Archive for November, 1999

Vayishlach 5760

@font-face { font-family: “MS 明朝”; }@font-face { font-family: “Cambria Math”; }@font-face { font-family: Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
At the end of the previous parasha, Yaakov, Leah, and Rahel, and their household are leaving Lavan, (Rahel and Leah’s father) and heading back to the land of Israel. At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Yaakov must finally confront the brother he deceived and left behind so many years ago. Yaakov sends messengers ahead to Esav, and finds out that his brother has a large assembly of men coming towards him. The night before he meets his brother, he wrestles with the angel who changes his name to Yisrael. The meeting with Esav goes peacefully, but trouble is just around the corner: when Yaakov and his family arrive at the town of Shechem, his daughter Dinah is sexually assaulted by the prince of the town, and Yaakov’s sons go on a violent rampage in retribution. Benjamin is born, but Rahel dies in childbirth. Yitzhak dies, and his two sons come together to bury him. The parasha ends with a review of all Yitzhak’s descendants.

IN FOCUS
“Esav said: “I have lots [of possessions, wealth], my brother. Let what is yours remain yours.” But Yaakov replied: ” No, please! If I have found favor in your eyes, accept my gift, for in seeing your face, it is like I have seen a Godly face- let this be your will. Please, take this blessing, that I have brought to you, for God has been gracious, and I have everything.” He urged him, and he accepted.
(Genesis 33:9-11)

PSHAT

The contemporary Jewish theologian Arthur Green once remarked that the entire book of Genesis attempts to answer the question: “how can I live with my sibling?” From Cayin and Hevel right through to Yosef and his brothers, the families of Genesis are filled with tension and estrangement. At this point in the book, however, things seem to change- with Yaakov and Esav, we see that reconciliation and forgiveness are possible. Yaakov has spent the night alone, literally wrestling with his choices, and now seems to be making a genuine effort to demonstrate his remorse over his behavior towards his brother so many years ago. They exchange gifts and talk about their families- but even after this apparent reconciliation, they part and go in separate ways, not to see each other again till their father’s death.

DRASH
The ancient rabbis had a somewhat different view of Yaakov and Esav than a simple reading of the text might suggest; for them, Yaakov was a pure and righteous soul, and Esav was emblematic of violence, revenge, and unworthiness. They identify Esav with the nation of Edom, which became a kind of symbol for Rome, one of the great villains of ancient Jewish history. It’s easy to understand where this line of thinking came from- after all, given that the very name of the Jewish people- Yisrael- comes from Yaakov/Yisrael, the rabbis must have felt some pressure to justify Yaakov’s actions and find ways to suggest Esav deserved what he got. According to this line of interpretation, in the verses above, Yaakov is essentially trying to appease his brother with gifts and bribes, still fearful of Esav’s rough personality.

Personally, I think the traditional rabbis were a little hard on Esav, and let Yaakov off the hook too easily, but as the saying goes, there are 70 faces to the Torah. Picking up on this theme of Yaakov/good vs. Esav/ bad, the Chafetz Chaim, (R. Yisrael Meir HaCohen, late 19th century leader of Eastern European Orthodoxy, most famous for his book of laws on the ethics of speech) points out the difference between the way the two brothers report their family success. Esav says, in verse 9 above, “I have lots”- rav– meaning, I have plenty of possessions and wealth. Yaakov, on the other hand, says: “I have everything”- kol – apparently meaning “I have everything I need.”

According to the Chafetz Chaim, this demonstrates two different approaches to living. The first, represented by Esav, always compares what one has to what others have; after all, “lots of stuff” begs the question: lots compared to what? The second way of being in the world, represented by Yaakov, is much more easily satisfied: “I have everything I need.” As the ancient teacher Ben Zoma teaches in Pirke Avot (4:1): “Who is rich? The one who is happy with their portion.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said essentially the same thing when he quipped: “Richest is he whose pleasures are cheapest.”

The Chafetz Chaim himself was famous for his simple living and reverent practice of gratitude. As I mentioned, one of his greatest contributions to Jewish life was his lifelong effort to practice and preach the highest levels of ethics in speech; he tried never to speak badly of another person or listen when other people were gossiping. There is a story (quoted in Itturei Torah, or Torah Gems in English) that when the Chafetz Chaim was old and hard of hearing, his students tried to get him to have an operation that would improve his hearing. But he wouldn’t do it, saying that God has given him a great gift by taking away his ability to hear all the slander and gossip that people were speaking. Now that’s an example of being happy with one’s lot in life!

Returning to our verses, we might note that Yaakov expressly attributes everything he has to God’s graciousness; in this interpretation, it seems like he appreciates from whence his blessings came, whereas one could imagine a more materialistic person only focussing on what he or she lacks. As the Chafetz Chaim points out, those with a dollar want a hundred dollars, and those with a hundred dollars want a thousand, and so on, and so on- unless one can regard one’s wealth as a blessing, as Yaakov did (in this interpretation), and freely give it away when circumstances call for generosity.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if the rabbis went too far in their portrayal of the contrasting personalities of Yaakov and Esav. Still, the verses do seem to point out a difference worth thinking about: do we always compare our blessings to others, or do we practice gratitude for what we have? That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive to better ourselves or our situation in life, but that we should do so for the right reasons, and with a grateful heart. Being happy with one’s portion doesn’t mean that we should passively accept any injustice- it means that our happiness is more dependent on our relationship with the Holy One than on the value of our possessions or other external circumstances. Take a look around- you might just have “everything,” and not even realize it.

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Vayeitze 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
Yaakov begins a long exile from his home and family, yet right at the beginning of this journey, God appears to him in the vision of the ladder and promises him protection, descendants, and blessing. Yaakov then meets and falls in love with Rahel, daughter of Lavan, his mother’s brother. Lavan, however, substitutes her sister Leah for Rahel on their wedding night, and Yaakov agrees to work many more years for Rahel as well. The sisters have children and their servants also bear children- Yaakov’s sons will be the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yaakov plans his escape from Lavan, but eventually they part in peace.

IN FOCUS
“Then Yaakov took a vow, saying: If God is with me, and guards me on this journey I’m taking [literally: on the way that I am walking], and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and return me to my father’s house in peace- Adonai will be God to me, and this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall be a place of God, and whatever You give to me, I will tithe to You.”
(Genesis 28:20-22)

PSHAT

Soon after leaving his home, fearful that his brother might kill him in revenge for stealing the birthright of the elder son, Yaakov arrives in Haran, lays down to sleep, and has a most extraordinary experience. He has a vision of a ladder between earth and Heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. God speaks to him, promising him the Land, descendants, protection, and the blessing which God promised to Avraham and Yitzhak. Yaakov awakes, realizing the Divine nature of his vision, and makes a vow that if God will indeed keep God’s promise, then Yaakov will be devoted in return.

DRASH
Many of the classic Torah commentators struggle and stretch to deal with a fundamental problem in Yaakov’s vow: its apparent conditionality. I have tried to translated these verses in such a way that the ambiguity comes through in English, but still, Yaakov seems to be saying: if God will give me protection and food and clothing, then I will be loyal to God, letting Adonai be my God, so to speak. No wonder the medieval commentators had a hard time with this: could our spiritual ancestor, one of the Patriarchs of the Torah, really be so fickle, almost crass, as to condition his spiritual commitment on bread and clothing? What kind of loyalty is that, especially after such a powerful vision, in which he received the Heavenly promise of great blessings? Could Yaakov really be saying that if he did not get his food and clothing in short order, he would not accept Adonai as his God?

Faced with this problem, many of the commentators read Yaakov’s statement not as a conditonal vow, but as a prayer, something like: “Let God be with me, and protect me, and give me food to eat and clothing to wear.” The 19th century Polish commentator known as the Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin), in his Torah commentary called Ha’emek Davar,* explains the next part of Yaakov’s declaration: “and Adonai will be God to me” as connected to the following clause, that he be returned to the land of Israel in peace. The Netziv reads all three verses as one prayer: that God should give him protection, food, clothing, and return him to his father’s house in peace.

For the Netziv, Yaakov’s prayer to be returned home is central because it is in the Land of Israel, which was understood as a place of protection and heightened spirituality. (Cf. Ramban on these verses.) However, reading all three verses as one prayer doesn’t explain the phrase: “and Adonai will be God to me.” To solve this part of the puzzle, the Netziv explains that this phrase is not conditional, but in fact a great declaration of faith: Yaakov is saying that even in the Land of Israel, where Divine blessings and protection are more easily perceived, he will not rely on physical strength, but will remember to have faith in the Divine.

This is a fascinating interpretation, suggesting that Yaakov knew that receiving a great blessing is its own kind of test of faith. As I suggested last week as well, it’s a common human character trait to take good things for granted, even things for which we’ve worked and prayed long hours. A little child promises to take the dog for a walk every day, but soon has to be reminded over and over again to take care of her pet. A couple gets married out of a great love for each other, but soon in the grind of daily living, honest communication and real listening just sort of get forgotten. A rabbi graduates rabbinical school with great ideals for Torah learning and personal observance, and then in the rush of weekly activities, there just doesn’t seem to be the time to pick up a book (trust me on this one!).

You get the idea here: Yaakov may have wanted more than anything to get back to the Promised Land, but the midrash suggests he knew that the real challenge wasn’t getting there, it was doing the work of fulfilling his potential there. The Land may offer great physical and spiritual blessings, but if Yaakov “slacked off” and took them for granted, he would be no better off than before. It’s the same for us: we might hope and pray for a relationship, a new job, children, a happy home, and may other wonderful things, but the hard part is realizing what you’ve been blessed with and continuing your commitment to growth, gratitude, and the hard work of sustained relationships, whether with God or a person. We make all kinds of prayers and promises to God in hard times; the trick is to remember to “let the Holy One be a God to you” when you’ve reached the place you’ve been yearning to be.

*quoted in HaGaot B’Parshiot HaTorah, by Yehudah Nachshoni, a book of essays in Hebrew that compare and contrast different perspectives on difficult passages in the Torah.

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Toldot 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
The Torah portion Toldot is really the only one in which Yitzhak and Rivka are the main characters; it begins with the birth of Yaakov and Esav, who are portrayed as struggling even in the womb. The twins have several tragic encounters in this portion: Yaakov convinces Esav (the older son) to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and later, after the family has travelled to Gerar and dealt with some property problems left over from Avraham, Yaakov dresses up like his brother in order to receive the better blessing from their old and blind father. Fearing for his life, Rivka sends Yaakov off to find a wife from among her clan, thus setting up the next several parshiot, which tell of Yaakov’s adventures and spiritual growth.

IN FOCUS
“Yitzhak pleaded with God on behalf of [literally, “opposite”] his wife, for she was infertile. God granted the plea for him, and his wife Rivka conceived.”
(Genesis 25:21)

PSHAT

This is not the first time the Torah presents us with a Matriarch who cannot bear children- this theme was a central part of Sarah’s story, and will appear again with Rachel. Perhaps this reflects a common theme among myths and legends: the birth of great heros must itself be a dramatic story. A more theological perspective might be that the Torah portrays the birth of some central characters as miracles- the more miraculous the birth, the more we the readers realize it is God upon whom the survival and continuity of the Jewish people and its unique blessing depends.

DRASH
Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, often known as Rabbenu Bachya [“our rabbi Bachya,” who lived in Spain, and died around 1340), asks a subtle question about our verse: why does the Torah mention Yitzhak’s plea to God before telling us what the problem was? In other words, it would seem normal to tell us about a problem (in this case, their inability to have a child), and then tell us what was done about it (in this case, pray intensely.)

Basing himself on an earlier midrash (from the fourth-century collection called Tanchuma), Rabbenu Bachya says that the reason that all the matriarchs had difficulty conceiving is because God wanted their prayers! In this midrash, God wants the prayers of outstanding individuals, and if they had everything they wanted with no struggle, they wouldn’t pray at all. Thus, according to Rabbenu Bachya’s reading, the verse makes sense, because the infertility isn’t the cause of the praying, the praying (or possible lack thereof) is the cause of the infertility! God wanted Rivka and Yitzhak to pray and yearn, and so prevented them from conceiving.

Now, this is a dramatic but problematic interpretation, to say the least. A minor difficulty is that the text here only tells about Yitzhak’s prayer, but the midrash talks about the Matriarch’s prayer; I suppose we can assume that both Yitzhak and Rivka prayed. In fact, Rashi interprets “opposite” in just this way, imagining Yitzhak and Rivka standing in opposite corners of a room, praying together.

From a theological perspective, this midrash gives us even more difficulties. God seems cruel and capricious, putting people in heartbreaking situations just to fulfill God’s own desire- how could a loving God be so selfish? Especially now, when infertility has been recognized as one of the most agonizing and heartbreaking experiences a couple can go through, to say that God deliberately causes such pain is incompatible with our notion of Divine compassion. Furthermore, are we then to say that people who pray intensely, but who don’t get their prayer answered, are not righteous and outstanding individuals? In that case, people would have only themselves to blame for their problems. It may be more realistic and compassionate to recognize that the world works according to certain natural rules, and bad things happen to some wonderful people through no fault of their own. Finally, our midrash could imply that God only wants certain people’s prayers, and not everybody’s! That would go against our deepest intuition that God is the God of all humankind, and that each person is created in the Divine Image.

Yet perhaps if we apply Rabbenu Bachya’s midrash to the realm of personality, rather than biology, there is an insight to be gleaned. First, I think Rabbenu Bachya is correct in reminding us of a common human trait: we often take our good fortune for granted, and only seek a relationship with the Holy One in troubled times. As the old saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes-” but when everything is going great, it’s easy to let the practice of gratitude slip away. Like exercise, music, or art, a rich spiritual life requires dedication and discipline; my personal experience has been that it is much easier to find a place of peace in my soul during bad times if I’ve been keeping up spiritual practices during the good times too.

On a more metaphorical note, perhaps we can reinterpret the interpretation, by understanding “barrenness” to refer not to the body, but to the soul. There are times in every person’s life when we feel unproductive, stuck, burnt-out, used-up, stressed, bummed, depressed, you name it. Rabbenu Bachya’s midrash says that God wants the prayers of the Matriarchs, who could not conceive- perhaps implying that when we reach those times of inner barrenness, one proper response is to reach out to the Source of all Life. Sometimes prayer and meditation enable us to “conceive” of things that we might not be able to imagine when we’re stuck in our rut, even if only by widening our perspectives beyond the immediate moment, to a broader view of life and its potential. For example, in our verse, note that Yitzhak prays not that he himself might have a son, but he prays on behalf of Rivka- one might imagine that his compassion and connection to another grew out of seeking spiritual solace and meaning in the midst of his family problems.

Returning to our original problem, Rabbenu Bachya says that the Torah puts Yitzhak’s prayer first, before the specific problem, because it’s a general principle that one deals with the “main thing” [ikar] before incidental things [tafel]. The incidental thing is the crisis of the day, as serious and heartbreaking as it may be. The main thing is how we respond to life’s inevitable difficulties: with prayer or with despair? With faith or with fear? Seeking to learn from our struggles, or letting pain turn us bitter and narrow?

Perhaps God wants our prayers not because God needs them, but because we need them.

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Chayei Sarah 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
The portion Chayei Sarah- the “life of Sarah”- serves as a bridge between the story of Avraham and Sarah and the next generations. Sara dies, and Avraham buys the cave of Machpelah in which to bury her. Avraham then sends his servant to find a wife for his son Yitzhak; the servant finds Rivkah, and we meet her family, including her brother Lavan, who will figure prominently in the story of Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah. At the end of the portion, Avraham dies, and is buried by his two sons, Yitzhak and Yishmael.

IN FOCUS
“Avraham rose up from the from the presence of his dead, and spoke to the tribe of Het, saying: I am a stranger and a resident among you. Grant me an inheritance of a burial site, that I may bury my dead from before me.”
(Genesis 23:3-4)

PSHAT

Up until this point, Avraham and Sarah have wandered all over the map, from what is now Iraq all the way down to Egypt and various places in the land of Canaan. Now, however, he needs a permanent place in which to bury his wife, and which will become a burial place for his descendants as well. Even today, the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron, is revered as the burial place of Avraham, Sarah, Yitzhak, Rivkah, Yaakov, and Leah- Rachel died on a journey, and is buried (according to an ancient tradition) near Bethlehem.

DRASH
In a sermon based on this verse, Rabbi Morris Adler points out a contradiction when Avraham calls himself a “stranger and a resident among you” [
Ger v’Toshav]. A stranger, or alien, is someone who is just passing through, or here temporarily, someone without attachements or committments. A resident is more like a citizen or a permanent dweller in the community- someone who has settled somewhere, made a dwelling, chosen a home.

How can Avraham be both a temporary passer-through and permanent resident? Rabbi Adler suggests that this is not so much about one’s citizenship status, as it were, but a description of a religious attitude towards life itself. Life in this world is temporary and unpredictable- when it comes to life, we’re all “just passing through.” Like travellers, we should burden ourselves with only the necessities: love, good deeds, reverence, true connections to family and friends. We might try to cheat death by building up a huge store of wealth or an impressive career, or we might adopt an attitude of “party hard, because life is short,” but these things too are only temporary, gone before we know it. A mature person recognizes the reality of death, and thus lives with greater urgency and purpose.

Yet in another sense, this world is what we have; we are “residents” here, and must be committed to the improvement and betterment of our homes, communities, and societies. We can’t just say, “oh, I’m just passing through, it’s not my problem, I don’t care, and what’s the use?” No, insists Adler:

    “He who gives himself to justice and peace, he who recognizes that life is too short for men to be little, he who honors life as the medium for that which is abiding and permanent, will not fritter it away on that which is shallow and petty. . . This is the balanced attitude: Not to try to escape life or to underestimate it; not to see it only as an insignificant moment between birth and death, but also, in recognizing its brevity, to cherish the opportunity it gives us for producing that which is eternal.”

Adler extends the metaphor to include our attitude towards love, teaching that the balance is to regard our relations with those we love as temporary, yet permanent at the same time. Thus, we must love people as best we can every moment, for we never know what accidents of fate or twists of life may remove us from our cherished ones. Yet we must also be “residents,” fully present, in our relationships, and not flit from love to love in fickle and unreliable ways. If we think of ourselves as “permanent residents” with those we love, we risk taking them for granted; if we think of ourselves as only “passing through,” we can never become deeply rooted in true relationships. Adler calls this “loving with intensity but seeing with clarity.”

Returning to our verse, the paradoxical wording of Avraham’s plea to the tribe of Het makes more sense: having just lost his wife of so many years, we could understand how Avraham feels lost in the world, unattached and lonely, even “alienated:” “I am a stranger among you.” Yet precisely at that moment he needed to attach himself to something permanent, to make himself a home in the world, represented by the establishment of a family burial plot, where one person’s life story is bound up with the other generations: “I am a resident among you.” Ger v’Toshav: seeing with clarity, but living with intensity.


* Historical note: Rabbi Morris Adler was a Conservative rabbi in the 50’s and 60’s, serving a congregation in Detroit but also also achieving some measure of national and communal prominence. After his passing many of his sermons and teachings were transcribed from recordings and notes, and published in the collection The Voice Still Speaks, long out of print but possibly available in libraries.

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