Archive for Miketz

Miketz: Waiting in Hope

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

Dear Friends:

There is so much sadness in the world. As I write this details are still coming out from Newtown, Connecticut- a mere 53 miles from Poughkeepsie- where a madman killed children and adults alike in the elementary school. After every shooting, every murderous act, we ask why- but it seems that not much changes.

So how do we find hope in a world which can seem so cruel?

This is not a new problem. In fact, I’d say it’s the problem that Hanukkah comes to address, and it’s not coincidental that our Torah portion, Miketz, usually falls during the holiday of lights. The Torah portion is the middle section of the story of Yosef and his brothers; in the beginning of the portion, Yosef is in Pharaoh’s prison, but by the end, he is the Prime Minister of Egypt, and his long-estranged brothers are seeking food from his treasury.

Twice Yosef goes down into a pit of darkness- once when his brothers turn against him and once when Potiphar’s wife accuses him- and twice Yosef rises up, but what really constrains Yosef is not external walls but the pain of his heart, the loneliness and alienation and longing for family that stays with him even after he has reached the heights of power. In this week’s portion, Yosef attains a great station, but the reconciliation that his heart seeks is not yet ready. We read the Torah portion this week and our heart breaks a bit, because we know that healing is almost at hand, but we must wait, as Yosef must, for love to burst forth.

Similarly, Hanukkah asks us to take a leap of faith- not by believing something without evidence, but by living in such a way that our lives bring light into darkness even if we can’t see the world change before our eyes. The Maccabees had no assurance of success when they started their struggle against the foreign power; we have no assurance of success when we struggle to transform our society and our world from its current state of conflict and violence into a place of peace, security and justice. Let me be clearer: we have no assurance of success in the short run, not in our lifetimes or perhaps that of our children. Yet the “leap of action” (to quote Heschel) that Judaism asks us to take is to do the right and good anyway, because we believe that the redemption of the world is not only possible but our particular task.

It’s hard to wait for a better world that seems just out of reach, but remember Yosef and his brothers: he kept hoping that they would become worthy of brotherhood, and yet was shocked to tears when his brother Yehudah showed an extraordinary largeness of heart towards their youngest brother Binyamin. Things can take a long time and change quickly; do not despair. Yosef never stopped wanting brotherhood from his brothers, and ultimately there was reconciliation. The Maccabees never stopped dreaming of a Judaism restored, and their story has kept hope alive for two thousand years and more. We light Hanukkah candles because we refuse to let darkness define human destiny. We will hope but we will also act, and with us and others of good faith and courage, we will eventually achieve shalom.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,

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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Miketz/ Hanukkah: Small Things Grow

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

Happy Holiday of Lights!

Our Torah portion this week continues the story of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt, and we read a special haftarah for the Shabbat of Hanukkah. This haftarah comes from the book of Zechariah, who exhorted the Jews returning from the first exile to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. He tells the High Priest, Yehoshua, to claim his role and promises that if he does so faithfully and ethically, the greater redemption will come:

“Hearken well, 0 High Priest Joshua, you and your fellow priests sitting before you! For those men are a sign that I am going to bring My servant the Branch” (Zech. 4:8, JPS translation)

“My servant,” in the context above, probably means the proper king of Israel, whose restored sovereignty would show that the redemption from exile was complete. Yet commentators have puzzled over the final phrase: “My servant, the branch,” or “I will bring My servant like a growing plant.” The final word, tzemach, means sprouting or growing plant, and could simply mean, in context, that redemption doesn’t happen all at once, but unfolds over time.

Hirsch sees an additional meaning in the image of “branch” or “growing plant.” For Hirsch, the metaphor of plant or sprout has the resonance of great things growing out of small things. He compares it to how an acorn grows into an oak: when you see an acorn, you can hardly imagine a huge oak tree, and when you see the tree, you can hardly imagine that it began as something you hold in your hand.

Similarly, the ultimate redemption of humankind begins with small and imperceptible progress, and will unfold over time into something great and amazing.

That, to me, is another connection to Hanukkah, for every great historical accomplishment begins with small things: a conversation, an idea, a single courageous act. Setting aside for today any controversies about the historicity of the traditional Hanukkah story, we might simply imagine that the eventual victory of the Maccabees began with one action, one word, one decision. . . .and grew into something that changed history, just like the acorn grows into the towering oak.

Seen this way, Zechariah’s promise to the High Priest is also a call to every generation: do not despair that your deeds are too little and the darkness is too much, for great things grown out of small acts of faith and courage.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,

RNJL

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Mikeitz: Children of One Father

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mikeitz

Happy Hanukkah!

The portion Mikeitz, which includes the story of Yosef’s brothers coming to Egypt to buy food, and the games Yosef plays with them. When Yosef’s brothers first appear before him, they only see the Prime Minister of Egypt- they have no idea that this is the young boy they sold into slavery so many years ago. Yosef, of course, does recognize them, and in order to test their repentance, he accuses them of being spies:

“And they said to him, `No, my master, your servants have come to buy food. We
are all sons of one man. We are honest. Your servants were never spies. ` ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 41: 10-11)

Rashi, quoting an earlier midrash, makes a beautiful comment on this passage. He
points out that when the brothers explain that they are not a team of spies, but a family, the “sons of one man,” the words can be read to include Yosef, too:

Rashi:

” The Holy Spirit flickered within them, and they included him with them, for he too was the son of their father.”

Now, the last time these brothers had seen Yosef, they didn’t exactly treat him like family-
they threw him in a pit and sold him as a slave. Yet I read this midrash as hinting that the
quality of achdut [brotherhood /siblinghood, but also meaning unity] had not entirely
gone out from their hearts. Another way to understand Rashi’s comment might be: the
brothers were ready to start thinking of Yosef as family again.

In either case, I love the spiritual language of this midrash: the “holy spirit”, or that part of
the Divine which is inseparable from each human soul, was what lead them to include
Yosef as their brother, even if it was only subconsciously. To put it another way: when we
start to think of the people we’re estranged from as family, as our brothers and sisters,
then that’s the Divine soul flowing from within us.

We more fully express our spiritual selves when we act towards forgiveness, inclusion, and
healed relationships- just as the brothers were beginning to do, however slightly, when
they presented themselves before the man they only knew as the Prime Minister of Egypt.

Yosef and his brothers had a long way to go before they were fully reconciled,
but at the moment when “brotherliness” was stirred within them, great things became possible. The
Divine Spirit stirs within, to help us see each other as brothers and sisters, to bring
together that which is broken apart, in every age and in every heart.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- as promised, here’s a link to a summary of the entire parsha:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/
miketz_summary.htm

and here’s a link to the text itself, including the special haftarah and maftir
for Hanukkah:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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Miketz: The challenge of hard times

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz

The Torah portion Miketz continues the story of Yosef, the dreamer
and dream-interpreter, who was last seen (at the end of the previous
parsha) locked up in Pharoah’s prison. Word gets out that Yosef can
see the meaning of dreams, and so when Pharoah has a troubling dream
of bad times ahead, Yosef is called up out of jail for assistance.
The king dreams of good years followed by times of famine, first in
the image of cows, and then in the image of grain. His dream of the
healthy cows brings a great insight from our teacher Rashi:

First, Pharoah’s dream:

“It came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh was
dreaming, and behold, he was standing by the Nile. And behold, from
the Nile were coming up seven cows, of handsome appearance and
robust flesh, and they pastured in the marshland.” (Genesis 41:1-2)

Rashi bases his comment on an earlier midrash:

“of handsome appearance” – This was a symbol of the days of plenty,
when creatures appear handsome to one another, for no one envies his
fellow.

Rashi points out that hard times- and presumably, the inqualities
that go with it- make people envy and resent each other, and this
causes negative feelings, blaming, gossip, criticism, and so on. In
other words, people appear “handsome” to one another when they are
feeling good about themselves! Conversely, when things aren’t going
so great, that’s when conflict breaks out, rooted in resentment,
which is itself rooted in envy.

So healthy cows notwithstanding, what can we do with this insight?
Perhaps the key is turning Rashi’s understanding around, and letting
go of our resentments so that we can appreciate and admire that
which is good in others. If we feel truly blessed, we’re not going
to be envious, and thus our challenge is to cultivate that sense of
gratitude and thanksgiving which is so fundamental to religious
practice.

wishing you all a healthy and happy Hannukah,

rnjl

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Miketz 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Miketz (Gen. 41:1-44:17)

OVERVIEW

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Yosef is in prison on false charges. He interprets Pharoah’s dreams and eventually becomes “Prime Minister” of the whole country, nationalizing the economy in response to famine. The famine reaches extends to the land of Israel, so Yaakov sends his sons down to Egypt to buy food. There they encounter their brother Yosef, but don’t recognize him. Yosef accuses them of being spies, and demands they bring Binyamin, the youngest, who had been left with Yaakov. They go back to Israel and get Binyamin, but Yosef is still planning a test for them: he plants a cup in Binyamin’s bag, to make it appear that Binyamin stole it, thus giving Yosef a pretext to take the youngest brother as a servant.

IN FOCUS

“He [Yosef] turned from them and wept, and returned to speak to them- then he took Shimon and bound him before their eyes! ” (Genesis 42:24)

PSHAT

Yosef knows that these Canaanite travelers are his brothers, but they apparently don’t have a clue that the highest official in Egypt is the young brother they sold into slavery years before. Yosef wants them to bring Binyamin, the youngest, so he accuses them of being spies. This gives him a pretext to take Shimon hostage until the brothers can bring Binyamin and thus prove the veracity of their story.

DRASH

Rashi says that Yosef had Shimon bound only until the brothers left. After they had gone, convinced that Shimon was a prisoner of the “Prime Minister,” Rashi says that Yosef acted much more tenderly towards his captive brother: he “released him, and fed him, and gave him drink.”

A few hundred years later, rabbis of the mussar [spiritual character development] movement learned a profound lesson from Rashi’s midrash, seeing in it the secret of growth through the practice of forgiveness. Itturei Torah, an anthology of mussar and Hasidic teachings, quotes a story about the famous Rabbi Yisrael of Salant [also known as Yisrael Salanter]:

    There once was a man who rudely insulted Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. Afterwards, the man regretted his action and came to R. Yisrael to beg forgiveness. Immediately R. Yisrael completely forgave him, and even asked the man if he needed any help or other good things- [R. Yisrael] was ready to do whatever he could on this man’s behalf.

    “Rabbi!” – the man said, hesitatingly and self-conscious- “it’s not enough that I insulted your honour, and not enough that you forgave me my misdeeds, now you also want to help me and ask about my welfare?”

    “Listen, my son,” answered R. Yisrael, “the Sages have taught us that ‘A deed brings one out of a deed or a thought, but a thought does not bring us out of a deed or a thought. If one wants to truly uproot a negative thought, or constriction or anxiety of the heart, one must do something tangible, because only a deed brings one out of a thought.” ( Cf. Talmud Kiddushin 59)

    We have learned that Shimon was the main brother who incited the others and who threw Yosef into the pit. Therefore, when Yosef wanted to completely uproot the hatred from his heart, he “fed him, and gave him drink.” To forgive someone completely requires not just a thought, but some tangible action. (From Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

Although it doesn’t say so explicitly in the Biblical text, let’s go with this midrash, and assume that Shimon was in fact the ringleader of the vengeful brothers. In that case, we can readily understand why Yosef might want to take him, specifically, as his prisoner- who wouldn’t want to “give someone a taste of their own medicine? ” This makes Rashi’s midrash all the more powerful, implying that someone who truly desires to let go of resentments and grudges must directly confront their most stubborn feelings.

I heard once that “it’s easier to act your way into right thinking than to think your way into right acting.” Many people finding their spirituality in 12-Step programs have learned to actively pray for the well-being and happiness of those they resent- and believe me, this is a powerful exercise! This doesn’t mean that moral irresponsibility is without its proper consequences, but it rather teaches that part of forgiveness is to recognize the humanity of the person one hates.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that Judaism does not require a “leap of faith,” but rather a “leap of action.” We can see how this might apply to ritual action- it’s easier to understand the meaning of Shabbat after one has worked to create a feeling of Shabbat in the home- but Heschel’s insight clearly applies to relationships as well. We have to act, not just rearrange our feelings. If you want to forgive someone, give to them. If you want to be reconciled, reach out. If you want to let go of resentments, then act in a way that acknowledges the humanity you share with your enemy. Only in this way will brothers and sisters be truly reunited.

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Miketz 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
At the end of last week’s parasha, Yosef is in prison on false charges, after resisting the advances of his Egyptian master’s wife. This week, there is a remarkable change in his situation: he is brought out of prison to intepret Pharoah’s dreams, which warn of famine in the future. When he proposes a kind of nationalization of the Egyptian economy in order to deal with the upcoming famine, he is made Egypt’s “Prime Minister” in order to implement the plan. The famine reaches up in to the land of Israel, so Yaakov sends his sons down to Egypt to buy food; there they encounter Yosef, who recognizes them, but they think they are dealing with a high Egyptian official. Yosef sets in motion a plot to unite all the brothers in Egypt- he accuses them of being spies, and demands they bring Binyamin, the youngest, who had been left with Yaakov. They go back to Israel and get Binyamin, but Yosef is still plotting a test for them; he plants a cup in Binyamin’s bag, to make it appear he stole it, thus giving him a pretext to take the youngest brother as a servant.

IN FOCUS
“When Yaakov saw that there provisions to be had in Egypt, he said to his sons: “Why are you looking [like that]? I hear that there are provisions to be had in Egypt. Go down and provide for us from there, that we may live and not die.”
(Genesis 42:1-2)
PSHAT

The famine that Yosef predicted, based on Pharoah’s dream, has begun, and reaches all the way up to the land of Israel, where Yaakov and his family live. He directs the 10 oldest sons to go down to Egypt to buy food, keeping the youngest, Binyamin, at home.

DRASH
Yaakov asks a bizarre question of his sons:
“lama titra-u?”, which presents a challenge to properly translate and understand. Hebrew has a form for verbs which makes them reflexive, which means that the action of the verb happens to the subject of the verb, and this case, Yaakov’s question is framed in the reflexive form of the verb “to see.” Alternatively, sometimes the reflexive form expresses reciprocal action, two or more people doing the same thing to each other. So what could lama titra-u in a time of famine mean?

Rashi thinks it means “why do you make yourselves conspicuous?,” or “why do you cause yourself to appear a certain way?” Rashi think Yaakov is warning his sons not to make the Ishmaelites or the descendants of Esav jealous or resentful, which could happen if they think that the Israelite clan has lots of food while everybody else goes hungry. This is a sound moral teaching: don’t be so proud that you can’t admit when you’re in trouble, or else you’re just going to cause resentment in those around you. However, I don’t think it fits the situation exactly: I don’t see any other textual hint that the problem here is the perceptions of the other tribes or clans. To me, it seems like Yaakov is addressing a family problem.

One commentator, Ibn Ezra, partially agrees with Rashi’s reading, but adds that maybe our key phrase means, “don’t fight with each other.” Now I think we’re onto something- I might read this as “don’t just stand there and fight each other when there is a famine, we have to act together if we’re going to solve this problem.” This makes sense to me, and would fit with the 10 brother’s previously demonstrated capacity to turn on each other (i.e., the way they did with Yosef).

Following this theme of Yaakov addressing the dynamics of the brothers themselves, the commentary I like best comes from the 15th century Italian rabbi Ovadiah S’forno, popularly known as “the S’forno.” He reads lama titra-u” as “why are you looking at each other?” Sforno is picking up on a basic human tendency to just ignore or deny problems, hoping that they will go away. He adds that “each brother expected his fellow ” to go and get the food they needed.

S’forno’s reading of our verse makes the most sense to me because I can imagine all the emotional dynamics in this situation: there is a famine, which was probably the kind of disaster which didn’t happen suddenly but slowly built up over time, thus allowing each person to hope that somebody else was going to take the lead in addressing the problem. Furthermore, it wasn’t the kind of problem- yet- that demanded immediate action; one could always hope that maybe tomorrow things will get better, and thus a cycle of denial and procrastination sets in, sometimes right up until the point when it’s too late to take effective action.

We don’t have to look farther than any day’s headlines to see examples of this all-too-human tendency: there are pressing environmental problems which we each hope somebody else will make sacrifices to solve; there are homeless people on the streets; there are children in poverty; there are political, moral and social issues which are crying out for attention. It’s so easy just to “look at each other,” hoping somebody else will emerge with the courage and energy to name and address a problem which we know in our hearts is looming ahead of us.

Yet so often people seem paralyzed, unable or unwilling to take risks for a better world. In the case of the 10 brothers, I wonder if their collective unwillingness to go down to Egypt had to do with a dread of what they might find there. Going back to chapter 37, we recall that the last the brothers had seen Yosef, they had sold him to a travelling caravan, on its way to Egypt (37:25-28). Could it be that their buried guilt and fear of confronting the past was so great that they didn’t want to go to Egypt, even to buy necessary food, in order to avoid any possible confrontation with the living fact of their awful secret?

Maybe the real problem here is not merely complacency, or laziness, but fear. Fear not only of taking responsibility for oneself, but also fear of the truth. Yet no pressing problem can be solved without dedication to the truth above all; not our family problems, not our social problems, and not our spiritual problems. We can “look at each other” and evade the truth as long as we like, but eventually reality catches up with us. The other choice is clear: we can join together to “go down to Egypt and provide for ourselves”- that is, take the risk of confronting the truth about whatever problem confronts us, ” that we may live.”

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