This week’s parasha is the first to contain a comprehensive list of mitzvot. The previous parshiyot, portions, have been mainly narrative, with an occasional mitzvah or moral lesson woven into the fabric of the story. In her book Studies in the Book of Exodus, Nechama Leibowitz asks why is the Jewish way of life made up of so many positive and negative mitzvot? To answer the question Nechama Leibowitz quotes the author of Sefer HaHinuch, a book that lists the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot in order of their occurrence in the Torah. “…Know that man is influenced by his actions and his intellectual and emotional life is conditioned by the things he does, good or bad.” According to the author of Sefer HaHinuch, it is actions that shape character. Mitzvot are designed for every age group, every point in life, at all times and all places. The spiritual impact of mitzvot was meant to be irresistible and all encompassing, constantly enabling us to do good and therefore be good. We just have to open ourselves up and allow mitzvot to be a part of our daily lives.
In this week’s parasha we read: God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but (by) My name the Lord was I not known to them.” This passage has puzzled many commentators as it claims that this is the first time this name of God is used, when in fact it was used on two previous occasions (the first when God appeared to Abraham, and the second when Jacob was about to leave the Holy Land).
How could it be maintained that God had not appeared to the Patriarchs by this name? Rashi and Rambam (both Biblical commentators) say that this passage does not imply that God had not been revealed before to the Patriarchs by this name, but rather this particular aspect of God was being revealed for the first time, and that this particular attribute of God had not been evident until then.
Rashi says that the aspect of God revealed to us is that of a promise-keeper, while Rambam states that the attribute of God revealed to us is God working through open miracles rather than through ordinary events. What is important to note here is the recognition that we perceive God through God’s manifestations in the world, through God’s deeds. We have new opportunities to see different aspects and attributes of God each and every day. We just have to permit ourselves to see them.
The Book of Exodus begins by recounting that the descendants of Jacob flourished and multiplied in Egypt. A new Pharaoh arises who did not know Joseph and perceives the numerous Israelites as a potential threat. The Egyptians enslave the Israelites, and make life miserable for them.
A couple from the house of Levi bears a son and hides him for three months. When the infant can no longer be hidden, his sister, Miriam, sets him afloat in the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the infant, rescues him, and names him Moses. When Moses is grown, he kills an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave. Due to this incident, he is forced to flee Egypt and ends up in Midian. There he becomes a shepherd, a husband and a father.
One day, while Moses is tending his sheep, God appears to him in a burning bush. God instructs Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan. Moses gives God a number of reasons why he should not be the one to redeem the Israelites, and God answers all of Moses’ objections. Moses finally pleads with God to choose someone else. It is at this point that God is angered.
One of the reasons Moses gives God for why he is inadequate for redeeming the Israelites from Egypt is, he is “slow of speech”. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin uses Moses’ reason that he is “slow of speech”, as a vehicle for examining the question where does God’s influence end and human activity begin.
Moses appears to be telling God that a man who cannot speak eloquently cannot possibly hope to convince the Egyptians to free the Israelites. God responds “Who has made man’s mouth, or who makes man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is not the Lord?” Basically, if God can create the vehicle, God can certainly create the necessary accessories.
God’s response does not sit well with Moses and he pleads with God “send I pray you, by the hand of whomever you will send (but not by me).” Moses is so convinced of God’s powers that he comes to the conclusion that it does not matter who God sends, because God can put the right words into anyone’s mouth. Just let it be someone else. The instrument is not important as long as God is with that person.
Rabbi Riskin writes that it is precisely this attitude that angers God. Moses has all the faith in the world, maybe too much faith. Just because God is in ultimate control of speech is not reason enough to justify removing all responsibility from human actors in the drama of the Jewish people.
God will certainly help, but God does not choose to act alone. It is true that we thank God for God’s help, but ultimately it is human beings who must speak the message and do the actions.
Jacob lives for 17 years in Egypt before feeling that his death is imminent. He makes Joseph swear that Joseph will bury him in Canaan. Prior to his death, Jacob adopts and blesses Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. In the blessing, he elevates the younger Ephraim over Manasseh explaining to Joseph that Ephraim would father a larger people than Manasseh.
On his deathbed, Jacob summons his sons, and describes the character and tells the future of each one. Jacob tells his sons to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, where his ancestors are buried.
Following his death, Jacob is embalmed. A great Egyptian procession accompanies Joseph and his brothers to Canaan. When they reach Goren ha-Atad, a seven day mourning period is observed. Joseph and his brothers return to Egypt after the burial. The brothers are concerned, that with the death of their father, Joseph will seek revenge for having sold him. But he tells them he will not seek revenge, as it was God’s plan that he come to Egypt.
The book of Genesis closes with Joseph’s death at 110 years. On his deathbed, he speaks to his brothers, requesting that his bones be taken back to the land of Israel.
In his deathbed blessing, Jacob does not leave material objects to his sons. Rather, he does a character analysis and gives a future picture of the tribes. In some ways, this may be a form of an ethical will. Ethical wills are a well-established part of Jewish ethical literature. Short and practical, such wills usually took the form of a great teacher’s deathbed advice to their students. However, ethical wills also exist in which parents leave moral instructions for their children.
Ethical wills are very important to leave for children, but what makes a greater impact is how we live our lives while we are living. “Do as I do” should be our motto, and we need to conduct ourselves with this motto in mind.
Jacob is told that Joseph is alive and is taken to see him in Egypt. God calls to Jacob one night during the journey and tells Jacob that he will prosper in Egypt and that Joseph will be present at Jacob’s deathbed.
Jacob and Joseph have a tearful reunion. The family continues to work as shepherds in Egypt in the region of Goshen. The famine continues in Egypt and Joseph sells grain to the people. Eventually, the people sell all they own to Pharaoh in order to purchase grain. By the end of the famine, Pharaoh owns all of the land in Egypt save the land of the priests. At the end of the famine, Joseph gives seeds to the people and directs then to repay Pharaoh with one-fifth of their harvest.
Joseph chooses to settle his family in Goshen, an area in northeastern Egypt (see Jewish History Atlas by Gilbert, p. 2). The Egyptians worshipped sheep and thus had an aversion to shepherds. Joseph was therefore able to justify the need for physical distance between his family and the Egyptian population centers. The Netziv explained Joseph’s motive differently. Joseph did not want the household of Jacob assimilating into Egyptian culture. He wanted to preserve them as a group so they could become a nation. Although the details are a bit different today, the issue of how to preserve the Jewish nation has been ongoing since Biblical times.
One night Pharaoh dreams two dreams which no one in his court can interpret. The cupbearer remembers Joseph and brings him to Pharaoh. Joseph tells Pharaoh that both dreams relay the same message. There will be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Joseph does not stop there. He offers Pharaoh a plan for how to avoid disaster during the years of famine. Pharaoh is impressed by Joseph and appoints him head of food collection and distribution.
During the years of famine Jacob sends his sons, except for Benjamin, down to Egypt to buy grain. The brothers appear before Joseph and he recognizes them. Hiding his identity, Joseph accuses the brothers of being spies and decides to test them. Joseph challenges the brothers to return with their youngest brother Benjamin.
The brothers return with Benjamin, and Joseph continues his test. After filling their order of grain, Joseph has his goblet placed in Benjamin’s bag. Joseph then sends his men after his brothers and accuses them of theft. When the goblet is found in Benjamin’s bag, Joseph declares that Benjamin must remain in Egypt as his slave, and that the other brothers are free to go.
How could Pharaoh have trusted Joseph to such a degree that he appointed him to be the main administrator of the plans to save Egypt from the shortages of the forthcoming famine? True, Joseph was understanding and wise, but how could Pharaoh trust someone who was just released from prison and was previously a slave?
Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz, replied that Pharaoh saw Joseph’s extreme honesty in something he said before he related the interpretation of the dream. Joseph began by saying to Pharaoh that he had no power to interpret dreams on his own. It was entirely a gift from God. Joseph did not want to take credit, even for a moment. This total honesty in one minor point showed that Joseph could be completely trusted. It is incredible to think about how many times “little” things go a long way toward establishing our credibility and have a big impact or make an impression on who we are and how we are perceived.
Throughout the next four Torah portions we read about Joseph and his life. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son; the other brothers felt this favoritism and they were jealous. Joseph dreams two dreams which foreshadow his supremacy over his family. He relates these dreams to the family, which does little to help the already strained relations between Joseph and his brothers.
Jacob and his sons were shepherds. Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers and their sheep. Upon seeing Joseph, the brothers plot to kill him. Reuben convinces the brothers not to kill Joseph, but rather to throw him into a pit, from which Reuben plans to later rescue him. Plans have a way of changing, and without Reuben’s knowledge, the brothers decide to sell Joseph to some merchants. Before Joseph is sold, the brothers take his famous coat of many colors. The coat is then dipped in goat’s blood and presented to Jacob as proof of Joseph’s having been killed by a wild animal. The merchants sell Joseph to Potiphar, who is an Egyptian noble.
Potiphar entrusts Joseph with the entire house. Life looks good for Joseph until Potiphar’s wife who could not get Joseph to succumb to her, accuses him of rape. Joseph is jailed, and there he meets Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker. While in prison, they both have dreams, which Joseph interprets. Joseph correctly foretells that the cupbearer will return to his service in the palace, and the baker will be put to death. Joseph asks the cupbearer to remember him, but he is forgotten.
“And Joseph was brought down to Egypt (39:10).” Anyone viewing the scene of Joseph being brought down to Egypt as a slave would have considered it a major tragedy. His brothers sold him into slavery and he was being taken far away from his father and his homeland. But the reality was that this was the first step toward his being appointed the second in command of Egypt. He would eventually be in charge of the national economy of Egypt and would be the mastermind behind the complex program to prepare for the years of famine during the years of plenty.
Later on, when Jacob went down to Egypt, anyone viewing the scene would have considered it a very positive one. Jacob was going to be reunited with his favorite son after so many years of separation. His son was a powerful leader and he would be treated with the honors of royalty. But what was the total picture. This was the first step in the exile of the Children of Israel. Their enslavement in Egypt was beginning at this very moment, although the entire process would take some time until it was finally felt.
No human being has the ability to know what the final consequences of any situation will actually be. Therefore, when a situation seems to be extremely negative, do not despair. This could lead to wonderful things for you. Conversely, when things seem to be going extremely well, do not become complacent or arrogant. One can never tell what the future has in store.
On his journey back to Canaan, Jacob passes through the territory controlled by Esau. Jacob seeks reconciliation with his brother, and sends gifts ahead, hoping to fend off a hostile confrontation. Jacob divides his family into two camps and sends them over the river to safety. Jacob spends the night on the other side of the river – alone.
During the night, a “man” comes to Jacob and wrestles with him until dawn. When the “man” realizes that he will not prevail, he wrenches Jacob’s thigh, but Jacob will not release him. Jacob demands a blessing from the “man.” The “man” gives Jacob a new name – Israel, which means, “one who struggles with God.”
Although the text states that Jacob wrestled with a man that night, all the commentators agree that it was no ordinary human being. Rambam and Ramban differ as to the exact nature of the struggle. Was it an actual event in the real world sense, or was it an internal struggle? Of more importance, what did the struggle accomplish?
The event tested and changed Jacob. It tested his strength; he prevailed, showing the strength that would be required for future events (The Anchor Bible by Speiser, p. 257). Through this event, we learn what it takes to remake one’s own character – the ability to hold on. Jacob refuses to let go and he wrestles the stranger throughout the night. Only in the morning does Jacob agree to let go, and then only after receiving a new name, a renewed identity.
The struggle of Jacob and the mysterious man leaves its mark on Jacob, who limps away with a wounded thigh. Our struggles in life, with others and with ourselves, leave scars. But they also produce growth and change. Jacob is no longer the wily, shrewd person he once was. Instead, through the process of introspection, remorse, and a commitment to confront his own failings, Jacob is able to remake himself.
While fleeing to Haran, Jacob rests one night. In a dream, Jacob sees angels ascending and descending a ladder. God comes to Jacob and repeats the same blessing given to Abraham and Isaac, and promises to protect and return him to Canaan. Jacob vows that God will be his God if God fulfills the promises.
In Genesis 28:12 we read, “And Jacob had a dream and in his dream there was a ladder standing on the ground and its top reached the heavens”. The Chofetz Chaim cited the idea expressed by many commentators that the ladder Jacob saw in his dream symbolizes the situation of every person in this world. There are two actions a person performs on a ladder. Either he goes up from the bottom to the top, or he goes down from the top to the bottom. Each day in a person’s life he faces new challenges. If he has the willpower and self-discipline to overcome those challenges, he goes up in his spiritual level. If, however, a person fails to exercise the necessary self-control, he lowers himself. This is our daily task, to climb higher each day.
There is no standing in one place. When challenges arise, you will either behave in an elevated manner and grow from the experience or you will fail. Learn to appreciate the daily challenges that face you. Every difficulty is a means of elevating yourself. Every time you overcome a negative impulse you grow as a person. When a person climbs a ladder, he feels his progress with each step. So too with your daily victories over your negative impulses – feel your progress and you will have the motivation to continue climbing.
Rebecca is barren, so Isaac prays to God on her behalf. God responds to Isaac’s prayers and Rebecca conceives twins. The twins struggle with each other within the womb, and this struggle will continue once they are born. The firstborn Esau, is red and hairy. He is a hunter and is favored by Isaac. The younger son, Jacob, is a quiet individual whom Rebecca favors.
One day, while Jacob is cooking stew Esau comes in starving and demands some. As payment, Jacob insists that Esau sell him his birthright. Esau agrees to the stated price and has some dinner.
Esau takes two wives from among the Hittites. Isaac and Rebecca are not happy with this. Isaac grows old, and the time for blessing his sons is near. Isaac instructs Esau to hunt and prepare a meal for him after which Isaac will bless him. Rebecca overhears the conversation, and recalls God having told her that her older son would serve her younger son (Genesis 25:23). She needed to take action, so Rebecca convinces Jacob to deceive his father. With Rebecca’s help, Jacob does so and receives Esau’s blessing for himself. Rebecca, fearing that Esau will take revenge against Jacob, tells Jacob to flee to Haran, to her brother Laban. In order to have Isaac approve of Jacob’s journey, Rebecca convinces Isaac that Jacob should be sent to Laban to find a bride from among her family.
In Genesis 25:20 we read: “And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca, the daughter of Betual the Aromite, from Padan Arom, the sister of Laban the Aromite, for himself for a wife.” Rashi raises the question that the information in this verse about Rebecca’s background seems superfluous. The Torah had already stated that Rebecca was the daughter of Betual, the sister of Lavan, and was from Padam Aram. The answer, says Rashi, is that this restatement is in praise of Rebecca. She was the daughter of an evil person, the sister of an evil person and lived in a community of evil people. Nevertheless, she did not learn from their evil behavior.
Many people try to excuse their faults by blaming others as the cause of their behavior. “It’s not my fault I have this bad trait, I learned it from my mother and father.” “I’m not to blame for this bad habit since all my brothers and sisters do it also.” We see from Rebecca that regardless of the faulty behavior of those in our surroundings, we have the ability to be more elevated. Of course, it takes courage and a lot of effort to be different. The righteous person might be considered a nonconformist and even rebellious by those in his environment whose standard of values are below their level. But a basic Torah principle is that we are responsible for our own actions. Pointing to others in your environment who are worse than us is not a valid justification for not behaving properly.
If you ever find yourself saying, “It’s not my fault I did this. It’s because of the way I was raised,” change your focus to “I’ll make a special effort to improve in this area to overcome the tendency to follow in the footsteps of others.” Blaming others for your faults and saying that you cannot do anything to change them will be a guarantee that they will remain with you.
I will address the complicated issue of Rebecca and Jacob “stealing” Esau’s firstborn blessing at another time. It, like life, is more complicated than it looks.