Archive | December, 2016

Commentary for Vayeishev

28 Dec

This week’s parshah contains two stories, and a goat plays a minor but symbolic role in both of them. The first and more well-known story is the beginning of the story of Joseph, who so irritates his brothers to the point where they sell him into slavery. Then they slaughter a goat and dip Joseph’s famous technicolor dreamcoat into the goat’s blood before taking it back to their father and passing off the goat’s blood as Joseph’s, telling Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

The second, and lesser-known story, is that of one of the aforementioned brothers, Judah, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Tamar’s husband, Judah’s oldest son Eir, is smitten by God due to his wickedness, leaving behind no children. Judah then instructs his second son, Onan, to enter into a levirate marriage with Tamar. In a levirate marriage, the brother of a deceased man conceives a child with his late brothers wife for the purpose of giving his brother an heir. The heir is considered to be the son of the deceased brother and inherits his property. Knowing that, without an heir, he would be next in line to inherit his brother’s property, Onan takes steps to ensure that Tamar does not get pregnant, and so God strikes Onan down as well. With two sons now dead, Judah instructs Tamar to go live with her father until his third son, Shelah, comes of age.

Much time passes and Shelah comes of age, but Judah does not send for Tamar to marry him, so Tamar decides to take matters into her own hands. Judah’s wife has recently died and Judah is making a trip to see her family, so Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute on the side of the road near Judah’s in-law’s village and seduces him. Judah was travelling light and thus did not have any money with him, so she asks him for some collateral in the form of his signet ring, his staff, and his wrap- all important identifying items that would have borne either Judah’s personal seal or that of his father’s household. When Judah later returns with the promised goat in payment, she is nowhere to be found, and the townspeople claim there has never been a prostitute by their town. Although he could have just turned around and walked away and kept his goat, Judah leaves the goat with his father-in-law in case she does show up again. Tamar becomes pregnant, and when she begins to show she is accused of harlotry and taken to be burned, but when she produces his signet ring, staff, and wrap, Judah figures out what has happened and marries her himself.

There is a famous Talmudic saying, “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh (Shevuot 39a).” This phrase is often translated as “all of Israel is responsible for one another,” and although the context in the Talmud is that of preventing sin, it has been expanded to pretty much every sphere of Jewish life, whether giving political support, taking steps to not tarnish the reputation of the Jewish People, or something as simple as looking out for each other’s physical and emotional wellbeing. The phrase literally translates to “all of Israel are guarantors for one another,” and that is what Judah is doing here. By taking steps to find Tamar and repay her, he is not only being honest by repaying his debt, but by asking around for her he is ensuring that the townspeople know he has done this, ensuring that they have no reason to distrust any members of Jacobs’ household that they might come across in the future. Tamar, for her part, is portrayed as acting more in the original context of the phrase, engaging in her deception so that either Judah or Shelah will not be struck down for engaging in the same sin that Onan was.

On the other end of this spectrum we have the other story of Joseph and his brothers, where the brothers sell him into slavery and then kill a goat for the purposes of deceiving their father about what they have done. This action, seen by some commentators as the beginning of Israelite slavery in Egypt, is the beginning of a series of events in Jewish history that brings us through to the present day. This chain of events (and some beyond the present day) is allegorically described in the Passover song Chad Gadya, which literally means “one little goat,” and chronicles the various ups and downs in Jewish history, with the goat at the beginning representing the Israelites.

It is interesting to note that despite multiple characters behaving in ways we might find objectionable, or at the very least shocking, for biblical figures, in the story of Judah and Tamar the goat survives, while in the story of Joseph and his brothers it does not, killed by the literal children of Israel after they have turned on one of their own. The principle of “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh” has been an extremely important one in the survival of the Jewish People, both physically and spiritually. It is up to us today to leave our descendants with a world in which Judaism can thrive.


Commentary for Vayishlach

23 Dec

This week’s parshah begins with Jacob steeling himself and making preparations for his confrontation with his brother Esau that has been thirty-four years in the making. En route to this confrontation, Jacobs famously wrestles an angel and is given the name by which not just he himself, but also his family, and all of his descendants and their homeland through the present day would be known by: Israel.

Esau has a name that serves a similar function: Edom. While we were first introduced to this name of Esau’s two weeks ago, it is in the last chapter of this parshah, a genealogy of Esau and his descendants, where it becomes clear that this name is not just a nickname of Esau’s, but rather the name that he and those descended from him and their territory would be come known by, just as his brother’s descendants would be known by Israel.

Esau’s genealogy is abnormal because it lists his descendants each as “chiefs” and describes the specific region of Edom of which they are chief. While this might sound similar to the Israelite tribal system, it is important to note that in genealogies, the Israelites are never described as chiefs of their regions. The Israelite’s tribal presidencies are only brought up when it is relevant to the function they are fulfilling in the story. Also, the word used to describe the Edomite “chiefs,” “aluf,” carries with it a much more military connotation than the word used to describe the Israelite tribal chiefs, “nasi.”   Rashi uses this to infer that soon after Esau’s passing, his descendants split into different tribes, only loosely affiliated due to their familial connection and at war with each other as often as not, with the only times they were united as one people under one king being when one of the chief’s factions was strong enough to dominate the others. This is a sharp contrast to the Israelites tribes who, while sometimes apathetic towards each other’s plight, were generally amicable and helpful to each other, and still shared a sense of cultural unity, even when the kingdom split into two.

When Jacob and Esau finally meet, the Torah tells us that they embrace and Esau kisses Jacob, with all being seemingly forgiven, but the Torah gives us several clues that this was not the case. The word for “he kissed him,” “vayishakeihu,” shares the same route as the word for “weapon,” and a set of mysterious dots appear above this word, which the rabbis interpret as a sign that an alternate meaning should be applied in addition to the basic one. One such opinion about this set of dots teaches that it is meant to weaken the meaning of the word and betrays Esau’s true feelings about his brother.

Similarly, when the Torah speaks of brotherly or fatherly embrace, the idiom it uses literally translates as saying that one person “fell upon his [the other’s] necks.” Obviously people only have one neck, so this idiom is the only time this odd word meaning “his necks” is used. While tradition teaches us that the word as it appears in this story (Gen. 33:4) is to be pronounced in the usual manner for the idiom, it is actually spelled in the text in the singular as “his neck,” as it would be spelled outside of the idiom, which Al Keri U’chetiv uses to teach that Esau was not sincere in his display of emotion.

This incident teaches us about an important difference between the two brothers. Jacob wished to end the feud, so when he met Esau, he came prepared with lavish gifts, which he knew Esau, would like. Jacob understood his brother and he loved him and thus was willing to give of himself in order to end the quarrel. Esau, on the other hand, was willing to be appeased by Jacob’s gifts, but he never truly forgave him. Jacob wanted to sign a peace treaty, but in Esau’s mind all he ever did was accept Jacob’s gifts as sufficient reason to agree to a ceasefire. Each brother passed his mindset on to his descendants. Thus the Edomites warred with each other often, willing to be appeased or agree to a strategic end to hostilities, but never willing to forgive, while the children of Israel learned to love each other and forgive each other, for it is only through forgiveness that a quarrel can truly be put to rest.

Commentary for Vayeitzei

9 Dec

At the beginning of this week’s parshah, Jacob has his famous dream. He dreams of a ladder that goes all the way up to Heaven, and of a constant stream of angels descending to fulfill the missions God has given to them and then ascending once again when their tasks are complete.


It is interesting to note that, by virtue of extending all the way up to heaven, this ladder is the tallest thing descried in the entire Bible. It is natural to assume that the title of tallest thing in the Bible would belong to some famous tower or palace or even a temple, but those structures are all man-made, so whatever the intentions of their builders were- even if that intention was to glorify God- their very existence serves to glorify those builders as well. The most well-known and egregious case of this is that of the Tower of Babel, in which humanity sought to build a tower to the heavens so that they could make war upon God, but even the chief artisan of the Tabernacle, Betzalel, has had his name glorified through his association with work, and it is his name that now appears on the State of Israel’s national school of art and design.


It is also interesting to note that the tallest structure described in the Bible is not even real, but rather a part of a dream. It does not exist in the material world, and therefore it can do what cannot be done in a purely material manner: reach heaven and establish a connection with God.


The tallest structure described in the entire Bible is not an ornate palace or temple, but rather it is just a simple ladder. And yet, this simple ladder is the tallest structure in the Bible because it serves the highest purpose: helping us to fulfill God’s mission. Just as it has no basis in the material world, so too must we realize that we do not need material wealth to serve God. And just as it serves purely as an avenue to glorify God, so too must we make sure that our intentions in our service to God are meant to serve God alone rather than to serve our own ends.

Commentary for Toldot

7 Dec

This week’s parshah contains one of the nine times in the book of Genesis where the text notes that someone cries. The other eight instances fall rather neatly into one of two categories: someone cries at the death (Gen. 23:2. 50:1), apparent death (37:5), or apparently imminent death (21:16) of a family member, or upon reuniting with a family member they thought they would never see again (29:11, 33:4, 45:14-15, 46:29). Of these, the only apparent outlier is Jacob kissing Rachel upon first seeing her in 29:11, but the circumstances of their meeting- Jacob has run away from his brother Esau to go live with his mother’s brother’s family in Aram, and Rachel, who probably bore a resemblance to her aunt Rebecca, is the first “familiar” face he sees- put this into the category of reuniting with a family member he never thought he would see again, which is supported by the fact that this is the only time in the Bible that a man kisses a woman who is not his wife or his mother.

The real outlier is the one that occurs in this week’s parshah, when Esau cries upon learning that his father Isaac has given Jacob the blessing Esau wanted for himself. This incident is a very important one not just in Jewish history, but in understanding the Jewish outlook on what is important in life.

Earlier in the parshah, a hungry Esau sells his “birthright” to Jacob in exchange for a pot of stew (Gen. 25:29-34). Now, after a brief interlude of chapter 26, chapter 27 tells the story of Jacob and Rebecca conspiring to ensure that Jacobs receives the “blessing” of the firstborn as well.

It is important here to note the distinction between the terms “birthright” and “blessing.” Although it sounds counter-intuitive to our modern ears, the term blessing in ancient times often had more of a financial component. In this case, the blessing being conferred is that which God gave to Abraham and Isaac. God formally promises the blessing to Isaac in 26:3-4, which makes it clear that the “blessing” in question is the inheritance of the Land of Israel rather than any sort of special spiritual role (Isaac was already the spiritual leader of the Jewish People, so what more could he need on that front?). A “birthright” conversely, denoted a special spiritual role in ancient times according to Chief Rabbi of the UK Joseph Hertz (Hertz Chumash, p.94). Esau did not care about the “birthright” so he sold it for nothing. When it came to the “blessing” of financial success, on the other hand, he cared a great deal.

Though he coveted his father’s wealth, Esau had clearly not been paying attention to what his father had sought to teach him. Gen. 26:5 makes clear that the financial “blessing” is contingent upon Isaac’s obedience to God’s commandments. Thus, in the latter half of the chapter, Isaac is not concerned by the Philistines attempts to seize his wells because he knew that God would provide sustenance for him, his family and his followers, which God did in the form of new wells.

In Gen. 27, Isaac sends Esau out with instructions to catch him game and prepare it for him as a meal in order to receive the blessing. While Esau hurries off to do so, Rebecca cooks Isaac’s favorite dish and disguises Jacob as his hairier brother by dressing him in Esau’s clothes and covering his hands and neck in goat skins with instructions to go before his father and present himself as Esau. When Jacob does so, Isaac asks him how he has succeeded in his task so quickly, to which Jacob replies, “because the Lord your God granted me good fortune (27:20),” leading to Isaac’s well-known reply that “the voice is the voice of Jacob yet the hands are the hands of Esau (27:22).” This statement shows that Jacob has learned what Esau has not: that the spiritual “birthright” and the financial “blessing” are inseparable because it is God who is truly responsible for all of our successes.

When Jacob bought the birthright from Esau he asked for the “birthright” because that was what he was interested in. He understood that the financial success was incidental, and he and Rebecca only act to ensure that Jacob receives the financial “blessing” once it has become clear that Esau does not intend to tell Isaac that he has sold the spiritual birthright to Jacob. They act not for the financial aspect of it but because this makes it clear that Isaac is unaware that it is Jacob who is the rightful next spiritual leader of the Jewish People, but he will never be publicly accepted as such without Isaac conveying this authority upon him, which occurs as part of the blessing because- as Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob all understand- there is no way to separate the “blessing” from the “birthright.”

When Esau arrives with the game he has caught and prepared for his father and they both realize what has occurred, Esau weeps because he will not be able to receive the financial “blessing” he so covets. At this point in his life Esau is over forty years old, with a family of his own and still stands to inherit considerable wealth from his father, which he will no doubt be able to supplement with his own considerable hunting skills, and yet here he is, crying- something that is only otherwise done in the book of Genesis in moments of grief over the death of a loved one or in ecstatic joy at a reunion with a loved one- over the fact that he will be getting less money than his brother. Esau’s reaction here shows his inability to understand what is truly important in life, and thus teaches us why he was unfit to be a leader of the Jewish People.