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Torah Sparks

January 3, 2004 - 5764

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Annual Cycle: Genesis 44:18-47:27 - Hertz, p. 169; Etz Hayim, p. 274|
Triennial Cycle 3: Genesis 46:28-47:27 - Hertz, p. 174; Etz Hayim, p. 283
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28 - Hertz, p. 178; Etz Hayim, p. 290

Discussion Theme: The Blessings and Dangers of Change

Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh, saying, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen.” And selecting a few of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” They answered Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers. We have come,” they told Pharaoh, “to sojourn in this land, for there is no pasture for your servant’s flocks, the famine being severe in the land of Canaan. Pray, then, let your servants stay in the region of Goshen.” (Genesis 47:1-4)


  1. Joseph had asked his brothers to stress that they were breeders of livestock (46:33-34), because Egyptians held shepherds in low esteem. When Pharaoh asks the brothers what are their occupation, they answer that they are shepherds, like their fathers. Why did they ignore Joseph’s request? At one level, we can speculate that Joseph was the first of Abraham’s line to grow up outside the Land and be integrated into the highest levels of foreign society. His brothers, by contrast, grew up in the Land and see nothing embarrassing about being shepherds. (For that matter, neither does Pharaoh, who responds to their professional pride by putting them in charge of the royal flocks and herds.) We can see this passage as reflecting the healthy self-esteem of a people raised in their own land, in contrast to the concern of Diaspora Jews as to what their neighbors think of them. Joseph, despite his prominence and power, does not seem completely secure about his place in Egyptian society and finds it necessary to conceal part of his identity. At the same time, however, we can appreciate Joseph’s sensitivity to the feelings of his Egyptian neighbors. Jewish law and custom legitimates adjusting our behavior “for the sake of ways of peace” (mi-p’nei darkhei shalom), furthering good relations with those around us by avoiding giving offense to their values and sensibilities. (Rabbi Harold Kushner, Etz Hayim, Genesis 47:3)
  2. Rabbi Abaye raised the following question: Is an obligation deduced from the principle mipnei darkhei shalom rabbinic in origin, or is it considered d'oraita, from the Torah itself? Rabbi Yosef answered that not only is it from the Torah, but that the entirety of the Torah is itself mipnei darkhei shalom -- for the sake of peace. (Talmud Gittin 59a)
  3. In former times, whoever could recite the prescribed words of the first fruits ceremony recited them. Whoever could not recite them repeated the words after the priest; but when people refrained from bringing their fruits out of embarrassment, it was enacted that both those who could recite them and those who could not should repeat the words after the priest in order not to embarrass anyone. (Mishna Bikkurim 3:7)
  4. Our Rabbis taught: In former times, they used to convey food to a house of mourning, the rich in silver and gold baskets and the poor in wicker baskets of peeled willow twigs, and the poor felt ashamed. They therefore enacted that all should convey food in wicker baskets of peeled willow twigs out of deference to the poor… In former times, they used to bring out the rich for burial on an expensive couch and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor felt ashamed. They therefore enacted that all should be brought out on a plain bier, out of deference to the poor. In former times, the expense of burial shrouds was more difficult for a man’s relatives than his death so that the dead man’s relatives abandoned him and fled. Until Rabban Gamliel came and, disregarding his own dignity, was buried in plain white flaxen shrouds and thereafter the people followed his lead. (Talmud Moed Katan 27a-b)
  5. Our rabbis taught: In former times, the mourners used to stand still while the people passed by to comfort them. But there were two families in Jerusalem who quarreled with one another, each maintaining: “We shall pass first.” So the Rabbis enacted that the public should remain standing, while the mourners pass by. (Talmud Sanhedrin 19a)
  6. The words of the Sages must be understood according to the time, the place and the individual, for otherwise we will be denying their words just as the Karaites deny the written Torah, since there is no end to the number of things forbidden by the Sages which became permitted as the time and place changed. (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Modena, 1571-1648)
  7. Since the holy Torah was given to mortal men, who are liable to be influenced by changes with the passage of time and the changing of rulers and decrees, of nature and climate, of cities and countries. For this reason, all the words of the Torah were given without clear definition, with great wisdom, and can therefore receive every true interpretation at all times. (Rabbi Eliyahu Hazan, Egypt, 1874)

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