time to devote to the study of the upcoming minor festival.  It might be useful if we take that time to look beyond the child-like version of Chanukah that captivates us complete with candles, fried food and presents.  A deeper study of the events might show how the victory of the Hasmoneans paved the way for the events that ultimately led to the destruction of the Second Temple.  A deeper study might show that Judah Maccabee’s victory was distorted by his descendants who actually took on the trappings of the Hellenistic world that he had found so objectionable.  One place to begin would be with a reading of the Anchor Bible version of I Maccabees that comes with an introduction and commentary by Dr. Jonathan Goldstein, Z"L,  a noted scholar who for decades taught at the University of Iowa and who was a pillar of the Iowa City Jewish community.  You might find that a study of this period in our history encompassing the last two centuries before the Common Era and the first century of the Common Era provides a cautionary tale the is eerily applicable to our own times.

Copyright, November, 2018; Mitchell A. Levin