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    Feeding the flock – Vayyeshev

    November 29th, 2015

    487px-Foster_Bible_Pictures_0045-1_A_ShepherdJoseph had a highly eventful life. Even as a youth he hardly ever had smooth sailing.

    Biblical narrative is always striking and nowhere more than in the accounts of the family dynamics between him and his brothers.

    The text does however have its difficulties – for example, the phrase in Genesis 37:2 that says he was “feeding the flock”. It is unlikely that this translation is correct since the next verse contradicts it when it says that Jacob showed favouritism for Joseph by not making him do manual work.

    It could well be that the Hebrew is not telling us that Joseph himself was tending the sheep but that he was supervising his brothers whilst they did the hard work.

    To be the supervisor spared Joseph physical exertion and enabled him to show his organisational talents. It brought him additional favour with his father, especially when he reported the brothers’ mischief and misdeeds – the chapter says he brought “an evil report of them”, which presumably means “a report of their wrongful actions” – but it was one more reason why the brothers resented and hated him.

    Was the bad blood between them due to the fact that, as the Torah says, “he was (but) a lad”? In other words, was he too immature to handle his responsibilities sensibly, and did they feel especially bad to have a stripling as their supervisor?

    Both are possible, and both remind us that there is a real art and skill involved in harmonious industrial relations.

    Joseph’s dreams – Vayyeshev

    November 29th, 2015

    Joseph's dream, from the Holman Bible, 1890

    Joseph’s dream, from the Holman Bible, 1890

    Much of this week’s portion deals with Joseph’s dreams. Vivid and fascinating, sometimes they focus on material things and sometimes on spiritual.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe thinks the interplay of physical and spiritual is characteristic of the Jew. The combination is borne out by a discussion between a group of children. They had become rather serious, and were debating why a person eats.

    One said, “I eat in order to grow big and strong and to be able to fight”. Another said, “I eat in order to live and do what God wants”.

    The second is the Jewish way of answering the question. A person inhabits the material world in order to serve God’s spiritual purposes.

    In my own case I recall a conversation I had as a child with my religious mentor. Getting a bit philosophical, I asked my teacher, “Why do we live? What is the purpose of life?” My teacher said, “In order to do God’s will”.

    I kept quiet, but I think I felt that this was a religious cop-out. I more or less expected a different kind of answer, and maybe all my life from then onwards I have been seeking the “different” answer. I never found one, and I have come to the conclusion that my teacher was right.

    What if… – Vayyeshev

    November 29th, 2015

    What_ifAt the age of 17 Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites by a group of Midianite traders (Gen. 37:28). If this had not happened, would the whole of history have been different?

    Probably, but “if” is a rather useless question. There are so many “ifs”, and one leads to another. Perhaps you remember the discussion – clearly emanating outside the Jewish people by reason of the foods involved – “If we had any eggs we could have bacon and eggs, that is if we had any bacon”.

    Just start imagining the “ifs” from the beginning of history: if God had not created the world, if He had created the heavens but not the earth, if He had created the dry land and not the sea… if He had not created human beings, if He had created woman but not man, if Eve had not been tempted, if Cain had not killed Abel…

    In a sense, “if” is what you do when you play certain types of computer games, but real life has so many permutations that you can’t possibly handle them all.

    Maybe the only thing we can do is to take the facts as they are and make our decisions as wisely as we can.

    Who wrote Ma’oz Tzur? – Ask the Rabbi

    November 29th, 2015

    Q. Who wrote Ma’oz Tzur?

    Maoz TzurA. The initial letters of the first five stanzas yield the acrostic Mordechai, indicating an author named Mordechai who lived in Germany in the early 13th century.

    Which Mordechai it was has not been established. There is a theory that he was Mordechai the son of Isaac, author of a Sabbath song called Mah Yafit.

    The sixth stanza (Chasof Zero’a Kod’sh’cha), if it is authentic, begins with the three letters of Chazak (Be Strong!), following a style that often appears in medieval religious hymns to produce an acrostic that reads “Mordechai, may he be strong”.

    The melody imitates a medieval German folk tune deriving from Protestant sources in the 15th century. The hymn suggests the persecutions of the Crusades and the sixth verse cleverly alludes to Christianity, one of very few Christian references in the Jewish prayer book.

    In recent centuries a number of authors have drafted additional verses for Ma’oz Tzur, but none has become as widely accepted as the original five or six-stanza text. The existing sixth stanza, in common with the newer versions, culminates in a prayer for the messianic redemption.

    One new verse composed by Morey Schwartz in Israel reads in translation: “Two thousand years of memory/Never losing our hope in destiny/Age after age, in many a land/We raised our eyes to Zion’s sand/We are back in our ancient home/Our dispersed can come/State and people, we shall fulfil our dream”.

    Hostility to Hasmoneans – Ask the Rabbi

    November 29th, 2015

    Q. Why did the sages have such a poor opinion of the Hasmoneans?

    Maccabees warriors battleA. They saw both their good and bad points. At the same time as praising their achievements, they criticised the Hasmonean egotism and power hunger, wanting both the spiritual and temporal crowns as high priests and kings at the same time (Jerusalem Talmud, Horayot 3:2).

    The commentator Nachmanides praised the Hasmoneans for their service to the Torah and said that without them the Torah might have been forgotten. Nonetheless he adds that they should not have brought the integrity of the priesthood into question by wanting to be kings at the same time (Ramban to Num. 18:7). Temporal rulers do not (and possibly cannot) base themselves solely on the rules of the Torah.

    The Chatam Sofer even goes further by suggesting that because the Hasmoneans grabbed too much they risked losing the credit for what they did, which explains why the Talmud has no distinct tractate about Chanukah and the only Talmudic reference to the festival is rather fleeting (Shab. 21b, Bava Kamma 62b). In contrast, Purim has a whole Megillah of its own and a whole volume in the Talmud.