Tag Archives: joseph

Mikeitz: Dreams and Nightmares

dreams-and-prisonThese concepts are reflected in this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Mikeitz, which focuses on the release of Yosef from prison. Yosef serves as an analogy for the entire Jewish people. For the name Yosef, meaning “increase,” refers to an infinite and unbounded potential for growth, (See Toras Chayim, Bereishis, 87b.) i.e., the soul we all possess, which is “an actual part of G-d from above.” (Tanya, ch. 2.)

Moreover, the prayer Rachel recited when naming Yosef, (Genesis 30:24.) “May G-d add on (yosef) to me another son (ben acher),” reflects the spiritual mission of the Jewish people. Entities which have hitherto been acher (“other” estranged from their G-dly core) are brought close and manifest the intimacy of ben (“a son”).(See Or HaTorah, Vayeitzei, p. 202a.)

The prison in which Yosef is held refers to the body, and to material existence as a whole. These tend to confine the infinite power of the soul and deny it expression. Although G-d gave man His Torah, His will and wisdom, (Tanya, ch. 4.) the Torah is also affected by the limits of material existence, and its G-dly source is not always evident.

-Rabbi Eliyahu Touger
“An End And A Beginning”
Commentary on Torah Portion Mikeitz

Again, I can only relate to Chassidic mysticism in terms of its power to paint metaphorical pictures. We all exist in some sort of prison which seemingly prevents us from flying free. It could be an emotional restraint, a physical ailment, a spiritual lacking, anything, really. Sometimes God sends us on a quest in search of who we are and in the midst of it, we feel discouraged and uncertain. Have we taken the correct turn? Are we on the right trail? Should we turn back and start again? What if it doesn’t matter?

Yet Joseph the slave and Joseph the prisoner shows us that regardless of our environment and circumstances, and sometimes because of it, we can always be who God has created us to be. Then again, it sometimes takes someone like Joseph to teach us that lesson.

Once, when Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch, the son of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was a young man, he was visiting with his father-in-law in Yanovitch. There he met with one of his father’s chassidim. The chassid noticed that the young ‘rebbe’s son’ was all too aware of his achievements in scholarship and meditative prayer and felt that some cutting down to size was in order.

Said the chassid to Rabbi DovBer: “Considering who you are and how you’ve lived, what’s the big deal? Your father – well, we all know who your father is. You were certainly conceived under the holiest of circumstances, and I’m sure that your father secured a most lofty soul to bring down into the world. Then you were raised in a rebbe’s home and great care was taken to mold your character and safeguard you from any negative influences. All your life you’ve been exposed to scholarship and sanctity and to this very day you’re preoccupied only with the study of Torah and the teachings of chassidism. So you’ve amassed a certain amount of knowledge and you pray with fervor and devotion. Big deal.

“Now, take me for example. My father was a simple man, and we can well imagine what was on his mind when he scraped out some dreg of a soul out the bottom of the barrel. My upbringing? I was raised as a goat and basically left to my own devices. And do you know what I do with my life? Let me tell you how I earn my living. I loan money to the peasants during the planting season and then, during the winter months, I make my rounds of their villages and farms to collect the debts before they have a chance to squander their entire harvest on vodka. This means setting out several hours before sunrise, well before the permissible time for prayer, equipped with a flask – for without a drink one cannot begin to talk business with a peasant. After drinking to his health, one must share a ‘l’chayim’ with the woman in the house as well – otherwise she can ruin the whole deal for you. Only then can you sit down to settle part of the account.

the_chassid“After three or four such stops I make my way home, immerse myself in the mikveh and prepare for prayer. But after such preliminaries, what sort of prayer would you expect…?”

The words of this chassid, who was, in truth, renowned for his refined nature and soulful prayers, made a deep impression on Rabbi DovBer. The young man immediately travelled home to his father and poured out his heart. He bewailed his spiritual state, saying that his service of G-d is worthless, falling so short of what is expected from him.

The next time the chassid from Yanovitch came to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the Rebbe said to him: “I am most grateful to you – you have made a chassid out of my Berel.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Rebbe’s Son and the Chassid”
Commentary on Torah Portion Mikeitz

In this tale, we see a reversal of what you might expect. The Rebbe’s son, who had every material and spiritual advantage, was basically a talented but spoiled brat. Something like who Joseph was as a teen prior to being assaulted by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and then sold into slavery (see Genesis 37). The Chassid, on the other hand, had virtually no advantages and lived a difficult life among rough and uncultured people, and yet he was “renowned for his refined nature and soulful prayers,” perhaps because of the lessons he was taught by such a life.

We see a dramatic change in Joseph’s attitude and behavior once he becomes a slave and continuing on during his imprisonment. He could have dissolved into despair, surrendered to the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and disappeared from the realm of spirituality altogether, but instead, he chose a different path. One that ultimately lead from the lowliest of positions to the exalted heights of both material and spiritual wealth.

The Rebbe thanks the Chassid from Yanovitch for making “a chassid out of my Berel.” How much more did slavery and imprisonment make a “chassid” out of Joseph…and what can it do for us?

In truth, there is no need to change the world, but only to illuminate it. For each thing has a place, and in that place it is good.

There is only one problem: It is dark. In the dark, there is no way to find the place for each thing. No way to know what belongs in your closet, ready for use, and what belongs in the laundry, waiting to be cleaned. And so, that which could be washed and used for good is despised as hateful, and that which is wholly good is used for evil.

Torah is light: it tells us the place of each thing. Shine it bright, and heal the world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

in-the-darkThis, of course, is not easy because as the esteemed Rabbi says, it is “dark.” We can’t see a thing. While we may know that we are to illuminate our world, imagine coming to that realization if you are Joseph in slavery or Joseph in prison. How is this to be done? You have no hope. You will never see your family again. You will never see your home again. You will forever be trapped in a foreign land among strangers. Even if you adapt, seem to fit in, learn to walk among them, you will never truly be one of them. Should you even try?

Make an effort to do the actions you fear to do and by this means lessen those fears. Think of a specific fear that stops you from doing something that would be beneficial for you to do, and take action.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #667, Act On Your Fears”

You can cower and hide, imprisoned by your nightmares…or you can rise up from the darkness and live your dreams in the light.

Happy Chanukah and Good Shabbos.

Fearfully in the Hands of God

You, Hashem, do not withhold your mercy from me; may Your kindness and Your truth always protect me. For innumerable evils have encircled me, my sins have overtaken me and I am unable to see; they have become more numerous than the hairs on my head and my courage has abandoned me.Psalm 40:12-13 (The Stone Edition Tanakh)

Were He to kill me, I would still yearn for Him.Job 13:15 (The Stone Edition Tanakh)

Have you ever been sick or hurt? I don’t mean have you ever had the flu or a cold or hit your thumb with a hammer, but have you every really been sick or hurt? Have you been in the hospital? Have you ever worried that you might not see another day, or that your health and well-being would take a permanent turn for the worse?

Imagine Job, who lost everything and was completely bewildered as to the cause. He had always been steadfast in his faith and virtually walked in the footsteps of God, yet in nearly the wink of an eye, he was laid destitute and at death’s doorstep. His friends all turned against him, blaming him for his own misfortune. Even his wife cried out to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” Job did not have a happy life during this time and for all he knew, it would all end in his agonizing death. Yet his words recorded in Job 13:15 relate the nature of his faith and trust in God and the character of this man in the face of harsh tragedy.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken at Project Genesis wrote a commentary for Torah Portion Miketz that speaks to this kind of trust and the consequences when we lack it.

We read this week that two years after Pharoah’s wine steward and chief baker had their dreams, Pharoah had one of his own, and as a result, they rushed Joseph from jail.

Obviously Pharoah needed Joseph, but the Torah tells us something deeper: that Joseph was only in jail for the precise amount of time decreed from above. In fact, Joseph would have gotten out of jail earlier, but the Torah tells us that “the wine steward did not remember Joseph, and he forgot him.”

Why did he forget? Rabbi Shimon Yitzchaki quotes the Medrash, which explains that Joseph placed his trust in the wine steward, rather than G-d. For that reason, G-d made sure that the wine steward forgot him.

We celebrate the holiday of Chanukah because Judah “the Maccabee” and his brothers did the opposite. Yehudah may have been strong, but he wasn’t insane. His was a small group, vastly outnumbered by not only the well-trained Greek army, but even by the Hellenized Jews of the era. They went out to wage war, against impossible odds, expressing their trust that G-d would help them.

This, too, drives home the lesson that we discussed two weeks ago — that we are obligated to make our own efforts, but “know that if they succeed, it is only because G-d granted them success.” It doesn’t matter if the person we might trust is a friend or relative or even ourselves… in the end, success comes from a Higher Authority.

Quite some time ago, I wrote about the difference between faith and trust. Faith is knowing God exists. Trust is putting your life literally in His hands. But in spite of the fact that all people of faith desire to have a perfect trust in God, we are frail and mortal; “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41). When we’re alone and afraid, how many of us can sweep away anxiety and terror with a wave of our hand and summon the full might of God as our courage?

I know I can’t. The best I can do is to try and echo the words of Job (Job 13:15), fearfully acknowledging at such desperate moments that my health, safety, and my very life are completely in His hands to do with as He wills. There is no bargaining with God. Paul quotes Moses (Exodus 33:19) to teach us this lesson.

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. –Romans 9:14-16

Rabbi Menken teaches that we are obligated to make our own efforts, but “know that if they succeed, it is only because G-d granted them success,” so we cannot sit passively and expect God to raise miracles for us. We must participate, as best we can, in God’s efforts but knowing that success is not because of us, but because of Him. Yet there are times when we can do nothing for ourselves and must rely totally on God’s mercy and His will. When someone who is having a heart attack or a stroke is in the emergency room, all they can do is to trust in God for their life, even if it should end in death because that is the nature of man in relationship to God. When a person has cancer, they can undergo various therapies and treatments, but their life remains solely in God’s hands. Job also teaches, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21) That we pray for life does not mean that God is obligated to always give life. All people live in His hands and all people die in His hands.

I know this sounds dismal and depressing, especially on the day when the vast majority of the Christian world is celebrating the birth of the King of Kings, but lest we imagine that God is obligated to grant us a perfect, stress free existence, the counterpoint is that we are but dust and ashes; we are grass that is growing today, and tomorrow, is withered and thrown into the fire. In the end, we can try to live healthy lives, lives of faith, devotion, charity, and study; we try take care of ourselves and others, but still, no one knows the hour of his own death.

In those moments of hideous uncertainty or in that final “moment of truth”, we can only summon whatever trust in God we may possess and cry out to Him for His infinite mercy. If he should turn the hand of sickness and death away, we rejoice, and if not, we are with Him.

In His hands are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is His also. –Psalm 95:4 (KJV)

May they rejoice and be glad in You, all who seek You; may they always say, “Hashem be magnified!” those who live Your salvation. As for me, I am poor and destitute, the Lord will think of me. You are my help and my Rescuer, my God do not delay. –Psalm 40:17-18 (The Stone Edition Tanakh)


Miketz: Dreams and Consequences

Joseph’s imprisonment finally ends when Pharaoh dreams of seven fat cows that are swallowed up by seven lean cows, and of seven fat ears of grain swallowed by seven lean ears. Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of hunger, and advises Pharaoh to store grain during the plentiful years. Pharaoh appoints Joseph governor of Egypt. Joseph marries Asenath, daughter of Potiphar, and they have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Famine spreads throughout the region, and food can be obtained only in Egypt. Ten of Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to purchase grain; the youngest, Benjamin, stays home, for Jacob fears for his safety. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him; he accuses them of being spies, insists that they bring Benjamin to prove that they are who they say they are, and imprisons Simeon as a hostage.

from The Parasha in a Nutshell
Mikeitz: Genesis 41:1-44:17

A significant part of our parshah (Mikeitz-Genesis 41:1–44:17) is taken up with a pair of dreams dreamt by the king of Egypt. These dreams are actually recounted not once, but three times: first we read an account of the dreams themselves; then comes a more detailed version, as we hear them described by Pharaoh to Joseph; and then comes Joseph’s reply to Pharaoh, in which he offers his interpretation of the dreams’ various components.

And these are but the last in a sequence of dreams detailed by the Torah in the preceding chapters. Joseph is in Pharaoh’s palace interpreting his dreams because of another set of dreams, dreamt two years earlier in an Egyptian prison. Back then, Joseph was incarcerated together with two of Pharaoh’s ministers, each of whom had a dream which Joseph successfully interpreted.

“The Cosmic Fantasy”
From the Chasidic Masters
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Adapted by Rabbi Yanki Tauber

We see that the first of Joseph’s dreams (Genesis 37:5-11), though long in coming to fruition, are now rapidly taking shape. Though scorned, hated, almost murdered, and finally sold into slavery because of these dreams, they were nevertheless dreams from God. The only reason those dreams were perceived as a reason to hate Joseph was because of Joseph’s teenage arrogance. Now look at him. Older, wiser, shrewder. After all, when Joseph was finally “remembered” and taken into the presence of Pharoah, King of Egypt at the beginning of Torah Portion Miketz, don’t you think he knew exactly what he was doing?

“Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt. And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities. Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.”

The plan pleased Pharaoh and all his courtiers. And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.” 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. He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, “Abrek!” Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt. –Genesis 41:33-43 (JPS Tanakh)

I call Joseph “shrewd” but please remember, that isn’t necessarily a poor trait to have when in “enemy territory”.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. –Matthew 10:16-20

Returning to the Torah portion, I’m not saying that Joseph is being entirely self-serving here. After all, he spent years as a slave and more years as a prisoner (though in fairly exalted roles for each position) and that time served to teach the young dreamer humility, but who could blame him for wanting to “butter his bread” a little? Who wouldn’t want to get out of prison? Besides, it’s not like Joseph used his appointment as Viceroy to take advantage of others. Joseph didn’t even retaliate against the chief cupbearer who promised to remember Joseph to Pharaoh after Joseph had interpreted the cupbearer’s dream in his advantage, but who then “forgot” him completely for two years.

Although we see Joseph certainly “challenging” his brothers in this week’s Torah portion as well as in next week’s Parashah, he isn’t “taking revenge” upon them. He could have chosen to have them killed, or make them slaves, or have them rot in prison, yet he refrains.

Joseph’s first dream comes to realization in this week’s parsha. His brothers come down to Egypt and prostrate themselves before him. The dream of the sheaves of the brothers bowing to Joseph’s sheaf is at last fulfilled. But strangely, Joseph does not feel himself satisfied. It is human nature that the expectation of the realization of events is always greater and more exciting than the fulfillment of the realization itself. No vacation or event that we plan for ourselves can live up to our imagination and expectation regarding it. And Joseph is further burdened by the enormity of what has transpired. He has the brothers, who sold him as a slave and were deaf to his shouts and tears and pleas for mercy, in his hands. But what is he to do with them now? And what of his beloved father, the old man, broken in grief, whom he has not seen or communicated with for twenty-two years? Are the brothers telling him the truth about his father’s condition? And what about Benjamin, his younger brother? Is he like the other brothers in attitude and belief or is he different? Does he mourn for his lost brother Joseph or is he sanguine about his fate, as his ten older brothers seem to be? All of these questions plague Joseph at the moment of his seemingly great triumph when his brothers are in his power and abjectly bow before him. His triumph therefore seems somewhat hollow to him at that moment.

-Rabbi Berel Wein
“Vengeance vs. Conciliations”
Commentary on Parashas Miketz

If, as Rabbi Wein suggests, the realization of Joseph’s earlier dreams seems all too hollow, what about our dreams?

I’m not saying that the typical dreams we all experience during sleep are prophesies from God, nor do I believe that the vast majority of people have any Divine gift to interpret prophetic dreams as Joseph certainly did, but when I say “our dreams,” I really mean “our ambitions.” What about the things we want? If we get them, how wisely is our stewardship over them?

In a sense, the 17-year old Joseph’s boasts about this first dreams were acts of “poor stewardship”. He utilized his knowledge to “lord it over” his brothers and father and the result was a wreaked life for Joseph, Jacob, and ultimately (though they didn’t realize it at the time) for all of Joseph’s brothers. When Joseph stood before Pharaoh, we can say that he exercised “good stewardship” of his ability to interpret dreams, which resulted in him not only being released from prison, but being placed in an extremely high position of authority over Egypt. This gave him the unprecedented ability to save everyone in Egypt, Canaan, and the rest of the civilized world, including his entire family, from a seven-year famine.

How we manage our “dreams” and ambitions makes a difference, too. Most of us don’t exercise authority to the same scope as Joseph, but what we want, even if benign and charitable, can have dramatically different results depending on our attitude, intent, and execution. Judaism has the concept of kavanah which generally means “intention”. In Kabbalah, kavanah modifies the sefirot allowing them to be directed, and depending on that direction, a person’s activities, both in the world we experience and in the spiritual realms, can have wildly different consequences. How dreams are managed in Joseph’s early life vs. his later experiences is dramatic proof of this statement.

If the teachings of Kabbalah and Talmudic Judaism are a little difficult for you to swallow, Jesus told many parables on good and bad stewardship including Luke 12:35-48 and Luke 16:1-15 that tell the same story. I think “The Parable of the Talents”, is particularly illuminating.

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ –Matthew 25:14-30

It’s not just what you’re given, but what you do with it that matters. What you do with your resources depends on your character and your intentions. As we see from the example of Joseph, even what you are given depends on how you have managed other, lesser jobs. That’s also the lesson taught by Jesus in his parables. One who was responsible for a lesser task will be given much greater authority. Imagine that, once you were saved, you never told anyone else about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but instead, horded this treasure for yourself?

So when you dream, it’s not so much whether you dream big or small that is the key factor. It’s what you do with your dreams and how you treat other people when your dreams come true. For if you manage well when one dream comes true, much bigger dreams will also be granted you. However keep in mind that such responsibility can come at a price as Rabbi Wein’s commentary points out.

Joseph comes to the great realization that his ultimate triumph over his brothers lies not in punishing them – though he will certainly cause them great anguish on their road of repentance – but rather to eventually conciliate them. Vengeance is momentarily more satisfying than is conciliation. But in the long run, vengeance lies not in human hands. And it will only continue to widen the rift within Jacob’s family. Joseph’s greatness and heroism lies in the fact that he chose the road of healing and conciliation rather than that of punishment and vengeance. Joseph, out of all of the avot and the brothers is called tzadik – righteous and holy. This is certainly due to his behavior in escaping from the clutches of Potiphar’s wife. But Joseph’s righteousness and piety is exhibited not only in that incident. It is apparent in his treatment of his brothers after his dream of their bowing down to him has been realized. He will protect his brothers from the Pharaoh and the ravages of Egyptian society. He will support them physically, financially and spiritually for the rest of his life. He still weeps at the gulf of suspicion that yet exists between him and the brothers. Conciliation is a long and difficult road to traverse. But Joseph realizes that it is the only hope for his family’s continuity and purpose.

Being wise stewards, we should use our gifts to repair relationships rather than destroy them. When we reconcile with even one person who was formerly estranged from us, we also reconcile them and ourselves with God.

Good Shabbos.

Freeing the Broken Heart

Then the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph. He said to him, “In my dream, there was a vine in front of me. On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: The three branches are three days. In three days Pharaoh will pardon you and restore you to your post; you will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, as was your custom formerly when you were his cupbearer. But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place. For in truth, I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews; nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon.”

When the chief baker saw how favorably he had interpreted, he said to Joseph, “In my dream, similarly, there were three openwork baskets on my head. In the uppermost basket were all kinds of food for Pharaoh that a baker prepares; and the birds were eating it out of the basket above my head.” Joseph answered, “This is its interpretation: The three baskets are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale’ you upon a pole; and the birds will pick off your flesh.”

On the third day — his birthday — Pharaoh made a banquet for officials, and he singled out his chief cupbearer and his chief baker among his officials. He restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand; but the chief baker he paled-just as Joseph had interpreted to them.

Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.Genesis 40:9-23 (JPS Tanakh)

This story certainly makes for high drama, but why were all these farfetched developments necessary? Why didn’t divine providence manifest itself in a simpler way? Couldn’t Joseph’s release and rise to power have been effected through more commonplace events?

The commentators explain that Joseph’s release from prison is meant to serve as a paradigm of the ultimate in human emancipation.

-Rabbi Naftali Reich
“Freeing the Spirit”
Commentary on Prashas Vayeishev

I have a hard time understanding God sometimes. I suppose that’s quite an understatement and I imagine most people reading this “morning meditation” share my confusion on occasion. Take yesterday’s Torah Portion for example. I know Joseph’s brothers hated him, but did they really think they could get away with murder? Didn’t it hurt anyone besides Judah to see their father reduced to a mere shell of a man out of his heartbreaking grief at the loss of his favored son? What about the parallels between the wife of Potiphar trying to seduce Joseph and Judah’s “relationship” with his daughter-in-law Tamar?

And why, when sold into slavery and with no hope of ever being reunited with his family again, did Joseph, who started out as a spoiled and selfish 17 year old brat at the beginning of this narrative, eventually rise not only in stature and power, but in spiritual strength and holiness to be a savior to his family and the world? It seems obvious that his tenure as slave and prisoner was to train him for the role of a man who would all but rule the vast empire of Egypt, much like Moses had to live both as prince and as shepherd to finally take on the mantle of Prophet and “King” of the nation of Israel.

The First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) commentary on Vayeishev draws the obvious comparision between Joseph and the Messiah, but it does something else.

Yet the story of Joseph is not an allegory, written merely to serve as type, shadow, and symbol. Too often believers have diminished the Torah’s literal reading for the sake of messianic interpretations. It is a story in its own right and a great story at that. Joseph is a real character; his adventures and misadventures are his own. If we are able to look into the Joseph story and perceive the person of Messiah, that is only to be expected, because God is the author of salvation both then and now. Joseph’s story is simply an example of what it looks like when God saves His people.

Sometimes Jewish scholars complain about how some Christian pundits tend to interpret every possible occurence in the Torah of a mysterious or symbolic figure as “the pre-incarnate Jesus.” As the joke goes, they say such Christians don’t engage in Biblical exegesis but rather, Biblical “I see Jesus.” FFOZ is saying something along those lines but in a much more platable way. Much of the Christian world looks at Joseph as a “type and shadow” of the Jesus to come without crediting Joseph to a life and purpose of his own. We also have a tendency to discount what people like Joseph can show us about ourselves and the larger context of our own “Messianic” role in the world.

Tikkun Olam or “Repairing the World” is one of my favorite themes because it not only empowers us to help others but requires us to enter into (junior) partnership with God in fixing our broken world. There are just tons of ways to do this, from promoting environmental causes to volunteering at your local homeless shelter. Even people with modest incomes can donate one can of soup a week to their community foodbank. Joseph fed the population of the entire civilized world for seven years. We can at least feed one person one simple meal once a week. We just have to realize that we are not the most helpless and downtrodden person on earth and to rise up and act on the behalf of someone less fortunate than we are.

The Satmar Rav, zt”l, spent one summer Shabbos in Ardiov, a city where many great tzaddikim and talmedei chachamim spent time during the summer. He ate the Friday night meal at the tisch of Rav Moshe of Shinova, zt”l, an exceptional tzaddik who only thought about doing God’s will. Many other luminaries were present at the crowded tisch which had an uplifted yet comfortable feel to it.

After singing some inspiring melodies, the kugel was served. It was a very scrumptious kugel. So much so that some of those at the tisch whispered to one another that they hadn’t tasted such a delectable kugel in a long time. To the surprise of all, Rav Moshe immediately got up and went into the kitchen. After a short time he returned.

Everyone wondered what the rebbe had been doing in the kitchen. When Rav Moshe noticed their wonderment, he told them where he had been. His deep sensitivity for others revealed by his unabashed statement completely astounded the Satmar Rav. “I heard people saying that the kugel is exceptional. Since the cook is a poor orphan girl, I immediately went into the kitchen to tell her. How could I wait until later to gladden her broken heart?”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Gladdening an Orphan’s Heart”
Bechoros 32

This story teaches two important and hopefully obvious lessons. The first is that, no matter how exalted and learned you are, you have a responsibility to gladden the heart of someone less fortunate. The second lesson is that you should do it as soon as possible.

Like Joseph, we have been slaves and prisoners, but in our case it is the imprisonment of our own humanity. Joseph had to be reduced down to about as low as you can go as a human being so that he could find out that freedom isn’t the absence of chains, but the presence of mercy. This is the answer to the mystery of Joseph and it is the answer to our mystery as well. As disciples of Jesus and believers in the God of Joseph, we have it within us to not only be free of our chains but to free others as well. All we have to do to escape our jail cells is to realize that we are sitting on the keys.

The scroll of Yeshayah the Prophet was given to him, and he opened the scroll and found the place where it is written,

The spirit of HaShem is upon me in order to anoint me to bring good news to the humble. He has sent me to care for the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the exiles, and for the blind an opening release … to send the oppressed away free … to proclaim a year of favor for HaShem.

When he rolled up the scroll, returned it to the chazzan, and sat, the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were focused on him. –Luke 4:17-20 (DHE Gospel)

We don’t have to be Jesus or even Joseph to save the world. We can partner with them and be a “savior” too, one heart at a time.

Vayeishev: If I Were a Rich Man

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall,
And I’d discuss the learned books with the holy men Seven hours every day–
That would be the sweetest thing of all…

from If I Were a Rich man
written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock
for the musical Fiddler on the Roof

Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.Genesis 37:1

Rabbi Eli Touger’s commentary on Torah Portion Vayeishev says in part, that Jacob desired to live in prosperity, as do all righteous men, but was unable to (according to Rashi) because of his distress over the disappearance and apparent death of his son Joseph. I’ve written previously about the fallacy of “prosperity theology” in the church, so can we conclude (assuming Rashi is correct) that Jacob’s desire to live in prosperity is a problem for me? Rabbi Touger quotes Rashi’s response to this question.

Yaakov desired to dwell in prosperity, but the distress of Yosef’s [disappearance] beset him. The righteous desire to dwell in prosperity, but the Holy One, blessed be He, says: “Is not what is prepared for them in the World to Come enough for the righteous? Must they also desire prosperity in this world?”

Rashi’s statement is problematic, for a casual reading gives the impression that G-d does not approve of the righteous wanting prosperity. On the other hand, the fact that “the righteous” follow this path of conduct indicates that the desire for prosperity is a positive trait and not a character flaw. (Rashi’s apparent source is Bereishis Rabbah 84:3)

This difficulty can be resolved by focusing on the fact that Rashi speaks about a desire for prosperity expressed by the righteous. Why only the righteous? Everyone wants to enjoy an abundance of good without strife, contention, or difficulty.

On the surface, this interpretation seems to support the prosperity theology position that the righteous “should” want to have wealth and comfort in the present world as well as rewards in the world to come. But it’s amazing to me that Rashi, a French medieval Talmudic sage, should agree with a modern Christian doctrine. Is God so simple that he rewards the righteous with material wealth and punishes the less worthy with poverty and hardship? The history of both righteous Christians and Jews would seem to deny this, since many faithful men and women have suffered great difficulties and even died penniless for the sake of God.

And what does “Fiddler on the Roof” have to do with anything?

When a person is beset… with sickness, war, and hunger, he cannot occupy himself neither with wisdom nor with mitzvos. For this reason, all Israel and [in particular,] their prophets and sages have desired the Era of the Mashiach. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 9:2)

The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Era of the Mashiach so that [the Jewish people] would rule the world… nor to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, their aspiration was to be free [to involve themselves] in the Torah and its wisdom, without anyone oppressing or disturbing them. (Ibid., Hilchos Melachim 12:4.)

That sounds like Tevye’s wish as well. But as noble as this wish appears, it has a serious flaw. The righteous receive their reward in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 6:20) and not on Earth (at least not always) and in fact, the Master said that:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. –Matthew 6:2-4

The Master is saying a couple of things. The first is that if we have the means, we should use them to benefit the poor. Nowhere does he say that our primary duty is to be occupied in study but rather the mitzvot related to helping the needy. He also says that if we receive our reward here in the form of wealth and prestige (maybe wealth, if used in secret to help others and not just to make ourselves look good is OK), it is in full and there may be no additional reward (which isn’t the same as salvation) in Heaven. Interestingly enough, his point finds its parallel in Rabbi Touger’s teaching:

Nevertheless, a distinction must be made. The World to Come represents G-d’s reward to man just recompense for man’s Divine service. This is a departure from the pattern of our present existence, of which it is said, “Today to perform them (the mitzvos); tomorrow to receive their reward.”

So was Jacob’s desire, as interpreted by Rashi, in vain? I still think the answer is still in Tevye’s song.

The righteous, by contrast, are not concerned with reward. On the contrary, to refer to the passage cited above, they long to involve themselves in the Torah and its mitzvos. Their aspiration is only that they be freed from external difficulties. They want to grow in understanding and personal development. Why must they be confronted with challenges from the outside? Let all their efforts be devoted to the internal challenges of spiritual growth.

I can’t say if this truly speaks to Jacob’s desire, but what we see here is that a righteous person, when desiring prosperity, isn’t thinking of reward in the conventional sense. They are thinking probably what you and I have considered at one point or another. If we could be freed from the constraints of a “normal” life of work and problems, we could spend more time serving God and ministering to people, even devoting our great material possessions to the well being of those around us. I think that would work for a truly righteous person, such as Joseph, who used the exalted position given to him by Pharaoh, King of Egypt (and ultimately God), to save his family and the world. For the rest of us though, we would be enormously tempted to use our wealth and “free time” for less than noble pursuits.

My opinion is that the toil and hardship of day-to-day life, though it limits the amount of time and energy we have to pray, to perform mitzvot (acts of kindness and righteousness), and to honor God, also focuses those few hours we do have through a lens whereby we can see God and do His will more effectively, without the temptations material prosperity brings. I tend to think that the truly righteous can manage extreme poverty and extreme wealth with equal grace as Paul said he had learned to do (Philippians 4:12-13).

Please understand that I’m not making a simple statement that the very rich and the very poor are always righteous. We know that wealth and poverty visit the just and the unjust alike. We know that God grants us what He chooses to grant us and doesn’t owe us an explanation for how things work out in our lives. Our circumstances aren’t a particularly accurate barometer of our state of holiness and relationship with the Almighty. But it is one type of challenge we may face as part of His plan for our lives.

In addition to our material state of being, we can also experience spiritual prosperity or poverty. Since God’s gifts are endless in this arena, I have to believe that we have the majority of control in this area of our existence. This has nothing to do with dollar signs or a “feeling” of peace inside, and everything to do with a burning desire to draw closer to Him and to do His will. The pursuit of “spiritual reward” is also fraught with problems because we poor, dumb, human beings have a tendency to get our priorities and desires mixed up with His. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Christians report that they prayed about a certain decision they had to make and then “felt a peace” about the decision they wanted to make anyway. Was that drawing closer to God or using God as an excuse to fulfill their personal wants rather than God’s requirements?

When Christians say that Jesus freed them from the Leviticus 11 food laws, I sometimes want to ask them, if God came to them right now and really told them to give up their ham sandwiches, and they really, really knew it was from God, would they give up the pork, or find an excuse not to? I use this as an example and not to say that I think the Torah kosher laws necessarily apply to the Gentile, but it’s a good illustration. In keeping with my theme for the past week or so, I might ask Gentile Messianics if God told them to be forgiving and tolerant of Christians who put up Christmas trees instead of reviling them and “standing their ground” against paganism, would they be truly forgiving and tolerant, or would they argue with God that the Christmas tree people deserved to be condemned?

I have to say at this point, that I am somewhat heartened how some of the detractors of Christmas on Boaz Michael’s Facebook page seem to be softening their approach and being clear that they are not actually attacking Christians. I’m also thankful to Jacob Fronczak for posting the very well researched article The Syncretism Boogeyman on his blog, which provides excellent information on the history of cultic practices in ancient times, including during the time of Moses. I’m stepping off my soapbox now. Back to the topic at hand.

Wayward SonFrom my own personal experiences (humble though they may be), I’ve become convinced that when God actually speaks to me (rather than the voice of my own desires and ego in my head), He surprises me and frankly, asks me to say and do things that aren’t naturally easy for me. He asks me to take on duties I don’t feel comfortable with and requires that I surrender behaviors and even thoughts with which I am very at ease. That’s the nature of God, to push us forward, to urge us to move further on and in directions we would never consider on our own.

So be careful in the sorts of rewards you ask from God and in what role you seek to play in His service. He just may give you a type of reward and prosperity you don’t expect and require that you actually rise to the challenge. How many years was Joseph a slave and prisoner in Egypt before he became all but a king? How many years did Jacob live in grief and abject sorrow, though materially wealthy, before he was comforted by his son in Egypt?

Good Shabbos.