Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 28, 2015 Va-yishlach

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 28, 2015

Va-yishlach (lit. “And he sent”)
32:4 - 36:43 Bereshit (Genesis)

Va-yishlach is the eighth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the portion.  “And Jacob sent (Va-yishlach) messengers before him unto Esau, his brother.”  Va-yishlach is the second sedrah in the Jacob Cycle.  It continues the action packed pace we found in Va-yaytzay.  Highlights of the sedrah include the events surrounding Jacob’s meeting with Esau, the Rape of Dinah and the Deaths of Rachel and Isaac.

Jacob Meets With Esau (32:34-33-17)
After twenty years, Jacob is returning to his homeland.  But first, he must deal with Esau.  Jacob is afraid that Esau is still determined to punish him for the theft of the Blessing.  Jacob sends messengers and gifts in the hope of buying his brother’s affection.  But just in case Esau cannot be bought, Jacob decides to divide his camp into two groups and have them cross the Jabbok River separately.  That way, if Esau attacks one of the two groups, the other will get away and Jacob’s line will survive.  The one thing that Jacob had not considered was that Esau had forgiven him.  Esau did not need to be bribed or feared because he had no intention of attacking Jacob.  “Esau ran to greet him.  He embraced him and, falling on his neck he kissed him; and they wept.”  The text speaks plainly in describing Esau’s behavior.  Any attempt to impute other motives by some commentators would appear to be part of an on-going need to rationalize the method in which Jacob obtained the Birthright and the Blessing.  Esau wants to travel with Jacob.  But Jacob turns down the offer.  Esau offers to have some of his men travel with Jacob to provide added protection, but once again Jacob rejects the offer.  The text is silent as to why Jacob rejects Esau’s overtures of friendship.  Could it be that Jacob is so steeped in the world of deception that he cannot trust Esau’s simple honesty?  Regardless, Esau returns to Seir and Jacob settles in Succoth.  The two brothers will never live together.

In describing the reunion of the two brothers, we have skipped over the most famous episode in the sedrah - Jacob’s wrestling match.  Once Jacob divides his retinue and sends them across the Jabbok, he finds himself alone at night.  Notice the symmetry.  Last week’s sedrah began with Jacob’s first night away from home and he had a super-natural experience.  This week we find him alone on his last night before returning to his homeland and again he experiences the super-natural.  He wrestles with a man who is obviously something more than a man.  Is he a river demon, Esau’s angel, a messenger from God, or physical manifestation of Jacob’s inner struggle with himself?  Take your pick.  There are copious commentaries on all these points of view.  What is important is that Jacob emerges with a new name but with a permanent physical change.  The price of the struggle that transforms him from Jacob to Israel is a limp.  The name Israel implies a new level of spirituality.  But the price of that growth is pain and suffering.  The limp is the constant reminder that real changes comes with a real price tag.

One last note about symmetry; when Jacob left his homeland he offered a prayer to God.  It was conditional; the language had the tone of a bargain.  Now, as he returns, he also offers a prayer (32:10-13).  But the tone is different.  Jacob offers words of thanksgiving and request.  More importantly, he couches his prayer in terms of his unswerving faith in God.  Apparently Jacob did more with the last twenty years than just get older.  He matured as well.

The Rape of Dinah (34:1-31)
Jacob moves from Succoth to the city of Shechem.  He may have planned on staying for a while since he bought a plot of land.  Also he erects an altar at Shechem, using his new name, Israel, for the first time.  Whatever Jacob’s plans were, they are quickly altered by the rape of his only daughter, Dinah, and the subsequent revenge exacted by her brothers.  This story of rape and revenge contains numerous lessons and raises several questions as well.  While not blaming the victim, the language in the first verse of chapter 34 implies that Dinah was in a place where she should not have been.  This is consistent with later rabbinic admonishments about avoiding places of sin if you want keep from sinning.  Secondly, Jacob, who has a history of deception and deceit, now is deceived by his sons who “speak with guile” as they plot to obtain their sister’s safe return.  In understanding the behavior of Jacob’s sons, we must remember that Dinah was a captive throughout the negotiations and that her safe return was their primary consideration.  Given these circumstances, including the fact that the Israelites were vastly outnumbered, Jacob’s sons may have acted in the only manner possible to get Dinah back.  More troubling than the behavior of the sons is the behavior of the father.  There are no words of outrage about what has been done to his daughter.  There are no words of consolation or prayers of thanksgiving when she is returned.  Instead there are only words of anger for his sons (34:30).  Jacob does not answer the question “Should our sister be like a whore?”  Nor does the text ask the question, “Should your daughter be treated like a whore?”  As for Jacob, it would appear from his response that the fight has gone out of the great wrestler.  Note the similarity between Abraham and Jacob.  Abraham was not afraid to fight with God about destroying Sodom but he showed a lack of courage when he passed his wife off as his sister.  Jacob was not afraid to fight with a messenger from God, but he showed a lack of courage when it came to regaining his daughter.

The Deaths of Rachel and Isaac (35:1-29)
Jacob has to give up whatever plans he had for staying in Shechem.  Fortunately, God intervenes and tells him to go to Bethel, which is where he should have gone in the first place once he re-entered his homeland.  While at Bethel, Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, dies and is buried there.  We have no idea how she came to be at Bethel.  Possibly the mention of her death is an oblique reference to the fact that Rebecca had died while Jacob was away from home.  This is pure speculation.  We have no real idea why her death is so important as to merit being mentioned.  Apparently this one sentence (35:8) had a significance to our ancestors that has been lost over the centuries.  Also, while at Bethel, God appears again to Jacob and officially changes his name to Israel.  Furthermore, God renews the covenant with Jacob that He had made with Abraham and Isaac and that he had previously made with Jacob when he was leaving for Paddan-Aram.  Jacob would appear to be the perpetual wanderer.  No sooner does he finish his business with God at Bethel than he is on the road again.  During this leg of the journey, Rachel goes into labor, gives birth to her second son, Benjamin, and dies.  Her tragic death gives rise to numerous questions.  Is her death the fulfillment of Jacob’s foolish death decree against the one who stole Laban’s idols?  Why is she buried on the side of the road?  Why not take her on to the Cave of Machpelah, the family burial ground?  Why cannot Jacob enjoy the fact that he now has twelve sons who will give rise to the Twelve Tribes of Israel?  The text is silent and the commentaries are too numerous to recount here.  Immediately following the death of Rachel, we are confronted with another one of those one sentence puzzlers, “While Israel stayed in that land, Rueben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel found out.”  Rachel had given Bilhah to Jacob.  According to some, Bilhah replaced Rachel when the latter had died and this angered Rueben who felt this was an insult to his mother, Leah.  Others see this as Rueben asserting his right to assume Jacob’s mantle of leadership.  This is another example of an inscrutable Torah tale as mentioned above.

The chapter ends with the travel-weary Jacob being reunited with Isaac at Hebron.  Isaac dies the death of the righteous and is buried by his two sons, Esau and Jacob.

The Lineage of Esau (36:1-43)
The entire last chapter of the sedrah consists of a detailed description of the descendants of Esau, who is also called Edom.  The chapter begins with the exact same words as we found at the start of Toldot, “And these are the generations of…” only in this case the next word is Esau and not Isaac.  Is it mere coincidence that each genealogy begins with the same words or is there some hidden message that the commentators have missed?  Why does the Torah take so much time with the line of Esau?  In part it is to show the evil that flowed from Jacob’s brother.  According to traditional commentators it reinforces the correctness of Jacob taking hold of the birthright.  In case you missed it, Amalek is listed as a descendant of Esau (36:12).  This is the same Amalek whose descendants, the Amalekites, will attack the Israelites in the Wilderness.  These are the same Amalekites whom we remember daily so that we can blot them out.  Finally, the descendants of Esau had Kings before the Israelites, but the Israelites will conquer them and their Kings will be greater.  This will fulfill the promise that the “older will serve the younger.”

3. The prohibition against eating an animal’s thigh muscle (33:3).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Customs and Ceremonies
Kashrut - “That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.” (32:33).  The rule against eating the thigh muscle or hindquarter is one of the rules of Kashrut.  There are some people who contend that this may be eaten if the sciatic nerve is removed in its entirety.  Given the difficult nature of this extraction, most Jews follow the rule of not eating meat from the hindquarter.  We may not understand the reason for all the rules of Kashrut, but we do understand the reason for this one.  Every time we obey it, we remind ourselves that we are people who struggle and do not surrender no matter what the odds against us may be.

Circumcision - The story of Dinah is the first time we find circumcision as a requirement for conversion.  To this day, Orthodox and Conservative Jews follow this requirement.

Sexual Relations - The story of Dinah is an early indicator that among the Jews sexual relations were to be voluntary and not forced.  Devarim contains specific rules that reinforce this concept.

Jewish Names
We are told twice in this sedrah that Jacob’s name has been changed to Israel.  The first time the word comes from Jacob’s wrestling opponent.  The second time the word comes from God.  Why does Jacob have to be told this twice?  According to some, the first mention is more of an augury of what is to come.  The change is only official when it comes directly from God.

Unlike the name changes with Abraham and Sarah, we continue to see the name of Jacob appear after the name change has been announced.  According to some, Jacob and Israel represent two different aspects of the Jew.  Jacob is used when relating to worldly matters.  Israel is used in matters of spirituality.  We are the sons of Jacob during the week when our Jewish values are constantly being challenged by the work-a-day world.  We are the children of Israel on Shabbat when we can enjoy our spiritual delights free from the distractions of the material world.  In the world of prayer we invoke Jacob in the Amediah but we invoke Israel in the Shema.

When Isaac asks Jacob, “Which of my sons are you?”, Jacob replies, “I am Esau, your first-born.”(27:18-19).  Isaac remains unconvinced and asks again, “Are you really my son Esau?” to which Jacob replies, “I am.” (27:24).  In an attempt to gain the Blessing, one of Jacob’s lies begets another lie which ultimately results in him having to flee for his life.  Twenty years later, when Jacob’s wrestling opponent asks, “What is your name?” Jacob replies, “Jacob.”  To which his opponent replies, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel…” (32:28-29).  The patriarch has learned; honesty begets a Blessing without penalty.  One more word about names; when Jacob asks his opponent, “Pray tell me your name” the response is “You must not ask me my name.” (32:30).  Why the mystery?  Or are those demons with which each of us wrestles in the middle night truly nameless?

Jewish Women:  Rachel and Leah
Who are these two women?  What do their lives say to us?  Rachel is usually presented as the feminine beauty who is Jacob’s true love.  Leah comes across as a homely frump foisted off on Jacob by Laban.  But such might not be the case.  Rachel reproaches Jacob when she cannot have children.  She shows a certain amount of contempt when she trades a night with Jacob for a mess of mandrakes.  And in a society where being strong is important for survival, we can deduce from her limited fertility and death in childbirth that she is weak.  Through Joseph, she becomes the mother of the Northern Kingdom with all that that means.

Leah, on the other hand, is a strong woman who deeply loves her husband.  Just look at the names of her sons.  Her sons are the progenitors for the future well-being of the Jewish people.  Levi gives us Moses, the Levites and the High Priests.  Judah gives us the House of David, Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom - the surviving remnant of children of Israel.  Finally, Jacob decides to have Leah buried beside him at Machpelah.  Maybe as he matures Jacob finds that there is more to a life’s companion than a pretty face and a winning smile.  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz provides a fuller explanation on this non-traditional view of these two Matriarchs within the context of Orthodox Judaism.

A Jewish Woman and a Jewish Name
Dinah is puzzle from start to finish.  Out of thirteen children she is the only daughter.  Her name “Dinah” contains the Hebrew word “din” meaning judge.  Normally we associate women with the “feminine side” - mercy (Hebrew “chesed”).  The rule of law, the act of judging is seen as the masculine side.  In an era when women were viewed as weak and treated like chattel, is the name Dinah a code to indicate that women are really strong, strong enough to be instruments of judgment?  Does the Hebrew root of her name contain a prophecy i.e., he who defiles the daughter of Jacob will be judged and judged harshly?  Or is combining the reality of Dinah’s female physicality with the concept of judging a reminder that Chesed and Din do not exist separately but are mutually supportive of one another and that both are always present?  These are questions to chew over while chewing on Cholent or at the next Hadassah meeting.

Foretaste of the Future
There are those commentators who contend that the experiences of the Israelites described in Bereshit are microcosms or foreshadowings of later events.  In this case, look at the events when Jacob goes up to build the altar at Beth-El and see how they match the experience at Mt. Sinai (35:1-7).  You might want to compare the command about “purifying yourselves and chang(ing) your clothes,” the strictures concerning jewelry and the “terror from God” that kept those from the surrounding cities from pursuing Jacob with the events surrounding the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf and the Exodus.

Disappearing Children
There seems to be a pattern of children disappearing in each generation.  The first to go is Ishmael, the wild ass of a man.  The next to go is Esau, the hunter who did not consider the consequences of selling the Birthright.  Third to exit the family is Dinah who thoughtlessly “went out to visit the daughters of the land.”  Is there a causal relationship between behavior and disappearance?  Maybe we will find an answer when we examine the fate of Simeon in a later episode in Bereshit.

More on Dinah
There are those who contend that the story of Dinah explains the strange blessing that Jacob conferred on Levi and Simeon on his deathbed.  “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness…For when angry they slay men…Cursed be their anger…and their wrath…I will divide them In Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”  This strange blessing brought on by the response to the rape of Dinah may have been a way of explaining the fact that Simeon would disappear; consumed by the tribe of Judah and the fact that the tribe of Levi wandered Canaan without any land of its own.

Rape or Intermarriage
On the surface, the brothers’ anger was triggered by the rape of their sister.  There are those who contend that the story is really an attack on intermarriage.  Hamor offers to “take their daughters to ourselves as wives and give our daughters to them” (34:21).  Was this episode written into Bereshit to support the later efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah to root out the foreign wives that the returning Israelites took in the early days of the Second Temple?

Second Class Citizen
The text describes Jacob’s homecoming in the following manner.  “And he took his two wives, his two handmaids and his eleven sons and he crossed over the ford of the Jabbok” (32:24).  Note it talks about eleven sons and not twelve children.  It as if Dinah does not exist.  This omission becomes all the more glaring when you note that the text mentions the two concubines as well as the two wives.  So was Dinah as ignored by her father as the text would seem to imply?  If so, this might throw more light on Dinah’s behavior and Jacob’s lack of response when she was raped.  Regardless of how the commentators try and spin this, we are fortunate in the fact that in the 21st century we pay attention to all of our children; teach them; and reap the reward.

Jacob, the Unworthy
As he is about to face Esau for an unknown fate, Jacob confesses his unworthiness for all the blessings bestowed upon him by God.  In Hebrew he starts “Kah-toe-n’-tee,” literally “I am too small” but usually translated as “I am unworthy” and continues “for all the mercies and all the truth which thou hast done with thy servant…” (32:11).  This statement of unworthiness or humility has given rise to many stories.  One concerns a famous sage who was noted for his wisdom and his generosity in supporting students and giving to those in need.  Finally, he found himself in dire financial straits and was forced to travel to several towns seeking financial support from leading Jewish citizens.  The townspeople were only too glad to entertain the famed scholar and bask in paying honor to the sage.  The sage was unimpressed.  As he left the town empty-handed he told his companion, I only made this trip because I needed money to continue my work and pay my creditors.  It is money I owe, not honor.  I did not set out on this journey because I was in need of honor.  This sage, Reb Noach of Lechovitch also said, “A man is often called a microcosm - a small world.  If he is a whole world in his own estimation, then he is small; if he is small in his own eyes, then he is a whole world.”

The Great Wrestling Match
Here are a few random comments on the great wrestling match that comes in the opening portion of the weekly reading.  The contest is viewed by some as a contest between man’s willingness to improve himself and Satan’s attempts to keep man from turning toward his better nature.  The fact that the contest lasts all night long is emblematic of the fact that Jacob’s descendants will battle against evil-doers until the final dawn marked by the coming of the Moshiach.  And just as Jacob finally emerges victorious, so will his descendants finally emerge victorious over those who persecute them.

Land Purchases
God promises a large swath of land to the Patriarchs.  However, the Patriarchs used conventional, not divine, methods when it came to actually acquiring a piece of real estate.  When Abraham wanted a burial place he purchased the Cave of Machpehlah.  Jacob followed in the footsteps of his grandfather.  When he settled in Shechem, “the parcel of land where he pitched his tent he purchased from the children of Hamor…”  The fact that Jacob purchased the land might have explained, although not excused, his anger when his sons attacked the men of Shechem.  When Jacob fled he was leaving behind land for which he had paid cold hard cash; a payment which he would not be able to recoup.  Regardless, these land purchases by the Patriarchs remind us that God may make promises, but there are times that man must take action to turn the ethereal into practical reality.  It is the difference between chanting “Next year in Jerusalem” and actually making aliyah.

Jacob versus Israel
Professor Kugel provides alternative views for the dual name of the third Patriarch.  According to some critics, our ancestors may have consisted of one group who traced their roots to a mythic figure named Jacob and another group who traced their roots to a mythic figure named Israel.  The story of the wrestling match with the “man” is a way to harmonize these two ancestral traditions and provide national unity for the tribes as they approached or conquered Canaan.  Kugel also admits that many of the competing explanations of the Great Wrestling Match obscure the true meaning of the story - further amplification of a simple human trying to come to grips with the Divine Being who is the Master of the Universe.

What’s In a Name?
The third patriarch’s first name was Jacob or in Hebrew Ya’akov.  According to traditional explanation his name comes from the Hebrew word Akev which means Heel because he was hanging on to his brother’s Heel when he was born.  His name is changed to Israel or in Hebrew or Yisra-el, “one who struggles with God.”  Meir Shalev offers an alternative explanation.  Jacob’s first name in Hebrew is Ya’akov which contains the Hebrew root Akov meaning crooked.  At first it meant crooked in a geographic sense, such as a crooked road.  Later it came to mean crooked in a moral sense.  And Jacob did gain the birthright and blessing by means that were crooked.  The Hebrew for Israel is Yisra-el which includes the same Hebrew letters as the Hebrew word Yashar which means straight or honest.  Jacob obtained the blessing from his father by a crooked means.  Israel gains his blessing from the angel with whom he was wrestling by honest means.  According to Shalev, the name change shows a change in the character of the man whom we call both Jacob and Israel.

Blessings - Do we get what we ask for?
Meir Shalev points out that Jacob seeks a blessing twice in his life.  The first time he wants the blessing from Isaac which means, among other things, that he will inherit the bulk of his father’s wealth.  Twenty years later, when the angel with whom he is wrestling demands that Jacob let him go, Jacob responds by saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  In other words, the price of release is a blessing.  Jacob could have asked for wealth, power or at least to be saved from Esau whom he feared.  Instead he asks for a blessing, a blessing for which he does not define the terms.  According to Shalev, the fact of the blessing is more important than the content.  Twenty years ago he gained a blessing by trickery.  Now he can gain a blessing by honest means.  He understands that how you gain something can be as important as what you gain.  Some might say he learned that the ends do not always justify the means.

The last section begins, “And these are the generations of Esau, he is Edom” and continues with a lengthy description of the family of Rachel and Isaac’s older son.  This may have been an attempt to explain the relationship between the Israelites and their neighbors to whom they were related.  Regardless, it paints a picture of what life might have been like in the Middle East three or four thousand years ago - a series of tribal confederations ruled by a king.  The success of the Israelites would then have been attributable to their allegiance to Ha-shem.    Furthermore, it provides us with a reminder to the key to Jewish survival.  A whole swath of ancient people including the Gergashites, Jebusites and the Edmoites would be unknown to modern people because nobody reads their “books” if in fact they left any behind.  The Israelites are known because they produced books which their descendants study regularly and incorporate into their daily existence.  Such murderous events as the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust provided one form of threat to the survival of the Jewish people.  But today, our cultural literacy - lack of knowledge of our “books” - poses the greatest survival to the Jewish people.  As one person put it, we are more concerned about the gadgets of Steve Jobs then we are about studying the Book of Job.

Genesis and Deuteronomy
There is no question that Seir is the land of Esau and his descendants, the Edomites.  But how did Seir become the land of Esau.  In Deuteronomy Moses tells the people, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you.  Therefore watch yourselves carefully.  Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession.”  According to tradition, God did not give his “chosen people” the entire world.  He allotted them a slice of territory, just as he allotted the territory that belonged to all the rest of the nations in the world.

However, this week’s portion we read, “And Esau took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the souls of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts, and all his possessions, which he had gathered in the land of Canaan; and went into a land away from his brother Jacob.  For their substance was too great for them to dwell together; and the land of their sojournings could not bear them because of their cattle.  And Esau dwelt in the mountain-land of Seir - Esau is Edom.”  In this version, we have a repetition of the split between Abraham and Lot.  The wealth of the two men was too great for them to dwell together so Abraham proposed that they separate, giving Lot the choice.  Lot chose Sodom and the rest is history.  This version also makes it plain that the Esau moved to Seir because he needed room for his family and his retinue.  Some would say that by the time the Torah was committed to writing the Edomites were living in Seir and these two different tales provide an “after the fact” explanation for a current reality.  The two explanations would seem to be part of the on-going tensions between “predestination” i.e., man is merely acting out a pre-conceived divine plan and “free will.”

Haftarah:  This is one of those weeks when it will depend upon which synagogue you are in as to which prophetic portion you will read.  The Ashkenazim read from Hosea while the Sephardim read from Obadiah.

11:7 - 12:12 Hosea

The Man:  We have only limited knowledge about the historic figure of Hosea.  He probably lived during the middle of the eighth century, B.C.E.  He preached between 750 and 720 B.C.E. in the Northern Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Israel.  The leading Israelite monarch at the time was Jeroboam II.  This was a turbulent period of moral decay when the leadership of the Northern Kingdom was divided between those who wanted to make an alliance with Egypt against Assyria and those who wanted to come to terms with Assyria.  Hosea warned against doing either.  Instead, he called for moral and religious revival with the people putting their faith in God as a solution to their temporal problems.  In the end, the people failed to heed his words and the Israelites were exiled in 721 B.C.E.

The Message:  In the collection of the Minor Prophets, Hosea is the first of the Twelve.  From a chronological point of view, this is in error since Amos lived and preached before Hosea did.  Hosea is listed first because his fourteen chapters of writings are larger than Amos and the size of the text gives him precedence.  Understanding the message of Hosea can be quite difficult.  As one commentator puts it, “The style of Hosea is highly poetic and difficult to follow.  Many passages…are not clearly understood because we are no longer fully acquainted with certain events to which they allude.”  The first three chapters of Hosea describe how he came to prophesy.  The last eleven chapters alternate between admonishments and words of hope.  There will be punishment but ultimately God will redeem us.

Hosea married a woman named Gomer.  How this marriage came to be is open to some question.  But the fact is that she betrayed him.  He took her back and forgave her.  In delivering his message, Hosea portrayed the Israelites as the wayward wife, God the long-suffering husband who always loved her and who forgave her and redeemed her.  Hosea referred to the Northern Kingdom as Ephraim.  This is because the tribe of Ephraim led the original revolt against the House of David.  Hosea did not approve of the revolt and saw Jerusalem as the holy place, thus placing a permanent cloud over the Northern Kingdom.  I mention this only so that you will understand that when Hosea talks about Ephraim he is talking about the Kingdom of Israel and not just one tribe.

Theme-Link:  The theme link between the Torah portion and the prophetic portion is found in Hosea 12:4-5 where the prophet references Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, one of the major events in the sedrah.

1:1 - 21 Obadiah

The Man:  We do not really know anything about him.  In Hebrew the book begins, “Ha-zone, ohvadyah…”  Ha-zone means vision and it is the same word with which the Book of Isaiah begins.  The word “ohvadyah” maybe translated as “one who serves God” or “servant of the eternal.”  Was “ohvadyah” (Obadiah in English) the name of the prophet or an appellation such as we saw with Malachi?  We do not know.  We are not sure when he lived.  He may have been a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah or he may have lived sometime after this Major Prophet.  The first five verses in the Book of Obadiah are almost identical to language found in Jeremiah.  Also, some of the events he referenced are related to the events surrounding the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E.  Other commentators connect his words with the prophecies of Isaiah and Amos regarding Assyria.  For this reason the book of Obadiah is placed third among the Minor Prophets, immediately following the Book of Amos.  There are numerous people with the name of Obadiah.  There are those who believe that Obadiah lived at the time of King Ahab and Jezebel.  They contend that he was from Edom and converted to Judaism.  Furthermore, when Jezebel went on a killing spree and tried to wipe out the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah hid the survivors.  According to this line of thought, Obadiah is the antithesis of his fellow Edomite, Esau.  Esau lived among the righteous and became evil.  Obadiah lived among the evil but was righteous.  However, all of this is mere speculation.  As I said, we have no definitive data about this prophet.  However, if Judaism had saints, Obadiah would be the Patron Saint of the Minimalists.  We know nothing about him.  He left behind a legacy of only twenty-one verses.  Yet he made it into the greatest book ever written and his entire message is read once a year, every year.  Surely somebody has delivered a sermon or written a davar-torah on this.

The Message:  The haftarah concerns the future relations between the descendants of Esau called Edom and Jacob.  The prophet described the venality with which Edom joined in the despoliation of Jerusalem.  Edom did not come like a conquering lion, but like a jackal feasting on the spoils of the city once it had been laid waste by the Babylonians.  But in the future, Obadiah foresees the day when Edom will lose its wealth and the sons of Jacob will be restored to their rightful place in the Promised Land.

Theme-Link:  The Torah portion describes the relations between Esau and Jacob.  The haftarah describes the future relationships between the descendants of the two twins.

Copyright, November, 2015, Mitchell A. Levin

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 21, 2015 Va-yaytzay

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 21, 2015

Va-yaytzay (lit "left")
28:10 - 32:3 Bereshit (Genesis)

Va-yaytzay is the seventh sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis) and marks the first sedrah in the Jacob Cycle.  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “And Jacob left (Va-yaytzay) from Beer-sheba and went to Haran.”  The sedrah can be divided into three parts.  The first part describes Jacob’s flight from his homeland to Paddan-Aram and the house of Laban.  This is followed by Jacob’s twenty-year stay in Paddan-Aram with Laban and his family.  The sedrah finishes with Jacob’s flight from Paddan-Aram and Laban back to his homeland.  This is an action-packed reading.  It begins with flight and ends with flight.  In the middle we see Jacob grow from a callow youth to a mature tribal leader.

The Flight From Home (28:10-22)
As we know from Toldot, Jacob is fleeing from home because he is afraid of Esau’s wrath.  His mother has sent him to her brother Laban, ostensibly to find a wife.  We encounter Jacob on his first night away from home, alone and frightened.  He goes to sleep and dreams the dream that has been immortalized as the vision of “Jacob’s Ladder.”  God appears in the dream and reaffirms with Jacob the Covenant he has made with Abraham and Isaac.  In other words, the outcome of Jacob’s dealings with Esau and Isaac has God’s approval.  Also, we see God portrayed as a universal deity not confined by geography.  "…I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land."  The text says that Jacob awakened "Shaken" by this encounter.  But he is not so shaken that he undergoes a change in character.  Instead he addresses God with a list of demands that, if fulfilled by God, will result in Jacob’s belief in God.  Jacob is still the crafty youngster who hustled his way into the Blessing and the Birthright.  It will take the sojourn with Laban to turn him into a man of faith.

Twenty Years In Paddan-Aram (29:1-30:34)

Jacob’s twenty years in Paddan-Aram can be divided into two parts.  During the first fourteen years he worked for Laban to pay for his brides and saw his family grow to include eleven sons and one daughter.  The last six years he worked for Laban to develop his material prosperity.  The story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah is a pretty straightforward tale and there is no point in repeating that which is so easily read.  The story does present an interesting counter-point to the story of deception found in Toldot.  Once again we find the younger trying to supplant the rights of the older, only this time the younger is thwarted.  Just as Jacob was masked in animal skins, so is Leah masked in her veil.  Just as Isaac was deceived in the dark (his blindness), so is Jacob deceived in the dark (night).  This time, Jacob, the youthful trickster, is beaten by Laban, the master of deceit and deception.  Did Jacob hear the anguished cry of Esau in his own denunciation of Laban’s deception?  The text is silent and we can only imagine the answer.  Once again, we are confronted with an unhappy home.  Leah is fertile but unhappy because she does not have Jacob’s love.  Rachel has Jacob’s love but is unhappy because she cannot bear children.  So begins the great "baby race."
  Leah                            Bilhah          Zilpah              Rachel

1.             Reuben       5. Dan          7. Gad            11. Joseph

2.             Simenon     6. Naphtali   8. Asher

3.             Levi

4.             Judah

9.             Issachar

10.          Zebulun

Dinah (the only daughter)
In the next sedrah Jacob and Rachel will produce another son, Benjamin.  These twelve sons are the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes, which are so evident throughout the Torah; the early portions of the next section of the Bible called "Prophets" and are a recurrent motif in our liturgy and literature.

Now that Jacob has paid for his wives, it is time to build his wealth.  Laban continues to try and cheat Jacob out of what he has earned.  But now the tables have turned.  Jacob outwits Laban and becomes a wealthy man in his own right.

Flight From Paddan-Aram (31:1-32:3)
"Now he heard the things that Laban’s sons were saying:  ‘Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this wealth.’"  With a few adjustments these words could come from the mouth of any modern day anti-Semite.  When Jacob hears them, he knows he is in for trouble and that it is time to go.  However, he does not make the decision on his own.  Continuing in the role assigned to the earlier matriarchs, Rachel and Leah are consulted before Jacob decides to head for his homeland.  The decision-making process is helped along because God has already told Jacob that it is time to return to the land of his birth.  By now Jacob knows Laban’s true character.  He is left with no choice but to depart in haste and in stealth.  Once Laban finds out about Jacob’s departure he goes after him.  It takes an admonition from God to ensure that Laban does not attempt to harm Jacob and his family.  In this flight narrative, we find the story of Rachel’s theft of her father’s household gods.  On this point, Laban is entitled to his wrath.  But he is outfoxed by his own daughter and left bereft of what he sees as necessary divine protection.  According to some commentators this episode will result in the premature death of Rachel.  For in proclaiming his innocence, Jacob puts a curse on the person who holds Laban’s idols (31:32).  At any rate, Laban and Jacob enter into a pact and go their separate ways.  In concluding the pact, Laban swears by the "God of Abraham and the god of Nahor" while Jacob only swears by the "Fear of his father Isaac."  In other words Jacob has kept his word from the start of the sedrah.  God did in fact fulfill all the conditions Jacob set forth.  And now Jacob is affirming his allegiance to that God and only that God.  The sedrah began with angels, the ones climbing the ladder.  The sedrah ends in the same manner. "Jacob went on his way and angels of God encountered him.”

Jacob’s Dream
Lawrence Kushner has taken the words that Jacob uttered upon awakening, "God was in this place and I, I did not know it," and woven them into a fascinating book of the same title.  Although the book is less than 200 hundred pages, it is too dense for me to even begin to summarize.  He uses the views of seven different commentators to mine a myriad of meanings from these few words.  You might consider just a couple of points for this year.  First, why does Jacob repeat the word “I?”  Why doesn’t the verse read, “God was in this place and I did not know?”

When he awakens, Jacob describes where has slept as “this place.”  Makom is the Hebrew word for place.  But in Rabbinic tradition Makom is a word for the name of God.  So what was Jacob telling us?  Was the place synonymous with God?  Was it a Godly place?  Or is there something else here?  Don’t panic if you do not have answers because these are the kinds of questions that keep people reading the Torah year after year.

What does the Ladder signify?  What is the difference between the Ladder and the Tower of Babel?  According to some, the Tower was man’s arrogant attempt to conquer heaven and supplant the will of God with the wishes of mortals.  The Ladder is vehicle for bringing spirituality into the world of the mundane and elevating the mundane towards the spiritual.  Thus the angels are ascending and descending.  In other words, the Ladder is method of affecting the Repair of the Universe.  One last question, what is the importance of the fact that the angels were described as going up and coming down instead of the other way around?  Now there is a four o’clock in the morning question.

More on the Dream
"God was in this place and I, I did not know it."  Rashi presents with a paradox.  On the one hand Jacob may be saying that if he had known that God was in this place he would not have slept.  On the other hand, if he had not slept, he would not have dreamed.  And if he had not dreamed then Jacob would have never known that God was in that place.  But none of this addresses the question of what dreams represent in the first place.  Are dreams merely “a bad bit of undigested beef” as Scrooge says in A Christmas Carol?  Or are they something more?  Are they away of viewing the world as we would like it to be rather than as it is?  Are they a way that God challenges people to make the world better than they found it?  Yes, these are more questions without answers, at least not with easy answers.

Morally Ambivalent
The life of Jacob raises a whole variety of perplexing questions about moral behavior, reward and punishment, and the human shortcomings of even the greatest of leaders.  How does somebody who first appears as a trickster and con artist become worthy of being the third of the Patriarchs?  In Trickery’s Price, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a first rate Israeli scholar, examines these issues as they arise in this week’s Torah portion.  An attempt to paraphrase his d’var Torah lessens the impact of his unique presentation so it is quoted in its entirety.  It is worth the read.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz
Jacob went out," says Genesis 28:10.  With what did he leave his father's house to go into exile?  With the birthright and the blessing he had acquired by roundabout and partly tricky means.  But beyond the mission that had devolved on him as heir to the covenant of Abraham and Isaac, he had nothing.  "With my staff I Crossed the Jordan," he would testify twenty years later (Genesis 32:11).  The first great event after he left his home was the dream that for him, and for many generations of students and interpreters of the Torah after him, contained profound allusions of faith.  After he awoke, Jacob took a vow that is surprising for a number of reasons.  First, after being granted this revelation of God, which included the promise of a glorious future, Jacob seems speak only of satisfying his material needs of "bread to eat and clothing to wear" and of a happy return to his father’s house (Genesis 28:20-21).  Moreover, it seems as if he set a condition for belief in God:  if his wants were granted, then God would be his God.  But the great believers among the interpreters of the Torah explain this in an entirely different way.  Jacob did not impose any condition for acceptance of faith in God.  "God will be my God" (Genesis 28:21) was not a quid pro quo that Jacob promised, but was among the things he prayed for - bread, clothes, a return to his father's house, and that God should be his God.  More deeply, the Midrash in Breshit Rabbah converts Jacob's vow from a request for supplying his needs to an obligation that he accepted upon himself toward God.  Thus:  If God will be with me and protect me on the path (Hebrew:  haderekh) I am going means that He will preserve me from committing slander, as is said (Jeremiah 9:2), "They bend (Hebrew: vayidrekhu, from the same root) their tongues for lies."

and He will give me bread to eat means that He will preserve me from sexual transgression, in accordance with the understanding that "the bread he eats" (Genesis 39:6) alludes to sex.

and I return in peace to my father's house means I will refrain from bloodshed.

and He will be my God means He will protect me from committing idolatry.

Jacob was not seeking to have his needs taken care of, but wanted God's help for fulfilling his obligation to abstain from slander, murder, lewdness, and idolatry.  But the midrash delves even deeper into this matter, in a way almost frightening.  It asks:  What caused Jacob to reach a state of having nothing, of having to beg for bread and clothing, of being in great distress and great danger and having to beg for protection?  The reason was that he had obtained the birthright and the blessing by devious means, and as a result earned the enmity of his brother Esau and was forced to flee from his wrath and go into exile.  Here the same midrash makes a shocking statement:  “All the things that Jacob wished to refrain from came upon him.  He wished to refrain from slander, and what happened to him and his household?  'Joseph brought to his father their evil report' (Genesis 37:2).  Jacob wished to refrain from lewdness, and in his Household the affairs of Reuben and Bilhah, and of Judah and Tamar took place (Genesis 35:22; 38:1-30).  He very much wished to live in peace and to refrain from shedding blood, and the affair of Shechem and Simeon and Levi occurred."  Jacob's family, the midrash says, did all that he wished to avoid:  slander, lewdness, shedding of blood, even idolatry - Rachel took her father's idols into Jacob's home (Genesis 31:19), and later Jacob had to demand that his children remove the foreign gods "in their midst" (Genesis 35:2, 4).  Here we see that God does not show partiality even to His chosen ones.  That is why the Chosen One of the forefathers (as Jacob is commonly known), who fulfilled the heavenly mission assigned to him, suffered all these failures:  on his way to fulfill his mission, he did not follow the straight path.

We have talked about the premium Judaism places on the family.  According to the sages, when we leave this world all we will leave behind are our children and our good name.  Jacob spends the first part of his life growing his family.  Only once his family is firmly established does he go on to develop material wealth.  Yes, this is interpretation, but it is too good to pass up.

Study, Work and Responsibility
When we first met Jacob in Toldot he was described as a “quiet man dwelling in tents.” (25:27).  “The Midrash explains ‘tents’ to mean ‘schools of religious study.’” (Hertz Chumash).  In modern parlance, Jacob is being described as a student.  This week we see Jacob assume his place in the adult world when he goes to work and earns a living to support his family.  He does not produce a large a family and then sit around waiting for somebody else to provide for them.  This does not mean that study is only for children.  But it does presage the rabbinic injunction that to be an adult in the truest sense of the word a person works for a living while accepting family responsibility and studying.

The First Wage and Hour Dispute
In keeping with the spirit of Meir Shalev’s Beginnings:  Reflections on the Bible's Intriguing Firsts we should note that this week’s portion contains the first of what we now call a “wage and hour dispute.”

“And Laban said unto Jacob, Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought? tell me, what shall thy wages be?” (29:15).  “And Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter.  And Laban said, It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man: abide with me.  (29:18, 19).

Jacob was going to work for Laban as an employee.  Laban negotiated with Jacob about his pay and then agreed to it.  We know what happened.  When payday came around, Laban did not pay his worker as agreed.  Of course this flies in the face of “Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.” (24:14).  It also reminds us that the “Thou shalt not” commandments exist because people were doing the wrong thing.  Last but not least, we are reminded that there are plenty of modern day “Labans” who gut employee pension plans, cut their hours and/or deny them benefits.

Work Ethic
According to the sages, Jacob sets the standard when it comes to the work ethic.  Despite the numerous times that Laban cheated him, Jacob continued to work as he had promised rather than resort to trickery to be even with his father-in-law.

This is not the last time we will see the power of words.  The curse uttered by Jacob supposedly is responsible for the untimely death of his beloved Rachel.  There will be other examples in the TaNaCh of the price for impetuous utterances.  We will also find laws warning us against uttering oaths.  Silence does not create an obligation.  But once an oath is taken, it is a commitment from which it is nigh on to impossible to escape.

When Jacob saw Rachel for the first time he wept (29:11).  Since this is supposed to be a case of love at first sight, why the tears?  Rashi says it is because Jacob saw into the future and knew that he would not be buried with Rachel.  Others say that he wept because he knew he arrived with nothing but a staff and his sandals.  In other words he was broke and did not have the price for a bride.  “According to the Talmud, an impoverished person is considered a dead person.”  Judaism does not believe material wealth is the measure of a person’s worth.  But Judaism is not a religion that exalts poverty.  A person should make a living and have enough to meet the needs of his or her family.  Last but not least, it was considered a mitzvah to help a poor girl have a dowry so that she might wed.  It is amazing how much we can learn from one little verse of Torah.

Rachel and Leah
We meet these famous sisters for the first time and they certainly play a major role in the sedrah.  However we will wait until after their deaths to comment on their lives since it is never over until it is over.  For now it is enough to note that when the two are mentioned together, Rachel’s name always comes first.  It is also the formula followed when their names are invoked in later blessings.

At the climax of his dream about Jacob’s Ladder God tells Jacob that his descendants will inherit Eretz Israel.  “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth.”  This certainly seems like a come down from the promise to Abraham that his descendants shall be like the stars of heaven.  One explanation is tied to the nature of the guarantee.  When the Israelites are compared to the stars of the heavens, God is promising that they will be numerous.  When the comparison is to dust, God is not promising that the Israelites will be walked on by everybody else.  He is promising us that the Israelites will endure forever.  Dust is permanent.  Dust is everlasting.  From Dust man comes to Dust shall he return.

Wells, Women and Wives is one of those recurring themes.  We have already seen that Isaac’s wife was found as a result of an encounter at a well.  This week Jacob finds his wife at the well.  Later Moses will find his wife at a well.  Why does this recurring theme exist?  To paraphrase Rashi “Of this I do not know” but if you do let me know.  It does say something about the role of women.  Each of them was a vibrant, active member of their household.  They were not second-class citizens.  One could not see them sitting in the back of a bus or getting off of a sidewalk so that those of another gender could pass by.  Apparently, the author(s) of the Torah were able to see women as human beings; something that those who profess to be the true keepers of the Torah seem to be incapable of doing.

The Torah tells us that Rebecca sent Jacob to Aram for safekeeping and to find a wife.  But there may be another reason for Jacob’s journey back to the ancestral homeland.  This week we read about Jacob’s father-in-law who is described as “Laban, the Aramean.”  In Deuteronomy 25:5 we read, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”  The term “My father” refers to Abraham.  In other words Jacob’s grandfather and his father-in-law enjoyed a common ancestry - they were both from Aram.  Based on the behavior of Rebecca’s family when Eliezer was negotiating to make her Isaac’s wife and what were read in this week’s portion, the people of Aram were wily negotiators who put a premium on material wealth.  As we saw with his willingness to let Lot choose who should live where and his willingness to overpay for the Cave at Machpelah, Abraham’s values stand in stark contrast with the people of Aram.  Apparently, when Abraham left Aram, he left behind its value system and set out to live a life that would be based on a Covenant with God - a covenant that would eventually lead to Sinai, the Torah, and thus to creating a society based on ethics and morality where caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in your midst were of the highest priority.  Based on how he obtained Esau’s birthright and Isaac’s Blessing, Jacob was showing all the traits of the wily Aramean and not those of his grandfather Abraham who was the progenitor of a society based on justice and mercy.  After living in Aram and seeing what being an Aramean really meant, Jacob was confronted with a stark choice.  Did he really want to spend the rest of his life as a hondler, a hustler?  Or did he want to lead a life of moral value?  Did he want to be Laban or did he want to be Abraham?  The choice was his.  And that may be the message for the modern reader.  Life is all about choice.  We do not have to be prisoners of the past.  At the same time, a rich heritage is not a guarantee of future greatness.  It is up to us to make the choices which will determine whether we are to be the Children of Laban, the Aramean or the Children of Abraham who turned his back on Aram.

Haftarah (Ashkenazim)
12:13 - 14:10 Hosea
Haftarah (Sephardim)
11:7 - 12:12 Hosea

The prophetic portion comes from the book of Hosea.  The Ashkenazim read a different set of verses than do the Sephardim.  Just to confuse matters a little more, some Sephardim start with 11:7 but continue through 13:5 so for them there is some overlap with the Ashkenazim.  The Chabad Chassidim start as do the Sephardim with 11:7, but they stop at end of 12:14.  I mention this only so that you will realize that there a varying customs and traditions among different groups of Orthodox Jews.

The Man:  We have only limited knowledge about the historic figure of Hosea.  He probably lived during the middle of the eighth century, B.C.E.  He preached between 750 and 720 B.C.E. in the Northern Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Israel.  The leading Israelite monarch at the time was Jeroboam II.  This was a turbulent period of moral decay when the leadership of the Northern Kingdom was divided between those who wanted to make an alliance with Egypt against Assyria and those who wanted to come to terms with Assyria.  Hosea warned against doing either.  Instead, he called for moral and religious revival with the people putting their faith in God as a solution to their temporal problems.  In the end, the people failed to heed his words and the Israelites were exiled in 721 B.C.E.

The Message:  In the collection of the Minor Prophets, Hosea is the first of the Twelve.  From a chronological point of view, this is in error since Amos lived and preached before Hosea did.  Hosea is listed first because his fourteen chapters of writings are larger than Amos and the size of the text gives him precedence.  Understanding the message of Hosea can be quite difficult.  As one commentator puts it, “The style of Hosea is highly poetic and difficult to follow.  Many passages…are not clearly understood because we are no longer fully acquainted with certain events to which they allude.”  The first three chapters of Hosea describe how he came to prophesy.  The last eleven chapters alternate between admonishments and words of hope.  There will be punishment but ultimately God will redeem us.  Hosea married a woman named Gomer.  How this marriage came to be is open to some question.  But the fact is that she betrayed him.  He took her back and forgave her.  In delivering his message, Hosea portrays the Israelites as the wayward wife.  God is the long-suffering husband who always loves her and who forgives here and redeems her.  Hosea refers to the Northern Kingdom as Ephraim.  This is because the tribe of Ephraim led the original revolt against the House of David.  Hosea did not approve of the revolt and saw Jerusalem as the holy place, thus placing a permanent cloud over the Northern Kingdom.  I mention this only so that you will understand that when Hosea talks about Ephraim he is talking about the Kingdom of Israel and not just one tribe.

Theme-link:  The theme link between the sedrah and the haftarah are found in the first words of the prophetic portion, “Jacob fled to the land of Aram, Israel served for a wife; and for a wife he had to guard (sheep)” (12:13).  In other words, the Haftarah starts out by citing the same event that is described in the sedrah, Jacob fleeing to the house of Laban, working for Leah and then working as a shepherd for Rachel.  The last nine verses of the haftarah are also the last in the book of Hosea.  They are read on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of the Return, which is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  “Return (Shuvah), O Israel to the Eternal your God.…” (14:2).

Jews and Thanksgiving:  Next week, on Thursday, November 26, Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving, a secular holiday that has Biblical roots.  The Pilgrims looked to the Bible and the holiday of Sukkoth as their inspiration for celebrating their successful “in-gathering” of crops and survival in the Wilderness.  Since the holiday has no sectarian overtones, it is difficult for anybody to see how killjoys could say that Jews should not observe this event.  For a couple of views on the holidays see below.

Copyright, November, 2015, Mitchell A. Levin