Wake Up, Wake Up! (5777/2017)
Don’t stress, and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here into slavery; actually God sent me ahead of you to save lives — says Joseph to his brothers. (Gen. 45:5)
At what point does Joseph clearly discern God’s plan for his work in Egypt?
Torah offers an answer: vayehi miketz shnatayim (Gen. 41:1)
Here is a literal, conventional translation: It happened at the end of two years.
And here is a literal, less conventional translation: It happened after waking up from two sleeps.
The two translations are connected. At the end of two years, Pharaoh wakes from two sleeps, each with a similarly disturbing dream. After each dream, Torah says: vayikatz Paroh, Pharaoh woke up.
But from what does Pharaoh wake up? Does he wake, like Jacob, from a sleep? If so, from what kind of sleep?
After Jacob dreams of the ladder, Torah says, vayikatz Ya’akov mishnato, Jacob woke up from his sleep (Gen 28:16). Jacob wakes up, and interprets his own dream, saying, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” Jacob seems to have woken up from two kinds of sleep: a physical sleep, and a spiritual sleep. He now sees the everyday waking world, and the presence of God within it.
Pharaoh, however, cannot interpret his own dream. He has awakened only from a physical sleep. When Joseph hears the dream, however, Joseph awakes from a spiritual sleep. Joseph sees that God has intertwined his fate with Pharaoh’s fate. He says, “What God does has been shown to Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:28).
Vayehi miketz shnatayim. It happened after two people awoke: after Pharaoh woke from his dream, and after Joseph woke to a new spiritual consciousness.
What would it take for you to see anew the presence of God in your life? Motivated by your new vision, what would you do differently?
Is Joseph a Robber Baron? (5777/2017)
Torah portrays characters with unflinching honesty. Take Joseph, for example. Handsome, smart, insightful, spiritual, a quick study — and maybe a little arrogant. Forgiving towards his brothers — except for the impulsive, violent bully Simon, whom he imprisons indefinitely. A visionary architect of national food security in famine and guarantor of his family’s livelihood — and a master of taxation, who turned Egypt’s landowners into tenant farmers.
On balance, is Joseph good or bad?
From Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph correctly predicts seven years of abundant harvest, followed by seven years of famine. During the seven years of plenty, he taxes the grain farmers, collecting surplus produce in royal storage cities. As the famine begins, he invites farmers to buy back their own produce from the Pharaoh. Within a few years, farmers have spent their savings. They offer Joseph their working animals in exchange for Pharaoh’s grain. A year later, bereft of resources, they offer their land and labor to Pharaoh in exchange for seed. Joseph agrees, negotiating 20% of the land’s annual yield for its new royal owner and 80% for the tenant farmer. And, recognizing how hard farm life has become, he moves as many people as he can into cities.
I used to think Joseph was a robber baron. But now I’m reading Molly Ivins’ book Bushwhacked, a critique of oligarchy in the U.S. I have read about the gutting of unemployment benefits, the reorganization of education to benefit giant test corporations, the lowering of taxes on the wealthy, the shrinking of the EPA and the sham of “voluntary compliance” with its regulations. In comparison, I now think Joseph is a saint. Yes, he enriches his boss Pharaoh. But Pharaoh worries about the country’s sustainability. And Joseph believes the government should take care of the people. Together, they take climate change very, very seriously.
Archetype of Wisdom (5774/2013)
Literally, archetypes are “primal patterns.” As psychologist C.G. Jung sees it, these patterns are common to the human psyche in all times and places.
Surprise! Characters in the book of Bereisheet bring to life many archetypal behavior patterns.
In Bereisheet we find: Search for Self (higher consciousness sought by Eve); Seeking (Abraham following God’s call to journey into the unknown); Wise Elder (Melchizedek, priest of the Highest God, who blesses Abraham); Mother (including the overprotective Sarah and the unskilled Hagar, both of whom are good-enough parents); Eternal Child (Isaac, remaining innocent and open-hearted into his old age); Twins of Ego and Shadow (Rachel and Leah, each grieving over what she lacks, and blaming the other… until they collaborate and speak in one voice); and Trickster (Rebekah, her brother Laban, and her son Jacob, who break social, interpersonal and economic rules to bring about a greater good).
All these characters are woven into a final story dramatizing the growth of wisdom. As a child, Joseph is called by his dreams to Seek the Self. His older, widowed, overprotective Father hopes to keep him close, as an Eternal Child. He projects all negativity onto his eleven Shadow brothers, speaking badly of them; they act in parallel, bullying him. The Shadow brothers send him on a journey into harsh adulthood where he is forced to create a life for himself. Ten years into this journey, he meets Pharaoh, who recognizes Joseph as a Wise Elder, rewarding him with heavy responsibility. The Shadow brothers show up, Joseph plays the Trickster, forcing a two-sided reconciliation and re-integration.
Do you recognize any of these characters as aspects of yourself? How have they helped you mature, reconcile, re-integrate and find wisdom?
Economic Enslavement (5773/2012)
When the famine becomes severe in Egypt, Yosef allows the Egyptians to buy back the grain they had been required to store in Pharaoh’s granaries. When the money is spent, he allows them to pay with cattle. In the second year of the famine, they offer all they have left — their bodies and labor. Yosef buys their land for Pharaoh and moves them into cities. In the future, he says, they could work Pharaoh’s land, and keep four-fifths of the produce for themselves.
Why do the people suggest this? Perhaps they think their world will come to an end if they don’t do something quickly. But the world does not end, and their action has long-term implications. Torah says, “Yosef made it a law over the land of Egypt to this day.” In modern times, too, desperate people sometimes embrace bonded labor as a short-term solution. But many families are unable to amass enough money to survive and get ahead of debt. Some sell their young children’s services to keep from starving, establishing generations of slavery.
Why does Yosef agree to it? He and his family live well; surely they do not imagine their world coming to an end. Ramban says Yosef seizes the opportunity to help his employer, taking as much as possible for Pharaoh and none for himself. Nachum Sarna says Yosef allows the people to be partners in problem-solving, and accepts their proposal.
If you find Yosef’s actions disturbing, think about how you can counter them in your own life. Even as a consumer, you can buy fair trade goods, put money into corporations that avoid slave labor, and donate to social justice organizations before this tax year ends.
Let Torah move you to action!
Inspired by Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Rabbis for Human Rights, and AJWS
Choosing Courage (5771/2010)
Yehuda approached, and said, “Oh my lord, let your servant, I beg you, speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant; for you are as Pharaoh.” (Bereisheet/Genesis 44:18)
Yehuda, a foreigner in need, accused of a crime, approaches the powerful angry Egyptian Minister of Food Security, to explain why he cannot surrender his youngest brother to the Minister.
The feelings tied up in Yehuda’s appeal are profound. Yehuda had saved his brother Yosef from death only to sell him into slavery. He had lied to their father, saying Yosef was actually dead. Years later, two of his own sons died of illness. Now he steps forward to share the feelings of a grieving parent with a man whose inner life he knows nothing about. After Yehuda speaks, the Minister reveals that he his Yehuda’s brother Yosef.
Classical medieval commentator Ramban sees a brave but frightened Yehuda, whose words imply, “I am as nervous speaking to you as I would be speaking to Paroh. So, I’m not going to bother you, but I’m going to say only one thing: spare my youngest brother.” Rashi sees a passionate, confident Yehuda who speaks sharply to the Minister, and implicitly threatens him. “You are as corrupt as Paroh, and will get your comeuppance.”
This week, members of Or Shalom’s leyning class will approach the bimah. Some will read from the Torah publicly for the very first time. We don’t know what hidden stories motivated them to come forward. Some may be confident, others nervous. We applaud their courage, and hope they will find out that we are their spiritual siblings, in full support of their efforts.
Forgiveness and Atonement (5766/2005)
Does forgiveness take place when a victim decides to stop being trapped by the past? Or can a victim only forgive when the perpetrator repents?
Yosef, once put in a pit by his older brothers, sold into slavery and taken for dead, is now a high-ranking Egyptian minister. His older brothers, who have come to Egypt to buy food from him, do not recognize him. Yosef frames his younger brother Binyamin for theft, threatens to throw him into a dungeon, and take him as a slave. Fortunately, the older brothers choose to prevent Binyamin from going through what they put Yosef through.
Only then does Yosef “make himself known” to his brothers, opening himself to the possibility of new relationship. Yet when he reveals himself, he tells his brothers not to feel guilty about their past abusive treatment of him. “It was all part of God’s plan to bring me to this place,” he says. It seems he has already forgiven them; yet he waits for evidence of their repentance before letting them know.
Perhaps this story illustrates the inseparability of inner change and interpersonal forgiveness. Only after the brothers have been parents themselves do they act and speak differently; only after Yosef has reframed the story of his life is he ready to accept his brothers’ apology. At Yom Kippur, we are asked to engage in all the parts of this process: examine ourselves, ask forgiveness, and accept apologies from others.Inspired by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Dr. Barry Gan Image for “Archetypes”: freys.deviantart.com