Miketz: In the Twinkling of an Eye

Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph and they rushed him out of the dungeon; he shaved himself and changed his clothes and came to Pharaoh. (Bereishit 41:14).

Joseph stands outside
inhaling sweet night air,
the balmy breeze flits lightly on his face.

Last night a ragged captive
lying listlessly alone
gazing at the moon through iron bars

today, released with baffling speed,
arrayed in fine attire,
he is ushered in to stand before the king.

A free man now, he sleeps tonight
honoured and at ease:
the Grand Vizier of the land of Egypt.

God’s salvation – manifest
in the twinkling of an eye.

The Sforno says that the word “vayeritsuhu” – and they rushed him, tells us that Divine salvation always comes hastily, speedily.
In his book, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says that in Midrashic parlance there is an expression which has provided solace to suffering Jews for thousands of years: “Salvation can come in the twinkling of an eye.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Joseph’s story: he goes to bed one night as he has done for the last two years, as a falsely accused prisoner in an Egyptian dungeon, and the next night he goes to sleep as the Grand Vizier of Egypt.
The Chafetz Chaim* says on the same phrase that when the appointed time arrives, God does not tarry for even a moment: Joseph’s time as a prisoner was up so he was taken immediately out of the jail. In the same way, he says, when the time comes to usher in the Messianic age, nothing will delay it…

*Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan (1838-1933) is commonly known as the “Chafetz Chaim,” the name of his famous work on guarding one’s tongue. As his reputation grew, students from all over Europe flocked to him and by 1869 his house became known as the Radin Yeshiva. The Chafetz Chaim published twenty one books. His first work, Sefer Chafetz Chaim (1873), is the first attempt to organize and clarify the laws regarding Lashon Hara. Other notable works include the Sefer Shmirat HaLashon, an ethical work on the importance of guarding one’s tongue and the Mishnah Berurah (1894-1907) which is a commentary on the Orach Chayim; the first section of the Shulchan Aruch and has been accepted universally among Ashkenazi Jews as an authoritative source of Halacha.


Chanuka: The Hidden Light

“Let them make Me a sanctuary
and I will dwell within them.” (Shemot 25:8)

The light has been hidden
in these dark winter days.
And now, at Chanuka
we light the lamps
starting with just one
flickering at the window.
Maybe I can rededicate
the sanctuary of my heart:
can that tiny cruse of oil
be the catalyst
to reawaken
the hidden light within?

In a Chanuka teaching, the Sefat Emet quotes the verse from Shemot above, on which he says that there is a certain pure place in each of us, but it is deeply hidden. Once the Temple was destroyed, he suggests, the evidence that God dwelt among us disappeared. But even now, that hidden dwelling place can be found by searching with candles. In his book, The Language of Truth,* Rabbi Arthur Green comments, “The Chanuka candles are here reinterpreted as a spiritual symbol: they are the light of the mitsvot by which we search out our inner selves. We are looking for the hidden divine light within ourselves…Chanuka is the time of rededication, making the Temple once again pure enough to be a dwelling place for God. Our inner Temple, too, needs to be rededicated anew, to become again the place where God can dwell “within them.”

*a translation and interpretation of the Sefat Emet’s Torah commentary.

Vayeshev: The Rainbow Cloak

“And Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, for he was a son of his old age; and he made him an embroidered cloak.” (Bereishit 37:3)

Jacob clothes his son in splendor,
wraps him in a rainbow cloak,
Jacob’s tears drip down like dewfall
on the bright-hued pristine cloth.

Joseph draws his hood about him
cocoons himself inside his cloak,
walking tall among his brothers
regales them with his dreams of fame.

Striding fast in cloak enfolded,
Joseph comes to seek his brothers:
the glory of his garb betrays him,
they spot the colors from afar.

“What a picture!” mocks one brother
“Daddy’s darling!” spits another.
“Why not kill the loathsome dreamer?
We’ll never hear his tales again!”

Joseph walks into the ambush
his brothers grab him from behind,
roughly rip his mantle off him:
he sees the fury in their eyes.

They cast him down into the pit
ignore his cries, sit down to eat.
They kill a goat and stain his cloak
and bring it back to show their father.

They look their father in the eye.
“Looks like Joseph won’t come back.”
Jacob’s tears then spill like rainfall
on the bright-hued blood-stained cloth.

The story of Joseph’s colored coat is one of the best known of Bible stories and of course a rich source for commentary.
Chazal said, “See the consequences of favoring one child over another. Because of these few ounces of wool, our people were enslaved in Egypt.” (BT Shab 10b).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says of the above verse that Israel (not Jacob) saw in Joseph the most excellent of his sons and was aware of his spiritual potential. So he singled him out by giving him a distinctive garment intended to mark the importance of the personality of the wearer. “That all this was not judicious or wise…that altogether to show favoritism to one child had only evil effects in the history of our forefathers as indeed it has in any home, is stressed bitterly enough in the pernicious results which are shown in this story.”
In her book, Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt comments, “Like many bereaved spouses, Jacob will transfer his emotional attachment to the most tangible link to this dead wife – her child. As a victim of his own father’s own favoritism, Jacob would be expected to be more sensitive to his sons’ feelings. He better than anyone should understand the destructiveness of loving his sons unequally…”
The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS points out the difficulty children experience in avoiding repetition of the mistakes their parents make, even though they are well aware of the problem at an intellectual level.
Elie Wiesel also criticizes Jacob’s poor parenting, “Surely Jacob was the real culprit: he must have been a bad father, a poor teacher. What an idea to favor one child, give him more gifts, more attention, more love…Did he not know that such behavior would eventually harm the boy he wanted to protect?”
The jealousy and frustration the brothers had kept pent up (the subsequent verse describes how the brothers hated Joseph so much that they could not say a friendly word to him) led to a horrifying level of increasing callousness, cruelty and intent to murder. No mention is made of Jacob trying to bring peace between his sons, even though Jacob berates Joseph for the dream in which the sun, moon and stars bow down to him. The text says merely that the brothers were jealous and Jacob bore the matter (of the dream) in mind. But it is assumed that the extent of brothers’ hostility was not apparent or Jacob would not have sent Joseph to them.

Vayeshev: Reading Faces

Joseph’s artless eyes
scan his mother’s features, seeking
to decipher what’s depicted there.

Rachel’s pain-filled eyes are closed,
her face recedes in darkness:
the insight fades away.

Cloistered in his rainbow mantle,
living in a world of dreams,
Joseph never learns the signs.

The hostility eludes him:
the angry looks which blaze
from his brothers’ jealous eyes.

Through years of swift reversal –
searching faces, reading cues,
at last he understands.

Joseph heeds his fellow prisoners,
marks their troubled eyes, and asks
“Why are your faces downcast?”

The question is asked why Joseph regaled his brothers with his dreams of glory, which only served to inflame their jealousy. Sforno* comments that he was too young and naïve to anticipate their reaction. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees Joseph as a lonely boy who missed out on the influence of a mother.
Rashi comments on the phrase, “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons for he was a child of his old age…” that it means that Joseph was a wise son. In her book, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, Dr Avivah Zornberg posits that Joseph is “a child prodigy, prematurely knowledgeable, devastatingly unaware.” She points out that he behaves with “the narcissism of youth, with a dangerous unawareness of the inner worlds of others.” Dr Zornberg notes his growing wisdom as he becomes sensitive to people’s faces and their expressions. Years later, the adversity that he has endured has matured him to the point where, encountering Pharaoh’s imprisoned butler and baker after they have had their disturbing dreams, he asks them why they look so troubled.

*Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno was an Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician. He was born at Cesena about 1475 and died at Bologna in1550. He was a prolific writer, chiefly in the field of Biblical exegesis. His commentary is notable for his respect for the literal meaning of the text and his reluctance to entertain mystical interpretations.

Vayishlach: Shadow-Wrestling

…And a man wrestled him until the break of dawn. (Bereishit 32:25.)

The dark shadow looms, eyes glittering, teeth gleaming:
the moment of reckoning has come and I’m ready.
Simultaneously we leap – a choreography of motion,
a kaleidoscope of images floods through my mind.

The delicate child loved by my mother,
I fight as though battling for my father’s regard.
I was the frail one, ashamed of my weakness:
I trailed behind Esau in each physical fray.

Years of hard labour have tempered and weathered me:
tough sinews, strong bones – now we’re well-matched.
I saw myself then as his moral superior:
buying his birthright, taking his due.

When I think of it now, I’m distracted by shame,
I loosen my grip and he almost prevails.
Forced to flee from his anger, I dreamed of the ladder:
God’s promise sustains me – I tighten my hold.

Mysterious shadow who foresees all my moves:
he knows where I’ve been and whom I’ve become.
He has called me by name – and we are both one.

Who was this mysterious antagonist who wrestled with Jacob? Commentators, both ancient and modern, have pondered this question. The text introduces him as a man; the Midrash and earlier commentaries elevate to him to the status of angel; while Jacob himself says, “…I have seen God face to face…”(Bereishit 32:31). The early commentators almost unanimously describe the enigmatic being as a malevolent messenger, Esau’s guardian angel, sent to weaken Jacob prior to the pending confrontation. Nechama Leibowitz suggests that before Jacob encountered Esau in the flesh, his spirit struggled with that of Esau.
The Rashbam sees the angel as God-sent, to prevent Jacob from fleeing, thus forcing him to face up to his moral responsibility. Benno Jacob (1862-1945) a German bible commentator writes, “God answers a person’s prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his own opponent.”
In his book Covenants and Conversation: Genesis, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes Jacob’s long-standing desire to be in Esau’s place: struggling with him in the womb, Jacob is born clutching Esau’s heel; he buys his birthright; dresses in his clothes and impersonates him; takes his blessing and answers his blind father’s question by claiming to be Esau. “Esau is everything Jacob is not. He is the first-born…He is strong, full of energy, a skilled hunter… [and] he has his father’s love.” Rabbi Sacks describes the wrestling match as Jacob’s inner battle with existential truth, a battle to uncover his true identity – whether he was the man who longed to be Esau or the man whose destiny lay in transmitting the covenant of Abraham.
The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS posits that Jacob might have been wrestling with his own conscience, torn between his very human desire to run away and the divine impulse impelling him to stay and make amends with Esau. This position may find support in the text, “you have striven with God and with men.”(Bereishit 32:29) By remaining, Jacob sheds his identity as a deceiver and takes on the character of Israel who wrestles with God and people instead of avoiding or manipulating them. Although he is wounded physically after the struggle, he is described as shalem, meaning “safe” or “whole”(Bereishit 33:18). The Sefat Emet understands this to mean he has acquired an integrity he didn’t have before.

Vayishlach: The dust of the duel

…And a man wrestled him until the break of dawn. (Bereishit 32:25.)

They duel in the dark, striving
each to gain the upper hand:
pushing and shoving;
lunging and parrying;
stags with locked antlers
unwilling to disengage.

As early sunbeams crack the gloom,
motes of dust raised in the fray
swirl and float upwards
alighting on the throne of glory:
particles dislodged in earthly struggle
come under heavenly aegis.

Rashi interprets the word “wrestled” vaye’avek as derived from an Aramaic word for intertwined. He envisages each protagonist clasping the other in an attempt to overthrow him. These are rivals who are also connected – hence the sages’ view that the mysterious adversary is Esau’s guardian angel. Rashi also notes the etymological connection with avak, meaning dust, referring to the dust raised by their feet as they struggled. The Sefat Emet expands the theme, commenting that the dust raised in the fight rose as high as the throne of glory. He adds that the power of the struggle with the “other side” reaches that high.

Vayeitse – Each Has What Her Sister Craves

Each has what her sister craves

In her book, Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt comments that Rachel and Leah find themselves in an untenable situation, set against each other by their manipulative father, Laban. Each is tormented by what she lacks and her sister possesses. “One is beautiful, the other homely. One is fertile, the other barren. One is the archetypal mother, the other the perennial lover. Each is miserable because she covets what the other possesses. Neither feels whole. Neither can appreciate her unique attributes because each is so focused on the other’s perceived advantages.”

The relationship between two sisters, bound by familial ties, but competing for the love of the same man must have been fraught with tension. (After the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, the marrying of two sisters was forbidden.) Yet the Midrash says that although Jacob and Rachel had devised a code to prevent the deceitful Laban from substituting Leah for Rachel on their wedding night, Rachel compassionately disclosed it to Leah to spare her sister from shame. The Midrash also suggests that Rachel was jealous of Leah’s righteousness, assuming that the gift of children was because Leah was more righteous than she, as opposed to being envious of the children per se.
The Midrash also tells of all the wives of Jacob: Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah uniting their prayers with those of Jacob, to remove the curse of barrenness from Rachel.

A modern commentary, Praise Her Works: Conversations with Biblical Women, edited by Penina Adelman* gives an imaginary voice to Rachel addressing Leah, as she is dying in child-birth, “My dear sister Leah, how often we fought and were jealous of each other. You lusted after a love that was not for you, and I lusted after sons I could not have…My sister, the two of us were barren, you from love and I from children…Believe me, I wanted the two of us to be loved and to love each other and to give birth to sons and daughters but fate did not want it this way…Will you forgive me, my sister, for the harsh words I said in anger and weakness? Doesn’t your blood course through my veins? How can I hate you?…So be certain that there is a reward for all you have done, that kings are going to come from you, my very own sister, great kings.”

And in a Midrash on Lamentations (Eicha Rabba 24) Rachel challenges God over the destruction of the Temples, saying that just as she (mere flesh and blood) overcame her jealousy of Leah and was compassionate to her, saving her from shame, and enabling her to marry Jacob before she did, so an all-merciful God should be able to overcome His jealousy of inanimate foreign idols, because of which He destroyed the Temples and left His people to the mercy of their enemies! And God replies that in her merit He will restore His people to their place!

* Chapter 5, Rachel, is by Irit Koren