Vayeshev: Days of Judgement

Four things happened on Rosh Hashanah.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner
INN:DP

Parshat Vayeishev traces Joseph’s emotional maturation from a seventeen-year-old callow youth, pampered by his father and unschooled in the hard lessons of life, to a reliable young man determined to make the best of the awful circumstances into which he was unceremoniously flung. Sold as a slave to one of Pharaoh’s senior royal officers he swiftly became a trusted and responsible overseer of the household. And imprisoned for a crime he was innocent of, he earned the trust and respect of the prisoners and prison-guards alike.

The Torah does not tell us just how long Joseph served Potiphar before being incarcerated, neither does it tell us how long he remained incarcerated in the royal prison. The only indications are that Joseph was seventeen when his brothers sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:2), that after he correctly interpreted the dreams of the royal butler and the royal baker he remained in prison for another two years (41:1-14), and that when he was released he was thirty years old (41:46).

Several Midrashic sources, however, record the timeframe. After being brought down to Egypt, Joseph served Potiphar for twelve months before being framed and jailed. From the time he was jailed until the incident with the royal butler and the royal baker, ten years passed. He then remained incarcerated for another two years before being released, making a total of twelve years in jail (Sh’mot Rabbah 7:1; Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 146; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 39; Seder Olam Rabbah 2; Tanhuma, Vayeishev 9; Tanna de-Bey Eliyahu, Pirkei ha-Yeridot section 1).

According to Sh’mot Rabbah and Tanhuma, G-d decreed that Joseph spend ten years in prison for slandering his ten brothers (Genesis 37:2), and another two years for trusting in the chief butler to get him out of jail instead of trusting in G-d (40:14-15).

(Why exactly it was a sin for Joseph to turn to human help is another question, which we will address next week in the context of Parashat Mikkeitz and Chanukah.)

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 10b) and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Vaeira 177 and Psalms 831) record that “Joseph left prison on Rosh Hashanah”. Since that was two years to the day after the royal butler was released and the royal baker was hanged, that day, too, was Rosh Hashanah. And since that day was ten years to the day after Joseph was arrested, we can infer that he was arrested on Rosh Hashanah.

The Torah tells us that the day on which the royal butler was released and the royal baker was hanged was Pharaoh’s birthday (Genesis 40:28). The implication of all this is that Pharaoh’s birthday fell on Rosh Hashanah.

 It follows that four events happened on Rosh Hashanah: Pharaoh was born; an undefined number of years later on Pharaoh’s birthday, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he refused her advances, she framed him, and he was arrested; ten years later on Pharaoh’s birthday, which was also Rosh Hashanah, the royal butler was released and the royal baker was hanged; and two years after that Pharaoh dreamed of the cows and the ears of grain, called for Joseph to interpret his dreams, and Joseph was released from prison.

This means that Joseph three times faced judgement on Rosh Hashanah. The first time he resisted Potiphar’s wife’s advances and was thrown into prison; the second time he was condemned to an extra two years in prison; and the third time he was released from prison.

The Torah describes Potiphar’s wife’s attempt to seduce Joseph using unusual phraseology: “It happened as this very day, when he came home to do his work, there was no man from the men of the house there in the house, and she caught him by his garment saying, Lie with me” (Genesis 39:11-12).

The Talmud (Sotah 36b) explains: “That day was their religious holiday, they had all gone to their temple of idolatry, and she said to them: I am sick. She said: I will have no better day than today to join with Joseph”.

The Midrash has a similar explanation: “Is it possible that that man’s house could have been left without any man? Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nehemiah [gave different explanations]. Rabbi Yehudah says: It was a day of debauchery in honour of the Nile, and they all went to see, but Joseph did not go. Rabbi Nehemiah says: It was a day of theatre and all went to see, but Joseph did not go” (Bereishit Rabbah 87:7).

Rashi paraphrases these sources: “When a special day arrived, a day of revelry, a day of their religious celebration, when they had all gone to the house of idolatry, she said: I will have no better day that today to join with Joseph. She told them: I am sick, and I cannot go”.

What exactly were the Egyptians celebrating on that day?

As we have seen, that day was both Rosh Hashanah and Pharaoh’s birthday. Since the Egyptians would hardly have celebrated Rosh Hashanah, it is eminently likely that actually this unrestrained and ribald celebration was in honour of Pharaoh’s birthday.

This was, after all, a society in which their king was worshipped as a god. And this was a pharaoh who dreamed he was standing “over the river” (Genesis 41:1) – above the River Nile, superior to the river which he and his nation worshipped as a god, because “evil people put themselves above their gods” (Bereishit Rabbah 69:3).

We have here a new perspective on Pharaoh and his dreams, and why he took these two dreams so seriously. He considered himself a veritable deity – yet he found himself troubled by these dreams on his birthday, a day which should have been a day of debauched festivities for him and his entire nation.

Since the day on which the royal butler was released and the royal baker was hanged was Rosh Hashanah, and since that was the third day after Joseph had interpreted their dreams (Genesis 40:20), it follows that the day on which Joseph interpreted their dreams was the 27th of Ellul.

And since we have inferred from these Midrashim that Pharaoh was born on Rosh Hashanah, the same day that G-d created Adam, the first man, let us continue by relating the 27th of Ellul to the six days of Creation.

The 27th of Ellul was the third day of Creation, the day on which G-d separated the seas and oceans from the dry land and the day that plant life first sprouted (Genesis 1:9-12). And the Psalm for the third day of the week, the Psalm that the Levites would recite in the Holy Temple on the third day of the week, is Psalm 82: “G-d stands erect in the Congregation of G-d, in the midst of judges He will judge” (Tamid 7:4, Rosh ha-Shanah 31a, Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 4:3).

The Talmud (Rosh ha-Shanah 31a) gives the reason for this Psalm’s being chosen for the third day of the week: it was on the third day of Creation (i.e. 27th of Ellul) that G-d “revealed the earth in His wisdom and established the world for His Congregation”. The Rambam (commentary to Tamid 7:4) paraphrases this: “On the third day the earth, upon which judgement and judges would stand, was revealed”.

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartinura (commentary to Tamid 7:4) similarly says: “Because on that day the dry land, upon which the judges stand in order to carry out judgement, appeared”.

Rashi comments on the opening words of Psalm 82: “‘G-d stands erect in the Congregation of G-d’ – to see if they judge truthfully; and you, the judges – ‘how long will you judge unjustly?’ (verse 2)”.

The implication of all these is that third day of creation, the 27th of Ellul, was the day on which G-d established justice. Justice – any system of laws and rules and regulations – perforce demands boundaries and borders; hence this was the day on which the dry land appeared – that is, the sea and the land had their boundaries defined.

That was the day on which the two royal chamberlains had their respective fates revealed to them in their respective dreams. And that was the day on which Joseph was condemned to an extra two years in jail. Appropriate, apparently, for the day on which G-d created the concept of justice and boundaries.

When there are no boundaries, the result is chaos and confusion: “He has placed your borders for peace, with the choicest wheat He has sated you” (Psalms 147:14). That is to say, properly-defined borders and boundaries are essential for peace and prosperity. As the Talmud expounds on this verse: “‘He has placed your borders for peace, with the choicest wheat He has sated you’ – Rav Papa said: This is the origin of the popular saying, When the barley is depleted from the jar, then strife comes knocking on the door” (Bava Metzia 59a).

The Kli Yakar (a homiletic commentary on the Torah written by Rabbi Shlomo Efrayim of Luntchitz, 1550-1619), commenting on Pharaoh’s dreams (in next week’s parashah) notes that the Torah describes the seven thin cows as “seven other cows”. He explains: “The Torah calls them ‘others’, following ‘He has placed your borders for peace, with the choicest wheat He has sated you’, from which the Talmud derives ‘When the barley is depleted from the jar, then strife comes knocking on the door’. Each one [of the thin cows] became ‘other’, separated from its fellow-cows, isolated. They had no unity”.

 Breaching borders, eradicating borders, inevitably threatens peace and justice and prosperity. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that twenty years ago Israel’s borders were burst on the 27th of Ellul 5753 (13th September 1993), the day the Oslo death accords were signed, leading inevitably to the most vicious and deadly anti-Jewish terror campaign in Israel since the Arab Revolt 60 years earlier, and arguably the most vicious anti-Jewish violence in Israel since the Crusades.

 The 27th of Ellul, the third day of Creation, was the day on which G-d established the boundaries of dry land and seas and the day on which He established the concept of justice. Three days later He created Adam, the first man, and established that as the eternal and universal Day of Judgement.





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