Archive for the '1.06 Toldot' Category

YODO: The Blessing of Living Lots of Times

You cannot go anywhere without seeing YOLO. It seems to be to motto of this era. “YOLO” is an acronym for “you only live once”. It is along the same lines as the Latin carpe diem -‘seize the day’. It is a call to live life to its fullest extent, even embracing behavior which carries inherent risk. But is this true?

To this sentiment Bobby Darin replied, “It isn’t true that you live only once. You only die once. You live lots of times, if you know how.” In many ways living a meaningful life is not the drive to be risky, but the result of it. When we come into contact with our own mortality we are often forced to make sense of our lives. It is in these moments that we must learn how to actually live.

I was thinking about this when reading Toldot, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about Isaac getting old and going blind. We read:

When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.” And he said, “I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.”

Genesis 27:1-4

What is the impetus for Isaac giving his son a blessing? It seems to be a consciousness of his age, ability, and mortality. Isaac wants to give his son a blessing before he dies. But it makes you wonder, does anyone know when they are going die?

In Perkei Avot Rebbe Eliezer teaches “Repent one day before your death” (Avot 2:15).The Talmud explains that his real meaning was that a person should be in a process of Tshuva (repentance) every day, since he never knows which will be the day they will die (Shabbat 153a). I like to think that if this is true about Tshuva, it should also be true about blessings. We should bless the people we love one day before we die. Surely living a life of blessing the people you love is a way of living “lots of times”

Have a wonderfully blessed Thanksgiving weekend together with your family and friends.


Brothers Above All

In Toldot, this past week’s Torah portion, we read  the story of Rivka who after struggling to conceive is blessed with twins. During her turbulent pregnancy she sought out God. There she learned:

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. ( Genesis 25:23)

JANUARY 11- DAILY READING THROUGH THE ONE YEAR BIBLE -Genesis 24:52-26:16;  Matthew 8:18-34; Psalm 10:1-15; Proverbs 3:7-8

In explaining “shall be separated from your bowels” Rashi writes:

As soon as they leave your body they will take each a different course — one to his wicked ways, the other to his plain life (Genesis 5:27)

And sure enough soon after the twins are born this happens.  Esav is born first and close at his heel is Yaakov. It is noteworthy that Yaakov’s name comes from holding on to his brother’s foot. Esav the older one is favored by Yitzhak while the younger son Yaakov is Rivka’s favorite. This tension is a throw back to Cain and Abel. While this does not end with one brother killing the other, it is not a model of fraternity. Where is the love between brothers?

What can we learn from this tension for our times? George Lakoff says that political messaging is all about framing. Once your concede to your opponents’ frame for the debate you have lost the debate.

A good example of this is taxes. When Republicans add the word “relief” to the word “tax”, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame. And as soon as the Democrats are using “tax relief” they are shooting themselves in the foot.

That is what framing is about. Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.

Yaakov will always be living in reference to his brother ( or more specifically his brother’s heel), until he reframes the debate with changing his name. He is not limited to playing second fiddle to his brother when is renamed and reframed as Yisrael, the hero wrestling with God.

From “lock her up”, to “fake-news”, to “Kong Flu”, to questioning the very essence of fair and free elections, we have so much work to do to repair our society after Trump’s reframing of our modern partisan politics. We need to put the good of the country above the good of the party. The most critical reframing is to remember that at the start we are all siblings above all.

Yaakov Giver: On Thanksgiving and Toldot

In observance of Thanksgiving I got thinking about the offensive American expression “Indian giver”. It used to describe a person who gives a “gift” and later wants it back, or who expects something of equivalent worth in return for the item. How did we end up with the expression  Indian giver?

It is based on cultural misunderstandings that took place between early European settlers and the Indigenous people with whom they traded. Often the Europeans would view an exchange of items as gifting, believing they owed nothing in return to the Natives who were generous with them, while the Indigenous people saw the exchange as a form of trade or equal exchange, so had differing expectations of their guests.

The phrase was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, who characterized an Indian gift as, “a present for which an equivalent return is expected,” which suggests that the phrase originally referred to a simple exchange of gifts. In 1860, however, in John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, Bartlett said the phrase was being used by children in New York to mean, “one who gives a present and then takes it back.”

On reflecting on this phrase which is still in colloquial use to describe a negative act or shady business dealings I got to thinking about Toldot, this week’s Torah portion. In reading the portion in the context of Thanksgiving I cannot help but focusing on with Esav getting suckered out of his birthright by his brother Yaakov. There we read:

And Yaakov made pottage; and Esav came in from the field, and he was faint.  And Esav said to Yaakov: ‘Let me swallow, I pray of you, some of this red, red pottage; for I am faint.’ Therefore was his name called Edom. And Yaakov said: ‘Sell me first your birthright.’ And Esav said: ‘Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?’ And Yaakov said: ‘Swear to me first’; and he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Yaakov. And Yaakov gave Esav bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. So Esav despised his birthright.( Genesis 25:29-34)

Image result for thanksgiving spread with stew

What the gift of lentil stew? Thinking about it on Thanksgiving I can imagine the whole spread that Yaakov served his brother. On the simple level it seems that Esav was hungry and Yaakov used that as leverage to buy his birthright. Did Esav and Yaakov have the same expectations in this exchange?  Yaakov had an expectation that the exchange was a form of trade or equal exchange.

Sometimes these interactions are to the benefit of the host ( Yaakov) and other times the guest ( Europeans in America). On this holiday celebrating people who took in guests, we need to pause and reflect on our mutual expectations and the privileges we have in these interactions. Enjoy your Thanksgiving Holiday.


Pitting Against

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Yitzhak’s two children Esau and Jacob. While we know that Avraham’s line will continue in Yitzhak and not Yishmael, why didn’t Yakov and Esav both share the mantel of the future people instead of it just going to Yakov’s children? We read,

“And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Isaac loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Yakov.” (Genesis 25:27-28)

It is clear from the start that Yitzhak and Rebekah do not share an equal love for their children. From the start, they were in competition for their parents’ love. Yakov and Esav spend years and years in competition and struggle with each other, but it seems pretty clear that they are just living out the conflict between Yitzhak and Rivka.

I had the fortune to reread this part of the Torah with my friend and teacher Jon Adam Ross (JAR) as part of his  inHEIRitance Project.  At the time JAR was preparing to do a play inspired by Rivka in Charleston in 2015. This is a community struggling with a deep history of slavery and racism. In this context it was compelling to rethink the contrast between Yakov the tent dweller and Esav the hunter. In the context of Charleston Yakov and Esav were recast as the house slave and the field slave. It is clear that the tension between them was to keep our eyes off the oppression of the slave master.  There is a long history of pitting marginalized people against each other rather than dealing with the root cause of injustice. Why couldn’t Yitzhak and Rivka just deal with rift in their relationship? It would have saved their children a world of pain. Why do we accept this politics of  diversion of  pitting marginalized people against each other from the current administration?



Choosing Poorly: Esav and America Post Trump

Reading Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, you cannot help but empathize with Esav getting suckered our of his birthright by his brother Yaakov. There we read:

And Yaakov made pottage; and Esav came in from the field, and he was faint.  And Esav said to Yaakov: ‘Let me swallow, I pray of you, some of this red, red pottage; for I am faint.’ Therefore was his name called Edom. And Yaakov said: ‘Sell me first your birthright.’ And Esav said: ‘Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?’ And Yaakov said: ‘Swear to me first’; and he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Yaakov. And Yaakov gave Esav bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. So Esav despised his birthright.( Genesis 25:29-34)

On the simple level it seems that Esav was hungry and Yaakov used that as leverage to buy his birthright. But why did Esav despise this birthright in the end?

I can relate to Esav’s wanting to eat. What use is some distant reward when compared to the immanent need to eat? This is resonant with the Stanford marshmallow experiment. It seems to be as a nation when served two options of something that might take time and effort to materialize or something that promised imediate greatness- it is clear what we chose. Like Esav we too got duped into selecting the hot-headed twittering and smoldering orange bowl of lentils. Do we despise our birthright of liberty, freedom, and justice? We need to figure out if we will allow the Trump doctrine of hate, xenophobia,  and self-interest to become our new normal. Is already too late?

More on the Stanford marshmallow experiment

Marshmallow Experiment: Nadav, Avihu, Esav, and the Kosher Kids

As an Orthodox Jew living in the modern world I often get asked about my dietary restrictions. I get questions all the time. Why do you keep Kosher? Is this Kashrut code? What are all these little symbols? Do you really think the Creator of the universe cares what you eat? Wait how long do you wait between meat and milk? And so so so many more questions.

I was think about these questions while reading Shmini, this week’s Torah portion. There we read a whole code of dietary restrictions. May they be on land, in the sea, in the air, or even in the land we learn which ones we, Bnai Yisrael, can and cannot eat. Beyond this Kashrut code in this week’s Torah portion we  also learn about the death of Nadav and Avihu. After their deaths God says to Aaron,”‘Drink no wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, that you die not; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.” ( Leviticus 10:9)Many commentators take this as an explanation for the death of his sons Nadav and Avihu. What is the connection between this and this Kashrut code?

When thinking about this question I thought of the depiction of Esav  and Yaakov in their youth. There we read:

And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yaakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Yitzhak loved Esav, because [his]trapping was in his mouth; and Revkah loved Yaakov. ( Genesis 25: 27-28)

The simple meaning is that Yitzhak loved Esav because Esav put his trapped game into Yitzhak’s mouth. On another level Esav actually trapped is game with his own mouth. There was no delay between trapping and eating. It was one action with no delay and no delayed gratification. In a way the Torah is depicted Esav as the child who “failed” the Stanford marshmallow experiment. This image is juxtaposed to Yaakov who was in the tent and his people Bnai Yisrael who uphold the Kashrut code. In following these laws I can never just go and eat. I am constantly coaching myself to get the benefits of delayed gratification. We are warned that if we like Esav, Nadav, and Avihu do not think before drinking or eating we will run the risk of giving up our long-term aspirations for short-term rewards. That is why I am one of the Kosher kids.


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.”

Holding It All Together: Reflections After Recent Tragedies in Jerusalem

This week has been filled with more heart wrenching stories from the ongoing tragedies in Israel. In this context someone shared with me a poem of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. The poem is called “The Diameter of the Bomb”.

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

What is the full impact of violence? Is anyone truly spared from the effect of destruction in the world? The words “no end” in the last line in Hebrew אין סוף- ein sof  is one of the ways we refer to God. So in some sense this violence itself might impact God or even be an act of deicide . Does violence know any limits? In a very poetic way Amichai is describing the etiology of tragedy inside the “thirty centimeters” of a bomb.  What did this world look like before this big bang?

I was thinking about this when reading Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, when we read about the pregnancy of Rivka. There we read;

And the Lord said to her: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger (Genesis 25:23).

At the simplest level Rivka learned about her discomfort with being pregnant with twins. The prophecy did not just warn her about carrying two fetuses in her womb; she had “two peoples” in her body. There is no wonder that she is not comfortable; she was to give birth to entire nations with her body being transformed into a proverbial clown car. On a deeper look, while this might have been said to allay her biological fears of a difficult pregnancy, she is left with the psychological horror of having to parent two children who will be at each others’ throats. Her womb is holding together a history of war similar to  Amichai’s bomb.

While we are all God’s children, God is alone in seeing the unfolding of our history of bloody sibling rivalry. The pregnant Rivka embodies the internalization of the pain of the clash of civilizations. She represents the discomfort of knowing that there will be strife in the future between two people who share much in common and should love each other as brothers. I am not saying that Rivka and Yitzhak were the best parents, but I do want to connect with her fear for the future. This reminds me of what Golda Meir said to Anwar Saddat, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.” When will we both be ready to struggle together to achieve a lasting peace? I hope that we can keep the hopes and aspirations of a pregnant mother in mind.


Blind Taste Test

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Yakov’s deception and act of stealing the blessing from his brother Esav. This story starts off with a blind Yitzhak growing aware of his age. He calls Esav. There we read:

Now therefore take, I pray of you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.’ ( Genesis 27: 3-4)

Rivka overhears this plan and tells Yakov to intervene and to follow her plan. There we read:

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from two good kids of the goats from there; and I will make them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.’ ( Genesis 27: 9-10)

At the core of this deception is the issue of perception. Yitzhak is blind so he cannot see the food or who is bringing it.

This reminds me of the final chapter of Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink. There he writes about how orchestras hold “blind” auditions where musicians literally play behind a screen. So-called expert judges are able to hear with “just their ears” rather than look first and, in that blink of an eye, make instant (often unfair) assumptions based on what they see. A tiny woman, for example, could never be a great French Horn player because she couldn’t possibly have the strength or lung capacity. Gladwell writes,“Until they listened to her with just their ears … they had no idea she was so good.”

This seems to be the case with Yitzhak as well. He says that he wants venison because it tastes savory, but in the end he gives the blessing to the child that brings him the goat meat instead. Until he tastes with his mouth and not with his eyes he did not realize what he truly really wanted. His blindness was like a screen, helping him blink and reveal the right savory taste. But why did he think he wanted Esav’s dish?

In last week’s Torah portion we read about Esav and Yakov as children . There we read:

And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Yitzhak loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Jacob. ( Genesis 25:27-28)

Yitzhak saw in Esav a virile masculine outdoorsy child. Yitzhak is drawn after the memories of Esav’s venison which blinds him to the gifts that Yakov has to offer. Ironically it is his actual blindness that helps him see. We are all blinded by our assumptions.

I was thinking about this when reading  of the Gur’s ban on soy products. According to a report in BaOlam Shel Haredim based on a HaMevasser report, Gur has now banned soy products like veggie hot dogs from its yeshivas due their Rabbis’ fears that the hormones in soy foods will cause the bodies of young teen students to become feminine in appearance and thereby cause their rabbis and older students to become sexually aroused seeing them. They are worried that soy will damage the spirituality of its yeshiva students by accelerating their sexual maturity. Doctors and scientists find no scientific evidence to support Gur’s decision to ban what is the cheapest – and, probably, the healthiest – protein available. They, like Yitzhak, seem to be blinded by their perception that venison is more masculine.

We all make assumptions that cloud our vision. It is sad to realize how we are overlooking the gifts of so many people by holding fast to these assumptions. You would think that we, the descendents of Yakov, would advocate to put up the screen so we could have a better sounding orchestra and more savory meal.

Winning with Our Parents

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we read

When Esau was forty years old, he took as a wife Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Besmat, daughter of Elon the Hitttie; and they were a source of spiritual rebellion to Isaac and to Rebecca(Genesis 26:34-35).

With the primacy of monogamy in our culture, we would read into the text that Esau’s parents were upset with his choice to marry two women. But, it seems that it was par for the course in their culture (see his grandfather Abraham and his brother Jacob). Were Isaac and Rebecca upset that he got married too late in life? What can we learn about Esau’s motivations to marry these women from the Torah’s reference to his being forty at his weddings?

At the start of this week’s Torah portion, we read that Isaac was also forty years old when he married Rebecca (Genesis 25: 20). To that cannot be the source of their spiritual angst.  In my mind, it seems that Esau desperately wanted to please his father. So much so, that Esau made sure to follow Isaac’s example and get married at the exact same age. I doubt that Isaac and Rebecca cared how old he was when Esau got married. The plain meaning of the text is that Isaac and Rebecca were sad that he did not marry “Jewish”.

As many of us will spend this weekend visiting our parents, I have no doubt that you can relate to the desire to make your parents proud of you. We can learn from this week’s portion how many assumptions we make about what will make our parents happy with us. I hope that we got a chance while we were with them to ask what their aspirations are for our lives. And if you did not, I encourage you to do so before you turn forty, but after forty is also fine. That is not to say that you will agree with your parents, but at least you won’t be misled by illusory goals. Who knows, once we actually end the game of broken telephone with our parents, we might be able to communicate with them. And while this might mean we have to grow up, once we know the rules of the game we might just win.

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