Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh again. Aaron throws down his staff and it turns into a crocodile. Apparently, this is meant to impress Pharaoh with Aaron’s and Moses’ God-given powers. Yet Pharaoh is not impressed at all. Instead he summons his magicians and they conjure up staffs and they throw them down and their staffs also turn into crocodiles. Even though Aaron’s staff swallows up the others, Pharaoh in unmoved. (Ex. 7:8-13)
We embark on the story of Israel as a people by being introduced to a series of courageous women. It is only through their bravery and decency that we exist. I have written before of the righteous midwives who defy Pharaoh’s orders to kill all Hebrew male babies. (See Sparks 2012) They are not only courageous; they are also wily enough to talk their way out of trouble when Pharaoh confronts them. (Ex. 1:15-21)
The last verses of this last portion of the book of Genesis have Joseph, on his deathbed, making his brothers swear that, ‘As the Almighty will surely remember you, you must take my bones up with you from this place.’ The narrator then reports that Joseph died and was embalmed. The book closes with a dark image of closure: ‘And he was placed into a coffin chest in Egypt.’ (Gen. 50:25-26)
But, of course, this is only an apparent image of closure, since we are meant to wonder whether Joseph’s brothers or their descendants will remember Joseph’s bones and retrieve them when redemption arrives.
Joseph’s brothers, right before they attacked him and disposed of him, had called him, derisively, “The Dream Master.” (Gen. 37:19) But Joseph was not the first in his family to be overtaken with dreams. His father Jacob was perhaps even more rightly entitled to that title. (And perhaps this was one reason – the clear inheritance by Joseph of his father’s qualities – that added to the brothers’ resentment.)
Let us notice, in a story full of twists and turns of plot, one simple, quiet moment in a scene that is fraught with drama.
Joseph has become Viceroy of Egypt. He is in the middle of manipulating his brothers so as to fulfill the dreams he had more than twenty years before. As they all enter his hall so as to eat a formal meal, Joseph looks upon his younger brother and must run out of the room to hide his emotional tears. This is one of many times that Joseph weeps. His tears flow from a place of persistent estrangement. There is such a great imbalance of perceptions. He sees the brothers for who they are, but the brothers do not yet know who this powerful and mysterious official is. He is not one of them. Perhaps he cries because he senses that he will never be one of them.
Every year our celebration of Chanukah coincides with our reading in the Torah of the extensive drama of Joseph and his brothers. Indeed, there is an essential parallel between these two sagas. The Chanukah story is not only a story of Jewish resistance to an external foe; it is also the story of the internal conflict between members of the Jewish family over defining Jewish identity in a modern world.
Each of our three patriarchs was confronted by a son who challenged him and asked him a question.
As they walked together up the mountain to offer God a sacrifice, Abraham was asked by Isaac, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” (Gen. 22:7) Abraham offers a response meant to reassure his loyal son, telling him to trust in God, Who will provide.
“Rabbi Tarfon had a mother and, whenever she wished to go up onto her bed, he would bend down and raise her up [to the bed]. And, whenever she wished to go down off the bed, he would lie down and she would step down upon him.” (BTQiddushin 31b)
This is just one of many stories told in the Talmud about the lengths that some sages went to so as to treat their parents with honor – to serve them, cater to their needs, and to make their lives a little easier. That topic is broad and deep, but not for our consideration right now. Rather, it is the image of Rabbi Tarfon on the floor that I wish to contemplate. He treats his mother well, not merely by making sure she has good clothes, food and shelter. (We know that Rabbi Tarfon was very wealthy.) Rather, he assists her thorough his own body. He lies on the floor and seeks to be a footstool for his mother in order for her to get into bed or out of bed more easily. She steps on his large, soft body (for we know that Rabbi Tarfon was a man of substantial girth) in order to elevate herself onto the bed or in order to then step on the hard, cold floor. Rabbi Tarfon is a stepping-stone and a cushion to serve his mother.
“Perhaps my father will hold me to feel me …?” (Gen. 27:12)
Jacob imagines that his father will wish to touch him and feel his limbs. Why?
During these days of isolation and quarantine we are permitted to read this story – of Jacob’ obtaining his father’s blessing through subterfuge – with a heightened appreciation for its tactile elements. We usually read Isaac’s actions as gropings to dispel his doubts. And we are accustomed to following the stages of the preparations that Rebecca and Jacob perform as completely focused on fooling Isaac, so that he will not guess Jacob’s true identity when he bestows the blessing on his son. But we should pay more attention to Isaac’s own preparations as he readies himself to give over that blessing. Continue reading
Parashat Hayyei Sarah
Our Torah portion opens with the death of Sarah and with Abraham’s efforts to bring her to burial. To do this he must enter into negotiations with the local people, the Hittites, so as to acquire a plot of land in which to inter Sarah. Readers have noticed that the Torah is very terse in reporting Abraham’s emotional expressions regarding his loss. But it goes to much greater length to detail the in’s-and-out’s of the negotiation for the land. (See a discussion on this issue in my article on a text of the Zohar on this story:
What is the point of relating all the details of this business transaction? We may derive some insight by paying attention to at least one of those details. After Abraham starts the conversation by asking to buy a burial plot, the Hittites respond: “Listen to us, master…” (Gen. 23:6) By themselves these words are unremarkable. But they set up a recurring motif in the discussion. Abraham’s response includes: “Listen to me…” (v. 8) Then Efron, the potential seller, begins his words by saying, “No, my master, listen to me…” (v. 11) Then, again, he says: “But you, please, if you would but listen to me…” (v. 13) and “My master, listen to me…” (v. 15) Finally, the Torah reports: “And Abraham listened to Efron…” (v. 16)