The Bones of Joseph

Parshat Beshallach

Exodus 13:17-17:16

Our Torah portion contains one of the most well-known moments in the Bible.  This week the Children of Israel walk between walls of water on dry land to escape Egypt and Pharaoh’s army.  Cinematic images of Charlton Heston as Moses are burned into our global psyches!


Moses raises his staff high as God commanded and the waters parted only to come crashing down on the chariots of Pharaoh as they chased the escaping Israelites.  Pharaoh regretted letting the slave class leave and were trying to bring them back to slavery in Egypt. But they met their watery end.


We all know that in this episode the Children of Israel celebrated their new found freedom in song and dance that their deliverance had been granted.  Miriam led the women and children in a victory celebration singing the poem, Shirat Hayam that is attributed to Moses.  It is then the real journey in the wilderness towards Mt. Sinai begins.  Their dramatic escape was just the first round.  But the real march toward the Revelation at Mt. Sinai will begin in this week’s Torah portion.

On this journey however, Moses remembers to bring with them the bones of their ancestor Joseph.  Joseph who brought his brothers and father to Egypt to escape famine more than 400 years earlier will not remain in Egypt.  Though he became an Egyptian vizier he never forgot that he was a Hebrew.  And Moses though he too was raised in the Egyptian royal palace as an Egyptian prince, knew as well that he was a Hebrew.


Verse 13:19 states: Moses took Joseph’s bones with him, for he [Joseph] had adjured the sons of Israel, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you.


This ancient promise was not forgotten.  And our ancestor was not forgotten but rather, Joseph accompanies the Israelites!


Which of your ancestors are with you on your journey?  Whose memory continues to inspire you each day?


Our custom of reciting Kaddish for our loved ones on their yarzeit is one of the ways we honor our family and friends whose memories are precious to us and who still accompany us on our journey.  The mitzvah of reciting the Kaddish prayer during a worship service  observing the yarzeit is how we can be like Moses and “carry the bones” with us to our own Promised Land.


All too often today many do not even make the effort to say the special and life affirming words of the Kaddish.  The challenge I take away from this week’s Torah portion is to reaffirm our commitment to honoring our ancestors who guided us, shaped us and still accompany us.


I invite you to honor them and come say Kaddish for them by making the extra effort.  The blessing of memory will uplift you and all of us.

Restore your Faith

Parshat Mikketz

Genesis 41:1-44:17

This week’s Torah Portion Mikketz continues the story of Joseph now in Egypt.  This week Joseph rises from the depth of prison to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream and ends up the Viceroy of all of Egypt!  This is true rocket power! Joseph a foreign slave catapults himself to be the #2 in Egypt.  Joseph correctly explains the Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows predicting the coming cycle of boom and bust. Joseph of course attributes the message not to Pharaoh’s own power but to God.


“Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dream of Pharaoh is a single one: what God is about to do, God has told to Pharaoh; the seven good cows are seven years and the good ears (of corn) are seven years. Now the seven emaciated and bad cows that emerged after them –they are seven years; as are the seven emaciated ears scorched by the east wind. There shall be seven years of famine. (Gen 41:25-27).


Not only does Joseph interpret the dream but he then presents a plan for preparation for these years. His skills are transformational.  And Pharaoh recognizes this wisdom in Joseph.  Pharaoh takes a risk and names him in charge of this plan to manage the seven good years so that in times of famine Egypt will be prepared.


The Torah teaches us in these passages two profound things.  First faith in God matters.  Joseph’s success and protection came not because of his skills alone. It came because he was aware of his Higher Power.  Joseph acknowledges his truth that God lights his way in the world even above that of the Pharaoh.  This is a radical political statement as well as statement of faith because the Pharaohs of Egypt were seen as gods.  Joseph stands up to power, speaks truth and honesty, and also keeps his faith in God.


The second profound message of this section of Mikketz has to do with disaster preparedness.  One must always be prepared; for good times and for bad times.  It is not if they will happen but when.  If we ignore the warnings and put blinders on we will sacrifice our own lives.  So like a good Girl Scout: Be Prepared.  That means putting something away for a rainy day.

This portion comes as we celebrate Chanukah.  This is a holiday of light that reminds us that God helps us fight our battles against our enemies.  Just as God inspired the faith of the Maccabees, we pray that God inspire us and help us draw near to our faith.

The story of the Maccabees also helps to remind us that we must be prepared.  That we can last and last and last even when we think we have no more to give, this is the analogy of the jar of oil.  But that cruse of oil is re-filled each day from our storehouse of faith and hope.  It’s time to rekindle your faith.  Let the chanukiah help you do so.

Dreams do Come True

Parshat Vayeshev

Genesis 37:1 – 44:17

Did you ever have a dream that later came true?

Dreams are an important part of our psychological make-up.  In our sleeping hours we are working through, often mysteriously, issues in our lives.  There are lots about dreams we don’t understand though. Much dream work is about the physiological changes in the brain and in eye movement during dream stages. But there is little psychological work done about dreams.  In an article in Psychology Today Gayle Green, Ph. D. wrote in February, 2010:

“I’ve been attending annual meetings of the Associated Professional Sleep Society (APSS) since 2002. These are conferences where sleep scientists, physicians, psychotherapists, and pharmaceutical researchers gather to share the latest in research and treatments. In the years I’ve been attending, I’ve heard breakthrough discoveries about sleep and the brain that have brought researchers closer to understanding disorders such as narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, even insomnia. But I’ve heard few presentations about dreams. “

Of course Sigmund Freud wrote in his famous book The Interpretation of Dreams, that dreams are “…disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes.”


In the Torah and the Bible, dreams play an important role in the development of our heroes and heroines.  In this week’s portion Vayeshev, we begin the cycle of stories about Joseph.  Joseph is the ultimate dreamer and becomes an interpreter of his own dreams and the dreams of others.

We meet him this week as the favored son of the grieving Jacob.  Joseph is young man who dreams of sheaves and a singular sheaf, his sheaf, that rises above the bundled sheaves of his brothers. Then he dreams that the Sun and the moon and eleven stars bow down to him.

As he related these dreams to his 11 brothers and his father, Jacob, their anger and annoyance and (as the Torah says) hatred of him grew.  Joseph’s dreams may indeed come true but their content says the younger will rule over the elders.

This is hard for the brothers to hear from a favored young teenager.

Joseph would pay a steep price for his dreams and interpretation. The brother’s throw him into a pit and then sell him off as a slave.

But as we will see over the next few weeks of Torah readings, Joseph’s dreams will play an important role in his rise as architect of Egypt’s famine relief.

Sometimes our dreams do come true. They came true for Joseph despite his brother’s objections.

Clearly there is something greater happening in these dreams.  And perhaps, just perhaps in our own dreams as well.

Joseph and his family

Parshat Vayigash

Genesis 44:18-47:27

This dramatic Torah portion describes Joseph’s revelation to his brothers.  Joseph is no stranger to revelations.  He is a dreamer and a visionary. Throughout his life his dreams have revealed the future even when others haven’t wanted to acknowledge or hear about them. Joseph is prophetic.  When he was a young boy he dreamed that his brothers would bow down to him.  And that is exactly what has unfolded. He dreamed of the cycle of  plenty and the cycle of famine that would strike Egypt and that is exactly what has unfolded.
But now not in a dream but in his own house his brothers are before him, bowing and pleading.  And the revelation this time comes not in a dream but in reality.

“I am Joseph your brother,” he says to them.  Again, there is great disbelief. He doesn’t look like Joseph their brother. He is an Egyptian lord.  He is Egyptian royalty.  This is a revelation that no one was prepared for, not Joseph, not Benjamin, not the other brothers, and not the Egyptians.  Tears flow freely.

Joseph who has become an Egyptian for all intents and purposes over the course of time straddles the world of his past and the world of present.  He brings his family to the Land of Goshen and resettles them; being able to reunite with his beloved father, Jacob.

Joseph becomes their protector and ensures that Jacob and his tribe thrive in the new land.

Joseph is surrounded now by both his family of origin and his family of choice!  He tries to integrate and translate between them and the cultures.  He instructs his brothers what to say to Pharaoh. His own children are adopted by his father perhaps in an effort to make sure that his Egyptian children understand and come to know the traditions of Joseph’s origins. Joseph becomes the protector of his family. Joseph is father to his father and father to brothers as he “sustained this father and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones.” (Gen. 47:12).

In this holiday season when families gather together let us be reminded of the story of Joseph and his brothers that even though they had difficulties through the years they do come in the end to be reunited.  That is the goal of family. For Joseph it took many years but it was possible with forgiveness, reconciliation and faith in God.

Family troubles for Joseph

Parshat Vayeshev

Genesis 37:1-40:23

As we Americans prepare for our Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, family issues always come to the foreground. The Norman Rockwell paintings of happy families sitting around festive holiday tables come to mind.  And for some families that is what this holiday will be about.  Everyone will come together, laugh and enjoy one another’s company.


For others this is a most difficult holiday because family tensions that are put aside all year long by distance and miles must be confronted. The giving thanks for many people happen when they get back on the plane to go home.


This year we read parshat Vayeshev during Thanksgiving week. It is a story of great and difficult family tensions. This week’s portion focuses on Joseph and his brothers.  Joseph is the favorite son of the favorite wife of Jacob.  His father dotes on him in his grief because Joseph’s mother, Rachel has recently died in childbirth.  “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic “(Gen 37:3).  Jacob clearly plays favorites.  He has eleven other sons by four wives-Rachel, Leah, Billhah and Zilpah.   But Joseph at seventeen years of age is given greater privilege and gifts by their father.  Our torah tells us that the other sons hated their brother because of this.  They resented him and they “could not speak a friendly word to him” (Gen. 37:4).  Imagine sitting down at that holiday table!


Sibling rivalry and envy are a bad formula for peaceful and harmonious family ties.


And all of us who have siblings experience it at some moment in our relationships with our brothers and sisters.  It is part of the growing process.  But in Joseph’s case it is added to by their father and by Joseph himself.  According to the rabbis Joseph took it upon himself to lord it over his older brothers as only a teenager can! And our Torah portion also tells us that Joseph had visions and dreams where his sheaf of wheat stood tall but the brothers’ sheaves bowed to his. And then a second dream where the sun, moon and stars bowed low to Joseph.  Joseph had to tell them.  He had to rub their faces in what would become prophecy.  These of course just added fuel to an already growing flame of hatred and jealousy of his brothers.


Joseph hasn’t yet learned the skill of keeping his mouth shut.  He might feel superior to his brothers and as the Torah unfolds Joseph will rise to unparalleled heights in his life over his brothers but he isn’t circumspect or respectful.  At seventeen, who among us possessed those traits?


Joseph’s brothers take care of their problem by throwing him in the cistern and selling him off as a slave.  They take care of a younger, bratty brother that wants to challenge the status quo and the balance of power.  They rid themselves of Joseph.


So as you sit down to your Thanksgiving table with family gathered from near and far, remember the story of Joseph. Try to watch your words and be respectful with your siblings and family members.  Don’t fall into the old traps of sibling rivalries and let old wounds get activated.  Breathe deeply. Stay focused on the present and practice equanimity.

You might not get thrown into a pit by your siblings. But all of us can fall into traps, unintended traps of family tensions and squabbling. Instead this Thanksgiving reach down into your heart and embrace your family and friends and truly give thanks for the role they have played in your life.