Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Parshat Miketz

One Dream or Two?

Pharaoh had Egypts most talented dram necromancers. What caused him to ignore their interpretations (following Rashi's comment whereby their interpretations were unsatsifactory) and accept without reservation the message of a Hebrew slave?

A close reading of the text can help us solve this problem.

It appears that there was a disagreement between Pharaoh and his advisers over whether he had had one or two dreams. Whilst Pharaoh may have woken up after the first dream, he only recognizes that he had dreamt after the second dream. Indeed it is only after the second dream that he realizes that he had dreamed a dream (Bershit 41:7). Notice how Pharaoh's experience is described in the singular.

Notice also that when Pharaoh relates his vision to Yoseph he twice uses the singular. "In my dream, behold, I was standing on the bank of the Nile...Then I saw in my dream, and behold, seven ears of grain were growing on one stalk" (ibid 17-22). Pharaoh believes that he has had on dream.

So when Pharaoo tells his wise men of the dream he uses the singular. " Pharaoh related to them his dream..." yet they respond in the plural, "but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh" (ibid 8). His necromancers insisted that he had had two dreams, whilst Pharaoh knew that he had had only one. So Pharaoh rejects their advice.

Pharaoh however, is intrigued with the tale of the chief cupbearer. In relating his experience to him, the cupbearer, he points out that according to Yoseph both his and the baker's dream were one.

Indeed the first words that Yoseph says to Pharaoh are: "Pharaoh's dream is one"(ibid 24). Yoseph goes onto explain why that one dream was repeated: "Concerning the repetition of the dream to Pharaoh twice that is because the matter is ready [to emanate] from God, and God is hastening to execute it" (ibid 32).

In light of this we can understand why Pharaoh accepts Yoseph's explanation of the dream and rejects those of his own wise men.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Parshat VaYeshev

Yoseph: The Fourth Patriarch

The early story of Yoseph has got to be the most upsetting parsha in the Torah. We must examine the motive of the brothers.

A law in Devarim states that when a father has two wives, "he may not make the son of the beloved the first-born ahead of the son of the hated, who is the first-born" (Devarim21:16).

Nevertheless, that didn't stop Avraham (indeed God) from passing over Yishmael in favor of Yitschak. Nor did it stop Yaakov from taking the birthright from Esav, a move confirmed by Yitschak.

Reuven tried to establish his hegemony over the birthright by taking Bilha, but Yaakov did not approve. So too, Shimon and Levy, and quite possibly Leah's other sons, have dissapointed Yaakov over their actions in Shechem. Furthermore, they are the children of the "hated" wife. Is their destiny to be the same fate as Yishmael, Avraham's four other sons, and Esav? Will they too be sent away. We know that the answer is no, but they didn't.

What's more, the odds seem to be against them. Yoseph is the son of Rachel, Yaakov's favorite wife and: "his brothers saw that their father loved him more" (Bereshit 37:4). Yaakov is also setting Yoseph aside for leadership: "he made him a fine woolen coat" (ibid 3) and Yoseph seems to be taking on that role naturally by giving him reports as to their behaviour.

Additionally, Yoseph is having dreams, just as Yaakov and the other Patriarchs had. Are these dreams just dreams or are they communications with God about his destiny? Finally, the content of the dreams (and Yoseph's interpretation) suggest that Yoseph will be the inheritor of the Abrahamic covenant.

Notice, how the brothers' hatred develops into jealousy.
  • "they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully" (ibid 4)
  • "Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they hated him more" (ibid 5)
  • "they hated him even more on account of his dreams and on account of his words" (ibid 8)
  • "his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind" (ibid 11)

First they hate him, because of Yaakov's favoritism. Once Yoseph starts having dreams, i.e. possible communications with God, they hate him more. When he starts interpreting the dreams (i.e. "on account of his words") and proclaiming his leadership, their hatred grows further. However, once Yoseph tells Yaakov the dream and Yaakov confirms it ("kept the matter in mind"), the brothers begin to envy him.

Their envy suggests that they now believe that Yoseph supercedes them. Up until now, the brothers could hope that Yoseph's tales were the reports of a spoiled child who will eventually be brought down to earth. However, they now know that that is not the case. Yoseph is now a threat to them as they appear to be excluded from the covenant.

With this in mind, they now work on trying to remove that threat.

Their's and Yoseph's mistake is that they did not know that dreams were about the short-term and not a long-term destiny. The dreams were a prophecy about a not too distant future encounter in Egypt and not about Yoseph becoming the Fourth Patriarch with the brothers being nothing.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Parshat VaYishlach

Wrestling with the Present

Shortly before Yaakov's reunion with Esav, the Torah presents us with a strange episode: "He was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Bereshit 32:25). The man then dislocates Yaakov's hip, and Yaakov forces him to bless him. The blessing he received was that his name would become Yisrael. What is going on here?

Yaakov was the father of Galut - the prototype of the Jew in exile. He flees from Canaan, to an unknown future, and encounters darkness and fear. He is cheated countless times by Lavan and has no recourse but to accept his predicament. Lavan's sons blame him from usurping their father's wealth and Yaakov flees once more. Yet throughout all, Yaakov succeeds and grows into a rich and powerful dynasty: "for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps" (Bereshit 32:11).

Yet even upon return, Yaakov remains with his exilic mentality. He is panicked when facing Esav (ibid 8). He tries to pay him off with a huge tribute and even hints at returning the blessing he had decieved him out of: "Now take my blessing" (ibid 33:11), after repeatedly stating that he is Esav's servant.

Yaakov needed to change. The man stops Yaakov from fleeing. He does this by holding him back and eventually dislocating his hip, forcing him to limp. Yaakov can no longer flee. Yet more than that, he changes Yaakov's name, i.e, he gives him a new identity.

Yaakov means "heel" (i.e. low see 25:26), and "crooked" (i.e. cheat - see 27:26) - identities appropiate for exile. Yisrael means "prince" (sar [שר] - high) and "straight"(yashar [ישר]). Furthermore, the man blesses Yaakov implying that rather than fleeing (being on his heels), Yaakov should face up to his problems and struggle [שרית] with them. The process may injure him but he will at least he would be in control of his own destiny. This blessing was a process for Yaakov to develop. Yaakov still remains Yaakov but begins to adopt Yisrael capabilities.

Perhaps this metamorphis is a process that the Jews of Israel have begun, but have not yet completed.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Parshat VaYetse

The Dust of the Earth

God promised Avraham, Yitschak and Yaakov individually that they would have countless descendants. However, He used a different expression with each forefather:


"I will make your seed like the dust of the earth, so that if a man will be able to count the dust of the earth, so will your seed be counted" (Bereshit 13:16).

"Look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So will be your seed" (ibid 15:5).

"I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore" (ibid 22:17).


"I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens" (ibid 26:4).


"Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth" (ibid 28:14).

All three expressions imply that their descendants would be countless. But are these expressions merely expressions or do they have extra meaning?

Stars in the sky – each star is bright and untouchable. Even as individuals the star is special.

Sand on the shore – sand is forged through the waves crashing against the shore. It takes many millennia for the sand to form and comes through hardship.

Dust on the earth – one treads on dust; being a piece of dirt is nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps these expressions represent different phases in the Patriarchs' and the Jewish people's lives.

Abraham made the move to the Holy Land, but he also experienced exile and much hardship in his life. All three expressions are appropriate for him.

Yitschak remained in Canaan his whole life. He was prosperous and had stability. The expression of stars is appropriate for him.

Yaakov begins this Parsha with the sun setting. He is left in darkness and insecurity as he begins his life in exile. There he will find himself repeatedly cheated with no rights. Even though he flourishes and becomes a large family, he must still resort to subterfuge to escape from Lavan. He may have become numerous, but he is no star, nor is he as sand: He is "as the dust of the earth" - trodden on, frightened and homeless.

Yaakov represents the Jew in exile: worried, defenseless, yet still flourishing. However, Yaakov does not remain in exile, he returns, as will all his progeny.