For Beit Warszawa.  12th. December 2020.

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

This week’s sidra starts off with a calm, reassuring verse about Jacob feeling at last that he can settle down in peace in the land where his fathers were only wandering foreigners. ”Vayeshev Ya’akov  be’Eretz megurey Aviv, beEretz Canaan.” It is, sadly, about the last calm verse in the whole sidra. Ironically, before the chapter is over Joseph, the son whom Jacob favours over the others, has managed to annoy everybody by spouting on about dreams of grandeur, his half-brothers have decided to take matters into their own hands rather than relying on God, they have kidnapped him and – the details get a little confused as to who sold whom to whom for how much but it doesn’t really matter, suddenly Joseph is NOT dwelling in the land where his father is living and where his grandfather was a sojourner but is himself now a stranger in a strange land – not just that but a powerless slave, bought and sold like a Thing, an object. For Jacob, living in the land but without his beloved son is also only half a life.

In chapter 35 he and his estranged twin brother Esau – who has also had five sons from three wives but somehow without the same sibling stresses – have buried together their father Isaac in Hebron – and ironically this part of the family – now called the Edomites – LEAVE the land. In 36:4 Esau ”took his wives and sons and daughters and all the 'souls of his house’ (an echo here of the phrase used of Abraham and Sarah in 12:5) and all his beasts and possessions which he had acquired in Canaan and went to another land away from his brother Jacob; for it was not possible for them to dwell together in ”the land of their wanderings” – so they headed east to what became known as 'Edom’ after the nickname for Esau, 'the red one’ – what we would now call the Kingdom of Jordan. Esau voluntarily and sensibly separates to avoid potential conflict, an echo of the division earlier between Abraham and Lot, or between Jacob and Avimelech, when their flocks and herds get too extensive as to be able to share the same scarce resources of land and water. How strange and how convenient – Jacob, who had been so afraid of Esau as he returned from Haran in chapter 32, who had sent gifts ahead, and who later in chapter 33 first encounters Esau at last then lies to him, saying he will follow but instead thinking he can settle in Shechem, buy land, stop wandering – undergoes the embarrassment (to put it mildly) of two of his sons massacring the inhabitants of Shechem (chapter 34) but is now in 37:1 able to relax because all his external threats have politely removed themselves – only to be confronted now by the internal tensions which split his family apart.

It is rare that anyone looks at this context, which is why I make no apology for citing at length from last week’s sidra. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The sons of Jacob are not stupid and they have seen how their father lies to his own brother, they must know the story also of how their father was prepared to trick his own father Isaac and pretend to be someone else, their uncle. (Come to that, they must know how their Grandmother Rivka encouraged their father to perform the intrigue and then they must have heard how Mother Leah (mother of six of them) tricked Mother Rachel (mother of Joseph and Benjamin) by agreeing to get married off to their father first – thus asserting  the first-born Daughter’s rights.) So when they in turn come to conspire to deprive their brother Joseph of any first-born rights and privileges, or when they come together to trick their father with a piece of bloodstained clothing (which they themselves had stained!) one is entitled to ask where they had first learned of these modes of behaviour.

Then suddenly in chapter 38 we get a total change of scene but essentially another story concerned with the rights and inheritances of the first-born. Judah marries a local girl in Canaan – well, this is what it means to be a resident and no longer a sojourner here! – and has a son Er, then another Onan,  then a third Shelach. Just like that. No lengthy problems with infertility. Now Jacob has become a grandfather, though we get no mention of any contact, we get no mention of Er being the first-born grandson or any privileges. All we read is that Judah takes a wife for Er – presumably also a local girl, not one of his nieces? – Tamar, the date palm. Er, however, comes to an Er-ly grave. What to do? Since he was the first born, it is important to keep his lineage intact and so Tamar is simply married off to Onan with the intention that Onan should provide a son for his deceased brother. In terms of the context of how brothers have cheated brothers until now so as to prevent them getting any status and inheritance, it can hardly be described as surprising that Onan decides not to perform his duty – the later term is 'levirate marriage’ although it is Judah, not Levi, who first organises it. (Actually this is just a bad pun, the word ’Levir’ is Latin not Hebrew and just means 'brother-in-law’). So Onan leaves the scene abruptly as well. Which leaves Tamar as a double-widow stuck waiting until her remaining brother-in-law is old enough to step up to the plate. In the meantime her mother-in-law Shua also dies and Judah, now a lonely widower, seeks some comfort on a commercial basis. Tamar takes advantage of this, disguises herself (so Judah does not realise he is with a 'blind Date’) and at last she is made pregnant – albeit by her father-in-law, not her brother-in-law. Judah is furious at her ”infidelity” – (in fact she is not married any more, just betrothed to the third son) until he is publicly embarrassed by her, as she fights to save herself from execution. And the result is – oh no! – ANOTHER pair of quarrelling twins, Peretz and Zerah.

What on earth is the Torah trying to tell us with this chapter? Which is not one that appears prominently in Children’s Bibles.

In the meantime Joseph is facing his own temptations and troubles in Egypt where he is bought by the Chief of Police whose wife takes a fancy to him and makes false accusations when he does NOT succumb to her pressures and pleadings. (I would say ”her charms” except that the Torah never tells us that she was attractive, only that Joseph was…. and using the 'argument from silence’ there is an implication that she is childless and maybe, like Tamar, she is also simply desperate to get pregnant from anyone who is around when her busy husband is always away fighting the Pharaoh’s enemies; Why would she take the risk otherwise?) In case one might think he could not sink any lower, from being a slave he now becomes an imprisoned slave. Once more he interprets dreams – this time not his own – and he is proved correct, for one of his fellow prisoners is executed whereas the other is amnestied and liberated – but, despite having promised to put in a good word for Joseph, he neglects to do so.

    What a long and tortuous journey we have come from chapter 37 verse 1 to chapter 40 verse 23! Jacob thought he was settled at last, but first his favourite son disappears, presumed killed, then his fourth son loses two sons of his own and unwittingly conceives two sons who will also be his grandsons…. and Joseph in Egypt is stuck in a stinking jail. Later we will define ourselves as ”the children of Jacob” or ”the children of Israel” (Jacob’s alternate name) but truly, one wonders whether this is the sort of family one can be proud of, or whether one would rather keep quiet about one’s origins….

What can we learn from all this?

First – to be careful. It is at precisely the moment when one feels one can relax, that one has eliminated another ethnic group from the country, that the next catastrophe can hit!

Secondly – to be modest. Our ancestors were not the sort of people whom one can hold up as models of moral integrity, of filial love, of sibling solidarity, of ethics and spirituality. When one works with people one soon learns that the majority of abuse and violence – including sexual – occurs within the home, within families. Those politicians and fundamentalist clergy who trumpet ”Family Values!” as a solution to all modern problems should be aware of that. Often one feels  they have never actually read the book they hold up so eagerly. Admittedly some of the families described in these chapters would be described more as 'patchwork’ and 'extended’ but all are dysfunctional.

Thirdly – to be aware that there MIGHT be a long-term divine plan behind so much of what happens. It is clearly God’s plan that Jacob and his family should come to settle to Egypt – at the end of chapter 46 and in 47:6 they come to ”dwell, settle”, ”yashvu ba’aretz Goshen”  – the same word as our sidra ”Vayeshev” began. God had already told Abraham that his descendants would have to go to a foreign land and serve there….. In 15:13 God told Abraham that his descendants would serve another people four hundred years in a foreign land, but in 17:8 had also told Abraham that his descendants would inherit the ”eretz megurecha, Eretz Canaan”, the ”land of your wanderings, the land of Canaan”. The text is full of these echoes and resonances and word-plays which form a background surrounding structure to the narrative and there is always a danger that if one focusses on just one sidra at a time one will overlook these parallels and this context.

Then – Peretz will be mentioned again in 46:12 as one of the family of Judah who come to Egypt as a refugee from a land stricken by famine but, much more significantly, in Ruth 4 he is listed as one of the ancestors of Boaz and hence of King David….. which means that David, who is also a younger son who has to outshine his older brothers, who will also have many competitive sons by several wives (some of  them even his own!) will be himself a descendant from someone born under exceptional circumstances in this sidra. (Plus a Moabite mother). Was this the divine plan already? Why else is this chapter inserted?

The story will continue. Don’t miss next week’s exciting episode! (Spoiler alert – Joseph gets out of jail! His brothers will come to buy grain from state warehouses, whereas their own descendants will later have to build yet more warehouses….) But never forget that each episode is precisely that – just one part of a lengthy story, one which has (thank God!) not ended yet…..


Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild



The humiliation of Joseph

Thoughts on parashat Vayeshev

The Torah portion for this week starts with the story of Jacob settling in Hebron with his twelve sons. His favorite son is seventeen-year-old Joseph, with whom his brothers are jealous for the preferential treatment he receives from his father. To make matters worse, Joseph relates to his brothers two of his dreams which foretell that he is destined to rule over them which obviously increases their envy and hatred. At first they plan to kill him but instead humiliate him and sell him into slavery in Egypt.

We can only image the pain, grief, sense of hopelessness and anger Joseph experienced. In similar situations people, depending on their temperament, want revenge, to reprimand and/or seek justice. In the Talmud, tractate Bava Kamma (83b and the following pages) the rabbis debate the famous, ancient “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” law. It is likely that this law lost its literal legal implementation at the beginning of the Second Temple period and certainly wasn’t in place at the beginning of the Christian era. We know that from Mishna, where it is replaced by a set of laws concerning various compensations for various damages. The code starts with the general law:

One who injures another is liable to pay compensation for that injury due to five types of indemnity: He must pay for damage, for pain, for medical costs, for loss of livelihood, and for humiliation.

(Mishna Bava Kamma 8:1)

This is later elaborated in details in all the following mishnayot of chapter 8. The Talmud (Gemara), however, starts with putting a question mark to the very idea of paying compensation instead of following the biblical law literally. Then the rabbis analyze other cases of damage (like those done on animals or property.) After finding several justifications for not following it literally, they come to the conclusion that monetary compensation for loss is the most lawful option given the fact that paying for damage with damage is actually impossible since it is impossible to repay with exactly the same damage. In this way the Mishnaic law is restored and it is given firm justification and further elaboration.

A few pages later (Bava Kamma 86b) the rabbis debate a case which is particularly relevant to our biblical story: humiliation.

When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

(Gen 37:23-24)

Putting aside our biblical story, the rabbinical laws regarding humiliation (like shaming someone publicly, exposing someone’s nakedness or destroying their reputation) are quite interesting. To give you a little taste, here is a short part of the Gemara:

The Sages taught in a baraita: If one humiliated another who was naked, he is liable, but the magnitude of humiliation felt when he humiliated him while naked is not comparable to the magnitude of humiliation felt had he humiliated him while clothed, since one who chooses to be naked is less sensitive to humiliation. Similarly, if one humiliated another in a bathhouse, he is liable, but the magnitude of humiliation felt when he humiliated him in a bathhouse is not comparable to the magnitude of humiliation felt had he humiliated him in the marketplace.

(Talmud Bava Kamma 86b)

As we can see already in this passage, the rabbis carefully analyze many circumstances in which the act of humiliation took place. They also take into consideration the psychological and social factors, i.e. whether the essence of humiliation is just a feeling of embarrassment or is it social disgrace seen by others. They conclude that the law regarding it should be rather based on objective evidence of harm rather than on the feelings of the victim. For this reason they, for example, exclude insane/mentally ill people from the right to compensation for being publicly shamed/humiliated, claiming that these people are already humiliated par excellence and no further damage can be (practically) done to them. It may seem brutal or even inhumane for many contemporaries, but I believe that there were some practical reasons behind this law: 1) it was difficult to define the boundaries of responsibility in this case (due to lack of organized institutions taking care of such people) and 2) a mentally ill person could theoretically come up with endless financial claims.

Coming back to our biblical story, Joseph didn’t have any means to sue his brothers for all the pain, humiliation and harm they had inflicted upon him. In a sense, human courts weren’t helpful as they didn’t exist. They also fail, of course, when they do exist. Joseph had to endure all the trauma and suffering in the terrible conditions of an Egyptian prison, for a long time, until he received his final compensation from the higher, Divine court. In my opinion, this made his further act of forgiveness possible and that’s one of the messages hidden between the verses of this biblical story. That’s the reason I believe that we should never disconnect forgiveness from a sense of justice experienced in particular situation. In the majority of cases, without satisfying the latter, the real and true forgiveness (not to confuse with an act of simply forgetting) is not actually possible.

Shabbat shalom

Menachem Mirski



Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

”And Jacob lived where his father had only been passing through, in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 37:1).

Many commentators have tried to explain this sentence which is so heavily laden with meaning, for it raises some fundamental questions by positing a contrast between two terms – to ”live” somewhere or to 'wander” somewhere – the English word ”sojourn” means to be pausing while on a journey. What does it mean to ”live” somewhere? To become a citizen? To 'put down roots’? To purchase a property and own land or a house? To speak the language as well as those who were raised here, without a foreign accent? To share the same culture, religion, values as the majority population, the 'host’ population? Plus – Who gives a country its name? Who has the 'right’ to live there? Can one inherit the right, may one fight for the right to call a country ”your own”? Is not every country little more than a part of the same planet, what meaning may borders and boundaries have, are we not ALL mere wanderers over the earth’s surface? What separates, what unites? By this time in the Torah we have met people who claim to be 'Kings’ of Gerar, of Sodom, of Egypt and so forth. Who made them such, what right to they have to rule? Kings usually have an unhealthy tendency to employ (or misuse) Religion to back up their claims for earthly power, they recruit amenable priests to give them a certificate of 'Kashrut’, to proclaim that they sit on their thrones because of the will of God or of the Gods. It is an age-old habit and people still fall for it, even now!

The verse has so much deeper meaning one could talk for a week about it. Jacob’s father Isaac had in fact also been born here – it was his grandfather Abraham who had immigrated from Iraq via Syria. Jacob’s mother Rivka had been brought from Haran (Syria) to marry Isaac, and his twin brother Esau eventually heads off to what becomes known as Edom after his reddish colour. Edom is east of the Jordan, Canaan to the west; Jacob had had to flee his brother’s anger and lust for revenge by fleeing northwards to Syria and on eventually returning had had to encounter Esau again, make an uneasy truce with him, had then bought some land at Shechem in the north of the country (now known as Nablus – an Arabic version of a Greek name 'Neapolis’ which means simply 'Newtown’) – built at the site of and over the remains of the old town – you see, even this issue of names reflects different periods of history, different inhabitants and their cultures. (Much as with Danzig and Gdańsk, Breslau and Wrocław….) But due to a violent incident he could not stay there and had to head further south, into Canaan….

Yes, he settles here, with twelve sons (for a while) and a dishonoured and unmarriageable daughter – we never hear of Dinah marrying later – but soon one of the sons, his favourite one, will vanish, presumed killed and when, many years later, this son is miraculously found again and the family comes to Egypt to save itself from famine, and Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is, he will answer (Genesis 47:9) ”Yemei Shenei Megurai sheloshim-uMe’ah Shanah” – ”the days of my WANDERINGS are 130 Years” – and then he will describe his lifespan as being ”Me’at veRa’im” – ”Few and evil” and not as long as the ”years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojournings” – ”velo hisigu et-yemei Sh’nei Chayay Avotai, bimey M’Gureyhem.” He never says he ever felt ”settled” anywhere, it seems he feels he was always a wanderer just like his ancestors.

Can one explain this by saying he was a nomad, living in tents and not in cities? Part of a deliberately-wandering minority? That could be one explanation. There are – there have always been – people who prefer to travel, maybe on the seas, maybe as merchants, drivers, explorers, people who seem to spend a lot of their lives on trains and aeroplanes or on the motorways, maybe as nomadic shepherds, maybe even as homeless beggars – rather than be fixed and 'tied down’ to a specific place. There have however also been others who wanted to settle, wanted to be 'at home’, maybe even thought they had achieved this, had built homes and planted crops – but then were forced to move on again.

Jews have spent most of their history as a minority in other nations’ countries – even if the word 'nation’ meant different things in the third century BCE or in the 19th. century CE., as a tribal or an ethnic or a political entity. We did not always feel we were 'Gerim’, passing through; a Ger Toshav is a stranger who lives with you as opposed to someone who has just, say, a transit visa or a tourist visa or a working visa. A Ger Toshav is someone who immigrates and integrates. No, we often felt we were indeed 'at home’ – it was the ideology of Zionism that confronted Jews with the uncomfortable truth that even when everyone else had stopped being just subjects of various Kings or Dukes and Emperors, but had now become citizens of newly-formed nations, French or Italians or Austrians or Germans – Jews were still Jews, still a separate minority and perceived as something different, foreign, often uncomfortable or even threatening. Zionism told Jews – ”You might as well accept this, make something positive out of it, you have to go to settle your OWN Homeland.” But this brought many ironies with it. An Oleh or Olah, someone who makes aliyah to Israel, remains for the rest of their lives an Oleh; but their children, born there, are Sabras. Native-born. Now we are witness to an interesting reverse process: Some Israelis decide, for various quite justifiable reasons, to move to America or to Europe, and they remain Israelis in America and Europe even though they settle down and marry locally; but their children – are they Israelis or Americans with an Israeli father? Poles with an Israeli background or Israelis living in Poland?

And what about those 'melting pot’ societies such as the United States or Australasia where NONE of the ancestors of the current white inhabitants lived on this land until at most a couple of centuries ago, when they deliberately moved there but with the intention of settling, and without asking permission of the existing inhabitants! And the real natives or aborigines are now pressed back into being a minority and under-class in their own countries? The countries and continents even being given totally new names? 'Virginia’ named for Queen Elizabeth I, the 'Virgin Queen’? Washington after a general and statesman? The Carolinas after King Charles? Louisiana for King Louis? New South Wales being named after the 'old’ South Wales, Victoria after another British queen? Even the term 'America’ comes from an explorer, Amerigo Vespucci from Florence, 1454-1512 who actually worked out in 1502 that Brazil could not be the Eastern coast of China and so there had to be another continent blocking the way from Portugal to Asia. In 1507 this 'New World’ was then named after his first name, latinized. What fame!

There are many ironies in naming. 'Transjordan’ was the name given to the area 'across the Jordan’ when seen from the West, in 1922. (West of the Jordan was 'Cisjordan’, meaning ”This side”.) In 1946 the country became independent, as 'Transjordan’, but two years later after it had occupied land west of the river – the 'West Bank’ – it changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – because it was now situated on both sides of the river, not 'across’ it any more! From the perspective of the Bible, when the Israelites following Moses were in the Land of Moab, the term 'Across the Jordan’ means from East to West! And Jews are so named because they were considered to be descended from the people of Judea – see Mordechai who is so described as an 'Ish Yehudi’ in the Megillat Esther – whereas the Other Kingdom established after Solomon’s death was 'Israel’!

So is a part of ”living” somewhere being able to give it whatever name you want? Or is to be able to purchase land and to establish oneself, to buy rather than to rent, to build and to establish? To have a vote? In what used to be the 'United Kingdom’ we have heard voices telling European citizens that they are not somehow 'British enough’ despite possibly living and working there for decades, paying taxes, educating their children there – no, suddenly the Former United Kingdom as I call it has dissolved into squabbling minorities and even I, born and raised and educated there, someone who ”lived” there though my father arrived as a refugee, a country-less wanderer, now find myself a wanderer in a strange land that no longer feels like ”my own”. And I know I am not alone in this. The entire political and social atmosphere has been poisoned with each group telling the other groups that they ”don’t belong”. Not just because they may be Jewish (though this has in fact been raised as an issue), but because they may be pro-Europeans or anti-Europeans, pro-Scots or anti-Scots, pro-Welsh or anti-Welsh, pro-democracy or pro-referendum or whatever. And I gather that certain other countries in Europe – not so far away – are not much better.

Everyone shouts. Nobody listens.

This is often the trouble with biblical verses, especially the ones that seem so simple and harmless. They jump out and bite you when you are not expecting it. This is why one must read, and read carefully, and search for any lessons, and apply them as best one can. Some things may appear old and old-fashioned, but there is much that never changes.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

Enslaved in Parental Lack of Attention and Brotherly Jealousy

Enslaved in Parental Lack of Attention and Brotherly Jealousy

Mati Kirschenbaum,

When I was 13 or 14 years old, I really wanted to have a pair of Wrangler jeans. However, my parents thought they were relatively expensive, so they would buy me pairs of other, cheaper brands instead. Then they would spend the money thus saved to send me to an additional summer camp or to pay for my foreign language classes. Today I’m grateful that my education was a priority for them. However, as a teenager I saw it differently. I truly envied some of my classmates who owned such designer jeans. It seemed to me that they would respect me more if I also had such a pair of jeans. As time passed – and also due to the fact that I’ve had a chance to buy myself designer jeans (thanks to which I know that wearing them did not magically make my life better) I forgot about how jealous I was of my classmates who wore Wranglers. But I was reminded of this feeling as I was reading this week’s Torah portion Vayeshev, which tells the story of Jacob-Israel’s approach towards his twelve sons. It is described as follows:

Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him. (Genesis 37:3-4.)

Joseph, just like my classmates, wore clothes which served as a symbol of social status and which could turn into a coveted object, or even into an object of envy. The underlying source of these feelings was the need to feel accepted and recognized. As a teenager I personally wanted to be part of a “cool” group, and the pair of jeans was in fact only of secondary importance to me. And Joseph’s brothers were not actually jealous of his ornamented tunic, but of what that tunic symbolized – the recognition and love of Israel.

My need to find a group of school friends was fulfilled; with time I did find friends with whom I shared a hobby and who did not care about designer clothes. The need to feel accepted and to feel like you belong is much more difficult to fulfill when it is associated with long-lasting relationships, especially within one’s family. As parents bring up their children, it is extremely important that they adhere to rules of justice by showing all their children equal attention and warmth. Otherwise tensions arise between siblings, as they increasingly seek their parent’s attention, since they feel neglected and passed over. Such tensions can turn into an open conflict and hostility, which stem from an underlying sense of hurt which has been growing over the years. And that’s exactly what happens in the family of Israel – his sons are no longer able to stand Joseph’s arrogance, as he considers his status as their father’s favorite as something obvious. Finally, Joseph’s brother’s hatred bursts out and they relieve the tension present in their family by selling him into slavery. Such a way of “resolving” their family issues brings great suffering to their father, Israel.

Most of us would probably never even think of selling one of our family members into slavery, not even the most annoying ones. But this does not mean that there is no tension present in our families. On the contrary, in almost every family someone feels hurt because their parents showed or still show more attention to one of their siblings; or because their parents had no time or energy to take care of them when they were little, but they did have time to take care of their brother or sister; or because their parents portrayed their older sister as an unparalleled example of virtues.

Such a sense of hurt can reveal itself after many years and erupt with much more intensity. What can we do in order to avoid this? It depends on our role within the family. If we are the parents, we can try to show all our children, even the most rebellious teenagers, how much we care about them. If we have siblings, we can ask ourselves if we are not trying to attract our parent’s attention at the expense of our brothers and sisters. In addition, if we sense a tension in our relationship with our brother or sister, we can ask ourselves if it doesn’t stem from the feeling that one sibling was always the favorite. If that is the case, we must ask ourselves if we can improve our relationship by undertaking actions aiming to promote our family’s reconciliation. This is not easy, and such a process can often take even many years.

Selling Joseph into slavery, which was the culmination of the hatred growing within Israel’s family, proved to be beneficial for the Jewish nation, since it allowed the Israelites to find shelter in Egypt during the famine. However, this became possible only after a long time of separation and a painful reconciliation. By describing the eruption of hatred between the sons of Israel, which stemmed from the mistakes that he [Israel] made as a parent, Parashat Vayeshev warns us to avoid situations which could lead to the escalation of family conflicts. This Shabbat I encourage you to reflect on how you could alleviate conflicts and tensions within your family.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum,

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka