This week’s parasha, Vayeshev, often falls on the Shabbat of Chanukah. Vayeshev and the Festival of Lights in fact share a number of connections, though on the surface there would seem to be little that is light in the parasha. In melodramatic fashion, each upturn in the story is matched by a sharper downturn. Joseph is loved most of all by his father, so he is hated by his brothers. When Reuven saves him from his brothers’ murderous intent, Joseph is taken from the pit and sold into slavery. He works his way up to be chief of Potiphar’s household, only to be falsely accused of a rape and cast into prison. He earns the gratitude of Pharaoh’s cupbearer, but it turns out to be short-lived, and Joseph must spend the week from Vayeshev to Miketz languishing in the dungeon. At the end of this week’s reading it is difficult to see the glass as half full.
Seemingly one of the most pessimistic readers of the story, Rabbi Tanhum, imagines for one of the verses a possibility even worse than the glass being half-empty. The Biblical text uses a peculiar duplication of language to describe the pit into which Joseph’s brothers cast him: that “Ha Bor Reik”- (the pit was empty) and “ein bo mayim” (had no water in it) (Genesis 37:24). Rabbi Tanhum, in an interpretation widely quoted by later commentators, understands this duplication to imply that while the pit had no water, it was full of snakes and scorpions. With one narrative touch, he changes the tone of the story from soap opera to reality TV -The brothers are either crueler or more careless than we might have thought otherwise.
Rabbi Tanhum’s statement is not particularly unusual in its content; the process of midrash often offers this type of embellishment. The statement stands out somewhat more for its context. It appears in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 22a) in the midst of a discussion about kindling the lights of Hanukkah, and how high off the ground they may be placed. To be fair, the flow of Talmud is not always linear; it offers many varieties of excurses and digressions. In fact, the most extensive discussion of Hanukkah in the Talmud only appears in the tractate Shabbat as an extended digression from the topic of Shabbat candles. In this case, the reason for the inclusion of a statement by Rabbi Tanhum is rather pedestrian. It follows another statement attributed to him, which is germane to the topic at hand: he notes that a Hanukkah light that is higher than twenty cubits off the ground (about thirty feet) does not fulfill the mitzvah. A candle that is too high off the ground will not be seen by passers-by, and will not contribute to pirsumei nisa- publicizing the miracle.
Rabbi Joshua Heller explains;” The religious spirit of Hanukkah is one of ascent and optimism. For instance, there were once two schools of thought regarding the proper lighting of Hanukkah candles. The school of Shammai taught that one begins by lighting eight candles on the first night, counting down to one, reflecting the days that have gone by and the quantity that remain. The practice of Hillel’s school, and our practice today, is to light an additional candle each night, to show the increasing greatness of the miracle. We celebrate the Maccabean victory even though it was short-lived, and focus even more on what is comparatively a minor miracle, the lights burning for eight days when it seemed that they would only last for one. Rabbi Tanhum’s statement reminds us that we must keep the reminders of goodness ever in sight, and in our minds. Conversely, the story of Vayeshev is one of descent- down into the pit, down into Egypt, down into the dungeon. Rabbi Tanhum’s reading, at first glance, would seem to make that descent even worse. However, I believe the intent of his statement, though, is just the opposite. He wants his listeners to be astonished by Joseph’s miraculous survival, and recognize the true extent of the divine providence that accompanied Joseph on each phase of his journey. Rabbi Tanhum would have us develop a new appreciation of the events of Vayeshev: The week-long cliff hanger exists only to whet our appetite for Joseph’s later triumphant ascendance. Each downward step of the story—from the brothers’ jealousy to Joseph’s descent into Egypt and Israel’s enslavement in Egypt—is part of a divine plan leading to their descendants’ redemption at the Red Sea and revelation at Sinai.
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In this week’s parshah, we read of the encounter between Esau and Jacob after many years of not seeing each other. Following the encounter, the Torah tells us that “Jacob arrived intact in Shechem” (Genesis 33:18), and goes on to tell us that Shechem is in the land of Canaan. Mentioning the fact that Shechem was in the land of Canaan seems superfluous. The Alshekh explains that possibly, the Torah wishes to absolve Jacob of even indirect responsibility in the rape of Dinah, reported afterwards. This is why Jacob is described as having returned in perfect physical, spiritual, and economic condition. Since nothing of this kind had happened when Jacob was traveling, exposed in no man’s land, far from a spiritually sacred place, this proves that the events with Dinah were not due to any negligence on Jacob’s part. Having also paid generously for the land he occupied, Dinah’s rape can also not be explained in terms of hostility by the local population towards Jacob and family. Her rape was due to her uncharacteristic tendency to go out alone, a tendency inherited perhaps from her mother, who had also gone out to meet her husband (30:16). Bereishit Rabbah 80 states that the fact that Dinah is referred to as daughter of Leah, in this context, though we are all aware of the fact, is to draw our attention to this hereditary trait in her. According to tradition, Berakhot 60 explains that she had originally been meant to be male, but had been born a female because of her mother’s prayer not to shame her sister Rachel by granting her fewer male offspring than the maidservants. If that is so, then Dinah’s tendency to leave the home unaccompanied was a residual male tendency, not a fault inherited from her mother. Moreover, since the Torah testifies that Dinah wanted to make contact with other girls (as distinct from males), the purity of her motivation is established. Had the prince himself not seen her, nobody would have dared molest her. At any rate, the Torah teaches that for the daughter of a man such as Jacob to go out alone is potentially dangerous. She ought to be chaperoned. In addition, the Torah teaches 3 other lessons: 1) It is natural for something impure to attempt to contaminate something pure. 2) An affinity of the impure for the pure exists only after the pure has become polluted. 3) Even after having absorbed a degree of pollution, the pure will not develop an affinity for the impure. The Torah emphasizes the lack of reciprocity of Shechem’s infatuation with Dinah both before and after the rape. Jacob’s silence may have been motivated by his fear that Dinah might have developed reciprocal feelings for Shechem, and refuse to come home even when rescued. The fact that Shechem is described as LOVING Dinah indicates that there was an element that transcended the merely biological, and that he had found words to appease her, i.e. “he spoke to her heart.”
Following the rape, Simeon and Levi “were distressed…because he had committed a disgraceful act against Israel, etc.” The Or Hachayyim comments that the Torah uses two expressions, 1) “they were angry,” and 2) “they were distressed” to indicate that Shechem had been guilty of two wrongs. It would have been shameful for the family of Jacob even if Shechem had married Dinah – seeing that they would not give their sister to an “unclean” person. That, however, would have been merely distressing. The fact that Shechem raped their sister – something that was repugnant even to the local inhabitants – aroused their anger. Bereishit Rabbah 80:6 states that Gentiles had accepted sexual restrictions upon themselves after the flood, and one of the restrictions included rape. This is the reason as to why the brothers’ anger was magnified, as Shechem had transgressed an important restriction.
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And Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva, and he went to Charan (Genesis 28:10). The story of Jacob’s journey to Charan is the story of every soul’s descent to the physical world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains: The soul, too, leaves behind the spiritual idyll of Be’er Sheva (literally, “Well of the Seven” — a reference to the supernal source of the seven divine attributes or sefirot from which the soul derives) and journeys to Charan (literally, “Wrath”): a place of lies, deceptions, struggle and hardship; a place in which material concerns consume one’s days and nights, sapping one’s energy, confusing one’s priorities, and all but obscuring the purpose for which one has come there in the first place. Yet it is in Charan, in the employ of Laban the Deceiver, not in the Holy Land and its “tents of learning,” that Jacob founds the nation of Israel. It is here that he marries and fathers eleven of the twelve sons who will become the twelve tribes of Israel. Had Jacob remained in the Holy Land, the life of this pious scholar who lived 3,500 years ago would have been of no significance to us today. The soul, too, achieves its enduring significance only upon its descent into “Charan.” Only as a physical being, invested within a physical body and inhabiting a physical environment, can it fulfill the purpose of its creation, which is to build “a dwelling for G-d in the physical world.”
And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head (28:18). But earlier in it says, “And he took of the stones of the place, and put them under his head.” This tells us that all the stones gathered themselves together into one place and each one said: “Upon me shall this righteous man rest his head.” Thereupon all were merged into one (Talmud Chulin 91b).
“Jacob kissed Rachel, and he raised his voice and wept” (Genesis 29:11). Upon meeting his cousin, the young girl destined to be his life-mate, Jacob, a man in his upper seventies, kissed her. The shepherds around them were disgusted. Who does he think he is? He comes to our town to bring perversion. We have to do something about this. Jacob overheard their conversation and was upset. He kissed Rachel as an expression of love for his cousin, in a familial type of a way. He had no sensual thoughts, no lustful motives. If so, why did Jacob cry? He cried because he recognized that he had made a mistake. He hadn’t realized that the townsfolk were so base and so sensually oriented that they would take his innocent kiss as anything more than it was. (This explanation of the passage is based upon the commentary Da’as Sofrim by Rabbi Chaim D. Rabinowitz, a noted Torah scholar in Israel.)
We, the people of the Book, live life on a different plane. Although we have lived for centuries among the nations of the world, we remain, spiritually and intellectually, separate. It doesn’t even dawn on Jacob to look at Rachel in a lustful way, he was thinking in more elevated terms. He was thinking of family and of the future of the Jewish people. The townsfolk were not oriented the same way and their reaction was formed on the basis of their base assumptions.
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The Torah states: “Jacob was an ‘Ish tam’ (straight person) who sat in tents (of study)” (Genesis 25:27) what do we learn from the fact that Jacob was an “Ish tam”? Rashi defines the word “tam” as a person who is not skilled in deceiving others. As is his heart, so are his words. Jacob was not called a “tam,” but an “Ish Tam.” That is, he was a master over the trait of being a “tam.” He was totally honest, a man of great integrity. However, in those situations when it was appropriate to use cunning strategy to accomplish something, he was able to do so.
The Rebbi from Lublin teaches that a person needs to be the master over all of his traits and appropriately use them. As the Sages say, “Whoever is compassionate when he should be cruel will eventually be cruel when he should be compassionate.” If a person fails to apply so-called negative traits in their proper times, he will end up applying them when it is wrong to do so.
After Avraham died, Jacob cooked lentil soup as a sign of mourning. Esau came from the field, saw the soup and said, “… please, pour for me from this red thing” (Genesis 25:30). Later in the Torah portion (27:22) the commentator, Rashi, mentions that Jacob always spoke politely and used the word “please.” Esau, however, always spoke in a rough manner to his father. What can we learn from the fact that he was polite in this conversation?
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin explains: Even though Esau excelled in honoring his father, he still spoke to him in an insolent and arrogant manner. We see here that when Esau had a desire for food, he spoke in a respectful manner and used the term ‘na’, “please”. This is the manner of people with faulty traits. Even though they constantly talk with chutzpah, when it comes to manipulating someone to fulfill their desire, they speak softly and humbly.
When Yitzchak found out that he gave the blessings to Yaakov and not to Esau as he thought he had, the Torah tells us: “Yitzhak trembled greatly” (Genesis 27:33). Why did Yitzhak tremble so much? Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the late Rosh HaYeshiva of Mir, cited the Sages who stated that Yitzhak experienced greater fear and anxiety at this moment than he did at the akaidah, when he was brought up as a sacrifice by his father, Avraham. There he was bound and ready to be killed with a sharp blade. From here we see, said Rav Chaim that the realization that one made a mistake is the greatest of pains. This was not a onetime mistake. Rather, Yitzhak realized that all the years he thought Esau was more deserving than Yaakov he was in error. The anxiety experienced in the awareness of error is a powerfully painful emotion.
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The Torah tells us that “Sarah died at Kiryat Arba – the same is Hebron” (Genesis 23:2). The Or Hachayyim explains that we must not misunderstand that Kiryat Arba was the cause of her death. The reason the town was mentioned and was so named is to tell us that it was built on the four basic elements. Death normally implies a departure from, or disintegration of, the four basic elements that a body is composed of. When the Torah adds that “Kiryat Arba” is also known as Hebron, this is meant to be an illusion to the word “habor” – something that is joined together. The message is that when the righteous ‘die’, this is not to be viewed as a process of disintegration. The righteous are still called “alive” even when they have ceased to function in regular bodies on this earth. Maimonides illustrates this somewhat in the fourth chapter of Hilchot Yesodei Torah, where he describes that one element is capable of becoming transformed into another element, which was similar to it, i.e. earth can be transformed into water. When man cleaves to God, all his elements become transformed into fire, the element, which forms the basis of the soul. The Torah adds the apparently superfluous words “in the land of Canaan.” This is an allusion to the fact that this present world is called ‘The Land of Canaan”, a simile for the evil inclination or Satan. This is so because the existence of Satan is the incentive for us to overcome him and to attain holiness and sanctity (Zohar 1:80).
Eliezer, Abraham’s trusted servant, is sent on a mission to find a wife for Isaac. He meets Rebeccah and knows that she will become Isaac’s wife, as she passes all the required tests. When Eliezer goes in to meet the family, he states the following: “I am a slave of Abraham” (Genesis 24:34). The Alshekh comments that Eliezer wanted to forestall enquiries as to why Abraham or Isaac had not come personally on such an important errand. He also wanted to reassure them concerning the age difference between Isaac and Rebeccah. By pointing out that though he held a high position, he was still a slave, he made them aware of the great stature of his master. It would not be dignified for someone of his master’s stature to come PERSONALLY on such an errand. Therefore, he mentioned something about Abraham’s great wealth. By explaining the circumstances of Isaac’s birth, he assured them that Isaac was not blemished and suffered no disability. The fact that Isaac had not come himself was not because he had something to hide. He also wanted Rebeccah’s family to know that Isaac would be the sole heir of all his wealth. If Isaac had waited this long to get married, it was not for lack of willing partners, but because Abraham did not want Canaanite blood in his family. He wanted it understood that this was the ONLY objection of the local girls, but that Eliezer would be free to choose anywhere but in the land of Canaan, even if such a girl were not related to Abraham. Concerning their possible reservations about entrusting Rebeccah to him, a mere slave, Abraham had assured him that God would send an angel to precede him on his mission. He relates how such prediction had indeed been fulfilled at the well. Also, he had covered the distance in a single day; further proof of Divine assistance (“I arrived this day”). When relating the test he had decided on at the well, he changes the details so as not to give the impression that ANY girl who would offer him water had a chance to become Isaac’s wife. This is why he refers to almah, a young lady of a good family.
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In this week’s parshah, we read of the interminable sin of the Israelites with their construction of the Golden Calf. Much work and study has gone into exploring this act, and we will look at some of the commentaries surrounding this issue, and what, in actuality, was the Israelites’ sin.
Judah Halevi explores this issue and states that the Israelites’ offence lay in the fashioning of an image which had been forbidden to them, and in attributing Divine sanctity to the product of their own desires and hands without being commanded to do so by God. In extenuation of their sin, Halevi explains that we should remember the lack of unanimity that preceded it and the fact that the worshippers of the Golden Calf constituted only 3,000 out of a mass of 600,000 persons. However, the excuse of the leaders who helped in fashioning the Golden Calf was that they did so for the purpose of distinguishing between the believer and disbeliever in order to put to death those caught actually worshipping it. Their culpability lay in leading the rebellion from the realm of thought into that of deed. Judah Halevi also attempts to analyze the role of Aaron in this whole ordeal, for as we know, he is considered blameworthy and was punished in connection to this sin. Halevi believes that the sin of the Israelites did not constitute a total repudiation of the service of He that brought them out of Egypt, but was rather a partial repudiation of some of God’s commands. The Almighty had warned them against making images, and they had made one instead of waiting. They themselves had no right to determine the mode of worship and make an altar and sacrifices in accordance with it. Their conduct can be compared to the parable of the fool who entered the doctor’s dispensary and himself prescribed the drugs, thereby killing the patients who would have been saved by being given the proper doses by the doctor himself. The people did not intend to commit idolatry but imagined that they were striving to worship the true God. For this reason, they applied to Aaron to translate their strivings into reality. Their sin seems much more serious today because few indulge in actual worship of images as they did in those days. If instead they had built a house of worship to suit their own wishes, it would not have seemed so serious to us since we are accustomed today to build our own houses of worship and even maintain that the Divine presence rests on them. Were it not for the necessity in exile of keeping the community together, this conduct of ours would be forbidden just as it was in the days of the kings when they denounced those who made their own private places of worship which were called ‘high places’. Pious kings tore them down in order to preserve the uniqueness of the house which God himself had chosen. In those days, images were not in themselves forbidden. As we may note from the Divine command to make the cherubim. Despite all this, and the death punishment of the 3,000 sinners, the manna did not stop, the pillar of fire continued to lead them, and the prophetic spirit persisted in their midst. The only thing that they were deprived of was the two tablets, which Moses broke and interceded with God to restore. These were restored, and that iniquity was expiated.
Nechama Leibowitz helps to clarify Halevi’s outlook and states that he maintains the legitimacy of the cherubim and the forbidden nature of the Golden Calf, which was derived solely from the express command of God Himself. Images were not in themselves reprehensible. The calf was forbidden because it was not made at the bidding of the Almighty. The cherubim were permitted because they were made in accordance with His wish. Man must not arbitrarily make his own laws, and create his own ritual. This must be determined strictly in accordance with Divine wishes.
One may question how the Israelites, who had heard the word of God himself, transgressed the command of making a graven image, and as a result, had to wander in the desert for 40 years. Rambam, in his Guide for the Perplexed, explains: It is not in the nature of man reared in slavery, in bricks and straw and the like, to wash his hands, as it were, of their dirt and suddenly rise up and fight with the progeny of Anak (the giants of Canaan). God, in his wisdom, contrived that the Israelites wander in the wilderness until they had become schooled in courage, since it is well known that physical hardships toughen and the converse produces faintheartedness. A new generation was born which had not been accustomed to slavery and degradation. Leibowitz interjects that we therefore should not be astonished that the generation that had heard the voice of the living God and had received the commandment “thou shalt not make other gods besides Me” descended to the making of the Golden calf forty days later. One single religious experience, however profound, was not capable of changing the people from idol worshippers into monotheists.
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