Thursday, December 29, 2005

Parashat Vayeshev - The Blind Prophet


The Yosef narrative is one of the richest and most complex in all TaNaCh. These few Parshiyot – from Yaakov’s return to Canaan through to the end of Sefer Bereshit – contain enough depth and complexity to occupy several lifetimes. In this section, the themes of all of Sefer Bereshit come together, forming the nucleus of the cell from which shall emerge the Moshe story, and the future of Klal Israel. As we have seen, the Greatness of Yaakov is, at this stage, inchoate. To bring Yaakov to an awareness of, and thereby to a full exercise of his own greatness requires not merely a catalytic event, but in effect an entire catalytic lifetime. Yosef, no lesser in greatness than his father, requires no less jarring a sequence of life events, spread over a period of decades, to bring his own light burning to the surface. Yosef will bring to the fore his father’s painful struggle with dream and prophecy.

In Yosef, the prophetic power of Dream is fully realized; yet he suffers as does Prometheus, in that he can foretell the future for those around him, but – though he strives unerringly towards his greater Destiny – he is incapable of reading his own fate. There is a dispute between Rashi and the Ramban as to why Yosef proceeds to seek out his brothers at the beginning of the Parsha. Why does Yaakov send Yosef out? Apparently, Yosef is being dispatched on a mission to spy on his own brothers. At 37:12 we are told that Yosef’s brothers went to pasture their father’s flocks at Shechem, a town which was the scene of the bloody massacre inflicted by Shimon and Levi after the incident of Dina and Shechem, the son of Hamor. It is often observed that the residents of the surrounding countryside lived in fear of the brothers of Dina. But Yaakov is also concerned that, in response to the massacre, the other inhabitants of the land will rise up and slaugter him and his household. In light of Yaakov’s concern, it is perhaps more understandable that he sends Yosef to check on his sons and flocks.

Consider: Yaakov’s ten sons, together with the basis of his wealth, are sitting in a barren spot, surrounded by enemies. It is provocative, to say the least, as though to rub in the face of the rest of Canaan the slaughter of the inhabitants of Shechem. Yaakov sends Yosef to “look to the wellbeing of your brothers, and the wellbeing of the flocks” (37:14), a not unreasonable concern.

Yosef arrives at Shechemm to find the place deserted. He is apparently thrown into some confusion, and the text ties him in this moment to the Destiny of Abraham, and of Yaakov. In verse 15 we are told Yosef is to’eh ba-sadeh – erring about in the field. This is the same language used by Abraham, and echoed poetically by Yaakov, to describe wanderings. Specifically, to introduce the concept of being separated from the houses of their fathers – a fate which is about to befall Yosef.

The “man” who finds Yosef is taken to be the Angel Gabriel. Rashi states that Gabriel informs Yosef that his brothers have gone off to take counsel and come up with a legal rationale for putting him to death. The Ramban argues that this can not be the case, for Yosef would not have gone forward if he knew what fate awaited him. But perhaps both are true: Perhaps the Angel Gabriel does tell Yosef that his brothers are seeking legal grounds to kill him. And perhaps Yosef is aware that there is no legal justification for this action, and so he proceeds. And perhaps Yosef, as is true of so many prophets in world literature, is able to see quite clearly what will befall others, but can not perceive that his sentence of death will be commuted to life in the prison of Mizraim.

Mizraim is the highest attainment of human society. What, then, is the punishment in being sent to live there? In material terms, a slave in the house of Pharaoh is far better off than a shepherd in the Judaean desert. And this is, in fact, precisely the dichotomy: the same tension that drove Terach to flee Ur Kasdim; that drove Abram to the desert, leaving Lot to the cities; that will ultimately bring us Torah in the wilderness – this is at work here as well. There is a theme running through Torah of the difficulty of reaching spiritual goals in the city. Settled societies give rise to group values, often based on the gathering and protecting of assets, and not on a spiritual quest. Repeatedly, it is only when one is an outcast – whether in the wilderness, like Moshe and Klal Israel, or on the road, like Yaakov and Yehudah – that one has the possibility of spiritual awakening. Cities have their own gods; indeed, they become their own gods. Pharaoh is both temporal king and cosmic deity of Mizraim. Clearly, Torah can never be given in this setting.

What are the indicia of the greatness of Mizraim? Aside from the great engineering feats that are still known to us today, we have a clear demonstration from the Gemara. I owe this insight to Shmuel Yaakov Zeffren, my Chavrutah and my teacher, from whom I continue to learn so much. We are told that Pharaoh and Yosef were able to converse freely because Pharaoh knew all living languages, with the exception of Hebrew. Yosef’s intellectual greatness is that he speaks the Language of Creation, in addition to the languages of humanity. But Yosef learned the seventy languages while in prison in Mizraim. During his imprisonment, an angel came to him each day and taught him the languages of the world. But Pharaoh had no such angel to teach him. Rather, Pharaoh learned these languages as a result of his own intellectual prowess, and by dint of his own human effort. How much greater is the mind that can grasp things on its own, than the mind that receives its knowledge from an angel!

To what, then, does this advanced civilization aspire? Alas, it appears that intellectual sophistication, coupled with extraordinary achievements in science and engineering and social structure – all of these ultimately are placed at the service of nothing more exalted than human appetites. Like Shakespeare’s Venice, Mizraim is a society created for its own furtherance. It seeks achievement and attains achievement – in science and in commerce, in government, in city planning and in social programs. But ultimately, the presence of even a single outsider – be it Othello the Moslem, be it Shylock the Jew – brings the moral bankruptcy of the system rushing to the surface like an erupting geyser. For, in Egypt, all that people want – all that the power and powerfulness of this society is brought to bear upon – is the fulfillment of their appetites.

While the concept of Original Sin is foreign to us, we nonetheless acknowledge that there was an original sin: a point at which sin originates in the human narrative. This point was when Chava ate the fruit. We have observed elsewhere that G-d commanded only Adam not to eat the fruit; that when the serpent enters into dialogue with Chava, he is asking her a trick question: G-d only commanded Adam because at the time there was no one else. Chava, a distinct being, is perhaps not subject to the ban on eating from the Tree, or at any rate perhaps may believe the argument. Her sin consists in two actions (Bereshit 3:6): she sees the fruit, and she takes the fruit. The unmitigated, the unconsidered, the uncontemplated and un-moraled-out direct passage from desire to fulfillment is precisely the Matter that Torah comes to address. If humans act purely on appetite, purely on desire, then there is no hope for building a just and lasting society, no hope of bringing G-d into the world. No hope, ultimately, of attaining even our own truest and more meaningful desires for emotional and intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. The postponing of fulfillment is not only for those who wish to live a spiritually exalted life. It is the basic component of growing up.

The sin of Shechem is that he sees Dinah, and he takes her. Yehuda sees Tamar, and he approaches her. Yehuda is redeemed when he recognizes and acknowledges his own actions, and thus the redemption of the family of Yaakov begins. But, for the rest of the world, the morality of “If it feels good, do it,” continues to reign. The morality of Mizraim.

We have seen the origins of prayer in the story of Abraham’s servant, how he asks G-d for a speedy and successful journey. Perhaps he is merely lazy, for no sooner does he arrive in Haran than he asks that his trip be crowned with success. He does not even want to unpack the camels. And, indeed, the fulfillment of his prayer arrives even as the words are still in his mouth. But it is not the Servant’s request that constitutes prayer. Rather, as we have seen, it is the triple telling of the sequence of events: he asked G-d for help, he experienced the fulfillment of that request, and he tells over the experience of having G-d grant his wish. This is the basic structure of Jewish prayer: we do not ask for miracles; rather, we acknowlege that there have been miracles. That, as the Ramban points out forcefully, we live constantly surrounded by miracles, even if they are not visible to us as such. Our praise of G-d is not so much asking for new miracles as it is acknowledging, retelling and praising G-d for past and present miracles.

This week’s Parasha introduces us to the prayer of Mizraim. The prayer of Zuleika, the wife of Potiphar.

Rashi gives us a fascinating insight into the workings of Egyptian society when, in next week’s Parasha (41:42-45) Pharaoh gives Yosef a ring, then places “the” golden collar around his neck, then marries him to Osnat, daughter of Potiphar. The sexual imagery of the Yosef narrative is extremely frank. The collar which Pharaoh places on Yosef’s neck is clearly a specific and significant one; the ring and the collar are outward signs of two things: that Yosef bears Pharaoh’s authority, but also that Yosef is Pharaoh’s property. When Pharaoh marries Yosef to Osnat, Rashi tells us that Potiphar falls into despair and emasculates himself because he so passionately desired Yosef for himself as a sexual partner. In fact, the life of a slave in the ancient world included satisfying the master’s whims, which could also be sexual in nature. The story of Yosef and Mrs. Potiphar reveals her own deep despair. Potiphar is out of the house all day, every day. When she finds herself alone with Yosef, she – perhaps presumptuously – takes upon herself the rights of Owner and commands the household slave to lie with her, presumably as he is forced to lie with the master of the household. When the story reaches its high point, and Yosef flees the house, leaving his garment in her hands, she goes through the same three-stage formula we saw in the story of the Servant and Rivkah.

Prayer, in TaNaCh, comes primarily from women. And it has principally to do with bringing children into the world. The individuals who recognize G-d unbidden, who address G-d directly, are women. Chava is the first person (Bereshit 4:1) to utter the name of G-d. Hagar (Bereshit 16:13) addresses G-d by name, saying, “I recognize you. You’re the one who keeps coming around Abraham’s tent.” While we accept that Hannah is the originator of prayer as we know it, it has its deep origins in the tales of marriage and childbearing throughout Sefer Bereshit. When, at 25:22, Rivkah is experiencing a difficult pregnancy, she picks herself up and goes to speak with G-d, as one would visit the family doctor. When, at 29:32, Leah is the first to give birth, she echoes Chava and invokes the name of G-d in naming her firstborn son. The story of the Servant, which gives to prayer its original form, is the story of a man sent to find a wife for another man. Rachel asks her husband to pray that she, too, might have children, and Yaakov, at the end of his life, breaks down and admits to Yosef that he, Yaakov, was afraid to pray, and thus the birth of Yosef is all the more miraculous.

Rashi links Potiphar’s wife to this lineage, giving her the status of a Righteous Woman. He tells us that she foresaw that Yosef was destined to have children from her, and so she attempted to make it happen, not realizing that the prophecy applied not to herself, but to her daughter Osnat. If the Midrash is the inner psyche of Torah, this reading of the episode of Yosef and Potiphar's wife reveals a conflict that itself is worth a year on the analyst’s couch.

The Yosef narrative, as told in the Kor’an, is rich in sensual imagery. The Kor’an is much more frank about the power of Yosef’s physical beauty. Poriphar’s wife is given a name – Zuleika – and a personality to match. When she accuses Yosef of trying to rape her, her husband drags her out in public and calls her a liar. When the women of the town mock her for her infatuation with the Hebrew boy, she invites them to her house for a snack. She serves fresh oranges, handing them around with small sharp knives for the women to slice the fruits. Then, without warning, she draws aside a curtain and Yosef enters the room. The women are so struck by the power of his immense beauty that they lose themselves, and long moments pass before they realize that, in their sensual reverie under the sway of his potent beauty, they have each sliced through the fruits and right into their own palms, the blood flowing and dripping down their elbows, mingled with the juice of the oranges…

For what does a Mizri pray? Starting at 39:12, the triple narrative structure of prayer begins. Freely translating: 12: And she grabbed him by his garment saying, “Lie with me!” And he abandoned his garment in her hand and fled outside. 13: Then, as she saw that he had abandoned his garment in her hand and had fled outside, 14: then she called to the people of her household and spoke to them and said “Look! He has brought us this Hebrew man to Tsaheq us. He came to me to have sex with me, and I called out in a great voice, 15: and when he heard that I lifted up my voice and called out, he abandoned his garment with me and fled and went outside. She then retells the sequence of events once more when her husband returns home. The use of the word Tsaheq in verse 14 is, of course, evocative of the Yitzhak story. It appears in the interaction between Ishmael and his baby brother, and again in the interaction between Yitzhak and Rivkah, and clearly bears some incidental implication of an intimate relationship, if not an explicit connotation. Generally translated here as “to mock”, it certainly recalls to mind the sexual playfulness that led Avimelech immediately to recognize that Yitzhak and Rivkah were husband and wife. Zuleika’s prayer is the prayer of a woman who is bitterly disappointed.

We Jews are also familiar with this kind of prayer. We pray, on Tisha Be’Av, as we recall the devastation of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the slaughter and miserable deaths by starvation of millions of our ancestors. In the Ashkenazic Yom Kippur ritual, we recite the tragic slaughter of the holy martyrs. We beg G-d three times each day to return us to a world of righteous judgement, to accept our own personal Teshuva, to rebuild Jerusalem, to return us from exile and bring the ultimate redemption. All of these are things that have not happened. That, in a rational and atheistic view of the world, have no reason to happen. But we pray because, in our history, we know they have happened. Because our tradition teaches us that they will happen again. And, most powerfully, because, invisible and insensible though the process may be to our own perception, they are occurring right now. Constantly. Eternally.

Zuleika’s prayer is the bitter prayer of disappointment. And, by the way, here is another of the dysfunctional marriages the Torah is so chock-full of. Her husband is never around. When he is, he is too fixated on Yosef to pay any attention to his own wife. “The slave of my household?!” the Kor’an has him thundering at her in righteous wrath. And can’t you just hear her shouting back at him – “Potti! I have needs!” She desired Yosef. She was thwarted in her desire, and her mounting passion turned to bitterness and rage. Her prayer is the bitterness of impotent desire.

We may also not attain our wishes, our appetites may go unmet, our desires unfulfilled. We have suffered great calamity and tragedy in the past. G-d forbid, we may well suffer it again. Our lot is perhaps no better than that of any other group of people. Yet, we persist throughout human history, and the greatness that was Egypt now dwells in the museums of the West, in children’s picture books, and in expensive film productions. Torah is the lense through which we examine our lives. The interpreter that stands between us and the world. If all that Halachah accomplishes is to slow us down and make us ponder a moment before we act, it has attained its goal of transforming human existence.

Yours for a better world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Parashat Vayishlach - First Light


Tonight, as I write these words, is the eve of 19 Kislev, the Jahrzeit of Rav Dov Baer, the Maggid of Meseritch. Rav Dov Baer was Rov of a swathe of territory which, over the past three centuries, has been variously Ukraine, Poland, and Russia, and which included his home towns of Meseritch and Rovno, the main city of the district of Volyhn, and home town of my own grandparents. Among the Talmidim of the Maggid was Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the Ba’al Ha-Tanya, proponent of ChaBaD Chassidus and founder of what was to become the dynasty and community of ChaBaD / Lubavitch. For the ChaBaD community, the 19th of Kislev is celebrated as the Rosh HaShana of Chassidus, for it is the day the Alter Rebbe was released after 52 days in a Tsarist prison and cleared of all charges. The experience transformed him. He saw a clear parallel between what was happening in this world and what was happening in the Upper Realms and was convinced that his liberation was a sign of his calling, a calling to spread Chassidus aggressively to a new generation of Rabbis and followers.

As Shakespeare tells us: some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them. The greatness of the Chassidic leadership in the first generations was the greatness of those who knew the greatness of their mission, the greatness of their message. The greatness of their Torah.

While we can argue about whether Abraham or Yitzhak were born to greatness, or the circumstances and means whereby they achieved greatness, it is Yaakov who has greatness thrust upon him. And if there is a Key to Greatness, it is this: that the Great Ones have a keen awareness of their own greatness. Hillel comes to mind as a paragon of the particular Jewish form of humility that arises from blunt honesty about one’s own qualities. In truth, only those who are truly humble – who truly recognize their own abilities and limitations – are able to rise to true greatness.

Yet, in order for this to occur, the individual must recognize clearly and completely his or her own inner qualities. Yaakov has just come through a long and turbulent night. It is perhaps too much to expect him to be fully awake at this moment. There is, perhaps, a glimmer. Perhaps the first dawn of emerging awareness. At 32:32, after his struggle with the faceless angel, Yaakov arises to cross over the place, and the text tells us "And the sun rose for him." Not yet the flash of enlightenment, nor even the first ligthning bolt of Chochmah - the frst stage of ChaBaD (Chochmah, Binah, Da'at). But light, nonetheless, even if inchoate. As Robert Frost has it - "For once, then, something."

One of the keys to Yaakov’s greatness is the comprehensive nature of his destiny. Abraham and Yitzhak were forced to hand on their Blessing and legacy to only one of their sons. In order to do this, they had to forcibly deny their other son not only a portion in their inheritance, but even during their own lifetimes they became estranged. Yitzhak, who we are told explicitly loved Esav, sits helplessly by while his favorite son wails and weeps that his father has given away his Blessing for naught. Abraham sticks his fingers in his ears and refuses to listen when G-d tells him that Sarah is to give birth. Ishmael is good enough for me he tells G-d. I don’t need another son, he tells G-d. You have already kept your promise to me.

With the family of Yaakov the entire situation changes. Yaakov will transfer his Blessing to all of his sons. And the themes of Yaakov’s life will play out through the lives of his sons.

The seven years of joyous labor for Rachel, followed by seven years of bitter travail when his bride turns out to be Leah, are the paradigm for Yosef’s seven fat years and seven lean years. The shock of awakening on the first morning of Yaakov’s married life is mirrored in the encounter of Yehuda and Tamar. The goat and garment that Yaakov used to trick his father repeat in the goat and coat that his own sons bring in an attempt to trick him into believing Yosef has died, are the goat and garment Tamar sends to Yehuda when he is about to have her burned...

The psychological truth of this is that we do imprint ourselves upon our children, our legacy is bred in the bone and carried in the secret and unknowable places of the soul. Only a truly extraordinary parent recognizes the emotional legacy that is being passed on to her or his children, for good and for bad.

As Rabbi Dov Baer lay dying, among his very last words were a Vort on Parashat Vayishlach. He quoted Rashi, who says that Yaakov sent Malachim – Rashi says they are not mere Messengers, but Actual Angels. Rabbi Dov Baer says that the phsical beings of the Angels were sent along to encounter Esav, but that their spiritual essence remained with Yaakov. The Actuality of the Angels went along the road, their Spirituality remained with Yaakov.

Yaakov is a man divided. We see it blatantly in his behavior in this Parasha. He was split by life – the events of his own life point out clearly that Life is not what we hope, or envision, or expect to happen. Yaakov does not even have a single night of wedded happiness with the woman he loves, but must endure her hated sister, not merely for the week before he finally marries Rachel, but throughout his marriage to Rachel, and after her death. The “few days” that his mother counseled him to remain in Haran balloon out to over two decades. And hovering over all of this, over Yaakov’s whole life, is the uncertainty that emerged clearly at the beginning of last week’s Parasha – of never knowing whether what he is seeing is Prophecy, or mere dream.

The Abarbanel tells us that Yaakov proceeds despite his fear. This, says the Abarbanel, is the proof of Yaakov’s faith. And indeed, Yaakov’s life is beset by enough uncertainty that we would not be shocked if he merely withdrew to his tent. But not only does Yaakov persevere, he succeeds, he fights to gain and to keep what is his own. Writing in Catholic Spain on the eve of the consolidation of Catholic power over Moslem society – and on the eve of the Expulsion of the Iberian Jews – Abarbanel may be forgiven for taking up the Catholic paradigm of Faith as being grounded in Doubt. But yesh chochmah ba-goyim - Non-Jews also have wisdom. Just because Catholics say it, does not make it untrue.

Nehama Leibovitz points out that there are two people whom G-d tells explicitly not to fear: Moshe and Yaakov. And of course, whenever G-d tells you not to fear, the message is: you had better be afraid. She then ties this to the potent notion of the Tzaddik who persists in belief and observance, in Mitzvot and Torah despite absolutely knowing for a certainty that there is no guarantee of G-d’s protection in this life.

Belief in G-d, acceptance of Torah, passionately embracing a life of Mitzvot – all these must ultimately be LiShmah – for their own sake. If there is any hope of Reward, it diminshes the power of Torah. Ultimately, the notion of Reward and Punishment places Torah on the plane of Idol Worship.

Yaakov is tied literarily to Abraham. At 27:12 he tells his mother that his father will perceive hm as Meta’tea’ – from the same root as the word for Error. Abraham says to Avimelech “When G-d caused me to wander aimlessly (hit’u) from the house of my father…” And Yaakov, beginning his own wanderings, asks G-d to return him to his father’s house. Yet, once Yaakov has the opportunity to return to Yitzhak’s side, he delays, perhaps emotionally paralyzed. At 33:17 we learn that Yaakov dawdles at Shechem for eighteen months untilays the Midrash, G-d confronted him saying: “You extracted a promise from me, and you made a promise yourself, that you would return to your father’s house. Why then do you not return?” In one sense, the Midrash sees Yaakov’s own indecision as the cause for the rape of Dinah – the rape as punishment for Yaakov’s hesitation.

But is the uncertainty of Yaakov’s life his own doing? It is not. Yaakov is not the cause of his own fear, but it is his responsibility to confront and deal with his Fear, with the uncertainty of life. Yaakov, the first Existential hero.

When Yaakov comes face to face with his own uncertainty, he meets it in the form of a faceless man with whom he must wrestle in the dark. Yaakov, in whom all themes of the family of Abraham are to be united, is renamed Israel. Israel, we are told, because of Wrestling. But there are already two other words for Wrestling that the text has brought us. Rachel says Naftulei elokim – Great wrestlings. And in this week’s Parasha, the Man Ye’aveq – Wrestled with him, from a word meaning To kick up the dust. Why, then, does Gd not rename him Naftaliel? Avakiel? But G-d has broader and more exalted themes in mind.

Yaakov is renamed from the first member of our family who struggled with the consequences of the Covenant of Abraham: Sarah, whose same comes from the same verb root, Sin, Resh, meaning To fight, to struggle. Sarah, the mother of our tribulations and struggle, comes full circle. If not during her lifetime, at least in her grandson she is reunited with her husband.

And so we see in Yaakov the signs of dawning greatness. But, as we have said, in order to be great, the Great Ones also know their own greatness, they use it, they exercise it. This, Yaakov does not yet attain to.

To return to the narrative, Yaakov now buys land in Canaan, as did Abraham. Like Abraham, he now builds a Mizbeach – an altar used for slaughtering animals. Until now, Yaakov has only built Matzevot – pillars. The Mizbeach is, again, a word and an object from the Abraham narrative. And Abraham is the one who must lose his son, in order to gain a son.

Leah bears four sons in succession: Reuven, who will cast away the birthright of the firstborn by his behavior: who soils his father’s bed by having sex with his father’s concubine. This was an accepted practice in the ancient Near East, a mechanism whereby a son, after the death of his father, would publicly take over his father’s possessions. But to do so while the father was still alive is as harsh as Avshalom’s attempts to murder David.

Reuven, who will destroy the family by telling his brothers to throw Yosef down the pit. "You are the firstborn" the Midrash has his brothers wailing after the fact. "We listened to you. And if you had said to leave him alone, we would have left him alone."

Shimon and Levi, who will become the instruments of salvation of Israel. Levi, the tribe that will give us Moshe and Aharon, the Cohanim and Leviim. Shimon, whom Yosef imprisons because, of all the sons of Yaakov, Shimon and Levi are the only two who are referred to as Brothers. If there is any chance that someone will return to Egypt to free the captive, it rests exclusively with Levi, who will have to return to redeem his captive brother Shimon.

Yehuda, who will become the spiritual leader of Israel after he receives moral instruction at the hands of his Rebbe, Tamar.

And now Dinah goes out Lir’ot bevnot ha’aretz- literally, “To see among the daughters of the land.” To see. Or To be seen. Dinah, who just wants to be one of the local girls, gets far more than she bargains for. When her brothers intervene violently, Yaakov’s response is (34:30) You have made real trouble for me and made me odious to my neighbors, the Canaanites and Perizzites, and now they will gang up on me and destroy me.” Yaakov shows a singular coldness, a lack of vision for his family. And Shimon and Levi respond (34:31) Should he treat our sister like a whore?

Who is doing the treating? We always assume it is Shechem to whom they refer. But did not Yaakov’s grandfather sell his own wife twice, and pocket the proceeds? And did not Yaakov’s father sell his own wife? And perhaps it is only for lack of opportunity that Yaakov never did the same with his own wives. And perhaps Yaakov wanted the deal he was being offered, to share both land and daughters. The problem with that approach is, as the Grateful Dead express in their song Jack Straw: “We can share the women, we can share the wine. We can share what we got of yours, ‘cause we done shared all of mine…” Someone is going to feel deprived, and the political and social balance can not hold for long.

What is the sin of Shechem? Why is it so egregious, and what is Yaakov missing?

Shechem comes along at 34:2. He “saw her” [Dinah] and “he took her.” This is as close as Judaism comes to the notion of Original Sin.

The Sin of Eve and Adam originates at Bereshit 3:6. “The woman saw…”, “… and she took of the fruit and ate…” The immediate translation of Appetite into Consuption, of Seeing into Taking, this is precisely what Torah wants us to overcome. This is the behavior of Esav, the whole culture of Mizraim. And by acceding to Hamor’s proposition that the family of Yaakov settle and intermarry, Yaakov is buying into this notion as well, he is accepting the way of the world. Ultimately, he is acquiescing to a society in which, as Thyucidides describes the City of Melos, the Strong do what they wsh, the Weak do what they must. This is not the way of Torah.

And yet, when G-d comes and instructs Yaakov, Yaakov obeys at once. This, then, is the beginning of Yaakov’s Greatness. His awareness may not yet dawn upon him. Indeed, Yaakov’s greatness will flower forth only in the last seventeen years of his life, when he goes down to Mizraim to teach Yosef.

G-d has to step in, and at 35:1, G-d marches into the room and orders Yaakov to get up to Beit-el. It seems that Yaakov has waited for his Calling to return to him. To return him to life in the world. And all the travails and suffering he must bear from here on in – the death of his beloved Rachel, the loss of his beloved Yosef, exile from his homeland and, finally, dying in that exile – all these, Yaakov bears with growing dignity, with growing ease and wisdom. Truly, Yaakov will emerge as great among the Avot.

It is no accident we are known as Bnei Israel. For were we only children of Abraham, or of Yitzhak, we would live in the neediness of people used to being guided and cared for by G-d. At the end of his life, Yaakov will appreciate and embrace the Blessing G-d gave him on his way out of Canaan:

There is no certainty in life. You want a promise of wealth? Of happiness? I – says G-d – can promise you no such thing, for I did not create the world to run that way. You will live, G-d promises Yaakov, you will die. And all along the way, I will be with you.

This, ultimately, is the promise G-d makes to us, to the Jewish people. There will be misery and pain aplenty, there will be suffering and loss. All of this is nothing more than the Human Condition. And, as Jews, we have been trained for millennia to be keenly sensitive to the Human Condition. And so we feel our own pain more profoundly, perhaps, more poetically than many other peoples. Yaakov is the Jew who must learn to live in the world, in a permanent state of Exile, yet who must struggle to keep his own identity. It is not for nothing that Shakespeare has Shylock compare himself, not to Abraham, but to Yaakov.

And it is to this Promise that the Chassid clings so fervently. For, in all the uncertainty of our lives, the one certain thing is Torah. Torah, its very self. Torah without the hope of redemption or gifts or reward. Torah Lishmah.

Let us remember, with love and prayer, those who sought to bring Torah into the world. Let us pray for ourselves in the light of the memory of the Tzaddikim. Today, as we observe the Hilulah of Rabbi Dov Baer, as we celebrate the freeing of the Alter Rebbe, let us remember the pure joy, the reckless love of Torah that inspired these men and generations after them. When we pray every morning Veha’arev na… et divrei Toratchah – we are asking G-d to make the words of Torah sweet in our mouths. Meaning not that we shall speak words of Torah, but that we shall devour them. That Torah is our sustenance and our delight. That Torah itself is sufficient to create transcendent joy in our hearts – not G-d’s promise of a World to Come, not dreams of the Time of Mashiach, not the ceertainty that G-d will reward us for living a life of Miztvot. Just this: how sweet, sweet, how painfully and tragically and beautifully sweet are the words of Torah. And how they nourish us like no other sustenance.

And the lesson Yaakov will ultimately learn is that the mere fact of G-d being alongside us – not helping us, not doing for us, not giving us undue advantage; but suffering along with us, coating the ugly, blistered surface of our lives with a patina of compassion and love – this, and this alone, even only this is more than any human has a right to expect.

Yaakov lives in constant uncertainty and fear, in pain and loss. And he continues to practice Torah and Mitzvot. Lishmah.

Yours for a better world.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Parashat Vayetze - The Dark Night of the Soul


The departure of Yaakov from Canaan evokes in many details the departure of his grandfather Abram from Ur Kasdim. His brother Esav has already taken three wives, while Yaakov has none. Abram was the firstborn, but since he left his family property, there was little or nothing for him to inherit. Abram takes his patrimony with him, as it were, leaving with Terah – which may be part of the reason Terah brought Abram and not Nahor, the surviving younger brother; this way, there would be something for each. This further reinforces the notion we had back at the end of Parashat Noach that Terah leaves Ur Kasdim for moral reasons, because he finds the society of that city morally reprehensible and frightening.

Yaakov springs upon us now as an independent character, and three major themes emerge strongly in this Parasha. There are the conflicting images of sleep and sleeplessness, which has been commented on by Avivia Zornberg in her chapter on this Parasha. Tied closely to the theme of sleep is that of Dream. Yaakov is a man suspended between Dream and Reality. The Zohar says that Dream and Prophecy are two sides of a coin. We are unfortunate in never knowing which side we are looking at, and Yaakov lives his entire life in Fear – the third theme – largely because he can not rest faithful in the Promise of the Prophesy. To Abraham, G-d gave a blessed life. Twice blessed, because G-d made it known to Abraham that he was blessed. To Yitzhak, G-d gave shelter and protection and made no demands of him after he returned from the Akeidah. He spends his lfe digging wells, amassing large sums of money, and then, when his eyesight fails, he spends a few decades lying in bed where his older son feeds him choice cuts of fresh-killed venison.

By the way, I have never seen a Midrash stating that Rivkah had Yaakov bring the kids to make Yitzhak’s meal because she knew Esav would kill an animal with bow and arrow, whereas she knew Yaakov would Shecht them. The solemn moment of transferring the Blessing of Abraham calls for extra care and sanctity, and perhaps Rivkah feared that, if Yitzhak ate of Treifa it would invalidate the Blessing. In fact, the text tells us that Yitzhak loved Esav because he ate his venison – the venison that Esav hunted (25:27, 28). In the very next breath, we are told that Yaakov prepared some kind of vegetable stew. The flesh that the hunter feeds to his father is Tzaid - Tzadeh, Yud, Daled. The stew that Yaakov feedsto his brother is from the root Zayin, Yud Daled. The same word, with the initial sound softened. The messages in Torah fly like scurrying angels, from the shape of the letters, to the sounds of the words, to the words in the mouths of humans and G-d…

Mixed in with these poetic themes of the Yaakov narrative is the fact that Yaakov – and we know this about him already – is no respecter of persons. He only hesitates to violate social convention – even the sanctity of family – when he fears that he will be found out.

And so Yaakov sets out on his trip. It is intended to last “a few days”, but turns into an exile that lasts over two decades. In last week’s Parasha, Rivka (Bereshit 27:44) tells Yaakov to stay with her brother Laban yamim achadim – a few days. This same phrase will repeat in our Parasha, and perhaps the meanings are intertwined.

The language used to describe Yaakov’s first stop is unusual. At 28:11 the text tells us va-yifga’ ba-makom – almost: “And he crashed into the place.” And the word Makom – Place – is preceded by the definite article. This is not just any place. (And need we point out that HaMakom is an appelation of G-d? Yaakov bumped smack into the L-rd and had to stop.) Why does Yaakov stop? “Because the sun set.” The Midrash states that the sun set early that day, precisely to make Yaakov halt at this place. The Midrash is very concerned with this detail, in fact, and asks: If the sun set early that day, it means the sun owes the world the extra hours of daylight. The Midrash asks when the sun did – or will – return those hours to the world.

At 28:15, G-d blesses Yaakov, telling him that he will return. However, the wording again is complex. G-d states “I will bring you back el ha-adamah ha-zot” – To this earth. We would expect G-d to use the word Aretz – a Land, a Country. Instead, G-d uses the word meaning Earth, Dirt. And indeed, Yaakov’s final and ultimate return to Canaan is after he dies in Mizraim. G-d made a precisely-worded promise, and kept the promise exactly as it was spoken.

Yaakov, in response, vows an oath, at 28:20-22. These verses are often taken as proof of Yaakov’s chutzpah. Here G-d has just promised Yaakov a blessing, and Yaakov starts bargaining: If you give me food, and If you give me clothing, and If you bring me back in peace… but there are dark themes underlying this speech, and to attribute venality to Yaakov is to miss the boundlessness of Torah, both in the spiritual and in the literary frame.

First, remember that G-d appears to Yaakov in a dream. This is the first time Yaakov has actually seen or heard from G-d. Unlike his father and grandfather, he has lived a life unaided by direct Divine assistance of counsel. Now, when G-d finally does speak to Yaakov, it is in a dream. And the language points out that this is an actual dream. Bereshit 28:12: Va-yachalom. And he dreamed. When G-d appears to Abram at night – at the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim – it is in mysterious words of profound sleep, of impenetrable darkness. Not the language of mere human sleep and dream, as we have here with Yaakov. No wonder he does not trust the message. Did I really experience this, or was it a dream?

On a deep psychological level, Yaakov is also making a profound statement. What does he ask for? G-d has offered nothing material, but only the promise to go with Yaakov and bring him back to be buried in the land of his ancestors. Yaakov asks for three things: bread to eat, clothing to wear, and to return in peace to his father’s house.

This is Yaakov who, using Food and using Clothing, duped his own father, defrauded his own brother, and brought exile upon himself. Yaakov is begging that he be forgiven for the sin of the food with which he stole the birthright, the food with which he stole the blessing. Yaakov is begging that he be forgiven for clothing himself in his brother’s garment in order to trick their father. Yaakov is begging for his father to take him back again.

Yaakov is also now suddenly struck with the enormity of his deed, with the reprecussions. Please, he begs, echoing the plea of Cain, do not punish me as I deserve. For, G-d, if you will punish me with the instruments of my sin, then I will perish. If you punish me by taking away from me food and clothing – sustenance, and protection from the elements – then I am a dead man. Yaakov realizes to his horror that G-d’s promise to have him buried in Canaan may is in danger of being realized within a matter of days, if not hours.

Ths Zohar seems to be aware of this, as it comments that Yaakov tells G-d, I will not care if you turn Mercy into Stern Justice. No wonder the Zohar also tells us that Yaakov lives his entire life in fear.

No sooner does Yaakov fnish his first seven years of service than the entire situation deteriorates. And it happens quickly, irrevocably, devastatingly.

Yaakov serves Laban seven years for Rachel. Because of his love for her, those years are in his eyes as yamim achadim – a few days. The same expression Yaakov’s mother used when she sent him away. Just as the “few days” of his mother’s subtrefuge turn into a seven-year stint of indentured servitude, so too, Yaakov seems to have lived through this time as though it were a mere Few Days. He show no maturation through this time. Curiously, he has lived among these people for seven years, yet he is surprised when he discovers it is “not their custom” to give the younger daughter in marriage before the elder. It may be plausible that Yaakov never attended a wedding during this time, never socialized. More likely is the reading that he spent the entire time saying to himself “I’m going back to Canaan any day now.” It is as though he never fully unpacked his bags. Certainly, he has not unpacked his Baggage.

At 29:21 Yaakov uses startling and crude language. He turns to Laban, his prospective father-in-law, and says “Give me my wife, because may time is fulfilled, and now I am going to have sex with her.” This Simple Man, the Bocher from the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, has revealed himself as a randy young buck. Perhaps it is the influence of the outside world. Perhaps, even while not consciously learing their ways, Yaakov has been profoundly influenced by these people. Or perhaps it is merely in keeping with his refusal to respect social conventions.

When Leah immediately gives birth to a succession of sons, Rachel goes to her husband and asks for a son of her own. It is always striking that Yaakov flies into a rage. And it is a rage with many sources and tributaries. Like the relationship of his grandparents, Yaakov has not been able to live in love with the woman he originally loved. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, Yaakov never had the opportunity to see his relatinship with his beloved Rachel deteriorate and become dysfunctional. His marriage was interrupted and ruined before the wedding.

Like Abraham, who asked G-d not to bother with bringing Yitzhak into the world, Yaakov flies into a rage. I am not my father, he is saying, not Yitzhak. I did not get to marry the woman I loved and llive in enjoyment with her. Yaakov, the man to whom G-d appears in a dream (Is it dream? Prophecy? On which side will the spinning coin fall?) is afraid to reach out to G-d. He refuses to pray – perhaps because he is afraid his prayers will not be answered; perhaps because he fears they will. Yitzhak prayed for Rivkah unbidden, and Yaakov was born. Yaakov, the child of prayer.

At the end of Yaakov’s life when he, like his own father, lies blind upon his bed, preparing to bless his sons, Yosef brings to him Ephraim and Menashe. At 48:11, Yaakov says four beautiful and poignant words to Yosef: Re’oh fanecha lo filalti. This is usually translated as “I never thought I would see your face,” an expression of the years where Yaakov mounred and longed for his son who was presumed dead. But the words actually mean something else. Re’oh faneicha – to see your face. Lo filalti – I did not pray. Indeed, Yaakov refuses to pray for Rachel to have a child. And despite his own drawing away from this, G-d grants her two sons, from one of whom the salvation of the family of Yaakov will come, from the other, Binyamin, the only surviving members of Israel.

And so Yaakov finally leaves Haran, after G-d addresses him at 31:3 talling him to return to Canaan. Curiously, although the text does not have it so in the instance, when Yaakov relates this to his wives at 31:11, he says it was in a dream.

And so Yaakov finally comes to the end of his sojourn. At the opening of the Parasha, the sun set, after which Yaakov gathered together stones into a heap, and then he awoke, to recognizethat G-d was there before him. Now, as he prepares to re-enter Canaan, Yaakov and Laban set up a heap of stones, after which the sun rises and Yaakov, crossing the border, runs into a troop of angels. The literary symmetry of the Parasha ties it into a great and grand package, filled with powerful emotional content and stunning language and imagery. Now, preparing to greet this new day, Yaakov renames the place where he first saw G-d. At the beginning of this single long night, when he awoke after sunset, Yaakov called the place Beit-El – the House of G-d. Yaakov, who says, if only I had not slept, I would have understood what was going on. And so, Midrashically, Yaakov remains awake for the next twenty years, hoping for clarity, but never receiving it until G-d comes and tells him to leave.

Mahanaim – A Pair of Encampments. Yaakov is no longer so sure of the world as he once was. The place is no longer a House, no longer a permanent structure. No longer a home.

Yaakov succeeds in commerce in the outside world, despite never losing his status as a Outsider – it is no accident that Shakespeare has Shylock compare himself to Yaakov. But he fails spiritually, he fails repeatedly. He gives lip service to the notion of G-d, but it is not until the end of his life, the last seventeen years that he spends with Yosef, that Yaakov’s spiritual greatness blossoms and he grows majestically into the role for which he was born. Until that time, Yaakov will spend the rest of his life in impermanence, suspended between the spiritual world and the world of the every day. In fear, never knowing whether it was a Promise, or merely “wish-fulfillment”, magical thinking. Never knowing whether it was Prophecy, or merely a Dream.

Yours for a better world.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Parashat Toldot - In Sheep's Clothing


Things are not what they seem. Or rather, as we have seen in the emergent pattern of the Promise and Destiny of Abraham, things continually seem, and we must act as best we can from one set of circumstances to another.

Among the greatest evils in the Gemara are such notions as Anger, Pride, Immodesty, and Flattery. Yet, these – and other equally vile concepts – are not counted among the 613 Mitzvot as Motzvot lo ta’aseh – prohibited actions. Rather, they are called Middot – Qualities. While it is a simple matter for the Torah to prohibit the eating of pigs, snakes and eagles, it is impossible to prohibit human beings from ever becoming angry, from ever falling victim to excessive pride, from ever toadying to someone more powerful than themselves. And further: the Middah itself is seen as evil – the Gemara likens Anger to Idol Worship – but the actions that flow from Anger are categorized simply as Permitted or Prohibited. It is prohibited to abuse one’s fellow – be that other person family, friend, or stranger. Thus we see that the concept of Middot is in many ways more subtle and complex than that of Mitzvot. Mitzvot are tabulated on a checklist of Do’s and Don’t’s, the measure of which is generally immediate and obvious. Put on Tallit and Tefillin, recite morning prayers. Make Kiddush on Friday night, don’t turn lights on and off. Walk to and from Shul on Shabbat morning, don’t turn on the ball game.

But how do we measure Middot? And what effect do they have? On the simplest, perhaps even simplistic level, our Mitzvot are meant to form our Middot. There are numerous passages in the Gemara which praise the performance of Mitzvot because it leads to better action in the world; which praise Torah study because it leads to good deeds, to living the right way.

The ultimate test of the concept of Middot is probably the punishment of Moshe and Aharon. Is it possible that, as human beings, they – even they – had a moment of less than perfect Faith? Is it possible that they, too, fell into Doubt, even if only for a moment? In Parashat Chukat, when Moshe strikes the rock, instead of speaking to it, G-d explicitly tells them (Bamidbar 20:12) they will not enter the Land because they did not believe. While the lack of belief led to an act that was counter to G-d’s command, it is not for the act that they are punished. If the punishment were tied only to the act of striking the rock, then only Moshe would be punished, for it was he alone who struck the rock. But G-d punishes both Moshe and Aharon. Further proof that it is faith that is at issue here, and not merely action, is the key word Ya’an – “Because” – that G-d uses to introduce the punishment. “BECAUSE you did not believe in me…” This word has its origin in the Akeidah, where it announces to Abraham “BECAUSE you listened to my voice…” At issue here is a sense of utter reliance. The inner working of Faith itself.

It also goes to the notion of carefulness in observance. Jews are not permitted to rely on non-Jews in certain matters of Kashrut, not because non-Jews are in some way impure, G-d forbid. Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch specifically permits certain aspects of Kashrut to be handled by non-Jews precisely because they are meticulous about cleanliness. Rather, the non-Jew just can not have the same sense of urgency, of awe, of trembling at the notion that a spoon might have ended up in the wrong sink. To the non-Jew, it is more like the notion of getting extra starch in one’s shirts, when one asked for no starch. You’ll get over it. A person who has not lived in Torah can perhaps never appreciate the love, the passion, and the care that go into each minute action that makes up this awesome relationship. And Moshe is a Levite, Aharon is Kohen Gadol, required to remain in a permanent state of Readiness. No lapses are permitted, alas. Not one.

Bereshit 25:19: “And these are the generations of Yitzhak, the Son of Abraham; Abraham begot Yitzhak.” Rashi comments that Yitzhak looked identical to his father; that Yitzhak was unmistakably the son – the inheritor – of Abraham. What is Rashi telling us?

From a broad perspective, the Parasha begins by establishing a single line. At the end of last week’s Parasha (25:12) we read: “And these are the generations of Ishmael, Son of Abraham, whom Hagar the Egyptian bore – the maidservant of Sarah – to Abraham.” In recounting the descendants of Ishmael, the Torah writes the word “generations” – Toldot – as Taf, Lamed, Daled, Taf. In our Parasha, Yitzhak’s “generations” are spelled Taf, Vav, Lamed, Daled, Taf. In Hebrew orthography this difference is called Defective and Full. The Generations of Yitzhak have something that the generations of Ishmael lack, and while Rashi does not comment on the difference, Biblical commentators generally derive moral lessons from these differences in spelling: words spelled Defectively are read as pointing to a spiritual or moral lack in the people they describe.

And what is Ishmael missing? How is he “defective”? Just like Yitzhak, he is Son of Abraham. Indeed, as we have seen, Abraham considered Ishmael his son, and it took some forcing and convincing on G-d’s part to make Abraham accept that the Destiny and Promise would pass not through Ishmael, but through Yitzhak. The literary contrast in the two Psukim is clear: “And these are the [defective] generations of Ishmael, Son of Abraham, whom Hagar the Egyptian bore – Sarah’s maidservant – to Abraham.” And: “And these are the [full] generations of Yitzhak, Son of Abraham; Abraham begot Yitzhak.” What is defective about Ishmael is his Egyptian mother.

We mentioned last week the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s comment – taken from solid Chassidish tradition – that Sarah represents the body, Abraham the soul. The Soul of Abraham in the Body of Mizraim – it can not work. As we shall see throughout the ensuing narrative, Mizraim is a nation that is focused on the flesh. Indeed, while we may quarrel with Abraham’s treatment of Sarah, his instincts in fearing for his own safety when they went to Mizraim appears sound. And the story plays out through the Yosef narrative, through the narrative of the generations of enslavement, through to the Exodus: Egypt is based on “I take what I see.” The text is telling us that Torah must be combined with Middot. Both are required in combination. Ishmael, great as he is, is destined by birth not to have this combination.

But where will the Promise and Destiny of Abraham belong after Yitzhak?

Unlike both his father and his son, Yitzhak wants his beloved wife to have children. No sooner are they married than Yitzhak goes unbidden to entreat G-d on her behalf. The word used (25:21) va-ye’tar – is derived from the root meaning Shovel. Yitzhak, the Digger of Wells, starts his career by digging deep for G-d’s mercy and grace. And he receives it in double portion.

Rivkah typifies the Torah’s view of women, certainly as expressed in Sefer Bereshit. When she experiences a tumultuous pregnancy, she does not ask her husband or her maidservant what to do – she goes right to G-d and asks “Why am I like this?” A question that expresses neither lack of Faith, nor the presence of Doubt. Rather, like Sarah before her, Rivkah is an Existentialist: she recognizes her own destiny in that of Abraham and his son, and she embraces it. Indeed, she runs to embrace it, for at 24:58, when asked if she wants to tarry a bit with her family before leving to be married to her cousin, she states flatly: I will go. Then, at 2465, as she approaches Yitzhak from afar and sees him for the first time, she covers her own face with her veil before they have even spoken to one another. Covering with a veil is a symbol of a married woman: thus, Rivkah affirmatively marries herself to Yitzhak before the union is formalized.

But to every generation there is a test, a moment when the individual is challenged to bring to bear the training of Torah and Middot, over the desires or comforts or pains of the flesh. And the crux of the test comes early in this Parasha. At 25:23, G-d explains to Rivkah that two nations are within her womb, two peoples will come forth from her belly. Ve-rav ya’avod tza’ir. “And the Elder the Younger shall serve.” This is always translated as: “And the elder shall serve the younger,” but both the grammar and the cantillation are ambiguous. The clause can equally mean: “And the Elder the Younger shall serve,” or: “And the Elder, the Younger shall serve.” It is by no means clear who is the subject of the verb.

And in one sense, they serve one another. Yaakov, it can be argued, serves Esav by taking from him a spiritual responsibility to which he is not equal. Esav – the beloved son of the most loving of the Patriarchs – Esav, who gets a bum rap in all the commentaries, whom the Rabbis of the Gemara were forced to admit is the epitome of the Mitzvah of Honoring one’s Parents. Esav is a jock. An outdoorsman who loves to hunt, then come home to share his catch with his beloved father before retiring to the tent of one or another of his wives. In our time we could easily see him flipping burgers and knockwurst on a grill in the parking lot outside Lambeau Field, a couple of cases of beer in the cooler, a cigar clenched between his teeth as he prepares a sumptuous tailgate feast for dozens of loving friends and relatives. He’d be well liked by all, a pillar of the community. Dependable, straightforward and completely without guile, he would probably own a string of successful car dealerships and be a stalwart of the local Rotary Club or Knights of Columbus. You would definitely feel comfortable buying a car from him.

Torah asks of us an intensity of soul, a moment-to-moment awareness of the nearness of G-d. Torah asks that we constantly be in the state of mind and emotion of one newly fallen in love. Shlomo Carlebach says our love for G-d should be as great as the passion a new lover feels for the beloved, that if someone shakes us awake at night and shouts “Who do you love?!” we should immediately, and without a moment’s thought or hesitation, shout back, “Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu!”

It takes some doing to get there.

The Zohar says Yaakov was tricky, duplicitous. That he dealt with each person on that person’s own terms. This is a common emotional affliction, readily observable in many people today: the emotional need to be liked, coupled with a hypersensitivity – perhaps born of that desperate need – to what makes other people tick. The ability to manipulate other emotionally to the point where they evidence their approval. At 25:29 – the verse on which the Zohar comments – Yaakov yazed… nazid – as the translation has it, he “sod pottage.” The root of this odd word is Zayin, Daled, which gives us Zed – Wicked (as in the blessing in the weekday Amidah: “Who destroys the Zedim.”) It also gives us the concept of Mezid – Premeditated. What did Yaakov do? He “Plotted, he surely plotted” as Hebrew duplicative verbs are to be read. Esav spends his days hunting. It is very predictable both as to when he will return, and in what frame of mind. He has had a good workout, now he wants a cold beer.

Esaz takes one look at the pot of stew and says, “Wow! Can I have a taste?” Yaakov names his price: the right of the firstborn. Esav’s response, by the way, is often mis-read. At 25:32 he is not saying “I am going to drop dead if I don’t eat.” Rather, he is saying “When you’re dead, you’re dead. What’s the ‘birthright’? Something for Posterity? Do they have beer in Posterity? Gimme that pot of soup!” And in verses 33 and 34, we see a rapid-fire string of action verbs: And he swore, and he sold, and he ate and he drank and he arose and he went, and he despised his birthright…” Esav, the man of action.

Why does G-d warn Yitzhak not to go to Egypt in the time of famine? Is it because the Karmic fate of the two nations has already been established by the actions of his own mother and father? Is G-d saying, “Your parents have already messed things up enough. Don’t you go running off too, or Yaakov will be ruined forever.” And in the midst of this comes the beautiful moment where Yitzhak, pretending, like his father, that Rivkah is his sister and not his wife, can’t keep his hands off her. Thinking they are alone, Yitzhak seems to be chasing her under the bushes. And there’s that verb again: he is metzaheq his wife (26:8). Unmistakably, they are husband and wife. Again, the danger Ishmael posed was not that he mocked his baby brother, but that he took such pleasure in showing his affection, and that Yizhak delighted in Ishmael’s open demonstrations of love. This is why Sarah ordered him removed.

Yaakov is a much more complex figure than his own father. Comes the moment to actually take hold of what he connived from his brother, he seems to lose heart. His mother pushes him to it, as though saying This is the moment you have been waiting for. And Yaakov appears suddenly – and a little inexplicably – struck by conscience. Actually, it is only fear. Fear that he will be found out.

In sheepherding societies, certain practices have persisted through millennia. Because they are effective, and because there is simply no substitute for certain natural processes.

Some female sheep and goats have a propensity to give birth to twins. These are highly sought after by herdsmen, because they help sustain the herds. In the case of twin births, it is common that one of the twins will die. Equally common is the death of a female during the birth process. When this happens, the newborn will also die unless it can be fed. Alas, in hircine society, mothers only tend to their own. A newborn kid will only be nrsed by its own mother. Any other female will ignore the newborn, and will actively spurn it if it tries to snuggle or nurse.

The way to save newborns whose mothers have perished is to take the dead twin and skin it, leaving the cuffs of the front and hid legs intact. The pelt is then fitted onto the orphan like a tight-fitting body sweater. Then the kid is shoved under the mother who gave birth to the twins. She smells her own pheremones in the coat of her deceased newborn and mistakes the intruder for her own. She then falls to nursing and caring for the orphan. After a few days, when the mother’s hormones are fully absorbed into the newborn’s system, the coat can be removed, for the orphan has now assimilated its new mother’s smell. Its identity has been changed, and to all outward appearances, the mother never knows.

Truly the Torah speaks the language of humans. And not merely in words and letters of the Hebrew language, but by striking us between the eyes with images so familiar as to have become invisible, until they are cast in a powerful new context.

And now the whole world changes.

When Hevel decided to bring offeringsto G-d, G-d accepted his kids and lambs, meanwhile rejecting Cain’s fruits and vegetables. To win favor, the sons of Yitzhak vie with one another to see who can bring the tastiest – and first – pot of meat stew. The Curse of Cain will work itself through our destiny for many generations to come: the goat that Yaakov used to trick his father and defraud his brother will be echoed in the goat that Yosef’s brothers slay for the blood to mark his coat, the goat that Tamara uses to trick Yehuda into confessing. In both of these narratives, the pairing of goat and garment are the crux of the story, they determine the destiny, not only of the individual, but of Klal Israel.

The first murder takes place over a kid. The destiny of the Jewish people hangs in so many places on a goat. In the Beit HaMikdash, it is a goat that is sent to the wilderness to atone for the sins of the nation.

When Yitzhak blesses Yaakov, it is a real blessing. When Esav comes in, Yitzhak tells him that he has already given his blessing. Now Esav suddenly and at last recognizes what he has lost. Now he cries out. Now, at 27:34, Esav cries out. Va-yitz’ak tze’aqa gedolah – and he cried out a great cry. The word is first used at 4:10 when G-d confronts Cain: What have you done, G-d asks. The blood of your brother cries out to me - tzo’akim elai – from the earth. Clearly, we are bound to a powerful Karma. This part of our destiny will require a great Tikkun – a repairing, a healing. An atonement. If for nothing else, we must cling to Torah and work on Middot.

Yours for a better world.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Parashat Hayei Sarah - A Thousand Pieces of Silver and the Origin of Prayer


It is the nature of spiritual experience that we arrive at a moment where we are swept up in a cosmic surf, startled and exhilarated and terrified and thrilled and energized by a powerful epiphany, we feel the thrill of weightlessness as we ascend through doors suddenly open where we did not even sense there was a wall.

Next comes the risk of profound disappointment when, in coming for a second time to the same set of circumstances, we do not experience the same exhilaration. The Buddhists are aware of this self-confusing nature of Mind – so much so that the Buddhist psychology recognizes six senses: the five known to Western science, plus Mind, an organ of perception no less than eye or tongue or skin. And as with the other senses, the proclivity of Mind is to be immediately convinced that what it is experiencing is objectively real. Do not believe everything you think.

Abraham, however briefly, had a direct relationship with G-d. He did not waver from his side of the relationship and, unless you follow the revisionist line we discussed last week, Abraham never did not understand G-d’s message to him.

Unlike the rest of his family.

When Sarah has an inkling that Abraham must have a son, she offers her maidservant, Hagar, not realizing that it is her own destiny to give birth to Yitzhak. When Hagar and Ishmael recognize that the next level in Abraham’s journey entails him sending his own son to die, mother and son walk off into the desert and Ishmael – now sixteen or seventeen years of age, a grown man, by the current standard – voluntarily lies down beneath a bush and waits to die of thirst. Finally, an angel comes and explains to Hagar that, no, this is not the Destiny of Abraham. And so Ishmael goes on to father twelve tribes – as does Abraham’s remaining brother, Nahor, by the way. As, obviously, does Yaakov. The themes of the Destiny and Promise of Abraham proliferate throughout Sefer Bereshit as those around Abraham are swept up in the cosmic surf.

But they keep coming out in unrecognizable patterns.

This week we see the first example of a person praying for success. It is a spiritual come-down, after Abraham’s intense yet familiar relationship with G-d, this mere asking for favors so one doesn’t have to work hard. Or is it?

Yet see, too, how the structure of the Parasha underscores the one-sidedness of Abraham. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that Sarah dies before Abraham because she represents the Body, whereas Abraham represents the Soul. And in Chassiddus, the body occupies a more exalted level than the Soul. For it is only through the body that the soul can participate in doing Mitzvot. It is only through the Body that the human Soul can perform ‘Avodat HaShem – divine service. Indeed, without Sarah, Abraham’s life peters out as ingloriously as water dripping from a cracked jug, as air seeping from a tiny puncture. He marries the mysterious Keturah – the ancestor of Moshe’s sons – the sons who become Priests of Belial at Shilo – Abraham has more children, but does not engage with them. As we saw last week, G-d ceases all contact with Abraham after commanding him to depart on the three-day journey that will lead to the Akeidah. In this week’s Parasha, everyone is killed off – clearly, the stage is being cleared for the next Act in the drama. The opening phrase – “And the life of Sarah…” with its immediate reversal – “And Sarah died…” is as startling as the opening line of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where the actors come on stage and shout at the audience to leave the theater. As disorienting as the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, where the conductor gives a mighty downbeat, and there is silence.

The Parasha goes on to kill off Abraham and, for good measure, Ishmael. A simple arithmetical calculation will show that Abraham was still very much alive when Yaakov and Esav were born. Why do we never see them with their grandfather? Or with their uncle Ishmael, for that matter? The continuity of the themes, the Destiny and Promise, is not fixed. It must be regenerated, for it lies somewhat dormant. And Yitzhak must begin again. Alone.

This is why, in next week’s Parasha, Yitzhak will have to dig once again the wells his father had established. It is why, next week, G-d will have to reaffirm the Covenant and Promise of Abraham, this time to his son Yitzhak, using the same word of the Akeidah – a forceful reminder, even as it transfers the Blessing from generation to generation. Bereshit 26:5 – ‘Eikev – Because Abraham listened to my voice…

This Parasha, entitled “Life”, is bracketed by death. By the deaths of three of the most important figures in human history: Sarah, Abraham and Ishmael. In a literary mirroring, such as we have already come to see as a commonplace of Biblical narrative structure, The Torah clears the scene so that Yitzhak can start over from the very beginning. Next week’s Parasha opens ve-eleh. As Rashi, Ramban, and many other commentators point out, when a section begins eleh – “these are” – it replaces what has come before it. When a section begins ve-eleh – “and these are” – it builds upon what has gone before. The comparison to G-d’s first, second and third Creations is replayed now on a human level. But note: even G-d did not scrap the project completely. When G-d dismantled the Garden, the existing humans were not destroyed, but their roles and destinies changed. When G-d destroyed the whole world, the world itself remained, as did a man and his family. Even G-d, it seems, is bound by the consequences of having created this world of Space, Time, and Motion. Or: G-d has checked into the game. Like observant Jews who follow Halacha because we choose, G-d chooses to observe the Halacha of the system G-d has set in motion. On the level of pure human psychology and sociology, Shabbat is what novelist William Gibson calls a Consensual Hallucination. In order to make Torah work, G-d has chosen to participate in the hallucination as well.

Before we come to the origin of prayer, I have a conundrum that will not let me rest. In last week’s Parasha, Vayeira, Abraham took Sarah down to Gerar. Unlike the sojourn in Egypt, this side-trip has no clear impetus, no motivation. There is no famine, no military threat. Why does Abraham go there? And, once there, he immediately reverts to telling Sarah to pretend they are brother and sister.

In the first episode, in Mizraim, Abraham makes a startling admission – so unusual coming from a man who lives his entire life estranged from his own family, even as he dwells in their midst. In Lech Lecha, at 12:11, Abraham tells his wife: “I just realized that you are an attractive woman!” This is the sudden awareness of a man who, having won the bride, now dismisses her. This is a man who takes his wife for granted, at best. At worst, he believes she is inferior. Lucky for her that I married her, he thinks, otherwise she would have spent the rest of her life alone. It is more common than you may think. But now, out in the world, Abraham sees men stealing glimpses at Sarah. His passion is perhaps rekindled – though not, it would seem, his love.

Their brief stay in Gerar is different. When Abimelech realizes what has happened, he lets Abraham have it. He then turns to Sarah and speaks a sentence that has me bewildered. Bereshit 20:16. “And to Sarah he said: Look, I gave a thousand pieces of silver to your brother. Here, it is yours. A covering of the eye for all that is with you, and you are set right with everything.” This is usually translated as: “I gave the silver to Abraham, now let it be viewed as a rebuke to people who think I mistreated you.” This makes no sense. Clearly – the language in the Pasuk is plain – Abimelech is saying to Sarah: I give your brother a thousand pieces of silver, thinking I would buy you from him. Now that I recognize you are a married woman, I am ashamed at the very thought of this. Of course, your “brother” – and in the Pasuk, Abimelech uses the word “brother”, a rebuke at a man who still does not recognize how fortunate he is to have married Sarah – your brother can not keep the money, for it is not our way to permit husbands to sell their wives. But, Abimelech continues, I will not take back the money, for it would add shame to my shame, and it would shame you unnecessarily. Rather, you take the thousand pieces of silver. Let it ease your memory of all that you have undergone here, let it set everything right for you.

Sarah is now an independently wealthy woman. Compare: the four hundred pieces (shekel) of silver that Abraham ends up spending to buy the Cave of Machpelah is approximately equivalent to a quarter million dollars in today’s terms. Thus, Sara’s thousand pieces from Abimelech may be something on the order of six or seven hundred thousand dollars. A tidy sum for a woman to tuck away for a rainy day. And my question is: what happens to the money? A thousand pieces of silver do not just disappear.

If this Parasha is “about” anything, it is about the institution of prayer. Abraham’s Servant is the first person to pray for an outcome. Fortunately for him, his prayer is answered, and answered so immediately that ChaZaL refer to it as the single greatest prayer in all TaNaCh.

First, let us clarify a bit of Rabbinic revisionism.
Why are the Rabbis so bent on identifying Abraham’s servant with the figure of Eliezer? Eliezer is introduced in Abraham’s response (Resigned? Pathetic? Sarcastic?) at the beginning of the Covenant Between the Pieces, in Parashat Lech Lecha. At 15:2 Abram (his name will be changed in the course of this very scene) asks G-d” “what will you give me? And I continue childless. And the administrator of my household is Demeseq Eliezer.” The appelation is generally understood to mean Damascus, and translations call his Eliezer of Damascus. But the root of the word – Mem, Sin, Quf – is the same as the word translated in most versions (wrongly, it would seem) as “possessor” – ben-mesheq. Rashi says it means “administrator,” but it also carries meanings of Caretaker, Steward, and can generally mean a servant or slave. In the historical setting of the Abraham narrative, it was common for slaves to be legally taken into their families. Slaves could be made inheritors – could, in fact, be designated to receive the lot of the firstborn. Slaves were also married to their owners, or in other ways given legal status as family members. Thus, it is a normal response on Abram’s part to wonder aloud whether G-d merely intends for him to adopt Eliezer. Biologically, this would make sense – at Sarai’s and Abram’s advanced age – and we have already seen that the surrogacy of Lot was not a satisfactory father-soon relationship.

And so, not Eliezer. Throughout our Parasha, the Slave is not named. Rather, he is referred to repeatedly as Abraham’s Servant. Servant, Slave, take your pick, for the word carries both meanings equally.

And, as he is sub-servient to Abraham, so his relationship with G-d is on a lower level than his master’s. The Servant prays for an outcome. This is the first instance of prayer in the sense of bakashat tzrachim- asking to have one’s needs fulfilled. And it is answered immediately.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe says the Servant’s prayer was answered before he even finished it, to show that Rivka’s approach was actually not as an answer to the prayer – for G-d does not work in those ways. But the Rabbis in general accord to this prayer the single highest place in human history – the prayer that was answered while still on the lips of its speaker.

Which gives us a new insight into why the Servant repeats the entire story. Because our prayer – Tefillah – is made up of three parts: Praise, Requests, and Praises and Thanksgiving. The central blessings of the Amidah, the standard weekday prayer, are known as bakashat tzrachim – asking to have one’s needs fulfilled. They are also known as rachamei – the Mercies that G-d shows us.
Why do we ask for the same codified list of gifts? And why do we repeat this liturgy three times a day? Why not change, as our needs change? As our moods change?

One principal reason is that we are not asking for blessings. Though they do retain their character of Request, these central blessings are more Acknowledgements of G-d’s gifts. Gifts, if not to us, then to someone. If not to us now, then at some point in our lives. The Requests are all phrased in the plural. Clearly, we are not merely asking for our personal needs to be met. It is, rather, one of the principal attitudes of Judaism that, if the needs of Klal Israel are met, then our personal needs are satisfied.

And so we repeat the same blessings every day by way of acknowledging G-d’s beneficence. In another sense, each of the blessings is not even a request, not even an acknowledgement. It is, quite simply, another name of G-d. G-d is The One Who Is Gracious In Forgiveness. G-d is The One Who Heals The Sick. G-d is The One Who Rebuilds Jerusalem, The One Who Causes Salvation To Flourish. The One Who Hears Prayer.

And so the Servant’s retelling of his episode of prayer is, in a sense, the first real prayer, in the Jewish sense. Not his actual prayer, not his prayer spoken in the moments before Rivka approached. But, like Israel standing before the splitting of Yam Suf, he has witnessed the greatness of G-d’s mercy and bounty. And now, like us standing here so many thousands of years later, he recounts his experience, and that is the true origin of prayer. It takes a frightened person, a desperate person, a lazy person to ask G-d to intervene in the world. It takes a person of faith to retell the graciousness and generosity and mercifulness of G-d and make it as real in the retelling as it was in the moment. This, then, is the greatness of the Servant of Abraham. Less than Abraham – because, rather than accept G-d’s promises with silent faith, he asks G-d to intercede and make his task successful. But perhaps more than Abraham, too, because he took a principle from his experience and built a liturgy around it.

Abraham is revered as the great believer. As Kierkegaard calls him, “The Knight of Faith.” But how much faith does one require when one speaks daily and directly with G-d? Indeed, it was G-d who initiated the dialogue. The Servant, though, has learned well from his master. Faith is not “I believe something because G-d has told me.” Faith is, rather, “I know that G-d has always come through, and even though I have never seen G-d, G-d has never spoken to me, I have never experienced a miracle, still I know that G-d will see me through this moment. That whatever happens, it is what G-d wants.”

O Slave of Abraham! O true Knight of Faith!

In the Gemara in Shabbat – 30a – G-d tells David HaMelech that he will die on Shabbat. In the scene that ensues, David first asks to die on Sunday, and then on Friday. In responding to David’s request that he die one day later, G-d replies that it has already been ordained that the kingship of Shlomo is to begin that Motzaei Shabbat – at the end of Shabbat – and there can be no transfer of kingship while David remains alive. In response to David’s second request, to die a day earlier, G-d quotes David’s own words back to him. Taking the line from Tehillim 84:11, G-d says to David, “’For a day in your courts is better than a thousand.’ Better for me a single day where you sit and engage in Torah than the thousand offerings your son Shlomo is destined to offer before me upon the altar.”

G-d is telling David – “Was it not you who said ‘for a day in your courts is better than a thousand’? Was it not you who so adored, so clung to every moment of this relationship?” The Gemara is explained, in that David wanted Israel to be able to have the national experience of a full royal burial, which would not have been permitted had he died on Shabbat, for it was prohibited to keep the dead overnight in Jerusalem. Indeed, when, a few lines further, the Gemara recounts the scene of David’s death, Shlomo goes to Beit Din and asks to be permitted to move his father’s corpse, which is lying in the hot sun. He must place a loaf of bread upon the corpse, thereby making it into a bosis – a Halachic carrier for something permitted. Only then may he move it into the shade. But Shlomo must not take care of his father’s body, for it is Shabbat. In the same breath, the Beit Din commands Shlomo to feed the palace dogs.

Better is one day in the presence of G-d than ‘elef´- than a Thousand.

The first occurrence of the word ‘elef in all TaNaCh comes at the moment Abimelech talls Sarah “I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver.”

David lives before G-d. Like Abraham, he enjoys a close personal relationship with G-d. Unlike Abraham, G-d stays by David’s side almost to his final breath. Sarah’s Thousand Pieces of Silver represent several things: they are worldly wealth, and therefore they are comfort and independence. They cover up her shame, foremost before her husband – so dismissive is Abimelech of Abraham, so disdainful of his treatment of Sarah, that he does not even call him her Husband, even after it has been revealed. “I gave your brother a thousand pieces of silver,” he tells her – and the joke, and the disgrace, is upon Abraham. “Here,” Abimelech tells her. “They are yours.” It is a grand gesture of apology.

And what do they mean now, Sarah’s thousand pieces of silver? We never hear of them again. Perhaps Sarah merely keeps them, locked away in some private casket in her tent. From time to time, she takes out the box and opens it, and she sits and stares at this great material wealth that was given her in a moment of extreme need. That, when she needed her own personal salvation, the Hand of G-d worked a private, personal miracle for Sarah through the generous hand of Avimelech.

David knows the secret of Sarah’s silver. The thousand pieces of silver are her own prayer, her own ongoing acknowledgement that G-d cares deeply for each of us. That, at certain rare moments, we experience this care and love in the profoundest and most powerful way. And the rest of the time – we must remember. We must recount. We must rely.

Remember G-d’s mercies. Recount G-d’s mercies. Thank G-d for every miracle, even if today they are not visibly granted to us.

Yours for a better world.