Tag Archives: Monotheism

Secrets of Shema

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we find the Shema and its first paragraph. The Shema is undoubtedly the most important text recited by Jews. It sets out the fundamental creed and purpose of Judaism. It is the first thing that a Jewish child should be taught (Sukkah 42a). According to one opinion, reciting the Shema is what distinguishes a person from being an ‘am aretz—one of the unlearned masses (Berakhot 47a). The Midrash states that one who properly recites the Shema is like one who fulfils all Ten Commandments! (See Otzar Midrashim, pg. 489.)

That last statement is particularly significant since there was a time when the Ten Commandments were recited together with the Shema (Berakhot 12a). The Sages eventually removed the Ten Commandments and replaced it with the current third paragraph which discusses the mitzvah of tzitzit. This was done because of the growing Christian movement that had abandoned essentially all of the mitzvot and focused only on the Ten Commandments (with Shabbat moved to Sunday). The Sages instituted the new third paragraph to lessen the emphasis on the Ten Commandments and to make it clear that we are obligated to keep all of God’s commandments, as the third paragraph states explicitly.

The Shema’s importance cannot be overstated. It is the very first topic discussed in the Talmud. It is the last verse to emerge from the lips of a dying Jew. Kabbalistic texts speak at length about the Shema and its power, the endless meditations and intentions associated with it, and the incredible secrets buried within it. The following is a tiny sample of some of those mysteries.

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The Meaning of God’s Names

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, the Torah describes the first seven plagues that God brought upon Egypt. The purpose of the plagues was multi-fold. Firstly, and most simply, they were meant to break the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites, and set the latter free. Secondly, and more importantly, they were meant to reveal God’s complete control over the entire universe, and show how all idolatry was false. There are no other “gods” or powers of any kind, whatsoever. This is the central message of the entire narrative, from start to finish.

In last week’s portion, we read how Moses asks God how he should describe God to the people. God’s reply is: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Will Be What I Will Be”. God has no name, no form, nor any kind of physical description. He tells Moses to simply inform the people that Moses was sent by Ehyeh – “Will Be”. God Is, Was, and always Will Be. God simply is. He is all things, the infinite force that permeates everything in creation and beyond. Because God is infinite, there is no term that could describe Him, and no “name” that can be applied to Him. This is why God tells Moses that He just is.

However, we do see that there are indeed “names” of God. In fact, there are a multitude of different names that are applied to the Infinite One, and God Himself describes a couple of these names to Moses at the start of this week’s portion. What is the significance of these “names”?

The Names of God

All of the many names that the holy texts use in reference to God are essentially only there to help us understand Him. For example, God’s central name – the Tetragrammaton, made up of the letters yud, hei, vav, hei (י-ה-ו-ה, commonly transliterated as YHWH) – demonstrates God’s eternity. The name is essentially a combination of the conjugations of the verb להיות – “to be” – in all three tenses: past (haya, היה), present (hov’e, הווה), and future (ihyeh, יהיה).

Another name that we are given at the start of our parasha is El-Shaddai. This literally translates along the lines of “the God that is Enough”, or “The Sufficient One”. This is another lesson in monotheism: it is sufficient to have only One God, and no others are necessary.

Other names throughout the Torah include Makom – “Place” – denoting God’s complete omnipresence, and that He is found absolutely everywhere, in all places and all things. (This reminds of a famous adage of the Kotzker Rebbe: “One who does not see God everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.”) Another common name is Elohim – “Powers” – a word that is surprisingly in the plural, yet used in the singular form, again showing that all of the apparent forces present in creation are truly One. Extrabiblical Jewish texts describe God as Ribbono shel Olam, “Master of the Universe”; HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “The Holy One, Blessed be He”; and Ain Sof, “Without End” (ie. the Infinite).

All of these appellations essentially refer to the same things: God is One, eternal, and permeating all things, both within and beyond this universe. None of these are really “names” in the literal sense, but ways to describe God. This is one deeper reason why the Tetragrammaton is never pronounced – instead replaced with Hashem, “The Name” – for how can an Infinite Force be contained within such a finite label like a name?

God informs Moses that this is what He wants the people to understand – both the Israelites and the Egyptians. The primary vehicle for accomplishing this was through the Ten Plagues, which completely shattered the Egyptian conception of polytheism. How the Plagues went about accomplishing this will hopefully be the focus of next week’s post.

Yosef and Yuya: Does Archaeological Evidence Prove the Biblical Narrative of Joseph?

In 1905, British Egyptologist James Quibell discovered a new tomb in the famed Valley of the Kings, where many of Egypt’s greatest mummified pharaohs were found. In this tomb were the bodies of two highly-preserved mummies, one male and one female: Yuya and Tjuyu. Scholars were astounded at the grand way in which Yuya was described: “the king’s lieutenant”, “master of the horse”, “superintendent of cattle”, and even, strangely, “father of the god”. Most amazingly, though, was the fact that Yuya was buried in the Valley of the Kings, despite never having been a pharaoh! Yuya was a unique and puzzling archaeological find. Who was he?

Father of the King

Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17) describes how Joseph rose to power in Egypt. It begins with Pharaoh’s bizarre string of nightmares, which none of his soothsayers were able to interpret. The royal cupbearer then informs Pharaoh that while he was in prison, a “Hebrew youth” was able to precisely interpret his dreams. Pharaoh summons the Hebrew youth – Joseph – who is indeed able to properly interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. The Sages tell us that Joseph’s interpretation was unique: it not only interpreted the dreams, but simultaneously offered the ideal solution for the problems that the dreams presented. Highly impressed, Pharaoh appointed Joseph as the prime minister of Egypt:

And Pharaoh said to his servants: “Can another man like this be found, in whom the spirit of God rests?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has let you know all this, there is no one as understanding and wise as you. You shall be [head] over my house, and through your command all my people shall be nourished; only [with] the throne will I be greater than you… I have appointed you over the entire land of Egypt.” And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and placed it on Joseph’s hand, and he clothed him with garments of fine linen, and he placed the golden chain around his neck. And he had him ride in his secondary chariot, and they called out before him, “Avrekh!” appointing him over the entire land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:39-43)

Rashi explains that the term Avrekh is a contraction of av, “father”, and rikha, “king”, in other words, Joseph was called aba malka, “father of the king”, or “father of the pharaoh”.

We are then told how Joseph stockpiled food during the seven years of plenty, carefully mapping out a strategy to survive the coming years of famine. Not only did he plan for Egypt’s survival, but he ensured that Egypt would have enough to sell to all of the neighbouring nations and kingdoms that would also be affected by the great famine. Through this, he was able to make Egypt the wealthiest empire on the planet, turning what should have been seven years of hardship into seven years of immense prosperity.

No doubt, such a person would certainly be immortalized in Egypt’s history as one of its greatest leaders. In fact, the archaeological record appears to suggest that he may have been after all.

The Mystery of Yuya

Historians have uncovered a great deal of information about Yuya since the discovery of his tomb in 1905. He lived during the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt (1543-1292 BCE), and was an influential minister in the Pharaoh’s court. Strangely, his name is not of Egyptian origin, nor is his appearance. Many scholars believe he must have been a foreigner. He is described as being in charge of the horses and chariots, as well as the cattle. He is also titled “father of the god”, or more accurately, “father of the pharaoh” (since the pharaohs considered themselves gods). It isn’t difficult to see that Yuya is described in terms almost identical to the way that Joseph is described in the Torah.

Egyptian journalist and author Ahmed Osman published a controversial book in 1987 about Yuya’s identification with Joseph, titled Stranger in the Valley of the Kings. He pointed out how Yuya’s mummy has Semitic features, evidence of a beard worn in the Hebrew style, and is the only mummy found to have its hands under its chin as opposed to across its chest. Moreover, the description of “father of the god/pharaoh” parallels Joseph’s description as Avrekh. Could the two really be the same person?

The mummies of Yuya and Tjuyu

The mummies of Yuya and Tjuyu

The historical record suggests that Yuya was the minister of the Pharaoh Thutmose IV, who reigned around 1400 BCE. This is not too far from the lifetime of Joseph. More amazingly, archaeologists have found a stele (an inscribed stone) commissioned by Thutmose IV that describes one of his dreams! Like Joseph’s pharaoh in the Torah, Yuya’s pharaoh Thutmose also derived great significance from his dreams.

It is further interesting to point out that Yuya was found entombed with his wife Tjuyu, who is known to have come from a royal family with priestly origins. Similarly, the Torah states that Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Genesis 41:45).

And what of Yuya being a mummy? The Torah states: “And Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years, and they embalmed him and placed him in a sarcophagus in Egypt.” (Genesis 50:26) Joseph, too, was mummified!

The "Dream Stele" of Pharaoh Thutmose IV

The “Dream Stele” of Pharaoh Thutmose IV

Having said all that, the Torah also states that Joseph’s tomb was later taken out during the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:19), and eventually brought to rest in Israel. This would make it very difficult for his mummy to be found in the Valley of the Kings. On top of this, historians have presented a number of other issues with the identification of Yuya with Joseph. So, perhaps Yuya is not Joseph after all.

Whatever the case may be, the amazing archaeological find of Yuya does give us proof that a foreigner could rise up through the highest ranks of Egyptian royalty, and even become “father to the pharaoh”. It gives us proof that the Torah’s account is quite accurate in its details, and in its terminology. And it certainly makes a compelling case for historical evidence of the Biblical narrative of Joseph.

The Origins of Monotheism

There are two more points that make the connection between Yuya and Joseph all the more fascinating. Historians see the root of the name “Yuya” as yw, which means “reed-leaf” in Ancient Egyptian. Meanwhile, Joseph’s name is יוסף, sharing a root with סוף, which also means “reeds” in Hebrew! The presence of “Ya”, a common appendage in Hebrew names to denote God’s name, makes it even more interesting.

Finally, the historical record shows that Yuya’s daughter married the pharaoh. They had a son, who became the pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten was Yuya’s grandson. And he went down in history for doing one major thing for Egypt: destroying all of its idolatry to make the nation monotheistic. Unfortunately, his attempt to turn Egyptian society and religion monotheistic ultimately failed, and the kingdom reverted to its idolatry. But it wasn’t long after that the Jewish people left Egypt, beginning the spread of monotheism to the entire world.


The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!