Archive for the '1.09 VaYeshev' Category

Revealer of Spiral

In Veyeshev, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about all family politics of Yakov’s family. It is bad enough Yakov has a favorite wife, but why would he ever community communicate this to his children? Reading this seems to be perfect preparation for everyone spending a lot of time with family on Thanksgiving. Here we read about the brothers capturing Yosef, Rubin saving him from being killed, and their selling him into slavery. There we read:

Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brethren hearkened unto him. And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Yosef out of the pit, and sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Yosef into Egypt. (Genesis 37: 27-28)

The brothers tell their father he was killed by a beasts and Yakov is lost in mourning. And then at the end before the whole Yehudah and Tamar interlude we read:

And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard. (Genesis 37: 36)

There is some confusion. Did the brothers sell him to Ishmaelites or to Midianites? On one level this confusion is communicating that Yosef was passing through many hands indicating that he was a commodity. Maybe on a deeper level the Torah communicates this so that we know that even if the brothers showed remorse and wanted to recover their brother they could not do it. But is there any significance to the fact that Yosef passed through the hands of the Midianites?

Who was Midianites? They were the descendants of Midian, who was a son of Avraham through his wife Keturah. As we read:

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah. (Genesis 25:1-2)

According to the Midrash, Rashi,Gur Aryeh, Keli Yakar, and Obadiah of Bertinoro Keturah was actually Hagar (Bereshit Rabbah 61:4). Hagar remarried Avraham after the death of Sarah. Why did she change her name to Keturah? Keturah is a reference to the  incense used in worship. Hagar’s new name was symbolic of the pleasantness of her return from exile and repentance. Yosef  the privileged child of the loved wife was captured by his brothers who in turn sell him to the children of Yishmael who in turn sell him to the children of Keturah, both children of the original scorned wife. Hagar’s exile is marked by her blindness to the source of water to sustain her child in the wilderness. There we read:

And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What ails you, Hagar? fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.’ And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. ( Genesis 21: 16-19)

Similarly Yosef’s power came from his ability to predict the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. He was able to lift his head and see the water. Like Hagar having her name change to Keturah Yosef’s name was changed by Pharaoh to Zaphnath-Paaneah – צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ‎ – revealer of mysteries or secrets (Genesis, 41:45). Hagar’s exile, renaming, and reconciliation with Avraham is similar to the story of Yosef’s exile, renaming, and reconciliation with his brothers. Living in the Diaspora, it is easy to relate to Yosef’s narrative as a uniquely Jewish tale. It is good to be remind ourselves that our story of surviving and even thriving at the margins while important is not unique to the Jewish people, and in fact it never was.

Being Present for a Difficult Topic

Two week’s ago in the Torah portion we saw Yaakov give Yosef a coat of many colors. While this special gift was supposed to be an expression of love between a father and a son, for his brothers it was a sign of Yaakov’s unfairly favoring Yosef. This led them to sell Yosef into slavery. In our Torah portion this week Yosef is finally reunited with Yaakov. It is interesting to note that he is not interested in any more presents, only his father’s presence. Last week we celebrated Chanukah and we very deliberate to get each of our children presents that they would enjoy that spoke of our love for them. Kindles so they could read and play. After this senseless shooting, the gift was out of my mind and all I could think about was wanting to be present for my children.

Like many other parents, Adina and I spent the weekend deliberating what we should tell our children about the horrific shootings this past Friday. The school in Sandy Hook Elementary is about an hour away from our children’s school in Connecticut. We both knew that there was nothing really to talk about with Emunah (3) and Yishama (6), but what could be hope to say to Yadid (8) about the death of so many precious innocents? This past Monday night when  I got home I pulled Yadid into the kitchen to talk with him in private. I asked him what they talked about at school that day. He reported to me what the school had communicated to us the were going to messaged to him verbatim. I was happy. I asked him what he was thinking about, what he was feeling, and if he had any questions. Yadid said that was sad for what happened, but he wanted to talk “when the kids were not around.”While we did get to talk about it later, I am still moved at his sensitivity. Evidently Adina and I are not the only ones who was thinking about what the right way is to talk about such a difficult topic.

There were many ways of communicating our love to our children and many ways of helping  them deal with a crisis. In the end no presents will replace a long hug and being completely present in the moment.

On Two Dreams

At the end of Vayeshev, this week’s Torah portion, we see our hero Yosef meeting Pharaoh’s butler and baker in prison. One night, the butler and the baker each had dreams. Finding them sad, Yosef asks them the cause, and they told him that it was because no one could interpret their dreams. Acknowledging that interpretations belong to God, Yosef asks them to tell him their dreams. In the butler’s dream the butler saw a vine with three branches blossom and bring forth grapes, which he took and pressed into Pharaoh’s cup, which he gave to Pharaoh. Yosef interprets that within three days; Pharaoh would lift up the butler’s head and restore him to his office, where he would give Pharaoh his cup just as he used to do. When the baker sees that the interpretation of the butler’s dream was good, he shares his dream. He saw three baskets of white bread on his head, and the birds ate them out of the basket. Joseph interprets that within three days Pharaoh would lift up the baker’s head and hang him on a tree, and the birds would eat his flesh.

What is the meaning of these dreams? Why is one dream good and other so bad? For years I took Yosef’s words at face value to be the answer. “Do not interpretations belong to God?” How could we ever know how to interpret the dreams? But recently I got to thinking, what are the respective roles that the butler and the baker play in their own dreams? The butler is active in pressing the grapes where the baker is passive in having the birds eat the bread.

The reality is that Yosef’s question is the question. “Do not interpretations belong to God?” Well it seems that the real answer is yes and no. Yes – God alone knows the future. And no – despite that is is only for God to do Yosef goes on to interpret the dreams. Yosef models for them what it means to be an active agent in realizing your dreams. We cannot be passive in sculpting our future. We need to partner with God and other people to realize our highest dreams-

Today is the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington for Soviet Jewry. I remember it well as a moment when we all came together to play an active role in shaping the future of our brethren caught behind the Iron Curtain. I often think about what will be that moment when my children make the move from passive bakers to active butlers to shape our future.

And as we prepare for Chanukah, which starts this Saturday night, I take pause. Chanukah was a brutal civil war which the Rabbis masterfully reshaped into a holiday of light and divine miracles. We cannot forget what Yosef said and did. If it was just in our hands, our hands would be rather blood stained. We need to follow what Yosef modeled. We need to remember to have humility. It is all in God’s hands. And at the same time we need to have the hutzpah ( holy hubris) to act in the world. Like Yosef we need to become active partners in realizing our dreams.

Schlepherds and Cities

A friend and colleague of mine shared with me a Dvar Torah she wrote on the occasion of her son’s bar mitzvah this Shabbat. In her remarks she is addressing the fascinating story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel. In a mere 9 verses this story tries to explain why humanity became multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and possessing thousands of different languages. She outlines different approaches to this story. The first is that the central sin of these ancient people was in building a tower to reach the heavens.  As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, the people wished “to demonstrate that, if all join forces and work together, mankind can overpower nature.”  It is their hubris in attempt to reach the godly sphere that causes God to scatter them.

Another approach she shared was from Drs.  Robert Alter and James Kugel. These biblical scholars point out that the text does not necessarily support this interpretation.  In fact, while the tower is certainly there in the story, it is hardly the whole point.  If it were, there would have been no need to mention the building of a city at all.  In fact, Kugel writes, “it is remarkable that, after God’s intervention, the text says, ‘and the building of the city was stopped.’  There is not a word about the tower’s fate; if it were so crucial, should not the text have mentioned its collapse or abandonment?”In this interpretation it was urban materialism itself that the Torah is rejecting.

I find this point of view particularly interesting when you juxtapose it with Yosef’s dreams. There in Parshat Vayeshev we read of Yosef’s dreams when he has dreams of their stars and bundles of wheat bowing to his. While the brothers are clearly angered by the idea of their having to bow to their little brother. But, is that enough to make them what to kill or even enslave their brother. Rabbi Riskin interprets that the dream of the wheat was really  prediction of Yosef or his preaching for the transition from the nomadic shepherd way of life to the settled farmer lifestyle. It was as if Yosef was saying what would be later popularized in the New Testament that his brothers needed to put their childish things away.    In some sense his dream was calling for a radical technological innovation. They went after Yosef because he was calling for  end of life as they knew it.  And sure enough that is exactly what happened. In this light it seems that Yosef was leading us back to the “crime” of Migdal Bavel. 

Some questions to consider:

  • What is the difference between the building project of the Mikdash and Migdal Bavel?
  • What is the role of Jerusalem  (or Tel Aviv for some)  in Jewish thought?
  • What is the relationship between the  ideal contemporary Jewish life and urban living?
  • Will the Jewish people survive being scattered outside of our cities?

Dependable Memory

In the Mishnah Tamid ( 7:4) we learn that the Messianic Era will be a time which is  sheKulu Shabbat- completely Shabbat. What does that mean? First we need to understand some basic ideas about Shabbat and the Messiah. So, Shabbat with all of the rules and regulations actually boils down to just two commandments, LeShmor V LeZchor- to guard and to remember. Most of what we know  is all of the things we cannot do on Shabbat. That would fall under the commandment “to guard” Shabbat. We remember the Shabbat most clearly with the Kiddush. The Shulchan Aruch (OH272) brings down an interesting idea. If we do not have enough money for Challah and wine we should actually make Kiddush over Challah.  But we will come back to this.

Now back to the idea of the Messiah. We often say that one should ignore the idea of the Messiah ben David, but we ignore the idea of the Messiah ben Yosef. Living most of history as a dispossessed people we overlook the physical redemption of the Messiah descended from Yosef in favor of the metaphysical/ spiritual redemption that is supposed to come from a descendent of David. This idea of a physical redeemer in Yosef is very clearly discussed in the past few Torah portions. It all comes to a head in Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, when the hidden redeemer reveals his true identity to save his brothers.

Regardless of our station in life, on Shabbat we are transformed into kings presiding over our weekly feast. To anyone who keeps Shabbat in our lives, it is hard to imagine a world without Shabbat.  But if we tried to imagine a world without the comfort of family and community we do not need to look further then when Yosef himself was in prison. There he was in the pit without Shabbat, but he was with the head baker and the head butler of the Pharaoh. He interprets their dreams and asks to be remembered. Then we read:

And the butler did not remember Yosef and he forgot him. ( Genesis 41:23)

Yosef asks to be remembered and he is forgotten.  Many commentators suggest that this doubling of language suggests that the butler forgot him in the short-term and the long-term. It is easy to imagine why the butler might forget Yosef. Many of us assume that needing the help of others makes us weaker in some way. So in the short and long-term it was easier for the butler to think he was chosen or special then remembering that he was dependent on Yosef for anything.

What is the significance of this story of Yosef in the prison in the context of our Mishna in Tamid? Yosef was in the pit without Shabbat. Pharoah is the king and he is clearly not. There, Yosef was with the head of Challah and the Head of Kiddush. The head of Challah was going to be killed and the head of Kiddush was asked to remember the redeemer and forgets him. Every Shabbat we try to fix this by remembering Yosef when we make Kiddush. And if we do not have money for both we remember the Challah over the Kiddush.

In the Talmud,  Rav Yochanan said in the name of the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi:

If Israel were to keep two Shabbatot according to the laws, they would be redeemed immediately ( Shabbat 118b)

Surely if we remember what the butler forgot we could redeem the world. (Maybe for both the Messiah of Yosef and David) We all get help from people all the time. But, we let our egos get the best of us. If we took the time to reveal their good deeds it would help reveal the capacity of these hidden humble heroes to redeem the world. And, we would also reveal our own vulnerability. This itself might be the core of the Messianic Era. This will not be a time of independence or dependence, but radical interdependence.  Shabbat itself could be a taste of this. Take a moment this Shabbat to share how you were helped this week. This memory might itself bring us closer to that era.

L’Kavod Ben Sales ( who taught me to love Shabbat in new ways) and his wife Rachel

IP Today

It seems that in today’s day and age there is an issue around owning ideas. In an era in which everything can be copied, ripped, duplicated, and mashed up, what is the value of intellectual property (IP)? While there are clear benefits to an open-sourced society, there are real tensions when that world interacts with older conceptions around unique ownership of ideas. While I hope to raise children in an open society, I do not want  to teach them to steal.

I do not just deal with this as a father, I  also deal with this all the time as an educator. How do educational providers make money in the 21st Century? People used to make their money off of their IP, but today we all have to give it away for free. At best IP has become the business card for people to sell other services. I worry about great educators out there who will not survive in the open seas of the open-sourced market.

So while I argue that we need to migrate Jewish education to this new market, I still feel that it is critical that we teach our children ( and our adults) to make sure we give attribution. We need to understand the wisdom of Pirkei Avot:

kol ha’omer davar b’shem omro, mevi geula l’olam – whoever says something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world (or, gains eternal life). (Pirkei Avot 6:6; cf Hullin 104b)

Why is properly attributing source material deserving of redemption? The Gemara Megillah 15 cites Esther 2:22 – “Queen Esther told the King in the name of Mordecai” of the plot against the king. It seems extraneous to mention that she told this over” in the name of Mordecai”, but this itself leads the King to put Mordecai above Haman, leading to the redemption of Shushan’s Jews.

But this is not a new idea from Purim. We first learn of this at the end of VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

20 And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and the head of the chief baker among his servants.  21 And he restored the chief butler back unto his butlership; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand. 22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23 Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgot him. ( Genesis 40: 20-23)

And next week after Pharaoh has all of his dreams we read:

8 And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof; and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh.  9 Then spoke the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying: ‘I make mention of my faults this day: 10 Pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and put me in the ward of the house of the captain of the guard, me and the chief baker.  11 And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream.  12 And there was with us there a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream he did interpret.  13 And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was: I was restored unto mine office, and he was hanged.’  14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon. And he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh. (Genesis 41:8-14)

The butler ould have forgotten him forever. He could might have kept Joseph’s powers of dream interpretation a secret, or worse he could have pretended to have the powers and still used Joseph. But he put forward a model of collaboration. He helped Joseph and helped himself. It is one of those cases that the butler did it. Human nature is to be self serving, but he realized mutual benefit in sharing the information of Joseph skills.

This open sourced society cannot forget to give attribution because ultimately it is self-serving. We need to teach our children to tell the bigger narrative and have the long view for how helping others will help ourselves. Maybe that itself is redemptive.


Settling Down of Just Settling

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, VaYeshev,  we read, “Yaakov settles in the land of his father’s sojourning , in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 37:1) There is a clear juxtaposition of his commitment to be in the land while his father never really settled there. Avraham traveled widely, but according to the plain read of the Bible his father, Yitzhak, never even left the land of Canaan.  So if living your whole life some where is sojourning, what is the meaning of Yaakov’s settling?

There is story of the prince whose father asked him to decide if he wanted to inherit his father’s castle or build his own. The prince knew that if he chose his father’s castle he would never be secure as to how sound the foundation was and he would always live in fear of collapse. The prince was confident that if he built his own castle the foundation would unshakable. However, the prince knew that he would never achieve the splendor of his father’s castle. When I tell this story, people always want to know, “So Nu?, What did he pick?”. As with everything else Jewish in the world, the question is better then the answer. In this case, it is even more frustrating in that it is the question of the modern era.

We live in an amazing time of freedom and many choices. Ironically having the whole world readily available via computer does not make selection easier. Never before have we been plagued by so many choices to make.  In our consumerist culture, we often succumb to the “temptation of temptation” (See Levinas). While we know that it is hard to focus and concentrate, we always want to know what is next. It is as if we are stuck on the Midrachov, trying to talk to people while we are looking over their shoulders looking for the next person to engage.

Yitzhak did not know anything else, there was no choice involved in living in the Land of Canaan. In the case of Yaakov, this was a choice. However, for the man who spent his whole life running, this represents his commitment to look no further. Even when he leaves this land for Egypt, he maintains his commitment to his homeland by mandating his burial there.

What does it mean to settle down versus to settle? We should all aspire for the best in life, but at some point, we need to commit. The king deserves an answer and the prince deserves a castle.

The Pit of Choice

In this week’s Torah portion Joseph tells his brothers of his dream that their sheaves will bow down to his sheaf (Gen. 37:7). It is clear to many commentators that Joseph’s dreams are really prophecies. The reader sees the dramatic irony unfolding. Jacob makes it clear to everyone that Joseph is his chosen son. This open display of favoritism moves his brothers to the brink of fratricide. Once they get him alone they throw him into a pit and eventually Joseph gets sold into slavery in Egypt. There, Joseph lived through the nightmares of being alone, slavery, and emprisonment. Eventually Joseph finds himself in a position of security and power. During the famine, his brothers, seeking wheat, come to bow before him. Sure enough in the passing of time Joseph’s dream becomes a reality.

But maybe there is another way in which Joseph’s vision come true. After they stick their little brother in the pit they sit around and eat lunch (Gen. 37: 24-25). Following the theme of his dream it is noteworthy that they are sitting around looking down at their brother with bread in their hands. Joseph is but a young seed just put in the ground and they are looking down at him from their position of power. Their wheat has already risen, but eventually, Joseph’s stalk will rise up over theirs. Their necks craned down at him in the pit will actually become their act of bowing.

While their display of aggression is a horrible misuse of power, it is not as if Joseph is free from blame. Even if he had this dream, he did not need to share it with his brothers. What is the value of having one person bow before another? Personally and nationally we have nothing to gain from objectifying people by looking down at or bowing down to them. In this context it is important to examine what we have invested in the national vestment of being “The Chosen People”. If we choose to identify ourselves as being chosen, we should be mindful of how we choose to communicate this dream to our brothers.

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