Monday, December 28, 2009

Vayechi 5770-2010

"Rachel's Burial Place in Bethlehem" --

In this week's parasha, parashat Vayechi, when Joseph is told that his father is ill, he takes his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to see his father. The weakened Jacob tells his beloved son, Joseph, about the vision of G-d that he had in the land of Canaan, and G-d's blessing to him. In this vision, G-d relays the critical Abrahamic blessing, promising that Jacob and his children will ultimately inherit the land of Canaan. Jacob also tells Joseph that his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, will from now on be considered as Jacob's own sons, similar in status to Reuben and Simeon.

Unexpectedly, in the midst of this historic transmission, Jacob raises a very uncomfortable issue, saying to his son Joseph (Genesis 48:7): "Va'ah'nee b'vo'ee me'Pah'dahn, may'tah ah'lai Rachel b'eretz Canaan," as for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan, on the road where there was still a stretch of land to go to Efrat; "Va'ek'b'reh'hah shahm b'derech Efrat, hee Bet Lechem," and I buried her there on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem.

Looking at Joseph's sons, Jacob then expresses his extraordinary gratitude that he has been blessed to survive and witness this very special moment. Not long before, he was certain that he would never see his beloved Joseph again, now he has the extraordinary privilege of seeing not only his beloved son Joseph, but his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe.

The commentators are perplexed by the sudden break in the narrative, unable to understand why, in the middle of his very poignant message, Jacob reminds Joseph that he had not buried his mother, Rachel, in the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron, but rather on the road to Efrat, near Bethlehem.

The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) suggests that Jacob was attempting to apologize to his son for not burying Joseph's mother in Hebron, explaining that it was simply impossible for him to do so. The Ramban asserts that the phrase, "Rachel died unto me," implies that Jacob was heavily burdened with the many members of his household and abundant herds of cattle. Unable to reach Hebron for several days, a postponed burial would have been unacceptable. Consequently, he buried Rachel where she died in Bethlehem.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) maintains that Jacob explained to Joseph that he was overcome with paralyzing grief that rendered him unable to collect himself sufficiently to take Rachel to the ancestral tomb in Hebron.

R' Abraham Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) picks up on the theme of "suddenness" mentioned in the verse. Since Rachel died suddenly, Jacob could not bury her in the cave as he would later bury Leah.

The late great Nehama Leibowitz (famed Bible teacher, 1905-1997), in her Studies on Bereishith/Genesis, points out that the ancient sages did not buy into the classical commentators' explanation, who pictured Jacob as a bereaved husband unable to bury Rachel. They explain that for Jacob it was crucial that he be buried in the land of Canaan, otherwise the ultimate destiny of the Jewish people would never be fulfilled. Jacob painstakingly explains to Joseph that although he failed to bury his mother in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Joseph must make certain that his [Jacob's] bones are carried into Canaan and buried there properly. The reason for this is not so much that Jacob wanted his final resting place to be in Hebron, as important as that might be. The critical issue for Jacob is that the people of Israel must see the land of Canaan as theirs, be inspired to return to the land after exile, and take hold of it.

The final verse in parashat Vayigash (Genesis 46:3) tellingly describes the condition of the people of Israel who settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. It goes on to state that the people acquired holdings in Egypt, were fruitful and increased greatly in number.

Clearly, the people of Israel were enormously successful in Egypt, as they are in each exile that they experience. They became rich and began to assimilate. This was exactly what so profoundly troubled Jacob! Therefore, Jacob commanded that at the time of his death his bones be carried back to the land of Canaan so that his children, who will accompany the funeral cortege, will see the land, feel a connection to the land, and not exchange it for an alien land, no matter how wonderful and how attractive.

The sages see a further critical element in Jacob's important reminder to his children that the land of Canaan must not be forsaken. It will be on this road, on this path, on the way to Efrat, more than one thousand years later, that the people of Israel will pass, returning from the Babylonian exile. At that time, Rachel, the Matriarch, will be there greeting them, seeing her children return to their borders. She will cry out in joy, "Don't forget the land of Canaan. The land of Canaan is your sacred patrimony, not Egypt!"

Only one theme could interrupt Jacob's most moving testament to his children. "Don't forget the land of Israel!" It is only in the land of Israel in which the Jewish destiny blossoms, not in Egypt, not in Spain, not even in New York or in Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, over the past 2000 years, except for a handful of people of extraordinary spirit, this message has not registered on very many of our coreligionists. We sit in exile, as mother Rachel awaits our return.

May you be blessed.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Vayigash 5770-2009

"How Much is Enough?"--

In this week's parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers and instructs them to bring his father Jacob, and the entire family to Egypt. Not long after, Jacob together with seventy souls of his family arrive in Egypt.

Jacob and his family members settle in the land of Goshen. At Pharaoh's behest, Joseph gives his family possession of the best part of the land in the region of Ramses. The Torah then informs us in Genesis 47:12, "Va'y'chal'kel Yosef et aviv, v'et eh'chav v'et kol bayt aviv, lechem l'fee ha'taf," and Joseph sustained his father and his brothers and all his father's household with food according to the children.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes that Joseph provided enough food for his family to satisfy the individual needs of every member of the household. The Shelah HaKadosh (R' Yeshayah Hurwitz, 1560-1630, famed rabbinic leader, scholar and kabbalist of Poland, Frankfurt, Prague, and Jerusalem) reads into Rashi's comments that Joseph supplied only the essential foods that were necessary for his family members to survive. Since Jacob and his family arrived in the midst of a severe famine, it would have been inappropriate to ask for more than the bare minimum. In fact, Jacob himself had established this principle when he had earlier told his sons (Genesis 43:2), "Go [back to Egypt] and bring us a little food," implying that the family should be allowed to address only their hunger, but not fill their stomachs.

A number of commentators emphasize that Joseph's directive (Genesis 47:12) specifies "l'fee ha'taf," according to the number of children. Here we see that Joseph's vaunted ethical sensitivity did not allow him to give his father or brothers any more than needed. They received only what was necessary for the children, lest others who were hungry be forced to go without food because of the shortage.

For those who have had the good fortune of living in the 20th and 21st century, it is hard to imagine what it means to go hungry, not to have food on demand or to feel a gnawing stomach pain. It is pitiful to think that our country has an obesity problem when so many hungry people in our own country suffer from malnutrition, and those in third world countries die daily of starvation.

The question that we need to regularly ask ourselves is, exactly how much is necessary in order to be content? What is the absolute minimum needed in order to survive? Are three full meals a day absolutely necessary? Must our coffeepots be constantly brewing, so the latte will be ready on demand? Is freshly squeezed orange juice with its succulent pulp truly essential when there are those who don't receive even the bare minimum of liquids to drink?

Ironically, living now in a time of economic uncertainty has resulted in a change of many of our former perceptions and behaviors. People no longer take lavish junkets as they had done previously. Others have given up their gas-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks, not only out of concern for the environment, but because they can no longer afford the higher gas prices. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and other celebrations have been toned down. Even NJOP has decided to move its annual dinner from the lavish Waldorf=Astoria to the more modest Hilton. Many seek new venues to reduce expenses while maintaining quality.

I recently heard of an extremely wealthy observant Jewish businessman who made a lavish Bar Mitzvah for his son (reputedly spending $1 million). The Bar Mitzvah celebration consisted of two parts–-one in Florida, the other back in the New York metropolitan area. A plane was chartered, and selected guests were flown to Florida to celebrate a three day weekend including Shabbat at an over-the-top location. The Shabbat part of the Bar Mitzvah apparently consisted of unlimited celebration. There was food to feed an army, specially retained entertainment, and much liquor. A fabulous time was had by all. When the weekend concluded, the celebration resumed at a second party in New York a week later.

My first reaction was dismay and anger. I even thought of trying to find out which rabbis attended in order to publicize that, in these difficult economic times, these noted clergymen attended this indecent affair without as much as raising even a minor protest in reaction to the profligate extravagance.

I was bothered so deeply, that I decided to discuss the issue with several trusted rabbinic advisors. I wanted to find out from the point of view of halacha, of Jewish law, whether there was anything against extremely lavish celebrations, especially at a time of great distress and suffering.

Surely, I felt, the rabbinical authorities would all be appalled at the excess. To my surprise, one of the rabbis suggested that I look at the situation from another perspective. Perhaps, this million dollar Bar Mitzvah was necessary for business reasons, in order to project an upbeat image of the businessman and his company at a time when so many businesses face the skepticism of their clients and uncertainty in their future.

What I thought was an open-and-shut case against extravagance, had now been shown to have another side, one that I would not normally have considered.

But what about the need for selflessness at a time when so many are hurting? Upon pondering the circumstances, I wondered whether the wealthy host had indeed exhibited selflessness. Perhaps among the many guests that had been invited were those who otherwise would not have had a vacation, perhaps not even the bare minimum for a Shabbat meal. Of course, there were also many service providers who benefitted from the opulence, including the caterer, the kitchen staff, the waiters, the dishwashers and housekeepers at the hotel, and of course those who managed the chartered flights.

Suddenly, it struck me that the snap judgments that we often make so freely, are not at all simple. While I am fairly certain that had I an abundance of "disposable" funds, I would not have chosen to spend it in this manner, I nevertheless realized that the issue is not as one-sided as I may have initially thought. There is often another side in such cases that we often do not consider, probably because we often like to view ourselves as altruistic.

This, of course, begs the question: "Altruistic" in whose eyes?

Joseph felt that the proper thing for him to do was to show restraint with his family, and not favor them over the general Egyptian population. That was the right thing for him to do at that time. But, that precedent doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do at all times. Each situation needs to be considered and measured according to present needs. Joseph made his decision based on the realities of his time. Similarly, we need to make our decisions based on the realities of our times.

How much is enough? It's never a simple question.

May you be blessed.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mikeitz 5770-2009

"Pharaoh's Dream: The Variations and Nuances"

In this week's parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Pharaoh's dream is repeated three times.

The dream is first recounted in Genesis 41:1-8, the scriptural narrative of parashat Mikeitz. The second reference to the dream is Pharaoh's account of the dream, which appears in Genesis 41:17-24. The third iteration of the dream is found in Genesis 41:26-27, Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dream.

Despite the fact that the repetitions deal with the same dream, there is much to learn from the nuances and variations in each of the accounts. For instance, despite the fact that the original scriptural narrative (Genesis 41:1) reports that Pharaoh is, "Oh'med al ha'y'or," standing on the [Nile] river, in Pharaoh's account, Pharaoh says (Genesis 41:17), "Ba'cha'lo'mee, hin'n'nee oh'med ahl s'faht ha'y'or," In my dream, behold, I was standing on the banks of the river. Perhaps the fretful Pharaoh is concerned that he not appear superior to the Nile, which was regarded as a most powerful divinity, and is expressing humility because he suspects that the interpretation of the dream that he is about to hear may not be very favorable.

Describing the seven cows that emerge from the river, Scripture (Genesis 41:2) reports that they were, "Y'foht mar'eh, oov'ree'oht bah'sar," beautiful in appearance and physically healthy. Pharaoh however, reverses the order, saying (Genesis 41:18), "Bree'oht bah'sar, ve'foht toh'ar,"--physically healthy and beautiful in form. In this manner, Pharaoh implies that many countries have cows that are fat-fleshed, but only his blessed Egypt has cows that are beautiful, all of which is attributable to the blessings of the Nile.

Both the Scriptural narrative and Pharaoh's account report that the well-endowed cows graze in the marshland (Genesis 41:2 and 41:18), "Va'tir'eh'nah ba'ah'choo," implying that the years of bounty will be limited to Egypt alone, since these cows graze exclusively in the marshland of Egypt and never wander out of Egypt. Fascinating is the fact that despite the healthiness and the physical beauty of the Egyptian cows, Pharaoh refuses to extol the Egyptian beasts, saying only what he saw in the dream (Genesis 41:18), "va'tir'eh'nah ba'ah'choo," that these cows grazed in the marshland. As we shall see, Pharaoh is much more animated about the emaciated cows, who left a much deeper impression on Pharaoh.

From the biblical description (Genesis 41:3) we are told, "V'hee'nay sheva pah'roht ah'chay'roht oh'loht ah'chah'ray'hen min ha'y'ohr," behold seven other cows emerged after them [the fat-fleshed cows], out of the river, "rah'oht mar'eh, v'dah'koht bah'sar," inferior in appearance and of lean flesh. But when Pharaoh repeats the story (Genesis 41:3) he conveniently omits the fact that these inferior cows came out of the river, refusing to acknowledge that the Nile could in any way be the source of such substandard animals. In Pharaoh's account (Genesis 41:19), he describes the thin cows as, "dah'loht v'rah'oht toh'ahr m'ohd, v'rah'koht bah'sar," scrawny, very inferior of form and emaciated of flesh. They are not only bad, skinny and thin, but emaciated. By adding the word "rah'koht," Pharaoh indicates that these animals have no flesh between the bone and the skin. He is horrified that creatures such as these could actually exist in Egypt, and consequently adds (Genesis 41:19), "lo rah'ee'tee kah'hay'nah b'chol eretz Mitzrayim," I have never seen the likes of these in all the land of Egypt! Pharaoh's personal impression underscores his embarrassment that these animals could possibly be of Egyptian origin.

When the emaciated cows swallow the seven healthy cows, Pharaoh adds a descriptive not included in the Scriptural version (Genesis 41:21), "Va'tah'vo'nah el kir'beh'nah, v'lo no'dah kee vah'oo el kir'beh'nah, oo'mar'ay'hen rah kah'ah'sher baht'chee'lah," and they [the well-endowed cows] came inside of them [the scrawny cows], but it was not apparent that they had gone inside them, for their appearance remained as inferior as at the first. It is in this description that Pharaoh provides Joseph with a hint that the famine will be so intense that no one would ever remember the years of feast.

Scripture (Genesis 41:5) tells us that Pharaoh awakens and dreams a second time. Behold there are seven ears of grain sprouting on a single stalk, "B'ree'oht v'tovot," healthy and good. The scriptural narrative describes these stalks as healthy, free of infestation and disease. In Pharaoh's reiteration, however, there is no reference to the health of the stalks. He simply says (Genesis 41:22), "m'lay'oht v'tovot," full and good, hinting that there will be a bountiful crop of grain and more than enough excess for export to other countries.

Scripture then states (Genesis 41:8), "Va'y'hee va'boker," and it was in the morning and Pharaoh's spirit was agitated, so he sent for and summoned all the necromancers of Egypt and all the wise men. Pharaoh anxiously relates his dream to them, but none could interpret them for Pharaoh.

However, when Pharaoh repeats his dream to Joseph (Genesis 41:24), he only says to Joseph that he told his dream to the chartumim, the necromancers, but no one could explain the dreams to him. Pharaoh also fails to mention that he was agitated, because it is beneath his dignity to acknowledge his distress. Pharaoh conveniently leaves out the fact that the wise men were also summoned, since his dream could not in any manner, shape or form be interpreted by logic, which is the realm of the wise men. But he does say that the soothsayers could not interpret it, because they would be expected to interpret it, since the dream was not based on logic, but more on emotions and feelings.

The repetitious narrative of Pharaoh's dreams recalls the repetitions found in the encounter of Eliezer, Rebecca and Rebecca's family. Each time the narrative is repeated, slightly different details provide important new information. Pharaoh, we see, is not just patriotic, he is wildly chauvinistic about Egypt. There can not be anything bad or wrong that emanates from Egypt. Yet, we also see that Pharaoh can be very precise with details when he wishes to, and of course is very concerned with his own security, so he dares not imply he is lord over the Nile. For Pharaoh, word of an impending famine must be traumatic. A thing like this should not occur in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. Not in his beloved Egypt. It takes time for Pharaoh to adjust to the terrible news and to assimilate what is happening, until he is ready to hear the truth from the mouth of Joseph.

Once again we see that when it comes to the bible, the story is often in the details. There is no detail too small, no nuance too insignificant to be glossed over or dismissed. To the contrary, these nuances and details often represent the essence of the story. It is through the details that G-d speaks to humankind. Close attention must be paid.

May you be blessed.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here

Monday, December 7, 2009

Vayeishev 5770-2009

"Joseph in Prison: The Commentators Fill in the Details"

It's hard to believe that the story of Joseph and his brethren could become any more exciting. It seems as if each verse of this week's parasha, parashat Vayeishev, raises the level of excitement to new heights. On top of the spellbinding storyline of the biblical narrative itself, the commentators have a field day, constantly adding fascinating details and scintillating features to an already memorable story.

Joseph has been sold as a slave to Egypt. While working in Potiphar's house, he is accused of attacking Mrs. Potiphar.

In Genesis 39:20, we read, "Va'yee'kach adonay Yosef oto, v'yit'nay'hoo el bayt ha'so'har, makom asher a'see'ray ha'melech ah'sooreem, vah'y'hee sham b'vayt ha'so'har," Then Joseph's master, [Potiphar] took him and placed him in the prison--the place where the king's prisoners were confined. And he remained there, in prison.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov (1912-1976, one of Israel's most acclaimed religious writers) in his Sefer Ha'parshiyot, utilizes a vast array of Midrashic references to elaborate brilliantly upon the details of Joseph's imprisonment. After Potiphar hears the report of the attempted rape of his wife at the hands of Joseph, Potiphar wants Joseph killed. Mrs. Potiphar, who is still obsessed with Joseph, prevails on her husband to spare the Hebrew servant, arguing that, after all, Joseph's administrative skills and business acumen are indispensable. "Throw him into prison," she advises her husband. Potiphar, however, was determined to see Joseph dead, until Osnat, who worked as a domestic in Potiphar's house, privately approached Potiphar to tell him the truth about his wife's advances on Joseph. As compensation for her brave action, G-d declares that He will reward Osnat with tribes of Israel who will be born to her. Osnat, eventually becomes Joseph's wife, and mother to Ephraim and Menashe.

Adding more intriguing details to the story, Kitov cites the Midrash that states that when Potiphar's anger had somewhat subsided, instead of killing Joseph, he brought his Hebrew servant to be tried before the royal count, before whom only "honored" defendants were brought for judgment. Because there was no one to speak up in Joseph's defense, the angel Gabriel, in the form of a human, appeared before the court to advocate on behalf of Joseph. He advised the king to check both Joseph's and Mrs. Potiphar's clothing. If Mrs. Potiphar's clothes are ripped, then clearly Joseph was the attacker. If Joseph's clothes are torn, then the attacker was Mrs. Potiphar. Sure enough, they found Joseph's clothing in disrepair, and with this evidence Joseph was saved from the gallows. However, in order not to subject Mrs. Potiphar, a woman of high social standing, to embarrassment, Joseph, was not totally exonerated.

The priests of Egypt sentenced Joseph to a relatively brief period of ten years imprisonment. Because of their merciful judgment, Joseph later rewards the priest by allowing them to maintain ownership of their lands during the years of famine.

Greatly distressed to learn the truth about his wife's behavior, Potiphar tried to appease Joseph. "I know that you are not guilty, but to save face, I must place you in the dungeon. But, you will have freedom to do whatever you want there, until the anger passes."

Rather than give him over to the court officers, Potiphar himself, escorts Joseph to prison. Genesis 39:20, therefore specifies, "V'yit'nay'hoo el bayt ha'so'har," and he [Potiphar] placed him [Joseph] in prison. Say the rabbis, like a man who gives an important gift to a friend, Potiphar said to the jailers, "See I have brought you a man of G-d, and everything that he touches is blessed." The prison where Joseph was incarcerated was designated exclusively for high court officials, who were kept separated from common criminals to make certain that no state secrets would be revealed. Joseph was placed there so that Potiphar's wife's behavior would not become public.

The rabbis say that the treatment that Joseph received in prison was extraordinarily benign, and that even though Joseph could have easily gained pardon through his wisdom or his master's money, he chose to remain in prison. In fact, rather than to return to dwell again with the poisonous serpent [Mrs. Potiphar], Joseph decided to remain in prison for the rest of his life. Suffering, in silence, he righteously accepted his fate, knowing that everything that happened reflected the will of G-d, and that his pain was divinely ordained.

Mrs. Potiphar was relentless in her pursuit of Joseph. Even the prison walls were not sufficiently secure to protect Joseph from the wiles of Mrs. Potiphar. Somehow, she found a way to visit him in prison every day, begging Joseph to give in to her. Joseph responded that he could not, for he had made a solemn oath to his master and to G-d. She threatened to have him tortured or sold to a foreign land. As a result of Mrs. Potiphar's calumny, all the other prisoners began to torment Joseph, and his once-casual imprisonment, became unbearable.

Our rabbis say that even after Potiphar put Joseph in prison, his master would call upon Joseph to do those things that he most favored. Potiphar could not eat or sleep without knowing that Joseph was in attendance, washing his dishes, setting his table and preparing his bed. He would arrange to have Joseph regularly furloughed from prison, and subsequently returned.

Mrs. Potiphar, once again, used that opportunity to torment Joseph. When she saw Joseph making the beds, she would call out to him and say, "I oppressed you with this," Joseph would reply, citing Psalms 156, "G-d renders justice to those who are oppressed." "I will cut off your income." Joseph replied, "G-d provides bread to those who are hungry." "I will have you locked in chains." Joseph replied, "G-d releases those who are imprisoned." "I will reduce your stature." Joseph replied, "G-d raises up those who are bowed down." "I will poke out your eyes." Joseph replies, "G-d gives sight to the blind." She then placed an iron bar under Joseph's head, so that he would have to look up and see her, but still Joseph refused to look at her.

Joseph's original sentence of ten years imprisonment was a punishment that was confirmed by Heaven in retribution for the evil tales he spoke about his brothers. And even though his reports were intended as reproof and reflected his love for his brothers, he was nevertheless punished severely, because G-d holds the righteous more highly accountable, even to the width of a hair.

Why was Joseph punished now? Because that is the way of the Al-mighty. When He comes to punish the righteous, He chooses a time when their merits are at a peak, so that the righteous will accept upon themselves their suffering with love and receive extra reward for their actions.

Although scripture only briefly describes the imprisonment of Joseph, the Midrashic literature broadly expands on his trials and suffering. With this "inside view" of Joseph's life, we are more able to fully appreciate why rabbinic literature refers to Joseph as "Yoseph Hatzadik," Joseph the Righteous.

May you be blessed.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here