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Wednesday, December 30, 2009


So Yaakov is ill and Yosef comes to see him bringing his two sons, Efraim and M'nashe.

Yaakov gives a little rundown of the revelation he had of God on his way out of his parents' home. He then asks Yosef who he brought with him! Why did he need to ask?

The Torah points out that Yaakov's sight was dim. Yaakov was all too aware of the blessing he received from his blind father while pretending to be Esav, his older brother. Presumably, Yaakov wants to be certain he is bestowing the correct blessing on the correct grandson. We'll speak a bit more about that tomorrow, though.

פרק מח

(יג) וַיִּקַּח יוֹסֵף אֶת שְׁנֵיהֶם אֶת אֶפְרַיִם בִּימִינוֹ מִשְּׂמֹאל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת מְנַשֶּׁה בִשְׂמֹאלוֹ מִימִין יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּגֵּשׁ אֵלָיו:
(יד) וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְמִינוֹ וַיָּשֶׁת עַל רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם וְהוּא הַצָּעִיר וְאֶת שְׂמֹאלוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה שִׂכֵּל אֶת יָדָיו כִּי מְנַשֶּׁה הַבְּכוֹר:

Genesis Chapter 48

(13) And Yosef took them both, Efraim in his right hand to the left of Israel and M'nashe in his left hand to the right of Israel and he presented to him. (14) And Israel sent his right hand adn placed it on the head of Efraim and he was the younger, and his left on the head of M'nashe. He made his hands wise for M'nashe was the first born. 

So Yaakov purposely puts his right hand on the younger of the two. The key word in the Hebrew is שכל sikel. This is the same root as the word sechel which is often understood to mean common sense. It is interesting that the word משכיל maskil from the same root is understood in biblical context to mean 'succesful.' See for example Samuel I 18:14:

And David was successful (maskil) in all his ways and God was with him. 

What is the relationship between success and common sense? Or wisdom? Well, we'll think about that one. 

In our story, though, the word sikel is particularly interesting. This is the first use of the word in the Torah. It seesm in context to mean that 'he made his hands wise' or 'clever' or somehow directed his hands to the right place. In short, the word is trying to point out that Yaakov was aware of what he was doing as he explains to Yosef a little later on. 

The next verse says:
טו) וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמַר הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק הָאֱלֹהִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי מֵעוֹדִי עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:

15) And he blessed Yosef and said "The Lord before whom my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak conducted themselves, The Lord who shepherds me from my very existence until this day....

We will examine the rest of the blessing tomorrow. I want to point out, though, that the Torah says that even as Yaakov is holding the heads of his grandchildren, he is blessing Yosef. In fact, he will bless the grandchildren later. But why did Yaakov have to hold his grandchildren in order to bless his son? 

More tomorrow.

Monday, December 28, 2009

To Life! -- Parshat Vay'chi

This posting will be a summary of the first part of the parsha. I encourage you all to read the parsha but if you are rushing this should help you to follow comments that I make.

Parshat Vay'chi begins in Genesis 47:28 and goes until the end of Genesis.

The end of last week's parsha saw the family of Yaakov being formally accepted into Egypt by Pharoah and the end of the famine. We also saw how Yosef makes a deal with the population which essentially makes them slaves and gives ownership of their land to Pharoah in exchange for food and seed. This establishes a permanent 20% tax to be paid to the crown for them and their progeny. We will revisit this little studied part of the story later when we look at the book of Exodus.

This week's parsha begins by relating some details of the last days of Yaakov. When Yaakov senses he is close to death he summons Yosef and makes the latter swear that he will not bury him in Egypt; rather he must bury him back in the land Canaan with his fathers. Yosef agrees and swears.

Some time after that Yosef is informed that his father is ill and he comes to Yaakov of his volition. Yosef brings his two sons with him in order that Yaakov bless them before he dies. Yaakov relates to Yosef his revelation of God in Luz when he was running away from Esav and how God promised then to make him a great nation and give him that land.

Yaakov then claims Yosef's two sons as his own! He goes on to say that these two sons, Efraim and M'nashe will be to him (Yaakov) like his oldest two sons R'uven and Shimon.

Oddly enough, Yaakov asks Yosef who the two boys are that he brought. Yosef replies that they are his sons. Yaakov proceeds to bless them but he switches his hands and places his right hand on Efraim, the younger of the two, and his left hand on Menashe. Yosef tries to 'correct' his father but his father tells him he is fully aware of what he is doing. He relates that ultimately Efraim will be the greater of the two.

Tomorrow we will examine this last bit in greater detail as no summary can really do it justice. If you take the time to read it inside the Torah, note carefully who is blessed and when. Bear in mind previous blessings from father to son that we read about earlier in the book of Genesis.

Happy learning!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Galus- Is it good for the Jews or...

Some thoughts, then, about the diaspora as displayed in the book of Genesis.

It would seem that events from the time of Avraham lead inexorably to Yaakov and his family going down to Egypt. It is only in Egypt that the children of Israel become numerous and it is there that their national identity is forged. This would seem to be quite the opposite of any other nation! A nation, almost by definition, is formed by a people on a given parcel of land. The children of Israel find themselves, as it were, only when they are away from the land.

I think it is fair to say, also, that other nations in the ancient world defined themselves to some degree by their conquests and expansions. The children of Israel by contrast are defined by their subjugation or at least through their subjugation. They manage to maintain some connection to the God of their fathers which distinguishes them from the surrounding culture.

So maybe this becomes an essential part of the Jewish psyche: That we are Jews in or outside of our land. This is a key component of who we are by nature and has served us through not only the diaspora of Egypt but also of Babylonia and even to this day.

This is, I think, at least one important component of the diaspora theme.

Thanks to Sam for hashing some of this out with me.

We are sure to revisit this in the book of Exodus.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Diaspora Sets In

To pick up from yesterday, I think that Yaakov was aware that the galut, the diaspora, was beginning now with his going down to Egypt. Ironically, this observation does not seem to have been noticed by Yosef who thought he was controlling everything. Yosef's goal of giving the brothers the opportunity to not repeat what they did to him worked out well. Additionally, Yosef saw himself as saving the family due to his position as viceroy of Egypt. He seems to be unaware of the onset of the diaspora, though. It is not entirely clear why Yosef does not encourage the brothers to go back to Canaan after the end of the famine, but perhaps we'll speak more about that later.

The Ramban calls the book of Exodus the Book of Redemption. There is an implication that Genesis is the book of Diaspora. One way of looking at the long series of events, at least from the time of the b'rit bein hab'tarim where Avraham is given the prediction about his progeny, is that they all lead inexorably to diaspora.

The diasporas which followed the destructions of the first and second Temples are clearly linked to sin on the part of those exiled. Here, however, we don't see a clear sin which brings about the diaspora to Egypt. Furthermore, the family of Yaakov goes quite willingly to Egypt under the circumstances.

Why in fact did the diaspora here come about? That is, what was God's plan in bringing it about? Was it actually God's plan? Did it have to happen?

In that it did take place, though, it has informed the Jewish psyche for millennia. It is only by leaving the land that the children of Israel became a great nation. How does that sound to us living here today?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Have No Fear

Well Batsheva, I have a few things in mind. I'll lay them out and let all of you decide.

Beer Sheva figures prominently in a story about Yitzchak. In Chap. 26 we learn that a famine comes to the land of Canaan and Yitzchak sets out to go to Egypt as his father had done under similar circumstances. God, though, stops him when he gets to the land of the P'lishtim (Philistines). He tells Yitzchak to not go down to Egypt, to live in his present land and that He would be with him, bless him and fulfill the oath he gave to Avraham about having a great nation.

So Yitzchak stays and, in fact, does quite well. However, after some difficulties with Avimelech, the king of the P'lishtim, he moves on, or up, to be more precise, back to Beer Sheva (Genesis 26:23). Then the text tells us:

בראשית פרק כו

(כד) וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְקֹוָק בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ אַל תִּירָא כִּי אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ בַּעֲבוּר אַבְרָהָם עַבְדִּי:
(כה) וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְקֹוָק וַיֶּט שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ וַיִּכְרוּ שָׁם עַבְדֵי יִצְחָק בְּאֵר
Genesis 26

(24) And God appeared to him that night and said, "I am the Lord of Avraham your father. Do not fear for I am with you and I will bless you and make your seed great for the sake of Avraham my servant." (25) And he built an altar there and he called in the name of God. And he pitched his tent there and the servants of Yitzchak dug a well there.

God wants to calm the fear that Yitzchak has here on account of his tenuous relationship with Avimelech. Remember that Yitzchak was quite willing to go to Egypt and God promised to take care of him without his leaving the land. Yet Yitzchak undergoes some hard times with Avimelech so God reassures him. In response, Yitzchak builds an altar and prays. 

It is possible that Yaakov stops in Beer Sheva because his situation also seems tenuous. There is, after all, a famine and he has now uprooted his entire family to move to Egypt. Perhaps he is hoping that God will appear to him in Beer Sheva and give him a message similar to the one he gave his father Yitzchak, namely that he should not leave the land and God would take care of him there in Canaan. Of course, Yaakov feels he must see Yosef but perhaps Yosef can come to him or perhaps he need not bring his entire family down to Egypt. Perhaps this is why he directed his sacrifices to the God of Yitzchak specifically, meaning that he wanted to appeal to the aspect of God which was revealed to Yitzchak in Beer Sheva. 

In fact, God also tells Yaakov not to fear but directs his course very differently that he did for his father. I think that Yaakov was all too aware at that point that by bringing down his entire family that this would be the beginning of the diaspora which was predicted to Avraham in the b'rit bein hab'tarim (Gen. 15:13). He knew that although they would ultimately leave that diaspora enriched, he also knew they would suffer greatly there. I believe this was the ultimate fear that Yaakov was experiencing. 

What God tells him now which he didn't explain to either Avraham or Yitzchak is that the promise to make the nation great, that is numerous, is going to take place in Egypt! I am not sure if this exactly assuages Yaakov's fear but it does explain something vital: In order for the promises made to his fathers to come about, he (Yaakov) must go to Egypt now. 

Tomorrow I will add a bit more about the bigger picture that Yaakov now sees.

Down We Go

בראשית פרק מו

(א) וַיִּסַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וַיָּבֹא בְּאֵרָה שָּׁבַע וַיִּזְבַּח זְבָחִים לֵאלֹהֵי אָבִיו יִצְחָק:
(ב) וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמַרְאֹת הַלַּיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי:
(ג) וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי הָאֵל אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אַל תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה כִּי לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם
(ד) אָנֹכִי אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה וְאָנֹכִי אַעַלְךָ גַם עָלֹה וְיוֹסֵף יָשִׁית יָדוֹ עַל עֵינֶיךָ

Genesis 46

(1) And Israel and all that he had traveled and came to Beer Sheva. And he sacrificed sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. (2) And God said to Israel in a vision of the night and He said, "Yaakov, Yaakov." And he said, "I am here." (3) And He said, "I am the God, Lord of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt for I will make you a great nation there.(4) I will go down with you to Egypt and I will also surely bring you up and Yosef will place his hand on your eyes."

Yaakov just heard that Yosef, his long lost son, is not only alive but in fact is viceroy over the most powerful country in the region. Yosef sent him a message to his father that he should come to Egypt and he would take care of him there. And, in fact, as we see from the above verses, Yaakov packs up everything and moves out.

So why, when God addresses him, does he tell Yaakov not to be afraid? Where is there an indication that Yaakov was afraid at all?

Okay, you can answer and say that God knows everything and He happened to know that Yaakov was really shaking in his boots. However, that seems a bit weak.

Consider these questions, as well, and perhaps they will point to an answer:

Why did Yaakov stop in Beer Sheva?
Why are his sacrifices directed to the God of his father Isaac and not, say, the God of Abraham, as well?

Also, if God is trying to assuage Yaakov's fears of going to Egypt, how does telling him that he will be a great nation there help? What exactly was Yaakov afraid of?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Back Together? - Parshat Vayigash

So Yosef finally comes clean and reveals himself to the brothers but only after pushing them, or at least Yehuda, to take responsibility for their youngest brother Benyamin even to the point of volunteering to set himself into slavery rather than break his promise to Yaakov his father to return his youngest safe and sound.

The first word of the Parsha ויגש "vayigash" (and he approached or came near) sets the stage for Yehuda showing both his willingness to take responsibility but perhaps also exhibiting a certain boldness in approaching this viceroy without being summoned forth specifically.

We see the same word used just a little later when Yosef reveals himself:

בראשית פרק מה

(ג) וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו:
(ד) וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו גְּשׁוּ נָא אֵלַי וַיִּגָּשׁוּ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה

Genesis 45

(3) And Yosef said to his brothers, "I am Yosef--is my father still alive?" And the brothers could not reply to him for they were frightened before him. [literally: they were frightened of his face] (4) And Yosef said to his brothers, "Please come near (גשו) to me." And they came near. And Yosef said, "I am Yosef your brother whom you sold (down) to Egypt." 

Here the drawing near of the brothers seems to be a demonstration of wanting greater intimacy. Certainly, it was not what the brothers were expecting. It may also be, then, that Yehuda came closer to begin with to try to strike a greater intimacy when he pled his case.

I finid it interesting that Yosef is quick to explain to the brothers that it was not their doing that brought him to Egypt but rather it was God's plan:

ה) וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם:

(5) And now do not be sad and do not become upset in your eyes that you sold me down to here, for God has sent me before you for (the sake of) sustenance.

Yosef continues to lay out the intelligence he was privy to regarding the famine. He goes on to tell them they should all move down to Egypt. 

But here again one could ask why didn't Yosef send them back and simply promise to send them food back in Canaan? 

Yosef at this point sees his plan working very well. He was able to provoke genuine remorse in the brothers for what they did to him but does not lord it over them. He does really see that his purpose there is to sustain them during the coming years of famine. 

Ironically, I think, Yosef seems to be unaware of what Yaakov comes to see as the larger plan, namely the beginning of the galut, the diaspora. More about that tomorrow.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Forget It!

בראשית פרק מא

(נא) וַיִּקְרָא יוֹסֵף אֶת שֵׁם הַבְּכוֹר מְנַשֶּׁה כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל עֲמָלִי וְאֵת כָּל בֵּית אָבִי

Genesis 41

(51) And Yosef called his first born Menashe for "God has made me to forget all of my toil and all of the house of my father."

This word "nashani" (made me to forget) is quite striking to me. It seems the word does not mean forget in the sense of erasing from memory for if it did, the whole passage doesn't make sense. After all, if Yosef really forgot the house of his father, why mention it at all? 

Rather, it seems to mean to forget more in the sense of something that is no longer on his mind. Yosef's circumstances at this point are so dramatically transformed that his former tribulations are no longer troubling him. 

What is interesting, then, is that he includes forgetting the house of his father. There is a question about why Yosef did not contact Yaakov once he was elevated to his position as viceroy of Egypt. Clearly until that time he was not in a position to do so. But now that he had all that power why not call home? 

I have heard it suggested that Yosef thought that his father was in collusion with the brothers plot to sell him as a slave. If that was the case, perhaps Yosef felt no reason to contact his father as he felt unwanted. In support of that is the fact that Yaakov sent Yosef to check on his brothers. 

However, this seems unlikely for a couple of reasons. One is that Yosef likely heard the brothers plotting to kill him and then changing their minds to sell him as a slave. He would have gathered that their plans were made on the spot and not something they had cooked up prior to his coming to meet them. 

Another point is that when Yosef finally sees Yaakov (in next week's parsha) he makes no mention at all of this plot in contrast to how he addresses the brothers when he reveals himself to them. 

So it is not entirely clear why in fact Yosef does not contact his father at this point and even thanks God for making him forget the house of his father. 

Any suggestions? 

Chag sameach :)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The End?--Parshat Mikketz

Greetings to all and Happy Chanukah! I am hoping that with this post the blog will be updated on a more or less daily basis. My new computer has been reverted to XP for reasons I won't go into but, in any event, it is back in my hands and should remain here for some time to come.

Mikketz is particularly dear to my heart being my Bar Mitzvah parsha. The parsha is pivotal in the Yosef story in many ways. With the beginning of the parsha we see yet another dream come into play: that of Pharaoh. In light of Yosef's success in interpreting correctly the dreams of the butler and the baker in last week's parsha, Pharaoh is advised to bring Yosef in to interpret his particularly knotty dream.

As we pointed out in a previous post, when Yosef interprets the butler's and baker's dreams, he shows his prowess in understanding dreams. However, he is quick to point out that interpretations really come from God. His implication is that he, Yosef, is a conduit for Divine interpretation.

בראשית פרק מ

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו חֲלוֹם חָלַמְנוּ וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף הֲלוֹא לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים סַפְּרוּ נָא לִי
Genesis 40:8

And they (the butler and the baker) said to him (Yosef), "We have dreamed a dream and there is no one to interpret it." And Yosef said to them, "Aren't interpretations (up) to God? Please tell me (the dreams). 

A friend of mine once argued that in fact we see here and throughout the Yosef story that Yosef was incredibly proud, pronouncing himself as he does to be a mouthpiece of God. After all, we have no indication that Yosef has had any direct communications with God until now, unlike his father, grandfather or great grandfather.It would seem according to this line of thinking that really Yosef never matured beyond the sort of seemingly boastful young man we saw in the beginning of parshat Vayeshev.

However, I think one could argue just the opposite. Yosef, now in prison, has been totally humbled by his experiences. He has ended up in Egypt as a slave through no apparent fault of his own and then even manages to land in prison for having upheld his own strong sense of morality. 

Another person in such a situation might be just as likely to curse God. However, Yosef at this nadir in his career has apparently embraced God in such a way that he is confident that by totally humbling himself, giving himself over to the Divine, that he is a worthy conduit for expressing God's intentions in the dreams of the baker and the butler.

In this week's parsha he sort of ups the ante by not only interpreting the dream of Pharaoh, but in advising him how to deal with the intelligence the dream has provided.

בראשית פרק מא

(לג) וְעַתָּה יֵרֶא פַרְעֹה אִישׁ נָבוֹן וְחָכָם וִישִׁיתֵהוּ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

Genesis 41

(33) And now, let Pharaoh see an understanding and wise man and place him over the land of Egypt
Yosef goes on, apparently extemporaneously, to lay out a strategy for surviving the famine, not just for Pharaoh, but for his entire country. These instructions are not included in the dreams but seem to come from Yosef himself. Yosef gives a lot of added value for his interpretation to Pharaoh which he didn't offer to the baker and the butler.

Do you think that Yosef figured all this out on his own or was he guided by God in giving this advice? What do you see from the reaction of Pharaoh to indicate how Pharaoh thought about that question? Do we see other indications of Yosef's wisdom later in the parsha? Where else in the parsha might you see Yosef as being arrogant or proud? How else might we understand Yosef's behavior?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Oh, Man! -- More About Angels

Pursuant to our discussion about angels and men last week and Jeff''s comments about how men and angels are (at least sometimes) interchangeable: We have such a case this week.

בראשית פרק לז
(יג) ויאמר ישראל אל יוסף הלוא אחיך רעים בשכם לכה ואשלחך אליהם ויאמר לו הנני:
(יד) ויאמר לו לך נא ראה את שלום אחיך ואת שלום הצאן והשבני דבר וישלחהו מעמק חברון ויבא שכמה:
(טו) וימצאהו איש והנה תעה בשדה וישאלהו האיש לאמר מה תבקש

Genesis 37

(13) Israel said to Yosef: Aren't your brothers herding in Shechem? Go and I will send you to them. And he (Yosef) said: I am here.
(14) And he (Yaakov) said to him (Yosef): Please go and see (about) the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the sheep and bring me back a word. And he sent him from the valley of Hevron and he came to Shechem.
(15) And a man found him and behold he was wandering in the field. And the man asked him saying: What do you seek?

The man here is taken by the sages to be an angel whose task it was to direct Yosef to his brothers. I can think of two other instances so far in Genesis where the word 'ish' (man) ends up referring to angels. The first would be the three men who went by Avraham's tent at the beginning of Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:2). We figure out that they are angels by virtue of the fact that one of them gives a message from God to Avraham. The other ones go off to Sodom and are referred to still as men (verses 16 & 22). However, when they come to save Lot and his family and destroy Sodom, they are suddenly referred to as 'malachim' (angels) (19:1). 

Possibly their appearance as men was replaced by an appearance more suited to an angel at that point or one could simply say that they were men for all intents and purposes until they came to fulfill. the tasks for which they were sent. 

We also see in last week's parsha that Yaakov struggles with a man (Genesis 32:25). That man is never referred to as being an angel, but we surmise as such from the story. 

In a sort of parallel story in Judges 13, we have the story of the angel who came to the wife of Manoach to tell her that she will give birth to Shimshon. The wife calls this angel 'ish haElohim' (man of God). The text refers to him as an angel but the couple only realizes that he is an angel or something like that at the end of the story. 

This brings me to point out that the term 'ish HaElohim' is also used to refer to Moshe (Deuteronomy 33:1)! He gets this title, in fact, just before his death. Moshe is referred to as 'ish' much earlier, back in the book of Exodus. The title of 'ish' seems to have some gravitas although it doesn't seem to indicate an angel as such. 

However, to support Jeff's contention somewhat, we could say that anyone, human or otherwise, who does a task at God's direction is certainly an agent of God, even if not actually called a 'malach.'

Shabbat shalom, chag urim sameach! Gotta go light candles.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dream On--Parshat Vayeshev

So first of all, through the endless hesed of Hashem, I managed to get another computer. This new situation should allow me to post more often!

The first comment I want to make is about dreams:  Dreams generally as they are portrayed in Tanach and the specific dreams of Yosef in this parsha.

It is striking to me that while Yosef seems eager to relate his dreams to his brothers and his father, he does not offer an interpretation. However, the listeners all seem to think they understand the meaning of the dreams. For his part, Yosef does not dispute their interpretations. But it is interesting that Yosef's whole career later in Egypt is based on his ability to interpret dreams and he does not display that particular talent here. 

We saw earlier at the beginning of Parshat Vayetze that Yaakov has a dream. There is no clear interpretation of that dream set out in the text, thus giving rise to many midrashim and commentaries.

It is also interesting to note that the term chalom (dream) appears in the Torah only in B'reishit (Genesis) and much later on in D'varim (Deuteronomy) where it is written:

דברים פרק יג:ב
כי יקום בקרבך נביא או חלם חלום ונתן אליך אות או מופת...

Deuteronomy 13:2
When there will arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams and he will give you a sign or wonder...

This latter case is about a false prophet. The implication is that dreams can be a manner of prophecy, false or otherwise. This fits in with the way dreams play out in the story of Yosef and also serves as a basis for possibly understanding Yaakov's dream methinks.

What is tricky then about dreams is that they are not necessarily straightforward in meaning. This comports with human experience. We all dream but even if we remember our dreams we tend to notice that often the dreams don't make sense or don't fit in well with a reality we are familiar with; we can dream about things which would be impossible in real life.

Why doesn't Yosef tell his brothers what he thinks the dreams mean? What does he gain from telling them (and his father) at all?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Computer is Still Down

Not really the posting I wanted to put up, but between my computer crashing and various other distractions, like making a living, I am unable to make a 'real' posting at this time. I had wanted to concentrate on the word וילן vayalen at the beginning of the second aliyah (B'reishit 32:14). The same root word is used in v.22. It is also found elsewhere in the Torah, significantly, I think, in Parshat Balak Bamidbar 22:8. Think about what the word means in these contexts and check your translations and we'll hopefully pick this up next week when I should be back online again!

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Parshat Vayishlach

פרשת וישלח

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל עֵשָׂו אָחִיו אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם

Parshat Va'yishlach:

And Yaakov sent malachim to Esav his brother, to the land of Seir, the plain of Edom.

The word malachim (the plural of malach) is a curious term. The first instance of the word malach is found in Genesis 16:7. Hagar is met by a malach Hashem. Malach is usually translated as 'angel.' The word can also be used to refer to a human who is an emissary or an agent such as we find in Kings I 19:2:

מלכים א פרק יט

(ב) וַתִּשְׁלַח אִיזֶבֶל מַלְאָךְ אֶל אֵלִיָּהוּ לֵאמֹר כֹּה יַעֲשׂוּן אֱלֹהִים וְכֹה יוֹסִפוּן כִּי כָעֵת מָחָר אָשִׂים אֶת נַפְשְׁךָ כְּנֶפֶשׁ אַחַד מֵהֶם:

And Jezebel sent an agent to Elijah saying: Thus will the gods do and thus they will do (even) more, for at this time tomorrow I will place your life as the life of one of them.

I am pretty sure that this latter passage is the first clear instance of the word malach not referring to an angel. I think it is safe to assume that Jezebel was not in command of God's angels!

Every other instance of the word malach in the Torah is clearly referring to an angel of God.

Nonetheless, Rashi here comments that Yaakov sent actual angels to Esav! Rashi's source is the midrash in B'reishit Rabbah where we find two opinions about this matter. One opinion states that Yaakov sent human agents and the other states that he sent actual angels!

Some questions to consider:

    1) From the context in the Torah, what indications do we have for each of these opinions?
    2) According to the opinion that Yaakov sent actual angels: Why would Yaakov have sent actual angels instead of human agents?

Another thing that has crossed my mind is what is the root meaning of the word malach? Upon consideration, the only other word I can see which is related is מלאכה m'lacha.

The word m'lacha is used first to describe the acts that God did to create the universe.  How do you see that word as being related to malach?

What This Blog's About

This blog aims to give the reader some food for thought about various aspects of each weekly Torah portion. While not averse to giving a comprehensive view of any given topic, I am more interested in pointing out some of the smaller things which the reader may have overlooked or, due to lack of familiarity with the Hebrew text, may be altogether unaware of.

The Talmud (TB B'rachot 8a) tells us that “One should always complete their (Torah) portions with the community (by learning) the text of the Torah twice and the Aramaic translation once.” The basic idea of this passage is clear: By the time the Torah portion is read in its entirety in shul on Shabbat, each person should have already read the Hebrew text twice and the Aramaic translation once. At the time this practice was instituted in Babylonia, Aramaic was the common language whereas not everyone was fluent in Hebrew. So reading the Aramaic translation would have been essential for the masses to comprehend the text. However, the emphasis was still on reading the original Hebrew text.

To what purpose was reading the Hebrew text if it wasn't understood by the reader? I can offer a couple of explanations. One is that reading the text of the Torah, indeed of Tanach, even without comprehension, is seen as an act of Talmud Torah, of learning Torah. Halacha states that simply reading the text of Tanach is an act of Talmud Torah whereas only by learning Mishnah or Gemara does one accomplish an act of Talmud Torah. This is indicated by the term used by the sages for Tanach: מקרא (mikra) which derives from the Hebrew root קרא (kara) meaning 'to read.'

I think there is at least one more reason, as well. I believe that the sages wanted to emphasize the importance of learning the text of the Tanach in the original Hebrew, particularly the Torah. Any translation, even in a cognate language such as Aramaic, is not more than a commentary. By reading a translation, the reader is ultimately a slave to the particular outlook of the translator.

In the last thirty or so years we have witnessed an explosion of English translations of classic Jewish texts; not just the primary texts, such as Tanach or Talmud, but many secondary and tertiary texts, as well, such as the classical commentaries on these seminal works. On the one hand, this publishing phenomenon has exposed countless numbers of people to works they might otherwise have never seen, much less read or learned. On the other hand, though, the translators in each case are the ones doing the learning for the reader. These translations generally do not provoke critical thought on the part of the reader—just the opposite is often true! The reader is to understand the translation as received wisdom, not to be questioned.

By making the individual read the Torah portion each week twice in Hebrew, the sages were thereby encouraging an intimate familiarity with the original text. By complementing that reading with the Aramaic translation, they were supplying a basic course in teaching one's self Hebrew.

(Ironically, perhaps, I learned Aramaic mainly by reading the Torah portion first in Hebrew, which I already understood, and then deriving the meaning of the Aramaic translation by reading it side by side with the Hebrew.)

I understand that not every reader here will take the time to read the parsha in Hebrew. However, I will be pointing out certain aspects of the Hebrew text in my comments and encourage the reader delve further.