Tag Archives: Torah Commentary. Parshah Commentary

Commentary for Vayeishev

28 Dec

This week’s parshah contains two stories, and a goat plays a minor but symbolic role in both of them. The first and more well-known story is the beginning of the story of Joseph, who so irritates his brothers to the point where they sell him into slavery. Then they slaughter a goat and dip Joseph’s famous technicolor dreamcoat into the goat’s blood before taking it back to their father and passing off the goat’s blood as Joseph’s, telling Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

The second, and lesser-known story, is that of one of the aforementioned brothers, Judah, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Tamar’s husband, Judah’s oldest son Eir, is smitten by God due to his wickedness, leaving behind no children. Judah then instructs his second son, Onan, to enter into a levirate marriage with Tamar. In a levirate marriage, the brother of a deceased man conceives a child with his late brothers wife for the purpose of giving his brother an heir. The heir is considered to be the son of the deceased brother and inherits his property. Knowing that, without an heir, he would be next in line to inherit his brother’s property, Onan takes steps to ensure that Tamar does not get pregnant, and so God strikes Onan down as well. With two sons now dead, Judah instructs Tamar to go live with her father until his third son, Shelah, comes of age.

Much time passes and Shelah comes of age, but Judah does not send for Tamar to marry him, so Tamar decides to take matters into her own hands. Judah’s wife has recently died and Judah is making a trip to see her family, so Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute on the side of the road near Judah’s in-law’s village and seduces him. Judah was travelling light and thus did not have any money with him, so she asks him for some collateral in the form of his signet ring, his staff, and his wrap- all important identifying items that would have borne either Judah’s personal seal or that of his father’s household. When Judah later returns with the promised goat in payment, she is nowhere to be found, and the townspeople claim there has never been a prostitute by their town. Although he could have just turned around and walked away and kept his goat, Judah leaves the goat with his father-in-law in case she does show up again. Tamar becomes pregnant, and when she begins to show she is accused of harlotry and taken to be burned, but when she produces his signet ring, staff, and wrap, Judah figures out what has happened and marries her himself.

There is a famous Talmudic saying, “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh (Shevuot 39a).” This phrase is often translated as “all of Israel is responsible for one another,” and although the context in the Talmud is that of preventing sin, it has been expanded to pretty much every sphere of Jewish life, whether giving political support, taking steps to not tarnish the reputation of the Jewish People, or something as simple as looking out for each other’s physical and emotional wellbeing. The phrase literally translates to “all of Israel are guarantors for one another,” and that is what Judah is doing here. By taking steps to find Tamar and repay her, he is not only being honest by repaying his debt, but by asking around for her he is ensuring that the townspeople know he has done this, ensuring that they have no reason to distrust any members of Jacobs’ household that they might come across in the future. Tamar, for her part, is portrayed as acting more in the original context of the phrase, engaging in her deception so that either Judah or Shelah will not be struck down for engaging in the same sin that Onan was.

On the other end of this spectrum we have the other story of Joseph and his brothers, where the brothers sell him into slavery and then kill a goat for the purposes of deceiving their father about what they have done. This action, seen by some commentators as the beginning of Israelite slavery in Egypt, is the beginning of a series of events in Jewish history that brings us through to the present day. This chain of events (and some beyond the present day) is allegorically described in the Passover song Chad Gadya, which literally means “one little goat,” and chronicles the various ups and downs in Jewish history, with the goat at the beginning representing the Israelites.

It is interesting to note that despite multiple characters behaving in ways we might find objectionable, or at the very least shocking, for biblical figures, in the story of Judah and Tamar the goat survives, while in the story of Joseph and his brothers it does not, killed by the literal children of Israel after they have turned on one of their own. The principle of “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh” has been an extremely important one in the survival of the Jewish People, both physically and spiritually. It is up to us today to leave our descendants with a world in which Judaism can thrive.



Commentary for Mattot

21 Jul

In this week’s parshah the Children of Israel go to war with the Midianites. Moses instructed each tribe to choose only one thousand men to send into battle. Although this put the Israelites at a major disadvantage against the much larger Midianite force, the Israelites had God on their side, and not only did they win the battle, but as they later report to Moses, they did not suffer even a single casualty (Num. 31:49).

The Israelite forces return victorious, bringing with them all manner of spoils of war. Moses, Elazar the priest, and the elders rush out of the camp to welcome them home, but things do not go smoothly. Moses immediately becomes very angry with them for disobeying his orders by bringing adult female captives. He reminds them that it was Midianite women who came into the Israelite camp and induced the Israelites to start worshipping the idol Baal-peor, which was the most successful of a number of Midianite attempts to reek spiritual havoc within the Israelite camp, which was the very reason for the start of the war that these very soldiers had just gone off to fight!   Moses makes it clear to them that no adult Midianite woman can be allowed to enter the Israelite camp.

Aside from human captives, the Israelite army has brought many other spoils with them, including livestock, jewelry, cloths, and cooking utensils. About these utensils Elazar tells the people that they will need to kasher them before using them because they have been used for unkosher food. He tells them that “any article which can withstand fire- these you shall pass through fire and they shall be pure, except that they must be purified with water of lustration (a mikveh, according to the Gemara); and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water (Num 31:23).” In order to remove an impurity, you must put in at least an equal degree of work to that which went in to creating the impurity. This same concept can be applied to the idea of sin. The first step to repentance is to show true remorse for the sin committed.

Rashi reads 31:23 as saying that the passing through fire or water is an initial phase, and that everything must be purified in a mikveh afterwards. A mikveh is a place where people go to dedicate and rededicate themselves to God. When we seek to rededicate ourselves to a life of holiness after sinning, it is not enough to simply regret our sins. We must take steps to help ourselves avoid making the same mistakes in the future. God protected the Israelites in their war with Midian, but the Israelites were also responsible for protecting themselves and ensuring that they lived holy lives.

Commentary for Behar

12 May

This week’s parshah, Behar, in which we learn the laws of the Jubilee year, is always read during the Counting of the Omer. These two periods have a lot in common. We are required to count them both, and we do so in seven sets of seven (weeks for the Omer, Sabbatical cycles for the Jubilee), and in both cases we count forty-nine units (days in the Omer, years in the Jubilee cycle) in order to build up to an even more special, joyous fiftieth unit during which we celebrate our relationship with God (the giving of the Torah on Shavuot and God’s ownership over the land and our fealty to God and God alone in the Jubilee).

A deeper look reveals some very interesting contrasts and correlations between these two periods. While every individual Jew is commanded to count the Omer, the courts are tasked to keep count of the Jubilee cycles on behalf of the community. The Kabalistic tradition teaches that there are seven attributes that we are supposed to focus on improving in ourselves during the Counting of the Omer, while the releasing of debt slaves and reverting of property rights at the Jubilee is seen as an improvement of our society as a whole.

Strangely, though, the culminating “fiftieth day of the Omer,” Shavuot, is a holiday focused on the communal acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish People, while the day that the Jubilee year officially begins, Yom Kippur, is a day of personal introspection where we look at our own flaws and resolve to improve ourselves as individuals for the coming year. It seems backwards that period of focus on ourselves as an individual should lead up to a communal holiday while the major economic upheaval which the community is responsible for managing should begin on a day when we are judged for our individual actions (especially when there are other days on the calendar during which we are traditionally judged as a society, such as Shmini Atzeret or the Tenth of Tevet).

One thing that both days have in common is that they are both days when the Torah was given. While the initial revelation at Sinai occurred on Shavuot, a series of calculations by Rashi reveals that the on which Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets was Yom Kippur. One of the commonly used division for the mitzvot in the Torah is miztvot incumbent upon the individual vs. mitzvot incumbent upon the community as a whole. While looking at things along these lines can certainly lead to interesting insights, it is important to remember that they are all interconnected. The Gemara on Shevuot 39a warns us with the well-known statement “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh- all of Israel is responsible for one another.” It is our duty to help each other fulfill our individual responsibilities just as much as it is our responsibility as individuals to do our part for the community. Similarly, when we as individuals achieve a goal, the whole community celebrates with us, and when the community calls on us, we must ensure that we are ready to answer.