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    Wise women – Sh’mot

    December 31st, 2017

    In the first chapter of Sh’mot the word “wise” is used in several senses.

    In verse 9 the king of Egypt, fearing the incoming Hebrews, says, “Let us deal wisely with them”. The better translation is “let us deal shrewdly with them”.

    Instead of brute force, Pharaoh preferred to think out a policy that would suppress the Hebrews without a massacre. One of his methods was to keep the people so hard at work that they had no time to conspire against the regime.

    In verse 19 the text says that the Hebrew midwives were “lively”, which Onkelos renders as “wise”. Ancient cultures often referred to midwives in this way. The Jewish sources (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 2:4) use the word “wise” with this meaning.

    Why the Torah says “lively” is probably to convey the sense of “quick and efficient”; why Onkelos says “wise” probably comes from the thought that these women were well trained and professional.

    If, however, the word “lively” applies to the Hebrew women as a whole and not the midwives, it suggests that they gave birth more quickly than their Egyptian counterparts, perhaps because there were traditional child-birth customs amongst the Hebrews that led to easier births.


    Choosing the younger – Vayyechi

    December 24th, 2017

    Jacob on his deathbed, by Jan Victors c.1635

    The book of B’reshit is full of sibling stories in which brothers struggle for supremacy with the general result that the younger wins out over the elder.

    By this week’s sidra the narrative focusses on grandchildren, though Menasseh and Ephraim are not the only grandsons to be mentioned in B’reshit.

    Grandfather Jacob wants to give a blessing and decides that the younger son deserves it.

    Joseph reminds his father that Menasseh is the older, not Ephraim. “I know, my son, I know,” says Jacob.

    We expect the two boys to argue over Jacob’s plan. Strangely, no argument takes place: the long chain of family quarrels is over and the two boys accept their grandfather’s choice.

    What is Jacob’s motivation? As a younger son himself he knows that older sons – for all their good points – are sometimes unfitted to bear the responsibility of spiritual leadership.

    His hand of blessing chooses the more suitable son.


    How the dream will end – Vayyechi

    December 24th, 2017

    Jacob blesses his sons on his deathbed (Figures de la Bible, 1728)

    The end of Jacob’s life sees the family around the patriarch’s death-bed.

    Jacob yearns to use his last breath to give them tell them what will happen in the future but God intervenes and stops him.

    Should we be angry with God for preventing Jacob from revealing the future?

    There are two opinions.

    One says God was unfair and should have let the prophetic vision unroll.

    We are entitled to know how things will work out. If the end will be good and joyful, what happens in the meantime will be tolerable and we will be able to bear any sacrifice or privation in the meantime.

    On the other hand if we don’t know how things will work out we have no guarantee of eventual safety but will be constantly upheld by faith, hope and dreams.

    Maybe that’s why Rav Moshe Feinstein comments at the end of Vayyetzei that protection by God’s angels is not just up to God. We have a share in the task.

    If we serve God and man, our deeds become our protecting angels.


    Aliyah for a child of a non-Jewish father – Ask the Rabbi

    December 24th, 2017

    Q. If a man has a non-Jewish father but a Jewish mother, what name do we use when calling him to the Torah?

    A. There are several options.

    The R’ma (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) prefers to call him as the son of his mother’s father (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 139:3).

    The responsa of Rabbi Simcha Bamberger of Stuttgart say Ben Avraham (She’erit Simcha 2).


    I am your brother – Vayyiggash

    December 17th, 2017

    Joseph & his brothers, by Gustave Dore

    In Gen. 45:3, Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, finally reveals himself to his brothers and says, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”

    The question about his father is strange. Judah had already told him, “We have an elderly father” (Gen. 44:20).

    Possibly Joseph’s question is intended as a rebuke to his brothers: “Now you talk about your father’s feelings and show concern that an aged parent will grieve if Benjamin doesn’t come home. What about the time when you sold me as a slave to Egypt and didn’t seem to care whether it would cause our father anguish?”

    Joseph doesn’t need to be told that Jacob is still alive. What he does want, rather diplomatically, is to understand how they could suddenly be so concerned about Jacob when they must have seen years of sorrow on his face.