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Posted By The Stash

An interesting item in the National Post caught my eye. Israeli PM Netanyahu announced that Iran will not be able to build a bomb in the near future. This has set increased speculation that Israel was behind the Stuxnet virus attack that caused 1,000 centrifuges used in Iranian nuclear enrichment to spin too quickly and break. We will never know the truth of Israel’s involvement here, though certainly some authors will make easy money with their “secret” or “authorized” accounts of the “real story”. Whoever is behind this attack has chosen the least harmful method of accomplishing a potentially bloody military/diplomatic objective. The virus attack is certainly preferable to war; far better broken centrifuges than broken bodies.

The Tower of Babel story evokes interesting parallels with the Stuxnet attack. The inhabitants of Babel, like the President of Iran, arrogantly thought that they could build a vast structure that would “make a name for themselves”. There is nothing inherently sinful in this, but most commentators critique the methodology that must have been used to further this undertaking. Their words have a modern ring. The Netziv wrote around 1820 that the government “must have imposed a dictatorial regime in order to reach its objectives.” Fifty years earlier Rabbi Eibeschutz believed that the tower would be a launching pad for missiles! And the Divine response? G-d did not wage war, or send a pestilence or famine. Instead G-d garbled the speech of all they spoke in a babble of tongues—forever evoking the story in our common speech.

Given this, how to explain G-d’s comment in Perek 3 of Shmot: “And I know that the King of Egypt will not let you go even with a mighty hand. And I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I can do in that land, and after that, the Egyptians will send you out.” These events unfold in our parasha. The customary answer is that the plagues served an educative function. Certainly the Egyptian magicians and advisors were convinced that the G-d of the Hebrews had some type of power that they could not counter and advised Pharaoh to submit. Pharaoh did not listen, perhaps as Maimonides argued, because he no longer had the privilege of freewill, having chosen for too long to ignore G-d’s power. That is why the Torah writes that “G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

But the inherent nature and importance of human freewill is a key tenet of Judaism, and Maimonides cannot simply dismiss it. It is equally difficult to explain the text in a literary manner ex post facto. After the miraculous escape, the text should somehow explain why Pharaoh acted so illogically and allowed the plagues to devastate his nation before leading his army to destruction at the Sea of Reeds. So, it explains that Pharaoh’s unreasonableness is G-d’s doing—a miracle, but one with serious philosophical difficulties in the realm of freewill.

Perhaps Rashi has the best angle. He argues that the slavery was not merely legislated, but that commoners extended the boundaries of slavery to “work in the fields” above and beyond the Royal requirement of imperial building projects. This would mean that the vast majority of Egyptians were complicit in the brutal enslavement, and hence all deserved punishment. In contrast,  the builders of the Tower of Babel were far less evil. And what of the average Iranian? A fine question. Under the Shah’s regime, and for thousands of years before, Jews lived comfortably in Iran. The horrific anti-Semitism of Ahmadinejad’s regime may not yet have affected all the people. Perhaps they deserve a more merciful fate than a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Certainly, after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one shudders at the prospect of nuclear weapons ever being used again.

There are no easy answers here. But talking about Torah and probing its depths is a task, at least at the highest level, of trying to answer difficult questions.

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"V'Eileh Shmot/and these are the names" are the opening words of the Torah’s second book. The Netziv, the greatest student of the Gaon of Vilna, made much of this connection. He observed that this is a hint that the Abrahamitic prophecy of slavery and redemption found in Sefer Bereishit is fulfilled in Sefer Shmot. This small conjunction - "and" - serves as a reminder of how G-d’s words are ultimately fulfilled over time and space.

All very true, but perhaps there is a less subtle but not less important way of understanding this connection. Bereishit ends with a discussion of family and Shmot begins with one. We are told that the family of Jacob, 70 in number, settled in the land of Goshen and "multiplied very greatly," and when the story resumes in Shmot, it commences with a genealogy of those enumerated in Bereishit. Familial continuity lies at the heart of the narrative. Interestingly, this theme remains a constant throughout the narrative. Ultimately, claims the Midrash, the Israelites were redeemed because they remembered to give their children Hebrew names. But those who did were very few in number, no more than a third according to the Talmud in Sanhedrin.

Giving a child a Hebrew name seems to set the bar very low in terms of continuity. But given the importance of a name, and the instant ethnic recognition afforded by certain names, it takes courage to give a child a name that makes them stand out in a host society. It takes even more certainty on the part of the child to retain the name when they become an adult, especially if they were questioned or teased about it because it was "different". Look at how many Jews changed their names when they came to North America.

Yet a name in and of itself is not always definitive. Moses’ name was Egyptian, and remained unhebraized by his birth mother out of gratitude to the Egyptian princess who saved him from the Nile and certain death before raising him as her own. But Moses’ mother had done more than just act as his wetnurse; he obviously knew his roots. When Moses met G-d at the burning bush, G-d said “I am the G-d of your ancestors, the G-d of Abraham,  of Isaac, and of Jacob,” Moses instantly knew who was speaking because he recognized his ancestors’ names. From the moment G-d finished speaking, the Torah relates: “and Moses hid his face because he feared to look upon the L-rd.”

Our community speaks of, and invests millions in “Jewish continuity” without ever defining the phrase. This seems politically and philanthropically correct—why alienate a donor base? Does this match the Torah’s stance on this issue? Difficult question to answer. On the one hand, a number of commentaries argue that the requirement that the Hebrews put blood on the door to ward off the tenth plague was a test of minimal ethnic identification. Not much—but it made the difference between life and death, slavery and redemption. But, the Hebrews’ act of self-identification, even in the face of danger, was insufficient to ensure continuity in the context of freedom. They needed far more knowledge, and that is why their path led directly to Sinai, where they received a set of rules for daily life. The bare minimum of ethnic survival—of knowing you were a Hebrew—was insufficient once the yoke of physical slavery was removed.

This suggests that “Jewish continuity” requires more than simply building the “Jewish Toronto of Tomorrow” without ensuring there are Jews who will bother to use all its facilities. The bar of survival was set low in slavery but high in freedom. It is not enough to know your name, and know you are a Jew. You must do something about it—and synagogue is the place to begin. It can be Chassidic or Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, no matter. Our texts contain the echoes of Sinai…the links between the generations. We must ensure they remain as tight as they were in the days of Sefer Shmot which we begin reading today.

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Remy Landau observed a fascinating statistical parallel that links today’s parasha with Parashat VaYeishev. The first verse of our parasha reads “and Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years” and the second verse of Parashat VaYeishev reads: ”And these are the generations of Jacob: Joseph was 17 years old when he was shepherding the flocks…” This is no mere textual accident.

The proof is simple. The number 17 is found in the parashiot that mark the beginning and end of the Joseph story. In addition, the number is located right at the beginning of each parasha, and each in a verse that refers to Jacob—and one of the verses refers to Joseph. Here are the two main protagonists of the story. Not only is 17 a prime number—connoting uniqueness-- but it is mentioned nowhere else in Torah. We also must wonder if there is some link between Jacob’s 17 years spent together with the dreams Joseph dreamt when he was 17.

It is interesting that both verses contain “Jacob”—the familial name of Joseph’s father rather than “Israel” which denotes the “national” identity. This suggests that 17 may be a hint that this story is to be understood primarily as a saga of family reunification in which the fulfillment of the Abrahamitic Covenant (“know that your descendants shall be enslaved….”). Thus suggestion is made stronger by the verse in this week’s parasha which runs: “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years. And the full sum of Jacob’s years were 147 years.” And the text strikingly continues: “And it came time for Israel to die….” And the text reverts to the same pattern: “And Israel loved Joseph more than his brothers….” The pattern here is powerful: in both cases immediately after the use of the number 17 and the name of Jacob, the text moves to the alternate name of Israel.

It may be that Remy has found a pattern that explains our Sages’ confusion over the missing link in the verse “And these are the generations of Jacob, Joseph was 17…” All of our commentators ask: where were all the other brothers? Normally the phrase “eileh toldot”/”these are the generations” signals a genealogically organized list. Not so here. Why? Perhaps because Jacob’s favouring of Joseph, a disruptive mockery of “these are the generations”, a repetition of the disastrous favoritism Jacob experienced that gave rise to the entire narrative of the birthright, is the key narrative here. The fact that only later in each sequence does “Israel”—the national consequences of familial dysfunction---emerge teaches that G-d’s will is fulfilled indirectly through random acts of freewill. The Torah is more interested in teaching us family dynamics. This is corroborated by Rabbi Sacks commentary. In last week’s parasha we read: “And Judah approached Joseph” in order to demand that Benjamin be allowed to return home. Sacks contrasts this beacon of brotherly empathy with a previous verse: “and when the brothers saw him [Joseph] approaching in the distance, they plotted to kill him.” And Judah was one of the leaders of the plot.

So what changed? The story of Yehuda and Tamar, and its fascinating positioning in the Joseph narrative gives valuable clues to the process that occurred “between the 17’s” and lends credence to the argument that this is primarily a family narrative. But that is a tale for another time, another Shabbat, or perhaps many!

Kol Hakavod Remy, for your insight! May we always have students at our tables who take the text to heart, mind, and deed.

Posted By The Stash

As soon as Joseph successfully interpreted Pharoah’s dreams, the ruler unilaterally—as was his right—appointed the young lad to be his second in command. But he was careful to change Joseph’s identity by not only clothing him as an Egyptian but by also giving him the Egyptian name Tzafenat Paneach. Rabbi Yair Kahn of Yeshivat Har Etzion observes interestingly that this Egyptian title (and the clothing and “limousine” that went with it) were designed to transform the na’ar eved Ivri (the young Hebrew slave boy) into a man acceptable to the Egyptian ruling class. Joseph had to be careful to maintain his new identity and thus, argues Rabbi Kahn, he dared not contact his family. This serves as a possible answer to Ramban’s and Abravanel’s famous questioning of how could Joseph ignore his family. Indeed the names of his two sons Ephraim and Menashe reflect Joseph’s deep sadness at being a man hiding his identity in a foreign land. These names connote Egypt as the “land of my affliction” and his exile “from my father’s house.”

But then how to explain that when the famine begins, Pharoah is quoted as saying “Go to Joseph, and do whatever he tells you.” How can Pharoah now revert to Joseph’s original name when he had gone out of his way to craft a new identity for Joseph? Better still, why does the subsequent narrative contain no more references to his Egyptian name at all? Perhaps to teach us that Joseph’s desire to see his family made him throw caution to the winds when he revealed himself to his brothers. After all, the famine was not yet over, and Joseph had no way of knowing how Pharoah would react to his secret being let out, as it was in short order. After all, the Torah records that even though no Egyptian was with Joseph when he revealed himself, “and Egypt and the house of Pharoah heard” instantaneously by some unknown mechanism in the pre-webcam era.

Joseph thus remained Joseph, with all the gifts of personality and serious personality faults he always had. And that goes a long way towards explaining how the brothers’ fear of him lingers despite their warm reunion and the unity they display at their father’s deathbed scene in next week’s parasha. Immediately after Jacob’s passing the brother’s express fear of Joseph’s retribution. He has to reassure them yet again that he means them no harm and does not seek vengeance.

It takes a lot to break the bonds of family—even dysfunctional ones. It is incredible that, despite everything, Jacob’s family does not come unglued during the two decades in which Joseph was missing despite the deep rifts between many of them. Apparently, familial bonds have great elasticity. We can forgive much, and look away even more often. We should marvel that in the end Joseph’s brothers remained brothers, as the first verse of Shmot attests: “And these are the names of the sons of Jacob who came to Egypt.” Despite and in defiance of all logic, they still remained the sons of Jacob—a man who played favourites and remained passive as animosity flared. Ade’rabbah, how much more so, must we Jews remember this before writing evilly of each other, before pointing fingers and claiming that others are “bad Jews”. Only G-d knows who the “good Jews” are, and these mysteries are G-d’s. Let G-d worry about this. Let us concern ourselves with Jewish peoplehood and unity in the face of the darkening storm of adversity seemingly heading our way.

Posted By The Stash

Today’s Torah narrative finds Joseph’s brothers in a desperate situation. After Joseph accused them of being spies, they were jailed for three days. The brothers were released only to discover that Simon would remain in jail. The rest were “free” to go back to their aged father Jacob and tell him that unless his beloved son Benjamin came to Egypt, Simon would never be released and no more food could be purchased. Broken hearted, the brothers spoke to each other in Hebrew: “all of this has come upon us because we heard Joseph in the pit beseeching us to let him go and ignored his cries.” The Torah records that Joseph wept when he heard their words.

Why did he weep? Most commentaries insist it was because the brothers were showing remorse, the first stage in repentance. But Rabbi Ya’akov Medan observes that the brothers’ statement does not connote repentance at all; they are only upset because they believe that their sad circumstances indicate a Divine consequence for their misdeeds. Thus, they are upset only because they have been caught and negative consequences are impacting them.

Admittedly Rabbi Medan sets the bar very high by expecting the brothers to fully repent immediately. It may be more true to human nature to read the text in a slightly different way that is more charitable to the brothers. The brothers’ statement reflects a realization that their vicious treatment of Joseph, which they previously justified as a legitimate payback for Joseph’s tale bearing to his father and his role as father’s favourite, was wrong on some level. They are now beginning to understand, albeit only because of their own difficult situation, how evil it was to ignore their brother’s cries and pleas for mercy while he languished in the pit after being stripped of his magnificent coat. This may not be the ideal repentance, but it is the beginning of a long and difficult road towards familial reconstruction.

Whenever I read this verse, I am brought back to a story told by one of my students who went on March of the Living. He spoke of going to Majdanek and of standing in front of the massive door to the gas chamber. There was a small table and chair located there. This was used by a guard whose job it was to check the door’s peephole to determine when the gas had done its work. At that point the guard would call for the Sonderkommando, inmates selected for this job, to be allowed in to clean the chamber for the next group of victims. The students were told that when the Russians came—and they came very suddenly—there was food left on the table. Obviously the guard used to eat and drink, oblivious to the sounds coming from the chamber beyond. I do not know who he was, or if he was ever brought to trial, but I cannot help but think: at least Joseph’s brother’s realized what they had done, even if we accept that they did so for selfish reasons. I would hope that the guard somehow, somewhere, sometime thought back on what he had heard. Or perhaps he, believing himself beyond retribution, never bothered thinking of what he had done during the war ever again. He would thus live out his life in darkness, with the evil he had committed forever within him.

The lights of Chanuka spiritually illuminate the world, but only if we allow their light to penetrate the crevices of our “secret lives”. Let us choose to confront those dark spots with the light of our honest consciences. It is never too late to show remorse or contrition. The Intelligent Jew knows that the words of the famous Chanuka song “Sura Choshech”—banish darkness—are spiritual as well as temporal. Let us shine a light into our souls, cleanse them, and begin afresh.




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