Posts Tagged 'Joseph'

High School Vanity

Years ago my mother, a psychologist for over 50 years, told me that the greatest period of growth for most people is between their Senior Prom and coming home for Thanksgiving during their freshman year in college. Over Thanksgiving I was up at my mother’s house in the Berkshires and I took a look at my senior high school yearbook. Who was I at that moment over a quarter century ago?  In the middle of the period I had a transformational experience as a Junior Counselor at Jewish summer camp. Here amidst a period that could be seen as incredibly turbulent I was responsible for a bunk of a dozen 15 year-old boys.  At the moment of extreme vanity I was given the opportunity to give of myself fully to other people. In this process of giving I could start to imagine the person that I wanted to become.  What a gift?

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I was thinking about this age this week reading Vayashev, this week’s Torah portion. There at the begining we read:

Now Yakov was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. This, then, is the line of Yakov: At seventeen years of age, Yosef tended the flocks with his brothers, and he, being a lad to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Yosef brought bad reports of them to their father. ( Genesis 37:1-2)

Here we meet Yosef as this age and he is interacting with his brothers. To explain what it meant to be a lad Rashi brings a midrash:

His actions were childish: he dressed his hair, he touched up his eyes so that he should appear good-looking (Genesis Rabbah 84:7).

Giving a bad report on his brothers Yosef is not a person of character. He is vain and self absorbed. He is a young person who is more interested in how he appears to be than who is he is.

Looking at the vanity manifest my yearbook page it is not hard to imagine the self important quotes and overly curated picture that Yosef would have chosen to put on his yearbook. What would Yosef’s life have looked like if instead of looking after the flocks with his older brothers he was given a bunk of children to counsel?

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Table of Brotherhood: Joseph, MLK, and Race in America Today

In VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion,  Joseph tells his brothers of his dreams that their sheaves will bow down to his sheaf and that their stars will bow to him(Gen. 37:7-9). Jacob makes it clear to everyone that Joseph is pompous, but still his chosen son. These dreams and their father’s open display of favoritism moves Joseph’s brothers to the brink of fratricide. Once they get him alone they throw their little brother into a pit and cruelly sit around and eat lunch (Gen. 37: 24-25). Eventually Joseph gets sold into slavery in Egypt. There, Joseph lived through the nightmares of slavery and imprisonment. Through an interesting turn of events Joseph finds himself in a position of security and power. During a famine, his brothers, seeking food, come to bow before him. Sure enough in the passing of time Joseph’s dream becomes a reality. What is the meaning of this through-line of the brother’s eating?

With all of events in Ferguson and New York in mind and in light of Joseph’s dreams I pause to reread Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s  “I have a Dream” speech from August 28, 1963. Where Joseph’s dreams spoke of his hubris and ends with him in a pit, King’s dream describes the situation of Blacks in this country being in a pit and King’s aspirations for us all to live as equals. There he said:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

King delivered this iconic speech on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  In his speech he referenced it being 100 years since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. With all of the recent events, it is crazy to realize that it has been 51 years since King’s speech. Unfortunately the question of how someone could kill or enslave a brother is both timeless and  still so timely. The fraternal order of police along with the rest of us need to look into the mirror and determine how we allow this plague of fratricide to continue.  As king says:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

When none of us are in a pit we can see each other as equals. At that point we can break bread together and sit with each other at the table of brotherhood. Just because this problem has existed since the time of  Joseph and his brothers, does not  mean it is not urgent. We all have a lot of work to do.  How many more brothers need to die before King’s dream becomes a reality?

Yosef and Technology

At the beginning of Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Yosef’s reconnecting with his brothers. There we read:

Then Yosef could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried: ‘Cause every man to go out from me.’ And there stood no man with him, while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. ( Genesis 45:1-2)

While I imagine Yosef wanted to teach his brothers a lesson for having sold him into slavery, these are his brothers and he has been isolated from his family for many years. It is easy to relate to Yosef’s inability to control himself. But the situation does begs the question, with all of his wealth and resources why did Yosef not go out or send out for his family earlier?

I had not thought about it until I saw a video this week, but maybe Yosef  just lacked the technology. If you have not yet to see this video please watch it. It will blow your mind.

When Saroo Munshi Khan was five years old, he went with his older brother to scrounge for change on a passenger train about two hours away from his small hometown. Saroo became tired and hopped on a nearby train where he thought his brother was and then fell asleep. When he woke up, he was in Calcutta — nearly 900 miles away. Saroo tried to find his way back, but didn’t know the name of his hometown, and as a tiny, illiterate boy in a vast city full of forgotten children, he had no chance. Eventually he got adopted by an Australian couple.  Saroo moved there, learned their language and grew up, but he never stopped looking for his family and his hometown. Decades later, he discovered Google Earth. Using all of his memories,  this technology, and years of scouring the satellite photos, he recognized a few landmarks and found his way home.  

There are similarities between Saroo and Yosef’s story. One difference is technology. I have no misconceptions, technology can be terrible. It has brought us cyber-bullying, sexting, global terrorism, and many other terrible things that come from a platform for global connection and anonymity. But as the story of Saroo clearly articulates there is also a tremendous power behind today’s technology. This platform for global connection helped alleviate the pain of a lost child’s anonymity. It rejoined an orphan to his long-lost family.

It is interesting to reflect again on Yosef’s story. At the start he kicks everyone out of the room so he can reveal his hidden identity to his brothers in private. But when Yosef finds his voice it knows no bounds. His weeping was heard by the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh. If it was not for this technology I would never have learned about Saroo’s story or been able to share it with you. And who knows maybe if he had the technology Yosef would have tweeted his reunion.

 

–  Thank you Rabbis Yonah Berman and Seth Wax for helping this idea come together.

Revealing Food and Clothes

On the heels of last week’s Torah portion in which Jacob steals the birthright and the blessing from his brother Esav, this week’s Torah portion begins with Jacob running away from Esav. Just before Jacob leaves the land of Canaan he makes a vow to God, saying:

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear,  so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God (Genesis 28:20-21)

His vow seems to be theologically charged with the possibility that God’s existence is contingent on God providing for Jacob. Some of the words in the vow seem to be superfluous. Of course food is to be eaten and clothing is to be worn, why does Jacob ask for “bread to eat, and clothing to wear”? It was Jacob himself who used food to get the birthright from Esav and food and clothing to deceive his father and get the blessing. How can Jacob ever look at food and clothing the same way again?

Even though it seems that the deception changed Jacob as a person, it never made him suspect that people would try to deceive him the same way in the future. Sure enough in this week’s Torah portion Jacob gets hoodwinked into marrying a cloaked Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. He then gets deceived by his sons who bring their father Joseph’s clothes with blood on them to support their claim that their brother Joseph was killed. Finally, Jacob will send his sons down to Egypt to get food and there they will all get deceived by Joseph. Ironically, despite Jacob’s claim that food and clothing should be used for their normal use, his life is marked by their use for deception.

If we look at the vow that Jacob makes, in this light, we see that the words are not superfluous and he really wanted God to let him forget the sins of his youth. Surely Jacob’s teshuvah, return, is a lifetime in the making. As we read in Hallel, “The rock that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). We can try to run from our past, but one way or another it will catch up with us. Just as in Jacob’s vow, the true revelation of God is contingent upon the true revelation of self.


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