The main theme of this Parsha is the blessings that Yaakov gives his children and grandchildren. The grandsons Ephraim and Menashe, Yosef’s sons, are the first to be blessed by the Patriarch. The first Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, states that the comment in the Torah (48:16 “in them by My Name be recalled and the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak…”) is interpreted as: May God bless them as long as they call themselves by traditional Biblical names. The most valuable legacy we can leave our children and grandchildren is bequeathing to them the faith that sustained us.
The biggest blessing that Yaakov can give his son Yosef is the special blessing that Yaakov grants to Yosef’s sons. If Yosef would have had additional sons, they would not have special tribal status. It was only Ephraim and Menashe who were given these blessings. Yaakov is the only one of the Patriarchs who is referred to in Jewish literature as a grandfather. Even though Avraham knew his grandsons until they turned 15, and Yitzchak was alive when Yosef was sold into slavery, Yaakov is the only one who is depicted clearly in the Torah as having a relationship with his grandsons. The greatest brachah that we all can experience is the blessings that are given to our children. The Talmud says that when an individual greets a father or mother and a son or daughter, one should greet the child first. This is a greater blessing to the parent. The father or mother would have nachas to see the child being placed in the honored position of being greeted first. The blessing is not really a vicarious one to the parent. It is a major blessing for all parents to see the success of the brachahs being granted by the Almighty to our children.
We know from our reading of Breishit that God gave Adam dominion over the animals. He is even given the power to name them, a clear sign that he is in control.
But on what is that control based?
The Torah is noticeably silent on that question. Why are human beings dominant over the rest of the natural order?
Some people have assumed that the answer is obvious. But it’s not really so clear when we dig a little more deeply. So many theologians, psychologists, and philosophers have tried to answer that question. For Aristotle, we are the rational animal. For others, we are tool makers. Marx argued that we are the only animals capable of productive labor. Many have claimed that human beings alone have a soul, and that means we are truly created in the image of God. Though all of these answers have some merit, I want to suggest a different possibility which emerges from a recent parsha.
That Parsha, Vayigash, is one of the most beautiful of the Torah. Its seemingly straightforward narrative belies the many unanswered questions embedded there. It relates the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers, a telling that moves from alienation, sibling rivalry and cruelty to care, compassion and reconciliation.
We realize from the Parsha how much Joseph has yearned for a re-connection to his family, despite what his brothers have done to him. Midrash tells us that Joseph has remained faithful to the mitzvot for more than 22 years, observances that were his alone in Egypt. Perhaps he weeps for his loss of Jewish community beyond his immediate family. We also see him weep with Benjamin, his full brother from his beloved mother Rachel,-the only other fully innocent character in this narrative. He weeps for the mother he has lost and the brother he has found.
We are told that Joseph’s sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharoah’s palace. Joseph the Tzaddik is moved to tears by his brother Judah’s pleas for the life of Benjamin and Judah’s offer to take Benjamin’s place in prison to avoid further heartache for their father Jacob.
This story is an incredible story of forgiveness. Listen to the words of the Torah at the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers:
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here, it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharoah, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”
In Joseph’s words we seem to have found an answer to the question of why he forgives his brothers. It was God’s plan that depended on their selling him into slavery, a plan that includes his imprisonment and rise into Pharoah’s inner circle. He forgives them and lets them know that the difference now is not in him but rather in them. No longer jealous or angry, they feel shame and fear before him. They finally see their own sins and guilt and as a result of these insights, they are able to pass the tests Joseph had designed for them.
Not only does Joseph forgive them, he refrains from referring to years of suffering or to what they have done to him. As we read these passages, we cannot help but be reminded of other stories of jealousy-between Rachel and Leah, between Jacob and Esau. These stories frame the story of Joseph and his brothers and at last provide us with a sense of peace and reconciliation after the noteworthy silence about these other rivalries.
Why forgive? There are lots of good pragmatic reasons to forgive-to end a feud, for example. To think about how self-poisoning resentment becomes if one doesn’t forgive. But the primary reason to forgive, it seems to me, is to restore a lost relationship. Remember that it’s often those closest to us who have hurt us and need forgiveness. Think about someone you have finally forgiven or want to forgive. My guess is that it’s not some anonymous stranger who cut you off on the highway. Those little injuries evaporate quickly. Wrongs from those closest to us do not. So, forgiveness matters because the people closest to us-Joseph’s brothers, for example-matter. Who are we without them? What does that isolation cost us?
In answer to our original question about what might separate us from the animals, perhaps the answer is forgiveness. This may be because forgiveness may run counter to all of our basic instincts for survival.
There are no rules for forgiveness. Joseph forgives his brothers and goes far beyond forgiveness to restore them to life and health and property and standing. But he gains even more for himself through his act of forgiveness. Through his forgiveness he becomes whole again.
So may it be for all of us. Amen.
This week’s Torah reading--Miketz—continues the dramatic story of Joseph and his brothers, and today’s portion provides the build-up for next week’s climactic moment when Joseph finally reveals himself to his father and brothers. We see the ways that Joseph tricks them—with the money left in their bags, with the silver cup that he puts into Benjamin’s bag, and with Judah’s naïve insistence that whoever stole the chalice will be Joseph’s slave for life. Is this payback for the way that they treated him? Is this a test to make sure that they have truly changed? Is this an attempt to make clear who now has the power in the family? Perhaps it’s all of the above and more . . .
But what we definitely know is that Joseph is no longer the innocent young boy who was unfamiliar with the ways of the world. He is conniving. He is smart—it takes intelligence to design the kind of convoluted plan that Joseph has in mind for his brothers. And he is also confident. You would have to be, to trust that all of these machinations would end up working in precisely the ways that he wants them to. Maybe it’s confidence in himself, maybe it’s confidence in God, maybe it’s some combination of the two. But I would imagine that anyone who’s become accustomed to being second-in-command in the strongest and wealthiest kingdom in the world at the time would no doubt have a lot of confidence. And probably should, given his quick rise to the top and Pharaoh’s total confidence in him.
And in this Torah portion—in the triennial portion that we read soon—we see everyone eating together. Joseph has invited his brothers to dine with him, and they are assured by Joseph’s house steward that he does not blame them for the gold that was found in their bags. “Don’t worry,” the steward tells them. “Your God must have provided it.” So, they trustingly clean up, give Joseph the gifts that they have brought, and join him for lunch.
Now I want us to imagine that meal. First, imagine the dining hall where it took place. It must have been spectacular. The brothers had to have been in awe when they stepped into the space. Remember how much the Egyptians loved gold and other precious metals. The room had to have been decorated everywhere with all kinds of lavish gold ornamentation. I’m sure that no detail was spared. Even for lunch.
And what else?
Well, what is especially remarkable is the seating arrangement. We actually have THREE separate set-ups. First, we have Joseph sitting alone. We assume that that is because he is so important—our chumash tells us “AUGUST.” So, he’s by himself. Then there are the Egyptians, who have another separate dining area. Why? Because they will not eat with the Jews, particularly not Jews who are shepherds. That’s the lowest of the low. The translation in our chumash tells us that the Hebrews were QUOTE “abhorrent to the Egyptians.” Another translation calls it an abomination. Even Joseph himself, with all the power that he has, does not say, “Hey, people, let’s all sit together!” So that’s just taken for granted. But there’s perhaps another reason he wants his brothers to be separated from the crowd. And I point this out because it’s in a passage that’s easy to miss. HE PUTS THEM IN THE ORDER OF THEIR BIRTHS. “From the oldest in the order of his seniority to the youngest in the order of his youth.”
And then the parsha goes on to tell us that “the men looked at one another in astonishment.”
לגוַיֵּֽשְׁב֣וּ לְפָנָ֔יו הַבְּכֹר֙ כִּבְכֹ֣רָת֔וֹ וְהַצָּעִ֖יר כִּצְעִֽרָת֑וֹ וַיִּתְמְה֥וּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֖ים אִ֥ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵֽהוּ:
Here’s my question? WHY ARE THEY ASTONISHED? Now, of course, they might have just been astonished at the grandeur of their surroundings and of the meal. They probably couldn’t understand why this incredibly powerful Egyptian would invite them to share a meal with him. But Rashi has another suggestion. Rashi tells us that Joseph not only arranged them in order of their births, but also told them who had which mother. So, it would have been more like, “Here, oldest son of Leah, you sit first.” And so on, through his eleven brothers. And Rashi also tells us that Joseph said of Benjamin, “Because you and I both have no mother, you shall sit beside me.”
Now THAT’S astonishing. So, what is going on here? Is Joseph trying to give his brothers a clue as to his identity? If he is, they definitely don’t get it. But perhaps he’s just showing off. Remember that he’s told them several times that he’s a diviner, that he has special powers to see the future and to interpret dreams. So it may be that this is just another way to get them to see his special, mysterious powers. And they would, no doubt, be in awe. Be astonished, as the Torah tells us.
This week we read the dramatic story of Joseph and his roller coaster ride from favored son to slave to agent of Pharaoh to Pharaoh’s prisoner. And we know that that’s only the beginning. This story is part of popular culture, having been told in the Broadway show (1968!) Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat. I think the best word I could use to describe this show is “cute.” And there’s one song I want to quote from briefly. The song is called “Potiphar,” and it tells the story of Potiphar’s wife’s attempt seduction of Joseph, his refusal, and Potiphar’s false accusation. Here’s one stanza from the song:
Joseph's looks and handsome figure
Had attracted her attention
Ev'ry morning she would beckon
"Come and lie with me, love."
Joseph wanted to resist her
'Till one day she proved too eager.
Joseph cried in vain,
"Please stop! I don't believe in free love!"
Again, CUTE. But what a contrast from the much more moving and dramatic scene that we read in the Torah portion, Va-Yeishev:
Now it came to pass after these events that his master's wife lifted up her eyes to Joseph, and she said, "Lie with me."
זוַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַתִּשָּׂא אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו אֶת עֵינֶיהָ אֶל יוֹסֵף וַתֹּאמֶר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי:
But he refused, and he said to his master's wife, "Behold, with me my master knows nothing about anything in the house, and all he has he has given into my hand.
חוַיְמָאֵן | וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא יָדַע אִתִּי מַה בַּבָּיִת וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ נָתַן בְּיָדִי:
In this house, there is no one greater than I, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, insofar as you are his wife. Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?"
There is nothing cute about this at all. This is a really remarkable scene between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Notice that there is no mention whatsoever of “free love.” Rather, Joseph tells “Mrs. Potiphar” (as she’s referred to in the show) that he does not wish to betray the man who has trusted him with everything in his household. Notice that Joseph implies that he could clearly cheat Potiphar, because Potiphar “knows nothing about anything in the house.” And Joseph recognizes that there is only one part of the household that he’s been denied, and that is the wife of Potiphar.
“Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?” Isn’t it interesting that here Joseph shifts from his refusal to betray Potiphar to his refusal to betray GOD.
Think back to Adam and Eve. In Gad Eden, they have everything they could ever want, and God’s only restriction is to avoid the tree of knowledge. They of course rebel and violate his instructions. They sin. Joseph does not.
Think about, in more contemporary terms, how often people seem to have everything, and yet they want that one thing they don’t or can’t have. Athletes seem to have everything, but they seem unable to obey the simplest laws like laws against domestic violence or abuse. Hollywood stars have what looks like perfect lives, and yet so many turn to drugs or the nanny. Politicians may offer the best example—we give them our trust, and they seem to betray that trust over and over again. And often these sinners—the athletes, the politicians, and the movie stars—offer no apology, or, even worse, a fake apology that makes clear that there is no remorse.
Joseph was willing to suffer the ire of Potiphar’s wife and imprisonment rather than to betray his master, the man who had given him all but one thing. This is an important lesson for all of us. To be grateful for what we have and to do our best not to bite those hands that feed us.
There’s a lot of drama in this week’s parsha, as you’ll hear, and I want to focus on one particular confrontation, concerning Jacob’s wrestling match.
After Jacob sends goats, sheep and cows to appease his brother’s anger, Jacob finds himself alone at night and wrestles with a mysterious attacker. From his adversary, Jacob receives a blessing and a new name, Yisrael, at the cost of a lame thigh. Ambiguity surrounds the encounter with the mysterious attacker and for good reason: it was night. The Torah describes the assailant at first as a man, but, later, when Jacob becomes Yisrael, we are told that he is given that name because “you have striven with beings divine/with God and with humans and you have prevailed.”
When Jacob names the place where this incident occurred, he invokes the common theme that one cannot see God and live. Jacob says “I have seen a divine being face to face yet my life has been preserved.”
So: Who is the attacker? What is the purpose of the attack? What does Jacob’s new name mean?
Addressing the last question, Rashi comments that the point of his new name is to make clear that it is no longer true that all of Jacob’s successes have come through deceit and trickery but rather through “noble conduct and n an open manner.” Others argue that the mysterious attacker is a stand-in for every person Jacob has struggled with -- Esau, Isaac, Laban – but that seems a little strange, because that means that Jacob—Israel—is claiming a divine encounter when perhaps there wasn’t one. Could it somehow be both?
Another view is that the wrestler is actually Satan. In the below-the-linecommentary in our Chumasch, Rabbi Kushner Z”L mentions that most commentators think that the mysterious stranger is malevolent. In any case, the fact that Jacob is victorious, despite his permanent injury, is evidence, scholars say, that Jacob defeated not only evil itself but also the Yeytzer Hara, the evil inclination, in himself. Or we could call it his conscience. In either case, Jacob emerges cleansed morally and psychologically, and that makes the new name make a lot of sense.
Rabbi Jonathan Waxman has a really interesting take on this story. In fact, he ties the wrestling match to Jacob’s later encounter with Esav, and the reason Esav forgives him. As we will soon read, Jacob entreats his brother to accept his gifts, even though Esav initially declines. But Jacob then says, “I pray you, if you would do me this favor, accept these gifts for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me so kindly. Waxman suggests that when Jacob looked at Esav’s face, he thought that he saw in it a reflection of the face of the mysterious stranger that he had wrestled with all the night efore. But Waxman doesn’t stop there. He hypothesizes that, the night before, Esav HAD THE VERY SAME EXPERIENCE. And he imagines Esav saying to himself...
“Could it be that my brother wrestled with a mysterious stranger last night, just like I did? And could it be that he has been transformed by this experience, just as I have been? Is that why he seems to be limping today, just as I am?”
And that’s why Esav forgives Jacob, even without all the gifts.
Of course, this is all Midrash. But I thought it might be interesting to hear some of these ideas as a way to consider how to understand this beautiful reconciliation.