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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Chayei Sarah

Posted by rabbiart on November 24, 2016

After Yitzhak is born Sarah sees him playing with his brother Ishmael. She tells Avraham to expell both Ishmael and his mother, so there will be no question as to who inherits. Avraham thinks it is a bad idea, but HaShem tells him to do everything Sarah says.  We wonder how this can be. She seems to be demanding an act of cruelty. Has she no bond with either mother or child?

In our parsha, and the comments on it, we find out how extraordinary a woman Sarah was. She is universally lauded by everyone who comments on the first verse. As the well known midrash says in part, even at age 100 she was sinless as a twenty year old (which according to Rashi is below the legal age of responsibility).  

Wouldn’t you know it, Daf Yomi right now has a discussion about when husband – or wife – should take the lead.  It won’t come as a surprise to find out how the tradition apportions the responsibility.  In worldly affairs and matters of Torah its the husband.  But when it comes to the household and everything connected to it – the husband must heed the voice of his wife.  As Avraham was instructed – shma b’kolah.Readers who are Moms have probably already reacted “well yeah” when it comes to husbands listening and obeying. Dads, probably not so much. More convincing might be required.

As luck would have it (which is to say its  not luck at all but fore-ordained) today’s Daf Yomi speaks directly to this concern. “Rav Pappa said to Abeye, ‘There is a popular saying. If your wife is short, bend over and whisper with her.'” In other words, seek her counsel and follow it.(Bava Metzia 59a) Breshit Raba brings a verse from Tehillim 37: “HaShem knows the years of the pure (temimim)”.  The “pure” is Sarah; she was pure, all of her years were pure.

The Kedushat Levi brings even more explanations. Based on an outburst by the childless Rachel, the gemara says (Nedarim 64) that a woman who has not delivered a live child is considered as dead. As is a man who is childless. We see that Sarah worked, without sin, for 90 years. Never did she complain about being childless. Sure, she laughed.   Like each of the matriarchs, she started out barren and ultimately bore fruit. Even Leah, who seemed to pop them out with ease, experienced difficulty at first.

Several commentators mention that it had been 37 years since Sarah gave birth to Yitzhak.Then Or HaHayim reminds us that Sarah died upon hearing the news about Yitzhak. 

Could this extended episode be a case of midah k’neged midah? Sarah sends a son into the wilderness where death seems like a foregone conclusion.  Avraham takes a son on a journey to certain death.  Both sons live.  But it seems someone in our story must die.  Is there a mother anywhere in the world who would not sacrifice herself for her child? 

The great scholar Nehama Leibowitz pointed out the connection between the first and second Lech L’Cha to Avraham.  In the first he cuts off his past; in the second he must give up his future.  For Sarah, Akedat Yitzhak is past, present and future all rolled into one.  When she hears that her son is sacrificed, she feels her entire life taken from her.

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Ruach Elohim – We need it now

Posted by rabbiart on November 3, 2016

In the first verse of chapter 8 we read that HaShem remembered Noach.   Because HaShem remembered, HaShem caused a ruach elohim to blow across the earth and clear out all the waters.  Somewhere somebody sometime must have written a drash that goes like this, but I haven’t managed to find it…

What is the flood?  Might there be a flood of biblical proportions in our day? In our story, the pshat is that the waters come to cleanse the earth (lots of killing in the process) of all that was wrong in creation, and create the conditions for a  fresh start. The flood ends, because the ruach elohim ends the flood. 

Suppose we turn a part of the verse on its head.  In this version the waters do not cleanse, rather they symbolize how the planet has become filled with all sorts of – let’s just say – really bad stuff. (I cleaned up that last word for you, gentle reader.)  The waters, in our version, stand for all the bad stuff. Stuff that might be literally drowning our planet -and us -right out of existence.  Let’s go from the pshat to the drash…

In Noah’s time – and it feels like in our time as well – the planet is drowning in violence, corruption and any of the next five big bad nouns you might care to add in. Sometimes it feels like no matter how hard we swim, either as individuals or societies, we can barely keep our heads above water.  And whatever ark we have managed to build for ourselves and our families is very fragile indeed, barely keeping afloat. In our text this Shabbat the drowning is stopped through the intervention of ruach elohim – the divine spirit. In our flood story, the ruach elohim acts as a physical force, beginning to clear the waters away.

For many people on the planet,  the flood is not just a Bible story; it’s their lives.  Sometimes, its death by actual water, often it’s by the flood of violence, or the drought of human caring. Just as in our Torah story, we need ruach elohim to clear away our flood.  Just as HaShem remembered Noach, we pray for HaShem to remember us, and cleanse us.  Preferably with a very limited amount of water, and also…bimhera b’yamenu

Post script:  It’s a privilege to sit in Yerushalayim, study some Torah, and write a simple drash.  Hopefully, it’s coherent. If not, you try it after 14 hours on a plane and 30+ hours with almost no  sleep and let me know what you think this  week’s Torah  portion is teaching us.

Shabbat Shalom

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Noah – He found favor

Posted by rabbiart on November 3, 2016

I’m sitting in Jerusalem on the highest hill in the city.  Or so says the material in our apartment at Window of Jerusalem.  Tonight we’ll be making shabbes with friends from our annual Israel Ride on behalf of the Arava Institute and Hazon.Our friend Carl Jacobs is hosting us and another couple of riders for shabbes dinner.

These might be the  five most important words in the Torah, or in the Tanach.  V’Noach matza chen b’einei hashem.  (after a several verse description of how rotten the eath and it’s inhabitants had become) we read. Noah found favor in the eyes of HaShem.  (Did Noah go around saying “he likes me, he likes me”?  Probaby not.

This is the first time in the Torah, in the entire Bible, that we find a human being “finding favor” with HaShem.  Fortunately? for darshanim everywhere tuhe next verses are a little less clear, leading to a debate that continues to this day.

“These are the tales of Noah.  Noach was a man and a tzaddik, he was tamim in his generation. With Elohim walked Noach.”  The latter part of the middle sentence sparks the debate.  Was Noach a tzaddik compared to his generation, or in spite of it?  The verse does say that Noah “walked with” HaShem.  But what does it mean?  Is it important to know which it is?  Maybe it was both.

Many readers might understand the 7th  binyan as being “reflexive”, but it has other meanings as well.  Consider this phrase harchov mitmalei anashim. “The street filled with people.”  A street does not fill itself with people, obviously.  In this case the 7th binyan is “developmental”.  In other words, the street filled with people over time.

In our verse we have et haelohim hithalech Noah. Noah did not simply “walk with HaShem”; that would be halach.  Noah was developing, learning to walk with HaShem over time.  Apparently, in our story, he had learned to walk well enough to be chosen to build the ark.

In our so called “advanced civilization” it is apparent that we are still learning to walk with HaShem.  The Torah’s description of the conditions that led HaShem to clean the earth and start over… well, it could easily describe our time and the conditions on the planet today.

It feels like all around us the world is in not a physical storm, but a spiritual one. 

The opening of Parshat Noah is a darshan’s dream, because the lesson is both so critically important and easy to understand.  Noah was learning to walk with HaShem.  He had learned enough to be chosen to build the ark, but had he become someone who walked completely! with HaShem.  We are all Noah; building an ark, learning to walk with HaShem. And possibly, just possibly, being the vehicle through which the world is redeemed.

Shabbat Shalom


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Fun with Talmud and Cycling

Posted by rabbiart on March 10, 2016

This post was originally written as a response on facebook. One of our Israel Ride friends asked the opening question you see below.


Mishnah: R. Spencer asks: If a bicycle falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?

Gemara: Why does R. Spencer ask this question? Surely the bicycle has a rider, and the rider hears the bicycle fall? R. Nigel pushes this answer away. “It is too simple; of course there is a rider. R. Spencer is asking, “When the bicycle falls, the rider is dismounted. If the rider is hurt and cries out, and there is no one there to hear it, has the rider still made a sound?” R. Howie ben Rodenstein asks “are we not taught to always ride with a buddy?” Does the buddy not hear the sound of the bicycle and the cry of the rider? But R. David of Freeman says “R. Spencer obviously refers to the case where the rider has wrongly gone off for a ride on his own”. However R. David ben Rendsburg says, “perhaps this is a case where the other rider has gone to ‘take care of business’ and does not hear the cry of the fallen rider.” R. Jonathan of Miller says “In a forest one does not need to go far away in order to take care of business as there is always a bush nearby”. But R. Beth of Miller responds “only a man would say that! Perhaps the riders are women and it was necessary to wander far in the forest in order to find privacy, so the call of the fallen rider could not be heard.” R. Jillene of Moore supports her position. R. Arthur proclaims “this whole conversation is nothing but silliness, for who but a simpleton would ride his bike in a forest!”

R. Carol of Robinson joins in: “Fool! This not about a bicycle falling in the forest. R. Spencer has asked a deeply important question by way of metaphor. When he says “no one is there to hear” he in fact is asking what misfortune can cause a rider to be alone in the forest of life!” The discussion went on all night, until the other students came and said “My masters! it is time to say the morning Shema.” They davened until the second paragraph of the Amidah, in which we are reminded that HaShem raises those who are fallen, including bicycle riders!

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Shemot – When it comes to nation building – individuals matter

Posted by rabbiart on January 5, 2015

Sefer Breshit has concluded, and to borrow from the late Paul Harvey, it’s time for the rest of the story.

“Everybody knows” that the books of the Torah take their names from the first significant word when in Hebrew, but the non  Hebrew names are thematic.  The second book, which we begin this Shabbat, is  a great example.  We call it “Shemot”, but in English it’s rendered as “Exodus”.  (That itself is an interesting choice.  Imagine if the name were “Revelation” and highlighted the giving of the Torah rather than the escape from Egypt.)

The Torah’s five books can be grouped, and often are, as 1+3+1. The first book is the story of families, the next three are the story of nation building, and the fifth book is a combination of recapitulation, more legislation, and the farewell to Moshe Rabbeinu.

Why does sefer shmot begin with a recounting of Joseph’s family? Is this simply a transitional device, or a way to ease gently into the new story of our people descending into and then climbing up out of the slavery of mitzrayim? For an answer we borrow a principle made well known by Professor Alter; that the first utterance by a person in the Torah is a clue and a definition of his (or her!) character. We’ll apply this to the names of the books as well. Breshit is all about creating. Creating a world, creating humans, creating a society, and creating the family of Hebrews that will eventually become the nation of Jews. (Works pretty well for book one, I think. Let’s see if it will work for the second book as well.)

First we should recall that a number of parshiot contain a census, and as the number of people increases, only a few pivotal individuals merit a mention. Nations, we might think, are built in the aggregate. The greatest good for the greatest number becomes an organizing principle. The opening verses of Shemot are themselves a mini census and set out the formula for the ones that follow. Some individuals are named, and the total number of people is reported.

Applying the “Alter principle”, Sefer shemot must therefore be all about names, and specifically, the names of b’nai yisrael. Names are simply labels, so we’ll take a baby drash step and say that it is really about people. More precisely, individual people. We will meet some of them over the next 11 parshiot. Some are famous (Moshe), others infamous (Pharoah) and many are anonymous. Really, most of them are anonymous to us, and undoubtedly to their leaders.

I can hear you beginning to wonder “is there going to be a point to this?” Yes, there is. And here it is.

This Shabbat we begin reading the story of how we became a nation that survives to this very day. But we are a nation of individuals. And individuals matter. When a mitzvah is performed, and individual performs it. When a minyan is formed, it takes ten individuals to make it. When a corner of the field is left unharvested for the poor, it is an individual who must make sure this happens. When a sick person must be visited, it’s an individual who visits.

This is why we begin with ‘these are the names of the members of Israel’. Because we need – and are given – a reminder that individuals matter. It’s “I – Thou” and not “We -Thou”. No matter how big the group, no matter how ginormous the budget, no matter how great the cause – individuals have the names, and each individual (we hope in our day) matters.

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Parshat VaYeshev: Joseph the Tattler

Posted by rabbiart on December 6, 2014

In VaYeshev, when we first meet Joseph, he is bringing back ‘evil tales’   דִּבָּתָם רָעָה  about his brothers.  He is every little kid who ever tattled on older siblings hoping to curry favor with a parent.  And worse, he is daddy’s favorite. He makes up fictions about the brothers, Leah’s six sons in particular. According to Rashi, Joseph has them behaving quite sinfully.  He accuses them of eating limbs from living animals, treating the other sons as slaves, and having illicit sexual relations. These are falsehoods, Rashi explains (citing verses) because Joseph is himself punished for each of these lies. There is so much resentment that Joseph and his brothers are not even on speaking terms. When Joseph finally does have something to say to his brothers, he shares his rather grandiose dreams. Not exactly the best idea to win friends among his brothers. He is tone deaf and oblivious to the impact he has. Resentment turns to envy and hatred, to the point where even his father notices.

The brothers go off with the flock, and Jacob sends Joseph to bring him back a report. Does this seem like the smartest idea? Send the troublemaker into trouble? In his charge to Joseph, Jacob tells him

“לֶךְ-נָא רְאֵה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלוֹם הַצֹּאן, וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי, דָּבָר”

“Go now and see the shalom of your brothers, and see the shalom of the flock, and return to me, report.”  Not another evil tale dib-ah ra’ah , simply an honest report.

This passage just cries out for midrashic interpretation. On the surface it reads as ‘go see how your brothers are doing and let me know’. Suppose we learn it as “go and see to being at peace with your brothers, just the way the sheep in the flock are at peace with one another, and return to me with a good report”.  In other words “return to me reporting that you have repaired your relationship with your brothers”.  (Like I said, some midrashic license).

Never. Was. Gonna. Happen.

When Joseph gets to Schechem, his brothers are nowhere to be found.  A stranger mysteriously intervenes. He asks Joseph “What are you seeking? (m’vakesh) Joseph replies:  “It’s my brothers I am seeking, tell me please, where they are pasturing”. He is not thinking about how they are.

אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ; הַגִּידָה-נָּא לִי, אֵיפֹה הֵם רֹעִים

Joseph is not out seeking shalom with his brothers. He is sporting his coat of many colors, advertising his unearned position as favorite.  He is waving the proverbial red flag in front of the bull.   What unfolds seems inevitable. In the pit, out of the pit, into Potiphar’s household, down into the pit again. More dreams, and then even when Joseph is hauled out of the pit and raised to Pharoah’s right hand.   The Torah here is a story of how dreams do come true.  But though Joseph’s dreams play out as interpreted, they ultimately lead to a nightmare for the Jewish people. For all his power and his ascribing success to his G-d, Joseph ends up bringing the nascent nation of Israel down into the slavery of Egypt.

The day has been saved, the family fed, and everything seems to be all right.   But from here it will be a straight down hill ride. And when Joseph finally does have his family in front of him, it will be way too late to avoid the sojourn as strangers in Egypt.

How could this nightmare have been avoided?  How could it be avoided in our time?

In our day, a great leap of faith is required. In Talmud Brachot we learn that the morning Shema cannot be said until there is sufficient light. One test for this is the ability to distinguish two similar colors from each other, another is to be able to recognize a ‘fellow’ at four paces. Unless we are able to recognize each other as a friend, then we are still living in the darkness.

Joseph and his brothers lived for a long time in the darkness, and only at the end did they come in to the light.

In our time, we need to do better.


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Parshat VaYishlach: Dina – From afterthought to central character

Posted by rabbiart on November 29, 2014

This Shabbat that just passed I had the honor of reading Rev’ii, the fourth aliya.  In this aliya we are in the middle of birthing.   Zilpah, Bilhah and Leah are popping out sons at an average of about one every three verses. Each birth is accompanied by a naming, and an explanation of the name.  Once we get to Rev’ii the action slows down a bit, as Reuven goes out into the fields to collect some  דוּדָאִים (du’da’im), (usually translated as mandrakes). After some negotiation over the mandrakes, resolved by deciding that Leah will get to sleep with Jacob, the birthing continues apace.  In 30:17 Issachar – son #5 of Leah – is born, named and explained.  Two short verses later Zevulon – son #6 – is born. Then without preface, explanation or follow-on remarks, we read verse 21.

וְאַחַר, יָלְדָה בַּת; וַתִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמָהּ, דִּינָה

(It is as if the text reads oh, by the way) afterward, she had a daughter, and she named her Dina. An afterthought, one daughter among the sons.

The story then continues with the opening of Rachel’s womb and the birth of Joseph. The parshah ends with Lavan and Jacob parting ways.

Flash forward to this coming Shabbat. After Jacob and Esau resolve their relationship (perhaps), Jacob settles the family, and Dina goes exploring. Her little trip will have quite the impact on the brothers, and on relationships with the local inhabitants.  She encounters Schem, the son of Hamor.  Schem rapes Dina, and afterwards falls in love with her. Hamor comes to negotiate with Jacob, but he has decided to keep quiet וְהֶחֱרִשׁ יַעֲקֹב .  Instead, his sons spoke for him. They proposed a mass circumcision, which they did not anticipate being accepted.  On the third day,  Shimon and Levi commit mass murder, killing all the men of the town, an act we today would surely call terrorism. Jacob’s silence until now is puzzling.  Why didn’t he take charge? What did he think of the brothers’ demands? Is this the outcome he wanted? In the aftermath Jacob speaks. He complains to the brothers that they have caused trouble for him. He does not say what they did was wrong!

Flash backward now to events of the summer just past in Israel. In the town of Rishon LeTzion  Mahmoud Mansour and Morel Malka were getting married. Protests ensued and hateful things were said. Why? Because Morel had decided to adopt Islam, and thus to some was betraying the Jewish people.   At least new President Reuven Rivlin  got it right, commenting “Not everyone has to share in the happiness of Mahmoud and Morel – but everyone has to respect them.”  Fortunately, there was only a lot of yelling and screaming and no actual killing, so perhaps have come some way from Biblical times. But in Israel as around the world, we all have a way to go in subduing our prejudices.

Would that we live in a time when we all want to share unreservedly in each other’s happiness.

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The “Jewish State” Bill, Pathways of Peace, and Tikkun Olam – What in God’s Name are they thinking!

Posted by rabbiart on November 27, 2014

On Thanksgiving Day in the United States, as Americans we should remember that we are all immigrants who in one way or another have made a new life out of the American Indian. (For a most devastating midrash on this subject listen to The Firesign Theatre doing “Temporarily Humbolt County”).  As Jews we should be greatly concerned over the “Jewish State” bill being pushed by zealots in the Knesset.  For a most emotionally devastating  experience, read the claims of both sides on the intent, purpose and effect of this bill.  There is a common thread that binds these two topics together: the concept of Mipnei Darchei Shalom.  Are we making hate? Or are we making peace?

Literally translated, darchei shalom are ‘pathways of peace’. We need to consult our sources for the intention of this phrase. We need to ask ‘are we walking toward shalom or away from it?

The classic text for this concept is Mishnah Gittin 5:8. The Mishnah enumerates a number of things that are enjoined in the “interests of peace”.  It begins with that most prized of honors, an aliyah to the reading of the Torah. To prevent arguments, a cohen is called first, followed by a levi and then a yisrael. On shabbes this means one priest, one levite, and five members of the general community of Israel.  The text lists a number of other rules enacted in the interests of peace. It concludes with this rule (Danby Mishnah, p. 314). “They do not try to prevent the poor among the gentiles from gathering gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, and the corner – mipnei darchei shalom.

A bit later in the Gemara (daf 60b) we find a teaching about water rights. R. Shimi b. Ashi goes to R. Abaye and asks for lessons. Abaye needs time to irrigate his fields. (The Gemara has just previously discussed whether those whose fields are lower down – farther from the source of the water – or those higher up, have first right to the water).  R. Ashi goes to the people higher up and tells them the people lower down have the priority rights. He then goes to the people lower down and tells them the reverse. Having put both groups on hold, Ashi dams the watercourse and irrigates the fields of R. Abaye.

When Abaye finds out, he refuses to eat of the produce from his field for an entire year!

What does this passage have to do native American Indians?  What does this passage have to do with the “Jewish state” bill?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.

Think of native American Indians both as a people and as a proxy for all the underclasses in arguably the wealthiest country in the history of humankind.  Ask yourself  -are we walking toward shalom? – translating it here not as just ‘peace’ but wholeness, completeness, fully integrated (that word chosen deliberately!) into our society. Are we acting in ways of darchei shalom? Are we recognizing all are fellow inhabitants as created b’tzelem elohim?

Think of the “Jewish State” bill.  I can’t know but I definitely wonder.  Are its proponents walking the paths of darchei shalom?  Or are they acting like R. Ashi and playing both sides against the middle; misrepresenting their intent and purpose so that they can simply water their own field?

Far be it from me, an American Jew living safely and comfortably in California, to comment on Israeli politics. (That of course is code for “I will now proceed to comment on Israeli politics”. )

Some Knesset members are considering walking out of the Knesset when this bill is presented. If they do, and I hope they do, and I hope the voices of former president Peres and current president Rivlin will prevail. We must ask our fellow Jews “are we recognizing all our fellow inhabitants as created b’tzelem elohim?  If Knesset members flee the governing coalition, if they walk out of the Knesset, if they refuse to play any part in this, then they will be following the example of one of the great Talmudic voices, and refusing to eat from the produce of this poisonous legislation.

They – and we – will be walking the pathways of peace.  In the words of the Psalmist, traditionally ascribed to the greatest warrior-king of the Jewish people – בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.  Ask for peace, seek peace, work for peace, and pursue it. And for hamavin yavin, check the first part of that verse as well.

Happy Thanksgiving Day

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Parshat VaYetze: Jacob and Lavan, Israelis and Palestinians, the Mount and the Mosque

Posted by rabbiart on November 25, 2014

In his beautiful work of Torah interpretation (Torah of Reconciliation) Rabbi Sheldon Lewis describes the mutual non-aggression pact constructed by Jacob and Lavan. “This is reflected in the narrative in several ways: there are two stone markers, two meals, two place-names, the deity is twice invoked and by separate names” (p.83).

Implacable enemies decide to coexist peacefully.  “The naming of separate deities together seems especially noteworthy.  The peace into which they enter seems cold, but it is solemnly undertaken” (p,84) . Lavan says to Jacob, “May the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor – the gods of their fathers – judge between us.” (Robert Alter translation p. 175).

Professor Alter comments on this verse  and specifically ‘the gods of their fathers’ “These words… must be a gloss, perhaps occasioned by the discomfort of a scribe or editor with the exact grammatical equation between the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor in Laban’s oath”.

Two gods, two place-names, two markers, and a great deal of discomfort on the question of equality.  Now we are getting somewhere.

It is impossible for me to read this story and not immediately think of the ongoing dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Or to be more precise, Jewish Israelis and Moslem Palestinians. Two gods, two place names, two buildings (the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary), two claims to the land, two names for a certain, distant day in 1948. This list feels like it might be endless.

This week in Israel a bill is being debated that would make changes to the Basic Law.  It would elevate the status of Jewishness and lower the status of all non Jewish aspects of the State of Israel. Jews are arguing over this bill. Nu, what else is new.  Some say this is a great idea that simply expresses what Israel is – the homeland of the Jewish people. But others say it is a terrible mistake, both in its intent and in its timing.

The story in our Parshah concludes with a ritual covenental meal, characteristic of treaties in that era.  Jacob calls to his ‘brothers’, they eat bread and stay there the night.

וַיִּקְרָא לְאֶחָיו לֶאֱכָל לָחֶם וַיֹּאכְלוּ לֶחֶם וַיָּלִינוּ בָּהָר

Since Lavan does not leave until the next morning, and because Rashi comments on ‘brothers’ to read it as ‘his friends that were with Lavan’, and believing it inconceivable that Lavan’s minions but not Lavan would have partaken of the meal.  So they sat down and ate a meal together. Nobody went anywhere until the next day.

As my friend Suleiman said to me recently in Israel “There are good people on both sides”.  Undoubtedly this is true. Sadly, we must admit there are bad people on both sides as well.

According to the text, there is no way to look at Laban as a “good guy”. Yet Jacob was able to make a pact with him and so avoid conflict and bloodshed, even though his beloved Rachel was in fact a thief who had stolen something precious from her father. Without this pact Jacob would have been caught between the rock (of Lavan’s enmity and pursuit) and the hard place (of Esau coming at him with 400 men).  With it, he is able to put his dubious past behind him, and find reconcilation with his brother.  (We’ll save examining the dots over the word for another time).

Given the sad and threatening resurgence of antisemitism around the world, I have been thinking lately that “We are all Israelis”. What Israel (painting with a very broad brush) does affects Jews in the diaspora. What diaspora Jews do has the potential to powerfully affect what happens in Israel.  Most likely, the best we can hope for is a mutual non-aggression pact with the people who also have a claim to The Land. But that would most assuredly be better than what we have now.  And it is certainly a teaching that we can learn out from this week’s Torah portion.

Let me end where I began, with a snippet from Rabbi Shelley.  “In the Torah’s culture, which is so wary of any deviation from recognition of One God, the inclusion of a pagan deity seems remarkable. It is a testimony to the appreciation of what it takes to be a peacemaker. (emphasis mine).  Agreeing to naming a pagan god is not judged badly when the result is peace.

Yirtzeh HaShem we can learn to share, and maybe one day we will have a meal where we are definitively breaking bread with our brothers.

Shabbat Shalom

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Parshat VaYetze – One Came Out, the Other Went Out, Two Woke Up!

Posted by rabbiart on November 24, 2014

We always must pay attention to the specific words, especially the verbs, when studying the text.  In the first aliyah of our Parshah we have two words which make us think of other stories in the Torah.  One – VaYetzei – looks backward. The other – VaYikatz – looks forward.

Often we are faced with the challenge of reading the text with a fresh set of eyes; difficult to do when our practice is to read this same text each year, and more or less at the same time. Sometimes it is an advantage to know the story as well as we do; remembering what has come before, anticipating what is yet to come.

Our Parshah begins with the word VaYetze –  וַיֵּצֵא. Jacob went out from Beer’sheva.  We know, of course, that he is in full flight from the revenge that he fears his brother Esau will take upon him. He hasn’t said it out loud, but Esau has planned to slay his brother.  Their mother Rivkah, although or perhaps because she favors Jacob, can feel Esau’s anger. She directs him to flee to Haran and stay there some time, until Esau’s anger is calmed.

All this is necessary because Jacob, the younger son, has taken his elder brother’s birthright, catching him in a moment when he is weakened by hunger.  And then by guile he has – let’s call it what it is – stolen the blessing intended for him.

With its opening word – VaYetze – the text reminds us of why this is so.  When the twins are born (Breshit 25:25) there is an earlier VaYetze. Speaking of Esau, the text says “the first came out ruddy and red, covered with hair”. Had Esau not come out first, the birth order would not have needed to be reversed. Esau would not have been Jacob’s antagonist, and never thought to kill him.

We read on a bit in our story, until Jacob is dreaming and suddenly – VaYikatz – Jacob wakes up.  He immediately concludes “Without doubt YHVH is in this place, but I, I did not know this”. He is immediately afraid and full of awe, so he names it Beth-El, the House of G-d. But when we the reader come to VaYikatz Ya’akov we are immediately reminded of another antagonist – Pharoah.  Pharoah similarly wakes up suddenly from his dreams  – VaYikatz Pharoah –  not once but twice, and demands to know their interpretation.

Jacob went out, and he woke up. He took a blessing from his brother, and now Esau is coming behind him. The consequences of his own wrongful behavior (notwithstanding Rabbinic tradition which goes out of its way to justify it) pursue him. He is already estranged, and remains so, from his brother his twin. This when the almost universal report from twins is that they feel each other’s experiences and long for mutual closeness. We wonder, did Jacob ever have that feeling.

Pharoah lies waiting in Jacob’s future.  His children will encounter Pharoah first, but eventually the two men will meet. Jacob gave Pharoah a blessing, and then – Vayetze miLifnei Pharoah – He went out from the presence of Pharoah.

A D’var Torah should end with a conclusion, or a call to action, or an observation about the state of affairs in the world. Jacob mistreated his brother (again, sorry Rabbinic tradition), eventually his children became slaves, strangers in a land that was strange to them. Younger and older struggled, even in the womb. Who was the rightful owner of the inheritance? Who should live in the land? Who should own the land? Who is the rightful inheritor of HaShem’s promises to Jacob, his father, and his grandfather? Sadly, this argument continues to the present day. Do we yearn for closeness with our brother? Perhaps in our lifetime the argument will turn to a conversation, and all of Avraham Avinu’s children will learn to share, and live in peace together. I’ve paraphrased a Robert Heinlein book title, why not paraphrase a bit of Theordore Herzl.  IF we will it, we will wake up, find out it is no dream, and go out from the painful place where we are and truly enter into the House of G-d.

This drash came to me in a flash at morning minyan. As the long-time Gabbai of our shul David Gallant (alav hashalom)  used to say when he was finished giving a drash at minyan. “That’s enough for now”.

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