Category Archives: Jacob

Jewish Grand Unified Theory (Vayechi)

Jewish Grand Unified Theory (Vayechi)

What ever disunites man from God, also disunites man from man. -Edmund Burke

Jacob is on his deathbed. He assembles all of his sons for his parting words. The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 49:2 looks beyond the obvious convenience of addressing all of his sons at one time and wonders, what is the value of them being present at the same time.

He explains that there are some aspects of the Torah, some secrets of the Torah that can only be understood in a unified gathering. He elaborates that every individual Jew holds the key to understanding a piece of the Torah and the understanding can only be unlocked in a wider gathering. There are parts of the Torah which no person can grasp on their own and they need to be connected and united with other Jews to access that Torah.

But there’s more. That unique part of the Torah that is the personal heritage of an individual Jew is also a blessing. Just like that understanding of the Torah, the blessing is only revealed, is only transformed from potential to reality, when the Jewish people are united.

However, the unification of the Jewish people is not only meant to be a physical, political, or even social unity. For those hidden elements of the Torah to be revealed and for the hidden blessings to come to fruition, it can only happen when the unification is around God. When Jews seek the deepest truths and seek to connect to God, when Jews unite without any other ulterior or distracting motives, the Chidushei HaRim states that is when the deep wellsprings of Torah will be accessible and blessings will abound.

May we indeed reach such levels of unity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my daughter Tiferet’s school, Ulpanat Arad, and their fundraising effort to build a needed building for environmental education. If you’re looking for a good cause, please consider helping Tiferet reach her goal of raising NIS 5,000 (around $1,600) for her school. You can contribute thru this link: https://charidy.com/arad/52562

Saved from Exile (Vayigash)

Saved from Exile (Vayigash)

The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility. -Vaclav Havel

After twenty-two years of mourning, Jacob discovers that his beloved son Joseph is alive. Not only is Joseph alive, but amid a global famine Joseph is also the Viceroy of Egypt and the man in charge of the world’s supply of grain. Joseph, with Pharaoh’s blessing invites Jacob with his entire family to relocate from Canaan to the land of Goshen, the most attractive area in Egypt.

Jacob leaves Canaan with the whole family. The night that he is about to cross from Canaan into the Egyptian lands God appears to Jacob. God tells Jacob not to worry:

“Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Genesis 46:4 wonders as to the unusual phrase that “Joseph’s hand will close your eyes.” Why is that good and how does it comfort Jacob?

He explains that one of the defining aspects of Joseph was his fortitude to withstand the enticement of Potiphar’s wife and to remain holy and dedicated to God’s precepts. Whenever that aspect of Joseph is present among the Jewish people and they find themselves in danger or exile, it is Joseph’s “hand” that will protect and save them. It is the commitment to a higher standard in our relations that will call down a higher level of divine involvement. God in a sense is telling Jacob that Joseph’s strength of character will ensure that his descendants will return to their home from the Egyptian exile.

The concept of family purity, of correct monogamous relationships, of not wreaking havoc on the bonds of marriage invokes Joseph’s great power and merit. That merit affords us an added measure of intervention, of taking us out of the dangers and personal exiles we find ourselves in.

May we cherish the bonds of marriage and merit to be redeemed from our exiles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Gideon Perl zt”l, Rabbi of Alon Shvut and Gush Etzion.

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.

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.