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    Is my father alive? – Vayyiggash

    December 9th, 2018

    Joseph reconciles with his brothers

    At last the riddle unfolds.

    Joseph’s brothers have been immensely puzzled by the way they were treated by the Egyptian Minister of Food, in whom they did not recognise their own long-lost brother Joseph.

    Now, in this week’s Torah portion, Joseph reveals himself: “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Gen.45:3).

    The brothers are struck dumb, though Rashi explains, “They were not able to answer him because they were overwhelmed with shame”.

    What is not easy to work out is why Joseph asks after his father.

    From the emotional point of view, he has wondered for years about the fate of the father he loves. But surely he has deduced that Jacob was indeed alive, since one of the brothers, Judah, had already said quite clearly, Yesh lanu av zaken – “We have an aged father” (Gen. 44:20). And Joseph had actually asked at that earlier stage, “How is the aged father of whom you have spoken?” (Gen. 43:27).

    The explanation is implicit in what Rashi says. Joseph was not unaware that Jacob was alive, though by now the patriarch must be showing signs of old age, but he wants to know how the father has coped throughout all these years with the burden of callous children and the sudden disappearance of a loved young son.

    Basically, Joseph is uttering a rebuke. What he is saying is, “Have you no shame about what you did to our father? I myself have got through the hard years, but did you ever think of what your behaviour must have done to our father?”


    Jacob blessed Pharaoh – Vayyiggash

    December 9th, 2018

    Jacob blesses Pharaoh, by Owen Jones, 1869

    When Jacob and the family migrate to Egypt, the patriarch is taken to the king by Joseph to be presented and introduced to the ruler (Gen. 47).

    Jacob and Pharaoh have a conversation but then a strange thing happens. Instead of the king blessing Jacob, Jacob blesses the king.

    Presumably etiquette would demand that the man of higher status blesses and welcomes the man of lower status, but here the opposite takes place.

    Maybe the answer lies in the word vayevarech, “and he blessed” (Gen. 47:7). It might be improper and disrespectful for us to compare the Egyptian ruler to God, even though ancient kings did have divine pretensions.

    But when we Jews say a b’rachah to God and use the words, “Blessed are You”, it is possible that we are acknowledging that God is not the recipient but the source of blessing. All the good things we enjoy come from a generous, beneficent God.

    In that sense it could be that what Jacob is doing in the royal court is to formally acknowledge that all boons in Egypt come (sometimes indirectly) from Pharaoh.

    The Hebrew father is saying, “Thank you, Your Majesty, for the way you have received me and my family. We are grateful and intend to be worthy of your welcome.”


    A shammash in the age of electricity – Ask the Rabbi

    December 2nd, 2018

    Q. Why do we need a shammash these days when we have easy access to electricity?

    A. The technical answer is that – regardless of using the shammash as a “servant” to kindle the lights – there must always be an extra light (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 673) because the Chanukah candles are there to look at and not to be used for a utilitarian purpose.

    This is the message that we clearly derive from the HaNerot Halalu paragraph – ein lanu reshut l’hishtammesh bahem.

    But when the menorah is in a place where there is electric light, surely it is by the electricity that we see and we don’t need the shammash?

    Perhaps there is also a theological consideration.

    Ideals do not come about on their own; they need a visionary to promote them and an activist to bring them to realisation… in other words, a shammash!


    Bread & meat for a royal table – Mikketz

    December 2nd, 2018

    Pharaoh’s two dreams both centred around food. One had to do with cows, the second with ears of corn.

    On waking from the second dream, “his spirit was knocking” (Gen. 41:8).

    One possibility is that his stomach was rumbling. The idea of food of any kind would have appealed to a well-nourished monarch. However, he was alarmed to think that the dreams suggested that he might have to eat sparingly.

    In the first dream, fat cows were swallowed up by thin cows, an omen that he would be short of meat. The king decided to fill up on bread, but then came the second dream in which fat ears of corn were eaten up by thin ones, so bread too might be in short supply. No wonder the royal stomach rumbled.

    That is if we translate vatipa’em rucho literally as “his spirit was knocking”.

    Other versions take a more metaphorical approach and say, “his soul was troubled” – the problem was not hunger as much as a psychological feeling that something strange was hidden in the dreams, and help was needed to interpret them.

    History was different because a Hebrew youth was called in to explain what it was all about. History was always different when Hebrew wisdom was called in by the world for answers to perplexing questions.

    That we received few votes of thanks is no news. But that Jews themselves so often look to alluring but inadequate outside philosophies – that is indeed surprising in view of the richness of our own tradition.

    How many stories about finding the treasure in our own garden do we need before we acknowledge what Judaism has for us?


    The master of dreams – Mikketz

    December 2nd, 2018

    One after another of the great figures in Genesis have their dreams recorded in the Torah, including Joseph. But only Joseph is called ba’al hachalomot, “the master of dreams” (or “the master dreamer”).

    As a boy his dreams are rather egotistical – “I’m going to be a great ruler when I grow up!”

    In time they become more altruistic: “I’m going to do something for society”.

    The crucial moment in his dream-history is when he interprets dreams for Pharaoh and he finds himself helping the king to manage his realm.

    Since a person’s night-time dreams seem to reflect their day-time activities, we see the process of Joseph growing up in terms of how his dreams change.

    In every age, a master dreamer has two kinds of dreams: positive ones in which the dreams are of a beautiful world in which there is love, peace, truth and justice… and negative ones in which everything goes wrong and the world becomes dark and frightening.

    No-one can control their night-time dream-life, and the two types of dreams are evidence of how easy it would be for the world to be utopian and how hard it is to overcome the obstacles.