Friday, December 18, 2009

Thoughts on Miketz

Reuven spoke to his father, saying: "You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him [Binyamin] to you. Deliver him to my hand, and I will bring him back to you. (42:37)

Yehudah said to Yisrael his father: "Send the youth with me, and let us rise and go, and we will live and not die, us and you and our children. I will be the guarantor for him [Binyamin], from my hand you may demand him, and if I do not bring him before you and display him before you, then I will be guilty before you forever." (43:8-9)

Yaakov rejects Reuven's offer, but accepts Yehudah's. What difference between the offers justifies Yaakov's differing reactions? Here are three possibilities. Only the first is well known, but the second and especially the third may be equally important.

1. What they said: There is much room for (speculative) analysis here, and I will just give one idea.

At first glance, Reuven's offer might seem better than Yehudah's. It is measure for measure: as punishment for losing his father's son, he will have to lose his own sons. His offer of two sons in return for Binyamin recalls the Torah's double punishment for theft, or else, alludes to Rachel's loss of two sons. All of this is evidence of Reuven's sensitivity and willingness to take on responsibility.

But Reuven's proposal also contains fatal flaws. Killing his sons would clearly be a case of two wrongs not equaling a right - Yaakov will hardly be appeased about the loss of a son by also losing grandsons. And, of course, the killing would be unjust because Reuven's sons have done nothing to deserve death. (Reuven could not offer that he himself be killed, because that would deprive Yaakov of yet another son - exactly what the offer is trying to avoid.) Capital punishment is appropriate in certain situations, but in return for losing Binyamin it is morally unacceptable. Reuven tries hard, but his offer severely misjudges the moral issues of the situation.

In contrast, Yehudah offers an moral consequence for losing Binyamin - that he be considered guilty, but that nobody should be killed as a result.
Perhaps Yehudah is alluding to Reuven's offer when he says "we will live and not die, us and you and our children". Unlike Reuven, he says, he does not contemplate any of Yaakov's grandsons ("our children") dying as a result of failure on the trip to Egypt. Having specifically rejected the problematic aspect of Reuven's offer, it's no wonder his own offer is accepted.

2. Who said it. When Reuven disgraced himself with his father's wife Bilhah (35:22), he likely lost not only his birthright, but his father's trust as well. Yehudah had no comparable scandal (the Tamar case was likely less serious, and anyway Yehudah took full responsibility for it in the end). So Yaakov was more willing to rely on Yehudah for such an important mission.

3. When they said it. When Reuven made his proposal, the brothers had just come back from Egypt and had plenty of food. Yaakov's rejection may have just meant that he intended to wait for as long as possible before returning to Egypt. Perhaps the famine would end and no trip would be necessary? But by the time Yehudah made his proposal, all the food had been eaten (43:2), and Yaakov had no alternative but to let the brothers go.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Stupid dvar torah of the week

Yosef, in this week's parsha, is like Jonathan Pollard. Both are righteous people who get falsely accused by an evil, anti-Semitic government and placed in prison. Hopefully the US will realize the wisdom of listening to Pollard before they are punished with famine, suffering and destruction, like Egypt was.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Potifar's wife

Why was Potifar's wife attracted to Yosef? Obvious reasons include the fact that Yosef was beautiful, and that through his success running the household he must have demonstrated intelligence and people skills.

There is one more possible reason which is often overlooked. Sefer Breishit describes Potifar as a “saris” (37:36,39:1). Literally, this word means “eunuch”. Now, it could be that since royal servants were often castrated, the term “saris” came to be used even for those who weren't. But it's also possible that Potifar was in fact a eunuch, and he married his wife due to social expectations , not out of sexual desire.

If so, then it's perfectly understandable why Potifar's wife would be unsatisfied with her husband and looking for someone to have an affair with.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Etrog in honey

My roommate suggests the following post-Sukkot etrog recipe, which he says actually tastes good (unlike the others I've experienced).

Cut into cubes. Put in water and bring to boil. Add honey and lots of sugar. Cook for 1-3 hours, it takes a really long time to cook through.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Hostage situations

Today, Israeli soldiers killed an Israeli to prevent him from entering the Gaza Strip. Army policy is to kill Israelis in this situation, on the assumption that if they end up being held hostage, the resulting exchange of hostage for terrorists will result in the deaths of many more Israelis.

Now, I wonder: why exactly does this logic apply to anonymous Israelis, but suddenly disappear when Gilad Shalit is concerned?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Thoughts on Vayeshev

They took him [Yosef], and threw him in the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. (37:24)

Why does the verse say that the pit was empty, and also that there was no water in it? Isn't this redundant?

Rashi's answer is that “there was no water” implies that there WAS something else in it: snakes and scorpions.

The weaknesses of this explanation include: 1) there is no clear source that it was snakes and scorpions, not some other animal or object, 2) the presence of snakes and scorpions would be irrelevant to the rest of the story. So I want to take a different approach, which is closer to the pshat.

I think the “pit” under discussion was a cistern, a large hewn underground tank meant to hold water. (In many of the more obscure archeology sites across Israel you can see such cisterns.) Such a pit would fill with water during the winter rains, and the water would be preserved and used through the summer. As far as Yosef was concerned, there were three possible states for such a pit. It could be: 1) Mostly or totally full, in which case he would drown upon being thrown in, 2) Empty except for a little water remaining at the bottom, in which case he could live for a long time, drinking the water, and maybe be rescued, 3) Totally empty and dry, in which case he would soon die of thirst.

I think the repetition in the verse is needed to specify exactly what state the pit was in. “The pit was empty” rules out state 1, while “there was no water in it” rules out state 2. Thus, we know that the pit was in state 3, which also best fits the brothers' intentions regarding Yosef.

There is external evidence suggesting that the pit was in state 3. The brothers, who lived in Hebron, had gone to Shechem and from there to Dotan (near modern Jenin) to herd their sheep. What made them travel so far away from home? The answer is likely that it was a very dry year, and they had trouble finding plants for their flocks to eat. Thus, they went further and further north (north is wetter in Israel) until they were able to sufficiently graze their flocks. If the weather was so dry, then the cisterns would almost certainly be dry, as we have assumed.

(As is often the case, thanks to my havruta D.L., for pushing me on the question of this redundancy until I was forced to come up with an answer.)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Thoughts on Vayishlach

God said to Yaakov: “Rise and go up to Beit El and dwell there, and make there an altar to the God who appeared to you when you fled Esav your brother.”
Yaakov said to his household: “Remove the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes.”

How is it possible that among Yaakov's family some people chose to have idols? That Yaakov suspected or knew about them previously, but only now told his family to discard them? That he did not express any anger at the thought his family members might be worshiping idols?

(These are theological problems, but are equally textual problems, since in other places the text presents Yaakov as exclusively devoted to God, and the examples of Avraham and Yitzchak suggest that Yaakov would not tolerate such deviation in his family.)

I think the answers can be found by looking at Parshat Matot.

There, the Jewish people sends an army to fight Midyan. They kill a bunch of people, and return with spoils – both human and material. Moshe then commands them as follows:

“Park yourselves outside the camp seven days, whoever killed a person and whoever touched a corpse, and purify yourselves on the third and seventh days – you and your captives. And every garment, and every leather garment, and every goat fabric, and every wood utensil – you shall purify.” (Bamidbar 31:19-20)

The story there includes the following elements (among others):
1) A bloody war
2) The taking of spoils
3) Purification of people
4) Purification of clothing

Now looking at Yaakov's story, it includes the same four elements:
1) A bloody war – Yaakov's command is right after the Shechem/Dina slaughter (Breishit 34)
2) The taking of spoils: “That which was in the city, and that which was in the field, they [Yaakov's sons] took.” (34:28)
3) Purification of people: “purify yourselves” (35:2)
4) Purification of clothing: “and change your clothes (35:2)

It seems that the whole purification thing was simply the same purification that Moshe's warriors underwent after the war (maybe the technical details differed, since the Torah wasn't given yet). Similarly, it seems there is an obvious and non-controversial source for the idols. If Yaakov's sons really took everything from the city as spoils, as the verse seems to say, surely idols were among the spoils. There is no need to assume that Yaakov's family possessed idols before the war.

The Torah later commands that we destroy captured idols:

“The idols of their gods you shall burn in fire. You shall not appropriate silver and gold from them, and take for yourself – lest you be ensnared by it [by worshiping them]” (Devarim 7:25)

It warns specifically against silver and gold idols, since people will naturally want to hold on to that wealth, even if they don't plan to worship the idols. Yaakov didn't fault his sons too much for wanting the gold and silver. But because the presence of idols is incompatible with building an altar in Beit-El and worshiping God there, Yaakov still had to tell his sons to get rid of the idols.

Parsha joke

Q: How do we know Yaakov Avinu was an environmentalist?

"[Yaakov] took his two wives, his two handmaids, and his eleven sons and he crossed the ford of Yabbok. And he took them and brought them across the stream, and brought across that which was his. [But afterwards] Yaakov was left alone..." (Genesis 32:23-25)

"—[Why did Yaakov stay behind?] He forgot PACHIM KETANIM and returned to pick them up" (Rashi)

"Pachim" means "cans" in modern Hebrew, so clearly was picking up the trash he had left behind the first time!