Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
Reuben was the first born, but Judah was the leader. Of all of Jacob’s sons, Judah was the one the other brothers followed. It was Judah who wanted to throw Joseph into the pit, who was ready to sell him into slavery for profit; and it was Judah who risked it all at the beginning of this week’s parashah to do the opposite.
Last week’s portion left us with a real cliffhanger. Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, had cruelly tested his brothers to see if they had changed. They had come to Egypt during the great famine in search of food, and did not recognize the powerful Egyptian man in charge as their long-lost brother. Joseph, however, recognized them! He was no longer the same arrogant youth they remembered, and wanted to know if they had grown as he had. So, he framed Benjamin, the only brother he had never met, the only other child of his mother Rachel – and sentenced him to a life of slavery for the “theft” of one of Joseph’s precious goblets. That is how last week’s parashah ended.
What would the brothers do? Would they abandon Benjamin the way they left Joseph in the pit? Would they plead for mercy?
No. They do not do either of these things. Instead, Judah does the unthinkable. VaYigash means “and he drew near.” Judah dared to walk right up to Joseph, who he knew only as the Egyptian aristocrat Zaphenath-Paneah. Not only was this probably a violation of royal etiquette, but it could easily have been interpreted as a threatening move by the royal guards. Who knew how they might respond? Yet Judah drew close and offered himself in Benjamin’s place for the sake of their father, who loved Benjamin above all others – as he had previously loved Joseph.
This is the moment that Joseph had been waiting for! Judah, in submitting to a life of slavery for the sake of his family, demonstrated an extraordinary teshuvah. No longer the jealous and vengeful brother, Judah has suffered and learned from his mistakes and has grown as a human being and a leader. With this one selfless act, Judah effectively ended three generations of family dysfunction. No wonder the future kings of Israel would be from the tribe of Judah!
What did Joseph do?
He could have kept Benjamin for himself (as a beloved brother, not as a slave). He could have accepted Judah’s offer and nobody would have been the wiser, thus exacting his own revenge. However, Joseph too has grown. When Judah makes his offer, Joseph is barely able to contain himself. He orders all of his attendants out of the room and 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)
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.
Exodus 27:20 – 30:1
Why is this portion different from all other portions?
The word Teztaveh means “you will command,” and we do not see it often in Torah. Rather, when God wants Moses to pass along a command to the people, the text usually reads something like: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying …” The use of the word Tetzaveh removes the need to specifically name Moses; it is in the first person, rather than in the third person. Even more, there is no mention of Moses anywhere in the portion!
The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797), taught that the portion is usually read on or near the 7th of Adar, the anniversary of Moses’ death. Moses’ name is omitted either to presage the date of his death, or to serve as a reminder to all of us who came after. Others suggest a connection to what Moses will eventually say to God during the Golden Calf incident. At the top of Mount Sinai Moses asks God the bear the iniquity of the people rather than punish them, and then goes so far as to seemingly cross a line. He challenges God directly, saying: “… and if not, wipe me out, pray, from Your book which You have written.” (Ex. 32:32) According to this interpretation God grants Moses’ wish in advance; Heaven can turn down no request by the righteous, even if it is a curse rather than a blessing.
For me, however, the most compelling answer comes from Rabbi Elye Hayyim Meisel, the rabbi of Lodz (1821-1912). As a general rule, he was always ready to help raise large sums of money for various institutions, but he refused to get involved with distributing the funds. When asked why, he replied:
The only parashah in which Moses’ name is not mentioned is Tetzaveh. In the previous parashah, Terumah, where the Torah deals with the collecting of money, Moses’ name is mentioned many times, but afterwards, when it comes to distributing the money, he is not mentioned even once. Moses did not want his name to be mentioned in order to avoid any suspicion.
This is a beautiful teaching, and it merits serious consideration. For those who want to take a little extra time with his message, I would like to leave you with just one more question: “suspicion of what?”
This week, before the high drama of the Revelation at Sinai, Moses goes to school.
At the beginning of our parasha we are reintroduced to Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who meets up with the Israelites fresh from their Exodus from Egypt. Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew) was a sheik, a tribal leader in his own right. After Moses recounts everything that has happened, Jethro takes one look around and then gives Moses a clinic on religious leadership.
Usually, when looking at the lessons Jethro had for Moses, we focus on how he taught Moses to delegate: to appoint competent leaders over groups of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. (Ex. 18:21). However, that is not the only lesson Jethro has for Moses, or for us.
The moment Moses finishes his update, Jethro offers a blessing of gratitude to God for delivering the Israelites from Egypt, and then quickly brings forward sacrifices to express his gratitude. (Ex. 18:10 – 12)
Presumably because he was preoccupied with the many needs of the people from the moment they prepared to leave Egypt, Moses had neither blessed nor offered sacrifices to God yet. Yes, Moses praised God in the Song at the Sea, but there is something qualitatively different here. What does Jethro teach at this moment?
By offering sacrifices, Jethro demonstrates that we must pay more than lip service to God. It is our actions that matter, and now that we are out of imminent danger, we must remember to show our appreciation through deeds. We must stop, recognize and celebrate the powerful and transformative moments in our lives, and offer our thanks to heaven.
Even more, we must not limit our thanks to what we ourselves receive. Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk (a Hassidic master who would tragically become a victim of the Holocaust) observed that the great innovation in Jethro’s blessing is that he praised God for redeeming the Israelites rather than Jethro himself. With this blessing Jethro moves us from looking to our own needs towards the needs of others.
In contemporary business-speak, Jethro demonstrates how great leaders make sure that the important doesn’t take a back seat to the urgent. The urgent is the crises of the moment; the important is what ultimately matters. The more time we devote to the important, the less we will need to deal with the urgent. The Exodus from Egypt must have been an overwhelming undertaking; it was certainly necessary and urgent. The important is why we left Egypt, and what we left Egypt for. Jethro masterfully demonstrates that, for us, the important includes cultivating a sense of gratitude and looking beyond oneself towards the needs of others.
Let’s make sure we make the time.
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