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Torah Sparks

December 16, 2006 – 25 Kislev 5767

Annual: Genesis 37:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 226; Hertz p. 141)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 39:1-40:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 238; Hertz p. 147)
Maftir: Numbers 7:1-7:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 805; Hertz p. 596)
Haftarah: Zehariah 2:14-4:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 1270; Hertz p. 987)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

The story line of our Torah portion is quite familiar, thanks in part to the lively Broadway musical Joseph and the Amazing Technical Dreamcoat. Joseph, the favored son, inspires the envy of his brothers. Jacob, his father, had surely had good intentions when he gave Joseph a coat of many colors, but those good intentions clearly backfired. To make matters worse, Joseph naively shared with his brothers dreams that indicated that he seemed destined to rule over them.

Eventually the brothers sought to rid themselves of this nuisance. They almost killed Joseph, but cooler heads prevailed. Joseph was sold into slavery and transported to Egypt.

Since we in North America live in a world that is far removed from slavery, it is natural for us to assume that all slaves were equally at the bottom rung of society. Upon reflection, though, we should understand that there were varying levels of status for slaves, based on their perceived trustworthiness and diligence, as well as their talents, which might be profitable or convenient to their masters. To make a long story short, Joseph rose within the hierarchy of slaves, until one day he was unexpectedly framed by the wife of his master Potiphar and was abruptly imprisoned.

Even within the jail Joseph’s talents asserted themselves, and he eventually was given an administrative position inside the prison.

When two of the Pharaoh’s leading servants, who also had been jailed, experienced disturbing dreams, Joseph was able to interpret these dreams to their satisfaction. Yet at the conclusion of the parashah, Joseph is still in prison. He hopes that Pharaoh’s newly freed cupbearer will put in a good word for him, but there are no guarantees.

Issue #1: Ancient and Modern Interpretation of Dreams

Sigmund Freud’s theory, which strongly influences the understanding of dreams within our present-day culture, suggests that dreams reflect what is going on within the mind of the dreamer. Using this theory, which is just over a century old, dreams would be a potentially useful tool for learning about the dreamer and his inner turmoil.

The prevalent theory of dreams in the biblical world, which is clearly reflected in our Torah portion, is that dreams are a means through which the divine will is revealed to human beings. Thus Joseph is not being boastful or brash when he says to the cupbearer and to the baker, both of whom were distraught because of their inability to understand the meaning of their dreams, “Surely interpretations belong to God. Tell me” (Genesis 40:8) – and perhaps God will reveal to me the meaning of your dreams. (A similar perspective is expressed in Genesis 41:16.) In their world, dreams were viewed as a tool for understanding what plans God had for the future of the dreamer or even of the nation.

What were the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer? What were his baker’s dreams?

What clues did Joseph find within these dreams to indicate what lay in store for these executive servants?

Issue #2: In Search of a Ticket out of Jail

Joseph understood that the baker would be executed shortly, and that the cupbearer would be freed. Lacking other means to facilitate his quest for freedom, he asked the cupbearer, who had just been the beneficiary of Joseph’s unusual insight, to plead his case when he was released, and so to assist in ending Joseph’s imprisonment. In the closing verse of our parashah we are told: “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.”

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), commenting on this apparently repetitious verse, suggests that the cupbearer not only did not mention Joseph to Pharaoh, he also did not think of him. In other words, not only did he not recall Joseph to others; he actively suppressed the memory of Joseph in his own thinking.

There were at least two strong reasons why the cupbearer might behave this way. Can you articulate these reasons? (Hint: One reason has to do with putting memories of an unpleasant experience behind him, while the other relates to safeguarding his status within Pharaoh’s court.) It would take strong pressure to force the cupbearer-in-chief to recall Joseph to others. Fortunately, just such a situation arises in next week’s parashah.

A Note on the Maftir

The special reading for Hanukkah is relegated to the second Torah scroll, a less-than-featured position. In our highlight-conscious society, we are conditioned to expect that anything that is special or out-of-the-ordinary should have a featured status. Jewish tradition teaches otherwise. It is a well-established principle in Jewish law that a regular, recurrent activity takes precedence over a sporadic or one-time activity. We are encouraged to maintain our ongoing pursuits, and to add our periodic special events to them. Colorful activities are a wonderful supplement to our everyday commitments but not a replacement for them.

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