Sunday, December 14, 2014

Torah Readings for Chanukah December 17, 2014 - December 24, 2014 (25 Kislev - 2Tevet, 5774) Miketz

Torah Readings for Chanukah
December 17, 2014 - December 24, 2014 (25 Kislev - 2Tevet, 5774)

Kindle the First Chanukah Candle on the evening of December 16th (See Blessings Below).  One of the common laments about Chanukah is that there is so little to it in the way of ritual.  Such is really not the case.  As so often happens, we are not aware of the rituals that already exist to celebrate our holidays.  It was this lack of basic knowledge that probably gave rise to the Reform Movement’s call for us to raise our respective level of “Jewish literacy.”

The Torah and Chanukah

The Torah never sleeps.  There is a connection between Torah Study and Chanukah.  While most of us know the basics about observing Chanukah, many of us are unaware of the special reading from the Torah for each day of the holiday.  While many Reform Temples may not follow this custom, it is useful for all Jews to be aware of the practices of our people and to understand the many origins modern day Judaism.

The Torah is read on all eight days of Chanukah.  However, tracking the readings is not that simple because Shabbat comes during Chanukah.  In those years when the first day of Chanukah falls on Shabbat, the eighth day also falls on Shabbat.  Furthermore, the month of Tevet starts during Chanukah.  This means that Rosh Chodesh Tevet falls on the sixth (and in some years the sixth and seventh) day of Chanukah.  This also affects the Torah readings.  If you are not thoroughly confused by now, keep reading and see if you can be confused later.

The special readings for Chanukah include the entire seventh chapter of Bamidbar and the first four verses from chapter eight.  During the year we read chapter seven as part of Naso and chapter eight as part of Beha’alotcha.  Chapter seven describes the gifts brought by the leaders of each of the twelve tribes at the time of the dedication of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.  Since Chanukah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple, these verses are an appropriate reading for the holiday.  The first four verses of chapter eight relate to the Menorah found in the Tabernacle.  The Chanukah Menorah has eight branches while the one used in the Tabernacle only had seven.  They are not the same, but considering the close identification of the holiday with the menorah, these verses too are appropriate as part of the holiday celebration.

Except on Shabbat Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh, the reading is divided into three aliyot.  Three is the minimum number of aliyot that is permissible.  The list is not laden with typos; the readings do overlap.

Shabbat Chanukah
When Chanukah falls on Shabbat, two scrolls are taken from the Ark.  The first scroll is used for the regular weekly reading; the second is used for the special Chanukah reading for that day.  This reading is the maftir portion.

Rosh Chodesh - The First Day of the New Month
When Rosh Chodesh Tevet falls on the Sixth Day of Chanukah, two scrolls are taken from the Ark.  The reading from the first scroll is Bamidbar 28: 1 - 15; this is the special Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh.  These verses are also part of the sedrah called Pinchas.  They describe the sacrifices brought to the Tabernacle on Rosh Chodesh.  There are three aliyot for this reading.  The second scroll is used for the Chanukah reading of the day.  Some years that is the reading for the Sixth Day of Chanukah.  In those years when Rosh Chodesh Tevet is a two-day observance, as it is this year, the reading for the second day of Rosh Chodesh is the same, but the Chanukah reading is for the Seventh Day of Chanukah.  (I told you this could get confusing.)

Triple Header
When Rosh Chodesh Tevet falls on Shabbat Chanukah, three scrolls are taken from the Ark.  The first scroll is for the regular weekly reading.  Six people are called to the Torah.  The second scroll is for the Rosh Chodesh Torah Reading.  One person is called to the Torah.  The third scroll is for the Chanukah Reading (always the Sixth Day reading).  One person, the maftir is called to the Torah.

Why use more than one Torah?
The commentators caution against unduly prolonging the service.  Winding the Torah from one special reading to the next can be a time consuming process.  Hence we take out the number of scrolls consistent with the number of special readings.  However, if the congregation has only one Torah, it still follows all of the readings.  It just takes more time.

There is a special relationship between the concept of the haftarah and Chanukah.  According to some, the special reading from the Prophets began during the Syrian persecution when Jews were forbidden to study the Torah.  A reading from the Prophets was substituted for the Torah reading.  Apparently this practice proved to be so popular that it was modified and adopted as part of our observances.  During Chanukah, the haftarah is read only on Shabbat.  The special haftarah replaces the one normally paired with the weekly reading.  During those years when the first and eighth days of Chanukah fall on Shabbat, there are two different readings from the Prophets.  For this special guide, we will only concern ourselves with the special holiday message of the Haftarah.  We will discuss the Prophet and his message when we meet him during the annual cycle.

First Shabbat Chanukah - Zechariah 2: 12 - 4: 7
The special Torah readings for Chanukah deal with the dedication of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and the Menorah.  The prophetic portion envisions a restored Temple, the permanent dwelling that has replaced the Tabernacle.  In addition, the Haftarah references the Menorah and the olive oil.  Finally, the prophet predicts the ultimate triumph with the language “this is the work of the Lord…. Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit - said the Lord of Hosts.”  “And Thy word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.”  In other words, the victory of the few Jews over the mighty Syrians was a product of our faith in God.  This is the message of Chanukah.  This reading from Zechariah is also the Haftarah for the sedrah of Beha’alotcha, so we will be able to study it in depth when we come to it as part of the annual cycle.

Second Shabbat Chanukah - First Kings 7: 40 - 50
The Chanukah Torah readings deal with the dedication of the Tabernacle and the Menorah, the source of light.  The reading from First Kings deals with the building of the Temple in Solomon’s time.  This Temple literally replaced the Tabernacle.  It will be the Second Temple that is re-dedicated by the Macabees.  Specifically the Haftarah talks about the lights in the Temple.  Chanukah is known as the Festival of Lights.  We will discuss this reading further as it is the Haftarah for the sedrah of Vayakhel.

Chanukah Literature
(This is not intended to be an all inclusive discussion of Chanukah.  There are numerous books and websites which approach the story in depth and from all kinds of different points of view.)

The original source for the story of Chanukah comes from the Books of the Maccabees.  The first book covers the period from approximately 175 to 135 B.C.E. and describes the events of the revolt.  The second book covers a shorter period of time (175 to 160 B.C.E.).  It may be a shorter form of a five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene.  At any rate, it is a book portraying a war against the pagans and filled with tales of martyrdom.  These books are not in the TaNaCh.  They are part of the Apocrypha.  The Scroll of the Hasmoneans also tells the Chanukah story, but it probably dates back to the tenth century and is more or a compilation of popular legends.  At one time it was read in Italian synagogues much as the Scroll of Esther is read on Purim.  We can look to the First Book of the Maccabees for the origin of the holiday and why it lasted eight days.  “Then Judah and his brothers and the whole congregation of Israel established that the days of the consecration of the altar be celebrated for eight days at this period, namely beginning with the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, in joy and happy renewal.”  (I Maccabees 4: 36 - 61)  The holiday was tied to Sukkoth, which was the holiday associated with the dedications of the First and Second Temples.  In fact, the holiday may have been known as the Sukkoth Feast of the Month of Kislev.  The Mishnah, which was completed in the third century (almost three hundred years after the revolt) does not mention the holiday.  Chanukah and the cruise of oil story appear in the Gemara, the second part of the Talmud, which was finished at the start of the sixth century.

Unusual Chanukah

Unlike with Pesach, there are no required foods.  The custom is to eat foods cooked with oil because of the miracle of the oil burning for eight days.  Ashkenazim developed the custom of eating Latkes - potato pancakes.  Sephardim developed the custom of eating “sufganiyot” (doughnuts).  After all doughnuts are just dough cooked in oil.  Think of it - Krispy Kremes for Chanukah!

Blessings, Prayers and Songs
Everybody knows about the blessings over the Chanukah lights, which are recited after lighting the shamas but before lighting the candles themselves.  When lighting the candles, always do Chanukah before Shabbat, but do Chanukah after Havdalah.  In the synagogue, Hallel is recited as part of the morning service throughout the holiday.  A special prayer called Al haNissim (For the Miracles) is recited during the Shemoneh Esrei during each of the three daily services and during the Grace After Meals.  The version of this prayer recited at Chanukah summarizes the story of the Maccabees.  There are numerous songs that have been composed over the centuries concerning this holiday.  They include “Rock of Ages,” “Who can retell,” and that most ubiquitous one of all, “I Had A Little Dreydel.”  This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list and thanks to the wonders of the internet you can find all this and so much more with music included.  In the mean time for your convenience we have listed some of the basics below in Hebrew, English and Transliteration.

Chanukah Blessings and Chanukah courtesy of Temple Israel, Westport, Connecticut

Ba-ruch a-ta Adonai, Eh-lo-hei-nu meh-lech ha-o-lam a-sher ki-d'sha-nu b' mitz-vo-tav v'tzi-va-nu l'had-lik ner shel Chanukah.

We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe: You hallow us with Your Mitzvot, and command us to kindle the Chanukah lights.

Ba-ruch a-ta Adonai, Eh-lo-hei-nu meh-lech ha-o-lam, sheh-a-sa-ni-sim la-a-vo-tei-nu/l'i-mo-tei-nu ba-ya-mim ha-heim ba-z'man ha-zeh.

We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe: You showed wonders to your fathers/mothers in days of old, at this season.

Ba-ruch a-ta A-do-nai, E-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-o-lam, she-hecheyanu, v'ki-y'manu, v'higi-anu la-z'man hazeh.

We praise you, Eternal One, Sovereign God of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

The Chanukah readings which are all from Bamidbar (Numbers) are as follows:

Torah Readings for Wednesday, December 17, 2014
First Day Chanukah
7:1-7:17 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Torah Readings for Thursday, December 18, 2014
Second Day Chanukah
7:18-7:29 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Torah Readings for Friday, December 19, 2014
Third Day Chanukah
7:24-7:35 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 20, 2014
Fourth Day Chanukah (Shabbat Shel Chanukah)
41:1-44:17 Bereshit
Fourth Day Chanukah
7:30-7:41 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Torah Readings for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Fifth Day Chanukah
7:36-7:47 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Torah Readings for Monday, December 22, 2014
Rosh Chodesh Tevet (First Day)
28:1-15 Bamidbar
Sixth Day Chanukah
7:42-47 Bamidbar

Torah Readings for Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Rosh Chodesh Tevet (Second Day)
28:1-15 Bamidbar
Seventh Day Chanukah
7:42-47 Bamidbar

Torah Readings for Wednesday, December 24, 2012
Eighth Day Chanukah
7:54-89 Bamidbar

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 20, 2014
(Shabbat Shel Chanukah)
First Scroll
41:1-44:17 Bereshit

Miketz, (literally “at the end,” the first distinctive word in the portion) is the tenth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis) and the second in the Jacob/Joseph cycle.  The sedrah divides neatly into two parts.  The first part (41:1-56) recounts Joseph’s rise to power as he becomes second most powerful person in Egypt.  The second part (42:1-44:17) recounts Joseph’s first two encounters with his brothers.

Joseph’s Rise To Power (41:1-56):  Two years have passed since the end of last week’s sedrah.  The cupbearer has been restored to his position, but he has failed to keep his promise and Joseph continues to languish in prison.  Miketz opens with one of those famous Bible Stories that we all heard in Sunday School.  Pharaoh dreams of seven fat cows rising from the Nile that are consumed by seven lean cows.  He then dreams of seven ears of corn that are swallowed up by seven thin ears of corn.  When nobody can interpret the dreams in a meaningful way, the cupbearer remembers Joseph, the interpreter of dreams.  Joseph is brought before Pharaoh who tells Joseph of his dreams.  It should be noted that the dream and what Pharaoh describes as the dreams are slightly different.  Compare 41:1-7 with 41:17-24.  In speaking of the cows Pharaoh adds “never had I seen their likes for ugliness in all the land of Egypt!”  In speaking of the ears of corn he adds “but when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them for they looked just as bad as before.”  In other words, Joseph does not actually interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he interprets Pharaoh’s second version of the dream.  The additional comments Pharaoh makes help provide clues as to their meaning.  At any rate, Joseph describes the dreams as a revelation from God of impending events.  What is left to Pharaoh is to find a way to cope with what is coming.  Fortunately, Joseph has a plan of action that Pharaoh is only too glad to adopt.  And since it is obvious to Pharaoh that Joseph has insight into God’s will, Joseph is the obvious choice to carry out the plan.  The willingness of this Pharaoh to acknowledge God is far cry from the view of God displayed by the Pharaoh we see at Pesach.  This part of the sedrah ends with Joseph becoming a full member of the Egyptian society.  The Hebrew slave gets an Egyptian name and is given a prominent Egyptian woman for his wife.  When Joseph was cast into the pit, he lost his status in the material world.  Now, he has not only regained what he lost, he has reached undreamed of heights in the material world.  In other words, the first part of the sedrah can be viewed as the Material Redemption of Joseph.

Joseph’s First Two Encounters With His Brothers (42:1-44:17):  The narrative shifts back to Canaan and the house of Jacob.  Famine is abroad in the land and Jacob sends ten of his sons down to Egypt to buy supplies.  The Torah is silent as to why he sent ten.  Certainly one or two of them could have made the purchases.  The text is explicit as to why it is ten and not eleven.  Benjamin, the remaining son of Rachel, was to stay with Jacob “Lest disaster befall him.”  Does this mean that Jacob was still so caught up in playing favorites that he was willing to lose his other sons, but could not bear the thought of losing the living link with Rachel?

The brothers arrive in Egypt and when they see Joseph whom they recognize only as a great Egyptian official “they bowed down to him.”  Joseph not only recognizes his brothers, he recognizes the fulfillment of his youthful dream in their behavior.  Since Joseph knows who the brothers are, the accusations about being spies and the ensuing imprisonment cannot be for the reasons stated.  As the second most powerful person in Egypt, Joseph had no reason to fear his brothers.  So, is his behavior merely a very human act of revenge or is it, as some commentators suggest, a test by Joseph to see if his brothers have repented for what they did to him?  Or is it a combination of both?  Regardless, Joseph withdraws his charges, gives his brothers grain and sends them on their way back home.  But they must leave Simeon behind as a guarantee that they are not spies and that they will return with Benjamin.  Additionally, the brothers find that the money with which they paid for the grain has mysteriously been returned them.

When they come home, the brothers recount their tale to Jacob who responds in a tone of self-pity reminiscent of his response when he found out what his sons did to avenge Dinah.  The self-pitying wail “These things always happen to me!” is hardly the noble voice of a great patriarch.  Rueben makes his second, and last, attempt to play the role of the oldest son.  Rueben assures his father that that he can kill his sons if anything happens to Benjamin when they take him to Egypt.  Jacob spurns the offer.  The son who “lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine” and who was unable to save Joseph is swept away from the position of leadership he has failed to fulfill.  Be that as it may, the famine continues and Jacob is forced to send his sons back to Egypt to procure more food.  Judah now assumes the role that Rueben had attempted to fill and guarantees the safety of Benjamin.

Jacob, in a move reminiscent of his encounter with Esau, commands his sons to take gifts and double the money so that all will go well when they meet “the man” in Egypt.  Joseph still does not seem to have made up his mind about his brothers when he sees them for the second time.  In moves worthy of Laban, he tricks them into believing that all is well.  But in the end, he concocts an elaborate ruse that threatens the well-being of Benjamin and therefore the very life of Jacob.  The story carries echoes of early narratives.  The meal that Joseph feeds his brothers reminds us of the meal they ate while Joseph languished in the pit.  The “theft” of the cup (a religious object) by Rachel’s son is reminiscent of the theft of Laban’s household gods by Rachel.  The important thing, from Joseph’s point of view, is that the brothers do not desert Benjamin.  They will not leave him to languish in slavery.  They will not treat Rachel’s youngest son as they had her eldest.  Not only do the brothers all return to Joseph’s house, but Judah steps up to the plate to plead his brother case.  This sedrah is a cliffhanger.  We will have to wait until next week for the final outcome.


More than one kind of Smarts:  When he finishes interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph offers the following solution, “And now shall Pharaoh look for an intelligent and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt”(41:33).  Why use both terms?  Why not just say intelligent or just say wise?  The sages of the Middle Ages came up with explanations that are surprisingly consistent with modern management theorists.  According to Moses Ben Nachman, the 13th century Sephardic Rabbi also known as the Ramban, intelligence refers to human learning and human structures.  Wisdom refers to natural phenomena and properties.  The knowledgeable person knows the natural sciences as well as the humanities and the social sciences.  Another way of looking at this is that the knowledgeable person is conversant with secular and religious matters.  This leads logically to the concept that a person should divide his time between earning a living and studying Torah.

Free will versus Predestination:  We have been reading about the beginning of the Israelite migration to Egypt.  Do the actors in this story really have any choice in the roles they are playing?  Remember the words uttered by God to Abraham in Bereshit 15:13,Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.…”

Names:  In Miketz, Joseph is still referred to as being a Hebrew.  For the first time, our ancestors are referred to as the “Sons of Israel.”  The Hebrew term is variously translated as the Children of Israel, as well as, the more literal, sons of Israel.  This is the name that will follow us throughout our history.

Famine:  There would appear to be two famines described in Miketz.  One takes place in Egypt and is caused by the failure of the Nile to flood.  But there is a second famine in Canaan, a land not dependent upon the Nile.  So what is the common thread?  Rainfall or more simply the lack of rain.  The Blue Nile does not flood when there is insufficient rainfall in the land of the White Nile.  And we know from later Biblical references that droughts came to the Promised Land when there was a lack of rainfall.  Interestingly enough, at this time of the year when we read Miketz, we change the prayer in the Amidah to read “give dew and rain for a blessing.”  In other words, at a time when lack of rain plays such a prominent part in our history, we add the prayer for rain to our daily prayers.  It may be a coincidence, but it sure is an interesting one.

Dress for Success:  “Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph and he was rushed from the dungeon.  He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” (4:14-15).  Joseph does not appear before the King of Egypt in his work clothes.  He changes his outfit and cuts his hair.  If Joseph would take time to attend to his physical appearance before coming before the temporal King of Egypt, it makes you wonder why when people come to services to appear before the King of the Universe they do not at least make an attempt to emulate Joseph’s behavior.  Even the poor Jews of Eastern Europe took to heart the words of Shulchon Oruch when it came to dress and personal hygiene.

Economics 101:  Much of the current economic misery could have been avoided if people had paid attention to the story about the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows.  The Bible provides us with a basic lesson of economics - prosperity does not last forever.  People must take action during the good times to ameliorate the pain of privation.  Considering the antiquity of the story of Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s Dreams, you would think that people would have gotten the message by now.  Unfortunately, such is not the case.

Chanukah:  Miketz is usually the sedrah read during Chanukah.  In looking for a connection between the two we must be careful since the Torah came long before the holiday.  In Miketz, Joseph gives God credit for his ability to explain dreams.  In celebrating Chanukah, we give God credit for our ability to overcome the Syrians and for making the oil burn for eight days (yes, the last part is a myth but God still gets the credit).  But Chanukah is also a holiday that sparks discussion about assimilation and imitation.  The Chanukah fight was, in part, a fight between Jews who wanted to become like the Greeks and those who did not want to adopt their ways.  In Miketz, we see Joseph being transformed from a Hebrew slave into an Egyptian official.  In name, appearance and practice, he seems to become an Egyptian.  Yet, it is obvious that he does not forget his roots or his people.  Is enslavement the ultimate punishment for assimilation?  Is some form of assimilation the cost of physical survival?  These are questions raised in Miketz and that echo through the Chanukah story and down to our own times.

Second Scroll
Fourth Day Chanukah
7:30-7:41 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Zechariah 2: 12 - 4: 7 (Ashkenazim and Sephardim)
Shabbat Chanukah

Usually there is a connection between the Weekly Torah Portion and the readings from the prophets.  However, since this is a holiday Shabbat, the haftarah usually read with the Torah Portion is replaced by a special reading from the Prophets that is connected to the holiday.  There is a special relationship between the concept of the haftarah and Chanukah.  According to some, the special reading from the Prophets began during the Syrian persecution when Jews were forbidden to study the Torah.  A reading from the Prophets was substituted for the Torah reading.  Apparently this practice proved to be so popular that it was modified and adopted as part of our observances.  During Chanukah, the haftarah is read only on Shabbat.  The special haftarah replaces the one normally paired with the weekly reading.  During those years when the first and eighth days of Chanukah fall on Shabbat, there are two different readings from the Prophets.  For this special guide, we will only concern ourselves with the special holiday message of the Haftarah.  We will discuss the Prophet and his message when we meet him during the annual cycle.

The special Torah readings for Chanukah deal with the dedication of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and the Menorah.  The prophetic portion for Shabbat Chanukah read by the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim envisions a restored Temple, the permanent dwelling that has replaced the Tabernacle.  In addition, the Haftarah references the Menorah and the olive oil.  Finally, the prophet predicts the ultimate triumph with the language “this is the work of the Lord…. Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit - said the Lord of Hosts.”  “And Thy word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.”  In other words, the victory of the few Jews over the mighty Syrians was a product of our faith in God.  This is the message of Chanukah.  This reading from Zechariah is also the Haftarah for the sedrah of Beha’alotcha, so we will be able to study its other messages when we come to it as part of the annual cycle.

Torah Readings for Monday, December 22, 2014
Rosh Chodesh Tevet (First Day)
28:1-15 Bamidbar

This is the standard reading for each Rosh Chodesh.  Rosh Chodesh is the name of the minor holiday that marks the start of each month.  The term Rosh Chodesh is translated as New Moon.  The first day of the month is referred to as Rosh Chodesh because the months are lunar and the first day of each month comes with the start of the new moon.  In the days of the Temple special sacrifices were brought in honor of the new moon.  With the destruction of the Temple, the sacrificial system ended.  In place of the sacrifices, Jews read a description of the sacrificial offerings, which is described in the first fifteen verses of chapter 28 in the book of Numbers.  The Torah reading takes place during the daily morning service.  There are many Jews who have no desire to return to the sacrificial system.  They use these readings as a way of providing a connection with the past which is one of the keys to our future preservation.  Because of its connection with the moon, Rosh Chodesh is thought to have special meaning for women.  There are some sages who suggest that wives and mothers should be presented with gifts on this, their holiday.  In lieu of gifts, others suggest giving Tzdekah in their honor.

Sixth Day Chanukah
7:42-47 Bamidbar

Torah Readings for Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Rosh Chodesh Tevet (Second Day)
28:1-15 Bamidbar

Tevet is the fourth month of the year counting from Rosh Hashanah.  It is the tenth month of the year when counting from Pesach.  Tevet usually has 29 days, falls during the December/January timeframe and marks the start of the winter rains in the land of Israel.  “The tenth month” is mentioned several times in the Bible, but the name Tevet is only mentioned once in the TaNaCh - in the Scroll of Esther (2:16).  According to Second Kings and Ezekiel, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem on the tenth of Tevet.  This siege was the prelude to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.  For this reason the tenth of Tevet is a minor fast day known by the Hebrew name of Asarah be-Tevet.  The fast is a dawn to dusk fast.  In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate had designated Asrah be-Tevet as the day of remembrance for those who died in the Holocaust.  They felt that the day that marked the beginning of the worst calamity in ancient times was an appropriate day for commemorating the worst calamity in modern times.  However, Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day which falls on the 27th of Nisan is the day when most people in and out of Israel remember The Six Million.  During the time of the Second Temple, Tevet was a time for other minor fasts.  One such fast, which fell on the Eighth of Tevet, marked the completion of the Septuagint, the translation of the Bible into Greek.  On a personal note, the 10th of Tevet is the Yahrzeit for Judy Rosenstein (nee Levin), a true Woman of Valor who left us too soon and will always be remembered.

Seventh Day Chanukah
7:48-53 Bamidbar

Copyright; December, 2014, Mitchell A. Levin

*Resource materials include but not limited to:
Chumashim or Biblical Texts: Plaut, Hertz, Stone, Soncino, Magil and Etz Hayim
Works by:  Telushkin, Trepp, Wiesltier, Steinsaltz, Weisblum, Wiesel; Wagner, Kolatch, Kushner, Schneerson, Cahill, Schiffman, Feller, Artson, Eisenberg and Wineberg

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 13, 2014 Va-yayshev

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 13, 2014

Va-yayshev (“And he dwelt” or “settled”)
37:1-40:23 Bereshit (Genesis)

Va-yayshev is the ninth sedrah in Bereshit or Genesis.  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “And Jacob dwelt (Va-yayshev) in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.”  It is the third sedrah to begin with a verb describing the behavior of Jacob.  However, Jacob quickly fades into a secondary role.  Va-yayshev marks the end of the Jacob Cycle and the start of the Joseph Cycle.  The sedrah breaks into three main parts:  The Events Surrounding the Sale of Joseph, the Story of Judah and Tamar, and Joseph’s Early Years in Egypt.

The Events Surrounding the Sale of Joseph (37:1-36)
Since the story is pretty straightforward and most texts offer ample notes, I will limit my commentaries to a few salient points.  The opening statement “And now Jacob was settled in the land where his father sojourned” would indicate that Jacob thought his years of wandering were done and that he could settle down to enjoy the good life of a clan leader.  However, Jacob’s life will never be settled and he will never know the comfort that Abraham and Isaac enjoyed.  Some commentators contend that this is part of the price Jacob must pay for the way in which he supplanted Esau.  Others say that the work of the righteous is never done when it comes to carrying out the divine plan for the world.  Regardless, one of the more obvious reasons for this lack of rest is found in Jacob’s treatment of Joseph and his other sons.  We immediately find out that Joseph is a snitch, that he is his father’s favorite and that the older brothers hate Joseph for these reasons.

The second verse in Chapter 37 states, “And Joseph brought bad reports of them (his brothers) to their father.”  This is a prime example of the sin of forbidden speech, which is commonly called “lashon hara.”  Our sages have condemned this practice throughout the centuries.  That Joseph engages in such vile behavior is one thing.  That Jacob encourages such behavior is even worse.  If one ever one wonders where speaking evil of another can lead, just remember that Joseph’s bad reports about his brother were the first in a chain of events that helped bring us to bondage in Egypt.  The tale that ends up with Joseph being sold into slavery is quite repetitive.  It is another example of one child being favored over another with resulting negative consequences.  It is also another example of Jacob being deceived by his children.  Just as Jacob deceived his father and brother so is he fated to be deceived over and over again.  And finally, it demonstrates, once again, that our ancestors were quite capable of some rather vile behavior.  First, the brothers wanted to murder Joseph.  Then they were willing to let him die of thirst and starvation while they enjoyed their own meal.  And finally they contented themselves with selling their brother into slavery.  This latter offense is considered kidnapping, which is a capital crime under Jewish law.  It is worth noting that Rueben tried saving his younger brother.  But, in this case, the act of trickery failed.  The ultimate act of trickery has to be the brothers’ daily deception of their father over the “death” of Joseph.  How they could watch their father mourn for Joseph day in and day out, year in and year out, boggles the modern mind.  Whom did they hate more, Joseph or Jacob?

Joseph has two dreams in the opening verses of the sedrah.  The dreams are important for several reasons.  First, the content helps to fuel his brothers’ resentment, which will later result in his being sold into slavery.  Second, the dreams are important because they do in fact prove to be a portent of Joseph’s future relationship with his family.  And finally they are the first of three pairs of dreams that have a major impact on Joseph’s life.  As Joseph matures, he will learn that it is not enough to understand a dream.  One must also understand the people to whom one explains the dream as well.

Judah and Tamar (38:1-30)
Briefly, this chapter recounts the story of a woman named Tamar and Jacob’s son Judah.  Tamar marries Judah’s eldest son, Er.  He dies.  In accordance with the law, she then marries the second son, Onan.  He is the famous “seed spiller” and he also dies.  Jacob sends Tamar back to her family promising to send for her when the third son comes of age.  Possibly because he thought Tamar was somehow cursed, he “forgets” to send for her.  When Judah fails to keep his promise, Tamar disguises herself as a cultic prostitute, consorts with Judah and becomes pregnant by him.  When she is tried for her crime, she exposes the unwitting father, Judah, who, realizing her innocence, ensures that she is freed.  Why is this story inserted between two parts of the narrative about Joseph?  At one level, it is almost like an intermission; a tale told to cover the time while Joseph is actually making his way from Canaan to Egypt.  At another level, there are those who say that one clue is found in the introductory sentence, “And it came to pass…that Judah went down from his brothers…” (38:1).  Judah had made some attempt to save Joseph’s life.  He knew better than the wrong they had committed.  Being around his brothers was a constant reminder of what they had done so he moved away from them.  The sages also say that the events surrounding the death of Judah’s son were to teach him the pain he had caused his father.  Nobody can know what it is like to mourn for a child until he or she has suffered such a loss.  One of the connections between the Joseph story and the Judah story is that both are tales of enmity between brothers.  In the case of the Judah story, it is Onan’s enmity for Er.  Another connection is sexual fidelity - Potiphar’s wife and Joseph versus Tamar and Judah.  Only in the Judah story, the woman, Tamar, emerges as the moral victor.  Finally, the Joseph cycle is describing the history of the progenitor of the Northern Kingdom.  The Judah story describes the history of Judah, the progenitor of the Southern Kingdom.  More interestingly it provides further evidence of the strange origins of the House of David, since Tamar’s son Perez is David’s forefather.

Joseph’s Early Years in Egypt (39:1-40:23)
These chapters could have been called the Downs and Ups and Downs of Joseph.  He arrives in Egypt as an ordinary slave but then rises to a point where he is running the household of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief steward.  According to the text, all goes well because of the Lord’s blessings but nowhere in the text do we find God talking to Joseph as He had with the Patriarchs.  Joseph’s success is short-lived.

Potiphar’s wife invites Joseph into her bed and Joseph turns her down.  His rejection is based on moral grounds.  Apparently Joseph has matured since he left home because he had to know that there was grave risk in spurning the advances of his mistress.  After further rejection, Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of attempted rape and he falls from a position of power into the royal prison.  Clothing plays a prominent role in the life of Joseph.  It is his “cloak of many colors” that earns his brothers’ enmity and is used as evidence of his death.  It is a cloak in the hands of Potiphar’s wife that provides the evidence of his alleged rape.

Once in prison, Joseph repeats what seems to be his destined lot in life - the very successful chief administrator for the Egyptians.  Just as he managed Potiphar’s household, now Joseph manages the prison for the chief jailer.  Once again he is successful “because the Lord was with him.”  This role of successful administrator will culminate later when Joseph meets the Pharaoh.  While in jail, Joseph interprets the dreams of two Egyptian officials - the chief cupbearer and the chief baker.  This is the second pair of dreams that have an impact on Joseph’s life.  It should be noted that Joseph’s willingness to interpret these dreams is an act of kindness.  He only offers to interpret them because he sees that they are “downcast” over their dreams and because “there is no one to interpret them.”  This sensitivity to the feelings of others is a far from cry from the swaggering seventeen-year-old we met at the start of Va-yayshev.  Also, it should be noted that Joseph does not claim to be the interpreter.  Instead he gives all of the credit to the Lord.  “Surely God can interpret (your dreams)!”  As every Sunday School child knows, Joseph’s interpretations prove to be true.  The baker ends up being killed and the cupbearer ends up being restored to his high office.  The sedrah ends on a seemingly negative note.  All that Joseph had asked as payment for interpreting the dreams was to be remembered so that he might be freed from his unjust imprisonment.  But the cupbearer forgot Joseph and left our forefather to languish in prison.

Names:  There are no name changes this time.  However, it is worth noting that the term Hebrews or Ivrim is used several times in the sedrah both by Potiphar’s wife and by Joseph himself to identify Joseph’s lineage.  The question of who were our ancestors and to whom in the ancient world are we related continues to puzzle archeologists and biblical scholars to this day.

Names II:  Joseph tells his fellow prisoners who were Egyptians that he “was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews.”  Note, he does not say Canaan.  If you read the Bible literally, this would indicate that ancient Egyptians knew who the Hebrews were and where their lands were.  If you read the text as an explanation of later events in the manner of Rabbi Kugel, it still means that in antiquity the Promised Land was known as the land of the Hebrews.  Interestingly enough, in the 19th century and the early 20th century, the secular press referred to the Jews as “Hebrews.”

Dreams:  This topic will be more fully developed after we read about Pharaoh’s dreams in the next sedrah.  Suffice it to say that the Jewish view of the importance of dreams was not the same as that of the Egyptians or ancient people.  You might want to consider what the difference is between dreams and prophecy.

Family:  The Torah continues to present us with families that demonstrate high levels of dysfunctionality.  Ever since Cain and Abel, the Torah has demonstrated the negative consequences of favoritism.  And the behavior of Jacob’s sons shows that they are worthy successors (if that is the right term) to both Laban and Jacob.

Memory:  Judaism puts a premium on memory.  We are reminded over and over again that we were slaves in Egypt lest we forget our humble origins and become haughty.  We have turned that need to remember into a major festival, Pesach.  Could this penchant for remembering have its antecedents in the failure of the cupbearer to remember Joseph once he had returned to power?  We can pursue this line of thought at the start of Shemot when a new Pharaoh comes to power; a Pharaoh who does not remember Joseph.

The Blood Not Shed Might Be Your Own:  When the brothers are debating Joseph’s fate, Reuben calls out,”Shed no blood!  Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” (37:22).  From this utterance comes the following instructive tale.  In a town beyond the Carpathian Mountains, a penniless gentile stopped at the home of poor Jew who was known for feeding others, even with his own limited means.  The beggar said he hadn’t eaten for days and pleaded for a slice of bread.  It was Erev of Shabbat and the only bread in the house was the uncut loaves of Challah that would not be sliced until the evening meal.  When the Jew saw that his wife was reluctant to break into one of her specially prepared loaves, he called out to her, “Slice up a loaf; no blood will be lost because of it.”  The wife complied.  The beggar was fed and the incident was quickly forgotten.  Years later, this same Jew was traveling late at night.  A band of brigands attacked him, stripped him of possessions and brought him back to the camp where their leader would decide his fate.  Lo and behold, the chief of the thieves was the same starving gentile.  He looked at the Jew and remembered his kindness.  He told his comrades to give the Jew back his belongings and escort him safely home.  When the Jew entered his home he told his waiting wife, “Do you remember that I told you to slice up the loaf, and no blood would be lost because of it?  Well, because of it the blood that wasn’t lost was mine.”

Shame:  When the pregnant Tamar was accused of being a harlot, her father-in-law Judah said, “‘Take her out and let her be burned.’  As she was taken out, she sent word to her father-in-law saying, ‘By the man to whom these belong I am with…’” (38:24, 25).  Tamar’s merit is that chose not to expose Judah in public.  She sent him the evidence in private so as not to shame him in front of the community.  From this episode the sages deduced the precept that a man should be willing to jump into a fiery furnace before embarrassing or shaming another person in public.  A corollary of this is that being right is important; being right in the right way may be even more important.

Never Words Without A Reason:  The sedrah ends with “And the chief of the cupbearers did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (40:23).  Why doesn’t the text end with the phrase “did not remember Joseph” and instead tack on what appears to be the redundant “but forgot him.”  According to one Midrash, Joseph was ashamed of himself for having asked the cupbearer’s aid in getting out of prison (40:14).  He prayed to God to forgive him for what appeared to be a momentary lapse when he asked for human intervention instead of trusting in Divine Justice.  The restatement at the end of the sedrah shows that God had heard Joseph’s prayer and had answered it.  Another explanation is that the restatement is an example of the arrogance of the newly affluent.  The cupbearer is an example of those people who, having risen from humble origins, choose to forget from whence they came and the less fortunate whom they left behind.  By repeating the description of the cupbearer’s behavior, the author is reminding us of the great effort the cupbearer went to to “forget” the lowly state from which he had risen.  Once upon a time, there was an actor who was a liberal Democrat, a supporter of the New Deal.  Later in his career he started earning a lot of money.  He was upset about the taxes he had to pay.  One of his thespian colleagues told him he should become a Republican.  That was the party that let the wealthy keep their money and not pay taxes.  Forgetting how those vary taxes had provided his own father with a New Deal job during the Great Depression; the actor switched his political persuasion and changed his political philosophy to one befitting his newly acquired wealth.  Eventually he would follow a peanut farmer from Georgia to the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Sometimes real life stories actually fit with Torah lessons.

Onan:  Why was Onan punished?  The conventional wisdom centers its answer on the mechanics of his behavior.  There are those who would say that he was punished for the why of his behavior not the mechanics of it.  Onan spilled his seed because the product of the conception would have been considered to be his brother’s child.  In spilling his seed he was attempting to blot out his brother’s line, to make it as if he had never existed.  It would be like blowing out a yahrzeit candle or destroying somebody’s tombstone.  Jews put a premium on memory and remembering.  Over and over again we are commanded “Zachor” - Remember.  In modern times the Holocaust was not just an attempt to kill all of the Jews; it was an attempt to wipe out even the memory of the Jews’ existence.  When the Arabs held Jerusalem for twenty years, they desecrated the synagogues and used tombstones for paving stones for the same reason - to wipe out the memory of the Jews’ existence.  In our daily lives, how many of us behave like Onan, wiping out the memory of others?  Whenever we forget to thank those who have helped us accomplish a task we are in effect wiping out their memory.  Why are footnotes so important in the world of academia?  It is acknowledgement of the help a researcher was provided and that footnote may be some other writer’s only moment of immortality.

Sex in the Scripture:  The stories about Tamar and Potiphar’s wife are not the first stories involving sex in the Bible.  Nor will they be the last.  There are numerous possibilities for including these two tales in the same weekly reading.  The story of Judah and Tamar portrays sex as a means of procreation and/or recreation.  The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife shows sexual relations evolving to a higher level.  Unlike the pseudo-soft core porn portrayed in today’s media, Joseph, the young, handsome hunk does not surrender to the lustful entreaties of the “older, sexy, married woman.”  Instead he enunciates a view that sexual relations are sacred; that marriage is a special relationship that, if violated, is an affront to God.  Is this a case that a sympathetic Northerner inserted a story that made the progenitor of the Joseph Tribes look superior to the founder of the Southern (Judah dominated) Kingdom?  Is it case that the “Redactor” or redactors were trying to show that Jewish views of the relationship between men and women were constantly evolving, hopefully to a higher level?  Or is there a third explanation for placing these two apparently conflicting views of sexual relations in the same weekly reading?  Yes, another question for a long, languid Kiddush discussion.

Change in Status:  “…Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah.” (37:2).  Previously Zilpah was described as the handmaiden of Leah and Bilhah was the handmaiden of Rachel.  The wives of Jacob gave these two women to him as concubines.  Without any warning the status of the two women is changed to that of “wives.”  How did this happen?  Was the change in status a result of the deaths of their mistresses, Leah and Rachel?  The text does not say.  But if the status of these women was upgraded from concubines to wives it makes one wonder why those who re-wrote the Amidah did not include them in the changed prayer.

Co-Workers:  In the opening of the sedrah, the text tells us that Joseph worked with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah - Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher.  This means that he did not work with the sons of Leah.  Is there a reason for this separation?  Is this another portent of the future division of the Leah tribes (Judah and Levi) from the Joseph tribes or as it comes to be known the Southern Kingdom and the Northern Kingdom?

Forbidden Relationships:  In this week’s reading we are reminded that the world before Sinai (the giving of the law) and after Sinai were different places.  The Book of Leviticus contains a long list of forbidden relationships.  But here Judah has a child by the woman who is his daughter-in-law twice over.

Twins Again:  As we have said, the “author” or “authors” seem to have a penchant for repeating literary themes.  In the case of the Tamar Story, the theme is twins, just as we saw with Esau and Jacob.  But in this case, the first child through the birth canal, Perez, is the one who will get the leadership role as can be seen by the fact that he is the progenitor of King David.  Also, we see a repetition of the theme of red.  Esau is described as being Red, while Zerah, the twin brother of Perez, came out with the crimson (or red) thread tied to his hand.  Unlike in the case of Esau, in this case “the red twin” came out second.

Just The Facts:  In the Torah, the rationale for Judah supplanting Rueben begins with this week’s portion and continues intermittently over the next few weeks.  However, Chronicles, the last book in the TaNaCh, provides what might be called a “spare or lean” version of these same events.  What takes chapters in Bereishit is covered in just two verses in chapter 5 of Chronicles.  It can be instructive to read the parallel versions of events described in the first two sections of the TaNaCh with what appears in Chronicles which is, chronologically, “the last word.”

2:6-3:8 Amos

The Man:  Amos is too big a topic for a brief weekly summary like this.  He is a worthy subject for more than one book and/or a multiplicity of academic treatments.  For now we will try to say enough to cover the subject without being too overwhelming.  Fortunately, Amos will provide the text for another haftarah so we can spend more time on this moral giant and innovator.

Amos was probably the first of the literary prophets, even though his book has been placed third among the so-called Twelve Minor Prophets.  Unlike other prophets we have studied, we know a fair amount about him from the text itself.  He was from Tekoa, a small town near Bethlehem in Judah, the Southern Kingdom.  He was “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” and not a professional seer.  He only assumed the role of prophet because God said, “Go prophesy unto My people Israel.”  Although Amos lived in the Southern Kingdom, he preached in Israel, the Northern Kingdom.  The text says that he lived at the time of the King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II, King of Israel.  The text also references an earthquake and an eclipse.  Therefore we can safely assume that Amos preached from 765 B.C.E. to 750 B.C.E.  For the Northern Kingdom, this was a period of great wealth and prosperity.  But it was also a time of increasing income disparity with the newly emerging rich exploiting the ever-growing number of poor people.  It was this lack of social and economic justice that would animate the preaching of Amos.  Trouble came when he predicted the death of the king and the destruction of the kingdom.  It was at this point that the Amaziah, the “false priest” at the shrine of Beth-el condemned the prophet for treason.  However, instead of being put to death, Amos was banished and forced to return to Judah.  This lenient treatment may have hinted at his popularity.  We do not know how Amos met his death.

The Message:  As we can see from statements above in which Amos describes himself, he represented a new dimension in the world of prophets.  He was not a seer, a professional prophet or part of the retinue at court.  He would be the first in a series of divinely inspired critics who preached a message of social justice.  His preachings on this are consistent with the laws found in the Torah, especially in Devarim.  Ritual in a society without justice was meaningless.  “Take away from Me the noise of your songs; To the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice well up as waters, And righteousness as a mighty stream.”  It would be this lack of social justice that would lead to the exile of the Israelites from their home.

Amos was not opposed to ritual.  He was opposed to sham.  In the end, the need for making this a just society was a way to fulfill God’s plan for the world.  As to the issue of ritual and justice, we need them both.  As Plaut writes, “we constantly remember God’s presence with ritual and prayer and at the same time order our relationships with others in accordance with ethical principles.  Religion without ethics is not religion.”  But God is the source of truly ethical behavior.  As we can see from this haftarah another aspect of Amos’ message is his belief in the unique relationship between God and His Chosen People.  “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth…” (3:2).  But because of this unique relationship, much was expected of the Israelites.  “Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (3:2).  In other words, Jews are judged by a higher a moral standard.  God has given us more - the Exodus and the Torah - and therefore He expects more from us and punishes us more harshly.  You might not like the explanation for our suffering, but at least Amos provides one.  Amos also preaches a message of ultimate redemption.  In the end of the book, God, speaking through Amos, offers these words of hope to the Children of Israel.  “And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be plucked out of their land, which I have given them, saith the Lord thy God.” (9:15).

Theme-Link:  There are at least three possible links between the sedrah and the haftarah.  In the sedrah, we read about Joseph’s brothers selling him for twenty pieces of silver.  In the haftarah, Amos cries out against those who “sell the righteous for silver” (2:6).  Amos uses the Hebrew word tzaddik when speaking of the righteous sold for silver.  Rabbinic commentaries refer to our young hero as Yosef ha-Tzaddik (Joseph the Righteous) or simply as Ha-Tzaddik.  So there is a double link between the sedrah and the reference found in the haftarah.  In the sedrah we read the story of Judah and Tamar, a story about a father and his son sharing the same woman.  In the haftarah, Amos declares, “Father and son go to the same girl, and thereby profane My holy name.” (2:7).  Last but not least is the issue of the “garment” or, in Hebrew, “beged.”  In the sedrah we read about Potiphar’s wife grabbing hold of Joseph’s garment or “beged” as he escapes from her clutches.  She waves this garment as her proof of his villainy.  In fact, the garment is proof of his virtue, of his righteousness and his moral dignity.  He has left it behind rather than compromise his beliefs.  In the haftarah, Amos condemns the rich because “They recline by every altar on garments (begadim, pl. form of beged) taken in pledge” (2:8).  At first glance he is condemning the wealthy for violating the commands found in Devarim 24:(10-13) concerning taking the garment of the poor as a pledge.  However, there is a deeper meaning.  The garment is not just a piece of clothing.  Based on the episode in the sedrah, taking the garment of the poor is akin to stripping of them their dignity for financial gain; something that is morally reprehensible.

Amos & Tzedakah:  The sedrah is about Yosef Ha-Tzaddik (Joseph, the Tzaddik or Righteous Person).  Amos calls for righteousness to “well up as a mighty stream.”  The giving of extra measures of Tzedakah is equated by some with the vision of the mighty stream.

“Amos On Times Square”:  This was the name of a famous poem written at the outbreak of World War II by Jacob J. Weinstein.  The poet uses the motif of Amos’ prophecies.  But he substitutes the combatants in World War II for the ancient nations mentioned in the writings of Amos.  While the poem may be somewhat dated, it is interesting to note that the work of Amos was so well known that this literary device proved quite effective in communicating with the general population.

Personal Note:  I have a special relationship with this reading.  This first time I saw it was for my Bar Mitzvah which was a long, long time ago.  Imagine being thirteen and the sweat is pouring down the back of your brand new Bar Mitzvah suit as they motion for you to come up and read from the scroll.  Imagine hearing your father (who is an educated man) reciting the Torah blessings and then gazing intently at the open scroll as you start chanting in your quavering adolescent voice.  Imagine the intensity of my prayer that God get me through this without screwing up.  From that day forward, there was a special bond between Amos and me.  We had gotten through that morning in one piece and I would not forget him for that.  To this day, I can still hear those first three words of the prophet, “Koa ahmar adnoai” and to this day the sweat still runs down the back of my suit whenever I have to get up in front of a group of Jews on a Saturday morning.

Copyright, December, 2014, Mitchell A. Levin