Category Archives: Genesis

Parshat Vayeitzei (5775)

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

The Trees As Markers in the Life of Yaakov

The threes et Beit El-Luz. Photo Credit: Voices Magazine.

The threes et Beit El-Luz. Photo Credit: Voices Magazine.

As the season being to change, my attention takes to the trees. Now it is true that I live in urban Los Angeles, so the seasonal changes aren’t as dramatic. However, I do greatly enjoy the sights of the old and historic non-evergreen trees of the area, ones which the pioneering families planted and nurtured over a century or more ago. These tall and noble trees each have a story, if only you know someone old enough to tell you.

But we aren’t going to talk about the neighborhood history today, at least not the local history of this city. We will talk about the history of an ancient biblical city, and the possible connections there is to its name being inspired by trees mentioned elsewhere in this weeks Torah portion. This should be something interesting for all of us, tree-huggers or not.

Let us start with taking a look at our first piece of the text for today:

“And Yaakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.

“And he called the name of that place Beit El, but the name of the city was Luz at first.”

וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקַּח אֶתהָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁרשָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ, מַצֵּבָה; וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן, עַלרֹאשָׁהּ:

וַיִּקְרָא אֶתשֵׁםהַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, בֵּיתאֵל; וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁםהָעִיר, לָרִאשֹׁנָה:

Genesis 28:18-20

Yaakov has run away after tricking his way into receiving the blessing from his father, running away from the real risk of revenge from his brother Eisav. He has escaped into the wilderness. And after resting at this place and having his angelic vision of Jacob’s Ladder, he calls this place Beit El (which is anglicized as Beth El) – meaning the “House of G-d.” He is afraid as he exclaims the phrase from which this name will become derived, “’How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Genesis 28:17) This is the reason why he commemorates this place and anoints it as a sacred space.

But notice, the Torah also gives us another mention here. It tells us what the former name of this place was. The name that it used to have, when it was first founded by the Canaanites. The place is thus also referred to as Luz.

But why is this name Luz mentioned here in this story of Yaakov’s journey? Why does the Torah even bother to make this point? We believe that every word has a purposeful thought behind it. Us students of Torah treat no words as superfluous, we look for a meaning.

If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut.

Almond or hazelnut? If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut.

Thought to a fine rationalist this might sound hokey at first, but the truth is anyone who studies literature and communications recognizes that each word of a good work should be carefully considered. Looking for other instances of a word to deliver a meaning. As well as looking for any injection of one’s subtle mental connection they are making surrounding this line of thought. Especially if these similar words are close by in the text. And I think we might have yet another of those instances here in this week’s parsha.

The Torah tells us that the former name of the place was first Luz, but it doesn’t give us a definition or origins of this name. Or why this is of importance to a person like Yaakov. Nor why it is important to the overall narrative. So the question stands, why does the text give a name of a place but not bother to explain it? Is there something we can learn from this name if we explore it?

Often times the reason we don’t get definitions for names is obvious, many times we don’t ever see these names again so the text seems not to bother. But this is not one of those cases. This name Luz will be mentioned again in the scriptures as part of its proper name (Genesis 35:6, Genesis 48:3, Joshua 16:2, 18:13, etc; and a second site is later so named in Judges 1:26). Also because of its prominence in the scriptures, this name will also go on to be well-recognized in our oral legends. So what do know about this place and its name?

First, lets consider the more obvious meaning I see here. The word Luz (לוז) in ancient biblical Hebrew is understood to mean almond, or small nuts. Thus small nuts are poetically called lozim. But from where do we get this understanding?

I believe it is displayed for us readers two chapters ahead in our reading:

“And Yaakov took for himself rods

of fresh poplar

and of the almond,

and of the plane-tree;

and peeled white streaks in them,

making the white appear which

was in the rods.”

| Vayikach-lo Ya’akov makal

| livneh lach

| veluz

| ve’armon

| vayefatsel bahen petsalot levanot

| machsof halavan asher

| al-hamaklot

Genesis 30:37, (based on the JPS)

We know that these are all a type of white-wood trees. Their wood is described simple as that, lavan – meaning white; or blond wood, as we technically call it today. But that’s about it. But the exact species of each tree mentioned here in Hebrew, we aren’t exactly sure.

The best logical hints we have are drawn from the last mentioned of the three types of tree, the armon (ערמן) tree; often translated as chestnut, even though chestnut trees do not grow in the middle-east. It is better understood by some as meaning some type of almond. This can probably better be logically inferred by the fact that this name is paired with the luz tree, a species of tree which is obviously associated with the Arabic word loz, meaning almond. The words for “almond” here seems to actually apply to some of various small nuts from local light wood trees.

plane tree

From the Pictorial BIble of John Kitto (b. 1804 to d. 1854).

The complications of understanding the exact species of these trees is because of our lack of precise understanding of what the armon and livneh tree mentioned here are. It becomes more complex as we try to draw more ideas from among ancient texts and old translations. Notice how later on we likewise see the armon translated as a nut-tree in many bibles (see Ezekiel 31:9; also see image to the right for an understanding of the western interpretations of this, which the JPS follows). But then alternatively later on in the prophets, the livneh tree is going to be translated as “poplar,” along side a different clan of trees like the oaks and the elms. (Hosea 4:13) So maybe we are talking about a different species all together.

But again, I have to stress that we aren’t exactly sure the species of each tree. If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut. The fact is, we aren’t exactly sure. But we have a pretty good idea concerning the possible types and the nature of the trees we are discussing. In the majority of cases, we can agree these are talking about light wooded nut trees. This area formerly know as Luz, it might have been named for the presence of such sightly trees.

A few times in the bible we see this name Luz mentioned in relation to the thickness of the wilderness. Like later in Joshua where Luz is mentioned. It is a spot that people pass on their way though and so is it noteworthy. (see Joshua 16:2, 18:13) This also follows the pattern of the bible to mention places according to physical markers, like these fortuitously shady trees; as later on at Shechem. (see Genesis 35:4; interesting if one compares it against Hosea 4:13) It makes the spot easier to identify by site, which apparently existed from the most ancient days and still persisted to that day.

And yet another the other reason yet to mention this site is because the name Luz might have meant something, and this could have been something worth hinting at. There could have been some legends or folklore regarding the site, which would lend its meaning into the story. Now keep in mind, like many famous sites in the middle-east, there is more than on place called Luz; the name was fortuitous enough for people to want to associate it with yet another site.

There seems to be this old legend regarding the location known as Luz, that if you get there you were finally safe and clear of all harm. This place seems to be associated with a feeling of good fortune on the part of travelers, soldiers and merchants; a place which emotes a sense that you have somehow cheated mortality amidst the fierce wilderness. Or in Yaakov’s case, the Cannaan valley below.

This thought seems carried over when we see the second site of Luz mentioned, as noted in Judges 1:26. This Luz was a city founded by a man whom the Israelites showed mercy on and let escape as they invaded Canaan. This was his reward for showing them their way in their time of need. In the Oral Torah we read a well-known and fascinating reflection on the folklore surrounding a city name Luz. The Talmud reads:

And the man went into the land of the Hittites, and built a city, and called the name thereof Luz: which is the name thereof unto this day [ibid, verse 26]. It has been taught: That is the Luz in which they dye the Blue/Tekhelet [Soncino: For the fringes (Num. XV, 38). The purpose of this statement and what follows is to illustrate the words ‘which is the name thereof unto this day’, showing that the city survived destruction and still exists.]; that is the Luz against which Sennacherib marched without disturbing it, against which Nebuchadnezzar marched without destroying it, and even the Angel of Death has no permission to pass through it, but when the old men there become tired of life they go outside the wall and then die.”

Talmud Bavli, Sotah 46b

Now this second site Luz, we don’t know anything about it other than it is also on in the side of the hills of the wilderness with the trees. We don’t know if it is some distance from, or just adjacent to the old Luz. Still, it is the name that we should consider more.

And there is still another story yet about Luz from the Talmud which we should also keep in mind:

There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes [Kings 4:3], of Solomon. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou sad?’ — ‘Because’, he answered him, ‘they [in Heaven] have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here.’ [Solomon thereupon] gave them in charge of the spirits* and sent them to the district of Luz. ** When, however, they reached the [mere gate of the] district of Luz they died.

On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was in cheerful spirits. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou cheerful?’ — ‘To the place’, the other replied, ‘where they expected them from me, thither didst thou send them.’ Solomon thereupon uttered the saying, ‘A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.’”

Soncino Notes:

*Over whom Solomon had dominion (cf. Meg. 11b, on I Chron. XXIX, 23).

**To save them from death. V. Gen. XXVIII, 19 and Judg. I, 23. Owing probably to the identification of this word with the one meaning ‘the indestructible bone of the vertebra’ (Lev. R., XVIII) tradition says that the Angel of Death had no power in Luz (v. Sot. 46b).

Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 53a (Soncino)

Luz in our folklore is a place where one can almost cheat death, while at the same time being located in what is regionally considered a perilous locale. It’s name comes with a lot of lengends associated with it.

What can we glean from the name of this place and the layered folklore which comes into play with this legend of Luz, and how might it affect the mood of the story here in the life of Yaakov?

Luz seems to emote this mystical idea of being protected from harm by reaching and dwelling there. But danger for those outside of it. So much that this myth arose about those who dwell in the actual city not ever dying, as the Angel of Death as no power within the walls of Luz. People would could just continue to keep on living and living, without risk of death or mortality. But as we see, this often creates a painful sense of stagnation. One which the legend tells us ends with the old men eventually getting tired of their life, and finally leave it all behind and venture outside of the walls of the city to lay down and die there.

In a parsh study by blogger Mitch Morgenstern, he sources an wonderful drash upon the first of our Talmudic interpretations from Sotah to Rabbi Abner Weiss, Rabbi of the Village Shul in Westwood, Los Angeles:

יט. וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בֵּית אֵל וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם הָעִיר לָרִאשֹׁנָה:

19. And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city

Question – What is the significance that Luz was the original name?

Answer: Luz is mentioned in Sotah 46b as a place where people lived forever and when the old men became tired of life, they go outside the wall and then die.

Luz represents stagnation, lack of growth. Yaakov brought the concept of growth, that we must all grow in our service to God, in spirituality, and in life. This is behind the name change. Yaakov taught the world the we must became a בֵּית אֵל – a house of God, always growing in our connection to God, our learning, and our helping others and in spirituality.

Mitch Morgenstern, from “Exploring Kotzk,”

attributed to Rabbi Abner Weiss, Rabbi of

Village Shul in Westwood, Los Angeles

When the rabbi talks about helping others, he means like the kindly Canaanite in the stories of the Judges. Showing people the way out of their danger, like the Canaanite did for the Israelites. We must show this type of service, and even more by escorting others and providing for them in their perilous journey – which is actually the main thrust of that talmudic text in context, I see the truth of this.

I also see the connection he is making to Yaakov making a mental and emotional transition at this place. Leaving behind just the tedious of his mere existence, because Yaakov is still alive but he’s not really living here. He’s alone and possession-less. He lays his head on a nearby stone because he has nothing else to use. He may be alive, but he is a wreck and he can’t go on any further. So here he lays.

My own understanding of this interpretation also follows these lines of the folklore. It could also be that Yaakov falling to a heap and resting here, at Luz, was a terrible sign about both his physical and emotional state as he fled to the east. This Luz was a perilous place out in the open, among the rocks and trees. He was not within the safety of a city yet! That he laid down there is not just to say to that he was physically endangered here, but he was also on a heart level ready to die. He didn’t know how to or nor see a way of going on, so all of himself just collapsed and laid there.

Here he lays among the rocks and trees of the wilderness. So why doesn’t he notice, nor the text explicitly mention, the trees we ranted on so much about? Because he arrive there at Luz right after the sun sets, as the text tells us. (see Genesis 28:11) To look for shade is not needed! In the story here, he merely takes immediate notice of a rock to use there as a pillow and thus make no upfront mental note of the area’s trees. He merely takes notice the of the rocks he lays his head upon. He lays his head at this place and has a dream, one which changes him. It inspires Yaakov so much, that he changes the name of this place and anoints this rock with oil before he moves forward. This spot becomes know as Beit El, the house of G-d, but still often referred to as Luz within the same breath.

But why mention these trees as part of the terrain and make hinting notes of them? First off, in order to give physical markers regarding the geography of this area for native Judeans. With the expectation of people being able to identify these sites, all in order to lend historic credibility to the narrative. And to connect with the native legends of the region.

And because the references regarding the tress of these wilderness places spoken of here in Judea are going to persist throughout the next couple parashiot; as the trees are going to become markers of major transition points in the life of Yaakov – and not so much the rocks. The trees of the wilderness are going take prominence in this story of Yaakov; just as much as the altars of Abraham and the well of Isaac did.

These tree-laden places are going to be emotional and spiritual markers for the life of Yaakov.

In next week’s Torah reading we are going to hear of Yaakov making his way back from Charan. He will be coming back after many years of exile and servitude abroad. (see Genesis chapter 35)

And he is going to have two pivotal moments where infamous trees are mentioned. First is the great elm of Shechem. This is where Yaakov’s wives give up their foreign gods and any of their associate jewelry, and they are buried there at the base of the elm of Shechem. This is a pivotal moment, in which his household removes all forms of idolatry from themselves and sanctify themselves to serve Hashem alone, before going back up to Beth El to worship G-d there. (see Genesis 35:4)

The other marking point to notice is going to be after they finally arrive safely and do their duties at Beth El, marked by the death of Devorah the governess and nursemaid of Rebekkah. She is mournfully buried near the great oak, which is still existent and called Allon-Bachut in their day. Yaakov again has to step-up his role as leader and elder to his clan even more so now. (see Genesis 35:8)

But more importantly, Yaakov will also arrive at Beit El-Luz free of any revenge attacks by his brother Eisvav or his father-in-law Laban. He will have escaped mortality again, in many ways. He will be making his way back from the journey he is barely setting out on here in this weeks parsha, as he leaves Luz here as a merely a broken and destitute man. But next time he will be something far from that! He will then be a complete person with a clan of his own, and role as patriarch secured.

I believe for this reason the Torah will go out of its way to remind us that this Beth El is the same place as that old Luz, which he passed through in such a sorry and sad shape in our narrative this week; alone and destitute. To contrast how much things will have changed, for and regarding Yaakov Avinu:

“So Yaakov came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan – the same is Beit-el – he and all the people that were with him.”

וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב לוּזָה, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַןהִוא, בֵּיתאֵל: הוּא, וְכָלהָעָם אֲשֶׁרעִמּוֹ.

Genesis 35:6

Mitzvah Suggestion: Do you have a momentous occasion or life cycle you wish to commemorate? Why not plant a tree! Then like Yaakov you can have some tangible markers in your landscape, which bear witness to your momentous and pivotal moments in life. Make it a fruit or a nut-tree, so you can also say a Shehecheyanu when it fruits – offering us even more opportunity to bless the arrival of more good seasons.

Parshat Yayigash (2013)

Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

Are you better off than your parents were?

One of the things that I enjoy the most is listening to my grandfather tell stories. Though he is suffering from Alzheimer’s which impairs his memories, his recall of the far-off past is still intact. It is those wandering stories that always kept me enthralled hour after hour. Now after all these years of our talks I see our time together becomes less frequent, so I cherish these moments all the more. I long to hear about what he has seen and done, to give context to how my family and I came to our place and position in life. I think it’s important to hear the scale of their challenges and the measure of their toil.

How will you recount your journey? Will you look back with nostalgia or regret?

I’ll be honest with you, I often feel that the rest of my family doesn’t spend enough time taking with the grandparents about their history. And I hear the reasons why some shy away. I supposed it is easy to understand how one can be a bit intimidated by our elders often crotchety talk sometimes. In their senior repose, even the coming of good fortune can tend to be downplayed and met with a wry face.

This is how I picture the way that Yaakov Avinu reacts to his arrival in Egypt and his presentation to Pharaoh. He has been reunited with his long-lost son, and they are being granted amnesty in Egypt instead of suffering the famine of Canaan. As the night continues and Pharaoh tries to make conversation with Yaakov we see this awkward exchange. Pharaoh just asks him how old he is and we get this cranky response:

“And Yaakov said to Pharaoh

the days of my wandering

have been 130 years.

Few and bitter

have been the days of the years of my life,

and still I have not achieved

the day of the years

of the lives of my fathers

during the days of their wandering.”

| Vayomer Ya’akov el-Par’oh

| yemei shnei megurai

| shloshim ume’at shanah

| me’at vera’im

| hayu yemei shnei chaiai

| velo hisigu

| et-yemei shnei

| chaiei avotai

| bimei megureihem

Genesis 47:9

Now we must ask ourselves, what is Yaakov saying here? Is he just falling into nostalgia or is he really saying something? Is this just the ranting of a tired old man, or is he trying to relay something?

I have to start this way because in modern-speak among the young people the word nostalgia doesn’t really mean the same thing it used to. Instead of nostalgia being the glowing admiration of the past that our parents saw, for the youth of today nostalgia means being crippled by the trapping of the past. As they say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. At this point most often the brains turns off. And that’s tragic, because there is a wonderful lesson that is completely relevant to our generation which can be learned by listening to what Yaakov has to say here.

If we actually take notice we will see that Yaakov is not so much praising his past. He isn’t really rose-tinting the old-days. In fact what he says about his life is kind of striking. Here at 130 years old he says his days were “me’at ve’ra’im / few and evil.”

On one hand we can look at it this way, Yaakov is 130 years old but he has not lived as long as his fathers Abraham and Isaac, who lived about 180 or so. So is he begrudging that he doesn’t seem to have the longevity of his forefathers?

Yaakov’s life is not yet over when he makes this statement, this is said upon his arrival in Egypt. Surely this was not the end of his life that he could speak which such certain remorse. Secondly, having lived 130 years he is not exactly having his days cut short. Sure, he didn’t live as long as his ancestors. But he did live beyond the normal 120 years we associate with natural life.

What some fail to recognize about this verse is that he is not talking about his life being short. He is saying that his megurai – his sojourn, his journey, his pilgrimage has been short. His wandering has been short.

Now how can he say this? Is it not true that Yaakov spent many years on the run away from home? In fact if anything his wandering in life actually ate up a lot of his early years. His years spent with Laban in service for his wives were 14 years alone. We aren’t exactly sure how many years he spent on the run from Eisav and in his journey to return home to Canaan.

But he did have a lot of years spent in servitude after running away, we can’t ignore that. However, in the context of his youth it is said, “And Yaakov served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him but a few days, because of the love he had for her.” (see Genesis 29:20) Many years were consumed with hardship, but he didn’t get overwhelmed by them because of his passion that propelled him. In his mind those days went by quickly. He can’t be talking about the flight of his youth here.

The reason why most quickly jump to the conclusion that he is talking about his sojourn when he left Canaan is because those days were indeed “ra’im / bitter,” or literally evil. They were days of calamity. He was on the run for his life from his brother, he was oppressed by his uncle, he was swindled for being lovesick, and he wrestled with his nature and with the divine through an angel as well. But that doesn’t seem to be what he is talking about.

Many midrashim that bring clarity to this text actually point us back to the start of Parshat Vayeishev, which just recently passed. There we see another contrast between Yaakov and his forefathers:

“Yaakov dwelt in the land |

of his father’s sojournings, |

in the land of Canaan.” |

וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ

מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו

בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן :

Genesis 37:1

In this light we see things very different. Instead of Yaakov being the wander, we see him as the settled one. He’s made his yeshuv, his settlement. But it is his fathers that were the sojourners, they were the wanderers. As we see when it comes to the life of Avraham and even Isaac, they traveled around in their tents. They owned land, but they were not settled men. They could not be settled men because they were gerim – they were strangers, they were outsiders, they were migrants. Unlike Yaakov, they were not recognized as born there as citizens on the land and were always contended with as foreigners in the eyes of the Canaanites. This always kept them on the move. In contrast Yaakov just returned to the land that was previously settled by them and dwelt there, and lived out a pretty sedentary life until he is brought down to Egypt in this week’s parsha. He ran early on in his life, but in the end he live consecutively in one place more than his forefathers had.

And that seems to be what Yaakov is getting at. Abraham and Isaac roamed the valleys and plains of Canaan. They ran the wild, wide-open habitation they made for themselves all the days of their lives.

Yaakov returned home to Canaan find himself dwelling to maintain a legacy settlement home. And though he was in one place and physically at rest, his mind and heart was never at rest.

By and large our midrashim and the commentary of our sages point out the fact that Yaakov’s years were indeed bitter because of the loss of his son Yosef. Add to that the untimely loss of his beloved wife, Rachel Imenu. Compound that with the callous and treacherous ways of his sons, as also displayed in acts like their massacre of Shechem. He returned home to settle, but little did he rest because of his worries. Though he dwelt securely in the land for many years, his days were consumed with worry that made them pass fast and furiously.

When I consider all this, I don’t see Yaakov as bitter that he didn’t get to live a full cowboy-like existence that his forefathers did, as much I see a man who was exhausted from the burden of property and maintaining that established legacy he fought so hard to win. I believe what is going on Yaakov is that when he considers his life he doesn’t see any of the pioneering and grand goals his fathers had. His forefathers established new settlements, built their many wells to secure the future of that land. They had the thrill of being the founder and inventor, and not so much the burden of being the boss. He seems almost envious of their freedom. Likewise it can be seem that for all the things that Yaakov did accomplished, he never achieved the things his forefathers did.

Now when Yaakov is called to recount his years, looking back his days seem quite few and his life profoundly bitter. And this is how Yaakov answers the Pharaoh who seems to be humoring him, right before Yaakov blesses him and leaves.

As I look at these word of Yaakov I also begin to see another truth revealed to me when I look at the words, “velo hisigu et-yemei shnei chaiei avotai / and still I have not reached the days of the lives of my fathers.” We have to remember one of the reasons that Yaakov and his sons are there to begin with, because there is a famine in their land. All the settlements and accomplishments of his forefathers were abandoned and he was forced to take sanctuary again in foreign land.

What I believe Yaakov is saying here is that he did not achieve (hisigu) in his lifetime what his forefathers did in leaving something better behind for his children. His fathers acquired much, they build upon the foundation of the previous generation, and had an impressive inheritance to leave behind. In contrast Yaakov was leaving his children in financial ruin, abandoning their family home and they were now receiving foreign aid. He didn’t appear to be leaving his children off better than his fathers left him.

In conclusion, we have often talked about the topic yeridah ha-dorot – the decent of generations, that as generations go by men seem to grow smaller. The men of the old days, they just can’t happen in our day. They just don’t make men the way they used to. (see Parshashiot of Lech Lecha and Vayeira 2012, Parshat Vayeira 2013)

We have even seen this attitude mirrored in our culture in more recent years by people like Tom Brokaw, dubbing our seniors that lived through The Great Depression and World War II “The Greatest Generation.” Likewise we see all the documentaries and books glowingly praising their public works and social justice accomplishments, ones that sadly lack today even though we have the know-how. We are puny men in their shadow, the trope goes.

Sure there is a level of this reflected in Yaakov’s statement, however I believe it is the position of destitution that irks him the most. Yaakov is happy to be reunited with his son Yosef here, but bitter to be doing so as a refugee.

So what lesson can people who have a full life ahead of us learn from this reflection of Yaaakov? What kind of things should we consider to make sure we don’t look back with bitter regret? Here are some suggestions:

First off, that we should try to live our lives so that we do not look back regretful of many years of running from and wrestling with one’s self-identity. Much of Yaakov’s personal suffering was due to that. Have you made peace with yourself?

Secondly, we need to also set great goals. We need to set our mark in the way that the generations before us did. We need to be original and ground breaking. We need to demand better than we had in our previous generation, not satisfied to just inherit what our parents built. We need to ask ourselves, are you better off than your parents were?

And lastly, are you leaving your children better off than your parents left you? I’m not just asking are you leaving an inheritance to your children. What I’m asking is, are you leaving your children in a better position that you were? It’s more than just considering if you are leaving your children anything more than a legacy of debt. Are your children and grandchildren poised for a better future? Have you left them a society that is more civil than the one before? Better yet, have you left them a country that has more opportunities and economic promise than you inherited?

If we can’t say yes to these things, maybe we really need to do something before we look back with regret instead of nostalgia.

Parshat Mikeitz (2013)

Genesis 41 –  44:17

Yosef: The Minority Leader with Major Influence

What does is it that makes a man a visionary or a dreamer? How would you define this type of personality and mindset? These type of people often tend to be charismatic leaders that not only command respect from a crowd, but they often tend to be people who are able to uniquely communicate the needs of the individual as well. They also know how to take one person’s dream and translate it into success for all.

We are going to take a look at that type of person today as displayed through the life of Yosef haTzadik.

My attention was actually captured by the last verse in our second reading. However to put it into context we should starts with the preceding verse as well. Our text reads as follows:

“And the statement was good

in the eyes of Pharaoh

and in the eyes of his servants.

And Pharaoh said to his servants,

‘Where will we find another man like this,

a man with G-d’s spirit in him?’”

| Vayitav hadavar

| be’einei Paroh

| uve’einei kol-avadav

| Vayomer Paroh el-avadav

| hanimtza kazeh ish

| asher ruach Elohim bo

Genesis 41:37-38

Our text tell us that this matter (ha-davar) was pleasing (vayitav) in the eyes of Pharaoh and his advisors. But what matter are we speaking of? In this parsha we learn that the Pharaoh had a disturbing dream, but he was not able to understand its significance. The dream and it’s meaning eluded him.

Yosef is still in slavery in Egypt, in-fact he is still imprisoned unjustly for a crime he was framed for when he is called up and out of prison to interpret a set of dreams for the ruler of Egypt. He has previously had success with interpreting dreams for some servants of Pharaoh’s, so he is eventually remembered and is turned to as a last resort.

Why do I put it that way? It’s because Yosef is certainly the last type of person this king and all his advisors would normally turn to. This is even stated by the Butler who brings up the story of how his dream was amazingly interpreted for him by Yosef.

Before the Butler gets too carried away he first has to give the king a few qualifying “buts.” He has to warn Pharaoh about the type of person he is speaking of. Actually, more precisely this butler actually gives Pharaoh the reasons that he would think of dismissing such a person, but he insists that Yosef should be listened to because his words prove to be true.

It doesn’t flow the same way in English, but in Hebrew it lays out the points like thuds for Pharaoh to brace himself for:

“Now there was with us a young man, a Hebrew, servant of the captain of the guard; we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us. He gave each person an interpretation for his dream.”

וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי, עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, וַנְּסַפֶּרלוֹ, וַיִּפְתָּרלָנוּ אֶתחֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ: אִישׁ כַּחֲלֹמוֹ, פָּתָר:

Genesis 41:12

If we think about it, Pharaoh is the most influential man in the known world. His name really needs no explanation, he is king and conqueror over his own impressive empire. Naturally as a ruler of paramount influence he had the most senior and experienced advisors to turn to in all matters. He had the best and wisest men money could buy lining his court.

Though when they failed him, Pharaoh’s butler could only recommend that he call on a na’ar – a young man, a boy, a youth. Most often the classical bible translations render this as “lad,” but that doesn’t appropriately relay the meaning of the term. It is true this word is rooted the same as the word no’ar – which clearly means youth. But here this word na’ar comes with all the condescending tones that is similar to snapping one’s fingers and yelling “garçon” (French) or “joven” (Spanish) to a waiter; sure it means “youth,” but it also is a declaration about the other’s status of subservience. The Egyptians identify that their first objection to him is based on his youth. He is a child, to be seen and not heard.

Now the next thing that you would think that would be brought up would be the fact that he is a convict and a slave. No, this seems rather easy to dismiss. If we notice here, the fact that he is a convict and for what type of crime is of no concern worth mentioning. Even his slave status is not mentioned until last. He is not just a servant, he is an eved; a slave.

What is of more importance to bring up, in order of priority, is that Yosef is an Ivri – he is a Hebrew.

Of course we all know how this story ends. Yosef interprets the dream of Pharaoh and is made a regent over all the land of Egypt, second in command to the ruler himself. He is elevated because of the good interpretation of the dream. Pharaoh being convinced that if this wise lad could see what was coming he could also help prevent that disaster.

Yet even as Yosef became a man of authority and status, the stigma of being a Hebrew always hung over him.

Now what proof do I have to make such claim? I present us with a verse from a little bit later on in our parsha. The banquet scene with Yosef and his unwitting brothers:

“And they set for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, that did eat with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.

וַיָּשִׂימוּ לוֹ לְבַדּוֹ, וְלָהֶם לְבַדָּם; וְלַמִּצְרִים הָאֹכְלִים אִתּוֹ, לְבַדָּםכִּי לֹא יוּכְלוּן הַמִּצְרִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶתהָעִבְרִים לֶחֶם, כִּיתוֹעֵבָה הִוא לְמִצְרָיִם.

Genesis 43:32

Think about this for a moment. Later on in our parsha we read of Yosef in the best light. Where he is really showing off his authority and is at his most ostentatious, as he calls a banquet for his clueless brothers. But notice when the meals are served Yosef sits alone. And his brothers, they dine on their own. We are told why, because Egyptians are not allowed to eat with Hebrews, it is toyveh – it is an abomination, it is detestable to them to eat with Hebrews.

One of the points that many seem to miss is that our text also suggest that even the Egyptians on staff for Yosef ate separately from him as well, they ate at the same time but they set out separate place-settings for themselves to the side. There are three sets of place-settings laid out! Even in his role as ruler, Yosef was not socially equal to the Egyptians. To even eat with him, the Egyptians considered that to be against that natural order of their world.

This is a long side-track, but it’s important for us to understand the amount of discrimination and the layers of prejudice Yosef had to battle in his lifetime. We just tend to think it all got easy for him once he was raised up as regent, but that’s not so.

If this was the case, that Yosef was always under a racial stigma, then why would we suppose that the Egyptians would give such authority to Yosef the Hebrew? Well, as our text reveals the first reason is because the interpretation that Yosef gave to Pharaoh’s dreams was pleasing in their eyes (vayitav hadavar b’einei). It satisfied something in them. And specifically in Pharaoh himself, in a very personal way as well.

Now what we need to recognize regarding the revelation that Yosef gave is that Pharaoh did not wait to see if this interpretation proved to be valid. He just accepts it as so. But how can this be? How could a man such a Pharaoh put his trust in seemingly unsubstantiated claims. How could he just trust in this Yosef’s words and advice so?

Also we need to notice that Pharaoh just flung the task of governance on Yosef without him even directly asking for it. Notice that Yosef tells Pharaoh to find for himself a man who is “navon u’chacham / who is smart and wise.” Someone that is witty and intelligent. I’m not ssur if Yosef is talking about himself, or is merely just giving the qualifications for the type of man who Pharaoh needs. But he finds himself landing the job.

The words of any person, no matter who they are, is worthless unless their words resonates with the listener. It is of no effect unless the message also bring harmony to the dreams others aspire to in their heart

The words of any person, no matter who they are, is worthless unless their words resonates with the listener. It is of no effect unless the message also bring harmony to the dreams others aspire to in their heart

What is it about his message that made Pharaoh value it more than all the words of his advisors? What was it that caught his attention that made him trust Yosef more than even his cabinet? Our rabbis tell us that it was because Yosef’s message resonated with Pharaoh in away that the others didn’t.

The Midrash Shechel Tov (12th century) offers us some interesting insights that address these points in its commentary for our two previously mentioned verses (see Midrash Shechel Tov, Genesis 41:37-38).

The midrash tells us that when Pharaoh dreamed this up in his head he had also received the interpretation for it. He didn’t just have a dream! He had dreamt of the solution as well, though he had forgotten them both.

I think most of us know this type of frustration, to be startled awake by a dream. And having your partner asking you to tell them the dream, but as you try to recount it you realized you forgot your dream. You woke-up knowing what it was about, but now as you try to explain what captured you so the memory begins to fade. And that often becomes more frustrating as one senses there is something just out of grasp in our minds, and then it’s gone again. It’s even more irritating as people try to help you piece it together with things that don’t seem to fit. This seems to be what Pharaoh is experiencing.

The midrash tells us that when Pharaoh heard Yosef’s interpretation Pharaoh began to recall his dreams again. He was able to recognize the vision that Yosef was having as being the same as the dreams that Pharaoh had experienced.

Our sages and scholars also give us some other interesting insight into this text. The Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abravenel, 15th Century, Spain) also gives us another reason why Yosef’s interpretation was valued over that of Pharaoh’s advisors. The reason they could not interpret his dream was because they saw the two dreams Pharaoh had as independent and separate dreams. But it was only Yosef that was able to pair them together, and thus offer a solution to both.

The famed scholars Nechama Leibowitz comments on this point of the Abarbanel, asking us to take notice that when Pharaoh refers to his dreams he speaks of them in the singular. He says “I’ve dreamed a dream,” chalom in the singular. (see Genesis 41:15,17) He seems to know that they are one in the same, they are one dream. And likewise there is only one answer to those dreams. He just feels that they are one in his soul. No answer was pleasing to Pharaoh until a unified solution was offered to him by Yosef.

When Yosef is taken out of the prison, cleaned and shaved he was still facing a lot of discrimination against him. They couldn’t fully wash away all the stigma. By the standards of Pharaoh and his men, he was still but “a boy.” Yosef was not exactly the type of person that one would expect to give audience to (probably the reason why the Butler never brought him up), let alone put in a place of authority and leadership for the king.

Yet he is still elevated as a leader, all things considered. But even then, he is not transformed into a beltway-boy. He is not ever really accepted into the establishment and upper-crust. He is respected, but not honored with true dignity. They always saw him as different.

And he was different. What makes Yosef different from that of Pharaohs men is that he was not just able to deliver a visions of the future, Yosef was able to offer a solution and a plan. While the rest of the men were following after their own separate visions of Pharaoh’s dream, Yosef was already several steps ahead of them in offering a comprehensive answer to it all. He was the first to step out of fantasy and into reality with some sort of suggestion and advice. And that commanded respect, above all the individual speculations of the others in Pharaoh’s court.

In the end Pharaoh is forced to concede, and even battle off the objections of his own prejudices and that of his court in saying “Even if we tried, would we ever find another man like this?” Pharaoh himself says that Yosef has a unique character about him, that he has the spirit of G-d in him. That Yosef is blessed with a unique quality of wisdom that only G-d alone can give. He isn’t exactly what they were looking for, but he is the best they can find. He is worth giving a chance to.

Do you consider yourself a dreamer? Do you aspire to be a visionary? Maybe you might even consider your ability to be effective and influential in your community to be limited by the prejudices people have against you. You might identify with Yosef in this way. Maybe you are different, because you don’t fit in for some sort of social, ethnic or religious reasons. If so, then you have the example of Yosef going before you as a pioneer of success and strength in the face of lifelong prejudice.

The example of Yosef goes before us, challenging us to be people who are more than just smart-talking men. It is also tasking us to be more than mere dreamers as well. Here at this point in Yosef’s life he has matured to being more than a mere dreamer with his own goals in mind, he is now a problem solver and a unifier. He is now able to use his words as more than just tools of gossip and judgmentalism that divide, as in his youth among his brothers when he bombarded them with his self-serving visions. Here he is now able to use his words in a way that resonate with truth for the listener. He was able to take things that were seemingly confounding and contradictory, then unify them as a single goal that everyone could identify with. Even his critics had to concede in the end, that his advice seemed pleasing even in their eyes as well (uve’einei kol-avadav).

I wish that more of us were willing to take up these examples from Yosef so that we can also be effective and purposeful people. To be a visionary, and not just a dreamer. People who will be willing to bring unity to our goals of social justice and spiritual harmony.

The Midrash Sechel Tov also makes another point of this in its commentary here, hinting at a reason to seek this path of unity and harmony. The midrash suggests that we should operate according to ways that are pleasing to G-d, for when we do that it will show with even our enemies being compelled to be at peace with us as well. (Proverbs 16:7) The sages tell us then even our enemies will become advocates and allies with us.

If our vision and spirituality is valid, it will show by compelling unity among us and our enemies. That is an interesting challenge I am willing to take-on. I hope that there are others who are also willing to join me this year in doing the same.

The lesson this week is simple. Sometimes the last thing we need is just another smart person in the room. What society really needs is people with a lot of spirit.

Parshat Vayeishev (2013)

Genesis 37 – 40:21

Finding Friendship in the Company of Outcasts

Do you have a friend that always accepts you no matter what? Is that your idea of a good friend? What type of friends do you have in your life? Are they cronies or are they partners for greater things? Today we are going to explore some friendships born under pressure, and explore what makes them most intimate.

Though most of this parsha seem to concern itself with the uppity Yosef haTzadik, I actually found myself drawn in to the story of our anti-hero Yehuda. We don’t often give enough look at him, first because he is a villain of sorts up until now. Secondly, his story is sandwiched in the middle of our parsha, so it feels like just a minor stop-off. However, we have a lot to learn here in Genesis chapter 38.

Let us take a look at the top of our fourth aliya:

“And in time its happened that

Judah was demoted in the eyes

of his brothers,

so he turned to certain Adullamite

whose name was Hirah.”

| Vayehi ba’et hahi

| vayered Yehuda

| me’et echav

| bvayet ad-ish Adulami

| ushmo Chirah.

Genesis 38:1

Previously we learned that Yehuda was chiefly responsible for his brother’s kidnapping and the consequential selling of him into slavery.  For his role as antagonist in this case, rightfully his brothers demote him. The word use is vayered, they made him decrease or go down. His yeridah (descent) was not just metaphorical, it was also physical as he ran away from his blessed home and went to stay out in the wilderness with a friend he made from Adullam, in the Valley of Elah.

Male Friends Embracing

This week we discuss friendships. Why don’t we talk enough about the need of men to have male-friendships?

I use the word “friend” because this is the type of word that is used in the scriptures to describe the relationship that there was between Yehuda and Chirah. Not just once does it use this word, but twice in this chapter we hear of Chirah as Yehuda’s, “ray’ayhu / his friend.” (see Genesis 38:12, 20) The text also seems to suggest they might be business partners, as the first mention of friendship also states that they went up to sheer their sheep together as if this is their shared trade.

Now what type of friend is this that Yehuda has in him? I once heard the crass phrase: “Friends help you move. But real friends help you move bodies.” This here friendship of course was not that bad, but it was pretty close to being partners in crime. They were close friends that depended on each other and that held each other’s secrets. A friendship that in a time of need one can depend on the other for help in getting out of their mess. In each other they had a friend that wouldn’t turn away out of judgement or disgust.

Now this type of friendship is rare. In fact we don’t often hear of this type of interdependency in our tradition. Of this type of re’ah (רֵעַ), of this type of friend. One of the few places that we hear of this type of relationship is during the Sheva Brachot of the marriage ceremony. We pray that a couple should find in each other, “ahavah v’achavah, v’shalom v’rayut / love and fraternity, peace and friendship.”

Finding a good friend can often be just as hard as finding a good spouse. Finding someone in whom you can trust and even expose your most intimate things to is not at all easy.

What Yehuda needed in a friend was someone who would not just understand him as much as his wife did, but someone who was trustworthy enough to help him defuse a secret that one would normally keep from  their wife!

In quick summary, Yehuda had a childless widow of a daughter-in-law who desperately wanted a child. According to the custom it was her right to have a male brother of the husband’s clan help her conceive, in order to enable her to keep her status and land holdings through an heir. Because one of Yehuda’s sons did wrong by her and subsequently died on account of it, he refuses to let another of his immature boys get involved and thus she is left in a state of hopelessness.

However, we read here in this chapter that one day Yehuda came across this woman, Tamer his daughter-in-law. Her girlfriends had told her that he was coming into town, so she sought him out to again make her case. One night she was waiting on the side of the road for him as he was coming back from partying. We can only assume in a drunken stupor. Dressed in a veil, Yehuda mistakes Tamar for a prostitute. In desperation she goes along with it, and she does in fact conceive by this act.

The crux of the story is that Tamar is given a signet ring, a tassel and his staff as a guarantee for her payment of a goat that he is promising her. Though she takes these items knowing they will be needed to prove the paternity of the child she hopes to conceive.

When Yehuda comes to, of course he needs to follow through on his promise. And better yet he needs to claim his cherished items that can identify him as a player. So he sends his most intimate friend, Chirah the Adulami with his ransom.

In the end we read that eventually Yehuda learns about Tamar’s pregnancy in a complicated and dramatic plot twist. And he does claim the twin sons as his own, clearing her of any wrong doing and even praising her. He was the one that had twice acting unbecoming; first by his refusing his adult son to her for her redemption as a lady, and secondly by using her as an outlet for his very typical, macho sexual appetite.

It is true that on the surface we don’t see Yehuda repent of his sexual act. We are almost forced to accepted that men are cheaters, and that polyamory is the norm in that age. What he did was shameful, but according to their societal norms it wasn’t that wrong for a man. Though it is also true that the act he performed as an evil-impulse ended up manifesting as a chesed (a kindness) anyhow. Still this story does not put Yehuda in the greatest light. It’s not something to be proud of, rather something one would normally prefer to keep private.

So private is his wrong, this silly act of giving a his most important belongings away, that only his best friend can be trusted to help him clean up the mess. He sends his friend Churah the Adulami, to help him keep his word. In this friend he found someone who was not just a casual friend, but someone who was intimate enough to know the privy happenings. All the sexual secrets, the financial indiscretions, and the personal failures.

We might want to mark this man Chirah as an enabler. Or even as a lousy friend, considering we all know that friends are to set each other straight. They are the people who should be most bold and stern with us about our ways. Instead it looks like he is helping him out and trying to get him out of trouble. But really Chirah is helping him do right by this woman. Our sages will call him a tzadik for this, they see him as a righteous man.

The other reason we need to value the mention of Chirah is because he deserves the credit of being friend to the broken Yehuda after he hit rock bottom. Here Yehuda is holding guilt on his conscience, and the weight of the blame for the brothers that conspired with him. He is running out in the boarder regions, with no one else in the world willing to have him. Then Chirah not just took him in, but also became a friend that accepted him with no judgments. If anything his interest was to mitigate the situations of Yehuda’s folly.

The place that Yehuda was in both mentally and physically was very rough. He was in no place to be left alone. He was there because he was an outcast. In fact, the scriptures seem to suggest that is exactly the reason he was there. Yehuda is not the only person in the scriptures to be run away to Adullam. We know of one other great but lusty man who was exiled and hid there, it was Kind David himself.

In the book of Samuel we read of David’s escape from the pursuing King Saul, he was on the ruin in fear of his life. The scriptures tell us precisely that he “vayimaleit / he escaped;” he fled to the cave of Adullam, he was running for his life. (see 1 Samuel 22:1)

Now what do we know of this place and why people go there, other than it is remote and so obscure of a place that some people dwell in its caves? The scriptures tell us this about the locals that were willing to gather there, and about the people who were willing to venture to this rough side of the tracks:

“And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him [David]; and he became captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.”

וַיִּתְקַבְּצוּ אֵלָיו כָּלאִישׁ מָצוֹק וְכָלאִישׁ אֲשֶׁרלוֹ נֹשֶׁא, וְכָלאִישׁ מַרנֶפֶשׁ, וַיְהִי עֲלֵיהֶם, לְשָׂר; וַיִּהְיוּ עִמּוֹ, כְּאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ.

1 Samuel 22:2

Here we see that the place where Yehuda had previously gone to hide during his exile, David had to go there during his time of exile and trouble as well. This is skidrow, this is rock-bottom, that is what Adullam represents.

Though there are some differences between Yehuda’s situation and that of David. Yehuda was there merely to hide out, and it just so happened that while he was there he met a friend that helped him out and helped set him back on his feet. Yehuda had to be developed, and as strange as it seems this was where and how Hashem put someone in his path to accomplish that. A friend that kept him busy with companionship and enterprise, instead personal misery.

However, in David’s situation it was a little bit different. You see David was there with a purpose. He was there as part of a political and social revolution. He was feared by the king so he was on the run. Though while hiding out in the hood he made connections with all the people who were also in distress and helped make their cause his own. He partnered with the other people who were in distress and dire straights. The people who were crushed under the burden of debt, the people who were tired of the bitterness (mar-nefesh) in their society. He organized them into a band of brothers to fight for his noble cause, today we recognize that as a seminal part of our Jewish history.

Now through this we learn something interesting about friendships in general. The Rambam tells us that there is more to friendship than just having good friends or bad friends. He contends there are more levels to judge how deeply your friendship goes, and it’s more than just the distinction between personal friendship and professional camaraderie in his mind. The commentary of the Rambam for Avot tells us this:

“….as the men of mussar say, ‘Do not establish friendship according to your nature; establish friendship according to your friend’s nature.’

When each of the friends conducts himself according to this directive, then the desire of each one will be to fulfill the will of his colleague. Thus, they will both share a common goal. How appropriate is the statement of Aristotle, ‘A friend is another self’ (Ethics 9:4).

There are three types of friendship: friendship of function, friendship of pleasure, and friendship for the sake of a higher purpose. Examples of friendships of function include a business partnership, or the relationship between a general and his army.

There are two types of friendships of pleasure: friendship of enjoyment and friendship of security. An example of a friend of enjoyment is the relationship between men and women in marriage, and the like. A friendship of security is when a person has a friend on whom he can rely without withholding anything from him, neither deed nor word. He reveals to him all his matters – both good and bad – without worrying that he will shame him – either in private or in public. When a person is able to trust a friend to this extent, he will derive tremendous satisfaction from his conversation and his company.

A friendship for the sake of a higher purpose refers to a situation where both individuals desire and focus on a single objective: the Good. Each will desire to be assisted by his colleague to attain the good for them both. This is the type of friend [the mishnah] commanded us to acquire – for example, the relationship between a rav [rabbi, teacher] and his student, and between a student and his rav.”

Rambam (1135 – 1204 C.E.), Commentary on Avot 1:6

I think these words hold many truths for how we should select friendships, and how on many different levels we can develop that relationship. Our sages lead us to a very interesting perspective as to what we should define as a “quality friend.”

Discussion: One of the things that I feel is very much left out of the discussions these days is the topic of intimate male companionship and friendships. The deepness of relationships that men can have with each other.

In this day and age we thankfully have many lectures about women’s relationships. For instance, we are more than comfortably to talk about the friendship between Ruth and Naomi. Discussion groups in progressive shuls are more than willing to talk about “The Red Tent,” and jump into fantasy about women united through menses and bosoms. But you can’t seem to have a talk in the common culture anymore about friendships between men in the bible without it being branded as “gay.”

We are so uncomfortable about male intimacy and friendship, that people just rather assume the notable male relationships must be homosexual in nature. To me that not only sounds insecure and small-minded, but oddly homophobic to latently suggests something is queer about having close friends of the same-sex. We joke of these friendships as “bromances.”

Is it not possible for men to also have the same type of close emotional and biological ties we know exist for women? That males can also have good, quality, platonic, yet intimate friendships as well?

If anything, what we have learned today has taught us that are times we can indeed have platonic, same-sex friendships that are just as wild as those girls on “Sex and the City.” And yes, at times the love of a friend and the stimulation it sparks in us does seem to rate higher than even our marriage relationship might in certain areas. It’s just a different form of friendship, in a different context. But it is a very natural thing, and shouldn’t need to treated like a deviance.

How do you think the Jewish community should better engage the topic of the beauty of male friendships?

Parshat Vayishlach (2013)

Genesis 32:4-36:43

The Immigrant Experience: The Challenges of Hardship and Success

Immigrant Running Highway SignIn this weeks parsha we have our rabbis describe the sojourn of Yaakov through the eyes of an immigrant, through the experience of a stranger. This because there are elements of Yaakov’s life that hint to us that he understood the hardships of being a foreigner, and the conflicts of being a successful immigrant. Today we are going to look at how this plays out for Yaakov the migrant, and his descendants.

Let us start at the top of our parsha. In the first verse we see that Yaakov sends messengers ahead of him, to his brother Eisav in Seir, in Edom where he dwells. Eisav has amassed a small army and following of his own. As Yaakov returns home he fear that Eisav will hear of his approach and come up to get even with him.

Then our second verse reads:

“And he commanded them

saying: ‘So shall you say to my lord,

to Esau.

“Thus says your servant Yaakov;

with Laban I have resided,

and stayed until now.”’”

| Vayetzav otam

| lemor koh tomrun ladonee

| le-Eisav

| koh amar avdecha Yaakov

| im-Lavan garti

| va’echar ad-atah

Gensis 32:5

As Yaakov considers his return back to Canaan and his father’s home in Hevron he realizes that he better show respect to Eisav. Sure he is groveling, but he is also doing the right thing of acknowledging Eisav as a man of authority. He gives full honor to Eisav when he refers to him as adonee – my lord, my master. Yaakov refers to himself as being an eved – a slave, a servant to Eisav. He fully throws himself at Eisav’s mercy.

Aside from appealing to Eisav with deference and respect, he also begins to offer an explanation for himself. He needs to provide Eisav a reason to show mercy to him. Before Yaakov offers his possessions as a bribe, he makes a statement about where he acquired them and where he as been since his disappearance. He says, “garti / I have resided” with Laban.

Now we know the hardships that Yaakov endured in his residency with Laban. How he worked hard for his uncle Laban for seven years to earn his right to marry Rachel, but instead he was given Leah. How he then worked another seven to eventually also earn Rachel’s hand in marriage. His pay rate was toyed around with in order to benefit his cruel employer, Laban who despised his astounding success in business. Having no hope or future there due to persecution, he eventually has to the return to the home and heritage he abandoned.

Our master Rashi comments on this verse, and also focuses his attention on the word garti (resided) as being a key word to understanding this text and the weight of the statement being made here.

The Rashi to our text reads:

I have sojourned: Heb. גַּרְתִּי. I did not become an officer or a dignitary, but a stranger (גֵּר). It is not worthwhile for you to hate me on account of your father’s blessing, [with] which he blessed me (27:29):“You shall be a master over your brothers,” for it was not fulfilled in me (Tanchuma Buber Vayishlach 5). Another explanation: גַּרְתִּי has the numerical value of 613. That is to say: I lived with the wicked Laban, but I kept the 613 commandments, and I did not learn from his evil deeds.”

גרתי: לא נעשיתי שר וחשוב אלא גר, אינך כדאי לשנוא אותי על ברכות אביך שברכני (לעיל כז כט) הוה גביר לאחיך, שהרי לא נתקיימה בי. דבר אחר גרתי בגימטריא תריג, כלומר עם לבן הרשע גרתי ותריג מצות שמרתי ולא למדתי ממעשיו הרעים:

Rashi to Genesis 23:5

As we begin to look at Rashi’s interpretation we must first understand that he is going out of his way to make a bold statement. One can say that he is almost teasing an interpretation out of this. I say this because there is little need to interpret the word gararti; it simply means to sojourn, to reside, to live with them. There is no mystery surrounding this turn of phrase.

Nonetheless Rashi decides to simmer on this point for a while, he does this by invoking homily by word association. Rashi takes the word from its context, a verb whose root is gar (גָּר), and instead insists that we look at this phrase as though it is rooted in the closely related word ger (גֵּר). He tells us to look past its meaning as a verb and consider its emphasis delivered in the tone of a noun. I’ll explain what this means.

The word ger is a charged phrase in our Jewish lexicon, so we need to put it in proper context. In the rabbinic use of the word ger, we hold this word to mean convert or stranger. But but here it is displayed in its purest form, here ger means resident alien. In a purely civil use of the word, this means to dwell (gar) among another people as non-citizen alien – a ger.

Rashi doesn’t want us to just consider that Yaakov lived in a foreign place, but he wants us even more still to identify with him as a foreigner. He wants us to empathize with, and also soberly consider the realities of being a foreigner.

Here as we have Yaakov returning to Canaan with all his possessions and servants, he has to explain how he accumulated such wealth. It is incumbent upon him to explain that for the first time he has acquired great things through honest dealings and work. Furthermore, to soften the heart of Eisav who he has previously ripped-of, he seems to be making an appeal that Eisav not seek to get even through plundering him. In fact he had already been riped-off by Laban all along.

Here Rashi makes the most interesting point. He says when Yaakov went abroad he did stay with his uncle Laban. But he wasn’t received like a prince or some sort of dignitary. He was a stranger. Though he had native relatives in the land of Charan where he resided, he was still a stranger. He was a resident and not a citizen. He was a resident alien.

Now very few times do we consider what the status differences between a citizen and a resident are. In the United States this seems very odd, because the law of the land grants most civil rights to all people on our soil. And there are very few restrictions set upon foreigners, in comparison to other countries. That is not to say we don’t have injustices towards foreigners, but inequality for migrants is most heinous in the developing world. Their plight there is often callously ignored.

This lesson brings up some memories of my youth, when I used to go abroad with my family. I lived for some time in Northern Mexico, joining my retired grandparents to help them settle into their retirement. We had always considered ourselves Mexican-Americans, even though we were all born citizens of the USA. Even if we were quite a few generations removed, the place seemed to hold some sort of ethnic identity for us. We saw it as our “old country.” But quickly I began to see in the real context of civil society that sentiment and ethnicity meant nothing.

Not only for me, but for many other people. And for the Central and South American migrants, I witness unparalleled brutality show to them by both authorities and citizens alike. Most often these travelers heading north were swindled of everything they had, and in many case even kidnapped into forced labor. In many more cases, they are just shot dead and left in mass graves that get little real attention. Being there I saw that there was little reason for migrant families to settle in Mexico, because basic civil services like public education and health care are denied to non-citizens.

And applying for residency did not gain one much rights even then. The applications for residency stating that for employment one must be sponsored by an employer, however the job must not be one that can be filled by a Mexican citizen. Immigration imposes impossible financial and legal restrictions. Neither are non-citizens able to own land. I even watched as thousands of American senior citizens who unwittingly invested and lived in retirement beach homes in Mexico got tossed to the streets by federal police.

This may seem outrageous, and it is, but this is the common experience of many immigrants. And Yaakov’s experience was no less complicated and perilous. He didn’t venture to Charan with a certain sense of entitlement, nor gain anything through their charity. Quite to the contrary. Even his kinship to Laban meant nothing really, if anything he was victimized by Laban because Yaakov had no rights in that land to protect him. He came as a foreigner and was treated as a common foreigner in the worldly sense. In the way that aliens are treated in the less enlightened world, very poorly.

So in this statement Rashi has Yaakov saying to Eisav, you have no reason to hate me. Don’t be angry with me on account of my success, because it’s not what it seems. In fact it’s not worth being angry over, because instead of living up to the blessing as master over ones brothers I went into a foreign land and dwelt as a menial servant with no rights.

So that brings up the question, so what of G-d’s promise? Did G-d not keep His word?

It’s not that G-d’s promise was not kept, but it was not fulfilled in Yaakov’s own person. It was something that was realized by his children, by his sons that would form the twelves tribes of Israel.

If you think about it, this is most often true for immigrants. Though immigrants in very permissive countries like the United States often find success, the true benefit of their gain is not usually actualized by them but their children instead.

For immigrant families this is one of the most driving concerns, about raising their children for a better future. So that their children can achieve the dreams that they could not. It should be the drive of the immigrant parent to work hard in order to secure a better future for their children. To allow their children to leap into the world with security and resources that they did not have in their own journey. To have sons and daughters that will walk boldly into society without the many layers of insecurities they had.

However, the fullness of the immigrant’s dream is not fully realized by the parents who are doing the hard work of building a foundation and sinking roots for the family. It is the children who really experience what its like for it all to come to fruition. It is actualized by children born into a native environment of success and abundance.

That is not to say that success does not come with some difficulties for the immigrant and their families as well. When there is a lot of acceptance. And this is one of those topics that we can explored by utilizing the alternative interpretation of Rashi.

Rashi makes a second point, saying that one can also interpret this text kabbalistically. He asks us to look at the mystical meaning, in order to further illuminate the text. He employs the use of gematria and tells us the word garti (resided) has the numeric value of 613 – the number of Torah commandments we recognize in the scriptures. He uses the mystical this time to make us reconsider this text.

Our master Rashi teaches us that we should understand this to hint at the idea that when Yaakov went and dwelt as a foreigner he still kept all of his tradition and faith. He didn’t forget his Torah values and goals. Nor did he learn from their evil ways.

And this is one of the things that most often concerns immigrants of any origin or experience when they come to free countries in the West. That they might lose part of their identity. And that their children will be too free to make decisions different from theirs, and embrace ways that are contrary to their own. That future children will not appreciate or recognize the importance of their culture and heritage. They they might even reject one’s inherited culture all together in pursuit of the vices of the common culture.

And this is most often the concern for religious Jews, but it is even more so for people who are recent immigrants. We often see this displayed in the communal politics of the Jewish immigrants who have recently come from places such as Iran and Morocco for instance. Overwhelmed by cultural and technological changes the parents often become culturally nostalgic and more ethnic acting than in “the old world.” And its not their “exoticness” that really makes us curious. We can’t help but curiously take notice as their integration plays out, because the experience of learning to coexist without assimilation is something that is more challenging than ever. Their experience echoes our own immigrant heritage, so we voyeuristically look on deeply wanting to know if this immigrant dream is still attainable in this day and age.

Rashi points us to Yaakov and says here is a person who dealt with seriously hardship. He was a true foreigner, an immigrant, a resident-alien. He had the worst type of migration experience, but he made a success out of it. And this type of success is not just mere survival and material accomplishment. The true measure of a successful migration is when one is able to gain prosperity without sacrificing their sense of identity. Yaakov stands out as an example that even in the most foreign and harsh conditions, we can still hold on to who we are at our core.

Something to Consider: Often times people use immigrants for work on the job and in our homes. Often times their great need leads to them accepting illegal work, for unfair conditions and pay. Out of fear they can not object or tell the authorities of their suffering. How do you think one should react when they witnesses predatory employment of foreign workers?

Also, there are immigrants all over the world that unjustly mistreated. This year I would like us to all to try to explore the plight of not only Jewish immigrants, but also of underrepresented people in the world. Ones that most people don’t often consider. Migrants such as the Romani (gypsies), and exiles such as the Tibetans.

Parshat Vayeitzei (2013)

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Our G-d Chooses to Associate with Broken and Damaged Men

Doesn’t it seem like G-d watches over some people despite themselves? In this week’s Torah portion we see an example of how G-d not only allows less that fully meritorious people to find refuge in the shadow of His mercy, but also how G-d purposefully chooses to associate His Name with even the weak of character that others might dismiss.

This is the key verse that catches my eye as I read this text this week:

“And behold,

Hashem stood by him

and said:

‘I am Hashem,

G-d of Abraham your forefather

and the G-d of Isaac,

the land on which you are laying

I will give it to you

and your seed.”

| Vehineh

| Hashem nitzav alav

| vayomar

| Ani Hashem

| Elohei Avraham avicha

| ve’Elohei Yitzchak

| ha’aretz asher atah shochev

| aleiha lecha etnenah

| ulezar’echa

Genesis 28:13

In this parsha we begin with Yaakov leaving his father’s home in Ber Sheva on his way to Haran. He has bought his brother’s birthright and has likewise tricked his way into receiving the honor of spiritual blessing as well. He tricked his father and acted shrewdly to acquire Eisav’s rights and blessings. In fear of them he heads back towards “the old world” from which his ancestors came in order to find sanctuary there.

Yaakov travels until the sun sets, to the very boundaries of the promised land. As the sunsets he lays his heads upon some rocks, “vayishgav b’makom ha-hu / and he laid down in the place.” (28:11) And at this point we encounter the story of Jacob’s Ladder,

Now before Yaakov awakes we have this verse describe what is going on as he dreams, “v’hinei Hashem nitzav alav / and notice, Hashem was standing by him.” As Yaakov rests G-d watches over him.

For what reason does Hashem stand there over Yaakov? Rashi tells us simply and concisely, “l’shamro / to guard him.” To protect him.

The liturgist in me gets excited at this point. As this story describes the angels ascending and descending, with G-d standing over Yaakov I can’t help but think of the words of the Ashkenazi angel song, “May Michael be at my right, Gabriel at my left, Uriel before me, Raphael behind me, and above my head the presence of G-d.”

This song was introduced into the existent Kriyat Shema al haMitah – the bedtime prayers. Religious Jews say the Shema and several appropriate prayers to acknowledge G-d’s watching over us as we sleep. Then we lay down in confidence that we should awake in peace, in order to intentionally place the Name of G-d before us at all times.

One of the reasons that we can be so confident in this is because we know that G-d watches over all people. He watches over nice people, and not so nice people. He watches over the righteous and the wicked as they sleep. Though not all have respect for G-d in heaven, He nonetheless watches over us all so well that few have any difficulty falling asleep at night with the confidence that they will awake. G-d is all present, all of existence is contained in Him, therefore it is just a fact that when we lay down G-d is naturally over us. He is always there, He can never not be there. When we nitzvav, when we lay down it is naturally a fact that G-d stands alav – by us. To be alav means to be held angle parallel in relation to something else. It’s an observation not really an action.

For this reason we can understand why G-d would watch over Yaakov. Though in honest review of his actions we clearly see that he has acted cunningly and deceptively in order to get what he desired. Sure our Torah credits him with a zealous love for Hashem and righteousness as opposed to evil Eisav, but he was not exactly an above the board person. He was a bit shady. It is true that some of our sages, even Rashi, try to sanitize the image of patriarch. However the record shows for itself that he was a trickster, he was sheisty. Why should G-d watch over him? Simply because He watches over all.

But its more than that. When we see this story unfold for us, G-d does in fact choose to make His presence uniquely manifest over Yaakov in order to engage him. He stands over him and tells him that He is the G-d of his fathers, in order to reveal to him that this very land will become his and his descendants,

Despite all the issues and lack of character that Yaakov displays in his shrewd and deceptive acts, it was for the purpose of a greater good. His heart was in the right place, as he eagerly yearned for the yoke of spiritual responsibility that Eisav spurned. If his brother had no appreciation for it, then he had to have this honor for himself. And that was enough for G-d to work with, that Yaakov had some character worth developing.

And that is the story that we explore through out the life of Yaakov, how he started out as a trickster and he then develops himself until even those who contend with him must admit that he is truly worth of this blessing.

This is not the only place in this verse that we see a hint of G-d taking the special character and situations of individuals into account when considering them.

One of the things a reader that is critical of Yaakov will notice is that G-d bestows his blessing starting with identifying Himself as the G-d of Avraham and Yitzhak. It seems like maybe Yaakov is receiving a blessing in the merit of his forefathers. As if his father and grandfather are so holy that it justifies a form of nepotism.

This would seem to make sense when we consider the character of Avraham Avinu. He is the example of faithfulness par excellence. He is the father of our people and faith. It is understandable how the merit of Avraham Avinu seems worth of such favor. His memory is one of endless blessing that seems to extend to us until this day.

But how about for Yitzhak? Though we do consider him to be a holy man, so holy that he is never permitted to leave the promised land, he was not exactly a perfect man. He had his own faults. Rashi himself elsewhere tells us that none of our forefathers are fully meritorious, Yitzhak’s fault was his love for the evil Eisav. Yaakov was blinded by Eisav with game meats and the incense of his wives idolatry (see Rashi Genesis 27:1). He is not faulted with being an idolater himself, but as an enabler for his son. How is it that Yitzhak’s merit could be considered so great that is affords Yaakov a blessing?

Our commentary asks us to entertain the idea that there are special circumstances that are recognized regarding Yitzhak too.

Weeping Cemetry AngelRashi points out to us in his commentary that very rarely are men held to such high merit to command such respect in their lifetime. Even Avraham is deceased at this point. Yet Yitzhak lives and is not really recognized for any great deeds he engages in. He is not some sort of charismatic leader like his father. Instead in Yitzhak we find a passive and seemingly traumatized man.

And it is this traumatized nature of Yitzhak that is honed in on by Rashi. First our master leaders us to this statement by pointing out that the scriptures tell us that G-d does not place much weight on the fidelity of living men, even His holy ones (see Job 15:15). His point being that people cannot be trusted upon to be perfect, we all stumble and err in this world. Only when men have passed into the next world, when they are free from the yetzer hara – the evil impulse – does one usually become meritorious that the Name of G-d should associate itself with them in this way.

Have any of you ever watched the film “The Believer” staring Ryan Gosling, where he plays a discontent Jew that turns into a neo-Nazi? One of the most striking moments is when a scene flashbacks to the past, it shows a young child summarizing his view of the Akeidah – the binding of Isaac – as so outrageous that Yitzhak is traumatized and “a putz for the rest of his life.” We all wince at that phrase, because we are a bit uncomfortable with some of the truth of that observation.

Midrash gives us an interesting folk story to relate why the eyes of Yitzhak were dimmed, and his character scarred. Rashi tells us that when Avraham went to sacrifice Yitzhak on the altar just before sunset the heavens opened to reveal the ministering angels. Instead of ascending and descending like Jacobs Ladder, in this midrash we are told that the angels weep at the sight of the sacrificial act of the Akeidah. Their tears fall into the eyes of Yitzhak and we are led to believe that he never sees right ever again. His eyes are always blinded by sorrow and trauma the rest of his life, it is just not possible for him to see completely and objectively ever again. (see Rashi, Genesis 27:1)

As if the damage of the Akeidah wasn’t enough, we learn that he also lost his mother Sarah as well with the trauma of this event; she died of shock. (see Rashi. Genesis 23:2) There was already a real injury, one that was followed by even more tragic emotional upheaval for Yitzhak which related to that episode. Yitzhak nor his world is ever the same again because of this.

Our midrashim by and large present the picture of Yitzhak as forever scarred by the Akeidah.

Now here in this verse from this weeks parsha we see Rashi further enlighten us regarding that line of understanding, while at the same time giving us a reason why we should look compassionately upon Yitzhak Avinu. The commentary reads:


here He associated His name with Isaac

because his eyes had become dim,

and he was confined in the house,

and he was like a dead person,

the evil inclination

having ceased from him.”

כאן |

ייחד שמו על יצחק |

לפי שכהו עיניו |

וכלוא היה בבית, |

והרי הוא כמת, |

ויצר הרע |

פסק ממנו: |

Rashi for Genesis 28:13; citing Midrash Tanchumah, Toldot 7

Our sages by this contend that the Yitzhak was a wreck of an individual, but he was not an evil man in his heart. He was blinded not just mentally and emotionally, he was also blinded and harmed physically. To the point that he seems to not only suffer some sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but his limitations disable him for the rest of his days. He was confined to his own home being both mentally and physically unable to engage the outside world. He suffers such a breakdown he appears to suffer debilitating agoraphobia and stress related illness.

Sometimes we discount the amount of suffering that people who suffer sever trauma endure. How much it eats away at their lives until they languish in their suffering. Rashi says it can become so bad that one can be almost considered like a dead person. Their trauma walls them in like a tomb.

But even in this our sages say there is something deserving of consideration, something that many people often miss about the broken and humble of spirit. His disability and broken character didn’t make him more prone to being a sinner or harsh man. To the contrary, his disability and emotional paralysis actually make him more prone to showing kindness towards people. To show more chesed (kindness) than discipline. To more often see the potential in them rather than the bad, as in the case with Eisav.

What Rashi is saying is that if we think about it Yitzhak’s emotional brokenness kept him at home, he wasn’t running the streets with the wild sinners. We are told he was so broken and inhibited that his passions were like that of a dead man. Not that he was just cold and inert. But that he through no fault of his own lived a life of morbid pain and seclusion, a life so simple that in comparison to the rest of us that engage the world he could easily be counted a righteous person. He wasn’t a great man, but as for sin he treaded an exceptionally light footprint.

Rashi says that the meritorious honor of a patriarch was awarded Yitzhak in his lifetime because the truth of the matter is that his yetzer hara – his evil impulse, the lusty passion that drives the soul – it had ceased to hold sway over him. His evil nature was pretty much dead inside of him.

Our sages employ a deep level of understanding at times regarding Yitzhak, as they challenge us to consider the hardships and limitations of others. It shows that G-d gives special consideration to the broken and feeble.

When we look at our parsha this week, when we see the sun setting and angels take flight over the head of Yaakov we need to remember the other occurrence of such a sight, the Aikdah. We need to remember the special consideration that was given to Yitzhak because of this trauma, and realize that it is not unthinkable that Yaakov would be looked upon favorably by G-d in the same manner. Even more so Yaakov deserved to also receive special consideration after the manner of Yitzhak, because he still suffered the ill effects caused by his father’s impairment.

As we continue to discuss Yaakov this week with our parsha I would like us to look upon Yaakov and Yitzhak with a new sense of compassion. Realizing that we don’t always understand the personal handicap that G-d takes into account with people. It’s not that G-d is just the merciful guardian of weak men and women because He has to be, because He is G-d and that’s His job watching over all mankind. G-d is shown here in the Torah to actually focus His attention and consideration upon people who He chooses to see as remarkable in light of their personal challenges. By recognizing that we can have more compassion for ourselves and others.

Parshat Vayeira (2013)

Genesis 18 – 22

When is a laugh more than just a chuckle?

Doctors Visit Upset

Have you ever had a nervous reaction caused by fear? What do these reactions to being put on the spot teach us about ourselves? What type inner cues do you hear in a case of uncertainty?

What is a laugh exactly? Why do we do it at all? A laugh isn’t like any other reaction, it is something that is quite automatic. Everybody laughs. People who have studied laughter are amazed that even blind and deaf people laugh. This comes as a surprise to many because we most often think of our responses as being learned and culturally influenced. But we can’t help but notice that even babies laugh. Babies, who have never witnessed another person laugh, will naturally do it themselves; in-fact more often, at about 200 times a day while an infant, as compared to adults at only 20 times a day. It’s something that just impulsively bubbles up out of a person.

Today we are going to begin to take a look at a story about laughter, and how the many facets of laughter are displayed in the Torah. When is a laugh more than just a chuckle? Sometimes it is an appropriate response, at other times it’s merely a bad reaction. Sometimes it is well received, other times it’s something that can be a thing of scorn. People laugh for many reasons. But all forms of outburst reveal a bit of the soul of the person it bellies up out of.

The most notorious of all laughs in the scriptures is presented here, in the following verse from the first aliya of our parsha:

“And Sarah laughed with herself,


‘After I have become old?

Shall I become tender again?

And my master is old!’”

| Vatitzchak Sarah bekirbah

| lemor

| acharei veloti

| hayetah-li ednah

| va’adoni zaken

Genesis 18:12

The story is familiar to us all. Our parsha begins with Avraham entertaining messengers of G-d, the angels are begged to accept his hospitality before continuing on their travels. (v.1-5) They therefore come into his tent and Avraham begins to feverishly prepared many courses of meals and takes to entertaining his honored guests. (v.6-8)

The first thing that is recorded to have been uttered by the guests once they settled themselves in was a question at to where Avraham’s wife Sarah was. Out of modestly she is standing away from them, almost hiding near the entrance which is behind the guests. Knowing that she is close enough to hear the messenger doesn’t wait for her to present herself, he just goes to declare that surely this time next year Sarah will have a son. (v.9-10)

And then Sarah laughs. (v.12) However, not without the Torah first validating the reason why Sarah laughs inside of herself. Both Avraham and Sarah are advanced in age, they are very old. And Sarah has stopped having her menstrual cycle. (v.11) Only then do we see the reason why she laughs. How can a person not laugh? What is being suggested is nothing short of fantastical. So she laughs inside herself. (v.12)

Knowing that she has laughed, G-d asks a question of Avraham, as his wife is still cowering aside from their house-guests. Though sheepishly hidden at first, G-d hears her secret doubts, and confronts them. Asking rhetorically, can there be anything impossible for G-d?

Now the reason that this laugh is so notorious is not just because she is called out on it, but also because she is insistent in denying her laughing. This is not a passing mention, this takes up an unusually large amount of the narrative for something so seemingly trivial. However so much of a central point is this to the story that the second aliyah begins with her denial at its head. We are even told why she denied her laughter, it was because she was afraid. She was intimidated. However, G-d insists, “No, but you did laugh.” (v.15)

Now one of the reasons this story sometimes has troubled me is because we aren’t sure exactly why G-d makes such an incident out of this. Why does she get singled out for such a scolding?

One of the reasons that this seems odd to me is because this isn’t the first time that we see someone laughing in response to something astounding G-d has said. In fact it is none other than Avraham himself who is said to have previously busted-up after hearing a prophecy. A prophecy that was about the very same subject. In the previous chapter and parsha, in Genesis 17:17 we read, “Vayapol Avraham panav vayetzchak / And Avraham fell on his face and laughed…”

G-d had already given Avraham this talk about their bareness before. In fact Avraham already had one son by a concubine, Ishma’el. However, instead of recognizing that son born of a servant Avraham is told that his true wife Sarah is going to bear him a son to carry on their dynasty. When he makes this pact with G-d he accepted everything, even the concept of circumcision and changing their names without even a flinch. But then when Avraham is told that the couple is finally going to have their long-awaited child, he breaks into hysterical laugher and falls to the ground face-first. He asks in his heart how this could be, as he is 100 years old and she is already 90 years old.

What was so different about their laughter? Why does his laughter and doubt only get the slightest correction, and Sarah get such a strong and direct one? They had even laughed in response to the same topic, just on different occasions.

One of the reasons is obviously because of Sarah’s objection. Had she not vehemently denied her laugher the topic would have probably ended there. But instead she was corrected to the extend that she objected.

Though it’s more than that. If we take a good look we can see that there is a difference between the way Avraham and Sarah laughed. Avraham laughed out-loud, but doubted in his heart. Sarah is said to have laughed in her heart, and then doubted out-loud.

The difference between the emotions and attitude behind each reaction may not appear evident to us right away. But there is a substantial difference. Sure both of them reacted to the absurdity of the situation. They needed to release their dissonance with this new reality is some way, and it reveals itself as laughter. They both had this involuntary response. Both of them laughed when they first heard of their amazing destiny. However Avraham’s laughter is one of astonishment, whereas Sarah first reacts with silent mocking. It’s this silent mocking that G-d pulls to the surface and reveals for them to see.

What is also different about the two reactions is that Avraham’s laughter is at least followed-up with a question as to how this is going to happen. In the mind of Avraham it was more of a question of how it was possible, not necessarily if it was truly possible. He wants to think it out. Sure his expression does relate a certain level of disbelief, but not one of doubt. He was open to the possibility. For Sarah it was a closed case, she already doubted it in her heart.

On the surface it clearly appears that she is being singled out here for her cynicism. And that was a major problem that needs to be settled. She is not exposed in this narrative in order to shame her, but to call to attention to her lack of hope. This exchange between her and G-d cannot simply be about knocking her chops for some sort of derision, but instead because she had a deep sense of doubt about herself!

Notice when G-d rebuttals Sarah’s denial of her laughter He doesn’t bring up the unkind things that she said about her husband being an old man. It isn’t repeated that way, G-d instead rephrased it to focuse on the only real obstacle left. Her own doubt about her own ability to make this happen. G-d interpreted her statement for what it was really saying, she felt she was too old and worn out to make it happen now.

This self-doubt ran so deep that she might not have even been fully aware how deeply her cynicism ran. This might explain for her continuous insistence that she hadn’t laughed. The reality is that she had not actually laughed vocally, but she laughed all the same. And it is this deep-seated doubt that is the most debilitating. So deeply does this disbelief and lack of hope run that she might have actually been honest in her own mind about not laughing, she just didn’t recognize that inner voice laughing at herself. So here it is exposed bare for her to face within herself.

As we consider this lesson, I would like us to consider a few questions within ourselves: Do you hear the cues of self-doubt in your head? Is it possible that you just don’t recognize some of your own sense of hopelessness? Have you grown cynical?

It is a very human thing to doubt ourselves, and is certainly is a reality that sometimes we also doubt G-d too. But as we see in the example of Avraham, G-d is okay with our fiery laughter when it comes with a sense of wonder or shock. But what is not acceptable is a passive laugh of cold pessimism.

Responding to Good and Bad News in Our Tradition: A Personal Experience

Is there an appropriate way to respond to tides of good and bad news as they come in our lives? As we see, we are to be careful about the tone of the inner voices. Surely we should take even more care with our outward expressions. Though not all expressions can be easily controlled, as religious Jews we try to be poised and dignified with our responses.

In light of Sarah’s example, it would make sense why we are very careful to say a blessing when we hear good news. The blessing used is also the one we say when we are observing a holiday or special occasion in our lives. Most Jews of all levels of observance know this one intimately:

“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ ,וְקִיְמָנוּ ,וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לִזְמַן הַזֶּה:

Baruch ata Hashem, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, she’ech’eyanu, ve’ki’eh’manu, va’higiy’anu liz’man hazeh

We also have another blessing exclusively for if one hears good news, but in most tradition its associated with communal good news so it’s another good one to know as well:

“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who is good and does good.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֶלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵטִיב:

Baruch ata Hashem, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, hatov v’hamaitiv.

It was this type of blessing I had in mind when I first walked into my doctor’s office one day. My health had been improving after several years of suffering with multiple life threatening conditions and surgeries. I had crawled out of the depression, addiction and the rest of the ruin that had come with my collapse into disrepair. I was doing well with my job. My family life was better than ever before. I was even getting ready to move into a new home and focus on some new longterm plans. The she’ech’eyanu was a prayer that I had come to know very well, especially more recently as things just got better and better in my life.

I was so confident that things were going somewhere that I marched in to take my annual physical on schedule, simply to confirm that all was going to be fine. Everything was going to be well, because I was well.

However a few days later my doctor calls me back into his office. My simple physical started to get more complicated as more and more tests were run. The number of tests and visits kept increasing, though without any clear explanation as to why. However, given my experience with strange illnesses I expected just a little bit of oddity. At first I was sure it was something I was going to shrug off. But as the diagnostics went on and on I grew more afraid.

One day during one of the doctor’s visits I began to read the chart myself, and I noticed that my white blood cells and platelets were impossibly low. I had a dangerous case of anemia. So I asked the doctor about this, and he suggested that we run test for leukemia and HIV.

As that point I became overwhelmed with fear. Whereas I understood the nature of each disease, I was terrified at the possibility of either. My own dear sister, one of the closest people to me, she suffered leukemia starting at four years old. Such forms of cancer are common in my family. having to watch the treatment of it up close in all it’s brutality I was traumatized by it.

Having also grown up through the crazy-making of the AIDS crisis I also understood HIV well. Coming of age in a world where the virus was virtually non-treatable, before the anti-retrovirials that were rolled out in the mid-to-late 1990s. I watched many friends and acquaintances die of AIDS, caring for a few of them through the pain of their final months.

Remembering the pain and suffering I had witnessed with my loved ones, I was overwhelmed by the crisis I was facing. The more testing and waiting made me even more worried.

One day the doctor walks into the room and just begins to speak, “Your test results came back, you are HIV-positive….”

The rest of his words were kind of a blur to me. But I remember he just kept on talking, paced and steadily. There was no pause for me to get in a word as he just droned on, I could hear the nervousness in his breath and make out the nervous twitches on his face. It was as though he had to keep going in order to see it through, if he stopped it would overwhelm him too.

And for a moment there I thought I was going to laugh. I felt it come up and then stop. Now far from my mind was my blessing of thanksgiving. I was left sitting there, with this tragedy falling all over me and my hopes all at one. And of all misfortunes, one that I had grown to fear the most. And as he kept talking the news just kept getting worse.

As I sat there trying to take it all in a growing rumble came up inside of me. Then I felt myself lean forward in despair, my arms slightly flailing to the side. But then all at once my hands oddly went right up and over my head, holding my head as it just seemed to thud and spin at the same time. My breath was broken between trembling, wisping and sputtering. I didn’t know what to do or say. And then I heard my own voice achingly blurt out the words: “Baruch diyan ha’emet / Blessed is the True Judge.”

At that point I noticed that the doctor stopped talking, being of middle-eastern origin he seemed to recognize the words. He jerked back in surprise, and his looked showed an equal sense of surprise and pain. As I peered up he gave me a look of, “How can you?” And the truth is that I was wondering the same thing myself.

When religious Jews hear bad news or on the occurrence of a tragic event this is the way that one is taught to respond. For any calamitous event one says, “Blessed is the True Judge.” In our tradition it is the custom to respond to all major events with a way of recognizing G-d’s role in that occurrence. This also applies to calamity.

The reason behind such a blessing is because religious Jews recognize that all events in our lives are opportunities. All opportunities can lead to blessing. When we hear of tragedy we use these strong words to help us stand firm in face of our greatest fears. It might look like an impossibly bad situation, but we need to let G-d be the judge of that. It make look like there is no hope, but we need to G-d to be the judge of that.

Even at life’s end we still find ourself coming to the same conclusion, our final destiny is only judged by G-d alone. Thus “diyan ha’emet” is also the blessing one says when they hear a person has died. We have nothing to fear in death, as we trust that we will stand and face the judgment of a just G-d. We will face the True Judge, we have nothing to fear.

One of the reasons my reaction surprised me so was because I didn’t know I had it in me. This was the worst news I could think of. I knew what I was in store for. And I had a million questions that I couldn’t articulate, as they all collided and pilled up on their way out. I had just heard the worst news of my life. And even more painfully, I began to see all my plans go crumble into ruin. All the progress I thought I had made was lost in a new fight for my life, one that I was quite sure I wasn’t strong enough for. I had grown older, more worn down by my battles up until up until then. This was something my logic told me I had little chance of surviving, my condition being that severe. I felt helpless and for a brief moment. Any sliver of bravery I thought I possessed appeared to escape me.

But then I heard myself say those words. And for a moment I just sat and felt those words echo in my head. Every bit stunned by this statement as the doctors words of doom.

The reason that this both startled and comforted me was because I had always been afraid of the possibility of this type of reality. I had become very careful and extremely mindful of my health because of it. I knew all the science and facts to arm oneself with. I had convinced people so many times before that they could be okay in this situation. But secretly inside myself, I was always afraid that I could never live up to my own words of optimism in the face such a diagnosis. I had seen stronger and nobler people lose this battle. Could I keep the courage of my convictions and maintain my spirit of hope when my life really depended on it? I just wasn’t so sure.

And then I heard myself blurt out those words. “Baruch diyan ha’emet,” blessed is the True Judge.

Even when I was at a total loss, my soul appeared to know what to do and sprung into action. A rarely used blessing bubbled to the surface. Whereas everything else seemed to fail me, these words of our tradition found their usefulness. Though the first words started with a broken voice, each word staggered out stronger than the one before it. But is was enough to convinced me.

As I look over this lesson of Sarah’s laughter, I can most certainly related to the experience of wanting to react with cynicism. I can certainly understand the pain of what it feels like to have one’s body seem to betray them and their dreams. I very much know what it’s like to automatically respond with a knee-jerk reaction. Her story reverberates with me with a different sense of empathy than most. I know what it’s like to want something so bad and to find one’s own body to be the only obstacle.

Though I found myself facing the most trying and painful time in my life, I experienced a bit of awe like never before. In that when my rationality failed me, soulful words of truth came to the rescue. I found that my soul had matured and cherished the truth of my faith in a deeper way than I had realized. My true faith so natural that when pricked all that flowed to the surface was a rebuttal to cognitive dissonance of this situation. Though this diagnosis held itself over my head like a death sentence, I knew that only G-d was the final Judge in this matter. The case was not yet settled. These words reminded me of that truth.

From there I was able to collect myself and then spring into action, talking over the next round of tests and necessary measured that needed to be taken to preserve my life. I picked up my head and started to move into action to help save my life.

Many of us never know the strength that is inside of us until pushed to the limit. Many of us never realize how deep our faith and our sense of hope run until we are put on the spot. Most of us think that when faced with such disastrous circumstances we will be helpless and lost, but your heart knows the truth (ha-emet) if we listen to it. We know that our fate is only determined by G-d and our own faith in a better reality.

Baruch Hashem, thank G-d, I’m still here and thriving. Not because I’m a saint, or even particularly brave. But because I know a Judge that is greater than any. And He that still hasn’t ruled me out. For the first time in my life, this is something I’m sure I’m convinced of on a heart level.

Advice: This week I would like people to spend some time listening to their inner voices and cues. As you face new challenges this week, ask yourself how you feel about it. Is it something you have confidence in, or is there some level of fear, uncertainty or doubt that is still troubling you? Revealing it to the surface helps us confront it.

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Parshat Lech Lecha (2013)

Genesis 12 – 17

That Time the First Jew and the First Priest Went Out for a Drink

Have you ever wondered who this Melchizedek character is? Why is he mentioned in the Torah, and what lesson does this personality have for us? In this week’s parsha we have this character just seem to drop into the story out of nowhere, and disappear just as quickly as he came. But there is a unique interaction going on here that is very curious and has kept the scholars speculating around it for ages.

Let us begin with the key verses of the section that we are going to explore this week:

“And Malchi Tzedek

king of Shalem

brought bread and wine.

He was the priest of the Most High G-d.

And he blessed and said:

‘Blessed be Avram to the Most High G-d,

Maker of the heavens and the earth.

And blessed be the Most High G-d,

who has delivered

your enemies into your hand.’

A tenth of everything was given to him.”

| UMalchi Tzedek

| melech Shalem

| hotzi lechem vayayin

| vehu kohen le-El Elyon

| Vayevarechehu vayomar

| baruch Avram le-El Elyon

| Koneh shamayim va’aretz

| Uvaruch El Elyon

| asher-migen

| tzareicha beyadecha

| vayiten-lo ma’aser mikol

Genesis 14:18-20

In this story we see Avram (the person later to be known as Abraham) meeting with a priest. We are told that he is the priest of El Elyon – literally the G-d Most High. We don’t know a lot about this person other than that he is a king and priest, and that Abraham feels obliged to show charity to this priest. Likewise this priest pronounces one of the first blessings ever recorded in the scriptures, recognizing Avram and pronouncing a blessing declaring him holy on to G-d.

melchitzedekThere is much known about Abraham, he is the father of the Jewish people. He is the patriarch of monotheistic tradition. We have plenty to explain his background in the scriptures, and in the midrashim and folklore that has grown up around his story. He is revered by all three of the major world religions as their root.

But of this Melchi-Tzedek there is such little to read about him, he is only ever mentioned in three verses of the Chumash, four verses in the entire bible. Everything else we think we know about him comes from interpretation and oral tradition. But there are a few things we for sure know about him, he is the king of a city named Shalem. Not only is he a king, but he is also a priest. He seems to be a dual spiritual and civil leader, along the lines of a Julius Caesar and the early Roman kings who served not just as emperor but also as Flamen Dialis, the high priest to Jupiter with official ritual duties. He is the first priest mentioned in the scriptures.

The scriptures don’t offer us much information about this king, nor his city. Other than his city is named Shalem. We do find another reference to this city of Shalem in the scriptures, “In Shalem is also set His tabernacle, and his dwelling-place is in Zion.” (Psalm 76:2) Shalem is thus equated with Jerusalem. Melchi-Tzedek is understood to be one of the Canaanite kings. The first king of Jerusalem.

His name also provides us a few ideas. It is not a simple name, it is actually two distinct words malchi and tzedek. It appears more of a title. In the Hebrew language there are two seemingly easy to recognize words, one is “malchi / my king” and other is “tzedek / justice.” However, Hebrew scholars note that ordinarily putting them together in this way is not with the normal rules of Hebrew. It appears more close to Aramaic, and therefore hints of possibly being derived from the closely related Phonetician and Canaanite languages.

This understanding leads modern scholars to believe that this king might have indeed been the first king of Jerusalem (though just merely known as Salem in those days). This city would have most likely been dedicated to the chief god of their pantheon, Tzedek, which we know as the planet Jupiter. In the Talmud we also see that the planet Jupiter is indeed called Tzedek in Hebrew as well. (Talmud Balvi, Shabbat 156a) Jupiter as a planet of huge mass and gravity would by Roman times be characterized as Zeus, the head the pantheon and the supreme authority among lesser gods.

This is a position that is very different from that of the most famous of midrashim. Our Jewish tradition most often equates Melchi-Tzedek with Shem, the son of Noah that is the patriarch of the Semetic peoples, the peoples of the temperate middle-east. Shem is believed to have eventually lived such a long life of success that he set-up the city of Shalem while the newly arrived Avram dwelt in the rough lands. In order to explain why our saintly father Avraham shows honor to Melchi-Tzedek the rabbis explain that Shem was also a great man with a saintly mission, even going as far as to suggest that Avraham learned at yeshivot he established. He was Abraham’s ancestor. With this in mind people would like to believe that like Abraham, Melchi-Tzedek was the last of a dying breed of monotheists. (see Parshat Lech Lecha 2011)

The truth probably lays somewhere in between the scholarship and the folklore. It is fair to assume to that Melchi-Tzedek was a Semite. It is also very likely that he was king of the infantile city of Jerusalem. Avram as a Semitic stranger would do well to show deference to this man. But what we do need to take notice of is that he only ever refers to G-d as “El-Elyon.” He does not refer to Him by Havayah – the distinct Four-letter Name of G-d. He instead seem to understand El, the well known god of the region as being his god; not just divine, but the most supreme (elyon) god (el).

I believe that we have enough proof to agree with the scholarly understanding, that Melchi-Tzedek is not a pure monotheist. Yet his status and faith is respected by Avram, and likewise in our tradition that it should make its way into the Torah.

Because of the mysteriousness of this character, Melchi-Tzedek has been commented and embellished upon. It was so in the times of Josephus and even in the Christian writings. By the time of the Talmud there had been a multitude of stories that attribute something almost supernatural about his character. In absence of information ridiculous claims are made, for example the Christian bible states that because we don’t hear of his mother of father mentioned this Melchi-Tzedek must have been divine; he just wasn’t born of humans. People write a lot in between the lines.

For a moment we need to step away from all the dogma and look at the facts as presented in the Torah. The reason we don’t see a lot mentioned about Melchi-Tzedek is because the story isn’t about him at all. It is clearly evident that in this story he not the star, he is just an extra on the set to help carry the story along.

To understand the story we need to go all the way back to the beginning and read it in context. It begins at the top of the fourth aliyah. Most readers only look at the verses that mention this guy’s name, but they are the last three verses of our actual reading!

The fourth aliya begins at the top of the 14th chapter of Genesis. To save us the pain of all the mental work and identifying each party, all we need to understand is that the first half of the chapter is about how the kings of Mesopotamia and the kings of the Jordan valley come to war against each other. It appears that tribute states are rebelling against their regent and their allies. (v.1-9)

The second half of the chapter is about a literal quagmire of war, the rebels being hunted down and slaughtered in marshes as they tried to escape. Among the escapees were the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah who ran for their lives. (v.10) The rest of the chapter is about the aftermath of their defeat after the capture of these towns. We are told that the Persian king and the vassal kings sack the towns and take away pretty much anything they could carry. (v.11)

Now ordinarily this would have nothing to do with Avram, as he doesn’t live in either area. He dwells in the plains of Mamre among the Amorites and their allies. (v.13) However his most beloved nephew Lot dwelt in the city of Sodom, and his family and his possessions were captured as part of the plunder. They are likely to be killed or sold off into slavery. (v.12) One of the refugees from this war comes and reports all this to Avram.

Now here we see him described as Avram haIvri – Avram the Hebrew (עברי), the descendant of Ever (עבר), son of Shem. Ivri also means “to cross over,” here we see that Avram is different and separate from the rest of these Semites that are waring here. He is understood to be a distinct clan already. His own had already become a separate people, even though Avram has no children of his own.

And this is the key issue, Lot is an orphaned nephew that he was very close to. Not only are they endeared to another as family, but Lot stood to be the full inheritor of all Avram’s estate. (see the Parashiot of Lech Lecha and Vayeira 2012) Lot is Avram’s only heir as he had no son. What Avram did have was 318 trained disciples that had been born into his clan, men that he mobilized in rescue of his heir. (v.14)

The young men follow Avram to war, they follow them up through the valley of the river Dan in the north, until he surrounds and defeats the Mesopotamians just west of Damascus. (v.15) All that was sacked is brought back by Avram, all the people and possessions. Men and women both are delivered from their captivity. Among them are also Lot and his possessions. (v.16)

Now here is the one point that most people miss, on Avram’s return we have the runaway king of Sodom coming out to meet Avram. It is the king of Sodom that first goes out to meet Avram and his returning army.

And then in the middle of this the most striking thing takes place. Someone else walks into the situation and steals the spotlight just for a brief moment. Melchi-Tzedek just walks in out of nowhere, without any introduction. He offers Avram bread and wine, and extends his blessing. We hear nothing more about Melchi-Tzedek, other than that he receives a tithe from Avram from the captured booty.

Now notice no explanation is given for the tithe, and we have to assume it is Avram giving the tithe because the language itself doesn’t explicitly say so, just that a tithe “viyaten-lo / was given to him.” We assume Melchizedek is the “he.” The question comes in because we aren’t even sure why he is here at all, he is not king of one of these town nor was he even present in the battle. None of this concerns him. Is he coming out with symbols of hospitality and benevolence out of fear of Avram, or does he want something?

I think the latter point is the greater motivation. Avram is now returning with his small army and his captured spoils, and the local kings want their cut. This is such a major point that we begin a whole new aliya just to make this point. And at the head of the fifth aliya the first thing we read of is the king saying to Avram, “Ten-li hanefesh veharechush kach-lach / Give me the souls, and you can keep the goods.” (v.21) This point seems simple and maybe understated with few words, but in the reading of the Torah it stands out as one the driving points of the parsha.

The coward king of Sodom now comes out to meet Avram and he immediately and brazenly bark out his demands. He wants all the living souls, the people. But Abraham can keep of the other material spoils, for his trouble. He wants back all his people just as much as Avram wanted back Lot. There is no celebrating and praises as with Melchi-Tzedek, nor is there even a simple “thank you” given. He just wants what was taken from him.

According the orthodox female scholars Nehama Lebowitz, of blessed memory, Mechli-Tzedek is merely a character used as a device to contrast the unbefitting demands of the king of Sodom. To show the arrogance of his demands, and to display the lack of honor given to someone he should feel indebted to.

So what we see here is that Melchi-Tzedek is a person that who isn’t involved at all, but he shows respect to Avram and gets a portion of the spoils. We would expect the king of Sodom to show the same respect, in order to get back what he wants. But instead he just alarmingly barks a demand, before Avram starts giving away more of what he sees as his.

In the face of this demand Avram gives back everything that is taken, he didn’t really want it anyway. All he went out for was to retrieve Lot and his possessions from the mess he had gotten himself caught up in. All he claims for himself and his hired men was the food they had eaten. He doesn’t need his money, and startlingly gives everyone and everything back lest anyone say Avram was made rich off of this man’s misfortune.

For a second I would like us to step back and take a look at this parsha, and it’s use of a narrative to get across so much information. Yes we read about a long since forgotten ancient skirmish, one that would be of little relevance itself if it hadn’t been for Lot’s foolish attachment to this wild and lawless region. Here we are only in our third parsha of the Torah, and we are already being forced to have to pick out truths about the character of the persons involved. To learn from their example, both good and bad. Here in this we learn to find truth in even the most seemingly irrelevant of stories by keenly trying to identify with the people.

And the lesson is this, that even the smallest amount of gratitude goes a long way. We are taught the importance of respect and honor, and the uncouthness that there is outside of this code of ethics and morals.

Avram of course gives everything back, because he is a saint. Instead of being reactionary, he shames the king of Sodom with kindness. He shows he’s above this pettiness and hands it all over. Avram not only shows good character, he shows exceptional character. I hope that more of us would follow by his example.

A Battle for the Souls

One of the things that is brought up in this parsha is a contrasting of moral values. The lawlessness of the Jordan valley and their idolatry is contrasted against Avram and his monotheistic moral crusade. That is why Avram is spoken about as the Ivri – the Hebrew at this point, the one who “crossed over” to not be part of this mess and their way of life. What Avram had done instead is found a monotheistic community, a sizable one that is able to exert itself. Their ability to accomplish this campaign attests to their strength and influence.

Our rabbis and teachers often note on this point that here when Avram and his people first clash with the Canaanite kings of the region his issue is a battle for souls. I can’t help but be reminded of this by the language our rabbis use in the Ladino (Hebreo-Spanish language, the Sephardi tongue) translation of the Chumash, “Da a mi la alma, y la ganaçia toma para ti / Take for yourself the souls, and you keep the earnings.” (Constantinople Chumash, 1547)

Normally when we hear the word nefesh and souls used in the Torah we think of the word simply meaning living souls, meaning people. Souls mean people.

When it comes to Avram, the founder of this monotheistic community, the word souls takes on another meaning. Soul can also mean the deeper spiritual person within. We think of him primarily being interested in accumulating souls, in winning converts and growing his force of free men. If we wanted anything to claim as his reward from this battle, it would most likely be the people. He had interest in little else.

From this point of view the face off with the king of Sodom is one of the dethroned leader also telling Avram that they don’t want his religion, he wants his people back so they can live according to their own style as a pleasure kingdom. This eventually happens and it leads to their ultimate destruction later on.

But in the midst of this story comes forward one person of exceptional merit. He is not a Hebrew, he is part of the Canaanite establishment. He has all the makings of a good religious person, but his theology has degraded to being a near-monotheism; a composite form of monotheism. Melchi-Tzedek considered himself a monotheist in the same manner Christians or Hindus would consider themselves monotheistic, while still having a multiplicity of divine forms. Thus his god is designated “the Most High G-d.”

People often read too much into this story, and see the interaction as more than just the giving of gifts between the cheerful and celebratory Avram and Melchi-Tzedek. Though it is essential to recognized that there is a meeting of two great men of different faiths, that both show respect to each other.

Our father Abraham shows us a good example here early on in the history of the development of his faith, he shows how people of different ideas can be respectful to one another. But even more than that, Avram seems to recognize Melchi-Tzedek as a fellow traveler. Even though Avram has decided to take a different path away from the degraded theology that had come to dominate the other Semites of his day. Avram honors and recognized this man merely on the character of his words and deeds, he takes a chance on an unlikely candidate. Melchi-Tzedek is an outsider that is respected by Abraham himself.

For a lot of reasons people of just about every tradition have become fascinated with the story of king Melchi-Tzedek. He serves as an archetypal example for the outsiders. For this reason gentiles and the other religions who honor the bible often feel an affinity with him. He is not just a good gentile, but he is also a respectable non-Hebrew priest.

It should not surprise us that people want to lay claim to Melchi-Tzedek and his legacy, to be inheritors to knowledge about G-d that predates and supersedes the normal Abrahamic and Mosaic system.

The bible actually gives us our first example of a person pining to be honored as such an exception. Even King David wanted to be honored this way, as not just a king but also as a priestly figure in building the temple. He wrote a psalm where he declares that G-d has called him to be priest after the order of Melchi-Tzedek forever. He wants himself, or his messianic descendants be an exception to the rule. To be treated as a diamond in the rough, not just now but forever. (see Psalm 110)

In every moral religious community and stratus of religious commitment we can find these diamonds in the rough. These exceptional characters that by their deeds and words stand out. Their ethical behavior and good form is worthy of being recognized and emulated.

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Parshat Noach (2013)

Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

The Time the Earth Got Dipped In the Mikvah

Last week when we discussed the Torah portion we explored how across many cultures there are certain stories that are almost universally recognized among the epic myths of the ancient world. We also explored how these stories often charge natural elements with symbolic meaning. (see Parshat Bereishit 2013) The story of The Great Flood is probably one of the best examples of that.

Let’s great right into it, and let the text lead us. We will start at the top of the third aliya. Our text reads:

“And there was a flood

forty days

upon the earth.

And the waters increased

raising the ark,

so that it was lifted up from the earth.”

| Vayehi hamabul

| arba’im yom

| al-ha’aretz

| vayirbu hamayim

| vayis’u et-hatevah

| vataram me’al ha’aretz

Genesis 7:17

One of the things that we have to notice about our Torah readings, is that in the last two weeks water has taken a large role in the narrative. (see Parshat Bereishit 2013) We began the scriptures by walking into the story right at the point of creation. The first thing we see come into existence is a water-world; the entire surface of the world is covered with water and the spirit of G-d hovers over it. In our tradition we are taught that water is the essential primordial element, our mystical tradition tells us all physical things are essential formed through water.

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish. One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

Did you know there are only two ways to become Jewish? One is by birth. The other is through conversion. The act of conversion is usually finalized with immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. It contains 40 seah of natural water, symbolizing like the 40 weeks of human gestation. By dunking in the water, as naked as they were born, one becomes reborn and emerges to a new life as a new person.

In many cultures water is considered a symbol of birth and rebirth, a child emerges from the womb which is filled with water. And of course water is also considered a symbol of purity, washing is thus looked at as a form of renewal in the eastern religions. Water offers purity. It is also able to quench our thirst, it is an essential element necessary for our life. But at the same time with the majority of our planet covered in harsh waters, it’s also something that people hold a deeply reverent fear for. Water is highly symbolic on many levels.

For a while I would like us to focus on this topic of birth and rebirth, because it also offers us a connection to other symbolic elements of this story.

When Jewish people look at the story of the flood we cannot help but become almost overwhelmed by the amount of connections that we can mentally make regarding the symbolic nature of water.

Likewise the number forty also brings to remembrance many points of ancient wisdom. The ancients noticed that the human gestation period, the time it takes for the development of a baby in the womb, is approximately forty weeks long. Thus forty was always considered a number of fertility. They often saw it useful to personify female fertility in the planet Venus as it takes forty days to retrograde from it’s place as evening star into a position of being the morning star. Interestingly, the pre-embryo of an infant according to the Talmud is said to form in the first forty days. (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 69b) The number forty seems to hold special significance in the Jewish tradition as much as it does among the world cultures, and it is generally connected to birth and rebirth.

In the Torah the number forty reminds of us of the forty-year journey of the exodus (Numbers 14:33-34). We should also take notice that Moses fasted and communed with G-d for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28) and again a second time later in the exodus story (Exodus 34:28). The spies scouted out the promised land for forty days (Numbers 13:25). Sometimes the use of forty is a thing of good cheer, such as Kind David and Solomon ruled for forty years each (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Kings 11:42). Other times it is a negative thing, Goliath taunted Israel for forty days (1 Samuel 17:16), Egypt is prophesied to lay waste for forty years (Ezekiel 29:11-12), G-d tells Jonah to warn Nineveh they have forty days to repent or face destruction (Jonah 3:4). Sometimes it is a symbol of rest and renewal, such as when G-d gives the land a period of rest for forty years at a times (Judges 3:11; Judges 5:31; Judges 8:28). Other times it’s a symbol of judgment, during the early kingdom the people of Israel did evil and G-d gave them an advisory in the Philistines to contend with for forty years (Judges 13:1), drawing parallels to the punishment of the forty-year exodus journey.

One of the most obvious symbolism that stands out to us religious Jews is the fact that the mikvah – the ritual immersion pool, holds forty measured seah of water. For ritual purity Jews immerse themselves fully in a ritual bath filled with mayim chayim – living waters, or natural flowing water. A person dips into the pool fully nude and immerses themselves completely in order to purify themselves. When one does this they become like a new-born person, being surrounded on all sides in a pool of natural water one emerges pure like the day they were born.

Old Mikvah

Steps to an ancient Israeli mikvah. Though any natural pool of water can be used, the mikvah is specially made to provide the spiritual space to ritually dip even when a natural body of water like an ocean or lake is not nearby. Diverted and filtered rainwater and snow are used to fill it.

For this reason it is the common custom for newly religious Jews and converts to immerse in a mikvah. To symbolize their rebirth and emergence as a new and whole person.

Mikvah is a big deal in our tradition. It is something essential for religious Jews, immersing before taking upon ourselves special religious duties; this ritual takes us back to the temple period where the priest immersed themselves. Many orthodox Jews immerse before shabbat or high holidays. Others that are more mystical such as chassidim immerse themselves in a mikvah everyday before praying in the morning.

Of course today most primarily consider the mikvah as an essential for taharat hamisphacha – family purity. Men and women immerse themselves in preparation for their coming together in marriage. Women purify themselves after every menstruation and child-birth before becoming intimate again.

As we see the symbols of water and cyclical cycles of forty are numerous and overlapping, but they bring us all back to the same place. Forty and the element of water are both symbolic of renewal and rebirth. In ancient customs this is seen as an obvious biological reality that applies to all the world.

When we look at this story of the flood we see that for forty days the world was subject to a purge because of the great sins of humanity. Waters covered the face of the earth, purifying it in a measured and purposeful way. The earth had been throughly corrupted and polluted, it needed to be washed and renewed. So that after forty days man and nature could start over again pure and reborn.

Through Jewish eyes we see the story of The Great Flood as being something more purposeful that just utter destruction and punishment. We see the flood as a symbol of renewal and rebirth, not simply a simple tool of death and vengeance. It’s like the earth is being dipped in a mikvah.

However, make no mistake about it, we cannot avoid the fact that this story is indeed about judgment. Though the Torah has been no cake-walk up until now, the major theme of our Torah studies up to now have been about the creative acts. The expansive goodness of G-d. Now we are finding out in full force the judgment of G-d. Mystically we understand this as a natural reality. Kabbalistically we understand that Parshat Bereishit was about the fire of chesed (kindness) – G-d said let their be light, creating the world out of a sheer act of undeserved kindness. However Parshat Noach is about gevurah (greatness, understood as judgment), interestingly we see that gevurah is connected to the female spiritual aspect and the element of water. Kabbalistically we understand that in natural reality existence moves from a state of transmission and expansiveness, to shifting towards constriction and engulfment. (see Parshat Bereishit 2013)

Or simply put, its like how hot love eventually turns cold after a while. With any partners the initial spark of passion fades over time, and eventually your love is tempered by the bad habits that annoy you. At first you had no major issues with your spouse, but the judgments sneak themselves into the mix over time. It’s easy to understand what is going on here in the flood story. The honeymoon is over, and now the world is drowning in problems and destruction.

In spoken Hebrew the word mabul (flood) also takes on special meaning, it means to be confused and even mixed-up (like the word balbal). To be in mabul is to be in a state of confusion and disorder. I think that is the term that most of us can best appreciate. At one time or another we all have experienced a state of confusedness and disarray that is caused by negative living.

Maybe some of you are experiencing that right now. Do you feel the waters rising in a flood of negativity? The great news is that you don’t need to drown in it. We can save ourselves from it. This is all possible by us making a simple shift in thinking and actions, by making our destructive deluge a purifying mivkah for us. We decide that instead of just bobbing around in our problems until they overwhelm us, to take the plunge and immerse ourselves in our self-development.

Our Jewish tradition offers us ways to help turn these waters of negativity into a refreshing rebirth. The Torah is often described in our tradition as pure water. It refreshed the soul and also purifies one’s being. By engaging ourselves in self-reflection through Torah study we can begin to turn the waters of negativity into a source of gevurah (strength) for us. We can also engage in prayer and fasting. And of course, we can also use the ultimate symbol of rebirth by immersing ourselves in a natural pool. Mivkah offers us a way to make a mental break with the past and all it’s ties that hold us back.

Pardes: “Water, Water!”

Over the last few weeks we have been talking about mysticism, about Kabbalah. I cannot help but think of one story that comes to mind when considering the symbolic and mystical nature of water in the Jewish tradition.

Almost all people know the story from Talmud Hagigah (see Talmud Bavli 16b, Talmud Yerushalmi 2) of the Four Rabbis of Pardes. The four rabbis that go up to the sacred orchard, the grove of supernal wisdom. We understand this as them acquiring hidden truth, the secret of the hidden Torah; the Kabbalah. The text reads as follows:

“The Rabbis taught: Four entered the Pardes. They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them, ‘When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, “Water! Water!” for it is said, “He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes” (Psalms 101:7)’. Ben Azzai gazed and died. Regarding him the verse states, “Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones” (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed. Regarding him the verse states, “Did you find honey? Eat as only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it” (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace”

תר ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס ואלו הן בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבא אמר להם רע כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים משום שנאמר (תהילים קא) דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר (תהילים קטז) יקר בעיני ההמותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע ועליו הכתוב אומר (משלי כה) דבש מצאת אכול דייך פן תשבענו והקאתו אחר קיצץ בנטיעות רבי עקיבא יצא בשלום.

Talmud Bavli, Hagigah 14b

This is probably one of the most famous stories of the Chazal. Our sages told this story many different ways, so it peppers many great works. It is also one of the starting places for people who take up the study of kabbalah. One of the reasons is because this story offers us some warnings about taking on mystical interpretation.

We are told initially that when one ascends to a place of pure marble, which is understood to be the throne of G-d, one is not to begin to spastically blabber, “Water! Water!”

What are the connections to water here and the mystical experience? One cannot be exactly sure, but we do understand this as meaning to ascend to a spiritual realm that is somewhere between the lower and upper waters of the heavens (see Genesis 1:6). The marble throne is often said to be symbolic of the effects of water too, as our tradition tells us marble is formed by the pressure of the great waters again rocks. It hints to the primordial state of the spiritual universe, between the physical and the realm of pure energy.

Most every Jewish child knows the story summed-up this way: “One was harmed, one died, one cut his clippings, and only one went away in peace.” But how are we to understand the story?

Of Ben Azzai it is said that he merely peered upon the spiritual realm and he died. He was so overwhelmed by the experience that he could not contain himself. He engages a purely aesthetic approach. His desire was to do the ultimate spiritual act in the mind of many mystics, to leave the matters of earth and join with the spiritual. To give up the ghost and merge with the One. Thus he left his body behind and died.

Ben Zoma is said to have been harmed. We understand this to mean that he went mad. When faced with the spiritual reality of the upper realms he became overwhelmed like a person that eats too much honey. It made him sick. However, this sickness was of the mind. He became insane. The kabbalists teach us that when he saw the spiritual world laid-out and displayed for him all he saw was the connectedness of everything. It started with the element of water, he saw how it is an underlying element in everything. He fried his brain on seeing the connections of all things one to another, until all he was left muttering nothing more than, “Water! Water!”

And then there is Acher – which means “the other,” this is the term used of the heretic Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah. He stands out in our tradition as the ultimate example of an apikores – a heretic, derived from the term “epicurean,” he became some sort of pleasure-seeking gnostic. It is said that he descended to cutting clippings, which our sages say means he cut herbs in order to offer them to idols. Instead of seeing the oneness in everything and being overwhelmed that way, he saw the distinctness and an unconnected nature in things to the point each became a living deity to him. He was permanently harmed spiritually and ethically.

Only one rabbi comes back unharmed, Rabbi Akiva. He alone is able to come and go into this realm in peace. Thus he comes back with his warning for the others, even before they attempt to go there. Do not get overwhelmed, do not cry out, “Water! Water!”

Though Rabbi Akiva’s advice is a bit curious, he doesn’t leave us without an indication as to what it means. He says that when faced with the Divine one should not speak falsehoods. To cry out, “Mayim, mayim / Water, water” he says is a lie. How so? Though not stated, it is hinted by the word itself. Maya means illusion in Hebrew. We thus mystically understand that just like light shimmers and shines off of the surface of water, so too our perception of reality is like an illusion reflected off the ripples of a pond. We don’t really see a true form, just the few distorted pieces of light that catch our eye. Thus the verse Akiva provided tell us not to be dishonest as we stand before G-d, even as he urges us not to follow after illusions.

For these rabbis it can be said that though all of them were well learned in Torah, not all of them had settled their philosophical issues before going off into the deep end. Instead of finding peace like Rabbi Akiva, the others instead followed a path of illusion that hurt them physically, mentally and spiritually.

As we talk about mysticism I want us to remember that true kabbalah challenges us from its earliest textual sources to be mindful to not fall into a trap of illusions. That we don’t get stuck in a loop of irrelevance. That we don’t become distracted by the sparkle of a false reality. To realize that the truth of Torah is indeed like water, it can only mold and bend to the state of the vessel in which it is poured into. So our first challenge is to find wholeness and rest in ourselves. It is our goal to understand that the more whole and at peace we are, the better we can reflect the Light.

Parshat Bereishit (2013)

Genesis 1 – 6:8

How We Kabbalistically Bring Thoughts Into Reality

sephirot4pngbbbOver the past few years this Torah portion has been a starting place for me to discuss aspects of Kabbalah, the basics of Jewish mysticism. It is nearly impossible for me to discuss the topic of creative process without doing so through the eyes of received wisdom. In Hebrew to mitkabel means to receive. Our received Jewish mystical tradition is thus called Kabbalah, it is the studying of received truth as documented in the Torah and it’s wealth of commentary.

One of the reasons that I feel I must take this approach is because the allegorical and spiritual essence of this story is intentional and central to the creation narrative. It’s not a cop-out that was invented by modern apologist. The Torah uses seemingly esoteric use of symbolism that richly color this narrative like none other in the scriptures.

Generally when we are looking for mystical truth from the Torah we turn to books like the Zohar, the book of enlightenment that is a commentary to the Torah. The Zohar is broken down in basic discussions and parashot (sections) that match up with cycle of parashiyot (our weekly Torah readings). It’s not the only text of kabbalah, but it is the most exhaustive and essential of the primary works of Torah commentary. Though most scholars can only date this text back as far as the middle ages, it is written in the language and tone as that of the Talmud. It features the same sages and presents the same form of discourses as Talmudic literature. Jews receive this text as being among the many mesoretic inheritances handed down to us, one that was once oral but has since been written down for posterity.

I present some commentary from the Zohar in order to offer us some guidance of how we should look at the Torah, for how we should be reading it as we go along. This is probably a good discussion to have now, as we are renewing our cycle of Torah reading for another year. Our text reads as follows:

“Says Rabbi Shimon: Woe to the man who says that the Torah came to merely relate stories and ordinary words. For if this was so, even in this present day we could make a Torah from ordinary tales; and ones probably nicer than those [in the scriptures]. If it came to present earthly matters, then even the [present] rulers of the world have among themselves works which are superior. If this is the case, let us follow their example and compose some sort of Torah of our own…

…Woe to the wicked that say that the Torah consists of stories and nothing more, for they look at the [outer] garment and no further. Praiseworthy are the righteous, who look at the Torah the proper way. Just as wine must be in a container to hold it, the Torah does not endure unless in its mantle. So therefore only look at what is under the garment. All those words and stories are garments.”

רש אמר ווי לההוא בנ דאמר דהא אורייתא אתא לאחזאה ספורין בעלמא ומלין דהדיוטי. דאי הכי אפילו בזמנא דא אנן יכלין למעבד אורייתא במלין דהדיוטי ובשבחא יתיר מכלהו אי לאחזאה מלה דעלמא אפילו אינון קפסירי דעלמא אית בינייהו מלין עלאין יתיר. אי הכי נזיל אבתרייהו ונעביד מנייהו אורייתא כהאי גוונא אלא כל מלין דאורייתא מלין עלאין אינון ורזין עלאין.

ווי לאינון חייביא דאמרי דאורייתא לאו איהי אלא ספורא בעלמא ואינון מסתכלי בלבושא דא לא יתיר זכאין אינון צדיקייא דמסתכלי באורייתא כדקא יאות. חמרא לא יתיב אלא בקנקן כך אורייתא לא יתיב אלא בלבושא דא. ועד לא בעי לאסתכלא אלא במה דאית תחות לבושא ועד כל אינון מלין וכל אינון ספורין לבושין אינון:

Zohar: Parshat Behaaolatecha 58; 64

One of the reasons that many traditional, orthodox Jews find it fairly easy to exist in a world of deep religious conviction while still excelling in science and reason is because the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is one called to compromise one for the other. Our Torah presents our truths, our reason produces our facts.

Though we look to this Torah for truth, we don’t presume that all that is true about the world is written here in the Torah. It is the truth, but it does not demand that we see it as necessarily factually or chronologically true. The Torah is the essential truth that G-d has revealed into this world, but it cannot be used as a history book or as a primer in physical science.

Interestingly, this Zohar text is redacted in the middle-ages, when knowledge was lost and they looked back to a more glorious and well documented past. But in his tone the author suggests that even in their dark-ages a contemporary historian could have come up with something more profound if one tried. If this Torah is about fact, then wise and important men have libraries of books that do a better job at that than our Torah. The Torah cannot have been given to us for that purpose or else it is obsolete and antiquated. Surely today in an age of science and empirical evidence this is even more true. We need to read the text deeper, in fact according to the “right way,” which is through allegory and symbolism.

Most people who come from other religious experiences tend to find this position mighty progressive, and maybe even a bit irreverent. But for the person of reason, this tends to come across as refreshing. The only people who tend to get irritated by this approach are those who intend to mock Torah, who need biblical literalism to stand as their straw-man to kick over.

It’s not just atheists that tend dislike this approach, even co-religionists tend to get upset with me for stating this. For instance once I sat in a class and heard a very liberal rabbi poking fun at our ancestors for not understanding how the world worked. His reason was to in like fashion characterize present orthodox Jews as handicapped by an almost magical view of creation and history.

When I later pulled him aside and asked how he felt his reduction to absurdity was intellectually honest he got upset. I posed that if you considering it, the more orthodox the person the more they tend to revere this mystical and allegorical mentality as found in the Zohar, it’s not theory for light-weights. In response he made issue with the authority of the Zohar and challenged that kabbalah is not universally appreciated. However I contended that this approach was a well documented and accepted concept in Judaism much prior to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, it is not a product of modern religious movements. Elements of kabbalah permeate much of our established Jewish customs and liturgy, it is a shared heritage. It is not a marginal philosophy, therefore it is dishonest to mis-characterize what it means to be a Torah believing person by slighting this approach.

One of the points I have to make to people like this when discussing the creation story of Genesis, is that we need to not just recognize the similarities that exist among the various myths and legends (example: the great flood). We also need to look at stories more multi-layered, the way we clearly know to do for the texts of other well documented societies; the Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Persians, Romans, etc. We know that their equivalent of the genesis narratives are made not as much to describe the literal composition of the world, but to present their perceived architecture of existence. Their philosophy surrounding the formation of the world and living souls presented in their stories was for the purpose of displaying the structure of the soul and the creative process. For these societies their sacred texts were discussion points that encouraged an almost early attempt at the philosophy of psychology. It not just said how the souls were formed, but also to exhibited what motivates them.

Now it’s not just defense of traditional Judaism that motivates me to engage people, like the previously mentioned rabbi, to dig further into our tradition to reveal a deeper kernel of truth in these stories. It’s because as people who represent Judaism to others we need to get beyond the claim that Torah is primarily concerned with mere history, because that approach does not offer us any reason for why one should personally seek out G-d or spirituality.

The Zohar, in the name of Rabbi Shimon, instead says it’s not just beneficial for us to look beyond the surface level meaning of the Torah, but it calls anyone that does not do so a sinner. The Zohar insists that we consider another way, it demands that we look for the soul of the Torah.

And this is that path that we will take as we begin to explore the Torah this year. Not that allegory is only present in the Zohar, it is present in all forms of rabbinic literature, however it is a central focus of the Zohar. Our starting off place this year is with the Zohar, as it offers us one of the best descriptions of how allegory and mystical interpretation of the scriptures works.

The Zohar contends that the Torah is wrapped in a mantle, but underneath there is a living soul to it. It’s like a person, when we look at someone generally the first thing that we see is their appearance. We judge their demeanor, how well they are dressed-up and how they present themselves. But the Zohar contends that just as foolish as it would be for us to judge a person based on their outer appearance, it is so when consider only the surface level of the Torah. (Zohar, ff. 61)

The Zohar tell us that the Torah is not just an abstract thing, there is a real substance to it. There is a solid body of truth to it. The Zohar calls the Torah mitzvot (the laws and commandments, good and holy deeds) “gufei Torah / the Body of the Torah” in Aramaic (the Talmudic language of rabbinic Judaism). It is the frame that holds us up. And on this frame hang our “levushin / garments,” the stories of the Torah are thus like the clothing one wears, that dress one up but at the same time conceal hidden person underneath.

The rabbis here challenges us to be wise, to not just look at the surface oblivious that of the anything else might existing beneath it all. If it was a person we would want to see the body underneath. Even more so we should want to get to know the person that is even deeper than that, so intimately so that we can almost touch their soul. The Zohar states that we are to look as deep as we can. Stating that the sages and our ancestors who stood at Sinai were so wise that, “la mis’taklei ela b’nishmata, d’i’hi ikara dchola oraita mamash / they only looked at the soul of the Torah, which is the essential root of everything, the real Torah.” We are told that in the future, in the world to come, all will see the soul of the Torah. (Zohar. ff. 62)

So why do we consider the Torah and its commands (mitzvot) at all? What do we have to learn from them? What importance does this Torah have to us? And why should we practice Torah mitzvot?

The Torah is the physical body that houses the soul of Essential Truth, clothed in the beauty of a story. It tells us how to bring the Divine Will into physicality, we do this by causing our soul to meet up with a physical action as mitzvot – doing the will of G-d in performing good deeds and spiritual acts.

But why does this kabbalah, the essence of all that is, have to be revealed through the Torah? The Zohar explains because it needs to be revealed in a form that we can understand. The Zohar brings forward an idea of the spiritual realm that we already understand to show as an example, it uses angels and their taking on a physical form. In order for us to perceive of them they take on a physical appearance. It is not just to see them, but also because their raw energy would be overwhelming if we came in direct contact with it. So too, this essential truth needs to be presented in a form we can understand, and in a fashion in which we can approach. (Zohar ff. 59)

The Zohar further contends that the “true Torah” (which we can call kabbalah) cannot be separated from its mantle, from the stories and it’s discussions in the scriptures. If we tried to separate them it could not last, anymore than wine could if you removed it from its flask. It needs to be held and preserved in this fashion.

However, just like with wine, we are really interested in what is on the inside. We should continue to seek to reach the sweet and sometimes intoxicating center of Divine reality hidden in these scriptures.

As we move forward in our Torah learning over this next year, I would hope that we begin to look at the scriptures as a guide to bringing our abstract feelings of faith and potential that is in our souls into reality. To utilize the Torah as our muscle to move us forward, so that we can labor in producing mitzvot that correct ourselves (tikkun atzmi) and repair our world (tikkun olam).

Continuing Discussion Regarding Applied Kabbalah

Last time we discussed this parsha we began to talk about basics of kabbalah. We started off with the primary concepts of the Three Pillars, the three modalities. They are symbolized by the variables ש for Fire, מ for Water, and א for Air. (see Parshat Bereishit 2012) When we discuss these aspects we must understand we are not talking about true elements. We are merely using these descriptions in order to best display the nature of the modalities. We are using these things to express how they react towards each other. It’s like talking about electromagnetic states; positive, negative and neutral. We began to discuss how we need to bring balance to our nature; to not be too much of a hot wire, nor should we bone cold, but we should find a golden middle path. We should bring balance to our thoughts and actions.

Now the reason we started out with the sefirah of Chesed – the Divine aspect of Kindness (also called Gedulah, or “greatness”) – is because that is the first real manifestation of G-d in the world that we can experience, according to kabbalah. It is a great and expansive form of kindness which is displayed in the scriptures as the first of the Seven Lower Sefirot – the seven Divine aspects that we display in this physical world (they are drawn from 1 Chronicles 29:11).

upperthreesefirotbThey are not the only aspects of G-d that exist. Indeed there are higher aspects of the Divine that transcend physical form, so they take the form of consciousness. They are understood as Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (discernment) and Daat (understanding, also displayed as Keter, the Crown). These are the Three Upper Sefirot. Though we understand that physical forms begin to take shape with Chesed, the scriptures tell us that very foundations of the physical world are first laid in Chochmah, in wisdom. (“Hashem b’chochma yasad-aretz,” see Proverbs 3:20) And that is what we are learning about today, creation and the creative process. How it goes from thought to physicality. We do so through the story of how a purposeful thought became ha-aretz, the Earth.

Our Torah text reads as follows:

“At the beginning

G-d created the heavens

and the earth.

Now the earth was desolate and


and darkness covered the face the deep.

And the wind of G-d hovered

upon the face of the waters.

And G-d said:

Let there be light!

And then there was light.”

| Bereshit

| bara Elohim et hashamayim

| ve’et ha’aretz

| Veha’aretz hayetah tohu

| vavohu

| vechoshech al-penei tehom

| veruach Elohim merachefet

| al-penei hamayim.

| Vayomer Elohim

| yehi-or v

| ayehi-or.

Genesis 1:1

In our kabbalistic understanding there are Ten Sefirot – ten aspects that manifest the Divine. Our sages first tell us in the Talmud that there are ten creative acts, that we call the Ten Utterances. (see Talmud, Rosh haShanah 32a) They point to here in the scriptures, where G-d says “Let there be…” Now the Talmud notes the fact that we only see nine actual spoken commands to accounts for. There is at least one unspoken act, and that is the actual creation of the world itself. If we look at our text we see a primordial world spring into existence at the beginning (bereshit). One that is formless and in chaos, with bodies of water and winds blowing over the surface of them. From this perspective the whole first sentence of Torah becomes one creative act.

From the Talmudic perspective we see how will and intention – pure thought (as expressed through the Upper Three Sefirot) – must precede action (as expressed by the Lower Seven Sefirot). Creation comes down from a higher consciousness, in the same manner that impulses from our brains manifest in the actions of our body.

The Zohar however has a slightly different take on things. It shifts the focus even more metaphysically. It agrees that there was something before this start, that is yet undescribed in the scriptures. Though it begins to count the Ten Utterances from the words, “Let there be light.” This is the first true act of creation, the Zohar contends. It starts with light, understanding that G-d needed to create a way in which to relate to us. A divine manifestation to permeate the universe that we can understand, which we perceive that as Light. The Zohar takes us to the very moments near the big bang, when the universe seems to inflate from an infinitesimally minuscule point and it is yet flooded with light.

The Zohar teaches that this overwhelming light which is displayed at the top of our kabbalistic tree, in Keter (the Crown, the highest level of consciousness), is what we can perceive of as G-d, the creator. He is manifested as a stream of pure and all-encompassing light that is without form, Ohr (אור). It is the highest aspect of the modality of synthesis, the type of state we spoke of in Tiferet (harmony); everything is in balance. There is no lack of anything, there is nothing but an endless amount of potential energy in this universe for us to draw from there. G-d is one, and nothing else exists aside from His being. In His highest form we understand G-d as being Ohr Ein Sof – the Light (ohr) that is without (ain) end (sof). G-d is everything, and yet not one thing at all.

G-d needed a place to display this power so He created a void space, The universe was thus created as an empty canvas for G-d to work with. A blank screen on which he could project His light. Into this space the Divine takes all this energy and projects it out of pure will. This is a positive force, akin to a masculine drive; this is displayed as Chochmah, which is the higher manifestation of Chesed.

tree-emptyIt takes root in Binah, in a constrictive and yet receptive form of consciousness; we understand it as being akin to a feminine aspect. Binah we understand to mean “understanding,” but it is more like receiving a spark of intuition. It is a consciousness achieved through receptivity. From here all creative things are birth. This is the upper aspect akin to Gevurah.

Thus in this structure, the crowing truth is that G-d Consciousness is pure thought, intellect and understanding (The Upper Three). When it is synthesized to be translatable into the mortal world it take the form of Daat, which is Knowledge. The world cannot contain all of the “ultimate truth,” but it is discernible through knowledge.

And at the heart of us people are our emotional drives, the first three of the Lower Seven, which is the second level of this cosmic modality (Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet). But what we need to understand and be knowledgeable regarding is the reality that we are more than just the sum of our emotions and drives. These drives are reflections of a higher consciousness and state of mindfulness that we drawing down from a higher spiritual place.

The reason why we need to get into control of our thoughts and emotions, is because eventually they transform into actions. Our emotions replicate themselves as Netzach (Endurance), Hod (Glory), and Yesod (Foundation). This is the realm of action, where our thoughts result in work to produce what we only vision in an abstract way; in our thoughts and emotions.

These levels of the grouped sefirot are called partzufim (configurations); they are gradations of truth and existence. So far we have seen three levels of this emanation. Partzufim are described as almost separate realms, understood as distinct “worlds.” In this form of mystical teaching we state that the creative power of the Divine trickled down through levels of formation and actualization until it results in producing this world, the earth. We are told earth is created in Malchut, the lowest of the ten sefirot. It is displayed in the fourth and lowest level of the partzufim. This is the realm of the physical world, were intent, drive and actions come into true form. It is not just potential and intent anymore. Malchut in the fourth patzuf is the realm where one’s will become a true products – a solid form through action. (assiyah)

During creation in this realm we see the primordial states ש (Fire), מ (Water) and א (Air) take form to become a new elemental state never existed before – haAretz, the Earth. Unlike the mysticism of the occult schools, we understand the earth is not eternal, earth is not a natural state on its own. It is formed out of the combination of three primordial states.

The Three Mother letters thus take their place standing over the Three Pillars, they best exemplify the first three sefirot (Keter, Chochman and Binah; and alternatively in different instances Chochmah, Binah, and Daat). These three do not directly touch this world, as it cannot contain them; they are transcendent.

worldscharts2Now to I must quickly bring us up to speed how this affects our understanding of the Etz Chaim – the Tree of Life – the form that sefirot take as they descend into our reality. The Three Mother elements spawn the creation of the physical world. The Lower Seven Lower sefirot thus become expressed by Seven Letters (ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ר, ת) that correspond to the physical world. They are clearly representative of a shift in reality to a consciousness of space and time. These Seven Letters also correspond to the seven days of the week, and the seven planets of the classical world (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

Thus the Three Mothers are the mochin (the brains), and the Seven Lower are the middot (characteristics) in which we manifest these thoughts and impulses through (such as emotions).

So what does this have to do with you and I? Why should this matter at all to any of us? This is all very psychedelic, but what is the usefulness of considering this?

One of the things that we learn here in Parshat Bereishit is that man (adam) was created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of G-d. That does not mean that we were made to look physiologically like G-d Almighty. We are made in His image, but not as a duplicate of Him. We are not photocopies of G-d, however we do exhibit more like a traced shadow copy of G-d’s nature as though made in a camera obscura. Still the blueprint form we see in the spiritual realms for His general workings are also displayed in us. The order we see spiritually displayed in G-d’s emanations are nearly the same in principle as that of the working of our souls.

Many kabbalists understand man to be almost a microcosm of G-d, and even of the Universe itself. We have G-d given creativity and ability to shape a destiny for this universe. We do this by actualizing things we perceive in our higher intellect and imagination, and continue to work with something until all our effort begins to take a true and functioning form. And above our own intellect is an inspiration that we can also learn to draw down from a higher realms of spiritual consciousness.

In conclusion I want to remind us that we are talking about creation and the creative process. We naturally have in us the ability to create what we conceive of in our minds and dream of in our hearts. But a lot of the struggle in making that possible is learning to first let our heads rule our hearts. To be mindful and follow the cues of the wise inspiration that G-d has placed in our hearts. If so then we can be people who are not just creative, but also profoundly artistic and productive. Like the craftsman Bezalel who build the Mishkan (tabernacle) and temple instruments, for whom it is said:

And I have filled him with the Spirit of G-d, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship…

וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָלמְלָאכָה

Exodus 31:3

Tips: We learned today that the commandments and the spiritual acts that we do are the gufei Torah – the Body of the Torah, because this is how we embody the Light and the true fullness of the Torah consciousness. But just like any body, if we exercise our various parts we strengthen our greater body. We become stronger and more nimble at doing the things we challenge ourselves with. Likewise in order for us to build up our creative skills and ability we need to work-out spiritually. We engage all the various parts of our intellect and desires in doing mitzvot – good deeds, spiritual acts.

The Torah mitzvot are tried and true ways to help us develop our skills and strengths. For every little good deed we do we also grown in a sense of accomplishment and pride.

It doesn’t take much to spark mindfulness and the creative process. Chant a beautiful prayer, learning a little Torah, give a tad of charity, or volunteer in the community.

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