Tag Archives: Jealousy

Parshat Vayeishev (2011)

Genesis 37:1–40:23

Joseph’s Dreams: Dreaming Big, or Too Big?

“And Jacob settled

in the land that his fathers resided in,

in the land of Canaan.”

| Vayeshev Ya’akov

| be’eretz megurei aviv

| be’eretz Kna’an

Genesis 37:1

Joseph's Dream

“Is there anything wrong with being a dreamer?”

Our parsha is named Vayeshev (and [he] settled), because it begins to tell us of what happened once Jacob settled in the Land. In the previous parsha Jacob had returned home to Hevron, to the home of his father Isaac in Mamre where Abraham has also lived. Isaac died at the age of 180 years and was buried by his sons Jacob and Esau in the Tomb of Machpalah. (35:27-29) Jacob is now the patriarch of the family.

However, a great deal this parsha is going to be about Joseph and is not going to necessarily relate to the land of Canaan. This parsha is going to relate how the children of Israel, who is also called Jacob, came to dwell in Egypt. Strangely, though the story beings with the statement “These are the chronicles of Jacob” (v.2), but the first thing it tells us is that Joseph was 17 years old when this story beings. Jacob and Joseph are so intertwined in their love for each other that the story of one cannot be told without the other.

Why Do Joseph’s Brothers Hate Him?

It’s important for us to understand how things can seem to spiral out of control in this story so quickly regarding the brothers hatred for Joseph. It seems to happen at break-neck speed. But it wasn’t something that happened over night. As we learned in the last parsha, when Esau came and Jacob thought he was going to slaughter them he was sure to put Rachel and Joseph in the furthest and safest spot away from danger, he arranged his household by order of importance to him and Rachel and Joseph were at the top of it. (33:2) This was offensive in cultural terms because Leah was entitled to be the head wife, and here he was showing favoritism to the second wife and her child who was the youngest. This all happened when the children of Jacob (Israel) were small children, but the brothers resented him ever since because of it.

When our parsha begins it’s narrative it tell us that Joseph was in the fields with the children of Bilhah and Zilpah. Rashi tells us that “that is to say, that he was usually close to the sons of Bilhah because his [other] brothers would demean them, whereas he was kind to them.” The sons of Bilhah and Zilpah were sons of servants. Apparently the most demeaned of all of them were the sons of Bilhah who was the maidservant of Rachel, they had it twice as bad being sons a servant and being associated with the resented house of Rachel. They were the only company that Joseph could find for himself, at the bottom social tier of the clan (v.2)

Jacob’s apparent love for Rachel and Joseph made them the closest to his heart, but the most reviled among the rest of the family. But it wasn’t necessarily intentional when Jacob seemed to show favoritism. Our text tells us “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors.” (v.3) The contention being made that Joseph was most loved because he was Rachel’s son was not true, in reality Jacob had become an old man and had become a lot more docile in his ways as people often do with age. And being settled in his life he had more time to dedicate to giving attention to Joseph. His act of spoiling Joseph with the flashy outfit was something we would normally see a grandparent doing as apposed to a parent, but we have to understand at this point Jacob is well into his 60’s and that is just his temperament. The only reason he appeared to love Joseph more was because he had more time and resources to devote to Joseph than he did before, like when his other children were young and he was on the road with them.

Sadly though, this was not understood and seems to have not been explained to the brothers. The only thing they saw was that their father showed love for this brother more than them, and “velo yachlu dabro leshalom / and they could not speak peaceably to him.” (v.4) Not that they were unwilling, but it was not possible for them to be kind towards him. Had their father tried to explain the difference to them maybe they would have understood and in their hearts could have felt differently.

It is very important for people who raise children to not allow oneself to play favorites with any one of our children and to articulate our love for each child. It is important for us to explain to the older children that we have learned from our ways, certainly making mistaking the past, so our ways naturally appear more gentle to the younger children because we have more experience to make better choices.

Now before we get too far we need to realize that, like all individuals, Joseph has his own personality defects as well. Joseph seemed to have a big mouth, and had a problem with exaggerating. Basically he was lying to his father through exaggeration. Rashi tells us that when we read “vayave Yosef et-dibatam ra’ah el-avihem / Joseph brought a evil utterances about them to his father” (v.2) that Joseph was of the habit of just mumbling things, like a person does in their sleep almost automatically; he just talks to hear himself talk. And in doing so he ending up exaggerating things about his brothers to his father, which made the situation even worse.

Joseph’s Dreams

And Joseph dreamed a dream

and when he told it to his brothers,

they hated him more.”

| Vayachalom Yosef chalom

| vayaged le’echav

| vayosifu od s’no oto

Genesis 37:5

So when we come upon the situation of hearing about Joseph’s dreams, the instance that breaks the camel’s back for them, we are told that his brother’s hated him already and they now hated him all the more because of it.

Here we have the ever talkative and attention grabbing Joseph saying to them “shime’u-na ha-chalom hazeh asher chalamti / Hear, please, this dream that I have dreamed.” He is clearly beseeching them to listen to him, because they don’t want to have to listen to him yet again.

Without invitation Joseph breaks into telling his dream. In his first dream we are told that he dreams of being in the field with his brothers and they are tying the wheat together into sheaves. Joseph’s sheave got up and stood upright. However the sheaves belonging to his brother’s encircled his and bowed down towards his. Notice is doesn’t say that they fell, but it says “and they bowed” (vatish’tachavena). What Joseph is describing, logically, is something that is not a natural occurrence because he doesn’t suggest that the wind caused them to fall in his direction. No, they move until they are round about him and they all bend towards his. If it was the wind they would have all ended up facing the same direction be it north or south, etc. No, they all face the center towards him as if encircling him, with him at the center. (v.7)

He used the word bowed, meaning they were showing reverence, here we can see Joseph has already begun to interpret his dream a certain way. And this is exactly the way that the brothers walked away understanding this message. So they ask Joseph point-blank, did he really believe it was possible that he could rule or have authority over them? And we are told they hated him even more for his dreams, and for his words (v’al devarav). (v.8)

And here is another character flaw that we face here with Joseph. His youthful ambition, his enthusiasm and anxiousness got in the way of his message. We see the other reason they hated him was not just because of the dream that he had, but more so because of the way that he communicated this dream to them. The could not help but become even more incensed by him.

When he has his second dream Joseph gets even more annoying. Notice he tells his dream to his brothers in verse 9, and then he tells it again to his father with his brothers present in verse 10. He says that in his dream there were 11 stars that bowed down to him, along with the sun and the moon. It’s not hard to decipher, he has 11 brothers and there were 11 stars. And the symbol of the sun was always associated with the masculine and the moon with the feminine, so it clearly meant his father and mother.

When Jacob hears Joseph’s dream we are told “va’yigar-bo aviv / and his his father rebuked him.” (v.10) Because of the dreams Joseph is chastised.

Now we should ask ourselves, why should Joseph be castigated regarding his dream? In order to answer that question we need to answer a complicated question first; what is a dream?

When Joseph has his first dream about the sheaves his brothers only ask one question: did he really think that he was going to raise himself above them and have authority over them. They wanted to know if Joseph really thought it was possible.

But with regard to the second dream his father starts out with a more precise question, “mah ha-chalom ha-zeh asher chalamta / what is this dream that you have dreamed?” (v.10) He wants to know what this dream is supposed to mean to Joseph. But “mah” also can mean how or why as well in many cases. Jacob seems to be asking, even more deeply, how is it that Joseph could let himself dream up such a thing. Why would he allow himself to dream up such a thing. Surely the dream had a lot of chutzpah!

If we examine the way that Joseph talks about his dreams we get a clue to why he bares the weight of his father’s rebuke. Joseph refers to them as “ha-chalom hazeh asher chalamti / the dream that I have dreamed” (v.6) and “chalom chalamti / a dream I dreamed.” (v.9) Likewise when his father rebukes him he refers to the dream as “the dream that you have dreamed.” (v.10)

What we need to understand about these dreams of Joseph’s, like all dreams, they are not oracles. Though all things are inspired by G-d, and dreams are sometimes used as ways of stirring visions inside of people through out the scriptures, they are not necessarily prophecies. These dreams are reflections of Joseph’s own desires, that’s why they are his dreams that he dreamed, he had to take ownership for them. They were only reflections of his most consuming thoughts being made evident, as is it is written, “for a dream comes through much concern, and the voice of fool through many words.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2)

Our young and ambitious brother, Joseph, was a person that thought too much and was thus prone to exaggerating in his head. He was a young man who talked to much and thus also had the tendency to exaggerate with his words.

When Joseph was done making this spectacle with his dreams we read “vay’kan’u-vu eichav, v’aviv shamar et ha-davar / and his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” (v.11) Kinei, to be jealous is a little bit stronger than it looks on the surface. It means to be worked up to the point one is turning red. It can mean to be provoked to anger because of envy. It can also mean to suspect another of being unfaithful. I also means to be zealous or act as an extremist. How ever we look at it, Joseph’s brothers walk away incensed thinking that he didn’t have concern for anyone but himself. Though Jacob wasn’t so sure if the dream had merit and continued to ponder on the matter. None the less Jacob was right in rebuking Joseph.

Our Sages are going to rebuke Joseph in the Talmud as well for the way that he deals with his dreams:

“‘The prophet that has a dream,

let him tell a dream;

and he that has My word,

let him speak my word faithfully.

What has the straw to do with the wheat –

says Hashem?’ (Jeremiah 23:28)

What is the connection of straw and

wheat with a dream?

‘The truth is,’ said Rabbi Yohanan

in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai,

‘that just as wheat cannot be without straw,

so there cannot be a dream

without some nonsense.’

Rabbi Berekiah said:

‘While a part of a dream may be fulfilled,

the whole of it is never fulfilled.

Whence do we know this?

From Joseph, as it is written,

“And behold the sun and the moon

[and eleven stars bowed down to me,]”

and at that time his mother was not living.'”

הנביא אשר אתו חלום |

יספר חלום |

ואשר דברי |

אתו ידבר דברי אמת |

מה לתבן את הבר |

נאם הוכי |

מה ענין בר ותבן |

אצל חלום |

אלא אמר ריוחנן |

משום רשמעון בן יוחי |

כשם שאי אפשר לבר בלא |

תבן כך אי אפשר לחלום |

בלא דברים בטלים |

אמר רברכיה |

חלום אף על פי שמקצתו מתקיים |

כולו אינו מתקיים |

מנא לן |

מיוסף דכתיב |

והנה השמש והירח |

וגו‘ |

וההיא שעתא אמיה לא הות |

Talmud Bavli, Berachot 55a/b

Our Rabbis teach us two lessons about how to deal with dreams based on Joseph’s slip up. The first is suggested to us by Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, that we need to sort through our dreams and glean what is nourishing from them and the rest of it we need to discard; just like separating wheat from the straw.

The second lesson is taught to us by Rabbi Berekiah who suggests that we need to realize that not everything in our dream can necessarily be fulfilled. The example that he gives is that at the time of Joseph’s rise to authority his mother Rachel would not be alive, so his dream only came true in part. Though we can make the majority of our dreams come true through perseverance, some things will be left unfulfilled and we need to accept that.

We need to look into our ambitions and separate what has substance from the useless, we need to separate that which is reality from that which is fantasy.

Though Joseph’s dreams were flawed, and even more so his way of communicating it was in error, G-d honored the dream of Joseph and worked with it. G-d did not see fit to destroy Josephs dream. Although it was going to take many years of refinement for Joseph to learn to overcome his aloofness and conform his dream into something that was for the benefit of his people and for the honor of G-d.

The way that Joseph was going to receive honor was by first becoming the humblest of servants. The descent of Joseph into Egypt was not only to build him in character, but it was also essential in order to make his dreams come true. He couldn’t not have risen to power in Egypt without first going through the trials of his enslavement that led him there. He would be remembered as being of righteousness memory, yes; but he would also die first before the rest of his brothers (Exodus 1:6, the death of Joseph listed first before that of his brothers). Joseph learned that dreams can come true, but the hard reality of how it comes about is not as effortlessly and glorious as it happens in one’s dreams. His dreams came with consequences and responsibility, ones that complicated and even shorted his life.

As our parsha progresses, and going into the next parsha, we are going to see the topic of dreams rise again and play a central role in the story.

When we read later that the butler and the baker come before Joseph and he offers to help them with an interpretation of their dreams he will not just being to interpret based on his own impulse. He responds with the words, “Do not interpretations belong to G-d? Tell it me, please.” He has come to understanding that he needs to think about that matter and ask G-d for the true meaning. And now he is respectful in the way he relates to others.

And later when he comes before Pharaoh, who also asks him to interpret his dream, he responds, “It is not in me, G-d will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” (41:16) Artscroll also nicely renders it as “That is beyond me, it is G-d Who will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare.” Here Joseph shows that he has learned that in order for him to accomplish what he needs to he must look to G-d for strength because he can’t make it happen all on his own. It’s not all about him.

And only once Joseph submits to this level of humility is he able to rise to a place of being truly useful and worthy of honor.

Lesson Points On Dreams:

  1. Be appropriate about the dreams we pursue

  2. Be respectful about the way we communicate our vision to others

  3. Learn to separate the reality from the fantasy

  4. Accept that some elements of our dreams cannot be completely actualized

  5. Learn that we need guidance from outside of ourselves

  6. Learn to accept support from outside of ourselves

  7. Accept that every dream has its cost

Parshat Re’eh (2011)

Parshat Re’eh
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

How Moses challenged both Israel and G-d to consider their ways. Engagement goes both ways.

“Behold, I lay before you today

blessing and a curse”

| Re’eh anochi notain lifneichem hayom

| b’racha uk’lalah.

Deuteronomy 11:26

Investigate with Looking GlassThe name of our parsha is “re’eh,” which is often translated as behold and see. Just as in the English and Romance languages such a word is used quite flexibly, the same is true in Hebrew. To ra’ah not only means to see, but also to perceive, to understand, to determine; it can also mean to investigate, check or examine.

As we come into the this parsha we have Moses speaking to the nation, as we will read starting in verse 29 the people are commanded that when they come into the land of Israel they are to divide up the tribes, half are to go to Mount Gezarim to hear the pronounce blessings and affirm them with the word “amein,” and half of the tribes are to remain on Mount Eival and affirm the words of the curses likewise with the word “amein;” they are to be affirmed as they are pronounced by the priests (see Deut. 27:11-14).

Even though we are going to deal with this in our studies of Parshat Ki Tavo in a few weeks, it is important that we make sure we are already in the proper frame of mind. As we come into this study it is essential for us to realize that we are not talking about the people being offered either enchantment or hexing. Basic Judaism everyone knows is that a blessing is not anything magical, it’s merely taking an ordinary thing and elevating it for a divine purpose; wine, bread, fruit, water, just about anything. To say words acknowledging the handwork of G-d in the item, and connect it to a spiritual task. We recognize the goodness in it and therefore gratefully bless G-d; we elevate His Name, we don’t enchant Him. But how about for cursing? That is something we don’t often hear about. Thank G-d, we don’t go around cursing each other in our culture, it’s so foreign of a concept that few understand what is meant. But to kalal – to curse – means use an expletive, a swearword.

What Moses is telling the people is that he is placing before them the following conditions, if they keep them they will have reason to bless, but if they don’t they will groan with curses. What are the conditions? Let’s read on:

“The blessing if you give heed

to the commandments

of Hashem your G-d

which I command to you today.

The curse if you do not heed

the commandments

of Hashem your G-d

but turn from the path

which I have commanded to you today,

to follows after other gods,

after which you have not known.”

| Et-haberachah asher tishme’u

| el-mitzvot

| Hashem Eloheichem

| asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom.

| Vehakelalah im-lo tishme’u

| el-mitzvot

| Hashem Eloheichem

| vesartem min-haderech

| asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom

l alechet acharei elohim

| acherim asher lo-yedatem.

Deuteronomy 11:28-29

It’s very clear, we keep mitzvot (the commandments) and we will have blessings, but if we abandon the path and go seeking after novel religious experiences we are going to be cursed. It’s simple and clear. Also let us bring to mind the concept understood by the Kabbalist, to l’daat Hashem is to know G-d intimately, like a man knows his wife; it means to make an intimate union, thats how close the communion is. G-d does not want us to know other gods in that way.

One of the things we have been discussing as we deal with the subject of prayer and kabbalah is how to connect to G-d (see article “Breaking Down Elitism in Kabbalah Study“). We understand as the scriptures say that G-d is the sole Authority in the universe, He stands alone as the only power (see Isaiah 45). He is all-powerful; this force was already described in Devarim (Deuteronomy) as:

“For Hashem your G-d

is a consuming fire;

a jealous G-d.”

| Ki Hashem Elocheicha

| aish ochlah hu,

| El kana.

Deuteronomy 4:23

This scripture we can easily understand: as G-d is all-powerful we know that it is not possible to literally connect to G-d, to touch the Divine, or else we would be devoured by the sheer glory of this force that drives all of existence. We also understand since G-d is not a person (Numbers 23:19), that G-d is not driven by emotions as we are, so we must understand this word jealous in its pure sense, kanah means the demand to be exclusive to someone (see Parshat Nasso). G-d wishes that we understand that He is everything, and therefore by virtue of that He is everything we need! And secondly, He demands that we come to the conclusion in ourselves that He is our entire world, there is none other to even consider. G-d being the sole force in our universe permeates all, anything that is not according to His order is consumed and destroyed; it is an anomaly that is canceled out.

Understanding this we move beyond the childish concept of G-d as a whim driven person who is prone to emotional outbursts that we need to fear. Instead the scriptures present us with a picture of G-d as a fire, not just a fire but a fire that consumes everything and anything; an all-consuming fire. Now a fire is not good or bad, nor is it happy or angry when it does what it does. Fire when utilized properly brings us warmth, comfort and light; it is useful and necessary. But when used improperly it can burn, destroy, harm and even kill. But we need not fear G-d, as one might a fire. In fact we shouldn’t even fear fire at all, instead we should show a respect for it and its nature. So too our fear for G-d should be, that we should be in keeping with the proper respect for G-d’s order in this dynamic universe in order to receive the benefits of His light. Because if we do not, then we can be harmed; though it has nothing to do with maliciousness, that is the natural outcome of our misuse.

What Moses is doing here is laying out this Torah before the people and saying to them this is a powerful tool, for those of who follow the instructions that were given by G-d through him it would serve them well. But if they did not show proper respect in order to do it, it would come to harm and destroy them. It has nothing to do with the desires of G-d nor the nature of His Torah, it merely has to do with how they utilize it.

This principle is also mirrored in the Oral Torah, the Talmud:

“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani [said]:

Rabbi Yonatan [pointed out the following]


It is written:

The authority of Hashem is right,

gladdening the heart. (Psalm 19:9)

But it is also written:

The word of Hashem is tried. (Psalm 28:31)

If he is meritorious, it gladdens him;

if not, it tries him.

Resh Lakish said: From the body of

the same passage this can be derived:

If he is meritorious, it tries him unto life;

if not, it tries him unto death.”

רבי שמואל בר נהמני |

רבי יונתן |

רמי |

כתי |

פקודי ה׳ ישרים |

משמחי לב |

וכתיב |

אמרת ה׳ צרופה |

זכה משמרתו |

לא זכה צורפתו |

ריש לקיש אמר מגופיה דקרא |

נפקא זכה |

צורפתו לחיים |

לא זכה צורפתו למיתה |

Talmud Bavli Yoma 72b

If one does what they told, to keep the mitzvot and stay true to Hashem their G-d then this Torah will be something for them to rejoice over. But if not, this Torah is going to be something that is going to be very trying for them, in fact to the point that they will perish.

Now the latter part of this text is interpreted by our rabbis a bit more deeply, and honestly more appropriately, by translating it as “if he merits it, then it is a drug of life, if not it is a poison of death.” This is most likely because the word for “try,” or “tests” as some say, actually means to be refined, to be purified (the word צרף). In the figurative sense what this alludes to is essential extracts that were used as medicines, the first drugs in existence. Many of the rabbis were well-educated in medicine, and this concept was understood easily by them. That a drug when used properly can bring health and repair to the body, but when misused and if we do not follow the instructions as given, it can become a poison of death to us. There is nothing wrong with the prescribing physician or the remedy, the fault lies in the user if there are mishaps! So too is the Torah like a drug, it bring us health or ruin depending on how much we respect the power of it.

Moses tells us to “re’eh,” to examine for ourselves, to check, to investigate to see if this is not true. If we do, we will be able to see and understand that this is true, determining that G-d really does fill the lives to those who hold to His ways with blessings, whereas those who have not have perished from the face of the earth. The Torah, unlike the religions of world does not demand that you “see it my way,” but that you examine it in order to perceive it for oneself.

In Torah Living, Engagement Goes Both Way

There is another place in the Chumash (The Torah, The Five Books of Moses), that also displays the flexibility of this word “re’eh,” both cases in an engaging fashion as well. For those who know the Jewish faith, the idea of being engaged and challenging in the words of Torah is not anything new to the average reader. But to those that are of different faiths it can seem perplexing how often in the Hebrew scriptures the righteous engage G-d. Not only do they engage G-d, but they do so in very direct and strong terms. Not only are we allowed to consider the truth of G-d’s ways, but we are given the ability to approach G-d that He give consideration to us as well.

In Exodus 33 after the disastrous incident of the golden calf Moses approaches G-d, Who has separated His presence from before the people so as not to consume them until they all die. In verse 5 they are clearly told that if G-d were to let Himself approach them His presence would annihilate them. Therefore Moses separates the tent of meeting from the rest of the community of Israel and sets it up outside of the camp, where G-d would meet with him according to His command. As G-d is still in the act of ruling on the punishment for the people Moses gives us two strong ways of looking at the word “re’eh,” as well as surprises many people with a point-blank challenge to G-d Himself:

“And Moses said to Hashem:

See, you have said to me:

Bring this people up

but you have not let me know

who you will send with me.

And you have said:

I shall know you by name

and you shall also have favor

in My eyes.

And now, if I have found favor in Your eyes

show me your way, that I know You,

so that I might find favor in Your sight.

And consider that this nation is Your people!”

| Vayomer Moshe el-Hashem:

| Re’eh, atah omer elai

| ha’al et-ha’am hazeh

| ve’atah lo hodatani

| et asher-tishlach imi

| Ve’atah amarta

| yedaticha veshem

| vegam-matzata chen

| be’einai.

| Ve’atah im-na matzati chen be’eineicha

| hodi’eni na et-derachecha ve’eda’acha

| lema’an emtza-chen be’eineicha

| ure’eh ki amecha hagoy hazeh.

Deuteronomy 33:12-13

The context of the situation is one in which G-d is so fed up with the people after the golden calf that He is considering annihilating the entire nation aside from Moses and building a new nation out of him alone. (Exodus 32:10) But then Moses intercedes on their behalf and G-d forgives them. However, there yet remains the issue of consequence, they are no longer able to enjoy the Presence of G-d surrounding them in the midst of the camp, it takes residence outside the camp and calls only to Moses now. But Moses is not content to go forwards without the Presence of G-d still remaining with them. G-d does actually consider what Moses has to say, and honors his request because we read in the next verse:

“And He said: My Presence shall go with you

and give you rest”

| Vayomar panai yelechu

| vahanichoti lach.

Deuteronomy 33:14

Moses approaches G-d basically saying, “Look, this is what you said but I still don’t know how this all works and who You are. Show me your path and I will follow it, then I will know You and be able to please You. Think about it, these are Your people but we don’t know what You want us to do.” Moses is asking G-d to consider His relationships to His people, and the task at hand so as to examine if His dealing with them is best for the goals which He has set for them.

If the King of the universe allows His perfect way to be open to scrutiny, how much more should we as ordinary and faulty people be open to considering our ways. Are our ways consistent with the outcome that we desire in life? If not then we need to just admit it and make a new plan of action.

The Torah was give to us as a comprehensive plan at Moses’ requested. Here in Devarim – or as it is called in the Talmud the Misheh Torah, the repetition of the Torah – we are being told what it means. That this Torah can either bring life to us or death to us. But the decision of that outcome is completely up to us, it all has to do with how we receive it! How receptive are you as a person, my friend?

Parshat Nasso (2011)

Parshat Nasso
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The Adulterous Wife and the Offering of Jealousies

It has been a few weeks since we have had a parsha learning. The past few weeks have been difficult struggle with my health so I’ve been taking it slow. And as many of you know, I also have this thing about sticking with a parsha as long as it takes to feel it “click” on a heart level. But I realize that many of you really enjoy the time spent going through the Torah, hopefully I will bring you the past two weeks soon to fill in the gaps. To hang you over, this is a remix of a parsha study from 2009. The message has been tugging at me lately and I don’t feel like I’ve presented right in the past, so now I would like to share it with you all.


This parsha opens with the words:

“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

‘Take a census of the decedents of Gershon”

| “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor:

| ‘Nasso et-rosh benei Gershon'”

Numbers 4:21

Thus our parsha is named after this key word “Nasso,” whose root “nisa” literally means “to lift up.” You literally lift the head of each person and account for them as individuals. (see Parshat Bemidbar)

This parsha opens with a census being taken of those that are eligible for caring for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting). We quickly see their responsibilities laid out and then we move on to certain rituals that took place in these holy places.

The Context

One of the most difficult to understand of all of these, and probably the most difficult for us to stomach in a egalitarian day and age, is the ritual of the Sotah; a woman who was suspected of infidelity, here in Numbers chapter 5.

Now one could debate the back-and-forths of the fairness of this ritual. I have read an excess of debates that call this ritual a symbol of sexism, as much as I have read support for this tradition as a step forward during an age of brutality. I lean toward the latter, because if we really understand the culture of the near-east, as well as ancient tribal culture, we clearly see that suspected adultery was and sometimes still is considered a justifiable cause of “honor killings.”

Our tradition opposes this extremism in the strongest terms. How can I say that? There are two ways in classical Hebrew to emphasize something. In the absence of punctuation the only methods of stating something with emphasis is 1) using strong words, or 2) repeating something a second time. I believe for this reason the verses regarding the ritual of the Sotah begins with the words, “Ish ish ki-tisteh ishto uma’alah vo ma’al / A man, any man, whose wife shall go astray and act unfaithfully (foolishly)…” The scriptures aren’t stuttering. It is making a point that taking justice into ones own hands is absolutely forbidden. In fact, unlike any of the other commandments we see an almost impossible form of adjudication in that the only way to know culpability and for judgment to be leveled is through a miraculous act of G-d. No man, not any person, is able to take this matter into their own hands; it’s something that needs to be brought to G-d.

For a student of halacha (Jewish law), it is well known that this ritual was abolished most likely in the second Temple period by Rav Yohanana Ben Zakkai (who lived, 30–90 CE; Sotah 9:9) although Tosefta is of the opinion that it was nullified much earlier and this fact was merely restated by Ben Zakkai (Tosefta to Sotah 14:1); the reason given is that adultery had increased in prevalence.

However, there is also a minor opinion that I have always been fascinated by that suggested that the ritual was discontinued because women turned the ritual around for ulterior motives. The result of a women being found innocent is that she bears a child (v.28). We see in Talmud Berachot 31b Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet, considering using the ritual to her advantage in wanting to be subjected to the ritual of the Sotah so she could be found innocent and give birth to a child, as she was barren.

What ever reason we have for the ritual falling into disuse, it is such a part of our tradition that a whole section of the Talmud is dedicated to it. As with all things that we do not perform in this day and age, be they precepts that have been annulled or ones that we cannot practically perform in galut (exile), we still study that so that our study of them be elevated to G-d as though we were actually performing them, and furthermore to grasp the underlying lessons displayed in these commandments.

If we take a good look at the ritual of the Sotah we quickly see that this ritual seems to have little to do with G-d as much as it seems to be focused on offering an outlet for the overwhelming emotions brought up amidst the breakdown of an intimate relationship.

An Offering of Jealousies

Now the halacha is clear, a person who accuses his wife of being unfaithful to him and demands the ritual of the Sotah must himself be known to be blameless of any sexual offense (verse 14; Sotah 28a). Furthermore, this ritual can only be suggested if a women has previously be warned (Sotah 3a; Rashi). We are told clearly in verses 13 that the situation applicable is one in which it appears that there was an attempt to conceal the illicit act, therefore there were no witnesses.

Now the order of the ritual was as follows; the husband would bring the suspect wife to the priests, along with a grain offering of plain barley (v.15). The woman is called forward by the priest in order to stand before G-d at the Tent of Meeting facing the Holy Sanctuary (v.16). Then the priest takes water from the copper Lavern placing it in a clay bowl, and mixes it with dust from the floor of the Tabernacle (v.17). The offering is taken and placed in the woman’s hands, the waters are held by the priest (v.18). The woman’s head is uncovered and an oath is administered to the woman that if she is guilty of adultery she will die as her bowels burst, and if not guilty she will become pregnant with a child; to which she agrees (v.19-22). Then the oath that is given is written on a parchment and the words dissolved the water (v.23). The woman then drinks the water (v.24) and the offering is taken by the priest and offered up (v.25-26).

No matter how many times I study this ritual, it amazes me every time. To our sages, this stands out as the most perplexing and other-worldly of Temple rituals. As I look at the practice, it’s hard to understand what form of merit rests in this style of adjudication. But the text gives us very distinctive clues as to its purpose, if we examine the irregularities of the sacrifice itself.

Furthermore, it purpose lies in a single key word that arises again and again, the word “kinah” meaning “jealousy.” Verse 14 makes it clean to us, this ritual is to be used because a woman might or might not be guilty of the adulterous act; either way, the husband is still jealous, and that is common denominator here. The purpose of the ritual therefore must be related to jealousy and not culpability.

This word “kinah,” is a very interesting word. When you and I think of of jealousy we think of an emotion. In fact if you ask the average person what they think of when they hear the word “jealousy” they think of someone being upset because they feel jilted. However, the word kinah does not mean that someone has perceived that they lost their spot as the first choice for someones affections; it means to passionately desire to be exclusive with someone. It means to have extreme feelings for and to zealously protect. This is why we see that even G-d, who is all knowing, uses this description of Himself saying “ki anochi Hashem elokecha el kanah / I am Hashem Your G-d, a jealous G-d;” He desires that we be exclusive with Him and no other. Notice G-d doesn’t says “if you do X and Y I will BE a jealous G-d,” no it says “I AM a jealous G-d,” because in this sense to be jealous is not necessarily something that is caused by another person.

This ritual is not a witches burning, or a stoning of any sort; it’s not a way of getting rid of the wife. If a man did not want to proceed in the relationship because of adultery, in fact for any reason at all, all he had to do was give her a bill of divorce. No, this ritual is in order to bring peace of mind for someone who wanted to be with his wife, but he could not go on if he was unsure of her exclusive love for him alone. Consider it, the result of the ritual working to vindicate the wife means that she will give birth to a child; meaning that upon embracing this ritual he must agree to not ever question the paternity of the future child, he’s leaving the incident behind and relying on the testimony of G-d to set his mind at ease. For this reason I believe when Mishnah Sotah 5:1 says “that as the waters probe her, they probe him as well” it means that just as much as the wife is being tried as to whether she is true, so too the jealousies in the heart of the man are examined to see if they are true or unfounded.

Now notice of the sacrifice itself it says in verse 15, “The man shall bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, a tenth-ephah.” It say he is the one to bring the offering for her! He is to bring a tenth-ephah of barley (about 2 quarts), the smallest amount of grain offering that there is in the scriptures. This is the only type of barley offering that we see offered aside from the waved offerings of the 49 day period between Pesach and Shavout (during the Omer Period, that we are currently observing), generally all other grain offerings are made of fine wheat flour and not barley as it is a cheap, unrefined grain mostly used as an animal feed.

This offering also is different from any other grain offering in that the text continues by saying, “he shall not pour oil over it, and shall not put frankincense upon it, for it is a grain offering of jealousies, a grain offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remember.” Ordinarily oil is mixed with the flour so that it goes up in smoke, the frankincense is added to produce a fragrant aroma. But here it tells us that one is not permitted to add this, because this is not an offering to expiate a sin; its not for G-d’s benefit, to be elevated and be a pleasing offering to Hashem. No this ritual is different, it is very apparent it serves to bring peace to the heart of man, not the Divine.

Herein the Torah is making a statement, that at the end of the day we are responsible for the jealousies of our hearts and no one else. Though other people might be players in the game, if we decide that we are to continue on with a relationship we need to deal with our own hurt feelings and suspicions and give what it takes to settle the issues, putting it behind us and not revisiting it. The Torah is expressing to us that if we set our heart on rectifying these issues it just requires us to give, not even a lot, just a little bit. Furthermore it doesn’t require anything grandiose, it just requires us to give up the most unrefined of our hurts and emotions.

So at the end of the day this ritual is the offering of almost worthless items, thus surely not a bribe to G-d or the priests. It is not an offering in the normative sense, because no one takes any pleasure out of this so that is the reason it is qualified as a “memorial.” But what type of memorial is this, a memorial for whom and of what? It is a “memorial, bringing iniquity to remember” to the husband employing this ritual; he is given a chance to recognize the situation, but then after that point it become a sin for him to remember it anymore. It is a memorial to forgetting, meaning he is not ever again revisit this crisis or he becomes the one guilty of sinning.

When we look at it from this perspective we see that G-d, just becomes a mediator in the mix of this problem; the Divine is presenting Himself as a solution to bring peace between a man and a wife.

On Protecting Ones Good Name

I recently made a new friend. As with most conversations I have, during the course of the discussion we began to speak about spiritual matters. I laughed when he responded with something to the effect “Wow you really are a Jew,” in reference to spelling “G-d,” without the “o.” I chuckled, not really giving it a thought at first. But as I sat there I began to consider the practice itself, because I use it so often.

About 15 years ago when I first started using the Internet, in 1995, I remember first having to deal with this issue which troubled the minds of many traditional people at the time. You see in accordance to Jewish law it is our custom that when writing letters, notes and such we do not spell out Divine Names.

The Torah commands in Deuteronomy 12 that when Israel comes in to the land of Canaan to inhabit it they are to destroy all the sacred objects of their temples and they are to “chop down the graven images of their gods, and you shall obliterate their names out of that place.” But then it continues with the command “But you shall not do this to Hashem Your G-d.” Based on this the Sifri commands that objects that are used in worship to G-d are not to be destroyed, and the Talmud declares that the name of G-d is thus to not be erased (Makkot 22a). Thus in the Jewish tradition two unique customs arose.

The first is to preserve all ritual and sacred items, as well as items which bear the Name of G-d and bury them in honor, so that they will not be destroyed. Such items are usually collected at local synagogues and when they have accumulated enough of them then they are buried in a special manner in a part of a Jewish cemetery, we call this collection of sacred material a genizah. The most famous of this is probably the Cairo Genizah, which was made famous by archaeologists that discovered it contained over 200,000 documents spanning from the years 800 to late 1880s CE. It has been considered a gold mine of information, detailing the religious and spiritual lives of people for nearly a thousand years. Books, contracts, correspondence, scriptures which were no longer fit for public use all being persevered herein if they bore Divine Names. This tradition is kept to this day.

Now the second tradition arose that in documents that could most likely not be preserved one should replace Divine Names with alternate spellings. This is the reason we refer to G-d as Hashem, and do not spell out the Four-Letter Name, in recognition that we should revere the Name of G-d. Over time, in English the tradition arose that in temporary documents Orthodox Jews would leave out the “o” in L-rd (which is used in place of the Four-Letter Name in English) and also in the word G-d.

Now in relation to the Internet, in the early days messaging and emails were considered temporary as data transfer and storage space was limited, we were troubled with the idea of deleting “sheimos” items, items which bear the Divine Name. The tradition quickly arose to leave the “o” out in word G-d as that was our daily tradition in regular writing, and it was worth carrying over int the modern ages as this form of electronic writing in our minds would surely replace the tediousness of pen and paper over time. As traditional people we wanted to continue to reinforce in the minds of people that G-d is eternal, and we show reverence to Him. There were so many Orthodox people that took to the new medium of the Internet in those early days that our tradition has since become widely known, and now is even practiced by many liberal Jews and even non-Jews who do not ordinarily live according to Jewish law. It has become a symbol of solitary and coexistence, that people revere this tradition with Jews in order to encourage communication.

When we read the ritual of the Sotah I cannot help but consider our traditions, when it says, “And the priest shall write these curses on a parchment, and he shall blot them out into the waters of bitterness.” (v.23) In this description the word parchment here is the word “sefer,” meaning a book or scroll; the same as in reference to the books of the Torah. This scroll bore the curse on it, which contained the Four-Letter Name of G-d therein. And yet we are told that that these words, which also by virtue includes the Divine Name, should be dissolved into the waters.

Here in this ritual of the Sotah we have G-d commanding us to do something that is ordinarily unthinkable, to take a ritual object and deface it, furthermore to erase the sacred Name of G-d! But it is from this that we see the beauty in how much the relationship between a married couple is valued by Hashem. That G-d values that there be peace between a man and his wife, even more than His desire that we revere His Name!

Herein I believe the Torah is charging us to consider our ways. Are our religious demands and seeming principals so high that we cannot show mercy with our partners? Do we hold on to self righteousness and empty piousness so that we cannot show leniency to our soul mate in order to rectify the relationship? Do we think so highly of ourselves and our honor that we cannot be merciful enough to salvage our romantic relationships? In the Jewish tradition there is no greater charge than to reverence the Name of G-d, in fact nothing that defines us more as religious Jews than the way we show respect in our speech and writing.

If we consider it, we are forced to ask ourselves do we think our own name and honor is greater than that of G-d Himself, who charges us with the task to do anything, even the most unthinkable to our sensitivities in order to rectify our personal relationships. To not do what ever it takes to bring shalom bayit, peace in the home, is to say to G-d that our good names are more precious than His. If Hashem is willing to suffer humiliation in order to bring peace between two hurt spouses who are dedicated to reconciliation, how much more should be willing to humble ourselves to bring peace to our homes.

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