Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Let Us Make (Snow) Man"

On the East Coast winter has set in. We find ourselves once again standing tipee-toed stretching and feeling for that second glove up in back of the closet. Every woosh and click of the front door seems to carry in a moan of relief and a statement of "just how cold it really is out there" all expressed to the rhythmical stomping of boots on the front mat. The kitchen seems warmer and more inviting filled with the smell of all things baked, braised and starchy. The throw-blanket on the couch is rediscovered (along with that book that was lost underneath it) as is velvety sweet honey which now finishes our nightly tea. Yet it's the beeping of the Robutusm, Ludins and Puffs passing over the checkout which reminds us that not only is winter here, it's here for a fight.

We know that nature is a a most basic form of prophecy. So what's winter whispering to our souls? Of course to each one of us it whispers its own message, but to us as a whole what's it saying?

The Talmud states:
"All is in the hands of Heaven - Save the Cold and the Heat"

Elsewhere The Talmud States:
"All is in the hands of Heaven - Save The Fear of Heaven"

The questions are many and obvious.

Through Kaballah we are taught that the stem of the soul in its highest form in the highest world is rooted in two G-dly attributes , Love and Fear. The attribute of Love is represented in our world, the lowest world, the world of asyia by Fire - the heat of passion driving us to express and create. Fear tho is represented by water - the cooling intellect restraining our actions.

Free Will, Heat, Cold, all left in man's hands alone.

The cold season of winter is surely the season of intellect. A time of learning , study, contemplation and honing of the mind so it may lead us in the service of G-d. Its no coincidence that it's in this very time of year that we add a special passage in the daily prayer requesting rain - which represents Torah learning as expressed by Moses Our Teacher "May my teachings fall like rain" (Deut. 32-2).

Winter is not the season for sowing or reaping, cutting or threshing - nature tells us to head inside our homes and ourselves. To take some quiet time with a "Gluz Tae" - a glass of tea. Simply, think, learn study and build a better human infrastructure - so when the spring comes around the seeds planted in the winter will burst forth to beautiful blossoms.

Of course any extreme has its dangers and winter is no exception. A dose of heat is required - but the general direction is introspection - and the Great Chassidic Masters took from the Goanim a secret that these winter weeks were a special time that the gates of change were opened, a timed they named "shovovim" or "returning".

We all know that on the second day of creation G-d split the water, there were the waters that above in the heavens and the water below in the oceans. The water of the oceans cried to Heaven - "L-rd it is unfair we are so far from you", Heaven responded "There will come a time when man will bring sacrifices to me on the alter in the Temple , and he will be required to place with it salt that comes from your waters".

The two waters represent the two types of knowledge, the knowledge of Heaven and knowledge of earth.
The earthly knowledge said - "I'm so far from you"
"In this lowly world, what type of knowledge is there? We are so far from G-d who's hidden behind endless veils - even Moses the greatest prophet was told he cold not see the face of G-d and live! Even when a Jew struggles and wants to do the right thing he isn't sure what to do' "Givald!" said Knowledge," I'm so far from you!
Heaven answered - "You are right, earthly knowledge has severe limitations what people think is right could be so wrong and vise verse - but I made it so, earthly knowledge is not about attaining absolute truth, its about the quest and relentless pursuit to find it. Earthly knowledge has to nullify itself before the knowledge of Heavenly Torah - only through this "hisbatlus" nullification - or evaporation does the salt emerge to be brought on the Holy Alter.

So it's winter, and a time for collecting holy heavenly knowledge - we push aside all our earthly ideas of right and wrong - of sensible and nonsensical and open ourselves up to the wellspring of Torah Knowledge - as the snowflakes fall passed our windows - we are bent over our holy books and like the seeds sleeping in the ground, gaining nutrients and growing stronger - waiting for spring to awaken and put out new found selves into play.

The Unlikely Leader

“Jewish leadership” is currently very much in vogue. On university campuses and in JCCs around the country, seminars and “fellowships” are sprouting up that will train you in the art of being a “Jewish leader.” I doubt two Jews in America could even agree on the definition of a “Jewish leader,” but regardless, a case could be made that that signing up for one of these courses automatically disqualifies you. If Moshe is any guide, the ideal Jewish leader is someone who has no interest in being one. However, to be honest, this kind of cynicism is unwarranted. As we shall see, Moshe’s disinterest in Jewish leadership is not something we should aspire to.

It took God a lot of work at the Burning Bush to convince Moshe to go to Egypt and redeem the Jews. In the end, God succeeds and Moshe takes the job. Moshe was riding his donkey, headed for Egypt, when God appeared with one final message.

Tell Pharaoh, “God says, ‘Israel is My firstborn son. Send out My son so he can serve Me. For if you refuse to send him, I will kill your firstborn son.’”


“My firstborn son” – Here God signed on the sale of the birthright that Yaakov purchased from Eisav (cf. Bereishit 25:33).

Rashi ad loc.; Midrash Rabba 63:14

After all these years, nay, centuries, it is only now that God validates the sale of the birthright?! What has taken so long? And what is it about Moshe’s journey to Egypt that generates this most critical divine act of signing on the sale? This is a difficult Midrash. In order to understand it, we need to take a small step back.

In the book of Bereishit, the Torah reveals next to nothing about the early lives of Noach and Avraham. The wisdom of God’s choice is borne out by their successes, but we are not told why they were chosen in the first place. When it comes to Moshe, however, things are different. The Torah provides a full bio of his early life and it is quite impressive. Here’s a synopsis.

Moshe was born at a bad time. The Jews were enslaved and oppressed, and by law, all newborn boys had to be thrown in the Nile. When his parents couldn’t hide him anymore, they put him in a basket and set it afloat in the reeds by the riverbank. Discovered by none other than Pharaoh’s own daughter, she takes the baby out of the river, names him “Moshe,” and adopts him.

Moshe grows up. One day, going out to check on his brethren, Moshe sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. Thinking that no one is watching, Moshe kills the Egyptian and hides the body. The next day, Moshe goes out again. Seeing two Jews fighting, he confronts them. “Why do you hit your friend?” he asks. “Who appointed you an officer or a judge over us?” came the reply. “Do you intend to kill me the same way you killed the Egyptian?” The word was out! The Jews had reported on Moshe and now he is wanted for murder. Moshe flees the country.

Arriving in Midian, Moshe sees the local shepherds abusing some girls at a watering hole. He intercedes, saves the maidens and draws water for their sheep. The girls’ father invites him for dinner and Moshe ends up marrying Tzippora and working as a shepherd for his father-in-law. Guiding his flock one day in the desert, he sees a burning bush. God has come to ask him to return to Egypt and redeem the Jews.

There we have it. Moshe is a man who will kill to defend his brethren. Even as an immigrant, he is not afraid to challenge the locals and fight for what is just and right. God chose a bona fide hero.

Moshe may have a great résumé, but if you think about it, he is an unlikely candidate for a savior of the Jews. First of all, he grew up in an Egyptian home, not a Jewish one. Second, Moshe was burned once helping the Jews. He saved a Jew, killing an Egyptian at great personal risk, only to have Jews tattle on him to the authorities (cf. Rashi to 2:15). Thirdly, his last experience with the Jews was watching some violent infighting and then, when he tried to intervene, they told him off. Moreover, Moshe is wanted in Egypt for murder. Today he is a happily married man; a citizen of Midian. He would have to be crazy to return to Egypt!

Nevertheless, at the Burning Bush, God asks him to go. In light of the above, Moshe’s response is not surprising.

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? And that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?

Shemot 3:11

Moshe is making two points here. The first is easy enough to understand; Moshe is a humble man who has no idea why he is being chosen for this momentous task. But what is the meaning of Moshe’s second question? Rashi explains.
“And that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” – [In other words,] even if I am up to the task, why do the Jews merit a miraculous redemption from Egypt?
That’s a negative attitude, but keeping Moshe’s personal history in mind, it is understandable. Long ago, when he saw Jew fight against Jew, Moshe came to know why the Jews were enslaved.

“Indeed, the matter is known!”


“Now I know the answer [to the question] I have long wondered about. What sin did the Jews commit that they alone from among all the seventy nations are subjected to slave labor? But now I see that they deserve it.”

Rashi ad loc.; Tanchuma 10

Moshe’s negativity does not end there. God and Moshe go through several volleys at the Bush; Moshe simply does not want the job. At one point, he says this:

They won’t believe me… they’ll say, “God never appeared to you!”


Not only does Moshe consider the Jews unworthy of redemption, he accuses them of cynicism as well. The mocking words, “Who appointed you an officer or a judge over us?” still burn in his ears. But here God drew the line:

God said to him, “What is that in your hand?”
“A staff,” he replied.
“Throw it on the ground.”
He threw it on the ground and it turned into a snake.


[God] was alluding to the fact that [Moshe] had just spoken Lashon Hara about the Jews. He had taken up the profession of the snake.

Rashi ad loc.; Tanchuma 23

Despite all his misgivings, Moshe takes the job. Not because he is promised riches or land and not because God forces him to do it. Simply because the Jews are his brothers.

This provides another stark contrast with Noach and Avraham. When God told Noach to build an ark, Noach asked no questions. When God told Avraham to sacrifice his son, Avraham says, “Hineini,” i.e., “Here I am, ready to do your bidding.” But when God instructs Moshe to return to Egypt and save the Jews, a discussion ensues. Apparently, God does not want to order Moshe to do it; God wants Moshe to want to do it. And when, in the end, Moshe mounts his donkey and heads for Egypt, God signs on Yaakov’s purchase of the birthright and declares the Jews His “firstborn.” Why?

Because Moshe does not allow his experience with a few bad apples to extinguish his feelings for the Jewish Nation. Ultimately it is Moshe’s deep-seated love and respect for the Jews that drives him to take on the responsibilities of leadership. And if a Jewish child who was raised by Egyptians can still love his brethren, if one who was betrayed and insulted by his own people still cares, if a man could leave the comforts of home to return to a land where he is wanted for murder in order to perform a mitzvah, if, after all he had been through, Moshe was still so authentically Jewish, then the sale of the birthright was indeed a success. For in Moshe we have living proof that Yaakov’s descendants are the carriers of the exalted Abrahamic gene.

This is why God chose Moshe, and this is why God needed Moshe to willingly embrace the mission. There may have been other candidates. But there was no one else who could prove the existence of the pintele yid.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

I'll Pass on the Cocoa

"Turn Back Turn Back Perfect One, Turn Back Turn Back That We May Observe You"
"What Can You Offer the Perfect One that Equals the Circling of the Camps?"
(Song of Songs 7:1)

It's that time of year when our mailboxes are flooded with catalogs selling enough nostalgia to make Norman Rockwell a bit cynical. Happy children on a rug in front of the fireplace playing with their new found gifts, parents in cozy sweaters smiling at each other... the perfect family... Rockefeller Center skating, Macy's window on Fifth Ave... even the snow, an extra shade of white.. in the spirit of the purity of the day...the holiday songs seemed to be playing at Temple Starbucks before the turkey was even carved ... it's just so beautiful.

So alluring is this image that one bright Jewish chap and his girlfriend decided to keep the commercialized version of the Holiday last year and write about it in the New York Times. The article was labeled "silly", "stupid" and "sad" by most reader's, but this year Id like to call it what it is - a sickening betrayal.

In the not too distant past Jews would surely bolt their doors and hide, for when Christmas Mass was over - the angry mobs were ready to avenge the death of their Lord's only son. Over the course of history the blood of hundreds and thousands of Jews spilled like water, the ground ran deep with the blood of our own . Old helpless men and woman struck down and beaten to death, young men and their sons were slain, woman and their daughters raped and killed... there was no mercy for our people .. no mercy for our people .. no mercy at all.... the cocoa drinkers celebrated the birth of their saviour by avenging his death... from people that lived thousands of years later...

Yet we, less than two hundred years after the slaughterings of our own family, forgive and forget... for what? For the promise of hot cocoa and a cashmere sweater...

Am I calling for revenge, shall we G-d Forbid take swords in our hands and strike babes from their mother's arms and slit their throats as the mother's cry in horror only to join a similar fate moments later - as was done to us - NEVER!! G-d Forbid!

But how dare we forget the darkness of the day - the impurity of the day.. in an age of multiculturalism we are all expected to hold hands and sing... Less than sixty five years ago.. the church sat by and let your grandfathers, your grandmothers, your uncles and your aunts be led to the slaughter in the Camps. They sat by in front of the fireplace drinking cocoa in cashmere sweaters with sweet holiday songs playing joyfully in the background... so beautiful... while the cries of six million, think about the number, six million were slaughtered. Their cries ignored by a church that knew quite well what was going on... holy night... peaceful night....

So what is this crazy blogger saying? Whats his point? He's a fanatic, he's old fashion, he's just trying to be shocking. Givald I'd love to be able shock some people from their crazy hypnotic slumber... I'm begging you that this year on Dec. 25 perhaps after dark ... take your children, and tell them our story of this night... how Zeidys and Bubbys were slaughtered after Midnight Mass but they died with the name of Hashem on their the modest daughters of Zion in protection of their purity jumped from windows rather than be defiled by the animals... how young scholars died clutching their seforim, their holy books... tell your children how lucky we are to live in this land, how grateful we must be to the United States and to G-d, that tonight we can wear a kippa, tzitzis and learn Torah.... then open any Jewish book of your choosing and learn for five little minutes... learn in memory of those killed by the sword.. so we wont have to mourn those lost to the promise of hot cocoa and cashmere sweaters...

In the verse sited above... the commentator Rashi explains that it refers to the nations of the world asking the children of Israel to turn back from the service of G-d and promising us peace and honor- We answer "what can you offer us that equals the circling of the camps" - to me tonight the meaning is - the Camps of Auschwitz and Burchanu. What little trinkets, what imagery can you lure us with when we saw what you truly let happen to us... when we were round up like animals, shot, gassed, burned and eliminated like dung - cast into pits. Tonight we'll stay with our G-d and with our own people, and for the memory of Zaidy and Bubby, the six million, and the thousands throughout history that died at the cross - I'll pass on the cocoa tonight.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Playing God

A disturbing question hangs over our story. It is an obvious problem and the answer does not yield easily.

When the sons of Yaakov arrive at Yosef’s door in search of food, instead of revealing his identity and openly confronting their unresolved issues, Yosef decides to play games. He accuses them of spying and he demands that they prove their innocence by bringing their younger brother down to Egypt (42:9-15). This is just the first stage of an elaborate scheme that both confounds and torments the family for months.

Why does Yosef pull this cruel prank on his brothers? Is it revenge that he is after? Is his thirst for revenge so intense that it bulldozes any concern for his own father’s distress? Regardless, revenge fails to explain Yosef’s game. If he wants revenge, Yosef ought to simply throw them all in the dungeon. Moreover, revenge is sweet. Yosef should be enjoying himself, not constantly breaking down in tears (cf. 42:23; 43:30).

What is the idea of shlepping Binyomin down to Egypt (42:15)? This seems to be a cruelty aimed directly at the innocent Yaakov (42:38). And what of the planting of the money in their packs (42:25)? Or the framing of Binyomin as a thief (44:2)? What in heaven’s name is Yosef doing?

The answer to all these questions is that Yosef is orchestrating a Teshuvah opportunity for his brothers. At the end of last week’s parsha, Binyomin stood accused of theft (44:12). Yosef claimed Binyomin as a slave and, in the last words of the parsha, told the other brothers to return “to their father in peace.” The crime scene of twenty years ago has reappeared. The brothers can once again eliminate their father’s favorite son!

The brothers sold Yosef because they feared that history would repeat itself. Just as Yitzchak wanted to give the berachos to his favorite son Eisav (25:28; 26:1-4), the brothers expected Yaakov to pass the berachos on to his favorite son, the child of his beloved deceased wife Rachel (37:3). And just as Yaakov had “stolen” the berachos away from his brother Eisav, so too would the power-hungry Yosef attempt to do the same. Yosef was a threat and so they eliminated him – only to create a new monster, Binyomin. Binyomin was the new Yosef, his father’s overprotected favorite. (Like Yosef before him, Binyomin must stay home when all his brothers go out to work, cf. 37:14; 42:4.) The brothers suspected that Binyomin might try to steal their birthright and now their fears have been confirmed. Binyomin is indeed a thief! But it is no surprise, really. It runs in the family.

Years back, as Yaakov was leaving the house of Lavan, Rachael stole her father’s Teraphim, pagan articles used for divination. Lavan took chase, and soon caught up with Yaakov and accused him of theft. Unaware that Rachel had stolen the Teraphim, Yaakov declared that whoever stole them should die (31:32). Our story is identical. The brothers are leaving Egypt and Yosef sends his officer to take chase. He catches up with them and accuses them of stealing Yosef’s goblet. Unaware that it is in Binyomin’s pack, the brothers exclaim, “If any of us (lit. your servants) has it in his possession, he shall die!” (44:8). According to the Midrash, the parallels to the past do not escape the brothers’ notice. When the goblet is found in Binyomin’s pack, they yell at him, “You take after your mother!” (Midrash HaGadol).

What Yosef has done here is reinforce the brothers' fear of a thieving Binyomin running off with Yaakov’s precious berachos. And to ensure their jealousy is primed, earlier that day at lunch, Yosef gave Binyomin five times more food than everyone else (43:34).

Now the brothers have a choice. They can eliminate the privileged Binyomin without even getting their hands dirty. Or they can protect him.

Yosef wanted his brothers to make the right choice, so he made it easy for them to deny Binyomin’s indictment. Before the brothers went back to Israel the first time, Yosef returned their money to their packs (42:25) and he did the same again now (44:1). His overseer claimed that it was a gift from God (43:23), but the brothers knew the truth. They knew that Yosef must have done it and they feared they were being framed (42:35). Now that Yosef’s goblet was found in Binyomin’s pack, the brothers could not ignore the the possibility that Yosef had planted it there. On the one hand, Benyomin has an inherited tendency for theft and was caught with the goods, but on the other hand, the Egyptian governor is a madman with a history of planting incriminating evidence. Whom to believe?
"Yosef saw his brothers and he recognized them... but they did not recognize him" (42:7-8). Yosef recognized his brothers, when they were given over into his hands he recognized them as brothers and had compassion on them. But they did not recognize him when he fell into their hands to treat him as a brother. (Rashi ad loc.)  
Yosef engineered this trauma for the brothers because he loved them. Before revealing his identity, Yosef wants to give his brothers a chance to vindicate themselves. He wants to watch them stand up and defend Binyomin - Yaakov’s favorite, Rachel’s son, and the new threat to their own destiny. After experiencing their hatred, jealousy and false accusations, Yosef wants to witness his brothers judge Binyomin favorably. He wants to evoke the memory of his mother Rachel and watch the children of the “secondary” wives deal with that uncomfortable reality. And Yosef wants to see his brothers express caring and love for their father Yaakov and redeem themselves. Yehuda stands up and, representing all of the brothers, he heroically does all these things. Yosef can now declare "I am Yosef!" and reenter a healed family.


A question remains. What right did Yosef have to do all this? It may help heal the family, but it is a risky business and a painful one. Who gave Yosef the right to play God?

The answer can be found in Yosef's second dream. Yosef saw the sun, moon, and stars bowing to him. Celestial bodies take orders from God, not Yosef. Why are they bowing to Yosef? Unless this is precisely the point: Hashem is telling Yosef to play "god" with his brothers. Engineer a Teshuvah opportunity for them and then forgive them. Just like God.

A second explanation for Yosef's behavior is rooted in Yosef's lifelong career in dream interpretation. When the baker and the butler had their dreams in the dungeon, Yosef interpreted them to mean that the baker will die and the butler will live and be freed (40:8-19). Why did God grant prophetic dreams to an Egyptian butler and baker? There is only one explanation. Yosef’s accurate interpretation built his reputation and ultimately led to his own freedom from prison. It turns out that the dreams of the butler and baker were not for themselves at all; they were entirely for Yosef (cf. Rashi to 40:1).

Dreamers must act to bring about the fulfillment of their dreams. The butler would have realized the true purpose of his dreams, but Yosef ruined it by intervening and asking him to put in a good word for him (40:14). This delayed things for two years. In order for the dream to function independently as the catalyst for Yosef’s freedom, the butler had to first forget about Yosef and his request (40:23). Only then could history flow naturally from the human response to dreams. (This explains the Midrash quoted by Rashi to 40:23.)

Pharaoh also has dreams that Yosef interprets, again following the same pattern. As opposed to the Egyptian dream interpreters who thought Pharaoh's dream was about his seven daughters, Yosef knows that Pharaoh is not dreaming about himself. Pharaoh is dreaming about worldwide famine and as king, he is no personal danger. Pharaoh’s dreams are not for himself, but for others – for the salvation of his people and the empowerment of Yosef - but Pharaoh must act to make his dreams come true. These revelations about the nature of dreams do not go by unnoticed by Yosef.

When Yosef’s brothers arrive at his door, the Torah tells us exactly what when went through his mind: “Yosef remembered the dreams that he dreamed for them” (42:9). Not simply “his dreams” nor “the dreams that he dreamed about them.” Rather, “the dreams that he dreamed for them.”

Yosef’s multiple experiences with dreams taught him a fundamental truth. The prophetic element of dreams is never limited to the destiny of the dreamer alone. Yosef’s dreams of his brothers bowing before him could not be for his own benefit. On the contrary, those dreams served as the catalyst for his sale into slavery! Dreams are not for the self; dreams are for others. And dreamers (if they the survive) have an obligation to act.

When the brothers arrived, Yosef had an epiphany. His dreams, the butler's and the baker's dreams, Pharaoh's dreams - the string of dreams are all united and lead to one inescapable conclusion. Yosef is destined to play God with his brothers - for their own good. This was the meaning of his vision of his brothers bowing before him. Yosef the dream interpreter must bring all six dreams to fruition.

Yosef hates his mission, but he suffers through it, crying through it, recognizing that the very dream that instigated the brothers to sell him obligates him to orchestrate their atonement and reunite the family of Israel. But this understanding is predicated on the extraordinary idea that even dreams of power must always be interpreted selflessly.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Grand Reopening to all Commentators!

Somehow, without my knowledge, the settings of this blog were changed to restrict comments to team members. My apologies to all comers who got rejected. Hope no one took this personally or got turned off by the apparent snobbishness (snobiety?). I am happy to report that the problem has been fixed, so feel free to comment to your heart's content.
Thank you Esther Kestenbaum for bringing this to my attention!

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Series of Inexplicable Events

In this week’s parsha, there is a lot of strange behavior. In fact, the behavior of each and every character in our story is just inexplicable. And that includes Yaakov, Yosef, and God.

Let’s review. Favoritism, tattletaling, and grandiose dreams drive the brothers into a dangerous mix of jealousy and hatred for Yosef. It reaches the point that they simply cannot say a peaceful word to him.

Yaakov is also angered by Yosef’s dreams. He intends to “manage” the situation, but when he sends Yosef to check up on his brothers, they kidnap him and sell him as a slave. Yosef is brought down to Egypt where he is put up on the block and purchased by the royal butcher.

No one’s behavior makes much sense, but strangest of all is Yaakov. Knowing that they are not on speaking terms, how could Yaakov send Yosef to check on his brothers? Yosef was terrified to make the trip, as evidenced by his “Hinneni” (37:13; compare 22:1). Yosef must have wondered why Yaakov was asking him to do this, and the conclusion he came to was inescapable and horrible.

Yaakov was in on the sale! How else would the brothers explain Yosef’s disappearance? The family had clearly decided to eliminate Yosef, much like Eisav and Yishmael were rejected by the earlier generations. It runs in the family. This explains why Yosef never made any attempt to contact Yaakov. (Of course, Yaakov did not conspire to eliminate Yosef, as evidenced by his subsequent mourning over the loss of his son. The question of why Yaakov sent Yosef to check on his brothers remains unresolved.)

Yosef is out of luck. Yesterday he basked in Yaakov’s love; today he labors for an Egyptian. We would be forced to admit that Yosef has been abandoned not only by his family, but by God as well. But the Torah says otherwise.

God was with Yosef.

Bereishit 39:2

Yosef is a slave and God is with him? If God is with him, why doesn’t God arrange for his freedom? In what way is God with him?

God was with Yosef and He made him very successful… His master realized that God was with [Yosef] and that God granted success to everything he did… [His master] placed him in charge of his household…


God’s presence manifests itself in Yosef’s success, but this is a mixed blessing. Yosef’s success (and good looks) attracts the attention of his master’s wife. She wishes to commit adultery with him, but Yosef refuses.

How could I do such a great wrong? It would be a sin before God!


Now it is Yosef who is behaving strangely. It takes a powerful fear of God to withstand the constant seductions of a beautiful woman. But Yosef has it. Where did he get such extraordinary faith? It must have come from his upbringing in the house of Yaakov. But this was the house that threw him out! After experiencing the evil done to him by his family, we would expect Yosef to abandon the faith of his fathers. After all, he has ample evidence that this tradition does not a better person make! But Yosef does not fall into that kind of immature thinking. He remains a God-fearing man.

Enraged by Yosef’s rejection, Potifar’s wife accuses him of attempted rape and has him thrown in prison. It is hard to imagine a more hopeless station in life than an imprisoned slave in the dungeons of ancient Egypt. But when life has gone from bad to worse and dreams of honor are but a distant memory, that most unexpected verse reappears once again.

God was with Yosef.


Two new prisoners show up in the prison, and one night they both have dreams. The next morning, Yosef notices that they look upset.

“Why do you look so worried today?” he asked.
“We [each] had a dream,” they replied, “and there is no one [here] to interpret it.”
“Interpretations are God’s business,” replied Yosef. “Tell me your dreams.”


Yosef may be in a dungeon, but he holds on to his faith. More than that, even when it comes to dream interpretation, something Yosef does quite well, Yosef humbles himself. “Dreams are God’s business.” Nor is Yosef shy about his faith. Later, standing before the king of Egypt, Yosef declares, “It is not me. God will provide an answer concerning Pharaoh’s future” (41:16). Yosef is a strong, proud and vocal Jew, and his religious values are rock solid. His faith emerges unscathed by his brother’s betrayal, estrangement from Yaakov, life alone in a pagan society, seduction, slavery and imprisonment.

The series of inexplicable events that is our parsha leaves a trail of unanswered questions. But of all the mysteries, the most relevant and the most pressing is this: Did Yosef have faith because God was with him? Or was God with Yosef because Yosef had faith?