Archive | December, 2014

Commentary for Vayigash

29 Dec

In this week’s parshah, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and sends them to collect his father and the rest of the family and bring them down to Egypt to live in comfort and escape the famine that has rocked the entire region. Along with the brothers, he sent his father both ten male donkeys laden with the best goods in the land of Egypt, and ten female donkeys laden with grain.


Female donkeys are only given as part of a gift in two other places in the entire Torah. The first is by Pharaoh as reparations to Abraham for kidnapping Sarah, and the second is when Jacob sends a tribute to Esau before returning to Cana’an, hoping that the gift will quell Esau’s rage if it is still burning after twenty years. In both of these instances, the she-donkeys are given as part of a peace-offering as reparations for a harm, whether it be real (as in the case of Pharaoh’s kidnapping of Sarah) or perceived (as with Esau’s belief that Jacob stole the birthright that Esau had sold to him many years before).


But what harm did Joseph do to his father that would require him to make reparations? The best answer seems to be that despite being second-in-command of Egypt for a over a decade, Joseph has not yet even attempted to let his father know that he is still alive. The question then becomes “why has Joseph let his beloved father live with the anguish of believing his son to be dead when it was well within his power to inform his father that he was not only alive, but doing extremely well?”


Joseph’s comments to his brothers when he reveals his identity to them (Gen. 43: 3-13) indicate that Joseph believed himself to be acting in accordance with a Divine plan. Everything that has happened to him since his brother sold him into slavery was done to put him in his position at this time so that he could save the family from starvation in the famine. And he seems to have been right.


But what if he was wrong? What if Jacob’s family managed to survive the famine without needing to go to Egypt for food? Would Joseph ever have revealed to his father that he was still alive if his brothers had not come down to Egypt to beg for food? What if he had just kept waiting for a moment of destiny that was never destined to be?


Although events had just proven Joseph’s belief to be correct, he still felt the need to make reparations to his father for the years of unnecessary anguish he had caused him. Even when we act with the best of intentions, it is still possible that our actions cause harm to others, and it is up to us to do what we can to apologize for this harm, even if our actions prove to have been correct in the end.


Commentary for Mikeitz

22 Dec

This week’s parshah is quite the long one, containing the third-most words and second-most letters of any parshah in the Torah. First Pharaoh has a dream which none of his advisors can interpret. Then Joseph interprets the dream for him and devises a plan to save Egypt from the oncoming famine, so Pharaoh makes Joseph his second-in-command and he implements his plan. When the famine comes, it hits Cana’an hard, so Jacob sends all of his sons but Benjamin to go down to Egypt to buy food. When they come before Joseph they do not recognize him, but he recognizes them and messes around with them for a while, first sending them back home with food but ordering them to return with their youngest brother while keeping one of them as a hostage, then, when all eleven brothers return, he messes with them even more by framing Benjamin for theft.

While there is a lot of action here, there is surprisingly little that happens of any real religious significance. There are no mitzvot given, no warnings by God that continued sinning will lead to Divine punishment, very little in the way of praise of God, and no real moral lessons to be drawn from the characters’ actions. The closest we get to any of this is Joseph pointing out that it is God who gives him the power to interpret dreams (Gen. 41:16), the brothers wondering whether God is punishing them for selling Joseph into slavery (Gen. 42:29), and a quick blessing of Benjamin by Joseph that “God be gracious” to him (Gen. 43:29), comprising a mere thirty-five of the parshah’s two thousand and twenty-two words.

This parshah is also one of only three to end on a sad or distressing note, which is something that Jewish tradition usually goes to great lengths to avoid. Between its apparent lack of religious or moral significance and its breaking this rule of trying to avoid sad endings, one is left to wonder why it was not combined with next week’s parshah which completes the Joseph story, and one of the other long parshahs was not split in two to replace it?

There was once a Jew who was walking through the woods from one shtetl to another, but he made a wrong turn along way and got lost. After several hours of walking, he emerged from the woods and realized that he was not where he was supposed to be. Realizing that he was lost, he continued walking along the path, hoping to come to a signpost that would set him back in the right direction.

When he saw a crossroads along the way, he excitedly ran towards it, but when he reached it he saw that the signpost was broken, having been uprooted by a strong wind and blown completely to the other side of the road from where it had once stood. He picked it up, hoping to put it back in its proper place, but realized that with so many different signs for so many different towns he didn’t know, he would not be able to orient the signs correctly, and trying to follow it would simply result in getting even more lost.

Then he had an idea. He knew which direction he had come from, so he stood the post up aligning the sign for his hometown in the direction he had come from, and from that was able to correctly follow the sign to get to his intended destination.

Information is useless without context. This parshah, which is entirely narrative with little in the way of religious messages or moral lessons, is presented to us like this because it is a piece of our history, and that alone makes it important to understanding our people. If we do not understand our past, we will not be able to understand our present or make the correct choices for our future.

Commentary for Vayeishev

12 Dec

There is an old saying that “the clothes make the man.” Obviously this is not true, as everyone has different skills, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and experiences that make us the complete individuals that we are, but there is some truth to the idea that you can learn something about someone by examining the clothes that he or she wears. The best example of this is found in military uniforms. We know who is a lieutenant, who is a colonel, who is a major, and who is a general because they all have different numbers of stripes, stars, and pips on their uniforms. If you put a general in a cadet’s uniform, no one would listen to him unless they knew him personally and knew him to be a general because his uniform is what informs everyone of what authority he has.

In this week’s parshah we begin to see Joseph’s skill for management. Despite being born eleventh of the twelve, Joseph is placed in charge of his brothers, and given a fancy coat to signify his authority. While the text makes no bones about the fact that Jacob’s decision to place Joseph in a position of authority was influenced, at least in part, by favoritism, it also becomes quite clear that management is an area in which Joseph was particularly skilled. After being sold into slavery, he rises up through the ranks and becomes the overseer of Potiphar’s household. After he is thrown in prison in Egypt, the warden recognizes his skills and makes him the chief prisoner, responsible for organizing all of the others.

It is interesting to note that both times that Joseph loses his position of high authority in this week’s parshah are immediately preceded by his clothes being torn and used as evidence against him. Before his brothers sell him into slavery, they rip off his fancy striped coat so they can dip it in goat’s blood to convince their father that Joseph has died so that he will have to pick another overseer for them, and Potiphar’s wife rips Jacob’s robe and uses it as evidence to falsely accuse him of raping her after he resists her advances. In both cases Joseph is stripped of his uniform and the authority it grants him, but manages to work his way back up the totem pole by using the God-given skills that earned him that authority in the first place.

Like Joseph, we often end up in situations where we feel like we have lost something that was an important part of our self-identity. When we feel this way, it is important to follow Joseph’s example and remember that our successes are a result of our God-given skills and abilities- of the things that make us the unique individuals that we are- and that if we apply ourselves and use those skills, there is nothing stopping us from climbing right back up to the mountaintop.

Commentary for Vayishlach

10 Dec

It used to be that one of the most dangerous things a woman could do was give birth. Thankfully, great strides have been made in science and medicine that have monumentally reduced the rate of maternal mortality over the past hundred and fifty years, but for most of human history, it was a very real danger. Given this, it seems surprising that in the entire Bible, which covers thousands of years, there are only two recorded cases of maternal mortality. The first is that of our matriarch Rachel, which occurs in this week’s parshah.

The dynamics of Rachel‘s marriage to Jacob and Jacob’s marriage to Rachel’s sister Leah were very unfortunate. Jacob loved Rachel and had worked out a deal with his uncle Lavan, the girls’ father, in which he agreed to work for Lavan for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. On the day of the wedding, Lavan pulled a switcheroo, replacing Rachel for her older sister Leah, whose face was concealed under a veil. When Jacob confronted Lavan over this, Lavan cited a local custom that the older daughter must always be married off first, which he had conveniently forgotten to mention to Jacob at any point in the past seven years. So great was Jacob’s love for Rachel, though, that he agreed to work another seven years in exchange for her hand in marriage. Even upon discovering that she was barren while Leah was fertile, Jacob still spent most of his time with Rachel causing Leah to often feel ignored.

This dynamic would come to define the relationship between the three of them. Even though she was the wife Jacob had never wanted, Leah was the one who was able to bear children to carry on the legacy of the Jewish People, and yet Jacob still spent most of his time with Rachel. Leah’s feelings are made clear to us through the names of her children, especially the first three, as detailed in Gen. 29:32-34. The eldest, Reuven, is so named by Leah because it derives from the phrase “Ra’ah Adonai b’onyi” – “’the Lord has seen my affliction’ (and now my husband will love me) (Gen. 29:32),” but the name itself literally means “look! A son!”

Rachel, for her part, takes no joy in the attention she receives from her husband, or really from anything else in life because all she thinks about is the fact that she is barren while her sister is fertile. Years later, when Jacob already has ten sons, God finally answers Rachel’s prayers and blesses her and Jacob with a son. Rachel declares, “God has taken away my disgrace” of childlessness, and then names this long awaited child “Joseph,” meaning “may the Lord add another son for me (Gen. 30:24).” God grants this as well, and when a midwife tells her to “have no fear, it is another son for you (Gen. 35:17),” to which Rachel responds by naming the child “Ben-Oni,” meaning “the son of my affliction.” Even after God answers her prayers for a child twice, Rachel still sees herself as suffering from an “affliction.” Her family lives comfortably, she has all of her husband’s love, one healthy child, and now a second one as well, but Rachel ignores all of the good that God has done for her, and as a result, God uses the danger of childbirth to end her life. Jacob then gives the child the much more positive name Benjamin, meaning “son of the right,” which was a symbol of strength and success.

Interestingly, the other case of maternal mortality occurs under very similar and yet opposite circumstances. The fourth chapter of the first book of Samuel starts off with the Israelites suffering a grave defeat at the hands of the Philistines, after which the Israelites decide to bring the Ark of the Covenant along with them into battle, hoping that it will give them a better chance to win next time. It doesn’t work, and not only do the Israelites lose, but the Ark is captured by Philistines as well.

Among the casualties of this battle are Chofni and Pinchas, the sons of Eli the High Priest. When Eli hears the terrible news of both the capture of the Ark and the death of his sons, he dies of shock. The next person informed of this news is Pinchas’ wife, who is in labor. Her attendants tell her “fear not, for you have borne a son (I Sam. 4:20).” Rather than take comfort in this miracle of childbirth and having a child to carry on her family’s legacy, “she did not take it to heart. She called the boy ‘Iy Chavod’ (“there is no glory”) meaning ‘Glory has been exiled from Israel because the Ark of God has been captured and because of [the deaths of] her father-in-law and her husband (I Sam. 4:20-21).” She, too, then dies in childbirth.

While Rachel was only interested in bearing children and paid no attention to all of the other good God had done for her, Pinchas’ wife was so affected by the tragedy around her that she did not notice the blessing God had given her when it was almost literally right in front of her nose. We all suffer many hardships in our lives, and it can feel overwhelming, but if we are to get through those hardships, it is essential to remember all of the goodness in our lives so that the hardships do not consume us.

Commentary for Vayeitzei

1 Dec

This week’s parshah begins with Jacob setting out from his home in Be’er-sheva to go to his uncle’s house in Paddan-aram to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. When night falls, he goes to sleep and has a dream. In his dream he sees a ladder that stretches from the Earth to the heavens, with angels going up and down. God then speaks to Jacob and assures him that he will have Divine protection and reaffirms to Jacob the same promises made to Abraham; his descendants shall be too numerous to count and they will inherit the Land of Israel. Even if circumstances force them to leave, God will always stay with them and eventually return them to the Promised Land.


When he awakens from his dream, Jacob says something slightly startling: “Surely the Lord” is in this place and I did not know it (Gen. 28:16).” God’s omnipresence is one of the basic tenants of Judaism. How is it that Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, grandson of Abraham and Sarah, who was noted for spending all of his time studying and who had just been designated the next leader of the Jewish People, did not know that God was in that place the whole time?


It is interesting to note that while God is everywhere in God’s world, the more that we focus on worldly needs, the harder that Godliness becomes to see. On the run for his life, taking almost nothing with him, Jacob was cold, tired, hungry, nervous, and afraid, to the point where even he, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, and learned man, and the next spiritual leader of the Jewish People, lost sight of God’s presence in the world. And if it can happen to Jacob, it can surely happen to the rest of us. Fortunately, just like with Jacob, God is always there for us, trying to show us the Divine Presence in the world. All we need to do is keep our eyes open.