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Parashat Miketz


(Bereishit 41: 25-6)



A Bountiful Economy Makes Possible Social Justice, Equality, and Peace

When out of the Nile: In good years, people become brothers to each other. And they grazed ba'ahu [in the reed grass]: [In the days of the fat cows there is] love and ahva [brotherhood, similar spelling to ba'ahu] in the world. And so it says, Your livestock, in that day, shall graze in broad kar [pastures] (Isaiah 30: 23). Kiri [means] slave [and is equivalent to] qiri [which means] master. And so, it says: Let the mountains bear shalom [alternatively well-being or peace] (Psalms 72). Rav Aha said: Do mountains carry peace? Rather that which they bear is peace; when fruits are plentiful, there is peace in the world.

(Based upon Bereishit Rabbah 89 and Yalkut Tehillim)


But close behind them sprouted seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind - In bad years, people's bodies raise up sores.

(Yalkut Shimoni Mikeitz 41: 147)



The Torah of Israel and the Torah of Greece - Truly Eternal Enemies?

Gavriel Birenbaum

To Leah and Gavriel - With love upon your marriage.


...when the evil Greek kingdom stood up against your people Israel to make them forget your Torah and to turn them away from the laws of your will. (Al Hanisim from the Siddur)

Then they said: Cursed be the man who raises pigs, and cursed be the man who teaches his child Greek wisdom. (Sotah 49b)

There is no doubt that the days of Hanukah have been engraved on our consciousness as a victory over the great Greek empire, which wanted to turn us away from our religion and defile our Temple.

Yet one must ask: Have we been at war with Greece throughout the generations, both before and after Antiochus?

It seems that people already wondered about this question in the days of the Sages, and they proposed a variety of answers. Let us examine a few of he textual sources (beyond those already quoted).

Rabbi Judah said that Shmuel said in the name of Simeon ben Gamliel: Why does it say: My eyes have brought me grief over all the maidens of my city (Lamentations 3:51)? There were a thousand children in father's house. Five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom, and none of them survived except for myself and my cousin in Osia. (Sotah 49b)

We have before us an historical fact; Greek wisdom was very intensively studied in the home of the Nasi of Israel in the first century C.E.

And how did the Sages relate to the Greek language? It seems that they held it in high esteem:

May God enlarge Japheth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem (Bereishit 9: 27) - that they should speak the language of Japheth in the tents of Shem. (Yerushalmi Megillah 71b)

Rabbi said: In the Land of Israel they speak Aramaic. Why? Either the Holy tongue or Greek! (Sotah 49b)

To our amazement, Rabbi Judah the Nasi equates the status of Greek with that of Hebrew, preferring it to Aramaic.

It is permitted to write a Torah scroll in Greek, but not in any other alternative language to Hebrew:

There is no difference between Torah scrolls and Tefillin or Mezuzot, except that Torah scrolls may be written in any language... Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel says: Thy did not allow Torah scrolls to be written in other languages, except for Greek. (Mishnah Meggilah 1: 8)

Indeed, approximately four hundred Greek and Latin words found their way into the Mishnah alone. Some of these do not seem at all foreign to us: avir [air], pinkas [note-pad], vilon [curtain], safsal [bench], kufsa [box], and even Sanhedrin! We never saw any of the Sages complain about the use of these words.

And Rabbi Yohanan said: What was Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel's reasoning? Scripture tells us: May God yaft [enlarge, but literally "make beautiful] Japheth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem (Bereishit 9: 27) - Japheth's beauty shall dwell in the tents of Shem. (Megillah 9b)

The Gemara in Sotah 49b tries to reconcile these dicta and facts with sharply anti-Hellenistic statements of the kind quoted in the beginning of this article. For instance:

Ben Dama the son of Rabbi Ishmael's sister asked Rabbi Ishmael: May one such as myself, who has studied all of the Torah, study Greek wisdom? He quoted to him this verse: Let not this book of the Torah cease from your lips, but recite it day and night (Joshua 1: 8) - Go and find an hour that belongs neither to the day nor to the night and spend it studying Greek wisdom! (Menahot 99b)

The Gemara differentiates between ordinary people and those close to the king's court, and between language and wisdom.

Prof. Saul Lieberman, the great Talmud researcher, was also well acquainted with Greek and Latin literature. In his important book, Greek and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (pp 25-8 in the second edition), he concludes, after checking all of textual sources of the Sages, that they did not prohibit adults from teaching themselves Greek wisdom. The prohibition applied during a certain period to the instruction of children, and it was motivated by current historical conditions. He describes at length the close and complex contacts between Jews living in the Land of Israel and the Greco-Roman culture during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud.

Of course, one must not sever the question of our relationship with Greece from the broader issue of the relationship between Jews (and their Torah) and other nations and cultures. Are we a people that dwells alone in the sense of total isolation from other nations? Or are we to call out God's name even in the midst of the nations, while engaging in physical and cultural contacts with them? It seems that these two approaches have existed since the period of the Sages (and perhaps even earlier?) and into our own era.

Out of the sea of textual sources that one might cite regarding this issue, I have decided to quote Rav Kook. In one of his discussion of the weekly parasha (Shemuot RAYaH, pp. 225-8), he relates these opposing approaches to a disagreement between Joseph and Judah.

Joseph's stand was that it is possible to teach gentiles faith in God by being open towards them and strengthening ties with them: Ephraim [Joseph's son] is among the peoples (Hosea 7:8). And as Joseph said: God has made me lord of all Egypt (Bereishit 45: 9), which may also be rendered: I have made God Lord of all Egypt. In contrast, Judah demands that Israel's holiness remain separated from the nations, a people that dwells alone, in order that it not mix with the gentiles nor learn from their actions.

Judah asks: What do we gain by killing our brother? (Bereishit 37: 26) After all, that won't neutralize Joseph's approach. Rather, by selling him to the Ishmaelites we will challenge him with a practical test. Joseph will descend to live among the nations, and we will see what becomes of him.

According to Rav Kook, the Hellenizers claimed to be following Joseph's policy. They decreed: Write upon an ox's horn that you have no part in the God of Israel (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4), in order to bring about Israel's assimilation into Greek culture, and so they even translated the Torah into Greek. Joseph was called an ox: Like a firstling ox in his majesty (Devarim 33:17). [Another proof text:] Jacob said: For when they [Simeon and Levi, who attacked Shechem and latter sold Joseph] are angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen (Bereishit 49: 6). However, Joseph's real intention was for the ox's horn - the shofar of rebirth - to announce Israel's redemption, and so pave a way for the nations. In contrast, the Hellenizers hoped to achieve absolute assimilation, for Israel to dissolve among the nations and adopt their culture; denial of Jewish particularity and faith.

According to Rav Kook, the small jar of oil, which was hidden, untouched by gentile hands and sealed with the seal of the high priest, and which was used to light the Menorah testifying to the Divine Presence in Israel's midst, testifies to the victory of Judah's approach over that of Joseph.

Even more radically, Rav Kook pushes back the origin of the disagreement to the days of the Patriarchs:

Rabbi Eliezer said: Why is it written: And the many peoples shall go and say: "Come, let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob" (Isaiah 2:3)? - [Why does it mention] the God of Jacob, and not the God of Abraham and Isaac? In order to differ from Abraham, of whom it is written [that he called the site of the Temple a] "mountain" as it says: Whence the present saying, "On the mountain of the Lord there is vision" (Bereishit 22:14). And not like Isaac? In connection with him the word "field" is mentioned, as it says: And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening (Bereishit 24:63). Rather like Jacob, who used the word house, as it says: And he called the name of that place Beit-El [literally: House of God]. (Pesahim 88b)

Rav Kook, with his original and unique way of seeing things, interpreted the mountain and field as symbolizing expansion and disorder; they break forth without limits. In contrast, a house has fences and walls; it is limited and restricted within its borders.

Isaiah prophesized regarding the Messianic era: And the many peoples shall go and say: "Come, let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob" - like Jacob, who called it a house. Israel's special portion will become recognized in the repaired world of the future: Their offspring shall be known among the nations, their descendants in the midst of the peoples. All who see them shall recognize that they are a stock the Lord has blessed (Isaiah 61:9).

However, even Rav Kook did not view the conflict with the Greeks in the days of Antiochus as a matter of sheer opposition. As he wrote elsewhere,

And of those [cultural] assets taken from the treasure-house of the encounter with the Greeks, which were appropriate to serve the Torah's true light, those which "come near to the way of truth", were refined and purified in the flame of the religion of the Torah of truth, to remove from them all of their slag and impurities - this is an exalted good, it came from God to prepare everything towards a final beneficence. (Olat Re'AYaH, vol. I, page 437)

This investigation cannot come to close without mentioning Maimonides. Many were amazed, in the past and in the present, by his identification of Ma'aseh Bereishit and Maaseh Merkava [the "work of creation" and "work of the chariot" - the two major themes of traditional Jewish esotericism] with the physics and metaphysics of Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher. In the words of David Hartman, a contemporary thinker:

If the Torah cannot be separated from an ever-developing tradition of interpretation, then Aristotle and the prophets can come and sit in the same Talmudic classroom. Just because Maimonides was a master Talmudist, he was able to create a synthesis between Aristotle and Judaism. (A Living Covenant Free Press, 1985, pg. 10)

Only this approach allowed Maimonides to write:

Not only the tribe of Levi, but anyone on earth who has been offered up by his spirit and brought by his understanding to decide to separate himself to stand before God; to serve, worship and know God; who walked upright as God had created him, and freed himself of the yoke of the many demands made upon him by other people - such a man is sanctified in greatest sanctity. God will be his portion for eternity. (Mishneh Torah, Shemittah Ve'Yovel 13: 13)

Dr. Gavriel Birenbaum is a lecturer in Hebrew at the Bar Ilan University.



Chanukah Candles: "Steadily decreasing" or "Steadily Increasing"?

The Rabbis taught: The commandment is for each man and his household to light a Chanukah candle. Those who adorn the mitzvah with additional beauty have each person light his own candle. As for those who excel in adornment of the mitzvah; the House of Shamai says: They light eight candles on the first night and from thence steadily decrease the number of candles [each night]. The House of Hillel says: They light one candle the first night, and steadily increase [the number of candles through the subsequent nights].

(Shabbat 21b)


The House of Shamai is strict, they want to completely consume evil, even the "barely evil", even the evil which is hardly uncovered and recognized. That is also the secret of their disagreement over whether the heavens were created first, as the House of Shamai thought, or the earth was created first, as the House of Hillel claimed (J. Hagiga 10a). Heaven and earth relate to thought and action, respectively. The House of Shamai was not satisfied when a person's actions were proper; they also wanted his thoughts to be free of any hint of evil. The House of Hillel found actions sufficient, if a person's deeds are straight and pure.

(R. Shmuel Yosef Zevin, z"l, Or HaHalakhah)


Worship of God for its Own Sake vs Utilitarian Faith

Rabbi Yochanan said: The wicked are sustained by their gods, [as it is written]: Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing on the Nile (Bereishit 41: 1). But the God of the righteous is sustained by them: And the Lord was standing on it [literally: on him] and He said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham" (Bereisit 28: 13).

(Bereishit Rabbah 69) the plain sense, the word "on" here means "upon the ladder", but according to the midrash it means "on Jacob". What is the meaning of this profound idea? Both cases related to men of faith - people who are aware that humans stand before God. Pharaoh the idolater is also a believer, but he views his god as a means towards the satisfaction of his needs. He is "sustained by his god", he has a god who carries him about, a god who is there for his sake, for his benefit and sustenance. Jacob takes it upon himself to sustain faith in God. His God is not an instrument for the realization of human interests. Rather, he views humanity, and the entire world, as instruments for the preservation of the fear of God. That is the difference between true religious faith and idolatry, or - in the terminology of the Sages - between lishma [for its own sake] and shelo lishma [not for its own sake], between the great dreaming Patriarch, and the dreaming king of Egypt.

(Yishayahu Leibowitz z"l, He'arot le'Parshiyot Ha'Shavu, pg. 34)



And I Shall Stand Guilty Before My Father for Ever

And I shall stand guilty before my father for ever (Bereishit 44: 32). This phrase is quite precious, since it points to something not explicitly stated in the Torah, which is that there is no punishment but the sin itself. For Divine justice, the sin is itself the punishment - and it takes the place of reward and punishment, that is why Judah says, And I shall stand guilty [literally stand in my sin] before my father for ever.

(R. Eliyahu ben Amzug, Em Lamikra)


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