Holy City Prayer

Monday, December 18, 2006

From Moshe Mordechai: Parashat Vayeishev: The Scroll of Joseph

Parashat Vayeishev: The Scroll of Joseph

In general a Portion of the week that we read on Shabbat ends on a happy
note. Even the various sections that people are called up for, some seven
per Shabbat, finish in a positive point. Similarly in weekday readings, when
the first of the section to be read the next Shabbat is split up into three
parts, each of them will end well. And even when the Reader misses the
proper place to halt, he will only stop after a Verse that has a positive

So look at the ending of this week's Portion. Joseph was going to spend
another two years in jail (Genesis 40:23). What was so uplifting about that?

The simplest answer is that there is nothing so good about that and that the
Rabbis wanted to make a point here by having the division before the happy
end. The logical question then is why. Let's get into the details.

The story of Joseph is one big, long tragedy. His mother dies in giving
birth to him (Genesis 35:16-19). He's hated by his own brothers who couldn't
even speak peaceably to him (Genesis 37:4). After he told them his first
dream they hated him even more (37:5 and 8). About his second dream his
father scolded him (10) and his brothers were jealous of him (11). Then they
even conspired to kill him (18-20). They would leave the job though to
snakes and scorpions (22, 24) and when they had decided to sell him to
Ishmaelites (27) Midianite traders got him out already (28) and actually
sold him Ishmaelites (28) who brought him to Egypt (28). Now the Medanites
sold him Potiphar, one of the mightiest men under Pharaoh (36). His brothers
made their father believe that he was killed by wild beasts (33), so he was
all alone in a powerful, hostile, defiled country, and his trouble was only

All goes very well in his master's home till his wife invites him to "lie"
with her (39:7). He refuses and corrects the Primordial Sin of (not) taking
the only thing forbidden (compare 2:16-7 "of every tree freely eat; but" and
39:9 ("and he has denied me nothing but")). However, she did not take no for
an answer and when he flees when she actually attempts to get physical he
gets accused of starting up with her and thrown in jail. Ten years in jail
and no way in sight to get out. Just one tiny chance to have someone speak
up for him to free him (40:14), and the last Verse of our reading reports us
that that lead is dead (40:23). And then: Tune in next week, for more
suspense, when.

Why this sour ending? I believe that this is to stress what is the main idea
about the whole story of Joseph, as he himself reveals in the end (45:5).
That all that happened comes from G^d and therefore will end well. Like
Joseph didn't worry about a happy ending, we shouldn't. Even if no solution
seems approaching. This is even more famous about the Purim story - also a
mind-boggling cascade of seeming misfortune that ends miraculously well. And
the Chanuka story, in which the many fell into the hands of the few, is
similar. Chanuka we celebrate in the time that we read about Joseph. (If
it's up to me we can call the story of Joseph the Scroll of Joseph to be
read at Chanuka time.)

Ai, but then the Tora reading could always be arrested at any point. We
should always see G^d's hand behind the scenes and believe and trust that
all is well. There would be no need to stop at a positive point, no? No for
two reasons. Firstly, then this bitter ending here would have been nothing
special, not stood out, so the message would not have come out that we
shouldn't worry this time - or ever. Secondly, the Tora and the Author take
into account that people are just people. We need reassurance. Each of us.
(I always find that very reassuring: that we all need that.) Not so much
comfort that we have no freedom to develop trust anymore, and have no choice
but to be optimists. But we all need encouragement. Even Joseph received his
portion. When he was taken away to Egypt he noticed that this was a caravan
trading in spices. He realized that they could have dealt in things that had
an unpleasant smell or no smell at all. So from this he understood that even
when he was brought down to the morally lowest country (Egypt at the time)
from the very Holy Land, that G^d was going to be with him all the way, and
he worried no more.

So in general by the end of the Tora readings we get reminded every time
that all is going well. This week through the special end of the Reading we
get reminded that even when things don't seem to go in a good way, they go
well. There is no Commandment to worry.

Reb Nachman was called by Reb Shlomo Carlebach the Rebbi of the Messiah. He
used to say that we all need two rabbis: our own one and Reb Nachman.
Followers of Reb Shlomo say of course that we all need three rabbis: Reb
Nachman, Reb Shlomo and our own Rabbi. Reb Nachman says that in life we need
to learn three things.

The first thing to learn is how to stand and how to walk. To stand means to
pray and to walk means to do the Commandments. The second thing to learn is
how to fall and how to get up. The third thing is what to do when we fall so
badly that we can't get up. Then we keep standing (praying) and walking
(doing Good) till one day we find out that we didn't fall at all. How could
we have fallen: He was holding us so close. Gut Chanuka.