Archive for December, 2000

Miketz 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Miketz (Gen. 41:1-44:17)

OVERVIEW

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Yosef is in prison on false charges. He interprets Pharoah’s dreams and eventually becomes “Prime Minister” of the whole country, nationalizing the economy in response to famine. The famine reaches extends to the land of Israel, so Yaakov sends his sons down to Egypt to buy food. There they encounter their brother Yosef, but don’t recognize him. Yosef 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 planning a test for them: he plants a cup in Binyamin’s bag, to make it appear that Binyamin stole it, thus giving Yosef a pretext to take the youngest brother as a servant.

IN FOCUS

“He [Yosef] turned from them and wept, and returned to speak to them- then he took Shimon and bound him before their eyes! ” (Genesis 42:24)

PSHAT

Yosef knows that these Canaanite travelers are his brothers, but they apparently don’t have a clue that the highest official in Egypt is the young brother they sold into slavery years before. Yosef wants them to bring Binyamin, the youngest, so he accuses them of being spies. This gives him a pretext to take Shimon hostage until the brothers can bring Binyamin and thus prove the veracity of their story.

DRASH

Rashi says that Yosef had Shimon bound only until the brothers left. After they had gone, convinced that Shimon was a prisoner of the “Prime Minister,” Rashi says that Yosef acted much more tenderly towards his captive brother: he “released him, and fed him, and gave him drink.”

A few hundred years later, rabbis of the mussar [spiritual character development] movement learned a profound lesson from Rashi’s midrash, seeing in it the secret of growth through the practice of forgiveness. Itturei Torah, an anthology of mussar and Hasidic teachings, quotes a story about the famous Rabbi Yisrael of Salant [also known as Yisrael Salanter]:

    There once was a man who rudely insulted Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. Afterwards, the man regretted his action and came to R. Yisrael to beg forgiveness. Immediately R. Yisrael completely forgave him, and even asked the man if he needed any help or other good things- [R. Yisrael] was ready to do whatever he could on this man’s behalf.

    “Rabbi!” – the man said, hesitatingly and self-conscious- “it’s not enough that I insulted your honour, and not enough that you forgave me my misdeeds, now you also want to help me and ask about my welfare?”

    “Listen, my son,” answered R. Yisrael, “the Sages have taught us that ‘A deed brings one out of a deed or a thought, but a thought does not bring us out of a deed or a thought. If one wants to truly uproot a negative thought, or constriction or anxiety of the heart, one must do something tangible, because only a deed brings one out of a thought.” ( Cf. Talmud Kiddushin 59)

    We have learned that Shimon was the main brother who incited the others and who threw Yosef into the pit. Therefore, when Yosef wanted to completely uproot the hatred from his heart, he “fed him, and gave him drink.” To forgive someone completely requires not just a thought, but some tangible action. (From Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

Although it doesn’t say so explicitly in the Biblical text, let’s go with this midrash, and assume that Shimon was in fact the ringleader of the vengeful brothers. In that case, we can readily understand why Yosef might want to take him, specifically, as his prisoner- who wouldn’t want to “give someone a taste of their own medicine? ” This makes Rashi’s midrash all the more powerful, implying that someone who truly desires to let go of resentments and grudges must directly confront their most stubborn feelings.

I heard once that “it’s easier to act your way into right thinking than to think your way into right acting.” Many people finding their spirituality in 12-Step programs have learned to actively pray for the well-being and happiness of those they resent- and believe me, this is a powerful exercise! This doesn’t mean that moral irresponsibility is without its proper consequences, but it rather teaches that part of forgiveness is to recognize the humanity of the person one hates.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that Judaism does not require a “leap of faith,” but rather a “leap of action.” We can see how this might apply to ritual action- it’s easier to understand the meaning of Shabbat after one has worked to create a feeling of Shabbat in the home- but Heschel’s insight clearly applies to relationships as well. We have to act, not just rearrange our feelings. If you want to forgive someone, give to them. If you want to be reconciled, reach out. If you want to let go of resentments, then act in a way that acknowledges the humanity you share with your enemy. Only in this way will brothers and sisters be truly reunited.

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Vayeshev 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYeshev (Gen. 37:1-40:23)

OVERVIEW

Just as Yaakov was the favored son of his mother, Yaakov’s son Yosef is his own favored son. Yosef’s brothers conspire to throw him in a pit, from which he was sold into slavery. He ends up in Egypt, as the servant of a man called 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 she may have children. She entices Yehudah to sleep with her, and is vindicated as righteous. Potiphar’s wife desires Yosef, and when he refuses, he is thrown into prison, where he is protected by God.

IN FOCUS

“They took him and they cast him into a pit- the pit was empty, no water was in it. ” (Genesis 37:24)

PSHAT

Yosef’s brothers are resentful of his apparently arrogant behavior; they first intend to kill him, but one of the eldest, Ruven, pleads with the others that they must not kill Yosef. Ruven intends to rescue him later, but before he can return, Yosef is sold to a passing caravan. (For more on the relationship between Yosef and his brothers, see last year’s commentary on Vayeshev in our parsha archives.)

DRASH

If you’ve been following Kolel’s weekly parsha commentaries, you know by now that rabbinic commentaries love to find weird syntax or extra words in the Torah- anything unusual is an opening for imaginative interpretation. A classic example is this week’s verse- if the pit was empty, why does the verse have to say that there was no water in it? Obviously, if something is “empty,” it doesn’t have water or anything else in it!

Rashbam [a descendant of Rashi] interprets “no water was in it” as a subtle hint that Yosef’s brothers didn’t really intend to kill him, because throwing him into a pit of water would have surely caused him to drown. Rashi, following early midrashim, explains “no water was in it” as “water wasn’t in it, but snakes and scorpions were in it.” In other words, telling us that water, specifically, was not in the pit gives Rashi a midrashic opening to say that snakes and scorpions were in the pit. By mentioning water, the commentators assume that the verse is hinting that the pit wasn’t really totally empty.

Now, this might seem like a stretch, because you could just assume that most pits were used as wells or cisterns, and the verse is merely telling us that this particular space was dry at the time. So what would Rashi’s motivation be in telling us about snakes and scorpions? Perhaps this midrash emphasizes the miraculous quality of Yosef’s journey. We learn a bit later on, when Yosef is thrown into prison in Egypt, that “God was with him” even in the dungeon, so by saying that Yosef survived being in a pit full of snakes and scorpions, you could infer that “God was with him” in this pit too. (Cf. Genesis 39:21)

R. Moshe Alshich, who lived in Israel in the 16th century, connects the “snakes and scorpions” to Yosef’s earlier tattling on his brothers. In 37:3, Yosef is described as bringing “bad reports” to his father about his brothers’ behavior in the fields while tending the flocks. Thus, according to Alshich, the brothers’ revenge was kind of a test; by throwing Yosef into a pit with snakes in it, they would find out if he was guilty of speaking lies and slander about them. In other words, if the snakes bit him, he was guilty, and if not, he was innocent. Alshich makes the symbolic connection of snakes and slander because of the snake in the Garden of Eden, who is understood to have spoken deceitfully.

At this point one could say we’re far away from the plain meaning of the text, but actually, I think we’re very close to the spiritual intent of the story. Imagining Yosef as sitting in a dark pit surrounded by snakes- symbolic of the destructive power of speech- is a way of describing his acute and total estrangement from his brothers. He’s “down in the pits,” as it were, and forced to confront his own responsibility for his brother’s ill feelings. He can’t escape the “snakes,” or the wrongful things that he said, which surround him at this terrible, lonely moment.

The good news is that estrangement doesn’t have to last forever. Yosef’s journey is a long one, taking many chapters to play out, but it begins at the moment he confronts his own deeds, which to me is the meaning of our midrash. You might have a time in your life which is “the pits,” but it can also be a new beginning.

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Vayishlach 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43)

OVERVIEW

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Yaakov sends messengers ahead to his estranged brother Esav, who has a large assembly of men coming toward Yaakov and his family. The night before he meets his brother, Yaakov wrestles with the angel who changes his name to Yisrael. The meeting with Esav goes peacefully. When Yaakov and his family arrive at the town of Shechem, his daughter Dinah is sexually assaulted by the prince of the town, and Yaakov’s sons go on a violent rampage in retribution. Both Rahel and Yitzhak die and are buried. The parsha ends with a review of all Yitzhak’s descendants.

IN FOCUS

“Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ He [Yaakov] replied: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He answered, ‘Yaakov.’ He said ‘No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.’ ” (Genesis 32:26-28)

PSHAT

All alone the night before he is to finally meet up again with his estranged brother Esav, Yaakov is approached by a mysterious stranger, who wrestles with him until the dawn. The text says this figure is a “man,” but most of the commentators assume it was some kind of angel or a holy vision. Yaakov holds on until he can reach some understanding of the moment; at the end of the struggle, the mystery wrestler announces that Yaakov, like his grandfather Avraham, will receive a new name.

DRASH

There have been many, many interpretations of Yaakov’s “God-wrestling.” (A term coined by Arthur Waskow, I believe.) Some commentators, as noted above, understand this as an encounter with an angel, and some, especially Rambam, understand Yaakov as experiencing some kind of holy vision, rather than an actual wrestling match. While most of the commentators focus on the homiletical meaning of Yaakov’s change of name, they tend to gloss over the passage before it, presumably assuming that it’s just a rhetorical setup for the announcing of the name Yisrael. By asking Yaakov’s name, and getting the reply “Yaakov,” the messenger can more dramatically announce the new name by which Yaakov will be known.

Along these lines, Radak [R. David Kimchi, a 12th century French commentator] seems to explain the angel’s question as just a formality:

    This question is an opening to the conversation, like “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) and “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2), and other similar places, because he knew his name when he was sent to him.

The first example Radak offers of a rhetorical question is from story of the Garden of Eden. After the man and woman eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they become self-conscious of their nakedness, and attempt to hide from God in the Garden. God asks- knowing full well the answer!- “where are you?”

Radak’s second example comes from Moshe’s experience at the burning bush. When Moshe doubts that the people will believe that God has sent him, God turns Moshe’s staff into a snake, prefacing the miracle with the question “what is in your hand.” Again, both Moshe and God knew exactly what was in Moshe’s hand, just as the wrestler knew Yaakov’s name.

What’s going on here? We might say that God was just striking up a good conversation, but Torah stories of encounters with the Divine tend to be terse and focussed. In each of the three stories Radak offers as an example of a rhetorical question, the main character is about to begin a new chapter in life – Adam is about to leave the Garden, Yaakov is about to meet his long-estranged brother, and Moshe is about to confront Pharoah.

Perhaps the question is not merely a conversation-opener, but the main point of the conversation. In the case of Yaakov, the messenger seems to want Yaakov to think deeply about the meaning of his name, which we learned at his birth would represent the depth of his troubled relationship with his brother. (Cf. Genesis 25:25-27 and 27:35-37.) The messenger knows not just Yaakov’s name, but his history- he’s asking if Yaakov has wrestled sufficiently with his own identity. “What is your name?,” in this context, can be understood as “are you still Yaakov, the deceiver, or are you ready to become Yisrael, the person of conscience? ”

What’s so striking about our passage is that Yaakov receives a question in response to his demand for a blessing- it seems to me that the question itself is the blessing he receives. The right question, at the right time, from the right person, can change a person’s life, enabling them to see and understand themselves in an entirely new light. When God asks a question, it’s not for the sake of an answer, but for the sake of an inner response, a change in the person.

Who am I? What is the name I have made for myself, and what is the name I am capable of achieving? Just to ask the question can move us towards a better answer- just to ask the question, and thus demonstrate our capacity for growth and introspection, is one of the greatest blessings we have as human beings.

(A d’var Torah by R. Eddie Feinstein helped me prepare this week’s parsha study.)

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Vayeitzei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitzei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYetze (Gen. 28:10-32:3)

OVERVIEW

Yaakov begins a long exile from his home and family, yet right at the beginning of this journey, God appears to him in the vision of the ladder and promises him protection, descendants, and blessing. Yaakov then meets and falls in love with Rahel, daughter of Lavan, his mother’s brother. Lavan, however, substitutes her sister Leah for Rahel on their wedding night, and Yaakov agrees to work many more years for Rahel as well. After some dramatic uncertainty, the sisters have children and their servants also bear children- Yaakov’s sons will be the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yaakov plans his escape from Lavan, but eventually they part in peace.

IN FOCUS

“Lavan replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.” (Genesis 29:26-27)

PSHAT

Yaakov, the trickster, who deceived his father at the urging of his mother, is now deceived by his mother’s brother, Lavan. Yaakov wanted to marry Lavan’s younger daughter, Rahel, but Lavan put Leah, the older daughter, into the marriage tent instead. When Yaakov indignantly protests the next morning, Lavan appeals to local custom (perhaps giving Yaakov a verbal jab over the treatment of his older brother Esav at the same time), and offers to let Yaakov marry Rahel as well, after the week of feasting for the first marriage is concluded.

DRASH

Yaakov, our most morally complex ancestor in Genesis, tends, not surprisingly, to be surrounded by other, equally complex figures. His brother Esav is comes across as both shortsighted and tragic, though the rabbis will later portray him as wicked and corrupting. Similarly, his uncle Lavan seems like a shady character when making deals with Yaakov, yet he also seems very caring and protective of his daughters, especially at the end of the parashah, when he has to let them go. His switching of Leah for Rahel might have been solely motivated by a desire to protect Leah’s honour and feelings, or it might have been a way to bind Yaakov to his family for another seven years, or more likely, a combination of these and other motives.

Surprisingly, although the ancient rabbis disliked Lavan as much as they disliked Esav, they were willing to learn from his example when they thought he was acting properly. The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud, in the tractate Moed Katan (Jerusalem Talmud, quoted in Y. Nachshoni’s book of essays on Torah interpretation), derive an important principle from Lavan’s insistence that the “bridal week” for Leah be finished before Yaakov could also marry Rahel . They called this idea ein ma’arbin simcha b’simcha, or “one does not mix one happy occasion with another,” which basically means that one does not celebrate two happy events at the same time. Some of the rabbis also learn this from the story of the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8:65); King Shlomo [Solomon] doesn’t dedicate the Temple on the feast week itself, but waits and has a separate celebration.

In our day, the classic example of ein ma’arbin simcha b’simcha is the general reluctance to schedule a bar/bat mitzvah, or a wedding, on a major holiday. Even though the Torah is being read, so one could call up a bat mitzvah or have an aufruf (pre-wedding blessings at the Torah service), the tradition is concerned that we pay full attention to the special meaning of the day. If we had a big family gathering, with all the time and trouble that entails, we might not really celebrate the holiday itself properly. Another example, closely related to our passage, is the tradition of not marrying siblings on the same day. Again, the idea is that we would not be able to fully fulfill the commandment of “gladdening the bride and groom” if we had to do it for two siblings on the same day, not to mention any jealousy or rivalry they might experience.

One aspect of any spiritual path is learning to be fully present, fully aware of the meaning of the moment. The rabbis also taught ein osin mitzvot habilot habilot, or “do not do commandments tied up in a bundle.” [In other words, do one at a time.] In today’s world of multi-tasking and cell phones this is a challenging lesson to remember!

Whether celebrating, or mourning, or praying, or opening the heart with ritual, the idea is usually the same: focus on what’s happening right now, give it your full attention, and experience that moment as deeply as you can. There will never be another moment like the one that just passed, so don’t distract yourself by “mixing” too many things into it at once. Focus on the most important thing; the rest will come in its time, just as the week of celebrating for Leah was followed by the week of celebrating for Rahel, each in its own time.

(Thanks to R. Brad Artson for his help this week.)

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Toldot 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Toldot (Gen. 25:19-28:9)

OVERVIEW

The portion begins with the birth of Yaakov and Esav, the twin sons of Yitzhak and Rikva. The brothers have several tragic encounters in this portion: Yaakov convinces Esav (the older son) to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and later, after the family has traveled to Gerar and dealt with some property problems left over from Avraham, Yaakov dresses up like his brother in order to receive the better blessing from their old and blind father. Fearing for his life, Rivka sends Yaakov off to find a wife from among her clan.

IN FOCUS

“The youths grew up. Esav was one who knew trapping, a man of the fields, but Yaakov was simple, a dweller in tents.” (Genesis 25:27)

PSHAT

The Torah goes out of its way to tell us about the difference between Yaakov and Esav- they had different appearances at birth, they had different personalities in adolescence, and they will grow up to be very different kinds of adults. Esav is portrayed as a “Field and Stream” kind of guy, a hunter and outdoorsman, while Yaakov is more of a homebody, more intellectual, less physically vigorous than Esav.

DRASH

Ironies abound in this parsha and the commentaries on it. Esav is called the “man of the fields,” a fact which will have great significance later on when Yaakov steals the blessing from Yitzhak dressed up in the rough skins of his brother. As a result of Yaakov’s deceitful action, he will be exiled and spend many years “in the fields” tending the flocks of his future father in law. Rashi, following Tanchuma and other classic midrashim, explains that Esav’s “trapping” was verbal, not physical. This midrash says that Esav would “trap” his father by deceiving him into thinking he was very pious and observant, whereas he was really a “man of the field,” who liked to pass his time hunting.

According to Rashi, Yaakov’s “simplicity,” therefore, is in direct contrast to his brother’s duplicity and lifestyle. Rashi defines “simple,” or tam, as

    not expert in all of this [Esav’s ways], as his heart, so then his mouth. One who is not sharp in deceiving is called tam.

Now, leaving aside for a moment the traditional rabbinic bias against Esav, (for which there is scant textual evidence, in my opinion), Rashi’s definition of tam is almost astounding, given what’s going to happen later in the portion, when Yaakov deceives his father and tricks him into giving him the blessing of the first born. (Cf. chapter 27.) Other commentaries, seeking to praise Yaakov, define tam– which can also mean plain, or whole- as purehearted, or simple in his faith, or whole in his devotion to Torah study. (The ancient rabbis believed that the Torah was given to our ancestors in Genesis before the revelation on Sinai. Thus, for Rashi, the “tents” in which Yaakov dwelled were places of study.)

Why would Rashi describe Yaakov as a pure and honest man, when just two chapters down the road, he’s going to engage in a complex deception of his father? The traditional commentators certainly sought to praise the characters they understood as heros, and similarly elaborated on the evil of those who came into conflict with the central characters. In the case of Yaakov, they may have even felt some defensiveness, a need to portray Esav as evil and Yaakov as purehearted in order to lessen the severity of Yaakov’s future fraud. After all, if Esav was an evil and scheming man, then he didn’t deserve the blessing anyway, and turnabout would then be fair play.

Perhaps there is a third way to understand Rashi’s description of Yaakov, an interpretation that does not deny what he will later come to do. Perhaps Rashi is hinting that Yaakov was indeed tam, in the sense of simple or straightforward, at that time, even if later on he would engage in an act of deceit. At that point in the brother’s development, Yaakov could be called simple or whole, because that described him as a human being. If, later, he did something wrong or irresponsible, that does not change his essential nature- it just means he did something wrong or irresponsible.

There is a beautiful passage in the first part of the morning prayers- the “blessings of dawn” or birchot hashachar- which begins “My God, the soul you have given me is pure.” Everybody gets to say this blessing in the morning, no matter what crazy thing one may have done the night before. Our souls are pure and whole, even if our actions are problematic. Rashi can call Yaakov tam in his speech and heart, even if he doesn’t always live up to that ideal, because one or two dreadful actions do not change one’s essential capacity for good. Yaakov was tam, even if he could not always live up to it. You and I good people with pure souls, even if we don’t always act to the level of our best selves.

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