Flip-Flopping

We all get criticized for “flip-flopping.” I know I have. Yet this is precisely what Pharaoh does in this week’s portion. On multiple occasions, beginning with the plague of frogs, he says העתירו אל ה,1] “plead before G-d,” to let the plague end. Yet when it does end, at first he hardens his heart והכבד את לבו[2] whereas later on his heart his hardened for him by G-d ויחזק ה את לב פרעה.[3] Why can’t Pharaoh just stay the course and allow Israel to go? Wouldn’t this have made his life far less complicated?

At the end of Parshat Vaera, Pharaoh says one of my favorite lines: ה הוא הצדיק ואני ועמי הרשעים חטאתי הפעם,, “I have truly sinned this time! G-d is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones.”[4] He begs Moses for an end to the hail. Moses intercedes with G-d causing the hail to end and the rest is the familiar story that you know: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways.”[5]

Why is Pharaoh flip-flopping, saying that Israel can go and then changing his mind? Why couldn’t he have just let Israel go the first time? What’s he afraid of? Why after saying that he’d let Israel go does he relent again and again and again? Is this struggle unique to him or one that each of us shares?

Rashi comments that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the final five plagues is a punishment for the first five, where Pharaoh’s own obstinacy is what led him to refuse to let Israel go.[6] Sforno however offer the opposite interpretation: G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart to restore his free will. After all, the plagues devastating Egypt put Pharaoh under overwhelming pressure to let Israel go. Had he done so, it would not have been out of free will but rather under force majeure. G-d therefore toughened and strengthened Pharaoh’s heart so even after the first five plagues he was still genuinely free to say yes or no.[7]

Seforno’s interpretation intrigues me because if Pharaoh really had free will, why in his right mind would he continue to say no to letting Israel go? Was he just “prisoner of the moment,” automatically resisting as soon as there was no plague afflicting Egypt? Was he so dependent on a free, corvee labor force that he couldn’t put his money where his mouth was and risk Israel’s departure? We often say in life “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Perhaps the uncertainty regarding Pharaoh’s release of Israel was a strong enough fear to trigger him breaking his word time after time and causing Israel to be forced to stay.

Rabbi Shai Held writes in his new book The Heart of Torah that “most of us are not Pharaoh; even if in certain situations change becomes impossible, it is nevertheless crucial to emphasize that such cases are extremely rare. Most of us are faced with the daily struggle of exercising our freedom in the midst of very real limitations, not least the limitations we ourselves have created.”[8] I read Rabbi Held as saying that often we resist change because we will need to transcend what we perceive to be our limits. As we know from Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We can exercise our freedom but how will that choice impact our reality?

As counterintuitive as this might sound, I am much more sympathetic to Pharaoh as I get older. I recognize how easy it is to make promises and then retract them as well as how we might feel one thing at a moment of pressing urgency and another when that urgent matter has abated. Thank G-d no one has forced us into slavery or taken away our free will yet in different ways we can feel a similar tension to that of Pharaoh keeping his people free from plague yet concurrently not wanting to let go of his labor force.

Today we are honoring CPAs who have been very hard at work with new tax legislation, trying to advise their clients as best as possible while becoming abreast of the frenetic changes that they will need to implement. We honor them not only for sponsoring today’s Kiddush but more importantly for their hard work and dedication in a challenging profession, as well as for their devotion to the Jericho Jewish Center. We are so proud of the work that they do for JJC, especially our President Richard Cepler, our Immediate Past President Martha Perlson and our Chairman of the Board and fellow Past President Jay Kaplan. Thank you to all our CPAs for being who you are and for leading our congregation forward with strength.

[1] Exodus 8:4

[2] Exodus 8:11

[3] Exodus 9:12

[4] Exodus 9:27

[5] Exodus 9:34

[6] Rashi on Exodus 7:3 ד”ה ואני אקשה . In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 49.

[7] Seforno on Exodus 7:3 ד”ה ואני אקשה. In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), p. 49.

[8] Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion-Genesis and Exodus Philadelphia: JPS, 2017), p. 143.

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The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah

How does one rise to greatness in Judaism? It is not as easy as we might think. Greatness is not based upon pedigree (yihus) but rather upon hard work and merit. We see this through the praise that Jacob gives to his son Judah. He calls him גור אריה, a lion’s cub, says מטרף בני עלית, you have ascended from amidst the pray.[1] He then says לא יסור שבט מיהודה, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.[2] Rashi comments that this means that the line of Jewish leaders will never depart from the tribe of Judah, that wherever Jews live the leader, whether a king or resh galuta (exilarch) will descend from Judah.

Why did Judah merit this ascent? To get at that answer we have to go back to Parshat VaYeshev, where Joseph’s brothers want to kill him. Judah craftily says מה בצע כי נהרוג את אחינו וכסינו את דמו, “What benefit is there if we kill our brother and hide his blood?[4] לכו ונמכרנו לישמעלים וידנו אל-תהי-בו כי אחינו בשרנו הוא, “Let’s go instead and sell him to the Ishmaelites for he is our brother, our flesh.”[5]   Here Rashi asserts Judah is saying we won’t receive any profit, any money from killing him, so better to sell him and wipe our hands from his death (presuming he’ll die in slavery in Egypt).[6]

Judah descended even further in the next chapter of Parshat VaYeshev וירד יהודה מאת אחיו going down from where his brothers were at and taking a Canaanite wife.[7] Even Esau knew how bad it was to take a Canaanite wife, and yet Judah did precisely that. He also had relations with his daughter-in-law (albeit unknowingly) and when he found out she is with child he proclaims הוציאוה ותשרף, “take her out and burn her!”[8] He’s quickly ready to do away with the life of a relative again. When he realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his child, he says צדקה ממני, she is more righteous than me.[9] It is at this point that he begins to ascend through doing תשובה, or repentance, recognizing that the actions that he took were wrong and that it’s time to change course.

Of course the greatest step in Judah’s ascent was in last week’s parsha, VaYigash, where he begged Joseph to spare his brother Benjamin’s life. He states עבדיך ערב את הנער, “I, your servant, has pledged my life for the boy” and ישב-נא עבדיך תחת הנער עבד לאדוני, “let your servant remain as a slave instead of the boy.”[10] Judah has went from devaluation and degradation of human life, treating a brother as an object off of which to profit or a daughter-in-law as one to be burned, to pledging his life on behalf of a younger, innocent brother. He took a roundabout, circuitous way to get there, but the fact that he changed and evolved is why he is the son we need to emulate. G-d looked at Judah’s תשובה and said ‘I want that to be what leads the Jewish people forward.’

Normally we think the most righteous are those who are “Frum from birth.” However that’s not true in our tradition. The Talmud teaches that in the place of a baal teshuva (one who has undergone repentance) a tsadik cannot stand.[11] There is also the story of a Jew asking his rabbi about who is more holy, who is higher on the ladder in God’s judgment: A person beginning to observe the mitzvot or a person who had been observant who is now moving away from observance? The rabbi replied that God’s judgment is not based on how observant the person is, on how high they are on the ladder of observance, but rather on whether one is ascending or descending the ladder.

We have seen an example of ascent today through the hard work and dedication of our Bar Mitzvah boy. It was not easy for you to reach this day yet you did it with pride. Of course it didn’t hurt to have a great teacher-your abba-to guide you along the way. Your imma grew in her Jewish understanding, observance and commitment as an adult as many were casting it aside. Your abba came from Russia at a time when Jews had to hide aspects of their religion. Many left Russia with the status of being tinokot shenishbau, uneducated in the beauty of our faith. He has had to work hard, including through service in Tzahal, asking many questions and take steps forward each day in his Jewish learning. Unlike him you grew up in a place where people are proud to be Jewish, embracing our traditions, and ironically in environments like this it can be difficult to continue immersion in Jewish study. I urge you to follow in the example of your parents, putting in the time, effort and mesirut nefesh as you devote yourself to continuing to grow as a Jew.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! To celebrate as a congregation, let us turn to Page 841 and read responsively.

[1] Genesis 49:9

[2] Genesis 49:10

[3] Rashi on Genesis 49:10 ד”ה לא-יסור שבט מיהודה

[4] Genesis 37:26

[5] Genesis 37:27

[6] Rashi on Genesis 37:26 ד”ה מה בצע, ד”ה וכסינו

[7] Genesis 38:1-2

[8] Genesis 38:24

[9] Genesis 38:26

[10] Genesis 44:32, 33

[11] Talmud Berachot 38b

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

As a child I loved watching Sesame Street, a show which my daughter has continued watching. She loves the characters especially “Momo,” her name for Elmo. One of the Sesame Street songs that I especially enjoyed was “One of these things is not like the other” where I had to determine which was the misfit before the song was finished.

In one of the genealogies from our Torah reading, we have an example of something not being like the others. There is a listing of all of Jacob’s descendants who went down to Egypt after the family is reunited with Joseph. It’s the list of the 70 men, and most of it is just a list of names. However, in the midst of that list, one of Shimon’s sons is mentioned with an interesting reference: Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman.

The fact that the mother is listed only with Shaul and none of the others makes us assume that he is the only one who came from Canaanite birth. Why then is he listed here? We know that Isaac told Jacob himself “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite woman,”[1] yet here Isaac’s grandson apparently takes a wife or concubine from amongst the Canaanites!

We see that Shimon was not so righteous. After all, he will be cursed along with his brother Levi by Jacob in Parshat VaYehi because of their attack on the inhabitants of Shechem: “Shimon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not a person be included in their council, let not my being be counted in their assembly.”[2] At the same time we know that others of Jacob’s sons married outside the faith. We saw Judah before he underwent teshuva, separating from his brothers and at that point he “saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married and cohabited with her.”[3] However, the children born to Shua are not listed as ‘son of a Canaanite woman’ so what makes it so special that Shimon’s son Shaul is listed as ben hak’nani?

          Rashi tries to solve this in an interesting way. He comments that Shaul is not Shimon’s biological son after all! Rather he is בן דינה שנבעלה לכנעני, the son of Dinah with whom the Canaanite (Shechem son of Hamor) cohabited. Why then is he listed as the son of Shimon? Rashi continues כשהרגו את שכם לא היתה דינה לצאת עד שנשבע לה שמעון שישאנה, “when he killed Shechem, Dinah did not want to leave until Shimon swore to her that he’d marry her.”[4] A woman who had been raped (and as Rashi asserts, impregnated) would be vulnerable to return to the world, as she would have no one to support her. Shimon therefore marries her (never mind the incest) and becomes Shaul’s adoptive father.

Why would Rashi bother to comment on this and what can we learn from this? First we see Rashi trying to right the character of Shimon, who acted as a vigilante, murdering all the people of Shechem on account of the honor of his sister Dinah. With this comment, we see him not as a purely dangerous wild person but also as a man of hesed, who has compassion for his sister and who marries her in name only to ensure that her son will have a proper upbringing. Secondly, it teaches us that every addition in the Torah has significance, even when it is added to one name in a list of seventy. Thirdly and I’d argue most importantly, it demonstrates not to look at things as they appear prima facie but to critically and thoughtfully look for reasons behind things. Many of us, myself included, grew up with the understanding that Shimon acted inappropriately and as a result he would suffer, not only from the curse that Jacob gives him but also from his tribe assuming the smallest portion of land, being quickly absorbed into the tribe of Judah. Rashi is teaching us don’t always judge a book by its cover; try to look deeper and maybe you’ll uncover a greater meaning behind it.

As we learn from Hasidic teachings, people are not all good or all bad; we have elements of both within us. We can use our passion, as Shimon must have felt upon hearing the news of his sister’s defilement, to engage in all-out rage or we can use it to help raise the next generation with kindness. It is a great act of hesed to raise a child who is not one’s own out of devotion and love for another, and I’d like to depict Shimon in this light. In so doing, we can see that it is not only Judah who engages in Teshuvah through pleading on account of Benjamin, but also Shimon who behind-the-scenes intervenes for the dignity and well-being of his sister Dinah.

Last week I asked everyone to what do you dedicate yourselves? Now I will ask how can we work together behind the scenes to improve the lives of those in our community, even if we don’t get to take credit for it. May this be on the forefront of our minds and let us resolve to make a difference as we approach the end of secular year 2017.

[1] Genesis 28:1

[2] Genesis 49:5-6

[3] Genesis 38:2

[4] Rashi on Genesis 46:10 ד”ה בן הכנענית

To what are we dedicated?

“I put myself back in the narrative.” These words are said by Eliza Schuyler in the final song of Hamilton entitled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Eliza dedicated the 50 years of her life following her husband Alexander Hamilton’s death to telling his story and furthering his legacy, as well as her own. As we are now in the midst of Hanukkah, the holiday of dedication, I wonder to what are we dedicated? When we are remembered what attributes, activities and causes will be front and center?

In the middle of Parshat Miketz we find ourselves in the midst of a famine in the land of Canaan. Jacob’s sons appear to be dumbfounded, unsure of how to get out of it. It requires Jacob’s prodding למה תתראו, “why are you looking at one another?” followed by his command הנה שמעתי כי יש שבר במצרים רדו-שמה ושברו לנו משם ונחיה ולא נמות “for I have heard that there are rations in Egypt; go down and procure rations for us there that we may live and not die.”[1] Why are Jacob’s sons unwilling or unable to act until Jacob prods them?

Rashi asserts that Jacob’s sons acted as if they had more food than they did, for they wanted to appear satiated before the children of Ishmael and Esau. They were becoming lean through conserving their rations rather than to try to procure food from others. Jacob is telling them not to be prideful and wait until the very last minute before getting rations but rather to go right away.[2] Nahmanides echoes this line of thought, asserting that to wait might make it too late as they could die of hunger.[3] One can imagine psychologically that Jacob’s sons are reluctant to go down to Egypt as they remember that they sold their brother Joseph into slavery there, only planning to go as a last resort. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno has an equally psychological reading. He comments that Jacob’s sons were delaying in going to Egypt because each one thought his brother would go down. After all, there are 10 boys along with much younger Benjamin, so why can’t one of the others go instead?[4]

Our commentators’ views are well-aligned with human nature. When there is something we don’t want to do but necessary for us to do, we often procrastinate, putting it off until the last moment. This is especially true when there’s someone else (a spouse, a family member, a friend) who can do the task just as easily as us. After all, why should we have to exert the effort to do it? Our ancestor Jacob illustrates that this is the completely wrong attitude: when it comes time to take action, we must step forward.

It is fitting to read Parshat Miketz almost every year on Shabbat Hanukkah, as both are about our responsibility to step forward. This is why our Hanukkah Torah readings enumerate the gift brought to the dedication of the Tabernacle by every tribe, even though they each bring the same gift. Every tribe needed to step forward, and they did so on their own. Similarly, without Matityahu’s family stepping forth to resist the Syrian Greeks, who would have stood up to Antiochus IV? It’s like the famous story of a village where every villager needed to bring wine to put in a barrel for the royal banquet. Each one said ‘The others will bring wine; let me bring water,’ and put water in the barrel. When it came time to empty out the barrel, all that came out was water. If we don’t step forward, if we don’t dedicate ourselves to the tasks and the responsibilities we are uniquely meant to do in life, how are we certain that they will get done?

Today we are celebrating Jake, who was called to the Torah last month as a Bar Mitzvah. I spoke with Jake about how Bar Mitzvah, or son of the commandments, means taking more responsibilities in life (in addition to saying, as you love to, “today I am a man.” Like your biblical namesake, you recognize that stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility means a lot of hard work on your part. However, it did not stop you from putting in the time and dedicating yourself to learning two Torah portions. Your example epitomizes what Hanukkah is all about; that in order to celebrate greatness you first need to put in the time practicing.

This Hanukkah let each of us follow in Jake’s example, at times stepping out of our comfort zone and bringing our full selves to the present to engage in the hard, important work that is ours to do. When we find ourselves staring at others thinking perhaps it’s their responsibility, let us first look in the mirror at what we can do before we jump to conclusions. May we learn from Joseph’s brothers not to hang back and wait for others or to attempt to push problems under the rug when they exist but rather to act thoughtfully, constructively and with our full beings to dedicate ourselves to making a difference in our vocations, our families and our communities. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Genesis 42:1-2

[2] Rashi ד”ה למה תתראו

[3] Ramban ד”ה למה תתראו-והנכון בעיני

[4] Seforno ד”ה למה תתראו

Running, Embracing, Kissing and Weeping

Parshat VaYishlach definitely would make a great Hollywood movie. Two brothers, long estranged from one another, have a fateful encounter. The younger brother has been a refugee, running from his elder brother on pain of death. The older brother has amassed an army of 400 men in pursuit of his younger brother. When the younger finds out that the older is approaching, he presumes it is doomsday, dividing his family into two camps, reasoning that if one perishes, the other will survive. When the older brother arrives, the younger bows before him seven times and the older runs towards him, embraces him, falls on his neck and kisses him and they weep. The younger gives the older a gift and each goes on their merry way.

This portion provides a crucial lesson in relationships. Each of us has people we love, to whom we are close. At times things go awry and we become estranged from those to whom we are closest. This week’s reading teaches us that we are never too far removed from those around us, that there is always the possibility to “kiss and make up.”

There are dots above the word וישקהו, and every time there are dots above a word it suggests a homiletical teaching. Bereshit Rabbah provides two interpretations of the dots. Rabbi Yanai said that instead of falling on Jacob’s neck to kiss him (לנשקו) Esau really fell on Jacob’s neck to bite him (לנשכו). At that point G-d performed a miracle, making Jacob’s neck marble. Therefore both cried: Jacob on account of his neck and Esau on account of his teeth biting into marble.[1]  Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, on the other hand, opined that Esau’s mercy came out at that moment and he kissed Jacob with all his heart.[2] Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai held the same view, asserting that while Esau hated Jacob, his hatred turned into pity (perhaps from Jacobs’s supplication towards him) and he kissed him wholeheartedly.[3]

The interpretation by both Rabbis Shimon, that Esau was genuine in his affection towards Jacob, resonates with me. Shimon (שמעון) means to hear, and both of these rabbis are listening carefully to the text’s message. It is asserting that in spite of past difficulties and real hatred that has developed from conflicts and from “the messiness of life,” there is always hope for reconciliation. We are never too far removed from the others in our lives to be able to return to them wholeheartedly, to have our merciful side dominate as opposed to our scornful one. If this was not the true pshat, if Esau was disingenuous in his reconciliation, then why would he twice offer for Jacob to accompany him for the family to be reunited, as well as to volunteer to leave some of his strong men behind to accompany Jacob? Jacob is the one who declines to join Esau, not the other way around.

In life, each of us faces estrangement and great difficulties with others. Conflict and controversy is not something to which we are immune. We often want different things out of life than our partners or an encounter quickly gets out of hand and devolves into a “shouting match.” The lesson to learn is not to avoid conflict, for it is woven into the fabric of our daily interactions. Rather, it is to recognize how to most effectively respond to difficulties with loved ones. As we’ve read about for the past three weeks, Jacob and Esau have learned this lesson the hard way. Jacob, whose story is told in greater detail, had to undergo numerous trials and tribulations, in which he greatly suffered. At the end of the day, however, it made him into a better, stronger person.

Why teach this lesson today, at an aufruf, a celebration of great joy between two people who have found their life partner? This lesson is not for this moment, a time of joy and bliss, but is meant to keep in the back of your minds for when life throws you curveballs. Whenever I counsel a couple, I tell them that from my experience, “getting married is easy; being married is harder.” As a team, the two of you will have many opportunities to celebrate, as you will in two weeks, but also over time there will be challenges. My blessing for you is to have the perseverance, inner strength and fortitude of our ancestor Jacob, believing that the two of you working together can conquer any challenge in your midst. That is what faith is all about: believing above all else that you are meant for one another and that together you will succeed in building a great household in Israel and making everyone proud of your accomplishments.

Mazal Tov Jason and Marissa on reaching this joyous day! Let us celebrate together by turning to Page 838 and read responsively.

[1] Bereshit Rabbah 78

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rashi on Genesis 33:4 ד”ה וישקהו. Based off Midrash Sifra Parshat Behaalotecha 89.

Jacob’s Dream

In summer 2015, Karina and I went to the Berkshires for summer vacation to see former congregants of mine from Tucson. Their summer home was in Becket, named after Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. We were excited to see our friends, as well as Tanglewood, the Clark Museum of Art and the many other attractions the Berkshires have to offer. Our first night we went to a dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket as part of the Summer Dance Festival.

I thought ‘Jacob’s Pillow? That’s an odd name for a place.’ After all, Jacob’s pillow was a stone when he was a despairing refugee, on the run from his brother Esau, an outcast in an unknown place in the desert, somewhere between Beersheva and Haran. However, with the stone under his head, Jacob had the most incredible dream. It begins והנה סלם מצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה והנה מלאי אלקים עולים ויורדים בו: “Behold! A stairway was on the ground and its top reached heavenward and behold! The angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it.”[1]

What’s even more remarkable is how the dream continued. G-d introduced Himself to Jacob as the G-d of Abraham and the G-d of Isaac. G-d demarcated the ground on which Jacob is lying as being for Jacob and for his offspring. G-d stated that Jacob’s descendants shall be כעפר הארץ, as numerous as the dust of the earth[2] and then says the line now famous in a song: ופרצת ימה וקדמה וצפונה ונגבה, “you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south.”  Jacob received the same blessing as Abraham did: ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה, “and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”[3] Even though Jacob is now “on the run” and leaving the Promised Land, G-d is assuring him that he will be brought back to Israel and will be protected by G-d throughout his perilous journey.

What is really going on here? Our sages teach that the dream is a metaphor. Ibn Ezra writes in the words of Shlomo the Spaniard: סלם רמז לנשמה העליונה, “the stairway is an allusion to the upper soul” and that the angels are מחשבות החכמה, the deep thoughts of wisdom that Jacob has had. In other words, this is not really a dream of angels going up and down a ladder but rather Jacob’s spiritual ascent in acquiring divine wisdom. Rabbi Yeshua states that the ascent on the סלם is Jacob’s prayers going up to heaven and the descent is ישועה, salvation or providence, descending from G-d down to him.[4] If that’s not figurative enough, let’s examine Baal HaTurim’s take. Through gematria, he derived the numeric value for the word סולם to be 136 which he states, among other things, is the same numeric value as the word קול or “voice.” He references the Zohar, asserting that the voice of the צדיקים, or ‘righteous ones,’ is the סולם, the stairway by which the angels ascend.[5]

A final popular take on the stairway, found in Ephraim of Lunshitz’s Kli Yakar, is that it references the sacrifices that were offered in Temple times. He referenced Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, proclaiming that the סלם is a כבש, or lamb, and that מצב ארצה, inclined upwards, references the מזבח, or altar, where sacrifices go straight to heaven. The sacrifices, or קורבנות, are intended to draw us closer (קרוב) to G-d, the same way that prayer functions in our synagogue. Jacob immediately strove to get closer to G-d, as the first thing he did upon rising was use the stone that was his pillow as a pillar on which he anointed with oil, demonstrating his commitment to a close relationship with G-d. That very site is called Beth-El, a city in the West Bank (and at one point the most popular name for Conservative synagogues in the United States.)

What do we learn from Jacob’s dream that we can apply to our lives? In my mind it’s simple: G-d speaks to us through numerous mediums, dreams being a central one of them. The Talmud teaches us that dreams are 1/60th of prophecy,[6] that G-d is communicating to us important lessons through our dreams. We should strive to get closer to G-d through remembering and understanding the messages inherent in our dreams, or if you’re like me and struggle to remember your dreams, through our intuition, or inner voice. G-d is constantly communicating with us, like G-d communicated with Jacob; if only we paid closer attention and were continually aware of the daily signs that G-d is showing us. As Rabbi Naomi Levy says in her book Einstein and the Rabbi “What if we were G-d’s dream?” G-d might be showing us that the pillows of our lives, which at times feel insignificant or interchangeable, might actually be nonnegotiable pillars.  May we take after Jacob’s example, striving to get closer to Hashem and to our life’s mission wherever we are at this particular moment in our lives.

[1] Genesis 28:12

[2] A little different than the promise made to Abraham, who was told “Look toward the heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them…such shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5)

[3] Genesis 12:3, Genesis 28:14

[4] Ibn Ezra Genesis 28:12 ד”ה סלם

[5] Baal HaTurim Genesis 28:12  ד”ה סולם referencing Zohar 1:166 (ח”א רסו)

[6] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 57b

How Do You Curry Favor with Others?

Some say that the key to a man’s heart is through his stomach. That appears to be the case in Parshat Toldot. We learn early on in the parsha that “Isaac loved Esau כי ציד בפיו but Rebecca loved Jacob.”[1] How do we translate the phrase כי ציד בפיו? Literally it means “for game in his mouth.” Did Isaac specifically love Esau because he brought him game (because he had a full belly) or is there more to Isaac’s love?

Commentators love to argue that Isaac’s love was conditional-that when the game disappeared, the love vanished as well. Kli Yakar stated this succinctly: בטל דבר בטל אהבה, once the matter (the meat) was gone, the love was gone.[2] Rebecca, on the other hand, loved Jacob unconditionally, as there is no clause explaining why she loved him. We have cause to pause, however, when we begin the following verse: ויזד יעקב נזיד, “Jacob cooked porridge.”[3] Or HaChaim, Rabbi Haim ibn Attar, felt it is too coincidental that Jacob is cooking after the Torah taught us that Isaac loved Esau on account of the game he brought. He wrote שראה שהועלה לגימתו של עשו ליצחק, לקח גם הוא דרך לבשל תבשילין לקרב לב אביו אליו כעשו, “as Jacob saw that Esau’s mouthful had its effect on Isaac, he too took up cooking dishes as a means to draw his father’s heart towards him, as Esau had done.”[4] In other words, Jacob saw that Isaac’s favor was curried through his stomach, and he attempted to do the same. He wanted the same love from his father that brother Esau received.

We further see the resonance of this interpretation when we look towards the end of our parsha. We learn in Chapter 27 that Isaac says to Esau “Take your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out into the field and hunt me game. Then prepare a tasty dish for me like I love and bring it to me and I will eat it in order to bless you before I die.”[5] You don’t get much more explicit than that: hunt and prepare for me food בעבור (in order) for me to bless you. After a meal, when I am satisfied and strengthened, I will be able to give you a blessing.

All of this is well and good, yet Rashi cites two reasons as to why Esau curried favor with Jacob. The first is this literal interpretation that Esau gave him food. The second, however, from Midrash Bereshit Rabbah,[6] is that he would entrap him, and trick him with the words in his (Esau’s) mouth.[7]  The word ציד does mean game, or “hunted food,” as mentioned previously but it also means to entrap or ensnare, as that is how one catches the game. According to this Midrash, Esau is the predator and Isaac is the prey; Esau is manipulating Isaac and ensnaring him through false sycophancy. In this line of thought Isaac goes blind because he accepted “bribes” from Esau. Because Isaac allowed himself to become dependent upon Esau for food and support, he ignored Esau’s sinful behavior. As a result, G-d punished Isaac by making him blind and therefore further dependent on others.[8]

This leaves us with an essential question: is it better to curry favor through one’s actions (hunting game) or one’s words (flattery)? Whichever one you choose will put you in a different place in your life and will leave you with a completely different impression of Esau: either he is nothing more than a rugged hunter and provider or he is a shrewd operator, knowing precisely why he is bringing the game. Like Esau and Jacob, each of us wants to be favored; each of us wants to receive the great blessing. What is the best way for us to do so?

We know the end of this particular saga: Esau the hunter, the manipulator, was outplayed by his mother Rebecca. He wound up without the blessing he wanted and threatened to kill his brother Jacob. What can we learn from this story to avoid this happening in our own families? How can we ensure that there is more than one blessing, more than one right way for the story to unfold? This situation is so parallel to ours: each of us wants to be favored, to feel that we are blessed, whether in our job, in our relationships or in seeing the decisions that other loved ones make which impact us. How can we do so while avoiding the rift that we experience at the end of this week’s reading?

There is no easy answer to this-only questions to ponder as we continue with our services.

[1] Genesis 25:28

[2] Kli Yakar Genesis 25:28 ד”ה ויאהב יצחק את עשו כי ציד בפיו

[3] Genesis 25:29

[4] Or HaChaim Genesis 25:29 ד”ה ויזד יעקב. Translation from Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature.

[5] Genesis 27:3-4

[6] Bereshit Rabbah 63:10

[7] Rashi on Genesis 25:28 ד”ה בפיו

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 64. Found in Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznayim LaTorah, Genesis 25:28 ד”ה כי ציד בפיו