How the Torah Uses Egyptian Words and Customs to Color the Joseph Story

Dec. 22 2017

This week’s Torah reading of Vayigash concludes the narrative of Joseph’s rivalry with his brothers, his ascent from Egyptian slave to Pharaoh’s vizier, and his eventual reconciliation with his estranged brothers. Examining the various literary techniques employed in this text, Gary Rendsburg notes the frequent use of Egyptian words and reference to Egyptian custom. For instance:

The term aḥu appears in [Pharaoh’s] dream about the cows. It derives from the Egyptian word meaning “reed-grass.” Pharaoh [also] grants Joseph the Egyptian name Tsafnat Pa’neaḥ [after making him his chief adviser]. The name is meaningless in Hebrew, but it reads well as the Hebraized form of the Egyptian phrase “the god says, ‘he has life.’” Many readers will recognize the Egyptian word ʿnḫ, “life” (usually anglicized as ankh) preserved in the final three consonants of the Hebrew phrase. . . .

[Similarly], in ancient Egypt, dream interpretation was a valued art; in fact, we possess two extensive dream-interpretation manuals from ancient Egypt. . . . It is no surprise, [then], that the largest concentration of dreams and dream interpretation in the Bible takes place in the Joseph narrative: his own two dreams in Genesis 37, the dreams of his two fellow prisoners in chapter 40, and Pharaoh’s dreams in chapter 41.

[Furthermore], Joseph shaves before his audience with Pharaoh. This reflects the fact that Israelite and other Semitic adult males wore beards, but the Egyptians were clean-shaven. Thus begins Joseph’s acculturation process, as he commences the transformation from a Hebrew lifestyle to an Egyptian one.

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More about: Ancient Egypt, Hebrew Bible, Joseph, Religion & Holidays

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays