Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 29, 2014 Va-yaytzay

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 29, 2014

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 Leah is masked in her veil.  Just as Isaac was deceived in the dark (his blindness), so Jacob is 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. Josep
2. Simenon   6.  Naphtali        8. Asher
3. Levi
4. Judah
9. Issachar
     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.

Family:  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) mIn modern parlance, Jacob is being described as a student.  This week we see Jacob assume his place in the adult world in which 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.

Words:  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.

Tears:  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.

Dust:  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:  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.

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 the 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 is 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:  This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday, November 27.  This holiday 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, 2014, Mitchell A. Levin

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, November 22, and Sunday, November 23, 2014 Toldot Rosh Chodesh Kislev


Torah Readings for Saturday, November 22, 2014

Toldot (variously: “Generations,” “Descendants,” or “Offspring”)
25:19-28:9 Bereshit (Genesis)

Toldot is the sixth sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis).  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading, “And these are the generations (Toldot) of Isaac.…”  We have completed the Abraham Cycle and are preparing for the Jacob Cycle.  Toldot is properly described as the Isaac Sedrah.  It divides into three major sections:
·        The birth and early years of Isaac’s sons;
·        A summary of Isaac’s adult life; and
·        Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau.
This is, to say the least, one of the most morally ambiguous portions in the Torah.  It raises a number of questions about family life, pre-destination and the ends justifying the means.

The Birth and Early Years of Isaac’s Sons 25:19-34
At the end of last week’s Sedrah we read “And these are the generations of Ishmael, the son of Abraham.”  This week we begin with “And these are the generations of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac.”  Note the subtle difference between the two verses.  Why was it necessary to add the last, seemingly redundant phrase, “Abraham begot Isaac?”  This addition must be of significance when you consider the myriad of commentaries on the subject.  The explanations for the repetitive language range from the simple - the added phrase is to reinforce the fact that Isaac is the son and rightful heir of Abraham - to the mystical - the relationship between love and kindness (attributes of Abraham) versus fear and strictness (attributes of Isaac).

“And Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea and his wife Rebecca conceived.”  Once again we find another patriarch with a wife who cannot conceive.  Of the four Matriarchs, only Leah had no problem bearing children.  Note that Isaac prayed for his wife to conceive, not that he should have a son.  Jews pray for others.  They pray for the community.  They do not pray for their own selfish ends.

Rebecca is having a difficult pregnancy and goes to a soothsayer to find out why.  The following response is critical if we are to understand the last part of the Sedrah. “…and the Lord answered her Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”  In other words, Rebecca knew while she was pregnant that she would give birth to twins and that the second born would supplant the first born.  Yet she never told Isaac.  We can only speculate as to why she kept this important bit of news to herself.

Esau and Jacob are born.  One is the hunter, the adventurer, the favorite of his father.  The other is a man of the tents, gentle, the favorite of his mother.  One can almost taste the rising family tensions.

“Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.”  These are the concluding words of the famous tale where the “famished” Esau sells the birthright to Jacob for a bowl of what is variously called red soup or lentil stew.

In the story Esau is portrayed as a person controlled by his appetites who does not know the real value of things.  After all, once his belly has been filled and he has avoided death by starvation, he does not try to regain the birthright.  He does not complain that he has been swindled.  “…He ate and drank and he rose and went away.”  You can almost hear the belch from his bloated gut.  From the text we can see that Jacob knows the value of the birthright.  The commentators defend Jacob’s action by saying that not only did he know the value of the birthright, he knew that Esau did not value the birthright and that it would have been dangerous to leave so valuable a thing with such an unworthy person.

A Summary of Isaac’s Life As An Adult (26:1-35)
Both literally and figuratively, Isaac follows in his father’s footsteps.  He travels across the southern portion of Palestine.  He digs and re-digs wells.  He experiences famine.  Unlike Abraham, Isaac does not go down into Egypt.  In fact, he is the only major Biblical figure from Abraham through Joshua who never lives outside of the Promised Land.  Like Abraham, when confronted by a powerful chieftain who covets his wife, Isaac uses the sister ruse with the same ultimate outcome of contrition and added wealth.  But the most important event in this section is the renewal of the Covenant.  God makes the same covenant with Isaac that he had made with Abraham (26:2-5).  God tells Isaac, “Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.”  In terms of attempts to modernize the Avot, please note that God is telling Isaac that He will fulfill the promise made to Abraham, not to Abraham and Sarah.  “I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands.…”  The terms are the same as the terms of the previous Covenant made with Abraham - numerous offspring and a defined piece of territory.  Why is God doing this?  For once the Torah provides answers.

First, “…so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs.”  Commentators interpret this to mean that there is a positive correlation between the well-being of the Israelites and the well-being of the rest of the world.  Second, God tells Isaac that he is renewing the Covenant “Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and observed …My commandments, My laws and My teachings.”  In other words, the son enjoys the fruits of his father’s virtue.

Isaac’s Blessing of Jacob and Esau (27:1-28-28:9)
The story of the Blessing is pretty straightforward so there is no need to repeat it here.  A literal reading of the text shows Rebecca, Isaac’s loving wife, devising and directing a scheme that exploits his weakness to ensure Jacob being the blessed son.  Jacob is portrayed as a reluctant participant.  When Jacob expresses his fear of being caught (he does not object on grounds that deceiving his blind father is wrong), Rebecca tells him not to worry.  If there is a curse it will be upon her not him (27:13).  The only justification for her behavior is that she is fulfilling the earlier prophecy, “One people shall be mightier than the other and the older shall serve the younger” (25:23).  Why she didn’t tell Isaac instead of deceiving him is a question for later discussion.

Speaking of questions, was Isaac really deceived by Rebecca’s elaborate ruse?  There is some evidence to think that he was not.  First, when Isaac realizes that he has been tricked, he tells Esau that there is nothing he can do to undo the blessing of Jacob.  Is Isaac saying that a criminal is entitled to gain from his illegal activity?  This flies in the face of all concepts of morality and justice.  And we already know from the Sodom story that justice is a value of paramount importance.  Furthermore, the next time Isaac and Jacob meet, Isaac does not castigate him.  As Isaac sends Jacob to Paddan-aram, he blesses him in words that echo the Covenant (28:4).  This is hardly the behavior of an angry father who feels that his wife and son have fooled him.  Some commentators contend that Isaac knew Esau was unworthy but could not bring himself to disinherit his favorite son.  So he took the easy way out and allowed himself to be deceived.  At the end of the Sedrah, Rebecca hears that Esau has promised to kill Jacob.  Fearing the worst, Rebecca decides that it is time for Jacob to leave home.  Once again she does not tell Isaac the truth.  She resorts to another ruse.  She tells Isaac that she does not want Jacob marrying a local woman.  And in the end we see Jacob on his way to Laban’s house.  Unbeknown to Rebecca, this is the last time she will see her Jacob, her favorite son.


Isaac - Many feel that Isaac is one of the most significant yet underrated characters in the Bible.  At the spiritual level, there can be no question of his worthiness.  God chose to repeat the Covenant with Isaac.  And there can be no greater level of approval than that which comes from Him.  At the temporal level, Isaac is also a worthy figure.  Without him, Judaism would have died.  If he had not followed in Abraham’s footsteps, Abraham’s discovery or rediscovery of God would have made no difference.  Nobody would have ever known about Him.  As Rabbi Steinsaltz points out, “all beginnings are difficult, but continuation can be even more difficult.”  Not only did Isaac learn from Abraham, but he also transmitted that knowledge to Jacob.  What would have happened if there had been no Isaac?  Consider the fate of Alexander the Great’s empire.  He conquered the world, but had no heir.  His empire crumbled as soon as he drew his last breath.  Without an heir, without an Isaac, there is no tomorrow.

Isaac appears to be a man who was “blind” in more than one way.  He was blind to the deficits of his favorite son, Esau.  He was blind to the virtues of Jacob.  Some say his blindness forced his wife to acts of deception.  Regardless, of his shortcomings, Isaac was the man who stayed the course.  The former head of General Motors said that the first key to success was just to show up every day.  If you are not there, you cannot make anything happen.  Isaac was the epitome of the man who was always there, always doing what needed being done.  Those who decry the impermanence of our modern world might just be able to learn a thing or two from steady Isaac.

Rebecca - Last week we saw her as a beautiful young woman, hospitable, decisive and morally resolute.  We left her as the loving bride of Isaac, providing him with emotional and spiritual sustenance in the wake of his mother’s death.  This week she is the mother capable of loving only one of her sons.  She apparently is incapable of communicating directly with her husband on issues of major importance.  Some say she loved Isaac too much to tell him things he could not handle.  Others say that she was in fact Laban’s sister and that trickery was in her nature.  Regardless, she chose to deceive her husband not once but twice.  Then wherein lies her greatness?  First, let’s remember all of the virtues listed above.  Secondly, whatever ruses she may have employed did not hurt Isaac nor did they enrich her.  Rather, they brought to fruition the words of God she had heard during her pregnancy.  Rebecca heard the voice of God and she did her best to obey it.  In the end she paid a price for her shortcomings.  One can imagine how Esau must have felt about her once he knew how she schemed to get Isaac’s blessing for Jacob.  And one can only imagine how sad she was to have spent the rest of her life without ever seeing her favorite child again.

Esau - Traditional commentators have come to demonize Esau, connecting all kinds of evil behavior to Isaac’s first born.  This almost smacks of rationalization in an attempt to justify the questionable methods under which Jacob acquired the Birthright and the Blessing.  Yes, Esau was a man of passion.  He was a physical person.  In selling the Birthright for a bowl of soup, he showed himself to be a man with limited values.  However he was not bad person.  He loved his father and his father loved him.  When his father wanted special food to eat, Esau did not hesitate.  He grabbed his gear and headed out immediately to meet his father’s request.  Later, we can see in his decision to marry one of Ishmael’s daughters a desire for parental approval.  Yes, he did threaten to kill his brother.  But we will see in a later Sedrah that Esau would forgive Jacob.  When they meet as adults, Esau greets Jacob with a warm embrace and gifts galore.  Whatever his shortcoming, Esau was every bit as much a Jew as Jacob was.  To some, Esau is a paradigm for the Fifth Son.  As such, they would say, our challenge is to draw the Esaus of the world back into the Jewish family; to harness their physical appetites with spiritual concepts and values.

Two Pivotal Quotes - “…and Esau spurned the birthright” (25:34) is the traditional translation for the last phrase in the tale of Esau swapping the birthright for a bowl of red liquid.  But the Hebrew word used here is “baz” which means to despise or to scorn.  So the phrase really should read “…and Esau despised the birthright.”  It was not just that Esau had no use for the birthright, he held it in contempt.  With this quote, the author is letting us know that Esau would not have continued the covenant because he could not have continued the covenant.  It is this quote that, at a human level, makes the sedrah comprehensible.  Esau was not rejected.  Esau did the rejecting.

“When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing.…” (27:34) is Esau’s pained response when he finds out that Jacob has stolen the blessing from him.  This quote has given rise to a commentary that I find appalling because it gives aid and comfort to those who later harmed us.  “Years later, our people will have to shed tears for what the descendants of Esau (the Edomites who helped destroy the First Temple and the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple) did to them, as retribution for the day Jacob made Esau cry.”  To say that the Jews are responsible for the destruction of the Temples and the Exile because of moral shortcomings is one thing.  To imply that our enemies are justified in what they are doing because we harmed their ancestor is quite another.  This leads to another point.  This whole business of equating Esau with Edom and Rome smacks of rationalization, self-justification and the demonization of Jacob’s brother.  The sages remind us that what we despise in others is often the shortcoming that really exists in ourselves.

Esau and Jacob Today - Just in case you need an extra reason for studying this, just pick up a copy of Faye Kellerman’s thriller, Stone Kiss.  In the midst of this snappy little murder mystery, starting on page 130, you will find the whole tale of Esau and Jacob complete with Rabbinic commentary.  In fact, part of the theme the story could be said to revolve around are the different facets of human nature represented by these two brothers.

Family - One of the constant themes in Jewish thought is the importance of the Jewish family.  So what kind of family is this that we have seen in Toldot?  It certainly is a Jewish family.  But is it a family worth bragging about?  Is it a dysfunctional family from which we can learn all kinds of lessons about the importance of open communication between parents and the pitfalls of parental favoritism?  Or is it merely a family like many families - a mixture of dysfunctionality and love showing us the depths and heights of human behavior?  Since learning begins with questions, I will leave it to you to supply your own answers.

“The first one emerged red” (25:25) - Esau’s complexion was red.  Red is a sign of bloodshed.  Esau’s propensity for shedding blood became part of Jewish tradition.  Esau’s ruddy complexion would become a problem for Samuel and David.  King David was also ruddy.  Samuel was fearful that he would be like Esau, an indiscriminate shedder of blood.  According to a Rabbinic tale, God assured Samuel that David would not become an indiscriminate taker of life.  With all due respect, David’s behavior is not always consistent with one who avoids the shedding of blood.

“You shall not … place a Stumbling Block before the Blind” (Lev.19:14) - The trickery of Rachel and Jacob certainly would appear to fall afoul of this commandment.  Beyond the plain statement of the text, the interpretation has been expanded to mean that you should not take advantage of somebody who is ignorant or lacking in relevant information, i.e., intellectually blind.  Maybe this should remind us that even patriarchs and matriarchs need laws and need to be bound by those laws.

“I do not know the day of my death” (Gen.27:2) - These words uttered by Isaac at the outset of this week’s portion gave rise to the following story.  A famous sage was seriously injured when he fell from his ladder.  Some of the local hooligans who were offended by the sage’s learning and piety thought that he would die and began drinking with joy.  When word reached the sage, who was by now recovered, he said, “I do not know the day of my death, but not only will they not drink wine, they will not even drink water.”  The sage proved to be a prophet.  He passed away on Tisha B’Av when Jews cannot eat or drink, not even water.  (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, of blessed memory)

And Esau said…let me swallow from this red stuff…And he ate, and drank and departed; and Esau despised the birthright” (Gen.26: 30; 34) - A group of young scholars stopped at tavern in a town in which they were strangers.  When they asked for a meal, the innkeeper told them that he had no dairy food.  But he could fix them a fine meat meal.  Immediately, the young scholars began to bombard their hosts with ever more detailed questions about the preparation of the meat meal.  What kind of animal was it?  Who was the schochet?  How sharp was the knife?  What kind of pots would be used?  There was another guest who was eating his meal.  He could not help but overhear the torrent of questions with which these self-important scholars were bombarding the simple innkeeper.  He called out to them, “My how impressive you are.  You show so much care about the preparation of what goes into your mouth.  But, do you show even half as much care in thinking about what comes out of your mouths?”  (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, of blessed memory)

An Etiological Explanation - Professor James Kugel suggests that the stories about the conflict between Esau and Jacob may have been used to explain the relations between the Edomites and the Israelites that existed from the time the Israelites were preparing to enter Canaan through the early days of the Davidic Monarchy.  Part of the clue comes from the fact that the two brothers are described as the progenitors of these two nations.  Edom was a southern neighbor of Israel.  Based on archaeological findings there were many similarities between the culture and the language of these two peoples.  These similarities become understandable if one sees the ancestors of the nations as being brothers and not just brothers, but twin brothers.  Edom was already an organized national entity when the Israelites were just a group of tribes seeking their own homeland.  This would be explained by a sibling relationship where the older brother develops ahead of the younger brother.  In the days of David and Solomon, Edom fell under the sway of the Israelite kingdom, a situation that would be borne out by the prophecy that the older should serve the younger.  Edom would later break away from the Israelite kingdom and re-establish its national identity following a pattern where an impecunious Jacob fled to the house of Laban while Esau remained in Canaan and prospered.  During the last days of the Second Commonwealth, oppressive Rome would be identified as a latter day Edom.  If Rome were Edom, the oppressed Israelites would take the lesson that just as Jacob used his brains to overcome the brawn of Esau, so might the weaker Judeans use their intellect to defeat the mighty military machine of Rome.

Weeping - According to Meir Shalev, this week’s Torah portion contains the second weeping in the Bible The first person to weep was Hagar, who when she had been cast out by Sarah and thought that she and Ishmael were going to die “sat opposite him...lifted up her voice and wept.”  Esau is the second person to weep.  When Esau came in from the fields and discovered that Isaac had given the blessing to Jacob, “he burst into wild and bitter sobbing” (27:34).  A few verses down, when Esau says to his father “Have you but one blessing, Father?  Bless me too!” his entreaties are followed by the simple statement “And Esau wept aloud.” (27:38).  If you envision Esau as a big, athletic fellow, you have to be moved at seeing him reduced to tears.  This is not the last time that Esau will weep.  When he and Jacob are reunited twenty years later the text says, “Esau ran to greet him.  He embraced him…he kissed him; and they wept.” (33:4)  When Esau was denied the birthright he wept alone.  When he was reunited with his brother and they had both made peace with the realities of their lives, they could weep together.

Merit Beats Birth Order - Primogeniture, the system by which the first born inherits the mantle of leadership must have been the norm of the society at the time of the Patriarchs.  Otherwise the story of Esau and Jacob would not have been necessary to explain the ascendency of the younger son.  Actually, based on Biblical evidence, merit trumped birth order over and over again.  Isaac, not first-born Ishmael, inherited Abraham’s mantle of leadership.  Ruben, the first born of Jacob, was supplanted by Judah because of the latter’s courageous behavior in dealing with Joseph when it appeared that Benjamin would become a prisoner.  Moses was the youngest child of Amram and Tziporah.  David was the youngest son of Jesse and Solomon was not David’s first-born.  Jacob is painted as the conman who cheated his brother and lied to his father to gain the birthright.  But maybe he deserves credit for realizing that his brother was not the man to lead the people and supplanted him for the sake of future generations.  For those who know the history of Europe and its dynastic wars, it is to Jacob’s credit that he found a bloodless way to supplant his brother.

Machar Chodesh
20: 18-42 First Samuel

The Book:  Samuel is the third book in Neviim (Prophets), following sequentially Joshua and Judges.  The Book (or books, since there is a first and second Samuel) begins with Samuel’s birth and ends with the last days of King David.  Samuel’s death is actually recorded in the first verse of Chapter 25 of First Samuel.  But such was the influence of the last leader of the Israelites who was not a King that the entire work bears his name.

The Men:  As you will see from the comments below, the reading involves three different men - Saul, Jonathan and David each of whom played a different role in the history of our people and each of whose lives teaches us different lessons.

Theme Link:  Usually the haftarah, the reading from the Prophetic portion of the TaNaCh, is linked to the weekly Torah portion.  However, there are some times during the year when the haftarah is tied to events on the calendar.  This is one of those times.  Whenever Rosh Chodesh falls on a Sunday, as it does this week, the preceding Shabbat is called Machar Chodesh.  Machar is the Hebrew word for “tomorrow.”  Chodesh is the Hebrew word for “month.”  Figuratively speaking, one might translate it as “tomorrow is the new month.”  The special haftarah for Machar Chodesh comes from the First Book of Samuel (20:18-42).  The first sentence of the haftarah reads “Jonathan said to him (meaning David):  “Tomorrow is the New Moon (Machar Chodesh) and you will be missed because your seat will be empty.”  David, with good reason, is afraid that King Saul is trying to kill him.  The haftarah tells of a plan that David works out with Jonathan, Saul’s son and David’s brother-in-law and best friend to find out what Saul’s intentions are.  And, if he does in fact desire the death of David, how they can help him escape?  Jonathan is one of the noblest characters in the entire pantheon of Jewish heroes.  He is a brave warrior, a devoted son, and a loyal friend.  He had to know that Saul was losing his grip.  But he never pulled away from his father.  He never turned his back on him.  In fact, he died in a battle that could not be won rather than leave his father.  At the same time, he maintained a friendship with David, even though he probably knew that the son of Jesse and not the son of Saul was destined to be the next King of Israel.  We spend a lot of time studying evil.  Under the guise of modern scholarship, we spend a lot of time finding flaws in biblical figures.  It is too bad that we do not spend more time studying Jonathan and his virtue.  After all, if you want to be good, wouldn’t it be more profitable to spend some time studying those who are good?  Unfortunately, as far as I know, the definitive study of Jonathan still waits to be written.

Torah Readings for Rosh Chodesh Kislev, Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rosh Chodesh Kislev
28:1-15 Bamidbar (Numbers)

This is the standard reading for each Rosh Chodesh.  Rosh Chodesh is the name of the minor holiday that marks the start of each month.  The term Rosh Chodesh is translated as New Moon.  The first day of the month is referred to as Rosh Chodesh because the months are lunar and the first day of each month comes with the start of the new moon.  In the days of the Temple special sacrifices were brought in honor of the new moon.  With the destruction of the Temple, the sacrificial system ended.  In place of the sacrifices, Jews read a description of the sacrificial offerings, which is described in the first fifteen verses of chapter 28 in the book of Numbers.  The Torah reading takes place during the daily morning service.  There are many Jews who have no desire to return to the sacrificial system.  They use these readings as a way of providing a connection with the past which is one of the keys to our future preservation.  Because of the Rosh Chodesh a shortened form of Hallel is recited.  Tefillin are worn until Mussaf or Additional Service.  Because of its connection with the moon, Rosh Chodesh is thought to have special meaning for women and should be used as a way of honoring Jewish wives.  There are those who use this as a gift-giving event for their spouses.  Alternatively, they give Tzedakah in honor of the women (wives, sisters, daughters, etc.) in their lives.

Kislev is the third month of the year counting from Rosh Hashanah and the ninth month counting from Pesach.  Kislev is most famous for the Chanukah celebration which starts on the 25th day of the month.  Kislev is part of the rainy season.  In Biblical times, if the winter rains had not begun to fall by Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the people expected draught for the following spring.  Since the ancients believed that there was a connection between climate and morality, this lack of rain by Kislev set off special fast days and additional sacrifices in the Temple.  As recorded in the tenth chapter of the Book of Ezra, Kislev, “the ninth month” was indeed the rainy month.  9 Then all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered themselves together unto Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month; and all the people sat in the broad place before the house of God, trembling because of this matter, and for the great rain.  10 And Ezra the priest stood up, and said unto them:  'Ye have broken faith, and have married foreign women, to increase the guilt of Israel.  11 Now therefore make confession unto the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do His pleasure; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the foreign women.'  12 Then all the congregation answered and said with a loud voice:  'As thou hast said, so it is for us to do.’  13 But the people are many, and it is a time of much rain, and we are not able to stand without, neither is this a work of one day or two; for we have greatly transgressed in this matter.”  At the risk of sounding like The Farmer’s Almanac, here is one more weather related item about Kislev.  The 15th of Kislev was considered to be the start of winter.

The 19th day of Kislev is celebrated as the "the New Year of Chassidus (Hasidism)."  “It was on this date, in the year 1798 that the founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 - 1812), was freed from his imprisonment in czarist Russia.  More than a personal liberation, this was a watershed event in the history of Chassidism, heralding a new era in the revelation of the “inner soul” of Torah.  The public dissemination of the teachings of Chassidism had in fact begun two generations earlier.  The founder of the chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698 - 1760), revealed to his disciples gleanings from the mystical soul of Torah which had previously been the sole province of select kabbalists in each generation.  This work was continued by the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, Rabbi DovBer, the “Maggid of Mezeritch” - who is also deeply connected with the date of “19 Kislev”:  on this day in 1772, 26 years before Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s release from prison, the Maggid returned his soul to his Maker.  Before his passing, he said to his disciple, Rabbi Schneur Zalman:  “This day is our yom tov (festival).”  Rabbi Schneur Zalman went much farther than his predecessors, bringing these teachings to broader segments of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.  More significantly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman founded the “Chabad” approach - a philosophy and system of study, meditation, and character refinement that made these abstract concepts rationally comprehensible and practically applicable in daily life.  In its formative years, the chassidic movement was the object of strong, and often venomous, opposition from establishment rabbis and laymen.  Even within the chassidic community, a number of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s contemporaries and colleagues felt that he had “gone too far” in tangibilizing and popularizing the hitherto hidden soul of Torah.  In the fall of 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested on charges that his teachings and activities threatened the imperial authority of the czar, and was imprisoned in an island fortress in the Neva River in Petersburg.  In his interrogations, he was compelled to present to the czar’s ministers the basic tenets of Judaism and explain various points of chassidic philosophy and practice.  After 53 days, he was exonerated of all charges and released.  Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw these events as a reflection of what was transpiring Above.  He regarded his arrest as but the earthly echo of a Heavenly indictment against his revelation of the most intimate secrets of the Torah.  And he saw his release as signifying his vindication in the Heavenly court.  Following his liberation on 19 Kislev, he redoubled his efforts, disseminating his teachings on a far broader scale, and with more detailed and “down-to-earth” explanations, than before.  The nineteenth of Kislev therefore marks the “birth” of Chassidism:  the point at which it was allowed to emerge from the womb of “mysticism” into the light of day, to grow and develop as an integral part of Torah and Jewish life.”

Modern Day Kislev Miracle - In modern time, some would consider the passage of UN Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947 (16th of Kislev, 5708) as the biggest Kislev miracle since Judah beat the Syrians.  This was the resolution that portioned the British Mandate of Palestine and created the Jewish state that is modern day Israel.  Considering the power and wealth of those opposed to the Jewish state, it was indeed a miracle that the vote went as it did.  One of the driving forces behind the vote was President Harry S. Truman who decided the United States would support the Jewish state because it was the right thing to do.

Kislev Commemorations

4th of Kislev:  In 346 BCE, a delegation of Babylonian Jews arrived in Jerusalem to ask the prophet Zechariah if the fast of Tisha B'Av should be discontinued (Zechariah ch. 7).  Tisha B'Av is a commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, and at the time, the Second Temple had just been constructed.  The answer, as recorded in the Talmud, is that if Israel remains under foreign control, then the fast remains - even if the Temple is built.  But if the Temple is built and Israel is self-governed, then the fast turns into a day of celebration.  In this case, since the Second Temple was eventually destroyed (also on Tisha B'Av, 420 years later), it is commemorated till today as a Jewish national day of mourning.  (AISH)

6th of Kislev:  Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” premiered.

7th of Kislev:  King Jehoiakim burned the scroll which had been dictated by the prophet Jeremiah to Barcuh ben Heriah.

7th of Kislev:  The Western Allies and the Germans signed an Armistice that signified the official end of World War I with an Allied victory.

17th of Kislev:  Japan bombs Pearl Harbor.

20th of Kislev:  Ezra called together all the men of Judah and Benjamin and told them that they would have to give up their foreign born wives.  This was part of an attempt by the returning exiles to purify and strengthen the House of Israel even though some might say that it altered the definition of “who was a Jew” as can be seen by the Book of Ruth which was written to portray a different point of view.

21st of Kislev:  According to the Talmud, Simeon the Just destroyed the Samaritan Temple at Mount Gerizim.  The Samaritans had undermined the efforts during the post-exilic period and this move was as much about establishing political sovereignty as it was about wiping out a “high place” intended to compete with Jerusalem.  The victory was marked by a minor festival called Mt. Gerizim Day.

24th of Kislev:  Completion of the foundation of the Second Temple.

Copyright; November, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin