This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, begins the four part Joseph saga. It is a story that, with only a few interruptions, spans four Torah portions. Jacob has twelve sons and one daughter. He favors Joseph, the eldest son of his beloved wife, Rachel, who died while giving birth to Benjamin. The other eleven children are mothered by his additional wife Leah and his maidservants, Bilhah and Ziplah. (Yes, our patriarch does indeed “know” four different women.)
Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph and his showering of gifts on him, in particular an ornamented tunic, creates tension and jealousy between his sons. In addition Joseph is a dreamer who keeps dreaming that one day he will rule over his brothers and moreover has the chutzpah to share these dreams with them. The brothers can’t take it any more and sell him into slavery in Egypt. They then tell Jacob that his beloved son Joseph was killed by wild animals. Thus begins the story of how the Jewish people end up in Egypt. Ponder this: bad parenting helps to write Jewish history. It is this very fact which propels our people into slavery and creates the opportunity for God to save us. So perhaps we should take heart when regretting a parenting mistake. We could be unintentionally writing future history!
Before selling Joseph into slavery the brothers throw him into a pit. They then sit down for a meal. Perhaps they sit and contemplate their next move. Some want to kill him. Others favor selling him into slavery. The text is devastating in its word order and phrasing. “The pit was empty; it was without water. And they sat down to eat bread.” (Genesis 37:24-25) There was not even a drop of water in the pit, yet the brothers sit down to eat. We do not know what the brothers said to each other. We have no record of Joseph’s cries. Imagine this. Joseph screams from the darkened pit, “Brothers! What are you doing to me? Judah! Reuben! Help me.” How did the brothers respond? Did they laugh? Did they eat in silence? Do they sit at a distance from the pit? Were they deaf to the pleas of their brother?
Driving along Northern Boulevard to our synagogue’s office in Jericho from my home in Huntington I can remain blissfully unaware that hunger and poverty exist on Long Island or in our great country. Yet it is a sad and startling fact, even in my beautiful neighborhood. The Interfaith Nutrition Network’s 19 soup kitchens serve 5,500 meals per week and as I learned when visiting there distribute 5,000 turkeys for needy families’ Thanksgiving meals. Imagine this! These numbers only represent those who are willing to cry for help.
There are days in which I fear that I have become Joseph’s brothers, sitting on the side enjoying my meal while others cry out in hunger. And so on this Thanksgiving I pray. May God give me the strength to open my eyes and ears to the cries of the hungry and poor. May I gain the resolve to forgive any differences and reach down and lift a brother from the pit.