The Five Words of The Jew

The rabbis often identify unnamed characters in the Bible with other, identifiable, characters. One of the strangest ones is the wife of Joseph, given to him by Pharaoh. Her name is Asenat, the daughter of Potiphera. Potiphera is the same as Potiphar, the Egyptian master to whom Joseph had been sold as a slave. It was his wife who tried to hit on Joseph, and ultimately caused his being thrown in jail. On the surface, it would seem that Joseph got the daughter of the woman instead of the woman herself.

But our rabbis say that Joseph's wife was not the daughter of Mrs. Potiphar! She was only the adopted daughter of Mr. Potiphar. Instead, she was actually a close relative of Joseph's: the daughter of his sister Dina! And, even more interestingly, that meant that she was the daughter of Schechem, the Prince of the city of the same name who had raped her. In the aftermath of that rape, the two brothers Simon and Levi annihilated all of the men of Schechem. Their father, Jacob, was displeased with them for this act of violence.

Without commenting on the historical accuracy of this identification, the rabbis clearly seem to be teaching us something by identifying Joseph's wife with that incident. What is it?

Jacob, on his deathbed, bequeaths the city of Shechem to Joseph. The city, Jacob continues, "that I took from the Amorite with my sword and my bow." The Aramaic translation of the verse says, "that I took from the Amorite with my prayer and my request." Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin questions the order of sword and bow. In battle, one uses the bow and arrow first since it shoots to the distance, and only when the enemy is in close quarters does one pull out the sword. Why are they reversed in this verse?

Rabbi Sorotzkin answers that "prayer," or the sword mentioned in the verse, is specifically referring to the recitation of the Shema. "Request," or bow and arrow, refers to the silent devotion which is comprised of requests. The order is important! First, we must strengthen for ourselves our core beliefs. These we do when we recite the Shema, the Jewish proclamation of faith. Only then are we ready to reach out to the distant world, with requests for the future for everybody. We need to know who we are before we can define what to ask for and what our vision for the world is.

There is a midrash that says the following: "Because he (Joseph) was early, and did not do as they did, he shall receive Shechem in his portion." What does this mean?

In truth it was Simon and Levi who conquered Shechem, so they should have been the ones to inherit it. Their act of cruelty and violence, however, was such a trauma for Jacob that he would not allow them to inherit that city. How did Simon and Levi come to behave in such a fashion? They didn't live according to the five words, and here they are:

"The Lord is our God, the Lord is one… And you shall love…" (I know, in English it's about 13 words, but in Hebrew it's five.)

Before a Jew interacts with the world, he must internalize these five words. Joseph did. When he went to Egypt, he showed his faith by resisting the temptations of Potiphar's wife, and he showed his love by serving and helping even the lowliest prisoner in the jails of Egypt. Perhaps, when the medrash refers to Joseph rising early, it is referring to these five words of the Shema. Because Joseph always read the Shema first, he did not act as others, specifically Simon and Levi, did. Their action was anything but an "And you shall love" kind of action.

Thus, I believe that Joseph's wife was part of a correcting and healing of the moral wound of the massacre at Shechem. Jacob recognizes that Joseph would never have behaved in such a fashion. Instead, Joseph's marriage choice brings some healing. His wife, after all, is the mother of Efraim, whose descendents will inherit that city. Through his daughter, Prince Shechem is brought back to life in terms of legacy and inheritance.

These words, "the Lord is our God, the Lord is one, And you shall love…" must guide us before we act, even before we pray.

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