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Parsha Perspectives

by RABBI BINYOMIN ADLER

וַיֹּאמְרוּ שׁנֵים עָשָר עֲבָדֶיךָ אַחִים אנֲחְנוּ בְּנֵי אִישׁ אֶחָד בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וְהִנֵּה הַקָּטֹן אֶת אָבִינוּ הַיּוֹם וְהָאֶחָד אֵינֶנּוּ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֲלֵכֶם לֵאמֹר מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם

“And they (the brothers) replied, ‘We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘It is just as I have declared to you: You are spies!’” (Genesis 42: 13-14)

In this week’s parsha, the Torah records that after Joseph ascended to power, his brothers descended to Egypt because of the famine that was prevalent in the Land of Canaan. When the brothers appeared before Joseph, he accused them of being spies, an allegation that they vehemently denied. The brothers responded to Joseph that they had arrived in Egypt to purchase food for their family.

They buttressed their claim of innocence by declaring that they were truthful people and had never been spies. Joseph rejected their defense, reiterating his claim that they were spies.

This dialogue between Joseph and his brothers is confusing. Joseph accused his brothers of being spies without presenting any evidence. The brothers’ response to this accusation, that they were twelve sons of one father and that they came to Egypt intending to purchase food, did not address the claim that they were spies. Neither the charges nor the defense seem comprehensible.

This mystery brings to mind an incident with the practice in Europe where Tzena Urena, the Yiddish language commentary on the Torah, was read aloud in the Synagogue each week following the public Torah reading. After the reader related the incident of how Joseph aroused his brothers’ jealousy and how they subsequently threw Joseph into a pit, a woman shouted, “It was coming to Joseph! They did the same thing to him last year, and he should have learned his lesson!”

When reading the dialogue between Joseph and his brothers as an account of an ordinary conversation, one can easily get caught up in the drama and miss the idea that the “stories” described in the Torah are anything but ordinary stories.  Rather, the stories are laden with multiple layers of Divine life-lessons that hold meaning for each and every one of us – in every generation.

When Joseph accused his brothers of being spies, he obviously never believed they were spies. He made this accusation to help them realize the inherent inconsistencies in their words. The brothers stated that they were all from one father, on a mission to take care of their family needs. They were implying that they were a wholesome, united, and family-oriented unit – lacking no motive other than the well-being of their family. Joseph’s groundless accusation simply mirrored their cavalier claims of complete wholesomeness and innocence. While it was true that they were all sons of one father, they weren’t genuinely united, and certainly not innocent.  Like spies who mask their true purpose and motives, the brothers’ portrayal of themselves as family people was in stark contrast to individuals who could sell their own brother as a slave and cause such immense distress to their father.

If we stop to contemplate some of these embedded messages in the story of Joseph’s interaction with his brother, we will likely come to realize how easy it is to deceive oneself about one’s level of honesty or true motives. In addition to helping his brothers realize that they weren’t being honest with themselves, the “story” of Joseph teaches how important it is for us to be consistently true to our values in our relationships with family, friends, and with G-d.

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Parsha Talking Points

by RABBI ELAZAR MEISELS

1. REPAID IN FULL

“If you are speaking truthfully, then let one of your brothers be incarcerated in the prison in which you are now…” 42:19

If you are speaking truthfully – Joseph feared that so many years had passed since he’d seen his younger brother Benjamin, that he would no longer recognize him. He also suspected that perhaps his brothers would not bring Benjamin, but rather, knowing how Jacob felt about him, they’d substitute another man in his place. Therefore, he held one of the brothers until Benjamin would be brought down, to determine whether the two would recognize each other. – Panim Yafos

One of your brothers – This was Shimon. – 42:14

One of your brothers – Shimon was the one who instigated the plot against him and cast him into the pit, now he would be cast into a dungeon. – Rashi 42:14

Shimon, who together with his brother Levi, lead the plot against Joseph, paid for his indiscretions dearly. Just as he caused Jacob’s son Joseph to be sold to Egypt where he was faced daily with terrible temptations to sin in the most immoral manner, Shimon experienced a similar fate with his offspring. Following the incident of Dina and Shechem, he married Dina who bore him a son named Shaul. This son had another name, Zimri, and it was he who was later faced with a temptation to sin with the Midianite woman named Kosbi. Unlike Joseph who withstood his temptations, Zimri failed to do so and was killed by Pinchas, a scion of Joseph!

2. THE LONG ARM OF THE LAW

“And he searched: he began with the older brother and concluded with the younger, and the goblet was found in the sack of Benjamin. And they rent their garments and each man repacked his donkey and they returned to the city.” 44:12, 13

They rent their garments – This was not the traditional act of rending a garment which is performed upon the passing of a loved one. Rather, it was a sign of their great anguish over the discovery of the goblet in Benjamin’s sack. – HeEmek Davar

They rent their garments – Benjamin failed to ensure that he and his brothers would not be the target of false allegations. His recompense came many generations later when his descendant Mordechai heard of the terrible plot hatched by Haman to destroy the Jews, and had to rend his garments in response. He also donned sackcloth and fasted in order to derail the terrible decree. – Midrash Rabbah, Esther 8:1

They rent their garments – The brothers caused Jacob to rend his garments in anguish when they pretended that Joseph had perished. In response, they too, rent their garments when a false accusation was lodged against Benjamin. – Daas Zekeinim

Daas Zekeinim adds that Menashe, too, played a key role in this incident. He was the messenger sent by Joseph to search their sacks and lodge the false complaint against Benjamin. Since his actions caused the brothers to tear their garments in half, a similar fate occurred to his children. Just prior to entering the Land of Israel, the tribes of Reuben and Gad requested to remain in the land that they had captured on the other side of the Jordan River. Moses agreed, but stipulated that they must be joined by half of the members of the tribe of Menashe. For having caused Joseph’s brothers to be split; his own children were split, as well. Our actions have consequences that far exceed anything our imagination can conjure up at the time of their execution. Yet, these chapters of the Torah remind us how careful we must be when dealing with our fellow man.

3. WHO KNOWS?

“And now, let your servant sit [in prison] in place of the lad, and be a servant to my master, and the lad will ascend with his brothers.” 44:33

And be a servant to my master – Judah was the one who had initially suggested that they sell Joseph as a slave to the Ishmaelites. Now, he was placed in a position in which his best hope would be to offer himself as a slave instead of Benjamin. – Pardes Yosef in the name of the Rebbe of Ger

Pardes Yosef adds that nothing ever came of this offer because in truth, Judah had acted in Joseph’s best interests and was not obligated to repent. Joseph hinted to this when he told his brothers, “And now, do not be saddened, nor should you reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for the Almighty sent me here to be a source of food for you.” When a person intends to do a good thing, even if it may appear to have turned out negatively, the Almighty has a plan that supersedes all our strategies and ensures a positive result.

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Partner Talk

READING MAIL

by RABBI ELAZAR MEISELS

Dear Rabbi,

A close friend of mine once entrusted me with the password to her email account so I could access some information she needed. While looking for that information, I noticed a message from a mutual friend that I was very tempted to read. I realize that this wouldn’t have been ethical but am wondering whether this is addressed by the Torah.

Thank you,
Dorothy

Dorothy,

Your question raised my spirits because it is comforting to know that there are still honest and trustworthy people like yourself out there. Since email is a relatively new technology, it was obviously not discussed explicitly in the Torah, but there may be a precedent that is discussed in rabbinic literature.

Approximately 1,000 years ago, a famed scholar known as Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah (960-1040 C.E.) enacted a number of famous institutional reforms called Takanot (enactments). Among these was a ban against polygamy, a requirement of mutual consent in divorce, and that a Jewish community must accept with compassion a Jew returning to the faith after being forcibly converted to another religion.

Less well-known was an enactment prohibiting the reading of mail or personal messages of one’s neighbor without his permission. Since Jewish traders in different countries communicated in writing and their letters often contained sensitive business information which could be very harmful if read by an outsider, Rabbeinu Gershom legislated against reading people’s mail and thereby allowed their business network to function. This enactment extended the right of privacy outside the home into the world of commerce.

In fact, a typical piece of mail would contain the seal, B’Chadrag, which stood for B’Cherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom, meaning that one who read the document without permission was in violation of the excommunication-edict of Rabbeinu Gershom. Another seal that appeared on written communication contained the letters, “pey gimmel yud nun daled reish gimel mem hey,” which is an abbreviation of the verse, “One who breaks through a fence, a serpent shall bite him” (Ecclesiastes 10:8). Interestingly, some maintain that the ban only applies if that warning appeared on the letter.

Although some maintain that this ban was only enacted until the year 1240 (end of the fifth thousand year in the Hebrew calendar), and no longer applies to us nowadays, the overwhelming opinion is that the ban is still in effect, and this is the custom of the Ashkenazim.

One might argue that since these bans are not written in the Torah, but were enacted by later halachic (Jewish legal) authorities, they do not carry the weight of a Torah prohibition. This however, is a mistake, for they do carry significant weight. In fact, Midrash Tanchuma writes that one who transgresses a ban is considered as if he has transgressed all five books of the Torah. Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) writes that such an individual may not serve as a witness in a Jewish court.

Included in this ban is looking at any information that a person prefers remain private, e.g. looking at private documents, health or legal records, and credit reports, even if the person looking at these items does not plan on acting on the information that he sees.

Some would argue that email is not technically a “letter” of the exact nature that was targeted in the enactment; nevertheless, many contemporary halachic authorities maintain that they too may not be read without the permission of the intended recipient.

It is important to note however, that there are certain exceptions to Rabbeinu Gershom’s enactment, such as when parents or educators suspect that a child is corresponding with someone who might harm him and need to inspect his mail in order to protect him. Another exception is when a court is conducting an investigation and must review personal documents for that purpose. For personal reasons, however, it is generally a good idea to refrain from reading another persons’ correspondence, so you definitely made the right choice.

Wishing you all the best,
Rabbi Elazar Meisels

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Table Talk

FOR DISCUSSION AROUND THE SHABBAT TABLE

by RABBI LABEL LAM

“And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I dreamt a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I heard it said of you that you comprehend a dream to interpret it.’ Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, ‘That is beyond me; it is G-d Who will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare.’” Pharaoh proceeded to detail his dream, which Joseph interpreted as a foreshadowing of seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph suggested that “‘Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed and let him appoint overseers on the land, and he shall prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance.’” (Bereishis 41:15-16, 33-34)

א) Joseph’s interpretation of his dreams convinced Pharaoh that Joseph was highly skilled at interpreting dreams. What gave Pharaoh the confidence that Joseph possessed the leadership and managerial skills to implement his proposal – let alone to become the chief administrator of Egypt’s economic affairs?

ב) Joseph was called upon to serve as a dream interpreter – not as a financial planner. Why would Joseph have believed that offering such guidance was appropriate?

ג) As king, Pharaoh likely had the means to appoint someone to develop and implement a plan for addressing the upcoming famine. Unless Joseph had ulterior motives, why would he have written a job description that appeared to place himself as the candidate of choice?

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Parsha Summary

Pharaoh dreamt two dreams. In one, seven unsightly cows ate seven fine-looking cows; in the other, seven thin ears of grain swallowed up the seven healthy ears. He tried to find an accurate interpretation of the dreams, but was unable to do so. The cupbearer recalled Joseph’s success in interpreting his dream. Pharaoh called upon Joseph and asked him to interpret his own dreams. The dreams, he explained, foreshadowed seven years of abundance, followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh would have to appoint people to accumulate sustenance during the years of abundance and store it for consumption during the following seven years.

Pharaoh recognized that Joseph carried the spirit of G-d and placed him in charge of his palace and in command over all of Egypt. He gave Joseph the Egyptian name, Tzafnat Paneach, and a wife. Joseph’s wife gave birth to Menashe and Ephraim.

The famine began, but the land of Egypt had sufficient bread due to the large amount of grain Joseph had stored during the previous seven years. The hungry citizens were instructed by Pharaoh to approach Joseph.

Hearing of the provisions that were available in Egypt, Jacob sent his remaining sons – except for Benjamin – to acquire food for their family there.

Joseph recognized his brothers when they approached him, but pretended not to know who they were. They did not realize that this was their own brother. He accused them of being spies and demanded that their youngest brother (Benjamin) join them. He suggested that one of the brothers be confined until they would bring food to their family and return with the youngest brother.

The brothers speculated that this ordeal came upon them because of how they had treated Joseph. Joseph overheard this conversation and regretted how he had acted with them. Nonetheless, he stood by his orders and had Shimon imprisoned.

The brothers returned home and informed their father that they couldn’t obtain any provisions unless they would take Benjamin back with them. Jacob refused. When their food supply was almost depleted, Jacob instructed his sons to return to Egypt to obtain food. Yehudah reminded Jacob that their ability to acquire food was conditioned on bringing Benjamin back with them, and promised to shoulder the blame if Benjamin would not be returned to him.

The brothers returned to Egypt, and prepared for a meal they were to have with Joseph. Shimon was released.

Joseph inquired if their father was well and alive, and they responded in the affirmative. Upon seeing Benjamin, he ran into another room to cry out of compassion for him. Benjamin’s portion during the meal was five times greater than the portions of his brothers.

Joseph instructed his attendant to place his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. On the brothers’ journey the following morning, this attendant, following his master’s orders, followed the brothers and accused them of thievery. He searched their sacks and found the goblet in Benjamin’s bag. The brothers returned to the city, and Yehudah apologized on their behalf to Joseph, offering themselves as slaves. Joseph said that the brothers could all return home, and only the perpetrator, Benjamin, would serve as his slave.

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