Monthly Archives: December 2017

Mikketz and Hanukkah 5778: Evading Killing Curses and Accepting Responsibility

Parashat Mikketz ends with Joseph’s elaborate ruse to test his half-brothers and see if they will betray Benjamin just as they had betrayed him. He plants his silver divination goblet in Benjamin’s saddle bags, as well as the silver payment in all of their bags, just as he had done the first time. Haven’t the brothers been to the rodeo before? Why didn’t they learn to check the saddle bags?

I noticed in this reading that the story of the “stolen” goblet refers back not only to the previous grain-buying mission, but also to an earlier incident. During the flight of Jacob and his double family from Laban’s estate, Laban chases after them and his stolen idols, accusing Jacob of robbery, and eliciting an indignant denial. The two incidents are different in many respects. Joseph plants his goblet to incriminate the innocent Benjamin, whereas Rachel steals her father’s idol. Jacob is clearly testing his brothers. It’s less clear what motivates Rachel to grab the household gods. But the two tales are similar in one important aspect. When Jacob hears Laban’s accusation, he rashly proclaims, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” (Gen. 31:32). Not much later he must bury his beloved Rachel by the side of the road. Here in Mikketz, the brothers likewise protest their innocence in stealing Joseph’s goblet, rashly proclaiming, “Whichever of your servants it is found with shall die; the rest of us, moreover, shall become slaves to my lord.” (Gen. 44:9). Continue reading

Vayeshev 5778: From the Depths of Hebron

One wonders what Jacob really knew about the relationship between his sons, just as we wonder about how attentive Isaac had been to his battling boys. Jacob does seems to be on to something once Joseph starts sharing his dreams, and “his father guarded the matter.” Did he, though? In Chapter 37:11, Jacob says to Joseph, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” The verse ends, “So, he sent him from the valley of Hebron.” This verse includes the root SHLM twice—implying the father’s yearning that his favorite son would encounter “peace” with his brothers. How likely was that? Perhaps he was trying to reassure Joseph, who must have been anxious, or perhaps Jacob was deluding himself.

Or perhaps not. There is a dark and fascinating midrash found in Bavli Sotah 11a. Rabbi Hanina b. Pappa plays on the word for valley, עמק, which also means “depth” and considers what, or who, is located beneath Hebron. Rashi on the verse points out that Hebron is in the hill territory—there is no valley there—so what could the “depth of Hebron” mean? The rabbinic answer is that Jacob’s grandparents and parents were buried “deep in Hebron.” In this Midrash, Rabbi Hanina takes the drash a second step and says that Jacob was inspired by the “deep counsel” of the saint buried in Hebron—Abraham—to send Joseph to seek his brothers. Huh? What does Abraham have to do with the conflict between his great-grandsons? Continue reading

VaYishlah 5778: Diminished by Fear

Jacob is afraid to die. He is also afraid to kill, at least according to the Midrashic reading of Genesis 32:8, with its two verbs, he was afraid, and he was anguished. Bereshit Rabba explains, “he was afraid that he would kill [Esau], and anguished that he would be killed.” But even more, Jacob is fearful for the lives of his large family, terrified that they will be slaughtered together, אם על בנים, mother and child, which is such a despondent image that it extends to the animal kingdom in the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird (Deut. 22:6).

Jacob is diminished by his fear. The boy who was always so daring and assertive is reduced to pleading with his brother, and being unresponsive to the crisis surrounding Dina’s abduction and rape. Here he uses the word קטנתי, “I have become small,” which the Bavli reads as a reflection of his diminished reserve of merits (b. Shabbat 32a). According to the Rabbis, merit saves a person, but it is a finite resource. If you escape trouble too often, then you will use up your merits and eventually succumb to danger.

The intrepid boy who once had nothing more than a staff in his hand and a stone for a pillow is now a man of wealth and power, with two households and vast herds—yet he is suddenly vulnerable, anxious, afraid. Esau is only the beginning of his troubles—the real danger lies within his own progeny. When Dina goes out to visit “the daughters of the land,” she destabilizes her father’s patriarchy, as Amy Kalmanofsky shows in her book, Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible. We read this story as a calamity for Dina, but the Torah may be using it to send a message of caution about undermining the patriarch. When Simon and Levi massacre the town of Shekhem, they too undermine Jacob’s status, exposing his weakness—he says that his boys have made him stink and endangered his household—and I am few in number. He is not really fewer now than at the start of the portion, when he felt wealthy and powerful. But he suddenly feels vulnerable. What happened to Jacob? Continue reading