Archive | November, 2013

Commentary for Miketz, Shabbat Chanukah

29 Nov

This week’s parshah begins with Pharaoh having a dream. In his dream seven fat, well-fed cows are devoured by seven gaunt, skinny, sickly-looking cows, but despite eating the fat cows, the skinny cows do get any fatter and remain sickly-looking. Pharaoh asks his advisors to interpret this dream, but none of them is able to do so. Finally, Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers Joseph, who is sitting in prison and suggests that Pharaoh see if Joseph can interpret the dream.
When Pharaoh repeats his dream to Joseph, the healthy cows are simply described as “of healthy meat and well-formed, (Gen. 41:18)” while the skinny cows are described as looking so skinny and sickly-looking “so bad they were that I had never seen their like in the land of Egypt (Gen. 41:20).” Pharaoh places this emphasis on how out of place the skinny cows were because the human mind remembers the abnormal much more than it does the normal. To Pharaoh, these cows were abnormal, so they stuck out in his mind more.
Similarly, when the cupbearer is describing Joseph to Pharaoh in 41:12, the first thing that comes to his mind is that Joseph is a Hebrew, member of a strange clan from a far away land that only worships one God as opposed to the standard polytheism. Only after he describes Joseph as such does he give the relevant information of whose custody Joseph was being held under and why he might be able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream.
Throughout time people have always tried to hide the abnormal aspects of themselves, and in many cases this has meant Jews needing to hide their Jewishness. Despite the fact that his Judaism appears to be an open secret in Pharaoh’s court, Joseph, the second most powerful man in all of Egypt and the man who now only interpreted Pharaoh’s dream when no one else could, but also developed the plan that saved Egypt from famine, feels the need to hide his Jewishness from everyone. In next week’s parshah, he first sends all of the servants out of the room before revealing his true identity to his brothers in an attempt to hide the fact that he is part of this foreign tribe from the Egyptians, despite the fact that that the Egyptians seem to already be well aware of it.
This parshah is almost always read on Chanukah, which provides a very sharp contrast to Joseph’s behavior. At a time when Jews were forbidden from practicing Judaism and when many Jews were abandoning the religion and assimilating into Hellenistic culture, the Maccabees stood up and declared their Judaism proudly. Because of them, on Chanukah, we too display our Judaism proudly by placing our Chanukiyot in places where they are clearly visible to all passers-by to declare “A JEW LIVES HERE!” We have no need to hide who we are from our society. Our religion might be the minority in almost every place on Earth. We might me the odd ones out who don’t eat the food everyone else does and who don’t celebrate the holidays you see on TV, but it is ours and we are proud of it.


Commentary for Vayeishev

22 Nov

This week’s parshah and the next two form the story of Joseph. While the lives of most of the other major characters in the Torah appear as a series of smaller, separate stories that can be read mostly independent of each other, Joseph’s story is a single long narrative that must be read from start to finish. The only interruption to this story is Genesis 38, which tells the story of Judah and Tamar.

Judah, Jacob’s fourth oldest son, had three sons of his own. The oldest son, Er, was married to a woman named Tamar. Er did something that displeased God, so God struck him down before head had a chance to have children of his own. This left him with no heirs, and so to both prevent Er’s property from being appropriated by Tamar’s family and to make sure that Er would have a lasting legacy, Judah then wed his second son, Onan, to Tamar, for the purposes of producing a child, who would be Er’s heir. The child would be considered to be Er’s son according to both the common laws of the land and Jewish law. For Onan, this meant that he would no longer be Judah’s principal heir, so he prevented the conception. God was displeased by Onan’s greediness and struck him down too.
Having already lost two sons shortly after they married Tamar, Judah did not want to lose his last son, so he did not marry his last son off to Tamar, and instead he ignored the issue completely. Tamar, realizing the halachic obligation to ensure that her late husbands have heirs, and seeing Judah’s refusal to marry his youngest son to her, takes matters into her own hands. She hears that Judah is coming to town, so she disguises herself as a harlot and convinces him to sleep with her. Judah does not have any money to pay her with, so he leaves her with his seal and cord and staff as a pledge until he can return with payment. When he returns, the “harlot” he slept with is nowhere to be found, and the people of the town tell him that there has never been a harlot there.
A few months later, Tamar’s pregnancy starts to show, and, being unmarried, the people of the town decry her as a harlot. Hearing this, Judah comes to town and when he confronts Tamar publicly, she tells him “’I am with child by the man to whom these belong.’ And she added ‘examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?’ (Gen 38:26)”
Recognizing his own seal, Judah admits his mistake, saying that he put his own desire to not lose his son, whom he mistakenly believe would die as the others had, before both the religious obligation to ensure that his sons had heirs and the financial good of his family. This ability to sacrifice one’s own needs for the good of the family and understanding of key cultural values are necessary qualities for leadership.
Judah’s older brothers, Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, all fail at doing this (Reuven when he shows no concern for anyone but himself with his only reaction to Joseph’s disappearance is to wonder how their father will punish him for not keeping Joseph safe, and Shimon and Levi and Levi when they turn their desire for justice for their sister’s rape into vengeance and kill not only the perpetrator but all of his subjects as well, and act which brings the other peoples of the region close to declaring war on their family). It is because of these failings of his brothers and this own success if his that Judah’s tribe will merit becoming the head of the Jewish people through the Davidic dynasty.

Commentary for Vayishlach

15 Nov

Names have a lot of meaning in the Bible. When an important character is born, especially in Genesis, we are not only told the character’s name, but why he or she was given that name. When a name is changed it is even more important because it marks a fundamental change in the character. In this week’s parshah Jacob spends all night wrestling an angel, and afterwards insists upon being blessed by the angel. The angel blesses him by giving him a new name, saying “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed (Gen 32:29).”

This change of name marks a newly-renamed Israel. Previously, as Jacob, he had spent most of the past twenty years concerning himself with worldly, material matters. He fled from his brother Esau for fear of his life, and spent twenty years working for his uncle Lavan to earn the right to marry Lavan’s daughters and start a family, and then to earn money to support that family. He then left Lavan’s household and is heading back to Cana’an, but is now concerned with having to face Esau again, having heard that Esau is bringing and army to slaughter him.

The night before his encounter with the angel, Jacob prays to God to protect him and his family from Esau. The next day Jacob sets off alone bearing a large gift of flocks for Esau and at night he encounters the angel. As they wrestle, Jacob puts all of his faith in God’s promise to protect him, and because of this he manages to defeat the angel, even ignoring a serious and painful thigh wound. Having put his faith in God’s protection rather than the physical limitations of his body, Jacob merits this blessing from the angel, and emerges from the ordeal as Israel, a man who has faith that God will help take care of his worldly material needs, and is thus able to focus much more on the spiritual aspects of life.

Then, in the very next verse after his re-naming, the Torah refers to Israel as “Jacob” again.
When Abraham’s name is changed, the name “Abram” is never mentioned again, and the Gemara even records a debate about whether to do so would be violating a commandment (Berachot 13a). Israel, on the other hand, is still often called Jacob throughout the rest of the Bible (even God does so in Gen. 46:2). This is done to teach us that both the material and the spiritual are important and neither should be focused on so much that we completely ignore of the other. In order to lead a healthy life, we must find the right balance between Jacob and Israel.

Commentary for Vayetzei

8 Nov

Of all of the stories of the life of Jacob, Genesis 31 receives very little attention. Everyone knows about Jacob lying to his father to acquire his birthright, his subsequent flight from his brother Esau, his famous dream of the ladder of angels, and about how Jacob worked for his uncle Lavan for seven years for the right to may Lavan’s daughter Rachel, only to be deceived at the weeding and married to Lavan’s other daughter, Leah, instead, and then having to work for another seven years to marry Rachel. The later internal strife in Jacob’s household as a result of his parental favoritism of Joseph has even been made into a musical. The story of Jacob and his family’s flight from and final confrontation with Lavan, however, remains largely outside of the modern Jewish conscience, despite the fact that it establishes two of the major struggles in Jewish history.
After twenty years of working for Lavan (seven to marry Leah, seven more to marry Rachel, and six years after that to provide for his new family), Jacob has finally gotten fed up with Lavan’s lies and deception. His relationship with Lavan has deteriorated, and Lavan’s sons are plotting against him, so Jacob, acting on advice from God, decides to take his family and leave. A few days later, when Lavan hears of this, he takes his army and chases after them, eventually overtaking and surrounding them.
Lavan first tries to guilt Jacob into coming back, then tries to intimidate him into doing so, and then flying into a rage, accusing Jacob of stealing his household idols from him. Jacob flatly denies the charge, declaring that “anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive (Gen 31:32).” With Jacob’s consent, Lavan begins rummaging through all of Jacob’s bags, as well as those of his family and their servants, but finds nothing.
After suffering this last indignity, Jacob vents his frustrations to Lavan, and Lavan backpedals, once again trying to assure Jacob that they are all one happy family. “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. What can I do (to provide) for my daughters and these children that they have borne if this is the situation (that they are not living within my household) (Gen 31:43)? Jacob does not give in and they agree to go their separate ways.
This passage shares many common elements with the story of the Exodus, and Lavan himself is compared to Pharaoh in the Hagadah as one who tried to destroy the Jewish people. This attempt at destruction comes in the form of Lavan’s attempt to bring them back into his household, which the Rabbis interpret as a desire to convert them to idolaters, and thus this passage establishes the theme of the Jewish people being persecuted by others because of their religious beliefs. The theme of persecution fits nicely, but we run into a moral problem here because Lavan was actually right about the charge of theft.
Unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel had, indeed, stolen her father’s household idols. Rachel’s motivation for doing this has confounded scholars for centuries, but there are tow major schools of thought: that she did it in an effort to prevent her father from worshipping idols, or that she still believed in the idols. Either way, she brought false gods into Jewish society, and the struggle with false Gods has been the other major challenge throughout Jewish history. If looked at not in the context of this story, but in the general context of the Jewish religion, Jacob’s response to Lavan’s accusation of theft in 31:32 can easily read as a general condemnation of idol worshippers. “Anyone with whom is found your (i.e. foreign) gods shall not survive.”
The section in the hagadah that mentions Lavan is found at the end of a brief history of the Jewish people, which starts “in the beginning our ancestors worshipped idols.” The actual quote that mentions Lavan is taken from the beginning of the ceremony of giving over the first fruit from Deut. 26. It starts off with “an Aramean tried to destroy my father,” goes on to briefly recount the story of the Exodus, and finally acknowledges that the fruit of the land, as well as the land itself, is also a gift from God. We will face the challenges of persecution and temptation to stray away from God, but if we stay true to God, he will deliver us from persecution just as he has done for our ancestors.

Commentary for Toldot

1 Nov

Most tests of faith in the Bible are physical. Someone is put in a situation where they must do something that is contrary to all common sense. He or she must put himself or herself in a position where all logic and science says that he or she will come out of the situation gravely wounded or dead, but, through the protection of God, they come out all right.
Other tests of faith are matters of internal struggle. Sometimes someone is put in a position we he or she must do something that is so very against that person’s nature. These tests receive a lot less attention from Biblical commentators, as having to tell a fib seems much less impressive than allowing yourself to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than bowing down to a gigantic golden idol. Many times, though, these internal tests are what shape who we truly are.
Jacob and Esau were very much opposites. Jacob was a studious young man, who sat in his tent and learned all day, while Esau was a hunter. Jacob coveted his older brother’s birthright. Fortunately for Jacob, Esau did not care much for the birthright, and they worked out a trade: Jacob, who cared about spiritual aspects of life, would receive Esau’s birthright, and Esau, who cared much more for the physical pleasures of life than he did for that spiritual mumbo-jumbo about some invisible God, would receive a bowl of lentil stew.
Another major difference between the two brothers was their dedication to the truth. Jacob strove to tell the truth at all times, while Esau would say whatever would suit his needs at the time. When Isaac is laying upon his deathbed and he asks Esau to bring him a meal so that he may bless him with his birthright, Esau neglects to mention to his father that he sold the birthright to Jacob, and instead goes off to make Isaac a meal, thinking that he will get away with both the birthright and that old bowl of soup from years ago.
Rebecca hears of this, and quickly springs into action. She has been undergoing her own test, having to keep secret from her family the prophecy she received when her sons were still in her womb (Gen 25:23), that the younger was to be the one who carried on the mission of Abraham and Isaac, and she springs into action. She fetches Jacob, cooks a meal for Isaac, and orders Jacob to impersonate Esau, bring the meal to their nearly-blind father, and ask him for the birthright of the firstborn. While Jacob knows that he rightfully purchased the birthright from Esau, he is very uncomfortable about deceiving his father. He goes through with the plan anyway, though, and Isaac does indeed confer upon him the birthright of the firstborn.
When Esau returns and finds out what happens, he flies into a rage, and after securing a blessing of from his father, promptly starts to plot to kill Jacob so that he will be Isaac’s sole inheritor and receive all of his property when he dies. Learning of this, Jacob, acting upon instructions from his parents, heads off to stay with his uncle in Padan-Aram.
Although he knew he was only ensuring that he received the birthright he had fairly and rightly acquired, Jacob is still very bothered by having lied to his father, and even his father’s tacit approval of the act by not rebuking him for it in anyway (and, indeed, by blessing him again), does not comfort him. It haunts him so much that it keeps him awake at night, and even after a dream from God tacitly approving his actions at the beginning of next week’s parshah, Jacob is still bothered by his actions. He rededicates himself to the truth, and is honest, in some ways to a fault. Though it was a terribly negative experience for him, this test shapes Jacob, and helps him resolve to become the pillar of truth he is lauded as throughout Jewish literature.