Category Archives: Genesis

Your Money or Your Soul (Vayishlach)

Your Money or Your Soul (Vayishlach)

Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and a becoming. -Matthew Arnold

Jacob has spent twenty long years in the service of his father-in-law, Laban, in the town of Haran. He finally leaves, takes his four wives and twelve children with him, and makes his way back to Canaan and his father’s home. On the return trip, however, he needs to contend with his brother Esau. This is the brother from whom Jacob had stolen their father’s blessings and who as a result had planned to murder Jacob, which led to Jacob’s fleeing to Haran in the first place.

Jacob had every reason to suspect that Esau would still bear a grudge and plan to do him harm once he was again within Esau’s grasp. In an attempt to reconcile with his brother, Jacob sends word ahead to Esau of his return to Canaan. As part of his message, Jacob informs Esau of his wealth: “I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slaves.”

He is informed that Esau is on his way to greet him, together with 400 warriors. Jacob fears for himself and his family. One of his tactics, to hopefully appease Esau, is to send him lavish and extensive gifts of multiple flocks of all variety of domesticated animals, which included 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses; together with their accompanying herdsmen servants.

Jacob’s efforts are successful and the meeting of the brothers is a peaceful one. The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 32:6, however, wonders as to why Jacob is informing Esau of his wealth. The entirety of Jacob’s message could be summarized as follows: “Hi Esau, I’ve been by our uncle Laban all these years. I’m wealthy. I hope we can get along.” It seems like an unusual message to a brother with whom Jacob hasn’t been in touch in twenty years and whom he suspects of murderous intentions.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that there was a deeper meaning in Jacob talking about his wealth. He was in essence putting the wealth out there as a target and saying if you need to hurt me, hurt my property, hurt my material belongings, but don’t touch my soul. He goes on to quote King David who used a similar approach when he stated “spread a table for me in full view of my enemies.” His meaning is that his enemies should focus on David’s material possessions and not his inner world.

May we remember what’s enduring and what’s fleeting, what’s important and what’s secondary.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the return of tourism. Let’s hope it continues.

Powerful Vows (Vayetze)

Powerful Vows (Vayetze)

A vow is fixed and unalterable determination to do a thing, when such a determination is related to something noble which can only uplift the man who makes the resolve. -Mahatma Gandhi

Jacob is on the run. He is escaping his home in the land of Canaan from the murderous intent of his brother Esau. En route, he sleeps in a place that afterward will be named Bet El (House of God) where he has a dream. In the dream, he sees a ladder that reaches the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. God speaks to Jacob from the top of the ladder. God promises Jacob that He’ll protect Jacob on his journey, bring him back home safely, and guarantees him the land and great progeny.

Jacob wakes from the dream, and he is in such awe of the event that he vows that God will be his God and that he’ll tithe all of his gains to God.

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 28:20 examines the phenomena of making a vow. The Torah and Jewish Law take vows very seriously. The consensus is that vows should generally be avoided, but if made, they are legally binding and must be upheld.

The Chidushei HaRim explains that Jacob made the vow to bind himself closer to God. He had just experienced a divine revelation. He felt enormously close to God, but he knew the feeling wouldn’t last. In that moment of divine closeness, in that moment of spiritual clarity, Jacob makes a vow. The intent of the vow is to find an additional way, another mechanism to keep himself bound to God even when the effects of the momentary clarity dissipate. The Chidushei HaRim states that Jacob pioneered this approach and opened the door for his descendants, the Jewish nation, to similarly bind themselves to God through positive vows during those moments of divine proximity. Such a vow can be extremely powerful.

He further adds that the angels in Jacob’s dream were dancing. They dance as a result of our good deeds. If we were to realize the tremendous impact our good deeds and divine service have in both this world and in the upper worlds, we would never cease them.

May we always resolve to do the right things, whether we vowed or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Israeli government finally having a budget.

Cruel Cynics (Toldot)

Cruel Cynics (Toldot)

The cynic is one who never sees a good quality in a man, and never fails to see a bad one. He is the human owl, vigilant in darkness and blind to light, mousing for vermin, and never seeing noble game. -Henry Ward Beecher

Sarah miraculously gives birth to Isaac when she’s 90 years old. Isaac was the child of Sarah and Abraham, with Abraham having reached the ripe old age of 100. The miraculous birth was the talk of the town. The prime Torah commentator, Rashi, is quoted as saying that the cynics of the generation attributed the birth not to Abraham, but rather to Avimelech, King of Gerar.

The reason for the false attribution is that Sarah, due to her incredible beauty, had been a captive briefly in Avimelech’s palace, before Isaac’s conception. However, before Avimelech could lay hands on Sarah, God intervenes, warns Avimelech from touching Sarah, tells Avimelech to return Sarah to Abraham, and as a result, Abraham would pray for Avimelech and his household’s wellbeing, whom God had struck during Sarah’s captivity. Avimelech returns Sarah, Abraham does pray for Avimelech and his household who are immediately healed, including the ability to give birth. Shortly after that Sarah gives birth. Rashi quotes the Talmudic dictum that one who prays for others receives a response for his own needs first.

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 25:19 wonders why Rashi calls them “cynics” as opposed to “evil” for spreading such vicious slander about Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. Why the need to make up a story of adultery? He answers that these cynics weren’t denying that Abraham was Isaac’s father. Rather they were highlighting the irony of the circumstances of the birth. Sarah, after decades of waiting, finally gives birth to a son, but only after Abraham had prayed for Avimelech. So in a sense, Avimelech was the catalyst for Isaac’s birth, hence the cynics’ attribution of the birth to Avimelech.

Though there may have been some aspect of truth to what the cynics were claiming (i.e. that the prayer for Avimelech was a catalyst for Isaac’s birth), it was cruel nonetheless.

May we beware of the corrosiveness of cynicism.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To four special cities in Israel: Tzfat (air), Tiberias (water), Hebron (earth), and Jerusalem (fire).

The Novelty of the Elderly (Chaye Sara)

The Novelty of the Elderly (Chaye Sara)

To resist the frigidity of old age, one must combine the body, the mind, and the heart. And to keep these in parallel vigor one must exercise, study, and love. -Bonstettin

 

Abraham lives to the impressive age of 175. The Torah starts the beginning of the last chapter of his life with the beautiful description that “Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham in all things.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 24:1 quotes a dictum from Pirkei Avot which states: “He who learns when a child, to what is he compared? To ink written upon a new writing sheet. And he who learns when an old man, to what is he compared? To ink written on a rubbed writing sheet.”

However, the Chidushei HaRim states that Abraham did not follow this standard understanding of old age. It is easy and common as we get older to get entrenched in our ways and our thinking. There is less room for novelty in our lives. Our bodies, minds, and spirits can become ossified.

However, Abraham did not follow this common route to old age. Abraham embraced new encounters, new people, new concepts, new possibilities with vigor, with freshness, with an openness that belied his years. He combined the enthusiasm and adventurism of youth with the wisdom and experience of age.

This allowed him to continuously innovate in his life of service to God. It allowed him to obediently follow God’s directives while embracing and attracting to God all those who came into contact with him. This life attitude allowed Abraham to illuminate God’s word and wishes with his own personal imprint, with authenticity and originality, yet at the same time true to God’s desires. It was this dedication, commitment, enthusiasm, and drive that made Abraham the founding father of the Jewish nation.

May we be able to combine the vitality of youth with the wisdom of age.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”tl, on the first anniversary of his passing. Commemorate his memory via the Global Day of Learning in his honor at https://rabbisacks.org/communitiesinconversation/.

Naturally Beyond Nature (Vayera)

Naturally Beyond Nature (Vayera)

 The subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding. -Francis Bacon

When Abraham reached the age of 99, God commands him to circumcise himself. Abraham obeys God’s will. According to the Midrash, before the actual circumcision, he consults with his friends, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre. Mamre is the only one who enthusiastically advises Abraham that he should, of course, follow God’s instructions.

According to the Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 18:1, Abraham faced a dilemma regarding the circumcision. He was concerned that by circumcising himself he would be separating himself from the rest of mankind, which might make it harder for him to connect with other people, for other people to connect with him and for him to be effective in his life’s work of bringing people to greater kindness, awareness and greater proximity to God. It was already a tremendous effort for Abraham to descend from his exalted spiritual level to connect with the idolaters of his day. But at least they were on the same physical plane. If he would be circumcised, he would no longer be of the same nature as the rest of men, in a sense, he would be beyond nature.

Part of Abraham’s motivation in asking his friends for their opinion is that by involving them in his decision, they would remain attached to him, even after his circumcision.

The Chidushei HaRim expands on Mamre’s recommendation to circumcise. Mamre tells Abraham that it is man’s obligation to attempt (where appropriate) to perform feats that are beyond nature. Because God bends the rules of nature when dealing with Abraham, it is Abraham’s duty to reciprocate and reach beyond nature in serving God.

Furthermore, reaching beyond nature draws life and sanctity directly from God and spreads it to all of nature and the entire world. Going beyond nature is the catalyst for the operation of nature. It is the hidden engine of the natural order.

Because of Mamre’s insight, support and enthusiasm, he merited that the events of Abraham’s circumcision should occur and be attributed to his location, “Elonei Mamre,” and be perpetually remembered. He also drew from the sanctity of the event and was blessed. He was one of the first beneficiaries of God’s promise to Abraham that “those who bless you shall be blessed.”

May we see and reach beyond nature and always be a catalyst of blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the incalculable hospitality of the Vider family.

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.