Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ey’ra – Sh’mot (Exodus) 6:2-Chapter 9

One of Moshe's roles, at the time recorded by our Parasha, was to link the Children of Yisrael with their forefathers, history and destination, but not before establishing (for them and even more so for himself) the identity of Elohim.  This was no easy task!  YHVH had already revealed Himself to Moshe in the desert, both in sight and speech.  And while Moshe was called to negotiate with Par'oh on behalf of the Master of the universe, as well as to 'introduce' Him to his own people, he himself had a hard time grasping the awesome revelation which was unfolding before his eyes.  Our Parasha opens up with yet another monologue of Moshe's heavenly Father, displaying great patience with His child, who at this point had not yet fully adjusted to the dimensions of his unexpected destiny and mission.  The opening "I am YHVH," together with the subsequent words, serve as another reminder to Moshe, designed to anchor, steady, and prepare him for what is ahead and to build up his trust and faith.  Last week, upon his inquiry as to Elohim's name, YHVH gave him a somewhat elusive answer (3: 14): “Ehe'ye asher ehe'ye,” adding, “thus you shall say to the Children of Israel, Ehe'ye has sent me.” These words are (typically) translated: “I am that I am.” Nevertheless, if we glance back at 3:12 we find that “ehe'ye” means “I will” (as it says there: “I will be with you”).  It appears that YHVH was not about to divulge His real (or 'full') name at that point.  His response and the tone by which it was conveyed sounds almost like a (temporary) discharge or dismissal. Thus, paraphrased, it may be read: 'never you mind Moshe… I Am and Will be Who I Am - what is it to you?' (Compare Yeshua's response to Shimon Keifa - Peter - in John 21:22).

The verb “ehe'ye” – I will be – is contained in “YHVH” -  yod, hey, vav, hey - the name which Elohim is now, by His own initiation, revealing to Moshe (6:2). Thus the letters h.v.h (hey, vav, hey), which are tantamount to h.y.h (hey, yod, hey) meaning “to be”1 form the root of the venerated tetragrammaton. "Being" and "present" both originate from this one root. The tetragrammaton, therefore, speaks of "being" and of the "present."

Now that Moshe learns Elohim’s name, he hears Him say something quite surprising and unexpected, namely: “I appeared (literally – I was seen by – va’ey’ra) to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as El Shaddai, but My name YHVH, I did not make known to them” (v. 3).  However, the name YHVH is mentioned in connection with the Patriarchs.  In fact, there is evidence that they had used this name when addressing Elohim (e.g. Gen. 15:8).  The Sages discuss this point at length, but we will not delve deeply into the subject other than to say that since He revealed Himself to the forefathers as “El Shaddai,” the “mighty breasted One,” or by implication, the”Mighty One Who is Sufficient,” it was this aspect of His being with which they must have been most familiar (e.g. Gen. 35:11).  In the course of His on-going and progressive revelation of Himself, the Elohim of Yisrael is about to demonstrate that He is in control of the present, the One Who Is Present, and truly the One who IS the Present: Yah-hoveh. (Yah, as His name is used a number of times, e.g. Ex. 17:16, although lost in the translation, and in many other instances in the Psalms.)

The passage, which starts in verse 3 of Chapter 6 and continues all the way to verse 8, constitutes a unique and significant unit, in both content and form.  The beginning statement is also found at the end (v. 8), that is, "I am YHVH."  In verse 3 reference is made to the Patriarchs, while a similar reference shows up just before the end, in verse 8, in the form of a very emphatic statement (cf. last Parasha, Ex. 3:15,16). The third point in this monologue deals with the Covenanted Land (v. 4), and is echoed in the beginning of verse 8.  Verse 5 talks about the groaning (and therefore sufferings) of the Children of Yisrael, while the end of verse 7 again deals with the same theme.  Thus, the four elements mentioned appear in the first and also in the second half of the passage, although the second time round the order of these themes is reversed.

The central part of this passage stands firmly on its own, as a precious stone set in fine filigree, surrounded and framed by the four repetitions mentioned above (i.e. YHVH’s name, Patriarchs, Land, and Sufferings). It reads as follows, “Therefore say to the children of Israel: `I am YHVH, and I will take you out (ve'hotze'ti) from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver (ve’hi’tzalti) you out from their bondage, and I will redeem (ve'ga'alti) you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take (ve'la'kach'ti) you to me for a people…’” (6:6-7a emphases added).  Here too there is a ‘foursome,’ this time of four verbs, which describe a process.  First comes the "taking out"  - transference from one place to another, second is the “deliverance” from the enemy and his subjugation. The third level, “redemption,” is also deliverance, but connotes “judicial ransoming.” The "redeemer" is a “go'el,” which in the Bible is synonymous with a "blood relative." Hence, this announcement in and of itself renders the Divine Redeemer as a blood relative who has the means and will to purchase the object of his redemption, take it upon himself to recover and restore everything (including that which has been lost) to right order, and be an avenger of wrongs (e.g. Lev. 25:26; Num. 5:8; Ruth 3:12, Ruth 4; Josh. 20:5). Finally, the "taking" here is much like the "taking of a wife" in marriage (e.g. Gen. 25:20).

When this series of actions is completed “…you shall know that I am YHVH your Elohim” (v. 7). Immediately following this YHVH continues to promise to “bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am YHVH” (v. 8, emphases added). The declaration “I am YHVH" pronounced both at the beginning and end of the passage, powerfully denotes His all-encompassing view and position, contrasted with the restricted human perspective and vantage point of the sons of Yisrael. This gradual on going development evidences that there is only One who can act on every level, with nothing ever being required of the recipients. This IS the grace, “which is not of yourselves [but] it is the gift of Elohim!” (Eph. 2:8).  However, for this grace to be appropriated faith is required and thus we move on to the anticlimactic end (6:9): “So Moses spoke thus to the sons of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses on account of their despondency and cruel bondage.” "Despondency" is literally “shortness of spirit/breath,” also rendered as “quick tempered” (e.g. Proverbs 14:29), while "cruel bondage" is actually “hard labor.”  

Following this 'introduction' or preamble, the rest of the Parasha is mostly devoted to the implementation of the action plan described above.  In 6:11, YHVH calls out to Moshe to (literally), “come - BO - speak to Pharaoh…” Notice that above He promised to “bring” – ve’heveti – His people to the land. “Come” – bo – stems from the same root as “bring” – la’ha’vee (that is, “cause one to come”). Thus the “coming” that Moshe is commanded to do before the next phase, which will include verbal ‘combat’ with Egypt’s ruler, may be a “coming” first to Elohim. However, prior to the second plague (of frogs), Moshe is charged once again by YHVH to “bo” – come - but this time it is directly to Par’oh (8:1, and likewise in 9:1, and in next week’s Parasha’s opening verse).   

Moshe responds to YHVH’s commission twice with “…I am of uncircumcised lips” (6:12, 30), obviously trying (once again) to dodge his responsibility by claiming that he is not a fit speaker. But whereas last week we read that he used the expression: “I am not eloquent… but I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue” (4:10), this time he feels the need to press the point even further, since "uncircumcised lips" could also denote uncleanness.  YHVH, however, is not 'impressed' and does not take up this matter with His messenger.

It is the condition of Par'oh's heart that YHVH is about to deal with, as He says to Moshe: “And I will harden Pharaoh's heart…” (7:3a). Shaul (Paul) elaborating on this says, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardens” (Rom. 9:18). Romans 1:18-21 may help us to further understand this idea: “For the wrath of Elohim is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness, because that which may be known of Elohim is manifest in them, for Elohim has shown it unto them.  For from the creation of the world the invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.  For when they knew Elohim, they neither glorified Him as Elohim, nor were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (italics added).  Back to where we left off in Exodus 7:3. The second part of the verse reads, “… and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt,” with the result being, “And the Egyptians shall know that I am YHVH when I stretch forth My hand upon Egypt and bring out the Children of Israel from among them” (v. 5 italics added). It should be pointed out that the “hardness” of Par’oh’s heart is qualified by three different words – ka’she – hard (e.g. 7:3); chazak – strong (e.g. 7:13); kaved – heavy (e.g. 8:15). More on the verb k.v.d in Parashat Beshalach, especially in chapter 14, where it will appear several times in a ‘multi-directional’ fashion.

Just prior to inflicting the first plague, Moshe speaks for YHVH saying to Par’oh: ”Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (7:16). “Serve” here is  rooted in a.v.d - “work."  We remember vividly from last week's Parasha the many negative references to work and labor.  Here "work" becomes “worship” of YHVH, as it is in most other references to worship.  The hard working slaves (“avadim,” of the root word, a.v.d) of the Egyptians are about to be liberated and become free to carry out “avodat Elohim” – that is, rendering service unto YHVH.

If at first YHVH made His name known to Yisrael by attaching it to their ancestors’ names (the Elohim of…), thereby demonstrating His faithfulness, now He wants to convey to His people that He is in charge of their present circumstances, in control of all of nature - both animate and inanimate; of mankind, beasts and the elements, as well as those powers that were worshiped by the Egyptians. The first to be affected is Egypt's source of water and life, the Nile (also an object of worship) which He turns to blood.  Blood, in its turn, is also a symbol of life and atonement but it now becomes a deadly substance in the very body of water, which in the second plague (8:6) will be swarming with frogs (symbolizing the goddess of fertility). The Nile became the grave of many of Yisrael’s infants (ref. Ex. 1:22), and now that blood is crying out, not from the ground, but from the water… In addition, all of Egypt’s other water sources had also been turned to blood (7:19).

The fourth and fifth plagues (8:21; 9:3) are the first ones not to occur in the vicinity of the Israelites' dwellings, meaning that the land of Goshen was free of them.  The swarms of insects, as they are called, and the pestilence, are both terms with familiar roots, which we have already encountered. "Swarms of insects" (and other translated versions) are “a'rov,” and "pestilence" is “dever.”  “Arov” (which shares its root, a.r.v., with the root for “erev” – “evening”) means a “mixture,” hence the mixed variety of species.  Last week we looked at “midbar” - “desert,” noting that one of its related words is “dever” (i.e. “pestilence” or “plague”) which sometimes "drives" (of the same root, once again) its victim to the desert.  This time it is 'real' pestilence, not the figurative type, which is plaguing the herds and flocks and their owners (9:8, 9). “Boils” and “hail with fire flashing…” (9: 10, 24) are the next two plague, both of which have no tangible effect on the Israelites, because YHVH made “a division between My people and your people” (8:23).  “Division” here is “p'dut,” which literally means “ransom.”  It is the ransom which always separates those who are "My people" from those who are Par'oh's.  The basic meaning of the Hebrew root [p.d.h] is “to achieve the transfer of ownership from one to another through payment of a price or an equivalent substitute.”2 More on this idea in next week's Parasha…

1 In Hebrew, the "v" sound (vav) and the "y" sound (yod) are often interchangeable, such as in the name Chava (Eve), which denotes “life,” although the noun “life” is “chayim,” and “to live” is “ lich’yot”.
2 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, 
Chicago, P 198

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Sh’mot – Sh’mot (Exodus) 1– 6:2

The opening verses of this Parasha reiterate what we have read recently in Parashat Va’yigash; namely, the names of the sons of Yisrael who had gone down to Egypt. Compared to the first list (Gen. 46:8-25), this one is much more brief and 'basic.' It is these "names" (“sh’mot”), which lend the title to the Parasha, as well as to the whole book. The fruitfulness promised to the Patriarchs is already starting to be evident. "And the children of Israel were fruitful [of the root p.r.h for “fruit”], and increased [of the root applied to the animals in Gen. 1:20-21] abundantly, and multiplied - va’yirbu - and became exceeding mighty – va’ya’atzmu; and the land was filled with them” (Ex. 1: 7 italics added). This verse sums up one of the first phases of the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt, while at the same time also echoing B’resheet (Genesis) 47:27: "So Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen; and they took a hold of it - va'ye'ach'zu - and grew and multiplied exceedingly" (italics added). The above-mentioned verb for “increase” – va’yishretzu – is not mentioned in the Genesis 47 scripture, and as we noted, it is generally applied to animals. Is this a hint as to the condition of the Israelites at this point? Last week we noticed how Ya'acov, whereupon bringing up the “land of Yisrael” in the course of blessing Ephraim and Menashe, emphasized "achuzat olam" (Gen. 48:4), the "everlasting possession," or literally, the “everlasting hold." But while the old Patriarch stressed "holding" or "grasping tightly" on to the Land of Promise, his descendants seemed to be very quick to "take hold" of foreign soil.   

According to Nehama Leibowitz[1], by their settling and establishing a foothold in Egypt, the Israelites committed a sin. Thus, their new home turned into a place of exile and bondage, as the Parasha clearly points out. The commentary goes on to say, however, that suffering and exile also produced refining and purification (e.g. Deut. 4:20; Jer. 11:4; Is. 48:10), had an educational value (e.g. Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Deut. 16:11-12), and motivated the humanitarian treatment of others (e.g. Lev. 25:38-43; Deut. 5:14-15). Slavery and bondage demand redemption, and according to the commentary such a redemption "serves as a spur for a religious duty, imposing on every Israelite the duty to redeem his fellow being from slavery." However, we cannot ignore the clear and somewhat inauspicious prediction given to Avraham during his awe-inspiring vision in B’resheet (Genesis) 15, namely, "Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (vs. 13, 16).

"The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”; “yet” (in the above quote) is "ad heh'na," literally "thus far." In Vayikra (Leviticus) 18: 25 we read: "For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants." From the time YHVH made this declaration to Avraham, it took well over 600 years for the Amorites’ (a generic name for the Canaanite people groups) iniquity to be "sha'lem," “complete.”  The 'quota of their iniquity' is only made full when the Children of Yisrael enter the Land of C’na’an, and thus the former are being "vomited out by the land."  In this way, the four hundred years of Egyptian exile, and another forty of wandering in the desert were necessary for the completion of Elohim’s objectives for the Israelites, while that time capsule was also instrumental in fulfilling a larger and more global 'judicial plan.' In the Divine economy, nothing is ever lost or is meaningless. The Great Economist is very precise, and is sovereign over time, events, and the protagonists’ roles therein.

Let us return now to the present situation in Egypt. The rising of the new king "who does not know Joseph" (Ex. 1:8) introduces us to a new phase into which Ya'acov's children are being thrust quite unawares. This king identifies the Israelites as a Nation, or People - "am," which may also explain the reference to them in singular person, rather than plural. "The people of the sons of Israel," he calls them, pointing out their multiplication and might. "Rav ve'atzum" are the adjectives used here (v. 9), as in verse 7 above. This multiplicity and might appear to constitute a threat to himself and to his people, and so he describes this foreign race as being, "more numerous and mightier than us" (v. 9 italics added). It seems that exaggeration and bigotry play no small part in these words, which are used to instigate a plan to solve the “Hebrew problem” (compare the “Jewish problem” in Europe, which culminated in Hitler’s “final solution”). Interestingly, at the very end of last week’s Parasha Yoseph charged his brothers concerning taking his bones back to the land, whenever YHVH would visit (pakod) them (Gen. 50:25). In the present Parasha, at the very beginning of the book of Sh’mot (Exodus), we read about the “might” of the People of Yisrael. Both bone and might share the same root of (ayin, tzadi, mem). This root lends itself to several significant words, which we will examine more thoroughly in Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha (Numbers 8-12, relating to 9:12). Suffice it to say here that Yoseph’s bones “multiplied” greatly, in accordance with the promise granted to his sons, although at this point the blessing appeared to be a cause of severe adversity.

Thus, to counter this (hypothetical) threat of a population explosion, the king, typically, takes a number of measures, all of which are expressed in verbs denoting suffering, suppression, and servitude, found in chapter 1:11-14. First they "set over them" - “sa'rey measeem” - tax collecting princes, to (literally) "afflict them with suffering." However, "the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew” (v. 12). The verb "grew" is "yifrotz," of the root which we examined in Parashat Va’yeshev (Gen. 38:29), where we noted that it meant "to break forth."  This caused the Egyptians "to loath" or "abhore" (“va’yakutzu”) them, and in turn they made them do rigorous labor (“va'ya'vidu” - a.v.d. - labor, work; while “eh’ved” is “slave”). "And they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of work in the field. All their work in which they made them work with rigor" (1:14 italics added). In verses 13-14 the root a.v.d (ayin, vet, dalet) - work, labor, slave - occurs five times, impressing upon the reader the sense of perpetual toil.

The commentator Benno Jacob [2] observes that the initiators of the acts of ritual enslavement are always mentioned (in their acts of harassment) in the plural, whereas the Israelites are referred to in the singular (in verses 10-12 each reference to the Israelites reads "he," although not translated that way in English). The commentator goes on to say, "Israel is pictured here as characterless, faceless, bereft of leadership." Interestingly, the Parasha opens with the names of the individuals whose descendants, in just a matter of a few verses, are described as being submerged in a sea of suffering and oblivion (although, as we have noted above, the single person could have also been in reference to the Israelites being viewed as an “am” – a nation, a people).

 The only two characters singled out here are the midwives (who are mentioned by name). They were assigned the heinous task of doing away with every Hebrew male newborn. Their defiance of the king's edict (!:17) results in Yisrael becoming even more numerous and mighyrav and atzum (the same term we looked at above, in verse 20b). These two Elohim-fearing women are a testimony to the full involvement of Yisrael's Elohim with His People, even at a time when the Nation was being forced into conditions of bondage and forgetfulness. However, whereas "am Yisrael" as a whole was occupied with endless and huge building projects for their taskmasters, the midwives had Elohim establish their "batim" – 1:21 literally “homes, houses" and also “families, dynasties” (translated “households”)!

The subjugating process increasingly gathers momentum; taxing (1:11) turns into hard labor (v. 11), then to enslavement (v.13, 14), and to 'limited' infanticide (v. 16), which finally becomes an imposition on the entire Egyptian nation, compelling it to engage in a full-blown genocide by exterminating every Hebrew male newborn (v. 22). Thus, in its 22 verses, the first chapter of Sh'mot spans and recounts a long and eventful period.

The next chapter reports a sudden development. Nehama Leibowitz comments, "One family, father, mother, and daughter emerge from the gloom of this faceless mass."[3] The anonymity is only gradually broken, though, as the protagonists of this first part of the chapter remain nameless, albeit distinct. The only specific name in this narrative is the name that Par’oh's daughter gives the infant whom she finds. It is to be Moshe, "because I drew him out of the water" (1:10 emphasis added). And as we observed in Parashat Miketz (Gen. 41-44:17), this name is probably an Egyptian one, as "mes" or "mesu" in ancient Egyptian mean "child" or "son," [4]  yet the Hebrew language adapts to foreign terms by employing puns or a 'play on words' (such as the in the name "Bavel", Gen. 11:9). There is, however, one other instance in Scripture where the root  (mem, shin, hey) is used: "He drew me out - yimsheni - of many waters," sings King David (2nd Sam. 22:17; Ps. 18:16), being an apt description of Moshe’s current condition, and also of the future predicament of his people, when they too will face a large body of water. The basket that baby Moshe was put in is called "tey'va," the identical word used for Noach's ark! The gigantic structure and the little basket are both havens of safety and protection, out of which deliverance with large-scale ramifications was destined to emerge.

It takes the death of the king (2:23) for the Children of Yisrael to "groan" and "cry out" -"va'yiz'aku" - and “their cry" - "shava'atam" - goes up to Elohim. Notice that here the verb “to cry out” is different from the noun “cry.” In other words, by the time the cry (“za’a’ka”) reaches heaven, it turns into a "sha'v'a" (sh.v.a. shin, vav, ayin), a noun which is "akin to deliverance or salvation" ( - yod, shin, ayin) [5]. Thus, the cry already contains within it the response! And so we read that Elohim "heard," "remembered," "looked" (or "saw"), and "acknowledged" (2:24-25).

Chapter 3 elaborates on the implementation of the above verbs, through the person of Moshe and his mission. It is through Moshe that YHVH is about to reveal Himself to His People. Moshe spends time in the desert, "midbar," "tending the flock of Yitro (Jethro), his father-in-law, “and he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of Elohim” (3:1). "Midbar" is from the root d.v.r (dalet, vet/bet, resh), meaning “speech,” but this root also supplies us with “to drive” (as in “push out”) and “defeat.” It shares the same root with "pestilence" or “plague” and with the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple ("dvir"). It seems that when the one who is stricken with plague (sin) is driven to the ‘backside’ of the desert, it is there that he hears YHVH’s still small voice speaking, and before long finds himself in the Holy of Holies, with Moshe being a perfect case in point. In 4:10 – 16, the root d.b/v.r. is repeated seven times in various forms such as, “words” and “speaking.”

YHVH reveals Himself to Moshe, talking to Him (typically) in a place of silence and desolation, thus indicating that His Presence and control are not limited by what things (also of the root d.v.r - davar = thing) may look like naturally. The sea, for example, which will be facing the Israelites in their future escape, will turn into "dry land" which they are destined to cross. Incidentally, this “dryness” or “parched land” is called "charava" (Parashat B'shalach, Ex. 14:21), of the root ch.r.v (chet, resh, bet/vet). The particular desert location referred to here is called “Chorev” (Horeb, 3:1) and also stems from the root, ch.r.v (chet, resh, vet), which means “desolation or waste,” forming also the root for "cherev" - “sword” and “churban” – “destruction.” Not surprisingly, in this part of the world, where water is scarce, “dryness” and “destruction” are almost synonymous.

Elohim’s plans for His people may be elicited from some of the terms used here. He declares that He Himself "will go down" to rescue His people from Mitzrayim (Egypt - straits, narrowness, adversity), and "will bring them up" to "a good and broad land" (3:8 emphases added). When Moshe is to assemble the elders of Yisrael, he is to convey to them that the Elohim of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'acov, literally, "visiting has visited you and that which has been done to you in Egypt" (3:16). We also noticed above, in Yospeh’s request at the end of the B’resheet (50:25), that he used the same term when he expressed his faith about Elohim visiting His people to take them back to the land. In both these cases "visit" is "pakod," the root being p.k.d (pey, kof, dalet), and means “to visit, attend, muster, appoint[6] count or miss.” This word is also known as "precept" (e.g. Ps. 119:15, 27). Like several of the other words for "commandments" and "laws" this one also has, as is evident here, a different or broader meaning than what is generally perceived - something that we will be taking a closer look at when several of these terms will surface in future Parashot. This verb appropriately sums up YHVH’s manifold plan for His people.

 The long discourse that the reluctant Moshe has with YHVH is about to end when YHVH tells him: "Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say," (4:12). Similar words are repeated in verse 15, with the promise to instruct him and his brother A’ha’ron (Aaron) as to what they will have to do. It was likewise a totally submissive Yeshua who expressed a similar idea during His earthly ministry, "The son can do nothing by himself, he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the son does also" (John 5:19 ref. also 8:28; 12:49; 14:10).

Moshe and A’ha’ron comply and go to see Par’oh. In 5:4 we read: “And the king of Egypt said to them, Moses and Aaron, why do you keep the people from their work? Get to your burdens!” “Keep the people” is “tafri’ou,” from the root p.r.a., (pey, resh ayin), which we looked at in Parashat Miketz (Ge. 41-44:17), where we also noticed its (coincidental?) similarity with the name Par’oh.  The meaning of this root, being “unruliness” and “dishevelment” (of hair), is not incompatible with this king’s conduct toward his Hebrew subjects.

We noted above that, because of their lowly state, the Hebrews were referred to in singular person. In 4:22 they are referred to once again in this manner; but this time for an entirely different reason. Here YHVH calls Yisrael "My first born son." Even though by the end of the Parasha the lot of the Israelites is made (temporarily) even worse than it had been before Moshe's audience with Par'oh, the People, who at the beginning of Sh'mot are presented as a forgotten and maltreated mass, are now the object of YHVH's direct intervention. It is therefore with these words that our Parasha ends: "Then YHVH said to Moses, 'Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will expel them out of his land'" (6:1).

In Parashat Sh’mot we see once again the sovereignty of YHVH over the work and intentions of the enemy. Just as in the case of Yoseph, whose destiny the enemy attempted to disrupt, yet YHVH used this very scheme to catapult him into the place that He had designed for him, so is it also true regarding to Moshe (and in an even greater sense to Yeshua, see 1 Cor. 2:7, 8). The very man, whose command should have brought about this infant’s death, ended being the one in whose palace this infant was protected, raised, and groomed for leading the Israelites out and away from under his despotic and tyrannical control and dominion.


1 New Studies in Shemot, by Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman,  
 Eliner Library, Jerusalem, 1995
2 Ibid
3 Ibid
4 The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon,  
ed. Francis Brown, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass.
5 Ibid
6 Ibid

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ye’chi – B’resheet (Genesis): 47:18– 50:26

Last week we noted that much of what is recounted in our weekly Parashot (plural for “Parasha”) bears direct relationship to present-day situations and circumstances, and even to our own lives. Parashat Va’ye'chi, which centers around Ya'acov's prophetic benedictions over his sons and grandsons, is a good example of this, as these ‘benedictions’ are much more than mere ‘well wishing’ or
‘hopes’ directed toward this progeny. The words pronounced by the Patriarch actually make up the Word of YHVH embossed upon the destiny and life of His people.

The Parasha opens with the words, "And Jacob lived (va'ye’chi) in the land of Egypt seventeen years… when the time for Israel to die drew near, he called his son Joseph" (47:18 emphasis added). Back in Parashat Va’yeshev we noted that the "record of the generations of Jacob" was linked directly to "Joseph, [who] when seventeen years of age was pasturing with his brothers… [and] Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons…" (37:2,3). These seemingly casual statements, tying Ya'acov's "record of generations" to Yoseph's life, as well as the reference to his attitude toward this son, are seen in a different light at the close of the cycle. From the present vantage point, those statements appear to have described the cause, the effects of which are apparent in the present Parasha. The symmetry of two lots of "seventeen years," the first ones of Yoseph's life, and the last of Ya'acov's, along with the usage of the name "Yisrael" in both instances serves to enhance this impression of cause and effect, and of the cycle completed. In fact, the current situation constitutes only the first part of the "effect," with the rest (as, for example, the lot that is about to 'befall' the people of Yisrael in Egypt) still to follow for many generations to come.

The second part of verse 29 (ch. 47), where Yaacov addresses his son, bidding him: "put your hand under my thigh…," takes us all the way back to Avraham and his servant, who was charged by his master in the same manner (Gen. 24:2). The strength and power of life, represented by the thigh, finds expression through the hand of another – one who promises to be faithful and loyal to his oath. Here, it is Yoseph who promises his father to bury him with his ancestors in the Land of Yisrael

Ya'acov's heart is thus set at rest, while in the next episode, sick and nearing death, he starts to confer his blessings. Yoseph, who is summoned to his bed, brings with him his two sons who end up being the first ones to receive the blessing. Hence, the sequel of blessings of the sons of Yisrael starts out with his grandsons, Ephraim, the youngest, and then on to Menashe. Yeshua's familiar words concerning “the last being first” and vice versa (ref. Mt. 20:16), are certainly relevant in this instance! However, Ya'acov does not start blessing Yoseph's sons before he recounts, albeit in a somewhat modified version, what El Shaddai had said to him in Luz - Beit El (“... Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body.  The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land," 35:11-12). The words that Yaacov is about to utter now are based on that auspicious word of long ago. When blessing the boys, he includes the "fruitfulness" and the "numerousness," of the roots p.r.h - fruit - and r.b.h - much, great, plenty.  "A nation - goy - and a company – kahal - of nations – goyim," in the original blessing, become now "company - kahal again - of people” – “amim” (48:4a). We shall soon see how these two terms, "goy" and "am," are dispensed between the two grandsons. "Kings shall come forth from you" in the original is omitted entirely, and rightly so, because Yoseph's sons were not to be the recipients of the kingly portion. The final part of the original blessing had to do with the Land. In the episode at hand Ya'acov qualifies the original word “land” with the words "an everlasting possession” – “achuzat olam" (v. 4b). Achuza, (“possession”) is from the root (alef, chet, zayin), meaning “to grasp, take hold, possess.” Being in exile, Ya'acov chooses words that would be powerfully imprinted upon the minds of his listeners. Without repose, he adopts his two grandsons (ref. 48:5), in order to ensure that the promises just given will be fulfilled down through their successive generations. He then goes on to say to Yoseph, "but your offspring that have been born after them shall be yours" (48: 6). "Offspring" here is "moledet," of the root y.l.d  (yod, lamed, dalet) “to give birth” or “beget.”  Hence, most times "moledet" is used in a sense of “biological family." This was the term employed when Avraham was told to leave his "family" (Gen. 12:1). In B’resheet 31:13, the angel of Elohim ordered Ya'acov to go back to the “land of his ‘moledet.’" In the present scence Ya'acov mentions "achuzat olam," which was promised to his progeny. The citing of "moledet" may be one more reminder, given the circumstances, of what is no doubt an important issue with which he wishes to inculcate his posterity.

It was after the scene of blessings and promises granted to Ya'acov in Beit El-Luz that Rachel had given birth to Binyamin, in Ephrata, on the road to Beit Lechem, which is where she also died. Although at the moment Ya'acov is engaged in matters of great import, pertaining to the future of the Nation, he is clearly compelled to pause and allow the whole sad episode to engulf him all over again, and thus makes mention of it. Incidentally, the literal meaning of "Ephratah" is "toward Ephrat." "Ephrat" shares the root of “fruitfulness” with “Ephraim.” According to Ya'acov's words here (48:7, and Micha 5:2), Ephrat and Beit Lechem are synonymous.

All during this time, while Ya'acov is adopting Yoseph's two sons, he is not aware of their presence in the room (being extremely nearsighted). Upon realizing that Ephraim and Menashe are present, Yisrael says to Yoseph, "I never expected to see your face, and behold, Elohim has let me see your seed as well" (48:11 italics added). "Expected" here is "pilalti." The root is p.l.l (pey, lamed, lamed), with its primal meaning to “intervene, interpose, or arbitrate, and by implication, “to judge,” gives rise to "hitpalel," which is “to pray” and to "tfila" – “prayer,” (e.g. 1 Sam. 1:10, 12, 26, 27; 2:1). The usage of it here, as "expect," is the only one of its kind in the entire Tanach. Ya'acov had so completely given up any hope of seeing his son that, according to his own admission, he did not intercede or pray on his behalf, since his only 'judgement' of the matter was that Yoseph had departed this life.

Ya'acov blesses the lads while crossing his arms over them (48:14). The verb used there – “sikel” - originates from the widely used root (sin, chaf, lamed) which means “to understand, succeed, instruction,” being indicative of the far-reaching implications that this action was to have in the future. The essence of the blessing is put in a few words, "…may my name ("shem") and the name of my fathers… be named in them" (v. 16). Yisrael is conferring upon his ‘adopted sons’ the blessings and promises given to Avraham, Yitzchak, and to himself, which in this context are tantamount to the "name" he wishes to bestow upon them. Thus the blessings constitute an all-powerful 'stamp,' a "name" embossed, as it were, upon the lads and upon their posterity (cf Numbers 6:27). The Patriarch goes on to pronounce the following: "And may they grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth" (48:16). The original wording for "grow into a multitude"- va'yidgu"- is a verb which appears nowhere else and means, "they will become fish," referring to this creature's rate of breeding. The use of this unusual verb is designed to call attention to the blessing, and to this specific detail. When Yoseph expresses disapproval of his father's birth order ‘confusion,’ the latter explains his action, telling his bewildered son that Menashe will be a "people" ("am"), echoing the terminology he used above; but that Ephraim, now making use of "goy," another of his above-mentioned terms, will become "the fullness of the gentiles" – or "m'lo ha'goyim" in Hebrew (ref. vs. 17-19 italics added).

The Brit Chadasha (New or Renewed Covenant) interprets for us the meaning of "becoming fish," far beyond a mere numerical property. "Now as Yeshua was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers… casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, 'follow me, and I will make you fishers of men'" (Mat. 4:19). Ephraim and Menashe’s descendants had to become ‘fish,’ so that when the fishermen would be ready to cast their 'gospel nets' there would be a catch out there (see also Jer. 16:16a). When enough fish fill up the quota (according to the number determined by their Creator, ref. also Deut. 32:8) - in other words, when they become "the fullness of the Gentiles" - then "all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:25).

The "one portion (over his brothers)," which Ya'acov grants Yoseph at the end of this scene (48: 22), is signified by the word "sh'chem," meaning a “shoulder,” the specific reference being to the two ‘shoulders’ (mountains) on each side of the city by that name (i.e. Sh’chem). Thus, Ephraim's lot includes the 'shoulder' in the form of Grizim, the Mount of the Blessing, and Menahse's, the other 'shoulder,' Eival, the Mount of Curse.

It is now time for Ya'acov's twelve sons to receive a word from their father, or as put by Ya'acov, that which "will befall you in the latter days" (49:1). This is the first time the expression "latterend of - days" - "a'charit ha'yamim" - appears in the Bible. If compared to the usage of the same term in Isaiah 2:2, it may relate to a time in which Yisrael's calling as a Nation of Elohim's choosing will be fulfilled. [1] Let us pause to examine the root of “a’charit,” being (alef, chet, resh), from which are derived, “after, last, tomorrow, other, another,” and also… “achar, “acharey” or “achoranit” - meaning “behind” or “backwords.” Thus, when reference is made to “acharit” (the “end”) there is also a “remez” (hint) to that which was “behind,” that which had already occurred “beforehand,” indicating a circulatory movement that links the past to the future – “worlds without end” (see also Yisha’ya’hu – Isaiah – 46:9, 10). (We noticed a similar concept In Parashat Lech Lecha – Beresheet 12-17 in 13:14, regarding the root k.d.m – east, antiquity and forward - that which is “ahead” being related to that which was.)  Just as “kedem” also stands for “east,” there are several references to “acharon” (literally “last”) meaning “west” (the “last” – “acharon” – sea is the western sea in Yisrael that is the Mediterranean, as compared to the eastern sea – the Dead Sea). In Eeyov (Job) 18:20 we read:  “Those in the west – “achronim” last - are astonished at his day, as those in the east – “kadmonim” earliest ones - are frightened.”  Thus,  acharit ha’yamim” – end of days – conveys to us movement from the east toward the west (remember “acharon” also meaning “west”), just as was the direction of entering the tabernacle/temple all the way to the holy of holies which was situated in its westernmost section. This directional movement is confirmed by Matthew 24:27: "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (italics added).

The words given to the second and third sons (Shimon and Levi), predicting their dispersion among their brethren, have amazingly come to pass (ref. 49:7).  Following on the heels of that is the word given to Yehuda (Judah), which starts off with a word play on the meaning of his name, differing from the original meaning given to him by his mother (ref. Gen. 29:35). The root of the word and its meanings are not clear-cut. It appears to be yadah (of the root y.d.h., yod, dalet, hey), and is probably related to the word "yad" - “hand,” and thus means “to cast (such as in casting a stone or a lot), as well as to “confess or to praise,” again being connected to the imagery of raised hands.  “Your brothers shall praise you - yo'du'cha" - (v. 8), seems therefore to flow into the next expression, which is "your hand - yad'cha - shall be on the neck of your enemies" (who, many a time in the future will turn out to be the descendants of his brothers!). And again, Yehuda's brothers, according to Ya'acov's prediction, are also destined to "bow down" before him.” Yes, this son is destined for the "scepter" (“shevet”), but also for the judicial position, as we see by "me'chokek" (v. 10), from “chok” – “law or decree,” the root being ch.k.k. (chet, kof, kof), stemming from a verb which means “to carve” (ref. Is. 22:16) and “engrave,” and by implication to “enact laws” and thus to “dispense justice.”

But the predictions concerning Yehuda’s destiny do not stop here! The above promises are to hold true "until Shilo comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples" (49:10). The term Shilo has been interpreted in many ways; the most likely one is "to whom it belongs." Who truly is that one, and what is it that belongs to him? Ezekiel 21:27 helps us clarify what appears here as a mystery.[2]  There we find the expression "until He comes to whom belongs ("asher lo") judgment [or justice]."  If we were to read "shilo" as "sheh'lo," it would convey the same meaning as "asher lo" in the above, namely "to whom it belongs." In both cases what ‘belongs’ to this one is something which is related to judgment and justice, and of course, according to our present text also the position of leadership (see also Jeremiah 30:21a).

The next part of the blessing (49:11, 12) with its repeated imagery of wine may be compared to Isaiah 63:1-3, where there are several references to wine, to its color, and to the winepress. Once again, there is an allusion to an entity greater than Yehuda and his natural progeny.

The word given to Dan contains a reference to the meaning of his name, which is "judge" (49:16). When it comes to Gad, Ya’acov changes the meaning of his name. Whereas his mother related the name to "luck" (Gen. 30:11), here Ya'acov relates it to “raiding bands,” the verb being, g.d.d (gimel, dalet, dalet), the original meaning of which is “cutting and making inroads”. [3] It is said of Gad that “a troop shall raid him,” but that (literally) “he shall raid their heel” (49:19 italics added). And of his half brother, Dan, it says that he will “bite the horse’s heel, so that his rider falls backwards” (v. 17 italics added). Thus the sons of Yaacov, the one who held the heel at birth and who followed (also connected to the root a.k.v and hence to his name), are, or will be, displaying the same ‘a.k.v.’ trait.

Fruitfulness is alluded to in Yoseph's blessing, as he is twice named here "ben porat," literally "son of fruitfulness" (49: 22). The word to Yoseph is replete with blessings of plenty, fruitfulness, might, prowess, and honor; but also mentions the hatred which is directed toward him. Yoseph is to be a "nah'zir" (v. 26) to his brothers (translated “separated from, or distinguished among his brothers”). A "nah'zir" is one especially consecrated and dedicated to YHVH. This title can refer to anyone with a special calling, such as Shimshon (Samson, Jud. 13:5), or to a person who takes upon himself a Nazarite vow (Num. 6:21). The noun of the same root is “neh’zer,” and means a “crown” and in that way is also connected to the priesthood (see Ex. 29:6 regarding the priest’s miter). Interestingly, “nah’zir” is mentioned here in the same breath as the “top of Joseph’s head” (49:26), which literally makes Yoseph the “crown” of his brothers.

If the word to Yehuda points so clearly to the Messiah, some of what is being said to Yoseph, and of him, may also be interpreted as referring to a greater figure. It is no wonder then that in Jewish tradition, alongside the victorious Messiah ben David (from Yehuda's house), there is also a Messiah ben Yoseph, who is in the image of the 'literal' Yoseph, and according to his prophetic blessing is hated and experiences agony (49:23), yet is also powerful (v. 24), fruitful and distinguished.  

After Ya'acov's death, his sons express fear lest their brother Yoseph would take the opportunity to avenge himself of them. They therefore approach him with a statement, which their father had supposedly made before he died, asking Yoseph to forgive them. Not only is there no record of such a statement, there is also no record of Ya'acov ever finding out what his sons had committed. Upon hearing these words and the sentiment behind them, "Joseph wept" (ref. 50:17), calling to mind Yeshua's reaction to the lack of faith and trust displayed by his closest friends (ref. John 11:35).

With Parashat Va'ye’chi ("and he lived"), the entire book of B’resheet comes to a close. "Va’ye'chi," "and he lived," is symbolic of Elohim’s sovereign intentions regarding the fulfillment of His covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'acov. Thus, not only do they live on in their seed, in the next phase of their ‘existence’ they also become numerous, multiplying in the land of their sojourning.


[1] Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem, 1976, 1999.

[3] The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson. Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’yigash – B’resheet (Genesis): 44:18-47:26

Each of the weekly Parashot (parashas) presents a narrative that tells a story of individuals (and later of much larger groups), describing their relationships, fortunes and misfortunes, travels and battles, struggles and learning situations, instructions for living (the ‘Torah’) and much more. Every one of these stories also relates to the Elohim of Yisrael. No doubt, there is a great deal to be gleaned from these accounts, as indeed we do. Yet, an even more careful examination will reveal facts beyond ‘mere’ object lessons or annals of the past. These episodes, that occurred so long ago, formed the foundation of a continuum which is part of today's world dynamics!  And what's more, they have a bearing on our very own lives. This thread of continuity, which ties the biblical characters, their decisions and responses to YHVH – indeed, their very lives - to ours, is what makes the Parashot so exciting and important.

With this in mind, we approach Parashat Va'yigash. “Va’yigash” means "and he approached” or “drew near," originating from the root (noon, gimmel, shin). At the outset of the Parasha we see Yehuda "drawing near" to Yoseph. Although in his blindness Yehuda does not recognize his brother, still his new 'approach' (after having passed his tests) enables him to draw closer to his sibling, albeit as mentioned, unawares.  As we saw at the end of last week's Parasha, Yehuda has been reformed through some reflection and repentance. This, as well as some of his other traits, to be discussed later, should inspire us with hope and anticipation regarding his descendants, who are destined to follow in the footsteps of their progenitor. Some day, they too will draw near to their long-lost, hidden brother; not only to the brethren from amongst the descendants of Yoseph, but also to their greater and as of yet unrecognized Brother, Yeshua (see Zech. 12:10-13:2). 

The words of this ‘greater Brother’ take on special meaning in the context of the current story, a story that may be viewed as a prophetic pattern relating to the collective destiny of Yehuda. Thus, Yeshua’s declaration, "no man can come to [the Son], except the Father… draw him" (John 6:44), lend an added dimension to the first 16 verses of the Parasha (see 44:18-34 - Yehuda's monologue), where father is mentioned no less than 14 times. Surely this emphasis on ‘father’ represents and alludes to another glimmer of hope for the progeny of Yehuda, in their tight adherence to the Heavenly Father. 

Yehuda's oft repeated "eved - servant” (or literally “slave”), singular and plural and “adonie” (“my master/lord”), in connection to himself and his family (ref. 44:18, 19, 21, 23, 24, 27 etc.), is indicative of the fact that Yoseph's dreams are being fulfilled. But it also clearly foreshadows Yehuda's future attitude toward his Master and Messiah. Following Yoseph's disclosure of his identity, the latter beckons his brothers to come near to him – “g’shu - of the same root of va’yigash - and they respond by, again, “drawing near” (45:4). Interestingly, the name of the land that Yoseph will be designating for his family will be Goshen. This name, even though not a Hebrew word, sounds very much like the above-mentioned verb and thus informs us that without “approaching” or “drawing near” to their brother, the sons of Yisrael would not be able to take advantage of the place of refuge prepared for them (cf. John 14:1,2).

     In recent Parashot we have been following Yehuda's process of learning about redemption. We have looked at the term "arov," which is “guarantee” or “surety.” In his monologue addressing Yoseph and presenting the case of Binyamin, Yehuda says: "For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, `If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father forever'" (44:32 emphasis added). Among the many words derived from this root, a.r.v (ayin, resh, vet/bet), we also find “pleasant” – “a’rev,” as in…” Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me… He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi… then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing – “arva” - to YHVH" (Mal. 3:1, 3, 4, italics added). This sequel of events culminates with Yehuda's offering bringing great pleasure to the Father’s heart. Yehuda's treatment of his brother Binyamin in the Parasha, and the "eravon" (guarantee) that he is so faithful to keep, speak of a future day when Yehuda’s house will do so corporately. “Drawing near” and “pledge” meet in a prophetic scripture penned by Yimiyahu (Jeremiah), describing a day when Ya’acov’s tents will be restored (ref. 30:18), and when a Ruler of greater and nobler stature will come forth from the midst of the nation. “He will draw close – “ve’nigash” – to Me, for who is he who would pledge – “ve’arav” – his heart to draw close – “lageshet” – to Me? says YHVH” (30:21 italics added). It is no coincidence that these specific terms are strung together so many centuries later, when reference is made to Yehuda’s greater Son (and brother), thus illustrating that the life of the ancient forefather exemplifies what eventually comes to full manifestation and fruition in his progeny, in this case Yeshua. But the ‘chain’ doesn’t stop there, we have here an illustration of what will also be expressed in the future by Yehuda’s natural offspring, that is the Jewish nation.*  

In this second journey to Egypt, Yehuda acts again as the spokesperson for his brethren and the one leading the way. It is only after he approaches Yoseph that the rest of the brothers do likewise. When Ya'acov and family arrive in Egypt we read: "Then he [Jacob] sent Judah before him to Joseph, to point out before him the way…" (46:28 italics added). Yehuda's lead will become a scripturally repeated pattern (e.g. Num. 2:3; Jud. 1:2; 1st Ch. 5:2a), applicable all the way to our present days. In Z’char’yah (Zechariah) we read: "…For YHVH of Hosts will visit His flock, the House of Judah, and will make them as His royal horse in the battle. From him comes the cornerstone. From him the tent peg, from him the battle-bow, from him every ruler together. They shall be like mighty men who tread down their enemies in the mire of the streets in the battle. They shall fight because YHVH is with them, and the riders on horses shall be put to shame.  I will strengthen the house of Judah…" (10:3b-6a). All this is to show how Yehuda is and has been the first contingency of the People of Yisrael to return to the Land, and as such is fulfilling this prophecy and pattern of leadership.

     Last week we read in 43:30-31 how Yoseph's "heart yearned for his brother; so Joseph made haste and sought somewhere to weep. And he went into his chamber and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out; and he restrained himself." This time, after Yehuda's words, Yoseph is unable to restrain himself any longer (ref. 45:1). In both cases the word for “restrain” is "hit'apek" (a.p/f. k - alef, pey/fey, kof) and means, “to hold in, restrain, be strong.” It originates from the same root that serves the word "ah'fik” – “riverbed” - which restrains the water coursing through it. On the earlier occasion, Yoseph's inner strength enabled him to withhold his flow of emotions.  This time, the ‘dam’ breaks, there is no restraint and the ‘ah'fik’ overflows with tears as he makes himself known to his brothers.

     "Made himself known" is "hitvada," of the root “yada” (y.d.a, yod, dalet, ayin) – “to know.” “Yada” is a widely used verb. There are many levels of “knowing,” including the knowing of great intimacy, such as in the physical/sexual relations between husband and wife (e.g. Gen.4:1). However, “to make one’s self known” is not used frequently. In Bamidbar (Numbers) 12:6 YHVH says: "Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, YHVH, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream" (italics added). Thus in the future of the nation, YHVH will be using the very same word employed here by Yoseph when the latter discloses himself to his brothers, since Yoseph is indeed in the category of a prophet to whom YHVH makes Himself known.

     "But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for Elohim sent me before you to preserve life" (45:5 emphasis added). We already noted that "sent" is the theme of the story of Yoseph. All the circumstances that have befallen him have been part of YHVH's pre-determined plan to send him for His purposes. Yoseph is a man with a mission, brought to light now by his own words - "to preserve life." To make his point Yoseph repeats these words before his stunned brothers… "And Elohim sent me before you to preserve you a remnant in the earth, and to keep alive before you a great escape" (45:7). Yoseph employs the words "she'erit," which is “remnant,” and "pleta," referring to “escape or refuge,” thereby projecting on to the coming events. Thus, the final outcome of the predicament of the soon coming famine and forced emigration, and later of forced labor, enslavement and genocide, although potentially of great threat to the Israelites’ very existence (possibly sustaining a mere “remnant”), will actually culminate in a “great deliverance” in both quality and quantity. It is in their host country that the family of Ya'acov will become a great multitude (ref. 47:27). It seems that this seed, in order to increase greatly, requires foreign soil!

Several times in his monologue, while trying to plead Binyamin's case, Yehuda makes reference to the death of Binyamin's brother (that is, to Yoseph), to the possible death of Binyamin himself, and to the likely death of his father (44:20, 22, 31). In the narrative, which immediately follows Yoseph's first, albeit rhetorical question to his brothers, is whether their father is still alive (45:3). As we noted above, Yoseph then declares that the purpose for his mission was "to preserve life" (v. 5 emphasis added), and in verse 7, "to save you alive" (emphasis added). When the brothers return home they tell their father that, "Yoseph is still alive" (v. 26 emphasis added). After the initial shock, it says that "the spirit of Jacob their father revived… and Jacob said, 'Joseph my son is yet alive: I will go and see him before I die'" (v. 27, 28 emphases added). Thus death, and the threat thereof, which had colored the first part of the Parasha, is offset by life and revival in the 'counter' text. Almost from the start, the story of Yoseph and his mission portends the themes of impending death followed by survival. At the end of the Parasha, we once again encounter this topic, woven neatly into the fabric of the text. In the narrative that deals with Ya'acov and his family's reunion with Yoseph, in chapter 46, we read: "And Israel said to Joseph, 'Now let me die, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive’" (v. 30 emphases added).

     Next, we see Yoseph's interaction with the hungry Egyptian populace, whose lives are greatly endangered by the famine and by lack of financial means by which to obtain sustenance. In order to alleviate impending death, these people pay for their supplies with their land and labor (as they have already used up their livestock for that purpose, ref. 47:16, 17). Their words express the same vocabulary:  "Wherefore should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land be not desolate" (47:19, see also v. 15, emphases added). Yoseph complies with their request, adding that a fifth of the purchased sustenance is to be handed over to Par'oh (v. 23, 24). "And they said, 'you have saved our lives'" (v. 25 emphasis added). Next week's Parasha, which actually focuses on Ya’acov’s death, starts with the words, "And Jacob lived…" (emphasis added), being also the name of the Parasha (although some translations use “dwelt” for “lived”).

We cannot depart from this week’s reading without pausing to look at the scene of Elohim's last (recorded) appearance to Ya'acov. On his way down to Egypt, Ya'acov stops in Be'er Sheva where he "offered sacrifices to the Elohim of his father Isaac. And Elohim spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said, 'Jacob, Jacob'. And he said, 'Here am I.' And he said, 'I am Elohim, the Elohim of your father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for there I will make of you a great nation. I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again’" (46:1-4). Since there is no (previous) record of Ya'acov's anxiety (about going down to Egypt), the words "fear not" seem rather curious. But as nothing is hidden from Elohim, He is obviously responding to a real and tangible concern in Ya'acov's heart. He most certainly was aware of the word given to his grandfather Avraham about his offspring and their exile. Ya'acov's heart therefore must have been troubled. The sojourn of his people into the land of plenty was likely to lead to a spiritual bondage, to be possibly followed by physical slavery. Hence YHVH promises him that He will go down with him and bring him back. Since Ya'acov was destined to die in Egypt, he serves here as a prototype for the people as a whole, who would come out of his loins.[1]  The 'many in the one' is a typical and familiar Biblical-Hebraic thought pattern, found both in the Tanach (Old Covenant) and in the Brit Chadasha (New Covenant), and powerfully and fully realized by our Messiah and Savior – Yeshua.

  • This is not to dismiss the fact that Yoseph is also a prototype of Messaih

  1. Studies in Bereshit, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman.
            Eliner. Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in
            the Diaspora.  Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.