Torah from Around the World #358

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By: Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild lives in Berlin and is Rabbi of congregation ‘

Or Chadasch

‘ in Vienna, Austria.

Unasked Questions

The two most important types of questions in the Torah are those which are never answered, and those which are never asked. There are many nuggets and many such questions hidden in this


, which begins in Genesis chapter 44 with the re-encounter between Joseph and his half-brothers – specifically with Judah’s desperate attempt to save Benjamin from slavery in Egypt, not realizing that the man he is talking to is Benjamin’s only full brother, who actually DID experience slavery in Egypt. It is this action that finally breaks down Joseph’s reserve and eases his bitterness.

So often people refer to ”Joseph and his Brothers,” but we must remember that, with the exception of Benjamin, they are the sons of three other different mothers – Leah, Bilha and Zilpah – who are themselves of different social statuses. Benjamin himself had been raised by one of these women as his stepmother – or maybe by all of them sharing the task – following the death of Rachel. So automatically we have different cross-currents, different issues within what is actually, in modern terms, a Patchwork family. What is it like to grow up knowing that your father does not really love your mother, or that your mother was only the maid to your father’s other wife? What ‘brotherly love’ can one really expect in such a situation? What is it like to be one of FOUR ‘first-born sons’ within the group, your own status undermined by the presence of others whose mothers were more legitimate or more loved due to factors that occurred before your birth?

In Chapter 45 verses 5 and 7 Joseph asserts, twice, that all that has happened has been part of a divine plan – ”God sent me here before you to preserve life…. to give you a remnant on the earth and to save you alive…” Had he really thought this, before his brothers turned up to buy or beg for food in a time of famine? Had he ever made any effort whatsoever to find out – within the abilities of the period – whether a certain wandering nomadic family was still otherwise intact? Had he kept this faith – or his strange dreams of corn and stars – during the dark years of imprisonment, during the years of his ascension to power in a strange land? (Apart from marrying the daughter of a priest, what social contacts did he have in Egypt? Was he – the former prisoner, a foreigner, now suddenly promoted, totally dependent on the whim of a Pharaoh, constantly afraid of court intrigues?)

In Chapter 45 verse 3 his first question is – ”Is my father still alive?” He knows his own mother has died, but he makes no mention of the other mothers, nor are they mentioned when the time comes for the family to make its way from Canaan to Egypt. (In 46:5 ”the sons of Jacob carry their father” – and go with their own wives and children; 46:26 likewise omits any mention of the other mothers. Clearly they are dead and Jacob is a solitary widower.) Notice, Joseph asks ”My father”, not ”Our father”, even though Jacob is the only factor joining them together into one family. Within the wider family his loyalty is only to his own section of it.

What would have happened had the answer been ”No, we are sorry, our father passed away two years ago”? Would the story have ended here? Would he have thrown them out again? As it is, he will be able to see his father, show respect to his father, present his own sons to his father for his blessing in the following


(the covenantal blessing which, from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob, then skipped over a generation to come to Ephraim (Chapter 48:13f) and eventually arrange for his father’s burial. We will never learn what happened to the other half-brothers, where and when they died or were buried. Somehow this is not important.

Then there is the irony that – in Chapter 47 – it is Joseph’s policies which make the independent Egyptian farmers a nation of slaves and bonded tenants, the land all nationalized and the property of the Pharaoh. Within a few generations the descendants of Jacob will also become enslaved by the same centralized system that Joseph established.

In 1 Kings 11 reference is made to ten tribes who are to be dispersed and who will become known as the ‘Lost Ten Tribes of Israel’. Who will remain? Judah – and Benjamin. Is this a coincidence? But then – are there such things as coincidences? Did God have a plan? And if so what was it? In Genesis 15 verse 13 God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for 400 years but never explained why, or why for so long. The prophecy continued to speak of punishment for the enslaved nation and the dispossession of many other peoples – but Abraham never asks God ”Why is all this necessary?”

As Progressive Jews we allow ourselves to ask questions of the biblical texts, to challenge them, to try to learn from them for our own lives. Is there a plan guiding what we do and where we go? How much do the relationships and conflicts of our parents’ generation still affect our own lives? What can we hope for our own children and their children? Are our own sufferings, our worries, our losses and fears a part of some longer-term plan? Sometimes in my own life I have felt this – and sometimes not. These are big questions, and it is worth asking them again and again.

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