Friday, December 31, 2010

Goyim & Generalising – An old army medic’s rant, & perspectives on others and oppressors

Goyim & Generalising – An old army medic’s rant, & perspectives on others and oppressors
The word “goy” in Yiddish means, a non-Jewish person, in Hebrew it means nation. It has been used in some derogatory ways, which makes many Jews cringe. Here, I explore the right attitude for Jews to have about people who are not Jewish. I discuss controversial phrases in our tradition that have been taken out of context, both the harrowing experiences of the authors of these statements as well as the full text which give a better understanding of the real meaning then 3 words on their own. How to differentiate between individuals and nations that have oppressed us and those who have not, is also discussed.

I was raised hearing stories about “Goyim” perpetrating massacres, pogroms and forced conversions. I was also taught that the greatest example of honouring parents was the case of the non-Jewish Dama Ben Nesina[1]. How was I to navigate the various messages to ensure that I respected all people created in the image of God?

I was confronted with this issue, as Jews have in medieval debates and on internet hate-sites, during the festival of Succot around 1987 in a senior’s home in upstate New York.
I approached an older man, with a Lulav and Etrog (Palm branch, other branches and a citron fruit) in my hand and asked him if he would like to say a blessing and shake these.
He looked at me, in my black hat and little fuzzy beard and exploded.
"Tov shebgoy harog! who the hell were they?!!!" which sounded to me like "Tovshebgoyharoigwhodahellwerethey!", I could not make out a word he was saying.
 I backed off, but he followed me around the place. Repeating, "I was a medic in Korea, we treated enemy soldiers just like our own! Tovshebgoyharogwhodahellwerethey!
It was only when I was back in the car driving back to Brooklyn that I figured out what he was saying. He was quoting or mis-quoting a phrase, “The best of the “goy”, you should kill!”

Actual phrase and context
Google this phrase and the haters will appear in a moment, but what is the real story? In the story of the Exodus from Egypt we have a phrase that shows there were different types of Egyptians. Even at the time when they were enslaving the Jews not all Egyptians were the same. Moses instructed the Egyptians to gather people and livestock from the field into their houses because those that remain outdoors will die in a plague of hail. “He who feared the word of God among the servants of Pharaoh, evacuated his servants and livestock into the houses[2]”.

This phrase is considered in the interpretation of a later part of the story, after the Jews have left Egypt and Pharaoh takes “600 chariots and rides” to pursue them.
Where did he get the animals from that carried the chariots? It was from these (“good Egyptians”), who feared the word of God. So we learn that these people were a peril for the Jews. From here Rabbi Shimon learned the best of the nations (Goyim) kill! The best of the snakes crush its skull[3].

The version above is not necessarily accurate, nor the most common.  Other versions in many sources have it as “the good among the Egyptians[4]” or alternatively the “Kosher of the Egyptians[5]”. It is argued that the change from Egyptian to “goyim” may have arisen from manuscripts written in Arabic countries near Egypt that changed the word from Egyptian[6].  It is also useful to point out that traditional Jews do not believe that the Egyptians who enslaved us and the Egyptian people today are the same people.

More significantly, it is explained to be a comment relating to a time of war[7] and R. Kasher[8] argues that this statement is not a halachic ruling as we can see from the context.
“A man should not teach his children (to be a) donkey driver, sailor, potter, shepherd or shopkeeper because their profession is robbery. Rabbi Judah said in his name, donkey drivers are mostly wicked, sailors mostly pious. The best of the doctors to hell, the Kosher among butchers is a partner of Amalek, most bastards are shrewd, slaves pleasant (or arrogant). Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, the good among idol worshippers, during war kill, the good among snakes crush it’s skull. The Kosher among women is a witch. Fortunate is the one who does the will of God[9].

Clearly, these sayings are mere hyperbolic statements addressing certain issues using especially sharp expressions[10], rather than halakhic rulings. We do not, and have never mistrusted all shopkeepers or assumed that all Jewish women are witches.

The historical context of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his political views must also be taken into account.  He was living under brutal Roman occupation. When he expressed the view that the bridges, roads and markets being built were not based on altruism, he became a hunted fugitive who hid for years in a cave[11].

The broader context of Torah teachings about Egyptians and generalising must also be taken into account. In relation to Egyptians we are commanded "You shall not abhor an Egyptian[12]. The festival of Passover is the only one of the major festivals on which we do not recite the complete Hallel prayer and about which it is not written that we are to rejoice[13].

More broadly, we are taught that one suspects the innocent is liable for corporal punishment. Abraham’s plea for the wicked city of Sodom is based on this principal. "That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?[14]'

This might not do much for the angry old Medic who was merciful to injured enemy combatants in Korea.  Perhaps it would be useful for him to consider the difference between the conditions of war in the 20th century where barbaric as they were, some nations observed the Geneva conventions, with the reality of total war as understood in the time of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

A final reflection.
On a very warm and humid evening, I was a guest at Aboriginal party in Darwin.  There was a laughter, some of it at the expense of the white people of the missions where some had been forcibly been interred. There was a Indigenous language version of Waltzing Matilda, there were songs about the weevils in the porridge in the missions that must have been good because the priest has blessed them, followed by more laughter.   

A legacy of suffering oppression can lead to a generalised hatred toward the offending people. For the latest example, see!/pages/Gaza-Youth-Breaks-Out-GYBO/118914244840679.On the other hand, unwillingness to forgive even after substantial grievances is condemned by King David in the case of the Gibonites[15]. Our tradition provides ample sources that can be taken as guidance toward general respect for all people, with apparently contrary teachings contextualised, applied to narrow exceptions for self-defence, understood as preserving historical memory (and other purposes such as Amalek[16]). Effort is sometimes required to navigate the variety of sources to find this guidance. The broad messages of Judaism obligate us to do so.

Thanks are due to the Israel Kotschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and Yeshivat Har Etzion[17]  that has been a source of some of the insights and sources in this post.  

[1] Talmud, Kiddushin 31a
[2] Exodus, 9:20
[3] Mechilta, compiled in the 3rd century, Bshalach Masechta Vayehee, chap 1, quoted in Torah Shlaima.
[4] Tanchuma Beshalach 5, Version of Mechilta in Chumash with Malbim, (1973), Menorah publishers, Israel, also Baal Haturim on Exodus 9:19
[5] Rashi, on Exodus 14:7, Old Tanchuma Vaera 20, Lekach Tov Exodus 9:20
[6] Kasher, M (1992) Torah Shelema Shemot p134, Va'era, addenda, letter 19,
[7] Masechet Soferim (can be found in printed editions of the Talmud as an appendix to tractate Avoda Zarah, also in Tosaphot, on Talmud Avoda Zarah, 26b, based on the Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin
[8] Kasher, ibid
[9] Masechet Sofrim, 25:10
[10] Kasher, ibid
[11] Talmud Shabbat 33b
[12] Deuteronomy 24:14
[13] Sources listed in Kasher, ibid
[14] Genesis 18:25
[15] Samuel 21:2
[16] A topic for another time, worthy of investigation but which is of narrow application

Friday, December 24, 2010

Fear of the "other" in Sefad, ancient Egypt, Aboriginal Australia, politics and ethics

To be opposed to migration or people different to ourselves is generally seen as racist. What are the ethical limits of legitimate fear directed toward new arrivals?

Two Extremes
On one end of the spectrum is proven hostility. Australian Aboriginals had every right to fear white settlers once their behavior demonstrated their hostility to the existing people and their way of life. I am reading the accounts about Ernest Gribble, one figure who colluded with police to have Aboriginal children forcibly taken to his mission where they were forbidden to speak their own language, and actively sought to coerce them to lose their connection to their own way of life1. At the other extreme is baseless fear that is talked up by cynical leaders who know that there is really nothing to fear except their own loss of power.

An inadequate formula
One way to approach our question is to approve of collective self-defence against legitimate threats and disapprove of measures that do not address a real threat. This is an inadequate formula, because there are degrees of “threat” that do not justify the suspension of principles of kindness, nor can it justify the hardship imposed on the “other”.

Exhibit A. Ancient Egypt
The Pharaoh stated that the Hebrews were a threat to the Ancient Egyptians. He declares, that “they are more numerous and stronger than we are...if there will be a war, the Hebrew will join with the enemy, make war on us and go up from the land2”. Thus is born the device of the Anti-Semite, “the international Jew”. The Hebrew, has no roots in our land, he arrived from elsewhere and will return there when it suits him. If there is a war, he may well side with our enemies, pillage and rob us and go to Canaan taking everything of ours with him. He will not fear retribution because he can simply skip the country3.

Was this fear based on fact? We have a range of factors and interpretations to consider.
a) When the Hebrew arrived Joseph had them settled in one small enclave, in the land of Goshen which might have been motivated by wanting to keep them apart from the Egyptians. They did not change their names, language or clothes4. They did not integrate.

Let us not underestimate the significance of language. Aboriginal people were punished on missions for speaking (their) “language”5 because those bent on destroying their people-hood intuitively understood the power of language. “Language has a unique ability to prevent assimilation. A special language allows a nation to stand apart and see themselves as outside the larger society6”.

b) The children of Israel were fruitful, and multiplied like insects, they increased, and were very, very strengthened, the land was filled with them7. It was like a forest, that is sprouting many reeds8. Being the proud owner of a Bamboo infestation on the side of my driveway, I know the metaphor is about a rapid increase in volume and size that can begin to dominate an area.

“Facts”, are of course, used to justify a range of choices. It is often less important to determine if something is “fact-based”, and more important to consider how these “facts” are being selected, contextualised and interpreted.

Political Imperatives
It would seem, the Egyptians were in fear of being “swamped by Jews”. Consider, this Midrash9.

Another interpretation. A new king arose10 (in Egypt). But he was Pharaoh!
Only, the Egyptians said to him. “Come let us engage with this nation”.
He said to them, “fools, until now we have been living from theirs, how should we “engage” with them now?, if not for Joseph we would not be alive”
Because he did not listen to them, they took him off his throne for three months, until he said “whatever you do, I am with you”. So they reinstated him, therefore it says “a new king arose”.

Taking it from this perspective, the “threat” the Hebrews posed, was not real. The fears of being over-run by these foreigners should have been handled with calm thinking and the courage to live with some discomfort and low probability risk.

It has been disheartening, to read about Rabbis in this holy city issuing edicts forbidding the sale or renting of homes to Arabs. There have been reports of an “Arab plot” to buy up homes and 'change the character of the city'. This is different to direct self defence against clear security threats, it is a broad effort aimed at keeping “others” out. Some of the direct quotes from residents reported in Hamodia that I will not repeat had echoes of anti-Semites and bigots everywhere, if your replace the word Arab with Jew, or Black and Arabic with Yiddish or Asian languages. From the comfort of my home in Sydney it is hard to grasp the depth of tension and fear, so I am less interested in the questions of blame or judgement than the moral issue.

Universal standards of morality
Jews are called on to seek to influence other members of the human family in relation to seven “commandments”, one of which is the establishment of justice. As so many other Jews, I am grateful to live in the time when Martin Luther King jnr's dream is an accepted standard for moral behaviour. This is clearly part of mankind engaging in the pursuit of justice. Ethnic cleansing is rightly condemned by the world. We rightly condemn shedding the blood of civilians and women and children as the wrong way to deal with territorial disputes. There are international standards about how to deal with competing claims and desire for the same land, killing civilians is out, lawful purchase is in. We must embrace international principles of justice, and abide by them.

I am grateful not to have been a refugee from the Holocaust, desperate to escape being murderously unwanted in one place, but unable to find refuge because someone thought “we don't have a racial problem in Australia and see not need import one”11. There is plenty in our holy Torah that calls for doing that which is “right and straight”, remembering that “we were strangers in Egypt” and therefore should be more sensitive to the needs of other less powerful minorities when we have power.

There are facts and fears that justify defensive measures, equally there are facts and fears that must be dealt with without resorting to discrimination.

(For a more Halachic/Legalistic scholarly view, see blog post of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein's view, )

1Halse, C., (2002) A Terribly Wild Man, Allan & Unwin, Australia.
2Exodus 1:9-10
3Ramban, on Exodus 9:10
4Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32:5
5Halse, ibid
6Rabbi Yosef Yitzchat Schneerson, quoted by Shaul Leiter.
7Exodus 1:7.
8Midrash Tanchuma, Book of Exodus, Parsha Shemot 5, and commentary Etz Yosef.
9Midrash Tanchuma ibid.
10Exodus 1:8
11Thomas White, Australia's representative to the 1938 Evian conference seeking to justify Australia's tight quota on Jewish immigration

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dying – How to? Vayechi 2010

Mrs. Goldie Kastel, my beloved grandmother, passed away recently,  ending a life of almost 93 years that included lots of love, hard work and dynamism. I dedicate this Torah thought to her.

How to do dying? is a question on my mind.  "Tuesday with Morrie", showed one way. The first account in the Torah of someone preparing to die is that of Jacob. Indeed we are told that up until that time people would simply die without warning, but Jacob requested an opportunity to tell his children his last wishes and repent. God's response was the introduction of illness[1], and Jacob acts as a role model of dying. 

Practicalities, blessings and criticism
Jacob certainly grasps the opportunity. The practical consideration of being buried in the land of Canaan is first. There are messages for each of his children, a mixture of blessing for some of his children and judgements of others. There is also expression of gratitude when he says to Joseph “I did not dare even allow myself to think of seeing your face again, but behold God has shown me also your children[2]”.

Moment before dying a climax?
There is a view of the moment before death as a great moment in a persons life. This is hinted at in the choice of name used to refer to Jacob shortly before he dies. (Jacob's name had been changed by an Angel after his victorious wrestle with him[3].  In spite of the change he is still sometimes called Jacob and other times he is called Israel, depending on his situation. The name Jacob is used when he is in a state of “worry, sadness and lowliness”, reflecting the story of Jacob as the twin who wanted to be born first but came second, trying to grab the heal of his victorious brother. Israel, is the named associated with joy, tranquillity and greatness). As the time of his death approaches he is called Israel[4], because of the “secret of the expansion of the soul of man at the time of death[5]. One way to think about this is as the life of the righteous person being an upward journey, each day building on the achievements of the day before it. The greatest moment is his/her last.

Dying slowly
Regardless of the greatness of the soul, we are confronted with the diminishing of the body.  I am thinking of the difficult time my grandmother endured  in the last part of her life and my failure and inability to alleviate her suffering. For a while before her health deteriorated, we talked on the phone on a weekly basis. It gave her and me great joy. As her hearing got worse, combined with an operation that made her lose her ability to talk, the phone became impractical and her being in the US and me being in Australia there was nothing I could do.

An astonishing interpretation of this is that every day is nourished by one spark of the soul called a “day”, at the end of the day that spark partially separates itself from the soul. In advanced old age, the soul has lost much of its earlier self. It is only shortly before death, that these “days” and sparks of soul gather as it says “and the days (eg. Sparks of his soul) of Israel came close for dying.

Sharp Seniors
There is a tendency to see old people as somehow dim-witted and treat them in a patronising way.  When Jacob prepares to bless Joseph's children he puts his right hand (which is seen as more important in Judaism) on the head of Joseph's younger son Efrayim instead of the eldest Menasheh. Joseph is not happy about this and supports Jacobs right hand to move it to the head of the eldest son. “not like this, father” says Joseph, “because this one is the first-born, put your right hand on his head[6]”. Jacob refuses, “I know, my son, I know”... he says, explaining that the younger one will be greater.  The midrash cryptically interprets the double “I know” as alluding to the failures of Reuben and Judah[7]. I know all about the “first-born”, I know about those with the positions of greatness and how they fall[8]. Of course Jacob began his life with a protest against the privilege of the first born grabbing hold of the first born Esau's heal. 

My grandmother was a delightful, sharp, spunky presence in my life over last twenty years especially. She managed to pull off, both rock star style and humility at her 80th birthday. In recent conversations, she talked about how she and my grandfather paid the teachers in the Yeshiva they ran in Boston, before they paid themselves. I also remember her saying once “we don't have Geveerim (rich people) in our family”. Her legacy to her many grandchildren and great grandchildren was the primacy of service, right and wrong and love. May her memory be a blessing. 

[1]    Elie Munk the Call of the Torah, Genesis p 628, citing Tosefot to Bava Basra 16b, Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 52. Also in Yalkut Me'am Loez Vayechi.
[2]    Genesis 48:10
[3]    Genesis, 32:29
[4]    Genesis 48:21
[5]    Ohr Hachayim on Genesis 47:28
[6]    Genesis 48:17-19
[7]    Beresheet Rabba, 97
[8]    Zohar, cited in Elie Munk, the Call of the Torah, Genesis p.638

Thursday, December 9, 2010

WikiLeaks Public Interest, Trust, Subversion & Conscience in the Torah

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wrote this week of his upbringing in a town that was small, where he learned to distrust Government that was big “if not watched carefully1”, he also claims that he has not endangered any lives. As I write, he sits in a jail cell because of “unrelated” allegations and has become a hero of freedom of speech. Focusing just on the cables rather than the military material, what are the ethical considerations relating to his actions and the person who supplied the information? There are four aspects to consider, 1) public good, 2) the rule of law, 3) trust, 4) the process by which one decides whether to sacrifice the latter for the former.

Public good interest in face saving
Judah when approaches the powerful man who holds his brothers life in his hands. Judah, not knowing it is Joseph, has some harsh things to say about Joseph's integrity2, and perhaps even that Joseph's interest in detaining Benjamin is driven not by a desire for justice but homosexual lust for the handsome Benjamin3. Judah is in a bind. If he loses, Benjamin remains as a slave in Egypt, but if he wins then the ruler and might have to kill him to save face4.

Judah, finds a way around this. “Please my master, let your servant speak a word in your ears, and not be angry with your servant as you are just like Pharaoh
5”. While the normal procedure is for a ruler to be addressed from further away with a circle of advisors sitting between the ruler and the supplicant, Judah requests permission to change the process and come right near the ruler and speak straight into his ear. This way, if the ruler loses the argument, no one heard and there is no loss of face6. Unless the whole thing turns up on Wikileaks a few months later.

Quality decision making
There is another layer to this. Judah also can be understood to be saying. You are just like Pharaoh and therefore fall under the principle of the “hearts of kings are in the hand of God”. If we discuss this privately you can do the right thing as per the divine guidance. If all your advisors hear it, there could be pressure to act not in accordance with the royal mind and divine guidance7. A lot is accomplished away from the limelight, where sensible compromises and back-downs can happen.

A damaging aspect of the leaking of diplomatic cables is the way it subverts the use of tact or flattery in the diplomatic communication. An instance of this is in Joseph handling the delicate task of trying to keep his family far away from the Pharaoh without offending him8. Our sages believed that sheep were an item of worship for the Egyptians9, possibly related to their worship of the zodiac symbol of Aries. If Pharaoh knows about Jacobs family occupation as shepherds, this will prompt him to keep him far away. Telling Pharaoh explicitly about this could be offensive, especially if Pharaoh knows or suspects that they want to stay away from him. Joseph therefore suggest that they avoid the word sheep, and talk about livestock more generally, and Pharaoh will read between the lines10.

The potential for exposure for good is also recognised.

Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai is surrounded by his students on his deathbed. Teach us, our master they plead. One more lesson.

I imagine the Old master looking at them with perhaps one of those world weary looks that says I don't need to maintain appearances. “May your fear of heaven (God), be the same as your fear of men,” he says.

The students were initially disappointed, until they understood that when a man sins he is concerned that men should not see him.

On the public interest level then, depending on the varying circumstances, exposure either advances or damages the public interest.

Law vs. Conscience
The rule of law is greatly valued in the Torah. The Mishna states “pray for the peace of the monarchy, if not for the fear of it, each man would swallow his fellow alive.11” One of the seven commands for all people (the children of Noah) is to establish a system of laws and enforcement of these laws. Yet, law cannot be used as an excuse to act unjustly, our tradition is littered with heroic non-conformists. These include Abraham defying the idol worshiping consensus, midwives Shifra and Puah defying the murderous orders of Pharaoh to the violent non-state actors of the Chanukah story.

First ever Government (secret) anti-discrimination initiative
Joseph announced an ostensibly economic policy arising out of the Egyptian drought. After, desperate Egyptian citizens had sold their land to Pharaoh, Joseph orders all Egyptians to be moved around the country from one end to the other12. The only publicly stated social aspect of the policy, might have been transporting people by the cities, whole cities intact to new places, preserving community ties13. That's it, as far the Egyptian people were concerned.

The real story, is revealed not by Wikileaks at the time but in the Talmud 1500 years later. While not advocating a cover up, there is the suggestion that some would think this episode “ought to be burned, but the truth is that key ideas of the Torah are contained within it14”. This was actually an initiative motivated by great compassion for the fledgling Jewish people who faced the prospect of being degraded as “exiles15”. People who never experienced being a stranger and a migrant cannot empathise with the pain of the stranger, nor are they likely to care. For this purpose, it is suggested, that Joseph transferred people so that they would all be strangers in land that is not theirs16.

Joseph faced a conflicts of interest no smaller than that of the US government employee who had to decide to follow his conscience or keep trust with his government. Does Joseph pursue his government and kings interest, or his idea of justice? Joseph would have been very aware of the bigoted society he lived in, which only a short time later would enslave the Hebrews. Even before that, Egyptians could not even share a meal with the Hebrews17 as the people from the other side of the river disgusting to them18. His efforts fails to prevent the discrimination but that does not detract from the morality of his choice. 

While the topic generally, is a difficult one. It seems that in leaking the cables, two opposite conclusions are plausible depending on the specific contents of the particular cable.  Some cables deal with dishonesty of governments or Multi-national companies and serve a genuine public purpose.  On the other hand, other cables are likely to cause  damage to the process of government decision making, and humiliation of some public figures for little of no public gain. Like so many issues, there are strong arguments and elements of truth on both sides of the argument and the correct path hard to find. Assange argued in the Australian for the need not to trust big government, I think we need to be equally mistrustful of big agendas and grand certainties. 

1Julian Assange, the Australian,
2Rashi, quoting Beresheet Rabba, Genesis 44:18, in his commentary on “you are just like Pharaoh”, interpreted as “you do not keep your word just as Pharaoh does not”
3Beresheet Rabba 93, in Torah Shelaima, based again on “you are just like Pharaoh”, meaning “you are lecherous just as he is”.
4Ohr Hachayim on Genesis 44:18, referring to the Talmudic story of “Bar Ketia, who is told, you won against the king! And anyone who beats the king....”
5Genesis 44:18
6Ohr Hachayim, ibid
8Klei Yakar Genesis 46:32
9Targum Oonkelus Genesis 43:32, Rashi and others.
10Klei Yakar, ibid
11Pirkey Avot
12Genesis 47:21
13Haamek Davar, Luzato quoted in Studies by Nechama Lebovitz
14Talmud, Chulin, 60.
15Rashi, Genesis 47:21
16Klei Yakar, ibid
17Genesis 43:32
18Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot Genesis 46:34

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pitfalls for the Influential, Favoured & Handsome & the Walk & Talk of Joseph

Success and influence are often associated with evil or greatness, both can be correct. Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing was called “the real devil” by a priest speaking out against “rapacious property developers”, an apology followed1. Humility, good judgement and not being self absorbed are some of the qualities we respect in successful people, Joseph's life is filled with insights about this.
17 year old Joseph seems like a winner, his dreams predict greatness with his brothers bowing before him. Joseph is father's favoured son and is good looking to boot. He is described as vain fixing his hair, touching his eyes and having this unusual affected, slow, arrogant2 walk that made his heel appear like it was suspended in mid-air3. His father makes no secret of his preference for Joseph, giving him a coloured or stripped coat as a blatant symbol of this.

Joseph acts unwisely4 when he fails to consider the impact on his brothers, or his relationship with them, of his telling his father every bad thing he thinks his brothers are doing5. Commentary relates his 'evil reports' to accusations that the sons of Leah called the sons of their fathers concubines, slaves while Joseph insisted that they were his equals and even served them6, and having their “eyes on the daughters of the land7 as well the poor quality of their work as shepherds8.

Joseph fails to give his brother the benefit of the doubt on any of the accusations9. His accusation that the brothers see the sons of the concubines, Bilha and Zilpa, as slaves may have been based on his high standard of emphasising equality and spending time with them which his brothers did not do. Joseph assumed that this was because they saw them as slaves and this was for him as if they had called them slaves. Their interaction with the daughters of the land was purely commercial, but was seen by Ultra-holy Joseph as having impure meaning10. For this talk, Joseph is said to have been punished with 12 years of prison, while Jacob was deprived of the divine 'holy spirit' for 24 years for accepting Joseph's reports as true11.

Joseph also tries to persuade his brothers that his elevation to the top is “right”, by telling them of his dreams which would prove he is destined to rule. They don't want to hear of it12, but he insists and pleads with them to listen. It is tempting get others to see reason by providing proof that you are right is great, but does it achieve anything? At a seminar for Yeshiva students, I asked them to raise their hand if they ever changed their mind because they lost an argument. None of them did.

The combination of factors made it all worse. If Joseph was not favoured by their father, they could argue with him and reproach him about his tale-bearing. Being openly favoured , father knowing that his sons knew about this, there was no possibility to resolve the issue because Joseph will always be seen as right13. In addition, if the brothers talked to Joseph at all, in spite of the accusations he made against them, that would imply that what he is saying is true. If they maintain the conflict they could hope that their father might dismiss Josephs's reports as stemming from the hatred between them14.

The hatred the brothers felt for Joseph was so intense that when they decide to throw into a deep pit, in spite of their desire to just remove his special coat, they did it with so much anger and great hatred and with such cruelty that they tore all his clothes and he was left naked15. Then they sat down to eat bread, there was no sense that what happened was wrong16.

The handsome young man was transformed instantly, his face turned green because of his dread of the snakes in the pit. When the brothers tried to sell him, they could only get an offer of 20 silver coins for the green faced wretch. When they started to bring him out of the pit his good looks returned, so the brother asked for a better price, the buyers agreed to throw in some shoes on top of the 20 coins. This was later referred to by the prophet, “selling a righteous person for silver, and a poor person for shoes17.

Joseph appears very humble and devout at this point in our story. God was with Joseph, His name constantly coming out of Joseph mouth as Joseph prays for this and thanks God for that. His master, Potiphar asked him what all the mumbling is about, are doing witch craft on me? Joseph replies, “no I am praying that I find favour in your eyes18

Joseph's prayers are answered and he finds favour in his masters eyes, becoming manager of Potiphar's house, just as he had been his fathers favourite. Of course there is a big difference, he is a slave now and his father is devastated by his absence, but Joseph sees himself as a “ruler”, and his appearance becomes a focus again, curling his hair and enjoying his food19. He is so handsome, that Potiphars wife invites women to the house, gives each a knife and a fruit, then asked Joseph to enter. As he enters the women as so struck that each of them cut their hands20. He is soon seduced by his masters wife, according to one view he had decided to succumb to her before changing his mind and withstanding the temptations, staying to true to his principles.

Joseph's capacity to see things from another person's point of view is much greater at this stage of the story. He speaks convincingly to Potiphars wife about the proposed act from the perspective of Potiphars rights and his obligation to Potiphar. “indeed, my master does not know anything that is with me in this house, and everything that he has he has placed in my hand21(because he trusts me). “There is no one greater than me in this house, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife, and how can I do this great evil”, only after all that adding “and I will have sinned to God”.

For his integrity, he is falsely accused by this wicked woman who twists the story and is imprisoned. He rises in prison to a leadership role. Still, after all he has been through he could have been angry with the whole world, but instead we find him caring about his fellow prisoners22. He is alert to the needs of others and so notices sadness on two prisoners faces , he asks “why are your faces bad today?” and focused on their problems. Vigilance, modesty, with-holding judgement and caring about others are all called for from all who are favoured to whatever extent.

1Sydney Morning Herald, 23 11 2010.
2Matnot Kehuna, commentary on Beresheet Rabba 84
3Beresheet Rabba Perek 84
4Seforno on 37:2
5Genesis 37:2
6Yelamdenu, cited in Torah Shelaima, Genesis p. 1392
9Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh commentary on Genesis
10Etz Yoseph, commentary on Beresheet Rabba 84
11Pirkey Rabbeinu Hakadosh Pirkah DrArbaah 24b, cited in Torah Shelaima, Genesis p. 1396
12Ohr Hachayim Genesis 37:5
13Ohr Hachayim, Genesis 37:4
14Klei Yakar, Genesis 37:4
15Ohr Hachayim, Genesis 37:23
17Sifsei Chachamim Genesis 37:28, also citing Amos 2
18Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev 8
19Gensis 39:6
20Yelamdenu, cited in Torah Shelaima, Genesis p. 1490
21Genesis 39:9
22The Lubavitcher Rebbe, as I heard it retold by Rabbi YY Jacobson.