TORAH and CONTEXT

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of NISHMA, an international Torah research, resource and educational endeavour devoted to the fostering of individual inquiry and the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further information about NISHMA, please click here. In addition to his scholarly and administrative duties within Nishma, Rabbi Hecht also serves as a blogger for Huffington Post Canada , Jewish Values Online and United with Israel. He also serves on the Rabbinical Advisory Board of Koshertube and as Rabbinic Advisor to Yad HaChazakah – the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center. He also holds degrees in law, psychology and business.

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Reading a Biblical text seems to so many people to be so easy. The stories seem to be quite straightforward; the lessons to be learned almost obvious, the messages clear and unquestionable. This is, in fact, the perception of the fundamentalist. The fact is, though, that this is actually far away from the true understanding of the Torah presentation.

This recognition of a greater depth is clearly imbedded in the acceptance of the concept of Torah She’b’al Peh [the Oral Law], its validity being a fundamental belief of Torah thought.1 There are numerous cases, within Torah She’b’al Peh, of explanations of verses in ways which are different than their simple reading in the text—and the call of this principle of faith is to accept such explanations.2 This idea is powerfully presented, in the context of the events surrounding the sons of Yaakov, in the explanation of Bereishit 35:22 presented in T.B. Shabbat 55b in connection to Ruvain, and, in fact, all 12 brothers. If all the brothers were equally righteous, then the story – the full story of the brothers — as presented in the text must be understood differently than that offered by a simple reading. We may still wonder why events, in the simple text, are presented in such manners with implications that are clearly problematic.3

For example, why, indeed, does the verse state that Ruvain had relations with Bilhah when this is far from the truth of what really happened?4 What is more important for us to recognize, though, is that Ruvain was not really this type of person as expressed in the simple reading of this verse. The same would be true with all the brothers. Then, what really happened and what is the real meaning behind what occurred in all these events involving Yosef? This is the essential challenge which all the commentators, in fact, attempt to address. What we are further called upon to recognize, though, is that these events did not happen within a vacuum but in a greater context of existence.

Who were the sons of Yaakov? The question would seem to be somewhat rhetorical for the answer is found in the very question; they were the sons of Yaakov, the grandsons of Yitzchak whom they also had the great fortune of knowing.5 The fact is that it should already be obvious that, within the context of this story, we are not speaking of a regular family but a family of remarkable dimension and touched by God. The textual story, indeed, does seem to be speaking about people of normal attributes but could that have even been possible? Given their upbringing in their father’s house, the interaction they must have had with their grandfather Yitzchak, the brothers must have been exceptional figures of moral integrity as the gemara, in fact, does describe them. We even do see some hints of their extraordinary qualities in the text.6 Why the text does generally hide their uniqueness is still a question but, as we consider the greater context of their lives, the viewpoints expressed in the Torah She’b’al Peh actually do seem most appropriate.

What we actually often find in the Torah She’b’al Peh are presentations of this greater context. We are not discussing some generic family in the ancient world notwithstanding that the text, in many ways, seems to almost present them in this manner. A recognition of the greater context clearly points to the family’s uniqueness and these events, the presentations within the text, obviously occurred within this greater context. This expanded recognition is often what we discover in our readings of the Torah She’b’al Peh. Knowledge of this must necessarily affect our understanding of what happened.

An interesting issue that emerges in this regard concerns the settling of the family of Yaakov in Egypt. Bereishit 45:16 states that Pharaoh and his servants were pleased with the reunion of Yosef and his brothers but why was this so? It does seem that they were more than just happy for Yosef – but why, indeed, were they so pleased? Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this was so because, with Yosef’s family now with him, there would be a greater chance that Yosef would remain in Egypt. Pharaoh and his servants valued Yosef’s ability and integrity so much that they were delighted with the greater chance this re-connection with his family would offer in keeping Yosef in his governmental role. Malbim contends that, even though they clearly appreciated and desired Yosef’s involvement in the government, the people around Pharaoh were still somewhat embarrassed that they were effectively being ruled by someone who was a slave.

Now, when they found out who Yosef was, from this distinguished family, they were much more relieved with their positions. Meshech Chochmah, Bereishit 45:12 further mentions that Yaakov Avinu was clearly well known and recognized globally as a person of God. So how were the Jews welcomed into Egypt – as the family of their respected Viceroy or as the respected family of their Viceroy?

The question can be asked: what difference did this make? It is interesting, however, to consider how the world, at the time, viewed this family. So much of the text does seem to imply that the family was not well-known; they lived their lives in devotion to the One God in relative obscurity. Yet so many of their exploits, even as reported in the text, were in the public domain; they must have been known. And given what transpired when Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu went to Egypt, 7 there must have been some knowledge of this family in this land as well. An argument that Yaakov was thus received by Pharaoh not simply because he was Yosef’s father, it would seem, is, as such, not without merit.8 What all this does inform us is that the dynamics within this story of reconciliation were undertaken within the context of a Viceroy relating to a distinguished family from another country, not simply outsiders. The dynamics had to be taken seriously and the actions of the family of Yaakov had to be under scrutiny. Perhaps one of Yosef’s desired teachings was that, as Jews, we are always under the microscope.

Footnotes

1 Rambam, Perush HaMishnayot, Sanhedrin, Introduction to Perek Chelek, 13 Fundamentals of Faith, Principle 8.

2 That is, to accept such readings within the spectrum of acceptable understandings of the text (even as we may find other Torah commentators offering different explanations, with some even advocating for a simple reading). The reality of Torah is such that there may be many different, even contradictory, understandings of a text with the call being to accept all proper ones – derived through correct application of the rules of Torah — as part of the corpus of Torah. The point being herein that our understanding of Torah clearly is not the same as the fundamentalist. The task before us is clearly beyond the simplistic with the result being a much more complex understanding of not only the text but the very principles presented therein.

3 This, however, is an issue that will not be addressed within this Insight.

4 A possible answer being to show the audacity of Ruvain in infringing upon the private life of his father despite his concern for his mother’s honour.

5 See Rashi, Bereishit 35:29.

6 See, for example, the demonstration of Yehuda’s integrity in Bereishit 38:26.

7 See, Bereishit 12:10-20.

8 See, also, Ramban, Bereishit 47:7.

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