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.