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Parashat Vayeshev 5779 — 12/01/2018

Parashat Vayeshev 5779 — 12/01/2018

Bereishit 37:1-40:23

Our parashah begins the saga of Yosef, his sale by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, his eventual rise to second-in-command of the Egyptian empire, his eventual reconciliation with his brothers and the descent of the family into Egypt. Yosef is a transitional figure between the patriarchal era and the tribal era. Yosef is certainly one of the brothers, favored of his father, Ya’akov, yet he also stands over the brothers, at least in a secular sense. He is separated from the brothers by his circumstances, and he fathers two of the tribes. All the other brothers are progenitors of their individual tribes, but Yosef, like Ya’akov, fathers some of the tribal progenitors (Ephraim and Menashe).

R. Goldin points out a major difference between Yosef and the three patriarchs – Gd does not speak to Yosef directly. Avraham has the Covenant Between the Pieces where he is promised the Land and informed of the Egyptian exile, and of course he is told directly to go to the Land of Israel, and to slaughter his son, Yitzchak (and afterward told not to). Yitzchak is told to stay in the Land of Israel and not to go down to Egypt as his father had before him in a time of famine. And Ya’akov receives assurances of his safety and fruitfulness, as he is about to leave the Land of Israel, and similar reassurances when he returns with his family many years later.

Not so Yosef – he is sold into slavery at the tender age of 17, to a country whose language and customs were foreign and, in many cases, repugnant to everything he learned. He is framed by his master’s wife for sexual assault and spends 12 years in prison, and of course this was not Club Fed either. Somehow he maintains his moral standards (refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife) and his faith in Gd while he was in prison (telling the two royal prisoners that Gd would interpret their dreams), when he gets his big break (telling Pharaoh the same thing) and when he reconciles with his brothers (telling them that it was Gd, not they, who brought him to Egypt).

R. Goldin goes on to point out that this scenario – a prophetic period where Gd communicated directly with his nation, followed by a period where there was no direct communication, is repeated in Jewish history. The second prophetic period began with Moshe Rabbeinu and the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, and ended shortly after the destruction of the First Temple, about 800 years later. The subsequent non-prophetic period continues to this day. (The Midrash records that Moshe’s older sister prophesied to her parents that her soon-to-be-born baby brother would be the one to take Israel out of Egypt, but this is only barely hinted at in the text, and it was an instance of prophetic foresight, not of Gd’s direct communication.) I might add that we believe that there will be a third period of prophecy when Mashiach comes. It is not clear how long this Messianic Age will last or what will follow it, but it does not seem that it will be followed by a return to a situation where Gd is again “hidden.”

Yosef is call haTzaddik – the “righteous one.” R. Goldin suggests that it is specifically the fact that Yosef passes his tests without any direct input from Gd that makes him uniquely a tzaddik. The reasoning is that it is one thing to behave properly when Daddy is standing right over you, but one has only really matured when one has internalized the values and lessons one gets from family, society and tradition. Yosef had a scant 17 years to learn from his father what a kosher Jew should be, and then he was cut off from his source of knowledge, education, example and support, and had to do it all on his own under very trying conditions to say the least. How did he do it?!

Prophecy is an experience of the transcendent, and there were “schools of prophets” where people could learn to induce this experience. It is not known (except perhaps to some hidden Kabbalah masters) what exactly they did, but if we may take examples from other cultures, there were probably many difficult and austere exercises designed to quell the wandering of the mind. Such exercises generally take a long time to generate much growth.

If we analyze the situation a bit, however, we see and experience that it is the nature of the mind to go to where it finds greater charm and greater happiness. If you are listening to a boring conversation and somebody walks by with your favorite music on a boom box, your mind automatically switches to the music, without any effort on your part. There is nothing as charming to the mind as its contact with the transcendental, infinite, unbounded self, deep inside; to get there we simply need to stop giving the mind a direction from our side, and let it take its own direction as its own nature dictates. Such a procedure would be easy and effortless, like diving, where we just take the correct angle and let go and let gravity do the work for us.

Perhaps the alternation between prophetic periods and non-prophetic periods is a function of the loss and revival of this simple understanding. When it is lively, Gd “speaks” to us, because we are able to station our awareness at the transcendental level where Gd resides. When our awareness is situated in the transcendent, our actions are more and more spontaneously in accord with Gd’s Will, and we experience success and fulfillment on both spiritual and material levels. When we are stuck in the material world, without any connection to our source in the transcendent, we are only able to follow the tradition of the great teachers who were at that level as best we can. Yosef, having grown up in Ya’akov’s household and having the opportunity to learn from and to observe his father closely, was in the best position to intuit the right course of action, perhaps by asking himself, “What would Ya’akov do?” In fact, when he was tempted to give in to his master’s wife, a vision of his father came to him and helped him to withstand the test.

Where does that leave us? Few of us have ever come across anyone of Ya’akov’s stature, and very little is taught by way of development of our awareness to its full, infinite value – because very little is generally known about such development. Therefore it is up to us to find and use anything we can to refine our awareness, with a special eye out for something that is natural and easy to do. We may not be in an age where the general atmosphere is clear enough for Gd’s Voice to be discerned directly, but we can surely do better than where we are now!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayeshev

This parshah begins by telling us that “Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, the land of Canaan.”  “Canaan” seems to derive from the Hebrew “kana”, to bring into synchronicity.

It seems that “dwelt” is more stable than “sojourning” and we can get a sense that the difficulties that Jacob experienced with his uncle Laban and his brother Esau are now over and he is living peaceful in a land where all the parts work synchronously, harmoniously.

And yet this peace and harmony are upset when Jacob gives preferential treatment to his son Joseph and more deeply when Joseph angers his brothers by telling them and his father two dreams that seem to indicate he will dominate over them.

Despite this break, Gd’s hand is in this as Joseph tells his brothers when his ability to dream and to interpret dreams have led him to become de facto ruler of Egypt (Mitzraim: restrictions) and a famine has forced his brothers and father to leave Canaan, the land of harmony, to obtain food from Egypt, the land of restrictions. Canaan may be both a real land and a symbolic land: the famine may be a famine in the perception of Jacob and his sons that caused them to lose sight of the full harmony of the land. To restore their perception to wholeness, Gd arranges for the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery. Then Joseph’s ability to dream leads him to become virtual ruler of Egypt. He then guides Egypt to store up food during the seven full years that he predicted will be followed by seven years of famine.

One way to look at this is that when our perception of harmony is of limited scope, our perception of harmony can be easily broken by misbehavior, and then we find ourselves not dwelling, but sojourning, in a land of famine, forced to leave it to struggle for food in a land of restrictions, a superficial world that nonetheless allows us to survive, even though not in the harmony we had previously enjoyed.

And a message that I draw for myself and for our world is that it is very important that we always act open-heartedly, place Gd/Oneness first, treat everyone fairly, with love, and thus extend the range of harmony we perceive and enjoy, and the range within which we do not mind and fully forgive the seeming offenses of others.

Most importantly, we need to do our best to innocently remind ourselves from time to time that Gd’s Plan may not be clear to our vision and so we need to do our best to be open to whatever comes, to somehow gracefully adapt.

Then we extend the range of Canaan, of harmony, to include the realm of Egypt/Mitzraim, restrictions, and harmony prevails – Jacob in our souls is “Israel” “one who prevails over Gd (really, it is Gd within Jacob who prevails over Gd during this stage of Gd’s revealing to Jacob Jacob’s true Nature – Pure Oneness).

Thus our souls and our world return to awareness of the Oneness that Is Always All There Is.

Today! Let this happen today for everyone, all souls, today and let it last unendingly!

Baruch HaShem.