The Courage to Act – Chayei Sarah 5781

Last Shabbat, the Jewish world lost one of its great teachers, thinkers, and advocates, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. Rabbi Sacks was an Orthodox Rabbi, a philosopher, theologian, and politician. He was one of the most recognized and respected Jewish thinkers in the world.

Rabbi Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. In 2005, he became a Knight Bachelor for “services to the community and inter-faith relations.” In 2009, he was granted the title Baron and given a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords.

Rabbi Sacks emphasized the study of knowledge in all of its forms, both from within and outside of Judaism. He utilized the terms Chockmah and Torah to describe the pursuit. He wrote,

Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be.

Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), p.221

In his drashot, Rabbi Sacks was as likely to cite Shakespeare as Rashi. He had a gifted ability to communicate the universal truths of human existence, drawing deeply on the wellsprings of Torah and Jewish teaching, 

He was committed to interfaith work, often appearing on British television as a commentator to wide audiences. “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” he wrote in his book The Dignity of Difference. Rabbi Sacks was noted for his deeply held embrace of both particularism and universalism, although he backtracked after receiving criticism from Haredi Jews. He believed that Judaism had something to say, and had an important role to play, in fixing the problems of the world.

In my work as a Rabbi, people sometimes share articles or drashot with me that they read and find to be meaningful. I cannot think of another person whose teachings have been shared more than Rabbis Jonathan Sacks’. 

At his funeral this week, Gila Sacks delivered an emotional eulogy for her father. She said about him, “He taught us that the world is to be challenged, and that there is no such thing as an unsolveable problem.”

The best way to honor a great teacher is to share his teachings. So I turned to one of Rabbi Sacks’ drashot on this morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah

Over the course of three parashiyot, God blesses Abraham numerous times. The blessings essentially come down to two promises. One, Abraham will inherit the entire land of Canaan. And two, Abraham will be the father of a great nation, a nation that will be a blessing to the world.

In fact, each of these blessings occurs five separate times over the course of the previous two Torah portions.

As this morning’s reading begins, however, Abraham’s prospects are not looking good. Over the course of Chayei Sarah, Abraham takes important actions that are the first steps towards the fulfilment of God’s blessings.

The first to be addressed is land. Sarah dies, and Abraham must prepared for her funeral. The problem is that he is a foreigner in Canaan, with no land to his name. He turns to the Hittites, living in Hebron, with a proposal. Ger v’toshav ani imachem. “I am a resident alien among you, please let me purchase land to bury my wife.”

Abraham is in a difficult situation and he knows it. As a foreigner in a highly tribal society, it is nearly impossible for him to own land. The Hittites, who seem to respect Abraham, offer him the opportunity to bury his wife wherever he chooses.

Abraham knows what he wants, and he asks for Ephron to sell him the cave of Machpelah. Ephron offers to give Abraham the field with the cave so that he can bury Sarah. But gifts can be rescinded. So Abraham asks again to purchase the land at whatever price Ephron names. Ephron slyly tells him the cost, “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver-what is that between you and me?”

Abraham pays the money, and the land becomes his. To emphasize the legally binding nature of the transaction, the Torah ends the story with a summary of the contract.

So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field—passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town.

Genesis 23:17-18

Notice the details – the land is described by location, along with the trees growing on it. Abraham is identified as the new owner. And the witnesses are specified. The deal is accomplished in public, before the entire town.

Then the story concludes with Abraham burying Sarah. By performing an action on the land, he takes formal possession of it.

The importance of this story cannot be overstated. This is the first fulfillment of God’s blessing of Abraham

The Torah turns to the next part of the blessing. Abraham knows that it can only be fulfilled through Isaac, but things do not seem to be moving forward on that front. At this point, Isaac is at least 37 years old. He is unmarried and still living at home. “Failure to launch,” would be an apt description.

So Abraham sends his servant to Aram-Naharaim, outside of the land of Canaan, to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kinsmen.

As with the land negotiations, it is not easy. The servant, acting as Abraham’s proxy, embarks on the long journey, bringing ten camels laden with treasures.

Upon arrival, he meets Rebecca, and bestows lavish gifts of gold and silver jewelry upon her, her brother Laban, and her mother. As with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, this is an expensive transaction. And he must deal with deception as well. When the servant indicates that he would like to return with Rebecca, her mother and brother try to delay. When the servant insists, they put the question to Rebecca herself, who agrees to leave immediately.

As before, external politeness hides distrust and greed. In the end, Abraham gets what he wants, but the price is dear.

Noteworthy in both of these stories is God’s absence. There are no conversations with angels, prophetic encounters, or appearances of mysterious wells. Neither Ephron nor Laban have scary dreams in the middle of the night warning them of what will happen if they do not give Abraham what he wants.

These are stories of struggle and persistence, of taking charge of one’s fate in a way that has permanent implications for the future.

At the beginning of Chayei Sarah, the prospects of God’s blessings to Abraham being fulfilled are bleak. By the end, events are set in motion. Rabbi Sacks writes that

“yes, Abraham will have a land. He will have countless children. But these things will not happen soon, or suddenly, or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most focused willpower and determination will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that God will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation from God to Abraham and his children that they should act.”

“…Now, as then, the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to God…. Faith does not mean passivity.  It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise – who must bring it about.”  

Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, pp. 126-127

I can think of no more important message for us.

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.

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)