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Archive for November, 2010

Parshat Miketz – Time for a Wakeup Call

Posted by rabbiart on November 30, 2010

Commenting on Pharoah’s first dream, where he stands over the river to see the healthy and then the unhealthy cattle come up out of it, R. Yochanon contrasts Pharoah’s dream-position with Jacob’s.  Referring to the verse, he says “the wicked stand over their gods.” As for the righteous, their G-d stands over them, as it says in Breshit 28, 13, “Behold, the Lord stood over him.” He refers, of course, to Jacob’s dream of the ladder which extends to the heavens. 

Reading the opening scene of our parshah, I find myself thinking of the Akedah.  In our parshah, the word הִנֵּה  (henei) occurs six times in the first seven verses.  It is as if the dreams – and their message – are being shoved in Pharoah’s face so that he must pay attention to them.  Contrast that to the opening of the Akedah, where HaShem simply calls out to Abrahan by his name, and he answers   הִנֵּנִי   (henai-ni or “Here I am”).

Is makes for a delightful story that all of Pharoah’s magicians and all of Pharoah’s wise men cannot decipher these dreams.  It sets up nicely for Joseph to emerge from jail, give credit to HaShem, interpret Pharoah’s dreams and cleverly suggest that somebody really, really smart should be appointed over all of Egypt and navigate the ship of state through the seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine that will follow.


But really! Are Pharoah’s dreams that difficult to understand? Seems pretty clear that something bad is coming.  Sick cattle eating healthy cattle?  When cows (notwithstanding commercial agribusiness practices) do not normally eat cows, or any kind of animal at all?  When sheaves, that have no mouths, eat other sheaves?  Could not any reasonably awake person infer that good times will be followed by bad.  (Take a time out and listen to Led Zeppelin sing Good Times Bad Times you know I had my share if you wish.)


Further on in the Midrash R. Joshua of Siknin says in the name of R. Levi: “There were indeed interpreters of the dream, but their interpretations were unacceptable to him.”  R. Levi reads verse seven to say that the magicians and wise men were able to interpret the dreams, but incorrectly.  He gives some examples.  The seven good cows mean that Pharoah will have seven daughters, but the seven lean cows mean they will all die, and he will bury them.  The seven good ears mean that Pharoah will conquer seven countries, but the seven sick ears mean that the seven countries will successfully revolt against Pharoah.  He continues by quoting Proverbs 14, 6, which reads “A scorner seeks wisdom but does not find it, but knowledge is easy to one who has discernment.”

Borrowing from the modern political world (but not making a political comment) it would appear that Pharoah cannot bring himself to face an inconvenient truth; he is not all-powerful, he cannot control the agricultural environment, he cannot prevent bad times that are coming to him and his country.  At best he can prepare.  And some would argue that he (or shall we blame Joseph) uses the opportunity to exploit his own countrymen by taking their own output from them in good times and returning it – at a price – in bad times.  (Note verse 56 where Joseph sells – not gives – the stored up food to the Egyptians.

As we read this parshah and wrestle as always with the question “what is the Torah telling us” perhaps we should think about our own inconvenient truths, whether they are personal or have implications for our communities and our country.  (OK, now I’m getting close to a political comment, or you can make your own).  Are we like Abraham, who answers “Here I am” at a single, one-word call?  Or are we like Pharoah, who really, really needs a wake-up call, and who uses a national crisis to exploit his own people.

You be the decider (so to speak).


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Parshat Vayeshev – Nothing But Trouble?

Posted by rabbiart on November 26, 2010

According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 106A) the use of the word Vayeshev indicates trouble  or anguish (Tza-ar or in the Hebrew צער  ) about to happen.  “R. Johanan said “Every place where it is said “vayeshev” it means there is trouble.”  (He quotes several places in the Torah where the usage occurs, and sure enough, bad things happen to Israel).  In Numbers 25 “Israel settled (vayeshev) in Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab”.  In Genesis 37 (our parshah) it begins “Jacob dwelled (vayeshev) in the land of his father’s wandering” and continues (the end of verse 2) “and Joseph brought evil report of them (his brothers) to their father”.  In Genesis 47:27 we read “Israel settled in the land of Egypt”.  We know what happened there on a grand scale, but two verses later we read “The time approached when Israel (Jacob, that is) would die.”What is it about settling in a place that causes problems? In these three verses we see different kinds of trouble/anguish.  It can be anguish on the personal level; the death of a parent, or any loved one.  It can be familial trouble as in our parshah, envy and conflict among siblings.  It can sexual misbehavior stemming from the loss of the moral compass, whether individually, in a community, or in an entire nation.

R. Johanon is surely not just making an interesting comment on the use of language in the Tanach; he must be going for something deeper and more signficant.  The next part of our opening verse tells us that Jacob settled in the land where his fathers (Abraham and Isaac) lived on a temporary basis (b’aretz m’gurei aviv), or wandered to and fro.  They were in movement, he lived at rest (albeit after a lot of temporary living after fleeing his brother’s wrath).  While Jacob lived temporarily – with Lavan – his life was constantly changing, and – according to the story – he grew both materially and spiritually.  Materially he left Canaan with nothing, and he returned with a full family and what seems like a great amount of wealth. Spirtually – he becomes Israel and he learns to recognize the moments in which he is graced with the divine presence.

But when Jacob settles down, things begin to come apart.  He is too obvious in his love and favoritism to his favored child. He makes a poor decision to send Joseph spying on the brothers who resent him for his dreams of dominance, and most likely for his father’s favoritism as well.   By the end of the chapter his favored son is lost and he mourns his reported death.Rabbi Eliezer Kwass, writing about the Tower of Babel story, observes the following about living in tranquility. “Even the righteous should not expect tranquility and peace of mind in this world, but should focus on action and work.  Ironically, teaches the Midrash, the moment one settles into a comfortable, unconfronted placed…something unsettling will inevitably occur.”

R. Yochanon lived and worked during the early period of the second exile, when the nation of Israel had lost its permanent home.  Arguably, this period is the most dynamic and creative in all of Jewish history.  Religious practice is reinvented, the Mishnah and two Talmuds are created and the basic framework of two millenia (and counting) of Jewish life is brought into being.  He, along with other of our great teachers, is saying that being ‘settled’ is not the way Jewish life is meant to be lived.  Jewish life, on an individual, communal and national level, is meant to be dynamic, active, in movement, in other words un-settled, in order for us to grow.

Although it will take a few more parshiot, we will see Joseph – and his brothers – grow in spirit and understanding, and resolve their familial conflicts, setting the stage for the growth of one Jewish family into an entire nation.

We are living in an unsettled time. There are very few in our community and in our nation – and in our ancient and modern homeland – that are untouched by trouble and anguish.  According to our tradition, this is the natural condition of life, so that we can strive, grow and become what we are meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom

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