The Quality of Torah

In this week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, we learn of the reunion of Esav and Yaakov. We read that Jacob told his messengers to report to Esav, “I have sojourned (GaRTY) with Lavan”( Genesis 32:5). According to Rashi, the message was to communicate to Esav that Yaakov did live with the wicked Lavan, but he still kept true to observing the 613 (TaRYaG) commandments and did not learn any of Lavan’s evil ways. GaRTY and TaRYaG being the same letters in Hebrew in a different order. How does Rashi’s understanding of this word play affect the meaning of what Yaakov was trying to tell his brother?

In the plain meaning, Yaakov is trying to assuage his guilt over having stolen the birthright and blessing from his elder brother Esav. In this sense Yaakov is admitting to having done the crime and claiming that he served the time. Yaakov is a reformed man having just gotten out of  the jail of Lavan’s house. Maybe Yaakov is telling Esav that there was no great prize of the birthright or the blessing. Being “chosen” to keep the Torah was and will not be a cakewalk.

On a deeper level, we learn from Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin that Yaakov was saying, “While I remained firm in my observance of the 613 commandments, I failed to learn from Lavan to perform the commandments with the same dedication and zeal as he pursued his evil ways.” Even though Yaakov had dutifully kept the Torah, he still has a lot to learn, even from Lavan. Yaakov is not perfect.

In my own life, I have found that living by the code of the Torah is important. I learn from Yaakov that no code can ever be an excuse to act immorally. Even if he kept that Torah, he still had to apologize to his brother for his wrongdoing. Moreover, regardless of how much Torah I ever learn in life there is still what to learn from the “non-Torah” world. The enduring quality of Torah is shown when it opens us up to a pursuit of truth, the Jewish community, the larger world, and even our inner selves. We all have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. 

Burning Ladder: Alicia Keys and Yaakov

We read in Vayetzeh, this week’s Torah portion, Yaakov dreamed a dream about a ladder. There we read:

And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! ( Genesis 28:12)

As Yaakov was leaving Israel to go into Diaspora he had this vision. We need to be idealistic and have our head above the limiting details of life, but we always need to have our feet firmly rooted in the ground. As important as any of the ideas we might talk with you about are the actions that we model. While I hope to share with my children my ideas and ideals, I realize that they will have your own. So I hope when they read this years from now they have seen my commitment to a set of values. I am worried for my children. The world in which they are growing up in much harsher than mine. What will become of this world emblazoned  by terror?

With the image of  Yaakov’s dream on my mind  I got to thinking about  Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys.

There she sings:

She got both feet on the ground
And she’s burning it down
Oh, she got her head in the clouds
And she’s not backing down

What does it mean to have Yaakov’s dream in the 21st Century which seems to be burning up around us? What kind foundation can I provide my children to ensure they maintain a dream and moral imagination needed to make the world what it might become?


Spiral in History: Bread and Toldot

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Esav’s sale of the birthright to Yaakov for lentil stew. there we read:

And Yaakov gave Esav bread and a stew of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esav despised the birthright. ( Genesis 25:34)

It foreshadows how Yaakov stole the blessing from Esav by giving a wonderful lunch to Yitzhak. It is notable in both situations that Esav and Yitzhak asked for stew and deer and in both cases Yaakov served it with bread. While you might say that most cultures ancient and modern serve meals with bread, it is noteworthy that the text mentions it.

This image of this bread seems to come back with the sale of Yosef, Yaakov’s favorite.  As Yosef is in the pit he brothers sit around to determine what to do with him. There we read:

And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt.( Genesis 37:25)

To Yaakov’s pain and suffering they tell him that Yosef was killed and they sell him into slavery. Ultimately this saves the brothers from famine. But it does not take long for Yaakov’s descendants to become slaves in Egypt. Eventually with the help of God and Moshe they leave Egypt.  In Passover we celebrate a yearly holiday without bread to remember our redemption from slavery and the rest of the use of bread in our history. History has a bitter-sweet spiral. What can we learn from this?

I was thinking about it this week when I reading this insightful article by Professor Jonathan Sarna on the whole ordeal with the RCA over women’s ordination.  He points out the irony of the RCA being excluded and now excluding others from Orthodoxy. Time will tell if the RCA made a good choice to draw a line or will this moment be the beginning of the end of their stronghold on Orthodoxy in America. Simply I do not think we can go on telling Orthodox female leadership that they do not have a seat at the table or to just eat cake.  As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The Inception of Blessing

One of my favorite movies was Inception. It is a fanciful science fiction movie in which a thief who steals corporate secrets through use of the dream-sharing technology is given the inverse task of stealthily planting an idea into the mind of a CEO. (Yes you should drop everything and watch this movie if you have not yet seen it.) What does it mean to give someone an idea without them even knowing it?

Image result for Inception

I was thinking about this idea recently when reading Chaye Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. There we read, “And Avraham gave all that he had to Yitzhak ” (Genesis 25:5). We learn in the the Midrash that Avraham had already given all of his property to Yitzhak (Genesis Rabbah 61:6).  So what did Avraham give Yitzhak? Rashi explains:

Rabbi Nechemiah said: He gave him his right to dispense blessing, for the Holy One, blessed be God, had said to Avraham (Genesis 12:2)“ and you shall be a blessing,” i.e., the blessings are delivered into your hand to bless whomever you wish. And Avraham gave them over to Yitzhak.

So here we are at the end of Avraham’s life and he imparts to Yitzhak the ability to dispense blessing. The very nature of an idea of blessing is in of itself a profound idea.  Giving blessings seems less like a special media or magical power and more like an inner realization. If you can conceive blessing you can give blessing.  Avraham was the person who first person who conceived being Jewish, here we see the inception of being able to give a blessing. Though I do wonder where I got this idea.

Integral Belief

What does it mean to believe in something? It is hard to read VaYera, this weeks Torah portion, without confronting this issue of belief. In it we read God commanding Avraham to sacrifice his son Yitzhak. What would it mean to believe that God told you to kill your child? (This is especially crazy if you have met our four children.) While many interpreters have dealt with the faith of Avraham throughout history, I am less interested in the answer than the question of faith.

To a scientist, the prospect of faith is a puzzle. How could any rational person believe in something that has no data to back it up? The world can only be fairly judged on what everyone can perceive. Nevertheless, the scientists are left with the problem that so many people on this planet of ours do profess some sort of faith. To the faithful, they are left trying to figure out the existence of atheists or agnostics. They experience such a preponderance of evidence to the existence of a god, how could anyone choose to ignore that “fact”?If nothing else, we can appreciate the symmetry in the universe of the argument between these two camps.

Before the birth of our children, I could honestly say that I am not sure that I am a person of faith. But one way or another I know that I have Emunah in my life now. But still I have to ask myself, what is the fine line between faith and intellectual laziness? How often do I say that I believe in something when in fact I mean I have yet to think about it fully? How often do I take something that I have thought about exhaustively and instead of going with the evidence, choose to follow my faith? If I were confronted by a new perception of the world, would I be willing to sacrifice my way of life? I strive to be emotionally honest with the world and myself. I am not suggesting that we risk sacrificing our children like Avraham the innovator of our faith, rather I am asking that we  not risk sacrificing our integrity.

How Great are Commandments?

Despite only being eleven years old, Yadid decided to fast this year on Yom Kippur. Being that he is not yet a Bar Mitzvah (13 years old) he had no obligation to do so. We were clear with him that if he ever wanted to eat or drink he should stop fasting. At the end of the break Adina, Yadid, Libi and I were headed back to synagogue for Mincha. At this point Yadid asked, ” Is it harder for people who do not see themselves to be obligated to keep mitzvot to fast on Yom Kippur? I mean since I know I can eat it makes it even harder for me not to eat.”

At the time Yadid’s question makes me think about  Lech Lecha, this weeks portion. Here our nation’s journey begins with God instructing Avram (soon to become Avraham) to leave his birthplace and set out to start a new people in a new land. What a novel concept? A people collected by common belief as opposed to an accident of birth place. But if we were paying attention to the end of  Noah, last week’s portion, we would have seen that the destination for Avram’s travel was not new at all. Terach, Avram’s father, had set out with his family toward the land of Canaan, but never got there. While it seems that Avram was more successful than his father in terms of getting to the land of Canaan, as we see later in the this Torah portion in Avram’s travels to Egypt he was equally unsuccessful as his father in terms of staying in Canaan. How are we to compare the Avram’s divine quest with Terach’s life journey?

In the Gemara in Kidushin 31a (in a totally different context) we learn that,  “Greater is the one who is commanded and does then the one who is not commanded and does”. This sentiment can be explained with a basic understanding of the human need to combat authority. It  is more meritorious to overcome our need to rebuff authority and comply than to just do something for its own sake. It is interesting to ponder the opposite of this adage. How would you compare one who is commanded and does not comply to the one who is not commanded and does not comply? The first one is testing the limits of authority, but still might be in a relationship with the authority. The later is just not doing anything at all.

Surely Terach’s intentions were good, but we do not know them. At first Avram is successful in following God’s direction to go to the land of Canaan, but soon after he gets there he does not stay. But still he aspires to go and does eventually comply and settle in the land of Canaan. In many ways we are all still beneficiaries of this aspiration and this relationship. Beyond the scope of going to Israel, we all fail to fulfill God’s commandments, but with clear expectations it is possible for us to try again and succeed.

Yadid’s question was special in that it came with a certain openness. I hope Yadid maintains this openness for many years beyond his becoming a bar mitzvah. There is still more depth of the question, but alas even thinking about it makes me hungry.

– Borrowed from older post


Looking for Noah: Prophesy for Our Times

When I stop to reflect on this last week and Noah, this weeks Torah portion, there are actually almost too many connection points. When we read :

And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with hamas- violence. And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. (Genesis 6:11-12)

It is hard reading this without thinking of the situation in Israel right now with all of the stabbings and violence. As with the generation of Noah you have to ask what would make people act this way? There is no doubt that the status quo in Israel needs to change, but this will not make it change for the better. I am afraid it will take generations to heal from this pain and corruption.

And then you get to the flood itself and it is impossible not think about issue we have with climate change. It seems hard to argue with the fact that our treatment of the world has led to a situation in which we are putting our children at risk if not ourselves.

And then we get to the dispersion of the descendants of Noah after the destruction of the Tower of Babel. There we read:

And the Lord said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. ( Genesis 11:6-9)

It is impossible for me to read this without thinking about the current global refugee crisis. Europe is terrified that it will become confounded by the sudden influx of displaced Muslim and Arabs fleeing regimes that look to build up their control and their name.

With so many parallels between the Torah portion of Noah and the headlines it is easy to read it as some sort of cautionary prophesy. I am just looking for our generation’s Noah. He or she need not be perfect, but we desperately need leadership that will save our world for the next generation.

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