Archive | January, 2017

Commentary for Va’eira

30 Jan

This week’s parshah ends with an extremely important and utterly fascinating series of verses. After the seventh plague has been in effect for some time, “Pharaoh sent and summoned Moses and Aaron to him and said to them ‘this time I have sinned; the Lord is the righteous one and my people and I are the wicked ones. Entreat the Lord- there has been too much Godly thunder and hail; I shall send you out and you shall not continue to remain.’ Moses said to him, ‘When I leave the city I shall spread out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease and the hail will no longer be, so that you shall know that the Earth is the Lord’s…’ Moses went out from Pharaoh, from the city, and he stretched out his hands to the Lord; the thunder and hail ceased and rain did not reach the land. Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn, he and his servants. Pharaoh’s heart became strong and he did not send out the Israelites as the Lord had spoken through Moses (Ex. 9:27-35).”

As anyone familiar with the story of the Exodus knows, this sort of thing is almost formulaic. Pharaoh won’t let the Israelites go so God sends a plague. Pharaoh eventually cracks and promises to free the Israelites if the plague will be lifted, but the moment the plague ends he changes his mind. What most people will be surprised to learn is that here, in 9:34, after we are more than two thirds of the way done with the plagues, is the first time that the narration refers to Pharaoh as one who is committing a “sin,” and even more shockingly, this only occurs after Pharaoh himself uses the word in 9:27 to describe his behavior.

Rashbam explains that this choice of words is no accident. He posits that up until now Pharaoh truly believed himself to be in the right because his stubborn nature would not allow him to believe that Moses was anything more than a skilled magician who had invented a “God” to make himself appear more powerful, but that during this plague Pharaoh finally realized the truth: that the Lord was truly the God with power over all of creation, and Moses was no magician, but rather an emissary of the Lord. Once Pharaoh had come to that realization, vocalized in 9:27, any further refusal on his part ceases to be ignorance and becomes willful sin.

Humans are very smart creatures with very complex brains, but what sets us apart from the animals is the idea of morality- the ability to distinguish between right and wrong; what we should do and what we should not do. When God gave us this gift of morality, God also gave us the accompanying gift of guilt. While often portrayed as a negative emotion, guilt is really a positive force in our lives because it is often guilt that drives us to make the necessary change between what we have done and what we will do; what we are doing and what we know we should be doing. Pharaoh’s downfall is ignoring his guilt. He knows that he has acted wickedly in the eyes of the one true God, whose omnipotence he know understands… and yet he refuses to change his actions and start doing what he now knows that he should be doing. The story of the Exodus is not just a story of our history, but it is a story for our present as well. We should all take heed of Pharaoh’s failure. The next time you get that nagging feeling in the back of your head about what you really should be doing, follow it!


Commentary for Shemot

23 Jan

In this week’s parshah the Israelites find themselves forced rapidly down to the bottom of the Egyptian food chain. Upon their arrival, while they likely did not have all of the rights that a free-born Egyptian would have, they were doing fairly well for themselves, all things considered. They owned their own land in Goshen, were allowed to practice their religion freely, and one of their own was the second most powerful person in the country. Pretty good for a relatively small immigrant community. And yet, over the course of just a few generations, they would become seen as a possible threat to the empire and ultimately be enslaved, and have their male children executed upon birth to prevent any sort of uprising, even though they had showed no signs of being interested in starting one. It almost seems crazy to think that in just a few generations they could go from the people of Joseph, the wise dream-reader who saved Egypt to being public enemy number one, but that is exactly what happened.

The turning point seems to have come when “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph (Ex. 1:8).” It seems equally crazy that someone could have risen to the position of Pharaoh in this time period who had never heard of Joseph. Joseph was a rather young man when he was brought to Egypt and he lived quite a long life; long enough to meet several generations of his descendents who were born in Egypt (Gen. 50:22-23), and was almost certainly in power in the Egyptian court for a majority of that time (the fact that he was embalmed as stated in Gen. 50:26 implies that he at least a man of wealth, if not political influence as well). How could a new Pharaoh have never heard of Joseph? It would be like someone receiving the finest education in America today and having never heard of Thomas Jefferson.

When describing Pharaoh’s lack of knowledge of Joseph, the Torah uses a very interesting word. The word “yada” means “to know,” but it is generally used more for concepts or facts than people (it is the basis of the word “mada,” the modern Hebrew word for science). When applied to people, the word takes on a connotation of a deep understanding and a very personal relationship, and is almost always used as a euphemism for sexual relations.

This new Pharaoh clearly came to power a decent period of time after Joseph’s death, and it is possible that even most of his advisors never knew Joseph personally. To him, Joseph was just a name in a textbook. He was talked about, but not there to speak in his own defense. Like many historical figures, Joseph likely received something of a reevaluation after his death, and as we have seen with many historical figures, it is likely his motives would have been questioned, or accusations brought against him that- true or not- none would dare to speak while he was alive.

Obviously nobody is perfect. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and advocate for the Bill of Rights, supporter of democracy and the freedoms of speech and religion, was also a slaveholder and a rapist. But the idea of throwing out his contributions to history on these grounds would be ludicrous. And yet that is exactly what it seems the Egyptians- or at least some important faction of them- have done to Joseph. Whatever accusations they leveled at him to allow his enormous contributions to be overlooked in Egyptian history paved the way for his descendents to be enslaved. This behavior is what the Torah is warning us against.

When we pray on the High Holidays we do not pray for God to pretend that we have not sinned, nor do we come before God in such absolutely humility that we pretend that we have not fulfilled a single mitzvah. Instead we appear before God and ask that our sins be forgiven, or that they are balanced out by our good deeds, or that we are given the chance to prove that we can overcome our flaws and not repeat the mistakes we have made in the past. When evaluating someone, Judaism asks us to not overlook his or her faults, but also to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, we must be perfectly honest and take both the good and the bad that are an inseparable part of every human being.

Commentary for Vayechi

13 Jan

In this week’s parshah, Jacob passes away. Before he dies, however, he calls his sons to his deathbed in order to tell each of them “what will befall you in the end of days (Gen. 49:1).” Jacob then proceeds to give each of his sons either a prophecy of their future, or either a blessing or a warning, depending on the son- or perhaps a combination of a prophecy and a warning or blessing. Which one it is depends on your point of view.


Jacobs’ prophecies- or blessings, or warnings- start off on a very interesting note- or rather, they start off on a very interesting two notes. Jacob starts off addressing Reuven saying, “Reuven, you are my firstborn (Gen. 49:3),” a routine phrase with a very non-routine pronunciation. The words “bechori atah- you are my firstborn,” would both normally be accented on the last syllable (be-cho-ri a-tah), but in this verse, they are accented on the penultimate syllable (be-cho-ri a-tah), and each due to a different obscure grammatical rule. To make things even stranger, the particular rule that necessitates the change for atah would also normally change the vowel under the first letter to a different vowel with an identical sound, but an additional corollary to that rule negates that change in this particular case. The result is a very common phrase that suddenly becomes very uncommon.


The placement of this phrase at the beginning of Jacob’s final messages to his sons teaches us an important message. Whether you take Jacob’s words as true, Divinely-ordained prophecy or as a commentary on that particular son’s behavior, the message remains that the actions and temperaments of each individual son are the things that will bring that son to the end that Jacob tells him of. No matter how ordinary we might feel we are, we, like this seemingly simple phrase, are unique, and the actions that we take do, in fact, matter, to our lives and to those around us.

Commentary for Vayigash

13 Jan

In this week’s parshah Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, who have come to Egypt seeking food because Cana’an is in the midst of a famine. Joseph first puts his brothers through a harrowing test, framing Benjamin for theft to see if the bothers would turn on Benjamin the way they had on him. Although it would arguably have increased their overall chances of survival to abandon Benjamin, as that would make for one less mouth to share food with during the famine as well as avoid an argument with the person in charge of distributing the food, the brothers come to Benjamin’s defense. Seeing that they have changed their ways, Joseph releases Benjamin and reveals his true identity to them.

During his revelation, Joseph asks his brothers “Is my father still alive (Gen. 45:3)?” Many commentators have noted the odd placement of this question in the narrative.   The brothers have mentioned Jacob multiple times already, all in ways that would indicate that he is alive and well (42:13, 43:28, and even earlier in this same conversation in 44:24-25). Indeed, one of those mentions (43:28) was the brothers responding to Joseph asking “Is your aged father of whom you spoke at peace? Is he still alive?” in the previous verse. So why does Joseph now ask this question again?

Rabbi Avie Gold points to the difference in the wording of the question. He tells a story about teaching this parshah in a seventh grade class in which one of the students, whose father had abandoned the family while the child was still young, explained Joseph’s question as follows: “I know that your father is still alive. He has been with you all these many years; you all live together. He cares about you and is a living father to you. But does he still think of me? Does he still pray for my welfare? Is he anxious to see me again? Is my father still alive?”

Earlier in the conversation, Judah had explained that Benjamin had an older brother but “his brother is dead (Gen. 44:20).” Rashi points out that they did not know this for a fact, which begs the question of why Judah would say that the other brother was “dead” when telling the truth (or part of it, anyway)- that he was sold into slavery- would be an equally reasonable explanation for why the twelfth brother was not with them and why Jacob would be overprotective of Benjamin and heartbroken if he did not return.

One explanation for Judah’s choice of words is that the brothers had simply not given Joseph any thought in many years. Whether or not Joseph was alive somewhere in the world was irrelevant; to them, Joseph was dead.   The great irony of this, of course, is that in that moment of leaping to Benjamin’s defense it was Joseph’s brothers- the ones who had sold him into slavery and not given him a second though- who ceased to exist.

Unlike the bothers, Jacob- Joseph’s father Jacob- had never died. As Gen. 37:35 tells us, Jacob did not let a day go by where he didn’t think about Joseph. When a loved one passes on we carry their memory with us. We remember the good times that we had together and the lessons they have taught us, and we ensure that, through us, they continue to leave their mark on the world. The departed are only truly gone if we allow them to be forgotten.

Commentary for Mikeitz

13 Jan

This week’s parshah continues the story of Joseph. Twice in the course of his story, Joseph is referred to as an “Ivri;” once in this week’s parshah when Pharaoh’s butler is telling Pharaoh about the man he met in prison who is an expert at interpreting dreams (Gen. 41:12) and once in last week’s parshah when Potiphar’s wife is trying to seduce him (Gen. 39:14).

Aside from Joseph, the only other person in the Torah referred to as an “Ivri” is his great-grandfather Abraham, who is referred to as such in Gen. 14:13. While the word “Ivri” has come to mean “a Hebrew,” as is the source of the Hebrew word name for the Hebrew language (“Ivrit”), a more literal translation would be “one who crossed over [from the other side of the river/mountain/valley etc.].” In essence, it means “someone who isn’t from here.” In its commentary on Gen. 14:13, Midrash Rabah adds a little more importance to this distinction, saying that it calls attention to how different Abraham’s values were to those of the natives of the land he was now residing in.

When Abraham is referred to as an “Ivri” it is soon after he has moved to Cana’an, and Abraham was a wealthy individual, and thus would have been well known in the region of Cana’an in which he had settled. Even if he had tried to downplay the differences between himself and his new neighbors, Abraham would not have been able to escape the label.

Joseph, on the other hand, finds himself in the opposite position, both as a slave in Potiphar’s household and then as a prisoner in Potiphar’s dungeon. While Mrs. Potiphar might have been aware of his origins, he had been in Potiphar’s household for long enough to rise to a position of prominence, and thus likely would have been able to easily adapt himself to the Egyptian culture well enough to hide his origins from most everyone else. But when Mrs. Potiphar tells the guards that it was the “Ivri” who tried to rape her, the text does not mention the guards asking who the “Ivri” is, showing that everyone knew Joseph’s origins. Similarly, in the prison Joseph could have easily concealed his nationality from everyone, but has no qualms about revealing it to the cupbearer in Gen. 40:15. Joseph had every incentive and ever opportunity to hide the fact that he was an “Ivri”– the fact that he was different, but he always chose not to. Even in this week’s parshah, when he is promoted to Pharaoh’s second-in-command and given an Egyptian name, he still uses his real name. He could have made every effort to stifle the knowledge that Pharaoh’s new top adviser was an “Ivri,” but instead he embraced this fact, and was proud to be the “Ivri” that the cupbearer remembered from his time in the dungeon.

Both Abraham and Joseph found themselves in foreign lands where it would have been much easier for them to abandon their values and assimilate to the foreign culture they found themselves surrounded by in an attempt to reduce the stigma of being different, but instead both clung to their Jewish values and faced the challenges that came with that head-on and without fear. So too did the Macabees when their way of life was threatened, and so too must we today when we find ourselves surrounded by a culture that sometimes clashes with our values.