Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Conclusion of these weekly emails


I have decided to conclude sending out these weekly "Torah Portion Outline" emails.

There is plenty to say about the Torah portion, of course - and many, many websites that offer such information - but this was just intended to provide an outline of the portion, and having archived emails on all of the portions, I consider the mission of this site complete.

Be well,

Wednesday, December 31, 2008



This week's parshah is Vayyigash.

As this portion begins, Joseph's brothers face the fear that Joseph will keep Benjamin with him as a slave, and send the rest of them home to their father Jacob. Jacob's heart would be broken at this new loss.

Judah, as leader of the brothers, steps forward to offer his own life in place of Benjamin's life. This courageous act corrects the brothers' error of years earlier - they had sold one son of Rachel (Joseph) because they had viewed him as a threat to their lives, and now Judah endangered his own life to save the other son of Rachel (Benjamin).

Joseph sees that Judah has completed the brothers' repentance by righting the original wrong, and he reveals his identity. He still rebukes them, albeit somewhat subtly, for selling him: Judah's main claim on behalf of Benjamin was, 'If you take him, it will kill my father,' to which Joseph responds, 'I am Joseph, is our father still alive?' referring to the fact that they hadn't cared about this issue in selling Joseph.

The brothers are ashamed and afraid, but Joseph assures them that he won't attack them.
Joseph sends the brothers back to tell their father Jacob that he is alive, and that Jacob should come down. Jacob, reassured by Gd that it is all right to go to Egypt, comes down to Egypt.

Upon arriving in Egypt, Joseph's family meets the Pharaoh. The brothers say they are shepherds, and so they are kept apart from the sheep-worshipping Egyptians. Jacob meets the Pharaoh and blesses him.

Due the two-year-old famine, Egyptians are desperate for grain. At the end of the Torah portion they actually sell themselves to Pharaoh, as slaves, to acquire the harvest Joseph had saved up.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, December 24, 2008



This week's portion is Miketz. [Note, though, that we also read two other portions this week: one for Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month in the lunar calendar), the other for Chanukah.]

Miketz begins with the dreams of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. In his dreams, Pharaoh sees thin cows consume fat cows but remain thin, and he sees thin grain consume plump grain but remain thin. His advisors fail to provide convincing interpretations. The butler remembers Joseph, who had successfuly interpreted dreams in prison. The butler tells Pharaoh about Joseph, and Joseph is brought to Pharaoh.

Joseph interprets the dreams as a message about Egypt's economic future. There will be seven years of great crops, and then seven years of famine. Joseph advises Pharaoh to store grain during the years of glut. Pharaoh, awed by Joseph's spiritual and practical ken, assigns Joseph a top post as chair of the project, and chief advisor to Pharaoh.

Years later, as the famine begins, Joseph's brothers descend to Egypt for food. Joseph recognizes them and has them locked up, on false charges of espioniage. They don't recognize him; he was 17 and beardless when they sold him, and now he is 30 and bearded. Further, they don't expect to see him there.

Joseph hears the brothers' conversations among themselves, and specifically their recriminations for selling him, but he is waiting for something more: Joseph wants to put them back in the position of having to choose between their own welfare and that of their youngest brother, the other son of Rachel, Benjamin. So Joseph demands that they bring Benjamin to Egypt.

Jacob refuses to send Benjamin, until his fourth son, Yehudah, points out that they will all die without food. Yehudah guarantees Benjamin's safety with his own life.

The brothers return to Egypt, and then Joseph springs his trap. Joseph arrests Benjamin on false charges of theft, and tells the brothers that they can go home safely, if only they will leave Benjamin with him. The Torah portion ends with that cliffhanger.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, December 17, 2008



This week's portion is Vayyeshev.

The portion opens with Yaakov and his family settled peacefully in Israel. Problems quickly develop, though, as Yaakov's apparent favoritism toward Yosef (the 11th of his 12 sons), and Yosef's visions of future personal greatness, alienate his brothers. The brothers suspect that he Yosef out to harm them, and they first decide to kill him, then decide only to sell him. They fool their father Yaakov into thinking Yosef is dead, showing him Yosef's special striped cloak dipped in blood.

The Torah then interrupts the story of Yosef's travels by telling us about the troubles of Yehudah (the 4th of Yaakov's 12 sons) and his children. Yehudah had three sons. His eldest married a woman named Tamar, and died soon afterward. The second son married Tamar, as was the common pre-Sinaitic practice in order to guarantee support for a widow. (This practice is related to the Mitzvah of Yibbum, but is not quite the same.) The second son died, too. We are taught that their sin was in taking steps to prevent Tamar from becoming pregnant when they were together.

Rather than marry off his youngest son to Tamar, Yehudah told her to wait for him to mature. Tamar grew impatient, and fooled Yehudah into living with her himself; she disguised herself as a prostitute. Prostitution was not illegal before the presentation of the Torah at Sinai. Tamar became pregnant, without Yehudah knowing it was from him.

When Yehudah found out that Tamar was pregnant, he was upset - she was supposed to wait for Shelah, and was considered partially married to him already by dint of the expected marriage. Yehudah ordered that she should be killed. Tamar sent Yehudah some of the articles he had left with her, though, showing that she had actually been impregnated by him. Marrying Yehudah would have been a valid substitute for marrying Shelah, and so her actions had been legitimate.

The Torah portion then returns to the story of Yosef. Yosef was sold into an Egyptian's house, and he was successful in running the household. The lady of the house tried to seduce him, unsuccessfully. She was insulted and humiliated, and so she turned the story around, accusing him of attempting to seduce her. Yosef was thrown in jail.

Yosef was successful in helping run the jail, as he had been successful as a slave. He became acquainted with the king's butler and baker, both of whom were in jail for apparent attempts to harm the king. The two of them had dreams, and Yosef interpreted the dreams: The baker would die in three days, and the butler would be restored to his position. This was, in fact, what happened.

Yosef asked the butler to speak to the authorities about him, but the butler forgot once he was out of jail.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, December 10, 2008



This week's portion is Vayyishlach.

As our portion begins, Yaakov is returning to Israel, with his family. Rather than wait for Esav to come to him, Yaakov sends messengers looking for Esav. Yaakov learns that Esav has amassed a threatening army, and so he prepares for war as well as for peace - he divides his crew into military camps, but he also sends a gift to Esav. He prays to Gd for help.

Yaakov moves his family, hangers-on and property across the Yabok river, but he lags behind himself, collecting small vessels. Yaakov encounters an unidentified being who grapples with him. Most traditional commentators say this was an angel representing Esav, in human form. The angel cannot defeat Yaakov, but he manages to weaken Yaakov's thigh – to remember this, we don’t eat the sciatic vascular bundle of an animal. The thigh wound symbolizes the fact that Esav will be able to hurt Yaakov’s descendants, but will not be able to destroy them. The angel concludes by giving Yaakov a blessing, and he names Yaakov "Yisrael."

Yaakov and Esav meet, and Esav kisses Yaakov. There is some debate as to the sincerity of the greeting; it seems clear that Yaakov did not trust the greeting, as he refused Esav's offer to join forces. Yaakov went from there to Shechem (Nablus), where he bought land.

Dinah, daughter of Yaakov and Leah, went out to tour the area. She met the local prince, Chamor, who took her and raped her. (For those who have read "The Red Tent," please note that it is a fictional work which matches neither the biblical text nor the rabbinic tradition.) Chamor wanted the family to sell Dinah to him. Outraged, the brothers conspired to make the people of the town vulnerable and then punish them for kidnapping Dinah. Yaakov was upset at their actions, and apparently he did not forgive them, as he rebuked them for their actions before he died (Genesis 49:5-7).

Gd appeared to Yaakov and officially changed his name to Yisrael.

Rachel gave birth to Binyamin, the last of the 12 tribes. She died in childbirth.

After Rachel died, Bilhah, Rachel's maid, became Yaakov's favored wife. Yaakov moved his bed into her tent. Reuven, Leah's oldest son, was upset that his mother had been so publicly spurned. As the sages understand the Torah's cryptic verses here, Reuven moved his father's bed into Leah's tent.

The Torah portion ends with a genealogy of Esav. Regarding Yishmael the Torah gave a genealogy when he left center stage, and the Torah does the same for Esav here. Esav's grandson returns later in the Torah, though, as the founder of the nation of Amalek.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, December 3, 2008



This week's portion is Vayyetze.

At the end of the previous portion, Yitzchak (Isaac) and Rivkah (Rebecca) sent Yaakov (Jacob) to Rivkah's brother Lavan's home to escape Esav (Esau), and to find a wife. Our Torah portion focusses on Yaakov's adventures outside of Israel, and the growth of the Jewish people during that exile.

En route to exile, Yaakov has a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder. In this vision Gd promises to protect Yaakov, and Yaakov promises to serve Gd materially and spiritually. Yaakov sets up a stone monument, the first of many he would set up as memorials and as places of worship.

Yaakov arrives at a well in Lavan's town, Charan, and rebukes the local shepherds for dallying by the well. When they explain that they need help to remove the well's stone cover, he single-handedly removes the cover.

Yaakov meets his first cousin, Rachel, and is instantly impressed. Her father Lavan enslaves Yaakov, though, to get both Yaakov's wealth and his labor. Yaakov works for 7 years to be permitted to marry Rachel, but Rachel's father Lavan then substitutes Rachel's older sister Leah for Rachel. Yaakov then marries Rachel a week later, promising to work another 7 years for his marriage to her.

The family then grows:
Leah gives birth to Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah.
Rachel sees that she cannot bear children and she gives her maid Bilhah to Yaakov, and Bilhah gives birth to Dan and Naftali.
Leah sees that she has stopped bearing children and she gives her maid Zilpah to Yaakov, and Zilpah gives birth to Gad and Asher.
Leah gives birth to Yissachar, Zevulun and Dinah.
Rachel gives birth to Yosef.

Yaakov, having completed now 14 years of work for his marriage to Leah and Rachel, demands a salary from Lavan for his work. Lavan agrees, and he and Yaakov arrange odd terms (see the Torah portion itself) which seem to minimize Yaakov's reward. Gd engineers it so that the terms actually increase Yaakov's reward, even as Lavan tries to change the terms repeatedly in order to shrink Yaakov's salary. This occurs over a six year span.

Gd then tells Yaakov it’s time to leave and go home, and Yaakov departs without informing Lavan. Lavan pursues the family, claiming that everything Yaakov possesses is actually his own. Ultimately, Lavan and Yaakov agree to a pact of non-aggression.

The portion ends the way it began, with a vision; Yaakov has a vision of angels as he re-enters Israel.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, November 26, 2008



This week's portion is Toldot.

The portion begins with the pregnancy of Rivkah (Rebecca); Rivkah and Yitzchak (Isaac), after years of prayer, are given children. Rivkah learns through a prophetic message that her very active fetuses are twins, and that they are destined to battle each other for supremacy.

Those two children are Yaakov and Esav (Jacob and Esau). Yaakov is born holding on to Esav's heel, the fulcrum of Esav's leverage, and spends much of his life using that grip to his advantage.

As the children age, they pursue different ends. Esav is a hunter and bandit, while Yaakov stays in the tent and studies. Yaakov is not without guile, though; he gains leverage over Esav when Esav comes in starving from the fields, and he convinces Esav to sell the inheritance of the first-born to him. Note that this is not the same as the blessing of the firstborn; those appear to be two different entities.

There is a famine, and the family moves to Grar, a Philistine city. Yitzchak and Rivkah, learning from Avraham and Sarah, pretend that they are brother and sister to prevent the people from killing Yitzchak to take Rivkah. No one actually took Rivkah, though, before their charade
fell apart and they were discovered to be husband and wife.

The Philistines created trouble for Yitzchak and Rivkah, filling in their wells and forcing them to move from place to place, but Gd helped them achieve financial success. Ultimately, Avimelech, the Philistine leader, made a treaty with them.

Esav married at age 40, modeling his actions on his father Yitzchak's marriage at age 40. Esav's wives were idolatrous, though.

As Yitzchak aged, his vision weakened. He neared the age at which Sarah had died (127), and he decided to communicate to Esav the blessing which Gd had given Avraham, and Avraham had given to Yitzchak. Rivkah found out, understood Esav for who he was, and had Yaakov take advantage of Yitzchak's physical blindness in order to get the blessing.

Yitzchak agreed, in retrospect, that it was proper to bless Yaakov. Some suggest that he knew all along what was happening, but this is difficult to see in the Torah's sentences and in the early commentators.

In the aftermath, Rivkah heard that Esav was going to try to kill Yaakov. She told Yaakov to flee, under the pretext of finding a wife for himself with her family in Aram.

Have a great day,