Friday, December 29, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 30, 2017 Vayechi “And he lived” as in “Jacob lived


Torah Readings for Saturday, December 30, 2017

Vayechi (“And he lived” as in “Jacob lived…”)
47:28 - 50:26 Bereshit (Genesis)

Vayechi is the twelfth and final sedrah in the book of Bereshit or Genesis.  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading, “And Jacob lived (Vayechi) in the land of Egypt seventeen years.…”  It is also the fourth and final sedrah in the Joseph/Jacob cycle.  Although the sedrah begins with the statement “Jacob lived” it actually is about Jacob’s preparation for death, his death and the death of Joseph.  We saw this concept of mentioning life as a prelude to dealing with death previously in the sedrah entitled Chayei Sarah (And the life of Sarah was…) which actually describes the death of Sarah in its opening sentences.  Vayechi and Chayei are different forms of the same Hebrew word which some of you may recognize from the toast “L’chaim” (to life).  Interestingly enough, Vayechi is the only sedrah that describes Jacob’s clan living together as one and living together in apparent harmony.

Deathbed Promises and Fulfillment of a Dream (47:28-48:22)
After living seventeen years in Egypt with Joseph, the same number of years Joseph lived with Jacob before being sold into slavery, Jacob senses that he is about to die.  Jacob summons Joseph and makes him take a formal oath that he, Joseph, will bury Jacob in the family plot in Canaan.  Once Joseph has taken the oath, Israel bows to Joseph.  Remember Jacob’s question, “Are we to come and bow low to you on the ground” (37:10)?  It would appear that in the end Israel did bow to Joseph after all.

The First Set of Blessings (48:1-20)
The sedrah contains two sets of blessings.  The first set involves Joseph and his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim.  In a touching scene the sick and dying Jacob tells Joseph about the blessing he has received from God.  As part of the fulfillment of that blessing, Jacob adopts Ephraim and Manasseh as his own two sons.  Although Manasseh is the older and Ephraim is the younger, Jacob administers the blessing in reverse order.  Joseph thinks that his ailing father does not know what he is doing, but Jacob assures him that he is in full control.  Once again, the older shall serve the younger.  Primogeniture does not rule.  Additionally, Jacob assigns an extra portion to Joseph.  The eleventh son has supplanted the first-born Rueben.  This section ends with a seemingly melancholy promise that will in fact sustain the Jewish people throughout the ages, “I am about to die; but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.”  Once again, Jacob reminds us that God will be with us no matter where we go.

The Second Set of Blessings (49:1-33)
Now the dying Jacob summons his sons for their final blessings.  Please note that in the previous chapter, Joseph had heard that his father was ill and he went to him.  Why his brothers did not go to see him of their own volition and only came when summoned is a bit of puzzlement.  Regardless, the actual blessings are viewed in two different ways.  Some accept the statement in the text, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come” and read the blessings as prophesy.  Others contend that the blessings were written at a much later date to justify or explain the fate that had befallen the various tribes.  Regardless, it might be interesting to compare the tribes at the end of Bereshit with tribes we read about at the end of Devarim:

Bereshit:
Devarim:
Rueben
Rueben
Simeon
Judah
Levi
Levi
Judah
Benjamin
Zebulun
Joseph 
Issachar
Zebulun
Dan
Issachar
Gad
Gad

Asher
Dan
Joseph
Naphtali
Naphtali
Asher
Benjamin


Moses was able to get to twelve because Joseph is really two tribes in his counting - Ephraim and Manasseh.  Remember that Moses does not mention Simeon.  This question of who are the Twelve Tribes can be a continuing challenge.  Following the text as written, Jacob uses poetry to bestow blessings and judgments upon each of his sons.  For his first three sons, Rueben, Simeon, and Levi he has words of harsh judgment.  Only when he gets to Judah, do we begin to read the kind of positive words that one would expect in a bedside testament.  Since they are poetry, each blessing is opaque and can be read at many levels of meaning.  But at the end of the blessings, the twelve sons are described collectively as the tribes of Israel.  Regardless of their father’s words to them as individuals, they are all part of the same people and he addresses them as such.  With his final breath, he charges them all with the responsibility for taking him back to Machpelah.  For the first time, the children of Israel must act collectively.  Joseph may be in charge, but all are required to do their part to ensure that the burial takes place.

The Burial of Jacob and the Death of Joseph (50:1-26)
The first fourteen verses describe the burial of Jacob in great detail.  Contrary to Jewish tradition, Jacob is embalmed.  The Egyptians mourn the father of Pharaoh’s leading minister in grand fashion.  But in Egypt, only the Pharaoh has complete power.  Even Joseph is not entirely free.  Joseph must plead his case with Pharaoh so that he can bury Jacob in the promised manner.  Pharaoh allows the sons to go but holds back the rest of the clan and their flocks.  He also sends a considerable contingent to accompany the mourners.  Is Pharaoh doing honor to Joseph’s father or does he have other motives in mind?  The text is silent and the commentaries are numerous.  The brothers return to Egypt with Joseph but they are afraid that Joseph may take revenge on them since Jacob is no longer alive to protect them.  (Shades of Esau threatening to kill Jacob once their father had died.)  Once again, Joseph allays their fears.  If they are to be punished, it will be God who will do the punishing, not Joseph.  Besides which, all’s well that ends well.  The brothers had intended to harm him, but God took their apparent evil deed and turned it into a positive thing for His people.  The sedrah ends on a tranquil note.  Joseph lives to see his great-grandchildren born.  As death approaches, he makes his kinsman promise to take his bones back to Canaan with them when they finally leave Egypt.  Why did he not have them take him to Canaan for immediate burial, as had been the case with Jacob?  The author leaves us to speculate on yet another unanswered question.  We are left with an embalmed Joseph, placed in a coffin, waiting to go home at some future date.

Themes
Customs and Ceremonies
Shiva - “…And he observed a mourning period of seven days for his father.”  Joseph’s mourning for his father presages the sitting of Shiva - the seven days of mourning observed following the burial of a Jew.
Chesed V’emet (True Kindness) - When Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in Canaan we are seeing the first example of the ultimate act of “true kindness,” the burial of the dead.  In Judaism, chesed v’emet (true kindness) is a mitzvah performed without the expectation of thanks or reward.  Burial of the dead is the ultimate form of true kindness since the dead cannot reward the living.
Shabbat Blessing - It is customary for parents to bless their children at home on Friday evening usually before the singing of Shalom Aleichem.  The blessing for sons begins with the words, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”  These words refer to the blessing that Jacob conferred on his two grandsons, the sons of Joseph.  They were a source of pride because they were able to maintain their Jewish identity despite having been born in Egypt and raised among Egyptians.  According to Jewish tradition, Jacob wanted future generations of Jewish parents to utter this benediction over their children.  The blessing for girls invokes the names of the four matriarchs.  The body of the benediction is the same for all children regardless of sex.
Shabbat Blessing II - Rabbi Feivell Strauss provided a lesson in how parents can keep this custom alive when children grow up and leave home.  He told the story of a couple in Jerusalem who go to the part of the dining room closest to the direction where their adult children are living and recite the benediction.  In describing this Rabbi Strauss teaches us that instead of “discarding” customs and practices, we should look for new ways to give them meaning as our circumstances change.
Shema - Between the first line of the Shema (Hear O Israel; the Lord is our God, the Lord is One) and the V’ahavta, we recite Baruch Shem kvod malchuto l’olam va-ed (Blessed is the name of His Glorious majesty forever and ever).  Among traditional Jews, these words are uttered softly, almost silently.  One of the reasons given for the muted utterance of the words comes from the deathbed scene of Jacob.  Jacob’s sons affirmed their belief in Adonai.  When they said, “Hear O Israel…” they were actually addressing the statement to Jacob/Israel.  Jacob uttered these words in the whisper of a dying man relieved that his sons would keep the faith.  We utter them sotto voce, in the manner of Jacob.  Also, unlike the rest of the Shema, these words do not come from Moses and are not found in the Torah.  So they are recited in a different manner to emphasize that they have a different origin.
Burial - According to Rashi, Jacob insisted on being buried in Canaan for at least two reasons.  First, Jacob considered the Promised Land to be the holiest spot on earth.  Secondly, he knew that the Egyptians had a tendency to deify the dead and he did not want become an idol.  In keeping with the example of Jacob, Jews often make arrangements to be buried in Israel.  Others will have some dirt from Eretz Yisrael placed in their coffin.  Also, in keeping with the example of Jacob, Jews have gone to great length to avoid the deification of our leaders.  The most striking example of this is the fate of Moshe - he dies alone and is buried in an unmarked grave.

Names
There are two significant shifts in nomenclature in this sedrah.  First, the Jewish people are now “the Israelites.”  The term “sons of Israel” as used in 50:25 does not refer to Jacob’s sons but to his growing progeny living in Goshen.  Secondly, for the first time we see the sequential invocation of the names of the patriarchs.  In Bereshit 50:24 they are listed in order as “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  This sequencing will become a part of the daily prayer service and will be invoked in a variety of special blessings down through the ages.

Jacob
The third patriarch is far too complex a figure for us to discuss in this brief guide.  At the end of his life, Jacob does not sound like a happy man.  “Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.”  He dies a stranger in a stranger land.  At the end of his life, he has to live off the kindness of his son.  He must rely on Joseph’s promise that he will in fact be properly buried.  Considering how much trickery Jacob had seen in his life time, we can only wonder how confident he was that he would in fact be buried in the manner promised.  So what is Jacob’s merit?  What makes him unique?  Abraham was the originator, the founding father.  Isaac was the figure of continuity.  He was the one who kept Abraham’s vision alive and passed it along to the next generation.  But Jacob was the one who transmitted the tradition to an entire family.  Abraham kept Isaac but lost Ishmael.  Isaac kept Jacob but lost Esau.  Jacob did not lose anybody.  He transmitted the vision of God that he had seen on the way to Paddan, on the way back from Paddan and on his way into Egypt to all twelve of his sons and their sons and the sons of their sons.  However imperfect each of his sons may have been, they were all still sons of Jacob, they were still part of the house of Israel.  This concept of the whole House of Israel is an essential element of Judaism.  Jacob took us from being the Jewish person to being the Jewish people and for that alone he earns a place in the Pantheon of Patriarchs.

Joseph
Once again, we are dealing with a figure far too complex to be summarized in a mere guide.  Joseph is described as a Tzadik, a righteous man.  One reason for this appellation was his rejection of Potiphar’s wife.  In its own right, his behavior was meritorious.  But when his behavior is compared with that of Rueben and Bilha or Judah and Tamar, Joseph’s ability to control his appetites really does set him way above his contemporaries.  Joseph is a person capable of growth and maturation; a person capable of learning from his past mistakes.  He learns to be loving, loyal and forgiving.  Joseph is a person who engenders trust.  Whether it is Potiphar, the head jailer or Pharaoh himself, people immediately entrust him with their affairs and leave him to take care of everything.  So why isn’t he a Patriarch?  Maybe it is because he is a dreamer.  God spoke directly to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.  But he did not speak to Joseph.  Instead Joseph dreamed dreams and listened to the dreams of others.  Using his intuition, he looked for the divine message in the world of hazy, half-formed images.  Furthermore, unlike his three famous forefathers, Joseph was not a singular recipient of a birthright.  He was one of twelve recipients of Jacob’s blessings.  The unique relationship was with the children of Israel, not the child of Israel.  Last but not least, from a very traditional point of view, Joseph was not a Patriarch because God did not designate him as one.  Have no doubt about Joseph’s merit.  Remember, according to some, there are two Messiahs.  One is the Messiah of the House of David and the other is the Messiah of the House of Joseph.

Jacob and the Tabernacle
In describing the final removal of Jacob’s body to the cave of Machpelah, the Torah says, “His sons carried him to the land of Canaan…” (50:13).  According to some commentators, Jacob left his sons with specific instructions as to where they should stand as they carried his coffin.  In addition, neither Levi nor Joseph was to touch the coffin.  The order of march described here mirrors the order of the encampment around the Tabernacle described in the second chapter of Bamidbar.  Was the trip to Machpelah a “dry-run” for the wanderings in the Wilderness that would lead to the Promised Land?  Was the merit of Jacob so great that he was entitled to a level of consideration equivalent to the Tabernacle?  In Judaism we do not worship our ancestors.  But we do honor them for their accomplishments.  Sometimes we have a tendency to fixate on the foibles and weakness of great people, in this case the Patriarchs and other leaders of the Jewish people.  While it is important to note their shortcomings, it is of greater importance to recognize their accomplishments.  At the end of the day, each of them played their part in getting our people to the next bend in the road.  Hopefully, somebody will be able to say that about each of us some day instead of just waxing eloquent over our human shortcomings.

God
This is a comment about all of Bereshit, not just this week’s portion.  But in a time and a season of the year when there are those in our world who claim to own God or have the only way to Him, the following lesson from the first book of the Torah seems worth mentioning.  For the Jew, God exists from before the moment of creation.  There is no need to prove his existence.  God is the God of all mankind.  He is not the unique possession of the Jewish people.  Unlike other religions, as we can see throughout Bereshit, God and His blessings are open to all.  Yes, the Jew has a unique relationship with God, as we can see from the Covenant, but it is a relationship based on responsibility not blind, divine favoritism.  And last but not least, God is always with us.  Throughout Bereshit, He would appear to remind of us of that fact.  This is one of the critical messages of the last twelve weekly portions.

Continuity
After describing the burial of Jacob the text describes the fear of the brothers.  “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and fully repay us” (50:15).  Joseph’s reassurance that he will do them no harm is a sign that the moral order that God has been instilling in His people will continue even though the Patriarchs are dead.  Joseph is the first leader who has not spoken with God, yet he accepts God’s will and abides by His ethical law.

Why we study
For those who are looking for different reasons for studying Torah, consider the following comment from The Tanya.  This quote comes from one of the daily readings that often coincide with the conclusion of the book of Bereshit.  “That is why our Sages have said that ‘if even one individual sits and engages in Torah study, the Divine Presence rests upon him.’  For when one engages in Torah study his surrender to Godliness emerges, to affect him on a revealed, external level since such study entails setting aside one’s own notions and presumptions in order to understand and accept God’s wisdom and Will as expressed in Torah.  It is this surrender to Godliness that causes the Divine Presence to rest upon the Torah student.”

Torah, Talmud and Tefilah (Prayer)
In this week’s Torah portion Jacob and Joseph die.  Each of these great, powerful men was dependent on those who remain behind to see to it that they were buried in a proper manner.  The Talmud picks up this theme when it lists “escorting the dead” as one of the ten activities in which a person should engage while awaiting the end of days.  (The list includes a wide variety of activities ranging from performing acts of life kindness to providing for a bride’s dowry to study).  This list is recited daily in the introductory prayers of the morning service.  In other words, the obligation of the living to the dead was considered important enough that we not only study about it, but we are reminded of it every day.  Taking care of the dead is the ultimate mitzvah since the one performing the act can expect no reward from the recipient.  And the one receiving the benefit cannot say thank you.  This is proof positive that the reward for performing the mitzvah is the performance of the mitzvah.

How Long is a Long Life
Abraham died at the age of 175.  Isaac died at the age of 180.  Based on the law of rising expectation for successive generations one would guess that Jacob would die at the age of 185.  Wrong!  He died at the age of 147.  On the surface this would be a case of regression.  And based on the idea that length of days is related to merit, it would appear that after only three generations, the Jewish people were on a downward spiral.  Surprisingly W. Gunther Plaut, the Reform Biblical Commentator, writes a commentary on this sedrah using the arcane concepts of numerology.  He contends that these conclusions come from an erroneous comprehension of mathematical concepts.  Using the concept of squared numbers, Plaut contends that in fact each generation did successively better.  Thus:

Abraham:
175 = 5 squared times 7
Isaac:
180 = 6 squared times 5
Jacob:
147 = 7 squared times 3

In other words, if the life span of the patriarchs is measured as numbers squared then there is in fact a numeric progression.  At the same time we find out that Joseph died at the age of 110 which is the same age at which Joshua would die.  In other words, Joseph, the prototypical Diaspora Jew and Joshua, the first Zionist, lived to the same age.  But does any of this really make any difference?  Is this not an example of making quantity synonymous with quality?  As Alan King said, “It is not how long you live, but how well you live” that really matters.  The first member of Kibbutz Beit Hashitah died at the age of 16.  He was attacked by Arab thugs during the uprisings in the 1930’s.  As he lay dying, he wrote the following.  “How sad it is to die so young.  How sweet it is to die for one’s country.”  American history offers further proof that mere longevity is not synonymous with great accomplishments.  On the long year’s side we find:  Ronald Regan and Gerald Ford each died at the age of 93.  Richard Nixon died at the age of 81.  On the short years side we find:  Franklin Roosevelt died at the age of 63.  Teddy Roosevelt died at the age of 60.  And Abraham Lincoln died at the age of 57.

Blessings
The final chapter of Bereshit (Genesis) ends with three climatic moments which, in reverse chronological order, are the death of Joseph, the death of Jacob and Jacob’s blessing of his sons.  Except for literalists, the blessings are an enigmatic event.  Professor James Kugel points that some modern scholars see the blessings as being an insertion in the original narrative.  They see the blessings as dating from the period of David and Solomon, which would still mean that they are a very old part of Jewish tradition.  Rather than viewing them as prophecy, these critics see the blessings as a way that the House of David explained the political and social conditions that existed during the rise of the Davidic dynasty.  The listing of the twelve sons cemented the authenticity of the twelve tribes as the original political and social unit of the Israelite people.  But the blessings tie the twelve tribes to the same father which means they are really a common people thus providing an ancient stamp of approval to David’s moves to unite the twelve tribes unto one nation under one king.  The blessings also provide an explanation for Judah’s dominant role in the new political order.  The blessing of each of the first three sons (Judah was the fourth in line) provides a reason for why they are unworthy of leadership.  The laudatory blessing for Judah gives his descendant David “permission” to pursue the measures necessary to create the unified monarchy.  Not only that, the blessing given Judah means that any who would try and usurp the House of David are not just political rebels; they rebels against the word of God.  Are the Blessings a prophecy or a justification for an existing social or political situation?  This is not the first time that we will be confronted with this question when looking at the Biblical text; nor will it be the last.

Chazak Shabbat
In past years, The Conservative Movement (USCJ) had designated this Shabbat as Chazak Shabbat, in honor of Jews fifty five years and over.  This annual event coincided with the reading of Vayechi.  On Chazak Shabbat, older members of these synagogues were encouraged to take a prominent role in the Shabbat services including leading the worship service, reading the Torah, chanting the Haftarah and reciting Kiddush.  American society has made a fetish out of worshiping youth (the generation that told us not to trust anybody over thirty now insists that sixty is the new forty).  Turning the practices of Chazak Shabbat into our daily congregational and communal activities is a way of ensuring that those with gray or thinning hair have the opportunity to play a vital role in Jewish life.

Portent of Pesach
When it comes time to take Jacob’s body to Canaan, Pharaoh sends the brothers and their households.  “Only their children and their flocks and their herds were left in the region of Goshen” (50:8).  Compare this with the episode in Shemot (Exodus).  Between the 7th and 8th plagues, Moses tells Pharaoh that everybody, including “our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds” are to be allowed to go.  But Pharaoh puts his foot down and tells Moses that only the men can go.  Both monarchs were holding the children hostage to ensure that the Israelites would return; in one case from the burial and in the other case from worshipping God in the Wilderness.  The difference is that Joseph agreed to the terms and Moses did not.  He was not leaving without all of the people and all of their possessions.  Joseph’s behavior was that of a man making a rational decision; a man with a stake in the society in which he was living.  But Moses was acting under Divine Direction and he had been made responsible for being the human agent leading the liberation of his whole people.  This is the concept of The Whole House of Israel.  This concept resonated with David Ben-Gurion in the early days of the State of Israel.  Despite Israel’s fragile economy in the earliest days of her existence, he insisted on bringing Jews from all over the world.  Even though it would mean additional hardship, he opened Israel’s doors to those Holocaust survivors who suffered from extreme physical handicap.  For Zionist leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries, the state of Israel was for The Whole House of Israel regardless of their political beliefs or level of religiosity.  Unfortunately, for those governing Israel in the 21st century, such is no longer the case.

The First Funeral
Meir Shalev has written a fascinating book entitled Beginnings in which he catalogues and provides insights about Biblical “firsts” such as the first kiss, the first dream, the first love, etc.  If he should update this tome he might want to add “the first funeral” which is described in the week’s Torah portion.  Bereshit records several deaths and several burials, but in “Vayechi” we are confronted with the first full-blown funeral complete with the kinds of customs and ceremonies that make up the modern American funeral industry or as Jessica Mitford called it in her book of the same title, “The American Way of Death.”  Interestingly enough, this lavish ceremony is not a product of Jewish law or Israelite custom.  It is a product of Egypt, a culture that built the great pyramids and cities of the dead - a culture that worshipped death.  This stands in stark contrast with Jewish culture which is centered on living.  We drink to “l’chaim.”  When it comes to the commandments we are taught, “by these laws shall you live.”  And every morning, we recite “Aylu D’Vorim” which provides us with a list of daily tasks that reminds us that life is more than just an ante-room to death, but something to be seized and enjoyed to its fullest.  The Egyptians may have thought they were doing Jacob a great honor with this elaborate funeral.  Apparently the Jewish view of things was quite different as we can see in subsequent books of the Torah when we read about the deaths of Miriam, Aaron and Moses.

Missing Children
In speaking to Joseph at the start of the sedrah, Jacob says that “your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine” (48:5) but says that any children born to Joseph from now on will be his (Joseph’s).  But the Torah never makes any reference to any other children.  Does this mean that Joseph had only these two sons or did he have more children which remain nameless because for some reason they were not considered part of the Children of Israel?

Reality Reverses Dreams
In what would appear to be a validation of the youthful Joseph’s dream that his brothers would bow down before him, following the burial of Jacob, “his brothers went to him themselves and flung themselves before him” and offered to serve him as “slaves.”  But Joseph rejected this adoration by asking the rhetorical question, “Am I a substitute for God?” (50:19).  This is additional proof of the maturation of Joseph.  It is also the final manifestation of what some would say makes Joseph a Tzadik, a righteous person - his willingness to forgive his brothers and to see the hand of God in the world of man.  Think about it, the men who threw him in a pit, ate a meal while plotting to kill him and then sold him into slavery are totally in his power.  How many of us would be willing to forgo the luxury of revenge let alone express a faith in God at this level?

Calendar Coincidence
In 2017, the final Shabbat of the year coincides with the reading of the final portion of Bereshit.  This means that that the first Shabbat in 2018 will coincide with the first reading from the second book of the Torah.  I will leave it to the mystics and the sages to figure out a connection between these simultaneous endings and beginnings.

The End Beats the Beginning
Bereshit begins with repeated rejections of God (Adam and Eve, Abel and the generation of Noah).  It ends with a total acceptance in belief in God and His role in history as can be seen with Jacob’s last conversation with God before he goes to Egypt and Joseph’s last speech with his brothers, “although you intended me harm, God intended it for good.”  The journey “down into Egypt” may also be seen as a journey “upward to a greater closeness with God.”  Chazak Chazak.

Haftarah
2:1-12 First Kings

The Book/The Man:  The Book of Kings is the fourth book the second section of the TaNaCh.  In Jewish tradition the Book of Kings is one book.  The divisions into Kings I and II came with the creation of the Septuagint.  Kings begins with the last days of King David, continues with the reign of King Solomon and then chronicles the kingships of the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah.  It covers a period from approximately 970 BCE until 560 BCE.  Kings opens with the final days of David.  King David is an historic figure.  In fact, as Abba Eban put it, we know so much about David it almost seems as if he were several people, instead of just one man.  Samuel secretly anointed David while Saul still ruled.  In 1055, at the age of 30, he was crowned King of the Judeans at Hebron.  Seven years later David was crowned King over the United Kingdom and captured Jerusalem.  David died in 1015, having reigned for forty years - seven in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem.  The dates are approximate and different authors provide different actual dates.  The length of his reign is not disputed.  The Biblical source material for the life of David is found in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.  David is credited with writing the Book of Psalms.

The Message:  This haftarah marks our third encounter with the opening chapters of First Kings as we have made our way through the first book of the Torah.  Hopefully, this means that you are starting to get a sense of the book in its entirety.  The first chapter of Kings provided the haftarah for Chayei Sarah.  This chapter depicted King David’s final days when he selected Solomon to succeed him as King.  First Kings 3:15-4:1 provided the haftarah for Miketz.  It described the early events of Solomon’s reign shortly after the death of David.  This week’s haftarah fits between the other two and actually describes the last moments of King David’s life.  The haftarah is a strange amalgam of the pious and the practical, which is consistent with David’s entire life.  On the one hand, he tells Solomon that the key to success is following God’s law.  And then he tells him to kill Joab and Shimei but to honor the sons of Barzillai because they had supported him during Absalom’s rebellion.  David may have his spiritual side.  But as a practical potentate he knows that removing one’s enemies and rewarding one’s friends is the key to political and dynastic success.  The last chapters of First Chronicles describe these events in a much more matter of fact manner without any of the intrigue.  Both versions do end in the same manner with the chronology of his reign and Solomon enthroned as his successor.

Theme Link:  Both the sedrah and the haftarah describe the death of great leaders, Jacob and David.  In fact except for the names, the text is identical in its language.  “And the days of Israel drew near to die…” (47:29).  “And the days of David drew near to die...” (2:1).  Also both men use the Hebrew word va-y’tzav (instructed) when telling their heirs what to do after they die.  In the case of Jacob, he is commanding his sons to bury him in Machpelah.  In the case of David, he is commanding Solomon to obey the commandments of God as recorded in the teachings of Moses, to settle some scores with his enemies and to pay honor to those who were his friends.  Both readings also describe the entombment of the leaders and the aftermath of their deaths.  In Jacob’s case, his son has to ask permission to honor his father’s deathbed wish.  While Jacob is buried in Machpelah, his sons must return to exile in Egypt.  On the other hand, “David slept with his fathers and he was buried in the City of David….  And Solomon sat upon the throne of his father David, and his rule was firmly established.”  Jacob may have been a Patriarch, but he died a stranger in a strange land with his children facing an uncertain future.  David, because he lived in the land of the Jews, did not die with such worries.  Of course, both lived and died with faith that God would protect their progeny.

Antiquity of the Torah:  We have heard different views about who wrote the Torah and when it was written.  When David tells Solomon to follow God’s teachings, he describes them as being “written in the Torah of Moses.”  In other words, we have reason to believe that people in David’s time knew of the Torah and connected it with Moses.  The books that describe David’s life - Samuel and Kings - were written at a later date.  But this reference apparently was not inconsistent with their conception of the Davidic period.  No, this is not conclusive evidence, but it sure does help to strengthen the case.

Copyright; December, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin




Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Torah Readings for Shabbat, Saturday, December 23 and the Tenth of Tevet, Thursday, December 28, 2017



Torah Readings for Shabbat and the Tenth of Tevet
 
This week’s Torah readings provide another example of the Jewish belief that life is a combination of the bitter and the sweet, sort of like when we dip the bitter herbs into the sweet charoset at the Seder.  On Saturday we joyfully read the Shabbat Torah portion.  On Thursday, we mournfully read the Torah portion connected with the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet.  It is tangible reminders like this that keep us from being overly depressed when faced with life’s vicissitudes or filled with hubris and vainglory when things are going well.
 

Torah Readings for Saturday, December 23, 2017
 

Vayigash (“And he approached”)

44:18-47:27 Bereshit (Genesis)
 
Vayigash is the eleventh sedrah in the Book of Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “And Judah approached him and said.…”  This sedrah is the third in the Joseph/Jacob cycle.  It is ironic that a sedrah that begins “Then Judah came near unto him and said…” is important not just for what is said but what is left unsaid.  For some students, that which is left unspoken is the most intriguing part of the sedrah.  Vayigash is another action packed sedrah that begins with the deliverance of Benjamin and ends with the Israelites settled in the Goshen.
 
Judah Steps Up to the Plate (44:18-44-24)
Vayigash picks up where Miketz left off with Judah pleading for Benjamin’s freedom.  In one of the most eloquent speeches in the Bible, Judah pulls out all of the stops as he attempts to save Benjamin from slavery and Jacob from the certain death that will take place if Benjamin does not return home.  Unbeknownst to Judah, Joseph is not moved so much by Judah’s words as he is by the fact that Judah is willing to risk all to save his brother.  Unlike the time when Joseph was faced with possible death and certain enslavement, here Judah is willing to become a slave in order to spare his brother and his father.  Judah has promised Jacob that he would protect Benjamin and he proves himself to be a man of his word.  This alliance of Judah and Benjamin is a foreshadowing of Jewish history.  The Southern Kingdom will be composed of the large tribe of Judah and the small tribe of Benjamin.  They will stand in opposition to the Northern Kingdom composed of the ten tribes referred to by some as the Joseph tribes.
 
The Revelation of Joseph and the Reuniting with Jacob (45:1-46:30)
Joseph cannot contain himself any longer.  He is so moved by Judah’s words that he dismisses his servants and, weeping, announces to his brothers, “I am Joseph... I am Joseph your brother - it is me, whom you sold into Egypt.”  Knowing that his brothers might be frightened by this revelation, Joseph reassures them that he bears them no ill will since what they did was part of God’s plan.  “Be not distressed nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that God sent me ahead of you…it was not you who sent me here but God….”
 
After further reassurances and entreaties from Joseph and Pharaoh, the gift-laden brothers return to Canaan.  Their mission is to bring Jacob and all of the Israelites back to settle in Egypt.  “They went up from Egypt and came …to Jacob their father.  And they told him…Joseph is still alive and…he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.”  At first Jacob cannot believe his ears, but when he sees the laden wagons from Pharaoh his disbelief disappears and he declares “My son Joseph still lives!  I shall go and see him before I die.”  He then packs up the family and heads south.  This is one of those moments of puzzling silence.  Why didn’t Jacob ask about the “death of Joseph?”  Why didn’t Jacob express any words of anger or recrimination over the fact that his sons let him mourn for over twenty years?  Why didn’t the brothers apologize to Jacob for their deception?  After all, according to Jewish law, in order to gain forgiveness, one must apologize to the injured party.  The silence is deafening and mystifying, but it is only one of many silences in this sedrah.
 
As Jacob prepares to leave Canaan, he hears from God directly (46:1-4).  At Beer-sheba, God tells Jacob not to fear going to Egypt; that He, God, will go down with His children and He will redeem them.  At a personal level, Jacob will be taken care of even unto death with Joseph there to close his eyes.  This revelation takes place at night, which reinforces the connection between Jacob and the Evening Service.  The Torah provides a detailed listing of the Israelites going into Egypt.  The tally comes to seventy.  But just as there is some “confusion” as to who is included when the term the Twelve Tribes is used, so is there some question as to who constitutes the seventy souls.  Dinah is named in the genealogy, but we are not sure in what capacity.  Also listed is Serah, the daughter of Asher.  She is the only granddaughter mentioned in the tally.  While there are commentaries giving reasons for this, the text is silent as to this oddity (46:8-27).  This section of the sedrah ends with Joseph and Jacob reuniting in tearful embrace.  Jacob utters the classic line “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.”  And then there is silence.  No question about why Joseph had not sent word to his father that he was alive.  There are no questions about anything from either of them.  There is just the sound of silence; a silence which can prove deafening for the modern reader.
 
Pharaoh and the Israelites (46:31-47:12)
As his family, including his father, figuratively bow down to him, the second of Joseph’s dreams comes true.  Joseph organizes the settling of the clan in Egypt.  He instructs his brothers in how to speak to Pharaoh and he orchestrates Jacob’s meeting with the Egyptian ruler.  Three things of note occur in these conversations.  First Joseph tells his brothers to describe themselves as breeders of livestock and not as shepherds.  Yet the brothers tell Pharaoh that they are indeed shepherds.  Was Joseph trying to create a better family history with which to impress the Egyptians?  Why did the brothers defy their powerful brother?  Did they not realize in what low esteem Egyptians held shepherds?  Or are we seeing an echo of that same defiance to Joseph’s pretensions to power that we saw in the opening verses of Va-yayshev?  Commentators may speculate, but once again, the text is silent.  Secondly, when Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is Jacob responds by saying, “Few and hard have been the years of my life.”  This is a strange answer for a man who has lived to see the sons of his sons grow to manhood, who has lived to see one of his sons become Viceroy of Egypt and who has spoken with God.  Is this more of the same self-pitying whine that we heard when the sons avenged Dinah or when they returned without Simeon or is there a deeper meaning?  We can explore this further next week when Jacob closes his eyes for the last time.  Thirdly, Joseph is determined to see to it that his family will maintain its own identity.  He secures Pharaoh’s approval to settle them in Goshen, a distinct area where they will not intermingle with the Egyptians.  Joseph may have taken an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife but for whatever reason, he is determined to see to it that the Israelites do not lose their identity.  Of course, at one level, this has to be done as part of the God’s plan.  The Israelites must maintain their group identity so that the Exodus can take place.
 
The Famine Continues (47:13-27)
The famine continues unabated just as the dreams had said it would.  The people are reduced to a status similar to sharecroppers in the post- Civil War southern part of the United States.  Only the priests get to keep their holdings.  At the same time, there appear to be transfers of population reminiscent of Stalinist Russia.  We should compare the response to famine, poverty and land tenure in Egypt with the laws we have already read in Devarim on this same topic.  The contrast is startling.  The last sentence in the sedrah provides a startling contrast between the plight of the Egyptians and that of the Israelites.  While the Egyptians were tottering on the brink of starvation and surrendering their land for bread the Israelites “were acquiring holdings…and were fertile and increased greatly.”
 
Themes
The Seventy
Who are the seventy who went down to Egypt?  According to the Torah the tally is made up of the following elements.  First, there are the twelve sons and one daughter of Jacob.  Then there are all of their living off-spring including the two sons born to Joseph in Egypt.  Next there are two grandsons of Judah who in effect replace his two sons who died (see the story of Tamar).  This adds up to only sixty-nine souls.  There are three views as to who makes up the seventieth.  Some say it was Jacob.  Some say it was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi.  Supposedly she was conceived in Canaan but born as they crossed into Egypt.  Those who count Jochebed believe that this is the same Jochebed who will be the mother of Moshe.  Finally, some say the seventieth was the “Divine Presence” which accompanied the Israelites into what would ultimately be the Egyptian Bondage.
 
Family
No matter how you cut it, the chaotic and sometimes hostile family life we saw in the time of Abraham and Isaac continues through the family of Jacob.  At the obvious level, Rueben has been supplanted by both Joseph and Judah.  At the unspoken level, one cannot help but wonder about what was going on in the minds of Jacob and Joseph when the father learned that the son was alive.
 
Egypt versus Israel
The laws of the Torah stand in stark contrast to the life of the Egyptians.  Some might say that Egypt was an abhorrent place and the Torah was designed to keep us from being like the Egyptians.  The response to the famine at the end of the sedrah provides one example.  In Egypt, the Priests keep their lands.  In the Torah, the Levites are landless and the Israelites are commanded to support them and the Cohanim.  In Egypt, the people become landless.  In the Torah, the Israelites are commanded to observe the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.  As we read more Torah, look for more of these contrasts to see if this hypothesis has any validity.
 
Names
The descendants of Abraham are no longer called Hebrews.  Now they are Israelites.  They are the Sons of Israel.  In the Hebrew text the term “Sons of Israel” appears not just as two separate words; it now begins to appear in a hyphenated form.
 
Appearances of God
When Jacob left for Laban’s home, God appeared to Jacob.  When it was time for Jacob to leave Laban’s home and return to Canaan, God appeared to Jacob.  And now God appears to Jacob when it is time to travel one last time; only this time it is to Egypt, a place from which he will not return alive.  There are several possible messages in this last encounter with the Lord.  God appears to Jacob at night, which is unusual.  According to some, this nocturnal appearance is God’s way of assuring Jacob that he will be with the Israelites during the long night of the bondage that is to come.  Remember that Jacob is Israel and we are the children of Israel.  For the Israelites, for the Jews, the message is that no matter where we travel, God is always with us.
 
Dreams
Jacob has three dreams.  The first is “Jacob’s ladder.”  The second is Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.  The third is found in this sedrah when God calls out to Jacob and the Patriarch accepts the fact that he must go down to Egypt.  There is a midrash that tells of Jacob refusing to climb the ladder because he is afraid.  This is symbolic of Jacob’s fear of taking responsibility, of entering into history.  Now, he lets God comfort him.  He lets God allay his fear and he is able to enter into history, to play the role that needs to be played.
 
Customs and Ceremonies
We know from our studies that the Jew prays three times a day and that each of the services is rooted in the ritual of Temple.  According to tradition, each service is also connected with one of the Patriarchs.  Ma’ariv, the evening service, is connected to Jacob in general and to the episode of his last nocturnal encounter with God before going into Egypt.  The evening service actually marks the start of the next day even though it is recited before the start of the long night of darkness.  This matches God’s last appearance to Jacob, which serves a reminder that the evening is the prelude to a long night of darkness that will end in the daylight of freedom.
 
Forgiveness
How do we know we have been forgiven for a sin?  When confronted with same situation, we do not behave in that manner again.  This is the message of Judah.  The first time, he betrays his brother and allows him to be sold into slavery.  The second time, he offers himself up rather than allow his brother to become a slave.  Interestingly enough, Judah continues to lie about the fate of Joseph.  He continues to portray Joseph as being dead and never does own up to what he did.  Since some commentators consider this episode with Judah to be the epitome of Teshuvah, how does this fit in with the Jewish conception of seeking forgiveness from those whom we have wronged before we can seek God’s forgiveness (see Yom Kippur)?
 
Peace in the House
Avoiding conflict is an important Jewish value.  When sending his brothers back to Jacob, Joseph says, “Do not fight on the way.”  In other words do not quarrel among yourself over who was responsible for selling me into slavery.  Other commentators say Joseph was telling them, “Do not worry on the way.”  They contend that Joseph is telling the brothers not to worry about facing recriminations for selling him into slavery.  Also, they need not worry about the future as long as they follow his instructions.
 
Goshen
Some commentators erroneously refer to Goshen as the first ghetto.  A ghetto is place of involuntary confinement.  Goshen was a district at the edge of Egypt.  It enabled our ancestors to live in Egypt without losing their identity.  The so-called Jewish neighborhood was a common phenomenon in many major American metropolitan areas, which served a similar purpose as that of ancient Goshen.
 
More About Shepherds
The Israelites are supposed to identify themselves as breeders of livestock to ensure that the Egyptians will assign them a separate place to live i.e., Goshen.  The text continues with the words “For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians” (46:34).  This hatred of shepherds has produced a great deal of commentary; little of it very satisfying.  Why did the Egyptians hate shepherds and what impact would that have on the future fate of the Jewish people?  Consider the following.  Egypt had become a sedentary, feudal society.  All of its citizens were bound to the land.  Shepherds were outsiders at best; synonymous with rebels at worst.  Shepherds could come and go as they pleased.  Shepherds were nomadic.  Since they were not tied to the land, they had no place in society.  The very free-wheeling nature of their existence posed a threat to the Pharaoh’s authoritarian rule since they were a constant reminder that men could and did exist in a world beyond Pharaoh’s control.  To the extent that the Israelites would become synonymous with Shepherds in the Egyptian mind, they would be seen as a threat to the established order.  They were free people living in an authoritarian world and this would set them up for the interplay that is found in the opening chapters of Shemot, the Book of Exodus.
 
On the other hand, there may be no rational explanation for the Egyptians’ abhorrence of Shepherds.  The lesson here may be one about the simple evil of bigotry.  First the Egyptians abhorred Shepherds.  Then they invented rationalizations for their hate to justify their behavior.  Is this not the truth of anti-Semitism?  First people hate Jews.  Then they find excuses for their hate.
 
Of course for those who remember the range wars of 19th century American West, this could be nothing more than an ancient version of the cowman versus the sheep herder.  Maybe there is something “genetic” about the competition of those who chase cows and those who herd sheep.
 
Apologies and Commentaries
At the end of the story of the Rape of Dinah, I said she disappeared from the Torah.  Since she is mentioned in the listing of the names in this sedrah, I was wrong.  In 45:8, Joseph refers to himself as “the father to Pharaoh.”  The commentary in Etz Hayim assures us that no such title existed in ancient Egypt.  The commentary in Plaut assures us that this is a translation of an official Egyptian title.  Somebody has it right and somebody has it wrong; or so it would appear.
 
Jewish Identity
Who is a Jew?  What does it mean to be Jewish?  How do Jews define themselves?  These questions have taken a special urgency with the growth of various Jewish renewal movements and as individual Jews work to deepen their connection with their faith and heritage.  As we will continue to see, these are not new questions and as with all good questions, there are no simplistic answers.  In his commentary on this portion entitled “Member of the Clan,” Professor Avigdor Shinana from Hebrew University offers some interesting insights.  He contends that this portion reveals three ways of identifying and deepening Jewish identity.  Joseph reveals himself to his brothers with three different statements.  First he tells them “I am Joseph” (45:3) followed by a narrative of how his brothers sold him into slavery.  Note before actually beginning this narrative he says to the brothers, “Come close to me if you please” (45:4)  Sensing that they do not believe him, Joseph finishes the narrative saying “…it is my mouth that is speaking to you” (45:12) or “It is I who am speaking to you.”  When he tells his brothers I am Joseph and then relates the family history, they do not believe him.  After all they last saw him as callow youth of 17 and the person before them is a bearded viceroy of the Pharaohs - a man whom they have no reason to trust given their experience with him.  For all they know, this man might have heard these stories from somebody else and is using them for his own devious ends.  But when Joseph says, “it is my mouth that is speaking to you,” Shinana says that Joseph is really saying, I am speaking to you in our language - Hebrew.  Remember up until this moment, Joseph had always talked to the brothers through interpreters.  It is only just before the revelation of his identity that Joseph sends everybody out of the room and speaks directly to the brothers.  The reasons that he asks the brothers to “come close to me” is so that he can show them something hidden that nobody else has seen - his circumcision which marks him as being a member of their family.
 
The rabbis who developed these interpretations lived in the Graeco-Roman world which abhorred circumcision and had no use or knowledge of Hebrew.  Hebrew and circumcision are two sources of Jewish identity.  The third is the plainly stated one - knowing the family and its history.  “Hebrew, circumcision and knowledge of a shared past were among a Jew’s identity badges in the ancient world…Anyone who wants to fade into his surroundings could conceal his circumcision, avoid Hebrew, and not mention his people’s past.  But the signs are available when it comes time (as with Joseph) to identify oneself to other Jews.”  The modern interpretation goes deeper.  After all circumcision was a masculine rite and in today’s world we are concerned about the Jewish identity of both Joseph and Josephine.  Circumcision becomes an example of all the religious commandments.  Hebrew stands not just for the language but for the shared Jewish culture.  The family story that Joseph told is emblematic of the whole history of the Jewish people.  Just as Joseph used these “three strands of shared identity” to re-unite with his family, so can those seeking a deeper connection with their Judaism use them in their quest.
 
Names 2
“God spoke to Israel in night visions and He said, “Jacob, Jacob.”  And he said, “Here I am.”  We have seen name changes in the Torah.  For example Abraham and Sarah both had their names changed.  But once the change took place, their old names were never used again.  The name change for the third patriarch is unique.  He begins life as Jacob and then becomes Israel.  But we keep seeing references to him using both names.  In this final encounter, even God cannot seem to make up His mind as to the name of the patriarch.  Is this a case that even though he had come to embody the changes brought on by maturity he could not shake off the behaviors of his early “Jacob” years?  In truth, I have not found a commentary that explains this and hope that one of you will be able to provide one.
 
Judah and Ephraim
The reading opens with Judah playing the role of family leader when he heroically stands up to the second most powerful person in Egypt - a person with the power to kill him with the flick of a finger.  Later when the tally is given of the 70 people who comprise the core of the Israelite community, Ephraim is not even mentioned by name.  But we are reminded that he is the grandson of Jacob, not the son of the Patriarch and we are reminded that his mother is one of the Egyptians whose descendants would enslave the Israelites.  “And Joseph’s sons who were born to him in Egypt were two in number.” (46:27).  Judah will become synonymous with the Southern Kingdom, the remnant of which survived the Babylonian Exile and provided us with the term Jew by which we are known today.  Ephraim became synonymous with the Northern Kingdom; the Kingdom of Israel that turned to idolatry, lost its connection with Ha-Shem and disappeared into the lands of the victorious Assyrian Empire.  Does this week’s reading foretell the fate of the two kingdoms?  Or was this reference in Vayigash a way of explaining the fate that befell the two kingdoms?  Here are a couple of more Kiddush or Cholent Questions for your consideration.
 

Haftarah
37:15-28 Ezekiel
 
The Book/The Man:  Ezekiel is one of the Three Major Prophets.  The other two are Isaiah and Jeremiah.  This grouping comes from the size of their books, not just the quality of their teachings and preachings.  Ezekiel lived at the time of the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.)  He is a younger contemporary of Jeremiah.  He was born about 620 B.C.E. and died about 570 B.C.E.  We know little about his personal life from the text.  He is described as the son of Buzi and is a member of the priestly family of Zadok.  He was married and his wife died suddenly.  He was carried into captivity by the Babylonians and lived in a place called Tel-abib (Hill of Corn Ears) on the banks of the Chebar River.  Apparently this was one of the sections set aside for the exiles.  According to legend, Ezekiel died of unknown causes during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar and was buried in a town lying between the Euphrates and the Chebar rivers.  A synagogue was built on that site and as late as the twelfth century pilgrims came there to read from a Sefer Torah supposedly written by Ezekiel’s own hand.
 
The Message:  Ezekiel is unique in many ways.  He was a seer, an inspired speaker and a member of the priestly class with knowledge of Temple ritual.  In his preachings Ezekiel “was unable to distinguish between the ritual and moral elements in religion, since he coupled high social morality with ritualistic demands.”  He was the first prophet to preach after the destruction of the Temple.  His audience consisted of the exiles, the remnant that has survived the destruction of both kingdoms.  According to one historian, the nation had gone from a population of four million in David’s time to approximately one hundred thousand at the time of the Babylonian Exile.  These dwindling numbers coupled with the reality of exile could have meant the end of the Jewish people.  The challenge for Ezekiel was to explain the plight of the nation in terms of its moral shortcomings while offering a vision of future redemption.  In the realm of personal morality, he assured the people that they would be rewarded and punished according to their own behavior.  They would not be punished for the sins of those who came before.  Nor could they rely on the merit of others for their own forgiveness.  Two of his most famous visions are the Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones and the Vision of the Sticks, the prophetic portion coupled with this week’s sedrah.  But Ezekiel was given to other visions as well - for example, the famed Merkavah or Divine Throne-Chariot.  This vision gave rise to a whole school of mysticism called the Masseh Merkavah or Work of the Chariot.  For once I do not feel the need to apologize for my lack of knowledge since the study of this is “reserved for men of the highest degree of mental and moral perfection.”  Fortunately there are other Haftarot taken from Ezekiel.  This will provide us with an opportunity to discuss his message and teachings in greater detail.
 
Theme- Link:  The sedrah and haftarah both describe reunifications of the Children of Israel.  In the sedrah, the reunification takes the form of the brothers meeting with Joseph and the family of Jacob all moving to Egypt.  In the haftarah, Ezekiel describes a future reunification when the Ten Lost Tribes, the Joseph Tribes, will be reunited with the Judah (and Benjamin) tribes of the Southern Kingdom.  The two kingdoms will become one united under a single king descended from the house of David.  The haftarah comes from the second half of Chapter 37.  The first half of Chapter 37 is the Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones.  The two visions are companions.  One describes a spiritual reunification.  The other describes a political reunification.  In both visions, the prophet uses the term Ben-Adam, Son of Man.  This majestic phrase is a signature line for Ezekiel, appearing over one hundred times throughout his writings.  In referring to the prophet in this manner, we are reminded that although a person might gain great spiritual insight, he is not divine; he is always Ben-Adam, Son of Man.
 

Torah Readings for Thursday, December 28, 2017

 

Asarah be-Tevet (Tenth of Tevet)
This minor fast day commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King who would destroy the Temple in 586 BCE.  Following World War II, the Chief Rabbi of Israel tried to use this fast day as a memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust.  This choice was superseded by Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day which falls on the 27th day of Nisan.  The Fast of Tevet is observed from dawn until dusk.  The morning service includes penitential prayers and a special Torah reading.  The afternoon service also includes a reading from the Prophet Isaiah.  These readings are the same ones recited on the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz which commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem during the siege.
 
Torah
32:11-14; 34:1-10 Shemot (Exodus)

As part of the observance, the Torah is read at both the Morning and the Afternoon Service.  The Torah portion is the same for both services.  It is a short reading with only three aliyot i.e., only three people are called to the Torah.  In the Afternoon Service, the Torah reading is followed by a Haftarah chosen especially for this day.  The first part of the reading (chapter 32) portrays God’s anger at the Israelites for the Golden Calf.  The second and third parts of the reading (chapter 34) describe Moshe’s return to the mountaintop to receive the Ten Commandments for the second time.  As Rabbi Kolatch points out, this is a fitting reading for a minor fast day since it contains the reminder that “sin leads to tragedy and expressions of remorse lead to forgiveness.”

Haftarah
55:6-56-8 Isaiah

This is the same haftarah read with Vayeilech, the ninth sedrah in Devarim.  In the haftarah, Isaiah calls upon the people to “Maintain justice and do what is right.”  The term for “right” in Hebrew is Tzedakah.  On fast days, it is even more important than on other days, to provide contributions for the poor (Tzedakah).  Two reasons are given for reading the haftarah in the afternoon instead of the morning.  One is that by reading it in the afternoon, people will have had all morning to perform acts of Tzedakah.  A second reason is that on three of the more minor fast days, people are allowed to go to work.  Reading the haftarah in the morning would extend the service to the point where it could become burdensome.  Since Mincha is relatively short, it would be less burdensome on the community to read the haftarah at the Afternoon Service.

Personal Sadness of Asarah be-Tevet (Tenth of Tevet)
Yahrzeit of Judith Sharon Rosenstein (nee Levin)

Known to one and all as Judy, she truly was an Ashit Chayil, “A Woman of Valor.”  A devoted wife, loving mother, doting grandmother, faithful friend as well as daughter and sister extraordinaire, Judy was a gift to all who were fortunate enough to be part of her life.  “And her children called her ‘Blessed.’”  May her name always be remembered.

Copyright January, 2017, Mitchell A. Levin