Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
One of the remarkable characteristics of Toraitic law is that most of the 613 Commandments do not follow the “if – then” formula. “If – then” laws are far more common in the secular world, and most legal systems would not function well without them. What is an “if – then” law? If a crime is committed then there will be a specific punishment or penalty; and as a deterrence, the worse the crime, the harsher the punishment.
While there are some exceptions, the Torah does not generally take this approach. At Sinai while giving the 10 Commandments, God does not say: ‘this is the penalty for murder.’ Instead, God simply says: “Don’t murder.” [Ex. 20:12] Why does this distinction matter? The “if – then” model assumes that we will commit crimes and establishes a system for handling crime and punishment. Torah does not. By saying “don’t murder,” God effectively places the responsibility solely upon us, reminding us that we are perfectly capable of not committing murder. We are capable of living to a higher standard.
This does not mean that we will, or that it will be easy to maintain that higher standard. We are, however, capable. It will require effort, and even hard work – and that work begins with parashat Terumah.
In last week’s portion, following the Revelation at Sinai, the Israelites say to Moses: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and we will heed.” [Ex. 24:78]. Then Moses heads up to the mountain to receive the commandments, where he will be for 40 days.
Terumah begins with a strange commandment, given that Moses is supposed to be up on the mountain:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites, that they take Me a gift from every man, as his heart may urge him you shall take My donation.’” [Ex. 25:1-2]
The purpose of these gifts is to build the mishkan, the Tent of Meeting where God will ‘dwell’ in the midst of the camp; and this verse has become the clarion call for of every synagogue capital campaign since. The rabbis wonder, however, why the command is for us to take God a gift, rather than give God a gift. The answer is surprising. While giving a gift of tzedakah is a great mitzvah, taking a gift suggests that we are participating in the work of delivering the gift directly to the beneficiary. In other words, we are doing the work of collecting tzedakah, instead of stopping at the point of contribution.
Yet, if we are commanded to take a gift, then why is it according to how our hearts may urge us?
The midrash (Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu) says that the moment the Israelites said “we will do and we will heed” that God immediately told Moses, “Let them take Me an offering/gift.” The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, taught: “If a person feels an urge to perform a commandment, he should take this urge and convert it to action, or else the urge will soon disappear without a trace.” His student, the Sadeh Margalit then taught: “Therefore, following all the enthusiasm which resulted from the receiving of the Torah, God said to Moses, ‘Take this enthusiasm and transform it into action – by building the Sanctuary.’”
So, we are not to give gifts, but make the extra effort to bring our gifts to God; and we are to especially look for those opportunities to act when our hearts are moved and filled with spiritual enthusiasm. But what does any of this have to do with choosing a higher standard over the “if – then” system?
It all comes back to the idea of a willing heart. In another midrash, Exodus Rabbah, we read:
“At the time that the Holy Blessed One told Moses about all the tasks associated with the (building of the) Tabernacle, Moses said before him; ‘Master of the universe will the Israelites be able to do this?’ The Holy Blessed One said to him ‘Even (a single) one of the Israelites could do it.’ As it is written ‘of every man whose heart is willing.’” [Exodus Rabbah, chapter 33]
Every single one of us capable alone of building a Sanctuary for God in our midst. And when we talk about bringing our gifts as an offering, it does not just mean physical wealth, but also our other gifts – our skills, our wisdom, our knowledge, our strength and our hearts.
Our camp now spans the world rather than base of Sinai, and we no longer have a mishkan as described in this portion. However, every generation can build a place for God in our midst. We can live to the higher standard. We are eminently capable. Torah says so.
All we need are willing hearts, and the discipline to turn our commitment into action.
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Over the past few years, a series of articles have been published in papers like the Globe and Mail, The Independent and the Huffington Post about a new concept that some people consider an attractive alternative to traditional marriage: a marriage or relationship contract. There are various terms, ranging from 3-10 years, and some of them include a renewal clause whereas others would just end at the end of the term.
My first response was to laugh. Then I wanted to cry.
Generally speaking, a contract is transactional; it is about creating trust to benefit the various interests of the parties involved. So, for example, renters and landlords depend upon rental contracts or leases. These contracts, like so many others, are time limited and make guarantees to meet the interests of both the renter and the landlord. The landlord wants to know that the renter will pay rent at the mutually agreed upon rate, on time every month – and that the renter will not damage the apartment. The renter wants to know that the landlord will make the apartment available for the duration of the lease and will keep everything safe and in working order.
A marriage is not a contract: it is not transactional and should not entered into to create trust or protect interests.
Marriage is a covenant.
What is the difference between a contract and a covenant? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
“In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment … Contracts are about interests; covenants about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about ‘Me’ and ‘You’; covenants are about ‘Us.’”
Contracts abound in modern Western democracies. Indeed, Sacks notes that the two central institutions of modern democracy are both contractual: commercial contracts create the market, while the state is a social contract. The market creates and distributes wealth, the state creates and distributes power.
Healthy societies, however, go beyond the transactional: they are also covenantal.
At Sinai, we received the Torah and became a nation. In a very real sense, Torah is the constitution of the Jewish people – it is the document which sanctifies our covenantal relationship with our Creator and with each other. That covenant was “ratified” in this week’s Torah portion when God gave the commandments from the top of the mountain; in that moment a mob of individual former slaves became the Jewish version of “We the people.”
“We the people” is a powerful, transformational concept, and the founding fathers channeled Sinai when they first penned those words. In a very real sense, the United States Constitution is the Torah of the American people. It is about more than the distribution of wealth and power, it is a covenantal document. Just look at the text of the preamble:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The constitution is not about transactions, but about our mutual commitment for the greater good – and it is most definitely not time-bound.
Thinking in terms of covenants is important because when we have a disagreement on a transactional level, we can just walk away from the relationship. We cannot, however, abandon our covenantal commitments without causing greater harm to ourselves and others. Our covenantal commitments are the best way to hold our local communities, our national societies, and our global network together and to build a better shared future. No matter how polarized our politics, no matter how frustrated or angry we get, covenant reminds us that we can never achieve alone what we can create together; it reminds us that we must commit to stay in this together, arguments and all – or we will all lose.
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Finally! After hundreds of years of slavery, we escape Egypt – only to arrive at an impassable sea with Pharaoh’s chariots in fast pursuit.
This was not exactly the kind of redemption Moses promised, and our people were stuck, overwhelmed with the sense that life was pressing in on them and there was no escape. What do Jews do in this kind of situation? We complain! The Israelites cry out to God (we don’t know exactly what they said) and then complain with exquisite sarcasm to Moses saying: “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” [Ex. 14:11]
Moses basically says (paraphrased): just wait for it … God will redeem us.
That’s when God jumps in – not to redeem, but to criticize, saying: “Mah titzak eilai? Why do you cry out to Me?” [Ex. 14:15]
In a word: oy.
Who is the ‘you’ God is responding to, Moses or Israel? And what does God even mean?
Rashi, the great rabbinic commentator has two insights, which in classic Jewish fashion, seem not to agree with each other. First, Rashi teaches that God was chastising both Israel and Moses saying: “This is not a time to spend in prayer – the Israelites are in danger!” In other words, don’t look to me – take action! Then, instead of leaving well enough alone, Rashi restates the question to offer a second perspective (by changing the punctuation and thereby changing the meaning): “Why do you cry out? Upon Me …” According to this reading, God was chastising both Israel and Moses because they dared to assume that they could command God or even place expectations on God. It is for God to determine what to do, and only God.
The first statement seems to suggest that in times of need we need to act instead of pray, meaning that it is up to us. The second statement seems to suggest that we should have so much faith that we should not even need to pray, just trust that God will intervene.
We could argue either position until we are blue in the face and not resolve them to our satisfaction – until, that is, Nachshon steps in.
The Midrash is simple and straightforward. While the Israelites milled about by the Sea filled with uncertainty, he walked right into the water. He did not know how to swim. He just started walking, deeper into the Sea, until finally the water came up to his lips. Only then, says the Midrash, did God split the Sea.
Nachshon chose to act decisively and put his faith in God.
History has taught that in every generation we eventually find ourselves caught, in one way or another, between Pharaoh’s army and the impassable Sea – seemingly with no way forward or back.
History has also taught us that every generation has its own Nachshons, and it can be any of us.
When the time comes, what will we do?
Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
When did God put Torah in the Torah? In parashat Bo. This week the word “torah” (which means ‘teaching’ and/or ‘law’) is used for the very first time in the Torah, and under the strangest of circumstances.
Parashat Bo describes one of the most intense times in Torah. It begins in the midst of the Ten Plagues God sent upon Egypt and continues through the hasty preparations for the Exodus of the Israelites (in which there was not enough time to even let our bread rise). Among the many remarkable elements of this story is the insertion, right in the middle of the preparations to leave, of a legal discourse about the future observance of Passover.
If we were in such a rush, couldn’t God have waited until after we were out of Egypt to give us these laws?
Why, then, do we find these laws here – and what do they actually say?
There are two distinct but connected legal sections here. We will look at the first paragraph (Ex. 12:43-51), which focuses on who shall observe and eat of the Passover offering. Those who are circumcised (meaning Jews) are required, and those who are not (everyone else) are not permitted. Towards the end of the paragraph, the word ‘torah’ is introduced:
“One torah shall there be for the native and for the sojourner who sojourns in your midst.” [Ex. 12:49]
On the surface, this, the very first mention of the word ‘torah’ in the Torah suggests that a foreigner living among us has the same legal status as we do. How extraordinary! My more liberal tendencies make we want to jump at this as a clear moral mandate to better support both immigrants and refugees. After all, if this is the first mention of ‘torah’ in the Torah, then this must a be a core principle of Judaism. Indeed, this idea is so important that God made sure to teach it before we left Egypt.
The only problem is that this section begins with: “This is the chukkat (statute) of the Passover offering: no foreigner shall eat of it.” [Ex. 12:43] How do we reconcile the different verses? Through definition. A sojourner is not any foreigner who dwells in our midst, but one who lives among us and chooses to do so as one of us. How did one do this in Moses’ time? Through circumcising every male in the household.
Well, that seems a little less universal.
Let’s look at both the exclusions and inclusions of the entire legal passage, and the placement of this section within the larger narrative. Who is excluded? Foreigners, foreign settlers and hired workers. Who is included? Slaves purchased by silver and sojourners – both becoming ‘native’ through circumcision. When are these laws given in the narrative? The morning after the final Plague, when the Israelites placed the blood from the original Passover sacrifices on their lintels so that the angel of death would pass-over their homes and spare the Israelite first born.
The laws stated here specifically refer to the observance of Passover. Nachum Sarna notes that there are other laws, which come later in the Torah, that allow strangers in Israel many of the same rights and privileges as the Israelites, including rest on Shabbat, protection within the cities of refuge, access to the produce of the Sabbatical year and even the ability to offer sacrifices and participate in other Jewish religious festivals.
Putting it all together we can see a few different concepts at play, each of which God wanted to make sure we understood before leaving Egypt – so that we would not bring the ways of Pharaoh with us. First, the placement of the text draws a connection, at least metaphorically, with the blood on the lintel and circumcision as the defining characteristic of who is an Israelite. Second, the story of the Exodus is the primary definitive narrative of our people and the Passover sacrifice is directly connected to the retelling of our story in the first person. Therefore, only those who are “all in” may eat of the sacrifice, for in so doing we are saying that this story is our story. Third, becoming an Israelite is open to everyone, even slaves and foreigners, but requires a certain level of commitment. Fourth, one torah, the same torah, applies to all Israelites and converts regardless of their place in society or their place of birth. We are all governed and defined by the same teaching/law. Fifth, those who wish to live with us but choose not to fully commit to becoming part of the Jewish people are welcome, and are still protected by Torah, just not defined by it.
It turns out, that ‘torah’ cannot be reduced to a simple slogan or concept. It is both “teaching” and “law” in that it mediates how we interact with each other and with God. It is committed to maintaining our particularistic integrity as Jews, and our universalistic integrity as human beings – requiring that we be true to ourselves and treat others with true respect and dignity.
Torah is not, nor has it ever been, an ‘either-or’ endeavor.
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Think you don’t have what it takes? Neither did Moses:
“And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying, ‘Behold, the children of Israel would not listen to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips.’” [Ex. 6:12]
When God appeared to Moses at the Burning Bush in last week’s parasha, Moses tried to beg out of the whole affair, citing his inability to handle the job, in part because he was slow of speech and tongue. In this week’s parasha, after Moses has gone to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, Moses complains to God of his failure and uses a strange phrase to reinforce why he is the wrong man for the job: he has aral s’fatayim – uncircumcised lips.
What on earth are ‘uncircumcised lips’?
Certainly, this is not a physical description – or at least not a description of a surgical procedure. We know from elsewhere in the Torah that Moses was an eloquent speaker. His speeches and poetry have inspired our people for thousands of years. Besides, nowhere in Torah is there any mention of God performing a miracle to heal Moses of a physical handicap which made it difficult for him to speak. While it is true that Moses was eventually circumcised, it was definitely not done to his lips!
The great medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi taught that the word aral (uncircumcised) really means “obstructed.” Among the several prooftexts he cites are:
“Behold, their ear is arala (uncircumcised/stopped up), they cannot hear.” [Jer. 6:10]
By defining uncircumcised as “closed up,” Rashi teaches that Moses’ challenge was more psychological than physical. Moses’ lips were obstructed, because his mind was obstructed.
A true story from my childhood:
I was the kid in little league who sat in left field picking dandelions. I could have been an amazing baseball player, except I couldn’t catch, throw, run or hit – and everyone knew it. One day at practice, the coach accidentally hit a powerful line drive right at me. I’m not sure quite what happened, but instead of running away, I just stuck out my hand. With a loud “pop” the ball landed in my glove! Nobody could believe it – especially me. Having caught the ball, I was supposed to throw it to the second baseman. Again, amazingly, the throw was accurate. The coach hit the next several balls to me, varying grounders, pop flies and another line drive. I caught every ball, running all over left field – and for the first time, began to actually play baseball. My teammates cheered, and my confidence grew. While I would never be “all-pro” material, I discovered that I was capable of far more than I realized.
Moses was not playing a game, and the stakes were much higher. Yet, the blockage was the same. Surgical circumcision was not the solution. Moses had to learn that his initial failure was merely a step towards success. As Einstein taught: “failure is success in progress.”
You and I know how the story ends, but Moses still had a lot to learn. It was not enough for Moses to know that he had been chosen by God to lead – he needed to find his own voice. So, God sends him right back to try again.
It seems to me that this is a lesson for us all.
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
The end of the book of Genesis focuses on the men – on Jacob and his sons. The Exodus from Egypt, in contrast, begins with five courageous women: Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter.
A new pharaoh has risen in Egypt and enslaved the Hebrew people. Even more he attempts the world’s first holocaust against the Jews, commanding that all Hebrew baby boys be killed at birth by the two midwives who delivered them. However, Shiphrah and Puah ignored the order and lied to Pharaoh saying that the Hebrew women were too quick, and the babies were already born and hidden away by the time they arrived. Amazingly, Pharaoh believed the midwives, and did not punish them.
Who were Shiphrah and Puah, and why did they defy Pharaoh?
In Hebrew they are referred to as m’yaldot ha’ivriot. This can mean either “the Hebrew midwives” (meaning they were Hebrews themselves) or “midwives to the Hebrews” (which suggests they were not). If they were Israelites, then it is easy to understand why they defied Pharaoh, but what if they weren’t?
The names “Shiphrah” and “Puah” are not Hebrew, but more likely Canaanite or Ugaritic in origin. Still that does not mean that they were “other.” While the tradition generally refers to them as Israelites, there is some disagreement, and in truth, we will never know. Rabbi Azriel Fellner asks:
“If they were Egyptian, from where did they get the spiritual and moral strength to counter an edict from Pharaoh? If they were of Hebrew origin, why would Pharaoh trust them to follow through on an order that would have them murder one of their own? … What’s more, why is this story told at all? Is it just to share with us an act of civil disobedience?”
It’s quite a conundrum, and it gets even murkier when we look at the Hebrew which describes their act of civil disobedience:
“The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the King of Egypt told them; vat’chayena et ha’yeladim – they let the boys live.” [Ex. 1:15-17]
While vat’chayena et ha’yeladim is usually translated as “they let the boys live,” it could also mean “they caused the boys to live.” In the Midrashic tradition, they not only delivered the babies, but helped to look after them.
I think that the Hebrew here is intentionally fuzzy. We are not supposed to know whether Shiphrah and Puah were Israelites or the world’s first righteous gentiles. Nor can we be sure of what exactly they did. We can be sure, however, of two things. First, they were motivated by yirat HaShem (fear or awe of God). The late Rabbi Harold Schulweiss said, “To say ‘no’ to evil is the deepest affirmation of the existence of God.” This is true for Jews and gentiles alike. Second, Shiphrah and Puah demonstrated extraordinary courage in choosing to disobey immoral commands from Pharaoh. At the Nuremburg trials following World War II, defendants of genocidal crimes argued “loyalty to the state,” saying that they could not be held guilty for following the orders of their government leaders. The court, properly, rejected that defense.
It takes resolute courage to refuse immoral orders from those in power. The European Holocaust happened because too many people were afraid or unwilling to defy the commands of the Nazis. The Egyptian Holocaust never happened because of the courage and faith of two women, righteous regardless of their nationality or religion. This is not just a lesson for history, but a lesson for today. In the Israeli military, soldiers are required to question orders which seem immoral. However, in much of the world challenging immoral orders and laws remains a dangerous proposition. Enshrined in Torah, Shiphrah and Puah are among our greatest role models.
And what of Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter? They too demonstrated deep courage, but their stories will have to wait for another column.
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
This week the book of Genesis comes to its end, and along with it the story of the mamas and the papas (the matriarchs and patriarchs). VaYechi is perhaps one of the most intimate and difficult portions in Genesis because the text places us right in the room with Jacob as he says goodbye to his family from his deathbed. Throughout Genesis, as each generation of our family neared death the father would bestow a blessing on his eldest son – or rather the one who would be the next bearer of the Covenantal Promise between God and Israel. Abraham blessed Isaac, but not Ishmael. Isaac blessed Jacob, but not Esau. In VaYechi, Jacob breaks with tradition, and offers blessings not only to every one of his sons, but also to two of his grandsons. There will no longer be a single leader of the family. Each of them now will carry the responsibility of maintaining the covenant. Even more, Jacob offers personalized blessings in poetic form, which reflect the character, life path and future of each individual son:
"Asher’s bread shall be rich, and he shall bring forth kingly dishes. Naphtali, a hind set loose who brings forth lovely fawns." [Gen. 49:20-21]
Yet, as Jacob speaks each blessing, his words are not always kind:
“Issachar, a big boned donkey, crouched amidst hearths. He saw that the homestead was goodly, that the land was delightful, and he put his shoulder to the load, became a toiling serf.” [Gen. 49:14-15]
“Simeon and Levi, the brothers – weapons of outrage their trade. In their council let me never set foot, their assembly my presence shun. For in their fury they slaughtered men, at their pleasure they tore down ramparts. Cursed be their fury so fierce, and their wrath so remorseless! I will divide them in Jacob, disperse them in Israel.” [Gen. 49:5-7]c
How are thecse blessings? What is Jacob’s purpose here?
Part of the answer may come from a modern science fiction masterpiece called “Speaker of the Dead.” The author, Orsen Scott Card, imagines Speakers as people who speak the unvarnished truth of a person’s life after they have died. This is quite different from a eulogy. The rabbis teach that while we should never lie in a eulogy, we should edit what we say to only share the good. A Speaker shares everything, especially the most broken and dysfunctional aspects of a person’s life; and connects the dysfunction to the community as a whole. At a Speaking everyone understands how they contributed to the good and the ugly in the life now lost. In the book, this was an exquisitely painful and healing process, which forced everyone to confront the truth of their lives, and in the process give them the opportunity to change.
In some ways, I think that Jacob, on his deathbed is functioning as a ‘Speaker of the Living.’ Jacob shares the unvarnished truth about each son’s character and path to date – forcing them to confront the reality of their choices and actions. He phrases these blessings as poetic prophecies, but we already know that in Torah and Judaism the future is never predetermined: we can change the future with the choices we make today.
Jacob is serving as a sharp and painful mirror to his sons, in effect saying: this is the truth who each of you has become, but is this who you really want to be? If the answer is yes, then wonderful, this is what your future holds. If the answer is no, then you must make better choices.
They may be painful to read, and even more painful to receive, but perhaps these were blessings after all. At the end of his life, with the wisdom that only comes from years of struggle and suffering, Jacob offered his sons the most beautiful and meaningful blessing of all: the truth about the past and what the future will hold if we choose to stay the same.
 I wish that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, was also included – but that is a different story, for another commentary.
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Until VaYigash, our family story has been both sublime and dysfunctional. The sublime we know well: the covenantal relationship established between Abraham and God, and the introduction of an entirely new way of life to the world through the realization of that covenant, have inspired generations of our people. However, we also know the dysfunction, even if we downplay its role in the tradition. From the moment the then-barren Sarah sent her servant Hagar to Abraham to have a child on Sarah’s behalf, and Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael, the generations of the matriarchs and patriarchs struggled with intense jealousy, favoritism and more.
In VaYigash, Judah and Joseph break the cycle. How does it all happen? The famine has now come to the land, affecting not only Egypt but the entire known world. Under Joseph’s leadership, Egypt is the only place where food has been stockpiled, and people come from near and far to purchase food to survive. Among the many who came to Egypt for food, were Joseph’s brothers – sent by Jacob. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. After all, how could they think that a great Egyptian lord dressed in gold and covered in makeup could be the brother they left long ago in an empty pit?
Joseph does not reveal himself right away. Instead, he sets up his younger brother Benjamin, his only full-brother and the new favorite son, by framing him for theft. Joseph sends his troops to arrest Benjamin and gives the brothers permission to leave in peace – so long as Benjamin remains. The brothers, however, refuse to leave – and Judah, the ringleader who originally wanted to kill Joseph steps forward and offers himself in Benjamin’s place.
Judah’s extraordinary act of selflessness was the necessary first step to breaking the cycle of dysfunction. Jealousy is a function of selfishness. Judah was motivated by jealousy when he threw Joseph into the pit. He was concerned with his own pain and desires, and nobody else’s. By offering himself as a prisoner in Benjamin’s place, Judah demonstrates that he grown as a human being. He has replaced his jealousy with resolve, courage and love. Instead of abandoning Benjamin the way he did Joseph, he offers himself – a free-will sacrifice – for the sake of his younger brother and their aging father. Sacrifice is an act of selflessness. We can only make sacrifices when we place the needs of others before our own. When Judah offered himself in place of Benjamin, he unwittingly demonstrated to Joseph that he had moved from a place of extreme selfishness to a place of profound selflessness.
Yet, Judah’s action on its own was not enough to break the cycle. Joseph, too, needed to act. As a Prince of Egypt, Joseph now had the brothers who had wronging him so terribly under his absolute power. He could do whatever he wanted to them. Whatever the temptation may have been, Joseph chooses a different path. Instead of punishing his brothers for what they did to him, he reveals himself as their long-lost brother. While he holds them accountable for what they did, he also forgives them and tells them not to be afraid, that it was all according to God’s plan so that he could protect them.
Make no mistake, this is an enormous moment, requiring strenuous effort from both Judah and Joseph. Judah is prepared to give up his freedom. Joseph is prepared to give up any hope of punishing his brothers. Both choose to let go of the worst of who they were in the past to create a new present and hopeful future.
During the High Holy Days we talk about teshuvah, about making amends, changing our ways and reconciling to heal our relationships. In VaYishlach we see how teshuvah can transform even the most dysfunctional of relationships – if we are willing to change.
The bottom line? We always have a choice.
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?
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