Va’era: They did not listen

Say therefore to the Children of Israel, “I am the Lord. I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you…I will bring you into the land that I promised…” But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they did not listen to Moses, their spirit crushed by cruel bondage. (Shemot 6:9)

Bent over double,
back near to breaking,
trying to evade the searing whip.

Skin burned by sun rays,
droplets of sweat moisten the sand.
Hands move mechanically,
heads dull and wretched,
spirits are stunted and spent.

A shadow looms up,
and a bold voice proclaims:
“I speak in God’s name:
He will save you from slavery, and
unshackle your bonds.
You are His people;
He will shepherd you home.”

Slowly, spines straighten,
leaden eyes squint
while cracked lips curl skeptically.

Then toil resumes:
bent over double,
back near to breaking,
trying to evade the searing whip.

The JPS commentary, the Etz Hayim, reflects on the phrase “their spirit crushed by cruel bondage” which literally means “because of impatience and hard work.”  The words for “impatience” are “kotser ru’ach” which actually mean shortness or stunting of the spirit. So the Etz Hayim asks whether it was because the bondage was so hard and mind-numbing, that the enslaved people were totally unable to even hear or imagine what redemption could be like, or whether it was because they were aware that only patience and hard work would achieve freedom, and their spirits were too stunted by slavery to want to make the effort. The Etz Hayim also suggests that the people could not listen to Moses because he had grown up in the palace and then lived a free man in Midian. He had not suffered the torturous slavery that had crushed their spirit.

In Itturei Torah, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg*, a discussion is cited between R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotsk and R’ Menachem Mendel of Warka. The Kotsker Rebbe asks how God’s previous assurance to Moses that the people “will hear your voice…” (Shemot 3:18) fits with our current verse, that the people “did not listen to Moses…“. The Kotsker wonders how it could be that God’s words were not being fulfilled. The Warka Rebbe’s reply (based on careful attention to the prepositions used) is that although the people heard Moses’s voice, they could not absorb the words he was saying, because of their spiritual impoverishment.

In a blog post on Vaera, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser points out that people in distress rarely grasp the full import of what is being said to them. He quotes the saying in Pirkei Avot (4:23), “R’ Simeon son of Elazar said, “Do not appease your fellow in the hour of his anger, nor comfort him when his dead lies before him, nor question him in the hour of his vow, nor see him in the hour of his disgrace.”” Rabbi Goldwasser notes that sometimes even the most eloquent words cannot be heard.

In a further commentary on this parasha, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that many of the great medieval commentators attempted to understand the evident despair of the Israelites. He cites Rashi (1040-1105) who noticed that the Hebrew words for “crushed spirit” are the same as for “shortness of breath.” Thus he teaches, “If one is in anguish, his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson notes that today, breathing deeply is a recommended way to release tension. He says, “The weight of slavery was so onerous, the pain of lost hope so searing, that our very breath was constricted.”

Rabbi Shavit Artson cites Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) concentrates on the interpretation of “impatience” and deduces that “Israel did not hearken nor pay attention to the words of Moses, as their spirit was impatient because of the length of their exile and the hard labor which was recently put upon them.”

The Italian commentator Sforno (1475-1550) suggests that the chasm between the hard reality in which the people existed, and their dream of a different life, was too wide to entertain any hope: “It did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their hearts could not assimilate such a promise.”

Finally, Rabbi Shavit Artson brings the teaching of Rabbi Hayim ben Attar (1696-1743) who, says Rabbi Shavit Artson “understands that an infusion of new hope can make suffering even harder to tolerate. The closer liberation comes, the more difficult it is to tolerate one’s oppression: “The people had good reason for becoming impatient at their fate because when Moses had come, he had given them hope that their liberation was close at hand. This had given them a new and broader perspective on life.” ”

He notes that all these commentators bring different insights which “illumine the nature of despair: that it can be physically devastating, that it can preclude accepting the good news of redemption, and that hope can itself make a bad reality even less acceptable.” He adds, “There is yet one more comment to make about despair, ancient or contemporary. There are insights that can only be accessed from a place of despair. There are times when only by hitting rock bottom, being forced to abandon our own self-centeredness or sense of being in control, that we can become open to real help from beyond. Only when we despair of ourselves providing ultimate comfort can we then reach beyond ourselves for consolation and for help.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes, “Abandoning the pretense of our own self-sufficiency can open doors to a deeper sustenance. Releasing our own delusion of power and control can permit us to flow with currents far more profound than our own. Turning our destiny back to the One who actually writes the script can be both liberating and a source of deep illumination.
“By feeling the fullness of despair, the Israelites became open to the possibility of liberation. Perhaps we – too – need to invest less energy in distracting ourselves from our sorrows, and open ourselves to their embrace, and to our consequent transformation.”

*Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg, (1900 – 1963) was an Israeli politician who served as a member of the Knesset from 1949 until 1951, and again from 1955 until his death in 1963. Born in an area of the Russian Empire which is today Poland, Greenberg was a member of the Young Mizrachi and Mizrachi Pioneers youth movements. In 1934 he made aliyah to Mandatory Palestine and  was elected to the first Knesset  on the United Religious Front list. He is perhaps best remembered for his authorship of “Itturei Torah” which is a collection of wisdom and ethics from the Torah, on the Parasha, Chagim and Megillot, drawn from a wide range of sources from Hassidut to Mussar. He published these weekly in the newspaper HaTsofeh, under his pseudonym, “Y. Halevi”. After his death, these columns were collected and published in book form in seven volumes.

Shemot: Is the bush still burning?

Somewhere, maybe,
the bush is still burning.
Are we passing by,
our focus elsewhere,
not seeing the flames leaping
from the indestructible shrub?
Are the golds and reds
not bright enough to catch our eye?
Is our ear not tuned
to hear God’s voice
calling from the bush?
Are we still listening?

The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS points out that to notice that a bush is on fire is easy, but to realise that it is not consumed requires a different level of attention: “How long must one watch a burning bush before realising that it is not being consumed by the flames? How many miracles might be happening around us, but we, in our haste, never stop to notice them?”
In his book, God was in this place and I, i did not know, Rabbi Laurence Kushner brings an old Hasidic story told by Martin Buber, of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov. They all gathered to learn with the master after evening prayers. One night, as they left the room, one follower apologized to the others for monopolizing so much of the Rebbe’s attention. His friend retorted that although they had all entered the room together, the master had actually spoken only to him all along. A third was convinced that their teacher had conducted a conversation exclusively with him. Each of the disciples, it transpired, had experienced the feeling that he alone had had an intimate conversation with the holy master. Rabbi Kushner says, “So it is with us when we read scripture. The biblical text speaks intimately and demands an intensely personal response.” He says that there is a “similar intensity of attention when Moses encounters God at the bush”. This episode is often described as a miracle that God employed to attract Moses’ attention. But Rabbi Kushner disagrees. He points out that if you watch wood burn, you need to concentrate for quite a few minutes to actually notice that the wood is not being consumed as even dry kindling is not burned up for quite a few moments. (He adds that producers of television commercials have ascertained that the span of human visual attention is only about a minute!) So Rabbi Kushner says that at the burning bush, God was testing Moses to see whether he could sustain his attention for more than a few moments. When Moses did, then God spoke to him. “The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”

Shemot: The Midwife

“And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah. And he said, When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth-stool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live!” But the midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt told them; they let the boys live.” (Shemot 1:15-17)

Shifrah and I were called
to an audience with the omnipotent Pharaoh.

He spoke brutally,
thin lips twisted, hooded eyes glittering.

“When you deliver Hebrew babies,
the girls may live: eliminate the boys.”

I felt my face flush, and
my heart thump with latent fury.

I glanced at Shifrah:
her head was bent, her eyes demure.

At midnight I was called
to attend the birth of a Hebrew child.

The mother writhed,
and groaning, turned her head aside.

“One more push,” I urged her softly,
catching her son as he entered the world.

My hands swaddled the baby
as my mind flashed back to the mighty monarch.

I laid the child at his mother’s breast,
not knowing, yet trusting the shadowed future.

The rays of early dawn trickled in
gently playing on the infant’s pristine face.

One day, I mused, as I tidied up,
this child may shine light on Pharaoh’s darkness.

The text says “Vayomer melech Mitzraim lameyaledot ha’Ivriot asher shem ha’achat Shifrah veshem ha’shenit Puah,” which is commonly translated as, “And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah and the other Puah.” (The Midrash holds that the two women were Jochebed and Miriam.) However the phrase could also be rendered, “And the king of Egypt spoke to the midwives who birthed the Hebrew women, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah.” Josephus describes them as Egyptian while the Yalkut Shimoni posits that they were Egyptian but converted. Abarbanel* and Samuel David Luzatto** assume that these were Egyptian midwives, both averring that it is hardly probable that the king would have expected Hebrew women to slay children of their own people. Based on a comparison with other places in the Tanach where the phrase “yirat Elokim – fear of God” is used, Nechama Leibovitz also concludes that the midwives were not Hebrews. The name Shifrah appears in a list of slaves attached to an Egyptian estate while the name Puah has been found on documents in Ugarit – an ancient Canaanite city, which seems to confirm this thesis.

On the phrase, “…but the midwives, fearing God…” the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS points out “this is the closest the Torah comes to having a word for religion. 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 behaviour into the universe. The midwives not only believed in God but also understood that God demands a high level of moral behavior. They were willing to risk punishment at the hands of Pharaoh rather than betray their allegiance to God.” In this first recorded precedent of civil disobedience, the midwives’ actions were guided by their conscience and ignored the dictates of the ruling authority. The thousands of righteous gentiles who sheltered Jews in the holocaust at huge personal risk did the same.

*Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel (1437–1508), commonly referred to just as Abrabanel, was a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator and financier. He was a scion of one of the oldest, wealthiest and most distinguished Jewish Iberian families who had escaped massacre in Castile in 1391. At twenty years old, he wrote on the original form of the natural elements, on religious questions and prophecy. Abrabanel became a prolific writer whose works are often categorized into three groups: philosophy, apologetics and exegesis. His philosophy concentrated on the interface between the sciences and the Jewish religion and traditions His apologetics defended the Jewish idea of the coming of the Messiah. Abrabanel’s exegetic writings were different from the usual biblical commentaries because he took social and political issues of the times into consideration. He appended an introduction concerning the character of each book he commented on, as well as its date of composition, and the intention of the original author, in order to make the works more accessible to the average reader.

**Samuel David Luzzatto, also known by his Hebrew acronym, Shadal, (1800-1865) was an Italian Jewish scholar and poet. While still a boy he entered the Talmud Torah of his native city Trieste, where besides Talmud, he studied ancient and modern languages and science. He studied the Hebrew language also at home, with his father, who, though a turner by trade, was an eminent Talmudist. Luzzatto manifested extraordinary ability from his childhood, so that while reading the Book of Job at school he formed the intention to write a commentary on it, considering the existing commentaries to be deficient! He was a prolific poet and during his literary career of more than fifty years, Luzzatto wrote a great number of works and scholarly correspondences in Hebrew, Italian, German and French. He also contributed to most of the Hebrew and Jewish periodicals of his time. His correspondence with his contemporaries reveals that there was hardly any subject in connection with Judaism on which he did not write.

Vayechi: The Family Tree

“All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he blessed them, each according to his blessing, he blessed him.” (Bereishit 49:28).

Isaac is beloved and tended,
Ishmael is exiled to the arid desert.

Jacob is the offshoot of the family tree,
Esau is sidelined: his bough is pruned.

Joseph, unseasoned sapling, is the favoured son,
his brothers are blighted by murderous envy.

Jacob calls his scions for the farewell blessing:
accepting all with their beauty and blemishes
no branch is rejected among the children of Israel.

Probably the most prominent recurring theme in the book of Bereishit is that of older sons being usurped by their favoured younger brothers. Each generation seems to repeat the story: parental partiality and fraternal hatred. The resolution of each conflict portrayed seems to result in the loss of a family member. Yet in this week’s portion, for the first time, a family moves through the fraternal hatred and near-fratricide, to reconciliation. The dysfunctional cycle is interrupted. Here we see that the sibling rivalry is overcome by repentance and reconciliation. This family, then, the only one in Bereishit to remain intact, becomes a nation. In next week’s parasha, we will hear Jacob’s descendants being called “Am benei Yisrael – the nation of the children of Israel.” (Shemot 1:9).

When Joseph’s brothers saw how favoured Joseph was, and indeed his two sons also merited a blessing from their grandfather Jacob, they could not but have thought that they too were headed for rejection. However, Jacob gathers all of his sons together and addresses each individually (although his words to certain sons do not seem like blessings, yet none was omitted and the Torah is clear in the verse above, that each was blessed). The family could be held together to transmit the Divine message.

After Jacob died, the brothers sent a message to Joseph, telling him something that it seems they fabricated:“Before his death, your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, “I urge you to forgive the evil-doing and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly. So please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph cried as they spoke to him.” (Bereishit 50:16-17)
In a blog post on Vayechi in 2012,, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser brings an interpretation of these verses by Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa* who says that Joseph’s brothers knew about the familial pattern: how in previous generations there had always been one son who was the chosen successor while the other brothers were rejected. The brothers thought they would share Ishmael and Esau’s fate. So when they came to Joseph asking twice for forgiveness, the first time they were acknowledging their crime as Joseph’s brothers. But the second time, says R’ Simcha Bunim, they were entreating him as “servants of the God of your father,” and what they were really asking was not to be cast out of the story of the Jewish people.
This, he teaches, is why Joseph weeps at his brothers’ words: he understands that they want to be included as heirs in the covenant with God. He adds that we need to seek out the holiness in each person and to resist judging. So Joseph is crying for joy as he recognizes that spark even in these men who sold him into slavery.
Rabbi Goldwasser concludes, “The Jewish people needs to embrace this truth. We often appear to be a people divided into conflicting segments, more and more removed from each other by our harsh judgment, distrust and resentments. Imagine the tears of joy that would flow if we could see the holy spark within each other.”

*Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa (Przysucha, in Poland) (1765–1827). He was the son of the Magid of Voydislav and became one of the main leaders of chasidic Jewry in Poland. After studying Torah at yeshivot in Mattersdorf and Nikolsburg, he was introduced to the world of chasidism by his father-in-law. He became a follower of several chasidic rebbes, the last of whom (Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz – the Yid Hakadosh) he succeeded.
Not wanting to take up a rabbinical position, he supported himself by practising pharmacy.
Among R’ Simcha Bunim’s disciples were Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotsker Rebbe), Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter of Ger (the Chidushei HaRim), Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz (the Mei HaShiloach), Rabbi Yaakov Arye of Radzymin and Rav Chanoch Heynekh of Alexander.
R’ Simcha Bunim wrote no works of his own, but many of his teachings were transmitted orally and some of these were compiled in a work entitled Kol Simcha.

Asarah beTevet: Two Poems

Sackcloth and Ashes
The manifestation
of Your divine presence –
besieged and set ablaze.

Myriad innocents
garbed in striped sackcloth
trapped in the carnage.

And when the smoke cleared
a vagrant wind dispersed the ashes
and no trace was left.

According to II Kings 25:1-4, on the 10th day of the 10th month (Tevet) in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign (588 BCE), the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezer began the siege of Jerusalem. A year and a half later, on the 17th of Tammuz in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign (586 BCE) (Jeremiah 52.6–7), he broke through the city walls. Three weeks later, on the 9th of Av, the siege ended with the destruction of the Temple, the demise of the kingdom and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel chose to observe the fast of the 10th of Tevet as the “Yom HaKaddish HaClali – the general Kaddish day” for the victims of the Holocaust, particularly those for whom there were relatives to say the prayer but no known date of death, and those for whom there was no relative to say Kaddish but it would be recited by others.

My Mother’s Uncles
My mother’s uncles had no faces,
nor had their wives and children.
I think I might have seen them
in photos on the walls at Auschwitz:
haggard features filled with pain;
bewildered women
with uncomprehending stares;
solemn children with large dark eyes.
My mother’s uncles never visited,
nor did their wives and children.
I think I might have visited them
at the hill of ashes at Majdanek.

My maternal grandmother Sarah Leah Klinger was born in 1908, the youngest child of Shmuel Yaakov HaCohen, a timber-merchant from Vienna and his wife Haya Hulda. Sarah Leah was preceded by an older sister Leah, who died before my grandmother was born, and four much older brothers: Bernard; Feivel; Adolph and Jehudah.

The family moved to Lvov in Poland when my grandmother was a child. At some time in the early 1920s, my great-grandfather had a vivid dream which foresaw the coming of a terrible regime to the region and it influenced him so greatly that he sent one his sons to Palestine, to “spy out the Land”. And like the biblical spies, his son returned with a negative report: “It’s not for us!” he declared. His father was unconvinced and was adamant that they should leave.

In the meantime, Haya Hulda became sick and died. Shortly after, Shmuel Yaakov remarried, and, taking his new wife and his 14- year old daughter, departed for Palestine. His sons, their wives and children (whose names we do not even know) all remained in Poland. At the age of 18, my grandmother met and married my grandfather, Emanuel Cramer, who was 10 years her senior. He had been born in England and fought in the First World War. He was gassed in the trenches at Ypres and subsequently came to Palestine to recuperate in a warmer climate. My grandmother returned with him to England, where my mother and her two siblings were born.

When the smoke of the Holocaust started to recede over Europe, it became apparent that none of my grandmother’s brothers, sisters-in-law or their children had survived. My grandmother never spoke of them but she did fill in testimony papers at Yad Vashem. We have no idea of when or where they perished. We had other great-uncles, great-aunts and cousins whom we knew. As I grew older, I became aware of this branch of the family tree which was severed so savagely and so completely, leaving no traces – no photos, no family gatherings, no family legends, no Yahrzeits…

This poem is one of several that arose out of a school visit to Poland in 2011, when I travelled as an accompanying parent with one of our sons.

Vayigash: Drawing Near

And Judah drew near to him… (Bereishit 44:18)
“How can I go up to my father and the boy is not with me…” (Bereishit 44:34).

The time has come,
the scales are tipping;
trembling but resolved
Judah draws towards
the one whose hands
ordain the future.

Revisiting his past –
bad choices, wrong turnings,
heartless words and crueler deeds –
his heart cracks open:
“How can I face my father?”
The barrier melts away.

In the opening sentence of the parasha, “Vayigash eilav Yehuda, – and Judah drew near to him,” the question is asked to whom did Judah draw near? The simple answer is to Joseph.
The Sefat Emet, however, teaches that Judah drew near to himself. He finally became his true self, not the man who had sold his brother into slavery and brought incalculable sorrow to his father, but the one who himself is now willing to become enslaved, in order to spare his father and maintain family harmony.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, however, brings a teaching that when Judah stood before Joseph, he realized that he had reached the end – if Benjamin had to stay in Egypt, then Judah could not return to Jacob. What else was left for him to do? Reb Shlomo says that suddenly he realized that he had made a complete mess of things up until then. So he started to pray, and the One to Whom he drew near was God. And when Judah said later at the end of his impassioned plea to Joseph, “How will I go back to my father…?” Joseph might have thought he was speaking about Jacob, but Judah was not really standing before Joseph, he was standing before God and saying to Him, “How can I ever face You, my Father, I’ve done everything wrong my whole life…”
The Chidushei HaRim* among other commentators, also interprets the word father as alluding to God. His commentary on the phrase, “How can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?” is, “How can I ascend the levels of service and approach God, before I have repaired the sins of my youth…?”
Reb Shlomo adds that at the point at which Judah realized that although everything that he had done until then might have been wrong, now was the time to do right, God opened the gate for him…
Joseph then was impelled to reveal himself and role of the brothers in God’s plan.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a commentary on Vayigash (December 2006), describes Judah as the person who metamorphoses from a monstrously callous person (at the very moment that he calls Joseph “our own flesh and blood” he proposes selling him as a slave!) to a courageous compassionate man. Judah, he says, is the first real penitent in the Torah. This change in his character is traced back to the loss of two of his sons and the subsequent episode with his daughter-in-law Tamar. In her book, Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, Dr Avivah Zornberg cites a midrash which connects Judah’s moral growth with his bereavement of two children, which engenders empathy with his father on his loss of a child. She adds that his willingness to take public responsibility for having fathered Tamar’s twins is further evidence of his becoming a more ethical person.
Rabbi Sacks points out the significance of Judah’s name which is derived from the verb lehodot. It can mean “to thank,” – Leah says on the birth of her fourth son, “This time I will thank the Lord.” However, it also means “to confess” which according to Maimonides is the key element in repentance.
He adds that while Joseph is traditionally called “Ha-tzaddik – the righteous one,” he becomes the king’s deputy. Judah, however, becomes the father of Israel’s kings. Where the penitent Judah stands, even the perfectly righteous Joseph cannot stand. “However great an individual may be in virtue of his or her natural character, greater still is one who is capable of growth and change. That is the power of penitence, and it began with Judah.”

* The first Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (Rothenburg) (1799 – 1866), he was the grandfather of the Sefat Emet. A descendant of Rashi, he was born in Poland and became known as a Talmudic gaon. He became a disciple and later a brother-in-law of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker Rebbe, who was famous for his acerbic wit and Talmudic brilliance.
He wrote commentaries on the Bible and on the Talmud.

Chanuka: From Despair to Wonder

We enter the temple again:
the glimmer of the endless light
is but a mirage in our minds;
despair fills the darkness.
Scattered shards of smashed vessels
mingle with mud and oil and char,
while scorched and withered leaves
flutter through shattered doors.
The eerie silence numbs our senses
as we clear the debris of defilement
laboring mutely, until
the last trace of pillage is purged.
One small cruse of oil,
one day’s kindling, sealed, unscathed,
is brought to light
glinting under ashen rubble.
With pounding hearts and trembling hands,
holding the promise of renewal,
we relight the everlasting lamp:
it is sustained as though by our prayers.
Days pass – the light burns brightly:
as oil diminishes, wonder grows;
the glow reflects the awe,
the hope in our eyes.

The Talmud (B. Shabbat 21b) reports the disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai concerning the proper way of lighting the chanukiah: Beit Shammai proposed lighting all eight lights on the first night of Chanuka and reducing the number of lights by one each night. Beit Hillel said the opposite: one light the first night, increasing to eight on the final night.
Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser, in his blog (Reb Jeff, The Audacity of the Miracle 26/12/2011) suggests that lighting the Chanuka lights is not just a representation of the literal burning of the Temple Menorah when the Maccabees rededicated it. It is meant to represent something deeper, something more spiritual. He imagines how the people who kindled that first lamp with the remaining cruse of oil might have felt – as the oil lessened, their sense of awe would have grown stronger. They gradually became aware of the miracle which was happening before their eyes. He says, “And so it is in our lives, if we allow our perception of miracles to burn brightly within us.”