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Shemot 5780-2020

Shemot 5780-2020

“Developing Commitment to Judaism: A Lesson from an Egyptian Prince”
(updated and revised from Shemot 5760-1999)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we encounter one of the most formidable issues facing contemporary Jewish life: How to raise Jewishly-identified children in a rigorously challenging environment.

At first blush, the issue of Jewish identity would hardly be a theme likely to be found in this week’s parasha. But, clearly, Moses was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter in an intensive Egyptian environment. Nevertheless, scripture says, Exodus: 2:11, וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה,  וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם , and it came to pass in those days,and Moses grew up, and he went out to his brethren,and he saw their burdens.

Not only does Moses see the Hebrews’ burdens, but when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster striking a Jewish slave, מֵאֶחָיו , of his brothers, he looks this way and that–-sees that there is no one who will stand up to defend the Hebrew slave, and Moses then strikes the Egyptian dead, and buries him in the sand.

This clearly begs the question: How did this Egyptian prince, Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s palace, not only develop a Jewish identity, but also a profound sense of caring for his fellow Jew?

The Biblical narrative and the elaborate Midrashim concerning the birth of Moses are well known. Pharaoh had instructed the midwives (Exodus 1:16) to kill all the Jewish male children. The midwives kept a careful record of the pregnant Jewish women so that they could come at the appropriate time and murder the babies. According to tradition, (Rashi, Exodus 2:2) Moses was born, miraculously, after only six months, and survived. That is why his mother was able to hide him for three months.

Every day, the Egyptians would come to the house of Moses’ parents, Amram and Jochebed, to look for the child. When Jochebed could no longer hide the child, she constructed an ark of bulrush, covered it with pitch outside, and placed it on the river, leaving Moses’ sister, Miriam, to watch the child.

According to the Midrash, the Al-mighty caused a great heat wave to strike Egypt, and all the people went down to bathe in the river. When the daughter of Pharaoh, who had also gone to the river, beheld the ark floating in the water, she instructed her maidens to bring the floating vessel to her, adding, that perhaps, there is a child who can be saved.

The Midrash maintains that the handmaidens were loath to go against Pharaoh’s decree that all Jewish male children should be drowned into the river.

The rabbis, cited by Rashi, on Exodus 2:5, employ a homiletical interpretation on the text, וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ , which literally means, that Pharaoh’s daughter sent her handmaiden to take the child. Rather than translate אַמָה –“ama” as handmaiden, they interpret the Hebrew word “ama” to mean “hand”–that Pharaoh’s daughter’s hand was miraculously lengthened, and that she herself was able to reach the diminutive ark to save the child.

To add a little intrigue to the story,  Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer 48, records that Pharaoh’s daughter had long been stricken with a dreaded dermatological disease, and that when she touched the ark she was suddenly healed. When she opened the ark and saw the child’s shining face, she had compassion on him and said, Exodus 2:6, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה , “this is surely one of the Hebrew children.” The Midrash maintains that when G-d saw how compassionate Pharaoh’s daughter was, He gave her a special name, בתי-ה –“Bitya,” which, in Hebrew, means “Bat Y-ah,” daughter to G-d, and promised that death would have no dominion over her, that she would be rewarded with Eternal life in the Garden of Eden, the Garden of G-d.

The Midrash continues, stating that Bitya tried in vain to have the child nurse from an Egyptian woman, but he refused. Miriam, Moses’ sister, who was watching him from her hiding place in the bulrushes, emerged and said (Exodus 2:7) הַאֵלֵךְ וְקָרָאתִי לָךְ אִשָּׁה מֵינֶקֶת מִן הָעִבְרִיֹּת , Shall I go call a nursemaid for you from the Jewish women?” Miriam called Jochebed, Moses’ mother, and Bitya charged her with nursing the child. Jochebed took the child and raised him for two years. After he was weaned, Moses was brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter. How painful it must have been for Jochebed to give up her child.

From that day on, Moses remained in Pharaoh’s house. He was raised there, educated there, and nurtured in Egyptian culture. According to tradition, Moses was 20 years old when he went out and acknowledged his Jewish brethren.

Why is the Midrash so impressed with Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, to the extent that G-d Himself gives her a new name and bestows upon her a promise of eternal life? Clearly, there is a secret heroine in this story, and Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh, is that heroine! Bitya, Midrash or not, defies her father, by saving Moses who is clearly a Jewish child. Bitya’s actions indicate that she is made of different stuff than the cruel Egyptians who relished persecuting Jews.

No doubt, the rabbis of the Midrash were also perplexed as to how a child, who was raised for 18 years as an Egyptian, could feel so powerfully connected to the Jewish people. That is the likely reason why they attributed all of this to Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter.

The Communist leader, V.I. Lenin, had a motto: “Give me four years to teach the children, and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.” The implication being that the formative education of a child is the most significant and most enduring.

Citizens of contemporary times know how true this message rings as we see so many children who are being raised with indifferent or absentee parents, and yet we wonder why so many young people are so unsettled and frequently turn against the parents’ values. Clearly, the formative years are invaluable. Those who trade away those precious early years for a few extra shekels, are making a fateful error. Judaism has long maintained that “quality time” without “quantity time,” simply doesn’t work.

The experience of Moses in Pharaoh’s palace also underscores the value of intensive Jewish education. For many years, the Jewish establishment in America derided intensive Jewish education, feeling that Jewish parochial school education was divisive and un-American. In retrospect, we now see, with the tragic statistics on assimilation, how misguided those leaders were.

I have long maintained that one cannot really “overdose” on Judaism or on Jewish education. Parents who are passionate in their Judaism, given the impact of assimilation, will hopefully end up with children who are moderate. Parents who are moderate about their Judaism, are likely to wind up with children who are casual. And, those who are casual in their Jewish practice, may wind up, G-d forbid, with Episcopalian grandchildren!

Children who are given a firm basic Jewish education, even if they choose later in life to forsake tradition, will always have an opportunity to choose later in life to rejoin that tradition. The tragedy regarding the large numbers of young Jews who are walking away from their Judaism today, is that they are walking away, not because they are disenchanted with Judaism, but because they never had a choice–they were never given a basic Jewish education and never had positive, joyous, Jewish experiences.

Positive values are skills that need to be nurtured. A child who has never been encouraged to put a nickel, a dime, a quarter into a pushka (charity box) on a regular basis is unlikely to feel anything special for the poor or the homeless. A child who has never felt the warm embrace of parents on Shabbat or heard beautiful zemirot sung at their Shabbat tables are likely to be far more attracted to contemporary pop music and the haunting  Christmas songs. A child who has never felt the excitement of Purim or Simchat Torah, will be easily swept away by the drinking and ribaldry of the annual secular New Year’s Eve celebration. This is the tragedy that we face today; and the tragedy is compounded, because it did not have to happen!

What role does Midrash play in Torah study? Midrashim are, after all, only legendary interpretation of the Biblical verses, yet they almost always come to teach powerful and profound pedagogic, often moral, messages. In this instance, the Midrash teaches that there was a secret to Moses’ proud and powerful Jewish identity. His identity was a reflection of the commitment he developed during those two important years that he spent with his mother, and the extraordinary commitment that Bitya conveyed to him during his sojourn in Pharaoh’s palace.

The philosopher, the late Eliezer Berkovits, was once asked, “Who is a Jew?” He responded insightfully, “A Jew is one who has Jewish grandchildren.”

May the story of Moses and his remarkable religious inspiration and commitment serve as a source for all, of inspiration and commitment to Jewish learning, inspiration and commitment to Jewish growth, inspiration and commitment to Jewish life.

May you be blessed.

Vayechi 5780-2020

“The Critical Importance of Timing”
(updated and revised from Vayechi 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, includes almost a full chapter (Genesis 49) with 28 verses of extraordinarily powerful poetry.

In this parasha, Jacob blesses his children. Clearly, it is much more than a blessing. In fact, it is Jacob’s prophetic assessment of the unique natures of his children–the tribes of Israel and, in certain instances, the future missions that the tribes will fulfill.

Through these wondrous words of poetry, Jacob, in effect, designates the leadership roles that certain of his children will play. These designations will ultimately have a major impact on Jewish history.

Jacob determines which of his first-born children will be regarded as the legal firstborn, entitled to the birthright. After all, Jacob has four sons, each of whom is the firstborn to his mother. Joseph ultimately emerges as the firstborn, who receives the double portion in the land of Israel. Jacob then chooses Levi to be the religious leader of Israel. Finally, the temporal leader, the King, is chosen, the most exalted of all the brothers, and that is Yehudah, Judah.

Of all the sons of Jacob, Reuben, the eldest, is perhaps the most tragic. Listen to the beautiful poetic words of Genesis 49:3 concerning Reuben. Jacob says, רְאוּבֵן, בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה , Reuben, you are my firstborn, כֹּחִי, וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת, וְיֶתֶר עָז , you are the first of my strength and the first of my power, you are foremost in rank, and foremost in power. You Reuben, have all the natural advantages of the firstborn, says Jacob.

But then, in a sudden change, Jacob, in Genesis 49:4, says, פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר , You, Reuben, are impetuous like water, you cannot be the foremost, כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ, יְצוּעִי עָלָה , because you mounted the bed of your father, you violated the couch upon which you rose up!

How could such a good person, a good-hearted and well-intentioned person like Reuben, finish last? He’s always ready to do the right thing.

When we first encounter Reuben as an adult, it is at the time of the wheat harvest. Reuben goes out to the fields, and scripture, in Genesis 30:14, says, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה , he finds mandrakes. The mandrakes were a fertility drug that Reuben brings to his mother Leah, so that she would have more children. Reuben is always prepared to help.

Reuben’s intentions are always noble, even in the instance where Jacob condemns Reuben for violating his bed. As described in Genesis 35:22, the Torah states, וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו , Reuben goes out, sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. When Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife dies, because of Jacob’s special affection for Rachel, he moves his bed into Bilhah’s tent, because after all, Bilhah was Rachel’s handmaiden. Reuben considered this an affront to his mother Leah, and took upon himself to move Jacob’s bed into Leah’s tent. Although Reuben did nothing more than tamper with the location of his father’s bed, scripture considers it as if he had committed adultery, because he interfered with his father’s right to conduct his marital life as he saw fit.

Only because of Reuben’s exalted stature would such a deed be described as immoral. But, all along, Reuben’s intentions are entirely  noble.

In Genesis 37:12, scripture reports that the brothers go to Shechem to tend the sheep. It could very well be that the brothers wanted to escape the turmoil of Jacob’s home, and Shechem was the last place that they truly felt unified when they rose up to defend their sister Dina. Previously, Joseph had dreamed two dreams, the interpretations of which were clearly that his brothers would bow down to Joseph. Adding salt to the wound, Joseph was wearing the hated multi-colored coat of colors. The brothers’ hatred for Joseph is so great, that when they see Joseph coming toward them from afar, they conspire to murder him.

Reuben recognizes his brother’s intentions and rises to the occasion to save Joseph. Reuben says to his siblings (Genesis 37:21), לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ , “Let’s not commit murder. How can we kill our brother?” He suggests, instead, that they throw Joseph into a pit. Scripture actually testifies that Reuben’s true intentions were entirely noble. He planned to return to the pit and save Joseph. But, the plans go awry.

Apparently, without Reuben’s knowledge, the brothers sell Joseph to a caravan of Ishmaelites and Midianites on their way to Egypt. When Reuben returns to the pit and sees that Joseph is gone, he rends his garments, and desperately cries that without the lad, he cannot face his poor father. The rabbis say that the reason that Reuben was unaware that the brothers had sold Joseph, was because he had returned to Hebron to minister to old Jacob, since it was his turn to do so. Reuben had good intentions, but his timing was very off! How could he leave without being certain that Joseph was safe?

The final encounter with Reuben is found toward the end of the Joseph saga, in Genesis 42:37. The brothers have returned from their first visit to Egypt. Joseph has accused them of being spies, and Simeon was held captive. To prove their innocence, the brothers could only return to Egypt if Benjamin was with them.

Back in Canaan, in order to convince Jacob to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt, Reuben promises to protect Benjamin. “If I fail to bring Benjamin back safely,” Reuben says to his father,(Genesis 42:37),  אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית , “You can kill my two sons.” תְּנָה אֹתוֹ עַל יָדִי וַאֲנִי אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ , “Give him to me, I promise to bring him back.” Jacob, however, rejects the offer.

It’s interesting how Rashi describes this rejection. When the elderly Jacob hears Reuben’s offer, he says to Reuben: !בְּכוֹר שׁוֹטֶה “You may be the oldest, but you’re a fool! What do I gain by having my two grandchildren killed if you don’t return Benjamin? What kind of offer is that?”

And yet, a few verses later (Genesis 43:8-9), Judah makes a similar offer, that Jacob accepts. Judah says: “Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, so that both we and our children will not die.” אָנֹכִי אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ מִיָּדִי תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ , “I will be surety for him, you’ll demand him of me. If I don’t bring him back to you, then I will be sinful to you all the days of my life.”

Jacob was undoubtedly repulsed by the immorality of Reuben’s suggestion that he kill his own grandsons. But, Reuben’s offer was also rejected because of the timing.

Judah’s offer was made after the family’s food in Canaan was completely depleted, and the starving children were crying. The situation was desperate. Reuben’s offer was made soon after the brothers had returned to Canaan from Egypt with their donkeys laden with food. You might have the best intentions, but if your timing is off, the offer is ineffective.

This emphasis on timing is a frequently repeated theme in Jewish tradition. In Pirkei Avot 4:18, there are three germane statements. It states, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִּשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ , Do not try to calm a person at the moment of his great anger. אַל תְנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו , Do not try to console a friend when the body of the deceased is still warm, when the dead is still in front of him. And, finally, וְאַל תֹּאמַר דָּבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשַׁר לִשְׁמֽוֹעַ , Try not to say something that cannot be understood, even though eventually it will be understood. Timing is critical!

In closing, I share a cogent essay written by Charles Swindoll about “attitude.” He writes:

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearances, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home. The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do, is play on the one string that we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it. And, so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.

Attitudes may be critical, but timing can validate or invalidate even the most vaunted and best intentions and attitudes. And, so we learn from Reuben to not only say the right thing, but to say the right thing at the right time.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Vayigash 5780-2019

“The Reunion of Jacob & Joseph: An Immortal Lesson about Love”
(updated and revised from Vayigash 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, we read of the dramatic reunion of Joseph and his father, Jacob, after 22 years of separation.

After a long, rather torturous confrontation with his brothers, in which Joseph tests his brothers’ loyalty, Joseph reveals himself.  A full reconciliation must wait for their father’s arrival in Egypt.

According to the Midrash (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 45), Joseph’s brothers were fearful that a sudden announcement that Joseph was alive might profoundly shock Jacob and cause him harm. They decided to send one of Jacob’s granddaughters, Serach, the daughter of Asher to subtly prepare Jacob for the incredible news. Serach begins by playing her harp, singing a song that Joseph was still alive and was the ruler of all of Egypt. Upon hearing the song, Jacob scolds Serach and insists that she cease taunting him. She, nevertheless, continues to sing. Eventually, she succeeds in lifting Jacob’s spirits from the long sadness that had enveloped him during the 22 preceding years.

The Midrash, Genesis Rabbah, 94:3, 95:3, says that despite his emotional improvement, Jacob still refused to accept the information as true. It was only when he saw the wagons that were sent by Joseph from Egypt, laden with all the good of Egypt, that he accepted that Joseph was alive. The commentators even say that the wagons were an allusion to the last Torah lesson that Jacob and Joseph had studied together, which was something that only Joseph could have known. Only then does Israel say (Genesis 45:28): רַב עוֹד יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי, אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת  “How great that my son Joseph still lives. I shall go and see him before I die!”

Jacob, however, is afraid to go down to Egypt. Reassuring Jacob, G-d tells him not to fear, because this journey is a fulfillment of the Divine prophecy of the “Covenant Between the Pieces” (Genesis 15:13) in which G-d informs Abraham that the Jews will be enslaved for 400 years, and that they will eventually leave Egypt with great wealth. Jewish destiny will not be denied, and Jacob goes down to Egypt with 70 souls!

The dramatic reunion that takes place between father and son is described vividly in Genesis 46:29: וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ, וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו גֹּשְׁנָה , and Joseph harnessed his chariot, and went up to meet Israel, his father, in Goshen. Despite the fact that Joseph had numerous aides and servants, he himself hastens to personally harness his chariot, to greet his father in Goshen. This act of honoring his father on the part of Joseph, serves to counterbalance the treacherous and murderous act of Pharaoh that occurred later in the Exodus story. Because of Pharaoh’s unmitigated hatred of the Jewish people, Pharaoh also personally harnesses his chariot (Exodus 14:6) to chase after the children of Israel when they flee Egypt. The act of love and respect on Joseph’s part, ultimately nullifies Pharaoh’s action, and results in the salvation of the Jewish people.

The description of the reunion of Jacob and Joseph as delineated in the biblical text is complicated and ambiguous. Genesis 46:29 records the encounter, וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָיו וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל צַוָּארָיו עוֹד , and he appeared before him, and he fell on his neck, and he wept even more (or excneckessively) on his neck. Israel [Jacob] then dramatically says, “Now I can die, after my having seen your face, because you are still alive.”

The verse raises many questions. Who fell on whose neck? Why does the Hebrew word צַוָּארָיו , “neck,” appear in the singular? Didn’t they fall on each other’s necks? And, who wept on the other’s neck excessively? And, why is the word וַיֵּבְךְּ , “he cried,” also in the singular? Shouldn’t they each have cried on each other’s necks?

Ramban argues that it was father Jacob who fell on the neck of his son Joseph, and cried more, alluding to the fact, that for the past 22 years Jacob had been in a constant state of mourning and weeping for Joseph.

Ramban also argues that since Jacob’s eyes were dim with age, and Joseph appeared to him in a chariot with his face covered by an Egyptian turban, he was not recognized by his father. The text, therefore, informs us that as Joseph came closer to Jacob, Jacob recognized Joseph and fell on his neck and wept more. Moreover, Nachmanides argues, it is not befitting for a son to fall on his father’s neck. A son normally, respectfully bows down to his father, or kisses his hand.

Rashi, however, disagrees. In one of his most cryptic comments, Rashi states, “It was Joseph who appeared to his father, and wept on his neck….but Jacob did not fall on Joseph’s neck and did not kiss him. Our rabbis state that he was reciting the Shema.”

Is it possible that after 22 years of mourning for his son, Jacob would not even cry? Could Jacob be so indifferent that at this very moment he chooses to pray the Shema prayer? Couldn’t Jacob wait just a few more moments?

The Code of Jewish Law, in its explication of appropriate behavior during times of prayer, speaks of having proper awareness during prayer. The gloss on the Code of Jewish Law (Chapter 98) by the Rama, says that while praying, a person should think of the greatness of G-d and of the meekness of the human being, and should remove all thoughts of mortal pleasure from his heart. Consequently, writes the Rama, it is prohibited for a person to kiss his young children in the synagogue, “in order to establish in his heart that there is no love as great as the love for the Al-mighty.”

Why did Jacob decide to pray at that particularly dramatic moment? Why couldn’t he wait a few more moments to say the Shema?

One of the recent supercommentaries on Rashi, Beer Yitzchak, cited by Nehama Leibowitz, in Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), provides us with the following insight:

Love, however intense, must never make one forget the supreme object of all love–-the Creator, Blessed be He. Absolute love must be reserved for G-d alone. The ecstatic love and joy experienced by Jacob at his reunion with his long-lost favorite son Joseph, almost enveloped him, to the exclusion of all else. From this, Jacob recoiled, realizing that such overriding love must be reserved for the Creator and Cause of all.

He [Jacob] therefore diverted the wellsprings of love to their true source. This is what our sages meant when they observed that, at the moment of their reunion, Jacob recited the Shema. By a deliberate effort of mind, he directed his intense love to the Creator.

Perhaps the Midrash, which depicts Jacob saying the Shema at that dramatic moment after 22 years of bereavement, is trying to teach a truly profound lesson about love. Life is a gift, a Divine gift. Should we not therefore express our thanks and love to the giver of life at the moment of our highest joy?

This is the profound lesson from Father Jacob. Even as his life was transformed from one of constant, profound mourning, to utter joy, “My love for my son,” says Jacob, “can only have meaning within the context of my love for G-d.” That is why Jacob felt it necessary to recite the Shema particularly at that moment.

It was a surprising, seemingly insignificant, nuance in the text, a singular form rather than plural, that teaches this most profound and immortal lesson.

May you be blessed.

Vayishlach 5780-2019

“The Massacre of Shechem, Can it be Justified?”
(Updated and revised from Vayishlach 5760-1999)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, commences, Jacob (Yaakov) prepares for the fateful confrontation with his brother Esau (Esav). The confrontation ends peacefully, each goes his own way, and Jacob begins the trek back to the land of Canaan.

Jacob, however, does not go directly to Canaan, but first stops in Sukkot, where he builds Sukkot (booths), to provide protection for his family and the flocks. Say the rabbis, after 20 years of being in close proximity with Laban, and now, after the recent confrontation with Esau, Jacob needs some time to “deprogram” himself and his family, and provide them with some “normal” time.

Eventually, Jacob arrives in the city of Shechem (Nablus), (Genesis 33:18), where he purchases a parcel of land outside the city, upon which he pitches his tent and builds an altar proclaiming the name of G-d.

So the “Jews come to town,” and begin to contribute handsomely to the local economy. Although Jacob and his family are encamped on the periphery of the city, the Talmud (Shabbat 33a) depicts them as being deeply involved in Shechem’s culture and economy. They promote public cleanliness and hygiene in the baths, open banks and stock exchanges, boutiques, and exotic food emporiums. Clearly, once the Jews arrive, Shechem becomes a far more exciting place to live. And perhaps as a result of that new and lively environment, Dina, Jacob’s daughter (who was born to his wife Leah), “goes out” to see the daughters of the land, to check out the action, so to speak.

Shechem, the son of Chamor (yes, the son has the same name as the city), the Hivite prince of the region, sees the lovely Dina, abducts and violates her. After the rape, he claims to be deeply in love with her, and sends his father, Chamor, to negotiate with the Israelites, so that he may take Dina as his wife.

Jacob’s sons, who eventually learn about what Shechem had done to their sister, respond to the negotiations deceitfully, and demand that all the men of the city undergo circumcision, before they would give their sister to Shechem in marriage. Because of Shechem’s lust for Dina, he agrees to the terms. But, on the third day after the circumcision, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, come upon the city with their swords and kill every male in Shechem. They rescue their sister Dina from Shechem’s house, while the other sons of Jacob plunder the city, take the local people’s wealth, their wives, children, flocks and cattle.

When Jacob hears what Simeon and Levi have done, he summarily denounces them. Genesis 34:30: עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ , “You have discomforted me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land.” Jacob is fearful that the local inhabitants will band together and attack him, and that he and his household will be outnumbered and easily defeated. The brothers simply respond (Genesis 34:31): הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ “Shall he treat our sister like a harlot?!”

This distressing story ends here, or so it seems. But, it really continues for much longer. The classical commentators, Rashi and Radak, suggest that the assault on Dina may have been Divine punishment for Jacob’s delay in fulfilling the vow he had made at Bethel. Remember, on his way out of Canaan, Jacob had promised to return to Bethel and worship in G-d’s name, but he delayed in doing so. Certainly, G-d did not make Dina suffer for Jacob’s neglect. But, because of Jacob’s slovenliness, the protection of G-d was absent for Dina. Previously we had noted, that when Laban tried to injure Jacob and his children, Jacob was protected because of his merits. But, now, Jacob no longer had merits upon entering Canaan, because of his failure to return to Bethel in a timely manner to offer gifts to the Al-mighty and to bring sacrifices.

Even more difficult to fathom is how two great Jewish men, Simeon and Levi, could wreak vengeance on an entire city for the deeds of one man, Shechem? Does the Jewish faith countenance this? Furthermore, is massacre ever justified under these, or any, circumstances? Jacob certainly doesn’t think so. That is why he condemns Simeon and Levi, and does not forgive them to his dying day. Even when he offers his “last will and testament,” Jacob curses these two sons, Genesis 49:7, אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל , “Cursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh. I will separate them within Jacob, and disperse them in Israel.”

Fortunately, because of the “G-dly fear on the cities which were around them,” (Genesis 35:5), Jacob’s concern that the local nations will attack him for the treachery, never materializes. The rabbis say that G-d’s intervention was perhaps due to the fact that Jacob had gone to Bethel and had paid up his debt to G-d. The Al-mighty, subsequently, casts fear upon all the cities, and they were no longer a danger to Jacob, but this in no way indicates G-d’s approval of the massacre.

The story of the massacre of Shechem brings to mind another massacre of much more recent vintage, the so-called “massacre” in southern Lebanon of Sabra and Shatila, in 1982. The Phalangists, who were a Lebanese Christian brigade, operating under the authority of the Israeli army, entered into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and massacred many men, women, and children. The United Nations and the nations of the world condemned this act, and held Israel responsible. Eventually Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Defense Minister at that time, was forced to resign, and the internal Israeli Kahan Commission found Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, “morally responsible” for the massacre.

Unfortunately, murders of this kind and magnitude are rather common in today’s world, and yet, no United Nations panels meet. In fact, massacres today are barely new–no one is condemned, and certainly no country ever conducts an internal review to find and punish those who are responsible for these perfidious acts. Who can recall a Defense Minister removed for the improper acts of his soldiers? Moreover, these deaths, after all, were not due to the actions of Israeli soldiers, but rather the Lebanese Phalangists. Yet, the Israelis were held responsible and condemned broadly for the actions of others.

How unusual!

While it is true that Israel, and the people of Israel, are often judged by a different yardstick by the nations of the world, a judgment that is often uncomfortable and singularly unfair, I would argue, that this “different yardstick” is necessary and even, ultimately, beneficial to the Jewish people. I dread the day when the nations of the world cease to judge the Jewish people by a different yardstick. They expect more of us, and they should expect more of us!! After all, we are the Children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. For our people, even a marginal association with treachery may be considered treachery. If not, we would cease to be the special “Children of G-d.”

Shechem’s rape of Dina, of course, can in no way be excused or countenanced. It was entirely perfidious. But, killing, massacring, an entire city in response to the vile act of one man, is also not justified. As noble as the intentions of the brothers were, at least to Jacob, the ends did not justify the means, and Jacob condemns them, even curses them, at the end of his life.

There is a fascinating conclusion to the story. After all, is zealotry ever countenanced? In general, zealotry is almost always looked down upon with disfavor in Judaism. In their passion, Simeon and Levi acted as zealots, and when Jacob in his old age condemns them, he says (Genesis 49:7): אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל , “I will separate them [Levi and Simeon] within Jacob and disperse them in Israel.”

How intriguing that the Levites, the religious leaders of our people, are dispersed throughout Israel. Jacob is, in effect, saying that “passion” is good–in spiritual matters. Zealotry, however, is bad–indeed, very bad, in temporal matters. “Levi,” says G-d through Jacob: “You want to be passionate? Be passionate in spreading the word of G-d! A temporal leader, however, must be deliberate, well thought out, never out-of-control. Levi, go ahead, fulfill your role with passion, bring the word of G-d to Israel, but stay out of politics!”

May you be blessed.

Va’eira 5780-2020

“G-d Hardens Pharaoh’s Heart:
Reconciling Omniscience with Free Will”
(revised and updated from Va’eira 5760-2000

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we encounter one of the fundamental problems of theology, the conflict between G-d’s omniscience and human free will, or as it is articulated in Ethics of the Fathers, 3:15, הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה , G-d is All-knowing, yet each person has free will.

Even before the actual struggle with Pharaoh begins, long before the Al-mighty visits the 10 plagues upon Egypt, G-d tells Moses, in Exodus 7:3, וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה , “and I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.” How can that be? Does this not imply that Pharaoh has no free will?

The truth is that, at least during the first five plagues, scripture tells us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. It was only after the sixth plague, the plague of boils, that we find, Exodus 9:12, the fulfillment of the Divine promise: וַיְחַזֵּק השׁם אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה , then the L-rd hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he [Pharaoh] would not listen to them, as the L-rd had spoken to Moses.

In their attempts to resolve this challenging issue, the rabbis offer a host of explanations.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known universally as Maimonides suggests that G-d is the ultimate cause of everything, and that saying that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, is scripture’s way of expressing that G-d is the “First Cause and Prime Mover!” Shadal, Shmuel David Luzzatto suggests that this is scripture’s way of describing, not that G-d is the “Ultimate Cause,” but rather, a way of expressing Pharaoh’s own stubbornness. Umberto Cassuto proffers that this is not scripture’s way, but rather the way of the ancient Hebrews, to attribute every phenomenon to G-d.

Employing a different approach, Rabbi Joseph Albo suggests that G-d wanted to test the sincerity of Pharaoh’s repentance, to determine that it was freely motivated. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh imagined that the plagues were accidental rather than providential. Ovadia ben Yosef S’forno offers a unique interpretation by saying that G-d had to harden Pharaoh’s heart, because otherwise Pharaoh’s actions would have been motivated by suffering rather than by pure repentance.

None of these explanations, however ingenious, are entirely satisfying. Nevertheless, it behooves us to attempt to further explore the great quandary of G-d’s omniscience and the human ability to have free will. One of the solutions offered that has long impressed me, was another one cited by Rabbi Yosef Albo, who attributes it to his teacher, the great philosopher, Chasdai Ibn Crescas. Rabbi Albo, in the name of Crescas, suggests that every person has a destiny that is obviously known to G-d, because of G-d’s omniscience. So, for instance, person “X” has destiny “Y,” to live 60-70 years. However, suggests Albo, while a person cannot change his or her destiny, a person can change himself or herself, by performing mitzvot and ma’asim tovim, doing good deeds. Through these positive actions, person “X” can change and become person “X prime,” and destiny “Y” consequently becomes destiny “Y prime,” which may be a longer life of perhaps 75-80 years.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, we never know when our destiny will change or how far person “X” has to be transformed in order to gain a new destiny. That, of course, is part of the Divine secret and the Al-mighty’s inscrutable Divine plan. So, while G-d is omniscient, and we can change ourselves, we can never definitively know if our destiny has changed.

The problem with this approach is that a G-d Who knows the future, knows how far we are going to change. He will therefore also know our new destiny. So how do people have true free will?

There is another approach, a Chasidic approach, which may be more fulfilling. It is less didactic and less scientific, but, perhaps, more convincing.

Kabbalistic and Chasidic philosophy speak of the notion of tzimtzum, which means contraction, reduction or limitation. Kabbalists and Chasidim maintain that G-d, Who is omniscient, of His own volition, has the ability to reduce Himself, limit Himself, restrict Himself, and restrict His omniscience in order to give human beings a gift–the gift of free will. So, while G-d certainly has the ability to know our destiny, He chooses not to, in order to give the human beings this gift of free will.

Pharaoh certainly had free will. But, as a result of tzimtzum, G-d chose not to know what Pharaoh’s destiny will be. But, because he hardened his heart of his own volition five times, G-d in turn, hardened Pharaoh’s heart five times, to punish him for each time that the Egyptian monarch hardened his own heart.

Freedom of choice is surely one of the greatest gifts of G-d to humankind. But, in order to give us that gift, G-d had to reduce Himself–an expression of ultimate Divine love.

Let us then commit ourselves to use that gift of free will for the ultimate Divine purpose of perfecting this world under the rule of the Al-mighty.

May you be blessed.

Mikeitz 5780-2019

“Who is Osenath the wife of Joseph?”
(Updated and revised from Mikeitz 5760-1999)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is elevated to serve as מִשְׁנֶה לְמֶלֶךְ , second in authority only to king Pharaoh. Pharaoh removes his signet ring from his own hand (Genesis 41:42-43) and places it on Joseph’s. He dresses Joseph in clothes of fine linen, places a gold chain around Joseph’s neck, has Joseph ride in Royal Chariot number 2, and appoints Joseph to be the authority over all the land of Egypt.

Pharaoh also gives Joseph a new name, צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַZaph’nath Pa’neach, (Genesis 41:45), which according to some means interpreter of secrets, and gives him אָסְנַת –Osenath, the daughter of Potipherah, the Priest of On, as a wife.

According to tradition, Osenath’s father, Potipherah, is really Potiphar, Joseph’s former master. The fact that Potiphar allowed his daughter to marry Joseph serves as a vindication of Joseph in the eyes of the Egyptians, proving that the accusations made against Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, were not at all true.

But, the Potiphar that we had known until now had been a שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים , the chief butcher, or chief executioner, or in charge of the kitchens, and this Potipherah is the Priest of On. What happened? The rabbis say that after Joseph was imprisoned, Potiphar suffered devastating economic reversals, and the only way he could earn a living was by serving as a clergyman. What a comedown!

There is, however, an intriguing alternate version to the tale of Mrs. Potiphar and Osenath, which is found in Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer, chapter 38. According to Rashi  Genesis 39:1, the reason that Mrs. Potiphar was so persistent in her pursuit to seduce Joseph was because she had seen through her astrological investigations that she (Mrs. Potiphar) would be the progenitor of Joseph’s children. She could not know that it would be through her daughter Osenath, rather than herself.

The rabbis of the Midrash were apparently left terribly unsettled by the story of the rape of Dina by Shechem, which was recounted in parashat Vayishlach. Yes, it is true that Simeon and Levi avenged the rape by massacring all of the men of Shechem. But, what became of Dina?

Rashi, Genesis 46:10, citing the Genesis Rabbah, says that Simeon eventually married Dina to spare her dignity. But, another Midrash (Tractate Sofrim 21:9) relates that Dina became pregnant after the assault by Shechem, and bore a female child. Although the child’s grandfather, Jacob, tried to protect his granddaughter, the sons would not tolerate the presence of this child in their home. The sons eventually prevailed on Jacob to cast the child out of their house.

Jacob, in despair, made the child an amulet engraved with G-d’s name, to serve as a reminder that she was the daughter of Dina, the granddaughter of Jacob, and the great-granddaughter of Abraham. He attached the amulet to a chain, which he placed around the child’s neck, took her to the wilderness and placed her under a bush. The Hebrew word for bush is סנהs’neh, hence the name, Osenath. Divine providence eventually brought the child to the house of Potiphar, whose wife, being childless, raised the child as her own. Consequently, scripture refers to the girl as their daughter.

Various Midrashim, including the  Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 146, maintain that Joseph actually encountered Osenath in Potiphar’s home. But, not knowing her origins, paid no attention to her. According to the Midrash, after Mrs. Potiphar accused Joseph of attempting to violate her, Osenath came to her adoptive father on her own initiative and convinced him of Joseph’s innocence. That is perhaps why the text (Genesis 39:19) says about Potiphar, וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ , that he was very angry.

At the end of Jacob’s life, when he blesses Joseph (Genesis 49:22), Jacob says of Joseph, בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי שׁוּר . This literally means that the women “climbed the walls” to see Joseph as he passed by. According to Rashi Genesis 49:22, they did so because Joseph was so dashing and handsome. Elaborating on this, the Midrash says that as Joseph would pass in his chariot, the women would throw precious things at him from atop the wall to gain his attention. Since Osenath had nothing else, she threw her amulet. When Joseph opened the amulet, he realized that she was Jacob’s granddaughter, and married her.

This series of fascinating and complex Midrashim are an attempt to explain two issues. First, they come to vindicate Dina, who despite the horrendous tragedy that she experienced, manages to bear a child who becomes the wife of Joseph, and the progenitor of two tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Menashe. It may be a bitter consolation, but there is some sense of redemption.

Secondly, it comes to explain how Joseph, the assimilator, who married the daughter of the Priest of On, manages to raise two committed “Jewish” children, who become two of the 12 tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Menashe. The Midrash, in effect, validates the fact that Joseph must have had much help and support in raising these two special children. In fact, the mother of these two children was none other than the granddaughter of Jacob, who instilled in her children the values of Jacob.

It is no surprise then, that in Genesis 48:20, when old Jacob blesses his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, he blesses them saying, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ-לֹקִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה , byyou shall Israel bless saying: May G-d make you as Ephraim and Menashe. With these words, Jewish parents, the world over, bless their male children every Friday night.

Why, ask the rabbis, of all the noble people of Israel, are Ephraim and Menashe selected to be the paradigms for the blessing bestowed upon male children?

Some of the commentaries explain that perhaps it is because Ephraim and Menashe were the first Jews to be reared in גלותGalut, in exile. Since most Jews throughout Jewish history would dwell in exile, Ephraim and Menashe are entirely appropriate role models for the blessing, especially since these two children, Ephraim and Menashe, reared in the fearsome galut of Egypt, remained loyal to Jewish tradition.

Says Jacob: “Bless your children that they may be like Ephraim and Menashe.” May all the male Jewish children, and female Jewish children for that matter, who grow up outside of Israel, in face of the blandishments of assimilation and in an alien culture, be like Ephraim and Menashe, and be able to resist the forces of assimilation and emerge proudly as committed Jews, committed to Jewish life and to Jewish peoplehood.

Leave it to the rabbis to bestow such a beautiful blessing on Jewish children at the conclusion of such a bitter story!

Do not think for a moment that it is a coincidence that the theme of assimilation and the battle against assimilation in the story of Joseph, is almost always read on Chanukah! It is there for a profound purpose.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Sunday night, December 22nd, 2019 and continues through Sunday night, December 29, 2019.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.

.

Vayeitzei 5780-2019

“Who is the Real Enemy?
(Updated and revised from Vayeitzei 5760-1999)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we read of Jacob’s flight from Beersheba, to escape his brother Esau’s wrath. Jacob runs, as per his mother’s instructions, to Haran, to be with his mother’s brother Laban, until Esau’s anger against him subsides and he will be able to return to Canaan.

It is intriguing that Rebecca specifically tells Jacob (Genesis 27:43) to harken to her voice, וְקוּם בְּרַח לְךָ אֶל לָבָן אָחִי, חָרָנָה , “Arise and flee to my brother Laban to Haran.” Rebecca doesn’t say, “Go to my homeland,” or “Go to my family,” but specifically instructs Jacob to “Go to Laban.” Furthermore, when Jacob departs from his father Isaac, scripture states (Genesis 28:5), that Jacob does not just go to Paddan Aram, but specifically to Laban, son of Bethuel, the brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.

Obviously, Laban, who has been in the wings until now, is moving to center stage in the saga of Jacob, and begins to play, what will turn out to be, a featured role in the destiny of the Jewish people. From the biblical text, until this point, it seems that Laban played an important, but subordinate, role as confronter and deceiver. He deceives Jacob at his marriage to his beloved Rachel, and then deceives Jacob of his well-earned compensation and flocks, and finally has the audacity to confront Jacob when he flees from Laban’s home, after 20 plus years of devoted labor.

Despite the limited textual role, Jewish history portrays Laban as a singularly significant character. In fact, ironically, in the Passover Haggadah, when the focus should be on Pharaoh and his attempts to destroy the Jewish people, Laban appears, unexpectedly, on the scene to steal the limelight.

During the telling of the Passover story the well-known hymn, וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה“V’hee sheh’amdah” is read, underscoring G-d’s promise to protect our forefathers and us. The Haggadah text then introduces Laban with the famous statement, צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ , Go out and learn what Laban, the Aramean, attempted to do to our father Jacob. What does Laban have to do with the enslavement in Egypt and the Exodus? What business does Laban have with the celebration of Passover, and the recounting of Jewish history in this part of the Passover Haggadah?

However, soon after introducing Laban, the Haggadah makes it clear why there is an emphasis on Laban. Says the Haggadah: While Pharaoh decreed only against the males, ְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקוֹר אֶת הַכֹּל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי , Laban decided to uproot all [of Israel], for it is written, Deuteronomy 25:5: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father and he went down to Egypt and dwelt there.”

The commentaries offer a number of fascinating explanations concerning Laban’s role in the Haggadah. The Targum Yerushalmi, 24:33 cites the Midrash that Laban attempted to poison Eliezer, Abraham’s servant. Had he succeeded in doing so, then the wedding of Rebecca and Isaac would never have taken place, and there would have been no Jewish people.

The Targum Yonatan (Numbers 22:5) says that Laban and Balaam were one and the same person, and that it was Laban, in the form of Balaam, who advised Pharaoh to have the Jewish male children thrown into the river and drowned.

The Alshich suggests that Joseph was supposed to be the firstborn child of Jacob, but because Laban switched Rachel and Leah, Joseph became the eleventh child of Jacob. Had he been the firstborn, there would have been no jealousy or enmity toward Joseph, despite being favored by his father. Since Joseph’s enslavement was a result of Laban’s trickery, the consequent descent of Jacob and the twelve tribes to Egypt, was entirely Laban’s fault.

The literal interpretation of the verse, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי –“Arami oved avi,” which is mentioned in the Passover Haggadah, is that my father was a wandering Aramean. “Aramean” is usually interpreted as referring to Jacob or perhaps Abraham, whose family stemmed from Aram, and eventually relocated to Canaan. In effect, the prototype of the wandering Jew. The Haggadah, based on the Midrash, however interprets this verse differently. “Arami oved avi“–אֹבֵד –“oved” does not mean wandering, but destroying –“An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” The Torah boldly pronounces that it is Laban, the Aramean, who is to be feared even more than Pharaoh. After all, we all know who Pharaoh is and what he wants to accomplish. He is our brazen enemy, who publicly declares that he wishes to destroy the Jews physically, and the one who openly ordered the midwives to kill Jewish children. When that fails, Pharaoh has the Jewish male children thrown into the river, and finally enslaves all the Jews with work so rigorous that they fall like flies. Pharaoh wears his hatred on his sleeve and declares publicly that the Jews are a fifth column who aspire to destroy Egypt. With such public pronouncements, we know that we have to beware of Pharaoh.

But, Laban, Laban is our brother. Laban kisses, hugs, embraces us, and welcomes us warmly (Genesis 29:13-14) as we enter Haran. “Are you not my flesh and blood?” exclaims Laban to Jacob. Laban provides a month of hospitality to Jacob and then, seemingly out of full brotherly concern for Jacob, Laban asks, “Just because you are my relative, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me what are your wages?”

Laban’s embrace, however, is a false embrace, and his kiss is the “poison of death.” Although Laban is our family, our flesh-and-blood, and appears to be our friend, his real intention is to destroy all the Jewish men, women and children. Moreover, because he feigns love and throw us off guard, he is far more dangerous than Pharaoh, especially since it is so difficult to recognize his subtle desire to destroy us. The enemy within is often the more dangerous and formidable foe.

Ironically, Laban never attacks us frontally or physically. How then does Laban intend to destroy us? It is the craftiness and subtlety of Laban that we must fear!

When Jacob leaves Beersheba (Genesis 28:12) he dreams the well-known dream of the ladder, of angels going up and coming down. It is a thoroughly spiritual dream. It’s a dream of a Yeshiva Bachur, the dream of a Jew committed to his Judaism. For he says, Genesis 28:17: אָכֵן, יֵשׁ השׁם בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה , G-d is truly present in this place and I did not know it, אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱ־לֹקִים, וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם , This is nothing but the house of G-d, and this is the gateway to Heaven. After this inspiring vision, Jacob swears that he will always be faithful to G-d, and will come back to worship at that holy place.

But, after 22 years under the corrupting and assimilating influence of Laban, Jacob’s dreams change dramatically. In Genesis 31:10, Jacob tells his wives that he had a dream, a dream of he-goats mounting the flocks, which were striped, speckled and checked. Due to Laban’s influence, Jacob is no longer the spiritual man of G-d. He has become a “Material Man.” His only concern now is to make a killing in the stock market. That is why the angels of G-d must say to him, “Arise, leave this land, and return to your native land!” Get out from under the influence of Laban. Don’t you realize that the blandishments of Laban and his household have subtly turned you away from G-d and away from your Judaism?

Jacob must make a choice, a critical choice that will affect all of Jewish history. Laban plays his final card, a heart-wrenching plea that Jacob not separate him from his children: “Your children are my children!” cries Laban (Genesis 31:43). But Jacob stands fast. Jacob (with help from his wives) does not allow himself to be swayed by Laban’s melodramatic plea. The danger of Laban looms too large, and Jacob and his family must leave Haran and distance himself before it is too late.

Thank G-d, Jacob has the fortitude to make this bold decision, and save all future generations of Jews. Thank you, for our lives, Father Jacob.

May you be blessed.

 

Vayeishev 5780-2019

“The Coming of Age of Joseph: from Lad to Bechor
(edited and revised from Vayeishev 5760-1999)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we are introduced to the family of Jacob and learn of the terrible strife within the family.

To a great extent, virtually all of Jacob’s life can be encapsulated by the following statement: Jacob’s life revolves around love and lack of love. He was loved by his mother, but apparently not particularly loved by his father. He loved Rachel, but loved Leah less. And despite the fact that Jacob’s own life was traumatized by his father favoring his brother, Jacob could not break that destructive family pattern. As scripture informs us in Genesis 37:3, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו , And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons. The fact that scripture specifically uses the name “Israel” is indicative that this special favoring of Joseph is not only personal, but actually impacts on the entire destiny of the Jewish people. After all, it is specifically because Jacob favors Joseph, that the Jewish people eventually wind up in Egypt.

A general rule of Torah study is that whenever the Torah introduces a new character or personality, the Torah’s initial description often reveals the core or inner workings of that person, and often indicates what the future bodes for that person. The Torah states in Genesis 37:2, אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב , these are the generations, the descendants, of Jacob. We would expect the Torah to proceed to list all twelve sons, but instead the Torah lists only one: יוֹסֵף בֶּן שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה, הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן, וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו . Joseph being 17 years old, was a shepherd with his brothers with the flocks. And he was a lad, together with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, the wives of his father.

There seems to be much redundancy in this description of Joseph. He is 17, and is a lad. Either one of these descriptions would have sufficed. Why both? The fact that it says that Joseph is a lad, says Rashi , indicates that Joseph was preoccupied with immature acts: He would fix his hair constantly and groom his eyes, so that he would look more attractive.

This characterization of Joseph is undoubtedly a key insight into the future of this “rising star.” Joseph seems to have many traits of a typical self-centered teenager. The fact that he wears a coat of many colors given to him by his father, does not seem at all to bother him, even though it sets him apart from his brothers and results in much envy. He always speaks his mind, whether it hurts others or not. He is a dreamer; and nothing, not even hatred, can stop him from relating these dreams to others.

In his first dream, Joseph tells his brothers about binding sheaves in the field, and how his sheaf rises and remains standing, while the other sheaves bow down to his sheaf. The brothers respond with resentment, and ask him, (Genesis 37:8), הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְ עָלֵינוּ “Do you intend to reign over us?” אִם מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ Do you expect to dominate us?” And the brothers, who resent Joseph already because he was their father’s favorite, resent him even more because of the dreams, and significantly more because he was callous enough to relate these hurtful dreams. At least keep them to yourself! Not Joseph!

And, when Joseph dreams an additional dream, despite the previous resentment, he doesn’t hesitate to relate the new dream as well. This time, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars are all bowing down to him. There is no longer any symbolic imagery. They bow down to him, not to his sheaf. Typical self-centered teenager, Joseph just can’t keep his big mouth shut!

Joseph feels absolutely invincible. He can drive his “hot rod” well above the speed limit, and not be afraid. And, that is exactly what Joseph does! Despite the resentfulness, jealousy and hatred of his brothers, Joseph doesn’t hesitate to go when he is asked to travel to Dotan to inquire after his brothers’ well-being. Given the brothers feelings toward Joseph, as soon as they see him from afar, they conspire to murder him. Joseph’s behavior is imperious, and entirely indifferent to the feelings of others.

Even after Joseph is seized by his brothers, thrown into the pit and left to die, and eventually sold by the Midianites to be a slave in Egypt to Potifar, an officer in Pharaoh’s retinue, Joseph emerges with his self-confidence intact. Joseph becomes enormously successful in Potifar’s home, since the blessing of G-d (Genesis 39:2), is in everything he does and touches, in the house and in the field.

After the trauma of being sold as a slave, has Joseph matured? Scripture (Genesis 39:6), drops a subtle hint. The Torah tells us that his master, Potifar, leaves all that he has in Joseph’s custody and grants him total authority. Then all of a sudden, the verse concludes, וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה , now Joseph was handsome of form and of comely appearance.

What in the world does this have to do with authority? Says Rashi, “Joseph was handsome of form: Once Joseph saw himself in a position of authority, he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: ‘Your father is mourning [over you], and you curl your hair? I will provoke the bear against you!’” Immediately, thereupon, his master’s wife cast her eyes on him. Mrs. Potifar soon accuses Joseph of attempted rape, and Joseph is thrown into prison.

When will Joseph learn? When will he show some humility? When will he finally grow up?

Even in prison, Joseph succeeds beyond expectations, and is placed in charge of all the prisoners, including the royal butler and the baker, whose dreams he interprets. This success eventually gives Joseph the opening to appear before Pharaoh himself and interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. But, instead of putting his full faith in G-d, Joseph asks the butler to remember him to Pharaoh, to help him gain release. As a result, Joseph must spend an additional two years in prison before he is summoned to Pharaoh.

Only when Joseph begins to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams does Joseph begin to show some signs of maturity (Genesis 41:16). בִּלְעָדָי, אֱ־לֹקִים יַעֲנֶה אֶת שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה , “I cannot interpret the dreams,” says Joseph, “it is G-d Who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare.” And yet, soon after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph again displays his arrogance, by suggesting to Pharaoh that the solution to the famine would be to appoint a person over Egypt who would collect all of the food in storehouses. As we see, you can’t keep a good man down, nor can you keep him from expressing his personal views.

So now the teenage kid who was wronged by his brothers, is the “number two” man in all of Egypt, and is in a really good position to get back at them, and to finally get even. The brothers come down to Egypt. He accuses them of being spies. He keeps Simeon in prison, as the other brothers return home to bring food back to their families. In addition, he throws his brothers off-balance by taking their money, and secretly putting the money back in their bags. He seems to be enjoying playing games with them, torturing them every chance he gets.

Joseph waits to reveal himself until he feels that he has tested his brothers sufficiently. He first wanted to be certain that they are truly contrite and prepared to sacrifice themselves on behalf of their brother, Benjamin. When he sees that they would not repeat the error of ever selling their brother “up the river,” as they did with him–and this despite the fact, that they have good reason to believe that Benjamin is a thief and a nogoodnik just like his older brother, Joseph, only then, does he reveal himself.

Eventually, Jacob and the entire family come down to Egypt. Although the reunion of Jacob and his beloved son Joseph is extraordinarily moving, scripture seems to indicate a distance between Joseph, his father, and his brothers. Is there ever a full reconciliation? Does Joseph ever forgive his brothers, or his father for that matter? The Torah seems to hint of strained relations.

After Jacob passes on and is buried in Canaan, the brothers return to Egypt. The Torah, in Genesis 50:15, informs us that the brothers were concerned that now that their father, Jacob, was dead, Joseph would be vengeful and would surely repay them for the terrible evil they had done to him. To protect themselves, the brothers lie, and tell Joseph that before his death, Jacob, their father, had said to tell Joseph to forgive the spiteful deed of his brothers, and their sin. Joseph cries when he hears this. The brothers cry as well, fling themselves before him, and announce that they are fully prepared to serve forever as Joseph’s slaves. Perhaps it is at this very moment that Joseph is transformed into a grown-up. Finally, Joseph overcomes a lifetime of resentment, and says to his brothers (Genesis 50:19), “Fear not,” הֲתַחַת אֱ־לֹקִים אָנִי“Ha’tachat Elokhim ani.” “Am I in place of G-d? While you intended harm, G-d indeed intended it for good.”

These three words, “Ha’tachat Elokhim ani,” are critical words in the Joseph narrative. “Am I in place of G-d?” These exact words were uttered once before, by Joseph’s father, Jacob, under extraordinary painful circumstances. Rachel was barren. Her sister Leah had already given birth to four sons, and with great pain and anguish Rachel approaches her husband, Jacob, and says to him, (Genesis 30:1) יַעֲקֹב, הָבָה לִּי בָנִים, וְאִם אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי . “Jacob, give me children, otherwise I shall die.” Jacob responds to Rachel in anger, הֲתַחַת אֱ־לֹקִים אָנֹכִי Am I instead of G-d?” אֲשֶׁר מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי בָטֶן , “Who has withheld from you children! I am fertile,” says Jacob callously. “You are barren! It is your problem!”

Joseph uses the very same words that Jacob used so cruelly in response to Joseph’s desperate mother, Rachel and says to his brothers, “Ha’tachat Elokhim ani?” “Am I in place of G-d? Despite your evil intentions, and your attempts to harm me, everything turned out for the good. I will sustain you and your children.”

Joseph then proceeds to comfort his brothers and speak to their hearts. וַיְנַחֵם אוֹתָם, וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לִבָּם . From this point on Joseph is no longer a lad. Finally, he is no longer 17 years old. Joseph has risen to great heights. He has risen far above jealousy and vindictiveness. He has become a person of compassion and forgiveness, and is no longer the self-centered egotistic and obnoxious teenager who sees the world only through his own eyes.

Joseph now emerges as the bechor, the firstborn, and the rightful heir of Israel.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah begins on Sunday night, December 22nd, 2019 and continues through Sunday night, December 29, 2019.

Wishing all a happy conclusion of the Chanukah festival.

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Toledot 5780-2019

“A Lesson from Jacob and Esau: Understanding and Accepting Differences”
(Updated and revised from Toledot 5760-1999)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we encounter a fascinating narrative that touches upon the essence of parent-parent and parent-child relationships. It may very well be one of the greatest treasure-troves of wisdom regarding child development, education and parental relationships, anywhere in human literature.

The Torah pulls no punches when describing the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca, and their children Esau and Jacob. As with all the matriarchs, Rebecca has difficulty bearing children. According to tradition, cited by the famed commentator Rashi, on Genesis 25:26, Isaac and Rebecca pray for 20 long years before G-d finally responds, and Rebecca conceives.

Scripture (Genesis 25:22), describes Rebecca’s difficult pregnancy: וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ , and the children contended in her. This verse seems to indicate that the struggle for dominance between Jacob and Esau began already in utero. Rebecca inquires of G-d to know why she is experiencing so much pain. She is told (Genesis 25:23), שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ ,–two nations are in your womb and two peoples shall be separated from your inwards; and one people shall be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says, that the reason for Rebecca’s pain was because whenever Rebecca passed a house of Torah study, Jacob wanted to jump out of his mother’s womb, and whenever Rebecca passed a sports arena or gym, Esau wanted to jump out. Clearly, the scriptural text and the commentaries underscore that these two children were very, very different by nature–-confirmed by the Torah’s description of Rebecca’s pregnancy.

When the twin boys are born, the first comes out completely red and hairy, and is called Esau. The second child comes out with his hand grasping the heel of his brother, and is named Jacob. Scripture (Genesis 25:27) states: וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים , and the boys grew up.

The verse then immediately proceeds to describe, again, how different the boys were from one another. Esau was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field, while Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. Then, in a most revealing verse, the Torah states (Genesis 25:28), וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו, וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב , and Isaac loved (past tense) Esau, because he provided hunt for him to eat, and Rebecca loves (continuous, present tense) Jacob. This verse clearly indicates that Isaac’s love for Esau (past tense), was utilitarian–-Esau fed Isaac food. Rebecca’s love for Jacob, however, was unconditional, no reason is given, and no reason needs to be given. She loves him because of who he is–-Jacob!

We see here, of course, not only the differences in the children, but also the different attitudes of the parents regarding their children. Regrettably, we have no way of knowing which came first.

How do we even begin to understand these complicated family dynamics? It is possible to suggest that everything was preordained, and that Jacob was destined to be Jacob, and Esau was destined to be Esau. After all, that is what G-d told Rebecca (Genesis 25:23): “There will be a struggle, and the older child will serve the younger one.”

Nevertheless, one of the great contemporary commentators on the Bible, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, seems to indicate that despite the heavenly prophecy, and the children’s genetic differences in temperament, it is always the parents’ primary responsibility to address those differences. Had Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch not stated this explicitly in his commentary, I certainly would not have the temerity to suggest this. Listen to his forceful language:

Our sages…never objected to draw attention to the small and great mistakes and weaknesses in the history of our great forefathers, and thereby make them just the more instructive for us. Here too, on [the verse] ‘When the boys grew up,’ [the sages] make a remark which is indeed a signpost for all of us. They point out that the striking contrast in the grandchildren of Abraham may have been due, not so much the difference in their temperaments, as to mistakes in the way that they were brought up.

Rabbi Hirsch goes on to point out that as long as the boys were little, there was no attention paid to the innate differences in their natures. Both were given the exact same teaching and educational treatment. The great law of education, pronounced in Proverbs 22:6, חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ , bring up each child according to its own way, was violated by Isaac and Rebecca!

Rabbi Hirsch then proceeds to highlight the striking difference between Isaac and Jacob in dealing with, and educating, children. In contrast to Isaac, when, Jacob, in his old age saw the 12 tribes, 12 different sons standing around his bed, he saw each of them for who they each were (Genesis 49:28), אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם , each according to his blessing and his specialty, with his different path of life did he bless them.

Says Rabbi Hirsch, “To try to bring up a Jacob and an Esau in the same college, make them have the same habits and hobbies, want to teach and educate them in the same way for some studious, sedate, meditative life, is the surest way to court disaster.”

Moreover, suggests Rabbi Hirsch, that despite “their totally different natures, Jacob and Esau could still have remained twin brothers, in spirit and life; quite early in life, ‘Esau’s sword’ and ‘Jacob’s spirit’ could have worked hand-in-hand. And who can say what a different aspect the whole history of the ages might have presented.” But, by the time the children had grown up, it was too late to address the differences.

The Jewish people have paid a stiff price for this educational misstep on the part of the patriarchs. Esau, eventually becomes the progenitor of Amalek, the most determined foe of the Jewish people. Oh, if we had only allowed for the differences in education, Jewish history would have been so different. There would have been no archenemy in the form of Esau, and no Amalek!

The theme of missteps made by the ancients, repeats itself often in biblical literature. The Torah (Genesis 36:12), states that the grandmother of Amalek, is a woman named Timnah. According to tradition, Timnah desperately wanted to marry into the family of Abraham, but she was rejected because of some question of whether her birth was honorable or not. Eventually, because of her great desire to cling to the descendants of Abraham, she becomes a concubine to Esau’s son, and bears Amalek. Is scripture telling us that Amalek is a result of her rejection?

In a second instance, the commentators (Rashi, citing the Midrash, Genesis 32:23), seem to suggest that Dina, Jacob’s daughter, could have saved Esau from his evil ways, but Jacob was too afraid to expose her to him.

Similarly, in Ruth 1:14, we encounter Orpah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, who is sent home by Naomi to her Moabite family. According to tradition (Talmud Sotah 42b), the great enemy of the Jewish people, Goliath, descends from Orpah.

What a frightening thought. Have Jews brought on their own calamities by rejecting legitimate seekers who wish to embrace our people? Do the Jewish people feel that they are just too holy, too pure, or too good to be “contaminated” by the likes of outsiders? Is it because Jews have not been prepared to share the beauty of our tradition with those who sincerely come to embrace us, that we ultimately suffer great tragedy and destruction?

It is difficult to draw a definitive answer from these examples, but there seems to be a very strong case arguing toward that conclusion. Certainly, we need to carefully investigate this issue and become far more sensitive and alert, so that in the future we will be certain to embrace those who are truly sincere. G-d forbid that we reject those who are worthy of becoming part of the Jewish people. If they are different than us, then we need to educate them differently, but we dare not reject them.

May you be blessed.

Chayei Sarah 5780-2019

“Rebecca and Isaac’s First Encounter: a Revealing Insight into the Future”
(updated and revised from Chayei Sarah 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of the destiny-changing mission of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, to find a wife for Isaac.

Eliezer travels to Abraham’s homeland, אֲרַם נַהֲרַיִםAram Na’harayim (upper Mesopotamia), where he encounters Rebecca (Rivkah) at the well. By offering to give not only Eliezer water to drink, but also  provide water for his camels, Eliezer determines that Rebecca is a special person, filled with the quality of loving-kindness, who would be an appropriate mate for Isaac, his master’s son.

Rashi cites the Talmud (Niddah 44b), to justify the Midrash Rabbah Genesis 60:5’s radical claim that Rebecca was only three years old at the time of her betrothal to Isaac. The apparent intention of this Midrash is to underscore Rebecca’s purity, that she was too young to have been molested by the people of Aram Na’harayim who were well known for violating the local women.

Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is so taken by Rebecca and her extraordinary kindness, that even before he finds out about her family and who she really is, he immediately bedecks her with jewelry. When he learns that Rebecca is the daughter of Bethuel, a close relative of Abraham’s family, he regards this as a Divine omen, confirming the success of his mission.

Eliezer and his entourage are welcomed into Bethuel’s home, where Eliezer meets Laban, Rebecca’s cunning brother, and negotiations for the woman’s hand in marriage begin. Eliezer relates, in lengthy detail, of the miraculous birth of Isaac to his aged parents Sarah and Abraham, explains how he chose Rebecca through the test of kindness, and beseeches the family to allow Rebecca to quickly return with him to Canaan so that she may marry the princely Isaac.

After showering the girl’s family with gifts, Rebecca is asked whether she wishes to go with Eliezer. When she enthusiastically accedes, the betrothal is completed, and Rebecca is sent off to meet her husband-to-be.

Laban, who tried to delay Rebecca’s departure, offers a beautiful departing blessing to his sister (Genesis 24:60), אֲחֹתֵנוּ, אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה , Our sister, may you come to be thousands of myriads! In effect, Laban blesses his sister, Rebecca, to become the progenitor of many generations of worthy children. This same blessing is recited, to this day, by fathers at the Badekin–the traditional veiling ceremony of the bride, as their daughters are escorted to the marriage canopy.

The servant, the bride and the entire entourage arrive in Canaan, where the first encounter between Rebecca and her future husband, Isaac, takes place. It is this encounter which provides many insights into the future relationship between Rebecca and Isaac.

Rebecca has left her entire family behind in Aram Na’harayim, and has traveled many hundreds of kilometers to Canaan with Eliezer, a servant, whom she hardly knows, and his entourage. Only her nurse and a few of her own maidens accompany her on this extraordinary journey. Even if she were not a three-year-old girl, certainly such a journey, without friends or family, must have been exceedingly traumatic. It’s true, that according to many commentators, Rebecca couldn’t wait to get out of the house of wicked Bethuel and Laban, and into the holy environment of Abraham’s home, but, still, it must have been thoroughly frightening.

The Torah, in Genesis 24:62, describes the first meeting between Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac was coming from having gone to בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִיB’er L’Chai Ro’ee, the Well of the Living G-d. It seems that after the Akeidah, after almost being offered up for slaughter by his father Abraham, Isaac chooses not to dwell near his father, but rather to reside separately in the south country. Perhaps, because of the trauma of the near-death experience, Isaac frequently visits B’er L’Chai Ro’ee, the well, known as Ishmael’s well, where G-d appeared to Hagar and told her to return to Abraham and Sarah’s home, and suffer humiliation under the hands of Sarah, because she was to give birth to a child, Ishmael.

According to a Midrashic tradition cited in Rashi, Isaac had gone to B’er L’Chai Ro’ee to bring Hagar back to Abraham, now that his own mother Sarah was deceased, so that Abraham would not be left without a wife. Propitiously, G-d brings a wife to Isaac as a reward for his special kindness to his father, Abraham.

Isaac goes out to meditate in the field before evening, perhaps to pray. He lifts his eyes and sees camels coming. Genesis 24:64 is very revealing, וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת עֵינֶיהָ, וַתֵּרֶא אֶת יִצְחָק, וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָל , And Rebecca raised her eyes and saw Isaac, and she fell off the camel. She asks the servant, Eliezer: “Who is that man coming before us in the field? Eliezer answers that the man is our master, Isaac. Rebecca promptly takes a veil, modestly covering her face. Eliezer proceeds to tell Isaac all the fascinating details that had occurred to him at the well and how he came to choose Rebecca. Scripture states that Isaac then brought Rebecca into the tent of Sarah his mother, takes Rebecca as a wife, loved her, and is comforted after his mother.

From this first encounter between Isaac and Rebecca, we behold a bride and groom who appear to be carrying much emotional baggage with them. It could be that Isaac has not yet fully recovered from the trauma of the Akeidah, the binding. He is constantly praying, trying to do good deeds, to justify the fact that he was spared from almost certain death. Isaac has climbed to unprecedented heights on the spiritual ladder, for being prepared to give up his life for the sake of heaven, without a word of protest. Rebecca, on the other hand, is but a young child who comes from Aram Na’harayim, a decadent and idolatrous background. Although she is related to Abraham’s family, her parents and siblings are idolaters of low ethical character. Given this background, and the stark contrast with Isaac’s noble spiritual background, Rebecca feels wholly unworthy and inadequate. Subsequently, when she encounters the exceedingly spiritual Isaac coming toward her from prayer before evening, she falls off the camel and covers her face. While Isaac loves Rebecca, it seems to be a relationship between polar opposites.

Perhaps this explains why Rebecca (Genesis 27), resorts to deceiving her husband and having Jacob dress up as Esau, when she fears that Isaac is prepared to give the blessings to Esau. Why does she not speak with her husband, Isaac? Why doesn’t she confront him directly? Perhaps because those same feelings of inadequacy, that she had when she first encountered this great spiritual man, have come back to haunt her. “How can I, Rebecca, the sister of Laban, the daughter of Bethuel, born in a den of iniquity and idolatrous decadence, confront my husband, Isaac, the son of the great spiritualist Abraham, who was prepared to give his life on the Akeidah for G-d?” Instead, she resorts to deception.

Oftentimes, we tend to idealize the stories of the Bible, as well as the characters of the patriarchs and matriarchs. But, the Torah is determined to teach us how human they were, and consequently underscores the daily human challenges that they too faced. Our patriarchs and matriarchs lived in a world that was in turmoil. There were many negative influences assaulting them from all sides. The challenges that they faced were daunting, certainly as great as those we face today, perhaps even greater, because they were alone in their struggle to live godly, ethical, and moral lives.

While we each face challenges, we can learn much from the challenges of our patriarchs and matriarchs. For, after all, despite all the many negative factors, the patriarch Jacob ultimately succeeds to nurture 12 disparate tribes and meld them into one great Nation of Israel, notwithstanding their radically different personalities and characters.

As is always the case, we can learn much from studying the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs and from the abundant invaluable insights that are to be found in the vital details of our Torah.

May you be blessed.