January 2nd, 2017
Joseph & his brothers, by Gustave Dore
When the crescendo came and the brothers of Joseph stood before him in his capacity as a top Egyptian ruler, Joseph had two things to say, “I am Joseph!” and “Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3).
Such a moving moment, and every time we read the story we want to weep. The thought of one day meeting his father again must have sustained Joseph for years, and now it was about to happen.
But there is a problem. This is not the first time he asked that question about his father. He had already done so when, without revealing his own identity, he asked, “How is your aged father about whom you have spoken? Is he still alive?” (Gen. 44:20).
The question he now asks – Od Avinu Chai? – seems the same, but the answer might differ. On the former occasion, the brothers might have decided that the real truth did not matter. All they wanted was food, and if the ruler – whom they thought to be a stranger – for some reason asked about their father they would say whatever was politic at the moment, whatever was likely to secure a supply of food.
Now the situation is different. The stranger has turned out to be their own brother and they could have no thoughts of twisting the truth.
When their own brother asked about Jacob it was a cry from the heart and they had to tell the truth.
December 25th, 2016
After all the evidence of the talents and statesmanship of Joseph who was his father Jacob’s favourite son, why did Joseph lose out when it came to naming a destiny figure for the people of Israel?
The son Jacob chose as the leader of the future was Judah. Jacob stated, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” (Gen. 49:10).
The case for Joseph seems to be unassailable, yet the patriarch bypassed him. Joseph had alienated his brothers when he boasted about how great he was and how the family would bow and scrape before him.
And by the time he brought Jacob and the family to settle in Egypt, many years had passed in which Joseph was away from his family and by now was treated by them with suspicion and reserve.
Judah on the other hand had always been part of the family fortunes and his rise to eminence apparently had their support. True, he had committed sins, but he was a man of integrity who recognised that he had done wrong and showed his repentance.
Don’t the rabbis say that a community should only appoint as leader a person with “a basket of reptiles on his back”?
December 25th, 2016
Joseph, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874
Official titles don’t always mean what they say.
A verse in this week’s reading says (Gen. 41:43) that the populace called Joseph Avrech, translated by Targum Onkelos (followed by Rashi) as abba l’malka, “father of the king”.
This is an absurd translation if you read it literally, since Joseph was a young foreigner and could not possibly have sired the king.
One possibility is that as in many other cases av means captain or chieftain. In that sense it is a metaphor for high status.
Even in English this meaning is found in the printing trade phrase, “father of the chapel”.
Possibly avrech is from berech, a knee, and the word means “Pay homage!”
Some modern scholars think it is Egyptian for “Attention!”.
The Midrash thinks the word is a combination of two words and indicates a bright young student, av b’chochmah v’rach b’shanim, “a father in wisdom, tender in years”. In this sense it indicates – in modern religious parlance – a Talmudic student.
Fortunately the proliferation of Torah study is a great growth industry.
December 18th, 2016
The Books of the Maccabees are not part of the Tanach.
They are rarely featured in synagogue services, nor are they a continuous narrative like the Books of Kings or Chronicles.
The First Book of Maccabees depicts a rising of faithful Jews against the oppressive Seleucid regime.
The Second Book paints a picture of a conflict between ideologies – a tug-of-war between Judaism and Hellenism.
The view of many modern scholars is that the struggle was not so much between Jews and outsiders, but between two camps within Judaism, those who stood for tradition and those who wanted more assimilation to Hellenistic thinking.
The traditionalists for their part refused to abandon the Torah and its practices such as circumcision and the dietary laws. Why the outsiders mixed in was in order to support the Hellenistic Jews against the traditionalists.
The Syrian Greeks came down hard on the traditional Jews, which was unusual for a regime that generally showed tolerance for the religious beliefs and practices of subject peoples.
Because the battle grounded had shifted, the Maccabees now had to contend not only with another internal Jewish group but with an external power, which turned the struggle into one for Jewish nationalism.
December 18th, 2016
Guido Reni’s depiction of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, 1631
The Biblical narrative is less concerned about Potiphar than his wife.
Even she is really only there to connect the reader to the story of the Hebrew youth Joseph.
The husband’s name possibly means “priest of the sun (or sun-god)”. He is called saris, which is normally a eunuch, but that translation hardly fits the story. He is a saris in the sense of a palace official. He is also called sar hatabbachim, “the chief of the butchers”, i.e. a royal executioner or military officer (cf. II Kings 25:8).
Mrs Potiphar tries to get Joseph to lie with her, maybe not so much to gratify her own instincts or to besmirch Joseph but rather to harm her husband for bringing the Hebrew into the house.
Who knows how fragile was the marital relationship? If the wife was annoyed with her husband she could have been looking for a way to ruin his reputation in the eyes of the royal court.
Whilst Potiphar had to take note of her accusations he was aware of her thinking. He did not execute Joseph but imprisoned him. Presumably his dignity was saved.
We would have liked to know his later history but that does not concern the Narrator as much as the fact that Joseph is now in a situation where he can save the empire, and that’s what the story really wants to expound.