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Parashat Vayeshev 5777 — 12/24/2016

Parashat Vayeshev 5777 — 12/24/2016

Bereishit 37:1-40:23

With Parashat Vayeshev the focus of the Biblical narrative shifts from Ya’akov to his favorite son, Yosef. Yosef angers his brothers by being Ya’akov’s favorite son, and by his dreams, which appear to portend his ruling over them – of course these dreams do materialize. They therefore sell him into slavery in Egypt, where he becomes the successful steward of the estate of a high official, rebuffs the advances of the official’s lecherous wife, and winds up in prison. In prison he correctly interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s courtiers, and asks the one who was going to survive to remember him to Pharaoh and get him out of prison. The courtier promptly forgets him for two years, until circumstances prod his memory, at the beginning of next week’s parashah.

In the middle of this story, one chapter tells of Yehudah’s “going down” from his brothers, marrying a Canaanite woman, having three sons and losing two of them, being seduced by his widowed daughter-in-law, who then bears him twins, one of whom will be a progenitor of the Davidic monarchy and therefore of Mashiach. The commentators hasten to explain that before the Torah was given Yehudah’s liaison with his son’s widow was actually a legitimate form of levirate marriage. The esoteric purpose of such a union is to provide a pathway for the soul of the deceased to reincarnate and finish whatever it was supposed to do on this earth. Nevertheless, this seems to be a pretty sketchy way to produce someone who is eventually going to redeem the world!

In truth, there’s even more sketchiness about the lineage of Mashiach. Ruth, from Moav, is a progenitress of King David’s, and Moav’s lineage comes from Lot’s incestuous relations with his elder daughter (in parashat Vayera). Now, Lot’s daughters may have acted for the sake of Heaven, as they thought there was no other way to propagate the species. Lot, on the other hand is more suspect. The text says that “he didn’t know when they lay down or when they got up,” but there are little dots over those words in the traditional Torah scroll. The Sages tell us that when we see these dots we have to look very closely for hidden messages in the text. In this case, the message is “he knew, but he let it happen anyway”!! Sketchy indeed!

The Rabbis explain that Gd had to “fool the Satan” in order to “sneak” Mashiach into the world. This is almost as bad (i.e. hard to explain) as “throwing a bone to the Satan” which we discussed last week. Again, we cannot take the idea literally, as the Satan is not all knowing, and of course Gd can do what He wants, Satan’s objections to the contrary notwithstanding! What does it mean that Gd has to “fool the Satan”?

“The Satan” in Jewish thought is the “prosecuting attorney” and therefore represents the attribute of din, judgment. The attribute of judgment is completely unforgiving – things are objectively right or wrong, no extenuating circumstances considered. For example, when Gd was preparing to save the Jewish people at the Sea and to drown the Egyptians, the attribute of din argued that in fact, both the Jews and the Egyptians worshiped idols in Egypt, so why should one be saved and the other drowned? In this case of course there were real differences between the two communities, which Gd dutifully points out and the scenario proceeds as originally planned. There is no need to “fool” the Satan, but there apparently is a need to respond with the appropriate reason for the distinction. The attribute of din must be satisfied in some way.

When we’re talking about the Redemption/Mashiach, I think the consideration is a little different. Here we are talking about an unredeemed world, in which material considerations are uppermost, and from which the human race, cannot seem to extricate itself. Indeed, we seem to be intent on destroying this planet that Gd has given us to improve and perfect, and on which we are supposed to perfect ourselves. The coming of Mashiach, our Sages tell us, can only take place if a generation is entirely righteous, or entirely evil. It would seem that a generation that was entirely righteous would have no need of Mashiach, and our generation appears intent on taking the other tack.

If the generation is completely evil however, we have a conundrum. Such a generation is completely unworthy of redemption! Yet that is specifically when Mashiach is supposed to come. Even more to the point, really nobody is worthy of redemption. We all sin, hopefully inadvertently and not with malice aforethought, but we were specifically created imperfect so that we can perfect ourselves. But until we do, strict justice demands that we not be rewarded with redemption.

We have a tradition that Gd created many worlds and destroyed them all before creating ours, and seeing that it was “very good” (Bereishit 1:31). The Sages explain that the prior editions were based exclusively on the attribute of din. Therefore they could not survive – they could not withstand the scrutiny of strict justice, because they were not perfect. As created entities, they were “removed” from the Creator. Our world, however, has the attribute of chesed lively in it as well, to temper the attribute of din, as it says, The universe is built on chesed (Ps 89:3). Without this admixture of chesed, our creation would have gone the way of all the others. Gd’s chesed gives us the slack we need to turn aside from our mistaken actions and get on a better path; without it, self-perfection would be impossible, because the slightest slip-up would bring overwhelming retribution. I think this addition of chesed is the deeper meaning of Gd’s “fooling the Satan.”

I am writing this between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, between the Yom haDin (Day of Judgment) and the Day of Atonement. This period perfectly displays the dynamic at work for any creation to survive. We stop and take stock of where we’re at and which way we’re going, and make the necessary corrections. The 10 Days of T’shuvah are Gd’s chesed that allows us to come before Him and receive another chance at life and growth. But truthfully, t’shuvah should be an everyday occurrence – every day we can examine our lives and bring them closer to perfection.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayeshev (And he settled)

“Canaan”, the Promised Land, derives from the Hebrew root “k-n-a”, to bring into synchronicity.

This is something we all want and why this story may and often is, taken as a parable for our own lives, our own moving out of dissonance into harmony, synchronicity. This is what makes Canaan, literally and symbolically, so desirable a land to enter into, and why at the end of the Five Books of Moses our ancestors are preparing to do so.

Why would one ever want to leave it? Why would Gd arrange events so that people leave it?

That is the fundamental question that arises in this parsha, Vayeshev, “and he settled”, when Gd arranges events so Jacob’s family goes out of synchrony, winds up in Egypt (“Mitzraim”: restrictions, hardships) in exile and eventually slavery, for hundreds of years, eventually to be led back to Canaan, the Promised Land.

A tentative answer is that at the time Jacob settled there, the land of Canaan was not yet living up to its full value, was not yet the Promised Land, and so its inhabitants needed to evolve, to raise themselves in synchronicity, in order to be harmonious, to tune the land to their higher coherence.

For this purpose, Gd gives dreams to Joseph and hatred and jealousy to his brothers who sell him to the Ishmaelites who bring him to Egypt where Potiphar, captain of Pharoah’s palace guard buys him.

Chapter XXXIX 2-3: “And the Lrd was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. 3. “And his master saw that the LRD was with him, and the LRD made all that he did to prosper in his hand”.

Here we see evolution, rising toward the One+ness with Gd, the One, and movement toward he or his descendants returning to Canaan and being Holy enough to bring out of it its ability to synchronize, to harmonize, to bring all parts together into a whole. Several hundred years later, Gd, guides Moses to lead the descendants of Jacob out of Egypt and back to Canaan.

And this is something many in our Beth Shalom Congregation are making good progress in doing, raising the harmony of ourselves and the world around us, so that all becomes Canaan, synchronous, the Promised Land.

Baruch HaShem.