Moses’ Special Nature

What is it about Moses that makes him the one able to lead the Israelites out of slavery? Certainly he does not think that he did anything worthy of this honor. After all, Moses asserts, מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה וכי אוציא את בני ישראל ממצרים; “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”[1] Moses denies G-d’s demand that he go not one, not twice, not thrice but four times, until G-d, aggrieved, says gezunta heyt געזונט הייט– GO ALREADY!

However, when Moses first goes before Pharaoh with his brother Aaron serving as intermediary, not only does Pharaoh not listen to him but he also makes the Israelites do the same work without receiving straw, The Israelite foremen say to Moses and Aaron, “May G-d punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers לתת חרב בהרגנו; putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”[2] Moses, dejected, cries out to Hashem “Why did you bring harm upon this people? למה זה שלחתני; why did you send me?”[3] In other words he’s saying ‘I was right to have misgivings; I’m not cut out for this job.’

Like every parsha, ours needs to end on a positive note, and it does with G-d telling Moses ‘wait and see what I will do to punish Pharaoh.’ However, it does not answer our question of the day: why was Moses chosen? What makes him the one worthy of being our greatest prophet ever?

The best answer I have seen to this comes from the Toldot Yitzhak, Rabbi Isaac Karo,[4] the uncle of Rabbi Joseph Karo of Shulchan Arukh fame. Rabbi Karo points out that in Moses asked G-d “When I come to Israel and say to them ‘The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them.”[5] Unlike any Jewish leader before him, Moses asks G-d what his name is. At the time he gets a cryptic answer, אהיה אשר אהיה, “I will be what I will be.”[6] However, G-d was impressed that Moses asked about His identity, so much so that at the beginning of Parshat VaEra, which we read next week, he tells Moses that he is the only one who received knowledge of G-d’s great name Adonai; the other patriarchs only received direct knowledge of the name El Shaddai (אל שדי)[7].

Toledot Yitzhak comments that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all took for granted that G-d created the world. As such, they only merited getting to know G-d as El Shaddai, as that name means that G-d (אל) is the one who said to the world “Dai!” (די) “Enough!” resulting in the world’s creation. In contrast, the name Adonai is connected to the language of being, that G-d caused the world to come into being through creation. G-d wanted to show the children of Israel that He created the world, and he used Moses as his intermediary, turning a staff into a snake, turning water into blood and engaging in all of the ten plagues.[8]

How does all this relate to us? The central נפקא מינא, or practical application, that I would draw from this text is the importance of asking questions. Pirkei Avot, the Mishnaic text referred to as Ethics of the Fathers, teaches us אין הבישן לומד, that one who is embarrassed to ask a question does not learn.[9] On one hand we can look at Moses as having great chutzpah, as he is not accepting G-d’s demand that he lead Israel at the first moment but rather asking questions and saying he is unworthy of such a task. Rabbenu Bahya’s interpretation goes in accordance with that, asserting that Moses should know better than to question G-d.[10] However, I prefer the view that we should follow Moses’ example and have the audacity to ask questions, even to G-d Himself! I strive to follow the maxim that there is no such thing as a stupid question; that we always need to inquire as to the deeper truths and meanings of life. Moses went one step beyond Abraham, not just uprooting his life in going to a new land but asking questions and challenging until he recognized that this was the proper path for him to take. May we do the same thing when we face challenges and potentially life altering decisions; may we never be afraid to ask the questions that we need in order to arrive at the correct answers.

[1] Exodus 3:11

[2] Exodus 5:21

[3] Exodus 5:22

[4] Rabbi Isaac Karo lived from 1458-1535 in Toledo, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; and Israel.

[5] Exodus 3:13

[6] Exodus 3:14

[7] Exodus 6:3

[8] Toledot Yitzhak on Exodus 6:3 ד”ה וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי ושמי ה לא נודעתי בהם

[9] Pirkei Avot 2:5

[10] Rabbenu Bahya on Exodus 6:3 ד”ה וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי ושמי ה לא נודעתי בהם

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Switching Hands

Have you ever had a deja vous moment, where you think “this sounds familiar”? Where you ask yourself ‘Why am I doing this again? I thought I knew better!’” Such is what I think when I read this week’s portion about the blessings given to Ephraim and Manasseh.

As Jacob lies on his deathbed, Joseph brings his children, Ephraim and Manasseh, to receive a blessing. Manasseh is supposed to receive the special blessing from Jacob, as he was first-born. However, Jacob flips his hands, putting his right hand on the younger brother, Ephraim. After the blessing is given, Joseph protests this act, but Jacob’s reply is “the younger brother shall be greater.”

This sounds like Jacob getting the last laugh, once again not going in accordance with the birth order. Why would he do it? Didn’t he learn from last time that stealing a blessing could be a matter of life and death? Perhaps Jacob had learned from his past, as the dispute over birthright does not occur here. In fact, there is no textual evidence that Manasseh and Ephraim ever fought one another ever. Hence the rabbis instituted that we should bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, which we do every Friday evening.[1]

Chaim ibn Attar, an 18th century Moroccan and Israeli commentator, wrote in his book Or HaChaim that like his father Isaac, Jacob was hard of seeing at the end of his life. Even without seeing he knew that the older son would be on the right-hand side. However, he had intuition that Ephraim would be greater, and he went with his gut.  His intuition turned out to be correct, as the land of Ephraim became the central location for the Kingdom of Israel.

Ephraim of Luntshitz, the 16th century Polish commentator referred to by the name of his book, Kli Yakar, questioned why Joseph waited until after the blessing was given to protest. He posited that perhaps Joseph thought that the left side was actually the preferred side, because our heart, which for the rabbis was the seat of one’s intellect, is located on the left side, as opposed to desire, which is on the right side. Joseph thought that Manasseh was going to receive a blessing of intellect, whereas Ephraim would get a blessing of physicality. When Jacob gave the same blessing to both boys, Joseph recognized his mistake and that Ephraim got preferential treatment with the right hand.

Does it really matter which way the sons were blessed? We should be focused on the fact that both boys were blessed, not on which was blessed with which hand. After all, this is certainly unfair to lefties! The message from Jacob switching his hands, however, means more than just the hands themselves. It means that one’s blessing is not determined by the order in which s/he was born but by his/her actions in life in order to merit blessing.

From the Torah itself, we see that the firstborn never receives the greatest blessing. Ishmael was exiled whereas Isaac became the heir. Jacob received the greater blessing and Esau went off on his own. Joseph, the 12th son, was favorited, and in this week’s portion Judah, the 3rd son, received the greatest blessing. This pattern continues with Ephraim and Manasseh. What one does with his/her life, as opposed to his/her birth order, is what brings blessing.

There’s a story mentioned in the book Freakonomics[2] about the two brothers Lane: one was named Winner and the other named Loser. Winner Lane goes through life thinking himself above the law, and he winds up getting arrested and thrown into jail. Loser Lane, on the other hand, becomes a police officer and a detective. Winner received the blessing of a good name, yet the outcome was he ended up being a loser, whereas loser became a winner. This further proves that it’s not just about what one is named, or the family s/he is born into, life, but rather what one does with the life that s/he is given. Perhaps the order of blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh does not matter-what mattered was what they and their descendants did with the blessing.

As we begin a secular new year, let us examine how we can live a life that is truly blessed, with all the gifts that God has given us. May we us not focus on sibling or family rivalries or favoritism, but rather on what we can do to live a life filled with meaning and blessing each and every day. In doing so, may we follow the example of Manasseh, who did not complain upon receiving the “left hand” but rather got along along with his brother Ephraim. Let us each do our best to live in accordance with his example.

[1] See note to Genesis 48:20, bottom of Page 297 in Etz Hayim Humash

[2] Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (New York City: Harper Collins, 2009).

The Power of Dreams

Last week we examined Joseph standing up against the authority of Potiphar’s wife. This week I want to look at a different facet of Joseph-his ability to solve dreams.

Our portion begins with Pharaoh having a dream which no one can solve. The chief butler, who had been restored to power at the end of last week’s portion, suddenly remembers that a Hebrew youth correctly interpreted the dreams which restored him to power and led to the chief baker being hung.[1] Pharaoh sends for Joseph to interpret the dream but before he does so, Joseph proclaims, “Not I! G-d will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”[2]  We often gloss over the gall and bravery Joseph had to make this statement, as those who held the title Pharaoh considered themselves to be gods. Then of course Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dream and becomes his grand vizier, the second-in-command.

What gave Joseph the ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dream? Is this a particular talent that any of us can learn from in order to curry favor with contemporary elected officials?

The Talmud teaches us that dreams are 1/60th of prophecy.[3] This teaches us that there is a small kernel of truth in every dream and that  G-d is trying to teach us a message through our dreams. The rabbis see this very clearly, especially if we turn back to last week’s portion. After Joseph’s two dreams in which he proclaimed that his brothers would bow before him we have the statement ואביו שמר את הדבר, “but his father guarded the matter.”[4] What does this strange statement mean? Rashi states that it means that Jacob waited and anticipated when Joseph’s prophecies would come true.[5]  Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno adds a personal dimension here, asserting that Jacob thought the dream was true and desired that it be fulfilled, referencing the Talmudic maxim, “A person is jealous of everyone except his child and his student.”[6]

An interesting difference between these earlier two dreams and Pharaoh’s dream in our portion is that Joseph did not reference G-d. While we know the dreams come true in the brothers’ bowing down before Joseph, we also know that Joseph sounded like a braggart and a tattletale, not exactly a sympathetic figure. Now, in contrast, he sounds like a matured figure who gives credit for his abilities to G-d. Similarly in next week’s parsha when the brothers fear Joseph’s wrath, he assures them, “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that G-d sent me ahead of you.”[7] Beginning with Potiphar’s wife, which we discussed last week, Joseph demonstrates an understanding that G-d is responsible for all of his successes. This talent Joseph has for telling dreams is G-d given to be used to help those around him rather than something meant to make him superior to his brothers.

Last week we read a Haftarah from the beginning of the book of Amos, a prophet who routinely castigates the Kingdom of Israel for their misdeeds. It is the words of a later section from Amos, however, that speak to me when I read the story of Joseph. Amos asserts, “To Me, Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians-declares G-d. While I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, I also brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.”[8] In other words, don’t think you’re so great just because you were chosen by G-d to be freed from Egypt. Joseph now recognizes that he has been brought down to Egypt for a reason; to serve Hashem through his great skill in deciphering dreams, and thus to save the lives of the Egyptians (and later his own family) from famine. No specific reason is given for why Joseph was given these skills or this responsibility; rather, like all of our great ancestors, G-d chose to single him out for His holy work.

We are close to concluding our Festival of Lights, our חג אורים. A holiday like Hanukkah can make us feel that we’re so great because we kept faith in Hashem through avoiding Hellenism and for fighting for our religion and beliefs. Before we finish celebrating, however, I want to ask ‘Are we so great?’ I read an article by Barbara Brotman entitled The Maccabees Were on the Wrong Side of History: So Why Do We Still Celebrate Hanukkah?”[9] Barbara writes about her Greek friend John who says “You like wine? You like theater? You like philosophy? You’re with us!”[10]  She asks, “How can I celebrate a holiday that commemorates a defeat of Jews who wanted to live in a cosmopolitan world — in short, Jews like me?”[11] I would argue against her that the two are not mutually exclusive; that one can like Greek cultural and culinary advances, including the Olympics and spanakopita, while concurrently believing in one G-d and in the right to practice Judaism rather than be coerced into practices that are counter to who we are. On Hanukkah I celebrate the ability to publicly practice Judaism: to wear a kippah without being afraid of being beaten up, to light a Hanukkiah by my window without fear that my house will be attacked by an angry mob, to have a public Hanukiah lighting rather than have to hide my Judaism in my home. To put on a pedestal the freedoms we are given to worship our Creator as we choose, is something worth celebrating, and this is what Joseph recognized in our portion by declaring that his gifts and talents come from G-d. May we go into our final day and a half of Hanukkah with pride in who we are and with what we stand for, just as our ancestor Joseph had pride in G-d.

[1] Genesis 41:12-13

[2] Genesis 41:16

[3] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a

[4] Genesis 37:11

[5] Rashi on Genesis 37:11 ד”ה שמר את הדבר

[6] Seforno on Genesis 37:11 ד”ה ואביו שמר. The Talmudic reference is Sanhedrin 105b.

[7] Genesis 45:5

[8] Amos 9:7. This is the start of the Haftarah read for Aharei Mot/Kedoshim or for Kedoshim in a leap year.

[9] Barbara Brotman, Forward, December 21, 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.