Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
Timing is everything.
Every New Year is about new beginnings, new chances for success (both personal and professional), new possibilities. This week, just after we celebrate the secular New Year, we will begin a new book of Torah. Parashat Shemot opens with the darkness of slavery, but ends by pointing us squarely towards a brighter future. The journey to the Promised Land will be anything but easy, yet, with time and persistence we eventually arrive. As we read Shemot this Shabbat, let us look forward to the New Year with the realism and optimism of Torah. Let’s identify the specific obstacles that lie ahead so that we can meet and beat them, and let’s also keep faith – faith with God and with ourselves. With God's help we truly can make each new tomorrow brighter.
Gen. 47:28 – 50:26
This week the Genesis saga comes to an end. Genesis is our family story – filled with both deep sorrows and great triumphs. VaYechi opens as Jacob lies on his deathbed in Egypt and blesses his sons. As a special gift to Joseph, Jacob does not bless Joseph directly, but instead blesses Joseph’s sons, Menasseh and Ephraim. This act effectively makes them each the father of a future tribe, on par with the rest of Jacob’s sons. Even more, Jacob purposefully blesses the younger of Joseph's sons with the blessing of the elder and the elder with the blessing for the younger.
According to tradition, the eldest son gets a special blessing that includes a double portion of inheritance and titular leadership of the family. However, our historical family has a way of breaking the rules. Isaac is younger than Ishmael, yet Isaac receives Abraham’s special blessing. Jacob is younger than Esau, yet Jacob receives Isaacs special blessing not once but twice (once by deception, and once when Isaac knew that it was Jacob he blessed). Now Jacob offers the “father’s blessing” and skips an entire generation to bless his two grandsons.
Why? Perhaps Torah is saying to us, “don’t just go with the flow.” God has bigger plans for us. From the moment Abraham answered the divine call to leave his land and his home behind, we have been called to challenge the status quo, to never accept the world as it is ordered, but rather to agitate for the world as it should be. So what if the tradition says bless the eldest first? Torah proclaims to the ancient world that there is a new sheriff in town, and with God’s help, we can build a better future. True then. True now.
Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
VaYigash opens in the middle of the most dramatic and human scene in the entire Torah. Joseph, unrecognized by his brothers and the defacto ruler of Egypt tests them in a heart-wrenching fashion. There is a famine throughout the land and the brothers went to Egypt to purchase food. Joseph, who they abandoned in a pit as a youth, has risen through the Egyptian ranks first as a slave and then as a prisoner to eventually become Pharaoh's right hand; as such he administers the national food program. When Joseph recognizes his brothers, he accuses them of espionage, and holds Simeon hostage until they return again with their youngest brother Benjamin - to prove their honesty. When they return, Joseph frames Benjamin for theft, and sentences him to life in slavery. The rest of the brothers may return free to Canaan.
Last week's portion ends as Joseph passes judgment, and VaYigash begins with the brother's response to Joseph. As I see it, they have three options. One, they can leave Benjamin behind, the same way they abandoned Joseph years before. Two, they could plead for mercy, and perhaps even offer financial compensation of some sort. Although either of those approaches would make sense given what we already know of the brothers, the text takes us in a surprising third direction. Judah, who was the ring leader when Joseph was thrown into the pit, does the unthinkable. He approaches Joseph, whom he knows only as the Egyptian aristocrat Zaphenath-Paneah. Nobody does that! It is not only a violation of royal etiquette, but it could be interpreted as a threatening move by Joseph's guards, and who knows how they might respond? Yet, Judah approaches close to Joseph and offers himself as a slave in Benjamin's place, in order to save their father Jacob from grief and death.
This is the moment that Joseph has been waiting for. He reveals himself to his brothers, speaking for the first time in their own language: 'Ani Yosef! I am Joseph, your brother, who you sold into slavery. Fear not!' (Gen. 45:3-5 - paraphrased). He reassures them that he does not hold them responsible, that it was God's will that brought him to Egypt so that he could one day rescue them all from the famine.
Yet something about his response rings hollow. If his traumatic life in Egypt was really only about saving his family from famine, then why wait until now to reveal himself? Why not welcome his brothers warmly when they first arrived in Egypt?
Judah is the key. He is the leader. He is the one who was motivated to sell his brother into slavery.
Joseph wanted to know if Judah had changed, if he had made teshuvah. Teshuvah is a beautiful Hebrew word that we often translate as 'repentance,' but what it really means is 'return' - as in return to God and/or return to the best of who we are. The act of teshuvah requires us to regret and learn from our mistakes, and to change our behavior. By offering himself in place of Benjamin, Judah demonstrates the depth of his teshuvah. Even more, by making such a powerful teshuvah, Judah effectively ends three generations of family dysfunction.
I love this story because it teaches us one of the fundamental truths of Torah: we are free agents. We have the ability to change, to grow, to heal. It may not be easy, but we have power over ourselves, and over our future. Let us exercise that power with love, compassion and wisdom.
Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
Three Torah portions. Three dreams. In VaYetze Jacob dreamed of an angelic ladder reaching to heaven, and discovered God where he least expected. In VaYeshev Joseph dreamed that his entire family would one day bow down to him, prophesying a future in which he would be God's instrument for their very survival. The dreams of Miketz, however, are of a different flavor.
Pharaoh dreams two dreams in our parasha. In his first dream, Pharaoh sees seven 'ill-favored' and gaunt cows devour seven healthy and plump cows. Then he dreams that seven withered ears of grain devour seven 'goodly' ears. Although his dreams are prophetic in the way that Joseph's were, Pharaoh was not able to interpret them. Only Joseph was able to understand the dreams as a prediction of seven years of famine that will follow seven years of plenty.
Yet Joseph is not the only Jew who would eventually interpret Pharaoh's dreams. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th century rabbi also known as the Sefat Emet (the language of truth), offered an intriguing observation. He connected Pharoah's first dream to one of the great challenges of human beings: controlling our inner urge to do wrong. In his close reading of the text, the Sefat Emet observed that the lean cows act in three different ways;
And, look, another seven cows came up after them out of the Nile, foul to look at and meager in flesh, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the foul-looking meager-fleshed cows ate up the seven fair-looking fat cows ... (Gen. 41:3-4, translation by Robert Alter - I have added the bold font)
The Sefat Emet taught that the foul-looking cows represent our Yetzer haRah, our inclination to evil, and the inclination to evil follows the same three steps as the cows in its determination to conquer us. First it comes up after us, to examine our actions. Then it stands by us, growing closer and creating a sense of familiarity and even comfort until, finally, it swallows us up completely.
How do we stop it? He doesn't say, at least not in this commentary. Perhaps just the knowledge itself is our best defense.
Genesis 37:1 - 40:23
There is not a soap opera on the planet that could touch the stories of VaYeshev. The parasha opens when Joseph is only seventeen years old. Spoiled by his father, Joseph brings 'evil report' about his brothers back to Jacob and then shares prophetic dreams about how his entire family will one-day bow to him. His brothers are so upset by Joseph's behavior, that they are filled not only with jealousy, but with actual hatred. They strip him of his fancy coat, the symbol of their father’s love and leave him in an empty pit – without any water. Slavers come by and find him (presumably he was screaming for help) and sell him as a slave in Egypt. When the brothers eventually return and find the pit empty, they try to cover their tracks by bring Joseph’s (fake) bloodied coat back to Jacob as proof that Joseph was killed by wild animals.
Far too often, when faced with situations like this, we fall back on the language of victimization and blame. Who is the victim here? And who is to blame?
One the one hand, Joseph is the victim, After all, his own brothers throw him into a pit and abandon him. For all he knows, his brothers could have sent the slavers to capture him. According to this frame, the blame belongs to the brothers. While they were understandably angry with Joseph, they acted out not only with words but with harsh deeds (as opposed to Joseph who only used words). Surely that is worse than anything Joseph did.
On the other hand, Joseph's brothers are the victims. They have been mistreated not only by Joseph, but also by their father Jacob who clearly loves Joseph more than them. It is wrong and unfair for them to be treated in this way, and although the damage may not be physical, they are suffering nevertheless. According to this frame, Jacob and Joseph are to blame for emotionally abusing the brothers. Their situation was unbearable, and they had to act to save themselves from their victimhood. Surely, the emotional pain inflicted by one’s own family is far worse than temporarily being thrown into a pit.
Who do you think the victims are? Joseph? His brothers? All of them? None of them?
We have the benefit of distance, which allows us to see that everyone contributed to the problem. This whole dynamic is the intensification of a cycle of family dysfunction that began with Abraham and Sarah. Breaking the cycle will not be easy, and the rest of the portion describes the beginnings of what will eventually allow them to heal. Joseph and his brothers independently go through painful periods of maturation, where they learn to take responsibility for their actions rather than merely see themselves as victims. When they are finally reunited in Egypt (in a later portion), they manage to live together in ways none of them could have imagined as kids. Instead of each blaming the other for the wrongs that had been done, they found the maturity to create a life together of shalom bayit (peace in the house).
With Thanksgiving behind us, and the Festival of Lights before us, we can use this time to learn from our family history. Let’s ask ourselves how we can cultivate greater maturity in our relationships, so that we can bring not only light, but more shalom bayit into our own homes.
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