Blessings of the blessed (Vayishlach)

Blessings of the blessed (Vayishlach)

Not in rewards, but in the strength to strive, the blessing lies. -J. T. Towbridge

It is one of the more surreal scenes from the Torah; one that has fired the imagination of centuries of artists. Jacob has safely escaped from his duplicitous father-in-law Laban and prepares to confront his potentially murderous brother Esau (talk about a dysfunctional family). Jacob is attacked by an angel. Jacob and the angel wrestle the entire night until the break of dawn. At that point the angel smashes Jacob on the hip and begs Jacob to let him go “for the dawn is breaking.”

Jacob answers: “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

Angel: “What’s your name?”

Jacob: “Jacob.”

Angel: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” [Note: the root of the Hebrew word “strive” is the same as the word “Israel.” – so the naming works in Hebrew.]

Jacob responds: “Tell me your name.”

Angel: “Why do you ask for my name?”

And then the angel disappears.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 32:30 tries to answer at least the mystery of the need or lack of need for names regarding blessings.

He explains that typically, in order to bless someone, you need to know who they are, and preferably you need to know their name. Hence, the angel’s perfectly logical request to confirm the name of the person he’s about to bless.

However, the angel also must have known that there was a special power to Jacob (and his progeny) that was conveyed by his father Isaac, that was transmitted from his grandfather Abraham. Isaac bestowed upon Jacob the characteristic that “whoever blesses you shall be blessed.”

The angel knew that by blessing Jacob, he had become blessed and therefore there was no further need for Jacob to bless him or even to know his name.

May we be receivers and suppliers of blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the Jersey City shooting.

Missing out on the Righteous (Vayetze)

Missing out on the Righteous (Vayetze)

Get around people who have something of value to share with you. Their impact will continue to have a significant effect on your life long after they have departed. -Jim Rohn

Jacob had escaped his brother Esau’s wrath and exiled himself to Haran, to live and work with his uncle Laban. Upon meeting his cousin Rachel, Jacob falls in love at first sight and offers Laban that he will work seven years for Rachel as the price of marriage. Laban famously switches Rachel for her sister Leah on the wedding night and then scams Jacob into working another seven years for Rachel. Jacob agrees. Later on, when Jacob tries to get paid for additional work, Laban keeps switching the deal on him.

Laban was by all accounts a cheating, lying, avaricious, double-crossing scoundrel. Jacob had his own history of deceit. Jacob had pretended to be his brother Esau and snatched Esau’s blessing from their blind father, Isaac. Esau’s anger is what prompted Jacob’s exile in the first place. Nonetheless, in Haran, Jacob proved himself to be an industrious, loyal, honest and hardworking employee and son-in-law.

Eventually, Jacob, with God’s prompting, decides that enough is enough. When Laban is away shearing his own flock, Jacob takes advantage, packs up the whole family and all their possessions and without any notice leaves Haran and heads back to Canaan, back home.

Laban gets wind of Jacob’s hasty and unannounced departure, chases after him, chastises him, eventually comes to some sort of understanding and even a “pact” and then they each go their own way.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 32:1 wonders as to phraseology of the verse: And Laban went and returned to his place; and Jacob continued on his path.

He explains that typically, when one is in the presence of a righteous person, they learn from them, they are affected by them, they pick up some of their positive traits, some of their wisdom. However, Laban did not take advantage of having Jacob in his household and when they separated Laban “returned to his place,” he returned to his bad ways, to his negative traits and avarice.

Jacob, on the other hand, “continued on his way,” he continued to grow, he continued to ascend in his path of goodness. And that leads Jacob to the very next phrase of the verse, “and the angels of God met him.”

May we take advantage of the presence of good people in our lives, learn from them and continue on the good path, as opposed to returning to our old, bad ways.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, the one abolishing slavery. It was made into law 154 years ago, this week.

Appropriate Alcoholic Consumption (Toldot)

Appropriate Alcoholic Consumption (Toldot)

Gluttony kills more than the sword. -Proverb

Blind Isaac feels old age approaching. In anticipation, he asks his son Esau to bring him food so he can bless him before he dies. Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, feels that the younger son, Esau’s twin, Jacob, should receive the blessing. She instructs Jacob to bring food to Isaac and get the blessing. Jacob masquerades as Esau and taking advantage of his father’s blindness, successfully pretends to be the older sibling.

Jacob enters Isaac’s tent with food in hand and serves his elderly father. The feast includes wine. The meal goes without a hitch. While Isaac is somewhat suspicious, he seems convinced that it is indeed Esau in front of him and proceeds to bless his son with blessings of leadership and material success. Jacob takes leave of Isaac without getting caught. Only later, when Esau arrives ready to serve his own meal, is the charade uncovered to Isaac’s dismay and Esau’s anguish.

Esau’s resulting anger and desire to kill Jacob for the affront and for stealing his blessings results in Jacob’s escape and exile to Haran, to seek refuge by his uncle Laban and eventually to marrying his cousins, Leah and Rachel.

But getting back to the meal itself and Jacob serving his father Isaac wine, the Meshech Chochma on Genesis 27:25 notices that the cantillation note (the musical notes on how to read the Torah) under the word for “wine” is a “double” note.

He connects the double note under the word wine, to the Talmudic dictum (Tractate Beitzah 25b) that whoever drinks his wine in one gulp is a glutton. The Meshech Chochma claims that the note indicates that Isaac, who was well-mannered, didn’t drink his wine in one shot, but rather split it up into the proper etiquette of two gulps, which Jacob served him each time (they probably also didn’t have the large wine glasses we have today).

May we consume our alcoholic beverages (and our food in general) for the right reasons, at the right time, in the right proportion and the right way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Doni and Emily Yellin on their marriage. Mazal Tov!

Choosing Daughters-in-law (Chaye Sarah)

Choosing Daughters-in-law (Chaye Sarah)

Choose your wife as you wish your children to be. -Proverb

In his old age, Abraham instructs his servant to travel to Abraham’s hometown of Haran, to his family, and find a wife for his son Isaac. He warns the servant that Isaac should not marry a local Canaanite woman. The Meshech Chochma wonders why Abraham is having this discussion with the servant and not with Isaac himself.

The Meshech Chochma answers that a son is exempt from listening to his father’s instructions when it comes to marrying. That is, if a son decides he wants to marry someone and the father doesn’t want the son to marry the woman, the son doesn’t have to obey his father, but rather can marry the woman he chooses (assuming it is someone that he is allowed to marry by Torah law).

That is the reason Abraham instructs the servant and not his son. The servant would obey Abraham. Isaac would not have to obey his father.

However, in the next generation, Isaac gives his son Jacob a similar command and instructs him not to marry any Canaanite women. What changed? Why did Abraham refrain from commanding Isaac about whom he could or couldn’t marry, but Isaac has no qualms about restricting Jacob?

The Meshech Chochma explains that in the case of Isaac commanding Jacob, the instruction was conditional. In the same meeting where Isaac commands Jacob about marriage, he also tells Jacob that he will pass on to him the blessings and inheritance of Abraham. The marriage command is conditional. In theory, Jacob could marry whoever he wants. However, if he wants to receive the blessing and inheritance of Abraham, he needs to marry according to Isaac’s instructions. If Jacob would have married a Canaanite, he would have forsaken both the blessings and the inheritance. While it seems a father can’t unilaterally force a son to marry a woman of his choice, a father can provide incentives to do so.

As we know, both Isaac and Jacob followed their father’s directives and married the type of women they wished for their sons. This led to significant blessings as well as to the creation of the nation of Israel.

May all our children marry well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Yanofsky, Reiner, Galan and Fischgrund families on their inspiring Bat and Bar-Mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem. Mazal Tov!

The Cost of Missed Opportunities (Vayera)

The Cost of Missed Opportunities (Vayera)

Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity. -H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

God decides he’s going to destroy the evil city of Sodom and its four other sister cities. However, He feels he needs to inform Abraham about it before He does so. What ensues is one of the most bizarre biblical bargaining sessions that were ever conducted. Abraham questions God and then suggests God should spare the cities if He finds 50 righteous people there (ten per city). God agrees. Immediately, Abraham, perhaps sensing that God knows there aren’t 50 righteous people, asks God to spare the cities if he finds just 45 people (nine per city). God agrees. Abraham pushes again and asks for 40 people to be the measure. God agrees. Abraham, on a roll, asks for 30 people. God agrees again. Abraham asks for 20 and God agrees. Finally, Abraham asks for ten, God agrees, but perhaps sensing that he can’t push his luck any further, Abraham stops.

In the end, there are less than ten righteous people in the entire Sodomite metropolis. God sends angels to extricate Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family from Sodom and proceeds to rain fire and brimstone upon Sodom in one of the more dramatic and apocalyptic scenes of the Torah.

The Meshech Chochma points out an interesting inconsistency in the progression of the bargaining. When God agrees to spare Sodom if there are 45 righteous, He says “I won’t destroy.” When he refers to the 40 and 30, He says “I won’t do.” When he refers to the 20 and 10, He reverts back to saying “I won’t destroy.”

The Meshech Chochma understands that when God says He “won’t destroy,” it means he won’t destroy, but He will punish. That makes sense for a city or a metropolis which lays claims to only 10 or 20 righteous people. When God says He “won’t do,” it means he won’t even punish, if the cities have a more substantive cadre of 30 or 40 righteous. But why does God opt for the harsher option of “won’t destroy,” meaning He will punish if there’s a more substantial 45 righteous?

The Meshech Chochma explains that the harsher punishment is because they were so close to salvation, they just needed one person for each of the five cities to complete the count of ten righteous people per city. Just one person. If one person would have decided to do the right thing, they all would have been saved. Because one person missed the opportunity, God punishes not only for the general evil and sin they’re guilty of but also for the missed opportunity.

The Meshech Chochma teaches that God doesn’t only punish for our sins. He also punishes for missing out on the positive things we could have done, spoken or even thought instead of the sin.

May we always grab and create opportunities to think, speak and do well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the people of Israel under fire. May this pass quickly and may we finally end these attacks.

Horoscope-Proof (Lech Lecha)

Horoscope-Proof (Lech Lecha)

 This is the excellent foppery of the world: that when we are sick in fortune — often the surfeits of our own behavior — we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!  -William Shakespeare (King Lear: Act 1, Scene 2)

 

Jewish tradition looks negatively at astrology and those who follow horoscopes. Judaism typically views adherents of modern astrology as somewhere on the spectrum between idolatry, superstition and simple foolishness. We are meant to have a simple faith in God, to believe in our free will, to choose wisely, to make our best efforts in all we do and ultimately attribute the circumstances of our lives to God and not to His intermediaries.

However, both the Midrash and the Talmud carry a slightly more nuanced story of the power of astrology (though it’s believed that the insights of true astrology have been long lost). The Midrash recounts how Abraham was a master astrologer and read in the stars that he would remain childless. God chides him, tells him to look beyond the stars, renames him (from Abram to Abraham) and tells him that not only will he have a child but that he will be the father of a multitude of nations.

Based on this episode, the Talmud explains that the people of Israel are impervious to horoscopes, that we are beyond the laws and effects of astrology. Our free will is such that we are unbound by mundane, predictable predestination. Our destiny is so open and free that even the mighty stars and constellations have no effect on our future.

The Meshech Chochma however, fine-tunes such thinking. He explains that the Talmudic dictum is true, that the people of Israel have direct divine providence that is independent of astrological influences. However, that is only true for the entirety of the people of Israel and not necessarily for an individual Jew. A Jew, in theory, could be subject to astrological forces.

But there is an exception to that exception. Any Jew who serves the Jewish people or is needed by the Jewish people has the same inoculation, the same immunity to any arbitrary astrological influence as does the entirety of the Jewish people. A Jew who is so identified with the Jewish community, who is a resource to his brethren, has a much more direct divine influence, without any intermediary stellar intervention.

May we keep our direct divine connections.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Link Kollel and Shul, for a truly wonderful learning and davening experience.

The Flood Curriculum (Noah)

The Flood Curriculum (Noah)

Education is not merely a means for earning a living or an instrument for the acquisition of wealth. It is an initiation into life of spirit, a training of the human soul in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. -Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

The biblical account of Noah’s Flood is mirrored in the literature of a number of ancient civilizations. While there is much that is unique about the Torah’s telling of the flood, one of the aspects which stands out in particular, is that the Torah relates the flood as a punishment for man’s misdeeds. The earth, its human and animal denizens had become so corrupt that God had no other option but to literally wipe them all off the map and restart almost from scratch, using Noah, his family and all the animals that he saved on his ark as the starting material for rebuilding the world.

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why Noah and the ark passengers needed to be on the ark for a year. The job of wiping the slate clean was accomplished after the first days of the deluge. In theory, the flood survivors could have gotten off the ark the next day and started the arduous and vital work of repopulating the earth without waiting a year.

The Meshech Chochma answers that the year-long confinement to the ark wasn’t because of what needed to happen to the planet outside the ark, but rather was needed by all those inside the ark. They needed a year-long curriculum to rectify themselves.

All of creation, not just humans, but even animals, had become so vile, so distorted and corrupt that God had no choice but to start over. Now even though those who made it onto the ark were the best of the best, they were still heavily influenced by their environment. They too had a measure of corruption and vileness. They needed their own cleansing, their own deprogramming, their own re-education.

That was the purpose of the twelve months on the ark. It was to educate the flood’s survivors as to how to behave. It was to curb their sexual appetite; calm their gluttony and cravings. The animals needed to be fed by the hands of humans and learn to respect humans again and not attack wildly. After twelve months of such instruction and practice, after both humans and animals had learned to control themselves, then they were allowed out to the clean air of a new world, ready to lead more correct, virtuous lives, with a second chance to start over again.

May our educational efforts lead us and those we impact to more moral and honorable lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our children on the beginning of their new educational paths.

An Exploration of Classic Jewish Texts

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