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.

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.