For centuries, the light hanging above the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept has been called a ner tamid, an everlasting light. It is a part of the architecture and religious symbolism of every Jewish sanctuary. Sometimes it is an electric light, other times it may be a flame fueled by oil. Often it is artfully crafted out of precious metal or glass.
Many commentators believe that the origin of the ner tamid is found in the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion. In Tetzaveh we read: You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for lamps burning continually… But there is disagreement as to what exactly the ner tamid mentioned in our text is. It might be the lamp that stood in front of the ark curtain that was kept continually burning. Or it might be the seven-branch menorah that was a main fixture within the ancient Temple.
Some commentators see the ner tamid not as an actual light, but as a powerful symbol representing the Jewish people. Just as the ner tamid burns eternally, so too the Jewish people will survive, enduring forever, despite their persecutors. Like the flame that is kindled and rekindled, the light of Israel burns steadily.
Others believe that the ner tamid is not a symbol of the people Israel, but rather a reminder of God’s presence in our midst. Writes Rabbi Chaim Stern, “Light is a metaphor for the Divine, for understanding, for ‘enlightenment….’” The brightness reminds us that we are responsible for bringing God’s light into the world, that we are as the prophet Isaiah said, to be “a light to all the nations.”
How do we serve as ‘a light to the nations?’ By doing mitzvot, by doing what is right and good, we bring light into our world through our actions. In this way, we ‘brighten’ our lives and those of the people around us.
In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides spells out that tzedakah is, at its heart, about justice (as the Hebrew word implies); not mercy or compassion. “The fulfilling of duties with regard to others imposed upon you on account of moral virtue is called tzedakah (Part 3, Chapter 53).”
Indeed, our tradition imposes or mandates this justice from us, to the extent that the Talmud (Bava Batra 8b) allows for the taking of charity by force if someone is reluctant to part with their money. Our tradition says that it isn’t optional to take care of everyone in society, to give tzedakah.
Yet in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we are told of a contribution that *is* optional. “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity (Exodus 25:2).” Why make the building of the tabernacle, an essential part of Jewish ritual and worship, voluntary instead of mandatory?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggests that agreeing to be present with the people — choosing the confines of the temporal world over the freedom time, space, and all reality — was a sacrificial act by God. It was worth it, perhaps, but only when we are willing to uphold our end of the bargain. We have to do our part, voluntarily, to experience God’s presence.
This entire dichotomy feels very Jewish. Experiences of God? That depends on the amount of work you are willing to put in. Your obligations to your fellow human being? Those are not optional in the least.
Last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, had the pinnacle religious experience of revelation at Mt. Sinai. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, jumps off that mountain and into the minutia, into the collection of laws pertaining to daily living. On such regulation caught my eye: When a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep (Exodus 21:37).
Scholar Ibn Ezra points out that if the ox or sheep are found alive, the thief only pays double. Perhaps he will fear the extra punishment, repent, and return what he stole, Ibn Ezra rationalizes.
But why a four or five-fold penalty?
Philo tries to apply logic: The ox contributes more to man than the sheep. The latter provides man with four benefits: milk, cheese, wool, and lambs; the ox, five: milk, cheese, calves, ploughing, and threshing.
Ibn Ezra recognizes that the punishment should increase as the skill of the thief increases, perhaps to offset the instances of practices likely present: The penalty for ox stealing is heavier because the thief cannot hide it as easily as a sheep. Only an expert thief can execute such an operation.
Rashi’s commentary comes out of left field. Preserving a text from Mekilta in the name of Yochanan ben Zakkai, he says: “God takes pity on the honor of those created in God’s image. An ox walks on its own, and the thief need not degrade himself by carrying it; hence he pays five oxen. But the thief who degrades himself by carrying a sheep need only pay four sheep.”
In this view, our Torah takes seriously the feelings of every human being — even those inclined to steal oxen.
Be like Nachshon, not Shimon, this week’s parasha tells us. The Israelites, fleeing from Egypt, find themselves trapped between an impassable sea and the Egyptian army, its horses and chariots. Just to make sure Moses’ anxiety level is as high as it can be, the people call out to him with one of my favorite lines in all of the Torah: “Ha’mibli ain k’varim b’mitzraim l’kachtanu lamoot b’midbar? Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die in the wilderness?”
They were panicked, and the midrash, the rabbinic creativity of our tradition, records two very different responses. Nachshon ben Aminidav, from the Tribe of Judah, chooses the high road:
Talmud Sotah 36b
Rabbi Meir stated: When the Israelites stood on the brink of the sea the tribes contended with one another. One said: I will not be the first to go down into the sea. The other said: I will not be first to go down into the sea. While they were debating with each other, Nachshon ben Aminadav (of the Tribe of Judah) plunged — with his tribe after him — into the waves of the sea. For this reason Judah was granted preeminence in Israel.
Shimon, from the Tribe of Shimon, chose to focus on, well, the low road.
Midrash on Exodus 24
There were two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who were among the Israelites. As they walked through the sea, all they could talk about was the mud. Reuven said: “In Egypt, we had mud, and now here too in the sea we have mud. In Egypt, we had clay for bricks, and here too, we have an abundance of clay to make bricks. They rebelled at the sea, even though this was the parting of the Sea of Reeds! They didn’t notice the water, instead they saw the mud.
Be like Nachshon, not Shimon, this week’s parasha tells us. Seize opportunity rather than grumbling your way through the good as you would the bad.
“The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians,” we read in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo (Exodus 12:35-36).
Had this constituted the private initiative of the Israelites, who had been enslaved and exploited for centuries, no further explanation would have been required.
But that isn’t the case: it is foretold as a divine promise in Genesis 15, and Exodus 3, and Exodus 11.
What is happening here?
Our sages get creative in finding an answer. The Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a, imagines that these are replacement wages for 430 years of servitude. Rabbeinu Bachya imagines that they were gifts freely given rather than borrowed. A contemporary sage, Benno Jacob, puts forward an even more interesting argument:
For an Israelite, the word Egyptian had the bitterest associations. But the Torah records that the Egyptians and the Jews parted friends, as we read “you shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land (Deuteronomy 23:7).” Israel said to them: “Let us part friends and we’ll take with us a parting gift.”
It was a goodwill gesture, albeit one prompted by the Israelites. This whole narrative could have happened without overtures toward goodwill — the Israelites could have simply forced their will of separation after the plagues — but the Middle East is too small a place to part on bad terms. The world is too small a place to part on bad terms.
The transcendent words of our biblical text have lasted thousands of years, inspiring and challenging myriad generations. In this week’s Torah portion, we see that the *style* of writing also adds to its majesty.
At the end of Shemot, last week’s Torah portion, Moses vents his frustrations to God:
Adonai, why did You bring harm upon this people?
Why did You send me?
Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people;
And You still have not delivered Your people.
God first responds to Moses personal complaint, why did you send me, by saying:
You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: He shall let them go
because of a greater might;
Indeed, because of a greater might
He shall drive them from his land.
And then, in this week’s Torah portion, we see a much longer response to Moses’ more significant concern, why has God not redeemed the people from Egypt.
The beauty of this response is hidden in the structure. Moses’ initial gripes were structured as a chiasmus, a repetition in reverse order. So, too, was God’s initial response. And God’s longer response? An even more elaborate chiasmus that makes the central text stand out as if it were a neon sign. “I am Adonai. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be to you as God.”
This four-fold promise is so important to us that we drink one cup of wine for each of these promises on Passover. L’chayim!
Want to find your signifiant other in the Biblical text? Hang out by a well! With the well itself serving as a symbol of fertility and the act of drawing water emblematic of a forming spousal bond, this scene repeats over and over in Torah.
In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant finds Rebekkah for Isaac. In Genesis 29, Jacob meets Rachel. And in Exodus 2, this week’s Torah portion, Moses find Zipporah. Each meeting is more or less the same…but it is the subtle differences that illustrate the beauty of Torah.
In Genesis 24, Isaac is completely absent; it is a servant who acts on his behalf. Quite appropriate for his role as a patriarch, right? Whether in the story of the Akeidah or the Blessing of Esau and Jacob, his whole story is about others acting upon him while he remains passive. It’s also the only text where a woman brings forth water from the well, perhaps showing Rebekkah’s initiative we will seem time and again.
In Genesis 29, Jacob finds a well in a field rather than near the city, setting up the conflict between shepherd and agrarian ethics. It’s also interesting to note the presence of a well cover in this story and this story alone, a stone that might foreshadow Jacob’s using a stone as a pillow and also a marker when encountering God.
The writing in Exodus 2 is even more beautiful. The shortest of the well scenes, Moses saves the women involved — just as he saved the Israelites — and rhetorical emphasis is placed upon his drawing of water. Whether because he himself was drawn from the water — see what they did there? — or that he would later draw water for the Israelites, these subtle difference from the other well scenes set up Moses as the hero of our story.
For more on this way of reading the text, check out “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter.
Abraham had two sons. Okay, eight, six of whom came considerably later in his life. Of the original two, the story follows Isaac. Isaac had two sons, and the story follows Jacob. Jacob had twelve sons: whom should the story follow?
Our first guess might be Joseph, his favorite, but the text squashes that idea this week and next, embalming Joseph and leaving him in an Egyptian coffin before a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph. We might instead guess Leah’s firstborn, Reuben, but Jacob’s so-called-blessing this week writes him out of the story for his earlier actions:
Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer, for when you mounted your father’s bed you brought disgrace — my couch is mounted!
While Israel was staying in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel found out.
Perhaps Simeon and Levi? Nope, their past actions disqualify them, too.
Simeon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Rashi on Genesis 49:5
Simeon and Levi were of one mind, regarding Shechem and regarding Joseph. In the land of their sojourns, they conducted themselves with violence.
Benjamin? A solid guess…but Benjamin goes down as the ancestral progenitor of Saul, who ultimately falls from grace. Judges 19 and 20 absolutely excoriate the Tribe of Benjamin and leave it for dead.
Down and down the family tree we go until eventually we arrive at Judah. Central to Israel and the priesthood, ancestral progenitor of King David, our sacred text ultimately follows Judah. As do we, those who practice Judah-ism.
The Joseph story offers those aspiring to positions of power a cautionary tale. By objective measures, he certainly succeeded in rising to the highest echelons of Egyptian government:
Genesis 41:55 And when all the land of Egypt felt the hunger, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians: “Go to Joseph; whatever he tells you, you shall do.”
Everyone in Egypt, native and sojourner alike, turned to him during the crisis of famine in the land. He had tremendous power. But he had also forsaken the values with which he was raised for that which was temporary and fleeting.
In his book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Dr. Yoram Hazony suggests that ours is a history of shepherd ethics over those of the farmer:
1) Life after Eden begins with the murder of Abel, a shepherd, by his brother Cain, who was a farmer; and this because God accepted the shepherd’s sacrifice but rejected that of the farmer.
2) At the climax of the Abraham story, God commands him to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering, but that God then forgoes the sacrifice of the child and accepts instead the sacrifice of a sheep.
3) It is in Pharaoh’s palace that Moses, the greatest leader of the Hebrews, is raised as a child. But instead of accepting Egyptian ways, he flees to the desert and becomes a shepherd like his fathers. It is while herding his flock that Moses is called by God. And when he returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and rain plagues down upon the land, he does so with a shepherd’s staff in his hand.
Shepherd ethics, a life of dissent and counter-cultural initiative whose aim is to find the good life for man, is offered by Hazony as as God’s true will in our sacred text.
But Joseph? He falls for the allure of the city and the empire, the pinnacle of farming civilization. Yes, it saved the Israelites when they were in a bad spot. AND it offered them 400 years of servitude. As for Joseph’s legacy? Well, Genesis next week ends with him embalmed in Egypt before a new Pharaoh arises who knew not of his existence. Temporary and fleeting indeed, as his ancestors, as we, are still here.
Shriveled, we often translate it…as in: “the sheaves of grain foretelling seven years of upcoming famine were shriveled.” But that word, tz’numot, is without precedent in the Biblical text. Rashi thinks it’s from the same root as the Aramaic word “rock.” Onkelos translates that it means the grain blossoms had been emptied of their seeds. Rashbam simply sees fit to remind us that no other word related to this one appears anywhere in the Bible. Ibn Ezra gets creative when he says some say it means “images,” as it does in Arabic. Nachmanides throws a lot of words at the problem before saying it means “shredded.” So much commentary on a seemingly superfluous word, and without a definition drawn from other uses no one can be proved wrong. So why did they — and why do we — care?
Perhaps it amplifies the urgency of Pharoah’s dream. Seven fat cows, seven skinny cows, seven healthy stalks, seven shriveled stalks. Two separate seven year cycles? No, says Rashi, just one that is really going to happen. Shriveled, rock like, shredded, images of grain? It’s going to be unprecedented, just like the word tz’numot. Famine is coming, it’s going to be bad, and Pharaoh needs advice and guidance and interpretation. Enter Joseph, a man in whom there is the spirit of God, to save the day. And his brothers. And his people. And us.
Freud claims that all details of a dream – even the most ridiculous – have significance. I’m not entirely sure I agree, but this little detail seems to have saved the day.