Parashat Vayehi – Looking Back and Looking Forward

וַיִּקְרָא לִבְנוֹ לְיוֹסֵף

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parashat 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 Haye Sarah – A Stranger In A Strange Land

גֵּר-וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי

Parashat Haye Sarah tells the three stories that conclude Avraham’s section of Sefer Bereishit, consisting of his last two narratives and the story of his burial. The two final narratives of Avraham’s life, burying his wife and finding a wife for his son, would seem at first glance to be in tension. When buying a plot of land to bury Sarah, Avraham is very precise in following the local protocol and accepted norms of the Hittite community in the area, making his case to and before the public (Bereishit 23). Then, when he sends his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak, his instructions make it clear that he wants nothing to do with the locals, that a Canaanite woman would be completely unacceptable as a wife for Yitzhak. However, both stories are at the end of the day more complex than that, and both express a larger tension inherent in Avraham’s life, and throughout the history of Bnei Yisrael.

Bereishit 23 begins with Sarah’s death and ends with her burial. The verses in between are spent in a very detailed depiction of the process of Avraham buying a plot of land in which to bury Sarah. Avraham first goes to the Children of Het as a community and asks them to speak on his behalf. Only then does Avraham actually speak to Efron, and the whole thing takes place in the presence of the community. The whole thing strongly resembles ancient Near-Eastern contracts, down to the mention of the trees in verse 17[1]. The larger story reads very much like a story about Avraham joining the community. However, looking at the details of Avraham’s discussion with the Hittites gives a somewhat different impression. In verse four, Avraham asks the community if he can purchase “a burial plot” in which to bury Sarah, and they respond by offering him a grave, “from amongst the choicest of their graves.” In his response, Avraham asks the people to intercede with Efron on his behalf, and in doing so he again states that he is looking to purchase not a grave, but a burial plot. This repeated emphasis on buying a full piece of land in which to bury his wife, instead of just burying her among the dead of the Hittites, demonstrates a strong desire to remain separate and distinct. So while he is more than willing to follow the communal customs and protocols in buying the plot of land, the land purchase itself represents a certain degree of reluctance to actually join the community.

Bereishit 24 depicts the journey of Avraham’s servant to Haran to find a wife for Yitzhak. The servant’s journey is started by Avraham giving him detailed instructions, with the emphasis on the fact that the wife must not be from Canaan, going so far as to make him swear to this. “And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you shalt not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But you shalt go to my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzhak” (24:3-4). This would seem to betray a strong desire to remain separate and apart from the Canaanites. But for all that, it is even more important that Yitzhak not be taken out of the land of Canaan. Despite the apparently undesirable nature of the Canaanite society, Avraham wants to make sure that his descendants remain in the midst of it. They came from a different land to a place where the society runs according to norms they could never accept[2]. They are supposed to come to the society as strangers, and then dwell there, despite the fact that it is strange to them.

The idea of being a stranger in a strange land is a trend for the next few generations of Israelite leadership. Yaakov spends 22 years growing and developing his family in the house of Lavan. Yosef is sold into slavery in Egypt where he becomes a leader of the entire society. Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this is Moshe, who is raised in the Egyptian royal household, while  knowing that he is an Israelite (Shemot 2:8, 4:14), then he is exiled to Midian, where they identify him as an Egyptian (Shemot 2:19), and finally he returns to Egypt, to the house of Paroah, as the leader of soon-to-be liberated slaves. He is at all points in his life a stranger, as emphasized by the fact that he names his first son Gershom (גרשם), literally meaning “stranger there,” due to his having “been a stranger in a strange land” (Shemot 2:22). The only person whose sense of estrangement might be comparable is Rivkah. When she is taken from her family, from the land of her birth, she becomes a part of Avraham’s family, and must take up the family legacy of being part of a community they cannot fully accept. However, her estrangement starts much earlier. When the Torah introduces Rivkah, she is depicted as the very essence of altruistic dedication to the service of others. She spends hours filling up troughs full of water for the camels of a stranger who merely asked for a sip to drink (Bereishit 24:17-19). When he asks for a place to sleep, she offers him food for his camels as well (24:23-25). Her family, however, is only moved by the riches of the stranger (24:30-31), and seems to be totally self-serving, revealing that, growing up, Rivkah would have been a stranger in her own household. This would have made her perfect to marry Yitzhak, who was born in the Canaanite community, and thus would not possess the same degree of natural tension.

The question that then must be answered is, why is this tension important, or even at all desirable? The sensation of alienation Avraham and his family must have experienced living in Canaanite society must have been incredible, and not entirely pleasant. However, it has an important function. Avraham’s family was meant to be involved in the Canaanite society. Avraham helps fight a war (Bereishit 14) and he prays for the Sedom and the surrounding cities (Bereishit 18:16-33), despite their dubious moral character (Bereishit 13:13). Both Avraham and Yikzchak have repeated dealings with King Avimelekh of Gerar (Bereishit 20, 21:22-34). However, they are also a unique entity unto themselves, ‘א’s only covenantal partners in a land of people whose actions ‘א cannot tolerate (Bereishit 15:16). To remain unique is to be alienated. Losing this sense of alienation comes at the price of losing what makes one unique. This is all the more true in modern society, where we as jews are not in total opposition to society’s values. Much of modernity is incredibly valuable and important, and therefore it is that much harder to feel that we should be different, that we must remain separate. But if we as Jews do have something valuable to contribute to society, and we certainly do, letting go of that is a loss not just for us, but for society as a whole. While the pull of unity is great, it often comes at the price of the unique gifts of the individual, and in this it must be resisted. What we have to give is what makes us unique, and thus the way to stay unique is to truly believe in what we have to give. We must embrace what makes us different, not because we reject society, but because otherwise we would have cannot give to society. Embracing what makes us different not only makes us better, but betters society as well.

[1] Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis.

[2] The biblical picture of the Canaanites is one of absolute depravity, as per Bereishit 15:16, Vayikra 18:3, etc.

Parashat Vayehi – Divine Providence and Human Responsibility

הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי


Parashat Vayehi records the final moments of the lives of both Yaakov and Yosef. From Yosef’s very first appearance in the Torah, his life and Yaakov’s are intimately connected. His birth signifies to Yaakov that the time has come to leave Aram and the house of Laban (Beraishit 30:25). The beginning of Yosef’s narratives are explicitly part of Yaaakov’s story: “אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף”, “These are the generations of Yaakov; Yosef..[1]” (Beraishit 37:2). Beraishit Rabah (84:6) lists some twenty parallels between their lives, from being born to barren mothers and working as shepherds to living outside the Land of Israel and raising a family there, and that list isn’t even exhaustive. The two characters are so tightly interwoven that one can hardly appreciate one without understanding the other[2].

After Yaakov’s death, Yosef’s brothers come to him to convince him not to kill them (Beraishit 50:15-19). Certain that he only stayed his hand out of respect for their father, they tell Yosef that Yaakov commanded him not to kill them, and offer themselves as his slaves. Yosef responds to them, saying, “אל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי”, “Fear not; for am I in the place of God? ”. This phrase, “הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים” shows up exactly one other time in the entire Tanakh.

Rachel, unable to have children, came to Yaakov to say that he must give her a child or she will die (Beraishit 30:1). Yaakov’s anger flares against her and he says, “הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנֹכִי אֲשֶׁר מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי בָטֶן”, “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” (Beraishit 30:2). Thus this phrase spans the entirety of Yosef’s life, from before his birth until after his father’s death.

These two uses of the same phrase are similar on the surface, but they have vastly different implications. While both Yaakov and Yosef are saying that ‘א is in control, they have rather opposite intentions. Yosef finds himself in a position of total control over his brothers. He is the Royal Vizier of a country where his brothers are living as guests. Their father, out of respect for whom he kept secret their nigh-murderous actions (Beraishit 37), has died, leaving Yosef free to act with impunity. The time is ripe for his vengeance. Despite all of that, he tells them that he is not in place of ‘א. He is not simply stating that out of humility he will not take revenge, but rather he is making a point about the nature of history and the need for revenge. The brothers are concerned that because they did him wrong, Yosef will respond in kind (Beraishit 50:15, 17). Yosef tells them that they don’t need to fear him because he is not in place of ‘א, and that while they were planning to do evil, ‘א was planning good (Beraishit 50:19-20). Thus he will not be taking vengeance because there is no need; his brothers tried to do something bad, but ‘א’s plan meant that they actually did something good. Regardless of what he, and they, may have thought was best course of events, ‘א is the one who decides what that really is .Yosef sacrifices his sense of entitlement on the altar of ‘א’s control of history.

Yaakov’s situation is totally different. Rachel comes to him asking for him to give her a child, and he lashes out at her, saying that he is not ‘א that she should come to him for a child. Instead of giving up his sense of entitlement, Yaakov gives up his sense of responsibility. He actually says that ‘א is the one withholding children from Rachel (Beraishit 30:2). It’s not Yaakov’s fault, it’s ‘א’s. The Midrash in Beraishit Rabah (71:7) highlights this with a fascinating expansion of their conversation. The midrash depicts Rachel pointing to Yitzchak and Avraham and asking Yaakov why he didn’t act like they did when their wives couldn’t have children. Yaakov deflects the Yitzchak question by saying that he already has children whereas his father didn’t, which leads directly to Rachel mentioning Avraham to her eventually giving of her maidservant to Yaakov as a wife. However, bypassing the question by Yitzchak ignores the whole point of the comparison: Yitzchak tried to help his wife have children, by praying to ‘א on her behalf (Beraishit 25:21), and Yaakov didn’t. While no one would maintain that Yaakov is the one in charge of whether or not Rachel is able to have children, that’s not within his power, the midrash here draws out the point that Yaakov also doesn’t try anything that is within his power. Yaakov points to ‘א’s control because that way it’s not his fault, that way he doesn’t have to take responsibility.

The Tanakh doesn’t put anything outside of ‘א’s power. He created the world and He does miracles. But it just as clearly values human choice and initiative (Devarim 30:19). In no place does it bother to resolve this contradiction, as the Torah is more interested in the way Man lives a life of ‘א than in purposeless philosophizing[3]. That said, its opinion on such matters is still evident from analysis of the experiences it records. In this case, as the midrash indicates, the Tanakh’s opinion is more in line with Yosef than with Yaakov. Yosef locates ‘א’s Providence in the Past. Everything that has happened has been according to the Will of ‘א. Based on this, he makes his choices about the actions he will be taking in the Future. In contrast, Yaakov sees ‘א as being in complete control of the Future, and thus Yaakov’s actions are meaningless. Yaakov doesn’t try to attain a child for Rachel because that’s entirely up to ‘א. And while that isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s not how the Tanakh wants us to live. We are supposed to take responsibility for our actions. In a certain sense, we’re supposed to live as if there is only Divine Providence in the Past, as if ‘א has no stake in the future. The world we live in, all our natural abilities and everything that we have received, these are all things we should see as functions of Divine Providence. But what we do with these thing? That is up to us. We don’t get to say that ‘א will just take care of us, that we don’t have to do our part. The whole concept of the Torah and Mitzvoth being given to Man is based off the idea that ‘א wants us to take certain actions. Leaving it up to ‘א is not an option. “הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה” (Mishnah Avoth 3:15).

[1] Translations are from

[2] For an understanding of Yosef’s life as a consequence of Yaakov’s theft of the brakha from Esav, and subsequent activites, see Rav Amnon Bazak’s book מקבילות נפגישות, Chapter Sixteen.

[3] The Torah is not Man’s Theology so much as it is God’s Anthropology. ~A.J. Heschel, God In Search Of Man