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Archive for November, 2008

What dreams may come

Posted by rabbiart on November 29, 2008

I must confess that when i first read the opening of our parshah I was struck by this question.  How do you fall asleep with  stones for a pillow? “He took some of the stones of the place, put them under his head, and slept in that place.”  Is Yakov especially hard-headed? Are these magic stones that turn soft and supportive when you rest on them?

According to the Talmud (Bavli, Chullin 91b) the stones were – magical that is! Verse 11 mentions that he took ‘stones’ (in the plural), but when Yakov awakes, it says that he takes the stone (singular) he had placed at his head and sets up the stone as a monument, and anoints it.  R. Isaac said “This tells us that all the stones gathered themselves together into one place and each one said, ‘Upon me shall this righteous man rest his head’. Thereupon all the stones were merged together into one.”  One recurring theme in Talmudic literature is the impact that the rigtheous have on the world, even the physical part of it.

Anyway, Yakov fell asleep and dreamed his famous ladder dream with angels ascending and descending (in that unexpected order). Nehama Leibowitz brings forth several classic midrashic interpretations of the dream here. Yakov, fleeing his family and everything he has known, gets a new traveling companion, so to speak.

וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ, וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-תֵּלֵךְ, וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ, אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת:  כִּי, לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ, עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם-עָשִׂיתִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ

Behold, I am with you, I will guard you wherever you go. I will return you to this land because I will not leave you until I have done what I have told you.

Interesting that HaShem identifies HaShem’s self as the father of Avraham, not the father of Yitzhak. As if to say there is no father-son relationship between Yakov and Yitzhak his father. This encounter is understood to take place on Har HaMoriah – a dangerous place for the relationship between  fathers and sons.
” אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק; הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ–לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה, וּלְזַרְעֶךָ ”
I am HaShem the god of Avraham your father, also the god of Yitzhak. The land that you sleep on, to you I will give it, and to your seed.”

the text tells us that HaShem stands in relation to Yakov just as Hashem did with Avraham at
Elonei Mamre. There (Breshit18:2) the text says

וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו

and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood beside him; and here (Chapter 28:13) the text says

וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו

HaShem stood beside him.

Now HaShem repeats the promise that Avraham received, minus the warnings of slavery in Mitzrayim. What about the power of this promise?  Is it as convincing as all the promises that HaShem gave Avraham?  Should we expect Yakov to trust in this one promise?  (and the obvious question) What promises have we received?  Why do we (if we do) still believe?

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Yitzhak – what did he know, and when did he know it?

Posted by rabbiart on November 28, 2008

Yitzhak – the least of our three forefathers. Almost sacrificed by his father, manipulated by his wife, deceived by his younger son, his older son marrying Hittites and embittering he and his wife,  he hardly seems a heroic figure. Possibly scarred for life by his near-death experience, he lives in fear, for in the moment of his greatest comfort, HaShem appears and tells him not to be afraid. (Breshit 26:24)

As the parshah opens, we learn that not only Rivkah, but Yitzhak himself was barren, perhaps impotent.

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַיהוָה לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא; וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְהוָה, וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

“Yitzhak entreated HAshem opposite his wife, for she was barren. HaShem was persuaded, and Rivkah his wife conceived.”

The Talmud Bavli (Yebamot 64a) articulates: R. Isaac stated: Our father Yitzhak was barrend; for it is said, “Yitzhak entreated HaShem opposite his wife. It does not say ‘for his wife’ but ‘opposite’. This teaches that both were barren. The gemara points out that – according to the wording of the Torah’s verse – it is Yitzhak’s prayer that is effective, and asks why the text does not say that both their prayers were answered. (Apparently interpreting the verse that both Rivkah and Yitzhak prayed – what do you think?). But then it goes on to say that “the prayer of a righteous man the son of a righteous man (Yitzhak) is not like the prayer of a righteous man the son of a wicked man”.

From this we learn that Yitzhak is a righteous man in his own right. But what accomplishments does he have? He receives the promise and the blessing… because of what his father did. When there is famine, he does what his father did (except he does not go down to Egypt), positions his wife as his sister, then reaps the reward of riches.  Conflict over water and wells follows, and then it is time for him to die, bringing on one of the most famous stories in all of the Bible, if not all of literature.

Was Yitzhak deceived, did he acquiesce, or was it all part of his plan for Yakov to receive the blessing and carry the future on his shoulders? Commenting on the opening verse of the episode, R. Abbahu (Talmud Bavli, Yebamot 93a) says: “A man should always strive to be of the persecuted than of the persecutors. There is none among the birds more persecuted (hunted?) than doves and pigeons, but they alone (among birds) are fit for the altar.”

R. Abbahu gets the essence of Yitzhak; he is a sacrificial figure, whose role is to sacrifice for the good of others.  When he first speaks he seems to know more than he lets on, yet he goes along.  Now when he speaks at the end, is it possible he does not know what is happening?  When the food he requests is presented he asks “Who are you my son?” and again “How did you bring it so fast?”  and finally these famous words “The voice is the voice of Yakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav” and finally again “Are you really my son Esav”?

Could Yitzhak not have known it was Yakov who came quickly with his food?  Is his answer to Esav – when he lately appears – genuine, or is it a coverup? Rashi (who else?) has an interesting comment to verse 36: “When Esav started crying, saying “He has already deceived me twice”, his father said to him “What did he do to you?”. Esav replied “He took my birthright.” Yitzhak said “That is why I was troubled and shuddered, for I was afraid that perhaps I had transgressed the line of strict justice, but now that I know that I actually blessed the firstborn, “he too shall be blessed.” (end of verse 33).  Rashi seems to be saying that – once Yitzhak learned that Yakov owned the birthright – Yakov actually was entitled to the blessing of the first-born.

We often see that children know more about their parents – and parents about their children – then either suspects or will say out loud.  Could Yitzhak not have known about the incident of the soup and the birthright? Unlikely! Could Yitzhak not have sensed his father intended to sacrifice him? Most likely.

Some people are alloted fame and fortune, even the genesis of a people.  Others play a smaller role. Perhaps it was Yitzhak’s alloted role to be everybody’s fool and the object of their games.  But, perhaps, all along, he knew exactly what was going on, and more importantly, exactly what he was doing.

Shabbat Shalom

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The Cost of Achievement

Posted by rabbiart on November 26, 2008

Sometimes we read the story of Yakov and Esav and shudder at an outcome that makes – in our tradition – Yakov the good guy and hero of the story.  He practices extortion over a bowl of soup.  He commits one of the all time “mommy made me do it” when he swindles his father and brother to get a blessing to which he was not entitled. When introduced, Yakov already has a diminished presence.  His brother Esav is all hairy, a hunter, a man of the fields. Yakov is simply a quiet/simple man who stays at home.וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים One day, seemingly out of nowhere, he demands his brother’s birthright ( Heb. בְּכֹרָתְךָ your first-born rights). Why? This is rather un-brotherly behavior. There is no evidence of conflict between them as with his father and uncle. Has he been influenced by someone. Well, his mother knows that Yakov’s destiny is to rule over his brother, because HaShem said so

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

HaShem said to her “two peoples are in your womb, two nations will separate out from your loins, one nation will be stronger, the elder shall serve the younger.

Yakov is born second, holding his brother’s heel as they exit the womb.* The usual reading is that he is struggling to come out first, was supposed to be born first, and all his life was simply trying to get back to his rightful position.

What if he was in fact pushing his brother out first in order to be the younger?

Did Yakov know of the prophecy – and his destiny? (Does “Judaism” believe in destiny?) We know many people who believe they are with their bashert– the one that is meant for them.  We probably know people that we feel are “meant for big things.” Was Yakov? Did he in fact (or in our imagination) have a motive for demanding his brother’s birthright?  Could there have been something more than “mommy said so” when he escalates by swindling not only his brother but not his father?

The midrash is replete with stories testifying to Yakov’s exemplary character, as if to compensate for his behavior in the text. In one well-known story, the twins wrestle in the womb because when Rivkah would pass a yeshiva Yakov would struggle to come out, but when she would pass a brother, Esav would struggle to come out.  Were the brothers, still in the womb, already engaged in their struggle?In a mystical tradition, the child in the womb is taught all Torah, all teaching, by a guardian angel. But at the moment of birth the child is tapped on the head and forgets of all his (or her) learning. But not completely; an echo remains and we spend our lives trying to regain this lost knowledge. As he grew up, was Yakov aware of his destiny? (Have you ever felt a sense of destiny?)

And what about Esav? Why did he despise his birthright?
וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה (final verse of the chapter.
Did he sell his birthright because he despised it? Or did he despise it because he sold it? The text is not clear.

Rashi has a very strong comment:

העיד הכתוב על רשעו שביזה עבודתו של המקום

The text testifies to Esav’s evil-ness because he spurned serving HaShem (by selling his birthright).

This is an entire family locked into struggle over what the future will be. They manipulate and lie. Twin brothers end up separated for twenty years, with at least one of them living in fear.  Yet somehow out of this distasteful family mess comes the third generation of our founding ancestors.

But, we might wonder, at what cost to the individuals involved. Just as Avraham loses the love of his son because of the Akedah, now an entire family is torn apart to serve the cause of building a people.

* Hence his name Yakov (heb עקב heel, consequences)

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Almost a Name of His Own

Posted by rabbiart on November 23, 2008

There are six parshiot in the Torah named after individuals. Why not a seventh? And why not this parshah? Our parshah opens with the words וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק “these are the generations of Yitzhak”. Yet in most places, the name of the parshah is simply תּוֹלְדֹת “generations.” Yitzhak, one word away, is not added to the parshah name. Check calendars – online or printed – that list the names of the parshiot. Most (just being safe here) list the parshah as “Toldot.” Check, for example, the list on hebcal.

Just as last week’s parsha has a two word name –chayei sarah – this week’s parshah could have a two word name – toldot yitzhak. Just as Sarah is a matriarch, Yitzhak is a patriarch. He does not get the same respect when it comes to parshah names.

In one verse the Torah tells us how to think about Yitzhak.

וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם: אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק

This is the life of Yitzhak, Avraham’s son; Avraham gave life to Yitzhak*

When his story is introduced, Yitzhak is immediately defined in reference to his identity. Twice. He is his father’s son, the father who gave birth to him. He is the man with no identity of his own, or so it would seem.

Throughout his story, Yitzhak is constantly defined in terms of other people. The significance of his birth is as a miracle for his parents, especially his father. His father who almost kills him.

When we are told of his praying to HaShem, it is on behalf of his wife. His wife who later manipulates him into blessing a Yakov – a masquerading and deceitful son. There are only two significant stories about Yitzhak. When he encounters a famine, he acts just as his father had done, attempting to masquerade his wife as his sister. In the other, quite famous story, he is bamboozled by one son and must comfort the other.  The episode is much more about the sons, than it is about the father.

Even Yitzhak’s face is made to look like his father’s, in this Talmudic episode. (Talmud Bavli, Baba Mezia, 79a)

R. Levi said” On the day that Avraham weaned Yitzhak he made a great banquet.  All the people deried him saying “Have you seen that old man and woman, who brought an orphan from the street and claim him as their son!” They even make a great banquet to establish their claim>’ What did Avraham do? He invited all the gream men of the age, and Sarah invited thier wives. A miracle happened unto Sarah; he breasts opened like two fountains, and she suckled them all. The people still scoffed. Immediately the features of Yitzhak’s face changed and his face became like Avraham’s.  Immediately the people all cried out “Avraham gave life to Yitzhak.

Yitzhak is truly a transitional figure. His birth gives justification to his parents’ lives. His death sets up the path that his sons will follow. Even in the one episode where he is the central character he “digs his father’s wells.” Only in the terrible period of the middle ages does he become the hero of his own story.  But that is another subject.

The parshah is well and truly named, because it is not about Yitzhak, but about the generations (toldot) that come before and after him. Yitzhak is almost incidental to the story.

*Translating ולד as “life” and using it as a verb and ואלה in the singular. As a noun ולד means child, infant, even embryo and as a verb to give birth, so a word with a feminine connotation.

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Buying land in The Land

Posted by rabbiart on November 20, 2008

The alert reader (that means all of us, right?) will immediately notice the strange opening of our Parshah.  It is titled חַיֵּי שָׂרָה (hayei sarah – Sarah’s life), but it really begins with Sarah’s death. Her husband, Avraham, mourns and weeps for her, and only then goes to find a place where she can be buried. We are more accustomed to a grieving process where burial takes place first – and immediately – and is followed by mourning and grieving.

Another famous negotiation takes place, this time over the purchase of a burial plot that remains with us to this day. According  to Speiser (The Anchor Bible – Genesis) Avraham is a resident alien and thus not allowed to purchase land. (Sound familiar?)  Once again, we see how the Torah contains and foreshadows everything in human experience.  Avraham is the first Jewish (loosely speaking, as the term had not yet come into parlance) to ארץ ישראל  (aretz yisrael – The Land of Israel).  He seeks to acquire clear legal title to the land. Some 2000 years later, the first Zionist settlers come back to The Land, and again go through the process of acquiring legal title from the then current landowners. For some strange reason, their efforts do not go as smoothly as did Avraham’s, but that is a different discussion.

Speiser explains that Avraham’s purchase is a multi-leveled transaction.  He must first get permission from the local government (those who sit at the gate, see verse 10), and only then can he attempt a transaction with Ephron.  Ephron extracts an exorbitant price, to be sure.  According to Rashi, Ephron rose in status with the local elders, because Avraham needed to buy his land.

Avraham has (perhaps) been revealed to have serious negotiating skills. After all, didn’t he bargain with HaShem over the innocent and guilty of Sodom and Gemorrah?   On the one hand, he refuses the offer of burial land by way of gift, on the other hand he pays an exorbitant price. Why does he accept without question Ephron’s price for a gravesite? One possible conclusion we might make: Once again, the miracle of how our ancient text speaks directly to our lives is revealed.  Don’t wait until you really need them to buy funeral plots and make arrangements for burials.

דבר אחר (davar acher – an  interpretation that is different).  Note that in verse six the local inhabitants offer for all of Avraham’s “dead” to be buried in any of their graves.  What might it have meant had Avraham accepted this offer?   They say:

נְשִׂיא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה בְּתוֹכֵנוּ– בְּמִבְחַר קְבָרֵינוּ, קְבֹר אֶת-מֵתֶךָ; אִישׁ מִמֶּנּוּ, אֶת-קִבְרוֹ לֹא-יִכְלֶה מִמְּךָ מִקְּבֹר מֵתֶךָ

a prince of elohim you are among us — in your choice of our grave sites, any one of us – his gravesites he would not withhold from you – to bury your dead

How might the lives of Avraham and the Hittites been intertwined had Avraham accepted this offer? Shall we allow this text to think about how the lives of Israelis and Palestinians – Jews and Arabs – might be intertwined in our time had Avraham chosen a different course, and that model something that both peoples of these people (who of course share these stories) were able to follow?

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Gonen Sagy on his life-changing experience at the Arava Institute

Posted by rabbiart on November 20, 2008

Gonen with his son

Gonen with his son

I mentioned Gonen in an earlier post.  One of my favorite moments of the entire trip was Gonen chasing me up the big climb on day three (I think) when I was out ahead of the Tsofim group simply to give me some encouragement.  I also rode with him for awhile and had a wonderful experience listening to him talk about the impact that the Arava Institute has had on his life.  This recording – the last one of the trip, at the final Monday night party – gives only a taste of that conversation, but its worth a listen.  And here’s a picture of Gonen with one of his kids.

Here’s Gonen talking about his experiences.

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More Voices from the Israel Ride

Posted by rabbiart on November 20, 2008

 JoJo and Gil on the plane from Atlanta

JoJo and Gil on the plane from Atlanta

Gil and JoJo Meyers talk about the ride.
Gil Eplan-Frankel and JoJo Meyers – the two youngest riders – talk about their experience. That’s JoJo on the left and Gil on the right. JoJo wants to be a pilot in the Israeli air force. Both of them are planning on doing the ride again in 2010.


David Lehrer - Director of the Arava Institute

David Lehrer on the Arava Institute
David Lehrer is Director of the Arava Institute.
Here he talks about the experience of having a long conversation while riding, and his aspirations for the Arava Institute and the impact it could have.

Newly engaged couple Noam Dolgin and Velerie Levitt talk about the ride and the Arava Institute.  And what it was like to hear Noam announce to the entire gathering on Erev Shabbat that “the lovely Valerie Levitt” had agreed to become his wife.

Noam Dolgin and Valerie Levitt talk about their experience, and what it’s like to get engaged in the middle of the Israel Bike Ride.

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Voices from the Israel Ride

Posted by rabbiart on November 20, 2008

Nancy Lipsey

Nancy Lipsey

Nancy Lipsey on the Israel Bike Ride
Here’s Nancy talking about how she got involved in Hazon. Nancy is the Hazon Director of Outdoor Activities and took care of all of us with grace, style and a big smile.

And here is Rabbi Mario Karpuj on his experiences with the Bike Ride.

Rabbi Mario Karpuj

Rabbi Mario Karpuj

Rabbi Mario Karpuj talks about why he came back for a second ride
This is Mario’s second ride, this time as part of a nineteen person team from Atlanta.

And finally, for this post, Rabbi Marc Soloway from Team Boulder.

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Marc Gelman gets in trouble at Eilat Airport

Posted by rabbiart on November 18, 2008

So… some people went to Petra, and other people planned to go home. Marc Gelman planned to take Roy Levinson’s luggage home with him, so Roy could make the Petra trip. Little did Marc know, that the security people at Eilat Airport frown upon bringing OPL (other people’s luggage) with you on the plane. So Marc arrived early and got the full security workup. Marc is allowed to takehis luggage on the plane, but Roy’s luggage… well, that’s another story.  Hopefully, Roy and his suitcase will be reunited for the next flight.

Sitting here with us in the waiting lounge are Doug Stanger, Sara Meyers, Stuart Meyers, and all-star rider, young Jo Jo Meyers,  Andy Dannenberg,  me, and Carol, with more to follow, we certainly hope.  For example, Jim Lando, who is on this flight as is Craig Frankel and Gil Eplan-Frankel, and who knows who else.  Party? Perhaps? Who knows.

That’s סוף החדשות from the beautiful Eilat airport in beautiful (wishful thinking there) downtown Eilat.

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Wow… and wow… and wow again, or I survived at 39 MPH

Posted by rabbiart on November 17, 2008

Coming to you – alive – (baruch hashem) – from the Isrotel on the beach in Eilat, after an amazing and scary downhill kamikaze ride on the approach to Eilat from 2650 feet above speed level (Freudian slip – I mean sea level).  We can skip the part about how I stopped three times to let my brakes and wheels cool off, and to let my heart pounding pulse calm down, and let my hands rest from squeezing the brakes – or not  If you don’t squeeze the brakes, pretty soon you’d be going fifty, or sixty or more miles per hour down the two lane curving road. Plus, you would miss all the incredible scenery.

This has been “the experience of a lifetime”… except that I am already planning on returning to Aretz Yisrael in 2010 and doing it again.  The people that we met, the sights that we saw, the rides together that we had, the Shabbat that we experienced; all of these things will remain with me for a long, long, time.

Some of you out there are bike riders, supporters of Israel, or both.  Come join me, and stand ankle deep in Yam Suf at the end of a physically – and even moreso spiritually – uplifting and exhilarating five day trip that lasts forever and is over way too, too soon.

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