There’s a murky encounter between two strangers in the middle of the Joseph story. It comes at a pivotal moment in the drama of Joseph and his brothers, but it’s really weird and begs us to shed light on it.
If you don’t accept the story of miracles and divine intervention as the reason, then on sheer rational grounds it’s hard to explain why Pharaoh lets the Hebrew slaves go. When else in history has a powerful ruler let his slave population leave in the middle of a large public works project, one dedicated to his glorification, no less? Imagine the impact on the economy, let alone the damage to his public image and vanity.
If you do believe the central story has some roots in historical events – and accumulating archeological evidence shows some mysterious population emerged from somewhere to conquer Canaan around 1200 BCE – then what awesome event could possibly have compelled Pharaoh to submit to Moses’ demand to let his people go?
To delve the mystery, let’s look at the third plague, which is the first hint of victory for the Hebrews in their prolonged struggle against Pharaoh. Continue reading “The First Media Revolution in Egypt and the Finger of God”
רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי (Gen 45:28)
The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most novelistic passages in the Bible, filled with hidden motives, deep emotion, staged revelations, ambiguous plots and a happy – if portentous – ending. After Joseph finally reunites with the eleven brothers in Egypt after their kabuki, he can’t wait to see his father, so he sends his brothers back to fetch him.
The Bible lavishes ten verses on Pharaoh’s and Joseph’s eagerness to get all of the Hebrews to Egypt. They load donkeys and wagons with clothing and goods and gold to bring back the families and Joseph’s father, Jacob.
To sweeten the deal, they reserve the fattest part of Egypt to settle the whole tribe when they come – the land of Goshen down river towards the Nile delta where the soil is rich. We can spend a lot of time delving all their motives. The plain sense is that Joseph wants to see his father and secure the future of his family in Egypt, especially as they face a famine in Canaan also. Pharaoh is all too eager to secure the permanent service of his magical CEO Joseph and, perhaps, genuinely wants him to be completely comfortable. But we know how that goes for the Hebrews. We read the scene a little like a horror story when we know the ghost is lurking in the closet and we want to shout to the characters, “No! Don’t!”
For my son, Avraham Benjamin, who was born the first night of Chanukah.
This Chanukah in particular, 2019, Jews are struggling with the growing sense that it’s happening again. Less than eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is again on the rise in the West. I don’t need to recount the litany of current events and the fear they’re causing.
I find both succor and armor in Chanukah. The lights and prayers give not just psychic comfort and hope, but are the actual tools to resist the dark tide of history.
Here’s what I mean. On the first night of Chanukah we say a third prayer, the Shehecheyanu, thanking God for bringing us “to this time” (lazman hazeh). This prayer always gets me whenever I say it. Its message is for anyone: be grateful for all the things good and bad that occurred to you, because they brought you to this lovely intersection of fate. Every moment is a miracle.
The second prayer, recited every night over the candles, rhymes with this third. We say bazman hazeh – “in this time” – implying ‘this season on the calendar when we remember what God did for us on Chanukah 22 centuries ago’: letting one night’s worth of oil keep the lamps lit for eight nights after the Maccabees regained the Temple from the Greeks.
There’s a profound lesson in the prepositions, from bazman – in this season repeated every year – to lazman, to this very moment – this particular personal intersection of fate. We’re being told this isn’t just a nice commemoration of history. It’s still happening. We still are in history, or history is brought to our doorstep, at this very moment. That’s why we’re supposed to display the menorah, even putting it out in front of our homes for everyone to see.
“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
The biography of Joseph is a kind of familiar picaresque tale about a boy of hidden noble birth who is orphaned in the world, claws his way out of adverse circumstances, and rises to grandiose heroism, like Tom Jones. But the fabric of the text, the words of the original Hebrew, reveals a hidden warp and woof of hidden cross-references so intense that it feels like a transcendentally-talented artist of wordplay and allusion, a super John Donne or T.S. Eliot or James Joyce, wrote it. Continue reading “Uncloaking the Transcendent Textuality of the Torah”
Last week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews on campuses that receive federal funding, alongside other students of race, color or national origin. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.” It was actually two controversies for the price of one. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?
Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? Jews themselves debate it. Continue reading “What is a Jew? (short)”
This week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews, alongside other students of race, color or national origin on campuses that receive federal funding. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.” It was actually two controversies. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling. No comment). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?
This is a debate even among Jews: Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? The question is particularly poignant because whatever Jews are, they keep popping up on the stage of history for over 3500 years.
There is a document that defines the essence of Jewish identity, a charter for membership in the gang we call Jews, if you will. It’s called the Torah, and it insists it originates in a divine ideal of what people and the world can be. Jews call this concept “holiness,” but the word is too loaded. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that this document originates from God explains the transcendent power and persistence of Jewish identity, even among Jews who reject it. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds. The fact that this essence doesn’t fit any of the usual categories may also explain why Jews are also so persistently reviled and persecuted among other nations. Continue reading “Are Jews a race, religion, nation, ethnicity, tribe, or … what?”
On double rainbows in Noah
A few years ago, my daughter showed me a viral video of a stoned guy blissing out on a double rainbow in Yosemite. “It’s … it’s a double rainbow!” He moans. “Oh my G-d, oh my G-d,” he repeats over and over, “It’s so bright. Ohhhh, it’s so beautiful!” He breaks down in full-on sobbing, crying in a seizure of ecstasy. “What does it mean?” he asks, his mind blown.
I’m not sure, dude. But one thing you missed in your rapture is a curious phenomenon: look carefully and you can see that the colors of the second rainbow invert the usual order: VIBGYOR.
As early as 1520 or so, the Jewish sage Sforno[i] noted that even by his time, the double rainbow was already a cliché.
“Scientists have already tired of trying to explain why the various colors of the second rainbow appear in the opposite order of the colors in the original rainbow.”[ii]
Nonetheless, he uses it to explain the rainbow following Noah’s flood. Since the ordinary rainbow already existed at the time of Creation, Sforno reasons, the actual rainbow displayed after the Flood must be this second rainbow, a much rarer and more startling sight (as our ecstatic friend saw in Yosemite). The reverse order of the colors are a warning:
“When this rainbow appears it is high time to call people to order and to warn them of impending natural calamities unless they change their ways.”[iii]
Sforno’s insight made me think of another secret duality in Noah: there’s really not one but two floods in this weekly reading. I believe they’re connected. Continue reading “The Two Floods, Double Rainbows, and the Cosmic Limitations of Engineering”
Esau’s Clever Pun
Genesis doesn’t have many witticisms. It has ironic laughter (“What? Am I going to get pregnant at the age of 90?”) and defensive sarcasm (“What? Am I my brother’s babysitter?”) and passive aggression (“What’s 400 shekels between old friends like us?”). But witty wordplay is rare.
So it’s surprising that one of the more brooding and athletic characters, Esau the bloody hunter, gives us a great instance of eloquent punning, and in a moment of high drama, too. Continue reading “Jacob and the Cosmic If”
Jews in America are especially lucky on Thanksgiving. Who else gets a choice of turkey or brisket, stuffing or kishkes?
As the quintessential American holiday, it somehow also feels more Jewish than any other.
That may be because the very name “Jew” stems from the word for thanks (Judah). Or maybe because the first Thanksgiving might have had its roots in the Jewish fall harvest festival, Sukkot (which started on October 1st in 1621). But it also, obviously, resonates with Passover: big family meals, political debate, too much wine, and then a boisterous game of pinochle (at least that’s the way we celebrated). I think the stakes were a penny a point. Oh yeah, and celebrating gratitude for our miraculous liberation from slavery.
The original pilgrims fled religious persecution on the model of the Exodus from the Bible. The Puritans believed the Catholic Church had introduced too many impure practices and sought to return Christianity to its “purer” roots in the Jewish Bible. America in their narrative was the Promised Land. They were consciously imitating the Jews in trying to establish both a Holy Land and earthly utopia, free from tyranny. In their worship, civil life, and ideology they were more attached to the Torah than the New Testament.
A standard Puritan greeting was, “You’re a good Jew!”
They also imbibed the message of the Torah: the souls of Jews are enslaved to no earthly power. As the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe said:
“All the people on the face of the earth must know this: That only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of (foreign) rulers. But our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.
“We must say openly before all, that in all matters relating to our religion, the Torah, the commandments and the customs of Israel, we Jews have no one who can dictate to us, nor may any pressure be brought to bear against us.”
In this week’s reading of the Bible, Toldot, a powerful king of the Philistines/Palestinians in what is now Gaza (sound familiar?) has been harassing Isaac by stopping up every well he digs. Nonetheless, Isaac continues to thrive and grow wealthier. Avimelech eventually “comes to Isaac” to ask for a peace treaty.
The lesson is clear, the stuff of Hollywood: The small and brave who stick to their mission will have the huge and powerful bow to their superiority. On this Thanksgiving, my personal thanks is that my soul still yearns to be free and in bondage to no physical, terrestrial power.
Except maybe my wife’s transcendent brisket.