Explore the archives of Rabbi Isaak's Torah Commentary from the book of Genesis/Bereishit
|Chayei Sarah||חַיֵּי שָׂרָה||23:1-25:18|
This weeks' Torah portion, the opening reading, takes us from Creation through the first 10 generations of humanity to describe the corruption that will introduce Noah to us next week. We learn so many of the Torah's most basic and central values:
a. that creation is not neutral, but God declares it to be good, and when finished, God declares it to be very good,
b. that creation is not random or chaotic, but orderly and purposeful,
c. that in chapter 1, contradicted in chapter 2, male and female are created simultaneously and equal,
d. that all humanity is interconnected and related with no race or ethnicity superior to any other.
e. that human beings are mandated to care for the earth.
f. from chapter 2 for the first time God sees something not good is when God recognizes Adam's loneliness and need for companionship,
g. that human beings are by nature challenging of authority and disobedient,
h. from Cain killing Abel, that jealousy is a powerful human emotion, that must be held in check.
Though most of these values may not appear unique, that is because they are so familiar to us. But against the backdrop of the world they are revolutionary.
In this pre-Israelite section we learn much about the Torah's views of God and God's relationship to creation and humanity. It is important that unlike many ancient stories, our Biblical story does not just open with the story of the Jewish people, but offers us insight into God's relationship to humanity at large and the intimate connection between the Jewish people and the rest of the world.
We are all familiar with the opening chapter of Genesis, the description of God's creation of the world in 6 days and resting on the seventh. Clearly this text is not meant to teach science, or about the Big Bang origin of the universe. Instead it comes to teach very basic lessons about which science has nothing to say: a. God's creation is good and perfect. b. Humanity is the pinnacle of God's creation, created in "God's image", i.e. with capacities of memory and creativity, compassion and ingenuity given to no other living thing. c. All humanity is related to each other. The first humans are not described as of any particular race or ethnicity. No group of humans, no gender, is therefore superior to any other. d. With the special gifts with which human being have been endowed we have an added obligation to be guardians of the earth, its resources and its animal diversity. There is a kind of harmony that can exist between all of God's creation. Certainly what science comes to confirm is that there is a kind of order in the cosmos, that the world operates according to basic laws.
We are provided with a varying creation story in the second chapter of Genesis. Here rather than human being created last, all of creation comes to surround the human being.
Parshat Bereshit continues with the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their
disobedience of Gods restriction that they not eat of the tree of knowledge or the three of life and their being exiled from Eden. We read the episodes about their children Cain and Abel, and the first homicide, for which Cain does not assume responsibility: "Am I my brother's keeper?" We discover that Adam and Eve have yet another chld named Seth to replace the slain Abel.
We are then provided with a list of genealogies that will take us through ten generations from Adam and Eve to the Noah. The second installment next week will tell us the story of Noah and the Tower of Babel.
Each Simkhat Torah we conclude the reading of the last chapters of Deuteronomy and immediately begin the first chapter of Genesis. So this week we will read the first parasha, i.e. Bereshit, in our annual cycle through the Torah text.
The first 11 chapters of Bereshit (This and next week’s reading) describe Israelite pre-history, the Jewish myths and legends about the origin of the world, God’s role in creation and special relationship with human beings, the nature of humanity and the context and setting in which Abraham comes to be the first Jew.
Though I refer to these stories as myths and legends, they are not to be easily dismissed. Though not a book of science as we moderns understand the terms, they do tell us a great deal about the most important values which underlay our understanding of society. God is the lone force in the universe without parallel or opposition. God tells us that the world and all of creation is good, a value judgment that is beyond the purview of science. All of humanity is related and originates in two human beings, male and female of indeterminate race or ethnicity. These human beings are the only creatures created in God’s image. They are to rule the earth and take responsibility for it. Human beings are by nature mischievous and not inclined to follow rules. Breaking rules has consequences. These are just some of the most obvious, but they tell us much about who we are and what we are all about.
Also of interest is how these stories have been incorporated into our self-understanding. An important example is the Christian interpretation of the Garden of Eden story into an epic of the Fall of Man and Original Sin. This has no resonance in Jewish theology though the text for both Christians and Jews is the same.
This Shabbat is also the second day of Rosh Hodesh Heshvan. Service Shabbat morning will include Hallel, a special Maftir and Haftarah.
The most famous rendition of the story of Noah is certainly that of Bill Cosby. Here's link that my daughter sent me:
(search "YouTube, Cosby, Noah")
If you haven't heard it in many years, listen again and enjoy...
These first 11 chapters of Genesis, i.e. last week and this week's Torah readings, constitute the recitation of Israelite pre-history. Chapter 10 and 11 provides a list of ten generations that tell us of the geneology from Noah down to Abram, whose story begins formally with next week's parashah.
Parshat Noah contains the long and detailed story of the Flood as well as the very brief and complex story of the Tower of Babel. In parshat Noah all the "good" that was created in the first parasha is systematically and with malice of forethought destroyed. All of humaity had become "corrupt" and "lawless", with the exception of Noah, who "was a righteous man, blameless in his age. Noah walked with God!"
As a result God decides to destroy all human and animal life, with the exception of Noah and his family and the animals that Noah is commanded to collect. (Though chapter 6 tells us that he was told to gather two of each type of animal, male and female, in chapter 7 Noah is told to gather 7 pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals, with no explanation concerning either the discrepancy of how to distinguish clean from unclean.)
Noah built an ark (the word for ark, "tevah", is the same word that is used for the basket in which Moses is placed when his mother floated him in the Nile to be found by Pharaoh's daughter) and the flood began when Noah was 600 years old. The flood destroyed all life not on the ark when finally the waters subsided. Though floods are a disastrous phenomenon in the world to this day, other than flash floods in the desert, the idea of a flood covering vast areas of earth in the arid Middle East have been inconceivable. After discovering that there was dry land, God ordered Noah to come out of the ark. God promises never to destroy every living being ever again. After the flood a concession is made to Noah, in that he is permitted not only to eat vegetation, but also animals. He must however not eat of the blood, in which is contained the essence of life and consequently belongs to God. God make a special covenant with Noah, symbolized by the rainbow.
From the story we learn that God's fury at corruption, violence and social chaos can be so great as to mete out the ultimate punishment, the destruction of God's own creation. However we also learn that regardless of human behavior God has compassion and determines that God will never do something as destructive as this again.
What follows is a strange story relating how Noah became drunk while naked and was respectfully covered by his sons Shem and Japheth, but apparently not by the middle son Ham, which engendered a curse on Ham and blessing on the other sons.
The story of the Tower of Babel is told in 9 verses. Though the outline of the story is clear, what the purpose was is far from clear. What was the sin in building a tower with its top in the sky? Why was dispersal and confusing languages an appropriate response or punishment?
What seems clear however is that at least one purpose was to take a sarcastic poke at Babylon, in Hebrew Bavel. The tower itself may indeed by a representation of the famous Ziggarat, built in flat country to try to read the heavens and the gods.
In the final verses we are told of the lineage of Abram. His father Terakh took him from the city of Ur and headed in the direction of Canaan, but settled in Haran. There Terakh died.
Our Torah reading concludes the pre-Israelite period which took us last week from creation through the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and the ten generations from Adam and Eve to Noah. This week’s reading is primarily concerned with Noah, but also contains the short enigmatic episode of the Tower of Babel and takes us through the ten generations from Noah to Abram. Next week we begin the story of Abraham and Sarah.
Many ancient histories such as that of Romulus and Remus begin with the story of the specific people being addressed. Our story begins with the story of creation and God’s relationship to all of humanity. These story set a tone. They tell us not about the origin of God, but about the nature of God and God’s relationship to the world and most particularly to humanity at large.
The Noah story is one of many ancient flood stories, but it is the only one extent which comes about because mankind has corrupted the earth with violence. In all of the other stories the gods destroy the earth and begin again for frivolous reasons. Our story is a moral story. God is disappointed with the manner in which human beings have responded to the opportunities presented to them and God decides that history must begin over once again.
Here we are introduced to the first Jew, Abram. However we d not meet him until he is 75 years old. Tales about his youth are not in the Torah. They are aspects of the rabbinic imagination and are found in the collections of Midrash. Nevertheless Abram, renamed Abraham in our Parashah will live to the ripe old age of 175.
We are not told why Abram is chosen by God, what special attributes he has, just that he and his descendants will have a special relationship with God.
Only three Parshiyot are devoted to the adventures of Abraham and the third is devoted to Abraham's burial of his wife and locating a spouse for his son Isaac before we read of his demise.
Abram is called by God to go forth to the place where God will choose. With no verbal response, Abram complies. We read of Abraham's escapades in Egypt during a famine, his necessary separation from his nephew Lot and then his need to rescue him, and his relationship with certain neighbors. When Sarah is unable to conceive she offers Abram her handmaiden Hagar, saying, "Perhaps I will have a son through her." When Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, Hagar lords her ability to conceive over barren Sarah and their relationship sours. God tells Abram to circumcise himself and his now 13 year old son. This will be an everlasting covenant between God and Abraham's descendants.
However the theme that is repeated throughout this Parashah is God's covenant with Abraham. God promises blessing at the opening of the Torah reading. This is repeated several times. Abraham is promised a heir and later an heir that will be born to his wife Sarah. God promises Abraham that the land of Canaan will be his inheritance. He declares that Abraham's descendants will be as many as the stars in heaven and even prior to that "I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted."
With this week's Torah reading, we begin the story of the Jewish people.
Although most students learned one or more anecdotes about how Abram came to believe in one God (especially the one in which Abram breaks all the idols in his father's shop except the biggest one and then tells his father that the biggest one broke all the others), none of these come from the Torah. They are all Midrashic tales attempting to fill in the gap. In fact when we meet Abram, he is already 75 years old, married to Sarai, a wealthy man, who now at God's command leaves his "native land, his birth place, his father's house" for an unknown destination that God will provide.
Why Abram was chosen to be God's agent is unknown. Unlike Noah, to whom we are introduced by being told that he was righteous, blameless and walked with God, no such attributes are provided about Abram. Nevertheless God promises Abram to assign the land to which he has come to Abram's descendants. (Later he not only promises the land but offspring as many as the dust of the earth.) Instead we must assess Abram's character from his deeds and his reactions to the situations that arise in his life.
Somewhat surprisingly some of Abram's instincts leave us wondering. One such incident (which shockingly occurs twice to Abram, and then again to his son Isaac) is his telling his wife to proclaim that she is his sister so that "it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you". However as we learn from these episodes, by doing so he puts Sarai in mortal danger. It is only due to God's intervention that Sarai is spared.
When Abram recognized that he and his nephew could not remain together, because their possessions were so great and their herdsmen were quarreling, Abram encourages them to go in opposite directions, offering Lot the opportunity of choosing where he wanted to go. Lot chose to go eastward in the direction of Sodom.
In the midst of a rare episode of international warfare, Abram goes to rescue Lot who has been taken hostage. Upon his successful return he is greeted by King Melchizedek who blesses Abram, "Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your foes into your hand."
Abram complains to God that he has no offspring, resigning himself to the fact that his servant Eliezer will inevitably inherit from him. God assures Abram that he will produce his own heir and promised that his descendants will number as many as the stars. When Abram asks for assurances, God makes a formal covenant with Abram. As we know from other ancient treaty practices, God has Abram cut up several animals, placing one half on one side of the path and the other on the other side. With Abram asleep in the middle, God provides him with a view into the future: "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. As for you,
You shall go to your fathers in peace
And shall be buried at a ripe old age."
"...To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates."
Sarai still barren offers Abram her Egyptian maidservant Hagar, so that she might bear Abram's child and that it might be considered as Sarai's. Hagar conceived, causing enmity between the two women. Hagar runs away after being mistreated. An angel urges her to return, promising that she too will mother a large and numerous nation. She returned and gave birth to Ishmael when Abram was 86 years old.
At age 99 God makes yet another covenant with Abram: "You shall be the father of a multitude of nations." God changed his name to Abraham. "I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain my covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I will assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God."
In return God demands that Abraham keep God's covenant and as a sign of that covenant, God tells Abraham to circumcise his foreskin and to do so in every generation when a male is 8 days old. Sarai's name is changed to Sarah. God promises that she will be blessed with a son. At hearing this, elderly Abraham laughs in disbelief. He is however told that he will father a child with Sarah whose name will be Isaac. Both sons will be blessed, but God's covenant will remain with Isaac.
Abraham then circumcises himself, Ishmael at age 13 and the males in his household.
Most of what the Torah records about our patriarch Abraham we know from this week's parashah. Abraham, weak as he recuperated from the circumcision we read about at the end of last week's parashah, sees three men in the desert as he sits in his tent. He welcomes them and races to provide the ultimate in hospitality: water to bathe their feet and food to eat. They proceed to tell Abraham that his wife Sarah at age 90 would conceive a son. Overhearing the conversation Sarah laughs with disbelief. God asks Abraham why Sarah laughed. Sarah lies denying that she laughed.
As the three men/angels head off in the direction of Sodom God decides to reveal to Abraham God's intention of destroying the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In surprise Abraham challenges God asking about innocents who may reside there. He demands that God rethink his intention that the towns must be saved if there are but 50 righteous souls in them. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" God agrees. Abraham then suggests that there might only be 45, or 40 or 30 or 20 or just 10. God agrees that if there are but 10 righteous individual God would not destroy the towns.
The angels arrived in Sodom and we are treated to an exhibition of how immoral the town's people are. The angels are welcomed into Lot's home. The townsfolk demand that the men be turned over to them. Lot refuses, but quizzically offers to turn over his daughters in stead. The townsfolk did not accept the offer, but were struck with a blinding light.
The angels urged Lot to take his family and escape before God destroyed the town, but warned them not to look back. Lot's wife turned back and was turned to a pillar of salt.
We read a second retelling of the wife-sister motif. Abraham tells the king of Gerar that his wife is his sister. God however revealed the truth to the king. The king summoned Abraham and as in the version of the story we read last week censures Abraham for almost bringing him to sin with Sarah. Avimelekh, king of Gerar, send them away.
Sarah in fact does give birth to a son which she names Isaac, meaning laughter. One day Sarah sees Ishmael, Abraham's son through Hagar, doing something which prompted her to demand that Abraham throw Hagar and Ishmael out of their home. What it is she saw is unclear. Abraham is hesitant, but God assures Abraham that Ishmael with be protected. He should listen to his wife Sarah.
Our Torah reading concludes with the story of the Akeda, the binding of Isaac. God tells Abraham to take Isaac, the key to God's promise of many descendants, and offer him up as a sacrifice. Without hesitation, Abraham embarks on fulfilling God's demand. At the last minute, Abraham having bound his son is told to stop and sacrifice a ram instead of Isaac. God tells Abraham that God now knows the extent of Abraham's loyalty to God.
Three parshiyot are devoted to the life and career of Abraham and Sarah. Last week's reading began with God's call to Abram to Go forth from his native land and from his father's house to the land that God would show him. Next week's portion concludes with the death and burial of Abraham at the age of 175.
This week's parasha picks up after the covenant with God in which Abraham circumcises himself and his son Ishmael and God changes his name from Abram to Abraham and Sarai's name to Sarah. As noted above, our portion opens with Abraham welcoming men/angels into his tent, providing them with comfort and food. The men tell Abraham that Sarah will become pregnant with a son. Listening from inside the tent Sarah laughs because both of them are so old. God asks why Sarah laughed. Sarah in fear denies that she laughed.
God tells Abraham that God is determined to destroy the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah because "their outrage is so great and their sin so grave". Abraham challenges God, "Shall not the judge of all the earth not act justly?" and asks if God will destroy the towns if they contain 50 righteous individuals. He bargains God down to 10 and God relents, promising not to destroy the towns if 10 righteous individuals can be found. It is important that Abraham is not pleading for the innocence of the towns, but that for the sake of the existence of a few righteous ones, the entire town is deserving of being spared. But even 10 cannot be identified. Our parasha describes the immoral behavior of the inhabitants when the men/angels come to Sodom and are taken in by Lot, Abraham's nephew. Lot and his family are told to flee and the town is destroyed.
Next we read of the second time Abraham announces that his wife is his sister while visiting Gerar. King Avimelekh had Sarah brought to him, but in a dream he is told she is a married woman. Avimelekh chastises Abraham for deceiving him. Abraham explains that he thought that there was no fear of God in this place and that he would be killed if he said Sarah was his wife. Avimelekh gave them presents and sent them on their way.
The final two chapters are the readings for first and second days of Rosh Hashanah. We read of the birth of Isaac, Sarah's discomfort with Ishmael and her demand that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. God urges Abraham to listen to Sarah, promising that God will look out for the mother and child. God promises that Ishmael too will become a great nation. Finally we read about the binding of Isaac, God's demand that Abraham take his son and offer him up as a sacrifice. Unlike his previous challenging of God over Sodom, Abraham does as God demands. He is however stopped, God being convinced of Abraham's devotion. Abraham offers a ram instead of Isaac.
Vayera is the second of three parshiyot focused on the life and career of Abraham. We met him in last week's parashah at age 75. At the conclusion of next week's reading he will be buried by his sons at age 175. This week's portion contains the most famous experiences and challenges that confront Abraham.
The portion opens with men who come to visit. Abraham runs to extend them every courtesy and the utmost in hospitality from bathing their feet to providing a meal. They have come to announce to Abraham that his wife would become pregnant with a son. At hearing this Sarah laughed from inside the tent in disbelief. When God asks Abraham why she laughed in that nothing is "too wondrous for the Lord", Sarah frightened lies claiming she had not laughed.
When the men left in the direction of Sodom, God reveals to Abraham of the outrage in Sodom and Gomorrah and God's intent to destroy the cities. Abraham famously challenges God, "Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city?...Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" Abraham is able to bargain God down, so that God agrees that should there be but 10 innocent in these town, God would not destroy them.
Alas we read of the debauchery and sin of the towns wherein not even ten innocents can be located. Only Lot and his family will be saved. Though warned not to look back as they fled, Lot's wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt!
What follows is a strange and brief episode where Lot's daughter get their father drunk so that he will sleep with them "so that we may maintain life through him". The older one bore a son, Moab and the younger a son, Ben-ammi, the ancestral fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites, two of Israel's antagonists.
The for a second time Abraham refers to his wife Sarah as his sister, this time with the king of Grar. King Abimelekh has Sarah brought to him, but in a dream God threatens him telling him that Sarah is married. Abimelekh reproaches Abraham for nearly causing him to sin. Abraham explains that he thought "surely there is no fear of God in this place." Sarah is restored to Abraham, provides gifts for them and sends them on their way.
The last two chapters of this week's parashah we read each year on the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah. The first relates the birth of Isaac and Sarah's demand that Hagar and her son Ishmael be banished. Abraham struggles, but God urges him to listen to his wife. God would protect Hagar and Ishmael who would also become the father of a great nation.
The last chapter relates the famous Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. God calls on Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham does not question God as he did earlier, but follows God's demands. When God is satisfied of Abraham's absolute loyalty, God tells Abraham to sacrifice the ram stuck in the thicket rather than his son.
Finally we are told of the children who are born to Abraham's brother, Nahor. And one of these children gave birth to Rebecca.
Our reading opens with the second version of the promise of a child to elderly Abraham and Sarah. (Near the end of last week's parashah Abraham laughs when God informs him that Sarah will become pregnant, claiming, "Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?") Now strangers appear whom Abraham warmly welcomes into his home offering them comfort and food. This time it is Sarah who laughs when she overhears the men/angels inform Abraham that his wife will give birth. When she says to herself, "Now that I am withered, an I to have enjoyment-with my husband so old?" Though in the previous incident Abraham is not criticized, here Sarah is chastised by God, "Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?" Embarrassed, Sarah lied claiming that she didn't laugh.
Our next focus of attention is the renowned conversation Abraham has with God concerning the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. God decides that it is proper to confide in Abraham God's intention to destroy the towns due to their wickedness. Unlike Noah who simply accepted God's verdict to destroy the entire earth without a word, Abraham objects, challenging God "Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent in the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?"
As we are all familiar, Abraham then bargains God down from 50 to 45 to 40, 30, 20 and finally to 10. But in a certain sense Abrahams demand is outrageous. He is not asking just to save the innocent, his petition is that because of the innocent 10, all the guilty must be saved as a result. God agrees.
We then read a shocking passage about life in Sodom where Abraham's nephew resides, convincing us that not even 10 innocent are to be found in the city. The town will be destroyed. Only Lot and his family will be saved. They are warned not to look back on the destruction. Lot's wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.
We then read a second incident in which Abraham claims that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife. God's punishment of Avimelech, king of Gerar, is sufficient proof that Abraham has deceived the king. Avimelech questions why Abraham has behaved in this way and Abraham responds that since he believed the people had no fear of God they would kill him if he told the truth. Abraham prayed for Avimelech's healing and they departed.
The last two chapters of this week's reading are the Torah portions we read on the first and second day of Rosh Hashanah. They deal first with the birth of Isaac; Sarah's demand that Abraham throw Hagar and Ishmael out of their house, and Abraham's being told to listen to his wife with promises that Hagar and Ishmael would be taken care of. Secondly we read of the binding of Isaac, in which God demands that Abraham take his only beloved son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice in the place to which God will show him. This time interestingly Abraham obeys without question. At the last moment an angel comes to stop Abraham and tell him to offer a ram instead. A blessing is bestowed upon Abraham for his obedience.
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The end of the first generation of Jews.
Sarah dies as our parashah opens at the age of 127. After mourning Abraham, a new comer to the land of Canaan, negotiates with the local population to purchase a burial spot. This cave becomes the first piece of territory under Jewish ownership.
Realizing his need to provide for the next generation before he dies, Abraham commissions his servant Eliezer to return to the land of Abraham's birth and find an appropriate wife for his son and heir Isaac. After praying to God for a sign, Rebecca appears at the well and deals with Eliezer with the kind of generosity that proves she is the one intended. Rebecca takes Eliezer home to meet her family. The deal is sealed and Rebecca agrees to accompany Eliezer to meet her future husband.
Abraham even in old age remarries a woman named Keturah. With her he has six more sons, who provide Abraham with grandchildren and greatgrandchildren.
Finally Abraham dies at the age of 175. Both Ishmael and Isaac come to bury him in the cave where Sarah is buried. The last subject dealt with in our parasha is the lineage of Abraham's son Ishmael.
With this parashah we conclude the first Jewish generation. It opens with the death of Sarah at age 127 and concludes with the death of Abraham at age 175. (since Abraham was 9 years older than Sarah, he lived another 39 years after she died.)
As Abraham mourned for Sarah he needed to procure a final resting place. He negotiated with Ephron, a Hittite, for the purchase of the "Double Cave" in which to bury his wife. This purchase becomes the first land under Jewish ownership in the land of Israel. Eventually he will also be buried there along with his son Isaac and Rebecca and grandson Jacob and Leah. Only Rachel is not buried there. She is buried in Bethlehem. The Double Cave, sacred to all three monotheistic religions is located in Hevron.
After providing for Sarah, Abraham is determined to provide for his future, which means acquiring a wife for his son Isaac. He commissions his servant Eliezer to return to the land of Abraham's birth and find a wife for Isaac. Upon arrival Eliezer prays to God for help. Eliezer becomes the first person to offer words of prayer in the Torah. He meets Rebecca, who provides water from the well for Eliezer and his camels. She takes Eliezer home to meet her brother Laban and her mother. Eliezer proposes that he take Rebecca home to marry Isaac. Her family agrees and so does Rebecca. Her family blessed her with words that are still used today when a groom places the veil over his bride in the bedecken ceremony: "O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads." When they arrived, the Torah records that Isaac loved Rebecca. It is the first time that the word love is used to describe the relationship between a man and a woman.
Thereafter we learn that Abraham remarries a woman named Keturah and she gives birth to nine more children! Abraham left his estate to Isaac. When he died both Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father. The Torah reading concludes with the genealogy of Ishmael's descendants.
Our portion opens by announcing that Sarah, Abraham's wife was 127 years old when she died in Kiryat Arbah, i.e. Hebron. After Abraham mourned for her he must procure a grave site. He negotiates with the local population and after a fascinating back and forth dialogue, quite unusual for the Torah text, Abraham buys the first piece of property owned by Jews in Israel. This double cave is where all the patriarchs and matriarchs will be buried, except for Rachel who will be buried in Bethlehem.
Abraham, also elderly, then turns to the future and the need for a spouse for Isaac. He commissions his servant to return to his homeland and find an appropriate partner for Isaac. With 10 camels the servant heads out to Aram Naharaim and prays for guidance at the well there. Rebekah, who is very beautiful, miraculously appears at that moment. She generously provides water for not only the servant, but his camels as well. Still not sure he asks Rebekah various questions and asks if there is room at her home for him to spend the night. Laban, Rebekah's brother is impressed with the servants apparent opulence. The servant describes his mission to them and his prayer for success. Rebekah appears to be the answer to his prayers. The mother and brother gave their permission for Rebekah to go and Rebekah is also asked as to her willingness. She returned to Canaan with the servant. When they met, "Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her and thus found comfort after his mother's death."
The last chapter of the parashah tell so f Abraham's death. He first marries another wife, Keturah and has 6 more children with her! Abraham live to the age of 175. His two sons Isaac and Ishmael came to bury him in the same cave with Sarah.
The central focus of this week's Parshat haShavua is the end of the first Hebrew generation and providing for the next.
Though the name of the parasha, Hayyei Sara translates as the life of Sara, it tells us that the life of Sara came to 127 years. Her death prompted not just mourning, but her husband Abraham to seek a proper sepulcher for her. He spoke to local Hittite population offering to buy land that was owned by an individual named Ephron. In all graciousness he offered to give the desired land to Abraham in order to bury his wife. Abraham insists that he wishes to purchase the land. Ephron generously proclaims, "A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver-what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead." Abraham proceeds to pay the exorbitant price of 400 shekels in order to bury Sara. This becomes the first piece of property owned by Jews in the land of Israel.
Eventually Abraham himself will be buried there, as will eventually Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. The spot became known as the Ma'arat haMakhpelah, the Double Cave, and still is a place of pilgrimage in the town of Hevron, in the southern part of the West Bank.
Abraham himself no youngster at age 136, immediately embarks on providing for the future, the main task being the acquisition of a wife for his son Isaac. He sends his servant Eliezer to the land of Abraham's birth to find an appropriate mate. He instructs Eliezer that he must not take Isaac back to that land, but must bring a mate to this land promised by God.
Once in Aram-naharaim, Eliezer prays to God for good fortune and for a sign from God that he has found the appropriate woman. At the well he meets Rebecca, who not only provides water for him but for his camels as well. Convinced that she is perfect mate for Isaac, he follows her home to meet her family. He meets her brother Laban, who we will meet again in the adventures of Jacob. Eliezer explains his mission at length and his meeting Rebecca. He presented the family with many gifts. Finally Rebecca is consulted, "Will you go with this man?" And she said, "I will." Upon departure they blessed her saying, "O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads." These words continue to be used at weddings when the groom places the veil over his bride in the bedekken ceremony. Isaac and Rebecca were subsequently married.
Abraham takes another wife named Keturah. She bears six additional children, from whom there were additional descendants. But Abraham willed all of his possessions to Isaac and gave gifts to his other children while he was still alive. Abraham died at the age of 175. It should be noted that both Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father in the cave where Sarah was buried.
Our Torah portion ends with the lineage of Ishmael's children and descendants.
Our Parashah opens by informing us that "This is the story of Isaac", but in reality it is the opening of the epic story of Jacob. Born after his twin brother Esau much of our Parashah is dedicated to describing the younger superseding the older. Already struggling in the womb Rebecca receives an oracle informing her that "the older will serve the younger." As they were growing up famished Esau willingly sold his birthright to his younger twin for a bowl of soup.
And near the end of our parashah Rebecca conspires with her favorite Jacob to trick her blind husband Isaac into giving Jacob the prized blessing of the first born rather than Esau. We read later in the Torah the law of primogeniture, the special rights and privileges that are conferred upon the first born male, but again and again in the Torah the younger child is preferred.
When Esau learns that Jacob has stolen what is rightfully his, he threatens to kill his brother. Rebecca urges Jacob to flee to her brother Laban in Haran and to remain there until Esau's fury cools. She was also unhappy with Esau's choice of Hittite wife and by sending him to her home hoped he would fall in love with someone more acceptable.
"This is the story of Isaac," is how this week's Parashah opens, but in essence it is the beginning of the story of his more famous son Jacob.
We learn of the struggle even in the womb between Jacob and his older twin brother Esau. An oracle informs Rebecca that "the older will serve the younger". Growing up Esau became a hunter while Jacob was a "mild man who stayed in camp." Starving from the hunt, Esau sold his birthright (special privileges that accrue to the first born) for a bowl of soup.
Time passes as we read of the adventures of Isaac during a famine when he and Rebecca went to Avimelekh in the land of Gerar. Isaac like his father before him tells the locals that Rebecca is his sister. When Avimelekh understands that she is his wife, he berates Isaac. Isaac remains in Gerar where he digs wells. Moving to Beer-sheva Isaac has a vision of God who promises to bless him and his offspring.
When Isaac became blind he sought to bless his children, giving the special blessing of the first to Esau, who was his favorite. However at Rebecca's instigation, Jacob deceives his father claiming to be Esau and receiving the blessing of the first born from their father. When Esau realized what Jacob had done in stealing the blessing, Esau threatens to kill his brother. Fearing for Jacob's life Rebecca sends Jacob away to her brother Laban.
This is the only Torah portion in which the patriarch Isaac is the central focus and even here, one could argue that he is not the main character.
After 20 years of marriage, Rebecca, Isaac's wife remains barren. Isaac prays n her behalf and she becomes pregnant with twins. Their struggle in her womb already foretells what will follow after birth. Rebecca consulting an oracle is told that the children will lead competing nations and the older will serve the younger. Esau emerges first with Jacob holding on to his heal.
Esau took to hunting and became his father's favorite which Rebecca favored Jacob who "was a mild man who stayed in the camp." When Esau came in from the hunt and requested some of Jacob's soup, he was so desperate that he willingly transferred his birthright in exchange.
While the children were growing up we read about Isaac, who like his father before him identified his wife as his sister, because he was afraid that the men of Gerar would kill him, since Rebecca was so beautiful. When the Philistine king saw Isaac fondle his wife, he chided Isaac for lying. The king criticizes Isaac for potentially putting guilt upon one of the people who might have lain with her. Isaac remained in the land and dug anew the wells that had been dug in the days of his father. When water was discovered, Isaac's men and the men of Gerar argued over ownership.
Isaac goes to Beersheva where God appears to him, making similar promises to Isaac that God made to Abraham. The King of Gerar realizing that God is with Isaac comes to make a treaty with him.
Returning to his family elderly and nearly blind Isaac asks Esau to hunt and prepare a meal for him so that Isaac might give him the blessing of the first born. Rebecca overhearing Isaac and Esau, urges Jacob to take Esau's place. She instructs Jacob and prepares the requested meal, disguising Jacob as Esau. Jacob entered his father's room introducing himself as Esau. Isaac knowing that Esau has rough hands and the smell of the hunt, he has his son come closer. Wearing something rough, Isaac declares, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau."
Was Isaac really deceived or did he allow himself to be deceived? The text is ambiguous. Nevertheless he gives Jacob the blessing of the first born. After Jacob departs, Esau enters with his prepared meal. Isaac announces that he has already given the blessing to another. Esau began sobbing and begged his father for an additional blessing. He too receives a blessing , but is told that the first blessing makes his brother master over him.
Esau was angry because of the blessing and resolves to kill Jacob. When Rebecca hears of Esau's determination to get revenge, she urges Jacob to flee to here brother Laban in Haran.
Focus on a new generation as our Torah reading opens: Eleh Toldot Yitzhak/ This is the story of Isaac. However the real center of attention is upon Isaac and Rebekah’s children, Esau and Jacob.
Following years unable to conceive, Rebekah becomes pregnant. So tumultuous was her pregnancy, that she inquired of God, who revealed to her that she would give birth to twins who would each become a national leader predicted that the older would serve the younger. Esau was born first followed by Jacob who was holding on to his older brother’s heal.
Esau became a hunter while Jacob remained at home. Isaac favored Esau while Rebekah favored Jacob. Returning home famished Esau asked his brother Jacob for some stew that Jacob was cooking. Jacob asked for Esau to transfer his birthright in return. Esau agreed spurning his birthright.
During a famine Isaac, similar and perhaps a rehearsal of a previous story, took refuge with Avimelech, king of the Philistines in Gerar. When the men there asked about his wife, Isaac claimed she was his sister, afraid of what the men might do to him. Some time later Avimekech spied Isaac fondling Rebekah and realized she was in deed his wife. Avimelech strongly rebuked Isaac, since by not elling the truth one of his men might have lain with his wife and brought sin upon them all.
Isaac prospered and although the Philistines stopped up the wells that Abraham had dug, Isaac re-dug them. The herdsmen claimed the well water was theirs and Isaac moved on, digging a third well at a place he named Rehoboth. God appeared to Isaac, promising him blessing and descendants. Avimelech comes from Gerar, seeing that God is with Isaac in order to offer him a Brit/ treaty of mutual support. Isaac’s servant dug yet another well that they named Shibah, in the place that came to be known as Beer Sheva.
The final episode of our Torah portion details the famous story of how Jacob deceitfully acquires the special blessing intended for the first born from his father at the instigation of his mother. In a series of successive scenes each involving two of the four primary characters: a blind Isaac, his scheming wife Rebekah, the rightful recipient Esau and the one who actually receives the blessing Jacob--Isaac gives the blessing intended for Esau to Jacob.
The reader can only feel the pathos of Esau when he learns that the blessing has been given to his younger twin and “burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Bless me too father!’” Esau was so angry at having lost the blessing to Jacob that he threatened to kill Jacob. Learning this Rebekah instructs Jacob to flee to her brother Laban in Haran until Esau’s anger subsides.
This parashah could well be named: Jacob matures. Escaping his threatening brother Esau and feeling very much alone, Jacob dreams seeing a staircase with angels ascending and descending. There he feels the presence of God and acknowledges Divine protection, declaring, "God was in this place and I did not know."
He proceeds on to his uncle Laban where he falls in love with his cousin Rachel. Agreeing to work for seven years to for her hand, he is deceived and marries her older sister, Leah. He agrees to work for another seven years for Rachel. (Later Biblical law which permits polygamy prohibits marrying sisters.) Jacob subsequently continues to work for Laban acquiring sheep and goats. His wives and their handmaids also provide him with 12 sons and at least one daughter, Dina.
Feeling increasingly uncomfortable in his father-in-law's home, Jacob resolves to return home. His wives agree and they depart surreptitiously. Laban chases after them, but eventually wishes them well and Jacob, his family and possessions continue on their way home.
Having cheated his brother Esau from receiving the blessing of the first born, Jacob flees for his life. He travels from Beer Sheva to Haran, home of his uncle Laban. Terrified and alone he has a dream envisioning angels ascending and descending a ladder/stairway. He hears God's voice promising him that the land he is leaving will be his descendant's heritage and that the nations will bless themselves by him and his descendants. God promises Jacob protection. Jacob recognized in his loneliness that even here God was present.
Jacob continues to Haran where he immediately falls in love with his cousin Rachel. Paying the agreed upon brideprice of 7 years labor, the trickster is tricked and he is married to Rachel's sister, Leah. He agrees to work for another 7 years in order to marry Rachel as well.
God saw that Leah was unloved and therefore allowed her to conceive, while Rachel remained childless. Leah bears 4 sons in quick succession. Envious Rachel encouraged Jacob to impregnate her maid, Bilhah. She also bears two sons as does Leah's maid Zilpah. Desperate Rachel acquires mandrakes, thought to be aphrodisiacs, from Leah. Leah however conceives giving birth in succession to two more sons. Finally Rachel too conceives and gives birth to Joseph.
Though Jacob is ready to return home, he agrees to tend Laban's cattle and flocks in return for every new speckled and spotted animal. He works for another 6 years somehow manipulating the births such that many are born with speckles and spots. Jacob grew prosperous as Laban's sons became increasingly jealous.
Recognizing trouble ahead Jacob decides to return to Canaan. His wives are in agreement. Prior to secretly departing, Rachel steals her father's idols. Realizing that they have departed, Laban tracks them down, asking why they left without saying goodbye and wanting his idols returned. Jacob pleads innocent and urges Laban to search the camp. Rachel hides the idols in a camel cushion and sits on them. When Laban enters she claims "the period of women is upon me."
Eventually Laban wishes them well and departs.
Having deceived his father and stolen the blessing that rightfully belonged to his older twin, Esau, Jacob flees his home in Beersheva and set out or Haran, home of his uncle Laban. Alone and abandoned in the wilderness, Jacob lies down to sleep. There he sees a vision of a ladder with angels going up and down and hears God's voice. God promises to assign this land to him and his offspring. God tells him that his descendants will be as many as the dust of the earth and will spread out in all directions. The nations of the earth will bless themselves through Jacob and is descendants. God promises to protect Jacob and return him to the land.
Awake, Jacob expresses his amazement and surprise at what he had seen and heard and declares, "Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!" He marks the spot and names if Bethel/ House of God. Based on God's promise to Jacob, Jacob vows loyalty to God.
Arriving in Haran he meets Rachel, Laban's daughter, and assists her in watering her flock. Jacob is welcomed into Laban's home. Jacob agrees to work for Laban for the right to marry his daughter Rachel. When the time comes for marriage, Jacob, the deceiver is deceived and is married off to Rachel's older sister Leah. He agrees to work for his sneaky uncle for another seven years in order to marry Rachel as well.
Unloved nevertheless Leah conceives and bears four children in succession. Rachel who is barren gives Jacob her handmaiden with hopes that she will have children through Bilhah. Bilhah gives birth to two sons and not to be outdone, Leah provides Jacob with her handmaiden who also gives birth to two sons. Leah continues to conceive and gives birth to yet two more sons and a daughter. Only then did Rachel conceive and bore Joseph.
After six more years in which Jacob's pay is calculated in the number of streaked and spotted cows and goats. Jacob devises a system so that most of the cows and goats that are born are streaked and spotted. Laban's sons became jealous. So Jacob decides that after 20 years under his uncle/father-in-law's roof it is time to return home. Jacob with is wives, children and cattle depart without notice.
In a curious epilogue, Rachel steals her father's gods. Laban chases after Jacob claiming he is upset that they left without word and accusing him of stealing his household gods. Jacob pleads innocence and invites Jacob to search the camp. Rachel successfully hides the gods so that they are not found. Finally Laban is satisfied, kisses all and wishes his family well.
Jacob flees home after his brother Esau threatens to kill him for deceiving their father in order to receive the blessing of the first born, rightfully belonging to Esau. On his way to Haran, alone and afraid, Jacob encounters God. While sleeping he has a vision of a stairway with angels ascending and descending. God stood beside him and promised to protect him, that the land would be his and that he would have many descendants. “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.” When Jacob awoke he famously proclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Jacob vows that if God will protect him on his journey, that he would revere God.
Arriving in Haran he meets his cousin Rachel at the well. He kissed her and cried. Jacob and Laban, Jacob’s uncle, agreed that if Jacob worked for 7 years he could marry Laban’s daughter. However when the time for marriage came, Laban switched daughters and had Jacob marry his older daughter Leah, explaining that they always marry off the oldest daughter first. Jacob worked for Laban another seven years in order to marry Rachel as well.
Leah gave birth to four children: Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Judah, but Rachel could not conceive. Envious of her sister, Rachel gave Jacob her maid Bilhah, so that she would provide Jacob with children from her. Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah, not to be outdone gave Jacob her maid Zilpah and from her were born Gad and Asher. Leah herself gave birth to two more sons, Issachar and Zevulun and a daughter whom she named Dinah.
Finally Rachel also conceived and she bore a son named Joseph. When Jacob asked permission to return home Laban suggested he stay and receive as payment every speckled and spotted animal from the herd and flock. Soon Jacob owned most of Laban’s holdings and he was resented, so he suggested to his wifes that it was time to escape. They were in agreement.
They left at night. Rachel also stole her father’s god’s. When Laban realized they had left and had stolen his gods, he chased them angry that they had not said goodbye and that they had stolen from him. Jacob pleaded innocence and permitted Laban to search his camp. Rachel hid the gods and Laban did not find them. Laban was satisfied, kissed them all, wished them well and returned home.
Having fled 20 years earlier from threats of his twin brother Esau after cheating Esau of his rightful blessing as first born son, Jacob decides it is time to return home. During those 20 years he acquired two wives, Leah and Rachel, 11 sons (Benjamin the youngest has not yet been born) and one daughter from his wives and their hand maidens, Bilhah and Zilpah. He has also amassed flocks of sheep and goats. We are told that he "grew exceedingly prosperous, and came to own large flocks, maidservants and menservants, camels and asses."
But he realizes that in returning home he must face his brother. He sends a delegation ahead of him with gifts to appease Esau, but hears that Esau is coming in his direction with 400 men. Jacob divides his family and holdings into two camps so that if one is attacked the other can escape. And Jacob prays to God for guidance and help. He then again attempted to appease his brother by sending waves of gifts.
All alone in one of the most significant episodes in the Torah, Jacob wrestles with a "man" through the night. When the "man" demanded that Jacob release him, Jacob asked for a blessing. At that the "man" tells Jacob that his name will henceforth by Israel, whose meaning he explains is the he "has striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed." It is based on this experience that that we claim that the name Israel means "God wrestler", a designation we claim proudly when we identify ourselves as the children of Israel. Was there a real man? Was this Jacob's own internal struggle, confronting his past? Was this an angel? All we have is the written text. The rest is up to us.
When Esau and Jacob finally meet, they embraced and kissed and wept, though the Midrash is skeptical an wonders whether is was a kiss/ neshika or a bite/ neshikha. Esau offers to accompany Jacob the rest of the way home, but Jacob demurs, claiming that his family and holdings travel at a very slow pace. Jacob returned to the town of Shekhem where he settled.
We then read the torrid story of Dinah, Jacob's daughter, raped by Shechem, a prince of the land. Holding her hostage he asks his father to negotiate with Jacob so that he might marry Dinah. The family agrees, provided all of the men are circumcised. On the third day when the men were in pain Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob's sons, slew all the men, seizing their flocks, herds, asses, wealth, children and wives which they took as captives and booty. It's a horrifying story which concludes with Jacob's criticism that such acts will make him odious among the inhabitants of the land. Their only defense is to respond, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?"
Jacob establishes an altar as instructed by God at Bethel in thanksgiving for all that God had done for him. Here was the place that God had been revealed to Jacob when he fled his home. Here again God affirms Jacob's change of name to Israel. Returning Rachel gives birth to her second son, Benjamin, but died in childbirth. Rachel was buried there in Bethlehem.
Our Torah reading ends by relating the death of Isaac at 180 and the extensive line of Esau, who married Canaanite wives. Esau settled in the hill country, known as Edom. From Esau were descended 11 clans.
The first half of this week's parashah focuses on the reconciliation between Jacob and his twin brother Esau. After cheating Esau from receiving the blessing of the first born, Jacob flees to his uncle Laban. He stays there 20 year, marrying, having children and accumulating holdings of his own. He now decides to return home never having healed the wound with Esau.
He hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. He is fearful not being able to appease Esau with entreaties and gifts. Jacob divides his camp into two, so that if one is attacked the other can escape and he remains alone. He prays to God for protection. In the middle of the night Jacob wrestles with a stranger. At day break the angel demands to be released. Jacob demands a blessing in return. In reply the stranger/angel changes Jacob's name to Israel, "for you have striven with beings divine and human, and you have prevailed". Thus many translate the name Israel as "God wrestler".
When Esau arrived, he ran to greet his brother as Jacob bowed to the ground. They embraced and kissed and wept. Esau asks about Jacob's entourage and is introduced to Jacob's family. Esau again refuses Jacob's gifts, but Jacob insists. Esau offers to accompany Jacob home, but Jacob declines. Jacob eventually arrives in Shechem.
Chapter 34 is a complete novella telling the story of the ravishing of Jacob's daughter, Dinah. This is the episode that author Anita Diamant transformed into a love story in "The Red Tent". The Biblical story concludes brutally with two of Jacob's sons slaughtering the males who had agreed to be circumcised in order for Shechem, the prince to marry Dinah. Jacob is humiliated by their violent act.
God tells Jacob to go up to Beth El and build an altar there in the place where Jacob stayed when he fled from Esau. He is told to purify hiself and rid himself of alien gods. There God blesses Jacob, promising that he will be fertile and inherit the land promised to Abraham and Isaac. On the way home Rachel gives birth to her second son, Benjamin, but she dies in childbirth and is buried in Bethlehem.
We are further told of the death of Deborah, Rebecca's nurse and of the patriarch Isaac and the parashah concludes by providing us with the lineage of Esau.
Following an absence of 20 years wherein Jacob worked for his uncle Laban, married both of his daughters, fathered 11 sons and a daughter, acquired herds of cattle and goats, it is time for Jacob to return home. Jacob had deceived his father and stolen the blessing of the first born from his older twin Esau. Esau threatened to kill him and Rebecca sent him away.
Now on his way home, Jacob learns that Esau is coming toward him with 400 men. In efforts to placate his brother he sends gifts and he divides his camp, so that if some are attacked the others might escape. He prays to God for help and left alone at night he struggles with a "man". Before departing Jacob demands a blessing. The man/angel tells a now mature Jacob that his name will henceforth be Israel, because he has striven with God and man. It is based on this story that we think of ourselves as "God wrestlers"
When Esau finally arrives, instead of a confrontation, they embrace and kiss, though the rabbis question how sincere the reconciliation is from Esau's point of view. Though Esau offers to assist Jacob in his move, Jacob refuses claiming that with children, etc. they will move rather slowly.
In the next chapter we are told of the rape of Dinah by Shechem. Shechem encourages his father Hamor to speak to Jacob so that he might marry Dinah. Jacob's son's agree that if Hamor and his people circumcise themselves, they can intermarry. However when they undergo this operation, Simon and Levy, two of Jacob's sons slaughter the men and bring their sister home. Jacob is furious at their behavior, but they claim that they could not tolerate their sister being treated as a prostitute.
God tells Jacob to have all the people rid themselves of their alien gods. God makes a similar promise to Jacob that he made to Abraham and to Isaac. He would be fertile and increase, become the father of a great nation and receive the land as an inheritance.
Finally we read that Rachel gives birth to her second son, Benjamin, but dies in childbirth and was buried in Bethlehem. We also read that at the age of 180 Isaac too dies. He was gathered to his kin at a ripe old age.
Having run away from home after cheating his older twin brother out of receiving the blessing of the first born, Jacob now begins his return journey following an absence of 20 years. He sends a message of greeting to his brother Esau, who prior to departure had threatened to kill him. He is justifiably terrified when he hears that Esau is coming toward him with 400 men. Jacob prays to God for help. He sent gifts to placate Esau.
Jacob divided his camp in two so that one might escape if the other is attacked and during the night is left alone.
During the night he wrestles with a man/angel until dawn. When the man asked to be released, Jacob demands a blessing. The man changes Jacobs name to Israel, because he has "striven with beings divine and human".
When they finally met, Esau rather than approaching with violent intent, embraces his brother, kissed him and they wept. Esau is amazed at Jacob's huge family. Esau rejects all the gifts Jacob has offered as a peace offering, but with additional urging finally accepts. Jacob returned to the town of Shechem.
The narrative is interrupted with the story of Jacob's daughter Dinah, raped by Shechem, son of King Hamor. When Shechem claims that he wants to marry Dinah, Hamor negotiates with Jacob and part of the bargain is that all of King Hamor's men will undergo circumcision. When the men were in pain due to the surgery, two of Dinah's brothers, Simeon and Levi, enter the town and slaughtered all the males. Jacob is horrified by their behavior, but they feel justified, claiming, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?"
Subsequently we read of the deaths of three individuals: 1. Deborah, Rebecca's nurse, 2. Rachel in giving birth to her second son Benjamin, and 3. Isaac, the elderly patriarch.
In order to conclude the story of Esau, our parashah ends with a list of all of his descendants.
With this week we open the final and greatest epic of the book of Genesis, I.e. the Joseph story. In this week's episode Joseph's jealous brothers sell him into slavery. As a ervant in the house of Egyptian minister Potiphar he is accused of attempting to seduce Potiphar's wife. He is thrown in jail. There he interprets the dreams of the chief butler and baker, but is forgotten and left to languish.
This week's Torah reading begins the epic Joseph story which will continue over the next 4 weeks to the conclusion of the Book of Genesis. Many have declared the Joseph story to be the best story in all of Biblical literature. Thomas Mann thought so highly of it that he wrote a quartet, a four volume novel together titled "Joseph and His Brothers". It is without question a favorite of mine.
Joseph, son of Jacob's favorite wife Rachel, is given a coat of many colors by his father as a symbol of his favoritism. At age 17 and with 10 older brothers Joseph relates his dreams of grandeur, symbolizing his family's future subservience to him, which only serves to further infuriate his siblings. Jacob remained mindful of this issue.
However when the brothers had gone off to shear the sheep, Jacob sends Joseph to spy on them and bring back a report. When the brothers see him they consider killing him. Instead they throw him in a pit. He is sold to merchants on their way to Egypt. The brothers take the coat, dip it in blood and tell their father that this is what they found on the way. Jacob is convinced Joseph has been killed by wild animals and he mourns. The merchants sell Joseph to a courtier of Pharaoh named Potiphar.
Chapter 38 is an interruption in the Joseph story relating the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah, one of Joseph's older brothers, marries his oldest son, Er, to Tamar. When Er dies mysteriously and childless, in accordance with law, Tamar is married off to Er's brother, Onan. When Onan dies, Judah tells Tamar to wait until the next son Shua can marry her. In the interim he forgets her. Wanting to carry on the family name she disguises herself as a harlot and Judah sleeps with her not knowing who she is. When he learns that she is pregnant he calls for her to be burned! When she is brought out she has Judah's seal and cord announcing that she is pregnant by the owner of these pieces of identification. Judah understands what she has done and declares Tamar more righteous than he. Tamar gives birth to twins Perez and Zerah.
Meanwhile Joseph is successful as a servant in Potiphar's home until such time as Potiphar's wife attempts to seduce him. Joseph flees, but Potiphar's wife accuses him of sexually attacking her. Joseph is sent to jail.
Joseph meets two fellow inmates who each have dreams. He interprets the dream of the chief butler that Pharaoh will restore him to his former position. When the former chief baker hears such a positive interpretation he tells Joseph of his dream as well. Joseph informs the chief baker that he will soon be hanged. When the butler is returned to his position, Joseph has him pledge that he will remember him. However as soon as he leaves prison and serves Pharaoh, he forgets Joseph who remains languishing in prison at the conclusion of this week's parashah.
The final four parshiyot of the book of Genesis relate the epic story of Joseph, without question the very best Biblical narrative. Thomas Mann, the famous German writer, was so fascinated by the story that he published his retelling as a quartet.
Our story begins with a young Joseph, who as his father's favorite is given a "coat of many colors" striking envy and hatred in the hearts of his 10 older siblings. Joseph dreams dreams of grandeur which he relates to his family. His father criticizes him for his obvious arrogance.
Some time later when his brothers went to shear the sheep, Jacob sent Joseph to see how they were doing. As he approaches they consider killing him, but decide to throw him into a pit. He is then sold to traders making their way to Egypt. They return home with Joseph's coat torn and dipped in blood, telling their father that they found the coat along the way. Believing Joseph dead, Jacob mourns his great loss.
Interrupting the narrative is the isolated story of Judah and Tamar. Judah's son Er was married to Tamar. When Er died it became his brother Onan's responsibility to marry his brother's widow. Onan too dies, leaving the youngest son, Shelah. As the year's past Judah neglects to marry Tamar to Shelah. Instead Tamar disguised as a harlot sleeps with Judah. When it becomes known that she is pregnant, Judah is determined to have her executed. When she proves that Judah himself is the father, he admits, "She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah". The purpose to the leverite marriage is to preserve the name of the deceased son. Thus Tamar was more determined to preserve the name of her first husband than her father-in-law. She gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.
In Egypt Joseph is sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh's chief steward. He is successful and is put in charge of Potiphar's household. Potiphar's wife attempts to seduce Joseph, but he refuses. Instead she accuses him of attacking her. As a result Joseph is put in prison.
There he meets two prisoners, Pharaoh's chief butler and baker. They each have dreams. Joseph interprets that the chief butler will be returned to his former position, but the chief baker will be executed. All occurs as Joseph predicts. He asks the chief butler to remember him languishing in prison. But the butler soon forgets him.
Stay tuned for the next installment.
The book of Genesis can easily be divided into four distinct parts: I. Pre-Israelite-Creation up to the generation of Abram. II. Abraham III. Jacob and IV. Joseph.
Pashat Vayeshev forms the opening salvo of this final section, the epic of Joseph, one of the most beautiful stories in all of Biblical literature.
These chapters explain how the small Hebrew clan in Canaan, comes to dwell in Egypt, arriving as the guests of the powerful Viceroy of the most powerful country on earth at that time, protected and provided with a special geographical area of Goshen where they could continue to live as shepherds. It sets the scene for what is to follow in the book of Exodus when a new king arises who knew not Joseph and finds these non-Egyptian residents a threat.
However the story begins with Joseph at the age of 17 as the second youngest of 12 brothers and the oldest child of their father Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin, Joseph’s only full sibling. Joseph is favored by his father and is envied and hated by his half siblings. His dreams of grandeur only make matters worse.
When far away from home the brothers take the opportunity to sell Joseph to merchants heading to Egypt and return to their father with a bloodied torn coat that they claim to have found along the way. Jacob mourns the loss of his favorite child.
The epic is interrupted with a fascinating and important episode about Judah, one of the older siblings, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Following the death of Tamar’s first two husbands, Judah’s sons, he neglects his duty according to custom to marry her off to his youngest. She disguises herself as a harlot where she knows she will meet Judah, who does not recognize her. When Judah hears that Tamar is pregnant, he determines that she must die. However when she can prove that he is the father, he concludes, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her my son Shelah”. She gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerach. (Perez we learn much later is the ancestor of Boaz, who marries Ruth and from them King David is descended.)
Meanwhile Joseph is sold to Potiphar, a courier of Pharaoh, where he becomes a trusted servant. Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce the handsome Joseph. When he refuses, she accuses him of sexually attacking her. Potiphar has Joseph imprisoned. There Joseph meets Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and baker as fellow prisoners. They have dreams which Joseph interprets to mean that the cupbearer will be returned to his post, but the baker will be executed. Joseph requests that the cupbearer mention him to Pharaoh when he is returned to his former position, but the cupbearer instead forgot about him.
Underlying every aspect of the Joseph story is the role of God. Ostensibly God is not an active player, certainly not as directly involved as God was in all of the earlier chapters of Genesis. In our Parashah God is only referred to three times: 1. When Joseph served Potiphar, the text simply states that Joseph’s success was due to God’s presence with him, a fact that even Potiphar recognized, granting Portiphar much success. 2. In prison we learn that God was with Joseph disposing the chief jailer kindly toward him. 3. Joseph attributes his ability to interpret the other prisoner’s dreams to God.
Nonetheless, it is clear that God is overseeing all the events as they play out. When Joseph seeks his brothers when they are shearing the sheep, an anonymous man appears to redirect him. This unnecessary detail in the story, say several of the traditional commentators of the text, is our hint that God’s will cannot be thwarted. The man, they claim, is none other than the angel Gabriel, who was placed there by God, because it was God’s plan for the envious brothers to sell him to the merchants. All this raises the perennial question of destiny and free will.
Maftir Numbers 7:48-53 for Shabbat Hanukah
This is the second installment of four in the fabulous Joseph story. Our first installment concluded with Joseph having been falsely accused of seducing his master's wife languishing in prison.
Our Torah reading this week opens with Pharaoh having dreams which no one can interpret to Pharaoh's satisfaction. The chief butler informs Pharaoh that there was a certain Israelite in prison who correctly interpreted his dream. Joseph is brought before Pharaoh and predicts that Pharaoh's dreams mean that Egypt with enjoy seven prosperous years followed by seven years of famine and want. Impressed Pharaoh elevates Joseph to viceroy and grants him power to prepare for the seven bad years. Joseph organizes the economy storing supplies during the years of plenty as well as marrying the daughter of an Egyptian priest and fathering two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim.
When the seven years of famine commence, Pharaoh sends the people to Joseph who rationed grain for the people. The famine affected the entire region.
Noting the availability of grain in Egypt Jacob sends his ten sons to procure food keeping the youngest Benjamin at home. When they arrive they do not recognize their brother Joseph whom they had sold into slavery. He accuses them of being spies and in pleading their innocence explain that they are 12 sons of one man...one remains with their elderly father and one is no more...
Joseph provides then with their requested supplies but tells them they must prove they are not spies by bringing their youngest sibling on their next trip. When the food ran out they told Jacob they could not return without Benjamin. Jacob is reluctant to comply, acknowledging that without Joseph Benjamin is the only remaining connection to his deceased wife Rachel. But he finally relents.
When Joseph sees his brother Benjamin he almost loses composure. However he invites these terrified siblings to join him for a meal. As their bags are being packed Joseph has his Egyptian Divining Cup put in Benjamin's sack. After the brother's depart Joseph sends a group to accuse the brothers of theft. They again pledge innocence and promise that if such a cup is found in their possession that individual would die and the rest would become the viceroy's slaves. Imagine their shock when the cup was found in Benjamin's sack.. They rent their clothes in mourning and returned to Egypt. Judah offers them all as slaves, but Joseph tells them he will only keep Benjamin and the rest can return home to their father.
As a Special Maftir on Shabbat Chanukah we read as we do each day of Chanukah from the description of the dedication of the sanctuary in the desert. Since Hanukah celebrates a re-dedication of the Temple, the Torah reading connects us with the original dedication.
The main Torah reading, however, continues the story of Joseph. As Joseph languishes in prison Pharaoh has two dreams for which none of his magicians can offer an acceptable interpretation. The chief butler hesitatingly informs Pharaoh that when he was in prison a young Hebrew was particularly astute at dream interpretation. Brought before Pharaoh, Joseph interprets that Pharaoh's dreams foretell that seven prosperous years will be followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh is convinced of the rightness of Joseph's interpretation and at the tender age of 30 appoints him viceroy, in charge of the Egyptian economy. Joseph uses the seven years of plenty to procure and store food.
We also learn that Joseph married and fathered two children, Manasseh and Ephraim.
The seven years of famine affected not just Egypt, but "the entire world". Jacob sends ten of his sons to Egypt to procure food, keeping the youngest Benjamin at home with him. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. Joseph accused them of being spies. In proclaiming their honesty, they claim to be ten sons of one man, with the youngest left behind and one who is no more! Joseph tells them that the only way they can prove that they are not spies is to produce the remaining son, who Joseph knows is his only full sibling. He imprisons them for three days and then releases them, retaining only Shimon. Reuben tells his brothers that this is happening to them because of what they did to Joseph, not knowing that Joseph hears what they are saying. Joseph turned away and wept.
When they returned home they explained what had happened to them in Egypt. Jacob is bereft, first losing Joseph, now Shimon and now they want Benjamin! Reuben offers himself as a security for Benjamin., but Jacob does not want to release Benjamin.
When the famine becomes ever more severe, and they request to take Benjamin with them, Jacob cries out in pain asking why they told the Egyptian that they heven had another brother. When Judah asks that Jacob release Benjamin into his care, Jacob relents. He encourages them to take gifts for the man in Egypt and he prays for their safe return.
They returned to Egypt. When Joseph saw Benjamin he had his servants prepare a banquet in his home. The brothers were frightened, pleading that they only came to procure food. They gave Joseph the gifts that they brought with them. He asked about their father. After he welcomed Benjamin he was overcome with emotion and left the room. They were fed, but Benjamin was fed more than the others.
Joseph instructed his servant to place his diving cup in Benjamin's bag. After the brothers departed, Joseph had his men overtake them and charge them with theft. They of course pleaded innocence, claiming that if the cup were found among them that sibling would be put to death and they would serve their Egyptian master forever. The cup was found in Benjamin's bag. Returning to Joseph they fell on their faces in contrition. They offered themselves as slaves, but Joseph said he only would keep the son in whose possession the cup was found. He tells them to return home to their father.
Stay tuned for Parshat Vayigash next week.
2010 (Shabbat Chanukah)
Our Torah reading this week is the second of four installments on the Joseph epic. Joseph languishes in prison having been falsely accused of attacking Potiphar's wife. After correctly interpreting Pharaoh's chief butler and baker's dreams, he asks the butler not to forget him, but he does.
He does until Pharoah has dreams which no one can interpret. Joseph is brought before Pharaoh and informs Pharaoh that his dreams mean that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of drought. Pharaoh places Joseph in charge of his economy in order to use the seven good years to prepare for the seven lean years.
During the second of the lean years 10 of Joseph's brothers come to Egypt to procure food. Not recognizing their brother, he accuses them of being spies. They plead innocence claiming that they are 12 sons of one man, one son remains with their father and one is no more. Joseph sends them home, telling them that the only way they can prove they are not spies is to bring their brother the next time they come to Egypt. That 11th brother is of course only full sibling.
When the time comes to return Jacob resists sending Benjamin with them, but finally agrees. When Joseph sees Benjamin he can hardly contain himself. He sent the brothers home with their supplies having inserted his Divining Cup in Benjamin's sack. Then he sends a group to intercept them to accuse them of theft. They again plead innocence. However the cup is found in Benjamin's sack. Though Benjamin is apparently the only guilty party, they all return to Egypt to confront once again the Viceroy of Egypt.
Joseph epic: part 2
Only when Pharaoh has dreams that no one can interpret does the chief cupbearer think of Joseph, who had properly interpreted his dream in prison. (He introduces the subject with what has become a very popular expression in Hebrew: Et Khata-ai Ani Mazkir Hayom/ Today I call to mind my own sins.
Joseph predicts that Egypt will experience 7 of plenty followed by 7 years of deprivation. Pharaoh, impressed with Joseph, makes him viceroy in charge of all the land of Egypt instructing him to organize the economy to prepare during the good years for the bad…advice we ourselves should have taken. This Joseph did storing grain and collecting produce in great abundance during the good years. Joseph also married Asenath, an Egyptian priest’s daughter and fathered two sons, Menasheh (God has made me completely forget my hardship and my parental home) and Ephraim (God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction). After the good years all of Egypt was told to “Go to Joseph; whatever he tells you, you shall do”.
Jacob instructed his sons to go to Egypt to buy food for the famine extended well beyond Egypt. The youngest brother Benjamin was left at home lest he meet with the same end that was thought to have killed Joseph. The borthers did not recognize Joseph in Egypt, but he recognized them. He accused them of having come to Egypt as spies. Pleading innocence they claimed to be twelve sons of one man, the youngest is with their father and “one is no more”! Joseph imprisons them for three days and then tells them that they will not be welcome in Egypt again unless they prove their innocence by bringing this youngest brother. They said among themselves, “We are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us”. Hearing this Joseph hid his tears, but in front of them bound their brother Shimon, whom he kept as hostage.
Jacob was distraught to hear what had happened in Egypt. Now he had lost two sons and the viceroy in Egypt now demanded a third. Jacob vowed not to allow Benjamin to join them. But the famine became severe. Jacob was angry with his sons that they had spoken of Benjamin. Judah finally convinces his father that he will be a surety for Benjamin.
Jacob agrees and has his sons take gifts to the viceroy. Joseph had the brothers taken into his private residence. The brothers feared this was a prelude to punishment. Shimon was returned to them. Joseph asked about their father. Seeing Benjamin Joseph had to excuse himself since he was overcome with emotion.
Joseph had his steward place his divining cup in Benjamin’s supply bag. After they departed he sent men to accuse them of theft of the divining cup. They of course pleaded innocence, offering that in whoever’s bag the cup be found be killed and the rest will be the viceroy’s servants. Though that would be just the viceroy determined that only the one in whose bag the cup will be found will become his servant, the rest will go free. The cup was then discovered in Benjamin’s bag.
They all returned to Egypt and threw themselves on the ground before Joseph. Judah spoke saying, “God has uncovered the crime of your servants.” They offered themselves as slaves, but Joseph told them that only Benjamin will remain. The rest should return to their father….
We left the brothers last week in a peck of trouble. Unbeknownst to the brothers Joseph had his Egyptian Divining Cup placed in Benjamin's bag. As soon as the brother's left Egypt on their way home, Joseph has his men stop the brothers and accuse them of theft. Convinced of their innocence they are dumbfounded when the Cup is found in Benjamin's sack. They are brought back to Joseph and Judah speaks.
Judah offers the most eloquent statement about the meaning of Benjamin to his father and the only remaining son of their father from his favorite wife. Joseph is no longer able to contain himself. He has everyone removed from the room and declares, "I am Joseph your brother. Is my father still well?" While still in shock he instructs his brothers to return to their father and bring their entire family to Egypt where he would oversee their care. He reassures the brothers that what they did was God's plan and that he would seek no revenge upon them. Pharaoh too hears of Joseph's family and extends and invitation.
The borthers return home to describe to their father all that had happened and that Joseph their brother was alive and viceroy of all of Egypt. At first Jacob did not believe them, but when he saw the entourage that accompanied them he resolved to go to Egypt to see his son.
Jacob and Joseph are reunited and Jacob has an audience with Pharaoh.
Our Torah portion concludes by describing Joseph's agrarian policies during the seven years of famine. From our modern point of view these policies are quite problematic. As the people become more dependent upon the supplies Joseph has accumulated during the good years, the people are required to sell all they have to Pharaoh. In effect he turns the entire country into tenant farmers who no longer own their land and work the land for Pharaoh.
"I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?" Joseph, who can no longer maintain his composure, asks as he reveals himself to his startled brothers.
This is the highlight of this week's parashah, but allow me to back up a bit. Last week's Parashat Miketz concluded with all the brothers brought before the Egyptian Viceroy who had already accused them of being spies, now caught red handed with the Viceroy's Diving Cup mysteriously found in the youngest brother, Benjamin's sack. (The cup have been purposely placed there at the order of the Viceroy himself.) They offer as one to become the Viceroy's servants. Joseph, whom they still do not recognize, tells them that he will only keep Benjamin and the rest should return home.
Our Parashah opens with the longest speech in the Torah, an appeal by Judah to accept Judah as a substitute for Benjamin, so that Benjamin can return to his father. He explains that Jacob's wife Rachel only bore two sons, one who was torn by a beast and Benjamin. If Benjamin does not return, their father will die in sorrow. He therefore offers himself in Benjamin's stead.
No longer able to contain his emotions, Joseph has his entourage removed, as he reveals his true identity to his brothers. He urges them not to reproach themselves for having sold him, because it was God who whose design it was to send him ahead of them. With five more years of famine, Joseph tells his brothers to return to their father and come to Egypt, where Joseph will provide for them.
When Pharaoh heard the news he had the brothers load wagons with supplies and return with their father and their families. They returned home and told their father that Joseph is alive and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. Jacob at first did not believe them, but when he heard the entire story he resolved to see his son before he dies. In Beer Sheva Jacob has a vision of God, who gives Jacob permission to go to Egypt. They settled in Goshen after Jacob has an emotional reunion with Joseph.
Joseph presented his father and family to Pharaoh, who greets them with great enthusiasm.
The remainder of the Parashah describes Joseph's agrarian policies during the years of famine. During the years of plenty, Joseph purchased food at bargain prices, because if was so plentiful. Now during scarcity Joseph sells the food back to the population at high prices because of scarcity. When they run out of money Joseph has the population sell him all of their possessions, so that by the end Pharaoh owns everything turning the population into tenant farmers.
In the meantime, Jacob's family settled in Goshen, acquired holdings, were fertile and increased greatly.
In terror the brothers are returned to Egypt. The Viceroy's Divining Cup was discovered in Benjamin's sack. Although only Benjamin is apparently guilty all the brothers now stand before the second most powerful man in all of Egypt.
Judah speaks an behalf of them all, pleading for Benjamin's release. In a powerful speech pleading that their father would never survive the loss of the only remaining son of his beloved wife, Judah offers himself in Benjamin's stead.
Unable to control himself any longer, Joseph has everyone withdrawn from the room and proclaims, "I am Joseph your brother. Is my father still alive?" The brothers were dumbfounded and could not speak. Joseph tries to calm the fears of his brothers, proclaiming that it was God who sent him to Egypt to save them. He urges them to return to their father and bring the entire family to Egypt where he will be able to provide for them and protect them. Only after embracing him were they able to speak.
Pharaoh received the news and reinforces the invitation. Wagons of supplies were prepared of clothing and silver and the best Egypt had to offer. When they told Jacob that Joseph was alive, he at first went numb, but when he saw all the wagons, he determined that he had to go to Egypt to see his son before he dies. God too encourages Jacob to leave Beer Sheva and go to Egypt. The family numbered 70 souls.
Jacob embraced his son and Joseph went to tell Pharaoh about their arrival, having prepared the land of Goshen for their settlement. Pharaoh meets with Jacob and some of his sons, inquiring about their occupation. Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is to which Jacob answers 130.
This parashah concludes with an extensive description of Joseph's agrarian policies during the remaining years of famine.
This third of four installments in the Joseph epic is also where the story reaches its climax when Joseph finally reveals his identity to the shock and amazement of his brothers.
The brothers have been returned to Egypt to face the viceroy, second only to Pharaoh himself, after having been caught with the viceroy’s diving cup in their brother Benjamin’s sack. The viceroy, i.e. Joseph has told the brothers that Benjamin will remain as his slave. The other brothers can return home to their father.
Our parashah opens with a long and beautiful speech by Judah, telling Joseph the story of their elderly father who has already accepted the death of one son and now he would die were he to learn that his youngest was enslaved in Egypt. Jacob had been reluctant to send Benjamin with the brothers altogether, but did so only because that was the condition upon which they could procure food. Therefore Judah offers himself as a substitute for his brother Benjamin.
Unable to restrain himself any longer, Joseph has all of his servants removed from the room. Joseph then said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” They were literally dumbfounded. Joseph goes on to explain that all this was part of God’s plan, so that he might save lives. He urges his brothers to hurray back to their father and tell him that God has made Joseph lord of all Egypt and that they should all come to live in Egypt since the famine has another 5 years to run. Pharaoh endorses Joseph’s invitation. Wagons of supplies were prepared to send back with the brothers.
The Torah says that when Jacob saw and heard, his heart went numb! When he finally believed them he said, “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.” The entire family set out from Beer Sheva and came to Egypt. They were settled in the land of Goshen, where Joseph met his father. After embracing, Jacob declared, “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.” Joseph then prepares his family to meet Pharaoh.
The parashah ends by describing Joseph’s agrarian policies in which he sold back the stored food to the people and in return nationalized everything in Egypt under the control of Pharaoh. By the end all the people had become nothing more than serfs to Pharaoh, a problematic policy which we are aware of from other historic situations.
The final portion in the book of Genesis.
"Hazak, Hazak, v'Nit'hazek/ Strength, Strength, May we be able to strengthen one another." Whenever we conclude one of the five books of the Torah, we ask the congregation to stand and proclaim: Hazak, Hazak.... And thus we will do tomorrow as our Bar Mitzvah concludes his Maftir. The exact origin of this custom may in fact be lost and therefore a number of various explanations have been offered. When all is said and done, nothing binds us together as Jews more than our connection to Torah. Whether we study the text as God's word, Divinely inspired or as a redacted text sown together over generations, its connective effect is the same. As such the Torah is our greatest source of unifying strength.
Parshat Va'yechi ties all the loose ends together and sets the stage for what follows. The epic of the Joseph story runs over four Parshiyot. Its ultimate purpose is to tell us how it is that the Jewish people had departed the Promised Land in Canaan and lived together in the land of Goshen in Egypt. It was Joseph who, because his brothers had sold him into slavery had miraculously and astonishingly become viceroy of Egypt and in charge of the entire Egyptian economy. There after much intrigue he reveals his identity to his brothers and with Pharaoh's encouragement invites his father and entire family to come to Egypt where they will live securely under Joseph's protection. Thus all of Israel is to be found living in Egypt when the book of Exodus opens.
Parshat Va'yekhi tells us about the deaths of both Jacob, who, after being reunited with Joseph, lives another 17 years, and Joseph himself. We are provided hints as to the change in the status of the Jews in the intervening years between the two deaths.
Hearing that his father is dying, Joseph visits Jacob. Jacob makes Joseph pledge not to bury him in Egypt, but to see to it that he is buried in the family sepulcher in Hevron. Joseph brought his two sons Menasheh and Ephraim to receive their grandfather's blessing. Jacob reminds Joseph of God's promise to assign the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession. Jacob takes Joseph's sons as his own and blesses them and by crossing his hands, offers the primary blessing to Ephraim, the younger of the two. When Joseph challenges his father's behavior, Jacob proclaims that he knows what he is doing and that in fact the younger shall be greater than the older. He blessed them with the blessing that we continue to say to our sons to this day: "May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh."
What follows is Jacob's testament, allowing his sons to hear his final words. He addresses each one individually, offering both blessings and curses as prophetic words as to their varied fates in the future. "Modern scholars view them as reflections of later historical reality."
When Jacob died, he was embalmed, and mourned throughout Egypt. Joseph appeals to Pharaoh to permit him to carry out his father's wishes. Pharaoh not only agrees, but provides an entourage to escort Jacob's body to Hevron. Great mourning continued at the burial.
When the brothers thought about the meaning of their father's death, they feared that Joseph would now seek revenge for their having sold him many years earlier. They claimed their father had urged them to seek forgiveness. Joseph assured them that he had no intent to harm them and repeated that although they sought his harm, God intended their actions for good.
Our portion closes with a description of Joseph's death. No entourage. No national mourning. Rather than a burial consistent with that of his father, he was to be buried in Egypt. However as a final request, Joseph asks that when Israel departs from Egypt that they take his bones with them for reburial in Israel. These changes from one death to the next may indicate the changes that had occurred in the status of the Jews in the intervening years. In the book of Exodus when the Israelite slaves depart from Egypt, we read that Moses collects Joseph's bones for the journey into the desert.
With this week we conclude the book of Genesis, the longest book of the Torah.
The Israelite clan under Jacob’s leadership have settled in the land. Jacob has been reconciled with his son Joseph. He lives another 17 years in Egypt, able to witness his grandchildren. But Jacob is an old man of 147 years and is about to die. He makes his powerful son Joseph promise not to bury him in Egypt, but to return his body to their ancestral sepulcher. Jacob speaks to each of his sons and then dies.
The brothers worry that now with their father dead Joseph will take vengeance upon them. He assures them that he has no such intention.
The last section tells us of the end of Joseph’s life. He has his family promise that when eventually they leave Egypt to not leave his remains, but to take them with them to the promised land.
Hazak Hazak, v’Nit-hazek