Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, January 21, 2017 Shemot “Names”

Torah Readings for Saturday, January 21, 2017
Shemot (“Names”)
1:1 - 6:1 Shemot (Exodus)
Shemot (Exodus) is the second book in the Torah.  It consists of eleven weekly readings.  During non-leap years, the tenth and eleven portions are read on the same Shabbat.  Shemot (both the book and the first sedrah) literally means “Names” as in “These are the names (Shemot) of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.”  Different commentators have divided the book in various ways.  For some, Shemot divides as follows:
·        A description of the enslavement of the Israelites;
·        Events leading up to, and including, the redemption from bondage;
·        Events leading up to and following the revelation at Sinai;
·        Presentation of a significant number of commandments (numbers 4 through 114 to be exact);
·        The building of the Tabernacle.
Shemot is known as the Book of Exodus in English.  The name comes from one of the most dramatic events in our history, the Exodus from Egypt.  The book of Shemot and the weekly reading of the same name each cover far too much material for this guide to deal with in depth.  You are urged to read the text and the voluminous notes in the various commentaries to capture the full impact of the events and their deeper meaning for the development of the Jewish people.  One question that comes up time and time again relates to the historic authenticity of the events described in Shemot.  Generally speaking, Jews view these events as part of our history.  “Whether or not the events happened exactly as described is in the final instance less important than the way in which they were experienced and comprehended.  Whether or not God objectively rescued Israel from Egypt is a question to which no historian can provide an answer.  But Exodus, the repository of Israel’s experience, says that He did and on this basis history and faith together have shaped the minds and hearts of Israel.”  This quote is from Plaut’s Commentaries, the Chumash of choice of the Reform Movement.  If the Reform Movement can accept the historicity of Shemot, I think we can set the question aside and move on to this text that describes some of the seminal events of our national existence.
Shemot, the weekly reading, describes the enslavement of the Israelites, the emergence of Moses and the first confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.  This confrontation with Pharaoh, as with all subsequent confrontations, is really a confrontation between God and Pharaoh.  Much of the narrative for this week’s sedrah, like much of the first part of Shemot, includes tales many of you know from your days as Religious School students so I may skip over some of text just to save time.  On the other hand, as you read the text, you can’t help noticing what the Torah actually says as opposed to what are Midrash or Sunday School tales.
Enslavement of the Israelites 1:1-1:22
The sedrah opens by listing the names of the sons of Israel.  This provides a connection with the concluding portion of Bereshit and provides the glue that binds our historic and spiritual heritage.
“And a new king arose who knew not Joseph.”  Thus begins the tale of our enslavement, the outlines of which are repeated over and over again throughout our history as former allies and friends turn on us.  Did this new king not know of Joseph because he had served another dynasty such as the Hyksos?  Or did he not know of Joseph because he had decided to do evil to Joseph’s descendants?  The text is silent.  But the outcome is the same.  Having decided, for no apparent reason, that the Israelites pose a threat, the king now can justify enslaving them and trying to murder the male children.  This Pharaoh is often cited as history’s first anti-Semite.  The Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who refused to murder the infant boys, should qualify as the first practitioners of civil disobedience.  They acted as they did because they feared God.  This term, “fear of God,” appears repeatedly throughout our text and is tied to the concept of the highest level of moral behavior.  The Pharaoh is not impressed by their rectitude, which should give us some idea about Egyptian morality.  If the midwives will not participate in infanticide, the Pharaoh has no choice but to order the drowning of all male babies in the Nile.  This decree sets the stage for our introduction to the central temporal figure in the last four books of the Torah and one of our tradition’s central figures - Moses or Moshe.
The Emergence of Moshe 2:1-4:28
First we are introduced to Moses’ parents, although not by name but merely by tribe.  There is nothing miraculous about the birth of Moses.  He is the product of a normal, married couple having their third child.  In order to save him, his mother puts him in basket and hides him among the reeds under his sister’s watchful eye.  Please note, the word used for basket is “tevah” the same term used for the ark in which Noah sails.  If you believe nothing happens by coincidence, what connections do you think the author(s) were drawing between the story of the Flood and Moses?  The daughter of Pharaoh finds the baby and in one of history's great ironies saves the great liberator from the death planned by her father.  Thanks to Miriam and the Egyptian Princess, the mother of Moses becomes his nurse.  According to some commentators, Moses’ mother provided him with his Israelite identification during this formative period of his life.  At the end of this sojourn, the baby is given to the princess who names him Moses:  “I drew him out of the water.”  Does the Egyptian Princess know Hebrew?  If President Bush’s wife can be bilingual, why can’t the daughter of the Pharaoh demonstrate the same skill?
The text is silent about the years Moses spent growing up in Pharaoh’s household.  The next time we meet him he is a grown man and his experiences at this time will pre-sage the events of his future life.  He kills an Egyptian who was “beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.”  This tells us two things about Moses.  First, he knows who his people really are.  Secondly, he has a strong sense of justice.  Moses is forced to flee Egypt when one of his fellow Hebrews implies that he will expose Moses for killing the Egyptian.  This will not be the last time that his fellow Israelites will cause Moses pain and suffering.  Moses flees to Midian (an ill-defined region east of Egypt possibly in the Arabian Peninsula) where he encounters his soon to be wife, Zipporah and his future father-in-law, now called Reuel, but later called Jethro and Hobab.  Once again, Moses’ sense of justice comes into play as he defends the right of Reuel’s seven daughters to water their flocks at the well.  (Yes, we have seen others at the well.  What is the significance of the repetitive themes?)  Moses marries, has a son named Gershom (“I am stranger in a strange land” ties perfectly with “There came a king who knew not Joseph.”) and settles down to the life of a shepherd.  Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the king dies, but the enslavement continues.  Note the language in 2:24 and 2:25.  On the one hand it says “God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” which may contain the lesson that even when man forgets God, He remembers us.  On the other hand, what does it say about God when the text continues, “God took notice of them?”  Does this mean that God is not always paying attention to His Chosen People?  If not, what happened to catch His divine attention?  (These would seem to qualify as “Saturday Kiddush Questions.”)
The narrative now switches back to Moses and his first meeting with God at the Burning Bush on a site that will later be known as Sinai.  Moses is the reluctant prophet giving God all sorts of reasons why he is the wrong person for the task.  This modesty is another of Moses’ great traits.  In the course of their conversations, God reveals the future to Moses including the reason for the Exodus.  “And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”  In other words, Moses knows from the start that the deliverance from Egypt is a prelude to something even more glorious.  Unlike the Patriarchs, Moses wants to know God’s name.  In 3:14 God provides the enigmatic answer that has puzzled commentators ever since.  Interestingly enough, Moses never shares this name with Israelites.  Of further interest is that God tells Moses to invoke the names of the Patriarchs (3:15) when appearing before the Israelites.  Once again, we see the theme of historic continuity arise depending upon how one reads the text.  At the end of the conversation, God tells Moses that his brother Aaron will speak for him.  In subsequent verses, the text plainly states that Aaron spoke the words of Moses.  But in ensuing chapters, when the Torah says, “Moses spoke” should it really say, “Aaron spoke?”  Furthermore, when and why does Moses lose the speech impediment and no longer have need of Aaron’s tongue?
As Moses leaves Midian to return to Egypt with his wife and family, we find one of those strange interludes (4:24-4:26).  Is it a nighttime encounter reminiscent of Jacob wrestling with the angel?  Apparently somebody has not been circumcised.  Is it Moses?  Is it his son?
Apparently it is the younger son of Moses who has not been circumcised.  Moses, for some inexplicable reason, has failed to perform the primary ritual and it is only through the intervention of Moses’ wife that all are saved.  Some commentators contend that Moses now goes on to Egypt alone.  His wife and sons turn back and will not re-join him until Jethro brings them to him after the Exodus.
The First Confrontations with Pharaoh 4:29-6:2
While the elders of Israel are impressed with Moses’ presentation, the Pharaoh is not.  He scoffs at them and he scoffs at God.  After throwing the brothers out, Pharaoh decides to make things even worse for the Israelites.  Now they must provide the straw for the bricks as well as make the bricks and build the cities of Pharaoh.  By making their lives even harder, the Pharaoh figures he can discredit the brothers and bring an end to their meddling.  In point of fact, he seemed to have succeeded.  First the Israelites turn their wrath against Moses for making their lot worse.  Then Moses seems to lose faith with his questions (5:22-23).  But of course, God is God and neither Pharaoh nor the Israelites understand the true nature of the contest.
Shemot provides more evidence of the central role women play in the story of the Jewish people.  The midwives, Yocheved, Miriam, Zipporah and Pharaoh’s daughter all play pivotal roles in the sedrah.  We do not need to re-write our history to create great women.  Only those who have not studied Torah are unaware of these realities and therefore feel compelled to invent an unnecessary mythology.
The Midwives
The Babylonian Talmud provides this additional information about these brave women.  One was named Shiphrah, which means fertile.  She was so named because she ensured that the babies were born healthy.  The other was named Puah which means “open-mouthed.”  This appellation alluded to the soothing, calming affect her voice had upon the infants in her care.  Some contend that Shiphrah was Yocheved, Moshe’s mother and that Puah was Miriam, Moshe’s sister.
Two Sons
Moshe has two sons.  The elder is Gershom.  The name takes it root from the Hebrew word “ger” meaning stranger.  Moshe felt that he was a stranger in a strange land.  The younger is name Eliezer, which means “with God’s help.”  He was so named as a sign of Moshe’s gratitude for God having helped him escape from the wrath of Pharaoh.  Their fate is fascinating.  See if you can track it as we move forward.
Abraham and Moshe
Both are great men.  Both are prototypes of Jewish leaders.  Yet one was basically compliant and accepting.  The other was challenging and impatient.  According to the great commentator Rashi, “Moshe talked out of turn, Abraham did not.”  Abraham never complained even at the time of the Akedah Yitzchak.  On the other hand, Moshe repeatedly refused to accept God’s command that he return to Egypt and lead the Israelites.  Abraham was patient and accepting as can be seen in his willingness to wait for the birth of Isaac.  Moshe wanted a fast resolution (he hit the rock) and had a tendency to challenge God (do not destroy the Israelites and let me enter the Promised Land).
The holiday will be upon us in a few months.  As you read Shemot, you should see elements of the Haggadah and the Seder.  Hopefully reading the source material will make celebrating the holiday a more meaningful experience.
This is obviously important to the author(s) as well as being a basic concept in Judaism.  We see repeated invocation of the Patriarchs.  We see re-working of motifs from Bereshit.  And last, but not least, God reminds us that unfolding events are merely the realization of that which had been foretold to Abraham.
Defining a Real Jew
There have been many sectarian quarrels among various Jewish groups over the millennia.  In these conflicts, there are those who are always quick to declare that those who do not see things their way are not “real” Jews.  At the same time, there are the sons of Aaron who seek ways to find peace in the house.  A quote from this week’s portion provides the springboard for a tale about two approaches to the issue of “real Jews.”  When confronted by Moshe’s demands, the King of Egypt responds, “And Pharaoh said:  ‘Who (is) the Lord that I should hearken to his voice…’” (5:2).
A Chassidic Rebbe and his son were visiting a Jewish community.  On Shabbat afternoon, following the meal, as was the custom among the Chassidim, the Rebbe began a d’var Torah on the portion of the week.  The German Jews were not used to such a discourse and began mocking the Rebbe.  The son was infuriated.  “How,” he asked his father, “can you waste your words on Epikoros?”  The Rebbe was shocked that his son would refer to the German Jews as Epikoros, a term used to characterize people who are lax in the observances and/or non-believers.  The father agreed with his son that it would be wrong to speak Torah in front of Epikoros.  However, the father confessed a weakness - on Shabbat he felt the need to converse about the Holy Books.  It was agreed that on the following Shabbat, if the Rebbe felt the urge to speak, his son would remind him of the waste of speaking Torah to Epikoros by waving his hand.  Sure enough, on the following Shabbat, the Rebbe and his son sat down for Kiddush and the afternoon meal.  The Rebbe started to “talk Torah.”  The son immediately began making gestures to remind the father of his promise not to speak.  But the Rebbe ignored him and gave a brilliant talk that completely captivated those at the table.  After Shabbat, the son asked his father why he ignored his gestures and spoke Torah to the Epikoros.  “How can you call these German Jews Epikoros?  Pharaoh was the only Epikoros for he is the only one who questioned the existence of God when he said, ‘Who is the Lord that I should hearken to his voice?’  But these German Jews cannot be called Epikoros.  After all, at the first sign of trouble they cry out Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel the Lord is One.”  And the son learned from the father that it is easy to strike a quarrel with another Jew.  But the merit is finding the common ground to unite the whole house of Israel.
Circumcision in Shemot
“So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin” (4:25).  The circumcision ceremony described in Shemot is a puzzler.  First, who is the son?  Is it Gershom the son whose birth is described in 2:21-22?  Is it Eliezer whose name we discover much later (18:2-4) when Jethro reunites Moses with his family after the Exodus has taken place?  Regardless of which son it was, why didn’t Moses perform this fatherly duty?  Some say it was because the baby was a newborn (thus it would be Eliezer) and he was afraid it would threaten the child’s health to circumcise him before a trip.  But if that is so, why would God threaten the life of Moses since laws may be abrogated over matters of health?  Zipporah’s assumption of the responsibility for the brit is a reminder that although it is the father’s primary responsibility to ensure that the brit takes place, the members of the community or in this case the wife, can act in his stead if he is unable to ensure the child’s circumcision.  Note that Zipporah uses a flint (stone knife) to perform the ceremony even though she is living in the Bronze Age when metal utensils have supplanted the cruder stone items.  The use of the flint reminds us of the antiquity of the Brit and the need to maintain close connections with the origin of our customs if they are to retain their original meaning.  Last but not least, this strange interlude might be there to remind of us the need to take care of the basics before going off on grand missions.  Could Moses have been so caught up in his new mission that he forgot to take care of one of the first commands; in this case the command that symbolized the connection between those whom he was about to help free with their ancestral patrimony?
What is the “Thing”
In chapter 2, verses 14 and 15 we read about the Israelites threatening to expose Moses and Moses subsequent decision to flee because Pharaohs wants to kill him.  “And Moses feared and he said:  Surely the thing (ha-davar) is known.  And Pharaoh heard this thing (ha-davar) and he sought to kill Moses.”  Modern translators have Moses saying “The Matter is known” and Pharaoh learning of “The Matter”).  The question is what was the thing that Moses feared Pharaoh finding out about and what was the thing for which Pharaoh wanted to kill Moses?  Were the “things” the same “things?”  Was Moses afraid that Pharaoh would be angry because he had killed somebody or was he afraid that Pharaoh would be angry because he would find out the Moses was a Jew?  Moses was troubled by the fact that he taken another life.  In fact, there are commentators who say that this is the real reason he did not get to enter the Promised Land.  But Moses knew that Pharaoh would not be troubled by this.  After all, Moses was a Prince in a land where life was cheap.  When Moses says “the thing is known” does he means that it is known that he is a Jew?  Pharaoh would not have threatened the life of a member of court for taking the life of commoner.  But he would have killed Moses for being a Jew since the destruction of the Jewish people was his goal.  What kind of society would not punish a murder but would punish a Jew for being a Jew?  The Egyptians may have been the first to have this moral value, but as we know now, they were far from the last.
Who was in Egypt
There is a great deal of controversy among some commentators as to who the enslaved people were.  This controversy extends itself into the story of the Exodus and the settling of the land by subsequent generations as described in Joshua and Judges.  In the opening chapters of the book of Shemot, we find the enslaved people described over and over again as “Hebrews.”  Professor Kugel points out that of the thirty-four times that the appellation “Hebrew” is used, twenty of those times are found in the narrative about Joseph or in the introductory chapters of the second book of the Torah.  Pharaoh calls the midwives “Hebrew midwives.”  Pharaoh’s daughter describes the baby she finds floating in the Nile as “one of those Hebrew children.”  When Moses intervenes in the fight, it is not between two slaves fighting, or two men fighting, but “two Hebrew men fighting.”  And in the first confrontation between Moses and the King of Egypt, he tells Pharaoh, “the God of the Hebrews” appeared to us.  We have gone from Abraham’s description of himself as being an “Ivri” (Hebrew) in Bereshit (Genesis) to being the Sons of Israel and now back to being Hebrews.  Are these all the same people?  Is this evidence of a text that brings together the traditions of several tribes and groupings who co-mingled in Canaan and created a common ancestry through a literary convention?  Or is this really the same people who are variously named depending upon the circumstances and who is describing them.  Consider the names applied to the people of the United States.  We have been called Americans, Yankees by 18th century Europeans and Asiatics (not to be confused with the name given to the Northerners during the Civil War), Rebels by the English (not to be confused with the name given to Southerners during the Civil War) to name but three.  Yet all of the appellations apply to the same people.  This is one of those questions that get chewed over with a bowl of Cholent.
YHWH Again
Each year, it seems that another author or commentator takes another crack at deciding who Moses talked with at the burning bush; what is the name; what does it mean?  It is obviously an important issue, the comprehension of which is well beyond me.  You might want to look at How To Read the Bible:  A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James Kugel for another twist on this.  At the same time, you might be hearing some of an older theory that says the God of the Exodus has His origin in Midianite culture and that Jethro is the one who taught Moses about God, not the other way around.
Telling Lie
Is it ever acceptable to tell a lie?  Based on Shemot, the answer is “it depends.”  This sedrah contains three separate instances of people telling lies.  The portion begins with a lie when the Pharaoh declares, “And he said unto his people:  'Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.'” (1:9, 1:10).  Then when the Pharaoh asks the midwives why they are not killing the Hebrew male babies (1:18) they reply with a lie:  “And the midwives said unto Pharaoh:  'Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwife come unto them.'” (1:19).  And last but not least, God tells Moses that he should tell the Pharaoh that the Israelites only want “to go … three days journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God” (3:18) when God knows that they want to leave and not come back.  Everybody agrees that the Pharaoh’s lie is unacceptable.  But at least one commentator, Abarbanel, the 15th century Sephardic sage, is bothered about the other two episodes.  He asks, “How could the Hebrew midwives, who feared God and were rewarded by Him, tell the obvious lie that ‘Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth?’”  “Why did God tell Moses to deceitfully request in His name a ‘three days journey’ into the wilderness rather than demanding ‘Let My people go?’”  The lie of the midwives may be acceptable on many different levels.  First, if they had told me the truth, they would have been signing their own death warrants.  There is a difference between “Kiddush Hashem” and suicide.  Secondly, the concepts of truth and lies are predicated on a Just Society.  Obviously Pharaoh’s Egypt was not a Just Society.  But as to God’s deception; suffice it to say that the Sephardic Sage is not the only one who is baffled by this seemingly un-God-like behavior and will continue to look for an answer.
Aaron and God versus Moses and God
“The Lord said to Aaron, ‘go to meet Moses in the wilderness.’  He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed me” (4:27).  This one simple sentence describes Aaron’s first meeting with God.  No burning bushes; no mysterious voice; no dramatic dialogue between man the Divine.  God tells Aaron what to do and Aaron does it.  I am not sure what is more puzzling:  the difference between the first interaction between the brothers and God or the lack of commentary on the subject.  But then I must confess that Aaron often puzzles me.  He fails the leadership test three times - twice at the time of the Golden Calf and once when he joins Miriam in the rebellion against Moses.  Yet he is rewarded with the role of High Priest.  He is rewarded again by seeing his son also assume the position thus knowing that his family will hold the position in perpetuity.  And he is rewarded with a peaceful death, mourned by the whole house of Israel.  Are these seemingly disproportionate rewards somehow tied to the ease with which he accepted the Lord’s instruction and his willingness to play second-fiddle to his younger brother?  Who knows?  But it does give us something to think about the next time we demand more of an explanation from God than He appears to be willing to give.  As to the mountain where they met, some say that it is the same mountain where Moses had his first encounter with God and the same mountain on which Moses will stand when he receives the Ten Commandments.
Visiting Pharaoh
When God talks to Moses at the Burning Bush he tells him that elders of Israel will go to Pharaoh with him (“Then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt”).  When Moses returns to Egypt he meets with the elders but when it comes time to visit he goes only with Aaron (“Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh”).  Why didn’t the elders go with Moses?  Why didn’t Moses follow the plan laid out by God?  Did this have anything to do with Pharaoh’s rejection of Moses’s request?  The commentaries I have looked at don’t address this apparent discrepancy between God’s plan and man’s actions.  Yet it sits there begging to be explained.
Seeds of the Golden Calf
The Golden Calf is viewed as one of the most shameful moments in Jewish history.  But the creation of the calf might have its antecedents in this week’s reading.  The building of the calf begins with the Israelites saying, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him ‘Come make us a god who shall before us, for that man Moses, who brought us the land of Egypt - we do not know what has happened to him.’”  These recently freed slaves did not comprehend the concept of this all powerful diety who had no physical form.  They were following Moses to whom they attributed an element of divinity.  But in Parsha Shemot, God describes the Aaron/Moses relationship as follows.  He tells Moses, “Thus he” (meaning Aaron) shall serve as your (meaning Moses) spokesman, with you (meaning Moses) playing the role of God to him (meaning Aaron).  In other words, God tells Moses and Aaron that what the people will see is Moses playing the role of the divine one.  How can we blame the children of Israel for accepting this bit of divinely created theatre as reality?  Is this an example of “the medium is the message”?  If nothing else, it should give us pause not to be overly judgmental when studying the events in our ancient history
Lessons in Leadership
Looking at this from the point of view of realpolitik, the Pharaohs should have won.  They had all of the trappings of power.  All Moses had were his sandals, his staff and an idea - an idea that philosophers would describe as the concept of the just society.  Read the story of the Exodus as one of rebellion - the willingness of people to give up the security of slavery for the dangers of revolt and living in an inhospitable wilderness (Bamidbar) - and you can begin to wonder what really motivates people.  When do ideals and values trump the fear of chariots and the lash?
The Sin of the Egyptians
“The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites…Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor.”  The word which modern English translate as “ruthlessly” is “B’fah-rehch” may also be translated at “with crushing harness.”  In other words, the Egyptians did not just enslave the Israelites, they went out of their way to make life harsh for them; almost as if they enjoyed the slavery of the Israelites.  Some might say that misery is part of the human condition.  However, enjoying the misery of others is quite a different matter.  Misery may love company.  But we are not supposed to love the misery of others.
Doing More With Less
One of the mantras of management in the 21st century is doing more with less; cutting back on staff and resources while demanding greater productivity.  But there is nothing new in this.  Pharaoh followed the same policy.  He decided the Israelites had too much time on their hands so he told them that they would have to gather their own straw and make their own bricks while still meeting their daily building quota.  And when they could not meet the demand of the Egyptian king, what did he say?  He called them “Lazy.”  He called them “shirkers.”  Modern senior management is a little more elegant - they categorize their workers as ingrates who do not appreciate the fact that they have a job in this tough economy.  Of course, Pharaoh described the Israelites as lazy from the comfort of the sedan chair carried by his slaves, just as the leaders of corporate America disparage their workers from the comfort of their…well I think you get the point.  Is exploiting “wage slaves” any more acceptable than exploiting “bond slaves?”
All of the Facts All of the Time
In “On Not Obeying Immoral Orders” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ commentary on this week’s Torah portion, he writes “Moses passes from prince of Egypt to Midianite shepherd to leader of the Israelites through a history-changing encounter at the burning bush.”  This description of events is true, as far as it goes.  Unfortunately, in what some might see as an inadvertent sanitization of history, Rabbi Sacks leaves out a piece of the story and in doing so he inadvertently denies the human of dimension of Moses thus diminishing his accomplishments.  Moses stopped being a Prince of Egypt only when he fled after expressing his fear about being punished by Pharaoh for killing the taskmaster.  The day after he did the deed “Moses was frightened and thought:  Then the matter is known.”  It was then, and only then, that Moses fled and became the Midianite shepherd.  Based on the text, Moses was quite content to be a Prince of Egypt.  He had no problem with killing the taskmaster.  After all he was a Prince of Egypt which gave him such power.  It was only after he thought that Pharaoh would punish him that Moses decided to get out of town.  This is all very human behavior.  And because it is, the accomplishments of Moses are made even greater.  The TaNaCh is story about human beings with all their foibles, weaknesses and strengths.  The stories speak to us because we can see ourselves in them.  They challenge us.  In the case of Moses, he was capable of acting in hot anger, of hiding his deeds and fearing the pain of punishment.  But he rose above those weaknesses to lead our ancestors who were some of the greatest complainers and gripers in history from bondage to freedom, from the Yoke of Pharaoh to the Yoke of the Torah and from impending disaster on the banks of the Sea of Reeds to greatness on the banks of the River Jordan.  If the “authors” of our sacred text could paint us “warts and all” it behooves those who would act as commentators to always make sure to leave in all of the facts all of the time.
The Haggadah and the Sedrah
This year the reading of the Book of Shemot parallels the run-up to Pesach.  We will finish Shemot, the book that provides the historic basis for Pesach, just three weeks before we sit down for the first Seder.  So this year provides us with an excellent opportunity to see how much of the actual text of the Haggadah comes from each of the weekly readings.  This week we find:
"Great, mighty," as it is said:  And the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, and multiplied and became very, very mighty, and the land became filled with them. - 1:7
"The Egyptians treated us badly," as it is said:  Come, let us act cunningly with (the people) lest they multiply and, if there should be a war against us, they will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the land." - 1:10
"And they made us suffer," as it is said:  "They set taskmasters over (the people of Israel) to make them suffer with their burdens, and they built storage cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Ramses." - 1:11
"And they put hard work upon us," as it is said:  "The Egyptians made the children of Israel work with rigor. - 1:13
"And we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers," as it is said:  "During that long period, the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned because of the servitude, and they cried out.  And their cry for help from their servitude rose up to God." - 2:23
"And the Lord heard our voice" as it said:  "And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." - 2:24
"And he saw our suffering," this refers to the separation of husband and wife, as it is said:  "God saw the children of Israel and God took note." - 2:25
"Our labor," this refers to the "children," as it is said:  "Every boy that is born, you shall throw into the river and every girl you shall keep alive." - 1:22
"And our oppression," this refers to the pressure, as it is said: "I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them." - 3:9
(Translation - Chabad; Torah Citations - ArtScroll)
For those who think they know all there is to know about the holiday, it might be interesting to compare the explanations for these verses found in the commentaries in various Haggadot versus the explanations provided in various Torah commentaries.
Torah Timeline
How long does the Exodus narrative last?  How long does it take to go from Moses’ encounter at the Burning Bush to the Crossing at Sea?  There is no gap in the text.  A simple reading makes it seems like the events happened one after another, but logic would seem to say otherwise.  We know that Moses died at the age of 120.  We know that the Israelites wondered in the Wilderness for 40 years.  This would mean that Moses was 80 at the time of the deliverance from Egypt.  Logic would dictate that Moses was in his 20’s when he slew the Egyptian and fled to Midian.  There would appear to be a parallel between the two most famous Shepherds who worked for their fathers-in-law - Jacob and Moses - so for the sake of argument we can say that Moses worked for Yitro for twenty years meaning that he was in his forties when he headed back to Egypt.  This would mean that the events leading of the Exodus starting with Moses’ and Aaron’s first meeting with Pharaoh and the escape across the Sea of Reeds took place over a period of 40 years.  Viewing events as having taken place over a forty year period gives it an entirely different texture than does treating as something that happened over a matter of weeks which is the superficial sense one gets from reading them back to back in the weekly Torah readings.  Also, when we participate in the Seder, we are supposed to “experience” the deliverance from slavery.  If the events covered forty years, then a “short” Seder would seem to fly in the face of a meaningful observance.
Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23 (Ashkenazim)
Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Sephardim)
This is one of those weeks where the haftarah you hear chanted will depend upon what synagogue you are attending.  The vast majority of congregations in the United States follow the readings of the Ashkenazim.
The Man and the Message:  The Prophet Isaiah is one of the Three Major Prophets.  The other two are Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  The term major refers to the fact that their books are longer than those of the other prophets.  Isaiah is also the first of the Later Prophets, those coming after the books that start with Joshua and end with Second Kings.  The book of Isaiah is attributed to at least two and possibly three authors.  Traditionally, the fist thirty-nine chapters are attributed to a historic figure described in the beginning of the book.  Chapters forty through sixty-six are attributed to a second, anonymous author.  Isaiah’s name in Hebrew is Yeshayahu, which is a form of a word meaning help or deliverance.  The name is certainly consistent with the teachings of this prophet.  The historic or First Isaiah lived during the eighth century B.C.E.  He began preaching around 740 B.C.E.  His public career lasted for some forty to sixty years spanning the reign of four Kings of Judah beginning with Uzziah and ending with Hezekiah.  He was married to a woman he refers to as “the prophetess” and he had two sons.  Apparently he was related to the royal family which meant he could address his teachings directly to those in power.
According to tradition, Manasseh, whose reign was both long and wicked, murdered Isaiah.  Isaiah lived in a time of great political turmoil.  Assyria was the leading power of the day.  He witnessed the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel and the exile of the ten tribes.  He encouraged the Judeans not to make a military alliance with the Egyptians who were the enemies of the Assyrians.  Rather, he urged the Judeans to trust in the Lord for their deliverance.  Isaiah lived in a time of affluence and economic inequality.  He chastised the people for failing to care for the disadvantaged.  God would punish them for this as well as their other moral shortcomings.  The Isaiah of the Exile or the Second Isaiah is thought to have lived during the sixth century B.C.E. during the period of the Babylonian Captivity.  His message was one of comfort, hope and a vision of universal peace.  The book of Isaiah describes a unique relationship between God and the children of Israel.  They are to carry His message to the people of the world.  By following the teachings of Torah, they will show the world what God means by holiness.  At the same time, Isaiah provides a picture of God as the God of all mankind.  Isaiah transforms Him from the deity of the Israelites to the Supreme Being for all the people of the world. Isaiah provides us with the Messianic Vision i.e., the Coming of the Moshiach.  And last but not least, Isaiah is the prophet of world peace.
It is the words of Isaiah that we read in the prayer book each week, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.  Neither shall men learn war anymore.”  The teachings of Isaiah, regardless of how many of them you think there are, are rich and textured.  The book of Isaiah provides us with more Haftarot than any other prophet so we will have ample opportunity to explore his teachings as the year goes by.
Theme-Link:  The link between the sedrah and the haftarah is little bit less obvious than that which we have seen in recent weeks.  Isaiah describes a time when the Jews are suffering at the hands of the Assyrian Empire.  And just as God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptian Empire in Moshe’s time, so he will deliver them from the Assyrians.  The Torah portion begins by invoking the names of Jacob and Israel, whose descendants will see the ultimate triumph of God in the Exodus and at Sinai.  The haftarah begins by invoking by invoking the names of Jacob and Israel.  Jacob is seen as the root of the ultimate triumph of the will of God, which will come through the redemption of the Jewish people.  Both text start out using the Hebrew word “ha-ba-im” which is a form of the word “to come.”  In the Torah portion the word is used to describing the coming of the Israelites into Egypt.  In the haftarah it is used in the sense of “the days to come” i.e., the future when the children of Jacob will ultimately be redeemed.  There are really two very powerful sections of the haftarah.  The first is the section where he condemns the drunken behavior of Ephraim.  (Ephraim stands for the Northern Kingdom.)  The prophet is speaking out against more than just over-imbibing.  He is speaking out against gluttony and condemning a society that tolerated great disparity between the ruling class and the general population.  His criticism of the Southern Kingdom is aimed more at their general level of ignorance of the commandments.  They do not understand.  They have to be spoken to slowly, in simple language (28:10-11).  Their inability to comprehend will lead to their downfall. Traditionally, the prophetic reading is not to end on a negative note.  So those who created this tradition skipped to the next chapter of Isaiah to insure that the text would end on a message of comfort and consolation.
The Man and the Message:  (This will be brief because we have already covered one haftarah.  We will have chance to study Jeremiah in couple of weeks with the Sedrah of Bo.)  Jeremiah lived a century after Isaiah.  He lived during the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E.  He was active during the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and died shortly thereafter.  Jeremiah warned the King that his policies were folly.  He also warned the King that the immoral practices especially the mistreatment of the poor by the wealthy would lead to the country’s destruction.  Needless to say this made him quite unpopular.  His writings were destroyed and he was imprisoned.  This brief narrative should give you some idea of the unhappy lot of this saddest of prophets.
Theme-Link:  The sedrah describes Moshe assuming the mantle of leader of the Israelites.  The haftarah comes from the opening chapters of the book of Jeremiah.  Like Moshe, Jeremiah is a reluctant leader.  God tells Jeremiah that He had selected him for the job while he was still in the womb.  Jeremiah tells God he does not want the job, resorting to Moshe’s excuse about not knowing how to speak (1:6).  Only in Jeremiah’s case, he uses his young age and not a speech impediment as an excuse.  But God will have none of his excuses.  He reassures him in the same way He did Moshe saying, “Have no fear…for I am with you” (1:8).  Jeremiah accepted the challenge and like Moshe he would be a prophet for forty years.  But from the start, God lets him know that his mission will not be like Moshe’s.  He must deliver “bad news” to the people and if he fails to do so he will suffer accordingly.  “Do not break down before them, lest I break you before them.”
Personally, I find an interesting message in the fact that we are looking at readings from both Isaiah and Jeremiah in the same week.  Isaiah is such a popular prophet.  He has all of those great quotes.  “Holy, holy, holy, The Lord of hosts.  The whole earth is full of His Glory.”  “Nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they know war anymore.”  “The wolf will lie down with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the kid…and a little boy will lead them.”  He has all that good stuff about the Messiah.  And then the Second Isaiah provides all of the Haftarot of Consolation that we read after Tisha B’Av.  Even when he is criticizing the people he is doing it in such a magnificent way.  And the original Isaiah was a bit of an insider.  According to the Talmud his father was the uncle of King Uzziah and Isaiah lived in Jerusalem.  Compare this with Jeremiah whom several have described as the quintessential outsider.  He came from a small town called Anatoth in the land of the lowly tribe of Benjamin.  The priestly family he belonged to had somehow become disassociated with those officiating at the Temple in Jerusalem.  He would be denied a family - no wife, no children, nobody with whom to share his burden.  He preached a message nobody wanted to hear.  His writings were burned before his eyes.  And he suffered the ultimate curse - he got to see the reality of the destruction he had predicted and had fought so long and hard to prevent.  He must have felt like an utter failure.  How would he react if he knew that his descendants revere the words of the “ultimate outsider,” reading them year in and year out?  Would he smile or grumble?  Or would he hope that we would learn from his experience?  The Jews cannot hide from the role God has given us.  And while some times it may cause us great difficulty, in the end it is the only thing that is eternal and worthwhile.  (For more on this see the writings of Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Rabbi Abraham Heschel.  With your indulgence, we will return to this topic again.)
Copyright, January, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, January 14, 2017 Vayechi “And he lived” as in “Jacob lived"

Torah Readings for Saturday, January 14, 2017
Vayechi (“And he lived” as in “Jacob lived…”)
47:28 - 50:26 Bereshit (Genesis)
Vayechi is the twelfth and final sedrah in the book of Bereshit or Genesis.  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading, “And Jacob lived (Vayechi) in the land of Egypt seventeen years.…”  It is also the fourth and final sedrah in the Joseph/Jacob cycle.  Although the sedrah begins with the statement “Jacob lived” it actually is about Jacob’s preparation for death, his death and the death of Joseph.  We saw this concept of mentioning life as a prelude to dealing with death previously in the sedrah entitled Chayei Sarah (And the life of Sarah was…) which actually describes the death of Sarah in its opening sentences.  Vayechi and Chayei are different forms of the same Hebrew word which some of you may recognize from the toast “L’chaim” (to life).  Interestingly enough, Vayechi is the only sedrah that describes Jacob’s clan living together as one and living together in apparent harmony.
Deathbed Promises and Fulfillment of a Dream (47:28-48:22)
After living seventeen years in Egypt with Joseph, the same number of years Joseph lived with Jacob before being sold into slavery, Jacob senses that he is about to die.  Jacob summons Joseph and makes him take a formal oath that he, Joseph, will bury Jacob in the family plot in Canaan.  Once Joseph has taken the oath, Israel bows to Joseph.  Remember Jacob’s question, “Are we to come and bow low to you on the ground” (37:10)?  It would appear that in the end Israel did bow to Joseph after all.
The First Set of Blessings (48:1-20)
The sedrah contains two sets of blessings.  The first set involves Joseph and his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim.  In a touching scene the sick and dying Jacob tells Joseph about the blessing he has received from God.  As part of the fulfillment of that blessing, Jacob adopts Ephraim and Manasseh as his own two sons.  Although Manasseh is the older and Ephraim is the younger, Jacob administers the blessing in reverse order.  Joseph thinks that his ailing father does not know what he is doing, but Jacob assures him that he is in full control.  Once again, the older shall serve the younger.  Primogeniture does not rule.  Additionally, Jacob assigns an extra portion to Joseph.  The eleventh son has supplanted the first-born Rueben.  This section ends with a seemingly melancholy promise that will in fact sustain the Jewish people throughout the ages, “I am about to die; but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.”  Once again, Jacob reminds us that God will be with us no matter where we go.
The Second Set of Blessings (49:1-33)
Now the dying Jacob summons his sons for their final blessings.  Please note that in the previous chapter, Joseph had heard that his father was ill and he went to him.  Why his brothers did not go to see him of their own volition and only came when summoned is a bit of puzzlement.  Regardless, the actual blessings are viewed in two different ways.  Some accept the statement in the text, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come” and read the blessings as prophesy.  Others contend that the blessings were written at a much later date to justify or explain the fate that had befallen the various tribes.  Regardless, it might be interesting to compare the tribes at the end of Bereshit with tribes we read about at the end of Devarim:
Moses was able to get to twelve because Joseph is really two tribes in his counting - Ephraim and Manasseh.  Remember that Moses does not mention Simeon.  This question of who are the Twelve Tribes can be a continuing challenge.  Following the text as written, Jacob uses poetry to bestow blessings and judgments upon each of his sons.  For his first three sons, Rueben, Simeon, and Levi he has words of harsh judgment.  Only when he gets to Judah, do we begin to read the kind of positive words that one would expect in a bedside testament.  Since they are poetry, each blessing is opaque and can be read at many levels of meaning.  But at the end of the blessings, the twelve sons are described collectively as the tribes of Israel.  Regardless of their father’s words to them as individuals, they are all part of the same people and he addresses them as such.  With his final breath, he charges them all with the responsibility for taking him back to Machpelah.  For the first time, the children of Israel must act collectively.  Joseph may be in charge, but all are required to do their part to ensure that the burial takes place.
The Burial of Jacob and the Death of Joseph (50:1-26)
The first fourteen verses describe the burial of Jacob in great detail.  Contrary to Jewish tradition, Jacob is embalmed.  The Egyptians mourn the father of Pharaoh’s leading minister in grand fashion.  But in Egypt, only the Pharaoh has complete power.  Even Joseph is not entirely free.  Joseph must plead his case with Pharaoh so that he can bury Jacob in the promised manner.  Pharaoh allows the sons to go but holds back the rest of the clan and their flocks.  He also sends a considerable contingent to accompany the mourners.  Is Pharaoh doing honor to Joseph’s father or does he have other motives in mind?  The text is silent and the commentaries are numerous.  The brothers return to Egypt with Joseph but they are afraid that Joseph may take revenge on them since Jacob is no longer alive to protect them.  (Shades of Esau threatening to kill Jacob once their father had died.)  Once again, Joseph allays their fears.  If they are to be punished, it will be God who will do the punishing, not Joseph.  Besides which, all’s well that ends well.  They had intended to harm him, but God took their apparent evil deed and turned it into a positive thing for His people.  The sedrah ends on a tranquil note.  Joseph lives to see his great-grandchildren born.  As death approaches, he makes his kinsman promise to take his bones back to Canaan with them when they finally leave Egypt.  Why did he not have them take him to Canaan for immediate burial, as had been the case with Jacob?  The author leaves us to speculate on yet another unanswered question.  We are left with an embalmed Joseph, placed in a coffin, waiting to go home at some future date.
Customs and Ceremonies
Shiva - “…And he observed a mourning period of seven days for his father.”  Joseph’s mourning for his father presages the sitting of Shiva - the seven days of mourning observed following the burial of a Jew.
Chesed V’emet (True Kindness) - When Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in Canaan we are seeing the first example of the ultimate act of “true kindness,” the burial of the dead.  In Judaism, chesed v’emet (true kindness) is a mitzvah performed without the expectation of thanks or reward.  Burial of the dead is the ultimate form of true kindness since the dead cannot reward the living.
Shabbat Blessing - It is customary for parents to bless their children at home on Friday evening usually before the singing of Shalom Aleichem.  The blessing for sons begins with the words, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”  These words refer to the blessing that Jacob conferred on his two grandsons, the sons of Joseph.  They were a source of pride because they were able to maintain their Jewish identity despite having been born in Egypt and raised among Egyptians.  According to Jewish tradition, Jacob wanted future generations of Jewish parents to utter this benediction over their children.  The blessing for girls invokes the names of the four matriarchs.  The body of the benediction is the same for all children regardless of sex.
Shabbat Blessing II - Rabbi Feivell Strauss provided a lesson in how parents can keep this custom alive when children grow up and leave home.  He told the story of a couple in Jerusalem who go to the part of the dining room closest to the direction where their adult children are living and recite the benediction.  In describing this Rabbi Strauss teaches us that instead of “discarding” customs and practices, we should look for new ways to give them meaning as our circumstances change.
Shema - Between the first line of the Shema (Hear O Israel; the Lord is our God, the Lord is One) and the V’ahavta, we recite Baruch Shem kvod malchuto l’olam va-ed (Blessed is the name of His Glorious majesty forever and ever).  Among traditional Jews, these words are uttered softly, almost silently.  One of the reasons given for the muted utterance of the words comes from the deathbed scene of Jacob.  Jacob’s sons affirmed their belief in Adonai.  When they said, “Hear O Israel…” they were actually addressing the statement to Jacob/Israel.  Jacob uttered these words in the whisper of a dying man relieved that his sons would keep the faith.  We utter them sotto voce, in the manner of Jacob.  Also, unlike the rest of the Shema, these words do not come from Moses and are not found in the Torah.  So they are recited in a different manner to emphasize that they have a different origin.
Burial - According to Rashi, Jacob insisted on being buried in Canaan for at least two reasons.  First, Jacob considered the Promised Land to be the holiest spot on earth.  Secondly, he knew that the Egyptians had a tendency to deify the dead and he did not want become an idol.  In keeping with the example of Jacob, Jews often make arrangements to be buried in Israel.  Others will have some dirt from Eretz Yisrael placed in their coffin.  Also, in keeping with the example of Jacob, Jews have gone to great length to avoid the deification of our leaders.  The most striking example of this is the fate of Moshe - he dies alone and is buried in an unmarked grave.
There are two significant shifts in nomenclature in this sedrah.  First, the Jewish people are now “the Israelites.”  The term “sons of Israel” as used in 50:25 does not refer to Jacob’s sons but to his growing progeny living in Goshen.  Secondly, for the first time we see the sequential invocation of the names of the patriarchs.  In Bereshit 50:24 they are listed in order as “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  This sequencing will become a part of the daily prayer service and will be invoked in a variety of special blessings down through the ages.
The third patriarch is far too complex a figure for us to discuss in this brief guide.  At the end of his life, Jacob does not sound like a happy man.  “Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.”  He dies a stranger in a stranger land.  At the end of his life, he has to live off the kindness of his son.  He must rely on Joseph’s promise that he will in fact be properly buried.  Considering how much trickery Jacob had seen in his life time, we can only wonder how confident he was that he would in fact be buried in the manner promised.  So what is Jacob’s merit?  What makes him unique?  Abraham was the originator, the founding father.  Isaac was the figure of continuity.  He was the one who kept Abraham’s vision alive and passed it along to the next generation.  But Jacob was the one who transmitted the tradition to an entire family.  Abraham kept Isaac but lost Ishmael.  Isaac kept Jacob but lost Esau.  Jacob did not lose anybody.  He transmitted the vision of God that he had seen on the way to Paddan, on the way back from Paddan and on his way into to Egypt to all twelve of his sons and their sons and the sons of their sons.  However imperfect each of his sons may have been, they were all still sons of Jacob, they were still part of the house of Israel.  This concept of the whole House of Israel is an essential element of Judaism.  Jacob took us from being the Jewish person to being the Jewish people and for that alone he earns a place in the Pantheon of Patriarchs.
Once again, we are dealing with a figure far too complex to be summarized in a mere guide.  Joseph is described as a Tzadik, a righteous man.  One reason for this appellation was his rejection of Potiphar’s wife.  In its own right, his behavior was meritorious.  But when his behavior is compared with that of Rueben and Bilha or Judah and Tamar, Joseph’s ability to control his appetites really does set him way above his contemporaries.  Joseph is a person capable of growth and maturation; a person capable of learning from his past mistakes.  He learns to be loving, loyal and forgiving.  Joseph is a person who engenders trust.  Whether it is Potiphar, the head jailer or Pharaoh himself, people immediately entrust him with their affairs and leave him to take care of everything.  So why isn’t he a Patriarch?  Maybe it is because he is a dreamer.  God spoke directly to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.  But he did not speak to Joseph.  Instead Joseph dreamed dreams and listened to the dreams of others.  Using his intuition, he looked for the divine message in the world of hazy, half-formed images.  Furthermore, unlike his three famous forefathers, Joseph was not a singular recipient of a birthright.  He was one of twelve recipients of Jacob’s blessings.  The unique relationship was with the children of Israel, not the child of Israel.  Last but not least, from a very traditional point of view, Joseph was not a Patriarch because God did not designate him as one.  Have no doubt about Joseph’s merit.  Remember, according to some, there are two Messiahs.  One is the Messiah of the House of David and the other is the Messiah of the House of Joseph.
Jacob and the Tabernacle
In describing the final removal of Jacob’s body to the cave of Machpelah, the Torah says, “His sons carried him to the land of Canaan…” (50:13).  According to some commentators, Jacob left his sons with specific instructions as to where they should stand as they carried his coffin.  In addition, neither Levi nor Joseph was to touch the coffin.  The order of march described here mirrors the order of the encampment around the Tabernacle described in the second chapter of Bamidbar.  Was the trip to Machpelah a “dry-run” for the wanderings in the Wilderness that would lead to the Promised Land?  Was the merit of Jacob so great that he was entitled to a level of consideration equivalent to the Tabernacle?  In Judaism we do not worship our ancestors.  But we do honor them for their accomplishments.  Sometimes we have a tendency to fixate on the foibles and weakness of great people, in this case the Patriarchs and other leaders of the Jewish people.  While it is important to note their shortcomings, it is of greater importance to recognize their accomplishments.  At the end of the day, each of them played their part in getting our people to the next bend in the road.  Hopefully, somebody will be able to say that about each of us some day instead of just waxing eloquent over our human shortcomings.
This is a comment about all of Bereshit, not just this week’s portion.  But in a time and a season of the year when there are those in our world who claim to own God or have the only way to Him, the following lesson from the first book of the Torah seems worth mentioning.  For the Jew, God exists from before the moment of creation.  There is no need to prove his existence.  God is the God of all mankind.  He is not the unique possession of the Jewish people.  Unlike other religions, as we can see throughout Bereshit, God and His blessings are open to all.  Yes, the Jew has a unique relationship with God, as we can see from the Covenant, but it is a relationship based on responsibility not blind, divine favoritism.  And last but not least, God is always with us.  Throughout Bereshit, He would appear to remind of us of that fact.  This is one of the critical messages of the last twelve weekly portions.
After describing the burial of Jacob the text describes the fear of the brothers.  “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and fully repay us” (50:15).  Joseph’s reassurance that he will do them no harm is a sign that the moral order that God has been instilling in His people will continue even though the Patriarchs are dead.  Joseph is the first leader who has not spoken with God, yet he accepts God’s will and abides by His ethical law.
Why we study
For those who are looking for different reasons for studying Torah, consider the following comment from The Tanya.  This quote comes from one of the daily readings that often coincide with the conclusion of the book of Bereshit.  “That is why our Sages have said that ‘if even one individual sits and engages in Torah study, the Divine Presence rests upon him.’  For when one engages in Torah study his surrender to Godliness emerges, to affect him on a revealed, external level since such study entails setting aside one’s own notions and presumptions in order to understand and accept God’s wisdom and Will as expressed in Torah.  It is this surrender to Godliness that causes the Divine Presence to rest upon the Torah student.”
Torah, Talmud and Tefilah (Prayer)
In this week’s Torah portion Jacob and Joseph die.  Each of these great, powerful men was dependent on those who remain behind to see to it that they were buried in a proper manner.  The Talmud picks up this theme when it lists “escorting the dead” as one of the ten activities in which a person should engage while awaiting the end of days.  (The list includes a wide variety of activities ranging from performing acts of life kindness to providing for a bride’s dowry to study).  This list is recited daily in the introductory prayers of the morning service.  In other words, the obligation of the living to the dead was considered important enough that we not only study about it, but we are reminded of it every day.  Taking care of the dead is the ultimate mitzvah since the one performing the act can expect no reward from the recipient.  And the one receiving the benefit cannot say thank you.  This is proof positive that the reward for performing the mitzvah is the performance of the mitzvah.
How Long is a Long Life
Abraham died at the age of 175.  Isaac died at the age of 180.  Based on the law of rising expectation for successive generations one would guess that Jacob would die at the age of 185.  Wrong!  He died at the age of 147.  On the surface this would be a case of regression.  And based on the idea that length of days is related to merit, it would appear that after only three generations, the Jewish people were on a downward spiral.  Surprisingly W. Gunther Plaut, the Reform Biblical Commentator, writes a commentary on this sedrah using the arcane concepts of numerology.  He contends that these conclusions come from an erroneous comprehension of mathematical concepts.  Using the concept of squared numbers, Plaut contends that in fact each generation did successively better.  Thus:
175 = 5 squared times 7
180 = 6 squared times 5
147 = 7 squared times 3
In other words, if the life span of the patriarchs is measured as numbers squared then there is in fact a numeric progression.  At the same time we find out that Joseph died at the age of 110 which is the same age at which Joshua would die.  In other words, Joseph, the prototypical Diaspora Jew and Joshua, the first Zionist, lived to the same age.  But does any of this really make any difference?  Is this not an example of making quantity synonymous with quality?  As Alan King said, “It is not how long you live, but how well you live” that really matters.  The first member of Kibbutz Beit Hashitah died at the age of 16.  He was attacked by Arab thugs during the uprisings in the 1930’s.  As he lay dying, he wrote the following.  “How sad it is to die so young.  How sweet it is to die for one’s country.”  American history offers further proof that mere longevity is not synonymous with great accomplishments.  On the long year’s side we find:  Ronald Regan and Gerald Ford each died at the age of 93.  Richard Nixon died at the age of 81.  On the short years side we find:  Franklin Roosevelt died at the age of 63.  Teddy Roosevelt died at the age of 60.  And Abraham Lincoln died at the age of 57.
The final chapter of Bereshit (Genesis) ends with three climatic moments which, in reverse chronological order, are the death of Joseph, the death of Jacob and Jacob’s blessing of his sons.  Except for literalists, the blessings are an enigmatic event.  Professor James Kugel points that some modern scholars see the blessings as being an insertion in the original narrative.  They see the blessings as dating from the period of David and Solomon, which would still mean that they are a very old part of Jewish tradition.  Rather than viewing them as prophecy, these critics see the blessings as a way that the House of David explained the political and social conditions that existed during the rise of the Davidic dynasty.  The listing of the twelve sons cemented the authenticity of the twelve tribes as the original political and social unit of the Israelite people.  But the blessings tie the twelve tribes to the same father which means they are really a common people thus providing an ancient stamp of approval to David’s moves to unite the twelve tribes unto one nation under one king.  The blessings also provide an explanation for Judah’s dominant role in the new political order.  The blessing of each of the first three sons (Judah was the fourth in line) provides a reason for why they are unworthy of leadership.  The laudatory blessing for Judah gives his descendant David “permission” to pursue the measures necessary to create the unified monarchy.  Not only that, the blessing given Judah means that any who would try and usurp the House of David are not just political rebels; they rebels against the word of God.  Are the Blessings a prophecy or a justification for an existing social or political situation?  This is not the first time that we will be confronted with this question when looking at the Biblical text; nor will it be the last.
Chazak Shabbat
In past years, The Conservative Movement (USCJ) had designated this Shabbat as Chazak Shabbat, in honor of Jews fifty five years and over.  This annual event coincided with the reading of Vayechi.  On Chazak Shabbat, older members of these synagogues were encouraged to take a prominent role in the Shabbat services including leading the worship service, reading the Torah, chanting the Haftarah and reciting Kiddush.  American society has made a fetish out of worshiping youth (the generation that told us not to trust anybody over thirty now insists that sixty is the new forty).  Turning the practices of Chazak Shabbat into our daily congregational and communal activities is a way of ensuring that those with gray or thinning hair have the opportunity to play a vital role in Jewish life.
Portent of Pesach
When it comes time to take Jacob’s body to Canaan, Pharaoh sends the brothers and their households.  “Only their children and their flocks and their herds were left in the region of Goshen” (50:8).  Compare this with the episode in Shemot (Exodus).  Between the 7th and 8th plagues, Moses tells Pharaoh that everybody, including “our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds” are to be allowed to go.  But Pharaoh puts his foot down and tells Moses that only the men can go.  Both monarchs were holding the children hostage to ensure that the Israelites would return; in one case from the burial and in the other case from worshipping God in the Wilderness.  The difference is that Joseph agreed to the terms and Moses did not.  He was not leaving without all of the people and all of their possessions.  Joseph’s behavior was that of a man making a rational decision; a man with a stake in the society in which he was living.  But Moses was acting under Divine Direction and he had been made responsible for being the human agent leading the liberation of his whole people.  This is the concept of The Whole House of Israel.  This concept resonated with David Ben-Gurion in the early days of the State of Israel.  Despite Israel’s fragile economy in the earliest days of her existence, he insisted on bringing Jews from all over the world.  Even though it would mean additional hardship, he opened Israel’s doors to those Holocaust survivors who suffered from extreme physical handicap.  For Zionist leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries, the state of Israel was for The Whole House of Israel regardless of their political beliefs or level of religiosity.  Unfortunately, for those governing Israel in the 21st century, such is no longer the case.
The First Funeral
Meir Shalev has written a fascinating book entitled Beginnings in which he catalogues and provides insights about Biblical “firsts” such as the first kiss, the first dream, the first love, etc.  If he should update this tome he might want to add “the first funeral” which is described in the week’s Torah portion.  Bereshit records several deaths and several burials, but in “Vayechi” we are confronted with the first full-blown funeral complete with the kinds of customs and ceremonies that make up the modern American funeral industry or as Jessica Mitford called it in her book of the same title, “The American Way of Death.”  Interestingly enough, this lavish ceremony is not a product of Jewish law or Israelite custom.  It is a product of Egypt, a culture that built the great pyramids and cities of the dead - a culture that worshipped death.  This stands in stark contrast with Jewish culture which is centered on living.  We drink to “l’chaim.”  When it comes to the commandments we are taught, “by these laws shall you live.”  And every morning, we recite “Aylu D’Vorim” which provides us with a list of daily tasks that reminds us that life is more than just an ante-room to death, but something to be seized and enjoyed to its fullest.  The Egyptians may have thought they were doing Jacob a great honor with this elaborate funeral.  Apparently the Jewish view of things was quite different as we can see in subsequent books of the Torah when we read about the deaths of Miriam, Aaron and Moses.
Missing Children
In speaking to Joseph at the start of the sedrah, Jacob says that “your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine” (48:5) but says that any children born to Joseph from now on will be his (Joseph’s).  But the Torah never makes any reference to any other children.  Does this mean that Joseph had only these two sons or did he have more children which remain nameless because for some reason they were not considered part of the Children of Israel?
Reality Reverses Dreams
In what would appear to be a validation of the youthful Joseph’s dream that his brothers would bow down before him, following the burial of Jacob, “his brothers went to him themselves and flung themselves before him” and offered to serve him as “slaves.”  But Joseph rejected this adoration by asking the rhetorical question, “Am I a substitute for God?” (50:19).  This is additional proof of the maturation of Joseph.  It is also the final manifestation of what some would say makes Joseph a Tzadik, a righteous person - his willingness to forgive his brothers and to see the hand of God in the world of man.  Think about it, the men who threw him in a pit, ate a meal while plotting to kill him and then sold him into slavery are totally in his power.  How many of us would be willing to forgo the luxury of revenge let alone express a faith in God at this level?
The End Beats the Beginning
Bereshit begins with repeated rejections of God (Adam and Eve, Abel and the generation of Noah).  It ends with a total acceptance in belief in God and His role in history as can be seen with Jacob’s last conversation with God before he goes to Egypt and Joseph’s last speech with his brothers, “although you intended me harm, God intended it for good.”  The journey “down into Egypt” may also be seen as a journey “upward to a greater closeness with God.”  Chazak Chazak.
2:1-12 First Kings
The Book/The Man:  The Book of Kings is the fourth book the second section of the TaNaCh.  In Jewish tradition the Book of Kings is one book.  The divisions into Kings I and II came with the creation of the Septuagint.  Kings begins with the last days of King David, continues with the reign of King Solomon and then chronicles the kingships of the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah.  It covers a period from approximately 970 BCE until 560 BCE.  Kings opens with the final days of David.  King David is an historic figure.  In fact, as Abba Eban put it, we know so much about David it almost seems as if he were several people, instead of just one man.  Samuel secretly anointed David while Saul still ruled.  In 1055, at the age of 30, he was crowned King of the Judeans at Hebron.  Seven years later David was crowned King over the United Kingdom and captured Jerusalem.  David died in 1015, having reigned for forty years - seven in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem.  The dates are approximate and different authors provide different actual dates.  The length of his reign is not disputed.  The Biblical source material for the life of David is found in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.  David is credited with writing the Book of Psalms.
The Message:  This haftarah marks our third encounter with the opening chapters of First Kings as we have made our way through the first book of the Torah.  Hopefully, this means that you are starting to get a sense of the book in its entirety.  The first chapter of Kings provided the haftarah for Chayei Sarah.  This chapter depicted King David’s final days when he selected Solomon to succeed him as King.  First Kings 3:15-4:1 provided the haftarah for Miketz.  It described the early events of Solomon’s reign shortly after the death of David.  This week’s haftarah fits between the other two and actually describes the last moments of King David’s life.  The haftarah is a strange amalgam of the pious and the practical, which is consistent with David’s entire life.  On the one hand, he tells Solomon that the key to success is following God’s law.  And then he tells him to kill Joab and Shimei but to honor the sons of Barzillai because they had supported him during Absalom’s rebellion.  David may have his spiritual side.  But as a practical potentate he knows that removing one’s enemies and rewarding one’s friends is the key to political and dynastic success.  The last chapters of First Chronicles describe these events in a much more matter of fact manner without any of the intrigue.  Both versions do end in the same manner with the chronology of his reign and Solomon enthroned as his successor.
Theme Link:  Both the sedrah and the haftarah describe the death of great leaders, Jacob and David.  In fact except for the names, the text is identical in its language.  “And the days of Israel drew near to die…” (47:29).  “And the days of David drew near to die...” (2:1).  Also both men use the Hebrew word va-y’tzav (instructed) when telling their heirs what to do after they die.  In the case of Jacob, he is commanding his sons to bury him in Machpelah.  In the case of David, he is commanding Solomon to obey the commandments of God as recorded in the teachings of Moses, to settle some scores with his enemies and to pay honor to those who were his friends.  Both readings also describe the entombment of the leaders and the aftermath of their deaths.  In Jacob’s case, his son has to ask permission to honor his father’s deathbed wish.  While Jacob is buried in Machpelah, his sons must return to exile in Egypt.  On the other hand, “David slept with his fathers and he was buried in the City of David….  And Solomon sat upon the throne of his father David, and his rule was firmly established.”  Jacob may have been a Patriarch, but he died a stranger in a strange land with his children facing an uncertain future.  David, because he lived in the land of the Jews, did not die with such worries.  Of course, both lived and died with faith that God would protect their progeny.
Antiquity of the Torah:  We have heard different views about who wrote the Torah and when it was written.  When David tells Solomon to follow God’s teachings, he describes them as being “written in the Torah of Moses.”  In other words, we have reason to believe that people in David’s time knew of the Torah and connected it with Moses.  The books that describe David’s life - Samuel and Kings - were written at a later date.  But this reference apparently was not inconsistent with their conception of the Davidic period.  No, this is not conclusive evidence, but it sure does help to strengthen the case.
Copyright; January, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin