How to Behave as Jew in the Wider World: Toldot 5775

One of the wonderful things about Torah is that there are so many different lenses through which to read it.  Tradition uses the word Pardes, meaning orchard, as an acronym of four styles of Torah interpretation.  The peh is for p’shat – the plain sense meaning of the text.  What did these words mean to the ancient reader who spoke the language and lived in the society that the Torah describes?

The resh is for remez – hints that are alluded to in the Biblical text.

The dalet is for d’rash, or midrash, (fancy word: exegesis).  This is the attempt to explain silences, contradictions, and problems in the text in ways that are not possible from within the text itself.

And finally, the samech is for sod, secret, which refers to the hidden kabbalistic, or mystical truths which are hidden beneath the surface of the text.

All four methods of biblical interpretation are valid, and all four are Jewish.  All have the capability of revealing religious truths.  Whenever we study Torah, it is crucial that we understand which method of interpretation we are using.

This morning, I am going to request that we suspend our skepticism for the next few minutes and immerse ourselves fully in midrash.  In the midrash, Jacob is a good, pious person.  Easau is wicked.  And Lavan is a liar and a cheat.  For now, we need to accept that particular understanding of these characters.

Parashat Toldot introduces us to the third generation of the Patriarchs.  Rebecca is pregnant with twins, and they are already struggling in her womb.  It is such a difficult pregnancy that she wonders if it is even worth it to be alive.  The Torah tells us that she goes to inquire of the Lord, seeking a prophecy which will explain what is going on inside her body.  The nature of her sons is then revealed, with a prophecy that the older will serve the younger.

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:6), as we might expect, expands the story.  Whenever Rebecca would walk in front of study houses and synagogues, Jacob would struggle to get out, and whenever she would walk next to houses of idolatry, Esau would squirm to make his escape.

Another midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Toldot 110) identifies the location from which Rebecca seeks out God’s answer to her travails.  She travels to the Beit Midrash, the academy, of Shem and Ever, where the answer is revealed.

Who are Shem and Ever, and why do they have an academy?

Shem is one of the three sons of Noach, who survives the flood and begins humanity’s repopulation of the earth.  We do not know much about him from the Torah, only this:  When Noach gets drunk and passes out naked, the middle brother Cham does something inappropriate and unforgivable.  Shem, with the youngest brother Yefet, do not look at their father and respectfully bring him a cloak to cover himself.  As a result, Noach curses Cham and blesses the other two children.

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem… May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem…”  (Genesis 9:26-27)

Notice that this blessing associates Shem with God.  It also refers to tents, in which the younger brother seems to be finding shelter.  Thus, Shem seems to have been a monotheist, and a man of some standing.

Ever, the other Head of School, is Shem‘s grandson, and we have no distinctive information about him from the Torah.

From these scant details, the Rabbis develop a sophisticated narrative about the state of monotheism before Abraham.  Shem, later joined by his grandson Ever, establish a tent, understood metaphorically as a Beit Midrash.  There, they teach about God and God’s commandments.

But, you say, the Torah has not been given yet, so how is it possible that there can be mitzvot?  According the Rabbis, the seven mitzvot of the children of Noach have been given, and it is these which serve as the curriculum of this proto-yeshiva.  Among these commandments, which our tradition understands as applying to all of humanity, is the requirement to have societies governed by laws that are administered justly and fairly.  To create such laws certainly necessitates extensive learning, and that is the kind of learning taught by Shem and Ever.

So who makes up the student body?

One of the valedictorians is Abraham.  It is in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever that he receives his introductory instructions in theology.  He first learns about God from them.  But was not Abraham an iconoclast, the first person to bring monotheism into the world?  Not in this midrash.  The difference, however, is that Abraham brings his message of monotheism out into the world.  He proselytizes, so to speak, and quite effectively, whereas Shem and Ever are cloistered in their ivory tower (or tent).

In the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Avodah Zarah (BT Avodah Zarah 14b), which deals with Judaism’s laws against idolatry, a tradition is recorded that Abraham himself studied that same tractate.  When he studied, however, it was comprised of four hundred chapters.  He really had to know his stuff if he was going to go out into an idolatrous world and convince people of the existence of the One True God.  In our Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah is only five chapters long.

A generation later, Abraham sends Isaac to the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever after his near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

You can probably guess by now that Jacob will end up enrolling in his father and grandfather’s alma mater as well.

According to the midrash, Esau and Jacob spend their first years with their lives somewhat intertwined.  They have yet to fully differentiate.  By the time they reach their thirteenth birthday, their personalities have been revealed and they start to go their own ways.  The Torah describes the respective characters of Esau and Jacob.  Va-yi-h’yu Esav ish yodea tzayid ish sadeh, v’Ya-akov ish tam yoshev ohalim.  “Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field, while Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents.”  (Genesis 25:27)

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:10), noting that Jacob seems to be spending a lot of time in tents, identifies them as the same tents of Shem and Ever.  In other words, he enrolls in the prestigious Beit Midrash that his ancestors had established generations earlier.

He goes back later for graduate school.

This morning’s Torah portion ends with Jacob fleeing from Esau’s wrath after he steals the older twin’s blessing.  Rebecca urges her favored son to travel East to her brother Lavan’s home in Haran to wait for Esau’s temper to cool.  Isaac then offers Jacob a parting blessing and sends him on his way.

Rashi, based on a midrash in the Talmud (Rashi on Genesis 28:9), then performs some detailed calculations.  He looks at the various ages of the characters that are described at different points in the story, and comes to the conclusion that there are fourteen missing years between the time that Jacob leaves home and when he arrives at his uncle Lavan’s household.

Where did he go in the meantime?

You can probably guess by now.  What do people typically do when the economy takes a downturn?  They go to graduate school.

Jacob reenrolls in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever.  Why is it so important that he spend this time learning?  Because of where he is about to go.  Jacob leaves penniless, but his destiny is to become wildly successful in his time abroad.  Jacob will prosper in Lavan’s house.  But there is an inherent danger, as Lavan is not a good influence.  He is greedy and duplicitous.  There is a real risk that when Jacob is away from home, outside of his parents’ influences, he will assimilate Lavan’s value system.  How can Jacob spend so much time with Lavan without becoming him?

He needs an inoculation from the influence of his no-good uncle.  That is where school comes in.  Education is what will enable Jacob to retain his values despite his environment.  Intensive Torah study inside the academy will prepare him to live a life of Torah out in the world.

Jacob might also need some time to mature on his own.  After all, the fact that he is running for his life is kind of his own fault.  He has outnegotiated Esau for the birthright, stolen the blessing from him, and lied and tricked his father.  Perhaps Jacob needs to go back to school for some moral reeducation as well.

As it turns out, Jacob does well in Lavan’s household.  He spends twenty two years there, builds a family, and acquires great wealth.  Jacob eventually must leave, however, as it is not his home.  He knows that to fulfill his destiny, he must separate and go back home.  One of the first things he does after returning to the Land of Israel is to force all of the members of his household to throw out any personal idols that they have brought with them.  Those idolatrous values from Lavan’s home will have no place in Jacob’s household.

On one level, these midrashim about the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever are anachronistic.  They retroject the Rabbis’ values of Torah study into an ancient time which clearly had different priorities and institutions.  On the other hand, by using recognizable contemporary symbols, these midrashim are able to tell us something about what was important to the Rabbis in their own time, which may help us better understand the situations we face in the present.

In sending Jacob to yeshivah, the midrash does the same thing as I did a few minutes ago when I described Jacob’s return to yeshiva as graduate school.  This is one of the ways that Torah comes alive for us.

So what are the Rabbis trying to tell us in these midrashim?  They are making a point about how we can best prepare ourselves and our children to deal with the world successfully without taking on the bad qualities of that world.

One lesson they may be imparting is how to best prepare oneself to maintain one’s values within a wider society that does not share them.  That sounds pretty relevant to me.  Judaism has always struggled with finding a healthy balance between engaging with the world, incorporating positive elements from other cultures, and resisting the negative ones.

Let me share an example.  This coming Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is known as Black Friday.  Over the last several years, we have seen Black Friday pushed back earlier and earlier onto Thanksgiving, giving consumers more opportunities to buy stuff and giving retail workers less opportunities to celebrate Thanksgiving.  It creates a sense of competition between stores to move up their openings times so that their competitors do not gain an advantage.  And it creates competition between consumers who feel that they need to be first in line in order to get the best deals.  The result is a cheapening and weakening of Thanksgiving, which in my opinion is the one national holiday that most Americans seem to take seriously.

The Canadian organization Adbusters created a campaign a few years ago called International Buy Nothing Day, on which people are urged to not spend any money on Black Friday.

As Jews, we do not really need to set aside a day for anti-consumerism.  We already have Shabbat, which instead of once every 365 days, occurs once in seven.  Nevertheless, every year when Black Friday roles around, I am so happy to be Jewish, and to not have that pressure to go out and get the best deals on Christmas presents.  I would put Black Friday in the category of things from the dominant culture for us to avoid.

But we have assimilated much that is good into our tradition as well.

In recent decades, we have incorporated into Judaism values like feminism and social action while struggling to resist messages that promote violence and encourage immodesty.  How do we inculcate the moral strength to stick by the values of our ancestors?  Through learning.

The lesson here is that a deep education in Torah lays the essential moral groundwork for going out into the world and behaving as a Jew ought to behave.  It was that education, at least according to the midrash, that was available to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  It was that education that made it possible for Jacob to go abroad, away from the protective influence of his parents, retain his values in a foreign culture, and eventually return home with those values intact.

Happy Thanksgivukkah

It shouldn’t be news to anyone with a pulse that the first day of Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving this year.  What do we call it?  Someone actually trademarked the word Thanksgivukkah ®.  So we could try Thanukkah.  Or how about Chanksgiving?

A lot has been written about the culinary options made possible by the coinciding of two gastronomically-rich holiday traditions.

It probably should not surprise us that some folks have cashed-in.  This is America after all, where there is nothing than cannot be turned into a business opportunity.  You can buy Thanksgivukkah greeting cards, t-shirts, songs on iTunes, and so on.  Then, there is the nine year old boy who designed the “Menurkey” and raised almost $50,000 on Kickstarter to get it produced.

On deeper inspection, it turns out that there is more than just a date that ties Chanukkah and Thanksgiving together.

First, the date.  The Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar hybrid.  The months follow the cycle of the moon, but in order to ensure that the holidays occur in the right seasons, we have to add occasional “leap-months.”  Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis came up with the system that we use today.  There is a nineteen year cycle in which we add a thirteenth month during seven out of every nineteen years.  That keep Passover in the Spring, the High Holidays in the Fall, and Chanukkah in the Winter.

The earliest possible date for Chanukkah is November 28.  The latest possible date for Thanksgiving is November 28.  This year, those dates happen to coincide.  The last time they coincided was 1861, but Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until Lincoln declared it in 1863.  That makes this year the first time it has ever happened and, as it turns out, the last time it will happen for approximately the next 77,000 years.

When they set up the calendar. the Rabbis were remarkably accurate, but not totally.  Averaged out, The Jewish year is a touch longer than the solar year of 365.25 days.  Every one thousand years, the two calendars diverge by four days.  The last year that Chanukkah will occur on November 28 is in the year 2146, but on none of the occasions between now and then will the 28th be a Thursday.  After 2146, the calendar divergence will make the earliest possible date for Chanukkah November 29.  It will take 77,000 years to work its way around the calendar, unless something is done.  That “something” will require a bunch of Rabbis to get together to agree on how to adust the Jewish calendar so that the holidays remain in the correct season.  And if that happens, it will truly be a “miracle.”  I don’t expect it to take place any time in my rabbinic career.

But there is more that connects these two holidays than just the date.  Much of the thematic convergence occurs through the relationship of these two holidays to a third Jewish holiday: Succot.

Let’s talk about Thanksgiving first.  The first recorded Thanksgiving took place in 1621 in Plymouth Rock after the first successful harvest by the Pilgrims who had just arrived that year.  They had come to America from Europe to flee religious persecution.  They were searching for a new home in which they could practice their faith in freedom.  First-hand accounts report that the meal was attended by fifty three Pilgrims and approximately ninety members of the Wampanoag tribe.

These were deeply religious people who read their Bibles closely.  They knew all about the Torah’s harvest festivals, in which Israelites marked the beginning and end of the agricultural cycle through celebrations of gratitude.  While they might not have literally modelled that first Thanksgiving on Succot, the idea of celebrating a successful harvest in the fall through a sacred meal was deeply rooted in their religious consciousness.  For the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving was a religious holiday with Biblical precedents.  For modern-day Americans who have inherited this holiday, the meaning of Thanksgiving is very much about religious freedom, the fall harvest, and gratitude.

These are themes that are shared with Chanukkah.  The Maccabees in Israel had similar experiences to the Pilgrims in Europe.  A dominating Syrian Greek empire offered extremely attractive alternatives to traditional Jewish practice.  Not only was assimilation widespread, the Greeks sought to forcibly impose their culture by outlawing some of the most important Jewish practices like Shabbat, Torah study, and circumcision.  They also took over the Temple, offering pagan sacrifices at the most important place of Jewish worship.  This is the first time in recorded human history that an attempt was made to eradicate a particular culture and religion.  It is the first record of attemped genocide.

It was working.  Jews were abandoning the Torah and embracing Greek ways of life.  In 167 BCE, the Maccabees revolted.  They fought to  undo the decrees and reestablish Jewish control in Israel.  When they recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple in 164 BCE, the Maccabees declared a celebration to give thanks to God.  It is not surprising that they would want to do this.  Most successful independence movements have an Independence Day.  Let’s look at how the Maccabees chose to celebrate their victory, in their own words.  The Second Book of Maccabees, written in 124 BCE, describes the first Chanukkah.

They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So carrying lulavs… they offered hymns of praise (Hallel) to God who had brought to pass the purification of His own place. (II Maccabees 10:6-7)

The victorious Maccabees, by their own account, modeled Chanukkah after Succot.  It is a particularly appropriate holiday for a few reasons.  Succot is not only an autumn agricultural holiday celebrating the completion of a successful summer harvest.  It also has an historical dimension.  The succot that we dwell in symbolize the temporary dwelling places that our ancestors used during their wanderings in the wilderness, during the time of their escape from slavery into freedom.  Succot symbolizes religious freedom.

Succot is also connected to the dedication of the Temple.  When Solomon completed the construction of the first Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem, he inaugurated it during an eight-day celebration that coincided with Succot.  We will read about it in the haftarah next week.

King Solomon gathered every person of Israel in the month of Eitanim (Tishrei) on the holiday (Sukkot) in the seventh month… for God had said, ‘I have built a House for My eternal residence.’  (I Kings 8:2,12)

For Solomon, Succot did not symbolize impermanence and vulnerability.  In fact, it was exactly the opposite.  Succot was about the establishment of a new, permanent home for God.

When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, it made sense on several levels to model their celebration after Succot.  First of all, they had missed Succot three months earlier.  And secondly, Succot was a tremendous precedent to use for a rededication ceremony for the Temple.  Succot, therefore, serves as a bridge that connects Chanukkah and Thanksgiving, regardless of when they happen to occur on the calendar.  Both holidays express themes of gratitude – for a successful harvest, for religious freedom, and for home.

Another reason for which I am grateful that Chanukkah is so early this year is that it means it is as far away from Christmas as possible.  Chanukkah and Christmas have absolutely nothing in common, and it is so unfortunate that so many elements of Christmas observance in America have been assimilated into Chanukkah.

This year’s earliness of Chanukkah offers a reprieve from the intensity of the commercialization of the holiday.  In contrast, while Thanksgiving has succumbed to commercialism to some degree, it seems to me that, more than any other national holiday, it is the one that is still observed in a meaningful way by the widest number of people.  Americans of all religious and cultural backgrounds really do express gratitude on Thanksgiving.  I would much rather have a Chanukkah influenced by Thanksgiving than by Christmas.

This year, we are blessed to be able to celebrate these two holidays on the same day:  The Festival of Lights, celebrating the Jewish people’s survival against religious persecution; and the festival of Thanksgiving, expressing the gratitude that people of all backgrounds, and of all religions, can enjoy the blessings of our great country

To all of us: Happy Thanksgivukkah!