Archive for Vayeshev

Vayeshev: The Drunken Nazir

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

And I raised up prophets from among your sons

And nazirites from among your young men.

Is that not so, O people of Israel?

— says the Lord.

But you made the nazirites drink wine

And ordered the prophets not to prophesy. (Amos 2:11-12)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion introduces Yosef and sends him down to Egypt, where he ends up in Pharoah’s dungeon, but what caught my eye this week was a line from our haftarah, which is taken from the book of Amos. The prophet Amos rebuked both Israel and its neighbors for their various sins and offenses, while still holding out the possibility of repentance. Among Israel’s sins was the corruption of religion and those who held to sincere spiritual convictions, such as the nazirites and prophets mentioned above.

A nazirite, you may recall, was somebody who took a vow not to have an wine or other intoxicant, not to cut their hair, and not to come into contact with the dead; this vow could be for various lengths of time. Rashi says that the word nazir refers to separation, and proposes that the nazirites referred to by Amos were men who separated themselves from a corrupt society in order to devote themselves to Torah study. (Yes, it’s an anachronism. Hold that thought for a moment.) So you might think that the problem with making nazirites drink wine was the breaking of their vow, but Rashi says the motive was to prevent them from teaching Torah, since one who is drunk is forbidden to instruct.

Another scholar, Ibn Ezra, says something a bit different, which is that the people forced the nazirites to become ritually impure, and then they drank wine. The comment is bit cryptic, but my sense of it is that first the nazirites became ritually impure, and then perhaps they went ahead and drank the wine, as if it didn’t matter any more. This might be like someone trying to avoid junk food who says, well, I ate the cake, might as well have the Cherry Garcia too- once one boundary is down, the others don’t matter.

Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra use midrash, or creative narrative interpretation, to illustrate how the best of us can easily go astray from our own ideals. Rashi thinks the nazirites were prevented from teaching the people not by force but by the attraction of a good party! “One who is drunk is forbidden to instruct”- one who doesn’t care enough about their teaching to be clear headed while doing it probably doesn’t deserve to instruct, at least not in spiritual or moral matters.

According to the commentators, these nazirites might have been nazirites in the classic Biblical definition (according to Ibn Ezra) or merely scholars with good intentions but insufficient discipline, as Rashi suggests. The prophet is rebuking the people for corrupting the nazirites and ignoring the prophets, but on the other hand, the commentators seem to suggest that the nazirites and prophets went along without too much struggle.So on a deeper level, the nazirites and prophets mentioned by Amos are anybody who gets distracted from their calling, anybody who forgets their purpose, anybody who gets easily discouraged along a difficult chosen path. They are not only characters in an ancient drama, but all of us, who so easily fall into the comfortable and fun, rather than that which is challenging and thus transformative. The good news, of course, is that the nazirites and prophets among us- along with the poets, artists, scholars, activists, gadflies, protesters, preachers and teachers- can always pick themselves up and return to their sacred task of calling us to a better way.

Shabbat Shalom,



The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Vayeshev: The Darkness of our Dungeon

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Vayeshev
When Yosef came up to his brothers, they stripped Yosef of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. (Bereshit/ Genesis 37:23-24)
This week’s Torah portion begins the story of Yosef and his descent down into Egypt. When we first meet him, Yosef is an arrogant young man, seemingly unaware that his dreams of dominance strike his brothers as arrogant and aggressive. Yosef’s famous striped (or colored) coat, given by their father Yakov, is a source of friction and jealousy, so when the brothers enact their plan to kill Yosef- later reduced to merely selling him into slavery- they first strip his coat, the symbol of their father’s unequal love and Yosef’s unique status among the brothers. Taking Yosef’s coat was a way to humiliate him, to take his sense of identity and confidence, to break his spirit and force him to recognize that he is no longer the master of his own fate. 
Lest we think that such humiliation and determination to break a prisoner’s spirit is a harsh relic of the ancient past, this past week Americans were reminded that we, too, have blood on our hands- both the blood of innocents and the metaphorical guilt associated with extraordinarily cruel attempts to break prisoners with torture. The Senate Intelligence Committee released part of a report (only a small part, really- most of it was classified) in which we learned in great detail how the CIA tortured prisoners captured in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Key finding and quotes here.) 
Let’s be very clear about three things: first, this was physical and psychological torture. Not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but torture, meant to inflict extraordinary suffering. Torture like beatings, forced standing on broken limbs, simulated drowning (aka “waterboarding”), freezing people to death, stripping them naked and chaining them to the wall, forcing fluids into the anus as a way of “rehydrating” prisoners on a hunger strike, threatening prisoners or their families with sexual abuse, religious humiliation and so on. See here and here for more details, and remember, this information were from the CIA’s own documents. 
Second, the Senate report shows clearly that torture never worked. There was never a “ticking time bomb” scenario, never a time when torturing one person could be shown to have saved others. All claims to the contrary are undercut by the CIA’s own documentation. John McCain, of all people who should know, points out the obvious: people will say anything to get the torture to stop. 
Finally, please remember: even if you believe (and I hope you don’t) that accused terrorists deserve no due process, no mercy and no protections of the Geneva Conventions, the CIA admits that at least 26 people we tortured were completely innocent- just the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. (See the last item on this list of findings.) We tortured innocent people, again and again. 
This week’s Torah portion twice portrays Yosef doing down into a dark place of imprisonment- first the pit his brothers prepared, and then later, Pharoah’s dungeon, where Yosef was sent after the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. God was with Yosef in Pharoah’s dungeon, but the baker imprisoned with him wasn’t so lucky, and died at his captor’s whim. When we think about the abuse of power that results in arbitrary suffering, confinement, and death, we cannot, after the release of the Senate report, think of other places, other times, other countries other Pharaoh. We must instead reflect on our own duties as citizens to say, loudly and clearly: not in my name, because this is not the America I love, and I will never again support those in power who abuse their power so cruelly.
This week’s Torah portion isn’t only about Yosef and his brothers. It’s also about us, right now, and the moral imperative to call our country to account for terrible crimes committed in dark and secret dungeons where men like Yosef suffered unimaginably, sometimes for no reason at all. 
We can do better. Please don’t look away, but click the links, learn more, and think hard. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest. 

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Vayeshev: Moved Away

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

“The man said, ‘They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ So Yosef followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.. . . “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 37:17)

Good morning!

The focus of Bereshit turns from Yaakov to his son Yosef, a vain young man, especially beloved by his father as the son of his most-loved wife Rachel. This in turn causes resentment between Yosef and his older brothers, who conspire to throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. The short narrative describing how Yosef went from his father’s house to being at his brother’s mercy involves meeting a mysterious man who directs him to Dotan, where the brothers had gone after pasturing their flocks at Shechem.

Most commentators assume that this mysterious man is a specially-appointed angel, but they disagree as to what he was trying to communicate to Yosef. Many scholars note the wording of “they have gone from here,” which in Hebrew is not “here” so much as “this”- zeh. Some say “this” means “they have gone from brotherhood”- that is, they aren’t brotherly towards you anymore- while some say “this” means “they have gone from the Holy One,” meaning, the Godly attributes of mercy and compassion.

In either case, one might point out: if it was necessary to send Yosef to Egypt so that he could eventually save his family, what difference does it make if he knows that his brothers hate him? Perhaps the mysterious man knows that Yosef will go anyway, failing to heed the deeper meaning of his words, but he wants Yosef to know that what will happen is not entirely his fault. Yosef was arrogant and annoying, but the brothers also made a choice to “go out from brotherhood,” as it were.

Perhaps our mystery man wants Yosef to choose to go to his brothers even if they aren’t acting very brotherly towards each other; after all, every relationship involves risk and the possibility of pain. Seen this way, it is to Yosef’s credit that he chooses to go to Dotan even after being warned of what he might find- in doing so not only was he honoring his father’s wishes but also seeking relationship in his own clumsy way. Of course, the real miracle is not the angel who warned Yosef that the brothers had removed themselves from brotherhood and mercy, but that after many years, they found their way back.

Shabbat Shalom,


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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,


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Vayeshev: True Success

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev


I hope all the Americans reading this had a lovely Thanksgiving with friends and family. In our Torah readings, family gatherings aren’t so happy. . . . the portion Vayeshev begins the story of Yosef, who appears as a kid with a fancy coat who acts arrogantly towards his brothers. They respond by throwing him into a pit, perhaps as an indirect form of fratricide, but Yehudah has the bright idea of making a few shekels by selling Yosef to the Yishmaelites, who in turn take him down to Egypt.

When the brothers set upon Yosef, they apparently mean to kill him, but Reuven, the eldest, prevails upon them to cool their murderous rage:

“And Reuven went on, ‘Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves’ — intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” (Bereshit 37:22)

It’s unusual for the Torah to tell us what someone is thinking- usually we just read what they said, or did, and in fact, this attention paid to Reuven’s intentions becomes the occasion for an interesting commentary found in the Torah Temimah, a collection of rabbinic texts which connect teachings of the sages to passages in the Torah. On the verse above, the Torah Temimah quotes an earlier sage as saying that we should learn from this that it’s proper to publicize or make known when somebody does a mitzvah– as Reuven tried to do when he thought that he might return Yosef to their father. That is- we learn from the fact that the Torah tells us about Reuven’s actions that it’s proper to praise people for doing a mitzvah– to which I would add, even when it’s not entirely successful.

Note, please, that Reuven wasn’t able to return Yosef to safety- but the commentators are willing to give him moral and spiritual credit for worthy actions even if the outcome was not what was hoped. To me, this illustrates an important point: that “success” in the spiritual realm is not the same as “success” in the external world.  A spiritual success can be a moment of growth, perhaps the widening of moral vision or the discovery of previously unknown inner resources, while in the material world, success is usually quantifiable as projects finished and acknowledged by others.

Some of the greatest spiritual successes one will ever experience are entirely inward, and result only in the transformation of one soul; perhaps Reuven had such a moment when he resolved to go against his brothers to do the right thing. Seen from a religious perspective, it matters less that Reuven prevailed over Yehudah than that he prevailed over his own reticence and cowardice- and indeed, he does deserve praise for that. Doing a mitzvah should change the world- but it should also change the self, and this, too, is wondrous.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayeshev: What is Most Torn

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

It’s almost the festival of lights, but this week’s Torah portion,
Vayeshev, is not the most lighthearted portion of the Torah. Yosef is
sold into slavery by his brothers, but Yaakov, their father, thinks
he’s been torn apart by an animal. Yehudah, one of the older brothers,
then mourns for his sons in the story of his encounter with Tamar, his
daughter-in-law, and the parsha ends with Yosef in prison in Egypt.

OK, now that I’ve cheered you all up, let’s continue our discussion of
the practical actions of lived Judaism as they related to the Torah
readings. Yosef is sold into slavery, but his brothers take his
special jacket and dip it in animal blood, then bring it to their
father, so that he would think Yosef was dead (interesting how the man
who tricked his own father is tricked by his sons, but that’s another
discussion.) Yaakov is consumed with grief:

“Yaakov rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed
mourning for his son many days.” (Bereshit/Genesis 37:34)

As it turns out, Yaakov is not the only character in the Bible to tear
his garments in grief- in fact, just a few verses before, his son
Ruven did as well, when his plan to save Yosef didn’t work. We still
tear the garment today as a sign of grief, and in fact, to this very
day, we tear the garment standing up, from the example of King David:

“Then the king arose, tore his clothes and lay on the ground; and all
his servants were standing by with clothes torn.” (2 Samuel 13:31)

Yet as a mitzvah, a commandment, tearing the garment is supported by
Biblical verses but is actually a decree of the ancient rabbis, who
saw it as a strong tradition at a time of mourning and fixed it in our
practice. Tearing- called kriah- is usually done by the immediate
family of the deceased (i.e., if someone was your parent, spouse,
sibling, or child, you tear for them) but can also be done by anyone
present at the actual moment of death or even for one’s main teacher
of Torah.

The time of tearing is from the moment of death onwards, but nowadays
most people wait till the funeral and do it with the rabbi or cantor
(but it’s actually quite powerful to tear at the moment of getting the
news.) The garment is torn on the left side for a parent, and on the
right front side for other relatives, and one wears torn garments
through the week of shivah. (The seven-day mourning period, not
including Shabbat .) The blessing “dayan ha’emet” follows the tearing,
but we’ll explain that one another time.

Astute readers (which is any reader of rabbineal-list) will notice
that I keep using the word “garment” and not “little black ribbon on a
button.” The mitzvah is clear- one tears one’s clothing at a time of
grief. To put it another way, when one’s world is torn apart with
loss, to tear a garment says that it’s not clothing or material
possessions which really matter, but rather our relationships.

Not only that, but tearing the garment, and wearing the torn garment
for a week, goes along with the other shivah practices of being
unconcerned with physical appearance during a time of emotional and
spiritual introspection. To me, the little black ribbon common at
Jewish funerals does not adequately capture the power of our
tradition- I understand that people are squeamish about tearing their
good clothing, but I believe a more powerful ritual experience would
be had by wearing clothing that one is willing to tear- a shirt, a
tie, a blouse, a scarf, etc.

We tear- as Yaakov tore, as David tore, as Job tore- when those people
who make up a whole world of relationships (even highly imperfect
ones) are torn from us. Tearing the garment is a physical symbol of an
emotional reality- a way of expressing ourselves using the medium of
fabric rather than language. Words are often inadequate when emotions
are strong- tearing, like other rituals of relationship, picks up
where phrases fail.

Judaism doesn’t deny grief, but rather offers us a framework to hold
onto when grief is most intense. Tearing expresses the utter confusion
and vulnerability of loss, but it also gives us a way to move back
into the world, when after seven days regular clothes are worn- the
practice is not only to tear, but to put away the torn clothes when
one re-enters the workaday world after shivah. It’s a palpable symbol
of the human journey, from Biblical days to our own.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayeshev: Absence and Presence

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

Greetings- Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is almost upon us, and
thus also Parshat Vayeshev, which switches the focus of our narrative
from Yaakov to Yosef, with a slight detour into the life of Yehudah
and his family. As many of you will remember, Yosef is a proud young
man who is favored by his fathers, and who has dreams in which sheaves
of grain, and then the celestial bodies, bow down to him:

“He [Yosef] dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying,
‘Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and
eleven stars were bowing, down to me. And when he told it to his
father and brothers, his father berated him. ‘What,’ he said to him,
‘is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and
your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?’ So his brothers
were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind.”
(Bereshit/Genesis 37:9-11, JPS translation)

Well, one can certainly understand the brother’s annoyance- nobody
likes to be told that they’ll bow down to somebody else, much less a
younger sibling. What’s more interesting is Yaakov’s reaction: “are we
to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you?”
Again, one can understand that a father would not like to be told of a
dream in which he bows to his son, but by this point in the story,
Rachel, Yosef’s mother, has been dead many years- so why would Yaakov
mention “your mother” in his objection to Yosef’s dream?

Our friend Rashi has two thoughts on the matter. First, “your mother”
here refers to Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, with whom Yaakov also had
children; Rashi refers to an earlier midrash [rabbinic interpretation]
which posits that Bilhah raised Yosef like a son after Rachel died.
What’s nice about this interpretation is not only that it solves the
problem of Yaakov saying “your mother” in reference to future events,
but it subtly implies that parenthood is not just about biology, but
also a state of emotional, ethical and spiritual commitments.
(Something important to remember in the debates over what constitutes
“family values.”)

Rashi’s second comment builds on the first, but is a bit complex. He
quotes a principle from the Talmud that “there is no dream without
meaningless elements,” meaning that not every symbol in a dream is
worthy of deep consideration. Rashi then goes on to say that Yaakov
intended to dismiss Yosef’s dream as meaningless, so that the other
brothers would not be too jealous or disturbed, and thus bringing up
“your mother” is a way of saying “just as it’s impossible for your
mother to bow down to you, the rest of the dream is nonsense too.”

Again, Rashi’s reading is plausible, given that it would certainly be
in Yaakov’s interest to calm the situation and defuse the mounting
jealousy between Yosef and his brothers- jealousy for which he himself
is largely responsible, after giving Yosef a special coat and favors.
Yet while Rashi’s reading is plausible, and holds out for us the
example of someone trying to make peace between others, what seems
more likely to me is not that Yosef’s dream contained meaningless
elements, but rather that Yaakov’s response revealed more than he

While the “Freudian slip” is by now a punchline in countless jokes,
it’s also true that one’s emotions reveal themselves at stressful or
unguarded moments- one contemporary psychologist (John Gottman) calls
this “leaking.” Thus, when Yaakov refers to his first love, Rachel, in
the future tense- “are we to come, I and your mother and your
brothers, and bow low to you?”- perhaps what is being revealed is not
only Yosef’s naivete or arrogance, but Yaakov’s unresolved grief, such
that a slip of the tongue shows the extent of his inability to fully
live in a world without Rachel.

To put it another way, perhaps Yaakov refers to Rachel because for
him, she has never truly died. Yaakov shows special attention to
Rachel’s children [Yosef and Binyamin], perhaps as a channel for his
grief, and when that special attention causes stress and dissent in
his family, the deeper emotional currents rise to the surface.

Many people who have lost a loved one experience slips of the tongue,
even years later, referrring to their loved one in the present tense,
or reaching for the phone before snapping back to the present.
Yaakov’s reference to Rachel illustrates how a person, family or
community can be as deeply influenced by who is not there as who is-
absence can drive emotional dynamics as powerfully as presence. Those
we love continue to shape our lives long after loss; such is the power
of love and the impressions made on a human soul, shaped forever by
the most powerful relationships a life may offer. In the case of
Yaakov, and many others who have known both love and loss, the past is
not dead, in fact, it’s not even past.*

Shabbat Shalom,


*Paraphrasing Faulkner, of course.

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Vayeishev: Images and Integrity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeishev

Egads! Hanukkah fast approaches, but Shabbat is almost upon us, and then it’s
big holiday when all the stores are closed- my only conclusion is that it’s time
to relax and
say “enough already” and make yourself a cup of Earl Grey and study some Torah.

Speaking of Torah, It’s parshat Vayeishev, the beginning of the final act of the
drama that
is Bereshit (Genesis.) Bereshit begins with brothers killing each other (Kayin
and Hevel) and
it looks like we haven’t learned much in previous 37 chapters: Yosef so angers
brothers that they plot to kill him, but are instead convinced to “only” throw
him in a pit
and sell him into slavery.

The brothers tell their father, Yaakov, that Yosef was torn apart by a wild
animal, but really
he was shlepped off to Egypt as a slave. Yehudah, one of his brothers, marries
and has
children, who themselves marry. Then tragedy strikes: Yehudah’s sons die in
and he refuses to properly provide for his bereaved daughter in law, Tamar. She
determined to have children, so she seduces him in a dangerous deception, which
ends in
his confession of sin and recognition of her merit.

Then we return to Egypt: Yosef is a slave to Potiphar, whose wife tries to
seduce him. He
refuses, and is framed and imprisoned. He becomes a dream-interpreter in prison
and is
raised up to the house of Pharaoh himself.

Returning to the subject of seduction (a steamy parsha for a cold day outside!),
the rabbis
ask an interesting question: if Yehudah- an older and presumably wiser man-
could not
resist the temptation to sleep with the harlot beside the road (who was actually
disguised daughter in law, but we’ll save that for another year), is it possible
that Yosef,
who had the “hot blood of youth”, could resist the temptation of Potiphar’s

A famous midrash- quoted by Rashi and many others- tries to answer that
question, and
starts with the verse where Yosef has to make his decision:

“And it came about on a certain day, that he came to the house to do his work,
and none
of the people of the house were there in the house. So she [Mrs. Potiphar]
grabbed him by
his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and fled
and went
outside. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:11-12)

Some commentators say that the Torah is hinting that Yosef was just about to
give in: that
the phrase “came to the house to do his work” means that he came to the house
that the only person in it was his master’s wife, and he was ready to lie with
her. So what
caused him to run away?

Well, it’s certainly possible that he was simply afraid that consequences of
giving in would
be worse than the consequences of refusing. The ancient rabbis have a different
idea : the
midrash I mentioned above imagines Yosef just about to lie with Mrs. Potiphar,
and then
he sees before him an image of his father, Yaakov, who asks if he really wants
to be
associated with “harlots.” (Just as an aside: one could return to the question
asked above
and turn it around- if Yosef could call up reserves of conscience and
self-control, why
couldn’t Yehudah? Alas, that’s a question for another day.)

Our midrash imagines that the image of Yosef’s father appeared to him at a
moment, and caused him to reconsider not through a rebuke, but by a question: is
really what you want? I think there’s a deep truth in this story: what we call
often takes the form of a question embedded in a cherished relationship. Let me
give you
an example: in rabbinical school, I once heard a dean say that his guide to
actions as a
rabbi and rabbinical school administrator was to imagine his own mentor standing
in the
room with him. My teacher’s question, directed to himself, was: would my
teacher approve of what I’m about to do or say?

There are big, difficult books which attempt to lay out a philosophical
foundation for
ethical action. Similarly, there are religious teachings, articles in psychology
and sociology,
and all sorts of other attempts to think about what it means to act in ways that
consistent and good. These books and articles can be incredibly helpful in
thinking about
one’s own moral inventory, and I don’t at all mean to discount intellectual
resources in
developing one’s ethical depth.

Yet there is another form that conscience takes, and that is the form of those
we admire.
We all have our moral heroes- people we experience as good, as people of
generosity, and a consistent moral compass. So sometimes we ask: what would my
(fill in:
grandfather, teacher, rabbi, mother, aunt, neighbor . . . ) think of what I’m
about to do?
Would they be proud of me? Could I look that person in the eye tomorrow and tell
exactly what I did?

This more intimate, intuitive form of conscience is how I understand what the
rabbis are
teaching about Yosef’s experience: in seeing his father, he forced himself to
ask questions
about family values, moral legacy, and true integrity. There is never “nobody
else in the
house” when we are forced to confront difficult temptations- we are always
by the spirit of those who have inspired us, and who can continue to guide us
long after we are separated physically.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- we’ll have a short Hanukkah message on Sunday morning or early next week. In
meantime, you can find the text and additional commentary on Vayeishev here:

and Hanukkah customs and history here:

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Vayeshev: Appearances Can Be Distracting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

Dear Friends: As of December 1, I’m on sabbatical, and traveling around a bit.
I promise you, I will do the best I can to produce some Torah commentary
every week, and when I get to Israel, I hope to use this list for some travel
reporting, too. However, don’t be surprised if the Torah commentaries get sent
out on different days of the week- when I travel I’ll have internet access, but
not at all times. You can still reach me at the email address above, which is
getting forwarded to a portable account.

Better yet, tell your friends to sign up- we’re growing fast!

With that disclaimer, here’s Vayeshev:

Vayeshev begins with a mention of Ya’akov, but from this portion on, the book
of Genesis is really more concerned with Ya’akov’s favorite son Yosef.
Ya’akov’s other sons certainly know that Yosef is the favorite son of the
favorite wife (remember, Ya’akov had two wives and two concubines, who
bore him 12 sons and a daughter), which causes them to be greatly resentful.
So much so that they throw Yosef in a pit, sell him into slavery, and report to
their father that his youngest son is dead.

While it’s never so nice to blame the victim, it’s also true that Yosef seems
arrogant and immature when we first meet him as a young man. He “tattle-
tales” on his brothers and wears the special coat his father gives him,
seemingly oblivious to the feelings which arise in his siblings. In fact, the
Torah gives us a strong hint of Yosef’s self-centeredness:

“These are the generations of Jacob: when Joseph was seventeen years old,
being a shepherd, he was with his brothers with the flocks, and he was a lad .
. . . ” [Genesis 37: 2]

Notice something here? If we’re told that Yosef is 17 years old, we shouldn’t
need to be told he was a “lad” [or “young man’]. Aren’t all 17 year-olds “young
men?” Our teacher Rashi explains that “he was a lad” refers to Yosef’s
behavior, which was “young” or childish. More specifically, Rashi quotes an
earlier midrash [ancient Bible commentary] to the effect that Yosef spent a lot
of time on his hair and his eyes, making them handsome and stylish.

Thus, “he was a lad” refers not just to Yosef’s age, but to his maturity, and
what’s interesting to me is that Rashi and the earlier books equate Yosef’s
lack of maturity with an excessive concern for physical appearance. This
might be especially true given the context of the verse, which tells us that
Yosef was out helping his older brothers in the fields- in other words, he’s
supposed to be working, but instead he’s more concerned about his haircut
than his father’s animals !

However, I don’t think Rashi was primarily concerned with Yosef’s work
habits, whatever they were. Rather, I think Rashi is linking Yosef’s disregard
for the feelings of others to his vanity and focus on externalities. To put it
another way, somebody who’s mostly worried about his appearance may not
be paying attention to vastly more important matters, such as the wounded
emotions and built-up resentments all around him.

While there’s nothing wrong with being presentable,* and it’s certainly
considered good manners to dress respectfully for synagogue and other
important occasions, it’s also true that excessive concern for appearance can
distract a person from the more urgent and significant tasks of living. In
Judaism, clothes do not make the man- in the realm of religious values, a
person’s sensitivity counts for far more than his or her style. Immaturity, in
Yosef’s case, is focussing on something temporary and faddish, to the extent
that it harms the enduring bonds of emotional covenant which Judaism holds
out as the highest possibility of a mature and thoughtful spirit.

On that note, it’s interesting to contrast Yosef as a “lad” of 17 with the Yosef
who is the “Prime Minister” of Pharaohs Egypt. In chapter 45, which takes
place years after Yosef is separated from his brothers, he is reunited and
reconciled with them, in a reunion marked by tears and embracing. At this
later point in his life, Yosef is more concerned with emotional reality than
composure, and weeps openly when he is finally able to reveal his identity to
his long-lost family.

As a young man, concerned with childish things, Yosef spent his time fixing
up his eyes to fit himself to the latest styles; as a mature man who has seen
tragedy, loneliness, temptation and vindication, Yosef is willing to let the
flow freely, to show his truest and deepest self to his newly reconciled
brothers. Yosef’s emotional freedom seems to come at the expense of his
vanity and self-consciousness, and perhaps we can see his tears of
reconciliation as the reward of maturity and a deeper perspective.

*All comments about my neckwear and shoe selections will be dutifully

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Vayeshev 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

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.

VaYeshev (Gen. 37:1-40:23)


Just as Yaakov was the favored son of his mother, Yaakov’s son Yosef is his own favored son. Yosef’s brothers conspire to throw him in a pit, from which he was sold into slavery. He ends up in Egypt, as the servant of a man called Potiphar. Meanwhile, his brother Yehudah is having problems of his own; his sons die childless, and he refuses to give his daughter-in-law Tamar to his youngest son so she may have children. She entices Yehudah to sleep with her, and is vindicated as righteous. Potiphar’s wife desires Yosef, and when he refuses, he is thrown into prison, where he is protected by God.


“They took him and they cast him into a pit- the pit was empty, no water was in it. ” (Genesis 37:24)


Yosef’s brothers are resentful of his apparently arrogant behavior; they first intend to kill him, but one of the eldest, Ruven, pleads with the others that they must not kill Yosef. Ruven intends to rescue him later, but before he can return, Yosef is sold to a passing caravan. (For more on the relationship between Yosef and his brothers, see last year’s commentary on Vayeshev in our parsha archives.)


If you’ve been following Kolel’s weekly parsha commentaries, you know by now that rabbinic commentaries love to find weird syntax or extra words in the Torah- anything unusual is an opening for imaginative interpretation. A classic example is this week’s verse- if the pit was empty, why does the verse have to say that there was no water in it? Obviously, if something is “empty,” it doesn’t have water or anything else in it!

Rashbam [a descendant of Rashi] interprets “no water was in it” as a subtle hint that Yosef’s brothers didn’t really intend to kill him, because throwing him into a pit of water would have surely caused him to drown. Rashi, following early midrashim, explains “no water was in it” as “water wasn’t in it, but snakes and scorpions were in it.” In other words, telling us that water, specifically, was not in the pit gives Rashi a midrashic opening to say that snakes and scorpions were in the pit. By mentioning water, the commentators assume that the verse is hinting that the pit wasn’t really totally empty.

Now, this might seem like a stretch, because you could just assume that most pits were used as wells or cisterns, and the verse is merely telling us that this particular space was dry at the time. So what would Rashi’s motivation be in telling us about snakes and scorpions? Perhaps this midrash emphasizes the miraculous quality of Yosef’s journey. We learn a bit later on, when Yosef is thrown into prison in Egypt, that “God was with him” even in the dungeon, so by saying that Yosef survived being in a pit full of snakes and scorpions, you could infer that “God was with him” in this pit too. (Cf. Genesis 39:21)

R. Moshe Alshich, who lived in Israel in the 16th century, connects the “snakes and scorpions” to Yosef’s earlier tattling on his brothers. In 37:3, Yosef is described as bringing “bad reports” to his father about his brothers’ behavior in the fields while tending the flocks. Thus, according to Alshich, the brothers’ revenge was kind of a test; by throwing Yosef into a pit with snakes in it, they would find out if he was guilty of speaking lies and slander about them. In other words, if the snakes bit him, he was guilty, and if not, he was innocent. Alshich makes the symbolic connection of snakes and slander because of the snake in the Garden of Eden, who is understood to have spoken deceitfully.

At this point one could say we’re far away from the plain meaning of the text, but actually, I think we’re very close to the spiritual intent of the story. Imagining Yosef as sitting in a dark pit surrounded by snakes- symbolic of the destructive power of speech- is a way of describing his acute and total estrangement from his brothers. He’s “down in the pits,” as it were, and forced to confront his own responsibility for his brother’s ill feelings. He can’t escape the “snakes,” or the wrongful things that he said, which surround him at this terrible, lonely moment.

The good news is that estrangement doesn’t have to last forever. Yosef’s journey is a long one, taking many chapters to play out, but it begins at the moment he confronts his own deeds, which to me is the meaning of our midrash. You might have a time in your life which is “the pits,” but it can also be a new beginning.

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