a.k.a. Parahsat VaYeshev
Jacob’s son, Joseph, did shepherding with his brothers. When he was seventeen years
old, he reported to his father that his brothers were in the habit of conducting themselves
Jacob loved his son Joseph best of all his children and made him a coat of many
colours. Joseph had a dream in which he saw his brothers bowing down to him, and another in which his whole
family symbolically bowed to him. He told his family of his dreams. His brothers were angered and, one day,
they waylaid him and threw him into a pit. Later, they sold him to a passing caravan. When they told Jacob
that a wild animal had killed Joseph, Jacob was inconsolable.
Meanwhile, Joseph was taken to Egypt and sold to the wealthy Potiphar. Joseph
flourished and became Potiphar’s chief steward. A problem arose, however, when Potiphar’s wife propositioned
Joseph and then accused him of improper advances after he’d spurned her. Potiphar believed his wife’s story,
and had Joseph thrown into prison.
Joseph was a model prisoner and was asked to supervise the other
The butler and baker of Pharaoh’s household one day joined the prison inmates after
falling out of favour. Both men dreamed disturbing dreams and Joseph interpreted the dreams for them. He said
that the dreams foretold that the baker would be hung on Pharaoh’s orders, but the butler would be restored
to his former position. These things came to pass.
The chief butler, back in Pharaoh’s service, forgot about the young man who had
correctly interpreted his dream.
Commentary on the ninth parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: Well, for me there’s no doubt this story is a masterpiece. What I
particularly like is that Joseph is a rounded character.
MS: I beg your pardon?
SAS: Well, he’s the hero of the story and we’re meant to sympathize
with him, yet you make it clear that he was a tattletale and a boaster. He crowed and lorded it over his
brothers. These aren’t great traits for a famous ancestor or a biblical hero.
MS: That’s part of my point. The story shows that pride comes before
a fall. It was Joseph’s arrogance that caused most of his problems. But that didn’t preclude him from receiving
divine protection, and blessings later in the story. Joseph was blessed of the Lord and the things he foresaw
came to pass exactly as God had shown them in his dreams.
SAS: Let’s talk about those dreams. Firstly, you apparently expect us
to believe that the ability to foresee the future in dreams is hereditary. Jacob was a dreamer of note, and his
son inherits this amazing ability to see into the future!
MS: Did I say he inherited this ability? No, God bestowed it upon
him, just as he sent dreams to Jacob.
SAS: So we are supposed to believe that the future is knowable in
advance? That’s absolute nonsense and you know it is. We determine the future as we act and make decisions. The
future is unknowable because people create it as they move forward in time.
MS: Yes, but since God is eternal, he knows everything that has taken
place and will take place.
SAS: How boring for him. What’s the point, then, I wonder? People are
free to act, but God knows exactly what they will do!
MS: Yes, he does.
SAS: Do you really expect anyone to believe that? How could we possibly be free moral agents asked to obey divine commandments
when our future actions are already known? This type of thinking is preposterous. If actions are foreknown, then
they must be predetermined. And that makes us nothing less than robots following a script! Such a view destroys
the notion that we are moral beings. We don’t really make choices at all. We can’t be held responsible. So God
is responsible for the evils that ensue. He knows they are going to happen, and yet he allows
MS: But people choose their actions – God does not choose
SAS: Aha! So God is bound to let events unfold exactly as he has
MS: No, you don’t understand – people freely make choices. It’s just
that God – being God – knows what those choices will be.
SAS: Yes, but by making God omniscient, you effectively deny he is
all-powerful. If God knows everything that will happen, and cannot change it, then he is bound by destiny –
destiny embodied in the series of events he can foresee but cannot change.
MS: Um, I’m not sure about that. Why couldn’t he change
SAS: Because not even God can do the logically impossible. He cannot
interrupt a series of events he knows will take place, and suddenly make them not happen! They are, by
definition, events that will happen! So I say, there’s no point in even praying to God, because what must
be will be irrespective of our appeals.
MS: You are speaking in a way I don’t
SAS: The simple truth, my friend, is that if events are foreknown,
they are predetermined, and choice simply does not exist. So in what way is your collection of stories a guide
to ethical behaviour?
MS: You said my story was a masterpiece, but now you are undermining
the main theme of the story. It’s a story about the power of dreams, but you won’t even allow me my main idea –
that in dreams God can show the future to one who is blessed.
SAS: My friend, we are all prepared to indulge in a suspension of
disbelief when it comes to a good story. But you are never going to get a rational man like me to believe
that Joseph was given information, via telepathic implant from a being in the air, that his brothers would
bow to him one day, and that Pharaoh would kill his baker but reinstate his butler. Such prescience does not
exist in the real world. The world is an open question.
MS: I will never stop believing that God knows everything, past,
present and future. And I believe Joseph was a man given a special gift from God.
SAS: You didn’t need to turn Joseph into a mind-magician to establish
his credentials as a good man. His resistance to the overtures of Potiphar’s wife is the real miracle of the
story. He obeyed the seventh commandment even before God gave it to Moses!
MS: That’s because God gave him foreknowledge of this ethical
SAS: You never give up,
Methuselah, do you?
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
The Jews in Spain: From
the 14th century till the Inquisition
By the beginning of the 14th century in Spain, anti-Semitism was
widespread. Fortunately, Pedro I was well disposed towards Jews, but his civil war opponents targeted Jews
for robbery and slaughter. When Pedro was finally defeated and beheaded, in 1369, Jewish persecution
followed. New laws prevented Jews from serving as financial agents, and separation from Christians was
In 1390, on the death of King John I, a political vacuum developed and lawlessness was
rife. Fanatics demanded that Jews either be baptized or killed, and a riot followed in Seville that saw 4000
Jews murdered. Shortly after this, 2000 Jews in Cordoba were slain and the Jewish quarter was burnt to the
ground. Massacres followed in Toledo, Valencia, Palma, Barcelona and Lerida. In the
15th century, fear of death led to conversions in several cities. Jews who would not convert
were confined to the Jewish quarter and prevented from working in most occupations. More and more
restrictions followed, resulting in virtual exclusion from the wider community, and dire
One source of humiliation was the institution of public debates between Christians and
Jews. The first such event had taken place in Paris in 1240 after Pope Gregory IX had banned the Talmud. The
debating bug bit Spain, as historian Paul Johnson shows, but it soon became obvious that these events were,
in effect, show trials in which Jewish views were attacked and undermined. When the final debate
took place in Tortosa in 1413-1414, the audience was loaded with Christian prelates and noblemen and Jews
were on the back foot from the start.
Meanwhile, priests moved through the Jewish communities, securing converts while the
Jewish leadership was preoccupied with these bogus debates. Conversion was a serious, ongoing temptation.
Many Jews who converted found doors opening as a result of their varied skills. The converts
(conversos) didn’t flourish for long. Popular feeling rose against them and a number of Jews were
killed in Toledo in 1449. Riots broke out in Ciudad Real in 1464, 1467 and 1474. The words of Rabbi Yitzhak
Arama, says Johnson, resonated for converts: “You will find no rest among the gentiles, and your life will
hang in the balance.”
Reports of crypto-Jews convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that they needed to
test the faithfulness and orthodoxy of the conversos, and in 1478 they established the
Inquisition in Castille in terms of a papal bull. It soon spread to eight Castilian cities. Then Pope Sixtus
IV appointed Tomas de Torquemada Inquisitor General in Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia. From 1480 to 1530 the
Spanish Inquisition was in full cry. While the Inquisition tested the faith of professing Christians
generally, it focused primarily on Jewish converts and most of the approximately 2000 people executed during
this time were Jews.
On 31 March, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered the expulsion of all
practising Jews from Spain. They could either accept baptism by 31 July, or leave. Conservative estimates
have it that 40,000 left. Others claim a much larger Jewish exodus to Portugal, Morocco, North Africa, the
Ottoman Empire and a number of European cities. From 1531 to 1560, conversos made up only 3% of
Inquisitorial defendants. However, that percentage rose and fell as fresh allegations of crypto-Judaism
surfaced and subsided. The Spanish Inquisition ended only in 1834.
Jews who left Spain in 1492 continued to speak Ladino. Also known as Judezmo,
Dzhudezmo, Spaniolit, Sephardi and Judeo-Spanish, it is a hybrid of Old Castilian and Hebrew. It is still
spoken by some Sephardic Jews today and is an abiding part of the legacy of the Jews in
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
Three celebrants can read the parts of Ben, Chaya and their
BEN: Well, we Jews didn’t last long in Spain once the Christians targeted us. But it’s still
difficult for me to understand what the unrestricted hatred and persecution of the Jews in Spain was
DAD: Sometimes a frenzy overtakes people, particularly if they believe that what they are doing is
CHAYA: But what religion urges, or allows, its followers to go out and kill thousands of
DAD: Part of the problem with religion is what people take literally as commandments of their faith,
and what they understand metaphorically. So much harm has been done in the name of faith, because people
cannot tolerate otherness.
BEN: They must feel very threatened to feel that they need to eliminate anything that is
CHAYA: I suppose they do. But surely the Inquisition was about more than people feeling
DAD: You’re right about that of course. The Inquisition gained a life and a momentum of its own, and
was probably more about the power of the Grand Inquisitor than it was about Jews or
BEN: That doesn’t help much now, to know that.
DAD: I think it always helps to know as much as possible about what happened. It is only through
understanding our history that we are able to live in the present and prepare for the
CHAYA: What about all those Jews who converted and weren’t killed? There must be thousands of people in
Spain today who actually have Jewish antecedents.
DAD: It’s very likely. Many of the conversos were killed
anyway, but many others survived, either as crypto-Jews or as practising
BEN: It’s weird to think that a whole lot of Spanish Catholics may in fact be descended from Jews or
Muslims. I suppose that eventually your genetic heritage doesn’t mean
CHAYA: I’m not so sure about that.
BEN: This is an argument we will continue to have, I think. But where you grow up is very important,
DAD: Well, the madness that overtook Spain during the Inquisition made sure that all practising Jews,
and effectively Judaism, were eliminated from Spain. Many Jews
however bear their Spanish heritage very proudly, despite the wrongs that the Spanish authorities and
populace perpetrated on them.
· Be sure to send a lazy man for the Angel of
· With money in your pocket you are wise, you are
handsome and you sing well too.
· Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow
himself (Golda Meir).
· Where there’s smoke there may be smoked
· If it tastes good, it’s probably not
Celebration of Great Lives
Leon Blum (1872-1950)
Leon Blum was the first socialist Prime Minister of France. A brilliant lawyer, he had
social ideas way ahead of his time. He advocated that young girls should have as much freedom as young men
and advocated trial marriages. The scandalous Dreyfus Affair of 1894 where Dreyfus, a Jewish French Army
officer, was convicted of treason on the basis of evidence which was later proved to be false, outraged him.
Blum was brought into active politics on the side of the republican Dreyfusards, and his close association
with Jean Jaurès, whom he greatly admired, eventually led to his joining Jaurès' French Socialist Party in
1904. In 1936 he became the Prime Minister and introduced the 40-hour week and paid vacations. In 1940 he was
arrested by the Vichy Government and tried but conducted such a brilliant defence that the Germans abandoned
the case. He ended up in a concentration camp and was released by the Americans in 1945. After the war Blum
returned to politics, and was again briefly Prime Minister in the transitional postwar coalition government.
He is regarded as one of the great figures of French and International Socialism and was a supporter of the
State of Israel.
Donna Gracia Mendes Nasi (1510-1569)
Donna Gracia maintained a Catholic exterior while
secretly practising Judaism. After her husband Francisco Mendes died, she moved to Antwerp where she
eventually took over the reins of the Mendes trading empire. She was a hugely successful businesswoman, and
used her money and influence to protect crypto-Jews, free hostages and bribe a pope to delay the Portuguese
inquisition! After living in Venice, she moved to the Ottoman Empire and lived openly as a Jew. She used her
money to build synagogues and sponsor scholars. When, in 1556, the Pope ordered 24 Jews to be burnt at the
stake in Portugal, Donna Nasi organised a boycott of the port city of Ancona. Known as the “Esther of her
time”, she sponsored yeshivas and hospitals, and helped to develop Jewish settlements in the town of Tiberias
(Tverya), Palestine, which she leased from a sultan. One of the synagogues she built in Istanbul is still
standing and is named after her (La Senora).
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for joining together
to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week with renewed strength, confidence and
We now cordially invite you to
join us for some coffee and cake.