Category Archives: Joseph

Saved from Exile (Vayigash)

Saved from Exile (Vayigash)

The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility. -Vaclav Havel

After twenty-two years of mourning, Jacob discovers that his beloved son Joseph is alive. Not only is Joseph alive, but amid a global famine Joseph is also the Viceroy of Egypt and the man in charge of the world’s supply of grain. Joseph, with Pharaoh’s blessing invites Jacob with his entire family to relocate from Canaan to the land of Goshen, the most attractive area in Egypt.

Jacob leaves Canaan with the whole family. The night that he is about to cross from Canaan into the Egyptian lands God appears to Jacob. God tells Jacob not to worry:

“Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 46:4 wonders as to the unusual phrase that “Joseph’s hand will close your eyes.” Why is that good and how does it comfort Jacob?

He explains that one of the defining aspects of Joseph was his fortitude to withstand the enticement of Potiphar’s wife and to remain holy and dedicated to God’s precepts. Whenever that aspect of Joseph is present among the Jewish people and they find themselves in danger or exile, it is Joseph’s “hand” that will protect and save them. It is the commitment to a higher standard in our relations that will call down a higher level of divine involvement. God in a sense is telling Jacob that Joseph’s strength of character will ensure that his descendants will return to their home from the Egyptian exile.

The concept of family purity, of correct monogamous relationships, of not wreaking havoc on the bonds of marriage invokes Joseph’s great power and merit. That merit affords us an added measure of intervention, of taking us out of the dangers and personal exiles we find ourselves in.

May we cherish the bonds of marriage and merit to be redeemed from our exiles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Gideon Perl zt”l, Rabbi of Alon Shvut and Gush Etzion.

Blessed Limbs (Miketz)

Blessed Limbs (Miketz)

Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will. -Bhagavad Gita

Joseph’s story is perhaps one of the most dramatic and incredible rags-to-riches stories in history. In the space of a few minutes, he goes from being a destitute, abandoned, and imprisoned slave to being the Viceroy of the Egyptian Empire, the mightiest empire on the planet at the time. We can only be amazed at his composure when he is suddenly brought from his dungeon before Pharaoh, the mightiest man on Earth, and all of his advisors and he is asked to decipher Pharaoh’s cryptic dream.

Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dream, predicting the coming years of plenty to be followed by famine. He astutely recommends that Pharaoh should stock the surplus from the years of plenty in preparation for the years of famine. He adds that someone should be in charge and bear responsibility for the nationwide effort. Pharaoh and his advisors can’t think of anyone better than Joseph and thus he’s appointed to the position of Pharaoh’s right-hand man.

The language used to describe Joseph’s newly bestowed powers are interesting:

“You shall be in charge of my court, and by your mouth shall all my people be directed.

And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.

Without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 41:40 wonders as to why the Torah refers to various body parts when describing Joseph’s role. Mouth, hand, neck, foot all receive mention. He takes us back to Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and how Joseph resisted her constant seduction. Because Joseph did not sin with any of his body parts, he merited that he should be rewarded through his body parts. The mouth that didn’t kiss Potiphar’s wife would command the Egyptian nation.

Joseph’s strength and control of his limbs purified them and allowed them to be the conduit for great blessings and success.

May we remember who should be in control of our limbs.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Yeshiva University Maccabees’ winning streak. Look them up.

Daily Seductions (Vayeshev)

Daily Seductions (Vayeshev)

The most important of life’s battles is the one we fight daily in the silent chambers of the soul. -David O. McKay

Joseph, who was sold by his brothers as a slave, ends up serving in the house of Potiphar, a powerful minister in Pharaoh’s empire. By biblical accounts, Joseph was extremely handsome and his good looks attracted the attention of Potiphar’s wife who attempted to seduce him on a daily basis.

The Midrash has some fascinating suggestions as to one of Potiphar’s wife’s underlying motivations. The Midrash explains that Potiphar’s wife had some sort of vision that her line and Joseph’s were meant to be joined. Based on that vision, she continuously tried to seduce Joseph. As it turns out, there was some truth to her vision, but she wasn’t the one who was meant to actualize it. Rather that vision was fulfilled years later through her daughter, Osnat, who eventually marries Joseph and gives birth to Potiphar’s wife’s grandchildren.

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 39:10 adds, that Joseph likewise had a similar premonition that Potiphar’s wife’s attentions had some divine or prophetic element to it. However, he wasn’t sure if the attention was something he was meant to act on or not. He wasn’t sure if the attraction of Potiphar’s wife came from his good inclination or his evil inclination.

However, when he saw that her seduction was a daily occurrence, he understood that the evil inclination was pushing this relationship. The Chidushei HaRim states that when the good inclination tries to persuade us to do something, it pushes once. If we don’t seize that good initiative or opportunity, it will seldom present itself again. However, the evil inclination attempts to entice us daily. When Potiphar’s wife accosted Joseph every day, it became clear that it was really the evil inclination at work.

May we stand strong in front of our daily temptations and take advantage of the fleeting opportunities to do the right thing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To giving thanks. It should be a daily exercise.

Fake Righteousness (Vayigash)

Fake Righteousness (Vayigash)

Keep thy smooth words and juggling homilies for those who know thee not. -Lord Byron

Joseph has finally sprung his trap, while his brothers still haven’t discovered that he, the Viceroy of Egypt, is their long-lost brother. Joseph got them to bring brother Benjamin to Egypt, and he had incriminating evidence placed among Benjamin’s belongings. The brothers, not realizing they were being set up, had brazenly declared that if Joseph’s men would find the thief in their midst, the thief would be put to death and the rest of them would become Joseph’s slaves.

When the stolen goblet is found in Benjamin’s possessions, the brothers realize they are in big trouble. Joseph, however, presents himself as a magnanimous judge. He states that only the thief himself will become his slave, while the rest of the brothers are free to return home.

This is the situation in which Judah steps forward and asks for a private audience with the Viceroy. Judah recounts the recent history, of how the Viceroy had insisted on Benjamin coming to Egypt, despite pleas that their father Jacob’s life was highly dependent on Benjamin’s wellbeing. If anything untoward were to happen to Benjamin, it would almost certainly kill their father Jacob.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 44:32 reads an accusatory statement in Judah’s plea to the Viceroy. He explains that Judah is saying that the Viceroy’s magnanimity is ultimately false. The Viceroy is only pretending to be generous by saying the other brothers are free to go, while only Benjamin will remain enslaved. While the Viceroy seems to be saying that the other brothers are likely innocent and there’s no need for them to be punished, in effect, by enslaving Benjamin and separating him from their father, the Viceroy will be killing Jacob, who is completely innocent. How can the Viceroy justify the exoneration of people who may have been accomplices to the crime, while he inflicts a fatal punishment on Jacob, someone completely innocent?

At that point, Judah offers himself to be a slave to the Viceroy instead of Benjamin, in order to save Jacob’s life. Moved by Judah’s valiant gesture, the Viceroy finally reveals himself to be Joseph. The brothers are shocked into silence, and the process of family reconciliation can begin.

May our family reunions be less duplicitous than that of our ancestors.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israeli politics. Never, ever boring.

The Grandeur of the Oppressor (Miketz)

The Grandeur of the Oppressor (Miketz)

An empire is an immense egotism. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pharaoh has a disturbing dream. He brings Joseph, a young, incarcerated Jewish slave to interpret the dream. Joseph conveys that the dream is a prophecy of seven years of plenty that will be quickly followed by seven years of famine. Joseph councils for Pharaoh to save grain from the years of plenty in preparation for what he predicts will be a devastating period of famine. Pharaoh is impressed and puts Joseph in charge of the entire project and elevates him to Viceroy of the Egyptian empire.

Joseph fills Egypt’s storehouses during the years of plenty and its treasury during the years of famine. Because of Joseph’s warning and preparation, Egypt was the only country in the entire region that was ready when famine struck. It made the wealthy and powerful Egypt even wealthier and more powerful. All the peoples of the region flocked to Egypt for grain. At this point, Egypt was reputed to have received the wealth of the entire world.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 41:1 gives an eerie explanation for why Egypt becomes the undisputed superpower of its time. He states that God, knowing that Egypt would eventually subjugate and enslave the Jewish people, wanted to raise Egypt’s prospects even further. God wanted Egypt to become the most powerful nation in the world before it enslaved the Jews. The reason is that God only wants the Jews subjugated by a powerful nation as opposed to a more lowly one. The Bechor Shor explains that not only was this true with Egypt, but with each subjugator of the Jewish people. God raises the fortunes of whatever empire or nation are about to subdue the Jews and we have seen this throughout our history. The fortunes of empire peak at the same time as the subjugation of the Jews starts. God doesn’t want to give the Jewish people into the hands of a lowly nation, but rather to one at the height of its power.

However, it has also proven true that while a nation may be at the height of its power when the subjugation starts, invariably, a nation that oppresses and persecutes its Jewish population, no matter how powerful, is eventually relegated to the dustbin of history.

May we be wary of nations at the height of their power.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To vaccination. May it ever be safe and effective.

Victim’s Collusion (Vayeshev)

Victim’s Collusion (Vayeshev)

Silence is the ultimate weapon of power. -Charles De Gaulle

Joseph’s half-brothers hate him. The hatred is so deep, that they conspire to kill him. However, at the last moment, brother Judah suggests that they sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him. Joseph is transported from the land of Canaan, south, to the Egyptian empire, where he becomes Potiphar’s slave. Though he excels in his servitude, Potiphar’s wife, whose advances upon Joseph are rejected, ultimately accuses Joseph of accosting her, landing him in prison.

Joseph is eventually released, due to his dream-interpretation skills. By successfully interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph is elevated to the post of Viceroy of the Egyptian empire, a role he had been filling for nine years, before he meets his brothers again. Then he starts the strange charade of remaining unrevealed to them, forcing his full-brother Benjamin to come to Egypt, threatening to force Benjamin into slavery on trumped up charges, and only later revealing himself to his brothers, and subsequently they relay his prominence and wellbeing to their father, Jacob.

The big question that vexes many of the commentaries is why didn’t Joseph communicate with his family beforehand? Why, when he was in a position of tremendous power, did he not send a message to his beloved father that he was alive and well? Why did he let his father believe he was dead or missing all those years?

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 37:26, takes us back to the original sale of Joseph into slavery to answer the question. The brothers really had intended to kill him, or at the very least to let him die in the pit they had thrown him into. But Judah, a savvy negotiator, declared to his brothers: “We gain nothing by his death. If we sell him, at least we gain something, and it removes our hated brother from our midst.” Then they give Joseph a choice: “Either we let you die as planned, or we sell you into slavery on condition that you never reveal your identity or origins to anyone, that you never return home nor contact our father.”

Joseph has no choice but to keep his silence and never contact his family. The purpose of the charade with the brothers then becomes clearer. Joseph couldn’t just declare that he was Joseph when his brothers first meet him in Egypt. That likely would not have gone well and the family rapprochement wouldn’t have occurred. They needed to go through a few steps first to undue the damage of selling him into slavery. When Judah, who initially sold Joseph into slavery then saves Benjamin from a similar fate, they are redeemed. This then allows the brothers, of their own volition, to suspend the enforced silence, to inform their father as to Joseph’s wellbeing and to bring him to Joseph in Egypt, which is what they go on to do.

Joseph’s silence and collusion with his brothers in his own harsh fate were painful, but he had little other choice. In the end, he was able to overcome his circumstances, and reunite the family.

May we only use silence in a positive way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, who passed away this week.

Liability for Ancient Sins? (AchareiMot-Kedoshim)

Liability for Ancient Sins? (AchareiMot-Kedoshim)

It is an old habit with theologians to beat the living with the bones of the dead. -Robert G. Ingersoll

Joseph Thrown into a Pit – David Colyn

When a child of mine apologizes for something they did, I will sometimes counter that the apology is not very meaningful if they go on to repeat their wrongdoing. That principle, in essence, lies at the heart of an old theological conundrum that the Torah presents us with. One on hand, there is a verse in Deuteronomy that clearly states that sons will not be punished for their father’s sins, nor the fathers for their son’s sins. However, we have other places where the Torah states that God “will visit the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children.”

First of all, that doesn’t seem very fair. Second of all, how do we resolve the contradiction? Are children punished for their parents’ sins or not?

The Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 16:30 brings the relatively famous answer from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 27b) that children are only punished for their parents’ sins if they continue the sins of their parents. However, the Meshech Chochma deepens this equation, making us liable for ancient sins as well as dividing the sins into two broad categories.

He states that whenever we violate a ritual command, a command that is predominantly between us and God, we somehow also become guilty of our ancestors’ sin of the Golden Calf. When we violate an interpersonal command, an infraction between us and our fellow Jew, that sin is connected back through millennia to the sin of Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery.

He learns this from a fascinating detail of the High Priest’s breastplate. The names of all of Jacob’s sons are etched onto the stones of the breastplate, except for one, Joseph. Having Joseph’s name there would be too stark a reminder of that ancient sin and it wouldn’t do for the High Priest, who is an agent of forgiveness and pardon, to have such an obvious reminder of that sin between brothers. It is also a reason why the breastplate, which was imbued with prophetic powers, ceased to work after the division of the monarchy into ten northern tribes (Kingdom of Israel) and two southern tribes (Kingdom of Judah) after the death of King Solomon. If there was no brotherly unity, the breastplate could not fulfill its ultimate function of being a conduit for divine communications.

If we don’t learn from our parents’ and our ancestors’ mistakes, if we repeat them, we are held accountable for those very mistakes. The point is we should have learned from them. If we do learn from them, if we repent, then those original sins are somehow also pardoned.

In our Yom Kippur liturgy, we quote God’s response to Moses of “and I will pardon you as per your words,” which occurs immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf. That is our pardon for the ritual sins for which we’ve repented. However, we also have the language of “and a pardoner of the tribes of Yeshurun.” That is the pardon for the sins we’ve committed against our brothers from which we’ve repented.

May we learn from our own and our ancestors’ mistakes, and not repeat them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the State of Israel, on the 72nd anniversary of its reestablishment.

Reputation Management (Miketz)

Reputation Management (Miketz)

His reputation is what men say he is. That can be damaged; but reputation is for time, character is for eternity. -John B. Gough

Joseph has traversed an existential roller-coaster. To review, Joseph goes from being his father’s favorite son, to his brothers jealously hating him and throwing him into a pit, which led to his being sold as a slave and taken south from the land of Canaan to Egypt. He was purchased by the powerful Egyptian minister Potiphar. In Potiphar’s home, Joseph proves his utility and trustworthiness to the point where he becomes the Head Slave, in charge of the entire household. That is until Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce the handsome young man; but when Joseph rejects her advances, Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of accosting her, getting him sentenced to the royal prison. When Pharaoh requires an effective dream-interpreter, the royal wine steward, for whom Joseph had successfully interpreted his dream, recommends Joseph.

Joseph is brought from the royal dungeons to Pharaoh and successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dream to the delight of Pharaoh and the entire royal court. Pharaoh is so incredibly impressed with the young prisoner and slave that on the spot he designates him as Viceroy, second only to Pharaoh in all of the mighty Egyptian empire.

The Torah adds another factoid as part of the narrative. Pharaoh acts as a royal matchmaker and sets up his new young Viceroy with a bride. He matches Joseph with Osnat, the daughter of his powerful Egyptian minister, Potiphar, the very man who had sent Joseph to prison in the first place.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 41:45 suggests, that Pharaoh was cognizant of Joseph’s colorful and unusual past. He clearly knew that his new Viceroy had a criminal record as well as had been a lowly slave. Pharaoh was concerned that the Egyptian population would be critical of the young Viceroy with a disreputable past. In order to ameliorate such criticism, in order to bolster his reputation, who better for Joseph to marry than into the family that had originally sent him to jail; who would have the most reason to be jealous of their former slave’s success; who knew Joseph better than anyone else and could theoretically cause the most trouble?

Therefore, Pharaoh matches Joseph with Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar, in a successful effort to forestall any criticism from that angle. It does keep them quiet and they come to love Joseph.

May our reputations remain untarnished, and barring that, may we have successful comebacks.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my nephew Jacob Epstein, on his Bar-Mitzvah. Mazal Tov!

A Person of Trust (Vayeshev)

A Person of Trust (Vayeshev)

I have seldom known a person, who deserted the truth in trifles and then could be trusted in matters of importance. -Babe Paley

Joseph finds himself unjustly imprisoned in the royal Egyptian jail. Among his jail mates are the royal baker and the royal wine steward who had each been party to some affront to Pharaoh. Joseph famously interprets their dreams, correctly predicting that the wine steward would return to the good grace of Pharaoh while the baker would be executed.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 40:13 brings our attention to the fact that the wine steward had a particularly sensitive role which required Pharaoh to have the utmost confidence in the man. If Pharaoh did not trust the steward, he would not accept a cup of wine poured exclusively for him. He would have the steward pour two cups, Pharaoh would pick one at random, have the steward drink it, and then, satisfied that there was no foul play, Pharaoh would drink from the second cup. The fact that Pharaoh was willing to drink from a cup that the steward poured only for Pharaoh signified that Pharaoh had the highest level of trust in the steward, putting his very life in the steward’s hands.

Joseph, in interpreting the wine stewards dream, assures the steward he will return to the same level of trust, that he will pour a cup exclusively for Pharaoh and that Pharaoh will accept it. God also arranged that the baker should also be present so that Joseph could give the equally predictive but fatal interpretation of the baker’s dream. This way the steward would see that Joseph wasn’t merely giving good interpretations to curry favor with his listeners, but rather, he had the gift of divine prophetic interpretive powers.

Furthermore, God wanted Joseph to be incarcerated with these royal servants in order to learn the methods and practices of the royal palace, in preparation of his forthcoming sudden elevation from slave and prisoner to Viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, who would unexpectedly need to know how to conduct himself and maneuver within the royal court.

Joseph, upon his release and elevation, proves himself to be both trusted by Pharaoh and able to astutely navigate the royal court.

May we prove ourselves worthy of trust and may we successfully navigate our various social milieus.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Chassidic celebrations of 19 Kislev.

Magnanimous Winner (Miketz)

Magnanimous Winner (Miketz)

You can stand tall without standing on someone. You can be a victor without having victims. -Harriet Woods

As a young lad, Joseph dreamed of eleven sheaves bowing down to his sheaf; of eleven stars, the sun and the moon bowing down to him. His family interpreted the dreams as Joseph’s projection that he would rule over them. His brothers hated him for it. They first conspired to kill him but settled on selling him as a slave to Egypt. Joseph disappeared from their lives, the annoying, presumptuous teenager abandoned to a lifetime of slavery.

Fast forward a couple of decades later and through a most unusual set of circumstances, Joseph is elevated from slavery, from a prison cell, to become the Viceroy of the Egyptian empire, the second most powerful man on the planet, after Pharaoh.

Joseph’s brothers, during the regional famine, come down to Egypt and find themselves bowing down in front of this Viceroy. Joseph recognizes his brothers. They don’t recognize him. Now would be the perfect time for Joseph to announce himself to his brothers and say: “Ha! It’s me! It’s Joseph! See! I won! My dream came true! You laughed at my dream, but look who is bowing down to who!”

But Joseph does none of that. He works hard to remain unrecognized. He runs the brothers through an elaborate machination to bring the youngest brother, Benjamin, Joseph’s only full-brother (he was half-brothers with the rest) to Egypt. Only after a harrowing plot where Joseph threatens to imprison Benjamin, does Joseph finally reveal himself in one of the most dramatic and emotional scenes in the Torah.

The Berdichever (among a multitude of other commentators) asks why Joseph didn’t reveal himself earlier. Why go through the whole charade and subterfuge only to disclose his true identity much later in the story?

He answers that he wanted to spare their feelings. If Joseph had revealed himself at that moment when they were bowing down, then he would indeed have rubbed his victory in their faces. It would have been the fulfillment of his dream if they knew it was Joseph they were bowing down to. By keeping his identity secret from them, they were just bowing down to the Egyptian Viceroy, which was completely appropriate. They weren’t bowing down to Joseph.

After the circumstances were right and enough time had passed since they bowed down to the “Viceroy,” did Joseph feel that it would not be as powerful a sting if he would reveal himself.

He was magnanimous in victory, going to extreme lengths to spare the losers from needless pain and anguish over their abnegation.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Maccabees, who beat the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire and their Hellenistic accomplices and banished them from the land of Israel (165 BCE), which we celebrate to this day, 2183 years later.