The Mighty Nile – Vaera 5780

Twenty five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Egypt.  One of the touristy things to do in Cairo is to hire a small sailing boat called a felucca to go out onto the Nile River. It was a beautiful day, and a great memory.  At one point, our guide generously offered to make us tea, promising to make the experience even better. So he reached over the side of the boat, scooped up some fresh Nile River water, and set it to boil.

I passed on the tea.

The Nile is one of the great rivers of the world.  Depending on who you ask, it is either the first or second longest river.  For much of human history, whoever controlled the Nile was arguably the most powerful person in the world.

The Nile is the life-blood of Egypt, the source of all its power and strength.  The annual rising and flooding of its waters feeds its people.  The one who rules the Nile is the master of Egypt and all who live there.  It is easy to understand why the pharaohs of Egypt tended to think highly of themselves.  

Much of the action in both this morning’s Torah and Haftarah portions takes place at the Nile. In the Haftarah, it is the year 586 BCE, the end of the First Temple period.  The Kingdom of Judah, about to be overrun by the Babylonians, has desperately aligned itself with Egypt.  The Prophet Ezekiel, knowing that nothing can avert the coming tragedy, prophesizes that Israel will eventually be redeemed, but Egypt is about to be shmeisted.  (That’s a technical term) Listen to how the Prophet describes it:

I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, tanin—Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, Li Ye’ori va’ani asitini—My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.

Ezekiel 29:3

Literally, “Mine is the Nile, and I have made myself.”  The Pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time is a self-declared god, answerable to nobody.  He is personified as a tanin, a mythical sea monster dwelling in the River.  What plans does God have for this Pharaoh?

I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your Nile cling to your scales; I will haul you up from your Nile, with all your Nile fish clinging to your scales.  And I will fling you into the desert, with all your Nile fish.  You shall be left lying in the open, ungathered and unburied: I have given you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.  Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel 29:4-6

Pretty specific.  God will haul out Pharaoh from the Nile and leave his corpse to rot, unburied, in the desert where it will be eaten by scavengers.  That was the haftarah.

Let’s turn now to the Torah portion.  Again, the Nile River is the battleground where God exerts power over an impotent Pharaoh. For the first demonstration, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and his court.  Aaron throws down his rod and it turns into a… tanin.  Remember that word?  The same word Ezekiel uses to describe the mythical sea monster in the Nile.  It is not the usual word for snake.  That word is nachash. When Pharaoh’s magicians replicate the trick, Moses and Aaron’s tanin eats up their taninim.  The meaning of this demonstration is obvious.

The next confrontation, we read, takes place at the banks of the Nile River, early in the morning.  Why does that Torah go out of its way to inform us of the time of day? A midrash (Tanhuma Va’era 14) offers a colorful explanation.  Pharaoh considers himself a god.  Divine beings, of course, do not need to use the bathroom or wash themselves.  If Pharaoh’s subjects were to see him engaged in such humble tasks, they would doubt his divinity.

So what does he do?  Every day, Pharaoh arises at dawn to sneak down to the banks of the river by himself for his morning ablutions.  That is why God chooses that moment to send Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh.  It is to embarrass him and demonstrate his corporeality.  Moses is saying, “I know your secret.”

Keep in mind that the purpose of a midrash is often to use the biblical text to say something about current situations.  That is what the Prophet Ezekiel does.  He hearkens back to an earlier time when the Israelites found themselves dealing with Pharaoh in Egypt.  In the case of the midrash, the Sages are perhaps referring to rulers in their own day, Roman Emperors or other Kings who claim divinity and infallibility. This dawn showdown continues with the first plague.  God gives instructions to Moses:

Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.

Exodus 7:19-21

It is comparable to Ezekiel in its vividness.  The Nile, as the battleground between God and Pharaoh, is a powerful symbol.  It is the source of Pharaoh’s strength and the symbol of his divinity.  He is the Nile’s creator and master.  But he is powerless to prevent this transformation of the the source of his authority into a symbol of death.

Think about what else the Nile represents.  To the Israelite slaves, the Nile has already become a symbol of terror and dread.  Pharaoh’s decree, described in chapter one of the Book of Exodus, to murder every male baby by throwing it into the Nile must have transformed the river, which was seen as the source of life, into a symbol of death—at least for the Israelites.

Except for one.  Moses is different.  Remember, after Moses’ birth, his mother places him in a basket sealed with pitch and floats him down the river.  Maybe someone will rescue him, she hopes. Her wish is fulfilled.  Pharaoh’s own daughter encounters the basket when she is bathing in the river (sound familiar?), and understands immediately that he must be a Hebrew baby.

So what does the Nile mean to Moses?  As the adopted child of the Egyptian Princess, he surely must have had some positive memories of it.  On the other hand, he knows that the Nile is  a place of death to his people.  But, the Nile River also saved him from drowning.  His basket did not sink, and somehow it arrived in the best possible place.  His name, moshe, meaning “I drew him out of the water,” alludes to his miraculous redemption in the Nile.

Now, God is sending Moses down to the Nile to confront Pharaoh, and doing some pretty nasty things to it.  How does Moses feel about that? Our great commentator, Rashi, notices a subtle detail.  Moses is not the one who actually strikes the water with the rod.  That action is performed by Aaron.

And then, for the second plague, Moses again instructs Aaron to strike the waters of the Nile with the rod.  That brings up the frogs, who hop slimily out of the waters and invade absolutely everything, homes, beds, kneading bowls, and toilets.  Rashi asks why Moses does not perform these first two plagues himself.  After all, he conducts most of the others.

The answer is that these are the only two plagues that are produced by smiting the waters of the Nile, the river which once protected Moses when he was an infant.  That is why Aaron, not Moses, does the smiting for the first two plagues.

We can see Moses’ mixed emotions. This incredible river is the source of life and prosperity.  Its consistent annual rise and fall makes Egypt the breadbasket of the world, and the place of refuge when famine strikes in the days of Jacob and his sons. The very source of life and blessing, however, becomes a means for power, dominion, and cruelty.  In both the Torah and Haftarah, God punishes a Pharaoh and a nation that has become haughty and overly self-assured.  Perhaps that is why Moses is torn at the Nile.  He can see its potential for blessing and curse.  He knows it personally, because he has experienced it.

We have many gifts in our lives.  The choice is whether we will use them for blessing or for curse.  Our tradition is one that fully embraces the idea of free choice.  We are told to choose life.  The Torah’s purpose is to guide us towards treating our gifts in a way that makes them blessings.

And Joseph Lived… And Joseph Died – Parashat Vayechi 5780

L’chayim! To life!

The name of this morning’s Torah portion is Vayechi, which means “and he lived.”  It comes from the word Chai, as in l’chayim.  To life!

The major focus of the reading, however, is death.  It is not the first time.  This is similar to descriptions of earlier figures like Sarah and Abraham, whose deaths are also introduced by some form of the word chayim.

The opening words of Parashat Vayechi are Vayechi Ya’alov — “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.  And when the time approached for Israel to die…” and so on. Most of the parashah describes Jacob’s actions over the course of his final days.  

He says his goodbyes to his family members.  First he calls his son Joseph to his bedside, along with Joseph’s sons Efraim and Menashe.  Jacob offers a special blessing to them, effectively granting Joseph the double portion that typically went to the firstborn.

Then Jacob summons all of his sons to his side to offer his final words to each of them.  He instructs them to return his body to Canaan, the Promised Land.  They must bury him in the ancestral grave at the Cave of Machpelah.  

When he dies, Jacob’s body is embalmed over the course of forty days in preparation for its journey.  Then the Egyptians mourn him for seventy days.  There is a grand procession as Jacob’s sons accompany his body to the Promised Land.  When they finally bury him, they mourn for an additional seven days.  This is the most extensive funeral description in the entire Bible.

The last five verses of Vayechi are a miniaturized repetition of the earlier parts of the Torah portion. While the bulk of the parashah describes the final days of Jacob, the coda describes Joseph’s passing.  In doing so, it follows a nearly identical pattern.

When it comes time for Joseph to die, the Torah introduces the episode with the word Vayechi, just as it had with Jacob.  Vayechi Yosef me’ah v’eser shanim, “and Joseph lived one hundred and ten years.” We then read how Joseph spends his final days.

Like Jacob, Joseph lives to see his progeny, children of the third generation.  In other, words, he is a great grandfather.  Before his death, Joseph gathers his family together for a final blessing.  He also makes them swear to bring his bones up to the Promised Land. All of this is in emulation of Jacob.

Then we encounter a new word.  Vayamot — “And he died.” Earlier it said, Vayechi Yosef me’ah v’eser shanim.  Now, five verses later, it says, Vayamot Yosef ben-me’ah va’eser shanim — “And Joseph died at one hundred and ten years.”  Note that the Torah has repeated the length of Joseph’s life.  We will come back to that.

Joseph is embalmed, like Jacob.  Unlike his father, Joseph’s body is placed in a coffin and stored in Egypt.  The final burial is going to have to wait. This ends both the parashah, as well as the entire book of Genesis.

This unfulfilled promise to bring Joseph’s bones back to the Promised Land is an ominous ending.  Life in Egypt is to be temporary.  The children of Jacob should not get too comfortable in this foreign land.

We come back to the word vayechi.  And he lived.  Jacob, and Joseph, teach us an important lesson.  It is not the length of years that matter so much as how we live them. When it comes time to die, the Torah emphasizes how they lived.  Even in their infirmity, Jacob and Joseph both used their remaining time most effectively.  They gather their family together, despite a history of some very difficult relationships.  They offer final blessings, and instructions.  They let their children know how they wanted to be buried and remembered. We can say that they did not spend their dying days dying, but rather living.

Now we come back to the repetition of Joseph’s lifespan: one hundred and ten years.  Why is it repeated in the span of just five verses? 19th century Polish Rabbi Chayim Aryeh Leib suggests that it is to emphasize that Joseph died with a shem tov – a good name.  That is to say, when he died, his name was still Joseph.  Even though he had been the viceroy of Egypt for eighty years, even though Pharaoh had bestowed upon him the Egyptian name of Tzafnat Paneach, he still insisted on keeping his Hebrew name, Yosef.   For this reason, the Torah specifies that Joseph lived for 110 years, and when he died after 110 years, he was still Joseph.

Each generation learns from the previous.  A midrash explains that the Israelites, throughout their time enslaved in Egypt, kept their Hebrew names.  That was one of the reasons that they merited redemption. To this day, Jews may have secular names in the language of their country, but we also have our Jewish names, which we use in all of our religious activities.

Parashat Vayechi is about generations passing on lessons about what is important, not by speaking, but by living.  We learn that to live Jewishly is to live with intention. Jacob teaches his sons how to live out his final days, and Joseph clearly is paying attention. Joseph, the only one of the brothers who lived most of his life in Egypt, outside of the homeland, keeps his identity to the very end.  Future generations follow his example.  Centuries later, when God remembers the promise to the Patriarchs, the Israelites still have their names, and still have their identity as the children of Jacob.

I Need Your Help: Invite Someone Extra to Your Seder – Shabbat HaChodesh 5779

You probably noticed that we took out three Torah scrolls this Shabbat.  That is the highest possible number for any service of the year.  

The first is for our regularly scheduled parashah, Tazria.  The second is for Rosh Chodesh.  Today is the 1st day of the month of Nisan.  The Third Torah is to mark Shabbat HaChodesh, which is the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh Nisan, or, as in our case this year, when Rosh Chodesh occurs on Shabbat itself.

The Shabbat HaChodesh reading is taken from the Book of Exodus, chapter 12.

God tells Moses and Aaron: HaChodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim.  This month for you shall be the head of the months…

We read about the special instructions that the Israelites must follow, beginning today, the first of Nisan.  Not only do they need to get ready for leaving Egypt, at last, they also have to start preparing for Pesach.

Nowadays, we know that Pesach is coming when we see the five pound boxes of Matzah added next to the Hamantaschen display at Costco.  The Israelites did not have Costco yet, so they needed a reminder from God.

Here is a summary of how the Israelites are to get ready for the very first Pesach:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that nothing happens to it.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This serves to ward off the Angel of Death while he is rampaging through Egypt, massacring all the firstborn.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, sandals on feet.

God’s instructions then turn from the present to the future.  The people of Israel will continue to celebrate this seven day festival of unleavened bread every year in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

The instructions stuck.  Not only do we still observe The Festival of Matzah, we also recreate the build-up to the moment of freedom.  That is why we read this special passage about how to prepare.  It is as if we are receiving these instructions as well.

Some of the particulars, however, are no longer practical.  Is anyone here planning to bring a lamb into their living room in about ten days?  How about painting blood on the doorposts and lintels?  It might need a new paint job, anyways?

But the essential messages in the Torah reading are still central to our holiday.  Just as our ancestors did, we clean the chametz out of our homes and eat matzah for seven days.  We celebrate the first night with a special feast.  The Torah says to eat it: “loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand: and you shall eat it hurriedly…”

Our Seders today are anything but hurried.  But, in our house we encourage our guests to come dressed up in whatever they would wear if they were exiting Egypt the next day.

There is one other detail in the Torah reading that we make a big deal about, but I wonder how well we are actually fulfilling it.  The very first instruction to the Israelites is to bring a lamb into the house.  But that might not be practical for everyone, so the Torah states:

“But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby…”  (Exodus 12:4)

In other words, people are supposed to get together for these meals.  From the very beginning, the ideal seder has had a large guest list. 

As the tradition of the seder transitioned from the Biblical model—centered around the sacrifice at the Temple—to the rabbinic model—modeled after the Greek symposium—many of the components were maintained.

This includes the idea of including others at the meal.  As we begin the Maggid section of the Seder, we throw open the door and announce:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם.

כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵכוֹל.

כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let anyone who is hungry come and and eat,

Let anyone who is in need come and participate in the Pesach.

This is one of the only parts of the Haggadah which is in Aramaic, which was the common tongue in ancient times.  That means that it was especially important that participants at the Seder understood these words.

It might be influenced from a passage in the Talmud, describing one of the practices of Rav Huna, an exceedingly wealthy 3rd century Babylonian Sage.

“Whenever Rav Huna would eat bread, he would open the doors to his house and say…”

And now I am going to recite the Aramaic: 

כל מאן דצריך ליתי וליכול

“Whoever needs, let him come in and eat.”

It is almost identical language to that which we find in the Haggadah.  For Rav Huna, it was every meal.  For us, it is just on Pesach.  

A Pesach seder has lots of guests.  It is not uncommon for ten, twenty, thirty, even forty people or more to cram around a table that starts in the dining room, extends into the living room and ends in the hall closet.

At Sinai’s Second Nigh Community Seder, we typically welcome over one hundred people around the tables in the social hall.

But how seriously do we take the words of the haggadah?  When we open up the door, and announce, “let anyone who is hungry come and eat,” do we really expect someone to be waiting on the doorstep?

I need your help.

One reality of the Bay Area is that most people who live here are not from here.  Most of us tend to not have extended family living nearby.  For those who do, the Pesach seder is often an annual family reunion.

Other households have traditions of getting together every year.  The invitation does not even need to be extended, because the tradition of celebrating together has become a fixed custom.  My family in Seattle has an automatic invitation for the second night Seder every year.

But there are many people in our community, I assure you, for whom there is not a seder to which they can count on an automatic invitation.

At my house, we are happy to be welcoming 25 people to our seder this year.  But I have been informed that we have reached the limit of what we can handle, if not space-wise, than certainly sanity-wise.

As the Rabbi of the community, I am concerned about our members.  I worry about people whom I suspect may not have a seder to attend.

So I am asking for your help.  If you are hosting a Seder this year, please add a few more chairs.  Think about someone who might not have a place to go, and invite them.  

If you already have six people coming to your seder, make it seven.  Ten?  Make it 12.  Twenty?   Really, there is very little difference between twenty and twenty five.  It’s chaos either way.  I promise that you will still have leftovers.

Think especially about singles, people without children, and people who are relatively new to the area, or to the congregation.  Also, think about someone who has recently converted, or who is exploring Judaism. 

One of the great things about Sinai is that we welcome so many people from such different backgrounds.  Invite someone whom you don’t know that well.  Invite a person that you have seen coming to shul lately, but whom you have not met yet.  Our family seder’s are enriched every year by having guests from such different backgrounds.

Ha lachma anya is the opening statement of our telling of the story of freedom.  These words ought to mean something to us.

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let anyone who is hungry come and and eat.

Let anyone who is in need come and participate in Pesach.

Shabbat Shalom.  Chag Kasher v’Sameach.

The Israelites’ First Shabbat – Beshalach 5779

How wonderful is it that we can be together on a special day like today!  In a little while, God willing, we will complete services and move on into the social hall for a delicious Kiddush lunch.  It will be all the more amazing because it will simply be there waiting for us.  None of us will have to do any cooking.  It will be a miracle!

Not exactly, I assure you that there was a tremendous amount of hard work yesterday preparing our delicious feast.  And we are extremely grateful to the caterers, and to today’s kiddush sponsors for providing such a wonderful meal.

But there is something special about being able to sit down once a weak, for an extended meal in synagogue, or at home, that has already been prepared.  That this opportunity comes every week is even more wonderful.  That is the gift of Shabbat.

But do we see it that way?

It is the fifteenth day of the second month after the Israelites left Egypt – exactly one month later.  They arrive at the wilderness of Sin on their way eventually to Mount Sinai.

They do what they do best – complain to Moses and Aaron.  “If only God had let us die in Egypt, where at least the food was plentiful,” they grumble, “instead of being dragged out into the wilderness to starve to death!”  The Israelites can be a bit melodramatic.

But God gives them what they want, directing Moses and Aaron to gather everyone together.  God tells Moses, to tell Aaron, to tell the people what they can expect.

“By this evening you will be eating meat, and tomorrow you will have your bread.”

That night, a vast flock of quail appears, and the people feast.

The next morning, they awake to find a strange new substance covering the ground.  Man hu — what is it?” they ask.  

“It is the bread that God has give you to eat,” Moses replies. 

Then Moses instructs them what to do with it.  “Everybody should gather as much as is needed for each individual in the household —one omer per person.”  An omer is a unit of measure.

People being people, some gather more and some gather less.  Miraculously, when they return to their tents, they find that everyone has exactly what he or she needs.  No more, no less.

“Eat your fill.  Don’t leave any leftovers,” Moses tells them.  But they don’t listen.  Some are worried about the next day, so they set aside leftovers.  By the morning, it becomes maggot infested and smelly.  Moses is angry that they continue to not listen to him.

But they quickly fall into a routine, getting up each morning to collect that day’s food.  Everybody has as much as they need, and nobody goes hungry.

Five days pass.  On the sixth day, something strange happens.  When they get back to their tents, they find that they have collected double the amount as the previous five days.  The chieftains, perplexed, turn to Moses for an explanation.  “What is the meaning of this sudden abundance?”

Then, for the first time ever, they hear about Shabbat.  “Tomorrow is a day of rest,” Moses explains, “a holy sabbath of the Lord.  Prepare all of your food now.  Whatever is left over, you can eat tomorrow.”

That is what the people do.  Unlike the previous days, the leftovers do not rot.  

“Eat up,” Moses urges them.  “You won’t find any out on the ground today.  It’s Shabbos.”

But there are some skeptics among the Israelites who go out anyways, despite Moses’ instructions.

God gets angry.  “How long will you keep defying my instructions!”

Moses explains to the people: Adonai natan lakhem et haShabbat — “The Lord has give you the Shabbat; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day.  Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.”

The people obey, and they call this miraculous bread man —manna.  It will sustain them for the next forty years in the wilderness.

Note that we have two important phenomena introduced together.  Manna and Shabbat.  Prior to this passage, the Israelites are completely unaware of both of them.  This is not a coincidence.

The Israelites will receive more details about Shabbat in subsequent parashiyot.  And the Rabbis will really go to town elucidating the fine points in Shabbat observance.  But by the end of this story in parashat Beshalach, what have the Israelites learned the day of rest?

1 Shabbat is connected with food.  

2 Shabbat is a time for staying near to the home, and not for going out to ‘bring home the man,’ so to speak.

3 To observe Shabbat properly, one must prepare for it ahead of time.

4 Finally, Shabbat is a gift from God.  Observing Shabbat is an act of faith.

That sounds like a pretty great introduction to me.

Many of us see modern life as too fast paced, too demanding, to take off a day to do something completely different.  We tell ourselves, “things were simpler in the past.  Our ancestors did not have as many distractions, or as many pressures as we have.  Observing Shabbat was easier back then.”  

The Torah’s description of the Israelites’ first Shabbat would suggest otherwise.

Surely some of those Israelites were doubtful when Moses said, “Hey!  Don’t collect any food tomorrow.  God will provide.”  They did not trust that their would be enough.  They worried they would not be able to get everything done in time.  It was too difficult, too unrealistic, to take a whole day off.  They did not see Shabbat as something special.  They wanted to continue on exactly the same as the rest of the week.  They did not understand it as a gift from God.

Perhaps that is why God wraps it up in miracles.  Unfortunately for us, we can’t walk outside to find our food lying fresh on the ground each morning.  But we are blessed to live in a world in which, if we plan for it, it is possible to have the same Shabbat experience as our ancestors in the wilderness.  The question is, can I see Shabbat as a gift?

By the way, the excuses we make for why observing Shabbat is so difficult are exactly the reasons why we need to make Shabbat a regular part of our week.

So in a few minutes, when we sit down together in the social hall for our delicious man, let’s see it as a miracle that we are so blessed to be able to celebrate God’s gift of Shabbat to us.  What can I do to appreciate that gift again next week?

Five Sets of Clothes and 300 Shekels of Silver – Vayigash 5779

This morning’s Torah portion takes place in Egypt.  Joseph’s brothers have returned to Egypt to buy food.  This time they have brought Benjamin with them, following the instructions of the Viceroy, who happens to be their long lost brother Joseph in disguise, although they do not know it yet.

Once again, Joseph tests his brothers to determine if they have changed since they were kids.  He hides a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain, accuses him of theft, and declares that he will keep him imprisoned.

As Parashat Vayigash opens, Judah steps forward to make an impassioned plea on behalf of his youngest sibling.  News of Benjamin’s captivity would surely bring about their father’s death.  And furthermore, Judah has pledged his own life for the lad’s.  Judah begs Joseph to take him captive and release Benjamin.

Convinced that the brothers have sincerely repented, Joseph finally reveals his identity in an emotional, tearful reunion.  Joseph instructs his brothers to go back to the land of Canaan, gather up their belongings, and move the entire household down to Egypt, where they will be provided for.

Then, Joseph sends them away with gifts for the journey.

(כב) לְכֻלָּ֥ם נָתַ֛ן לָאִ֖ישׁ חֲלִפ֣וֹת שְׂמָלֹ֑ת וּלְבִנְיָמִ֤ן נָתַן֙ שְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֣וֹת כֶּ֔סֶף וְחָמֵ֖שׁ חֲלִפֹ֥ת שְׂמָלֹֽת׃

To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver, and five changes of raiment.  (Gen. 45:22)

What is Joseph thinking?  What possible reason could he have to give Benjamin favorable treatment?  Is this not the exact kind of behavior that led to so much suffering in the past?

When they were kids, Jacob favored Joseph over all of the others.  He loved him more.  He did not make him work out in the fields.  Jacob even gave Joseph the infamous “Coat of Many Colors,” which symbolized everything that the brothers hated about him.

Joseph is now repeating the exact same provocations.  Not only does Joseph favor Benjamin, he does so with clothing.  That detail had to have registered with their siblings.  What is going on?  Is Joseph naive, or cruel?

Neither.  It is another test.  Joseph is not done with his brothers.  So far, he has applied the pressure directly to see if the brothers will take responsibility for each other when confronted with an outside threat.  They have passed this test.

Now Joseph sends them back into the wilderness, unsupervised, with a brother who has been given special treatment.  It will be easy enough for Benjamin to get “lost” or “eaten by a wild animal” on the way.  He has recreated the conditions under which they sinned many years earlier.

But Joseph does not want them to fail.  Two verses later, he undermines the purity of his test by warning them to behave.

וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֵּלֵ֑כוּ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אַֽל־תִּרְגְּז֖וּ בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃

As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.”  (Gen. 45:24)

But that does not tell us why Joseph chose to favor Benjamin in this particular way. Why does Joseph favor Benjamin with these specific gifts?  Why five sets of clothing and 300 shekels of silver?

The Talmud (BT Megillah 16b) asks about the clothing.  “Is it possible that Joseph would stumble in the very thing that had led to his own suffering?”  The Talmudic Sage Rav teaches that Joseph has a very good reason to present Benjamin with five sets of clothing.  Through prophecy, Joseph knows that many generations in the future, a famous descendant of Benjamin will appear before a King wearing five articles of clothing.  Do you know who it is?

וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.

And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue (1) and white (2), and with a great crown of gold (3), and with a rob of fine linen (4) and purple (5); and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad.  (Esther 8:15)

By giving him five sets of clothes, says the Talmud, Joseph offers this hint to Benjamin.  Your offspring are destined for greatness.

What about the 300 shekels of silver?  A medieval Spanish commentator named Rabbeinu Bahya offers a creative answer.  Once again, Joseph is sending a hidden message, this time to all of his brothers.  In this case, it is a message about their guilt.  Bear with me, as his argument is built on several details and involves a math equation.

Here is the first detail.  The Talmud (BT Gittin 44a) rules that if a Jewish slave owner sells his slave to a non-Jew, he can be forced to pay a penalty of up to ten times the price of the slave in order to redeem him, and then he must set the slave free.

Since slaves owned by Jews were obligated to observe many of the mitzvot, selling such a slave to a non-Jew who would not permit their continued observance would be particularly harsh.  That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud impose such a harsh penalty.  That is the first detail: a tenfold penalty for selling a slave to a Gentile.

The second detail is from the Book of Exodus.  

אִם־עֶ֛בֶד יִגַּ֥ח הַשּׁ֖וֹר א֣וֹ אָמָ֑ה כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שְׁקָלִ֗ים יִתֵּן֙ לַֽאדֹנָ֔יו וְהַשּׁ֖וֹר יִסָּקֵֽל׃

But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.  (Exodus 21:32)

This sets the value of a slave at 30 shekels of silver.

Joseph was sold into slavery by ten of his brothers.  Who did they sell him to?  A wandering band of Ishmaelites, i.e. non-Jews.  If the value of a slave is 30 shekels of silver, and the penalty for selling a slave to a non-Jew is ten times the sale price, what is the total penalty?  It is basic math.  30 x 10 = 300 shekels of silver, payable by each of the ten brothers.

Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, was not involved in the sale, so he has no obligation to pay the penalty.  When Joseph, in his joy at being reunited with his family, decides to give gifts to all of his brothers, he settles on the convenient number of 300 shekels.  This erases the ten brothers’ debt to him.  Benjamin, who has no debt, winds up with 300 shekels in his pocket.

This is a creative answer to why Joseph would place such a potential stumbling block in his brothers’ path.  It was no stumbling block at all.

Sharing Passover – Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

As we just announced, Rosh Chodesh Nisan occurs this Tuesday.  In other words, the two week countdown until the first Seder begins in just three days.  (Aaaah!)

I am sure you noticed that we took out two Torah scrolls this morning.  That is because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan.

In the special reading that we chanted from the second Sefer Torah, God makes a similar announcement to Moses and Aaron.  It is the first day of the month of Nisan.

God gives them instructions on how to prepare.  This is the first recorded observance of Passover.  Here are the basics:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that it does not acquire any new blemishes, which would render it unfit for the offering.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This signals to the Angel of Death that this is a Jewish home.  In his wreaking destruction over all the first born of Egypt, he will know to pass over these houses.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, and sandals on feet.

Then, God switches gears, explaining that the people of Israel will continue to observe this holiday as a seven day festival for all time – in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

More than three thousand years later, our seders, and our observance of Passover, still look back to this moment.

A detail in this first Seder stands out.  The instructions are not directed to the priests, or to the tribal leaders, or to just the men, or even to individual Israelites.  The laws of Passover are directed to households.  People have to come together and share.

Remember the details – no leftover are allowed.  Given those restrictions, a lamb or sheep is way too much for one person to eat alone.  So it has got to be eaten by an entire household.  But what if a whole lamb is still too much for an entire household? The Torah takes it into consideration: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat…”  (Exodus 12:4)

Imagine the setting in Egypt.  Israelites are rushing around, trying to get ready to leave Egypt.  They are packing their things.  But in the midst of all their preparations, they have to plan for one final meal.  They pick out the lucky animal, and take special care of it for three days, amidst all the hustle and bustle.

Then, the night before departure – one final feast, a barbecue.  Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, servants – all come together to share.  Those without large families meet up with their neighbors.  Nobody is left out.  Why?  Because there cannot be any leftovers.

Nowadays, there are surely lots of leftovers after the seder.  At our house, by the time we get to the main course, it is so late, and we have already eaten so much, that nobody has any appetite left.

But the legacy of making sure everyone is included in the celebration of Pesach, in the celebration of freedom, is still with us in two significant ways.

The first is through the practice of maot chittin.  Literally, “coins for wheat.”  Since the time of the Talmud, it has been customary to give kosher for Passover flour to the poor prior to the holiday.  This enables them to bake their own unleavened bread.  Keep in mind, this tradition developed in the days before Manischewitz invented factory-baked matzah.

Giving flour, or money for flour, was considered to be ideal, as it is more dignified when a person can bake his or her own matzah.  Alternatively, a person could give matzah.

In some communities, local Jewish authorities would actually compel miserly residents to contribute towards Maot Chittin.  

A story is told of a woman who once went to her Rabbi with a strange question:  “Rabbi, is it permissible to drink four cups of milk at the seder instead of four cups of wine?

Shocked by the question, the Rabbi asked her why she would want to use milk.

“I am very poor.  I cannot afford wine.”

So the Rabbi gave her a large sum of money, and told her to go buy wine for her seder.

The Rabbi’s wife overheard this exchange, and when the women left, she asked her husband why he gave her so much money.

“Anyone who is intending to drink milk at the seder certainly does not have enough money to serve meat.  So I gave her enough money to purchase both.”

Every year at Sinai, members contribute money towards Maot Chittin.  It enables us, as a congregation, to help feed people.  I am privileged, as Sinai’s Rabbi, to send hundreds of dollars each year to our local Jewish Family Service’s No One Abandoned Here project, as well as to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

The other way in which we make sure everyone is included in Pesach is captured in the opening lines of the Maggid section of the Haggadah.  Ha lachma anya…  “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.”

While reciting these words, it is customary to open our doors to look outside to see if anyone is wandering around, looking for a seder to attend.  Not likely, so this action is largely symbolic.

But many of us try to fulfill this ideal by inviting guests to our seder tables.  Just as the first seder involved entire households, extended families, and neighbors joining together, seders today can be big affairs.  We invite relatives and friends.  For many seders, it is basically the same guest list year after year.  And that is wonderful.  We trace this tradition all the way back to our Israelite ancestors in Egypt.

I wonder, though, if we could do better.  Back in the shtetl, everyone knew everyone else’s business.  If a neighbor did not have a seder to attend, word would get out pretty quickly – and an invitation would follow.  But in our days, when we are dispersed and no longer dwell in tight-knit Jewish neighborhoods, we have no clue about each other’s plans.  We should not make any assumptions.

I assure you that there are plenty of Jews who do not have a seder to attend.

It is one of the reasons that I am proud of Sinai’s Second Night community seder.  It gives us a chance to celebrate together.  It also gives some people a seder who would not otherwise have one to go to.  We are so grateful to Rina Katzen for generously underwriting the seder to help keep the expense down.  Even so, it is still a lot of money for some people.

This year, let us give ourselves a challenge.  For those who are hosting, think about everyone you know.  Is there an individual or a family who might not have a seder to attend?  Invite them.  You do not have to know them well, or even at all.  According to Ha lachma anya we are supposed to literally bring strangers in off the street.

We shouldn’t worry about not having enough space or enough food.  I know from experience that it is always possible to squeeze in one extra person, or even four extra people.  I promise, there will still be plenty of leftovers.

By embracing the spirit of ha lachma anya, we get back to an important part of the first seder in Egypt.  Everyone is included.  Let’s make it happen this year.

Jacoob’s Parting Message – Vayechi 5777

Two men had a dispute over a particular burial plot.   Each one claimed the piece of land for himself.   The men presented their arguments to the rabbi, and left the final decision up to him.

After a while, the rabbi said to them, “It is a very difficult case.    Each one of you has very good arguments.   Thus, I decree that whoever dies first will have the right to this burial place”.

From then on, they stopped fighting …

As we get older, it is fairly common to think about our final resting places.  As a Rabbi, I am often advising people about making arrangements.  Funeral directors call it “preplanning” – although that expression seems kind of redundant, doesn’t it?

Some folks are concerned that their specific wishes be carried out by their next of kin.  Others want to save their children the stress of having to make the arrangements at what will surely be an emotional time.  And some people want to lock in prices now before they go up.

This is not a new concern.  Cemeteries have been central institutions for Jewish communities for thousands of years.  The very first Jewish institution in San Jose, in fact, before there were any synagogues, was the Home of Peace Cemetery in Oak Hill Memorial Gardens.

But in addition to making the logistical arrangements, perhaps we also ought to be thinking about how to convey our values to those whom we leave behind.

The desire to arrange our funerals goes all the way back to the Bible.  When Sarah dies, Abraham enters into lengthy negotiations to purchase the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron to serve as a family burial plot.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Jacob, our Patriarch, does his preplanning.

He has spent the final seventeen years of his life living in Egypt, under the invitation and protection of his son Joseph, who is the second most powerful man in the Empire, second only to Pharaoh.  The entire family has left the land of Canaan to settle in the land of Goshen, located just to the East of the Nile Delta.

When he feels the end of his life approaching, Jacob calls Joseph to his bedside for a special request.  He wants to be buried in the land of Canaan, in the Cave of Machpelah.

… please do not bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.  (Gen. 47:29-30)

Jacob is insistent.  He does not merely tell his son what he wants.  Jacob makes Joseph swear it.  Joseph initially resists committing himself by oath.  “I will do as you have spoken,” he agrees.

But Jacob will not back down.  “Swear to me,” he demands; and Joseph complies.

This is no small request.  It is a journey of approximately 400 km, most of it desert.  And this is in the Middle East, so it is hot.  We can only imagine the smell.

Plus, it is politically dangerous.  Joseph is the second in command to Pharaoh.  What is Pharaoh going to think when Joseph asks for permission to return to his ancestral homeland?  Can Pharaoh trust that Joseph will come back?

And furthermore, what will the Canaanites think when a large delegation arrives from Egypt?  Might they see it as a threat and muster for war?

On a personal note, Jacob’s request is totally audacious.  He acknowledges that when Rachel, Joseph’s mother died many years earlier, Jacob buried her on the side of the road.  She died in a place called Paddan-Aram, which was only a half day’s journey from the family tomb in the Cave of Machpelah.

Jacob could not be bothered to take even a small detour to bury Joseph’s mother.  Now he is requesting something that is almost impossible.  Kind of hypocritical, no?

A look beneath the surface of this request reveals Jacob’s wisdom.  In fact, his instructions contain a final lesson to his sons, the tribes of Israel, and future generations.

Why does Jacob insist that Joseph swear that he will fulfill his father’s dying request?  The clue emerges when Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to leave.  Listen to what he says:

My father made me swear, saying ‘I am about to die.  Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.’  Now therefore let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.  (Gen. 50:5)

Let’s pay attention to a few details.  First, notice that Joseph leads with the oath.  That gets Pharaoh’s attention.  He knows that an oath is no small thing.  Jacob insists so that Joseph will be able to fully convey the earnestness of the request.

Keep in mind also that the Egyptians were cultishly obsessed with death.  Notables would spend considerable resources – during their lifetimes – to arrange their burial chambers.  Just think of the pyramids.

When Joseph makes his request to Pharaoh, he does not mention his father’s wish to be buried with his fathers.  Rather, he tells a little white lie, claiming that Jacob had arranged the burial location for himself.  After all, that is something an Egyptian would do.  Joseph is also careful to say that he intends to come back.

Pharaoh is so impressed by Joseph’s request that he agrees immediately.

The delegation is significant.  Not only do Joseph and all of his brothers accompany the body on its final journey, all of the senior members of Pharaoh’s court, along with chariots and horsemen go as well.  The children and flocks are left behind.  Perhaps they are too young to make the journey.  Or, perhaps they are hostages to ensure that Joseph will return to Egypt.

But we still have not determined why, specifically, Jacob want to be buried in the family plot?

At the time of his death, Jacob’s family is thriving in Egypt.  They are the official shepherds for Pharaoh’s flocks.  They have land.  And their population has been growing.  Moreover, Joseph has achieved the second highest rank in the Empire.

According to the midrash, Jacob is worried that if his body remains in Egypt, his descendants will come to see Egypt as their home, rather than just a temporary residence.  Furthermore, he worries that the idolatrous Egyptians will begin to worship his remains, as the father of their beloved Joseph.

His desire to have his body returned to the Cave of Machpelah, therefore, is intended to remind his children that there are more important things than material success, and to underscore their connection to the Promised Land.

The final mystery has to do with Rachel’s burial location.  Why didn’t Jacob bury Rachel in the Cave of Machpelah, and why does he bring it up with Joseph now?

According to the commentator Rashi, Jacob is acknowledging Joseph’s anger.  It would not have been difficult to bury Rachel in the family tomb.  Joseph feels that his mother has been dishonored.  And now Jacob wants Joseph to bend over backwards to bury him.  So on one level, Jacob is feeling guilty, and knows that his request sounds hypocritical.

But Rashi also cites a midrash.  At the moment of Rachel’s death, God reveals to Jacob the future fate of his descendants.  One day, perhaps a thousand years later, they will be exiled from the land of Israel by the Babylonians.  Their tragic path out of Jerusalem will take them South, on the road to Beith Lechem.  They will pass by Rachel’s tomb, and her spirit will join them, weeping in exile.

She will pray to God on behalf of her children, asking for compassion, and God will grant it.  Thus, Jacob buries Rachel on the side of the road as a symbol of comfort and hope to his future descendants.

Looking at both of these midrashim, we find Jacob concerned about his children in the future.  In death, he seeks to leave a lasting legacy.

He does not want them to become so seduced with wealth and success in Egypt that they forget the nation they are supposed to become.  And, he knows that there will be times of devastation in the future, and he wants to leave them a legacy of hope and compassion.

Rather than an expression of selfishness and hypocrisy, we find that Jacob’s final instructions to have his body returned to the Land of Israel is a positive parting message to his children, and to us.