What is a d’var Torah? Here is a succinct definition from the “myjewishlearning.com” (link):
“The institution of the d’var Torah— literally a “word of Torah,” a lesson or sermon interpreting a text, which can be delivered by anyone, lay or clergy — reflects a fundamental Jewish belief in the infinite interpretive possibilities of Torah. This concept is best articulated in Mishnah Avot 5:22, “Turn it and turn it; for everything is in it,” and in the rabbinic assertion that each person who stood at Sinai saw a different face of Torah.”
Harlen Wall, one of Beth Israel Synagogue’s members provides us with weekly d’var Torah. These are interpretations based on Harlen’s learned foundation and insightful and poignant perspective. Thanks Harlen! Enjoy everyone!
D’vorah-VaYachi (5781) …for January 2, 2021.
Here is a PDF file link.
Here is the full text:
The Bones of Joseph
By Harlen Wall
This week’s bible portion is known as the “portion of life,” and yet at the same time, it’s a “closed” portion; that is to say, there is no space in the Torah Scroll between last week’s portion and this week’s.
The title of our weekly parasha is VaYechi, which means “and he lived,” indicating the actual years of Jacob’s life. The Sages of Israel and the ancient Jewish commentaries, reveal that this particular portion is closed because the eyes of Jacob will soon close, marking the end of his life.
This portion might also be closed to foreshadow Jacob’s prophesy of the End of Days, which will remain closed to him and his children. This blocked vision is one of the mysteries that we must unravel.
Yet, perhaps the greatest mystery of this closed portion is the final verse, which seems almost mundane. “Joseph died at the age of 110. He was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.” Gen. 50:26
What does the death of Joseph have to do with this portion of life? And why is such an insignificant verse used to seal up the Book of Genesis, the foundation of the Torah?
Could it be that this seemingly insignificant verse is one of the most important in all of the Torah? To answer this question, however, we must first confront the mystery of two passages that appear at the beginning of the parasha (portion).
Before his death, Jacob will bless his grandchild, Ephraim, saying: “I know my son. I know. The older one will also become a nation. He too will attain greatness, but his younger brother will become even greater and his descendants will become the “meloah hagoyim.”
Meloah hagoyim is translated as “fullness of the Gentiles.”
A close look at the original Hebrew text, has already produced a rather shocking piece of information. What many thinks of as a New Testament term, related to Gentiles, is actually an ancient Hebrew blessing.
Jacob will bestow an important prophesy in the form of a blessing to his grandchild, Ephraim, in Egypt. The blessing will only make sense centuries later, after the death of King Solomon, when the northern kingdom of Israel (also called Ephraim or The 10 Lost Tribes) will be exiled and scattered around the world.
The House of Israel (Ephraim) will be dispersed to all corners of the globe and eventually become the Fullness of the Gentiles. After forty years of wandering in the desert, Moses will tell the children of Israel that they’ll be scattered across the earth, but G-d will gather them together at the End of Days.
This brings us to the next mystery. After blessing Joseph’s children, Jacob will bless his own children. Before the blessing, however, he says that he wants to share his vision of the End of Days.
“Jacob called his sons. He said assemble and I will tell you what will happen at the End of Days. Gather and listen sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel.” Gen. 49:1
After expressing a desire to share an important vision or prophesy with his children about the End of Days, the aged Patriarch is noticeably silent. He says nothing and merely proceeds to dispense a series of blessings to his children.
Would Jacob really tease his children? And would G-d tease us?
A closer look at the cryptic Hebrew text reveals another piece of the biblical puzzle, as we move closer to answering the ultimate question about the meaning of the last verse that seals the Book of Genesis.
Once again, the treasure is buried beneath the surface of the text and we are called to turn over this spiritual topsoil again and again until we meet our Creator and His Truth hidden in His Word.
The answer can be found in the Hebrew word he-kav-tzu, which means “to gather.” Jacob first tells his children hay-us-fu (assemble) and then he repeats himself but this time he uses a different word, telling them to gather.
The Sages of Israel teach that the secret to the End of Days is the gathering together of all ISRAEL. We must understand the difference between the Hebrew words for assemble and gather.
To assemble, in Hebraic thinking, means to unite those who are close or near to each other (Jacob’s children were told to assemble around his bed). The concept of gathering means to unite those who are distant or far away.
So, Jacob was not as silent as we initially thought. Our investigation and close look at the text has uncovered another clue to solving the mystery. Implicit in Jacob’s dramatic call to his children, is the answer.
He didn’t need to say more.
The End of Days is hinted at through the blessing given to Ephraim; that his descendants would become the “fullness of the Gentiles.” And from the words of Jacob to his children, we know that his vision of the End of Days, involves, at least to a great extent, the in(gathering) of those who are lost and far away.
The Lost Sheep of Israel.
When the net is extended to gather in the House of Israel (also called Ephraim) all human beings are welcome to enter into a covenant-relationship with the G-d of Israel (the last two thousand years millions of Gentiles have come to believe in the G-d of Israel).
This was the meaning of the blessing Jacob gave to Ephraim; that his descendants would become “the fullness of the nations or Gentiles.”
OK, we can now look at the last verse of the Torah portion and tie everything together. We are told that Joseph died and was placed in a coffin in Egypt. So, why is it important that Joseph remain in Egypt? And why did Joseph make his people promise to take his bones out of Egypt when they leave?
To answer this question, we need to look at an important event in the life of Joseph. When Aishet Potiphar (Potiphar’s wife) tried to seduce Joseph, he managed to rise above the temptation. It was an almost impossible test for a man to pass. In his victory over lust, he rose above his own nature.
In Psalm 144, the Psalmist writes about the exodus from Egypt and says “what ails you oh sea that you flee.” The Midrash (ancient Jewish commentary on the Torah) teaches that it was the bones of Joseph that caused the Sea to split (at least one factor).
Of course, in His mercy, the LORD wanted to save Israel. But it was also the merit of Joseph and his victory over his own nature (lust and base desires of the flesh) that caused the sea to split.
Now we can answer the question of why the last verse of the Book of Genesis tells us that Joseph was placed in a coffin in Egypt. What seems insignificant to human beings is often sacred and holy to the LORD.
In the merit of the righteous Joseph, who maintained his purity and holiness in exile, Israel was able to cross the Red Sea. If a mortal man, of dust of the earth, could overcome his own nature, then a giant sea could part and overcome its own nature. When the sea saw the bones of Joseph and the wooden coffin that the children of Israel were carrying, it fled (as the Psalmist wrote).
Without the bones of Joseph, the children of Israel might not have crossed the sea, and without crossing the sea, there would be no Torah and no Messiah and ultimately no gathering of Israel from the corners of the earth in the End of Days.
The ultimate redemption of Israel (and the world) would not be possible without Joseph.
And there is the story of life. Joseph’s family looked upon him as the source of their trouble when all along he was the source of their salvation. He saved them during his life and after. Even his bones cried out for mercy to save his people.
And as the mighty waters of the Red Sea parted in one of the greatest miracles of all time, and the children of Israel carried the wooden coffin across the dry bed, perhaps only then could they understand who Joseph really was.
It might seem strange to us that a box of dry bones could cause an entire sea to split but it wasn’t only the bones that cried out. The soul of Joseph cried out from heaven to save his people.
It was only the cry of a man who had endured unspeakable pain so that others could live; a man who had maintained his purity and holiness during the long and dark night of exile, who could cry out one last time: Ani Yosef.
I am Joseph.
D’vorah-Miketz (5781) …for December 19, 2020.
Here is a PDF file link.
Here is the full text:
Parshat Miketz: “LIFE IS A BIG JOKE”
From Crisis to Redemption to Laughter
By Harlen Evan Wall (on Genesis 41+)
It has been said that in order to understand the meaning of “crisis” you need to understand a joke. Now that is funny! But could it be true? Let’s see now. What really makes us laugh? While it might be hard to pinpoint every scenario, it’s rather simple to describe the mechanism at work—or more succinctly put, the “process.” Laughter is most commonly generated after witnessing a sharp contrast from one extreme to the other. Even the most basic joke, with a punchline simple enough to amuse a monkey, must adhere to this rule.
The classic example is the arrogant and pompous millionaire walking down the street in a two thousand-dollar Armani suit, adorned in gold and diamonds, and suddenly slipping on a little banana peel and falling to the ground. As long as he’s not seriously hurt, anyone witnessing this incident would be provoked to audible laughter (if not hysterics). But why? And could there be a “depth” to this human reaction?
Laughter, generally, involves the contrast or juxtaposition of two polar opposites; a process that seems to be going in one direction, all of a sudden snap and produces an unexpected result. When you strip it all down to its most basic elements, laughter is the process of “crisis to redemption.”
It doesn’t matter who you are. Every individual will, at one point or another, experience a crisis. In truth, however, life is one big crisis from start to finish (with little interludes of course). It should be no surprise that we all come into this world wailing. The greatest transition from crisis to redemption happens when a child is born. The “Gesher HaChaim,” a classic philosophical work, refers to twins in the womb. This analogy is given to illustrate the most fascinating and animated process of human redemption.
The one who remains inside is sad when his twin brother is born because he thinks that’s the end. He thinks his twin is gone. Logic would certainly dictate that result since a baby lacks everything it needs to survive in the outside world.
So, what happens? As soon as the baby enters the world and thanks the doctor with shrills of discontent, it starts to turn purple and blue. It starts to die. There is no blood circulating to the lungs and it lacks the physiology to survive for even one minute. A baby only has the blood volume equivalent to a coffee mug. Now that is a “crisis” in any country and in any language!!
There is no bigger crisis than the first few minutes of a child’s life. The good news is that within a few short minutes, blood is pumped rapidly, at a rate that would make a firehose seem like a garden tool. The blood makes its way through an elaborate human canal system to the dormant lungs and they pop open and the baby takes its first breath. After turning blue and starting to die and giving the parents the scare of their lives, the baby is perfectly adapted to its new home on planet Earth (within a few minutes).
OK, now what does all this have to do with the weekly Torah portion? Everything! In this instalment of the Five Books of Moses, the story of Joseph and his Brothers reaches a feverish pitch. The narrative describes the biggest “crisis” in all of recorded history!
After selling Joseph into slavery, there is famine in the land of Canaan. 22 years have now passed and the starving family of Israel is forced to go down to Egypt in a desperate search for food. And who is the leader of the largest empire in the world and the man holding the key to their salvation? Their kid brother Joseph who they betrayed and abandoned years ago, at one point even throwing him into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions.
They all bow down to the ground, in front of him, just as Joseph had predicted as a child when he had his dream. Ironically, the Brothers don’t recognize Joseph but he recognizes them. However, instead of identifying himself right away, he conceals his identity in order to teach his siblings an important lesson. He interrogates them, suggesting, at one point, that they are spies or infidels. The Brothers tell Joseph their story; that they are from the land of Canaan and their father is home alone with their youngest brother.
Joseph, in his supernal wisdom, creates an elaborate charade to test his brothers and allow for their collective “soul-correction” that we call repentance. He insists that they must be spies and keeps them under house arrest for three days. Then he decides that he will only keep one hostage: Simeon. The others are allowed to return to Canaan with supplies of food for their hungry families, with the proviso that they return with their youngest brother to substantiate their claim. If they don’t return with Benjamin, they will be declared spies and killed.
The brothers return to Canaan and relay the entire story to their father, Jacob, who refuses to part with Benjamin. After losing his favorite son, Joseph, who he believes is dead, he cannot bear the thought of something happening to his youngest child, the son of his beloved late wife, Rachel. The brothers explain to him that there is no other option because without returning to Egypt with Benjamin, they will all surely perish. The only way to substantiate their claim, get Simeon back and secure enough food to survive the famine is to return to Egypt with Benjamin. Judah, the leader of the clan, assures his father that he will take responsibility for Benjamin and they descend, a second time, to the land of the Nile.
Upon their return to Egypt, Joseph invites all the Brothers to his Palace for a festive meal. He is sure to seat the siblings in a specific order, according to their age; an act that mystifies the entire family and sets the stage for the unfolding drama. During the course of the meal, Joseph is sure to give Benjamin five times the normal amount that he gives the others. His reason for this is to show blatant “favoritism” and provoke the Brothers to feelings of jealousy towards the youngest, Benjamin. By doing this, he re-creates the exact situation that led his Brothers to betray him 22 years ago. He wants to give his Brothers every reason to “turn” on Benjamin, who receives special treatment (just as Joseph had 22 years earlier).
Before the Brothers depart, Joseph orders his officers to plant his silver chalice in Benjamin’s sack. As they leave Egypt with sacks full or food and money, the authorities stop them at the border and search their belongings. The silver chalice is found in Benjamin’s sack and the Brothers are forced to return to Joseph’s palace. They’re back in the same situation that led to their betrayal of Joseph. They have every reason to turn on their youngest brother, who allegedly, has stolen the chalice, and save their own lives.
On the surface, there is no way out of this crisis. If they leave their brother behind to be killed, their father will be devastated as soon as he notices that Benjamin is missing. He’ll surely die from the added grief of the loss of another son. Especially the son of his beloved Rachel. On the other hand, if they don’t comply with the orders and leave Benjamin to face the penalty, they will all die (either from the punishment or lack of food).
Let us pull back the zoom lens and press the cosmic pause button. At this moment, EVERYTHING is on the line. There is no way out of this crisis for the Brothers. And it’s not only the future of Israel that hangs in the balance, but also the future of the world. If the family of Israel is killed, either as punishment for this crime or due to lack of food during the famine, there is no Moses. No Torah. No David. No Messiah. And no salvation for the world. The stakes could not be higher!
When it seems that all is lost and Israel is on a sure path to destruction, Judah steps forward, and says to Joseph “take me instead.” At the moment he utters these words, the crisis is over. He proves to Joseph (and the heavenly court) that he has learned his lesson. He finally learns to be selfless and love his brother more than he loves himself. And in the process, he rectifies his previous transgression. Instead of abandoning his kid brother, which he had done with Joseph, he is completely loyal, even to the point of facing death himself. At this point, Joseph orders everyone to leave the room because the time has come to identify himself.
Let’s bring this all back around to where we started with the process from crisis to redemption to laughter. As I stated at the outset, there is no greater example than a woman giving birth and a child being born. Every Shabbat, traditional orthodox Jews sing Aishes Chayil (Proverbs 31) and recite the line “she joyfully awaits her last day.” Perhaps only now we can fully understand what this means. Only a woman, who gives life after experiencing the most intense pain, and the one who is acutely and painfully aware of the birth process—the transition from crisis to redemption—can smile even on the last day of her physical life. She knows better than anyone that what seems like the end, is really only the beginning.
May every crisis in the world come to an end and may we merit to see the final redemption. Then our mouths will be filled with genuine laughter as we greet the Messiah and celebrate together in Jerusalem.
Credits: I’d like to thank Rabbi Akiva Tatz and Rabbi David Fohrman and all my teachers at yeshivot in Jerusalem and New York for opening my eyes to these deep insights. Most of all my thanks to G-d, who gave me the talent to write/teach.
D’vorah-Vayeishev (5781) …for December 12, 2020.
Here is a PDF file link
Here is the full text:
Vayeishev: A Message for our Time
By Harlen Wall
This week’s Torah portion is riddled with all manner of dysfunction and human error; like a pebble tossed into the middle of a pond, the ripples cause more ripples and more ripples until they finally reach the banks and disappear. The imbalances are restored, temporarily at least, until the next pebble is tossed into the pond. And so, goes the story of humanity. Every person affects the other, and another the next one. The world is filled with people and stories but all of them are ONE.
There are two troubling narratives that occupy this installment of the Bible. Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, is hated by his brothers and sold into slavery. The brothers present their father with Joseph’s coat, stained in goat’s blood, to imply that he was killed by a wild animal. But amid this gross injustice, it’s hard not to be penetrated by Judah’s words as he presents his father with his kid brother’s bloody coat. “Ha-ker-na,” he says, which translated from Hebrew means “recognize please.” It seems that Judah is not only saying “Dad, recognize that this is your favored son’s coat,” but rather, on a deeper level, “Dad, recognize who this coat should’ve been given to.”
In other words, Judah seems to be crying out “Dad, recognize who the real first-born son is.” In truth, it was not baseless hatred that was to blame for Joseph’s sudden departure. It was favoritism. This sentiment is dripping with irony since Esau’s claim against Jacob, earlier, was that he did not recognize HIS (Esau’s) status as first-born. But the most difficult question to answer is what the connection is between the narrative of the Brothers selling Joseph and the story of “Judah and Tamar.” If the story of Joseph and his Brothers is not enough to boggle the mind, we are told that after this horrific event, the great Judah has relations with a prostitute! It seems like a rather strange way to celebrate your kid brother’s brush with death and arrival on the slave-trade.
The first and obvious lesson is that what happens away from the play (to use sports terminology) is always more important than the spotlight itself. Let’s pull back the zoom lens for a minute and get a wide shot. In Genesis 1:2 we are told that the earth was tohu (without form) and vohu (empty) with darkness of the face of the depth, but God’s spirit moved on the surface of the water. Ok – now God’s “spirit” is a reference to the Messiah, which is always connected to (living) water from the very beginning! The spirit of Messiah moved or hovered over the surface of the water.
We learn from this that, in a sense, it was the sheer darkness that caused the Messianic Spirit to “move.” And this is why the Messianic Light is not far away! It has already started to shine, although it’s only visible to the wise of heart (King Solomon said that wisdom is rooted in the heart, not the mind). It’s very obvious how depraved our society has become, and sadly, the world is on the cusp of a Nuclear War. In some strange twist of irony, it’s the darkness, that will bring the Messiah and the light of salvation. This is just the way it works. This principle can be clearly witnessed when a child is born. The point at which the Mother experiences the most intense and painful contractions and feels that she can’t take one more second, is the point when the child is born.
OK – now, let’s put our zoom lens back on Judah and Tamar and the culmination of that story, which is the birth of Peretz (the very seed of Messiah). At the time Peretz was born, the Patriarch Jacob was involved in the mourning period of his father, Isaac. The tribes were involved in the sale of Joseph. Judah himself was overseeing his sheepshearers, and Joseph was captive in Egypt. Everything was a mess! The family of Israel—charged with the task of bringing salvation to the world—was in a CRISIS of cosmic proportions.
While all this was happening, however, the HOLY ONE, BLESSED BE HE was involved with the Light of Messiah. This is the way God works. Was it not after the destruction of Sodom that Lot’s daughter gave birth to Moav (the ancestor of Ruth) who married Boaz and produced Obed who produced Jesse who produced David and eventually Messiah? Once again, God draws the attention to a certain place but usually inserts the central character/theme away from the action! So, the diversion in the text of this week’s Torah Portion, is not really a diversion at all. This is what people don’t seem to understand. It was the very chaos and darkness of the Brothers selling Joseph (and everything else going on at the time) that gave rise and birth to Messiah (Peretz).
Let us now take out our strongest zoom lens and focus it on the great Judah, the root of David and Messiah. The verse says that “Judah went down from his brothers.” The sub-text here is that he not only went down physically/geographically, but also spiritually. In simple everyday parlance, he lost his status. You see, Judah was a natural leader. He had a strong will. When he spoke, people listened. His brothers respected him for his leadership ability.
However, when he spoke up to save Joseph from being killed, he couldn’t bring himself to do what was right. Instead of returning Joseph to his Father, he suggested that they sell Joseph as a slave. When he presented his Father, Jacob, with his kid brother’s coat stained in the blood of a goat—implying that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal—it became clear to his brothers that he had failed as the leader. When he spoke up and demanded their attention (when Joseph was in the pit) they would’ve listened to anything he said! He had their full attention. But he used his charisma and powers of persuasion to convince his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave. The result was that their father, Jacob, would now go down to his grave mourning for his favorite son, Joseph.
So, after losing his status and the respect of others, Judah had relations with a prostitute, who turned out to be his daughter-in-law, Tamar, in disguise. As payment, he promised her a goat at a future date and deposited his coat/staff/ring with her as collateral. Tamar eventually relinquished these belongings, using a variation of the Hebrew verb “to recognize” (ha-ker-na) asking the owner of the belongings to recognize them.
In other words, Judah now had to make a life-altering decision. Should he kill the prostitute, who was really his widowed daughter-in-law (in disguise). Or should he admit that the belongings were his and that he had relations with a prostitute?! Although his first reaction was to have Tamar killed to save his reputation, he ultimately confessed that the coat/staff/ring were his, and that the woman who appeared guilty was the innocent one. Her only motivation in having relations with him (Judah) was to perpetuate the Messianic line, which she accomplished through the birth of Peretz.
There is a striking irony here. In the previous narrative, Judah had presented his father, Jacob, with his brother’s bloody coat, saying “ha-ker-na” (recognize please). In a classic case of “measure-for-measure,” (midah k’neged midah) Tamar was now presenting Judah with a coat and saying “ha-ker-na” (recognize please). But she was saying much more than “please recognize that this coat is yours.” Just as Judah had reminded his father of the pain he had caused—by favoring Joseph—now Tamar was reminding Judah of the pain he caused his father by SELLING Joseph!
In both cases, the instruments or symbols of revelation, were goats and coats. By admitting that the coat was his, Judah fully recognized his initial sin of selling Joseph; which culminated in the bloody coat that he had given his Father (a symbol of his brother’s death). When he recognized his sin and also admitted to having relations with Tamar, he claimed back his Kingship. The hallmark of Kingship is not perfection or absence of sin. It’s the ability to admit the truth and recognize mistakes. The tribe of Judah, the root of David, which had been withering from failed leadership and sin, was now back on course. And the obvious seal of this great recovery was the birth of Peretz and the continuation of the Messianic line, leading to the salvation of the entire world!
And so it goes. Just as a pebble kisses the surface of the water and causes ripples and more ripples until they melt into each other and disappear, this is the way of life. Everything we do or say in this world will, at some point, come back to us. Existence viewed through the Torah, is a multi-dimensional super-conscious process of repentance. In truth, everything and everyone is part of one living organism. The world is filled with people and stories. And each one affects the other and another the next one. But all the stories are really ONE.