(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Joseph’s life in Egypt can be divided into two parts: the bad and the good. Last week we read about the bad part. He was sold into slavery; libels were told about him that led to him being thrown into an Egyptian prison. Last week’s Torah portion ended with words that are painful to any sensitive reader: “But the chief cup-bearer did not remember Joseph, and he forgot him.” Thus, on a particularly discordant note, we parted from Joseph’s life story and embarked on a busy and active week.
This Shabbat we will rejoin the story and discover that it has a “happy ending.” After two additional years, Joseph is extricated from prison and Pharaoh comes to like him after he turns out to be a professional dream interpreter. He is then appointed to the senior post of viceroy to the king of Egypt.
At this point, the Torah tells us briefly about Joseph’s private life. He marries Asenath and she bears two sons: “And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of the famine set in... And Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh... And the second one he named Ephraim...” (Genesis 41:50-52) The Babylonian Talmud noticed several unnecessary words written here: “before the year of the famine set in.” Why was it important to know that Joseph’s sons were born before the year of the famine in Egypt began? The Talmud provides us with a surprising answer in the name of the Talmudic sage Reish Lakish, who derives a halacha (Jewish law) from these words: Reish Lakish said: “It is forbidden to engage in marital relations during years of famine as we see that it says ‘And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of the famine sent in.’” (BT, Tractate Ta’anit 11) This halacha raised widespread discussion in the literature of rabbinical religious authorities, and already in the Talmud it was restricted. For example, whoever did not yet have children was exempt from this halacha. There were rabbinical authorities who felt this halacha was not obligatory but was rather only a suggestion of “pious tradition.” In any case, the message from these words was written in the Talmud after the words of Reish Lakish: If the community is in distress, and someone separates himself from them, his two escorting malachim (angels) place their hands on his head and say that he will not live to see the salvation of the community.
(Ibid) It is known that Judaism does not encourage a life of abstinence. On the contrary, the Torah presents a positive view of a life of activity and of a vibrant family life.
It is so much so that the High Priest, the holiest person in the Jewish nation during the times of the Temple, was disqualified if he wasn’t married.
On the other hand, Judaism cannot stand egotism.
A person like Joseph, despite his respectable job and high social standing, could not live a life of plenty in Egypt while the entire Egyptian nation was suffering from hunger. When we received the Torah at Mount Sinai, and in the laws that were said afterwards, we find the Torah completely rejecting social hierarchy in relation to the laws of punishment and damages, as opposed to the laws of other nations we know of today from that same period. In the story of Joseph the position is even harsher: Not only are all equal before the law, but even in our personal intimate lives, we strive to identify with others and with our surrounding society.
In recent times, we see the citizens of Israel and Jews everywhere expressing strong identification with terrorism victims both in Israel and anywhere in the world. This identification is expressed by financial support as well as moral support. As our sages said: All of Israel is responsible for one another. This is our pride: A Jew anywhere in the world cannot feel calm if in Jerusalem, Hebron or Paris innocent people are being slaughtered.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.