This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, describes Joseph’s rise
to power in Egypt. After languishing in prison
for ten years on a false conviction, his fate turns when he is called upon to
interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams. He
recognizes that while one involves ears of grain and the other livestock, both
of these dreams are essentially the same.
He tells Pharaoh: “The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the
seven healthy ears are seven years. The
seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years, as are also the seven
empty ears scorched by the east wind; they are years of famine. . . Immediately
ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine,
and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten.”
But Joseph is not content to merely interpret Pharaoh’s
dreams. Instead, he offers a detailed strategy
for dealing with the forthcoming agricultural boom-bust cycle: “Let Pharaoh find
a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let all the food of the good years that are
coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as
food to be stored in the cities. Let
that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will
come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.”
Pharaoh approves of this idea, because it solidifies his power
over his subjects. He appoints Joseph to
administer the policy, which he does, with relentless efficiency. During the bad
years, Joseph rations food in return for the Egyptians’ land and livestock,
which become the property of Pharaoh.
Most of our commentators defend Joseph, suggesting that he always
repays the Egyptians with something of value.
He provides rations in exchange for their money, food in the place of
their cattle, and seed in exchange for their land. But a few, including Radak, and the
contemporary scholar Shai Held argue otherwise.
In Rabbi Held’s words:
The ironic turns
in the text are intense and powerful and thus require explanation: Brought to
Egypt as a slave, Joseph now becomes Egypt’s enslaver. And soon enough, a new
Pharaoh rises and the House of Israel [finds] themselves once again on the
wrong end of the enslavement process. Joseph displays remarkable administrative
prowess, but he unleashes forces that eventually end up oppressing and
degrading his own people. . . . Joseph provides short-term relief in the midst
of a ghastly famine, but he also systematically and relentlessly strips the
people bare. There is something to be said for administrative aptitude, but it
is sobering to realize that it can be coupled with profound short-sightedness.
and unintended consequences have played a significant role in creating our
current environmental crisis. Some greedy
corporations and individuals have deliberately chosen to exploit our planet and
its delicate ecosystems; by way of example, Exxon knew a great deal about
global warming over forty years ago and choose to hide their findings with a malignant,
decades-long disinformation campaign.
harmful actions come from good but shortsighted intentions. We have introduced countless non-native
species accidentally through travel, or on well-intended but ultimately misguided
efforts at conservation, population control and agricultural experimentation.
Similarly, for many years, dams were seen as an unfettered
boon, providing irrigation and drinking water, cheap hydroelectric power, flood
control, and recreation sites. However,
in recent years, we have learned that these same dams also increase the risk of
earthquakes, decimate fish populations, destroy vast ecosystems, and block the
essential free flow of sediments.
To learn from our
past is to recognize the need to look beyond the immediate future and consider
the possible long-term effects of our actions.
Joseph, tragically, failed to do so; the result was over two centuries
of enslavement in Egypt. If we are to
preserve life on earth as we know it, we need to do better.
of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, focuses the tangled tale of
Joseph and his brothers. But midway
through that drama, as a kind of interlude in the parshah, we get one of
those R-rated biblical episodes that we don’t teach in Hebrew school.
38 tells the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. She marries Judah’s eldest son, Er; when Er
dies prematurely, before she can bear him an heir, she marries his younger
brother, Onan. When that match, too, fails
to produce children, upon Onan’s death Judah sends Tamar away, lest the same
grim fate await his youngest son, Shelah.
leaves Tamar despondent and alone, with little prospect for marriage and family. In her desperation, she hatches a ruse to
take matters into her own hands. She dons a veil, disguises herself as a
prostitute and waits by the side of the road for her father-in-law, who
eventually engages her services and sleeps with her, without realizing her true
identity. A few months later, Judah
learns that Tamar is pregnant. In a
patriarchal rage, he proclaims: “Bring her out and burn her!” But when she produces Judah’s staff and seal,
which he left in her possession as a sort of deposit after their tryst, he owns
up to his misdeeds: “She was in the right, rather than me, inasmuch as I denied
her my son Shelah.”
She is right. I was
these words, Judah becomes the first person in the Torah to make teshuvah,
to acknowledge his transgressions and alter his behavior accordingly. It is no coincidence that many years later,
when the brothers must plead for their lives in Egypt, Judah is the one who
steps up and confesses their history of wrongdoing toward Joseph. Judah is a hero, because as we all know, it is
extraordinarily difficult to take responsibility for our offenses and change
our path for the better. Overcoming
stubborn pride and ego is a formidable task.
This is why Judah’s name will become the root of both “Jew” and “Judaism.”
When we are at our best, we are his
is no realm in which teshuvah—and our Jewish leadership—is more
important than that of ecological justice.
Our relationship with the rest of God’s creation is in dire need of
repair. Indeed, a failure to
deliberately turn away from the destructive status quo imperils all life on earth. Our future hinges upon our ability to step
out of the status quo and learn to live in a far more sustainable future—and there
is no time to waste. The hour is late,
as injurious climate change is already upon us, but we, like our forefather
Judah, can still shift course and affirm the promise of life for our posterity.
Jewish organization Hazon is leading the way.
Their vision is both straightforward and urgent: a vibrant healthy
Jewish community in which to be Jewish is necessarily to help create a more
sustainable world for all. Hazon has
proclaimed the current Jewish year, 5780, as the year of environmental teshuvah. They are urging all Jews to examine our impact
on the planet and use our tradition’s insights and imperatives to commit
ourselves to doing better. You can find
more here: https://hazon.org/commit-to-change/environmental-teshuva/
As Judah recognized long ago—and as we all
experience in our own lives—teshuvah is hard. But I am confident that with CABI’s new task
force on climate change, our community will do our part to teach by
example. Please join us—we need you!
An undisturbed river is as perfect a thing as
we will ever know, every refractive slide of cold water a glimpse of eternity.
At the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach,
Jacob is preparing for a long-awaited—and feared—reunion with his estranged
brother Esau. The night before that critical
encounter, he ferries his entire family across the River Jabbok, then returns
to the far bank, where he is left alone at nightfall. There, by the riverside, he wrestles with a
divine being until sunrise.
I believe the setting for this fateful meeting
is no accident. In the Midrash Tanchuma,
the Rabbis teach that after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, there
was no more revelation outside of Israel—except along the banks of rivers. Our Sages knew that the Eternal One could be
found in the presence of living water. Daniel
received the divine call as he stood by the Ulai River, and Ezekiel beheld the
hosts of heaven from the banks of the Chebar.
Ezekiel’s ensuing vision of the Divine Chariot—complete with a raging
storm, fiery winged, multi-headed creatures, and wheels rimmed with eyes—became
the touchstone experience for all subsequent generations of Jewish
mystics. Thus an episode of revelation
that is arguably second in importance only to Sinai took place along an
otherwise unknown Chaldean stream.
Why does the Holy
One so often choose to appear to our ancestors along river banks? Perhaps there is something about flowing
water that makes such places uniquely felicitous for people to receive the
Divine Presence. The kabbalists believe that more than any other manifestation
of God’s creation, rivers remind us of life’s fluidity.
change is already taking a heavy toll on our rivers. For six million years, the Colorado River ran
to the sea. Today, it dries out in the
middle of the desert, deprived of water by dams and droughts. Drastic changes in the timing and quantity of
precipitation is already leading to both flooding and drought, and declining
water quality as well.
When a river
dies, we squander a source of much bounty, to humanity and far beyond, to
entire riparian ecosystems. We also lose
our spiritual centers where God is revealed to those who know how and where to
look. Jacob wrestled with the Divine—and
found his best and brightest self—along the River Jabbok. Without living rivers, where will we, his
descendants, encounter the Holy One?