Category Archives: Parsha

The Pain of Uncertainty (Vayishlach)

The Pain of Uncertainty (Vayishlach)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

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

Misunderstanding God (Vayetze)

Misunderstanding God (Vayetze)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the 57th anniversary of Doctor Who.

A Tale of Bitter Rivalry (Toldot)

A Tale of Bitter Rivalry (Toldot)

Enemies’ promises were made to be broken. -Aesop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some rivalries are not so easy to overcome.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

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

No Foul Play (Chaye Sara)

No Foul Play (Chaye Sara)

Simplicity is natures first step, and the last of art. -Philip James Bailey

Abraham sends his servant, who the Midrash names as Eliezer, to the city of Haran, to Abraham’s family, to find a wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer is instantly successful, meeting beautiful, kind Rebecca at the well. Eliezer determined that a suitable bride would be one that offers to water his camels. Rebecca does so, demonstrating her kindness. He is greeted warmly by the rest of the family, including Rebecca’s father Betuel, and her brother Lavan. They agree to the marriage of Rebecca to Isaac. However, just a few verses later, Betuel disappears from the text, never to be mentioned again. The narrative continues with Rebecca’s brother and mother receiving gifts and then handling the negotiations the following morning.

The prime biblical commentator, Rashi, famously quotes the Midrash which gives a dramatic explanation for Betuel’s absence. He died that very night! He was apparently really opposed to this divinely orchestrated marriage, so an angel comes in the night and kills Betuel (though the Biblical text doesn’t mention anything of the sort). Another Midrash in that vein is even more interesting, which claims Betuel intended to poison Eliezer, thereby sabotaging the mission of the matchmaker. Eliezer, sensing some foul play abstains from initially eating the food (that is mentioned in the Biblical text), the food gets cold, and Betuel ends up accidentally eating the poisoned food himself – God, as seen in this Midrash, is not without a sense of irony.

However, the Bechor Shor on Genesis 24:55 breaks ranks with Rashi and the Midrash and gives a diametrically opposed explanation. He claims that Betuel was alive and well throughout the rest of the story. So why then the notable absence from the rest of the text? He explains that Betuel was Abraham’s nephew (making Isaac and Rebecca first cousins once-removed) and immediately understood that this was a fantastic, heavenly match for his daughter. After he gives his initial approval, Betuel no longer needs to either receive gifts from Eliezer to be assuaged or to be part of further deliberations or wedding planning. Rebecca’s mother and brother on the other hand still needed to be persuaded that this match and Eliezer’s insistence on immediate departure was indeed ideal for Rebecca.

Finally, they ask Rebecca herself if she agrees to the wedding and the immediate departure with Eliezer, to which she responds, “let’s go!”

May we always find simple answers when they are there.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”tl.

Sacrifice (Vayera)

Sacrifice (Vayera)

For anything worth having one must pay the price; and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice — no paper currency, no promises to pay, but the gold of real service. -John Burroughs

In the middle of the synagogue service, a man quietly walks up to his Rabbi who is sitting at the front of the synagogue and admits to having committed a horrible, highly embarrassing sin, and that he is now seeking to repent. The Rabbi looks at him, thinks, and then tells him to go to the middle of the synagogue, bang on the table, and publicly declare to the entire congregation his sin.

“Here? Now?” the man asks, his face ashen.

“Yes,” the Rabbi declares firmly. “It’s the only way to repent.”

The man looks incredulous, but he trusts his Rabbi and he deeply needs to repent. He walks to the middle of the synagogue as if it were a death sentence. He is about to bang on the table when a hand grabs his shoulder. It’s the Rabbi.

“That’s far enough,” the Rabbi tells the man. “That’s all you need to do. You needed to demonstrate that you were willing. That’s your repentance.”

For me, one of the more theologically challenging narratives in the Bible is God’s apparent command to Abraham to bring his son Isaac as a sacrifice. The Sages throughout history have praised Abraham’s complete devotion to God and willingness to sacrifice his long-sought and beloved son.

Nonetheless, there remain troubling aspects. Did God truly desire Abraham to kill Isaac? It doesn’t seem likely. Did Abraham misunderstand such a significant divine communication from God? Also, hard to imagine. Did God never intend for Abraham to carry through with the sacrifice but purposely mislead Abraham? It’s not clear from the plain text.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 22:12 suggests that there was some level of purposeful misdirection on God’s part. He explains that God knows the heart of every person and He knew very well that Abraham was so completely devoted to God, that he would even sacrifice his son, the very son God had promised him, if that was God’s command. But it seems that not only did God want Abraham, Isaac, and us, their descendants to see that he was willing to make such a sacrifice to God, but He also wanted the nations of the world to realize Abraham’s commitment to God.

The misdirection comes in the Hebrew word that God used here for “sacrifice” – Olah. In the common language of sacrifices, an Olah, translated as an Elevation Sacrifice, is an animal sacrifice which is completely consumed by the fire of the Altar. However, in its simplest meaning, Olah means to elevate. The Bechor Shor suggests that God never intended Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but He did want him to think that He wanted him to sacrifice Isaac. It was a test that Abraham passed with flying colors. God wanted Abraham to elevate Isaac, to bring him up to the altar he built on Mount Moriah without harming him, but He also wanted Abraham to demonstrate his willingness to follow God’s directive, as excruciating, as incomprehensible, and as sacrificial as it might seem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the engagement of our son, Elchanan, to Zavi Lava. Mazal Tov!

Choosing Real Estate (Lech Lecha)

Choosing Real Estate (Lech Lecha)

Of neighborhoods, benevolence is the most beautiful. How can the man be considered wise who when he had the choice does not settle in benevolence. -Confucius

Upon Abraham’s and his nephew Lot’s return to the land of Canaan from their stint in Egypt, laden with wealth, their respective shepherds start to fight. Abraham (still called Abram at this stage) suggests they put some distance between themselves. Lot sees the area of Sodom. It is a lush and beautiful land (before God destroyed it), watered by the fresh waters of the Jordan River and compared to the highly fertile land of the Nile Delta. Lot chooses to move to the area of Sodom. He takes all his wealth and invests in the area, building for himself a home, raising a family, and marrying off some of his daughters to local Sodomite men.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 13:10 finds in this account a critique of Lot. Like any savvy businessman, Lot checks out the prospect before he invests. He sees a rich, fertile, productive land. He sees wealth and opulence. From a purely superficial, material, financial perspective, it was likely the best neighborhood in the area. However, the Bechor Shor states, Lot didn’t check out the neighbors. He didn’t bother to determine the character, the kindness, the benevolence of his fellow residents of Sodom. He saw nice fields and nice houses and that was enough for him.

The fate of Sodom is well known. God found the Sodomites to be degenerate, abhorrent, evil. Lot himself was not nearly as bad. God sends angels to save Lot and to destroy Sodom with fire and brimstone. Lot is saved, but literally with just the clothing on his back. He went to Sodom because of wealth and left it a pauper.

The Bechor Shor warns that when seeking a place to live, definitely check out the land and the physical conditions, but don’t forget to check out the neighbors.

May we be good neighbors, as well as be blessed with having good neighbors.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the US elections and a peaceful aftermath.

Planetary Casualty (Noach)

Planetary Casualty (Noach)

We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. -Adlai Stevenson

The Generation of the Flood was pretty bad. They were so bad that God regretted creating them. However, instead of wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch (as the Midrash states happened multiple times before), God famously saves Noah and his family, as well as a male and female of every animal on the ark, which Noah was conveniently commanded to build. God subsequently drowns the rest of humanity, the animal kingdom, and the world in what most ancient civilizations referred to as “The Flood.”

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 6:13 wonders as to why the rest of the world needed to suffer if it was primarily man who was guilty of doing evil in God’s eyes? Why did almost all of the animal life on the planet need to be destroyed? Why was the earth ravaged by the destruction of the Flood? Why not just punish man exclusively?

The Bechor Shor explains that the rest of the world, in fact, the entire planet, has only one reason for existence: Man! The world was created for man. The world was created to support and provide sustenance, shelter, and resources to man; and man was enjoined by God to eke out a living from the earth, to cultivate the earth, to develop it, to conquer it, to mine its riches and build himself and civilization (as so eloquently articulated by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik when describing “Majestic Adam” in his monumental “The Lonely Man of Faith”).

As such, when God punishes humanity, the devastation of the world is merely collateral damage. The planet along with all of its minerals, flora, and fauna, has no reason to exist without man. Therefore, when man is punished, the planet suffers as well.

As much as man needs a healthy planet, the planet needs healthy man. It needs an ethical, moral, spiritual man who will remain worthy of the planet’s munificence, but who will also not overexploit its bounty. Man who will not pollute and toxify its air and water resources, who will not mine and dig and drill and blast without a care as to the repercussions, be it to the land, the animals, as well as to the native human populations.

May we enjoy the beautiful planet God has created for man, responsibly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the speedy recovery of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu among all those in need of recovery.

The Tree of Eternal Health (Bereshit)

The Tree of Eternal Health (Bereshit)

The healthy, the strong individual, is the one who asks for help when he needs it. Whether he has an abscess on his knee or in his soul. -Rona Barrett

God creates the world. He creates Adam and Eve. He places them in the Garden of Eden. He commands Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thanks to the incitement of the serpent and the prompting of his wife, Eve, Adam eventually eats from the Tree. God confronts Adam, Eve and the serpent, pronounces their eternal punishments, including mortality, and banishes the human couple from the Garden, lest they eat from the Tree of Life and somehow achieve the immortality God had just pronounced that they had lost.

This raises the question as to why Adam and Eve didn’t eat from the Tree of Life in the first place. They had been warned that eating from the Tree of Knowledge carried a death sentence. Why not immediately eat from the Tree of Life after their crime and perhaps save their eternal existence?

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 3:22 explains the workings of the Tree of Life. It wasn’t that you partook of the fruit of the tree and it granted you eternal life from that moment forward. Rather, it was a tree of eternal healing. If one became sick, eating from the tree healed them. If one felt weak, the tree strengthened them. If one felt the onset of ageing, the tree would rejuvenate them. However, if one were healthy, strong, and young, it would have no effect.

Therefore, Adam and Eve must have known that in their young, strong and healthy state, eating from the Tree of Life would have no effect. That too is the reason God had to banish them from the Garden. If they would continue to live in the Garden, when they eventually did age or get sick, they would have a quick remedy within easy reach, thereby prolonging their lives forever.

Another interesting point is that the Sages state that the Tree of Life is none other than the Torah. The verse in Proverbs states that the Torah is “A Tree of Life to those who grasp it.” The Talmud expands on the healing properties of the Torah and gives a whole list of ailments that it can heal.

May we partake of our easily accessible Tree of Eternal Health, the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Mrs. Lucy Stelzer z”l.

Moses’ Disappearing Corpse (Vezot Habracha)

Moses’ Disappearing Corpse (Vezot Habracha)

Time is not what you think. Dying? Not the end of everything. We think it is. But what happens on earth is only the beginning. -Mitch Albom

After 120 years of life, after confronting Pharaoh, after taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt, after leading them to Mount Sinai, after speaking to God as no mortal ever has or will, after receiving the Torah and relaying it to the Nation of Israel, after bringing them to the edge of the Promised Land, Moses dies. He dies somewhere on Mount Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land, and is buried there by God.

The Torah tells us that no man knew the place of his burial.

The Meshech Chochma on Deuteronomy 34:5 tries to understand the significance of the verse.

He explains that when a mortal being dies, the person’s soul remains attached to its corpse in some fashion for three days and that for the subsequent twelve months the soul “goes up and down.” Somehow, the connection between the burial place and the soul isn’t completely or immediately severed at death.

However, Moses was different. Moses had elevated his soul to incredible heights while still alive. He was able to survive an intimate encounter with God. He was able to survive 40 days and 40 nights without food or water. He was as far removed from materialism and the physical world as humanly possible. Therefore, when he died, he barely felt it. He simply walked away from his body. He had none of the normal attachments us mortals have to our bodies. He was so far removed from the physicality of his own body, that he himself didn’t know where his body was laid to rest.

According to the Meshech Chochma, when the verse states that no “man” knew where Moses was buried, the “man” is referring to even Moses himself. He didn’t know, nor presumably really care, where his discarded physical shell had been buried. He was already so spiritually elevated that to die was as easy and painless as shedding old skin. The Talmud refers to this as a divine “kiss,” as trouble-free as removing a single hair out of a cup of milk. Such is the divine “kiss” that is granted to many of the righteous upon their death.

May we at the very least reduce the physicality and elevate the spirituality in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Meshech Chochma.

Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

Killer Sheep and Protective Wolves (Haazinu)

My mother’s obsession with the good scissors always scared me a bit. It implied that somewhere in the house there lurked: the evil scissors. -Tony Martin

In the penultimate reading of the Torah, Moses breaks into song, the Song of Haazinu. The Song of Haazinu is visually and linguistically distinct from the rest of the Torah. Its two symmetrical columns of text highlight the poetic difference from the rest of the Torah prose. Its ancient language hints at future prophecies. Its compactness makes it even more memorable, as it was meant to be.

In one of the darker passages Moses quotes God:

“I will hide My countenance from them,

And see how they fare in the end.

For they are a treacherous breed,

Children with no loyalty in them.” -Deuteronomy 32:20

The Meshech Chochma tries to understand what treachery the Children of Israel will be guilty of. The word in Hebrew that he focuses on is “Tahpuchot” which though translated here as “treacherous” more accurately means “reversals.”

So what “reversals” is the verse talking about? The Meshech Chochma states that there will be reversals of nature. The first is a reversal of human nature. Man has a range of attributes, but by being stuck in the negative traits such as jealousy and covetousness, and minimizing one’s natural generosity, they will cause their own nature to become predominantly evil. That in turn will cause God to reverse nature in the animal kingdom, where previously docile animals will become dangerous. He references such a case, quoting a Midrash that describes sheep that unexpectedly turn violent and actually attack and kill people.

However, man also has the opportunity to reverse his evil nature. Among the primary tools to do so are the host of charitable commandments. After a person has worked hard (especially in an agricultural setting), to plow, sow, tend and harvest his crop, through great effort, to then consistently and generously give of that hard-earned produce in a variety of ways to the poor, will invariably convert man’s nature to a predominantly good one.

When man becomes good, generous, God will also change the nature of the animal kingdom, where all the previously dangerous animals of the world, will become not only safe, but protectors. As proof, he cites the case of the wolves that protected the vacant, unattended homes of those people who travelled for the festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

May we always work on improving our natures.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Prof. Yaakov Katz z”l.