Archive | November, 2015

Commentary for Vayishlach

27 Nov

In this week’s parshah, Jacob reconciles with his brother Esau. Fearing Esau’s wrath, Jacobs sends messengers ahead of his camp as they return to Canaan with an extremely extravagant gift of no less than 550 cattle and beasts of burden, hoping that such a tribute might quell Esau’s anger that has surely built up over the last twenty years. As it turns out, Jacobs has nothing to fear, as when he meets Esau the next day, Esau embraces him.

The two brothers then have a very interesting exchange. Esau tells Jacob that he does not have to appease him monetarily because “I have plenty (Gen. 33:9).” After buttering Esau up a bit in 33:10, in 33:11 Jacob responds, “Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have everything,” at which point we are told that after this statement, Esau accepts the gift.

Jacob fears that Esau’s refusal of this gift is a sign that Esau still intends to kill him, as accepting the gift would be accepting an apology and ending the dispute, so he changes the terminology he uses. The tribute, which had previously been referred to as a “gift” is now called a “blessing,” using the same word used to describe the birthright that Esau claimed Jacob had stolen from him. Esau is swayed by this change in terminology, and despite previously turning down the offer because he did not need it as he already had “plenty,” he now accepts it, feeling that the birthright that he thought should have been his was being returned to him.

This once again displays the fundamental misunderstanding of what the birthright truly is that Esau has shown since the very beginning of this saga. The important part of the birthright was not the monetary wealth of their father’s estate, but rather the mantle of spiritual leadership of the Jewish religion. Whereas Esau originally declined the offer because he had “plenty,” Jacob is perfectly willing to give up all of this wealth because he already has “everything”- not in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense. He has a family and enough money to provide for them, and he has an important role to fulfill in his service to God. What more could he need?

After the two brothers part ways, Jacob and his family head for the city of Shechem, and the Torah makes the point of telling us that Jacob arrived feeling “shaleim (Gen. 33:18).” This word, from the same route as “shalom,” literally means “full” or “complete,” but when it is used to describe a person, it conveys a sense of inner peace.   He has his family and can be sure they will not go hungry, and that they will not be threatened by Esau. He has his studies, and his important spiritual role and relationship with God. The enormous loss of wealth he has just suffered does not seem to bother him at all. This is because while Esau might be the one with more money, it is Jacob who is truly rich. As Ben Zoma said, “Who is rich?   One who is content with his portion (Pirkei Avot 4:1).”

Commentary for Vayeitzei

25 Nov

In this week’s parshah, Jacob finds his life turned completely upside down. It starts with him fleeing his home because his brother Esau is trying to kill him. When we think of Esau, we tend to think of a pretty mean guy, but there is little textual or midrashic basis for this up until the birthright incident. Esau’s extreme anger and threats of violence towards him are something Jacob has never had to deal with before, and it ultimately forces him to leave his family for a while.

His mother sends him to go live with her brother Lavan in Aram until she sends word that it is safe to come home. Word never comes. Jacob, who has only known family as a loving group of people, assumes that Lavan, his uncle, will be the same way. Instead, Lavan employs him as a shepherd, a job he has never held before, and uses his lack of knowledge to try to take advantage of him financially. He uses Jacob’s lack of knowledge of Aramean customs to trick Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, then forces him to work another seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage.

While all of this is going on, Jacob is also facing a new challenge; one which we are intimately familiar with today, but which was completely new at the time: Assimilation. Jacob is the only Jew in a completely unfamiliar culture, and he is challenged with trying to maintain his Jewishness with no outside support. He manages to do so, and even to raise a Jewish family (which has its own internal struggles which Jacob often appears completely unaware of), but it is never easy because for all of his twenty years in Aram, his uncle Lavan does not stop his quest to assimilate Jacob and his family and this pressure eventually forces Jacob to take his family and leave in the middle of the night.

The Torah conveys Jacob’s sense of being lost and the intimidation he feels in our parshah in a very unique way. This week’s parshah is the only one in the Torah that does not have any paragraph breaks. It is just column after column of a big, intimidating wall of text. Something as simple as the breaks between the aliyot while the blessings are being read is more than enough time to completely lose your place. Even a momentary lapse of concentration while reading the Torah is enough to get you lost and make it hard to find your place again.

The wall of text that is our parshah starts with the words “And Jacob left Be’er Sheva (Gen 28:10)” as Jacob leaves his home, and concludes with Jacob and Lavan (who had taken his men and given chase when Jacob and his family left in the middle of the night) signing a pact to agree to part peacefully, ending in the phrase “and he called the name of that place Machanayim (Gen. 34:3).” “Machanayim” meaning “two camps” signifies not just Jacob’s separation from Lavan, but from Aram and Aramean culture. The first words that we find after the break at the end our parshah- the very first words of next week’s parshah- are “And Jacob send messengers to Esau (Gen. 34:4),” showing us that Jacob is ready to return to his home and is taking the necessary steps to determine how best to proceed when he returns.

In this week’s parshah, Jacob is lost, and he realizes that in order to find himself, he needs to return home. He cannot find himself in Aram because the constant pressure of assimilation forces him to define himself by what he is not. He returns home to the parents who raised him in a Jewish culture where investigation and asking questions are strongly encouraged, and to the situation with his brother that he left behind, and by which he can test himself to determine how he really acts when under pressure. He returns home because in order to find yourself, you cannot merely define yourself by what you are not, but rather you must understand the things that make you you, and understand the person that you are.

Commentary for Toldot

16 Nov

In this week’s parshah, Jacob buys the birthright of the firstborn from his brother Esau. This incident (recorded in Gen. 25: 29-34) has received a fair amount of attention from modern readers, as Jacob’s actions here can come off as morally dubious, and the actions of Jacob and Rebecca in Genesis 27 to enforce the terms of the deal to be deceitful, but the text of the Torah itself is quite insistent that Esau was not worthy of the birthright in the first place, going so far as to flat out tell us that Esau “spurned the birthright (Gen 29:34).”

Esau comes home from a day of hunting and comes across Jacob sitting and cooking. Esau tells his brother “Pour for me now some of that red stuff you have there. I’m exhausted.”

Jacob responds “if you sell me your birthright.” Esau’s reply, “Look, I am going to die. What use to me is a birthright?” can be taken one of two ways. The first is that it was simple hyperbole. He was very hungry, but certainly not on the verge of death, and if he was on the verge of death, he could have easily asked a servant to fetch him some food from the family stockpile (the founding family was quite wealthy; if they weren’t then Jacob would been out working in the fields, either hunting with his brother or tending to flocks or crops, rather than sitting inside studying all day). Following this interpretation, Jacobs does seem guilty of trying to take advantage of a hungry man, although some blame does lie with Esau for accepting Jacob’s deal when he could have easily gotten food another way.

The second way to interpret Esau’s statement is more philosophical. “Look, I am going to die [at some point, but not right now]. What use to me is a birthright [that is just this spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Right now I am hungry but it won’t help get me food. Maybe it will help me in the afterlife, but it won’t help me right now.] In either case, Esau is only concerned with what he wants right at this moment. He sees something and wants it right away and has no problem throwing away something that will be a lot more valuable in the future in order to get it.

They agree to the trade, and the Torah concludes the story with an interesting phrase: “va-yochal va-yeisht va-yakom va-yeilach vayivez Esav et ha-bechorah- and he ate and he drank and he got up and he left and thus did Esau spurn the birthright (Gen. 25:34).” A long chain of verbs such as this is rare in the Torah, and usually connotes things happening in relatively quick succession. Interestingly, the cantillation indicates a slight pause between “and he left” and “and thus did [Esau] spurn,” with a cantillation mark that can only appear once per verse, and which is used to divide verses into separate thoughts. This teaches us that spurning the birthright was not one particular deed that Esau did after he was finished eating, but rather it was a result of the combined whole of his actions. Esau got the food he wanted from Jacob in exchange for the birthright and he gobbled up the food and he got up and he walked away and he never once thought about it again. He never, at any point down the road, stopped to consider the results of this trade. Even if we subscribe to the idea that Esau was so hungry when he made the trade that he wasn’t thinking straight, we learn that even after his hunger was sated he never once had a second thought about the trade he had made. Esau’s impulsive, hedonistic, “I want it now!” mentality and his inability or unwillingness to reflect on his past decisions are completely antithetical to what the Judaism teaches. Rather than basing our actions purely on our desires in the moment and shrugging our shoulders and saying “oh well” if things turn out poorly, Judaism asks us to base our decisions on what, in the long term, will be best for ourselves, for our community, and our relationship with God.

Commentary for Chayei Sarah

6 Nov

At the beginning of this week’s parshah, Abraham goes to purchase a grave for Sarah. When describing himself to the local realtors, he refers to himself as “a foreigner and a resident among you.” This is quite the shocking statement when we consider that Abraham has been living in Canaan for sixty-two years now. He has fought in local wars, amassed many followers to his new religion, and appears to be an important figure in the local economy. And yet even after sixty-two years of interacting with the Canaanites, he still feels compelled to call himself a stranger in their midst, and also feeling the need to assert that he lives here just like they do.

Many have identified Abraham’s self-description here with the plight of Jews throughout most of the past two millennia: Living on the same land as their non-Jewish countrymen, but always knowing that they are seen as different. Even when they take the same national pride in the government they live under, they are still aware that any feelings of unity or friendship with the non-Jewish majority can be made to disappear on the whims of those running the same government they support and take pride in.


Judaism, when it has been in power, has tried to take the opposite approach. We have the category of Geir Toshav (foreigner-resident), by which non-Jews living among Jews can agree to uphold seven Noachide Laws- the basic laws that Judaism requires of everyone, including setting up a just court system, and refraining from murder, sexual immorality, or eating blood-, as well as not doing such things as would perturb the community, like publicly blaspheming or denying God or violating Shabbat, and in exchange, they become a part of the community, to be treated no differently than anyone else, and with the community having the same Halachic obligation to help him or her in a time of need that they would have for a fellow Jew. Judaism, with its belief in the dignity of all human beings, recognizes the situation the absurdity of the situation that Abraham finds himself in- that after sixty-two years of involvement in his new community, that he still feels like an outsider- and creates situations to rectify it and to try to ensure that such a thing won’t happen under our watch.

Commentary for Vayeira

3 Nov

In this week’s parshah we follow a group of angels as they experience both ends of the spectrum of the treatment of guests, encountering both the extremes of human kindness and the extremes of human cruelty.

First they go to visit Abraham. Abraham, still recovering from having recently circumcised himself at the age of ninety-nine, sees three strangers wandering through the area, and he rushes out of his tent into the hot sun to encourage these total strangers to come into his tent for a some food and drink. This is the first recorded act of kindness in the Torah, and from this story emerges the important Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (“welcoming guests”).

Two of the three angels then move on to Sodom to visit Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family to warn them to leave the city before God destroys it. Lot is sitting at the city gate when they arrive and invites them to stay at his house that night. The angels tell him they will be fine sleeping out in the town square, but Lot vehemently insists that they sleep in his home instead. The reason for Lot’s strong insistence that they not sleep in the town square is that the Sodomite custom for the treatment of guests was to rob them, rape them, and according to some midrashim, also maim them. Indeed, when the locals realize that Lot has saved these two men from this fate, they form an angry mob at his door, demanding that he turn these outsiders over to them to suffer this terrible fate. When Lot refuses to give up his guests, the Sodomites begin to threaten him as well. God intercedes to disperse the mob, the angels lead Lot and his family out of the city, and then God destroys Sodom and all of its inhabitants.

While Abraham valued his guests as people, the Sodomites saw theirs as commodities. When the Sodomites look at visitors they did not see human beings with rights and feelings; they only saw how they could benefit from these strangers’ temporary presence. The Sodomites, like the people of Noah’s generation before them, were destroyed for this crime of not respecting their fellow human beings as people. Theirs is an example we should take heed of, as the valuing of people for the things they provide us with without any consideration of their own feelings and needs, is by no means a sin we are free of today.