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Learn about this week’s Torah portion with our Rabbis
“A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” This week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Exodus (Shemot 1:1-6:1), presents a sudden shift in status for the Israelite people: the ruler who knew Joseph was kind to the Israelite people while the ruler who didn’t would deal shrewdly with them. The abruptness of this verse apparently bothered the authors of the Zohar, the mystical text of Jewish tradition: “Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘Thirty days before a nation rises to power or is overtaken by calamity on earth, that event is proclaimed in the world. Sometimes it is transmitted through the mouths of children, sometimes through people who have no sense, and sometimes that word is transmitted through the mouths of birds who announce it in the world yet no one notices.’” Unable to accept that such dramatic change can happen unforeseen, they rationalize that we must simply have missed the signs. The authors of the Zohar point out an important reality: as human beings, we are indeed quite adept at seeing only that which we want to see.
An equally powerful lesson might also be found in the opposite teaching. Sometimes things do happen in an instant, without warning, that completely reframe our world view and either delight us or challenge us to the limits of our emotional capacity. New situations arise which know not the arrangements of the past. May we find the courage to face them as our ancestors faced their new reality, eventually emerging from our own personal mitzrim to the promised land.
Rabbi Aaron Meyer
As Sir Thomas More languished in the Tower of London awaiting almost certain death, he penned a meditation on the meaning of life and ordering of priorities. In his eloquent and transcendent expression, he intones:
“To think my worst enemies my best friends, for the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.”
This was a powerful rationalization of even the most malicious machinations of his enemies as fodder for necessary growth and a singular realization of God’s larger vision and will. In this week’s portion, Vayechi, Jacob dies, and the guilt-ridden sons believe that Joseph will finally drop the hammer of revenge upon them in the absence of paternal judgment. But Joseph again affirms his capacity to rise above recrimination, a sure sign that he as evolved into a judicious leader. He asserts that God intended what happened to be for good and life, and offers the rhetorical and spiritual humility: “Fear not, for am I in the place of God?”
For those of us who find it difficult to let go, to loosen hold on grudges, or to see our acts as part of a larger, more enduring purpose, More’s meditation coupled with Joseph’s divinely configured forgiveness are inspiring guides to a better, less fraught life.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner
The Domino Theory has gotten a bad rap for its role in reactionary, anti-Communist foreign policy during the Vietnam War. I’d like to reclaim it as the Domino Theory of Jewish Theology for its critical role in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers, and rather than exact wrathful vengeance for how they treated him, he gives them a pass by intoning, “…for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” More than merely an act of altruistic forgiveness, it reflects Joseph’s realization that the human dynamic within his family propelled a much larger, more impactful unfolding of events on the fraught stage of Jewish destiny. Without Joseph’s imprisonment in Egypt, he would not have risen to the Egyptian court, thus empowered to save both Egypt and Jacob’s tribe from famine. Without their refuge in Goshen, the Jews would not have been established in Egypt to eventually become slaves. Without enslavement, the Jews would not have been liberated by God, received the Torah on Sinai nor eventually settled in the Promised Land. It’s a kind of Chad Gadya on a geo-theologiocal scale! As the contemporary commentator, Nechamah Leibowitz, reminds us,“Fortunate is he to whom it is granted to detect in the metamorphoses of his daily existence and the vicissitudes of her personal affairs, the workings of Providence—a mission on which he has been sent by God.”
This week’s Torah portion, Mikketz, recounts some of the most famous and enduring dream sequences in Jewish literature. But the power of these dreams is more in the interpretation than in the content—an interpretation that propelled both Joseph’s destiny and that of our people. But beyond even the Freudian power to glean insight into ourselves through understanding our dreams, or to attain divine guidance through mystic messaging, the figurative sense of dreams has transcended every historical and cultural context. That sense of dreams was conveyed most compellingly by Dr. King. It is a dream as communal vision of a world that can be, a world that should be, a world that God desires for us, if we would only realize it through the breadth of our hearts and the work of our hands. If a dream is to be more than self-help gimmick or religious parlor trick, it must concert and compel our encompassing efforts to better align the world with our ideals and with God’s will.
There is a colloquial saying derived from the word “assume”. When we make an assumption, it states, we make a four-legged member of the horse family (ASSume) out of you (assUme) and me (assuME). It is important piece of advice as we prepare to tackle this week’s Torah portion. In parashat Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1 – 40:23, we begin in earnest the story of Jacob’s favorite son Joseph. Dreamer of fantastic dreams, he soon finds himself in hot water with his brothers.
Yet not everything is as we know it from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice “modern midrash”. That cloak Joseph was wearing? We have no reason to assume it was colorful at all. His brothers’ anger? Perhaps the punishment didn’t fit the crime, but Joseph was far from innocent. Popular culture and majority beliefs within a society have a way of coloring our thoughts and our sacred texts. The two examples mentioned above have quite minor effects; the same cannot be said for misreadings which devalue the role of women, LGBTQ individuals, and lead some to think abortion is murder. Our challenge as a Jewish community is to maintain our identities and unique insights into a values-driven life, separating our truth from that around us. It sounds an awful lot like the moral of Chanukah, doesn’t it? A Fraylichen Chanukah!