Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 31, 2016 Chanukah Miketz

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 31, 2016

(Shabbat Shel Chanukah)
First Scroll
41:1-44:17 Bereshit
Double Header
The first scroll is for the regular weekly reading.  The second scroll is for the Chanukah Reading which is the maftir reading.
First Scroll
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.…”
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.
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 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 the 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.

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.

The role of dreams and visions which we saw in last week’s Torah portion continues in Miketz.  Those who think that dreams are the province of the ancient world or the ignorant and gullible might want to read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel for the importance of dreams and visions of the future in helping individuals move forward, and in the case of his experience during the Holocaust, survive in the worst Hell on Earth known to man.  Also, as Rabbi Sacks reminds us, two Viennese Jews gained fame for the involvement of dreams.  Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic therapy was steeped in the interpretation of dreams.  At the same time, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism who dreamed of Jewish state, responded to the mockery of his critics by saying “If you will it, it is no dream.”  As Eli Weisel pointed out, it is good thing that the two never met.  Who knows, Freud might have “explained” Herzl’s dream and in so doing put an end to his drive for creating a Jewish homeland.

There are those who contend that events in Bereshit foreshadow later events in the Jewish experience.  In Miketz, Joseph’s brothers do not recognize him.  For them, Joseph was a callow youth that they had sold into slavery.  Here, they are looking at an Egyptian official - complete with the appropriate clothing of Pharaoh’s ranking minister and an Egyptian name.  In fact, they will only realize that this official is their brother when he reveals himself to them in next week’s reading.  Fast forward to the Book of Samuel where we read about the selection process for the first two monarchs.  Saul looked like a king because “he was head and shoulders above” all others. (1 Samuel 9:2).  On the other hand, when it came to choosing his successor David, God tells Samuel not “to consider his appearance or his height…The Lord does not look at the things people look at.  People look at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7).  In the case of Saul, the Jewish people were like Joseph’s brothers.  They took appearance at face value.  If you look like a government official, then that is what you must be.  If you look like a king, you must be the one who gets anointed.  In the selection of David the Jewish people finally get it right.  It is what is inside a person that is the measure of the person.  The trick is to look beyond appearance, beyond the superficial and to look into the deeper nature of the person to understand who and what they are.

Second Scroll
Seventh Day Chanukah
7:48-53 Bamidbar

The Torah is read on all eight days of Chanukah.  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.

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.

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 of 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.

Abba Kovner Shabbat
"Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter."
Just as they did 75 years ago in 1941, in 2016 Shabbat and New Year’s Eve coincide.  How different was that world than the one we know today.  On December 31, 1941, in the dark days of the European Night, there was an attempt to strike a match and bring a flicker of hope to the desperate.  On this night, Abba Kovner uttered some of the most meaningful lines of the 20th century.  On New Year’s Eve, Abba Kovner spoke out at a meeting of Zionist Youth hiding in a convent outside of Vilna.  He asserted that Hitler wanted to kill all the Jews and called for armed resistance with his famous words. "Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter."  As a result of the meeting and his stirring call to action, the Jews formed the United Partisan Organization.  Kovner’s revolt failed and he became part of a partisan unit.  Later, he was active in smuggling Jews into Palestine.  After fighting in the War for Independence, he settled down on a kibbutz with his wife and pursued a career as a poet.  He was one of the witnesses against Eichmann when the Nazi butcher was brought to trial in Jerusalem.  It behooves us to remember Kovner’s words - Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter - for so many reasons.  In remembering them we remember the resilience of our people in the face of the worst horror known to man.  But in remembering them we also remember that Jews must not remain silent and passive.  No matter what the demons - political, professional, personal - that we confront, we must fight the fight even if the odds are long and defeat seems to be inevitable.  As we prepare this evening to kindle the final light of Chanukah, let us remember the flickering flame that Kovner and his followers brought to life and renew our commitment to bring light to darkness - to fight the good fight no matter what the odds!

Copyright; December, 2016; Mitchell A. Levin

Monday, December 19, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 24, 2016 Va-yayshev “And he dwelt” or “settled”

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 24, 2016

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 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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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 very 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.

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 a 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.

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 which 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.

Irregular Reading:  This week’s prophetic portion is frequently not read because often as not Parsha Va-yayshev is read during Chanukah which means the haftarah chanted is the special one chosen for Shabbat Chanukah.  This year the calendar gives us the luxury having a little extra time to devote to the study of the upcoming minor festival.  It might be useful if we take that time to look beyond the child-like version of Chanukah that captivates us complete with candles, fried food and presents.  A deeper study of the events might show how the victory of the Hasmoneans paved the way for the events that ultimately led to the destruction of the Second Temple.  A deeper study might show that Judah Maccabee’s victory was distorted by his descendants who actually took on the trappings of the Hellenistic world that he had found so objectionable.  One place to begin would be with a reading of the Anchor Bible version of I Maccabees that comes with an introduction and commentary by Dr. Jonathan Goldstein, Z"L,  a noted scholar who for decades taught at the University of Iowa and who was a pillar of the Iowa City Jewish community.  You might find that a study of this period in our history encompassing the last two centuries before the Common Era and the first century of the Common Era provides a cautionary tale the is eerily applicable to our own times.

Copyright, December, 2015, 2016 Mitchell A. Levin

Friday, December 16, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 17, 2016 Va-yishlach “And he sent”

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 17, 2016

Va-yishlach (lit. “And he sent”)
32:4 - 36:43 Bereshit (Genesis)

Va-yishlach is the eighth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the portion.  “And Jacob sent (Va-yishlach) messengers before him unto Esau, his brother.”  Va-yishlach is the second sedrah in the Jacob Cycle.  It continues the action packed pace we found in Va-yaytzay.  Highlights of the sedrah include the events surrounding Jacob’s meeting with Esau, the Rape of Dinah and the Deaths of Rachel and Isaac.

Jacob Meets With Esau (32:34-33-17)
After twenty years, Jacob is returning to his homeland.  But first, he must deal with Esau.  Jacob is afraid that Esau is still determined to punish him for the theft of the Blessing.  Jacob sends messengers and gifts in the hope of buying his brother’s affection.  But just in case Esau cannot be bought, Jacob decides to divide his camp into two groups and have them cross the Jabbok River separately.  That way, if Esau attacks one of the two groups, the other will get away and Jacob’s line will survive.  The one thing that Jacob had not considered was that Esau had forgiven him.  Esau did not need to be bribed or feared because he had no intention of attacking Jacob.  “Esau ran to greet him.  He embraced him and, falling on his neck he kissed him; and they wept.”  The text speaks plainly in describing Esau’s behavior.  Any attempt to impute other motives by some commentators would appear to be part of an on-going need to rationalize the method in which Jacob obtained the Birthright and the Blessing.  Esau wants to travel with Jacob.  But Jacob turns down the offer.  Esau offers to have some of his men travel with Jacob to provide added protection, but once again Jacob rejects the offer.  The text is silent as to why Jacob rejects Esau’s overtures of friendship.  Could it be that Jacob is so steeped in the world of deception that he cannot trust Esau’s simple honesty?  Regardless, Esau returns to Seir and Jacob settles in Succoth.  The two brothers will never live together.

In describing the reunion of the two brothers, we have skipped over the most famous episode in the sedrah - Jacob’s wrestling match.  Once Jacob divides his retinue and sends them across the Jabbok, he finds himself alone at night.  Notice the symmetry.  Last week’s sedrah began with Jacob’s first night away from home and he had a super-natural experience.  This week we find him alone on his last night before returning to his homeland and again he experiences the super-natural.  He wrestles with a man who is obviously something more than a man.  Is he a river demon, Esau’s angel, a messenger from God, or a physical manifestation of Jacob’s inner struggle with himself?  Take your pick.  There are copious commentaries on all these points of view.  What is important is that Jacob emerges with a new name but with a permanent physical change.  The price of the struggle that transforms him from Jacob to Israel is a limp.  The name Israel implies a new level of spirituality.  But the price of that growth is pain and suffering.  The limp is the constant reminder that real changes comes with a real price tag.

One last note about symmetry; when Jacob left his homeland he offered a prayer to God.  It was conditional; the language had the tone of a bargain.  Now, as he returns, he also offers a prayer (32:10-13).  But the tone is different.  Jacob offers words of thanksgiving and request.  More importantly, he couches his prayer in terms of his unswerving faith in God.  Apparently Jacob did more with the last twenty years than just get older.  He matured as well.

The Rape of Dinah (34:1-31)
Jacob moves from Succoth to the city of Shechem.  He may have planned on staying for a while since he bought a plot of land.  Also he erects an altar at Shechem, using his new name, Israel, for the first time.  Whatever Jacob’s plans were, they are quickly altered by the rape of his only daughter, Dinah, and the subsequent revenge exacted by her brothers.  This story of rape and revenge contains numerous lessons and raises several questions as well.  While not blaming the victim, the language in the first verse of chapter 34 implies that Dinah was in a place where she should not have been.  This is consistent with later rabbinic admonishments about avoiding places of sin if you want keep from sinning.  Secondly, Jacob, who has a history of deception and deceit, now is deceived by his sons who “speak with guile” as they plot to obtain their sister’s safe return.  In understanding the behavior of Jacob’s sons, we must remember that Dinah was a captive throughout the negotiations and that her safe return was their primary consideration.  Given these circumstances, including the fact that the Israelites were vastly outnumbered, Jacob’s sons may have acted in the only manner possible to get Dinah back.  More troubling than the behavior of the sons is the behavior of the father.  There are no words of outrage about what has been done to his daughter.  There are no words of consolation or prayers of thanksgiving when she is returned.  Instead there are only words of anger for his sons (34:30).  Jacob does not answer the question “Should our sister be like a whore?”  Nor does the text ask the question, “Should your daughter be treated like a whore?”  As for Jacob, it would appear from his response that the fight has gone out of the great wrestler.  Note the similarity between Abraham and Jacob.  Abraham was not afraid to fight with God about destroying Sodom but he showed a lack of courage when he passed his wife off as his sister.  Jacob was not afraid to fight with a messenger from God, but he showed a lack of courage when it came to regaining his daughter.

The Deaths of Rachel and Isaac (35:1-29)
Jacob has to give up whatever plans he had for staying in Shechem.  Fortunately, God intervenes and tells him to go to Bethel, which is where he should have gone in the first place once he re-entered his homeland.  While at Bethel, Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, dies and is buried there.  We have no idea how she came to be at Bethel.  Possibly the mention of her death is an oblique reference to the fact that Rebecca had died while Jacob was away from home.  This is pure speculation.  We have no real idea why her death is so important as to merit being mentioned.  Apparently this one sentence (35:8) had a significance to our ancestors that has been lost over the centuries.  Also, while at Bethel, God appears again to Jacob and officially changes his name to Israel.  Furthermore, God renews the covenant with Jacob that He had made with Abraham and Isaac and that he had previously made with Jacob when he was leaving for Paddan-Aram.  Jacob would appear to be the perpetual wanderer.  No sooner does he finish his business with God at Bethel than he is on the road again.  During this leg of the journey, Rachel goes into labor, gives birth to her second son, Benjamin, and dies.  Her tragic death gives rise to numerous questions.  Is her death the fulfillment of Jacob’s foolish death decree against the one who stole Laban’s idols?  Why is she buried on the side of the road?  Why not take her on to the Cave of Machpelah, the family burial ground?  Why cannot Jacob enjoy the fact that he now has twelve sons who will give rise to the Twelve Tribes of Israel?  The text is silent and the commentaries are too numerous to recount here.  Immediately following the death of Rachel, we are confronted with another one of those one sentence puzzlers, “While Israel stayed in that land, Rueben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel found out.”  Rachel had given Bilhah to Jacob.  According to some, Bilhah replaced Rachel when the latter had died and this angered Rueben who felt this was an insult to his mother, Leah.  Others see this as Rueben asserting his right to assume Jacob’s mantle of leadership.  This is another example of an inscrutable Torah tale as mentioned above.

The chapter ends with the travel-weary Jacob being reunited with Isaac at Hebron.  Isaac dies the death of the righteous and is buried by his two sons, Esau and Jacob.

The Lineage of Esau (36:1-43)
The entire last chapter of the sedrah consists of a detailed description of the descendants of Esau, who is also called Edom.  The chapter begins with the exact same words as we found at the start of Toldot, “And these are the generations of…” only in this case the next word is Esau and not Isaac.  Is it mere coincidence that each genealogy begins with the same words or is there some hidden message that the commentators have missed?  Why does the Torah take so much time with the line of Esau?  In part it is to show the evil that flowed from Jacob’s brother.  According to traditional commentators it reinforces the correctness of Jacob taking hold of the birthright.  In case you missed it, Amalek is listed as a descendant of Esau (36:12).  This is the same Amalek whose descendants, the Amalekites, will attack the Israelites in the Wilderness.  These are the same Amalekites whom we remember daily so that we can blot them out.  Finally, the descendants of Esau had Kings before the Israelites, but the Israelites will conquer them and their Kings will be greater.  This will fulfill the promise that the “older will serve the younger.”

3. The prohibition against eating an animal’s thigh muscle (33:3).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Customs and Ceremonies
Kashrut - “That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.” (32:33).  The rule against eating the thigh muscle or hindquarter is one of the rules of Kashrut.  There are some people who contend that this may be eaten if the sciatic nerve is removed in its entirety.  Given the difficult nature of this extraction, most Jews follow the rule of not eating meat from the hindquarter.  We may not understand the reason for all the rules of Kashrut, but we do understand the reason for this one.  Every time we obey it, we remind ourselves that we are people who struggle and do not surrender no matter what the odds against us may be.

Circumcision - The story of Dinah is the first time we find circumcision as a requirement for conversion.  To this day, Orthodox and Conservative Jews follow this requirement.

Sexual Relations - The story of Dinah is an early indicator that among the Jews sexual relations were to be voluntary and not forced.  Devarim contains specific rules that reinforce this concept.

Jewish Names
We are told twice in this sedrah that Jacob’s name has been changed to Israel.  The first time the word comes from Jacob’s wrestling opponent.  The second time the word comes from God.  Why does Jacob have to be told this twice?  According to some, the first mention is more of an augury of what is to come.  The change is only official when it comes directly from God.

Unlike the name changes with Abraham and Sarah, we continue to see the name of Jacob appear after the name change has been announced.  According to some, Jacob and Israel represent two different aspects of the Jew.  Jacob is used when relating to worldly matters.  Israel is used in matters of spirituality.  We are the sons of Jacob during the week when our Jewish values are constantly being challenged by the work-a-day world.  We are the children of Israel on Shabbat when we can enjoy our spiritual delights free from the distractions of the material world.  In the world of prayer we invoke Jacob in the Amediah but we invoke Israel in the Shema.

When Isaac asks Jacob, “Which of my sons are you?”, Jacob replies, “I am Esau, your first-born.”(27:18-19).  Isaac remains unconvinced and asks again, “Are you really my son Esau?” to which Jacob replies, “I am.” (27:24).  In an attempt to gain the Blessing, one of Jacob’s lies begets another lie which ultimately results in him having to flee for his life.  Twenty years later, when Jacob’s wrestling opponent asks, “What is your name?” Jacob replies, “Jacob.”  To which his opponent replies, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel…” (32:28-29).  The patriarch has learned; honesty begets a Blessing without penalty.  One more word about names; when Jacob asks his opponent, “Pray tell me your name” the response is “You must not ask me my name.” (32:30).  Why the mystery?  Or are those demons with which each of us wrestles in the middle night truly nameless?

Jewish Women:  Rachel and Leah
Who are these two women?  What do their lives say to us?  Rachel is usually presented as the feminine beauty who is Jacob’s true love.  Leah comes across as a homely frump foisted off on Jacob by Laban.  But such might not be the case.  Rachel reproaches Jacob when she cannot have children.  She shows a certain amount of contempt when she trades a night with Jacob for a mess of mandrakes.  And in a society where being strong is important for survival, we can deduce from her limited fertility and death in childbirth that she is weak.  Through Joseph, she becomes the mother of the Northern Kingdom with all that that means.

Leah, on the other hand, is a strong woman who deeply loves her husband.  Just look at the names of her sons.  Her sons are the progenitors for the future well-being of the Jewish people.  Levi gives us Moses, the Levites and the High Priests.  Judah gives us the House of David, Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom - the surviving remnant of children of Israel.  Finally, Jacob decides to have Leah buried beside him at Machpelah.  Maybe as he matures Jacob finds that there is more to a life’s companion than a pretty face and a winning smile.  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz provides a fuller explanation on this non-traditional view of these two Matriarchs within the context of Orthodox Judaism.

A Jewish Woman and a Jewish Name
Dinah is puzzle from start to finish.  Out of thirteen children she is the only daughter.  Her name “Dinah” contains the Hebrew word “din” meaning judge.  Normally we associate women with the “feminine side” - mercy (Hebrew “chesed”).  The rule of law, the act of judging is seen as the masculine side.  In an era when women were viewed as weak and treated like chattel, is the name Dinah a code to indicate that women are really strong, strong enough to be instruments of judgment?  Does the Hebrew root of her name contain a prophecy i.e., he who defiles the daughter of Jacob will be judged and judged harshly?  Or is combining the reality of Dinah’s female physicality with the concept of judging a reminder that Chesed and Din do not exist separately but are mutually supportive of one another and that both are always present?  These are questions to chew over while chewing on Cholent or at the next Hadassah meeting.

Foretaste of the Future
There are those commentators who contend that the experiences of the Israelites described in Bereshit are microcosms or foreshadowings of later events.  In this case, look at the events when Jacob goes up to build the altar at Beth-El and see how they match the experience at Mt. Sinai (35:1-7).  You might want to compare the command about “purifying yourselves and chang(ing) your clothes,” the strictures concerning jewelry and the “terror from God” that kept those from the surrounding cities from pursuing Jacob with the events surrounding the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf and the Exodus.

Disappearing Children
There seems to be a pattern of children disappearing in each generation.  The first to go is Ishmael, the wild ass of a man.  The next to go is Esau, the hunter who did not consider the consequences of selling the Birthright.  Third to exit the family is Dinah who thoughtlessly “went out to visit the daughters of the land.”  Is there a causal relationship between behavior and disappearance?  Maybe we will find an answer when we examine the fate of Simeon in a later episode in Bereshit.

More on Dinah
There are those who contend that the story of Dinah explains the strange blessing that Jacob conferred on Levi and Simeon on his deathbed.  “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness…For when angry they slay men…Cursed be their anger…and their wrath…I will divide them In Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”  This strange blessing brought on by the response to the rape of Dinah may have been a way of explaining the fact that Simeon would disappear; consumed by the tribe of Judah and the fact that the tribe of Levi wandered Canaan without any land of its own.

Rape or Intermarriage
On the surface, the brothers’ anger was triggered by the rape of their sister.  There are those who contend that the story is really an attack on intermarriage.  Hamor offers to “take their daughters to ourselves as wives and give our daughters to them” (34:21).  Was this episode written into Bereshit to support the later efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah to root out the foreign wives that the returning Israelites took in the early days of the Second Temple?

Second Class Citizen
The text describes Jacob’s homecoming in the following manner.  “And he took his two wives, his two handmaids and his eleven sons and he crossed over the ford of the Jabbok” (32:24).  Note it talks about eleven sons and not twelve children.  It as if Dinah does not exist.  This omission becomes all the more glaring when you note that the text mentions the two concubines as well as the two wives.  So was Dinah as ignored by her father as the text would seem to imply?  If so, this might throw more light on Dinah’s behavior and Jacob’s lack of response when she was raped.  Regardless of how the commentators try and spin this, we are fortunate in the fact that in the 21st century we pay attention to all of our children; teach them; and reap the reward.

Jacob, the Unworthy
As he is about to face Esau for an unknown fate, Jacob confesses his unworthiness for all the blessings bestowed upon him by God.  In Hebrew he starts “Kah-toe-n’-tee,” literally “I am too small” but usually translated as “I am unworthy” and continues “for all the mercies and all the truth which thou hast done with thy servant…” (32:11).  This statement of unworthiness or humility has given rise to many stories.  One concerns a famous sage who was noted for his wisdom and his generosity in supporting students and giving to those in need.  Finally, he found himself in dire financial straits and was forced to travel to several towns seeking financial support from leading Jewish citizens.  The townspeople were only too glad to entertain the famed scholar and bask in paying honor to the sage.  The sage was unimpressed.  As he left the town empty-handed he told his companion, I only made this trip because I needed money to continue my work and pay my creditors.  It is money I owe, not honor.  I did not set out on this journey because I was in need of honor.  This sage, Reb Noach of Lechovitch also said, “A man is often called a microcosm - a small world.  If he is a whole world in his own estimation, then he is small; if he is small in his own eyes, then he is a whole world.”

The Great Wrestling Match
Here are a few random comments on the great wrestling match that comes in the opening portion of the weekly reading.  The contest is viewed by some as a contest between man’s willingness to improve himself and Satan’s attempts to keep man from turning toward his better nature.  The fact that the contest lasts all night long is emblematic of the fact that Jacob’s descendants will battle against evil-doers until the final dawn marked by the coming of the Moshiach.  And just as Jacob finally emerges victorious, so will his descendants finally emerge victorious over those who persecute them.

Land Purchases
God promises a large swath of land to the Patriarchs.  However, the Patriarchs used conventional, not divine, methods when it came to actually acquiring a piece of real estate.  When Abraham wanted a burial place he purchased the Cave of Machpehlah.  Jacob followed in the footsteps of his grandfather.  When he settled in Shechem, “the parcel of land where he pitched his tent he purchased from the children of Hamor…”  The fact that Jacob purchased the land might have explained, although not excused, his anger when his sons attacked the men of Shechem.  When Jacob fled he was leaving behind land for which he had paid cold hard cash; a payment which he would not be able to recoup.  Regardless, these land purchases by the Patriarchs remind us that God may make promises, but there are times that man must take action to turn the ethereal into practical reality.  It is the difference between chanting “Next year in Jerusalem” and actually making aliyah.

Jacob versus Israel
Professor Kugel provides alternative views for the dual name of the third Patriarch.  According to some critics, our ancestors may have consisted of one group who traced their roots to a mythic figure named Jacob and another group who traced their roots to a mythic figure named Israel.  The story of the wrestling match with the “man” is a way to harmonize these two ancestral traditions and provide national unity for the tribes as they approached or conquered Canaan.  Kugel also admits that many of the competing explanations of the Great Wrestling Match obscure the true meaning of the story - further amplification of a simple human trying to come to grips with the Divine Being who is the Master of the Universe.

What’s In a Name?
The third patriarch’s first name was Jacob or in Hebrew Ya’akov.  According to traditional explanation his name comes from the Hebrew word Akev which means Heel because he was hanging on to his brother’s Heel when he was born.  His name is changed to Israel or in Hebrew or Yisra-el, “one who struggles with God.”  Meir Shalev offers an alternative explanation.  Jacob’s first name in Hebrew is Ya’akov which contains the Hebrew root Akov meaning crooked.  At first it meant crooked in a geographic sense, such as a crooked road.  Later it came to mean crooked in a moral sense.  And Jacob did gain the birthright and blessing by means that were crooked.  The Hebrew for Israel is Yisra-el which includes the same Hebrew letters as the Hebrew word Yashar which means straight or honest.  Jacob obtained the blessing from his father by a crooked means.  Israel gains his blessing from the angel with whom he was wrestling by honest means.  According to Shalev, the name change shows a change in the character of the man whom we call both Jacob and Israel.

Blessings - Do we get what we ask for?
Meir Shalev points out that Jacob seeks a blessing twice in his life.  The first time he wants the blessing from Isaac which means, among other things, that he will inherit the bulk of his father’s wealth.  Twenty years later, when the angel with whom he is wrestling demands that Jacob let him go, Jacob responds by saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  In other words, the price of release is a blessing.  Jacob could have asked for wealth, power or at least to be saved from Esau whom he feared.  Instead he asks for a blessing, a blessing for which he does not define the terms.  According to Shalev, the fact of the blessing is more important than the content.  Twenty years ago he gained a blessing by trickery.  Now he can gain a blessing by honest means.  He understands that how you gain something can be as important as what you gain.  Some might say he learned that the ends do not always justify the means.

There are two Deborahs mentioned in the Bible.  One is the leader we meet in the Book of Judges who leads the Israelites to victory.  The other, the lesser known one, is the nursemaid of Rebecca that we meet in this week’s reading.  What they have in common is a name which means “bee.”  “Bees” are busy as in busy as a bee.  Bees make pollination possible thus ensuring a food supply for others.  Bees are responsible for honey - in other words, they make food sweeter which makes life sweeter.  So the Deborahs in our lives are like bees - busy making the world better, busy seeing to it that we all eat well and busy seeing to it that life is sweet.

The last section begins, “And these are the generations of Esau, he is Edom” and continues with a lengthy description of the family of Rachel and Isaac’s older son.  This may have been an attempt to explain the relationship between the Israelites and their neighbors to whom they were related.  Regardless, it paints a picture of what life might have been like in the Middle East three or four thousand years ago - a series of tribal confederations ruled by a king.  The success of the Israelites would then have been attributable to their allegiance to Ha-shem.  Furthermore, it provides us with a reminder to the key to Jewish survival.  A whole swath of ancient people including the Gergashites, Jebusites and the Edmoites would be unknown to modern people because nobody reads their “books” if in fact they left any behind.  The Israelites are known because they produced books which their descendants study regularly and incorporate into their daily existence.  Such murderous events as the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust provided one form of threat to the survival of the Jewish people.  But today, our cultural literacy - lack of knowledge of our “books” - poses the greatest survival to the Jewish people.  As one person put it, we are more concerned about the gadgets of Steve Jobs then we are about studying the Book of Job.

Genesis and Deuteronomy
There is no question that Seir is the land of Esau and his descendants, the Edomites.  But how did Seir become the land of Esau?  In Deuteronomy Moses tells the people, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you.  Therefore watch yourselves carefully.  Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession.”  According to tradition, God did not give his “chosen people” the entire world.  He allotted them a slice of territory, just as he allotted the territory that belonged to all the rest of the nations in the world.

However, in this week’s portion we read, “And Esau took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the souls of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts, and all his possessions, which he had gathered in the land of Canaan; and went into a land away from his brother Jacob.  For their substance was too great for them to dwell together; and the land of their sojournings could not bear them because of their cattle.  And Esau dwelt in the mountain-land of Seir - Esau is Edom.”  In this version, we have a repetition of the split between Abraham and Lot.  The wealth of the two men was too great for them to dwell together so Abraham proposed that they separate, giving Lot the choice.  Lot chose Sodom and the rest is history.  This version also makes it plain that the Esau moved to Seir because he needed room for his family and his retinue.  Some would say that by the time the Torah was committed to writing the Edomites were living in Seir and these two different tales provide an “after the fact” explanation for a current reality.  The two explanations would seem to be part of the on-going tensions between “predestination” i.e., man is merely acting out a pre-conceived divine plan and “free will.”

Haftarah:  This is one of those weeks when it will depend upon which synagogue you are in as to which prophetic portion you will read.  The Ashkenazim read from Hosea while the Sephardim read from Obadiah.

11:7 - 12:12 Hosea

The Man:  We have only limited knowledge about the historic figure of Hosea.  He probably lived during the middle of the eighth century, B.C.E.  He preached between 750 and 720 B.C.E. in the Northern Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Israel.  The leading Israelite monarch at the time was Jeroboam II.  This was a turbulent period of moral decay when the leadership of the Northern Kingdom was divided between those who wanted to make an alliance with Egypt against Assyria and those who wanted to come to terms with Assyria.  Hosea warned against doing either.  Instead, he called for moral and religious revival with the people putting their faith in God as a solution to their temporal problems.  In the end, the people failed to heed his words and the Israelites were exiled in 721 B.C.E.

The Message:  In the collection of the Minor Prophets, Hosea is the first of the Twelve.  From a chronological point of view, this is in error since Amos lived and preached before Hosea did.  Hosea is listed first because his fourteen chapters of writings are larger than Amos and the size of the text gives him precedence.  Understanding the message of Hosea can be quite difficult.  As one commentator puts it, “The style of Hosea is highly poetic and difficult to follow.  Many passages…are not clearly understood because we are no longer fully acquainted with certain events to which they allude.”  The first three chapters of Hosea describe how he came to prophesy.  The last eleven chapters alternate between admonishments and words of hope.  There will be punishment but ultimately God will redeem us.

Hosea married a woman named Gomer.  How this marriage came to be is open to some question.  But the fact is that she betrayed him.  He took her back and forgave her.  In delivering his message, Hosea portrayed the Israelites as the wayward wife, God the long-suffering husband who always loved her and who forgave her and redeemed her.  Hosea referred to the Northern Kingdom as Ephraim.  This is because the tribe of Ephraim led the original revolt against the House of David.  Hosea did not approve of the revolt and saw Jerusalem as the holy place, thus placing a permanent cloud over the Northern Kingdom.  I mention this only so that you will understand that when Hosea talks about Ephraim he is talking about the Kingdom of Israel and not just one tribe.

Theme-Link:  The theme link between the Torah portion and the prophetic portion is found in Hosea 12:4-5 where the prophet references Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, one of the major events in the sedrah.

1:1 - 21 Obadiah

The Man:  We do not really know anything about him.  In Hebrew the book begins, “Ha-zone, ohvadyah…”  Ha-zone means vision and it is the same word with which the Book of Isaiah begins.  The word “ohvadyah” maybe translated as “one who serves God” or “servant of the eternal.”  Was “ohvadyah” (Obadiah in English) the name of the prophet or an appellation such as we saw with Malachi?  We do not know.  We are not sure when he lived.  He may have been a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah or he may have lived sometime after this Major Prophet.  The first five verses in the Book of Obadiah are almost identical to language found in Jeremiah.  Also, some of the events he referenced are related to the events surrounding the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E.  Other commentators connect his words with the prophecies of Isaiah and Amos regarding Assyria.  For this reason the book of Obadiah is placed third among the Minor Prophets, immediately following the Book of Amos.  There are numerous people with the name of Obadiah.  There are those who believe that Obadiah lived at the time of King Ahab and Jezebel.  They contend that he was from Edom and converted to Judaism.  Furthermore, when Jezebel went on a killing spree and tried to wipe out the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah hid the survivors.  According to this line of thought, Obadiah is the antithesis of his fellow Edomite, Esau.  Esau lived among the righteous and became evil.  Obadiah lived among the evil but was righteous.  However, all of this is mere speculation.  As I said, we have no definitive data about this prophet.  However, if Judaism had saints, Obadiah would be the Patron Saint of the Minimalists.  We know nothing about him.  He left behind a legacy of only twenty-one verses.  Yet he made it into the greatest book ever written and his entire message is read once a year, every year.  Surely somebody has delivered a sermon or written a davar-torah on this.

The Message:  The haftarah concerns the future relations between the descendants of Esau called Edom and Jacob.  The prophet described the venality with which Edom joined in the despoliation of Jerusalem.  Edom did not come like a conquering lion, but like a jackal feasting on the spoils of the city once it had been laid waste by the Babylonians.  But in the future, Obadiah foresees the day when Edom will lose its wealth and the sons of Jacob will be restored to their rightful place in the Promised Land.

Theme-Link:  The Torah portion describes the relations between Esau and Jacob.  The haftarah describes the future relationships between the descendants of the two twins.

Copyright, November, 2015, 2016 Mitchell A. Levin