Archive for December, 2011

Vayigash: Compassion and Exile

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. . . .  (Bereshit 47:21)

Good morning!

This week is undoubtedly one of the emotional high points of the Torah: after Yehudah’s impassioned plea on Binyamin’s behalf, Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers, and they have a tearful reunion. Yosef sends them to get their father and settles the family inGoshen, a pastoral region ofEgypt, but the story then takes a darker turn. The years of famine that Pharaoh dreamed are not yet over, and the citizens of Egypt become more and more desperate, selling their possessions, animals, land and eventually even their own labor to Pharaoh in exchange for food.

Yosef is the one in charge of this nationalization of the economy, and after he takes the land in Pharaoh’s name, he allows the population to become sharecroppers, paying a portion of the crop to Pharaoh as rent. Yet in what seems like a cruel and dictatorial twist, Yosef moves the people around, from one town to another, not allowing them to remain on the land they sold to the king.

Commentators wonder at Yosef’s motives, but the simple answer is perhaps the least palatable: Yosef moved the population around so that people would know that they had lost the right of ownership of the land upon which they lived. In this, some commentators, compare him to the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who exiled Jews from towns in Judah when he conquered parts of the land of Israel. (Cf. 2 Kings 32 and see more on this here. )

Yet our friend Rashi, among others, offers an additional explanation: Yosef moved the people ofEgypt around so that none would call his brothers “exiles”[in derision]. If the entire population were exiles from their hometowns, then surely they could not disparage Yaakov and his sons as exiles fromCanaan.

Now, this is morally impossible logic on one hand- it makes no sense to cause great upheaval and pain in order to teach compassion- but it contains a kernel of wisdom on the other. First, this reading portrays Yosef as wanting to preserve his brother’s honor, even after their terrible betrayal of him as a youth, and thus serves as an image of overflowing forgiveness and spiritual maturity. More important, I think, is what it suggests about the redemption of suffering: suffering (in this case, the pain of losing one’s home and land) is an inevitable part of the human condition, but it can, with openness and grace, teach us compassion for others.

Note, please, that the rabbis who offer this interpretation neatly turn around the idea, stated so often in the Torah, that we must treat the stranger with kindness, because we were strangers inEgypt. In this reading of our verse, it is the Egyptians who might learn to treat the Israelites with greater kindness based on their experience of dislocation. Tragically, it doesn’t last, and as the contemporary Conservative commentary Etz Hayim points out, eventually the Egyptians turn on the Israelites, perhaps out of anger at what Yosef has done to them.

Nevertheless, in this moment in the Torah reading, it’s striking to consider the image of Yosef taking Egyptians off their land so that they would not insult his brothers; it is an image both cruel and fascinating, provoking me to ask about ways that I have served one person at the cost of another. In this reading, Yosef knows that the famine calls for desperate measures, and perhaps hopes that at least a little good can come from such a terrible situation. Suffering is redeemed when we learn what we can from it; it doesn’t make the pain less, but can make us more human in the pain.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Miketz: Power and Mercy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz and Hanukkah

Greetings and happy Hanukkah!

“For though Yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. . .”  (Bereshit/Genesis 42:8)

This week in our regular Torah portion (there are also special readings for Hanukkah) Yosef is reunited with ten of his brothers, who come to Egypt looking for food as the region is struck by famine. Unfortunately, the older brothers have no idea that the viceroy of Egypt is actually the younger sibling they sold into slavery many years ago.

These older siblings come before Yosef in the royal court, and although he accuses them of being spies- in order to see if they have matured and repented since their days of mistreating him- he does not exact immediate vengeance or violence. In fact, our friend Rashi understands “recognized his brothers” as not merely a visual recognition of their identities, but rather the moral act of recognizing them as brothers– that is, even though he had power over them, he deeply felt their common humanity, and had compassion upon them. Rashi contrasts this with the second half of the verse: “they did not recognize him”- as a brother, when they were in the ones with power.

To rephrase Rashi: when Yosef had power over his brothers, he recognized them as as siblings and equals, and thus showed compassion; but when the older siblings had Yosef at their mercy, they had no mercy.

I think Rashi’s comment hints at the problem of power: it often gives those who possess it a distance from their fellow humans, which prevents the powerful from deeply feeling the human needs of those they might otherwise assist as servant leaders. The antidote to the moral corruption of power is authentic religious ethics, which demands that we see in each person a spark of the sacred, which connects people to each other in compassion, empathy and the sense of a common destiny. Of course, the tragedy of human natures is that religious people and institutions can be corrupted by power just as easily as anyone else, and use religious authority in profoundly anti-religious ways.

In traditional rabbinic texts, Yosef is called the “tzaddik,” or righteous one; perhaps it is because he had great authority over others, but was able to transcend the logic of power and vengeance to embrace instead the course of humility and compassion. Each of us has power, to a greater or lesser degree; would that we would all take Yosef’s example as our own, and act wisely and with great mercy.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayeshev: Each His Own Dream

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Vayeshev
“When they had been in custody for some time,  both of them — the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison — dreamed in the same night, each his own dream and each dream with its own meaning. . .  “(Bereshit/ Genesis 40:4-5)

Good afternoon! Our weekly Torah commentary production team has been on family leave for the past few weeks but we’re back and ready to learn again. This week’s portion, Vayeshev, begins the story of Yosef, who was Yaakov’s favorite son; this hardly endeared him to his brothers, who threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery in Egypt. There once again he gets thrown into a dark place, after being falsely accused by his master’s wife. In prison, he correctly interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker and this begins his amazing ascent to power and prestige.

Let’s look for a moment at the verse above- it’s a bit clunky in both Hebrew and English. Both the cup-bearer and the baker dreamed a dream, so why does the verse need to say that “each dreamed his own dream?” Some commentators, including Rashi,  say that “each his own” along with “each dream with its own meaning” implies that each man dreamed his own dream but also the interpretation of the other’s dream- and that, in turn, is how they knew that Yosef was inspired in his own dream interpretation, because Yosef spoke what each man knew about the other.

I like this reading of the verse; it points toward a fundamental Jewish idea, that meaning is made in community. Each one of us is has our particular perspectives and limitations of knowledge and insight, but learning Torah and seeking truth together, we can create worlds of meaning greater than any one of us can on our own.

Yet perhaps the simple meaning of the verse is also important: the verse stresses that each man dreamed his own dream in order to show us that Yosef has matured from the days when he saw himself as the center of the universe. That’s exactly the symbolism Yosef himself used, for the dream of Yosef’s youth showed the stars, the sun and moon bowing down to him. Now, some time later, after some hard-won experiences which have taught Yosef humility and gratitude, he is able to understand that each person dreams their own dream- that is, each person is the center of a world, and we honor them by hearing well what they are truly saying. Yosef was able to discern the tragedy of one man’s life and the restoration of another’s because he heard them with humility and the recognition that truly knowing another is a gift from God.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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