December 8th, 2013
As Jacob’s last moments approached, “he bowed upon the head of the bed” (Gen. 47:21).
Some commentators focus all their attention on the words, “head of the bed”: Rashbam, for example, says it simply indicates where Jacob was lying. The Septuagint changes mittah (bed) to matteh (staff), but this is unjustifiable and most scholars reject it.
The clue probably resides in the words “he bowed”, which Rashi takes metaphorically: “He turned to the Divine Presence”. From this the sages deduce that God is above the pillow of a sick person (Shab. 12b).
Others (e.g. Ibn Ezra) suggest that Jacob was showing deference to Joseph, not necessarily because his beloved son was the Egyptian viceroy, but because temptation had not turned him away from righteousness. Jacob realised how easy it was to compromise one’s standards because he himself had faced the same problem whilst living in Laban’s house, hence the rabbinic rhyme, Im Lavan garti, v’taryag mitzvot shamarti – “I lived with Laban, but (still) I kept the commandments”.
December 8th, 2013
Only one fast can fall on Friday, the fast of 10 Tevet. We’ve previously explained why 10 Tevet can fall on a Friday (as it does this year), but this article looks at the broader question – what should a Jew (apart from 10 Tevet) be doing on Fridays?
Most people would say, “Getting ready for Shabbat”. They’re right. Without proper preparation there can hardly be a Shabbat, just as every other great day has its lead-up. But there is an argument in favour of giving Friday an additional quality as a day important in itself.
Before my father got out of bed in the morning, he made a list of what he had to do that day. It gave his day a structure even though he didn’t always achieve everything he had planned.
Using this analogy, let’s think about the days of the week. Everyone should start a week with an agenda. By Thursday night they may still have things undone or unfinished, and that’s where Friday comes in – a day to round off the week and complete its tasks. Not only in temporal terms, but spiritually.
Were there rungs of the spiritual ladder which you wanted to climb this week, mitzvot you hoped to do? Use Friday, and use it well.
December 1st, 2013
Vayyiggash elav Yehudah
Judah converses with Joseph, by James Tissot
(Gen. 44:18): Judah approaches the Egyptian viceroy, and everything changes.
We all have decisive moments like that. A person arrives on the scene, a situation emerges, a challenge presents itself. All of a sudden, life is different – either life itself, or our way of thinking.
A couple who see each other for the first time know – either then or years later – that this is what created their marriage and their destiny. A student encounters an unforgettable teacher who makes such an impression that the pupil’s mind is indelibly affected. An opportunity opens up and a new career commences, a new achievement is made possible, a new victory. Even a failure, a disaster, a loss – it chastens us but allows us the chance to rise above it.
We all have our own life’s experiences that change everything. Significantly, these moments were really often God bursting onto our consciousness. True, sophisticated people sometimes find it hard to acknowledge their God-moments, but on reflection they realise that that is what has happened to them: they have seen God working in strange ways.
This is what Joseph tells his brothers when he reveals himself to them in Egypt (Gen. 45): “I am Joseph, (and) it was God who sent me here to save life”.
December 1st, 2013
Joseph, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874
This week’s reading is another of the Joseph stories. It recalls a verse in Psalm 80 which says that God “leads Joseph like a flock” (Psalm 80:2). The name “Joseph” is a symbol of the northern kingdom of Israel, of which the leading tribe was one of Joseph’s sons.
In rabbinic imagery, however (Midrash Yalkut Shim’oni), God actually leads like Joseph.
What a strange comparison. That human leaders seek to follow God’s example is not difficult to understand. But that God follows the example of one of His human creatures, that is harder to comprehend.
The sages say that just as Joseph stored up food for the future, so God stores up blessings for us in the next world. Just as Joseph supplied each person according to his needs, so God gives each individual what they require. Just as Joseph’s brothers acted badly towards him but he repaid ill with good, so human beings constantly mistreat God, but He repays evil with blessing.
Joseph had three leadership characteristics – he had his eyes on the future, he cherished each of his people, and he always remained positive. Nonetheless, it is not God who learned from Joseph, but Joseph who learned from God.
November 24th, 2013
The light of Torah, painting by Alex Levin
It’s strange that the Talmud asks, “What is Chanukah?” (Shab. 21b) but doesn’t ask, “What is Pesach?” or “What is Purim?” Chanukah must have had a special quality for the sages.
It isn’t, as Rashi points out, that they were unaware of the rules of the festival, but they felt that an ideological explanation of the occasion was called for.
Two things required emphasis – the miracle of the light, and the danger of Hellenism. The Hellenists had to be overcome because they were regarded as enemies of the light, the light of Torah. No-one denied the existence of Greek wisdom, but Judaism regarded it with considerable apprehension and compared it to the “darkness on the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:2).
The problem of Hellenism was that it concentrated on externalities, material expressions of culture, art, philosophy, government, literature, science and bodily prowess.
Jewish teachers – notably Maimonides – quoted the Greeks, but wondered where the inner soul of the human being was to find its spark and source if not in the spirituality of the Torah. Greek culture was full but empty. Chanukah stood for the light of HaShem.