December 16, 2011

Some seem surprised that I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  While I knew it was not the center of the Jewish world, it was the center of my own Jewish world.  Therefore, it is not hard to hearken back to the time of my Bar Mitzvah.  A small group of us had embarked on an arduous Chumash class with our rabbi and each week he would bring up some aspect of the parsha ask how it applied to life and what were we to glean from it.

As a very interested student, I vividly recall the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the Ark that got all of Gods creatures on it, Abraham circumcising himself at 99, the Akeidah, Eliezer happening upon Rebecca at the well and Jacob deceiving Isaac for the birthright.  I understood each actual happening and had no trouble relating the narrative with explicit detail.  At 13 or 14, I did have trouble deciphering how these supposed teachings had any application to life and my life in particular.

We were always caught up in class trying to find the “deeper meaning.”  It only took me a moment to find the place in the Hertz Chumash [1] where the rabbi took us in answering my question about how these could apply to my life:

There is nothing in Judaism against the belief that the Bible attempts to  convey deep truths of life and conduct by means of allegory.  The Rabbis often taught by parable and such method of instruction is well known…[2]

I wanted to see what happened and why in plain English and was satisfied. Then one day it clicked.  Now I would call it an epiphany.  We were reading in this week’s parsha and came to the verses (24 and 25) where the brothers threw Joseph into the pit “…and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.  And they sat down to eat bread…” (From the Hertz translation) or as the Etz  Hayim translates it, “They sat down to eat a meal.”  Whichever you choose, there is no substantial difference.

It was not hard to tell Rabbi Celnick was waiting for an explanation that was more erudite than “they must have been hungry.”  My brain was churning and somehow I put it all in context and realized the brothers has just done a dastardly deed and rather than show any remorse, shame or guilt, started eating in what must have been the next moment.

The look of elation on the rabbi’s face will never be forgotten and with that little “icebreaker” I began to see and realize how to get past the pashat, simple meaning, to the next level or meaning.  We are told that the Torah takes us through the vicissitudes of life, both the good and the bad and until I revisited this episode in Joseph’s life (and my own life) and read the Etz Hayim footnote to verse 25.  It had always solely been associated with lack of remorse, shame or guilt.  The Etz Hayim first notes the brother’s callousness and then, to my astonishment, takes a 180-degree turn suggesting the brothers sold “Joseph into slavery so the Israelites and Egyptians will have food to eat during the famine.”

This for me is “food” for thought and while I hope my skills have grown since my Bar Mitzvah days, find it very hard to put any kind of  positive slant on the brothers sitting down to eat after casting Joseph into the pit.  Perhaps that is why we have “commentaries on commentaries” and it is all good “food for thought.”  This Shabbat, I challenge us all to take time to think about those moments when perhaps we “ate” when we really should have been helping others.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

[1] It was just last week that I noted the Hertz Chumash as what seems to have been the only one in Conservative shuls the late 30’s to the turn of the century.  Rabbi Celnick relied on it exhaustively and exclusively.

[2] Hertz Chumash Page 195.