Tag Archives: Hebrew

Parshat Mikeitz (2013)


Genesis 41 –  44:17

Yosef: The Minority Leader with Major Influence

What does is it that makes a man a visionary or a dreamer? How would you define this type of personality and mindset? These type of people often tend to be charismatic leaders that not only command respect from a crowd, but they often tend to be people who are able to uniquely communicate the needs of the individual as well. They also know how to take one person’s dream and translate it into success for all.

We are going to take a look at that type of person today as displayed through the life of Yosef haTzadik.

My attention was actually captured by the last verse in our second reading. However to put it into context we should starts with the preceding verse as well. Our text reads as follows:

“And the statement was good

in the eyes of Pharaoh

and in the eyes of his servants.

And Pharaoh said to his servants,

‘Where will we find another man like this,

a man with G-d’s spirit in him?’”

| Vayitav hadavar

| be’einei Paroh

| uve’einei kol-avadav

| Vayomer Paroh el-avadav

| hanimtza kazeh ish

| asher ruach Elohim bo

Genesis 41:37-38

Our text tell us that this matter (ha-davar) was pleasing (vayitav) in the eyes of Pharaoh and his advisors. But what matter are we speaking of? In this parsha we learn that the Pharaoh had a disturbing dream, but he was not able to understand its significance. The dream and it’s meaning eluded him.

Yosef is still in slavery in Egypt, in-fact he is still imprisoned unjustly for a crime he was framed for when he is called up and out of prison to interpret a set of dreams for the ruler of Egypt. He has previously had success with interpreting dreams for some servants of Pharaoh’s, so he is eventually remembered and is turned to as a last resort.

Why do I put it that way? It’s because Yosef is certainly the last type of person this king and all his advisors would normally turn to. This is even stated by the Butler who brings up the story of how his dream was amazingly interpreted for him by Yosef.

Before the Butler gets too carried away he first has to give the king a few qualifying “buts.” He has to warn Pharaoh about the type of person he is speaking of. Actually, more precisely this butler actually gives Pharaoh the reasons that he would think of dismissing such a person, but he insists that Yosef should be listened to because his words prove to be true.

It doesn’t flow the same way in English, but in Hebrew it lays out the points like thuds for Pharaoh to brace himself for:

“Now there was with us a young man, a Hebrew, servant of the captain of the guard; we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us. He gave each person an interpretation for his dream.”

וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי, עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, וַנְּסַפֶּרלוֹ, וַיִּפְתָּרלָנוּ אֶתחֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ: אִישׁ כַּחֲלֹמוֹ, פָּתָר:

Genesis 41:12

If we think about it, Pharaoh is the most influential man in the known world. His name really needs no explanation, he is king and conqueror over his own impressive empire. Naturally as a ruler of paramount influence he had the most senior and experienced advisors to turn to in all matters. He had the best and wisest men money could buy lining his court.

Though when they failed him, Pharaoh’s butler could only recommend that he call on a na’ar – a young man, a boy, a youth. Most often the classical bible translations render this as “lad,” but that doesn’t appropriately relay the meaning of the term. It is true this word is rooted the same as the word no’ar – which clearly means youth. But here this word na’ar comes with all the condescending tones that is similar to snapping one’s fingers and yelling “garçon” (French) or “joven” (Spanish) to a waiter; sure it means “youth,” but it also is a declaration about the other’s status of subservience. The Egyptians identify that their first objection to him is based on his youth. He is a child, to be seen and not heard.

Now the next thing that you would think that would be brought up would be the fact that he is a convict and a slave. No, this seems rather easy to dismiss. If we notice here, the fact that he is a convict and for what type of crime is of no concern worth mentioning. Even his slave status is not mentioned until last. He is not just a servant, he is an eved; a slave.

What is of more importance to bring up, in order of priority, is that Yosef is an Ivri – he is a Hebrew.

Of course we all know how this story ends. Yosef interprets the dream of Pharaoh and is made a regent over all the land of Egypt, second in command to the ruler himself. He is elevated because of the good interpretation of the dream. Pharaoh being convinced that if this wise lad could see what was coming he could also help prevent that disaster.

Yet even as Yosef became a man of authority and status, the stigma of being a Hebrew always hung over him.

Now what proof do I have to make such claim? I present us with a verse from a little bit later on in our parsha. The banquet scene with Yosef and his unwitting brothers:

“And they set for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, that did eat with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.

וַיָּשִׂימוּ לוֹ לְבַדּוֹ, וְלָהֶם לְבַדָּם; וְלַמִּצְרִים הָאֹכְלִים אִתּוֹ, לְבַדָּםכִּי לֹא יוּכְלוּן הַמִּצְרִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶתהָעִבְרִים לֶחֶם, כִּיתוֹעֵבָה הִוא לְמִצְרָיִם.

Genesis 43:32

Think about this for a moment. Later on in our parsha we read of Yosef in the best light. Where he is really showing off his authority and is at his most ostentatious, as he calls a banquet for his clueless brothers. But notice when the meals are served Yosef sits alone. And his brothers, they dine on their own. We are told why, because Egyptians are not allowed to eat with Hebrews, it is toyveh – it is an abomination, it is detestable to them to eat with Hebrews.

One of the points that many seem to miss is that our text also suggest that even the Egyptians on staff for Yosef ate separately from him as well, they ate at the same time but they set out separate place-settings for themselves to the side. There are three sets of place-settings laid out! Even in his role as ruler, Yosef was not socially equal to the Egyptians. To even eat with him, the Egyptians considered that to be against that natural order of their world.

This is a long side-track, but it’s important for us to understand the amount of discrimination and the layers of prejudice Yosef had to battle in his lifetime. We just tend to think it all got easy for him once he was raised up as regent, but that’s not so.

If this was the case, that Yosef was always under a racial stigma, then why would we suppose that the Egyptians would give such authority to Yosef the Hebrew? Well, as our text reveals the first reason is because the interpretation that Yosef gave to Pharaoh’s dreams was pleasing in their eyes (vayitav hadavar b’einei). It satisfied something in them. And specifically in Pharaoh himself, in a very personal way as well.

Now what we need to recognize regarding the revelation that Yosef gave is that Pharaoh did not wait to see if this interpretation proved to be valid. He just accepts it as so. But how can this be? How could a man such a Pharaoh put his trust in seemingly unsubstantiated claims. How could he just trust in this Yosef’s words and advice so?

Also we need to notice that Pharaoh just flung the task of governance on Yosef without him even directly asking for it. Notice that Yosef tells Pharaoh to find for himself a man who is “navon u’chacham / who is smart and wise.” Someone that is witty and intelligent. I’m not ssur if Yosef is talking about himself, or is merely just giving the qualifications for the type of man who Pharaoh needs. But he finds himself landing the job.

The words of any person, no matter who they are, is worthless unless their words resonates with the listener. It is of no effect unless the message also bring harmony to the dreams others aspire to in their heart

The words of any person, no matter who they are, is worthless unless their words resonates with the listener. It is of no effect unless the message also bring harmony to the dreams others aspire to in their heart

What is it about his message that made Pharaoh value it more than all the words of his advisors? What was it that caught his attention that made him trust Yosef more than even his cabinet? Our rabbis tell us that it was because Yosef’s message resonated with Pharaoh in away that the others didn’t.

The Midrash Shechel Tov (12th century) offers us some interesting insights that address these points in its commentary for our two previously mentioned verses (see Midrash Shechel Tov, Genesis 41:37-38).

The midrash tells us that when Pharaoh dreamed this up in his head he had also received the interpretation for it. He didn’t just have a dream! He had dreamt of the solution as well, though he had forgotten them both.

I think most of us know this type of frustration, to be startled awake by a dream. And having your partner asking you to tell them the dream, but as you try to recount it you realized you forgot your dream. You woke-up knowing what it was about, but now as you try to explain what captured you so the memory begins to fade. And that often becomes more frustrating as one senses there is something just out of grasp in our minds, and then it’s gone again. It’s even more irritating as people try to help you piece it together with things that don’t seem to fit. This seems to be what Pharaoh is experiencing.

The midrash tells us that when Pharaoh heard Yosef’s interpretation Pharaoh began to recall his dreams again. He was able to recognize the vision that Yosef was having as being the same as the dreams that Pharaoh had experienced.

Our sages and scholars also give us some other interesting insight into this text. The Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abravenel, 15th Century, Spain) also gives us another reason why Yosef’s interpretation was valued over that of Pharaoh’s advisors. The reason they could not interpret his dream was because they saw the two dreams Pharaoh had as independent and separate dreams. But it was only Yosef that was able to pair them together, and thus offer a solution to both.

The famed scholars Nechama Leibowitz comments on this point of the Abarbanel, asking us to take notice that when Pharaoh refers to his dreams he speaks of them in the singular. He says “I’ve dreamed a dream,” chalom in the singular. (see Genesis 41:15,17) He seems to know that they are one in the same, they are one dream. And likewise there is only one answer to those dreams. He just feels that they are one in his soul. No answer was pleasing to Pharaoh until a unified solution was offered to him by Yosef.

When Yosef is taken out of the prison, cleaned and shaved he was still facing a lot of discrimination against him. They couldn’t fully wash away all the stigma. By the standards of Pharaoh and his men, he was still but “a boy.” Yosef was not exactly the type of person that one would expect to give audience to (probably the reason why the Butler never brought him up), let alone put in a place of authority and leadership for the king.

Yet he is still elevated as a leader, all things considered. But even then, he is not transformed into a beltway-boy. He is not ever really accepted into the establishment and upper-crust. He is respected, but not honored with true dignity. They always saw him as different.

And he was different. What makes Yosef different from that of Pharaohs men is that he was not just able to deliver a visions of the future, Yosef was able to offer a solution and a plan. While the rest of the men were following after their own separate visions of Pharaoh’s dream, Yosef was already several steps ahead of them in offering a comprehensive answer to it all. He was the first to step out of fantasy and into reality with some sort of suggestion and advice. And that commanded respect, above all the individual speculations of the others in Pharaoh’s court.

In the end Pharaoh is forced to concede, and even battle off the objections of his own prejudices and that of his court in saying “Even if we tried, would we ever find another man like this?” Pharaoh himself says that Yosef has a unique character about him, that he has the spirit of G-d in him. That Yosef is blessed with a unique quality of wisdom that only G-d alone can give. He isn’t exactly what they were looking for, but he is the best they can find. He is worth giving a chance to.

Do you consider yourself a dreamer? Do you aspire to be a visionary? Maybe you might even consider your ability to be effective and influential in your community to be limited by the prejudices people have against you. You might identify with Yosef in this way. Maybe you are different, because you don’t fit in for some sort of social, ethnic or religious reasons. If so, then you have the example of Yosef going before you as a pioneer of success and strength in the face of lifelong prejudice.

The example of Yosef goes before us, challenging us to be people who are more than just smart-talking men. It is also tasking us to be more than mere dreamers as well. Here at this point in Yosef’s life he has matured to being more than a mere dreamer with his own goals in mind, he is now a problem solver and a unifier. He is now able to use his words as more than just tools of gossip and judgmentalism that divide, as in his youth among his brothers when he bombarded them with his self-serving visions. Here he is now able to use his words in a way that resonate with truth for the listener. He was able to take things that were seemingly confounding and contradictory, then unify them as a single goal that everyone could identify with. Even his critics had to concede in the end, that his advice seemed pleasing even in their eyes as well (uve’einei kol-avadav).

I wish that more of us were willing to take up these examples from Yosef so that we can also be effective and purposeful people. To be a visionary, and not just a dreamer. People who will be willing to bring unity to our goals of social justice and spiritual harmony.

The Midrash Sechel Tov also makes another point of this in its commentary here, hinting at a reason to seek this path of unity and harmony. The midrash suggests that we should operate according to ways that are pleasing to G-d, for when we do that it will show with even our enemies being compelled to be at peace with us as well. (Proverbs 16:7) The sages tell us then even our enemies will become advocates and allies with us.

If our vision and spirituality is valid, it will show by compelling unity among us and our enemies. That is an interesting challenge I am willing to take-on. I hope that there are others who are also willing to join me this year in doing the same.

The lesson this week is simple. Sometimes the last thing we need is just another smart person in the room. What society really needs is people with a lot of spirit.


Parshat Bereishit (2011)


Parshat Bereishit
Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

The Creative Power of Complimentary Relationships

Before I get started, I want to say this was a hard one to write. This is dedicated to Hugo Garzona, of blessed memory, may his name continue to rise higher and higher into the heavens.

Once again we embark on our annual procession through the Torah. It is my hope that this year we continue to look the dynamics of relationships that we see it the Torah. After years of research and pouring over both mystical and allegorical commentary on the creation story it’s very hard to not get attached to every tangent, but I think staying the course in looking at what G-d has to say about personal relationships is really the direction that is most meaningful at this time in my life.

“Thus G-d made Man

in His image,

in the image of G-d

He create him;

male and female He created them”

| Vayivra Elohim et-ha’adam

| betzalmo

| betzelem Elohim

| bara oto

| zachar unekevah bara otam

Genesis 1:27

We cannot help but be thrown immediately into the most profound questions of, “What is Man? And who am I?” We are told that Hashem created Man, Man was created in His image, Man was created both male and female. As is widely known, our tradition tells us that Man was created with both female and male aspects, in one person. In fact in Talmud Brachot 61 the Man is allegorically described as having two faces, one male and the other female. With this as a given understanding, the prevalent misconception of G-d as a male being found in western traditions does not even come into consideration. The Jewish tradition stands firm in the idea that G-d created Man, meaning the human race; that race is made up of males and females, of which both our natural aspects are a reflection of the Divine image.

Monastir, Yugoslavia, A Jewish couple on their wedding day, Prewar.

Monastir, Yugoslavia, A Jewish couple on their wedding day, Prewar.

Now notice that here in chapter 1 when we see the description of Man, the word used is adam; we are talking about the human race. In terms of describing what this race was like, it was both zachar (male) and nekevah (female). This is important, because if we look at chapter 1 the description of creation is a gloss-over, it speaks of things mater-of-factly and often without qualification. However when it comes to Man, we find a clarification, lest we come to the misconception of G-d as a person who embodies any form or gender.

It is not until chapter 2 that we get a finer description of what the world at this point looks like. We are given a description of how the world operates, and what the created beings occupied themselves with. We are also given a description of how Man was created; being formed of the dust of the earth, that G-d caused to live by imparting a breath of life. (v.7)

Now, it is important that we clearly understand that the biblical narrative starts from the assumption that Hebrew is lishon kodesh, the holy tongue, and in-fact the mother tongue of all of G-d’s creation. Being that the text is written in Hebrew it also makes the assumption that we can clearly see the connection of one word to the other, and that we understand how meaning is derived in Hebrew words.

For example, the text reads “Vayitser Hashem Elohim et-ha’adam afar min-ha’adamah / Hashem, G-d, formed man out of the dust of the ground.” It assumes that we see the connection between the words Man (adam) and the ground/earth (adamah). It also assumes that we see the brilliance intertwined in the Hebrew language, with the play of words in the word Man (adam) and the word red (adom, same spelling but different pronunciation), which is the same color as the ground (adamah) that Man was formed out of. Likewise, the life force of Man, his blood (dam: spelled Dalet, Mem) is also red (adom; spelled Alef, Dalet, Mem).

For those who study in the Hebrew language we understand that words are derived from a shoresh, or root word. Words are built based off of conjugations of these root words. This has a very important benefit, in that if the word in application is unknown to us the meaning of the word is hinted to by the root from which it is derived. Verbs are perfect examples, which consist of three letter radicals; to understand the word we can break it down to it’s root.

We understand that each item that was created in the world was formed through an utterance; G-d spoke and it came into existence. The contention is being made that as G-d spoke, each letter and each word had an inherent meaning, which took form as G-d uttered it.

Therefore in chapter 2, when we see Man charged with his task of naming each of the animals that were brought before him, we see that he is not just arbitrarily naming the creatures. He is forced to consider each of them, and name them according to their essence. He looks into each creature and named it according to the attributes by which it was formed. In fact Bereshit Rabbah 17 lauds man as being superior to the angels, which it states were not able to assign names to the animals.

“And the man

named all the animals,

and of the birds of the sky,

and all the wild beasts;

but the man did not find

a helper opposite him.”

| Vayikra ha’adam

| shemot lechol habehemah

| ule’of hashamayim

| ulechol chayat hasadeh

| ule-Adam lo-matza

| ezer kenegdo

Genesis 2:20

Now let us step back and consider this, taking all this into account. We see that Man is created in G-d’s image, again we understand this as meaning that Man was endowed with Divine midot (characteristics; attributes; or ways of relating to the world) and the desire to emulate them (Sifri). We were created in order to exemplify godliness; that we establish justice and bring order to chaos. G-d created us to be an active part of creation, to partner with Him in perfecting this world (tikkun olam).

However, the Man found himself different from the rest of creation, in that humankind was endowed with the ability to speak. It is this single capability that is highlighted here as we begin to approach the concept of what Man’s purpose was. As each animal was brought to him it is named, and that name assigned to it was “v’yehi shemo / and that remained it’s name” in the same manner as when G-d created each item “v’yehi kein / and it remained so.”

Man’s observations about the world were in line with that of G-d. He was lacking in nothing. All wisdom and capacity; capability and faculty; Man was without lack or deficiency. We read that G-d “vayavey el ha-adam lir’ot mah yikra-lo / brought the man [the animals] to see what he would call them.” G-d is overseeing this entire task, but never needs to intervene, the man clearly understands each of these animals and species.

But of himself it says, “ule-Adam lo-matsa ezer kenegdo / but the man did not find a helper opposite him.” It appears that at this point it becomes evident to the Man that there is no mate opposite him, he is alone. I must point out that again, this assumes that we are thinking in terms of the Hebrew language which (like romance languages) has both male and female items. With this in mind we can see how perplexing the situation is; he understands the difference between a rooster and a hen, and a cow and a bull, but for himself there is no name. He is merely ha-adam, the human.

Think about it for a moment, up until now that Man has only been referred to by the term “adam,” human. We have a description of what Man is, but he has no name.

It is not until a side of the Man is taken (Rashi) and formed into a corresponding mate that he even begins to answer the questions of his own nature. When he sees his pair that G-d creates for him, he says, “zot hapa’am etzem me’atzamai uvasar mibesari lezot / now this is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh / yikare ishah ki me’ish lukacha-zot / she shall be called ‘woman’ because she was taken from man.” It is at this point that we hear for the first time the terms “man” (ish) and “woman” (ishah). It is at this point that the man becomes aware that he is something more than just a human (adam) but he becomes a person (ish).

And this is where my mind has been all through out this week. We understand that “it is not good that the man be alone,” but in this situation the man is not necessarily by himself. By being “alone” (lebado) we are not saying that the Man was solitary, and secluded; as “lebad” can likewise mean to describe that a person is a unique exception, or distinctly apart from the rest. No, he had the company of the other creations and G-d Himself. But was completely aware of his “otherness.” Though aside from his “otherness,” he had no point of reference for himself.

It is not until he is faced with another human, one that is akin to him that he even thinks so far as to consider who he is, not only as a creation, but as a person. When he sees his mate, who is like himself, for the first time he is able to compare and contrast against himself. He is able to see himself, through the eyes of another. And in this capacity, she truly did became a “helpmate.”

Here in the narrative we have the male, look on the female for the first time and he declares first that she is “ishah/woman” and only then does he define himself as “ish/man.” Without another corresponding to himself he has no idea if what he does is correct, or normative; he has no point of reference for his actions, nor his relevance. In defining her for himself, he found meaning in who he was as an individual.

And that is the blessing of G-d’s plan that we be in relationship with one another, it is intentional in the universe that we have another spur us on. It is the natural order of this world that another ignite passion in us that brings meaning to our life and emboldens us to be better people.

And I guess this is where I have no other way of explaining without making it personal. There are many of us would have not gone after that better job if it weren’t for the caring of a spouse we wanted to provide better for. There are many who would have never sought out better living situations if it weren’t for the care of our loved ones. Many of us would have never have explored our own spirituality if it weren’t for the religious interest of our partners. Think about it, many of the better decisions many people makes for their lives are related to the influence or in response to our relationships to others. Often times life can be mundane, with us being content and lazy, fine with where we are at until someone excites a new direction and new identity in us.

Sadly, I am also aware that conversely when relationships end or our soul mate passes away it can be a devastating blow to our identity. It can seem like the purpose for which we built everything is lost. Often times a slumber begins to descend over a persons ambitions. And sometimes even worse, one can even go as far as to become so disaffected with remembering the love lost that they begin to detest anything that reminds them of that life and shy away from anything that reminds them of that.

We find out as we continue through Genesis that relationships are complicated and unpredictable. They can be chaotic and even come with consequences. However despite all the seeming risk involved not only is it worth the while, it is part of the Divine plan. No, it is not good that we be alone. And if we take an honest assessment of the relationships that we have had in this life, we can say that it worth going outside of ourselves and building new connections to people.


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