Tzedakah or Selfishness – Vayera 5779

Justice, tzedakah, is one of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Vayera.  As God contemplates the fate of the Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Jordan River Valley, God decides to hire a consultant.  

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do… for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…—tzedakah u’mishpat.

God tells Abraham about the plan to destroy the two cities because of the extreme wickedness of their inhabitants.  Abraham immediately challenges God:  Ha’af tispeh tzadik im rasha  

Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?…  Far be it from You… to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…

God is convinced, promising “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

This is just the opening salvo in the negotiation.  Abraham lowers the threshold to 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 innocent people to save the remainder of the population.  God agrees every time.  

It seems, based on God’s original assessment, that this was the plan all along.  After all, God has already identified Abraham as someone who will pass on the values of tzedakah and mishpat — justice and righteousness — to his children.

It turns out that there are not even 10 righteous individuals in the two cities, leaving God free to carry out the original sentence.  Perhaps if Abraham had gone still lower…  God would probably have agreed.

This story depicts Abraham at his best.  He puts everything on the line for the sake of his fellow human beings.  These particular human beings are the worst of the worst,  but Abraham cannot sit idly by, even for such a depraved population.

Soon afterwards, Abraham and Sarah find themselves the land of Gerar, which is near Gaza.  As in a prior encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt, Abraham passes off his wife, Sarah, as his sister.  So what happens?  The King, Avimelech, thinking that she is single, has Sarah brought into his household.  [She is 89 years old at the time, but never mind.]

Before anything happens, God speaks to Avimelech in a dream.  “You are to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman!”

Still in the dream, Avimelech defends himself.  “O Lord, will you slay people even though innocent? — ha’goy gam tzadik ta’harog?  Sound familiar?  Avimelech makes the argument with God on his own behalf as Abraham made earlier on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God agrees, and instructs Avimelech to return Sarah to her husband.

The next day, Avimelech confronts Abraham.  “What did I ever do to you?  You’ve brought disaster upon us.  You have done things to me that ought not to be done!”

Abraham’s response is difficult to hear. “I thought,” he says, “surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”  (Gen. 20:11)  Then he offers some weak excuse explaining how Sarah is really his half-sister, and he did not technically lie.  Whether she is his sister or not is irrelevant.  What matters is his hiding the fact that she is a married woman.

Abraham, who had just recently behaved so nobly, now thinks only of himself.  He puts a lot of people in danger.  First of all, Sarah.  As soon as they arrive, she is taken to the palace, presumably to be made part of the harem.  Avimelech is endangered, as even a King is not allowed to be with a married woman.  And finally, because Abraham is, well Abraham, Avimelech’s entire household is stricken with temporary infertility, merely for bringing Sarah in to the palace.  If things had gone further, God’s wrath would have turned lethal.

Abraham assumes the worst of Avimelech and his people.  He condemns them before he even meets them.  But Abraham is wrong.  These are not wicked people.  As it turns out, Avimelech is a God-fearing man, with a sense of justice.  

This story has close parallels to the earlier story.  Only this time, it is Avimelech playing the role of the prophet standing in the breach, arguing for justice against a vengeful God.  In this case, like the previous, God wants to be convinced.  God wants tzedakah, justice, to reign.  God does not want the innocent to suffer the fate of the guilty.  As before, Abraham must personally intercede, praying to God for the health and well-being of Avimelech and his household.  But Abraham’s prayers come only after Avimelech bribes presents him with sheep, oxen, servants, land, and silver.

Abraham does not come out well in this story.  Is this the same person who put everything on the line to argue with God on behalf of people that he knew were wicked?  He is supposed to be the optimist, the one devoted to bringing justice into the world.  He should at least have given Avimelech the benefit of the doubt.

What are we to make of Abraham?  The Torah does not hold back in presenting its heroes as flawed individuals.  They make mistakes.  Sometimes, their opponents have qualities going for them as well.  The underlying theme of these two stories is tzedakah.  God wants justice.  God does not want the innocent to suffer punishments that should be reserved just for the wicked.  And in both stories, it seems that God is not capable of holding back the injustice without human intercession.

Abraham’s abrupt turn from being a justice-hero to behaving with selfishness and distrust teaches us something about the impact that fear can have, even on the best of us.  Abraham is afraid.  He says so himself.  His fear leads him to treat others unfairly, including his own wife.  He succumbs to stereotypes.

And Abraham, remember, is a good man.  He is the one whom God has selected to be a blessing to the world, and to teach his children about justice and righteousness.  If Abraham is susceptible to fear, how much the more so are we!

I don’t think I need to detail the many examples of how fear leads to injustice.  In this case, the victim was King Avimelech, a person in power.  But usually, the ones who are most harmed by fear and distrust are those without power.

The lesson from both stories is that God needs human intercessors to bring tzedakah into the world.  Any of us has the capacity to be such an intercessor, just as any of us has the capacity, through fear, to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters.

As Jews, we take this on as a special obligation, going all the way back to Abraham, whom God selected to “instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”

May we always strive to live up to that ideal.

Jacoob’s Parting Message – Vayechi 5777

Two men had a dispute over a particular burial plot.   Each one claimed the piece of land for himself.   The men presented their arguments to the rabbi, and left the final decision up to him.

After a while, the rabbi said to them, “It is a very difficult case.    Each one of you has very good arguments.   Thus, I decree that whoever dies first will have the right to this burial place”.

From then on, they stopped fighting …

As we get older, it is fairly common to think about our final resting places.  As a Rabbi, I am often advising people about making arrangements.  Funeral directors call it “preplanning” – although that expression seems kind of redundant, doesn’t it?

Some folks are concerned that their specific wishes be carried out by their next of kin.  Others want to save their children the stress of having to make the arrangements at what will surely be an emotional time.  And some people want to lock in prices now before they go up.

This is not a new concern.  Cemeteries have been central institutions for Jewish communities for thousands of years.  The very first Jewish institution in San Jose, in fact, before there were any synagogues, was the Home of Peace Cemetery in Oak Hill Memorial Gardens.

But in addition to making the logistical arrangements, perhaps we also ought to be thinking about how to convey our values to those whom we leave behind.

The desire to arrange our funerals goes all the way back to the Bible.  When Sarah dies, Abraham enters into lengthy negotiations to purchase the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron to serve as a family burial plot.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Jacob, our Patriarch, does his preplanning.

He has spent the final seventeen years of his life living in Egypt, under the invitation and protection of his son Joseph, who is the second most powerful man in the Empire, second only to Pharaoh.  The entire family has left the land of Canaan to settle in the land of Goshen, located just to the East of the Nile Delta.

When he feels the end of his life approaching, Jacob calls Joseph to his bedside for a special request.  He wants to be buried in the land of Canaan, in the Cave of Machpelah.

… please do not bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.  (Gen. 47:29-30)

Jacob is insistent.  He does not merely tell his son what he wants.  Jacob makes Joseph swear it.  Joseph initially resists committing himself by oath.  “I will do as you have spoken,” he agrees.

But Jacob will not back down.  “Swear to me,” he demands; and Joseph complies.

This is no small request.  It is a journey of approximately 400 km, most of it desert.  And this is in the Middle East, so it is hot.  We can only imagine the smell.

Plus, it is politically dangerous.  Joseph is the second in command to Pharaoh.  What is Pharaoh going to think when Joseph asks for permission to return to his ancestral homeland?  Can Pharaoh trust that Joseph will come back?

And furthermore, what will the Canaanites think when a large delegation arrives from Egypt?  Might they see it as a threat and muster for war?

On a personal note, Jacob’s request is totally audacious.  He acknowledges that when Rachel, Joseph’s mother died many years earlier, Jacob buried her on the side of the road.  She died in a place called Paddan-Aram, which was only a half day’s journey from the family tomb in the Cave of Machpelah.

Jacob could not be bothered to take even a small detour to bury Joseph’s mother.  Now he is requesting something that is almost impossible.  Kind of hypocritical, no?

A look beneath the surface of this request reveals Jacob’s wisdom.  In fact, his instructions contain a final lesson to his sons, the tribes of Israel, and future generations.

Why does Jacob insist that Joseph swear that he will fulfill his father’s dying request?  The clue emerges when Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to leave.  Listen to what he says:

My father made me swear, saying ‘I am about to die.  Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.’  Now therefore let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.  (Gen. 50:5)

Let’s pay attention to a few details.  First, notice that Joseph leads with the oath.  That gets Pharaoh’s attention.  He knows that an oath is no small thing.  Jacob insists so that Joseph will be able to fully convey the earnestness of the request.

Keep in mind also that the Egyptians were cultishly obsessed with death.  Notables would spend considerable resources – during their lifetimes – to arrange their burial chambers.  Just think of the pyramids.

When Joseph makes his request to Pharaoh, he does not mention his father’s wish to be buried with his fathers.  Rather, he tells a little white lie, claiming that Jacob had arranged the burial location for himself.  After all, that is something an Egyptian would do.  Joseph is also careful to say that he intends to come back.

Pharaoh is so impressed by Joseph’s request that he agrees immediately.

The delegation is significant.  Not only do Joseph and all of his brothers accompany the body on its final journey, all of the senior members of Pharaoh’s court, along with chariots and horsemen go as well.  The children and flocks are left behind.  Perhaps they are too young to make the journey.  Or, perhaps they are hostages to ensure that Joseph will return to Egypt.

But we still have not determined why, specifically, Jacob want to be buried in the family plot?

At the time of his death, Jacob’s family is thriving in Egypt.  They are the official shepherds for Pharaoh’s flocks.  They have land.  And their population has been growing.  Moreover, Joseph has achieved the second highest rank in the Empire.

According to the midrash, Jacob is worried that if his body remains in Egypt, his descendants will come to see Egypt as their home, rather than just a temporary residence.  Furthermore, he worries that the idolatrous Egyptians will begin to worship his remains, as the father of their beloved Joseph.

His desire to have his body returned to the Cave of Machpelah, therefore, is intended to remind his children that there are more important things than material success, and to underscore their connection to the Promised Land.

The final mystery has to do with Rachel’s burial location.  Why didn’t Jacob bury Rachel in the Cave of Machpelah, and why does he bring it up with Joseph now?

According to the commentator Rashi, Jacob is acknowledging Joseph’s anger.  It would not have been difficult to bury Rachel in the family tomb.  Joseph feels that his mother has been dishonored.  And now Jacob wants Joseph to bend over backwards to bury him.  So on one level, Jacob is feeling guilty, and knows that his request sounds hypocritical.

But Rashi also cites a midrash.  At the moment of Rachel’s death, God reveals to Jacob the future fate of his descendants.  One day, perhaps a thousand years later, they will be exiled from the land of Israel by the Babylonians.  Their tragic path out of Jerusalem will take them South, on the road to Beith Lechem.  They will pass by Rachel’s tomb, and her spirit will join them, weeping in exile.

She will pray to God on behalf of her children, asking for compassion, and God will grant it.  Thus, Jacob buries Rachel on the side of the road as a symbol of comfort and hope to his future descendants.

Looking at both of these midrashim, we find Jacob concerned about his children in the future.  In death, he seeks to leave a lasting legacy.

He does not want them to become so seduced with wealth and success in Egypt that they forget the nation they are supposed to become.  And, he knows that there will be times of devastation in the future, and he wants to leave them a legacy of hope and compassion.

Rather than an expression of selfishness and hypocrisy, we find that Jacob’s final instructions to have his body returned to the Land of Israel is a positive parting message to his children, and to us.

Returning the Blessing – Vayishlach 5777

Most, but not all, of the midrashim and commentaries describing the interactions of Jacob and Esau apologize for the former and castigate the latter.  They find ways to excuse and justify Jacob’s theft of the blessing that was meant for Esau.

Jacob is portrayed as the pious, righteous, innocent Torah observer, while Esau is described as the personification of all that is evil.

There is some, limited, support in the text for this reading.  By creating a polarized, black and white account of these fractious twins’ relationship, however, the commentaries miss the rich psychological depth in the text.  This is a multi-layered story that offers a window into human emotions and relationships.  Like Jacob, we only become complete when we learn to face ourselves with honesty.  This may not result in a tranquil life, but it will result in a life of meaning and purpose.

As Parashat Vayishlach opens, Jacob is preparing to return to the land of Canaan after more than twenty years in Haran.  Vayishlach means, “then he sent,” referring to the messengers that Jacob sends ahead to his brother Esau, announcing his return as the head of a wealthy household.

To be clear, Esau does not live in the land of Canaan.  He has settled in Seir, located southeast of the Jordan River.  Jacob does not have to announce his return.  He could simply continue on to Canaan and avoid Esau completely.  But Jacob is aware that he will need to make contact before he can go back home.  Jacob knows that he will not be complete until he faces his brother again.

It is like how Luke Skywalker’s training is not complete until he faces Darth Vader one final time in Return of the Jedi.

Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau has gathered four hundred men with whom he is marching to meet his brother.

What does the text tell us about Jacob’s reaction?  “And Jacob was greatly afraid, and he was distressed…” (32:8)  Four hundred men is not a force to be trifled with.  It looks like Esau is coming for war, and Jacob understands this well.

He employs several strategies to deal with the coming crisis.  First, Jacob divides his household and his flocks into two separate camps, figuring “should Esau come to the one camp and strike it, the remaining camp will escape.”  (32:9)

Second, Jacob prays.  Some details of his prayer are notable.  He recalls the promise that God has made to his predecessors Abraham and Isaac, and then declares himself unworthy of all the kindness that God has bestowed upon him.  katonti mi-kol hachasadim u-mikol ha-emet asher asita et avdekha…  Literally, “too small am I for all the faithfulness and trust that you have shown your servant…”  (32:11, Fox)  His prayer concludes with a panicked plea.  Jacob begs God to save him from Esau.  He fears that his brother is going to murder him, his wives, and all of his children.

Third, he sends a gift – a rather significant one, to be precise.  200 she-goats and 20 he-goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, and so on.  He sends the gifts in waves, with each servant instructed to present them to Esau as a gift from “your servant Jacob.”  He is repeatedly humbling himself before his brother.  Jacob figures that if he can butter up his brother in advance, Esau might react to him more favorably.

These are the preparations of someone who is terrified of what could happen, but not immobilized by his fear.  He has done everything possible to ensure his survival through the impending encounter.

That night, something unexpected transpires.  Jacob is isolated on the banks of the Jabbok River.  There, he is confronted by a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him all night long.  We do not have time this morning to delve into the many possible meanings of this evocative episode except to say that Jacob’s encounter is that of someone whose mind is not at ease.

It is the night before the biggest day of Jacob’s life.  His soul is in turmoil.  He does not sleep.  His entire past, with all of its’ sins and mistakes, comes crashing into him.  Esau reminds Jacob of the worst parts of himself: Jacob knows that he has committed a serious sin against his brother.

He emerges from the experience with a new name, courtesy of his assailant, now revealed to be an angel: Yisrael – “for you have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed.”  But has anything really changed?  After all, Jacob still has to meet his brother.

Let’s try to imagine what that meeting must have been like for Jacob.  Off in the distance, he sees Esau and his four hundred men approaching.  Jacob gathers his household together.

The picture in my mind is like what we see in those period war movies, where the two opposing armies are lined up across the battlefield from each other.  Before the fighting starts, each side sends an emissary to the middle for a parlay.

Jacob sends the maidservants and their sons first.  The second contingent is Leah and her sons.  Next, he sends Rachel and Joseph.  Finally, he himself sets off.  He is limping from his struggle with the angel.  He has not slept.  He pauses in his approach seven times, bowing down to the ground.

Suddenly, Esau starts running towards him.  He is big, hairy, and full of muscles.  Jacob is no match for him in a fight, and he knows it.  What is Jacob thinking and feeling in this moment?

Terror.  He is about to pay the debt on his past mistakes.  Perhaps he even welcomes the anticipated violence to balance his guilt.

Then Esau hugs Jacob, buries his head in his neck, and kisses him.  Not what Jacob is expecting.

There is a wonderful midrash that teaches that it is not a kiss – a neshikah – but rather a bite – a neshikhah.  The nineteenth century Chassidic Rebbe, the Sefat Emet, understands this midrash metaphorically.  In reality, it is a legitimate kiss.  But what Esau intends to be a kiss is experienced by Jacob as a bite; and it is the bite that is most threatening.

Jacob is expecting a beating.  He wants Esau to just get it over with.  It will make him feel better.  It will even the score between the brothers.

But when Esau responds with graciousness and love, Jacob is “bitten” to his core.  He cannot run away from his sin any longer.

The text says that “they cry,” in the plural.  They are crying for different reasons: Esau is crying out of genuine happiness to be reunited with his brother; Jacob is crying out of guilt.

Then Jacob offers Esau all of the gifts, and Esau declines them.  Jacob will not be able to pay off his guilt.  He begs Esau to accept his offering, “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  He confesses to the wrong that he has committed.

Kakh-na et birkhati, he then says – “Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you.”  (33:11)

Jacob refers to the gift as his berakhah, his blessing.  This is not just any gift.  Jacob is giving back the blessing which he stole twenty two years earlier.   At last, Esau agrees.

Now, at last, Jacob can be free of his brother.

What was this blessing that Jacob gave back, the one that he had stolen?  It was a blessing of material wealth and physical power.  “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of grain and wine.  Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you…” (27:28-29)

This is precisely what Jacob has returned to Esau.  He has given him his wealth, and has humbled himself before his more powerful brother.  Jacob realizes that he should have never taken this blessing.  It was not meant for him, and it was not fitting for who he is.

There was a second blessing that Jacob received from his father before he left many years earlier.  That blessing was given out in the open.  Isaac called upon God to bless Jacob with progeny.  “May [God] grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.”  (28:4)

That is the blessing that had been meant for Jacob all along.  It just took many years, and much travail, to recognize it.

But perhaps the journey is necessary.  As we grow older, we (hopefully) become more wise.  The rashness and impulsivity of youth is gradually replaced by thoughtfulness and patience.  How often have we thought to ourselves, “If I only knew then what I know now…”

The story ends vayavo Ya’akov shalem.  “Then Jacob arrived complete.”  (33:18)

It is not to say that Jacob’s life will be hunky dory from now on.  Far from it.  God never promises Jacob a life of tranquility.  In fact, his new name, Yisrael, is fitting.  You have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed.  That is Jacob’s fate.  That is who he is.

That is also the fate of his children, b’nei Yisrael.  The children of Israel.  That is our fate.

It Takes One to Know One – Vayetzei 5777

As this morning’s Torah portion opens, Jacob has just left the land of Canaan.  He is fleeing home after deceiving his father and stealing the blessing meant for his brother Esau.  He has nothing with him.  Following his mother Rebekah’s orders, he makes his way to her family in Haran.

Arriving with nothing but the shirt on his back, Jacob comes to town, stops at the local watering hole, and there meets his cousin Rachel.  She brings him home, and Jacob is incorporated into the family.

Twenty years later, Jacob has built up his own family, marrying both Rachel and her sister Leah, fathering eleven sons and a daughter, and becoming extremely wealthy.  The Torah portion ends where it started, at the border.  This time, Jacob is returning home.

During the intervening years, Jacob gets his comeuppance.  The deception that brings him there is returned many times over.

Simply put, Laban, Jacob’s uncle and soon to be father-in-law, is not a nice man.  He is greedy and selfish; duplicitous and conniving – making him a suitable match for Jacob.  They make a great pair: the perfect frenemies.

Throughout his time in Laban’s household, Jacob is subjected to lies and deception.  On Jacob’s wedding night to Rachel, Laban sneaks his older daughter Leah into the dark tent, forcing Jacob to work an additional seven years for his beloved’s hand.  He changes Jacob’s wages ten times.  He makes a deal with Jacob to divide the flocks, and then steals all of the animals that should have gone to his son-in-law.  Finally, he refuses to grant a dowry to his daughters, effectively disinheriting them.

The midrash imagines that even more is taking place between the lines.  Before he even meets his uncle, Jacob is already anticipating the kind of man to expect.

When Jacob sees his cousin Rachel, the first thing he does is to roll the large stone covering off the mouth of the well.  Next, he waters her flock.  He kisses her.  Then he cries.  Finally, he introduces himself.  (Seems kind of out of order, doesn’t it?)  Listen to how the Torah describes the introduction:

Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, that he was Rebekah’s son…  (29:12)

Rashi, citing the Talmud (Bava Batra 123a), notes that Jacob is not, in fact, Laban’s brother, but rather his nephew.  Furthermore, why does Jacob repeat himself by emphasizing both his connection to Laban and to Rebekah?  It seems redundant.

Beneath the surface, Jacob is really asking Rachel about his uncle’s character.  He wants to know what to expect when she brings him home.  If Laban is a deceiver, Jacob says, know that I am his brother in deception; his equal.  But if he is an upstanding individual, know that I am the son of the honorable Rebekah.

Jacob is prepared to play either role in his uncle’s household.  That is classic Jacob.  Always calculating, always thinking ahead.

Tragically – although it makes for a better story – Laban is the former.

The midrash continues, noting that Laban runs to Jacob, embraces him and then kisses him.  Why is he so eager?  He must be up to something.

Laban remembers what happened many years earlier, when the servant of Abraham showed up looking for a wife for Isaac.  Laban was much younger then.  He recalls the servant arriving with ten camels, all loaded with valuable gifts.  The servant left with Laban’s sister, Rebekah.

Now, decades later, when he hears about the arrival of Rebekah’s son, Laban imagines to himself, ‘if a servant from that household brings so much wealth with him, how much more will a member of the family bring!’  We can almost hear him salivating.  In his greed, Laban is so excited that he runs.

But he does not see any camels, nor luggage.  Where are the precious gifts?  He gives Jacob a big hug.  Laban’s hands start to wander, as he pats him down, frisking him in his search for gems that might be hidden in Jacob’s clothing.  He finds nothing.

In his final, desperate effort, Laban kisses Jacob on the lips, imagining there might be jewels concealed inside his nephew’s mouth.

Disappointed, Laban concedes “you are truly my bone and flesh.”  (29:14)  Then the text tells us that Jacob stayed with Laban for one month’s time.

Rashi explains that, since there is no profit in it, Laban does not want to have to put Jacob up.  But since he is blood, there is a familial obligation – an obligation that lasts exactly one month.

This explains why Laban raises the question of Jacob’s payment exactly one month after his arrival.  Don’t be fooled.  He is not actually being generous.  He is trying to change Jacob’s status from freeloading nephew to employee.

This is the man who will control Jacob’s fate for the next twenty years.  Remember, Jacob has been blessed by his father and by God.  After meeting Laban, he has to be wondering about that blessing.

Despite his uncle’s duplicitousness, Jacob manages to do well, the result of a combination of Divine providence and his own wily nature.  But there is a cost.

Jacob will never have peace.  His household will be plagued with dishonesty and deception

Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah, struggle for position in the household.  As the family leaves home – in secret in the middle of the night, keep in mind – Rachel steals her father’s household idols.  She places them under her cushion, and when her father comes to search her tent, she lies, claiming that she is having her period and cannot get up.  Her lie puts Jacob in the position of telling an unintentional lie as well.  It also leads him to invoke a curse that would eventually lead to her demise.

In the next generation, the dishonesty will repeat among Jacob’s sons.

Jacob’s life illustrates the principle of midah k’neged midah – measure for measure.  We reap what we sow.  What goes around comes around.  Or in the case of Laban and Jacob: it takes one to know one.

Does real life work this way?  I would hope so.  But in the inverse, as I would not want to wish evil on anyone.  A person who makes the effort to conduct him or herself honestly and fairly will be treated honestly and fairly.  One who treats others with compassion will be treated with compassion.  Those who are available to a friend in need will not be abandoned in their time of need.

Pirkei Avot, the ancient collection of ethical teachings from the Mishnah, teaches Eizehu m’khubad?  Ha-m’khabed et ha-b’riyot  Who is honored?  The one who honors every person.  (4:1)

The Difficulty of Legacy (In Honor of the Silicon Valley Jewish Legacy Shabbat) – Toldot 5777

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, generates stronger emotional reactions than most parashiyot in the Torah.  It opens with the story of Esau and Jacob’s birth, and continues to describe their difficult childhood and the events that lead to the schism that drives them apart for over two decades.

The protagonist of the story, Jacob, our Patriarch, does not come off well.  He manipulates Esau to acquire the birthright -which is the privilege of earning a double portion of their father’s inheritance.

Later, with his mother Rebecca’s guidance, he dresses up as Esau to deceive his father Isaac, and lies to his face in order to receive the blessing.  The blessing in question is the continuity of the covenant that began with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, would inherit the Land of Canaan, and would be a blessing to the world.  This covenant passed from Abraham to Isaac, and now from Isaac to – because of his deception – Jacob.

It is not a pretty story.  Is not Jacob, our Patriarch, the one after whom the Jewish people will eventually be named, supposed to be a role model for us?  For that matter, what kind of mother is Rebecca, who would encourage her son to deceive his father and steal from his brother?  She is our Matriarch!  Do we not expect better?  It is troubling to read that one of the foundational stories of the Jewish people is rooted in dishonesty.

But let us take a step back from the story and look at it through a wide angle lens.

What we are reading is the all-too-real description of a family’s struggles over legacy, and it is not pretty.

We saw a similar struggle in the previous generation.  Ishmael, the older son of Abraham, is viewed by Sarah as a threat to his half-brother Isaac.  To remove the threat, she demands that Abraham banish Ishmael and his mother Hagar from the household.  This move ensures that the legacy of Abraham’s blessing, and the full, undivided inheritance of his entire estate, will pass to Isaac as the sole heir.

The struggles between siblings will continue in Jacob’s future household.  It first manifests in the relationship between Leah and Rachel, sisters, and co-wives to Jacob.  They struggle for position within the household.  Rachel is the more beloved, but Leah is the more fertile – and they each use their respective strengths to posture for dominance.  It is a similar tension to what we saw in the previous generation with Isaac and Ishmael.

The messy struggle for legacy passes to the next generation.  Once again, the father plays favorites, as Jacob bestows the infamous coat-of-many colors on Joseph.  The jockeying for control of the family legacy nearly leads to fratricide, as the brothers capture Joseph, plot to kill him, and finally settle on selling him into slavery and lying to their father about it.

So that is the birds’ eye view.  In context, Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac and theft from Esau are fairly typical of this family.

Let us not be overly judgmental.  How many families today struggle over issues relating to inheritance and legacy?  The actions of these families in the Book of Genesis are, sadly, all too familiar.

But there is a happy conclusion to this story.

The family eventually reunites in Egypt, where Joseph has risen to become Viceroy.  As Jacob is on his deathbed, all of his sons gather around him to receive a final message and blessing.  In the midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:35), Jacob is distressed that as soon as he dies, his sons will abandon God and begin to worship another deity.  The disfunction of previous generations will be repeated.  After all, Ishmael and Esau were both idolaters.

But the brothers respond, as one: Shema Yisrael, adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.

Listen Israel – Israel is Jacob, after all, so named after his nighttime struggle with an angel of God.  Listen Israel, Adonai – the God whom you worshipped, who blessed you, our Grandfather Isaac, and our Great-grandfather Abraham – that same Adonai is our God.  Adonai alone.

Relieved, Jacob settles back in his bed and whispers: Barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va-ed.  Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever.

This is the first generation in the book of Genesis in which all of the children maintain the faith of their father.  God’s promise to Abraham, that he would be ancestor to a great nation that would be in a special covenantal relationship with God, is finally beginning to be fulfilled.

When Jacob dies, the brothers are terrified that Joseph is now going to go after them.  But he doesn’t.  Instead, he promises to take care of them.  The family is reunited, and can now, finally, begin its transformation into a nation.

So when we read the stories about Jacob and Rebecca behaving dishonestly, we must not do so without keeping an eye on the bigger picture, and without remembering that the family will eventually learn, will eventually forgive itself, and make a commitment to be a united people with a common faith shared by their ancestors.

We are reminded of this every time we recite the Shema.  The Rabbis were wise to include the Shema in our prayers.  In addition to a proclamation of belief in God, it is also a commitment to the unity of the Jewish people, both among our fellow Jews today, and with the generations that have come before and those that will follow us.

That is why it is so important for us to consider the legacy that has been left to us by those who came before, and to think seriously and act on what we need to do to ensure that there will be a legacy for the generations that follow.

Our world is changing rapidly.  The old models of how Jewish institutions are supported are less and less effective.  To ensure that there will continue to be synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish schools and educational initiatives and Jewish philanthropic organizations, those of us who value these institutions will to have to take concrete steps to ensure that they will be around for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.

We cannot be complacent if we want to preserve the legacy that began, somewhat messily, with our Patriarchs and Matriarchs – but that has continued unbroken for thousands of years, ever since that first, unifying Shema recited together by Jacob’s sons.

Our community Legacy Project is an extremely important opportunity for us.  It offers us a concrete way to support Jewish peoplehood long after we are gone, to ensure that the Jewish institutions that have been so important to our own lives will be able to play such a role for future generations.  Now is the time to put our legacies in place.

I hope you will join Dana and myself in ensuring that our children and grandchildren will be able to proudly recite the Shema, knowing that their parents and grandparents cared deeply about continuing the legacy of the Jewish people.

The Lesson of the Tower of Babel: Unity with Humility – Noach 5777

The bulk of this morning’s Torah portion describes the flood.  Humanity has become so corrupt that God regrets having created the earth, and decides to wipe out almost all life.  Representative samples of each species are gathered together and entrusted to Noah, who builds the famous ark to serve as a shelter during the deluge.

After the waters subside, life emerges from the ark and begins anew.  Hopefully, humanity has learned a lesson from the experience.

Several generations pass.  Humans multiply, and eventually find themselves living in Mesopotamia, where they embark on a scheme which nearly results in a calamity as serious for humanity as the flood: the construction of the Tower of Babel.

The entire passage is described in just nine eloquently-crafted verses.  (Gen. 11:1-9)  We learn that all of humanity has settled in a valley in the land of Shinar, also known as Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Iraq.  Everyone speaks the same language.  Together, they decide to make bricks, with which to build “a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

At first glance, it sounds like a pretty good idea.  Everybody gets along.  They are united in a shared vision.  There do not seem to be any major disputes.  Many people might wish things were a bit more like this today.

Yet, there seems to be a problem with this giant public-works project.  God comes down to look at the tower that the humans are building and reacts with disapproval.  “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.”  (11:6)

God confounds their speech so that the humans do not understand one another, and scatters them over the face of the earth.  The project grinds to a halt.  The story ends by explaining that the city is called Bavel, or Babel, because it is where the Lord “babbled” the speech of the whole earth.

That is the basic story as it appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  Our inclination might be to sympathize with humanity.  After all, has there ever in history been a time during which everyone agreed?

But the Torah is very deliberate.  If it tells us that there is something wrong with what these humans are doing, then there is something wrong with what these humans are doing.  The reason is not easily apparent, and so it is up to us to dig deep to figure it out.

Jewish tradition is in agreement that the generation of the Dispersion, Dor Haflagah, as that generation is called, was in the wrong.  The Mishnah, from the second century, declares that members of that generation do not have a place in the World to Come.  The Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 109a) concur, but have trouble agreeing on the specifics.

The school of Rabbi Shilah, located in Babylonia not too far from where the Tower of Babel once stood, offers a novel explanation.  In the ancient world, people believed that the world as we know it was surrounded by water, both below the earth, and above the sky.  The humans wanted to build a tower that was high enough that they could cut holes in the firmament, presumably to have access to water.  The Talmud reports that when this theory made its way to the West, that is to say, to the land of Israel, the scholars laughed and made fun of it, suggesting that if that was their intent, it might have made more sense to have built the tower on top of a mountain, rather than at the bottom of a valley.

Rabbi Natan suggests that they built the tower as an expression of some sort of idolatrous belief and practice.

Rabbi Jeremiah claims that the people of Bavel were not quite as united as the Torah makes it seem.  One third of them want to build a city and tower in which to live, perhaps to escape a future flood.  Their punishment is to be scattered across the land.  A second third wants to build the tower to worship idols.  They are the ones whose tongues are confounded by God.  The final third intends to use the tower to wage war against Heaven.  They are transformed into apes, spirits, devils, and night-demons.  Ouch!

But what of the tower itself?  After all, significant progress is made before God takes notice.  The tower is quite substantial.  Rabbi Yochanan says that the bottom third sunk into the ground, The top third burnt up, but the middle third is still standing.

Other midrashim add colorful details to the legends.  Genesis Rabbah describes how those who wanted to rebel against God planned to place a giant statue on top of the tower with a sword in its hand pointing a challenge directed at the Heavens.  I imagine it looking kind of like the Titan of Braavos, for you Game of Thrones fans.

I’ll mention one final midrash.  Someone made some calculations and determined that the flood occurred 1,656 years after creation.  The people of Babel come to the conclusion that this is a built in feature of the firmament, the giant expanse of water suspended over the sky.  Once every 1,656 years, the firmament totters, and the waters of chaos above break free and inundate the world.  To prevent it from happening again, they decide to build four giant pillars to support the heavens – one in each of the cardinal directions.  The Tower of Babel is supposed to be the pillar of the East.

This final midrash sounds appealing, actually.  All of humanity becomes aware of an impending natural disaster that will have catastrophic effects for life on earth, albeit not for one thousand years.  So they join together to invest massive resources into a technological solution to prevent the deluge.  We are in desperate need of that kind of long-range planning.

The problem, from the midrash’s perspective, is that the people have removed God from the equation.  The periodic flooding of the earth happens on its own, and is not the result of God’s actions.  In fact, just a few chapters earlier, we read of God’s promise, symbolized by the rainbow, never to destroy the earth by flood again.  Their sin, therefore, is a lack of faith.  They have placed nature above God rather than God above nature.

So what was the sin of the Tower of Babel that provoked God so greatly?  We have just heard numerous suggestions, and believe me, we have only scratched the surface.  Whenever the Rabbis offer this many explanations for something, it means that they have absolutely no idea whatsoever.

But to me, all of these “sins” share a basic feature.  “Come, let us make a name for ourselves,” they declare.  Humanity, collectively sees no limits on itself.  Whether the people want to overthrow God, build a monument to themselves, or reverse the forces of nature – they lack basic humility about their place in creation.

Perhaps a lesson to be learned is: God is God, and we are not.

There is still something appealing, however, about the unity that exists at the outset of the story.  Is cooperation and a universally shared vision inherently problematic?  I cannot believe that the story of the Tower of Babel is disparaging the idea of humanity collectively working together.

I would like to think that we, as a species, have it within us to both have some humble respect for our place amidst creation, as well as come together to solve problems and challenges that affect us all.  Some of those problems are of our own making.  Others are external.  But we all make our homes on the same planet, and we eventually have to pay the cost of our collective hubris.

We face numerous challenges that can only be solved through joined effort: challenges of inequality and oppression, environmental destruction, climate change, and on and on.  We live in a scattered world, in which we do not all speak the same language.  Even when we share a vocabulary, we often are not speaking the same language.

Perhaps the Tower of Babel can inspire us to, humbly, find a way to come together.

Bereishit 5777 – The Four Sins of Bereishit and the Expansion of the Human Ego

I have been feeling a bit addicted to technology lately, so I resolved to do something that I have not done in about two decades.  I wrote a sermon completely by hand, without using anything whatsoever with a screen for ideas or research.  I scanned it and am sharing the results below (I get the irony).  Sorry if you can’t read my handwriting.
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