Parashat Yitro 5774 – What Happened At Sinai

אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם

Shemot 19 and 20 frame the picture of the Revelation at Sinai. ‘א descends on the mountain. Moshe goes up. The nation stands and shakes from afar. The scene in set and the air is full of tension. The Ten Commandments form the crescendo to the narrative. The people then express that they would rather have Moshe speak to them than ‘א, at which point ‘א gives Moshe a message for the nation. These chapters are convoluted and confusing in their entirety, causing the commentators to jump through serious hoops to find compelling explanations. The strangest part, however might be the blatant contradiction between ‘א’s actions in chapter 19 and his words in chapter 20. The Torah goes out of its way to describe ‘א descending on the mountain, presumably an important piece of the narrative, and yet in 20:19 He says, “You have seen that I spoke to you from Heaven.” So from where did ‘א speak to them? From the Mountain or from Heaven? This question, and its attending philosophical difficulties, is interesting enough on its own. However, the midrashic explanations of these events, including some very creative attempts to resolve this and other problems of the text, have some very powerful messages to teach us not just about the Revelation at Sinai but about our relationship with ‘א on the whole.

Perhaps the simplest resolution in provided by a midrash in the first few pages of Mesekhet Sukkah (TB Sukkah 5a). Based on the verse, “The Heavens are the Heavens of the LORD; but the Earth hath He given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16)[1], the gemara explains that ‘א’s presence never comes all the way down to Earth and Man can never go up to Heaven. Instead, when it says that ‘א descended on the mountain, His presence stopped a short distance above the mountain, close enough to be considered as having “descended on the mountain,” but still far enough away that ‘א could be considered to have spoken to the people “from Heaven.” This, however, stands in direct opposition to a large number of midrashim.

The Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael[2] resolves this problem by expanding the idea of ‘א descending on the mountain. Not only does ‘א descend, he brings Heaven with him. Thus ‘א descends on the mountain and is able to speak from Heaven simultaneously. This is very problematic in  regards to the midrash in Mesekhet Sukkah. If Moshe goes up on the mountain, and Heaven comes down to it, then has he gone up to Heaven? Perhaps, but regardless of that, ‘א and Heaven coming down to Earth would certainly clashes with the previous midrash.

This issue is further complicated Shemot 19:3 which reads, “And Moses went up to ‘א.” If Moshe went up to ‘א then presumably he left what is typically thought of as Earth and ascended to the divine realm. This can be explained as Moshe simply going to the location on the mountain from which ‘א had called to him, but many midrashim take it more literally. Not only do they describe Moshe ascending to Heaven, they give detailed accounts of what ensued there. Famously, the gemara depicts Moshe arguing with the Angels over who ought to receive the Torah (Shabbat 88b). Midrashic exegeses of the verses,“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O mighty one, thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty prosper, ride on.”(Tehillim 45:4-5)[3] and, “A wise man scaleth the city of the mighty, and bringeth down the stronghold wherein it trusteth.” (Mishlei 21:22)[4] depict Moshe not just as receiving the Torah, but as actively going up into the depths of Heaven and taking it himself.

A subtle prerequisite for the midrashim describing moshe going to heaven and taking the torah is the idea that the torah was already existing in heaven for moshe to go and take. One midrash not only says that the torah existed in heaven for 974 generations before the creation of the world,[5] but also that when moshe broke the Luchot the angels rejoiced, saying that the torah was now returned to them.[6] It’s also the basic assumption of the famous midrash stating that ‘א “looked into the torah and created the world,” much the way an architect has tablets and notebooks.[7] The Sifre says that ‘א agree to the suggestion of the daughters of Zelophechad because that’s how it was written before him in Heaven.[8] A Gaonic responsa uses the idea of ‘א having the torah written before him in heaven to explain why a person should not recite verses from the Torah without the text in front of him.[9]

These midrashim are not simply cute stories attempting to fill in the details of perhaps the most important moment in the history of Bnei Yisrael. These midrashim discuss the very natures of ‘א, Man, and Prophecy, the connection between us. The gemara in Sukkah takes a view that is highly transcendent. Man and ‘א are very separate, and but for the fact that there is revelation one would assume they were totally unconnected in any way. A contrast is found in the doctrine of Heaven’s Descent, wherein ‘א is manifest within this world. The lines are blurred. Similarly blurring is the conception of Moshe’s ascent to Heaven. In  a world where the Finite and Infinite can manifest in each other’s realms, it becomes difficulties to absolutely distinguish between them. This of course, is the upshot of the view of total separation.

Is prophecy something that happens to Man or something that happens to ‘א? Who is the active partner and who is the passive? When Moshe goes to Heaven and takes the Torah, then ‘א is not an active partner. This is mirrored in the later view of the Rambam where Moshe, via perfecting his intellect, unites with ‘א and learns the torah. Moshe is the active one. This is even clearer if the Torah is already a whole item in Heaven, just waiting for Moshe to come take it. The idea of Heaven’s descent makes ‘א the active one. He descends on the mountain to bring the Torah. Moshe need not even ascend, and in fact, may not have been up on the mountain at the time of the revelation. This view doesn’t see revelation as a function of man’s perfection, but rather as a matter of ‘א’s purpose. When ‘א wants revelation to happen then it does not matter whether or not man is worthy.[10]

So which is it? Does ‘א reveal himself or does man discover the divine truth? Is the Torah a document from beyond time, born of Heaven, or is it a crystallization of ‘א’s relationship with His people at the moment[11] of Revelation? The answer, as usual, is more complicated than the either/or. ‘א descends on the mountain, but Moshe also goes up. The people aren’t allowed to touch the mountain, but they do need to spend three days purifying themselves. ‘א and Man are searching for each other. The truth of revelation is that it happens between man and ‘א, sometimes one side is more active, sometimes the other, but the consistent factor is that of the relationship between them. Revelation requires relation. And this is the greatest message of the Revelation at Sinai, the clearest truth from amidst an otherwise obfuscated pericope: that ‘א and His people desire to be involved each with the other.

[1] Biblical translations from http://www.mechon-mamre.org

[2] Bahodesh 4

[3] Midrash on Tehillim, ad loc.

[4] Pesikta Rabbati 20:4. Strikingly, some of these descriptions are actually quite violent.

[5] This is an idea found throughout midrashic literature, based on the idea that the Torah existed for 2000 generations before the Revelation at Sinai. The Revelation at Sinai occurs in the 26th generation recorded in the Torah, which mean the remaining 974 generations have to have been before Creation. Explanations of this idea have ranged from the midrash about ‘א creating and destroying worlds before creating this one (the Arizal) to this universe actually being nearly 15 billion years old (R’ Isaac of Acre and R’ Aryeh Kaplan). It may be more likely that the Revelation at Sinai happens in the 26th generation because that’s the numerical value of YHVH, the Ineffable Name of God, also revealed in the 26th generation.

[6] Midrash on Tehillim 28:6

[7] Bereishit Rabbah 1:4

[8] Sifre Pinhas 134

[9] Teshuvot HaGeonim, Shaarei Teshuva 352

[10] The Kabbalistic idea that Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the whole Torah, rather just what was fitting for them, is an interesting combination of these views, and opens the door to discussion of the fullness of the Torah being revealed at a later date, a titillating and dangerous concept.

[11] This might be rephrased as the question, “is the Torah Timeless or Timely?” and it has serious ramifications for the way we interpret the Torah, including the relevance of using Critical Literary  techniques and parallels to other Ancient Near Eastern texts.

Parashat Bo 5774 – Rights and Responsibilities of the Firstborn

וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה

The narrative of the Ten Plagues closes with the Death of the Egyptian Firstborn and the consequential dedication of all  firstborn Israelites, man or beast, to ‘א. All the firstborn male (Shemot  13:12) animals from Bnei Yisrael must be sacrificed or redeemed and all firstborn sons must be redeemed.This finale parallels and was predicted by the very opening of the story. When Moshe is on his way down to Egypt ‘א tells him to say to Paroah, “Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My firstborn. And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy firstborn.”[1] Then Moshe “encounters ‘א” and nearly dies, saved only by his wife circumcising their son, who then says, “Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me… A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.” (Shemot 4:22-26). This parallel creates a structure that not only creates a closed literary unit out of the story, but also perfectly lays out what is at stake.

From the very beginning of the story ‘א intended for the plague of the first born to occur. ‘א explains this as being a consequence of his oppressing and killing ‘א’s “firstborn.”[2] Everything that happens from that moment until the last plague is a function of this idea. Then after the plague of the first born the meaning of being ‘א’s firstborn is made clear when all of the Israelite firstborns becomes consecrated to ‘א and have specific rules. Bnei Yisrael’s special place as ‘א’s nation, with all of the rules and regulations that entails, is a function of being His firstborn. Moshe’s “encounter” with ‘א and the exclamation of “bridegroom of blood” parallel the story of the Pesach (12:1-13) on several counts. First is the idea of blood as the means of salvation. Moshe is saved by the blood of his son’s circumcision and Bnei Yisrael are saved by the blood of the Pesach that they placed on their doorposts. Second is the circumcision itself. While there is no circumcision depicted by occurrence of the Pesach in Egypt, it is listed as a requirement for those participating(12:47-48) and so the midrash therefore says that a circumcision actually was performed. And of course the basic fact of both stories is that of ‘א  killing someone. Thus the story opens the same way it closes,[3] while simultaneously demonstrating how serious the stakes are; life and death are at stake.[4]

This idea of Israel as ‘א’s firstborn can be a source of triumphant nationalism. The entire Exodus narrative can be thought of as ‘א taking care of his first born (Ibn Ezra on Shemot 4:22). ‘א takes care of His people and anyone who attacks them will suffer his wrath. This then leads into the National Theophany at Mount Sinai, for only His nation gets His Law. However, this thought process ignores[5] some of the more subtle, but incredibly important, implications of the phrase “Israel is My son, My firstborn.”

“Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?” (Amos 9:7) ‘א is not god of Israel alone, and the proof for this is in the phrase “Israel is My son, My first-born.” The existence of a firstborn son by definition implies the existence of others. Thus while Bnei Yisrael is ‘א’s firstborn, and has a special relationship with Him based on that, the other nations are also His sons. One only need read the books of the prophets to see what the ideal for the relationship between the nations really is. “In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth; For that the LORD of hosts hath blessed him, saying: ‘Blessed be Egypt My people and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel Mine inheritance.” (Yeshayahu 19:24-25) ‘א is the god of all earth and all the nations are his children. The title of firstborn implies special favor and grace, but it also implies special responsibility.[6] “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek.” (Yeshayahu 11:10) “Thus saith the LORD of hosts: In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying: We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:23) Bnei Yisrael are responsible for the raising up of the nations. Israel is meant to be the center of ‘א’s kingdom on this earth, when all peoples[7] will be united under ‘א. “Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon Mine altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Yeshayahu 56:7) “For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD” (Zephaniah 3:9) That our relationship with ‘א is differentiated does not mean that it is exclusive, and treating like it as it if it were is an affront.

Moreover, the idea of a “firstborn” is one of the primary concepts of Sefer Beraishit, and it is not simple. The “firstborn” is rarely ever the actual firstborn. Avraham’s firstborn Yishmael is kicked out of the family. Esav, while beloved of his father, is destined from before his birth to be supplanted by his younger brother (Bereishit 25:23). This is the story of Bnei Yisrael and it is based upon the contingent status of the firstborn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Yaakov’s children. Whole libraries could be filled with the literature that has been written on war for supremacy amongst his sons, specifically the three-way split between Reuven, Yosef, and Yehuda. Notably, Reuven lost the birthright not because it was taken from him but because sinned against his father (35:22). The contingency of Bnei Yisrael as “firstborn”, the contingency of ‘א’s added grace, is the theme of the first rashi on the Torah (Beraishit 1:1):

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, (for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments, and although several commandments are found in Genesis, e.g., circumcision and the prohibition of eating the thigh sinew, they could have been included together with the other commandments). Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.[8]

This rashi is generally misunderstood to be about the unending right of Bnei Yisrael to the Land, but that is not it’s true meaning. The Land of Canaan was given to the Canaanites until such time as they no longer deserved it, and the same holds true of Bnei Yisrael. The gift of ‘א’s land is one Bnei Yisrael might easily lose, the same way the Canaanites did before them. While Bnei Yisrael will always be His chosen people, the grace they receive from Him is dependent on their actions.

Being part of ‘א’s nation has a tendency to make people feel superior. But being part of ‘א’s nation is both less and more than people think. It is less than people think in that it is not an exclusive claim. Bnei Yisrael is ‘א’s chosen nation, but all of the nations are His. It is more than people think because it is not just a right but also an obligation. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2) It is the fact of being ‘א’s people that obligates, and not living up to that obligation has severe consequences (Vayikra 26, Devarim 28).

[1] Translations from www.mechone-mamre.org

[2] Note: This would also seem to be a fairly minimal consequence in terms of Paroah’s attempt to kill all the newborn Israelite males.

[3] Also note the connection between 4:21 and 11:9-10.

[4] This is one possible explanation for the juxtaposition of 4:21-23 and 4:24-26.

[5] See, however, Devarim 4:10-14, 19, and 20.

[6] In more practical terms, the reason firstborn son inherits more is to compensate for and to enable his responsibility to take care of the rest of the family.

[7] See also Seforno on Shemot 4:22

[8] http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8165#showrashi=true

Parashat Va’era 5774 – The God of Israel

הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם

The entire Exodus narrative, and the story of the Ten Plagues in particular, is the first occurrence in Tanakh of the war against Idolatry[1]. Part of what made Judaism unique in the ancient world was not just the belief in one god but also the total rejection of any other gods. In Sefer Bereishit the Avot, and the Torah, seem perfectly content with the Idolatry of the other residents of Canaan. Only in Egypt, in the fight against Paroah and Gods of Egypt does it become clear that Idolatry is an unacceptable way of life for anyone and everyone. However, the Tanakh does not depict the drama of Egypt as a simple matter of one god versus many. The conflict happens on three levels and, in the end, it details the emergence of a new system for National and Religious Leadership based on a uniquely Israelite idea[2].

The obvious story of the Plagues is that of the tension between ‘א and Paroah. Now the idea of a human ruler defying the transcendent and unlimited ‘א seems odd, but that’s not how the Tanakh conceives of the relationship between Man and ‘א. “History is where God is defied.”[3]  The Tanakh shows that Man has the ability to go against the will of ‘א, but‘א will inevitably triumph. That idea, started earlier in Sefer Bereishit, here comes to total fruition in the fight against Paroah.

Paroah and ‘א are in many ways equated in the text of the Torah. Perhaps most obvious is the emphasis on their nations. In contrast to ‘א’s refrain of “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” (Shemot 7:17, 26; 8:16; 9:13 the Egyptians are consistently referred to as “[Paroah]’s Nation”. ‘א has his nation and Paroah has his. Writ large, the torah creates a picture where Paroah and ‘א (via Moshe) face off in a battle for dominance. It’s ‘א’s will versus Paroah’s, with the decision consistently going to ‘א. Moreover, Egyptian rulers were not considered to be ordinary men of flesh and blood. They were considered to be divine, or close to it, and thus the defeat of Paroah is the defeat of Idolatry. When ‘א said, “and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD[4]”, He was also talking about Paroah, and when Paroah admits defeat it is a tacit admission of the supremacy of ‘א.

The second level of the story is that of the conflict between Moshe and Paroah. The idea is that of two kings facing off, which might be why some commentators have compared the Ten Plagues to the procedures for conquering a city. While not strictly-speaking a “King,” Moshe represents the leadership of a nation concentrated in one person, much in the manner of a monarchy. But as opposed to the conflict between ‘א and Paroah, Moshe’s fight is not for domination. Moshe’s fight is for the heart of the nation. Moshe brings plagues in order to demonstrate ‘א’s majesty and dominance before the people, that they might recognize His greatness[5]. Moshe as King rules not out of strength and not as a matter of personal right, but as an apostle of ‘א.

This idea is highlighted by several very important midrashim. On several occasions Moshe is told to go meet Paroah along the river early in the morning. The midrash comments that the reason Paroah went for his walk early in the morning was in order to secretly relieve himself[6]. Due to the divine or semi-divine status of Egyptian kings, he could not be seen to do so by the public, and so for this purpose he used to go early in the morning to the river. Thus the divine status of Paroah is not only false but Paroah knows it is false and has to maintain it by deceiving his people. This midrash points to the way Egyptians conceived of their king as divine while simultaneously rejecting and ridiculing it. In stark contrast is the Tanakh’s depiction of Moshe.

In the middle of a discussion between Moshe and ‘א regarding Moshe’s ability to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt the Torah suddenly interjects with Moshe and Aharon’s genealogy. Whereas by Moshe’s birth his parents are anonymous, here the Torah says who they are explicitly, revealing something very interesting. The marriage of Avraham and Yocheved is what would after the revelation at Har Sinai become considered an inappropriate sexual relationship. The midrash not only points this fact out, it highlights similar relationships by Avraham and Sarah, Yaakov and his first wives, and several instances throughout David HaMelekh’s ancestry. The midrash points out that the leadership of Bnei Yisrael often comes from what we think of as inappropriate origins[7], and that this is intentional. Part of the problem with Kings historically has been that they often come to think of themselves as divine, that they are the be-all and end-all, and that is simply not so. The midrash states that this could never be an issue with these Israelite leaders because as opposed to being thought of as divine, they all have rather ignominious backgrounds. Thus the conditional nature of the Jewish King is made clear in the fight against the “divine” King of  Egypt[8]. Moshe rules Bnei Yisrael not as one entitled to do so by birth, but as the appointed messenger of ‘א.

Aharon’s position in the Torah is complex, and that is true right from the outset. It seems clear from ‘א’s words to Moshe that Aharon is simply meant to be a speaker for Moshe but Moshe seems to do plenty of speaking on his own. Moreover, Aharon is personally responsible for the bringing of several plagues, and is often referred to directly alongside Moshe throughout the duration of the Plagues. As much as he does serve as Moshe’s “mouth” and “prophet”, he really is his own character in the story.

Aharon’s purpose here is not simple. First and foremost, throughout the Torah Aharon is the High Priest of Israel. But noticeably, he doesn’t do anything specifically priestly here in Egypt. The one things he does that some might have argued is a priestly act is the performance of wonders, something that in other civilizations and Egypt in particular was a priestly function. But the lack of any other priestly functions here that instead of adopting the Egyptian idea of the Priest-Magician, the Torah is actually rejecting it[9]. Aharon performs wonders not as a priest who bends nature to his will, but as a prophet who bends nature to ‘א’s will.

In this role, Aharon has a very specific message to convey. He personally brings the first few plagues, often alongside Moshe, and the language there makes clear the purpose of those plagues. Aharon brings plagues in order to punish the Egyptians[10]. They enslaved and mistreated ‘א’s nation and their retribution is to come through Aharon’s hand. Thus any plague brought or wonder performed by Aharon has a much greater emphasis on the effect it has on the Egyptians than when Moshe brings a plague (As mentioned above, Moshe brings plagues for an entirely different purpose: teaching Bnei Yisrael about ‘א. Moshe performs plagues in order to show Bnei Yisrael who they are being redeemed by.) However, there is not a word in the whole section about Aharon performing a wonder or causing a plague by his own power or volition.

This idea, of the contrast between Prophet and Priest, is highlighted by a very similar story found in Sefer Shmuel I[11]. In Shmuel I 5 ‘א brings plagues on the Plishtim for having stolen the Aron and where Paroah consults his “magicians” the Plishtim consult their “priests and diviners” (Samuel I 6:2). Aharon, standing next to Moshe as the magicians stand beside Paroah, stands in clear contrast to this idea of “priests and diviners.” The Jewish Priest has a very specific function in context of the Mishkan/Mikdash and not beyond. The role of miracle-worker is reserved[12] for the messenger of ‘א.

The divine “conflict” between ‘א and the “gods of Egypt” serves to display ‘א’s uncontested authority in the world. Moshe’s face-off with Paroah shows how all leaders, no matter how great, are always human, and therefore are all subordinate to ‘א and His grace. Aharon’s position against the magicians rejects completely the concept of magic and wonders performed outside of the Divine Will, regardless of their accord with it, for nothing is outside the Divine Will.

All of these concepts are manifestations of a larger, infinitely simple idea: ‘א is Primary[13]. Pagan conceptions of their deities always give them secondary places in reality. The deity is always born of some other creature, or made of some primordial-stuff. The existence of reality before and beyond divinity makes its power necessarily limited. The nature of divinity as created puts it in the same category as other creations, such as man, and allows for the possibility of divine, or semi-divine, kings, and for apotheosis. The idea that divinity is created means that its power must come from somewhere rather than being inherent in it, and this is the power that it uses for its works, but this power can also be used by others for the aid or detriment of divinity. Yitziat Mitzraim rejects all of these conceptions. ‘א is Primary. He has no origin and there is nothing that He did not create. All is subject to His Will and there is no power beyond it. The God is Israel is the God of All Existence and there is none beside Him.

 

Here is a helpful chart from Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus on the breakdown of the Plagues:

Plague - Breakdown

[1] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

[2] This is why the story of the Plagues starts with the Parshiyah of Shemot 6:2-8, a sudden recap of ‘א’s relationship to the avot and the nation.  The chiastic structure of this section is clearly highlighting the idea of ‘א’s special relationship to Bnei Yisrael and ‘א as the only god, and those concepts point directly to this idea.

[3] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, (Harper, 1969) Vol.1, p.168

[4] All translations are from www.mechon-mamre.org

[5] R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[6] Rashi Ad Loc., Shemot Rabbah 9:7

[7] Hizkuni on story of Yehuda and Tamar; Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vayeshev

[8] Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vaera

[9] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 85

[10]  R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[11] R’ Amnon Bazak, Parallels That Meet (Hebrew), Chap. 4

[12] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 82, 85

[13] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

Shemot 5774 – God of the Process

וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִם פִּיךָ וְעִם פִּיהוּ

Parashat Shemot famously records not only Moshe’s first meeting with ‘א, but also his first instance of disagreeing with ‘א(Shemot 3-4)[1]. Moshe is told to be ‘א’s messenger is Egypt and he resists continuously, coming up with not one but four different protests against going. The last reason that Moshe gives for why he would not be a fitting messenger for ‘א is that he is “slow of speech, and of a slow tongue[2]”(4:10). ‘א responds, “Who has made man’s mouth? or who makes a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? is it not I the LORD?” (4:11), and that therefore Moshe should go and ‘א will be “with his mouth” and teach him what to say (4:12). Moshe suggests that ‘א just send someone else (4:13). At that point ‘א says that his brother Aharon can speak fine and is coming to meet him, so Moshe will tell Aharon what to say and Aharon will “be a mouth” for him (4:14-16). Convinced, Moshe goes to ask speak with his Father-in-Law before beginning his journey to Egypt.

The whole discussion between Moshe and ‘א is odd, in that Moshe is continuously fighting against ‘א’s word, but most bizarre is the back-and-forth on this last issue. While Moshe’s excuse of his inability to talk might be a good one, it ought to be totally negated by ‘א’s response. ‘א tells Moshe that He is the one in charge of who can speak and who can’t. Thus Moshe ought to realize that  if ‘א want’s Moshe to be able to speak then Moshe will be able to speak. That should be more than enough, but ‘א adds that he “will be with Moshe’s mouth” and “teach him what to say”. Instead of encouraging Moshe, Moshe understands from ‘א saying that He will “teach him what to say” that ‘א will not be fixing his speech issue (Ibn Ezra ad loc.). So Moshe tells ‘א that he should just send someone else, and ‘א becomes angry, responding that Aharon can speak and will therefore be the one to do the speaking. Moshe’s apparent confusion is understandable; If ‘א is not going to enable moshe to speak, then what is He saying in verse 11? The answer lies in the peculiar statement in the first half of verse 12, “I will be with your mouth.”

A simple reading would seem to indicate that “I will be with your mouth” is an extension of the idea from the preceding verse about how ‘א is in control of who can speak and who cannot, and that ‘א will enable Moshe to speak. But beyond the difficulty raised by the phrase “I will teach you what to say”, this is impossible in light of the second half of verse 15 (which essentially restates verse 12 but in reference to both Moshe and Aharon) “and I will be with your mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what you should do.” For ‘א to be with Moshe’s mouth cannot mean to enable him to speak if ‘א will also be with the mouth of Aharon who can already speak. So what does it mean?

Even where His power is absent, His concern is present[3].‘א does not always intervene. Sometimes when we feel our hands our tied and we just need some help, there is no help. In verse 11, ‘א is not telling Moshe that he will miraculously enable him to speak, he’s saying that Moshe is meant to have this difficulty in speaking. “I will be with your mouth” is coming to say that this isn’t because ‘א has abandoned him; ‘א is with him in his travail.

Rabbi Akiva said: Bnei Yisrael told ‘א, “[When you redeemed us from Egypt,] You [also] redeemed yourself,” for wherever Bnei Yisrael go into Exile, ‘א’s presence goes with them[4]. ‘א is not silent when we suffer[5], rather he suffers with us[6] (or is with us in our suffering, if you would prefer). ‘א is not only “God of the Good Times,” He is also “God of the Bad Times.” ‘א is with us when we are weak and when we are strong (Shemot 4:15).

However, this on it’s own is not satisfying, and really just pushes the question when it comes to the text of Parashat Shemot. If 4:11-12 really is saying that ‘א is with Moshe in his inability to talk, then why is that even necessary? Why not just skip to “Aharon will speak for you”? That’s the real answer to Moshe’s question. The answer lies in the idea of the process.

Nothing meaningful happens in an instant; Everything is a process[7]. Even according to the opinion that the entirety of the Torah was given at Har Sinai, it still comes with an Oral Torah[8] that allows it to develop into the beautiful and relevant Rabbinic system that we have today. So too with the exodus from Egypt. ‘א tells Moshe outright that this is not going to occur in the blink of an eye (Shemot 4:21-23)[9]. And so too in all of our lives. Nothing worth having is handed to us on a silver platter, and nothing worthwhile happens in an instant. But that doesn’t mean we are left to struggle through on our own. ‘א is always there, with us and for us, and so we do not struggle alone.

[1] This actually becomes the focus of a fascinating parallel in the biblical text. Moshe’s mother places him in a “תבה” in order to save him and keep him safe amongst the reeds. The only other place this word appears is by Noah, who also is kept safe on the water in a “תבה”. Though this occurs much later, Moshe is told, like Noah, that ‘א  plans to start over and that he will be the lone survivor. This is where the comparison becomes a contrast: Noah does nothing to save the people that ‘א has sentenced to destruction, whereas Moshe argues with ‘א and in the end is successful in saving the people.

This difference between someone who is a tzaddik, who “walks with ‘א”, and is worthy of being saved from the Flood to restart the world and someone who is right for the creation of  the Nation of ‘א is quite unexpected. Noah follows ‘א’s command to the letter, while Moshe argues with him. But that is exactly the point. Living in this world doesn’t mean just clinging to ‘א, it also means taking the values and wisdom that ‘א has given us to try and live by His word in this world. And sometimes that means fighting against a simple, black-and-white, interpretation of His Word.

[2] Translations from mechon-mamre.org, with minor changes. Any significant changes will be noted.

[3] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, (Harper, 1969) Vol.1, p.168

[4] מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יד

[5] However, see מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח – מסכתא דשירה פרשה ח

[6] Shemot Rabbah 2:5

[7] אורות הקודש חלק ב, התעלות העולם

[8] However, See Sanhedrin 99a, “תניא אידך”

[9] The contrast between 4:1-9, particularly 4:8, and 4:30-31 would seem to suggest that Moshe does not really get this message, and this leads directly into his complaining to ‘א in 5:22-23 (R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petikhah, Parashat Shemot [Heb])

Parashat Vayehi – Looking Back and Looking Forward

וַיִּקְרָא לִבְנוֹ לְיוֹסֵף

Parashat Vayehi closes not only the sagas of Yaakov and Yosef, respectively, but also all of ever Bereishit. As part of the ending of Yaakov’s story, Yaakov bless his sons and asks to be buried in the burial plot of his fathers, the Cave of Makhpelah. However, none of this happens simply. First, Yaakov, realizing his death is approaching, calls his son Yosef to him and commands Yosef to make sure that he is buried with his fathers (Bereishit 47:28-31). A short time later, Yosef hears that Yaakov has become ill and brings his sons, Menashe and Efraim, to visit their grandfather, who blesses them (48:1-22). Yaakov then calls the rest of his sons to gather around his deathbed so he can “tell them about what will occur to them in the future,” which comprises a mix of prophecies and blessings or curses that are consequences for the deeds of his sons up to this point (49:1-28).  Then Yaakov commands his sons to bury him to bury him in the Cave of Makhpelah (49:29-33), following which he passes away and is buried in a large funeral procession (50:1-13). Throughout all of this there is a marked emphasis on Yosef over his brothers. Yosef is commanded twice to bury his father in Canaan, once among his brothers and once alone. Yosef is blessed twice, once when his sons are blessed privately, and once among the blessings of Yaakov to all of his sons, where Yosef receives a lengthy and grand blessing. And then Yosef is the one who organizes and executes the burial of Yaakov[1]. This sudden focus on Yosef, over his brothers, can be explained by looking not only at Yosef’s stories, but also at those of Yaakov, and seeing the while Yaakov’s story is closing, Yaakov wants to open the story of his descendants in manner he never could.

Throughout his life, Yaakov is drawn to the status quo[2]. If he doesn’t have to change his way of life, he doesn’t, even when he should. In a time when he should have gone to take a wife from Aram Naharaiim, he instead remained in the house of his father until both the threat of his brother and the command of his parents. When he lived in the house of Lavan, he should have left after building his family, but instead he delayed until Lavan’s disfavor and ‘א’s command sent him back to Canaan. Then he stayed by Shekhem until he needed to flee after the actions of Shimon and Levi, when he should have gone straight to Beit El to fulfill his vow to ‘א. The story of Yaakov’s life is a story of him being forced out of his comfort zone to go wherever he is supposed to go.

Yosef’s story is the exact opposite. He was forced out of his home and sold down to Egypt, but from then on in he is the driving force behind not only his life but that his family and of the entire nation of Egypt. He not only interprets the dreams which lead to him being freed from prison[3], but he of his own volition recommends to Paroah a plan of action that will save Egypt and the surrounding lands from the famine. Then he manipulates his brothers in a complex plan that leads to the reuniting of his family and their descent to Egypt, where they will be safe from the famine. Yosef’s story is not about being kicked around from place to place, but about building a grand destiny.

When Yaakov puts extra emphasis on Yosef at the end of Sefer Bereishit it is a way of designating Yosef as the next leader of the nation of Israel[4]. He’s not being chosen while his brothers are rejected, as happened in previous generations of ‘א’s covenant. In keeping with his proactive approach, he is being put in charge of practical management of the family. Thus he is given the extra portion and blessing of the first-born, and he is given an extra instruction regarding his father’s burial, making him responsible even in the event that his brothers fail. He also passes on the familial-covenantal destiny, reminding his family that they will one day be redeemed from Egypt, and asking them to take his bones with them, a promise that will not be completed until the very end of Sefer Yehoshua  (24:32). Thus while Yaakov’s death closes the story of Sefer Bereishit, Yosef’s death opens the story of the rest of the Torah, and beyond.

Yosef’s leadership is the last stage of ‘א’s covenant before it switches from an individual and his family to the nation as a whole, and it is very much a transitional stage. This stage is all about being forward thinking, about not getting stuck in the past. And thus Yosef gives a final command to his family, to the Nation of Israel, to keep moving forward. The Torah charges us to remember that the present is not the end, that there is a prophetic future that we are heading towards. And thus the Torah charges us not to be ok with the status quo, not to accept the things “small immoralities[5]” and the “minor imperfections” of our society. As long as the future is coming toward us, we have an obligation to race toward it, to make ourselves and our surroundings the best we can possibly be.

[1] Much of this would seem to be a function of the fact that Yosef is in some ways the new “firstborn” of Yaakov’s family. After Reuven sinned with Bilhah, the birthright would go to the next in line, Shimon. Shimon lost the birthright when he attacked Shekhem, as did Levi, the next in line. Yehuda goes back and forth between good and bad actions, which is why he receives the Kingship, but is not the “firstborn”. As for why Levi receives the priesthood while Shimon receives nothing, it is unclear but there are a few things to say. The first, most famous, point is that the Tribe of Levi stands up and declares themselves to be dedicated to ‘א in Shemot 32, and this might make all the difference. However, as the heroes of the first half of Sefer Shemot are from the tribe of Levi, it is worth noting that Shimon commits a cardinal sin offscreen (I am indebted for this point to R’ Pesach Sommer). In the list of Yaakov’s descendants in Bereishit 47, we are told that one of Shimon’s children is the son of a Canaanite woman (Bereishit 46:10), and throughout the stories of the Patriarchs it is clear that marrying a Canaanite woman is frowned upon, to say the least (Bereishit 24, 26:34-35, 27:46-28:9).

[2] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[3] Notably, many people are familiar with the midrash that Rashi brings suggesting that Yosef is forgotten for two years by the Head Wine-Bearer as punishment for depending on the wine-bearer instead of trusting in ‘א. However, Ramban actually praises Yosef for this, and sees many of Yosef’s actions as being about the actualization of his dreams.

[4] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Yonatan Grossman.

[5] For a discussion of the prophetic idea that there is no such thing as a “small immorality,” see A. J. Heschel, the Prophets, Vol. 1, “What manner of man is the Prophet?”

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”.

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.

Parashat Vayetse – Bavel and Bet-El

וְהָיָה יְ׳הוָה לִי לֵא׳לֹהִים

Parashat Vayetse begins in earnest the section of Sefer Bereishit dedicated to the narratives of the patriarch Yaakov. The first event of the parashah is the revelatory dream Yaakov experiences while fleeing from his brother Esav to find a wife amongst his mother’s family in Haran. What is fascinating about this is that while it is his father Yitzhak who is thought of as following in Avraham’s footsteps, in this story, and throughout the rest of his narratives, Yaakov seems to be almost a new version of Avraham[1], receiving both the same berakhah and traveling the exact same path, in contrast to Yitzhak. The blessing Yaakov receives in the dream includes the phrase “and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Bereishit 28:14), which is exactly the same phrase that appears in Avraham’s first blessing from (א’ (12:3. In contrast, when Yitzhak is blessed by ‘א he is only told, “All the nations of the world will bless themselves by your descendants” (26:5). Both Yaakov and Avraham are told that they will possess the land in all four points of the compass rose (28:14 and 13:14-15). Similarly, while Yitzhak never leaves the land of Canaan, Avraham and Yaakov both travel from Haran to Shekhem, to Bet-El, to Hevron, and they both build altars in Shekhem and Bet-El. Why are these two patriarchs so similar? And, more importantly, what is unique about Yaakov? What does he bring to the table? The answer to this question lies in the meaning of the revelatory dream, and the ramifications it bears for Yaakov’s relationship to ‘א.

Yaakov arrives at Bet-El as the sun sets and so he lays down to sleep, and he dreams (28:11-15). In this dream he sees a sulam, generally translated[2] as “ladder,” standing on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens. ‘א stands atop the sulam as “messengers of God,” generally understood as angels, go up and down it, and blesses Yaakov that he will have innumerable descendants, the land of Canaan, and that he and his descendants will be a source of blessing to the nations of the world. ‘א also promises to be with Yaakov and protect him. While the blessing and the promise are quite clear, the vision of the sulam at the beginning of the dream is an enigma that midrashim and commentaries have been trying to solve since then.

Perhaps most famous is the midrashic comment[3] stating that the angels ascending the sulam were the angels that protected Yaakov within the land of Canaan and the angels descending the sulam were the angels that will protect Yaakov outside the land of Canaan. This explanation has the advantage of being part and parcel of the message delivered in the second half of the dream. There is another midrash[4] that says that the “messengers of God” were Moshe and Aharon, and that the sulam was really Har Sinai. This midrash is based on literary parallels. The nature of the ladder as “rooted  on the earth” and “reaching to the heavens” is paralleled in Shemot 19:17 and Devarim 4:11, while the movements of the “messengers” are paralleled in Shemot 19:3, 14, 18, and 20. The midrash and the Baal HaTurim also both point out that the numerical values of “סלם” and “סיני” are equivalent. Yet another midrash[5] sees the sulam as representative of the historical stage and the “messengers of God” rising and falling upon it as the kingdoms that would dominate and then crumble throughout history, specifically the four nations that would rule over the people of Israel before the redemption. This midrash has the advantage of explaining the historical relevance, both of this passage in the Torah and of the ancestral promise that Yaakov was now inheriting, to Yaakov’s descendants (Bereishit 28:13-14). These are only a few of the approaches to explaining the vision of the sulam and they all have their strengths and weaknesses, but none of them explain the connection to Avraham. To understand that we have to look at the connection between the sulam and the Tower of Bavel.

The Tower of Bavel and the sulam of Yaakov are incredibly similar in many ways. The two stories are unique in Tanakh in describing structures whose tops reach to heaven[6]. Both structures are intended to bridge the gap between Heaven and Earth. Both stories involve the naming of a place based on a godly event (11:9 and 28:19). The Aramaic name for the city of Bavel, ‘babili,’ means the Gate of the Gods, and Yaakov refers to Bet-El as the Gate of Heaven (28:17). Both stories depict ‘א coming to man, either as a revelatory or destructive force. Both stories are also connected by virtue of contrasts between them as well. The story of Yaakov at Bet-El is pervaded with mentions of the stones there, which Yaakov sleeps on (28:11) and from which he makes a monument there (28:18). The Tower of Bavel was made from bricks that the people baked, as the ground in the part of Mesopotamia is mostly clay without rocks to build with. Yaakov’s dream depicts the messengers of God traveling up and down the sulam, the only movement depicted in the Tower narrative is that of ‘א descending to the city. The story also begins with the people traveling from east to west, to the valley of Shiner (11:1), while Yaakov leaves Bet-El and heads to the East (29:1). There is a clear connection between these stories, as well as a great tension, and investigating the entirety of its meaning is beyond the scope of this composition. However, it is worth noting that many have suggested, based on this connection, that the sulam was not a ladder but a staircase or a ramp of the type that people used to climb a ziggurat like the Tower of Bavel, which also explains why Yaakov is standing up stones as monuments; he’s trying to recreate his dream[7].

Assuming that the dream of the sulam is meant to in some way represent or mimic the Tower of Bavel leads to a very interesting observation. Avraham’s story starts immediately after the Tower of Bavel and is in some ways is a reaction to it. While Yaakov’s story in some ways begins before the dream while still in his parents house, he alone becomes the focus starting with the dream of the sulam[8]. Certainly, the dream of the sulam and the promise and blessing from ‘א therein set up and drive the conflicts of the rest of Yaakov’s narrative[9]. Thus, both Avraham and Yaakov begin their stories after the Tower/sulam. However, they follow after this in opposite manners. Avraham was a reaction against the Tower of Bavel. Where the people of Bavel had forced everyone to work together for a joint idolatrous purpose, Avraham was a single person serving a divine goal that would ultimately benefit all of the individuals (Bereishit 12:1-3). Instead of rejecting the sulam, Yaakov’s story is about affirming it[10]. His job is to embrace a life of relationship with ‘א, not to reject an idolatrous and self-serving life. Yaakov’s life is an affirmation of something good, not a negation of something bad.

We all choose to dedicate our lives to different things, whether it is family, religion, social activism, or one of a hundred other things. However, there are different ways we can approach these things. We can dedicate ourselves to them as a way of avoiding or negating something else, or we can dedicate ourselves to them because of what they are. We can embrace them because everything else is false or bad, or we can embrace them because they possess a deep truth and goodness. Choosing something because of what it is, rather than what it is not, often leads to a much fuller relationship with it, as your energy is invested entirely in the thing itself, not in pushing away other things. This is what Yaakov brings to the stories of the Patriarchs. Instead of Avraham who had the job of creating something new, and Yitzhak who continued and strengthened Abraham’s project, Yaakov represents embracing ‘א and His Covenant because of what it is and not what it is not. And this is what is incumbent upon us to do, to choose who we are and who we want to be, what we want to stand for, and to embrace it because of what it is, not because of what it is not.

[1] For more on the connection between Avraham and Yaakov, see this essay by R’ Yonatan Grossman.

[2] In regard to an alternative possible translation, see below.

[3] Notably found in the commentaries of Rashi and Ramban ad loc.

[4] See Ibn Ezra and Radak ad loc. and Bereishit Rabbah 68:12, 16.

[5] Pirkei D’ Rebbe Eliezer 35, brought in Ramban and Rabbeinu Behaye ad loc. Similar midrashim are found in the Midrash Tanhuma and Pirkei D’Rav Kahanah. Also see Seforno ad loc.

[6] For more on the connection between these two stories, see this essay by R’ Amnon Bazak.

[7] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Dr. Joshua Berman.

[8] Notably, the verses immediately before the dream largely deal not with Yaakov but with Esav (28:8-10).

[9] For and in-depth treatment of this, see chapter 3 of John Anderson’s “Jacob and the Divine Trickster”.

[10] This actually helps understand the odd vow that Yaakov makes after the dream. Yaakov seems to be saying that if ‘א keeps the promise made in the dream, then Yaakov will keep his end of the vow. It would be odd that he is questioning ‘א’s fidelity to His Word, except that this is likely Yaakov’s first experience of prophecy and it came in a dream. Thus he has no way of knowing if it was merely a dream or something more, and his struggle thereafter is to affirm it.

Parashat Toledot – Rivkah’s Oracle and Interpretive Responsibility

וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

Parashat Toledot opens with the story of the childless Rivkah and Yitzhak praying for a child, and then conceiving. Rivkah experiences a tumultuous feeling within her body, and so she goes to inquire of ‘א (Bereishit 25:22). She receives a detailed prophetic response depicting the future of her progeny. “There are two nations in your belly; Two peoples will depart separate from your womb. One people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger” (25:23). This seems like a clear and straightforward statement. Rivkah has twins in her womb, each of which will grow to be a great nation, and the older one will serve the younger. However, if Rivkah is presented with this clear message, then understanding the rest of Rivkah’s story (25:19-34; 26:34-28:9) presents us with numerous difficulties, not the least of which is the question of why Rivkah did not simply tell Yitzhak that Esav was destined to be in charge. However, if the oracle is understood as somewhat more ambiguous, then we can learn not only the story, but also about the way we relate to the Word of ‘א.

The first textual difficulty we are presented with is found in 25:24, “And the days of her term were full; and behold, there were twins in her belly.” The second half of this verse repeats information that we have already received not once, but twice before. Not only did it appear in the oracle in the previous verse, but the verse before that specifically references that she has more than one son within her. Thus this verse presents a redundancy that must be explained. Rav Dovid Kimchi (רד״ק) explains that this verse ought to be understood as “And behold, the twins were born.” This understanding is problematic however, as the verse explicitly mentions that the twins were in her womb, something that Radak’s understanding leaves out. Rav Shemuel Ben Meir (רשב״ם) and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch understand the verse to be speaking from purely Sarah’s perspective, indicating that she was surprised by this fact. This explanation runs into the problem that Sarah already heard in the prophecy of verse 23 that there are two nations in her womb, and therefore there would be no reason for her to be surprised. However, the answer of R’ Hirsch and Rashbam makes a lot more sense if we simply assume that the prophecy is unclear. When Rivkah goes to inquire of ‘א, this is following the Torah mentioning that she is pregnant with multiple children in verse 22. However, the narrative voice of the Torah speaks from an omniscient, divine perspective, wherein it is already known that Rivkah gives birth to twins in just a few verses[1]. We, as readers, are therefore privileged to also know this, but Rivkah is not. Thus when we read the prophecy in verse 23 that says, “There are two nations in your womb,” we think, “Oh, so each of the children mentioned in verse 22 becomes a nation.” Rivkah, however, has no prior knowledge that she is pregnant with more than one child, and thus she might simply understand the prophecy as, “my child, and his descendants after him, will develop into two nations.” She also might consider both possibilities. But only when the children are born in verse 25, does she discover that the oracle really had been referring to twins currently within her womb.

The second, and perhaps more critical, textual difficulty this approach solves is the question of why Rivkah did not tell Yitzhak about the prophecy. Even if one wanted to argue that this would not have changed his mind about loving Esav, doesn’t he deserve to know that one of his sons has received the divine imprimatur, that ‘א has decreed one to be superior. Moreover, while verse 28 makes it clear exactly why it is Yitzhak loves Esav, a reason is never given for why Rivkah loves Yaakov. It is certainly possible, as Rashbam suggests[2], that the reason she loved him was because he was favored by ‘א (this would imply a certain moral superiority that Rivkah may have favored)[3]. Certainly her actions in chapter 27, where she instructs, encourages, and enables her son Yaakov to deceive his father and steal his older brother’s blessing, would seem to be an attempt to bring to fruition the final line of the oracle, “And the elder shall serve the younger.” However, this all once again assumes a privileged reading of the text, where we know that in the end Yaakov received the blessing of the firstborn, and thus we assume that the phrase “וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר” really must be understood as “and the elder will serve the younger.”[4] However, the syntax here is ambiguous. It could just as easily mean “and the elder will enslave the younger.”[5] Depending on how you interpret the word “וְרַב,” it could even mean that the younger will do an incredible amount of labor[6]. Thus Rivkah did not necessarily receive a clear message about which child was favored by ‘א, and she really had nothing concrete with which to approach Yitzhak. For all the text tells us she may have told Yitzhak, and the Torah simply didn’t feel it necessary to say so because no concrete course of action could be based off of the oracle.

This immediately raises the issue of why Rivkah preferred Yaakov to Esav (in contrast to Yitzhak), going so far as to plan and execute his stealing the blessing of the firstborn. As mentioned above, it is often assumed that this is due to the final verse of the prophecy indicating that Yaakov was favored by ‘א and was meant to receive the blessing, but as we have shown the prophecy says no such thing, and thus a new explanation must be found. Lacking any special prophetic insight, Rivkah remains the mother of Yaakov and Esav, and thus can be assumed to have a good understanding of their character[7]. The Torah itself does not tell us much about their character, but the Torah is generally very minimal in its exposition, using a minimum of text or a maximum of characterization. What it does tell us then, however minimal, will likely indicate what it was that Rivkah saw that caused her to favor Yaakov.

Towards the end of the story, Esav swears to kill Yaacov, and Rivkah knows this. However there is no indication of any murderous tendencies in the earlier parts of the story. Going back to the beginning, we are told two things each about Yaakov and Esav, besides for their physical state upon birth (25:25-26). We are told that, as they grew up, Esav knew how to hunt and was a farmer[8], while Yaakov was a wholesome man and a shepherd[9] (25:27). While seemingly minimal, this description actually tells us quite a bit. Firstly, the depiction of one brother as a farmer and one as a shepherd is very important. The dichotomy of the farmer and the shepherd is very common in Tanakh and, while the exact reason for this can be debated, it is very clear in the eyes of the Tanakh that being a farmer is something of a moral failure. Some good examples of this are Kayin and Hevel, where Kayin’s only apparent transgression before murdering his brother is being a farmer (4:2-5), or when Yaakov’s family descends to Egypt and must hide that they are shepherds in this new agricultural country (46:31-47:4). Thus the depiction of Esav is a clear indication of moral inferiority on his part. Since the second part of each brother’s description (“farmer” and “shepherd”) are a pair, it’s worth looking at the first part of each description with an eye to whether or not they are a pair as well. At first glance, this approach would not seem to bear fruit. While Esav is “a person who knows how to hunt,” Yaakov is “wholesome.” We don’t usually think of hunting and wholesomeness as necessarily opposed. However, as Ibn Ezra points out (ad loc.), there is something innately deceitful about hunting, as it involves tricking or forcing an animal into a position of weakness in order for you to kill it. Thus Esav’s knowing how to hunt should more likely be seen as a symbol for his deceitful nature, something that is absolutely opposed to being “wholesome.” As the first part of each description is then paired, this can help us understand why Rivkah loved Yaakov, as opposed to Esav. Verse 25:28 records that Yitzhak loved Esav because he gave Yitzhak meat that he had hunted[10], and that Rivkah loved Yaakov. This last phrase is conspicuously missing a reason like the one provided in the first half of the verse. However, as Yitzhak loved Esav because of the first half of his description, that he hunted, so too Rivkah loved Yaakov because of the first half of his description, because he was wholesome[11]. Thus Rivkah did not cause Yaakov to steal the birthright because the Word of ‘א told her that was proper, but because she understood that one of her sons was worthy and the other was not.

Rivkah was confronted with ‘א’s Word in the form of a prophecy regarding the destiny of her children. It comes to us in the form of the Torah. In terms of understanding the text itself, the Torah is not entirely clear. There are often many possible interpretations for a word, or a verse, or a passage. When we try and understand the relevance that the Torah possesses for us today, these difficulties are multiplied a hundredfold. Interpreting the prophecy she received was a dangerous game for Rivkah; it is perhaps more so for us. As both followers and interpreters of the Torah, how we interpret it bears great meaning for our lives and our practice. Moreover, we often share our interpretations, and to do so with a mistaken interpretation can be catastrophic. Possessing ‘א’s Word is an incredible gift; Interpreting it demands of us incredible responsibility. Rivkah did not simply interpret the prophecy as she saw fit, and we cannot bend the Torah to our needs. If Rivkah had thought the prophecy meant that Esav was meant to dominate Yaakov, she still could not have just acted upon that, as it would have been an immoral interpretation. So too, we cannot interpret the Torah in an immoral manner. We have a responsibility to read it with an eye towards the values of ‘א, Life, and Holiness.

[1] Ibn Ezra, ad loc.

[2] In his comment on verse 23.

[3] However, see Rashbam’s comment on verse 28.

[4] This reading also makes certain assumptions about the meaning of the phrase “will serve.” If we take it as referring to who will receive the blessing of their father, certainly not the literal meaning of the phrase, then it would obviously refer to Esav. If it refers to being submissive, then it might very well refer to Yaakov, who spends his last encounter with Esav referring to Esav as his master and to himself as Esav’s servant (Bereishit 33). If it refers to rulership and dominance, then one has to look beyond the scope of the Torah itself, out into the rest of Tanakh and beyond, and it could be referring to either brother (For more see the end of Radak’s comment on Bereishit 25:23).

[5] Radak 25:23.

[6] Hizkuni 25:23. This interpretation is perhaps odd in light of both the way that the word has been interpreted historically and the fact that the immediate context is speaking about both sons, not just one.However, it is worth pointing out that this explanation might actually make the most sense of all, in light of the lack of the hebrew vowel indicating the demonstrative adjective “the” (as in “the elder”) is suspiciously lacking in the phrase in question.

[7] One could argue against this by pointing out that Yitzhak, as their father, ought to be assumed to have the same amount of insight into their character as Rivkah, and yet he loved Esav. However, the Torah itself indicates that Yitzhak did not understand the morality, or lack thereof, his sons were exhibiting, in saying that Yitzhak had become blind (Bereishit 27:1). A similar expression is found in Sefer Shemuel 3:2, wherein the Kohen HaGadol, Eli, was unaware of the immoral actions that his sons had forced upon the populace. Blindness as a metaphor for a lack of understanding in terms of another action is also found in Shemot 23:8, where it is said that taking a bribe “blinds those who can see.” The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 68:5-7 specifically points to the food that Yitzhak took from Esav as if it were a bribe that he took, that blinded him to Esav’s shortcomings.

[8] For this understanding of the phrase “איש שדה,” see Ibn Ezra and Seforno’s comments ad loc.

[9] For this explanation of the phrase “ישב אהלים,” see Ibn Ezra, Seforno, Hizkuni, and Rashbam ad loc. Also see Bereishit 4:20.

[10] Latching on to the essentially deceitful nature of this characteristic, the midrash understands “כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו” not as “because that which Esav hunted was in Yitzhak’s mouth,” but as “for Esav hunted Yitzhak with his mouth,” meaning that Esav would speak before Yitzhak with respect, and thus deceived Yitzhak about his character (Tanhuma Toledot, 8).

[11] Rashbam 25:28.