Archive for December, 1999

Shemot 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The Book of Exodus begins where Genesis left off: with the seventy descendants of Yaakov who came down to Egypt under the protection of Yosef. A new king arises in Egypt, who fears the growing Hebrew tribe; he issues orders to kill newborn Hebrew boys. Two midwives refuse to obey, which allows Moshe to be hidden away for a few months after he is born. Left in a basket in the river, he is found by the daughter of Pharoah, who raises him in the royal household. As a man, Moshe kills an Egyptian and flees to Midian, where he marries. He encounters God in the Burning Bush, Who directs him back to Egypt to free the people from Pharoah’s grip. Moshe returns and confronts Pharoah, who disdains Moshe and his God, and increases the workload of the slaves.

“The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives- the first was named Shifra and the second was named Puah- and he said: ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthing stone, if it is a son, you shall kill it, and if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the the midwives feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they allowed the boys to live.

The king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said: ‘Why have you done this thing, that you have allowed the boys to live?’

The midwives said to Pharoah: ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are extremely vigorous, and before the midwife can arrive, they have already given birth!’ ” (Exodus 1:15-19)


The king of Egypt fears that the Hebrew nation is a fifth column in his country, so he enslaves them with backbreaking labour. However, that in itself didn’t negate the demographic threat of a growing people, so he plots to kill the baby boys, in order to arrest the birth rate of the Israelites. Two brave women defy Pharoah’s brutality, and become the first heroes of the Exodus story. Because they feared God more than the earthly authorities, Shifra and Puah are rewarded by God with “houses,” but the commentators disagree as to what exactly that means.

Genesis is filled with flawed heroes: Avraham is ready to sacrifice his son; Rivka plans Yaakov’s stealing of the birthright away from Esav; Yosef begins his adventures quite unaware of his own arrogance. Shifra and Puah, on the other hand, seem like truly outstanding moral figures: at great personal risk, they defy Pharoah, for no other reason than their religious convictions. We might have expected them “just to follow orders,” as men and women have done countless times in similar situations, from Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia to Cambodia under Pol Pot.

Yet they don’t- somehow, they overcome fear and complacency and actively resist the immorality at the core of their society. Their truly heroic stature was first pointed out to me in a dvar Torah given by a young Torah scholar, Sasha Zacharia, on the occasion of her bat mitzvah. Sasha saw Shifra and Puah as the inspiration for the women and men famous in history for their acts of conscience: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Scharansky, and so on. (I don’t remember if that was her list exactly, but you get the point.)

Sasha also raised an interesting question: would the midwive’s stature as moral heroes have been even greater had they not lied to Pharoah, but instead committed “true” civil disobedience? ( I.e., the kind of civil disobedience in which they do not lie, but instead accept the consequences of their actions in order to demonstrate the evil against which they protest. ) One could argue that the highest level of conscience in a corrupt society involves an active confrontation with the authorities; we might think of the prophet Natan confronting King David (2 Samuel 12), or Martin Luther King’s marches into the Southern police dogs, or the brave students of Tianamen Square. Yet there is a certain moral calculus involved- if Shifra and Puah had told the truth to Pharoah, they doubtless would have ended up jailed or dead, and then would not have been able to save the otherwise doomed baby boys. The example from history that comes to mind is Harriet Tubman, smuggling escaped slaves out of the American South to freedom in the North- secrecy was the only way to preserve the life-saving network of the Underground Railroad.

A further question regarding the extent of the midwive’s greatness comes from a rabbinic disagreement regarding their identities. The ancient rabbis identify Shifra with Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, and Puah with Miriam, Moshe’s sister. (Cf. Rashi on verse 15.) Perhaps they wanted to add to the list of reasons we revere these women: not only was Miriam, for example, a prophet in her own right, and the leader of the women at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 15:20-21), but now we may also say that by her hand all the miracles of the redemption were wrought, for had she not saved the baby boys, Moshe and Aaron could not have survived to lead the people out of Egypt. By making a midrash that Miriam was Puah the midwife, Miriam becomes a much greater figure- she and Yocheved assume the status of the mothers of the entire Israelite people, for they saved it from extinction.

However, this midrash- that Shifra was Yocheved and Puah was Miriam- could be said to reduce their great act of conscience to civil resistance in order to preserve their people. If Shifra and Puah are “Hebrew midwives” in the sense of being Israelites themselves who happen to be midwives, then one could say that yes, they are still heroes, because they could have “sold out” their people and obeyed Pharoah’s orders, but then their greatness comes from loyalty to their people overcoming personal self-interest. This makes them no less brave, but in this case their bravery is that of soldiers risking all to defend their country- completely understandable, evidence of great personal character, but not necessarily evidence of a great “fear of God.”

The other possibility, argued by the contemporary writer Ellen Frankel in her book of feminist Torah commentary The Five Books of Miriam, is that Shifra and Puah were not Israelites at all, but Egyptian women. They were “Hebrew midwives” in the sense of being midwives to the Hebrews.
[ed. note: This is supported by the ambiguous Hebrew: Miyaldot Ivriot which can be translated equally as: Hebrew Midwives (ie. Adj. + noun) or Hebrew’s Midwives (ie. noun + noun). This debate appears in the classical midrash.]
Evidence for this latter interpretation is the fact that they were called into Pharoah’s chambers, which might have been unlikely had they been part of the slave people, and Pharoah’s acceptance of their comparison of the Egyptian women to the Hebrew women. If they had been Egyptian women, they would have known the difference, but as Hebrew women (who presumably did not serve the Egyptians) they might not have been able to offer that alibi. As Frankel puts it, if Shifra and Puah deserve our praise as Jewish heroes, “how much more” do they deserve our praise if they were Egyptian, and willing to risk it all for babies who were not of their people!

Seeing Shifra and Puah as Egyptian women recasts their act of “conscientious objection” as not only moral heroism but exemplary spiritual vision. This is what it means to fear God: to see not categories or labels but only human beings, made in the Image of the Divine – no matter how different they are, no matter how distant, no matter how much you’ve been taught to hate them, no matter how much they are the “other.” For if Shifra and Puah were Egyptian women, then perhaps they, no less than Abraham, deserve to be counted among the very first true monotheists- for they saw the suffering and injustice among the despised slaves, and were willing to cross barriers of politics, race, class, religion and language to act as God’s partners in the redemption of the world. Their “fear of God” began as conscience but fulfilled itself in holy actions, preserving life where death reigned, and bringing hope to the desperately oppressed.

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Vayechi 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

In parshat Vayehi, (the final chapters of Genesis), the story of the “First Family” of the Jewish people comes to an end, and the scene is set for the Book of Exodus. Yaakov and all his descendants are reunited in Egypt under Yosef’s protection as the “Prime Minister” of Egypt. Yaakov senses that his time to “be gathered to his people” has arrived, so he blesses Yosef’s two children as his own, and in the plot twist so thematic of Genesis, he reverses his hands, blessing the older son with the hand appropriate for the younger. This time, however, there is no acrimony. Yaakov calls all his sons to his deathbed and blesses them each individually. Yaakov dies, and is taken by Yosef and the family to be buried in the Land of Israel. The brothers fear for their lives now that their father is dead (thinking Yosef may now take revenge), but Yosef forgives them for selling him into slavery, reminding them that God has brought them to Egypt for a reason. Yosef dies, and asks to be taken up to Israel when the Israelite nation eventually goes back to its home.

“After all these things, it was told to Yosef: ‘Your father is sick now.’ So he took his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, with him. ”
(Genesis 48:1)


Yaakov has lived for 17 years in Egypt, and the text says he is more than a hundred years old. He becomes sick, and calls for his children to come to him, so that he may bless them and instruct them before he dies.

There is a tradition that dates back to the Talmud that there was no sickness in the world before Yaakov became sick. A contemporary anthology of midrashim* re-tells the story of Yaakov’s illness:

    From the day the heavens and earth were created, a person was never ill before they died. When a person’s time came, he or she would spread out [on the bed] and their soul would depart. But Yaakov said to the Holy Blessed One: “Master of the Universe! It isn’t good that a person doesn’t feel anything before their death. People aren’t careful to write a will and to speak their final words to their children and family. Thus, I pray of You, let people become ill and feel that their days are numbered, so that they will be quick to speak with their families and to give over to them their final wishes.” 

    The Holy Blessed One replied to Yaakov: “Your request is a worthy one, and I will begin with you.” Thus our father Yaakov was the first one to fall ill.

This midrash presents us with a couple of problems. First, I don’t know if the rabbis of the Talmud really believed that there was no sickness in the world before Yaakov- after all, they themselves tell midrashim about the plagues that God visited on the kings who took Sara and then Rivka into their households. Secondly, even if we take that part of the story at face value, why didn’t Yaakov make a different prayer, and spare the world enormous suffering? Couldn’t he have prayed that people have a greater consciousness of their mortality without all the terrible pain that our bodies can go through? After all, if God can create illness, then God could have created something else for the same purpose!

There are other people who become sick in the Bible, but what makes the story of Yaakov’s final days so extraordinary is the care he took to speak his final words to his family. Both chapters 48 and 49 are entirely devoted to Yaakov’s blessings of his children and grandchildren- sometimes promising them great things, and sometimes speaking harsher words that address deep truths. In these chapters, death is not portrayed as tragic; rather, it seems to be a fulfillment, a time for reconciliation and transmitting final teachings.

We might even go so far as to say that Yaakov’s death is a model of the ideal death- surrounded by family, all the loose ends tied up, in one’s own bed, no business unfinished. Yet the paradox that our midrash suggests is that people usually don’t or won’t reconcile themselves with their loved ones without the impetus of “knowing that one’s days are numbered.” Perhaps our midrash is picking up on the unusual completeness of Yaakov’s final days- not only did he bless and instruct his sons, but he even gave instructions for his own burial. Would he have done that, at least in such detail, if he hadn’t taken sick?

We must acknowledge that some deaths are tragic, and some illnesses extremely painful and debilitating. However, despite the real pain, both physical and emotional, that can be part of our lives, to me our midrash suggests that there is still a blessing to be found in the fearful fact of our mortality: knowing our days are numbered should spur us to acts of reconciliation and communication that we might otherwise just keep putting off. For example, we might compare this idea to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on the High Holidays, which reminds us that nobody knows what the future holds- for each of us, the coming year might bring life or death, health or illness, prosperity or problems.

The point isn’t to put us into a state of anxiety and despair, but rather to get us thinking about “repentance, prayer and righteous acts.” To me, anxiety about my life comes from feeling that I’ve avoided certain tasks that I need to be working on, things like cleaning up any relationships that have problems or devoting enough time to my religious life. To paraphrase a famous Hasidic story, when I’m asked about my deeds in this life, I’m not going to be held to an impossible standard, merely asked why I wasn’t more like the Neal I could have been.

The Psalmist expresses this in a poignant verse: “Teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Wisdom, it seems to me, is not only the acceptance of the fact that our lives on this earth are time-bound, but acting on that knowledge, living life more intensely, more spiritually, more focussed on the things that matter, letting go of the things that don’t, making sure we’ve done our best to teach friends and family what we want them to know.

Yaakov became Yisrael, and his name became the name by which the Jewish people are known. Contemporary Judaism is inconceivable without his legacy of “God-wrestling” and spiritual seeking. Yet our ancestor Yaakov’s greatest gift to us may be the example he set at the end of his life of seeking, when he called his family near and gave over to them the Torah of his soul. Returning to the teaching that “no one was sick in the world before Yaakov became sick,” we can now read it differently: no one before Yaakov understood on a spiritual level the real implications of mortality, and no one took the great care that he did to leave this world with dignity, love, and completeness as a parent and teacher.

“Teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.”

* Source: Otzar Aggadot HaTorah, a retelling and expansion of older midrashim, compiled by R. Yisrael Yaakov Klapholtz. He cites the Talmud, Midrash Rabbah, and Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer as sources for this tradition. The collection is Hebrew; the translation is mine.

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Vayigash 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

At the end of last week’s parasha, Yosef, now the Prime Minister of Egypt, had arranged to have a valuable cup placed in Binyamin’s saddlebags as all his brothers head back to their father with food to stave off the famine. The cup is discovered, and it looks like Binyamin, the youngest, will have to stay in Egypt to be Yosef’s servant. In one of the most moving stories of the entire Torah, this week’s parasha begins with Yehudah offering himself in place of Binyamin, so that Yaakov should not be bereft of his two youngest sons. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and the family is reunited under his protection in Egypt. Yosef settles his entire family, including his father, all his brothers, and their families, in Egypt, in the land of Goshen.

Then Yehudah approached him [Yosef] and said: ” Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let your anger not flare against your servant- for you are like Pharoah! ”
(Genesis 44:18)


When it appears that Binyamin will be taken away as a servant to Yosef as punishment for apparently stealing the (planted) goblet, Yehudah steps forward and heroically defends him, offering himself instead. He speaks humbly but eloquently, begging for mercy on Binyamin’s behalf, pleading their elderly father would be utterly heartbroken.

Yehudah’s defense of Binyamin is one of the most heroic moments in the Torah; Yehudah seems to be selflessly sacrificing himself for the sake of his brother and father. He has changed since the day that he and his brothers threw Yosef into the pit, many years earlier. At that time, it was Yehudah who suggested selling Yosef into slavery in the first place. (Genesis 37:26). He might have been saving himself the trouble of actually killing his brother (and earning a bit of money on the side), or he might have been trying to concoct a scheme to keep Yosef alive when the others wanted to spill his blood- it’s not clear what his motivations were, but he was deeply involved in the harmful scheme.

Yet Yehudah was not the eldest of the brothers, and it’s not immediately apparent why he was the one to step forward to defend Binyamin and offer himself in his brother’s place. (He was 4th in the order.) We can note that both Ruven and Yehudah personally guaranteed Binyamin’s safe return to Yaakov (42:37; 43: 8-10). Furthermore, Shimon, the 2nd eldest, wasn’t there, because he was held as a hostage by Yosef when Yosef accused them of being spies; but that still leaves Ruven and Levi as being higher than Yehudah in the birth order, and therefore perhaps with a higher degree of leadership responsibility, at least as most ancient societies would have seen it.

So our question is still unanswered: why was it Yehudah, out of all the brothers, who stepped forward to defend Binyamin? Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of midrashic stories dating from Talmudic times, offers an imaginative possibility. Noticing that the story of Yehudah and his daughter in law Tamar (Genesis 38) immediately follows the story of the presentation of Yosef’s bloody garment to Yaakov (37: 31-35), the midrash posits a connection. In this midrash, it was Yehudah who convinced Yaakov that Yosef was dead; in response, God said to Yehudah:

    You have no children now, and you do not know the pain of children. You have troubled your father, and caused him to mistakenly believe that his son Yosef is torn, all torn up. By your life, you will marry a woman and then bury your son, and [then you will ] know the pain of children. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayyigash: 9*)

On the surface, this midrash explains the whole story of Yehudah and Tamar, in chapter 38. The midrash connects Yehudah’s role in the sale of Yosef to his own experience of losing children- it is an example of midah k’neged midah, or “measure for measure.” Yet the midrash just quoted isn’t a direct commentary on either chapter 37 or 38 – it is placed later, in the section dealing with this week’s parasha, in connection to a verse that says “[Yaakov] sent Yehudah ahead of him to Yosef, to prepare ahead of him in Goshen. . . ” when the family is about to leave the land of Israel all to be reunited in Egypt with Yosef. (46:28) In other words, our midrash seems to be about Yehudah’s punishment for deceiving his father, but it’s actually brought as a commentary much later in the story, after the whole family is reconciled and reunited.

So what’s going on here, and what does all this have to do with our original question: why was it Yehudah who stepped forward, at great personal risk, to defend Binyamin? I think the placement of our midrash is crucial, for if it were merely an explanation of why the story of Yehudah and Tamar appears where it does, it would be offering us an image of a cruel and vengeful God, who kills one child to avenge another. Because this midrash is placed later, in connection with a verse that reveals the ultimate reconcilation of Yehudah and his father, I think this midrash is hinting that Yehudah’s experience of grief and bereavement was also the sources of great spiritual growth and evolving selflessness.

Our midrash says that when Yehudah was willing to let his own father sit bereaved, it was because he did not know the “pain of children.” Then he married, had sons, and lost two of them- thus bringing the lesson of the “pain of children” home to him in the most real and soul-affecting way possible. It’s not that God took away Yehudah’s children because of what he might have done to Yaakov- that would be cruel and capricious on God’s part. Rather, the midrash tells us what made their reconciliation possible: Yehudah’s ability (or willingness) to empathize deeply with his father’s experience, his “knowing the pain of children.” Empathy ideally leads to compassion, and it seems Yehudah’s compassion was so great that he could not let his father again lose a favored younger son.

This begs a further question: why should Yaakov be more bereaved at losing Binyamin than at losing Yehudah, since the whole point of Yehudah’s speech is that he will stay in Egypt as a substitute? Whether it was because Binyamin was the youngest, or because he was a son of the beloved wife Rahel, Yehudah knew that Yaakov had a special relationship with him, as he had once had with Yosef. (Cf. 44:30) This fact is what makes Yehudah’s compassion so extraordinary- not only was he able to empathize with a bereaved father, but he was even able to overcome his previous resentments to do so, perhaps even forgiving his father for loving his sons unequally.

This is the measure of Yehudah’s greatness: that he didn’t remain mired in his pain but grew spiritually out of it, taking tragedy and using it as the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief, he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.

*Quoted in Aviva Zornberg, The Genesis of Desire, an extraordinary book of contemporary Biblical exegesis. I have taken the midrash in a somewhat different direction than she did, but her essay is very insightful.

The whole story of Yehudah and Tamar (Chapter 38) summarized:

Yehudah has 3 sons, two of whom die after getting married to Tamar. Yehudah refuses to allow his daughter in law, Tamar, to attempt to conceive with his youngest son. She deceives him by dressing as a prostitute, and when he sleeps with her, she becomes pregnant. Thinking that she has been promiscuous, Yehudah is about to have her put to death, but she unmasks him as the guilty party, and Yehudah has to admit that she was justified in her actions.

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Miketz 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

At the end of last week’s parasha, Yosef is in prison on false charges, after resisting the advances of his Egyptian master’s wife. This week, there is a remarkable change in his situation: he is brought out of prison to intepret Pharoah’s dreams, which warn of famine in the future. When he proposes a kind of nationalization of the Egyptian economy in order to deal with the upcoming famine, he is made Egypt’s “Prime Minister” in order to implement the plan. The famine reaches up in to the land of Israel, so Yaakov sends his sons down to Egypt to buy food; there they encounter Yosef, who recognizes them, but they think they are dealing with a high Egyptian official. Yosef sets in motion a plot to unite all the brothers in Egypt- he accuses them of being spies, and demands they bring Binyamin, the youngest, who had been left with Yaakov. They go back to Israel and get Binyamin, but Yosef is still plotting a test for them; he plants a cup in Binyamin’s bag, to make it appear he stole it, thus giving him a pretext to take the youngest brother as a servant.

“When Yaakov saw that there provisions to be had in Egypt, he said to his sons: “Why are you looking [like that]? I hear that there are provisions to be had in Egypt. Go down and provide for us from there, that we may live and not die.”
(Genesis 42:1-2)

The famine that Yosef predicted, based on Pharoah’s dream, has begun, and reaches all the way up to the land of Israel, where Yaakov and his family live. He directs the 10 oldest sons to go down to Egypt to buy food, keeping the youngest, Binyamin, at home.

Yaakov asks a bizarre question of his sons:
“lama titra-u?”, which presents a challenge to properly translate and understand. Hebrew has a form for verbs which makes them reflexive, which means that the action of the verb happens to the subject of the verb, and this case, Yaakov’s question is framed in the reflexive form of the verb “to see.” Alternatively, sometimes the reflexive form expresses reciprocal action, two or more people doing the same thing to each other. So what could lama titra-u in a time of famine mean?

Rashi thinks it means “why do you make yourselves conspicuous?,” or “why do you cause yourself to appear a certain way?” Rashi think Yaakov is warning his sons not to make the Ishmaelites or the descendants of Esav jealous or resentful, which could happen if they think that the Israelite clan has lots of food while everybody else goes hungry. This is a sound moral teaching: don’t be so proud that you can’t admit when you’re in trouble, or else you’re just going to cause resentment in those around you. However, I don’t think it fits the situation exactly: I don’t see any other textual hint that the problem here is the perceptions of the other tribes or clans. To me, it seems like Yaakov is addressing a family problem.

One commentator, Ibn Ezra, partially agrees with Rashi’s reading, but adds that maybe our key phrase means, “don’t fight with each other.” Now I think we’re onto something- I might read this as “don’t just stand there and fight each other when there is a famine, we have to act together if we’re going to solve this problem.” This makes sense to me, and would fit with the 10 brother’s previously demonstrated capacity to turn on each other (i.e., the way they did with Yosef).

Following this theme of Yaakov addressing the dynamics of the brothers themselves, the commentary I like best comes from the 15th century Italian rabbi Ovadiah S’forno, popularly known as “the S’forno.” He reads lama titra-u” as “why are you looking at each other?” Sforno is picking up on a basic human tendency to just ignore or deny problems, hoping that they will go away. He adds that “each brother expected his fellow ” to go and get the food they needed.

S’forno’s reading of our verse makes the most sense to me because I can imagine all the emotional dynamics in this situation: there is a famine, which was probably the kind of disaster which didn’t happen suddenly but slowly built up over time, thus allowing each person to hope that somebody else was going to take the lead in addressing the problem. Furthermore, it wasn’t the kind of problem- yet- that demanded immediate action; one could always hope that maybe tomorrow things will get better, and thus a cycle of denial and procrastination sets in, sometimes right up until the point when it’s too late to take effective action.

We don’t have to look farther than any day’s headlines to see examples of this all-too-human tendency: there are pressing environmental problems which we each hope somebody else will make sacrifices to solve; there are homeless people on the streets; there are children in poverty; there are political, moral and social issues which are crying out for attention. It’s so easy just to “look at each other,” hoping somebody else will emerge with the courage and energy to name and address a problem which we know in our hearts is looming ahead of us.

Yet so often people seem paralyzed, unable or unwilling to take risks for a better world. In the case of the 10 brothers, I wonder if their collective unwillingness to go down to Egypt had to do with a dread of what they might find there. Going back to chapter 37, we recall that the last the brothers had seen Yosef, they had sold him to a travelling caravan, on its way to Egypt (37:25-28). Could it be that their buried guilt and fear of confronting the past was so great that they didn’t want to go to Egypt, even to buy necessary food, in order to avoid any possible confrontation with the living fact of their awful secret?

Maybe the real problem here is not merely complacency, or laziness, but fear. Fear not only of taking responsibility for oneself, but also fear of the truth. Yet no pressing problem can be solved without dedication to the truth above all; not our family problems, not our social problems, and not our spiritual problems. We can “look at each other” and evade the truth as long as we like, but eventually reality catches up with us. The other choice is clear: we can join together to “go down to Egypt and provide for ourselves”- that is, take the risk of confronting the truth about whatever problem confronts us, ” that we may live.”

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Vayeshev 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Parshat Vayeshev begins the concluding drama of the book of Genesis, the story of Yosef and his 11 brothers, their estrangement and eventual reunion. Yosef is the favored son, and acts like it, so his brothers conspire to throw him in a pit, then sell him into slavery, then tell Yaakov that Yosef was attacked by an animal. He ends up in Egypt, as the servant of a powerful man, Potiphar. Meanwhile, his brother Yehudah is having problems of his own; his sons die childless, and he refuses to give his daughter-in-law Tamar to his youngest son so he may have children. She dresses like a prostitute, entices Yehudah to sleep with her, and she is vindicated as having acted correctly in the end, and bears children. Potiphar’s wife desires Yosef, and when he refuses, he is thrown into prison, where he ends up interpreting the dreams of Pharoeh’s servants, which will eventually bring him to the attention of Pharoah himself.

“His brothers saw that it was he [Yosef] whom their father loved more than all the brothers, and they hated him, and they could not speak with him peaceably.”
(Genesis 37:4)


A familiar pattern in the Book of Genesis repeats itself in the story of Yosef and his brothers: one son is favored over the others, and there is tension, jealousy, and eventual estrangement within the family. In this case, Yosef brings “bad reports” about the brothers to their father, and they see Yaakov giving Yosef special treatment, such as his
ketonet passim, [a striped or more likely an ornamented/embroidered] coloured cloak. The brothers are angry, jealous, and resentful, and thus alienated from each other.

What struck me about this verse is the Torah’s description of the emotional state of the resentful brothers: “they could not [
lo yachlu] speak with him peaceably.” It’s not quite clear what that last phrase means: Rashi says they didn’t speak with him at all, whereas other commentators say that they spoke to Yosef resentfully, or spoke amongst themselves in non-peaceful ways against Yosef. Rashi at least tries to give the other brothers a little bit of credit by pointing out that at least they weren’t hypocrites: they didn’t pretend to love him while hating him in their hearts, but rather avoided him altogether.

Still, the force of the verse seems to imply that the brothers were so worked up emotionally against Yosef that they couldn’t help themselves. It’s not hard to understand their anger and jealousy: their father had given Yosef special gifts, and for many years had loved Yosef’s mother (Rachel) more than the mothers of the other brothers. Furthermore, Yosef seems to think of himself as special and privileged: he tattle-tales about his brothers to Yaakov, and thus seems to cultivate this special relationship which excludes the other siblings. Yosef is described as “the son of Yaakov’s old age,” (verse 3), which may imply that Yaakov doted on him in some unusual way as well, perhaps because Yosef was one of the youngest. Of course, the usual pattern in the ancient world is that the oldest child got the special privileges- although this is usually reversed in Genesis, it would be one more reason for the older brothers to hate the favored younger one.

However, even with all these perfectly understandable reasons for the brothers to hate Yosef, what does the Torah mean to teach us by saying they could not speak to him in peace? Why not just say they “did not?” After all, when later they throw Yosef in the pit, we certainly wouldn’t absolve them of responsibility for a crime just because they had understandable reasons to hate their victim- people have to take responsibility for their actions, despite their emotional state. Perhaps one can’t help the way one feels, but Judaism certainly seems to advocate controlling how one reacts or acts up those emotions: “Who is the mighty one? The one who overcomes his/ her own impulses.”

While this is not a direct commentary on our verse, the Hassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav* says something which illuminates the dynamic between Yosef and his brothers. Rabbi Nachman reminds us that “the one who guards himself from anger will not be ruled over by those who trouble him.” I understand this to mean that if we act on our immediate emotional reactions to situations, we are not really in control of ourselves. If others are provoking us, they “rule” over us, because we’ve given them the power to influence our actions- and who wants to give over power in our lives to someone who is causing us trouble?

This emotional dynamic between Yosef and his brothers explains the vehemence of the next few paragraphs: in verses 5-11, Yosef reports having dreams in which sheaves of wheat, and even the sun and moon, bow down to him. Twice again, in verse 8 and verse 11, we are told that the brothers hated and were resentful of Yosef, because they accused him of wanting to rule over them. On one level, this is a set-up for the end of the story, when the brothers will bow down to Yosef in Egypt, but on another level we can see the outlines of a tense psychological dynamic. The brothers resent and hate Yosef, and when he reports his dream, perhaps they hate him even more not only for his arrogance but because deep down they know he’s right- as long as their resentment towards Yosef takes up so much of their psychological energy, he already rules over them, emotionally!

One of our hardest challenges as humans is to stay spiritually centered and focussed when we are in great pain, and family dynamics can be the most painful issues that some of us will encounter in our lives. Yaakov’s sons couldn’t make him into a fair and wonderful father, who treated all of his children equally; it’s possible, however, that with grace, prayer, and self-examination they could have “guarded” themselves from the corruption of the spirit that follow from extended hate and anger. By giving ourselves over to negative, bitter emotions, we give up our freedom of choice, to an extent.

Thus, Yosef’s brothers “could not” speak to him peaceably; they gave free reign to their resentment, and it ruled them. Had they chosen to avoid someone they disliked, that’s another matter, but by allowing themselves to be filled with their anger, it ruled them, and led them down a path where they ended up throwing Yosef in the pit, and selling him into slavery. Their hatred of another, born out of their pain and feelings of rejection and jealousy, turned them into something worse than what they hated. Yosef was arrogant, but the brothers became violent. The story does have a happy ending, but in the meantime, Yosef becomes a slave, Yaakov lives in grief, and at least a few of the brothers live uneasily with their guilt (to judge from their words much later)- which all could have been avoided, perhaps, had there been an attempt to cleanse the soul of poisonous emotion, and live closer to ideals, despite the circumstances.

*Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav: (1772-1811) Chasidic tzaddik in the Ukraine. He was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Chasidism). Although a successor was not chosen after his death, his followers continue to visit his grave in Uman as a pilgrimage even today.

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