Category Archives: Jacob

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.

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.

Radius of Influence (Vayechi)

Radius of Influence (Vayechi)

Only by the good influence of our conduct may we bring salvation in human affairs; or like a fatal comet we may bring destruction in our train. – Desiderius Erasmus

In the last Torah reading from the Book of Genesis, the Torah starts off the portion (Genesis 47:28) by telling us that Jacob lived in Egypt as opposed to naming the more specific area of Goshen, where Jacob and his clan were based.

The Meshech Chochma explains that there are some people who live exclusively for themselves, looking out for themselves and their limited personal interests (which he states is fine). There are some people whose concern extends to their immediate family, who live their life supporting and taking care of their family. There are those whose concern extends even further and will be looking out for the wellbeing of everyone in their community or city, who will dedicate their lives to helping out all the residents of where they live. Finally, there are those who are concerned for the entire world, who live their lives in a way that contributes and impacts the whole world. This is referenced by King Solomon’s phrase (Proverb 10:25) that “the Tzadik (righteous) are the foundation of the world.”

The Meshech Chochma states that Jacob “lived” for, was concerned for, not just the city where he dwelt, not just for the larger area of Goshen, but that he lived for, he was concerned for all of Egypt. For that reason, the Midrash states that the massive famine which had indirectly brought Joseph to power in Egypt also came to a halt in all of Egypt when Jacob arrived. Conversely, the famine apparently returns to all of Egypt when Jacob dies.

The Meshech Chochma adds that the power of the Tzadik extends even in death and burial; that in some fashion the grave of a righteous person has some power to facilitate divine forgiveness and protection. For that reason, during the funeral procession when Jacob is brought to the land of Israel to be buried, the Torah states that it was a “heavy mourning” for Egypt. Egypt suffered by the fact that Jacob wasn’t buried in their land, but rather in the land of Israel. Egypt lost the divine protection that the power of Jacob’s presence had afforded them, in life and in death.

May we have ever expanding circles of positive influence and may we likewise be positively influenced by those who look out for our families, our communities, our countries and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the newcomers to the Daf Yomi initiative.

God in Exile (Vayigash)

God in Exile (Vayigash)

Night brings our troubles to the light, rather than banishes them. -Seneca the Elder

As Jacob is about to leave the land of Canaan, the land that had been promised to him, to his father, to his grandfather, and to his progeny, God appears to Jacob that night. Jacob is driven to leave because of the famine in Canaan and he is pulled to Egypt by the promise of seeing his long-lost son, Joseph, as well as by assurances of sustenance for the entire family in Egypt.

The Meshech Chochma on Genesis 46:2 wonders why we see such an unusual divine revelation during the nighttime to our patriarch Jacob when we don’t see such a revelation to either of the other two patriarchs, his grandfather Abraham or his father Isaac.

The Meshech Chochma explains that what is different about Jacob from the other patriarchs, is that Jacob was ready and willing to live in exile. Abraham only leaves Canaan for a short period of time and Isaac never leaves.

God, therefore, pays Jacob a special visitation at night. Night is parallel to exile. The physical darkness of night parallels the spiritual darkness of exile. Nonetheless, God comes to tell Jacob that even in the spiritual darkness of exile, God is still with him and will remain with him in his exile.

The Meshech Chochma elaborates further, that just as God remained with Jacob in exile, so too He remains with Jacob’s progeny, with the people of Israel in their long exile.

But the Meshech Chochma qualifies his statement. When the people of Israel follow the ways of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; when we hold firm to the traditions of our ancestors, then Israel is a strong nation, an ancient yet vibrant people to whom God revealed Himself when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. God remains with the people also in the long night of exile.

But when the people of Israel forget the covenant our ancestors forged with God, when we no longer walk in their paths, then the divine presence no longer resides with the people of Israel. We cease to lay claim to our ancestral heritage and the divine accompaniment that comes along with it. We become “fair game” to the vicissitudes and ill winds of the world.

May we remain firm in our connection to our ancient covenant and may God’s presence ever be near.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those completing the 7.5 year cycle of learning the entire Babylonian Talmud (Daf Yomi). And to those starting the next cycle this Sunday, especially my wife Tamara, who will be teaching a weekly online review course of Daf Yomi at WebYeshiva: https://www.webyeshiva.org/course/daf-yomi-one-week-at-a-time/

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!