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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayeshev - Shabbat Hanukkah
December 12, 2009 – 25 Kislev 5770

Annual (Gen. 37:1-40:23): (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Triennial (Gen. 39:1-40:23): (Etz Hayim, p. 238; Hertz p. 147)
Maftir (Num. 7:1-17): Etz Hayim, p. 805; Hertz p. 596
Haftarah: Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, N.J.

Torah Portion Summary

Jacob and his family are now settled in Canaan. The parashah begins when Joseph is 17 years old, his father’s favorite; his father has given him the famous “coat of many colors.” Because of this and because Joseph is a tattletale, his brothers hate and envy him. Joseph’s reports of his dreams, where his brothers bow down to him, only make matters worse. When Jacob sends Joseph to find out how his brothers and the family’s flocks are getting along, the brothers resolve to kill him. Reuven convinces them not to commit murder, so they decide to sell Joseph into slavery. They dip his special tunic in goat’s blood and bring it to Jacob as evidence of his favorite son’s fate. Meanwhile, Joseph is taken to Egypt, where he becomes a slave in the household of Pharaoh’s courtier Potiphar.

The narrative is interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar and the birth of their sons, Peretz and Zerach.

Returning to Joseph, he is successful in Potiphar’s house, earning his master’s trust. Yet when Potiphar’s wife fails in her attempt to seduce Joseph and accuses him of trying to rape her, Potiphar sends the young man to prison. Even there Joseph is successful, earning the trust of the chief jailer. In time, Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker are imprisoned. Each has a disturbing dream that Joseph interprets, telling the cupbearer that he will be restored to his position and telling the baker that he will be executed. Events unfold as Joseph has foreseen; yet the chief cupbearer forgets his promise to bring Joseph’s case before Pharaoh.

1. God and Mammon

The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. [Alternate translation: The Lord was with Joseph when he was a successful man and also when he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master.] (Genesis 39:2)

  1. The second “vayehi” (he stayed) seems superfluous here, for the Torah could have said that Joseph “was a successful man in the house of his Egyptian master.” The explanation is that there are two ways to serve God: through wealth and through poverty. Sometimes a Jew is the poorest of the poor and serves God, but when he becomes wealthy he kicks over the traces and neglects the commandments. And the opposite is also possible, that a poor person does not serve God, but once he becomes wealthy he begins to serve Him and do good deeds. Here, the Torah tells us that Joseph served God regardless of whether he was successful – when good fortune shined on him – or whether he was “in the house of his Egyptian master” – having been sold as a slave. In both cases he accepted God’s verdict joyfully and he remained loyal to Him. (Rabbi Mordechai of Chernobyl, 1770-1837, Ukraine)
  2. Generally, when a person succeeds he claims that whatever he accomplished was due to his own efforts. But the Torah tells us, in regard to Joseph, that even when he was successful he knew it was God’s doing. “The Lord was with Joseph” – even when “he was a successful man. (Sha’arei Simhah (Rabbi Simhah Bunem Sofer), 1852-1906, Hungary)
  3. In the prayer for the new moon, recited on the Sabbath preceding the week in which the new month begins, we ask twice for “yirat shamayim,” fear of Heaven – “a life in which there is fear of Heaven,” and “a life in which we have love for Torah and fear of Heaven.” The reason for this can be explained as follows: Between the first and second requests for fear of Heaven, there is a request for wealth and honor. As, generally speaking, people who become wealthy find their fear of Heaven weakening, after praying for wealth we have to ask God for a different fear of Heaven. Here, too, the Torah stresses that even though Joseph was successful, he never lost his fear of Heaven. (Quoted in the name of the Hafetz Hayim (Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen), 1835-1933, Poland)
  4. There are people who can serve God only when they are poor. As soon as they grow wealthy, they forget Him... Others serve the Lord as long as they lack for nothing, but as soon as they lose their wealth they act according to the adage that “poverty removes a man from his intellect and from the knowledge of his Creator.”... Joseph was not so. Scripture testifies that “the Lord was with Joseph.” Joseph clung to his God when he was a “successful man” and also when he was “in the house of his Egyptian master,” when he was no more than a humble slave at the home of Potiphar. Thus Joseph passed both tests – that of wealth as well as that of poverty. (Da’at Zekenim (Tosafists) 13th century, France)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators praise Joseph because his loyalty to God was not affected by his circumstances. Which do you think presents a greater danger to religious faith, poverty or wealth? Is the real danger associated with changing circumstances – a poor person becoming wealthy or a wealthy one becoming poor? How has your religious outlook been impacted by the recession? Do you know people who have reacted differently? How do you think your religious life would change if you suddenly won a huge lottery jackpot?

2. The Butterfly Effect

Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt gave offense to their lord the king of Egypt. (Genesis 40:1)

  1. A fly was found in the cupbearer’s aromatic wine (Rashi). Sometimes, one of the smallest things imaginable can bring about great events. It was because of this fly that Joseph came to Pharaoh’s attention and eventually became the governor. As a result, our forefathers went down to Egypt. And who knows what our history would have been without that little fly. (Hillel Zeitlin, quoting Kerem HaTzvi (Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber), 1879-1966, Lithuania and England)
  2. Actually, according to the law of Egypt, the cupbearer had not committed a punishable crime. The chief baker, who had been put into prison because a pebble had been found in the pastry he had baked for Pharaoh, was guilty of a misdemeanor because he had been negligent in sifting the flour. But the circumstance that a fly happened to fall into the wine the chief cupbearer had poured for Pharaoh could not be construed as caused by any negligence on the part of the cupbearer. However, that Pharaoh should become angry with his chief cupbearer and put him into prison was all part of God’s plan to deliver Joseph. As the midrash put it: “The Holy Blessed One caused the master to be angry with his servants in order to bring about the deliverance of Joseph” so that Pharaoh had his chief cupbearer imprisoned falsely. (Ma’ayanah shel Torah, Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friendman, 1897-1943, Poland)
  3. We have to learn from this whole story that when a person suffers a setback in life, one that appears to him undeserved, he must remember how all these setbacks worked in Joseph’s favor at the time although he was not yet aware of it. We must therefore trust that God has our best interests at heart at all times even though we cannot always appreciate this at the time when we are being tested. (Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi), 1160-1235, France)
  4. Rabbi Hanina said: No man bruises a finger here below unless it was proclaimed for him above. (Talmud Hullin 7b)
  5. Rabbi Akiva said, Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. (Pirkei Avot 3:19)

Sparks for Discussion

Let’s assume there really was a fly. Just where did that fly come from? Divine intervention? Random chance? Our commentators see it as evidence of hashgakha pratit (individual divine providence). To what extent do you believe God oversees the lives of individual human beings? Is that active or passive oversight? To what extent do you believe that what happens to us is the result of random luck (good or bad)? Where does free will fit in? How do you understand Rabbi Akiva’s paradoxical teaching (section E.)?

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