This coming week’s Torah portion begins a bit oddly. Joseph takes his sons to visit the dying Jacob, and Jacob doesn’t recognize them. (Gen. 48:10). Why not?
Scharfstein says that “Joseph loved his father very much, but he did not visit him very often [because he did not want to] have to reveal that his brothers had sold him as a slave.” Moreover, Joseph’s family lived far away.
But Joseph presumably doesn’t have much difficulty getting around Egypt, since he does kind of run the country. And if he’s so afraid of revealing secrets, why does that prevent his children from visiting?
I suspect something else is going on. Decades earlier, Jacob sent Joseph to visit his hostile brothers, without any obvious protection. At the very least, Jacob was a bit careless about the security of his favorite son. Is it possible that Joseph perhaps blamed his father for his mistreatment at the hands of his brothers? If so, maybe it took Joseph some time (even after seeing his father again in Egypt) to get over it.
Speaking of favorite sons, Shadal has some fun with Gen. 49:10 (“The scepter shall not be lacking from Judah…[when] one comes to Shiloh, to him will be the obedience of the peoples.”) He lists about ten or fifteen separate explanations, including
1) the “scepter” is the Sanhedrin in Eretz Yisrael (Judah) and ultimately the Messiah comes from Judah (Talmud, Rashi)
2) as long as there is a ruler in Israel it will be from Judah, up to and including Messiah (Ramban)
3) When the Tabernacle of God departs from Shiloh, David (of the tribe of Judah) will rule (Ibn Ezra, Gersonides)
4) Judah will rule until the northern tribes gather near Shiloh to install Jeroboam as head of their kingdom (Rashbam, Mendelssohn)
5) Judah will dominate until the time of Moses (Bahya ben Asher) (what does Shiloh have to do with Moses, you may ask? The Hebrew numerical valuee of Shiloh is that of Mosheh)
6) The Messiah will come from Judah; Shiloh really ends a compound of shul (“end”) and shalah (“tranquility”) since presumably the Messiah will bring tranquility (Sforno)
7) Judah will lead until Samuel grows up in Shiloh, after which Samuel will make a non-Judahite king (19th c. commentator Naftali Homberg)
8) When the Jews return to Israel, everyone will travel under the tribe of Judah’s leadership till they reach Shiloh where they divide the land, and even afterwards Judah will be a major tribe (Shadal)
- plus a few other explanations that seem separate to Shadal, though I don’t quite see how different they are from (1-8).
Since the Torah portion mentions that Joseph’s brothers were cattlemen and shepherds, I decided I would get beef and lamb. So I went to kosher marketplace and got:
beef hearts (unfortunately, these were gross- I don’t think I will ever try beef hearts again!)
lamb sausage from Kosher Marketplace in Upper West Side (so-so)
beef tacos (for no good reason- although I suppose its noteworthy that the one Jewish victim of the Newtown massacre last year at this time loved tacos- I didn’t think about this until 30 seconds ago though).
corn/farro salad (not sure I’ve had farro before)
dark chocolate coins
Joseph tells his brothers to confess to being cattlemen and shepherds, which will cause the king to send them to Goshen “since shepherds are forbidden in other parts of Egypt.” (Gen. 46:34).
What’s wrong with shepherds? One common explanation is that Egyptians disliked them,* but Scharfstein has a more pragmatic explanation: “People just do not like to live near cattle because of their odors.” There’s actually case law about the evils of cattle odors- if you want to know more, this case (Spur Industries v Del Webb) is commonly taught in law schools.
Why does Joseph want his brothers to go to Goshen? Scharfstein says that Goshen was “far from Egyptian centers”, thus reducing the risk that they will be assimilated into Egyptian society.
The issue of where Jews should live is with us today. When I lived in Queens, my primary shul’s rabbi talked more than once about the importance of living in a frum neighborhood (in his words, “where men wear kippot on the street.”) And certainly there are advantages to coming home to a heavily Jewish area.
On the other hand, every frum place was once a not-so-frum place (leaving aside the land of Israel). Someone had to be the first Jew to move to America (and before that, someone had to be the first to move to Western Europe, Eastern Europe, etc.)
*To hear more about this explanation, just google “+ egyptians + shepherds.”
I started Hanukah in a glum mood. Between my increased workload, rumors of layoffs at work, and having to take my annual Hanukah trip in an obnoxiously busy travel weekend, I was beginning to feel that life was good only in relative terms (compared, say, to that of people who have already lost their jobs, never had good jobs to begin with, or lived in the Third World).
Then I looked at my travel schedule and was even more displeased. I am flying home to parents etc (because flights aren’t ridiculously costly on Thanksgiving Day itself) but taking Greyhound back (because I can’t stay till the travel hoopla blows over, for work related reasons). So originally I bought a bus ticket Monday to come back Tuesday morning (I have to be back in NYC Tuesday noonish or so).
But then I looked at my schedule and realized- horrors- that I would be unable to light Chanukah candles Monday, since I was leaving too early to light and getting back after dawn Tuesday! I felt really stupid.
But thought maybe Greyhound would let me switch tickets, but probably only for a lot of money given the timing. After 20 minutes in line, I suggested a change I wanted- and got it for only $20. Hurrah!
Now I am leaving Sunday night (but late enough that I can light at parents’house) and returning Monday (so I can light Monday night in NYC!). Yay!
I had one a couple of weeks ago that I still remember! In the dream I am at a sparsely attended Romney rally, and Romney announces his running mate…Marco Rubio. Then I look to see the approaching Sen. Rubio, and I see a faculty colleague of mine who is indeed Hispanic, but not Republican. Then the dream ends.
Another one from a few days ago is beginning to fade out in my memory. I am in a bed in a train; I am for some reason sharing the bedroom with a 10 or 12 year old boy. The boy starts making what seems to me like sexual overtures. Then his father comes in to save the day. His father is wearing “black hat” yeshivish garb. Then the dream ends.
After the Egyptian king describes two dreams, one involving fat cows and lean cows, the other involving fat ears of corn and lean ears, Joseph says “Elohim has mercifully shown Pharoah what He is about to do.” (Gen. 41:28). Scharfstein says that Joseph is showing his humility by crediting God “who had given him the wisdom to interpret the dream.”
It seems to me that there are some deeper issues here. First, note that Joseph uses the term “Elohim”- a generic term for “God” or even “Gods”, as opposed to the special term for Israel’s god (Yud Hay Vav Hay). Here we have yet another example of Joseph’s ability to speak to heathens in a way that they will understand, by using a term that pagans will not find odd.
Second, I think Joseph may be a little craftier than Scharfstein lets on. Joseph’s repeated emphasis on “Elohim” implies that he has a kind of pipeline to God in a way that secular magicians do not.
Why does the king like Joseph’s interpretation so much? After all, news of upcoming famine is hardly good news. Leon Kass (whose book The Beginning of Wisdom I am starting to read) notes that Joseph (a) has a solution to the problem and (b) has a solution that actually enhances the king’s power, since the king will be rationing grain (41:34-35). Joseph is a pretty cunning guy!
This week’s portion is all about Joseph- first his troubled boyhood and enslavement, then his rise and fall (and part of his later rise) in Egypt. It ends with two dreams by imprisoned court officials, both of whom confess their dreams to Joseph and get their dreams interpreted.
For my purposes, the most interesting dream is that of the king’s baker, who dreams that he is balancing bread for the king on his head, and that birds then fly above the bread and start eating it (Gen. 40:17). Joseph interprets the dream to mean that in three days the king will execute the baker, and his flesh will be eaten by the birds.
Where’d Joseph’s inspiration come from? If one relies solely on the Torah’s text, this might seem like prophecy out of the proverbial blue. But Scharfstein throws in an interesting point that makes the whole episode a bit more complex. He cites an Egyptian book on dreams stating that birds in a dream are a bad sign, with the word “bad” highlighted in red. Since Joseph had spent a few years in Egypt by this point, he might already be aware of this concept, and interpreted the baker’s dream accordingly. (Or if you want to treat the story as a parable of some sort rather than a work of history, you might say that the author threw in a common Egyptian idea to make the story more realistic).
Joseph’s use of Egyptian cultural motifs brings out an interesting question: do what extent should we, as Jews, use the phraseology and concepts (or for that matter, the language) of the larger culture around us? In our time, different groups of Jews employ different strategies.
Haredim tend to speak in Hebrew and Yiddish as much as possible, in order to create a common culture distinct from the outside culture. Even where the primary language is English, it is full of linguistic touches different from that of other English speakers.* Where Jews are already ghettoized, this linguistic difference keeps them in the ghetto.
But where Jews are already part of the outside society and already speak the dominant language, they may not be reachable in some other language. For example, in the early 20th century rabbis mostly preached in Yiddish, and some Orthodox rabbis argued that it was even halachically impermissible to preach or pray in English. This sort of mentality made Orthodoxy seem completely irrelevant to my parents’ English-speaking generation, and may be one reason why it took some decades for Orthodoxy to get back on its feet. Today, the Josephs of the world have won the argument; in modern Orthodox communities people mostly speak standard American English and talk about American culture, and even haredim have usually met Americans halfway by speaking in somewhat-less-standard English.
*For an extensive discussion of “frum English” (focusing on yeshivish and right wing modern orthodox communities), you may wish to read the book Becoming Frum.
This week’s Torah portion begins with Jacob’s preparations for a reunion with Esau (and later, the reunion itself). Although Jacob is promised dominion over Esau by his father’s blessing, this never comes to pass during his lifetime. Instead, he is afraid that Esau will punish him for his earlier trickery.
While describing Jacob’s concerns, Scharfstein writes: “”The voice of Jacob’ stands for Torah and truth. ’The hands of Esau’ stand for force and violence. As long as the Jew allows ‘the voice of Jacob’ to be his guide, the ‘hands of Esau’ cannot harm him.”
To which my initial response was “Huh”? You can be as Torah-observant and true as you like, but that won’t always protect you from the occasional Crusader or Nazi gas chamber. The mass graves of Europe are full of better men than I.
Is there a non-stupid way of discussing the point? I think that perhaps what Scharfstein is trying to say is this: good behavior and Torah won’t prevent you from being oppressed or murdered. But they will enable you to cope with the ills of the world more easily, to make them a little less painful. Some years ago, I read a tale of Hasidim singing on the way to the gas chambers- a story that, for all I know, may not be factually true. But true or not, it does reflect a reality- that to be truly successful, religion should be to some extent the opiate of the masses.