As we read this Parsha this coming Shabbat, we are completing the first of the Five Books of the Torah. Jacob is pictured on his deathbed and he “blesses all his sons” who are gathered around him, he is primarily seeking to identify the future leader of the nation of Israel. Yosef is the current leader of the tribe. He is the Viceroy of Egypt and is sustaining the entire family economically, and proves himself to be a very successful leader. Yet he is not the leader of the future. The one major drawback to Yosef is that he was never able to develop a loving relationship with his brothers. Consequently he is disqualified from future leadership. Yehudah, on the other hand, is the clear leader of the tribal nation. The commentators all look at Yaakov’s words to indicate the leadership of the descendants of other tribes, as in the case of Shimshon being descended from Dan; Gideon is a descendant, as well as Yiftach and Yehoshua. These are all successful leaders in their time. Once the first leader emanates from the tribe of Yehudah, which was King David, then all future kings are supposed to be from the tribe of Yehudah. Yehudah earned this when he offered himself in Binyamin’s stead to the Viceroy of Egypt. He had displayed leadership qualities earlier but failed to rescue Yosef and was degraded in the eyes of the brothers at that time. Here he has now regained the respect and honor, and his position for the future is secured. Professor Nechama Leibowitz pointed out in one of her lectures that the Aramaic word
– Ivrim is now translated by the Targum, the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, to be Yehudaim. Yehudim, as we see it in Hebrew, is derived from the tribe of Yehudah. Forever in the future the Jewish people are known as the descendants of Yehudah – a true mark of his leadership.
Rashi points out a Midrash that is noteworthy. He states that the Rabbis commented that once Yaakov died and was buried, the entire family returned to Egypt to live out the rest of their lives there. During their stay in the post-Yaakov period, Yosef never invited the brothers over for dinner ever again. During the time of Yaakov’s life there was brotherly love and a spirit of camaraderie displayed at all times. By pointing out the change after Yaakov’s death, our Sages were commenting that maybe time did not heal the old wounds. There was no total forgiveness offered by Yosef. The hatred subsided. There was no display of strife, but the embrace of love was lacking in the relationship among the brothers at this time. This is a very telling Midrash, one that does speak to normal, natural state of affairs. Once a close relationship ends, it is extremely difficult to mend the relationship and to put it back together again as it was earlier.
These Torah relationships can give us insight into the connections we have in our own lives today. Are there relationships that have gone sour? Is there a chance to improve them? Even if you feel there is little chance to salvage a relationship, perhaps we can take some solace in knowing that our Patriarchs also were challenged by the same things in their lives.
Yaakov began his journey to Egypt. While stopping at Be'er Sheva, God appears to him in a dream and proclaims, "I am the God of your father Yitzchak. Do not fear to go down to Egypt... I will go down with you into Egypt and will surely bring you back" (45:3-4). What fear is God referring to here? Moreover, why is He convincing Yaakov, who had already packed his bags and was well on his way, to go down to Egypt? Rashi asserts that Yaakov was afraid to leave the Land of Israel; his father, Yitzchak, had been instructed not to leave the land and he feared that this command applied to himself as well.
We may question, however, why Yaakov would be worried about this either. He was already at Be'er Sheva and did not seem worried about this problem. Furthermore, Yaakov had already lived outside Israel for twenty-two years in Lavan's house and he knew that his father's restrictions did not apply to him! The Netziv contends that although Yaakov was not afraid for himself, he feared that his children would assimilate into Egyptian culture and lose their unique identity. Thus, God declares "I will make them a great nation there" (45:3), proclaiming that, even in Egypt, Israel will always retain its special national character. Chizkuni states that Yaakov feared that he was entering the exile which God had foretold to Avraham. God, therefore, assured Yaakov that this exile was only the first part of His promise to Avraham. Yaakov's descendants would become a great nation and eventually return to their native land. God declares that it is in Egypt that Israel will find itself. God will himself go down with Yaakov and will bring his children out again.
The immediate and direct result of Yosef's accomplishment is recorded in this week's Parsha. After Yaakov discovered that his son Yosef was alive and well, the Torah states, "And the spirit of their father, Yaakov, was restored to life" (Bereishit 45,27). Rashi quotes Chazal who explains that Yaakov's spirit here refers to the return of Hashem's Divine Presence to Yaakov. Due to Yosef's absence from Yaakov's household Hashem's Divine Presence ceased to rest upon Yaakov. Now, after twenty-two long years the household of Yaakov was finally reunited and the Divine Presence of Hashem returned to Yaakov. Due to Yosef's absence from Yaakov's household Hashem's Divine Presence ceased to rest upon Yaakov. Now, after twenty-two long years, the household of Yaakov was finally reunited and the Divine Presence of Hashem returned to Yaakov.
This final result is indicative of the future experience of the Jewish people. They will also be divided for thousands of years and Yosef and the Ten Tribes will be lost from Israel. This division, as in the days of Yaakov, will force Hashem to remove His presence from amongst the remainder of Israel. But the time will eventually come for the Jewish people to reunite and the kingdom of Yosef and Yehuda will become one inseparable entity. In response to this miraculous development of unity Hashem will return His Divine Presence to the Jewish people and the spirit of Israel will be revived forever.
This is an appropriate lesson for these times of so much diversity among us. We pray not only for unification but also for respect for each other’s difference.
Yosef named his first-born Menasheh, meaning, "God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home." And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” The narrative then resumes telling of the end of the years of plenty and the beginning of the famine; and of the apparently instant starvation that overtakes the population, so that they have to appeal to Pharaoh–and, at his behest, to Yosef–for food. Interrupting the flow of this narrative is the description of the birth and naming of Yosef's sons, "before years of famine came." Both names are fraught with paradox. Menasheh is named for forgetfulness. Yosef seems to celebrate the oblivion, not only of his suffering, but of "all my father's house" that God has granted him. The Midrashic tradition indicates that he is referring specifically to his spiritual heritage (his "Torah learning"): he names his first-born son for the alienation that he experiences from his native culture, from "the best that has been thought and known." Commentators state that Yosef is acknowledging the mercy in oblivion: he is grateful not to be haunted by memory. The dangers of obsession with the past are very real for Yosef; they have the power to cripple him in the essential task he has undertaken. Not only the evils of the past but its loves, its beauty, and its sweetness – all have become perilous to one whose business is sheer survival. Yosef's task, quite simply, is to ensure–in the phrase that is used more than once to express the overriding value of survival–"that we may live and not die" (43:8,47:19). Nostalgia, yearning for the "sweetness and light" of his own culture, might hamper him in his single-minded role as life-sustainer for many nations.
Don’t we all, especially during these days that we wish to soon be over, long for the return of a previous chapter of our lives? Is nostalgia a positive or a negative emotion?
It can evoke an almost physical response, a strong desire to have things as we once had them. Certainly, after the loss of a loved one, we pine for the days when we had them in our lives. This Torah portion gives us a glimpse into the mind of our forefather Joseph, as he grapples with fame and new circumstances. Even though he was in a position of great power, perhaps he longed for the time when he had no responsibilities? Maybe he longed for the easier days in prison! When does nostalgia, sometimes defined as a feeling of homesickness, overtake you? Know that you’re not alone, that even the Torah sustains your feelings.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
"And Yosef brought an evil report against his brothers to their father." (37:2). Our Sages refer to Yosef as "HaTzadik" (The Righteous). Yosef was on such a high spiritual level that anything less than perfection simply disturbed him. Even his righteous brothers could not escape his scrutiny. Yosef reported his brothers' failures because he felt that his father was the only one capable of correcting their minor "mistakes." Obviously the "epitome of righteousness" was not a simple tattle-tale. Providence organized Yosef's "trip" to the morally corrupt Egypt as a lesson to Yosef that his brothers were very righteous. We see, as did Yosef, from his lesson that even the most well-intentioned constructive criticism can be very dangerous and that we must consider carefully every word we speak.
Upon the same subject of Yosef being the informer against his brothers to their father, Rav Yehonatan Eybeschitz (18th century Germany) noted that it is possible that the brothers wished to test Yosef to see if he was revealing their actions to Yaakov. They would make statements in his presence such as, “that meat that we just cut off the live animal was very tasty.” Yosef believed what he had heard and told their father about what they said so that he could rebuke them. Rav Eybeschitz reaches this conclusion because the verse writes that Yosef reported “their evil words” rather than “their evil deeds.” The fact is that the brothers deceived Yosef in order to test him to see whether he was just a nuisance in bringing false information to their father.
"Will you be a king over us? Shall you rule over us?" These prophetic words were fully fulfilled. Yosef was in all respects a real king over the house of Israel for 71 years, longer than any other ruler in Israel's history. Yosef ruled with more authority than any subsequent ruler, and with even more authority than Moshe or David. Pharaoh gave to Yosef the power that "without you no man may lift up his hand or his foot in all the land of Egypt" (41:44). No one dared to quarrel or even to complain, which was certainly not the case in the period under Moshe's control. In Yosef's time the Israelites "were exceedingly fruitful and they multiplied" (47:27), and the nation came into being during his long period as a virtual king and an absolute ruler over them. This was Hashem's plan that the righteous Yosef should wield absolute power for the longest reign in history, in order to prepare the newly developing nation for the great climax of the Receiving of the Torah at Sinai. Yosef was extremely resourceful and capable in everything, as his career demonstrated.
As we welcome the festival of Chanukah this week, I wish all of you a meaningful and joyous celebration of our celebration of lights. We have a community lighting of the Chanukiya on Thursday at 6:00 PM. I hope you can join in for this Mitzvah. Please let me know any family traditions you may have developed over the years relating to Chanukah observance. Maybe you’ve devised a unique way to share the holiday with friends and family in this unusual year.
After much anxiety, Yaakov meets with his brother Esav, and the results are underwhelming. The two of them actually are amicable to each other! But Yaakov is anxious to end the meeting and get on with his life.
When they separate, the Torah does not describe any hugging and kissing. The parting of ways is lacking in compassion. This is similar to the end of Yaakov’s and Lavan’s relationship. It would seem that this coolness in separation was purposeful on both sides. Yaakov actually rejects Esav’s efforts to be closer. He is happy that the reunion came off successfully without any threat to life, but Yaakov is aware that a future relationship with Esav was impossible. It would create a bond that could only serve as a problem. Yaakov did not want his sons to have a relationship with Uncle Esav for fear that the uncle would influence them in some form. Yaakov was aware that he was the patriarch blessed with 12 sons with the possibility now of entering Israel; and making steps to become the nation with an eternal bond with Hashem needs to be nurtured. This cannot be successful if there is a Lavan or an Esav anywhere in the picture.
At the end of the Parsha, Hashem officially puts his seal of approval and changes Yaakov’s name to Yisrael. God told Yaakov, “your name shall no longer be Yaakov but Yisrael shall be your name” (35:10). The same language existed earlier when Hashem changes the name of Avram to Avraham. The difference is that Avraham is never referred to by his old name while Yaakov is sometimes referred to as Yaakov, and other times referred to as Yisrael. Rabbi Robert Gordis felt that the answer was in the context in which Yaakov’s name is mentioned. If it is a personal or family matter, the Torah would use the name Yaakov. If the event or incident had national or prophetic meaning, then the Torah would use the name Yisrael. However, this answer does not seem to work in every single situation. When the Torah uses Yaakov, we don’t ask the question why. But when the Torah uses the name Yisrael, one should ask the question and this suggested answer does work as a challenge and as a departure point for discussion of the matter. For example, in the beginning of next week’s Parsha it states that Yaakov dwelled in the land of Canaan, and then when it introduces the story of Yosef, Yaakov is referred to as Yisrael. Maybe the point is that when the story of Yosef begins, the reference of Yaakov as Yisrael would indicate the national importance of the personal relationships of the brothers.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman