Author Archives: Rabbi Suzanne Singer

About Rabbi Suzanne Singer

Rabbi Singer currently serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA as rabbi and educator.

Healing & Transformation

Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

The painful past casts a long shadow on parashat Miketz. A father’s insensitive treatment of his sons–and the resulting sibling rivalry–form the backdrop to this tale. Though the women are never explicitly mentioned here, Jacob‘s relationship to his sons’ mothers underlies his attitude toward their children. Among his wives, Jacob loves Rachel only, paying scant attention to Leah and the sisters’ maidservants.
women's commentary
Likewise, Jacob dearly favors Joseph–Rachel’s firstborn–showing little evidence of affection toward his other children. Blind to the difficult family dynamic he engenders, Jacob had sent Joseph alone to check on his brothers (37:13-14), setting up a situation rife with the potential for disaster. Joseph’s ensuing disappearance does nothing to stop Jacob from now favoring yet another son, Benjamin, Rachel’s second (see 42:4).

But healing and transformation also begin here. A hint of what is to come is encapsulated in the name Joseph chooses for his first son, Manasseh, “For God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father’s house” (41:51). Clearly Joseph has not forgotten his troubles if they form the basis of his son’s name. Rather, it seems that the past is no longer a burden to him. He is able to thrive despite the horrors he suffered in the pit where his jealous brothers threw him (37:24). The name of Joseph’s second son, Ephraim, expresses this forward movement: “For God has made Me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41:52). His marriage to Asenath indeed bears fruit: their children will become tribes of Israel.

A New Relationship

Joseph soon enables his older brothers to achieve a new relationship with their past as well, creating a set of circumstances that provides them with the Opportunity to respond to favoritism differently. That would represent true teshuvah (literally “return”), as the medieval Spanish rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides describes it: teshuvah has occurred when a person, confronted with the opportunity to commit a transgression anew, refrains from doing so–not out of fear of being caught or failure of strength (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah §2.1).

Does One Crime Justify Another?

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 10:1 presents a theological problem on two levels. First, if God is the agent of Pharaoh’s behavior, what does that imply about Pharaoh’s free will? Second, if God hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to demonstrate God’s power, we must ask: At what price the Israelites’ liberation? Indeed, the ultimate result of Pharaoh’s stubbornness is the murder of every first-born Egyptian male. Even if we consider this to be retributive justice, payback for Pharaoh’s earlier order to kill all newborn Hebrew males, we still must ponder: Does one heinous crime justify another? And how do we come to terms with killing innocent children? The Torah: A Women's Commentary

Commentators, equally bothered by this thorny moral dilemma, have provided inspired interpretations. With regard to the question of free will, some interpreters note that during the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart. Only afterward does God take over, starting with the sixth plague (9:12), suggesting that Pharaoh has foregone the chance to operate independently. Modern psychoanalyst Erich Fromm writes, “The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more he is determined by previous action … there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened … that he has lost the possibility of freedom.” This is an astute insight into human behavior, but it begs the question of the text’s plain meaning, which is that God causes Pharaoh’s stubbornness.

With Adversity Comes Strength

The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart might also be viewed as a paradigm for what Fran Burgess calls the “transformative power of adversity.” According to this view, Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance is the condition necessary for Moses and the Israelites to emerge from their straits (the Hebrew name for Egypt, mitzrayim, is very close to the Hebrew for “straits,” metzarim). Indeed, it often takes facing overwhelming odds to make radical change. As Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong said, “Before cancer, I just lived. Now I live strong.” Pharaoh thus serves as a tool for the Israelites’ psychological and moral development. However keen, this interpretation too satisfies only on the level of metaphor.