‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ Parashat Vayeshev – Chanukah 5781

From the moment we first meet Joseph as a 17-year-old youth until he stands before Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, 13 years later, he spends the vast majority of his time in captivity. First, his brothers throw him into a pit to die there of exposure. After a change of heart, they sell him to a band of Midianites who bring him to Egypt, where he is sold as a slave to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s ministers. After he shuns the advances of Potiphar’s wife, she accuses him of rape and he is sentenced to life in prison. According to the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [11a], Joseph spends twelve years behind bars. Then one fine day, Pharaoh plucks him from prison in order to interpret his dreams. Joseph’s interpretation resonates, Pharaoh appoints him as his second in command, gives him a wife and a company car, and Joseph never sees another jail cell for the rest of his life.

Our lesson begins with a verse from next week’s portion of Mikketz. Pharaoh is reeling from two dreams that he cannot get his head around. He dismisses the interpretations proposed by his wise men, certain that G-d is trying to tell him something of tectonic importance. Pharaoh’s Royal Butler, who had met Joseph during a short stint in prison two years earlier, tells Pharaoh how he, too, had a dream that he could not understand and how Joseph had interpreted his dream down to the last detail. When Pharaoh hears this, he demands that Joseph be brought to him immediately [Bereishit 41:14]: “Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon (bor). He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, noting that Joseph was rushed specifically from the “bor”, usually translated as “pit”, makes the following comment: “[Joseph was released] from the place of imprisonment which was made as a kind of pit. Similarly, wherever ‘bor’ occurs in Scripture, it signifies a pit – even though it does not contain water, it is still called a bor”. Just in case we are still not certain what a bor is, Rashi translates the word into old French – “fosse”, which in modern French means, unsurprisingly, “pit”. Rashi’s explanation is jaw-dropping incredible. In the episode of Joseph’s sale to the Midianites, the Torah uses the word “bor” no less than seven times over the course of only six verses[2]. Three chapters later, when Joseph asks the Royal Butler to put in a good word for him to Pharaoh, Joseph tells him how he has been framed [Bereishit 40:15]: “Nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon (bor)”. If Rashi wanted to tell us that a “bor” is a pit, he should have done that long ago.

A way forward can be found in a commentary called “HaKetav v’haKabala (“The Written [Torah] and the [Oral] Tradition) ”, written by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, who lived in Germany in the nineteenth century. After Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and Pharaoh makes him his Grand Vizier, placing him in charge of the Egyptian economy, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 41:45] “Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt.” Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, known as Shadal, who lived in Italy in the nineteenth century, explains this verse as meaning that Joseph, after having met with Pharaoh, emerged from the Royal Palace in order to tour the Land of Egypt, as specified in the next verse [Bereishit 41:46]: “Joseph went out from before Pharaoh and passed through the entire land of Egypt”. Rabbi Mecklenburg vociferously disagrees with this interpretation. Rabbi Mecklenburg writes, “It is impossible to interpret the term ‘went forth’ as physically moving from one place to another because that is stated explicitly in the next verse… Rather, the term ‘to go forth’ means ‘to undergo a change of status into something completely different’. This term is used to describe an extraordinary phenomenon, one that can only be explained supernaturally. There is nothing more extraordinary then what had just happened to Joseph: He began the day as a slave in a prison cell, a stranger in a strange land, no-one knew him or his family, he spoke a strange language and worshiped a strange god, and then suddenly he became second only to the king. The Torah describes this abrupt change of status with the words ‘going forth over Egypt’”. According to Rabbi Mecklenburg, the Torah is describing a metamorphosis. It is describing the rebirth of Joseph. I would like to suggest a minor change: the Torah is describing the birth of Joseph.

Let me explain. Rabbi Yehuda Léon Ashkénazi, better known as “Manitou”, who rebuilt the French Jewish community after World War II, teaches that the animosity between Joseph and his brothers was no mere sibling rivalry. Joseph and his brothers espoused two diametrically opposed views of a Jew’s place in the world. While both parties agreed that the Jewish People carry a critical message that must be transmitted to all of mankind, they differed in the desired method of transmission. Joseph felt that a Jew should be “cosmopolitan” – he must live amidst the Nations of the World because only there, only by intimately experiencing their way of life, could he communicate the message in a way that it could be understood by the recipient. Joseph’s brothers, led by Judah, espoused what Manitou calls the “universal[3]” approach. According to them, transmitting a message meant acting as a beacon and the only place to do that was as a sovereign nation in our own land. Spreading the Jewish People over the four corners of the earth would dilute us to the point of irrelevance and our message would be lost in the noise. They believed that Joseph’s approach was not only wrong, it was potentially fatal. He had to be stopped in any way possible. But Joseph would not be deterred. At great risk to his own life, he tells his brothers of his dreams in which their sheaves bow to his sheaf and the sun, the moon and eleven stars bow to him. As far as Joseph is concerned, this is incontrovertible proof that his way is the correct way and yet his brothers remain deaf.  When they exile him to Egypt, they are telling him “You want to be cosmopolitan? You want to live overseas? Let’s see how successful you are in Egypt!” Joseph would have been glad to accept the challenge if only he had the freedom in Egypt to express himself and to influence people. But as a slave and as a convict, Joseph could not do what he was born to do, what he was destined to do. When Joseph tells the Royal Butler “Nor have I done anything here”, he means that he has done nothing “here” – in this world. I have not yet had the chance to accomplish my mission. I have been locked up in a dungeon – constricted in a pit – my entire life. Joseph tells the Royal Butler “I am not a prisoner – I am merely imprisoned. I need to be let free so that I can be the messenger I was destined to be”.

While Rabbi Mecklenburg speaks of the supernatural, Joseph could easily be described by a perfectly natural phenomenon, the kinetic theory of gasses. Gasses have neither shape nor volume. A gas will expand to occupy the available volume of a container. As a gas is compressed, its pressure increases as does its temperature[4]. A gas “wants” to expand, such that if its container is punctured, the gas will escape at a rate proportional to its pressure. When Pharaoh frees Joseph from prison, when Joseph escapes for the first time in his life from his container, his expansion is rapid and irreversible. In the words of Rabbi Mecklenburg, he “undergoes a change of status into something completely different”.

While the argument between Joseph and his brothers has never been definitively decided, it appears that history has sided with Joseph’s brothers. Life in the diaspora has not been kind to the Jewish People. Nevertheless, on the holiday of Chanukah, for eight days, Joseph and his brothers are at peace. On Chanukah, we celebrate the reconsecration of the altar in the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) – our connection with the Divine – after its desecration by the Seleucid Greeks. On Chanukah, we celebrate the commonality between cosmopolitanism and universalism: the axiom that the Jewish people must be and can be a source of light to the world. Chanukah is a holiday of ever increasing light such that by the eighth night, our beacon shines with a brightness as far as the eye can see.

Shabbat Shalom, Chanukah Sameach, and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] The numerical value of Joseph (Yehosef) and the numerical value of Azkaban are both equal to 161.

[2] [Bereishit 37:22-28]

[3] According to Emmanuel Levinas, “Universalism is a particularism that conditions universality”.

[4] Assuming adiabatic compression

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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