Power of Redemption

Vayeshev By :  Mitchell Cohen National Director, Ramah Camps and Israel Programs Posted On Nov 20, 2013 / 5774 | Torah Commentary

The theme of oppression and redemption is repeated throughout Parashat Vayeshev, as we read of many instances in which pain and suffering lead to freedom and joy.

The Joseph narrative is a story filled with highs and lows. First, Joseph is rescued by some of his brothers from certain death at the bottom of a pit. “And Reuben heard about this and saved him from them and said ‘Let us not take his life’” (Gen. 37:21). “They looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead . . . Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites’” (Gen. 37:25–27).

In Egypt, Joseph is rescued from Ishmaelite slavery when he is purchased by Potiphar as a household servant. He not only survives, but he thrives in that environment. “The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master” (Gen. 39:2).

After becoming the trusted head of Potiphar’s household, Joseph again falls into captivity, and lands in an Egyptian prison because of the sexual desires and scheming of Potiphar’s wife. “She caught hold of him by his garment and said ‘Lie with me.’ But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside” (Gen. 39:12). Eventually, his refusal leads her to accuse him of inappropriate behavior, and Joseph once again finds himself imprisoned.

This week’s parashah ends ominously, with Joseph seemingly forgotten. Although Joseph stands out in prison as a brilliant interpreter of dreams, when the chief cupbearer is released and restored to a high position in Pharoah’s court, the Torah states, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him” (Gen. 40:21). We know, however, from next week’s parashah, that Joseph will once again be redeemed and become the chief leader of Egypt, and that the pattern of oppression and redemption will continue throughout the biblical narrative: the Israelites face starvation, but are saved by coming down to live in Egypt; the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, but eventually are freed and become an independent nation.

This theme of redemption, of being saved and raised up from low places, is quite relevant as Hanukkah approaches, and is a common theme throughout biblical literature—and indeed throughout Jewish history. When we celebrate Hanukkah, we remember a time in our history when we suffered under Greek oppression, only to gain our sovereignty and rededicate our Holy Temple.

From this perspective of Jewish history, we are truly fortunate to be living as Jews in the 21st century. While Jews (and the State of Israel) still face threats, we are mostly secure, live in a time of national redemption in our own land and prosperity in much of the Diaspora. And even in many of the nations that oppressed us in recent decades (Russia, Ethiopia, Syria, etc.), Jews are now either free or have mostly emigrated to freedom. Has the pattern of redemption and oppression finally been broken, or do we continue to face existential dangers?

Some argue that while physical threats have mostly dissipated, our soul as a nation faces unprecedented challenges as assimilation threatens to undermine our accomplishments in all lands outside of Israel—and for some, even within Israel.

These questions are paramount to anyone working with Jewish education, as our perspective has a critical impact on the national self-esteem of our youth. Will they grow up waiting for the next disaster, or confident in a future filled with opportunity? As parents, educators, and leaders, what message do we want to convey, and in what environment can we best convey it?

When the Ramah camping movement was created in Conover, Wisconsin, in 1947, Jews throughout the world were still numb from the pain of the Shoah and the deep scars of destruction. Yet the promise of a new beginning in our ancient homeland also had a deep impact upon the leaders of JTS and Conservative Jewry. While there is no definitive history on why Ramah’s founders chose the word ramah as the camp’s name, I believe that this recurring theme of redemption was critical.

Ramah is a Hebrew word for a high place. When the Israelites experienced their historic redemption from slavery in Egypt, the Torah tells us that they left Egypt “b’yad ramah.” Translations of this phrase in Exodus 14:8 vary widely, but most understand yad ramah to signify both hands and heads held high. The image is of a redeemed people filled with pride, not defeat and dejection.

Another reference to ramah occurs on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in the moving haftarah from Jeremiah 31:14: “Kol b’Ramah nishma—A voice is heard in Ramah.” Could this be the origin of the name “Camp Ramah?” While we might reject this reference given its context—Rachel weeping for her exiled children, refusing to be comforted—the following verses add consolation and hope in the context of redemption: “There is hope for the future, said the Lord, and your children shall return to their borders” (v’shavu vanim ligvulam).

In times of struggle or sadness, we all need the hope provided by Jeremiah, who describes Rachel’s “voice in the wilderness” of Ramah. Her weeping was soon followed by joy and gladness, with “our children returning to their borders.”

All of our experiences in Jewish education, from day school to camp, from youth group to congregational school and more, need to grapple with the themes first presented to us in Va-yeishev and the Joseph story, as we have inherited a history filled with highs and lows, oppression and redemption.

As we read the stories about the redemption of Joseph and celebrate the freedom associated with Hanukkah, let us hope that more of our youth experience the joy of Jewish living that will bring us closer to our ultimate redemption.


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.