Archive | December, 2015

Commentary For Shemot

31 Dec

Last week’s parshah seemed to give us something of a happy ending, with Joseph and his brothers reconciled, and the Israelite family all living happily together in Egypt, with Joseph as the second most powerful person in the most powerful country in the world. This week we learn that things didn’t go so well after that, with Joseph’s contribution to Egypt’s survival being either forgotten or erased, until a newly-ascended Pharaoh decided that the Israelites were too much of a threat should they decide to rise up against Egypt, so he enslaved and oppressed them.

 

While the exact nature of most of the hardships placed upon the Israelites by the Egyptians is kept vague in the text (though it is later expounded on by the Rabbis of the Mishnah), the two that are specifically mentioned are the murder of male Israelite babies, and the building of two cities for Pharaoh, named Pitom and Ramses, and “harsh labor with mortar and with bricks, and with all the tasks of the field (Ex. 1:14).” As we find out towards the end of the parshah in chapter five, this included the Israelites being forced to make the very bricks they would be forced to use in the construction of Pharaoh’s projects.

 

Despite being an important construction material in the ancient world, the words “brick” or “bricks” (“le’veinah”/”le’veinim”) appears very few times in the Torah. Almost all of those are in this week’s parshah, with the only two that aren’t being in the story of the Tower of Babel at the beginning of Genesis 11. In that story, humanity wanted to build a tower to Heaven and make war on God. When Moses comes to Pharaoh and tells him that God says he must let the Israelites go free, Pharaoh, too, tries to go to war with God by proving his own power.

 

The idea of trying to go to war with God seems ridiculous to us. We are mere mortals and God is our omnipotent Creator. How could anyone think they would stand a chance?

 

Bricks are an artificial construction material. They are not animal products or things you find on trees or in the ground. They are things that we humans make by mixing different things together to make something new. The people of Babel wanted to use this material that they had made to build a grandiose monument to their own ability. Likewise, Pharaoh had others use these artificial materials for him to build cities for him- one of which he even named after himself or one of his ancestors. The people of Babel would look at their tower and say “look at this amazing thing we are creating. Look at how great we are!” while Pharaoh would look at his cities and say “look at what I have created! How great and powerful I am!”

 

And in their self-aggrandizing revelry, they forgot one extremely important fact: none of this would have been possible without God. It was God who created the raw materials from which they build their bricks, the land upon which they build their buildings, and it was God who created them themselves to have these ideas in the first place. Because they ignored God’s hand in their own works, they saw these works as purely their own creations, and by doing so, they made themselves gods in their own minds. Thus, when the time came, they foolishly believed that they could defeat God, and thus came their downfall.

 

There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s achievements. Humility is a virtue, but excess humility can be a bane. In our pride, though, we must remember that God is a partner in our accomplishments, for without God, none of them would be possible.

Commentary for Vayechi

29 Dec

In this week’s parshah, Jacob, on his deathbed, calls all of his sons to him so that he can “tell you what is to befall you in the End of Days (Gen. 49:1).” While this seems to promise specific knowledge of future events, the majority of Jacob’s messages to his sons here seem be more of a commentary on each son’s character than a prophecy of what is to befall each son. Because of this, most commentators understand Jacob’s words as referring to what will happen to the tribes that will bear their names (which were said to have similar temperaments to their progenitors) rather than to the men themselves.

Jacob does not mince his words to his sons. He is positive where he feels it is warranted, but is also not afraid to criticize where he feels it is necessary. Of the criticisms handed out, the harshest by far are delivered to Shimon and Levi. To them Jacob says, “Shimon and Levi are comrades, their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Into their conspiracy may my soul not enter, into their congregation may my honor not join; for in their rage they kill people, and at their whim they maim an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is fierce, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob, and I will disperse them in Israel (Gen. 49:5-7).”

The reason for this harsh rebuke stems from the incident of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah, recounted in Gen. 34. In short, a local prince named Shechem came across Dinah in the field one day, kidnapped her and raped her. He felt terrible about what he done, so he sent his father the king to negotiate with Jacob, offering to pay any amount of money or do anything in order to put the incident behind them and let Dinah stay with him as his wife and have peace between their peoples. Jacob’s sons tell Shechem and his father in order to be allowed to marry Dinah (and allow for the possibility of more marriages between their peoples, as Shechem and his father suggest would help cement a peaceful coexistence), they and all of the men of their city must first circumcise themselves. Shechem and his father find these terms acceptable, and after convincing their citizens to go along with it, they all circumcise themselves… and while they are all weakened and in pain from the procedure, Shimon and Levi slipped into the city, rescued their sister, and killed Shechem, his father, and all of the other men in the city. The chapter then closes out with an argument between Jacob and Shimon and Levi in which Shimon and Levi appear to be given the last word.

Our parshah’s scene of Jacob, on his deathbed, addressing each of his sons with a special message is mirrored in the very last parshah of the Torah, in which Moses gives one final address to the Israelites on the eve of his death, offering a unique and personal blessing to each tribe… with the exception of Shimon.

In Levi’s blessing, the Levites are praised as those “who said of his father and mother ‘I consider them not,’ did not recognize his brothers, and did not know his children; for they [the Levites] have observed Your word, and your covenant they preserved. They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense before Your presence, and burnt offerings on Your altar (Deut. 33:9-10).” While that first verse does not sound like praise when taken on its own, the second verse teaches us that the first verse refers to the incident of the golden calf, in which the Levites took up arms against all of those who refused to renounce the idol, showing no favor to idolatrous family members, being loyal only to God and those who serve God, an act for which the Levites were rewarded with their special responsibilities of carrying out sacrifices. This same attribute for which Levi was rebuked by Jacob is praised by Moses as a virtue which earned his descendants a special role in God’s service.

Jacob’s prophecy about Shimon and Levi being separated and dispersed within Israel does come true, but in very different ways. Levi is dispersed and separated in that his tribe is not given a large parcel of territory like all of the others are, but rather they are giving responsibility for running the thirty-nine cities of refuge placed around the country, and are also separated spiritually by their special mandate of service to God. Shimon was dispersed by simply being assimilated into the tribe of Judah, whose territory in Israel surrounded it (which Rashi notes is alluded to in Moses’ blessing to Judah, which starts out with the word “Shema,” which comes from the same root as Shimon’s name).

It is often hard for us to see our own flaws, and when others point them out to us, we often become defensive, but if we can keep our minds open and be honest with ourselves, we like Levi, can work on those flaws and improve ourselves, and even turn our flaws into virtues. If we won’t, we can very well wind up like Shimon, and deny our flaws until we let them destroy us.

 

Commentary for Vayigash

22 Dec

In this week’s parshah, Jacob makes a very difficult decision. Faced with a harsh famine in the land of Cana’an and many more years of famine to come according to Joseph’s message, he accepts an invitation from Joseph to move the whole family down to Egypt, where Joseph’s management skills have ensured that there will be enough food to last through the famine. This is not a decision that he takes lightly. He is moving his family off of the land that God has promised to them, and is taking them to a country where God has prophesied that they will wind up being oppressed and enslaved. God has never failed Jacob or his family before, and yet now their only chance for survival seems to be to give up the inheritance that God has granted them and to travel to a foreign land where God has decreed that they will suffer.

 

Jacob is clearly troubled by this decision, but God calls down to him to assuage his fears. God calls to Jacob by repeating his name twice, to which Jacob answers, “here I am (Gen. 46:2).” This same formula appears earlier in Genesis, which an angel calls down to Abraham when he is about to sacrifice his son Isaac. In both of these cases, our forefather is about to do something that he doesn’t want to do but feels that he must do, despite the fact that he fears it will cause grave harm to the future of the Jewish People. In both cases, God (or a licensed messenger thereof) shows up to provide clarification as to the correct course of action, followed by a message of God’s continued commitment, both to the patriarch personally and to the Jewish People as a whole, and then, slightly later, by a physical manifestation of this promise.

 

In the case of Abraham, the physical manifestation of this promise, while not framed as such, is directly stated in the text. When he returns home, Abraham receives a message informing him of some major updates to his family tree. Not only has his brother had children, but his brother’s children have had children as well.   One of these new family members is a granddaughter, Rebecca, who Abraham will soon send for to marry Isaac and become the next matriarch of the Jewish People.

 

For Jacob, the physical manifestation of God’s promise is much less clear from a direct reading of the text. The next section after God reassures Jacob is the list the people who go down to Egypt with Jacob. Jacobs children and grandchildren are all tallied up, each divided into groups based on who their mother is. This accounts for sixty-six direct descendants of Jacob that come down to Egypt with him. When we add in Jacob himself, as well as Joseph and his two sons who were already in Egypt, we get a grand total of seventy people (excluding spouses) in Jacob’s household in Egypt. A more careful reading of the text reveals one problem with this: there are only sixty-nine people listed.

Leah’s total is listed as thirty-three offspring, but there are only thirty-two (living) descendants listed.

 

Rashi solves the mystery thusly: The missing name is that of Leah’s son Levi’s daughter, Yocheved, who isn’t listed by name because, at the time the family was traveling down to Egypt, she hadn’t been born yet. Rather, Yocheved was born as they crossed the border into Egypt. Just as the introduction of Rebecca is a sign to Abraham of God’s continued commitment to the Jewish People, so is the birth of Yocheved as the family crosses into Egypt a sign to Jacob of God’s continued commitment to the promise of the continuation of the Jewish People even as they enter into this new chapter in a land that is not their own. Additionally, with the benefit of hindsight, we today can see that the birth of Yocheved as the family entered Egypt was not just a sign of God’s commitment to t he continued growth of the Jewish People, but also a sign of God’s continued commitment to the promise of redemption, as Yocheved’s son Moses would be the one to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Just like our forefathers, we, too, often face difficult decisions in our lives. God is there for us to help us face these decisions, so long as we are able to recognize the signs.

Commentary for Mikeitz

11 Dec

The modern discussion of Hanukkah often centers around two ideas: the miracle of the oil, and the freedom to practice our religion in the face of oppression by a foreign power. While these are both important parts of the holiday, Hanukkah is also a holiday about how we deal with assimilation; not the forceful attempts to make us assimilate like Antiochus’ decrees that Jews could not observe Shabbat or else, but the more gentle assimilation that comes from simply being exposed to a culture we might find appealing. The Maccabees did not only fight against the forces of Antiochus who were telling us that we weren’t allowed to practice our religion, but also against those who met Antiochus’ decrees by shrugging their shoulders and saying “oh well. If giving up Judaism is what it means to be part of Hellenistic society, then I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.”

This is not to say that any level of assimilation is bad. The Bible expects us to deal with non-Jews as neighbors, business associates, and military allies, the Talmud teaches us how to relate to non-Jews as a civil authority, and generations of responsa have expanded on these laws and others to help us relate with non-Jews in all aspects of our lives. Judaism understands the need to participate in outside culture, and only discourages it when there is a conflict between the culture and Jewish values and practices.

Obviously things get murkier when we try to determine what crosses that line and what doesn’t, but one of the major schools of thought in the past century has been the importance of Jewish identity, and the idea that it doesn’t have to be sacrificed in order to integrate ourselves into a society in which the vast majority of people are not Jewish. On this, we can take a lesson from this week’s parshah.

Joseph, after successfully interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, is made Pharaoh’s second-in-command. In order to execute this role, he must become a part of Egyptian society. He is given an Egyptian wife and an Egyptian name and works for the Egyptian government, and despite all of this, he still retains his Jewish identity. His Egyptian name, Tzaphenat-Pane’ach, only appears in the verse where he is given that name (Gen. 41:45), and never again. Throughout the text, he is always referred to by his Hebrew name of “Joseph,” even when the text is directly quoting Egyptians talking to other Egyptians about him (such as in Gen. 45:16). He makes his religion part of his sons’ lives, circumcising them (the Torah would have pointed it out if they weren’t), and giving both of them names that praise God for the things God has done for Joseph.

The name of Joseph’s older son, Menasheh, is explained by Joseph as meaning “God has made me forget completely my hardship and all of my parental home (Gen. 41:51),” is interpreted by the Etz Chayim as meaning that “Joseph is not saying that he has forgotten the circumstances of his coming to Egypt. He is saying that he remembers them but that the memory no longer oppresses him (p. 256).” Joseph, whose miserable experience with his brothers combined with the fact the he has risen to the top everywhere he has been through his own skills should have given him every reason to abandon Judaism, instead embraces and accepts it as an important and immutable part of who he is. Joseph, just like all of us, has been blessed with skills that he can use to make the world- not just the Jewish world, but the world as a whole- a better place. To this end, he understands that he must become part of Egyptian society, but he makes sure that he never has to sacrifice his Judaism to do so. This is an example that we should all follow.

Commentary for Vayeishev

6 Dec

This week’s parshah contains the beginning of the story of Joseph. The Torah wastes little time establishing the important relationships in the story. “Joseph, at the age of seventeen, was the supervisor of his brothers at the flock, and he was a youth compared to the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and Joseph would bring negative reports about them to their father. And Israel loved Joseph most of all of his sons since he was a son of maturity, and he made him a fancy tunic. His brothers saw it was he whom their father loved most out of all of his brothers and so they hated him and they could not speak to him peaceably (Gen. 37:2-4).”

On occasion, the Torah will omit a letter from a word. These letters are almost always supporting letters that are almost like an extraneous part of the vowel connected to the previous letter, so removing them does not change the meaning or pronunciation of a word, but rather the departure from the usual spelling is used to teach us something. The word “peaceably-l’shalom” in 37:4 is one such situation.

When we are told that Joseph’s brothers could not speak to him “l’shalom” the letter vav normally found in the word shalom is missing. In fact, this is the only such spelling in any variant of the word shalom anywhere in the Torah. We often teach our children that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” While this is a wonderful rule for the purposes of teaching politeness and preventing problems before they start, it falls short in situations where issues already exist, especially if one side does not recognize them. It can stop things from becoming worse, but it cannot make them better.

Sforno comments that while the brothers avoided Joseph when possible, when it came to matters of business or the household where they could not avoid speaking to him, they would skip the usual exchange of pleasantries and talk only business.  Interestingly, a more mechanical reading of the Hebrew renders the end of 37:4 as, “they could not speak to him for [the reasons of] peace.” When lined up with Sforno’s commentary, we now have a situation where the brothers were able to be civil with Joseph when they absolutely had to talk to him, but avoided him at all costs otherwise because they didn’t want to say anything that would cause strife within their household (an important Jewish principle known as shalom bayit-“ peace of the household”).

While this strategy allowed them to speak civilly to Joseph for the good of the family, civility, while admirable, should not be confused with true peace. It did nothing to resolve the underlying issues between them, and tensions would continue to escalate until the brothers finally sold Joseph into slavery in order to be rid of him. The brothers’ plan to keep the “peace” ultimately failed miserably.

The Torah omits the letter vav from the word “shalom” in 37:4 order to teach us that just like the word “shalom” is not full in this verse, the shalom that the brothers thought they were working towards was destined to be incomplete as well. In order to truly resolve our issues, we need to talk them out. The brothers could not work towards peace between themselves and Joseph because they were unwilling to express their true feelings to him; or, as another possible reading of the phrase states, “they could not speak to him towards [the end of making] peace.”