Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Lesson of Shmos: Don't Underestimate a Woman

This occurred to me today: a common theme in both the text and the Midrashim associated with this week's parsha is that women are the driving force that the powers that be fail to register.  The story recounts how the king of  Egypt put Yosef's accomplishments out of his mind and took a xenophobic view of the Israelites. He stirred up public opinion against them as he appointed tax collectors and then taskmasters over them, pushing them into the subjugation of slavery. Not content with that, though, he started a policy of genocide.

But the genocide was to be effected via the males only. Pharaoh ordered the midwives to only kill the baby boys, figuring the girls pose no threat and can be assimilated into Egyptian society. That is where he erred. The females were not the passive creatures he thought them to be. Even when the midwives gave some indication of that by not carrying out his order (though they claimed that the women managed to give birth on their own, denying them the opportunity to perform a partial-birth aborition) he failed to grasp that this Israelite women were a force to be reckoned with.

He extended his final solution to eliminating the Israelites via the male infants by ordering them all cast into the waters. That prompted the leader of the Israelites, Amram, to separate from his wife. But his daughter put him straight on that. The Midrash Hagadol explains:

 Miriam told her father when he divorced her mother, "Your decrees are harsher than Pharaoh’s. He decreed on the boys, and you have decreed both on the boys and girls. He is wicked so it is doubtful if his decree will hold or not, but you are a righteous man, so your decree is bound to hold. That is not all, but I have seen [through prophecy] that in the futures there will come from you the savior of Israel" Her father saw the truth of Miriam's assertion and remarried his wife. When she gave birth to Moshe and had to throw him in the Nile, her mother slapped her face and said, "Now where is your prophecy?"  Immediately, his sister stationed herself at a distance’ (Shmos 2:4).

The type of faith in redemption that Miriam demonstrated here, as she did (according to the Midrashic identification) in her role as midwife, reflected what the Israelite women were credited in doing in the description of the maros tzovos the mirrors that were then melted down to form the kiyor of the mishkan. Even when their husbands despaired, they asserted their hope for the future and continued to have the children to assure the continuity of their people. The women were the ones with the vision to see beyond the immediate state to the promise of the redemption they knew would come. And their vision remained clear even when the men's was clouded.

Though I've only included some details about Miriam here, in the past, I've looked at some of the individual women in that context who were each remarkable in their own right.  You can read more about Moshe's sister, his mother, his adopted mother, and his wife in:

For other insight into Shmos, see

Friday, January 13, 2017

Vayechi, a unique form of swearing

I heard Rav Goldwicht speak last night. Among the things he touched on was a bridge from Sukkos to Chanukah to Asara BeTeves in the parsha. He said that Yaakov died on Sukkoth (interesting, as that is the holiday associated with him) and was then carried out to Eretz Yisrael on Chanukah (due to the delay in the 40 day mummifying process followed by 30 days of mourning within Egypt) and then finally buried on Asar BeTeves because of the 7 days of mournig observed by the family prior to placing him in Maaras Hamachpela. It was soon after, following the death of the shvatim that the children of Israel came down spiritually, as they picked up on the culture and practices of their surroundings,  and then physically when they were enslaved.

My own thoughts on the parsha were this: Yaakov exacts a form of shvua from Yosef that we only see one other place in TaNaCh, and that is when Avraham exacts a shvua from Eliezer. They both request that oath be signified by the other person placing his hand tachat yereichi. Rashi explained in connection to Avraham that it was the milah that he wished to have him swear by. It was their equivalent of the practice of swearing on a Bible as a physical manifestation of a mitzvah. I was thinking tht there could be something else going on in connection with the milah and both exacted promises. Though Avraham's primary concern was getting Eliezer to find a bride for Yitzchak, he also explicitly stated that his son not be taken out of Israel. Likewise, Yaakov's request for burial was to be returned to Israel after his death.

The bris milah is associated with taking our place in the land of Israel, as mentioned in the connections said in Birchas Hamazon. Accordingly, I thought it's possible that swearing on the milah is about exerting oneself to make the efforts required that will keep that connection to the land -- even on behalf of another. 

Friday, January 06, 2017

Yosef's wife's story

In Parshas Mikeitz Yosef has a complete turnabout of fortune when he interprets Pharaoh's dream and is made viceroy. Once he is established, he also marries. His bride is named Osnas and identified as the daughter of Potiphera, a priest of On. The Midrash (in Pireki D'Rabbi Eliezer quoted by Da'as Zekeinim)identifies him as the same Potiphar who purchased Yosef and say that she was his adopted daugter. Her biological parents were none other than Yosef's half-sister Dina and Schem.  How did she end up adopted in Egypt?

There are a few differences in detail in the accounts, though basically, the family of Yaakov did not want this child in their household and insisted on her being cast out. Yaakov fastened a necklace with  a kind of amulet that identified her family origins to protect her. That's what she had on her when all the women in Egypt set out to see the handsome young viceroy and threw over their jewels, so that's what she threw out to him. He read it and realized who she was and thus found his bride.

It's very fairytale-like: the abandoned child grows up to marry the prince and even has the key accessory (the amulet rather than a glass slipper here) that attests to her identify. So it has a kind of narrative appeal.  That's why this Midrash tends to be told to even very young children despite the fact that there is very little in the text that points to it. But what they are not told it how these details actually point to parallels between Osnas and her husband, as well as to another future leader, Moshe.

Like Yosef, Osnas was cast out and left on the path that would bring her to spend the rest of her life in Egypt with no one who knew her background. Doubtless, the shvatim considered it right and just to abandon this child whom they regarded as mark of shame just like they considered themselves fully justified in selling their brother who appeared to plot against them. Ultimately, they realized that they had been wrong about Yosef, but did they realize the same about Osnas? Both the text and the Midrash do not address that question.

One other thing I was considering, according to the Midrashic identification of Osnas, it is possible to count her (rather than Yocheved as Rashi based on Chazal does or Yaakov as Ibn Ezra does) as the one addition that raises the count of 69 descendants of Yaakov to 70 in Egypt. Yosef and his sons are the last ones to be counted, so it is possibly hinting at her inclusion in the round number. Yet, if she had been disowned, perhaps she is not seen as making the count.

To shift back to when she was left to her fate when she was very young, according to one Midrsahic take, an angel looked after to keep her safe until she was taken into Potiphar's household. In Chizkuni's commentary (cited by Rabbi Joshua Hoffman here That angel is identified as Gavriel, the same one who is identified as the ish who tells Yosef which way to go when he seeks his brothers. So the same angel is the one who leads both Yosef and Osnas to Egypt where they will meet and marry many years later.

But that account also harkens to later Midrashim about angels watching of the Israelite babes who have to be sent out of their homes because of the Egyptian decree on male infants. In fact, there is one particularly famous male infant who offers a striking parallel to Osanas' story because he, too, was adopted by a prominent Egyptian and rasied in that household rather than by his own parents. Of course, that's Moshe.

Another parallel image with Moshe is one account of Osnas that explains her name as a reference to a sne bush. In that account, she was not an infant but a bit older and  hid herself in a bush when cast out of Yaakov's house. The sne image is striking, given the prominent role it plays at Moshe's first revelation from Hashem that he is to have the mission of redeeming his people.

I still find it troubling that Yaakov would allow his granddaughter to be abandoned in that way. In fact, when reviewing some of the takes on the Midrashim, I found a comment that encapsulated exactly how I felt about it: how could someone with the rachamim of Yaakov show such coldness to his own flesh and blood? However, that comment was on a take that suggested that Osnas was not Dina's daughter but Dina herself who was cast out and ended up adopted (as she was very young when attacked by Schem). That commentator rejects that view in part because he could not accept that Yaakov would send his own daughter away. But what of his granddaughter? Even according to the view I've heard that she was not regarded as of the family because her father was from outside the fold, I find it problematic.  I can only accept it as another manifestation of the confusion of what is right that prompted the brothers to sell Yosef.