Thursday, December 26, 2019

Yosef and Yehudah -- oil and menorah

We have been reading these past two weeks about the tragic descent of Yosef, who is first thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, where he is falsely accused by Eishes Potifar and thrown into prison, and then, just as he thinks he has found someone who can help win his release, he is promptly forgotten about by the Sar haMashkim the moment the Sar steps out of prison himself.  And so we find Yosef languishing in prison, seemingly with no hope of escape.  All that is about to change as Yosef is called out of prison to interpret Pharoah's mysterious dreams.  “Va’yiritzuhu min ha’bor” -- Rashi struggles to explain the use of the term “bor” in place of was called in last week’s parsha a “beis ha’sohar.”  Why change terms?  The Zohar solves the problem by reading the pasuk as bringing our narrative fill circle.  The pasuk is not referring to the prison, but rather is referring back to the original pit, that bor where he brothers threw him.  Yosef is on the way out of that pit, on the way to reconciliation with his brothers and fulfillment of his own dreams.

In last week’s parsha (sorry for no post last week – bad cold) the Torah interrupted the Yosef-narrative with the story of Yehudah and Tamar.  There is a parallelism between the stories: both Yosef and Yehudah are rejected by their brothers (as Rashi explains, when the brothers saw the pain caused by Yehudah's plan of selling Yosef they removed him from his position of leadership); both are tempted by women; both Tamar and Eishes Potifar according to Chazal had intentions l’shem shamayim.  Ultimately both narratives intersect in next week’s parsha (will be away from home so probably no post then either) -– VaYigash eilav Yehudah -– and come to a resolution.  From a literary perspective the story is a work of art; if I remember correctly Robert Alter has a wonderful chapter on this whole episode in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative. 

The pshat / narrative relationship between the two stories clues us in to dig deeper into what is going on here.  Malbi”m explains Yehudah’s relationship with Tamar leads to the birth of children from whom will stem the lineage of Mashiach ben David.  At the very moment that the story of Yosef’s sale to Egypt portends our descent into exile, the seeds of redemption are being planted!  At the same time that we are reading of Yosef coming into Egypt, which serves as the paradigm for our physical survival in alien galus culture, we are reading about Yehudah, who keeps the spiritual promise of redemption burning.

This contrast can help us understand another element of the story that will come up in next weeks' parsha.  Rashi tells us that Yaakov sent Yehudah ahead to establish a yeshiva in Goshen before the family arrived.  Why did he need to send Yehudah?  Why not entrust the job to Yosef, who was already there?

We all know that Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the Chashmonaim finding a pure jug of oil that stayed lit for 8 days.  But what about the menorah itself?  Chazal (Menachos 28) tell us that the Chashmonaim did not have the solid gold menorah of the Mikdash; they were forced to light with a plain metal menorah.  Why did a miracle happen to preserve a jug of pure oil, even though technically tumah hutra b’tzibur and any oil could be used, but no miracle happened to ensure the integrity of the menorah itself?

Rav Kook suggests an answer that I am going to take the liberty of reformulating to fit our theme: oil = the spiritual light of Judaism = Yehudah.  Menorah = the physical structure that the light rests on = Yosef.  Yosef looks like an Egyptian, talks like an Egyptian, dresses like an Egyptian –- like a chameleon, he changes his colors to blend in with his environment.  By doing so he is able to become “hu ha’mashbir” who provides for his brothers, and indeed, ensures all of Egypt’s survival during years of famine.  Yehudah, on the other hand, remains in Canaan with his father and brothers.  Yehudah is even willing to sacrifice himself rather than allow Binyamin to be taken into the alien Egyptian society.

When it comes to our material survival, especially in galus, external trappings don’t really matter that much.  Even if the menorah of gold is not available, we can make due with second best.  You can dress like an Egyptian and talk like an Egyptian and still make it.  But when it comes to our spiritual inner core, there are no compromises.  Only the purest of the pure will ever be acceptable. 

On Shabbos we are about to enter the month of Teves.  The Ch haRI”M explains the name Teves comes from the same root as “ha’tavas ha’neiros,” cleaning out the wicks and preparing the menorah for new candles to be lit.  Teves is not the ohr itself -– it’s the physical preparation needed to make ready to receive the ohr.  It’s the Yosef of the story -- “Tvoach tevach v’hachaein,” Yosef commands in our parsha; take the last letter of tevach and the letters of hachein and it spells Chanukah--- laying the physical groundwork upon which a Yehudah can flourish.   Tavas = Aramaic for “tov.”  Not lashon kodesh, because, like Yosef, the “tov” has to dress itself up in the garb of Aramaic.  Teves is the start of the three month period (Teves, Shevat, Adar) where Tziporah had to hide Moshe Rabeinu from the world because the Egyptians counted on a 9 month pregnancy and didn’t realize he would be born early.  Moshe is there, just hidden; Yosef is behind that Egyptian dress, he is just in disguise.  Cleaning out the dirty wicks ain't pretty, but underneath the grime is a pnimiyus of tov preparing the way for those new wicks to produce the ohr.


  1. "oil = the spiritual light of Judaism = Yehudah. Menorah = the physical structure that the light rests on = Yosef."

    an improvement on last post's situation, when "Yisrael -- ...'rosh' -- is completely cut off from Yaakov = eikev, the heel", a situation inviting its own, parallel improvement: because Yaakov honored the stone at his rosh (28:18), shemen flowed min ha'shamayim
    onto its head (Bereishis Rabbah 69:8); when the Chashmonaim dug in their heels to fight the Seleucid assault on Yisrael's headspace, dedicated oil 'flowed from Above' [burned here below] for seven days more...

    yet, to identify Yehudah as "the spiritual light of Judaism"? wouldn't that ascription be reserved for Levi* (for the high priest, the kohanim, the levi'im)? perhaps because of just this switch, the priestly Chashmonaim took Yehudah's kingship as their own?! {perhaps it all squares perfectly for Yisrael, intent as he is on "reformulating" his parallel arms at 48:14?}

    *and maybe reserved too for a more scholarly son [tribe] and its judges?

  2. -- "min ha'bor" / "min ha'bor" (37:28; 41:14)

    each bor was a false rechem, an unreal womb, for Yosef. yet each gave birth to a bracha that was his continual focus from 1) Dotan to imprisonment, and 2) from prison release til death. namely 1), '...shelo asani eved'; and 2), '...shelo asani goy'.

    -- "Why did [Yaakov] need to send Yehudah establish a yeshiva in Goshen"?

    not because his son was "the spiritual light of Judaism"*, but because he'd been so long gone to the town of Tamar, and away from family study**. Yaakov realized that Yehudah needed to solve for himself in the field what it means to "establish a yeshiva": time to return the boy to his own groping roots...

    *Yehudah is, nominally, "the spiritual light of Judaism", insofar as his 'thank you' by name credits the G-d for this existence

    **hadn't Yehudah been just a little too quick to order the burning of Tamar? where was the round table discussion/argument/vote?

    -- " ensure the integrity of the menorah itself?"

    the menorah had had its miracle, Rashi 25:31c. it was the oil's turn in the spotlight...

    -- "the menorah...we can make...with second best"

    but not the keruvim, because His voice passes between them-- we [susceptible as we are to metallic evaluations] shouldn't think of Him as a second-rate speaker [but He? even gold is to Him pure ersatz-- better a soul-lift; or a new world, and a new... ...]

  3. "oil... = Yehudah"; "Menorah... = Yosef"

    can't one argue that Yosef was the "spiritual light" in all of this, through his supervision of a) food storage and later b) food distribution to the region's entire populace? if one measures by 'your gashmius is my >ruchnius<'? or no, Yehudah, as latent kingship (an ultimate mashiach), represents the unworldly* light that preceded creation, the flaming oil prepared for the menorah?

    which points us to Sarman. had Pharoah been the ultimate in kingship, his spirit would have been entirely troubled by the twin [fraternal] dreams. he'd have awakened to a self-imposed >ta'anis chalom<, in which case his cupbearer the Sar would >not have been present**< to overhear Pharoah report his dreams in frustration. but the Egyptian king simply had to have his morning tonic***{there is no man who has not his hour [Sarman!], and no thing that has not its place [the gem-studded golden goblet of prune juice]; Avos 4:3}.

    *and is thus even more[?] spiritual than one to whom all eyes look hopefully (145:ayin), who opens his hand u'masbiah l'chol chai ratzon (145:peh)

    **or upon his dutiful appearance, have been immediately dismissed

    ***one could perhaps argue that Pharoah couldn't/wouldn't meikel his physical kavod [the slave-handled cup of juice] even had he needed to, that a ta'anis chalom was not an option...

  4. -- "Moshe is there, just hidden"

    'one of the Hebrew boys' says bas-Paro (Shemos 2:6), who was hardly just another Egyptian girl. yet any common daughter of Mitzrayim might have found the floated child and raised him; he'd still have come to light-- why then bas-Paro? only to show that every house is halfway to teshuva, like it or not: Qasem Soleimani's quiet child...

    -- "Yosef is behind that Egyptian dress, he is just in disguise."

    even out of dress Yosef isn't recognized by his brothers, who mistakenly fear his reprisal at 50:15. the dreamer dies in Egypt, misunderstood*...

    *is this not the Jews, vilified interminably? longing to be a blessing to all the world, but so often counted a curse? {then again, the Jews themselves, eleven of twelve, get it wrong...}