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January 10, 2020 – Parsha Vayechi
This week’s parasha, Vayechi, is taken up with the death of the last of the Patriarchs, Jacob, and his son, Joseph.
Jacob is very old and knows that he will die soon. He asks Joseph to promise that Joseph will take him back to Canaan to be buried. Before his death, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh – this blessing is carried forward to today, as Jewish parents bless their sons that “you should be like Ephraim and Manasseh” because they were loyal to Judaism despite growing up in a place of idol worship. Jacob also blesses each of his other sons, with blessings that fit their characters, even if the characteristic is bad.
When Jacob dies, Joseph fulfills his promise to take Jacob’s body back to Canaan for burial. This would be difficult for anyone other than Pharoah’s viceroy, but Joseph is able to do this because of his power and position.
Exactly because Joseph is powerful and second only to Pharoah, the brothers are afraid that Joseph will now seek vengeance against them for selling him into slavery. The other brothers convince Dan and Naphtali, who are close to Joseph, to tell him that Jacob wanted Joseph to forgive the brothers of their sin. The brothers even offer to be Joseph’s slaves. But Joseph tells them “Fear not, for am I instead of God? Though you meant to do me harm, God meant for it to be good, in order to accomplish – it is as clear as this day – that a great people be kept alive.”
This discussion among the brothers gives us a glimpse of what will soon occur. Jacob’s descendants – the children of Israel – will indeed become slaves. This occurs not because they treated Joseph or anyone else badly, but because they treated themselves badly. They became so comfortable in Egypt that they adopted local customs, forgot the teachings of the Patriarchs and enslaved their own spirits. And just as Joseph forgives his brothers because he knows that God means their actions for good, so does God forgive the Israelites, over and over again. Despite forsaking Jewish customs in Egypt, God fulfills his promise to take the people out of Egypt and return them to Canaan. In the Wilderness, when the people revolt against Moses and God’s commandments, God forgives them many times.
Next week we will begin telling this amazing story – the redemption from Egypt – through God’s signs and wonders and the intervention of a reluctant hero, Moses.
January 3, 2020 – Parsha Vayigash
This week, I study thinking of all those – Jews and non-Jews – targeted for violence because of their faith, and pray for an end to such hatred.
This week, in Parasha Vayigash, we come to the final act in the story of Joseph and his brothers.
Last week Joseph, unknown to his brothers as the Viceroy of Egypt, told them they must bring the youngest, Benjamin, if they want to buy grain again. They brought Benjamin, and before leaving on the trip back to Canaan, Joseph had his servant hide his silver goblet in Benjamin’s saddle bags. Then Joseph had his servant pursue the brothers, accuse them of theft, and bring them back to Egypt.
Now, the goblet has been found in Benjamin’s possession, and as the parasha opens, Judah is pleading to let Benjamin go back to Canaan. Judah asks that he be kept as a prisoner instead of Benjamin, because if Benjamin does not return, it will break Jacob’s heart.
Joseph, overcome with emotion, dismisses everyone but his brothers from the chamber. He then cries out, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” His brothers are shocked in disbelief, then fear that the man they wanted to leave in a pit and allowed to be sold into slavery is now the second most powerful man in Egypt.
Joseph reassures his brothers, telling them not to be afraid. Recalling Pharaoh’s dream, he explains that there have been two years of famine, and the famine will continue for another five years. There was a purpose in their actions. “I am Joseph your brother – it is me, whom you sold into Egypt. And now, do not be distressed nor criticize yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that God sent me ahead of you.”
Joseph then introduces his brothers to Pharaoh, who invites them to live in Egypt, and to bring their father to live with them. Pharaoh gives them the land of Goshen, the most fertile area, where their sheep and cattle will thrive. Jacob comes to Egypt, has a warm reunion with the son he thought was dead, meets Pharaoh, and lives with his children and grandchildren in peace.
In learning of the completion of Joseph’s journey, we see a glimpse of other journeys the Children of Israel will take in their history. Two weeks ago, in Parasha Vayeishev, when we first learned of Joseph’s dreams, he interpreted them in terms of his own greatness: The sheaves of wheat representing his brothers bowing down to the sheaf of wheat representing him, and the heavenly bodies bowing down to him. When he is in prison in Egypt and the chamberlains of the cup bearers and the bakers seek his interpretation of their dreams, Joseph better understands the divine origin of dreams, and asks “Do not interpretations belong to God?” Now, as a great man and leader, Joseph realizes that his dreams and those of Pharaoh foretold plans that God had for the Jewish people.
As we study our ancient family history during the next several months, Be Prepared to see this pattern again. At first, the Children of Israel or their leaders do not recognize the spiritual nature of what they see. Later, they realize that what happens to them comes from God. Finally, they understand that their experiences occur for a holy purpose.
A special note: In following the weekly parasha over the next few months, we will learn of our ancestors’ sojourn in Egypt. We will find it was a land rich in many things, but not the spiritual values of Torah God wants us to live. Our people will be enslaved there, and it would be natural for us to be angry about that. The people, religion and culture of ancient Egypt are very different from those of modern Egypt. Torah tells us not to reject the Egyptian, because Egypt saved us from famine. (Deuteronomy 23:8) The Scout Law teaches us that a Scout is a “friend to all”. We must not be upset with people now for things that happened in their land 3,500 years ago.
December 27, 2019 – Parsha Mikeitz
This week we read Parasha Mikeitz, one of the most dramatic stories in the Torah.
Last week, we learned that Joseph’s 10 older brothers sold him into slavery, and that ultimately he ended up in Egypt.
The end of last week’s parasha covers what happens to Joseph once he gets to Egypt. The caravan that took him there sold him to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chamberlain. Joseph is so smart, Potiphar puts him in charge of his household. Joseph is also very handsome, and Potiphar’s wife pays him a lot of attention. Joseph tells Mrs. Potiphar to leave him alone, she gets angry, and accuses him of attacking her. Potiphar puts Joseph in his dungeon.
After a while, Joseph gets some company. Pharaoh becomes upset with the chief cupbearer and the chief baker. Potiphar, as chamberlain, arrests the men and imprisons them in his dungeon. While there, each of the royal officers has a dream. The chief cupbearer dreams of a vine with three branches, which blossom; he presses the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and gives it to Pharaoh. Joseph explains that the dream means in three days Pharaoh will pardon the chief cupbearer and return him to his office. Joseph tells him to think of him when he is restored to power, and mention him to Pharaoh, so Pharaoh will free Joseph.
The chief baker then tells Joseph his dream, in which he has three baskets on his head with baked goods. Birds eat the food from the baskets. Joseph explains this dream means that in three days Pharaoh will execute him.
Sure enough, three days later, Pharaoh restores the chief cupbearer to office and executes the chief baker, just as Joseph foretold. But the chief cupbearer forgot about Joseph, and did not mention him to Pharaoh.
Thus the table is set for this week’s parasha, Mikeitz. Now Pharaoh has two dreams. In his first dream, Pharaoh is standing on the bank of the Nile, and up come seven good cows to graze; but then seven gaunt cows arrive, and eat the good cows. In the second dream, seven good ears of grain are growing on a single stalk; but then seven thin ears of grain sprout and eat the seven good ears.
No one in Pharaoh’s court can interpret the dreams. The chief cupbearer then remembers Joseph, and tells Pharaoh of the Hebrew slave who interprets dreams. Pharaoh has Joseph brought to him. Joseph explains that only God can explain the meaning of the dream. Pharaoh tells Joseph the dreams, and Joseph explains that God is sending Pharaoh a warning that there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He advises Pharaoh to appoint someone to organize the country to preserve grain during the good years so that Egypt will have stores of grain to carry it through the famine. Pharaoh is impressed that God reveals his design to Joseph and thus appoints Joseph as the royal prime minister to carry out this important work.
The famine that comes after seven years hits Canaan, as well, and Jacob sends the 10 older sons to Egypt, to buy grain. The youngest son, Benjamin, stays home. When the brothers come to ask Joseph to sell them grain, the man they sold into slavery after mocking him as “that dreamer” recognizes his brothers. Joseph questions them about who they are – he is secretly trying to find out if his father is still alive and how his little brother Benjamin is. They explain they are ten of 12 brothers; one is gone and the youngest is home. Joseph sends the brothers back with grain, but requires they leave Simeon with him and says not to come back unless Benjamin comes with them. Secretly, Joseph returns their money to their bags. They return home.
After the family eats all the grain, the brothers have to return. Though it breaks Jacob’s heart, they take Benjamin with them. He tells his sons that if Benjamin does not return it will kill him. They go to Egypt and again see Joseph, who sends them back with more grain, but this time secretly returns not only their money, but also hides a royal goblet in Benjamin’s bags. After they leave, Joseph sends guards to bring them back because of their “theft”.
What will Joseph do to the brothers? What will happen to Benjamin? Will anyone have more dreams? Will Joseph and his brothers eat latkes? (Oh, sorry, right season, wrong story.) Join us again next week to find out.
Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukkah!
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