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Joseph knew his father would not believe he was still alive. So what did he do? Not what we might expect. They were instructed to “ take wagons….which were sent by the express command of Pharoah” to take his father and entire family back. When the brothers returned, the Torah records that they showed Jacob the wagons and repeated “all the words of Joseph.” Yehuda Nachshoni summarizes this puzzle effectively by observing that both the words of Joseph and the wagons would prove that he yet lived and yet neither proof seems persuasive.

Our commentators through the ages have made many suggestions along the lines that wagons were drawn by oxen which were banned as export items except under express Royal permission. But on its own, this would not suffice as a proof. Clearly, the phrase “all the words of Joseph” plays a key role in explaining how Jacob was persuaded that his son was alive. To determine its role, let’s look at the narrative:

“And they [the brothers] told Jacob saying: ‘Joseph is still alive, and he is the ruler over all of Egypt, and his heart skipped because he did not believe them. And they told him all the words of Joseph that Joseph had said to them, and he saw the wagons….and the spirit of Jacob their father was revived.” (Bereishit 45:26-27)

The key is the phrase “the words Joseph said to them.” Until now the brothers’ various accounts of Joseph had only “put words in his mouth”, they had told half-truths about what “the man” who was in charge of the land had told them. As we have seen through our study, the brothers’ accounts of what happened to Simon and their money certainly varied from the factual. They could distort the narrative with impunity, having no idea who they were speaking to and knowing their aged father could not personally verify their tale. But now, they had to speak the part of the story they had omitted, “the words Joseph said to them” and it was these words, that explained everything that Jacob had previously not understood and the fact that wagons could only be sent with Royal permission that convinced Jacob that indeed Joseph was alive. The brothers told the truth under compulsion. As soon as Jacob passed away, they begged for mercy, believing that now Joseph would avenge himself. But he majestically replied: “You think I will do you evil, but G-d only thought of the good, so that we would be united here to become a numerous people.”

In the end, the brothers’ words “behold the master of dreams approaches” came back to haunt them. They were guilt ridden throughout this narrative, but still chose to lie because it seemed the safest and easiest course. And that is why Pirke Avot observes: “Know what is above you: a seeing eye, and a hand that writes, and all is recorded in a book.” In the end, there is accountability—and it often comes—unexpectedly for those who lie—in this world and not the next. Make no mistake—despite Joseph’s gracious words, they suffered a great deal. All the 17 remaining years of Jacob’s life—which exceeded the number of years Joseph suffered in prison—the brothers waited for Joseph’s revenge. Each day must have seemed like a year. They were victims of their own lying and intriguing natures—they assumed Joseph would act towards them as they acted toward him. The pain of Joseph’s graciousness was great—as Tolkein has observed, keeping an enemy alive who you have the power to kill forces them to live “in constant acknowledgement of your kindness.” It’s no small wonder that the descendants of the brothers fought each other and eventually became two kingdoms. Let us truly hope that the shalom unique to Shabbat flows through the week and into our families.

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Parashat Mikketz always coincides with Chanukah. The grandson of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzsky offers his grandfather’s explanation of why our Sages designed the cycle in this manner: This week the Torah relates how a famine plagued the entire Middle East. Yaakov's children elected to go to the only country that was spared from hunger, Egypt. Through the brilliant vision, organization, and planning of a young Hebrew slave known to Egyptians as Tzafnat Paneach, that country fed both itself and the world. The brothers were ushered into the prodigal viceroy's chambers. He acted towards them like a total meshuganah. He accused them of a heinous plot to spy on Egypt. He incarcerated Shimon, and forced them to bring their youngest brother, the orphaned child of an aged father, to him. Yoseph surely wanted to teach a lesson to the brothers who sold him. But if Yoseph wanted to castigate or punish his brothers for selling him, why didn't he do so openly and directly? Why the senseless charade?

Chanukah is symbolized by the Menorah. It represents a miracle. A small amount of oil, enough for one day, lasted for eight. But there were greater miracles. A small army of Kohanim, priests who were previously involved in only spirituality and had very little experience in battle, defeated the Greek army. Why don't we make a parade or a feast to celebrate a major victory? Why is the main commemoration over a little oil?

In a small village lived a poor groom. Unable to afford a proper tailor to make a wedding suit, he brought material to a second-rate one. The poor boy was shocked to see the results.

"But this sleeve is six inches too short," he cried. "So pull in your arm," smiled the tailor. "But the other sleeve is a half a foot too long!" "So extend it," beamed the so-called craftsmen. "And the pants," screamed the groom, "the left leg is twisted!" "Oh that's nothing. Just hop down the aisle with your knee slightly bent!" At the wedding, the assembled reeled in horror as the poor groom hobbled down to the canopy in the poor excuse for a suit. "What a grotesquely disfigured young man," gasped one guest. "Oy! Ah rachmunis (pity) on his poor bride," sighed another. The spectators looked once again at the pathetic sight and noticed how well the suit appeared to fit. In unison they all exclaimed. "But his tailor -- what an extraordinary genius!"

My grandfather explained to me that Yoseph had a very important message to send his brothers. "More than a decade ago you sat in judgment. You thought you made a brilliant decision and were smarter than anyone else, including your father. You decided to sell me as a slave. Now you meet the most brilliant saviour of the generation, the man who saved the world from starvation, and he is acting like a paranoid maniac. He is accusing you of something that is so hallucinatory that you think he is a madman. Is it not possible to think that perhaps you also made a gross error in judgment? Is it not possible that you saw a situation in a twisted light? Is it the boy or is it the suit that is actually grotesque?" Yoseph showed his brothers that even the best and brightest can misinterpret any situation. Chanukah delivers a very similar message. The sages were not interested in commemorating a battlefield victory. They had a more powerful message for us. Nothing in this world can be judged at face value. A bit of oil that decidedly can only last one day -- may last much longer. They want us to remember that outward appearances, as the opinions of pundits, have no bearing on reality. When that message is understood, it is easy to understand that a small army of Kohanim (priests) can topple a mighty force. We can understand that what we view as weak may be strong and what we thought was insufficient is actually plenty. And that a little bit of oil, like a pesky younger brother, both of whom you thought would not amount to anything, can really light the way.  (

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“And these are the generations of Jacob, Joseph…” “And his brothers envied him, and his father kept watch [shamar] over the situation.” These two powerful textual fragments summarize the tragic parenting flaw of selecting a favourite that he may have learned from his father. But the second text is more troubling than the first, for it indicates that Jacob clung to his favouratism in the face of mounting evidence that it was tearing apart familial bonds.

The exact meaning of the Hebrew “shamar” in this context is vital yet puzzling. Normally this verb means to “observe” (as in “observing Shabbat”) or to guard in the military sense. Even these two usages are related, for ritual observance requires the same attention to detail that a good soldier must show to duty. But the context in our verse is far from clear, and it is well worth examining some commentaries in an effort to shed light on the exact nature of Jacob’s behaviour.

Rashi, and many translations that follow him, read shamar as “kept it in mind”. In other words, Jacob realized that the dream of the heavenly bodies all bowing to Joseph was significant as prophecy and inventoried it mentally, waiting for it to come true. But why, asks Da’at Mikra, would Joseph risk telling this dream when his brothers already hated him for his previous one? To which the Ba’alei HaTosafot answer: a prophet who represses his prophetic urge (as did Yona) will be destroyed, and they quote Jeremiah who bitterly complained that his prophetic urge welled up in him like a fire. Thus, Joseph was compelled to speak and preferred his brothers’ hatred and envy to death. Indeed, many commentators see the second dream as a prophecy of the distant future—to the miracle of Gibeon, when the sun and the moon and the stars all stood still for Joshua so he could complete the annihilation of an enemy host in his conquest of the Promised Land. After all, Joshua was from the tribe of Ephraim—a descendant of Joseph.

But the “Vayidaber Moshe” sees a psychological issue here. He suggests that when a person is hated, no one really takes them seriously. But jealousy indicates that the person is being taken seriously and even his enemies are worried about his increased power. Similarly, Jacob only became alarmed when his sons became jealous of their brother. But what did he do about it? Precious little.Though our commentaries cannot agree on why Jacob did nothing, they cannot argue with the textual assertion that Jacob remained passive, an assertion of the “Jacob” personality rather than that of “Israel”. And for this, he would pay dearly for over two decades.

And this inaction is what speaks loudest to me as a parent and educator. Parenting has no room for bystanders. Adults sometimes need to intervene actively in their childrens’ lives. Hopefully they will do this effectively when they are young, because intervening in the lives of older children can forever shatter relationships. The old Yiddish proverb says: “as one is at 7 so they shall be at 70”. Certainly people do change, but there is a key point here: intervening in our children and grandchildrens’ formative years effectively pays dividends. Jacob’s actions came back to haunt him. Because he passively shamar (watched) as hatreds smouldered and festered, he later became a shomair (a passive guard) to a family of shattered relationships. No wonder he told Pharoah decades later: “the years of my sojournings were few and evil” even though he was very old. May we have the strength to be active intervenors when necessary in the lives of our loved ones.

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In the opening verse of our parasha, Yaakov sends a message to his brother Esau, reported moving towards him with 400 armed men. “I have sojourned (garti) with Lavan….” Rashi famously takes the gematria (numerical value of the Hebrew letters) of the word garti, which is 613, and observes that even though Yaakov lived in a place of sinfulness, he kept all the mitzvot of the Torah. But this is impossible even if one accepts Rashi’s point of view that our Avot and Imahot (forefathers and mothers) kept all the commandments later to be given at Sinai. Lavan lived outside the Land of Israel in Aram Naharayim. No one living outside of Israel can possibly observe all 613 mitzvot. How then shall we read this Rashi?

Certainly this Rashi can be read euphemistically. It is impossible to observe all the commandments today, and even when the Temple stood and a significant portion of the Jewish community lived in Eretz Yisrael simple human imperfection prevented anyone from keeping all the commandments. As our machzor observes drily: “there is no person who is free of sin”. Even Moses falls under this rubric. Despite this, “613” has been a famous number in Judaism simply as an inspiration, and a challenge to all who seek perfection.

Following this logic, Rashi suggests that Yaakov is speaking of the challenges of being Jewish in a non-Jewish and sometimes religiously hostile world. Lavan’s house was full of challenges, not the least of which was the temptation to stray from the path of a yet-young religion. Witness how Rachel stole her father’s household gods near the end of last week’s parasha—it is far more emotionally logical to argue that she still believed in the old ways than to assume that she simply wanted some of her father’s real property that she so greatly feared being deprived of. Yet despite this, Jacob held to his faith, the faith in the Deity that appeared to him in a mighty vision as he journeyed from home. Despite all his personal, and soon to come physical challenges, Jacob remained steadfast in that belief. That is greatly to his credit and a lesson to us all.

Faith does not travel easily over the rough roads of life. And it often changes its nature as we learn more about ourselves as we mature. Sometimes it disappears for a time, or simply remains by rote as we say the words of our prayers without thought, while we stress over how busy our day will be. But, if we nurture it properly, faith smolders ever in our souls, ready to burst into flame, as Yaakov’s did, when we feel the challenges of life suddenly looming. The goal of the Intelligent Jew is to preserve the ember of our faith and keep it with us always, nurture its fire with learning and reflection on the nature of prayer and spirituality in the outside world. Danger rides on the open road of life that we travel, but people can also sleep soundly amidst this danger and dream of angels and ramps leading heavenward.

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“And when Jacob saw Rachel….he lifted the stone [lid] from the well and gave water to the sheep….” Everyone is familiar with this scene from a well known Bible story—the first meeting of first cousins Jacob and Rachel. Jacob is so smitten that he lifts a rock that is so heavy that it was normally lifted by the collective efforts of all the town’s shepherds. This is one of the few biblical examples of “love at first sight”.

Shimson Rafael Hirsch argues that Jacob chose Rachel because of her outward beauty. Certainly the plain reading of the text supports this view, especially since the Torah text takes the unusual step of pointing out that Rachel was “beautiful in form and appearance.” Interestingly, most of the classical commentators are strongly opposed to this point of view. Most argue that Jacob loved her personality more than anything else. In the famous liturgical poem “Eshet Chayil”—A Woman of Valour—traditionally recited on Friday night, husbands are reminded “Grace is false, and beauty is vain; a G-d-fearing woman, she should be praised.”

Traditionally “inner beauty”—faith, selflessness, loyalty—were the watchword of what a Jewish wife should be. But the final page of Massechet Ta’anit tells a slightly different story. It speaks of the 15th of Av, the day on which all the young unmarried women of Israel dressed identically and walked through the vineyards in front of an audience of “eligible bachelors”. Massechet Ta’anit 31a minces no words in its description of what these girls called out to their rapt audience: “The beautiful ones would tell them to pay attention to beauty, as a wife is for her beauty. Those with Yichus [lineage] would tell them to pay attention to that, as a wife is for her children.

The ugly ones would tell them to marry for the sake of Heaven, and to adorn their wives with golden jewelry.”

Why were the “ugly” wives given jewelry? To make clear to those who might assume that their husbands had married them ”just” for their spiritual beauty (“marry for the sake of Heaven”), understand how greatly these women were valued by their husbands. The expensive jewelry lavished upon them simply tried to reflect the value their spirituality brought to their relationship. But please note that the Talmud leaves the beautiful women unadorned—“as a wife is for beauty”. In short—there are many things that attract people to each other.

In every case though, the Jewish idea of love contrasts to the Hollywood idyll. As a traditional matchmaker puts it: “Valentine’s Day which is associated with Cupid who is presumed to “shoot his arrow” to your heart and make you “fall blindly in love.” In other words, it is beyond your control. This type of love is shown to dissipate and disappear as mysteriously as it appeared. The Jewish notion of love is “growing in love”, ever deeper and ever stronger with time.” Seen in this light, Jacob’s case is the exception rather than the rule.

Modern dating shows, with their endless debriefs of why this bachelor or bachelorette rejected various suitors are stunningly narcissistic. Count the number of times each person interviewed says “I….” Rabbi Sacks was not far off a couple of weeks ago when he posed on YouTube with an iPhone, iPad, and iPod, and opined that Steve Jobs’ devices all began with “I” because they promoted narcissism. Overstatement? Perhaps…but something to think about. Marriage is about friendship of a far different type than Facebook. On Shabbat, a day we divest ourselves from the electronic world, we have a chance to experience real conversation, the type that renews marriages and nourishes friendships. All too rare nowadays. Another reason to say “thank G-d for Shabbat.”




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