December 9, 2022 -

Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Vayechi (Rabbi Neil’s Sermon 1/14/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanIn our Parsha, Jacob blesses Joseph with the following words,

בֵּ֤ן פֹּרָת֙ יוֹסֵ֔ף בֵּ֥ן פֹּרָ֖ת עֲלֵי־עָ֑יִן

A fruitful bough is Joseph, a fruitful bough over a spring…

What does this cryptic verse mean?

Rav Yitzchak Hutner, the charismatic head of my yeshiva, Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin, formulated many novel insights into the Torah and the Festivals and they were committed to writing in a series of books entitled Pachad Yitzchak. The set is considered a classic of innovative Jewish thought.

In one of his famous pieces, he explains this enigmatic verse;

“A fruitful bough is Joseph, a fruitful bough over a spring…”

Hutner explains that Joseph is an unusual character, because while he’s certainly one of the 12 sons of Jacob, he’s also a father to two tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Menashe. Therefore, Joseph is a bit of both, a tribe and a patriarch. Being a Patriarch though means bequeathing something to the Jewish people; what is Joseph’s gift to the Jewish people?

Rav Hutner says that Abraham’s patrimony to us was Judaism itself, as he’s the first proponent of a Jewish way of life. Isaac was the first person born Jewish from two Jewish parents, who grew up in a Jewish home, completely in a Jewish context.

However, one could still choose not to be Jewish as his son, Esau, did.

Jacob, the father of our people, become “Der Erster falfallener”, where it’s too late anymore. Jacob’s children are irrevocably Jewish. He is the ur-father.

Nonetheless, there was still a way out, a weakness in the format, as Jewish souls could still be lost through intermarriage,

It is Joseph who closes this loophole. When he refrained from adultery with the wife of Potifar, he passed on the ability to resist intimate temptation to his children and to all of the Jewish people, and this is why it says,

“A fruitful bough is Joseph” for he protects the fruit, the Jewish future.

Now this was a deep and intriguing insight when I first heard it, but I had my reservations.

First of all, intermarriage is common. Perhaps not so much among the Orthodox, but they’re not the only Jews. He clearly did not bequeath anything of lasting impact to this people if intermarriage is currently at 70%.

Secondly, this understanding of the verse is not credible, for look what happened to Joseph’s actual descendants! Achav, the King of Israel (descended from Ephraim) intermarried with the Phoenician Princess Jezebel. She was the second most evil Queen in the Bible, next to her  daughter, Atalyah. When Achav married Jezebel, she introduced her foreign idolatry into Israel.  This is what led them to stray from God and ultimately be exiled by the Assyrians and lost from the Jewish destiny.

Rav Hutner had to be wrong, as the unique gift of Joseph was not only lost on his own descendants but also among the Jewish people as well.

What exacerbated this question for me even more was the surplus of blessings bestowed upon Joseph by Jacob in our parsha and by Moshe at the end of Deuteronomy:

Genesis 49:22-26 A fruitful bough is Joseph, a fruitful bough over a spring, the women, each one strode along to see him. They heaped bitterness upon him and became quarrelsome; yea, archers despised him. But his bow was strongly established, and his arms were gilded from the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob; from there he sustained the rock of Israel, from the God of your father, and He will help you, and with the Almighty, and He will bless you [with] the blessings of the heavens above, the blessings of the deep, lying below, the blessings of father and mother.The blessings of your father surpassed the blessings of my parents, the ends of the everlasting hills. May they come to Joseph’s head and to the crown (of the head) of the one who was separated from his brothers.

Deuteronomy 33:13-17 And of Joseph he said: “His land shall be blessed by the Lord, with the sweetness of the heavens with dew, and with the deep that lies below, and with the sweetness of the produce of the sun, and with the sweetness of the moon’s yield, and with the crops of early mountains, and with the sweetness of perennial hills, and with the sweetness of the land and its fullness, and through the contentment of the One Who dwells in the thornbush. May it come upon Joseph’s head and upon the crown of the one separated from his brothers. To his firstborn ox is [given] glory. His horns are the horns of a re’em. With them, he will gore peoples together [throughout all] the ends of the earth these are the myriads of Ephraim, and these are the thousands of Manasseh.”

What do we learn and gain from all these blessings, if they weren’t effective? All of these blessings didn’t stop Joseph’s tribes from committing idolatry and ultimately being lost from the future of Israel.

In my frustration, all I saw was the ineffectiveness of blessings.

Once I began to learn about the “Documentary Hypothesis”, the scientific understanding of the Bible, things begin to make more sense.

Jacob’s blessings in Genesis are part of the early “J” story. It’s a foundational story to give the inhabitants of    Joseph’s blessing flow in the “J” story because the people of Judah were proud to be related to the powerful and wealthy country of Israel to the north.

Moses’ Blessings at the end of Deuteronomy are written by “D1”, King Hezekiah. Hezekiah ruled Judah right after the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians. Many fleeing Israelites came to live with their brethren in the south. Hezekiah greeted them and their traditions and teachings with open arms. The northern tribes of Israel were descendants of Joseph. Hezekiah then compiled a book listing the blessings of all the tribes to foment a sense of unity and respect.  He emphasized Joseph’s blessings to demonstrate his welcoming of Joseph’s descendants.

The blessings were therefore words of welcome and acceptance.

With regards to intermarriage, there has been a paradigm shift.

Professor Steven Cohen in Mosaic Magazine says, “Thirty or forty years ago, intermarrying Jews tended to come from homes characterized by little Jewish involvement, to have received meager Jewish educations, and to live in locations geographically remote from other Jews. Today, with 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying, such marriages often take place among Jews who were raised by parents with substantial Jewish commitments, who grew up in Jewish neighborhoods, and who benefited from Jewish day schools, camps, and travel to Israel. Correlatively, where intermarrying once meant rejecting—and being rejected by—the Jewish community, nowadays Jewish families are eager to embrace their non-Jewish children-in-law and grandchildren.”

At MHJC we have many mixed-marriage families dedicated and devoted to the preservation of Judaism and raising their children Jewishly. Where once intermarriage meant a loss of Jewishness, now it can mean continuity.

What we should learn from Joseph and his abundant blessings is to be warm and welcoming.

Just as Hezekiah embraced those exiles from Joseph, we need to embrace all of the members of our families, intermarried or not, and bring them closer to Torah and our beautiful traditions.

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