• Miketz


    coping with crisis

    While Joseph is rising to great heights in Egypt, the family he left behind in Canaan is sinking into famine and despair. Joseph’s brothers, who were raised in comfort, have no idea how to cope in hard times. So it is Jacob, who spent much of his life as a poor and hungry shepherd, who is left to stir them into action. He does so with an unusual phrase, which occurs only once in the bible: “Lama titra-u”.

    This phrase, which girds the sons into acting, is clearly crucial to the story. But what does it mean?

    The question that Jacob directs at his sons is a mysterious one. The word “titra-u” seems to be the reflexive form of the verb to see, suggesting that it may mean to look at yourself, or to make yourself appear a certain way. The ambiguity in the phrase leaves the commentators wide room for interpretation as to Jacob’s message to his sons at this time of crisis. Here are the views of four classic commentators.

    • Rashi, the great French commentator, writing in the th century, reads the word titra-u as “make yourself appear”, giving the sentence the sense of: ‘why are you pretending to others that you have plenty of food?’ In other words, he suggests, Jacob is telling his sons not to worry about keeping up appearances and to face up to the reality of the crisis that confronts them.
    • Radak (R. David Kimche, France, th century) takes a similar line, but reads the word as “delude yourself” or “fantasize”. For the Radak, the problem Jacob is addressing is not that the sons are trying to fool others, but rather that they are fooling themselves.
    • Ibn Ezra, writing in Spain in the th century, finds a similar phrase in the Book of Chronicles where it means “quarrel”, and so concludes that Jacob’s admonition is “Don’t argue with each other.”
    • Ovadia Sforno, writing in 15th century Italy, gives the simplest and most poignant explanation. Taking the verb titra-u as the reflexive form of the verb “to see”, he translates the phrase “lama titra-u?”, quite literally, as ‘Why are you looking at each other?’ In other words, why is none of you taking the initiative, why are you all expecting someone else to solve the problem?

    Four commentators, writing in different places and different ages, suggest very different explanations as to Jacob’s intention in chiding his sons. But each of the four reflects a common psychological reaction to times of crisis: denial, blame and abnegation of responsibility. For Rashi and Radak, the question relates to the tendency to deny the crisis – either to others or to ourselves: “Why are you not facing the reality of the situation?”; for Ibn Ezra, it relates to the tendency to place the blame on others: “Why are you quarreling?”; and for Sforno, it addresses the tendency to look outside of ourselves for the solutions to our problems: “Why are you looking at each other?”

    Israel, in its short history as a modern state, has had to confront more than its fair share of emergency situations. And at these difficult times, the question that Jacob posed to his sons, later to become heads of the tribes of Israel, has served as a helpful guide for dealing with crisis. As interpreted by four classic commentators, the message from Jacob for dealing with such situations is clear: Face up to the reality of the situation; don’t destroy your unity by blaming and quarreling with each other; and take personal responsibility yourself for finding a solution to the problem.

    In others’ words

    “Zionism and pessimism are not compatible.”

    Golda Meir, quoted in Marie Syrkin, Golda Meir

    On a lighter note

    A local yeshiva challenged Oxford University to a rowing contest but were beaten hands-down by the Oxford team. Before the return race, the head of the Yeshiva told his rowing captain to go 
    and spy on the Oxford team’s training session to try and find out why they were so much faster. The rowing captain came back to the Yeshiva head, beaming. “I think I’ve figured out their secret” he said, excitedly. “What is it?” asked the Yeshiva head. “Well,” said the captain, “they do everything the other way round to us.” “What do you mean?” “It’s simple,” says the captain, “they’ve got eight men rowing and only one man shouting!”

  • Vayeshev


    the reality of dreams

    “Here comes the dreamer,” say Joseph’s brothers as they plot his murder. Others dream in the Bible, but only Joseph is called the “dreamer”. Indeed, of the 9 dreams described in the five books of Moses, Joseph is associated with 6 of them. These six dreams, in three pairs, give a revealing insight into the personal development of Joseph, and at the same time give us an interesting clue as to when and how dreams are actually fulfilled.

    The first pair of dreams in the story of Joseph are those that he dreams as a young man, and tells his brothers. These dreams of his brothers’ sheaves bowing before him, and then stars representing all his family doing the same, are what enrage his brothers and lead them to sell him as a slave into Egypt.

    The second pair of dreams are those of Pharaoh’s butler and baker, locked up with Joseph in an Egyptian prison. Joseph interprets their dreams, and, as he predicts, the baker is hanged and the butler is restored to his position. But the butler forgets his promise to remember Joseph, and he remains in prison.

    The final pair of dreams are those of Pharaoh: seven thin cows eat fat cows and seven thin ears of corn eat fat ears of corn, but none get any fatter. Joseph interprets these dreams, winning Pharaoh’s confidence. The result is that he is appointed second-in-command over all Egypt and oversees the implementation of his plan to save Egypt from famine.

    These three sets of dreams chart a clear progression in Joseph’s development from a self-centered youth to an adult with social awareness and a sense of responsibility.

    • The first pair, which he dreams himself, reflect his own personal ambition, and his desire to be greater than his brothers.
    • The second pair are dreamed by his fellow prisoners, and deal with their fate; Joseph is developing an awareness of the needs and concerns of those close to him.
    • The third pair are dreamed by Pharaoh, the head of state, and address the welfare of society as a whole.

    At the same time, the series of dreams also charts a progression in terms of Joseph’s own commitment to implementing his vision: His own dreams, he simply tells to his brothers. The dreams of the butler and baker, he actively interprets. And Pharaoh’s dreams he not only interprets, but actually implements as the vice chancellor of Egypt.

    It is only when Joseph has completed both of these progressions, and has developed both a sense of social awareness and a commitment to act on it, that his dreams can be fulfilled.

    The lesson that Joseph learns is that only when he expands his circle of concern, from himself to the whole of society, and only when he increases his commitment, from simply boasting about his dreams to actively working to implement them, will his dreams actually be fulfilled.

    This may be a lesson for us in Israel today too. The modern state of Israel has been called a “coalition of dreams” – a society established by many different groups within the Jewish world, all with their own vision of the way the society should look. The dreams of the Joseph story remind us that the more inclusive our dreams are, and the more we are prepared to actually work to implement them, the greater the chance they will actually become a reality.

    In others’ words

    Judge Louis Brandeis, the United States Supreme Court judge, was a major supporter of the early Zionist movement. Hosting a reception for Nahum Sokolow in Boston in March, 1913, he responded to Sokolow’s description of the dream of a Jewish state:

    “We have listened to the unfolding of a wonderful dream. The great quality of the Jews is that they have been able to dream through all the long and dreary centuries; and mankind has credited them with another quality, the power to realize their dreams. The task ahead of them is to make this Zionist ideal a living fact. If they wish it, they can by service bring it about.”

    On a lighter note

    Chaim was talking to his psychiatrist. “I had a weird dream recently,” he says. “I dreamed that you were my mother. I found this so worrying that I immediately awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up, made myself a slice of toast and some coffee for breakfast, and came straight here. Can you please help me explain the meaning of my dream?” The psychiatrist kept silent for some time, then said, “One slice of toast and coffee? You call that a breakfast?”

  • Vayishlach


    the hardest battle

    20 years after fleeing from his brother Esau who has sworn to kill him, Jacob prepares to meet him again. For the Rabbis this meeting became the prototype showdown between Israel and the nations. Before the meeting with Esau, the Rabbis point out, Jacob prepares in three ways: He divides his camp in two, he prays to God, and he sends Esau gifts and conciliatory messages. These three tactics mirror the basic strategies that Israel has adopted in dealing with potentially hostile situations throughout the ages: preparation for battle, prayer, and diplomacy.

    But before the showdown with Esau can take place, another battle has to be fought…

    The night before Jacob’s fateful meeting with Esau, a strange encounter takes place.

    After helping his family to cross the River Jabok, Jacob finds himself alone on the other side. There, in the midst of the night, a stranger wrestles with him till the morning. As dawn breaks the adversary begs Jacob to release him, and blesses him with the name ‘Israel’ when he does so.

    It is a haunting and mysterious encounter. Who was the strange adversary? At the outset of the story, he is described as ‘a man’, at the end as ‘Peniel’, an angel. But most strangely of all, the Bible takes pains to stress that the struggle takes place when Jacob is alone [“And Jacob remained alone’]. It seems that, on one level at least, this is an internal conflict; Jacob is struggling with himself.
    It is a struggle from which Jacob does not emerge unscathed. Before he releases his antagonist, he is injured in his thigh. The injury to Jacob’s leg closes a circle in his relations with his brother Esau.
    When he was born, Jacob came out of the womb grasping on to his brother’s heel, prompting his name Yaakov (from ekev , a heel) and setting a pattern of trying to overtake his brother that will recur throughout his life. Esau himself recognizes this pattern, and after discovering that through trickery Jacob has stolen both his birthright as well as his firstborn blessings, he bursts out: “Rightly was he called Yaakov, since twice he has overtaken me (vayaakveni )”.

    Now, before he can confront Esau, Jacob has to confront himself and the justice of his cause. Only when this internal moral struggle has taken place, can Jacob go forth to the external confrontation.

    The message of the Bible seems to be that inner conviction is a key to success in any contest in which we find ourselves. Before entering into a battle, we must first battle within ourselves to be convinced of the justness of our cause.

    This message has gained powerful relevance for Israel in recent years. During these years Israel has been waging an unceasing battle to defend the lives of its civilians from terrorist groups. These groups recognize no law or humanitarian principle; not only do they deliberately target Israel’s civilians, but they place their terror bases and bomb factories in the heart of civilian areas. These despicable tactics place Israel in excruciating moral dilemmas. But Israel cannot absolve itself of the need to confront them. This continual struggle takes place at every level of society – in public discourse, within the military and in the High Court of Justice.

    It is a painful and unending struggle. But, as the Biblical account makes clear, it is this internal moral struggle that makes us worthy of the name “Israel”.
    In others’ words

    Yitzhak Rabin on Israel’s victory in the Six Day War:

    “In every sector our commanders of all ranks proved themselves superior to those of the enemy. Their resourcefulness, their intelligence, their power of improvisation, their concern for their troops, and above all, their practice in leading their men into battle: these are not matters of technique or equipment. There is no intelligible explanation except one — their profound conviction that the war they were fighting was a just one. “All these things have their origin in the spirit and end in the spirit. Our soldiers prevailed not by the strength of their weapons but by their sense of mission, by their consciousness of the justice of their cause, by a deep love of their country, and by their understanding of the heavy task laid upon them: to insure the existence of our people in their homeland, and to affirm, even at the cost of their lives, the right of the Jewish people to live its life in its own state, free, independent and in peace.”

    Yitzhak Rabin, receiving an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1967

    On a lighter note

    Comedian Jackie Mason on Jews and violence:
    “Jews don’t fight. I don’t know if you noticed that. In this country they almost fight. Every Jew I know almost killed somebody. They’ll all tell you. “If he had said one more word … he would’ve been dead today. That’s right. I was ready. One more word…” What’s the word? Nobody knows what that word is.”

    Jackie Mason, “ The World According to Me ”, quoted in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Humor

  • Vayetze


    a dream with two meanings

    “And Jacob dreamed: And behold there was a ladder set upon the ground with its top reaching the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it. And behold the Lord stood over it…”

    Jacob’s famous dream is something of a puzzle. The world “sulam”, usually translated as a ladder, is a hapax legomenon, that is a word occurring only once in the whole of the Bible. So the question remains open: What is the mysterious connection between the earthly and heavenly realms? And what is its significance for Jacob at this point in his journey?

    The classic commentators view Jacob’s dream as a personal assurance of protection to him. Jacob is at a moment of particular loneliness and fear, as he flees from one adversary, his brother Esau, and makes his way towards another, his uncle Laban. At this vulnerable moment the vision reassures him that he will not be alone, and that his guardian angels shall remain with him.

    But, alongside the view of the dream as a comment on Jacob’s personal situation, there are those who see it as a message on a far broader canvas. The Midrash Tanhuma (an early, 4th century, collection of Midrashic sources) sees in the dream a comment not about Jacob’s fate, but about the destiny of nations and empires:

    “’And behold the angels of God ascending and descending’: These are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed Jacob our father. The prince of Babylon ascended seventy rungs and descended, Medea, ascended fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred rungs and descended, Edom (Rome) ascended and no one knows how many! In that hour, Jacob was afraid and said: “Perhaps this empire will not descend?” Said the Holy One blessed be He to him: “Fear not, O my servant Jacob…”

    For the author of this midrash, Jacob’s dream depicts the rise and fall of empires which have oppressed the Jews, and the sulam is nothing other than the ladder of world history. Writing at a time when other empires had risen and fallen, but the Roman empire yet remained strong, the midrash saw the dream as a promise that this empire too would go the way of all others, and God’s promise to the Jewish people would yet be fulfilled.
    So which is it? A promise to Jacob the man, at a specific point in his life? Or a promise to Jacob the patriarch, as a symbol of the entire Jewish people, intended to resonate throughout the generations?

    A strange ambiguity in the text suggests that it is intended to be read both ways. As Jacob sees the ladder, the text tells us that “the Lord stood alav ” – the word “alav” can mean both ‘over him’ and ‘over it’. And it makes a difference. “Over him”, suggests that God was watching over Jacob, giving him a personal guarantee of protection . “Over it” suggests that God is overseeing the ladder, the cosmic rise and fall of history.

    And indeed the promise given by God in the dream seems to carry a double message of reassurance – for Jacob the man, the fugitive, about to leave his country for a strange land, and for Jacob the Jewish people, destined to wander homeless though generations of exile:

    “Behold, I am with you, and I shall protect you wherever you go, and I shall return you to this land, for I shall not abandon you until I have done everything of which I have spoken to you”

    Gen. 28:15

    This blessing, seemingly directed both at Jacob as an individual, and at Jacob as a symbol of the Jewish people, is perhaps a reminder that we all live such a dual existence: as individuals traveling our own personal journeys, and as members of a people playing out its destiny in the long history of nations.

    In others’ words

    “No human being is wealthy or powerful enough to transplant a nation from one habitation to another. An idea alone can achieve that and this idea of a State may have the requisite power to do so. The Jews have dreamt this kingly dream all through the long nights of their history. “Next year in Jerusalem” is our old phrase. It is now a question of showing that the dream can be converted into a living reality.”

    Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State

    On a lighter note

    Herzl and Freud
    It is a curious fact that for two years, between 1896 and 1898, Theodor Herzl and Sigmund Freud were living on the same street, Berggasse, in Vienna (Herzl at number  and Freud at number 19). So one cannot help wondering how different the course of Zionist history might have been, if instead of writing ‘The Jewish State’, Herzl had strolled over to the house of the famous psychoanalyst knocked on the door, and said: “I’ve had this dream…”

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