Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
The end of the book of Genesis focuses on the men – on Jacob and his sons. The Exodus from Egypt, in contrast, begins with five courageous women: Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter.
A new pharaoh has risen in Egypt and enslaved the Hebrew people. Even more he attempts the world’s first holocaust against the Jews, commanding that all Hebrew baby boys be killed at birth by the two midwives who delivered them. However, Shiphrah and Puah ignored the order and lied to Pharaoh saying that the Hebrew women were too quick, and the babies were already born and hidden away by the time they arrived. Amazingly, Pharaoh believed the midwives, and did not punish them.
Who were Shiphrah and Puah, and why did they defy Pharaoh?
In Hebrew they are referred to as m’yaldot ha’ivriot. This can mean either “the Hebrew midwives” (meaning they were Hebrews themselves) or “midwives to the Hebrews” (which suggests they were not). If they were Israelites, then it is easy to understand why they defied Pharaoh, but what if they weren’t?
The names “Shiphrah” and “Puah” are not Hebrew, but more likely Canaanite or Ugaritic in origin. Still that does not mean that they were “other.” While the tradition generally refers to them as Israelites, there is some disagreement, and in truth, we will never know. Rabbi Azriel Fellner asks:
“If they were Egyptian, from where did they get the spiritual and moral strength to counter an edict from Pharaoh? If they were of Hebrew origin, why would Pharaoh trust them to follow through on an order that would have them murder one of their own? … What’s more, why is this story told at all? Is it just to share with us an act of civil disobedience?”
It’s quite a conundrum, and it gets even murkier when we look at the Hebrew which describes their act of civil disobedience:
“The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the King of Egypt told them; vat’chayena et ha’yeladim – they let the boys live.” [Ex. 1:15-17]
While vat’chayena et ha’yeladim is usually translated as “they let the boys live,” it could also mean “they caused the boys to live.” In the Midrashic tradition, they not only delivered the babies, but helped to look after them.
I think that the Hebrew here is intentionally fuzzy. We are not supposed to know whether Shiphrah and Puah were Israelites or the world’s first righteous gentiles. Nor can we be sure of what exactly they did. We can be sure, however, of two things. First, they were motivated by yirat HaShem (fear or awe of God). The late Rabbi Harold Schulweiss said, “To say ‘no’ to evil is the deepest affirmation of the existence of God.” This is true for Jews and gentiles alike. Second, Shiphrah and Puah demonstrated extraordinary courage in choosing to disobey immoral commands from Pharaoh. At the Nuremburg trials following World War II, defendants of genocidal crimes argued “loyalty to the state,” saying that they could not be held guilty for following the orders of their government leaders. The court, properly, rejected that defense.
It takes resolute courage to refuse immoral orders from those in power. The European Holocaust happened because too many people were afraid or unwilling to defy the commands of the Nazis. The Egyptian Holocaust never happened because of the courage and faith of two women, righteous regardless of their nationality or religion. This is not just a lesson for history, but a lesson for today. In the Israeli military, soldiers are required to question orders which seem immoral. However, in much of the world challenging immoral orders and laws remains a dangerous proposition. Enshrined in Torah, Shiphrah and Puah are among our greatest role models.
And what of Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter? They too demonstrated deep courage, but their stories will have to wait for another column.
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
This week the book of Genesis comes to its end, and along with it the story of the mamas and the papas (the matriarchs and patriarchs). VaYechi is perhaps one of the most intimate and difficult portions in Genesis because the text places us right in the room with Jacob as he says goodbye to his family from his deathbed. Throughout Genesis, as each generation of our family neared death the father would bestow a blessing on his eldest son – or rather the one who would be the next bearer of the Covenantal Promise between God and Israel. Abraham blessed Isaac, but not Ishmael. Isaac blessed Jacob, but not Esau. In VaYechi, Jacob breaks with tradition, and offers blessings not only to every one of his sons, but also to two of his grandsons. There will no longer be a single leader of the family. Each of them now will carry the responsibility of maintaining the covenant. Even more, Jacob offers personalized blessings in poetic form, which reflect the character, life path and future of each individual son:
"Asher’s bread shall be rich, and he shall bring forth kingly dishes. Naphtali, a hind set loose who brings forth lovely fawns." [Gen. 49:20-21]
Yet, as Jacob speaks each blessing, his words are not always kind:
“Issachar, a big boned donkey, crouched amidst hearths. He saw that the homestead was goodly, that the land was delightful, and he put his shoulder to the load, became a toiling serf.” [Gen. 49:14-15]
“Simeon and Levi, the brothers – weapons of outrage their trade. In their council let me never set foot, their assembly my presence shun. For in their fury they slaughtered men, at their pleasure they tore down ramparts. Cursed be their fury so fierce, and their wrath so remorseless! I will divide them in Jacob, disperse them in Israel.” [Gen. 49:5-7]c
How are thecse blessings? What is Jacob’s purpose here?
Part of the answer may come from a modern science fiction masterpiece called “Speaker of the Dead.” The author, Orsen Scott Card, imagines Speakers as people who speak the unvarnished truth of a person’s life after they have died. This is quite different from a eulogy. The rabbis teach that while we should never lie in a eulogy, we should edit what we say to only share the good. A Speaker shares everything, especially the most broken and dysfunctional aspects of a person’s life; and connects the dysfunction to the community as a whole. At a Speaking everyone understands how they contributed to the good and the ugly in the life now lost. In the book, this was an exquisitely painful and healing process, which forced everyone to confront the truth of their lives, and in the process give them the opportunity to change.
In some ways, I think that Jacob, on his deathbed is functioning as a ‘Speaker of the Living.’ Jacob shares the unvarnished truth about each son’s character and path to date – forcing them to confront the reality of their choices and actions. He phrases these blessings as poetic prophecies, but we already know that in Torah and Judaism the future is never predetermined: we can change the future with the choices we make today.
Jacob is serving as a sharp and painful mirror to his sons, in effect saying: this is the truth who each of you has become, but is this who you really want to be? If the answer is yes, then wonderful, this is what your future holds. If the answer is no, then you must make better choices.
They may be painful to read, and even more painful to receive, but perhaps these were blessings after all. At the end of his life, with the wisdom that only comes from years of struggle and suffering, Jacob offered his sons the most beautiful and meaningful blessing of all: the truth about the past and what the future will hold if we choose to stay the same.
 I wish that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, was also included – but that is a different story, for another commentary.
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Until VaYigash, our family story has been both sublime and dysfunctional. The sublime we know well: the covenantal relationship established between Abraham and God, and the introduction of an entirely new way of life to the world through the realization of that covenant, have inspired generations of our people. However, we also know the dysfunction, even if we downplay its role in the tradition. From the moment the then-barren Sarah sent her servant Hagar to Abraham to have a child on Sarah’s behalf, and Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael, the generations of the matriarchs and patriarchs struggled with intense jealousy, favoritism and more.
In VaYigash, Judah and Joseph break the cycle. How does it all happen? The famine has now come to the land, affecting not only Egypt but the entire known world. Under Joseph’s leadership, Egypt is the only place where food has been stockpiled, and people come from near and far to purchase food to survive. Among the many who came to Egypt for food, were Joseph’s brothers – sent by Jacob. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. After all, how could they think that a great Egyptian lord dressed in gold and covered in makeup could be the brother they left long ago in an empty pit?
Joseph does not reveal himself right away. Instead, he sets up his younger brother Benjamin, his only full-brother and the new favorite son, by framing him for theft. Joseph sends his troops to arrest Benjamin and gives the brothers permission to leave in peace – so long as Benjamin remains. The brothers, however, refuse to leave – and Judah, the ringleader who originally wanted to kill Joseph steps forward and offers himself in Benjamin’s place.
Judah’s extraordinary act of selflessness was the necessary first step to breaking the cycle of dysfunction. Jealousy is a function of selfishness. Judah was motivated by jealousy when he threw Joseph into the pit. He was concerned with his own pain and desires, and nobody else’s. By offering himself as a prisoner in Benjamin’s place, Judah demonstrates that he grown as a human being. He has replaced his jealousy with resolve, courage and love. Instead of abandoning Benjamin the way he did Joseph, he offers himself – a free-will sacrifice – for the sake of his younger brother and their aging father. Sacrifice is an act of selflessness. We can only make sacrifices when we place the needs of others before our own. When Judah offered himself in place of Benjamin, he unwittingly demonstrated to Joseph that he had moved from a place of extreme selfishness to a place of profound selflessness.
Yet, Judah’s action on its own was not enough to break the cycle. Joseph, too, needed to act. As a Prince of Egypt, Joseph now had the brothers who had wronging him so terribly under his absolute power. He could do whatever he wanted to them. Whatever the temptation may have been, Joseph chooses a different path. Instead of punishing his brothers for what they did to him, he reveals himself as their long-lost brother. While he holds them accountable for what they did, he also forgives them and tells them not to be afraid, that it was all according to God’s plan so that he could protect them.
Make no mistake, this is an enormous moment, requiring strenuous effort from both Judah and Joseph. Judah is prepared to give up his freedom. Joseph is prepared to give up any hope of punishing his brothers. Both choose to let go of the worst of who they were in the past to create a new present and hopeful future.
During the High Holy Days we talk about teshuvah, about making amends, changing our ways and reconciling to heal our relationships. In VaYishlach we see how teshuvah can transform even the most dysfunctional of relationships – if we are willing to change.
The bottom line? We always have a choice.
Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
Joseph was a dreamer, who could read the future in his own dreams and the dreams of others. As a youth he dreamed that his family would one day bow down to him. In the dungeon he interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup bearer and baker, predicting that the baker would be executed in three days and the cup bearer released. In Miketz, Pharaoh dreams troubling dreams which none of his advisors could interpret. Eventually, the cup bearer remembers Joseph, who is called from the dungeon to interpret for Pharaoh.
Joseph tells Pharaoh that his dreams predict seven years of famine, which will be preceded by seven years of plenty. Joseph also explains that the repetition of Pharaoh’s dreams means that God is communicating directly with Pharaoh, and that the matter is fixed. There is no way to avert the famine.
What happens next is nothing less than extraordinary. Joseph, an imprisoned foreign slave, represents the very lowest stratum of the Egyptian social hierarchy. He stands before Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the land, who with a single breath could send Joseph to his death. What does Joseph do? He takes an enormously chutzpadik chance. Joseph does not stop speaking once he has finished interpreting the dreams as Pharaoh commanded. Instead, with the utmost temerity, he dares to offer Pharaoh unsolicited counsel and advice, saying:
“And so, let Pharaoh look out for a discerning, wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this: appoint overseers for the land and muster the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. Let them collect all the food of these good years that are coming and let them pile up grain under Pharaoh’s hand, food in the cities, to keep under guard. And the food will be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will follow in the land of Egypt, that the land may not perish in the famine.” [Gen. 41:33-36]
The rest, as they say, is history. Pharaoh is so taken with the idea, that he promotes Joseph instantly to the rank of viceroy of Egypt and puts him in charge of executing the plan.
Yes, Joseph was a dreamer, but he was also a man of action.
I am reminded of a quote I have taped to the bookshelf next to my computer screen for inspiration. It is based on something Thomas Edison once said, and is also connected to an ancient Japanese proverb:
These are wise words to live by, and yet, by themselves are not enough to capture the full power of this moment in Torah. The rabbis connect Joseph’s actions with the Glory of God, so the last word in this week’s commentary goes to the great Rabbi Akiva, who taught [Pirke Avot 3:15]:
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras