Torah Blog


A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
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From the Heights to the Depths

If you were Joseph sitting in prison, what would you be thinking? Might it be:
"I don't understand this. My life makes no sense. The dreams I had in childhood felt so real and true - and they are further than ever from being realised. What am I doing here?"

But what if, unbeknowst to him at the time. every element in Joseph's life was being carefully crafted by a Divine hand in order to shape him into becoming the man of God he must become?

It's interesting to note that Joseph was not thrown into just any prison, but specifically into Pharaoh's jail. There he would meet many ministers and offficials who had fallen out of favour. One day they were at the top of the power food chain, the next they had been toppled into the pits of prison. 

Perhaps Joseph was being shown this sight deliberately. He learned repeatedly that a person could, upon the king's whim, go from fame to incaraceration. He himself had gone from the heights of favour twice - the first time, a teen beloved by his father, he ended up in a pit by the hand of his cruel brothers; the second, the trusted manager of all of Potiphar's household, he was falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison. The King of Kings, just like the mortal king, could do precisely that - whiplash you  מאיגרא רמה לבירא עמיקתא. We are not in control.

This lesson was branded upon Joseph's mind. Finally released, he knew to his core that no interpretation can be made without divine aid, and was able to be the איש אלהים that could carry out God's plan properly and without hubris.


"You've Become Esau"

In Gen 31:28, while complaining to Yaakov of his tricky ways, Lavan says:
ולא נטשתני לנשק לבני ולבנתי עתה הסכלת עשו
28. And why did you not let me kiss my sons and my daughters? Now you have done foolishly in so doing.
The final word "aso" reads identically in Hebrew to "Esav".

Might this be Lavan mocking: "Look at you, Mr High and Mighty, you're no different now from Esav in your trickery and immorality"?
Or perhaps the subtext is the echo of Yaakov's own thoughts - I am no different to my twin" -  feeling debased by all this engagement in crass materialistic acquisition through unpleasant, if not unfair, means?

A different idea: I imagine that when Yaakov had to flee before Esav he did not manage to kiss his family goodbye or take a proper leave of the household - and that has been rankling with him ever since. Arriving, tired and heartsore, at Lavan's house, he told of this sorrow. Lavan, master manipulator, tucked this away and now has found the opportune moment to fling at Yaakov the accusation:
"Look, you've just done the same thing!"

When we do problematic things, no matter how justified the ends, we run the risk of becoming those people whom a moment before we judged. The one positive outcome might be that we feel ashamed to judge anyone after that.



Points of Choice

In three of the five megillahs we find a central moment that contains a weighty choice by a woman, which is the pivot for the entire narrative and its moral messages. Two of these choices are positive ones, and one is not.


I -  In the Book of Ruth, it is that moment in which Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to return to Moab. Ruth refuses to do so (1:14):

And they lifted up their voice, and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law; but Ruth held fast to her

This choice, and Ruth's subsequent famous speech, leads to her marriage with Boaz and the subsequent birth of the Davidic lineage.


II -   In the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai sends Queen Esther the terrifying instruction that she must go to the King although she has not been called - which carries a penalty of death.  

Mordechai says (4:14):

For if you remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but you and your father’s house shall be destroyed. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther replies in verse 16:

Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my girls will fast likewise; and so will I go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.

This fateful and heroic choice leads to the salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire.


III -  In the Song of Songs, we see a different kind of moment. The two lovers have been seeking each other. He has finally arrived at her abode and knocks at the door. Instead of eagerly answering it, she is suddenly attacked by a moment of torpor and apathy, and makes a strange choice not to arise (5:3):

I have taken off my robe; how could I put it on? I have bathed my feet; how could I soil them?

Although a moment later, she realises her folly and jumps up, he has already gone. They do not meet.

The Song of Songs is traditionally symbolic of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In this verse are encapsulated all those moments in which the Jewish people did not leap up to answer God's call, in whatever way that was manifest - often with disastrous consquences.

This is the negative. But fortunately, we have Ruth's shining example and later that of Esther.

And in a textual link between two of these narratives,  we find Esther explaining to King Ahasuerus:

For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come to my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred? (Esther 8:6)

Interestingly enough, the Hebrew word for "how" is איככה.

This is the very same word used by the female lover in the Song of Songs for "how could I put it on?" The word appears nowhere else in the Tanach, and clearly signals a connection between the two stories.

Esther's איככה, her realisation of "I could not possibly (abandon my people)"shows that she has heard and answered the knock of destiny on her door. In doing so, she atones for and recitifies the moment of wooden-heartedness and sluggishness on the part of the lover who cannot possibly don her robe right now.


Separation and Integration

In the Havdala ceremony, we say "Who separated between the holy and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of Creation."

The separation between Shabbat and the weekdays is not absolute. Our ideal is that through experiencing Shabbat, we enter the week and transform it. As is our Shabbat, so is our six days.

Perhaps we can also apply that to the category "Between Israel and the nations." We do not want to be isolated and separated. We want, from within our experience as Jews, to enter and be with our non-Jewish friends, carrying our Jewish experience there, and having it transform our interactions and shine a light upon others.

Let's remember that just as the six days of the week play an important role in our lives and make Shabbat what it is, and we cannot just live in Shabbat, so too we must live in the broader world, the arena where we play our our full historical purpose, and transform it from within our concentrated Jewish life.

The analogy I think of is of Judaism as being like apple juice concentrate. On its own, it is much too strong and barely drinkable. Its true delicate flavour emerges when mixed and diluted with water. From this perspective, the - or a significant - purpose of Judaism was to be mixed with the culture of the world, and to produce beautiful things through this synthesis.



Moses' Difficulty in Making the Menorah

The midrash Tanchuma (Shemini) describes how Moshe found himself unable to to make the menorah. 

מעשה המנורה נתקשה בה משה א"ל הקב"ה הרי אני עושה אותה לפניך מה עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא הראה לו אש לבנה ואש אדומה ואש שחורה אש ירוקה ועשה מהן את המנורה גביעיה כפתוריה ופרחיה וששת הקנים והוא אומר לו כך וכך עשה אותם שנאמר (במדבר ח) וזה מעשה המנורה מלמד שהראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא באצבע את המנורה ואעפ"כ נתקשה בה הרבה משה לעשותו מה עשה הקב"ה חקקה על כף ידו של משה אמר לו וראה ועשה בתבניתם כשם שחקקתיה על כף ידך ואעפ"כ נתקשה בה משה ואמר מקשה תיעשה המנורה כלומר מה קשה לעשות א"ל הקב"ה השלך את הזהב לאש והמנורה תיעשה מאליה שנאמר (שמות כח) מקשה תיעשה המנורה כתיב תיעשה מעצמה תיעשה מלמד שנתקשה לו המנורה


G-d told him how to do it and even engraved it on his palm, but all His instructions still didn't help, so eventually He told Moses: "Just throw it in the fire and it will make itself."

This is a mysterious midrash. I asked people to speak at the Shabbat table to speak as Moshe and tell me why they were having so much trouble.

Here is one possibility:

I keep being challenged to do new things - I wasn't even sure I could lead the people out of Egypt, and now I've had to do a whole series of other things I wasn't prepared for. Each time it's something else. I rise to the challenges but I make mistakes. Sometimes, I just need to give it over to G-d as it's beyond my capabilities.

I think in this Moses is a role model for us with all of our struggles, successes and failures. 

Another answer is that Moses, having given over the Torah, was in danger of perceivign himself, and being perceived, as the great knower. Every so often in the Torah Moses is shown as not knowing. It is crucial that we understand that the Torah did not come from him, and he did not know of his own accord, only through G-d's grace.  So too us all.