The main rule in choosing a gift for someone is to give the person something that makes him happy. Something that will not immediately go to storage, but rather something that our dear will enjoy using.
In this week’s Parasha, Vayigash, after the dramatic reunion between Joseph and his brothers who sold him for slavery 22 years before, Joseph sends his father gifts, trying to somehow convey the happiness and excitement overflowing in his heart. However, according to the Talmud, he sent him “an aged bottle of wine that makes an aged person comfortable.”
The question is why wine? We know that Egyptian wines are not considered as something particularly special or valuable. And the answer is, Joseph knew very well what would happen in Jacob’s house when the brothers returned with the unfathomable news that: “Joseph is still alive and he is the minister to the king of Egypt.” After the initial shock, Jacob will call his children, look at them with sad eyes and maybe not even say anything. He will only look at them with pain and more pain that pierces the heart.
“You lied to me! You deceived me! All these years, you knew that Joseph wasn’t eaten by a wild animal or another predator”. And all the excitement from the news of meeting with Joseph will turn to shock and sorrow. So, the message which Joseph sent to Jacob through the bottle of aged wine is:
“Father, look how I am interpreting life. I’m sending you a bottle of aged wine because it was clear to me, that one day we will meet again and we’ll say together, “L’chaim” for all that has passed”.
The Jewish approach doesn’t recognize the concept of “tragedy”. The word “tragedy” is a Greek term which describes a bitter end, a disaster from which there is no recovery. In exchange Joseph saw life as
a process of correction, always moving towards a better future. The world is ruled by a higher power who is “our father and our king” – and everything the father does is for the good of his children. Sometimes, the child understands it immediately, sometimes after a year and, maybe, sometimes he will understand it only in the next world. But it is clear to him that the father is working things out in his favor, and everything is meant to advance the child another step towards the goal. Joseph not only accepts the suffering, but also gives it meaning. He gets to understand the secret behind the long processes of life.
This Tuesday is the fast day (Taanit) of the 10th of Tevet, which starts the annual cycle of fasts because
of the destruction of Jerusalem. Fasting on the tenth of Tevet is the only one during the year which never falls on Shabbat. The Jewish calendar was designed with this purpose in mind. One of the explanations given by the Sephardic sage Aboderam (Spain, 14th century), is that this fast is so significant that even
if it would fall on Shabbat, we wouldn’t be able to postpone it to Sunday, as we would with the 9th of Av, for example.
The unique meaning of this fast day is that it symbolizes the start of all the troubles which ensued. 2500 years ago, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, ascended over Jerusalem, began the siege of its walls and after three years, destroyed the temple, dismantled the kingdom of Judah – and ever since, nothing has been the same.
In this matter too, one can react with indifference or despair. One can say: If God has left us in exile for so many years, he is probably tired of us and does not intend to do anything else. When such a thought comes to mind, we must place Joseph’s bottle of wine on the table and remember that a father does not abandon his children and God will never abandon the people of Israel. Jews must not ask ‘what will happen?’ But rather, “what can we do?!” The question ‘what will happen?’ expresses despair and frustration, while the question ‘what can we do?’ expresses confidence that with the help of God, we are able to completely change the situation. And we definitely will!
Rabbi Refael Cohen