Vayechi: A lesson learned

…and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Am I instead of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Bereishit 30:1-3)

Joseph’s brothers…sent this message to Joseph…”Please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. His brothers…flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Bereishit 50:16-21)

His wife is desperate for a child:
she turns her anguished eyes to him
and pleads for children
lest she die. He does not see
her tearful gaze, nor hear
her pain-filled voice.
He tells her fiercely
that he’s not
a substitute
for God.

And now the brothers
of that yearned-for child
are fearful of revenge. They bow
before him, eyes downcast
beseeching clemency.
He registers their anxious gaze,
and hears their guilt-filled tones.
He tells them gently
that he’s not
a substitute
for God.


In a commentary on Parashat Vayechi from 2012, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/va-yehi/5773/its-not-what-you-say, Dr Deborah Miller notes an extremely interesting repetition of the phrase “Am I to be instead of God?” which occurs both in Parashat Vayeitsei and this week’s Parasha, Vayechi. (The only difference in the Hebrew is in the use of the word “I” – in the former it is “anochi” and in the latter “ani“).
Jacob and Joseph utter virtually the same phrase, but from the context, Dr Miller maintains that the tone is totally different.
In the first instance, Rachel sees her sister Leah is already the mother of four sons, yet she is barren. Desperate, she turns to Jacob and says, “Give me children or I’ll die!” Jacob, infuriated, responds that he is not instead of God. The Rabbis criticize Jacob for his insensitivity (his father Isaac prayed for his mother Rebekah’s barrenness to be alleviated and we are not even told that she requested this of him). Dr Miller imagines his tone to be sarcastic and belittling.
And now we encounter the same words, this time from the mouth of that very same longed-for child. Long after the death of Rachel, and just after the death of Jacob, the brothers fear that Joseph will now take revenge for the crime which they perpetrated against him. They send a messenger to him (the Midrash tells us this was was Bilhah) and seemingly fabricate that before his death, their father had urged them to beg Joseph’s forgiveness, and had charged Joseph to forgive them.
Dr Miller says, “In this story, Joseph realizes how desperate the brothers are, how vulnerable. He cries when he hears them, realizing that they still have no understanding that he has changed and has no petty wish for vengeance. They fling themselves at his feet, declaring themselves his slaves, and he says, “Fear not, for am I instead of God?” Here we imagine a totally different tone of voice: it is soft, reassuring, and compassionate.”
She continues, “Jacob and Joseph use the exact same words, but one uses them to demean and the other to reassure. One is callous, one is caring. Neither is really talking about God; rather, each is talking about his relationship with a person or people who are at a low point in life, and in need of emotional sustenance.”
Dr Miller perceives a great irony. She points out that in Jacob’s case, “…at every turn, at every transition in his life, God has been a living, encouraging presence for him. From the time he flees his home in mortal fear of Esau’s wrath after tricking him out of their father’s blessing, through the time he runs from Laban, his father-in-law, to the time he decides to move down to Egypt — in every instance, God reassures Jacob that He is with him. This is truly love, freely given.
“And in Joseph’s life? God never speaks directly to Joseph, yet Joseph always refers to God, defers to God, and attributes his attainments to God.”
Dr Miller concludes, “In that way, we are much more like Joseph, who makes the effort to make God part of his life. And yet, we are also like Jacob, who may not deserve to have God’s reassurance, but receives it anyway. We are called Yisra’el, named for the less noble of these two men. This is enormously heartening: If God can love Jacob, God can surely love us.”

On the surface, the text certainly implies the great and surprising insensitivity displayed by Jacob towards his beloved Rachel, compared with the kindness with which Joseph addresses his less deserving brothers. However, there are Midrashic descriptions that fill in the sparse text and envision conversations that might mitigate the harsh view taken of Jacob. In a commentary (in Hebrew) from 2012 on Vayechi, http://www.vorts.co.il/?p=1247 entitled, ” “Am I a substitute for God” – from the depths of trouble to the depths of prayer”, Yoav Milis addresses Jacob’s words. He brings the background from Midrash Rabbah, in which Rachel asks Jacob to pray for her to have children as his father Isaac prayed to God to alleviate his mother Rebekah’s barrenness. Rashi’s commentary on this has Jacob responding, “You say I should do as my father did; but my circumstances are not the same as his. My father had no children at all, I, however, have children. He has withheld children from you, not from me!” This actually seems to do little to enhance our view of Jacob. The Maharshal (Rabbi Solomon Luria*) wonders about the meaning of this response of Jacob’s: “And just because Jacob had children, had he no obligation to pray for Rachel? And why did he become angry with her because of it? And do we not already know that prophets who pray for others are answered, as with Elisha and Elijah?!” Milis continues that the Maharshal’s opinion is that Jacob tells Rachel that although he has already prayed for her, his prayer is not acceptable before God. The Maharshal conjectures that Rachel calls Jacob wicked, which is what enrages Jacob, and then he explains to her that when Isaac prayed, he prayed on behalf of himself and Rebekah, both of whom were barren, but here, there was only the merit of one of them, Rachel, who was barren, and therefore Jacob’s prayer had not been heard.
The Midrash continues, “God said to Jacob, “Is this how one answers the anguished of heart? By your life, your sons will stand one day before her son [Joseph].” ”
The Ramban suggests that Jacob’s harsh response distresses Rachel even more in her anguished state. She is sorely disappointed for she hoped that salvation would come through Jacob’s prayer, so she prays herself from the depths of her pain, and later we learn that “God remembered Rachel and God heard her and opened her womb.” (Bereishit 30:22) According to God’s words in the Midrash, though, Jacob should have responded kindly to his afflicted wife, with gentle, pleasant words, instead of his harsh response.
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, too, addresses the question of how, according to the Midrash, Jacob could have been so cutting as to say to Rachel that he was not like his father who had no children when he prayed, while Jacob himself already had. Rabbi Amar explains that in the Talmud (Yevamot 64, 71) and in the Midrash Tanchuma (Toledot 89) the Sages teach that the founding Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the people were barren, because the Holy One delights in the prayers of the righteous. And the Ba’alei Musar** had great difficulty with this idea of the Sages, asking, “And if the Patriarchs and Matriarchs had not been barren, they would not have prayed?!” But [they taught] “there is no comparison between the prayer of the heartbroken and despairing, which emanates from the heart, and that of someone who is in a good situation.” And so, continues Rabbi Amar, “We find in the holy Zohar (Parashat Balak) that the prayer of the afflicted rises above that of the righteous. And why? Because his prayer comes from a broken place…and therefore has the power to break down all barriers and reach God.” On the basis of this, Rabbi Amar says we can understand Jacob’s words to Rachel. He suggests that Jacob does, of course, pray to God on her behalf, and she knows it. She begs him to pray from the depths of his heart, believing that God will answer such a prayer, as He did for Isaac. She needs a prayer that will bring her children. But Jacob replies, “Am I a substitute for God? – How can I promise you that my prayer will be accepted? Because of his [own] barrenness, my father’s prayer was truly from a broken, anguished place, and so it was answered. But because I am not barren, I cannot reach those depths of despair and the level of prayer required. Because God has withheld children from you, your prayer can plumb those depths from a place I cannot reach, so the chances of your prayers being answered are much greater than mine.”

The Rabbis also comment on the same words, “Am I a substitute for God” emanating from Joseph’s mouth.
Rabbi Alexander Sender Gedaliah Tchórz***asks, “Why did Joseph, in the middle of words of encouragement and comfort, have to stir up old wounds and remind them now that “you intended me harm”? – [We learn from here] these are actually words of encouragement: Don’t be afraid, for what evil thing can I, flesh and blood, do to you, even if I want to – because – am I a substitute for God? – is it in the power of a person to do evil to another against the will of the Creator? And the proof – “and you intended me harm” and even so, “God intended it for good” and therefore even if I were to intend to harm you, God would turn it to good.”

*Rabbi Solomon Luria (1510 – 1573) was one of the great Ashkenazic poskim (decisors of Jewish law) and teachers of his time. He is known for his work of Halacha, Yam Shel Shlomo, and his Talmudic commentary Chochmat Shlomo. Rabbi Luria is also referred to as Maharshal or Rashal.
Born in the city of Poznań (Posen), in the Kingdom of Poland, his father, Yechiel Luria, was the rabbi of the Lithuanian city of Slutzk and the son of the eminent Talmudist Miriam Luria. The Luria family claims descent from Rashi. He studied in Lublin and later served as Rabbi in Brisk and various Lithuanian communities for 15 years. Subsequently he became head of the famed Lublin Yeshiva, which attracted students from all over Europe. Due to various internal problems in the yeshiva, he opened his own yeshiva. The building, known as the “Maharshal’s shul”, remained intact until World War II.
He has been described as something of a maverick with regard to his methodology: “Luria rejected contemporary talmudic and legal methodology. He dismissed the then current belief that legal opinions of earlier generations were almost sacrosanct. Luria maintained that his generation had just as equal access to knowledge as those that came before it. Luria believed that it was incumbent upon scholars in each generation to comb the sources from their talmudic beginnings through the tosafists to their own day, analyzing and weighing each matter and all opinions before coming to a well-considered conclusion. To draw legal conclusions on the basis of a simple majority among three leading medieval authorities as Joseph Karo had done in his sixteenth century code of Jewish law, the Shulhan ‘aruk, was, in Luria’s opinion, simply wrong. Unlike his contemporaries, Luria was unfettered by the weight of medieval halakic traditions and had the independence and boldness of character to overturn almost any opinion in his passionate search for truth.” (Edward Aaron Fram, “Jewish Law and Social and Economic Realities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Poland.”(Ph.D. diss. Columbia University, 1991).
Rabbi Luria’s major work of Halacha was written on sixteen tractates of the Talmud; however, it is extant on only seven. In it, Maharshal analyzes key sugyot (passages) and decides between various authorities as to the practical halacha. Maharshal, famously, objected to Isserles’s method of presenting halachic rulings without discussing their derivation. He wrote Yam Shel Shlomo to “probe the depths of the halacha” and to clarify the process by which those halachot are reached.
Chochmat Shlomo is a gloss, and comments, on the text of the Talmud. One function of this work is to correct textual errors. In establishing the correct text Maharshal scrutinized the published editions of the Talmud as well as the commentaries of Rashi, Tosafot, and other Rishonim. His comments were later published by his son; an abridged version of Chochmat Shlomo appears in nearly all editions of the Talmud today, at the end of each tractate. The original, separately printed version, is far more extensive.

**Ba’alei Musar were Rabbis who were eminent proponents of the Musar movement – a Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement that developed in the 19th century in Eastern Europe, particularly among Orthodox Lithuanian Jews. The Hebrew term musar is from the book of Proverbs 1:2 meaning moral conduct, instruction or discipline. The term was used by the Musar movement to refer to efforts to further ethical and spiritual discipline. The Musar Movement made significant contributions to Jewish Ethics.

***Rabbi Alexander Sender Gedaliah Tchórz (1859-1948) was born in Nowy Dwór, Poland and learned in the yeshivot of eminent rabbis of the period in Poland. He was a ritual slaughterer (shochet) in many communities and later the chief shochet in Włocławek, and was known for his great knowledge of Torah as well as for his good deeds. (His books on the laws of ritual slaughter and ritually unfit foods served as text books on the subject in Poland and Lithuania.) He was also a mohel (ritual circumcisor) and would performed this for the baby sons of poor families without payment, and pay for the mandatory festive meal from his own pocket. His spare time was occupied in learning Torah day and night, and writing down his new interpretations. He was a lauded orator as well.
He joined the nascent Zionist movement and invested time and money in its cause. He was an early member of the Mizrachi movement in Poland and was a delegate at the 12th Zionist Congress in Carlsbad Czechoslovakia in 1921. He spoke at meetings throughout many cities in order to raise funds and support for the Zionist movement and was unfazed by those who opposed it. A group of anti-Zionist Chasidim attempted to invalidate his credentials as a shochet, and reported him to the authorities, resulting in his arrest, once by the Russian police and once by the Polish police on charges of being a communist. He founded a Hebrew school in Włocławek.
In 1923 or 1924, already a grandfather of some 40 grandchildren, he visited Palestine, as it was then, and from there, announced to his family and congregation that he intended to remain. The Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi A.I. Kook who knew him well, authorised for him to obtain a position as Rabbi and shochet in Kfar Chitin, where he became influential also in the neighboring areas. His great love of the land helped him endure the privations of living in a remote village in unbearably hard living conditions. When the attempt to establish the community failed and the residents dispersed, Rabbi Tchórz moved to Benai Berak and resumed his previous occupation as a shochet, until he retired at a ripe old age, and devoted himself to community affairs and teaching Torah as he had done all his life, both abroad and in Israel. He died in Tel Aviv in 1948.

Vayigash: The Wheel Revolves

But when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. (Bereishit 45:27)

The long-awaited child
who fills his mother’s arms
gazes at his father’s joyous face, but

inexorably the wheel revolves:

his mother dies in childbirth; and
his father’s light is quenched.

The father’s treasured son,
adorned in jaunty splendor,
recounts his shining dreams, but

inexorably the wheel revolves:

his brothers cast him out
to exile far from home.

His master’s favorite slave,
comely and unspoiled,
brings blessing to the house, but

inexorably the wheel revolves:

incriminated falsely
he finds himself in jail.

Plucked from prison’s cell
he comes before the king;
his visions are fulfilled, but

inexorably the wheel revolves:

the pain wells up, of anguished years –
his father’s and his own.

He sends a cipher to his father:
a cavalcade of wagons
conveying cryptic cargo.

Inexorably the wheels revolve:

they inch towards the exile
whence redemption will emerge.


In parashat Vayiggash, we read that Joseph finally reveals his true identity to his brothers and reassures them of his good intentions. Having ascertained that their father is still alive, he sends the brothers back to Canaan in wagons to bring Jacob down to Egypt so that the family will not suffer the effects of the famine, and they can all live near each other. The brothers arrive home and impart the wondrous news that Joseph is alive and ruling over all Egypt. We read, “Jacob’s heart went numb for he did not believe them.” Then we learn that when the brothers tell him all that Joseph has told them, and when Jacob sees the wagons that Joseph sent to transport him, only then his spirit revives and he believes.
So the commentators wonder what it was about the wagons that Jacob saw, which convinced him of the veracity of the brothers’ story and “revived his spirit”.

Rashi, citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 94:3), comments that Joseph sent Jacob a sign of what they had been learning at the time they were parted, the section of the “eglah arufah – the broken-necked heifer.” Rashi makes a word play on the word for wagons – “agalot“, and the word for heifer, “eglah“.
Although the simple reading of the text suggests that there was something about physically seeing the wagons that revived Jacob, the Midrash seems to be hinting at something more.

In a commentary on this parasha from 2012, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayigash-wagons-laden-with-meaning/, Rabbi Mois Navon notes a teaching from the Talmud (Berachot 31a) “that one should never part from his friend “with ordinary conversation, or joking, or frivolity, or idle talk, but with some matter of halacha (divine law)… so that he should remember him thereby.” That is, when one engages his friend in words that transcend time – as opposed to words of ephemera – their relationship will, correspondingly, transcend time. The relationship between Jacob and Joseph, indeed, transcended time, and their learning served not only that they remember one another when about to part but that they identify one another when about to meet. “And the spirit of Jacob their father revived.” ”
Rabbi Navon looks at the text of the section on the broken-necked heifer: “If one be found slain … and it be not known who hath smitten him;…[then] all the elders of that city, who are nearest unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. And they shall speak and say: ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Lord, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed …’ And the blood shall be forgiven them. (Devarim 21:1-8).
He says, ‘This “halacha”, then, is not just any “halacha” but one of great relevance to Joseph and Jacob. Tellingly, our Midrash does not say that the two were learning the case together, but rather that Joseph himself was “engaged” in it – in the unsolved murder – for indeed, Joseph himself was the subject. And if Joseph was the unsolved murder, then Jacob, as patriarch, would be the “elder” held accountable.
“Yet why would the elder(s) be held accountable? The Talmud (Sotah 46b) explains that, in making the statement, “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it”, they, at one and the same time, acknowledge responsibility for communal safety yet absolve themselves of wrongdoing – saying, in effect, that the man found dead “did not come to us for help that we dismissed him without food, nor did we see him that we let him go without escort.” Conversely, Jacob held himself responsible without absolution, for he, explains the Zohar (Vayigash 210b), sent Joseph without food and without escort.”
Rabbi Navon adds that Joseph’s words “all the words” – which Rashi explains refer to the teaching of the eglah arufah “are words of forgiveness and atonement for an unsolved murder.
It was to these redemptive words that “the spirit of Jacob was revived”; for, it was these words that both resolved Jacob’s guilty conscience and neutralized the burning question of whodunit.” So Rabbi Navon depicts the wagons symbolically carrying a “profound message of forgiveness”.

In a commentary on Vayigash, http://etzion.org.il/en/parashat-vayigash-and-he-saw-wagons, Rabbi Itamar Eldar cites from the same Midrash:
“Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan bar Sha’ul: He said to them: “If he believes you, fine; if not, say to him: ‘When I took my departure from you, was I not studying the section dealing with egla arufa [the heifer whose neck is broken].'” This is the meaning of the verse: “And when he saw the wagons… the spirit [of Ya’akov their father] revived. And Israel said: It is enough [alternatively, ‘great’].” My son Yosef’s strength is great, for various troubles have befallen him, and he has remained firm in his righteousness, much more than I have, for I have sinned saying: “My way is hid from the Lord” (Yeshaya 40:27), and I am confident that I have [a share in that] about which it is said: ‘O how great is Your goodness’ (Tehilim 31:20).”
Addressing the end of the Midrash cited above, Rabbi Eldar examines the words attributed to Jacob. Here the latter alludes to Joseph’s steadfastness during his troubles, compared with his own in which his faith faltered. Rabbi Eldar suggests that Jacob learns about this stance of trust from Joseph who lived in exile, without ever losing his hope and trust that God remains with Him wherever he goes. Thus the Midrash attributes to Jacob these verses which express his acknowledgment of Joseph’s “mantra” “O how great is Your goodness,” compared with his own, previously: “My way is hidden from the Lord” …
We also see in the text earlier, how Joseph reassures his brothers three times, saying, “God sent me.” (Bereishit 45:5,7,8)

In his book A Partner in Holiness* Rabbi Jonathan Slater cites Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev in his Torah commentary, Kedushat Levi, on the verse above, (Bereishit 45:27. The Berdichever says, “In this manner Joseph sent a message to Jacob not to fear exile, for it is what will turn events toward redemption, just as the bad is the cause (sibbah) of the good. What was the form of the message? The word “wagons” AGaLot is derived from the word for circular (IGGuL). The turning of events (cause, sibbah) is likened to a wheel, something circular…”
Rabbi Slater notes that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak clearly bases his teaching on the same idea as Rashi cites, yet he has taken it to a different place, and Rabbi Slater wonders why. He surmises that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak is bringing a mystical teaching that is more profound than that suggested by Rashi. Rabbi Slater says, “It is not just that Joseph has maintained his holy status in idolatrous Egypt, as the Midrash would have it. Joseph is sending a message about a much larger matter: the nature of life in exile, the life into which Jacob and his descendants were about to sink. This exile will not be – is not even now – a final destination; it will turn into something new. It is a necessary stage in the final redemption. [As we read in the Covenant between the Pieces (Bereishit 15: 13-16) in which God foretells to Abram of the descent into Egypt and the subsequent redemption]. More, Jacob’s descent into Egypt will set in motion the forces that will turn the wheel of fortune, that will move processes forward to cause the emergence of redemption.”
Rabbi Slater suggests that in this mystical view, Divine emanation, whereby God’s will for the world is expressed, “needs a mechanism by which it can come into being. The wheel of life – that one thing leads to another, that one thing follows another, that one thing forces the emergence of the next and draws its successor in its train – is that mechanism.”
So Rabbi Slater concludes that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s message to us is: “Do not turn away from whatever you face – including exile (suffering). Remaining present to it, accepting that it is true in this moment, makes possible the perception of change, the emergence of some new situation. This is how exile is the precedent for redemption, how bad leads to the good; it participates in and helps generate the energy that leads to its own transformation and end.”

* A Partner in Holiness: Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching Our Lives through the Wisdom of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi by Rabbi Jonathan P. Slater.

Miketz: Song of the Land

Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, do this: take some of the choice products of the land in your baggage, and carry them down as a gift for the man — a little balm and a little honey, gum, ladanum, pistachio nuts, and almonds…and may El-Shaddai dispose the man to mercy towards you, that he may release to you your other brother as well as Benjamin.” (Bereishit 43:11-13).

Take the song your mother hummed as
she cradled you on moonlit nights
while the gentle scent of blossom
skimmed the silent land.

Take the harmonies of harvesters
as they reach for glowing fruit
dangling from laden boughs
beneath the azure sky.

Take the riffs the shepherds sing
backed by the lilt of rugged flocks,
champing on the unploughed turf
in pastures splashed by sun.

Take the sound of dripping rain
permeating dried-up earth,
trickling in rivulets
on every blade of grass.


Parashat Miketz continues the narrative of Joseph’s fate in Egypt. He becomes second only to Pharaoh, and as the King’s dreams come true, Joseph oversees the stockpiling of grain in the years of plenty and its distribution once the famine strikes. And back in Canaan, when the famine threatens the welfare of Jacob’s family, he sends his all of his remaining sons, excepting Benjamin, to buy grain. Joseph immediately recognises his brothers, but he himself has changed beyond all recognition, and comports himself unrecognised by them. The story is familiar: he treats them harshly, accusing them of being spies. We learn that when he hears their self-recriminations and remorse, he turns aside and weeps, but betrays no emotion to them. He imprisons Simeon as a hostage pending their return with their youngest brother Benjamin, to corroborate their story and verify that they are honest men. He sends them away with grain, but orders that the money they paid be secreted in each brother’s sack. They return to their father and relate how harsh the vizier has been and Jacob is adamant that he will not send Benjamin. However, once the famine becomes so severe that the family’s well-being is threatened, the brothers cajole Jacob to send Benjamin and Judah says he will guarantee the safe return of the lad. At this point, Jacob capitulates, but tells them “Kechu mizimrat h’aretz bichlechem vehoridu la’ish mincha… – take some of the choice products of the land in your baggage as a gift for the man.” The phrase for “choice products – zimrat h’aretz” is literally “the song of the land” and of course this unusual expression arouses the interest of the commentators.

The connection between fruits and song is a rather significant theme in Jewish agriculture. As noted in Mishnah Bikkurim, the bringing of the first fruits to Jerusalem in the days of the Temple was accompanied by music.

In a commentary on Miketz from the Bar-Ilan University series Daf Shevui (no. 373), http://www.biu.ac.il/jh/parasha/miketz/kle.html, Dr Yosef Klein addresses this phrase. He quotes Rashi (citing the Targum) who explains that the product was to be the finest in the land so that people would “sing its praises”
R’ Sa’adiah Gaon suggests that the gift contained substances with healing properties, as the word for “balm – tseri” appears in the book of Jeremiah with that connotation. Rabbi Chaim Yosef Isser concurs and suggests that this would be an appropriate gift for the vizier of Egypt – otherwise he suggests the gift would not seem to have much value.
Dr Klein cites a previous commentary on Miketz from the same series (Daf Shevui no. 317) http://www.biu.ac.il/jh/parasha/miketz/hal.html, by Dr Yair Halevi who points out that there is a serious difficulty regarding Jacob’s proposed gift: Jacob knows that this ruler is second to the Pharaoh; he is in charge of all the provisions in the land; and furthermore he is a tough man – and Jacob hopes to appease him with a small gift?! We also know that Jacob has experience in giving conciliatory gifts: he appeased Esau with an impressive gift of flocks and herds, and here he hopes to appease the ruler with a handful of pistachio nuts? Dr HaLevi cites the Sforno who suggests that Jacob knows that the ruler needs nothing valuable in monetary terms, so the quantity is immaterial, but the quality is important – something that is not available in Egypt, but unique to the land of Israel. So he sends a gift that he hopes the ruler will appreciate and his heart might soften towards them.
Rabbi Chaim Vital theorises that the gift contained incense.
Dr Klein submits that this might explain the change in Joseph’s attitude to his brothers: at first, when he recognises them but does not reveal himself, he speaks harshly and imprisons them for three days and the Torah does not tell us of any internal emotional turmoil. Then he hears them reproaching themselves and he weeps in secret but still treats them harshly and sends them away. When they return, he sees Benjamin, but no emotional change is apparent: he sends his steward to organise that the brothers will join him for lunch. The brothers arrive, frightened, to Joseph’s house and are brought inside, where, we are told, they lay out the gifts and await Joseph’s arrival at noon. When he arrives, they present him with the gifts and bow down to him.
Now the Torah reports that he sees Benjamin (again) – “And he lifted up his eyes and saw Benjamin, his mother’s son…” (Bereishit 43:29) and he says, “May God be gracious to you, my boy,” and rushes out on the verge of tears. He weeps alone, washes his face and goes back in to the meal.
The sages wonder, what changed between those two times when he saw Benjamin? In the morning, he saw him and shed no tears. At the noon meeting, he wept. Dr Klein suggests that the one thing that changed, was the gift. The first two items listed in the gift, the balm and the honey were components of the incense in the temple, and were described in the Talmud as having an irresistible scent. Dr Klein notes that when Jacob finally agreed to let his sons return to Egypt with Benjamin, he said to the brothers, “…and may El-Shaddai dispose the man to mercy towards you, that he may release to you your other brother as well as Benjamin.” (Bereishit 43:13). And we first hear that Joseph’s mercies were stirred, after the gift had been laid out. The Talmud describes how the fragrance of just a small amount of incense would linger in the air. So Dr Klein proposes that the metamorphosis of Joseph from alienated and exalted ruler, to merciful brother who is able to “lift up his eyes and see” – a more far-sighted vision that internalises his brothers’ remorse, and can imagine his afflicted father who has let go of his youngest boy – the last relic of his beloved wife, all this occurred under the influence of the “choice gift” – the incense that Jacob sent.

Professor Shalom Rosenberg proposes a more literal explanation, taking the suggestion of Rashi one step further, based on the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who says, “You should know that when Jacob our father sent his sons, the ten tribes to Joseph, he sent with them the melody of the land, of Israel. And this is the secret: Take of the song of the land in your baggage.” ” (Likkutei Moharan Batra 73) Rabbi Nachman developed this idea in his “Song of the Grasses”.
Rabbi Nachman connects the words with those in Bereishit 4:20 describing the birth of music: Ada’s first son Yaval is a shepherd while her second son Yuval, is the father of those who play the lyre and the pipe. Thus R’ Nachman connects the shepherd with the music lover. He says the music of the shepherd finds its source in the grasses while the grasses hear the music and grow to feed the flocks.
Rabbi Nachman’s “Song of the Grasses” was rendered by Naomi Shemer, the iconic Israeli songwriter, into a well-known song, translated here:

Know that each and every shepherd has his own tune.
Know that each and every grass has its own song.
And from the song of the grasses the tune of the shepherd is made

How beautiful, how beautiful and pleasant to hear their song.
It’s very good to pray among them and to serve God in joy
And from the song of the grasses the heart is filled and yearns.

And when the the heart is filled by the song and yearns for the Land of Israel
a great light is drawn forth and goes from the Land’s holiness unto it.
And from the song of the grasses the tune of the heart is made.

And here is a recording of Naomi Shemer’s song, sung by Shuli Rand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-6m6CKOdC4&index=3&list=RDe1gLJYm-3Nk.

Chanukah: Awaiting the light

They walk in silence, shadows
cast on darkened streets.
They gaze upon the nascent moon
that sheds no earthbound light.

At every turn they see the glow
through misty panes of glass,
of beacons brightly heralding
the wonder of the light.

They stare into the sky once more
as if to probe the dark,
“Our lamps are lit,” they softly say,
“we now await Your light.”


There is a Midrash in Pesikta Rabati Chapter 36, which says, “Our Rabbis taught that when the King Messiah will appear, he will stand on the roof of the Temple and he will announce to them, to Israel, saying, “Humble ones, the time for your redemption has come, and if you don’t believe it, see (His) my light which shines upon you, as it is written, “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of God is shining upon you.” [Isaiah 60:1]”
Rabbi Dov Berkovits answers a question on the Kipa website (Ask the Rabbi) http://www.kipa.co.il/ask/show/228896 in which someone enquired about the meaning of a modern Chassidic song, the words of which are derived from this Midrash (the adapted words and melody are by Yossi Green, sung here by Odeliah Berlin http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaYc2XrgE-k).
Rabbi Berkovits comments that this Midrash is an introduction to Isaiah Chapter 60 which describes the redemption of Israel. He says that the first verse in the chapter addresses Jerusalem or Am Yisrael – the people of Israel and the phrase “your light” relates, not to God’s light, but to the transmission of a renewed spiritual energy which emanates from among them. Rabbi Berkovits continues that there is an important and compelling melding between the light that emanates from below – from Jerusalem or Am Yisrael, and from “the glory of God that is shining upon you.”
He explains further that the Midrash expands on this idea of the light that ascends from below, from the world and from man, and connects it to the image of the one who heralds the redemption described in the chapter – the Messiah – even though he is not actually mentioned in the chapter. The Messiah’s role is to focus the light that is always to be found in Jerusalem and in the people.
Rabbi Berkovits suggests that the expression “humble ones” describes the people when they are worthy of redemption. He says the redemption is not going to happen when we will all be prophets, rather when holiness and purity become part of our lives – when humility and integrity imbue both deeds and faith. Rabbi Berkovits suggests that the expression “and if you don’t believe” refers not to faith itself, but to belief in the redemption. The Jewish people, as the Midrash says, having undergone terrible afflictions in exile, might already find it hard to believe, after so many years of unfulfilled expectation, that now the redemption had arrived. So the Messiah addresses the people and invites them to look at their light, his light, in the light of God.

The Tanach is replete with allusions to light emanating from Divine but the people are also instructed to bring their own light. On Parashat Tetsaveh, in which we learn about the kindling of the ner tamid – the eternal lamp, in the sanctuary – the Mishkan, the Sefat Emet comments, “In the Midrash: “A candle of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). “The blessed Holy One said: “Let My candle be in your hand and yours in Mine.” And what is the candle of God? That is Torah, as Scripture says: “For a commandment is a candle and Torah is light” ” (Proverbs 6:23). What is “a commandment is a candle”? Whoever does a mitsvah is like one who lights a candle before the blessed Holy One …”*  By means of service, the Sefat Emet is telling us, we draw down divine providence and the light of God’s countenance into the world.

*From The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.

Vayeshev: Tamar

And Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is coming up to Timnah for the sheepshearing.” So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at Enaim…on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road and said, “Here, let me sleep with you,” — for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. “What,” she asked, “will you pay for sleeping with me?” He replied, “I will send a kid from my flock.” But she said, “You must leave a pledge until you have sent it.” And he said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry.” So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she conceived by him. Then she went on her way. She took off her veil and again put on her widow’s garb.
Judah sent the kid by his friend… to redeem the pledge from the woman; but he could not find her. He inquired of the people of that town, “Where is the cult prostitute, the one at Enaim, by the road?” But they said, “There has been no prostitute here.” So he returned to Judah and said “I could not find her; moreover, the townspeople said: There has been no prostitute here.” Judah said, “Let her keep them, lest we become a laughingstock. I did send her this kid, but you did not find her.” About three months later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child by harlotry.” “Bring her out,” said Judah, “and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (Bereishit 38: 24-26)

Three months have now elapsed
since the Holy Days’ embrace;
light-filled aspirations
have all but been eclipsed.

Does God lament forlornly
our descent from lofty heights, as we
succumb to the temptation
that lurks beside the road.

Vestiges of summer
are replaced by winter chill,
by a heavy veil of darkness
impervious to light.

Then from within the bleakness
God sees the wicks are lit.
Does He rejoice to witness
that we reaffirm our pledge?


Towards the middle of Parashat Vayeshev we come upon a baffling episode in the Torah: the story of Judah, his three sons, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. This narrative about Judah interrupts that about Joseph.
We learn that Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, has three sons, named Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah finds a wife, Tamar, for Er, his oldest son. Er, we learn, sins in God’s eyes and dies childless soon after. Judah then brings his second son, Onan, to marry his widowed sister-in-law, seemingly in fulfillment of the mitzvah of yibum – the levirate marriage, (which is actually introduced much later in the Torah (Devarim 25:5-10 ). This mitzva obligates a man to marry his deceased brother’s wife if there are no children from the union, and precludes the widow from marrying anyone else. In practice, in such circumstances the brother performs a ceremony called chalitza absolving both the brother and the widow from this obligation. So Onan marries Tamar, but knowing that any children born will not count as his but rather as Er’s, and that, moreover, his share of his father’s estate will thereby be reduced, Onan practises a form of contraception and God is displeased. Onan, too, dies childless. Judah fears that his third son, Shelah, might suffer the same fate as the other two so he sends Tamar home telling her “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah is grown.” The Torah tells us that a long time afterwards, Judah’s wife dies, and Tamar realizes that Shelah is grown and has not been given to her. The Etz Hayim commentary notes, “Tamar is another in the long line of biblical women who long to be mothers and who are rewarded by becoming the mother of a special person (in this case, an ancestor of King David and the messianic line).”
So she dresses up, heavily veiled, as a prostitute and stands at the side of the road along which Judah is due to travel, and he turns aside to sleep with her (the Torah emphasizes that he does not know it is his daughter-in-law). He says he will pay her with a kid from his flock, and she demands a pledge until payment is rendered and requests he leave his seal, cord and staff with her, which he does. They sleep together and we are told she conceives by him. He never asks her name, so that later when he sends the kid in payment, with a friend, the “prostitute” cannot be found, for she has dressed herself again in her respectable widow’s garb and gone home.
About three months later, Judah hears that Tamar is three months pregnant, so he decrees she should be brought out and burned, as any sexual relationship the widow has, other than with the levir, is considered adulterous and thus punishable by death. In an extremely self-restrained and noble move, Tamar then sends a message to Judah, with the items he left with her as a pledge, and saying that she is pregnant with child of the man to whom these items belong. She refrains from shaming him publicly, at great risk to herself. And Judah, with great integrity and courage, acknowledges that the pledge is his and that he is the guilty party because he held Shelah back from her.
Subsequently, Tamar has twins, Peretz and Zerah, the former is the ancestor of King David (10 generations later).

In Itturei Torah* on the phrase, “About three months later” the following commentary is cited and attributed to several (unnamed) books: “There is here a hint of the light of Chanuka. “About three months” – Chanuka falls three months after the creation of the world; the world was created on the 25th Elul, and Chanukah [falls] on the 25th Kislev…”
In an article reflecting a kabbalistic perspective of this story http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/379771/jewish/Seal-Cord-and-Staff.htm, Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson notes that biblical commentators agree that narratives in the Torah do not just recount ancient Jewish history; he cites Nachmanides, “The Torah discusses the physical reality, but it alludes to the world of the spirit.”
So Rabbi Jacobson brings the Kabbalistic analogy in this episode, whereby Tamar represents the Jewish people, and Judah represents God (the Kabbalists note that the name Judah – YeHuDaH incorporates all the letters of God’s name, with an additional “daleth“. So he says that the intimate meeting between Tamar and Judah (representing the Jewish people and God) occurs during the sacred days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish people draw near to God and He embraces them. They dream of staying close. But as the months pass, they gradually drift away. By the time three months have elapsed the spiritual awakening of the High Holy days has worn off. Judah learns that his “kalla” which here means “daughter-in-law”, but also means “bride” (and Israel is, indeed, considered to be betrothed to God as His bride) has committed harlotry, and become pregnant. In this allegory, then, God is told that His bride has forsaken Him for another.
Rabbi Jacobson asks, “Is this not the story of so many of us? At one point during our lives we are inspired to transcend our selfish identity and connect to the deeper Divine rhythm of life. Yet, the cunning lore of numerous other gods captivates our imaginations and ambitions and dulls our vision…What is even sadder for Judah is the news that “Tamar” is so estranged that she became pregnant by harlotry…”
Rabbi Jacobson adds that Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that the judgment that began on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is completed some three months later, during the days of Chanukah. He continues with the allegory: when Tamar is brought out for justice to be administered, she calls on Judah to identify the articles of the pledge: the seal, the cord and the staff. Each night during the festival of Chanukah – when, according to this interpretation, the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is finalized – God sees His people lighting a wick, or cord, soaked in oil, commemorating the discovery of one uncontaminated cruse of oil, still bearing an unbroken seal, after the Greeks had plundered the Temple in Jerusalem. Meanwhile the staff denotes the wandering of the Jewish people through 2000 years of exile, always seeking a new home where they could practice their faith. Judah recognises that these are his pledge, and confesses that he is to blame, because he withheld his son Shelah. God sees the Chanukah candles and knows that His people are still faithful to the “Owner” of the pledge. In three weeks time in Parashat Vayechi, when Jacob blesses his sons on his deathbed, he will bless Judah as follows, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him, and the homage of peoples be his.” The word for tribute is “shiloh” and is understood as a Messianic reference. The kabbalists relate this word to Shelah and so they suggest that God accepts that as He has withheld the Messianic era, the world is still dark and turbulent. The Chanukah candles affirm the human endeavor to illuminate the darkness.

*Itturei Torah – Words of Wisdom, Understanding and Ethics arranged by Parasha on the Torah and on the Megillot and Festivals. Collected and explained by Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg.