These words are written by Rabbi Sharon Cohen, president of Hebrew College in Newton, Mass:
“It was from one of my most significant teachers, Rabbi James Ponet, that I first learned about Rabbi Hartman’s understanding of Purim as the Jewish holiday of friendship.The connection may seem counterintuitive at first. A holiday of debauchery, disguises and narrowly averted disaster, yes. But the holiday of friendship?
To share Rabbi Hartman’s Purim Torah, at least as I understood it from Rabbi Ponet, I have to take you back to Jerusalem in the summer of 1993. It was my first year teaching with the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, and I was privileged to serve on the faculty that summer with Rabbis Ponet, Avi Weinstein and Michael Paley.
About 30 of us were crowded into a room upstairs at Bet Ticho, the beautiful restaurant and art gallery that once served as the home of Jerusalem artist Anna Ticho. In the 1920s and ’30s, her home became a gathering place for intellectual luminaries like Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber, whose photographs hung on the wall above us as we listened to a teaching by Rabbi Ponet.
He was drawing a contrast between the writers and thinkers who used to gather at Bet Ticho, and those who were influenced by the theology of Rav Kook, whose home was on the same street, just a few doors down—but worlds away.
Rav Kook’s worldview flowed from a deep faith in God’s promise of redemption; he saw the unfolding of human history in general—and 20th century Jewish history in particular —as an inexorable process leading toward the fulfillment of that promise. But the intellectual circle that gathered in the home of Anna Ticho, as described by Rabbi Ponet, did not inhabit Kook’s religious world of spiritual certainty and redemptive promise.
Instead, Rabbi Ponet taught us, they inhabited a spiritual universe that was much closer to the world of Megilat Esther—and, my pounding heart knew immediately, a world much closer to my own. A world unredeemed and uncertain. A world in which even the name of God does not appear except through hints hidden between the lines of the text. A world in which the pivotal call to action comes in the form of a question—the question delivered indirectly in a message from Mordechai to Esther: “Mi yodea im la’et kazot higa’at la’malchut?” (Who knows if it wasn’t for just such a moment that you became queen?)
That teaching has stayed with me all these years, and that verse is still the heart of the Book of Esther for me. It gave me a language for my religious commitment to uncertainty; it helped me embrace ‘not-knowing’ as a spiritual path rather than a personal failure of faith.
A few years later, in New Haven, Conn., where we had the joy of celebrating many Purims while working together at Yale Hillel, Rabbi Ponet taught me a related piece of Purim Torah, this time in the name of Rabbi David Hartman.
It was a year after Purim had been forever transformed—and tainted—by Baruch Goldstein in 1994. Goldstein’s horrific act, of course, flowed from his own reading of the same Book of Esther that we were reading in the far reaches of the New Haven diaspora. But his was a reading that allowed him with breathtaking—indeed, life-taking—certainty to walk out of the mythic landscape of ancient Persia into the Cave of the Machpelah, where he opened fire on scores of innocent Muslims at prayer, killing 29 and wounding 125 others.
What did it mean to read the Book of Esther after that, I wondered?
If Goldstein’s religious certainty led him to that act, what did my own commitment to religious uncertainty require of me?
For Hartman, Rabbi Ponet taught me, the answer lay in the central mitzvot of the Purim holiday. Aside from reading Megilat Esther, there are three other religious obligations associated with the holiday. They are Mishloach manot (sending treats to friends and neighbors), matanot la’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor) and se’udat Purim (sharing a Purim feast with people we love).
What are we obligated to do in a world where confusion, cruelty and capriciousness often conspire to hide God’s presence?
We’re asked to take care of each other. Feed each other. Be responsible for each other. Rejoice in each other’s companionship.
What does Purim obligate us to do?
In a chaotic and unredeemed world, it asks us to befriend one another.”
Please join us at TBS on Monday evening at 6:00 for a spiel and Megilah reading as well as refreshments to celebrate Purim!
Rabbi David Grossman
Rabbi Joshua Grossman
The chapters in Parshat Mishpatim cover a vast array of social rules, moral imperatives, ethical injunctions and civil and criminal laws, all of which are linked to the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) which were read last Shabbat.
Compensation must be made for damages caused by one's animals grazing on another's property or from a fire that one carelessly caused. Responsibilities of guardianship, situations in which someone is guarding that which belongs to someone else, are also discussed. The general principle is that liability increases with the benefit that the one guarding the property receives or expects for his services or that he gains from the entrusted property.
The subject matter moves from "stolen property to the stolen heart" and deals with the man who seduces an unmarried woman and is required to pay punitive damages to her and/or her father and must marry her provided that she consents. Three capital offenses described as "toevot" (abominations) follow -- the prohibition of sorcery, bestiality and apostasy.
This section concludes with laws that express concern for the disadvantaged of society -- the stranger, the widow and orphan, and the poor. The Torah states, for example, that one who lends money to a poor person should not demand repayment when none is reasonably forthcoming. Included in this passage is the prohibition of charging interest on personal loans. Additionally, if one takes a poor person's bedding as security for a loan, it must be returned each evening for his use.
One is forbidden to curse judges, The Judge, God, or leaders of the people. One should not withhold the gifts (e.g., firstlings of the soil, of the human womb and of domesticated animals) from God. While the latter laws deal with animals that are to be dedicated to God, the following law refers to those prohibited for human consumption. A "treifa," literally an animal torn up by a predator and left to die, is forbidden to eat.
This section concludes with laws intended to maintain the integrity of the judicial system and those regulating humane treatment of one's enemy. For example, courts many not hear one side of a dispute without the other party being present. Included in this prohibition is not to be influenced by rumors, Lashon HaRah. Judges may not accept testimony from unworthy witnesses. In their deliberations, judges must be careful not to do anything that might pervert justice or unfairly shift the feelings of the court against the accused. Generally, rules of law are determined by majority vote of the judges. Judges may not show favoritism, even towards the less fortunate.
What follows is a series of miscellaneous laws dealing with the perversion of justice, the taking of bribes, the oppression of strangers. Then, the Torah shifts to laws regulating the agricultural economy. Fields are to be worked for six years and allowed to rest during the seventh so that the poor and even the wildlife will be able to enjoy the land. Similarly, one must abstain from all manner of creative work on Shabbat.
An outline of the religious calendar is given beginning with Pesach in the spring. The calendar is followed by four laws that regulate ritual and ceremonial aspects of these holidays -- the prohibition of slaughtering the paschal lamb on the fourteenth of Nisan while the participant has not yet discarded all leaven products, the requirement that the fatty portions of the paschal sacrifice, those that attach to the stomach and intestines, be burnt before dawn, the requirement to bring the choicest of first fruits to the sanctuary on Shavuot; and the prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother's milk. So begins the need for two sets of dishes, OY!
Special Haftorah: Shabbat Shekalim
This haftorah signals the onrushing of special days on our Luach. It precedes Purim, and this haftorah, along with three others, lead us into the cherished days of Pesach. Despite our reluctance to speak about money on Shabbat, this haftorah emphasizes the monetary donations that ensured the upkeep of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We can perhaps draw from this reference that, since we no longer have a place for sacrificial offerings, our support of worthy, Jewish causes takes the place of lambs and goats on the altar. And it’s so much more streamlined to donate funds rather than lead an animal to Jerusalem for ritual slaughter!
The brilliant doctor, researcher, and author Oliver Sacks—famous for the book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat--Sacks once related the story of a gifted musicologist who was struck with a terrible brain infection. The infection left him with absolutely no short-term memory. He was completely incapable to making connections, and, if you can imagine this—he was stuck in a string of endless PRESENTS. Every moment was new to him. But there was one thing—one activity—that kept him out of total isolation. Perhaps you can guess what it was. It was MUSIC. He could still sing, play the organ, and even conduct a choir. Music enabled him to create continuity when nothing else in his life allowed him to do that.
Maybe you can relate to that phenomenon. I know I can. When I visit people in nursing homes—when I visited my own mother in her nursing home—even when people seem to be without any awareness of their surroundings. Even when people are completely unable to communicate. They can still SING. They can still remember music. And it seems to give them some joy. Somehow, they can see and feel the power of music to move beyond the present, to move beyond themselves.
Think about how important music is to Judaism. Can you imagine the Kol Nidre prayer without its amazingly evocative melody? Without that melody, it’s nothing but a very dry piece of legal instructions. But, with the melody, we feel the real power of those words. And it’s not just Kol Nidre—it’s every aspect of our religious lives. As Jews, we know exactly where we are in the calendar, because of the melodies. We could close our eyes, and we’d still know when it’s Shabbas or a weekday. We’d know when it’s the High Holidays. We’d know when someone is chanting a Haftorah or laening from the Torah. We have distinct melodies for the Megillot, and on Tisha Ba’av, we chant Eichah, the book of Lamentations, with its own unique trop. Who doesn’t feel the centuries of tears Jews have shed when we hear that melody?
And the Torah itself honors music. In fact, there are ten songs that are part of our scripture, and we will read one tomorrow.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. What is the first thing the Israelites do AS A PEOPLE? They burst into song! They sing spontaneously, and praise God for the miracle they have just experienced.
But—if it’s not obvious by now—I think of music itself as a kind of miracle. When we hear music, or play music, we create connections and memories. We wake up our souls. I think I love singing barbershop quartet music because, for me, it feels as though I am making a real contribution to the end result. My voice gets lost in the larger sound that is the purpose of barbershop. In doing so, I am supporting the other three singers, and, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t hear each of us. You’d just hear one sound.
When it works, there’s nothing like it.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—no relation to the Oliver Sacks I mentioned earlier—Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls music a “signal of transcendence.” Faith is not science, he says. Rather, faith is more like music. In his words, “science analyses, music integrates.” Think about that distinction: SCIENCE ANALYSES, MUSIC INTEGRATES. So science takes things apart, and music—like faith—brings them together. And, according to Sacks, just as music connects note to note, so faith connects the different episodes of our lives and finds a way to make meaning out of them. Here’s a direct quote from Rabbi Sacks: “Faith teaches us to hear the music beneath the noise.”
And I think we can all agree that there is SO MUCH NOISE out there. Maybe more than ever we need music to make sense of the noise. AND, of course, FAITH. How inspiring that we have a way—through music and through faith—to feel beyond the noise to find meaning. In a deep sense, what we are doing is creating HARMONY. Musical harmony and spiritual harmony. And that’s a real gift from God.
This week, we read Parsha BO, and the content of this Parsha is probably some of the most familiar that we read in the Torah. Here we see the continuation of the plagues, from eight through ten, when Pharaoh finally relents and releases the Israelites. Not just the “menfolk,” as he once promised, but everyone. Not just all the people, but the people and all their animals. And, finally, not just the people and the animals but also an incredible supply of gold and silver.
I’d focus a little on those well-known plagues. We recite the list at the Pesach seder, and we probably know them by heart. This is all so familiar, isn’t it? Maybe even too familiar . . . I’m sure you know that there are even kids’ toys that are supposed to represent each of the ten plagues. Like anything very familiar, there may be ways that we are missing some questions that don’t occur to us because we take this narrative for granted.
So let me see if I can raise some questions about this list that might not be so obvious to everyone.
First question: why are the plagues in the order that they’re in? In other words, why are frogs TWO and locusts eight? Why is “Bloody water” the first plague? Well, the sages tell us that these plagues go from least bad to the worst. That makes sense, if we think about the last plague, the deaths of the first-born sons. It’s hard to know what makes locusts almost the worst, except that we know from Eytz Hayyim that a swarm of locusts can contain as many as 50 MILLION insects and that they can consume 100,000 TONS of vegetation. That had to be far more devastating than some bloody water and some frogs, however tough that must have been. Rashi tells us that it was one particularly destructive species of locusts that was never seen before in Egypt and will never be seen again. If we imagine an agrarian economy like Egypt’s, that plague could have spelled famine for years to come.
Second question: what changes with the eighth plague? Well, we read that, for the first time, Pharaoh’s courtiers begin to challenge him. As they say, “How long shall this be a snare to us? . . . Are you not aware that Egypt is lost?” Those words pose a real challenge to Pharaoh’s power, and it must have taken courage for these minions to argue against Pharaoh’s might. We can only imagine how frustrated and terrified they must have been, and how Pharaoh’s stubbornness had to seem completely irrational and likely to doom the country. Sidebar here: this moment reminds me of Hitler’s completely irrational attempts to destroy all the Jews, even when it was clear that Germany could not win the war. In fact, his hatred of the Jews was so consuming that he took scarce resources that could have gone to the military and used them to try to wipe out the remnants of our people.
Third question: how is the last plague—the deaths of the firstborns—different from all the other plagues? I know that the answer might seem obvious: people die in the last plague. But I’m guessing that people died from hail or from diseases carried by vermin or from the swarming locusts or even from falling in the dark. So that answer doesn’t seem to work. Thoughts? Well, according to some scholars, the last plague was significantly different because it was the ONLY PLAGUE THAT COULD NOT HAVE OCCURRED THROUGH SOME NATURAL MEANS. In other words, perhaps an eclipse caused the darkness. Perhaps the frogs appeared because the Nile overflowed its banks. But there’s NO explanation for the inexplicable deaths, not only of a large group of people, but a very purposeful group, namely the first-born. It’s possible that Pharaoh, with all of his sorcerers and magicians on staff, could have believed that any of them could have cast a spell to make the waters bloody; but there was no way any of them could possibly have caused such a divine act of retribution.
Final question: Why is the darkness the next-to-last plague? Remember that I mentioned that the plagues get worse as we go from one to ten. Wouldn’t you think that, after vermin and bloody water and locusts and boils (sh’chin), that a little darkness couldn’t have been so awful? Couldn’t they have just lit candles? Couldn’t the Egyptians simply sit tight until the plague ran its course? And this plague, unlike the others, doesn’t seem to cause any tangible harm.
I think we could think about this in a couple of ways. The first is very practice—without light, everything around us is reduced to an obstacle. Anything, even vast riches, can trip up a person who walks in darkness. In other words, the very objects that might have helped us to improve our lives become dangerous threats to us.
And another reason: light motivates us to action. Darkness breeds depression and passivity. Think about how happy we all are to add a minute or two of light to each of these days! When we are “in the light,” can raise about ourselves and move beyond our own immediate needs. The Egyptians were in a state of total spiritual darkness. They couldn’t even see their “brother,” meaning that they couldn’t care about anyone but themselves. And even candles couldn’t save them. The Israelites didn't suffer from the plague, because their light was provided for by Torah and mitzvot—As Proverbs tells us, "A mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light". When we have the illumination of the Torah and its mitzvoth, a whole new world comes to light. Obstacles are no longer obstacles; instead, they become God’s creations meant to assist us on our spiritual journey.
The ninth plague teaches us that it is in our hands to brighten our lives; we have all the tools we need to do so. And when we manage to live in light despite the darkness that surrounds us, we are able to see our brothers and sisters, to rise above our own immediate needs and instincts to become a community, a true people.
This week, we read of Moshe’s trials and the challenges he faces in trying, with God’s help, to liberate B’Nai Yisrael. There was the stubbornness of Pharaoh, of course, and his unwillingness to obey his upstart step-son. But even before dealing with the King, Moshe must convince his own people that there was hope, there was redemption on the very near horizon. Moshe has grave doubts about whether he can do it. Why?
The Torah tells us that God spoke to Moshe saying that he would bring the people out of Egypt. The exact wording is:
וְלָֽקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם
Now, Sivlot is generally translated as “burdens”, but it has another meaning in Hebrew, “patience”, Savlanut. If we use this alternate translation, the verse would read, “I will deliver you from being patient with Egypt. Last week in SHEMOT B’Nai Yisrael criticized Moshe and Aharon for having agitated Pharaoh by calling for their freedom. They had become so used to slavery that they were not willing to make any sacrifice for freedom. Slavery had become an acceptable way of life for them. This is similar to people who are incarcerated and begin to define their lives as inmates. They are said to have an institutional mentality. We even hear of some inmates who get in fights just before they’re going to be released; it’s their way of trying to remain in their familiar prison setting. The Jews certainly qualified for this sort of “institutionalized” thinking. And this is not the last time they beg to stay slaves. Because we have seen a few cycles of the Torah, we know that in a few weeks, we will be recounting the people’s reminiscences of their days of servitude, remembering the good old days, when we had fish, squash, melons, leeks, cucumbers, onions and garlic!
Moshe’s first challenge, then, was to overcome the tolerance of enslavement. We, as Americans raised in a country where liberty is most highly prized, can understand how tragic it is when people who have been deprived of basic human rights do not even perceive a problem.
Moshe was a leader who went forth to the people, among the people, inspiring them to reject slavery as a way of life. He first had to have them feel their deprivation before he could, with God’s help, effect a change. So this tells us that strong leadership really means three things: first, helping people to realize that their lives are not what they should be; second, showing those same people that they can have a better life and what that might look like; AND, finally, convincing the people that they are strong enough to accomplish that. When the people are especially “stiff-necked,” like b’nai Yisreal, that’s not an easy thing to do!
I’m sure that we all have our ideas about who are the heroes of the Torah. And we are about to begin the narrative of one of our greatest heroes—Moshe. But tonight I want to focus on another hero, someone who is not even named in the parsha.
We know the story well. The new Pharaoh, who has forgotten Joseph, has decided that the Jews are becoming a threat. So he orders all Jewish male babies killed. The mother of baby Moses can no longer hide him, so, when he is three months old, she puts him into a basket which she then sets on the Nile. I’m sure that she hoped that some compassionate person would come along and take pity on her son.
Well, that’s exactly what happens, but I’m sure that Jocheved, mother of Moshe, couldn’t have imagined the actual rescuer of her son: she is Pharaoh’s daughter. She saves Moshe from death, and she is the hero of this story. Without her intervention, Moshe might have died and perhaps we would not have been freed from bondage.
Yet this person is not given a name by the Torah. Now I know that the Torah doesn’t always give women a fair shake, but in this parsha, we have names for the midwives who rebel against pharaoh’s order. We have Moshe’s sister Miriam, who also is a key part of the story. And I’ve already mentioned Jocheved. But we don’t have a name for Pharaoh’s daughter. Who was she?
According to Chronicles, Pharaoh had a daughter named BITYA. Some have called her BATYA or BITTHIAH. Whatever her name, she knew that this was a Hebrew child. And that knowledge does not keep her from rescuing the baby and bringing him home to raise him as her own. And all that is obviously in defiance of Pharaoh’s direct orders.
Jonathon Sacks makes a very interesting observation about the importance of Batya. He points out that many of our patriarchs and matriarchs are named by God—for example, Jacob becomes Israel after his encounter with the angel; God renames Avram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. And, obviously, God named Adam and Eve. But it is Pharaoh’s daughter who names Moshe, which is an Egyptian name. God does not change the name, and to this day we identify the savior of our people with a name that was part of the culture that enslaved us. BUT Sacks hypothesizes that God was so moved by Batya’s rescue that He allowed her name to remain. He deferred to her decision. That’s pretty remarkable.
And there are other testaments to Batya’s righteousness: according to our tradition, she survived the plague of the first-born. In the blockbuster film of 1956 Batya even joins the exodus in leaving Egypt. And one other: according to the sages, there were nine people so righteous that they entered heaven directly while they were alive. In other words, they didn’t have to die at all. Batya was one of them. (If you’re curious about who were the others, they are:
· Elijah (Kings II Chapter 2, Verse 11)
· Serach, the daughter of Asher - one of the sons of Jacob
· Enoch (Genesis 5:22-24)
· Eliezer, the servant of Abraham
· Hiram, king of Tyre
· Ebed-Melech, an Ethiopian, AND
· Jaabez, the son of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi)
These are certainly not big names, but the idea is that they did something so righteous that God favored them with direct entrance to Paradise. Their physical bodies never died.
If you’ve been to Yad Vashem in Israel, then you know that there is an area called the Hall of Righteous Gentiles. In a way, Batya/Bitya/Bithiah is the first righteous Gentile. She risked her own safety and comfort because she took pity not simply on an innocent baby but on an innocent JEWISH baby. Let us pray that she may serve as an example for all of us.
We read in our Parsha this week, Vayechi, about the blessings and rebukes that Jacob metes out to his sons. The Torah tells us that he “bade them farewell,” and leaves each of them with a parting message “appropriate to him.” Jacob knows that he is about to die, and he wants to leave them with his own summary of their strengths and weaknesses. He calls to them, and what we hear in this portion is not only a description of the individual son but also a more global description of the tribe that each of them leads. The picture he paints is often not flattering, sometimes referring—as he does with Reuben, Shimon and Levi--to sins they have committed in the past.
We have no idea how each son reacted to his father’s final words to him, but we can imagine that, in some cases, this message was not easy to hear. Jacob distills each of their characters—often through animal metaphors—Judah is the lion’s whelp, Benjamin is a ‘ravenous wolf,’ and Naphtali is a ‘hind let loose which yields lovely fawns.” For Reuben, he reserves a different kind of metaphor; he tells him that he is as “unstable as water.” I don’t know how I would feel if those were the last words that my father said to me.
In some cases, Jacob refers to the past, in other cases he signals the future. We know that here he makes clear that Judah will lead the people, and we can’t help but wonder if he’s learned anything from all of his family misery because—yet again—he makes clear that Joseph is the favored son. STILL. He calls him “the elect of his brothers,” and though Joseph is not meant to lead the people, he nevertheless gets blessings that, in Jacob’s words, surpass “the blessings of my ancestors.”
Eytz Hayyim tells us that this portion is poetic, and it is full of metaphors. I’ve mentioned animals and water, for example. And there’s another important metaphor in Vayechi, a metaphor that Jacob has used in the earlier section of this Parsha. It has just come up when Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasheh, and Jacob uses exactly the same metaphor when he blesses their father, Joseph. But it’s not a metaphor that refers to THEM, but rather a metaphor that refers to GOD. The word is “shepherd.” For Ephraim and Manasseh, he invokes “THE GOD WHO HAS BEEN MY SHEPHERD FROM MY BIRTH TO THIS DAY.” (48:15)
And to Joseph, he calls upon the “shepherd, THE ROCK OF ISRAEL.” (49:24)
Though we are used to this metaphor, we may not realize that this is the first time that we read in the Torah of God being referred to as a shepherd. Fast forward to King David. To the most famous of his many psalms. And what do we read there?: THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD. It is our patriarch Jacob to whom we are indebted for this metaphor.
So many people mistakenly think of the first five books of Moses as portraying a so-called vengeful, wrathful God. But here in Vayechi, in just a few little verses, we see that the God of our patriarchs is a loving God. A God who cares and protects and blesses and watches over us. A SHEPHERD.
This week, we read from Parshat Vayiggash which begins with Yehudah’s plea to Yosef, in which Yehudah said, “For you are like Pharoah”. According to Midrash, this was the moment when QUOTE “the kings joined in battle.” Now, of course, we know that Joseph is like a king. Yehudah himself points that out. But how could Judah be considered a king? It’s true that later on, next week in Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov designates Yehudah as the tribe of kingship. And we know that he is famous for his incredible strength; he is Yehudah the lion. But, at this point in time, nothing has really transpired that would make Yehudah into any sort of king. So why would Midrash consider him such?
Perhaps the answer is that the king is ultimately the person who is responsible for the decisions and destiny of his nation. The bottom line is that responsibility resides with the leader of a nation. He must decide when to send the nation into war and when to sue for peace. Kingship equals responsibility. When Yehudah came forth and committed to his father Yaakov, “I will be responsible for Binyamin, from my hand you may seek him...”, he became the king. He put his life on the line, he personally guaranteed his brother’s safety, and he became a new man. He went from one of the brothers to the leader. To king.
If we understand this transformation, then we also understand another dramatic scene from earlier in the Torah. At the end of Parshas Miketz, when it was thought that Binyamin was ‘guilty’ of stealing the silver, Yehudah seems to act like a servant. He’s meek, and he prostrates himself in front of Yosef, confesses to the brother’s guilt, and offers himself and all his other brothers into slavery. And yet, later, two verses later, Yehudah is almost arrogant when he speaks to Yosef. What happened?
One rabbi, Rav Yosef Leb Bloch, explains that what happened is that Yehudah remembered his acceptance of responsibility. Once he remembered the commitment of “I will be his guarantor,” he underwent a metamorphosis. He could no longer play the role of the weak, gentle, and servile brother. “The buck stops here. It is my responsibility.” Yehudah experienced a personality change. He was now a different person. “I accepted responsibility and I must do what I must do to live up to that responsibility.”
I would add to Rav Bloch’s interpretation that this is what happens when a person does TESHUVAH. We know that the brothers, Yehudah in particular, have all sought repentance. The experience of teshuvah, of genuine repentance, involves an accepting of responsibility. It’s not an ignoring of the past, but it is a rewriting of the past. A rewriting that now includes responsibility for one’s actions. And accepting responsibility changes a person. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Some people are born great; some people achieve greatness; and some people have greatness thrust upon them.” I’m not sure if anyone is “born great,” but there is no question that Yehudah had greatness thrust upon him. And he rose to that challenge.
The message here is clear. If Yehudah, who was guilty of so much, in thought AND deed, can take responsibility and become a changed man, so can any of us.
D'VAR MI KETZ
In this week’s parsha, we continue the riveting saga of Joseph and his brothers. We see in today’s Torah portion the quick and almost incredible rise of Joseph from forgotten prisoner to the second in command in all of Egypt. And he meets his brothers. We are told, in this dramatic passage: Joseph recognized his brothers but they didn’t recognize him.
How could that be?
Well, obviously, the brothers were not expecting to see Joseph. They assumed that he was a slave somewhere in Egypt. If you’re not expecting to see someone in a completely different context, it would be easy not to recognize them. That’s one possible explanation.
There’s also the dramatically different look that Joseph now has. His hair has been cut. He wears robes of fine linen. He has gold chains around his neck. On his finger is the royal signet ring. (He’d fit right in in Florida!) Joseph even has an Egyptian name: TSOFENAT PANEAKH. He’s thoroughly blended into Egyptian life.
These are all good reasons why the brothers wouldn’t recognize Joseph, and yet I think that there might be another reason, one not quite so literal.
Perhaps the brothers don’t recognize Joseph because he has changed so much, not ONLY on the outside which is obvious but also on the inside, which is not visible. Perhaps the parsha is telling us that Joseph has now become the true tsaddik that he was meant to be. He has learned from his mistakes, and he has been not only educated by those mistakes but also HUMBLED.
Where’s the evidence for that?
Well, think about what he tells Pharaoh when Pharaoh asks him about his ability to interpret dreams. Joseph tells him that it is not he, but rather GOD, who interprets those dreams for him. If you recall years back when Joseph tells his brothers of his dreams, he does not give any credit to anyone other than himself. So that’s a big change.
There’s other evidence, too. Remember that the brothers all bow down to Joseph. KEEP IN MIND THAT THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HE HAD PREDICTED YEARS AGO THROUGH HIS DREAM. So what COULD HE have said? What would YOU have said to them at that moment? I think many of us would have been tempted to say: “SEE!! I told you guys!! This is just what I said would happen!! HOW COOL!! In your faces!!”
But he doesn’t say any of that.
Why does he refrain? I think Joseph refrains because he does not want to humiliate his brothers. He chooses not to lord his power over them because he himself has been so far down. Because he himself has lived through slavery and prison and the loss of his freedom. He was his father’s favorite, but where did that get him? He had the beautiful coat, but it was only a magnet for his brothers’ resentment. He now realizes that what matters is what he has learned, what he has gained on this spiritual journey.
Joseph has grown up.
Part of the Parsha of this week is Vayayshev is an interruption of the Joseph narrative. That section tells the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah, the most formidable of Jacob’s sons, is convinced that Tamar has betrayed him and his third son, to whom she is betrothed. When he sees that she is pregnant, he does not realize that the child she is carrying is actually his. So he accuses her of immorality and sits as a judge in the trial. As she is brought in to face the court, she sends him the security he had left with her when he himself had consorted with her. When he sees the damning evidence, he immediately sees that she is the one in the right. He declares, She is more righteous than I.
This is the same Judah who was willing to sell his brother Joseph into slavery. The same Judah who will later be willing to give himself up into slavery to save his youngest brother Benjamin. This brief interlude suggests to us that Judah is changing, that he is beginning to show compassion for others and to take responsibility for his actions.
But the real hero of this story is Tamar. Though she is virtually silent throughout the narrative, we know that she was willing to go to her death rather than to publicly humiliate her father-in-law. I would like to think that she accepted his apology and that she held no grudge against Judah for the accusation that he made. She chooses NOT to shame him, even when she could have. Our sages draw from this the life lesson, that it is better to go into a fiery furnace than to shame a person publicly.
Here’s a simple, concrete analogy: Think about how we cover the challah on Shabbas. Some say that we do so in order that the challah not be shamed while we pass over it to bless the wine. We show our respect for the bread that sustains us. But that respect should not stop at the Shabbas table. I bet that we all know people who are zealous about covering the challah but have no compunction when it comes to shaming or embarrassing other people. This is what happens if we remember the halakha—the rule—but forget the moral principle behind it. If we show that kind of consideration for an inanimate object—BREAD—how much more obligated must we be to other people. Never put anyone to shame. Seek NOT to embarrass another person. This is what Tamar taught Judah and what we should all strive to practice in our daily lives.