Archive | November, 2014

Commentary for Toldot

26 Nov

Jacob and Esau were twins, raised by the same parents in the same household, but they developed very different outlooks on life. Esau was materialistic. He was a hunter who used the materials around him to build his bow and his arrows. He would go out hunting, make his kill, then used every part of the animal; the flesh was used for meat, the hide for clothing, and bones were repurposed as tools, all of which he could either use himself, or sell off to buy other things that he wanted. Jacob, on the other hand, was very spiritual and studious. He was content to simply sit around his tent all day and learn and philosophize the day away. Esau didn’t care for all of that spiritual mumbo-jumbo, and Jacob would have been content to sit in a sparsely-furnished tent and learn all day, eating only when he truly needed to.

Just as Esau didn’t understand the value of a relationship with God, Jacob had a poor grasp of the market value of things, and how to assert himself in financial dealings with others. At the ripe young age of fifteen, though, neither boy had any grasp of the world his brother immersed himself in.

Esau was the firstborn, and thus, by societal birthright, was designated to inherit the leadership of the Jewish People. One day, when the boys were fifteen, Esau had just come back from hunting and was very hungry. He saw his brother cooking a simple lentil stew and asked him for some of it. Jacob, who had no idea how cheap a simple lentil stew was, told his brother that he would sell him the entire pot of stew in exchange for his birthright. In Jacob’s mind, he was offering something valuable in exchange for something valuable. In Esau’s mind, he was receiving the inexpensive stew in exchange for an utterly worthless birthright, so he took the deal, and both brothers walked away content.

Years later, when their father was failing in health, he called Esau too him and asked Esau to make him a meal so that he could bless him. Esau, believing that his fathered intended to bestow worldly possessions upon him, eagerly went out to hunt some game for his father. Jacob, acting on the advice of his mother, Rebecca (who was herself acting to fulfill a prophecy she had received when her sons were still in the womb), believed that Isaac was going to bestow upon Esau the blessing of leadership of the Jewish People, which Jacob had purchased so many years ago. Jacob disguises himself as Esau, and brings the dim-sighted Isaac a meal, and receives the birthright instead. When Esau returns and hears about this, he assumes that Jacob has stolen the inheritance of worldly possessions that should have rightfully been his as the firstborn. Esau vows to kill Jacob, and Jacob flees to his uncle’s house in Haran, and the brothers do not speak again for many years. One misunderstanding caused by an inability to understand the things that the other valued ripped the family apart for many years.

Interestingly, both brothers may have been entirely wrong about the blessing that Isaac had intended to give to Esau when he told him he wanted to give him his “innermost blessing (Gen. 27:4).” What Isaac truly wanted was for his sons to understand each other. While Jacob, who always kept an open mind, would eventually learn how to see things Esau’s way (albeit after many years of exploitation at the hands of his uncle Lavan), Esau, whose name comes from the word esuy, meaning “accomplished,” believed himself to have already accomplished all of the learning and training he needed in his life, and thus was not open to other points of view. Isaac’s blessing for Esau was to be the ability to open his mind and learn that his view of the world and his brother’s were not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the tribes of two of Jacob’s sons, Isasschar and Zevulun, are seen in Rabbinic literature as having just such a relationship, with the scholars of Isasschar helping the merchants of Zevulun lead rich spiritual lives in exchange for financially supporting the scholars.

Every person needs to be able to see the value in both the spiritual and the material. In the daily Amidah we pray to God for wisdom and knowledge, and we pray to God for financial success and sustenance as well. Similarly, the prayer for the congregation makes no distinction between those who show up to the synagogue to pray every week and those who pay to keep the lights on. Every individual, and every community, need both in order to thrive.


Commentary for Chayei Sarah

14 Nov

This week’s parshah is called Chayei Sarah (“life of Sarah”), which at first glance seems like a very inappropriate title for a parshah in which Sarah dies in the very first verse. The second verse shows us Abraham’s reaction to his wife’s death: “Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her (Gen. 23:2).” These two actions seem to be, in essence, the same thing, but Kli Yakar comments that Abraham “mourned for Sarah” by giving a eulogy for her in which he talked about her positive attributes. The Zohar states that “when a righteous person departs, he is present in all worlds even more than he was in his lifetime.” This is because our positive traits affect all of those around us by setting an example for them, and for generations to come.

Sarah’s praiseworthy traits began to show from a very early age. When she was born, she was given the name Yiscah, which means, “to see.”   The Gemarah (Megillah 14a) gives two explanations for why she was given this name. The first is that, as a prophetess, she was born with a special spiritual sight, a gift which is later temporarily granted to Abraham’s servant Eliezer when he prays to God to send him a sign to direct him towards a worthy bride for Isaac, and is drawn to Rebecca immediately upon the completion of his prayer.

The second explanation of her original name is that she was so beautiful that everyone could not help but look at her. Benayahu teaches that the reason Sarah ceased to be known by this name was that she herself changed it out of modesty, not wishing to be treated differently from anyone else either for her physical beauty or for her spiritual insight. Rebecca (who was Sarah’s great-niece), displays this same modesty, donning a veil before meeting Isaac so that she would not be judged for her beauty.

As a prophetess, Sarah was also renowned for her spirituality and her connection to God. Not only did she hear God’s word and receive insight from God, but she would even converse back and forth with God. Her son, Isaac, carried on this closeness to God, not just conversing with God occasionally, but making sure to set aside time every afternoon to do so (Berachot 26b).

Sarah was also known for her generosity and her kindness. After Sarah’s death, Abraham looks to purchase a burial cave for her. Ephron the Hittite offers to give him a very expensive cave free of charge, but from the hints he drops about the actual price of the cave in their conversation, it is clear that he would really rather not give the cave away for free, and is only doing so because the other Hittites insisted that Abraham be given a choice burial place for free. Abraham picks up on this, and kindly insists on paying full price for the cave anyway. When Eliezer first meets Rebecca, she displays her generosity by not only letting Eliezer drink the sip of water he asks for, but also offering to draw water for his camels as well, which convinces Eliezer that she is a worthy wife for Isaac.

While Sarah might have died in the first verse of this parshah, the title “Chayei Sarah” (life of Sarah) fits the parshah perfectly, as the admirable traits she embodied shine through in the actions of those who knew her, whether personally or merely by reputation. As it was with Sarah, so it is with all of us: “One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah (Pirkei Avot 4:2).” Our good deeds inspire others to do more good deeds, even long after we have passed on.

Commentary for Vayeira

7 Nov

At the very end of this week’s parshah, we learn of the descendents of Abraham’s only surviving brother, Nachor. Many of those listed are not particularly relevant to the story of the Jewish People, and thus no details are given about their children. Of Nachor’s eight sons, only two of them have their descendents mentioned. The first, Kemuel is identified as the father of Aram. Based on Kemuel’s name, which can be broken up into its parts to mean kam (rose up) El (God), the Rabbi determine him to be someone who rose up against the people of God, and thus his son, Aram, likely became the founder of one of the various kingdoms of Aram which caused trouble for the Israelites over the course of the next millennium.

The other son of Nachor who has any descendents mentioned is Betuel, who is identified as the father of Rebecca, who would go on to become of the foremothers of the Jewish People. Curiously, Betuel’s other child, his son Lavan is not listed, despite that fact that he would become a major player in the early history of the Jewish People, starting in next week’s parshah.

Rebecca, like Abraham, is known for her generosity. Indeed, it is this very trait that draws the attention of Abraham’s servant to her when he is sent to search for a bride for Isaac in next week’s parshah. Lavan, on the other hand, is known for his greed. He famously tricks Jacob by promising him Rachel’s hand in marriage, then slipping Leah underneath the weeding veil instead and telling Jacob that he must work for seven more years to marry Rachel. Even after Jacob has worked to marry Rachel, Lavan then forces him to stay around and tend his flocks in a very unfavorable contract. When Jacob and his family tried to leave, Lavan attempted to capture them and force them to come back, so that their wealth would be seen as part of his household. In the Haggadah, the Rabbis go so far as to theorize that this would have eventually led to the destruction of Judaism through assimilation into an idolatrous culture, but Lavan didn’t care about any of that. Just the appearance of being wealthier than he was (because Jacob’s property would still be Jacob’s) was enough reason for Lavan to ignore the wishes of his daughters and grandchildren. All Lavan cared about was his greed.

Suffice it to say that Rebecca and Lavan left behind very different legacies. By including Rebecca and not including Lavan in this list, the Torah is teaching us that one who is greedy might accumulate enough wealth to his or her family a few generations at most, but one who lives a life of generosity and kindness will leave behind a legacy that will be remembered for all time.