Rabbi Shafir's Weekly D'var Torah
B'reyshit (Genesis)
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1. Parsha Details
2. Questions (and a few observations) on the excerpts
3. Some Observations
4. What about Asenath?
5. Exercises
1. Parsha details:  Gen 41:1-44:17 (tri 43:16-44:17)  [Haftorah I Kings 3:15-4:1] 
2. Questions and a few observations

Summary:  What a saga and what a cliff-hanger!  The story of Joseph's rise in Egypt (dreams and all) through the second visit of the brothers until the cup is found in Benjamin's sack and Joseph decrees that the brothers are to leave and Benjamin will stay..............

The Hebrew reads so fluidly -- this is a well edited and oft repeated saga. (more on this aspect later)  Rich in authentic detail and such wonderful vignettes into the characters of the participants.  I was actually forced to leave more text than I usually do because of the detail and drama in this parsha.

So let's look at some of the detail.  We know that the items Pharaoh gives Joseph are appropriate to this period.  A solid indication that major portions of the detail are very old -- carried with the people for many generations before it was committed to written form.

One of the interesting points of this parsha is the way Joseph and others talk about God.  With one exception, God is referred to as either HaElohim or simply Elohim (we'll talk about the exception soon).  HaElohim is used about once for every 3 times that Elohim is used in Tanakh. (Once for every 5 times in Torah).  There are about 60 references to God as HaElohim in Torah and about 10% of them occur in this parsha.  The use of this Name is usually an indicator that the story will have significant drama associated with it.  Another drama that comes to my mind that uses HaElohim is the Akedah -- the binding of Isaac -- another dramatic parsha.

What's interesting in this parsha is that Joseph mentions God to Pharaoh and to others and the reference is understood.  And the mention of God is not a major clue to his brothers that he is indeed Joseph -- but yes, Joseph IS speaking Egyptian through an interpreter.  So God translates with some understanding between Hebrew and Egyptian.....  And neither culture appears to be confused or surprised.

But Joseph does do things that downright amaze his brothers.  For example, when they sit down for lunch, the brothers have been seated  "the firstborn according to his birthright, and the youngest according to his youth; and the men looked at one another in amazement."  Imagine their surprise that the Egyptians would seat them about the table just as he saw them sit feast after feast at their father's table.  Pretty sharp for an Egyptian.....  And they miss the subtle point that Joseph sends their portions from his table, not from the Egyptians or the general kitchen.  Did Jacob's sons eat different foods from the Egyptian standard diet?  Probably.  But they do not catch this detail.

And Benjamin does not react to Joseph's blessing: "God be gracious to you, my son."  Of course, Joseph exits quickly because the emotions are getting to him.  And after they all "make merry", Joseph's lesser side shows itself as he teases and tests the brothers by planting the cup in Benjamin's sack.  One gets the impression that not much happens by accident in Joseph's world.

So let's step back a moment to earlier in the story.  The first visit by the brothers does not go well for them.  Joseph "remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said to them, You are spies;...".  We are told also, that "Joseph saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself strange to them, and ...they knew not him."  You might think they would recognize their own brother, but....

It has been about thirteen years since he last saw them and they he.  Depending on your take of who sold him to whom. the brothers would have no reason to imagine Joseph in Egypt, let alone in that position.  They know Joseph under the name given him by Pharaoh,   Zaphnath-Paaneah.  He is dressed as an important Egyptian, probably with makeup (kohol or something like that?), maybe a face mask.  He is talking high Egyptian -- and if that wasn't enough, he "made himself strange to them".  This particular reference might mean that he took care not to do typical gestures or behaviors that they might have picked up on.  He was in control of the situation and he did not want to be recognized.  

Another little aspect to this scenario is that the brothers may not have looked directly at them.  First, he was in a position of power -- we already know that the brothers bowed to the ground before him.  And then there is the little detail of would they have looked directly at him in any event.  It is hard for us in the US to understand unless you have spent some time in the Middle East, but most people do not look directly at each other -- they avert their eyes.  To look somebody directly in the eyes is to call them a liar (Is that why Joseph accuses them of spying -- so he has an excuse to look at them directly?).  Is this eye behavior a vestige of ancient practice?  Perhaps.

And this is why they feel free to talk in their native Hebrew (perhaps even a family dialect) in his presence -- after all, he was speaking Egyptian and used an interpreter to talk to them.  Joseph gets the wish we sometimes have of being that proverbial 'fly on the wall' and he is so touched by what he hears that he has to turn away from them for a moment lest they see that he did understand their words.

And a little detail often overlooked in the popular story version is that Joseph keeps Simeon as a hostage while the brothers go back to Canaan. Why did he pick Simeon?  He was the second oldest to Reuben -- both Leah's sons.  He was one of the two who killed the men of Shechem.  The Sages use his selection as an indication that perhaps he was the one who urged that the brothers kill Joseph.  We see him as a man given to violent solutions.  We are not given any more clues here -- just that he will be restored to the brothers when they come to eat at Joseph's house.

So what about Jacob back in Canaan hearing all this from his sons.  They told this Egyptian big guy way too much about the family -- Jacob could see how clever this Zaphnath-Paaneah was -- and his sons told him about Benjamin! And now he is lacking not only Joseph, but also Simeon -- could he have much hope of ever seeing him again?  And the brothers want to take Rachel's only other son, the baby of the family, Benjamin, down to Egypt -- would you let this motley crew take him if you were Jacob?

Jacob doesn't accept Reuben's offer to kill his own sons if Benjamin is also lost -- that will just increase the losses and pain.  It is only with desperation that he finally listens to Judah's reasoning and assurances of taking personal responsibility for Benjamin that he agrees to let the 'lad' go and gives them advice on how to approach this Egyptian.  And even then, Jacob puts the matter in the hands of El Shaddai  --  that He may "give you mercy before the man, that he may send away your other brother, and Benjamin. If I be bereaved of my children, then I am bereaved."  With nothing else to depend on and the survival of the entire household at stake, Jacob does not put his trust and faith in his sons, but in God.  This Name that means so much and is used only a few times in Torah (or Tanakh, for that matter) -- Jacob, in fact, is the one who uses it the majority of times it appears in Torah. 

3. Some Observations

Is this drama?  This is an incredible parsha.  The characters are in your laps and all around. Their emotions are palpable, we find ourselves catching our breaths as we listen to it.  Can you imagine the telling and retelling of these accounts through our history?

And it is a wonderful, polished account.  It is the longest single section of Bereyshit -- the entire parsha is one section, like va'yeytze was.  But this parsha is longer -- more than six full columns without a break or pause.  Before the order of the sedras was established, I'll bet this was a popular request -- and it ends on the cliff hanger of what will happen to Benjamin!  It is only a slight break as next week's parsha picks the story back up -- but we'll talk about that next week.

Another detail we'll talk more about next week is the 20% tax Joseph imposed in Pharaoh's name in this period of plenty.  A double tithe, one fifth.  Of course, in a period of plenty, there was enough to go around and we do not get a sense of resistance in Egypt.  Perhaps this had a beneficial effect of keeping grain prices up if 20% of it went into Pharaoh's coffers and not into the general economy.  It might have even been seen as Pharaoh helping the farmers.

Rich detail and characterizations that come out at us, good and bad.  Joseph, so clever.  The clever first born of the clever and beautiful Rachel.  Spoiled and still far from magnanimous, but even so, he too, is caught up in his own drama.  How many places could this story have ended with no more contact between Joseph and his family.  And if you think this was a strong dramatic parsha -- wait until next week!

The strength and power of family comes through this story so vividly.  No matter where Joseph gets to in life, no matter how bad his brothers had been to him, there is still a bond between him and Jacob and between him and Benjamin.  The pain of his past relations with his brothers plays strongly here -- Joseph only gets glimpses of them as people .  And perhaps as he listens to them argue about their treatment of him, he also catches a glimpse of his own part in the strife he contributed to in the situation.  After all, he was the dreamer and the reporter -- and by now he may have a mature understanding of what those actions did to the family.  Or at least, he may be starting to.

4. What about Asenath?

And Joseph is given Asenath, the daughter of a Priest of On, as wife.  Let's look at this for a moment.  Even Joseph's servants won't eat "bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination to the Egyptians." -- so what about Asenath?  Did wives eat with their husbands?

She gave him two sons.  And one has to imagine that she was a prestigious wife for the new 'big man' of Egypt.  But what did it do to her status?  Was she now a Hebrew?

And what was the status of the two sons?  How and where did they live?  (After Jacob comes to Egypt, we can imagine they live close by.  Joseph probably would want to take wives from his family for his sons -- and it may not have been as easy to get Egyptian wives for them as it was for Joseph -- or maybe there was a fair amount of intermarriage -- Torah is very quiet about this issue.  All we will hear is that Joseph lives to see the third generation.  Of course, we do hear that the Egyptians are likely to look "with abomination" at the new non-Egyptian arrivals.  So perhaps they are keeping pretty much to themselves.  Maybe there is some mingling with other people coming into Egypt to seek refuge from the famine?

So let's go back to Asenath.  Talk about a mixed marriage.  She is the daughter of a priest.  What teachings and practices did she teach her two sons?  If Joseph is busy running Egypt, how much time did he have for raising his family?  She is important -- she is named.  Even Judah's wife was not named in last week's parsha.  And none of the other brothers' wives are named -- they won't even be counted among the numbers coming with Jacob into Egypt.  

In fact, her name is mentioned twice in the Parsha -- but we learn nothing else about her.  She was obviously of some standing -- this would help Joseph learn perhaps more intricacies in daily life than he perhaps learned in Potiphar's household.  Pharaoh picks her for Joseph, so the choice is not an accident.  We can only ponder these issues.  

And in the tradition of the cliffhanger of a parsha -- we'll continue this discussion when we talk about Jacob blessing Joseph's two sons.....

5. Exercises

1. Dreams: What are dreams?  What dreams have you had?  How do you prepare for sleep?  Before releasing yourself to sleep, prepare your mind for the Energy of a dream.  Clear the 'stuff' of the day, quiet its noisy clutter and settle in.  Consciously relax each part of your body and breathe -- long and deep breaths.  Breathe in quiet, peace, relaxation, breathe out the stress, the hurt, the chaff of the day.  Feel the glow, Listen to the quiet -- inside and out.  Pleasant Dreams. 

2. Detail: Look around you.  What details define you?  What details do you display to let others share with you and know who you are -- What details do you use to hide yourself.  Let your mind wander over details -- trappings of position, behaviors, speech patterns.  Look at yourself as others might -- what do they see?  What do you see?   

3. Shaddai: Jacob gives over his worry about what will happen to El Shaddai.  Imagine his feelings as this giving over becomes his only choice.  Can you give up control of something to Him?  Start with something small and see how this feels.  Recognize and name the emotions you feel as you do this.  Feel the Strength and Power flow through you.  Are you relaxing?  Recognize the distinction between giving over and giving up.  Remember that Jacob instructs his sons on how to do the task at hand as well.  So keep responsibility and ownership for your part, but give over control.

There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available. 

Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!

And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.



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