“They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt”
I always try to not study Torah if my study is not accompanied by prayer. Studying Torah itself can be very discomforting, but if we do it together with personal prayer and meditation we can find some answers to the challenges of human existence. This week’s Torah portion is heart breaking. It is hard to be optimistic about humanity when confronted by the betrayal of one’s brothers. The scenario of Joseph being sold by his brothers represents a human drama of the most painful kind.
Joseph is called by his brothers ‘the dreamer’. The Hebrew chet-lamed-mem means to dream but also to be made healthy, strong. A dreamer is someone who has a vision, someone who is not afraid of making things happen. Joseph’s dreams reflect his youth and optimism for the future. He is a challenge for those who are older, who enjoy their position on the family tree, in the system.
His youth and passion are a source of jealousy for his brothers, and their jealousy is the reflection of their own insecurity. Joseph’s presence is too discomforting for them and that is why they rob his humanity and turn him into merchandise. It is only when men and women are dispossessed of their humanity that they can be easily sold. In fact the Midrash tells us that Joseph was sold several times: by the brothers to the Ishmaelites, from them to the Midianites, and from the Midianites to the Egyptians1.
We also read this week the following statement from prophet Amos.
“They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes” Amos 2:6
This verse has a parallel one later on in the same book:
“That we may buy the poor with silver. And the needy for a pair of shoes” Amos 8:6
In Amos 2:6 the righteous are sold and in Amos 8:6 the poor are bought. Amos lived in a time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel reached the summit of its material power and prosperity. There was pride, plenty, and splendour in the land, elegance in the cities, and power in the palaces: a society of wealth but little love, kindness or compassion. Amos was a humble shepherd but he raised his voice to condemn the absence of loyalty and pity.
This week´s Torah and Haftarah readings present us with a society where human beings are part of commerce. We are not God’s creation and therefore in God’s image but merchandise for traders: a corrupted society which makes a profit out of people’s life.
Humanity is not just a question of numbers. The significance of human deeds, the true nature of human existence, cannot be expressed by statistics. If we run our synagogues as if they were a political party or a business, measuring our success by the number of affiliates or level of services attendance we lose a great deal. Maybe happiness, commitment, levels of education and spiritual growth should also be ways of measuring our success. And what about all those non-affiliated Jews who are not part of our “statistics”? Every single soul must count for us: “Who ever destroys a single soul should be considered the same as one who has destroyed a whole world. And whoever saves one single soul is to be considered the same as one who has saved the whole world.”2
With respect to our society in general, I wonder how much we value human life when we close our eyes to other people’s suffering, and, making this question even more concrete: Every time we consume, without caring about the person who made the product and under which conditions, are we not effectively selling the needy for a pair of shoes? Are we conscious of the hypocritical ways in which our society consumes, protecting workers´ rights but tolerating a new way of slavery in developing countries?
I believe we need to see that every woman and every man is priceless, that we need to put a human face onto every statistic. To see God´s beauty shining on the face of the oppressed. To see God’s face on every man and every woman created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
Our Jewish values prevent us from ignoring others, our Jewish values engage with others and bring them close to us. We should love others as we love ourselves, making a communion of love, and by the power of love making humanity one. Then we will be able to embrace the poor and the needy and their suffering will be shared. It is written: “And the poor shall be the children of your home” (Pirkei Avot 1:5).
May we be a sukkat shalom, a tent of peace for the other, for the stranger. May we be a home for the small, the oppressed, the needy.
1Tanhuma (Buber ed.), Va-Yeshev 13: “Three bills of sale were made on him”
2Mishna Sanhedrin 4:9.
Shabbat Shalom Student rabbi Haim Casas