Joseph’s coat of many colors

Beware of Royal Apparel! 

The story of Joseph and his brothers forms the last part of the book of Genesis. This story begins in our new Torah Portion, Vayeshev. It opens with the word Vayeshev (hence the name of the Portion), usually translated as “settled”, or “dwelt”: “Now Jacob dwelt in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.” I have written about it before, but would like to emphasize it once again: in Hebrew, the contrast between the words describing Jacob and describing “his father”, is striking! The wordיָשַב  (yashav) means something sedentary, permanent, stable; it is understood as opposite to “wandering”. Actually, we have a statement here: Jacob is firmly settled in the Land where his father (grandfather, actually) was just a stranger. Jacob belongs to this Land!

The second verse – “this is the line of Jacob” – actually, opens the story of Joseph. In the verse 3, we read that Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, and openly expressed his favoritism by giving Joseph a very special tunic. In Hebrew, this tunic is called כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים (ketonet passim). The traditional idea of translations and folklore is that this was some sort of multi-colored outer garment. However, Hebrew allows different understandings of these words. Indeed, the word passim here can be translated as “colorful”, “embroidered”, or “striped” – but it can also denote a long garment, coming down to the “palms” of the hands and the feet, or the material out of which the coat was made (fine wool or silk). Hence, ketonet passim may be translated as “a full-sleeved robe,” “a coat of many colors,” “a coat reaching to his feet,” “an ornamented tunic,” “a silk robe” or “fine woolen cloak.”

Remarkably, in the entire Tanach (Old Testament), the very same words occur only once more – in the story of Amnon and Tamar. You don’t see it in translation, because it is often rendered as “long-sleeved robe”, but in Hebrew, it’s exactly the same expression as the one used for Joseph’s robe. There this robe definitely signifies special distinction: the king’s virgin daughters wore such apparel[1]. This is just one example of how important the understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures is. We can’t see from the translations, that Tamar’s garment was the same as Joseph’s. However, it is only thanks to this verse that we can understand that Joseph’s tunic was very special indeed: not just a tunic of many colors, but most likely the kind of robe worn by royalty.

It’s interesting that in both cases, this robe was a harbinger of coming tragedy. Both stories are very tragic: Joseph was attacked and sold, Tamar was attacked and raped; the brothers stripped Joseph of his tunic, Tamar tore her tunic! It is as if Scripture is saying: beware of royal apparel!

Joseph and His Father

A lot of questions arise when we read this dramatic chapter—Genesis 37. For instance, I’ve always wondered why Jacob sent Joseph to his brothers.  Wasn’t he aware of the fact the brothers hated Joseph (that’s exactly what the Torah says here)? I believe he was, so why does he send his beloved son, heavily overdressed for this long hike, to the envious and hating brothers?

Probably, years afterward, Joseph had the same questions. When, after all Joseph’s suffering and trials, we finally see him being successful and influential in Egypt, we are struck by a very interesting detail in this narrative. When his first son was born in Egypt, Joseph called him Menashe: “because God has made me forget (nashani) all my labor and my father’s house”.  Forget his father’s house?  Didn’t his father love him? Didn’t Joseph love his father? Why did he want to forget him?

First of all, we have to remember that Joseph didn’t know what we the readers do. Joseph didn’t know that his brothers had deceived his father and that Jacob thought Joseph was dead. He was probably wondering, especially during his first years of slavery: “Why doesn’t my father look for me”? Egypt is so close to Canaan, undoubtedly Joseph expected his father to come and look for him, but as we all know, that didn’t happen. Therefore, at some point Joseph may have decided that Jacob was involved in the plot – after all, it was his father who sent him to the brothers. Joseph knew that his father loved him, but he also knew the stories of the Fathers: Abraham loved Ishmael, but God chose Isaac; Isaac loved Esau, but God chose Jacob. Joseph knew that if God’s will for him was to be banished from his family, his father would probably accept and obey this will.

Only when the brothers came, did Joseph realize that Jacob had known nothing about the crime. That is why he later asks: “is my father alive”?[2] (it’s rendered as “is my father well?” in translation): he knows Jacob doesn’t have much time left and is anxious to fix his mistake, to reconcile, maybe even to ask forgiveness from his father.

Ishmaelites

There is one more detail in this chapter that I just can’t pass by, maybe because for me, living in the conflict-torn Israel of today, this is the topic of extreme importance. We read that after Judah’s suggestion to sell Joseph, the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver.[3] Where did they find these Ishmaelites? A few verses before, we read: “Then they lifted their eyes and looked, and there was a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead with their camels”[4]

Think about it: the story of Joseph happens only two generations after Abraham (Joseph is Isaac’s grandson and Abraham’s grand-grandson), but already the Ishmaelites that pass by the company of Isaac’s grandsons seem complete strangers to all of them. When the brothers see a caravan of passing merchants, they identify them as “Ishmaelites” in the same matter-of-fact, detached way that they would recognize any other tribe or nationality: as foreigners and strangers who had nothing to do with them. Isn’t that stunning? Just two generations after Isaac and Ishmael, and there is no hint of family ties, no trace of any kind of kinship. Nothing! In the lifespan of two generations, Isaac’s and Ishmael’s families have become completely estranged from one another! A very discouraging thought!

And yet, there is an encouraging thought as well that we can find here! We all know perfectly well that it was God’s plan from the beginning to take Joseph—and then all of Israel—to Egypt: however, this plan would not have been fulfilled if those Ishmaelites had not “happened” to pass by: Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there. TheLordwas with Joseph.[5]

Do you think it was a mere accident that those Ishmaelites happened along? There are no accidents in the Word of God: If it says that it was Ishmaelites who brought Joseph to Egypt, then it was important to the Lord that they were there, and that we know it. Joseph had to get to Egypt—that was God’s plan to begin with—but this plan was implemented through the Ishmaelites. Can you imagine? For the most magnificent, most significant, most defining event of Israel’s history—the Exodus —God used Ishmaelites! The paths of Isaac and Ishmael are intertwined, and this is the encouraging lesson that we can learn from this story.

[1] 2 Sam.13:8

[2] Gen.45:3

[3] Gen.37:28

[4] Gen. 37:25

[5] Gen. 39:1,2

The Face of God.

Lost In Translation: Face Of God

By Julia Blum November 24, 2021No comments

Our portion today, VeYishlah, covers two very important meetings in Jacob’s life. Traditionally, the encounter at Peniel is considered the most important event in Jacob’s life—and rightly so, it defined not only Jacob’s own name and destiny,  but the name and destiny of the whole people! However, I would like to bring your attention to the often-overlooked fact that this encounter – indeed, the most important encounter of Jacob’s life – happens right before his meeting with Esau! Have you ever thought about it? Twenty years have passed, so many things have changed, all the external circumstances of Jacob’s life are completely different, yet evidently the most important change and the most important transformation in God’s eyes is the transformation of his heart, and the most clear criteria for this transformation is his reconciliation with his brother. “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”  Everything that has happened to Jacob since he obtained both the birthright and parental blessing by doubtful means has been tainted with his own guilt and enmity with his brother. Now Jacob can fully face his own past and move on to his future only as he seeks reconciliation with Esau—and this he can only do as he becomes a different man. That is why, precisely as he prepares to face the biggest danger of his life, he will also have the most important encounter of his life. Only then does Jacob become Israel—and when Jacob becomes Israel, he can then achieve reconciliation with his brother.

Last year, while commenting on this Torah Portion, I spoke about the Peniel encounter[1]. This year, we will discuss the meeting of the brothers.

Appeasing or Atoning?

First, we read in our Portion about the gifts Jacob sends to Esau hoping to pacify him, and we find there the verb: אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה. The root of this verb is kafar (כפר), which is the same root that forms Yom Kippur. The great majority of usages of this root in Torah refer to “making atonement,” which is why it eventually becomes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Precisely because of that, its occurrences in the book of Genesis, where sacrificial atonement is not yet established, present a particular interest: there is no word “atonement” in the story of Jacob, so what is this root doing here?

Literally, the root kafar (כפר) means to cover up something physically. In the story of Jacob preparing for his meeting with Esau, Scripture uses this word to ensure we understand that it was not just a gift – it was an act of “covering up” his sin, so in this sense it was an atonement. The reconciliation with Esau was not simply a family affair, as it probably seemed to the brothers, it was not only about having a safe passage for his family – it was much deeper and more significant than that, it was an event of global significance. This was an amazing road, an amazing path, and as Jacob was walking on this path, he was being humbled, changed and transformed. Coming to Jacob at Peniel, right before his meeting with Esau, God shows that this reconciliation, this humbling himself and repenting before his brother, was vitally important in God’s eyes. It still is: reconciliation, humbling oneself and repentance are crucial parts of Yom Kippur, and that’s why in Hebrew we find root kafar here, completely lost in translation!

Twins’ Speaking Styles

Then, in Genesis 33, we witness the beautiful scene of the reconciliation. Esau, who was bringing 400 armed men to this meeting, obviously didn’t originally have peaceful intentions. All was suddenly changed, however, during this amazing encounter:  they both wept, kissed and reconciled! Then, they began talking to each other – and from the very first moment of their communication we see a dramatic difference in their speech regarding both content and style.

Esau’s sentences are short and coarse, and when he says: “I have plenty, my brother (אָחִי)” – even though they are real brothers, in Hebrew it sounds like a very familiar and informal appeal. Then, when we come to Jacob’s response, we hear a completely different, refined and polite speech, with a very different attitude. One of the most remarkable details of Jacob’s speech is a particle “na” (נָא), repeated twice (Gen.33:10) and completely lost in translation – which is a sign of a very polite and formal speech. We also notice God mentioned in his every sentence, while Esau doesn’t mention God at all. Moreover, their attitudes are completely different. While Esau says, “I have plenty” (יֶשׁ־לִי רָב), Jacob states “I have everything” (יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹל  ). Esau speaks of wealth, Jacob speaks of sufficiency.

This comparison helps us better understand the story of the “stolen blessing” twenty years earlier. It was probably precisely this difference in speaking style that Isaac referred to when he said: “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau.” This difference is almost lost in translation, however, comparing them in Hebrew can teach us a lot regarding their characters.

From the Place of God to the Face of God!

After this amazing encounter, Jacob said strange words to his brother: that for him, to see Esau’s face was “like seeing the face of God”.This phrase comes at the end of their meeting when the danger is clearly over and leaves a reader confused and perplexed. Why would Jacob say that? Is it pure flattery, or is there more to it?

In English, these words come rather unexpectedly. However, in Hebrew, the idea of panim (“face”) is certainly one of the main motifs in the whole narrative of Jacob’s return to the Land. The root פָּנִים (panim), and the words derived from this root, occur many times in the Hebrew verses preceding the meeting of the two brothers (Gen.32:17-21). In order to understand the difference between the Hebrew and English texts, let’s read, for example, Genesis 32:20  …For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me”. The word “face” is not used even once in this translation (nor in many others), while in Hebrew, in this verse alone the word panim occurs four times. This builds a case and prepares us for the name, Peniel (פְּנִיאֵל)—“face of God”—the place of Jacob’s wrestling encounter with God.  It was there, at Peniel, that Jacob saw God “face to face” (hence the name of the place); it was there, at Peniel, that not only was Jacob’s name changed, but also his heart.

However, there is something more that can be seen in the story of Jacob when read in Hebrew. Let’s go back to Genesis 28: “Jacob’s Ladder”—Jacob’s dream on the way from Beer-Sheba to Haran. When this chapter is read in Hebrew, we find that almost as many times as the word “face” occurs in chapter 33, the term מָקוֹם  (makom) “place” occurs here, in chapter 28. Remember, here Jacob is about to leave the Land on his way into exile. His encounter with God in the dream probably happened during his last night in the Land, and as far as we know this was the first time God spoke to him personally. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” So we see very clearly that, at that point, this life-changing encounter and Jacob’s whole new concept of God was very much connected to this place.

These two meetings with God – when Jacob is leaving the land and when he returns – form a peculiar literary inclusio: everything that happens to him in exile happens between these encounters. Within these divine “brackets” we see a beautiful progression that we don’t want to miss—the progression of Jacob’s faith; the progression of his knowledge of God; the progression of revelation: from the place of God to the face of God! Indeed, now this transformed Jacob can see the face of his brother as “the face of God”.

[1] You can read the article here: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/transformation-and-light/

Three Prayers

Three Prayers

You would remember that at the end of the last Portion, Toledot, Isaac sent Jacob to Paddan-Aram to take a wife from there. This happened after the story of the “stolen blessing” – the blessing that Jacob received from Isaac while pretending to be Esau. In fact, Jacob was fleeing from the wrath of his brother. On his way to Haran, scared and exhausted, Jacob stopped at a certain place to rest for the night: He encountered a place and stayed there because the sun had set.[1] He didn’t know it then, but this stop would affect countless future generations, because, according to Jewish tradition, this was the institution of our evening prayer.

You may know that there are three Jewish daily prayers: Morning Prayer –  shacharit; afternoon prayer – mincha; and evening prayer – maariv. Talmud finds the roots of these prayers in the Torah. Thus, Abraham instituted the morning prayer: three times in Abraham’s story we read that  Abraham got up early in the morning—when he was wondering what had happened to Lot;[2] when he was fulfilling God’s command to send Ishmael away;[3] and when he was going to sacrifice Isaac. Each of these times, he was overwhelmed with anguish, pain and questions—and each of these times, he got up early in the morning to pray and pour out his heart before God!

Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer when he went out to meditate in the field toward evening.[4] The word rendered as “meditate” here, might also mean prayer. Did he pray for his bride? If so, his prayer was answered quickly, as it is right after this prayer that he saw his bride, “loved her, and found comfort after his mother’s death”.  Thus, the afternoon prayer, mincha, is said to go back to Isaac.

Finally, Jacob instituted the evening prayer, as we just read: He encountered a place and stayed there because the sun had set.[5] Ever since, the Jewish people have sought God in the evening prayer, maariv, since one of the most well-known encounters with God happened there and then: “Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven.”

First Up, Then Down

We read that “the angels of God were ascending and descending on” this ladder.  There have been many interpretations of this dream in Jewish tradition, and one of the questions asked, concerned the order: Why did the angels, the denizens of heaven, first ascend and only then descend on the ladder?

A famous Jewish medieval commentator Rashi explains: A man’s experience in his own land is different from his experience in a strange country. Wherever he went, Jacob was always furnished with Divine protection, but on foreign soil, he needed different guardians. The angels that accompanied Jacob in the Holy Land did not go outside that Land, and therefore had to ascend to Heaven; then another group of angels descended to accompany him outside the Holy Land.

It’s interesting that at the very end of our portion, when Jacob returns to the Land, we hear once again about two groups of angels. There is an intriguing detail here that can be seen only in Hebrew: When Jacob saw the angels, “he said, “This is God’s camp”, so he named that place Mahanayim[6].  If you know some Hebrew, you would recognize that in fact, Jacob called this place “Two camps” since Mahanayim is a dual construction of the word “mahane” (camp). Maybe, Jacob indeed saw two teams of angels exactly like in his dream: the camp of the angels outside the Land, who came with him up to this point, and the camp of the angels of Israel, who came to greet him. “Mahanayim” means “Two camps”, and this brief account fits perfectly with Rashi’s approach!

Interesting interpretations of Jacob’s dream are based on Gematria, a Jewish interpretive method that assigns a numerical value to a Hebrew name or word based on the numerical values of its letters. The numerical value of the word sulam (ladder in Hebrew) is 130: סֻלָּם: (samekh-lamed-mem=60+30+40). Amazingly; 130 is also the value of the word Sinai:סיני samech-yod-nun-yod = 60-10-50-10).  Thus, according to Gematria, Jacob’s ladder symbolizes the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Love for all Ages

The story of the love of Jacob and Rachel is one of the most beautiful romance stories in the Bible. While reading a very graphic description of their first meeting at the well, a Christian reader usually imagines a young man who is so excited to see this beautiful girl that he alone rolled the stone that several men were supposed to roll together: “… when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother… Jacob went near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth.”[7]  However, in Jewish tradition we find a very different picture. How old was Jacob when he fell for Rachel?

Let’s start from the end. Jacob was 130 years old when he came to Egypt[8]. How old was Joseph then?  Joseph was 30 years old “when he stood before Pharaoh.”[9]  There were 5 years of famine left when Joseph called Jacob into Egypt[10], which means that Joseph was 30+7+(7-5) = 39 years old when Jacob came to Egypt at the age of 130. Accordingly, Jacob was 91 years old when he fathered Joseph (indeed, “a son of his old age”[11]).

In Padan Aram, after Joseph was born, Jacob asked Laban to let him go. He didn’t leave at that time though, but spent a total of 20 years with Laban: 14 years for his wives and 6 for his sheep and cattle[12]. After Joseph was born, he stayed for another 6 years. This would imply that Jacob came to Padan Aram, and saw Rachel for the first time, when he was 91-14 = 77 years old.

The Biblical concept of age differs significantly from our modern understanding, and the story of 77-year old Jacob falling in love with Rachel proves it. In Hebrew, a person’s age is expressed in a very peculiar way: to say that Joseph was 30 years old, Scripture literally says that “Joseph was son of thirty”. Jacob was “son of 77” when he met Rachel!

Tragic Oath

In Genesis 31, after long years of serving Laban, Jacob decides to return home. When he leaves, his wife Rachel steals her father’s idols.  Laban overtakes Jacob and accuses him of the theft. Jacob, not knowing of his wife’s theft, invites Laban to search the whole camp. Laban searches the tents but doesn’t find his idols, which Rachel hid by sitting on them.  Thus, the story seemed to end favorably. Is it really the end, though?

Shortly after arriving in the land, Rachel, still a young woman, unexpectedly dies in childbirth. Most readers don’t see any connection between this death and Laban’s search in chapter 31. Yet Jewish commentators connect this tragic event to Jacob’s oath to Laban: ‘With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live.’[13] This oath was fulfilled—not by Laban, but by God Himself; moreover, the Hebrew shows that both Jacob and Rachel realized this connection as well. The name that the dying mother gives to her son – Ben-Oni – probably means “the son of my iniquity” (און שלי, “my evil”). Understandably, Jacob didn’t want the child to carry this name, therefore he called him Benjamin, “son of the right hand,” which may be also interpreted as “son of the oath,” since right hand in the Bible often symbolizes an oath.

The Scriptures tell us about the laws of the spiritual world. Unseen and often ignored, they are nonetheless just as inviolable as the law of gravity. This is why the emotional oath of Jacob ends up with the tragic death of his beloved wife.  The connection is lost in translation, but the Hebrew Scriptures make it very clear.

Is something missing?

“And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begot Isaac(VaEile toledot Izhak) this is the beginning of the new Torah Portion, Toledot. These very words, VaEile toledot, occur eleven times in the book of Genesis, serving as a heading for its major divisions and “making descent a keystone of biblical history”[1]. Eleven? Wouldn’t you expect it to be twelve? It’s as if some Toledot – some genealogy – is missing there. This feeling is amplified when we realize that we have Toledot of everyone in Genesis—of Adam, Noah and the sons of Noah,  Terah (Abraham’s Father), Isaac and  Ishmael (Abraham’s sons), Jacob, of Esau and many others—however, we don’t have Toledot of Abraham. There are no Toledot of the most important person in Jewish history, and even though it’s easy for us to follow Abraham’s genealogy, the Torah never says: these are the generations of Abraham… Why? What is the message of these missing Toledot?

Unlike Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Abraham didn’t grow up in a family that knew and worshipped God. The missing Toledot of Abraham makes it very clear: the story and the history of Abraham begin from his personal search and personal revelation. Yes, God builds the whole nation from Abraham, but the beginning of this building is very abrupt, it starts from God’s personal intervention.  And this is in fact, the message of these missing Toledot: to everyone – even to those who grew up in completely dysfunctional or atheistic families – Abraham can say, I was just like you!

Like Father, Like Son?  

This portion begins right after the death of Abraham, and one might expect that now the Bible’s attention would switch to Isaac. However, it shifts almost immediately to Isaac’s children. Of all the three patriarchs, Isaac’s personality is the least clearly defined, so much in his life looks like a repetition of Abraham’s experience – therefore, in the eyes of many students of the Bible, Isaac is just a link between Abraham and Jacob. However, I personally think that Scripture depicts Isaac as a very real product of real circumstances. He was the child of his parents’ old age and was probably overprotected in his youth. His mother was a woman of strong character, his father’s great status must have appeared almost intimidating to his son. He lost his stepbrother, whom I believe he loved deeply. On top of it all, he was nearly killed by his father. Traumatic experiences seem to have followed him, so it’s no wonder that, as a result of all his sufferings and traumas, Isaac became a reflective, thoughtful, quiet person. Like everything else, it had both positive and negative connotations: He was probably emotional and tender, and that’s what we see in his relationship with Rebecca, but it could also mean that he was a weak person, and that’s what we see in his parenthood.

How do we know that Isaac was a tender husband? There is a verse in our portion that always touches my heart: “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer…” This verse provides us a glimpse into this marriage, into this couple’s very close and intimate relationship. Both Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Rachel, Jacob’s wife, were also barren, yet we don’t hear a single word in Scripture telling of their husbands praying for them. Moreover, Isaac’s prayer was very special: the word “prayed” here (in many translations it’s “pleaded”) renders the Hebrew word יֶעְתַּר (ye’etar) and is derived from the same root that is used in the second half of this verse, when “the LORD answered his prayer”.  Isaac pleaded (וַיֶּעְתַּ֙ר יִצְחָ֤ק) with the LORD, and the LORD pleaded back in answer to his plea (וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ יְהוָ֔ה). This whole dynamic between Isaac’s plea and the Lord’s answer is completely lost in translation – and yet, it’s precisely this dynamic, this passionate commitment to continue and press on, that brought the desired result: the LORD answered him and Rebecca his wife conceived. Rashi writes: “He (God) allowed Himself to be entreated and placated and swayed by him.”

Was Isaac Really Deceived?

Was Isaac also a good father? Scripture tells us about obvious parental favoritism in Isaac and Rebekah’s family. Remarkably, we don’t find here any judgment or any explanation: the Torah doesn’t justify, doesn’t excuse, doesn’t provide any comment at all – it simply states the facts:Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob[2] – and we are left to wonder why. As always, Hebrew can help us here.

While most English translations call Esau “a man of the outdoors”, the original Hebrew text calls him “a man of a field”. This difference is important. Unlike his parents, Isaac was born in the Land, stayed in the Land his whole life, and at some point, he became the first farmer in his family: he sowed and reaped and became extremely blessed in that: “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold, and the Lord blessed him.”[3] Probably, that’s why Isaac loved Esau – they were both men of the field: “Oh, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed.”[4] The field is a symbol of the one who loves the land and nature, and Isaac and Esau probably spent a lot of time together outdoors, in the fields. I believe this is how their special bond was developed. But to see this, one has to know that in the original Hebrew text, Esau is called: “a man of a field”.

Everyone knows the story of Jacob pretending to be Esau and thus, through deceit, obtaining Isaac’s blessing. There have been endless disputes and discussions as to whether such deception was an acceptable means to achieve God’s purpose. Throughout the centuries, artists have painted expressive pictures depicting old, blind, and helpless Isaac, mistakenly blessing Jacob instead of Esau. However, was Isaac deceived?

Before answering this question, let’s read a short verse at the end of Genesis 26: when Esau was 40 years old, he took two local wives and they were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah”. This expression, “grief of mind”, renders the Hebrew expression marat ruah – literally, “bitterness of the spirit”. Thus, for a Hebrew reader, it’s very clear that these wives were a very serious source of frustration to both Isaac and Rebecca.

However, it was only after Isaac sent Jacob off to Padan-aram to take a wife from there, that the Torah shows us Esau realizing that “that the daughters of Canaan did not please his father Isaac”. Many years had passed since Esau took himself these wives (more than 30 years, according to some calculations), and evidently, over all these years, Isaac was not able to face Esau and tell him how unhappy he was with his choice. Having this special bond with Esau, soft and quiet Isaac is not able to face him with any disappointing or challenging truth.

Thus, we can read the story of the “stolen blessing” in a very different way. Maybe Isaac knows very well that the blessing belongs to Jacob, but he just couldn’t face his beloved son with this message. Jacob’s lie comes as a godsend: Isaac pretends to be deceived, all the while being aware of Jacob’s identity, and blesses the son that was supposed to be blessed!

Water of Life

In this Torah portion, we find another amazing example of the “lost in translation” treasures of Hebrew Scriptures: Isaac reopened the wells of Abraham (“for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham”) and he called them “after the names by which his father had called them,” and then – what did he find there? In English, we read that they found a well of running water or spring water. However, it sounds much more profound in Hebrew.

Surprisingly, the Hebrew words for “running water” here are Mayim Hayim (מים חיים – Living water, or Water of life). True, on a physical level, Mayim Hayim can refer to running water, and in this sense, the translation is correct, but these words also have a deep spiritual meaning, which is completely lost in translation – the significance of the words Mayim Hayim, “Living Water”, cannot be overestimated. Every time these words are used in Scripture, they always refer to the spiritual level—to God’s Spirit, to God’s Water of Life.

[1] The Torah: A Modern Commentary, NY, 1981, p .29

[2] Gen. 25:28

[3] Gen. 26:12

[4] Gen. 27:27

Faith in the LORD

Lost In Translation: Death In Life

By Julia BlumNovember 3, 2021No comments

My dear readers, we continue our “lost in translation” journey through the Torah Portions. At some point, we will definitely go back to the Book of Acts and continue the discussion that we started before the High Holidays, but for now, we will follow the Torah Portions cycle. Every year when a new cycle begins I find myself commenting again on these bottomless chapters. Yes, you can find Parashat Shavua commentaries on many other sites – and yes, even on these pages I have already commented on some of these portions. However, there are so many important, sometimes even crucial details in the Torah that are lost in translation and seen only in Hebrew, that I feel I need to show as many as possible of these details – therefore, we’ll keep discussing Parashot Shavua, at least through the book of Genesis. This week we read Hayyei-Sarah (Sarah’s life), Genesis 23:1-25:18, and this Torah portion, like almost every section of the Word, has a message for everyone: for young people looking for their ‘other half,’ for parents raising their children, and for people well advanced in age. Let us see what Hebrew brings us today.

A Lesson of Humility

The very first thing that those reading in translation miss is a profound lesson of this Portion’s title: Hayyei-Sarah. When we read the Bible in English, we have the division into chapters, and that’s it – but the Hebrew Torah, along with chapter divisions, also has divisions into Torah portions (Parashat Shavua). Right after chapter 22, right after Aqedat Itzhak, a new Parasha begins: Sarah’s Life. It seems like a strange title for a Portion opening with the death of Sarah—right away, in the second verse, Sarah dies: “And Sarah died in Kiriatharba (the same is Hebron) in the land of Canaan.”  We learn a profound lesson from the very first verses of this portion: Sarah lived such a life that even after her death the lives of those around her were influenced by Hayyei-Sarah – Sarah’s life. God desires His people to live in such a way that their lives have an impact on those around them, so that even when they pass from this world, people and stories will continue to bear their names.

From the next verses, we learn something very significant about Abraham. For me, this is one of the most amazing testimonies of a man of God. Abraham tries to buy a burying place for Sarah, and he says to the children of Heth: I am a stranger and a sojourner among you.” However, what do the children of Heth reply to these humble words? “Hear us, my lord: thou art a mighty prince among us.” This is the best testimony a person might aspire to: if you know that you are just a stranger and a sojourner, and yet people around you see you as “mighty prince”, it means that God must be shining through you and it’s not you whom they see – they see God in you! This is a great lesson in humility: “He mocks proud mockers but shows favor to the humble[1]

The Servant

As we continue this lesson, we find that the next chapter is all about God shining, working, touching hearts, and changing lives through a humble man. Surprisingly, it’s not Abraham we are talking about now. At the beginning of Chapter 24, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his young master. Few remember this man, yet the entire amazing story that unfolds in this chapter is all based on the faith of this one man!

Who was this man? So humble was he, that Scripture doesn’t even provide his name, at least, not in this chapter. Likely, it was the same old servant Eliezer whom we know from the previous chapters (do you know, by the way, that the name Eliezer means “My God is my help”?) —however, in this chapter his name is not mentioned. Whoever he was, this story certainly demanded a great faith from him. Although by this time, the servant must have already witnessed many miracles that the Lord had performed in his master’s life, it would still have taken a good deal of faith to even undertake this journey, and to trust that the Lord would send him to the right girl.

We don’t hear much from him at the beginning of this journey. Then, we hear a simple prayer as he arrives and stands by the well outside the city. In translation, he prays for success: “O Lord God of my master Abraham, please give me success this day” (“good speed” or “good fortune”, depending on the translation). However, if translated literally, he is asking God: “please make this day happen before me” (הַקְרֵה-נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם). In Hebrew, it sounds almost childish, he is asking for God’s help and guidance, and as we all know, the answer to this childish prayer was incredible!

Then he prays for a kind and humble girl. Pay close attention: he is not praying for her looks or wealth: It is her kind and serving attitude and behavior that he sets as a sign before God. We know that his terms were met immediately and precisely, and he was absolutely overwhelmed by this immediate answer.

21And the man, wondering at her, remained silent so as to know whether the Lord had made his journey prosperous or not.

One has to know God’s handwriting in one’s life and the feeling of awe that fills us every time we recognize His handwriting, in order to understand the feelings of the servant.  Like a double-exposed roll of film with its images overlapped, God’s as  yet invisible reality is showing through this seemingly routine episode—and he is absolutely overwhelmed by this invisible reality. The word translated here as “remained silent”, might also mean to be “speechless”. I think that was exactly what was happening to the servant: not only was he silent, he was speechless as he recognized God’s hand at work in this story!

I believe he experienced yet a greater shock when he realized that this invisible reality of God’s presence and guidance became visible and obvious to everyone— even to those who did not know God. Rebecca’s father and brother, after they hear the servant’s testimony, say some surprising words:

50Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you either bad or good.”

 Mi-Adonai Yatza Ha-Davar – “this thing came from the Lord!” How obvious the Lord’s presence must have been in this man and in this story if people who didn’t know Him at all said these words!

However, the most incredible part of this story is Rebecca herself: Not only did she make the decision that changed her life forever; she made this decision within one day. Imagine: they didn’t have phones or internet, they didn’t have cars or planes, and for her to leave her home like this meant to leave it for good and probably never see her family again. The fact that she was able to make such a drastic decision to leave behind everything and everyone she knew and loved bears witness to Rebecca’s absolutely outstanding character!

Rebecca’s decision also bears great testimony to the servant’s character, though. Why did she say “Yes” when the servant appeared from nowhere and presented before her the choice of her life: Would she go with him to be Isaac’s wife? She didn’t grow up in a family of true believers, as Isaac did; she didn’t know God, as Isaac did; so what made her say “yes”? There is only one possible explanation:  when the servant appeared before her that day, somehow she knew that it was not just this servant, but Somebody in him and beyond him—Somebody much more than him—who stepped into her life and claimed this life. I suppose, like all young girls, she was interested in her future husband, but she knew almost nothing about him and had never seen him, so he was still not very real to her. However, that ‘Somebody’ who touched her heart through the servant, was so real that she decided at once that she wanted Him in her life. She saw God in this humble man, and she followed him in order to follow God. She said: “Yes” to the servant – but it was in fact, another ‘Yes’ to God, as we see many times throughout this book!

I have no doubt, that during the return journey, the servant thanked God for what He did for him; in his humility, I doubt he ever realized that what God did, He did through him. And it all started with one small and plain prayer of almost child-like trust: “please make this day happen before me”!

[1] Prov. 3:34

God will provide his son!

Lost In Translation: Gospel In Genesis

By Julia BlumOctober 27, 2021No comments

I wrote already on these pages that Torah Portion VaYerah presented a special interest to Christians: its structure is similar to the structure of the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke. This portion begins with the Divine Annunciation of the miraculous birth of the son of the promise, and ends with Aqedat Itzhak, the sacrifice of this miraculously born son. In Genesis 18, God comes to Abraham in the form of three Heavenly Guests. One of the main objects of this visit was the annunciation – the announcement of the miraculous birth of Isaac. We see a very similar announcement at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: Luke tells us that “the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth” to a virgin named Mary, announcing the miraculous birth of Jesus. VaYerah ends with Genesis 22, Abraham being ready to sacrifice his son and Isaac laying on the altar. The Gospel of Luke (as every other gospel) ends with Jesus’ sacrifice—with His crucifixion and resurrection. In this sense, there is a striking resemblance between the starting and the ending point of our portion today, and the starting and the ending point of the Gospel of Luke. There are so many things that we can say about this amazing portion – however, since this year’s comments on Parashot Shavua go under the title “Lost in translation”, I want to show you how many additional details we can see in these starting and ending points of Vayera when we read it in Hebrew.

Inner Struggle

Our portion opens with a famous scene in Genesis 18 where God comes to Abraham in the form of three Heavenly Guests. Some context would be helpful here: right before that, in chapter 17, God spoke to Abraham after 13 years of silence. First, God told Abraham that He was making a covenant with him and with his descendants forever:  “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Then, all of a sudden, came the breaking news of Genesis 17:16: Abraham would have another son! Honestly, I don’t think it came as very good news to Abraham. At least, not in the way we are used to reading it: Look, finally, Isaac is coming! No, Abraham had a son already. He was perfectly happy with this son; his heart was full of Ishmael, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted another son. He was an old man, after all, and he was not sure he would have room in his life for another son. He knew the magnificent promises of God to his descendants and he naturally thought—and was absolutely happy to think—that all those promises referred to Ishmael. Certainly, he was obedient to the Lord, as always, and did not argue with Him when He announced His will, but I don’t think he was especially thrilled about the news of this new baby. In a sense, the breaking news of Genesis 17:16 was an unexpected and almost unwelcome change in Abraham’s world.

Now, we can better understand the beginning of Chapter 18. According to Jewish commentaries, just a few days had passed between God’s appearance to Abraham in chapter 17 and His appearance before Abraham’s tent in chapter 18. Abraham wasn’t even completely recovered from his circumcision at the end of chapter 17. The well-known beginning of chapter 18: “the Lord appeared to Abraham,” is followed by the conversation of Abraham with his guests. If we read this text in Hebrew, we find something strange and unexpected here, something that reflects the struggle in Abraham’s heart after his previous encounter with God in chapter 17 – and something that is completely lost in translation. The Hebrew sentences of this conversation are couched alternatively in singular and plural. The very first word of Abraham’s speech here is “Adonai” (אדוני) – and there is controversy over whether Adonai here should be read as a sacred singular word, “My Lord”, or as a regular plural word, “lords”. In the following verses, we find both singular and plural: in verse 3, there are only singular forms, while verses 4 and 5 use the plural. First, Abraham is saying: “do not pass on” in singular, and then “wash your feet”, and “refresh your hearts” in plural. It sounds as if Abraham himself was not sure exactly who he saw – as if the Torah reflects Abraham’s initial uncertainty over whether the visitors were human or divine, whether they were mere men, or represented God. I believe that here, at the beginning of this crucial portion and right after chapter 17 with its breaking news, this interplay between singular and plural comes as an expression of Abraham’s hesitation and inner struggle between natural and supernatural: whether he could and wanted to believe the supernatural promise of chapter 17.

The Mystery of Sonship

Fast-forward some years (37 according to Jewish commentaries) and we arrive to one of the most dramatic stories of the Hebrew Scriptures: Aqedat Itzhak, the sacrifice of Isaac. As Isaac is being led to the mountain by his father, he asks Abraham, ‘Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’[1] Abraham’s answer is astounding in its depth and prophetic meaning: ‘My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.’[2]

This conversation between Abraham and Isaac is full of the details that you see in Hebrew only. In Hebrew ( אלוהים יראה-לו השה לעלה בני), these words sound even more profound, even more ambiguous, lending themselves to multiple interpretations. A traditional reading will place a comma in this sentence before the last word בני (my son), such as in the NIV, for instance: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ Some versions, such as the NKJV we are using here, even move these words to the beginning of the sentence: ‘My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.’ In the original Hebrew text of the Tenach, however, there were no punctuation marks and therefore it is perfectly allowable to divide this sentence in a way other than how the English translations render it. When doing so, a completely different text emerges:

אלוהים יראה-לו… השה לעלה בני

In English, this would sound approximately as follows: “God will provide (for Himself); the lamb for the burnt offering is my son.” Naturally, our ears are much better tuned to the translation of Abraham’s answer we find in our English Bibles, and therefore the traditional reading tends to appear a more valid rendition. Yet, there is nothing substantial that would incline us to support one reading above the other in the original sentence. Moreover, the fact that Abraham named the place The-LORD-Will-Provide – יהוה יראה[3] – seems to me another  weighty argument in favor of the alternative reading of this sentence as consisting of two very important statements:  אלוהים יראה-לו (God will provide for Himself) and השה לעלה בני (the lamb for the burnt offering is my son).

With such a reading, the story of the Akedah is revealed as a powerful illustration of God’s invisible mystery concealed within the words of Abraham. It unseals, uncovers His mystery of sonship: God will provide Himself a lamb for the burnt offering. God will provide Himself a lamb in His son. השה לעלה בני. If we remember that God calls Israel His son, we would understand the history of Israel in a completely different and much more profound way.

[1] Gen. 22:7

[2] Gen. 22:8

[3] Gen. 22:14

So why turn water into wine?

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus performs the first miracle of his ministry when he turns water to wine. After the wine runs out at a wedding in Cana, Yeshua has stone jars filled with water, which he transforms into the best wine at the banquet. But of all the wonders that the Messiah could have wrought, why does he begin with this one? Jesus’ first sign validates his own messianic identity and recalls the prophetic vision of a time when the blessings of water and wine would flow in abundance.

Jesus’ sign of turning water into wine alludes to divine cleansing for Israel. The transformed water comes from “six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding two or three metretas” (2:6). A metretes was an ancient measure of about ten gallons, so Jesus makes somewhere around 150 gallons of wine! More important are John’s exact numbers: six jars with two or three metretas each. Six multiplied by two is 12; six times three is 18. These numbers had symbolic resonance in first-century Judaism: twelve signifies the tribes of Israel (cf. Matt 19:28; Rev 21:12) and eighteen alludes to God’s gift of renewed life or prosperity (e.g., Lk 13:11-16; 1 Esd 1:21-22; SibOr 11:80-102; in the later rabbinic numerical system of gematria, in which each Hebrew letter also represents a number, the word for “life” [חי; chai] equals 18). Thus, Jesus’ sign shows that he has come to purify all Israel and offer the gift of eternal life to the whole world.

Jesus’ use of water to produce wine also echoes the prophecy of Joel, which details an abundance of wine and purifying waters in the messianic age: “In that day, the mountains shall drip with wine (עסיס; asis)… and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water (מים; mayim); a spring shall come forth from the House of the Lord” (Joel 3:18 [Heb. 4:18]; cf. Amos 9:13). The fact that John’s Gospel is particularly interested in Jesus’ offer of life-giving water supports the likelihood that his first miracle alludes to Joel’s prophetic words (cf. John 3:23; 4:7-15, 46; 5:7; 7:38). The expansive world of Jewish Scripture and tradition provides Gospel readers with a deeper theological understanding of Jesus’ first sign. These ancient contexts underscore Jesus’ role as a heavenly savior whose activity signals the divine desire to lavish life.   

The importance of names and their meanings.

Joseph’s Egyptian wife Asenath bore him two sons in Egypt. He called the firstborn son Manasseh מְנַשֶּׁה (menasheh). Joseph said: “God has made me forget (כִּי־נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים) completely my hardship and my parental home” (Genesis 41:51). The name Manasseh is connected to the verbal root נשך (nashach), which refers to forgetting and letting go. A very common usage of נשך describes someone being “relieved from debt.” This positive meaning is a better parallel to the second sons’ name, Ephraim (אֶפְרָיִם), which means “made me fruitful.”

When naming Ephraim, Joseph said: “God has made me fertile (כִּי־הִפְרַנִי אֱלֹהִים) in the land of my affliction” (Gen 41:52). As seven fruitful harvest years came to an end, it became obvious that Joseph was not a lunatic and that Pharaoh had been wise in appointing him to the task of setting aside massive quantities of food. When the people of Egypt thought of Joseph, they naturally thought of wealth and prosperity.

The meaning of these names has everything to do with Joseph’s awareness that it was God who set him free and made him fruitful. In Hebrew, Egypt (מִצְרַיִם) is a place of “confinement” and “limitation” where one cannot prosper. God’s faithfulness to Jacob’s children is best seen in Joseph’s ability to survive and thrive against all odds in that land of “confinement” and “limitation.” Centuries later, Israelites who came out of Egypt heard these stories and were strengthened by knowing that the same God who took take care of Joseph would take care of them as well.