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Maurice A. Salth
Parashat Vayeishev

Maurice A. Salth  |  December 8, 2017

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This week’s portion, Vayeshev, is the first of three that tell the dramatic story of Joseph and his brothers.  These portions are the narrative base for the Broadway musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  At the very end of this week’s parasha (Genesis, chapter 40) we find Joseph imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.  While in jail Joseph befriends two other prisoners, pharaoh’s baker and cup holder.

Do you know research has shown one of the aspects prospective car buyers care about the most is the cup holder? Well it’s good to be the king, to be pharaoh, because he had a human cup holder!  But as we will see it is was not always good to be the cup holder because like Joseph, the cup holder and his pal the baker have been locked up unfairly.  In this case because pharaoh became annoyed with them.  These two have dreams which Joseph correctly interprets.  The cupbearers dream, says Joseph, means that he will soon be exonerated and returned to his position in the palace.  Desperate to extricate himself from his unjust sentence Joseph pleas with the cup holder for help and asks him to speak to pharaoh on Joseph’s behalf.  Joseph says: “Think of me when all is well with you again and do me the kindness of mentioning me to pharaoh as to free me from this place.  For in truth I was kidnapped and have I done nothing wrong here that they should have put me in the dungeon.”  Just as Joseph’s dream interpretation predicted, the cup holder is released and this week’s portion concludes with these ominous words: “yet the cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him” (Genesis 40: 14-15 and 23).

This closing verse reflects a timeless truth found throughout the portion and in fact our tradition.  That we human beings influence each other’s lives and occasionally make all the difference in another person’s future.  Sometimes these individuals are family members, friends and colleagues and other times they are complete strangers.

Rabbinic commentary has a variety of thoughts on why the cupbearer did not speak up about Joseph.  Rabbi Jacob ben Asher summarized the thoughts of many when he wrote that the cupbearer simply went back to his regular life in the palace and forgot about Joseph.

Recently a congregant asked me to share my recommendations on how to initially teach her pre-teen child about the Holocaust.  Among my suggestions was to include, eventually, the mantra that many of us have heard – that as Jews we should never forget what happened.  And we should do whatever we can to prevent genocide from occurring ever again to any group, of any kind.

I remember when I was young deeply committing myself to this tenet while also believing, naively, that the world could never again commit such an atrocity.  Oh, how wrong I was.

I was wrong about the brutality of humanity and I was also wrong in believing I would be deeply devoted to preventing another genocide.  Like the cup bearer in this week’s story, I have gone on with my regular life and forgotten this cause I’d committed myself to.

The news the plight of the Rohingya people in recent weeks has slapped me out of my forgetful state.  As many of us know, the Rohingya are a minority Muslim group in the nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma, that have been terribly persecuted.

Recently American Jewish World Service president Robert Bank wrote:

I am chilled to the bone that the Rohingya are facing brutality and torture much like the violence launched against the Jews of Europe in the 20th century. The Burmese military is burning countless Rohingya homes and villages, raping women and murdering children. The accounts of Burmese soldiers murdering Rohingya babies are eerily similar to the murderous acts of German soldiers in the Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.

There is no clear and simple answer to this crisis but it clear to me that it would be irresponsible to ignore or forget my, and I would add, our responsibility to try and help and protect these helpless fellow human beings.  Imagine if more people would have done this for our Jewish brothers and sisters eighty years ago.

We can take action today by writing our elected federal officials in Washington.  We can act to provide financial aid to organizations working in Rohingya refugee camps.  I did both earlier this week and it only took a few minutes of my time.  You can find recommendations on letters to write and places to make a contribution on the American Jewish World Service website.  I have other resources to share as well.  And, echoing Joseph’s plea at the end of the portion, I ask you to tell your friends and family and use tools such as Facebook to educate others about this genocidal crisis.  You can see my recent post for an example.

One of the many brilliant insights within this week’s portion is that both Joseph and the cup bearer knew that neither of them could get Joseph out of prison alone.  They needed pharaoh or some other person of power to effect change.  Eventually two years later, when pharaoh himself has a dream that needs interpreting, the cup bearer remembers Joseph.  This remembering results in Joseph eventually being freed.  So, let us remember.

I don’t believe that my one letter and contribution and other future individual actions will save the Rohingya, but I do believe that all of our letters and contributions and actions just might.

After being restored to his post by pharaoh, the cupbearer simply went back to his regular life in the palace and forgot about Joseph.

Please God, let such words never be said about us and our responsibility to remember and protect the most vulnerable. 

Shabbat Shalom.


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