Disappointment and Thanks – Vayetze 5780

I got the idea for this D’var Torah from “Can We Be Grateful and Disappointed at the Same Time?” in The Heart of Torah, by Rabbi Shai Held, pp. 60-63.

It is no exaggeration to point out that the Torah pays much more attention to its male characters rather than its females.  Even when women do play a role in the story, there tend to be  fewer details and less character development.  So it is especially important for us to pay attention to our biblical heroines.

Let’s talk about Leah.  When we think of Leah, what comes to mind?

She is the older sister of Rachel. She is unloved. She has weak eyes. She has lots of children. Does she have any positive traits?

She is one of the Matriarchs.  But even we demote her.  Listen to our egalitarian siddurElohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei Rachel, v’Elohei Leah.  She comes last, even though she is older than her sister Rachel.  It’s like we are mentioning her name out of a sense of obligation.

Let’s see if we can learn more about Leah, who after all is one of our Matriarchs.  What does she teach us?

As the story opens, we hear about Rachel, who is beautiful and shapely.  Presumably, she has many suitors.  After all, Jacob falls in love with her as soon as he sees her.  Jacob agrees to work for seven years to win her hand.

Throughout this time, we hear about Leah only once.  The Torah tells us that Lavan had two daughters.  Leah has “weak eyes,” in contrast to Rachel, who is “shapely and beautiful.”  This brief description of the sisters foreshadows the events to follow. The ambiguous description of Leah’s weak eyes is ironic, given that Leah is the one whom others fail to see. 

In a society in which a daughter is only married by her father’s arrangement, it is safe to assume that Leah has never had a suitor.  Nobody has come asking for her hand.  Without deception, her father seems to think, he will never marry her off.  On the night on which Jacob is supposed to marry Rachel, Laban substitutes Leah.  

Leah is so invisible that Jacob does not even notice until the next morning.  How does he react?  Does he have anything kind to say after spending the night with Leah?  He does not utter a single word to his new wife.  Instead, he lets his father in law have it. “What is this you have done to me?  I was in your service for Rachel!  Why did you deceive me?”  (Genesis 29:25) He is furious.  We can picture the froth spraying out of Jacob’s mouth.

But what of Leah?  Imagine her feelings as she sits there shamed and embarrassed.  Leah already knows how little her father thinks of her.  Her husband has just confirmed that he shares those feelings. How heartbreaking.

A week later, Jacob marries Rachel.  The Torah wastes no time informing us that “Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah.”  (Genesis 29:30)

Then we catch the first glimpse of compassion, although it does not come from any human source.  “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.”  (Genesis 29:31) She may be invisible to her father, her husband, and presumably her sister, but God sees Leah.

She names her firstborn son Reuven, offering two explanations for her choice:  “Ki ra’ah Adonai b’onyi—”The Lord has seen my affliction”—and ki atah ye’ehavani ishi—”Now my husband will love me.”  While the Torah tends not to describe the inner feelings of its characters, Leah’s sadness, disappointment, and desperation are all too clear. She has another son, whom she names ShimonKi shama Adonai ki-senuah anokhi—”For the Lord has heard that I am unloved.” Leah names her third son Levi, explaining atah hapa’am yilaveh ishi—”This time my husband will become attached to me.”

Notice the verbs she employs for her first three sons:  ra’ah, shamah, yilaveh.  See me.  Hear me.  Become attached to me. Leah, unloved, feels unseen, unheard, and untouched.  She is desparate for recognition.

Then she has a fourth son, whom she names Judah, YehudahHapa’am odeh et Adonai—”This time I will praise the Lord.” Something has changed.  The name Leah chooses does not reflect her suffering and disappointment.  Her home life is still the same.  Jacob still ignores her.  But she seems to have made peace with it.  With Yehudah, Leah offers her thanks to God.  She is begins to carry gratitude along with her disappointment.

In the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7b), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai declares: From the moment when the Holy Blessed One created the world, there was not a single person who gave thanks to God until Leah came and thanked him by declaring, “This time I will praise the Lord.” This is not precisely true.  There have been others who have given thanks to God, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai surely knows this.  So what is he getting at?

Rabbi Shai Held suggests that earlier expressions of thanks in the Torah all come from a place in which everything is wonderful.  According to the Midrash, Adam offers a prayer of thanks when he notices how perfectly assembled the human body is. Noah makes a sacrifice to God after he safely exits the ark on to dry land with his family and all the animals.

Leah, in contrast, is not happy with her situation.  Life is far from wonderful for her.  But for the first time, she is able to express appreciation alongside her disappointment. Emphasizing the lesson, this child, Yehudah, the child of gratitude, is the one who will rise above his brothers.  Even though he is the fourth born, Yehudah will step forward to be the leader in the negotiations with Joseph in Egypt. Yehudah, the tribe will become the dominant tribe in the South.  King David will come form Yehudah, and when the monarchy divides, Yehudah will transition into the southern kingdom.  Eventually, of course, Yehudah becomes the adopted national identity of the people of Israel, and today we call ourselves Yehudim.

We do not often think about the origins of that name, how it emerges out of a condition of sadness and disappointment.  But does it not express a fundamental truth of human existence?  Life is not how I expected or hoped it would be.  But in that incompleteness, I still strive to see the good, and to express gratitude.

The name Yehudah offers a fitting complement to the other name of the Jewish people, Yisrael, which Jacob receives after wrestling with the angel.  “You have striven with beings divine and human and prevailed.”  Life is a struggle.  To be a part of the children of Israel is to stay engaged with it.

Yehudah is about being able to hold thanks and disappointment in the same hand.  If we look at the long history of our people, we see that it is a fitting name indeed.  Has there ever been a time without disappointment?  Through it all, we have struggled to retain a sense of optimism, and to give thanks whenever the opportunity arises.

We learn this lesson from Leah Imeinu, our Matriarch—Leah.

Five Sets of Clothes and 300 Shekels of Silver – Vayigash 5779

This morning’s Torah portion takes place in Egypt.  Joseph’s brothers have returned to Egypt to buy food.  This time they have brought Benjamin with them, following the instructions of the Viceroy, who happens to be their long lost brother Joseph in disguise, although they do not know it yet.

Once again, Joseph tests his brothers to determine if they have changed since they were kids.  He hides a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain, accuses him of theft, and declares that he will keep him imprisoned.

As Parashat Vayigash opens, Judah steps forward to make an impassioned plea on behalf of his youngest sibling.  News of Benjamin’s captivity would surely bring about their father’s death.  And furthermore, Judah has pledged his own life for the lad’s.  Judah begs Joseph to take him captive and release Benjamin.

Convinced that the brothers have sincerely repented, Joseph finally reveals his identity in an emotional, tearful reunion.  Joseph instructs his brothers to go back to the land of Canaan, gather up their belongings, and move the entire household down to Egypt, where they will be provided for.

Then, Joseph sends them away with gifts for the journey.

(כב) לְכֻלָּ֥ם נָתַ֛ן לָאִ֖ישׁ חֲלִפ֣וֹת שְׂמָלֹ֑ת וּלְבִנְיָמִ֤ן נָתַן֙ שְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֣וֹת כֶּ֔סֶף וְחָמֵ֖שׁ חֲלִפֹ֥ת שְׂמָלֹֽת׃

To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver, and five changes of raiment.  (Gen. 45:22)

What is Joseph thinking?  What possible reason could he have to give Benjamin favorable treatment?  Is this not the exact kind of behavior that led to so much suffering in the past?

When they were kids, Jacob favored Joseph over all of the others.  He loved him more.  He did not make him work out in the fields.  Jacob even gave Joseph the infamous “Coat of Many Colors,” which symbolized everything that the brothers hated about him.

Joseph is now repeating the exact same provocations.  Not only does Joseph favor Benjamin, he does so with clothing.  That detail had to have registered with their siblings.  What is going on?  Is Joseph naive, or cruel?

Neither.  It is another test.  Joseph is not done with his brothers.  So far, he has applied the pressure directly to see if the brothers will take responsibility for each other when confronted with an outside threat.  They have passed this test.

Now Joseph sends them back into the wilderness, unsupervised, with a brother who has been given special treatment.  It will be easy enough for Benjamin to get “lost” or “eaten by a wild animal” on the way.  He has recreated the conditions under which they sinned many years earlier.

But Joseph does not want them to fail.  Two verses later, he undermines the purity of his test by warning them to behave.

וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֵּלֵ֑כוּ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אַֽל־תִּרְגְּז֖וּ בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃

As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.”  (Gen. 45:24)

But that does not tell us why Joseph chose to favor Benjamin in this particular way. Why does Joseph favor Benjamin with these specific gifts?  Why five sets of clothing and 300 shekels of silver?

The Talmud (BT Megillah 16b) asks about the clothing.  “Is it possible that Joseph would stumble in the very thing that had led to his own suffering?”  The Talmudic Sage Rav teaches that Joseph has a very good reason to present Benjamin with five sets of clothing.  Through prophecy, Joseph knows that many generations in the future, a famous descendant of Benjamin will appear before a King wearing five articles of clothing.  Do you know who it is?

וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.

And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue (1) and white (2), and with a great crown of gold (3), and with a rob of fine linen (4) and purple (5); and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad.  (Esther 8:15)

By giving him five sets of clothes, says the Talmud, Joseph offers this hint to Benjamin.  Your offspring are destined for greatness.

What about the 300 shekels of silver?  A medieval Spanish commentator named Rabbeinu Bahya offers a creative answer.  Once again, Joseph is sending a hidden message, this time to all of his brothers.  In this case, it is a message about their guilt.  Bear with me, as his argument is built on several details and involves a math equation.

Here is the first detail.  The Talmud (BT Gittin 44a) rules that if a Jewish slave owner sells his slave to a non-Jew, he can be forced to pay a penalty of up to ten times the price of the slave in order to redeem him, and then he must set the slave free.

Since slaves owned by Jews were obligated to observe many of the mitzvot, selling such a slave to a non-Jew who would not permit their continued observance would be particularly harsh.  That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud impose such a harsh penalty.  That is the first detail: a tenfold penalty for selling a slave to a Gentile.

The second detail is from the Book of Exodus.  

אִם־עֶ֛בֶד יִגַּ֥ח הַשּׁ֖וֹר א֣וֹ אָמָ֑ה כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שְׁקָלִ֗ים יִתֵּן֙ לַֽאדֹנָ֔יו וְהַשּׁ֖וֹר יִסָּקֵֽל׃

But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.  (Exodus 21:32)

This sets the value of a slave at 30 shekels of silver.

Joseph was sold into slavery by ten of his brothers.  Who did they sell him to?  A wandering band of Ishmaelites, i.e. non-Jews.  If the value of a slave is 30 shekels of silver, and the penalty for selling a slave to a non-Jew is ten times the sale price, what is the total penalty?  It is basic math.  30 x 10 = 300 shekels of silver, payable by each of the ten brothers.

Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, was not involved in the sale, so he has no obligation to pay the penalty.  When Joseph, in his joy at being reunited with his family, decides to give gifts to all of his brothers, he settles on the convenient number of 300 shekels.  This erases the ten brothers’ debt to him.  Benjamin, who has no debt, winds up with 300 shekels in his pocket.

This is a creative answer to why Joseph would place such a potential stumbling block in his brothers’ path.  It was no stumbling block at all.

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.