Outside the tent or in — what would Matriarch Rebecca have said?

This past week I have been reflecting on something important. Is there a red line that propels someone beyond the pale and out of the tent if they cross it? It is a fundamental question for all of us, and particularly for a rabbi, whose job as a representative of Judaism is to be a benign and inclusive presence, so that as many Jews as possible can feel at home in a Jewish environment and more inclined to be faithful to their roots.

I was lucky enough in my teens and early twenties to spend a considerable amount of time with the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, whose twenty first yahrtzeit we observed a couple of weeks ago. No one epitomized the broad tent approach more than him. His genuine affection for every Jew – and indeed, every human being – was nothing short of breathtaking. One of the most remarkable aspects of his personality, and one that I always marveled at, was his desire and ability to remember people’s names, even many years after he had met them.

“Do you remember me?” people would invariably ask him. He would look at them for a moment, his face pensive. Then he would break into a smile. “Sure I remember you,” he would say, “you’re Moshe, and we met in Cleveland at a concert in 1981,” or something similar. He was almost always right. It was the mark of a man who loved people enough to make the effort not just to remember their names when he first met them and for that day, but to file their names away so that he might delight them by recalling it to them many years later.

In my own interactions with people over the years I have tried hard to emulate Reb Shlomo. His openness, his refusal to judge someone who didn’t share his views, his determination to ensure that everyone felt comfortable within a Jewish setting – these qualities have been my inspiration. But is there a point at which unconditional tolerance becomes self-defeating? I want to believe that no Jew should ever be rejected or excluded. After all, whatever they do, they are still part of the family. Or are they?

Take Gideon Levy, for example. Levy, born in Israel in 1953, is on the left edge of Israeli politics and writes a regular column for Haaretz. He considers himself to be an Israeli patriot forced to blow the whistle on his country’s ‘crimes’ against the Palestinians. Just as an example of what this means, in a recent article he decried the indifference of ordinary Israelis towards the killing of Arab knife murderers, whom he astoundingly refers to as brave and courageous. For Israelis, he writes, “the bleeding body [of a dead stabber] on the street is not the body of a person; it is, in the eyes of many, a carcass. But a few minutes earlier it was still a human being, with desires, feelings and dreams……how many Israelis even think about this?” Aside from the fact that this characterization is utterly preposterous, I find it incredibly ironic that he accuses Israelis of dehumanizing Arabs when it is the dehumanization of Jews that has resulted in knife-wielding Arabs seeing every Jew as a ‘Temple Mount defiler’ and a murder target, even if they are a 72-year-old woman or a 13-year-old boy.

But the greatest irony of this ‘patriot’ is his sympathy with BDS and wholehearted support for a ‘one-state solution’. Isaac Herzog, leader of Israel’s left wing opposition, is not a Levy fan. He recently wrote in Haaretz: “Levy…. wants the Jewish minority between the Jordan and the sea to be swallowed up by the Arab majority, so that after 67 years we turn the lights out on the state.”

So do we include Gideon Levy in our tent? Must we unquestioningly embrace him as a family member, despite his views? Let’s take a look the intriguing Bible narrative that describes Isaac’s blessings for some help. There is almost no story in the Torah that is more disconcerting and disturbing than the narrative describing Isaac’s blessings. At face value it appears as if the blind, helpless patriarch was duped by Jacob, with the help of Rebecca. Isaac had designated Esau as the recipient of the legacy blessings – the formal passing over of Abraham’s covenant with God to the next generation. But through a carefully orchestrated deception it is Jacob who gets the blessings, not Esau.

Does this understanding of the story make any sense? I think not. The most obvious flaw is that if Jacob was not meant to receive the blessings why didn’t Isaac simply revoke what he had done, and redirect them back to Esau? Instead, as soon as he discovers what has happened he confirms his blessing of Jacob. In other words, notwithstanding the subterfuge, Jacob would still inherit the mantle of Abraham, and Esau was out.

So what was really going on? The nineteenth century bible commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, offers an exquisite explanation. Isaac and Rebecca were engaged in a crucial debate about inclusion and exclusion. Isaac, only wanting to see the good side of Esau, felt that he had a role to play in Abraham’s legacy – as the ‘man of the field’ who would provide for Jacob. Rebecca disagreed. She had observed how Esau sold his birthright and then married idolaters. If he remained within, Abraham’s legacy was doomed. Only by demonstrating that it was possible for one person to embody both the ‘voice of Jacob’ and the ‘hands of Esau’ would Isaac understand his mistake.

Gideon Levy, by giving up his birthright and cavorting with idolaters, has demonstrated that he is outside the tent. He has lost the plot and joined the other team. Such a person, and anyone like him, can never be included in the tent, and it is our duty to ensure that they never are.


Vayishlach: You name it

Something very strange happens at the juncture of last week’s parsha (Vayetze) and this week’s (Vayishlach). In the last verse of Veyetze (Genesis 32:3), Jacob saw angels and said, “This is the camp of God” – and he named the place Machanayim, which means “two camps.”

Five verses later, Jacob is nervous in approaching his brother Esau’s well-armed party, and he fears his family and their entourage will be wiped out. So what does he do? He divides his family into two camps. 

Huh? Isn’t that backwards?

During the only moment in the Torah when someone divides his camp into two, it just happens to take place at “Two Camps?” Wouldn’t it make more sense for Jacob to divide his camp into two; and only then to dub the place Machanayim?

After I asked most every rabbi I know and searched tens of thousands of Hebrew books online, I can confidently say this puzzling quirk of the text has gotten very little attention among scholars. I could find only two attempts to explain the unusual timing of the naming of Machanayim: one by the Mittleler Rebbe(who led Chabad in the early 19th century); and one by Rabbi Shmuel Tuvia Stern, a 20th century American religious scholar.

The Mitteler Rebbe gave a Kabbalistic interpretation, explaining that one camp represented Tohu (chaos) and the other Tikkun (Repair). And Rabbi Stern suggested that each of the camps of angels in Vayetzeguarded one of the two camps in Jacob’s procession in Vayishlach.

Personally, I think the episode underscores the importance of naming things with care. There were periods in Jewish history when the name Ishmael was a popular name for boys – most famously the 2nd centuryTanna Rabbi Yishmael. Today, nobody in his right mind would name his son Ishmael – it would be like naming him Adolf. But in the contexts of various eras, names can have vastly different connotations: traditionally, Ishmael is said to have repented later in life, and is thus worthy of emulation as a hero to the people Israel. In  the opposite direction, notable Jews before the Holocaust included Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, and Adolph (later Harpo) Marx.

The Talmud (Yoma 83b) tells of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi traveling on a lengthy journey, when they stop at an inn. Rabbi Meir had a custom of checking the name of each innkeeper before agreeing to stay there. The other rabbis weren’t so inclined. At one lodging place they met the owner whose name was Kidor. Rabbi Meir concluded the innkeeper could not be trusted, since the name reminded him of a verse in Deuteronomy (32:30) that spoke of a wicked generation.

Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi did trust Kidor, and turned over their moneybags to him, while Rabbi Meir hid his in a graveyard. The next day, Kidor denied he ever had their belongings, and Rabbi Meir was able to tell his colleagues the Aramaic equivalent of “I told you so.”

Rabbi Chaim Vital (the chief disciple of Kabbalist par excellence Rabbi Isaac Luria) wrote in the 17thcentury that the name a baby’s parents give him at his bris is written in Heaven, because names don’t just come about by accident. God arranges to put the baby’s name in the mouths of his mother and father.

Clearly, in our tradition names affect our behavior – if not mystically, then by shaping the way we think and therefore act.

So Jacob’s splitting his group into two camps in a place already called Machanayim teaches us to be very attentive when we name something. Jacob encountered two camps of angels and called the placeMachanayim, and that name later became a key resource for himself when he had to get out of severe danger. I can imagine him thinking, “What am I going to do to escape Esau’s wrath?” and then being inspired by the name of the place he was in – which he himself had invented.

For Jews, in perilous times like these, the names we give our children and institutions may seem like minor details. But words create their own realities. Marketers think carefully, creatively, and extensively to choose precisely the perfect word or phrase for their products. As we design our own contributions to the Jewish and wider worlds, shouldn’t we do the same?

David Benkof constructs the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears weekly in the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Jacob’s stand: Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

Jacob returns to Canaan, where 20 years earlier he fled his brother Esau’s wrath after stealing his birthright. But time does not seem to have healed the wound. Esau comes to greet him with 400 men, an army. Apparently, he will fulfill his 20-year-old intention to kill Jacob.

Frightened for his life and the life of his family, Jacob sends seven sets of gifts to mollify Esau and prays to God for help. Camped on the Jabbok River, he divides his household so that some might survive the expected attack. 

Sensing that the danger is already upon him, he moves his family across the Jabbok in the dead of night. Left alone on the far bank, Jacob is suddenly accosted by the mysterious ish, the “man” who Jacob will later refer to by saying, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:31).

Jacob and the ish wrestle through the night. The man wrenches his hip, but Jacob forces the ish to bless him with a new name. Jacob becomes Israel, the God-wrestler.

What was Jacob doing alone on the bank of the Jabbok River? According to the commentators, Jacob was either making sure that nothing was left behind or acting like the captain of a ship, the last one to depart after the others are safe. I still remember that random day in the yeshiva when I read the dissenting opinion of the 12th century rabbi and grandson of Rashi, Shmuel ben Meir, the Rashbam: “Jacob was left alone … in order to flee a different route where he intended to avoid Esau. And a man (ish) wrestled with him so that he would not be able to flee …”

What? Jacob, the father of our people, was preparing to abandon his family and run? Is that possible? Unfortunately, it makes sense. Jacob fled twice before — once from Esau and once from Laban. He never stands his ground. 

In the apt words of Avivah Zornberg, Jacob is a “rear admiral.” Biblical names in Genesis refer to the essence of the person they describe. Jacob, Ya’akov in Hebrew, means “he will circumvent.” One step forward, two to the side. Jacob cleverly maneuvers to avoid the battles he would likely lose. He cleverly manipulates the world around him to acquire status and wealth.

But all this ends on that fateful night. The gifts, the prayers, the strategic placement of his household — it all comes to naught as Esau’s army approaches. Jacob thinks he is about to die, so he tries one last maneuver. He moves his family south across the Jabbok River, placing them between himself and Esau, who rides from Edom (below the Dead Sea). Why? Because he is preparing to run north, back from where he came. At this precise moment the ish attacks.

The stories in the book of Genesis are famously terse. Every detail is there for a reason; every word counts. Running again, Jacob? Not this time. The ish goes for the hip. Jacob never runs again. The Rashbam surely gets it right.

What is the purpose of this strange wrestling match?

Jacob is in the very situation he has tried to avoid his entire life. He is defenseless before the superior force of his brother and, presumably, the ish. Could a divine being not defeat Jacob? But like a big brother, (indeed, some suggest the ish is Esau himself), the ish gives Jacob just the right amount of fight to let him find his strength and his courage. 

Jacob doesn’t need another clever idea. He needs to find his inner strength and resolve. This is a story about male spirituality, one that many women will find compelling as well. Jacob comes into his own when he learns that he can fight.

The Hebrew word used to describe Jacob’s success against the ish, vatoochal (Genesis 32:29), is usually rendered as “prevailed.” The literal translation: “You are able.” The ish gives Jacob the fight he needs to discover his own abilities.

Then he gives Jacob the name that will define the essence of the Jewish People. Yisrael, God-wrestler. Another interpretation: read the same letters with different vowels and you get Yashar-El, “the straight one of God.” The circumventer has become the straight one: the honest, the able — the authentic — man of God.

The next morning, Jacob starts out as Ya’akov. When Esau approaches with his army, Jacob again puts his family in harm’s way, between himself and Esau. The rear admiral, once again. But then, Yashar-El takes over. “He himself went on ahead” (Genesis 33:3). Jacob takes his stand between his family and his brother. 

The conflict with Esau ends here and now. Defenseless, with courage and resolve, straight as an arrow, Jacob limps toward his brother.

Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (torahtrek.org) and the author of “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism” and “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” (Jewish Lights Publishing, makingprayerreal.com).

Be who you are

One of my favorite times of each week is when we bless our children during Shabbat dinner.

Each week, in the liminal moment between kiddush and motzi, between sanctifying the day and thanking God for the food we are about to enjoy, we stop, as many Jewish families do, and offer our children a blessing, a personal prayer directed solely at them, a tradition that stems from this week’s parsha, Vayechi.

If you don’t already do this each week, I strongly encourage it as a wonderful family moment. And if you don’t have children, bless your spouse, your friends, yourself. In our family, we say the prayer by Marcia Falk for our son and daughter, using the appropriate Hebrew grammar for each. The male version is: “Heye asher tiheeye, v’heye baruch ba’asher teheeye [Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are].” After saying that for each child, we then say the traditional priestly blessing. I think that this form of the blessing speaks directly to the scenario we find this week between Joseph and Jacob in the moment where the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe occurs.

We are at the end of Genesis, the sun setting on the familial component of our Torah as we are about to turn the page toward slavery and nationhood. Jacob is dying and the Talmud, in Bava Metzia 87a, says that this is the first person in the Torah to be described as “ill” before death. Jacob is aware that his end is near and is seeking to bless his children and grandchildren, to offer them words of wisdom, to perhaps correct some of his past mistakes in these final moments of life. However, burdened by the past and operating with the strong rabbinic notion of “the actions of our ancestors are a sign to the next generation,” in the final moment of blessing with his grandchildren, Jacob continues the painful tradition of raising the younger child over the older, a tradition that we have seen in each previous generation, a tradition that Jacob himself, with great cunning and deception, participated in against his brother, Esau.

The scene between Joseph and Jacob in Vayechi is wrought with emotion, depth of character and moving words, as the old and seemingly blind Jacob (remember Isaac?) begins his final blessings for his family with his grandchildren. However, rather than starting the next generation fresh with a positive start, Jacob passes on a tradition that has brought pain to the previous two generations. Seeing this, and in a moment of courage and deep insight that reveals Joseph to truly be the “the righteous man” that the rabbis attribute him to be, Joseph tries to stop his father when he sees him crossing his hands from the older to the younger. Joseph says, “Not so father,” but Jacob, after coming so far and seeing so much, is unable to reverse this trend. Yet, he seems to know something, as he says, in dramatic fashion, “I know my son, I know,” but this knowledge doesn’t lead to action. We are left to think about what this scene means. What does Jacob “know”?

While the traditional commentators all see this moment as a positive one, carrying forth the tradition that sacrificed our biblical families in the name of historical transmission of God’s blessing, I want to offer a different thought based on the alternative blessing that we offer our own children.

When we say, “be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are,” I believe that we are seeking to empower our children to be as God was to Moshe, “Eheye asher eheye [I will be that which I will be].”

We pray that our children develop in each moment according to their strengths and talents; that they grow, discover and evolve the gifts of their individual souls. Blessing our children is so powerful, so rich in emotional history, that we ought to allow them the freedom to become the people they will be rather than pigeonhole them into fulfilling our ideals as parents or the roles that our family history might have proscribed.

Joseph was attempting to change a family pattern that had caused so much pain, and while he wasn’t fully successful, his awareness of the pattern should be a great lesson to us. And the blessing that Jacob offers, “The angel that has delivered me from all harm, bless these lads,” should be seen as a hope that the greater angels of our life, the angels that encourage us to grow, develop and become who we are, should be the very blessing we offer our children.

I believe that God is constantly evolving, constantly becoming, and so should we. We each deserve to become the unique and holy being that God brought us into the world to be. Let us bless our children each Shabbat to grow into this great opportunity, thereby keeping the wise and righteous spirit of Joseph alive today.

Shabbat shalom.

Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (www.pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.

Them vs. Us

Was it Mort Sahl who said, “Just because I’m a paranoid, doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get me”?

In this week’s parsha, the narrative begins with the drama of Yaakov and his tender flock — two wives, two quasi-wives, 11 sons, a daughter — preparing to meet with an oncoming army, imposingly headed by his anything-but-fraternal “twin” brother, Esav. Yaakov fears the worst, and even as he prays to Hashem for protection and sends gifts to appease Esav, he prepares for war. The brothers meet ultimately, and Esav “ran to greet him, and hugged him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Genesis 33:4).

Rashi, the paramount medieval commentator, notes the two midrashic traditions that discuss what actually happened during “The Kiss.” Because the Torah text is unusually punctuated, with six extraneous dots marking the word va-yishakehu (“and he kissed him”), the rabbis analyzed what happened.

One midrashic opinion is that the kiss was insincere — that Esav actually tried to bite Yaakov’s throat out after deceptively inducing his brother to relax his defenses. The other opinion is that after 20 years driven by relentless hate, Esav laid eyes on his brother, and it all came to him at once: He is my brother, for God’s sake, my brother. And he kissed him with all his love.

For many, that midrashic discussion historically has served as the narrative’s denouement and the ultimate launching pad for distrusting non-Jews, all of them. According to the opinion that Esav tried to bite the neck, not to kiss it, that animus reflects an immutable law of nature, comparable to gravity, only with metaphor attached: “It is a known law that Esav hates Yaakov.”

Metaphorically interpreted: All non-Jews are out to get us.

I was taught that law as a child being schooled in Brooklyn. They all are out to get us.

As for the second interpretation, which bears equal weight in the original midrashic discussion — that Esav kissed his brother lovingly — well, it never was taught to us as kids. We did not even have to know it for the test. I only discovered it years later, when on my initiative I looked at the original source discussion.

Certainly, ours is a history of being targeted by “them” for no reason other than our being “us.” The Christian, en route to liberate the Holy Land from the infidel Muslim Saracens, stopped along watering holes throughout Europe to massacre whole Jewish bystander communities.

Three centuries later, as a bubonic plague took hold throughout Europe, insane justification somehow was found to murder one-third of our people. Three centuries later, Bogdan Chmielnitzki and the Cossack massacres. Three centuries later, Hitler, the Nazis and their European confederates. Not to mention the Inquisition in Spain, the expulsions from lands as gentle as France and England, the persecutions of Mashad, the mellahs of Morocco and the ghettos of Italy and the June 1941 Iraqi Shavuot pogrom after the fall of the Golden Square.

So many times we got caught in the crossfire of other people, insane and crazy with one or another agenda of hate, who stopped by along the way to target us, too. As recently as Mumbai, where goons and thugs fighting over the Pakistan-India Kashmir dispute chose to perpetrate horrific evils against targeted Jewish bystanders while on a murder spree, we have been caught or targeted in their crossfire.

It is easy to see how persuasive the “known law of nature” seems to be: They all are out to get us. Just look at history. All of them are out to get us.

Only, that is not all of our history. From Righteous Gentiles who genuinely risked and sometimes gave their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust to centuries and millennia of next door neighbors who lent us milk or sugar or watered our plants and picked up our mail (yes, an anachronism) when we went on vacation, to non-Jewish employers who hired us and non-Jewish teachers who helped us learn to read and to count, a second law also exists: No, they are not all out to get us.

And despite this country’s shameful moments — Peter Stuyvesant’s governance, Ulysses Grant’s General Order No. 11, the Leo Frank lynching, the 1928 Massena Blood Libel, the years of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford and the 1991 Crown Heights Riots — we have flourished and built Torah institutions, gained huge support for Israel, including financial and military backing and the right to hold dual citizenship with her, and have been able to play a role in every aspect of this land’s culture and enterprise and civilization. We assuredly owe it to our kids to teach them that, no, all of them are not out to get us.

And because the playing field at this time and place in our history is essentially level, it is incumbent on us to conduct our affairs honestly and ethically and to expect and demand the same from those business enterprises that operate in our community or — even if they are out in the sticks of the Corn Belt — that operate to serve our community.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, a Modern Orthodox shul in Irvine. His Web site is www.rabbidov.com.

Own your problems

Jacob’s route, as he returns from his uncle’s home in the land of Haran to his parent’s home in the land of Canaan, does not take him anywhere near the territory of Esau. His brother has already moved his growing tribe to the land of Edom, well to the south of anywhere Jacob would be passing.

So why in the world does Jacob send messengers ahead to Esau? Why does Jacob alert Esau that he is returning? The Midrash ascribes the following blunt words to God, “Esau had gone his way, and you sent for him?”

There is another potentially puzzling feature about Jacob’s behavior here as well. When Jacob’s messengers return from having spoken with Esau, they report that Esau has set out to greet Jacob with a company of 400 men. Although by habit we assume Esau’s mood to be vengeful and his intentions to be hostile, the commentator Rashbam — Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, a student and grandson of Rashi — insists that the Torah’s words here do not connote this at all. To the contrary, he points out that the phrase the Torah uses to describe Esau’s intention, yotze likrtecha, connotes going out to extend honor to someone. This is clearly the meaning of this phrase when it is used in Exodus, for example, to describe Aaron’s going out to greet Moses.

Rashbam’s reading actually receives substantial support as the Torah reading continues, and Esau embraces Jacob, and speaks not a harsh word to him at all. Assuming Rashbam’s reading for the moment then, we must ask ourselves why it was that Jacob reacted to his messengers’ report about Esau and his 400 men with such alarm. “And Jacob became very afraid and distressed,” and proceeded to prepare for Esau’s attack upon his family (Genesis 32:8). Why did he not accept his messengers’ portrayal of Esau’s actions?

The answers to both of these questions emerge from a proper understanding of what has happened to Jacob during these last 20 years since he left home. The Jacob we knew in his parents’ home was a man who was well intentioned, obedient, and “simple” (someone who generally responded to events rather than initiating them). Yet there were certain moments at which these very qualities led him into ethically compromised positions. In purchasing Esau’s birthright, Jacob acted (I am completely willing to grant) in the best interests of his grandfather, Abraham, and the legacy of spiritual greatness that Abraham’s heirs were commanded to bear and carry forward. Yet, as the medieval commentator Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) states, “and nonetheless Jacob was later chastised for this, for he had acted against minhag ha’olam, the accepted norms of appropriate behavior.” Similarly, Jacob was a most reluctant participant in his stealth acquisition of the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau. He entered Isaac’s room disguised as Esau only because his mother, Rebecca, commanded him to do so. Reluctant as he was though, he wound up looking into his father’s sightless eyes, and declaring, “I am Esau your firstborn.” The Jacob who fled his parents’ home was a good man who had stumbled into a pair of ethical lapses.

But in the home of his Uncle Laban, Jacob came to raise expectations of himself. Jacob recoiled from this new environment in which deceit was the modus operandi, and honesty was synonymous with naiveté. Seeing and repeatedly falling victim to routine violations of ethical norms, Jacob responded by committing himself to excellence. He would have no tolerance for even the hint of dishonesty in himself and very legitimately saw himself as a model of uprightness and virtue. When Laban later accused Jacob of stealing and making off with his gods, Jacob powerfully and eloquently defended his own character. He reminds Laban that over the course of the 20 long years he served as Laban’s shepherd, he consistently accepted financial responsibility, even for losses that are never usually regarded as being the shepherd’s fault. “Those beasts which were torn, I never brought to you. I bore the loss of it.” Over the course of the 20 long years, even when weather conditions were such that shepherds would ordinarily place their own welfare over that of the sheep, Jacob never ever neglected his solemn commitment. While Laban was repeatedly finagling with Jacob and with his remuneration, Jacob had indeed established himself as a model of impeccable ethical behavior.

Which brings us back to where we began. Jacob, as he approaches Canaan, is not merely approaching a geographical place. He is approaching the beginning of his destiny, the starting point of his career as patriarch. But he realizes that he cannot uphold his hard-won identity as someone who is upright and beyond ethical reproach as long as his record is blemished by his history with Esau.

Jacob did have to notify Esau of his imminent return to Canaan. He needed to notify him. “And I have sent my messengers to you, so that I might find favor in your eyes” (Genesis 32:4).

And as Jacob anticipates the return of his messengers, we can imagine him replaying the episodes of the birthright and the blessing over and over again in his mind’s eye, growing ever more filled with regret, as they are so strikingly inconsistent with his current understanding of himself and his principles. It is no wonder then that he reacts with alarm to the report of Esau and the 400 men “coming to greet him.” Jacob had already convinced himself that Esau had every right to be angry.

The story, of course, turns out to be one of reconciliation and not hostility. But the overarching lesson of the story is the one that played out in Jacob’s mind and soul. The way up in life is to firmly commit ourselves to a self-identity of spiritual and moral excellence, and then to demand that we actually live the self-image we have created. It is true that our past errors will become magnified as a result, and our conscience will not remain silent. But this too is part of the way up.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.


In Parshat Toldot, Jacob and Esau are born. Even though they are twins, they are opposites: Jacob is the quiet, studious type, while Esau is a hunter who loves to be out in the world. The world used to think of Jews as being just quiet and studious, but when Israel became a state the Jews there developed one of the strongest armies in the world.

Don’t let yourself be given a label – you can be an American, a Jew, an intellectual and a fighter, all at the same time.

There are many American Jews who became war heroes, too, don’t forget to honor them this Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

Write a story, song or poem about: My Happiest Jewish Memory. Send your entry by Dec. 31, to Jews for Judaism, 9911 Pico Blvd., No. 1240, Los Angeles, CA 90035. Go to www.jewsforjudaism.com for an entry form.

Mail your cartoons, drawings, puzzles, etc. to The Jewish Journal, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010. E-mail your written answers to our contests, or your jokes, riddles, poems, etc., to kids@jewishjournal.com. Make sure you write your name and address in your e-mail. See you next time!

Torah Portion

Pity Esau. One moment of weakness, one moment ofimpulse, and his birthright is gone. He goes out to fulfill hisfather’s dying wish for a savory meal of game, and while he’s outhunting, his mother and brother conspire and rob him of his blessing.Returning to his father with the feast, expecting at last to gain hisdue position as head of the clan, he is met with his father’s emptyexcuses. And so Esau cries: “Have you but one blessing, Father? Blessme too, Father!” And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:38). Tears ofbetrayal, of pain, of rage, of broken dreams.

Two brothers. One blessing. But who told FatherIsaac that he had but one blessing to bestow upon his sons? Who toldhim that blessings must be hierarchical — setting one brother overthe other, declaring one the victor and the other a loser? Why can’the see where this leads? Has he no sense of the bitterness andturmoil that will come of this? Is his spiritual imagination so smallthat he cannot find a unique blessing for each of his sons? Is thisthe blindness that afflicts him?

Two brothers, one blessing. This is the darkunderside of Genesis. Cain murders Abel. Abraham must separate fromhis brother’s son, Lot, because there can be no peace between them.Ishmael is cast out of the family to make room for Isaac. Jacobdeceives his blind father and steals his brother Esau’s blessing.Joseph’s brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery. Beneath theenchanting tales of Genesis, the charming Bible stories we love toread to our children, lies this legacy of hatred, rage, estrangement,murder and pain.

More than the stories of our dysfunctional family,Genesis is an alarm — a plea, a warning — against the humanpropensity to think in binary terms: Us/Them. Our People/ThosePeople. The Good Brother/The Evil Brother. The Children of Light/TheChildren of Darkness. This calculation always yields the sameproduct: The Other. Who is The Other? We call him by many names, buthe is always the same. Cast out for his unrighteousness. Undeservingof blessing. Evil. Dark. Alien. Excluded. Estranged.

Why do we human beings need The Other? Whatemptiness within our soul does it fulfill? What comfort does it giveus to identify, to isolate, to castigate, to scorn The Other?Politicians love him. Demagogues thrive on him, for there is noeasier way to the heart of a people than through our fear, ourdisgust, our rejection of The Other. Just listen to theirrhetoric.

But remember Genesis. Who is The Other? He is ourbrother. Ignore him and watch as his rage consumes everything we holddear. We will never have peace, and we will never be whole until wemeet him and make peace with him. Be careful. His rage is potent. Butif we have the courage to confront him, to meet and embrace him, wewill find him ready to receive us.

“Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by400 men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the twomaids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and herchildren next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on aheadand bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near hisbrother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, falling on his neck,he kissed him, and they wept (Genesis 33:1-4).

Again, Esau weeps. But this time, different tears.For the years consumed and wasted in rage, hatred, bitterness andfear. For the brokenness endured until each brother realized that hecould have his own, unique blessing. And for the generations of theirchildren who will yet live by dividing — believing in theirblindness that there is only one blessing. For those who have yet tolearn the ultimate lesson of Genesis.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

All rights reserved by author.

Joseph is drawn from the pit.

Photo from “The Jewish People: A PictorialHistory.”

Read a past week’s torah portion!

ParashatVa-Yeze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

Shabbat Thanksgiving

Parashat Chaye Sarah (Genesis23:1-25:18)

Parashat Va-Yera(Genesis 18:1-22:24)

Parashat LechLecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

ParashatNoah (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

Bereshit,Genesis 1:1-6:8