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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vayeshev: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Stew

This post originally appeared on Neesh Noosh.

In Vayeshev, Jacob returns to his home to “settle.” But, there is not any internal or external settling for him. Jacob’s sons are upset by the arrogance of his favorite son, Joseph. The brothers strip Joseph of the elaborate tunic Jacob had given him and throw him into a pit. Rather than letting him die, though, Reuben convinces the other brothers instead to sell him into slavery. But, the brothers lie to their father that his beloved Joseph was killed by presenting his bloody tunic.

Why is Jacob unable to have tranquility in his life after everything he’s been through? Yanki Tauber writes, “many are content to live this lie: to forget what happened yesterday, avoid thinking about what will happen tomorrow, ignore the sadness in a neighbor’s eye, the poverty on the other side of town and the bombs in the other time zone.

While one may look at a farm and see a tranquil, lush landscape, agriculture is anything but calm. Rather, it is the epicenter of global fights for human rights, land sovereignty and the survival of family farmers. This Wednesday, December 10, is Slow Food’s Terra Madre Day–a global celebration of local foods. The Terra Madre network in 160 countries supports food sovereignty–local communities control over the growing, production and eating of food. It is also about preserving indigenous food cultures and traditions in the face of threats from international agriculture and food homogenization that eliminates food diversity, hurts small farmers and devastates communities. Part of Terra Madre’s commitment to preserving food diversity is through it’s Ark of Taste which has already 2,000 foods from around the globe that are at risk of disappearing.

It’s also Human Rights Day on December 10. While the family farmers of Terra Madre fight off threats from industrial agriculture, tens of thousands of industrial farmworkers are fighting for their human rights.  The Los Angeles Times has an incredible story about farmworkers in Mexico picking tomatoes at “mega-farms” for the US market. They live in “squalid conditions, trapped for months at a time  [and] camp bosses illegal withhold [of] wages.” 

One worker said, The real truth is that we’re work animals for the fields.

Terra Madre Day and Human Rights Day are both about rights in the face of industrial agriculture. And, this issue affects all of us. As Yael Shy notes about Jacob in Vayeshev, “[he] is trying to create an artificial separation between his own well-being and the well-being of the world.” We are not separate from who or how our food is grown.

We cannot continue with a food system that enslaves workers. We also needfamily farmers who provide food for 70% of humanity. The range of crops grown by family farmers is critical to protecting food diversity, especially with environmental threats of climate change that can easily wipe out a single crop.

Yanki Tauber continues, “there are the righteous: men and women who cannot relish their meal as long as someone, somewhere, remains hungry; who, if there is ignorance in the world, know their own wisdom to be deficient; who, if there is discord anywhere in G‑d’s creation, cannot be at peace with themselves.”

The haughty and arrogant Joseph is transformed when he is a slave in Egypt. Rabbi Brad Artson writes in The Bedside Torah that “only in prison does Joseph learn to accept a fundamental principal of Jewish living: kol Yisrael areivim, zeh ba’zeh. We are all responsible for one another.”

When you buy the ingredients for this week’s dish, try to learn about where it was grown. Is the food from a small family farmer or industrial farm? Where is it located? How was it grown? When you  know your food sources, you can have a relationship–and responsibility–to your farmers and community.

The dish for Vayeshev is made with a rainbow of colors, reflective of Joseph’s ornate tunic. The tomatoes symbolize the blood smeared on the tunic by Joseph’s brothers and a reminder of the inhumane work environment for so many farmworkers. Also, in honor of Human Rights Day, the diversity of colors in the dish are for the myriad of people who grow and pick our food–whether it’s a family farmer harvesting apples in upstate New York, a farmworker planting lettuce at an industrial farm in California’s Central Valley or a child picking tomatoes in Mexico. The variety of ingredients in the stew is also a celebration of Terra Madre and a reminder of our need to protect the global diversity of colors and tastes of foods.

Technicolor Stew


  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped into small pieces
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, chopped, finely chopped
  • 2 yellow zucchini, chopped into small chunks
  • 1-2 green zucchini, chopped into small chunks
  • 1 basket cherry tomatoes
  • 1 purple yam (if not available, substitute an eggplant), sliced
  • 1 handful torn or chopped basil
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste


1. Wash and chop vegetables.
2. Over medium heat, add 1 tbsp olive oil to pan and add onion and garlic. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes.
3. Add zucchinis and yam. Simmer with lid for about 15-20 minutes until soft. You might need to add some water to ensure it doesn’t stick.
4. Add tomatoes and pepper. Cook for another 10-15 minutes until soft.
5. Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste, a few drops of olive oil and freshly chopped basil.



Vayishlach: You name it

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

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

Huh? Isn’t that backwards?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power of words: Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

In our age of Facebook and Twitter, we know all too well how fast words can spread. When I was a kid, we played the game telephone, passing a word or phrase around the circle by whispering it into each other’s ear, knowing that by the time it went all the way around, it would probably be transformed into something completely different — that was funny! 

Words are some of the most powerful tools we have in our human arsenal, and they can be used for incredible good or immense evil. Speaking into the microphone of today’s hyper-connected world enables us to both spread positive energy into the universe, and, sadly more often, spread negative energy, sometimes leading to violence. Both are known as going viral, and both are as ancient as the creation of the world and the essence of this week’s parashah.

Vayeshev begins the Joseph cycle, which will carry through for the rest of Genesis. Words are central to this parashah, as they are to the Jewish people as a whole. Our liturgy reminds us every morning, “Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam” (Blessed is the one who spoke and the world came into being). In Vayeshev, words are crucial to the plot as Joseph “brings evil reports of his brothers” to his father (Genesis 37:2), and shares his dreams with his brothers and family, vocalizing private thoughts out loud without necessarily thinking about the consequences. Jacob, continuing the family tradition, expresses favoritism for Joseph in both words and actions, giving him the famous cloak of many colors, thereby driving his brothers to hate him so much that “they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Genesis 37:4). Emotions are heated and the sibling rivalry is quite extreme. The Hebrew text in this parashah is replete with the words deebah (word), daber (speak), yaged (tell) and, sadly, sinah (hate). All of the words that Joseph and his brothers exchange only lead to more and more hate, eventually driving them to do the unthinkable: throw Joseph in a pit, sell him down to Egypt, and lie to their father by saying he died, ironically using the cloak of many colors, drenched in blood, as their alibi. Words, language, the very power God used to create our world, are thrown around in this parashah in such a negative way that the consequences are legendary. However, in the one place that words could have saved the situation, the text reports silence. Jacob has a chance to reprimand Joseph and the brothers, after the dreams, and the text says Jacob “shamar et ha’davar” (he guarded the matter). Rashi interprets this to mean, “He waited to see what would happen.” Precisely when words were needed to save the family unit, Jacob waited and was silent. It is not the only time this happens in Jacob’s life. 

The lessons of this parashah, to me, are: When do we speak and when do we hold our tongue? When do we share what we are feeling and when do we keep it to ourselves? Words, the precious gift that God gave us humans to communicate, can change the world, as in the great oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, or they can destroy worlds, as in hate speech or bullying a kid at school. I see this parashah as calling us to teach our children how and when to speak, and how and when to keep quiet. Standing up for someone in need demands the courage of words; knowing when to ignore someone with silence or keeping our negative thoughts to ourselves demands wisdom. Joseph learns well, as the very dream-work that gets him into trouble at the beginning of the parashah is what saves his life in the dungeon of Pharaoh.

Kohelet said it best: “There is a time for speech and a time for silence.” May the Torah this week, and the lessons learned from some of the painful experiences we read about, teach us what to do before we speak, write or hit the reply/send button on our computers. Blessed is the one Who spoke and the world came into being: This is a great personal meditation before uttering, or choosing not to utter, our words. Shabbat shalom!

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).

Teach your children well: Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

As I am the father of twin sons, this parasha, where we learn of the birth of twins Jacob and Esau, has a special place in my soul. Esau sells his birthright, and Rivka helps her favored son, Jacob, “trick” Isaac into a blessing. The portion ends with Jacob fleeing from his brother in fear for his life. Not exactly the ideal relationship that a parent wants between his children. Whenever I study this portion, I have the question that most parents have asked at some point: “Why doesn’t parenting come with a manual?”

When my boys were born, I asked that exact question of a friend. He suggested looking at Pirkei Avot, where it tells us “at 5 years the age is reached for studying the Bible, at 10 for studying the Mishnah, at 13 for fulfilling the mitzvot” and so on (Avot 5:21). But while that may tell me what their religious school curriculum needs to be, it really didn’t help. So I started to study what our tradition teaches us for parenting and found that, in fact, we do have a “parenting manual”: our sages, both ancient and modern.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expounds on a verse from Proverbs to understand why Esau and Jacob had so many problems. “Educate the child according to his way” (Proverbs 22:6). Jacob and Esau had inherently different personality traits and qualities, and they shouldn’t have been educated in identical ways. We need to encourage the natural qualities of each of our children, and not try to raise them exactly the same. We must see each child as an individual, each as a unique reflection of the Divine that needs to be nurtured differently. Talmud teaches us, “A man should never single out one son among his other sons” (Shabbat 10b). I empathize with Isaac and Rivka: It’s a great challenge, particularly with twins, to not single out one child over the other, especially when they excel at something. But this is clearly one of the primary teachings in the “Jewish parenting manual,” and it is good advice for not just parents, but teachers of all sorts.

There are other pieces of advice for parents, including the Ve-ahavta, with the famous phrase that we should teach our children diligently the words of Torah. But while I found our traditional texts helpful, I found the words that most resonated with me not in our ancient texts, but in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said: “Living involves responsible understanding of one’s role in relation to all other beings.” 

If Jacob and Esau had been taught this insight by their parents, maybe things would have played out differently. When a person consciously recognizes and embraces his or her relationship with others, then all aspects of the person’s life are more in harmony. This is not just a “Jewish” teaching, but consonant with other cultures around the world. The Lakota people enter their ceremonies with the words “aho mitakuye oyasin,” which literally translates as “all my relations”; many tribes of both America and Africa have similar phrases. When we are aware of our relationship with the rest of life, when we recognize the Divinity that is part of everything and everyone, then we walk through life with more grace and joy — something that all parents wish for their children.

Like many teachers, I often say that I learn more from my students than they learn from me. I also agree with the many parents I have heard say that their children are their greatest teachers. In teaching ethical behavior (and teaching, by definition, must involve teaching by example, not just words), we learn how to live more ethically. In guiding our children into a relationship of faith and love with God, we deepen our own spirituality. This may be one of the deeper lessons we can learn from this parasha: to really learn the teachings that we would like to inculcate into our children.

Parenting can be challenging work, as is teaching of any sort. But it’s not just for our children. As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young remind us, the children teach the parents, too. It’s hard work to allow ourselves to not only teach children, but to be willing to learn from them. Ultimately, however, it may be the most important work we can do in order to create peace and harmony in this troubled world.

“According to the labor is the reward” (Avot 5:23). May we all be blessed to see the results of our labor in our own lives, and in the lives of our children.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul (TNSConejo.org), and author of the forthcoming book “Sacred Relationships” (Liturgical Press: February 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.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.”

Be who you are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

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

Quality of Life

It was a very brief meeting, and a seemingly peculiar exchange of words. For the first time, the head of the Israelite household — Jacob — meets Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.

The only thing they shared in common was Joseph.

To Jacob, Joseph was his son, and to Pharaoh, Joseph was the economic wizard who saved his empire’s economy from total disaster.

If one were asked to speculate on what these two men would speak about during their first meeting, it might go something like this:

“Jacob, you raised a brilliant young man. Without him, our country would be in a great depression right now.”

Beaming with pride, Jacob would respond, “Thank you, your majesty, it’s a great honor to see my son serving in your distinguished court. He always was a dreamer, and I am proud that he followed his dreams.”

Pride, honor, and praise — all of the ingredients one would expect in a first conversation between a grateful king and a proud father.

There is no such exchange between the two, nothing even remotely close. Instead, here’s how it went: “Joseph brought his father and presented him to Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh. ‘How many are the days of your life?’ asked Pharaoh of Jacob. Jacob replied to Pharaoh: ‘The days of the years of my sojourning are a hundred and thirty years; few and unhappy have the days of my life been. I did not attain the days of the years of life that my fathers did during their sojourn through life.’ With that, Jacob blessed Pharaoh and left his presence.” (Genesis 47:7-10)

Far removed from the typically schmaltzy story of “Your son is so wonderful,” and “Yes, I’m so proud of him,” the brief exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob has an altogether different aura, rooted in what we call in Hebrew hochmat haim, or life’s wisdom.

As the leader of a powerful empire, Pharaoh had certainly met many world leaders. In his meetings with them, he certainly drew from their wisdom and advice, as would any intelligent ruler. One can only imagine what Pharaoh expected Jacob to look like, but the 16th century Polish commentator Kli Yakar tells us that Pharaoh was shocked when he saw a thin, frail, weakened old man approaching him, barely able to walk toward his throne. Jacob begins by blessing Pharaoh, and this seems to bond the two men, so much so that Pharaoh poses a wise, carefully worded, personal question: “How many are the days of your life?” The wording of Pharaoh’s question caught the eye of many commentators, who wonder why Pharaoh did not simply ask, “How old are you?” Why did he word his question as “How many are the days of your life?”

Jacob’s response reflects a deep understanding of Pharaoh’s carefully worded question: “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130, [but] few and unhappy have been the days of my life.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German commentator, remarks that Jacob differentiates between living and existing: “You ask how many are the days of my life? I have not lived much. I have sojourned on this earth for 130 years. The days of the years that I can really call my life were in reality only few — and were themselves bitter and full of worry.”

The Netziv, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva during the second half of the 19th century, offers an additional insight: “My years of success in life were few and bitter, for even when I had actually achieved material wealth and financial security, my life was still filled with woe and sorrow, such as the death of my wife Rachel and the rape of my daughter Dinah.”

Jacob’s answer is filled with perspective on life’s big question: How do we measure and define a “happy life”? Is it by living to a ripe old age? Is it through material wealth and success?

According to Hirsch, Jacob was telling Pharaoh that a true human being does not see life through length of years, rather through the quality of days lived. As much as we may like to think otherwise, Hirsch says, “It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning.” Jacob’s perspective brings to mind the custom of reciting Psalm 90 at a funeral, when — before burying a loved one — we ask God to “Teach us to number our days, so that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

The Netziv’s comments add the powerful reminder to Pharaoh that material wealth alone does not bring happiness. In another psalm recited by mourners (Psalm 49), we are reminded that material wealth is not carried with us into the grave. Jacob told this wealthy king that his great palace, wealth and fame are of no value without the true happiness, love and fulfillment of family life and personal relationships.

In the waning days of a 130-year-old life that included receiving his father’s blessing by way of deceit, a terrible relationship with his brother, an unfulfilled married life, the rape of his daughter and constant strife between his children, Jacob teaches Pharaoh — and all of us — that happiness is not about reaching old age or amassing wealth; rather, it’s about the quality and richness of day-to-day life. In this regard, his brief encounter with Pharaoh is arguably his greatest and wisest moment as a patriarch.

Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. You can read his blog at www.rabbidanielbouskila.blogspot.com, and can reach him for questions or comments at rabbousk@aol.com.

Listen, will you?

You are driving, looking for an address, when your wife tells you to ask someone. You refuse, but you finally make it to your destination — two hours late. Are you familiar with this scenario?

When it happened to me, we were going to our first Shabbaton in Pennsylvania, got lost somewhere in Cherry Hill, N.J., and barely made it to the hotel before Shabbat.

It seems like an international rule. Men don’t ask for directions. Now we have been saved by the all-knowing GPS. The only problem is, when it starts giving you directions, for God’s sake, you realize it’s a woman’s voice.

In “You Just Don’t Understand” (William Morrow, 1990), Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen’s essential guide to the different ways men and women communicate, she analyzes the case of a woman who was recovering from surgery at a hospital. She kept complaining and asked to be moved to her home. But after a while she told her husband that she was not comfortable there either and was still suffering. Her husband suggested she should return to the hospital, and to his great shock, she burst into tears, accusing him of not loving her and wanting her out of the house.

What happened here?

The ailing woman wanted her husband to empathize with her, not offer solutions. Tannen explains that when women are faced with a problem, they first seek understanding and compassion, to know that the other side commiserates with them and listens to them. But men equate the inability to solve a problem with weakness, so when men are in the same situation they feel that they must solve the problem.

This communication gap is demonstrated very sharply in this week’s parsha. When Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, sees that her adversary Leah keeps delivering one child after another, she turns to him with an impossible request: “Grant me children or I will die.” The enraged and perplexed Jacob answers: “Can I replace God? He is the one who prevented you from having children.”

Rachel then goes on to offer him her maidservant as a surrogate mother and the issue seems to have been settled, but the sages of the Midrash don’t let Jacob off the hook that easily. They read into that conversation much more than meets the eye. Jacob, they say, was punished for his behavior by the sibling rivalry that tore his family apart and eventually humbled his children from Leah, as they had to bow down to Rachel’s own son, Joseph.

Let us reconstruct the full exchange.

Before Rachel comes to speak to her husband, she is engulfed in feelings of sadness and frustration. She has no children, whereas Leah, the once rejected wife, now has a seat of honor as the mother of Jacob’s growing family. She feels estranged and alienated. She doesn’t see in her husband’s eyes the same sparkle that was there before. She then tries to convey her emotional turmoil to him. If I have no children, she says, I am dead. She either threatens to commit suicide or she is saying that she is as good as dead, without her husband’s love and outdone by Leah.

What Jacob should have said was something like, “I know how you feel.” Sure, she would retaliate with: “No you don’t. You have your children, and you’re not a woman so you will never know what it means to be barren.” But to that he could have answered: “You are right, but I remember how my mother’s eyes would fill with tears when she spoke about her sterility.”

Then he could have segued into her thoughts on what should be done, and she would probably say that he should pray for her, spend more time with her, or (as she eventually did) consider adoption or a surrogacy.

Instead, Jacob got angry.

Angry? With your beloved wife? A woman in distress?

Yes, because he felt threatened.

Here is a problem he cannot solve; a baby he cannot deliver. And he answers accordingly: “This is not my role; it is God’s role.” And as if this was not enough, he adds: “He has not granted you children.”

Now, Jacob might have emphasized the word He to indicate that it is God’s responsibility and not his. But Rachel hears the emphasis on you, and understands that he is not concerned because he has his own kids, it is you — Rachel — who has a problem.

What a terrible misunderstanding and miscommunication. And what an important lesson to all of us, especially men, to be better listeners and to try first to understand our conversational partner and only then offer, if applicable, a solution.

Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills (magendavid.org), a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue. You can reach him via e-mail at hovadia@gmail.com.

Own your problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Holy Doubt

This week’s Torah portion contains a story that most of us skipped in Hebrew school — the story of Dina.

Dina goes out to “see the daughters of the land.”

the eponymous local prince, sees her, sleeps with her and vaye’aneha — sexually forces or humiliates her.

His soul clings to her, he loves her, and he speaks tenderly to her.

This begins a protracted negotiation, in which Jacob remains silent and his sons, Dina’s brothers, maintain their outrage.

Shechem invites Jacob and the brothers to name any amount for a bride price.

The brothers answer with guile, seeming to accept Shechem’s proposal with the proviso that he and all his male subjects undergo circumcision to become “one people” with the Israelites.

Three days after all the males of Shechem are circumcised, while they are still in pain, Simon and Levi, two of Dina’s full brothers, enter the city, confident. They kill all the men and remove Dina from the house.

Jacob’s sons appropriate the property of the slain and take the women captive. Jacob objects: “You have stirred up trouble …[with my neighbors] while I am few in number, so if they band together against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

The sons answer: “Shall our sister be dealt with like a whore?”

The story raises many questions, particularly from Dina’s perspective.

Did she learn of her impending marriage? If so, from whom? What was it like for her in the three or four days after the rape and before the “rescue”?

How did she feel when her brothers stormed in, killing the men and taking the women who were to be her new family? Was this similar to the way she had been taken captive? What was she looking for when she “went out to see the daughters of the land”? Had she and the local women already forged the kind of friendship and alliance that the men were negotiating for?

Or could Dina have been a spy against the women? (“To see” and “to spy on” are the same verb in Hebrew.) Can we imagine her as a Mata Hari figure, conspiring with her brothers to conquer Shechem? Or did Dina’s soul cleave to Shechem’s as improbably and enduringly as his cleaved to hers?

The Torah focuses on the men’s motivations, yet these, too, are far from clear. Jacob’s political objection to his sons’ actions ignores the harm to Dina, the sons’ deception and violence, and the murder of innocents. Is Jacob cautiously protecting the clan after a traumatic loss, or has he ceded control and leadership? Is he indifferent to his daughter’s suffering, or so distraught that he becomes passive?

Are the brothers overzealous defenders of their sister’s honor (perhaps in response to Jacob’s passivity) and/or do they see an opportunity for a land grab?

On his deathbed, Jacob will condemn Simon and Levi’s excesses and bar the two tribes from owning land (Genesis 49:5-7). Is the crime that most troubles the brothers rape — or theft? The males of Dina’s family should have commanded a bride price for her in advance, and the brothers seem more interested in orchestrating revenge than in facilitating Dina’s release.

Is Shechem a rapist? It is certainly not typical of a rapist to love his victim, want to marry her, offer to pay any amount of money and undergo genital surgery to be with her. Shechem more than fulfills all the requirements later imposed on Israelites (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) who bed an unbetrothed girl without gaining permission first.

Perhaps Shechem, prince of the land, thought that Dina, visiting among the daughters of the land, was one of his subjects, and therefore legal and eligible to him.

Long before Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent,” the ancient rabbis wondered if Dina chose — before or after the fact — to be with Shechem.

One midrash suggests that Dina was enticed by his uncircumcised body, and had to be removed from his house because she would not leave voluntarily.

Other midrashim don’t attribute sexual volition to Dina, but posit instead her extraordinary spiritual power: she would have caused Esau to repent had she been paired with him; she was Job’s second wife and healed him. Dina was indeed raped, but she inspired a rapist to repent immediately and completely.

The verb vaye’aneha — usually translated as “he raped her” — comes from the root ayin-nun-hey, which has two meanings: to answer or respond; or to force, afflict or humiliate, especially sexually.

Translating according to the first definition, it is possible to read vaye’aneha as parallel to vayidaber al lev hane’ara, he spoke to the girl tenderly (Genesis 34:2-3). This supports the interpretation that Shechem seduced Dina, rather than raped her. Similarly, it is possible to reverse the usual translation in 34:13: the brothers didn’t just answer Shechem with guile, they afflicted him with it.

It surprises me how confident people sometimes are about exactly what the Bible intends. What is meant, literally and in context, by “frontlets between your eyes” or “a man lying with a man as with a woman” or even “your neighbor?”

The Bible is laconic, allusive, ambiguous, layered.

It is not always clear to me, after years of study, which stories are cautionary tales and which are examples to be emulated.

Torah urges us: read again, review again, and don’t be so sure.

Approach with holy doubt, and humility.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at makom.org.

There is God in this place

Jacob departed. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who went forth, lech lecha, in response to God’s command, Jacob departs, vayetze, from everything he knows to
escape his angry brother and find a wife in Haran. He leaves a comfortable, established life to find himself in the chaos and confusion of exile. Jacob enters the void.

In November 1992, I departed from Santa Fe, N.M. I left my home of more than 20 years, and a network that included a job, family and friends, and stepped into the void. In response to a vague job offer and a stirring inside of me, I piled my most treasured books, plants and paintings into my aging Toyota and left New Mexico for the unknown reaches of Los Angeles.

As the sun rose outside of Needles, Calif., I reached back to cover the asparagus fern I had placed just behind the front seat. (At that time I was told no out-of-state plants were allowed.) The car swerved, ran over the embankment and careened down a ditch at top speed. I felt my world lose all boundaries as the car rolled over twice before landing on its side.

My angels were working overtime that day as I stumbled out of the car bruised but unharmed. Only now can I see the irony of the smashed poster that was hanging off of the back seat. It was Georgia O’Keefe’s “Ladder to the Moon,” which features a ladder hanging in space over New Mexican mountains.

My world had moved, but I was immobile, transfixed to the spot until rescued some hours later by the CHP. They never mentioned the plant.

Like Jacob, I had stopped in “a certain place” for at least the day, which was unfolding hot and cloudless before me.

Two miles outside of Needles, I was nowhere, lost in the void. I cried. I prayed, or at least begged God to rescue me. My world had turned upside down, which, it turns out, is integral to the process of truly leaving, or departing from one place to another.

Lost in the “no-place” on his first night way from the familiarity of home, Jacob prayed.

According to Midrash Rabbah, Jacob established that in the evening one should pray: “May it be thy will, O Lord My God, to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

Jacob prays in the gathering darkness of sunset, establishing evening prayer for all time.

The only difficulty with this is that it was not sunset at all, but closer to high noon, according to the Midrash. So God, who wants to speak to Jacob in the intimacy of darkness, changes the day into night.

According to rabbinic tradition, the certain space, hamakom, is synonymous with Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple. Rashi states that God wanted to show Jacob the place where prayers would ascend to heaven, the site of the earthly Temple, which stands opposite the Heavenly Temple on high. God wanted to reveal the entire future of the Jewish people to Jacob, their exile and their return to this very spot, the axis mundi of the world.

The problem — Jacob is not in Jerusalem, but on the road to Haran. Therefore, it is said, “the earth jumped beneath him” and Mount Moriah moved, for the moment, to where he was. Prayer, indeed, can move mountains.

But hamakom is much more than a specific site on earth or in the heavens above. Hamakom is another name for God, and God is not limited by time or space. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “There is no place without God.” Hamakom, God’s presence, is everywhere, surrounding us, infusing us, enveloping us with its essence.

When someone dies in our community we say, “May the Holy Place, The Divine One, bring you comfort and consolation.” We cry out, in the darkness of our loss and despair, and pray that God will bring us to the light. While the familiar place of our community provides comfort, only The Place of God can bring us true consolation.

God’s presence, however, is not limited to physical, grounded space. The Torah’s commentaries show us that time can change and mountains can move as long as we are connected to the Source. By returning to that place within, what the Gerer Rebbe, calls the inner space, we are able to connect with the presence of God, which is everywhere.

Although it may seem easier to access that connection in places that we hold sacred, such as the Wall in Jerusalem, or the mountains of New Mexico, the “place” is infinite and universal. Wherever I am, God is with me. I just need to be able to stop, breathe, rest, sleep, meditate and open my inner eyes.

We are now at the darkest time of the year, when the sun seems to set not long after noon.

“Please God,” we pray, “may it be Thy will to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

The month of Kislev, the month of Chanukah, is dedicated to prayers that bring the light. We reach out beyond time and space to the “place” of the Holy Temple, in order to bring its light into our homes, lighting our menorot against the darkness.

Angels, dressed as the CHP, came to rescue me. I was towed into California, and have found God at every step along the way during these past 14 years. My “place” is now here. Now, I can say, along with Jacob: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).

Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.

The Ultimate Enigma

Zot chukat haTorah begins this week’s parsha, telling us that the subject of the Red Heifer is the chok of the Torah. A chok is a law that is simply incomprehensible. It makes no sense to us whatsoever.

When I tell you that a person who had become ritually defiled by close contact with a human corpse could purify himself by counting seven days, and on days three and seven have the ashes of a red heifer sprinkled on him, you’ll understand what I mean.

There is logic to honoring one’s parents. There is a rationale for not stealing or murdering. But for purification in a ruddy, bovine shower, why would God ask such a thing of us?

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know. But neither did King Solomon, the wisest of men. It seems that this is part of the definition of a chok, that its raison d’etre remains a mystery.

There are many chukim that defy a logical explanation — keeping kosher, not wearing a garment made of wool and linen and yes, ritual impurity. We can’t ask the question, “Why do we observe them?” The only correct answer is that we observe these mitzvot because God told us to — period.

But because Judaism does not subscribe to blind faith, we must follow up with a second question. Not why, but what. What benefit is there to us by observing this law? How does keeping this commandment make our life richer, infuse our existence with a greater sense of purpose, expand our understanding of the truths of this world?

When we ask “what” regarding the laws governing the Red Heifer, we will understand why this mitzvah is singled out as the paradigmatic chok, the mother of all chukim, if you will. We will also see how intensely relevant an incomprehensible set of laws that haven’t been practiced in thousands of years can be.

Spiritual impurity, tumah, is brought about by different circumstances. For example, one becomes impure, tamay, from close contact with a dead animal. One also becomes tamay if he/she contracts tzaraas, the spiritual equivalent of leprosy. These forms of tumah can be removed simply by immersing in a mikvah, a ritual bath. However, if a person comes in close contact with a human being who has passed away, the level of impurity is much more severe, and the purification process becomes much more involved, requiring mikvah immersion and the Red Heifer concoction.

The difference in the severity of the tumah can be found in the source, or the impetus, of the impurity. Emotionally and psychologically, what does a person experience when they see a dead animal or a body racked by disease? They experience a sense of revulsion and disgust at the decaying organism. They may be sickened and repelled by the diseased tissue overtaking what was once a strong and healthy body. When we chance upon a squirrel that has been run over in the street, we don’t mourn the squirrel. We are grossed out from the blood and the guts, and we just want to get away from it.

Contrast that to the experience of the death of a human being. True, a corpse is not pleasant to behold, but that is not the focus of our emotional/psychological experience. It is so much more. It is the realization that in all of the universe, the deceased was unique. The person had individual talents, a singular purpose no longer to be fulfilled.

Inside every human being lies unlimited potential, and death means that it is lost forever. This most severe form of impurity stems from the recognition that every life has infinite value; that every person truly is an entire world.

The story is told that the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, paid a visit to Anwar Sadat shortly before the Yom Kippur War and advised him not to go to war with Israel. Sadat responded by handing him a copy of the publication, Maariv. The cover had a picture of a young man in uniform who was killed and was being mourned by an entire nation. Sadat said that such a people won’t endure a long war if to them, each dead person is important and precious.

As I write this, myself and fellow Jews all over the world, are praying and beseeching God for the safe return of another young man in uniform, Gilad Shalit. To us, he is not just another soldier. He is a unique and precious individual whose loss, God forbid, would be the paradigm of that which doesn’t make sense. Zot chukat haTorah. That a precious life can just be snuffed out is the most illogical and unintelligible chok of the Torah.

Through the parsha of the Red Heifer, we learn to value not just life, but every life. That is why we don’t lump all victims of terror together, but each one has a picture and a name, because each one represents an unimaginable loss. That is why every Shabbat, we pray for the return of the Israeli MIAs. Not to care about the fate of each and every one of them is incomprehensible to us. Yes Sadat, you were right. Every individual is precious and important to us, and every loss a sickening tragedy.

But you were wrong, too. Appreciating the worth of each individual has not weakened us. It is what has given us the strength to keep going. Death may never make sense to us, but the greatness and grandeur of life does. And as incomprehensible as it may seem to you, we choose life.

We hope and pray that very soon, the rest of the world will, too.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.


Why Are We Jews?

“Biblical stories are in our present — in the cheder we cried when we learned of the sale of Joseph — and we rejoiced in his ascendancy to power. There was a freshness, a vigor, a nearness, which we felt in that drama.” — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik

Oh to be a fly on the wall of that great and dramatic confrontation between Judah and Joseph. The scene: Twenty-two years after being sold, Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, has ascended to become Egyptian viceroy. Joseph frames his brothers by placing a royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph “graciously” offers to exonerate all the brothers — barring Benjamin. Floating between feisty and fearful, Judah, the engineer of Joseph’s sale, walks into the palace to confront a mercurial viceroy and delivers a poignant message climaxing with a plea to free Benjamin:

“For how can I go up to my father if the youth [Benjamin] is not with me lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” (44:34)

In the face of such courage, it is Joseph who crumbles — breaking down into tears and ultimately divulging his identity. How deliciously ironic that this man of control, a teenager in a foreign land who is able to withstand Potiphar’s wife’s temptations and strong enough to remain hidden for more than 22 years, capitulates to Judah.

Wherein lies the power of the Judah personality? Is this the same Judah who initiates the sale of his brother and whose conduct in the Tamar episode raises troubling questions? Equally remarkable is the haunting silence of Judah’s siblings. Why is it Judah alone who stands tall in the face of the hostile viceroy who wants to seize Benjamin? Are they not all certain of the consequent early demise of their father Jacob?

Our sages portray the development of the Judah personality. A picture of transformation emerges. After initiating his brother’s sale, Judah begins to contemplate the enormity of his actions and their effect on Jacob. Shortly thereafter, he is thrust into crisis with his former daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is pregnant with illegitimate twins.

Unlike his role in the Joseph saga, in this epic, Judah does not hold all the cards. He is, after all, the unwitting father (if this story seems puzzling — you might want to read it in its original). Tamar knows, but refuses to vocally pinpoint Judah as the father of her children. Instead she opts to merely present Judah with the evidence and ultimately forces him to make a momentous decision. In the presence of his father and grandfather, comments the Midrash, Judah is confronted with a massive internal crisis. Shall he remain passive or admit that he sired the children? Will Judah choose ephemeral ease over eternal excellence?

“Tzadkah mimeni” (“She is more righteous than I”), Judah declares. (38:26) Two words, no ambiguity and an uncompromising sense of truth. Precisely here, our sages majestically declare, does Judah earn his messianic stripes. Judah has made mistakes in the past, but he is now willing to accept responsibility. The metamorphosis is almost done. For if Judah is able to admit responsibility it is only natural that when the crisis of Benjamin strikes that Judah plays the lead role and proclaims: “Anochi e’ervenu” (“I will be his guarantor.”) (43:9)

It is striking that Judah’s sense of responsibility now transcends his own self and creates a sense of obligation to the other. Ultimately, this proactive responsibility has a profound curative effect, as the brothers are reunited and the family healed.

Often parents in their role as mediators in great sibling struggles are privileged to hear various restatements of “it all started when he hit me back” — an argument of impeccable logic. It is not all right for our children to shirk blame. Sacred duty requires that we invest them with a sense of accountability, however unpleasant or frightening that might be. In our efforts to provide our children with everything, we may deprive them of the great gift of responsibility, engendering in its stead a sense of entitlement.

For the past 2,000 years, our people have been called Yehudim — or Jews — a derivative of the word Judah. We are not Yissachars, Dans, nor are we even Josephs. Perhaps it is because God demands of us to take responsibility for our flaws. Even as we do not control our circumstances, we surely control the way we respond to them. This essential understanding forms the basis of real spirituality. Once we acknowledge that we are accountable for ourselves and indeed for our fellow human beings, we become emboldened to unlock the grand potential stored within.

This Torah Portion originally appeared on Jan. 2, 2004.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at YULA.

Who Are You?

Even in the best of families, relationships are enormously complicated. Some of the stories rabbis hear, all too frequently, of families in crisis are excruciatingly painful: parents who disown their children because of radical disappointment with the life choices their children have made; siblings who refuse to be in the same room with each other because their anger is irreconcilable; courts clogged with family members fighting over contested wills, and so forth. The possibilities for family chaos are almost endless. When things go wrong, they often go very wrong.

That is just simply a given of social life and structure, and even our patriarchal ancestors were not immune from the challenges of keeping families together, as we have been reading in the Genesis narratives these past few weeks: Abraham sends away his concubine wife and his son with her, and the family separates after the episode of the Akedah. Isaac sees his twin sons in a homicidal fight over the birthright, and one of his sons has to leave home. Jacob loses his favorite son to a diabolical plot launched by his sons against their brother. These are hardly thes tale of a happy, well-adjusted family.

But in this week’s parsha, there is the beginning of a reconciliation among the sons of Jacob; a glimpse of hope for future family life. The brothers are to be reunited in Egypt. Ten sons of Jacob come to Egypt in search of food; they meet their younger brother Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, and the second-most powerful man in the known world.

When the brothers are brought before Joseph, in what seems like a throwaway line, the Torah gives us a glimpse into what is arguably the most important verse in the entire Joseph narrative, in what is a key to understanding the source of the tension in this family dynamic — and the key to strengthening the dynamic in every family:

“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). How is it possible they didn’t recognize their own flesh and blood, the object of their earlier jealousy and their resentment and their homicidal rage?

One answer, perhaps, is that Joseph recognized his brothers because they had not changed, but they did not recognize Joseph because he had. The 11th century commentator, Rashi, indicates as much, as he quotes the Midrash in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 69b) that states that when Joseph left home as a 17-year-old kid, he was clean-shaven. Now, more than 20 years later, Joseph was standing before them as a grown man with a full beard, and he was unrecognizable to his brothers. But more than just the beard, I suspect, had changed in Joseph; the brothers, on the other hand, had not changed at all from the time they were young men. None of the experiences of life had much of an effect on them. They talked about the same things they had always talked about. They dressed the same. They looked the same. It was easy to recognize them.

Joseph, on the other hand, had seized every opportunity he could to grow. He accepted every challenge put before him as a way to learn life’s lessons, as a way to develop skills and wisdom and to grow into a mature adult. The man standing in front of these shepherds from the hill country of Israel was not, by any definition, the same young man who was thrown into the snake pit so many years ago.

Some two centuries after Rashi, the 13th century commentator, Ramban, is skeptical of this answer. He notes that Issachar and Zevulun were not that much older than Joseph; if the difference in age between them was not that great, the difference in a beard would not have made that much of a difference. How could they not recognize him?

A second answer is suggested, one more troubling than the first, an answer that has to do with a basic character flaw we see in each of us: an innate inability to recognize our brothers, to see them separate from us, in their own autonomy, with their own matrix of needs, desires, hopes and motivations. That was the problem in Jacob’s family all along: the inability of brothers to recognize each other’s humanity.

When Joseph was 17, all he was to them was an exasperating nuisance. Their jealousy, anger and rage at his adolescent arrogance blinded them to who he really was, and allowed them to behave with violence. If they had been able to see Joseph for who he truly was, the way the Torah and God see him, it is highly unlikely they would have sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites.

And so it is with us. When we are able to see each other’s humanity and recognize the dignity in each other, holiness and kindness prevail. Families have the chance of staying together, where everyone nurtures each other, and love dominates. The inability to recognize our brothers (and sisters, of course) is the beginning of enmity and strife, often times leading to family divisions.

And if we can do this in our own families, can we not do this as well with our communal families? Have we not all one Father?

Out of the Shadows

It is the middle of the night. I hear a strange sound in the living room.

Heart pounding, I get out of bed, grope awkwardly through darkness for the light switch … push up … nothing happens. I try another switch. No light. I feel desperately alone. My surroundings remain one shadowed mass of space … my terror grows…. Then I wake up.

I’ve been having this same, vivid nightmare for months.

Once fully conscious, I turn on the light and sigh relief into the illumination. Safe again in “reality,” I tour my apartment — gratefully able to see that all my stuff is in place. I return to bed and muster up the courage to turn off the lamp and re-enter the obscurity. I wish I still had my childhood nightlight — back when it was acceptable to be afraid of the dark.

Darkness is frightening. It is the realm of uncertainty, with everything enveloped in a state of unified oblivion. The world we call “real” — based on substance, physical existence and visible actuality — is nullified by the blackness of night. In this domain of the unknown, boundaries blur, imagination stirs and possibilities of reality broaden beyond confines of fact. Separate materials and individuals distinguishable with light mesh together into nothing, and when they do, we become insecure. When the possessions and relationships by which we define our selves disappear, we become unsure of who we are. As did Jacob.

“Vayira Ya’akov meod vayetzer lo.” Upon sending forth all his possessions in hopes of placating his estranged brother Esav, “Jacob was very afraid and distressed.” In other words, without his stuff around to define him, Jake freaked. He suffered a hard blow to his ego, throwing him into identity crisis.

See, the ego exists in material reality, where physical boundaries separate one thing from another. It believes that “I” exists independently from “you” — with both of us distinct from every thing else. As the product of our transition from infancy (where we feel interconnection and wholeness) into adulthood, it is based on our capacity to name: to define parts from the whole. Its identity is defined in opposition to and in relationship with an “other,” and it thrives on its control and possession over any thing distinct from its limited sense of self.

Jacob’s distress came from his enormous ego. It inspired his betrayal of his brother — for the prestige of a birthright — and a life prioritized by the accumulation of property. When forced to give it up, he began the struggle that always results from an ego-based existence: Jacob’s separate sense of self confronted the fear and loneliness at its source. He had tried (as we do today … with VIP passes and Ferraris rather than birthrights and oxen) to compensate for his sense of lacking by accumulating more material; now he had to confront his motivating force: the terror of isolation from living in a reality of separation.

Suddenly, he had nothing. He sent all his possessions and relations away; in the middle of the night, he was “left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed … he wrenched Jacob’s hip.”

In the dark domain of the unknown; of imagination and blurry boundaries, where definitions of separation that encourage the ego to call “reality” real blend back together into one space of nothing, a nameless man attacked Jacob’s exposed ego.

He fought as we all fight: against illusions of nothing that we make into “somethings” of value — to be possessed by our individual selves as compensation for insecurity and loneliness. Within the limitless blackness he struggled with his attachments to the world of limited materials; he battled his definitions of self as opposed to, and seeking ownership over, everything else. He wrestled the fear; the fallacies of scarcity and disconnection — dislodging his hip in the process. In the depths of shadow, he contested the very idea of separation, for there must be an “other” to fight against.

He combated the nightmare of isolation…. Then he woke up.

His spiritual self became conscious. His ego weakened, and he began to remember the Oneness. The realities of abundance and sustenance; the wholeness (shleimut — that allows for peaceful being. The Source, whose first act of creation was to bring forth light from darkness, again made Itself manifest in that most fundamental way. Dawn broke; the light switch worked; and his nameless adversary affirmed that Jacob had prevailed over “beings Divine and human” before Jacob returned him to the nothingness of night. The identity crisis was over, and he was renamed: Israel.

Last week I had the nightmare again, but rather than becoming fearful when the lights would not work, I walked into the darkness. I realized I could make my way just fine. I was free: to dance in it; to laugh; to disappear into the primordial unity of darkness, from where I could — in the image of my Creator — recreate. As He did in the beginning. From out of shadows: the light and love of a reality I choose to live. A reality where nothing is more valuable than any thing I feel separate from.

Then I asked my parents to buy me a nightlight for Chanukah … just in case.

Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.



Goodbye, Jacob, Goodbye

Parshat Vayetze opens with Jacob leaving Be’er Sheva. Everyone feels his absence.

Is there someone who used to live in your neighborhood or went to your school but moved away? How did you feel when they left? Was that person someone who did nice things?

What if you move away? What kind of impression will you leave behind?

Let’s Go Lego

Congratulations to the winners of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles’ (JCLLA) Lego Bible contest. You can come and see these Lego creations until Dec. 15, at the Slavin Family Children’s Library, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 120, Los Angeles, (323) 761-8648.

Better than Bought Butter!

Here’s a way to be helpful and have your parents be really thankful to you on Thanksgiving.

Homemade Butter

You will need:

1 pint heavy cream


Fill airtight containers half full of cream. Cover securely and shake and shake and shake, until cream turns into butter.

Pour out the buttermilk on top and place butter in serving dish.

It is delicious on dinner rolls.


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

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

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

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

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

For The Kids

The Adventures of Jacob

Did you know Jacob was an adventurer and a scientist? He figured out that if speckled sheep mate only with other speckled sheep, then their babies will all be speckled. That’s how he became a rich man. He told his father-in-law, Laban, that he wanted “only” the speckled sheep. In Parshat Vayishlach, Jacob has to meet his big brother, Esau, and he’s pretty scared. After all, he cheated his brother out of his birthright.

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

I bet Jacob would have liked to have invented one of those Invisibility Cloaks from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Now — well, in five years — you can have one yourself. A professor in Japan has created an “invisibility” cloak. Unlike Harry’s magical cloak, this one is high-tech camouflage. Buy it for Chanukah — but you’ll have to wait until 2008. For more really cool inventions, visit Time for Kids online

Power of a Blessing

If you were told that you had only a matter of days to live what would you do?

Write out a will? Eat your favorite meal? Try to repair troubled relationships? In our Torah portion this Shabbat, Jacob knows he is dying. Faced with this knowledge, there is only one thing he wants to do: bless those he loves.

We learn early on just how important blessings are to Jacob. When we first meet up with Jacob, he buys the birthright from his brother, Esau, with a pot of lentils. Later, Jacob disguises himself as Esau in order to deceive his father, Isaac, and receive the blessing he has so longed for. Given the lengths that Jacob was willing to go to in order to gain his blessing, it makes perfect sense that his final act should be to bestow blessings. How could Jacob possibly leave this world without passing along the blessing he had worked so hard to acquire?

Why was Jacob so obsessed with blessings? I think he understood better than most the power of a blessing. He believed that through a blessing, one could transmit not only love, but status, strength, leadership, reassurance, hope and even divine favor.

We are the Children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob. We too can bestow blessings on the world and on one another.

When was the last time you blessed someone? Today, most people feel uncomfortable blessing others. They assume that blessings are formulas that rabbis are supposed to offer. But they are mistaken. Anyone can offer a blessing.

Through a blessing you can turn a mundane experience into a holy encounter. When a loved one is ill, you can visit and bring flowers or stand before that same loved one, place your hands on his or her head and offer a blessing for healing. Imagine the strength and comfort such a blessing would convey.

Below, I’ve included four blessings. I have written for healing, for our children, for a new grandchild and even one for our parents. Please feel free to use them, alter them or, better yet, create your own.

A Blessing for Healing

May God heal you, body and soul.

May your pain cease,

May your strength increase,

May your fears be released,

May blessings, love, and joy surround you.


A Blessing for a Parent to Say to a Child

I wrote the following blessing to accompany the priestly blessing that parents bestow upon their children each Shabbat. If you are a parent, don’t be timid. Approach your child and say, "I’d like to bless you."

May all the gifts hidden inside you find

their way into the world,

May all the kindness of your thoughts be expressed in your deeds,

May all your learning lead to wisdom,

May all your efforts lead to success,

May all the love in your heart be returned to you,

May God bless your body with health and your soul with joy,

May God watch over you night and day and protect you from harm,

May all your prayers be answered.


A Grandparent’s Blessing for a New Grandchild

Gift of God, precious child, miracle, my little one. Lay your head on my shoulder. It seems that it was yesterday that I held your mother in my arms just this way. You are a sweet blessing to me, a tiny messenger of joy. Welcome to this magnificent life.

May God grace you with all things that are good and shield you from all harm.

May the bonds of our family be your strength. May our love be your comfort.

May our faith sustain you. May God be with you, now and always. Amen.

A Blessing for Children to Say to Their Parents

At my mother’s 75th birthday celebration, she asked me to bless her. When I stood up, placed my hands on my mother’s head and blessed her, I cannot describe the feelings that passed between us. All I can say is, bless your parents. You won’t regret it. You will never forget it.

You gave me my life. You give me your wisdom, your guidance, your concern, your love. You are my mentor, my protector, my moral compass, my comfort. There are no words to express my gratitude for all the blessings you have given me. Still, I tell you, thank you.

May God bless you as you have blessed me, with life, with health, with joy, and with love. Amen.

Now that I’ve encouraged you to go out into the world and bless others, I’d like to conclude by blessing you.

May God be with you, may health and strength sustain you. May nothing harm you, may wisdom and kindness enrich you. May you be a blessing to this world and may blessings surround you now and always. Amen.

Blessed With Talents

Everybody’s good at something. The trick is to discover what it is. In Parshat Vayechi, Jacob blesses each of his 12 sons. They each receive a blessing that is appropriate to their skills. Judah is blessed with leadership, for from him will be born kings. Benjamin is told he is a wolf, because his descendants will be mighty warriors. Asher is blessed with richness — his descendants will grow the best olive trees.

Think about what you’re good at. Now think about a kid in your class who is good at something else. Your challenge is to find out what it is: paper airplanes? miniature golf? crossword puzzles? And then you and your classmate can get together and help each other learn a new skill.

What’s the Beef?

A number of years ago, during the O.J. Simpson trial, I had a conversation with a non-Jewish merchant who told me that right after Simpson was arrested, he met a good friend of Simpson’s at church. At the conclusion of the service, the merchant happened to stand right behind this man as he thanked the minister for his homily and then asked him, "Reverend, would you please pray for O.J."

The minister replied, "Yes, of course. But let’s also pray for the victims as well."

Needless to say, this response outraged Simpson’s friend. He interpreted the comment as disparaging to Simpson. Due to his respect for the minister, however, he kept his feelings to himself and waited until he left the church to vent his feelings to anyone who would listen. He announced that he was so upset that he was going to write the minister a letter of protest.

After telling me this story, I asked, "Do you mean that the man restrained himself and did not tell his minister how he felt?"

The merchant replied, "Oh no! No one would ever beef a minister to his face. But just think of it. He had the gall to think he could write such a letter to him."

After allowing me to absorb this story, the merchant asked me, "Rabbi, do you ever have such problems with your members? Would any Jew dare write a letter to you?"

I simply answered "Oh no! Jews never write letters," and left it at that. I didn’t think it would enhance our stature if I told him the real facts.

Actually, as this week’s Torah portion illustrates, we Jews may have invented the art of "beefing," of telling someone off, especially when there is justice in the complaint.

The biblical beefing may have been spontaneous in its ultimate delivery, but it developed over a 21-year period during which time Laban systematically swindled Jacob. First, after Jacob worked loyally and cheerfully for seven years without pay to earn Rachel as his bride, Laban tricked him into marrying Leah. Next, after working for Laban for 14 years, Jacob could not call any of the fruits of his labor his own. As the father of a large family, this disturbed him so that he could not help but ask, "When shall I provide for my own house also?" (30:30).

Laban’s final deceit, his attempt to turn all agreements with Jacob to Jacob’s disadvantage, impelled Jacob to take his family in the middle of the night, without telling Laban, and leave for the land of Israel. Laban, as we know, gave chase, and finally caught up with Jacob’s camp. However, even when he hypocritically admonished Jacob for leaving in such a fashion, Jacob remained silent. Only after the wicked Laban ransacked Jacob’s belongings, finding nothing, did Jacob become angry and "took up his grievance with Laban" (31:36).

Jacob’s self control for 20 years, followed by a final indignant outburst against Laban, teaches all of us an instructive lesson: No matter how good a reason we have for anger, we must try self-control. Only when no other recourse remains, is anger an acceptable alternative.

Recently, a young man told me that ever since his father’s death he had felt a sense of guilt, because he doesn’t miss his father. It seems the father had been overly critical of his son. Nothing his son did was good enough. And now the son felt a weight had been removed from his shoulders. He came to me and asked if he was sinning for feeling this way.

I replied that inner feelings are not a sin; it is the actions we perform that count. I told him to learn from his father and judge everyone else with a good eye. Like the biblical Jacob, we must learn forbearance. Like Jacob, we must restrain from "beefing" our fellow man until there is no other alternative. If we can remember this lesson, we will find life itself so much more enjoyable.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

What are you? An Innovator, A Developer Or An Adventurer

There are three patriarchs in the Bible: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Which of the above were they? Well, Abraham created a new religion. He was an innovator. Jacob spent his life traveling and encountering adventure after adventure. He brought the God of Israel’s religion to all the places he went. He was an adventurer. And Isaac? We don’t know much about him — except that he was almost sacrificed and that his son Jacob "tricked” him into giving him the blessing that was supposed to be reserved for the oldest son, Esau. But maybe he wasn’t really tricked. Maybe he just played along, because he understood God’s larger plan and knew that he was part of its long-term development. And that makes him a developer. Not only did he not stand in the way of God’s plan to make the Israelites God’s chosen people, but he also helped it happen. So, which one are you? Abraham, Isaac or Jacob?

Burden of Leadership

After 22 years of separation, believing his beloved son dead, Jacob was startled to hear that Joseph was not only alive but that he ruled the land of Egypt. Yet, the Torah tells us that this news was not enough: When he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob, their father, revived. (Genesis 46:5)

What was it about the wagons that brought Jacob back to life?

The Midrash examines a curious wordplay. The wagons sent by Joseph are called agalot, the singular of which is a homonym with eglah (calf). The rabbis explain that Jacob was revived because the last Torah study he engaged in with his beloved Joseph before they were separated was the law of the Eglah Arufah (broken calf), found at the end of our parsha. (Deuteronomy 21:1-21:9)

The Torah mandates that if a murdered corpse is found in a rural area, the elders of the closest city perform a ceremony that includes the proclamation: “Our hands did not spill this blood nor did we see.” Our rabbis were bothered by this formula and explained that it cuts much deeper than a declaration of innocence of murder: “The man found dead did not come to us for help and we dismissed him, we did not see him and let him go (i.e., he did not come to us for help, that we dismissed him without supplying him with food, we did not see him and let him go without escort).” (Sota 38a)

In other words, the community leaders must testify that they did everything within their power to make this wayfarer feel welcome in their town. Imagine any contemporary political leader making such a declaration. Can we picture the members of the L.A. City Council accepting responsibility for every traveler who comes through our fair town?

Yet, that is the standard the Torah demands of our leaders. This declaration admits of a great responsibility not only toward visitors, but, ultimately, toward their townsfolk. The level of hospitality and kindness that is the norm in their town rests on their shoulders — if they can make this declaration, then they are indeed fulfilling their job. This means that the power invested in them by Torah law has not separated them from their “constituents” (as so often happens in any power position); rather, they have maintained a close relationship with the people and continue to keep their finger on the pulse of their community, which they are leading toward a full commitment to the ideals embodied in Torah.

Jacob’s spirit was revived when he saw the wagons and was reminded of his last lesson with his son. But why?

When the brothers told Jacob that Joseph was now the governor of Egypt, he didn’t believe them. What didn’t he believe? That Joseph was alive, or that Joseph was indeed the leader of Egypt? Consider this: What motivation would the brothers have to lie about such a matter? If Joseph really was dead, what did they stand to gain by generating a rumor about his being alive?

Perhaps what Jacob didn’t believe was that Joseph ruled in Egypt. In other words, Jacob may have been willing to grant that his son had somehow survived whatever terrors the past 22 years held for him, and had, through his brilliance, insight and charm, risen to a position of power in Egypt. As hard as this may have been to accept, it paled in significance next to the incredulous report that this governor of Egypt was still Joseph.

Whoever heard of the vizier of a major world power maintaining his youthful idealism and tender righteousness? When the brothers reported: “Joseph is yet alive, and he is governor over all the land of Egypt,” Jacob did not believe them. When he saw the wagons, a reminder of their last discussion of Torah standards, he realized that Joseph had never relinquished the values taught by his father.

Leadership carries with it the burden of responsibility for all members of the community — their physical welfare as well as the nurturing of moral growth and ethical conscience. This is the lesson of the Eglah Arufah — a lesson Joseph never forgot.

Collective Hearing

Not long ago, on a trip to Israel, I heard the following story about an Israeli doctor and patient. The patient came to the doctor with a case of poor hearing. After a few moments the doctor realized that his patient had a drinking problem, which was affecting his hearing. The doctor instructed the man to refrain from drinking any more alcohol, hoping that this would remedy the problem.

A few weeks later, the doctor met the patient on the street, and his hearing was perfect. The doctor asked him if he was drinking, and the patient responded, “No, I am doing just what you told me.” The doctor was delighted and reminded the patient to remain off the bottle.

Two weeks later, the doctor met the patient for a second time, but now things had reverted to the old situation. The hearing had regressed and the doctor asked if the patient was drinking again. The patient responded that indeed he was back on the bottle. “But why?” cried out the frustrated doctor. “Didn’t I tell you that if you drink you won’t be able to hear?” The patient answered, “Yes, doctor, that is true, but I must be honest with you, I like what I drink better than what I hear.”

In this week’s Torah reading, Jacob’s sons did not want to hear everything he had to say. As he lay on his deathbed, Jacob gave his sons instructions on how to conduct their lives after he was gone. The Torah tells us that Jacob gave each child his own blessing combined with a unique and individual instruction. Jacob knew the strengths and weaknesses of each of his sons, and he addressed each accordingly.

The late Torah scholar Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, in his commentary on the Torah, “Emes L’Yaakov,” asks why Jacob introduced his personal comments to his sons with the following words: “And Jacob called for his sons and said, Gather around and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of days” (Gen. 49:1). What business is it of each tribe to hear what Jacob had to say to the other tribes? Wasn’t this a personal and confidential moment for each one of the sons? How then could Jacob violate the privacy that was needed?

Kaminetzky explains that Jacob wanted to teach us all a lesson. True, we have our own unique individual and personal needs, but those needs and demands must also include the community. He writes, “Although each person is an individual, nevertheless he is a member of the collective, and he can’t forget that.”

If Judah had thought only of his leadership qualities, Issachar only of his Torah scholarship or Zevulun only of his business acumen, they never would have viewed their talents as part of a bigger picture, namely the Jewish people. If this had happened, the Jewish community could not have been formed. If we thought only of ourselves, we would have been individuals pursuing our own selfish agendas, but the community never would have been forged, and we would not be here as Jews today.

Although President Kennedy in his inaugural address coined the saying, “Do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” this has always been the Jewish ethic, for the community is our most precious asset.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Marital Strife

Every marriage has painful moments. Even the most loving marriages
do. This fact of life is confirmed by the opening of chapter 30.

There is only one marriage in the entirety of the Bible that is explicitly
described as being based on romantic love. This is the marriage of Jacob and
Rachel. Upon first sight of Rachel, Jacob is inspired to single-handedly
roll the capstone off the mouth of the well, so that he can provide water
for her flock. After that, he kisses her, and cries (what a real man!).

Jacob loved Rachel — so says Genesis 29:18. He loved her so much that the
seven years of labor he endured in order to win her hand “seemed to him but
a few days in his love for her.” But even such a marriage, the Torah
purposefully reveals, has its share of conflict and pain.

By the beginning of chapter 30, Rachel’s sister Leah has already borne four
children to Jacob, while Rachel has borne none. Anguished, pained and
tormented by the fear that Jacob would stop loving her (or worse), Rachel
finally cries out, “Give me children, Jacob. If not, I die.” To our alarm,
Jacob does not respond with the words of soothing reassurance that we would
anticipate. He responds instead with anger. “Do you think I am God?,” he
fires back. “It is God who has denied you fertility.”

We, the readers, are left to feel Rachel’s searing pain, as her beloved’s
words enter her heart as daggers. She had cried out for his love. She
received his wrath.

The Midrash imagines God’s reaction to Jacob’s words. “Thus you speak to the
oppressed?!” In a word, God is shocked.

Jacob was not a bad husband. He was a good husband. His love and concern for
Rachel persisted throughout their life together, and he never fully
recovered from the profound grief he felt at her untimely death. But this
was a bad moment — a really bad moment in a good marriage. But “come and
learn” from it, the Torah says. Ask and think.

Perhaps Jacob, though he chose to suffer in silence, was just as
worried and just as frustrated as Rachel. And the effect of her scream was
to release all the tension that until now he had kept penned up inside
himself. Or perhaps, after having actually worked not seven, but 14 years to
secure her hand, he was enraged by Rachel’s implicit threat to somehow bring
about her own death were she not to conceive. These explanations or others
we could imagine, can all open new windows of self-awareness for us. For
each of us has become inappropriately angry at a loved one.

And if we were to take just one step back from the details of Jacob and
Rachel’s particular situation, and try to extract a broader teaching from
it, that teaching would go to the core of what entering the covenant of
marriage means. The great Talmudic sage Rav, perhaps inspired by this story,
taught that the central mitzvah of marriage is that most famous of
mitzvot, the one that reads, “Love your friend as yourself.”

Rav understood that sometimes we forget why we got married to begin with.
There are times at which we mistakenly think that we got married primarily
in order to receive. Before marriage we had felt incomplete. We had
unsatisfied emotional needs. But now, we have someone who makes that all
better, who gives us what we lacked. Rav reminds us of our error. We did not
marry primarily in order to receive, but primarily in order to give. It was
the giving that generated the love. And in marrying the person who we loved
giving to, we acquired the best realistic chance we’d ever have to actually,
literally fulfill that mitzvah — to truly love someone else as ourselves.
When Rachel cried out in distress and despair, Jacob needed to be a giver.
He needed to be a lover. He needed to see it as the moment for which he had
married Rachel to begin with. It was the moment that he could give her what
no one else on earth could the reassurance that he loved her still and
forever. From his misstep, first Rav, and then we, are enlightened.

Every marriage has painful moments. The Torah wants us to know this. And
through giving we have more power than we think to ease the pain of those
moments. And the Torah wants us to know that too.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.

Jacob’s Vision


One of Rabbi David Aaron’s favorite biblical analogies derivesfrom the story of Jacob’s dream, in which the patriarch saw a ladderstretching from earth to the heavens.

The narrative can also be interpreted to mean that Jacob himselfwas the ladder, with his feet on the ground and his head in the sky,says Aaron.

“That interpretation is my image of the true Jewish life, with menand women as living connectors between heaven and earth,” he says.”The connection with God doesn’t take you out of this world; it putsyou more in it and makes you more productive and successful in whatyou do.”

This, put simply, is what Aaron tries to convey through variousvenues and media.

The 40-year-old Toronto native, red hair curling out from underhis kippah, traveled to Israel when he was 18 to find answers to thebig questions about the meaning of life.

He discovered many, if not all, answers through study of thekabbalah, which he terms “the grammar of Judaism” and “the key to theinner meaning and spiritual essence of the Torah.”

Ten years ago, he established the Isralight Institute in Jerusalem– housed in a Crusader-era building overlooking the Western Wall –partially to fill a gap in the teachings of traditional Orthodoxyeshivot, which, he believed, neglected the spiritual side ofJudaism.

Through a series of year-round seminars, attended primarily by menand women from English-speaking countries, Aaron tries to pass on thespiritual, conceptual and mythical content of Judaism, or, as he putit, “the soul meaning of being Jewish.”

Earlier this week, Aaron was in Los Angeles for four publiclectures and to promote his book “Endless Light: The Ancient Path ofthe Kabbalah to Love, Spiritual Growth, and Personal Power” (Simon& Schuster, $22).

The major thrust of his book, based on 20 years of kabbalisticstudies, is the need for a “balanced life…a spiritual yet groundedlife,” says Aaron.

“Eternal Light” is now on display in many bookstores, oftenalongside “Climbing the Mountain,” a book by Aaron’s star pupil, KirkDouglas, who credits the rabbi with a major role in showing him theway back to Judaism.

“Jacob’s Vision,” an 18th century Italian engravingof Jacob’s encounter with angels on his departure from Canaan, thesource for one of David Aaron’s favorite biblical analogies.

From “My Jewish World,” 1975.