Archive for Toldot

Machar Hodesh: Blind Anger

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot/ Machar Hodesh

At that, Shaul threw his spear at him to strike him down; and Yehonatan realized that his father was determined to do away with David. (1 Samuel 20:33)

Good afternoon!

Well, this is unusual, but we’re going to mention King (well, not yet king) David two weeks in a row. That’s because this Shabbat we read the special haftarah called Machar Hodesh, meaning “tomorrow is the new moon,” which read when Shabbat is in fact the day before the new moon, or Rosh Hodesh. The haftarah begins its narrative on the day before the new moon, so there is a calendrical connection to the Shabbat rather than a thematic connection to the Torah portion.

I’ve written about Machar Hodesh a few times before (see here) but the brief recap is that Shaul is the king of Israel, Yehonatan is his son, David is a threat to Saul’s throne, and Yehonatan, David’s best friend, is caught in the middle. (So is Michal, Saul’s daughter, Yehonatan’s sister and David’s wife, but she’s not mentioned in the haftarah.) The haftarah tells the story of David escaping Saul’s jealous rage by leaving the court before the feast of the new moon, and Yehonatan’s attempt to ascertain whether it was safe for him to return and warn David if it wasn’t.

The verse above is taken from a scene at the feast at the palace after Shaul notices David’s absence and rages at his son for allowing David to leave, pointing out that David threatens Yehonatan’s future kingship as well. (Verse 31) Yet two verses later Shaul throws his spear at his very own son in anger! This make no sense: how can Shaul risk injuring, or even killing, his son if the reason he is angry is because he thinks Yehonatan is at risk of David usurping or killing him?

Now, we might say that Shaul didn’t strike his son with the pointed end of the spear, but only whacked him with the flat side, or threw it in the direction of Yehonatan but not right at him. Just a warning, perhaps? Well, maybe, but Shaul has already tried to kill David twice with the same spear, so it it seems that he’s using it dangerously. (See 18:11 and 19:10.)

This makes no sense, logically- why risk killing your son over his supposed inability to see his risk of being killed?. Maybe that’s the point: anger, rage, jealousy and other overwhelming emotions blind us to our true goals and often consume what we think we’re protecting. (See: Politics, American.) Lashing out in anger is by definition a reaction rather than a thoughtful action that arises out of one’s ideals, values or vision.

Rage destroys; it cannot fix. This is why Shaul is such a tragic but utterly human character: like most of us, the greatest challenge was not defeating an external enemy but mastering himself. The rabbis ask: who is mighty? They answer: The one who conquers his own inclinations. This is as true for kings as it is for you and me.

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Toldot: Holy Love

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Now Yitzhak loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Yaakov. . .(Bereshit/ Genesis 25:28)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, is the story of the twin sons of Yitzhak and Rivka and their rivalry. Esav, the older of the twins, is strong and “outdoorsy” as a child, while Yaakov, the younger, “dwells in the tents,” according to the text. The children have very different personalities and character traits, which is correlates to (or is perhaps caused by) a very different relationship with each parent, as described in the verse above.

Commentaries abound regarding why Yitzhak loved Esav and Rivka loved Yaakov, and how that affected their actions toward each other (thou shalt go forth and Google if interested). For today let’s just focus on a more narrow question framed by the assumption of the classical Torah scholars: given that (according to the prevailing traditional view) Esav was not a nice or worthy son, why mention that Yitzhak loved him? Please note, I am not endorsing the view that Esav was a bad guy, but noting that the ancient rabbis thought so. This makes sense given their prior commitment to the covenantal worthiness of Yaakov; they need some moral justification for Yaakov’s dishonest actions in stealing the birthright and status of the first-born.

So, given that they thought Esav was an evil, or at least unworthy son, why mention that Yitzhak loved him? Some commentators believe that Yitzhak loved him because Esav brought him the food he liked, which wouldn’t be much to Yitzhak’s credit, while others say, no, of course Yitzhak loved Yaakov the righteous son more but the verse mentions Esav to teach that he was able to love his less worthy son on some level as well. This seems to be a faint praise of Yitzhak, but the third interpretation is the worst of all: some commentators say that Yitzhak simply didn’t know that Esav was a bad guy, or because of his affection chose willful ignorance.

This last interpretation assumes that if Yitzhak knew Esav was off doing terrible things (again, a probably unwarranted interpretation, but that’s what the rabbis thought), he would not have loved Esav as much as he did.

I think that’s completely wrong as a matter of both psychology and theology.

We all know the relationship between parents and children can be complicated, but most parents love their children with a boundless, unconditional love. Why would Yitzhak love Esav any less for his putatively unworthy actions? Is familial or love truly dependent on the moral perfection of our children, siblings, parents and dear ones?  The rabbis themselves teach that any love dependent on some external factor is not really love- see here, for example.

To me, the entire point of the metaphor of God as a parent, as in Psalm 103 or countless other places, is to stress Divine love as accepting, forgiving, and unbreakable, the way most parents love most children, at least most of the time. Thus, radically accepting, unconditional love is sacred;. it’s the the kind of love that arises from our deepest Source.

Maybe Yitzhak loved Esav not because of the meat he brought him, or out of blindness to his flaws, or out of some abnormal psychological need, but because of the simple fact that he was his son. Maybe Yitzhak’s love for Esav was like the love of the Divine for humankind: not in spite of each other’s flaws, but just because love is what we are meant to do as spiritual beings. Maybe Yitzhak’s love for Esav was not a mistake, but holy, precisely because it disregarded reasons not to love. Would that we all loved that way!

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Toldot: The meaning of Mitzvah

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

I’m pleased to note that this d’var Torah will be sent out by the Jewish Federation of North America as their weekly Mekor Chaim Torah portion email.

I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs- inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.” (Genesis 26:4-5)

The Torah portion Toldot is best known for the interactions between Yaakov and his brother Esav, but it’s also the story of their father Yitzhak, who in turn reenacts some of the narrative of his father, Avraham. Yitzhak, like Avraham, has to leave where he’s living because of famine, but instead of going down to Egypt, he visits the land of Philistines, again like his father did on a different occasion. In fact, Yitzhak hears a Divine voice telling him in no uncertain terms not to go to Egypt, but instead to stay in the land of Israel, which he will someday inherit because of the merit of his father Avraham.

The verse quoted above lists all the ways that Avraham was committed to the service of God, but note the wording:  Avraham didn’t just “obey” God, but kept God’s “charge,” “commandments,” “laws,” and “teachings.” The medieval scholar Rashi, assuming that the Torah doesn’t use words superfluously, understands each of these four things as a separate category. For example, following the usual definition in rabbinic thought, Rashi understands “My laws,” chukotai,  as referring to practices without an obvious rational basis, such as the prohibition against mixing wool and linen in a garment. (How Avraham could have observed a law given in the Torah many years later is a discussion for another time.)

Yet it’s Rashi’s definition of mitzvotai, “My commandments,” which is most surprising. Everybody knows that mitzvah means “commandment,” which in turn means something distinctly Jewish like lighting Shabbat candles or blowing the shofar. That’s not at all how Rashi defines mitzvah in this passage. He says mitzvah means “things that, even if they weren’t written down, would have been appropriate to command, like [the prohibition of] stealing and bloodshed.”

In other words, mitzvah doesn’t just mean commandments with specific Jewish content, but also broad and universal moral principles, ones which rational people can figure out for themselves. Well, you might ask, if those broad moral principles, like not stealing, cheating or hurting others, are so obvious, why do they need to be part of Judaism at all?

To me, we include universal moral principles in our mitzvot, commandments, for two reasons. The first is that our behavior is judged by others; to live a good life is akiddush Hashem, literally “making holy the Name,” but understood as something which increases respect for the Torah and God of Israel. The second reason is thatmitzvot are opportunities for spiritual awareness; we take ordinary actions and raise them to Heaven when we remember that something as simple as paying our workers on time or respecting another’s property is a mitzvah, a holy act.

To put it another way, everybody on earth is expected to be a good person; Judaism teaches that being a good person is inseparable from living a holy life. Holding on to our goodness in a world of cynicism is no easy thing. Perhaps that’s why observing a universal moral code is part of Avraham’s greatness and merit; he was willing to live a God-centered life in all his deeds, both ethical and ritual, and thus became the spiritual father of three great religions.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Toldot: Tragic Blindness

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

“He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him. . . . . ” (Bereshit / Genesis 27:23)

Dear Friends:

It’s good to be back after a week away! This week, in the portion Toldot, we read of the deception of Yitzhak by his son, Yaakov, who, at the behest of their mother, disguised himself as his hirsute and strong brother Esav in order to obtain the blessing of the first-born. When we read the story it’s hard not to wonder at Yitzhak’s apparent inability to distinguish between his sons; even though his eyes were dim with age, and even though he suspected something was amiss because the voice didn’t sound like Esav, he nevertheless either believes that Yaakov is really Esav or he chooses to ignore his own disquiet and suspicions.

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness,” which basically means that we can miss seeing things right in front of our eyes if we’re focused on something else. A famous example was a test wherein participants were asked to focus on the number of passes in a basketball game, and missed a guy in a gorilla suit walking out on the court. (See here.) Returning to our Torah portion, one wonders if Yitzhak couldn’t see what was right in front of his (admittedly dim) eyes because he was so engrossed in articulating and transmitting a spiritual patrimony that he wasn’t able to perceive which son was actually in front of him. This would not fit the technical definition of inattentional blindness in the psychological literature, but I’m using this idea more broadly and loosely, to capture a sense of our chronic inability as human beings to see things that we don’t want or are too distracted to see.

I imagine that every reader of this Torah commentary knows that renewed hostilities have broken out in Gaza over the past few days. Here, too, we find those who don’t, or can’t, see something important when their focus is elsewhere. Those who will reflexively condemn Israel for its attacks on Hamas don’t see the hundreds and hundreds of rockets that have fallen on Israel’s south in recent weeks and months. Conversely, those who see only Israel’s pain and need of security often don’t acknowledge the suffering of those Palestinians who had little say in the commencement of hostilities.

When we see only our own (and certainly, from Israel’s perspective, legitimate) grievances and claims, it’s hard to fully see the world in its awesome complexity, and even harder to see things from the perspective of others. We must see clearly that Israel needs support and defense, but that is not the only thing we might see. Our vision must be wide enough and our prayers expansive enough to encompass all those who suffer and fear during these dark and uncertain days. To do so is not to agree on particular policies or eventual outcomes, but rather to be more fully human, more as one who sees the world in need of both strict justice and bountiful mercy. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Toldot: Forgiveness and Rebirth

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

Good morning! Toldot begins with the announcement that it’s about Yitzhak, but it’s really about Yitzhak’s sons, Yaakov and Esav. who first show up as twins, rivals in the womb- with matters rapidly going downhill from there. Yaakov, the younger twin, persuades his brother to sell him the birthright of the elder, and then steals his father’s blessing, by disguising himself as his older brother. Naturally, Esav is enraged by this deceit, and swears to kill him after their father dies. (Cf. Bereshit 27:41)

Their mother, Rivka, gets Yaakov out of town, and Esav settles down with another wife from his parent’s hometown:

“Esav realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Yitzhak. So Esav went to Yishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Yishmael son of Avraham, sister of Nebaioth. ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:8-9)

Hmm- Esav wanted to please his father by marrying a nice Ishmaelite girl, (hence, a cousin) but there’s a problem. If you jump ahead to chapter 36, the Torah tells us that the daughter of Yishmael who married Esav is not Mahalath, but Basemat (See also here.)

So it’s possible that there are two different genealogical traditions, but the ancient rabbis had a more creative explanation for this apparent change of names. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (quoted in the book Torah Temimah), the name Mahalat (or Machlat, depending on how you transliterate) is related to the word mechilah, which means to forgive a sin or remit a debt. So according to this interpretation, Esav married a woman named “forgiveness” to show that a bridegroom is forgiven all his sins- and this is just a few verses after he has sworn in his rage to kill his brother!

To me, the rabbis are reminding us that even Esav- whom they don’t like very much at all- is not a sinner, per se, but rather someone who falls short and rises up, just like the rest of us. There are moments in our lives when we have the opportunity to unburden ourselves of the past: certainly marriage or other transformative events present such an opportunity, but it’s not limited to a few instances over a lifetime. We are certainly not defined by our most foolish oaths; notice that just after Esav swore revenge on his brother, he’s also portrayed as one who cared about honoring his parents. We are all- like Esav- mixtures of anger and sweetness, hurt and care. This is why Judaism teaches that mechilah, forgiveness, is a primary virtue, one which emulates the Divine Attributes, and which is to be given to self and others, whenever it is sought.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Toldot: Two Blessings

Shalom to one and all- we’re “going rogue” with this week’s drasha, which for a Torah commentary means we’re going to look at a passage from the Shabbat liturgy that may be unfamiliar to even very regular synagogue participants. Before we do that, however, let’s review what’s in the Torah portion Toldot, which begins with Yitzhak and Rivka conceiving twins, Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov persuades Esav to sell the birthright of the firstborn, and then deceives their father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, too. This makes Esav none too happy, and Yaakov has to scram back east to Rivka’s hometown.

Yaakov fooled his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. When Esav found out, he wept bitter tears and then plotted vengeance -which is why Yaakov had to skedaddle. Just before he left, however, Yaakov received one more blessing from his father, this time consciously.

These two blessings- the one that Yitzhak was deceived into giving, and the one that he gave willingly as Yaakov had to take flight- are stuck together and form part of a longer passage which is traditionally recited on Saturday night, as Shabbat itself takes its leave and we return to the work-week. In the Conservative Sim Shalom prayerbook, the two blessings form one paragraph, but I’ve separated them so it’s clear how the verses come from different passages in the Torah:

“May God give you Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, And nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, And let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, Blessed they who bless you. . . .

May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.  May He grant the blessing of Avraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Avraham.” (Bereshit 27:28-29, 30:3-4)

There are other verses from the Torah and the rest of the Tanach [Hebrew Scriptures] which are part of the Saturday night liturgy; the basic idea is that we hope the coming week will be one of prosperity, peace and blessing, and the verses above, along with the others, speak to that sense of hope and possibility from one Shabbat to the next.

Yet it’s striking to note the Biblical context of these verses of blessing- one was stolen and the other was given right before Yitzhak’s family was split apart for decades. The other irony, of course, is that the blessing of being “master over your brothers” was given to a man about to be a fugitive, and years later Yaakov reversed the stolen blessing to bow down in humility before Esav. (Cf. the portion Vayishlach, in two weeks.)

The blessings that Yitzhak gave to Yaakov remind us that life can be messy, complicated, and painful; things aren’t always what they seem, and sometimes the best intentions go awry. Yaakov is blessed right before he has to leave, and perhaps that’s why we recite this blessing and take it to heart- because all of us are on journeys of growth, which will take us to unpredictable places from one Shabbat to the next. We are all, in a sense, like Yaakov- falling short of the blessings we receive and yet fully capable of growing into them, on a journey towards new things and yet always with the promise of someday inheriting the “blessing of Avraham,” which connects us to our people and our faith.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Toldot: Bringing Our Best Selves

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This week’s haftarah, for the Torah portion Toldot, is the opening
chapter of the Book of Malachi (plus a few verses from chapter 2.)
It’s not entirely clear exactly when the prophet lived, or even who he
was, since “malachi” means “my messenger” in Hebrew and thus the name
of the prophet could simply be a literary device.

Another interesting aspect of the text is the rhetoric of dialogue
that the prophet uses to rebuke the people for their lack of attention
to religious matters- he proposes something and then portrays how the
people would answer back. For example, in the second verse of the
text, the prophet, speaking in the name of God, portrays the people as
lacking in basic faith:

“I have shown you love, said the Lord. But you ask, ‘How have You
shown us love? ‘ ” (Malachi 1:2)

Although the putative connection between our haftarah and the Torah
portion is the comparison of the nation descended from Ya’akov to the
nation descended from his brother Esav (the struggle between the
brothers is the major theme of the Torah portion), I think there is
another message as well.

As the prophet rebukes the people for being lax and stingy in how the
make their religious offerings, it seems that it’s not so much the
fact of imperfect or lesser-quality offerings that is offensive but
rather the attitude, the inner state, of the people who bring them.
For example:

“A curse on the cheat who has an [unblemished] male in his flock, but
for his vow sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord! For I am a
great King-said the Lord of Hosts-and My name is revered among the
nations.” (1:14)

As I read it this passage, it’s not so much about the animal, but
about the “cheat” whose religious behavior is cynical and selfish.
While it’s true that the Torah prescribes certain kinds of offerings-
such as unblemished animals- and proscribes others- such as maimed
ones- it also seems to me that the prophet is saying: you are beloved,
and desired for spiritual relationship with the Holy One, but a
covenantal relationship requires effort and commitment. If you put
only a half-hearted effort into your spiritual life, don’t expect
great things from it.

So often Judaism is criticized as “legalistic” or ritual is dismissed
as superstition. Certainly religious ritual is not magic, working
regardless of the inner life of the one who prays. This, to me, is the
prophet’s rebuke to the people: one cannot just do rituals without
bringing one’s best self to the practice and expect wonderful results.
“Best self” does not mean we’re perfect- it means that we’re trying as
best we can to be whole and honest and of integrity before the Source
of Life.

When we do this, ritual becomes transformative; when we “cheat,” just
going through the motions, it can be boring and lifeless. That’s what
the prophet wants the people to understand, then as now.

Shabbat Shalom (and happy Thanksgiving to my American readers),


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