Archives for December 2013

Torah Reflections – December 22 – 28, 2013

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Know Thyself to be Enslaved

Every year, as I meet the text narrating the plagues of Egypt, I am confronted with the same paradox. God commends Moses to ask Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. Pharaoh refuses. God brings down a plague. Pharaoh yields to Moses’ demands. Then, inexplicably, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and the latter, consequently, reverses his edict and keeps the Israelites enslaved. Why is God playing both sides? And why does God need to replay this scene ten times? One can take this questioning further and ask why God sets up the whole thing in the first place? Why, already in the time of Abraham, had God determined that the Hebrews would descend into Egypt, be enslaved there for four hundred years, only to then be liberated and brought to the Promised Land? Why did we have to get there via Egypt? [Read more…]

Torah Reflections – December 15 – 21, 2013


Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Beyond Fear And Morality

This week we open the Book of Exodus. Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt as Joseph, then Viceroy, invited them to. After that generation dies out we are told,

“the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” [Ex. 1:7] But then: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” [Ex.1:8] Pharaoh, out of fear of the Hebrews being “much too numerous” [Ex. 1:9], began to enslave and oppress them, and ordered the Israelite midwives to kill every newborn boy. But Pharaoh’s genocidal attempt was thwarted by the midwives themselves who, in the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history, “did not do as the king of Egypt had told them.” [Ex. 1:17] Why did the midwives risk their lives to save the children? The Torah answers: “Because [they] feared God.” [Ex. 1:21]

This stated motivation for the midwives to act counter to Pharaoh’s edict is problematic, and deserves deeper exploration. Torah is subject to multitude of interpretations and this passage is no exception. One level of interpretation reads this statement as presuming that the midwives acted out of fear of Divine punishment. They thought Pharaoh’s potential retribution to be of lesser consequence to them than that of God. Their actions, though life-saving, were ultimately self-serving; choosing the lesser of two evils. Not only does this understanding diminish the midwives, it also paints a portrait of a God only able to elicit fidelity from His people through fear and coercion; a God not much better than Pharaoh himself. But a commentary in the Etz Hayim Torah interprets the verse at another level:

The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe…. They were willing to risk punishment at the hand of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God. [Etz Hayim, p.320]

[Read more…]

Torah Reflections – Dec. 8 – 14, 2013


Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Conditioned Happiness                            

Last week as I studied the Torah portion, after reading numerous rabbinic commentaries, an image emerged of Jacob’s soul-to soul connection to his son, Benjamin. Upon reading this week’s portion and many more commentaries later, another, less complimentary side of Jacob’s personality was brought forth. I love that our tradition allows this — models human complexity, imperfection and contradiction.

This week’s Torah portion opens:

“Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years. Jacob’s days — the years of his life — were seven years and forty years and one hundred years.” [Gen: 47:28]

In his commentary, Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (13th c. Germany) notes the peculiar way Jacob’s lifetime is accounted for in this verse. Contrary to that of our other two forefathers, this account mentions the lesser numbers first, while the Torah records Abraham, for example, to have lived “a hundred and seventy years and five years” [Gen. 25:7]. Rabbi Ben Asher resolves this contradiction by teaching that the smaller number, seven years, is mentioned here first because, at Jacob’s own admission, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life” [Gen. 47:9]. But this is not the only aspect of the text that bothers R. Ben Asher. Next, he brings our attention to the first word of our quote: “Vayechi – lived.” Why does Torah choose this specific word? Why not use “settled” or “spent” instead, which are more commonly found in Torah? He tells us that here, in contradistinction to Jacob’s negative self-report, he seems to have truly “lived,” to have been fully alive and happy during these seventeen years in Egypt. How come?
[Read more…]

Torah Reflections – Dec. 1 – 7, 2013


Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Joseph: Accountability and Free Will                                 

Chapter 45 is pivotal in the Book of Genesis. Joseph, Jacob’s favored son, who had been second-in-command of Egypt for the past nine years, reveals himself to his brothers after they come to Pharaoh’s court from Canaan to beg for food, as the Mideast’s famine enters its second year. Joseph, in a tearful embrace, forgives his step-brothers for selling him into slavery some twenty-two years earlier, and asks them to bring his father and the entire tribe down to Egypt where he will provide them with the most fertile parcels of land. He says to them:

 “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here but God.” [Gen. 45:5-8a]

Though on the surface Joseph’s statement is filled with compassion and understanding, it raises many questions. What about the brothers’ accountability for their earlier misdeeds? And what about free will? [Read more…]