The magical character button

Take, for example, the perplexing story of the Israelite midwives. Pharaoh gave them an order to put to death every male child that was born. The midwives disobeyed him and kept the boys alive as well. When Pharaoh confronted them, they gave him an excuse: "The Israelite women are very lively, and before the midwife arrives, they have already given birth!" Pharaoh realizes that working through the midwives will not do the job, so the issues a general order that all male children must be thrown into the river.

I find this story completely confusing. First of all, how do the midwives have the nerve to give such a lame answer to Pharaoh? Granted that they were prepared to risk their lives and not kill the males, but what kind of excuse is this? Why didn't Pharaoh simply respond that they should kill the male babies when they find them? Further, why did Pharaoh accept such insubordination? He held the power of life and death over the Israelites, or so he thought, so why didn't he punish the midwives?

The ease with which the Israelites had access to Pharaoh and could openly debate Pharaoh's policy towards them with him directly is also amazing! Moses, Aaron, the representatives of the Israelites all seem to have free run of the palace! One could never imagine such a thing in World War II Germany.

A further question. What was Pharaoh's goal of having the male children killed? If he sought to limit the growth of the Israelite population, as implied in the verses which stress just how fruitful Israel was, he should've had the female children eliminated. After all, one male could impregnate many females, so killing the male children is less effective. If here and there, a male child was missed, the Israelites would continue to multiply in any case. Not so if the girls were killed.

One more question, and then we will try to answer them all. After the Israelites are liberated, and after they have received the Torah, there are a number of Commandments relating to the various nations that have oppressed us. First and foremost, is the commandment to eradicate the memory of Amalek. Then, we are enjoined to not despise the Edomite, "for he is your brother."

But one contrast seems to be striking. Regarding the Ammonites and Moabites, the Torah tells us to not allow them to join our people ever. Why? Because they did not bring out water and bread to us as we traveled through the wilderness. Regarding Egypt, however, we have an opposite approach. "Do not despise the Egyptian, for you were a guest in his land." What? What kind of hospitality was that? Decades upon decades of bitter servitude? And what kind of crime did the Ammonites and Moabites commit? It seems that what they did was far worse than the Egyptians! How can this be?

Our rabbis, perhaps in response to this question, tell us a story about Pharaoh's intentions regarding the Israelite males. His fortunetellers had informed him that a savior had been born to the Israelites. This savior would liberate them from Egyptian slavery and lead them out of the country. Pharaoh was not prepared to allow this to happen, so he ordered all of the males to be killed. In this way, he hoped that that savior would be among those eliminated.

From all of the above questions, I have come to a possible explanation. It is that the Egyptians were not "anti-Semitic," and did not hate the Israelites in the least. Allow me to explain.

I believe there are three kinds of jealousy in the world. The worst kind is one where the jealous individual despises the object of his jealousy and wishes him every harm. This is what Cain did to Abel. The best kind of jealousy is where the jealous individual wishes to learn from the example of the object of his jealousy and thus improve himself. In rabbinical literature, this is called "Jealousy of the scribes," which simply causes the jealous individual to become ever more scholarly.

But there is a middle kind of jealousy, not hatred, but not love and admiration either. It is when the jealous person wishes to subordinate the object of their jealousy to their own ambitions. Think of a hostile corporate takeover as opposed to a smear campaign.

I believe that Pharaoh and his Egyptian leadership possessed this kind of jealousy. They wanted Egypt to be the most powerful and successful empire in the world but were jealous of the remarkable success of the Hebrews. They held no hatred towards them, which makes sense in the context of what Joseph had done in saving Egypt. Nonetheless, they did not wish to befriend them or learn from them. They wished to harness their uniqueness for their own aims.

If this is true, we can understand the initial reluctance of Pharaoh to simply order the execution of the Jewish male babies. He told the midwives, in typical Mafia fashion, "Make it look like an accident." Make sure that the male babies are not successfully born, prevent the necessary life-saving actions during childbirth and let the babies die by themselves. To this, the midwives responded that by the time they got to the Israelite women, they had already given birth. Pharaoh had never ordered them to actually actively kill the babies. The Hebrew term used is "cause them to die." The words for kill and murder are not the same.

Pharaoh's obsession with a hostile takeover of the Israelites also explains why he wanted the male children eliminated. In the ancient world, certainly, it was the males who determine the identity of the family. If the girls would be killed, the Israelite males would then marry Egyptian girls and thus convert them to the Israelite way of life. If the boys were gone, then all that would be left were the girls who would then be married by Egyptians, guaranteeing their complete assimilation. That, after all, was Pharaoh's goal. He preferred the neater method of making it look like an accident, but when push came to shove, he ordered the boys thrown into the river.

(In a side point, our sages teach us that the stories of the book of Genesis foretell what would befall the descendants of the patriarchs in later generations. When Abraham and Sarah descended to Egypt because of a famine, Abraham requested that Sarah proclaim herself his sister instead of his wife. He was afraid that if they knew that he was her husband, they would kill him and take her away. Indeed, when she said that Abraham was her brother, that did save his life. She was then taken to be Pharaoh's wife. In a sense, this was the new Pharaoh's goal as well. Eliminate the potential husbands, and take the girls to be the Egyptian wives.)

There is a test written into the commandments to see whether we are truly free of both negative kinds of jealousy. The great sage Rabbi Akiva claimed that the essence of the Torah was the commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Somebody with one of the two negative jealousies will be incapable of fulfilling that commandment. Certainly, if they hate their competitor it will be impossible. But even if they simply view the person as a competitor, while they may not hate them, they will not be able to love them. Only one who views a competitor as a teacher will be able to observe this law.

Imagine you have a button which, when pressed, will grant your "competitor" immediate excellence and success. Would you be able to press that button? I'm not talking about a case where your competitor is seeking to put you out of business. I'm talking about a case where you both are simply doing your business and trying your best. Would you help your competitor? If your interest is to learn how to continually improve, you will press that button with gusto and then ask your competitor how he or she made it to the next level.

Now we can understand the difference between the Egyptians, on the one hand, and the Ammonites and Moabites on the other. The former were not haters. Yes, they were jealous, and they got punished for it. But they did not seek to destroy, only to subsume. But the Ammonites and Moabites refused to bring water and bread to a thirsty and suffering mass of humanity only from hatred. As a result, their character invalidates them from future entry to the nation of kindness, the nation of Israel.

The True Power of Children of Israel

Why does the Torah tell us at such great length of the dysfunctional relationship of Joseph and his brothers? We have three separate Torah readings to cover this entire story! That is a lot of focus, and the question is why.

The details of the story are known far and wide. I wish to probe Joseph's behavior towards his brothers when they came to Egypt to purchase food. Joseph was the second in command, and it was his job to oversee the food distribution during the years of famine. When the brothers, with the exception of Benjamin, stood before him, he recognized them quickly. They, however, did not recognize him. The Torah tells us that, "And Joseph remembered the dreams he had dreamed to them, and now he became estranged to them and spoke harshly to them."

Joseph chooses to run his brothers through the wringer. He accuses them of being spies, requires them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin to Egypt the next time they come. Until then, he will incarcerate Simon. At that moment, the brothers discuss among themselves their guilt in selling Joseph. "When our brother cried to us and begged us, we did not listen. Now his blood is being sought." Reuben responds with, "Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy?"

Joseph is moved by this discussion, and must leave the room in order to cry. What moved him so? And if so, why did he continue the charade of accusing them of spying? Isn't their contrition clear? Why not reunite the family already?

The Torah gives us a hint by mentioning that Joseph's memory of the dreams was the catalyst for his behavior. Some commentaries see on Joseph's part an attempt to force the fulfillment of his dreams. 10 of his brothers have already bowed down to him. He still needs Benjamin to do so, and he needs the sun and moon, representing his father and mother, to do so as well. Since Rachel has already passed away, the commentaries say this refers to her maidservant, Bilhah. The problem I have with this approach is that Jacob did not bow down to Joseph when he arrived in Egypt. In fact, he only did it far after the fact, as he was on his deathbed. Joseph never seems to force that issue.

The commentary of rabbi Solomon Sorotzkin points out that the brothers expressed their guilt to each other when Simon was going to be locked up. They saw in this Divine retribution, where nine brothers consigned the 10th to slavery and incarceration. They were nine in number when they sold Joseph, and now nine of them would return to the land of Canaan, while the 10th would go to jail in Egypt. This indicated divine punishment for their parallel offense.

I believe that it was Reuben's comment that he had warned the brothers at the time not to harm Joseph that moved Joseph to tears. He probably hadn't known that not all of the brothers wanted to do away with them. Nonetheless, this contrition was not enough. It was the contrition of a thief who gets caught, no more than that. Joseph had a more rigorous goal for his brothers: to accept with joy his leadership. To become part of the mission, part of the team.

Joseph's dream about the brothers bowing to him was misunderstood by the brothers. To them, it is the vanquished that bows to the victor. For them, it was a zero sum game. If Joseph won, they lost. What was missing was the possibility that they were all on the same team.

That is what Joseph interpreted the dreams to mean. To him, bowing indicates submission to the mission. Subjects bow to a king in a gesture of willingness to join together in the national interest. There must be one leader, and bowing acknowledges that leader. Nonetheless, all are on the same team. And, in the case of Joseph and his brothers, what is this team called?

It is called a family. Family is the key to the Jewish people's mission. In a normal family, each individual is committed to the welfare of the others and of the whole. The family of Jacob have a mission, and everybody needs to be on board with it. Joseph sought, by this whole performance, to bring the brothers to the point of recognizing that he is the best leader for the family mission. When they reconcile at the end, he keeps stressing that they're selling them to slavery enabled him to save countless lives and entire nations.

Now, however, that the must be understood to have been a tragedy. The brothers must be brought to the same situation, where they face the same exact choice. Benjamin is the new Joseph, he is Jacob's new favorite son. Jacob is probably even more protective of Benjamin than he was of Joseph! So Joseph needs to see that the brothers are now going to stand up for each other, and become a true family. He is going to test them. He does it now with Simon, and they pass. He will do it with Benjamin, and when they pass that test, he can reveal himself.

How many families craft a mission statement? Individuals do it. Businesses do it. Families should as well. A family is the greatest possible team, and can accomplish the greatest feats. The family of Israel, even in the first generations, transformed the world.

Chanukah is a festival of family. The lighting of the candles is incumbent upon each household, not each individual. In theory, a person could fulfill the Mitzvah of candle lighting without touching a match and without seeing a flame. As long as the menorah is lit in the home, every member of that household has fulfilled their obligation.

The Talmud gives different levels of observance of this Mitzvah. The basic one is to have one candle for each household. The higher level is to have the amount of candles depend on the amount of members of the family. Thus, a family of four with light for candles every night Chanukah. The highest level is to light one additional candle with each night. That is the way we do it.

This emphasis on the family is not by accident. It was one family that brought about the entire miracle of Chanukah! The Macabbees were the sons of one man, Matityahu. This family chose a mission of national importance, and immediately attracted an army capable of defeating the powerful Greeks! That is how important a family mission is! Families create a team like nothing else. Thus, we fulfill the Mitzvah of Chanukah with an emphasis on the family.

On this Festival of Lights, let's kindle the light of family, and let's sit down as a family and write a mission statement. What a wonderful transformation this can bring! It is the secret of the power and eternity of the Jewish people.