Thursday, January 7, 2010

Joseph: Not a Ruler, Always a Slave

I want to tell you a story about Joseph, the hero who saved his father and brothers from starvation. I also will tell you a story that began with our slavery in Egypt … and whose ramifications made our plight much, much worse.

In the beginning, Joseph rose to power in Pharoah’s court by interpreting two dreams. Anyone remember what they were?

In Pharaoh’s dream, he stood by the river Nile. Seven fat cows came up from the river. Then, seven skinny, sick-looking cows came up. And the skinny ones ate the fat ones!

Pharaoh awoke.

However, Pharaoh fell back asleep and dreamed again. This time, seven plump ears of grain came up on a stalk. BUT – seven wind-blasted, scrawny ears came up and … devoured the plump ears.

Again, Pharaoh awoke … in a cold sweat. These dreams needed interpretation! Suppose they were a bad open?

NONE of his wise men could help. Which is how Joseph got released from years of imprisonment and interpreted the dreams.

Joseph then assured Pharaoh that he – Joseph – could not interpret dreams on his own. He relied on God for help.

After carefully listening to the dreams, Joseph spoke: God was warning Pharaoh. The seven healthy cows and grain were seven years of plenty. The seven scrawny – dangerous – cows and grains represented seven years of dire famine.

Next, Joseph – this young man – a slave – fresh out of prison, advises Pharaoh. Listen carefully:
“Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty…. And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine."

Pharaoh appointed Joseph to head the operation. .You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.

Warning bells should already be going off. Potiphar – his first Egyptian master – also put him in charge of his estate. However, even the most powerful slave is still a mere slave. Joseph was subject to the whims of both Potiphar … and Potiphar’s wife.

Joseph naturally – happily – took the position Pharaoh offered. But … when other people own you … you are in danger of losing ownership … of yourself.
Like Potiphar, Pharaoh could raise him up – and just as easily crush Joseph if he failed.

Here’s the food proposal in a nutshell: for the first seven years, every Egyptian would “pay” a tax of 20% -- not money, but they’d give 20% of their food to Pharaoh. The people would get THEIR OWN food back during the famine.
But royalty and power breed corruption and greed.
Perhaps Joseph could have insisted that it was not fair to sell the people their own food. Fair is fair!

But Joseph was still a slave. Despite the royal trappings, Pharaoh owned him.
And thus, Joseph sold their food back to them.

And when they ran out of money?

Joseph said, Give your cattle; and I will give you food for your cattle, if your money is gone.

And when they ran out of animals?

The people said: We will not hide it from my lord that our money is spent; my lord also has our herds of cattle; there is nothing left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands; Why shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh; and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate.
Historical records from that time period are scant. What we do know: in that time period, Egyptians stopped owning their own land. Everything passed into the hands of the king. Only the priests were exempt. Note, Joseph’s own father in law was a priest.

Making matters worse for the Egyptians, Joseph oversaw their re-settlement from their land to other cities, often far from their homes.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we can’t forget about Jacob and his sons! First we hear they’re living in Goshen. Then we hear they’re settled in a town named Ramses. In Exodus, we’ll hear again about the city of Ramses. Then, it will be the scene of brutal oppression, forced labor.

But for now, they have plenty. Joseph took good care of them and gave them good land. The brothers watched over their cattle and sheep and they – we, the Jews – flourished there.

But while our ancestors flourished, the Egyptians were starving and selling themselves as slaves.

DID Joseph have a choice?

We can’t forget, he was still a slave. Despite his money and new-found privilege, he functioned at the whim of the king.

What would have been the consequences if Joseph had just said: this isn’t fair, why should the people pay at all? It’s theirs! …

Joseph probably would have been thrown back in prison … his family probably with him … someone else would have taken his place at Pharaoh’s side.

It’s not a good answer. This SHOULD NOT make us comfortable.

Slaves don’t have the luxury of making the right moral choices.

The nano-second the brothers sold Joseph into slavery, they set in motion our own brutal slavery as a people.

Actions have consequences. Our culture tells us that everything can be forgiven and forgotten. People don’t sin anymore, and the most disgusting actions can easily be rationalized.

But actions have consequences.

In our case, it took hundreds of years … and God’s intervention to make us free.

We’re still not really free. Joseph’s saga teaches us what freedom REALLY means –
· it’s the ability to make the right moral choices.
· It’s the freedom to live rooted in God and Torah …
· Above all, it’s the discernment to recognize that our every action will have a consequence … often unintended … and not always bad … but one misdeed today can ripple into hundreds of years of misery.

But this also means something great! One good deed … can ripple through eternity … every good deed has the potential for goodness we cannot imagine…
That is the lesson … and hope … we learn from Joseph.

What DO We Really Leave Our Heirs?

What Do We Really Leave for Our Heirs?

Before we die, most of us go to a lawyer and draw up our Last Will and Testament. We know that it’s important to leave directions as to how our property should be divided and dispersed after we’re gone,

However, the Last Will and Testament can be – should be – more than a document about money and things. It’s a way of imparting our values to the next generation. What could be more important to us than our value systems? Money can disappear before we have a chance to enjoy it, and things can wind up in next year’s rummage sale.

The opposite holds true for so ideas and beliefs we hold dear. Value systems live forever through others we impact.

At the end the book of Genesis, Vayechi, the Torah portion and the accompanying Haftarah, give two examples of Jewish Ethical Wills. These Wills do not list tangible assets or properties. However, they do contain the most important assets of the deceased -- the values and wisdom that we wish to pass on to our survivors. There can be no greater legacy.

Traditionally, Jewish parents write letters to their children and try to sum up all that they had learned in life. They can express what they want most and from their children. These “wills”aren’t a legal matter, but they do constitute the greatest greatest parent-child gift imaginable: the accumulated wisdom of their lives.

The Ethical Will of the Torah portion came when Jacob realized he was close to death. He gathered his sons and charges each of them and told them the directions they should take with their lives. In some cases, he reminded them of serious character defects. But in all of these charges, he gave them hope and direction for the future.

Jacob instructed each son to live up to the moral and religious dictates of his faith. They are words of guidance and admonition, "Everyone according to his blessing he blessed them." In other words, he addressed each son according to that person’s character and potential.

The Haftarah also contains words of instruction of a dying parent to his child. King David knew that he lay near death. He spoke to Solomon – his son, the heir to his throne, and he said: "Keep the charge of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes and His commandments and His ordinances and His testimonies according to that which is written in the Law of Moses."

What will we leave to our descendants? Will we be concerned only with passing on our material possessions? Or, will we also be concerned in transmitting a spiritual heritage as well?

There’s a story about a Rabbi who desperately tried to contact one of his congregants. The congregant was always unavailable, too busy or just plain unwilling to accept his call.

Finally the Rabbi left the following message: "Please call. A mutual relative of ours died and left us a large inheritance."

As you might guess, the congregant called back within minutes. He wanted to know who died, what were the details?

The Rabbi said: "We had a mutual relative, his name was Moses. He left us a great legacy, the Ten Commandments and the Torah. I know that you want to share in this great inheritance."

The Rabbi spoke the truth. There is no greater heritage – and it’s ours! Why wouldn’t we want to transmit this precious heritage to those we love? Our true legacies really are the values, teachings and the good examples of our own lives!

Further, even the act of writing an Ethical Will forces us to think seriously about our own value systems: what we think and how we live them out. We learn about ourselves in the process of guiding future generations.
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As we read the last statements of Jacob and David, let us keep in mind that we should pass on to future generations a legacy which will serve as a shining example in their lives of our own influence upon them.

Shalom u’vrachah, in peace and blessing,

Rabbi Shaina Bacharach