Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It was red and yellow and green and brown and...

20 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 22-23, 2013

This week’s portion, Vayeshev, contains a significant chunk of the Joseph narrative.  Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, and the wearer of a “coat of many colors.”  He also had a knack for having vivid dreams, and then sharing them with his siblings – even if their content was sure to enrage them.  Needless to say, he was young and immature.

His siblings harbor such hate for him (some of that is on Jacob for playing favorites to be sure) that they conspire to kill him, until eldest bother Reuben intercedes on his behalf.  The brothers settle on throwing Joseph into a pit, and when Reuben leaves, they sell him as a slave to passing travelers and lead their father to believe that a wild animal killed him.

Joseph ends up a servant in Egypt to a powerful man named Potiphar, and is given a considerable amount of power and influence in the home.  Potiphar’s wife notices Joseph’s talents and pursues hard.  Upon repeatedly being rejected, she falsely accuses him of attempted rape, and he ends up in jail.

And yet even in jail, he is given significant responsibilities by the guards, and has the chance to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and butler respectively (which turns out great for the butler, and poorly for the baker).  His one request to the butler was to remember him once he was reinstated in Pharaoh’s court – which the butler fails to do.

Also in this portion is a seemingly random interlude between Judah (one of Jacob’s sons) and his daughter in law Tamar, who tricks him into knocking her up (he thought she was a lady of the night…).  In the end, Judah takes responsibility for his actions and shortcomings.

I can’t help but be struck by the amazing juxtaposition between last week’s portion, where Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi slaughter an entire town’s male population in order to defend their sister’s honor, and this week’s, where they, along with their brothers, are prepared to kill their own brother!  Joseph may have been an incredibly annoying little brother who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, but there’s nothing in the text that suggests the desire to kill him was a rational response on the part of his brothers. Where does their intense hatred come from?  Did they find thrill in their previous killings, and crave more bloodshed?  If so, why didn’t they simply kill Joseph when Reuben left, rather than selling him into slavery?  And how could they live with themselves, knowing what they had done, and knowing the incredible pain they had caused their father?

One of the most frustrating portions of the narrative to me is that the story closely follows the adventures of Joseph after he is sold, but doesn’t tell us much about what’s going on with the brothers, until many years later when we learn there’s a famine in the land (and ultimately, they are reunited).  In some ways, that’s why it’s almost refreshing to have the Judah and Tamar interlude included in this week’s portion (as weird as it is) – to remind us that there were 11 other brothers who each had their own life trials and tribulations leading up to (spoiler alert!) the eventual reconciliation with Joseph in Egypt.  The brothers had to grow up themselves before they would be able to pass Joseph’s tests, and as a result of passing, have their lives spared from starvation. 

Joseph too had to grow up, and demonstrates his maturity by noting the overarching Divine plan that while not great for him personally at times, allowed for his entire family to be saved.

We are all, as human beings, on our own unique paths.  Some of us grow up more quickly than others.  Some need more time to develop.  Some need to get anger and hatred out of their systems.  In the end, we need to respect the process of the journey, own up to our shortcomings, acknowledge that we all have room to grow, and trust that things will fall into place. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Brothers and Sisters

13 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 15-16, 2013

In this week’s portion, Vayishlach, Jacob’s past catches up with him (or rather, is heading right towards him with 400 men), as he prepares to encounter his brother Esau for the first time in over 20 years.  Jacob obviously is fearful about this encounter, given that he not only traded Esau some stew for his birthright, but also stole Esau’s blessing from Isaac by disguising himself and lying to his father.  I suppose you could say his fears were well founded.

Often lost in the hustle and bustle of the narrative is the reality that in addition to being a man who played favorites with his wife and children and who had some shady dealings with his uncle Laban, Jacob was a terrible brother.  We could argue that it was his preordained destiny (/ God’s plan for him) to steal both Esau’s birthright and blessing, but ultimately, I can’t help but struggle with the fact that we’re the descendants of someone (and we celebrate such!) who would treat his own kin so poorly.

You’d like to think that Jacob’s shortcomings didn’t rub off on his own children, and we find a compelling (positive?) example later in this week’s portion when two of Jacob’s sons (Simeon and Levi) slaughter an entire town for their sake of their sister Dinah’s honor.  And yet, we know that ultimately, Jacob’s sons have such hatred for their brother Joseph (Jacob’s favorite) that they sell him into slavery.

At the end of this week’s portion, Jacob and Esau, despite their historic differences and subsequent reconciliation, bury their father Isaac together. 

This Shabbat, examine your relationship with your siblings (and if you don’t have siblings, with your family in general).  Do you get along?  Do you treat each other with respect and honor?  Even if your relationships are already strong, resolve to take meaningful steps to improve upon them and show your love.  Be generous.  Be kind.  Be forgiving.  Be family.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

All You Need Is Love

6 Kislev 5774 / Nov. 8-9, 2013

In this week’s portion, Vayetzeh, we find one of most intriguing love stories in the Bible.  Jacob lays eyes on Rachel for the first time (yes she was his first cousin; no that wasn’t weird at the time), and knows that they’re meant to be together.  He immediately proceeds to water her flocks for her, and lets her know who he is and his relationship to her.  After a month of serving in her father Laban’s house, he is asked what his desired wages are.  He says that he’d be willing to work seven years for the privilege of marrying her.  Laban agrees to the deal, and the Torah tells us that those seven years “seemed for him but a few days because of his love for her.”

As most love stories do, this one has a bit of an interesting twist.  When the time comes to marry Rachel, his uncle throws a feast and ultimately tricks Jacob by having him marry Rachel’s older sister, Leah (setting Leah up for a lifetime of feeling disappointed and unloved by her husband, given his passion for her sister).  Laban tells Jacob that he can also have Rachel as a wife (as soon as next week!), provided Jacob agrees to work another seven years.  Jacob agrees to these news terms, and a week later, Rachel becomes his second wife (with two concubines to shortly follow – quite the family unit!).

Ultimately, Jacob has to work for 14 years in order to marry Rachel (7 before marrying her, and 7 after).

Granted, Biblical years and contemporary years don’t always match up (Biblical lifespans were just a bit longer than ours today…), but the amount of work that Jacob was willing to do in order to “earn” the right to marry Rachel is truly incredible. 

As we all know, relationships are hard work.  Most of us don’t necessarily think of manual labor (or shepherding) as constituting such work, but it’s a meaningful metaphor for us to learn from.  Jacob models for us the fact that we should be willing to work our butts off, over an extended period of time, for those we love.  For some, this means investing in their relationships and deepening self-understanding, putting personal dreams on hold for the benefit of your family, and/or simply doing what needs to get done in order to put food on the table.  For others, such as our military families who are often apart from their loved ones for months at a time, hard work for love takes on a similarly powerful meaning.

This Shabbat, reflect on the lengths you would go to for love.  Are you being healthily selfless when called upon to be such in your relationships?  Are you willing/able to put the happiness and well-being of others ahead of your own?  Where do you draw the line and why? What are you willing to work hard for?

Wishing you a Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Dan