VaYishlach: Meeting People with Different Needs

This week we have the conclusion of the Jacob and Esau family feud, one which has spanned three Torah portions. Let’s examine how this conflict came to be in the first place. We have seen Jacob and Esau bifurcated in a number of ways, beginning with Rebecca’s pregnancy struggles, with her two fetuses literally fighting in the womb, and her imploring God “If this is the case, why am I alive?” God replies that she has two nations in her womb, that one shall be mightier than the other and that the older shall serve the younger. Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the trope indicates a different message: the pause is after the word “older,” indicating “The older, the younger shall serve,” and perhaps this is why Jacob bows to Esau in this week’s portion. Nevertheless, a conflict is set up in utero.

Both brothers quickly emerged from the womb in a struggle to be firstborn. The first is covered with red hair and appropriately named Esau, “the mantled one.” The second holds onto the heel of the first, as he wants to come out first in an attempt to supersede him[1] and is named Yaakov, a name derived from the word “heel.” The brothers are described as different as night and day, with Esau being a great hunter and Jacob sitting in tents. Rashi equates Jacob with a yeshiva bochur, stating that he sat in the tents of his ancestors Shem and Ever studying Torah.[2]

One day, Esau returns from the field ravished one day and asked that his brother give him a bowl of stew. Jacob makes Esau swear his birthright away before giving him the stew. The story is further complicated by the fact that each parent favors a different child: Isaac the strong hunter and Rebecca the quiet homeboy. Isaac intended to give Esau a blessing after he went on a hunt and returned with game. Thwarting his plan, Rebecca disguised Jacob in the clothing of Esau and cooked a meal that Jacob served his father in order to acquire the blessing. When Esau found out about the ruse, he broke down saying “Have you but one blessing father? Bless me too father!”[3] and Isaac gave him a blessing to serve his brother but when he grows restive to break the yoke from his neck! Rebecca sent Jacob away under the guise of needing to find an appropriate marriage partner and he fled the wrath of his brother. Eventually Esau pursues Jacob who after splitting his family in half (so that one half could survive), bowed seven times in submission to Esau. The two appear to reconcile (though Midrash tells a different story) and all is happily ever after.

What bothers me about this narrative is threefold: first is that sibling conflict appears to be divinely ordained, from the moment the two brothers struggle in the womb. There will be a winner and a loser, a master and a servant. Secondly, both parents favor a different child and a wife acts behind her husband’s back to ensure that her favored child will receive the firstborn blessing. Thirdly, Jacob is rewarded for his trickery in “stealing” the blessing from his brother. This is so much the case that one of the meaning of the word יעקב is trickery, as we see in the Haftorah for Tisha B’Av, כי כל אח עקב יעקב, for every brother is a deceitful supplanter.[4]

How can we reconcile the problematic nature of the brothers? The process shall begin through an appreciation of what each of the brothers brings to the table. Esau was a hunter, a provider of food for his family. We should value those who, like Esau, are active, provider types. We also should value those like Jacob, who sit quietly in the tents learning. There is no need to pick favorites in such a case: rather we should see the gifts of both brothers as being of value.

Through the same logic, we can value all types of people. When I was growing up, I was the “ideal student,” the one who listened quietly to the teacher, asked questions and showed respect to my peers. Some of my more active and outspoken classmates were not “favorited” to the degree I was in the classroom. Neither were those who had learning difficulties, at least in the traditional style of reading the textbook and “spitting back” the content on a test. The irony was that I almost was not allowed to attend Jewish day school because I was taking OT, PT and Speech, and the day school did not want anyone with supplemental services. When they saw my test scores, however, they said “Oh, he’ll do fine,” and I was accepted into day school.

When I attended college and later the Davidson School of Education at JTS, I studied Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, understanding that students learn best in different ways. We created projects and portfolios that featured lessons focusing on different intelligences, whether music, art, intrapersonal reflection, interpersonal discussions or spatial activities. These lessons were designed to meet the needs of multiple types of learners, rather than solely the traditional “model student” or “teacher’s pet.” It made me truly understand that smart did not only refer to book learning, and that each person has both strengths and challenges.

In our interactions with people, we have a natural proclivity to favor some and not others, to appreciate the gifts of some while not noticing or being impressed by those of others. Too often we turn away from those who struggle with similar challenges to the ones we had, perhaps because it is too painful to see them. The story of Jacob and Esau teaches us about the dangers of this approach and of the importance of seeing the value inside every person. Esau was one who focused on actively doing, on providing for his family with hard days work in the field, while Jacob stayed indoors and learned home skills from those in his family. May we honor both of these personalities, as well as all others that we encounter in life. On a weekend when we express appreciation for all we have, let us learn to value the strengths that are our own and always see the positive in each person we encounter. In doing so, may our story always end with a hug and a kiss, just like Jacob and Esau’s did.

[1] A congregant’s interpretation was that Jacob clung to Esau’s heel so that he didn’t have to separate from him, demonstrating the closeness of the brothers.

[2] Rashi on Genesis 25:27

[3] Genesis 27:38

[4]Jeremiah 8:3

The Paris Attacks: World War III

When I went to a the Bar Mitzvah of a family friend in Efrat in the summer of 2005, I was given a ride from Jerusalem by the father of the Bar Mitzvah boy. We engaged in conversation, which he began by saying “we are in World War III.” At first I thought he was crazy. Ten years later, however, it appears that he is correct.

We are at war, whether we admit it or not, against the forces of terror and radicalism. People who would murder 130 innocents in Paris without a second thought. Why? Because they are opposed to the values that we believe in: democracy, pluralism, western thought, justice. These barbarians are going after people like you and me who seek to enjoy an evening at a concert or theater. They are purposefully creating as much damage and tumult as possible in doing so, trying to bring about a continuous reign of terror.

We’re now over 15 years since the atrocities committed on September 11, 2001, and I think some of us were sleeping, dare I say even suppressing the terror that day instilled in us. Now we are woken up once again to the slaughter of innocents, the instilling of fear into our lives with the goal of disrupting our daily rhythm of living. Schools on Long Island have cancelled their trips into Manhattan and people are contemplating changing their Thanksgiving weekend plans as a result of the terror attack.

Let us also know forget the multiple stabbings and shootings of innocents that have occurred in Israel: in the secular, “western” area of Tel Aviv, in the religious community of Gush Etzion, in the city of Kiryat Gat in the northern Negev and throughout Israel’s capital Jerusalem. These are part of a series of terror actions based on the lie that Israel is going to demolish the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Having been in Israel for 2 weeks, I can assert that I felt completely safe and that I was proud our congregation came to support Israel in its time of need. At the same time, I noticed how dead Jerusalem was, seeing hardly anyone on Ben Yehuda Street or Mamila Mall and actually being able to walk in the Mahane Yehduah market on Friday afternoon. It seems that people are doing exactly what the terrorists want and avoiding Jerusalem.

As much as I’d like not to believe it, these signs point more and more towards us being ensconced in World War III. Unlike the previous two world wars, this one is not a war against countries but rather a war of values. It is those who believe in democracy, equality and western thought against those who would like to see the entire world dominated by Sharia law. This is not a war against Islam, and many Muslims (including my friends at the Islamic Cultural Center down the road) are very much pro-western and condemn the terrorist behavior. However, it is very much a war against those radicals and militants who believe we are infidels and heathens and who seek our destruction.

What should we do? We should continue to live our regular lives, not letting those who seek to cause fear and pandemonium actually do so. We should continue to live our lives in accordance with the values that we hold dear. We should outwardly condemn the behavior of those who seek to do us harm while at the same time working towards a world where terrorists and those who hate one for their religion will be uprooted. Let us never forget the Paris attacks just as we will never forget 9/11 and fight for a better world, a better future for us and for our children.

Our Journey Through Israel

How do we give justice to our congregation’s incredible eleven day journey through Israel? Certainly not through one sermon! However, I believe we can get a sense of our experience through the baby naming we had this morning.

Sydney Mila Roth was given the Hebrew names Shoshana Moriah. Shoshana means rose, and the people of Israel are described in the Song of Songs as Shoshana bein HaHohim,[1] like a rose amongst the thorns. Every daughter is a rose to her parents, just like every Jew is a rose amongst the people of the world. Israel itself is described as a Shoshana and upon visiting it becomes clear why that is the case. Being on top of Mount Zion and looking out across the Old City, being surrounded by buildings comprised of Jerusalem stone, going under the Kotel (Western Wall) tunnels, being in Mahtesh Ramon and looking at all the natural rock formations; seeing the majesty of the Tower of David, hiking the waterfalls at Banias and Ein Gedi and walking in the majesty and grandeur of the Caesarean Aqueducts-these are a few of the many wonders of the rose that is The State of Israel. Judah HaLevi, a Spanish poet who longed to make Aliyah to Israel, described Israel as Yefeh Nof, a landscape of beauty,[2] and there certainly are plenty of those in Israel. One of them, which Karina and I went to, was the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, located on Yefeh Nof Street.

We had our breath taken away by the physical beauty of Israel but we also experienced a spiritual beauty, which is harder to describe but which we know when it is there. Walking through the quiet streets of Jerusalem after Shabbat morning services, standing before the Kotel (Western Wall) to pray, climbing the fortress of Masada, being inspired by the joyful Carlebach Kabbalah Shabbat services in Tzfat, taking a Shabbat walk through the neighborhood of Yemin Moshe right outside the Old City-these are some of the spiritual encounters we had while in Israel. They inspired us, giving us the added spark we needed when we were tired or facing a grueling downhill walk to our next stop. We also went to the synagogue Migdal Hashoshanim, tower of roses, for morning minyan.

Like the beautiful country of Israel, a person is comprised of both physical and spiritual beauty, and through proper use of these gifts, s/he stands out from the crowd. We know that Sidney will live up to her name Shoshana, being a source of beauty and inspiration for her parents, her grandparents and all who she encounters.

Sidney’s middle name, Moriah, is also of great significance; in Hebrew it is Moreeah, the mountain on which Abraham brought Isaac upon G-d’s command.   It is also the site of the even shtiah, the foundational stone at which the world was created.[3] Our tradition teaches that Moreeah is the place at which the Temple, our holiest site, was built. It is the site to which our Messiah will come.[4] Our group had a privilege unlike many others in that we got to ascend the Temple Mount and see the Dome of the Rock up close. Unfortunately, we cannot pray up there nor can we go up dressed looking like observant Jews, as my wife and I found out. I yearn for the day that we will all be able to pray at our holiest site, Mount Moreeah.

Moreeah, however, does not only stand for the Temple Mount but also for continuity with our history and traditions. In order to fully be immersed as a member of the Jewish people, one needs to know our people’s story. During our Israel mission we went to the City of David, the first site of Jewish civilization in Jerusalem, in 1000 CE. We experienced the First Temple Period by seeing a burial site for Kohanim and Leviim at which the priestly blessing, the oldest biblical text of which we have a copy, was found. We experienced the Second Temple Period by walking through Herod the Great and Herod Phillipi’s great fortresses, Caesarea in the West, Masada in the South and Banias in the east. We journeyed through the Middle Ages, seeing the Tower of David and Nimrod’s Fortress, both of which date back to the 1200s, the time of the Mamelukes. We experienced the renaissance of the Kabbalists in Tzfat, hearing the music that they created as well as seeing their magnificent synagogues. We learned about the Zionist struggle for Israel and their winning miraculous battles, using Davidkas to scare off the Arabs in Tzfat despite being outnumbered tenfold. We learned the stories of David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin through visiting museums which were dedicated to them. We were on an army base, meeting Israeli soldiers, learning their stories and seeing the high price they pay in defending our country. Finally we experienced modern Israel, seeing the high rises of Tel Aviv and learning about Israel’s hi-tech developments in Rosh Pina.

To be a lover of Israel requires learning about its multilayered history, seeing its sites in context and discovering what it means to live in Israel today. It all comes back to Moreeah, where we got our start. We know that Shoshana Moriah will become a lover of the Jewish people and of the richness of our heritage. She will join her parents and grandparents in becoming a true Hovavah Tzion, a lover of the Jewish people and of Israel.

There is one final layer that can be applied to the name Shoshana Moriah-knowing that life is not always as beautiful as the Shoshana nor do we always have the rich history of Mount Moriah at our fingertips. The key lesson is that regardless of what happens, we need to make the best out of every situation. The quintessential example of this on our trip was being hosted by Rena and Rabbi Emmanuel Quint for Friday night dinner in Jerusalem through a program called “Shabbat of a Lifetime,” which pairs visitors to Israel with Israeli families. The most incredible part of the Shabbat dinner was hearing Rena’s story.

Rena is known as the “Child of Many Mothers,” having had six mothers by age ten. She was a Holocaust survivor, first at age five being gathered in a synagogue with most of Jews of Piotrkow. A man who she thinks might have been her uncle, motioned for her to run away, and she dropped the hand of her mother and ran. The Jews in the synagogue were sent to Treblinka, and the vast majority were killed. Rena ran back to her father in the ghetto, who hid her until no longer able, and then disguised her as a boy. He claimed that she was 10 years old, of working age, even though she was younger. Rena remained in the ghetto disguised as a boy with a “mother” to watch over her-and when that “mother” was taken, a different “mother” stepped in. In 1943, the Piotrkow Ghetto was liquidated, and Rena was transported to a labor camp and then to Bergen-Belsen on a death march. She was liberated in April 1945. Rena came to Sweden and then to the United States with an adoptive mother and the papers of her daughter who had died during the war. She made Aliyah with her husband in 1984.

Somehow Rena made it through this horror and came out as someone who wanted to make a difference. She regularly volunteers at Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and regularly hosts 30 people at her home for Friday night dinner, not to mention the other Shabbat meals. Rena asserts that “As a Holocaust survivor, I feel impelled to live my life to the fullest.”  She was genuinely interested in each of the guests, asking us questions and catering to our interests. What motivates a Rena, someone who suffered too much, to give so generously of herself? Some of it is certainly to make the most of every moment of life, taking nothing for granted. Rena certainly is an Eshet Hayil, a woman of valor, demonstrating the power of hard work and of genuine interest in people.

We know that Shoshana Moriah, Sydney Mila, will live in accordance with this example, living each moment to the fullest and giving nachas to her family and to all who she encounters. Today we give her a blessing, a small token of the blessing that she bestows upon others and will continue to give to her family. Cantor Black will join me in the recitation of this special blessing, the oldest blessing in our tradition, upon Sydney.

[1] Song of Songs 2:2

[2] Judah HaLevi, “Yefeh Nof.”

[3] Mishnah Yoma 5:2

[4] See 2 Chronicles 3:1. See also Rabbi Robert Harris, JTS Torah Commentary, November 11, 2006.

Sarah as Our Model

On the high holidays I criticized Sarah for banishing Hagar and Ishmael from her and Abraham’s home.  Today, I want to show a redeeming side of Sarah, praising her by demonstrating her righteousness and good character.

Three verses before the one where Sarah calls for Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion; there is an interesting verse מי מלל לאברהם היניקה בנים שרה כי ילדתי בן לזקוניו “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!  Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”[1]  According to the Torah, Sarah was ninety years old and Abraham one hundred when they had Isaac, hence the reference to old age.  While this is biologically impossible from a physical standpoint, perhaps it means that Sarah “mothered” Isaac spiritually, providing him with the moral teaching, the knowledge and the experiences that she had gained from her life.

It is the earlier part of the verse, however, in which I am interested: the notion of Sarah suckling children.  Sarah only had one son, so it should have read “that Sarah would suckle a child.”  Why instead does it say children?

Rashi, the biblical commentator par excellence, was also bothered by the use of the word “children”.  He referenced the following story in the Talmud: “Rabbi Levi said: On the day that Abraham weaned his son Isaac, he made a great banquet, and all the peoples of the world derided him, saying, ‘Have you seen that old man and woman, who brought a foundling from the street, and now claim him as their son! And what is more, they make a great banquet to establish their claim!’ What did our father Abraham do? — He went and invited all the great men of the age, and our mother Sarah invited their wives. Each one brought her child with her, but not her wet-nurse, and a miracle happened unto our mother Sarah, her breasts opened like two fountains, and she suckled them all.”[2]  Even though this is impractical from a physical standpoint, perhaps it is being used to indicate that Sarah was able to spiritually nourish and grow people in the world.

This Midrashic teaching in the Talmud is an explanation for why Sarah is considered the mother of all nations.  As Dr. Joshua Levinson of Hebrew University asserts, “The noblewomen suckle their sons from the same milk as Isaac, thus becoming like sons of one mother.”[3]  It would be quite natural for other women to laugh at Sarah giving birth to a child at ninety, claiming that it was either Hagar’s child, or as in the case of our Talmudic text “a foundling from the street.”  Even Sarah questioned the possibility of having a child, stating אחרי בלותי היתה לי עדנה “Now that I am withered am I to have enjoyment?” [4]  In the end, however, Sarah has the last laugh, nursing the sons of all the other nations. This caused others to stop laughing at her and start believing or supporting her. Sarah named her son Yitzhak, laughter, stating כל השומע יצחק לי “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me,”[5] as opposed to laugh at me.

          It must have taken a special woman for God to provide two powerful miracles: giving birth at age ninety and nursing many nations, especially without the use of anesthetics.  What is most remarkable is that Sarah did not believe that she merited such miracles, feeling that she was past her prime.  God demonstrated that this was not the case and not only could Sarah “give birth” but she could also be a powerful symbol of femininity and an example for all the nations of the world.  This teaches that one is never too old to be a respected leader-on the contrary, one’s age gives her the life experience and wisdom to lead and sustain the community.  Bringing this wisdom to the younger generations, like the wisdom my grandmother brings to me every week with her beautiful insights and poetry, is what nurtures the world and is a miracle in and of itself.

I challenge each of us to follow the example of Sarah, embracing every challenge that comes our way. Even if the task at hand appears to be impossible, or we are having a lot of questions about a decision that we are about to make, I urge us to proceed forward with a “can-do” attitude. For those of us going to Israel during this difficult time, may we look for opportunities for which we can make an impact, be it helping Israelis we encounter who are in need, actively getting to know and build relationships with the other members of our group and bringing what we learn and experience back to New York to strengthen our community. For those not joining us, let us think about what we can do to recharge our batteries and increase our active presence in the Jericho Jewish Center, knowing that our involvement DOES make a difference. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Genesis 21:7

[2] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 87a

[3] Joshua Levenson, Current Trends in the Study of Midrash (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006), p. 214.

[4] Genesis 18:12

[5] Genesis 21:6