Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeishev December 8, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

Haftorah reading:  Amos 2:6 – 3:8

There is something extremely curious about the birth of a giraffe.  The mother gives birth standing up.  When the baby giraffe emerges from her womb, it literally drops to the ground, landing hard on its back.  The newborn will lay there almost motionless until after a few seconds, onlookers are shocked to see the mother give her baby a swift kick, a kick strong enough to knock the baby head over hooves.
Why does she do that? Because she wants the newborn to get up on its feet. Somehow, the baby giraffe understands what his mother wants and struggles to get up, but after a feeble try, gives us and drops back to the ground.
Boom! A second hearty kick from the mother rolls the young one over several more times. The newborn tries again to prop itself up again on its spindly legs, and finally manages to stand upright.
But before the viewers can breathe a sigh of relief, the mother kicks the baby off its feet again!  The zoo keeper explains to the onlookers: ‘The mother wants her baby to remember how it got up.  In the wilderness where they live, if the baby doesn’t quickly get up and follow the herd, it will be picked off by predators.’ The swift kick is necessary for the baby’s life!
Perhaps we all have something in common with a baby giraffe.  Have you ever been kicked off your feet?  Have you been kicked while you were down? And have you been kicked by the very people from whom you expected kindness and understanding?
All of us have times in life when we get side-swiped by circumstances or side-lined by harsh judgments from those we most expect to stand by us. How we respond in those moments reveals the truth about what we really believe about God, about His plan for our life and about the meaning of our faith.
In this week’s Torah reading we drop in on Joseph at 17-years of age. As we open to Gen. 37:3, Joseph’s life is good and his future looks bright! But he is about to be kicked off his feet. He is about to be kicked hard while he is down. And the ones doing the kicking are his own family.
Yet somehow, Joseph managed to avoid the very thing that had consumed his brothers—the emotional stronghold of bitter jealousy. Somehow, Joseph faced trauma and the high-jacking of his dreams without becoming bitter; for his brothers, it’s a very different story. There’s a deep message for us all right here.
Bitterness is seething anger that hardens into a rebellious, vengeful conclusion. An unforgiving spirit lets anger take hold: anger over circumstances, anger at your spouse, at your children, your employer, whoever. If we embrace it, coddle it, dwell on it, it quietly takes over our entire life.  We feel entitled to hate the person, justified to desire their ruin, and energized to seek their downfall. That is the story of Joseph’s brothers. How did it happen?
Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons and when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than them, they hated him and could not speak a civil word to him.  Why was Joseph Jacob’s favorite? There are several reasons. Joseph was Rachel’s firstborn, Jacob most beloved wife. Rachel had died about a year before, so it is natural that Jacob would transfer his affection to their son. And Joseph was born late in Jacob’s life, giving the old man a special joy. Rightly or wrongly, Jacob cherished Joseph in ways he hadn’t shown to his other sons, and Joseph was hated for it. The brothers were jealous of his relationship with their father.
“And he made him a robe of many colors.” Jacob exercised his fatherly privilege and chose to appoint his firstborn son by Rachel as his heir.  He skipped his other nine sons and selected the youngest at that time. The symbol of the birthright was a special tunic. The Hebrew words used to describe this coat or tunic suggest that it was richly ornamented, but the most important detail the Hebrew gives us is that it was long-sleeved and extended to Joseph’s ankles.  Why is that important?  The tunics worn by working men in that day were sleeveless and stopped at the knees. A long-sleeved, tailored garment was worn by a manager, someone who had been put in charge, and was therefore exempt from the work himself. So the coat was a symbol of position. The brothers were jealous of his position. 
Verse 5 tells us: Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. In v. 6-8, Joseph tells his brothers that they were all in the field binding sheaves of grain when suddenly his sheaf rose up and their sheaves gathered around and bowed down. You don’t have to be brilliant to figure out the meaning of that dream, do you?

Verses 9-11: Joseph had a second dream, this time with different symbols, but with the same meaning. His dad heard Joseph’s dream and thought it was a joke, but his brother’s didn’t. Verse eleven reports that his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

Now if your little brother had a crazy dream, you wouldn’t get jealous unless you really believed God was speaking to him.  The very fact that Joseph’s dreams provoked such violent jealousy testifies that the brothers believed the dream! They believed that God was speaking to their younger brother.  So the brothers were jealous of God’s favor on Joseph.

Self-pity, jealousy and anger finally pushed the brothers over a dangerous line. They were mad at their father for his favoritism. They were mad at God for the good things that were coming to their brother and not to them. There was only one way to get back at them both: they would take away the darling object of affection.

The first plan suggested was ‘Let’s kill him.’ Reuben, the oldest, inserts a voice of reason and suggests instead, ‘Let’s throw him into that pit over there.’  In the end, when a caravan of slave traders comes by, they haul Joseph up from the pit and sell him into slavery, wash their hands of the troublemaker and sit down for lunch!  Problem solved…or so they thought.

It appeared to be ‘problem solved’ for some years but you all know how it ends.

Our purpose right now, however, is to focus on the early part of the story.  What does it say to us?

In Tune with Torah this week = We need to ask ourselves some pretty confrontational questions.

Do I have an issue with jealousy?  Do I have any bitterness in my heart towards someone who enjoys a relationship that I wish I had?  Am I jealous of another’s position or promotion?  Do my emotions get riled up when someone gets more favor than I do at work or in my community?

Jealousy kills spiritual growth; it is a poison of the worst kind to our souls.

Our choice is pretty clear: do we go the way of Joseph who guarded his heart against bitterness? Or do we go the way of his brothers whose bitterness poisoned their lives for years?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Matot July 17, 2014

MATTOT – Bamidbar/Numbers 30:2 – 32:42

In this week’s Torah reading, the tribes of Gad and Reuben approached Moses, asking that he allow them to remain on the other side of the Jordan where there was sufficient land for them to farm their animals. They had vast numbers of cattle and the area they desired was perfect pasture land.

Moses became angry at their request and replied with a strong rebuke pointing out to them that by not entering the land of Israel they would be abandoning their fellow Israelites in the upcoming conquest.
He solemnly reminds them of the incident of the spies and its terrible consequences. In reply to Moshe’s criticisms, they assured Moses, with his permission, they would build houses for their wives and children and corrals for the animals and then they would gladly join the rest of the nation in conquering the land.

Some have asked, “Isn’t it possible that they intended to do just that all along? And if so, why didn’t they defend themselves at the first sound of Moses’ stinging rebuke?

There is a verse in the book of Proverbs: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:6) The commentaries explain that the ‘wounds’ delivered by one’s friend here refer to words of rebuke, of discipline or correction. The rebuke of someone who genuinely cares about his friend is of great benefit because it is aimed at helping him improve himself and one’s friend is inclined to deliver even a very firm correction with love. Our friend actually does us a great service because, if we will receive the correction with humility of heart, he or she is actually helping us to grow spiritually. This is one of the greatest gifts we give each other. When the tribes of Gad and Reuben heard Moses rebuke them, they knew that he was doing so from the purest of motives and only had their best interests in mind. Thus, even though they perhaps could have defended themselves, it was more worthwhile to listen to his words and try to profit from them.

Lest anyone misunderstand, however, we must realize that every rebuke or correction we receive is of great value, now just those who come from a loving friend. It is part of life that at times we all experience a harsh rebuke. The truly spiritual person will hear the words, evaluate them and be willing to examine himself, no matter who delivered the rebuke. Rather than focus on the inept or unkind way in which the accuser spoke to us, the more important issue is to focus on the words that were spoken for, truth be told, even in the most unwelcomed rebuke or correction, there is usually some kernel of truth.
If we are truly committed to growing in spiritual maturity, it behooves us to be humble enough to acknowledge that and respond accordingly.

Another verse in Proverbs admonishes us: “Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise for the rest of your days.”Prov. 19:20

Did you notice that we are told here to ‘listen’ to counsel (advice) but to ‘accept’ discipline. Listening implies an element of contemplation and thought – when a person is given advice he should think about it before he acts upon it. In contrast when one is rebuked he should accept it without self-defense and then reflect on it as a means towards spiritual growth. Does this require a healthy dose of Humility? Absolutely! But then, isn’t humility considered one of the greatest of virtues?

It is understandable that most people do not enjoy being rebuked – it is unpleasant to be told that you have a character flaw or that your behavior was unacceptable. However, if we can determine to leave our ego out of the situation, push ourselves past the feelings of embarrassment, we will learn from every experience in life and over time appreciate rebukes and criticisms as powerful tools for our spiritual growth.

In Tune with Torah this week = ask yourself: how do I respond to correction? to criticism? Do I seek to learn from it to become a better person? Or do I get angry or indignant? “He has told you, O man, what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, to love righteousness and to walk humbly before your God.”

Shabbat Shalom

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