Joseph, Judah, Leviathan & Siyum HaSha”s – Shabbat Vayigash

After Judah’s speech, when Joseph finally reveals himself, he invites the brothers to come and live with him in plentiful Egypt. Egypt is the center of the world back then and Joseph is highly esteemed there, second only to the Pharaoh and at times, as high; and yet, when he invites his brother to join him, he tells them to “hurry, go up to my father and say to him… come down to me, do not delay” (Genesis 45:9).

“Come down”? It’s highly unlikely they meant “south”, as in down on the map, since maps in the ancient world faced east to the “orient” (hence “orientation”). If so what did he mean? The brothers are poor shepherds; Joseph is rich, owning lands, managing grain storehouses. The brothers struggle in a land that isn’t always hospitable towards them while Joseph’s children grow up in the palace. Heading to Egypt sounds like going “up”. However since time immemorial, like being called to the Torah, going to Israel has been called “aliya”, going up, and going away, is going down, even if one travels from the Himalaya’s to the Dead Sea. Further: Israel is described as a “good and wide” Land, while Egypt’s name, Mitzrayim, comes from the word tzar, narrow, tight. Could it be because in the vast desert, there is only a “tight” strip to live on along the Nile? Or perhaps because “down” and away, feels “tight” while home feel “good and wide”?
Joseph’s message is, there’s life outside of Israel. If we want to be a “light unto the nations”, we have to live there, while Judah believes in the Land; in our special connection to it and need to live on it.

Their conversation continued through the Talmud into our own days when it is as contemporary and relevant as ever. We all know Josephs who left Europe decades ago to come to America, the Golden Medina, only to find their grandchildren making aliya. We know Judahs who immigrated to Israel to dry the swamps and settle the Land, only to have their grandchildren relocate elsewhere. In a way, we are all part of the meet-up between Judah and Joseph, possibly taking on different roles in our own lifetime, knowing that at the end of the day, neither one could have stayed on history’s stage without the other.


From my balcony I see Leviathan, not a large whale but a clump of lights in the middle of the water which turns out to be Israel’s natural gas field. This week Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed an agreement for a huge pipeline project to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, and I can’t help wonder: Some 80 years later, can our history get any more ironic than that??


This weekend, Daf Yomi reaches one of its great milestones: the end of the 13th 7½ year cycle and immediate resuming of a daily page of Talmud learning. The fact that it’s happening is one thing; the fact that so many are involved is quite another. A few days ago, nearly 100,000 Jews, men and women, gathered in MetLife stadium in New Jersey to celebrate the “siyum” (finale), and this Sunday, for the first time, more than 3,000 women are gathering in Jerusalem, where I am planning to be as well. The Talmud is not only the base for Jewish law but the guide for how we think – creatively, analytically, broadly, compassionately, justly and so much more. It’s the spinal cord of Jewish thought. AS someone told me long ago, if the Bible is lost, we’ll be sad but able to reconstruct it; if the Talmud is lost, we’d be lost too. Whether that’s true or not, it gives us a feeling for how crucial the Talmud is.

This is a good time to take a moment and gaze around. We often look at the achievements of the Jewish people in the last 100 (or maybe even 2000) years, and count, first and foremost, the establishment of the State of Israel, which is indeed a grand thing. But / And… something else is happening, and that is the re-engagement in Jewish learning. No longer the property of the few, study groups, classes, schools, midrashot, yeshivot are everywhere. The revival is moving to tears. I attend a shiur (class) at a beit midrash (house of learning) for young women (18-20 years old), all joyful and studious around me, fully minded how impossible this was just a few decades ago; I visit a “combined school”, where religious and non-religious / secular students learn together with a “Judaica corner” in class, which was my parents’ “crazy” and “impossible” dream for me, never to imagine this; I read the newspaper where every other page there’s an ad about a seminar or program somewhere. There are links and aps and what-not to study the daf (and so many other things) at every level, language, accent possible, and I think wow, what a time and what an honor to be in this.

In honor of the daf, here’s a short section from this week’s pages. We are in the last tractate of the last order, Niddah, dealing with spiritual purity and impurity issues, primarily those of women, and along with that, the art of dipping in the mikveh. I love this line because I am partial to olive picking, but mostly because it’s such a picturesque way to describe something that can be complicated with so few words, you can literally see it (translation from Sefaria, an ap that is a must on everyone’s phone; the bold words are what the Talmud says in its succinct manner, and the regular font explains the text without damaging it):

אמר ריש לקיש האשה לא תטבול אלא דרך גדילתה כדתנן האיש נראה כעודר ומוסק זיתים אשה נראת כאורגת וכמניקה את בנה

Reish Lakish says: A woman may immerse herself in a ritual bath only in the manner that she grows, i.e., she may not force her arms to her sides or close her legs tightly. She is not obligated to spread her limbs widely, but simply stand in her normal manner. As we learned in a mishna (Nega’im 2:4): When a man has a leprous mark between his legs and stands before a priest for inspection, he should appear like one who is hoeing, i.e., with his legs slightly apart, and if it is under his arm, he should appear like one who is harvesting olives, with his arms slightly raised. If the mark is not visible when he is standing in that manner, it is not impure. By contrast, a woman with a leprous mark between her legs should appear like one who is weaving, and if the mark is beneath her breast she should appear like a woman who is nursing her son.

Here’s to continuous learning. Shabbat Shalom!




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