Archive for December, 2010

Vaera: The Inner Frog. . . .

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’era

Good afternoon!

Our last commentary for the Gregorian year 2011 is Va’era, in which Moshe calls a whole bunch of plagues down on Pharaoh and the land of Egypt, including, of course, frogs:

“If you refuse to let them go, then I will plague your whole country with frogs.The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers.'” (Shmot/ Exodus 7:27-29)

Now, in the translation above, there’s a distinction made between the frogs going “in” to the palace, the bed, the houses, and even the ovens and kneading bowls, and “up on you” [Pharaoh] and “your courtiers.” In Hebrew, however, it’s all the same preposition, the letter bet, which can mean “in,” or “on,” among other meanings, depending on context. Our friend Rashi chooses to understand the latter part of the sentence as conveying the same meaning as the first part: e.g., the frogs are “in” Pharoah and his courtiers. In fact, Rashi takes this to mean that the frogs would enter into the innards of Pharoah and his court and croak there!

Here’s a perfect example of things being less ridiculous than they seem- as opposed to many other phenomena, most of which appear on cable news, which are far more ridiculous than we general acknowledge. The frogs being “in” Pharoah is not, I think, to be taken literally, but is instead a metaphor within a metaphor, since the plagues themselves can be seen as a narrative assertion that no man, least of all Pharaoh, is a god. Nature will not be controlled by humankind; we are, instead, humbled by it.

The image of the frogs entering into Pharaoh and croaking from within him is at once playful, even comic – reminding us that ridicule is the ultimate weapon against tyrants- and also a visual metaphor for an inchoate awareness that the status quo of Egypt will not stand. I think Rashi means to suggest that with the plague of frogs, something is beginning to rumble and croak, as it were, within Pharaoh- not within his body, but within his conscience, perhaps, or at least consciousness.

Thus the force of verse 8:11, in which Pharaoh’s heart is hardened as soon as the frogs are lifted; it’s quite amazing the extent to which human beings can shut out awareness of things which discomfort or disturb a carefully constructed view of self and surroundings. Pharaoh is not stupid: the awareness of his precarious position can enter him, but the work of reevaluating his relationship to the world is perhaps too hard, perhaps too scary, perhaps too humbling, perhaps too unsettling.

Yet to be introspective is to be human: if you hear a frog croaking within you, or any other sign that the world is calling you to see it anew, listen and reflect, learn and grow! Pharaoh could not, but we can.

Shabbat Shalom, and happy solar New Year,

RNJL

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Sh’mot: Sense of Self

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sh’mot

“The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Yosef being already in Egypt. . . . “
(Sh’mot/ Exodus 1:5)

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef.” (1:8)

Greetings!

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, Sh’mot- literally, “names,” from the recounting of the names of the sons of Yaakov in the first verse. Verse five seems fairly straightforward: the total count of Yaakov’s children and their families was seventy when they came down to Egypt to live under Yosef’s protection. Our friend Rashi points out that we don’t really need to be told that “Yosef was already in Egypt,” because Yosef and his family were included in the total of seventy, and besides, everybody already knows that Yosef was in Egypt, so why bring it up?

Good question!

Rashi’s answer is subtle: the verse mentions Yosef among the seventy descendants of Yaakov and again as “in Egypt” because it’s making the point that it was the same Yosef, as it were, who tended Yaakov’s sheep as a boy and then became Prime Minister of the great empire, all the while being steadfast in his goodness.

Now, we might have a discussion about exactly how admirable Yosef was over the years, but the traditional rabbinic understanding is that he is Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the righteous one, so I think Rashi is saying that it’s especially praiseworthy that he retained this moral orientation while reaching the highest levels of power and status. According to Rashi’s interpretation, Yosef had an inner life, a core identity or grounding in moral principles that gave him a durable sense of self, whether he was a brash young boy or a commander of nations.

Now, let’s compare this to the next verse quoted at the top, about Pharaoh, who “did not know Yosef.” Rashi now brings a rabbinic debate about whether this was really a new king, or just a king who made new and unexpected decrees. In either case, Rashi doesn’t believe that the Pharaoh didn’t know who Yosef was. Rather, he acted as if he didn’t know who Yosef was. In other words, the Pharaoh, whether old or new, chose to disregard the legacy of the man who saved Egypt.

Comparing these two interpretations, perhaps Rashi is trying to make a larger point about the choices that people face: one can let the external circumstances of life draw you one way or another, or one can maintain a steadfast set of internal orientations, which in turn determine how one reacts to events. Are you like Pharaoh, choosing to forget that which you may have known just recently, as long as it’s tactically advantageous, or are you like Yosef, who (according to this reading) retained his moral compass even in a foreign land, even under extreme duress, and even when there was no power on earth who could hold him accountable for transgressions?

Pharaoh knew darn well who Yosef was; but in the Pharaoh world of instrumental values, loyalty meant nothing if power was at stake, so forgetting was easy. Yosef, on the other hand, chose to forgive when nobody could have stopped him from taking vengeance; he thought of others, and thought of the person he wished to be. That’s hard, but that’s the challenge of life itself: to know and nurture and realize the spirit within, so that we become who we truly are, children of Israel and inheritors of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayechi: Seek to Understand

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This week we conclude several stories: the story of Yaakov’s life, the story of the difficult relationship between Yosef and his brothers, and the story of Yosef himself, who dies at the very end of the book of Bereshit, making his surviving brothers swear to bring his bones up out of Egypt when they eventually leave. (Cf. Bereshit/ Genesis 50:24-26.)

Yet between the deaths of Yaakov and Yosef, there is a touching scene upon the return of the brothers from burying their father in the land of Israel: the brothers think that perhaps now, at last, Yosef will take revenge on them for their mistreatment of him decades earlier. He forgives them and reiterates his belief that God intended it for good, to bring him to power in Egypt in order to save the family. (Cf. 50:15-19.) The Torah begins this story with a detail that seems unnecessary at best :

When Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Yosef still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him! ‘ ” (50:15)

Rashi asks the obvious question: what’s up with telling us that Yosef’s brothers “saw that their father was dead?” They had all just come back from a long journey to bury him! Not only that- but we already know they are Yosef’s brothers and not somebody else’s brothers, so that’s another extra word- unless it was merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.*

To which Rashi might say- if he were in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: corroborative fiddlestick!

Rather, Rashi understands verse 15 to be all of one piece: that is, the brothers saw the death of their father through Yosef, that is, Yosef’s actions. “Saw” in this reading is not a physical seeing, but understanding the significance of something. Rashi says that the brothers “saw” [ that is, fully understood the implications of ] Yaakov’s death when Yosef’s behavior changed, inasmuch as he would usually invite them to dine at his royal table, by way of honoring their father Yaakov. When their father died, Yosef didn’t invite them-  literally, “bring them close”- as he did before.

Rashi’s interpretation of the Torah’s phrasing offers us one answer as to why the brothers would suddenly fear that Yosef would take revenge on them, yet we might also say that if Yosef wanted to harm them, he had ample time and opportunity to do so without waiting till they all got home and settled. Thus, I think Rashi’s reading also illustrates another important principle: namely, we often have no idea what other people are thinking, and sometimes interpret their actions (a dinner invitation, or lack thereof) on the basis of our own fears, anxieties, guilt, or resentment. It seems to me that Yosef’s brothers are themselves revisiting their actions, and imagining that Yosef is feeling the same negative emotions that they are.

Taking this midrash at face value, we might further see this episode this as a sad miscommunication, with Yosef’s brothers unable to perceive his grief over their father’s death and misinterpreting his reticence as anger at them. Perhaps Yosef was confused as to how to proceed with his brothers, given his high status- maybe he was just as worried that they would resent him and their dependence upon him, as he was, after all, still one of the youngest brothers. People grieve in very different ways: some need time alone, some need time with others, some need to talk, some need to reflect privately, some need to get busy, some need to take quiet walks. Maybe Yosef didn’t invite his brothers to dinner because he didn’t know how to manage his different roles- as politician, father, brother, and grieving son- in the wake of Yaakov’s death.

Transitions are hard, and communicating with those around us at those times can be even harder. Rashi reminds us that it can be a peril to speculate too much about others; seeking to ask and understand without preconception can be a surer path to peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*Click here if you don’t get the reference.

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Vayigash: Forgiveness Grows

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Brrrr. . . .it’s cold in the Hudson Valley, so reading about Yosef and his brothers in the land of Egypt is about the only sunshine and warmth we’re likely to get this week!

Vayigash literally means “he drew close,” and this is the theme of the portion on many levels: Yehudah may have drawn physically close to Yosef when he pleads on behalf of Binyamin, but Yosef, in turn, reveals himself to his brothers and draws them close to him emotionally. After the revelation of Yosef’s true identity (check out Rashi for a risque midrash about how Yosef proved he was a Hebrew), Yosef tells the brothers not to worry about that whole “throwing him in the pit” episode from years back, for it was God’s way of sending him to Egypt to be able to care for the whole family. Then, Yosef sends the brothers back to the land of Israel to get their father and bring the whole family down to Egypt to live under Yosef’s protection:

“As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, ‘Do not be quarrelsome on the way.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 45:24)

Well- that’s interesting. Why would Yosef assume the brothers would be quarrelsome along the way? They’d just been told that their greatest crime was forgiven and their whole family would be saved in the famine!

Our aforementioned friend Rashi offers no less than three answers to this question, two of which we are going to leave for another day (but which you can find here.) Rashi says the simple answer is that because the brothers were so ashamed of what they had done to Yosef years earlier, they would argue along the way about who was really responsible, pointing the finger at one another and saying “because of you he was sold, you spoke badly of him and caused us to hate him.”

What makes this a subtle and perceptive interpretation is the implication that the brothers will feel ashamed and blame each other not because they’re in trouble, but after Yosef has spoken kindly to them and, as above, drawn them close to him and told them not to worry anymore. (Cf. 45:5-6) That is, being forgiven does not end the process of moral introspection but may actually evoke more of it, precisely because not worrying about retribution means that the offending party need fear no judge but himself.

The brothers were not only shocked to find out that their long-sold brother was the Prime Minister of Egypt; they were also shocked that his first words were ones of reconciliation. I can only imagine that after years of denying the pangs of conscience, guilt would turn on itself in anger and blame among themselves once the brothers experienced Yosef’s magnanimity. Hence- Yosef’s acute awareness that the process of reconciliation and forgiveness is not over with one act, but will play out over years, even decades, coming up again after their father dies some 17 years later.

We learn from this that peace is not cheap, but requires attention and care, conversation and conscience, honesty and courage, from all parties. Forgiveness doesn’t happen once and it’s over; it is something that grows with effort and love.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Miketz/ Hanukkah: Small Things Grow

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Miketz/ Shabbat Hanukkah

Happy Holiday of Lights!

Our Torah portion this week continues the story of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt, and we read a special haftarah for the Shabbat of Hanukkah. This haftarah comes from the book of Zechariah, who exhorted the Jews returning from the first exile to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. He tells the High Priest, Yehoshua, to claim his role and promises that if he does so faithfully and ethically, the greater redemption will come:

“Hearken well, 0 High Priest Joshua, you and your fellow priests sitting before you! For those men are a sign that I am going to bring My servant the Branch” (Zech. 4:8, JPS translation)

“My servant,” in the context above, probably means the proper king of Israel, whose restored sovereignty would show that the redemption from exile was complete. Yet commentators have puzzled over the final phrase: “My servant, the branch,” or “I will bring My servant like a growing plant.” The final word, tzemach, means sprouting or growing plant, and could simply mean, in context, that redemption doesn’t happen all at once, but unfolds over time.

Hirsch sees an additional meaning in the image of “branch” or “growing plant.” For Hirsch, the metaphor of plant or sprout has the resonance of great things growing out of small things. He compares it to how an acorn grows into an oak: when you see an acorn, you can hardly imagine a huge oak tree, and when you see the tree, you can hardly imagine that it began as something you hold in your hand.

Similarly, the ultimate redemption of humankind begins with small and imperceptible progress, and will unfold over time into something great and amazing.

That, to me, is another connection to Hanukkah, for every great historical accomplishment begins with small things: a conversation, an idea, a single courageous act. Setting aside for today any controversies about the historicity of the traditional Hanukkah story, we might simply imagine that the eventual victory of the Maccabees began with one action, one word, one decision. . . .and grew into something that changed history, just like the acorn grows into the towering oak.

Seen this way, Zechariah’s promise to the High Priest is also a call to every generation: do not despair that your deeds are too little and the darkness is too much, for great things grown out of small acts of faith and courage.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,

RNJL

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