Individual Actions; Meaningful Wholes

This is a great moment for folks who like to count!

–We continue to count the Omer…less than a week to go.

–We’re in parashat Bamidbar, wherein God directs Moses to take a census of fighting-aged men, by Israelite tribe.

–For those who read Pirkei Avot in the weeks between Pesah and Shavuot, it’s time to read Pirkei Avot 6:6, listing 48 ways that Torah is acquired.

Woo hoo!  Lists and numbers!

Any mathematician or statistician knows that it’s fun to search through numbers for patterns and associations, and from those patterns derive meaning.  So here goes.

In the Omer count, we don’t just enumerate days. Starting from day 7, we’ve regrouped the numbers into weeks. For example, I’m writing this essay on day 43 (one of my favorite prime numbers).  Last night, when reciting the berakha for sefirat ha’omer, we counted the days (43) along with modular units of weeks –“making 6 weeks and 1 day of the Omer”  – also a tidy 1|7 (“1, modulo 7”) in algebraic lingo.  The Torah (Leviticus 23:15-16) directs us to count both weeks and days, and the Gemara, in Menahot and Hagiga, debates whether these are two mitzvot or one.  Rambam, in his Sefer haMitzvot, considers them one integrated mitzvah.

Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik (“the Rav”) gave a beautiful interpretation of the grouping of days into weeks in a shi’ur on sefirat ha’omer in 1973 (cited in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Pesach, Sefirat ha-Omer and Shavu’ot by David Shapiro).  The Rav noted that whenever the Torah gives us details, it then turns our attention to the whole as well.  “The Torah is interested not only in the discrete acts, but in the overall life-style…in counting you start with single positions and thereby create an entity….when you reach seven days what do you say?…”They comprise a week.”  It’s a new entity.  We are interested in both: in each count separately and in the new entity that emerges. The Torah tells man (sic): be precise as far as our single acts are concerned, and act in such a manner that your individual actions be integrated into a meaningful whole (p. 153).”

The same respect for individual counting that amasses into a new entity, a purposeful collectivity, is conveyed in the reading of parashat Bamidbar that opens the book of Numbers. The Israelites are grouped by tribes, and the named tribal leaders will count them “bemispar sheimot” by the “numbering of their names”.  That is a telling phrase, blurring the boundaries between numbers and names.  But it’s not a surprising turn of words to a statistician who, when counting out people, is keenly aware that each seemingly anonymous count represents a respected individual in a carefully curated, so-called sampling frame of names.  Together, those individuals become a new entity: a Biblical fighting force, a new nation.

That brings us, at last, to the listing of attributes in Pirkei Avot 6:6 .

Torah is acquired in 48 ways: by audible study, by diligent attention, by proper speech, by an understanding heart, by a perceptive heart, by awe, by fear, by humility, by joy, by attendance upon sages, by critical give and take with fellows, by acute exchanges among disciples, by clear thinking, by study of scripture, by study of Mishnah, by a minimum of sleep, by a minimum of chatter, by a minimum of pleasure, by a minimum of frivolity, by a minimum preoccupation with worldly affairs, by long-suffering, by generosity, by faith in the sages, by acceptance of suffering, (by the one) who knows one’s place, who is content with one’s portion, who makes a hedge around one’s words, who takes no credit to oneself, who is beloved, who loves God, loves humanity, loves acts of charity, loves reproof, loves rectitude, keeps far from honors, is not puffed up with one’s learning, does not delight in handing down decisions, bears the yoke along with one’s companion, judges one’s fellow with generous scales, leads one’s companion to truth, concentrates on study, is capable of intellectual give and take, is capable of adding to one’s learning, studies in order to teach, and studies in order to practice, makes one’s teacher wiser, is exact in one’s learning, and quotes one’s source.

I’ve embroidered this text (2021, photo Philip Brookman):

The attributes described in this baraita (Mishnaic passage) are remarkable.  They do not focus on traditional scholastic skills, but rather on the humanity and individuality of the student, emphasizing that pursuit of Torah is open to all.  The design of the embroidery interprets the text, with each distinct attribute for acquiring Torah surrounded by its own blackwork embroidery pattern.  All are set into an open Torah scroll, signaling that together, this community of learners join to make Torah study complete. 

The sound and pace of the Mishnaic text are also reflected in the design, putting the short staccato of single words near the beginning of the passage (awe, fear humility, joy) in rapid succession on the rightmost column, for example, with the more expansive final attributes more leisurely situated in the third (leftmost) column. I wanted the artwork to “read” like the text.

What patterns that support kinyan Torah can we detect among the individual characteristics? What groupings might we make, much like the Rav finds meaning in grouping daily counts into weeks, that identifies multiple paths toward Torah?

–scholarly behavior (eg, audible study, attention)

–relationships with others (interactions with teachers, colleagues, and students)

–character (humility, belovedness, charity, openness to correction)

–respect for the community (sharing burdens, reserving judgement)

Can you find more paths and patterns in this list?

I’ll end by quoting the Rav again, in his characterization of the Torah’s integration of individual actions and collective entities:  “Act in such a manner that your individual actions be integrated into a meaningful whole.”


Deprivation and Dignity

The Passover seder considers two accounts of our difficulties and deliverance, laid out in the Mishnah in Pesahim 10:4.  The father presiding over the seder, we are told, answers a child’s seder questions by beginning with the Jewish people’s degradation and ending with their praise (of God): mathil big’nut u’mesayem be’shevah.

What specifically is the degradation (genut) of the Jewish people? For Rav, the 3rd century amora, it is idolatry:  our ancestors were idol-worshippers, leading to haggadah texts like arami oved avi (perhaps: ‘my father was a wandering Aramean’).  Shmuel, also 3rd century, identifies the degradation as the enforced physical labor of slavery, leading us to the haggadah’s statement avadim hayinu : we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt.  The end result, our liberation from Egypt and resulting revelation, elevate us and our relationship with God.  From B. Talmud Pesahim 116a:

What do you think is the greater genut: spiritual abasement or physical degradation?  I connect degradation with loss of dignity, and I doubt that the spiritually afflicted are aware of that loss (current American politics being a good example). I’m with Shmuel.

I witnessed the search for dignity among people who were physically constrained, as a college student visiting the Soviet Union in 1979.   I was matched with another American student to visit refuseniks in Leningrad and Moscow, part of the chain of Soviet Jewry activists delivering Hebrew books, food, medicine for prisoners in Siberia, any valuables we could manage to get in, fellowship, and moral support.  In Leningrad, we visited the Fradkin family: Sarah, Daniel, and their two children.  As a refusenik, Daniel became a Hebrew teacher, and we had been tasked with delivering copies of the Hebrew textbook Eleph Milim. I had written letters to Daniel for a few years at that point, selecting his name because of his frumkeit – he and Sarah tried to maintain a kosher, Shabbat-observant home – and because of his status as a math professor, with me a math major at Penn.

Like other refusenik families, Daniel and Sarah’s application to emigrate to Israel was denied, and they faced immediate physical threats.  They were dismissed from jobs and lived with extraordinary uncertainty – unable to emigrate, fired or compromised at work, branded as Jews on their internal passports, with little hope for their and their children’s futures. In commenting on the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt, the Talmud (Sotah 11b and accompanying Rashi) describes unfamiliar work assignments deliberately mismatched to the laborers, with hard work imposed on the weak and light work assigned to the strong.  Similarly, the intellectually gifted Daniel was getting by with odd jobs – elevator operator, janitor, parking lot attendant –  with intermittent periods of unemployment.

I so clearly remember the door to their apartment.  A mezuzah scroll, wrapped in a bit of plastic, was nailed to the door – the only one I saw in the week that followed.  Daniel was a bit skeptical of my identity – he knew me from my letters, but told me, somewhat inelegantly, that he wasn’t sure it was me, since in the Soviet Union, female mathematicians were shriveled and old.  I decided to overlook that and stick to my script.  Feminism was a discussion for another day and possibly continent.

Visits to refusenik families typically included a small gift of food – cans of tuna or sardines, perhaps – since family incomes were so compromised after their emigration applications.  In one house, our few sardine cans were immediately opened and became the centerpiece of a meal, along with potatoes.  I handed Sarah Fradkin a can of Chicken of the Sea tuna.  “Is this kosher?” she asked excitedly in Hebrew.  Betah!  Of course! I replied.  Sarah nearly swooned.  “We haven’t had meat is so long!” she giggled, telling me how hard it was to get kosher meat in Leningrad.  My face fell, and I explained that it was tuna.  She frowned.  Then why did it say “chicken” on the label?  I offered that the company was trying to suggest that their tuna was so good, one might think it was chicken, but her brow only furrowed more. 

Two ideas struck me.

First: I was trying to explain brand marketing and product differentiation to someone raised in Communist Russia (in a foreign language, to boot!).

Second: Good thing I hadn’t brought Bumble Bee!

The gift giving was reciprocal.  Sarah gave me a small carved-wood memento, along with a chocolate bar.  Smiling, she pronounced “Russian chocolate is the best in the world.” 

Her remark about Russian chocolate confused me.  Any show of fondness for things Russian seemed odd, given her family’s state.  I also (mentally) rolled my eyes at hearing a comparative assessment of chocolate from someone who hadn’t realized there could be different brands of tuna fish.

My mind wanders to the Israelites, to the fleshpots and cucumbers they lament from their Egyptian sojourn. We typically (and correctly) take that as a sign of their generation’s unworthiness and lack of gratitude. But perhaps too, like Sarah, they sought the dignity of imagining that despite the misery of their physically taxing lives, there could still be moments of pride and pleasure.

Contrast Sarah’s chocolate story to Golda Meir’s. Why did the chocolate of pre-state Palestine taste so sandy, she asked?  She was told that sand was their only natural resource. Think of the halutzim who laughingly gave her that heady explanation – confident, ambitious, expectant.  They felt no need to exaggerate the pleasure of their chocolate.

I think the genut (religious degradation) described by Rav is more easily observed by those on the outside of a failed religious system; few within have the imagination and clarity of Abram.  But the emotional/spiritual degradation of enslaved people, well aware of their aches and constraints, is a profound burden, relieved, perhaps, by occasional pining for fleshpots and chocolate.

I will sing avadim hayinu with special gusto this year.

Priestly offerings and Jewish values – a look at Leviticus

The anthropologist Emile Durkheim identified rituals with support for the social order and affirmation of its values.  Here, in Leviticus, we see the Israelite tribal caste system emerge and its values actualized through the korbanot (offerings).

The first two parshiyot, Vayikra and Tzav, comprise chapters 1-9 and present a list of offerings the Israelites may/must bring to the Sanctuary, along with instructions to the priests on how to enact them.  The array of korbanot (sometimes not quite usefully translated as “sacrifices”) addresses many issues experienced by the Israelites.  They include:

The problem of communication with God:  Gone are the days when the Patriarchs and Matriarchs seemingly effortlessly poured their hearts into communication with God.  In Egypt, it even seems to take some time for the Israelites to groan in their affliction and for God to notice them. Would the newly freed Israelites even know when or why to contact God? The system of korbonot instructs the Israelites on emotions/circumstances that warrant contact with God, via an offering:  sin, guilt/shame, thankfulness, nearness to God, peace. (Psalms gives us a later sampling of emotions that also prompt a relationship with God.)

The need for prescripted interactions with God: In similar contrast to the spontaneity of the earliest generations, the easily-errant Israelites are presented with fixed times and modes of communication.  While the rabbis try to back-impose order on the Patriarchs (eg, “Isaac went out to converse in the field”, thereby established the afternoon mincha service), it’s clear that the people who came up with a Golden Calf need more fixed invitations to encounter God.

The establishment of a class of Jewish professionals:  Members of the Priestly class, the kohanim, have a job description and means of livelihood through the korbanot (along with other functions described later in Leviticus).    Leviticus also presents the still-open question as to how Jewish professionals are paid and what unpaid work they might expect to do (the olah offering, for example, is burnt in its entirety, leaving nothing to eat – though with a bull, the kohanim are offered the hide).

A ritual life that is concerned with ethics, too: Among the sacrificial offerings are options for poorer people, eg, olah offerings that permit birds instead of bulls, depending on one’s means. In the former case, the birds are not defeathered, though burning them on the altar would produce a noxious odor, so that the poor supplicant is not shamed by bringing an apparently scrawny, defeathered bird.  The system includes access to Jewish professionals by both poor and elevated classes of society. A midrash in Leviticus Rabba 3:5 details both a poor man and the Roman king Agrippa approaching the Kohen Gadol (high priest), each receiving attention.

The importance of physicality in worship:  Not only have the Israelites contributed to and constructed a beautiful sanctuary, their priests are clothed in majestic clothing. Aromas of burning sacrifices are part of the experience, described as a re’ah nihoah, a pleasing odor for God.  The space is meant to be used and not just admired – blood is thrown, stains accumulate.  There is no confusion of sterility with holiness. (Even now, one can rejoice in a wine stain on a favorite tablecloth if it reflects good company at the Shabbat table!)

Finally (at least for now 😉 ), the text of Leviticus hints at an option for continuity in these times in which we have no Temple (and among many of us, little desire to return to the sacrificial system).  Leviticus 7:37-38 reads (Koren translation):

With respect to the first two words of 7:37, “zot haTorah” – “this is the Torah” – Rabbi Reish Lakish, in B. Talmud Menahot 110a, remarks:

In our times, the values and efficacy of the korbanot endure through Torah study.

A new book about Modern Judaica

Just published — Modern Judaica by Jim Cohen. I am honored to be included among 53 Judaic artists, worldwide, who share photos of our work. Jim Cohen, himself a distinguished Judaic metalsmith, carefully interviewed each of us. The resulting essays illuminate the motivations, emotions, and perceptions of each artist.

Fear and forgiveness

A selection of penitential verses, Tachanun, is read at the end of most shaharit and minha weekday services. It includes Psalm 130, also commonly recited between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And therein lies on of the most remarkable pieces of liturgy:

Psalm 130:4

Robert Alter translates this as : For forgiveness is Yours, so that You may be feared.

I prefer his translation, “fear”, to other renditions such as “held in awe” (JPS), because American culture has whittled down the impact of the word ‘awe’.

What a strange combination of clauses! Imagine you had to finish the sentence knowing only one of the two. “For forgiveness is yours…..because You are a compassionate God? because You are a soft-touch? because we all need a bit of permission to push boundaries a bit, and knowing You are forgiving gives us a safety net?

Most of us, I suspect, would not finish that sentence imagining, as the Psalmist did, that our next emotion would be fear.

Or… if you knew that the ending clause was “So that You may be feared”, what would you choose as antecedent? “For retribution is yours…You smote the Egyptians at the sea….You have the power of meimit u’mehaye (able to cause death and restore life) … You call Yourself a jealous God…

Knowing that the concluding idea is fear of God, how many of us would designate “forgiveness” as the qualifying attribute?

The Psalmist gives us a perhaps unexpected reason to experience yir’ah , the fear of Heaven. A God so secure in God’s power, so close to God’s people, so desirous of our correcting our paths, expresses God’s majesty by containing forgiveness.

The habit of a hardened heart

In the Torah reading cycle, we are in the midst of reading the stories of the plagues against Egypt.  The text of Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:3, JPS) begins with God telling Moshe:

Everett Fox renders hikhbadti et libo as “weighted-with-stubbornness”.  Last week (Va’era) we encountered a slightly different vocabulary of hardening: aksheh, when God promises (Exodus 7:3, JPS):

In our times and for the commentators of centuries past, the question immediately arises: is this fair?  Is Pharaoh punished for actions he can no longer control?

Mythic warfare of deities is found in many world literatures and could be a useful lens here.  The plagues represent a war between the God of the Hebrews and the gods of Egypt who are specifically attacked with the plagues – the Nile, for example, and even Pharaoh via his heir and son. From that mythic point of view, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is just an instance of psychological warfare, which modern regimes also engage in via misinformation campaigns, posturing, and intimidation.  That parallel suggests a possible framing for understanding why God interferes with Pharaoh’s heart.

Another reason, given plainly in the text and emphasized by many classic commentators, is that the Israelites, enslaved for hundreds of years, needed to experience the otot u’moftim, God’s signs and marvels, to be convinced.  The surrounding nations are to be impressed as well.   Rashi cites Zephaniah to emphasize the importance of God demonstrating God’s power to all the nations.

Rebeinu Bahya, the 14th C Spanish commentator, also discusses the importance of God demonstrating God’s might. He evokes the story of Jonah and the repentance of Nineveh, to whom Jonah is sent to prophecy. When the sinners of Nineveh do repent and escape punishment, Jonah is sufficiently unimpressed that he finds a gourd to mope under. We might think that the Nineveh outcome is great – they repent! – but it’s not dramatic nor satisfying to Jonah.  To the undiscerning observer, God forfeited the glory of punishment by accepting Nineveh’s repentance. This explanation does not appeal to our higher sentiments, but the Israelites were emotionally immature slaves — and Jonah was a bit pouty.

Ramban, citing Shemot Rabba, emphasizes that during the first five plagues, Pharaoh himself is resistant to Moses and Aaron’s demands and is cruel to the Israelites.  Only after the fifth plague do we actively see God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  He quotes R. Shimon ben Lakish – “When God warns on three occasions and he (the sinner) does not turn from his ways, God closes the door of repentance on him in order to punish him for his sin.” Ramban notes that the longer the window for repentance, the less likely there will be justifiable punishment. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God ensures the appropriate punishment. I’m not convinced of this explanation.  A person can repent past actions and still, societally, be accountable for them. Repentance is a desirable outcome for one’s spiritual state, but does not defer a murder conviction, for example.   (In a modern example, consider the hesitations of some Jews about South Africa’s “truth and reconciliation” process.)

But what struck me about Shimon ben Lakish’s comment is the specification of THREE chances for repentance   It seems parallel to another set of threes with regard to repentance.  At the High Holidays, if we need to seek forgiveness of someone who is withholding it, we are asked to try three times and if still rebuffed, we may cease future attempts at appeasements.

So mythic history aside, these sets-of-three suggest another interpretation of the power of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  Pharaoh seemingly refuses to relent of his own volition during the first several plagues, and thereafter is trapped in this behavior by God’s strong hand. To me, this is a metaphor for a habit.  In first few instances of a bad choice, one might just be experimenting. But then the force of habit, even addiction, becomes so strong, it’s as heavy as the hand of God. Similarly, someone who refuses to be appeased and to accept apologies and reconciliation becomes addicted to their victimhood and anger.  And the one seeking forgiveness is given permission, comparably, to let go of the task of denigrating themselves as they revisit past misbehavior. 

Thus the shift between the first five plagues and the last five plagues, where Pharaoh’s volition is removed, is a warning to us about the danger of habit. Our cruelties can become a habit, even an addiction – as strong as God’s hand in hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

Vayehi: Is Joseph a substitute for God?

Genesis ends with the death of Jacob and the resolution of Joseph’s story. With Jacob’s death, the brothers fear Joseph’s possible retribution, and Joseph asks (JPS translation):

Joseph’s question, “Am I a substitute for God?” (or, Everett Fox translates, “Am I in place of God?”) is seemingly rhetorical, but my gut response to that question is “heck yes!” There is every reason for the brothers to see Joseph as god-like, especially earlier in the story when they hadn’t yet recognized him. Remember, in the ancient world, nations were associated with specific gods. The Hebrew Bible provides instances of even the Israelites acknowledging local gods. The book of Exodus (15:11) provides the text “mi kamokha: who is like you among the gods, YHVH?” And as the seas rage in Jonah (1:6), the voyagers are urged to pray to their respective gods for rescue.

In the Biblical conflation of gods and government, Joseph, chief servant to the god-designated Pharaoh, might well have appeared to his brothers as essentially divine. Consider: while Joseph himself attributes his abilities to God, he has seemingly mystical dream-interpretation skills. The brothers prostrate before him (Genesis 42:6), using the same verb we use to bow before God in Aleynu and elsewhere.

Referring to this verse, the Midrashic text, Sefer Hayashar (Miketz 14), describes Joseph “seated upon his throne in his temple, robed in garments of white and ‎purple and upon his head was a large crown of gold”.

Moreover, Joseph’s conduct borrows images from our descriptions of God. In his role distributing grain during the seven bad years, he is meimit u’mehaye, seemingly able to condemn to death and restore to life. In one midrash (Sefer haYashar, Miketz 12, on Genesis 41:57), he even imposes tough strictures on anyone seeking grain in Egypt to ensure that his brothers would have to make the journey themselves. Who shall have grain and who shall not…that surely suggests a Being who metes out life and death along with the grain.

Reading it now with a modern lens, the behavior that might have seemed fearsome and godlike to the brothers feels rather remote to me. The omnipotent God of ages past might have taken an occasional breather during the twentieth century.

But the brothers’ encounter with Joseph gives me another model for thinking about a God for my time. At their first meeting, the now-unrecognizable Joseph does not reveal his Hebrew roots, engaging an interpreter to protect his identity. Imagining their discussions to be private, the brothers bemoan their predicament and their memories of past misdeeds; they acknowledge, with growing dread, the long arc of their prior actions. And Joseph hides himself and weeps along with them.

Perhaps a God who listens to us and weeps along with us, even when we don’t recognize God’s Presence, is an approachable One for our time.

Thinking about Silver Utensils on Hanukkah

The daily Torah readings for Hanukkah are found in the book of Numbers.  They consist of a long, repetitive listing of the tribes’ identical offerings, following Moses’ consecration of the Mishkan, the desert Sanctuary. Here’s what we read this morning, the 7th day of Hanukkah:

Numbers 7:48-53(48) On the seventh day, it was the chieftain of the Ephraimites, Elishama son of Ammihud. (49) His offering: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; (50) one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; (51) one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt offering; (52) one goat for a sin offering; (53) and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs. That was the offering of Elishama son of Ammihud.

במדבר ז׳:מ״ח-נ״ג(מח) בַּיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י נָשִׂ֖יא לִבְנֵ֣י אֶפְרָ֑יִם אֱלִֽישָׁמָ֖ע בֶּן־עַמִּיהֽוּד׃ (מט) קׇרְבָּנ֞וֹ קַֽעֲרַת־כֶּ֣סֶף אַחַ֗ת שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים וּמֵאָה֮ מִשְׁקָלָהּ֒ מִזְרָ֤ק אֶחָד֙ כֶּ֔סֶף שִׁבְעִ֥ים שֶׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ שְׁנֵיהֶ֣ם ׀ מְלֵאִ֗ים סֹ֛לֶת בְּלוּלָ֥ה בַשֶּׁ֖מֶן לְמִנְחָֽה׃ (נ) כַּ֥ף אַחַ֛ת עֲשָׂרָ֥ה זָהָ֖ב מְלֵאָ֥ה קְטֹֽרֶת׃ (נא) פַּ֣ר אֶחָ֞ד בֶּן־בָּקָ֗ר אַ֧יִל אֶחָ֛ד כֶּֽבֶשׂ־אֶחָ֥ד בֶּן־שְׁנָת֖וֹ לְעֹלָֽה׃ (נב) שְׂעִיר־עִזִּ֥ים אֶחָ֖ד לְחַטָּֽאת׃ (נג) וּלְזֶ֣בַח הַשְּׁלָמִים֮ בָּקָ֣ר שְׁנַ֒יִם֒ אֵילִ֤ם חֲמִשָּׁה֙ עַתֻּדִ֣ים חֲמִשָּׁ֔ה כְּבָשִׂ֥ים בְּנֵֽי־שָׁנָ֖ה חֲמִשָּׁ֑ה זֶ֛ה קׇרְבַּ֥ן אֱלִישָׁמָ֖ע בֶּן־עַמִּיהֽוּד׃ {פ}

This list of offerings is reiterated essentially verbatim for each tribe, changing only the name of the tribe’s chieftain’s.  The narrative is a mesmerizing example of Torah revealing how the practice of repetition can be so profound.

The reading includes two references to silver utensils: the ka’arat kesef, a silver bowl, and the mizrak kesef, the silver basin, each filled with a minha offering of flour and oil.  

They bring to mind another silver offering described by Chaim Weizmann, first president of Israel, in December 1947, soon after passage of the UN’s Partition plan. Referring to the ongoing military strife associated with the founding of the State of Israel, less than six months away, Weizmann warned “no state was handed to a people on a silver platter”. He actually spoke these words in English at a fundraising dinner in New Jersey; “silver platter” was rendered in Hebrew newspaper reports as magash shel kesef:

. אין מדינה ניתנת לעם על מגש של כסף

The Israeli poet Natan Altermann then used the imagery in a poem published  in the Hebrew newspaper Davar, reminding the readers of the sacrifices that were made and would continue to be made to defend the State. (The poem was probably associated with the funerals that week of a young woman and a young man, Haganah fighters.)

Here are excerpts from the poem The Silver Platter (Magash haKesef)

As the nation stands up

Torn at heart but still alive

To receive this miracle  (le-kabel et ha-nes)

The first in 2000 years.

Towards it slowly pacing

In plain sight of all

A young girl and a boy

Dressed in battle gear, dirty shoes heavy with grime

Still bone weary from days and  nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue and all drained of emotion

Yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head

Thus like statues they stand

stiff and still with no motion

And no sign to show

if they are alive or dead.

Then a nation in tears will ask:

“Who are you?”

And the two will softly say,

“We are the silver platter

on which was presented to you

the Jewish state.”

The poem is cited in Israel’s Memorial Day commemorative stamp of 2013.

I see a lot of power in these images of silver vessels, both in the Torah reading and in the poem, relating to the Hanukkah experience of dedication and re-dedication. In Numbers, it’s about dedicating the Mishkan, the desert Sanctuary.  In the context of being read on Hanukkah, it invokes another dedication – when the Maccabees prevailed and re-dedicated the Temple. And the last, the silver platter on which was presented the State of Israel– is a re-dedication of Jewish sovereignty, and the secular  Altmann even uses the term ‘nes’, though he wouldn’t ascribe their ultimate success to God.   Each usage evokes the price of establishing or maintaining Jewish identity – slavery followed by long wanderings in the Temple, the sacrifice in the Hanukkah story of Hannah and her sons who rejected Greek practice and died al kiddush hashem, and repeatedly in our lifetimes, the sacrifice of modern day Israeli warriors.     

The Torah readings might feel tedious this week of Hanukkah, but their imagery and repetition evoke continuing dedication, re-dedication, sacrifice, and even miracles.

Miketz 5783: “Truly, we are guilty”

In Chapter 42 of Genesis, the brothers travel to Egypt, seeking to buy grain as the famine persists.  They encounter Joseph, now vizier of Egypt,  but do not recognize him. He accuses them of being spies and demands that they return to Egypt with their younger  brother Benjamin in tow. The brothers come to surmise, each in turn, that they are being punished for having abandoned Joseph in the pit.  Here is the text of Genesis 42:21, along with Everett Fox’s translation:

But they said, each one to his brother:Truly,  we are guilty:  concerning our brother!  —that we saw his heart’s distress when he pleaded with us, and we did not listen.וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֗יו אֲבָל֮ אֲשֵׁמִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַ֘חְנוּ֮ עַל־אָחִ֒ינוּ֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר רָאִ֜ינוּ צָרַ֥ת נַפְשׁ֛וֹ בְּהִתְחַֽנְנ֥וֹ אֵלֵ֖ינוּ וְלֹ֣א שָׁמָ֑עְנוּ עַל־כֵּן֙ בָּ֣אָה אֵלֵ֔ינוּ הַצָּרָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת׃

The three words, אֲבָל֮ אֲשֵׁמִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַ֘חְנוּ֮ , “truly, we are guilty” are powerful indicators of the brothers’ states of mind.  Of special interest is the word aval.  It means “but” in modern Hebrew, but in the  two instances it appears in Torah (here and when Abraham is told that Sarah will bear a son, Genesis 17:19), it implies “truly” or “verily”.  

I am not the first to notice the similarity between the brothers’ exclamation (aval anahnu asheimim) and the three words introducing the short confessional in the Yom Kippur liturgy:  aval  anahnu hatanu – “indeed, we have sinned”.  (For further discussion of aval,  I commend to you the essay by Rabbi Eli Kaunfer in We Have Sinned , Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, editor.)

Here is the text of the paragraph from the Yom Kippur mahzor that ends “aval anahnu hatanu” (emphasized in bold):

Our God and God of our fathers, let our prayer come before you and do not ignore our supplication. For we are not so brazen-faced and stiff-necked to say to you, Adonoy, our God, and God of our fathers, “We are righteous and have not sinned.” But, indeed, we have sinned.אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ תָּבֹא לְפָנֶֽיךָ תְּפִלָּתֵֽנוּ, וְאַל תִּתְעַלַּם מִתְּחִנָּתֵֽנוּ שֶׁאֵין אֲנַֽחְנוּ עַזֵּי פָנִים וּקְשֵׁי עֹֽרֶף לוֹמַר לְפָנֶֽיךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ צַדִּיקִים אֲנַֽחְנוּ וְלֹא חָטָֽאנוּ אֲבָל אֲנַֽחְנוּ חָטָֽאנוּ:

Following this paragraph in the liturgy, the alphabetical listing of sins commences, starting with ashamnu, with the same root as Joseph’s brothers’ word choice:  asheimim.

We have trespassed; We have betrayed ; We have stolen……אָשַֽׁמְנוּ. בָּגַֽדְנוּ. גָּזַֽלְנוּ

The power of these simple words: “indeed, we have sinned/trespassed” is described in Talmud Tractate Yoma, where Mar Zuta maintains that this three-word sequence is all that is required for full confession:

Mar Zutra said: We said only that one must follow all these versions (of confessionals) when he did not say the words: But we have sinned. However, if he said the words: But we have sinned, he need not say anything further because that is the essential part of the confession. (Yoma 87b:7)אָמַר מָר זוּטְרָא: לָא אֲמַרַן, אֶלָּא דְּלָא אָמַר: ״אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ חָטָאנוּ״, אֲבָל אָמַר: ״אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ חָטָאנוּ״ — תּוּ לָא צְרִיךְ. 

What is the significance of aval?  Whether it means “truly/verily” or, more recently, “but/nevertheless”, it provides the critical contrast between “we” and “sinned”.  As when Abraham is told that Sarah will, indeed, bear a son, its use contrasts a perception and a reality.  In the liturgy, aval suggests a dissonance between the self-conception and the lived experience of its reciter, who, the text tells us, is tempted to claim “we are righteous and have not sinned”. 

Aval!   Even if the reciter is incorrect, that self-perception of goodness is fundamental.  Why would one repent if one hadn’t, foundationally, a sense of the desirability of being truly righteous, a recognition of one’s core goodness? Indeed, without that discernment, one might never embrace the reflection required to detect and expose one’s shortcomings.

So perhaps the brothers had, until that point, understood themselves to be good people. They appeared to be loyal sons who stuck close to their self-indulgent, often annoying father, Jacob.  Reuven, though ineffective, imagined himself returning to the pit to rescue Joseph. Judah is able to acknowledge the correctness of Tamar’s actions in contrast to his own.  Even Simeon, perhaps, thought he was defending his sister’s honor in his attack on Shekhem.

In Egypt, as the horror of Joseph’s threat unfolded, the brothers might have dissolved into the self-pity that their father Jacob modeled.  Instead, they said “aval”.  TRULY, they conceded, we can recognize that we had wronged Joseph.  Whether intellectually or emotionally (here, likely the latter), they are able to contrast their existing self-image with a new concession to their failures.  As Mar Zuta promised, from that confession emerges the opportunity for teshuva.

Is this a case of  Solelveichik’s hirhur teshuva – the dawning or glimmering of teshuva? This would be a confession and change born of a murky sense that something is not right, or perhaps a sudden event (like Joseph’s threat to Benjamin) that provides clarity.  It is a bit like the Hadrianic persecutor in the Yom Kippur Martyrology,  who gained Heaven in a moment by pulling the smoldering wool from R. Hannanya ben Terodion, as he died by fire.  It does not erase their past misdeeds, but gives a hint of redeeming core goodness.

Finally, let’s look again at the brothers’ exclamation: אֲבָל֮ אֲשֵׁמִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַ֘חְנוּ֮ , “truly, we are guilty”.  In the Biblical passage, there is a vertical bar, called a paseq, the words asheimim (guilty) and anachnu (we). When chanting Torah, the paseq requires that the reader break the legato in her voice and offer a brief pause.   Even our singing of these words reinforces the desire to separate ourselves from our misdeeds.

Joseph in Prison

I live in a country (USA) with a massive level of incarceration. Not so in Bible narratives! There are just a few examples of imprisonment: Joseph by Potiphar, Samson by the Philistines, Jeremiah by Tzidayahu (of those, only the latter was an Israelite authority).

I don’t imagine, though, that the Biblical writers were prison abolitionists. Other penalties abound in Torah: capital punishment; corporal punishment; exile of manslayers to cities of refuge, restitution, shaming (halitza), and sacrifices.

Of course, the Torah is written about a nomadic people, so stationary prisons were thoroughly impractical. Nor was there an infrastructure to support them; Israelites paid their hatzi-shekel and offered sacrifices that supported the priestly bureaucracy, but didn’t develop an economy, like ours, where prisons were significant elements of regional employment.

In parashat Vayeshev, we read of Joseph’s imprisonment following false accusations by Potiphar’s wife:

Genesis 39:20-23(20) So Joseph’s master had him put in prison, where the king’s prisoners were confined. But even while he was there in prison, (21) יהוה was with Joseph—extending kindness to him and disposing the chief jailer favorably toward him. (22) The chief jailer put in Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in that prison, and he was the one to carry out everything that was done there. (23) The chief jailer did not supervise anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because יהוה was with him, and whatever he did יהוה made successful.

בראשית ל״ט:כ׳-כ״ג(כ) וַיִּקַּח֩ אֲדֹנֵ֨י יוֹסֵ֜ף אֹת֗וֹ וַֽיִּתְּנֵ֙הוּ֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֔הַר מְק֕וֹם אֲשֶׁר־[אֲסִירֵ֥י] (אסורי) הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ אֲסוּרִ֑ים וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֖ם בְּבֵ֥ית הַסֹּֽהַר׃ (כא) וַיְהִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיֵּ֥ט אֵלָ֖יו חָ֑סֶד וַיִּתֵּ֣ן חִנּ֔וֹ בְּעֵינֵ֖י שַׂ֥ר בֵּית־הַסֹּֽהַר׃ (כב) וַיִּתֵּ֞ן שַׂ֤ר בֵּית־הַסֹּ֙הַר֙ בְּיַד־יוֹסֵ֔ף אֵ֚ת כׇּל־הָ֣אֲסִירִ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַסֹּ֑הַר וְאֵ֨ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֤ר עֹשִׂים֙ שָׁ֔ם ה֖וּא הָיָ֥ה עֹשֶֽׂה׃ (כג) אֵ֣ין ׀ שַׂ֣ר בֵּית־הַסֹּ֗הַר רֹאֶ֤ה אֶֽת־כׇּל־מְא֙וּמָה֙ בְּיָד֔וֹ בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אִתּ֑וֹ וַֽאֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה יְהֹוָ֥ה מַצְלִֽיחַ׃ {פ}

Fifteenth century Portuguese scholar, Ababranel, commented on verse 20, identifying the confinement itself as the punishment. It appears Joseph has an open-ended sentence, unable to expect when he might be released. Ababranel recognizes God’s hand in ensuring Joseph’s success, disposing the chief jailer to favor Joseph and to grant him independence and even some lack of supervision.

Abarbanel on Torah, Genesis 39:21Scripture then goes on to relate: ‘And the Almighty was with Joseph and extended grace towards him, and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison governor’ (39:21). We should note that, whereas in regard to Joseph’s master (Potiphar), who was a high-ranking official, Scripture (deliberately) employs the (more neutral) expression ‘he found favor in his sight’, in the case of the governor of the jail, who was cruel by nature, showing neither pity nor mercy [such a nature well suited his job, as he would inevitably be in the company of wrongdoers and sinful men all day long], – so that Joseph’s finding favor with him would be truly miraculous – Scripture relates: ‘The Almighty was with Joseph and extended him grace, granting him favor (even) with the governor of the jail’. This was nothing less than a miracle, taking into account the governor’s base character. Indeed, (Joseph found favor with him) to such an extent that the governor delegated control of all the prisoners to him, and he was appointed to watch over all their comings and goings. Now, since the poorest element amongst a group of prisoners continue with the performance of their regular occupations whilst in jail so as to allow them to earn some money, and it would be risky to permit outsiders to visit them to buy such items from them as they had made themselves, in case the prisoners plotted an escape, all their business affairs and dealings were directed through Joseph. This, then, is the underlying meaning of the phrase (39:22): ‘and everything they did there was done by him’ – as they carried out all their activities under his supervision. Rashi states in his commentary on this verse that everything was done at Joseph’s command and with his permission; and undoubtedly Joseph too obtained some personal benefit from this arrangement; hence the next verse goes on to say: (39:23): ‘The prison governor saw nothing of all that passed through (Joseph’s) hand’ – as he did not bother to check whether Joseph would obtain material benefit from it or not.

אברבנאל על תורה, בראשית ל״ט:כ״א:א׳ואמר ויהי י”י את יוסף ויט אליו חסד לפי שעם אדוניו שהיה שר וגדול אמר וימצא חן בעיניו. ואמנם עם שר בית הסוהר שהיה אכזרי ולא יחמול ולא ירחם כי כן יאות לאומנותו שכל היום ישתתף עם אנשים רעים וחטאים ויחס למעשה נס חנו בעיניו ולזה אמר ויהי י”י את יוסף ויט אליו חסד כי זה היה דרך נס כפי רוע טבעו עד שנתן שר בית הטבחים את כל האסורי’ ביד יוסף כי הוא היה פקיד על שמירתם בצאתם ובבוא’ ולפי שהאסורים הדלים מהם בבית הסוהר יעשו אומנות’ כדי להרויח דבר. והיה מהסכנה בבא אנשים מחוץ לקנות מהם מעשה ידיהם פן ינכלו לברוח לכן היו עושים הם כל משאם ומתנם ביד יוסף וזהו וכל אשר הם עושים הוא היה עושה כי היו עושים הכל על ידו. ורש”י כתב שהכל נעשה במצותו ורשותו ואין ספק שהיה בזה ליוסף ריוח מה לכן אמר אין שר בית הסוהר רואה את כל מאומה שלא היה משגיח אם יקבל ריוח בזה אם לאו.

Ramban draws a beautiful contrast between the odd Biblical word sohar (as in beit hasohar, Joseph’s prison) and tzohar, the transparent screen of the Ark (Genesis 6:16), which the Ba’al Shem Tov associated with radiance and illumination. Indeed, light and radiance is associated with God’s splendor and with the enlightenment of learning; any prisoner in Joseph’s jail would have been just one consonant short of that.

Ramban on Genesis 39:20:1AND HE PUT HIM INTO PRISON, THE PLACE WHERE THE KING’s PRISONERS WERE (JPS: confined) BOUND. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (goes with the literal) says that the verse itself explains that a beth haso’ar (prison) is “a place where the king’s prisoners were bound.” The reason this is stated in the verse itself is that beth haso’ar is an Egyptian word, for it is the style of Scripture to explain foreign words just as, they cast pur, that is the lot. This interpretation is of no significance. Rather, And he put him into the prison, means that he put him into a certain prison recognized as the royal prison, which was the place where the king’s prisoners were bound (ie, provides a translation). The sense of the verse is thus to state that this was the cause of the butler and the baker being imprisoned with him. It is possible that the term, “the king’s prisoners,” means his servants and attendants who have sinned against him in matters of state, as other prisoners of the people sentenced by judges and officers were placed in another prison house. Scripture relates that they placed Joseph in the king’s prison because of his master’s love for Joseph, all of which was caused by G-d. Linguists explain sohar as an arched chamber, similar in expression to, agan hasohar (a round goblet). In my opinion it is an underground house having a small opening above ground, through which the prisoners are lowered and from which they have light. The word sohar is thus derived from the word sihara (light) in Aramaic, just as in Hebrew, Scripture says; A transparency (‘tzohar’) shalt thou make to the ark, the word tzohar being derived from tzaharayim (mid-day — when the light reaches its zenith). The difference between tzohar and sohar is that tzohar connotes an abundance of light, while sohar connotes minimal light.

רמב”ן על בראשית ל״ט:כ׳:א׳ויתנהו אל בית הסוהר מקום אשר אסירי המלך אסורים שם אמר רבי אברהם כי הכתוב יפרש שבית הסוהר הוא מקום אשר אסירי המלך אסורים שם ולכך אמר כי הוא שם מצרי כי דרך הכתוב לפרש לשון נכריה כמו הפיל פור הוא הגורל ולא אמר כלום אבל ויתנהו אל בית הסהר הידוע למלך שהוא מקום אשר יאסרו שם אסירי המלך לומר כי היה זה סיבה שיכנסו עמו המשקה והאופה ויתכן כי טעם אסירי המלך עבדיו ומשרתיו החוטאים לו במשפט המלוכה כי שאר האסורים לעם ביד השופטים והשוטרים בבית סהר אחר ינתנו וסיפר הכתוב ששמו שם יוסף מאהבת אדוניו אתו והכל סיבה מאת ה׳ ובעלי הלשון (רד”ק בספר השרשים שורש סהר) יפרשו “סהר” כיפה עגולה מלשון אגן הסהר (שיר השירים ז ג) ולפי דעתי שהוא הבור (רמב”ן על בראשית מ׳:ב׳) בית בנוי תחת הקרקע ולו פתח קטן מלמעלה יכניסו בו האסורים וממנו להם אורה והוא מלשון סיהרא בארמית כאשר אמר (בראשית ו׳:ט״ז) צהר תעשה לתבה מלשון צהרים ושנו בהם זה לרוב אורו וזה למיעוט:

All these elements contribute to a portrait of prison life not unlike what we provide today: uncertainty about lengths of sentences, favored prisoners, in-prison rackets by more powerful prisoners, the dankness of solitary confinement, and fundamentally, the ability to control human bodies. Note that prisoners themselves are profoundly guilty of this, too: many are convicted of heinous crimes involving bodily abuse of those less powerful, via murder and rape, for example. But the brief view of incarceration provided in the four pesukim of Joseph’s incarceration confirm that more powerful people simply decide what will happen to bodies of less powerful. This is true far beyond prison walls, a feature, for example, of environmental crimes, climate crimes, housing redlining, perhaps even some tamer looking zoning disputes.

We learn more about Joseph’s prison experience in the next chapter:

Genesis 40:1-4(1) Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt gave offense to their lord the king of Egypt. (2) Pharaoh was angry with his two courtiers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, (3) and put them in custody, in the house of the prefect, in the same prison house where Joseph was confined. (4) The prefect assigned Joseph to them, and he attended them. When they had been in custody for some time,

בראשית מ׳:א׳-ד׳(א) וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה חָ֥טְא֛וּ מַשְׁקֵ֥ה מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְהָאֹפֶ֑ה לַאֲדֹנֵיהֶ֖ם לְמֶ֥לֶךְ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (ב) וַיִּקְצֹ֣ף פַּרְעֹ֔ה עַ֖ל שְׁנֵ֣י סָרִיסָ֑יו עַ֚ל שַׂ֣ר הַמַּשְׁקִ֔ים וְעַ֖ל שַׂ֥ר הָאוֹפִֽים׃ (ג) וַיִּתֵּ֨ן אֹתָ֜ם בְּמִשְׁמַ֗ר בֵּ֛ית שַׂ֥ר הַטַּבָּחִ֖ים אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֑הַר מְק֕וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אָס֥וּר שָֽׁם׃ (ד) וַ֠יִּפְקֹ֠ד שַׂ֣ר הַטַּבָּחִ֧ים אֶת־יוֹסֵ֛ף אִתָּ֖ם וַיְשָׁ֣רֶת אֹתָ֑ם וַיִּהְי֥וּ יָמִ֖ים בְּמִשְׁמָֽר׃

and thereafter flows the dream sequences where Joseph interprets the courtiers’ dreams. Much like Joseph, the baker and the cupbearer aren’t told of their eventual outcomes, ultimately relying Joseph’s dream interpretation. Indeed, Midrash puts the three into the prison together as a story element that ensures that Joseph will one day leave prison and cross paths with Pharaoh.

Midrash Lekach Tov, Genesis 40:3:2

מדרש לקח טוב, בראשית מ׳:ג׳:ב׳מקום אשר יוסף אסור שם. ללמדך שכל הענין לא היה אלא בשביל יוסף.

Ibn Ezra (11th C Spain) draws our attention to a key word in verse 4, vayifkod.

Ibn Ezra on Genesis 40:4:1AND THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD CHARGED. When these two officers were put in a ward in the house of the captain of the guard, the latter remembered (pakad) Joseph; i.e., he recalled his abilities and brought him to his house and placed him in a dungeon which is the ward spoken of in our verse. The latter is the opinion of the great grammarian. However, I believe that the prison was in the house of the captain of the guard and Joseph was there to begin with. Proof of this is Scripture’s explicit statement, And he put them…into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound. What our verse relates is that the captain of the guard commanded (charged) Joseph to be with the butler and baker and serve them because they had high status in Pharaoh’s palace insomuch as they were officers of the king.

אבן עזרא על בראשית מ׳:ד׳:א׳ויפקד שר הטבחים. והנה כאשר הושמו אלה הסריסים בבית שר הטבחים פקד את יוסף. והטעם זכר דבריו והביאו אל ביתו ושמהו בבור והוא המשמר וזאת דעת המדקדק הגדול. ולפי דעתי שבית הסהר הי’ בבית שר הטבחים ושם היה יוסף. והעד מקום אשר יוסף אסור שם. וצוה שר הטבחים להיות יוסף אתם לשרת אותם. כי מעלה גדולה היתה להם בבית פרעה כי שרים היו:

We have two translations of vayifkod at play: Joseph was “assigned” (or perhaps, “appointed”) versus was “remembered”. Vayifkod, elsewhere in Torah, has a connotation of remembering some promise or circumstance now somewhat far off. God remembered God’s promise to Sarah (Genesis 21:1); God took note of the enslaved Israelites (Exodus 3:16) with this same root word. Ah, another fact of prison life: someone is put in prison, and we “throw away the key” and forget them.

Whether in Biblical prisons or with US incarceration today, we uncover similar effects: power plays, special privileges for some, ambiguity of outcomes, a dark environment, and the inattention of outside society. Waiting for Divine intervention worked for Joseph; that’s probably not the best choice for us.

(The writer benefitted from a conversation with Rabbi Corey Helfand about the tzohar of the Ark.)