New sounds have entered my East Coast experience, beyond the usual bells and Christmas songs of this season (which are almost completely absent from Riverdale): The heater pipes in the walls with their’ ticks, clicks, knocks and sudden bangs, the snow ploughs’ “kch kch kch” in the white streets this past Shabbat morning, and people saying, “it’s nice and warm today!” when it’s in the 30’s. Fahrenheit.
Rav Steven Exler, HIR / the Bayit‘s rabbi, had the great honor and wonderful pleasure to attend the White House Hanukkah party with President and Mrs Obama as the keynote speaker at this prestigious and fun event to which he brought some of the our shul’s flavors and customs. More fun for us was not only to say we know someone who… but to sit with him over lunch and hear about the event in his honest, friendly and modest manner. Yeshiva life is not only about the material learned but who’s around to learn with and from.
Hanukkah starts Saturday night, and once again we get to explore the meanings behind and beyond this holiday. Here is just one quick thought from our day of learning:
The Talmud which rules that once a hanukiya is lit, if it gets extinguished, there is no need to light it again, as the mitzvah is the lighting and that was done (Tractate Shabbat, 21). The “Zer Zahav” (nickname given to chasidic rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Landa, 1807-1891 for the name of his book) comments on this saying the teaching here is that we must begin; get off and do something. We don’t know and are not able to guarantee the outcome, but just because we can’t complete the task, it does not mean that we are exempt from it (to paraphrase Pirkei Avot 2:21).
Likewise, one of the questions we should ask about the “oil miracle” is, why aren’t we celebrating seven days! After all, there was enough oil for one day, so there is no miracle in that day one, only in the extras! But rather, the miracle there is the fact that someone even noticed it, even bothered to use it. It was obvious it’s not enough! But a step forward was taken into the unknown, in hope and prayer that somehow, something will open up. Some days, the fact that we have hope, is a miracle in itself.
Not buying skirts for my boys. This was my way of saying that I clearly, blatantly and at times proudly, discriminate between what I give my kids. I don’t even make a fake effort to hide it, and worse yet, I believe it’s not only the norm, but the ideal. Attending to each child as an individual with his / her own uniqueness, and providing each differently, according to what this particular child needs, is the most important parenting aspect. The idea that a parent would do otherwise, is absurd.
This is why reading the Joseph story in the simple “traditional” way, does not quite make sense to me. There is no way that Jacob treated Reuven and Benjamin in the same way, and that verse describing Jacob’s love for Joseph “because” he was the youngest / born in his old age” and that therefore he made him a special coat (Genesis 37:3) must be misread and mistranslated. I am not arguing the special relationship between Jacob and Joseph but would like to qualify them slightly differently and then see where we can take it from there.
The first thing to notice is that Jacob in this verse is called Yisrael. Yisrael is his national, prophetic name. Joseph is described as “ben zkunim”, which is usually seen as a child born in a parent old age, usually the youngest. This presents at least two problems: 1. Joseph had two brothers, Yisaschar and Zvulun who were almost the same age as he was (not to mention Dina – the birth order is in Genesis 30:15-24). 2. He was not the youngest. He was also not the only one from beloved Rachel, to which we can say, that Benjamin reminded Jacob of Rachel’s death and therefore was less loved, but – we know from later parts of the story that this is simply not true. So, maybe there is a different way to understand “ben zkunim”? Indeed, some of the commentators were bothered by the same issues. Onkelos, who brings us the Aramaic translation of the text, says it mean “ben zkunim” means ‘bar chakim’, a wise son. Jacob(the prophetic Jacob, Yisrael) noticed Joseph’s special intellectual and spiritual abilities. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the root for zaken, is ‘experience that brings wisdom’. Alternatively, according to Ramban (Nachmonides 1194-1270) it was the custom of older man – Jacob was 91 when Joseph was born – to have one of their boys stay back with them and help them with their needs. That’s why Joseph did not go with his brothers and the flock.
One more questionable word in this verse is “ki”, often translated as “because” but can also be “when’ (as in Ki Tetze, Ki Tavo). If so, maybe – Prophetic Jacob loved Joseph as he (Joseph) was the one to serve him (Jacob). We can now imagine the two spending many hours together, and as Rashi and others tell us, Jacob taught Joseph all he knew in spiritual learning. It’s unclear why Jacob made Joseph a “striped coat” – some say he made it to cover the fact that Joseph was learning and growing spiritually; and if we want to stay really curious, it’s even hard to tell who made that coat (when it says “ve’asa lo” it’s unclear who is which pronoun). One thing is hard to argue: the brothers resented Jacob’s love to Joseph, and according to some the big problem was not even their feelings but the fact that “they could not speak with him le’shalom – peacefully” (37:4). The brothers inability to talk with him just made it worse. According to some commentators, had they only been able to talk with each other, even if they expressed their anger and upset-ness, they would have been able to make peace. But they did not develop a common language and listening ear. Joseph on his end, had the kind of social skills that leave a lot to be desired (which is what both gets him in trouble and saves him). It was one thing to tell his first dream, and quite another to tell the second, after the brothers’ displeasure was already obvious (some say, his “dreamer” quality is also a sign of his inability to stay focused in the present which is possibly what lands him in jail, maybe connect him to the here and now). Communication was severed from both sides.
Joseph and his brothers represent different aspects of the Jewish people. This week’s Torah portion ends in suspense and there are more “episodes” to go, but but suffice it to say that ultimately, it will not be an either or, but a “both”. This is still true today, and the sooner we learn it, the better.
Shabbat Shalom & Happy Hanukkah!