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Who Was Meant to Bow? (Vayeshev)

Note: The following is a brief write up of some ideas to be presented this Shabbos at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, NJ. For the accompanying source sheet with cited references, please click here. 

And Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood stationed upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind (Gen. 37:5-11).

Did Yosef’s dreams predict that his brothers would one day bow down to him? That’s certainly how the dreams ultimately played out—but maybe that’s not how they had to play out. After all, the Gemara tells us that “a dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” Rashi explains: if a dream remains without interpretation then “it cannot be fulfilled for either good or bad, since all dreams follow their interpretation.” Indeed, it was precisely from the story of Yosef’s dreams that R. Elazar derived the principle, “all dreams follow the mouth of the interpreter.” And the Malbim applies this principle explicitly to Yosef’s dreams, arguing that Yosef shared the dreams with his brothers not because he sought to proclaim himself their eventual ruler, but rather because “he assumed that his brothers loved him, and believed that they would offer a favorable interpretation of his dreams, inasmuch as ‘all dreams follow the mouth.’” (more…)

Partners and Precedents (Vayetze)

The following is a brief write-up of some ideas originally presented as part of a series on midrash at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, NJ. 

During his valedictory address to bnei Yisrael, Moshe confers the following blessing upon the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun:

And to Zebulun he said: “Rejoice, Zebulun, in your endeavors, and Issachar, in your tents” (Deut. 33:18).

Rashi, citing the medrash, explains the significance of this blessing as follows:

Zebulun and Issachar entered into a partnership: Zebulun would dwell at the seashore and go out in ships, to trade and make profit. He would thereby provide food for Issachar, and the members of Isaachar would sit and occupy themselves with the study of Torah. (Gen. Rabbah 99:9). (more…)

Big Questions (Toldot)

We’re still several months removed from Pesach, yet this week’s parshah offers us an opportunity to begin thinking already about a set of “four questions.” These are not the four questions of the seder night, of course. Instead, we might call them the “four whys.”

Four times in this week’s parshah we find the members of Yitzchak’s family asking themselves “למה”—“Why?” And the first three of these “whys” sound strangely similar to one another. First, Rivkah asks “why” at the height of her pregnancy: “And the children struggled within her, and she said: ‘If it be so, why [למה] am I thus?’” (Gen. 25:22). Second, Esav asks “why” before selling his birthright: “Behold, I am going to die—so why [למה] do I need this birthright?” (Gen. 25:32). Third, Rivkah again asks why, before instructing Yaakov to flee from the wrath of Esav, whose firstborn blessing he had just claimed from their dying father: “Arise, flee to my brother Laban, to Haran… until your brother’s rage subsides from you, and he forgets what you did to him, and I will send and bring you from there. Why [למה] should I be bereft of both of you on one day?” (Gen. 27:43-45). (more…)

Group Test (Vayera)

The following is a short thought on this week’s parshah, Vayera. For past articles on Vayera, please use the following links: Willful Blindness (2016); Perceiving Providence (2015); Shakespeare and Sodom (2014)

“And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham… And He said, ‘Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you’” (Gen. 22:1-2).

Here are those familiar lines—those which bring us, at the end of our parshah, to the infamous “binding of Yitzchak:” the “akeidah.” Much has been written about the perplexing ordeal which these lines preface. In truth, however, our preface itself requires commentary. After all, the Torah introduces the akeidah to us as a “test” of Avraham’s faith. And yet it is Yitzchak who is to be “brought up as an offering.” What this means—though we often overlook it—is that the outcome of “Avraham’s” ordeal actually lies entirely beyond Avraham’s control. Avraham may well resolve to do Hashem’s bidding, only for Yitzchak to refuse to participate. And suppose that Yitzchak does refuse, and suppose that Avraham therefore falls short of fulfilling Hashem’s command—does Avraham then “fail” the test? (more…)

The End (Shemini Atzeret)

Twice each day, Jews across the world recite a series of Biblical passages referred to collectively as the shema. In the second of these passages, colloquially known as ve-hayah im shamoa (Deut. 11:13-21), Hashem pledges to send bnei Yisrael abundant rain in return for their faithfully upholding His commandments, and warns that He will withhold rain should they forsake those commandments.  (more…)