Posts Tagged 'Jacob'

Repugnant Cycle

In VaEra, next week’s Torah portion, we read about the beginning of the Ten Plagues. I want to focus on the first two; the water turning into blood and the proliferation of the frogs. In both cases, the Torah informs us that there was an odor. In regard to the first plague we read, “The fish-life that was in the River died and the River became foul” (Exodus 7:21) and in regard to the frogs we read, “They piled them up in heaps and heaps, and the land stank” (Exodus 8:10). The emancipation of the Israelites could have happened in many different ways. It seems that Egypt suffered the plagues to teach them, if not us, the readers, something about the horrors of slavery. What can be learned from these smells?

The Midrash explains that Egypt was punished with this odor, measure for measure, for how repugnant they found the Israelites (Exodus Rabbah 10:10). Did the Israelites smell bad? At the end of Shmot, this week’s Torah portion, Moses came to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load they came to complain to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. After the decree their perception of themselves became a reality.  It seems that the last straw was not the limited supply of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive.  They felt worthless and smelly.

But, maybe there is another way to see the Midrash that explains that the odor is measure for measure. Back in the stories in Genesis we read about when Rebecca helped Jacob steel the blessing from Esau. There we read:

And Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.”So Jacob drew near to Isaac his father, and he felt him, and he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”And he did not recognize him because his hands were hairy like the hands of his brother Esau, and he blessed him. And he said, “Are you [indeed] my son Esau?” And he said, “I am.”And he said, “Serve [it] to me that I may eat of the game of my son, so that my soul will bless you.” And he served him, and he ate, and he brought him wine, and he drank.And his father Isaac said to him, “Please come closer and kiss me, my son.” And he came closer, and he kissed him, and he smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him, and he said, “Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed! ( Genesis 27:21-27)

Isaac is blind, but not stupid. We get a sense from the text that he knows that something is off. This is not Esau. It is as if he is Little Red Ridding Hood trying to figure out where her grandmother is, Isaac is trying to figure out if this is Esau or Jacob.  Jacob is unable to imitate Esau’s voice, but between the costume, feel of his hands, food, and drink he passes for Esau.  In a simple reading it was his smell that convinced Isaac.

Jacob stole the blessing by deceiving with smell, before the Israelites are worthy of redemption from Egypt their odor is exposed. The Israelites are shamed measure for measure.  In turn the Egyptians are shamed measure for measure. When people speak negatively about us, we are embarrassed. What have they exposed about us? What has been exposed about themselves?  What starts with the desire for blessing and affirmation expands out to cycle of shame and violence. There are powerful lessons here about the cycle of bullying- it does not smell very good.

– This post is linked to others on synesthesia

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Between Brothers

In VaYishlach, the Torah portion two week’s ago, Yakov is preparing to reconnect and to reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. We read that:

And he ( Yakov) took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. ( Genesis 32: 24-25)

This is clearly am important moment. This is when Yakov and our whole nation become Yisrael. But, why did Yakov return over the Yabuk? On this, Rashi quotes the Talmud:

And Yakov was left alone. Said Rabbi Eleazar: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body; and why is this? Because they do not stretch out their hands to robbery.(Hullin 91a)

Why would Yakov risk so much for these little jars? What was in these jars? If we go back to the beginning of his journey, we recall Yakov’s dream with the ladder. Upon waking up he consecrated that place with oil:

And Yakov woke out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely God is in this place; and I did not knew it.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Yakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. ( Genesis 28: 16-18)

One reasonable reading is that these “small jars” had more of this consecrating oil in them. So why did he need them at this moment?

To understand this we need to understand Hanukkah. On its surfaces Hanukkah is a simple holidays. We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a small group banding together to beat a much stronger force, and the power of having faith in community. But like everything else in Jewish life nothing is ever as simple as it seems. So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah. One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple. Keeping Yakov’s dream in mind we should not forget that when recovering the Temple they also recovered the Even haShetiya– the foundational rock that was his pillow and was at the center of many of our stories ( see Dome of the Rock). When they recaptured the Temple they found on small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple. The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days. This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory. This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren. In my mind this is itself the third miracle of Hanukkah. Our ability to tell the story of the second miracle of the oil to overshadow the first miracle of a civil war. The story of the oil helped cover over the other story of the recovery of the Temple with its foundational rock.

This year is special in that Hanukkah shares the calender with Thanksgiving. On its surface they are similar in that they are both days of giving thanks. But what is Thanksgiving? It is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached another foundational rock- Plymouth Rock.

But is that the real story of Thanksgiving? On October 3rd 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. There we read:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

Like the third miracle of Hanukah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrams, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the re-creation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers. We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its being true. Camp in its essence is an artificially manufactured community built on rituals, traditions, and history that need not be based on fact. It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood. So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real.

So now I return to Yakov. Why did he return to get the small jars of oil? Like the Rabbis take on Hanukkah and Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving, Yakov was getting the oil in preparation to reconcile with his brother Esav. The stories we tell are the foundational rocks of our culture. The true miracle of our holidays is the oil that helps us rewrite those stories to make peace between brothers. Have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah. Happy holidays.

Achilles Heel

In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die young . To prevent his death, his mother Thetis took Achilles to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer powers of invulnerability, and dipped his body into the water. But as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, he had a chatzitza and  his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river. Achilles grew up to be a man of war who survived many great battles. But one day, a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him shortly after.

Achilles’ name can be analyzed as a combination of ἄχος (akhos) “grief” and λαός (Laos) “a people, tribe, nation, etc.” In other words, Achilles is an embodiment of the grief of the people. Achilles’ role as the hero of grief forms an ironic juxtaposition with the conventional view of Achilles as the hero of kleos (glory, usually glory in war).

Achilles stands as an interesting foil for the person of Yaakov. In Vayishlach, this weeks Torah portion we read:

25 And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ 28 And he said to him: ‘What is your name?’ And be said: ‘Yaakov.’ 29 And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ (Genesis 32:25-29)

What is Yaakov’s name? As we learn from Toldot, Yaakov was named for when he was born he was grabbing the heel of his brother Esav. Through his adolescence he seems weak compared to his hunter brother living as a tent dweller. Here, this week, he returns as a warrior having worked hard in the world for many years, confronted his father-in-law, and now wrestling this angel. Having struggled with men and God he is renamed Yisrael. Like Achilles Yisrael is the glory of his  people, tribe, and nation. And interestingly he gets this name when he in injured.  Esav is not his Achilles Heel as his name Yaakov might have indicated. Ultimately his Achilles Heel is he himself  both his physical hip and his own character. Confronting the angel is how he can resolve his years in exile. All to often we  point at other people instead of ourselves as the source of conflict in our lives. In the end when we mature we grow and accept that we are the ones that need to choose to change. What makes Yisrael great is not his being perfect or Godly, but rather his being vulnerable and human.  Our collective Achilles Heel is thinking that there is any glory in war. Yisrael’s glory to be emulated is being introspective and reflective from a position of strength.

 

 

 

Returning to Camp

As we will see in VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Jacob splits his family and live stock into shnei machanot– two camps- as a defensive measure in preparation for confronting his long estranged brother Esav. Under the cover of darkness Jacob sends the two camps over the river and then returns back over the river. As we all know too well. There is where faces an angel by himself and wrestles till day break. There we read:

Vayivater Yaakov Livado vaYe’avek Ish imo ad  olot haShachar. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Genesis 32:25)

Rashi explains that the verb vaYe’avek is connected to the word avak– dust. As to say that they wrestled and got all dusty.

As well as we know the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, we often forget where it all happened. As we learned in VaYetzei, last week’s Torah portion, this happened in  Machanaim. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob resolved to return home. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized his fear of Esav. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob split his family into two Machanot- camps. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized the value of small things ( See Rashi). It was there in Machanaim that Jacob wrestled with the angel. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob stopped running or could not run any more ( see hip injury). It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized who he was. It was there in Machanaim his name was changed from Jacob to Israel. It was there in Machanaim that we became Israel. Surely that place was Machaneh Elokim- God’s camp.

I work for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. I have been a camp person since 1983 when my parents sent me off to my first summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos.  It was there in Machane where I felt most at home. It was in Machane where I felt like I was building a community. It was in Machane where I learned to daven, despite  going to day school my whole life. It was in Machane that I first connected to the people, land, and Torah of Israel. It was in Machane where I wrestled with who I wanted to be. It was in Machane where I realize who I was.  It was in Machane that I no longer felt that I needed to live a bifurcated life.  There in camp I did not have to separate into different parts. It was in Machane that I first experienced being a complete person. It was in Machane where I realized the eternal value of small acts. Is it strange to say at 36-years- old with three children that I miss those paper plate awards? It was in Machane as a staff member where I first earned a name for myself as a Jewish Educator.  It was there in Machane that I first met an Israeli who was not related to me. And for many of us camp people it was in Machane that we became Israel. We are all blessed to have discovered Machane. Surely that place is  Machaneh Elokim- God’s camp.

I feel so fortunate to be able to return to Machanaim. I can tell you as clear as day that camp is under my skin. Camp people do not need to be in camp to have camp in us. We will never brush the dust of camp off. That is what makes us Israel.

I often ask myself what does it mean to me to return to camp as an Adult. Years ago I read  Rabbi Neil Gillman’s  Sacred Fragments. It was there that I was introduced to Paul Ricoeur’s 2nd Naïveté. Ricoeur wrote “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.” (SE, p. 349) In this second naïveté, scripture, religious concepts, and camp itself are seen as symbols, (i.e. metaphorical constructs) that we now interpret “in the full responsibility of autonomous thought.” (SE, p. 350) This means we accept that the myths we held as truth in the first naïveté are in fact myths, but having passed through the critical distance, we begin to reengage these concepts at a different level. We no longer accept them at face value, as presented by religious authorities, but rather interpret them for ourselves, in the light of having assumed personal responsibility for our beliefs. (Source of these quotes)

At first for Jacob Machanaim was a place for him to celebrate his return home from years with Lavan. He escaped years are hard labor with a a large family and a large mass of wealth. His first Naïveté was a great story. Jacob was a regular Horatio Alger. But then with the chips on the table when he was about to confront his brother, Jacob returns to Machanaim. This time he does not have his family or his wealth. Now in his return to Machanaim he is as alone as the day he fled home. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob wrestled with his identity. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob rewrote his own narrative. Machanaim was his 2nd Naïveté.

What does it mean for me to return to Machane a second time to relook at the myth of camp? That story I am still rewriting. What I can say as of now is that I have learned is that camp is still magical, but it is not magic. And still after all of these years I can still say that place is  Machaneh Elokim- God’s camp. Now I am trying to figure out how to share it.

 

— This is the product of a conversation I had last week with Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, in preparation for his visit to Toronto to celebrate  Ramah Canada turning  50. It also served as an introduction to a talk I gave this past week to the  Rabbinical School Student Association at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Revealing Food and Clothes

On the heels of last week’s Torah portion in which Jacob steals the birthright and the blessing from his brother Esav, this week’s Torah portion begins with Jacob running away from Esav. Just before Jacob leaves the land of Canaan he makes a vow to God, saying:

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear,  so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God (Genesis 28:20-21)

His vow seems to be theologically charged with the possibility that God’s existence is contingent on God providing for Jacob. Some of the words in the vow seem to be superfluous. Of course food is to be eaten and clothing is to be worn, why does Jacob ask for “bread to eat, and clothing to wear”? It was Jacob himself who used food to get the birthright from Esav and food and clothing to deceive his father and get the blessing. How can Jacob ever look at food and clothing the same way again?

Even though it seems that the deception changed Jacob as a person, it never made him suspect that people would try to deceive him the same way in the future. Sure enough in this week’s Torah portion Jacob gets hoodwinked into marrying a cloaked Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. He then gets deceived by his sons who bring their father Joseph’s clothes with blood on them to support their claim that their brother Joseph was killed. Finally, Jacob will send his sons down to Egypt to get food and there they will all get deceived by Joseph. Ironically, despite Jacob’s claim that food and clothing should be used for their normal use, his life is marked by their use for deception.

If we look at the vow that Jacob makes, in this light, we see that the words are not superfluous and he really wanted God to let him forget the sins of his youth. Surely Jacob’s teshuvah, return, is a lifetime in the making. As we read in Hallel, “The rock that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). We can try to run from our past, but one way or another it will catch up with us. Just as in Jacob’s vow, the true revelation of God is contingent upon the true revelation of self.


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