Posts Tagged 'Yosef'



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.

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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.

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

Slump Dog Millionaire

I assume by this point you have seen Slumdog Millionaire. If not, this is a spoiler alert. In short it is a story of a Mumbai teen who grew up in the slums and becomes a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” He is arrested under suspicion of cheating, and while being interrogated, events from his life history are shown which explain why he knows the answers.

There is no doubt that Slumdog Millionaire was interesting in that it tells the story of a far off land and we see people’s character’s develop. But it was the sequence of the movie itself which is so captivating. How is it that he came to learn the answers to the trivia contest?

So you ask, ” Avi, why in the world are you rehashing this 2008 blockbuster today?” Well, since you asked, I have been thinking about our Slumdog Millionaire in the person of Yosef. On the merit of his interpreting the dreams of the butler and the baker correctly he was called to Pharaoh to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. We the reader know of his childhood dreams and assume that he has some innate capacity to interpret dreams.

In last week’s Torah portion, Yosef was sold down into slavery in Egypt. We know that he was sold to Potiphar and the whole interaction with Potiphar’s wife which landed him in jail. But, who was Potiphar? There we read, “And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the tabachim.” ( Genesis 37:36) What are tabachim you ask? Rashi understands that Potiphar was the head of the butchers who slaughter the king’s animals. Before he was thrown into jail, Yosef was the head of that business. Is it any surprise that he answered Pharoah’s dreams correctly about the cows. Like Slumdog Millionaire, Yosef’s life experience led him to the moment where he would know just what to do say. Yosef is not just lucky, he is very fortunate. Everything happens for a reason, a life of meaning is never trivial.


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