Back in the day of telegrams a man receives this message from his mother: “Start worrying—details to follow.” As we move from Kislev to Tevet, from Hanukkah to the winter doldrums and from the pinnacle of Joseph’s political power in our parasha this week, Vayigash, to the national descent into slavery, there is a general sense of foreboding in the air.
There are a number of minor fasts (ones that are observed from before dawn to nightfall). As we enter the month of Tevet, on the tenth day we observe the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, which marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar. This fast is not widely followed in the Conservative Movement. However, it is the only fast day observed on Fridays, though we don’t “complete” the fast until dark but eat immediately after prayers.
In the back of the Shulchan Aruch there is a commentary by Rabbi Barukh Frankel that offers a number of other explanations for this obscure fast, including that on this day “Shimon HaKalphos” died. Frankel says that this Shimon interceded with the sectarians and protected the Jews from them and that his death was gratefully remembered by the Jews. I don’t know the origin of “Kalphos” but it may come from “Cephas,” which is to say Peter, or Simon (Shimon) the Apostle. He made such an impression that he got the Christian community of Rome to build him a tower where he lived and died—and the spot has remained a significant site of worship, as those who have visited the Vatican can attest. According to this source, he spent the end of his life writing piyutim (liturgical poems), including one you may know called “Nishmat kol chai” with which we begin the Shacharit service every Shabbat. There is a claim that Shimon (Peter) was a faithful Jew whose purpose was to convince the Christians to separate fully from the Jewish faith (by changing their holidays) and to stop killing Jews so that they might remain present as a testimony—the perfidious Jew concept.
By late medieval times some Jews believed that Shimon, being a loyal Jew, convinced the Christians of Rome to focus on converting gentiles and thereby leave Jews alone. This move protected Jews and Judaism and also was a winning strategy for the Christian community—hence the fast of the Tenth of Tevet—a day of grateful memory.[i]
Returning to our parasha, I find something similar here in the story of Joseph. Like the Simon character, Joseph leaves his people and adopts the customs and country of their enemy, as does Moses and then Esther, in order to protect their people. It is a fascinating topos—a rhetoric of the weak manipulating the strong for the benefit of both sides. You can imagine the smiles that this theme put on the faces of its tellers, and yet, you can also see the danger inherent in this dynamic. By the end of Vayigash, the strategy that Joseph had adopted to rescue Egypt has wound up turning its people into serfs and creating the conditions that will plunge Israel into slavery.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] There is an interesting aside to the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet. As one of our movement's most respected writers, Rabbi Isaac Klein notes in his A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, “Since its historical practice is tenuous, a suggestion has been made that we give meaning to the Tenth of Tevet by proclaiming it a commemoration of the Six Million…” Still others have advanced the proposition that it be the yahrzeit for those of the Six Million that we do not know the death of their demise. Sadly, neither has gained any traction.