Tag Archives: Vayeishev

Sacrificing Serenity for Spirituality

And Yaakov sat…

Braishis (Genesis) 37:1

Rashi cites the Sages who say that Yaakov wanted to live in peace and serenity. But this was not to be, and the troubles of his son Yosef began. The Almighty said, “Is it not sufficient for the righteous that they receive their reward in the world to come? Why do they need to live in serenity in this world?”

The question arises: why is it wrong to want to live in serenity? Yaakov desired serenity not so that he could devote his time to personal pleasures, but rather to be able to engage in spiritual pursuits.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Keep your focus on growth, not serenity,” p.102
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeishev
Growth Through Torah

When I’m stressed, when things aren’t working out right, when relationships are strained, more than anything, I want peace and serenity. I want to relax. I sometimes want everyone just to get along, and at other times, I just want to be alone to follow both personal and spiritual pursuits without interruption and distraction.

So midrash aside, I can very much empathize with Jacob’s desire for peace and serenity.

But I think Rashi, as interpreted by Rabbi Pliskin, has a point. We weren’t put here by God to seek peace and serenity, we were put here to serve Him. Serving God is rarely very peaceful. Just look at lives such as Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Joseph’s, Moshe’s, David’s, Jeremiah’s, and of course, our Master Yeshua’s (Jesus’) life. Also consider the apostles, particularly Paul. Was their service in spreading the good news of the Moshiach to the Jews and to the nations particularly peaceful? Most of the time, it was ultimately fatal in a violent and premature sense.

May God not wish me to serve him in such a manner for I know my faith and trust pale in comparison to even the least of the Biblical tzaddikim (righteous ones or “saints”).

But R. Pliskin said “growth, not serenity,” which I take to mean that rather than seeking peace, we should be seeking to experience our lives as the platform upon which we strive to grow spiritually, to grow closer to God.

This, said Rav Yeruchem, is an attitude we should all internalize. Every occurrence in this world can make you a better person. When you have this awareness your attitude towards everything that happens to you in life will be very positive. Before, during, and after every incident that occurs reflect on your behavior and reactions. Ask yourself, “What type of person am I after this happened? How did I do on this test? Did I pass it in an elevated manner?” (Daas Torah: Barishis, pp.222-3)


The Jewish PaulThis means that regardless of our circumstances, good or bad, we should approach the experience in the same manner, as a test or a “training session” designed to assist us in becoming more spiritually elevated. Of course, to be in a position to look at everything from ecstasy to agony in this way probably requires that we be in a fairly elevated state already. I don’t think I’m there yet, but maybe being aware that it’s possible will give me something to shoot for.

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:10-13 (NASB)

If the ancient and modern Rabbinic sages can apply this principle to Jacob, I think it’s reasonable to apply it to Paul as well. This gives it a more universal usage which means it comes right back to my front door, so to speak. The goal of trust and faith in God and living a holy life then, is not to find peace in our circumstances, but regardless of what is happening to us, to find peace in God as Paul did.

“And Yosef was brought down to Egypt.”

Braishis (Genesis) 39:1

Anyone viewing the scene of Yosef being brought down to Egypt as a slave would have considered it a major tragedy. His brothers sold him into slavery and he was being taken far away from his father and his homeland. But the reality was that this was the first step towards his being appointed the second in command of Egypt. He would eventually be in charge of the national economy of Egypt and would be the mastermind behind the complex program to prepare for the years of famine during the years of plenty.

-Rav Pliskin
“Realize that you can never tell how events will actually turn out in the end,” p.110

Being limited, temporal beings, our major focus is what is happening to us right now or what has just recently occurred. If it’s something unpleasant, then we tend to believe that it is also undesirable. Joseph probably felt that way when he was being sold into Potipher’s household and certainly would have that experience upon being sent to prison.

If only you would think of me with yourself when he benefits you, and you will do me a kindness, if you please, and mention me to Pharaoh, then you would get me out of this building. For indeed I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing for them to have put me in the pit.

Genesis 40:14-15 (Stone Edition Chumash)

After two years in prison, Joseph’s words give us no indication that he was viewing his continued incarceration as anything but a miscarriage of justice, and an unfair and unpleasant circumstance. He had not “learned to be content in whatever circumstances” he found himself in. With great respect to the Rabbis, I don’t think midrash sufficiently describes Joseph’s personality or spirituality. While he did indeed have great faith and trust in God, he really wanted to get out of prison and he was willing to ask for help from a potentially influential person, a bit of quid pro quo, as it were.

Joseph in prisonPerhaps Joseph realized what God had done in retrospect, but it doesn’t seem that he realized it when he was still locked up. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Joseph acted with utmost integrity and morality, both as a slave and as a prisoner. If he had given up hope and surrendered to despair, engaging in the baser behaviors of a prison inmate, then he certainly would not have been in position to take the next step in God’s plan.

The take away from this is that regardless of circumstances, even if you (or I) can’t possibly see how they can be beneficial at the time they’re happening, we must continue to behave (or start behaving) in a moral and upright manner for who knows how you can affect what happens next by what you decide to do now? And if you (or I) fail in this, there’s still time to repent, but that time is not limitless:

He took up a parable and said: A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came to seek fruit from it, but he did not find any. He said to the vinedresser, “Look, for three years I have come to seek fruit in the fig tree, but I have not found any. Cut it down; why should it waste the ground?” He answered and said to him, “My master, leave it alone for another year, until I have dug around it and given it some manure. Perhaps it will produce fruit. If it does not produce, then cut it down the following year.”

Luke 13:6-9 (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)

Choosing Your Prison

It is worthwhile to elaborate a bit on this important concept of free will, which the Rambam calls “an important principle and a pillar of all Torah and mitzvos.”

He states: “Do not let the thought cross your mind, that which the foolish ones among the nations and even ignorant Jews claim, that Hashem predetermined and decreed upon every person what he will be — a righteous person or a wicked one. It is not so — for every single person can be either a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu, or a wicked man like Yeravam. There is no one pulling him in either direction. It is each person’s own choice to pick the way of life he will follow.”

-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.14
Commentary for Monday on Parashas Vayeishev
A Daily Dose of Torah

So much for Calvinism. We can’t claim that God preselected us to be good or to be evil. We get to choose who we are and we get to make different choices over time. That’s miserable and encouraging all at once. It’s miserable because we human beings all by ourselves are prone to willfulness, weakness, and error. But it’s also hopeful in that we can strive to overcome our faults and to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.

One of the recurring themes in the various incarnations of “Star Trek” is that mankind continually works to improve itself, with the presupposition that humans have the moral framework and ability to do so independently. However, both Judaism and Christianity maintain that we are unable to elevate ourselves spiritually to any degree at all without relying on God. This does not negate free will, since we must choose to either obey or disobey God in the different and varied areas of our lives.

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:13 (NASB)

Maybe that’s the answer to this sometimes frustrating statement of Paul’s. It may seem like temptation is irresistible, but the circumstances tempting us are the same for a lot of people, even if we’re only aware of our own individual experience. We can either rely on ourselves and fail or rely on God and have the hope of success, and God is faithful.

It’s when we assume that we’re helpless victims, either of God’s “Divine Plan” to choose only some for salvation and to let the rest burn, or of our own “sin nature” or “evil inclination” that the following happens:

So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 5:4-5

Joseph the SlaveNot that God necessarily gives up on us, but He certainly can give us enough rope to hang ourselves with, if we so choose. Then, when swinging in the breeze, if we’re still alive, we can call out to Him.

But even resisting temptation is no guarantee of an easy or good life.

One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.

When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.

Genesis 39:11-20

Joseph resisted the repeated temptation to have an illicit affair with his master’s wife. He was blameless and still ended up in prison. How much more so do we, who are not blameless, risk “prison” of one form or another, even after we cry out to God and begin to learn to resist our own temptations and to strive to be better servants of Hashem.

The worst prison is when G-d locks you up. He doesn’t need guards or cells or stone walls. He simply decides that, at this point in life, although you have talent, you will not find a way to express it. Although you have wisdom, there is nobody who will listen. Although you have a soul, there is nowhere for it to shine.

And you scream, “Is this why you sent a soul into this world? For such futility?”

That is when He gets the tastiest essence of your juice squeezed out from you.

(Likutei Sichot vol. 23, pp. 163–165; Shlach 5732:1; 5th night of Chanukah 5720:4.)

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Invisible Prison”

If God puts us in “prison,” isn’t it what we deserve? Why should we complain (although we invariably do)? In sin, we are slaves but slaves who have deliberately put ourselves in the hand of our master. In choosing to not sin, we are deciding to be slaves of a different Master, one who loves our soul, one who desires the best for us. As Rabbi Freeman suggests, the prison God incarcerates us in is designed not to confine and demoralize us, but to drive us to be the very best we can be.

PrisonWe can either choose the evil prison where we trap ourselves and reap only what we deserve, or allow God to “imprison” us and have the hope of being led to a better life.

And David said to Gad, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand, for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands.”

II Samuel 24:14

This verse is the opening line of the Tachanun prayer. Dovid HaMelach had sinned by taking a census of the Jews in a manner contrary to that prescribed by the Torah. Hashem, through the agency of the prophet Gad, gave Dovid HaMelech a choice of three calamities, one of which he and his people would have to suffer in atonement for his sin: seven years of hunger, three months of defeat in battle, or a deadly three-day plague. Dovid chose the last, because that one would be inflicted directly by God, Whose mercy is ever present even when His wrath is aroused. His choice proved to be the correct one, for God mercifully halted the plague after a duration of only half a day.

-from “A Closer Look at the Siddur,” pp.15-16
Commentary for Monday on Parashas Vayeishev
A Daily Dose of Torah

Joseph’s incarceration is recorded in this week’s Torah Portion but not its resolution. Joseph was made a slave and then a prisoner in order to accomplish God’s plan, not just for Joseph or even just for Egypt, but for the entire world. No doubt you already know how the story of Joseph continues, how he was released from prison to interpret a dream of Pharaoh’s, and as a result, how Joseph was made a ruler in Egypt second only to Pharaoh. From prisoner to prince in one stroke.

Very few of us will have such an experience, yet it would be enough if God were to judge us and not human beings. God is incapable of treating us with malice and His rulings are truly impartial and fair, though they can be harsh.

When you look at that imperfect and sinful wreck in the mirror each morning, are you not much harder on yourself than God would be? Doesn’t God look at us with pity and compassion when most people, even those closest to us, react out of hurt and anger?

A basic Torah principle is that when correcting someone, we need to do so with a sense of love and compassion. When you speak in a blaming manner, the message you give is not a loving one.

If there is a specific person you tend to speak to in a blaming manner, be resolved to speak to more pleasantly.

(For a series of probing questions on this topic, see Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Self Knowledge,” pp.135-7)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Daily Lift #189: “Replace Blame with Compassion”

Would that other people or even we ourselves were as merciful and compassionate as God when we fail and seek to make amends.

compassionBut coming back to the matter of free will, our actions and the consequences rest on our shoulders. No one else is to blame, though we can hope and pray for mercy. In the end, people are not always merciful, but even when we do not deserve it, God is compassionate.

The Tzemach Tzedek writes: The love expressed in “Beside You I wish for nothing,” (Psalm 73:25) means that one should desire nothing other than G-d, not even “Heaven” or “earth” i.e. Higher Gan Eden and Lower Gan Eden, for these were created with a mere yud…. The love is to be directed to Him alone, to His very Being and Essence. This was actually expressed by my master and teacher (the Alter Rebbe) when he was in a state of d’veikut and he exclaimed as follows:

I want nothing at all! I don’t want Your gan eden, I don’t want Your olam haba… I want nothing but You alone.

from “Today’s Day”
Wednesday, Kislev 18, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Whatever prison you find yourself in, seek God alone. Everything else will take care of itself.

Vayeishev: Understanding, Living, and Courage

walking-side-by-side Recognize, please, to whom these belong…

Genesis 38:25

The arrival of a letter, adorned with official-looking stamps and seals, was quite an event at the small wayside tavern somewhere in the backwoods of White Russia. The simple tavern-keeper, who had never quite mastered the written word, ran to find the melamed he kept to teach his children.

As the teacher read the letter, the tavern-keeper turned white, uttered a small cry, and collapsed in a dead faint. For the letter contained most shocking and tragic news for this simple, good-hearted Jew: his beloved father had passed away.

Said the mashpiah Reb Michael of Aptask:

An outside observer witnessing the events described above may wonder: why does the tavern-keeper react so dramatically to the letter while the teacher is relatively unmoved? Who among the two better grasps and comprehends its contents if not the learned teacher? The other cannot even read and write!

Obviously, this is a ridiculous question. What if the teacher has a better appreciation of the vocabulary, sentence structure, and artful calligraphy with which the letter is composed? What if he better understands the background, the circumstances, the nuances of the event described? It is not his father who died!

True, Reb Michael would concluded, it is important to learn, to study, to comprehend. And the more one understands, the deeper one delves into the nature of his own existence, the world about him, and his relationship with his Creator, the better equipped he is to fulfill his mission in life. But objective knowledge alone is worthless. Unless one sees himself in the picture, the most profound of theories will yield no meaningful results. Unless one sees the subject matter as ‘his father’, a lifetime of study and discovery will have little bearing on life itself.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Theory and the Father”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeishev

Apparently, I’m a hypocrite. I don’t believe that I’m a hypocrite, but two individuals have called me one in the past few days. Here are a couple of examples from recent comments on my blog. The first one I present is pretty benign:

…since you are a gentile, dabbling in Messianic Judaism, “which is for Jews”, is a bit of a contradiction, technically you are muddying the waters, so to speak. Would you not agree?

The second example, on the other hand…

I will tell you that you are a hypocrite in your face. I don’t play nicely nicely with the truth. I have to chastise one who does not play with a full deck…You fell for false teaching and with your blog you are causing people to stumble…Go home……

Supposedly, because I advocate for the Jews having a unique covenant relationship with God and that they have a special role beyond any other people or religious group, including Gentile Christians, I have a problem. Actually, the problem is supposed to stem from the fact that I advocate for the above and yet I also involve myself, as a Christian, in the affairs of Messianic Judaism by writing commentaries on the movement. I suppose the fact that I very often quote from Jewish religious and educational sources just adds to my “problem.”

But does that make me a hypocrite?

Just a few days ago I said:

We serve One God and we have one Messiah King who will return to rule over all of Creation. As servants and sons, we each have our roles and duties. We can’t afford to let our limitations, biases, and human ambitions restrict who we are and who God created us to be…both the Jew and the Gentile. Christian support of Israel does not mean taking control of the process of defining Israel. It’s allowing the Jewish people and nation the space to define themselves, and supporting them in this effort through whatever means are at our disposal. That is a Christian’s unique role and purpose in life. It’s time we start living it.

jewish-christianI tried to the best of my ability in the paragraph above to synthesize Christian and Jewish interactions and roles relative to mutual discipleship under the Messiah. Apparently, I failed, at least with the two people who objected to my blog post. I know most of you must be wondering why I’m even writing this. After all, only a few people (publicly) object to me while a much larger number seem to be more encouraging. Why express angst over just a couple of people who question my motives?

I’ve said time and again on this blog that I want to be fair. I want to consider other people’s viewpoints. If someone has a grudge or a beef with me, I have to ask myself if there is anything I’ve done to contribute to it. If there is, then there’s something within me that I need to change. If not, then at least I’ve looked in the mirror and asked myself a few hard questions before moving on.

It’s not that I expect everyone to agree with me all of the time, but it’s difficult for me to comprehend how even my critics can miss what I’m trying to say. It’s one thing to understand my message and to say, “I disagree,” and another thing entirely to misunderstand me to the point what I’m considered to be advocating one position while living out the opposite. Saying that I support Jewish covenant and identity uniqueness is not the same as saying that Jews must be walled up inside their compounds and have nothing to do with the Christians, particularly those of us who are involved with Jews and Jewish community. In my case, I’m married to a Jew. Are we supposed to divorce and live separately? Does my involvement with my Jewish spouse make me a hypocrite? The criticism doesn’t make sense.

I quoted Rabbi Tauber’s story above because it illustrates the relationship and the differences between knowing and understanding; between information and lived experience. The teacher understood the letters, words, and sentences contained in the message but the tavern-keeper experienced the true meaning and impact of what the letter actually said, including the importance of relationship and context. The teacher “knew” the letter while the tavern-keeper “lived” out the meaning and consequences.

I can “know” the “letters, words, and sentences” of the Torah, the mitzvot, and something of the Jewish writings to the limits of my education, but I can never “live” out the experiences, the meaning, the fabric of what it is to be Jewish, whether it is within the context of Messianic discipleship or otherwise. In saying, Recognize, please, to whom these belong, Tamar was calling Judah to acknowledge his unique identity as the father of her children (she was pregnant with twins) and (without realizing it) as the forefather of the Messiah.

I don’t believe that we Christians who stand alongside our Jewish brothers and sisters in the Messiah are hypocrites, either for actually standing by them or by discussing our relationship with each other. If such were the case, a great many writers and teachers, far more knowledgable and talented than I, would have to suffer the same accusation of “hypocrite” and, to serve the honor of Messiah, adjust our behavior accordingly.

contemplating-jumpingBut that would be psychotic.

Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master are still united by one Messiah and one God. While Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman may say that Messianic Judaism and Christianity are two different and separate religions, he also said this:

I also believe Yeshua will bless those gentiles who truly love him. We acknowledge that the gentiles in Yeshua have a place in God’s heart. It makes them our brethren, just as our fellow Jews are our brethren. We are related to other Yeshua followers, just as we are related to other Jews. Nevertheless, Messianic Judaism and Christianity remain two separate religions, yet we have the same Messiah, Yeshua. That being the case, rather than beating each other up with statements of faith we require each other to affirm, it would be good if we just began by treating each other as brethren, loving and supporting one another. I have always been more happy affirming people than doctrinal statements.

That certainly doesn’t sound like he’s requiring isolation between Christians and Messianic Jews. How could he advocate for a complete separatist philosophy and still say that Christians and Jews should “began by treating each other as brethren, loving and supporting one another?” That seems to go along with a “Daily Lift” of Rabbi Zelig Pliskin:

When you build up your own courage, you will be able to serve as a coach to others. Some of the best courage coaches are those who had to struggle to attain the courage they now have. Since it didn’t come easy to them, they know what it’s like to lack the courage to do what others consider easy.

If you don’t yet have the courage you would like, let the knowledge that you will inevitably be able to help others serve as a further motivation to increase your own courage.

Recently, I’ve been encouraged and reminded that in writing this series of “morning meditations,” I’m encouraging others. These are words and actions we are supposed to live by.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (ESV)

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.

Something New

When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?” Then they took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in the blood. They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said, “We found this. Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not?” He recognized it, and said, “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!” Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning for his son many days. ALL his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to, my son in Sheol.” Thus his father bewailed him. The Midianites, meanwhile, sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward.Genesis 37:29-36 (JPS Tanakh)

Beginnings are hard. For good reason. If they were easy, we would prowl into each new venture like a snug fat cat.

When you begin pent up in an iron cage, a tiger comes out. A tiger that breaks through the door of its cage and pounces with a vengeance.

Bless those cages, those impossible brick walls, those rivers of fire that lie at the outset of each worthwhile journey. Without them we would be only as powerful as we appear.

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

As we see in the example from this week’s Torah Portion Vayeishev, making a new beginning, even in something that will ultimately turn out to be very worthwhile, can be very hard. Of course, when Joseph was stripped and thrown into a pit by his brothers, then kidnapped and sold into slavery, he hardly thought this was a good “new beginning”. In fact, it was the lowest point of his life up until then. He had no idea of the grandeur he would eventually attain as Viceroy in Egypt and savior of the civilized world.

I can hardly compare myself to Joseph, but I know what it’s like to make a new beginning. We all do, really. Anyone who has gotten married, who has had a child, who has moved to a new city, who has taken a new job knows what it is like to make a new beginning. Even when what you are achieving is ultimately good and desirable, it can still be difficult and stressful. Change always is.

I also know what it’s like to make a new beginning spiritually. I’ve done this more than once. Of course there was the moment when I came to faith in Jesus. I like to “joke” that almost immediately afterward, my life fell apart. I went through some very difficult times after coming to faith which is the exact opposite of what I’d expected, but then, God had to step in and help me make some significant changes once I declared my faith and was baptized. He’s still doing that work and sometimes, it really hurts.

During the past couple of years, I put myself through another significant spiritual change. For a year, starting in the summer of 2010, I started challenging all of my long-held religious assumptions, began studying new materials, and ultimately, at the end of that year, took my religious worship life in a very different direction. It wasn’t easy. I had to leave a congregation where I had been a trusted leader and teacher and where I had many friends (they’re still my friends) because of the new convictions at which I had arrived. I started a journey that still has no definitive destination and where I encounter uncertainty often. I believe this is the right thing to do for me, but doing the right thing is often disturbing and disconcerting.

Sometimes, even when you know that a new beginning is required, you don’t know what to do first. In fact, right after I had come to faith, the first question I asked my Pastor was, “What do I do now?”

Today’s daf discusses teaching Torah. Rav Moshe Shapira, shlit”a, explains that today’s world of kiruv is a new chapter that needs to be understood in its own context. For example, although the Shulchan Aruch writes that a rebbe must instill fear in his students—for this purpose he may not eat with them or be overly familiar with them—today is very different. When dealing with young people who need to be drawn closer, following such halachos will only cause an unhealthy distance between student and rebbe.

Another example of a complex kiruv issue was faced by a certain maggid who would travel around Eretz Yisrael encouraging our estranged brothers to draw closer to God. He wondered what to do with those who are distant but could be persuaded to take on some new religious practice. Most would only be willing to take on a single mitzvah, and pushing for more would only serve to destroy any willingness to advance. The question was: which mitzvah comes first?

When he brought this question to Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashev, shlit”a, he replied concisely. “It doesn’t matter too much what they start with. But try to find a d’oraisa mitzvah that you think will make the greatest impact on them. Speak and encourage them to take on this mitzvah.”

The heads of Hidabrut, the famous Belzer kiruv organization in Eretz Yisrael, also had a kiruv conundrum. When a person is at the point where he will either take on wearing a kippah or tzitzis, which is more important?

Rav Eliyashev’s response will surprise many. “It is better to convince him to begin wearing a kippah. Although tzitzis is obviously a Torah commandment, wearing a yarmulke is superior since a man who wears a yarmulke feels especially Jewish since he publicly associates himself with religious Jews.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“New Students”
Bechoros 29

Truth be told, one of the reasons why some Christians are attracted to the “Messianic” movement is that worship and faith is demonstrated in so many physical ways. The wearing of a yarmulke and tzitzit is very compelling and even a little addictive. I tend to believe that non-Jews in the movement go through a set of developmental steps, not all of them beneficial, but all of them seem to be necessary. One of the first steps is to become enamored with all the “Jewish stuff”. Sometimes the “stuff” is so seductive, that the non-Jewish participants never get past the “physicality” of their worship and dig into the spiritual context and meaning. They also get “sucked into” the idea that their “stuff”, because much of it can be found in Bible commandments, is better than the “Christian stuff” (and Christians don’t have nearly as much symbolic physical paraphernalia so they don’t seem as “cool”). Fortunately most people get past this stage. Some sadly, don’t.

However, if you’re immature in your faith, often the very first step onto a path of maturity is a material object, such as giving a child their very first Bible or cross necklace. The object takes on a transitional value, if seen and used properly, to escort the newly spiritual person into a faith that doesn’t require material objects to validate their relationship with God.

For an observant Jew, a siddur, talit gadol, kippah, and tefillin all are a part of daily prayer and worship and only under unusual circumstances will a Jew pray without obeying the mitzvot attached to these holy artifacts. But for a Christian and especially for the Gentiles in the Messianic movement, sometimes it’s helpful to put all of the “stuff” away, go off someplace where you can be alone, and just let it be you and God.

Try something uncomfortable and new. See how it works out. When Joseph did it (although it wasn’t his idea), it turned out pretty well. But it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick.