Thursday, December 26, 2019

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Miketz – B’resheet (Genesis): 41 – 44:17 With Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

The dungeon scene, which ended last week’s Parasha, shifts almost instantaneously to a palace, and it is there that the present Parasha opens up. A short phrase acts as a bridge, connecting these two very dissimilar places, yet making it clear that the events happening in the palace are not entirely removed from the prison cell and its occupants.

And so we read: “At the full end – “miketz” - of two years of days” (literal translation)… "Miketz" signifies here the “full end” (to the very last day) of the two years following the fulfillment of the dreams interpreted correctly by Yoseph, for which he was hoping to be rewarded…  “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him" (40:23). "Did not remember, but forgot”, is an emphatic and decisive double statement that ended last week’s Parashat Va’yeshev and seemed to seal off Yoseph's fate. Moving on to the next chapter (and Parasha), we find that it begins where the former left off; that is, with dreams. Moreover, Par’oh’s dreams could not have come before the period allotted by YHVH for Yoseph’s prison experience. Thus, the thread connecting the 'dreamer' of this Parasha (Par’oh) to the interpreter of dreams (himself a renowned dreamer, ref. 37: 5 – 10) in last week’s Parasha, begins to unravel. Consequently, that which appears to be the protagonist’s sealed fate takes a sharp and immediate turn, as the times  and events of his life are being directed from above (see Ps. 31:15a; Prov. 20:24). Thus it is only when the two years fully expire that change can come about in Yoseph's life circumstances, and as is so often the case, once change sets in, it gathers momentum (ref. 41:14). We therefore read in 41:14: “Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him quickly out of the dungeon…” (italics added). However, the “dungeon” mentioned here is “bor” in Hebrew, which is literally a “pit”, the same as the “pit” into which the brothers had cast Yoseph in 37:24. Thus, the instant transformation which is about to take place in the life of Yoseph does not erase the memory of that critical moment which started the saga that has brought him to his current circumstance.    

In Parashat Miketz we will encounter certain Egyptian names, words, and terms. Although in most cases they are not directly related to the Hebrew language, their Hebrew transliterations happen to have clear meanings. Even if these are mere happenstances or coincidences, they are intriguing!

Let us begin with the king of Egypt, Pharaoh, “Par'oh” in Hebrew; a title used for all the kings of that land, and means a "great house" in Ancient Egyptian.1. Correspondingly, the Hebrew consonants for this title, p.r.a (pey, resh, ayin), form a word which, according to some linguists means "leader" (Judges 5:2, "for the leading of the leader"; also Deut. 32:42). Others disagree, believing it to mean, "annul, do away with, or unruly", while it also means the “loosening"or “untying of hair" (e.g. Lev. 13:45; Num. 5:18). Pieced together these images create a picture of disorder; perhaps even of an unruly, or unscrupulous ruler, which was true of quite a few of the Pharaohs. In Mishley (Proverbs) 15:32, for example, we read: "He who neglects discipline despises himself", with the verb for "neglect” being “pore'ah.” And in chapter 29 of the same book, in verse 18 it says: "Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained ("unrestrained" – “yipara”). The consonants P or F (remember, in Hebrew P and F are signified by the same letter) and R, seem to be common in the ancient Egyptian tongue – last week we read about Potiphar - and this week we meet Yoseph's father-in-law whose name is Potiphera (41:45). Later on these consonants will be found in another well-known Hebrew-Egyptian name.

As Par'oh continues to endow Yoseph with honor and material wealth, "he had him ride in his second chariot; and they proclaimed before him: "Bow the knee" - or “av'rech (41:43). “Av'rech” contains the word for "knee", “berech” which, as we have seen before (in Parashat Lech Lecha, Gen. 12 – 17, particularly in ref. to chapter 12), is also the root for the verb "to bless". Indeed, Yoseph is a great blessing to the people of Egypt. “Av'rech”, however, can also be read as “av-rach”, a "tender father" (for the same word for “tender,” see Prov. 4:3). In next week's Parasha, Yoseph will be heard telling his brothers that, "Elohim made [him] a father to Pharaoh" (45:8). "Tender" in this case may be pointing to his age (he was 30 at the time, see 41:46), while the term "father" denotes a venerated figure, one whose wisdom and counsel are relied upon.  Par'oh’s respect for Yoseph is also expressed by the name that he gives him, “Tzafnat Pa'a'ne'ach (Zaphnath-Paaneah). The root tz.f.n is not new to us; we examined it when we looked at the four directions of the wind (again in Parashat Lech Lecha, 13:14), and found that this root forms the word for "north", but also for that which is “hidden" or "stored up". Thus, the man who was kidnapped from Egypt’s northern neighbor, fits well the description ascribed to "wise men [who] store up knowledge" (Pro. 10:14, italics added)… and also food and provisions. In Ancient Egyptian the two words that make up this name mean, “The god speaks and he lives.”2

In 41:51, 52, mention is made of Yoseph's sons, whose names are explained according to their respective Hebrew meaning. However, these names (also) happen to sound like Egyptian names, which may have been another reason why Yoseph chose them. Let us begin with the name of the youngest, Ephraim, meaning, "multiplicity of fruit" (v. 52). As we can see, the same consonants that we just noted above: P/F and R, make up this name. Obviously, Yoseph did not want to stand out as a foreigner in the land of his benefactors, but at the same time also wished to express his faith in the promise of the multiplication of the seed that was given to his ancestors. In the blessing and promise to Ya'acov, in 35:11 (Parashat Va’yishalch), Elohim says: "Be fruitful and multiply, a nation and a company of nations shall come from you" (italics added), and likewise in the prayer that Ya'acov prays and blesses Ephraim with, in Parashat Va’ye’chi (ref. 48:4). Thus "fruit" ("pri", of the root p.r.a, pey, resh, hey), is found in this name. It will also be in the title with which Ya’acov will bless Yoseph and confer upon him (again in Parashat Va’yechi) - “ben porat”, that is "son of fruitfulness" (49:22). Prophetically significant is also the fact that “Ephraim” contains the consonants, e.f.r (alef, pey/fey, resh), forming the word “efer” which means "ashes". Interestingly, the prophet Hoshe’ah (Hosea) describes Yisrael/Ephraim, while in their state of sin, as “smoke from a chimney” (13:3).

Yoseph names his firstborn “Mena'she”, because Elohim had caused him to forget his past (thereby easing his pain of separation from his family, 41:51), since is the root of a verb which means “to forget”. The “sinew of the thigh” which is not eaten by the sons of Yisrael because of the maiming inflicted upon Ya’acov when he fought the “man” at P’niel, is called in Hebrew “gid hanasheh” (ref. Gen. 32:32). Some rabbis and commentators are of the opinion that this title for the thigh (exclusively connected with the above-mentioned episode) - “nasheh” - is of the same root as “forgetfulness”, because it was meant as a ‘remembering device’. That is, by not partaking of what is symbolically a “sinew of forgetfulness”, the Israelites were to remember their Elohim, His commandments, and their own identity. But try hard as the nation may have done, forgetfulness did set in quickly, resulting in dire consequences. Nevertheless, in our Parasha it is evident that forgetfulness and remembering are also subject to YHVH’s sovereignty. Thus, the cupbearer’s forgetfulness (different word in this case than the above, this one is – shin, chaf, chet), and subsequent remembrance, are used by YHVH in order to set His plan into motion.  Yoseph also makes use of the same verb when interpreting Par’oh’s dream:  “But after that seven years of famine will arise, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt…” (41:30 italics added). Later on, when Yoseph’s brothers show up and bow down to him, his recollection leads him to remember his dreams of long ago (42:9).

Back to Menashe… whose name sounds much like "Moshe" (Moses), which in spite of its Hebrew meaning is most likely also of Egyptian origin, as it was Par’oh’s daughter who gave it to the foundling. Thus, Yoseph’s sons’ names which although of significant Hebrew meaning, most likely would not have sounded strange in their environment.

The book of Hoshe'ah (Hosea) deals at great length with the northern kingdom of Yisrael, and especially with the people of Ephraim. In 13:12, 13, in a specific address to Ephraim, some of the words, or roots, which we have just encountered, are repeated. "The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up, his sin is stored up" - "stored up" is “tzfoona” of the same root which is in Yoseph's Egyptian name “Tzafnat”. In the following verse (13) mention is made of the "opening of the womb", literally "the breaking [forth] of the sons", the word being “mishbar” of the root sh.v/b.r (shin, vet/bet, resh). In our Parasha this word is used for "grain" and for the verb to "supply food”, that is "breaking" of hunger or famine, like the breaking of a fast. Yoseph, the one supplying provender is called “mashbir”. In Psalm 105: 16, 17 we read about Yoseph and his mission: “Moreover He called for a famine in the land; He destroyed all the provision of bread. He sent a man before them -- Joseph -- who was sold as a slave.” “He destroyed all provision” is rendered in the Hebrew by “shavar” (literally, “broke”) of the afore-mentioned root. Amos deplores those who do not “grieve for the breaking – or affliction - of Joseph” (6:6), which in Hebrew is “shever Yoseph”. It seems that ‘shever’ accompanies Yoseph, both the man and his descendants, in his/their successes and failures. Back to Hoshe’ah... In 14:8 we read: “Ephraim [doubly fruitful], 'What have I to do anymore with idols?' I have heard and observed him. I am like a green cypress tree; Your fruit [“pri”] is found in Me" (italics added).

Last week we saw that Yoseph made YHVH's name known in his foreign environs. He certainly continues to do so when standing before the king (41:16, 25). And like Potiphar before him, Par'oh too acknowledges Yoseph's Elohim: "’Can we find a man like this, in whom is the spirit of Elohim?’ So Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'Since Elohim has informed you of all this…'" (41:38, 39).

Par’oh not only acknowledges Yoseph’s Elohim, he also honors Yoseph by having him ride his "second chariot" (41: 43), or “mirkevet ha'mish'neh”. “Mish'neh” is from the root sh.n.h (shin, noon, hey), the primary meaning of which is "to repeat", "extra", “two” and “second”. In 43:12 we read that Ya'acov gives his sons “extra” or “double” money to take with them to Egypt, in order to be prepared for any eventuality. Number two, being a repetition of number one, is also seen in 41:32, "Now as for the repeating [“hishanot” - of the same root] of the dream twice…."  In Par'oh's dreams there were two seven-year periods. The word for "year" is “shana”, being again of the root sh.n.h, (‘that which repeats itself’ or ‘is repeated’), but its additional meaning is "to change", as seen for example in Malachi 3:6, "For I, YHVH, do not change [shaniti], therefore you, O sons of Israel are not consumed". Thus, although number two is seemingly a repeat of number one, there is always bound to be a change, or a difference the second time round, seen by the dual meaning of this word. Yoseph, for example, who was second only to Par'oh, was certainly very different from ‘number one’!

Part of Yoseph's advice to Par'oh was to "exact a fifth of the produce… in the seven years of abundance" (41:34). "Exacting a fifth" appears here in verb form, “chimesh”. Number five is “cha'mesh” ( chet, mem, shin) in Hebrew, and the verb which stems from it means "to arm" or "to be armed", such as when “YHVH led the people around… and the sons of Israel went up in martial array [“chamushim”=”armed”] from the land of Egypt" (Ex. 13: 18). In the verse following this one, that is in Sh’mot (Exodus) 13:19, mention is made of Yoseph’s request to have his bones brought to the Land. Was it the memory of how Yoseph ‘armed’ Egypt that inspired Moshe to use this unique term (“martial array” = “chamushim”) just before taking Yoseph’s bones? Hence Yoseph's advise to Par'oh, here in verse 34, could be read as, "let Pharaoh arm the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty" (italics added). And, having followed Yoseph's wise and Godly counsel, Par'oh certainly does (in a manner of speaking) arm his land.
The figure seven, “sheva”, as pertaining to the two seven-year blocks of time, with their abundance on the one hand, and the lack thereof on the other, is repeated time and again in chapter 41.  Abundance, or "plenty" appear here as “sova” (ref. vs. 29 ,30 ,31) which we have already noted as meaning "fullness" (as in a full belly), or “satisfaction”, as well as its closeness to the figure seven – sheva.  YHVH's precise order within humanity and over nature, as He makes provision for “sova” in the two periods of “sheva”, is evident even in the very words themselves.
When "Ya'acov saw that there was grain [“shever”, referred to above] in Egypt, he said to his sons: 'why are you staring at one another?'" (42:1). Ya'acov's "seeing" and his sons' "staring" - are both of the root "to see", r.a.ah (resh, alef, hey). But whereas Ya'acov was looking around and was aware of the situation, his sons were looking at one another, thereby failing to see the reality about them. This is not the first time that these lads were found busy examining one another, instead of being attentive and productive. Last week we read in 37:4: “And when his brothers saw - “va’yir’ou” - that their father loved him [Yoseph] more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (italics added).

Yoseph, on the other hand, sees and recognizes his brothers, although he acts as a stranger toward them (ref. 42:7). “Va'yitna'ker” – “he made himself as a stranger” - since “nochri” is “stranger” and “nechar” is a “foreign land”, with the root being (noon, kaf/chaf, resh). However, it is also this very root that forms “nikar”, which means "seen" or "apparent" (the sounds "k" and "ch" are denoted sometimes by the same letter, in this case the letter kaf/chaf). And thus, “to know” or “recognize” is “haker”, a verb we encountered twice in last week’s Parasha. The paradoxical meaning imbedded in this root, which is shared by words pertaining to recognition and by those which have to do with estrangement, is made very real in the scene before us. Yoseph’s recognition of his brothers, on the one hand, and his estrangement from them, on the other, is summed up well by these two verbs (stemming from the one root) – “va'ya'kirem” - “vayitna'ke”. Thus, seeming opposites are actually two sides of the same coin! This act of estrangement was in fact a tool that Yoseph used in order to find out more about his brothers, as he desired to become re-acquainted with them and their present disposition. When Ruth was taken by surprise upon Boaz’s kindness toward her, she exclaimed: “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should recognize/acknowledge me [le’hakireni], since I am a foreigner [nochriya]?” (Ruth 2:10 italics added). “Recognition” has also been used extensively (and ironically) in the previous Parasha.  When Ya’acov’s sons showed him Yoseph’s bloody tunic, they said: “haker na – recognize… va’yakira – and he recognized…” (37:32-33). During Yehudah’s escapade he too was confronted by “haker na – recognize – whose are these…” referring to the pledge he left with her while not ‘recognizing’ her as she was pretending to be a ‘stranger’ (ref. 38:25, 15-18). And like his father before him, he too is said to have “recognized…” – va’yaker (v. 26) the items and (some of) of his past deeds, thus waking up to the needed correction.

The brothers return home, yet it is not long before the provisions come to an end. If they are to go down again to the 'land of plenty', Ya'acov's sons need to convince their father to send their youngest brother, in accordance with the demand of the ‘Egyptian ruler’. Yehuda, therefore, pleads with Ya’acov: "Send the lad with me…  I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame before you for ever" (43:8,9). Yehuda is willing to “guarantee” his brother, or to become an “era'von”. Last week, in Parashat Va’yeshev, we saw Yehuda as he was learning something about the principle of redemption from his daughter-in-law. At the time Tamar used a "pledge", also an “era'von”, in order to force her father-in-law into acknowledging his duty (ref. 38:17, 18). A wiser Yehuda now offers up himself as the pledge or surety, in the process of qualifying for the position of firstborn-redeemer of the family.

When in Egypt, Binyamin is accused of having stolen Yoseph's cup. Yehuda immediately takes responsibility, albeit a collective one, for his brother. His words "Elohim has found out the iniquity of your servants" (44:16) lead us to believe that it is not the alleged crime of stealing to which he was referring. Already in 42:21, while meeting Yoseph for the first time, the brothers acknowledged amongst themselves their guilt toward him.  But whereas at that time Yoseph kept quiet, here he puts Yehuda on the spot, testing him to the utmost: "Far be it from me to do this. The man in whose possession the cup has been found, he shall be my slave; but as for you, go up in peace to your father" (44:17).  With this situation unresolved, and portending the worst, the narrator seals off, leaving us to wonder until the next episode!
But just before closing, let us examine one more term. When Ya'acov acquiesces and commits Binyamin to the mercy of his brothers, he makes his sons take an offering "to the man" (43:11), in spite of the famine and their own great want.  That which is translated as "best produce of the land" is “zimrat ha'aretz.” While “ha'aretz” is "the land" or “the earth”, “zimra” stems from the verb “zamor” (z.m.r., zayin, mem, resh)," to cut off vine branches”, but in many more instances it is "song" or "music". According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, "the vast majority of occurrences of this verb and its derivatives focus upon praising the Lord; The people of Israel lift their voices and their instruments to praise their God as long as they live” (Ps. 104:33; 146:2)3. [Several times this praise is tangibly directed toward the "name of the Lord” - the "name," as representing YHVH Himself (Ps. 18:49; 66:4; 135:3)]. What exactly did Ya'acov have in mind when selecting this particular and uncommon term? Do these words reveal something that is perhaps beyond what Ya’acov himself was aware of? Is this alluding to a latter day, when praise will be brought to the ‘man’ (ref. John 19:5), who is the vine (John 15:1, 5), by the ones who are the proverbial branches? The verb “zamru” (“sing”) is repeated a number of times in T’hilim (Psalms) 66, and so we read in verse 4: “Kol ha’aretz (the whole earth)… ye’zamru (“will sing praise”) lach (to you)”, echoing the term “zimrat ha’aretz”, as coined by our father Ya’acov.

1.The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979.
3. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1, R. Laird Harris ed. Moody Press, Chicago. 1980.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

There are several words which we looked at above that are used in Modern Hebrew, but you will notice that in some cases the usage is somewhat different. The “second to the king”, “mishneh”, shares the same root as the noun “year” – “shana”. We also have “fruit” in our Parasha as well as “plenty” – here designated by “sova” – which in Modern Hebrew is used mainly for “being satisfied” after eating. Above we looked at the root sh.v/b.r with its many usages in this Parasha, and in other texts, namely Psalms and Amos (again in connection to Yoseph). In Modern Hebrew this verb is used primarily for “to break” and “crisis”. Finally, we noted the similarity between “estrangement” and “recognition”. Hence we will learn how to use “recognize” in every day speech.

This year there was much fruit and all were satisfied
Ha’sha’nah haya p’ri rav ve’kulam sav’oo (literally – this year there was fruit much and all were satisfied)

What broke?
Ma nishbar?

Yoseph recognized his brothers
Yoseph hekir et echav

The brothers did not recognize Yoseph
He’achim lo he’kiru et Yoseph

Above we paused to look at the term “zimrat ha’aretz” translated “best produce”. Below is a link to a Biblical park in central Israel with pictures of the trees whose fruit is thought to be the fruit that Ya’acov referred to.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ye’shev – B’resheet (Genesis): 37 – 40 with (surprising) Hebrew Tools

"Now Jacob dwelt ("va’ye'shev") in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years of age…." (Gen. 37:1, 2). The root for the verb "to dwell" is (yod, shin, bet/vet) and means to “dwell, reside, sit, remain”. According to the scripture just quoted, Ya'acov lived in his father's land, but the “account of his generations” ("toldot") is related through the life of his son - Yoseph. Incidentally, Esav's chronicles (in chapter 36), as well as Yishma'el's (25:12-18), are simply lists of names, whereas the Patriarchs' chronicles are narratives presenting increasing revelations of Elohim and  His involvement in the lives of those who bear His name.1  Additionally, identifying Ya'acov's dwelling place with "the land where his father had sojourned," and tying up his annals with the name of his son (Yoseph) serve to illustrate the typical Hebraic approach to the continuum of the seed. Those living in the present do not identify solely with their contemporaries; they are no less connected to their ancestors as well as to their progeny.  

In telling the story of Ya'acov, the narrative highlights the story of Yoseph who was favored by his father. As a mark of his affections, Ya'acov made his son a special tunic, "k'tonet passim", a tunic of "passim". Unlike the commonly held view that this robe, or tunic, was made up of multi-colored stripes, the word "passim" actually indicates that the robe was extra long - covering the feet and especially the flat of the hands. The verb p.s.s  (pey, samech, samech) means to “disappear” or “pass on” (e.g.  Psalms 12:1), which means that the hand would ‘disappear’ because of the ampleness of the cloth.  It was of a style "such as the daughters of the king dressed themselves" (in 2nd Sam. 13:18, David's daughter, Tamar, is recorded wearing such a robe). By clothing Yoseph in a princely garb, Ya'acov communicated to the rest of his sons that he had ordained him to inherit the birthright. It is no wonder that Ya'acov's favored son incurred the wrath of his brothers, even before he shared his dreams with them. When Ya'acov (or Yisrael, as he is called when interacting with this son) heard Yoseph's second dream, he too became somewhat exasperated with this spoiled brat. However, the text goes on to tell us that, "his father kept the saying in his heart" (37:11). Another parent, who on one occasion "treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart", and who at another time "hid [the words] in her heart" was Miriam, Yeshua's mother (Luke 2:19, 51). In her case, as well as in Ya’acov’s, these “things” were prophetic and had to do with a grand destiny awaiting the son.

Yoseph’s brothers’ response to each dream’s account was that they “hated him even more” (37:5, 8). “Even more” is not a direct translation of the original, which is “va-yosiphu” – “and they added”. In other words, more hatred was added to the negative emotions that the brothers were already harboring toward their sibling. What makes the usage of this verb here quite intriguing is its root connection - (alef, samech, pey/fey) - to the name of the one who was the object of this hatred.

The Parasha’s account of the conflict between Yoseph and his brothers, in particular the sons of Bilha and Zilpa (ref. 37:2), is marked by an absence of “shalom”: “And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him” (v. 4, emphasis added).  But even though the situation was not resolved, when the brothers went to Shechem to shepherd their father’s flocks, “Israel said to Joseph, ‘Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ So he said to him, ‘Here I am.’  Then he said to him, ‘Please go and see if it is well with your brothers [‘see the peace of…’] and well with the flocks [again ‘see the peace of…’], and bring back word to me’" (37:13-14 emphases added).  Yisrael sought information as to the “peace” of his sons who were, supposedly, doing their work in Shechem. Some years earlier, when he returned to the Land after his sojourn in Aram, Shechem was the first location where he found himself. Last week we noted that, “Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem (33:18).  That “safely”, as we know, is actually “shalem” – which is whole, unharmed (and perhaps ‘in one piece’).  However, this condition of “shalem” did not lead to “shalom”. The fallacy of “shalom in Shechem” (or Sh’chem, in Hebrew) was perpetuated when Hamor and Shechem his son, the “lords of the land”, who were also involved in the rape of Dina, presented to their compatriots the so-called peaceable offer of Yaacov’s sons: “These men are at peace with us. Therefore let them dwell in the land and trade in it. For indeed the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters to us as wives, and let us give them our daughters” (34:21 emphasis added). Sure, if flesh and greed are gratified, we can all be happy and at peace! The all-time guarantee for the ultimate “shalom” in the world is made up of gratifying sexual appetites, material covetousness, and egoistic ambitions. And when those are not to be had, the spirits of lust, greed and jealousy prevail, as is so well demonstrated in our Parashat Va’yeshev.

Another quick note on the parallel of the Sh’chem episode to our current one: There it says that “Dina went out to see the daughters of the land” (34:1), while here her uncle is “wandering in the filed” on his way to find his brothers. Both “field trips”, in the very same area of the country, ended in harmful and violent circumstances perpetrated upon these two walkers. Yet the one obvious difference is that Dina, unlike Yosef, went on her own volition.

Ya'acov may have been concerned for his sons' safety in Sh'chem, as that town's residents most likely remembered them only too well.2  Much latter, in B’resheet (Genesis) 45:8, the following words will be declared by Yoseph to his brothers who, in parallel with his present situation, would also be sent, but this time to Egypt:  "So now it was not you that sent me hither, but Elohim…".3  The commentator goes on to say that "this verse supplies the key to the understanding of the whole story, which unfolds a dual level of the mission. There is the obvious mission which Ya'acov sends his son on, but underlying this mission lies the hidden (deep) workings of Providence Who is sending the descendants of Avraham to Egypt." It is this connection to Avraham which brings the "Valley of Chevron" (see 37:14) into the picture, even though Chevron was on a mountain and not in the valley. The commentator continues: "Emek ("valley of") Chevron is referring to God's mysterious and deep prophecy to Avraham, and is a play on the word "emek," literally "deep place".4  To that we would add that the episode of the father (Ya'acov) who sends his son to seek "the remainder of his brethren [who will return]…" (Micha 5:3), also forms an equivalent picture of the heavenly Father sending His Son to bring back to Himself His children (the sons of Yisrael/Ya'acov). Let us also take note of Yoseph’s response to being sent, “here am I” – “hineh’ni,” being a condensed form of “hineh ani” – “behold here I am.” Although a common idiom, which we have encountered even up to this point (e.g. Gen. 27:18), what comes to mind is another ‘send off.’ In Yisha’ayahu (Isaiah) 6:8 we read the following: “And I heard the voice of YHVH, saying, whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, here am I [hineh’ni]; send me!“ (Italics added).
Ya'acov sends Yoseph from Chevron, which is in Yehuda, to Sh'chem which is in Shomron (Samaria), from where Yoseph goes on to Dotan (Dothan), also in Shomron, and is then taken to Egypt ("the world"). This route becomes a geographical prototype foreshadowing the journey of the Gospel and its witnesses, from Yehuda to Shomron and to the uttermost parts of the world (ref. Acts 1:8). 

Interestingly, the shepherds did not lead their flocks to the green and serene pastures of Sh’chem (or at least did not stay there), but continued on their way. As for Yoseph, he was directed by “a man” to follow them northward, to Dotan. Notice that Yoseph’s informant did not require much information; he already knew who the “brothers” were, and neither was he ignorant as to their whereabouts.  Even so today, if we earnestly seek for our brothers, the Man will not withhold any information from us. He will lead us directly to them (even if there is a cost involved). It is just a matter of having ears to hear and a heart to obey.

But what awaited Yoseph in Dotan was far from a hearty reunion. His brothers sought to kill him, and only by Reuven’s intervention was his life spared, and he was cast into a pit. While Yoseph was naked, and no doubt thirsty and hungry, his brothers sat down to eat bread (37:24-25). “Bread” is "le’chem," of the root (lamed, chet, mem) which is also the root for the verb "to fight," and for the noun "war" ("milchama"). The  men ate their bread - lechem - while in their hearts there was a war-like attitude - milchama - toward their brother. Proverbs 4:17 says of the wicked: "they eat the bread of wickedness." The verb for "eat" there is "la'cha'mu," which normally would be understood as "fight," making this verse applicable therefore to the wickedness manifested by Yoseph's brothers.  Shlomo Ostrovski comments here that Yoseph’s brothers had no idea that some day they would seek out their victim for the very substance with which they were now satisfying their hunger 5, while denying him of it.

And so, even when the various episodes involve other individuals, named and unnamed, the Word points to Yoseph’s central role all the way. His present circumstances being echoed in Yirmiyahu 31:15, where Rachel is described "weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more". However, in Hebrew it says "because he is no more". Since this does not make syntaxical sense, we have to ask, 'what does this mean'? Well, back in our Parasha the bewildered Reuven, upon realizing that Yoseph was no longer in the pit, cried out: "the lad is no more" (37:30). "He is no more" is repeated twice in next week's Parasha, this time by Yehuda while addressing Yoseph (42:13, 32). Thus, the emphasis regarding Rachel's lost children is in usage of "one" - Yoseph (with past, present and future implications), while this "no more", "eyne'nu", is about to be replaced by "hineni" - here I am - just as Yoseph responded to his father when the latter sent him to seek them (37:13).

Yoseph was brought to Egypt - "mitzrayim" - the narrow place of adversity - but "YHVH was with Joseph, so he became a successful man…" (39:2). "Successful" takes us back to the word "matzli'ach" that we studied in Parashat Cha’yey Sarah (in Genesis 24:21), which is where we noted that it means to “cause to advance." It is quite evident who caused Yoseph to advance, so much so that even his pagan master, Potiphar, recognized it (v. 3). According to Studies in B’resheet, Yoseph's "master saw and heard Yoseph make mention of the name of his God and attribute his success and abilities not to his powers but to the Almighty."6 This conclusion by the Sages is not unfounded. In fact, it is borne out by what Yoseph says on various other occasions. In 39:9, when warding off the advances of Potiphar's wife, he exclaimed, "How then could I do this great evil and sin against Elohim?" In 40:8, when asked to interpret dreams while in prison, he responded: "Do not interpretation belong to Elohim?" Yoseph will continue to mention the name of his Elohim even when brought before Par'oh (Pharaoh), in the next Parasha.

But in the meantime, the opening verse of chapter 39 reiterates his (temporary) decline: “Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt” (emphasis added).  This event seems to have taken place simultaneously with Yehuda’s departure from his country, from his family and from his father’s house (cf. Gen. 12:1). What is the difference between each of those descends? Yehuda’s guilt and self-condemnation caused him to choose a way out, which led to his spiritual back sliding, whereas Yoseph was brought down not of his own volition. There is a very clear distinction in the respective responses of these two men. The one was moving from bad to worse, without looking for a redemptive opportunity, whereas the other, who was subject to others’ decisions, made good of every opportunity that came his way. However, in each of those cases there exists the overriding sovereignty of YHVH, in spite of what may be ‘natural’ inclinations (see Proverbs 16:9). When Yehuda left his family, he followed his heart’s leaning – va-yet (meaning “incline” or “lean” 38:1) and went over to his Adulamite friend Hirah upon whom he was relying for help. Later, when he saw the “harlot,” it says that “he turned – va-yet - to her” (38:16), once again following his inclinations and desires. On the other hand, after Yoseph was subject to someone else’s lust, it says of him that YHVH “was with Yoseph and [literally] – va-yet - inclined/turned his mercy/loving kindness/grace [chesed] toward him(39:21 emphasis added).

Yehuda’s downward journey was accompanied by many mishaps, although every now and then there was evidence of an attempt on his part to do the “right thing.” How typical of guilt, shame, and self-condemnation to lead us to try and cover them up by “good works”! Thus, his sons’ names provide a clue as to these feeble attempts. Yehuda named his firstborn “Er,” meaning “awake.” He was hoping that his depression and spiritual slumber could be redeemed by having this firstborn. His second son was called “Onan” – “on” being strength. Rachel named Binyamin, Ben-Oni, “son of my strength” (and not “sorrow” as commonly thought) as his birth had depleted all of her strength and brought about her death. As to Yehuda’s third son, the latter was born under strange circumstances: “He was at Chezib when she bore him” (38:5). Who was at Chezib? Was it the newborn (and his mother), or was it the father? What is Chezib? Is it truly a place, or is it a description of a condition? Chezib means “lie, deception, falsehood.” Is it possible that Shelah was a product of lying and deception, and was therefore the son of another man, rather than Yehuda’s?  Or was Yehuda away while he was born, causing his wife great grief? One way or another, Shelah’s birth was not a cause of great joy, otherwise why would Scripture take the trouble to record the fact that “he was in chezib” at the birth? The name Shelah could possibly mean “hers,” reinforcing the possibility that the boy may have not been Yehuda’s biological son.

When Yehuda’s degeneration reached its peak, he turned (as we saw above) to a prostitute (after his wife’s death), with whom he left his most precious possessions: signet, cord and staff. Like Easv, who for momentary satisfaction was willing to give up his birthright, Yehuda had given the ‘markers’ of his identity and authority to the one whom he perceived to be a prostitute. Interestingly, later, when he went looking for her to retrieve his treasures and to cover up his embarrassment and pride (and said, "Let her take them – the objects - for herself, lest we be shamed; 38:23 emphasis added), he used the term “k’desha,” which is a “temple prostitute.” However, that word shares its root with “kadosh” – set apart and holy. In verses 21 and 22 of chapter 38 this word appears 3 times. Again, a hint as to the true nature of this woman, who turned out to be “kdosha,” holy and “righteous,” as Yehuda himself came to realize (v. 26). Interestingly, at Yehuda’s lowest point of spiritual and moral collapse, YHVH intervened by using that which appeared to be the very symbol of lowliness and humiliation.

Tamar insisted to "raise up the name of the deceased" (to borrow words from Ruth 4:5). Tamar's real identity and motive were only discovered when she produced a pledge in the form of a seal, cord and staff left to her by her father-in-law, upon her demand to be paid for the “services” she provided him when she masqueraded as a harlot. The pledge given to Tamar was "era'von," of the root a.r.v, which we observed in “erev” - “evening” (in Parashat B’resheet in Genesis 1). This pledge is a guarantee for that which is to come. Indeed, without it Tamar would have been burnt at the stake (ref. vs. 24, 25). When approached by her incensed father in law, Tamar presents the pledge with the words:  By the man to whom these belong, I am with child. And she said, please determine whose these are” (38:25). “Please determine” – ha’ker na, in Hebrew. How did Tamar know that those were the very words that Yehuda and his brothers used many years before, when presenting their father with the bloody tunic of Yoseph: please examine – haker na - it to see whether it is your son's tunic or not" (38:32)? Next week we will encounter the same verb with some variation. And so, not only was the life of Tamar spared, her action guaranteed that YHVH's principle of redemption was implemented; that is, the bringing forth of life from death (Yehuda having suffered the loss of two sons gained now another two), while also insuring the continuity of what was to become the tribe of Yehuda.

When it was her time to give birth, Tamar, like Rivka, had twins who, like the former pair, had an innate 'knowledge' of the importance of the birthright. Again, a competition over who would be born first took place. Ultimately, the “breaker," the "portetz," gained the upper hand and was therefore named Peretz (v. 29). Many years later, the prophet Micah will declare, "the breaker goes up before them. They break out, pass through the gate and go out by it. So their king goes on before them and YHVH at their head" (2:13). The preceding verse informs us that the subjects of this description are those who will be gathered out of Ya'acov, and who are the remnant of Yisrael which will be "put together like sheep in the fold, like a flock in the midst of its pasture they will be noisy with men."  Thus, not only will the proverbial “Poretz” – Breaker-Leader – be a descendent of Peretz, so will some of those who are destined to follow Him.

That Yoseph is the protagonist of our story is not difficult to determine, and Scripture continues to underscore this fact, not only overtly but also by using subtler means. In chapter 37, as we observed above, and also in 38 the verb y.s.f  – to add, to repeat – which is the root of Yoseph’s name (the second meaning that Ra’chel gave for naming him thus, 30:24), appears four times. And so we read in 37:5, 8: “And she conceived yet again  - va’tosef - and bore a son, and called his name Shelah(38:5a). “So Judah came to the realization and said, ‘She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.’ And he never knew her again – “velo yasaf” (38:26 ).

Among the many lessons that Yehuda was taught by Tamar, his daughter in law, he also had to realize that things are not always what they seem to be, a lesson that he will apply one more time when many years later he will meet the ‘mighty Egyptian ruler.’

Now back in Egypt, Potiphar's wife, in her attempt to cover up her own disloyalty and take revenge at the same time, tried to implicate Yoseph. She, like so many others in the course of history, subtly enlisted the various members of her household to join her in an all out attack on her servant. In the process of her "unscrupulous defaming of Yoseph she makes subtle differentiation between her phrasing of the account to her slaves and subsequently to her husband. She does not employ the term "slaves" when addressing the slaves themselves. Yoseph is simply a Hebrew. To her husband, however, she says, "the Hebrew slave." In order to win her slaves over and gain their sympathies she is at pains not to create any feeling of solidarity among the slaves for Yoseph, as one of them. After all, it was a common thing for masters to denounce their slaves. They would naturally side with their fellow sufferer. Therefore, she subtly changed her tone and stated that he is was not one of them, but a stranger, a Hebrew, the common enemy of all of them. To strengthen the impression and arouse their hostility for Yoseph she did not say that the Hebrew slave came to “me,” but rather: "see, a Hebrew was brought to us, to mock us" (39:14 italics added). In short, the Hebrew man has not only wronged me but all of us; he has dishonored the whole Egyptian nation…  Potiphar's wife in her effort to gain sympathy lumps her slaves together with herself, as part of one family. The common enemy is the Hebrew. The immense gap is forgotten, the enormous class distinction between slave and master is overlooked in the cause of temporary self-interest."7

This Parasha’s two women, whose stories are told side by side, are both involved in sexual promiscuity. However, in spite of the fact that it was Tamar who actually ‘exercised’ her heart’s intent, while the second, Potiphar’s unnamed wife did not, it is the first who was declared righteous (38:26) for having pursued, at all costs, the righteousness of Elohim, i.e. life from the dead in the form of redemption.

After the episode in his master’s house, Yoseph was put in prison and just like an echo from his previous experience, we read the words: "YHVH was with him, and whatever he did YHVH made to prosper ("matzli'ach")" (39:23 italics added). Although our Parasha ends with Yoseph seemingly being forgotten and once again being repaid evil for the good he had done (see 40:9-15, 21), this is just the beginning of what is to become a glorious career.

The nation of Yisrael-in-the-making is seen learning the principles of redemption, as each of its figureheads (Yehuda and Yoseph) is exposed to powerful personal experiences pertaining to YHVH's kingdom principles.

1. Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem 1976, 1999.
2. Ibid
3. Studies in Bereshit, Toldot 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
4. Ibid
5. Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem 1976, 1999.
6. Studies in Bereshit, Toldot 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner  Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
7. Ibid.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

This time we have something quite different. Remember that in Chapter 37:15 it says that a man found Yoseph in the field, while Yoseph was wandering around? We noted above that the man did not wait for Yoseph to approach him, but rather he took the initiative by asking Yoseph what he was seeking (notice, he didn’t refer to people, as he didn’t say “whom are you seeking?”). Yoseph, for his part, responded (v. 16) by saying, “it is my brothers whom I am seeking. Pray tell me where are they shephering?” (lit. Hebrew translation). Yoseph took it for granted that the man would have information about his brothers. Here is the transliteration of Yoseph’s response, in verse 16, to the man:

Et achai anochi meva’kesh, hagida na lee eyfo hem ro’eem.
And here is the order of the words as they appear in Hebrew:
It is my brothers (which) I am seeking, tell please to me where they (are) shephering.

Now that you have all of this information, are you ready to learn to sing these words?

Aaron Razel is a known musician and singer who often sings Biblical texts. In between the sung part of this particular piece he ‘raps’ a text that is relevant to life in present day Israel, inspiring and encouraging a focus on unity. For you Yoseph’s words may also have great current relevance and significance.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’yishlach – B’resheet (Genesis): 32:3 -ch.36 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

"Then Ya'acov sent  [va’yishlach] messengers - "mal’a'chim" - before him to his brother Esau…"  (32:3). These are the opening words of our Parasha. "Mal'a’chim", as we know, are angels, messengers, or emissaries. Ya'acov had seen them in dreams (aside from the famous ladder scene in 28:12, an angel also addressed him in a dream in 31:10-13). He had also run into YHVH's messengers when he departed from Lah'van (32:1,2), and now he sends messengers, human “mal'a’chim,” to his brother Esav. The root of "mal'a’ch" (singular) is “la'a'ch” (lamed, alef, chaf), meaning "to send". It is from this verb (which is not in use as such) that we get the noun: "m’la'cha," occupation, work, workmanship (such as the service that was preformed in the Mishkan), possession and more. Later on, when Esav will propose that Ya'acov come along with him with his entire entourage, the latter will refuse and say that he will move "according to the pace of the cattle that are before him…" (33:14). "Cattle" (or “livestock”) here is also "m’la’cha", as the herds would typically go out ahead, or be sent forth in front of the retinue. When "YHVH rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done" (Gen. 2:2), it was His "m'la’cha" from which He had ceased. This is one example of how the Hebrew language is able to accommodate, as it were, in one word or term, cattle, angels, occupation, the holy service rendered unto YHVH in His Abodde, and even His work of creation.

Such diverse ‘blends’ are not uncommon in Hebrew, and provide a window to the understanding of the thought pattern or mentality of the society which gave birth to them. When the root word for "work", for example, is "to send forth" what does it say about the society where this usage originated? What does it tell us about the basic understanding of the concept of "work" or "occupation"? It certainly speaks of production or labor which does not remain in confinement, or only within one's vicinity. Rather, it appears that the work is rendered or performed for the community and is looked upon as a mission (by its very definition) and therefore cannot be considered incidental or self-serving. The word "m'la’cha" also refers to the one performing it, again, pointing to a member of a socially-inclined community.  The content of the one and only proverb where "m'la’cha" is found, validates what the etymology of this word reveals. Thus, Mishley (Proverbs) 24:27 reads, "prepare your work ("m'la’cha") outside, and make it ready for yourself in the field; afterwards, then, build your [own] house" (italics added).

Just before Ya'acov and company venture to cross the Yarden (Jordan) in anticipation of the unknown, the much concerned Ya'acov prays for safety and deliverance. At the same time he also expresses gratitude to the Elohim of his fathers, acknowledging his own unworthiness "of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant; for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies (camps - ma'cha'not)" (32:10). The text of 32:11-12a is sung (in Hebrew) by Yonatan Razel. Here is the link:

At the end of last week's Parasha we noted the usage of "double camp." Here (in 33:1), Ya'acov is actually dividing up his family into two (out of concern for their safety, but employing a strategy typical of his shrewd disposition). This division hints, yet again, at the future state of his house/family/progeny. We must note, however, that the present division does not conform to the way in which the 'nation of Ya'acov' will eventually split up.

Next we are faced by the following scene: "Now he [Jacob] arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak" (32: 22, 24). Wrestle here, "(va)ye'a'vek," is remarkably similar to the proper name "Yabbok” – “Jabbok” (remember that in Hebrew b and v sounds are designated by the same letter), the root of both being a.v/b.k (alef, vet/bet, kof), forming the noun "ah’vak," which is “dust.” Naturallly, an 'engagement' such as the one in which Ya'acov and the "man" were involved would have raised no small amount of dust. "Ah’vak" speaks of very fine dust, not the kind that is translated "dust of the earth", which is "ah'far" (mentioned and discussed in Parashat Chayey Sarah in Gen. 23). The dust contained in the river's name, as well as in the verb chosen to describe Ya'acov's struggle with the unnamed person in the dark, add even more (proverbial) haziness and mystery to the already obscure event. Even Ya'acov's name-change to “Yisra'el” is not quite clear. The reason for the change is given as, "For you have striven with Elohim and with men and have prevailed" (32:28). The name was bestowed in response to Ya'acov's demand to be blessed by the "man," whom he was not willing to release until and unless his request was granted. Additionally, the river’s name, “Yabbok” may also be connected to the root b.k.k (bet, kof, kof) which forms the verb for to “empty out”,  thus possibly lending a further perspective to the scene that had just been imposed upon Ya’acov/Yisrael.

The name “Yisra'el” is a composite word formed by the verb "sara" (s.r.h. sin, resh, hey), to “rule, persist, persevere, strive, and "el" - “strong” or “mighty one, from which the word “Elohim” is derived. What was meant by the declaration to Ya’acov, and in what way was his life, at least up to that point, congruent with the definition of this name? Were his 'dusty' struggles on behalf of self' taken into account in this lofty pronouncement? Or was it simply a statement of facts, devoid of any qualitative and personal evaluations? Was the name Yisra’el and its meaning the Almighty's way of bestowing pure and unadulterated grace upon him -  the name possessing more of a prophetic significance for a future day when Ya'acov would be empowered by his Elohim - rather than a description of present day facts? Whether Ya’acov ‘merited’ that name at that moment, at least the persistence that he demonstrated that night did, to some degree, validate the meaning of the new name.

Incidentally, if one were to read the consonants making up “Yisrael” without any vowels (which would have been absent in the original Scripture writings), it could be read as “yashar-el” – El is upright (and hence in the future even Yaacov-Yisrael will be ‘nicknamed’ Yeshurun – the one who has been made straight).

When it was Ya'acov's turn to ask the ‘mystery man’ for his name, the response came in the form of a question: "Why is it that you ask my name?" (32:29). When Ma’no'ach (Manoah), Shimshon's (Samson) father, asked the very same question of the messenger ("mal’ach") who came to him, the response was "for it is wonderful" (Judges 13:18). In the case before us the reply is followed by, "and he blessed him there". What was the blessing? Did it simply constitute the name change? Additionally, seeing that the story of Yaacov is so replete with “mal’achim” it is quite intriguing that in this particular episode the one, whom we just compared to the person who appeared before Shimshon’s parents, is not called a “mal’a’ch”, but rather “a man” – “ish”! But in Yaacov’s eyes this “man” was Elohim Himself (32:31).

That “mal’achim” are an inextricable part of Ya’acov’s life exprerience will become evident even later on, as even close to death and while about to bless Yosef’s sons,  when Ya’acov reflects upon his life he makes reference to the “angel who redeemed me from all evil”  and even invokes him as the one to "bless the lads" (Gen. 48:16). In Hosea 12:4, the “man” whom Ya’acov struggled with, who as we noted was not defined as a “mal’ach” in the original scene, is recognized here as such. 

After his first heavenly encounter, upon depating from the land, Ya’acov’s experience was marked by the  'Elohim of a place', as he deemed to have been in what he called, "the house of Elohim" (“bet El” - Gen. 28:16,17,19). However, now, upon his return, it is the "face of Elohim" that he encounters – “P'ni'el (ref. 32:31). An echo of his P'ni'el experience may be detected in what he says to his brother Esav in 33:10, "for I see your face (pa’ne'cha) as one sees the face of Elohim ("p'ney Elohim")" (italics added). Ya'acov's perspective certainly seems to have changed. Having seen "Elohim face to face", he is now able to view even Esav differently.

As he re-enters the land of his fathers, Ya'acov walks in the footsteps of his grandfather Avraham (see Gen. 13:6) and comes to Sh'chem (Shechem). His coming to that town after the encounter with his brother does not pass by unnoticed, "and Ya'acov came safely to the city of Shechem" (33:18 cf. 28:21, where Yaacov prayed for a safe return - shalom). The literal rendering here is, “Ya'acov came "shalem" -  that is, whole, in one piece and in peace to Sh'chem” ("shalem" of course being of the same root as "shalom"). Perhaps this is also an ironic preamble to the events that are about to follow, which will turn out to be far from peacful. Thus the next chapter introduces us to the conflict between Ya'acov's family and the local populace. In 34:21 the root sh.l.m comes up again, when Cha’mor (Hamor) and his son Sh'chem attempt to talk the town folk into being circumcised. Included in what they said about Ya'acov and his family were also the following words: "these people are peaceful toward us…" - "sh'lemim," “whole hearted, with good intentions, undivided”. We soon learn that nothing could be further from the truth.

In chapter 35:1 Elohim tells Ya'acov to "rise ("kum") and go to Bet-El… and make an altar there to Elohim, who appeared before you…" Last week we noted that Ya'acov's call to "rise up" started sounding when he first found himself in the "makom" (place) which he named Bet-El (ref 28:19). Now, having completed a full cycle, Ya'acov is to go back there and continue to "rise up." Truly, from that point Ya'acov's on going maturation process becomes evident. First, he orders his family to "put away the foreign gods which are among you…" (v. 2). In last week's Parasha (31:32b etc.) we saw that Ya'acov's household was not free of idolatry, indeed the ‘man about the house’ seemed to tolerate that state of affairs -  but not so now! After all the foreign idols and the earrings were gathered, Ya'acov buried them under the "ela," the terebinth tree (v.4). This small tree, along with the "alon" (“oak”) share the root "el", pointing to strength, and hence "el” - "god", which has been surfacing often in these narratives about Ya'acov. In fact, in these Parashot (plural for Parasha) the title "Elohim" (plural of "el"), rather than YHVH, seems to be more prevalent.  In verse 8 of our passage, Rivka's nurse D'vora (Deborah) dies and is buried under the "alon," and thus the place was named Alon Ba'chut ("oak of weeping"). Many other place names bear titles connected to the oak tree (Elon Moreh, Eloney - "oaks of…" - Mamreh etc.), which is an indigenous tree and is known for its strength and rejuvenation ability. The oak and the teberinth have both remained symbols of strength and durability, and as such the remnant of the Nation is compared to them in Yishayahu (Isaiah) 6:13: "Yet there will be a tenth portion… and it will again burn, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is felled…." (italics added).

Back to our narrative in chapter 35, where Ya'acov calls his Elohim:  "The El who answered me in the day of my distress…" ("tzarati") (35:3, emphasis added).  Before that, in 32:7, we read that he "was greatly afraid and distressed". The word for "distressed" there is "(va)ye'tzar." The two consonants (tz.r tzadi, resh) happen to be used in numerous other words such as “adversity, affliction, anguish, distress, tribulation or trouble”, and in several more such as tza'ar - sorrow; tzar - enemy, adversary; tzarar - bind, tie up, restrict, narrow, scant, cramped, a show of hostility, vexing; tzaraf - smelt, refine, test; matzref - a crucible or instrument of refining; tzir'ah - hornet; tzorev - burn, scorch; tzara'at - leprosy; batzoret - drought; matzor - siege; mitzrayim –  straits, Egypt, and more. Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 30:7 contains a reference to "tzarat Ya'acov”, Ya'acov's trouble: "Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it; and it is the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it".

Immediately after Dvorah’s burial Elohim appears before Ya'acov once again, blessing and reminding him that his name is no longer Ya'acov, but Yisrael, repeating the promises He had given to his fathers (ref. 35:9-11). This is the first time that Elohim reveals Himself to Ya’acov also as El-Shaddai (the “breasted Elohim”). The death of the nurse maid signified severance (for Yisrael) from the natural (breasts) and having to now cling to Elohim’s.  In commemoration of the event, Ya'acov-cum-Yisrael sets up a pillar over which he pours oil (v. 14).

Next comes the birth of Binyamin, whom his mother named Ben-Oni, commonly translated “son of my sorrow,” although the usage of “on” as “strength” is much more prevalent. Thus if Binyamin (as the name is pronounced in Hebrew) drained all of his mother’s energy and vigor, she could have easily meant his name to be   "son of my strength." His father, on the other hand, called him "Ben-Yamin," meaning "son of the right (hand)" (35:18). Naming him as he did, Ya'acov was actually conferring upon him a firstborn position, perhaps because he was the first and only one to be born in the Land. In B’resheet 49:3, in Ya’acov’s last words to his sons he says about Reuven: “you are my firstborn, My might and the beginning of my strength…” “Strength” in this instance is “on”. Thus a certain symmetry emerges here; Ya’acov’s last words to his sons echo the words of his beloved wife about the youngest son, who exhausted her strength, while Israel’s firstborn exhausted more than once his father’s expectations of being mighty and strong  (and hence ended up losing this position, see 1st Chron. 5:1).

Upon Ra’chel’s death, Ya’acov set up a pillar upon her grave (35: 20). Doing this he was actually repeating what he had done in verse 14 above, after YHVH had talked to him. In both cases it says, “va’ya’tzev ma’tze’va,” that is “and he placed a pillar.” The very act of placing, as well as the pillar itself, are of the root (yod, tzadi, bet/vet), meaning to “station” or “take a stand.” Just as he did in last week’s Parasha (ref 28:18), Ya’acov again commemorates the events in his life by signposts. There is a significant reference to signposts and landmarks in Jeremiah 31:21 (while in 14-15 there is reference to Rachel), where the command to the virgin daughter of Yisrael, using the same by-now-familiar verb, is issued: “set up” (signposts and landmarks) – ha’tzivi  (second person, feminine, singular).

In chapter 36, the Parasha’s last, there is a short episode (verses 6 and 7), interposed in the record of Esav's progeny, which explains the physical separation of the brothers - Ya’acov and Esav: "For their property had become too great for them to live together, and the land where they sojourned could not sustain them because of their livestock." This is a clear echo from the past, reminding us of Avraham and Lot's separation (ref. Gen. 13:1-12).

Let us also take note of 36:12, which tells us that Esav's first born, Elifaz, had a firstborn by his concubine Timnah, whom he named Amalek. The latter was to become Yisrael's fiercest enemy. Being a firstborn (and a son of a firstborn), Amalek must have carried his grandfather Esav’s hatred for, and murderous impulse against Ya'acov, and has therefore always targeted the latter’s progeny, resulting in a state of perpetual animosity (ref. Gen. 27:41; Ex. 17:8-14, 16; Deut. 25:17-19).

* “Hypostatic union” is the theological term used for the ‘union’ of Messiah’s humanity and divinity.

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use:

The dramatic scene, its precursor and prelude, all make available to us a number of simple words, nouns and verbs, that are used in everyday speech. Yaacov’s struggle (the verb “va’ye’avek”), for example, yields “avak”, dust, as we saw above. From his distress (“tzara”) we draw “narrow”, and his interfacing with Elohim takes us to “panim” (face). When Yaacov departed the land he prayed to return safely (“be’shalom”) to his father’s house, and when he did, after more than twenty years, the narrative stresses that Yaacov came safely (“shalem”) to Shechem.

Ya’acov sent off Ra’chel and Yosef
Ya’acov shalach et Ra’chel ve’Yosef

In the narrow place there is dust
Ba’makom ha’tzar yesh ava’k (lit. in the place narrow there is dust)

The face of the son
Ha’panim shel ha’ben

A whole heart
Lev shalem (lit. a heart whole)

Whole heartedly
B’lev shalem (literally, with a heart whole)