This Shabbat, we come to the climax of the Joseph story, when Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.
In the story up until now, Joseph toys with his family, who do not know who he is. He manipulates his brothers into bringing Benjamin down to Egypt. Then, just before our reading begins, he plants a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack and tells the brothers that the so-called “thief” will have to remain behind in Egypt as his slave.
As our parashah begins, Judah begins to plead for Benjamin’s return.
“Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord [literally: speak a word into the ears of my lord], and do not be angry with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh” [Gen. 44:18].
At the end of this speech, “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out,
‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’, so there was no one else around when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear…” [Gen.45:1-2]
Food for thought:
In what ways was Joseph “the equal of Pharaoh”?
Read Judah’s speech carefully. What was the turning point? What do you think was the moment that resulted in Joseph losing the control over himself that he had managed to maintain through his entire sojourn in Egypt, and through his entire visit with his brothers? Why now?
This episode is a beautiful example of teshuvah, which can be described as not only repenting of one’s sin, but demonstrating that if you were put into the same circumstance again, you would not act the same way.
What was Judah’s sin? How did he demonstrate his teshuvah (true repentance)?
There was famine in the land – as there had been in the time of Abraham. Isaac, like his father, prepares to go down to Egypt, but God says – don’t go there! And God reiterates the blessing that he gave to Abraham – “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign them all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants."
So Isaac stays in Gerar, a land near the Negev, which we know as Be’er Sheva. This land is under the domain of the Philistines, with their king Abimelech. In the previous generation, Abraham had said that Sarah was his sister, and she was taken by Abimelech – until he found out the truth. (Genesis 20:1-18) Later, although Abraham and Abimelech agreed to live in peace, side by side, the servants of Abimelech seized the wells of water, which Abraham had dug in that area. The two renewed their pact to live peacefully, and the area was named Be’ersheva – meaning “well of oath” or “well of seven”.(Genesis 21:22 – 34)
I tell you this because we are going to revisit the story in Isaac’s generation. First, we have a version of the “wife-sister story.” In this iteration, Abimelech sees Isaac and his wife engaged in a public display of affection, and realizes that Rebecca is wife, not sister. Abimelech protects her from any molestation by the people.
Then, Isaac, like his father before him, shows a knack for acquiring wealth, and as with his father, the Philistines envy him, and they stop up the wells that were Abraham’s. Abimelech tells Isaac it is time to move on.
Isaac moved further on. He found wells that had been dug by his father, and filled in by the Philistines. He re-dug these wells, naming them with the same names his father used. He also found new wells, again the source of dispute with the local herdsman, until finally, he was left in peace.
God again blessed Isaac “Fear not, I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring for the sake of My servant Abraham”. [Genesis 26:24] Also, Isaac and Abimelech again made peace.
Food for thought:
What do you think of the repetition of the story of Abraham and Abimelech by Isaac, in the next generation?
What might the digging and filling of wells represent?
In shul this Shabbat, we'll discuss these issues through the lenses of (1) the immigrant expericnce, and (2) L'dor va dor (from generation to generation)
We are in the middle of the story of Abraham, founder of monotheism, our forefather.
Abraham sits by his tent, and despite the heat of the day, he rushes out to great three “men”, unbeknownst to him, angels. Displaying the hospitality that he has become famous for modeling to us, he provides water for them to wash their feet, sits them down, and asks Sarah to prepare a beautiful meal for them.
The men prophesy that Sarah would give birth to a son – despite the advanced age of her and her husband. And they head off down the road to the town of Sodom.
And then, a strange thing happens. We hear God deliberating out loud about what the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah should be. And God says:
‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.’ Then the Lord said, ‘The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.’ [18:17 – 21, p. 102]
This is the point that Abraham addresses God, with his famous inquiry:
“Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?’” [18:23]
Food for thought:
Why does God want to tell Abraham about his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah?
Does God require Abraham’s advice, in order to decide what to do? or Abraham’s permission to go ahead with His planned destruction? Explain your answer.
Parashat Lekh L'kha
Our parashah begins with the story of Abraham, here still Abram. God tells him to leave the land of his birth, and to go to an as yet undisclosed location:
‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.’ [Gen. 12:1-3]
And Abram went forth as God had commanded him.
Food for thought:
Why does God choose Abram?
How does Abram respond?
What does God promise Abram? What does Abram have to do for the promise to be fulfilled?
What can we learn for our own lives, from God’s command and Abram’s response?
Parashat Bereshit...we begin anew!
And so we start again – Bereshit – In the beginning of everything - before the world was created, before the Torah was written. And in our parashah we read of God’s creation on the first six days. In 30 short verses, we have all of creation.
Rashi – our famous 10th century French Rabbi and wine-producer – quotes a midrash which asks the following question:
If the Torah is supposed to be a blueprint for the way we Jews are to live our lives, why does it start all the way back at the beginning of creation? Shouldn’t the Torah start with the first commandment that God gave to the Jewish people?
That first commandment for the way we should live is not found until the book of Exodus. It comes just before the last plague, just before the Israelites leave Egypt.
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household” [for the Passover sacrifice].
(Exodus 12:1 – 3)
This is our first official ritual, the beginning of our calendar and the first act that the Israelites are commanded to do. So why doesn't the Torah start here?
Food for thought:
What do you think? What is your answer to this question?
On Shabbat we'll talk about your answers, and some answers from our tradition.
This Shabbat we read the song that Moses read to the Israelites, just before he died. Here are some excerpts and some Food For Thought questions:
"He found them in a wilderness region; in an empty howling waste. He engirded him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye." [Deut 32:10]
Why does it say God found the Israelites in the wilderness? (text above)
"So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked; you grew fat and gross and coarse; he forsook the God who made him, and spurned the Rock of his support." [Deut 32:15]
Jeshurun is Israel. Why is “grew fat and kicked” a metaphor for the Israelites going astray? (text above)
"But for fear of the taunts of the foe; their enemies who might misjudge and say, ‘Our own hand has prevailed; none of this was wrought by the Lord." [Deut 32: 27]
The above text gives a reason for why God decided to save the Israelites. What is God's reason?
“Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan.” [Deut 32: 46-47]
What does this mean to you? “For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life"?
Why does the Torah end on the east side of the Jordan, BEFORE the people Israel enter the promised land?
It is clear Moses is beginning to wind down his long speech to the Israelites. He begins to allude to his death.
“I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.'” [Deut 31:2]
“The Lord said to Moses: The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, that I may instruct him.” [Deut 31:14]
We don’t learn about the actual death of Moses until the last parashah in the Torah, which we read on Simchat Torah. Here is what it says:
“ Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land…And the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will assign it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there. So, Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated. And the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days. Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out, face to face.”
Food for thought:
We don’t know much about the death of Moses; he seems to have died alone, but for God, and to have been buried by God, in an unknown place. The midrash imagines what his last hours might have been like.
Imagine that you were able to witness the death of Moses. How do you imagine his last moments there with God on Mount Nebo?
Was he content? or did he "rage against the dying of the light" (to quote the poet Dylan Thomas)?
In shul on Shabbat, we will explore a detailed midrash, imagining this scene.
This parashah is the climax of Moses’ speech to the Israelites, entreating them to keep the covenant that God made with them on Mount Sinai, when they received the Torah, and said, “we will do, and we will listen.” Here are the words of Moses:
“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer – to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” [Deut 29:9 – 14]
Food for thought:
Why does Moses list different categories of people?
What is the importance of who is included in this list?
What does the covenant imply, according to this statement?
What does it mean that the covenant is with “those who are standing here with us this day” and “those who are not with us here this day”?
“Surely this Instruction (mitzvah) which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.” [Deut 30:11 – 14]
More food for thought:
What does this mean, for you?
Parashat Ki Tavo
With today’s parashah, we are nearing the climax of Moses’s address to the Israelites. He begins by describing the ceremony that they are to enact, immediately upon crossing the Jordan River, into the promised land, a ceremony that will impress upon the people the blessings that await them if they are true to the covenant, and the curses that violation of the commandments will bring.
At the end of the parashah, Moses begins to sum up his long speech, as follows:
“You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country; the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those great signs and marvels. Yet, to this day, the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” [Deuteronomy 29:1 - 3]
Food for thought:
What do you think the bolded part of this verse means?
Parashat Ki Tetzei
This parashah has more laws than any other parashah. Many of them are directly relevant to today; others less so. However, even for those less relevant, it is often useful to analyze them to see what the underlying value of the law is – in this way, we can learn lessons even from more obscure Torah laws.
1) “You shall not oppress a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow country man or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.” [Deut 24:14 -15]
2) “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing.” [Deut 25.4]
3) “When there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and a decision is rendered declaring the one in the right and the other in the wrong – if the guilty one is to be flogged, the magistrate shall have him lie down and be given lashes in his presence, by count, as his guilt warrants. He may be given up to forty lashes, but not more, lest being flogged further to excess your brother be degraded before your eyes." [Deut 25:1 – 3]
Food for thought:
What are the values at the heart of each one of these laws?
How can we apply lessons learned by these values to our world today?
“If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements, in the land that the lord your god is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission of debts is approaching”, so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” [Deut 15:7 – 11]
Food for thought:
What do we learn from this about the Jewish approach to tzedakah?
Who is obligated to give?
What should we give?
How should we order our priorities for giving?
What should be our attitude toward giving?
We will discuss all this and more on Shabbat, August 31. See you in shul!