Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
Joseph was a dreamer, who could read the future in his own dreams and the dreams of others. As a youth he dreamed that his family would one day bow down to him. In the dungeon he interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup bearer and baker, predicting that the baker would be executed in three days and the cup bearer released. In Miketz, Pharaoh dreams troubling dreams which none of his advisors could interpret. Eventually, the cup bearer remembers Joseph, who is called from the dungeon to interpret for Pharaoh.
Joseph tells Pharaoh that his dreams predict seven years of famine, which will be preceded by seven years of plenty. Joseph also explains that the repetition of Pharaoh’s dreams means that God is communicating directly with Pharaoh, and that the matter is fixed. There is no way to avert the famine.
What happens next is nothing less than extraordinary. Joseph, an imprisoned foreign slave, represents the very lowest stratum of the Egyptian social hierarchy. He stands before Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the land, who with a single breath could send Joseph to his death. What does Joseph do? He takes an enormously chutzpadik chance. Joseph does not stop speaking once he has finished interpreting the dreams as Pharaoh commanded. Instead, with the utmost temerity, he dares to offer Pharaoh unsolicited counsel and advice, saying:
“And so, let Pharaoh look out for a discerning, wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this: appoint overseers for the land and muster the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. Let them collect all the food of these good years that are coming and let them pile up grain under Pharaoh’s hand, food in the cities, to keep under guard. And the food will be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will follow in the land of Egypt, that the land may not perish in the famine.” [Gen. 41:33-36]
The rest, as they say, is history. Pharaoh is so taken with the idea, that he promotes Joseph instantly to the rank of viceroy of Egypt and puts him in charge of executing the plan.
Yes, Joseph was a dreamer, but he was also a man of action.
I am reminded of a quote I have taped to the bookshelf next to my computer screen for inspiration. It is based on something Thomas Edison once said, and is also connected to an ancient Japanese proverb:
These are wise words to live by, and yet, by themselves are not enough to capture the full power of this moment in Torah. The rabbis connect Joseph’s actions with the Glory of God, so the last word in this week’s commentary goes to the great Rabbi Akiva, who taught [Pirke Avot 3:15]:
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Rabbi Jack Riemer asks a fascinating question: what do you do when you come out of the pit?
VaYeishev describes how Joseph falls from his status as the favored son of Jacob, to the depths of a bor reiq, she’ayn bo mayim (an empty pit, in which there was no water) [Gen. 37:24]. The empty pit, in which Joseph was thrown by his jealous and angry brothers, is rife with symbolism. Throughout Torah, potable water represented life, and could be found most commonly in wells. Both Abraham and Isaac dug wells. In addition, Eliezar finds Rebekah (the then future wife of Isaac) at a well, and Jacob met the love of his life, Rachel, at a well. In stark contrast, Joseph finds himself not in a place of life, but in a place of death – trapped in a pit, with no water.
All of us, at one time or another, or perhaps more often, find ourselves in a bor reiq, she’ayn bo mayim; where life seems to be closing in on us, and our prospects for the future seem dark. While we are in the pit, we may feel anger, frustration, hopelessness, betrayal, or a host of other similar feelings.
Joseph is “rescued” from his pit by a merchant caravan, which takes him prisoner and sells him as a slave in Egypt. In Egypt, as Joseph climbs the slave hierarchy to a position of respect, he is falsely accused of rape, and thrown in prison, a second pit.
So, Rabbi Riemer asks: what do you do when you come out of the pit?
I am reminded of a Buddhist teaching, which I once heard but cannot source. Two monks, a master and a student, are walking through a forest and come to a wide river. A woman is standing by the river and asks them to carry her across. Although it is against the rules of their order, the master invites the woman to climb on his back and walks across the river. Afterwards, they go their separate ways. Hours later, as the monks continue their journey, the student breaks their silence and says: “Forgive me Master, but I have a question.” The master nods his permission, so the student continued: “Master, I thought we were forbidden to have any physical contact with women. How could you carry her across the river?” The master looked at the student and answered: “I left that woman by the bank of the river. Can you say the same?”
Rabbi Riemer is asking us, what do we take with us when we come out of the pit? Do we carry our bitterness and anger into the world, or do we find a way to leave those feelings in our past?
I cannot recall any other place in Torah where we encounter an empty pit like Joseph’s, and this makes him a singular role model. Joseph may have been angry, ashamed, humiliated, and more by what his brothers did to him – but he did not let that spoil the rest of his life. Even more, he used his experience in the pit as an opportunity. Rabbi Riemer writes:
Before he [Joseph] went in, he was totally insensitive, totally oblivious, to the effect that his strutting around in the special clothes that his father had given him had on his brothers. He was totally insensitive to the pain that he caused his family by telling them his dreams. But now, after the experience of suffering that he has gone through in the pit, he comes out ‘willing to be wise again’, and able to make sure that the hatred he has endured will not make him forget the potential for good living that he has inside him.
At the end of our parasha, Joseph is in the dungeon, seemingly a worse pit than the first – and it looks like they have locked him up and forgotten about the key. It might be easy to count him out, but that would be a mistake.
Like Joseph, each of us goes through periods of deep suffering, pain and even trauma. What will we do when we come out of the pit?
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Words matter. Language frames, well, everything.
When we study a foreign language, we learn not only the words, but the culture of the people who speak them. For this reason, it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to translate literature from one language to another without losing something along the way.
As American Jews, we speak English. However, English is not the language of Judaism. It is a language steeped in Christianity. That’s why I prefer not to use words like “Jew” or “Judaism.” To understand who we really are, we need to turn to the language of our people, to Hebrew.
The story of how we got our Hebrew name can be found in VaYishlach. In this week’s parasha Jacob escapes with his family from the clutches of Laban only to learn that Esau is approaching with four hundred armed men. The last time Jacob saw Esau was twenty-one years before, when he fled the camp because Esau was determined to kill him. Fearing violence in the morning, Jacob splits his family into four separate camps, hoping that at least some may escape and survive. Then something really strange happens. Jacob spends the night alone on the far side of the Jabbok river, where a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. Who was this man? Where did he come from? The text says nothing. Then, as the sun began to rise, the man asks Jacob to release him because the sun was rising. Why would that matter? The weirdness continues when Jacob refuses, demanding that the man bless him first. Of all the things Jacob might say at that moment, why ask for a blessing? Yet, the man does not find the request at all strange. The dialogue continues:
“And he [the man] said to him [Jacob], ‘What is your name?’ And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, ‘Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and prevailed.’” [Gen. 32:28-9]
The interpretive tradition is clear, and Jacob admits as much a few verses later: Jacob did not struggle with a man that night, but with something else – either God or a messenger from God. The Hebrew word Yisrael means “struggle with God.” Over the course of the night, Jacob was transformed from Ya’akov, which means “heel,” to Yisrael, the one who struggled with God and prevailed. We are B’nei Yisrael, the children of the one who struggled with God. Our tradition is not one of blind faith, but of struggle, for we are Jacob’s spiritual and genetic descendants.. We encourage questioning, challenging, probing. In the Torah itself, not even God is immune for questioning or challenge!
This, I think, is a source of our resilience; our relentless questioning of ourselves, our institutions and our faith; our ability to change, adapt and evolve while staying true to our ideals and values; our drive for integrity even when the world seems a dark place.
Our spirituality, our mission, is not “touchy-feely” but to struggle for a higher cause, and to prevail.
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
This week Jacob literally finds himself between a rock and hard place. After stealing the Blessing of Succession from Esau by tricking their father Isaac, Jacob flees the camp for his life, hoping for safety and security with his Uncle Laban. That night he dreams of angels climbing up and down a ladder to heaven. God speaks to Jacob in the dream, and reaffirms the covenantal promise first made to Abraham. Not only that, but God also says: “Behold, I am with you, and will protect you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done as I have spoken to you.” [Gen. 28:15]
Jacob awoke from his dream in amazement and said, “Surely God is in the place, and I did not know.” [Gen. 28:16]
Entire books have been written about this passage, and one of my favorites is by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. In one chapter, Kushner highlights a strange grammatical detail in Jacob’s statement of awe. In referring to himself as “I” Jacob uses the Hebrew word “anochi.” In Hebrew there are several ways one can say “I,” but the word “anochi” is the most formal iteration, and is generally reserved for people of great import, or more often, just for God.
Why does Jacob refer to himself as “anochi” in this moment? One possibility is that up until now, everything Jacob has done as been focused on his own self-interests. What do we know about him so far? During childbirth, he grabbed his twin brother Esau’s heel as if he was somehow trying to emerge from their mother first to claim the birthright of succession. Some years later, he takes advantage of Esau, trading a bowl of lentils to his hungry brother in exchange for that very birthright. Then, as their blind father ailed, he “pulled the wool” right over Isaac’s eyes, tricking him into giving the Blessing of Succession to Jacob instead of Esau. Now, to be fair, this was not Jacob’s idea, but his mother Rebekah’s plan. Yet, Jacob’s only question when Rebekah suggested it was to ask what would happen if he got caught. Even more, he was immediately satisfied with her answer: that she would take the blame and pay the penalty. The rabbis teach that when we are full of ourselves, there is no room for anyone else. Jacob saw only himself, had empathy only for himself.
Then, at the ebb tide of the spirit, after his first night alone in the wilderness, a new day began. In a moment of powerful self-awareness, Jacob “awoke” and recognized that he had been blinded by his arrogance.
“Anochi” is the Jacob that was. We need the next two Hebrew words to understand what Jacob was becoming: “lo yadaati.” The literal translation of “lo yadaati” is: “[I] did not know.” In the Hebrew, the pronoun “I” is included not as a separate word, but rather as a mere suffix of verb conjugation. It is possible to read the three Hebrew words “Anochi lo yadaati” as one phrase: “I did not know.” However, the words “lo yadaati” commonly stand on their own with the same meaning. Why then do we need this strange and somewhat clunky three-word formulation?
Rabbi Kushner brings a sensitive interpretation from Menachem Mendl of Kotzk to offer a beautiful alternative translation: “God was in the place and I … i did not know.” So, moved was Rabbi Kushner by this nuanced line, that he made it the title of his book – which, by the way, I heartily recommend. The capital “I” is the “I” of arrogance. The lower case “i" is the “i" of humility.
As a child, Jacob was indeed a heel. As an adult, Jacob was forced to confront his arrogance and learn humility, and in a dark and vulnerable hour, discovered that he was never truly alone.
Neither are we.
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Here we go again! In this week’s parasha famine strikes the land, as it did in the time of Abraham, and Isaac brings his household to Abimelech, king of the Philisitines, for safety. The only problem is that, being a stranger, Isaac is afraid – especially because Rebekah was so beautiful. Thinking that someone might kill him to get Rebekah, he lied about their relationship and told everyone that she was his sister instead of his wife – just as his father Abraham had done when he and Sarah sought refuge in Egypt and then again with Abimelech.
As with Abraham’s story, the danger to Isaac seems exaggerated in his own imagination. When Pharoah and Abimelech each found out the truth that Sarah and Abraham were married, they became angry at Abraham, and made sure to respect the marriage. They did not ever threaten his safety. Similarly, when Abimelech learns that Rebekah and Isaac are married he is angry at Isaac for lying, and guarantees both Isaac’s and Rebekah’s safety.
It seems to me that, in the weeks following the killings in Pittsburgh, that we can learn something from our forebears. Should we look to our security? Absolutely, and with a careful and reasoned approach. However, we should never allow our fears prevent us from being true to who we are, or from living with integrity and even pride. Over the centuries and millennia, we have learned some difficult lessons, and as a people, have overcome the darkest of tragedies. It is not fear that carried us through, but rather our strength, our values, and our resiliency.
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
[This commentary was written before the tragic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue where 11 Jews were killed this past Shabbat. I am leaving it unchanged. Although the pain and sorrow are still raw for many of us, these words may resonate now more than ever as we begin to move through our grief towards healing.]
It seems ironic that chayei Sara, literally “the life of Sarah” is really about her death: “And Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty-seven years, [these were] the years of Sarah’s life. And Sara died in Kiriat-Arba, which is Hebron in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize and to bewail her.” [Gen. 23:1-2]
It seems ironic, but perhaps the point is not that she died, but that she lived.
The medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi shared a tradition which ascribed meaning to Sarah’s age when she died: that throughout her life she had the wisdom of a one-hundred-year-old, the beauty of a twenty-year-old, and the vitality of a seven-year-old. For this reason, her age was mentioned before her death.
We don’t know what Abraham said, but this is the first mention of a eulogy in the Torah – a tribute to how one lived. Before Abraham can negotiate a burial cave for Sarah, he feels compelled to speak of Sarah’s life.
We Jews have developed a highly structured and emotionally healthy approach to mourning, which may very well have its roots in these two verses. Consider, for example, the mourner’s kaddish – the preeminent Jewish spiritual expression in our times of grief. While the function of the kaddish has been tied to safeguarding the afterlife of the departed, the words themselves offer a different perspective. The kaddish, written mostly in Aramaic (the vernacular of the time) rather than Hebrew, does not mention mourning, death, sorrow, anger, loneliness or any of the feelings we might associate with the passing of a loved one. In fact, it contains a difficult-to-translate doxology, magnifying the supremacy and holiness of the Divine.
It seems to me that the mourner’s kaddish is actually a “thank you” prayer – not for taking our loved ones from us, but for God’s incredible generosity in sharing them with us in the first place. The kaddish teaches us to treasure each moment we have, and each memory that remains, as a precious gift from heaven – for that is true value of our lives.
Chayei Sara may record Sarah’s death, but it is really about life.
Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
In last week’s parasha Abram left the only life he had ever known behind when God called, and in so doing, became the world’s first Jew. This week, God commands Lot and his family to flee the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, specifically telling them not to stop along the way and not to look back lest they be consumed as well.
“And his wife looked back and she became a pillar of salt.” [Gen. 19:26]
There is an old legend which claims that a stone formation near the Dead Sea is actually Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, and that the Dead Sea is all that remains of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Torah neither proves or disproves this legend, but the next few verses suggest that the meaning is about more than geology:
“And Abraham hastened early in the morning to the place where he had stood in the presence of the Lord. And he looked out over Sodom and Gomorrah and over all the land of the plain, and he saw and, look, smoke was rising like the smoke from a kiln.” [Gen. 19:27-28]
Lot’s wife looked back and turned to salt. Abraham looked out and remained safe. They both saw the same destruction. Perhaps Abraham was safe because he was farther away. But was the distance merely physical or something more?
Lot’s wife did not turn into stone, but into salt – a symbol of bitterness. Looking back she mourned what was, preferring the known past – evil as it was – over an unknown future. Change, especially when it is thrust upon us, can seem terrifying and overwhelming. Yet, if there is one constant in the world, it is change. Lot’s wife wanted to stay in the past, and as a result, she became filled with so much bitterness that she was transformed into a “pillar of salt.” For her, there was no future.
Abraham, however, did not look back. He looked “out.” He was not fleeing, but moving forward.
Jewish spirituality, first and foremost, is a journey. Not that, like Abraham, we should leave everything behind. He already did that for us. Instead, we need to honor, respect, and learn from our past, even as we continue to look forward.
Abraham was open to the challenges and possibilities of a changing world. Lot’s wife was mired in the world as it had been. As a descendent of Abraham, it is strange indeed for me whenever I visit the Dead Sea to think about this story and wonder: what if … ?
Genesis 12:1 – 17:2
“And the Lord said to Abram: Lech lecha, go you forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation …” [Gen. 12:1-2]
Abram followed God’s command, and began a journey which eventually led to his becoming the father not only of Judaism, but of all three monotheistic traditions. I have often wondered what it would take for a 75 year old man to leave everything he knew behind him for a mysterious future. In a world which was not as fluid and mobile as today, Abram had to leave almost everything and everyone he knew: his homeland, his clan, his physical home. At any age, these are the environmental factors which provide us with safety, security and comfort. Where does a man find a reservoir of trust deep enough to take such a risk at the age of 75?
I think that I have struggled with this question because I am 21st Century American Jew. When we consider the long history of our people, only a very few generations have enjoyed the comfort and privilege which my generation takes for granted. We feel so comfortable, so secure, that we cannot imagine giving everything up for the unknown.
Yet, our fortune is also our weakness. Abram did not enjoy our privilege, he may have felt far more vulnerable than we. We certainly know that he did not have any children, and therefore, uncertain hopes for the future. Perhaps Abram was ready to hear God in ways we are not. Perhaps our comfort is like a drug, dulling our senses and our motivation to change and grow.
Lech Lecha is a spiritual example of what personal trainers call the instability principle – the idea that we grow stronger when we introduce instability into our workout routines, forcing our core muscles to compensate. In requiring Abram to leave all that was familiar in his environment behind, God created spiritual instability – which was absolutely necessary if Abram were to develop the spiritual strength necessary to change the world.
Today, we have more physical luxury than any generation in the history of our planet: through supermarkets we have access to a wide range of food beyond the reach even of monarchs only a few generations ago; our homes are heated and most have air conditioning; we travel in ease by land, sea and air; we have the world at our fingertips through the internet. Yet, with all of this, we are also more and more spiritually disconnected, and we are losing our moral compasses. We live in echo-chambers where we only hear opinions we agree with, and we dehumanize those with whom we disagree. We are polarized, outraged, afraid – and hanging on to everything that seems safe and familiar.
Those who stayed in Abram’s homeland were left behind, and each year with this week’s parasha, God calls again: lech lecha. Perhaps we could all do with a little more spiritual instability, and the will to use it for a higher purpose.
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
As introductions go, Noah’s was rather impressive. At the opening of this weeks parasha he is described as a “righteous man in his generation …[who] walked with God.” [Gen. 6:9] The rabbis have a great deal of praise for Noah, or rather, some do and some do not. The great medieval commentator Rashi describes the debate. He notes that some rabbis teach that Noah was righteous even in his generation; that if he had lived in a more righteous generation then he would have been even more righteous because of his innate goodness. However, Rashi also directs our attention the Talmud, which teaches that Noah was only righteous in comparison with the evil people of his own generation. Had he lived in the time of Abraham, he would have been nobody special (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108a).
This may seem a little harsh, but the Talmudic rabbis are not creating this idea from thin air. They ask us to compare Noah with Abraham. Of Abraham, the Torah says that he was righteous, but does not add the phrase “in his generation.” The Talmudic rabbis consider that a purposeful omission: Abraham’s righteousness would stand out in any generation, whereas Noah’s only stood out in relation to his own generation. The rabbis also look to another detail in the text. According to the text, Abraham did not walk with God like Noah, but instead, walked before God [Gen. 17:1 and 24:40]. What is the difference? Noah needed extra support from God for his righteousness, like a toddler needing to hold his parent’s hand for support. Abraham had enough strength to walk on his own in righteousness, like an older child walking in front of his parent.
While this may seem like an academic argument, the difference can clearly be seen in their actions. When God approaches Noah, describing the imminent destruction of the world, Noah does exactly what God commands: he builds an ark. The rabbis consider that a righteous act indeed, not to mention incredibly difficult to execute. But, when God told Abraham about the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham tries to talk God out of it. What courage! He directly challenged God, asking if the innocent should die with the guilty, and eventually talks God down to the point where if ten innocents could be found, then the entire city would be spared. Amazingly, God does not punish Abraham for insolence but instead agrees with Abraham’s arguments.
Here we arrive at one of the most fundamental truths of our tradition: blind faith is not true righteousness. True righteousness means living with such a commitment to the values and teachings of Torah that we are willing to challenge any authority, even God, when they seem contrary to what we know to be right.
If Noah had challenged God the way Abraham did, would there still have been a flood? We will never know. However, in today’s world, which in some ways seems just as filled with violence and hate as in Noah’s day, we have a choice. Who will we choose to emulate, Noah or Abraham?
Genesis 1:1 – 6:
There is more to Torah than meets the eye! By design, the Torah is written in such a way that it cannot be understood by simply reading it as a book. It requires us to look more deeply, to question and challenge both the text and ourselves as we seek its deeper wisdom and meaning. The rabbis teach that every letter of every word has a purpose, that even the tiniest detail can change our understanding of the Divine message.
Take for example the very first word in the Torah, bereshit:
Usually, we translate this word as “In the beginning,” but the truth is we are not sure of the precise meaning of the word. Our problem is that the very first word in the Torah is a grammatical oddity – which is to say, that from the very beginning the text is challenging our basic assumptions and even the structure of language.
Every word in Hebrew has a basic two or three root structure upon which it is built, and every word that shares a root, shares some sort of connected meaning. For example, in modern Hebrew the words “betach” (definitely), “bitachon” (security) and “bituach” (insurance) all share the three-letter root: bet-taf-chet. They are all related to each other in meaning. The word ‘definitely’ offers a sense of guarantee, which is also the idea behind both security and insurance. In English, there are no root connections between these three words, but this is part of the unique character of the Hebrew language.
The root structure of bereshit, however, is a challenge – and without knowing the root, how can we understand the word? And how can we understand Torah if we can’t even get past the first word? Without getting too far into the intricacies of biblical grammar, most people consider the root to be reish-aleph-shin, which means “head” or “beginning.” The letter bet before the root, in this case would mean “in” – hence, “in the beginning.”
The problem is the last two letters. They don’t make sense with this structure, yet according to the rabbis – every letter in the Torah has a purpose.
I have a theory, which is to say, a question. What if there is more than one root in bereshit? What if the word is so unique and rich with meaning that it transcends the normal limitations of human language?
To be clear, adding anything else to the mix violates the basic structure of spoken Hebrew, but let’s just take a quick look. The first three letters bereshit are the exact same spelling as the second word in the Torah: barah (bet-reish-aleph). The verb barah means “created” – but that particular verb can only be used when God creates. We use a totally different word for human creation. It is impossible to look at the Torah scroll and not see the repetition:
So now it seems that the word contains the meaning of both “beginning” and “divine creation.” But, wait there is more. A third complete word is buried within bereshit: eish, which means “fire.”
Was fire involved with creation? There is no direct mention in Torah, but it makes me wonder about the Big Bang. What if this is an oblique nod to the methods of Divine creativity?
In the end, we are left with more questions than answers, but perhaps that is the point. After all, we are just at the beginning, and there is more to Torah than meets the eye.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras