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Torah Sparks

December 31, 2005 - 30 Kislev 5766

Annual: Genesis 41:1-44:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 250; Hertz p. 155)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 41:53-43:15 (Etz Hayim, p. 257; Hertz p. 158)
Maftir: Numbers 28:9 - 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 506; Hertz p. 340)
Haftarah: Zehariah 2:14 - 4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


The saga of Joseph and his brothers continues. Pharaoh dreams of seven fat, healthy cows coming forth from the Nile. Seven skinny, unhealthy cows then come forth and swallow the healthy cows. A second dream is similar, with seven healthy stalks of grain being swallowed by seven windblown, scraggly stalks. Pharaoh seeks an interpretation, and the cupbearer remembers Joseph in prison. Joseph is brought before Pharaoh.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dreams. Seven years of plenty will come, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph, not shy about speaking out, recommends that Pharaoh appoint a man to oversee food storage during the healthy years. Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his overseer, giving him a royal ring, and Asnath the daughter of Poti Phera (Potiphar?) as a wife. Joseph stores food during the years of plenty, preparing for the famine, and becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt.

The famine also hits Canaan. Joseph's brothers, with the exception of Benjamin, come down to Egypt to buy food. They do not recognize Joseph. He speaks harshly to them and accuses them of being spies. The brothers tell Joseph of their brother who no longer exists and the younger brother still in Canaan. Joseph sells them grain, but arrests Simeon and tells them to return, bringing Benjamin next time. On the return trip home, the brothers discover that their money has been returned to their sacks.

The famine continues, and the brothers return to Egypt. This time Jacob reluctantly allows Benjamin to go with them. Judah takes responsibility for Benjamin's safety. Joseph sells them food, but also hides his expensive goblet in Benjamin's sack. When Joseph finds the goblet, he accuses Benjamin of being a thief. Benjamin will become a slave. The portion ends with the open question - will the brothers abandon Benjamin to slavery in Egypt as they did to Joseph so long before?

Issue #1 - Is Guilt Good?

"They said to one another, we are guilty regarding our brother. We saw him suffering when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this great misfortune is on us now" (Genesis 42:21)


  1. The brothers still feel guilty over what happened to their brother years before. Is guilt a healthy emotion? Today therapists speak of finding healthy self-esteem by letting go of guilt. Is this therapeutic approach healthier than the traditional religious approach, which seems to place importance on guilt? Does Jewish tradition overemphasize guilt, as so many Jewish comics have claimed?
  2. The book of Leviticus speaks of the hatat, sin offering, and asham, guilt offering. These offerings use sacrifices to reestablish atonement (at-one-ment) with God. People seem to have a need to become at one with God once again after they do something wrong. Is sacrifice a requirement for atonement? In our day and age, how can we make our peace with God when we are burdened with guilt? What sacrifices must we make?
  3. "Rabbi Elazar taught, Doing righteous deeds of charity is greater than sacrifices, as it is written, 'Doing charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice'" (Proverbs 21:3). Christianity teaches that sacrifice is still necessary to remove guilt, in particular the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Judaism rejects that idea. Charity, justice, and of course, repentance are necessary to overcome guilt. How do they accomplish that?
  4. What is the difference between guilt and shame? (A thought - Guilt is the statement "I did something bad." Shame is the statement "I am something bad." Guilt can be healthy if it brings real changes. Shame is never healthy. No matter what we do in life, we are still infinitely precious in the eyes of our Creator.)

Issue #2 - Hanukkah

"One should always go up in holiness and not go down in holiness" (Shabbat 21b)


  1. What is the actual mitzvah of lighting candles on Hanukkah? "Our rabbis taught, The mitzvah of Hanukkah is one light for a man and his household. Those who want to beautify the mitzvah [hiddur mitzvah], a light for every one in the household. Those who want to further beautify the mitzvah, the school of Shammai taught, on the first day light eight candles, then lower the number each day. The school of Hillel taught, on the first day light one candle, then, on each day, raise the number" (Shabbat 21b).
  2. What is the reason for Shammai's teaching? One reason is that it reflects the offerings of Sukkot, where the number was diminished each day. What does Hanukkah have to do with Sukkot? (Note - many scholars believe Hanukkah began as a delayed celebration of the eight-day festival of Sukkot.)
  3. What is the reason for Hillel's teaching? One reason is that one should always go up in holiness and never go down. What does this mean for us today? Rabbi Robert Gordis, z'l told a story of a Hasidic rebbe who asks his students, "Two people are on a ladder, one on the second step and one on the thirteenth step. Who is higher?" The students think the question is obvious. But the rebbe responds, "Who is higher? It depends whether they are climbing up or climbing down." How can we go up in holiness in our lives?

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