Monday, December 17, 2007

I'll admit I'm a little late going here ...

The Torah portion for last week (that is, Dec. 9-15), Vayiggash, had a few interesting tidbits that are worth discussing. I'll make this quick, since I'm already late on the punch anyhow!

+ There's some interesting questions about the situation of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, rising to great power, then saving his family from imminent doom. Firstly, it brings into the question the old "everything happens for a reason" sentiment. It makes us wonder whether G-d truly does have the plan and knows what will happen, or if free will truly does dictate our decisions despite G-d's hand in our lives. Likewise, we have to wonder how, if G-d did "use the sale of Joseph to further the divine plan," (Abravanel) G-d could then hold the brothers accountable for their action. Etz Chayim's commentary says that "G-d could not prevent the brothers from choosing to do something cruel," yet somehow G-d knew that this would further the plan for Joseph and the children of Israel. So how can we -- as mere humans -- really understand what seems to be such an unfair situation for the brothers? We can't. The text reconciles itself by saying later in the text, after Joseph has revealed himself, that his brothers "sent him" to Egypt (Gen. 45:8), not that they "sold" him, thus replacing the evil purpose with its beneficial result. It's truly perplexing, then, to consider how such events could unravel, in what we like to think is a just and logical existence. But this is one of the key instances of the question -- does everything happen for a reason?

+ Interestingly, Israel is the only one of the patriarchs who is spoken to at night (by G-d, that is). I'm not really sure why this is, but I think it probably has some important implications. Note to self: explore this!

+ Interestingly, I think Joseph might be the first assimilationist. The biggest complaint about the Jewish diaspora is that it has completely assimilated to wherever the Jewish people have ended up. Getting rid of the shtetl mentality was key to past generations. As such, many view the Diaspora as being completely devoid of the culture and beauty that it maybe once had. Well, in this Torah portion, there's an interesting exchange that makes us wonder whether Joseph was perhaps a precursor to the Jews of Hellinization and eventually to the Jewish experience in America. Joseph tells his brothers and father to tell the pharaoh that they are breeders, not shepherds, as shepherds are reviled. But the brothers tell him that they are, in fact, shepherds. Why do they do this? Joseph was very concerned about what the Egyptians thought, yet his family -- a simple people proud of their upbringing and profession -- were entirely satisfied with who they were. Joseph had settled into Egyptian life entirely, perhaps even finding himself comfortable with all but ridding himself of his Jewish background and upbringing.

+ Finally, I want to mention a concept in the Torah called mip'nei darkhei shalom, which means "for the sake of ways of peace." That is, it says that one can adjust Jewish law and custom for the sake of peace. I imagine that this was used during the many tragedies that befell the Jewish people throughout history, including during the Spanish Inquisition or perhaps during the Nazi regime. In times where Jews had to practice secretively or quietly, I imagine that certain customs and ways of living had to be adjusted for the sake of survival, and in turn, peace. The important thing about this, though, is that it is not abused or misunderstood. One could say that it's the ultimate Loop Hole in Torah.