Category Archives: Divrei Torah

Wrestling for Blessing: VaYishlah 5780

On the eve of his dreaded reunion with Esau, Jacob remained alone in the dark, and “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” The mysterious assailant injured Jacob, dislocating his thigh, but Jacob refused to let go, so the man pleaded with him, saying: “Let me go, for dawn is breaking!” Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The assailant asked for Jacob’s name, and conferred a new one, Israel, “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:25-29).

This puzzling passage cries out for interpretation. Who was this man, and why did he attack Jacob? Why was he in such a hurry to depart before dawn? How did Jacob manage to hold on, despite his injury? If this was an unprovoked and injurious attack, then why did Jacob try to prolong it, even asking his attacker for a blessing? Who does that? How is the new name Israel a blessing, and if it really is, then why does the Torah continue to refer to him as Jacob? Why do we?

Into this blizzard of questions step the Rabbis, and they offer many answers. According to the Talmud (BT Hullin 91b), during their match Jacob questions the man—are you a thief of some sort that you are afraid of daylight? “No,” he replies, “I am an angel, and today is my first turn to sing the morning praise.” In a parallel midrashic version (Gen. Rabbah 78), Jacob pragmatically offers, “then let one of your friends sing the praise today, and you can sing tomorrow.” The angel replies, “If I miss today, then they will say, since you didn’t praise yesterday, you can’t praise today.” Continue reading

Va-Yetze 5780: The Brute Strength of Mama’s Boy

Not that there was any serious doubt, but Jacob proves himself to be mama’s boy as soon as he arrives in town. Recall that when Abraham’s servant arrived many years ago, Rebecca jumped into action, drawing water for the ten camels, simultaneously demonstrating strength and compassion. Like mother, like son, Jacob demonstrates strength and compassion when he waters Rachel’s sheep, though he also signals vulnerability when he breaks down and cries before his cousin.

The story is familiar—the shepherds tell Jacob they must wait to uncover the well, since the capstone is too heavy for just a few men. Seeing Rachel approach he is filled with strength and accomplishes the feat alone. There are many word plays that enrich this narrative—Rachel means an ewe; he cares for her sheep, hoping to win her love (whether he succeeds remains a mystery). The words “he watered” (vayashk) and “he kissed” (vayishak) are spelled the same way (וישק), reinforcing the romantic aspect of his animal husbandry. Yet the love here is not only for his newly met cousin. It remains focused on his now distant mother. The psychological drama is intense in this scene; Jacob reconnects with his mother, acting as she acted, returning in her stead to her home, but eager to return to her before too long.

Already in Midrash Bereshit Rabba the sages of Israel added new texture to this narrative. When Jacob removes the stone the text says va’yagal (ויגל) which is different from the form of the verb used just previously, va’yegalalu (ויגללו). The latter form means, “they rolled” the stone, which is what you would expect with an object too heavy to lift, even by a crowd of shepherds. Jacob’s verb seems to mean “he uncovered” which the Midrash compares to the effortless way that a person pulls a cork from a bottle. In other words, Jacob was not only strong, but super-strong. In this he is like Rebecca, who draws hundreds of gallons of water for a train of thirsty camels and then keeps going, helping the servant and then offering him hospitality. She is strong and kind, and so is her son. Continue reading

Dark Comfort: Hayei Sarah 5780

A cloud of loneliness and loss hangs over Parashat Hayei Sarah. The main losses are the deaths of our first matriarch Sarah and our first patriarch Abraham, but even the happier moments are overcast with sorrow. Why, in chapter 24, does Abraham send his servant to find a wife for Isaac? Three reasons immediately come to mind. The first is stated explicitly: Abraham doesn’t trust the Canaanite neighbors (who have just given him grief over the burial plot for Sarah) with his son; implicitly, he doesn’t trust Isaac to make the journey and match by himself; finally, Abraham is too aged to handle the task, or too worried to leave Isaac alone at home, and so he sends a servant to do the deed.

What a difference ten chapters make. Back in Genesis 14 when Abraham learned of the capture of Lot, he wasted no time, leading his servants into battle to rescue his nephew, vanquishing the local warlords almost as an afterthought. Now in chapter 24, Abraham is old, and not yet satisfied with his years. He is sad and uncertain what will become of his son and of God’s promise. Isaac at forty is incapable of handling his own affairs in the manner of his father and his future sons. Sarah is dead; the lamp in her tent is extinguished (according to Midrash Bereshit Rabba). Darkness has fallen on the camp of Abraham, and a palpable depression has settled in.

The servant reaches his destination of Aram Naharayim and the city of Nahor towards night, and causes his camels to kneel outside the city, near the well where the girls gather to draw water for their homes. Usually we skip ahead to the grand entrance of Rebecca, but let’s pause here in the dusty dusk and consider how pathetic the servant must feel. He is a tired traveler at the end of his road, at the end of the day and suddenly faced with the improbability of his task. Not only will it be hard to find Abraham’s family after all these years, but how is he to convince them to send their precious daughter off with a strange servant to start her adventure in the land of Canaan? Continue reading

Dust and Ash: VaYera 5780

“Look who thinks he’s nothing!” That’s the punch line to one of our oldest Jewish jokes—the NY Times claims it’s officially known as Jewish Joke No.73. It isn’t so funny, and I’m not retelling it here, but it does reflect an ancient Jewish conviction: True humility is a significant spiritual accomplishment.

When Abraham accuses God of injustice by planning to wipe out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, this appears to be the height of audacity, of hutzpah. And when God quickly agrees not to destroy the cities if fifty righteous people are found in Sodom, Abraham pauses before pushing further, not to celebrate, but to admit his own inadequacy: “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” That last phrase, וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר  “but dust and ashes” becomes Abraham’s hallmark.

This episode reflects the paradox of Abraham in all of his relationships—with Sarah and Isaac, with Hagar and Ishmael, with Lot, and with God. Abraham can be self-effacing or assertive, generous or selfish. These opposite tendencies co-exist within his heart, making you wonder who Abraham is in the end.  His only self-description is this one—dust and ashes, which is to say an ephemeral presence. As Qohelet says near the end, “And the dust returns to the ground as it was” (12:7). At his moment of greatest power—reversing a divine decision—Abraham recalls his mortality. Continue reading

Chariots of God: Lekh Lekha 5780

Once or twice a year I walk past the statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue at 51 ST and imagine how it would feel to bear the weight of the whole world in your arms. The thought is absurd, of course, yet sometimes when one is overwhelmed it can feel that way. Many people experience more demands than can be comfortably born, more anxieties than can be soothed, more needs than can be fulfilled. Life is weighty, and there is often no alternative than to stand tall and carry on.

As far as I know Judaism does not have an exact match for this image of Atlas, though the Talmud shares a story of the giant king Og uprooting a mountain to throw onto the people of Israel, only to have it collapse back and crush him (Bavli Brakhot 54b). Rather, the Rabbis give us an image of their greatest heroes bearing not the weight of the world, but the weight of heaven.

At the end of Lekh Lekha God commands Abraham to circumcise himself, his sons, and all the males of his household. Once God finishes speaking with Abraham, it says, “then God rose off of Abraham” (Gen. 17: 22). Something similar is said about Jacob in chapter 35, when God renames him Israel, and then “God rose off of him in the place where God spoke with him” (35:13). In chapter 28:13, during the famous dream, the Torah says that God, “stood on him” (i.e. Jacob). These three verses are read by the rabbis quite literally—God was riding the saints! In Midrash Bereshit Rabba Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai exclaims that the righteous are a chariot for the divine presence. The sense is that God literally descends to the world and rides the righteous while delivering a portentous prophecy to them, and then lifts off them, presumably back to heaven. Continue reading

Heed the Voice of Sarah: Shabbat Noah 5780

The closing lines of Parshat Noah are less dramatic and yet more remarkable than are the opening lines of Lekh Lekha. What possessed Terah and his extended family to depart Ur Chasdim and head toward Canaan? What did his sons think of the move? And what did their wives say? Did they have a say? Next week we will read of God’s sudden command to Abram to get going–but he had already started the journey! Why?

A close reading of Genesis 11:29-31 raises additional questions. Verse 29 tells us that Abram and his brother Nahor married women, Sarai and Milkah respectively. The end of the verse is confusing—we read that Milkah was the daughter of Haran, presumably the deceased third brother mentioned in v.27, making Milkah Nahor’s niece, and now his wife. The verse also mentions a new name—Yiskah, another daughter of Haran. Who was she?

Another odd feature of this passage is the announcement in verse 30 that Sarai was barren, without child, which seems to be a non sequitur before momentous verse 31, which describes the journey of the family from Ur-Kasdim toward Canaan, with a stop in Haran. What was the point of telling us this now? And why did they leave Ur? No explanation is provided, unless Sarai’s barrenness was somehow the cause. Continue reading

Time to Weep, Time to Dance: Sukkot 5780

Enough with all this happiness! The Torah commands, and we dutifully sing, “rejoice on your festival… and be entirely happy” (Deut. 16: 14, 15). The Rabbis explain the original form of rejoicing to be the consumption of the “happy sacrifice” (קרבן שמחה) during Temple times; thereafter everyone should rejoice in their own way—by drinking wine, wearing colorful clothes, giving nuts and popped corn to the kids, and portions of food for the poor—and avoiding mourning during the festive days (b. Pesahim 109a). There’s a rule the masses can embrace!

Could it be that this all amounts to too much levity? This is one way to explain the medieval custom of chanting Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot (or Shmini Atzeret—for a comprehensive discussion of the origins and explanations of this custom, see Rabbi David Golinkin’s 2006 essay on the subject). Among the theories for why this text is read is simply to complete the cycle of five megillot (the other four are better associated with their festive anchors), or because the title “Kohelet” might be associated with the mitzvah of “Hakheil” which was performed on Sukkot, or because of an opaque verse in Kohelet 11:2, “give portions to seven or eight,” which is associated with Sukkot in Bavli Eruvin 40b.

None of these explanations gets to the content of the book of Kohelet. Rabbi Isserles lists the custom without explanation (OH 663:2). However his student Rabbi Mordecai Jaffee offers an explanation in his halakhic volume “Levush.” He says that Sukkot is dedicated to rejoicing, and the book of Kohelet reminds us that true joy comes not from building wealth (“vanities”) but from satisfaction with what God has provided. This explanation matches a certain mode of pious thinking, though it runs counter to the biblical command to rejoice with the harvest, and the Talmud’s suggestions of rejoicing with wine, new clothes and sweet treats for the children. Continue reading