From Vayeshev to HaTikvah
They call me Anatol. In prison I do lie.
My little window looks out on the Russian sky.
I’ve been arrested here for crimes they have not named.
But all my people know the charge will be a frame.
What do these lyrics from the song “Leaving Mother Russia” by Safam have to do with this week’s Parshah? How do the mournful laments of Anatol, a composite Russian refusenik, relate to ancient Biblical text?
In Vayeshev, we read the story of Joseph’s travails. He is thrown into a pit and left to die and then sold into slavery by his brothers. In Egypt, he works as a Potiphar’s personal attendant and is so effective that Potiphar “put him in charge of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned.” (Gen. 39:4). Handsome, he is solicited by Potiphar’s wife. However, he refuses her advances, asking rhetorically, “ ‘How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?’ ” (Gen. 39:9) What is his reward for acting honorably? Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of assault and he is imprisoned.
In prison, Joseph continues to prove his worth and is put in charge of all the prisoners. One day, he interprets Pharaoh’s cupbearer’s dream. He foretells that the cupbearer will be released from prison and returned to his former high station in the royal court. Is Joseph rewarded for this? Hardly. Upon his release, “the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.” (Gen. 40:23).
As we see, Joseph repeatedly suffers the mistreatment and neglect of others. And, yet, he never gives up hope. In each difficult situation, he proves his worth. And, upon interpreting the above dream, after so much time as a slave and prisoner, he still has the optimism to make the hopeful request of the cupbearer, “think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place.”
Similarly, in the poetic song by Safam, Anatol confronts his challenges with hope. In prison for the crime of “daring to be free,” he contrasts himself with earlier political prisoners, presumably non-Jews, and says “they lived without hope alone inside the cell but I’ve a vision of my home in Israel.” Anatol, isolated, imprisoned and living under cruel circumstances, does not despair. He is sustained emotionally not by his family, with whom he has no contact, or by his fellow prisoners, but by his faith, his belief that he will prevail and one day live in Israel.
Not since the Second Temple era have we as a people known the security and prosperity we enjoy today. Our ancestral homeland has been restored. Israelis are well regarded in most parts of the world for their creativity, technical innovation, and military strength. The Jewish Diaspora is also fairly healthy. In America, we experience a liberty unimaginable to our ancestors just several generations ago. The vast majority of Jews on the planet live in freedom and are able to participate in and enjoy the renaissance of our people. And yet, despite the tremendous improvement in our collective lot, most of us would agree that we live in unsettling times.
Israel’s neighbors continue to threaten her. Hamas regularly launches missiles at Israel (or tolerates those who do), despite the existence of a supposed truce agreement. Hezbollah is rearming. Syria has been caught developing nuclear material. Iran is widely suspected of developing nuclear weapons and has repeatedly threatened Israel’s existence. Violent acts of anti-Semitism continue in many parts of the world, most recently in Mumbai. Even the UN, which only 60 years ago provided the legal basis for the reestablishment of a Jewish state, seems hostile.
What lessons does Vayeshev offer that can help us in this period of threatening uncertainty? It is that, no matter how dire the circumstances, we cannot give up hope. We all know how Joseph’s story ends. When Pharaoh has a dream that cannot be interpreted by any of the wise men or magicians of Egypt, the cupbearer remembers Joseph. And, Joseph, after interpreting the dream, becomes the viceroy of Egypt and, in this capacity, saves his family. Joseph sustains his hope and his hope, in return, sustains him.
So important is hope to our people that it is enshrined in Israel’s national anthem:
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
So, as we face our people’s challenges, let us follow the examples set by so many of our forebearers, from Joseph to Anatol, and do so with hope in our hearts. Shabbat Shalom.