Parashat Vayigash – Between Saving and Enslaving

וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן

 

Parashat Vayigash closes the story of Yosef and his brothers with the descent of Yaakov and all of his family to Egypt where he is united with Yosef. However, before the story of Yaakov’s blessings can begin, the Torah takes an aside to describe in detail the process of Yosef providing food for the people of Egypt runs out, selling it to them first for their animals, then for their land and their freedom (Bereishit 47:12-27). This story seems a little out of place, but it in fact serves to provide important details about Yosef’s place in the larger context of his rise to power in Paroah’s administration and the descent of his family to Egypt. Yosef is the hero of the story and thus this passage tells the reader a good deal about him. However, if we look beyond the immediate context to the bigger picture of the entirety of the Torah, the story begins to look somewhat different. The social laws and practices of Sefer Devarim would seem to be at odds with much of Yosef’s enactments, casting the passage from Bereishit 47 in a rather negative light. Similarly, the story of Yosef’s enslavement of the Egyptians sets the stage for the slavery of the Israelites at the beginning of Sefer Shemot. This bigger picture raises important questions not only about how we view Yosef’s actions, but also how we view the role of the Israelites, who play a passive but distinct role in the passage from Bereishit 47.

Bereishit 47:12-27 discusses in detail the way that Yosef feeds and sustains the people of Egypt. Initially they pay for the food he gives them, then when they run out of money they pay him with their livestock. When their livestock are inevitably all sold, they come to Yosef and offer to exchange their land and their freedom for food. Yosef accepts and tells them that, as servants of Paroah, they will receive seed to plant and will be responsible to give 1/5 of their produce to Paroah. The only exceptions to this story are the priests of Egypt, who seem to have been required to pay with money and livestock for their food, but by the decree of Paroah are allowed to keep their lands and their freedom.

In terms of how this story fits into the context of the Yosef stories, it seems decidedly positive. It not only serves to confirm the value of Yosef’s interpretation and suggestion from Bereishit 42:25-36, but it also confirms that Yosef is in fact the wise and understanding man (42:33, 39), the man filled with the spirit of ‘א (42:38), that Paroah needed to save Egypt. The text also serves to demonstrate his grateful loyalty to Paroah, certainly a positive trait, emphasizing that anything Yosef acquired was brought directly to Paroah (47:14, 20, 23-25).It further put him in position to position his family in the best part of the land and exempt them from needing to buy grain. Perhaps most significantly, it is a third manifestation of the way Yosef is a source of blessing for those around him, with the first two being Potiphar (Bereishit 39) and the head of the jail (Bereishit 40). This parallels Yaakov’s experience in Lavan’s house (Bereishit 30), and both are part of the larger scheme of the covenantal blessings from ‘א to his chosen family, who are told that they will be a blessing to the nations of the world (Bereishit 12:2-3, 26:4, 28:14, etc.). Thus this passage serves to demonstrate both the human values of loyalty and wisdom that Yosef possesses, but also the divine favor he is graced with as an interpreter of dreams and a source of blessing.

However, when looking out to the rest of the Torah, these positive aspects are somewhat overshadowed by some problematic perspectives of Yosef’s actions. The fifteenth chapter of Sefer Devarim focuses on the same issues dealt with in Bereishit 47:12-27, namely, the interplay between debtors, creditors, and the land they live on[1]. The chapter opens with the law of the Shemitah, which among other requirements mandates the release of all debts. This is immediately followed by the command, perhaps implied by the laws of Shemitah, to lend money to those in need. Thus where Yosef required people to give up even their freedom and their land in order to get the food they needed to live, Devarim demands that the Israelites lend money to those in need, even knowing that they might not be able to demand the repayment of the loan. Moreover, Devarim 15:12-18 makes it clear that any enslavement should only last six years, whereas Bereishit 47:26 would seem to indicate that the slavery of the Egyptian had no specified end date. Thus while Yosef’s plan saved Egypt in the short term, it would seem to fall well short of the Torah’s normative requirements[2].

Looking at the more practical outcomes of Bereishit 47:12-27, as opposed to theoretical comparisons to Devarim, Sefer Shemot would seem to indicate that the long-term effects of Yosef enslaving the Egyptians are very negative. Sefer Shemot begins with a list of the children of Yaakov who descended to Israel (Shemot 1:1-6), very reminiscent of the one that precedes Bereishit 47:12-27. This is immediately followed by a second parallel to the passage from Bereishit 47, “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Shemot 1:7). Bereishit 47:27 says, “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they held their possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly,” which not only parallels the language of Shemot 1:7 (“fruitful,” “multiply”), but the juxtaposition of 47:27 at the end of the passage contrasts starkly with the impoverished state of the Egyptians in the rest of the passage, and Shemot 1:7-11 seems to indicate that this wealthy state of the Israelites created a jealousy in the Egyptians that led them to oppress the Israelites. On a more practical level, Yosef’s enactments are likely what make the enslavement of the Israelites possible. By the end of Bereishit 47:12-27, slavery is a nationwide institution in Egypt. All of the citizens are slaves of Paroah. Thus when Paroah suggests the enslavement of a full sector of the society, it’s not surprising. In fact, if you assume that most of the population is still enslaved at that point, it’s mostly surprising that Paroah didn’t enslave the Israelites earlier. And in terms of turning the Egyptians against the Israelites, this would have been made easier by the fact that Paroah could point out that they had originally been enslaved by an Israelite. Thus while Yosef plan may have saved Egypt and his family, it also set the stage for his descendants, and those of his brothers, to be enslaved.

Yosef’s actions are without a doubt positive in terms of their immediate context in the Torah. He created a plan that ensured not only the survival of all of Egypt but also the survival and wellbeing of his entire family. However, Sefer Bereishit does not exist in a vacuum[3]. Holding the story of Yosef’s saving Egypt against the backdrops of Sefer Devarim and Sefer Shemot leads to a comparison that is decidedly less positive. Yosef plan may have saved Egypt, but it did so in a manner that goes directly against the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of the laws of Devarim. Sharpening the point, the rationale given for these laws is that because Egyptian society and slavery are harsh and oppressive, Israelite society shouldn’t be. Moreover the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, a slavery so harsh that it led to countless laws requiring good treatment of those in a position of weakness, was only possible because of the way Yosef enslaved the Egyptians. It’s hard to say Yosef should have done something different, as he did not have total freedom, he was subordinate to Paroah after all, and his plan seems to have solved all the immediate problems quite well. However, how we evaluate his actions should take the rest of the Torah into account. Moreover, how we understand the position of Yosef’s family during this whole story should take this into account. The torah is rather silent about them, saying only that they dwelled in Goshen, and that they multiplied rapidly. But what did they think about Yosef’s enslavement of the Egyptians. It certainly put them in a good position, and it seemed to have the divine imprimatur, so perhaps they felt that what Yosef had done was good. Or, looking beyond their immediate historical context, they may have realized the moral and societal implications of Yosef’s plan and thought bad of it. We can’t really know what they thought, but based on the rest of the Torah we can, perhaps, suggest what they ought to have felt. They didn’t live in a vacuum, and thus they ought to have taken the suffering of their fellow residents of Egypt into account. Things that are bad for part of society are likely bad for the rest of it, and even when they aren’t, immoral actions should be rejected, even when they don’t affect a group specifically. We don’t get to decide that because our own little enclave within the larger society is unaffected, we can ignore injustice on the larger scale. We have an obligation to speak up against oppression, to make our voices heard in the name of justice. Oppression in one part of society will likely become oppression in all of it, so minimally on a practical level we cannot ignore the cries the others in the world. But on a moral level, we should not be able to turn a blind eye, to ignore the evil we see.

[1] Vayikra 25 takes a different approach to these issues, with more explicit concern shown for ‘א’s ownership, and that would yield a slightly different result if compared to Bereishit 47:12-27. However, it would likely still be negative, and the comparison to Devarim 15 is enough for our purposes in any case.

[2] Another important law that Bereishit 47:12-27 violates is the Torah’s injunction that priests should not have land of their own (Devarim 18:1). However, a fuller examination of this would go beyond the scope of this composition, and is the work of Paroah, not Yosef, anyway.

[3] Alan Dershowitz has written a book, “The Genesis of Justice”, which argues that narratives of Sefer Bereishit serve as the basis for many of the later laws of the Torah.

Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

Dedicating Our Sanctuaries

There is a deep tension in the nature of Hanukah. The holiday is most commonly understood as a celebration of the miracle of the oil, as described in Masekhet Shabbat.

What is ‘Hanukah? The rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev ‘Hanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Hasmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God’s wonders) were to be recited. (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Shabbat, 21b)

This gemara depicts the Maccabees entering the temple and, upon preparing to light the Menorah, finding only enough pure oil to light the Menorah for one day. When they lit the Menorah, however, it miraculously stayed lit for eight days, and thus the holiday of Hanukah was established to commemorate this. The liturgical passage of Al HaNisim, however, presents an entirely different picture of the nature of the holiday.

In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

Al Hanisim doesn’t even mention the miracle of the oil. Instead, it focuses on the miraculous military campaign where ‘א helped the Hasmoneans, the Maccabees, fight against the Seleucids, delivering “the many into the hands of the few.” It makes a brief mention of the kindling of lights in the Beit HaMikdash, but that is a far cry from the miraculous lighting of the gemara. The key to resolving this tension lies far earlier than either of these texts, in the dedications of the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash that acted as precedents for the rededication in the time of the Maccabees.

The dedication of the Mishkan is described three separate times in the Torah, each with a different emphasis and context. The first time is at the very end of Sefer Shemot, when Moshe finishes putting up the Mishkan and the Cloud of ‘א descends upon it (Shemot 40:17-38). The second is in Sefer Vayikra, at the end of the long list of sacrificial laws that starts off the sefer (Vayikra 9). Finally, in Bamidbar 7, the dedication takes the form of the donations and sacrifices of the Nesi’im of Bnei Yisrael to the Miskhan. Each of these dedications express a different aspect of the Mishkan. That of Sefer Shemot, capping the whole construction of the Mishkan, focuses on the way the Mishkan serves as a mobile Mount Sinai, with an emphasis on Moshe and the way that ‘א would reveal himself above the Keruvim (Shemot 25:22). The dedication of Sefer Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan as the place Bnei Yisrael would come to bring sacrifices to ‘א, and where Aharon and the Kohanim would serve daily. Sefer Bamidbar focuses on the heads of the Tribes of Israel and the presence of ‘א amidst the developing Nation of Israel. Thus these three dedications together depict the Mishkan as the place where ‘א comes to Bnei Yisrael, the place where Bnei Yisrael come to ‘א, and the living presence of the two together.

After the fall of the Mishkan, there was no House of ‘א in Israel, until Shelomoh HaMelekh built the Bet HaMikdash in Sefer Melakhim I. The dedication of the Bet HaMikdash is described in Melakhim I:8. The majority of the chapter is taken up not by the celebrations or even by the dedication itself, but by a long exhortation of the people by Shelomoh (8:12-61). (This exhortation takes the form of blessings to the people and a prayer to ‘א but it seems clear that the people are meant to hear the prayer and learn from it.) The main emphasis in this passage is on the incredible nature of an infinite god dwelling in a man-made structure, or any structure for that matter, and the inherently conditional nature of ‘א’s presence amidst Israel. The passage emphasizes the way that misdeeds and evil are punished when ‘א dwells amongst the people, and the harsh requirements of the Presence of ‘א. The corresponding passage in Sefer Divrei HaYamim II:6 is roughly the same, with perhaps slightly more emphasis on the House of David (6:46).

Much like these earlier passages from Tanakh, the gemara in Masekhet Shabbat and the Al HaNisim prayer present the rededication of the second Bet HaMikdash in very different ways. Al HaNisim presents it in context of the military victory, the divine salvation of the Jews from the political and religious domination of the Seleucids, while Masekhet Shabbat presents the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash in context of the divine grace manifest in the miracle of the oil, of the flaring up of the supernatural in the midst of the natural. Perhaps, unsatisfied with a holiday celebrating the victory of the Jewish over the Greek, Hazal focused on the rededication as a victory of the Holy over the Mundane. Instead of focusing on the reclaiming of the Bet HaMikdash, Hazal chose to emphasize the miracle that would be more meaningful for a people in exile. The holiday didn’t gain and lose facets based on the historical situation of those celebrating it, but certain facets are emphasized, while others are overshadowed. Now that we have returned to the land of Israel, now that the Jews have a sovereign land again, Hanukah presents us with not just with a celebration but with a question. In what context do we view the rededication of the Bet HaMikdash? What aspects are we going to focus on? Are we going to follow Maimonides, and emphasize both the military victory and the miracle of the oil? Are we going to be reminded by Hanukah of our leadership in the land, and all the responsibility that entails? And can we do so without forgetting that which lies above our natural existence, that which exceed our greatest possible expectations? Our relationship with ‘א, concretized in the Mishkan and the Bet HaMikdash, is multifaceted, and can be seen in multiple lights. Which facets we emphasize, how we view the Hanukah lights, is up to us.

[1] Translation from chabad.org

[2] I have discussed this in greater detail here.

[3] This also explains the different explanations for the establishment of the holiday found in Maccabees I, Maccabees II, Megillat Taanit, and Josephus’ Antiquities.

[4] “In [the era of] the Second Temple, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, [attempting to] nullify their faith and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its commandments. They extended their hands against their property and their daughters; they entered the Sanctuary, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure. The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand. They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.

When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, they entered the Sanctuary; this was on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary, with the exception of a single cruse. It contained enough oil to burn for merely one day. They lit the arrangement of candles from it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil.Accordingly, the Sages of that generation ordained that these eight days, which begin from the twenty-fifth of Kislev, should be commemorated to be days of happiness and praise [of God]. Candles should be lit in the evening at the entrance to the houses on each and every one of these eight nights to publicize and reveal the miracle.These days are called Chanukah. It is forbidden to eulogize and fast on them, as on the days of Purim. Lighting the candles on these days is a Rabbinic mitzvah, like the reading of the Megillah.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Megillah U’Hanukah, 3:1-3) (Translation from chabad.org)

Parashat Naso – Dedications of the Mishkan

זֹאת חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ בְּיוֹם הִמָּשַׁח אֹתוֹ מֵאֵת נְשִׂיאֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Parashat Naso, one of the largest parshiyot in the Torah, is largely composed of Bamidbar 7, some 89 verses long. Chapter 7 consists almost entirely of 6 verses repeated 12 times with very little variation, namely the sacrifices of the leaders of the Tribes. This long passage is capped off by a verse that seems unwarranted: “And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking to him from above the cover that was upon the Aron of the testimony, from between the two keruvim; and He spoke to him,” (Bamidbar 7:89). Initialy, this verse appears to be entirely unrelated to the preceding 88 verses, which deal with the inaugural sacrifices of the Mishkan. However, this seeming discrepancy is mitigated when viewed in the larger context of the Inauguration of the Mishkan.

The Inauguration of the Mishkan is described in two other places in the Torah: Shemot 40:17-38 and Vayikra chapter 9. The passage in Shemot describes Moshe constructing the Mishkan, and then ‘א’s Presence and the associated Cloud filling it. Vayikra 9 depicts Aharon fulfilling the first services of the Mishkan, followed by a divine fire consuming the sacrifices on the altar. In both cases, an intensive, detailed, procedure is followed by the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence in the Mishkan. If we look at the passage in Bamidbar with this structure in mind, the similarity is striking. In place of building the Mishkan or initiating the sacrifices we have the Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, bringing donations. Additionally,  instead of ‘א manifesting His Presence in the Cloud or the Fire, the manifestation is in the revelation in the Aron, the heart of the Mishkan. Bamidbar 7 is one of three passages describing the Inauguration of the Mishkan, and as such, verse 89 can be explained similarly, as part of the necessary structure of the Inauguration passage.

What is important about this passage, is not how it is similar to the others, but how it differs from them. There are three main differences in all of the passages:

  1. The action performed in step one of the inauguration process
  2. The leader performing the action
  3. The resulting manifestation of ‘א’s Presence

In Shemot, the leader is Moshe, and the action performed is the physical construction of the Mishkan, which the Cloud then fills. Moshe is the leader appointed to take the nation out of Egypt and to the land of Israel. He is responsible for the physical guidance of the people, and so he builds the physical structure of the Mishkan. ‘א then manifests His Presence in the Cloud, which guides Bnei Yisrael through the Wilderness.

In Vayikra, the focus is on the priestly activities of the Mishkan. Aharon, in charge of the sacrifices and other rituals of the Mishkan, performs the inaugural sacrificial service, and ‘א manifests His Presence in the fire that consumes the sacrifices.

In Bamidbar, the tribal leaders bring animals and donations for the Mishkan, and the manifestation is in the revelation to Moshe from above the Aron.

While the passage in Shemot emphasizes Moshe’s leadership, and the passage in Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan, the inauguration in Bamidbar emphasizes the Nation of Israel.

Bamidbar is a book about the birth and formation of the Nation of Israel. Thus it makes sense that the depiction of the Inauguration in the Mishkan would focus on the leaders of the Nation. The Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, are the permanent leadership of Bnei Yisrael. They are the leaders that takes over when the nation settles in the land of Israel. More than either Aharon or Moshe, they are the leaders of the nation. That’s why in Sefer Bamidbar, where the focus is on the nation, they are the leaders in the Inauguration.

What is less obvious is why the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence here is through the revelation to Moshe above the Aron. This becomes clearer after a survey of several of the the narratives of Sefer Bamidbar. In chapter 11, the people complain and 70 elders are made prophets. In chapter 12, Aharon and Miriam are punished for their statements regarding Moshe. The narrative of the spies and the nation’s punishment fills Bamidbar 13 & 14. Korah’s rebellion is recorded in Bamibar 16 & 17. These, and the rest of the narratives of Bamidbar, are unified through consistant conversation of Moshe and ‘א in the Mishkan. Sefer Bamidbar demonstrates the amazing fact that Moshe could go to the Mishkan and ‘א would respond to him. Sefer Bamidbar is the story of birth of the Nation of Israel, and with the birth comes birth-pangs. Bnei Yisrael get off to a rough start, with a lot of unforeseen difficulties. Through all of these ups and downs, ‘א is there to guide Bnei Yisrael, and to answer Moshe when he needs help. This ensures the growth of the nation, and establishes the relationship of ‘א to Bnei Yisrael for all time. He is actively involved in our growth and development. More importantly, he responds to our development. He did not simply set us on a path and let us walk down it on our own. ‘א is with us every step of the way.

Parashat Mikets – Of Gods and Dreams

אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ אֱ׳לֹהִים בּוֹ

Parashat Mikets begins by telling the story of Paroah’s dreams of the cattle and the wheat, dreams which none of Paroah’s magicians are able to solve. Then, upon recommendation from his wine-bearer, Paroah brings Yosef up from the dungeons and asks him to interpret it. Yosef promptly does so, and Paroah is so excited and sure about Yosef’s interpretation that not only does he listen to Yosef’s advice to appoint someone over the produce of the land of Egypt, but the person he picks is Yosef himself. However, upon looking at Yosef’s interpretation, it is unclear what about it is so striking to Paroah. While Yosef’s interpretation is not obvious, it is also far from something that would require a divine revelation. A key point in understanding this is appreciating that regardless of the objective superiority of Yosef’s interpretation, there is something about it that is appealing specifically to Paroah. The Torah confirms Yosef’s interpretation later when it comes true. It confirms it immediately by way of Paroah’s appreciation and acceptance of it. Looking at Yosef’s interpretation with that in mind, it immediately becomes clearer the ways in which his interpretation is superior to that of the magicians.

Throughout Yosef’s interpretation, there is one aspect that is emphasized over and over again.

And Joseph said to Pharaoh: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one; what God is about to do He has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and ill-favored cows that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do He has shown to Pharaoh. Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; and the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine which follows it; for it shall be very grievous. And for that the dream was doubled to Pharaoh twice, it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass. (Bereishit 41:25-32)

Yosef mentions three times throughout these verses that the dream is one, despite the fact that it would appear to be two separate dreams, one about cattle and one about grain. Twice it is stated in the positive, “the dream is one” (41:25-26), and once in the negative, where Yosef needs to explain why the dream appeared to be two separate dreams if it is in fact one. This part of Yosef’s interpretation parallels perfectly Paroah’s experience of the dream. When Paroah first dreamed the dream, he awoke between the two halves of the dream, but returns to sleep with no notice about the dream (41:4-5). But when he awakens from the second dream, he suddenly becomes aware of his dream, in singular, indicating that he became aware of both parts of the dream and that they were a singular entity. This unity is also expressed when Paroah tells his dream to the magicians, and the text specifically refers to it as a “dream,” in singular (41:8). However, when that very same verse describes the failure of the magicians it says, “They could not explain them,” meaning the dreams, in plural. Thus it is very clear that what makes Yosef’s explanation superior in the eyes of Paroah is that it fits with his unified experience of the dream.

Perhaps that would be enough on its own to explain the superiority of Yosef’s explanation[1], but there is another repeating aspect of the interpretation stands out. Before he begins his explanation Yosef states, “What God is about to do He has declared to Pharaoh” (41:25). Then after he has explained the symbols of the dream, before moving to explaining the larger picture, Yosef says, “That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do He has shown to Pharaoh” (41:28). Finally, Yosef finishes his interpretation by saying, “it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (41:32). Thus over and beyond the emphasis on the unity of the dream is the idea that the dream and that which it represents all come from ‘א.

These two aspects of Yosef’s interpretation are connected in an important manner, one that is a function of the primary difference between pagan and monotheistic mindsets. This therefore also demonstrates why it is the magicians could not arrive at the correct interpretation.

Divination is often defined as the discovery by various means of the will and decree of the gods. But this definition inadvertently imposes upon paganism a unified view of the universe that is foreign in its essence. It presupposes that both the disclosure and the decree stem always from the will of the gods. But paganism was conscious of no such unity, for it did not attribute everything to the will of the gods. Some events and conditions had nothing to do with the gods; others befell the gods themselves as decrees overriding fate. (Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel)

Pagan mythologies did not assume that one supreme and sovereign deity created everything; Rather, multiple gods and forces emerged from reality and drew their power therefrom. Thus while a prophetic dream might come from one god, the event conveyed in the prophecy might be the work of another. Alternatively, one or both might be a function of the power latent in reality itself. There would be no reason for Paroah’s magicians to assume that two different dreams which happened be involve the same number were connected in any way. Yosef, however, grew up well acquainted with ‘א as the sole God of History, and thus could only assume that the two dreams came not only from the same source of each other, but also from the same source as the event the dreams depict. Yosef is therefore also able to assume that this message came to Paroah for a reason beyond the whim of the gods, and therefore there has to be some sort of practical outcome from the dreams proper interpretation. It is on this basis that he recommends to Paroah a plan to save Egypt from the coming famine.

This split between monotheism and pagan mythology is manifest not just in this story but also in the laws of the Torah itself.

When you are come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you. You shall be wholesome with the Lord your God. For these nations, that you are to dispossess, listen to soothsayers, and to diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. (Devarim 18:9-14)

Bnei Yisrael are specifically forbidden from seeking out magicians and the like in order to determine what the future holds or what course of action should be taken. The Torah never states that these things don’t work, because this would distract from the real problem with these practices. These practices assume a pagan mindset wherein ‘א is not the sole source of everything that exists. Instead they assume that any divinity is simply something that emerged from reality and draws its power from there, and thus if a human could tap into this power then they could bypass, fight against, or perhaps even overpower, the gods. Thus these practices have to be false in a monotheistic world, but more problematic is their implicit statement that ‘א is not supreme. In place of these practices, the Torah provides an alternative method of determining what the future holds or what the correct course of action is.

A prophet will the Lord your God raise up to you, from the midst of you, of your brethren, like to me; to him you shall listen; according to all that you desired of the Lord your God in Horev in the day of the assembly, saying: ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not.’ And the Lord said to me: ‘They have well said that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like to you; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I will hold him accountable. But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart: ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you shall not be afraid of him. (Devarim 18:15-22)

In place of magicians and necromancers the Torah has the institution of the prophet, the messenger of ‘א. Since everything is created by ‘א and ‘א is in control of History, any attempt to determine the future must be an inquiry of ‘א, not some other imagined force. Since the prophets message of the future comes from the source of the future, the prophets message is also assuredly true, and thus the people can act on it[2]. This of course raises the problem of a person who claims to have received the prophetic word without actually having received it, but the Torah accounts for that as well by simply saying that the prophet is only to be trusted if his predictions come true[3]. Meanwhile a false prophet can’t accidentally predict the future because ‘א, the God of History, will ensure that his predictions fail. Thus the false and problematic magical practices of the nations of the land of Canaan are replaced by the godly messenger, the prophet.

It is this difference between pagan mythology and monotheism that sets Paroah at ease after hearing Yosef’s explanation. Instead of the many random explanations the dreams could be given by the magicians, Yosef’s explanation not only resonates with the unity that Paroah himself sensed in the dreams, but also explains them in a manner that unified the medium of the dreams with the message they were attempting to convey. However, as the story of Paroah’s dreams indicates, this difference goes far beyond the level of theory. This difference affects the very way we approach the world. Is the world simply a collage of disparate forces and intelligences all running according to their own plans, or is there an underlying goal, a plan, a unity? The prophets were sent to Israel to teach them that the forces of history are the tools of  ‘א. When we experience the world, when we feel the movements of history, it is incumbent upon us to remember their inherent unity, to remember that “over all the hills is God.[4]” An it is incumbent upon us to respond. We no longer have the institution of the  to teach us ‘א’s Will; rather, ‘א’s Will comes to us in the form of the Torah. When Yosef sees that ‘א is sending a drought, he responds by creating a plan to save the people. When we don’t know where history is taking us, we must respond by looking to the Torah.

[1] See comments of Abarbanel ad loc.

[2] I have written about the interplay between the Divine Word and human response here.

[3] This raises some problems for Yirmiyahu, who consistently predicted a destruction that did not manifest for years, and in the meantime he was accused of being a false prophet on the basis of these verse. For more on this, see Yirmiyahu 26 & 28.

[4] A.J. Heschel, “Towards an understanding of Halakha”; Playing off Goethe’s “The Traveller’s Night Song II”.

Hanukah And The Other

Hanukah And The Other

While the holiday of Hanukah is perhaps the most popular of the jewish holidays among American Jewry (by which I mean to include even the non-Orthodox), it was not always so. Hazal seem to have had a rather ambivalent approach to Hanukah. This is in large part manifest in a general lack of discussion about the holiday. Hanukah is mentioned a total of three times in the entirety of the Mishnah, and while the gemara discusses it somewhat more often, it is still scarce. There is also a notable lack of a ‘Masekhet Hanukah,” while Purim, the other non-biblical holiday, does have its own masekhet. Further ambivalence can be seen in the way Hazal related to the Hashmonaim, the heroes of the Hanukah story. Hazel critiqued the Hashmonaim on a number of issues, such as the unification of the Priesthood and the Kingship, but also for things like the way they wrote contracts. Moreover, the Hashmonaim often took license in their war against the Mityavnim, the Hellenized Jews, from the biblical zealot Pinhas. In midrashic explications of the story of Pinhas, Hazal often criticize Pinhas, or make it clear that his actions were less than desirable. Thus the Hashmonaim were basing themselves off a zealotry that Hazal were already less than thrilled about, even without the problems of the kingship. The largest question this raises, though there are several, is why did Hazal then see fit to include Hanukah in the holidays of the Jewish People? Megillat Ta’anit records a long list of second temple holidays and fast days and the only two that we keep are Purim and Hanukah. Thus the question of why we celebrate Hanukah when it was not particularly popular in Hazal, needs an answer.

Hanukah has only one mitsvah, lighting the candles, and it is through this mitsvah that we can perhaps explain the significance of the inclusion of Hanukah among the Jewish Holidays. In order to properly understand the mitsvah of lighting candles for Hanukah, it is instructive to compare them with another mitsvah of candle-lighting, the candles of Shabbat. Like the candles of Hanukah, the Shabbat candles are a rabbinic command. However, where the Hanukah candles are commemorative in nature, the Shabbat candles are functional. The candles of Shabbat ensure the existence of three specific aspects of Shabbat: Respectfulness (כבוד), Enjoyment (עונג), and Harmony in the house (שלום בית). The candles are there to ensure that there is enough light to see by, whether during meals or just when walking around. The functional nature of the Shabbat candles has halakhic ramifications. If a person is away from home and staying in a place where they have their own room, then she has an obligation to ensure that it is lit well enough to see where they are going. That said, if there is a place where the person does not want the light, such as a bedroom, then there is no obligation to light there. The Shabbat candles are there for the benefit of the people in the house, not as a goal in and of themselves.

The candles of Hanukah are just the opposite. As opposed to the raw functionality of the Shabbat candles, “these candles are holy, and we have no permission to use them beyond looking at them.” Where the whole purpose of the Shabbat candles is for our use, we are forbidden to make any use of the Hanukah candles. They are holy, and they burn just to burn. Moreover, the one purpose they might seem to have, publicizing the miracle of Hanukah, is intended in an opposite manner from the purpose of the Shabbat candle. The Shabbat candles are intended to illuminate the house for the benefit of the people inside it. The publication of the miracle of Hanukah is primarily intended not for the people in the house but for the people outside of it, to the point where the ideal placement of the chanukiah is not inside the house at all, but rather just outside the door. The Hanukah candles are not about those lighting them, nor about improving their lives. Whereas the Shabbat candles increase and improve our sense of comfort and homeyness, the Hanukah candles create a sense of estrangement and otherness.

The Hanukah candles represent a celebration of otherness, of the fact that not everything needs to fit into our lives and our patterns in order for it to be included, and this is exactly what is  happening with the inclusion of Hanukah in the system of Jewish Holidays. Hazal took a holiday that they would not necessarily have created on their own, and brought it within the system of Jewish Holidays, and then they made sure it’s main ritual would demonstrate what they had done. Their willingness to accept that which is other, that which doesn’t work exactly as they would have it, ought to be an inspiration for us. They didn’t pretend to agree with everything about Hanukah. Before Hazal emphasized the miracle of the oil, all versions of the Hanukah story focus on the military victory or the rededication of the Temple. Hazal decided the focus should be on the miracle of the oil, something they felt more befitting of non-Hashmonaic Judaism. We don’t have to agree with everyone, nor do we even have to pretend to. But that isn’t permission to exclude them and push them away. In light of the otherness of the Hanukah candles, with which we celebrate the grace and presence of ‘א, we can embrace those who are different.

Parashat Vayeshev – Speaking about God

וְלֹא יָכְלוּ דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם

Parashat Vayeshev begins the final section of Sefer Bereishit, a section dedicated to the narratives of Yosef. By the end of the first chapter of his saga, Yosef has been sold down to Egypt, never to return alive to the land of Canaan. In his time in Egypt, Yosef not only saves the entire land from suffering the worst of a famine, but he paves the way for his family to join him in what is to become the exile of the nation of Israel in the land of Egypt. Fascinatingly, the Zohar taught that this exile was Galut HaDibur, the Exile of Speech[1]. While this seems like a rather strange idea, it actually has its roots in the text of the Torah itself. Yosef’s narratives are driven by speech, both good and bad. Not only does the larger story begin and end with speech, but each individual narrative is driven by the things people say. By taking a look at some of these examples, and the way they direct the overall narrative, we can perhaps begin to understand the idea of an exile of speech.

Bereishit 37 opens with geographic and familial background about Yosef, forming the basis upon which the main action of the chapter is built.

And Yaakov dwelt in the land of his father’s travels, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Yaakov. Yosef, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers, being still a boy among the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Yosef brought evil report of them[2] to their father. (37:1-2)

The final line of this background, “and Yosef brought evil report of them to their father,” is striking. That it is part of the background means that it is something that typifies Yosef’s relationship with his brothers. Everything that happens next builds on that. The next verses of Bereishit 37 are not background, though they are also not really the main story of the chapter.

Now Israel loved Yosef more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak to him peacefully. (37:3-4)

These verses, too, end with a striking note about speech. If the bad report Yosef had brought to their father was not enough, their father’s favoritism sent Yosef’s brothers over the edge, and they hated him to such a degree that they could not hold an ordinary conversation with him. Thus with these two points about speech, the stage is set for the brother’s plot against Yosef, with the only necessary catalysts being Yosef’s dreams (37:5-11) and Yaakov sending him to gather a report on his brothers (37:12-14).

These two points about speech, Yosef reporting on his brothers and their inability to speak to him, are paralleled in Bereishit 50, at the very end of Yosef’s story.

And when Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said: ‘It may be that Yosef will hate us, and will fully return to us all the evil that we did to him.’ And they sent a message to Yosef, saying: ‘Your father did command before he died, saying: So shall you say to Yosef: Forgive, I pray you now, the transgression of your brothers, and their sin, for they did evil to you. And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’ And Yosef wept from their speaking to him. And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said: ‘Behold, we are your bondmen.’ And Yosef said to them: ‘Fear not; for am I instead of God? And as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to keep a great people alive. Now therefore fear you not; I will sustain you, and your little ones.’ And he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them. (50:17-21)

There are two phrases in this passage that would seem to be entirely extra. The first, “from their speaking to him,” highlights the obvious fact that Yosef’s brothers are speaking to him, and is inexplicably redundant unless you consider that this whole story started because of a situation in which the brothers were not on speaking terms with Yosef. The second phrase, “and spoke kindly to them,” is translated from an an obscure hebrew phrase literally meaning, “and he spoke on their heart.” The exact meaning of that phrase in context is unclear, but it is clear that it is positive speaking and it is directed to the brothers. This is direct contrast to the “bad report” from chapter 34, about which nothing is known other than that it was negative, and spoken about the bother to Yaakov. Thus negative speech about the brothers has been replaced with positive speech to them, and the stories of Yosef have be given a framework that neatly ties up the stories while demonstrating how important a part speech plays in them.

Within the stories themselves, there are numerous ways in which speech drives the individual plots. The brothers masterfully deceive their father, though this does not do much to drive the plot. Instead it sets up for Yehuda’s eventual taking of responsibility both for the plot against Yosef and his poor treatment of his daughter-in-law Tamar in chapter 38. Before that though, the plot of chapter 38 is itself driven by speech at several key moments. In 38:13, “it was told to Tamar” that Yehuda is going to shear his sheep in Timna, and she therefore hatches a plan to undo the years of isolated widowhood that Yehuda had forced upon her. Then, in 38:24, when she was found to be pregnant “it was told to Yehuda” and he declared that she should be burnt. When she forces him to confront the truth of his actions, Yehuda finally admits that he has done wrong, not only to her but also to Yosef, being faced with the same phrase, “Recognize!” (הכר נא), that he used to deceive Yaakov. Tamar is saved, and the story closes with her giving birth to twins, one of whom is that ancestor of King David. The entire plot is driven by people being told things, and if nothing else should serve as an object lesson about the danger of gossip. However Yehuda’s rise only begins here, culminating in Bereishit 45 where he stands in contrition before Yosef and says “God has found the sin of your servants” (45:16).

Chapter 39 discusses the story of Yosef in the house of Potiphar, with the main conflict of the plot being Potiphar’s Wife’s attempted seduction of Yosef. The first time she approached Yosef she simply says, “lie with me” (39:7). Then she spoke to him day by day, trying to slowly wear him down (39:10). Finally when she grabs his garment, the text there too mentions that she spoke to him “saying, lie with me” (39:12). Then Yosef rejects her with a statement that initiates a total change in the direction of Yosef’s story.

Behold, my master, having me, does not know what is in the house, and he has put all that he has into my hand; he is not greater in this house than I; nor has he kept back any thing from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? (39:8-9)

The singular importance of this declaration is not only that it marks an act made fully out of consideration of another person, as opposed to Yosef’s somewhat self-involved actions in Bereishit 37, but that it also marks the first mention of ‘א in Yosef’s stories (other than the narrator’s comments in 39:3 & 6). Despite the apparently prescient nature of his dreams, Yosef fails to attribute them to ‘א. When thrown in a pit and then sold into slavery, Yosef does not appear to pray to ‘א. It is only now that he finally mentions ‘א, and this is to become a staple of his speech throughout his narratives. It’s worth noting that he does not mention ‘א in connection to his pair of dreams, but when he is called to interpret two more pairs of dreams, he mentions ‘א both times (40:8, 41:16). While it might appear that the end of Yosef’s fall and the beginning of his rise hinge on the second set of dreams, the true pivot-point comes just before that, in the turn of phrase that lands him in just the right place to interpret those dreams.

If Yosef’s exclamation in 39:9, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” initiates the second half of Yosef’s story, it is worth deeper focus. If it does so as part of a larger rubric of speech that drives and defines the story, then it is worth considering what speech means, and how this statement is a part of that. George Orwell makes an important point about speech in an appendix to his dystopian novel 1984 entitled “The Principles of Newspeak.”

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc[English Socialist Party ~LM], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever… Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

Other than perhaps the barest experiences of an infant, thought occurs in words. This means that in order to think something, we have to have a word for it. If there’s no word for something, then it can’t be thought. The flip-side of this is that if we think more with certain words or concepts, they are more likely to show up in our language.

Returning to Yosef’s statement, several things about his character can be implied that are not to be found before this point. The first is a sensitivity to the thoughts and needs of other people. Here he is greatly concerned for his master and the trust that has been placed in him, sharply contrasting the Yosef of Bereishit 37 who seems completely unaware of the pain his dreams and his favored status have caused his brothers. It is also, as stated above, the first mention of ‘א in the story. However, it mentions ‘א specifically in terms of the possibility that Yosef might “sin against” ‘א. He mentions ‘א not as the creator of the world, not as the god of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, but as the God who demands certain ethics and practices from people. It is with full consciousness of his responsibilities not only to his fellow man, but also to the god of all men, that Yosef is able to reject his master’s wife’s advances.

Having said this, it is worth returning for a moment to the framework of Yosef’s narratives. In Yosef’s address to his brothers in Bereishit 50, he opens with a powerful statement about divine providence. “’Fear not; for am I instead of God? And as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (50:19-20). This sentence encapsulates the idea that ‘א holds people responsible to act in a certain manner. Yosef is saying to his brothers that while they may have intended evil to him, and thus he might be well within his rights to kill them[5], because ‘א runs the world, he cannot, or perhaps simply will not. What makes this even more significant is that Yosef uses the phrase, “instead of God” (התחת א-להים), that appears only one other place in all of Tanakh, in Bereishit 30:2. Bereishit 30 opens with Rachel coming to Yaakov begging for children, a request to which he responds quite harshly. “And Yaakov’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said: ‘Am I instead of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (30:2) Yaakov uses the same phrase to attempt to put Rachel in her place. However, Yaakov is taken to task for this by the commentators[4], and not just because he spoke out of anger. Yaakov’s use of this phrase is meant to indicate that ‘א runs the world, and therefore Yaakov must do nothing to aid his barren wife. Where Yosef will one day use this phrase to show that ‘א demands a certain degree of responsibility from him, Yaakov uses it to avoid responsibility. This statement of Yaakov’s also occurs as Rachel is attempting to become pregnant with her first child, destined to be Yosef, and thus this phrase, “instead of God,” bookends not just Yosef’s narratives but his entire life. Yosef’s entire life can then be seen as a movement from a consciousness of ‘א that invites an abdication of responsibility to one that demands a taking up of responsibility.

Yosef’s whole narrative changes based on his consciousness, based on his speech, of the God who holds us responsible. the idea that ‘א is not simply the Creator of the World or the Designer of History but the Commander of Men. We do not exist alone in this world. From the moment we are thrown into this world until the moment we are torn from it, we exist in the light of ‘א’s Face. And in this light our actions are held up to a certain standard which we are expected to mest. Something is asked of us while we live. However, just because we are asked, does not mean we are conscious of the need to answer, of the need to ensure our lives match up to ‘א ’s expectations. The “Exile of Speech” starts because Yosef and Yehuda had exiled ‘א from their speech, and thus the exile ends with the Revelation at Sinai where the Israelite receive the laws detailing exactly what their responsibilities are (Shemot 20-23). Too often we have exiled ‘א from our speech. We do not speak about the God who holds us responsible, nor are we conscious of the responsibility we bear to ‘א. We need to speak about ‘א more, and we need to do so in manner that emphasizes our responsibility. Not, it should be emphasized, in a manner that depicts us as guilty, but in a manner that makes it clear we are held responsible. ‘א created Mankind as His partner, creators in a world of creations[5], and thus we are responsible for our actions, not because we are sinful, but because we are great.

[1] Zohar II, 25b. See also Peri Ets Hayyim, Sha’ar Hag HaMatsot, Chapter 1.

[2] This could refer to just the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, or to all of Yosef’s brothers.

[3] Devarim 24:7 would seem to suggest that the brothers might have deserved the death penalty for their part in his being sold as a slave.

[4] Seem Ramban ad loc. and the sources there.

[5] For more on this, see my essay on Parashat Bereishit and the nature of Man.