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 an apparently happy ending. Joseph finally reunites with the eleven brothers in Egypt. He puts them through an elaborately staged torture in Pharaoh’s court, but finally Joseph reveals his true identity and 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 entice Joseph’s father, Jacob, now 130 years old, to come too.
Nonetheless, when the brothers return to Canaan and tell Jacob the good news, his “heart goes numb.” The brothers give him CPR with reassurances, Joseph’s fabulous story, and showing him the wealth Joseph sent. When Jacob sees all the stuff and hears their story, his first reaction is, “רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי.”
The Hebrew has so much feeling and hidden meaning it should be a song, maybe a Jewish anthem, and I want to pay it tribute. While the usual translation captures the sense – “Enough! My son Joseph still lives!” – the poetry and depth is lost. The Hebrew eye might immediately notice the repetition of three words for abundance in a row:
ravרַב – is translated as an exclamation “enough,” but it really means much, many, great
ohd, עוֹד – an adverb that seems to modify “live” as in “Joseph still lives” but beyond continuance (still) also implies besides, again, more and directly modifies Joseph as in “more (still, yet) Joseph …”
Yosef –יוֹסֵף – Joseph’s name is prophetic. It means He will add.
Together the three words express “much more greater enlargement.” Jacob’s sudden burst of emotion expresses deep currents.
“Much more greater enlargement!”
Jacob knows the wagons are symbolic of Joseph’s essence and exclaims it with a burst of emotion. His favorite son’s very presence, even as a young boy, seems to make life bigger and more extravagant. Joseph’s lavish coat is just outward expression of his unrestrained charisma. Even his dreams are tinged with megalomania, but he brings his fantastic dreams and those of others to life. Through him, dreams become true. Joseph’s whole life is the story of bursting the bounds of one adversity after another: snake-filled pits, slavery, jail, marooned in a strange country. Everywhere he goes, he expands the borders of life itself. He brings fabulous fantasies into reality. He is the source of survival and abundance for his adopted nation, Egypt, and his own tribe, the Hebrews. The wagonloads of goodies symbolize his lavish success.
Jacob evokes this enlargement of reality that Joseph brings to the world here: “My son adds so much more life.” The father sees the son’s spiritual potential, not the material illusion of the coat that arouses his brothers. Jacob isn’t swayed by the lavish riches in front of him. He’s not toting up the wealth presented to his earthly senses, but what it evokes in his heart. He is rich in material things, but the loss of his beloved son has dug a pit of loss in his soul. And now, by this wagon, he sees instantly Joseph has been miraculously reincarnated.
And then, in case we thought we were just kanoodling around with wordplay, there’s a clincher. When Jacob revives, he is called by his birthname: “the spirit of Jacob revived.” But in the next verse he is “Israel,” the prophetic name he got after winning a wrestling match with an angel. Israel is Jacob’s spirit name, the name of the father of nation that is redeemed – resuscitated – from slavery in Egypt and who also get a lavish gift beckoning them to their destiny. In short, the verse is altogether prophetic, concentrating the whole history of the Hebrews in a few words. Jacob suffers a mini-death and is resurrected as Israel by his son Joseph’s spiritual largesse. He knows the prophecy of exile that awaits his family and their descendants, yet immediately embarks on the fateful journey almost joyfully.
Now if we read Jacob’s cry sideways, the whole verse says,
And he said, ‘Israel to have much more life must go down to my son before I (Israel) die’.
They will go to Egypt to survive the famine as a re-united family, endure a spiritual famine, and emerge as Israel. As Hebrews they all must march through the portal Joseph has opened in history to be resurrected as liberated slaves with the Torah as their fusion engine.
Rashi reads the poetry
Then Rashi tells us there’s yet another secret message encoded in the wagons. The word for wagons – ahgalot – contains a pun for eglot – calves. They may even be etymologically related at a deep level to the primitive root for turning, circling, wheeling. Just as calves cavort by running in circles, wagons run on wheels that turn round and round. In that pun, Jacob sees the last law in the Torah father and son studied before Joseph disappeared: the eglah arufah. If a corpse is found in the wilderness between two cities, how do we assign responsibility for burial and pursuing justice? You can’t just let the corpse lie there. The priests of the closest town must go into the wilderness, sacrifice a calf by breaking its neck, throw it over a cliff, and thus cancel the bill for an unsolved injustice and guilt that would come due to innocent townsfolk. (Deut 21:1-9)
On the surface, Rashi’s neat detective work forms a nice sermon (never mind the anachronism of father and son reading the Torah before Moses brings it down from Sinai. The sages assume that the patriarchs had the Torah). We now see that all the prior stagecraft about loading the eleven wagons with stuff from Egypt fior the brothers to bring back to Jacob in Canaan carried a double message from the prodigal son to grieving father that only the two of them would understand.
Poetry of the Torah and dreams connect the material and spiritual world
The Lubavitcher Rebbe expands our understanding of this ritual. Though he doesn’t refer to this scene with the wagon explicitly, he deepens our understanding of it even more by parsing the meaning of the wagon-calf secret message Joseph sent to Jacob. The elaborate ritual involves sacrificing the calf by severing its neck. Why? The Rebbe calls the neck “the precarious joint.” In the Torah, he notes,
“the neck is a common metaphor for the Holy Temple.” It links “heaven and earth, points of contact between the Creator and His creation. … G-d, who transcends the finite … chose to designate a physical site and structure as the seat of His manifest presence in the world …. The Sanctuary, then, is the ‘neck’ of the world … the juncture that connects its body to its head and channels the flow of consciousness and vitality from the one to the other.”
The unclaimed corpse leaves unattached guilt lying around in a no-man’s land unaccounted for. It is intolerable. The guilt must be expiated. If we cannot determine which city owns it, we sever the calf’s neck to show that the integrity of the Holy Land has been broken and restore it symbolically.
Joseph’s wagon is an invitation to walk through the portal in history. Time collapses as the whole vista of Hebrew destiny appears to Jacob upon seeing the wagon laden with gifts. That walk leads down to Egypt and then up to Sinai and the Torah and eventually the landscape of the Promised Land, an Israel with towns and a system of justice and order and holy calculus so sensitive that an unaccounted for corpse has to be brought back into balance. The Torah is itself the gateway to a whole other consciousness about the world for an entire nation, connecting the material world to the spiritual world. Joseph here is the avatar of this new understanding, introducing dreamspace into reality, enlarging the world through the flow of consciousness and vitality between the different channels in our senses. Reading the Torah as poetry enables us to rehearse, to recapitulate this connection over and over. We are always standing before the wagons, laden with treasures, symbol of resuscitation and reading secret messages, interpretation.
Layers of meanings and cross-references within the text and outside it deepen rather than interfere with one another. The means to deciphering the scene before us is not only through our senses but by short-circuiting our rational, empirical senses. They see only the goodies. We need to open up to the mysteries inside the poetry, the associative, artistic, aesthetic resonance of the images and words acting together. We need to have the Joseph super-power, to see the reality in the dream. Like him, and like Jacob on seeing the wagon, we must create a channel, a precarious joint, from the spiritual realm to the material one. This way of reading life and the Torah and the world before us enlarges everything. The original Hebrew, without vowels or punctuation is Moses’ transcription of God’s one long transcendent utterance atop Sinai and virtually demands that we approach it with openness.
I’m no prophet, but I imagine this is how it must work and why the prophets are such great poets: they are seized by a sudden flooding expansion of their senses, a wheeling, prophetic perception of past and future unfolding in the fateful moment. We can get some small taste of this if we read the poetry in the Hebrew: Israel, summoned by a secret sign from his son, sings a song of extravagant overflowing joy and in that moment can’t wait to go down to Egypt.
The story of the Israelites’ journeys really ends at the finale of the fourth of the Five Books of Moses, Numbers.
The official fifth book of the Torah is the next one, Deuteronomy, but only one thing happens in the entire book. Moses gives a five week long motivational speech to all the Israelites on the Plains of Moab. Then he exits. It’s an Aristotelian tragedy. It has unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.
It’s not like the fifth book doesn’t have plenty of drama. After all, the Israelites are poised to enter Israel. Everything up to this point has been for this moment, to seize the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob more than four centuries ago. The suspense alone is magnificent: the Israelites seem to hold their breath as Moses expends his. Everyone, including Moses himself, knows he is about to die before he enters Israel, because God told him so. In a monumental effort, he gives one of the most inspiring – and certainly the longest – series of motivational speeches in history. For five weeks, he recaps, deepens and enhances the entire teaching from the prior four books. He adds plenty of clarifications, new laws and cosmic views. He achieves soaring heights of inspired poetry and fiery rhetoric that capture the transcendent pathos of the moment. He exhorts, inspires, cajoles, admonishes, rebukes, and threatens. He even breaks into a transcendent song filled with a keening sense that his own lifecis about to end even as Israel is about to be born in full. The official tradition grants that Moses delivered all of the book as a speech that is later transcribed and added to the four prior books.
The Greek name for the book captures this flavor: Deuteronomy – the Second (deutero-) Telling (-nomy). The Recap. Or as we say in the literature game, the denouement, the unknotting.
So the end of the epic of Hebrews for all intents and purposes is the end of the Book of Numbers. The Israelites are encamped at the other side of the Jordan River on the plains of Moab. They know they’re going to war once they swoop down on the Canaanite tribes that live there. But that book lands on what seems a very curious, sputtering choice for a climax. After the story of Creation, the Flood, the romance of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the descent into Egypt, the plagues, the redemption and exodus out of Egypt, the many failures and dramas in the wilderness, Numbers’ final concern seems to be to clear up a technicality left dangling from several chapters ago: the rights of women to inherit land if they marry whomever they choose.
What makes the daughters of Zelophechad and the legal back and forth about their rights worthy of such a premier position in the Torah?
If we dig into the language, we find a joyous, celebratory climax is right there before our eyes. Like the afikomen at the Passover seder, it’s hidden in the beginning but it comes out at the end, a dessert with rewards to the children who discover it. In fact, the word ‘afikomen’ is the perfect analogy: it also comes from Greek (transported into the seder through Aramaic, the language of the Talmud sages). It means ‘dessert’, specifically the dessert at the end of a wedding feast: afi (from epi – ‘on top of’) and komon (from comus – the name of the fertility rite and the pagan god who presides over it). The same name gives us the word ‘comedy’.
Let us unwrap the afikomen from where we discovered it – just where my Pop placed it every year, under the tablecloth – and taste the dessert. I believe it will reveal that the Torah, if we end at the Book of Numbers, is a comedy. Though it may not be apparent at first glance – it’s been a long and rocky road for the Israelites to get to the Promised Land and figure out how to fulfill their deal with God – the final verses make it clear that the Torah has been a love story all along that is now being consummated. It even has a happy ending. In fact, we could call the end of Numbers a comedy – a komus – in the classic tradition. It ends with a merry festival of love.
The Daughters of Zelophechad Inspire Two Revolutions
The people of Israel haven’t even begun to conquer the land of Israel, but they have already divvied it up among the tribes proportionate to their size and then by individual clans by lottery. A good deal of the last portion of Numbers detail the borders of the tribal states and specify the land given to the clans within them. It’s a divinely inspired strategy designed to forestall any territorial squabbles. At the same time, it shows amazing self-confidence: these former slaves have been forged into God’s warriors. They are completely certain of victory in conquering the Canaanites.
But wait. There’s a fly in the ointment. A few chapters ago, the parents of five daughters have died, leaving them with no brothers. They want to keep their father’s inheritance in the family, but women are not allowed to inherit the land. Shouldn’t they have the right to continue their father’s legacy like any other heirs? So they screw up their courage to appeal directly to Moses. Their gumption – and love of the prospective land – is compelling, but Moses is stumped. This is beyond his pay grade. Nothing like this has ever happened, or at least ever before in recorded human history. Prior teachings of the Torah don’t cover it. Moses appeals to God. In a stunning innovation not only of the rules for the Israelites but for all human civilization, God makes an incredible new decree on the spot in the daughters’ favor. These brotherless women, the daughters of Zelophechad, shall inherit their father’s land.
Yet this creates another problem, a loose end which the finale of Numbers dramatizes in its last short chapter. The heads of the daughtes’ tribe, Menashe, now protest to Moses. What happens if these girls marry a guy from another tribe? We’ll lose our lands to them! Not to mention the gerrymandering – the broken patchwork of territorial rights – this will cause. There could be a hostile clan’s reservation right in the middle of our state!
You’ve got a point, Moses agrees. So here’s the solution according to God. He then offers another neat reconciliation:
This is what G-d has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may become the wives of anyone they wish, provided they become wives within a clan of their father’s tribe. (Num 36:7)
But is this really deserving of the closing shot? It all seems like such an anticlimactic technicality, a Talmudic dispute you might hear a couple of millenia later, but not the finale of the Hebrew epic in the 13thc BCE.
The future feminine plural of active creation
This is the second part of the text I quoted above in Hebrew:
….they become wives within a clan of their father’s tribeNumber 36:7
The Bible seems eager for us to look at those two words (in bold) that it repeats. The Hebrew is “tihyeynah l’nashim” (תִּהְיֶינָה לְנָשִׁים). It’s hard to translate perfectly into English. It’s the future feminine plural of the verb ‘to be’. We first encounter the basic verb in the Genesis 1:3 as God declares “’Let there be light’ and there was light!” (יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי־אוֹר׃ ).
Hold that thought, because it reveals a critical shortcoming in most standard translations.
Most translations of our repeated phrase fold it into the passive or at least ambiguous sense of “becoming wives” like this comon mis-translation of the Hebrew above: “They may become the wives of anyone they wish, provided they become wives within a clan of their father’s tribe.”
But the verb is the future feminine plural of active creation. The daughters don’t just become wives, they now get to choose to make themselves wives, to wed by their own volition.
The next verse of Torah gives God’s reasoning. Most translations separate it out as a standalone declaration:
The inheritance of the Children of Israel is not to go ‘round from tribe to tribe… (Num 36:7)
But this is also a mis-translation. This rationale sounds like a command. Don’t make a mishmash of tribal boundaries through intermarriage. Wait. In one breath the daughters are told they can choose to wed anyone they wish, and in the next that it has to be a man from their own tribe?
But there’s a sneaky “and” (vav) at the beginning of that line, conjoining its logic to the prior verse. It is still ambiguous whether this makes it an imperative – Andmarry in your tribe! – or a conditional. Make yourselves wives of anyone you love; wed in your tribe and you inherit the land.
The repetition of the words tihyeynah l’nashim suggests there are two separate possibilities, a choice the consequences of which this next line spells out. Choose anyone you wish from any tribe, but only if you marry intra-tribally (the technical term is endogamy) do you keep your inheritance.
This more liberating reading is confirmed in our celebration called Tu B’Av (the 15th of the month of Av) when we are commanded to be joyous, perhaps as a tonic to the deepest day of mourning six days prior, Tisha B’Av (the 9th). The sages tells us that the reason for joy is that it’s the exact date of this ruling (15th of Av, 1273 bce), “when tribes were permitted to intermarry.”
So a better reading of the two verses, putting it all together, would be this:
Women should wed anyone who pleases them, but if they want inherit the land, they should choose a husband from their own tribe so land doesn’t circulate from tribe to tribe
Yes, God told them in a revolutionary moment, women deserve their father’s inheritance. And now, perhaps even more monumentally, God reveals to them and the world that women can wed whomever they please, from any tribe. But to balance it all, in exchange for your newfound freedom, He says, I gotta restrict the other revolutionary liberty I gave you (to inherit the land) so that you get it only if you choose to wed someone from your own tribe. Otherwise, the inheritance of the children of Israel will circle from tribe to tribe, mash up the neat map we just drew, and our peaceful utopia will be doomed before we even get there.
The deepest love
If this is a perfectly logical rationale, the next line is soul music. In the next breath, the same verse, God then explains – or mandates – the deeper spiritual force behind His compromise between love and inheritance:
“…because each Israelite must cling to the land of the tribe of his father.”  (Num 36:7)
The text’s word for ‘cling’, or the more antic ‘cleave’ – d-b-k, devek – is the same word Torah uses for other transcendent attachments, good and bad. It’s the same word for the God-given mystical connection between a man and his wife in Genesis. It describes Shechem’s deep, illicit lust for Dinah and also how persistent the plagues against the Israelites were, clinging to them. Later it applies to the deepest embrace between the Israelites and God. “You must cling to Him, for He is your life.” In later Jewish tradition it inspires the deep mysticism of devekus. But here it’s the engine of a love triangle: the Israelites love of Israel equals the love between man and woman equals the love between us and God.
And as if winking at us the Torah confirm this reading a few lines later. There are those same words bracketing this end of this story – tihyeynah … l’nashim:
The verse says, “They chose (Tihyeynah )- Mahla, Tirtza, Hogla, Milka and Noa the daughters of Zelohechad”– the Torah names them here again to honor their importance – “to their cousins to be wives (lenashim).” The sages say Moses wasn’t telling them what to choose, but offering good advice from God. They heeded Him.
Having motivated two earthshattering revolutions through their chutzpah, they now show their modest wisdom. They choose to wed their cousins “so that their inheritance went along with the tribe of the clan of their father” (Num 36:12). It’s a great call. They get to have their wedding cake and eat it too.
With such a satisfactory wrap up, Numbers is quick to close the curtain with a swift last line: “These are the commandments and the laws that God commanded by the hand of Moses to the Children of Israel, in the Plains of Moab, by Jordan-Jericho.” (Num 36:13) Good show. Cue the soaring happy score.
We usually read the final weekly reading of Numbers, Masei, along with the one before, Matot. Together they create the longest reading of the year. The significance of the climax to Numbers may slide by us in the rush to get through the reading and as we get tangled in the technicalities of the revolution in marriage laws. The commentary is silent mostly about the startling fact that we’ve just heard the announcement of an unprecedentedly massive wedding, a five-fold celebration of women choosing their own mates. This even beats Shakespeare’s record in his comedy As You Like It, which famously ends with four simultaneous weddings.
Once we join the party, the message for the sweep of the epic narrative of the Hebrews starts getting deeper and clearer. It is really a celebration of the entire joyous covenant of the Torah, its climax. So let’s swiftly recap that epic in the light cast back by this happy moment.
Israel preserved its identity since the promise to Abraham through slavery in Egypt. They hear God pronounce His pact with them, newly-liberated slaves, on Sinai. They then get it in writing from Moses. It includes a detailed constitution, a set of laws for establishing a prospective heaven on Earth in the union of the people and land of Israel. They should have been eager to rush across the Red Sea and Sinai to seize their destiny, but they are not up to it. They fail every which way imaginable: through idolatry, cowardice, doubt, backsliding, violence, rebellion, complaining, lawlessness, debauchery, ambition, treason. Others have peeled away to return to Egypt. Some disappeared through assimilation with pagans. Some withered by wandering off in the desert. By far, God’s many plagues, afflictions, earthquakes, fire and snakes have eliminated the bulk of the spiritually weak, the rebels, the sinners and the merely conflicted. Their failures doom them to wander 40 years in the wilderness until the entire generation of former slaves die out. Even at the last moment, Moses faces two breakaway tribes, Reuben and Gad. They want to take the fat, fertile Moabite territory on the other side of Jordan, outside the borders of Israel proper. Moses first loses his temper when he hears their request. He compares them to the spies whose cowardly refusal to take Israel when they had the chance was the immediate cause of their wandering. But then Moses relents. Maybe he thought it would be better to let them pursue their corrosive greed outside of the utopia now rather than risk them rotting the future Israel from the inside, spiritually. Even so, to make sure they’re not just dodging the draft for the impending war against the Canaanites, he cuts a deal with them. He demands that they fight with their brethren before they take up residence across the border, build their cities and graze their cattle. Reuven and Gad readily agree. In fact, they’ll serve as shock troops, the most daring of the warriors. They’ll win the war and only then return to occupy their fat Transjordan lands. Are they loyalists who can’t resist their materialism or are they mercenaries? No matter. Moses has made the final selection of the spiritually fittest.
The only Israelites left are a new generation of fearsome, enspirited warriors. They’ve defeated the Sihon and Og, the Bashan, the Ammonites. They’ve just overcome the Moabite’s evil prophecy with superior God prophecy. They then completely decimate the even stronger Midianites for trying to seduce their whole nation. They leave almost nothing alive, taking only the cattle, gold and remaining virgins as booty. Then they carve up the land of Israel as if the outcome is assured, though they haven’t yet stepped foot in it.
In short, these vital Israelites are about to take, in the very Biblical sense, Israel. Israel the people are about to consummate their long-forestalled, pent-up ecstatic promised union with Israel the land. It’s a magnificent climax.
Jewish mystical tradition and literature overflow with the metaphor of groom and bride in this union between the people and the land. They interpenetrate and fertilize each other. They are meant to cleave to each other, just as bride and groom in the three-way union of man and wife with God as the not-so-silent partner. History proves the mysticism is real. When Jews occupy the land, it is fertile. Josephus in 75 CE testified to Israel’s abundance before the Romans destroy the Temple and scatter the Jews. To humiliate them, the Romans call it Palestine after the Jews’ bitter enemies the Philistines. The land never recovers for almost two thousand years. Empire after empire, Rome, Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, Ottomans, England – all try and fail to make it anything less than desolate. Ramban (1194-1270), flees Spain for the Land of Israel. In Acco, he couldn’t even find nine other Jews to pray with. He wrote to his son, “Many are Israel’s forsaken places, and great is the desecration. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem is the most desolate place of all.” He prophesied that Israel will remain desolate until the Jewish reoccupy the land.
Riding on horseback through what is now is the fertile Jezreel Valley in 1867, Mark Twain observed, “There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent – not for 30 miles in either direction.” He calls it “the curse of a Deity… that has ruined its fields and fettered its energies. …Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.”
Travel to Israel today and you can see immediately the instantiation of the metaphysical inter-fertilization of people and land both named Israel. When I last visited with my brother and sister, we traveled up and along the middle and northern borders – along the territory known as the West Bank, up north along Lebanon and Syria. Driving around and up the hairpin steepness of two lush mountains in Golan, a sudden gap opened in front of us. It was a vista of a forsaken, arid landscape in the distance, framed by green
“What’s that?” my sister asked, startled by the contrast.
“It looks dead.”
When the Jews are absent from Israel, the land suffers. Where they go, the land blossoms. Yes, there are exceptions. The territories Reuven and Gad bargained for, now Jordan, are still mostly lush, though I doubt anyone there still calls themselves a child of Israel. They still make wonderful wine in the Bekaa valley (mentioned in the Talmud) of southern Lebanon. Yes, there are mundane explanations for Israel’s fertility: Wealth, education, pent-up historical yearning, Western science and technology, sheer energy. But the mundane meets the miraculous halfway and the former disguises the latter from our dim mortal sight.
The Jews of Israel today are a testament to this mystically fertile union, especially after many of their great grandfathers shriveled (physically) in the shtetls of Europe before being incinerated. Brown, robust, social. Almost every man and woman serves in the military when they are 18. Their voices have music in them. In the last worldwide survey, Israel is one of the top countries for self-reported happiness despite the fact they’re surrounded by enemies, neighbors regularly pledge to eliminate them (the Palestinians and Iranians), and they’re despised by many nations of the world who should know better.
So why end with these women who have been given the new right to marry for love? Because their wedding is neither by force nor convenience. They’ve been given the Divine right to choose to marry whomever they wish, whoever they love – men who “find grace in their eyes” as the Hebrew literally says. They have expanded the domain of human joy and freedom by actively choosing their own paths. The daily ubiquitous miracles we mistake for the coincidences of material reality require us to meet divine will at least halfway on the road to fulfilling it.We’re not in Egypt anymore. we’re free to choose and act. You can’t just lay about and huddle in your hovel and wait for the hand of the Almighty to intervene. After all, He sent you a raft, a rowboat and a helicopter. You have to choose to take the ride. Israel the nation is now, finally, stepping into the boat. Tihyeynah.
What is a more fitting, complete ending to our epic adventure of the Hebrews than a five-fold wedding that we commemorate for all time? We celebrate it like that other, best of all liberation meals, the Passover seder. We end with the special dessert that, in its very name, celebrates the fertile conjugation of wife, husband and God through their separate deliberate acts of choosing, creation. It was set aside from the beginning only to be fulfilled now. It’s the Torah’s afikomon.
Tihyeynah. The future feminine plural. The Torah doesn’t have to tell us how the comedy ends. The daughters lived happily ever after. After all, this is true love.
– David Porush
Aug 1, 2022
I am indebted to my study mates in our Friday Noon Parsha Shmooze for delving this reading of Matot-Masei with me: Nicolas Cruz, Ron Kardos, Bobby Lent, and Brad Diller. I am also indebted to Rabbi Yossi Marcus for his Shabbos drash on the significance of Aaron’s yahrzeit being mentioned here out of place (it’s the 15th of Av; Aaron dies on the 1st). Aaron earns the only yahrzeit date explicitly mentioned in Torah. It comes to teach us the fundamental aspect of love for our fellow humans suffused in the Torah through Aaron. Finally, I am indebted to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman for confirming the meaning of the key word here – t’hiyeynah – as the future feminine plural of “to be,” and even more so for responding positively to this particular reading of the end of Numbers as a comedy.
 As Lord Byron quipped, “All tragedies are finished by a death. All comedies are ended by a marriage .” Most Shakespearean comedies end with a wedding: The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, many others. As You Like It ends with four weddings.
Going further back, we see the modern wedding comedy as a civilized version of its primitve pagan roots. The genre of comedy originated in ancient Greece as Dionysian fertility revelries. Komus was the Greek god of merrymaking who brought wine to his father, Dionysus, for his infamous parties. The annual spring rituals of komus weren’t so much weddings as festive orgies of appetite.
 The Contemporary Torah, Jewish Publication Society, 2006.
Rabban Simon b. Gamaliel said: “Never was there any more joyous festival than the fifteenth of Ab and on the Day of Atonement, etc.” It is readily understood why the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the second tables of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the fifteenth of Ab be a day of rejoicing? “Because,” said R. Judah in the name of Samuel, “on that day the members of the different tribes were permitted to intermarry.” What passage did they interpret to prove this? (Num. 36, 6) [Ein Yaakov (Glick Edition), Taanit 4:11]
 In fact, Ramban berates Rambam for not listing the imperative for Jews to “cling to the land” as one of Rambam’s 613.
 The word is a contranym; it means two opposite things at the same time. Cleave could imply “to bind or unite”, or it could mean “to sever completely, (as with a cleaver).” The implication is that two entities have a deeper wholeness or unity.
 There’s another whole drash to be written about the connecting theme in Matot-Masei of willful, feminine choice, encoded in the verb of “to be.” This one is the contrast between the daughters of Zelophechad and the evil choice of the Midianite women to seduce the men of Israel: The consequence of their debased choice is that all the women are slaughtered and the virgin daughters become booty בָּזָז׃. “The Israelites seized the women of the Midianites and their children and all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth as booty. [Num 31:9]… “Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses yells at them: “You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who made it happen הָיוּ to seduce the sons of Israel to the bidding of Balaam, to trespass against HaShem in the matter of Peor, so that G-d’s community was struck by the plague.
 From the Kabbalistic tradition: “Behold the holy Torah and Eretz Yisrael have a unique relationship. So too the Jewish people have a unique deep spiritual relationship to the land of Israel. This can be seen from the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 48) dividing up the land between the twelve tribes, granting each tribe the parcel of land best suited for its needs. This was accomplished by each tribe bordering the place from where the soul of his tribe emanates from. Thus each mitzvah performed in Eretz Yisrael ascends and adorns each of the borders in relationship to the soul of each tribe. In this way, the completeness of the soul is dependent upon which portion of land it dwells in. And the fulfillment of the land is dependent upon the souls that dwell there in accordance with its existence. The essence of this is that Zion is the point of the original creation (Gemara Yoma 54b) For, from that point the rest of the world unfolded. That point of course is associated with the Shechina.” Chabad https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380682/jewish/A-Land-for-Every-Nation-21.htm
Also Kabbalah: “The land of Israel and its cities also represent a sexual aspect. The first sin caused a split between the masculine principle of the divine powers (symbolized by the sefirah of Glory or Foundation) and the feminine principle (symbolized by Kingship). The coupling of the two principles is already symbolized in early Kabbalah by the unification of “Zion” (Glory or Foundation) and “Jerusalem” (Kingship). Since the righteous person similarly is symbolized by the sefirah of Foundation, the sexual aspect is also reflected in the fact that only perfectly righteous people can possess the land.” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mystical-israel/
 “These two Galilees, of so great largeness, and encompassed with so many nations of foreigners, have been always able to make a strong resistance on all occasions of war; for the Galileans are inured to war from their infancy, and have been always very numerous; nor hath the country been ever destitute of men of courage, or wanted a numerous set of them: for their soil is universally rich and fruitful, and full of the plantations of trees of all sorts, insomuch that it invites the most slothful to take pains in its cultivation, by its fruitfulness; accordingly it is all cultivated by its inhabitants, and no part of it lies idle. Moreover, the cities lie here very thick, and the very many villages there are here are every where so full of people, by the richness of their soil, that the very least of them contain above fifteen thousand inhabitants.” Note how Josephus connects the robustness of the warriors and their dauntless spirit with the fertility of their land. Josephus, The Book of Wars transl. by William Whiston, (London: 1737) 3, 3:2
“Calculus… ironically the word means ‘pebble’” – Herman Wouk, The Language God Talks (2010)
You come on a small, still pond in a clearing in the woods. Someone just tossed a pebble into it seconds ago, but now they’re gone. You can tell because waves ripple out from where it plopped in. You watch as the rings radiate out to reach every point in the pond.
Imagine now that you arrived just after two pebbles dropped into the pond. You can tell where they went in by tracing the two concentric patterns back to their two centers. Then you notice that the two patterns collide. Looking closely, some waves add their energy to each other to make bigger waves with higher troughs and crests. Some waves cancel each other, making smaller waves or even points of calm water. As the waves radiate out, the whole pond now shows that two pebbles dropped in.
If you were clever, it might be possible to look at any smaller section of the pond, even without looking at the whole, and reconstruct the fact that two pebbles dropped in. You might even be able to deduce more information, like how heavy the pebbles were, how far away from each other they dropped or even how soon the second pebble hit after the first.
Now imagine thousands of pebbles dropped in the pond. Every part of the pond would register every dropped pebble in an extremely complex array of waves. Maybe it would take a super-computer to tell how many pebbles, where and when they were dropped, etc., but the surface of every part of the pond, however far away from the original pebbles, registers all the information about them. You could read any part of the surface of the pond and it would tell a story about the original events, even though you weren’t there to see the pebbles enter the water.
Without getting too deep into the technicalities (laser beams are split and recorded after they bounce off an image) making a hologram uses the same phenomenon as the pebbles in the pond: a wave interference pattern (see this at “Explain That Stuff”). The “holo” in hologram refers to the whole image it projects.
It is a curiosity of a hologram that if you cut out a tiny piece of the original hologram and shine a laser through it, it would display the whole image, if in lower resolution and smaller. So a hologram is also holistic because every part, however small, registers and represents the whole, just like you could (theoretically) look at a small section of the pond at its edge and reconstruct where, how many, and when the pebbles dropped.
Like the surface of the pond, every point of a hologram contains a trace of the whole. Every point resonates echoes the original events (the object on which the laser shone; pebbles dropping) that created the text (waves forming an interference pattern on the medium of a holographic plate or the pond’s surface). Every point also resonates with every other. It is a whole – (“holo”) – writing or record (“gram”). We can read the text of the pond to tell what happened before we got there.
The hologram is a great metaphor not only for reading a literary text but for reading the cosmos as a hologram. A holistic approach means you cannot fully understand any part of something without seeing the whole and vice versa. Holistic thinking is a compelling approach to the world. Dissect a frog as much as you want, but it won’t explain why it jumps at a fly. You might even kill the essence of the thing you’re after.
We know instinctively, especially when we think of living beings that somehow the whole has an identity and integrity that no part in itself can describe on its own. Holistic healing treats the whole person because it assumes that every organ, every cell, is intimately connected to every other. Further, it knows the body and the mind, maybe even the personality and spirit are all connected. Your dynamic habits and experiences affect the physical part of your body. Your fingernails and hair say something about your diet. An examination of your eye could tell the opthamologist that something is wrong with the liver or heart. And it is a cliche that your attitude towards life affects your health. In turn, the health of every individual organ can affect and be affected by every other. Holism gives us a more powerful and intuitively appealing way of looking at a very complex phenomenon or system than by just picking it apart and analyzing its components
One scientific theory applies this concept to the whole cosmos. David Bohm, an associate of Einstein’s at Princeton in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was one of the most significant physicists of the twentieth century. Based on his work on quantum waves, he proposed a view of the entire universe as an interconnected whole. In his view, the universe has an explicitorder we can see and intuit, and a deeper level of reality, a hidden implicit order that underlies it and ties it all together, what he called “the Holographic Universe.”
An associate of Bohm’s, neuroscientist Karl Pribram, speculated that the brain also worked like a hologram. As he put it, the brain was “holonomic.” When you see something new or feel a great emotion, it stimulates waves of neural impulses. Even the firing of a single neuron propagates waves of neuro-electrical impulses across the whole brain, just as waves from pebbles dropped in a pond.
If you look at videos of lightning storms in the upper atmosphere as seen from space, they seem to dance across vast regions as if they were in tune to some secret music. The entire atmosphere is an interconnected ecosystem. Standing on the ground and watching a single bolt of lightning gives you no clue to this implicate order in the sky.
Reading the Bible as a hologram
The Hebrew Bible records an experience just like this. An entire nation of Hebrews, six hundred thousand men and their wives, children and parents, flee slavery in Egypt to the desert. Moses leads them to Mount Sinai. They huddle around its base as he warns them of an awesome event about to happen. Then lightning flashes, thunder rumbles. A prolonged incomprehensible sound blasts out, growing louder. God is talking. The Hebrews are overwhelmed. They can’t comprehend what they hear and they’re afraid the unprecedented show will kill them.
They ask Moses to intercede. He goes up the mountain and returns forty days later with a transcript of what God wanted them to hear, written in the brand-new medium of the phonetic alphabet. Later, according to some interpretations, Moses writes more extensively about what God told and continues to tell him. The result is the Bible, the Five Books of Moses, the Torah.
God’s performance atop the mountain is transient and long gone. Jews have a national memory of the event. They are the only people who claim a deity spoke to them en masse and they survived. They have a collective national memory of a story that would be impossible to falsify. Did millions of people conspire to make it up and then agree that this thing really happened? Would Moses say this happened to them, and they just don’t remember? Would he say it DID happen and their folks just forgot to tell you about it or covered up the source of your national identity and purpose? So the only way to fully understand the Torah is to see it as an accurate record – an autobiography – of its birth, but how? If we take its testimony seriously, the Bible obliges us to understand what God meant us to hear. However, the text is only the trace, the transcript, of this incomprehensible event: the prolonged blast of a divine voice.
So this singularity – the fancy word is theophany – requires a singular approach to reading. For this I recruit the hologram. A holographic approach to reading assumes that the Torah is the dictation of a single divine Author. The hologram models how to read a text that traces an event that happened before we got there but where every part of the text is implicated with every other and with the original event like pebbles in a pond. The minutest part, a single word, letter, the embellishments on a letter – even the silent spaces between the words – represent and register and resonate with the whole (as I show in various parshas such as Chukat, Vayigash, Vayikra, Noah, Emor and elsewhere). Every jot sings the theme of a larger song, however softly and faintly. The text is an interference – or better yet an interconnection – pattern, intensely dynamic, complex hyper-inter-textual.
If the waves on the surface of the pond comprise the text, the pebbles are the writing instrument or channel used by an “author” or actor to transmit his or her intentions. But as we come on the rippling pond in the glade in the woods, we come after the original event is long over, and different readers will have different interpretations. Some deny there was ever a girl in the glade dropping pebbles in a pond. A naive explorer might come on the pond, look at the complex interference pattern the pebbles caused, and say, “Whoah, windy day.” He sees only a chaos of waves and has no idea that someone dropped a bunch of pebbles into the water before he got there. A skeptic might say, “You’ve been staring at the pond too long. You’re imagining things.” The cynic has a completely alternative explanation. He sees the complexity of the waves but says, “It’s just a natural coincidence.”
If we believe we know someone plopped pebbles into the water before we arrived, that leaves us with the challenge of reconstructing the hologram, reading the dynamic traces of the original act and reconstructing what happened. After all, pebbles and waves are two completely different media, one the cause, the other the effect. No number of waves in water will ever form themselves back into the original pebbles that caused them. But the clues are there. There’s enough information to of it. The waves present a mystery. Who was the original pebble-dropper? Why’d she do it in the first place? Was she just passing the time idly amusing herself? Was she trying to achieve something?
Reading in the hologram and Jewish tradition
This approach to reading the Torah as a trace or transcript has a long provenance. The great medieval sage Rambam (1138–1204) expressed it as one of his “Thirteen Principles of Faith”:
We believe that the entire Torah in our possession was given [to us] by the Almighty through Moshe Our Teacher by means of the medium we metaphorically call “speech.” No one knows the real nature of this communication except Moshe, to whom it was transmitted. He was like a scribe receiving dictation. He wrote the history, the stories, and the commandments. Therefore he is called “[the] inscriber.”There is no difference between the [the apparently trivial and most profound verses]. For it is all from God; it is all God’s perfect Torah, pure, holy and true.
Rambam is very clear. The Torah is the transcript of a dictation. It is always already a translated version of an original utterance and intention. As A.J. Heschel put it, the Torah from Moses is already a “midrash,” literally “from the word,” a commentary. Traditional Jewish interpretations call themselves mishnehs – “repetitions”.
So during their chat atop Sinai, when Moses took God’s dictation, was he fast enough to write every word? Was the new medium of the phonetic alphabet agile enough to capture everything? Did it capture more than we could parse by the fact it had no vowels and so any string of consonants could be parsed multiple ways? Did God want everything He said written, or were there elaborations, digressions, and occult and secret revelations? The Jewish tradition is built on this inevitable fact. Midrash encompasses the entire Jewish interpretive tradition since Sinai, including the Mishnah (brought down from Oral Law into written form in the second century CE), Gemara (which with Mishna forms the Talmud), and the almost two millenia of ongoing commentary, debate, legends, exemplars, parables, and case law conducted across time, space and cultures since then.
Hologram and spirituality
The approach to Torah as a hologram also has a deeper spiritual dimension. An essential Jewish belief is the oneness of God and the unity of the cosmos He created. God did not perform His blast, nor create the universe, and then disappear or stand idly by to admire it work. His involvement in Creation is intimate and continues and compels at least acknowledgement, if not gratitude. The holistic approach to reading mirrors these beliefs.
The final more mystical concept is the congruence of the physical universe and the Torah. In Kabbalah, Torah is the cosmic cookbook. God wrote it before He brought the world into being. He consulted its recipe to recite the words that “He spoke” (Vayomer Elohim) to create light, sky, earth, and life. A kabbalistic tradition suggests that the written letters formed God’s script and were (it’s too tempting to say literally) the instruments of Creation. It demands an approach that transcends our usual ideas of reading and interpreting to hint, however faintly, at a divine creativity implicit in every word, letter, flourish and even silence.
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from G-D and consumed them, so they died in front of G-D. (Lev 10:1-2)
Rosh Chodesh Nissan, 1312 BCE: It’s one of the most mystical days in our calendar. Kabbalah tells us it’s the anniversary of G-d’s very conception of Creation. The trans-dimensional portal that enables Him to visit us, the mishkan, is complete. Moshe, Aaron and his sons have tested it for a week. Everything works. It’s show time.
In an excess of wine-induced ecstasy or zeal or chutzpah, these two princes enter the most transcendent and dangerous place in the cosmos to offer that most esoteric of sacrifices, incense. Rather than accepting the incense as it did two verses before, G-d’s fire instead eats their souls, leaving their bodies still in their tunics. Moses tells Aaron, with what feels like incredible sangfroid, “G-d warned us this is how His glory works to bring us near,” and commands Aaron not to mourn his sons openly.
Was it a Divine kiss or punishment? Did they transcend or transgress? At this miraculous interface between the supernal and mundane, all is beyond comprehension, suprarational.
I began writing this on Nadav and Abihu’s yahrzeit 2020. In these days of plague that will include Pesach, our mystical calendar is talking to us across the millenia. Too many have become Aarons, enduring the unimaginable pain of burying loved ones without proper mourning.
Yet, perhaps there’s solace for us. The function of the mishkan was to sublime the physical into transcendent holiness. Today, while we wait to rebuild it, its invitation to elevate matter into spirit through sacrifice is everywhere, if we look for it.
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.
“A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton,” – Charles Darwin on God
“We should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it.” – Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine
The fertilization tango
When does human life begin? Are there divine implications in the process? Before you make up your mind, how much do you know about what really happens when an egg is fertilized? It’s almost beyond belief in its complexity and mystery. When we delve it, right down to the part that gets mysterious, it invokes a metaphysical explanation.
For my son, Avraham Benjamin, who was born the first night of Chanukah.
“When the hoof of the swine touches Jerusalem’s walls, the entire foundation of Israel itself shakes.” – Talmud: Sotah
Chanukah is both alarming and comforting. Jews are struggling with the growing sense that it’s happening again. Less than eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is on the rise in the West. I don’t need to recount the litany of current events and the fear they’re causing. I’m alarmed that we’re still fighting the culture war it commemorates.
The lights and prayers give psychic comfort and hope. They are also the actual weapons 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 familiar kind of 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 original Hebrew, reveals a rich warp and woof of hidden cross-references so intense that it feels like a transcendentally talented artist of wordplay and allusion is at work – a super James Joyce or Adrienne Rich.
The Joseph story in brief
Jealous of the fact that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son (he gets a multi-colored coat) and, even worse, that he’s a vain, grandiose “dreamer,” his brothers throw him in a pit. They consider murdering him, but instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. After the brothers are rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, to imply that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the Jewish sign of bereavement forever after) and he cries.
Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites carry Joseph to Egypt and sell him. His new owner, Potiphar, recognizes that Joseph is gifted and elevates him to be his CEO. Unfortunately, Joseph catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She grabs at his coat and begs him for sex. He refuses. As revenge, she gets him thrown in jail, claiming he tried to rape her. He gets out by interpreting the dreams of his cellmates, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, in a prophetic manner.
This neat story has all the makings of a beautifully coherent literary gem. We can see the movie version spun out on a big screen. However, the screenwriters adapting the book would probably cut a couple of problematic parts and its apparently crazy digressions. One is a nonsensical one about Joseph wandering around lost in Shechem looking for his brothers, until a stranger gives him directions. Another is a more interesting and lurid sub-plot about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. It doesn’t seem to advance or even connect to the main narrative. But let’s look at it, because it cloaks a couple of interesting features.
Judah and Tamar in brief
Judah has three sons. The eldest marries a woman named Tamar but later dies. The second son, Onan, fulfills his legal obligation to marry his brother’s widow, but because he knows any children will not be counted as his, or because he doesn’t want Tamar to spoil her figure through pregnancy, he “spills his seed,” for which God kills him too. The third son, Shelah, is too young for marriage. Judah tells Tamar to stay in the house until Shelah grows up and then leave when he is of age. Judah worries that if Tamar marries Shelah, his last son will also die.
But by protecting his son, Judah deprives Tamar of her rightful betrothal to the last surviving brother-in-law (called a levirate marriage). Shelah is supposed to save her honor and guarantee her material support. To get their attention, and out of desperation, Tamar disguises herself as a harlot, snares Judah on a road trip, and gets pregnant by him. Judah doesn’t have cash on him for the transaction, so as an honorable man he leaves his signet ring and staff with her as collateral. Three months later, when her pregnancy is visible, Tamar is hauled before the court as a harlot. Judah, in one of the great literary ironies in the Torah, is the chief justice. He is about to sentence her to death by burning when she confronts him with his own signet and staff. Instead of running for cover in embarrassment, he admits his responsibility (would that all public figures and judges issue so full-throated a confession) and even praises Tamar for seeking justice.
This is also a nice story. It could make a cool movie on its own – maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a brisk, ironic ninety-minute rom com nonetheless. It even has a happy ending. But what’s it doing here?
The literary coherence of the story of Joseph in a single word
The traditional Jewish approach to explicating the Torah is to assume it is famously frugal, parsimonious: it has no extraneous details, no decorative redundancies, no coincidences, no accidental or frivolous puns. If things don’t make sense on first glance, that very incongruity signals a deeper intentiologic or message lurking beneath. So on closer inspection, the literary eye sees not only the jarring digression from Joseph to the story of Judah and Tamar but another remarkable oddity. Because there’s so little other color within this story, when props are brought on stage they get our attention. In fact, they seem like unavoidable metaphors or symbols of … something else.
The props in Joseph’s story are his coat and all the other articles of clothing. Joseph’s coat is the object of his brothers’ envy and symbolizes everything they think is wrong with him: his grandiosity, his preening, his many talents, his favored status which he lords over them in his prophetic dreams. (And yes, as if to prove the point, it even becomes the title of a Broadway musical and then movie, “Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) The brothers bring the torn, bloody coat to Isaac.
The props that stand out in the digression about Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items that might be found in any good Canaanite clothing department. And then there’s Tamar’s disguise. The Torah takes the time to tell us that Tamar “takes off her widow’s clothing” in order to don a prostitute’s costume and veil. She later puts her widow’s garb back on to testify against Judah.
When the Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story, the prop is again an article of clothing. Potiphar’s wife lusts after Joseph so much that she “grasps at Joseph’s coat.” He flees so quickly that he leaves it in her hand. Then, like any good plot device, the coat returns as she stages it for Potiphar, arranging it by her bedside as proof of her claims that Joseph tried to rape her.
Beged, the MacGuffin
Screenwriters call this type of object a “MacGuffin,”something with little clear intrinsic value that is used to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon,” the letters of transit in “Casablanca”, or the rug in “The Big Lebowski”). Now that we see it, we can re-read the whole story with new eyes.
As we unpack its imagery, the Torah story starts looking like a vaudeville trunk: open it, stand it on its side, and you get a whole wardrobe of costumes.
One of the Hebrew words for clothing is beged (ד-ג-ב, B-G-D). It rings like a bell through the story. Jacob tears his beged (Genesis 37:31–32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged to play the whore (38:14). She then puts it on again to testify against Judah. Potiphar’s wife tears Joseph’s beged off him in lust as he flees, then arrays it next to her bed, when she plays the injured party to prove Joseph’s guilt. In all, the word beged occurs six times just in this part of the chapter (39:12–18), and twelve times throughout the Torah reading of Vayeishev. As words go, it’s a real lexical MacGuffin.
Sure enough, lurking inside the word lies the key to a transcendent understanding of the Torah’s intention: beged means both both ‘clothing’ and ‘treachery’ (as in ‘cloaked motives’, ‘deceit’). As the word rings through these verses, it explains why the interruption about Judah and Tamar, far from being a mere digression from the story of Joseph, may actually explain it.
Once we see it, the theme of treachery ripples out to embrace and tie together larger swaths of the chapter. Joseph’s brothers commit an act of terrible treachery when they first consider murdering Joseph and instead sell him into slavery. They then heartlessly deceive their father into thinking his favorite son is dead.
Judah cheats Tamar by shielding Shelah from marrying her. She repays Judah by deceiving him.
Potiphar’s wife is doubly treacherous too. She first begs Joseph to commit adultery and then lands him in jail on false charges.
We also can’t help but notice that the bedroom comedy between Potiphar and Joseph episode mirrors Tamar’s ruse in the preceding story. But where Tamar has justice on her side, Potiphar’s wife’s trick is a lie. Yet it works to land Joseph in jail. The two stories are flip sides of an allegory of justice perverted. (Hold that thought. We will return to it later.)
Each occurrence of the word beged signifies both an article of clothing and its metaphorical twin, deceit. In fact, the word beged is itself self-referential; it exemplifies the capacity of a word to veil, like words that cloak hidden meanings. It’s a pun on punning, a turn on turning a phrase, a trope on the tropics of textuality.
Once we tug at this literary thread, we unravel entanglements with other double and triple meanings that weave the text together. Here is a sentence describing the source of Tamar’s grievance:
“So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife.” (Genesis 38:14)
What article of clothing implies disguise and deceit? A veil. What does “the entrance to Enaim” mean? Literally, ‘the opening of the eyes’. That would make a fine verse in a poem about appearances here.
The word billows out
With our eyes open, we now see treacheries involving garments billowing out to implicate other events – not just in this portion, but throughout Genesis. As a result of her tryst with Judah, Tamar gives birth to twins. She uses another bit of cloth, article, a red string, to mark the twin that emerges first. It seems obvious that she is trying to avert a repetition of the drama of contested twinship that lurks in their legacy from Jacob, their forefather. Jacob emerged from Rebekah grasping the heel of his twin, Esau, and we saw what mischief spun out from there. ( But fate in the Hebrew family is stronger. Just as Tamar ties the string to avoid getting entangled in God’s apparent script, the first twin is pulled back and the second twin emerges first, tangling things again. The Torah, to paraphrase Mark Twain about history, doesn’t quite repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
A tangled web of deception
The thread of beged brings the play between clothing, disguise, and treachery to center stage. It unlocks the deepest genealogy of the patriarchal family, and makes us look at a destiny that goes to the most complex moral paradoxes in the origin stories of the Hebrews. The treachery of brothers begins with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Cain slays Abel and denies it. Treachery runs through Noah’s family after the flood (his sons uncover his nakedness). It echoes between Abraham and Lot, and becomes the fulcrum of Jewish history as God chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for 20 years so he can finally wed his true love, Rachel. Joseph’s brothers commit a terrible deception to wipe out the whole city of Shechem after its prince abducts and rapes their sister, Dinah.
The word first occurs in the Torah in the earlier drama between Jacob and Esau. This event originates the calculus of deception that seems to be working itself out like an algebraic proof through the generations after these twins.
Jacob is able to fool Isaac into cheating Esau of his blessing because Rebekah, their mother, has dressed Jacob for the part. She cooks Esau’s best recipes for venison for Jacob to bring his father and then disguises Jacob in Esau’s finest clothes: begado (Genesis 27:15). To prove the deceit worked, when the real Esau comes to Isaac too late to get his blessing, the blind old man is inspired by the smell of Esau’s clothing (begadav). The Sages are alert to the duality of the word. “Read this not as ‘clothes’ but as ‘betrayers’,” they say.
In the end, although Jacob and Esau reconcile in an elaborate display of peacemaking, they are irreconcilable. They embrace, but must live far apart. This mutual exile leads to the first word of this portion of the Torah, Vayeishev – ‘and he settled’. The flavor of the original Hebrew implies that Joseph dwells in the land where his father had to live as a foreigner because he was avoiding Esau and all his descendants, the Edomites. Their elaborate, perverse, tribal genealogy is recounted just before this chapter begins.
The evolution of beged and elaborate design throughout the Torah
The cycles of deceit and family drama among Abraham’s seed don’t end until Moses takes the stage. It’s as if only receiving the Torah can heal the pathological family structure of the Hebrews. Whispering about this transformation in its own small way, the meaning of beged changes as we move from Genesis to Exodus. When beged appears dozens of times throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it is only to signify the holy garments of Aaron and his priestly descendants; the garments that need to be washed to be holy or purified; regal clothing signifying elevation, or garments with fringes on their corners (tzitzit) that Jews are commanded to wear in order to control lust. (Recall Judah. Now recall Joseph’s restraint with Potiphar’s wife.) The word mysteriously gets simplified, shedding its alternative, cloaked meanings.
The only place in Exodus where beged retains its sense of ‘treachery’, before it disappears forever, occurs soon after the events of Joseph. It is a law in Exodus 21:8 describing divorce:
“If she please not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed: to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully [bevigdo] with her.”
We are subtly reminded of Vayeishev. A man cheats a woman under his control out of what’s owed her by marital rights, as Judah did Tamar. The verse also singles out an odd example of the many ways a husband might cheat a wife out of her due – by selling her to a foreign nation, – which happens to be exactly what Joseph’s brothers did to him.
A measure of holy justice and honesty
The word beged then does something even stranger. By the time we reach the fifth Book of Moses, Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely. There is just one remarkable exception:
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s garment as pledge [collateral].” (Deuteronomy 24:17)
The word calls out here nakedly, without adornment: beged. It has long ago shed its alternative meaning of ‘disguised motives’ or ‘treachery’. Now, though, it is transmuted; elevated to a fundamental symbol of justice. The Torah warns judges: apply justice even-handedly, to the stranger and the orphan. Show mercy – don’t take collateral from the widow. “The widow’s raiment” calls back loudly and clearly to that other widow from four books ago: Tamar.
This one late recurrence of the word beged, by its singularity, seems to trumpet a moral evolution through the other four Books of Moses. We have left the first family treacheries behind us, way back there in the Book of Genesis. We have been instructed elaborately on the mechanics of holiness and purification, especially involving clothes, in three books that follow. And now, through a solitary instance in the final book, we understand the ultimate obligation is to activate those aspirations by connecting the divine to humanity through justice.
What author had this much wit?
What author had the wit to devise this complex and subtle web of signification, woven across so many chapters? How did that author layer so many puns, echoes, cross-references, intertextual reflections, and doubled meanings on one word? Or hide so many clues so deeply that they may never have had any hope of being discovered without a concordance and a computer?
When every fragment of a whole seems to contain all the information of that whole, we call it a hologram. How did the author show such great artistry, to grow and alter the meaning of the word itself, to lose its furtive duality, to evolve its significance in parallel with the much broader arc of the Children of Israel as they evolve from idolatrous Hebrew nomads to a holy nation? Who devised this hologram? Why does one word seem to multiply across Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but then seem to be forgotten in Deuteronomy except for one, exquisitely resonant occasion that ripples back and colors all its predecessors?
Are these all signs of inconsistency, proving the Torah was stitched together by many authors across centuries? If it was, who cloaked the secret for those centuries so it could be ultimately manifested?
Or is it proof of such incredible subtlety and coherence in the composition of the Torah that only a single transcendentally gifted Author could possibly have held it in Their mind?
 Rashi, among many other commentators, flags this intrusion, “Why is this section placed here thus interrupting the section dealing with the history of Joseph?” (Genesis Rabbah, 85:2).
 The sages *almost* make the connection that Joseph’s torn clothing makes between parts 1 and 2 of the Joseph story: “A savage beast devoured him. This is a reference to Potiphar’s wife, who would attempt to seduce him.” Midrash Rabbah 84:19.
I am grateful, again, to my neighbors Michael Morazadeh, Jonathan Choslovsky, and Ron Kardos, members of my informal chavrusa, who challenged me to take a hard look at the Documentary Hypothesis (that the Torah was written by many authors across several centuries instead of by God and Moses). This blog and several before and after were inspired by their challenge. I am also grateful to Rabbi Yale Spalter of Chabad Northern Peninsula for noting what some of the sages had to say about these matters.
The direct inspiration for this treatment of beged came during a celebration of the 19th of Kislev at Chabad of Palo Alto (where I was also accompanied by R. Spalter and Messrs. M, C, & K.). Rabbi Menacham Landa of the Novato Chabad was darshening about Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and it occurred to me that Joseph seemed to have a habit of losing his clothing in dramatic circumstances. Rabbi Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said, almost off the cuff, that the word beged had a weighty meaning worth looking into.
Last 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 for the price of one. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech. Ironically, this became a problem only when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling. Second, are Jews like the other protected classes? How so? 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 fit all Jews, so what is going on? Even Jews debate it all the time. Continue reading “What is a Jew?”→
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?”→