DID JOSEPH MARRY A “SHIKSA?” – “Miketz” Gen. 41:1 – 44:17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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DID JOSEPH MARRY A “SHIKSA?” – “Miketz” Gen. 41:1 – 44:17 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

The Story of Joseph continues in this week’s reading through his sudden rise from prison to be Viceroy of Egypt. Along the way it raises interesting religious questions.

Last week we saw his brothers sell him to the caravan of Ishmaelites who proceeded to resell him into slavery in Egypt. There he works for a “sarees” named Potiphar. Frequently translated “courtier,” the word “sarees” literally means a eunuch, as indeed Pharaoh’s courtiers generally were emasculated to safeguard the women in the royal harem. Officially, however, Potiphar has a wife. She takes a good look at the handsome 17-year-old Hebrew slave, and sets out to seduce him. He refuses her once, but she tries again, grabbing his cloak, which he leaves in her hand and runs out. Furious, she calls out to other servants and accuses Joseph of trying to rape her. So her official husband has Joseph thrown in prison.

Immediately preceding this dramatic event, came the story of Judah and Tamar. Apparently unrelated to the Joseph story, it recounts Judah’s dallying with his daughter-in-law, who was widowed young and whose brothers-in-law were not claiming her in the customary levirate marriage, for the purpose of raising a child to carry on the dead brother’s name – a custom which later became Torah law. In despair, Tamar dresses as a harlot and traps Judah, becoming pregnant. She bears him twin sons who are named in the Torah. The Midrash adds a third child, a girl named Osnat whose name will come up in this week’s reading.

While in prison, Joseph the dreamer interprets dreams for two of his fellow prisoners. Both of his predictions are fulfilled, as three days later one of the prisoners is executed and the other one is returned to service as wine steward — read “bartender” — in Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph urges him to “remember me, for I did nothing to deserve prison.” But he forgets.

Our reading opens two years later. Now it is Pharaoh who has two disturbing dreams that all his palace magicians cannot interpret. Up steps the bartender and confesses his failing. He tells the king about Joseph. So Pharaoh has Joseph released from the dungeon, cleaned up and brought to the throne room, where Joseph proceeds to astound Pharaoh by not only interpreting the dreams but suggesting a plan to take advantage of the warning that these dreams contain – a warning of impending famine. “Let Pharaoh take a man who is discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt…” to gather the food of the good years and store it for the lean years that will follow. Totally impressed, Pharaoh gives Joseph the position he has just described. To go with his new job, Joseph gets Pharaoh’s signet ring, a fine suit of clothes, a gold chain and a festive chariot ride through the city with everyone bowing to him. He also gets a new name. And a wife. Her name is – guess what? — Osnat, and she is listed as the daughter of Poti Phera. The commentaries identify Poti Phera as none other than Potiphar, Joseph’s former owner. So she is an Egyptian girl, not an Israelite, right?

Now hold on. If Poti Phera is Potiphar, he was a eunuch. He couldn’t be a father to Osnat or anyone else. Just ask his wife. And this is where the Midrash supplies a definitely plausible answer: Judah and Tamar’s daughter Osnat was miraculously transported to Egypt to marry her uncle Joseph. A perfectly kosher wedding, made even more practical by the fact that Judah and Joseph were only half-brothers. Both being Jacob’s sons, Judah’s mother was Leah and Joseph’s was Rachel. Of course, what the Midrash is doing here is totally academic, since the Israelites will not receive the Torah for a couple of centuries. But in the mean time it removes any doubt of the purity of our lineage. Mazal Tov!

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DREAMS OF GLORY – “Vayeyshev” Gen. 37-40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

DREAMS OF GLORY – “Vayeyshev” Gen. 37-40 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Of all the dreamers in human history, Joseph stands out. We meet him in this week’s Sedrah Vayeyshev, at age 17, telling his father and his older brothers about his dreams. One is a dream of physical glory, in which he sees his sheaf of grain stand up in the field while all their sheaves surround his and bow. The second dream is highly symbolic, with the sun and moon and 11 stars bowing down to him. Already unpopular with his brothers, since he was Jacob’s favorite son, these dreams earn him their mortal hatred. They refer to him as “baal hakhalomos – the dream-master.” They consider murdering him, and decide instead to sell him into servitude. His dreams of glory begin to turn into nightmares.

Yet, 20 years later those dreams come true.

What happens in between makes the story of Joseph not only a great classic biography, which inspired writers like Thomas Mann to retell it, but a unique lesson in how to make our dreams come true. Joseph’s character develops under all different kinds of pressure.

First come the Ishmaelites on the caravan, who buy him from his brothers for 20 silver coins. All of a sudden this spoiled kid becomes a slave. He is human merchandise that they will sell in Egypt for whatever they can get, and until they arrive there he will earn his meager meal by helping tend the camels. A boy who seldom even got a direct order from his indulgent father, now gets plenty of orders – and kicks and slaps — from heathen camel-drivers. He learns to take it. He has no choice.

Then comes Potiphar, the Egyptian aristocrat, captain of the guard. He puts Joseph to work in his house. By now Joseph knows enough about taking orders to anticipate what needs to be done, and with native intelligence and youthful energy he does it efficiently. So Potiphar makes him major domo. Bright and good-looking, he is soon running the whole estate.

Then comes Potiphar’s wife. She takes a look at this young man and decides she wants him. Her proposition is anything but subtle. “Lie with me!” Young as he is, Joseph senses the risks. And his home training warns him that this is wrong in the sight of G-d. So he turns her down. What might be going through the mind of this 18-year-old slave, we don’t know. Is he a virgin? Is the lady attractive? Could he really desire her? The Torah narrative ignores those questions. But the cantillation for the word va-y’ma-eyn (he refused) is a shalshelet, literally a “chain” – the rarest and most ornate of musical figures in Torah chant, reserved for important words. That refusal is very important.

Incidentally, Rashi quotes the Talmudic opinion that Potiphar himself had a homosexual desire for Joseph. Which might explain his wife’s eagerness for something she was not getting from her husband. The Torah identifies Potiphar as a saris, usually translated “officer” or “courtier” but literally meaning “eunuch,” as were many of ancient potentates’ courtiers, surgically emasculated to safeguard the king’s harem.

Indeed Mrs. P keeps tempting Joseph day after day without success, until one day when the other servants are not in the house she grabs his cloak to pull him into bed. He leaves the cloak in her hands and goes out. Frustrated and angry, she uses the cloak as evidence to frame him for attempted rape. So Joseph goes to prison.

Next come his jailer and his fellow prisoners. He impresses the jailer enough to become his right-hand man. And his fellow inmates come to him to interpret their dreams. In the following Torah portion we will read how Joseph’s interpretations lead to Pharoah’s releasing him and making him viceroy. Add some Divine inspiration, and Joseph is in position to receive his brothers and his father, and to save them from starvation.

How did he get there? It was no easy trip. The Ishmaelite caravan taught him to work. Servitude on Potiphar’s estate developed his ambition and enabled him to find ways to achieve it. Never forgetting his father’s teaching, he is able to weather his sexual trials and to make the best of an unjust punishment. By the time he meets Pharaoh at age 30, Joseph has all the qualifications to live out his boyhood dream. Running the country for the next seven years and controlling its economy to survive poverty, he earns the right to have “the sun and moon and 11 stars bow to him.” No, it wasn’t easy.

Fulfilling our dreams never is. Typically it involves hard work, strength to endure disappointments and rise above them, backbone to live by our principles, and enough imagination to preserve the vision we aim for. Like Joseph, we might have to spend 20 years getting there. Maybe less, like Mark Zuckerberg. Or maybe more, like most of us. But it is our challenge, a sacred journey that calls us to bring our vision to life.

Brakha v’hatzlakha – Have a successful trip!

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ADVERTISING AS A SACRED DUTY – A Hanukkah Message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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The Aramaic name for it is “Parsumey nissa.” The time for it is early evening, when people are on their way home from work. And the action involved is striking a match, lighting some candles in a candelabrum and placing it in our front window. Facing the street. Why? Because it’s Hanukkah. Because a miracle happened in Israel in the Jewish year 3586, and we celebrate its anniversary. How? By advertising the miracle – “parsumey nissa.”

Before we do all this, of course, we say a blessing, giving thanks for the miracle that happened for our ancestors, in those days, at this time. This action – exhibiting our lit menorah for all passersby to see – is how we advertise the miracle of the Maccabees, when as our prayers tell us “G-d, in Your great mercy You fought their battle…and the strong lost to the weak, the many to the few, the impure to the pure, the wicked to the righteous, and the arrogant lost to those who devoted themselves to Your Torah.” So this act of advertising is truly a sacred duty. Let’s remember the purpose of the menorah this year: Parsumey nissa.

What we should also remember, of course, is the fact that we do not glorify the personalities of the Maccabees, but we celebrate the victory they achieved by their inspiration, their determination to resist oppression and attacks on their faith – our faith. Their story took place only 1,290 years ago, and things like government and politics were rather different then. Or were they? Believe it or not, they had such a thing as corruption then too. After driving the Greek invaders from the Temple, Judah Maccabee and his brothers proceeded to take over ruling the country. As glorious as they were in battle, they were inglorious as rulers. So we still celebrate their victory, but not their personalities. It’s “Parsumey nissa” — publicize the miracle. Not “Parsumey haMakabim.”

In our day as we approach the 13th century since the Hanukkah miracle, we can couple our sacred advertising with a prayer for a new miracle. The very name of our holiday, remember, is Hanukkah – literally Dedication. With Divine inspiration, our ancestors were able to reclaim the Temple and dedicate it, with that little bottle of oil – the only one that the Maccabees found still sealed with the High Priest’s seal – just enough to burn for one day. And we recall the miracle that it burned for 8 days. That, says the Talmud, is the true miracle of Hanukkah.

We can also recall the experience of 1967 – not 13 centuries ago, just 47 years ago – when an Israeli general liberated the Old City and radioed headquarters with the historic message “Har haBayit b’yadeynu” – the Temple Mount is in our hands! And they would not let him take it. Today Jews are not permitted to pray on the Temple Mount. Today enemies that make the ancient Greeks look noble attack Jews at prayer and at bus stops. We see lives destroyed and nothing gained. No miracle to advertise. At least, not yet.

So, until we get a new miracle, the best we can do is celebrate the old one. We can do so with songs and with latkes, with joy and with hope. We can enjoy advertising the miracle of Hanukkah once again.

Have a Happy. Anyway.

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MORE THAN I DESERVE — “Vayishlakh” Gen. 32:4-36 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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MORE THAN I DESERVE — “Vayishlakh” Gen. 32:4-36 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

After 20 years, Jacob is on his way home. Here the Torah describes a scene en route that figures strongly in Jacob’s life, and also strikes a note that echoes in many of our own lives. Learning that his brother Esau is coming to meet him and bringing 400 armed men, Jacob quickly divides his group into two camps. The rear camp holds his wives and children, his animals and their shepherds — his wealth and the promise of his future. The forward camp, on the Jabbok crossing of the Jordan River, holds Jacob, alone. His reasoning anticipates an attack: “If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it, the second camp will still survive.”

As he sets up this division, he prays: “G-d of my father Abraham, G-d of my father Isaac, G-d who told me ‘Return to your homeland and I will deal well with you; I am too small for all the kindness and all the truth that You fashioned for me. With just my stick I first crossed this Jordan, and now I became two camps!”

Turn the clock forward a few millenia, and that prayer would read something like this: “With nothing but my mustering-out pay I first crossed this country, and now I have a business and a family and a yacht and a mansion on the hill!”
Or: “With only a passport I arrived all alone in America, and now I have a family and property and political leaders seeking my friendship!”
Or perhaps: “With only the clothes on my back I entered the garment district, and now I’m a top model, shareholder in a factory and sought after for movie roles!”
How many of us can be grateful to have feelings like those? And how many of us feel unworthy of our success? Jacob does not thump his chest and say Look what I did. He has enough humility to feel that G-d has helped him achieve more that he deserved. Highly appropriate, this message, coming right after the American Thanksgiving Day.

Does it apply to everyone? Obviously success can elude us; we can fail. Our father Jacob didn’t succeed every time either. Esau terrified him. Laban tricked him. He had to work hard and think hard and pray hard to end up on top. And, like the rest of us, he made mistakes along the way. He treated his sons unequally, nearly costing the life of his favorite, Joseph. How he treated his wives has prompted countless domestic tragedy stories. Ever since then, Torah Law prohibits one man from marrying two sisters — a ruling that came long before polygamy was outlawed. And yet, Jacob eventually rises above his mistakes, as we will see in the coming readings. He will face Pharaoh, not as a refugee begging tolerance but as an equal. He will leave his children some true ideals to live by. And he leaves all of us a character lesson in his simple prayer: “I am too small to merit all Your kindness.” A modicum of humility yields a masterpiece of gratitude.

Maybe, as someone who shall be nameless here recently said, “industry doesn’t create jobs” — oh yeah? — but an individual alone does not create success. A share of Divine inspiration and confidence is required. Let’s learn from Jacob to welcome that help.

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THE HIGH AND THE HOME – “Vayeytzey”—Gen.28:10-31:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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THE HIGH AND THE HOME – “Vayeytzey”—Gen.28:10-31:3, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

When Jacob leaves home, ostensibly on his way to Haran to find a wife, but more importantly to get out of harm’s way in the person of his vengeful brother Esau, he stops for the night in a place that is strange to him, and goes to sleep on a rock. That place, that rock, that night, becomes a life-changing experience for him. Because that is where he has his famous dream: a ladder reaching into heaven, with angels climbing both up it and down it.

Interesting that the story has the angels going up first and then coming down. If angels are heavenly creatures, how did they get to the bottom of the ladder to climb up? Didn’t they have to come down first?

Rashi explains that these angels were already with Jacob. They were the angels of the Land of Israel, and they could go no further with him, because he chose to stop for the night just at the boundary line. So these Israeli Guard angels were changing places with a second group of angels who would accompany him outside the Land. Of course Jacob was totally unaware of this whole Changing of the Guard — until his dream.

What is striking is his reaction when he wakes up. Actually two reactions. The first – awe. “Certainly G-d is in this place and I did not know it!” Wow! What a dream! It must be Divine inspiration. That is the shock reaction. I was religious all the time and didn’t realize it! Then on further thought, he begins to digest the message he got in the dream – the message of Divine guidance on his journey and back home again. And he offers a return commitment. A contract, if you will. “If G-d will be with me on my way, and see that I have food to eat and clothes to wear, and if I can come home safely to my father’s house, then He will be my G-d, and whatever You give me, I will return You a tenth.” In other words, if this dream was a true flash of prophecy, and it comes true, I will believe. And if I get home safely, I’ll even make a contribution.

Each of us in our attitude toward our faith takes one of these attitudes. The contract, or the thrill. At different times, maybe both. Something wonderful happens to us – the thrill of love, or winning the lottery, or getting our discharge from the Armed Forces, or the birth of our first child, or maybe just climbing to the top of a major mountain and being alone with the universe. And we suddenly discover the Master of that Universe. Suddenly we realize that we were really religious all the time and didn’t know it. If that’s your experience, congratulations. You can savor the wonder of life.

Or… the daily grind becomes more complex. More grinding. We wish for some childhood simplicity. Let me go home safely to my father’s house, and I’ll be glad to pray. I’ll even make a contribution.

The first attitude is easier, but doesn’t come to everyone. The second is more common. Both are legitimate, and neither is the whole story. Which one applies to you? #1 can make you a Returnee, a “bal teshuva,” overnight. #2 should prompt you to reach back into your memory for the truths of home, the hope of home, the warmth of home. Recapture them where you are now. At least, try to approximate them. Learn a few things you never bothered to learn at home, and maybe some things you made a point to forget. Some Torah, some Minhogim – customs. Maybe that is what made home Home. The traditions of our homes prepared us for life’s climactic moments – the “Wow” – and for the yearnings of “Take me back to my father’s house.”

Here’s wishing you the supreme high of the “Wow.” And the fortitude to acquire the way home.

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