The mitzvot of Shmittah and Yovel set out a complete program of social and religious life that encompasses respect for others, for the the land, and for God. Israel’s right to live in peace and prosperity in its own land is conditional on its building a model society, which provides a safety blanket for its weakest members. We aren’t just told to have compassion on those who are down on their luck; we are legally mandated to act toward them as we would toward our closest family.
The receiving of the Torah marks the official incorporation of Am Yisrael—the final step in the transition from disparate individuals with a common kinship and history into a people, bound to each other by irrevocable decree. And yet, there is some question of whether the Covenant was a voluntary agreement.
In our parasha, we first hear Ya’akov’s sons referred to as “Bnei Yisrael”—the sons of Israel, rather than “Yoseph’s brothers”. While Yoseph’s brothers may make individual choices and mistakes and Ya’akov’s sons may decide for the family, it is Bnei Yisrael who represent the entire Jewish nation—past, present, and future. It is by that designation that they take their first step into what will soon become Egyptian slavery and subsequent nationhood. What brings about this first nominal hint of history in the making? To answer that, we need to go back two parshiot, to the incident of Tamar and Yehuda.
While the story of Ya’akov was a story of deceit, the story of Yoseph is a story of tests—wheels within wheels, and intrigue within intrigue. It can be easy to miss the most subtle test of all—that of Yoseph himself. Yoseph is the prototype assimilated Jew—the Jew who rises to the top by dint of clear thinking and hard work, but who has to jettison his connections to his past to do so. Can he reclaim his identity before it is to late?
The story of Yoseph is propelled along by the motive force of dreams. These dreams come in pairs, and each of them is a window into a possible future—perhaps a future that would never come to pass had the dream never been told. Where do dreams untold go? Perhaps we’ll never know. After all, we are the product of those that were told.
The deception of his brother and his father must have weighed heavily on him. For nearly two decades he has lived away from home; ample time for the event to magnify itself in his mind and become a fixation. What else could I have done? He knows that he did wrong. He also knows that it was necessitated by the situation.
Parashat Chayei Sarah features the journey of Avraham’s servant back to Avraham’s home town to seek a bride for Yitzhak. Eliezer asks for a sign—Let it be that the maiden who says, ‘drink, and I’ll water your camels too!’ be the one chosen for Yitzhak. The Talmud records an opinion that Eliezer’s prayer to God to be given a sign was an “inappropriate” prayer. But can any sincere prayer ever be inappropriate?
In Parashat Vayera we cease to deal with individuals and begin to deal with nations. God “muses aloud” about whether to confide in Avraham the upcoming destruction of the nearby metropolis of S’dom. It is no coincidence that the destruction of S’dom is foretold in the very passage in which God speaks of Avraham’s descendants’ doing what is just and right. But why does Avraham then try to oppose God’s justice?
When Avraham is told to leave his country, he’s being told to leave behind more than a mere place. The midrash sees God’s command to Avraham as a lesson in self-transformation. Avram and Sarai cannot give birth to children; Avraham and Sarah will give birth to a nation!
Most people know that the story of Noah contains the first reference to law: the Seven Noahide Commandments are seen as the minimal requirements for civilized human society. But what many don’t know is that there is a second set of “Noahide Commandments” derived from this week’s parasha. These laws are not about human society, but about the survival of all life on earth.