Category Archives: Genesis

Blinded by Reality (Lech Lecha)

Blinded by Reality (Lech Lecha)

You too must not count too much on your reality as you feel it today, since like yesterday, it may prove an illusion for you tomorrow. -Luigi Pirandello

Abraham’s first documented encounter with God is when God addresses him and commands him to leave his land (literally, “go for you from your land”), his birthplace and his father’s home to the ambiguous “land which I will show you.”  Abraham, full of faith, obediently complies, and does leave his life in the advanced and cosmopolitan Mesopotamian Empire. He leaves his homeland, leaves his father and treks to the relative wilderness of the land of Canaan; the rural, rough and uncultivated land bridge that connected the two ancient major political, economic and cultural powers of the Ancient Near East – the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian Empires.

That command starts Abraham’s journey. We see the development of his relationship with God. We see Abraham’s kindness and generosity. We see his bravery and faith. We see his devotion and sacrifice. It all started with Abraham leaving his land.

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 12:1 reads more deeply into the command of “go for you from your land.” The word “from your land,” in Hebrew, “Me’artzechah,” can also be read as from your landedness, from your materiality, from your obsession with the material world and material things.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that in order to serve God, the first step is to leave the trappings of the physical world which blind us to the evil, to the materiality that we’re submerged in. We have to leave that mindset of preoccupation exclusively with the corporeal, even if we don’t know where we’re going.

Once we’ve become free of our fixation on material things and approach God without pretense and in truthfulness, then God will lead us to “the land which I will show you,” – to a more elevated existence, to a deeper relationship with God and the truth of our existence, to the development of our soul and our own personal, divine missions on Earth.

May we loosen our shackles from the “realities” that both bind us and blind us, and may we follow in the footsteps of our patriarch, Abraham.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To William Shatner’s real star trek!

Letters of Protection (Noach)

Letters of Protection (Noach)

Action, looks, words, steps, form the alphabet by which you may spell character. -Johann Kaspar Lavater

God is enraged with humanity. They prove to not only be corrupt but they also corrupt their environment. Their evil and vileness scream to the heavens and God answers with a deluge to wipe out all of humanity, with the aim to start anew with Noah and his family.

God instructs Noah to build an ark, where his family and representatives from the animal kingdom will be spared to repopulate Earth. Noah dutifully builds the Ark. The animals arrive two-by-two, leaving a planet about to be destroyed, to then sail upon its destruction, and almost a year later land on a world wiped clean of any other living beings.

The Ark was their transport and protection for the duration of the Flood. The word “Ark” in Hebrew is “Tevah” which is also the same word in Hebrew for “letter”. The Chidushei HaRim explains that these homonyms, these words with the same spelling and the same pronunciation, but different meanings, are not coincidental.

There is a deep, divine and powerful attribute to each of the Hebrew letters, specifically the Hebrew letters of the Torah and of prayer. Just as Noah’s Ark can be a vessel of protection, somehow, each of us can escape a deluge of troubles by seeking refuge within the Hebrew “Tevah”, the Hebrew letters that we learn and recite. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in some mystical way, and most powerfully, the letters of the Torah and of prayer, can provide a certain measure of protection from the elements of the world that seek to drown us.

When trouble comes our way, as it inevitably does, we don’t need to spend years building an ark, we don’t need to gather supplies to survive Armageddon, we can open the Torah, open a Siddur (the Prayer book) and read.

May we find shelter and sanctuary in something as simple as holy letters and words.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the post-holiday season.

Mortally Mocked (Bereshit)

Mortally Mocked (Bereshit)

Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble. -Sir Walter Scott

God created the Garden of Eden, a divinely organized habitat where Man wanted for nothing. Adam and Eve enjoyed a blissful existence. There was only one law to maintain their pristine lives: don’t eat from the forbidden fruit. Simple. Straightforward. The punishment was also fairly easy to understand: death. Any sane, rational being would do everything in their power to stay far away from the forbidden fruit. Yet the serpent managed to convince Eve to partake of the fruit. He convinced Eve to doom herself, her husband, and all of future humanity for that matter, to millennia of pain, hardship, suffering, and mortality itself.

How did the serpent manage to overcome the natural sense and self-preservation of a human being? The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 3:1 explains the serpent’s methodology. The serpent mocked. It is as simple and as powerful as that. He merely mocked God. By talking about God in a mocking tone, in a mocking language, he succeeded in completely disarming Eve of any defenses and inhibitions that would have kicked in for her self-preservation.

The power of mockery and ridicule is such that it can cause a person to completely ignore logic, good sense and even suppress their own survival instinct. The Chidushei HaRim highlights that mocking easily turns someone from serving God, from pursuing what is right and what is noble, and instead turns one away from God, towards what is wrong and ignoble.

Joking has its place, but when it mocks what is good, what is healthy, what is noble, and what is sacred, the ridicule can easily destroy those precious commodities and supplant them with the exact opposite.

May we guardedly reserve the dangerous weapons of mockery and ridicule for those few things that truly deserve it. One banishment from the Garden of Eden was enough.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler z”l.

Brothers in Prejudice (Vayechi)

Brothers in Prejudice (Vayechi)

A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices. -Edward R. Murrow

Jacob, the patriarch of the family, the father of the twelve brothers who will form the future nation of Israel, is on his deathbed. He calls his sons into his room so that he can bless them and share with them his prophetic visions of their future.

Out of all the siblings, there are only two that he refers to as “brothers,” Shimon and Levi. But the context is not a positive one. Jacob’s parting statement to them reads as follows:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.”

To put it mildly, Jacob’s final words to Shimon and Levi seem to be the opposite of a blessing.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 49:5 focuses on the word “brothers” and tries to dig deeper into Jacob’s meaning and use of the word. He explains that Jacob is referring to a very basic principle of human socialization. Shimon and Levi were “brothers” in their nature, their disposition, and their prejudices. As a result, they regularly hung out with each other. They both possessed the trait of anger. Their ill will and negative thoughts reinforced each other and led them to violent and dangerous actions (the destruction of the city of Shechem and plotting to kill Joseph). The two of them formed their own echo chamber. When they thought perhaps that they were rationally discussing a topic, they were merely validating their dangerous ideas and emotions.

In that context, the Bechor Shor quotes perhaps the original formulation of “birds of a feather flock together” (attributed to William Turner, 1545), quoting the Babylonian Talmud (completed circa the year 500) “All fowl will live with its kind, and men with those like him” (Tractate Baba Kama 92b), a line which derives from the even older Book of Ben Sira 13:17 (circa 200 BCE) where Ben Sira writes “All flesh loveth its kind; And every man him that is like unto him.”

In any case, Jacob’s prophecy came to fruition. The descendants of both Shimon and Levi were dispersed throughout the territory of Israel, in part, to prevent their getting together and seeking future destructive council with each other.

While it is often nice to seek like-minded people, when it’s about negative perspectives, it’s better to seek out others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Israeli Medical system for their incredible vaccine distribution effort.

Fake Righteousness (Vayigash)

Fake Righteousness (Vayigash)

Keep thy smooth words and juggling homilies for those who know thee not. -Lord Byron

Joseph has finally sprung his trap, while his brothers still haven’t discovered that he, the Viceroy of Egypt, is their long-lost brother. Joseph got them to bring brother Benjamin to Egypt, and he had incriminating evidence placed among Benjamin’s belongings. The brothers, not realizing they were being set up, had brazenly declared that if Joseph’s men would find the thief in their midst, the thief would be put to death and the rest of them would become Joseph’s slaves.

When the stolen goblet is found in Benjamin’s possessions, the brothers realize they are in big trouble. Joseph, however, presents himself as a magnanimous judge. He states that only the thief himself will become his slave, while the rest of the brothers are free to return home.

This is the situation in which Judah steps forward and asks for a private audience with the Viceroy. Judah recounts the recent history, of how the Viceroy had insisted on Benjamin coming to Egypt, despite pleas that their father Jacob’s life was highly dependent on Benjamin’s wellbeing. If anything untoward were to happen to Benjamin, it would almost certainly kill their father Jacob.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 44:32 reads an accusatory statement in Judah’s plea to the Viceroy. He explains that Judah is saying that the Viceroy’s magnanimity is ultimately false. The Viceroy is only pretending to be generous by saying the other brothers are free to go, while only Benjamin will remain enslaved. While the Viceroy seems to be saying that the other brothers are likely innocent and there’s no need for them to be punished, in effect, by enslaving Benjamin and separating him from their father, the Viceroy will be killing Jacob, who is completely innocent. How can the Viceroy justify the exoneration of people who may have been accomplices to the crime, while he inflicts a fatal punishment on Jacob, someone completely innocent?

At that point, Judah offers himself to be a slave to the Viceroy instead of Benjamin, in order to save Jacob’s life. Moved by Judah’s valiant gesture, the Viceroy finally reveals himself to be Joseph. The brothers are shocked into silence, and the process of family reconciliation can begin.

May our family reunions be less duplicitous than that of our ancestors.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israeli politics. Never, ever boring.

The Grandeur of the Oppressor (Miketz)

The Grandeur of the Oppressor (Miketz)

An empire is an immense egotism. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pharaoh has a disturbing dream. He brings Joseph, a young, incarcerated Jewish slave to interpret the dream. Joseph conveys that the dream is a prophecy of seven years of plenty that will be quickly followed by seven years of famine. Joseph councils for Pharaoh to save grain from the years of plenty in preparation for what he predicts will be a devastating period of famine. Pharaoh is impressed and puts Joseph in charge of the entire project and elevates him to Viceroy of the Egyptian empire.

Joseph fills Egypt’s storehouses during the years of plenty and its treasury during the years of famine. Because of Joseph’s warning and preparation, Egypt was the only country in the entire region that was ready when famine struck. It made the wealthy and powerful Egypt even wealthier and more powerful. All the peoples of the region flocked to Egypt for grain. At this point, Egypt was reputed to have received the wealth of the entire world.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 41:1 gives an eerie explanation for why Egypt becomes the undisputed superpower of its time. He states that God, knowing that Egypt would eventually subjugate and enslave the Jewish people, wanted to raise Egypt’s prospects even further. God wanted Egypt to become the most powerful nation in the world before it enslaved the Jews. The reason is that God only wants the Jews subjugated by a powerful nation as opposed to a more lowly one. The Bechor Shor explains that not only was this true with Egypt, but with each subjugator of the Jewish people. God raises the fortunes of whatever empire or nation are about to subdue the Jews and we have seen this throughout our history. The fortunes of empire peak at the same time as the subjugation of the Jews starts. God doesn’t want to give the Jewish people into the hands of a lowly nation, but rather to one at the height of its power.

However, it has also proven true that while a nation may be at the height of its power when the subjugation starts, invariably, a nation that oppresses and persecutes its Jewish population, no matter how powerful, is eventually relegated to the dustbin of history.

May we be wary of nations at the height of their power.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanuka Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To vaccination. May it ever be safe and effective.

Victim’s Collusion (Vayeshev)

Victim’s Collusion (Vayeshev)

Silence is the ultimate weapon of power. -Charles De Gaulle

Joseph’s half-brothers hate him. The hatred is so deep, that they conspire to kill him. However, at the last moment, brother Judah suggests that they sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him. Joseph is transported from the land of Canaan, south, to the Egyptian empire, where he becomes Potiphar’s slave. Though he excels in his servitude, Potiphar’s wife, whose advances upon Joseph are rejected, ultimately accuses Joseph of accosting her, landing him in prison.

Joseph is eventually released, due to his dream-interpretation skills. By successfully interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph is elevated to the post of Viceroy of the Egyptian empire, a role he had been filling for nine years, before he meets his brothers again. Then he starts the strange charade of remaining unrevealed to them, forcing his full-brother Benjamin to come to Egypt, threatening to force Benjamin into slavery on trumped up charges, and only later revealing himself to his brothers, and subsequently they relay his prominence and wellbeing to their father, Jacob.

The big question that vexes many of the commentaries is why didn’t Joseph communicate with his family beforehand? Why, when he was in a position of tremendous power, did he not send a message to his beloved father that he was alive and well? Why did he let his father believe he was dead or missing all those years?

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 37:26, takes us back to the original sale of Joseph into slavery to answer the question. The brothers really had intended to kill him, or at the very least to let him die in the pit they had thrown him into. But Judah, a savvy negotiator, declared to his brothers: “We gain nothing by his death. If we sell him, at least we gain something, and it removes our hated brother from our midst.” Then they give Joseph a choice: “Either we let you die as planned, or we sell you into slavery on condition that you never reveal your identity or origins to anyone, that you never return home nor contact our father.”

Joseph has no choice but to keep his silence and never contact his family. The purpose of the charade with the brothers then becomes clearer. Joseph couldn’t just declare that he was Joseph when his brothers first meet him in Egypt. That likely would not have gone well and the family rapprochement wouldn’t have occurred. They needed to go through a few steps first to undue the damage of selling him into slavery. When Judah, who initially sold Joseph into slavery then saves Benjamin from a similar fate, they are redeemed. This then allows the brothers, of their own volition, to suspend the enforced silence, to inform their father as to Joseph’s wellbeing and to bring him to Joseph in Egypt, which is what they go on to do.

Joseph’s silence and collusion with his brothers in his own harsh fate were painful, but he had little other choice. In the end, he was able to overcome his circumstances, and reunite the family.

May we only use silence in a positive way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, who passed away this week.

The Pain of Uncertainty (Vayishlach)

The Pain of Uncertainty (Vayishlach)

Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother. -Kahlil Gibran

Jacob had escaped from the land of Canaan and his brother Esau’s murderous wrath, to spend 20 years with his uncle Lavan (who would later become his father-in-law as well). Now that Jacob is returning to Canaan, he’s not sure if his hot-headed brother still wants to kill him or not.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis Chapter 32 analyses Jacob’s predicament and how he navigates the dilemma. Verse 8 states that Jacob was very afraid and it pained him. The Bechor Shor explains that what pained Jacob was the uncertainty. The best scenario, would of course be if Esau had forgiven him, allowing Jacob an amicable return to Canaan. The second-best scenario would be to know if Esau still meant to kill him and Jacob could prepare himself accordingly, either running away from Esau or finding a fortified city where he can get out of reach of Esau and his warriors. However, not knowing Esau’s intentions kept Jacob in a fearful and painful state of uncertainty. Not knowing can be psychologically more distressful than knowing a certain negative outcome. When one knows the facts, one can start to deal with the situation. But a cloud of doubt and uncertainty can be painfully paralyzing.

On one hand, Jacob would love to have a peaceful resolution to the ill will Jacob had generated 20 years earlier by stealing Esau’s blessings. On the other hand, he wanted to protect himself and his large clan which included four wives, twelve children (eleven sons and one daughter, at that point), many servants, and significant flocks and herds.

If there was a chance for reconciliation, Jacob wanted to do whatever he could to make that happen. Jacob sends messengers ahead to Esau to inform him of his return to Canaan, and to try to gauge Esau’s state of mind. However, the messengers return with inconclusive reports: Esau is coming to meet Jacob, together with 400 of his men. It’s not clear if this is a war outing or the entourage that would normally accompany Esau. It could be that Esau was coming to honor his long-absent brother. If Jacob would choose to run away, Esau may interpret that negatively and perhaps pursue and attack as opposed to having a warm brotherly reunion. If Jacob runs, he may ruin any chance of reconciliation. Yet, if he meets Esau, he may be opening himself up to the death and destruction of himself and his entire family.

Jacob sends multiple deliveries of his flocks and herds as gifts, in the hopes that it will soften Esau’s heart as well as to see if Esau lashes out against Jacob’s gifts. However, until the very last moment, Jacob has no idea if the reunion will be bloody or friendly. Upon seeing Esau, Jacob bows profusely, demonstrating his subservience. In the end, Esau proves to be peaceful and Jacob is surely relieved by both the warm reunion and the resolution of the uncertainty.

May we often know the joy of the resolution of doubts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the men and women responsible for the removal of our enemies.

Misunderstanding God (Vayetze)

Misunderstanding God (Vayetze)

The business of a seer is to see; and if he involves himself in the kind of God-eclipsing activities which make seeing impossible, he betrays the trust which his fellows have tacitly placed in him. -Aldous Huxley

Jacob arrives in the town of Haran and falls in love at first sight with his cousin Rachel. He offers Rachel’s father, Lavan, to work for him for seven years to marry Rachel. Lavan sort of agrees. On the wedding night, seven years later, Lavan switches Rachel for her older sister, Leah, which somehow Jacob only realizes the morning after. Infuriated, Jacob confronts Lavan. Lavan tells him that in his town they don’t marry the younger one before the older one, but if he wants, after the week of the wedding celebration, he can have Rachel – but for an additional seven years of work. Jacob agrees.

Now, after fourteen years of working for his father-in-law, where Jacob was extremely productive and made Lavan into a wealthy man, Jacob wants to earn something for himself. He comes to a new agreement with Lavan as to what his compensation will be. Jacob is successful, but Lavan keeps changing the terms of the deal. Finally, God reveals himself to Jacob and tells him to leave Lavan and head back home to his father, Isaac, in Canaan.

Fearful that Lavan, the proven swindler, would hamper his departure, Jacob leaves with his wives, children, and all his possessions, without informing Lavan. Lavan eventually is notified of Jacob’s escape and pursues him. The night before Lavan is about to encounter Jacob, God comes to Lavan in his dream and warns him: “Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.”

Now a prophetic vision of God talking to us might typically make us awestruck and even humble. A warning from God might even make us cautious. However, it seems Lavan misunderstands God and the divine communication doesn’t seem to have reduced his arrogance or ego.

The next morning Lavan catches up with Jacob and berates him for his hasty departure. He tells Jacob that he would have a mind to hurt him in some way for this offense, but that God Himself told him not to.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 31:29 interprets Lavan as saying that “I really could have done serious damage to you and that my power to hurt you is so great that even God himself was worried and therefore came to me in a prophetic vision to ask me not to harm you in any way.” Lavan further uses God’s intervention as proof that Jacob was wrong in leaving without informing him.

But Lavan was wrong on both counts. He didn’t realize that he could not harm Jacob if God wouldn’t allow it, nor did he realize that Jacob had departed based on God’s direct command. God’s warning was likely more for Lavan’s benefit than for Jacob’s.

But humans continually prove that often, we hear what we want to hear, even if it’s God Himself talking.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the 57th anniversary of Doctor Who.

A Tale of Bitter Rivalry (Toldot)

A Tale of Bitter Rivalry (Toldot)

Enemies’ promises were made to be broken. -Aesop

Isaac and Rebecca have twin sons: Esau and Jacob. They’re very different physically and in temperament. Esau is a hairy hunter. Jacob is a smooth-skinned dweller of tents. Isaac loves Esau. Rebecca loves Jacob. The Bechor Shor in the Torah portion of Toldot gives a somewhat different reading of events than what many might be familiar with, from the more popular commentaries.

According to the Bechor Shor, Esau, the eldest, shows up at Jacob’s tent after an unsuccessful hunt, literally starving to death. He is so weak he can’t even feed himself. Jacob sees his brother, his bitter rival, and says to himself: if I do nothing, he dies of his own fault, my rival will be gone by his own doing and I will inherit everything. Esau understands well his predicament. Jacob offers Esau a deal: I’ll feed you and save you in exchange for the eldest’s part of our inheritance. Esau accepts, but in the back of his mind, counting on being his father’s favorite, he expects Isaac to gift him his portion before he dies. Once Isaac would die, a legal inheritance would then be in force and Esau would need to abide by his agreement with Jacob, and let Jacob get the major portion of their father’s wealth (a wealth that we are told previously is vast).

True to Esau’s instinct, Isaac, as he approaches old age, informs Esau that he wants to bless him, which the Bechor Shor understands to mean, to bestow the majority of his wealth as well as leadership of the family upon Esau BEFORE his death. Isaac is willing to do this despite the fact that it will contravene the agreement Esau hade made with Jacob.

Isaac informs Esau of his decision and sends him to hunt for some food and prepare a celebratory meal to seal the deal. Rebecca, wanting to sabotage Isaac’s and Esau’s workaround of the firstborn sale, suggests Jacob present himself to blind Isaac in Esau’s place. Isaac is fooled and bequeaths his possessions as well as the family leadership upon Jacob (the ultimate rightful recipient, based on his agreement with Esau) in an irrevocable form.

Esau, understandably furious that his treachery was neutralized, plans to kill Jacob at his earliest opportunity, BEFORE his father dies, thereby getting that entire inheritance. Jacob, under the legitimate pretense of going to find a bride from Rebecca’s family in Haran, escapes, taking nothing with him, to travel quickly and lightly, and so Esau won’t suspect his prey is planning an escape.

More than two decades later, the brothers meet briefly, each prepared for war. Battle is averted. The brothers are affectionate and civil to each other and then part ways never to meet again, with Esau renouncing his claim to the inheritance of Isaac and leaving the land of Canaan permanently. However, the descendants of these two brothers, who would go on to form two different nations, would rarely know peace between them.

Some rivalries are not so easy to overcome.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the engagement of our niece, Leora Spitz, to Sammy Landesman. Mazal Tov!