Biblical Commentaries - Rashi - Elie Wiesel

Rashi - Elie Wiesel (2009)

Chapter 2. Biblical Commentaries

In order to better understand Rashi’s genius as an exegete, we propose to study some of his commentaries on the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis. To look at these commentaries is to get a glimpse of the rabbinic mind, a way of reading and of writing that dominated Jewish creativity for hundred of years. Each word of the Bible is scrutinized, each phrase subject to possible interpretations, and the result is both deeply faithful to sacred text and also the product of wild inventiveness that is both playful and serious, the work of human imagination and yet simultaneously a work of sacred interpretation.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth …

What does Rashi say about this first verse of Genesis?

“Amar Rabbi Yitzhak: Rabbi Yitzhak says: the Torah should have started with ‘This month shall be unto you the first of the months’ … since that is the first mitzvah, the first commandment given to Israel. Why did it start with Bereshit or ‘In the beginning’? Because of verse 6, Psalm in: ‘He hath showed his people the power of his work, that he may give them the heritage of the heathen.’ If the nations of the world say to Israel, ‘You are thieves, brigands, because you conquered the land of the Seven Peoples,’ they will answer: ‘the whole earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed be He. It is He who created it, who offered it to whomsoever He wanted. When He wanted, He gave it to them (first), and then in accordance with His will, He took it away from them and gave it to us.’”

Actually you would think that Rashi’s question could easily be answered using the chronological argument. After all (and Nachmanides will make this point later), creation preceded the Laws, did it not? Isn’t it therefore logical that it should be recounted first?

Rashi himself remains attached to this first verse that “requires further elaboration.” True, citing a Midrash, he states his conviction that the world was created for the Torah, and also for Israel. But this does not satisfy him in explaining why creation is placed at the beginning of the book. So he will provide his own hypothesis, which consists of combining the first three verses into a single one that reads as follows: “When God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, God said, let there be light and there was light.”

His combined verses offer a brilliant interpretation, but Rashi persists and wonders about the meaning of certain words. For example: how is one to understand that the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters? Here is how: “The Throne of Glory stood suspended in the air thanks to the word of the Holy One, Blessed be He, like a dove that hovers over its pigeon house (couvetière in Belaaz).”

And God saw that the light was good and divided the light from the darkness. Rashi tells us why: so that the impious can’t use it, and to safeguard it for the Righteous until the end of time.

As the creation nears completion, we have the verse, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” (Genesis 1:26). The use of the plural “our” elicits two commentaries from Rashi:

A. The verse teaches us that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is humble. God consulted with the angels so they would not become jealous of man.

B. God consulted them even though they did not help him in the creation. But couldn’t the heathens use this for their own ends? Possibly. But more important is the lesson that is learned from it: the need for modesty on the part of the great; they should always consult with humbler men.

For another glimpse of how Rashi sees God’s role in the creation of man, we look to the next chapter, in which the creation is told in a different narrative. “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).

Rashi[’s question: Why is it bad for there to be only one human being? His answer]: So that it won’t be said that two powers reign in the world. Up high, one with no female companion, and below, one with no female companion.

“I will make him a fitting helper for him” (literally, a “helper facing” or “opposed to him”).

Rashi’s question: How is she both a help and in opposition? Rashi’s answer: If he is deserving, the other will help him; if he is not, the other will fight against him.

Playing on the words ish—“man”—and ishah—“woman”—which is valid only in Hebrew, Rashi demonstrates that the holy tongue was used at the time of the creation of the world.

“And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept.”

Here Rashi puts forward a touching explanation for why he put Adam to sleep: God is about to operate on Adam’s ribs and make his future companion out of one of them; if Adam suspects this, it might disgust him forever.

A surprising idea:

And (seeing woman for the first time) “Adam said, this is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”

This means that Adam had already mated with beasts and animals, but was satisfied only when uniting with his spouse. Another odd comment in the story of the Garden of Eden:

“Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field … and he said unto the woman …” What is the serpent doing in the Garden of Eden? And what aroused his interest? He saw man and woman united sexually, says the commentator, and this excited him.

The serpent persuaded Eve to taste the forbidden fruit in spite of the danger that she could die. Then she gave it to Adam so he would share it with her.

Rashi: she was afraid that she would die and that Adam would survive her and marry another woman.

Once God has confronted them about the eating of the fruit, the man defends himself with the following verse:

“And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”

Rashi: here Adam shows his lack of gratitude to God for giving him the woman.

The serpent, too, is dealt with.

“And the Lord God said unto the serpent … upon thy belly shalt thou go.”

Rashi, true to his undeviating attachment to the literal text, deduces from this that originally the serpent had legs but then he lost them.

“So he drove out the man; and he placed … a flaming sword (lame in Belaaz), which turned every way” at the entrance of the Garden of Eden.

There is a Midrash on this verse, says Rashi, but my aim is to remain with the straightforward meaning.

Life outside the Garden also offers much for Rashi to explore. God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. And the latter kills. “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said … am I my brother’s keeper?” God reprimands him: “What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood (in plural) cryeth unto me from the ground.” Rashi explains the plural: “The blood of thy brother, and also of his descendants.”

In other words: he who kills, kills more than the victim.

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Ten generations after the creation, in the time of Noah, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great…. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.”

Rashi’s commentary: “It grieved him to have lost what he had created. Just like the king who became sad because of his son. And this is how I answered the question a heathen asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korkha: “Don’t you believe that God can foresee the future?” “Yes,” the Sage replied. “But,” said the heathen, “it is written that it grieved him at his heart!” “Have you ever had a son?” the Sage asked him. “Yes,” said the heathen. “And what did you do when he was born?” “I rejoiced, and I was eager for others to rejoice.” “But didn’t you know that he would die one day?” “All in good time.”

“These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations.” Rashi asks, why the qualifying phrase “in his generations”? He answers: some of our Teachers interpret this as praise: if he had lived in a generation of Righteous Men, he would have been much more righteous. But some teachers see a criticism contained in that verse: by the standard of his generation (of sinners) he was righteous, but in Abraham’s generation, he wouldn’t have been seen as worth anything.

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“The earth also was corrupt before God, and the country was filled with violence.”

Rashi: the reference is to sexuality and violent theft. Wherever we encounter prostitution, it announces the end. Confusion dominates the world and kills both the good and the wicked.

Another ten generations pass, and we pick up our story with Abraham and Sarah.

“Now Sarai Abram’s wife bore him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar” (Genesis 16:1).

Rashi: she was a daughter of the Pharaoh. Having seen the miracles accomplished for Sarah, the Pharaoh said: better that my daughter be a servant in that man’s house than a mistress in another man’s house.

And Sarai, after waiting ten years, gave Hagar as a concubine to her husband, Abram. “And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived.”

Rashi: on the very first night. But … she will have a miscarriage. And conceive again.

Hagar became arrogant. Sarai, offended, angry at her husband, said to him, “The Lord judge between me and thee.”

Her position, according to Rashi, is the following: When you prayed to God for a child, you thought only of yourself; it was you who wanted a child. You should have prayed for both of us. And then you see my humiliation and you say nothing!

The story of Abraham and Sarah’s desire for children is interrupted by the story of Sodom, the sinful city par excellence, which fell so low in its decline that God decided to “go down … and see.”

Rashi: as with the story of the Tower of Babel, how is it conceivable that God above doesn’t see what is happening below? This verse is here to teach us the law: that in cases involving capital punishment, it is the judges’ responsibility not to judge from afar: they should look into everything before reaching a verdict. And here, despite Abraham’s defense of the city, the verdict is that it will be destroyed.

Eventually Abraham and Sarah’s prayers are answered, and Sarah fulfills a prophecy by giving birth to a son, Isaac, named for his mother’s laughter at the thought that they would have a child in their advanced age. When Isaac was weaned, Abraham made a great feast and all the notables attended. Suddenly Sarah saw Hagar’s son metzakhek, laughing.

As we said above, Rashi is harsh with him. He translates the word metzakhek differently, to suggest that Ishmael committed the sins of idolatry, sexual acts, and murder. He is not as harsh as he will be with Esau, but enough to make us frown.

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And this, in the same spirit:

And Sarah said to Abraham: “Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.”

Rashi: from Sarah’s answer it is clear that the two boys quarreled over the inheritance. Ishmael claimed this right, being the eldest. Sometimes they also went out into the fields where Ishmael shot arrows at Isaac.

This isn’t in the text? There must be a Midrash hinting at it, and we can trust Rashi: he’ll find it.

Rashi is fond of Sarah, the matriarch. When God tells Abraham to “hearken unto her voice,” in other words, to obey her, Rashi attributes prophetic virtues to her.

As for Abraham, he grants Sarah’s request, and sends Ishmael away in the wilderness with his mother. Abraham gives them bread and water. But no money, says Rashi. Because of whom? Because of the son who probably took the wrong path in life. As for Hagar, in leaving Abraham and Sarah’s house, she returned to her native customs.

However, in the end, God will take pity on them. An angel called to Hagar, “God hath heard the voice (and sobs) of the lad where he is.” And Hagar saw a well of water in front of her.

Rashi: the point is he is judged according to his present deeds. For the angels in heaven refuse to have pity on Ishmael, saying: God of the universe, how can you save someone from dying of thirst when in the future his descendants will kill Abraham’s descendants by making them die of thirst? And God replies: man is not judged for his future deeds but for his present ones.

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham.”

In this passage, one of the most moving and meaningful in the Scriptures, Rashi feels he must dwell on many verses and words. In his opening remarks, he wonders after “what things”? The answer—or rather answers—are in the Midrash. Some of our Teachers, he explains, say this: after Satan’s words accusing Abraham of ingratitude. Never in any of the feasts that Abraham held in honor of his son did he consider sacrificing a single bull or ram to You. God answered Satan: everything he did, he did for his son; yet if I were to ask him to sacrifice that son, he would.

And another version: “After the words the two brothers exchanged. Ishmael said with pride: (I am worthier than you) for I was thirteen when I was circumcised. Isaac answered him: Are you trying to impress me with just one organ of your body? If God asks me, ‘Sacrifice your entire self,’ I would do it.”

Strange, there was a High Priest named Ishmael, and a sage too. And there was no Rabbi Esau among our great teachers or servants of the Lord.

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And God said (to Abraham): “Take now thy son.”

Rashi corrects the meaning of this verse to stress the complicity between God and his faithful ally and messenger: God requests that Abraham submit to this last trial so that people will not say that the previous ones had no value.

It’s worth noting the method that Rashi employs, which the rabbis of the Talmud also used; he takes a biblical statement by God but breaks it up with other statements, not actually found in the Bible, that subtly shift or elucidate the meaning of God’s words, as if God were in fact responding to challenges or questions from Abraham. In the Bible, the verse has God saying simply: “Take they son, thy only son, whom thou lovest, Isaac.” Rashi breaks the request apart:

Take now thy son.

Rashi: Abraham replied: I have two sons. “Thine only son,” said God. “Each one is the only son for his mother,” said Abraham. “The one whom thou lovest,” said God. “I love both of them,” said Abraham. “Isaac,” said God. Rashi is surprised by the length of this dialogue: why didn’t God tell him everything right away? So as not to upset him and cause him to lose his mind. And also so he would love the commandment; and could be rewarded for every word spoken. And this is why the father and son spend three days on the road. So people won’t say that Abraham acted in a fit of insanity.

Let us appreciate Rashi’s boldness: in this moment of sublime tragedy, the deeply human Abraham could have become insane.

“And Abraham took the wood … and laid it upon Isaac his son. And he took the fire in his hand and a knife; and they went both of them together.”

Putting all the weight of the unquestionably traumatic experience on Abraham, Rashi says: “Abraham, who knew he was going to slay his son, walked with the same willingness and joy as Isaac who knew nothing.”

In the Midrashic literature there are a great many legends dealing with this walk and giving the son his own role to play. It is odd that Rashi is so sparing in his commentaries here.

But he will be less so in the following passage.

“And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said [Rashi: with tenderness], Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here I am. And he [the angel] said, ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God.’”

The text is clear, precise, concise. Outwardly Abraham accepts everything in silence. But Rashi is not satisfied. He who usually likes simplicity and brevity at all times suddenly brings up a dialogue from the Midrash, cited by Rabbi Abba, between Abraham and God: “Abraham says: I would like to talk to you. Yesterday you told me that Isaac would be my descendant; then you told me to take my son (sacrifice him to you) and now you tell me not to lay a hand upon the lad!” In other words: how can God say one thing and its opposite? And behold God answers him and his answer is simply astounding. “I don’t change my commands;” it is you who have misunderstood me! I asked you to (take your son) and climb up (the mountain) with him. I didn’t ask you to slay him!”

What! The whole episode concerning Isaac’s near sacrifice would be based on a mere misunderstanding!

There are other legends, other exchanges in the Midrash, depicting Abraham as tenacious and determined to obtain from God more promises, both old and new, for his descendants. But Rashi, for unexplained reasons, hardly touches on these.

“And Sarah died.”

Rashi feels the need to comment on how close the Akedah (the sacrifice of Isaac) is to the death of his mother: it is when she learned of the event that her soul left her.

Here again, the Midrash elaborates on this at greater length, stressing the part played by Satan. Why doesn’t Rashi use it? Could it be that this episode troubles him more deeply than others?

Isaac of course survives his ordeal and his father sends an emissary to bring back a bride for him from the land of Abraham’s family:

Then Laban and Bethuel answered (to Eliezer, Abraham’s envoy).

Laban has a bad reputation with Rashi:

“Laban was ungodly: he had the arrogance to speak before his father.” The same applies to Bethuel: a negative individual. When Rebecca’s brother and mother answer and give their consent, letting her go to marry Isaac, Rashi asks: but where was Bethuel? And he replies: an angel killed him because he tried to prevent the marriage.

A historical precedent for the supporters of women’s rights: before Rebecca’s departure, her brother and mother ask her whether she agrees. She replies with just one word, “Eikkh”: “I will go.” Rashi: the meaning here is I will go even if you are opposed to it.

Rashi: we can deduce from this that we have no right to force a woman to marry someone; we need her consent.

An odd story of malicious gossip: even the first patriarch wasn’t spared. The text first:

And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begat Isaac.

Rashi wonders: why this repetition? His answer: having mentioned Isaac, Abraham’s son, the following statement was necessary. For there were gossipers who said that since Sarah was childless during the years when she lived with Abraham, Isaac’s father was really King Elimelekh and not Abraham. What did God do? He gave Isaac the same facial features as Abraham. So when they saw the striking resemblance, everyone could see that Isaac was Abraham’s son.

Isaac and Rebecca go on to have their own sons, twins Jacob and Esau who are at odds even before they leave the womb. In discussing Rashi’s suspicious attitude toward Ishmael, we also mentioned his contempt for Esau. Let us point out another instance:

At a certain point in the narrative about Isaac and Rebecca, the text says that Esau was forty years old when he married Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Base-math the daughter of Elon the Hittite. Rashi seizes the opportunity to add this: Esau looked like a boar. When a boar lies down, he stretches out his legs as if to show how pure he is…. For forty years, Esau stole women from their husbands and tortured them. So his father said to him: I married when I was forty, do the same.

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In Isaac’s old age, he prepares to bless his firstborn, favorite son, Esau. But Rebecca has other plans, and sends Jacob in Esau’s stead. Did Jacob lie to his blind father by impersonating Esau? No, says Rashi, always prepared to defend Jacob against his brother. When Jacob says to his father, “I am Esau, thy firstborn,” Rashi changes the punctuation and the meaning of the words: “I am who I am (the one who brings you your favorite food), and Esau is thy firstborn.” And when Isaac asks him, “Are you my son Esau?” he doesn’t answer, “I am he,” but “It is I.” There again, for Rashi, Jacob doesn’t lie and never will.

Rashi goes very far: when Isaac, “trembling very exceedingly,” says to Esau, “thy brother came ‘be-mirmah’ and hath taken away thy blessing,” he translates the word be-mirmah, meaning “with cunning,” as be-hokhmah, meaning “with wisdom and intelligence.”

Rebecca was told that Esau was “proposing to kill Jacob.” Told by whom? Whom could Esau have possibly confided in? In his mother? Surely not. In his father? Surely not again. Rashi has a ready answer: “it is the Holy Spirit that told her everything.” Even He is against Esau.

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Jacob’s entire life is a series of miracles. Even a small, ordinary detail partakes of the supernatural.

Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. (At a certain place), he saw “the sun was set; and took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows.” Rashi: one stone said, the Righteous Man will rest his head on me, and the other said, no, on me. So God fused them and made them into one, which He placed under Jacob’s head. And that’s when he fell asleep. And in a dream he saw the ladder with its top touching heaven. But where was the ladder placed? On Mount Moriah where the Temple will later be built. But … geographically isn’t this impossible? The spot where Jacob was lying was far away? Easy: on that night, Mount Moriah was uprooted and transported to the spot where Jacob was resting.

One more miracle.

Let us return to the wicked Laban. When he meets Jacob, his future son-in-law, he embraces him. What could be more natural? No, says Rashi: “He embraces him so he could go through his pockets, which he thought were full of gold coins.” Laban embraces him also “to see if he has precious pearls in his mouth,” says Rashi.

“And Jacob loved Rachel; and said (to Laban), I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter.”

Rashi’s commentary:

Why so many details? Because Jacob felt that Laban was an inveterate liar. He said to him: I will serve for Rachel, but if you think you can tell me that we’re referring to another Rachel, off the street,” let me be specific: “thy daughter.” And in case you say you’ll change her name to Leah and Leah’s to Rachel, let me say to you right away: “your younger daughter, the youngest.” But, adds Rashi, in spite of all these precautions, Laban betrayed him.

On the night of the wedding, Laban brought Leah to Jacob, who became aware of Laban’s betrayal when he woke up.

Rashi: actually, all night long Jacob was convinced his bride was Rachel. As a precaution, he had given her a secret sign of recognition. But when Rachel realized what was happening, she revealed the secret to her older sister so she wouldn’t be put to shame.

Marvelous Rachel, Rashi says: when, with the years, she became jealous of her sister, she envied her for her good deeds.

Jacob continues to serve Laban, and marries Rachel as well. He becomes rich, and leaves Laban’s household, returning to the land where his angry brother Esau abides.

And Jacob sent messengers to his brother whose arrival he feared. He said to them: “Thus shall ye speak unto my lord Esau; Thy servant Jacob saith thus, I have sojourned with Laban.”

Rashi: I didn’t become a lord or an important dignitary but a stranger. You have no reason to hate me: the blessings I received from our father did not come to pass. And also this: I lived in Laban’s house and learned nothing from his evil deeds.

Praise for Jacob:

Having learned that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men, Jacob was greatly afraid.

Rashi: faced with this imminent conflict, Jacob felt a double fear: the fear of being killed and/or of killing others.

Jacob’s prayer: “Deliver me … from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau.” Rashi’s commentary: deliver me from my brother who doesn’t behave like a brother but like Esau, the ungodly one.

Another miracle: Jacob, on his journey, wrestles with an angel. After their morning duel, the angel asks Jacob what his name is, and Jacob tells him. “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob,” says the angel, “but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”

Rashi dwells on just two words: “No more Jacob (You are no longer Jacob) for you didn’t obtain blessings through cheating but openly and with dignity.”

The two enemy brothers finally meet. “And Esau ran to meet him (Jacob) and embraced him … and they wept.” In the biblical text, there are two small dots on the word embraced.

In his commentary, Rashi, suddenly charitable toward Esau, says that faced with Jacob’s humility, Esau could not help feeling compassionate. Still, he cites another source according to which he would not have been wholeheartedly compassionate.

Jacob introduces his family to his brother. First the handmaids, then Leah with her children, then Joseph and Rachel. Rashi is surprised: why not Rachel and Joseph? Commentary: Joseph said to himself that his mother was a great beauty; she might attract the attention of the impious one. I had better step in between them.

“So Esau returned that day on his way unto Seir.” Rashi wonders why the verb is in the singular. Because he was alone. One after the other, the four hundred men who had been with him, deserted him.

As for Jacob, he comes out of the ordeal, arriving in Shechem “whole.” Rashi’s commentary: “whole in his healed body, whole in his wealth, and whole in his faith.” Odd: here Rashi does not mention his family.

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Dina, Jacob’s only daughter, is raped by Prince Hamor’s son Shechem. Hamor tries to make up for the misdeed and proposes to the victim’s brothers and their father Jacob that the two youths marry. After a long discussion, Dina’s brothers suggest be-mirmah, with cunning (like Jacob with Isaac), that they could come to an arrangement providing all the men in the tribe get circumcised.

Once again, as in the first instance, Rashi translates the word as “wisdom or intelligence.”

On the third day after the operation, when the men opposite were most sore, Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, attack the city and kill all the males.

Like Jacob later, Rashi does not justify their act of revenge. He says: why does the text mention that they were Jacob’s sons? Because they were. But they behaved as though they were not: they did not seek his advice.

“And Jacob dwelt… in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old …” The proximity if not the continuity of these two verses arouses Rashi’s interest. Several commentaries. Let us cite two:

A. The aim of the text is to emphasize the great resemblance between Jacob and Joseph. First of all, physically. But also in another way: they had the same destiny. One was hated, the other too. One had a brother who tried to kill him, the other too.

B. The text also aims to show that, at this stage of his life, Jacob wished to live peacefully and then the story of Joseph befell him. It is as though the Holy One, Blessed be He, had said: really, all these Righteous Men, is it not sufficient for them that they will have their share in the world to come, that they wish to live peacefully in this one too?

As though Rashi, here, wished to explain the suffering of Israel in exile….

“And he is a lad (or adolescent).”

Rashi’s commentary: Joseph behaves like an immature adolescent. He dresses his hair, touches up his eyes; he does everything to look handsome.

Rashi’s portrait of Joseph is not attractive. Admittedly he keeps company with the servant girls’ children, but he has no hesitation about undermining the existence of Leah’s children. He tells their father unpleasant things about them: that they eat meat carved out of the flesh of living animals, that they mistreat the servant girls’ children, call them slaves, and engage in all kinds of sexual acts.

He will be punished for these three things.

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And the brothers, annoyed by Joseph’s grandiose dreams, decided to kill him: “and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

Rashi: Rabbi Yitzhak said: the verse must be divided in half. The part dealing with the decision belongs to the brothers; the last part to the Holy Spirit. It is God who says; do what you wish, and we’ll see what will become of it.

Rather than kill him, on Judah’s advice, the brothers decide to sell Joseph into slavery.

(Rashi: Joseph will be sold several times: first to the Ishmaelites, who sold him to the Midianites, who in turn sold him to the Egyptians.)

The brothers kill a goat and dip Joseph’s beautiful coat in its blood. Seeing it, Jacob cries out: “It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him.”

Rashi is surprised: why didn’t the Holy Spirit—on whom Jacob usually depended until then—reveal the truth to him? Because the brothers put a ban on anyone who would. Question: Isaac was still alive and he knew; why didn’t he put his son’s mind at rest? Because he said to himself: if God doesn’t reveal the truth to him, by what right can I? Consequence: they each certainly had their reasons, but the unfortunate Jacob mourned for twenty-two long years.

“And all his sons and all his daughters (in the plural) rose up to comfort him.”

Rashi wonders: where do these daughters come from? (Jacob has only one, Dina!) He quotes Rabbi Yehuda: the founding father of each tribe had a twin sister. Rabbi Yehuda says: these daughters were the Canaanite women whom the sons had married—daughters that were really daughters-in-law.

“And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren.”

Rashi is surprised: why is the story of the selling of Joseph interrupted to tell a story that is unrelated to it: the affair of Judah and Tamar? The answer: the text teaches us that the brothers resented Judah for the advice he had given them; he really should just have told them to bring their brother back home.

Indeed, the Talmud also has a low opinion of Judah: depriving a man of his freedom is a serious transgression.

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The story of the widow Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, is remarkable. As she sits by the wayside and her face is veiled, Judah mistakes her for a whore. He has no money on him, so he gives her his signet and bracelets as a pledge. Then she discovers she is pregnant. A public scandal: Judah’s daughter-in-law is guilty of adultery! She is sentenced to be burned. So she sends the signet and bracelets to her father-in-law and says: I am pregnant by their owner.

Rashi’s commentary: why didn’t she name him? To avoid humiliating him. Indeed, she was prepared to die in the flames rather than humiliate him. Hence the saying of our Sages: it is better to throw oneself into a furnace than shame someone in public.

And because Tamar behaved with so much dignity and modesty, some of her descendants will be kings of Israel.

“And Joseph was well favored …” in the home of Potiphar, the chief steward of Pharaoh, in which he was a slave.

Rashi: as he thought of himself as important and in power, he began to indulge in food and drink, and fixed his hair with care. So the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: your father is mourning and you strut about…. Fine, I’ll send a bear upon you.

The bear of desire, of instinct … Potiphar’s wife falls in love with him. The opportunity arises on the day when everyone is at the fair except Potiphar’s wife and Joseph: she pretends to be unwell. And Joseph has work to do in the house.

Rashi cites a nice discussion between Rav and Shmuel. One says: he really had work. The other says: of course not, he was going to give in to his lust. He was about to … but suddenly his father’s face appeared before his eyes. This saved him.

Rejected by Joseph, she complained to her husband and accused the Jewish servant of trying to rape her. And her husband believed her? Yes, says Rashi, she told him about it while they were making love.

However, Potiphar does not disappear from the scene.

Several passages later, Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams has taken him from prison to the court of Pharaoh, where he is already enjoying quasi-absolute power when a certain Potipherah, priest of On, gives him his daughter Asenath in marriage. Rashi then identifies Potipherah as Potifar and says: he was given this new name because he became a eunuch for having tried, in turn, to seduce Joseph.

And what about his brothers in all this? And Jacob?

They are suffering. All the inhabitants of Canaan are suffering. A dreadful famine is devastating the land. The only place where people have food is in Egypt. Jacob knows what to do. The text says: “Joseph’s ten brethren went to buy corn in Egypt.”

Rashi’s commentary: why “Joseph’s brethren” and not “Jacob’s sons”? Because they had repented; they regretted having sold him. They are now determined to love him and buy him back for as much money as is asked of them.

They are arrested and brought before Joseph. He recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him: the last time they saw him he had no beard. Is it to punish them? He doesn’t reveal who he is. He accuses them of being spies. They protest: “we are all one man’s sons; we are true men.”

Rashi: though the brothers don’t know it, it is the Holy Spirit that is speaking through their lips: indeed, they have the same father.

They tell him the truth: we are twelve sons, “the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.”

Rashi cites a Midrash: “And if you find him and are asked a large sum of money in order to free him, would you pay it? Yes, they said. And if you’re told that he’ll never be returned to you, what would you do? We came to kill or be killed, they said. Ah, didn’t I say so? You came to kill the people of this city, said Joseph. In fact, I have divined by my goblet that two of you destroyed the great city of Shechem.

He “took from them Simeon, and bound him before their eyes.”

Rashi: why does the text say in front of his brothers? Because once they left, he was freed and given food and drink.

Joseph demands that they fetch their youngest brother, Benjamin. Jacob refuses to let him leave. Reuben insists: “Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee.”

Rashi: Jacob says, my eldest son is a fool. He tells me to slay his sons, but aren’t they also mine?

But the famine is severe, and Judah convinces Jacob to let them return to Egypt for more food. Once there, however, Joseph plays a trick on them and takes from them Benjamin, the other son of Rachel. The brothers beg Joseph to free their younger brother. Joseph finally felt pity for his brother, and he went alone to his chamber and wept.

Rashi pinpoints the moment of pity: Joseph questions Benjamin: do you have a brother by the same mother? I had one, said Benjamin, but I don’t know where he is. Do you have children? Yes, says Benjamin. I have sons. What are their names? Joseph asks. All their names are related to the name of my absent brother, says Benjamin. This is when Joseph feels tears coming to his eyes.

It all ends well. A moving reconciliation scene. Joseph sends off his brothers to bring back their father. He warns them: do not quarrel on the road.

For Rashi, thinking like a rabbi, this injunction not to quarrel means “do not discuss halakhah, Jewish law”—as if to say that to discuss Jewish law is to argue about it. But then he prefers the simpler interpretation; Joseph is afraid that they’ll start blaming one another: it is you who maligned him … it was your idea to sell him … you who incited us to hate him …

“And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years.”

Rashi: At the end of his life Jacob wished to reveal to his children the end of exile, of all exile, but he could not.

“And Israel beheld Joseph’s sons, and said, Who are these?”

Rashi: he tried to bless them, but the Shekhinah, God’s feminine attribute, left him because Jeroboam and Achav (impious kings) will be born from Ephraim and Jehu and his sons from Menasseh.

Yet nonetheless he will bless them later: judge Gideon will be born from one and Joshua from the other.

In his farewell blessings, once again, Jacob tried to reveal to his children the secret of redemption. And once again the Shekhinah departed from him.

So he spoke of something else.

After Jacob’s funeral, the brothers say to Joseph: “Thy father did command before he died, saying, So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive … the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin.” But this is not true. Jacob never said any such thing.

Rashi’s commentary: it was for the sake of peace that they didn’t tell the truth. Since then, the Talmud imposed this rule: one has the right to lie if it is for the sake of peace.