Family problems? Turn to Genesis


If you have family problems, there is a book that can provide a good deal of consolation. That book, you might be surprised to learn, is the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah.

Genesis makes it abundantly clear that you are not alone, that what we now call dysfunctional families are the norm, not the exception. Every family in that biblical book is deeply troubled. 

Let’s begin with the first family, that of Adam and Eve. Adam defends (to God, no less) his eating from the forbidden tree by blaming his wife: “The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Adam blaming his spouse for being kicked out of the Garden of Eden would be bad enough. But things get worse: One of their two sons, Cain, kills the other, Abel.

The next family is that of Noah, the one righteous man of his generation. After leaving the ark, the youngest of his three sons, Ham, does something very wrong to him while Noah is in a drunken stupor: He “saw the nakedness of his father.  … And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him.”

The next family is that of Abraham. His marriage to Sarah is fraught with tension, especially after the birth of his two children, Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah had given her servant, Hagar, to Abraham to impregnate so as to give Sarah a child. After Hagar became pregnant, “she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai [Sarah’s original name] tells Abraham, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.”

So Sarah finally demands that Abraham eject Hagar and Ishmael from their home, and “the matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.” 

Finally, after Abraham attempts to sacrifice Isaac, his son with Sarah, he and his wife separate forever. This was pointed out to me by a prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbi, the late Pinchas Peli.

He was right. After nearly sacrificing Isaac, “Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.”

Just five verses later, Genesis informs us that Sarah “died at Kiriath Arba — that is, Hebron — in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.”

In other words, Abraham and Sarah went to live in separate cities and never spoke to one another again.

The next family is Isaac’s. He and his wife, Rebecca, were deeply upset by their older son Esau’s choice of two Hittite wives: “They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.”

Then, in old age, Rebecca and the younger twin, Jacob, plot to trick the now-blind Isaac into giving the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob rather than to Esau. When Esau learns of the deception, Esau said to himself, “I will kill my brother Jacob.”

Later on, Jacob is tricked by his uncle Laban into marrying Laban’s older daughter Leah, rather than Rachel, the younger daughter for whom Jacob had worked seven years. Laban forces Jacob into working for him another seven years in order to marry Rachel.

After Leah repeatedly gives birth, tension builds between Jacob and Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”

Finally Rachel gives birth to Joseph, but that only creates a terrible rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, because their father, Jacob, “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons.”

The brothers plot to kill Joseph, but instead decide to sell him as a slave and then tell their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Upon seeing the bloodied robe, Jacob became inconsolable: “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” 

Why does Genesis portray every one of its families as dysfunctional? 

First, because they were. The Hebrew Bible is painfully honest about the Jews generally and about the heroes of the Jewish people specifically — the patriarchs, the matriarchs and later about Moses, Aaron, King David, etc.  (This self-critical honesty — unique among the world’s religious texts — is a primary reason I believe in the veracity of the Torah.)

Second, to show us that even great men and women have family problems.

And third, to make it clear that family pain and tragedy are the human norm, not the exception.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Measure for measure: Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)


There are a good many details about the Joseph narratives that elude ready explanation. We absorb them readily and ignore them just as readily. What bearing do they have on Joseph or his brothers? They seem of no connection with the past or with the future. It is fair to claim all this as chance and happenstance. But to be sure, we must, like the good detective of legend, examine the evidence. 

Let us begin at a familiar point. The brothers have stripped Joseph of his dignity and his “coat of many colors.” He is dumped down the shaft of a dry well. Meanwhile, as he lies alone and bloodied in the dark, a caravan of Ishmaelites arrive, “their camels carrying balm, balsam and labdanum, heading down toward Egypt” (Genesis 37:25). The merchants’ destination is quite significant, for it is to there that Joseph shall soon descend. But of what import is the merchandise? Perfumes and fragrances are neither here nor there.

Next, the brothers sell “Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver” (Genesis 37:28). The sale of a human being is a heinous crime. It is neither mitigated nor magnified with a brief statement about currency and price! Why even mention these “pieces of silver”?

Finally, to conceal their wicked sin, the brothers “took Joseph’s coat, slew a hairy goat and then dipped the coat in its blood” (Genesis 37:31). Naturally, the blood is needed to deceive Jacob, who at the sight of the tattered, blood-soaked coat assumes the worst: “Joseph is torn to pieces by a wild beast” (Genesis 37:33). Still, why mention the goat, and why especially a hairy goat? 

With these facts before us, we proceed. To begin, the goat seems to have little connection with the particulars of Joseph’s life, but Jacob’s life seems to revolve around them. It was Jacob who sent 220 goats to his brother as a guilt offering to assuage the latter’s wrath (Genesis 32:15). It was Jacob who spent a good 20 years being swindled out of things, like spotted and speckled goats, by his father-in-law, Lavan. And most important, it was Jacob who deceived his father, Isaac, with goat meat and goatskins. Disguised as (hairy) Esau, wearing his goatskins and bearing a tray of goat meat, Jacob steals Esau’s blessings (Genesis 27:9-16). It is poetic justice, then, that his children in turn deceive Jacob through a slain goat. 

As to Joseph, it is possible that his beloved coat was woven of goat’s hair. Luxury fabrics like cashmere and mohair are woven from goat sheerings. In the wilderness, the fabric was used in the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:4). Perhaps it is doubly ironic that the beautiful coat, which expressed Jacob’s profound love for Joseph, is used to bring about Jacob’s greatest sorrow, through its being submerged in, of all things, the blood of a hairy goat. 

If this is Jacob’s due for his past crimes, what punishment awaits the brothers? It is here that we find two details that would, at first glance, seem happenstance if it were not for our earlier investigations. The setting is Egypt, Joseph is viceroy, and in the 20 years since his brothers last saw him, he has become a new man, disguised beyond recognition. Joseph interrogates his brothers, accuses them of espionage and incarcerates Simeon. He then offers them a deal to prove their innocence: “bring Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son.” 

On their way, the brothers notice something odd. Joseph has returned their pieces of silver. They “see silver in the mouth of the pack” (Genesis 42:28). Once more they must return to their father, minus a son, with a sack full of silver coins, and the heavy stench of guilt. “What is this that God has done to us?”

When they finally convince Jacob to relinquish Benjamin, so they can return to Egypt and buy food, Jacob offers some advice. Bring the man (Joseph) a gift: “a little balsam, a little honey, balm and labdanum, pistachio nuts and almonds … and as for your brother, take him, too” (Genesis 43:11-13).

Such delicious irony: The same fragrant smells that accompanied Joseph the slave on his descent to Egypt now accompanies the brothers as they descend to Egypt. This time the brothers accompany Benjamin, anxious at every step. Will he vanish like Joseph, like Simeon? Perhaps this viceroy will keep all of them as slaves? 

Such is biblical justice, measure for measure, an eye for an eye. “Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” as Abraham Lincoln put it. But such a world is not half as cruel as one of happenstance. A world where, to quote William Shakespeare, “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”


Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.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).

Never alone: Parashat Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)


In this week’s parasha, Yaakov flees for his life, departing from Beersheva back to Charan — back to the beginning. How optimistic it had been when Avraham came to Israel two generations earlier, abandoning Charan presumably forever (Genesis 11:32-12:6). Avraham “went, took and passed.” He was journeying to a grand destiny on blessed land, where God promised he would become a great nation, blessed with wealth, with a name made great and famous.

Not so here. Vayetzei — not with a bang but with panic, Yaakov is leaving. The Promise seems to be collapsing on his watch. Grandfather Avraham arrived with anticipation. Yaakov’s father, Yitzchak, never set foot outside the Land. Yet, Yaakov’s inheritance now seems to be rupturing. Ostensibly breaking faith with the Land, he faces a Lost Journey, returning to Charan, where it all began. 

There is perhaps nothing more frustrating in life than progressing and expanding, only to be compelled to return to square one. If you have ever composed an important text on a computer only to have it crash before you could save the document, then you know the immense frustration of having to return to square one. 

Indeed, after the Sin of the Spies, when Hashem will condemn that generation’s men to wander through Sinai for 40 years, the first directive that “brings home” the enormity of the punishment is God’s command to the Jewish Nation about to enter Israel: “Tomorrow, turn [completely around] and travel back toward the desert [all the way back] toward the direction of the Sea of Reeds” (Numbers 14:25). It’s the deflation of having come so far, only to be directed now to go all the way back, to start over. 

And now Yaakov seemingly reverses Judaism’s expansion. Escaping desperately from an enraged brother sworn to murder him, he would be isolated, without smartphone or iPad, Skype or e-mail — not even a phone booth — unable to communicate with home. Can we fully grasp the loneliness of this long-distance runner who has not yet emerged as a giant of history or a Patriarch for the Ages, but instead is unmarried, with no family or ally at his side, condemned to be a fugitive? 

From our spectator seats, we enjoy the comfort of dramatic irony: we know what will unfold. But Yaakov is the actor in the play. Have we ever paused to appreciate how unbearably lost he must have felt?

The rest of the parasha gives us some comfort. He will end up at the well where Rachel quenches her father’s sheep. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Lavan’s daughter is there to lead him to his assigned destination and his life’s destiny.

This is how God conducts human affairs, including our own. We plan and prepare, choosing from among colleges and grad schools, opting for trades or professions. We attend singles’ programs, surf through dating Web sites, and we network. We analyze Dow Jones averages, evaluate financial trends, consult experts and plan accordingly. We read opinion pages, hotly debate candidates and vote based on pundits’ recommendations. We invest, consult, plan for retirement and set aside for rainy days.

There is some value in our efforts, and we are bidden to pursue the derech hateva (natural course) during our life’s journeys. Even so, we learn repeatedly that the journey often unfolds very differently from the way we plan. The son does not want to pursue the business his father built for him. A safely squirreled retirement fund blows up, whether because of an investment adviser’s failed Ponzi scheme or because the one corporation that never could go broke did. Our lives twist and turn, and sometimes — having sat very comfortably for years and having nestled ourselves securely atop a perfectly crafted sanctuary — some of us plummet down the side of Don Draper’s Madison Avenue building, feeling abandoned. It happens to more of us than anyone might think. One way or another, it happens to all of us.

And thus it is that God sends that dream to Yaakov in exile, that enormous M.C. Escher-like image of His emissaries ascending and descending the ladder that stretches from earth to His heavens. Yaakov grasps the message: he is not alone. Through angelic emissaries, Hashem has been accompanying Yaakov and will continue escorting him through Exile for the next 22 years until his return (Rashi on Genesis 38:34). God is always with him, always directing a greater, deeper plan. 

For each and every one of us, too, His plan and the reasons behind events we encounter are more complex than we imagine. Through setbacks and tribulations, not less than during the many “good” times, we can remain assured that He is with each of us, always. We are not alone.


Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

Balance between: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)


Readers long have been challenged by the blatant contradictions between the first two chapters of Genesis. In chapter 1, the creation of animals precedes people; in chapter 2, the order is reversed. In chapter 1, a single, androgynous Adam came into being; in chapter 2, Adam and Eve.

More interesting is that the two chapters show different concerns about the human condition, which modern biblical scholars attribute to different schools of (human) authorship. Chapter 2 is from J, the Yahwist writers. It begins, “When the Lord God made earth and heaven — no shrub of the field being yet in the earth and no grains having yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil” (Genesis 2:4-5, JPS translation). J explores the origins of farming! The older of the two chapters, J’s account of creation reflects the agricultural vocation of most Israelites in the early days of the nation, and the outstanding, existential problem of the time: avoiding starvation.

Adam in chapter 2 is concerned primarily with his relationships — with God, the land and the creatures. God is the loving parent, and when Adam’s need for companionship cannot be met by the animals, Eve is created. His mission as a farmer is “to work and to protect” the land on which he depends (Genesis 2:15). 

Written later (during the Israelite monarchy), chapter 1 reflects the concerns and values of the Priests. The P writers were men of learning whose lives intertwined with the urban, merchant class. Fluent in the languages and traditions of the surrounding nations, their concern is nothing less than the place of Israel in the cosmos, and they begin with the creation of the world. Their narrative reshapes a well-known myth of the ancient Near East into a revolutionary account that reinforces Israelite distinctiveness by recognizing the one God as Creator rather than created.

P’s narrative is philosophical in style, making order out of chaos through ever-finer distinctions. Unlike chapter 2, it is hierarchal. Just as the priests serve as intermediaries below God and above the other Israelites, human beings are the intermediaries between God and the rest of creation. Humanity is charged to “fill the earth and master it, and rule…” (Genesis 1:28, JPS translation).

For me, the most perceptive commentator of these differences is the late leader of American Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who did not need the notion of human authorship to account for the differences mentioned here. The Adam of the first chapter he calls Adam 1. This is the noble human being, who strives for knowledge and beauty. Adam 1 is the portrait of human initiative. He asserts control against the forces of nature and builds civilization, making order from chaos, so that people can grow and prosper. This is the human who can cure polio and land on the moon. This is the Adam of human dignity.

Adam 2, the Adam described in the second chapter, needs love and lives in community. He can work and protect the land, but can never control its fertility or bring the life-giving rains. This Adam, writes Soloveitchik in “The Lonely Man of Faith,” is vulnerable and dependent, relating to God as a parent rather than a king. This is the Adam of redemption, whose life is redeemed through communal responsibility, right relationship and love.

These descriptions of humanity are brief; they can be easily caricaturized. I hate it, but the thought immediately arises: Adam 1 is a Ryan Republican and Adam 2 is an Obama Democrat. The Torah, one might argue, is presenting us with two different and sometimes conflicting visions of our role in the world, and if this column were appearing on Fox News or MSNBC, one view would be the correct one.

Fortunately, one can suggest a Jewish Journal approach. Are not both chapters true? This is Soloveitchik’s point. In navigating the world, we humans take control as best we can, but we are still vulnerable and dependent. We need individual initiative and depend on technology, but we must care for our community and the planet that enables it. To do less is to belie our potential and fail our Covenant with God.

The challenge, then, is not to choose between Adam 1 and Adam 2, but to recognize that we humans are both. Wisdom is not in favoring one over the other, but in knowing the proper balance between them, and knowing when and how much to emphasize one over the other. In today’s ideological environment, the commentators are clever and the sound bites are compelling, but terribly misleading. Long before us, the ancient Israelites knew that our complex world reflects multiple viewpoints and conflicting yet valid truths. But they need not be viewed as the source of conflict. On the contrary, in diversity and contradiction lies the fruitful tension of human life. In the paradox, we learn from the opening chapters of the Torah, lies wholeness.

As long as we turn off cable news.


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).

Unloading the emotional U-Haul: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)


A funeral director once said, “In all the funerals I’ve attended, I have yet to see a hearse with a U-Haul trailer attached.” But while it’s true that “you can’t take it with you,”meaning material possessions, I’m not so sure about emotional possessions. How many of us have walked behind a casket where lay the body of a relative or friend with whom we were still talking? Or, wrenchingly, with whom we never had the conversation we meant to have?

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi — “And he lived” — ironically starts out with one of the longest death scenes in Torah, as the 147-year-old Jacob prepares to die. The cryptic blessings he gives to his 12 sons must have left them with as many unanswered questions as they leave us.

Is “blessing” even the right word for what Jacob says to each son? Jacob begins by saying, “I will tell you what will come to you in the end of days” (Genesis 49:1), and then offers each son words that seem part blessing, part fortune-cookie fortune, and part description of what each son has done or is like — their nature or what animal they resemble (“Judah is a lion cub”). Truly poetic, the passage ends:

“All these are the tribes of Israel — twelve — and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them; each one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Genesis 49:28)
“Each according to his blessing.” Certainly, each son is different from the others, and finally here, if not all along during their shared long lives, Jacob acknowledges that he sees each one differently.

But what happens when a conversation — a blessing — is one-sided, like these from Jacob to his sons? “I will tell you what will come to you.” Be it unrelenting expectation or its opposite — chronic disappointment — what room is there for growth or change once their father’s “blessing” is set down for eternity? The blessings are likely to be mixed — just consider the emotional baggage those sons must have carried when they returned from burying a manipulative father who played favorites.

Perhaps, like us, our sages were wary of the constriction of such specific blessings, for in recent centuries the tradition derived from this Torah portion relies on an earlier moment in Vayechi when Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons. The Jewish tradition of blessing our sons as Shabbat begins each Friday night recalls these words of Jacob: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh” (Genesis 48:20).

At our congregation on Friday nights, we offer a blessing for family, and we include in it the blessing of children by contemporary liturgist Marcia Falk: “Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.” Falk explained her choice to respond to — but ultimately leave behind — the traditional blessing for sons by saying:

“Why Ephraim and Menasheh, one cannot help but wonder — indeed, why any particular ancestors at all? … Why should we wish for a child to be anything other than her or his best self? … Yet letting a child be herself, himself — letting go of expectations that do not emerge from the reality of who the child is — is one of the hardest lessons parents have to learn.” Then she adds a hope for parents that in the framework of the onset of the Sabbath, a time in which “we let go of strivings and take note of the world’s abiding gifts,” that “we pay special attention to the children in our midst, thankful for their being, accepting of who they are, hopeful that they will blossom into their best selves” (Falk, “The Book of Blessings,” p. 450-51).

On the way to unloading the emotional U-Haul, our congregational prayer for family also adds a few hopes for family members in general, whatever ages, however we came to call them family: “May we reach out to them and hold them; may we say the words we need to say to one another; may we feel the love we have for them, and they for us. Dear God, in whatever way it comes into our lives, we give thanks for the blessing of family.”

And this week, as we complete this year’s reading of the Book of Genesis, we add another traditional blessing: khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazek, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.”

Dwelling in the land of dreams


I had a dream shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles in 1981 to study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) School of Jewish Communal Service.

I revisit that dream frequently, discovering new meanings as my self-awareness evolves. In the dream, I stood on the bimah in HUC-JIR’s Hilborn Synagogue and was bathed in a great light from above. That light’s meaning evolves as I do.

This week’s Torah portion begins at the end of Jacob’s journey, as he settles in the land of Canaan. We are soon introduced to Jacob’s son, Joseph, and to Joseph’s dreams. We remember that Jacob, too, was a dreamer.

In his book “The History of Last Night’s Dream,” Rodger Kamenetz distinguishes between the dreams of father and son. Jacob’s dream comes as he lies on the ground, a rock for a pillow. He dreams of angels going up and down a ladder. When he wakes, Jacob is overcome with awe. Jacob’s dream, according to Kamenetz, is a “Revelation Dream.”

Joseph’s dreams, in contrast, are “Interpreted Dreams,” Kamenetz writes. First sheaves of wheat and then the sun, moon and stars bow down to an upright Joseph. The biblical text views these dreams as indications that Joseph assumes his superiority to his brothers and parents. They are interpretations based on waking life and not thresholds to the Divine.

According to Kamenetz, “Jacob’s dream reveals the heavenly realm, while Joseph’s dreams appear as puzzles to be solved.”

In “The Five Books of Moses,” Robert Alter differentiates between the two kinds of dreams: “The dreams in the Joseph story reflect its more secular orientation. … They are not direct messages from God, [as] in the dream-visions … to Jacob. … [T]hey require human interpretation … and they may also express the hidden desires and self-perception of the dreamer.” Joseph’s understanding of his dreams appears ego-driven, while Jacob’s dreams direct him toward awe of God. This apprehension of God is what Rashi says, in a commentary on Ecclesiastes, is the purpose of a dream.

These dreams presage very different journeys. Jacob’s journey is one of ascent, until, in this week’s parasha, he comes to dwell (vayeshev) in Canaan. In the parasha that begins with Jacob’s dream, we read many repetitions of the word “ lift.” Jacob lifts his eyes a number of times. He lifts his voice after meeting his beloved, Rachel. When leaving Haran to return to Canaan, he lifts his wives and children onto camels. Finally, as he prepares to return to his father’s land, he lifts his eyes and sees his brother, Esau.

Joseph’s journey is altogether different. His dreams begin with him standing tall and others bowing down. Alter describes the young Joseph as self-absorbed and ego-driven. He needs to be taken down. And down he goes, journeying in the opposite direction of his father. Joseph goes down into the pit, down into Egypt, down into slavery and down into the prison where he remained for years until summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. But even after Joseph’s rise to power in Pharaoh’s court there was a final descent. This brings him into a different relationship with his dreams and with his family’s destiny. Preparing to reveal himself to his brothers, Joseph secludes himself and begins to sob. His anguished cries are heard throughout Egypt. All the pretenses of his ego and his success are stripped away. With this final descent, Joseph is changed from the arrogant boy Alter describes, to a man of God. He reveals himself to his brother and recognizes the hand of God in the family story and the “extraordinary deliverance” that came about as a result of his descent into Egypt.

When I first had that dream in 1981, I interpreted it as a sign that I should have a bat mitzvah. So on my 33rd birthday, I stood on the bimah of my dream and haltingly chanted the story of crossing the Red Sea. Twenty years later, the light on the bimah led me to the rabbinate, one of the most meaningful and fulfilling journeys of my life. But now, having lived the dream for these many years, I see a further possibility. The light that shines on me in that dream is an invitation to dwell (vayeshev) on holy ground and seek the gate of heaven. It invites me to bask in the light of holiness as I settle into a relationship with the Divine.

May you all bask in the holy lights of Chanukah and find nourishment and blessing. May you dwell in the land of your dreams. And may they be a gate to heaven.

Rabbi Anne Brener, a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor, is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights, 1993 & 2001). She is on the faculty of The Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and the advisory board of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Medicine. She can be reached at mekamot@aol.com.

Gateway to awakening


I love to be out in nature: hiking, camping, exploring the woods, sitting by a rushing river, listening to the sounds of the birds and other wildlife. I am blessed, like many of us in Southern California, to live within walking distance of amazing natural surroundings — in my case, the San Gabriel Mountains. I have come to appreciate the power of being away from “civilization” and the possibilities that venturing out into the wild holds for spiritual awakening. This week’s parasha, Vayetzei, has inspired me in my love of nature, and some key phrases offer wonderful images to carry with us on our journey.

The story of Jacob begins with his leaving home, under duress, and heading out into an unknown wilderness. He is discovering who he is, slowly, as God begins to unfold the wisdom of deep blessings, and as Jacob’s own soul, his awareness of his own being, comes into clearer focus. He has a dream during his first night out in the wilderness, a dream of a ladder, a spiritual metaphor connecting him to the heavens and bringing God’s presence right down into his own camp. The angels are ascending and descending, and Jacob is awakened to the great presence of the Divine that exists in each moment. However, he needed to be out of his normal existence, out of his “element,” to fully appreciate the power of holiness that resides in our world. The same was true of Abraham, who also needed to journey — to leave his home and his familiar surroundings — to become the person he was destined to become in the world.

When I am out in nature, be it hiking on the mountain trails right next to my home, camping in the Sierras or trekking through the amazing pathways of Ein Gedi or the Galilee in Israel, I have a greater appreciation of the Divine, and I know that many people share this sentiment. Is it possible to have this connection to God in our homes, in our cities, in front of our computers, sitting in our cars? Sure it is. But, awakening on a deep level, one that moves us to utter Jacob’s famous phrase, “God was surely in this place, and I, I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16), often needs the power of silence, the depth of the wilderness, to wake us up in such a deep and transformative way.

In a strikingly beautiful commentary on this verse, the Gerer Rebbe, as quoted in Iturei Torah, reminds us of something important. Saying that if Jacob had known of God’s presence before going to sleep, he would not have learned this important lesson: “This teaches us that even in places and times where we do know of greatness, they actually can increase our learning.”

What does this mean for us today?

What the Gerer Rebbe is teaching us is to not take for granted moments of possibility. What if Jacob had “known” of God’s presence at that spot? Could he have learned the same lessons? How many of us see an amazing sunset but don’t let it move us? How many of us take walks on the beach but don’t let the enormity of the ocean transform our spirits? Rainbows are now routine rather than a sign of God’s imminence among us.

The lessons here are twofold: One is to take the time to step into nature, out of our routine, and surround ourselves with the wonder that is our beautiful Earth; two is to create space within ourselves for those moments to move us, transform us, connect us and lift us higher. We all need moments to awaken — or reawaken — ourselves to the beauty and wonder of the world, which in turn will help us to become the full extent of who we are to be in this life. As human beings, we need more than physical nourishment to keep us alive; our souls crave to experience God’s light and everlasting wonder to spark our spirits and lift us higher.

After Jacob offers his famous poetic line about finding God, the text says that he is “shaken.” He is stirred, transformed, and says, “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to the heavens” (Genesis 28:17).

Shabbat is our gateway each and every week, a gateway leading us out from our routine, from our constant consumption and desire to achieve and overtake. Shabbat is our chance each and every week to tap into our inner Jacob, to make space for the holy ladder to appear, to make room for God’s greatness to ascend and descend upon us, for us to learn anew and declare, “How beautiful and awesome is this place.” Take a walk, breathe the air, listen to the birds, stare at the ocean, hike a trail, say a prayer of gratitude and thanks. And when we return to our daily lives, carry a taste of that gateway with us. Shabbat shalom. l

This column originally appeared Nov. 12, 2010.

Unique Capabilities: Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)


There are places in the Torah where many of us moderns have a hard time relating to our ancestors and the societies in which they lived. Oppression of women, slavery, animal sacrifice, a God that intervenes and directs our lives in a forceful and immediate way, to name a few. This parasha, however, is not really one of these moments. In fact, as I read through Noach again and again this year, I couldn’t help but think how much hasn’t changed since those fateful days, in primordial time, when the first humans brought about the destruction of the Earth.

“The Earth became corrupt before God; the Earth was filled with lawlessness (hamas). When God saw how corrupt the Earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the Earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the Earth’ ”  (Genesis 6:11-13).

Our ancestors quickly devolved into corruption, violence, greed and anger. Sadly, destruction was the only way to stop them. Rashi, followed by Ramban and others, understands the word “hamas” as “robbery/violence,” and the Talmud teaches us that while humans committed every conceivable transgression, their “fate was only sealed when they put forth their hands to robbery and violence toward one another” (Sanhedrin 108a). I see violence here not only as the physical

manifestation of hate toward one another, but also as the mental and spiritual manifestation of greed and selfishness, both toward other humans and toward animals and the natural world. The human being believed that they were the end-all and be-all of creation, endowed with rights and privileges that permitted any actions, including murder, to advance their evil ways. We see this lesson is not truly learned, even after the flood, for the end of Parashat Noach teaches us about the Tower of Babel, read by commentators old and new, as another physical manifestation of greed and desire for power. We have short memories, even as God has a long, full memory.

And so, as I look at the world in which we live today, a world that is being quickly passed to my children and all of the children soon to be adults, I am both afraid and emboldened. I am afraid because the pace of our world, filled with violence, war, planetary destruction, greed, indifference, poverty, genocide, hatred and intolerance, is moving so fast with the technological advances we celebrate in the life of someone like Steve Jobs, that I fear we will not, we cannot, stop, turn around and repair the massive damage we have done and continue to do on a daily basis, both here in America and the world over. Yet, I am emboldened by the same Parashat Noach that gives us the rainbow, a sign that continues to inspire awe and wonder in the hopefulness of our world and our capacity to do the right thing. The same technology that is speeding us up, blinding us, is also being used to open our eyes, be it with the global satellite pictures of Darfur that we can see firsthand, the capacity to provide enough food to end poverty, the incredible advances in medicine and healing, most of which are emerging from Israel, the social media that helped spawn revolutions in the Arab world and right here in America — all signs that we have the capacity to make good decisions for the betterment of all life. Let’s not forget Deuteronomy, which teaches,

“I place before you a blessing and a

curse … .” While things change, they often stay the same.

Human beings were not given dominion in Genesis in order to dominate, but rather we were given “unique capabilities,” a better translation of the Hebrew word that is usually translated as “dominion.” The midrash teaches that it actually took Noah 120 years to build the ark so that people might ask him what he was doing, hear the answer and repent of their evil ways and change course. It was a long drive to the destruction, with many signs and warnings along the way. Our ancestors didn’t listen. Will we? Shabbat shalom!

Occupy Genesis


The story of creation begins again this week in synagogues around the world. The Jewish people make a global reset and roll back our Torah scrolls. Fresh and new, our world is set in motion with organic divine harmony, only to be disrupted by human folly. 

This annual cosmic rewind and the rereading of Genesis gives us all a chance to deepen our thinking about the stories we heard as children about the dangers of snakes and fruit trees, about curiosity and sibling rivalry. The sages enjoined us to reread the Torah and look at it with fresh eyes in every generation, freeing us to be creative while demanding our direct engagement with the text.

This year, what comes to my mind after a successful and inspiring Jewlicious Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Days of Awesome experience is how much those involved with the Jewish community, and those on the periphery, want to connect to something enduring in the face of an uncertain economic future. I see young Jews more willing to revisit ageless questions about the meaning of life, and less satisfied with traditional ways of experiencing our highest holy days.

With this in mind, I opened the Torah to reflect upon the connection of Genesis with a new year, the Arab Spring, European summer and the growing season of discontent branded an American autumn. What I found in this fresh reading of Genesis is the far-reaching effects of personal and collective responsibility.

When confronted with the result of our actions in Eden, and even afterward, humanity quickly began pointing fingers. No one wanted to accept responsibility for breaking the matrix that kept the world in a state of harmony. Not Adam. Not Eve. Not Cain. No one would own up to his or her lust for personal gain — even at the expense of others.

Instead, we are introduced to how humanity upset God’s perfect world with dishonesty, withholding information, jealousy and accusations. 

Jewish tradition teaches that God created the world to infuse it with goodness. However, this stands in contrast to the world we see. Even with the rose-colored glasses of privilege and faith in humankind, we have to admit that the world is full of misery and suffering. Finding God in this mess becomes difficult, if not impossible, for many of us.

The Jewish mission of repairing the world, tikkun olam, uncovers the goodness God uses to sustain the world. Healing wrongs and promoting justice, equality and sustainability becomes a process of repairing creation. Tikkun olam taps into a deep-seated yearning for a revealed world of goodness, a return to Eden, and explains why so many of my tribe are drawn to movements for social change.

These latest movements for vast social change on the left and right can learn an important lesson from this week’s portion. They can learn that a critical mistake for which humanity was expelled from Eden in the first place, and one of the ills that affects our collective future, is a failure to accept personal responsibility for our actions.

What I see in the latest activist movement, Occupy Wall Street, is in some way a manifestation of a primal yearning for a world in balance that we see at the start of Genesis. The economic disparity and disillusionment that seems to be at the heart of this social upheaval led by young people has myriad causes — some contradictory and some difficult to ascertain. Yet, at the core is a yearning for an “Edenic” world, a world that is healed and at peace. It’s a beautiful mission that hearkens back to our yearning for redemption. Therefore, I hesitate to dismiss the eruption of protests across the United States and now in Europe as a pointless exercise in anarchy, hypocrisy or a new call to eat the rich.

Occupy Wall Street understands that this millennial generation is not responsible for the mess we are in. This generation knows they are not responsible for setting up the systems that are broken. Yet, they feel compelled to do something about it.

I also hear the message from some Occupy folks as recognizing that, like most of us, they are marked by the faults of this generation — that they, too, have been complicit in the errors of this generation, such as vanity, apathy, materialism and a lack of acceptance of responsibility.

Genesis falls on the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These Days of Awe are a process of owning up to our communal shortcomings and asking God’s assistance in helping fix them. It requires us to accept responsibility for our own mistakes, the mistakes of our entire community and the world. Only then can we begin to start over.

Curses and Blessings: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)


“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons. These are the closing moments of the book of Bereshit (Genesis), and of all the portions in Bereshit, none is more poetic and none more opaque than Vayechi.

“And Israel’s dying days came closer,” says the text, and Jacob, perhaps propelled by this awareness, seems to muster all his creative energies and pours forth a series of perplexing blessings and curses that haunt our collective imaginations until this very day. Perhaps Jacob recognizes that this is his last chance to breathe some fire into this world, to leave his mark; to make the ascending angels of his youth take notice one last time of the dying dreamer they had visited two lifetimes ago at the bottom of the ladder.

What does Jacob mean by his stream-of-consciousness outpouring of poetic prophecy? From whence the passion and the decisiveness that had eluded him his entire life? How much do Jacob’s words to his sons affect us today? What is the difference between a blessing and a curse?

One could spend years poring over Jacob’s “blessings.” I’d like to touch on two of them.

The first blessing is personal: It is the blessing received by my namesake. “Dan Yaddin Amo. …” (“And Dan shall judge his people. …”) There are names one receives at birth that serve as guides, as gentle guardians throughout one’s life; names like Noam, pleasantness, or Zohar, radiant brilliance. Dan’s name is more a burden than a guide, more a hurdle than a gift. The name literally means “judgmental,” and it is given as a command: Go out and judge; be true to your name.

Samson, the most famous Danite, would rather do anything but. He spends his entire career running away from his vocation. He becomes Nad, a wanderer, instead of Dan, a judge. His ending, while spectacular, is not a good one, and it teaches us that one can no more escape one’s essence than a nightingale can escape its sweet voice. I have struggled with my name and its dangerous attributes my entire life. I consider my name a great blessing precisely for the warning it carries with it: Judge, when and if you must, but do so with mercy and compassion. Be careful, be kind, be sweet.

The second blessing I’d like to visit is Levi’s. The power of the words Jacob visits upon Levi is stunning. The “blessing,” it would appear, is really a curse. Levi, along with his brother, Shimon, is berated for the murderous rampage the brothers embarked upon after the rape of their sister, Dina.

Jacob’s words are harsh and unforgiving. He appears to doom Levi to the life of an eternal outsider. He and his descendants are to be scattered among the children of Israel.

Later on, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Levites are chosen by God to be eternal servants in the house of the Lord. Where’s the curse? Why the Levites, of all tribes? The action God takes is not unlike the wise teacher who picks on the most troubled child in class to be the teacher’s aid; to sit closer to the teacher than any other child in class. It is neither a reward nor a punishment. It is the exact tikkun (repair) that child requires. The most violent of tribes is chosen for holy work precisely because it is the tribe that needs holiness more than any other. The Levites are still scattered, landless, outsiders, but now they are doing so for the sake of holiness. Perhaps, those who are in service of God, those whose lives are spent in religious leadership, to this very day, are doing so because they are the ones who are most in need of it.

“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons, and his words to them are the blueprint of the Jewish people’s destiny. They are the markers of our lives: personally, according to our Hebrew names; collectively, according to the tribes of our ancestors. Family history does matter. Names matter. Words matter. To us, as Jews, words are the DNA of our history, our culture, our souls. Jacob’s words are curses embedded in blessings and blessings embedded in curses, and whether they serve us for good or for bad, for holiness or profanity, is still, and always will be, entirely up to each one of us.

Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazek! Be strong! Be strong! And we shall be strengthened!

Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.

Milken JCC hires new director; Heschel West receives US.gov award


Milken JCC Hires New Executive Director, Finalizes Strategic Plan for Improvements

Paul Frishman, a 22-year veteran of the Jewish Community Center movement, has been tapped as the new executive director of The New JCC at Milken. He officially began Sept. 2.

Frishman, 45, spent the last four and a half years as chief operating officer of the Valley of the Sun JCC in Scottsdale, Ariz., and 18 years at the Dave & Mary Alper JCC in Miami.

His selection represents a solid commitment to rebuilding Milken JCC, said Steve Rheuban, the center’s board chair.

In spring 2007, as the center was facing a $250,000 deficit, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles closed the Olympic-sized pool, causing almost one-third of its members to abandon the JCC. Despite these challenges, the center’s leaders voted down a one-time $350,000 allocation offered by The Federation that would have required giving up its historic right to be the major tenant on the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills.

The organization now has finalized a new business plan, as well as a strategic plan to create a state-of-the-art fitness center, with the goal of reopening the pool and shower facilities. It is working with the JCC Development Corp., successor to JCC parent organization, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, to finance reopening of the pool. Once that happens, Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg is on board to bring back his swim school.

Additionally, representatives of the JCC and The Federation have been meeting to work out an agreement by December detailing occupancy and responsibility issues.

“It’s not us vs. them. We are a community, and the JCC is part of the community,” said Richard Sandler, Federation vice chair and one of the negotiators.

Meanwhile, more than 80 2- to 4-year-olds are enrolled in the JCC preschool, and 200 to 250 seniors daily attend classes, play cards or work out at the center. “This is their home,” Frishman said.

He wants to increase membership, currently hovering around 500 families, as well as sports, educational and cultural activities, including specialized programming for the Russian and Israeli communities. In addition, he wants to make facility improvements.

“I look at this with wide-open eyes and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm,” he said.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

College Credit, Teacher Training Now Available for Arab-Israeli Conflict Course

Beginning this fall, high school juniors and seniors who complete The David Project’s course on the Arab-Israeli conflict can receive freshman-level college credit for the class. Teacher training on the high school curriculum is tentatively planned for Nov. 2-4 in Los Angeles.

“The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Educating Ourselves, Educating Others” teaches the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict by promoting historical accuracy, critical thinking, discussion, moral decision making and activism.

The curriculum has been offered for the past two years through the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, a transdenominational Jewish college in Melrose Park, Pa. With support from the Avi Chai Foundation, the course has been adopted by 100 schools in the United States and Canada, including YULA High School in Los Angeles. More than 3,500 students complete the class each year.

The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, a nonprofit educational organization, has partnered with The Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles to offer the Teacher Training Institute, tentatively scheduled for November. Registration for the three-day seminar would be $150 (includes lodging and two meals per day); a commuter option would also be available.

For more information, visit www.davidproject.org. Questions about the teacher training institute can be addressed to Na’ama Levitz Applbaum at nla@davidproject.org.

— Anita K. Kantrowitz, Contributing Writer

Heschel West Receives Blue Ribbon Award

The U.S. Department of Education has given Heschel West Day School the National Blue Ribbon Award, a prestigious prize given to the “top 10 percent of schools nationally, based upon academic achievement.”

The Agoura school is the first Jewish school in the Conejo and San Fernando valleys to be awarded the prize. Heschel West attributes the award to its commitment to the education of the whole child.

“Often, parents come to us believing they have to choose between schools that provide children with rigorous academics and those that build strong values,” said Tami Weiser, Heschel West’s head of school. “This Blue Ribbon Award is validation of what we knew all along at Heschel West — families can come to us and find everything they are seeking at one school.”

The community Jewish school will celebrate its Blue Ribbon Award at Mitzvah Day on Sunday, Nov. 2. The event will call attention to illiteracy in other communities and collect books, toys and funds for underprivileged students and schools.

For more information, call (818) 707-2365.

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Shalhevet Student Participates in Genesis College Program at Brandeis University

While other high school students spent this past summer in camp or working, Penina Smith was away at college.

The Shalhevet senior was one of 62 rising juniors and seniors chosen to attend Genesis, a four-week residential program at Brandeis University offering first-year college-level courses integrating the arts, Jewish studies, humanities, social action and community building.

Participants from 21 states, Canada, Israel, Spain and Russia attended team-taught workshops and seminars that were both test and grade free. The students, representing the spectrum of Jewish life from Modern Orthodox to secular, also created different Shabbat programs weekly and worked on various community service projects.

Smith took a world religions course and a creative writing workshop titled, “The Lie That Tells a Truth.” Other courses included “Journalism, Judaism and Ethics,” “Israel” and “Judaism and Justice.” In addition, workshops included mixed media, music and digital photography.

Founded in 1997 with support from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, Genesis accepts applications on a rolling basis.

For more information, visit http://www.brandeis.edu/genesis/index.html.

— AKK

A Building of Wisdom


How do we build a House of God? How do we achieve the spiritual mandate that God placed upon the community when asking of them to build the Mishkan, the dwelling place of God? Anybody who serves a community as its spiritual leader understands that the nature of my question has little to do with the architectural plans of the building, rather it addresses the religious and spiritual atmosphere we are challenged to create within the four walls that we call our “House of God.”

As a spiritual leader who for the past 15 years has served a community blessed with a splendid building, I have learned and continue to understand that edifices are meaningless as Houses of God unless we strive to create an atmosphere inside that befits God’s presence. As much as this issue challenges me within my own four walls, a recent long walk into another community taught me how — and how not to — build a House of God.

A few weeks ago on Shabbat afternoon, my two children and I walked from Westwood to my kids’ Jewish youth group (approximately an hour walk). Every two weeks my kids attend the group, which meets in a school, and it was my turn to walk them there. Upon arrival, we joined the youth group for Mincha. When we finished praying, the kids started their activity, and I walked to the synagogue across the street from the school. I walked into the first room, where the congregants were having Seudah Shelishit while listening to their rabbi speak. I passed on the food, but decided to listen to the rabbi.

He told the biblical story of the prophet Elijah meeting a man named Obadiah. When the two met for the first time, Obadiah knew who Elijah was, but Elijah did not know Obadiah, nor (according to the rabbi) did he even recognize Obadiah as being a member of the Jewish people.

“How is it that Elijah could not see that Obadiah was a Jew?” the rabbi asked.

After all, Obadiah was destined to become one of the prophets of Israel. The rabbi taught that according to the Talmud, Obadiah was a convert from the Edomite nation, and therefore, according to the rabbi, “the pigmentation of his skin was not that of a Jew,” thus explaining why Elijah couldn’t have possibly recognized Obadiah as being “one of his own.” The rabbi then proceeded to share a story of when he and some of his friends had rumbled on a New York City subway with a group of African Americans who claimed to be the “true Hebrews.” The rumble was intense, and the rabbi shared with us that “we all came away bruised, but of course the bruises showed up more clearly on my skin — the pigmentation of a Jew — than it did on theirs.”

Infuriated by this blatant expression of racism, I got up and walked out. I couldn’t believe that I had walked into what I thought was a House of God and walked out feeling angry and spiritually empty.

After Shabbat, my kids and I returned to the school, where a Saturday night parent-student study program took place. I sat with my kids to study Mishnah, and I looked around at a room filled with beautiful people, all engaged in Torah study. There were people from Yemen, Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, Iran, India, Iraq, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Israel and America — all with their different pigmentations — gathered as Jews to study Torah with their kids. As opposed to the building across the street, I now felt that I was truly in a “Mishkan,” a dwelling place of God. I could feel God’s presence everywhere. I saw the radiance of God’s light shining on each and every face — black, white, brown or otherwise, because God’s light does not discriminate based on pigmentation.

Racism cannot dwell in the House of God, nor can racists build a true House of God. It is for this reason that when God chose an architect to build His own house, He called upon Bezalel, a man whose pigmentation the Torah does not describe, instead telling us that he was endowed with chochmat ha’lev — wisdom of the heart. It takes wisdom — and heart — to bring God into the building.

Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

What is valuable?


I am blessed that my children generally get along well. Now that they are 3 1/2 and 1 1/2, however, they do tussle over toys. A few times, my son, the elder, has screamed the toddler credo — “It’s mine!” — right in his sister’s face.

In light of such indignation, I reminded them of the rules against grabbing (her offense) and yelling (his). And then I introduced a meta-rule that seems to have touched and influenced my son: “People are more important than things.”

When I first said it, the rule stopped him in his tracks. He paused to think about it. Since then, at least so far, he has shared more graciously with his sister.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I lost my engagement ring. Like many Jewish women, I lose weight in my fingers first — an issue of theodicy for another column. Somewhere between my house, the library, the community center and a dinner meeting, the ring slipped off my newly svelte finger. I retraced my steps, I apologized to my husband, I cried. The meta-rule helped me to let go and to pray for serenity and gratitude, whether the ring is found or not.

My son kept me company as I searched through the trash today. We opened just two bags before we found it. This time, I cried tears of joy. I explained to my son when and why his dad gave me the ring. I asked, “Do you remember what I told you about people and things?”

He did.

We agreed that, the meta-rule notwithstanding, some things are very special.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, tells the ultimate cautionary tale about becoming enamored with things. Losing hope and patience as they wait for Moses to descend Mount Sinai, the Israelites build a Golden Calf and worship it.

We may have trouble relating to “primitives” who ascribed redemptive power to molten metal. Yet, gold is an idol in our culture, as much as it ever was in theirs. We readily assert the supremacy of people, values and, certainly, God over things. But, like the ancient Israelites, we pay homage to spiritually empty products of our own hands. We are regularly seduced by what glitters pleasingly, demands little and offers nothing of ultimate value. We conflate money with security, influence, approval, love and countless other projections.

Social scientists tell us that Americans in every income bracket believe they would be happy, if only they had one-third more income. Yet, by every available measure of happiness, additional “gold” makes no difference whatsoever in a person’s well-being — none — once they earn $50,000 annually. At the time of the Israelites, it was the calf that people mistook for a god. In our day, it’s the gold that people think will save them.

The Torah’s answer to materialism doesn’t lie in decrying money or renouncing things. At the start of our portion, God demands a census through a half-shekel — money that serves as a means of atonement. God then details things of worship and their uses: a bronze laver, anointing oils, incense. Five verses into the next Torah portion, Moses instructs the Israelites to bring gold as an offering to God for the Tabernacle. What built an idol will now build God’s house. Certain things and certain uses of money are very special indeed.

Some commentators believe that using gold in the Tabernacle aided the Israelites’ repentance, converting shame to glory. Others find inspiration in the idea that the Israelites merely needed to redirect their focus. Their service to Calf and Tabernacle used the same tool (gold) and relied on some of the same impulses (participation in community, connection to something larger than themselves, generosity). But one school of thought is troubled precisely because of the continuities.

Ask the Israelites for gold to fashion a calf and they freely give it; ask them for gold to build a Tabernacle and they do the same. Have they learned a lesson, or are they indiscriminate? Obviously, lucre can be used for good ends or bad. We could say the same thing of every tool, form of energy, ability and power. The question is not only where or how the Israelites use gold, but why. What do they really value?

Ki Tisa holds up a mirror and pushes us to ask ourselves the same question: What do we really value? What core principles and assumptions underlie our choices?

What is worthy of elevation above all we have, all we give, all we want and all we think we want? What has worth — not just as a commodity, but also as a reminder and promoter of righteousness, goodness, and holiness? What supersedes even iconic objects and symbols? Who and what are more important than our most treasured gifts and possessions? What is ultimately valuable?

Only in answer to these questions can we properly decide where to invest our time, energy, faith and money.

There are traditional answers — some of them (e.g., that the mitzvah of Shabbat and organizing time “trumps” the mitzvah of building the Tabernacle and organizing space) found in this very parsha. There are spiritually glib answers that can make you sound holy. But to be useful, the answers must be brutally honest and deeply personal. They must go beyond lip service to Torah and conscience to articulate — each of us in our own voice — the meta-rules we deliberately choose to live by.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (www.makom.org).

More than skin deep


A holy day approaches: a day of judgment. Mundane activity will cease as we hearken to the call for worship in awe and reverence. Echoing from high-definition flat screens across the land: the not-so-still, not-so-small voice of Reb Joan Rivers will usher in the sacrosanct festival of The Oscars.

Lo, the venerated ritual will commence as it is written: “And thou shalt command the egos of every man, woman and teenager to heed the superficiality of the red carpet procession and listen with fervor to the commentary on pretentious external appearance” (People Magazine 1:1).

The nation will join in celebration of ostentation. Entranced by lavish clothing, shiny jewels and perfecting cosmetics, we will affirm a commitment to worship outward show: the humble servants of beauty, the People of the Look.

I could offer a series of chastising remarks about the epidemic preoccupation with beauty infecting the Jewish population, but I won’t. We need not pretend to agree that true beauty is as absent from superficial sight as Moses’ name from Parshat Tetzaveh.

This portion validates the inner Jewish American Prince/Princess within us all. Exodus 28 is a permission slip for superficiality — conveying that attention to beauty in the physical realm is not only acceptable, but moreover is a crucial component in our revelation of God.

Following instructions for creating the eternal flame, Tetzaveh describes the manufacture of priestly attire, providing style specifications that make a mockery of red carpet couture. Materials of “blue and purple, and scarlet, and fine twisted linen … delicately wrought [metals] … chains of pure gold” (Exodus 28:8-13) comprise the High Priest’s garments. Also included is jewelry: rubies and sapphires and diamonds (oh my!). It could inspire the most spiritual among us to drop our granola and run for Neiman Marcus without remorse.

Twice the text repeats “and thou shalt make holy garments … for honor and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2, 28:40).

For beauty, eh? The most holy of individuals are commanded by God to dress in the highest quality and most dazzling outfits — for the same reason that inspires us today: to look good.

As early as Genesis 2:9, “God caused every kind of tree to grow from the ground, attractive to the sight and good for food.” From the very beginning, looking good trumped deeper qualities of value in the Divine’s creative priorities. Apparently, God has us hardwired and sanctified in His image for preoccupation with beauty, and Tetzaveh only reiterates this truth.

Concentration on physical attractiveness as a determinant of honor is justified because it inspires our sensitivity to symmetry, order and harmony in the physical cosmos (derived from the Greek word cosmetikos, which has the dual meaning of “a sense of harmony and order” and “one skilled in adorning”).

By engaging the earthly aspect of our soul in appreciation of orderliness via beautification of the body, our consciousness can attend to the harmony beyond form as well. The body, in other words, aligns with the spirit when it apprehends something beautiful — and together they ignite the glowing light of Sacred Marriage: the tzelem (image) of Elohim that is the spiritual container of human physical form.

Be it High Priest or hot celebrity, efforts to look good help realize God on earth through an alignment of thought with the principles of order and perfection inherent in the Creator. This convergence of body and soul is comparable to the “pure olive oil beaten for light, that causes the flame to burn always” (Exodus 27:20). The tension of the eternal flame’s conflicting energies — surging upward toward heaven and then tightening back toward its source of oil in order to sustain its existence — is the same fluctuation that occurs between our physical and spiritual selves. Our attendance to superficial beauty converging with our spiritual longing to be free from physical confinement are precisely the opposing energies that spark the illumination of the Divine — within and without.

Our taking pleasure in corporeal order was designed by God to be the oil that connects us to earth and allows us to ascend; love of harmony begets alignment of consciousness with order, in spirit as well as body. Conversely, attendance to disorder and neglect elicits disturbance and brokenness (translated literally as rah, otherwise known as evil): conditions that inhibit the presence of God in our midst.

So come the holy day of Oscar, feel free to gawk at every last gown and shayna punim displayed on the red carpet. And when it’s over, go shopping, get made up, and decadently inhabit your body so as to inspire your soul. The Divine cannot manifest without our being grounded enough in our corporeality to receive it.

As much as we are of Spirit, so, too, are we connected with the earth — in embellishing the latter, we honor the former.

Buy some gemstones, allow them to restore your connection to the sacred ground from which they came and let their display reorder your thoughts through the iridescent beauty of Shechinah — reflecting back light descending in love from Her consort. Her beauty cannot thrive in hiddenness. She is to be adorned and admired via her many children. With each act of beauty we create and/or witness, we make manifest the harmony and the eternal light of our beloved Source of Creation.

Let it be God’s will that our visits to the cosmetics counter reaffirm the ordering principles of creation. Let us be present to the truth that any moment of appreciation and apprehension of beauty — however superficial — can ignite the eternal light of the Divine: In whose image we are called to shine in all of our glitz and glam.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Internalizing the concept of history


If you were paying attention during Genesis, the opening statement of this week’s parsha may be perplexing: “And God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and told him: I am Adonai, I have appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name Adonai” (Exodus 6:2-3).

How can that be possible? All through Genesis, God speaks to the patriarchs using the Tetragrammaton; the Ineffable Name; the Name written with the four quiet, almost mute letters Y, H, V and H but spelled Adonai, the Master. How can He tell Moses now that he never revealed this name to the patriarchs?

A name mentioned in the Bible connotes an inner quality — a special strength or character trait, as can be seen when Adam is asked to name all living creatures. It’s similar to today’s marketers running complex programs to find the best name for new medicines or other products.

A name can also indicate one’s status or relationship with family and friends, as is the case with Ishmael. When he is driven away by Sarah, in one short paragraph the Torah calls him by four different names: the maidservant’s son, Abraham’s son, the lad and the child.

So when God speaks about the names He uses, it pertains to a representative quality. The meaning here, therefore, is not that the patriarchs were not familiar with the name, but rather that the special characteristic of the name Adonai had not yet been witnessed or understood by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The name YHVH is derived from the Hebrew root HYH or HVH — to be — and contains all tenses of the verb, past, present and future. This name symbolizes the eternity of God, the God of history. The name El Shaddai was enough for the patriarchs, which is exactly its meaning: He who is all sufficient.

When the patriarchs were chosen, they were promised that their immediate descendants would grow to be a populous, prosperous nation; but nothing more than that. There is a covenant between God and the patriarchs, but it is quite unilateral — I shall be your God, without the familiar reciprocation “and you shall be my nation.” For the patriarchs it was difficult enough to break ranks with and depart from the surrounding pagan world to trail blaze a new monotheistic path. They were not ready yet to be handed the greater mission that extends to the End of Days, to that ideal future where all humanity lives in peace and harmony.

As Nachmanides aptly puts it, the patriarchs were the Book of Individuals, but it was with the passionate, dedicated freedom fighter Moses that we begin the Book of the Nation, Exodus. It is the nation transformed from a group of desolate, spirit-broken individuals, into a Kingdom of Priests, in the sense of teachers and guides who know the name of God that will accompany the Israelites throughout history.

The Israelites had to internalize the concept of history. They had to learn and understand the past in order to live the best-possible present and bring the whole world into a better future. The Jewish People never forget. We remember the Holocaust, which just happened; the expulsion from Spain, 517 years ago; and the destruction of the Temple, 1,937 years ago. Yet we are not stuck in the past; we don’t dwell there and let the terrors of the past haunt us and stifle our quest for truth and justice.

We also remember the Giving of the Law and the Golden Age in Spain and all the wonderful achievements of our brethren throughout the ages — achievements made possible thanks to that historical perspective introduced by God to Moses in the name Adonai, and reiterated toward the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:7): “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past.”

Or, in the words of renowned historian Paul Johnson in “The History of the Jews”:

Brotherly Love


With Chanukah recent history, I came across a fascinating review of a new book, “The Business of Holidays.” The book’s editor, Maud Lavin, notes that 81 percent of U.S. households celebrate Christmas with a tree in their homes, and not everybody is Christian. The line between Christmas and Chanukah has become very blurry in recent years, according to Lavin.

“I’m Jewish myself, and I didn’t even know that Purim was more the gift-giving holiday on the Jewish calendar,” Lavin writes. “But, Purim is in the spring, and so ‘no good,’ because it doesn’t participate in the Christmas season, and Jewish Americans especially turned Hanukah from a tiny holiday into a big consumerist holiday.”

I don’t think that these comments are any longer shocking, or for that matter, revealing. Even without Lavin’s book we knew this to be true. What interested me most, however, was the “Seinfeld” holiday Festivus:

“Festivus, an invention of Frank, George’s father on Seinfeld, had various rituals including the family sitting around the dining room table together criticizing each other. Then Ben & Jerry’s piggybacked on that and had, for a while, a Festivus ice cream. And, there really are people who continue to celebrate Festivus, especially on college campuses.”

I found all of this utterly fascinating because I compared it to this week’s Torah reading, which describes the amazing family reunion of Joseph with his brothers. Twenty-two years have passed since they sold him, and now Joseph finally reveals his true identity. He tells his brothers not to be sad and not to reproach themselves because God Himself had arranged the cycle of events that led to his eventually becoming viceroy of Egypt.

But this story has another side. A close examination of the biblical text reveals that the brothers’ feelings were neither forgotten nor forgiven, according to British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Consider what happens while Joseph is telling the brothers not to fret over the past. They remain totally silent. Only after Joseph has spoken for 13 verses and well more than 150 words are we told: “He then kissed all his brothers and wept upon them and afterward his brothers conversed with him” (Genesis 45:15). What the brothers said is conspicuously absent. Could this be the silence of indifference?

Estrangement also appears elsewhere. For example, what relationship did Joseph establish with his father? Was there any contact during the 17 years that Jacob and Joseph lived together in Egypt? Could it be they saw each other so infrequently that not once, but twice Joseph had to be called and told that his father was on his deathbed?

“Behold — your father is ill” (Genesis 48:1). Why did Jacob not trust Joseph when he promised that he would not bury him in Egypt? Was it really necessary to make Joseph take an oath?

What does all of this mean? Some suggest it is a realistic depiction of life. Life is such that despite the best efforts when there is a schism between family members, or for that matter between friends, the past cannot just be undone. Joseph, who left home at age 17 and rose to the top of the most powerful nation of the world, no longer speaks the same language. The innocence of youth, the closeness of father and son, the familial bond was lost forever. They had truly gone their separate ways.

Yet the Torah implies a different view of this story. True, it is hard to forget the hurt and hatred that once existed between Joseph and his brothers. But consider the length Joseph travels to reunite with them. Certainly he is hurt, yet he tries intensely to recreate the family bond. He is the one who single-handedly supports them. He doesn’t mend fences by holding a Festivus celebration, where each one criticizes the other. Just imagine, if he did, what that family gathering would have sounded like!

The lesson we can learn from this story is that in families, as in friendships, no room exists for Festivus gatherings. Unfortunately, American society today thinks that such gatherings not only are productive but even necessary. We are the generation of “tell it all.” But that presents a prescription for disaster. Instead of feeding criticism in our relationships, we must offer positive reinforcement with lots of love and understanding, or the relationships will fail. We can find enough criticism to go around, but can we find enough love?

So how did the Torah’s tale of sibling rivalry ultimately end? This week’s Haftorah from the Book of Ezekiel (37:19) captures a beautiful answer — “the tree of Joseph … and the tree of Judah will become one tree.” That only happens when kindness rather than criticism reigns supreme.

Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Right or Righteous?


Have you ever dealt with someone who insisted s/he was right — even smugly so — while actually being objectively, measurably and completely wrong?

Now, let me ask a tougher question: Have you ever been that person? If so, you are in good — and plentiful — company.

In this week’s portion, Vayeshev, Judah marries his son Er to Tamar. But Er is evil, and God takes his life. Because Er dies childless, his brother, Onan, marries Tamar in compliance with the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5). Children from their union would “belong” to Er and perpetuate his name, and therefore also reduce Onan’s portion of the family estate. Onan “spills his seed,” rather than impregnate Tamar. When God takes Onan’s life in punishment, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house to wait for his third son. But Judah considers Tamar a “black widow,” and has no intention of providing her protection and progeny through a third marriage.

A long while later, Judah loses his own spouse. Tamar finds out where his travels will take him following the mourning period, and waits at the crossroads, posing as a prostitute. She requests his distinctive seal, cord and staff for collateral, until the payment of a kid can be delivered. Later, the “prostitute” who has Judah’s proprietary items cannot be found to make the exchange.

About three months later, Judah is told that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Everyone assumes that Tamar is guilty of harlotry, since she is supposedly awaiting levirate marriage. Judah calls for her to be brought out and burned for adultery. She sends him the seal, cord, and staff with the message: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong.” Understanding the lengths to which Tamar has gone, he announces: “She is more right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her my [third] son.” Not only is Tamar’s life spared, one of the twins she carries is Perez, progenitor of David and the Messiah.

Judah thought his first two sons suffered because of Tamar. He thought he was sparing his third son. He thought she betrayed the family. He had it entirely wrong.

To Judah’s credit, he acknowledges the children he sired and the justice of Tamar’s position. He can’t make everything right; he can’t give Tamar a real marriage or compensate her for lost time and honor. Yet his admission of guilt and fallibility makes him not only more likable, but actually more righteous. Saying, “I’m wrong and you’re right” is a crucial step in his moral development. It enables him to repent and in some way compensate for the greatest wrong of his life: selling his brother, Joseph, into slavery.

With Tamar, Judah is proven wrong by the collateral (eravon, 38:18) he leaves behind. Then — and perhaps, therefore — he is able to offer himself as collateral (anochi e’ervenu, 43:9), and protect Benjamin in a way that he failed to protect Joseph years before. When Benjamin is framed for a crime, Judah, having pledged himself (arav, 44:32) for the boy, pleads to be enslaved in his stead. Only in the face of this expression of love and righteousness, does Joseph finally reveal himself and forgive his brothers.

There is a modern-day term for the inability to admit wrongdoing: sociopathy. A conscience that cannot feel guilt is capable of untold evil. An ability to look critically at ourselves, to see where we are wrong, is the beginning of making things right.

Being right — in the narrow sense of “correct” — amounts to very little, if a correct position isn’t also righteous. Joseph is correct in interpreting his dreams of domination and superiority to his family, but he is also insensitive and inflammatory. He is right again, according to midrash, in what he tells his father about his brothers’ bad behavior. But in Jewish law, unlike American, truth is not a defense against defamation. Accuracy is not piety.

Judah wins Joseph’s heart and heals the breach between the brothers not because he is right, but because he is righteous.

I like to think that Judah, after fearing and ignoring Tamar, learns from her. He learns to question his own position and to treat those who may be wrong with kindness. Tamar is right when she advocates for herself, Er, and her future children. And she is righteous in the way she makes her claim. She could have exacted revenge and humiliated Judah, displaying his personal items and publicly naming him as the father. Instead, she sends him a private message that allows him to preserve his dignity.

Tamar takes a risk because Judah might have let her burn, rather than admit he was wrong. In fact, it’s because she could have burned that the rabbis teach, “better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to publicly shame another” (Ketubot 67b). Tamar is willing to risk more than most human beings to be righteous. She is also willing to see more nuance than most of us. Her father-in-law was wrong, but that’s not all he was. Despite the way Judah treated her, Tamar is able to see some decency in him and decides to trust him. Between the time he recognizes his belongings and the time he pronounces “she is more right than I,” they are both in peril. The exchange between them is a gift of grace for and by them both. Tamar is finally recognized, as so many family members long to be. Judah discovers that, though wrong, he can still choose to be righteous. And so can we.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (www.makom.org).

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.

Present Perfection


I overslept this morning. I woke up an hour after I was expected to teach. Lost in a barrage of self-punishing thoughts and assumptions of dire consequences, I
panicked aimlessly, still wearing my pajamas, thinking of ways to fix it. I was in the darkness of a wakeful nightmare: the worst imagined place, where everyone hated me and my rabbinical title was revoked.

I had taken half a dose of the “so you can rest” medicine to get over a flu. Now my inner perfectionist was about ready to Sodom and Gomorrah me. Who was I to get away with such irresponsibility? Envisioning the worst possible repercussions — furious students, calls to inform me that my inadequacies were unforgivable — I was very much afraid.

Fear: the word used to describe Jacob’s response upon waking into his own nightmare. He dreamed of angels and blessings promised him by God when he awoke.

“And He was afraid, and said, ‘How dreadful is this place! This place is nothing if not the house of Elohim and this is the gate of heaven'” (Genesis 28:17).

Jacob was afraid from the lack of love in his waking life that still separated him from the blessings of his connection to the One. For what is fear, if not the absence of love? What is terror, if not the absence of trusting the Divine plan?

When he awoke, his ego eclipsed his soul; the barrage of self-punishing thoughts began to attack. Who was he to have gotten away with such trickery and deception? Just because he had the capacity to listen well to his mother and do whatever it took to get ahead should not merit his being forgiven such negligence of his father’s incapacity to see, nor disrespect of his meathead older brother. He imagined the worst possible repercussions and found himself in a dreadful place — of mind.

As was I.

And then I stopped. Standing in my bedroom, seeing the reality of the moment, it occurred to me: it is what it is. I had not intended it this way. My mistake had come from a lack of consciousness, out of my control and without malice. Had the situation been otherwise, I would not have made it.

The territory of self-destruction and anticipation of retribution were nothing beyond my ego’s illusionary landscape. While I was standing in the guilt of my personal past and projected future, I was incapable of seeing the perfection of the present — an eternal house of the Divine. “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh,” I will be what I will be.

Who am I to be rewarded for my gifts and forgiven my imperfections? I am who I am: created in the Divine image, entitled to be rewarded for what He has blessed me with and forgiven for not accepting those blessings for more conscious use in Her service.

Who was Jacob to be compensated for his behavior and forgiven his felonies? He was the one who prevailed, the one destined to bring forth Israel, the one with whom God traveled: into the nightmare and out again.

Jacob left his dream for the internalized voice of his mother (“the more possessions you have, the safer you’ll be”) and father (“it is only by your use of material to disguise yourself that you received my blessings”). As such, his moment of knowing that his place of mind was nothing if not infused with God was extinguished. He dismissed God’s blessing eternal generations, protection and deliverance. Instead, Jacob bargained for food and clothing in exchange for his devotion. From his dread, he could not stay in the place of unconditional love, and thus he earned himself a 20-year lesson in returning there.

It’s not for us to decide what form our providence should take. Jacob’s desires for the pretty girl cost him a decade-plus of labor for her devious father; they ended up fighting and minimally fertile. The schlumpy wife he was first given easily gave him many children; in the end, it was next to her that he wanted to be buried. It was from fear — from attachment to form rather than content — that Jacob wasted years lost from the place of Light.

God’s light is within all personal darkness; were we only able to relinquish control on fixing it our way, our path would illuminate the gates of heaven, where it is already exactly as it ought to be. The worst-case scenario for our ego becomes the passage of miracles for our souls in the instant we surrender — sending our fears up the ladder into the transformative arms of Reunion.

That is my only prayer: that I may see I am standing on sacred ground, where Divine presence will infuse my thoughts and actions so as to make me ever more loving and trusting.


Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Stuck in the middle


My name is Isaac. You think you know me, but you really don’t.

I am stuck in between two generations, constantly overshadowed by my father, Abraham, and my son, Jacob. If you ask anyone to name the nation that eventually came from my family, they either refer to them as “the offspring of Abraham” or, more commonly, “the children of Israel.” You never hear anyone refer to this nation by my name: Isaac.

It’s not that my name isn’t mentioned in the Bible. My name actually appears 108 times, yet, virtually all of the stories where my name is mentioned and where I am involved as a character are told from someone else’s point of view, completely ignoring my perspective.

When I was just a little boy, I was out playing with my half-brother, Ishmael. The next thing I know, my mother throws him and his mother, Hagar, out of the house. To this day, I have no idea why this happened, and nobody ever asked me how I felt about losing my play partner. The next and only other time I saw Ishmael was when we buried our father, Abraham.

Some years after I lost my half-brother, there came what many of you call the “big test.” You have certainly heard about the most famous of stories that contains my name, “The Binding of Isaac.” The irony of having my name in the title of this story is that this story isn’t really about me at all. It’s all about my father: “After these events, God tested Abraham.”

Not once throughout this “big test of faith” is my voice ever heard, except when I asked my father why he forgot the sacrificial lamb. His answer: “God will provide.”

So there I was, bound on an altar, the fire burning and my father’s knife to my throat. Yet when it’s all over and God’s angel saves my life, only my father emerges as a heroic figure. Not once do we hear how I — Isaac — felt throughout this ordeal.

In case you’re wondering, I’ll start by asking if you ever noticed that after my akeidah, there is never again recorded in the Torah one single conversation between my father and me. Let’s add to this that when we came home, we found that my mother had died from the shock upon hearing what my father had done. So perhaps from your perspective, the akeidah crowned my father the “ultimate hero of faith.” As for me, my relationship with my father was ruined, I lost my mother and I spent the rest of my life traumatized. Not quite a “all’s well that end’s well.”

My father’s last act on earth was to send his servant to arrange my marriage. Funny, nobody asked me if I wanted to get married, and if I did, do you think I would have a say in who I would marry?

I ask this question because, yes, I did love my wife, Rebecca, but I have a hard time getting over how she went behind my back and convinced my son, Jacob, to deceive me. I favored Esau, and I have my own reasons for that. But once again, my feelings were not taken into account, and what should have been “Isaac Blessing His Sons” became “Jacob Deceiving Isaac.” My own blessing to my kids became the matter of a sibling rivalry and a sneaky plot by my wife. I had no say in the matter.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not writing all of this in order to invite your pity, because there is one story recorded about me for which I will forever be proud. It is the one and only story in the Torah that is all about me.

As you know, both my father and son were faced with severe famines in Canaan, and, as a result, both of them left and went down to Egypt. I, too, was faced with a “famine in the land,” but I did not leave. I stayed in Canaan, and I dug wells.

Perhaps I gained something when I was bound up on Mount Moriah. I became a survivor, and despite the trauma, I learned to tough things out. I am the only one in my family to never leave the land.

Throughout our history, my family’s descendants have been mistreated, traumatized and deceived (just like me), yet somehow, we always survived. We always insisted, either physically or metaphorically, on “staying in the land and digging wells,” despite “the famine.” So perhaps our people refer to themselves by the names of my father and son, but their inner character and strength as tough survivors comes from me, Isaac. It is my story — the story of a survivor — that is really their story.

Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Troublesome numbers


The most fascinating, intriguing and philosophically engaging book of the Tanakh (if we are allowed to indulge in ratings) is undoubtedly the first one — Bereshit, or Genesis. It tackles questions of creation and destiny, society and government, as well as the different facets of human behavior, sibling rivalry, envy and miscommunication.

Vast literature has been written on and around Genesis, and its narrative influenced many novels and poems. But as fascinating as it is, Bereshit cannot be read as a novel. As Erich Auerbach explains in his best-known book “Mimesis,” whereas Greek, and later on Western literature, sought to create the background for each scene, both physically and historically, by providing detailed description of the protagonists’ lives and surroundings, the Bible –and especially Genesis — is extremely laconic and taciturn, never revealing more than necessary.

This disparity led readers and commentators throughout the ages to try and fill in the gaps in the biblical narrative, which can be done in 70 different ways. In some cases, unfortunately, this interpretive endeavor yielded strange and even inedible fruits. Many readers, who cannot distinguish between the original, biblical text and the later interpretation, find themselves alienated from Torah study, a lamentable situation that requires remedy.

Case in point is Rivka’s age when she married.

A while ago I heard a speaker describing the generosity of Rivka by saying, “We know that she was only 3 years old, which made it much more difficult for her to give water to all the camels!”

We know? How? Most people will say: Rashi says so! Very good, but where did Rashi take it from?

The calculation setting Rivka’s age at 3 was done by the author of a Midrash called Seder Olam, or World’s Chronology, whose working assumption was that events juxtaposed in the Torah happened immediately one after the other. He assumed that if Sarah’s death at 127 years old is mentioned in the Torah immediately following the akedah (binding of Yizchak), then it happened right after the akedah; since Sarah was 90 when he was born, Yitzhak would therefore be 37 at the time of the akedah. Furthermore, since the news about Rivka’s birth is inserted between the akedah and Sarah’s death, and since Yitzhak married at 40, his wife was 3 years old.

This Midrash, quoted in Rashi, is taught without hesitation to kindergardeners through 12th-graders. Would we tell our children that story if it did not refer to biblical characters?

How would we feel cheering on a cute flower girl (or better yet, toddler) marching down the aisle at a wedding, only to find out that she is actually the bride? Can you imagine casually telling your kids that their 40-year-old cousin is marrying their 3-year-old next-door neighbor, with whom they don’t play because she’s too young and often breaks their toys?

Of course not, we would be disgusted and appalled. We would label the man a pedophile and a pervert. We would notify the authorities and warn our children to keep away from him.

Why then are we willing to accept that scenario when it comes to the patriarchs of our nation?

This question entails one of the greatest dilemmas of teaching and understanding Tanach, particularly Torah, and especially in Orthodox schools. To what extent are we obligated to accept the Midrash that has become so inextricably intertwined with the biblical text that even learned, well-versed scholars have a hard time telling them apart?

The answer to that question is that the rule has been long established by the early sages, mostly from the Sephardic school of thought, that rabbinical interpretation of the non-halachic parts of the Torah should be approached cautiously.

The first to voice this opinion was Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942), followed by Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon (950-1013) in his introduction to the Talmud. Later, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and Maimonides in their respective philosophical works, HaKuzari and Guide of the Perplexed, both explained that there are different types of midrash on the non-halachic parts of Torah and that they can be understood as allegories, metaphors or stories meant to convey a message.

There is no evidence to suggest that Rivka was 3 years old. To the contrary, her role as a shepherdess; the way she interacted with Abraham’s servant, with her family and with Yitzhak; and the statement at the end of the parsha — that Yitzhak’s love for her comforted him after his mother’s death — all point to a mature girl, whose youngest age was probably 17 or 18. Not only that, but Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) writes that Yitzhak’s age during the akedah was around 13, which given Yitzhak’s age of 40 at the time of their marriage would make Rivka a 27-year-old bride. At Yitzhak’s wedding, the bride might have been weeping, but it was definitely not over a lost pacifier.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

Sleepovers for Strangers


Patriarch Avraham sits outdoors, in front of his tent, recovering from his recent circumcision. Hashem visits with him, teaching and modeling for us the mitzvah of bikkur cholim — visiting the sick.

We are commanded to walk in Hashem’s ways, as the Talmud teaches in Sotah 14a. Hashem clothed the naked Adam and Eve, and so we too should clothe the naked and care for the needy. He comforted Yitzchak, who mourned Avraham’s passing, and therefore we should comfort mourners. He attended to the burial of Moshe on Mount Nevo, and so we should attend to the last needs of the deceased.

Avraham is in recovery mode, and yet he camps outside hoping to see wayfarers whom he can invite into his abode for something to eat; a reason to articulate an affirmation of thanks and gratitude to the one true Master of the Universe. Along come three men — messengers of Hashem, we are told by our tradition — and Avraham invites them in. But first he brings them water, inviting them to wash the sand and dust off their feet (Genesis 18:4).

Two of the three Divine messengers resume their trek and reach Sodom, their mission’s ultimate destination. There they meet Lot, the nephew of Avraham. Our tradition teaches that Lot was raised by his uncle Avraham after his own father, Haran (Genesis 11:27), died a terrible death in Nimrod’s fiery furnace. Lot invites the men into his home to spend the night, and further invites them to wash their feet in the morning (Genesis 19:2).

Although many customs and lifestyle nuances appear in the course of the Tanakh (our Bible), this business of inviting visiting strangers to wash their feet seems striking. Not only Avraham and Lot, but others in the Tanakh began their home hospitality by offering wayfarers water to wash their feet. Thus, Avraham’s Damascene servant, Eliezer, was offered water to wash his feet when he arrived at the home of Betuel, father of Rivkah, the young girl who he perceived perfect to marry Yitzchak (Genesis 24:32). We later see that when Joseph’s brothers were invited into his home, the home of the Egyptian viceroy, they promptly were given water to wash their feet (Genesis 43:24).

These are the traditions and niceties of a people who became proficient at welcoming wayfarers. The very act of inviting the traveling stranger into one’s home took on the aspect of religious observance, accompanied by ritual.

The water of foot washing is a hallmark of the house meant to welcome visitors, dining guests, even sleepovers. And we see that, in our tradition, not only is hachnasat orchim a central mitzvah — another of those acts of kindness from which one eats the fruit in this world while enjoying the principal in the world to come (Talmud, Shabbat 127a) — but it is one more defining practice of our people, and other Children of Avraham, that sets us (and, in this case, our Arab cousins) apart from much of the world.

Which brings us back to the foot washing. I imagine young Lot in my mind’s eye — Lot, the nephew, in the home of Uncle Avraham and Aunt Sarah. Guests arrive. And soon the bowl of water for foot washing was brought out.

“We have guests, and they’re sleeping over. Clean up your bedroom, get a towel and get them water to wash their feet.”

I see the same nephew growing into a man, years later. He has made some bad choices, is camped out in Sodom, married to a salty wife, with some daughters who have grown up in Sodom. It’s a bad situation, a bad spiritual place, and he is not the quality of man that Avraham is. But he’s got the foot water ready — because he grew up with the foot water. M’darft — a person simply has to have foot water ready for guests.

It passes along the family through the generations. Avraham sends Eliezer back to the land where Avraham evolved many of his early values, forbidding the servant from selecting a bride locally from among the coarse Canaanites. Eliezer finds Rivkah, is invited to spend the night, and is welcomed with the foot water. By the time of Joseph, the palace has foot water for the visiting brothers. And, even in the horrific story of the Concubine of Giv’ah, the elderly man — who unsuccessfully tries saving the wayfarers from the overnight doom that surely would have befallen them if they had camped outdoors in the town square — signals them with the foot water of hospitality (Judges 19:21).

Nu? So what about your home?

Do you host Shabbat sleepovers? Do you regularly host guests for Shabbat meals? And, if you do, are your invitations geared primarily to your own circle of friends? Or do your children see you inviting wayfarers, strangers visiting the community? Do they see you adding your name to your local synagogue’s Shabbat home hospitality list? Is yours a home open to strangers who contact your synagogue for a Shabbat meal?

Today, the symbols of hospitality more typically are the bedroom at the end of the hall, the face and bath towels, and an old blanket with pillowcases that don’t match. But that’s OK. Because if it is part of their childhood, your children will continue this wonderful tradition of hachnasat orchim when they have homes and households. They are watching you and learning. Just as you do what your parents did when you grew up. Just as Joseph. Just as Rivkah. Just as Lot. All continuing this remarkable tradition, so strangely unique in society, of housing unknown sleepovers, feeding them and footing the bill with joy.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.

Setting out to look within


A 40-year-old British man named Jason Lewis recently completed a circumnavigation of the globe using only human power. He journeyed more than 46,000 miles around the world using a bicycle, pedal boat, kayak, rollerblades and his own two feet. He kayaked or pedaled across oceans and lakes, hiked over mountains and through jungles, and skated the breadth of the United States. In July, he ended his journey in Greenwich, where he started 13 years earlier.

That’s right — 13 years.

And the purpose? In the words of his friend Steve Smith, with whom he started the journey (the friend dropped out five years in), to ensure that the “prime of our lives does not turn out to be less than it should.”

Recounting the motivation that inspired the journey, Smith wrote, “What I see, day after day, are captured lives, half-lives, dedicated to a mirage of fullness that never comes…. My greatest fear is of mediocrity and of a slow, unremarkable acquiescence to society over time.”

Lewis’ story reminds me of the journey that begins this week in Lech Lecha. Like the Lewis journey, our first parents, the legendary founders of monotheism and the Jewish people, Avram and Sarai, leave their home, their familiar surroundings, all that they know to be true and head off into the great wilderness. They follow a call from an unknown God, a new spirit of unity and hope that would become the foundation of our existence, radically changing the way human beings relate to the divine and to each other; the calling of a lifetime begins in this parsha.

We live in a world today dominated by the drive to achieve more, gain more, conquer more, be it wealth, land, power or just stuff we are convinced we need. We seldom live fully in the moment, seek a connection with ourselves or discover what is transpiring, transforming within our own hearts and souls.

Shabbat is meant to be this time, which is why Abraham Joshua Heschel called it a “palace in time.” This is the one day of the week where we are gifted by our newfound Creator, as we read in the second chapter of Genesis, to rest and restore our sense of balance and equilibrium, which often can get knocked off kilter by the pace of our harried existence.

The journey each week on Shabbat is the personal journey of lech lecha, going inside ourselves — through prayer, song, community, study and rest — to ask the questions of substance, the questions that end up plaguing too many of us on our deathbeds: “Am I satisfied with my life? Am I living fully and with awareness? Do I spend enough time with my family, with my friends, pursuing moments that bring me inner joy and wholeness? Have I achieved a goal, reached a new height, a new depth in the realm of spirit, personal awareness or satisfaction?”

We have the chance, each and every week, to take the journey of Abraham, listen for the call of God and then find ways to answer that call.

The Mei Shiloach, a masterful Chasidic commentator, understood the call of lech lecha as “finding your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”

This life is not about how much money we earn, how many cars we own, how many vacation homes, yachts or private jets we can play in. No, this life is about how many moments we spend laughing, crying, singing, pondering and kissing; how many moments we spend learning to play an instrument, sculpting, hiking, biking, gardening, knitting; how many moments we spend in silent meditation, in a deep yoga pose or chanting to cleanse our hearts.

We must do what is necessary to live, feed our families and provide shelter, but the notion that this work is the essence of our life, the sole purpose for living, is a poison that too many of us have swallowed.

Lech lecha reminds us of what is truly important in this life. We might not circle the globe, but we can circle our deeper selves. And this might be the most rewarding journey we ever take.

As we begin this new year, as each moment passes in our lives, may we be inspired by Abraham and Sarah, people of courage and inner wisdom, people who were able to hear the call of a new life, a challenge to the status quo of their day, and embrace a belief that things need not be what they seem to be. May we all journey forth into greater unknowns, forging ahead into the depths of our being, into the fear of our greatest hope coming true, and may we find God, peace, compassion and wisdom of days. And may we each receive, accept and spread the greatest gift of Abraham: to be a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. To learn more about his own journey, or to contact him, please visit

Picking up the pieces


“The Sabbath Day: One should not forget it;
Its memory is like a savory fragrance.
The dove found respite on it [the Sabbath],
And on it the weary of spirit shall rest.”
— Translated from “Yom Shabbaton,” Shabbat Zemirot liturgy, composed by R’ Judah HaLevi (d. 1140)

The dove sent by Noah to see if the floodwaters had abated found its resting spot on dry land on the Sabbath day, according to the great Spanish poet Judah HaLevi.

What did Noah do once he disembarked from the Ark? He offered a sacrifice on an altar, which provided a “savory fragrance” to God (Genesis 8:21). The poet is engaging in clever wordplay, because the Hebrew words for respite (mano’ach) and fragrance (nicho’ach) are etymologically related.

As a matter of fact, Noah’s very name foreshadows both the respite that the dove — and all mankind — finally found, as well as the fragrance of his sacrifice. Noah in Hebrew is derivative of both words. Indeed, the rabbis in the Midrash disagree as to why Noah was so named: Was it because the Ark would come to “rest” (mano’ach) under his tutelage, or was it because he would provide a “savory fragrance” (nicho’ach) with his sacrifice?

What difference does it make why he was named Noah? Why couldn’t it have been for both reasons?

The sages are debating what provides greater consolation to the community of man after that community has been destroyed. One consolation is that God’s anger doesn’t last forever; eventually the flood’s rains abate and dry land once again emerges. As long as one is patient, there will always be a time for peace.

However, the other view sees a much greater consolation than a simple abatement of Divine retribution. After all, of what benefit is it to know that God’s anger is not permanent if mankind is incapable of rebuilding after all the carnage and destruction? The greater consolation is rather that once all the violent destruction is over, man is capable of picking up the shattered pieces of his life and rebuilding.

This is what was represented by Noah’s sacrifice. Not only did Noah find dry land that enabled him to physically disembark from the Ark, that icon of mankind’s destruction. He was also able to emotionally distance himself from that trapped existence in the Ark. He found within himself the ability to leave behind the pain and to rebuild — to rebuild his altar, his community, his entire way of life.

He managed to find a place again in his life where God was welcome. He could have spent the rest of his life in anger, bitter at God for having wrought all the devastation and loss. But he knew that approach was pointless, and that he needed to instead rebuild and restore humanity.

Noah’s behavior after the flood represents the ultimate consolation to mankind.

Esther Jungreis is fond of saying that the term “Holocaust survivor” is a misnomer. Jews didn’t “survive” the Shoah, they triumphed over it. Whereas so many would have given up after all the death and devastation, Jewish individuals and whole communities picked up the pieces of their lives and rebuilt.

Out of the death camps emerged Jewish schools. Out of the ashes of the crematoria blossomed a Jewish state.

The greatest consolation is the indomitable human drive to build and rebuild, to live at all costs. This is why no nation, no matter how formidable or foreboding to the Jewish people, will ever be able to keep us down. No matter what, we will always rebuild our altars, and offer that savory fragrance, just like Noah.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region.

Four simple words


“Because, I said so!”

Four simple words effectively restore order when alternative tactics for ending the cacophony of whys or pleases have not. This declaration can render the most persistent young kvetchers powerless against their authority’s final say on the matter.

Considered a major no-no in child psychology, experts in the field call it “emotionally abusive talk,” which embeds shame, fear and victimization in youngsters. According to Chick Moorman, author of “Parent Talk: Words That Empower, Words That Wound,” such responses send a “silent message [that] ‘I’m big and you’re little. I’m smart and you’re dumb. I have power and you don’t.'”

Juvenile development literature suggests replacing these words with patient listening and reasonable responses that respectfully communicate feelings to the little whiner until they understand. One parenting guru suggests saying something like: “It’s frustrating for me, Mike, when you continue to ask, ‘Why?’ As the grown-up here, I make some of the decisions. This is why I have to say no, because (insert reasons)…. I won’t be changing my mind on this one.”

I’m no child development specialist, but as an educator and rabbi, my professional response is: Ummm, are you kidding?!

Here on earth, anyone who has been around children knows that sometimes — when your 11-year-old is protesting your refusal to let her have three friends over for the weekend while your 2-year-old asks for the 73rd time why he has to stay buckled in the car seat, all while in bumper-to-bumper traffic — the only thing left to communicate is: “Because, I said so!”

And if the result is kids believe they are at the humble mercy of a greater power who needs no reason whatsoever to tell it like it is: good.

I’ve got the Torah backing me up on this one — those four words are the greatest gift a child can be given. Within them lie the secrets of God, creation, personal empowerment and the alchemy of miracles.

In Bereshit we read of creation: beginning with the genesis of light and culminating in the formation of humans — made in their Creator’s image.

Genesis 1:3 explains that from out of chaotic darkness “God said, let there be light, and there was light.” With the declaration of these four words, the Source began to manifest the perfect order of reality: in which what is “is” — because, He said so.

And had Adam been shmendrik enough to nudge for a reason why, that’s what God would have answered. Why does the earth bring forth grass and herb yielding seed? Because God said it did, end of story (well, beginning of story, actually).

There are no reasons offered in the text; no explanations or justifications or rational interpretations exist in the account of Divine creation. God was not reasonable. He didn’t provide logic or meaning for his manifest designs; doing so would turn Him into their effect rather than their cause, which is impossible in the Chief’s case.

And this is how it ought to be for us, when we are truly realized in His image. In Bereshit, humanity is charged with the responsibility of mimicking God’s acts of Genesis: through the power of our words, we are blessed with the capacity to declare from out of the chaos what is — because we say so.

The only thing hindering our creating those direct experiences is the introduction of reasons for why we are generating them. Because with every reason, we further distance ourselves from the truth of what is and what we will allow to become of it.

Reasoning dismantles our power of creation, our ability to be source and master of reality; it locks us into the illusions of mind, where descriptions about something inhibit the emotive experience of it. Every word we waste detailing some interpretation for why something is interferes with a direct experience of its being; we become liars with each story told of some external source that has caused our present circumstance.

Patient explanations for why our assertions make sense are, according to this parsha, the very way we abuse our children. Our being reasonable delivers silent messages that destroy their capacity for greatness, and their reverence of ours. Rationale and justification for our actions convert them instantly into reactions — rendering us at the effect of something out there that is capable of causing in us limitation and powerlessness.

We end up perverting the obvious and necessary inequality between adult and minor. Grown-ups are supposed to be smarter. How is that shameful? How else will children learn to revere the word of their creator if not for their own maker’s effective mastery over reality? If we portray ourselves as victims to rational, out-of-our-control elucidation, how will we inspire creativity or self-empowerment — let alone deference before God — in children?

Bereshit calls for our re-creation; we are reminded to be at the cause of the reality we experience — made manifest by our unreasonable words. We are invited to remember our truth: in the Divine image, we must demonstrate for our young ones the accountability and illogical declarations that are the stuff of miracles manifesting.

While I agree with child psychologists who espouse the value of listening, it’s more important that the child listen rather than the adult. If we teach children to listen well, they will hear in our terse and tired responses the one instruction that can forever set them free to be, do and have the most glorious of life experiences. We’re telling them how they can be liberated from their feeling like powerless victims: “Because, I said so.”

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Whither the First Born?


One can learn a great deal about how not to parent by reading the stories of the dysfunctional matriarchal/patriarchal families that comprise a substantial proportion
of the narrative in Genesis. One pattern that generates much pain for the dramatis personae of the first book of Scripture is parental favoritism of certain children over their siblings.

This begins with Sarah and her understandable affinity for Isaac. It continues with Rebecca favoring Jacob and Isaac favoring Esau and concludes with Jacob’s preference for Joseph, Benjamin and Judah and his (justified) disdain for his three eldest sons, Reuben, Simeon and Levi.

In all instances, the first-born sons do not taste the fruits of primogeniture, a situation that flies in the face of the uncompromisingly clear statement in Deuteronomy 21:15-16, where we learn that if a man should have two wives, one who is loved (ahuvah) and one who is unloved (s’nuah), and if the first-born son is the child of the unloved wife, he shall, nevertheless, receive the larger portion of his father’s estate. The terms ahuvah and s’nuah call to mind Jacob’s feelings for Rachel and Leah, respectively.

In Parshat Vayehi, the pattern of giving a preferential blessing to a younger child and not to the first-born carries over to Joseph’s children. Interestingly, Joseph is not the one responsible for this action but, rather, Jacob, who willfully and unambiguously elevates Ephraim above his older brother, Menashe, when blessing his grandsons after adopting them as his own children (Genesis 48:5).

We learn from the biblical account that Joseph positions his sons in front of his now-blind father, with Ephraim opposite Jacob’s left hand and Menashe opposite his right, so Jacob can place his right hand on Menashe’s head — the use of the right hand being a recognition and affirmation of the first-born’s status.

Jacob, however, in spite of his blindness, realizes what Joseph has done, crosses his hands so that his right hand rests on Ephraim’s head and, with his hands thus positioned, blesses the two boys. Joseph, seeking to ensure that his eldest has his superior status affirmed by Jacob, attempts to correct his father. Jacob, however, essentially says: “Leave me alone; I know exactly what I am doing” (Genesis 48:13-20).

What moved Jacob to do what he did?

There is a midrashic tradition that suggests that Jacob, in crossing his hands, may have been motivated by the Holy Spirit of prophetic illumination, which enabled him to read God’s will. But the need to explain Jacob’s actions results from an ancient question: How could Jacob ignore the Deuteronomic law, which clearly states that the first-born’s privilege is not revocable?

It is reflected in the I Chronicles 5:1-2 explanation that Reuben lost his first-born status when he inappropriately had sexual relations with Bilhah, Rachel’s concubine and Jacob’s bedmate. The Talmud (Bava Batra 123a) cites the Chronicles passage in its discussion of the matter.

The need to justify Jacob’s actions regarding his sons and grandsons also emerges from the fact that in the Torah, God tells Abraham and Rebecca that their sons, Isaac and Jacob, respectively, will gain the right of primogeniture, supplanting their older brothers, Ishmael and Esau. According to the biblical accounts, Jacob is given no such Divine mandate. So, midrashic explanations are sought.

The thinking behind all of this is: People are expected to follow God’s law. Rabbinic tradition teaches that even though Jacob lived before the Sinaitic revelation, he knew Torah because he studied at the yeshivah of Shem and Ever. So, he was obligated to follow the Torah law regarding the first born.

God, however, transcends natural law and, likewise, Torah law. If God has a master plan, then principles that define normal human relationships can be abrogated. God, therefore, can allow a younger brother to assume the status of a first born. People, however, cannot. Jacob’s doing so, therefore, requires a rationale, and one such rationale is that Jacob was able to read God’s “mind.” He had unique prophetic or mystical powers, the sages say.

We, however, do not have such powers, and we cannot know that God has ordained certain exceptions (even if they prove the rule). We are expected to follow God’s rules and generate functional families. The rule of primogeniture is no longer operative in our society, but the Divinely ordained principles of fairness, compassion, righteousness and justice are.

We are, therefore, obligated to define our family relationships in accordance with these principles and provide a solid foundation for the societies in miniature that operate within our homes. In the overall scheme of things, it is God’s will that shalom bayit, or household harmony, prevails in our homes and that our children experience love, trust, loyalty and honesty so they can transmit these ideals down the generations.

So the Torah actually uses the accounts of our dysfunctional matriarchal/patriarchal families to teach us what not to do in the hope that we learn what to do.

Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

Finding Mr. and Ms. Right


Of all the regular columns in The Jewish Journal, I enjoy the Singles column the most. You know, the one typically written by a 30-something still out there, searching for
Mr. or Ms. Right.

I married young and don’t really know too much about the singles scene. But invariably this is the most stimulating part of the paper, because the best comedy and the deepest philosophy are conveyed in these writings.

The writers have two possible reactions that follow the disappointment of a disastrous evening: They either laugh or cry. I applaud the singles who find humor in these awkward experiences. They also probably find a silver lining in other dark clouds within the human experience, and so they’re generally the people I’d want to have as friends.

Philosophy is employed when pondering the meaning of all the searching, anticipation and rejection. A mixture of theodicy and nihilism is submitted in a moment of deeper rumination, or perhaps when one is too burned out to joke anymore over one’s single status.

Well, singles (and former singles) consider this: Our patriarch Isaac was 40 before he found his mate, Rebecca. His household butler, Eliezer, fetched Rebecca from a faraway land and Isaac blindly relied on Eliezer (and God) to send him the right girl. Isaac was OK with this arrangement because he was a devoutly religious and spiritual person. He accepted his lot in life and knew that everything that befell him was supervised by God.

In the story, we find that at the very moment that Rebecca met Isaac, he was out in the field praying near a well. As soon as he lifted his eyes from prayer, Rebecca appeared in the distance, and they both knew that destiny had brought them together.

One detail is very jarring about this story. The well that Isaac was praying at was called Be’er Lahai Ro’ee, which loosely translates as, “The Well of My Divine Vision.” It was the well where an angel had appeared to Isaac’s stepmother, Hagar.

Abraham had taken Hagar as a second wife at Sarah’s own suggestion. But when Hagar became pregnant right away, Isaac’s mother, Sarah, chased her out of the house because she felt Hagar had become too haughty. Hagar thought she would die in the desert, until an angel of God appeared to her by the well and promised that she would be the matriarch of a separate nation, the Ishmaelite people.

If Isaac wanted to pray at a holy site, why not just stay home in Abraham’s tent, where angels regularly appeared anyway? Why did he have to go out to Hagar’s well? Even more troubling, why choose the holy place of the rival of Isaac’s own mother? Why not choose a more “Jewish” holy site, instead of the holy site of the mother of the Muslim people?

Apparently, Isaac wasn’t as concerned about choosing a “Jewish” holy site as he was about choosing the appropriate holy site. Hagar’s well was the right choice for two reasons.

First, it was a place where God appeared at a time of utter desperation, when Hagar had nowhere else turn. Isaac, realizing that when it comes to finding the proper mate, he had no one else to turn to other than God, chose Hagar’s well of desperation.

Second, Hagar was forced to flee Abraham’s house because of domestic discord — one husband and two wives is a tough order even on a good day, and things had really soured between Sarah and Hagar. Isaac realized that this well was a place for God to help mend marital disharmony. The angel’s charge to Hagar at the well was, “Return to your matron, Sarah,” and so Hagar did. Isaac realized that this was the place to receive blessing with success in one’s domestic life.

Our talmudic sages provide one more reason why Isaac was praying at Hagar’s well. It was to bring Hagar back to Abraham, who had recently become a widower upon Sarah’s death. Isaac realized that his own marital bliss could not be complete if his own father remained a lonely widower. He wanted his father to partake of the same rich and joyous life he had seen when growing up in Abraham’s house. He knew that Hagar had been a good wife before, and so he brought her back for a double wedding.

Perhaps Isaac also realized that in order for his own new marriage to be successful and free of his father’s well-meaning intervention, he’d have to find something constructive for his father to do in his retirement. All too often, idle parents and in-laws seek to vicariously relive their youth through their children’s lives and relationships. Isaac may have wanted to avoid that conflict by giving his father his own youth back with a remarriage to his former wife.
So you see, being single was no picnic for Isaac and Abraham either. But take heart: not only did Isaac find his mate later in life, Abraham also found happiness and companionship many years later with his second wife, Hagar.

The right one is out there — just keep looking.


Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.

Witness to Redemption


The episode of the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, presents so many difficult questions. One of the most basic is: For whom is this human and Divine drama staged?

Who comes out ahead as a result of the Akedah playing out?

Is it for Abraham’s benefit? Abraham receives no new blessings or rewards. Additionally, it’s difficult to argue that he learns anything about himself or God that he didn’t already know.

Is it for God’s benefit? We can only make this argument if we are prepared to set aside deeply entrenched beliefs that God’s omniscience includes His knowing Abraham’s character and the degree of Abraham’s devotion. God, it would seem, does not need the Akedah.

So who is it for?

In Megillah (31b), an account is given of an encounter between Abraham and God. Abraham seeks reassurance that his (as yet theoretical) children will indeed inherit the land of Canaan. Despite God’s repeated promises to this effect, Abraham remains uneasy.

“Perhaps they will sin,” Abraham says, “and You will do to them as you did to the generation of the flood.”
Even though God then insists that He would do no such thing, Abraham persists: “How can I know? What will you do, God, to guarantee it?”

It could be that God’s response to Abraham’s request is the command of the Akedah. It could be that the Akedah is the means through which God guarantees Abraham’s children would never sin to the point of being worthy of destruction.

“Do you want to be sure?” God says. “Then take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering upon the mountain that I will show you.”

How would this ensure anything?

The answer becomes clear when we consider the impact the Akedah has had on Jewish history. As Rabbi Yitzchak Arama reminds us, the Torah records the whole story of the Akedah for us so that Jews throughout history could “virtually” witness the Akedah. As a result, Jews of all ages have been shaken and moved by this account of devotion to God without limits, of commitment to God without boundaries, of the willingness to spare nothing in the pursuit of God’s vision.

Who could then deny the assertion that the Akedah has repeatedly, over the course of Jewish history, saved us from the fate of the Generation of the Flood, from the fate of disappearing from this world without a trace? Because of our sins, we could have disappeared at the hands of the Babylonians. But Jeremiah rose repeatedly, risking life and limb, to convey the message of God that we must not believe that this is the end. That if we return, we shall be redeemed.

From what story did Jeremiah draw the inspiration to remain steadfast and loyal to God’s vision despite the fact that doing so might cost him his life? Like all of us, Jeremiah was a witness to the Akedah.

Which story inspired Esther to gather up her courage and enter Ahasuerus’ throne room, risking her own life to save her people?

Which biblical figures was Rabbi Akiva thinking about when he defied the Hadrianic ban on public Torah study?

On the day of his execution, what story must he have been thinking about when he described his sense of joy to his students over the fact that he now knew that he truly loved God with all his heart?

And in a slightly different but not unrelated vein, how did it happen that not only the Jewish people survived the Shoah, but that Judaism survived the Shoah?

Abraham asked: “How will I know that my children will live on forever?”

And God answered, “Take thou your son….”

In other words: You and he will model devotion and persistence even in the face of possible death. And all will see it, and know it.

There is, of course, a startling but crucial implication to this reading of the Akedah. It requires that we assume that Abraham and Isaac knew that whatever was going to happen when they reached the mountain — however the drama would end, however many of them would descend the mountain alive — they knew that they were participating in this tortuous drama not for themselves and not for God, but for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that they would never meet.

They did it for the unknown generations of people who would call themselves the children of Abraham and Isaac, for the generations that would need a model of love and devotion to God that they could latch onto and possess as their own, when their hour of trial would arrive.

“We do not ascend this mountain for ourselves,” father and son said to each other. “We ascend it to ensure the lives of those who will come after us.”

And for this reason, too, we hold them up as our models and heroes.


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

Books: It’s the end of the world as we know it — again


“A History of the End of the World” by Jonathan Kirsch (Harper San Francisco; $25.95)

To true believers, North Korea’s recent nuclear test was just the latest in a series of signs that the end-time is near. In Jonathan Kirsch’s compelling new book, “A History of the End of the World,” he points out that false prophets and “numbers crunchers” have been calling for Armageddon for 2,000 years, despite the fact that the reputed author of the Book of Revelation, John, son of Zebedee, “teaches his readers and hearers to do nothing about the evil that surrounds them except to keep the faith and keep quiet.”

Apparently, ours is not the only historically challenged era, because over the last two millennia, everyone from Savonarola to Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham and David Koresh has forgotten the past and has offered new predictions about the end-times. They’ve all been wrong. Still, each new generation brings a new seer or two and a new list of seemingly prophetic calamities like the Black Death, the Crusades, the Civil War, World War I (dubbed the “war to end all wars,” a clear reference to Armageddon), World War II and now the War on Terror, all of which are supposed to foretell the apocalypse.

Yet Jesus, who some believe wrote Revelation, specifies in the Gospels that no one, not even he, will ever know when the world will end. Only God knows, apparently. And the final battle will take place not on Earth, but in Heaven, one clear indication that the Book of Revelation has been misread throughout history.

Kirsch, who has written 10 books, including five previous ones on the Bible, did prodigious research for his latest tome. He purchased obscure, out-of-print texts and took 1,000 pages of single-space notes. For Kirsch, a book critic and lawyer, who represents The Jewish Journal on a pro bono basis, reading and writing flow through his DNA. For 30 years, his father wrote six book reviews a week for the L.A. Times, a mere fraction of the 20 books he read each week. Kirsch’s own son is also a book reviewer, and his daughter an accomplished reader.

Like literary critic Harold Bloom, author of “The Book of J,” Kirsch has not only made a valiant effort at conquering the Western canon through voluminous reading (he has pored through the ancient works of Josephus and Augustine, the sermons of Cotton Mather and other Puritans, and “medieval bestsellers,” to list just a few examples), he has also had a long-held interest in the authorship of the Bible.

Where Bloom speculated in “The Book of J” that the J writer, whose lyrical Torah passages feature a distinctive anthropomorphic God, was a woman, Kirsch suggests that the author of the Book of Revelation was not simply a man but a Jewish one at that.

Revelation, as Kirsch shows in his book, is infused with Jewish messianic tropes, such as the constant use of the totemic number seven, a figure of great significance to Jews going back to Genesis. Moreover, Revelation contains almost no references to the Trinity, Communion or the “love thy neighbor” ethos of the Christian Bible. Instead, it presents Jesus as a violent and sanguinary warrior, whose vengefulness calls to mind a monstrous version of the Torah’s God.

Revelation’s author, a killjoy in extremis, has a hatred for human sexuality, particularly that of women. That has not stopped women from being some of the most renowned interpreters of the scripture. Many of these mystics and visionary nuns, like Na Prous Boneta and Marguerite Porete, were burned at the stake during the Inquisition.

But women alone are not doomed. The only men certain of being saved are the 144,000 ones “who have not defiled themselves with women,” which means that Mel Gibson will have to find another way to heaven.
Gibson may indeed have more to worry about than Jews. Referring to Amos’ apocalyptic writings in the Torah, Kirsch writes, “The prophet Amos, quite unlike the author of Revelation, does not predict that God will destroy and replace it with a celestial paradise in the clouds. Rather, as Amos sees it, God will spare the Israelites who have remained faithful to the divine law, and he will grant them nothing more exalted than a good life in the here and now.”

Although Kirsch does not deny the bloodthirsty nature of Revelation, he notes that many readers have interpreted it as having a happy ending. There are true believers who anticipate the Rapture as the greatest day of their lives, and some fundamentalists over the years have decided to do good deeds by ending slavery and helping the poor. A few millennial cults have even conducted themselves with more than a degree of postmodern whimsy, like the House of David, a sect famous for its long beards and barnstorming baseball games.

Unfortunately, for every relatively benign outfit like the House of David, there have been multiple Branch Davidians, willing to kill themselves and others as a final act. And for every Jimmy Carter, a humane born-again, there have been more than a few charlatans among Christians and Jews, participating in what The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier calls a “grim comedy of mutual condescension.”

As Kirsch says, “They gain political advantage by betraying themselves and playing cynically on someone else’s values.”

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