Angry Words

Angry Words

A gentle response allays wrath; A harsh word provokes anger. – King Solomon, Proverbs 15:1

Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, has sprung the trap on his brothers, who still don’t recognize that he’s their sibling. He decrees that young Benjamin will be his slave based on fabricated evidence, while the other brothers can return to Canaan to their father Jacob. The whole ruse is patently unfair. They’ve been set up. Judah steps up and asks for a private audience with Joseph.

Judah, softly, gently, respectfully yet passionately, argues his case in front of the viceroy. He retells the history of how they came to the unfortunate situation. Judah ends his moving plea by offering himself as a slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph can no longer contain himself, is moved to tears, and reveals his true identity to his brothers in what becomes perhaps one of the most emotional reunions depicted in the Torah.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 44:18 (Vayigash) analyses the recounting of events, of Judah’s daring approach to viceroy Joseph, of his tactics in confronting the powerful ruler who held their fate in his hands.  Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that Judah was successful in calling on Joseph’s compassion by speaking calmly and gently to the harsh accusations and decree. Had Judah responded with righteous indignation, he would have only succeeded at kindling Joseph’s own anger which may have led to a worse outcome. By confronting the situation with calm, patience and understanding, Judah assured the best possible outcome. He allowed Joseph’s better nature to determine the rest of the story, not vengeance or a momentary fit of anger.

Rabbeinu Bechaye however, adds that there were two other elements in Judah’s address to Joseph. Besides entreating, softly pleading with Joseph for mercy, he also called on Joseph to be fair with their family and particularly their aging father who would be heartbroken should Benjamin not return. His final point is that he’s prepared for battle. The Midrash shares with us ancient tales of how Judah faces off against Joseph, prepared to tear Egypt apart should Joseph continue with his unfair enslavement of Benjamin.

Rabbeinu Bechaye however repeats and reinforces the value of training oneself to speak calmly and to always answer angry words with patience. There is no better way to inflame a situation than by answering anger with anger; and there is no better way to forestall a fight than to answer anger with calm.

May we not be the source of heated conversations and may we diffuse those that start that way.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the voters of Zehut International who have put their trust in me.

The Source Material of Dreams

The Source Material of Dreams

Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal. -Pamela Vaull Starr

Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, has a disturbing dream. Seven sickly bone-thin cows consume seven healthy large cows; seven sickly shriveled wheat stalks absorb seven healthy robust wheat stalks. Pharaoh is shaken by the vision and knows it portends some danger to the Egyptian empire. After his advisors and wise men fail to interpret the dream to his satisfaction, the young Hebrew slave, Joseph, imprisoned in the royal dungeon is remembered and brought to Pharaoh to try his luck at interpreting what no one else could. Joseph does it, predicts seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, is elevated and thereby saves himself, all of Egypt and eventually his family, who join him in Egypt once the prophesized famine hits the region.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 41:1 (Miketz) explains the components that make up a person’s dreams and what elements of them are prophetic.

There are three inputs to our dreams: food; thoughts; and what he calls “strengthening of the soul.”

Food causes “fumes” to go to the brain. Dreams that come as a result of what we ate are nonsense. Our thoughts during the day, will lead to dreaming of those matters at night. Those dreams hold no significant importance.

However, the third element of a dream comes from the “strengthening of the soul,” and according to Rabbeinu Bechaye entails a minor prophecy. The dream’s source is the soul and is independent of anything we might have thought about previously. It comes from the power of our imagination to picture matters that the soul senses while awake. Our imagination then illustrates these visions to our mind in our dream-state when we are free of the noise, inputs, stimuli and distractions of our waking hours. These visions are true when the person’s imaginative powers are strong and he hasn’t thought about the vision previously.

This is similar to the minor prophecy that the sages attribute to children and fools, as they don’t have the same mental filters rational adults have developed for such prophetic messages.

He adds that both the righteous as well as the wicked can receive such prophetic dreams. In Pharaoh’s case, God specifically sent the prophetic dream to him, to set in motion the release and elevation of Joseph.

May we strengthen our own souls and dream prophetic dreams.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,



To the Jewish community of Atlanta. I had the privilege to enjoy your southern hospitality in a time of need.

The Trick of Dream Interpretation

The Trick of Dream Interpretation

Man, alone, has the power to transform his thoughts into physical reality; man, alone, can dream and make his dreams come true. -Napoleon Hill

The subject of dreams comes up heavily in the Book of Genesis. It starts with Jacob and his famous ladder that reaches the heavens. However, it’s his son, Joseph, who gets the lion’s share of dream narrative in Genesis.

It starts with Joseph’s own prophetic dreams, which imply his future ascendancy and the subservience of his brothers to him. It’s followed by the dreams of his prison-mates, Pharaoh’s wine steward and baker, whose dreams he correctly interprets. And it ends most dramatically with Pharaoh’s dreams, which Joseph is called on to interpret, which he does successfully and in the space of a day takes him from the dungeons of Egyptian to control of the Egyptian empire.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 40:9 (Vayeshev) gleans a vital lesson on the lost art of dream interpretation, of which our ancestor Joseph excelled. He explains that the key to a positive dream interpretation starts with the words the dreamer chooses when describing the dream.

Pharaoh’s wine steward, when telling over his dream to Joseph, uses the word (in Hebrew) “In my dream,” (“bachalomi”) which is also related to the Hebrew verb “to heal” or “health.” Joseph correctly interpreted that the dream was a sign of good things to come based on the wine stewards choice of words. However, Pharaoh’s baker started his dream narrative with the Hebrew word for “also” (“af”) which is unfortunately synonymous with the Hebrew word for “anger.” It was clear to Joseph from the baker’s word choice that his future was bleak, and that is indeed what happened. Three days later the wine steward was elevated to his former prestige while the baker was executed, exactly as Joseph predicted.

Rabbeinu Bechaye’s point is that we should always be careful in our choice of words, for we never know the impact they may have, especially in the interpretation of ethereal and potentially prophetic dreams.

May our words ever be positive and our dreams sweet.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the British and French engineers and workers of the Channel Tunnel, who finally met up after more than two years of digging, 27 years ago, this week.

Joseph, Social Economist

Joseph, Social Economist

But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings. -Franklin D. Roosevelt


Joseph correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, warning of seven years of plenty followed by seven year of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed by Joseph’s abilities that he appointed Joseph as his Viceroy and put him in charge of the Egyptian empire. Joseph takes the reins of the kingdom and distinguishes himself by creating storehouses for the grain, overseeing the orderly sale and distribution of the grain during the famine, and successfully managing and developing the overall Egyptian economy.

Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary on Genesis 41, points out two noteworthy economic policies that Joseph instituted during the years of famine.

The first policy was that people had to pay for the grain that he distributed. Though the storehouses of Egypt were overflowing with “uncountable” amounts of grain, Joseph still charged the starving population for it. Rabbi Hirsch explains that had Joseph handed the grain out for free, it would not be valued by the population. People don’t value or appreciate handouts as much as something that they have to pay for.

The second policy was that Joseph sold only enough grain to each family to feed that family. He did not sell wholesale. There were only retail sales. He wanted to prevent a situation of hoarding, speculative buying and enterprising capitalists cornering the grain market.

Although socialists may have preferred free handouts and capitalists would have preferred freer access to wholesale deals, investments, a fluctuating market, speculation, and letting their capital work for them, Joseph’s policies insured that Egypt survived the famine.

A balanced economic policy seems to have been exactly what the country needed.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,



To the irrepressible Pieprz family for a glorious Shabbat in Karnei Shomron.

Clueless Joseph?

Clueless Joseph? 

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm. -Graham Greene


Joseph recounts to his brothers his fantastical dreams which seem to imply that he will rule over them. The brothers don’t take this well at all. If they detested him before for being their father’s favorite, now they outright hate him.

After this episode their father Jacob orders Joseph to meet up with his brothers who are tending their sheep far to the north, around the area of Shechem. Joseph appears to go without hesitation or concern.

Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 37:13 explains that Joseph had no fear of his brothers because he had no ambition whatsoever to rule them. His dreams were just dreams; not anything that he planned or foresaw might come to fruition. Therefore, in his innocent mind, he had nothing to fear from his jealous brothers.

The brothers, on the other hand, took his dreams very seriously. They believed that the apparently chosen son did intend to rule over them and saw him as a clear and present danger to themselves and how they hoped to conduct their lives, free of tyrants or rulers. Hence, the acts they took, first of planning to kill Joseph and then the decision to sell him as a slave, stemmed from purely defensive motives. They were protecting themselves from the mortal threat of Joseph the tyrant. The fact that this was the furthest thing from Joseph’s mind did not have one iota of effect upon the brothers’ fears or actions.

Joseph, though he did suffer over the prolonged enslavement and separation from his family, always seemed to have God with him, and the very actions the brothers took are what eventually lead Joseph to rule over them, thereby inadvertently fulfilling his prophetic dreams.

God often protects the innocent, but it doesn’t hurt to be less naïve.

Shabbat Shalom,



To all the subscribers and those that have encouraged and promoted the launch of my Daily Torah Tweets. Thanks!

The Mother of All Languages

 A different language is a different vision of life. -Federico Fellini 

LanguagesJoseph, in a most unpredictable set of circumstances, goes from being an imprisoned slave, accused of accosting his master’s wife and rotting in prison, to being the Viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh in controlling the Egyptian Empire, if not the world. Pharaoh and his ministers are so impressed by Joseph’s dream interpretation skills and intelligence that they give him the keys to the kingdom.

There is an ancient tale, a midrash, that states that the angel Gabriel, in order to assist Joseph with his royal promotion, teaches him the seventy core languages known to humankind. The Sfat Emet in the year 5635 (1874), wonders as to the need and the symbolism of teaching Joseph seventy tongues. He goes on to explain that it was necessary in order to rule this world power. Furthermore, the seventy tongues are all an outgrowth of the one original language: Hebrew.

Hebrew, the holy tongue, is the source of all languages and it is the Torah that gives life to the spoken word. Languages merely clothe the holy tongue, though they have different forms and aspects. Joseph needed to understand all the languages and associate them to their Hebraic source in order to rule the world. The Sfat Emet then gets into more Kabbalistic reasons for Joseph’s intense and comprehensive language immersion course, among them the ability to connect other languages to the innermost meaning at its Hebrew source.

There is a hidden strength and power in language, and particularly the Hebrew one. Let’s use them with care.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Dr. Gustavo Perednik, who lectured on exactly this theme a few months ago in Montevideo and demonstrated, from academic sources, how Hebrew is one of the first languages, if not the first language, and its pervasive, yet unappreciated influence on languages of the world.









Delayed Punishments


 Whenever a human being, through the commission of a crime, has become exiled from good, he needs to be reintegrated with it through suffering. The suffering should be inflicted with the aim of bringing the soul to recognize freely some day that its infliction was just. -Simone Weil


The Torah believes in punishment, either divine or court-inflicted. However, it generally comes from either a sense of justice and creating balance, or in somehow rehabilitating the evil-doer. It is interesting to note that the concept of a jail is almost completely absent from the Jewish legal code. There was either financial compensation, corporal punishment or the death penalty.

The Sfat Emet in 5637 (1876) asks how did God allow Joseph to be punished and placed in prison after he withstood the seduction of Potiphar’s wife, when according to the sages, it was a divine test greater than all the tests the Patriarchs endured. He answers that it was punishment for an earlier sin.

According to the Midrash, the ancient oral tradition that accompanied the written Torah, Joseph sinned when as a youth of seventeen he slandered his brothers to their father Jacob. But God postponed that punishment to a better time. That time is exactly after Joseph had performed an act of moral courage that transforms him and places him at a higher spiritual level. Now that Joseph is more righteous, two things happen. He somehow has greater strength and capacity to bear the punishment, but now, God is also more exacting with him and so the punishment must be meted out. In a way, Joseph’s newly acquired righteousness now forces him to confront and seek atonement for his earlier sins.

The Sfat Emet warns based on this episode, that if a person performs some great act or avoids serious sin, he shouldn’t be so quick to congratulate himself; as such pride may invite a closer examination of his past and bring down punishment for previous sins.

May we realize our mistakes and repent for them and so reach those higher ethical levels without paying a painful price for previous indiscretions.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Nobel Laureate Professor Dan Shechtman of Israel on his inspirational visit to Uruguay.