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by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Little Jonny loved running through the woods. He adored the shade, the scenery, and the colors of the heavy foliage.



Little Jonny loved running through the woods. He adored the shade, the scenery, and the colors of the heavy foliage. He also had a special love for breaking sticks. He would pick up fallen branches and imagine himself to be some Herculean superhero as he snapped them in half. Then he’d go searching for more. Once, he came upon a bundle of sticks which someone had apparently gathered and tied together to hold them in one place. Jonny’s imagination went wild. He ran over to the bundle, hitting and kicking it in every way that he could, in a desperate attempt to sever the wooden cylinders. But, try as he might, the gathered bundle of sticks was too much for even his colossal strength to overcome.

In this week’s Torah portion, after being accused by the wife of Potiphar of attempted rape, Joseph was thrown into prison. While there, he was joined by the king’s chief butler and baker, each incarcerated for negligence in their service of Pharaoh: the butler for serving fly-inclusive wine, and the baker for serving pebble-bearing bread. Both the butler and baker had dreams, which Joseph promptly interpreted for them. Shortly thereafter, as Joseph had predicted, the baker was taken out and hanged, while the butler was reinstated to his former position (Genesis 40:1-22).

The Aruch HaShulchan, a late 19th century Torah scholar, questions this rather perplexing episode. If anything, he points out, it should have been the butler who was killed, and not the baker. The butler’s crime of directly handing the king a goblet with a fly would seem to be a much greater offense than the baker’s placing a pebble-laden loaf upon the king’s table. While the butler’s crime was very direct, the baker’s was not merely as brazen, for it is possible that Pharaoh wouldn’t have even eaten the slice with the rock. Why execute the baker? Furthermore, why did Pharaoh find it necessary to kill anyone? If the only issue here is negligence and messy workmanship, then fire them! There is no reason to execute anybody for this!

The Aruch HaShulchan concludes that there is more taking place here than meets the eye. He explains that the episode mentioned in the Torah is the manifestation of a feud that was taking place between the two officers. The two of them hated each other tremendously. Because of this, each was trying to undermine the other in an attempt to have him demoted. This time, the butler had tried to undermine the baker by placing a stone in his batter. Simultaneously, the baker had tried to undermine the butler by dropping a fly into Pharaoh’s cup.

With this background in mind, we can now understand how the story unfolded. Pharaoh executed the baker because it was in fact he who committed the worse crime. The baker put the fly in the cup that was being given directly to Pharaoh. And the reason why he was killed and not fired was because this wasn’t just a matter of negligence. It was a brazen attempt to frame the butler at the king’s expense. This was a real crime, punishable by death.

Similarly, at the beginning of the Torah portion, we are told how Joseph gave bad reports about his brothers to their father, Jacob (ibid. 37:2). Although, as the sages discuss, Joseph had reason to believe that he was right in doing so, he was still considered to have spoken some form of lashon hara (slander) about his brothers. This lashon hara incited them and caused them to hate him immensely, to the point that they were ready to kill him. Instead of killing him, they sold him to an Egypt-bound caravan. This act, which stemmed from lashon hara and hate, ultimately resulted in our 210 years of bondage in Egypt. Again, we see the evils caused by hatred and the actions that lead to it.

With the butler and the baker, it was their mutual hate that had them both jailed and the baker killed. With Joseph and his brothers, it was hatred that precipitated our Egyptian slavery. We can clearly see the negativity of this trait. As such, we must work to rid ourselves of it in any way that we can. We must train ourselves to look positively towards others, always searching for the good in them, and overlooking the things they do that bother us. We must learn to judge others favorably, never jumping to incriminate anyone, even within our own minds. Lastly, we must be careful with what we say, avoiding lashon hara to the utmost degree.

The Torah tells us that Hashem became King over Jeshurun (the Jewish people) when the heads and the tribes of Israel were gathered together (Deuteronomy 33:5). The Chofetz Chaim, the saintly Torah scholar and leader at the beginning of the 20th century, underlines the message of this verse. When, he asks, is Hashem King over the Jewish people? Only when the heads and the tribes of Israel are gathered together – when there is unity among our nation. If we are divided, a state of being which stems from lashon hara and hatred, Hashem removes His presence from us. Only when we are united and we stand together does Hashem act as our King.

Although little Jonny was able to break individual sticks, he hadn’t realized that many sticks grouped together become indestructible. The same applies to the Jewish people. When we are broken up into our own little groups, we are vulnerable to whatever society throws at us. Only by ridding ourselves of hatred and lashon hara can we break down those barriers that divide us, and form a unified and invincible group. Only when we accomplish this will Hashem be the King over the Jewish people, resting His presence among us and over all the world. On that day, Hashem will be One, and His name will be One.


Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, writes from New York.

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