Category Archives: 5781

Calling God’s Bluff (Bo)

Calling God’s Bluff (Bo)

It is sometimes necessary to lie damnably in the interests of the nation. -Hilaire Belloc

There is a common misconception about what Moses requested from Pharaoh. We’ve heard the popular “Let my people go” refrain, implying that Moses was asking for complete freedom from slavery and permanent departure from Egypt. That is not accurate. Though freedom was the final intention, what Moses repeatedly asks from Pharaoh is much more limited and specific. He asks that Pharaoh let the people go on a three-day journey into the desert where they will worship God and celebrate.

At some point in the discussions, Pharaoh gives in and says, “ok, you can go to the desert to worship your God,” but he asks, “who is going?” Moses answers: “Everyone, men, women, elderly, and children.” Pharaoh’s response is “no way. Just the men can go.”

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 10:10 wonders as to what’s going on. Why does Pharaoh care who goes to worship? He answers that Pharaoh saw through Moses’ façade. He understood that they didn’t intend to just “worship”, but rather that they planned to completely escape. That’s why Pharaoh stubbornly refuses. In one sense he’s calling Moses’ bluff. “You want to go worship? Fine. You’re free to go, but you need to leave your women and children behind until you return.” Moses couldn’t accept the offer which is why he doubles down and insists that everybody needs to go.

Having God on his side didn’t hurt Moses either, so when subsequent plagues strike Egypt culminating in the devastating Death of the Firstborns, not only does Pharaoh finally agree to Moses’ terms, but he and the Egyptian people can’t get them out fast enough. The entire Jewish people are freed to go on the three-day journey to the desert to worship God. Only after that does Moses activate the next step of the plan, to take the Jewish people out of the Egyptian empire entirely.

May we see clearly through the facades in front of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Eitan Orbach and Tzivya Graff on their marriage. Mazal Tov!

Magic versus Miracles (Vaera)

Magic versus Miracles (Vaera)

For the truly faithful, no miracle is necessary. For those who doubt, no miracle is sufficient. -Nancy Gibbs

God sends Moses to free the Jewish people from bondage. Moses demands from Pharaoh to allow the Jewish slaves time off to go to the desert to serve God. Pharaoh condescendingly declines. Then ensues a macabre back-and-forth between Moses and Pharaoh, interspersed by the famous Ten Plagues. Moses keeps asking for the people to be freed. Pharaoh declines. A plague hits. However, we also see Pharaoh’s reactions evolve, from outright denial to conditional and grudging agreement on which he immediately reneges once the particular plague has passed.

The first and perhaps most famous plague is the plague of blood. Aaron, Moses’ brother and co-conspirator, uses Moses’ staff and strikes the water of the Nile River. All the water turns to blood. The life source of Egypt has now turned to a source of death. All the fish in the Nile die, polluting the river and making the water undrinkable.

Curiously, we are told by the Torah that Pharaoh’s sorcerers are somehow able to replicate this feat, turning water into blood as well. This capacity leads Pharaoh to believe that Moses and Aaron’s plague of blood was not of divine nature, but rather some magical ability. He refuses to free the Jewish people.

A common question that is asked about the event is that if Aaron turned all the water to blood, what water did Pharaoh’s sorcerers convert to blood? especially, given the tradition that all of the water in Egypt turned to blood, not just that of the Nile.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 8:20 explains that the plague of blood lasted for just a short while. However, that short while was enough to kill all of the fish in the Nile and contaminate the water for an extended period, making it undrinkable. Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to use their sorcery on the contaminated but no-longer-blood water of the Nile, transforming it again into blood. Pharaoh sees his sorcerers replicate Moses’ and Aaron’s miracle before the full extent of the plague is felt. That, combined with his sorcerers’ ability to mimic the miracle, underwhelms Pharaoh and he duly declines the request to free the Jewish slaves.

The Torah tells us that Pharaoh continues to “harden his heart” in the face of the progressive plagues and miracles, rejecting God as well as denying the Jewish people their freedom. Eventually, he and the Egyptian nation pay severely for their lack of faith and compassion.

May we appreciate the daily blessings and miracles that fill our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the peaceful transfer of government power. Not to be taken for granted.

Part-Time Slaves (Shemot)

Part-Time Slaves (Shemot)

Slavery is a weed that grows on every soil. -Edmund Burke

It is a biblical command for the Jewish people to remember the slavery we endured in Egypt and the subsequent miraculous exodus from the bondage of Egypt. Though history has shown that there are different degrees of slavery, the Jewish tradition is that Egyptian slavery was particularly cruel.

Based on that tradition, Egyptian slavery has been depicted widely in both books and film to the extent that we can readily imagine our ancestors plodding in the mud pits, under the harsh Egyptian sun, and the harsher taskmaster’s whip, as permanent prisoners of a tyrannical regime.

However, the Bechor Shor on Exodus 1:11 adds some nuance to the terms of enslavement that may not have been apparent to us. He explains that the enslavement was not constant but rather lasted for a few months at a time. He picks up on the parallel description of the much later “enslavement” which King Solomon decreed for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. King  Solomon “taxed” the people, taking 30,000 men who would work for the king for a month, and then they would return home for two months, though we have no record that it was a particularly harsh situation for the conscripted men.

In a related vein, the Bechor Shor explains, the Egyptians forced the Jews into hard labor for several months at a time, and then let them go home to their families for a period, so they can support their own households until they were forced into hard labor again for a number of months. This is a cycle that continued for the long decades of Egyptian bondage. In the Egyptian case, even though the Jewish slaves had some “time off” it was still an extremely oppressive and dispiriting situation.

May we be cautious of the servitudes we get ourselves into – even if they’re not full-time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In honor of our nephew, Mordechai Tzvi Kahen’s Bar-Mitzvah. Mazal Tov!

Brothers in Prejudice (Vayechi)

Brothers in Prejudice (Vayechi)

A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices. -Edward R. Murrow

Jacob, the patriarch of the family, the father of the twelve brothers who will form the future nation of Israel, is on his deathbed. He calls his sons into his room so that he can bless them and share with them his prophetic visions of their future.

Out of all the siblings, there are only two that he refers to as “brothers,” Shimon and Levi. But the context is not a positive one. Jacob’s parting statement to them reads as follows:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.”

To put it mildly, Jacob’s final words to Shimon and Levi seem to be the opposite of a blessing.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 49:5 focuses on the word “brothers” and tries to dig deeper into Jacob’s meaning and use of the word. He explains that Jacob is referring to a very basic principle of human socialization. Shimon and Levi were “brothers” in their nature, their disposition, and their prejudices. As a result, they regularly hung out with each other. They both possessed the trait of anger. Their ill will and negative thoughts reinforced each other and led them to violent and dangerous actions (the destruction of the city of Shechem and plotting to kill Joseph). The two of them formed their own echo chamber. When they thought perhaps that they were rationally discussing a topic, they were merely validating their dangerous ideas and emotions.

In that context, the Bechor Shor quotes perhaps the original formulation of “birds of a feather flock together” (attributed to William Turner, 1545), quoting the Babylonian Talmud (completed circa the year 500) “All fowl will live with its kind, and men with those like him” (Tractate Baba Kama 92b), a line which derives from the even older Book of Ben Sira 13:17 (circa 200 BCE) where Ben Sira writes “All flesh loveth its kind; And every man him that is like unto him.”

In any case, Jacob’s prophecy came to fruition. The descendants of both Shimon and Levi were dispersed throughout the territory of Israel, in part, to prevent their getting together and seeking future destructive council with each other.

While it is often nice to seek like-minded people, when it’s about negative perspectives, it’s better to seek out others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Israeli Medical system for their incredible vaccine distribution effort.

Fake Righteousness (Vayigash)

Fake Righteousness (Vayigash)

Keep thy smooth words and juggling homilies for those who know thee not. -Lord Byron

Joseph has finally sprung his trap, while his brothers still haven’t discovered that he, the Viceroy of Egypt, is their long-lost brother. Joseph got them to bring brother Benjamin to Egypt, and he had incriminating evidence placed among Benjamin’s belongings. The brothers, not realizing they were being set up, had brazenly declared that if Joseph’s men would find the thief in their midst, the thief would be put to death and the rest of them would become Joseph’s slaves.

When the stolen goblet is found in Benjamin’s possessions, the brothers realize they are in big trouble. Joseph, however, presents himself as a magnanimous judge. He states that only the thief himself will become his slave, while the rest of the brothers are free to return home.

This is the situation in which Judah steps forward and asks for a private audience with the Viceroy. Judah recounts the recent history, of how the Viceroy had insisted on Benjamin coming to Egypt, despite pleas that their father Jacob’s life was highly dependent on Benjamin’s wellbeing. If anything untoward were to happen to Benjamin, it would almost certainly kill their father Jacob.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 44:32 reads an accusatory statement in Judah’s plea to the Viceroy. He explains that Judah is saying that the Viceroy’s magnanimity is ultimately false. The Viceroy is only pretending to be generous by saying the other brothers are free to go, while only Benjamin will remain enslaved. While the Viceroy seems to be saying that the other brothers are likely innocent and there’s no need for them to be punished, in effect, by enslaving Benjamin and separating him from their father, the Viceroy will be killing Jacob, who is completely innocent. How can the Viceroy justify the exoneration of people who may have been accomplices to the crime, while he inflicts a fatal punishment on Jacob, someone completely innocent?

At that point, Judah offers himself to be a slave to the Viceroy instead of Benjamin, in order to save Jacob’s life. Moved by Judah’s valiant gesture, the Viceroy finally reveals himself to be Joseph. The brothers are shocked into silence, and the process of family reconciliation can begin.

May our family reunions be less duplicitous than that of our ancestors.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israeli politics. Never, ever boring.

The Grandeur of the Oppressor (Miketz)

The Grandeur of the Oppressor (Miketz)

An empire is an immense egotism. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pharaoh has a disturbing dream. He brings Joseph, a young, incarcerated Jewish slave to interpret the dream. Joseph conveys that the dream is a prophecy of seven years of plenty that will be quickly followed by seven years of famine. Joseph councils for Pharaoh to save grain from the years of plenty in preparation for what he predicts will be a devastating period of famine. Pharaoh is impressed and puts Joseph in charge of the entire project and elevates him to Viceroy of the Egyptian empire.

Joseph fills Egypt’s storehouses during the years of plenty and its treasury during the years of famine. Because of Joseph’s warning and preparation, Egypt was the only country in the entire region that was ready when famine struck. It made the wealthy and powerful Egypt even wealthier and more powerful. All the peoples of the region flocked to Egypt for grain. At this point, Egypt was reputed to have received the wealth of the entire world.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 41:1 gives an eerie explanation for why Egypt becomes the undisputed superpower of its time. He states that God, knowing that Egypt would eventually subjugate and enslave the Jewish people, wanted to raise Egypt’s prospects even further. God wanted Egypt to become the most powerful nation in the world before it enslaved the Jews. The reason is that God only wants the Jews subjugated by a powerful nation as opposed to a more lowly one. The Bechor Shor explains that not only was this true with Egypt, but with each subjugator of the Jewish people. God raises the fortunes of whatever empire or nation are about to subdue the Jews and we have seen this throughout our history. The fortunes of empire peak at the same time as the subjugation of the Jews starts. God doesn’t want to give the Jewish people into the hands of a lowly nation, but rather to one at the height of its power.

However, it has also proven true that while a nation may be at the height of its power when the subjugation starts, invariably, a nation that oppresses and persecutes its Jewish population, no matter how powerful, is eventually relegated to the dustbin of history.

May we be wary of nations at the height of their power.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To vaccination. May it ever be safe and effective.

Victim’s Collusion (Vayeshev)

Victim’s Collusion (Vayeshev)

Silence is the ultimate weapon of power. -Charles De Gaulle

Joseph’s half-brothers hate him. The hatred is so deep, that they conspire to kill him. However, at the last moment, brother Judah suggests that they sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him. Joseph is transported from the land of Canaan, south, to the Egyptian empire, where he becomes Potiphar’s slave. Though he excels in his servitude, Potiphar’s wife, whose advances upon Joseph are rejected, ultimately accuses Joseph of accosting her, landing him in prison.

Joseph is eventually released, due to his dream-interpretation skills. By successfully interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph is elevated to the post of Viceroy of the Egyptian empire, a role he had been filling for nine years, before he meets his brothers again. Then he starts the strange charade of remaining unrevealed to them, forcing his full-brother Benjamin to come to Egypt, threatening to force Benjamin into slavery on trumped up charges, and only later revealing himself to his brothers, and subsequently they relay his prominence and wellbeing to their father, Jacob.

The big question that vexes many of the commentaries is why didn’t Joseph communicate with his family beforehand? Why, when he was in a position of tremendous power, did he not send a message to his beloved father that he was alive and well? Why did he let his father believe he was dead or missing all those years?

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 37:26, takes us back to the original sale of Joseph into slavery to answer the question. The brothers really had intended to kill him, or at the very least to let him die in the pit they had thrown him into. But Judah, a savvy negotiator, declared to his brothers: “We gain nothing by his death. If we sell him, at least we gain something, and it removes our hated brother from our midst.” Then they give Joseph a choice: “Either we let you die as planned, or we sell you into slavery on condition that you never reveal your identity or origins to anyone, that you never return home nor contact our father.”

Joseph has no choice but to keep his silence and never contact his family. The purpose of the charade with the brothers then becomes clearer. Joseph couldn’t just declare that he was Joseph when his brothers first meet him in Egypt. That likely would not have gone well and the family rapprochement wouldn’t have occurred. They needed to go through a few steps first to undue the damage of selling him into slavery. When Judah, who initially sold Joseph into slavery then saves Benjamin from a similar fate, they are redeemed. This then allows the brothers, of their own volition, to suspend the enforced silence, to inform their father as to Joseph’s wellbeing and to bring him to Joseph in Egypt, which is what they go on to do.

Joseph’s silence and collusion with his brothers in his own harsh fate were painful, but he had little other choice. In the end, he was able to overcome his circumstances, and reunite the family.

May we only use silence in a positive way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, who passed away this week.

The Pain of Uncertainty (Vayishlach)

The Pain of Uncertainty (Vayishlach)

Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother. -Kahlil Gibran

Jacob had escaped from the land of Canaan and his brother Esau’s murderous wrath, to spend 20 years with his uncle Lavan (who would later become his father-in-law as well). Now that Jacob is returning to Canaan, he’s not sure if his hot-headed brother still wants to kill him or not.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis Chapter 32 analyses Jacob’s predicament and how he navigates the dilemma. Verse 8 states that Jacob was very afraid and it pained him. The Bechor Shor explains that what pained Jacob was the uncertainty. The best scenario, would of course be if Esau had forgiven him, allowing Jacob an amicable return to Canaan. The second-best scenario would be to know if Esau still meant to kill him and Jacob could prepare himself accordingly, either running away from Esau or finding a fortified city where he can get out of reach of Esau and his warriors. However, not knowing Esau’s intentions kept Jacob in a fearful and painful state of uncertainty. Not knowing can be psychologically more distressful than knowing a certain negative outcome. When one knows the facts, one can start to deal with the situation. But a cloud of doubt and uncertainty can be painfully paralyzing.

On one hand, Jacob would love to have a peaceful resolution to the ill will Jacob had generated 20 years earlier by stealing Esau’s blessings. On the other hand, he wanted to protect himself and his large clan which included four wives, twelve children (eleven sons and one daughter, at that point), many servants, and significant flocks and herds.

If there was a chance for reconciliation, Jacob wanted to do whatever he could to make that happen. Jacob sends messengers ahead to Esau to inform him of his return to Canaan, and to try to gauge Esau’s state of mind. However, the messengers return with inconclusive reports: Esau is coming to meet Jacob, together with 400 of his men. It’s not clear if this is a war outing or the entourage that would normally accompany Esau. It could be that Esau was coming to honor his long-absent brother. If Jacob would choose to run away, Esau may interpret that negatively and perhaps pursue and attack as opposed to having a warm brotherly reunion. If Jacob runs, he may ruin any chance of reconciliation. Yet, if he meets Esau, he may be opening himself up to the death and destruction of himself and his entire family.

Jacob sends multiple deliveries of his flocks and herds as gifts, in the hopes that it will soften Esau’s heart as well as to see if Esau lashes out against Jacob’s gifts. However, until the very last moment, Jacob has no idea if the reunion will be bloody or friendly. Upon seeing Esau, Jacob bows profusely, demonstrating his subservience. In the end, Esau proves to be peaceful and Jacob is surely relieved by both the warm reunion and the resolution of the uncertainty.

May we often know the joy of the resolution of doubts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the men and women responsible for the removal of our enemies.

Misunderstanding God (Vayetze)

Misunderstanding God (Vayetze)

The business of a seer is to see; and if he involves himself in the kind of God-eclipsing activities which make seeing impossible, he betrays the trust which his fellows have tacitly placed in him. -Aldous Huxley

Jacob arrives in the town of Haran and falls in love at first sight with his cousin Rachel. He offers Rachel’s father, Lavan, to work for him for seven years to marry Rachel. Lavan sort of agrees. On the wedding night, seven years later, Lavan switches Rachel for her older sister, Leah, which somehow Jacob only realizes the morning after. Infuriated, Jacob confronts Lavan. Lavan tells him that in his town they don’t marry the younger one before the older one, but if he wants, after the week of the wedding celebration, he can have Rachel – but for an additional seven years of work. Jacob agrees.

Now, after fourteen years of working for his father-in-law, where Jacob was extremely productive and made Lavan into a wealthy man, Jacob wants to earn something for himself. He comes to a new agreement with Lavan as to what his compensation will be. Jacob is successful, but Lavan keeps changing the terms of the deal. Finally, God reveals himself to Jacob and tells him to leave Lavan and head back home to his father, Isaac, in Canaan.

Fearful that Lavan, the proven swindler, would hamper his departure, Jacob leaves with his wives, children, and all his possessions, without informing Lavan. Lavan eventually is notified of Jacob’s escape and pursues him. The night before Lavan is about to encounter Jacob, God comes to Lavan in his dream and warns him: “Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.”

Now a prophetic vision of God talking to us might typically make us awestruck and even humble. A warning from God might even make us cautious. However, it seems Lavan misunderstands God and the divine communication doesn’t seem to have reduced his arrogance or ego.

The next morning Lavan catches up with Jacob and berates him for his hasty departure. He tells Jacob that he would have a mind to hurt him in some way for this offense, but that God Himself told him not to.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 31:29 interprets Lavan as saying that “I really could have done serious damage to you and that my power to hurt you is so great that even God himself was worried and therefore came to me in a prophetic vision to ask me not to harm you in any way.” Lavan further uses God’s intervention as proof that Jacob was wrong in leaving without informing him.

But Lavan was wrong on both counts. He didn’t realize that he could not harm Jacob if God wouldn’t allow it, nor did he realize that Jacob had departed based on God’s direct command. God’s warning was likely more for Lavan’s benefit than for Jacob’s.

But humans continually prove that often, we hear what we want to hear, even if it’s God Himself talking.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the 57th anniversary of Doctor Who.

A Tale of Bitter Rivalry (Toldot)

A Tale of Bitter Rivalry (Toldot)

Enemies’ promises were made to be broken. -Aesop

Isaac and Rebecca have twin sons: Esau and Jacob. They’re very different physically and in temperament. Esau is a hairy hunter. Jacob is a smooth-skinned dweller of tents. Isaac loves Esau. Rebecca loves Jacob. The Bechor Shor in the Torah portion of Toldot gives a somewhat different reading of events than what many might be familiar with, from the more popular commentaries.

According to the Bechor Shor, Esau, the eldest, shows up at Jacob’s tent after an unsuccessful hunt, literally starving to death. He is so weak he can’t even feed himself. Jacob sees his brother, his bitter rival, and says to himself: if I do nothing, he dies of his own fault, my rival will be gone by his own doing and I will inherit everything. Esau understands well his predicament. Jacob offers Esau a deal: I’ll feed you and save you in exchange for the eldest’s part of our inheritance. Esau accepts, but in the back of his mind, counting on being his father’s favorite, he expects Isaac to gift him his portion before he dies. Once Isaac would die, a legal inheritance would then be in force and Esau would need to abide by his agreement with Jacob, and let Jacob get the major portion of their father’s wealth (a wealth that we are told previously is vast).

True to Esau’s instinct, Isaac, as he approaches old age, informs Esau that he wants to bless him, which the Bechor Shor understands to mean, to bestow the majority of his wealth as well as leadership of the family upon Esau BEFORE his death. Isaac is willing to do this despite the fact that it will contravene the agreement Esau hade made with Jacob.

Isaac informs Esau of his decision and sends him to hunt for some food and prepare a celebratory meal to seal the deal. Rebecca, wanting to sabotage Isaac’s and Esau’s workaround of the firstborn sale, suggests Jacob present himself to blind Isaac in Esau’s place. Isaac is fooled and bequeaths his possessions as well as the family leadership upon Jacob (the ultimate rightful recipient, based on his agreement with Esau) in an irrevocable form.

Esau, understandably furious that his treachery was neutralized, plans to kill Jacob at his earliest opportunity, BEFORE his father dies, thereby getting that entire inheritance. Jacob, under the legitimate pretense of going to find a bride from Rebecca’s family in Haran, escapes, taking nothing with him, to travel quickly and lightly, and so Esau won’t suspect his prey is planning an escape.

More than two decades later, the brothers meet briefly, each prepared for war. Battle is averted. The brothers are affectionate and civil to each other and then part ways never to meet again, with Esau renouncing his claim to the inheritance of Isaac and leaving the land of Canaan permanently. However, the descendants of these two brothers, who would go on to form two different nations, would rarely know peace between them.

Some rivalries are not so easy to overcome.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the engagement of our niece, Leora Spitz, to Sammy Landesman. Mazal Tov!