Parashat Beshlach  / פרשת בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח

Parashat Beshlach  / פרשת בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח

Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”

In my commentary on parashat Vayera I pointed out that the verb aleph/א mem/מ reish/ר means “speak”.  I also mentioned that many classic commentaries understand it to mean speaking to specific individuals.  If this is so then who is God speaking to in the verse above? 

It is possible God is talking to other gods or accompanying angels. This wouldn’t be the first time God consulted with other unnamed or unspecified entities.  In chapter one of Genesis God frequently “speaks” to unnamed others, for example 1: 26, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..”.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ

In Hebrew the name for God in this verse  (and in this week’s portion) is Elohim/אלֹהים, which is the plural form of God.  So it is possible God is talking to other divine entities.

Alternatively, perhaps God is speaking to himself.  I get the sense that God is a bit confused as to how best to lead/instruct the Israelites as they are fleeing Egypt.  The hint of this for me is in the root letters נ.ח.ם. /nun chet/mem which carries three different potential meanings: change one’s mind, guide and comfort.  It is as if God wants to offer comfort to the Israelites by leading away from war lest they change their mind.  Thus, this verse reflects an internal dialogue God is having with himself. 

Other Gods? God talking to himself?  This is not quite the Torah I was taught as a child.  How about you?

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Parashat Bo  / פרשת בא

Parashat Bo  / פרשת בא

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽ

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them…

Anyone with a basic level of Hebrew knowledge will immediately recognize that there is a problem with the translation of the verse above.  It doesn’t actually say, “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh.”  It says,”Then the LORD said to Moses, COME to Pharaoh”.  The Hebrew word in question is בֹּ֖א / bo.  Search the internet and you will find that בֹּ֖א / bo is almost universally translated as “go”.

Clearly the intent of the verse is that God is commanding Moses to “go” and speak with Pharaoh.  So why does the Torah actually say “come” and not go?  The classic explanation is that the words “with me” are elided. The sentence should be understood as “God said to Moses, come with me“.  This is understood to mean have faith that the invisible God is with you when confronting a challenge in life. This is quite lovely:  in times of danger have faith that God is there with you.

I have a problem with this.  If translators are going to mistranslate  בֹּ֖א / bo why not just continue the mistranslation and include the words “with me”? Certainly we wouldn’t want words added to the Hebrew but since translations are always interpretations why not just translate the verse the way tradition wants us to interpret it?

If Exodus was presented only as an oral story (no text to verify spellings) then it is possible that mistranslated בֹּ֖א / bo is actually supposed to be iבֹּ֖ / bo with a vav.  Although these two words sound the same their meanings are quite different.  Bo with an aleph means “come” while bo with a vav means “in him”.  Granted, the sentence doesn’t really make sense as “Then the LORD said to Moses, “in him to Pharaoh…”.  However, since Torah teaches word by word and letter by letter its value is not limited to the coherency of sentence structure. 

Maybe iבֹּ֖ / bo with a vav is cue or hint that just as Exodus is a metaphorical story about freedom from oppressive governments it is also a metaphorical story about the internal oppressive forces, the Pharaoh like saboteurs that operate within us.  We all have these debilitating “inner voices”.  When we reframe these internal negative voices as pointers to our weaknesses they can be very instructive.  So who or what are your pharaohs holding you back?

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Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא

Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא

Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD.

Two of the most common phrases in the Torah occur in this week’s pesuk (verse).  They are “and he spoke” (וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר / va-ye-da-ber) and “he said” (וַיֹּ֥אמֶר / va-yo-mer).  Since these two words are interchangable should we see this as a simple matter of inocuous word choice and of no import, or does each work convey something different and significant, if not subtle? 

In response to those who would see this as unimportant Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Rambam, said, “I do not know what’s the difference between VaYomer and VaYedaber, and why sometimes the Torah uses one, and sometimes the other, and if it seems meaningless, it’s your shortcoming.”[Commentary to Va’era, 7:8]  This response is consistent with a general Torah interpretation principle that nothing is superfluous or meaningless.  The challenge is for us to extract the hidden wisdom from these sort of conundrums.  This is what is meant when we say revelation is on-going.

Over the centuries some commentators suggested that “VaYomer (root: aleph, mem, reish)“ is used to address specific individuals, while “VaYidaber (root: daled, bet, reish)“ is used when speaking of or to non specific recipients. Others have suggested that  daled, bet, reish is used to prepare for speech, the frame, opening the connection, and aleph, mem, reish  is the speech act itself.  Maybe, but our pesuk doesn’t convincingly support either of these assertion.

So is there really an difference in value between these two verbs?  It is hard for me to say, in the words of Rabbi Abraham, it’s my shortcoming that a deeper meaning eludes me.  However, given the power of speech to create, to destroy, to heal, to comfort, to confuse, and to empower, it doesn’t surprise that me that there is more than one way to name the process of forming words for the purpose of articulating ideas.  At the very least, I see in these two words allusion to the complexity of speech.

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Parashat Shemot  / פרשת שְׁמוֹת֙

Parashat Shemot  / פרשת שְׁמוֹת֙

Exodus 1:1-6:1

וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household:

The English name for the second book of the Torah is Exodus.  In the Jewish tradition we call it Shemot, which means “names”.  Names throughout the Torah are extremely important portals to a deeper understanding of the text.  They also often reveal important and unique characteristics about a person. 

As a way to dive deeper into the meaning of the Hebrew word shem/name I applied a playful hermeneutical substitution cipher called Atbash. The name comes from combining the first (aleph) last (tav), second (bet) and second to last (shin) letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It refers to a non-binding way of interpreting Torah that involves swapping letters in a word based on their order, first letter switches with the last letter, the second letter with the second to last letter and so forth.

Shem (shin, mem) in atbash becomes Bi (bet, yod, pronounced bee).  Bi means “in me”. This struck me as suggesting that our name reveals unique aspects of our personality embedded  בי – within us.  What does your name say about you?  If there is a historical meaning to your name does it resonate with you?  If you were named after someone else do you share characteristics with that person?  Is there another name which you feel better embodies your uniqueness?

A good name is more desirable than great riches.  Proverbs 22:1

Howard

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Parashat Vayechi  / פרשת ויחי

Parashat Vayechi  / פרשת ויחי

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֤י יְמֵֽי־יַעֲקֹב֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָֽה׃

Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.

Is it coincidence or providential that Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery and now the Torah tells us Jacob lived in Egypt for the same period of time?  I’ll let you answer this question based on your own theological inclinations.  In the meanwhile, I’m curious to know more about the #17.

Seventeen is the seventh in the series of prime numbers; 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, **17**.  Subsequently it partakes of and intensifies the significance of the numbers seven . Moreover, seventeen is the sum of seven and ten, two power numbers is Jewish numerology (gematria),  Seven represents wholeness (think Shabbat) and ten (and the tenth letter yod) divinity.

Here are some other interesting factoids about the number seventeen.  The floods back in the days of Noah commenced on the 17th of the second month. The ark eventually came to rest on the 17th day of the seventh month.  Yom Kippur is on the seventh day of the tenth month.  In Roman numerals an anagram XVII offers VIXI which in Latin means “I have lived”.  Joseph lived for 17 years under his father Jacob’s roof. Later, Jacob lived for 17 years under the protection of his beloved son Joseph.

As we end 2017 and the book of Genesis here are some questions you might enjoy exploring.  What were your first seventeen years like?  How was your seventeenth year? What was happening for you seventeen years ago?  What do you hope the next seventeen yours bring you?

l’shalom,

Howard

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Parshat Vayigash / פרשת ויגש

Parshat Vayigash / פרשת ויגש

Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּאמֶר֮ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִי֒ יְדַבֶּר־נָ֨א עַבְדְּךָ֤ דָבָר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י וְאַל־יִ֥חַר אַפְּךָ֖ בְּעַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֥י כָמ֖וֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹֽה׃

Then Judah came close to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh”.

The obvious “him” that Judah came close to was Joseph (see Gen. chap 44:14).  However, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, also known as Esh Kodesh (20th c.), suggested that the “him” is  actually God.  He is not conflating God and Joseph. Rather, he is suggesting that Judah first needed to feel close to God, or in other words, to feel God’s presence close at hand before he could cudgel up  the courage to speak openly and forthrightly to Joseph. 

Theologically the idea of wanting to feel God’s closeness while undertaking a challenge resonates with a lot of people.  Indeed, seeking closeness with God  is the essence of the sacrificial system we will read about in the book of Leviticus.  In Hebrew the word for sacrifice is  karbon.  The root of karbon is ק,ר,ב which literally means to come close.  At the heart of religious life is not the performance of rituals and the adherence to arcane rules, but rather seeking closeness to God.

Adhering more closely to the literal meaning of “Judah came close to him” I see another lesson.  Often we prefer to have distance between ourselves and someone we need to confront or challenge.  It is easier, after all, to do this through an email or text than face to face. However, this distancing only depersonalizes the interaction.  In my humanistic religious theology to depersonalize is to exclude God.  In this context, I don’t think of God as noun or numinous presence but rather as holy purpose or righteous intent.  Whether seeking God’s presence for courage and strength or to humanize a situation striving for closeness is better than creating distance.

l’shalom

Howard

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Parashat Miketz / פרשת מקץ

Parashat Miketz / פרשת מקץ

Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

וַיְהִ֕י מִקֵּ֖ץ שְׁנָתַ֣יִם יָמִ֑ים וּפַרְעֹ֣ה חֹלֵ֔ם וְהִנֵּ֖ה עֹמֵ֥ד עַל־הַיְאֹֽר׃

After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile,

Dreams occur frequently in the Torah as they do in our lives.  Not surprisingly, Judaism takes dreams seriously.  In fact, dreaming is considered to be akin to prophecy.  Interestingly, according to the Talmud the prophetic meaning of a dream and its subsequent fulfillment is according to the interpretation that is granted to it. Thus, whether a dream is a positive or negative sign is subject to how it is interpreted. According to the Talmud, not interpreting a dream is like not reading a letter.

Judaism has a ritual related to interpreting dreams.  It is called hatovat chalom, which literally means making the dream a good one.  According to an authoritative text on Jewish law and practice here is how it works:

If a person experiences a bad dream that disturbs her and causes anxiety, that morning she should conduct a ritual called “Hatavat Chalom” which has the power to transform the dream from an ominous sign of future events into a favorable one. This ritual entails assembling three friends and reciting certain texts and verses that have to do with peace and change.  After the completing the ritual the person should give some money to charity, so as to eliminate entirely any potentially harmful effects of the frightening dream.

By the way, a person who is requested to participate in a Hatavat Chalom should not refuse, as it is considered a great mitzvah to help calm a friend’s fears.

l’shalom,

Howard

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