Category Archives: Joseph

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.

Angry Words

Angry Words

A gentle response allays wrath; A harsh word provokes anger. – King Solomon, Proverbs 15:1

Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, has sprung the trap on his brothers, who still don’t recognize that he’s their sibling. He decrees that young Benjamin will be his slave based on fabricated evidence, while the other brothers can return to Canaan to their father Jacob. The whole ruse is patently unfair. They’ve been set up. Judah steps up and asks for a private audience with Joseph.

Judah, softly, gently, respectfully yet passionately, argues his case in front of the viceroy. He retells the history of how they came to the unfortunate situation. Judah ends his moving plea by offering himself as a slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph can no longer contain himself, is moved to tears, and reveals his true identity to his brothers in what becomes perhaps one of the most emotional reunions depicted in the Torah.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 44:18 (Vayigash) analyses the recounting of events, of Judah’s daring approach to viceroy Joseph, of his tactics in confronting the powerful ruler who held their fate in his hands.  Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that Judah was successful in calling on Joseph’s compassion by speaking calmly and gently to the harsh accusations and decree. Had Judah responded with righteous indignation, he would have only succeeded at kindling Joseph’s own anger which may have led to a worse outcome. By confronting the situation with calm, patience and understanding, Judah assured the best possible outcome. He allowed Joseph’s better nature to determine the rest of the story, not vengeance or a momentary fit of anger.

Rabbeinu Bechaye however, adds that there were two other elements in Judah’s address to Joseph. Besides entreating, softly pleading with Joseph for mercy, he also called on Joseph to be fair with their family and particularly their aging father who would be heartbroken should Benjamin not return. His final point is that he’s prepared for battle. The Midrash shares with us ancient tales of how Judah faces off against Joseph, prepared to tear Egypt apart should Joseph continue with his unfair enslavement of Benjamin.

Rabbeinu Bechaye however repeats and reinforces the value of training oneself to speak calmly and to always answer angry words with patience. There is no better way to inflame a situation than by answering anger with anger; and there is no better way to forestall a fight than to answer anger with calm.

May we not be the source of heated conversations and may we diffuse those that start that way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the voters of Zehut International who have put their trust in me.

The Source Material of Dreams

The Source Material of Dreams

Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal. -Pamela Vaull Starr

Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, has a disturbing dream. Seven sickly bone-thin cows consume seven healthy large cows; seven sickly shriveled wheat stalks absorb seven healthy robust wheat stalks. Pharaoh is shaken by the vision and knows it portends some danger to the Egyptian empire. After his advisors and wise men fail to interpret the dream to his satisfaction, the young Hebrew slave, Joseph, imprisoned in the royal dungeon is remembered and brought to Pharaoh to try his luck at interpreting what no one else could. Joseph does it, predicts seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, is elevated and thereby saves himself, all of Egypt and eventually his family, who join him in Egypt once the prophesized famine hits the region.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 41:1 (Miketz) explains the components that make up a person’s dreams and what elements of them are prophetic.

There are three inputs to our dreams: food; thoughts; and what he calls “strengthening of the soul.”

Food causes “fumes” to go to the brain. Dreams that come as a result of what we ate are nonsense. Our thoughts during the day, will lead to dreaming of those matters at night. Those dreams hold no significant importance.

However, the third element of a dream comes from the “strengthening of the soul,” and according to Rabbeinu Bechaye entails a minor prophecy. The dream’s source is the soul and is independent of anything we might have thought about previously. It comes from the power of our imagination to picture matters that the soul senses while awake. Our imagination then illustrates these visions to our mind in our dream-state when we are free of the noise, inputs, stimuli and distractions of our waking hours. These visions are true when the person’s imaginative powers are strong and he hasn’t thought about the vision previously.

This is similar to the minor prophecy that the sages attribute to children and fools, as they don’t have the same mental filters rational adults have developed for such prophetic messages.

He adds that both the righteous as well as the wicked can receive such prophetic dreams. In Pharaoh’s case, God specifically sent the prophetic dream to him, to set in motion the release and elevation of Joseph.

May we strengthen our own souls and dream prophetic dreams.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish community of Atlanta. I had the privilege to enjoy your southern hospitality in a time of need.

The Trick of Dream Interpretation

The Trick of Dream Interpretation

Man, alone, has the power to transform his thoughts into physical reality; man, alone, can dream and make his dreams come true. -Napoleon Hill

The subject of dreams comes up heavily in the Book of Genesis. It starts with Jacob and his famous ladder that reaches the heavens. However, it’s his son, Joseph, who gets the lion’s share of dream narrative in Genesis.

It starts with Joseph’s own prophetic dreams, which imply his future ascendancy and the subservience of his brothers to him. It’s followed by the dreams of his prison-mates, Pharaoh’s wine steward and baker, whose dreams he correctly interprets. And it ends most dramatically with Pharaoh’s dreams, which Joseph is called on to interpret, which he does successfully and in the space of a day takes him from the dungeons of Egyptian to control of the Egyptian empire.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 40:9 (Vayeshev) gleans a vital lesson on the lost art of dream interpretation, of which our ancestor Joseph excelled. He explains that the key to a positive dream interpretation starts with the words the dreamer chooses when describing the dream.

Pharaoh’s wine steward, when telling over his dream to Joseph, uses the word (in Hebrew) “In my dream,” (“bachalomi”) which is also related to the Hebrew verb “to heal” or “health.” Joseph correctly interpreted that the dream was a sign of good things to come based on the wine stewards choice of words. However, Pharaoh’s baker started his dream narrative with the Hebrew word for “also” (“af”) which is unfortunately synonymous with the Hebrew word for “anger.” It was clear to Joseph from the baker’s word choice that his future was bleak, and that is indeed what happened. Three days later the wine steward was elevated to his former prestige while the baker was executed, exactly as Joseph predicted.

Rabbeinu Bechaye’s point is that we should always be careful in our choice of words, for we never know the impact they may have, especially in the interpretation of ethereal and potentially prophetic dreams.

May our words ever be positive and our dreams sweet.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the British and French engineers and workers of the Channel Tunnel, who finally met up after more than two years of digging, 27 years ago, this week.