June 11, 2024
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June 11, 2024
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The opening word of this week’s parsha, Vayeishev, sets up a scenario that always reminds me of a phrase from my childhood. When they were hyping the movie “Jaws,” there was a TV ad that had this frightening image of a shark, with a creepy type of music and then the narrator intoned, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water!” L’havdil, here in the Torah, we see a scenario set up in which Yaakov finally seems at peace-the encounter with Esav is behind him, he is away from Lavan, and although Rachel died in childbirth, he has two sons from his marriage to her, Yosef and Binyamin, in addition to his other sons.

And yet what will soon happen is that Yaakov’s world will come crashing down. The hatred of Yaakov’s other sons for his favored son Yosef will lead them to throw Yosef in a pit while they contemplate what to do with him. The brothers come to their father and imply to Yaakov that Yosef was killed by a wild beast when in fact they sold him, with Yosef eventually ending up in Egypt and in Potiphar’s house.

There is so much that transpires in this parsha including the effects of jealousy, betrayal, tragedy and intrigue. But with so much extreme brokenness and despair, we also see the beginning of repair. It begins with Yosef on an upward trajectory—the coat his father gives him becomes almost like a royal raiment and the dream he has that he will lord over his brothers leaves the impression that Yosef is headed for the A Team.

What then happens? He is thrown in a pit, starving, dying of thirst, while his brothers eat and try to figure out how to finish him off. In rapid timing he goes from the heights, literally to the depths. And then? He is sold as an ordinary slave to a passing caravan. But in the midst of this terrible scene—just the picture of the brothers having lunch while their flesh and blood was starving should send shivers up our spine—it is Rashi, the biblical commentator, who points out something ever interesting. The Torah tells us that the Yishmaelim were coming, and they were carrying sweet smelling spices. Why point out that detail? Of what interest is it? Rashi notes a Midrash that says that the Yishamaelim usually carried cargo that smelled very bad. But the Midrash explains that it was Hashem who arranged for the cargo accompanying Yosef to be sweet smelling. By doing this Yosef understood that Yad Hashem was involved. Amidst the despair there was something to lift his spirits, to leave a good odor, to take the stench of his brothers’ cruelty away, to sustain him, like smelling salt, while he journeyed to a place unknown.

It is ironic, as Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld teaches, that in next week’s parsha we will see these mysterious spices pop up again when Yaakov insists that the sons, upon their return to Egypt, bring to Yosef, now one of the leaders in Egypt but whom they still do not know is their brother, sweet smelling spices as a gift; the same brand of spices that accompanied Yosef on his decent to Egypt.

There are many lessons we can learn from this week’s parsha but one that I think is a paramount lesson for us is that amidst so much descent into the pit of tragedy, the darkness of war in Israel and worldwide Jewry targeted only because we are Jews, we are ripe for despair. We can throw up our hands and decide to just crawl up into a ball and do nothing. But what we see here in Vayeishev reminds us of the comfort of the sweet smelling odor, not of spices, but today the sweet smelling fragrance of unity and support of Israel and Jews at risk. We need to be the sweet smelling besamim that can help sustain individuals and the Jewish State during these challenging times. We have to be the traveling caravan that tells the truth about Israel and the risks to Jews worldwide. We have to continue to send to those in Israel what they need and continue to show up in person in Israel to volunteer, visit the bereaved and those that are injured and go beyond our comfortable limits. We also have to figure out how we can sustain the achdut, unity, we feel now, unlike any other, and make sure it will outlast the terrible times we are living through now. Finally, we should be sustained by the words of “Hatikvah”we have not lost hope. When we see the actions of Yosef we see that it was the sweet smell of hope that sustained him in the pit, the caravan and in the prison. He always had the utmost tikvah that HaKadosh Baruch Hu would save him so that he could fulfill his destiny. Let us follow in the path of Yosef Hatzaddik and never lose hope, while we do our hishtadlut, (effort) together with praying for the safety of the IDF and Medinat Yisrael, the safe release of all the hostages and the abatement in the Diaspora of the worst outbreak of antisemitism since the Holocaust. In that way we can all live up to the true destiny of our own lives.


Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz, a practicing therapist, is Scholar in Residence at Kol HaNeshamah NYC, an organization dedicated to reenergizing the spiritual life of both affiliated and not yet affiliated Jews. She is the author of the bestselling Jewish Journey Haggadah and can be reached at [email protected].

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