Archive | December, 2013

Commentary for Va’eira

27 Dec

This week’s parshah contains both the initial confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh as well as the first seven on the ten plagues.  While the story of the Exodus has always been considered to be one of, if the single most important stories in the history of the Jewish People, many modern theologians and philosophers have become uncomfortable with the ten plagues due to the collective nature of the punishment.  Many Egyptians (probably even a majority of Egyptians) did not own Jewish slaves, just as many Americans in the antebellum South did not own slaves.  Surely not every Egyptian benefited from the various projects Pharaoh forced the Israelites to labor on.  And yet, every Egyptian suffers from the plagues.  Surely our all-powerful, all-knowing God knows who is innocent and who is guilty, and can tailor the plagues to only strike the guilty, so why are all Egyptians punished, regardless of their role in the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites?


The end of the Book of Judges contains a very disturbing incident in which, after a woman is brutally gang-raped to death, the Tribe of Benjamin refuses to prosecute the guilty parties.  When the armies of the rest of the tribes come to forcibly extradite the guilty, the army of Benjamin stands against them in an attempt to protect the people who committed this heinous crime.  After a series of battles, most of the Tribe of Benjamin, both soldiers and civilians, are killed.  In the particular town where the atrocity took place, every man and woman of marriageable age- in other words, all those old enough to know the difference between right and wrong- are put to the sword.  They are punished because they saw an atrocity and allowed it to happen.  They are punished because they made no effort to stand up and pursue justice.  They are punished because they chose to protect the guilty rather than to stand up for the innocent.


All of the Egyptians are struck with the plagues because, like the people of Benjamin, they all chose to do nothing and allow atrocities to happen. Over hundreds of years of slavery, only two midwives ever made an attempt to stop the injustice that was all around them.  In Ex. 1:22, Pharaoh commanded “all of his people” to assist in the slaughter of Israelite babies.  Surely not all of them personally murdered babies, but even those who sat back and did nothing become complicit in the crime because they did nothing to stop it.


This requirement to fight injustice and oppression does not rest solely with the majority, though.  Before the fourth plague, God tells Moses “I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no wild beasts shall be there (Ex. 8:18).”  Making this distinction here, before the fourth plague, implies that the Israelites were struck by the first three plagues, too.


The reason for this is that the Israelites have come to accept their slavery.  Despite crying out to God to save them, when Moses shows up and says that God has sent him to save them, they ignore him because they know that it would require facing new hardships. By not standing up for themselves and trying to take an active role in their own liberation, the Israelites are complicit in their own oppression and are therefore punished with the first three plagues.  The ten plagues teach us that it is the duty of all people everywhere to stand up against injustice and oppression, be it against themselves or others.  Justice is always a cause worth fighting for.

Parshah Commentary for Shemot

20 Dec

This week’s parshah contains the story of the burning bush, which contains a number of firsts in the Torah.  The most interesting of these is the burning bush itself, which is the first time that God sends a miraculous sign specifically to get someone’s attention.  When revealing Himself to Noah and Abraham, God simply called down from the Heavens and they paid attention to Him.  With Moses, who is tending to his sheep in the middle of a desert with no one else around, God creates this burning bush, and only when Moses has seen the bush and recognized that there is something anomalous about it does God finally call out to him (Ex. 3:2-4).  What was so important about the sight of the burning bush itself that God needed Moses to see it and fully take it in before tasking him with his Divine mission?

Much has been said about the symbolism of the burning bush.  The fire represents Egypt, unable to consume the bush that is the Jewish people.  Or perhaps the thorny bush represents Egypt, who painfully afflicted the Israelites, and the supernatural fire represents God punishing Egypt.  Or perhaps the fire represents the Jewish people and bush, eternally feeding it so that it never dies out, represents God.  All of these answers, and many more, are valid, depending on how you want to see things.  The same image can symbolize different things to different people.  In Moses’ case, though, perhaps all three of these were necessary.

Despite being raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses has always known that he is an Israelite and has always tried to sympathize with their plight.  When walking around one day, he happens upon an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating an Israelite slave.  Seeing that there was no one around to intervene and stop this savage beating, Moses takes matters into his own hands.  He defends the Israelite, likely saving the man’s life, and kills the Egyptian taskmaster.

The very next day Moses again goes out for a walk and comes across two Israelites fighting each other.  Moses insists that they stop fighting and asks the aggressor (almost certainly the very same man Moses had saved the day before) “why do you strike your fellow? (Ex.2:13)” to which the slave snidely responds “who made you ruler and judge over us?  Are you going to kill me just like you killed that Egyptian? (Ex. 2:14)”

This statement certainly must have had a jarring effect on Moses.  He saves a man’s life, only to be repaid by a total lack of appreciation for his deed, seeing the man he saved attacking one of his brethren and publicly telling everyone about Moses’ “crime.”  Imagine what Moses must be thinking:  “If this man was just going to go out and attack others, was it really worth it to take another man’s life to save his?  And if the Israelites will turn on each other instead of banding together to help survive these harsh times and turn on those who help them, do they really deserve to be freed?”

During his time in exile Moses has had a lot of time to think these questions over.  Now that it is time for him to play his part in the liberation of the Jewish people, God sends Moses the answer to these questions:  Yes.  Killing the Egyptian was justified, and God, too, will soon take vengeance upon Egypt.  There are a few bad apples in every bunch, but the Egyptians will never defeat the Jewish people because they stand together as one.  They will eternally draw strength from their God and their tradition.  They can never be conquered.

Commentary for Vayechi and Asara B’Tevet

13 Dec

Today on the Hebrew calendar was the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet, one of four fast days that commemorate tragedies that befell the Jewish people in ancient times.  The Tenth of Tevet is unique among these fasts, though, in that it is the only one of them that can override the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat.  When one of the other historical fast days falls on Shabbat, we postpone our fasting and mourning until Sunday.  We even do this for Tisha B’Av, one of the two full-length twenty-five hour fasts, but the Tenth of Tevet, which is only a dawn to nightfall fast, overrides Shabbat.  While the calendar works out in such a way that the Tenth of Tevet cannot fall on a Saturday, it is the only fast that can fall on a Friday, and because Shabbat starts at sunset but the fast doesn’t end until nightfall (the emergence of three stars in the sky), we have this short period of about an hour during which we are fasting on Shabbat.


The specific event marked by Fast of the Tenth of Tevet is the beginning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the First Temple.  To explain why this fast overrides the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat, many scholars note that, when talking about the event, God commands Ezekiel to take note of “this exact day (Ez. 24:2)” on which the siege began.  This same phrase is used in Lev. 23:29 to describe the requirement to fast on Yom Kippur, which is the only other fast day which overrides the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat.


While Halachicly sound, this explanation still seems lacking.  After all, would it not be just as important to make sure that we observe the exact day when multiple major tragedies have befallen the Jewish people, such as on the Seventeen of Tammuz and on Tisha B’Av?  Shouldn’t those fasts override the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat, too?


The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839, Hungary) provides an explanation for this.  He says that it was on the Tenth of Tevet at God decided that the Temple would be destroyed and that the Jews would be exiled.  Now, every year on the Tenth of Tevet, God decides whether or not the Temple will be rebuilt this year, fulfilling God’s promise in Zachariah 8:19 to turn all of the fast days of tragedy such as Tisha B’Av and the Tenth of Tevet into days of joy.  Thus, while on other fasts we fast to commemorate the past, on the Tenth of Tevet, we fast in hope for the future.  Just as we fast on Yom Kippur to show our piety by forgoing our worldly needs to show our dedication to examining our behaviors and sincerely repenting in the hope that God will judge us favorably for the coming year, we fast on the Tenth of Tevet in the hope that God will judge us favorably and turn these days of sadness into days of joy.  Because we are fasting in hope for a better future, the fast is allowed to override the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat.


Just like with Yom Kippur, though, simply fasting is not enough.  If we want to bring about a better world, we need to do so through our actions.  Coming exactly three months after Yom Kippur, the Tenth of Tevet is a good time to examine how we are doing so far this year.  How well have we kept all of those promises of self-improvement that we made to ourselves and to God on Yom Kippur?  Is there anything we should be doing that we aren’t?


In this week’s parshah, Joseph’s brothers realize that despite living peacefully together in Egypt for seventeen years, they have never actually apologized to Joseph for selling him into slavery (which a midrash says actually happened on the Tenth of Tevet).  When they do so, Joseph tells them that he has already forgiven them, and assures them that he will make sure that they and their descendants are sustained, and together they become one group again.  On Yom Kippur we pray for ourselves and focus on how we can improve ourselves, but on the Tenth of Tevet, we focus on what we can do for the whole of the Jewish people.  Just as Joseph and his brothers do their parts to restore the family to oneness, so too do we need to do make sure we are doing our part to work towards a better future.

Commentary for Vayigash

9 Dec

At the end of last week’s parshah, Joseph framed Benjamin for stealing a goblet, and announced that while the rest of the brothers were free to go, Benjamin would remain in Egypt as a slave.  This week’s parshah starts with Judah making a desperate plea to Joseph.  Jacob was reluctant to send Benjamin down to Egypt with the other brothers, and Judah knows that after already losing Joseph, losing Benjamin would cause their father to die of sorrow, so he begs Joseph to allow him to stay as a slave in Benjamin’s stead.  Hearing of the pain this would cause his father and seeing that the brothers were protective of Benjamin in a way they had never been protective of him, Joseph breaks down in tears and reveals his identity to his brothers.


Joseph then sends his brothers back to Cana’an to fetch the rest of their family to stay with them in Egypt until the famine passed.  When the brothers got back to Cana’an and told Jacob the happy news, Jacob refused to believe their story.  Then, upon seeing the wagons Joseph had sent with them, Jacob changed his mind and believed that Joseph was still alive (Gen 45: 27-28).  This begs the question “what was it about the wagons that made Jacob change is mind?”


Rashi answers this question by saying that the Hebrew word for wagon, “agalah” and the Hebrew for word for heifer, “eglah” are comprised of the same Hebrew letters in the same order, only with different vowels.  Therefore, by sending the wagons to Jacob, Joseph was sending him a reminder of the last set of Halachah they had learned together before his disappearance; the laws of the heifer whose neck is broken.  This connection seems tenuous at best, but connecting the laws of the heifer whose neck is broken (Eglah Arufah) with this week’s parshah does yield some interesting insight.


The ceremony of the Eglah Arufah (described in Deut 21: 1-9) takes place when there is an unsolved murder that takes place between the borders of two towns.  In the ceremony, the elders of the town closest to the crops break a heifer’s neck as a guilt-offering to God for not properly escorting the traveler safely to the next town.  The ceremony of the Eglah Arufah teaches us that we still bear some responsibility for things that are out of our control if we had some power to perhaps prevent them.  While a two escorts to see a traveler safely to the next town might not have been enough to stop an entire gang of bandits or a pack of wolves from killing the traveler, they might have been enough to stop just a lone bandit or a lone wolf from doing so, and thus, by not properly escorting the traveler, the government of the town might share a small role in the traveler’s death.


Judah knew that Benjamin’s fate was purely in Joseph’s hands, and that he could not force Joseph to let Benjamin go if Joseph didn’t want to, but he also knew that losing Benjamin would break his father’s heart.  He had to do something.  So he put himself out there.  He offered for Joseph to have him stay and let Benjamin return.  If Joseph accepted the offer, it would save both their father and Benjamin at the cost of his own life, and if Joseph declined, they were no worse off than they were before.


So Judah makes his plea, and by doing so, shows Joseph that his brothers are changed men, leading to the family finally being reunited.  Although things may seem like they are out of our control, we often still do have the chance to influence events, and it is our responsibility as Jews to do so in ways that increases the good in God’s world.