Standing up Against Authority

“You’ll be Greek, soon you’ll see. You will pray to Zeus the same as me…” These words are in the Maccabeats Hamilton Hanukkah parody. King Antiochus IV told the Jews that they must become Greek-or else, an offer they could not refuse. Yet a brave small group of Hasmoneans known to us as the Maccabees stood up to the king, and though few in number, they successfully defeated him, rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem and celebrated an eight day festival.

This week’s Torah portion is also about standing up to authority.  In Genesis 39, we have Joseph sold as a prisoner to Potiphar.  Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to Joseph, telling him, “Come lie with me.”  In such a situation, the typical thing to do would be to go along with it, for how can someone refuse his master’s wife?  Joseph, however, refused to commit adultery, running out of the room.  When Potiphar came back, his wife inverts the story, proclaiming that “the Hebrew you sent tried to lie with me by force!”  Potiphar was incensed, leading to Joseph being thrown into prison.  Eventually Joseph would rise to second in command of Pharaoh, but not before he was punished for standing up against an authority figure.

Similarly, the Chanukah story is about resisting the Syrian Greeks.  The Greek ruler, Antiochus, forbade the Jews from circumcising themselves, forced them to eat non-kosher food, violate Shabbat and bow down to Greek statues.  There were many Jews who did these things, as the First Book of Maccabees has stories of Jews undoing their circumcisions and bowing down to Greek statues.  However, a group of Jews, led by Mattathias and later his son Judah, refused Antiochus’s decrees.  Eventually the Maccabees would defeat the Selucid Greek army, but not before they were forced to flee for their lives.

The point these two narratives are demonstrating are the difficulty of standing up to authority.  It would have been much easier for Joseph to submit to the whims of his master’s wife, just as it would have been easier for Jews to eat non-kosher meat than risk their lives.  In both cases, however, despite the dangers, our ancestors chose to “put their lives on the line” rather than do what the authority figures demanded of them.

It can be hard to relate to these situations today, when we are living in a country that has outlawed slavery and proclaimed religious freedom for all.  However, it is still difficult to take a stand, especially when that stand goes against the grain of what people are doing.  To choose to say “I want to do things differently” or “In contrast with you, I believe this” is very difficult.  It is much easier and feels less threatening to choose to say nothing or to “go along with the flow.”

Have there been times in your life where you have chosen to take a difficult stand?  What did you think about before making that choice?  Were there repercussions in speaking out?

When I think about these questions, I remember when I did Student Congress in high school.  Student Congress is based off of the United States Congress: a resolution is proposed, there is an affirmative speech followed by a negative speech and when there is no one else who wants to speak the issue is voted on.  One of the most notorious resolutions that came up was one to condemn Israel as a human rights violator.  Most of the times that resolution was put forward it passed by a score of 23-1, with me being the only dissenting vote.  It was so difficult defending a country that everyone else in the room attacked, yet I am proud that I was able to do so.  Although I never faced any consequences for defending Israel aside from having my views attacked, it was still difficult to do, and would have been much easier to remain silent.

Yesterday’s UN Resolution, which passed because our country abstained, declared all Israeli settlements post-1949 to be illegal. This is not just referring to land in Judea and Samaria which by themselves house 400,000 Israelis-it includes the entire Jewish Quarter (Kotel included), French Hill, Gilo and would make Hebrew University Mount Scopus campus impassable for Israelis. Israelis would not be able to travel directly from “West Jerusalem” to Masada or the Dead Sea, as much of the land in between them is “illegal.” The resolution was clearly written by people who have no sense or interest as to what Israel was like between 1949 and 1967. The one thing that gives me comfort are the words of Dani Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, who asserted “we overcame these decrees during the time of the Maccabees, and we will overcome this evil decree today.” I agree with Dani that Israel will continue to prevail and this agreement in my view gives Israel license to continue to ignore the UN and do what it feels is in its best interest. I also want to commend President-Elect Trump who was successful at getting Egypt to withdraw from the resolution.

As we look ahead to these eight days of Chanukah and get ready to begin a new secular year, I believe each and every one of us should analyze what we believe in and think about times that we have taken stands that are contrary to those around us and when have we not done so and wished we did.  Standing up for what we believe in can be challenging, especially if it means standing against an authority figure, like Potiphar’s wife or Antiochus, or someone who claims to be an authority.  However, my hope for the coming year is that we can be comfortable knowing where we stand and when we should take a stand, even when that stand is in opposition to what is perceived as “the norm.”  May this holiday be one of celebration as well as personal introspection, one where we take pride in what we believe and in who we are.

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Yesh Li Kol

The stage has been set: two brothers, one who has threatened to kill the other, reunite. Jacob is afraid of his Esau’s plans of vengeance and bloodshed as well as of Esau’s entourage of four hundred people. In a cowardly, or perhaps practical, move he splits his camp in half so that there would be a surviving remnant should Esau wipe out the other half. Esau finds Jacob and approaches him, like a predator hunting his pray. Jacob bows down in submission, expecting his head to be chopped off. Instead, Esau hugs and kisses him, and the two of them cry.

The story could have ended there, a picture-perfect Hollywood “bromance”, and yet it does not. Jacob offers Esau a generous gift of hundreds of animals. Esau declines, stating יש לי רב, I have plenty.[1] Jacob does not stop there, however, beseeching his brother to take ברכתי, his blessing, stating that G-d has been merciful to him and יש לי כל, that he has everything.[2] With some cajoling, Esau accepts the gift.

Commentators have been interested in the difference between Esau stating “I have plenty” versus Jacob asserting “I have everything.” Rashi comments that Esau’s יש לי רב means that he has more than he needs. In other words, he is hoarding goods. Jacob, on the other hand, speaks from a point of satiation, יש לי כל, that he has enough because G-d has been gracious unto him.[3] The 16th century commentator Ephraim of Luntshitz provides a different take in his book Kli Yakar. According to him, Esau’s יש לי רב means that he does not have enough, as while he has a lot, he does not have everything. In contrast, Jacob’s יש לי כל means that he has very little, but he is satisfied with what he has.[4]

Both Rashi and Kli Yakar draw inspiration from Pirkei Avot, better known as the Ethics of the Fathers. Pirkei Avot contains numerous pithy aphorisms, one of which is איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו-Who is rich? One who is happy with what he or she has.[5] In accordance with Pirkei Avot, both Rashi and Kli Yakar see wealth not as economic acquisition but as peace of mind, being satisfied with one’s portion. This does not mean that one should ascribe to poverty or a level of basic subsistence but rather that he or she should not be solely focused on acquiring more money or property.

As we approach Hanukkah, which has for better and for worse become a gift-giving season, I hope that each of us will take time to think of the gifts that make us rich: our friends, our families, work, health, community and so much else. To be like Jacob and proclaim יש לי כל, I have everything that I need right in front of me, is very difficult to do in this world which is constantly producing new gadgets and gizmos. There are always new excursions to take, new products to buy and new ways to renovate one’s home. On Shabbat especially, when we are commanded to take a step back and revel in all of the blessings that G-d has bestowed upon us, let us proudly state יש לי כל, we have all of the gifts that we need.  May we appreciate all the gifts that have been bestowed upon us on the individual, familial and communal levels, including our role in being part of the JJC family, and may it lead us to feel the peace and inner well-being communicated by our patriarch Jacob.

[1] Genesis 33:9

[2] Genesis 33:11

[3] Rashi on Genesis 33:11 ד”ה יש לי כל

[4] Kli Yakar on Genesis 33:9 ד”ה ויאמר עשו יש לי רב

[5] Pirkei Avot 4:1

Waiting at the Well: Just a Story or Containing Deep Meaning?

A common view of the Torah is that everything has a meaning and there are no extraneous details. Entire time periods, like the first seventy years of Avraham’s life, are glossed over, presumably because there are not so important. With this line of thinking there must be great meaning to the first half of Genesis 29, which describes one encounter at a well between Jacob and Rachel.

For the sake of brevity we will examine only the first three verses of this portion. They read as follows:

Jacob lifted his feet and went to the land of the easterners. He looked, and                                  behold! There was a well in the field and behold! Three flocks of sheep lay down                      by it, for from that well the flocks would drink, and the stone over the well was                        large. All of the flocks were gathered there and they (the shepherds) rolled the                        stone off of the well, and they watered the flocks, and they returned the stone on                    top of the well, to its place.[1]

A few questions that immediately jump out are why does it say “and behold!” (והנה) twice? What’s the big deal about the fact that there was a well in the field and that three flocks of sheep lay down beside it? Why make a big deal about the shepherds rolling the stone off the well and rolling it back down? Who cares about any of these details?

The Baal HaTurim, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, well-known for his code of Jewish law on which the Shulchan Aruch is based, comments on the gematria (numerical value) of “three flocks” (שלשה עדרי). He writes that “three flocks” has the gematria as “Moses, Aaron and Miriam”-that these flocks represented the future leaders of the Jewish people.[2] Unfortunately the math is a little off, yet even if it were not I favor instead the interpretation of Rabbenu Bahya of 14th century Spain. Bahya asserts that the three flocks represent the three divisions of Israel: Kohanim, Leviim and Yisraelim.[3] If we extend that analogy further we can assert that the rock is THE ROCK, or G-d, and the shepherds, or leaders of the Jewish people, are waiting for the time to open the ark and begin the minyan.[4]

Rabbi Chaim Paltiel of 13th century France brings a number of Midrashic interpretations as to what the well, the flocks and the stone represent but I will only comment on my favorite. He writes that the well in the field represents Zion, the three flocks of sheep represent the three pilgrimage festivals, when our ancestors went to Jerusalem, and the drinking from the well represents their drawing out G-d’s presence. The big stone represents the evil inclination and it is present when the people leave, as they are no longer engaging with G-d or with Torah.[5] Water is associated both with Torah and with G-d in addition to being our life source and our drinking from it sustains us and gives us vitality.

These are just a few of the myriad interpretations of this seemingly mundane section of the Torah and yet we need to ask why does it matter and why should we care? Steve often points out how significant a Jewish number three is, not only because it emphasizes things but also because it symbolizes stability. Three patriarchs, three festivals, a minimum of three Aliyot to the Torah, a minimum of three verses in an Aliyah of Torah are only a few of the many examples of the use of three. Therefore, three flocks of sheep is not merely a number; it is a sign to Jacob of G-d’s presence. Similarly, one well represents the one G-d or the one Torah through which G-d’s will is emanated. Like the sheep, we as Israel drink from the well and it renews us, giving us strength. Our shepherds, or leaders, are the ones who enable us to do this by lifting the stone off the well, removing any challenges or obstacles that we might face from connecting to G-d and to Torah.

It sounds like a pretty picture but why in the end would the shepherds return the stone back to the well? For this we return to Rabbi Paltiel, who said that the stone represents the evil inclination, or יצר הרע. The Midrash teaches that without the Yetzer HaRa, no one would marry or have children; humanity would not continue on.[6] We were not created to be angels, always doing G-d’s bidding and on the highest spiritual rungs of life. Rather we have time when we are more spiritual and times when we give in to our baser desires.

Jacob personally demonstrates this divide. Unlike the other shepherds, he singlehandedly rolls the stone off the well upon sight of Rachel. Love makes us do things that the doubters do not believe is possible. Was it Jacob overcoming his יצר הרע that enabled him to do this or was it the sheer emotion in his love for Rachel that made him successful? We can read the text either way but what’s clear is that things are not always what meets the eye. Upon first glance this story is greatly detailed in order to set the stage for Jacob’s meeting Rachel. However, upon a closer look, one can read deeper spiritual messages into the text-Jacob seeing his future as one of the leaders of the people of Israel, him understanding that Torah will be the source of this people’s sustenance and his realization that his meeting Rachel (and later Leah) will result in the birth of the namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel. The lesson we learn is to not gloss over details but to strive to find deeper meaning in every part of Torah.[7]

[1] Genesis 29:1-3

[2] Baal HaTurim ד”ה שלשה עדרי

[3] Rabbenu Bahya צאן  ד”ה והנה שם שלשה עדרי

[4] This is my own reasoning, not that of Rabbenu Bahya.

[5] Rabbi Chaim Paltiel וירא והנה באר… פ”א באר בשדה, זה בית הכנסת, והנה שם שלשה עדרי צאן רובצים, אילו ג’ שקורין בתורה, כי מן הבאר ההיא ישקו העדרים, שמשם היו שומעים תורה, והאבן הגדולה על פי הבאר, זה יצר הרע, ונאספו שמה כל העדרים, זו הציבור שהם באים לבית הכנסת להתפלל, וגללו את האבן, שמשם היו שומעים תורה, והשיבו את האבן על פי הבאר, שכיון שיוצאים מבית הכנסת יצר הרע חוזר למקומו.

[6] Genesis Rabbah 9:7 רבי נחמן בר שמואל בר נחמן בשם רב שמואל בר נחמן אמר הנה טוב מאד זה יצר טוב והנה טוב מאד זה יצר רע וכי יצר הרע טוב מאד אתמהא אלא שאלולי יצר הרע לא בנה אדם בית ולא נשא אשה ולא הוליד ולא נשא ונתן וכן שלמה אומר (קהלת ד) כי היא קנאת איש מרעהו

[7] This is in accordance with the School of Rabbi Akiva, where not only does every word in the Torah have a deeper meaning and significance, but so does every crown on one of the letters-as Rabbi Burt Visotzky teaches, every “jot and tittle” has significance! For those who prefer to see this section as narrative, see Rabbi Yishmael who teaches תורה דברה כלשון ב”א; that the Torah speaks as a person would, sometimes going into narrative just to tell a story as opposed to deriving meaning from each part.

A Message Regarding the Fires in Israel

Many of us are reading with sadness and anger about the fires raging through Israel. A brush fire began on Tuesday in Zichron Yaakov and continued to spread throughout the Carmel region, reaching into Haifa. Fires also began in Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem and Ariel. It is currently being investigated as to which fires were natural disasters and which were politically motivated by arsonists. Many of us have planted trees with JNF for years and the fires are destroying the trees.

What we are going to do is start a Jericho Jewish Center plant a tree campaign. Each tree costs $18, and I would like us to raise enough for 500 trees. Please write a check to the Jericho Jewish Center and put in the memo line JNF trees. These checks will be combined into one large check which will be given to JNF from the Jericho Jewish Center.

Please send your check in to the Jericho Jewish Center by Monday December 5 so that we can get the check to JNF by Friday December 9. Please do not forget to put in the memo line JNF trees so that your check goes to JNF.

Thank You

 

 

What Does Hevron Mean to Us?

Trigger Warning: I have chosen an emotionally charged topic and will be speaking from my personal perspective.  I am very interested in your reactions and perhaps disagreements with my words and welcome the opportunity to speak with you about this during Kiddush.

This week we read not only of Sarah’s death but of her burial.  Avraham purchases a burial place from Ephron ben Tzohar in a place called Kiryat Arba, the “city of four.”  This city is also referred to as Hevron, and the burial place is called Maarat HaMachpelah, the “double cave.”  The fact that Avraham purchased the cave is significant, as Jews often use it to demonstrate that the land belongs to us.  Many Jews see going to the cave as following in the footsteps of Avraham, walking on the very land on which he walked.

Hevron has always been a central city for Jews.  It has had a consistent Jewish presence since biblical times.  In addition to being the burial site of our ancestors, it served as the Israelite capital for seven years under King David.  Hevron became a major economic center during the First and Second Temple periods and was a military stronghold during those periods.  There was a Jewish presence in Hevron from the 12th-15th centuries, as evidenced by reports from Benjamin of Tudela, and Rabbenu Meshullam.  In the 1820s, Chabad set up a community in Hevron and by the 1830s, there were 240 Jews in Hevron.

The Jews in Hevron have experienced two major attacks by Arabs.   The first was in 1834 by Ibrihim Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt.  Ibrahim was trying to crush a revolt by the Arabs in Palestine over being conscripted in the Egyptian Army, and in the process he attacked the Jews as well.

The second attack by Arabs was the Hevron Massacre of 1929, known by is Hebrew year תרבט (Tarbat), where 67 were killed and over 100 were wounded.  This attack began after Arabs heard rumors that Jews were seizing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  In the attack, the Arabs destroyed the Jewish Quarter of Hevron, and many synagogues and holy sites were ransacked.  Over 400 Jews survived solely because they were hid by their Arab neighbors.  Two years later Jews began to move back to Hevron, but they were evacuated by the British in 1936, and Hevron became exclusively Arab for 31 years.

After the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War, Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of followers rented rooms in the main hotel of Hevron and refused to leave.  They were granted permission to build a town at an abandoned military post, which they named Kiryat Arba.  Today 7,200 Jews live in Kiryat Arba.

In 1979, Moshe’s wife Miriam led a group of 40 Jews to take over the Hadassah Hospital in downtown Hevron.  This group also reestablished the Avraham Avinu synagogue and purchased homes in other Hevron neighborhoods.  Tension mounted between the Arabs and Jews, and there were a number of shootings.  In 1997, a Hevron Agreement was signed by Bibi Netanyahu which divided Hevron into 2 sections: H1 and H2.  H1 is the Arab section, and it is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  It has over 120,000 Palestinian residents and includes 80% of the total land of Hevron.  H2 is the Jewish section, controlled by the Israeli Army.  It has over 700 Jews and 30,000 Palestinians and is 20% of the land.  H2 includes the Cave of Machpelah and all other holy sites. Israeli police may not enter H1 without Palestinian escorts and Palestinians cannot approach H2 without permits from the IDF.

The Hevron Agreement also put Hevron under military law.  According to military law, there are separate Jewish and Arab streets, and neither is allowed to travel on the other’s streets.  The Arab market and central street have been closed, as they are in Jewish territory.  If an Arab lives or has a store on a Jewish street, he/she has to enter through the back.  If he/she brings groceries home or merchandise in, it also has to enter through the back.  As one can imagine, this makes everyday living extremely difficult, and has led to most of the Arab families in H2 leaving their homes and abandoning their shops.

When I was studying during my year in Israel (2008-09), I visited Hevron twice.  My first trip was with a religious group going to see the grave sites of our biblical ancestors and great rabbis.  Our first site was the Cave of Machpelah, and my first image was of a Braslaver Hasid with a big Israeli flag blasting Carlebach music outside of the cave.  The cave was lavish, a two story building with lots of space between each grave.  Each cave had a special curtain (like the one covering our ark) and had prayer books beside it.  It was holy for me to walk on the ground on which Avraham and Sarah walked so many years ago, as well as to be able to pray at their graves.

My second trip to the cave was with an organization called Shovrei Shtikah, Breaking the Silence, where Israeli soldiers who have served in Hevron recount their military experiences.[1]  One story I heard during this visit stood out to me.  Omar, an Arab resident of Hevron, told my group about when his wife’s water broke, and they called an ambulance to take her to the hospital.  To get to Omar’s house in Hevron, the ambulance had to cross five check points.  An hour went by, and the ambulance driver called and said he made it through the first check point.  Another hour went by, and the driver called again saying that he made it through the second check point.  By this point Omar’s wife had strong labor pains, so he finally carried her to a relative’s car and took her to the hospital.  She made it just in time to give birth, and Omar had a sigh of relief when he returned home from the hospital.  Then he got a call from the ambulance, which he had forgotten to cancel, stating that it had made it through the fourth checkpoint and was almost there.

Imagine what it would be like if it took hours for an ambulance to arrive to your house?   How about having to travel through a checkpoint to get to work or to a hospital?   What if you had to always enter your home through your back door?   These are daily realties for Arabs who live in H2, the area of Hevron controlled by Israel.  When I think about situations like Omar’s I am torn.  On one hand, I believe that checkpoints are necessary to protect Israelis from terrorists and from radical Muslims who want to destroy Israel.  I think about incidents like the murder of Shalhevet Pas in 2001, a Jewish baby who was shot by a Palestinian sniper.  I could not imagine what it would be like to lose a newborn child, and I realize the importance of security to prevent incidents such as this.  On the other hand, I am saddened when I hear stories like Omar’s about the difficulties that checkpoints have caused.

Where does this leave us?  As we read this week’s Torah portion, I hope we examine our relationship both with Israel and with Hevron.  There are thousands of Israelis who are in Hevron for this Shabbat, celebrating the fact that we have Hevron and the Cave of Machpelah.  There is definitely much to celebrate, especially that we have a land of our own and control of places like Hevron that have been part of Jewish history for thousands of years.  At the same time, I read about much injustice that goes on in Hevron in terms of how Palestinian Arabs are treated, and this greatly disturbs me.  I believe we need to examine how we can improve our relationships with the other, in this case with the Palestinian Arab community.  Not seeing eye to eye with Arabs is nothing new: after all, Isaac and Ishmael went their separate ways.  However, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, they came together to bury their father, Avraham.  Whatever differences they had between them were able to be put aside to create a sacred moment.  May we strive to do the same: to create meaningful relationships with Arabs and work to create peace between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael.

[1] Since my trip in 2008, Breaking the Silence has come under condemnation by Bibi Netanyahu as well as others in the Israeli government.

Ambiguity in the Bible

Imagine the following newspaper headline: “Mother banishes servant and her son, leaving them to wander in the desert without food and drink.”  Not front-page news but still something that catches the reader’s eye.  What justification would a mother have to kick two members of her “family” out?  Is this an incident of a privileged woman exerting authority over her servant, or is there something else going on?

This story behind this newspaper headline can be found in Parshat VaYera, where Sarah sees Ishmael, the servant Hagar’s son, performing an action that leads to her kicking him and his mother out of the family.  The verb that Ishmael is described as doing is מצחק, the same root that forms Isaac’s name!  In the case of Isaac’s name, the verb translates as “laugh,” but is that what it means in this case?  Would Sarah kick out Ishmael and his mother because he laughed?

The biblical commentator Rashi does not believe that לצחק means laugh in this case.  Rashi offers three possible interpretations of what לצחק connotes: idolatry, illicit relations and murder.[1]  He brings in a prooftext from the Torah to justify each of these three possibilities.  It is interesting both that Rashi feels the need to bring in three interpretations of this word and that none of them are related to the commonly found translation of “to laugh.”

It is one thing for Rashi to believe that לצחק does not mean laugh-it is quite another for him to bring in three conflicting interpretations as to what it means. Why would Rashi do this?  Perhaps Rashi is grasping at straws to come up with a justification for Sarah kicking out Hagar and Ishmael.  At times Rashi uses an apologetic approach, where he goes out of his way to try to prove the validity for how our Biblical ancestors acted.  By bringing in three translations of לצחק, all of which perceive the term in a negative light, Rashi is demonstrating that Ishmael was bad and Sarah was right to kick him out.  This approach can also be categorized as the “weakness approach”[2] in that none of these translations is particularly convincing on its own, but they work together to vilify Ishmael.

Another possibility for Rashi’s three interpretations is so he can serve as a facilitator, providing for his readers multiple possibilities for how to read לצחק.  In so doing, Rashi can be seen as encouraging his readership to make their own decision as to which of his three definitions is most compelling for Ishmael’s behavior.  This approach places trust in the reader’s ability to distinguish between the various definitions Rashi employs and to find the one that speaks to him or her.

Why should we care about why Ishmael was banished and why Rashi brings in three interpretations of Ishmael’s action?  Because this teaches us that we need to be careful about ambiguous language.  The fact that Ishmael’s activity is described by a word which has multiple meanings is problematic because we don’t know whether Ishmael was kicked out for laughing, for attempted murder or for something in between.  We should take this as a lesson in being careful about the words we use and how we use them, for depending on the context, what we say can be viewed in a variety of ways.

 

Related to the importance of using direct language is avoiding communication which produces ambiguous language.  Daniel Goleman wrote a New York Times article about the dangers of ambiguity called “E-Mail Is Easy to Write (and to Misread).”[3]  In his article, Goleman recalled an e-mail conversation with his book publisher who said “It’s difficult to have this conversation by e-mail. I sound strident and you sound exasperated.”  Goleman was surprised by this statement, not only because he was not exasperated but also because he had thought his conversations with his publicist were going well.  This is one of many examples of how easy it is to miscommunicate over e-mail, since there are no nonverbal or emotional cues.  Rather than relying on this emotionless form of communication which can create ambiguity and misreading, Goleman recommends talking over the phone, or when possible in person.  This is an especially prudent lesson, as people spend hours replying to e-mail and talking online, often at the expense of taking the face time that is needed for creating and sustaining relationships.

While we see some of the disadvantages of ambiguous language, there are times when ambiguity is preferable.  For instance, I do not want to let someone I just met know every detail about my life, so I might be intentionally vague or ambiguous when answering a personal question.  If I were to completely open myself up to everyone I met, it would show a lack of control and possibly instability.  Also, when I read a fiction book, I do not want to know how every character will react to a situation or how the conflict will resolve itself because it is more interesting and mysterious if these details are left out.  It forces me to think about possibilities in the story, which is more rewarding than being given all the details.  Similarly, it can be positive to view the Torah is ambiguous because it forces us to fill in the details and to grapple with what we are missing.  While this uncertainty as to what is going on can be frustrating, it can also be rewarding in verifying our need to keep looking for the answers to which we are uncertain.

The positive nature of ambiguity in the Torah is argued by Steve Forman, the editor of Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses.  In his introduction to the book, Forman asserts that the Pentateuch is full of “intentional nuance, intentional ambiguity” and that translations that attempt to create a clearly flowing narrative “obscure the ambiguity and nuance of the ancient Hebrew.”[4]  Forman believes that the Torah was carefully and intentionally redacted and that the authors viewed cryptic writing as an asset to the text.  The lesson I take from this is that just because we live in a world that prefers direct communication, ambiguity also has a place and serves a purpose.

We have seen both positive and negative reasons for why language in the Torah is often ambiguous.  We can understand from the usage of לצחק that words can be interpreted in any number of ways, depending on how one sees their surrounding context.  While it might seem obvious to some of us as to what לצחק means, we need to be able to acknowledge that our view is one of many.  It is also important to acknowledge that the ambiguity of the text allows for our interpretation of the meaning of לצחק to change over time.

Whether ambiguity is an asset or a detraction depends on what you wish to exemplify.  If you are in a situation where a direct response is needed (an important conversation with a friend or job supervisor), than a method less prone to ambiguity, (a phone call or face to face communication) is preferred.  If, however, you are reading a book where you want to be left with a cliffhanger or deep in thought, intentionally ambiguous wording can be preferred.  I am not sure which category לצחק falls in, but at the very least, the fact that its meaning is ambiguous should make us contemplate on the words we use and the interpretations that can be derived from how we use them.  This lesson will serve us well in our day-to-day communication and hopefully will remain with us when we leave Shabbat and return to interacting with the world around us.

[1] Rashi on Genesis 21:9 ד”ה לצחק

[2] For more see Sarah Kamin, Rashi’s Exegetical Categorization: In Respect to the Distinction Between Peshat and Derash

 

[3] Appeared in New York Times, October 6, 2007.

[4] Robert Forman in Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses (New York: WW Norton and Company, 2003).

My Sister or My Wife?

Avram was supposed to have been the paradigm of purity, fully devoted to serving G-d. After all, at the end of our portion, G-d commands him התהלך לפני והיה תמים, “walk before me and have integrity.”[1] One can question Avram’s integrity, however, when examining an early section of our parsha: There was a famine in the land, and Avram went down to Egypt to live there, for the famine was severe. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife “for now I know that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you and say ‘it is his wife,” they will kill me and allow you to live. Say you are my sister so that it will be good for me and my life will be saved because of you.”[2]

This passage raises a number of questions: why did Avram just now notice his wife’s beauty? How was he so sure he’d be killed by the Egyptians? Why did he command her to lie, in effect enabling her to be taken by Pharaoh? Isn’t this a breach of the very integrity that G-d commanded him to have, or why G-d chose him from amongst all the people in the world to be the first Jew?

The commentators have a field day answering these questions. Rashi provides three interpretations, beginning by referencing Midrash Tanhuma. The Midrash asserts that until this point Avram didn’t recognize the beauty of his wife because of the modesty that they had.[3] I don’t buy it-a husband not seeing his wife as beautiful doesn’t make sense. He then quotes from Genesis Rabbah, stating that during an arduous journey people can often become unattractive, but Sarai kept her beauty.[4] A better explanation yet also one that I find problematic. I am sure we all know people who go backpacking, to camp or on long trips and come back with dirt in their hair or with ripped jeans yet does Sarai really have something special that enables her beauty to survive the desert hardships? Then we have Rashi’s final explanation which he says is the pshat-of course Avram knew of Sarai’s beauty, yet they are coming to the land of swarthy, unattractive people, the brothers of the Kushim, who had not known of a beautiful woman. Ibn Ezra goes one step further, stating that there were other beautiful women, just not in Egypt and the land of the Negev because one’s physical form changes depending on the air.[5] Also an explanation I do not accept-the dry desert air would help preserve the skin and enhance beauty; and I also believe that beauty is independent from race or from a particular geographic location.

It is Ramban, or Nahmanides, who I believe gives the best interpretation. He begins by questioning Rashi’s third interpretation, for if the reason is that the Egyptians have never before seen a beautiful woman, why did Avraham do the same thing when they encountered the Avimelech and the Philistines? The Philistines lived on the coast and had a different complexion-yet Avraham’s actions were the same there. The answer he gives is that this was an attempt at pikuah nefesh-saving Avram’s life from bad people. Pharaoh had a tradition of bedding new women-after all he was the king and could do whatever he wanted. In order to save Avram from the wrath of Pharaoh he had to engage in this deception.[6]

But was it a lie? We know for the story of Avimelech that Avram just didn’t tell the entire truth; after all Sarai was his half-sister.[7] Sarai and he had the same father. Even if this was not the case, Jewish tradition would argue that a “white lie” can be said to preserve a person’s dignity,[8] all the more so to save a person’s life! Nevertheless, was Avram correct that Pharaoh would have killed him? Could he have been forthcoming, told the entire truth and saved Pharaoh from experiencing great plagues afflicting his entire household, without losing his life?

This election season was full of numerous truths, half-truths, lies and evasions of information. It has led to many of us not knowing what or who to believe. Candidates were called criminals, sex offenders and liars. We had fact checkers at every turn and then fact checkers of the fact checkers. There was a surprise at every corner-from the tape, to the leaks to the FBI. It’s not always clear who was right and who was wrong. Just as with the election coverage, we can question Avram’s action in claiming that Sarai was his sister. Was this a selfless act to save his life or a selfish act in not revealing the entire truth to Pharaoh?

Now that the election is over, there is a larger concern-bringing together a divided country with love and with healing. The hateful rhetoric that has been spewed by people on all sides is unacceptable. We have a President Designate, Donald J. Trump, elected through our electoral process, who we now need to unite behind as Americans. It’s not easy after many of the things he’s said or how he has contributed to the divisiveness and incitement that many of us feel. We can and should question his temperament, his mockery of individuals, and his belittling of generals, among other things. What we must avoid at all costs, however, is to perpetuate the hatred, the vitriol and the negativity spewed during the 2016 campaign, from Clinton as well as from Trump. When I see people on Facebook telling their friends in pain to “get over it and move on” or I see people saying they will never accept the President Designate, I feel great anger. When I see people defriending their friends and family members, I feel immense sadness. Some have forgotten how to show basic human decency and respect to one another-and our beloved America needs us to come together and talk face-to-face, rather than engaging in Facebook posts and Twitter Wars. We need to talk to those with whom we disagree and genuinely hear and try to understand their point of view.

Let us finally consider that our actions have a profound impact on our children, something I realize every day with my 8 month old. Avram’s actions, though perhaps morally justifiable, pay a price in the eyes of our sages. They function as an example of מעשה לאבות סימן לבנים, that the actions of the fathers will be a sign for their children to emulate.[9] We never know what our children will learn from us and how it might manifest itself, directly or indirectly, in their lives. Isaac will also deceive Avimelech, stating that his wife, Rebecca, is his sister, which from the text is not their biological relationship.[10] Like his father, he deceives Avimelech. With Rebecca’s help, he is in turn deceived by his son Jacob, who will be deceived by eleven of his sons regarding Joseph.

When we speak and act, let us ponder if this is what we would like our children and grandchildren, our nieces, nephews and cousins, to learn from us. In so doing, may we strive to follow the mandate G-d gave to Avram, התהלך לפני והיה תמים, walk with me and have integrity.

[1] Genesis 17:1

[2] Genesis 12:10-12

[3] Midrash Tanhuma 5

[4] Genesis Rabbah 40:4

[5] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 12:11 ד”ה הנה נא ידעתי

[6] Ramban on Genesis 12:11 ד”ה הנה נא ידעתי

[7] Genesis 20:12

[8] See Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 16b-17a regarding Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai’s responses to a bride on her wedding night.

[9] See Ramban on Genesis 12:6

[10] Rebecca is his first cousin once removed. Examine Genesis 22:23 to see how Rebecca’s lineage fits in.