#ParshaGram

Yovel (Jubilee) – A Call for Authenticity “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.” ~Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:10

If in the 7th year we give up control and step back from the world, in the 50th we return to it, not as masters but as people born out of it, as individuals born into certain physical and cultural context. In the Yovel (Jubilee) Year we embrace who we are, the culture and narrative we were born into, and are reborn into a fresh, new, world.

#parsha #yovel #jubilee #freedom #liberty #authenticity via Instagram http://ift.tt/1QhH9JY

Parashat Tzav 5774 – Holiness and Distinction

אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו

Parashat Tzav can be split neatly into two parts. Chapters 6 and 7 of Sefer Vayikra are essentially a restatement of the first five chapters, but from a different perspective and a different goal. Where 1-5 consists of instructions to Bnei Yisrael[1] about what korbanot they can bring with what animals, 6 & 7 are directed towards Aharon and his sons, instructing them regarding the procedures involved in the korbanot. Chapter 8 switches to the topic of the Inauguration of the Mishkan and its vessels and Aharon and his sons. These chapters demonstrate quite clearly why Sefer Vayikra is called “Torat Kohanim”, “Law of the Priests”. Chapter 8 is particularly important in terms of Vayikra as a whole, as the majority of laws in Vayikra relate directly to the Mishkan and the Kohanim, both of which are inaugurated in Chapter 8. However, the significance of this chapter runs much deeper than just the practical. This concept of the inauguration of the Kohanim, indeed of “inauguration” in general, is an idea that runs deep throughout Sefer Vayikra, as well as the Torah as a whole.

Separating from certain items or activities is one of the main themes of Sefer Vayikra[2]. Vayikra 11 deals extensively with the various animals that Bnei Yisrael may or may not consume. The end of this chapter, namely verses 44-47, explains why this is so:

44 For I the LoRD am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. 45 For I the LoRD am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. 46 These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, 47 for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.[3]

Here we not only have the word “distinguish” mentioned above, it also occurs in context of the word “sanctify”. This will become more important as other texts are examined. Vayikra 20 deals with the practices of the nations that previously lived in the Land of Israel, with the focus primarily on inappropriate sexual relations. The main body of this discussion is opened with a focus on holiness in verses 7 and 8: “7 You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I the LORD am your God. 8 You shall faithfully observe My laws: I the LoRD make you holy.” The discussion ends not only with a reminder of the importance of sanctification, but also that of distinguishing:

24 and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the LoRD am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. 25 So you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as unclean. 26 You shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

Once again Sanctification and Dividing show up as one, not only to show why certain animals are permitted and some are not, but also to give the explicit purpose for which Bnei Yisrael has been “set aside”: to be designated as ‘א’s. This combination of the sanctification and designation of Bnei Yisrael is parallel to the Inauguration and Sanctification of Aharon and his sons in Vayikra 8, which is marked by the refrain “וַיְקַדֵּשׁ”, denoting ‘א sanctifying Aharon and his sons,  their garments, and their place of work. Thus Bnei Yisrael’s relationship to their context, the Nations of the World, is parallel to the relationship of the Kohanim to their context, Bnei Yisrael.

This idea of designation goes far beyond the scope of Bnei Yisrael and its connection to sanctification. The idea that the world has purpose, is designated for something, is inextricably bound with the idea that the world was created, and thus it is not surprising to find a strong presence of the themes dividing and sanctification throughout the Creation narrative. Bereishit 1:3 says that ‘א “separated the light from the darkness.” In 1:6-7 א’ created the Rekiah to divide between the “upper” and “lower” waters. 1:14 & 18 detail the creation of the cosmos in order to divide between day and night. Beyond this, the theme pervades Creation in more subtle ways. Verses 9 and 10 depict the same process of distinguishing, this time in regards to the Land and the Water, without any use of those same terms. Additionally, another term is present throughout the story that carries this message. The phrase “לְמִינָהּ” is one that dominates the second half of the Creation story. More or less as soon as animals enter the picture, it becomes important to the Torah to mention that each worked according to its species and not otherwise. Thus the strict division of the species was created and maintained. Notably, Creation is capped off by a “וַיְקַדֵּשׁ” by Shabbat (2:3), as is the creation of the Mishkan in Vayikra 8.

Having taken a look at some of the appearances of this concept, we must re-examine what this “inauguration” means. To inaugurate a person or item means to bestow upon the person or item the status of a formal office or function. In doing so, one separates the inaugurated from whatever group they originally belonged to, designating them as different by virtue of their different purpose. This idea is portrayed in several different ways throughout the Torah. The verb “משח”, meaning to anoint or inaugurate, is used frequently. But just as frequently, as we have seen, the roots “קדש”, “sanctify”, and “בדל”, “divide” or “distinguish”, appear with nearly the same meaning, that of setting aside for a specific purpose[4]. The goal here then is not the separation and dividing itself, but rather the dedication toward a purpose that it achieves.

In Shemot 19:5-6 ‘א says, “5 Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, 6 but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.[5]’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” One could not ask for a more explicit statement of both designation and sanctification, let alone one where the priesthood is mentioned simultaneously. If it was not clear before this, it is obvious from that line that anything said on this topic applies equally to the Kohanim and to all of Bnei Yisrael. Thus it is unquestionably clear that being set aside for ‘א is not a matter of blessing so much as a burden[6]. In Parashat Tzav, that means that the Kohanim are not better than the rest of Bnei Yisrael, they just have a harder job. Similarly, being ‘א’s nation is not about privilege, about being better than the rest of the world, but rather it is about serving the rest of the world in its relationship with ‘א.

[1] It is notable that in most ancient cultures, Near-Eastern and otherwise, laws were generally not available to the public, let alone shared with them directly and intentionally. By contrast, Bnei Yisrael were greatly empowered with regards to their laws and rituals. For more information, see Exploring Exodus, by Nahum Sarna, and Jacob Milgrom’s commentary to Vayikra, part of the Yale Anchor Bible Series, Introduction.

[2] Robert Alter, as quoted in Rabbi Shai Held’s devar torah to Parashat Vayikra, available here: http://www.mechonhadar.org/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=9480e5b5-c804-4940-9d15-2d6595900432&groupId=11401&utm_source=CJLI+-+Vayikra+5774&utm_campaign=CJLI+Vayikra+5774&utm_medium=email

[3] Translations from The Jewish Study Bible.

[4] This is an understanding of קדושה compliant with both the understanding of Rashi and that of Ramban, as found in their comments to Vayikra 19:2.

[5] Jacob Milgrom, ibid.,  points out that the Mitzvah of tzitzit is thus exactly parallel to this verse from Shemot. Tzitzit’s stated purpose of remembering the Mitzvot will lead to being a Holy Nation, and The Royal/Priestly blue will remind Bnei Yisrael that they are a Kingdom of Priests.

[6] It’s worth noting that the Hebrew word generally used in contexts like these is “עול”, which means “yolk”, rather than  “משא”, meaning “burden”.

Parashat Terumah 5774 – Mount Sinai and the Miskhan: On the Actualization of Beliefs

וְאֶל הָאָרֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר אֶתֵּן אֵלֶיךָ

Parashat Terumah is the first of five parashot, forming the last section of Sefer Shemot, which discuss the building of the Mishkan and the episode of the Golden Calf. These parashot are the setting of a famous argument[1] between Rashi and Ramban regarding the timing of the Golden calf versus the command to build the Mishkan. Rashi, embracing the principle that the Torah prioritizes themes over chronology in terms of structure[2], says that the parashot of Terumah and Teztaveh belong after the episode of the Golden Calf, while Ramban consistently avoids use of this principle[3] and so says that the parashot are in their correct chronological order. This debate affects the placement of the command to build the mishkan, placing it either before or after the Golden Calf. Rashi says that it comes afterwards, as Rashi sees the Mishkan as an atonement for the Golden Calf, while Ramban says that it comes before. However, their debate does not change purpose of the Mishkan. Determining the purpose of the Mishkan requires explaining why this series of parashot, start to finish, occurs here. If the command to build the Mishkan occurred after the Golden Calf, then why was it moved to its current location, just after the Revelation at Sinai? And if it occurred in its current location, then why was the command given here, just after the Revelation at Sinai?

Ramban says that the purpose of the Mishkan is to be the site of continuous revelation. It is a portable Mount Sinai. This is obvious not only from the verse, “And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel”[4] (Shemot 25:22), but also from the various parallels between the Mishkan and Mount Sinai. ‘א descends on both of them in a cloud (Shemot 24:15-18 and 40:34-38). Each is divided into three sections; for the Mishkan it is the Hatzer, the Kodesh, and the Hodesh HaKedoshim; for Mount Sinai it was the foot of the mountain, the mountain itself, and the summit. Finally, the luchot are given on Mount Sinai, and from then on they rest in the Mishkan. Thus Ramban is undoubtedly correct, and while Rashi does not explain why he thinks the command to build the Mishkan was placed there, it is reasonable to assume that he would agree with Ramban on that point[5]. However, the idea that the Mishkan will serve as the site of continuous revelation is only mentioned after the creation of the Aron and the Kaporet, the specific location from which ‘א would then speak to Moshe, and so seems to be a function of the Aron/Kaporet rather than the Mishkan. Moreover, this all seems both a little complex and unnecessary for the purposes of revelation. Not only would all the prophets after they enter the land get prophecy outside the Mishkan/Mikdash, Moshe himself has already done so many times. While Revelation occurs in the Mishkan, it is not a function of the Mishkan, nor is it dependent on it. What, then, is the purpose of the Mishkan?

The answer to this question is actually rather obvious, but it hardly clear. In the very beginning of the commands and instructions regarding building the Mishkan ‘א says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Shemot 25:8). Thus it would seem the purpose of the Mishkan is in order to enable ‘א to dwell amongst Bnei Yisrael. But how does it do that? ‘א is everywhere, so what good does building a tent do? The answer lies in the details of the Mishkan, all of which enable the fulfillment of its purpose.

The primary thing that Judaism says about ‘א, one of the few things agreed upon by all branches of Judaism, is that ‘א is one.The Mishkan expresses that in many ways, starting with the beautifully unitary structure of the Mishkan, especially the exact cube shape of the Kodesh HaKedoshim. More importantly, the text itself goes out of its way to emphasize this. “That the tabernacle may be one whole”(Shemot 26:6). “And couple the tent together, that it may be one”(Shemot 26:11). These and numerous other verses attest to the fact that the Mishkan was meant to embody the idea of ‘א’s oneness.

Another strong theme in the Mishkan is that of a graduated approach to Kedushah. In addition to the three-tiered breakdown of the area of the Mishkan into the Hatzer, the Kodesh, and the Kodesh HaKedoshim, the material structure of the Mishkan itself creates this delineation. The only metal used outside the Kodesh is copper, which is also used for the sockets for the entrance to the Kodesh, and for the clasps of the upper cloth covering the Kodesh. The sockets for the walls of the Kodesh and the entrance to the Kodesh HaKedoshim are silver. The clasps for the lower cloth covering the Kodesh are gold, along with all of the vessels in Kodesh. However, only the Aron HaEdut, in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, is covered in gold both inside and out. Thus the three zones are clearly delineated. This delineation emphasizes another very important idea about ‘א: His Kingship. A king by definition cannot just be approached by any person at any time. Specific people can approach the King, but even them only at specific times. Only the Kohen Gadol could enter the Kodesh HaKedoshim, and then only on Yom Kippur. This recognition of the absolute majesty of ‘א is an incredibly important idea. In the early centuries of the Common Era this idea made Jewish Merkabah mysticism unique among the various mystical trends in the world, emphasizing not the wondrous spiritual worlds one could explore, but rather the difficult and elaborate process of approaching the King of All Kings[6]. This idea is central to the relationship of Man to ‘א, and it is built into the very physical structure of the Mishkan.

In opposition to these gradations is the relation of Bnei Yisrael to the Mishkan. It would be easy to read this gradation as a function of elitism on the part of the priests, reserving the close encounter with ‘א for themselves. However, the Mishkan in its function and its origin rejects this idea. When gathering the materials from which the Mishkan will be made, ‘א asks “of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering” (Shemot 25:2). The Mishkan is a product of the nation as a whole. In terms of function, not only is the Mishkan the place where all of Bnei Yisrael come to serve ‘א, even when Moshe would hear ‘א’s voice from the Kodesh HaKodeshim, one of the more exclusive occurrences in the Mishkan, the Torah specifically states that this was it would be for the sake of all Israel (Shemot 25:22). Not only does this mean that the graduated structure of the Mishkan was a matter of respect rather than elitism, it also demonstrates the importance of equality and connectivity in the Nation of Israel.

The entire Mishkan is built around the Aron. The concentric quadrilaterals get smaller and smaller, with the Aron being the final, inner-most, rectangle. This central position in any other temple would be occupied by the god of that temple, by the deity of the local people. In the Mishkan this position place is filled not by ‘א, but by His Word, and more specifically, by his Law. While ‘א’s voice would come to the Kaporet for Moshe to hear it, the main purpose of the Aron HaEdut was to hold the Luchot HaEdut, and thus these remained constantly at the heart of the Mishkan. When Moshe first writes out a complete Torah-scroll in Sefer Devarim it is put in the Aron (Devarim 31:26). The centrality of the Law here cannot be over emphasized. While the degree to which Judaism cares about the beliefs of individual Jews has been debated constantly throughout the centuries, the very fact that such a debate was possible tells you about how central the Law is. Only when the law take center stage can the necessity of beliefs be questioned. Few, however, have been the voices in the Jewish Tradition that argued for a total lack of inherent beliefs in Judaism, with perhaps the most famous being Moses Mendelssohn. The reason that the centrality of the Law never eradicated the Torah’s inherent beliefs is that the Law functions on a large scale the same way as all the minutia of the Mishkan. The same way the very fixings of the Mishkan all express greater ideas and beliefs, so too all of the details of the Law. ‘א’s Law is about living ideas in everyday life.

Judaism doesn’t care about beliefs in the abstract. If the Torah wanted simply to convey certain ideas, it could have written them down in a book and done away with the rules and the narratives. But a book of ideas cannot tell you about what it means to live in context of ‘א. Only the stories of those who lived in relation to him can do that. Only ‘א’s Law enables you to live ‘א and His values into your life. And perhaps this, more than anything, explains the reason the command for the Mishkan was given right after the Revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, Bnei Yisrael experienced this supremely powerful event. They experienced something that wasn’t just once-in-a-lifetime, it was once-in-history. The question that has to be asked after such an event is how do you keep it relevant? How do you turn that peak experience into a living reality every day of your life? You have to have a framework of actions that are based off of and express that experience. The Mishkan not only serves that purpose in terms of expressing individual ideas, it also expresses that most basic idea that underwrites all of Judaism from that moment on: ‘א dwells in the life of Man.

[1] For more on this debate, see R’ Menachem Leibtag’s thorough shiur on it here.

[2] In Hebrew: אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה

[3] He is unable to avoid it entirely, as Bamidbar 1 and Bamidbar 9 occur in the second and first months of the second year in the desert respectively. Rather he simply minimizes it as much as possible.

[4] Translations from mechon-mamre.org

[5] Menachem Leibtag, ibid.

[6] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Ch. 1

Parashat Mishpatim 5774 – Breaking Down the Moral/Ritual Divide

וְאַנְשֵׁי קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי

Parashat Mishpatim is the first legal compilation in the Torah. Previously Bnei Yisrael received single commandments here and there, but never before did they receive such a large body of laws all at once. Not only that, but all the commandments that Bnei Yisrael received prior to Parashat Mishpatim are just that, commandments. They aren’t laws. Parashat Mishpatim is the beginning of the Torah’s legal system. Important as that idea is, it brings up a lot of questions, which quickly become obvious upon examination of the various sections of the text.[1]

The first section of the parasha, spanning from Shemot 21:1 through 22:16 (henceforth I), discusses interpersonal laws. There is a considerable range of topics, including slavery, property damage, and assault, to name a few. The unifying factor of all of these Laws is their If-Then formula. If X, Then Y. “If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.”[2] (Shemot 21:2) “And if a man smite his bondman, or his bondwoman, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall surely be punished.” (21:20). This is a classic form of legal codification, case law. It’s meant to be used by courts to decide cases and mete out punishments. It’s very practical.

The second section is at once very similar and quite different. 22:17-19 (henceforth II) still discusses laws are applied by a court system, so they’re still practical laws. They are not, however, case law. “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live. Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death. He that sacrificeth unto the gods, save unto the LORD only, shall be utterly destroyed.” (22:17-19) Notice the lack of the aforementioned If’-Then formula. In it’s place we find very basic statements involving misdeeds and their consequences. These are imperatives, and thus slightly less practical, though still applicable by a human court.

The next section goes from 22:20 through 23:9 (henceforth III), and though it breaks down into smaller subsections, it’s nature as a unified literary unit is confirmed by the parallel between 22:20, “And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” and 23:9, “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This section includes many vary diverse categories of laws. Verses 22:20-26 (henceforth IIIa) deal specifically with the proper treatment of the poor and needy. The Torah makes it clear that not only should these people not be oppressed, we must go out of our way to take care of them (22:25-26). 22:27-30 (henceforth IIIb) is the next sub-unit, and represents a shift from the previous parts of the parashah. As opposed to the very socially-oriented nature of the laws in I, II, and IIIa, these four verses deal with four different obligations between Man and ‘א, such as the sanctity of the first-born (22:28-29) and a dietary proscription (22:30). 23:1-9 (henceforth IIIc )forms the last sub-unit, dealing with the importance of the maintaining justice and honesty within the context of the legal system. So extreme is this need for righteousness in the judicial system that judges are warned against bending the law in favor of the poor and needy, who in all other parts of the law seem to get extra-special treatment. While this is a step back towards the social orientation seen previously, it also discusses the laws of the legal system itself, very different from the other social laws. Taken as a whole, III continues the new trend of legal imperatives rather than case law. However, whereas the laws of II are enforceable by a court, the laws of III are not. Most of these laws would rather be enforced by ‘א, something suggested by “If thou afflict them in any wise–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.” (22:22-23) and “it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto Me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.” (22:26). In this manner III completely departs from the preceding sections.

The final legal pericope goes from 23:10 through 23:19 (henceforth IV). As opposed to even the mixed composition of III, IV is totally composed on laws relating to Man’s obligations to ‘א. Specifically, it deals with the command for both the Sabbath (23:12) and the Sabbatical year (23:10-11), it discusses the three main holidays of the Jewish calendar (23:14-17), and a few other ritual laws besides. Gone are the case laws, the If-Then formula has disappeared without a trace. These are not practical laws, laid down for the use of the courts, rather these are societal imperatives. IV and I are so different that one would never assume that they go together if seen out of context. So why are they put together? What is the unifying theme or purpose of this whole code?

These laws are capped by ‘א enumerating the manner in which He will guide Bnei Yisrael to the Land of Israel and help them conquer it, as well as the religious commands and prohibition this will entail (23:20-33). Then, in 24:3-4, Moshe tell all the people these laws whereupon they accept the laws upon themselves and Moshe writes the laws in the “Book of the Covenant” (24:7). This is followed by a celebratory ceremony wherein the people famously accept this covenant upon themselves by saying, “All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and obey”(ibid.). These two themes, ‘א guiding the people and the Covenant between them, recall a moment from before the Revelation at Sinai. In Shemot 19:3-8 ‘א tells the people that He took them out of egypt and will continue to guide them (19:5) and that if they keep his covenant then they will be his special people (19:5-6). The people of course say yes (19:8). This event is the beginning of the creation of the Covenant that is sealed in the ceremony of 24:4-11, and all the laws mentioned in between are an explication of the verse, “if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant,” (19:5).

Thus the unifying element in I, II, III, and IV is that they are the stipulations of ‘א covenant with his people. This the basic framework of the laws that make Bnei Yisrael ‘א’s nation. Essentially, these laws determine the character of ‘א’s nation. That much is obvious. But what is this character? As noted above the individual sections of this law code differ greatly, and so that is less obvious. However, a closer analysis of the varying sections reveals some very important ideals, not just in how they are similar, but also in how they are different.

Beyond the textual breakdown, these laws can be broken down in a few other ways, using the characteristics mentioned above. The first is in terms of who metes out consequences. The consequences of I and II are enacted by human courts, while III and IV are punishable only by ‘א. Thus responsibility in the nation of ‘א is both vertical and responsible. The people all stand together at the bottom of the mountain and ‘א descends upon it. The second way of dividing it up is in terms of case law and imperatives. Of all the sections, only I  is composed of case laws. II, III, and IV are all imperatives. The difference between a case law and an imperative is that while the case law is meant to be practically applied, that is simply not possible by an imperative. Instead, imperatives are meant to be personally motivated, and tell us something about what the values of a society are supposed to be. Thus a quick examination of the imperatives in II, III, and IV is in order.

The first obvious break down that must be noted is that both Ritual and Societal-Ethical values are represented in the imperatives. Specifically, II, IIIb, and IV all deal with rituals, while IIIa and IIIc deal with morals. However, this picture is somewhat superficial. A closer look ritual commands of IIIb and IV shows that while on the whole the commands found therein are rituals, many of the details given are more concerned with morals. 22:27 deals with how we relate to Leadership. 22:28-29 are about paying your dues and the dedication of our firstborns to ‘א. Verse 22:30 directly connects holiness with making sure that the meat we consume does not die a violent death. Thus part and parcel of the ritual commands of IIIb are more socially-oriented values, a trend continued in IV. 23:12 depicts the reason for desisting from labor on Shabbat as being for the rest and refreshment of your animals and slaves. 23:14-17 depicts the holidays as being not about individual celebration, but about all of the nation being directed towards ‘א together. The Sabbatical year is explicitly for the purpose of taking care of the poor (23:11). These seemingly ritually-oriented commandments all have moral values behind them as well.

Thus, much like the loci of responsibility, the values of ‘א’s nation are complex. Not only are these laws as a whole both moral and ritual in nature, the same can be said of individual laws. The moral and the ritual are two sides of the same coin. We are responsible to each other as much as we are responsible to ‘א. We not only have to be both religious and moral on a personal level, we also have to be both on a national level. And it’s not enough to do perform both moral and ritual acts, but we also have to aware of the ritual nature of our moral deeds and the moral character of our rituals.

[1] This devar torah is based heavily on Menachem Leibtag’s http://www.tanach.org and Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus.

[2] Translations from http://www.mechon-mamre.org

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 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.