Tag Archives: Pirkei Avot

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 Balak

6 Jul

In this week’s parshah we encounter an oddity in the Bible: Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet. Normally any “priest” or “prophet” who does not have God’s interests in mind is treated as if he or she is a false prophet or a priest of a false god, but in the case of Bilaam, Rabbinic literature paints him as being just as wise as Moses and just as respected among the gentiles as Moses was among the Israelites. While similar figures such as Pharaoh’s magicians or the priests of Ba’al are exposed as frauds, when Bilaam is hired to curse the Israelites it is presented as a real danger.


While Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Israelites is thwarted by God, there is still a lesson to learn from it. We often dismiss the words of our critics out of hand as being “wrong,” whether because we feel that they don’t understand the situation or because we feel that the views from which they have formed these opinions are flawed, but that does not mean that their words should not be considered.


“Ben Zoma says: who is wise? One who learns from everyone (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” Although Bilaam was a mercenary and an idolater who sought to sabotage belief in God, it should always be remembered that he was also a very wise man, and any weaknesses he tried to exploit were probably areas in which the Israelites really could have used some improvement.

Commentary for Terumah

24 Feb

In this week’s parshah, the Israelites are commanded to build the tabernacle. Among the items in the tabernacle were the ark, which was used to hold the two tablets, and the caporet, the solid gold lid for the ark, with solid two cherubs on top of it. The ark was obviously an extremely holy item. It resided in the Holy of Holies, contained the two tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed upon them, and its capture by the Philistines was treated as a national tragedy. The caporet, on the other hand, seems to just be a lid. Sure, it had some cool features, such as the fact that the cherubs would face each other when God was pleased with the Israelites and face away from each other when God was displeased, but what use is a lid on it’s own, without something to cover?


Surprisingly, our parshah tells us that when God spoke to Moses, the Divine voice would not emanate from the ark, but rather from a space above the caporet but below the cherubs’ wings. The ark contained the two tablets inscribed directly by God at Mount Sinai, which commentators have often noted contain within them the basis for all of the other mitzvot in the Torah. Wouldn’t this be a much more appropriate location for the voice of God to issue instructions from?


Pirkei Avot 5:16 talks about four kinds of Jews: Those who both study Torah and do mitzvot, those who do study Torah but don’t do other mitzvot, those who do other mitzvot but don’t study Torah, and those who neither study Torah nor do mitzvot. While sitting around and learning Torah is all well and good, it is not meant to be something we merely keep inside of us. God’s voice emanates from a space above the caporet, outside of the ark, because they are meant to be taken out into the world with us. It is one thing to know what you are supposed to do, but it is another thing entirely to use that knowledge and actually go out and do them.