Bringing Along the Bones

So… Passover is nearly over. We’re on our way to Sinai, a journey from redemption to responsibility.

When Moses and the people of Israel left Egypt, they carried the bones of Joseph with them. (Exodus 13:19) He had requested that they do so when he prophesied that they would someday leave Egypt and go home. (Genesis 50:25) Those bones would wander with the people of Israel for over forty years, until they were finally put to rest in Shechem. (Joshua 24:32) Moses made sure they brought those bones with them because of an ancient promise. Joshua saw to it that the bones were buried in the soil of Shechem to fulfill the promise.

Likely the “bones” of Joseph were actually his mummified body in a wooden box. He had been a high official in Pharaoh’s government, so he would have been buried as an Egyptian courtier. Moses took the time and trouble to locate the box and to carry it along, despite the danger, despite the need to move quickly.

What would you bring along, if you suddenly had to leave your home on short notice? Photos? Legal papers? A precious antique? The pets? The children’s toys? What if you knew you were going to have to walk hundreds of miles? What would you choose to leave behind? What would be too precious to leave?

Passover is almost behind us now. It’s time to look around and say, what practices, what insights am I going to bring along with me, as I walk towards the future? What hurts, what old grudges, what outmoded ideas will I decide to leave behind in Egypt?

My Joseph Story

The Joseph story has its own place in my heart. I have always felt a strong connection to the powerful novella that closes out the book of Genesis. That connection was strengthened when my rabbi chose it to use as our text for learning Biblical Hebrew.

Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies had started with “Prayer Book Hebrew,” the prayers in the synagogue service. There’s a giant step from knowing what the prayers say to reading the Torah, and Rabbi Steven Chester chose the Joseph story to carry us across that chasm.

Each week we had a short passage to translate, divided among the members of the class. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verses, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time which verses we, personally, would translate aloud.

Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were often a mess. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. But he always knew if we’d cheated, so it was better to bring what I had translated, even if it was obviously wrong. He’d use our mistakes to review grammar or review how to break down a verb to find it in the dictionary.

Our glacial pace through the text meant that we studied it deeply, noticing the choices about grammar and the repetition of certain words in the text. It was my first taste of learning a text on that level, word by word in Hebrew.

Sometimes our teacher enriched our study by showing us a midrash on a particular scrap of the text. This was also his sneaky way of introducing us to the glories of midrashic texts and rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, since he always gave us those texts in both the original and translation. We’d read the translation, but the original words would wink at me, promising more: more meaning, more depth, more nuance.

That class marked the beginning of my love for text study. It met Wednesday at lunchtime for years, and now as a teacher myself I marvel at his chutzpah and patience in leading us into that tangle of grammar and vocabulary. It was an unusual and bold way to teach Biblical Hebrew. It was also a brilliant choice, because the powerful current of the narrative kept us going. Who could quit, halfway through that story?

By the time we came to the end of Genesis 50, my translations were less ridiculous, and I felt confident enough to tackle other parts of Torah on my own. I learned the most important lesson for Hebrew study: stick with it long enough, and it will begin to sink in.

Foolish, feckless Joseph grew up to be a tzaddik, and I had begun to grow into a rabbi. And every year, when we read this narrative again, it stirs old memories of sitting around a table, munching our lunches and puzzling out the mysteries verse by verse.

Thank you, Rabbi Chester.

A Last Lesson from Jacob & Joseph

"The time drew near for Jacob to die. (1984 illustration by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing)
“The Time Grew Near for Jacob to Die” – Jim Padgett

The end of the book of Genesis offers us two end of life accounts, those of Jacob and Joseph. In their deaths, they leave a legacy not only for their immediate descendants, but for all Jews.

Both are models for us in that they are clear about their wishes while they are still able to convey those wishes. Jacob calls Joseph to him, as the son with executive power, and specifies exactly what he wants long before he needs it: “Bury me with my ancestors, not in Egypt.” Joseph takes an oath to carry out that wish.

Later, when Jacob knows that he is actually near death, he calls all his sons together. First he blesses them. Then he informs them of his wish to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, this time with great specificity: “with my ancestors… in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan.” He then lists his ancestors and kin who are buried there, teaching them the mitzvah of burial in a family plot.

In his great specificity, and in choosing to speak with the brothers as a group, he is a role model for end of life instructions. Even though he had already spoken with Joseph, Jacob gave his disharmonious sons the gift of certainty about his wishes. That way, when the time came, Joseph could direct that Jacob’s body be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion for transport to Canaan. He and his brothers traveled together to the Cave of Machpelah without unnecessary arguments – they all knew exactly what their father had wanted.

Later Joseph followed his father’s example, gathering his family and blessing them with a reminder of the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then made his own request: “Bring my bones up from this place.”  He prophesied that someday they would leave Egypt, and in fact, Moses remembered:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones from here with you.” – Exodus 13:19

In our own days of advanced medical technology, there are many more things about which we should be specific with family. It is important to have the proper documents prepared: advanced health care directives, valid wills, and instructions for executors. However, those documents are limited unless we also take the time to talk about these matters with our loved ones in such a way as to minimize conflict and confusion at a difficult time.

Our ancestors Jacob and Joseph teach us the value of these conversations, a value that has only grown over time. If you have not had such conversations, if you have so far not created those documents, do not delay!

Vayeshev: What Changed Joseph?

This post was given as a sermon at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada on December 12, 2014, Shabbat Vayeshev

I’m going to start tonight with a personal question, a question I want you to answer only in your own heart:

Was there ever been a time in your life when you felt utterly abandoned by everyone? A time when you felt that the people you depended on had failed you, or turned on you? When you had no friends at all, and you were in awful trouble?

Maybe you have been fortunate, and have never had that experience. If that’s the case, I ask you to imagine it.

That’s exactly the situation our ancestor Joseph is in at the end of this week’s Torah portion. He is sitting in prison. His brothers debated killing him, and instead sold him into slavery. He managed to rise to a position of trust in the household of an important man, and his employer’s wife turned on him. He managed to make an influential friend in prison, and that friend has forgotten him.

There is no question that Joseph started out as a foolish young man.

He was spoiled by his father. When at age 17 he went to his father to tattle on his brothers, Jacob did not teach him about lashon harah. He did not teach Joseph not to talk about others. Instead, Jacob gave him a fancy coat.

Joseph was so naive that it never occurred to him that his brothers’ hatred was serious business.

Those who should have taught him and protected him failed him again and again: His father did not teach him. His brothers turned on him in anger.

And let’s face it, the boy seems to have been pretty clueless.

So he winds up in Egypt, a slave. He has one piece of luck: he is purchased by an important man, Potiphar. He rises to a position of trust in the household. But then, because he is young and foolish, because he has no one to advise him, he makes another mistake.

Just as he failed to see the danger in his brother’s anger, he fails to see the danger in the desire of Potiphar’s wife.

A wiser man would never be alone in the house with her. A wiser man might have made sure there were other servants around at all times. After all, he was the steward of the household! He gave the orders!

Instead, he was accused of a terrible crime for which he had no alibi. His master, furious, put him in prison.

And there he sat, without friends, without family. He was a foreigner. He had been accused of a terrible crime. He had no way to prove his innocence.

Even when he made a friend – Even when it looked like there might be hope, he was forgotten. He had been left to rot.

The chapter ends with Joseph in jail, abandoned.

The next chapter begins two years later, and Joseph seems to be a different man. As foolish as he had been before, Joseph became wise.

The text leaves us to wonder what happened during those two years sitting in Pharaoh’s jail?

When there is a gap in the Biblical story we look to Midrash, to the stories of the rabbis to help us understand.

Midrash tells us that Joseph spent his time in jail learning.

He learned the languages of all the men imprisoned there. 

He reflected upon the lessons of his father Jacob,

who had taught him about the One God who demands that we act with justice and kindness.

So the boy who was sold into slavery

The boy who was only interested in himself

Became a man who was interested in other people.

Became a man who learned languages so that he could understand people.

He became a man who reflected not on his own dreams but upon the dreams of others.

Joseph the spoiled brat became Yosef Ha-Tzaddik, Joseph the Righteous Man.

So what’s the lesson here? What’s the point?

One thing we can learn is what to do when, like Joseph, we feel that we have been abandoned by everyone, when everything is hopeless.

We can learn.

Instead of focusing on what others have done to us, we can do what Joseph did: we can learn how to listen and how to talk with others.

Instead of allowing bitterness to fill our souls, or worse yet, plotting our revenge, we can reflect on a God who commands that we act with justice and kindness.

We can learn to let go of “me, me, me” and look beyond ourselves and our own aggrandizement.

Psalm 1 tells us this about the tzaddik, the righteous person:

“His delight is in the Torah of the Eternal; and in God’s Torah he meditates day and night.”

Torah is often translated “Law” but it is more correctly translated “Teaching.” And what Joseph teaches us, and the Psalmist underlines, is that when we feel that things can get no worse, the best thing we can do is learn.

By this I don’t mean “learn our lesson,” although sometimes, that’s one thing we need to do. Rather, I mean something much larger: we need to learn everything we can about how to connect to other people. Because when we are sitting in that lowest place one of the things that has gone wrong is our connections to others.

Torah teaches us many ways to connect:

Abraham teaches hospitality.

Isaac teaches how to get along with angry neighbors.

Jacob teaches us how (and how not to!) deal with our relatives.

Joseph taught us many things, but in his great moment of teshuvah in the prison, he taught us the most important lessons of all:

Learn Torah.

Learn about ourselves and our mistakes.

Learn about others.

Learn how to speak and to listen to people different from ourselves.

Learn new ways to be with others.

Learn.

For it is by learning that we grow, it is in learning that we expand our horizons.

It is in learning that we begin to connect with the world outside ourselves.

If we can do that, if we can learn how to go from the narrow prison to the wider world,

We can become agents of our own change,

agents of Torah in the wider world.  

Shabbat shalom.

“You Intended to harm me.”

All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...
Giza Pyramids (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph.  He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.

Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead.  Instead:

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:19-21

It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.

People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.

Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.