Transitions – Parshat Mikketz   4 comments

Life is full of transitions.  Sometimes these transitions are clear and separate between distinct seasons of our life.  Yesterday I was single.  Today I’m married.  Yesterday I had no child.  Today I’m a parent.  Yesterday I was in school.  Today I have my degree.

But often times, the transition from one season of our life to the next is not so clear cut, not clearly marked by an event such as a wedding, a birth, a graduation.  Transitions may take place gradually, over the course of time, and we may or may not be aware at first that we are even changing until one day we realize that somehow things are different than they used to be.

In Parshat Mikketz, we find the transition from feast to famine experienced in the ancient Near East of our ancestors.

וַתִּכְלֶינָה שֶׁבַע שְׁנֵי הַשָּׂבָע אֲשֶׁר הָיָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. וַתְּחִלֶּינָה שֶׁבַע שְׁנֵי הָרָעָב לָבוֹא כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמַר יוֹסֵף

“The seven years of abundance that the land of Egypt enjoyed came to an end, and the seven years of famine set in, just as Joseph had foretold.”  (Genesis 41:53-54)

At first blush, this seems pretty simple – the seven years of plenty Joseph had foretold were up, and now Egypt was in for seven years of famine.  One era ends, the next begins: day and night, on and off,  a binary set of experiences so radically different from each other as to change the course of history.

But transitions of this magnitude are rarely that neat.  A closer look at these verses suggests that the break between feast and famine may not have been so clean as it initially appears.

The Torah uses two verbs to describe the transition between these two seven year periods:

וַתִּכְלֶינָה (to end)

וַתְּחִלֶּינָה (to begin)

These words come from two completely different roots that mean exactly opposite things.  Yet the Torah has cleverly chosen two words that, when pronounced, are nearly indistinguishable – vatichlenah and vatchilenah.  The main difference in spelling – a chaf vs. a het – is noticeable in the written word, but is completely lost when spoken.  The remaining difference in vowels is very subtle and easily lost to the untrained ear.

The aural experience of hearing these verses suggests that the transition from feast to famine was not so clear cut.  Just as it is hard to distinguish by ear between the words “ending” and “beginning,” it was likely not so clear to the Egyptians living through it exactly when the experience of plenty ended and the experience of famine began.  It is often difficult for people to fully comprehend that their life circumstances may radically change for the worse, until they actually do.  We can imagine how ancient Egyptians might have heard stories of crop failures and watched food prices slowly rise, while – Joseph’s warning notwithstanding – not internalizing that the growing catastrophe would soon overtake them personally and become a permanent reality for the foreseeable future.  Reality became worse and worse – small steps at a time – until people woke up one day and realized that famine was in fact upon them and panicked.

Fortunately for the Egyptians, Joseph foresaw what lay at the far end of that transition and managed the nation’s affairs to prepare.  But we are not prophets and do not often have the benefit of seeing where our transitions will take us or even being aware that we are in a state of transition.  Sometimes in the mysterious journey of life, we end up where we are headed and only when looking back do we realize we had even been on a journey.  But sometimes we are blessed with people in our life who can see what we cannot – our own personal Josephs who can hear the difference between vatichlenah and vatchilenah and can help us prepare for the end of one season of our life and the beginning of another.  Such people may be friends or family, a colleague, a therapist.  Their message may be welcome and easy to hear.  Or it may elicit resistance and pain.

As we give thanks this Shabbat, let us be grateful for those people in our life who help us see our journey more clearly, and pray for the wisdom to transition gracefully from one season of growth to the next.

Posted November 30, 2013 by Rabbi Peter Stein in Bereshit (Genesis)

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Setting the Right Example – Parshat Re’eh   Leave a comment

Originally posted on These and Those.

In this week’s Torah portion Re’eh, we find the commandment concerning the ir nidachat, a city consigned to destruction because its inhabitants have turned to idolatry.  The Torah commands that should an Israelite city ever arise where the citizens go astray from God and turn to foreign deities, the rest of Israel should utterly destroy the city, killing all of the people and animals, incinerating all of the spoils that one might have taken in war and burning everything else to the ground.  This extreme action will, presumably, serve as a warning to the rest of Israel not to turn to the worship of foreign gods.

But how could the people of Israel get to this point in this first place?  How could a city go so far astray as to bring upon itself such destruction?

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Posted August 1, 2013 by Rabbi Peter Stein in Devarim (Deuteronomy)

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Living Life’s Polarities – Parshat Mishpatim   1 comment

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find a series of laws dealing with how to respond to the blessings God gives us.

מלאתך ודמעך לא תאחר
בכור בניך תתן־לי
כן־תעשה לשרך לצאנך
שבעת ימים יהיה עם־אמו ביום השמיני תתנו־לי

“You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats.

You shall give Me the first-born among your sons.

You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks:

seven days it shall remain with its mother, on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.”  (Exodus 22:28-29)

While the language of the latter two commandments in this list is clear, the language of the first commandment in Hebrew is actually very difficult, and it is not exactly clear precisely what the Torah is commanding.

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Posted February 10, 2013 by Rabbi Peter Stein in Shemot (Exodus)

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Keeping My People Free – Parshat Korach   2 comments

In this week’s parshah, Korach, Korach, Datan and Aviram, along with 250 leaders of the people, confront Moshe and Aaron and contest their leadership of the Israelite people.  Moshe responds with a duel of sorts, challenging Korach and his followers to meet Aaron the next morning, incense offerings in hand, to see whom God favors.  God sides, of course, with Moshe and Aaron, sending Korach, Datan and Aviram plunging into the Earth to the depths of Sheol, while incinerating the 250 chieftains.  On the surface, this incident seems to simply continue the by now familiar pattern of rebellion and punishment that has carried us through the last several weeks in the book of Numbers.  The details suggest, however, that this rebellion by Korach constituted a much greater threat than previous rebellions, warranting God’s severe and unique response. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted June 26, 2012 by Rabbi Peter Stein in Bamidbar (Numbers)

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Don’t Ever Go Back to Egypt – Parshat Shelach Lecha   1 comment

Yesterday morning in synagogue, the rabbi asked the question why the final paragraph of the week’s parshah, Shelach Lecha, was chosen by the rabbis to serve as the third paragraph of the Shema, the most important prayer of the Jewish tradition recited by Jews each morning and each night.  He began by quoting the rabbis’ explanation that this paragraph was chosen because it mentions yitzi’at Mitzrayim – the exodus from Egpyt – a watershed moment in Jewish history that the rabbis thought vitally important to remember every day.  He then went on to explore other themes in the paragraph, most importantly the role of tzitzit, the white and blue fringes Jews wear on their garments as a reminder of God’s mitzvot (commandments).  As I have thought about this paragraph over the years, I have always felt that the themes included in this passage seemed a bit forced sitting next to each other.  I had trouble figuring out how this paragraph gels as a whole, rather than just being a statement about tzitzit and mitzvot with an aside of exodus tacked on for good measure.  What I would like to suggest is that this entire paragraph is actually one unified statement of the foundational, covenantal importance of the exodus from Egypt.

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Posted June 17, 2012 by Rabbi Peter Stein in Bamidbar (Numbers), Prayer

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One Word on Leadership – Parshat Mikketz   Leave a comment

In this week’s parshah, Mikketz, Joseph, age 30, is appointed second in command of all Egypt, entrusted with the task of saving the country from starvation by collecting surplus food during the seven years of plenty and redistributing it during the coming years of famine.  Pharaoh elevates Joseph from prisoner to vizier, appointing him to this daunting task with the following charge:

אתה תהיה על־ביתי ועל־פיך ישק כל־עמי רק הכסא אגדל ממך

“You will be over all of my house,
by your mouth/command all of my people will X;
Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.”  (Genesis 41:40).

This is clearly quite a coup for Joseph, conferring on him an office of almost unimaginable power.  Yet the exact nature of Joseph’s role remains unclear to us because of the most unusual language Pharaoh chose:  v’al pichah (by your mouth/command) yishak (will X?) kol ami (all of my people).  The rabbis struggle with how to understand the word yishak/ישק in this context.  It can potentially have several different meanings, which, given the context, can impact how we understand the role Joseph played in Egypt.

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Posted December 26, 2011 by Rabbi Peter Stein in Bereshit (Genesis)

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Increasing Light in Our World   2 comments

The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) presents two opinions about the proper way to light a menorah on Chanukah.  Beit Shammai (the School of Shammai) hold that one should light eight lights on the first night and reduce the number by one each successive night.  Beit Hillel hold that one should begin with a single light and increase the number of lights by one each night until the full eight lights burn on the last evening.  Like most instances in which Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree, we follow Beit Hillel, as we know from our practice today.  But what is at stake in these two opinions?  What can we learn about the meaning of this holiday from the way we light our candles?

The discussion in the Talmud continues with R. Yosi bar Avin and R. Yosi bar Zavid offering two opinions of why each school argued the way it did.  One sage suggests that these answers relate to the passing of time: Beit Shammai lit lights to count how many days of Chanukah remained, while Beit Hillel counted how many days had passed.  According to the other opinion (the Talmud does not tell us which opinion belonged to which sage), Beit Shammai’s lights represented the sacrifices offered on Sukkot, which the Book of Maccabees tells us was celebrated belatedly as part of the original Chanukah celebration, which descended in number each day.  Beit Hillel’s practice of increasing the number of lights, on the other hand, reflects the rabbinic principle: “we increase holiness, we do not decrease it.”

This second explanation of Beit Hillel’s position reflects a beautiful principle that the Sages use to guide many aspects of practice in the Jewish tradition.  But how does this principle manifest itself in our lives today?  What difference will this ultimately make if we go from one candle to eight, or eight to one?

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Posted December 20, 2011 by Rabbi Peter Stein in Chagim (Holidays)

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