From our friend Julia

Entering New Year, Entering New Revelation

By Julia Blum December 30, 2021

Another year has flown by – another “strange” year, with many unexpected, and sometimes unthinkable things happening right before our eyes. This is the sixth time I am entering a New Year together with you – and for the sixth time, together with you, I am trying to unveil the future and to understand what this New Year might bring us.

My regular readers would know that I happen to believe that weekly Torah portions are divinely ordained, and that God speaks to His people – and to each one of us personally – through these Parashot Shavua. The Torah Portion for the last Shabbat of 2021 was Shemot, the first portion of the book of Exodus. Can you imagine? We have entered the book of Exodus – the book of His mighty hand and outstretched arm, the book of His signs and wonders, with all the glorious miracles and redemption – while entering a New Year of our lives. Of course, this has happened before, however, this transition between the years began to take on a greater significance for me when I realized that the last week of 2021 would be sealed by the second Torah portion of Exodus, Vaera that is read on January 1!

What can we say about Vaera?  It comes after Moses’ bitter words to God: “since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.” Of course, Moses doesn’t know what we the readers know: that only a few chapters later, victory will come! At this point, he is almost desperate – everything appears dark and hopeless and seems to be only getting worse.

Second Revelation  

And it is exactly at this point that Moses experiences the Second Revelation (after the first one, the Revelation at the Burning Bush):  And God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them.

Let us contemplate this solemn revelation. These words refer both to the past and to the future and, as we find them at the very beginning of the new year, what do they mean to us? What do they mean at all? This statement seems to contradict the book of Genesis and everything we know about the patriarchs: according to Genesis, the patriarchs knew this name, because it occurs often there. The Hebrew linguists think that the statement, ‘the name YHWH was unknown till it was revealed to Moses,’ is disproved by names like Jochebed: if Jochebed was the mother of Moses, his grandparents had to know the name of YHWH, because they gave their daughter a name where the first component was Jah, a shortened form of YHWH. The same can be said about the parents of Joshua, they also gave their son a name with Yah as the first component[1].

However, if the linguistic proof is so obvious, why has Exodus 6:3 been interpreted as revealing the name YHWH for the first time? The explanation, as often happens, should be sought in Hebrew: most Christian students of the Bible fail to understand the meaning of the Hebrew verb “to know” (Yadah). When one thinks that Exodus 6:3 means that this name was not known before Moses, he doesn’t really understand this word. The idea of “knowing” in Biblical Hebrew is much more personal and intimate than our modern understanding of knowing[2].  In the Hebrew Scriptures, “to know,” means not just to be intellectually informed, but to experience reality. Knowledge is not the possession of information – it is an experience! To “know God” in the Bible is not “to know about him” in some abstract and impersonal manner, not to grasp philosophically his eternal existence, but to recognize and experience His reality and to obey His will. When the phrase “to know the Lord” occurs in the Old Testament, it never means just knowing the name: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor was the word of the Lord yet revealed to him[3]; “I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, And you shall know the Lord.[4]  These are just a couple of examples, but even from these examples, it is clear that these words imply a profound inner transformation. Why would it have been different when God revealed Himself to Moses in the midst of his trials and failures, in the darkest and seemingly hopeless times?

In this sense, we see a very clear connection between the verse we just quoted, where God reveals His name to Moses (Ex. 6:3), and verse 7 of the same chapter, where God continues to speak to Moses saying: “I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” Do you remember that even before this Second Revelation, Moses was supposed to tell the people of Israel the name of the Lord – this was a commission he received in Exodus 3, at the Burning Bush? However – pay close attention – God does not expect the Israelites to know Him and His name after Moses tells them this name, between Exodus 3 and Exodus 6. It is only after they experience the reality of the Exodus – the reality of His faithfulness, His compassion, and His power – that they will really know Him. No wonder, He “was not known” like this to the previous generations, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they had not experienced Him like this. According to Jewish tradition, the Patriarchs knew God and His name only in a limited way.

When we think of Moses, we usually think of the “Burning Bush” revelation – and understandably, we all want the “Burning Bush” in our lives. However, don’t we all need this Second Revelation as we learn to know God more deeply – especially in these confusing times? Rashi writes that at his initial revelation at the burning bush, Moses did not really comprehend the essence of God; but now, when God reveals Himself to Moses again, he acquires a new insight into the character of God. Now Moses begins to see God in a new light: as faithful, merciful, and compassionate. This is the Second Revelation – and the beginning of the Torah Portion Vaera.

Jewish tradition interprets the names Elohim and Adonai as the explanation of the two sides of the nature of God: His Justice and His mercy. This understanding of the different names of God explains also these two different accounts of creation – Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. The Midrash says that God originally created the world as Elohim (Genesis 1), but that afterward He is called Adonai Elohim (Genesis 2) because He saw that, without His mercy, His creation would not survive. I think we can all agree that humanity is at that point, where, without His mercy, it would definitely not survive. Isn’t it amazing that it is precisely with this Second Revelation that we are entering this New Year?

[1] See: H. Segal, The Pentateuch: Its Composition and Its Authorship and Other Biblical Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1967), pp. 4-5.

[2] Please remember: we are talking about Biblical Hebrew; in Modern Hebrew, this verb more or less corresponds to a regular English “know”.

[3] 1 Sam.3:7

[4] Hos.2:20

Not all has to be serious

A Story On Faith

There came a time when three men of the cloth decided they would all go fishing together and become better friends to aid in their individual ministries. A Lutheran minister, A Presbyterian minister and a Baptist minister had all concluded they needed to demonstrate Christian Bother Hood for their congregations.

They struck out to a lake they all knew about and commenced fishing and visiting. After some time had passed and not much action on their lines, the Baptist minister suddenly arose, stepped out of the boat and walked across the water, to end up sitting on the bank of the lake.

The other two sat there for a short time, and then the Presbyterian fellow decided he would join the Baptist on the bank of the lake, whereupon he stepped out of the boat and strode across the water. They sat alongside each other visiting, watching the Lutheran fellow as he continued to fish.

The Lutheran man sat there thinking to himself all the while that if they had that kind of faith, then he should exercise his own and join them. He stood up in the boat, stepped out on the water and promptly sank. The other two looked at the scene and both said almost simultaneously, “Reckon we should have told him where the rocks were?”

I guess there should be a moral to such a tale.

Think before you step out on faith.

God meant it for good.

Lost In Translation: God Thought Good

By Julia BlumDecember 22, 2021One comment

For I Know The Thoughts That I Think Toward You[1]

In our last portion, VeYigash, we witnessed the climax of Joseph’s saga – when Joseph “could not restrain” himself and revealed his identity to his brothers – a very happy ending to a very dramatic story. It seems that the story is over now, so why do we still have a few more chapters in Genesis? Why do we have another Torah Portion? Have you ever asked this question? I certainly have!

Of course, there are many things we can say about Vayechi (as about every Torah portion). However, I want to point out some details that answered that question for me – and I hope will provide an answer for you as well. I want to start with the amazing words that Joseph says to his brothers after his father’s death. We read that “when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.”[2]  They sent a message to Joseph, begging him again to forgive them, and “Joseph wept when they spoke to him”. Then Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good[3]

The words in bold are amazing, aren’t they? Toward the very end of this book – like a seal on the story of Joseph, on the book of Genesis, and also on this about-to-end year of our lives – we hear: “God meant it for good”. Even in translation, these words are deeply meaningful; however, when we read them in Hebrew, their plain and straight meaning is just stunning! Literally, Joseph is saying: you thought bad, God thought good. It is so simple – and so profound at the same time! Both in Bible and in our lives, God always carries out His plan: not only through people’s strengths and faith but also through their weaknesses and mistakes. It’s a wonderful feeling when one can look back at the year that is about to end, see all the mistakes and misdeeds that each one of us has done or experienced this year, look forward to the coming year, and trust that the Lord can work out His good even from our mistakes: God thought good.

For Your Salvation I Wait, O Lord![4]

I would like to bring to your attention yet another interesting detail in this portion, but in order to understand the significance of this detail, I need to quote the New Testament. In the Gospel of Luke, after the return of the disciples, who rejoice that the demons are subject to them, Jesus thanks the Father and says to the disciples: “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it”[5].  What exactly did he mean? What did they desire to see and hear – these kings and prophets? Can we state that many Jews in the first century believed that some of their ancients desired to see the Days of the Messiah?

To answer this question, we are going to use some Targums here. Targums are the free Aramaic renderings of the Old Testament for use in the synagogue – and in spite of the late dates of the final redaction of these texts, they usually represent the interpretative tradition of the  Second Temple Judaism. It’s really interesting to see how Jesus’ contemporaries read these last chapters of Genesis.

In Gen.49:1, we read that “Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days”. Jewish tradition frequently comments on Jacob’s attempt to reveal “the End” (ketz). The Palestinian Targum says that the vision of the Days of the Messiah was desired by Jacob, but was withheld from him. In Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, 49.1, we read that Jacob called his sons and said to them, “Purify yourselves from uncleanness, and I will tell you the concealed secrets, the hidden times, the giving of the reward of the righteous, the punishment of the wicked, and what the happiness of Eden will be,” The twelve tribes of Israel were gathered together surrounding the golden bed on which he was lying, but as soon as the Glory of Shekinah of the Lord was revealed, the time in which the King Messiah was destined to come was hidden from him”. Again, Targum Neofiti paraphrases it slightly: “As soon as the end was revealed to him, the mystery was hidden from him… As soon as the mystery was revealed to him, it was hidden from him and as soon as the door was opened to him it was closed from him.”

Now we can see the words of Jesus in their proper Jewish context.  “Jesus taught in the milieu of early Judaism, and therefore … he employed religious language from this milieu which would have been familiar to the various and non-expert Jewish audiences he primarily addressed.”[6] Turning to his disciples, in his speech in Luke 10.21-24 Jesus uses the common language and refers to the common idea: all of you know what the kings and the prophets (beginning from the Patriarch Jacob, as we just saw) were waiting for – they were waiting for the days of Messiah. Now these long-awaited days are happening right before your eyes: the Messiah has come!

Christmas Torah Portion

So, in a sense, this Torah Portion is a perfect fit for the coming Christmas – the Christmas Torah Portion. I know, some of my readers would smile skeptically at this title: the statement that “Christmas is a pagan holiday” is so popular nowadays that many people prefer to have nothing to do with Christmas – and definitely would not expect Christmas to be mentioned on an Israeli Biblical studies blog. Yes, there is nothing to argue about, Christmas is a festival established by men – but so is the Torah reading cycle, isn’t it? Yet, I happen to believe that the weekly Torah portions are divinely ordained and that God speaks to His people, and to each one of us personally, through these portions of Scripture—Parashot Shavua. In the same way, through this humanly established holiday of Christmas, those who have ears can hear God’s message!  So, let us hear the message of Christmas in our Torah Portion!

Once again, we are in Genesis 49, where Jacob pronounces blessings (or rather prophetic words – because not all his words were a blessing) upon each of his sons. When he blessed Judah, he said: his “brothers shall praise” him. We have spoken a lot about Judah on these pages—about the fact that, by the end of the book, the story of “Joseph and his brothers” becomes the story of “Judah and his brothers”. We also spoke about the amazing authority that we see in Judah throughout this whole story (starting from chapter 37, where even in the midst of the terrible crime of the brothers, the voice of Judah is decisive) – and therefore, we should not be surprised to hear Jacob describe Judah’s authority as given directly by God. But then, he declared that Judah would be a lion, powerful and strong to destroy his enemies, and also a cub – which we would imagine as weak and helpless. How are we to reconcile these two images?

I would like to remind you of an amazing scene from chapter 5 of the Book of Revelation, where John, who is weeping over the sealed book, is told: “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.” Hearing this, he turns around, expecting to see the victorious Lion, and suddenly, instead of a Lion, he sees a Lamb as though it had been slain. Can you imagine? You’re expecting to see a Lion: strong, powerful, and victorious, but instead of a Lion, you see a Lamb: meek, innocent, helpless, and as though it had been slain at that. This is such an incredible substitution that only He Himself can confirm that this Lamb was indeed sent by Him—and that it is the Lion Himself. The words of Jacob here are very similar—their prophetic meaning is the same: Judah would be both the cub and the lion.

Commenting on these words, Rashi writes: “He prophesized about David, who was at first like a cub, and in the end a lion, when they made him king over them.” However, there is another hint in the prophecy of Jacob that makes it possible that these words reach beyond King David:

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes;
And to Him shall be the obedience of the people”.

What is Shiloh? Or who is Shiloh? In the entire Tanach (Old Testament) this word occurs only once – here, in this verse, and the meaning of the word, as well as its origin, is not clear. You probably know the Christian interpretation, but let me share with you what the Jewish commentators wrote about Shiloh.

Rashi:  “[This refers to] the King Messiah, to whom the kingdom belongs (שֶׁלוֹ), and so did Onkelos render it: [until the Messiah comes, to whom the kingdom belongs]. According to the Midrash Aggadah, [“Shiloh” is a combination of] שַׁי לוֹ, a gift to him, as it is said: “they will bring a gift to him who is to be feared” (Ps. 76:12).

Can you see now why we can call this Parashah, “Christmas Torah portion”? Jacob is prophesying of the coming of Messiah who will be both a cub and a lion – and to whom “shall be the obedience of the people.”  Isn’t this the message of Christmas?

Merry Christmas to all my precious readers!

May your hearts and your homes be filled with His Joy and His Light!

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