Saturday, December 29, 2007


I was the only one staying in my apartment this Shabbat. On Friday, I felt very sleepy. At about noon, I decided to take a nap, and set my alarm for 2 PM.

However the alarm didn't do its job. When I woke up, everything was dark. With some difficultly, I managed to read the clock on my wall, by the light of the streetlights outside my window. What I saw shocked me.

It was about 11:30 PM. I had overslept by 9 and a half hours. There had never been a Shabbat like this in my life. I checked to be sure it was indeed Shabbat, by looking out my window at the central bus station (far away but visible from my hilltop apartment). It was closed and dark - on a weekday a few buses would have still been running.

After cleaning myself up a bit I sat down to the only Shabbat meal I could have at that hour. I ended up eating cold (though somewhat tasty) leftovers, sitting in the darkness.

I felt like such a Sadducee.

Thoughts on Shemot

The first mention of the Egyptian slavery is Breishit 15:13, when God tells Avraham that "your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs, and shall serve them 400 years".

This prediction is strange in the context it comes in. There is no clear background on what led to the decree. And following this brief mention, the issue of eventual slavery seems to disappear from the book. As I suggested, there seems to be an causual chain of events throughout Breishit, which inevitably leads to slavery in Egypt. But this chain is really an example of "how", not "why"; the "why" for slavery remains unclear.

Perhaps we can gain some insight by looking at the story which immediately follows Brit Bein Habetarim (Breishit 15, in which the promise of slavery is made). In chapter 16, Sarah is childless. She has Avraham take Hagar, an Egyptian woman, as a second wife. When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah becomes displeased with her and oppresses her. Nevertheless, Hagar goes on to gives birth to a son (Ishmael), while Sarah remains childless.

This reminds me of the Israelites' experience in Egypt, but with the ethnicities reversed. In that second story, it was the Egyptians who invited Jews into their country. When the Israelites began to reproduce abnormally fast, it worried the Egyptians, who tried to compensate by oppressing the Israelites. But that failed, as the Israelites only continued to reproduce.

Due to the multiple similarities between the stories, I wonder if Sarah sinned in her treatment of Hagar the Egyptian, and if the oppression of Sarah's descendants is a measure-for-measure punishment for her misdeed. There are probably additional reasons for the slavery, but this could be one significant contributing factor.

If so, this would provide a clear linkage between chapters 15 and 16. Excluding the Avimelech episodes in chapters 20 and 21 (which I'm not really sure the purpose of), chapters 15 and 16 are the only stories in Avraham's life which did not seem to be closely thematically interwoven with what comes before and after them. I think we have now identified the connection between them.

(In principle, there's no reason why "random details that had to be mentioned somewhere" couldn't be thrown it at some random point. But it's much cooler if you can justify the placement as well as the existence of each story.)

A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef. (1:8)

The simplest interpretation of this line is that the new king knew Yosef's legacy, but chose to ignore it.

But it's also possible that at some point Yosef really became unknown. The ancient Egyptians had a tendency, especially around the time period the Israelites were there, to erase all historical records of whatever was inconvenient to them. And Yosef, because of his "abominable" Hebrew ancestry and his (presumable controversial) political and economic policies, would seem to be a likely target for historical censorship.

[Yocheved] became pregnant and bore a son. She saw that he was good, and concealed him for three months. (2:2)
He was good - when he was born, the whole house filled with light. (Rashi)

2:2 is a difficult line - what does it mean for a baby to be "good", and why would a mother choose to save only "good" babies? A couple possibilities suggest themselves to me (and other people): perhaps the baby was healthy and likely to survive (thus worth endangering oneself in order to save), or else was well-behaved (thus unlikely to cry constantly and reveal himself to Egyptians).

Rashi seems to take a different approach: that due to Moshe's historical importance, unusual effort had to be put into saving him. In order to explain how Moshe's future role was recognized by Yocheved, Rashi says that a miraculous light filled his house. As Siftei Hachamim points out, there is a precedent for equating the phrase "it was good" with light, in the Breishit creation story.

Now, Breishit 1:4 is not the only place in the Torah where the phrase "it was good" ("ki tov") appears. So please indulge me as I compose a midrash of my own, which probably relies on the same thought process as the original. Elsewhere, we see restfulness equated with good: "vayar menucha ki tov". Therefore, when the Torah says that baby Moshe was "ki tov", it may be saying that he constantly slept all the time. Therefore he did very little crying, and hiding him did not endanger his mother's life.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thoughts on Vayechi

After Yosef successfully interpreted Pharaoh's dreams, Pharaoh delegated to him virtually unlimited power. And yet, in the last two weeks' parshas, it is striking that in one particular sphere Yosef has no independence whatsoever. Regarding his own family - the brothers' arrival in Egypt, Yaakov's burial, etc. - Yosef feels the need to consult Pharaoh for permission before taking any decision, however small.

It seems that this oversight is motivated by concerns about Yosef's loyalty. When they first came down to Egypt, Yosef accused his 10 brothers of being spies. Yosef knew this was a false accusation, but how could Pharaoh have known? And how could Pharaoh have known that Yosef, for all his talents, would not be tempted to rebel? He was, after all, a despised "Asiatic" foreigner just like his family. Perhaps he shared their likely lack of concern for the existing political order in Egypt.

Of course, Yosef in fact has no plans to overthrow Pharaoh, and Pharaoh probably doesn't really expect him to try. But still, this is an area in which extra prudence is called for, and Yosef is smart enough not to allow any doubts to arise.

This reminds me of the situation in Potiphar's house, where Yosef controlled everything, except for Potiphar's wife. Similarly, here, Yosef had absolute control of everything in Egypt, except in relation to Pharaoh's "household", i.e. the monarchy and dynastic line.

[Yaakov] blessed them on that day, saying: "By you shall Israel bless, saying: 'God make you like Efraim and like Menashe.' " (48:20)

What does this blessing mean, and what is Efraim and Menashe's special quality which makes it a blessing to be compared to them?

I think the answer comes in the next two verses:
"Yisrael said to Yosef: 'Behold, I shall die; but God will be with you, and will bring you back to the land of your fathers. And I have given you one portion more than your brothers...' "

It seems that the blessing of Efraim and Menashe is related to the assignment of a double portion to Yosef's descendants. Yosef's brothers all received a single portion. In contrast, despite everything he went through (i.e. being thrown out of the family for decades), Yosef was unexpectedly rewarded with a double portion before Yaakov's death.

The blessing mentions Efraim and Menashe, the two sons who personify Yosef's double portion. It therefore expresses the hope we overcome adversity to not only reach our expected levels of accomplishment, but to surpass them.

Binyamin is a ravaging wolf; in the morning he consumes plunder, and in the evening he divides spoils. All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this what their father said to them and blessed them; each one he blessed according to his blessing. And he commanded them and said to them: "I am gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers, in the cave in Efron the Hittite's field..." (49:27-29)

The white spaces in a Torah scroll, otherwise known as parshiyah breaks, are almost always a good indication of the Torah's structure (though much less so for certain parts of Nach). But here, a parshiyah break separates Binyamin's blessing from his brothers' blessings, but not from the story of death which follows it. What can possibly lead the Torah to apparently "lump in" Binyamin's blessing with topics which are pretty much unrelated?

(Note: To grasp my explanation, it will immensely help to have a Torah scroll open to parshat Vayechi. If that's impractical, a Koren Tanach or a "tikkun", which have the same formatting, work equally well. :-) )

We can answer the question by saying there are two distinct types of parshiyah breaks - one "thematic" and one "stylistic". A "thematic" parshiyah break separates distinct sections or stories from one another. A "stylistic" parshiyah break (which occurs WITHIN a thematic parshiyah) indicates more minute distinctions, usually between individual items in a list. They can be seen as a looser version of the formatting used in (for example) Az Yashir. Everyone agrees that Az Yashir is a single thematic section, even though it has white space inserted in many places.

Here, Yaakov's blessings to the 12 sons are all part of one thematic section, even though there is white space between each of them. In fact, the blessings are not the only things in the section. The section actually begins with verse 49:1, when Yaakov gathers his sons together for the blessing. It continues with 1) the blessings themselves, 2) Yaakov's death and burial, 3) the brothers begging Yosef for forgiveness, and 4) Yosef's death, at the very end of Sefer Breishit. All this would be one continuous flow of text, were it not for the "stylistic" breaks inserted between the 12 sons' blessings.

To analyze such a long section, you break it down into thematic "sub-sections" as I have just done (1 through 4). These sub-sections are not separated by white space. But, within the first sub-section ("the 12 sons' blessings"), each blessing IS separated by white space. Thus Binyamin's blessing "appears" to be connected to what comes after it, because there is no white space. But in fact, it is separated from what follows by an invisible sub-section-break, and actually connects to the blessings before it, though it is spatially separate from them.

We see a very similar phenomenon in Devarim 33 - Moshe's blessing of Israel. Here, the 12 blessings are all separated from each other, but the first and last blessings (Reuven and Asher) are not separated from what comes (respectively) before and after them. Once again, the sub-section of blessings does not have a parshiyah break before or after it, but it does have stylistic breaks in the middle.

Another example is the story of Adam and Eve. There is a parshiyah break between each of the three curses (snake, woman, man). But there are no breaks either before or after the curses, or elsewhere in the story. Here the curses form a sub-section with stylistic breaks inside it.

One more instance is Vayikra 18. It is clear that there are two sets of prohibitions in this chapter: 1) incestuous relations, referred to as "uncovering nakedness", and 2) various other sexual sins, not called "uncovering nakedness". The first set has a parshiyah break between each verse, while the second set is a continuous run-on of verses. How should we categorize verse 18:17, which is on the boundary between the two sets? On one hand it talks about incest and "nakedness"; on the other hand it is part of the continuous run-on. But applying our previous model, it is clear that the sub-section on incest ends after verse 18:17, and the parshiyah break before 18:17 is simply stylistic, like the other parshiyah breaks in the incest sub-section.

[Yaakov's burial party] came to Goren Haatad, which is beyond the Jordan, and they lamented a very great and deep lamentation; and [Yosef] mourned for his father seven days. (50:10)

Yaakov died in Egypt and was buried in Hevron. Why would his burial party go to Goren Haatad for the mourning ceremony? Wherever exactly Goren Haatad is, it's definitely "beyond the Jordan" River and thus in modern-day Jordan - very far off the road leading from Egypt to Hevron.

It seems to me that the only conceivable significance of "beyond the Jordan" in this context is that Esav lives there. By this time, it's likely that none of Yaakov's family lived in Hevron. So it did not make sense to perform all the ceremonies there. It would be much more sensible to visit Yaakov's brother, and hold the "shivah" at his house in southern Jordan, with only a quick detour to Hevron for the actual burial procedure.

(The gemara in Sotah 13a connects Goren Haatad to Esav as well, but for different reasons.)

(UPDATE: fixed a stupid mistake and did some editing - i.e. basically corrected for the fact that this was written at 1AM)

Thursday, December 20, 2007


"Did you hear, Shloime, like, died."

"Oh that is so sad. When is the funeral?"

"There is no funeral."

"Why not?"

"Well because he is still breathing."

"So on what basis did you say that he is dead?"

"Because the doctor pronounced him, like, dead."

"LIKE dead?"

"Yes, LIKE dead."

"Which doctor?"

"Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler."


"Shloime was in an accident and is now brain dead."

(Not that I intend to take a position one way or another on this controversy. And I must credit the source which inspired this post.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

A beautiful and informative view

Today is an incredibly clear day, and from my window in Haifa I can see the Hermon, bright and clear, an apparently little white hill on the horizon.

The Hermon's peak is 2814 meters above sea level, so it should tower above the Israeli mountains in front of it, whose elevations are 500-1000 meters. Why then does the Hermon appear only slightly higher than them?

This is due to the curvature of the earth. A quick trigonometric calculation reveals that, at about 120 km away from me, objects should appear about 1100 meters lower than their actual height. An apparently 1700-meter-high Hermon will of course appear much smaller against a 1000-meter backdrop than a 2814-meter high mountain would. (I'm neglecting the smaller impact of the earth's curvature on the nearby Israeli mountains.)

Today was so clear I had even hoped to see Cyprus, which has mountains almost as tall as the Hermon. However, another quick calculation shows that is impossible. At 300 km away from me, the earth's curvature will cause Cyprus to be depressed by 7000 meters. If Mount Everest were located on Cyprus I might be able to see it. But it's physically impossible to see Cyprus as it in fact exists today.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Strike Four

Yesterday I visited Haifa University library on one of my periodic quests for reading material (my university's library has only textbooks plus a few trashy romance novels and the like). The bus took an unexpected route and let me off far away from the center of campus. Walking towards that center, I saw it was blocked off by construction barriers, partially burnt tires, and other protest paraphernelia.

It's well known that the least favorite part of many professors' lives is teaching undergrads. So don't be surprised that Israeli professors, in their strike, cynically chose to stop teaching classes while continuing with their research. As the strike continues and it looks more and more likely that the semester will be canceled, the Haifa University students have became fed up with being held hostage to the professors' demands. If students' graduation will be delayed six months due to others' convenience, then at least let those others suffer along with them by not being able to work. Hence the attempted closing of campus.

I was lucky enough to take all my required courses last year, and the courses I'm TAing and grading are taught by non-faculty lecturers, so the professor strike has a negligible effect on me.

By the way, did you hear the midrash about Avraham when he left Haran? Eventually he reached Eretz Yisrael and saw that nobody was working - they were all on strike. He said "I hope my portion is not in this land." At that moment Hashem told him, "TOO BAD!!!"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thoughts on Miketz

It came to pass after two years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold! he stood by the Nile. And, behold! there came up out of the river seven good-looking and fat cows, and they fed in the reeds. And, behold! seven other cows came up after them out of the river, ugly and skinny, and stood by the other cows on the riverbank. The ugly and skinny cows ate up the seven good-looking and fat cows, and Pharaoh awoke. He slept and dreamed a second time, and, behold! seven sheaves grew on one stalk, lush and good. And, behold! seven sheaves, thin and blasted by the east wind, sprouted after them. The thin sheaves swallowed up the seven lush and full sheaves. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold! it was a dream. (41:1-7)

The word "vehineh" ("and, behold") indicates the sudden appearance and recognition of something unexpected. It is therefore appropriate for dreams, in which events evolve spontaneously from one another with little concern for the rules of logic. Thus, every few words in the dream description, there is an "and behold!" to indicate that another random dream-image is appearing without rhyme or reason or predictability.

In fact, when "vehineh" appears multiple times within a few verses in the Torah, it is usually in the context of a dream. This is the case for Yaakov's ladder dream and Yosef's bowing down dreams, as well as Pharaoh's dreams here.

A similar case is brit bein habetarim, where God appears to Avraham in a "vision", and "vehineh" is used three times (verses 4, 12, 17) to describe his experiences. This "vision" is not quite a dream, since he is more or less awake for much of it, but it has the same unpredictability that dreams do. (At the risk of sounding flippant, I would say that Avraham here views the world as if under the influence of a psychedelic drug.)

The only other occasions in the Torah on which "and behold" is used repeatedly are in describing the appearance of tzaraat (Shemot 4:6-7, Vayikra 13-14, Bamidbar 12:10). What the connection is between tzaraat and dreams, I have no idea.

Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand, and put it upon Yosef's hand, and clothed him in fine-linen garments, and put the gold chain about his neck. (41:42)

What is "the" gold chain which Yosef now gets to wear? We see here and here that it was a very distinctive type of collar frequently worn by pharoahs. Perhaps it was therefore a symbol not only of wealth, but of royal authority, like the signet ring which Yosef received at the same time.

Interestingly, the striped coat which made Yosef's brothers jealous may have had the same purpose. It was quite possibly a symbol that Yaakov had chosen Yosef as the future leader of the 12 tribes. If so, then Yosef could have seen this as vindication of him and a sign that his dreams were finally beginning to come true.

The next morning he was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all of its wise men, and Pharaoh told them his dream; but none could interpret them to Pharaoh. (41:8)

Pharaoh speaks of a single dream, but the interpreters speak in the plural. It may be that Pharoah knew instinctively that the dreams had the same message, yet the interpreters insisted on interpreting them separately. The very first words of Yosef's interpretation are "Pharaoh's dream is one." Thus, intentionally or not, he immediately hits on the exact point that Pharaoh insisted on so strongly, against the opinion of all the magicians. This demonstrates either incredible skill or incredible luckiness (read: Divine providence) on Yosef's part. Pharaoh assumes the former, which is why he is then so enthusiastic about giving Yosef authority and power.