Saturday, December 18, 2010

Parshas Vayechi - The Life of the Land and the People

Parshas Vayechi begins with Yaakov asking his son Yosef to swear a specific kind of oath to him, that he will take him out of Egypt and bury him in the land of Israel. The only other time we see such an oath applied is when Avraham obligated Eliezer to do the same, to swear to him that he would not allow Yitzchak to intermarry, that he was to take a wife only from his own people and that he would not take Yitzchak out of Israel.

Both oaths were applied when Avraham and Yaakov were nearing their end. Of Avraham it says, VeAvraham Zaken Ba Bayamim. And Avraham was aged in years. Of Yaakov it says, VaYikrevu Yemei Yisrael Lamut. And the time had come for Yisrael to die. Both of the fathers of the Jewish people, when nearing their end, looked to preserve their legacy and their heritage. To unite the past with the future. And though both men were nearing their end, the oaths are applied in Parshas with the word Chai in their title.

Avraham causes Eliezer to swear to him in Chayei Sarah. Yaakov causes Yosef to swear to him in Vayechi. Though both parshas narrate the end of their lives, they are described using Chai, because through these oaths, they lived on.

The common denominator between both oaths was the integrity of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Avraham calls on Eliezer to provide a Jewish future for his son. A future in which he would marry a wife from his own kinfolk, while still remaining in the land that G-d had given him. Yaakov asks Yosef to bring him back to that same land, to the resting place of his forefathers. Both men were not just serving their own needs, but making a definitive statement about the unity and continuity of the land and the people.

The Jewish people could not exist had Yitzchak intermarried or abandoned the land. And it could not exist if the Jews had come to think of Egypt as their own land. That is why Avraham and Yaakov both applied the oath to the Brit, with which G-d had sealed an eternal covenant with Avraham that He would make him into a family of nations. The covenant depended as much on Yitzchak not intermarrying and remaining in the land, and on Yaakov returning to Hevron accompanied by his children, as it did on the Brit itself.

And it is why Yaakov only blesses Yosef's children after the oath, and treats them as his own sons, after the oath was taken. Because only by showing that commitment to the land and the people, could Yosef be considered worthy enough to have his children become tribes of Israel.

But one question remains. Why did Yitzchak not apply a similar oath to Yaakov, when the latter was sent off to find a wife with Lavan? Yaakov was both leaving the land and going off into a situation in which he might follow his brother's example and marry inappropriately outside his parents' supervision.

There were three conditions that caused the oaths to be applied. The first condition was that the one swearing had to have emotional resistance to carrying it out. Eliezer wanted Yitzchak to marry his own daughter. Yosef wanted his father to be with him even in death, and worried about triggering Pharaoh's wrath. The second condition was that fulfilling the oath required overcoming physical resistance by getting permission from a third party. Eliezer had to get permission to take Rivka with him. Yosef had to get permission from Pharaoh to bury his father in the Maarat HaMachpelah. The third condition was that it would take a miracle to accomplish the oath. For Eliezer it was the miracle of the well. For Yosef, it was the miracle of the Caanani kings standing aside to allow the burial to proceed. The oath of the brit invoked G-d as a partner in seeing that the oath was fully carried out.

But Yaakov had no emotional resistance to doing what his father told him. He needed no one else's permission to do it. He could carry on the Jewish mission with a perfect purity. But he did need a miracle. After leaving his father's house, he experiences a dream on Har HaMoriah, where Avraham sacrificed Yitzchak and where his own children would build the Beit Hamikdash. This bridge between the past and the potential future, the covenants of heaven and earth, formed the ladder. Here G-d repeated the covenant that his children would become a multitude and that he would be brought back to the land when all that G-d had spoken of would be fulfilled.

When Yaakov asked his son to swear, he was making him into a partner in carrying out G-d's promise. Just as Avraham had made Eliezer into a partner in carrying it out. By bringing Yaakov back to Avraham and Yitzchak, he was marking a place on a physical and spiritual map, not only an individual resting place, but a national rallying point. A plan that connected the future of his children at the end of days, with the first work of his fathers. All part of the greater covenant into which the oaths flowed. The oaths which stated that the life of the land and the people were one. That the Jewish people could not exist without a land. And the land of Israel could not exist without its people.

They might be separated at times through exile, but they would always return. Out of exile, even in death, they would return.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Parshas Miketz - Not Recognizing Your Own Brother

Parshas Miketz sees Yosef finally released from prison, given power over all of Egypt and what does he do with all that power? He prepares for a vast regional famine, yet seems to give no thought to his family. When his father finally sends his brothers down to Egypt to buy food, he puts them through a prolonged psychological torture session. Was it a need for revenge or something else? Did Yosef need to make the dreams come true so badly that he put his brothers and his father through hell? What was he really after?

When Yosef first encounters his brothers in Egypt, it tells us twice that he recognized them, and once that they did not recognize him. Why repeat that he did not recognize them twice?

First it says, וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת-אֶחָיו, וַיַּכִּרֵם And Yosef saw his brothers and recognized them. First he saw them then he recognized them. He saw his brothers, but he did not yet recognize them as brothers. His first reaction was emotional. They had sold him into slavery in a far-off land and taken him away from his father. He saw them, he recognized them, but he did not accept them as brothers.

Then it says, וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף, אֶת-אֶחָיו; וְהֵם, לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. Now Yosef recognized them as brothers. But they did not recognize him at all. Not as a man. Nor as a brother.

What happened in between these two recognitions? Yosef asked where they came from. They told him that they had come from Canaan to buy food. With that response, Yosef knew that they still did not recognize him at all. They were here only to stock up their larder. They had not come to bring him back home. They didn't even know who he was.

When the brothers had seen him coming from afar, they had not called him their brother, but the Baal Halomot, the Master of Dreams. When they had cast him into the pit, they had not called him anything at all. When Reuven came back to retrieve him, he had called him Yeled, a child. Only when Yehuda had proposed taking him out of the pit where he been thrown to die of hunger and thirst, did he call Yosef a brother. His main argument for selling Yosef was that he was a brother.

When Yosef made them choose between slavery and starvation, he was echoing Yehuda's proposal. That is why the brothers immediately recognized in prison that they were being punished for what they had done to Yosef. Mida Keneged Mida. But Yosef was not in place of G-d, a point that he makes to the brothers later on. It is not his place to punish them. Only to make them come to the same recognition that he had. A recognition vital to the survival of the Nation of Israel.

The descent of the children of Israel to Egypt began with the arrival of the brothers, who are described as Bnei Yisrael, they are the sons of Israel in a national sense. Their descendants would be a minority in a mighty nation, eventually enslaved and broken down in every way. They would have to survive those trials and torments as a united people.

The enmity between brothers had led them to sell Yosef into slavery in Egypt. If the sons of Israel were to survive the centuries of slavery, Yosef had to know that they could put enmity aside. And so he set a simple test for them. Would they agree to escape slavery by leaving the brother that they had the least in common with in the chains of Egypt while they return home. Or would they refuse to leave a man behind.

The test that he placed for his brothers was a test of brotherhood pitted against the peril of slavery. It was only a test, but after the death of the brothers, it would become a reality. Would the sons of Israel do the bidding of their Egyptian masters and betray one another to gain more favorable treatment? Would the Pharaohs be able to pit tribe against tribe, and family against family? If that were to happen, there would be no nation to emerge from Egypt.

Despite everything he had gone through, Yosef was able to recognize his brothers as 'brothers'. He needed them to show that they would do the same for Binyamin even in the face of slavery-- setting an example for their descendants to stick together as brothers no matter what the pharaohs would do to try and break them.

Throughout the enslavement of the people of Israel, we see examples of such passive resistance, the midwives refuse to murder Jewish children, the taskmasters refuse to beat Jewish slaves. In each case, they put the welfare of the nation above their own. On the other hand we have Datan and Aviram who later play a role in instigating a tribal revolt in Levi and Reuven to gain power for themselves. When they refused to recognize Moshe's authority, they proclaim, הַעֵינֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵםתְּנַקֵּר--לֹא נַעֲלֶה Even if you put out the eyes of these men, we will not go up. But Yosef sought to open the eyes of his brothers and his own. He wanted to see that mutual recognition that they were all Bnei Ish Echad Anachnu, the sons of one man, not just in words, but in deeds.

And while the brothers did show they would stand up for Binyamin, their descendants would later war with one another. And throughout history the test of Yosef has not yet been fully met. We have still not recognized our brother. Or are willing to stand up for them even in the face of slavery and death.