Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
[This drash is inspired by a teaching from Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, published in the CCAR newsletter in 2015]
Young Joseph was the model of arrogance. He was the beloved of Jacob and he knew it. He wore a special coat. He even dreamed how his family would bow before him.
The thing is, that is what eventually led to his downfall – literally, in a pit, thrown there and abandoned by his own brothers. Slave traders found him there, and brought him to Egypt, where Joseph began to learn humility.
We see it first when he tries to fend off the amorous attentions of Potiphar’s wife. We see it again when he declares before Pharaoh that it is God, not he, who is interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. And we see it when Joseph, as Viceroy of Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers and explains that he bears them no ill will. His humility allows him to see that God brought him to Egypt not for his own aggrandizement, but so that he could save his family from famine.
In other words, Joseph’s life is a lesson in the pitfalls of arrogance and in the healing power of humility. When we are arrogant, there is no room for anyone else in our world. In the end, by making everything about us, we find ourselves utterly alone, in a pit of our own making. On the other hand, when we cultivate humility, we see our value in relation to others. We see the contributions and benefit we offer each other, and we find more meaning in the good we do than in the honors we try to collect.
What would our world be like today, if more us could learn from Joseph’s example?
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
It’s not like she didn’t know his name.
Joseph, although a slave in Egypt, was the head of Potiphar’s household. Everyone in the house knew him. The other slaves and servants reported to him. Potiphar appointed him. Potiphar’s wife lusted after him.
Joseph refused her advances, and when she grabbed him by his tunic one day, he ran away – leaving it in her hands. She, in turn, set about framing him for rape. When she accused him, first before the other servants and then before her husband, she never used his name. Instead, she called him “that Hebrew” (ivri in Hebrew).
The word ivri is based on the root which means “from over there.” In other words, ivri contains within it the connotation of “other” or “not like me/us.” Potiphar’s wife dehumanized Joseph, she emphasized that he was different, and then she accused him of a heinous crime.
It did not matter that he was innocent, he never had a chance. Our parasha ends with Joseph languishing in Pharaoh’s dungeon.
Torah reminds us no fewer than 36 times that we were once strangers, so that we will empathize with and then care for those who we might think of as “other.” As the world around seems to become more and more like Potiphar’s wife, Torah demands that we hold true to our values, even if it makes us seem like we ourselves are “other.”
“In a place where there are no human beings, [taught Hillel,] strive be one.” [Pirkei Avot 2:5]
This is the how the word ivri becomes a badge of strength and courage, and how we can live up to our great name.
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
This is a huge parasha. Jacob wrestles with something big (God, an angel, his conscience – depending on who you ask) and as a result is transformed and becomes Israel. The next day, he makes peace with Esau. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter is raped by Shechem the Hivite, and her brothers take revenge by murdering every male of Shechem and plundering the city. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, and Isaac dies and is buried in Hebron.
With all of this to capture our attention, the last chapter of the portion can easily be overlooked. After all, it is but a long, “dry as bones” list of the descendants of Esau. Yet, buried in the midst of this genealogy is a mystery which captivated the rabbis:
“Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz, she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.” [Gen. 36:12]
Rabbi Michael Gold observes that, in general, biblical genealogies mention the men, but not the women. Why then does the Torah make an exception for Timna? Who was this woman? Why was she so important that she had to be included in Torah, where every word is there for a reason?
Torah says nothing else about Timna, but the rabbinic tradition tries to fill in the gaps. According to the rabbis, Timna was the daughter of a local chieftain. As a child, she was deeply moved by the teachings of Abraham, and desired to convert to Judaism. When she tried, she was turned away. Yet, she was so desperate to become part of this people that she turned to the only other option she could think of – she tried to become part of the family as a concubine to Eliphaz, the great-grandson of Abraham. Then she gives birth to Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people. Rabbi Gold writes: “The lesson is that our greatest enemy is born because a woman is turned away from conversion.”
Contrast this with Abraham, who the rabbis teach was chosen by God because of his extraordinary hospitality.
In every synagogue, and every Jewish community, we would be well advised to remember Timna, and to seek ways to be more like Abraham, with our tents opened wide.
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
While many of us took time this past week to feel and offer gratitude on Thanksgiving, some of us may have struggled to find gratitude. And, even among those who truly did have a grateful Thanksgiving are those of us for whom the holiday is just for once a year – rather than a daily or weekly celebration. For far too many of us, our world - the “real world,” has too many claims upon us:
Enter this week’s Torah portion, where Jacob finally begins to come into his own. In last week’s parasha Jacob is introduced to us as the physically weaker stay-at-home-with-his-mother twin as compared with his burly man-of-the-fields brother Esau. However, this week Jacob – by himself – moves an incredibly heavy stone to access the life-giving waters of the well it had covered.
What is the connection between this story and gratitude?
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell notes how we are “wired” for gratitude: it creates such warm feelings within and between us. She also acknowledges that we are the most materially comfortable people in the history of people. Yet we are also the most dissatisfied, consumed with desire, struggling with what she calls a spiritual depression. She teaches: “Gratitude is as important to our spiritual well-being as water is to our physical well-being. What is it that blocks us from accessing the soul restoring waters of gratitude and appreciation?”
That is the question. What are the stones, the spiritual blocks, we need to move to access the joy which comes with spiritual health? For each of us, the answer will be different, but know this: just like Jacob, you have the strength to move them – even if you think you don’t.
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