Category Archives: Vayechi

Second-Rate Torah Scholars

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayehi-second-rate-torah-scholars/

Netziv Genesis: Vayehi

Second-Rate Torah Scholars

“The honest work of yesterday has lost its social status, its social esteem.” -Peter Drucker

Maimonides, in his magnum opus, the Mishne Torah, has harsh words for Torah scholars that avoid work. In his Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, Law 3, he states:

“Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates God’s name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come.”

The Netziv takes a softer approach. He doesn’t call such individuals damned, shameful, faith-killing, evil-mongering people whose souls are destined for eternal oblivion. He just calls them second-rate.

While Reuben, Shimon and Levi are castigated in Jacob’s final blessings to his sons, and Judah and Joseph receive long and beautiful partings, it is the second son of Joseph, Ephraim, who is the surprise winner in Jacob’s final orations. Jacob places Ephraim in front of Menashe, his older brother. The Netziv on Genesis 49:13 says that Ephraim is placed first because of his studious and spiritual level, due to his dedication to Torah study. The Netziv differentiates between Ephraim’s level which was achieved on his own steam, and that of his uncle Yissachar.

There was a famous partnership between two of Jacob’s sons, Zebulun and Yissachar. Zebulun was the merchant and his descendants supported the studious descendants of Yissachar. Zebulun is always mentioned before Yissachar, as Yissachar’s Torah accomplishments are only thanks to the financial backing of Zebulun. However, Ephraim stands first, on his own, deserving greater respect and honor than the dependent Yissachar.

May we stand on our own feet, whenever we can, and thereby reach greater heights.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my son, Netanel, on his Bar-Mitzvah. May he become a first-rate Torah scholar.

Joseph’s Unnamed Children

[First posted at The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/josephs-unnamed-children/]

Ibn Ezra Genesis: Vayechi

Joseph’s Unnamed Children

 “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.” -Benjamin Franklin

Did Joseph have more than two sons? The Torah only lists Ephraim and Menashe as Joseph’s sons and their names are noted repeatedly and prominently throughout the Bible. Grandfather Jacob elevated their status to equal that of his own sons, thereby making them full-fledged Tribes of Israel.

But did Joseph have any other children?

Before his death, Jacob blesses Joseph and his sons with a most unusual blessing:

“And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Menashe, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine. And your children that you had after them shall be yours; they shall be called after the name of their brethren in their inheritance.” -Genesis 48:5-6

These verses have consternated many commentators who’ve gone to great pains to explain what it means, as there is no other mention or names anywhere else of any other children of Joseph.

Ibn Ezra (on Genesis 48:4) in his typical no-nonsense style says that the verses are saying what they seem to be saying, namely that Joseph did have other children, but only the two older ones were elevated, and received honor and unique status within the Israelite hierarchy. The other children of Joseph (we don’t even know how many others there were) were of less significance and therefore did not merit either mention or listing in the genealogical records. In the annals of the Torah, these unnamed children were subsumed into the nomenclature of their older, more famous brothers.

Is that the fate of the unnamed? To be forgotten to the point of nonexistence?

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our unnamed soldiers and heroes. Though they may not be celebrated, someone knows and someone remembers.

To the people at heartrescuenow.com – enabling the saving of lives.

Sabbath Soul

Ohr Hachayim Genesis: Vayechi

Sabbath Soul

“The joy of a spirit is the measure of its power.”

– Ninon de Lenclos (1620 – 1705)

There is a well-known kabalistic belief that on the Sabbath we receive an “additional soul.” Somehow we have an added spiritual component that is supposed to heighten our appreciation and enjoyment of that special weekly day of rest.

Scientifically no one has found a way to measure or test for this extra metaphysical occupation of our bodies. The Ohr Hachayim however believes there is a very simple way to determine the presence of the Sabbath spirit.

Our Patriarch Jacob was renamed by God “Israel.” However, throughout the biblical text there is a dichotomy in regularly alternating uses of both “Jacob” and “Israel.” The Ohr Hachayim (Genesis 47:28) explains that “Israel” is the more ideal, fulfilled name, while “Jacob” is a more anxious or saddened name. When Jacob was affected by his sorrows and concerns he was merely “Jacob.” However, when he was happiest, when he connected fully with God, an additional spirit rested on him – then he was “Israel.”

The Ohr Hachayim says it is the same with the Sabbath spirit. When one prepares for the Sabbath; when one is joyous about the upcoming day of rest; when one is ready to leave material concerns and modern distractions and focus on relationships, on family, on God, on self – then an otherworldly spirit descends upon you and you are filled with light.

If you see someone smiling and content on the Sabbath, it’s a sure bet they have that “additional soul.”

May we understand, prepare and enjoy the Sabbath.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Ahad Ha’am and his famous quote: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”

Fragmentation of a Merchant’s Mind

Kli Yakar Genesis: Vayechi

 

Fragmentation of a Merchant’s Mind

The Patriarch Jacob gives his sons prophetic and barely decipherable blessings (Genesis Chapter 49).

For his ninth son, fifth one from Leah, he states:

“Zevulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea, and he shall be a shore for ships, and his flank shall be upon Zidon.” Genesis 49:13

The Kli Yakar repeats the maxim that the Tribe of Zevulun was destined to become merchants, sailing to far off destinations to make a living. Furthermore, he states the famous partnership that existed between the Tribe of Zevulun and the Tribe of Yissachar. The Tribe of Yissachar became a bastion of Torah scholars, dedicating themselves exclusively to full-time study, enabled only by the generous support of Zevulun.

Jacob’s prophecy however contains a warning as well, according to the Kli Yakar. The verse has Zevulun in three distinct places. Zevulun shall live in one place (‘shore of the sea’), travel to a second place to conduct business (‘shore for ships’), and his merchandise will be in a third place (‘Zidon’ – commercial center of ancient near east). The Kli Yakar explains that having ones mind on three (or more) geographic locations fragments the mind, reduces performance and increases anxiety (I wonder what he would say about multi-tasking or our global village).

He thus claims that Yissachar has a better quality of life and piece of mind. Nonetheless, the reward of Zevulun is greater, hence their being placed ahead of Yissachar in the blessings.

May those merchants amongst us enjoy greater piece of mind and less fragmentation, whether mental or geographical and may those blessed with the portion of Yissachar appreciate the sacrifice.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my brother Boaz (also the star of my fictional series) on the occasion of his 40th (!) birthday. May his fragmentations subside and the merchandise increase.

The First Anti-Semite

Genesis: Vayechi

The First Anti-Semite

“Father,” the boy asked, “why is that coffin made out of metal? I thought they are usually from ceramic or wood?”

“That is perceptive of you my son,” the father answered, as they followed the funeral procession. “This is a special coffin for Joseph, the old Viceroy.”

“Why is his so different then?”

“You shall see soon enough. His burial will be different.”

“And there are so many people here. I have never seen such a large crowd for a funeral before.”

“Yes, it is large indeed. I think Jacob’s funeral, the Viceroy’s father, may have been this big, though his family has grown significantly since then.”

“What family, Father?”

“Why, the Children of Israel. They have multiplied at an astonishing rate.”

“You say it like it is a bad thing.”

“I do not think it is good that strangers should become so powerful. It was worrisome enough when the Viceroy had such strong control of Egypt.”

The procession continued towards the Royal burial grounds.

“And who are those old men carrying the coffin?”

“Those are the Viceroy’s brothers and his two sons.”

“The Royal honor guard seems more armed than usual and with many soldiers.”

“That is very observant of you, my son. That is very good. It is always important to take note of all the details. I suspect those guards may be called upon shortly.”

At the entrance to the Royal burial grounds the brothers wished to enter, however the honor guard directed them towards the river.

The procession stopped for a moment. When the brothers realized the guards had the advantage, they continued towards the river.

“You see, my son. Sometimes just a show of force is sufficient to prevent the use of force, and can spare wasteful violence.”

“Yes, Father. For a moment though, I thought there would be a fight.”

“That was a risk. But the Hebrews are smart. They would not fight over this matter.”

The procession approached the banks of the Nile, with the honor guard closely directing the brothers with the coffin to the shore.

“Where are they going to bury him, Father?”

“In the Nile.”

“In the Nile? That is so strange. I have never heard of such a thing. Why in the river?”

“To make his body less accessible.”

“Less accessible? Less accessible to who? For what?”

“Let us say that it would be less than convenient if his family were to have easy access to his remains.”

“But why? I thought the old Viceroy did great things for Egypt. I learned that he had single-handedly saved the empire from starvation. This does not seem like an honorable burial.”

“Hmmm. They should stop teaching that history. Joseph may have done good things for Egypt in the past, but he was still a Hebrew. Besides, he did those things in his own self-interest as well. He had been a lowly imprisoned slave before the previous Pharaoh elevated him, and invited his entire family to move to Egypt – and to the best land!”

The procession reached the water and the brothers, under the watchful eyes and spears of the honor guard, solemnly lowered the coffin into the river.

Hoards of Hebrews rushed to the shore, to look at the rapidly sinking coffin. They all pointed and looked at each other. They looked at the surrounding trees and road and at the landscape on the other side of the Nile, as if they were trying to memorize the exact location.

“I do not understand, Father,” the boy continued, “the Hebrews have always been loyal, if not outstanding Egyptian citizens. I know that many of the grandchildren of Joseph remain in royal service and they are usually the best administrators and most fearsome soldiers.”

“Nonetheless, my son,” the father explained as he surveyed all the Hebrews at the shore, “they are foreigners. They are not our friends and you would do well to remember that. They have always remained aloof from us Egyptians and our culture. They look down upon our gods and worship and practices. And those Hebrews that do embrace our ways – they are the worst! They try so hard to ingratiate themselves into our circles, but they are nothing but two-faced traitors. I fear them the most!”

“Yes, Father. I understand and hear what you say. There must be a way that we can protect ourselves then from these Hebrews. They are so numerous!”

“We shall have to devise a way. Now with the Viceroy gone it will be easier. But it will take time and patience. The other brothers are no less intelligent than old Joseph was, though perhaps not as sophisticated in the ways of government.”

“As you say, Father.”

“Son, you are old enough to call me by my formal name. You must become accustomed to this.”

“Yes, Pharaoh.”

“Do not forget that these Hebrews are a threat. Perhaps the greatest threat the empire will face. I will set the wheels in motion, but it may very well be you who will have to face them head on.”

“Yes, Pharaoh. I shall not disappoint you.”

* * * * * *

Sources:

“Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; they embalmed him and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.” Genesis 50:26

The Egyptians made a metal coffin, which they lowered into the Nile River so that its waters would be blessed. Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and called, “Joseph, Joseph, the time of the vow of the Holy One, Blessed is He, that He would redeem you has come; the time for fulfilling the oath that you adjured the Children of Israel has arrived. If you show yourself, fine; if not, we are released from our oath.” Thereupon Joseph’s coffin floated to the surface. Tractate Sotah 13a

They made a coffin weighing 500 talents, which the sorcerers threw into the river. They said to Pharaoh, “Is it your wish that this nation never leave? If they do not find Joseph’s bones, they will never be able to leave.” Devarim Rabbah 11:7

His coffin was placed in a river, where it would not become unclean. Zohar 1:222b

How did Moses know where Joseph was buried? Serah daughter of Asher showed him. Tractate Sotah 13a

Moses took Joseph’s goblet and cut four pieces out of it. On one he drew a lion, on another an ox, on another an eagle, and on another a man. Then he stood at the Nile, threw in the image of the lion, and said, “Joseph, the time has come for Israel to be redeemed”, but the coffin did not rise. He threw in the drawing of the ox and then of the eagle, but it did not rise. Finally he threw in the drawing of the man and said, “Joseph, the time has come.” Joseph’s coffin immediately floated to the top of the water, and Moses took it. Midrash Hagadol, end of Bereshit

Joseph’s sons were not enslaved in Egypt, nor did they “sit on a pot of meat.” Rather, they were shield-bearers and warriors. Shocher Tov 81:7

As long as Joseph was alive, the Children of Israel did not suffer the burden of Egypt (i.e., slavery). After Joseph died, the burden was placed upon them. Shemot Rabbah 1:4

“A new king…who did not know Joseph.” Exodus 1:8. He pretended not to know. Tractate Eiruvin 53a

The Lion and The Wolf

Genesis: Vayechi

The Lion and The Wolf

On his deathbed, the Patriarch Jacob blesses his children with highly allegorical language that hints at future events for each of the 12 tribes. Half of the tribes are compared to animals. Below is a brief list:

Judah: Lion

Yissachar: Donkey

Dan: Snake

Naftali: Deer

Joseph: Bull

Benjamin: Wolf

Out of the six animals, two of them are furry four-legged carnivorous predators. Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) reads into the different allegories as they apply to the destinies of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

Both of these animals hint at monarchy and leadership. Saul, the first King of Israel was from the tribe of Benjamin. His reign was short-lived. David of the tribe of Judah established a long-lasting dynasty, that we believe will be reinstated in Messianic times.

Hizkuni compares the traits of the two different animals to the two different monarchies. Once a wolf has caught its prey, if his kill is threatened by another animal, it will leave it and not risk injury in fighting over it. Similarly, the tribe of Benjamin, under the leadership of Saul, did not hold on long to its prize. A lion on the other hand is the uncontested king of the wild. It will never leave its kill or retreated when threatened. So too, the tribe of Judah is destined to hold on to the kingship of Israel for eternity.

May we have the courage of the lion in holding on to our eternal principles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my sister JJ and her husband Dr. Elisha Kahen, on the birth of a baby girl. May they see a pride from her and her siblings.

A Blessing on Your Head

A Blessing on Your Head

Joseph enters with his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to visit with the bed-ridden patriarch, Jacob (Genesis 48). Jacob inquires as to who is accompanying Joseph. Joseph responds that it his two sons, and then Jacob asks that they come closer so he may bless them.

Before continuing with the blessing, the Biblical narrative seems to go out of its way to mention that Jacob had trouble seeing. Jacob proceeds to kiss and hug his grandchildren and then in what sounds like somewhat elaborate maneuvering, Joseph extricates his sons from Grandpa Jacob’s embrace, so that they may now bow down to receive the formal blessing.

Biblical commentators give a range of interpretations to the above actions. Rabbi Ovadia Sforno however, takes the narrative at face value. Jacob had trouble with his vision, Sforno explains. In order to properly bless the boys, he had to see them; hence, his request to bring them closer.  The loving Patriarch kisses and hugs them, which Sforno says was so “his soul may attach to them and his blessing to them should come to pass”.

Jacob then gives them blessings that are included in the blessings many traditional Jews pronounce to their children to this day on Friday nights (“May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe. May God bless you and safeguard you. May God illuminate His face for you and be gracious to you. May God turn His face to you and establish peace for you.”)

Sforno then provides other examples of vision being a critical component of blessings, such as Moses viewing the entire land of Israel.

However, just a few verses later, after having just given his thesis as to the need to see in order to bless, Sforno makes an about-face. In the same visit Jacob blesses Joseph as well. Sforno, who understands that Joseph is not close enough for Jacob to really see, states that Jacob blesses and can bless Joseph without having to touch him, be near him or even see him.

Sforno seems to be implying that while the common way to bless is to see the person or object one is blessing, people have the power to also bless at a distance without even seeing the party being blessed. Perhaps it was the strong and loving nature of the Jacob-Joseph relationship that enabled this more powerful connection, bypassing the common method.

May we always be both recipients and deliverers of blessings – and may they all come true!

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To our friends, neighbors and relatives; sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, who are fighting in Gaza (and now to the North as well). May God keep them safe and return them home whole and uninjured.

Unfamiliar terms?

Drawn from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priestly_blessing

The Priestly Blessing, (translit. Birkat Kohanim), also known in Hebrew as Nesiat Kapayim, (lit. Raising of the Hands), is a Jewish prayer recited by Kohanim during certain Jewish services. It is based on a scriptural verse: “They shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them.”[1] It consists of the following Biblical verses (Numbers 6:24-26):

May the Lord bless you and guard you –
May the Lord shine His countenance toward you and be gracious to you –
May the Lord lift up His countenance toward you and give you peace –

This is the oldest known Biblical text that has been found; amulets with these verses written on them have been found in graves in dating from the First Temple Period, and are now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

In the mid-1960s, actor Leonard Nimoy, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, used a single-handed version of this gesture to create the Vulcan Hand Salute for his character, Mr. Spock, on Star Trek. He has explained that while attending Orthodox services as a child, he peeked from under his father’s tallit and saw the gesture; many years later, when introducing the character of Mr. Spock, he and series creator Gene Roddenberry thought a physical component should accompany the verbal “Live long and prosper” greeting. The Jewish priestly gesture looked sufficiently alien and mysterious, and thus was television & science fiction history made.