August 22, 2019

TABLE FOR FIVE: Fives takes on the weekly parsha


“When Jacob saw that there were food rations to be had in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you keep looking at one another? Now I hear,’ he went on, ‘that there are rations to be had in Egypt. Go down and procure rations for us there, that we may live and not die.’ So 10 of Joseph’s brothers went down to get grain rations in Egypt.”

Bruce Powell
Head of School, de Toledo High School

When Jacob asks, “Why do you keep looking at one another,” I actually laughed out loud, wondering how many times I looked at someone else to act.

How many times in our community have we asked for volunteers, and the same 36 righteous souls keep appearing, while others stand silent? How many times have I stood silent when our leaders have reached out to me for help? How many of us recognize that “silence” is a powerful, often negative response? How many of us look to others to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership? And how many of us step up to lead?

Jacob goes on to say, “I hear there are rations to be had in Egypt.” Indeed, the deToldeo High School board and I are constantly looking for “rations” (read: donations for tuition assistance so that no family is turned away from a Jewish education). Here again, when we are asked to give “rations,” how many of us look to the “other” to make a gift, or do we look the other way? And how many of us write the check, or serve the poor, or provide for the person standing at the end of a freeway off-ramp?

In this Hanukkah season, a time of “dedication,” may we, indeed, dedicate ourselves to fulfilling the Jewish notion of prayer, l’hitpalel, to judge oneself. May we not look to the “other”; rather, may we truly “see” the “other,” and ensure that we all “go down and procure rations” together as a community so that “we may live and not die.”

Rabbi Mimi Weisel

There’s an apparent problem: a famine. There’s an apparent solution: Go down to Egypt, where there is food, and bring some back.

But it can’t be that straight­forward. Jacob’s sons didn’t come up with this idea on their own; Jacob saw what his sons didn’t. He had visionary insight.

In addition, the sons’ reaction is not one of readily acknowledging the obvious. Why do they simply look at one another? Was this an unusual scenario for them all to be gathered together with their father addressing them, apparently giving them some sort of charge? Were they simply curious about what he would say to them? (After all, we see their reaction before his words to them.) Were they wondering about the wisdom of their father’s request? Were they wondering about the soundness of their elderly father’s mind? Would his idea be realistic? Could it be achieved?

Or were they simply afraid? Afraid of the risks? Afraid of taking the initiative?

They ultimately follow their father’s directive, and go. They go together as a group of 10 — the Jewish holy minyan, which implies the group is accompanied by Divine spirit.

What does it take for us to heed the visionary’s insight, to step forward to care for others? When do we look away from seeing only ourselves and instead look outward to see the needs of others? When do we look to the guidance of others to know how to help?

What are you afraid of? What’s holding you back?

Go forward — and know you don’t have to go alone.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
B’nai David–Judea Congregation

It is noteworthy that the text uses the verb “he [Jacob] said” not just once but twice in the course of the two verses. (The second is translated here as “he went on.”) Whenever a biblical figure speaks twice without the interlocutor responding in between, we infer that the first speech elicited only a tense and awkward silence. Jacob’s question as to why his sons are sitting and doing nothing when it’s patently obvious that they need to repair to Egypt and its food stocks immediately is met with no response by his sons. Why? What are the brothers thinking and afraid to say?

Joseph’s brothers have exactly one association with Egypt: It was the destination of the Ishmaelite traders to whom they had sold their brother Joseph years earlier. Whenever they contemplated traveling to Egypt for food, they were instantly paralyzed by the fear of encountering there a poor, miserable slave, threadbare and enduring hard labor, who looked uncannily familiar. When Jacob — still unaware of what had really happened to Joseph — called them out for their inaction in the face of the family’s hunger, they could not utter a syllable in response. The horror of even possibly having to confront the living consequences of their inexplicable act seemed worse than dying by famine.

After Jacob’s second request, the brothers do go. But “Benjamin the brother of Joseph, Jacob did not send, lest an accident befall him.” This was a family haunted by stories and secrets of the past.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh
Temple Israel of Hollywood

When we don’t have enough food, not only do our bodies break down, but we can’t focus on accomplishing the basic aspects of our lives: learning in school, working at a job and being kind when interacting with others. Within these three verses, the Hebrew word for “food rations,” shever, appears four times. Shever comes from the three letter Hebrew root, “to break” or “to fracture.”  It’s as if the Torah is warning us: When there’s no food, we break.

In the United States today, 1 in 8 people don’t have enough food, which is equivalent to 42.2 million people, including 13.1 million children and 5.7 million seniors. In California, 13.5 percent of households are food insecure, meaning they lack access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Marissa Higgins writes in her essay “I Grew Up With Food Insecurity,” “Research shows that children growing up in poverty consume more potato chips, candy, fries and soda than their wealthier counterparts … it’s not hard to understand the motivation behind these choices: when you’re poor … you want food that’s filling, flavorful and easy to eat. When I was hungry, I did not know how to prepare healthy proteins, like chicken or tofu. We didn’t have a blender or a juicer. But we did have a microwave for ready meals, and I did have two hands which could open a bag of chips in a matter of seconds.”

Jacob was able to direct and motivate his children to acquire food for his family so they wouldn’t break. Will we do the same for people who are food insecure today?

Rabbi Ken Chasen
Leo Baeck Temple

In this week’s portion, Miketz, Joseph’s brothers are sent to Egypt by their father, Jacob, to procure food amid a famine. Significant time passes before the brothers — in next week’s portion, Vayigash — affect a tearful reunion with Joseph, as Judah speaks the unexpected soliloquy that inspires Joseph to reveal his identity.

Judah’s speech, therefore, seems simply to be the result of an inspired moment of conscience. However, our ancient rabbis teach that Judah’s words aren’t spoken from a sudden attack of integrity. They had been slowly growing inside all the brothers’ hearts from the very moment they had sold Joseph into Egypt.

In the Midrash Rabbah, we are reminded that Jacob instructs “his sons” to seek famine relief in Egypt (Genesis 42:1), while just two verses later (42:3), it is “Joseph’s brothers” who depart on the trip. Why the change from “Jacob’s sons” to “Joseph’s brothers”? The Midrash describes this as a hint at the brothers’ longtime unity over their regret at having sold Joseph into servitude. Every day, they had been saying to one another, “When will we go into Egypt to bring our brother back to his father?” When Jacob urges them to seek provisions in Egypt, they at last have their opportunity to set things right by bringing home Joseph.

So it is with our greatest misdeeds, as well. We don’t set things right through sudden epiphanies. Only a long walk down the road of teshuvah — self-understanding, remorse and determination to act — possesses the power to heal.