Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name

January 16, 2019 at 11:17 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Shemot | Leave a comment

Six weeks after they leave Egypt, the Israelites grumble that they are starving, and they would rather have died in Egypt with full stomachs.1

Manna rains from heaven, Maciejowski Bible, circa 1250 CE

So in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent away”), God promises to provide bread and meat in the form of manna and quail every day.

Y-H-V-H spoke to Moses, saying: “I have heard the grumblings of the Israelites.  Speak to them, saying: In the evenings you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be sated with bread.  And you shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim.”  (Exodus/Shemot 16:11-12)

Y-H-V-H (yud-heh-vav-heh) = the “tetragrammaton”, God’s most holy and personal name.  (In Jewish tradition this name may no longer be pronounced, and can only be spelled in Hebrew in sacred texts.  When prayers are said aloud, the tetragrammaton is read as “Adonai”)

Elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods in general.

Being God’s personal name, the tetragrammaton is not a reference to God’s status as a god, or even as a lord, master, or ruler.  The common English written translation of Y-H-V-H as “LORD” can be deceptive.  So can the Jewish practice of saying Adonai for Y-H-V-H in prayers, since Adonai literally means “my lords”.  When God says that people “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H, God wants them to know that the god they are thinking about is the one named Y-H-V-H.

But surely the Israelites know by now that the name of their god is Y-H-V-H.

The book of Genesis/Bereishit calls God by several different names, including Y-H-V-H.  (See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.)  But the personal name of God becomes more important in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  In the first Torah portion (also called Shemot), God chooses Moses as a prophet at the burning bush, and Moses asks for God’s proper name:

Hey, I come to the Israelites and I say to them: “The Elohim of your forefathers sent me to you”.  And they say to me: “What is his name?”  What shall I say to them?  (Exodus 3:13)

First the voice from the burning bush replies:

… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Ehyeh sent me to you.”  (Exodus 3:14)

Ehyeh (אֶהְיֶה) = I am, I will be, I become, I will become.  (A form of the verb hayah (הָיָה) = be, become, happen.)

In the next verse, God amends the answer.

… Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “Y-H-V-H, the Elohim of your forefathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of Jacob, sent me to you.” …  (Exodus 3:15)

The name Y-H-V-H may also be a form of the verb hayah, which also appears as havah.2  Biblical Hebrew lexicons list no hifil (causative) form of either root.  But if there were a hifil form, one conjugation would use the letters Y-H-V-H and would mean “He/it brings into being.”3

Thus the first name God gives to Moses might mean “I become” and the second name might mean “He makes [things] become”.  God decides to stick with the second name, Y-H-V-H.

… This is my name forever; this is how I shall be remembered forever.  (Exodus 3:15)

Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, by Marc Chagall, 1931

But the name is unfamiliar to the Pharaoh of Egypt when Moses and Aaron first ask him to grant the Hebrew slaves a leave of absence.

Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice to send away Israel?  I do not know Y-H-V-H.”  (Exodus 5:2)

After that, God wants someone to “know that I am Y-H-V-H nine times in the book of Exodus/Shemot.4  Five times God declares that the Pharaoh or the Egyptians will “know that I am Y-H-V-H once God has performed a miracle that damages Egypt.5

And four times in Exodus, God declares the Israelites will “know that I am Y-H-V-H”: after God has brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 6:7), mocked the Egyptians with miracles (Exodus 10:2), given them manna and meat in the wilderness (Exodus 16:12), and dwelled among the Israelites after they have made a sanctuary (Exodus 29:46).

After the book of Exodus, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers sometimes disobey or rebel against God, but at least they know the name of the god who has adopted them.  The statement that somebody “shall know that I am Y-H-V-H does not appear again until the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, when Moses reminds the Israelites that God took care of them in the wilderness, giving them water, manna, and quail, and ensuring they would not need to spend time on making clothes.

I led you across for 40 years across the wilderness; your clothes did not wear out upon you, and your sandals did not wear out upon your feet.  You ate no bread and drank no wine or liquor—so that you would know that I am Y-H-V-H, your Elohim.  (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)

*

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, circa 1320

In short, people shall know that God is Y-H-V-H when they witness or remember miracles.  The miracles might be as benign as the provision of manna in this week’s Torah portion, or as devastating as turning the whole Nile River into blood.

If Y-H-V-H means “He brings into being”, then a miracle demonstrates that even though the natural world was created long ago, the god of miracles can still bring major new events into being.

And if Y-H-V-H has a different meaning?  Some modern scholars have suggested that the four-letter name may derive from a more ancient god-name used by nomads living in an area south of the Dead Sea called “the land of Yehwa”.6  Three of the most ancient poems in the bible refer to Y-H-V-H as coming to Israel from an earlier home in the south: the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:4, part of this week’s haftarah reading), and the Song of Habbakuk (Habbakuk 3:1-3).

If the name Y-H-V-H came from the name “Yehwa”, what did “Yehwa” mean?  It might be related to the later Arabic word hawaya = love, passion.7  And if Y-H-V-H means “He is passionate”, then a miracle demonstrates that this god is deeply emotional about human beings at the collective level, and does extraordinary things to arrange their fates.  In Exodus the God of passion makes the Egyptians suffer and helps the Israelites—except when they enrage him by worshiping the golden calf, and he kills 3,000 of them with a plague.  Y-H-V-H also gets furious over some Israelite actions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, and kills many thousands more.  (See my posts Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1 and 1 Samuel: How to Stop a Plague, Part 4.)

Today most people do not believe in miracles, and those who do often apply the word “miracle” to events that do not defy the laws of nature and could just as well happen by coincidence.  They might be awed by the pseudo-miracles they notice, and they might consider God responsible.  But their concept of God is different from the God in Exodus: either more abstract, or milder and kinder.

What would it be like today to believe that God is Y-H-V-H, “He brings into being” or “He is passionate”?

  1. Exodus 16:2-3.
  2. This verb is most often conjugated from the root hayah (היה), but occasionally the bible uses a conjugation of the synonymous root havah (הוה)—for example, in the imperative in Genesis 27:29, Isaiah 16:4, and Job 37:6.
  3. The verb spelled with the letters Y-H-V-H would be the third person singular imperfect hifil.  A more elegant but slightly less literal translation is: “He who brings things into being”.  Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2004, p. 321-322, footnote on Exodus 3:14.
  4. In addition to these nine times, God also wants the Israelites to know that there is none like Y-H-V-H in Exodus 8:6, 9:14, and 18:11; to know that Y-H-V-H owns the earth in Exodus 9:29; to know that Y-H-V-H distinguishes between Egyptians and Israelites in Exodus 11:7; and to know that Y-H-V-H sanctifies them with Shabbat in Exodus 31:13.
  5. The miracles are bringing the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 7:5), turning the Nile and all the surface water in Egypt into blood (Exodus 7:17), releasing swarms of mixed vermin (Exodus 8:18), and eliminating Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14:4 and 14:18).
  6. The “land of Yehwa” appears in a 14th-century BCE Egyptian list discovered in Amunhotep III’s Soleb Nubian temple.  Israel Knohl, “YHWH: The Original Arabic Meaning of the Name”, www.thetorah.com, 01/01/2019, .  Also see Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus, HarperCollins, 2017, pp. 122-123.
  7. Knohl, ibid.
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Bo: Minglers or Riffraff?

January 9, 2019 at 6:54 pm | Posted in Bo | Leave a comment

Exodus from Egypt,
19th century print

After the tenth plague, the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go into the wilderness, just as God predicted to Moses.1  What God did not predict is that many non-Israelites leave Egypt with them.  Near the end of this week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come”), we read:

And the children of Israel pulled out from Ramses toward Sukkot, about 600,000 adult men on foot, aside from non-marchers.  And also an eirev rav went up with them, and flocks and herds of very impressive property.  (Exodus/Shemot 12:37-38)

eirev rav (עֵרֶב רַב) = “mixed multitude” (King James version), motley crowd.  From the words eirev (עֵרֶב) = mixed or mingled (used for people or thread in fabric) + rav (רַב) = numerous, abundant, great.

Words from the same root as eirev include:

  • erev (עֶרֶב) = evening, sunset (when day and night mix); a weaving term, possibly for the woof.
  • arav (עֲרַב) =Arabs, Bedouins.
  • the hitpael form of the verb arav (עָרַב) = associate with, mingle with.

A negative view of the Eirev Rav

The noun eirev in reference to people (rather than to weaving) occurs only rarely in the Hebrew Bible.  In Jeremiah ha-erev (הָעֶרֶב = the eirev) refers to people of mixed race who are living in other lands, not to those living with Israelites.2  But in Nehemiah, eirev refers to  people from Ammonite or Moabite stock who live in Judah:

Ezra Reads the Law, by Gustave Dore, 1866

On that day they read to the people from the book of Moses, and they found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite could enter the congregation of God, ever … And they heard the teaching, and they separated all the eirev from Israel.  (Nehemiah 13:1, 3)

In the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, the men who returned to Judah from exile divorce the wives they took from the local population.3  Their leaders sign a written oath “that we will not give our daughters [in marriage] to the people of the land, and their daughters we will not take for our sons.” (Nehemiah 10:31)

Another indication that eirev rav in this week’s Torah portion may be a pejorative is the duplicative rev-rav sound, like “riffraff” and “ragtag” in English, or asafsuf later in the Torah:

And the asafsuf who were in their midst craved a craving, and they sat down, and even the Israelites wept, and they said: “Who will feed us meat?”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4)

asafsuf (אֲסַפְסֻף) = riffraff, rabble.  Literally, “gather-gathered”, from the verb asaf (אָסַף) = gather.

This is the only occurrence of asafsuf in the Bible, and there is no indication here whether the riffraff are of Israelite or foreign descent.  Yet 12th-century rabbi Ibn Ezra assumed that the asafsuf in Numbers were the eirev rav in Exodus, and that the foreign riffraff gathered in order to make trouble.4  Kli Yakar agreed, explaining: “But the mixed multitude, who had originated in the licentious Egypt, did not learn their lesson, and continued to sin, uttering outwardly whatever thoughts arose within them.”5

Babylon

A lack of discretion and self-control is only one of the failings that commentators have attributed to the eirev rav.  The Talmud quotes Rabbi Natan bar Abba as saying that the wealthy Jews of Babylon “… came from the eirev rav … Anyone who has compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is of the descendants of Abraham, our father, and anyone who does not have compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is not of the descendants of Abraham, our father.  Since these wealthy Babylonians do not have compassion on people, clearly they are not descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”6

In other words, the descendants of the eirev rav who converted to Judaism in Exodus are not compassionate like people with a pure Jewish bloodline.  This is ironic, since judging people by their bloodline is anything but compassionate; that kind of thinking led to the Nazi genocide, with Jews as the victims.

One of the earliest biblical commentators, Philo of Alexandria, wrote that there were two kinds of people in the eirev rav: fellow slaves looking for a better life, and those who wanted to change their allegiance to the God of Israel after witnessing the plagues and recognizing God’s power.8

Pharaoh’s sorcerers also change staffs into serpents; Foster Bible Pictures

But the Zohar, the 13th-century C.E. kabbalistic opus, claimed: “In fact, however, the mixed multitude consisted entirely of … all the sorcerers of Egypt and all its magicians … for they wanted to oppose the wonderful works of the Holy One, blessed be He.  When they beheld the signs and the wonders which Moses wrought in Egypt they came to Moses to be converted.  Said the Holy One to Moses, “Do not receive them!” Moses, however, replied, “Sovereign of the universe, now that they have seen Thy power they desire to accept our Faith, let them see Thy power every day and they will learn that there is no God like unto Thee.” And Moses accepted them.9

According to the Zohar, the new converts let Moses down by instigating rebellions during the journey through the wilderness—and their souls are still being reincarnated in people who make trouble for the Jews.10

In Modern Hebrew eirev rav still means “motley crowd”, and in some circles eirev rav is a pejorative referring to the “wicked that scheme and plot against us”10 and “individuals who do not show their loyalty to the Jewish people.”11

A positive view of the Eirev Rav

In short, much commentary has painted the eirev rav as impulsive and selfish troublemakers who may even be deliberately trying to bring down the Israelites of old and the Jews of today.

Yet the bible only says: “And also an eirev rav went up with them”.  That particular phrase is not used again.  And although the rest of the journey from Egypt to the Jordan River features many complainers, whiners, and panickers, the Torah itself does not identify any of these troublemakers with the eirev rav.

In fact, the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy take pains to distinguish resident aliens who choose to live in Israel or Judah from the foreigners in other nations.  The bible dictates fair and compassionate treatment for resident aliens 52 times.  This week’s Torah portion says that resident aliens may participate in Passover rites as long as the men are circumcised, because:

There will be one teaching for the native and for the geir residing with you.  (Exodus 12:48)

geir (גֵּר) = resident alien; convert.  Plural: geirim (גֵּריִים).

Later in Exodus, God gives the order that:

You must not wrong a geir, and you must not oppress him, because you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 22:20)

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra goes so far as to say:

Ruth and Boaz, Eduard C.F. Holbein, 1830

The geir residing with you shall be like a native for you, and you shall love him like yourself, because you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Leviticus 19:34)

Although passages in Ezra and Nehemiah oppose intermarriage, in the book of Ruth a virtuous Moabite woman converts and becomes the great-grandmother of King David.  His great-grandfather, Boaz, is descended from the union of Jacob’s son Judah with Tamar, an Adulamite.12

After northern Israel secede, its kings come from the tribe of Efrayim, who is one of the sons of Jacob’s son Joseph and Asenat, the daughter of an Egyptian priest.13

*

How did the single remark in this week’s Torah portion that an eirev rav went up with them” lead to so much vilification of those who joined the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt?  Perhaps it is human nature to seize any excuse to shun people who seem foreign, any apparent “proof” that outsiders are bad people and bad people are outsiders.

Yet some of us learn to overcome our primitive fears, recognize the humanity in strangers, and treat them fairly.  This is what the Hebrew Bible urges when it tells us not to oppress a geir residing among us, and even to love the geir without prejudice.

I converted to Judaism several decades ago, when I was 32.  I have experienced both prejudice and welcome from people who were born Jewish.  I did not have the same childhood experiences as those born Jewish, but I am a Jew as well as a stubborn member of the eirev rav.

May everyone treat converts to their own in-groups with fairness, respect, and a little love.  And may everyone treat outsiders as human beings who deserve the benefit of the doubt.  There is no virtue in prejudice.

  1. During the era of the New Kingdom in Egypt, when the exodus story is set, the Egyptian Empire included not only the area around the Nile, but also the Sinai Peninsula and Canaan. Moses did not ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of the Egyptian Empire, but only to go “a three-day march into the wilderness” (Exodus 5:3), which would get them to the Sinai Peninsula, an area with only scattered Egyptian outposts.
  2. Jeremiah 25:20, 50:37.
  3. Ezra 9:10-14, 10:2-12; Nehemiah 10:31, 13:1-3.
  4. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, in Michael Carasik, editor and translator, The Commentators’ Bible; The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Exodus, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2005, p. 89.
  5. Shlomo Ephraim of Luntshitz (1550-1619), Kli Yakar, translated in Brachi Elitzur, “You were Rebellious or The Kindness of Your Youth: Parashat Beshalach”, etzion.org.il/en/you-were-rebellious-or-kindness-your-youth#_ftn3.
  6. Talmud Bavli, Beitzah 32b, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Beitzah.32b?lang=bi.
  7. Philo of Alexandria (circa 30 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), De Vita Mosis, cited in Munk, pp. 147-148.
  8. Zohar, Exodus, Section 2, 191a-b, Soncino translation, quoted in Gerald Aranoff, “The Mixed Multitude According to the Zohar”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, http://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/402/jbq_402_firstborn.pdf.
  9. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1994, p. 148.
  10. Professor Gerald Aranoff, “Who Were the Mixed Multitude?”, 2015, Arutz Sheva, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/16386.
  11. Rabbi Kenneth Cohen, “What Is Erev Rav”, 2016, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/what-is-erev-rav/.
  12. Genesis 38.
  13. Genesis 41:25, 41:50-52, 48:8-21.

Va-eira: Taking a Stand at the Nile

January 2, 2019 at 6:44 pm | Posted in Shemot, Va-eira | Leave a comment

Aaron’s Rod Changed into a Serpent, Foster Bible Pictures, 1873

The pharaoh is not impressed when Aaron’s staff swallows the staffs of the Egyptian court magicians.  He will not listen to the request of the two men, Moses and Aaron, to let the Hebrew slaves go on a three-day journey to worship their god.  Probably he suspects they will never come back.  Certainly he does not believe their god has any power.1

It is time for the first plague to prove him wrong.  In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“and he saw”) God tells Moses:

Go to Pharaoh in the morning.  Hey, he will be going out to the water, venitzavta on the shore of the Nile, and the staff that had changed into a snake you shall take in your hand.  And you shall say to him: “God, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say: ‘Send out my people so they can serve me in the wilderness!  And hey, so far you have not listened.’”  (Exodus/Shemot 7:15-16)

venitzavta (וְנִצַּבְתָּ) = and you shall stand, take a stand, station yourself, stand firm.  (A form of the verb nitzav, נִצָּב = took a stand.)

Plague of Blood, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320 Spain,

Moses does so, and then Aaron obeys God’s next order.

Then he raised the staff and he struck the water that was in the Nile, in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile changed into blood.  (Exodus 7:20)

Pharaoh and those who advise him see for themselves that the Nile is transformed exactly when the staff touches the water, so they cannot invent another explanation for the plague of blood.  But the Pharaoh still refuses to listen to Moses.

After two more plagues, God tells Moses to catch Pharaoh at the waterfront again.

Then God said to Moses: “Get up early in the morning vehityatzeiv in front of Pharaoh.  Hey, he is going out to the water, and you shall say to him: ‘Thus says God: “Send out my people and they will serve me!”  Because if you are not sending out my people, here I am sending out against you and your courtiers and your people and your houses mixed vermin2, and they will fill the houses of Egypt, and even the ground that they are on!’” (Exodus 8:16)

vehityatzeiv (וְהִתְיַצֵּב) = and station yourself, establish yourself.  (Another form of the verb nitzav.)

There is no obvious reason this time for Moses give his warning on the bank of the Nile.  God does not even tell him to use his staff.  It is certainly more dramatic to interrupt Pharaoh’s regular morning routine than to arrive at the palace with all the other petitioners of the day.  But why is the Pharaoh going to the shore of the Nile in the mornings?

Over the centuries commentators have generated a variety of answers.  According to Exodus Rabbah, Pharaoh always sneaked out to the river to relieve his bladder, so nobody would know he was not a god.3  Others proposed that in the morning Pharaoh went out to exercise.4  The Talmud suggested that Pharaoh was a magician and went to the Nile to do divination.5  Ibn Ezra wrote that the king of Egypt went to the Nile to check the water level during the summer flood season.6

Nilometer

Contemporary scholar Scott B. Noegel has argued that none of these explanations fit what we now know about the New Kingdom period in ancient Egypt.7  In fact, Pharaohs spent the whole morning indoors.  They bathed and performed their ritual duties indoors.  During flood season, officials in the Pharaoh’s bureaucracy measured the level of the Nile, not the Pharaoh himself.8

Noegel concludes that the Torah invented Pharaoh’s morning trips to the Nile in order to set up a literary structure dividing the ten plagues into three sets of three followed by the final catastrophe.  “The first plague in each of these series (1st, 4th, 7th) contains Yahweh’s commandment to Moses to “station himself” before pharaoh, each time employing the Hebrew root נצב.  Each also contains the phrase “in the morning.”9

But plagues #1, #4, and #7 do not agree on the location where Moses should intercept Pharaoh.  Only plagues #1 (blood) and #4 (mixed vermin) call for Moses to catch Pharaoh at the Nile.  Before plague #7 (hail) God instructs Moses to “Get up early in the morning vehityatzeiv in front of Pharaoh.”  But the Torah says nothing about Pharaoh going out to the water; the confrontation could happen anywhere.

*

I think Moses intercepts the Pharaoh at the Nile because it dramatizes this Torah portion’s contrast with an earlier part of the Exodus story the part in which Moses’ sister stations herself at the Nile to intercept Egyptian royalty.

When Moses is only three months old his mother can no longer protect him from the previous Pharaoh’s command that all Hebrew infant boys must be drowned in the Nile.  So she puts him in a little ark among the reeds at the edge of the river.

Moses Saved, by Marc Chagall

His sister, vateitatzav at a distance to find out what would happen to him.  And the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe on the Nile, and her girls were walking at hand [along] the Nile.  And she saw the ark in the midst of the reeds, and she sent her slave-woman, who fetched it.  And she opened it, and she saw the child, and hey!—it was a boy, crying.  And she took pity on him and she said: “This is one of the Hebrews.”  (Exodus 2:4-6)

vateitatzav (וַתֵּתַצַּב) = she stationed herself.

Once the princess has expressed sympathy for the plight of the Hebrews, Moses’ older sister Miriam speaks up.

And his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter: “Shall I go and summon for you a nursing woman from the Hebrews, so she can nurse the child for you?”  And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her: “Go.”  And the girl went and she summoned the child’s mother.  (Exodus 2:7-8)

The princess even pays Moses’ mother for the service.  When Moses is weaned, his mother brings him to the princess, and she adopts him.

Miriam stations herself where she knows Pharaoh’s daughter will come down to the water.  She asks the princess to rescue the Hebrew child, and it works.

Eighty years later9 Moses stations himself where he knows the current Pharaoh will come down to the water.  He asks the Pharaoh to rescue the whole Hebrew people, and—as God predicts—it does not work, not even when he confronts the Pharaoh at the Nile again after three plagues.

The difference is that Miriam, her mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter are collaborators, not competitors.  All three women want to save the baby’s life more than they want personal control over him.

Moses and the next Pharaoh cannot collaborate because the Pharaoh wants personal control over his kingdom at all costs, while Moses wants to free the population of Hebrews from any Egyptian control.  Both men were brought up in the Egyptian court, both order the death of both Hebrews and Egyptians without flinching,10 and both are the leaders of large populations.  When the two men face one another at the Nile, they stand as two alternatives for rulership.

Moses keeps taking a stand for the well-being of the Hebrew people, defying both Pharaoh and God.11  His goal is to change the status quo in Egypt through a revolutionary emigration to Canaan, at that time a distant part of the Egyptian empire.

Pharaoh takes a stand against any change in Egypt, or in his way of government.

*

We all know people who go into denial about the facts when they feel threatened by change.  We know people who are eager for changes that may be improvements, and willing to take the risk of moving forward.  And we  know people in the middle who recognize history in the making and adapt to it, like the courtiers who beg Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go before Egypt is  destroyed, or like the Hebrews who cannot take a stand against slavery until Moses shows up with an alternative.

The best outcome is when Pharaoh’s daughter can join Miriam and her mother on common ground, cooperating to save a child’s life.  But what about when the Pharaoh and Moses stand against one another at the Nile and find no common ground?

The Torah shows that in the long run slaves will be freed, and a kingdom devastated by its own ruler will recover and become great again.

May such a recovery happen to us, speedily and in our own time.

  1. Exodus 5:2.
  2. There is no consensus about how to translate the Hebrew word for plague #4, arov (עָרֺב). It is usually translated as “insect swarms” or “wild animals”.  Arov appears to be related to a root meaning “mixture”, which is also the root for arov spelled עֲרוֹב = becoming evening.  It is hard to imagine a plague of evenings.  Through another etymology, arov spelled עֵרוֹב = mortgaging.
  3. From Midrash Tanḥuma 2:2:14, 5thcentury E.  (Translation from Scott B. Noegel, “Why Pharaoh Went to the Nile”, www.thetorah.com/why-pharaoh-went-to-the-nile/, 04/07/2017.)   This explanation also appeared in Exodus Rabbah 9:8 and in the commentary of Rashi (Shlomoh Yitzchaki, 11th century C.E.).
  4. Rashbam (R. Shlomo ben Meir, 12th century) suggested Pharaoh went riding, Ramban (Moses men Nachman or Nachmanides, 12th century) that he played in the water, Bekhor Shor (12th century) that he went hawking, and Abarbanel (15th century) that he was strolling or playing ball. (Michael Carasik, editor and translator, The Commentators’ Bible; The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Exodus, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2005, p. 48)
  5. Talmud Bavli, Mo-ed Katan 18a.
  6. Ibn Ezra (12th century) according to Noegel, ibid.
  7. The Exodus story is set in the New Kingdom period in Egypt, during the 16th-11th centuries B.C.E.
  8. Noegel, ibid.
  9. This week’s Torah portion reports Moses’ age as 80 and Aaron’s as 83 (Exodus 7:7).
  10. Moses kills an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-12) and orders the killing of Hebrew golden calf worshippers (Exodus 32:26-28). The Pharaoh orders the execution of every male Hebrew infant (Exodus 1:15-22) and refuses to prevent the deaths of every firstborn Egyptian (Exodus 11:4-10).
  11. Moses talks God out of abandoning the Hebrew people in Exodus 32:9-12 and 31-32, after the golden calf episode, and in Numbers 14:11-17.

Shemot: Water Meets Fire

December 26, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Posted in Shemot | Leave a comment

Does Moses have the temperament of a Levite?

The original Levi in Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob’s third son, is a ringleader in the massacre at Shekhem.  (See last week’s post, Vayechi: Three Tribes Repudiated.)  When Jacob, on his deathbed, prophecies about the future tribes of Shimon and Levi he says:

Accursed be their af because it is fierce, and their wrath because it is remorseless! (Genesis/Bereishit 49:7)

af (אָף) = nose.  (A common biblical idiom for anger is having a hot nose.)

The first mention of the tribe of Levi in the book of Exodus/Shemot (“Names”) is in the announcement of Moses’ birth.  After the first Torah portion (also called Shemot) describes how the Pharaoh calls for all Hebrew male infants be killed by drowning,

A man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.  And the woman became pregnant and she bore a son and she saw him, that he was good, and she hid him for three months.  Then she was not able to hide him anymore, and she took for him a ark of papyrus …  (Exodus/Shemot 2:1)

Moses Saved, by Marc Chagall

He is a “good” baby.  Moses cries only when his mother leaves him in a waterproofed box floating among the reeds at the edge of the Nile.1  An Egyptian princess has the little ark fished out, and pays the infant’s own mother to be his wet-nurse.

And the child grew, and she brought him to the daughter of Pharaoh, and he became her son, and she called his name Mosheh [Moses], and she said: “Because from the water meshitihu.”  (Exodus 2:10)

Mosheh (מֺשֶׁה) = a Hebrew variant of the Egyptian word moses = gave birth to him.

meshitihu (מְשִׁיתִהוּ) = I pulled him out of water.  (From the verb mashah, מָשָׁה = pull out of water, which sounds like Mosheh.)

Deep or flooding water is used in the Torah as a metaphor for an overwhelming threat—either from human enemies or from God.2  By adopting Moses, the Pharaoh’s daughter pulls him out of the danger of her father’s death decree.

The Torah uses water as a metaphor not only for danger, but for fear.  When people are afraid, their hearts or knees turn into water.3

As a young adult Moses sees an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew slave, and wants to kill the Egyptian.  But fear checks his impulse for a moment.

He turned this way and that, and saw that there was nobody [around].  Then he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.  (Exodus 2:12)

Moses pauses long enough to make sure there are no witnesses (except the Hebrew slave), but not long enough to consider whether killing one Egyptian will do any good.  His rash act does not change any of the customs or institutions regarding the treatment of Hebrews in Egypt.  But it does get Moses into trouble.

And Pharaoh heard of this matter, and he sought to kill Moses.  So Moses ran away from Pharaoh, and he stopped in the land of Midian, and he stopped at the well.  (Exodus 2:15)

There he draws water for a flock shepherded by the seven daughters of the local priest.  The Midianite priest has taken him in and married him to one of his daughters, Moses’ personality changes from watery (fearful) to calm, deliberate, and occasionally fiery.

Moses at the Burning Bush, by Rembrandt

Moses was tending the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock behind the wilderness, and he came to the mountain of the God …  Then a messenger of God appeared to him in the heart of a fire in the middle of a bush.  And he looked, and hey!  The bush was burning with the fire, but the bush was not consumed.  And Moses said: “I must turn aside, yes, and look at this great sight!  Why does the bush not burn?”  (Exodus 3:1-3)

Calm and deliberate, Moses notices the subtle miracle and stops to study it.  God calls to him from the bush, and for the rest of his life, whether he likes it or not, Moses is God’s prophet.  (In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tries to turn down God’s mission five times.)4

He returns to Egypt to be God’s mouthpiece as God carries out an elaborate plan to free the Hebrew slaves and lead them out of Egypt.  Moses remains impassive during the first nine divine plagues, even though Pharaoh waffles six times, promising to let the Israelites leave and then rescinding his promise.5  But when he tells Pharaoh about tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn, Moses is finally fed up.

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, by Marc Chagall

Moses said: “Thus says God: ‘Around midnight I am going out among the Egyptians.  And every firstborn n the land of Egypt dies …’  Then all these, your courtiers, will come down to me, and they will bow low to me, saying: ‘Go, you and all the people who follow behind you!’  And after that I will go.”  And he went away from Pharaoh chari af.  (Exodus 11:4-5, 8)

 chari af = in anger.  chari (חָרִי) = in the heat of.  af (אָף) = nose.

After that, the Israelites and their fellow-travelers complain and criticize Moses five times during the journey to Mount Sinai, but Moses only loses his temper once, when he tells them not to try to save any manna for the next day (except on Shabbat), and some of them do it anyway, so the divine food gets maggots and stinks.6

Moses does not become angry or hot-nosed again until he comes down from the mountain and sees the people worshiping a golden calf.

And as he came near the camp, he saw the calf and the dancing.  Vayichar, the af of Moses, and he threw down the tablets from his hands and he smashed them at the bottom of the mountain.  (Exodus 32:19)

vayichar (וַיִּחַר) = and it got hot.

Moses loses his temper only a few more times in the books of Leviticus/Vayikra and Numbers/Bemidbar.  He expresses his anger by yelling at people or talking to God.  He hits a rock, but after his youthful murder he never hits another human being.7  God’s anger, on the other hand, burns frequently and causes plagues that kill thousands of people.

Moses even manages to transform the temperament of his fellow Levites.  In the book of Exodus the tribe of Levi is violent when it carries out Moses’ command to run through the camp and slaughter all the golden calf worshippers.8  After that the Torah records only one more violent act by a Levite; he skewers two intruders in the Tent of Meeting.9  Moses ordains five of his Levite relatives as priests, and assigns the rest of them to assist with the work of the sanctuary.  Since they are responsible for the holy work, the Levites are the only tribe he does not muster for battle.

*

Although Moses begins life strongly associated with water, he overcomes his early watery fear.  He has the fiery heart of a Levite, but his passion is for God and for the Israelite people.  His anger at the golden calf worshippers might be considered fierce and remorseless, like that of his tribe’s founder, Levi.  But then instead of flipping to the dangerous side of water and behaving like an overwhelming flood, Moses succeeds in setting limits on both his watery and his fiery natures.  Like the bush on the dry mountain, Moses is not consumed by fire.

Is Moses simply born “good”, like a placid baby?  Or do his encounters with God teach him to stay patient and level-headed even when outrageous things are happening?

I believe each human being is born with a natural temperament, a tendency to react to adversity with fight or with flight, with anger or melancholy or fear or serenity.  But I also believe that we can gradually modify our own natures if we keep reflecting on our experiences and questioning ourselves.  Moses modifies his nature as he struggles to deal effectively with a capricious and often angry God.

How can we modify our own natures?

  1. Exodus 2:6.
  2. 2 Samuel 22:17 & Psalm 18:17; Psalms 32:6, 69, 88:17-18, 124, and 144.7; Hosea 5:10; and Job 22:11.
  3. Joshua 7:5, Ezekiel 7:17, Psalm 22:15, and Job 27:20.
  4. Exodus 3:11, 3:13, 4:1, 4:10, and 4:13.
  5. Exodus 8:4-11, 8:21-28, 9:27-35, 10:8-11, 10:16-20, and 10:24-27.
  6. Moses becomes angry about the manna in Exodus 16:20. He does not get angry when the people complain in Exodus 14:10-14, 15:23-25, 16:2-8, or 17:1-4.
  7. Leviticus 10:16, Numbers 16:15, and Numbers 31:14. We can also assume Moses is angry in Numbers 20:10, when he yells at the people before hitting the rock.
  8. About 3,000 in Exodus 32:26-29.
  9. Only priests are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, and only well-defined holy activities are permitted there. The other Levites have a duty to guard the sanctuary from unauthorized entry.  When a Shimonite and a foreigner enter it to fornicate in Numbers 25:7, Pinchas grabs a spear and runs it through the couple.

Vayechi: Three Tribes Repudiated

December 19, 2018 at 10:16 pm | Posted in Vayechi | 2 Comments

Jacob/Yaakov delivers his last words to his twelve sons in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“And he lived”).

Jacob on his Deathbed,
1539 woodcut

And Jacob called his sons and he said: “Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you in future times.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 49:1)

Jacob, also called Israel, then launches into a long poem about the fate of the twelve tribes named after his twelve sons.1  This poem resembles the poems in the books of prophets transmitting God’s warnings and plans from the divine point of view.  Jacob pauses once to cry out: “I wait for your deliverance, God!”2  This interruption only makes the rest of his poem sound more like a direct divine prophecy.

When Jacob finishes his poem, the Torah says:

All these were the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them.  Vayevarekh them, each with what was kevirkhato he blessed them.    (Genesis 49:28)

vayevarekh (וַיְבָרֶךְ) = and he blessed.  (A form of the verb beirakh, בֵּרַךְ = bless; bestow or wish on someone the achievement of something desirable.  In the Torah, the achievement is most often prosperity, success in battle, or fertility.)

kevirkhato (כְּבִרְכָתוֹ) = according to his own blessing.  (From the same root as beirakh.)

Immediately after this sentence about blessings Jacob gives instructions for his burial, draws his feet into the bed, and dies without mentioning any of his sons’ names again.3  So the prophecies about the twelve eponymous tribes must also be the blessings.

Except for the first three sons, this is a reasonable interpretation.  Jacob blesses his fourth son (or his tribe), Judah/Yehudah, with future kingship, success in battle, and fertile vineyards.4  Zebulun, he says, will succeed in shipping, and Issachar in farming.5  He compares Dan to a snake, but at least he declares the tribe will remain part of the land of Israel.6  Gad and Benjamin/Binyamin will be successful in raiding, Asher will be wealthy, and Naftali beautiful.7  Jacob blesses Joseph/Yoseif with overall success and prosperity.8

Yet Jacob’s first three sons appear to get curses instead of blessings.

by Marc Chagall, stained glass

Reuven, my first-born are you,

my vigor and the first fruit of my potency,

Exceedingly noble,

       exceedingly fierce!

Heedless as water, you will no longer exceed,

       for you mounted your father’s bed.

That was when you desecrated it.  My couch he mounted!  (Genesis 49:3-4)

Jacob refers to a specific incident in Genesis.  After the death of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, Reuven has intercourse with Bilhah, Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine.9  Reuven may  hope to become the family’s leader through an ancient custom by which the new ruler assumes his office by having sex with the old ruler’s concubines.10  Although Reuven is the firstborn son, and therefore normally entitled to become the head of the extended family after his father’s death, Jacob is at least 119 years old.  Reuven may decide not to wait.  (Jacob dies in this week’s Torah portion at age 147.)

Because of that undisciplined and defiant act, Jacob declares that Reuven is unfit for leadership.

by Francisco Coelho, 1675

In the biblical tradition, leadership would then pass to the next oldest son.  But Jacob rules out both his second son, Shimon, and his third son, Levi.

Shimon and Levi are partners;

Weapons of violence are their wares.

Don’t let my soul be brought into their council!

Don’t let my honor be reckoned by their assembly!

by Marc Chagall, stained glass

For in their rage they murder a man,

and in their desire they uproot a wall.11

Accursed be their fury because it is fierce,

and their wrath because it is remorseless!

I will split them up in Jacob,

and I will scatter them in Israel.  (Genesis 49:5-7)

Since Jacob condemns Reuven on the basis of an incident during his lifetime and reported in the bible, the reader expects him to cite another such incident as his reason for criticizing Shimon and Levi.  The closest match is when the two brothers trick the rulers of Shekhem, enter the town as friends, murder the man who raped their sister Dinah, kill all the other men, destroy the town, and carry off the booty.  No doubt some walls fell.  (See my posts Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1 and Part 2.)

Then Jacob said to Shimon and Levi: “You made me shunned, odious among the inhabitants of the land!”  (Genesis 34:30)

On his deathbed, Jacob attributes Shimon and Levi’s violence to the intensity of their anger.  When he says “I will split them up in Jacob” the “I” is God, the “Jacob” is an alternate name for the territory of Israel, and the need to split them up may imply that they are more dangerous when they are together and their fiery natures combine in a conflagration of rage.

Having eliminated Reuven, Shimon, and Levi with his prophetic curses, Jacob announces that the descendants of his fourth son, Judah, will be king over other Israelites.

*

Looking at Jacob’s deathbed poem from the viewpoint of the history of the twelve tribes in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, only some of the predictions come true.  This is normal for biblical prophecies, which are often warnings of what will happen unless certain people change their ways.  In this case, the prophecy about Judah “comes true”; the second king of a united Israel is David, from the tribe of Judah, and his descendants continue to rule even after the northern kingdom secedes from the southern kingdom of Judah.

12 Tribes according to Joshua

The tribe of Reuven is part of the northern kingdom, but its members live in the land east of the Dead Sea, which is sometimes ruled by the Moabites who also live there.12  The tribe of Shimon occupies an enclave within the southern desert of the Kingdom of Judah, and is “scattered” only in the sense that all desert nomads are scattered.13  The tribe of Levi consists of hereditary priests and other religious functionaries.  In the book of Joshua, the Levites are assigned 48 towns in the territories allotted to the other tribes, including a few in the territory of Shimon.14  So the Levites are indeed scattered, but they are not entirely split apart from the Shimonites.

From the viewpoint of the stories in Genesis, however, Jacob’s deathbed prophecies  assign appropriate consequences for the behavior of Jacob’s first three sons.

Reuven’s attempts to take leadership, both when he beds Bilhah and when he acts regarding Joseph, are undisciplined and poorly thought out.  His eponymous tribe is cursed with never producing a king; but it gets the blessing of being a member tribe of the northern Kingdom of Israel, a.k.a. Samaria.

Since Shimon and Levi are the ringleaders in the disaster at Sheckhem, their tribes are cursed with being too scattered to lead their brother tribes into trouble again.  Yet their scattering is also a blessing; the nomadic tribe of Shimon is protected by Judah, and the Levites become a caste of priests and clerics with authority throughout Israel.

I think Jacob’s first prophecies are indeed blessings.  When people have been bad leaders, it is a blessing for them, as well as for their followers, to have their leadership removed—and for the former leaders to continue to be included in the larger community, like Reuven and Shimon.

by Francisco Coelho, 1675

As for Levi, it is a great blessing when people who are inflamed by intense feelings do wrong, are stripped of leadership, and then change their hearts and apply their passionate natures to positive acts for a good cause.

May we all “bless” leaders with their appropriate fates, as Jacob did.  May we work to remove leadership from those who abuse it.  May we accept all human beings as flawed but precious individuals.  And may we be able to recognize when others have truly changed.

  1. Jacob’s wives name his first eleven sons in Genesis 29:31-30:24; Jacob names his twelfth son Benjamin/Binyamin in Genesis 35:18. The first mention of “twelve tribes’ in the bible is in Genesis 49:28, at the end of Jacob’s poem.  Elsewhere in the Torah there are always twelve tribes, but they are not always identical with the names of Jacob’s twelve sons.  Whenever Shimon or Levi is omitted from the list, then Joseph is replaced by tribes named after his own two sons (adopted by Jacob), Efrayim and Menasheh.
  2. Genesis 49:18.
  3. Genesis 49:29-33.
  4. Genesis 49:8-12.
  5. Genesis 49:13-14.
  6. Genesis 49:16-17.
  7. Genesis 49:19-21, 27.
  8. Genesis 49:22-26. (Jacob’s references to God as “Shaddai” and blessings from “the heavens above” echo Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27:28 and 28:3.)
  9. Genesis 35:22.
  10. Absalom slept with King David’s concubines for that purpose in 2 Samuel 16:21-22.
  11. Another legitimate translation of the third couplet is some version of:

For in their rage they murder a man,

              and in their desire they cripple an ox.

How can the last two words be translated as either “uproot a wall” or “cripple an ox”?  In the Masoretic text the phrase is עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹרIkru (עִקְּרוּ) = uproot, cripple.  Shor (שׁוֹר) = bull, ox, steer.  The Masoretic text is based on earlier scrolls that did not use vowel pointing.  Although translations generally assume the Masoretes assigned the correct vowels to the words in the bible, Robert Alter makes a case that in Genesis 49:6 a better reading of the final word is shur (שׁוּר) = wall.  (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 284.)

  1. Numbers 32:1-32, Joshua 2:1-7, 1 Chronicles 5:18-22.
  2. Joshua 19:1-9.
  3. Joshua 21:4.

Vayiggash: Near a Narcissist

December 12, 2018 at 7:49 pm | Posted in Vayiggash | Leave a comment

Vayiggash to him, Judah did, and he said: “Pardon me, my lord.  Let your servant speak, please, speak in your ears, my lord, and don’t be angry with your servant, since you are like Pharaoh.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 44:18)

vayiggash (וַיִּגַּשׁ) = and he came near, and he approached, and he stepped forward.  (A form of the verb nigash, נִגַּשׁ = came near, stepped up.)

Judah steps closer to the viceroy of Egypt.  He does not know this all-powerful man is his younger brother Joseph, whom he and his brothers sold as a slave 22 years before.  After Judah’s painfully polite introduction at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, comes a cascade of revelations: Judah’s empathy, Joseph’s identity, and the true extent of Joseph’s narcissism.

*

The trouble started with Jacob.  He had four wives but loved only one, Rachel.  After Rachel died in childbirth he had twelve sons but loved only Rachel’s two children, Joseph and little Benjamin.

At age seventeen, Joseph had become a tattletale and a narcissist —someone with a psychological condition characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a deep need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others.   (See my posts Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy and Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?)

When Joseph came to report on them again, his ten older brothers stripped him and threw him in an empty cistern.  Then they talked about killing him and telling their father wild animals did it.  Judah convinced the others to sell him as a slave instead, to a caravan bound for Egypt.

Joseph heard everything from the bottom of the pit.

*

At age 38, Joseph is the viceroy of Egypt, with absolute power over stockpiled grain during a severe famine.  When his older brothers come from Canaan to buy grain he recognizes them, but they do not recognize him.  The Torah says he sets up a “test” for them.  Joseph imprisons one of the brothers, Shimon, and promises to release him only when the others return with their youngest brother.  (See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.)

The Cup Found, by James Tissot

The opening of this week’s Torah portion is the culmination of the test.  When the family in Canaan runs out of food in the second year of famine, Jacob finally lets his older sons return to Egypt with Benjamin.  Joseph releases Shimon, shows favoritism toward Benjamin, and sells them more grain.  Then he arranges a trap: he has his steward hide a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack, then follow them, “discover” the goblet, and let them know that the punishment for stealing it is slavery.  Will the ten older brothers head north and leave Benjamin behind as a slave?

They do not.  They return to Joseph’s palace and say they will all be the viceroy’s slaves.  When Joseph refuses this offer, Judah steps forward (vayiggash) and gives an eloquent and unselfish speech about how their father’s life depends on Benjamin.  He concludes:

“And now, please let your servant stay instead of the youth as a slave to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers.  For how can I go up to my father if the youth is not with us?  Let me not see the evil that would meet my father!”  (Genesis 44:33-34)

Judah has changed in the last twenty years;1 he is no longer callous or selfish, and he has empathy for his father.  Has Joseph also changed?

Joseph was not able to pull himself together before all those attending him, and he called out: “Clear out every man around me!”  So not a man stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  And he wept aloud and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.  (Genesis 45:1-2)

Joseph weeps, by Owen Jones, 1869

Twice before Joseph was overcome and left the room to weep: once when his older brothers expressed guilt for their lack of compassion for Joseph in the pit2, and once when he saw his little brother Benjamin, all grown up.3  At the sight of Benjamin, the Torah says, Joseph’s rachamim (רַחֲמִים), his compassion or loving emotion, is kindled.  It is the first unambiguous empathy Joseph exhibits.  (See last week’s post, Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?)

Now Joseph cries in front of all his brothers.

And Joseph said to his brothers: “Geshu, please, to me.”  Vayiggashu.  And he said: “I am Joseph, your brother who you sold to Egypt.”  (Genesis 45:4)

geshu (גְּשׁוּ) = Approach!  Come closer!  (Another form of the verb nigash.)

vayiggashu (ו־יִּגָּשׁוּ) = and they approached, and they stepped forward.  (Also a form of the verb nigash.)

Joseph asks his brothers to come closer, and they do—physically.  But can they come closer emotionally?  Joseph’s next words are:

“And now, don’t find fault and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here, because God sent me before you to preserve life. Because this pair of years the famine has been in the midst of the land, and for another five years there will be no plowing nor harvest.  But God sent me before you to set up food for you in the land and to keep you alive as a large group of survivors.”  (Genesis 45:5-7)

In Joseph’s explanation, his older brothers bear no guilt—and have no agency.  They are not responsible for their crime, because God made them do it.  Their deeds have no importance; they were only God’s means for bringing Joseph to Egypt, where he would become a hero.

Joseph Dwelleth in Egypt,
by James Tissot

So now, you did not send me here, but God!  And He has set me up as a father-figure to Pharaoh, and as the master of all his household, and as the one who dominates all the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 45:8)

Joseph’s moment of compassion and affection for Benjamin did not transform him.  His statement that God manipulated his brothers like pawns in order to make him the ruler of everything and the savior of his family is an undisguised expression of narcissism.

After delivering this statement and requesting that his brothers bring Jacob and the rest of the extended family to Egypt so Joseph can take care of them, he wants to exchange tears and embraces with his brothers.  It is an opportunity for them to express gratitude toward their savior.

Joseph Recognized, by Marc Chagall

The first embrace is successful.

And he fell on the neck of his brother Benjamin and he wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.  (Genesis 45:14)

Benjamin has no bad memories or guilt regarding his brother Joseph.  The ten older brothers do the best they can, but the Torah does not say they wept, or kissed him, or embraced him.

And he kissed all his brothers and he wept on them.  And after that his brothers spoke with him.  (Genesis 45:15)

Joseph may feel some affection for Benjamin.  For all we know, he also feels affection for his own Egyptian wife and sons.  But he exhibits more narcissism than empathy.

During the seven-year famine, his brothers have no alternative but to obey Joseph and bring Jacob and their own wives and children and grandchildren down to Egypt.

And Joseph settled his father and his brothers, and he gave them holdings in the land of Egypt, in the best part of the land …  And Joseph sustained his father, his brothers, and all the household of his father with bread, down to the mouths of the little ones.  (Genesis 47:12)

With his extended family members, Joseph acts like a benign God.  As long as they are completely dependent on him, he is generous and happy.

With the Egyptian farmers, Joseph enjoys a different aspect of his importance and power.  Sometime after the second year of famine they run out of silver to pay for the grain that Joseph collected and stored during the seven years of plenty.

Joseph, Overseer of the Pharaoh’s Granaries, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874

And Joseph said: “Bring your livestock, and I will give to you in exchange for your livestock, if there is no more silver.”  (Genesis 47:16)

Soon the Pharaoh owns all the livestock in Egypt (except for the animals belonging to Joseph’s family and to the Egyptian priests).  The following year the Egyptian farmers tell Joseph that they have nothing left to trade for grain except themselves and their fields.  Joseph calls it a deal.

And Joseph acquired all the soil of Egypt for Pharaoh, since each Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was so hard on them.  And the land became Pharaoh’s.  And he made the people cross, town by town, from one end of the border of Egypt to the other end.  (Genesis 47:20-21)

Joseph not only takes each farming family’s title to its land, but moves the family away from home to farm in another part of the country.

And Joseph said to the people: “Hey!  I have acquired you today, and your land, for Pharaoh.  There is seed for you, and you shall sow the land.  And it will happen at every harvest, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh …”  And they said: “You have kept us alive.  May we find favor in the eyes of my lord, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.”  (Genesis 47:23-25)

Joseph’s motivation is not greed; he arranges for the Pharaoh to own everything.  He is motivated to display power.  Joseph, and Joseph alone, can rearrange the government and population of all Egypt.

*

One does not need to be a narcissist to lack empathy for members of a particular population.  Even today, many people who are unselfish, sympathetic, and caring members of their own community also speak and vote callously when it comes to foreigners and outsiders.  It is easier to blame the stranger than to love the stranger.

Joseph is a narcissist with his extended family as well as with the Egyptians; the only affection he exhibits in the Torah is for his younger brother Benjamin.  Sometimes he is cold and calculating, and other times he is a drama queen.  His narcissism makes him untrustworthy; even after his older brothers have lived for seventeen years living under his protection in Egypt, as soon as their father dies they are afraid Joseph will take revenge on them.4

You cannot really come close to a narcissist.  But you can approach your own soul, and ask yourself for whom you feel no empathy.

  1. Genesis 38:1-26.
  2. Genesis 42:21.
  3. Genesis 43:30-31.
  4. Genesis 50:15-20. Fortunately for the brothers, Joseph still believes God arranged everything so Joseph would be the hero.

Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?

December 5, 2018 at 9:38 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Vayeishev | 1 Comment

Narcissistic personality disorder: a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.1

The Mayo Clinic definition continues by noting that the cause of this mental disorder is still unknown, but it may be linked to genetics, neurobiology, and/or environment, specifically “mismatches in parent-child relationships with either excessive adoration or excessive criticism that is poorly attuned to the child’s experience”.

The Joseph story in Genesis/Bereishit offers an example of some level of narcissism due to a parent’s “excessive adoration”.  But narcissism in childhood and even adolescence can be outgrown if the narcissist learns a measure of humility, empathy, and appreciation for others.  Does this happen with Joseph?

Vayeishev

Joseph Reveals His Dream, by James Tissot

Jacob has twelve sons, but he showers attention on Joseph, and gives him an outrageously expensive garment.  Joseph wears it even when he is in the fields with his jealous older brothers.  He is a tattletale, and reports to their father when his brothers share unsavory gossip.  And he tells his brothers two dreams of his in which they all bow down to him.  (See last week’s post, Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy.)

These behaviors indicate that Joseph is a narcissist at age seventeen.  If he notices his older brothers’ jealousy and hatred, he does not mind.  When Jacob asks him to travel for several days to check up on his older brothers and report back, Joseph sets off in his fancy garment and walks right up to them as if he were invulnerable.  They seize him and strip him.

And they took him and they cast him into the bor …  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:24)

bor (בּוֹר) = a cistern with cemented walls, a pit, a prison, a grave.

They sit and eat lunch while they discuss whether to kill him.  Then a caravan headed for Egypt approaches, and they pull him naked out of the bor and sell him as a slave.2  In Egypt, the Pharaoh’s captain of executioners, Potifar, buys Joseph.

The shock of being instantly demoted from the expensively-dressed favorite son to the naked slave of an executioner might lead some adolescents to wonder if they did something wrong.  Does Joseph take his first steps from narcissism to empathy, from thinking only of his own importance to considering the feelings of others?

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

At Potifar’s estate God blesses all of Joseph’s work with complete success, so his master makes him steward over his whole household.3  Then Joseph, who is beautiful as well as successful, encounters a potential moral dilemma.

After these things his master’s wife fixed her eyes on Joseph and said: “Lie with me.”  And he refused.  He said to his master’s wife: “With me here, my master does not know what is in the house; everything that he has, he has placed in my hands.  He is no greater in this house than I, and he has not held back anything from me except you, since you are his wife.  So would I do this great evil and be guilty before God?”  (Genesis 39:7-8)

What is Joseph’s motivation for refusing to have sex with Potifar’s wife?  Is his speech an example of narcissism, or empathy?

Narcissism:  Narcissists treat higher-status people with respect, even as they dismiss everyone they consider inferior.  If Joseph is a narcissist, he wants to keep his record clean with Potifar and God.

Empathy:  People capable of empathy can feel gratitude and affection.  If Joseph is not a narcissist, he is grateful to Potifar for giving him so much trust and authority, and does not want to hurt the man who is good to him.

When Joseph and Potifar’s wife are alone in the house she grabs him and he flees, leaving his garment in her hand.  (See my post Vayeishev: Stripped Naked, which argues that Joseph learns humility.)  She lies and says he attacked her, and Potifar throws him in prison.  But God blesses Joseph’s work for the chief jailer with success, and he becomes the virtual head of the prison.4

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

God sent Joseph two significant dreams when he was seventeen, both indicating that someday his brothers would bow down to him.  Now, when he is 28, the Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker wait in prison for their judgments, and each has a dream on the same night.

And they said to him: “A dream we dreamed and there is no interpreter.”  And Joseph said to them: “Aren’t interpretations for God?  Recount, please, to me.”  (Genesis 40:8)

What does Joseph mean by that?

Narcissism:  Joseph is either equating himself with God, or at least assuming that he has a God-given power to interpret dreams which will always work.

Empathy:  Joseph implies that only God can interpret a dream.  Awkwardness makes him sound peremptory rather than hopeful when he asks the prisoners to tell their dreams.

Mikeitz

Two years later, in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (“In the end”), the Pharaoh has two dreams that none of his soothsayers or wise men can interpret.  The Pharaoh’s chief butler remembers Joseph’s correct interpretations of the two dreams in prison, and speaks up.

And Pharaoh sent and summoned Joseph, and they brought him quickly from the bor, and he shaved and he changed his clothing and he came to Pharaoh.  (Genesis 41:14)

The first time Joseph is brought up from a bor is when his brothers sell him into slavery just to get rid of him.  This time it is when a king needs his skill.        

And Pharaoh said to Joseph: “A dream I dreamed, and no one could interpret it.  And I have heard it said about you, that you [merely] hear a dream to interpret it.”  And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying: “Not I.  God will answer for the welfare of Pharaoh.”  (Genesis 41:15-16)

Narcissism:   Joseph is cleverly pretending to be humble, while reminding the Pharaoh that he speaks for God.

Empathy:  Joseph is deflecting admiration out of the humble knowledge that he is only a mouthpiece for God.

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream, by Reginald Arthur, 1894

Joseph (correctly) interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as indicating God’s plan to give Egypt seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Then he adds gratuitous advice.

And now, may Pharaoh look for a man who is discerning and wise, and may he set him over the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 41:33)

This man, Joseph continues, should oversee the collection and storage of grain during the years of plenty and its distribution during the years of famine.  Why does Joseph suggest appointing one man, and imply that it should be a newcomer rather than the usual government administration?

Narcissism:  Not only does he want the job himself, but he knows that only he could do it right.

Empathy:  He has observed the Egyptian government bureaucracy and believes a strong hand is needed, but he expects someone else in Egypt may be a better candidate for the job.

The Pharaoh responds with a narcissist’s dream-come-true.

And Pharaoh said to Joseph: “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one as discerning and wise as you.  You yourself shall be over my house and on your command all my people shall be ordered.  Only by the throne will I be greater than you.”  And Pharaoh said to Joseph: “See, I place you over all the land of Egypt.”  And Pharaoh removed his ring from upon his hand and he placed it on the hand of Joseph, and he dressed him in clothes of fine linen, and he put a gold collar on his neck.  And he had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they called out before him “Avreikh!”; thus he appointed him over all the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 41:39-43)

Avreikh, by James Tissot

Avreikh (אַבְרֵךְ) = either an unknown Egyptian word, or an invention meaning “I cause kneeling” in Hebrew.

Joseph says nothing.

Narcissism:  He believes he is getting what he deserves.

Empathy:  He recognizes that since he is a complete unknown in Egypt, a lot of pomp is required to convince the people that he now has authority.

After the seven years of plenty, famine spreads over not only Egypt, but all of Canaan.

And Joseph was the tyrant over the land; he was the grain-seller to all the people of the earth.  And Joseph’s brothers came, and they bowed low to him, noses to the ground.  (Genesis 42:6).

Apparently Joseph, who must have a large staff, prefers to personally greet foreigners who bow to him and ask for rations.  He recognizes his ten older brothers, but they do not recognize him.  Joseph was 17 when they sold him; now he is 38, wearing Egyptian garb, and accompanied by a translator.  He accuses his brothers of being spies, causing them to babble defensively that they are ten of twelve brothers—“and hey! The youngest is with our father today, and one is no more.” (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph gives them a test, supposedly to prove they are not spies.  He will keep one of the brothers hostage while the others go home with food; but they must return to Egypt with their youngest brother to prove their honesty.

The brothers then realize their own lack of empathy, twenty years before.

And they said, each to his brother: “Ah, we are guilty on account of our brother, because we saw his distress in pleading to us for pity, and we did not listen; therefore this distress came to us.”  (Genesis 42:21)

Joseph hears this, although he is pretending he does not know Hebrew.

And he turned around from them, and he wept.  Then he turned back to them and he spoke to them and he took from among them Shimon, and he fettered him before their eyes.  (Genesis 42:24)

Narcissism:  Joseph weeps for himself, remembering how he wept at age seventeen when he was in their power.

Empathy:   Joseph weeps in sudden recognition that his brothers have feelings and know they are guilty.

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones, 1869

Joseph continues to carry out his elaborate charade and test.  (See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.)  Because their father, Jacob, is unwilling to let go of Rachel’s remaining son, the brothers wait until they have run out of food before returning to Egypt with Benjamin.  Joseph has his steward bring them to his palace and return Shimon to them.  Then Joseph comes and makes polite conversation, not neglecting to ask if their father is still alive.  Finally he takes a good look at Benjamin, his only full brother, who was a small child when Joseph was sold into slavery.  Now Benjamin is in his twenties.

And Joseph hurried out, because his rachamim was kindled toward his brother and he needed to weep; and he came to the inner room and he wept there.  Then he washed his face and he went out and he pulled himself together and he said: “Serve food.”  (Genesis 43:30-31)

rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = compassion, loving feelings, affection, mercy.  (From rechem (רֶחֶם) = womb.)

Here the Torah finally states that Joseph feels compassion toward someone.  He knows that his father, Jacob, would treat Rachel’s only remaining son with favoritism.  Perhaps he assumes that Benjamin, too, has suffered at his half-brothers’ hands.

This is a form of empathy.  Can Joseph take the next step, and become interested in Benjamin as an individual in his own right, or will Joseph always see his little brother as a reflection of himself?  When his elaborate test is completed, will he be able to consider his older brothers’ feelings as well?  Or will the story be all about him?

The answer is hidden in next week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash.

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662. Only extreme cases of narcissism are classified as personality disorders, but the clinical definition applies to all levels of narcissism.
  2. Genesis 37:25-28.
  3. Genesis 39:1-6.
  4. Why does God keep blessing Joseph with success? Maybe this is the Torah’s way of saying that Joseph is inherently intelligent and capable.  (Some narcissists are, and their commitment to their own importance drives them to work hard.)  On the other hand, maybe the anthropomorphic God-character portrayed in the book of Genesis is testing Joseph by repeatedly making him successful under difficult circumstances.  Maybe God wants to find out whether his clan will be worthy of leading the Israelites in the future.  Modern scholars date the original composition of the Joseph story to J and E sources recorded during 922 to 722 B.C.E., when the Israelites lived in two kingdoms, with the northern kingdom dominated by the Efraimites, descendants of Joseph, and the southern kingdom dominated by descendants of Judah.  When the Assyrian Empire swallowed the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E., it seemed like a vindication of the Judahite narrative.

Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy

November 29, 2018 at 7:41 pm | Posted in Vayeishev | 4 Comments

Why do Joseph’s ten older brothers hate him?  Because they resent their father’s favoritism?  Or because they resent Joseph’s behavior?

An Obnoxious Father

Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, has always played favorites.  He has children with two official wives (Leah and Rachel) and their two female servants (Zilpah and Bilhah), but he loves only Rachel.  After Rachel dies in childbirth, it is no surprise to learn in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (“And he settled down”) that he loves Rachel’s son Joseph more than his ten older half-brothers.

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives Him the Coat, by Owen Jones, 1869

And Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made him a ketonet passim.  And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him and could not speak in peace.  (Genesis 37:3-4)

ketonet (כְּתֺנֶת) = a long tunic/shirt/loose dress worn by both men and women, either alone or underneath a robe or cloak.  It was belted with a sash, and removed at night.1

passim (פַּסִּים) = ?  Translations include “multicolored” (as in the King James “coat of many colors”), “ornamented”, and “long-sleeved”.

The only other appearance of ketonet passim in the bible is in 2 Samuel 13:18-19, which notes that every unmarried daughter of King David wore one.  Joseph is a shepherd like his brothers, but Jacob gives him a garment fit for a king’s child.

The opening of this week’s Torah portion says Jacob loves Joseph the most because he is a son of Jacob’s old age.  But his love for Joseph’s deceased mother also affects his feelings.  Besides giving Joseph the princely tunic in Vayeishev, Jacob refuses to be comforted when he believes his favorite son has been killed.2  In next week’s portion, Mikeitz, Jacob is not alarmed to learn that the vizier of Egypt has imprisoned Shimon, one of his sons with Leah.  But he refuses to let Benjamin, his second son with Rachel, leave his side and go to Egypt.3

An Obnoxious Youth

Naturally Jacob’s ten older sons resent their father’s favoritism.  But they have another reason to hate Joseph.  When one child in a family is spoiled and the others neglected, the spoiled one can become a narcissist—either because he believes he truly is wonderful, or because he wants to believe it in order to justify all the attention.  This week’s Torah portion does not say directly that Joseph is selfish at age seventeen, but the implication is there, beginning with the word na-ar.

These are the lineages of Jacob: Joseph, seventeen years old, tended the flock along with his brothers, and he was a na-ar … (Genesis/ Bereishit 37:2)

na-ar (נַעַר) = male slave, male assistant, boy, young marriageable man.

Although the Torah promises to give us the lineages4 of Jacob, it does not name any descendants but Joseph, the most important person in Jacob’s life once Rachel is gone.

What does na-ar mean in Joseph’s case?  Joseph is certainly not a slave.  At most he is an assistant to his brothers as he learns the shepherding business.

Kohl used by Egyptian men and women

Bereishit Rabbah 84.7, citing Joseph’s beauty, claims he acts like a vain youth, daubing kohl around his eyes, lifting his heels, and dressing his hair.5  (I assume that Joseph is not tripping through the sheep pastures all dolled up, but saves the show for when they stop at a village.)

Or perhaps he is a na-ar because he is immature for his age.  Right after calling him a na-ar, the Torah says Joseph is a tattletale.

…  and he was a na-ar with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, women of his father’s, and Joseph reported dibatam ra-ah to their father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:2)

dibatam (דִּבָּתָם) = (noun) their slander, their gossip.  (dibah (דִּבָּה) = gossip (usually malicious), slander + tam (תָם) = suffix for the third person masculine plural construct form.)

ra-ah (רָעָה) = (noun) intentional evil, wickedness, disaster.

Many translators rework the final clause into “Joseph brought an ill report of them to their father” or something similar.  This translation fits the context, but it makes the word dibah superfluous.  And although the suffix tam can be interpreted as meaning “of them”, it is usually used as the possessive “their”.

If we translate the clause as “Joseph reported their gossip evil to their father” we account for all the words in the original Hebrew.  Since a noun following another noun often serves as an adjective in biblical Hebrew, a more accurate translation is “Joseph reported their malicious gossip to their father.

What are Zilpah and Bilhah’s sons gossiping about?  And what does Joseph report?  One possibility is that the four young men are slandering Joseph, drawing wicked conclusions about his beauty treatments or the way he wears his fancy tunic.  If Joseph were six years old, like his little brother Benjamin, he might well run home and cry, “Daddy, Daddy, they said mean words about me!”  But does he do this at age seventeen?  If so, his father is too blind with devotion to notice his favorite’s immaturity.

Another possibility is that Zilpah and Bilhah’s sons are slandering Leah’s oldest sons, who would be likely to lord it over them because of their superior age, experience, and status.  By reporting this malicious gossip to Jacob, Joseph would make all ten of his older brothers look bad.  Joseph, who proves his intelligence later in the story,6 may even use these bad reports as a pre-emptive strike.  If any brother subsequently tells Jacob about Joseph’s unworthy deeds, Jacob will not be inclined to believe him.

Of course by reporting his brothers’ malicious gossip, Joseph becomes guilty of malicious gossip himself.  But he does not worry about that.  He knows it will not occur to his doting father, and he himself is not yet concerned about ethics.7  Sure enough, later in this week’s Torah portion Jacob sends Joseph on a journey to check up on all his brothers and report back.8

When Joseph catches up with his brothers they throw him into a pit, sell him into slavery, and then convince their father that the boy was killed by wild beasts.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  Thus Jacob suffers for his clueless favoritism.

And Joseph suffers for his own contribution to his brothers’ hatred: his youthful narcissism, which is expressed not only in his malicious reports, but also in his narration of his dreams.

Joseph dreamed a dream and he told his brothers, and it increased their hatred of him.  He said to them: “Listen, please, to this dream that I dreamed.  Hey, we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, and hey, my sheaf stood up and was even standing firm, and hey, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheath.”  (Genesis 37:5-7)

Joseph Reveals His Dream, by James Tissot

If the brothers were on friendly terms, they would merely tease him about this grandiose dream.  Instead they hate him more—but although Joseph is intelligent, he does not change his behavior.  He tells them a second dream in which his brothers are symbolically bowing down to him.9  This time Jacob also hears the dream, yet he still sends Joseph off to spy on his brothers.

*

Jacob and Joseph make the same mistake in this week’s Torah portion: they both fail to respect the feelings of others.

And what about Joseph’s older brothers?  Their hatred is understandable; nobody likes being denigrated and treated as insignificant, especially by a parent or younger sibling.  But they could choose a different reaction.

I have had a few young Josephs in my life, narcissists too wrapped up in their own dramas to wonder what I think, to have any interest in me as an individual.  I have imagined how nice it would be if these people were dead, or banished to another country.

Over decades of suffering and reflection, I have realized that when I cannot speak to someone in peace, it is better to run away.  And that when I am blessed enough to hold compassion in my heart and peace on my tongue, it is good to listen—even when I am not heard in return.  When I do the right thing myself, I have peace inside, and I do not have to spend the rest of my life feeling guilty, like Joseph’s brothers.10  It helps to remind myself that the “young Josephs” in my life, however old they are in years, are not being narcissistic on purpose; they are themselves victims of their upbringing.

(I posted an earlier version of this essay in November 2010.)

  1. A ketonet was belted with a sash: see Isaiah 22:21. It was taken off at night: see Song of Songs 5:3.
  2. Genesis 37:34-35.
  3. Genesis 42:38.
  4. Toledot (תּוֹלֵדוֹת).
  5. Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of commentary from 400- 600 C.E., extrapolates from Genesis 39:6, which mentions Joseph’s extraordinary good looks in order to explain why Potifar’s wife repeatedly tries to seduce him.
  6. Joseph demonstrates his intelligence in Egypt both in his implementation of his 14-year plan for preventing famine in Egypt while increasing the power of the government (Genesis 41:33-36, 47:13-26) and in his complicated scheme for testing his brothers before revealing his identity to them (Genesis 42:6-45:3).
  7. Joseph’s first ethical act reported in the Torah is after Potifar, who buys Joseph as a slave, makes him steward over his whole household. Then when Potifar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, he refuses her.  (Genesis 39:4-12).
  8. Genesis 37:12-14.
  9. Genesis 37:9-11.
  10. Genesis 42:21-22, 50:15-17.

 

Vayishlach: Mother Figure

November 22, 2018 at 10:26 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 1 Comment

And he built an altar there, and he called the place of God “Beit-El” because there God had been revealed to him in his flight from the face of his brother.  And Deborah, the wet-nurse of Rebecca, died and was buried beneath Beit-El, beneath the great tree; and he called its name “Great Tree of Weeping”.  (Genesis 35:7-8)

Why does an aged wet-nurse suddenly appear in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”)?  And why does Jacob name her grave a place of weeping?

*

Jacob is Rebecca’s favorite son, and she mothers him well into his adulthood.  When her husband, Isaac, is about to give a blessing to their other son, Esau, she arranges for Jacob to impersonate his brother and steal the blessing.  She cooks the meat Isaac asked for, and she even dresses Jacob in Esau’s best clothes, as well as in goatskins to imitate Esau’s hairy hands and neck.1

After Esau finds out about the stolen blessing and vows to kill his brother, Rebecca tells Jacob to run away from home, and she arranges his journey to Charan.  (See my post Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong.)  She tells Jacob he will only need to stay with his uncle in Charan—

Until the anger of your brother turns away from you and he forgets what you did to him; then I will send and bring you from there … (Genesis 27:45)

Jacob’s Dream,
by James Tissot

Jacob (who is over 40) spends his first night away from home at a place where God gives him a dream of a stairway between earth and heaven.  God promises:

“I will guard you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this soil …” (Genesis/Bereishit 28:15)

When Jacob wakes up he names the place Beit-El, “House of God”.  Even though God has already promised to guard him, he makes a vow to serve God on the condition that God will take care of him until he returns.

“If God is with me and guards me on this way where I am going and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house, then God will be my god, and this stone that I set up as a pillar will become a house of God, and everything that you give me I will repeatedly tithe to you.”  (Genesis 28:20-22)

Jacob thinks in terms of deals, like the one he made with Esau when he traded lentil soup for Esau’s inheritance.2  He also thinks in terms of a parental figure providing food and clothing, as his mother just did.

Jacob stays in Charan for twenty years, working as a shepherd for his uncle Lavan in exchange for wives and his own flocks.  During that whole time, the Torah does not mention any message from Jacob’s mother.  Subconsciously, now that he has lost Rebecca’s apron strings, Jacob may want to stay as long as possible under God’s motherly care.  The terms of the deal he offered God will end once he returns to Beit-El and builds a house (a permanent altar) for God.

Esau and Jacob Reconcile, by Francesco Hayez, 1844

Yet after twenty years Jacob does leave Charan, with a large party of wives, children, servants, and livestock.  In this week’s Torah portion he sends gifts to his estranged brother, Esau.  The brothers meet, embrace, and cry on one another’s necks.  Having made peace with Esau, Jacob’s next order of business must be to return to his father’s house, and then build an altar at Beit-El.  Right?

Wrong.  Once he has crossed into Canaan, Jacob stops at Shekhem and decides to settle down there; he even buys land.3  He is in no hurry to see his parents or to complete his deal with God.

But his own children ruin his plan.  The prince of Shekhem lies with Jacob’s daughter Dinah, then offers to marry her.  Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi respond by murdering every male in the town.4  Jacob complains that Shimon and Levi have destroyed his reputation in the region.  He is about to despair when God reminds him to go to Beit-el and make the altar he promised.5

Jacob leads his people south and builds the altar.

And Deborah, the wet-nurse of Rebecca, died and was buried tachat Beit-El, tachat the allon; and he called its name “Allon of Weeping”.  (Genesis 35:8)

tachat (תַּחַת) = beneath, under; instead of, in exchange for.

allon (אַלּוֹן) = stately tree, possibly with religious significance.  (Translators guess it may be an oak or a terebinth.)

The only other time Deborah is mentioned is when Rebecca leaves Charan to marry Isaac, and she brings along her former wet-nurse, who is not named at this point.6  Presumably the woman is at least fifteen years older than Rebecca, and they have a relationship of trust and affection.

Rashi7 asked why Deborah is traveling with Jacob’s household in this week’s Torah portion.  He answered that after twenty years, Rebecca finally sent to Jacob in Charan to tell him it was safe to come home.  She used the aged Deborah as her messenger, and Deborah died in Beit-El on the journey back.  (This would not be surprising, since by then she must have been at least 87, and probably more than 100.)

The Torah, however, does not mention Deborah or any other human messenger arriving in Charan.  Instead,

God said to Jacob: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your homeland, and I will be with you.”  (Genesis 31:3)

Jacob would not need a signal from his mother once he had received a signal from his new protector, God.

Another possibility is that Deborah travels to Beit-El from Hebron, where Isaac and Rebecca have settled,8 in order to tell Jacob that his mother has died.  Having accomplished her final mission in life, the aged wet-nurse dies.  When Jacob buries her, he weeps for both her and his mother—even though the Torah does not mention the news about Rebecca.  (Although Rebecca is one of the speaking female characters in the book of Genesis, the Torah never gives her age, and mentions her death only when Jacob is giving his own burial instructions and lists who is already buried in the cave.9)

In Genesis Rabbah 81:5 (300-500 C.E.), Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman says that in Greek, allon means “another”, and therefore Jacob was mourning for another while he was mourning for Deborah.  Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg has pointed out: “The word tachat—under, instead—is used twice in this verse, suggesting substitution, a hidden grief.  On this other level, eluding consciousness, Jacob weeps for his mother.”10

Modern commentator Shmuel Klitsner wrote: “This, after all, is Jacob, perhaps only now belatedly ‘weaned’ from his mother Rebecca’s influence.  This is Jacob, who inappropriately relinquished his autonomy to a mother who dressed her adult son in another’s clothing …  Now, at this juncture, upon Jacob’s return to Beth-El and just prior to the moment of the divine reconfirmation of his new identity, he must divest himself of the last vestigial ties to that inappropriate dependence.  This is expressed symbolically in the burial of a mythic woman who has silently accompanied Rebecca and then Jacob through their lives, and whose role, despite her years, is still described as one who nourishes from the breast.”11

Immediately after Deborah is buried, God appears to Jacob and confirms that his new name is Israel: Yisrael (ישְׂרָאֵל) = he struggles/argues (with) God.  Jacob’s relationship with God is no easier than his relationship with his mother.

*

A modern adult knows God is not an anthropomorphic yet all-powerful hero who can replace Mommy or Daddy.  Yet how many of us, even today, are like Jacob?  How many of us, after we realize that our parents cannot protect us from harm, react by bargaining with God to protect us?

I never expected God to be parental—perhaps because I was brought up as an atheist.  When I became an adult and groped my way toward an idea, or perhaps a feeling, of God, I never wanted to bargain.  I have never even asked God to protect and take care of me, because I believe the world is not set up that way.  I do pray in gratitude.  And I pray for courage, strength, empathy, and other inner qualities that help me to face our unpredictable world, and even do some good in it.  I think my prayers are slowly being answered.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in November 2010.)

  1. Genesis 27:1-17.
  2. Genesis 25:29-33.
  3. Genesis 33:19.
  4. Genesis 34:1-26.
  5. Genesis 35:1.
  6. Genesis 24:59.
  7. 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  8. Genesis 35:27.
  9. Genesis 50:29-31.
  10. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, NewYork, 2009, p. 230.
  11. Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006, p. 130.

Vayeitzei:  Stealing Away

November 13, 2018 at 9:20 pm | Posted in Hosea, Samuel 1, Vayeitzei | Leave a comment

Jacob runs away twice in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“and he went”).  At the beginning he runs away from his brother Esau in Beersheva, and arrives alone at his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan.  He works as a shepherd for his uncle for twenty years, but Lavan still refuses to grant him independence.  So Jacob runs away again at the end of the Torah portion.  He heads back toward Beersheva with two wives, two concubines, eleven children, many servants, assorted tents and household goods, and more livestock than his own household needs,1 including expensive riding camels.2

His wives Leah and Rachel resent their father and agree it is time to go.3

Lavan went to shear his sheep.  And Rachel, vatiginov the terafim that belonged to her father.   (Genesis/Bereishit 31:19)

vatiginov (וַתִּגְנֺו) = she stole, (or) you stole.  (A form of the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole, robbed.)

terafim (תְּרָפִים) = figurines or statues of household gods?  (Although the -im suffix usually indicates a plural, the noun terafim can be plural or singular in the bible.)

Unlike his wife Rachel, Jacob takes only what he believes is rightfully his.  But he does a different kind of stealing.

Jacob Flees (artist unknown)

And Jacob, vayignov et leiv Lavan the Aramean by not telling him that he was running away.  And he ran away, he and all that was his; he got up and he crossed the Euphrates and he set his face toward the hills of the Gilead.  (Genesis 31:20-21)

vayignov et leiv (וַיִּגְנֺב אֶת לֵב) = he deceived.  (Literally: vayignov = he stole + et = (definite direct object indicator) + leiv = the mind of.)

Lavan learns three days later that Jacob and his household have fled.  He takes some kinsmen and chases after them, catching up with Jacob’s party in the hills of Gilead.  The next morning Lavan confronts Jacob and says:

“What were you doing when vatignov et levavi and you carried off my daughters like captives of the sword?  Why did you hide to run away, vatignov me, and you did not tell me? … I have power in my hand to do bad to you all, but last night the god of your fathers spoke to me, saying: ‘Protect yourself from speaking with Jacob for good or bad’.”  (Genesis 31:26-27, 29)

vatignov et levavi (ותִּגְנֺב אֶת לְבָבִי) = you deceived me.  (The same idiom as vayignov et leiv.)

He accuses Jacob of both deception (“stealing his mind”) and robbery.  But influenced by the dream from the God of Israel, Lavan gives Jacob the benefit of the doubt.

“And now you surely walked away because you surely longed deeply for the house of your father.  [But] why ganavta my gods?”  (Genesis 31:30)

ganavta (גָנַבְתָּ) = did you steal.   (Another form of the verb ganav.)

Lavan cannot help exclaiming about what bothers him the most: that his household gods, his terafim, are missing.

And Jacob answered and he said to Lavan: “Because I was afraid, because I said [to myself]: ‘What if you tear away your daughters from me?’  If you find anyone has your gods, he shall not live.  In front of our kinsmen, identify what is yours with me and take it!”  And Jacob did not know that Rachel genavatam.  (Genesis 31:31-32)

genavatam (גְּנָבָתַם) = had stolen them.  (Another form of the verb ganav.)

Lavan acts on Jacob’s invitation by searching the tents of Jacob, Leah, the two concubines, and finally Rachel.

Bedouin camel saddle, photo by hannatravels.com

And Rachel?  She had taken the terafim and put them inside the camel saddle, and she sat on them.  Lavan groped through the whole tent, but he did not find them.  (Genesis 31:34)

Rachel tells her father she cannot stand up to greet him because it is her monthly period, and he leaves her tent.  Jacob is spared the anguish of finding out the truth and making good on his promise to kill the thief.

Jacob justifies deceiving Lavan by explaining that he secretly fled because he was afraid of losing his wives.  Later in the confrontation he justifies his deception by bringing up Lavan’s history of cheating him.4

But what about Rachel?  Why does she steal from her father, and is she justified?

What are Lavan’s terafim?

from Judah, 7th century BCE

Lavan’s terafim may be small terra cotta figurines, which archaeologists have found in abundance throughout Mesopotamia as well as at pre-586 B.C.E. sites in the kingdom of Judah.  These figurines came from private houses, not temples.  They may have represented a clan’s ancestors, and ancestor-worship may have been distinguished from idol-worship.5

One proposal is that Lavan’s terafim are similar to the “gods” mentioned in tablets from 1440-1340 B.C.E. at Nuzi.6  According to one Nuzi tablet, the chief heir of an estate received the “gods” of the deceased.  The chief heir was usually a son of the deceased, but if he had no natural son, his adopted son could inherit the “gods” along with the rest of the estate.7

If possession of a family’s terafim indicated the ownership of a household in Charan as well, then Rachel might steal her father’s terafim in case she needs future proof that her husband owns the flocks, slaves, and goods he took.

This explanation is based on 20th-century archaeology, and assumes that the biblical term terafim applies to small terra cotta figurines.  But what if we interpret the word terafim in this week’s Torah portion by examining the other seven occurrences of the word terafim in the Hebrew Bible?

Traditional commentary assumed that terafim were idols, which God forbids in the Ten Commandments and later biblical passages.  Genesis Rabbah 74:5-6 and Rashi (11th-century C.E. rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) credited Rachel with taking the terafim in order to reform her father and end his idol-worship.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch added that since the terafim could not protect themselves from theft, Lavan should realize that they were also powerless to protect him.8

But if Rachel despised the terafim, she could have discarded or destroyed them during the first ten days of the journey, before Laban caught up with them.

Furthermore, the book of Genesis never censures anyone for owning terafim.  And the book of Hosea includes terafim in a list of things the Israelites will be deprived of until they turn back to God.9  The implication is that in the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) where Hosea prophesied, terafim were acceptable accompaniments to the worship of the God of Israel.

Michal Lets David Out the Window, by Gustave Dore, 1865

The first book of Samuel also considers household terafim acceptable.  In 1 Samuel 19:13, King Saul sends men to kill David, and David’s wife Mikhal helps him escape out the bedroom window.  Then she arranges his bed so that it will look as if he is still sleeping there.  She takes a terafim in their house, gives it a wig of goat-hair, and pulls the bedclothes over it.  This man-sized terafim is obviously larger than the ones Rachel steals and hides in her camel saddle.  It seems to be a normal item for a God-fearing Israelite general to have in his house.

That leaves five negative references to terafim in the bible.  Judges 17-18 gently pokes fun at Micah by relating how he acquires four “gods”: a carved silver idol, a cast silver idol, an oracular object, and a terafim.  Like the silver idols, a terafim is a physical object used for dubious religious purposes.

Terafim are listed along with false and/or idolatrous items used for divination in 1 Samuel, 2 Kings, Ezekiel, and Zecharaiah.  These lists assume that terafim are also devices for soothsaying.10  The purpose of Lavan’s terafim may therefore be to provide omens about the future and knowledge of the unknown.

In that case, Rachel might steal the terafim so Lavan could not use them to find out what route Jacob and his household were taking.11  But Lavan and his men track them down anyway.

Jacob and Laban Set a Boundary (artist unknown)

Once Lavan no longer has his terafim for divination, he also becomes able hear God in a dream: an inner voice telling him to guard his own behavior and be careful when he speaks to Jacob.  The next day, Lavan becomes a reasonable man, giving up his “rights” for the sake of peace.12  The two men conduct a ritual to set a clear boundary between the areas they will occupy, and Jacob walks off as a free man and head of his own household.

*

If Rachel had ditched the terafim after stealing them from Lavan, would she, too, have heard God’s voice in dream?  God never speaks to her in the Torah, and she dies in childbirth on the road south of Beit-El.  The contention between Rachel and her sister Leah continues between her sons and Leah’s sons.  Would it have been different if she had heard God’s voice?  What kind of person would she have become?

What if you threw away your terafim?  So many people get attached to the figurines they have acquired: viewing every coincidence as an omen, reacting as if human beings were stock characters made of clay, denying inconvenient realities.  What if you stopped deceiving yourself, stopped stealing your own mind?  What would you be able to hear?

  1. Jacob evidently leaves Charan with more flocks and herds than he needs, since he can afford to give away 580 animals to Esau in Genesis 32:14-16.
  2. Genesis 31:17-18 and 32:16.
  3. Genesis 31:11-16.
  4. Jacob promises to serve Lavan for seven years in exchange for marriage with Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, but at the wedding Lavan substitutes his older daughter, Leah. He gives Rachel to Jacob a week later as a second wife, but he requires Jacob to work another seven years (Genesis 29:15-27).  After he has completed 14 years of service, Jacob asks Lavan to let him go back to Canaan with his wives and children, but Lavan negotiates wages for continued service (Genesis 30:25-31).  Jacob alludes to this history in Vayeitzei in Genesis 31:41.
  5. Aaron Greener, “What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah During the Biblical Period?”, www.thetorah.com, Aug 16, 2016.
  6. The ruins of Nuzi were unearthed near present-day Kirkuk, Iraq, about 430 miles (690 km) east of Charan (present-day Harran in Turkey near the Syrian border).
  7. jewishvirtuallibrary.org/nuzi.
  8. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 640.
  9. Hosea 3:4.
  10. 1 Samuel 15:23, 2 Kings 23:24, Ezekiel 21:26, and Zecharaiah 10:2. Following up on the idea of diviniation, Targum pseudo-Jonathan (originally Targum Yerushalmi) defined a terafim is a mummified head that can speak prophecy.  12th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra proposed that a terafim was an image made by astrologers at a propitious time so that it could speak.
  11. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, Bereishis (vol. 1), English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, NY, 1994, p. 424.
  12. Genesis 31:43-44.
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