Parashat Vayeishev & Chanukkah 5778

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi – 8 December 2017

Remembering the ups and downs of Life

At the beginning of this week’s Sidra Joseph is the favourite son of Jacob, with a special coat of fine linen, spared the duty of looking after the sheep like his brothers and spending his days dreaming. At the end he is in prison, disgraced and forgotten, but having discovered the ability to understand the dreams of others. In next week’s sidra, we will read of how he rises again, to become second only to Pharaoh. Such are the ups and downs of life. A person can be wealthy and at ease one moment and poor and abandoned the next. Some of us are sadly familiar with this from the experience of having to leave comfortable lives in Germany or other places of persecution, and come here as penniless refugees. Life is unpredictable and we do not know what is around the corner.

At such times, we are dependent on the good will of others to help pick us up and restore us, if not to our former life, at least to a life which is not dependent on the charity of others for survival. Joseph had pinned his hopes on the Chief Butler. The Butler, too, had had his ups and downs. He had fallen from favour with Pharaoh and been thrown in prison. There, he had had a dream, and Joseph had interpreted it to mean that the he would be restored to his former post. Joseph asked only one thing of the Butler in return for helping him: that the he would not forget him. But the Butler did forget him. Enjoying again his prosperity and his position, he abandoned the person who had helped him at his time of need.

Joseph, too, when he was restored to good fortune, could be harsh and cruel. We read in Gen. 47 that when the Egyptians were dying of hunger, they came and pleaded with him for food. Joseph gave them food, but only on condition that they sold themselves and their possessions to Pharaoh, so that they became enslaved, forced to work for Pharaoh without any possessions of their own.

Perhaps there is an element of poetic justice that Joseph’s descendants would themselves become slaves. Certainly, we were warned time and again to remember and learn from experience. Because we were slaves, when we ourselves had slaves they were entitled to a day of rest every week, Shabbat. We were not permitted to treat our slaves harshly: if we injured them we had to give them their freedom. Because we had been strangers in a strange land, oppressed and enslaved, we were told to care for the stranger, the poor and the oppressed and to be gentle and kind to them.

Many in our society now are facing poverty and hardship. Some are losing their livelihoods and their homes. Others have come here as a result of trafficking, for shockingly, slavery is still a reality in our own country. There may be people near where you are trapped and forced to live in appalling conditions. It is estimated that a third of these are children. This Shabbat is Human Rights Shabbat. Fittingly, it is near Chanukkah, the festival which celebrates our fight for religious freedom. It is a time to think of those who are most oppressed and consider how we might help them. We can find out from organisations such as Rene Cassin and Anti-Slavery UK what we can do to help those who are still enslaved.

Those of us who continue to prosper should never feel that because we have made it others can too. Nothing could be further from the teachings of Judaism. The book of Deuteronomy warns us: ‘When you prosper, do not say “ the work of my hands has done this”’. Rather, we must recall that whatever we have, our wealth, our abilities and talents, all come from God, the ultimate source of all.

The poet William Blake writes:

‘It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
And in the vintage & to sing on the wagon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted
To speak the laws of prudence to the homeless wanderer…’

Even Joseph, who was wise in so many ways, forgot this lesson. Ever since, his descendants have been warned to remember. When we talk to the afflicted and the homeless wanderer, let us speak kindness, doing what we can to ease their suffering. For we were afflicted, homeless wanderers. May we learn to share what we have with those in need, remembering that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and in so many other lands throughout our long history.

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