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Joseph Converses with Judah, His Brother

{Originally posted to Rabbi Weinberg’s website,  The Foundation Stone }

It all began when I read a quote of L.P. Hartley, the British novelist, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I am trying to picture the long ago scenes of the interaction between Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, and his brothers. I fear that Hartley would consider me a foreigner, unable to fully appreciate the nuances of the interactions.

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It became increasingly difficult when my Argentine wife Debbie recommended that I change my secular birthday from the 29th, so that Argentines would not censure me for being a, “Gnocchi.” Admittedly, I couldn’t understand why anyone would accuse me of being a piece of pasta just because of my birthday. The explanation is far too complex for this page – a clear case of sprachgefühl, something only a native speaker of Argentine Spanish would understand. I certainly do not have the sprachgefühl for the Ancient Egyptian translations of the brothers’ words to appreciate how the Egyptian authorities would hear the speeches and declarations.

Yet, in this week’s portion, we begin with Judah’s Hebrew words to the Viceroy, presumably translated by court interpreters, and we study Judah’s words for all sorts of double entedres. How did Judah expect the Viceroy to appreciate his subtle threats and insults if a translator stood between the Egyptian and him?

He didn’t.

“Judah approached him (Genesis 44:18).” I picture Judah marching right up to the Viceroy, placing his hand on the other’s shoulder, and beginning to speak. Judah was making it clear that he knew that the Viceroy understood every word. Judah’s speech, ignoring the Viceroy’s declaration of, “It would be sacrilegious for me to do this – enslave all of you (Verse 17),” is a description of how only someone who understood the inner workings of the family could develop such brilliantly painful manipulations. Judah knew it was Joseph behind the mask and spoke to him as a brother, another son of Jacob.

We have a very clear sense of the sprachgefühl of a hand placed on another’s shoulder when speaking, for that is what we experience when we begin our Silent Prayer, standing directly before God, not with a bow, as one should when standing before a King, but with, “My Master! Open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise (Psalms 51:17).” We are Judah approaching and standing before the Viceroy, communicating our confidence that each word will be heard and understood by God with full sprachgefühl.

We study Torah texts with that same sense of intimate conversation whether it is Moses, or the Sages, or Rashi, or Maimonides placing a hand on our shoulders. It can communicate clearly and directly with us. There is sprachgefühl. We may be speaking a foreign language when we wrap Tefillin around ours arms, shake a Lulav, eat Matzah, and wear Four-Cornered garments with a bunch of strings hanging down, but we do those things as did Judah when approaching Joseph. Those strange actions come with a hand on our shoulder. There is sprachgefühl.

This Hand On Shoulder communication is the essence of everything we do with The Foundation Stone, whether it is a class, essay, workshop, or program; whether focusing on Bible, Prayer, Mitzvot, or relationships. We humbly request your hand of support on our shoulder to help us nurture the vital and practical essence of Torah’s wisdom.

Thank You in advance

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanuka!

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