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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Commentary on Parshat Va'yeishev

When I sent out my midrash on Judith and Tamar for Hanukkah yesterday I wrote in the subject heading "A Little Extra for Hanukkah." I wrote that because I thought I had already sent out my d'var Torah commentary for this week. I just realized that this was not the case.
So here it is. Better late than never!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameakh (Happy Festival of Lights),

Steven

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This week's parashah is Va'yeishev (Genesis/Bereshit 37:1 – 39:23)and it is the beginning of the story of Joseph. Though Joseph is not technically one of the patriarchs (that designation is limited to Abraham,Isaac and Jacob) his story is significantly longer and more detailed than the narratives describing the lives of his predecessors. Joseph's story also serves as a transition from the Patriarchal/Matriarchal period to the nation-building period that begins with the slavery and redemption narrative in the book of Shemot/Exodus. But the Joseph narrative is also compelling in its own right, for the Torah's authors give us glimpses into the character of Joseph that they do not provide for the previous generations.


In the beginning of the parashah we read of Jacob's favoritism towards Joseph and how his brothers hated Joseph because of this. Joseph and Jacob are both aware of this, and yet Joseph does not hesitate to tell his brothers of him dreams, which imply that they will some day bow down to him.

Then, in Chapter 37, verse 13, Jacob asks Joseph to go out to the fields where his brothers are pasturing the sheep in order to check on them. This is a strange request, since Jacob knew of the brothers' hatred of Joseph. However, it is Joseph's response to his father that fascinates me. After Jacob says "Come, I will send you to them" Joseph simply responds "Hineni." This literally means, "Here I am," though it is also understood as "I am ready." What fascinates me is that, with only one other exception, the word Hineni is used in the Torah only as a response to a Divine call. Two primary examples are Abraham's response when God calls him and then commands him to take Isaac as a sacrifice and when God calls to Moses from the Burning Bush.

A common technique of rabbinic exegesis, or exploration of text, is to use a word, especially a unique one, to connect various passages from the Bible with one another. Joseph's use of Hineni cries out for this.

Both Abraham and Moses responded to God "Hineni" when they were about to be asked to embark on a difficult, life-changing and somewhat dangerous journey. And though Moses may have seemed slightly more reluctant to go on his journey, both men ultimately begin their journeys into the unknown with faith in God and in the holy nature of their task - as well as the knowledge of the risk involved.


I believe the same is true of Joseph. Though the response "Hineni" is to his father, I believe he is also aware on some level that he is responding to God. The entire Joseph narrative may at first seem to be totally "secular" in nature. God does not speak or intervene as in the earlier narratives of the patriarchs and matriarchs or the later Moses narratives. And yet, when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers in Egypt, at the climax of the narrative he tells them that
his journey was part of God's plan and that it was God who sent him to Egypt in the first place.

Joseph has the ability to interpret dreams, which implies that God has given him a degree of prophetic vision. So it is within the realm of possibility that he had the prophetic vision to know what was about to happen to him. He may well have been aware that he was about to embark on a journey that was part of God's plan. If so, we don't know if he was at all reticent to embark
on this journey. There certainly must have been some fear or reticence as he set out to meet the brother who hated him out in the fields without anyone there to protect him. However, even if there was reticence or fear on his part, as I believe there is for anyone embarking on such a journey, he was still prepared to respond "Hineni."

I believe that each of us has a bit of this Joseph in us. For each of us is a dreamer and each of us must also be prepared to journey into the unknown. For every moment yet to come is always unknown. I also would like to believe that each of us, like Joseph, as well as Abraham and Moses, could see ourselves as part of "God's plan," however one chooses to define that.

In order to see ourselves in this light we each must be able to state "Hineni" when we are called. More often than not, the call is not in the form of a voice from heaven, or even a parent or authority figure. Rather,in each moment, we have the ability to hear a call from within – the call of God – telling us that it is time to take the next step on our journey. Unfortunately, the noise in our lives – both internal and external – often prevents us from hearing that call.

Yet, if we can truly be present in the moment and aware of what is within us then it is possible to hear that voice. Yet, that is only the first step. For after hearing the call we then must decide if we
are going to ignore it or respond to it.

To respond to the voice means to truly hear what it is saying. By paying attention to the voice that arises within and then truly listening we can then answer the call. However, we must also notice if we are responding or reacting. For by reacting we do not answer the call based on listening it, but instead we act based on assumptions, habits and compulsions that we have built
up within us.

To react is to answer from a place of being not in the present, but rather being caught up in our past or in worrying about our future. What Joseph, Moses and Abraham were all able to do was respond both to the present and from the present, regardless of what might have happened in the past or what fears they might have about the future. That is the essence of "Hineni".

May we each have the courage to be in the moment and say "Hineni" when we hear the call from within, no matter how afraid we might be to take the next step. May we each remember that we are part of something greater than ourselves. And may the sense of connection with our source, help us to follow in the footsteps of Joseph and so many others to continue our journey, step by step, to bring healing, wholeness and compassion to our world.

Shabbat Shalom.

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