Monday, December 31, 2007

Parshat Vaera 1

“And G-d said to Moshe, ‘Tell Aharon your brother ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over the rivers, the pools, the lakes and over all the bodies of water’ and they will become blood.” (Exodus 7; 19). Surely this is an impossible command. How could G-d instruct a person to stretch out their hand over all the water in the land? Furthermore, since G-d is clearly the One performing the miracle, what purpose is there in Aharon or Moshe waving their hands about as if they are some sort of magicians? Doesn’t this trivialise the effect of G-d controlling the forces of nature? Yet we find that G-d instructs them to perform actions in order to bring about many of the plagues.

Both of these questions can also be asked about the miracle of the splitting of the sea. With the pursuing Egyptian army behind them, and the impenetrability of the Sea of Reeds1 in front of them, Moshe prays to G-d for help. G-d’s response seems absurd; “G-d said to Moshe, ‘Why are you shouting at Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and go forward’” (ibid. 14; 15). The Midrash tells us that the sea didn’t part until Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Yehuda, jumped in and started to cross. As soon as he was up to his neck in water, the whole sea divided and the Jews were able to cross on dry land. Why does G-d demand of the Children of Israel to attempt the impossible, and why does He require human input, when He is about to perform one of the greatest miracles?

The mystical sources tell us that our world is just one of many. Ours is the most physical, but parallel to it, and bound to it, are intangible spiritual worlds; each world less physical and more ethereal then the one below it, ultimately reaching to the foot of G-d’s Throne of Glory. These worlds are the conduit for G-d’s interaction with us, diluting the awesome light and power of G-d, so that we are able to perceive it in our world. Without these worlds to gradually translate ethereal spirituality into our physical world, the natural desire to draw close to G-d’s Presence would overpower us, and our spiritual souls would be unable to remain in their physical bodies. This is the meaning of the verse “For no man can perceive Me and live”. All the laws of nature which were set up in creation are channelled through these worlds.

This is not purely a one way system. Our world is called by the Kabbalists “Olam HaAsiya”, the world of action. Because human beings were given free choice, we have the ability to decide upon our actions, and these actions are translated upwards to the highest worlds. Therefore, G-d promises us “If you will carefully obey My commandments... to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will provide rain in your land in its proper time...”. G-d is not offering us physical gifts as a reward for obedience, but is teaching us the spiritual laws of nature and the direct consequences of our actions. What we do influences the spiritual worlds, which in turn affect our world.

However, because this is the “Olam HaAsiya”, it is our physical actions which have a direct and far reaching effect. Whilst our thoughts and speech are important, it is with our actions that we alter the spiritual channels and can influence the laws of nature. That is why G-d commands Moshe and Aharon to perform actions to bring about the miracles. Even though it is impossible to reach out over every stretch of water in the physical world, the attempt unleashes spiritual conduits which change the normal physical rules. Similarly at the Reed Sea, everything was in place for it to split, but opening those channels required someone prepared to demonstrate their faith and start swimming.

No one should ever say “Who am I?”, or “What difference do my actions make?”. Every detail of every action that we perform is translated through the spiritual worlds into laws of nature. We are usually unable to see the results directly, but who knows the consequences of lighting Shabbat candles, or of spending Shabbat morning in Synagogue? Putting on tefillin, giving charity, or offering hospitality could affect the health, livelihood or Jewish awareness of ourselves, our loved ones, and ultimately the whole world.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Summary of Vaera

G-d tells Moshe to inform the Jewish People that He is going to take them out of Egypt; however the Jewish People do not listen. G-d then commands Moshe to go to Pharaoh and tell him to free the Jewish People. Although Aaron shows Pharaoh a sign by turning a staff into a snake, Pharaoh's magicians copy the sign, emboldening Pharaoh to refuse the request.

G-d punishes the Egyptians and sends plagues of blood and frogs, but the magicians copy the miracles on a smaller scale, again encouraging Pharaoh not to grant Moshe's request. However, after the plague of lice, even Pharaoh's magicians concede that only the one true G-d could be performing these miracles.

Only the Egyptians suffer during the plagues, not the Jews in Goshen. The plagues continue with wild animals, pestilence, boils and fiery hail. However Pharaoh continues to harden his heart and refuses to let the Jews go despite Moshe's offers to end the plagues if he will let them leave Egypt.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Parshat Shemot 1

We find in this week’s Torah reading that Pharaoh tries different methods of limiting the Jewish population explosion. First he gives the men so much work that they won’t have the time or energy to have children. When he sees that this is ineffective, he tells the Jewish midwives to kill all the Jewish boys that are born. Finally, in a last desperate attempt, he orders that all baby boys, including the Egyptian ones, should be thrown into the Nile.

Pharaoh had received information from his astrologers that the saviour of the Jews would die through water. Since he didn’t know whether this saviour would be Jewish or Egyptian, he simply had all baby boys thrown into the Nile in order to fulfil the decree of the astrologers. (What he didn’t realise of course, was that the prediction referred to Moshe striking the rock in the desert in order to provide water for the Jews, which was ultimately the reason that he was not permitted to enter the land of Israel, thus it was the cause of his death.)

Despite his fears of the Jews escaping, how could Pharaoh be so cruel as to have all the babies thrown into the river to drown? Surely there must have been some other way to prevent the Jews from leaving Egypt. Even if there was not, was it worth killing an entire generation?

Pharaoh, as the leader, represented the entire nation in his thoughts and actions. (We see this from the fact that all of Egypt was decimated as a punishment for enslaving the Jews. Had this only been Pharaoh’s private plan, the remainder of the nation would not have been destroyed.) His tyranny was motivated by the Egyptian “world view”. The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzraim”, which is closely related to the word “Mitzarim” meaning “narrow boundaries” or “definitions”. The Egyptians were firm believers in empiricism. They were only interested in those things that they could observe, or test. Therefore, when Moshe tells Pharaoh that G-d demands that he let the Jews go, his response is “Who is this G-d that I should listen to Him”. Furthermore, Pharaoh refused to believe in G-d, or His powers, despite warnings from Moshe, because all of the plagues defied scientific explanation. Pharaoh was unable to accept anything beyond the realms of the “definable”.

Taking empiricism to its logical extreme, even a person is defined only by what he or she has accomplished. A person becomes no more than the sum total of their activities and achievements; future potential is irrelevant. If I can’t see the result now, it has no value. Therefore a baby, which is a bundle of potential but has not yet achieved anything, has no value. Pharaoh decreed that the babies should be thrown into the Nile to fend for themselves. If they are able to save themselves, then they may live; if not, by what rights do they deserve to live? They have not yet earned any rights.

This attitude is antithetical to Judaism. Every new-born baby is a bundle of potential. It must be cared for and looked after until it is in a position to realise that potential. We are forbidden to stand aside and let another person suffer merely because they are not able to look after themselves. We have a collective responsibility to each other, regardless of whether someone “deserves” our giving or not. It is not for us to judge other people, or how well they are fulfilling their potential.

When we cease looking at what we can give to others, instead being interested only in what we think they deserve, we end up with petty infighting and eventually hatred.
This is known as “Sinas Chinam”, hatred for no reason. Our “justification” and motivation for behaving in this way is “What has that person done for me?”, or “Why do they deserve to be treated better?”. Once we look at what rights another has, based on our own evaluation, we are faced with a breakdown of society. This baseless hatred is what led to the destruction of the Second Temple. It is interesting to note that the period between the fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the lead up to, and destruction of the Temple is known as “Bein HaMitzarim”, “Between the Boundaries”.

Concern only with the physical and measurable leads to a denial of G-d, even in the face of undeniable evidence. Worse than that, it denies any higher meaning to human life. If people are merely the sum total of their achievements, and have to earn their right to life, then a nation can throw their children into the Nile with no pangs of conscience.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Shemot Summary

Pharaoh, fearing the population explosion of Jews in Egypt, enslaves them. When their birth rate continues to increase, he orders the Jewish midwives to kill all baby boys. A daughter of Levi (Yocheved) gives birth to a son and places him in a basket in the Nile in order to save him. Pharaoh's daughter finds and adopts the baby, even though she realises he is a Hebrew. She names him Moshe (Moses) meaning "drawn from the water". Miriam, Moshe's older sister, offers to find a nursemaid for the baby, and brings her mother to help raise him.

Years later, Moshe witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and in anger kills the Egyptian. Moshe realises his life is in danger and flees to Midian where he rescues Tzipporah, whose father Yisro approves their subsequent marriage.

On Chorev (Mt. Sinai), Moshe witnesses the "burning bush" where Hashem commands him to lead the Jewish People from Egypt to the Land of Israel, which Hashem promised to their ancestors. Moshe protests that the Jewish People in Egypt will doubt him being Hashem's agent, so Hashem helps Moshe perform three miraculous transformations to validate him in the eyes of the people: Changing his staff into a snake, his healthy hand into a leprous one, and water into blood. When Moshe declares that he is not a good public speaker, Hashem tells him that his brother Aaron will be his spokesman.
Aaron greets Moshe on his return to Egypt and they petition Pharaoh to release the Jews. Pharaoh responds with even harsher decrees, declaring that the Jews must produce the same quota of bricks as before, but without being given supplies. The people become dispirited, but Hashem assures Moshe that He will force Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Parshat Vayechi 3

Ya’akov called to his sons, and said, ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. Gather yourselves together and hear, you sons of Ya’akov, and listen to Yisrael your father.” (Genesis 49; 1, 2). Ya’akov seems to suddenly change the subject, promising to tell his sons about the end of days, but instead continuing with the blessings.

The Talmud explains that Ya’akov wanted to reveal the time of the coming of the Messiah to his children, as they gathered at his bedside. However, at that moment the Holy Spirit departed from him, and he was unable to do so. (Pesachim 56a). Why did Ya’akov want to reveal the events of the end of days, and why G-d prevented him from so doing.

Many of the people in the Torah have had their name changed, but Ya’akov is unique in that he is still known by his former name as well as the new one. ““Your name shall no more be called Ya’akov...” (Genesis 35; 10). Not that the name Ya’akov should not be used, but that Ya’akov should be in addition to Yisrael. Yisrael is the main name, and Ya’akov secondary.” (Yerushalmi Berachot 1; 6). The simplest explanation for Ya’akov’s two names is that when he is referred to as an individual the name Ya’akov is used, and when the Torah speaks of him as the father of the nation, symbolically encompassing all of the nation, he is known as Yisrael.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 5b) states: Rav Yitzchak said to Rav Nachman, thus said Rabbi Yochanan, ‘Ya’akov our father never died.’ He replied, ‘In that case why did they eulogise him, embalm him and bury him?’ He said ‘I learn this fact from a verse, as it states (Jeremiah 30; 10), “Therefore fear not, my servant Ya’akov, says G-d, for I will save you from afar, and your seed (children) from the land of their captivity...” The verse connects Ya’akov to his descendants. Just as his descendants are alive, so too he is alive.’

The simple explanation of this perplexing piece of Talmud is that Ya’akov was the father of the twelve tribes, and the only patriarch to have all his children follow in his spiritual footsteps. Therefore he is more directly connected to the Jewish people, and remains alive as long as we do. However, it is strange that Rabbi Yochanan stated that Ya’akov never died. I would have expected him to use the name Yisrael, since it is referring to the patriarch in his role as progenitor of the nation.

The name Ya’akov was given to him because he was born holding on to the heel of his brother Esav. This name shows both that he is subordinate to Esav, in that he was only able to grab the lowest part of him, but also that he is involved in a constant struggle with his brother. Ya’akov managed to take away Esav’s birthright, and his blessings, but it is still the descendants of Esav who control the world physically and financially. The Jews have always remained only a small, though influential, part of the human population. The name Yisrael was given to Ya’akov after his struggle with the angel, who represented the spiritual side of Esav. The name means ‘You have struggled with angels and with people, and prevailed’. (Genesis 32; 29).

Ya’akov’s life was a microcosm of Jewish history. The trials that he faced, with his brother, Lavan, Shechem and the loss of Yosef, are trials that we are still facing today, on a national scale. Therefore it would appear that the name Ya’akov relates to the events that are part of the struggle of our existence throughout history, whereas the name Yisrael represents the final vindication and victory of the Jewish nation, that will come at the end of days. This is why Rabbi Yochanan said that Ya’akov never died. As long as the Jewish nation are still in exile, still having to face trials and suffering, Ya’akov is still alive. However, in the future, when history has run its course and the Jewish nation will be recognised for having prevailed it will be Yisrael who is alive.

Perhaps we can say that allegorically when Ya’akov wanted to reveal the end to his children, G-d hid it from him to teach him that the struggle, and the process is as important, or even more important than reaching the goal of the end of days. Realising this, Ya’akov changes his final words to his children from being an esoteric description of the Messianic era, to giving them the blessings which will help them through the world as it is at the moment.

This seems to contradict the statement from the Yerushalmi that Yisrael is the main name, and Ya’akov only secondary. However, the continuation of the Talmud there records a discussion between Ben Zoma and the sages as to whether the Exodus from Egypt will still be remembered in the times of the Messiah (a discussion which is part of the Pesach Haggadah). Ben Zoma claims that the miracles of the Messianic era will make the miracles of the Exodus irrelevant. However the sages counter, “Not that the Exodus from Egypt will be removed, rather the Exodus will be additional to the future redemption. That will be the main redemption, and the Egyptian one secondary to it.”

Though ultimately the future redemption will overshadow the Exodus from Egypt, for the present that one is more relevant and important to us. Even at the time of the ultimate redemption, we will still remember the trials, tests and miracle of the Exodus from Egypt. This is the message that Ya’akov received through the temporary loss of Divine inspiration. Though ultimately the end of days will overshadow the present events of history, our current struggles won’t be forgotten, and for the moment they are the ones that are more relevant to us.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Parshat Vayechi 2

Before his death, Ya’akov gathers his children around him in order to bless them. But listen to what he says to them. “Reuven, you are my firstborn... Because you were as unstable as water, you will no longer be the first. Shimon and Levi are a pair; instruments of crime are their wares. Let my soul not enter their plot.... Cursed be their rage...” By the time he got to his fourth son, Yehuda was already backing away anticipating a rebuke like those his brothers had just received! On his deathbed, has Ya’akov nothing better to say to his sons than to point out their weaknesses? Is this the blessing that he summoned them to receive?

Earlier in the reading Yosef brings his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim to Ya’akov for a blessing. Ya’akov switches his hands to place the right on Ephraim’s head, even though Ephraim is the younger. This displeases Yosef and he tries to move his father’s hands. Ya’akov justifies himself by saying that though both sons will become great, the younger will become greater than the older. It appears that Ya’akov is doing things the wrong way round. If the purpose of a blessing is to bestow greatness, couldn’t he decide through the way he places his hands, which son will be the greater? He seems bound by the future, and is not conferring greatness, but making a prophecy.

The Midrash1 states that the Torah opens with the letter beis because this is the letter of blessing. In what sense does beis represent blessing? Certainly the word b’racha begins with beis, but so do many other words, some of which even mean the opposite of blessing.

The Maharal explains that the word b’racha which is usually translated as “blessing” in fact means “increase” or “many”. Therefore the letter beis is in essence b’racha, because its numerical value is two. It is by definition “many”. Furthermore, the root of the word b’racha is the letters beis, reish, and caf. Each of these letters has a numerical value representing double. Beis is two, reish is two hundred, and caf is twenty, two tens.

When Ya’akov comes to bless his sons, he cannot redefine who they are. Rather he points out their strengths and weaknesses. Then they are able to improve themselves, by channelling their negative traits toward positive actions, and by increasing their good qualities. Similarly, Ya’akov cannot change the future for his grandsons, but he can bless them that G-d should help each of them to realise their fullest potential. Actualising one’s abilities is the increase inherent in b’racha.

The Talmud uses the following story to illustrate the concept of b’racha:

A man was walking in the desert. He was tired, hungry and thirsty. He came across a tree with sweet fruit, nice shade and a stream of water flowing beneath it. He ate from the fruit, drank from the stream and rested in the shade. When he was about to leave he said “Oh tree, how can I bless you? If I would say that your fruit should be sweet - your fruit is already sweet; that you should have pleasant shade - your shade is already pleasant; that you should have a stream flowing beneath you - you already have a stream flowing beneath you. Instead may G-d bless you that all the saplings that come from you should be like you.”2

The best blessing that one person can give to another is to help them realise and fulfil their true potential. In this way they will grow and expand and become the embodiment of b’racha.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Parshat Vayechi 1

In our Torah portion Yosef brings his two sons to his father for a blessing. “Yosef took the two boys. He placed Efraim to his right, (to Yisrael’s left), and Menashe to his left, (Yisrael’s right). … Yisrael reached out with his right hand and placed it on Efraim’s head, thought he was the younger. He placed his left hand on Menashe’s head. He deliberately crossed his hands, even though Menashe was the firstborn. … He too will attain greatness. But his younger brother will become even greater....” (Genesis 48; 13-14).

There are several questions to be asked on this section. Why does the Torah explain in such detail the position of the two boys. Is there not a simpler way that we could have been informed that Ya’akov gave Efraim the greater blessing? Secondly, why did Ya’akov change the order to bless the younger son over the elder? Surely he knew from his own experiences with his brother Esav the dangers in reversing the order of blessings. And finally, when Yosef questions his father about the order Ya’akov doesn’t seem to answer him, but simply restate what he had done.

Rashi explains that though Menashe and Efraim were brothers, they were involved in very different endeavours. Menashe spent his time in the court of Pharaoh, acting as Yosef’s interpreter (Rashi on 42; 23), whereas Efraim was involved in full-time Torah learning (48; 1). Their lifestyles complemented each other, and they had a partnership that allowed them to share the material and spiritual gains equally. Yosef knew that both of these were worthy pursuits, but it seems from their names that he felt that Efraim’s Torah learning was more important for their long term survival. “Yosef named the first-born Menashe ‘because G-d has made me forget my troubles and even my father’s house’. He named the second Efraim - ‘Because G-d has made me fruitful’. (41; 51-2). On the face of it Efraim represented the future, while Menashe severed Yosef’s links with the past. However, on a slightly deeper level we could see these two names as also showing the different approaches to serving G-d in Israel and outside of Israel respectively. In Israel Yosef and his brothers were shepherds. They worked the land and, though they also learnt ‘Torah’ from their father and grandfather, their physical relationship with the Land was paramount. In Egypt Yosef felt that the emphasis must be on Torah learning to retain the close connection with G-d, and that though he embodied Torah Im Derech Eretz, (Torah combined with living in the material world), precedence was with the Torah.

Therefore the Torah tells us that when Yosef approached Ya’akov, Efraim was on his right, symbolising the superiority of Torah outside of Israel. However, the blessing they were to receive, which was really for the time when the Jews returned to Israel, Yosef envisaged a return to the dominance of Menashe’s lifestyle, and intended Ya’akov to give him the blessing of the ‘right hand’.

Ya’akov’s response was that even in Israel Torah must still be placed before Derech Eretz. According to Rashi, Ya’akov’s response “He too will attain greatness. But his younger brother will become even greater.” refers not to numbers, but the leaders of the nation who will be descended from the two boys. The greatness of Menashe is that Gidon will come from him. The Bible introduces us to Gidon “as he was threshing wheat by the winepress...” (Judges VI; 11). His success as a saviour of Israel was based on the fact that he was a working person, not a great Torah scholar. Yet he merited to have miracles performed on his behalf because of his dedication to G-d and Israel.

However, Efraim’s descendant was Yehoshua, who was even greater. It was he who led the Jews into the Land of Israel, though he was primarily a Torah scholar and teacher, not a warrior or worker.

Thus Yosef thought that the primary need for Torah was a temporary necessity of life outside of Israel, which would be reversed upon the Jew’s return to Israel. However, Ya’akov demonstrated through his order of blessing that even in Israel precedence must be accorded to Torah learning, which would remain the prerequisite for physical and material prosperity.

Vayechi Summary

Ya'akov lives in Egypt for 17 years, to the age of 147. Before he dies he summons Yosef and makes him swear that he will bury him in the land of Israel. A short while later Yosef is told that his father is sick. He takes his two sons to Ya'akov for a blessing. Ya'akov blesses Yosef that his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, will be considered tribes in their own right. He then blesses the boys, but places his right hand on Ephraim's head, though he is the younger. Yosef tries to correct his father, but Ya'akov explains that the younger son will become greater then the elder. Ya'akov gives Yosef an additional portion in the land of Israel, the city of Shechem.

Ya'akov summons all of his sons and blesses them, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. He once again instructs all of them to bury him in the land of Israel, in the cave of Machpela. As he concludes his instructions to his sons, he draws his feet into the bed, breaths his last and is gathered unto his people. Yosef instructs the court physicians to embalm Ya'akov, and all of Egypt mourns him for 70 days. He then requests permission from Pharaoh to go and bury his father. Pharaoh allows him to go, and he and his brothers, accompanied by all of the palace courtiers, go to bury Ya'akov.

Upon returning to Egypt the brothers fear that Yosef still bears a grudge against them. They therefore send a message to Yosef that their father had instructed him to forgive them. They present themselves to Yosef, and he reassures them that he will provide for them, and that they have nothing to fear.

Yosef lives to the age of 110, and lives to see his great grandsons. Before he dies, he makes his family swear that they will eventually bring him to the land of Israel for burial. When he dies he is embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Parshat Vayigash 2

Throughout his stay in Egypt, Yosef has shown himself to be a master politician. From his meteoric rise to the head of Pharaoh’s court. to his amassing the wealth of Egypt for the monarchy he has shown that he is firmly in control, and able to deal with the politics of each situation. So much so that at the end of this week’s portion he is able to move the population around, to make it easier for his family to “fit in” to Egyptian society. His brothers, on the other hand, have shown a dazzling ineptitude at knowing how to relate to Yosef as viceroy. To every question they respond with honesty and total naïveté. This is the reason that they are humbled before him, having admitted to having a younger brother, Binyamin, and thus being forced to bring him before Yosef. They are also at a complete loss to understand how the money they spent on buying grain, and later Yosef’s goblet appear in their bags after they leave his presence. It never occurred to them to take precautions so that nothing could be surreptitiously placed in their bags. And even as Yehuda approaches Yosef at the opening of the Torah reading, he speaks in an exceedingly honest and forthright manner. The brothers play straight into Yosef’s hands, and he is able to plan and predict their every move.

Yet even after Yosef has revealed himself, and he instructs his brothers on how to speak to Pharaoh, they ignore his advice and don’t deviate in any way from the bare truth. Yosef tells his brothers “When Pharaoh summons you and inquires as to your occupation, you must say ‘We and our fathers have dealt in livestock all our lives’. You will then be able to settle in the Goshen district”1. Yosef wants them to present a position of power. They are not “shepherds”, which was considered the most abominable profession by the Egyptians, rather they are dealers in livestock; they are not refugees fleeing from famine, but have come with all of their sheep, cattle and possessions to settle in Egypt. Yosef is concerned that Pharaoh not think that they are just poor vagrants dependant upon his mercy. Yosef has also planned the conversation so that they will not need to request that they be given Goshen to live, but that Pharaoh should offer it to them. In this way, Pharaoh will not be in a position to refuse them.

The brothers choose to ignore all of his expert advice, and instead tell Pharaoh “We are shepherds, we and our fathers before us. We have [only] come to stay in your land awhile, because there is no grazing for our flocks, so severe is the famine in Canaan. If you allow us, we will settle in the Goshen district”.2

Pharaoh cannot believe that these are the brothers of Yosef, his skilful counsellor. These men are so tactless, and worse, they are shepherds. Instead of replying to them Pharaoh completely ignores them, instead turning to Yosef to continue the conversation. He pretends that he has not heard that the brothers are shepherds, but tells Yosef that if any of his brothers are livestock officers they can be appointed over Pharaoh’s cattle.

Yosef is known as “Yosef the Tzaddik”, Yosef the righteous. He has passed the tests of faith with Potiphar’s wife, and in jail, and has succeeded in raising his sons as Torah observant Jews, despite being in a foreign environment. He has shown that he can survive and remain strong in his faith regardless of the people he is constantly in contact with. Therefore he is also able to play their game, and survive in the dog eat dog world of politics and diplomacy. His brothers, however, are more susceptible to outside influences. When Yehuda left his other brothers and set up in business, he was faced with the story of Tamar, and having to admit that he behaved wrongly while she was right. Reuven is punished for acting rashly to defend the honour of his mother. Their strength is that they can admit when they have made a mistake, and do T’shuva, but they can’t risk putting themselves in challenging situations. That is why before they even go to Egypt, Ya’akov sends Yehuda ahead to set up a suitable Torah environment3. Therefore, even when faced with the most powerful men in the known world, Pharaoh, or his viceroy, they have no option but to stick totally to the truth. They are prepared to risk humiliation, and even death, rather than risk falling into the trap of assimilation into Egyptian society. Even though Yosef only asks them to colour the truth a little bit, they realise that even changing their identity, and the way that they are perceived, slightly could be enough to cause them to lose sight of who they are and how they must remain, in order to withstand the coming 210 years in Egypt.

1Genesis 46; 33
2ibid. 47; 3
3Genesis 46; 28 and Rashi’s commentary there

Parshat Vayigash 1

For the D'var Torah I published last year on Vayigash click here

Reproof and Rebuke

Yosef’s brothers have no idea of what is going on. They come to Egypt to purchase grain, instead they are treated like spies and thrown into jail. They are released on the condition that they return with their youngest brother Binyamin, but when they do so they are again arrested on trumped up charges. When Yosef threatens to keep Binyamin as a slave and send the others back to their father, Yehuda finally confronts him. This elicits a response which is even more puzzling. Yosef sends all the Egyptians out of the room, breaks down and cries. It is only when he says to them “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45; 3) that the brothers realise what has been happening. But with those few words Yosef’s brothers suddenly have a clear understanding, not only of what has occurred during the past few weeks, but for the whole 22 years since they had sold their brother. “And his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified before him” (ibid.).

The Midrash (Yalkut Vayigash 152) comments on this: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said “Woe to us from the day of judgement, woe to us from the day of tochecha (rebuke). Yosef was one of the youngest of the brothers, yet his brothers were unable to stand before him because they were terrified. When G-d will come and rebuke each and every person for their actions how much more terrifying will it be!”

This Midrash needs explanation. Where do we find that Yosef rebuked his brothers? All he said to them was “I am Yosef”, and immediately “they were unable to answer him”. Rashi (Genesis 45; 3) explains that they were not terrified of Yosef that he may harm them, but rather because of embarrassment. But the question remains, where is the rebuke that the Midrash mentions?

The brothers had sold Yosef 22 years earlier because of his dreams. He told them all that he would become ruler over them and that they would have to bow down before him. His brothers saw this as an act of rebellion against Yehuda, from whom all future kings of Israel would be descended, and therefore sentenced him to death. In an act of mercy they commuted that sentence, and sold him as a slave to passing traders. Their primary motivation in all of this was to ensure that his dreams did not come to fruition. After all this time had passed, seeing that their father Ya’akov was not consoled over Yosef’s death, the brothers resolved to try and find him when they were in Egypt. This is why they came into Egypt separately; they split up to search for Yosef (Rashi ibid. 42; 3). This in fact was the pretext that Yosef used to accuse them of spying. Where did they look for him? They expected to find Yosef in the slave markets, and were prepared to redeem him. The last place that they thought he would be was on the throne of Egypt, which is why the idea never crossed their minds, despite all the hints that Yosef gave them.

With the two words “Ani Yosef” (I am Yosef), his brothers were forced to admit that they had been wrong about everything from the very beginning. They suddenly realised that selling Yosef had not thwarted his dreams, but had caused them to come true. They had to admit that they had misjudged Yosef, and should not have sold him or mistreated him, because he had been absolutely correct all along. They had to confess that the past 22 years that they had been deceiving their father, and letting Yosef suffer in prison, had been a mistake. They were forced to admit that Yosef had not been just a ‘dreamer’, but a prophet in his predictions.

The Hebrew word tochechameans not only “rebuke”, but also “proof” (as in English - “reproof”). When Yosef revealed himself to his brothers he proved to them the error of their ways. This is the strongest reproof that there can be. This explains the Midrash. There are two components to G-d’s future judgement of us; “Woe to us from the day of judgement”, when G-d replays the video of our lives and shows us the things that we have done wrong. “Woe to us from the day of rebuke” when, upon seeing this video we will be forced to concede that we have transgressed, and that it has been without just cause, and furthermore that it has not helped us to attain the goals that we were hoping for.

Vayigash Summary

Yehuda pleads with Yosef that Binyamin be set free, and he remain as a slave in his place. Yosef is unable to control his emotions, and reveals himself to his brothers. He instructs them to bring Ya’akov and the remainder of the family down to Egypt, and that he will provide for them all during the famine. News spreads to the palace, and Pharaoh tells the brothers to bring Ya’akov and settle in the best land of Egypt. The brothers return to Ya’akov and tell him that Yosef is alive. His spirit was then revived. As Ya’akov heads towards Egypt G-d appears to him and blesses him. Ya’akov, his sons and grandchildren descend to Egypt along with all of their livestock and possessions.

The Torah lists all of Ya’akov’s family who went to Egypt. They total 66 people (plus Yocheved who was born as they entered Egypt). Yosef and his two sons make 70. Ya’akov sends Yehuda ahead to make preparations in Goshen. Yosef goes to greet his father, and throws himself upon his shoulders weeping for a long time. He instructs his brothers as to what they should say when they meet Pharaoh. After meeting with them, Pharaoh instructs Yosef to settle them in Goshen, the best land in Egypt. Yosef brings Ya’akov and presents him to Pharaoh. Pharaoh asks him how old he is, and Ya’akov replies that he is 130, but his life has been hard. He then blesses Pharaoh.

The famine is very severe. Yosef collects money from all the people of Egypt and Canaan in payment for food. When their money is used up, Yosef instructs them to bring their livestock in exchange for food. The next year they are forced to sell their land and become serfs to Pharaoh. Yosef thus acquires all the farm land in Egypt for Pharaoh, and moves the people from one place to another. The only land that Yosef does not acquire is that belonging to the priests. Meanwhile the fledgling nation of Israel lives in Egypt. They buy property there and their population increases rapidly

Monday, December 03, 2007

parsgat miketz 3

Yosef stores provisions for the seven years of famine which are about to come upon Egypt. He takes a percentage from all the crops during the seven years of plenty, and warns all the Egyptians of the approaching famine so that they too can store food. However, once the famine arrives the Torah relates that the Egyptians also had to come to Yosef for food. “When all the land of Egypt hungered, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread. So Pharaoh said to all of Egypt, ‘Go to Yosef, Whatever he tells you, you should do.” (Genesis 41; 55). The Midrash (Tanchuma) explains this strange dialogue. When the people came to Pharaoh asking for food, he asked them why they had not set aside provisions for themselves during the years of plenty. They replied that everything they had in their storehouses had rotted, so Pharaoh told them to go to Yosef. However they replied that Yosef would only give them food if all the males first circumcised themselves. Pharaoh told them to do whatever Yosef asked, for if he was able to make their grain rot in the storehouses, perhaps he would also be able to kill them if they did not comply with his demands. After the men had been circumcised Yosef sold them food.

There are many questions raised by this Midrash. Firstly, how was Yosef able to store the grain without it rotting, yet the Egyptians were unable to? If he knew of some special storage techniques why did he not also tell his subjects how best to prevent the rotting. Secondly, why did he not provide them immediately with food when they came to him? And why did he single out the Mitzvah of circumcision, a law that does not even apply to non-Jews, before giving them the food they needed?

There are several answers given by the commentators as to why Yosef wanted the people to circumcise themselves. The Yafeh To’ar explains that Yosef knew of the imminent exile of the Jewish nation to Egypt, and was worried that they may assimilate there. He knew that the Egyptians would make fun of them for being circumcised, which may have led to the cessation of this practice amongst the descendants of Avraham. Therefore he made all the Egyptians also circumcise themselves, in order that the Israelites would not feel embarrassed to do so when they eventually arrived in Egypt.
However, this cannot be the complete answer, for circumcision does not seem to be the best guarantee that the Jews not assimilate. By removing the main physical difference between Egyptian and Israelite men, Yosef would appear to be encouraging intermarriage and assimilation, rather than lessening the risk.

According to the Sh’lah, Yosef was trying to wean the Egyptians from their sexual depravity. The Torah (Leviticus 8; 3) warns the Israelites to refrain from the deviant sexual practices of the Egyptians, “Do not perform the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled...”. Yosef foresaw that the Egyptians would eventually be punished in the future for their behaviour, and therefore hoped to temper or limit their actions through circumcision.

However, if this is the sole reason for his actions, did Yosef not realise that the Egyptians would abandon circumcision, and return to their former ways as soon as he was no longer in power?

There is another possible answer to why Yosef mandated circumcision. The Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed 3; 33) explains that the covenant of Bris Milah is sealed on the organ of reproduction to teach us restraint in regard to our sexual desires. Circumcision symbolically shows that we limit ourselves, and set guidelines and rules about our physical conduct. Clearly Yosef personifies the highest level of sexual restraint, in not succumbing to Potiphar’s wife. Therefore he is closely associated with the Mitzvah of Bris Milah. The restraint that the Torah advocates is not only in matters sexual, but in all areas to do with the material and physical world.

The fact that the food of the Egyptians rotted is a metaphor for their lack of restraint in anything physical. Food spoils because the microbes multiply at an exponential rate, symbolising an affliction of excess. The overabundance which they had stored caused them to lose all of it. When the Egyptians told Yosef that their food had spoiled he realised that the only way in which they would be able to retain food without it rotting would be through limiting their involvement with the physical world. This was the message he was trying to teach them through the command for them to circumcise themselves. It was not that he had magic powers to cause their food to rot, as Pharaoh had feared, but rather that he had the spiritual understanding to realise the root of the problem, and deal with it in that manner. This explains how Yosef himself was able to stockpile grain without it rotting. Since he personifies restraint, he was able to guard his food against the excesses which would have spoiled it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

parshat miketz 2

Yosef appears an enigma. On the one hand he is so humble, he insists that all dream interpretations are a gift from G-d and that without Him, he is unable to accomplish anything. Yet he is not intimidated by Pharaoh, although he came from jail literally moments earlier. He not only interprets Pharaoh's dream for him, but also suggests policy strategies to run the country. It seems that his ego has completely carried him away. Even more amazingly, Pharaoh listens to his advice and appoints him “prime minister” to implement his plan.

With hindsight, the meaning of Pharaoh's dream is so obvious to us. What was so special about Yosef’s interpretation that made Pharaoh listen to him? Why could none of Pharaoh's wise men, astrologers and necromancers understand what the dreams referred to?

The text says that there was no one to interpret the dream “to Pharaoh”. In other words, the men of Pharaoh’s court could interpret the dreams, but not to Pharaoh’s satisfaction. They all explained the dream in terms of events affecting Pharaoh personally, for example that he would have children and bury them. But Pharaoh realised that he had received this dream as the representative of all of Egypt. This is what the Torah means when it says “Behold, it was a [complete] dream”. Therefore he wasn’t satisfied until Yosef interpreted the dreams as having repercussions over the entire known world.

From the fact that the dream was repeated, Yosef understood that the famine was imminent. G-d was giving Pharaoh advance warning in order to prepare for it. Therefore the interpretation involved Yosef telling Pharaoh how to act in response to the dream. Setting up storehouses of grain was part of the meaning of the dream.
Nevertheless, wasn’t Yosef intimidated, standing before Pharaoh, telling him how to run the country?

Despite conventional thinking, humility doesn’t involve false modesty. It means knowing exactly who we are, knowing our own strengths and weaknesses, and using them to serve G-d efficiently. Moshe is described in the Torah as the most humble of men, yet when the need arose he knew how to stand up against Korach and others. Not because he had an inflated sense of self worth, but because he knew that G-d had chosen him for a specific purpose, and that therefore he was best suited to that task.

So too Yosef. When he was brought before Pharaoh he understood why he had been sold into slavery and thrown into jail. He realised that G-d had placed him in this situation in order to provide sustenance for the world. For him to feign embarrassment or to seem unsure of himself would have defeated the purpose. Therefore he was able to stand up to Pharaoh without any feelings of intimidation.
When Yosef interpreted the butler’s dream in prison, he did not see interpretation completely as a Divine gift. Therefore he felt that he could ask for a favour in return, and asked that the butler remember him to Pharaoh. Because of this he was punished, and had to remain in jail. Now, when he stands before Pharaoh he sees that interpretations come entirely from G-d. It is no longer Yosef the individual speaking. He is acting as an agent to fulfil his part of the Divine plan.

Modesty and humility don’t mean belittling oneself; they entail knowing exactly who we are and how we can best utilise the opportunities that we are given. The story is told of Zusha, who always used to say “When I reach 120 and come before the heavenly court I am not concerned that they will ask me why I wasn’t Moshe. I can respond that I was never given his talents, upbringing or opportunities. Likewise I have an answer if they ask why I was not the Rambam, Yosef Karo or the Vilna Gaon. But when they ask me why I was not Zusha what will my defence be?”

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Parshat Miketz 1

Pharaoh summons Yosef from the dungeon and tells him, ‘I have dreamed a dream, and there is none that can interpret it. I have heard say of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it’. Yosef answers, ‘Not from me (biladai). G-d will answer Pharaoh’ (Genesis 41; 15-16). With Yosef’s first word to Pharaoh, biladai, he states his credo. Whatever happens, good or bad, it is G-d who is running the show. Therefore if G-d gave Pharaoh a glimpse of the future through a dream, He will also provide an interpreter to explain it. If Yosef has been divinely chosen to fulfil that task then he will be given the insight to do so, if not someone else will be found who will interpret it.

Yosef’s whole life was affected by factors beyond his control, and at each step of the journey he understood that this was the Divine plan, and therefore he should make the best of the situation, without questioning. His two dreams, the brothers selling him as a slave, Potiphar’s wife’s false accusations led to him being imprisoned as a slave in a foreign land. Unquestioningly Yosef tried to do what was required of him in each situation, and he saw G-d’s blessing on everything that he did. Similarly he knew that G-d has many messengers to perform His will. If G-d chose for him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams he was only acting as G-d’s agent. The only time that Yosef tried to take control of his destiny was when he asked the butler to remember him to Pharaoh after he was reinstated to his duty. Rashi explains (40; 23) that because Yosef placed his trust in a person rather than in G-d, he had to remain in jail for a further two years. We are commanded to serve G-d in everything that we do, but whether we achieve the results we had hoped for is not in our control. To expect to be in control of our destiny shows a lack in our faith in G-d. The Mishna summarises this idea beautifully, “It is not for you to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it” (Avos 2:16)

This also explains why Yosef never sent word back to his father that he was alive in Egypt. Even if he was unable to do so while a slave, or in prison, why did Yosef not end Ya’akov’s mourning upon his appointment as viceroy? The Midrash states that when the brothers sold Yosef they made a decree of excommunication on anyone who would reveal the truth to Ya’akov. Since Reuven and Binyamin were not with them, and Yosef did not take part, they needed a tenth for the minyan to give the decree validity. Therefore they included G-d as the ‘tenth’, which is why He never revealed the truth to Ya’akov prophetically. Yosef understood that if the Divine plan called for Ya’akov to remain in mourning for the 22 years until he was reunited with his son, then Yosef himself would have been powerless to inform him until the plan was complete.

There is a Yiddish saying to the effect that ‘people plan, and G-d laughs’. We have no idea what lies in store for us or how events will pan out. In these areas we have no free choice, and all we can do is rely on G-d that everything is for the best. Our free choice lies only in how we make use of the opportunities which G-d has given us. We are commanded to follow His commandments to the best of our abilities, and try to live up to our potential. Everything else is ‘not from us’. This idea which was personified by Yosef can be very comforting. If we attribute our successes to G-d and acknowledge that we are only acting as His emissaries, then we are also not culpable if events don’t work out as we had planned. Those things that we consider failures often lie in areas which are beyond our control. The only failure for which we must take responsibility is not trying our best, or doing as much as we could. Judaism considers failure or success not on the outcomes, which is the yardstick of Western culture, but on the effort which we put into doing our best.

Miketz Summary

Two years have passed. Pharaoh dreams that he is standing near the Nile river, and sees seven healthy cows emerge, followed by seven lean cows. The lean cows devour the healthy ones. He then dreams of seven good ears of corn growing on a single stalk. Seven parched ears swallow up the seven good ears. Pharaoh awakes and summons the interpreters of Egypt, but no one gives him the correct interpretation. The wine steward remembers Yosef (Joseph) who is in jail and tells Pharaoh. Yosef is summoned from the prison and brought before Pharaoh.
Yosef tells Pharaoh that all answers come from G-d, but interprets the dream as representing seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He tells Pharaoh to appoint a wise man over the country to stockpile the grain during the years of plenty. Pharaoh recognises that Yosef is the most suitable person for the task and appoints him “Prime Minister” to oversee the storing of grain. Pharaoh calls Yosef Tzaphnat Paneach, and gives him Osnat the daughter of Potiphar as his wife. Yosef is thirty years old at this time. Yosef inspects the entire land of Egypt and collects food for seven years. He has two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, before the onset of the famine.
When the famine begins the people of Egypt come to Pharaoh asking for food. He sends them to Yosef and instructs them to do whatever he tells them. People from all over the world come to Egypt in search of food. Ya’akov sends Yosef’s ten brothers, without Binyamin, to Egypt to buy grain.
Yosef recognised his brothers, but they do not recognise him. Recalling his previous dreams, he accuses them of being spies and places them under arrest. After three days he lets them return home except for Shimon. He instructs them to prove that they are not spies by bringing their brother Binyamin back. The brothers realise that all of this is happening as Divine retribution for the way they treated Yosef. Yosef sends them off with bags of grain, and returns their money in the top of their sacks. They return to Ya’akov, and report on all that has happened to them in Egypt. Ya’akov initially refuses to let Binyamin leave, but as the famine gets worse he concedes that there is no alternative. Yehuda (Judah) undertakes to guarantee Binyamin’s safety, and Ya’akov lets them leave.
They return to Yosef bearing gifts, and present Binyamin before him. Yosef invites them all to dine with him, and releases Shimon from jail. Yosef is overcome with emotion and is forced to leave the room. He returns and personally serves them food. He again instructs his overseer to fill each of their sacks with food, and return their money at the tops of the sacks. He also places his silver chalice in Binyamin’s pack. After the brothers have departed, Yosef sends the overseer after them and accuses them of stealing his chalice. When it is found in Binyamin’s pack the brothers tear their garments in grief and throw themselves on the ground before Yosef. They offer themselves as slaves on the condition that Binyamin be set free, but Yosef demands that Binyamin alone be kept as a slave.