Vayigash: Masks

Then Judah drew near to him…(Bereishit 44:18)

As Judah draws up close
to the poker-faced vizier
he registers the shuttered mask
stretched taut with lines of pain.
Softly Judah tells him
of the father and his sons:
of the one who has been lost;
and the one who soothes his heart.

Then Judah’s voice is stilled, and
he waits beside the throne.

And in the silence, Joseph’s mind
revisits bitter years
and bursting from a pent-up dam
the words begin to flow.
And one by one, as in a flood,
the masks are washed away:
the mighty prince dissolves
and becomes a wretched slave;
the youth, both loved and hated,
is now the orphaned child.

Unguarded and alone,
he stands before them all;
as a wellspring billows forth
he cannot stay his tears.


The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 93:4) understands the phrase, “Then Judah drew near to him,” to mean that Judah approached Joseph emotionally as well as physically.
In a blogpost on Parashat Vayigash from 2004, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5290, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson comments, “Every human being is a mystery that never fully unfolds…Like an eddy of water that the current passes by, the human soul has unplumbed depths that never fail to astonish, to delight, and to dismay.”
He continues, “The manifold layers of human personality is nothing new. It extends back to the earliest beginnings of humankind, and finds expression in our biblical heritage as well. In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph is one whose hidden depths drive an entire story. Recall that in his youth, his having been favored by his father led his brothers to consider killing him and ultimately to selling him to slavery. In Egypt, his faith in God resulted in his ability to interpret dreams, and granted him an audience with the Pharaoh. Finally that led to his being able to save all of Egypt from starvation during a terrible famine, and made Joseph the second most powerful man in all of Egypt. And it was at that point in his life, at the pinnacle of power and fame, that Joseph’s brothers appeared before him, although they were unaware of his true identity.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson asks us to ponder the complexity of Joseph. At this point, he seems to have reached the top: he is blessed with a wife and sons. He is wealthy and powerful. But underneath that, one can imagine his inner turmoil when his brothers show up, forcing him to revisit the painful route he has come, and his brothers’ cruel part in it.
Rabbi Shavit Artson notes that regarding the interaction between Joseph and Judah described in Parashat Vayigash, the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah quotes Mishlei (Proverbs) 20:15) “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.” He cites the Midrash, “This may be compared to a deep well full of cold and excellent water, yet none could drink of it. Then came one who tied cord to cord and thread to thread, drew up its water and drank, whereupon all drew water in that way and drank from it. In the same way, Judah did not cease from answering Joseph word for word until he penetrated to his very heart.”

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen describes a masterclass which she attended as a young and promising traditional physician on the faculty at Stanford, with Dr Carl Rogers who was a pioneering humanistic psychologist. Dr Rogers’ approach to therapy was called Unconditional Positive Regard. Dr Remen describes her initial skepticism when she heard about it, but as the results of his therapy were rumored to be incredible, she decided to attend the session. She relates how Dr Rogers first described how he worked with his patients. It seemed to Dr Remen that Unconditional Positive Regard boiled down to sitting in silence and accepting everything the patient said without judgment or interpretation, and she could not see how it could prove helpful. Finally Dr Rogers offered a demonstration of his approach and one of the doctors attending the class volunteered to be the client. They rearranged their chairs to face each other. Before he began, Dr Rogers turned to the group and said, “Before every session, I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.”
She continues, ” The session that followed was profound. Rogers conducted it without saying a single word, conveying to his client simply by the quality of his attention a total acceptance of him exactly as he was. The doctor began to talk and the session rapidly became a great deal more than the demonstration of a technique. In the safe climate of Rogers’s total acceptance, he began to shed his masks, hesitantly at first and then more and more easily. As each mask fell, Rogers welcomed the one behind it unconditionally, until we finally glimpsed the beauty of the doctor’s naked face. I doubt that even he himself had ever seen it before. By that time many of our own faces were naked and some of us had tears in our eyes. I remember wishing that I had volunteered, envying this doctor the opportunity to be received by someone in such a total way.”
In her book, Dr Remen talks about the ways we heal each other. She says, “People have been healing each other since the beginning. Long before there were surgeons, psychologists, oncologists and internists, we were there for each other. The healing of our present woundedness may lie in recognizing and reclaiming the capacity we all have to heal each other, the enormous power in the simplest of human relationships: the strength of a touch, the blessing of forgiveness, the grace of someone else taking you just as you are and finding in you an unsuspected goodness.
Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal…Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. Only other wounded people can understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.”

Rabbi Shavit Artson continues with the Midrash, “As the midrash portrays their encounter, Joseph had locked up all his pain, regret, shame, rage, and sorrow behind an impenetrable wall. No frontal assault could hope to release all his repressed feelings and grant him some peace, no superficial conversation could hope to handle his depths. Judah, made wise by his lifetime of living, made responsible by what had befallen him and his family, was able to speak to Joseph — patiently, slowly, and persistently. As layer upon layer was peeled back, Judah was able to gain sight of the hidden Joseph within, and was able to allow the true Joseph to come to the surface. Just as the one who gained access to the deep water made it possible for all who came later to drink, so Judah’s patient listening and his gentle encouragement allowed the true Joseph to surface and to remain on the surface.”

He concludes,  “Each of us can provide attentive listening and persistent questioning for those around us. All of us have our wounds, our secrets, our shame, sorrow, and our rage. Often those scars feel so threatening that we wrap ourselves behind them and trap ourselves within, even as we distance our friends and our families.
Judah allowed Joseph to emerge into the sunlight by giving him the most precious gift of all, the gift of soul. Through a willingness to truly listen, to truly care, and to truly be present, we too can give such a gift.”

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Miketz: Dreams

When he awakes
from indelible dreams
he senses they are true:
the portent of importance
cannot be ignored.

Able to decipher
the auguries of others –
the lowly and the king,
he has learned he speaks the vision
of the One Who dreams us all.


Although Joseph’s own dreams as a youth were egocentric dreams, presaging a rise to greatness, his father Jacob also recognised them as true dreams (Bereishit 37:11). Rabbi Tsadok HaCohen of Lublin describes certain dreams, which remain enduringly in the mind, as having a kernel of truth. As to interpreting dreams, he says that those who had been purified of bad traits, like Joseph and Daniel, were able to interpret dreams and discern between those which were true prophecies and those which were false.

In a commentary from 2010 on Parashat Vayeshev, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/va-yeishev/5771/going-holiness, Rabbi David Levy links the increasing spiritual awareness which we see in Joseph, to the lighting of the Chanukah candles. He describes the well-known debate between Hillel and Shammai described in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b). Shammai advocates lighting eight candles on the first night, decreasing to one on the final night. Hillel, however, whose ruling we follow, advocates the reverse: starting with one candle and increasing to eight. The reason for this is given: Ma’alin b’kodesh v’ain moridin meaning “We ascend in matters of holiness and do not descend.”
Rabbi Levy says, “When I first encountered this text, I imagined this continuum of personal holiness to look something like an incline, starting low as we begin our spiritual journey and working ever onward and upward in our lives. But life has taught me that most of our lives’ paths don’t look like inclines; they probably look more like the tracks of roller coasters. We climb, we plunge — every now and then, we are even thrown for a loop. How then can we live out the ideal of ever increasing in holiness?”
He says that in last week’s Parasha, Vayeshev, and this week’s Miketz, we see the ups and downs of Joseph’s life.
He continues, “I think we can learn a lot from the roller-coaster ride that is Joseph’s life. If we take a close look at Joseph’s experiences, particularly in his choice of words, we can see the idea of ever-increasing holiness in his life.” He brings a teaching by Professor Avigdor Shinan who sees the process of spiritual maturation through each set of dreams which Joseph encounters. In describing his first, youthful dreams, Joseph never mentions God as the Source of his ascendancy. He even seems to be standing in for God when the sheaves and stars bow down to him. As he matures, though, after encountering several reversals of fate in which the early prophecy does not seem to be coming to fruition, he arrives at the point where he says to the butler and the baker, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me.” (Bereishit 40:8). This is understood to be implying that perhaps God will reveal the meaning to him. So he is acknowledging God’s place in his life. And in this week’s Parasha, he says to Pharaoh, “It is not I but God Who will attend to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (Bereishit 41:16). Here he is directly attributing his competence to God. Rashi teaches that Joseph is finally saying, “The wisdom to interpret dreams is not my own but God will answer – He will put in my mouth an answer that will be for Pharaoh’s welfare.”
Rabbi Levy wonders how Joseph reached this recognition of God’s role in his life. He points out that the prison in which Joseph was incarcerated was the one where “the king’s prisoners were confined.” (Bereishit 39:20). He says that the commentators address this seemingly “extra” detail which clarifies what kind of prison it was. The Ramban suggests that this was part of God’s design to arrange for Joseph’s “chance” meeting with the royal cupbearer and baker. Rabbi Levy adds, “Perhaps Joseph recognizes God’s hand in the chance meetings, as Ramban suggests we should. This reminds us as well of Joseph’s good fortune when his brothers decide to throw him into a pit and it turns out to be an empty one: it could have been a full cistern of water as many such pits would have been. There, too, we have the seemingly extra explanation when we are told, “The pit was empty, there was no water in it,” (Bereishit 37:24). Perhaps these extraneous details are winks to us in the text that God is looking out for Joseph, and perhaps Joseph realized this.”
He concludes, “We can see that, despite Joseph’s ups and downs, his spiritual life is steadily on the rise. Ultimately Joseph considers it his mission to carry out God’s will. In this way we too can be “m’alin b’kodesh”—we need to seek ways to grow in spirit. Even if we go up and down, we can try to allow holiness into our lives. We can do this through prayer, study, and the performance of mitzvot that attune us to act on God’s behalf in our world. If we allow ourselves to rise in holiness, our lives can be like the menorah [sic], ever increasing in light.”

Vayeshev: Not seeing, not hearing

And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so they could not speak a friendly word to him. (Bereishit 37:4)

When your eyes were fixed on Joseph –
resplendent in his cloak,
did you not see his brothers
smoldering with rage?
When you heard him tell his visions,
recount his rainbow dreams
did you ever hear his brothers
express a friendly word?

If you had called your children
to sit around the table,
to look each other in the eye
and speak their truth aloud,
you might have seen the pent-up fury,
reddened cheeks and flashing eyes,
you might have heard a diatribe
of censure and complaint.

When all the bitter words were spent,
antipathy assuaged,
you might have seen a softening,
heard nascent harmony.


On the phrase, “and they hated him and they could not speak a friendly word to him…” the Tiferet Yehonatan* comments, “But, if only they would have sat together, they would have spoken each to the other (lit. to his brother) and they would have reprimanded each other and reconciled. The trouble in every rift is that there is no common language and no listening ear…”

Haim Ginot was a child psychologist who specialized in parent education and authored the book Between Parent and Child. His work, however, also became famous through two mothers who attended his parenting group. Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber transmitted his teachings though workshops which they held for other parents and which became the basis for their best-selling books How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, and others. During these workshops, the parents clamoured for help dealing with sibling rivalry so this became the focus for a new series of workshops and a separate book entitled Siblings Without Rivalry. In this book, they tell of a mother of two daughters who reports her feeling that her introverted older daughter dislikes her younger sister although she has never voiced this to her parents. One day, the younger child falls asleep and the mother gives her the opportunity to share her feelings. The older child then pours out all her hateful feelings towards her sister. The mother is quite shocked by the intensity of her daughter’s antipathy to her sister, but she manages to receive her daughter’s emotions and hear what she is saying. Later that night, the mother finds the two girls asleep together and for the first time, the older girl has her arms around her little sister. Mazlish and Faber point out what the Tiferet Yonatan was teaching almost three hundred years earlier, that siblings need to have their feelings about each other acknowledged and they need guidance in discharging angry feelings acceptably.

*Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschutz (1690 – 1764) was a Talmudist, Halachist and Kabbalist, holding positions as Dayan of Prague, and later as Rabbi of the “Three Communities”. He was a prolific author. Tiferet Yehonatan is his work on the weekly Torah portion
His father was the rabbi in Ivančice Moravia and the young boy was a child prodigy in Talmud; on his father’s death, he continued studying in yeshiva. Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschutz settled in Prague in 1715 and became head of the yeshivah and a famous preacher. In Prague, Eybeschütz received permission to print the Talmud – but with the omission of all passages contradicting the principles of Christianity.
He was an acknowledged genius in at least three separate areas of Jewish religious creativity: Talmud and Jewish law (halakhah); homiletics (derush) and popular preaching; and Kabbalah. He was famous for both his erudition as well as his charisma. He is known for being the other protagonist in the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy in which Rabbi Emden suspected R’ Eybeschütz of being a secret Sabbatean and denounced him as a heretic. The majority of the rabbis in Poland, Moravia, and Bohemia, as well as the leaders of the Three Communities supported Rabbi Eybeschütz, considering the accusations levelled against him by Rabbi Emden as “utterly incredible.”
Thirty of his works in the area of Halacha (Jewish law) have been published. In addition, several of his works on homiletics, teaching methodology, and Kabbalah are currently in print. It is interesting to note that only one of his works was published in his lifetime. The posthumous printing of so many of his works is testimony to his influence on his contemporaries through his oral teachings and his personality. It is claimed that he also published numerous Sabbatean works anonymously.

**Haim G. Ginott (1922–1973) was an Israeli-born school teacher, child psychologist, psychotherapist and parent educator. He pioneered techniques for conversing with children. His book, Between Parent and Child, which is still popular today aimed to give “specific advice derived from basic communication principles that will guide parents in living with children in mutual respect and dignity.”

Vayishlach: Wresting a blessing

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket…Then he said, “Let me go for the dawn is breaking. “ But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Bereishit 32:25 – 27.)

Slumber eludes him, alone in the darkness,
eyes gazing up at the star-sprinkled sky.

At the edge of his vision, silently stirring,
a specter emerges. Jacob chokes on his breath.

His rival approaches as panic wells up –
he has planned, he has prayed – yet there is no recourse.

Fighting back horror, he steps slowly forward,
voice mute, hands outstretched, to wrestle his foe.

Terror transforms now there’s nowhere to turn
and courage wells up in an eddying flood.

Steadfastly holding, he cries to the shadow,
“Accord me your blessing and then you may go!”


In his book, Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses the theme of surviving crisis based on the parasha of Vayishlach. He comments that Jacob fought the stranger after he had prepared himself for every possibility: he had sent conciliatory gifts to Esau; he had adopted the strategy of dividing his camp so some would survive should they be attacked; and he had prayed to God. He appears to have covered every possible outcome – except the one that actually transpired – the need to battle the unknown foe . Rabbi Sacks says, “Crises happen and there is no way we can make ourselves immune to them. That is the human condition and we cannot escape it. We live toward an unknown, unknowable future…Faith is not certainty: it is the courage to live with uncertainty…Even in the 21st century when we know so much about the universe, cosmology, the human genome and the workings of the human brain, there is one thing we do not know and never will: what tomorrow will bring.”

On the phrase, “And a man wrestled with him,” Rabbi Sacks points out that although the identity of Jacob’s sparring partner is unknown, it is clear that this fight reflects Jacob’s inner turmoil and his fear. He cites Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam who he says brings an extraordinary interpretation of Jacob’s wrestling match. “Fearing the confrontation with Esau, Jacob wanted to run away, and God sent an angel to wrestle with him to stop him doing so. On this reading, God was teaching Jacob how to wrestle with his fears and defeat them.” Benno Jacob adds, “God answers a person’s prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his own opponent.”

The Torah tells us that Jacob limped after his bout with the angel. In her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen addresses the wounds we accrue as we encounter life. She says, “Wounded, we may find a wisdom that will enable us to live better than any knowledge and glimpse a view of ourselves and of life that is both true and unexpected.” She adds that her grandfather, who told her the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, suggested that Jacob’s wound was his reminder of this.

Rabbi Sacks comments that the words that Jacob utters to the angel, “I will not let you go until you bless me,” lie at the heart of surviving crisis. He points out that tough experiences are often the most important in our lives, and growth frequently occurs by working through our mistakes. He says, “A protected life is a fragile and superficial life. Strength comes from knowing the worst and refusing to give in. Jacob/Israel has bequeathed us many gifts, but few more valuable than the obstinacy and resilience that can face hard times and say of them, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” I will not give up or move on until I have extracted something positive from this pain and turned it into blessing.”

Dr Remen concludes, “It is a puzzling story, a story about the nature of blessings and the nature of enemies. How tempting to let the enemy go and flee. To put the struggle behind you as quickly as possible and get on with your life. Life might be easier but far less genuine. Perhaps the wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.”