A Safe Haven? We’ll Take Baltimore

When the Parti Quebecois took power in 1976, threatening to separate Quebec from Canada, more than 100,000 Anglophones left the province, mostly Jews because of the long history of anti-Semitism in Quebec (“A Safe Haven,” Dec. 5). My husband and I were one of the many who left Montreal in 1978 and never returned. Baltimore is our safe haven. Anti-Semitism is still an issue in Montreal. Maybe there is a comfort in living in a province where the French language is familiar (for the people of France who have immigrated to Quebec). However, anti-Semitism clearly still exists in Quebec.

Chabad, Orthodox? I Don’t Think So

The story of a Chabad-Lubavitch conclave (“Rabbis Unite!” Nov. 28) quoted one organizational official as citing the case of public menorah lightings as illustrative of the “radical change” that Rabbi Schneerson sought to promote.

Truth be told, this is a parade example in which Chabad, while pretending to be Orthodox, is anything but. The mitzvah of lighting the menorah — with a blessing — is on the bayit, the residence, the household (Shabbat 21b).

Unless the Chabadnik has a sleeping bag and plans on sleeping over in the mall, outside in a city park, etc., thereby establishing it as a domicile, this action is halachically bogus.

As a media-savvy publicity stunt, this sort of thing is beaten gold. Religiously speaking, it reeks of self-promotion and is tantamount to a ginormous selfie.

Editor’s Note: In addition to the discussion in the Talmud as to the proper location of lighting a menorah to which the writer refers, various halachic decisors have established the obligation of pirsumei nisa, of publicizing the miracle that Chanukah commemorates; many public menorah lightings base their justification on this principle. That said, it is not uncommon for organizers of public menorah lightings to emphasize that the ceremony should not be relied upon as fulfillment of the personal mitzvah to light a menorah in one’s own home and to provide menorah-lighting kits to those who do not have their own menorahs.

Everyday Miracles

FTV_Terrill_MarcThe Hebrew phrase nes gadol hayah sham, “a great miracle happened there,” is widely heard as Jews worldwide celebrate Chanukah. It punctuates every game of dreidel. The story of the great miracle — of one day’s worth of oil burning for eight days in the ancient Temple — is passed down from generation to generation. L’dor v’dor.

For most of us, the notion of such a momentous miracle may seem hard to grasp and feel very distant from our current world. The word miracle itself can be daunting. But, in fact, there are miracles all around us every day. Many are small and go largely unnoticed, but they are, indeed,
deserving of our admiration.

As president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, I am privileged to meet members of our community whose lives are improved and impacted by agencies and programs in The Associated system. I hear their stories, many of which begin in desperation, and end with great relief as they discover that help is available. Every program or service that makes the world a little brighter for those in need is a miracle to them.

Throughout this year, in which we witnessed war and terror attacks in Israel, growing anti-Semitism throughout Europe, virulent anti-Israel sentiments on college campuses and domestic unrest in American cities, our need to come together as both a global Jewish family and concerned citizens has grown increasingly important.

We see the depth of our global connections here as we reach out to our sister cities, Ashkelon in Israel and Odessa in Ukraine. This year, both cities experienced great hardships. Each needed emotional and material support from our community. For them, our generosity of resources and spirit was nothing short of miraculous.

Instilling that sense of community in the next generation is a vital part of our work at The Associated. We know that lighting the spark of Jewish identity in our young people today will yield great outcomes tomorrow. Each child we inspire through Jewish education, summer camp or a meaningful trip to Israel has the potential to work miracles in our community for years to come.

For more than 90 years, The Associated has provided our community the opportunity to meet many needs through one act of generosity. The vast expanse of services made possible by The Associated’s Annual Campaign is significant and far-reaching. Unlike many other cities struggling with dwindling resources and fierce competition, Baltimore supports a timeless model in which one gift sustains many organizations that work together for the betterment of our community.

As we celebrate Chanukah and the start of a new calendar year, I hope you will join the thousands of selfless individuals who embrace the notion that they can make miracles happen both here and in other communities by supporting the Annual Campaign.

Wishing everyone a warm and wonderful Chanukah.

Marc B. Terrill is president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Maryland, Israel Share Cyber Security Strengths

“In the cyber domain there are no sirens,” Prime Minister Netanyahu told Israel’s fourth annual international cyber security conference last month, according to the The Jerusalem Post.

Case in point is “Operation Cleaver,” a suspected Iranian hacking cabal that has targeted 16 countries, including the U.S. and Israel for two years. U.S. security firm Cylance, which exposed the operation, published a report that included dire warnings from noted experts, including Gabi Siboni, cyber security director at Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies. Siboni, who recently spoke at a Maryland/Israel Development Center program co-hosted by the Offit Kurman law firm, said, “Iran should be considered a first-tier cyber power.”

Scary stuff.

The rash of cyber-attacks seems never-ending: Sony Pictures, J.P. Morgan, Target and who knows how many others that haven’t been made public. Countries and companies must be ever vigilant. “There is not a person or nation on earth who will not need cyber security,” said Netanyahu.

He speaks from experience. During last summer’s war in Gaza, not only did Hamas try to sneak terrorist squads through tunnels into Israel, they also conducted cyber attacks on Israel’s infrastructure.

Fortunately, “there is an Iron Dome of cyber security that parallels the Iron Dome against the rockets,” Netanyahu said in comparison to Israel’s acclaimed anti-missile system. But are these defenses strong enough? The short answer is a resounding “No.”

Since Israel and the U.S. are in the crosshairs of the world’s cyber attackers, they have been at the forefront of developing cyber defenses. Both countries are pouring resources into cyber development.

In the U.S., much of that work is done in Maryland, by the NSA, the U.S. Cyber Command, the National Cyber Security Center of Excellence in Gaithersburg and a raft of high-tech subcontractors. Just drive through the office parks around BWI International Airport, Fort Meade and up and down the Baltimore-Washington corridor and you’ll see a litany of Fortune 500 high-tech companies from Lockheed Martin to Northrop Grumman, Cisco and hundreds of others, including homegrown SafeNet in Harford County, which acquired Israel’s Aladdin Systems a few years ago for $160 million. UMBC even has a high-tech business incubator specializing in cyber-security companies housing 45 emerging cyber businesses.

To keep the momentum of cooperation going, the MIDC is targeting the cyber security industry for trade missions, delegation exchanges and conferences. In October, we organized a delegation of Israeli companies and representatives to come to the CyberMaryland Conference, including Yoav Tzruya of Jerusalem Venture Partners, the leading cyber security investor in Israel.

In January, we are kicking off our three-part cyber security webinar series for Israeli entrepreneurs on U.S. market entry strategies. This will lead up to our March 16-18 trade mission of Maryland companies to the Israel CyberTech Conference. It’s a fantastic opportunity to meet cyber security executives, entrepreneurs and engineers from Israel and dozens of other countries to discuss emerging trends, technologies and business opportunities.

Barry Bogage is executive director of the Maryland/Israel Development Center. For more information, visit marylandisrael.org.

The ‘Israeli Example’

The release on Dec. 9 of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s interrogation of terror suspects showed that the agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” was both less effective and more brutal than originally claimed.

With its details of waterboarding, sleep and sensory deprivation and other abuses, the 528-page report, redacted from a 6,000-page version that is still classified, also confirmed what psychologists have been saying for years — that torture provides inaccurate information. On top of that, it appears that the management of the enhanced interrogation program was seriously flawed, with the report documenting that people of questionable temperament were put in charge of violently extracting information from suspects.

While the use of waterboarding by the CIA is not particularly new information, it came as a surprise to find reference to Israel included in the report, as we read of what the agency calls the “Israeli example.” This was a reference by U.S. intelligence operatives to how Israel handles interrogations and was used as a means to justify the level of pressure the CIA used in its actions.

The CIA’s reliance on the “Israeli example” to support its inappropriate measures is ironic, because the more appropriate example to follow would have been the Israeli Supreme Court’s effort to ban torture. In 1999, the court forbade torture but allowed “moderate physical pressure” in “ticking time bomb” cases when a suspect’s knowledge — and the interrogator’s need for it — could
prevent imminent loss of life.

As it turns out, the physical pressure used in the most notorious examples of the CIA’s enhanced interrogations were anything but “moderate.” And according to the Senate report, those efforts didn’t result in anything helpful. Indeed, the enhanced interrogations do not appear to have done anything to defuse the ticking time bomb of Islamist terror.

We’ve learned from this unfortunate episode that torture doesn’t work. It also makes our intelligence community look bad. That embarrassment is made worse by the revelation that the CIA sought to rely on an example from the Jewish state to justify its excessive behavior. That is not what is meant by “a light unto the nations.”

Reaching Across the Aisle

Leader of the Israeli "Tnuah" party Tzipi Livni and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog have announced a unity deal.  (Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Leader of the Israeli “Tnuah” party Tzipi Livni and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog have announced a unity deal.
(Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom)

What should we make of the Dec. 10 “partnership” announcement by Israel’s Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Tnuah Party’s Tzipi Livni? Is Herzog a shrewd pragmatist who is willing to share power in order to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office? Or is he a just another politician who in an attempt at pre-election positioning has miscalculated by handing half of a planned prime minister’s term in office to the far more ambitious and self-serving former justice minister, whose party was expected to disappear in the Knesset elections scheduled for March?

Israeli commentators were arguing both sides of that point following the pair’s surprise announcement that their parties would run on a single center- left list. In a novel move, the two politicians agreed to rotate in the prime minister’s job: Herzog would assume the office in the first two years of the term and then cede it to Livni for the final two, or until the Knesset dissolved itself.

Early polling showed Herzog-Livni neck and neck with Netanyahu, who, while deeply unpopular, is viewed by Israelis as the most qualified for the job. In addition, the mathematics of coalition building favors Netanyahu, since the majority of Israelis vote for the center, right or Orthodox parties — the prime minister’s natural allies. But a meaningful attempt by Herzog and Livni to reach out to centrist voters who want a two-state solution and yet doubt that a secure agreement can be reached with the Palestinians could deprive Netanyahu of votes.

We will almost certainly see more political partnerships in the coming weeks. That’s what coalition government is all about. Indeed, there are reports of an agreement in the works between Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, who recently announced the formation of his own party. Some predict that such a Lapid-Kahlon move could lead Netanyahu to ally with Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett of the Orthodox Jewish Home Party. Bennett supports building settlements, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and would annex part of the West Bank to Israel, a move that would contradict Israel’s stance against unilateral moves. And a Netanyahu- Bennett alliance would drag Netanyahu further to the right and present some interesting international challenges for coalition leadership.

But there’s a long way from now until March 17. And while politics makes strange bedfellows in any democracy, Israel’s governing coalition system invites strained unions and magnifies the need to make compromises in order to win elections. To the extent coalition-building challenges bring everyone toward the center, the process can be productive. More dramatic moves right or left, however, will not likely create sustainable governing partnerships. You need only look to the string of failed governments in the past 20 years for proof.

But by My Spirit

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebIt is a common scene in the United States at this time of year. The shopping malls, television commercials and all public
venues are transformed visually. As Dec. 25 approaches, we see the evidence that we do indeed live in a predominantly Christian country. Images of Santa Claus and his reindeer, evergreen trees with dazzling decorations, crucifixes illuminated by bright lights and depictions of the Nativity are everywhere and are inescapable. The sounds of the songs of the season fill the air.

True, in recent times and especially in cities where Jewish people are a significant presence, consideration is given to Chanukah. Symbols of our holiday and its music are also in evidence. We are thankful for that.

It is also true that many of our Christian friends, including the gentleman I am about to introduce to you, find all this public fanfare objectionable. They think of it as garish, commercially motivated and inconsistent with the spiritual message of their faith.

But the reaction of many to this situation is similar to the one that my gentile friend Paul, with whom I worked closely during the years I was employed by the public school system, expressed to me some time ago. It was on a day in the middle of December and we were walking around one of the malls in suburban Washington, D.C. He remarked, “Don’t you and other Jews feel a bit outnumbered and overwhelmed at this time of year? It seems to me that your Chanukah candles make little impression in contrast to the lights on our trees and the jingle of our bells.”

I told him that I appreciated his candor and that he gave me cause for reflection.

At the time, I did not think that it would be tactful for me to tell him the truth — namely, that I had long ago reflected upon this phenomenon. And I had long ago concluded that the relatively modest manner in which Judaism celebrates Chanukah is nothing less than the essence of our religion.

This week is Shabbat Chanukah and the weekly portion is Miketz, which we supplement with verses from the Book of Numbers that relate to the chanukah or “inauguration” of the Tabernacle. But for me, the highlight of the scriptural readings
for this Shabbat has always been the words of the prophet Zechariah, which constitute the haftarah this week.

Zechariah was a man who saw many mysterious visions. He would typically ask either the angel to whom he had access, or he would inquire of the Almighty Himself, to tell him what these visions meant. And so we find, near the end of the passage we read this week, the following vision: “I see a lamp stand full of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps are seven in number; each has seven pipes above it, and by it are two olive trees.”

Characteristically, Zechariah asks the angel who talked with him, “What do these things mean, my lord?” The angel, like a good psychotherapist, asks him what he thinks the dream means. But the prophet confesses that he has no clue.

The angel finally responds, “This is the word of the Lord: ‘Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.’”

This is the lesson of Chanukah. The mighty are subdued by the weak, and the many by the few. As a public demonstration of our holiday and its miracle, we eschew lavish displays and extravagant celebrations. Instead, we kindle humble chanukiyot in the windows of our homes.

It is true that the mitzvah requires pirsum hanes, a public ceremony, and that the candles be lit for all passersby to behold. To that extent, our celebration is not totally modest and discrete.

However, as the Talmud tells us, when the outside world is especially hostile, we are permitted to take the menorah “and place it on our table indoors, and that is sufficient.” For many centuries, Jews did just that, so that their celebrations of Chanukah were painfully private.

But even today, when most of us can practice our religion publicly, a few modest candles suffice. We wish to make the point, to ourselves if not for the rest of the world, that “a little light can drive away much darkness.”

We are content to let other religions celebrate their holidays as they wish; colorfully, dramatically and publicly. We understand the power of the ubiquitous symbols and of the songs loudly sung. But for ourselves, we prefer the softer sounds of the spirit and the quiet environment of our own homes. The mitzvah is ish u’beito, every man and his house, each person with his family.

The lesson of the power of the single little candle is especially important in this day and age. We are bombarded by the images and sounds of cyberspace, and their message is often pernicious and malicious. The negative effects of most of what we hear and see on the Internet and via other media are typically devastating to our hearts and souls, if not to our minds.

How do we counteract the immense influence of such overwhelming forces? We can only do so if each of us is committed to use the power of modern technology to assert tolerance, kindness, morality and ethical behavior. Our voices may be soft, but they will be heard. The positive images that we present may be dim, but they will be seen.

The year after my encounter with my gentile friend, we met again and wandered through the same shopping mall in the middle of December. This time I decided to put my inhibitions aside. I openly shared my reflections about the discrepancy between the commercially motivated displays of the symbols of his faith and the softer, smaller and gentler displays of our tradition’s symbols. He heard me, although I cannot say that he fully agreed with me.

He did agree with me about one thing, though: “A little light can dispel much darkness.”

Happy Chanukah, the Festival of Lights.

Let the Light Shine

runyan_josh_otJudging by the work of famous Baltimorean Edgar Allen Poe, the unknown realm that’s bordered between reality and imagination is indeed a frightening one. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,” his narrator says in “The Raven.”

Indeed, in the language of literature both ancient and modern, fate and fortune are frequently described in terms of the semiconscious flights of fancy we all experience in the middle of the night. But as we all know, dreamers’ true successes only come when they’re able to bridge the chasm between dreams and reality.

Anyone who’s ever been forced awake by a fitful mind will attest that the first moments spent in darkness are disorienting. Misplaced shoes carelessly left on a floor can easily trip up an unlucky night wanderer; so as he stumbles in the dark, he grasps for the light switch to bring clarity to his predicament. Light goes on, darkness fades away, peace returns to the bedroom.

Sometimes, even the simple act of turning on the light is an accomplishment in its own right.

This week’s JT, coming smack dab in the middle of Chanukah, focuses quite a bit on light. It looks at how the Festival of Lights has become something of a defining holiday for Jews right, left and center, those “religious” as well as those “secular.” Most people identify the eight-branched menorah — the source of those lights — with the miracle of a single cruse of oil lasting eight days, but the holiday itself commemorates another, some would say “greater,” miracle: the military victory of a ragtag band of Jewish citizen-soldiers against a well-equipped and greater force of Syrian-Greeks.

But it could be argued that the greatest miracle itself is that, as they reoccupied the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews’ first impulse was to rededicate the structure immediately, the lack of available oil notwithstanding.

Dreams are great, because they demand nothing from the dreamer. With your eyes closed, all physical boundaries fade away and the impossible not only becomes possible, but expected. But dreams, existing solely in the dark, are not real.

Fresh from their unexpected victory, the Maccabees could have been satisfied with “achieving” a dream. But they realized that they were merely grasping at nebulous figures in the dark if they didn’t let a little light shine.

It’s no secret that as Jews and as Americans, we live in a world challenged by existential threats from within and without. Assimilation and poverty, terrorism and discord, apathy and selfishness all force us to respond in myriad ways, and although we rejoice in miracles small and large, we stumble along, trying to find our way. We’re either dreaming or rubbing our eyes to make sense of the darkness.

As we celebrate Chanukah, may we answer such challenges by turning on the light.

Israel’s Emerging Muslim-majority Ally

Beginning in the early 1990s, Turkey became the one Muslim-majority country that maintained a robust strategic relationship with Israel. The two countries developed strong trade ties. Israel helped update the Turkish air force, and Turkey allowed the Israeli air force to train in its airspace. There were major plans underway to further upgrade strategic ties.

In an unfortunate turn of events, Turkey’s elected prime minister (and now president), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, decided to take the once highly secular country in a very different direction and realigned Turkey’s foreign policy with other interests in the Middle East. Not long into his tenure, Erdo?an became a public critic of Israel, driving a wedge between Turkey and Israel in the wake of the 2010 Gaza flotilla crisis. Relations between the two countries remain strained.

Israel and its supporters have never fully recovered from the loss of the country’s Muslim ally and the potential it had to transform Israel’s broader relationships in the region.

But now, along comes Azerbaijan — the world’s first Muslim-majority democracy, which is fast taking the place of Turkey in becoming a crucial ally of Israel in the Muslim world. It is no surprise that of all Muslim-majority countries, Azerbaijan would fill the void. Like Turkey before Erdogan, Azerbaijan has proudly and sometimes aggressively reinforced its secular society, banning the hijab (veil) in schools.

In a gathering with the Jewish community held in the Washington, D.C., area last month, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, Elin Suleymanov, recoiled from the criticism his country received from the U.S. and others for its tough line on maintaining its secularism. “We are criticized because our girls are not forced to wear the hijab, and this is the worst problem in the Middle East?” he said.

The U.S. should keep in mind that while suppressing traditional religious practices violates American notions of religious freedom, it’s meant to keep radical religious forces in check and to prevent Azerbaijan from going down the same path as Turkey.

Unfortunately, in that culturally conservative part of the world, Jeffersonian democracy is not yet on the menu, and trying to impose our cultural ideals may make these countries less, not more free. Let us not forget that France, a well-established liberal democracy, has also banned the hijab.

To date, Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan has taken an almost identical trajectory as its early ties to Turkey. As it had with Ankara, Israel has steadily ratcheted up defense ties with Baku. Last month, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited Azerbaijan, one of a number of such recent defense-oriented visits.

As it had with Turkey, Israel has established a vital economic lifeline to Azerbaijan, which provides the Jewish state with 40 percent of its imported oil.

As with Israeli-Turkish relations, bilateral ties between the two countries signal Azerbaijan’s desire to strengthen its connections to the U.S. and the West. The country has become an invaluable NATO supply line to Afghanistan and has joined NATO war efforts.

Undoubtedly, Israel sees the tremendous potential in its relationship with Azerbaijan, as does Azerbaijan with Israel. American supporters of Israel must do their part to reinforce that relationship in Washington. As was discovered with Turkey, Muslim-majority allies don’t grow on trees.

Clothes Make the Story

To Paraphrase Mark Twain, “Clothes make the [story].” Throughout the course of this week’s Torah portion, references to clothing accentuate and propel the unfolding drama.

As the parshah opens, the tension between Joseph and his brothers reaches its boiling point. They conspire to kill him out of jealousy, for he is their father’s favorite son, but Reuben convinces them not to go that far. “So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colors that he had on; then they took him and threw him into a pit.”

It is darkly poetic that the brothers’ first act of violence against Joseph attacks his clothing, the special coat given him by Jacob as a sign of paternal favoritism. With Joseph out of the picture, the coat becomes the brothers’ vehicle for revenge against Jacob too. They stain it with goat blood and show it to Jacob as false evidence that Joseph has been killed. “Do you recognize it?” they ask Jacob, rhetorically and cruelly. The sight of the special coat, now torn and bloodied, breaks Jacob’s heart.

After Joseph’s capture and sale into Egyptian slavery, an episode about Judah and Tamar interrupts the narrative. Judah has three sons with his Canaanite wife, Shua: Er, Onan and Shelah. Tamar marries Er, who dies; Judah sends his next son, Onan, to perform his brotherly duty by marrying Tamar in order that he might sire an heir for Er. Onan famously refuses and dies. Judah, fearing the death of his third and final son, dodges the responsibility of having Shelah marry Tamar by sending her to her father’s house to wait “until my son Shelah grows up.” Tamar waits, and even after Shelah reaches marriageable age, Judah balks.

So Tamar takes her fate in her own hands, and here’s where the action and the clothing get interesting. Having heard that Judah was traveling nearby, Tamar “discarded her widow’s garb, covered herself up with a veil, wrapped herself up and stationed herself” as a prostitute where Judah would run into her. Judah approaches and propositions her, and Tamar
demands a pledge from him to guarantee payment for their transaction — “Your signet seal, your cord and the staff in your hand.”

The medieval commentators disagree on what these items are, exactly. Rashi says that the second item is not a “cord,” but the garment with which Judah covered himself. But Ramban disagrees: “It’s not plausible that he would give [her] his clothes and walk away from her naked!” And so we come full circle back to where we started with Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little to no influence on society.”

Clothed or not, Judah ends up playing the fool. After their encounter, Tamar immediately changes out of her veil and puts her widow’s garb back on. Judah can’t find the “prostitute” to pay her or get back his items in pledge. He decides to let her keep them, “lest we become a laughingstock!” Three months later, Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant illegitimately, so he prepares to punish her. But this plays right into her hand, and she says to Judah: “The man to whom these belong made me pregnant. Acknowledge whose signet seal, cords and staff these are!”

The tables have turned on Judah. A chapter earlier, the sons of Jacob — including Judah — presented Joseph’s bloodied coat to their father with the words haker na, “Do you recognize [this]?” Now Tamar uses clothing and the very same words against Judah to expose his hypocrisy, haker na, “Do you recognize [these]?” Radak, another medieval commentator, sums it up beautifully. Citing a midrash, he says: “The Torah toys with humanity: It said to Judah, ‘You said to your father, haker na. By your life, Tamar says to you, haker na.’” In other words, what goes around, comes around.

After the Judah and Tamar interlude, the Torah returns to Joseph’s fate. Potiphar, a prominent Egyptian, buys Joseph from the Ishmaelite traders and appoints him as head slave of the household. Things are going well until Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to her handsome servant, Joseph. He rejects her advances, repeatedly. But one day, when Joseph and Potiphar’s wife are alone in the house, she “took hold of him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ He left his garment in her hand, fled and ran outside.” The clothing underscores the action: Potiphar’s wife is the aggressor, grabbing Joseph’s garment and holding onto it after he flees from her clutches.

When Potiphar’s wife explains to her servants and then to her husband why she has Joseph’s clothing, she lies. Instead of saying what the Torah just told us — that she grabbed his clothing b’yadah, “in her hand” — she substitutes the word etzli, “near me”: “When I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment near me and fled.” With that verbal sleight of hand, Potiphar’s wife flips the story from a tale of her aggression against Joseph to an accusation of assault by Joseph. The Torah uses the device of Joseph’s clothing to propel the drama, just as it did in the episode of his brothers’ betrayal at the beginning of the parshah.

Looking ahead to the next Torah portion, we witness Joseph’s ascent to power in Egypt. The incident with Potiphar’s wife got him thrown in the dungeon, and his ability to interpret dreams became his ticket out. When Pharaoh learns that Joseph might be able to interpret his troubling dreams, he “sent to summon Joseph; they hurried him from the pit: He shaved, changed his clothing and came to Pharaoh.” This moment creates a literary bookend to Joseph’s abuse by his brothers. Whereas they stripped him of his good clothing and threw him into a pit, Pharaoh now restores Joseph’s clothing and removes him from a pit. The reversal of fortune and clothing sets Joseph up to fulfill his youthful dream of ruling over his brothers and father while they bow down to him.

Throughout these episodes, articles of clothing highlight and drive the unfolding drama. A sophisticated and artful literary hand was at work in these stories, dramatizing the themes of betrayal, hypocrisy, reversal of fortune and poetic justice that make Genesis such a compelling text.