Category Archives: Genesis

The Prostitute and The King

The Prostitute and The King

Judah son of Jacob approaches the beautiful prostitute at the crossroads and asks for service (Genesis 38:15). Judah has no money or livestock to pay her on him, so he asks for credit. The apparent harlot is the disguised Tamar, Judah’s former daughter-in-law. Two of Judah’s sons had already died during their successive marriages to Tamar, and Judah withheld his third son from her, contrary to the tradition of the time.

The unrecognized Tamar agrees to extend credit to Judah, as long as he gives her some of his personal items as a guarantee. They then have relations and go their separate ways. Judah afterwards sends payment, but the prostitute is no where to be found.

A few months later it is discovered that Tamar is pregnant. Judah orders that she be burned to death – the punishment for her apparently illicit conception. She should have been waiting to consummate her marriage with someone from Judah’s family and should not have been cavorting with strangers. Tamar goes along willingly to her impending death, but she sends a message to Judah, along with his personal belongings, which she had kept until this point:

“To the man to whom these items belong, I am pregnant. Please recognize who these belong to.”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, (along with many other commentators) asks why didn’t Tamar just flat out state that it was Judah and present her evidence. Sforno quotes a famous passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sotah 10b) that says:

“It is better that a person throw themselves into a fiery furnace than embarrass someone in public – we learn this from Tamar.”

Judah indeed recognizes his items, understands now that Tamar was the beautiful harlot at the crossroads, and understands her motivation. He claims: “She is more righteous than me.”

Tamar risked her life in order not embarrass Judah, who had been in the wrong and had mistakenly accused and sentenced her. The Bible relays this story as a message and the Talmud prescribes it as correct behavior.

Judah, an apparently important and proud man, repents for his error, and is not afraid of the public shame his admission brings. This unique union is blessed with twins, Peretz and Zerach. The Bible goes out of its way to tell us elsewhere (Ruth 4:18-22) that Peretz is the progenitor of King David. Tamar and Judah, because of their actions and character, are part of the formative ingredients in was is to become the royal dynasty of the Tribes of Israel.

May we learn from Tamar’s courage and Judah’s fortitude. May we know how to act if we ever have the potential of shaming someone. Likewise, may we have the strength to overcome any shame that may come our way. May we be blessed with progeny that become leaders in Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my brother Boaz, an amazing example of courage and fortitude. This is his bar-mitzvah reading, which is why I still remember parts of it. Happy Birthday! May we see you again soon in Israel for happier occasions.

Stalling the Angel of Death

Stalling the Angel of Death

Jacob wrestles with an angel having murderous intentions towards him, yet not only perseveres, but walks away triumphant, though injured (Genesis 32:26 – link to English translation of the chapter http://www.mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et0132.htm ).

How does a mortal man triumph over an attack from the spiritual world?

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno hints at a related story, described in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 30a-b) (link to English summary of the page: http://www.dafyomi.co.il/shabbos/points/sh-ps-030.htm) .

King David inquired of God to disclose the day of his death. God was only willing to inform David that he would die on a Sabbath. David embarked on a strategy of continuously studying Torah from the onset of every Sabbath until its conclusion 25 hours later. The strategy is successful and the Talmud recounts the growing frustration the Angel of Death has with King David over the course of multiple Sabbaths.

Finally, one Sabbath, the Angel of Death succeeds in distracting David. The Angel of Death goes into David’s garden and causes a tremendous amount of noise to emanate from the trees. David goes out to investigate, still absorbed in words of Torah. As he walks out, one of the steps breaks underneath him. For that one instant David is distracted, and it is at that instant that the Angel of Death manages to finally claim David’s indomitable spirit.

Sforno explains that Jacob’s battle with the angel was no mere physical wrestling match, but that it was a battle conducted on multiple planes, including the spiritual one. Jacob was able to succeed, because throughout the struggle he was continuously focused on and absorbed in the underlying reality of God’s Torah. In an act of desperation, the angel tries to distract Jacob by showing to him the future sins of his descendents, the fruit of his loins. The distress of those future sins succeeds in distracting Jacob and giving the angel and opportunity to hurt him in the area of the loins.

Nonetheless, Jacob quickly regains his focus and wins the battle.

May we likewise keep our focus on the important things in life and win the multiple battles, both big and little, that continuously challenge us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Yehoshua Ze’ev Abramoff of Toronto, the father of my new sister-in-law, Nechama Spitz. Rabbi Abramoff passed away today after an extended struggle with pancreatic cancer, and had thwarted the angel of death already far longer than most people. His strength, perseverance and character were astounding and inspirational. May the Almighty comfort the Abramoff family, amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Three Prerequisites for Spiritual Success

Three Prerequisites for Spiritual Success

Our forefather Jacob is on the run. He has been exiled from his birthplace in Israel, he is fearful of his brother’s murderous intentions, and is heading to his uncle, Lavan, a notorious swindler. His first night on the road Jacob has a prophetic dream and God addresses him, blesses him and reassures him. (Recap of Genesis 28).

In the morning, Jacob pronounces a solemn vow, which at first reading is strange (Genesis 28:20):

“If God will be with me, and protects me on this road that I travel, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I will return in peace to my father’s house and God will be for me to a God”.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno seems to indicate that Jacob’s vow is not so much conditional, but is rather a request and an affirmation. It should not be understood in a business sense that if God doesn’t deliver than Jacob will not accept God. Rather Jacob is praying to God for the above mentioned requests, as these are the minimal conditions for Jacob to be able to worship God properly.

Sforno breaks down Jacob’s requests into three specific groupings that are critical for a person’s success and states as follows, by quoting the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Eruvin 41b:

“These things deprive a man of his senses and of knowledge of his Creator… foreigners, an evil spirit, and oppressive poverty.”

Sforno then links the request in Jacob’s vow to these three areas:

“protects me” – from foreigners (idolaters)

“bread” – saves from oppressive poverty

“peace” – saves from illness that is related to an evil spirit

Jacob understood very well the precarious situation he was in, as well as the danger he was heading into. He translated God’s blessings to him, into near term specific requests in order that he could continue to fulfill the mission God had outlined for him.

Jacob needed divine assistance to protect him from the idolatrous influences of his day. He required God’s hand to save him from poverty as well as from the illness of an evil spirit. With these items in hand, Jacob would have a solid foundation for embarking on his mission and giving birth to the people who would become the Children of Israel.

May Jacob’s vow apply in full force to his modern-day progeny. May we be saved from foreign influences, poverty, illness and all evil. May we merit that “God will be for me to a God.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my young nephew and God-son, Jacob Yechiel Epstein, named after my grandfather of blessed memory, Jacob Yechiel Spitz. May he benefit from the many blessings bestowed upon our forefather and his namesake, and may he be a source of ‘nachas’ to his family, community and the people of Israel.

The Second Great Famine

The Second Great Famine

Not unlike The Second Great Depression that is currently staring us in the face, our forefather Isaac had to deal with The Second Great Famine of the Middle East (there were probably more, but his is only the second one in the biblical narrative. The first was the one his father, Abraham, had confronted a generation earlier (as referred to in Genesis 26:1).

In those days, draught and famine led directly to starvation and death. Abraham’s strategy was to head to the greener pastures of Egypt. Isaac also considers the same strategy, however God directly instructs him to stay within the boundaries of Israel (Genesis 26:2). Isaac stays in the area of Grar, ruled at the time by Avimelech (we’ve seen this neighborhood before as well with Abraham – Genesis 20:1).

One of the predictable things that ensue next is a battle for water rights. In the middle of the draught, Isaac, with great effort seeks out water and digs wells in locations that his father had staked in the past. The locals fight him claiming the water belongs to them. Two well digging operations end in failure. Instead of prolonging the altercation, Isaac moves on.

Isaac’s third attempt is successful, or far enough from the locals for him to remain undisturbed. Once Isaac has established an operating well, he departs the immediate vicinity of Grar and moves on to nearby Beer Sheva.

That very same night, God appears to Isaac and blesses him. Then Isaac builds an altar and does something the Torah describes as “calling in the name of God”. The Torah makes multiple references to Abraham doing likewise. The simplest explanation is that he was merely giving a heartfelt thanks and prayer to God. Another interpretation is that these were major communal and social events, where the forefathers spread the knowledge and name of God to all those surrounding them in the area.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno explains that it is after this precise action of “calling in the name of God”, however Sforno might have understood that term, that massive success came to Isaac, even in the middle of the Great Famine. A few verses earlier, Isaac is reported as having cultivated 100 “shearim” – some great abundance of crop. He is so successful, that Avimelech banishes him from Grar for fear of him being a draw on resources. However, after Isaac moves to the Beer Sheva area, he immediately and almost effortlessly finds another well. Isaac then becomes such a force in the area that Avimelech comes to Isaac with his General, Pichol, and sues for a peace treaty with him.

May we as people, not only survive the difficult economic storm, but also thrive as our forefathers did before us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication:

This week’s dvar torah is dedicated to Dr. Shmuel Katz of Ramat Bet Shemesh. He is a clear fountain of Torah and Chesed in often muddled and troubled waters. May his efforts be rewarded one hundred times over.

The Matriarch is Dead! Long Live the Matriarch!!

The Matriarch is Dead! Long Live the Matriarch!!

Tibetan Buddhists have the interesting tradition of searching for their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lamai, only after the previous one has died. They believe that the spirit of their leader is reincarnated in a child born after the leader’s death. This passing of the leadership torch amongst the Tibetans has been occurring since the 1400s, which is not so long ago by Jewish standards.

Approximately 4,000 years ago, the Torah notes with some detail (Genesis 23:1), our Matriarch Sarah passed away. Her son, Isaac, was the one in whom God chose to continue the complete Abrahimic tradition in worship of God, and transmitting His message via his future progeny. With Sarah’s mission accomplished, it was now time for the next generation to take center-stage.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno is intrigued by the adjacent juxtaposition of the birth of Rebecca (Genesis 22:23) with the death of Sarah only 2 verses later. His answer is both simple and perhaps surprising. The death of Sarah and the birth of Rebecca are intertwined. He claims that when Sarah died, Rebecca was born. There needed to be Matriarcal continuity to the embryonic Jewish nation. This was provided by Rebecca with her timely birth, subsequent marriage to Isaac, her own delivery of Jacob and Esau, and then her pivotal role in the blessings they would receive.

Sforno states that Rebecca is the continuation of Sarah. While he doesn’t talk about reincarnation per se, there is certainly an element of it in this case. In the Dalai Lama theology, reincarnation may be central, but for us it’s just old news.

May we always enjoy and appreciate our part in the eternal people, and get to see our efforts of continuity bear fruit.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication: This dvar torah is dedicated to Sarah and Baruh Mori of Istanbul, who were such fantastic hosts during my stay there. Sarah is a true Jewish Matriarch and a bastion of the Jewish community there, very much in the footsteps of her namesake.

Angel, Merchant, Prophet, Doctor

Angel, Merchant, Prophet, Doctor

Three angels in the visage of merchants visit the campsite of Abraham. The recorded discussion is extremely brief (Exodus 18:9,10). The angels inquire as to Sarah’s whereabouts, Abraham responds that she is in the tent, and then they proclaim the joyous and incredulous news that at the same time next year, 90-year old Sarah will give birth to a son.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno asks a simple question. Why did the angels need to come and deliver their prophecy? Just a few days and verses earlier (Exodus 17, verses 16,19 and 21) God directly informs Abraham in unequivocal terms regarding the impending birth, the timing, and even the name – Isaac.

Sforno, back in the 1500s, provides a surprising, and what might appear in his continuation as a medically advanced answer: the angel’s reason for visiting Abraham’s household and proclaiming their prophecy, was to make Sarah happy. The Torah indeed reports to us the immediate reaction to the angel’s therapy (Exodus 18:12): Sarah laughs at the wild and unlikely news.

Sforno continues with a line that would please a modern psychotherapist: the happiness of the pregnant mother will lead to a healthier baby. It would be interesting to discover if this was a common belief of Sforno’s time, or if he was unique in this viewpoint. Seeing as Isaac lived to the reported ripe old age of 180 years, these angelic doctors seemed to know what they were doing.

Like our forefathers before us, may we always strive and succeed to be happy and healthy in body, in mind and in spirit.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

A Rose by Any Other Name?

A Rose by Any Other Name?

God reveals Himself to Abraham in this week’s parasha (Genesis Ch. 17, verse 1) with the name “Shadai” (letters Shin, Daled, Yud). Centuries later when He reveals Himself to Moses, the Torah goes out of its way (Exodus Ch. 6, verse 3) to point out that he did not reveal Himself to the forefathers with the Tetragammaton, the Four-Letter Name of God (letters Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh).

What difference does it make by what name we know God? Why did Abraham, Isaac and Jakob receive one name and Moses another?

The 16th century Italian commentator, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, brings our attention to two different levels of divine involvement implied in the different names. “Shadai” can also be read and translated as “That is sufficient”. It implies God’s self-sufficiency and ability to Be and to create the universe ex-nihilo. He exists without there being anything else, or with anything else acting on Him. The relationship of God to Man represented by “Shadai” is one within the normal bounds of nature and that was the basis of the relationship God had with our forefathers.

However, there is an even higher level of expression of the divine, that of revealed, public miracles that are completely outside the bounds of nature, as well as the level of prophecy that only Moses was privy to. This aspect of God was new to the nascent Jewish nation and required specific instructions and formulation. From the moment of Exodus forward, the relationship between God and Israel would be predicated by the supernatural, such as the Egyptian plagues, the splitting of the sea, the Sinai covenant, and all the miracles that have been a part of Jewish history since.

God’s willingness to be actively and sometimes visibly involved in the lives of people and nations marks a higher level of connection and divine love that we should always be cognizant and appreciative of.